Shelter in Place, by Nora Roberts

>> Sunday, June 17, 2018

TITLE: Shelter in Place
AUTHOR: Nora Roberts

COPYRIGHT: 2018
PAGES: 438
PUBLISHER: St. Martin's

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romantic Suspense
SERIES: None

It was a typical evening at a mall outside Portland, Maine. Three teenage friends waited for the movie to start. A boy flirted with the girl selling sunglasses. Mothers and children shopped together, and the manager at video game store tended to customers. Then the shooters arrived.

The chaos and carnage lasted only eight minutes before the killers were taken down. But for those who lived through it, the effects would last forever. In the years that followed, one would dedicate himself to a law enforcement career. Another would close herself off, trying to bury the memory of huddling in a ladies' room, helplessly clutching her cell phone--until she finally found a way to pour her emotions into her art.

But one person wasn't satisfied with the shockingly high death toll at the DownEast Mall. And as the survivors slowly heal, find shelter, and rebuild, they will discover that another conspirator is lying in wait--and this time, there might be nowhere safe to hide.
Shelter in Place starts with a truly horrific scene. A packed shopping mall and cinema, full of teenagers and kids and their parents. Three young men armed to the teeth. When they're done, many, many people are dead, including the three gunmen.

Our protagonists were amongst the many people caught up in the shooting. Sixteen-year-old Simone Knox was at the cinema with her two best friends, while Reed Quartermaine was taking a quick break from his job at a restaurant in the mall. After the shooting, they try to rebuild their lives and move on from the tragedy, as do many others.

Except for one person, for whom the shooting was not quite enough. And they are determined to finish the job that, as far as they're concerned, the gunmen botched.

So, this was a bit of a strange one. It started out as something that felt quite different to other Nora Roberts romantic suspense. Not just the subject matter, but the way it felt. Given that the first book in her latest trilogy (Year One, which I hope to review soon) was quite a departure for her, I thought we might be getting another new direction. And, much as I do like the "usual" NR, I got quite excited about that.

But then the book soon returned to familiar patterns. There's the rest of the first half, where we see both Reed and Simone grow up, while the villain does their thing in the background. That felt very reminiscent of books like Blue Smoke, for instance. And then the present-day second half is a bit like Northern Lights, with Reed moving to an isolated small community to become Chief of Police. And there was a lot of time spent with the villain, following along as they killed more and more people, which Nora has done quite a few times (e.g. the first one I thought about, Thankless in Death).

So it turned out to be all pretty familiar. Which is no bad thing, really! I liked the romance quite a bit, with Reed and Simone feeling very well-suited to each other. There's not a hell of a lot of internal tension there, as they seem to click fine from the start and are clearly both on the same page on their relationship throughout, but their low-conflict relationship still managed to keep my attention engaged.

I also liked the family elements, particularly Simone's difficult relationship with her parents and sister and her almost sisterly relationship with her grandma, Cici. Cici was fun, even if, to be honest, in real life she'd probably annoy me as much as she would delight me (the fact that she always smells faintly of weed made me laugh, but euww, I hate that smell!).

The suspense was not awful, but really not great, either. The villain is of the crazy psycho variety, and I just find it hard to work up too much interest in that sort of character. And they seemed unrealistically good at getting away with mayhem. There seemed to be nothing they couldn't do, nobody they couldn't get to. Meh.

I also did wonder why Reed had not tried warning potential victims much, much earlier... years earlier, really, even before he knew who the culprit was. He knew who these people were and they were few enough in number that he could set up an alert to be notified whenever something police-related went down with any of them. So surely he could have contacted them and told them to be on their guard? Yes, it would be hard to be on their guard about everything, all the time, but even when he knew about the culprit, he did not make sure to let the potential victims know either. (Actually, something else that felt a bit off was that the entire country was not completely obsessed by the case when it became clear what was going on.)

