Fortune's Pawn, by Rachel Bach

>> Wednesday, July 23, 2014

TITLE: Fortune's Pawn
AUTHOR: Rachel Bach

PAGES: 352

SETTING: Futuristic
TYPE: Sci-fi romance
SERIES: 1st in the Paradox trilogy

Deviana Morris isn't your average mercenary. She has plans. Big ones. And a ton of ambition. One of those is going to get her killed one day - but not just yet.

Not when she just got a job on a tiny trade ship with a nasty reputation for surprises. The Glorious Fool isn't misnamed: it likes to get into trouble. And with a reputation for bad luck that makes one year as security detail on this ship equal to five years everywhere else - Devi knows she's found the perfect way to get the jump on the next part of her Plan. But the Fool doesn't give up its secrets without a fight, and one year might be more than even Devi can handle.

Devi Morris career as a mercenary has been extremely impressive. Not yet 30, she has worked her way up military ranks, and then to the top of the active service ranks in a well-regarded mercenary company in Paradox. With nowhere else to go other than management, she has quit her job and is looking at what her next step should be. Because Devi's ultimate dream is to be a Devastator, one of the Paradoxian King's elite armoured unit, and that's not a job you apply for. It's by invitation only.

Trying to figure a strategy to get closer to her dream, she gets a tip from an occasional lover: the rumour is that surviving a tour of duty on a certain Captain Caldswell's ship is a surefire way to get noticed. Several people who've served on his ship as security officers have gone on to be Devastators. Of course, the negative is that, although this is a freighter that works in routes that aren't particularly dangerous, Caldwell seems to go through security personnel like tissues.

Devi duly gets herself a post on Caldwell's ship, the Glorious Fool, and it almost immediately becomes clear that the rumours were right. The ship somehow ends up involved in dangerous situations all the time, and it's obvious nothing is quite what it seems. Devi is intrigued, but trying to find out more might put her in even graver danger.

I really loved this book, right until the end.

Mainly, it's all about Devi. I've seen her compared to Ripley, in Alien, and yep, I can totally see that. She's fabulous: strong, ambitious and unapologetic about it, and above all, extremely competent at what she does. She is a warrior, and I loved that since Paradoxian soldiers fight in sophisticated armour (her Lady Grey is almost a character in its own right), the whole issue of physical strength is moot. It's all about intelligence and bravery and tactical awareness, and this means Devi can be just as formidable a warrior as any man. And she's very, very formidable. There is a no-nonsense attitude to her that I found really appealing, and I respected her determination to find out what on earth is going on with the Fool and its captain, as well as the cleverness with which she goes about it.

And there are lots and lots of Secrets for her to discover on the Glorious Fool. There's a captain who's supposed to be a trader but doesn't do much trading. There's his daughter, a young girl who spends her days in eery silence and whom everyone is incredibly protective about. There's Rupert Cherkhov, the ship's very attractive cook, who is seemingly in the captain's confidence and capable of incredible physical feats. And that's even before Devi goes off ship on a misguided rescue attempt and ends up witnessing some unexplainable creatures she was meant to forget about. Not to mention the weird episode of the ghost ship.

And that leads me to that ending. Lots and lots of secrets, and by the ending, we've only scratched the surface. And then the book ends in what feels like a massive cliff-hanger. A lot of the ground Devi has managed to gain is just wiped away, which felt kind of annoying, but worst of all was that there was no sense of any conclusion. Obviously if you have a trilogy like this one, with a strong overarching story that has such an emphasis on mysteries, you're not going to get all, or even most of the answers at the end of the first book. But there needs to be some sort of internal closure for each of the volumes, at least something for a reader who wasn't crazy about the book and is not interested in continuing with the series. That reader needs to feel like they got some sort of self-contained story, if not all the story. Here it felt simply like a longer story that stopped and will continue in the next volume. It feels manipulative. Fortunately for me, I would have read the next books even without the manipulation and all 3 books in the trilogy are out already. If either of these hadn't been the case, though, I would have been majorly pissed off.

