The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell

>> Tuesday, November 17, 2015

TITLE: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
AUTHOR: David Mitchell

PAGES: 512
PUBLISHER: Random House

SETTING: 1799-1800 Japan
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None, although some characters recur in other books

The year is 1799, the place Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor, the Japanese Empire’s single port and sole window onto the world, designed to keep the West at bay. To this place of devious merchants, deceitful interpreters, and costly courtesans comes Jacob de Zoet, a devout young clerk who has five years in the East to earn a fortune of sufficient size to win the hand of his wealthy fiancée back in Holland. But Jacob’s original intentions are eclipsed after a chance encounter with Orito Aibagawa, the disfigured midwife to the city’s powerful magistrate. The borders between propriety, profit, and pleasure blur until Jacob finds his vision clouded, one rash promise made and then fatefully broken—the consequences of which will extend beyond Jacob’s worst imaginings.

I've only read 3 books by David Mitchell (including this one), but those have been enough to earn him a space amongst my favourite authors. There's something about his voice and his characters that just does it for me. Weird, because one of the things he specialises in is what I guess you could call literary ventriloquism... both Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks were made up of sections that read each like a different genre or type of novel. No matter, all those voices had that mesmerising quality in common.

The structure of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is slightly more straighforward, at least in comparison with those two. The story takes place in a single time period, 1799-1800 and in a single geographical location, the area round Nagasaki. We start out with the arrival of Jacob de Zoet, a Dutch clerk about to take his post in the Dutch trading post in the island of Dejima, in Nagasaki Bay (quick historical note: at the time the Dutch were the only Europeans allowed to trade with Japan, and they were contained and limited to this area to make sure they didn't engage in any missionary activities). Jacob is an honest guy, which doesn't earn him many friends amongst his fellow employees of the Dutch East India Company. Most of the men in the island (including Jacob's superiors) are cheerfully and openly cheating the company, and they resent Jacob's interference.

But if you think this is a novel about a European's adventures in an exotic land, with the natives providing colourful background, that's not at all what Mitchell is doing. Because Mitchell doesn't completely move away from his preferred structure of self-contained sections with different main characters and in later sections the action moves squarely to Japanese characters and their own concerns. These are characters with some links to Jacob in the first section, but those links are relatively inconsequential in their stories, and Jacob is merely a secondary character in their lives.

There's Aibagawa Orito, a young woman whose disfiguring facial scarring has allowed her to move away from the usual life of a woman of her station. Instead of going straight from her father to a husband, she's been allowed to study midwifery with the doctor at the Dutch Trading Post, Dr. Marinus (readers of The Bone Clocks will certainly know him!). On her father's death, however, she comes to the attention of Lord Abbot Enomoto, which places her in great danger. There's also Ogawa Uzaemon, a young Dejima translator who's got a past with Orito, and who must choose whether he'll endanger a comfortable life to do what is right. Even if they aren't named in the title, they're just as much the main characters as Jacob.

I really wasn't quite sure where the story was going when I started, and it never got predictable. I kept being surprised by where Mitchell took things. It's a book that succeeds both as a fun adventure story (in fact, it gets quite schlocky at one point!) and as a historical novel, giving us a really vivid picture of the time and place. I highly recommend it.



Brother Grimm, by Craig Russell

>> Sunday, November 15, 2015

TITLE: Brother Grimm
AUTHOR: Craig Russell

PAGES: 448
PUBLISHER: Arrow Books

SETTING: Contemporary Hamburg, Germany
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: 2nd in the Jan Fabel series

A girl's body lies, posed, on the pale sand of a Hamburg beach, a message concealed in her hand. 'I have been underground, and now it is time for me to return home...'

Jan Fabel, of the Hamburg murder squad, struggles to interpret the twisted imagery of a dark and brutal mind. Four days later, a man and a woman are found deep in woodland, their throats slashed deep and wide, the names 'Hansel' and 'Gretel', in the same, tiny, obsessively neat writing, rolled tight and pressed into their hands.

As it becomes clear that each new crime is a grisly reference to folk stories collected almost two hundred years ago by the Brothers Grimm, the hunt is on for a serial killer who is exploring our darkest, most fundamental fears. A predator who kills and then disappears into the shadows.

A monster we all learned to fear in childhood.