Finally, the other thing that felt a bit weird was that there was no mention at all of gun control. It's all down to the shooters and the crazy-psycho villain. That feels quite tone-deaf at the moment. I suppose this will have been written a while ago, but still, that discussion has been going on for quite a long time. I get that wading into the whole gun control issue would likely offend quite a few readers, but at this point, not acknowledging the issue at all with a plot like this doesn't feel like the author being neutral, it feels like taking a particular side (and one which I'm not sure Roberts supports, given her vision of the future in the In Death series).

So, an enjoyable book, but nowhere near prime Nora.

MY GRADE: A B, I guess.

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Broken Verses, by Kamila Shamsie

>> Friday, June 15, 2018

TITLE: Broken Verses
AUTHOR: Kamila Shamsie

COPYRIGHT: 2005
PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Mariner Books

SETTING: Pakistan, early 2000s
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

Fourteen years ago, famous Pakistani activist Samina Akram disappeared. Two years earlier, her lover, Pakistan's greatest poet, was beaten to death by government thugs. In present-day Karachi, her daughter Aasmaani has just discovered a letter in the couple's private code—a letter that could only have been written recently.

Aasmaani is thirty, single, drifting from job to job. Always left behind whenever Samina followed the Poet into exile, she had assumed that her mother's disappearance was simply another abandonment. Then, while working at Pakistan's first independent TV station, Aasmaani runs into an old friend of Samina's who gives her the first letter, then many more. Where could the letters have come from? And will they lead her to her mother?

Merging the personal with the political, Broken Verses is at once a sharp, thrilling journey through modern-day Pakistan, a carefully coded mystery, and an intimate mother-daughter story that asks how we forgive a mother who leaves.
Oops, I timed my last post badly, as immediately afterwards I had visitors staying at mine, so all plans to post reviews went out the window! But ready now.  Anyway, I was a bit too busy to do a top reads of 2017 post at the end of last year, but if I'd done one, Kamila Shamsie's latest, Home Fire, would have been right at the top. So obviously, I went and bought all her backlist. It's not a hugely long list, but it's satisfyingly substantial and there's a fair bit of variety there. Her books go all over the world and several of them are historical novels. But having loved Home Fire so much, I fancied something a bit closer to that experience, so I chose to start with the one that seemed more like it.

Broken Verses is set in Karachi, Pakistan in the early 2000s. Aasmani is a young woman who grew up in the midst of much drama. Her mother, Samina, was a famous feminist activist. Not long after Aasmani's birth she left her husband, Aasmani's father, to live with her lover. He was just as famous as she was, a man considered to be Pakistan's greatest poet (and that's what he's often called all through the novel: 'The Poet').

Aasmani grew up as a bit of a fifth wheel in their tempestuous love affair and lives which were made even more chaotic by external events. Both Samina and the Poet were seen as troublesome by successive governments, and there was a constant cycle of prison and exile, both of which resulted in Aasmani being left behind and then reunited with her mother and stepfather. And then, as a teenager, she's left behind for good. The Poet is killed by the government, and a couple of years later, her mother disappears.

As the book starts, Aasmani is 30 and still living an unsettled life. When she leaves a cushy job at the state oil company to start working at a trendy and hip new TV company, she comes across an old friend of her mother and stepfather's. This woman is just as famous as they were, Pakistan's greatest actress, who retired many years ago and is now making a comeback in a series for Aasmina's TV company. This is mostly as a result of her son working there, and he pays as much attention to Aasmina as his mother does.

And then, through them, Aasmina receives a mysterious letter. It's written in code, but it's one she happens to know. It's a private code that her mother and the Poet used to use when writing to each other. Between that and some of the very private things mentioned in the letter, Aasmina is sure that the letters must be written by the Poet. But the shocking thing is that some of the content makes it clear the letters must have been written after the Poet's supposed death.

I enjoyed this. Aasmina was a bit of a non-entity as a character, but that was the whole point. This is a woman who always felt she came second to others, that she wasn't enough for her mother to want to stay, or even to want to live. She has allowed herself to be defined by that. To herself, she's a person who gets abandoned, and that's pretty much all there is to it. On one hand, this made for a character I wasn't that interested in, but on the other, it is an understandable reaction and I liked seeing her grow out of her passive role. And it made it all the sweeter when the focus moved to the loving relationship between Aasmani and her father and stepmother. They were always the unexciting, dependable ones (anyone would, compared to Samina and the Poet), so it was nice to see their steadfastness appreciated.