Finally, I started the book thinking this was straight sci-fi with maybe a small romantic subplot between Devi and Rupert, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that the romance was quite a big element. I liked it. There's definitely a lot more to come, especially since a lot of the big secrets involve Rupert, and I'm looking forward to the rest.

MY GRADE: A strong B. It would have been higher if not for my annoyance at the ending.


Hubble Bubble, by Jane Lovering

>> Monday, July 21, 2014

TITLE: Hubble Bubble
AUTHOR: Jane Lovering

PAGES: 300

SETTING: Contemporary England (Yorkshire)
TYPE: Romantic comedy

Be careful what you wish for...

Holly Grey only joined the women's group to keep her friend out of trouble – and now she’s knee-deep in hassle, in the form of apocalyptic weather, armed men, midwifery... and a sarcastic Welsh journalist.

Kai has been drawn to darkest Yorkshire by his desire to find out who he really is. What he hadn’t bargained on was getting caught up in amateur magic and dealing with a bunch of women who are trying really hard to make their dreams come true.

Together they realise that getting what you wish for is sometimes just a matter of knowing what it is you want...

Holly doesn't believe in magic, but her best friend is determined to drag her along to this new coven she's heard about. It was founded by a woman who seems convinced that checking out a couple of books on witchcraft from the library and following the instructions will allow them to cast spells and obtain their hearts' desires. Suddenly, Holly is spending too much time wandering around the cold woods, making disgusting concoctions. She's also distracted by Kai, a mysterious Welsh journalist she's met through her brother, who seems to be playing games with her.

My main problem with Hubble Bubble was that the author's voice didn't appeal to me. It felt like Lovering was trying too hard to be zany and hilarious, but instead, it made pretty much all the characters (including Holly, the narrator) sound like they couldn't stop blabbing and were not very intelligent. Kai was the exception, since he's meant to be mysterious (witness the short, cryptic chapters written from his POV as if he was talking to someone, or writing in a diary), but even that didn't quite work, as he came across as melodramatic instead. Reading all this kind of exhausted me, so I gave up at about the halfway point.

A shame, because there were elements that I was quite intrigued by. I was tickled by the idea of someone doing magic almost by mistake, casting a spell they thought was just pretend, and then having to face the consequences (at least, that's where I assume this was going). Since Holly thought the whole spell thing was rubbish, she made her wishes in a sort of jokey way, so I imagine they would have been fulfilled in unexpected ways.

I was also interested in Holly's relationship with her brother. He's got mental health issues, and Holly functions as a sort of carer to him. They don't live together, but Holly frequently goes to his house and sorts all kinds of things out for him, from washing to doing his shopping for him and of course, making sure he's functioning. What I was interested in was her very matter-of-fact attitude towards this. It's just what she does. She would love her brother to be better, but she seems quite content to be doing this for him. I did want to see how that would develop, especially in the context of Holly's wishes during the spell-casting, but not enough to keep reading.



Listening material

>> Sunday, July 20, 2014

Some good stuff recently.

This American Life. This podcast has stories exploring a particular theme every week. A couple of weeks ago the episode was called "The Human Spectacle". I was particularly fascinated by the first segment, which was about a Japanese reality show. Just mind-blowing. I also liked the third one, which basically talked to Iraqis from different cities, discussing what it was like to live in Iraq right now. It's not available for download any longer, but can be streamed here.

Bannockburn Begins. A BBC Radio 3 documentary about the battle of Bannockburn. It discusses the battle itself and its context, but also its significance and the impact it's had. Really interesting stuff. Download mp3 here (right click & "save target as / link as").

The Infinite Monkey Cage's latest episode, "Are Humans Uniquely Unique?", discusses the ways in which we're different from other animals. I love this programme; it's interesting and hilarious at the same time. Download mp3 here (right click & "save target as / link as").

Word of Mouth. This episode is about situations in which it's really important to weigh your words. They interview oncologists and cancer patients, a journalist involved in a particularly sensitive story (the guy worked in the Scum and the Daily Heil, though, so I'm not sure how much I believe him about having actually taken care with his words) and someone reporting during peace negotiations. Thought-provoking. Download mp3 here (right click & "save target as / link as").