When the murdered body of a young girl is found on a beach near-Hamburg, a paper stating her name is Paula Ehlers clutched in her hand, Kriminalhauptkommissar Jan Fabel and his team initially take this at face value. Paula has been missing for 3 years, and the dead girl looks about what you'd expect Paula to look 3 years later. But then it turns out the body isn't that of Paula. A few days later, two more people are found dead, with similar pieces of paper in their hands. They, the papers state, are "Hansel" and "Gretel". And it becomes clear to Fabel and his team that they're facing a serial killer with some fascination for the stories of the Brothers Grimm.

My reaction to this one was mixed. On the plus side, I really enjoyed the characters and wanted to see more of them and their relationships. The people in Fabel's team are interesting and all very different, and I liked the way Fabel treated them. He's a good boss, interested in getting the work done but also in developing and nurturing the people in his team, seeing them as capable professionals, but not losing sight of them as human beings. I was also very interested in Fabel's relationship with Suzanna, a forensic psychologist (I think that's the right term; she's on that field, anyway!) It's clear that all these relationships started in book 1 in the series, Blood Eagle, but while I did feel that I was missing something, it was still satisfying and Russell gave me enough to catch up.

I also liked the setting. I'm not quite sure what Russell's background is and if he's lived in Hamburg, but the setting feels vivid. There are a few instances of a bit toomuch exposition about the history of a particular district and stuff like that, but these instances were minor and didn't really bother me much. I know some readers on goodreads were uncomfortable with the amount of German Russell used (e.g. all the titles and names of the places, even the simply descriptive ones, are given in German), but I didn't mind. It was fairly easy to deduce what was meant, and I felt it added to the colour.

The actual case, unfortunately, ended up on the negative side. It just wasn't as good as it could have been. It started out really intriguing, with the fairy tale connections, but it soon turned into a bit of a bloodbath, with the connections crossing the line into preposterously overcomplicated and non-sensical. And then the actual ending was pretty bad. Yes, I didn't guess the culprit, but purely because I don't think I really could have. I won't say more because I don't want to spoil it, but I didn't feel Russell played quite fair. Also, it was all pretty anticlimactic. No tension or risk, basically. The cops do a bit of quite good deduction and identify the culprit, but he's done with his killings, anyway, and the arrest is super smooth and he confesses all. In fact, he confesses all to an excruciating level of detail. Almost the last hour in the audiobook could have been dispensed with, as it was all either covering stuff we already knew or could deduce, or boring stuff about the killer's sick mind that really had no point.

On the whole, I'm glad I read it, though, and I mostly enjoyed it, but it was disappointing that it could have been so much better!



A Civil Campaign, by Lois McMaster Bujold

>> Friday, November 13, 2015

TITLE: A Civil Campaign
AUTHOR: Lois McMaster Bujold

PAGES: 544

SETTING: Barrayar
TYPE: Science Fiction
SERIES: 8th full-length title in the Vorkosigan series

The recently widowed Ekaterin Vorsoisson returns to Barrayar, following the events described in KOMARR, and finds herself under siege from several suitors, including Miles Vorkosigan. Miles' initial attempts at courtship result in colossal disasters, affecting as well Miles' brother Mark, who is forbidden from courting his own ladylove by the girl's outraged parents. Some nasty political maneuverings by ambitious Vor aristocrats create new trials for Miles while he wages his campaign for Ekaterin's heart. Intrigue, wit and high hilarity make this Hugo and Nebula finalist a must for readers of science fiction and romance alike.

I took a little break from the Vorkosigan series after reading this one (it's intense!), so I'm a bit late with this review. But now I've just started Diplomatic Immunity, so I'd best catch up!

A Civil Campaign takes place right after the events in Komarr, and it's basically a romance. There are a few other threads here, including Mark and Kareen's romance and their latest business venture, the preparations for Gregor's upcoming wedding, as well as plenty of political intrigue, including a couple of tricky succession questions involving friends of Miles' that are going before the Council of Counts. The focus, though, is on Miles and his wooing of Ekaterin.

Now, I must say Komarr lulled me into a false sense of security. Everything seemed to be going fine. Miles had made an impression, Ekaterin, in spite of telling herself she had been put off marriage for good after her experiences, had admitted to herself she was really attracted to Miles. Surely it would all be plain sailing from there? But oh, how things fell apart!

Basically, Miles is constitutionally unable to take things easy. He approaches wooing Ekaterin as a campaign he must win. He applies all his guiles and his well-earned experience in manipulation. But the problem with that is, a campaign suggests a war, and if you're waging a war, then someone must be the enemy, and that's exactly how it feels from Ekaterin's end.

