The Little Shop of Happy-Ever-After, by Jenny Colgan

>> Sunday, April 23, 2017

TITLE: The Little Shop of Happy-Ever-After (aka The Bookshop on the Corner in the US)
AUTHOR: Jenny Colgan

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 368
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: Contemporary England and Scotland
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: None

Nina Redmond is a librarian with a gift for finding the perfect book for her readers. But can she write her own happy-ever-after? In this valentine to readers, librarians, and book-lovers the world over, the New York Times-bestselling author of Little Beach Street Bakery returns with a funny, moving new novel for fans of Meg Donohue, Sophie Kinsella, and Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop.

“Losing myself in Jenny Colgan’s beautiful pages is the most delicious, comforting, satisfying treat I have had in ages.”—Jane Green, New York Times bestselling author of Summer Secrets

Nina Redmond is a literary matchmaker. Pairing a reader with that perfect book is her passion… and also her job. Or at least it was. Until yesterday, she was a librarian in the hectic city. But now the job she loved is no more.

Determined to make a new life for herself, Nina moves to a sleepy village many miles away. There she buys a van and transforms it into a bookmobile—a mobile bookshop that she drives from neighborhood to neighborhood, changing one life after another with the power of storytelling.

From helping her grumpy landlord deliver a lamb, to sharing picnics with a charming train conductor who serenades her with poetry, Nina discovers there’s plenty of adventure, magic, and soul in a place that’s beginning to feel like home… a place where she just might be able to write her own happy ending.
I was hoping to love this. It's very much a wish fulfillment plot, but while I steer far clear of such plots involving "celebrity/rock star/billionaire businessman/other high status man falls for regular girl", as it's not a fantasy of mine, this one hit the target.

Nina is a librarian struggling with what austerity is doing to her work (basically: libraries closing and the authorities focusing on novelty management crap over providing users a good experience). She ends up chucking it all in, buying a large van to turn into a mobile bookshop, and setting up shop in a gorgeous little village in Scotland. After a few small initial difficulties, she lands on her feet. The villagers (both in hers and neighbouring villages) love her and her bookshop van, and she happens to find a wonderful place to live, with a grumpy-but-very-attractive farmer landlord/neighbour.

I did start out loving it all. It was twee (in both content and writing style), and twee is not my thing, but I was reading this during a week work was kicking my arse, so it was just right. Nina was a fun character, the setting was charming, and I loved the different characters in the village. Everything was lovely, everything was charming.

And I suspect if the book had been (a lot) shorter, I would have closed it happy. After a while, either the tweeness escalated beyond what I could tolerate or my patience with it ran out. My happy sighs started turning into "oh, please" and "give me a break". What I had been finding charming started to feel preposterous and silly. There were some very nice moments, but pretty much every time, I felt Colgan just took the cuteness too far.

I was also majorly annoyed by the conclusion to the story of a particular character. So, when she moves to Scotland, Nina meets a young Latvian man called Marek, who's one of the drivers of the train that goes from her area to London. They become friends and meet up regularly. There's quite a bit of attraction which seems reciprocal. In the end, though, he gets deported (!). He's is sent home to Latvia in a plane full of deportees (!!). Yes, when the lawyer Nina asks for help calls the Home Office they say he's going voluntarily (would they even give that sort of detail to a random lawyer?), but the implication is that he would have been deported otherwise. This is not because he's some sort of criminal, or anything like that. It's simply because he's lost his job, as far as I can tell. Eh, Ms Colgan, Latvia is an EU member. Marek (and a full planeload of people!) wouldn't get deported for not having a job. This is set in 2016, not 2020. We EU citizens aren't being deported en masse just yet! This is objectively a minor detail, in the grand scheme of things, but given what's been going on in this country, it made me really angry. The attitude with Marek is very much that he's other, even though he's portrayed as a nice character. Of course he has a wife and kids back in Latvia. That's the way it is with foreigners, they come here to make money, but they don't actually integrate.

Bah, humbug.

MY GRADE: A C+.

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The Games: A Global History of the Olympics, by David Goldblatt

>> Friday, April 21, 2017

TITLE: The Games: A Global History of the Olympics
AUTHOR: David Goldblatt

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 528
PUBLISHER: WW Norton

SETTING: N/A
TYPE: Non Fiction
SERIES: None

The Olympic Games have become the single greatest festival of a universal and cosmopolitan humanity. Seventeen days of sporting competition watched and followed on every continent and in every country on the planet. Simply, the greatest show on earth. Yet when the modern games were inaugurated in Athens in 1896, the founders thought them a "display of manly virtue", an athletic celebration of the kind of amateur gentleman that would rule the world. How was such a ritual invented? Why did it prosper and how has it been so utterly transformed?