The mystery at the heart of the plot regarding the mysterious letters was well done. It kept me interested, and I thought the resolution made sense. Also, I really liked the letters themselves. They are written in a very strong, distinct voice, and they succeeded in making me understand why Aasmani loved the Poet, a man one would forgive her for resenting.

I also really enjoyed the setting, particularly the look back at the tumultous 80s and what was going on in Pakistan then. It was something I really knew very little about. But you know what? I also really liked seeing Pakistan in the present-day sections. I've seen reviews where people complain about this not being "the real Pakistan", meaning, I'm guessing, that it's about upper-middle/upper class people, so too similar to a Western lifestyle and therefore not authentic. Well, it worked for me, maybe because it's one of the very few times where I've read about an experience that seems familiar from my childhood. I too grew up in an upper-middle class family in a developing country, and most of what I read is either about many different social classes in developed countries, or about poor people in developing countries. I enjoy reading all of that, but there's a special pleasure in seeing your own personal experience reflected. I don't need it that often, but a little bit more often than this would be fun. The last book where I identified with the experience was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah, and that was quite a while ago!

MY GRADE: A B+.

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Hi again!

>> Friday, June 08, 2018

Well, it's been a while! I do hope some of you are still out there, after so many months. It's been a busy time, but I now feel things are settled enough that I should be able to blog somewhat regularly.

The move to Helsinki has gone really well. I optimistically gave myself a month after I arrived to find a place and move in, and it worked! I think it helped that I'd booked an airbnb studio flat for that first month, so while I was comfortable enough, I was started to feel cooped up and really needed a bit more space! I actually applied some techniques for the flat search from a book I'm planning to review soon which I read on my holidays in Uruguay, and that was super helpful. So I was all moved in and unpacked by early March.


My new neighbourhood in the winter, taken from a little island right across.

It's taken a bit longer to settle into the new job, but it's all good. I actually started the day after I arrived (no point moping around the house being miserable and missing my friends, best to keep busy), and it was a bit more challenging than I expected. The work itself was not a problem, as it's stuff I know I'm good at doing and have plenty of experience at. It was more that it was a shock to go from being the expert (I'd been at my previous organisation for almost 10 years), to being the newbie who knows very little about how things work. I still know very little, but a bit more than I did before, and I've made my peace with having to ask many questions :)

Helsinki itself has been fab. I was lucky enough to already have a good friend who lives here, and she's been wonderful at helping me settle and introducing me to people. I also joined one of those social groups online, which has lots of expat members but also quite a few Finns, so between my friend and her friends and my online group stuff, I've been able to start building a fun social life. There's plenty to do, and I try to do it all.

And I've thrown myself into exploring my new country and its culture. I try all the foods (the pastries are particularly to-die-for), I use the sauna in my building every week, and I have even gone ice swimming! I've also started learning Finnish, which I'm loving. It's a super hard language, but I'm enjoying the challenge. I didn't remember how much fun it was to do language classes, as I hadn't done it since I was in my early teens. It's going to take me a long while to be able to have a real conversation with anyone (good think almost all Finns speak excellent English!), but I'm making progress and starting to understand what's around me.

Two of my favourite Finnish pastries. The one on the right (called a laskiaispulla) is unfortunately available only for a limited time in the winter. The other one is the classic cinnamon roll called korvapuusti (which, strangely, translates literally as slapped ear -maybe that's what you got from the baker if you tried to eat them straight out of the oven?)

Ice swimming. That's me on the right in the grey woolly hat diving in!