I'm not going to spoil things, but there's a scene (the dinner party scene, for those of you who've read the book) which was probably the most painful I've ever read, in a truly excellent, wonderful way. It was the perfect collapse of Miles' elaborate strategies. What was so wonderful about it was that I was really impressed by how well Bujold inspired mixed, contradictory reactions in me. On one hand, I wanted Miles to succeed in his quest to get a HEA with Ekaterin. So I felt anger, real, almost incandescent anger at the careless sabotage of Miles' arrangements. He's such a vulnerable character inside his maniacal, powerful outside. But at the same time, I'd got more and more uncomfortable with the calculating way he was going about wooing Ekaterin. That bit I think might have hit on a personal soft spot. I have had a couple of experiences with guys who I thought were friends suddenly revealing that they had never actually been interested in friendship in the first place, that the friendship bit was only an excuse to get close. That feels like a betrayal, and what Miles was doing with Ekaterin felt like just that. So I also wanted him to get his just desserts for how he was treating Ekaterin as a prize to be won, and I felt that scene delivered satisfaction in spades.

And so did the rest of the romance, once we were over that. I loved that Miles does, in the end, get it. He understands what he did wrong and he makes up for it, not because he needs to do that to get Ekaterin, but because he's truly sorry he's hurt her and wants her to be happy. And I just loved the big gesture at the end. I don't usually, but this was a bit of a reversal of the usual scenario, and it worked for this couple. It felt triumphant.

On the whole, this book reminded me very much of Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane's romance in Dorothy L. Sayers' books, which, considering the dedication of A Civil Campaign, seems like a conscious homage. I saw the conflict as being about how an individual couple can build a truly equal relationship, one in which the woman is completely free, in the midst of a sexist, patriarchal society. A society, too, where both have been brought up, so one which they've absorbed in their upbringing and subconscious attitudes, even as they tell themselves (well, in this case, more like "he tells himself") they're modern and galactic. Bujold made me believe they'd succeeded in building something beyond those constraints.

It's a book that is as funny as it is intense (Mark's latest business venture, which includes an absent-minded scientist and disgusting bugs that vomit a yummy edible butter, adds a much-needed element of farce). It was wonderful. I can certainly see why it's so beloved by everyone who's read this series.

There was only one element which I felt was a bit dated, for all that this book is set in the far future, and that is the transphobia in a couple of sympathetic characters' reactions. One of the subplots involves a character who has had a sex-change operation, and there were some reactions which had more than a tinge of revulsion. It's something that I'm pretty sure Bujold, who shows a remarkably progressive attitude in other areas of the narrative, would write differently today, as it feels like in the last 15 years the issue of trans people has become more visible and understood.



The Monogram Murders, by Sophie Hannah

>> Wednesday, November 11, 2015

TITLE: The Monogram Murders
AUTHOR: Sophie Hannah

PAGES: 320
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: 1920s England
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: Supposedly an Hercule Poirot book

"I'm a dead woman, or I shall be soon..."

Hercule Poirot's quiet supper in a London coffeehouse is interrupted when a young woman confides to him that she is about to be murdered. Though terrified, she begs Poirot not to find and punish her killer. Once she is dead, she insists, justice will have been done. Later that night, Poirot learns that three guests at a London Hotel have been murdered, and a monogrammed cufflink has been placed in each one's mouth. Could there be a connection with the frightened woman? While Poirot struggles to put together the bizarre pieces of the puzzle, the murderer prepares another hotel bedroom for a fourth victim.

The Monogram Murders is a new Hercule Poirot book. Almost 40 years after Agatha Christie's death, her estate has followed the example of so many other literary estates and commissioned a new book featuring her famous detective. The author chosen is Sophie Hannah, who's written a number of very successful psychological mysteries. I read one a couple of years ago and enjoyed it ok. I therefore entered this with a pretty open mind.

The book is set in the 1920s. Poirot is giving his little grey cells a bit of a holiday and has moved out of his house into a nearby guesthouse. He's also avoiding his usual haunts, and it's at a very good coffeehouse he has recently discovered that he meets a terrified woman called Jennie. He manages to coax out of her that she's afraid she will be murdered, but she asks him not to find the killer and let justice be done. With that, she runs out.

When Poirot comes home that evening, he hears about a strange case from one of his fellow residents at the guesthouse, Mr. Catchpool, from Scotland Yard. Three people have been found dead, each in a different room in a nearby hotel, each poisoned and posed in an almost ritualistic position, each with a monogrammed cufflink in his or her mouth. Poirot immediately remembers one of the things Jennie said: "Let no one open their mouths", and is convinced her fear and this crime are related. His little grey cells are no longer on holiday!