In The Games, David Goldblatt - winner of the 2015 William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award - takes on a breathtakingly ambitious search for the answers and brilliantly unravels the complex strands of this history. Beginning with the olympics as a sporting side show at the great Worlds Fairs of the Belle Epoque and transformation into a global media spectacular care of Hollywood and the Nazi party, The Games shows how sport and the olympics been a battlefield in the global Cold War, a defining moment for of epoch social and economic change in host cities and countries, and a theatre of resistance for women and athletes colour once excluded from the show.

Illuminated with dazzling vignettes from over a century of olympic completion - this stunningly researched history captures the excitement of sporting brilliance and the kaleidoscopic experience of the Games. It shows us how this sporting spectacle has come to reflect the world we hope to inhabit and the one we actually live in.
I bought this one while in the flush of excitement about the Olympics last year, but surprisingly, I actually read it, even once my enthusiasm had dissipated a fair bit. It wasn't quite what I expected, but in hindsight, it probably worked all the better for it. I was expecting a sort of "greatest hits" structure. Instead, Goldblatt concentrates more on the stuff behind what we see on our tellies.

Yes, Goldblatt does cover the great moments (as the book description puts it: "such seminal moments as Jesse Owens and Hitler at Berlin in 1936, the Black Power salute at Mexico City in 1968, the massacre of Israeli athletes at Munich in 1972, and the Miracle on Ice at Lake Placid in 1980"), but the real insight is in how he explores different themes, looking at the issues that really made the Olympics what they are. These themes are things such as the organisers' attitudes towards amateurism vs. professionalism and how and why that evolved (oh, the class prejudices!), or the participation of women in the different sports.

The structure is interesting. Goldblatt goes chronologically, through each and every Olympics, but the thematic analysis carries through. He also groups sets of 3 or 4 consecutive Olympic Games and identifies what the themes were that linked them. We have, for instance, "Not the Only Game in Town: The Olympics and Its Challengers in the 1920s" and "Things Fall Apart: Bankruptcy, Boycotts and the End of Amateurism". So it's sort of overarching themes that carry all the way through, and then these mini-themes that characterise different eras. It works beautifully.

I confess I did struggle a bit to get into the book, as the initial sections on the ancient history and the very initial actions that led to the Olympics felt a bit diffuse and not that interesting. But once we got into the Games themselves, things really started moving, and I was gripped.

Also, Goldblatt can definitely write, which to me is just as essential in non-fiction as it is in fiction.

MY GRADE: A B+.

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A Great Deliverance, by Elizabeth George

>> Wednesday, April 19, 2017

TITLE: A Great Deliverance
AUTHOR: Elizabeth George

COPYRIGHT: 1988
PAGES: 416
PUBLISHER: Bantam

SETTING: 1980s England
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: 1st in the Inspector Lynley and DS Havers series

To this day, the low, thin wail of an infant can be heard in Keldale's lush green valleys. Three hundred years ago, as legend goes, the frightened Yorkshire villagers smothered a crying babe in Keldale Abbey, where they'd hidden to escape the ravages of Cromwell's raiders.

Now into Keldale's pastoral web of old houses and older secrets comes Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley, the eighth earl of Asherton. Along with the redoubtable Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, Lynley has been sent to solve a savage murder that has stunned the peaceful countryside. For fat, unlovely Roberta Teys has been found in her best dress, an axe in her lap, seated in the old stone barn beside her father's headless corpse. Her first and last words were "I did it. And I'm not sorry."

Yet as Lynley and Havers wind their way through Keldale's dark labyrinth of secret scandals and appalling crimes, they uncover a shattering series of revelations that will reverberate through this tranquil English valley—and in their own lives as well.
This was a bit of a trip down memory lane. Elizabeth George was one of the authors I used to read as a teenager in Uruguay. This was some 20 years ago, before I discovered how to buy books online, when I'd constantly haunt the 2 bookstores in Montevideo which carried English-language books (it got to the point where the managers would let me know when a new box of books arrived, and just let me into the back of the shop to open the boxes myself). I would discover an author I liked, more often than not reading a book that was halfway through a series (in the case of Elizabeth George, I'm pretty sure it was For the Sake of Elena), and then just pick up any other book I came across. Probably why I'm a bit obsessive about reading things in order now!

Anyway, I remember really liking George's books, even though I was getting the developments in the personal lives of the detectives (particularly the soap opera that is Inspector Thomas Lynley's love life) in random bits and pieces. I know there are developments in the later books that many readers have not liked (I know several people in the romance blogosphere have even stopped reading the series because of those developments), but I really fancied going back to the early ones, at least, to see whether they still appealed to me.

Backtracking a bit: it's the mid- to late-1980s, and in a small Yorkshire village, pillar of the community William Teys has been found dead in his barn. It's a gruesome sight: his head has been chopped clean off, and he's lying on top of the family dog, whose throat has been slit. His daughter, 19-year-old Roberta, is sitting right next to the headless body, cradling the axe and wearing her Sunday best. All she will say is "I did it. And I'm not sorry."