I've been quite lucky with the weather, too, which was one of the things I was most worried about, given how people complain about it. It had apparently been a bit of a crap, dark winter up until February, but right on the day after I arrived, the snow came. I opened the door to leave for my first day of work and got hit in the face by a massive blizzard (and I have no experience with snow, so hadn't thought to wear waterproof mascara. I introduced myself to HR that morning with racoon eyes). There was a lot of it, and it settled, and from then on, we had a lovely white winter. It did get super cold for about a week:-20+ degrees C and it "felt like" -30 with the Siberian wind. That is about 0F to -20F, which is probably nothing to some of you if you're in Northern North America ('not too bad', according to the girl from Wisconsin in my Finnish class), but pretty damn cold to me. But it was fine. I'd bought the appropriate clothes and shoes, so I was warm enough when outside. And then the temp settled just a few degrees below freezing point, which was lovely and crisp. Mostly, it was all blue skies and plenty of sunshine, and that has continued now, when we've had the warmest May in a very long time. We even had about a week of 30C temperatures (85F or so?). I was not expecting that, and I'll try not to be disappointed next year when it's probably going to be a lot colder. The best thing about the weather, though, is the lack of rain. I have had to use an umbrella exactly once, and that was just drizzle. I got used to always carrying a little one in my handbag when I was in Liverpool, even when the weather seemed fine, but I've broken that habit. I might have to pick it up again in the autumn, which is supposed to be a lot wetter, but hey, I'm enjoying it all for now!

My neighbourhood in the summery spring!

So anyway, that's what's been going on lately. Book reviews next!

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Back from holiday!

>> Saturday, January 20, 2018

Hi everyone, I'm back in Liverpool for a couple of weeks to finish sorting out all the million little details still outstanding before I move to Helsinki at the end of the month. My holiday in Uruguay was exactly what I needed: lots of family time, and days and days of sitting by the pool reading.

There really was a lot of reading. The non fiction was the highlight. I finally read David France's How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS, which I've had at the top of my TBR for a few months. It reminded me a bit of one of my favourite books last year,  East West Street, by Philippe Sands, in that it beautifully combined the personal and the factual, and it had a narrator with a stake in the story. Both books also made me cry. Turns out both books have won the Baillie Gifford prize for non fiction, one in 2016 and the other in 2017, so that's one prize I'll be keeping an eye on.

The other really great non fiction was Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, by Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths, which examines the way computer science looks at certain problems, and how that can illuminate the way we think about real-life issues.

On the fiction side, it was mostly solid but few books really wowed me. I loved rereading The Curse of Chalion (Bujold is always amazing), and Becky Chambers' A Closed and Common Orbit was as great as her first, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. I also enjoyed visiting 1990s Pakistan in Kamila Shamsie's Broken Verses, a TB Hospital in 1950s England in The Dark Circle, by Linda Grant, and the hidden areas of the Vatican with Robert Harris' Conclave (which I haven't quite finished listening to, but I'm enjoying immensely).

There were a few disappointments, books I'd been saving and really looking forward to, but that didn't deliver. The biggest one was Kristin Cashore's Jane Unlimited. It was really weird, but not in a good way, and full of characters that were psychologically unbelievable. It was a DNF for me, which I wasn't expecting. I was also disappointed in The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K Le Guin. The big idea of people who can move from being male to female to gender-neutral is not that revolutionary now (to be fair, possibly helped by this book!) and the plot outside of that was a bit meh. I still liked it, just not as much as I was hoping. I was also disappointed by the couple of Nordic Noir books I tried to read, both of which ended up being DNFs.

Here's a list of everything I read:


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Big changes!

>> Monday, December 04, 2017

Not in the blog, but in my life. After just over 10 years in the UK, the time has come for a new adventure. At the end of January I will be moving to Helsinki (yes, in the middle of winter!) to start a new job. It's all a little bit scary and the amount of stuff to be done before I leave is kind of overwhelming, but mostly I'm really excited and can't wait to see what the future will bring (in the short term, probably a fair bit of snow, I imagine).

So the blog will probably continue to be a bit of a quiet zone for the next few months, but I absolutely intend to keep it going once I get settled in. I found it really nice to have that continuity 10 years ago, when I moved from Uruguay to the UK, and I expect it will also be a help this time.

So wish me luck, and any tips from those of you used to colder climates would be much appreciated!