There are two ways to judge this book: as an Hercule Poirot mystery or as a mystery with a lead character whose name happens to be Hercule Poirot. It fails utterly as either. It was probably the worst book I've read in several years, and this includes Fifty Shades of Grey. It's that bad.

Hannah shows absolutely no understanding of what made Christie's books so enjoyable. The only thing that rang true was the one thing that tends to bother me in Christie's books and I would happily have lost: the offensively stereotypical Italian character. The rest did not feel right at all.

The plot is preposterous and overly complicated and makes absolutely no psychological sense. No one in this book behaves as a real human being. And Poirot is absolutely not Poirot. The real Poirot operates on deduction and a fine understanding of human psychology. This guy makes what I can only describe as supernatural guesses and Hannah's justifications are laughable. This Poirot is also a terrible judge of character. Right at the start of the book he describes Catchpool as a young policeman who will go far. He won't. Unlike the policemen the real Poirot often works alongside, the problem with Catchpool isn't that he's solid, but a bit plodding and unimaginative. He's just plain stupid.

Really, I can't even begin to describe how stupid Catchpool is, and since he's the main POV character, that is a huge problem. He's terrible at his job. He misses everything. There's a thing right at the start where he and Poirot are discussing how the murders might have been done. We're talking 3 people poisoned, each in different hotel rooms, during a window of 45 minutes. As far as Catchpool is concerned, all he needs to take from that is that the murderer went in each of the rooms and killed them. Done. No consideration of how the murderer might have gained access, how he might have got each of them to take the poison, why he laid them out in a specific position. The man is thick. And he's negligent, as well. He gets upset at seeing the dead bodies (a homicide detective!), so he runs away and leaves the bodies, neglecting to even make arrangements for the morgue to collect them. Seriously? And when we find out why he was so upset it's the silliest of things. And this is only the beginning of the book. It gets worse, much worse.

I hated every minute I was reading this, and if I hadn't been reading this for book club, I would have tossed it. The Christie estate should be ashamed of themselves for approving this rubbish.

MY GRADE: You know when I just said that I only finished this because it was for book club? Well, I lied. I also finished it because I don't give grades to DNFs, and it gives me great satisfaction to give this putrid pile of poo an F.


A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

>> Monday, November 09, 2015

TITLE: A Little Life
AUTHOR: Hanya Yanagihara

PAGES: 736
PUBLISHER: Doubleday

SETTING: Contemporary(ish) New York
TYPE: Fiction

When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they're broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he'll not only be unable to overcome-but that will define his life forever.

This was a book I read purely because it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I'd heard quite a lot about it, even before it was longlisted, and it really didn't sound like something I'd want to read. Over-the-top trauma isn't usually my thing, much less 750 pages of it. But then it was shortlisted, so I forced myself to pick it up. I expected to struggle with it and have to push myself to continue reading. But I didn't! I was completely absorbed right from the start and practically raced to the end. Don't get me wrong; it was pretty harrowing and often difficult, but it was much more of a "good read" than I expected.

The blurb and many reviews make this sound as if it's the story of four friends. There are four friends and when the book starts out it does feel like it's going to be about them and their friendship, but you soon see it's not. This is the story of one of them, Jude. The start is only a way to tell us a bit about the people who revolve round Jude, tell us their stories and show us the big space Jude takes up there. But Jude is the centre. Jude endured horrific abuse as a child, and as an adult, the consequences (both physical and psychological) have a huge impact on his entire life. What we have here is basically a character study. We get to know and understand Jude and really get under his skin. It's not really a story of triumph over adversity, even though Jude has overcome a lot to become very succesful in his career and amassed a group of people around him who love him. The consequences of his abuse are too big for that. This is really a tragedy. For me, it was still worth reading and I'm glad I did, but it really won't work for everyone.

And even though it did work for me, I did have some issues with it. Mainly, I thought it would have worked even better if it hadn't been so extreme. I've listened to a couple of interviews with the author and she makes no bones about the fact that she was going for just that. I just didn't feel that was well-judged. Not because it made the book too hard too read or too harrowing, but because I felt that it detracted from the impact it could have had.