Inside Health had an episode is about the risks and benefits of breast cancer screening programmes. No easy conclusions about whether it's worth it for individual women to attend, but it made the case well that it's something we need to think about. Download mp3 here (right click & "save target as / link as").


Play To Kill, by PJ Tracy

>> Saturday, July 19, 2014

TITLE: Play To Kill (released as Shoot To Thrill in the US)

PAGES: 320

SETTING: Contemporary Minnesota
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: 5th in the Monkeewrench series

It begins with a floater.

When Minneapolis homicide cops Gino Rolseth and Leo Magozzi are called to a derelict stretch of the Mississippi River, they see the bride, facedown, dead in the water. And when the Monkeewrench crew-computer geeks who made a fortune on games, now assisting the cops with special anticrime soft-ware-are invited by the FBI to investigate a series of murder videos posted to the Web, it's not long before the group dis- covers the frightening link between the unlucky bride and the latest, most horrific use of the Internet yet. Using their skills to scour the Net to prevent more killings, the team must race against the clock... before it's too late.

With sophisticated special effects now so widely available, it can be hard to distinguish whether a death scene on film is staged or a real murder. Being aware of the real-life crime scenes, however, the cops have managed to determine that several videos posted online are of real crimes. It's not easy to make that distinction, though, so FBI Special Agent John Smith is sent to work with the Monkeewrench crew, to see if their clever software can find a way to identify the other real videos the FBI are afraid might be out there already, so far undetected. And when one of the videos proves to be from a crime in Magozzi and Rolseth's jurisdiction, they get involved as well.

This was a good one. I keep wanting to see more detail of what the Monkeewrench software can do, and it certainly gets a workout here. The theme is an interesting one, too: is technology facilitating behaviour that just wouldn't have happened before? It used to be that people with particularly aberrant desires and fantasies had no means to connect to others like them, but now they can do it with impunity. Are the benefits of modern technology enough to compensate for this? It's a theme that could have been developed a bit more subtly, but I was interested in the questions the authors were asking.

I liked the new character that was introduced here. John Smith is about to retire, and at first sight he's just as anonymous as his name would indicate. His job is his life. He has moved through life staying away from others, concentrating all his energy in work. Grace and him have a lot in common, and she notices that.

I was very interested to see that the halting progress of Grace and Magozzi's relationship is beginning to have an impact in the others. Gino Roselth, who might be my favourite character in the series, is starting to resent Grace here. He's starting to think that Grace's difficulties establishing a normal relationship with his good friend Magozzi might just be tipping into screwing with him, and he doesn't like it. That added an exciting and, actually, welcome edge into the relationship between the police and the Monkeewrench crew, which has always been pretty smooth.

I enjoyed the investigation very much, and then got to the ending. That was... wow. Surprising, to say the least, as well as very intriguing. It was so intriguing, in fact, that I can't wait to read the next book and see what it actually means.



Love In The Time Of Cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez

>> Thursday, July 17, 2014

TITLE: Love In The Time Of Cholera (read in Spanish: El Amor en los Tiempos del Cólera)
AUTHOR: Gabriel García Márquez

PAGES: 464

SETTING: Late 19th and early 20th century Colombia
TYPE: Fiction

In their youth, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza fall passionately in love. When Fermina eventually chooses to marry a wealthy, well-born doctor, Florentino is devastated, but he is a romantic. As he rises in his business career he whiles away the years in 622 affairs--yet he reserves his heart for Fermina. Her husband dies at last, and Florentino purposefully attends the funeral. Fifty years, nine months, and four days after he first declared his love for Fermina, he will do so again.

Well, shit. I pick this book for book club myself, and then I get so revolted before I get to the end that I can't even finish.

No summary from me, as the one above is perfect and to the point. I'll start with the good. First: the language. The language is incredible. García Márquez plays with it, stretches it one way and the other, mixes baroque, dense language with earthy content in ways that sound almost surreal. The tone suits his setting perfectly, the Old World, elegant charm of the patrician families, but living in a tropical, messy, smelly and disease-prone Caribbean town. His metaphors and imagery are vivid, often surprising and even puzzling, but in ways that serve the effects he was looking for (e.g. a woman Florentino lusts after has "Portuguese eyelids that made her seem even more aloof" - my first reaction was "huh?", but the mystery of the image somehow made the woman seem more mysterious herself). In short, the man can write.