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In the Middle of Somewhere, by Roan Parrish

>> Tuesday, October 31, 2017

TITLE: In the Middle of Somewhere
AUTHOR: Roan Parrish

COPYRIGHT: 2015
PAGES: 350
PUBLISHER: Dreamspinner Press

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Starts a series

Daniel Mulligan is tough, snarky, and tattooed, hiding his self-consciousness behind sarcasm. Daniel has never fit in—not at home in Philadelphia with his auto mechanic father and brothers, and not at school where his Ivy League classmates looked down on him. Now, Daniel’s relieved to have a job at a small college in Holiday, Northern Michigan, but he’s a city boy through and through, and it’s clear that this small town is one more place he won’t fit in.

Rex Vale clings to routine to keep loneliness at bay: honing his muscular body, perfecting his recipes, and making custom furniture. Rex has lived in Holiday for years, but his shyness and imposing size have kept him from connecting with people.

When the two men meet, their chemistry is explosive, but Rex fears Daniel will be another in a long line of people to leave him, and Daniel has learned that letting anyone in can be a fatal weakness. Just as they begin to break down the walls keeping them apart, Daniel is called home to Philadelphia, where he discovers a secret that changes the way he understands everything.
When Daniel is invited to interview for a job as an English professor at a tiny college in the just-as-tiny town of Holiday, in Michigan, he's got mixed feelings. Realistically, it's probably the best opportunity he'll get to start a career, and in a few years, he might be able to use the job as a springboard for better things. But he finds the idea of living in such a small town a bit worrying. Daniel is a city boy, and wonders how well and edgy, profusely tattoed gay guy will fit in.

But on the very day of his interview, he meets someone who likes him just fine. Rex Vale lives in a homely little cabin in the woods, just outside town. Their first meeting reveals a fair bit of chemistry, and once Daniel has moved to Holiday, they begin to deepen the relationship.

This is a book where there isn't a lot of external conflict. The focus is fully on the relationship, and it's not even one where the protagonists have got massive, over-the-top issues to overcome before they can be happy in the relationship. It's also a fairly long book (it says 350 pages in the listing on amazon, but it felt longer). And yet it was the rare romance these days that kept me fully engaged and rapt. I really enjoyed it.

The book is narrated by Daniel, and he was a character I adored. Daniel grew up in a family made up of macho men who were just baffled by him. They were baffled by his sexuality, but just as much as by his insistence on studying, going to college (the first in the family), and even worse: becoming an academic. The rest of the brothers work in the father's garage, and that's good enough for them. It wasn't some sort of nightmarish upbringing, as it's clear the father, at least, did care for him, even if he didn't know what to do with him. Still, it was tough (and painfully rough and tumble, it sounds like).

I really loved in Daniel his determination to go after what he wanted. It wasn't easy to get his PhD with basically no support, and he's exhausted. I was touched by the pleasure he took in the simplest things. Being able to work in peace and quiet in an office, when he had to get used to working in public spaces during university (coffee shops being the best option he'd had before, way better than reading in a loud music venue while working as a barman). Actually making some ok money and seeing a future where (once credit card debts are paid off and he doesn't have to pray that his ipod lasts just a few more months) he'll be able to actually afford some nice things. A significant thread in Daniel's story is about starting to build a life as a grown-up, basically, and this is something I really like (and surprisingly, don't really see much of in the New Adult genre).

Rex, since we see him only through Daniel's eyes, we get to know a bit less well, although well enough that I totally got why Daniel falls for him. Rex is quite shy and gentle, in spite of being built like the proverbial brick shithouse. He's had his own challenges growing up, and these have left him with a bit of a fear of being left. Getting involved with Daniel is a risk. This is, after all, the man who has actually said that the only reason to take this job at the college is to be able to later get a job somewhere more prestigious -away from Holiday. Meanwhile, Daniel has to deal with his own issues before he can open up in a relationship.

Daniel and Rex date and get to know each other like normal people, while dealing with friends and family. I've no idea how Parrish managed to make it so fascinating, but it might have been that these characters felt real and that the character development was believable and gradual. I think it might also have helped that the cast of secondary characters was really well done. I particularly loved Ginger, Daniel's only and really excellent friend. Their relationship was hilarious, full of teasing and caring. I want to know more about all these characters, even Daniel's arsehole brother Colin.

