The Duke and I (CBR7 #45)

Sometimes the best historical romances read like historical fiction right up until the leads fall believably and irrefutably in love. Then it just gets better. This is very much one of those books and because of it I’ll be reading the rest of the Bridgerton books.

It was so nice to read about characters that were meant for each other, and not in the sickeningly sweet, star crossed lovers’ sort of way. Our two protagonists, Simon and Daphne, were simply well matched people in intellect and interest who had a deep and abiding connection and the hots for each other. In the real world these would be the friends you would look at and say “Yes! About time you two!” So let’s talk about them as the book’s Lady Whistledown’s Society Paper would say Ah, my gentle reader…

Simon Basset is the Duke of Hastings. My heart ached for him from the first pages of this book, a flash back to Simon’s childhood, much the same way my heart ached for Robert in The Duchess War. I wanted to see him overcome the obstacles that were set before him, to become the man he was capable of being. And he did become quite a man, although one with the hang-ups and baggage to be expected with his upbringing. Then there is Daphne, and happily enough, since at least half the story is told from her perspective I loved Daphne as well. She is dependable, down-to-earth, and funny. But what I loved about her most was her sometimes quiet and sometimes not so quiet strength. But more about that later.

The Duke and I is the first in a series of eight books, one for each of the Bridgerton siblings. This is good news for me, since I did like the family dynamics between the siblings and their mother and the humor they brought to any situation. I look forward to even more scenes of Violet Bridgerton putting her children in their places, something she does frequently. By having so much interaction with the Bridgerton family we are also given the chance to see Simon experience the natural ebb and flow of familial interactions, something he had not experienced himself.

The plot of the book is based around a fake relationship between Simon and Daphne. Daphne has been out for two seasons, but the handful of proposals she’s received have been less than stellar. Simon has returned from several years abroad and is intent on never marrying, and staying clear of the ton social season. However, he soon realizes that he is not going to be able to steer completely clear, but if he is seen to be pursuing Daphne, sister of his best friend from school, the various Mamas will leave him be, and Daphne’s social capital will improve. Much like Courtney Milan, in other hands that would be the end of the plotting and the two would fall in love. But with Quinn, we’ve got more to unpack.

Because this is a story about a truly well-suited pair, Quinn goes further and deeper into the emotions and expectations of her characters. Which brings us to the problem of *that* scene (spoilers from this point on). There is a scene in the book, after much back and forth and manipulations about getting married at all, and whether or not Simon can or won’t have children Daphne makes a choice. The choice she makes is to attempt to get pregnant against Simon’s wishes.  I obviously didn’t have enough of a problem with that scene to drop the rating of the book, but it certainly had me stopping and saying out loud to the book “Oh, Daphne don’t be that character.” There has been a problem in Romance novels of rape, and loving the rapist, but The Duke and I was only published in 2000, after the heyday of these problems in the genre. Over the course of the rest of the book, and even in the scene leading up to the act, Quinn brings out the ambiguity from both sides of what has happened, and works through the issues, which kept me from being mad at the book.

As I said I was pleased with this book and looking forward to the rest of the series, even if older brother Anthony annoyed me to almost no end. (I found him to be bit of a hypocrite. Sure, he hadn’t seen Simon in 5 or 6 years, but he seemed to forget that Simon was a man he respected, and that he cared about his best friend the minute Simon and Daphne became an item and Simon became his enemy.) However, hopefully he’s calmed down some in The Viscount Who Loved Me.

The book was read, reviewed and suggested as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Shantaram (CBR7 #44)

I am truly pleased that I have moved forward in 2015 with the intention of listening to more audiobooks, because I feel that I would not have been able to either get through or enjoy Shantaram to the level I did if I simply read the paper version. The paperback version of the book clocks in at nearly a thousand pages – heck the audio version is 43 hours long and took me two months to listen to (although I did take a break to listen to The Guns of August in the meantime). But, there was something about the protagonist Lin, very much a stand in for author Gregory David Roberts, and his continuing search for what it means to be good, and how to live a good life when you’ve seemingly made too many bad choices that pulled me in, that, and the author’s very obvious love, and to some extent infatuation, with Mumbai.

Shantaram also appears to be a book that readers either love or hate. Goodreads is littered with 1 star diatribes and 5 star fawning reviews. I fall closer to the five star end of the spectrum, but I don’t find myself fawning over the work. I’m not about to start proselytizing about this book to passers-by. But I will bend your ear for a few minutes about the story that came to my attention via The Mama’s review.