It's an entertaining story, too. The characters are too exaggerated (albeit with a kernel of truth in them) for me to particularly care about, but they kind of had to be that way for the author to be able to illustrate love as a physical, rather than only emotional, affliction, which is one of the themes here.

But then we immediately get to the negatives. All throughout the book, I found myself very disturbed by the portrayal of women (and I've had the same issue with other Latin American writers, such as Mario Vargas Llosa and Isabel Allende). Women here are always male fantasies. They are subservient to men, all they want in life is to be loyal and loving to men, most of whom treat them cruelly. These men cheat on their women, completely disregard them, but the women portrayed positively are all pathetically, dog-like loyal anyway, basically gagging for it. They fall madly in love with their rapists and seek to find them again for the rest of their lives. They're forever available, forever ready to be used. I hated it.

Bad enough, but then we get to one of Florentino's latest "conquests" at the time Fermina's husband dies. América Vicuña is 13 and has been sent by her family to the city, to be in the care of Florentino, who's a distant relative. What happens then is portrayed in the book as Florentino seducing her into a passionate affair, but it read quite clearly as what it actually was: a vile, dirty old man grooming a child and raping her. I was repulsed by the events themselves, but it was the way they were written that made me physically sick and made me want to throw up. The narration doesn't seem to feel there's anything too wrong with Florentino's actions. They're naughty in the same way as his affairs with married women are naughty, that's all. América is not harmed by this at all... in fact, after a few years of this, when Fermina's husband finally dies and Florentino indicates that their "affair" (sorry for the constant quote marks, but I just can't bring myself to leave them out) is at an end, she reacts like a jealous mistress who wants to keep her man. No, just, no. I could quote some choice sections if I wanted to make you all want to feel sick, but I'm not that evil (if you think I'm exaggerating, follow this link, which includes the English translation of a particularly horrific passage and explores how this is a problem in other of this author's books).

MY GRADE: It was a DNF.


The Martian, by Andy Weir

>> Tuesday, July 15, 2014

TITLE: The Martian
AUTHOR: Andy Weir

PAGES: 384

SETTING: Near future, Mars and Earth
TYPE: Sci-fi

I'm stranded on Mars.

I have no way to communicate with Earth.

I'm in a Habitat designed to last 31 days.

If the Oxygenator breaks down, I'll suffocate. If the Water Reclaimer breaks down, I'll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I'll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I'll eventually run out of food and starve to death.

So yeah. I'm screwed.

Mark Watney is stuck on Mars. His mission was supposed to last only about a month, but after only a few days he and his team were caught by a particularly vicious dust storm, which risked tipping over and breaking their exit vehicle. And as if aborting the mission wasn't bad enough, disaster struck during the evacuation, when Mark was struck by flying debris. For very good reasons, his teammates thought he was dead. After wasting some precious time searching for him, they had to leave anyway. And then Mark woke up, alone in Mars.

Through log entries, the book follows Mark as he fights to stay alive, searching for creative solutions in a situation where fatal disaster lurks in every corner. We also follow the people working on Earth in mission control and his former crew, as they all do whatever they can to bring him back.

The Martian is fantastic. It's an incredibly tense and gripping story. I must say, I was afraid it wasn't going to be so at first. I wasn't particularly enthralled for the first few chapters, where it's basically Mark working his way through a number of different problems, in quite a lot of technical detail. It was all interesting enough, in its own way, but lacking narrative drive. Well, if you do decide to try this, do stick with it through the first bit, because once you get to the first chapter set in Earth, things really get going, and how!