See, to be upset about something, I need to believe in it. I didn't quite believe in Jude's past. His early life is is 100% full of 100% evil monsters. It was not so much that I doubted there would be people quite so evil; we all know there are monsters in this world. It was more the logistics of Jude encountering quite so many of them (pre-internet, too, though it's true that time in this book doesn't really pass), with no one even half-decent in between, and the contrast between that and how in the life he builds in New York he is surrounded by so many people who love him unconditionally and are there for him uncompromisingly, willing (actually, eager!) to dedicate their entire lives to him. The contrast between those worlds felt too strong. So because I didn't fully buy the details of the abuse, it felt less traumatic to read. When Yanagihara was describing Jude falling into the clutches of yet another monstrous abuser, I wasn't that affected, because it didn't feel like something that was happening to a real person, it felt like something an author was coolly doing to a character. That drained a lot of the effectiveness.

That said, even though I didn't completely believe the circumstances that affected Jude so much, I was able to suspend disbelief somewhat, and appreciate the character study. I found the portrayal of the way the abuse had changed him and still affected him sadly believable. Now, that was harrowing, and tremendously so. It's heartbreaking. As a reader I celebrated whenever something good happened to him, and part of me hoped it would be the thing that was going to help him start believing that he's worth loving, that he was not at fault for what was done to him. That part of me kept hoping he'd finally make a breakthrough. The other part of me knew he wouldn't, though. It's not really a spoiler; it's quite clear what this book is, and really, it's what makes it so good.

One element I found particularly thought-provoking was the relationship that develops between Jude and one of his friends. After many years (and this book covers many decades, all weirdly taking place at a time that feels like more or less the present), they become a couple, and that has its own big challenges. What's most interesting is that I've seen this described as a gay novel, but I don't think it is. I don't think Jude is gay (the other guy is bisexual, I would say). It feels more like this romantic relationship is the only model they have to deepen their friendship, even though that doesn't really fit with what Jude needs (and because that is the case, it doesn't quite fit with what his partner needs). That was a particularly successful aspect of the book for me.

As I mentioned in my final Man Booker post, after finishing this I really thought the bookies were right and it was going to win it. I'm still surprised it didn't!



Only Enchanting, by Mary Balogh

>> Saturday, November 07, 2015

TITLE: Only Enchanting
AUTHOR: Mary Balogh

PAGES: 400

SETTING: Early 19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: #4 in the Survivors' Club series

The Survivors' Club: Six men and one woman, all wounded in the Napoleonic Wars, their friendship forged during their recovery at Penderris Hall in Cornwall. Now, in the fourth novel of the Survivors' Club series, Flavian, Viscount Ponsonby, has left this refuge to find his own salvation-in the love of a most unsuspecting woman.…

Flavian, Viscount Ponsonby, was devastated by his fiancée's desertion after his return home. Now the woman who broke his heart is back-and everyone is eager to revive their engagement. Except Flavian, who, in a panic, runs straight into the arms of a most sensible yet enchanting young woman.

Agnes Keeping has never been in love-and never wishes to be. But then she meets the charismatic Flavian, and suddenly Agnes falls so foolishly and so deeply that she agrees to his impetuous proposal of marriage.

When Agnes discovers that the proposal is only to avenge his former love, she's determined to flee. But Flavian has no intention of letting his new bride go, especially now that he too has fallen so passionately and so unexpectedly in love.

Only Enchanting is part of the Survivors' Club series. The 'club' in question is a group of people who bonded over the traumatic effects on their lives of the Napoleonic Wars. Recovering together led to a strong friendship and the seven, six men and a woman, meet up once a year to catch up. Well, by the fourth book in the series, and given that each of the first three has featured one of them falling in love and getting married, their gatherings have become larger and larger. This year they're coming together at Vincent's (from The Arrangement), since the dates of their meeting fall shortly after his wife, Sophia, is due to give birth.

For Flavian, Lord Ponsonby, this comes at a very good time. His former fiancé, who deserted him when he came back from war with brains pretty scrambled after being kicked in the head by his horse, is now widowed. Worse: his and her family make it very clear that they hope for a renewal of their relationship. Flavian is in a bit of a panic.

He finds a distraction in Agnes Keeping, a widow who's good friends with Sophia. He's very attracted to her, and she falls in love with him practically at first sight. And of course, since she's a respectable woman and a friend of his friend's wife, the only real way to do something about that attraction is marriage.

Balogh is one fo the few historical romance authors I still read, but I think I might be falling out with her as well. It may well be an "it's not you, book, it's me" thing, but I'm afraid Flavian and Agnes bored me to tears. I didn't find anything about them interesting, or feel they were particularly well-developed characters, and there really didn't seem to be any sort of realistic conflict keeping them apart. This series started out well, but the last couple of installments have been a bit meh and suffered from characters with motivations that didn't quite make sense, and this continued that trend.