The whodunnit doesn't seem like much of a mystery, and the regional police don't seem inclined to look any further than Roberta, whom they cart off to a mental hospital to await trial. But two of the senior police officers in the area have quite the history of disagreement, and yet another clash over this case leads to the decision to send someone from Scotland Yard to have another look.

The person chosen is Inspector Thomas Lynley. Lynley is a bit of a golden boy in the Yard, and he also happens to be one of those aristocratic detectives no British author would dare write in a contemporary setting. He's properly aristocratic, being the eighth Earl of Asherton, with such grand trappings as a massive estate in Cornwall and a full-time valet.

For this case, Lynley is paired with DS Barbara Havers. Havers is an officer who has been demoted back to being a beat cop after not being able to get along with (male) partner after (male) partner. The superintendent is still convinced there is something in her, though, so he takes the chance to see if she can work with the man who's her polar oppposite in background (she's proudly working class), personality (she's bitter and truculent; he's got effortless charm) and looks (she's plain and dumpy; he's gorgeous and stylish).

So the book is just as much a mystery as it is about Lynley and Havers slowly starting to get along and becoming real partners. They're far from there by the end of the book, and there are times when they seem like the worst of enemies, but it's clear that there is a germ of real compatibility there and that once they've ironed out the misconceptions, they'll work well together. I really liked this element, particularly because Havers is far from the dutiful working class assistant to the masterful aristocratic sleuth.

The book is also about Lynley and Havers as individuals, and I liked this just as much. We don't get a lot about Havers in this book, beyond her complicated relationship with her parents, which is very different from what it seems at first glance. However, I do remember there's quite a bit more coming. With Lynley, I've mentioned the soap opera love life, and that's definitely there. We first meet him when Havers has to go find him at the wedding of his (former?) best friend, Simon Allcourt-St James, one of the best forensics scientists in the country. So, the drama: Simon was badly injured some years earlier in a car accident where Lynley was driving (drunk, apparently, although I'm not 100% sure if that's true, or just the rumour Havers picked up). His bride? Lynley's former fiancée, Deborah, whom Lynley's still madly in love with. The other character in this quartet, which we will return to in further books, is Lady Helen. She and Lynley are very close friends, and she seems to be in love with him. So yeah, Havers may assume Lynley leads a charmed life, but he's not a happy man. I seem to remember feeling a bit frustrated with this element, after reading several of the books, so it will be interesting to see if reading them in order makes a difference. For now, I'm really intrigued.

I meant to write a short, snappy review, but I'm going on and on and I haven't even got to the mystery yet! Possibly because I'm slightly conflicted about it. On one hand, the investigation is very well done, and I loved getting to know the villagers and finding out their myriad secrets. George excels at creating some quite vivid characters, and I found them all very believable.

On the other hand, if a mystery has to be mysterious, this doesn't quite work. When they came, the revelations about what had happened were not surprising in the least. In fact, I knew exactly what had happened from the start. Every single little clue and puzzle piece, I zeroed in and put it in exactly the right place. Now, it might be that I remembered the plot from when I first read the book, 20 years ago, but I don't think so. I think what's happened is that what would have been unthinkable and shocking back then is sadly all too obvious in these less innocent times (trying not to include spoilers, but seriously, if you have a case where a pillar of the community type seems to have been clearly murdered by his daughter, what possible explanation does your 2017 mind immediately go to?).

That, however, is not necessarily a problem. I felt the characters, setting, and procedural elements were strong enough to support a non-mystery. And as long as you read the book as a historical mystery (yes, I feel old as well thinking of the 80s as 'historical'), and don't expect the detectives to have the same knowledge (particularly about the psychological aspects of a certain issue) as modern-day detectives would have, then the investigation is perfectly satisfying to read.

And if you need some convincing that the 80s were another time, I leave you with this little snippet, which made me smile. This is Havers imagining a typical posh neighbour of Lynley's in Belgravia:

"We're in Belgravia now. Did we mention it? Oh, do stop by for tea! It's nothing much. Just £300,000, but we like to think of it as such an investment. Five rooms. With the sweetest little cobblestone street that you've ever seen."

I wish I could find such investment!

MY GRADE: A B+.

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Italian food and the the Persephone myth

>> Wednesday, April 12, 2017

TITLE: A Portrait of Emily Price
AUTHOR: Katherine Reay

Emily is an art restorer who works for an insurance company. On assignment in another city, she meets the Vassallo brothers when her company hires her some workspace in the studio belonging to one of them. But it is other brother, Benito, who captures his attention. Ben is visiting his brother from his hometown in Italy, and Emily finds him as fascinating as he seems to find her. And as they spend time together helping redo his aunt and uncle's restaurant, they fall for each other. But Ben is supposed to return home to Italy in only a couple of weeks...