It's fascinating to see all the characters, but most of all Mark, working through the huge number of problems Mark's situation brings up. It all boils down to how Mark can be kept alive long enough to be rescued, but there are so many aspects to this, and that's not even considering what he might need to do if things go wrong. Which they do, in all sorts of ways. I loved seeing the sort of lateral thinking this required. There was a fair bit of technical detail here, all of which made sense to me, but then again, I'm not an expert. I did think the detail was sometimes a bit too much, but that might be because I was listening to the audiobook, and so listening to every word (including, at one point, to a readout of a computer log as it went through a reboot procedure). You can probably sort of glance quickly over this sort of thing when you're looking at the text.

So that was great, but what really made the book for me were the characters, especially Mark. He's a fabulous narrator. As I mentioned earlier, we get his point of view through log entries. That may not sound too promising, but his personality and humour really shine through, as does his fear when things aren't looking good. But mostly, it's the humour. Mark is a bit of a clown (or rather, as the mission psychologists would put it, he's the type of guy whose reaction to extreme stress is to crack jokes), and this makes it really entertaining to be in his point of view.

I loved the other characters as well. It's interesting, because we only see them at work and the way they react to the developments in Mars is really the only aspect of their personality we're witness to. And yet I got a really good sense of who all these people were. I particularly loved Mark's crewmates and the team dynamics, and really appreciated that the mission commander was female and that wasn't an issue at all.

The one thing I thought was lacking in The Martian was any but the shallowest discussion of the ethics of spending that much money on saving one particular man. It's brought up very briefly and discounted with what I thought was a bit of a sleight of hand (and a copout, I'm afraid). There's a feeling that because a life is at stake, it's just not right to even consider the costs. Well, I'm quite impatient with that sort of stance. It's a cop-out. Maybe it's because I work in health economics and public policy and I'm therefore more comfortable than most with thinking about people's lives and health in the context of finite resources, combined with an almost infinite number of options to use those resources. I would probably have been a villain in this book, going "Hang on, can we think about this?"

Still, I finished this with a happy sigh.

MY GRADE: A very solid B+.

AUDIOBOOK NOTES: The reader is really, really good. I was, however, not completely convinced by the decision to have him read the entire text. Mark's logs are, obviously, in the first person, so it's quite disconcerting to have the voice which in my head is Mark, reading the other third person sections, whether telling what's going on on Earth or giving us an omniscient update of what's going on with bits of equipment.


The Kraken King Part 8, by Meljean Brook

>> Sunday, July 13, 2014

TITLE: The Kraken King Part 8: The Kraken King and the Greatest Adventure
AUTHOR: Meljean Brook


SETTING: Steampunk version of the 19th century
TYPE: Adventure romance
SERIES: Eighth and final part of 4th full length book in the Iron Seas series

Arriving in Krakentown with their enemies in hot pursuit, Zenobia doesn’t know how they can even hope to win. Being terrified brings forth an undeniable truth: she loves Ariq and will do whatever it takes to stand by him.

But as their adversaries appear on the horizon, they realize that not all is lost. Drawing on the power of the terrible war machine, Ariq, Zenobia, and the entire town must put their lives on the line to protect what they love...

Link to my review of Part 1

Link to my review of Part 2

Link to my review of Part 3

Link to my review of Part 4

Link to my review of Part 5

Link to my review of Part 6

Link to my review of Part 7

I'm assuming that if you're reading this, you've read the first 7 parts (but not necessarily this part, so no spoilers for that here).

And finally, we get to the end! I must confess that, though I'm writing this review a couple of weeks after that for part 7, I wasn't able to wait quite as long as I'd planned in between installments. Part 7 left things at quite an intriguing point, and after some 4 days, I gave in.

I don't want to give too much away here. Suffice it to say that we get our final confrontation here, and it's fantastic. It's a clever, if still dangerous, plan and the execution made complete sense. It was also incredibly cinematic. There was a point where I was sitting there open-mouthed, as some truly awesome (in the formal sense of the word) scenes played out in my mind.

And the romance. Ahhhh! We're almost there when we start this, but the final step, the final acceptance of each other here, it was really sweet. I closed the book with a happy sigh.

So, I loved the story itself, but a big element with this one was how well the serial format would work for me. In the end, the results were mixed.