I thought things might get a bit better a the halfway point of the book, when the focus changed from the self-contained and boring romance to the drama of dealing with Flavian's family and his ex-fiancé. Things did slightly perk up then, but that improvement didn't last long, and the conflicts that came up felt like much ado about nothing. Flavian's attitude towards Velma never really gelled. Why is he in such a panic? And while Agnes' issues with her mother (who left the family when Agnes was very young) could have been really interesting, they felt like they came out of nowhere at the end of the book, and Balogh didn't really do much with them.

MY GRADE: This was a C. Meh for me, but your mileage may vary. I think I should probably reread the (as I remember) wonderful Slightly Dangerous and see if it really is just me and not Balogh.

PS - It tickled me that Flavian was Viscount Ponsonby. There was a real Viscount Ponsonby who was alive at the time (although he was not created Viscount Ponsonby until a little bit later), and he was the one who was basically responsible for Uruguay being an independent country (to explain it very simplistically, we wanted to join up with what's now Argentina, but a buffer state between Argentina and Brazil was better for Britain's commercial interests, so here we are).


Nice Dragons Finish Last, by Rachel Aaron

>> Thursday, November 05, 2015

TITLE: Nice Dragons Finish Last
AUTHOR: Rachel Aaron

PAGES: 287
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Futuristic, alternate-universe
TYPE: Urban fantasy
SERIES: #1 in the Heartstrikers series

As the smallest dragon in the Heartstriker clan, Julius survives by a simple code: keep quiet, don’t cause trouble, and stay out of the way of bigger dragons. But this meek behavior doesn't fly in a family of ambitious magical predators, and his mother, Bethesda the Heartstriker, has finally reached the end of her patience.

Now, sealed in human form and banished to the DFZ--a vertical metropolis built on the ruins of Old Detroit--Julius has one month to prove he can be a ruthless dragon or kiss his true shape goodbye forever. But in a city of modern mages and vengeful spirits where dragons are considered monsters to be exterminated, he’s going to need some serious help to survive this test.

He only hopes humans are more trustworthy than dragons...

I first came to Rachel Aaron's writing with her Paradox trilogy, written as Rachel Bach. That was sci-fi with a strong dollop of romance. I loved it, so I took the plunge with this book, which is urban fantasy. That's a subgenre I've tried again and again and it's usually not my thing, but there are always exceptions.

The story is set in sort of post-apocalyptic world, where a disaster woke up long-sleeping magical forces and created all sorts of ructions. Our hero, Julius, is a dragon shifter who's part of one of the biggest clans, the Heartstrikers. Dragons are wild, violent creatures, feared by all humans and most other magical beings, and they take pride in this.

The problem is that Julius' natural inclination is to be nice. He'd rather deal with others reasonably and reach a mutually beneficial conclusion than threaten and demand on pain of his counterpart being eaten. His mother and leader of the clan, Bethesda, is not happy about this. She's tried all sorts of tactics to harden up Julius (some of which almost killed him), but nothing's worked. So she makes a final attempt: she bounds Julius to his human form, preventing him from shifting into a dragon, and sends him to the Detroit Free Zone. This is a particularly dangerous area for dragons, as they are forbidden and this rule is enforced by one of the few beings much more powerful than dragons. While there, he must accomplish a mission set by one of his brothers, and if he can't, he's done for.

With the help of Marci Novalli, a mage Julius meets and forms an alliance with on his first night in the DFZ, Julius must find a way to prove himself to his family without betraying his nature.

I'm glad to report this was one of the happy exceptions where I actually liked an UF title. I mean, the UF aspects of it weren't that successful. All the dragon politics and plotting here were my least favourite part of the book, mainly because it was all complicated and twisted to the point that it was preposterous and the motivations didn't make sense.

The thing is, I loved the characters. I loved Julius' kindness and intelligence and his cleverness in coming at problems sideways. I loved they way he started out lacking in confidence (and who could blame him?), but still made a decision to stop trying to be a good dragon in the traditional definition and start operating the way his moral code told him was right. And I loved his increasing realisation (which is no spoiler, the reader can see this coming a mile off) that acting that way is much more effective than the usual draconic action... making his way the real draconic way! It was all heart-warming in the best of ways, particularly the sections with Marci, when he realises how wonderful it is to be appreciated for what he actually is.

Marci is possibly a bit less developed and has less of a journey than Julius, but she's still a character in her own right, rather than simply a potential romantic interest. And I l iked that she brings quite a lot to the table in terms of power.