Gregory David Roberts, a former convict who escaped from prison and fled to Bombay where he lived in the slums, started a free medical clinic and joined the mafia, in Shantaram writes a book about a guy who escapes from prison and flees to Bombay where he lives in the slums, starts a free medical clinic and joins the mafia. Theoretically this shouldn’t work. It should feel thin; it should reek of by-the-numbers storytelling. And sometimes it does. But more often than not Shantaram reads as one man’s struggle to find the decent portion of his self over the course of terrible choices. There is a phrase that gets repeated over and over again through the course of the narrative – the wrong thing for the right reasons. Lin repeatedly does the wrong thing for the right reasons, and we as the reader join him on the journey that those choices make for him.

Another detraction against the book is that we are viewing the world of mid 1980s Bombay from the eyes of a white middle class man from Australia, and at times the way Roberts described Indians in this book could come off as bad caricatures – there is the over-friendly and smiling, trusting, etc. I can see that issue, but Roberts also inserts instances after instance of Lin realizing that he was bringing his own prejudices to the table. Roberts is winking and nudging the reader into realizing that while Lin is our entry into this world, he is not infallible. He is exactly the opposite. The other complaint that I’ve seen that didn’t affect me was the way the Indian dialect was written out in the books. Since I listened to the audio book I never saw the vernacular. Humphrey Bower, who does the narration of the audio book, did a fantastic job of capturing the various accents and dialects that come from a story of an Australian, posing on and off as either a New Zealander or an American (poorly), which also featured characters who were Germans, Italians, French, Indians, Iranians, Pakistani, or Afghan. Occasionally one Iranian character might sound like the next, but in reality the characters were well defined. With one small exception – the women. Bower’s reading of Karla, Lin’s German ex-pat American raised love interest was pretty awful. But I got used to it. Although when she was off-page for a while and would return I’d chuckle all over again.

I realize that I am talking to you about all the things others have complained about but not why I liked the book. I loved the scope of the work. This wasn’t a slice of life tale, things weren’t quickly or neatly wrapped up, there was the evidence of real life, and the quirky nature of that realness, interspersed throughout the pages. There were also moments of great clarity, of nuggets of wisdom, or self-reflection. And there were plenty of characters to invest in and care about. I am also a bit of a sucker for sweeping work, covering human failings, frailties, love, and loss.

It certainly isn’t a perfect book. As I mentioned the audio of this clocks in at 43 hours. It’s nearly two solid days of listening. Its long. And there are portions that I would have cut, or cut down. I want the hours I spent listening to surviving (or not) in the Afghan mountains back. Yes, moving the story there accomplishes something necessary for the overall meaning of the narrative (what can we really trust from our parent figures), but lord almighty did it take too long. There were also times where the physically brutality of the story was too much. I had to take breaks after time spent with the characters in Arthur Road prison or after a series of character deaths. I was feeling it all too much, or too closely. But that is also the power of a well written book read by a gifted narrator. In many ways I felt as if I was being told the story by a passenger in my car, not by a book playing through my sound system via my audible account.  Which is I think the highest praise I can give an audiobook.

There is a second book by Roberts being published this year, eleven years after the publication of Shantaram featuring Lin and his continuing adventures. It’s another long one, if Goodreads is to be trusted. I find that I am interested to see where else Roberts has to take us with Lin, but I think I’ll be waiting a little while and probably only seeking it out is Bower is reading it to me.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Waistcoats &Weaponry (CBR7 #43)

Sophronia and her friends have grown on me. Waistcoats & Weaponry, the third book in Carriger’s prequel Finishing School series, is much more in line with the early Alexia Tarabotti Parasol Protectorate books (Soulless, Changeless, Blameless, etc.) than the previous two books in this series. What we have in Waistcoats & Weaponry is a good old fashioned caper story. I was delighted.

Waistcoats& Weaponry picks up several months after Curtsies & Conspiracies. Our girls are continuing with their lessons at Madam Geraldine’s and Sophronia and Dimity are awaiting the chance to get off-dirigible to attend Sophronia’s brother’s masquerade engagement party (you can’t accuse Carriger of not giving a crazy level of detail to everything she writes).  Before they go we are treated to lessons with my favorite teachers – checking in with Professor Braithwope the vampire and Captain Niall the werewolf (did I not mention that Carriger’s Steampunk novels include vampires and werewolves and they play a major role in the politics of this alt-history? Because they both do.) However, before Captain Niall’s lesson on bladed fans (I want one) Sidheag is called away because of a letter from home.