Unfortunately, this book never really gelled. There's some good stuff, don't get me wrong. I was interested in Emily and her relationship with her family. I was interested in Ben and the hint of family secrets. I was interested in the setup of Emily following Ben to a small town in Italy. What I wasn't really interested in was the romance.

The problem was that Ben didn't work for me as a character at all. I read over half the book, and Reay never succeeded in making him real. It didn't seem to me that she even tried. Ben was this idealised image of a sexy Italian... lots of calling Emily "bella", lots of exuberance, lots of waving arms around when he spoke (with no contractions, of course, which is supposedly adorable). Actually, he seemed a bit like an excitable toddler. There was nothing that made him an individual. When he and Emily started exchanging 'I love you's and decided to marry, my reaction, which I'm guessing was supposed to be 'awww, how romantic!', was more along the lines of 'WTF??'.

Not for me.

MY GRADE: A DNF.




TITLE: A Tangled Web
AUTHOR: Mercedes Lackey

This novella, originally published in the Harvest Moon anthology, is part of Lackey's Five Hundred Kingdoms series, which I love. No books in that series have come out since 2011, so I've been hoarding this one. Unfortunately, it was a disappointment.

What I love about this series is the subversive, twisty take on fairy tales, and the very fun way in which Lackey uses the concept of the Tradition, an amorphous force that guides people's actions into paths that fit within the traditional tales of their culture. Lackey has these characters called the Godmothers, who understand the Tradition really well and know just how to manipulate it for the good of the kingdoms they protect.

The problem was, not much of what I like about the series was really present here. Greek mythology instead of fairy tales, fine, no problem with that. But Lackey told the story pretty straight. Apart from bringing in two characters from the previous book, visiting from Norse mythology, the Persephone story proceeded right as is traditional, with very minor changes. There was nothing particularly clever, nothing particularly surprising. The Greek mythology characters felt, well, mythological, in that they were paper thin and had no human personalities, unlike the fairytale characters in previous books. There was also very minor manipulating of the Tradition, all in a way that felt much too easy (and no Godmothers!).

Also, the story felt like it was cut down from a novel-length version. We're moving along fine, at a normal pace, seeing all the scenes we'd expect to see, and then we reach a point where we jump a few months and Lackey has a character go "this has happened, and this, and that, and the other, and we need to deal with it", and off we go again. It didn't fit.

MY GRADE: A C+. This was a bit of a waste of time.

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Turbulence, by Jordan Castillo Price

>> Monday, March 13, 2017

TITLE: Turbulence
AUTHOR: Jordan Castillo Price

COPYRIGHT: 2013
PAGES: 261
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: None

The foundation of superstition is ignorance. First Officer Paul Cronin has no use for magical thinking—he’s a logical guy, a skeptic who only believes what he can see. When a new assignment on Flight 511 takes him directly through the legendary Bermuda Triangle, he’s not concerned about losing his aircraft to supernatural forces. He’s busy trying to hook up with handsome flight attendant Dallas.

Dallas seems eager to oblige at the airport, but his ardor cools quickly when he finds out he and Paul are now on the same crew. Then the turbulence hits, and Paul soon discovers there’s more to the Bermuda Triangle than made-for-TV movies.

While trying to decipher his cryptic predecessor’s notes and guide Flight 511 around the Triangle phenomenon, Paul attempts to piece together a relationship with Dallas. It seems that forces—both paranormal and mundane—are stacked against them. Can Paul navigate a successful course through the turbulence while he finds a way into Dallas’ heart?
Turbulence had a really fun setup. Paul Cronin is a pilot who has just been given a new assignment. It's a regularly scheduled flight out of Miami that goes right through the Bermuda triangle. Paul doesn't even bat an eyelid at the idea. Everyone knows the whole Bermuda Triangle thing is just silly superstition.

But it turns out there really is something supernatural going on, involving alternate realities. Paul is determined to get to the bottom of it and understand how the phenomenon works, and with the help of handsome flight attendant Dallas Turner, he begins to investigate. Might his predecessor, a pilot who died mysteriously not very long before, have hit on something?

Turbulence was originally published as an 8-part serial, and that's how I read it. It started out really strongly. The setting is cool, and the supernatural mystery is really good fun. What's going on is quite unique, much more interesting than the simple "Planes disappear in the Bermuda Triangle" thing. It's all very Twilight Zone, and I loved the idea of it. I couldn't wait to see how Castillo Price would resolve it and what the explanation would be.

I also really liked the romance. It's not hugely developed, but Paul and Dallas clearly share a connection and it's not just chemistry (which is definitely there, by the way). Before too long believed that these two were just right for each other. I also liked how the author dealt with the realities of an interracial relationship. It's subtly done, but it's clear that it's not all plain sailing. It's also just as clear that these two can and will work past any problems.