I also liked the world Aaron has created. There's lots of potential there, and I will happily read more books in this setting. Oh, and the humour. I may not have quite conveyed it in my review above, but for all the potentially disastrous consequences and the constant threats to kill Julius, there's quite a lot of humour there. The juxtaposition is hard to pull off, but I think Aaron does it.



Pray For Silence, by Linda Castillo

>> Tuesday, November 03, 2015

TITLE: Pray For Silence
AUTHOR: Linda Castillo

PAGES: 304

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: Book #2 in the Kate Burkholder series. Follows Sworn to Silence

The sound of a scream in the early morning dawn leads to a case that will change Kate Burkholder's life irrevocably...

When the police arrive at the Amish farmstead in Painters Mill they can't imagine the horror that awaits them. An entire family slaughtered: the men shot, the young women tortured and killed. The Amish are peace-loving, gentle folk and the town is shocked by what appears to be a particularly brutal - and random killing. But is it random?

Every family has its secrets. Kate knows that better than anyone. And as she and Agent John Tomasetti dig deeper into the victims' lives they discover a young woman who was living a lie. A girl who had to live in silence.

With her own past resonating - Kate knows she has to maintain some distance. From the case, and from Tomasetti. She knows what could happen if she gets too close. But when she puts herself in the line of fire - she realizes that, this time, there may be no going back.

This series centres arount Kate Burkholder, who's Chief of Police in the small Ohio town of Painters Mill. Kate grew up in an Amish family but left the community as a teenager. Still, her past helps her deal with cases involving any members of the large Amish community in the area, as they have a tendency to mistrust the "English" police.

In this, the second book in the series, Kate must investigate the shockingly brutal murder of an entire Amish family. Initial enquiries indicate that the Planks were upstanding members of the community and had no enemies. Why would anyone kill them, and with such vicious violence and cruelty that motives like robbery make no sense? But Kate soon discovers that, like everyone else, members of the Plank family had secrets. And with the help of John Tomasetti, her on-and-off lover, currently on leave from the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Kate must get to the bottom of them.

I think I'm done with this series. Kate Burkholder is a bad cop: bad in the sense of her investigations being illogical and downright dumb, and bad in the sense of her being utterly contemptuous of suspects' civil rights. I might read a book with such a main character if they're a sort of anti-hero protagonist, but as far as the narration is concerned, Kate is a great cop and all her actions are justified (and none of what are clearly lapses in judgment have any negative consequences).

So, a family has been massacred, no indication of drugs whatsoever, and yet Kate's first instinct is to go harass the locals who she suspects (knows, as far as she's concerned) make meth. Why? Just because they are bad people and she judges they deserve to be harassed, even when there's nothing to indicate they've done anything wrong. Obvious lines of enquiry (e.g. which men were frequent visitors to the store where young Mary Plank worked?) must wait till much later.Then she decides she'll go harass someone because he once assaulted an Amish man, and there are indications that was a hate crime. The guy goads her (pretty mildly, to be honest), and she responds by assaulting him with her baton. And when the guy complains, both Tomasetti and her deputy, who were in the room, say they didn't see anything. Classic. It takes some doing to make me sympathise with scum like these guys, but Castillo manages it. In both those interactions, I was on the side of the suspects, not Kate's, and it really shouldn't have been that way. There were a couple of instances which were along the same lines in the previous book, too, so it's not a problem that's likely to get better.

Additionally, both the first and second books in the series have young women tortured horribly and graphically, in ways that feel exploitative and titillating. If I'd felt more positively about Kate I might have given this series another shot and hoped this trend didn't continue. As it is, I'm done. Shame, because Castillo's previous books were just as dark but in a much more imaginative, original way, and with much better characters.


AUDIOBOOK NOTES: The narrator is the same as in book 1, Kathleen McInerney. I liked her in that book, but she started to get on my nerves in this one. The voice she does for Tomasetti really isn't great (she does it raspy, but to me, in a way that crosses the line into creepy). Also, there was a particular scene where Kate is interrogating a young man with learning disabilities, and the way McInerney did her questions, exageratedly as if she was talking to a young child, disturbed me (well, Kate does describe him as "mentally retarded", which is a whole 'nother problem, and which McInerney might have taken as a clue as to what her attitude might be!).


October 2015 reads

>> Sunday, November 01, 2015

I didn't do a great deal of reading this month, and it was mostly a bit meh. Only one really good book, and it wasn't romance. I haven't read a good (B+) romance since July, and there weren't many in the first half of the year, either. I suspect it might be me, not the genre. I'm getting really picky.