What happens next is a series of events that lead to the caper. I don’t want to give much away, so know that *any* event that Sophronia attends *something* goes absolutely haywire. Sophronia, Dimity, Lord Felix Mersey, and Soap (with some help from Dimity’s brother) take off into the night to get Sidheag to Scotland. And hijinks ensue.

I loved this book because there was a mystery as part of the plot that isn’t straight forward, but pulls the world that Carriger is creating more clearly into focus while simultaneously setting up the world we find in the Parasol Protectorate books. It is tightly paced and fun. What more could you want from a Y.A. Steampunk book? The series has gotten stronger as it continues and I’ve gone from feeling “meh” about completing it to being quite excited to eventually borrow book the fourth from Crystal Clear (who graciously lent me her copy of this book as well).

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Across a Star-Swept Sea (CBR7 #42)

For whatever reason, I always feel the need to explain in my reviews how I came to read the book I’m reviewing. I think it helps center me before I jump into the analysis (if I manage to get to the analysis and not just the summary). This one is easy… I blame the Cannonball Read. Based on gushing reviews of Diana Peterfreund’s series I picked up For Darkness Shows the Stars and then read the short stories, which should each be read before their matching books in order to facilitate world building.

Across a Star-Swept Sea is a companion novel to For Darkness Shows the Stars. FDStS is a retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and Across a Star-Swept Sea is a retelling of the Scarlet Pimpernel. A gender switched retelling of the Scarlet Pimpernel at that! Everything should be great… but it wasn’t.  It was good, not great. The retelling itself was fun and generally well written, and the world Peterfreund is playing in is interesting, but the novel just never really hit for me. The story never sang.

There are two storylines happening at once in the book.  Sharing a universe with FDStS, the Earth has been decimated by the Reduction, but in New Pacifica (two neighboring islands, Albion and Galatea), Reduction has been cured. The citizens of New Pacifica haven’t seen a natural-born reduced in two generations. But a new evil has been created — a “reduction” pill to use as punishment against those who speak out against the leaders of Galatea, who are in the midst of a revolution. The wealthy “aristos” are warring against the “regs”, and these pink reduction pills are being used on anyone who dares to commit treason. The Wild Poppy, our main protagonist Persis, is fighting to save the victims of this terrible crime.

The second plot focuses on Persis’ home island of Albion. Where the current princess, Persis’ best friend Isla, is simply a placeholder until her toddler brother comes of age. She’s gets little respect from her advisors and is insulted to her face constantly about her inability to rule. You see, over on Albion only men have power.  Coming from that culture not only is the identity of The Wild Poppy a secret that very few know — but most assume that the spy is a brave, strong man.

There was so much that was good. SO MUCH that it feels almost scandalous to be rating this book a 3.5 and rounding down to 3. But… while Persis Blake as a strong female protagonist who is heroic because she looks at a situation and thinks “What can I do to help?” instead of “someone should really do something about that” and Peterfreund is blatantly feminist in the way she brings various viewpoints to the table and says “why not the girls and women? Why can’t they run the world?” there was still something missing, some undefinable quality that left me wanting. And I feel bad! I should love an adventure story where the movers and shakers are ladies! I should be excited that the love story is VERY secondary (it’s probably the tertiary plot) and that the boy in question, Justen Helo – grandson of the creator of the Cure that ended the Reduction, has plot motivations all his own and isn’t just window dressing. But… I’m just not in love. Perhaps a little tighter editing in the middle of the book would have helped keep me bounding along with the story, but we’ll never know.

However, I do suggest you read these books (Among the Nameless Stars, For Darkness Shows the Stars, The First Star to Fall, then Across the Star-Swept Sea) because they really are really good. I want there to be another full novel. I went searching the internet this morning to see if there was a third one planned. There’s still so much story to tell! And maybe that’s part of the problem I have with rounding this one up, I was left wanting more in the bad way, not the good way and that’s no fun after 450 pages.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Lady Most Willing (CBR7 #41)

I came across The Lady Most Willing via the ever industrious Romance Readers at Cannonball Read. NTE and Malin both reviewed and enjoyed this book so I thought, why not? I promptly added it to my library request list and forgot all about it, until I finished reading Rose Under Fire and needed something that was definitely the opposite of concentration camps to serve as a palate cleanser. A book in which four ladies and a duke are kidnapped by a crazy Scot during a massive snowstorm aiming to get his two nephews hitched sounded like just the trick. And it reminded me of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in the best possible way. Win.