So far, all good. The problem is that Castillo Price chose to explain the supernatural in her story through half-baked metaphysical crap. And the more we got into the story, the more this metaphysical crap piled up. Worse, we were clearly supposed to take it seriously. I just couldn't. I found it all kind of laughable. So by the time we got to the end, I basically had no idea what the hell was going on. I read the final episode twice, and I still can't figure it out. I'm not an idiot, and I was paying attention, I promise!

MY GRADE: I enjoyed a lot of it, but in the end it was somewhat of a disappointment. C-.

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One Sinful Night in São Paulo, by Amber Belldene

>> Saturday, March 11, 2017

TITLE: One Sinful Night in São Paulo
AUTHOR: Amber Belldene

COPYRIGHT: 2015
PAGES: 108
PUBLISHER: Entangled

SETTING: Contemporary São Paulo
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: None

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Cassie Wilson has traveled to Brazil for her brother's wedding; yet she's the one with cold feet. She's all set to begin seminary, but she's sick and tired of being treated like a saint, especially by the best man. What she really needs is one sexy night with him to ease her jitters and give her a taste of normal life.
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I was on my way to buy another of Belldene's books based on a review, but as soon as I saw that she had a novella set in São Paulo, I got that one instead. Urban Latin American settings are remarkably lacking from pretty much all sorts of fiction in English (in fact, the only other two I can think of are a Kathy Reichs mystery and Ann Patchett's Bel Canto). There are plenty of books with jungle or Mexican desert settings, some rural towns, but almost no big cities. This was irresistible.

The book is about Cassie Wilson, who is about to enter the seminary to become a priest. Her brother is getting married to a Brazilian woman, and the wedding will take place in São Paulo, where her family live. Cassie is delighted to be there for the wedding, except for the prospect of having to spend time with the best man, her brother's best friend Adam. She has long been attracted to Adam and it seems the attraction is reciprocated. However, her vocation seems to have made him put her on a pedestal as someone who is halfway to being a saint, someone he clearly shouldn't touch.

I found myself extremely annoyed right at the beginning of this novella. What annoyed me was the butchering of the Portuguese in the dialogue. I am getting more and more intolerant about this. It's always bothered me, but I used to just be able to let it roll off me. Now, not so much. It's just that really, if you're taking a culture not your own and using it as a setting in one of your books, the very least you can do is do some basic checking to make sure you're getting the language right. I'm fine with a few mistakes -typos do creep in! But here it was way too much. Within the first couple of pages we have: a Portuguese woman saying "Obrigado" instead of "Obrigada" and receiving the heroine by saying "Cassandra, bienvenudo", "fejoida" for "feijoada", "Pao de quejo" for "Pão de queijo", and many more. The most annoying thing is that I got the impression that Belldene must actually have spent some time in São Paulo, because this felt otherwise pretty real.

The language issues were just an irritant, which I could have got over if I'd otherwise liked the book. However, the romance did not work for me at all. It's possible that being annoyed by the Portuguese right at the start might have affected how I read the rest of book, but I don't think that was it, or at least not the whole of the story. The most frustrating thing is that I was interested in the basic conflict as it was theoretically set up. A woman who has a vocation to be a priest, and struggles with men not treating her as a real woman, but as some sort of pure, untouchable saint because of it... that's interesting. The thing is, it didn't really feel like that was Adam's problem. It felt more like the stupid, old-fashioned perception that women are the possession of their male family members, so he can't have anything to do with Cassie because it would be an offense against his best friend, her brother. He even goes and asks the brother for permission, for pity's sake.

There's also zero chemistry between Adam and Cassie. We're told there is, and we immediately have this scene where Cassie basically pounces on Adam and grabs his cock. Whoa there, maybe you could just ease me into the romance? I didn't feel I knew the characters, therefore I didn't care about them, therefore the sex was boring.

Yeah, this one didn't work for me at all.

MY GRADE: A D.

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The Blackhouse, by Peter May

>> Thursday, March 09, 2017

TITLE: The Blackhouse
AUTHOR: Peter May

COPYRIGHT: 2009
PAGES: 386
PUBLISHER: Quercus

SETTING: Isle of Lewis, Scotland
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: First in the Lewis Trilogy

A brutal killing takes place on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland: a land of harsh beauty and inhabitants of deep-rooted faith.

A MURDER

Detective Inspector Fin Macleod is sent from Edinburgh to investigate. For Lewis-born Macleod, the case represents a journey both home and into his past.

A SECRET

Something lurks within the close-knit island community. Something sinister.

A TRAP

As Fin investigates, old skeletons begin to surface, and soon he, the hunter, becomes the hunted.
Fin MacLeod grew up on the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides. It was a small, oppressive community for a boy who wanted much more from life, so he left as soon as he turned 18. A futher 18 years later, he's a police detective in Edinburgh and recovering from a tragedy in his personal life.

When a murder takes place in Lewis that has quite similar characteristics to one that took place in Edinburgh not long before, Fin is sent to investigate by his superiors. He is not keen. There are memories and people in Lewis that he does not want to face, but his investigation requires him to do just that.