On the positive side, I liked the pause for thought in between installments. I actually did find myself thinking about the story in those periods, and the story might have felt fresher each time because of them. The catching up was seamless, with each installment starting with a letter from Zenobia to her brother that was much more than "...and this is what's happened in the last few days." I loved those, they were lovely. There were also some really unobtrusive bits during the text itself. That all worked beautifully, and I wouldn't expect it to be clunky (or even noticeable) for those who are planning to read the book in one go when it comes out later in the year. I also never got annoyed by being left hanging, mainly because I wasn't. The breaks came at places which felt like natural stopping points. There would be unresolved overall things, but each part felt self-contained and we'd get small resolutions in each. It felt like a well-done television series, in that respect.

On the negative side it's all about the mechanics. Reading one installment a week requires you to be in the right mood for that kind of story every week. Much as I love Meljean's books, sometimes I'm in the mood for adventure romance, sometimes I'm not. Also, I would obviously read other stuff in between episodes and would normally be in the middle of another book when the next part came out. Mostly I'd happily put that down for a couple of hours to read the new episode of The Kraken King, but sometimes I didn't want to. That's what happened when I was on holiday in Italy. I'd just started The Goblin King on the flight there. That is a fantastic book which I just didn't want to put down. I didn't have much time to read anyway, but when I did, The Goblin King it was. So yeah, in summary, I found real life interfering much more with my reading rhythm with a serial format than it would have with a regular novel.

Would I try the format again soon? Yes, but my position hasn't changed much from before I started this. I'd said I'd try a serial if it was by a trusted author and not simply a regular book chopped into roughly equal parts, and that hasn't changed.



Suddenly You, by Sarah Mayberry

>> Friday, July 11, 2014

TITLE: Suddenly You
AUTHOR: Sarah Mayberry

PAGES: 288
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Superromance

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Category romance
SERIES: Stands alone, but the hero was in All They Need

The definition of a happy man?

The guy who knows exactly what he wants and has it. That's Harry Porter. He's got the perfect job, the best buddies and no commitments beyond the next good time. It's the ideal life.

Then he stops to help Pippa White when she's stranded by the side of the road. He's known—and liked—her for a while, but as the ex of a friend, she's entirely off-limits. And as fun as the banter with her is, Harry knows single moms are out of his league.

So why all the excuses to see Pippa again…and again? And why can't he stop thinking about her? But most puzzling of all is how Harry suddenly wants to swap a night with the boys for one with only Pippa!

One night, heading into town for some fun, Harry Porter sees a car he recognises by the side of the road, clearly having broken down. It belongs to Pippa White, ex-girlfriend of a friend of his. That relationship didn't end well: Pippa became pregnant and decided to keep it, and Harry's friend has gone on and on about how she harassed him, even getting the government on his case to bleed him dry.

Harry always liked Pippa fine, though, and he's a good guy (not to mention a mechanic), so he stops to see if he can help. Pippa is reluctant to accept anything from him, even a lift home, which he finally persuades her into. After seeing her house and noticing that after a few days she still hasn't had her car towed, Harry suspects she must be suffering financially. Surely his friend will help the mother of his child, even if the kid was unwanted?

It turns out, to Harry's surprise, that his friend is a real turd. Pippa isn't bleeding him dry; in fact, the sack of shit falsified his books so that it looked like his company was insolvent, just to get out of paying any child support. He's not giving her a cent.

Harry doesn't think that's right at all. He's ashamed of his friend and he admires Pippa for the way she's been dealing with things, so he decides to help out with stuff, starting with her car. But spending time together leads to attraction, and soon they're both trying to remember why they shouldn't give in to it..

It's a setup with plenty of potential for angst, although mainly on Harry's side, really. He feels uncomfortable with the idea of a relationship with an ex of a friend, even if that friend was the one in the wrong and clearly doesn't have feelings for her any longer. He's also very uncomfortably trying to reconcile his friendship with the man with the knowledge that he behaved so badly to Pippa. That felt very real and painful. It's easy to think (and that was my instinct) that he should just dump the bastard as a friend, but I understood completely how the history they had together would make that easier said than done. There's also stuff going on with his father, who wants Harry to take over his garage when he retires, and doesn't understand why Harry would rather do the same work but independently. I loved the way that was developed.