The Lady Most Willing is definitely a straight telling of the trapped by inclement weather trope. We seemingly magically (and it’s even winked at in the introduction and epilogue) have four ladies of quality and four gents (and a duke, and earl, a comte, and a laird at that) trapped together for a few days to do nothing but be cold and flirt. Needless to say, romance and falling-in-love ensue. Certainly this book isn’t pushing any boundaries, but it is a fun ride with well-drawn characters.

I had never read anything by Julia Quinn, Eloisa James or Connie Brockway before picking up this joint effort. I have to say that each author’s section had its strengths and weaknesses, but that there wasn’t a section I hated. AND, the best part was the two characters I liked the least got together off page and I didn’t have to suffer through them any more than absolutely necessary. Victory!

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Rose Under Fire (CBR7 #40)

Last year I read and enjoyed Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity for Cannonball Read 6 and the Go Fug Yourself Book club on Goodreads. There was much about Wein’s work with that novel that worked very well and the level of craftsmanship in the character and world building as well as the intricacies of the plot put Rose Under Fire, her second book set in the same world, immediately on my to read list for this year. I wish I could say that Rose lived up to Verity.

Rose Under Fire is the story of American Rose Justice, a pilot, just graduated from high school, working for the British ATA ferrying servicemen and supplies around the England. Rose landed her job with the ATA through her uncle’s connections within the RAF and eventually those connections lead her to flying some VIPs to Paris following D-Day. It’s following these events that the story really gets going as we follow a captured Rose into the infamous women’s concentration camp Ravensbruck.

Wein tells us a story that needs to be told and handles it with care. The various characters we meet at Ravensbruck are obsessed with telling the world what has happened to them, as they should be. In putting together this book Wein researched the topic heavily, and as with Verity puts her bibliography in the back of the book so the reader can explore more of the actual history she weaves into her fictionalized account. Wein is telling the world, and using YA literature to spread the message of what we are capable of doing to each other and what we are capable of surviving together. She is ruminating once again on the power of friendship, specifically of female friendship, and the families we make for ourselves. This is all exactly the kind of research and work that would usually earn a four star rating from me.

Unfortunately, there was much missing from this powerful work. In Verity the characters of Maddie and Julie are drawn beautifully and realistically. There is very little about these characters, or the supporting ones around them, that rings false or stinks of deus ex machina, even though the story can veer that way. Unfortunately for Rose there are plenty of things that do. Rose’s last name is Justice for goodness sakes and she is charged with seeking justice for those who perished from her group in the camp! Rose Under Fire is also missing the delightfully intricate plotting that featured so heavily in Wein’s previous work. There is also not nearly enough Maddie, or Maddie as we knew her in Verity. And, in something it shares with Verity, Rose Under Fire starts weakly. Wein is obviously attempting to get us caught up with the events post-Verity, and establish Rose as a character before her time at Ravensbruck, but I found myself mentally twiddling my thumbs waiting for the meaning to show up. With these detractions in place, I’ve bumped my rating down to a 3.5.

Overall consensus? Read it, but with the appropriate expectations.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. Fuck Cancer.

Mort (CBR7 #39)

I’m continuing on with my march through the Discworld novels, and after having realized that I had perhaps gone too far down one path without veering off to some others in my review of Maskerade I decided to go back to the beginning and pick another tack to start down. Luckily for me my friend Alison had already lent me Mort, the fourth book in the series, and the first of the Death centric books. I was excited, I really liked when Death made his appearance in the Witches books and thought surely a book chock full of Death’s witticisms would be right up my proverbial alley. Unfortunately for me, this one was funny than hysterical, and more cutesy than clever. Not really what I’ve come to expect from Pratchett’s work.

The story is built around Death taking on an apprentice, Mortimer. Mort for short. Not that anyone actually calls him by his name. With a bit of spare time on his hands, once Mort is up to speed, Death’s own search for what it means to be human begins. Those portions in the final two thirds of the book  was very amusing and at times poignant, but it never felt like it had time to develop as the book raced to the end of its 240 pages.

What Pratchett does well he does very well. He absolutely understands how to bring teenage awkwardness across the page. I thought the book really hit its stride when dealing with Mort’s unrequited love of Keli and Ysabell’s growing fondness of Mort in the middle third. The build-up was slow and at times painful (as any teenage love should be) but the pay offs were mostly worth it. Ysabell’s sudden switch from being annoyed by Mort’s very presence to her fawning over Mort was done with little indication or reasoning, other than her seeing him in his element and honestly it left me feeling a little cheated.

But seriously, how bad could a book be that contains Death uttering the following line?

“I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU, BUT I COULD MURDER A CURRY.”

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.