The Blackhouse is as much about Fin's life growing up in Lewis as it is about his investigation of the murder. May alternates chapters in the first person narrating Fin's life, first as a child and then a teenager, right up till the a traumatic event we know is coming and his leaving the island, and chapters in the third person covering the present-day investigation. It works beautifully, mainly because the sections in the past are not just about getting us to understand Fin as a character, but are also completely relevant to the present-day sections. It was also one of those rare books structured this way where I always wanted more of each section before switching, rather than being annoyed because I preferred one to the other.

That said, much as the sections dealing with the crime investigation were really good, the sections set in the past were just fascinating. May creates an incredibly vivid sense of place, and you get an excellent view of what it must have been like to grow up there at the time. The challenging landscape and climate, the importance of tradition, the pressure to conform... it all coalesces around a tradition that has a key place in the story. Every year a small group of specially selected men from the island travel to a nearby rock to spend a couple of weeks harvesting the small number of gannets (or guga, as they call them) that they're allowed to hunt, since it's a protected species. It's an incredibly grim and difficult task, not just because of the wildness of the environment, but because of what the bloody task entails. It's also clearly the way the young men of the island prove their manhood, and even though in theory men have to volunteer to go, in reality the pressure to do so is immense. This tradition resonates all through the book, in both the timelines.

If this had been all, the book would have been coming onto an A grade for me. However, there was an aspect I found extremely problematic. I've had a look at several reviews on goodreads and it's not something people even note, but it really bothered me. So get ready for a bit of a rant!

Basically, the treatment of women in this book is terrible. They're not developed and are nothing but objects who only matter for the effect they have on the male characters. For instance, there's this character who was Fin's first love and who's now married to the man who used to be Fin's best friend growing up. We know she left for the mainland with Fin, but something happened, and she ended up back on Lewis, living what is clearly a crappy life. She was interesting, or rather, she should have been. The book doesn't really care about her as a character, beyond how she affects Fin. That's the case for pretty much every woman in the book.

I also had massive issues with how mysogynistic the book sometimes felt. There were certain sections in the flashbacks where the young Fin engages in actions I found reprehensible. It starts when he and his friend decide to have a joke on some girls who are sunbathing topless on a beach (lying face down) and drop some crabs on them from a cliff, hoping to have them scatter and see their breasts. It's portrayed as something that's just a bit of fun, who cares how the girls feel about it, and well, boys will be boys. It annoyed me, but ok. But then there was yet another scene of non-consensual voyeurism, and that one was particularly offensive. This happens when Fin and his friends are 17-18. One of them has a crush on a girl who seems to be flirting with him to make someone else jealous. And of course, the boys consider her a prick-tease. That's the word they use. When the town's bully shares that the girl has a bath every Sunday at 10, and that there's a bit of roof outside where he and his mates have been going to watch her, Fin's friend decides he will be going to watch. Because of course, he's entitled to her attention and she deserves to be punished for not giving him what he wants. Fin has misgivings, but he accompanies his friend. But his misgivings are absolutely not about whether it's right to do this to a woman who's really done nothing wrong; that's fine and dandy by Fin! All he's worried about is that the bully must be planning something, and that his friend doesn't know what he's getting into.

Turns out he's right. It's not the beautiful girl who's having the bath. It's an older woman, and she sees the boys standing on the roof outside her window. She's about 60, and she's fat and wearing a shower cap. Oh, the horror! Euww! The way this woman, this completely innocent, blameless woman, who's just trying to have a bath, is described is horrible and painful to read. There's a lot about her "folds of pink flesh" and the narration makes her sound almost obscene. And the cherry on this utter pile of shit: when confronted with strangers spying on her she screams for help. "Rape!" she screams. And Fin thinks that's "wishful thinking". The whole incident is completely repulsive and vile.

Now, I know very well that the fact that a character does something reprehensible doesn't mean that the author condones it. But I'm sorry, you can tell perfectly well when the narrative is trying to say that something is A-OK, and that's the case here. The narrative (which in this sections is basically the older Fin thinking back, not a hormone-addled teenager -not that that's an excuse!) at no point considers the impact of these pranks on the women they're aimed at. It's all about the boys. At no point is it acknowledged that spying on a naked woman is a violation of her. Who cares about that! And that is what I found so offensive.

So much as I enjoyed the plot and the setting, I'm not sure I want to read further in this series, or in May's backlist. Things like pacing and characterisation and plotting are problems that can be fixed with experience, but not this sort of attitude towards women that can just permeate a book. We'll see. I might yet feel in the mood for Lewis again and choose to grit my teeth through the problematic bits.

MY GRADE: A C+, one that's very much balancing the aspects I loved and those I hated.