1 - The Italians, by John Hooper: B+
review coming soon

This is a collection of essays about Italy and Italians, written by an author who lived there as a foreign correspondent for many years. I really enjoyed it, and recognised much of what he described, as we've inherited quite a lot of these attitudes and customs in Uruguay!

2 - Don't Want To Miss A Thing, by Jill Mansell: B-
review coming soon

Ostensibly about a man who gives up his care-free London life to take guardianship of his baby niece after his sister dies and becomes friends with his neighbour. These two are central characters, but this is just as much about the people in the Cotswolds village he moves to. It's nice, but not really great.

3 - Only Enchanting, by Mary Balogh: C-
review coming soon

Part of the Survivors' series. The characters bored me to tears. It got mildly interesting at several points but never for long!

4 - All Seated on the Ground, by Connie Willis: C
review coming soon

A Christmas story with aliens! I liked the idea, but the madcap nature of it got to be a bit much for me, even in under 130 pages.

5 - In Her Defense, by Julianna Keyes: D
review here

The heroine is an ambitious lawyer who was the villain in a previous book, and I love difficult heroines. I didn't love this book, though. I particularly had trouble with the romance, as I didn't like the hero or believe they were in love.

6 - A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James: DNF
review (such as it is!) here

Winner of the Man Booker Prize this year. This is a story about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley. It was the last of the listed books that I got to, and the writing really didn't appeal to me. I'm wondering if I was just getting a bit burnt out and should give it another shot.

7 - Turbulence, by Jordan Castillo Price: still reading
review coming soon

Originally published in serial format. I'm reading the collection all in one go. The plot involves a pilot and a flight attendant and mysterious goings-on in the Bermuda Triangle. Ok so far.

8 - The Monogram Murders, by Sophie Hannah: still reading
review coming soon

Reading this for book club. It's a new Hercule Poirot book, authorised by the Agatha Christie estate. So far it's the worst book I've read this year.


November 2015 wish list

>> Friday, October 30, 2015

I'm almost back to normal after holidays and a really busy period as well, so back to posting my wish list for the next month!

Books I'm definitely planning to get

Jeweled Fire, by Sharon Shinn (Nov 3)

New entry in the Elemental Blessings series. I love the world Shinn has created in this series, and though the second book wasn't quite as fantastic as the first one, I have high hopes for this one.

Stars of Fortune, by Nora Roberts (Nov 3)

First in a new trilogy called The Guardians. The last trilogy was pretty crap and it's been a while since Roberts has done a good one, but I can't not give her a try!

Playing with Fire, by Tess Gerritsen (Nov 5)

The main thing to note with this one is that it's not part of the Rizzoli/Isles series, but a standalone thriller. Seems to have a bit of a paranormal twist, too. I'll totally read it.

S.P.Q.R.: A History of Ancient Rome, by Mary Beard (Nov 9)

Non fiction. I love Mary Beard as a public figure and broadcaster,and the reviews of this one have been really good.

Once Upon a Marquess, by Courtney Milan (Nov 10)

This has been on my wish list marked as "coming out soon" since July. It's actually showing with a Nov 10th date on Milan's website, so I'm thinking it might actually be about to come out this time! What's it about? Who cares, it's Courtney Milan!

Books that interest me and I'll keep an eye on

The Game Plan, by Kristen Callihan (Nov 1)

Callihan's NA books are of the type that is not usually my thing (regular girl falls and high-status guy -an NFL player, int his case), but the first was actually an ok read (still need to review that one!). This one seems to have a virgin hero, so I might give it a shot.

Burn It Up, by Cara McKenna (Nov 3)

Just noting this one, at this stage. I have the first in this series, but I haven't read it yet. It's a motorcycle club book, which is really, REALLY not my thing, but it's Cara McKenna, who can pretty much sell me on anything. We'll see.

Smoke and Mirrors, by Elly Griffiths (Nov 5)

I haven't been 100% enamoured of the Elly Griffiths books I've read, but this one sounds really good. It's a different series from the one I read, it's set in Brighton in the 1950s during pantomime season, and the crimes seem to have some sort of fairy tale inspiration. Too tempting!

Incapable, by Ainslie Paton (Nov 8)

The hero is a voice actor, which, as an audiobook fan, is something I find fascinating.

Unnatural, by Joanna Chambers (Nov 24)

Sounds interesting. It's about two childhood friends who became estranged "after a passionate encounter". One of the guys, the one who (I deduce from the blurb) caused the rift, is determined to restore their friendship. I've liked Chambers' writing before, so I might try this.


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