Harry's great, but Pippa I found much less engaging. I'm quite a heroine-centric reader, so that was a bit of a problem for me. To be completely honest, I think part of it might be that being on my own with a baby and struggling to make ends meet, forced to live a life very different from the one I'm living and enjoying now, is possibly one of my worst nightmares. My difficulty engaging with her as a character might have something to do with that. It's very probably an "it's not the book, it's the reader" situation, and I expect she'll work much better as a romance heroine for most readers.

On the whole, though, and even with those issues, this was one I enjoyed very much.



Can't Buy Me Love, by Molly O'Keefe

>> Wednesday, July 09, 2014

TITLE: Can't Buy Me Love
AUTHOR: Molly O'Keefe

PAGES: 368

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Starts Crooked Creek Ranch trilogy

In Molly O’Keefe’s captivating new contemporary romance, a woman with a past and a man without a future struggle to find a place where they belong.

A girl from the wrong side of the tracks, Tara Jean Sweet knows that opportunity will never knock; she’ll have to seize it. Elderly Texas rancher Lyle Baker has a dying request: He will give Tara Jean a stake in his leather business in exchange for a little family subterfuge. All Tara Jean has to do is play the part of a gold-digging fiancée to lure Lyle’s estranged children home. The mission is soon accomplished.

Now Lyle’s gone—and his ridiculously handsome son, Luc, an ice hockey superstar sidelined by injuries, is the new owner of Crooked Creek ranch. He’s also Tara Jean’s boss. But being so close to sinfully sweet Tara Jean does crazy things to Luc’s priorities, like make him want to pry her deepest secrets from those irresistible lips. But when Tara Jean’s past demands a dirty showdown, will Luc stay and fight?

Lyle Baker was a mean, abusive son a bitch, and his two children rightly detest him and want nothing to do with him. Lyle is also great at manipulation, and knowing he's about to die, he does the only thing guaranteed to have them rushing to his deathbed: he hires a trashy young blonde to pretend to be his fiancée.

The son, Luc, an extremely successful hockey player, basically doesn't give a shit. He's got enough on his plate already, what with doctors telling him he's got scarring on his brain that would make any head injury particularly dangerous. They advise that he retires (he's probably not got more than one or two seasons in him, anyway), but he's determined not to. Hockey was what saved him and gave him a sense of self-worth, after all those years growing up with an abusive father and weak mother, and he doesn't know what he'd do if he gave it up. So yeah, his father can marry his blonde bimbo for all Luc cares.

His sister Victoria does care, though. Her husband has recently killed himself after it was discovered he'd bilked large numbers of people out of their savings, and Victoria has been left practically destitute and lost her position in society. She convinces Luc to take the bait as well, and they make their way to Crooked Creek Ranch.

The woman who awaits them there is Tara Jean Sweet. Tara certainly looks the part of the gold-digger, with her big hair and short skirts, and it's an accusation she can't quite deny. For many years, she and her boyfriend used her charms to convince old men in nursing homes to give her money, until she wasn't able to justify this to herself any longer. This time, though, it's a business deal. Tara has a talent for fashion design, and she was instrumental in turning around the fortunes of Lyle's leather business. She's playing the gold-digger in exchange for a large stake in the business. She doesn't really have a problem with this deal: she's earned the chunk of the business, plus, Lyle has been the first person ever to treat her well and value her talents. She relishes the thought of screwing around with his ungrateful children, who want his money but won't even come visit.

When all these people come together in the Crooked Creek Ranch, there's a hell of a lot of pain and anger and angst, not to mention attraction and surprise, when they start to know each other better.