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Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil, by Melina Marchetta

>> Tuesday, March 07, 2017

TITLE: Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil
AUTHOR: Melina Marchetta

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 416
PUBLISHER: Mulholland Books

SETTING: Contemporary UK and France
TYPE: Suspense / thriller
SERIES: None

Bashir “Bish” Ortley is a London desk cop. Almost over it. Still not dealing with the death of his son years ago, as well as the break-up of his marriage.

Across the channel, a summer bus tour, carrying a group of English teenagers is subject to a deadly bomb attack, killing four of the passengers and injuring a handful of others. Bish’s daughter is one of those on board.

The suspect is 17 year old Violette LeBrac whose grandfather was responsible for a bombing that claimed the lives of dozens of people fourteen years ago; and whose mother, Noor, has been serving a life sentence for the part she was supposed to have played in the attack.

As Bish is dragged into the search for the missing Violette, he finds himself reluctantly working with Noor LeBrac and her younger brother, Jimmy Sarraf.

And the more he delves into the lives of the family he helped put away, the more Bish realizes that they may have got it wrong all those years ago, and that truth wears many colours. Especially when it comes to the teenagers on board the recent bus bombing. Including his daughter.

Tell the truth. Shame the devil. Bish can’t get Violette LeBrac’s words out of his head. But what he may get is some sort of peace with his own past as the worlds of those involved in two bombings, years apart, collide into the journey of his life.
Argh!! This had what was potentially a really interesting plot. A bus bombing in a campsite in France. The bus is full of British teenagers. Or mostly British -one has joined them from Australia, and she's from a family where several members were convicted of planning and executing a terrorist attack in London several years earlier. Violette's mother is in jail for aiding and abetting her own father, who set up a bomb in a London supermarket that killed several people. No one believes Violette's presence on the bus was a coincidence, and according to the press and pretty much anyone else speaking in public, she's as much of a terrorist as the rest of her family.

Our protagonist, Bashir "Bish" Ortley is a cop whose daughter was on the bus as well. He was involved in the supermarket bombing as an investigator, and he was the one who arrested Violette's's mother. Bish's daughter is fine and wasn't injured in the bus bombing, but his role as a father allows him access to the case, and shadowy figures in some sort of secret intelligence organisation pressure him to make use of that access. When Violette and one of her friends disappear, Bish seems to be the only one with a way to find them and discover what happened.

I really, REALLY wanted to know what the hell was going on here. I wanted to know what was up with Violette and what she had been doing on that bus, not to mention who'd set the bomb and why. I wanted to know what had actually happened in the supermarket bombing, and what secrets Violette's mother was keeping. So if anyone would like to spoil me, please do, because I'm afraid I just couldn't continue reading. Much as I wanted to know, the characters were so terribly written, so 'off', that I just couldn't. The offness starts on the very first page, with a little vignette showing one of the victims of the supermarket bombing just before it happend. It's this scouse guy living in London, who thinks about how he's becoming a fan of this young guy who's just been signed by Man Utd, even though his people back home would disapprove. Yeah, right. That set the tone. I didn't believe in any of the characters or their reactions, and the writing was overdramatic.

It wasn't just the main characters that I didn't believe in; the whole context in which these things were happening felt wrong. Everything, from the reactions of bystanders to the headlines in the press. I could see what issues Marchetta was trying to explore, issues of racial profiling and sterotypes and discrimination, but it was as all so heavy-handed and unsubtle that it wasn't effective in the least.

Such a shame.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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The Best Of All Possible Worlds, by Karen Lord

>> Sunday, March 05, 2017

TITLE: The Best Of All Possible Worlds
AUTHOR: Karen Lord

COPYRIGHT: 2013
PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Del Rey

SETTING: Cygnus Beta planet
TYPE: Science fiction / fantasy
SERIES: There's a companion book set in the same world, The Galaxy Game

The Best of All Possible Worlds is a stunning science fiction epic that is also a beautifully wrought, deeply moving love story.

A proud and reserved alien society finds its homeland destroyed in an unprovoked act of aggression, and the survivors have no choice but to reach out to the indigenous humanoids of their adopted world, to whom they are distantly related. They wish to preserve their cherished way of life but come to discover that in order to preserve their culture, they may have to change it forever.

Now a man and a woman from these two clashing societies must work together to save this vanishing race—and end up uncovering ancient mysteries with far-reaching ramifications. As their mission hangs in the balance, this unlikely team—one cool and cerebral, the other fiery and impulsive—just may find in each other their own destinies... and a force that transcends all.
When the home planet of the Sadiri was completely destroyed, only the very few who were out of the planet on various missions survived. Most of them were men. With nowhere to return to, these people have had to accept the invitation to settle in Cygnus Beta, a planet that is happy to receive these refugees.

The people of Cygnus Beta are keen to make the resettlement as smooth as possible, so Grace Delarua, a bio-technician, is asked to liaise with them and work with their councillor, Dllenahkh, to get them settled where and how they'll be most comfortable.