The only thing I didn't love was the frequency, length and graphic nature of the love scenes. Part of it might be just me, since I've gone off detailed sex scenes and they tend to bore me these days. Still, I really do think the level of graphicness didn't go well with the the vibe of the book otherwise, and after the first couple of scenes the sex wasn't really adding anything to the character development, so they felt unnecessary.

Small issue, though, and on the whole, I loved this. Parrish has a couple more books in this series, and there's also another starring Ginger in a separate series. I have already bought them all.

MY GRADE: A B+.

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A Dark So Deadly, by Stuart MacBride

>> Sunday, October 29, 2017

TITLE: A Dark So Deadly
AUTHOR: Stuart MacBride

COPYRIGHT: 2017
PAGES: 608
PUBLISHER: Harper Collins

SETTING: Contemporary Scotland
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: Stand-alone

Welcome to the Misfit Mob...

It’s where Police Scotland dumps the officers it can’t get rid of, but wants to: the outcasts, the troublemakers, the compromised. Officers like DC Callum MacGregor, lumbered with all the boring go-nowhere cases. So when an ancient mummy turns up at the Oldcastle tip, it’s his job to find out which museum it’s been stolen from.

But then Callum uncovers links between his ancient corpse and three missing young men, and life starts to get a lot more interesting. O Division’s Major Investigation Teams already have more cases than they can cope with, so, against everyone’s better judgement, the Misfit Mob are just going to have to manage this one on their own.

No one expects them to succeed, but right now they’re the only thing standing between the killer’s victims and a slow, lingering death. The question is, can they prove everyone wrong before he strikes again?
Stuart MacBride is an author I've been meaning to try for a while. He's got a long-running series, the Logan McRae books, which is supposed to be good. I never know if it's best to just jump in with the latest book (and possibly feel a bit lost) or go for the first one in the series (which I've often found is not great). Seeing this new stand-alone title saved me making the decision.

The premise is not particularly novel: after a bit of a screw-up that was not his fault, DC Callum MacGregor has been assigned to the Misfit Mob, a unit which is the dumping ground for officers that, for whatever reason, are going nowhere in their careers, and yet can't be sacked. They are given the pointless, annoying cases no one else wants. The latest, a mummy found in a recycling centre, seems exactly that. Only it turns out the mummy isn't ancient, as originally assumed, and someone is kidnapping people and mummifying them. So the Misfit Mob find themselves with a serial killer case on their hands.

A Dark So Deadly had a lot of promise and could have been really good, but man, did it need an editor! A ruthless one, preferably, who could tighten all the many, many threads a bit and trim the pointless detail. As it is, this was much, much too long and as a result, it flowed about as well as treacle. It felt like a chore to push through, and as a result, it felt even longer.

I read the first half and gave up, because in addition to the slow pace and the clutter, I also had a number of issues that bothered me. First, the women. First, there's Callum's pregnant partner, Elaine, who's portrayed as nagging and manipulative (ridiculously so). Then there's DC Franklin, new to the squad and possessor of a truly impressive chip for her shoulder. She's portrayed as blaming every slight on her race (she's black) and accusing anyone who's nice to her of trying to get into her pants. They were both unbelievable.

And then there was how everyone dumped on Callum. Elaine treats him terribly. His colleagues disrespect him and bully him to an infuriating degree. Random people get in the act. People he tries to arrest keep beating the shit out of him. His balls are crushed, he has people bite him in two separate incidents, first his ear is bitten off and then someone bites his leg. I started out feeling sorry for Callum, but after a while my feelings started turning into contempt.

Then there's the plot, which I just could not buy. It becomes clear quite quickly that what they've got is an active serial killer, and this is treated by everyone as not a big deal and nothing to make a fuss about. This beggars belief, as does the fact that Callum has apparently worked on 4 serial killer cases in his relatively short career. Seriously? What world, let along country, is this set in? And Callum is portrayed as this young, nothing special policeman, not some sort of serial killer specialist.

Disappointing.

MY GRADE: It was a DNF.

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