This is very much a character-driven book. There's a small element of an external plot, to do with Tara's old boyfriend, but that was tangential. It's all about the characters here, and I really liked what O'Keefe did with them. Both Luc and Tara are much more than what they seem on the surface, but at the same time, I liked that what was on the surface was also part of who they were. She's more than just the big-haired girl from the trailer park, but she is the big-haired girl from the trailer park, and that is part of her identity. He's more than the athlete with anger-control issues, but he is that, too. I often didn't like them, but I always understood them. I totally got Tara's need for security, Luc's anger, even his determination to take very stupid risks just to keep playing. They felt real and they felt nuanced. I cared about what would happen to them.

The secondary characters were just as subtly done. Lyle was an abusive parent, but he was also very good to Tara (and those conflicting perceptions add conflict to their relationship). Victoria is weak and spoiled and insecure, willing to use her child as a bargaining chip, but her actions closer to the end make it clear there's more to her as well. Her book is the next one in the series, and I couldn't imagine wanting to read it when we first met here here. After finishing this, I'll be definitely picking that up.



The Haunting of Maddy Clare, by Simone St. James

>> Monday, July 07, 2014

TITLE: The Haunting of Maddy Clare
AUTHOR: Simone St. James

PAGES: 318

SETTING: 1920s England
TYPE: Paranormal Fiction

Sarah Piper's lonely, threadbare existence changes when her temporary agency sends her to assist a ghost hunter. Alistair Gellis-rich, handsome, scarred by World War I, and obsessed with ghosts- has been summoned to investigate the spirit of nineteen-year-old maid Maddy Clare, who is haunting the barn where she committed suicide. Since Maddy hated men in life, it is Sarah's task to confront her in death. Soon Sarah is caught up in a deperate struggle. For Maddy's ghost is real, she's angry, and she has powers that defy all reason. Can Sarah and Alistair's assistant, the rough, unsettling Matthew Ryder, discover who Maddy was, whereshe came from, and what is driving her desire for vengeance-before she destroys them all?

It's 1922 and Sarah Piper is making ends meet by temping. Her jobs usually involve boring secretarial work, but not the latest job she's offered by her temp agency. Her employer would be Alistair Gellis, a wealthy young war veteran, and what Alistair wants from Sarah isn't secretarial work. Far from it; Alistair is a ghost hunter, and his latest case involves a haunting by a man-hating ghost. He hopes Sarah will be able to do the direct contacting of the ghost, which is the bit that won't work quite as well for him.

Sarah is reluctant initially, but she accepts and sets off with him to the small village where the ghost resides. There they are joined by Matthew Ryder, Alistair's usual assistant and also a war veteran. Sarah doesn't quite believe in ghosts, but is willing to go along with the man who's paying her salary. However, before too long, there are no doubts left in her mind.

The ghost is real. She's the ghost of Maddy Clare, a young maid who hanged herself in a barn and is now haunting it, terrifying anyone who comes close. Alistair's plan works, and Sarah is able to communicate with her, after a fashion. Maddy is very angry and very powerful. She wants revenge for whatever it was that drove her to suicide, and she demands Sarah help.

This one was a bit of a mixed bag for me. There were certain things that I thought worked wonderfully. First and foremost, the haunting itself is really well done. The ghost of Maddy Clare really is quite scary, and the author succeeds in creating an extremely creepy atmosphere. I also liked Sarah very much. She is a woman who really does value her independence, even if it means that she has to scrimp and save. She's sensible and knows her own mind, and this manifests in a low-key way. Finally, I liked the setting, even if it was a bit shallow, more atmosphere than exploration of the world in the 20s (to be honest, this story could have been set in quite a few other time periods with a tiny number of adjustments).

There are several negatives, though. Much as I enjoyed the ghost story, I found myself very uncomfortable with the priorities of our ghost-hunters. The focus seemed to be a lot more on the threat from Maddy, and how to make the scary ghost go away, and not so much on what happened to her and making sure the culprits be made to pay for it. Those Maddy wanted revenge against were dangerous people; who's to say they wouldn't do the same thing to someone else? That doesn't seem to worry them particularly.

I was just as uncomfortable with the romance. It felt tacked on and unnecessary, with Sarah's love interest being paper-thin as a character. I was also quite disturbed by the rapey way in which it starts, especially considering what we're discovering at the same time about what happened to Maddy. It would have been a better book with that element pruned out.



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