Given that The Best Of All Possible Worlds' setup involves a whole world being destroyed, one might expect a plotty adventure story, with revenge and excitement. That's not what this is. All the big explosions happen off the page, and before the action here starts. What we get is an exploration of deracination and the different ways of dealing with it. Should the Sadiri try to keep themselves isolated and preserve their culture unchanged (technically, they could, since they are long-lived enough for the men to start again with young brides), or do they accept that to survive, their culture should adapt to its new surroundings?

It's a leisurely book. The small group led by Delarua and Dllenahkh travel around and meet the different peoples present in Cygnus Beta. So what we get is two kinds of simultaneous explorations. They are exploring the variety of cultures in the planet, but those who are part of the team are also exploring each other’s cultures in a much deeper, personal way.

It’s not that nothing happens; in fact, quite big things happen, but Lord purposely writes this in a very low-key way. It's somewhat episodic, but that works perfectly for the story. The only overarching thread is the decision about what path to take with regards to integration. Lord does not create some sort of of external danger to drive the plot. And through the small episodes and encounters with different people, the relationships are developed.

I loved it all, and particularly discovering the different cultures they visit. They are clearly built out of bits and pieces of different cultures on Earth, and I enjoyed how Lord played with them. The visits were brief, so much so that they always left me wanting more, but that felt just right.

There’s a bit of romance, too, but again, very leisurely, very low key. In writing it that way, though, Lord made me fully believe that Delarua and Dllenahkh really were perfect for each other.

A very enjoyable book.

MY GRADE: A B+.

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Cowboys, authors, a firefighter and a librarian

>> Friday, March 03, 2017

Two short reviews, one of a promising old book which I turned out not to like, and a novella by a favourite author that turned out to work really, really well.

TITLE: Rest and Be Thankful
AUTHOR: Helen MacInnes

I had Helen MacInnes pegged in my head as writer of spy novels, but this is one that is anything but. It's about two American friends, writers Sarah and Margaret, who are somewhat at loose ends after spending most of their adult lives in Europe, culminating in some very adventurous years during WW2. They've returned to the US, and since they are both well set up in terms of money, they have resorted to filling their time with long drives across the country.

It is while driving in Wyoming that a fortuitous automotive mishap leads them to finding the perfect ranch. It's love at first sight, and they end up purchasing the ranch house, which the owner of the land is quite happy to get rid of, as it's a bit of a white elephant to him. Margaret and Sarah's first project is to use the ranch as a literary retreat, and before too long a motley crew of mostly-unknown-to-them writers start to arrive.

It's a fun setup, but I just didn't like it. I found it extremely frustrating. The writing felt old fashioned and kind of arch and elliptical. But I could have got over that. Mainly, I got frustrated with the two main characters and how they allowed themselves to be treated by people who were guests into their own home. These guests are all nasty, self-absorbed arseholes, and I found it astounding that women who just a few years earlier were involved in the Resistance, so were clearly no pushovers, would allow themselves to be bullied in such a way. I was also frustrated by the preaching about politics. The book is very of its time in that area (it was published in 1949), and I got a really annoyed at the politics that were inserted when they had little to do with the plot. This wasn't so much that the characters had views, but that the book had views, and those views were pretty much McCarthyism. There's also a fair bit of how people from rural areas are so morally superior to people from the city (particularly New York!). Sorry, but I'm not here for that.

I was bored, as well as annoyed, so I gave up after about 100 pages.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

TITLE: Fanning the Flames
AUTHOR: Victoria Dahl

Fanning the Flames is a novella that works as a prequel to Dahl's Girls' Night Out series.

Lauren Foster is a librarian. She's been divorced for a while, and recently she's been noticing fireman Jake Davis quite a bit. He's a friend of her ex's, so they've known each other for a while. Both try hard to resist the temptation, but then they give in.

There is not a lot of conflict here. What there is comes mainly from Lauren’s head. She was, as she saw it, bad at being married. She did not just meekly accept that she needed to do “wifely” things, like making a dish for her husband’s work potluck, or taking care of all the school things for their kid. She resented her husband not pulling his weight. She got angry. So she doesn’t see herself as a “nice” woman, not like Jake’s perfect, sweet, pre-school teacher late wife (as she puts it, the maximum amount of time she can spend with a group of 6-year-olds is 55 minutes. She’s timed it when they come in to the library in which she works. After that she needs to lock herself in an office and fantasise about whiskey). But Jake is baffled as to why people think he needs or wants a "nice" woman. He likes Lauren. He likes that Lauren is not shy at all about what she wants sexually, and the person she is fits him perfectly.

I think in a longer book, the story might have suffered because of the lightness of the conflict, but in novella length, it was perfect. This was hot and sweet and absolutely hilarious (that scene when they are surprised in Jake’s house... I'm still giggling). Just right.

MY GRADE: A B+.

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