Kiss of Steel, by Bec McMaster

>> Friday, March 27, 2015

TITLE: Kiss of Steel
AUTHOR: Bec McMaster

COPYRIGHT: 2012
PAGES: 448
PUBLISHER: Sourcebooks Casablanca

SETTING: Alternate-reality Victorian London
TYPE: Steampunk romance
SERIES: London Steampunk #1

Most people avoid the dreaded Whitechapel district. For Honoria Todd, it's the last safe haven. But at what price?

Blade is known as the master of the rookeries—no one dares cross him. It's been said he faced down the Echelon's army single–handedly, that ever since being infected by the blood–craving he's been quicker, stronger, and almost immortal.

When Honoria shows up at his door, his tenuous control comes close to snapping. She's so...innocent. He doesn't see her backbone of steel—or that she could be the very salvation he's been seeking.

Kiss of Steel is billed as steampunk, but although there are some steampunky things here, it's more of a paranormal, alternate-history romance, set in a world where beings we would call vampires (here called Blue-Bloods) have replaced the British aristocracy.

These beings are all infected with a virus that causes a craving for blood. But that's not enough to be part of the Echelon (the aristocracy). When a person is infected, this can take two paths. If they're given a Blue-Blood's blood to drink, they become Blue-Bloods too. This means they develop superhuman speed and strength (not to mention hearing, sight, and all sorts of things) and can heal from pretty much anything. They do need to drink blood to stay alive, though. After many years the craving for blood gets the better of them, and they become vampires. These are are out-of-control, mindless beings, extremely dangerous, because their strength and speed are even more extreme than those of Blue-Bloods.

However, Blue-Bloods are extremely protective of their powers. The Echelon is a small group, and to maintain their status, they keep tight control over who is allowed to join them. So most infected persons are not given a Blue-Blood's blood. I'm not 100% clear on what happens then, but it seems like they either starve to death or become vampires as well. Probably the former; it makes more sense.

All that basic world-building out of the way now, on to the actual plot! Blade is a rogue Blue-Blood. He was created as a game by a sadistic Blue-Blood called Vickers. He was meant to be kept locked up, but he escaped and took refuge in the rookeries. He managed to make an alliance with the locals to protect them from exploitation by the Blue-Bloods (whose demands, both for blood and taxes had got to extortionate levels) and they were able to fight off the Echelon and their troops, who have left them alone ever since. By the time the book starts, Blade is basically the master of the rookeries.

Honoria Todd and her family are new residents of the area. They're there under an assumed name, since they're being hunted by the very same man, Vickers, who turned Blade all those years ago. Honoria's father was a doctor who was working for Vickers on a cure for the blood-craving virus. He fell out with man and sent his family to safety before he could kill them all. Vickers is determined to have them back, both because Honoria took her father's diaries, containing details of his work, and because he's long had an unhealthy and very creepy interest in Honoria.

As the book starts, Honoria's family are on the edge of disaster. They're in a very precarious financial situation, in spite of Honoria and her sister having jobs. Also, the brother, Charlie, is not doing well. Turns out Dr. Todd infected him with the virus to test his vaccine, and the vaccine didn't work. Charlie is getting weaker and weaker and has to be kept tied to the bed, but if Honoria and her sister try to get help, they fear the Blue-Bloods will simply have him killed.

And then Blade takes an interest in the family. He's figured out they're the very people for whose location Vickers is offereing a huge reward, and he's interested in understanding why he's enemy is interested. And once he meets Honoria, he's interested in a whole lot more.

This was all right. I started out by liking it quite a bit and feeling very engaged. The world McMaster created was interesting and different, and I liked how the relationship between Blade and Honoria developed. He realises quite soon that she's verging on desperate, and he tries to help, all the while trying to keep this assistance wrapped in a semblance of a commercial transaction (he can't let her know that he's a kind, decent person, rather than a self-interested cut-throat). There's also a vampire haunting the rookeries and behaving in an unusual manner, and the mystery of that was interesting.

However, I sort of lost interest at around the halfway point. The book felt really long and like it didn't really need to be. I continued to read, and there was nothing there that I found bad or offensive. I wasn't bored enough to ever be tempted to DNF, just not interested enough that I actively needed to know what happened next. Also, as the book went on I became less engaged by Blade and Honoria as a couple.

I did finish the book, though, and I liked that although Honoria was written in a way that sometimes bordered on TSTL, with her taking many risks and insisting on going with Blade to situations that were clearly extremely dangerous to anyone who wasn't a Blue-Blood, it turns out that she can handle herself. She doesn't hesitate to defend herself or those she cares about, and that was good.

Before I close, I should mention the way Blade's speech is written, because it's something that might bother some. He speaks in what's clearly meant to be a cockney accent and uses unorthodox grammar ('I were', that sort of thing), and the author writes his dialogue phonetically. I admired that McMaster kept that up until the very end and made it clear that there was nothing wrong with Blade speaking the way he'd been brought up to speak. But honestly, by the end it had got a bit old and had started to grate.

On the whole, this was ok, although not good enough to make me want to read more in the series, I don't think.

MY GRADE: A B-.

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Beautiful Game Theory, by Ignacio Palacios Huerta

>> Wednesday, March 25, 2015

TITLE: Beautiful Game Theory: How Soccer Can Help Economics
AUTHOR: Ignacio Palacios Huerta

COPYRIGHT: 2014
PAGES: 224
PUBLISHER: Princeton University Press

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

A wealth of research in recent decades has seen the economic approach to human behavior extended over many areas previously considered to belong to sociology, political science, law, and other fields. Research has also shown that economics can provide insight into many aspects of sports, including soccer. Beautiful Game Theory is the first book that uses soccer to test economic theories and document novel human behavior.

In this brilliant and entertaining book, Ignacio Palacios-Huerta illuminates economics through the world's most popular sport. He offers unique and often startling insights into game theory and microeconomics, covering topics such as mixed strategies, discrimination, incentives, and human preferences. He also looks at finance, experimental economics, behavioral economics, and neuroeconomics. Soccer provides rich data sets and environments that shed light on universal economic principles in interesting and useful ways.

Essential reading for students, researchers, and sports enthusiasts, Beautiful Game Theory is the first book to show what soccer can do for economics.

This book was a birthday present from my colleagues, who really know me very well! It's something a bit different from the usual. There has been plenty of work using the tools of economics to illuminate what's going on in the world of football (in fact, one of the best-attended sessions I went to in last year's Royal Economic Society Conference was devoted to using economics to figure out what the impact of Financial Fair Play would be). This is, as the subtitle suggests, the opposite. Palacios Huerta's work uses data from football to test economic theories, many of which are otherwise really tricky to fully test in the real world.

Penalties are particularly useful to him. Their formal, ritualised nature, with well-defined and understood pay-offs, allow him to test quite a few different theories. My favourite was how he used them to test whether psychological pressure affects performance in competitive environments (the key element here is who kicks first in a penalty shoot-out, which is randomly determined by tossing a coin). The author suggests a couple of ways to minimise the advantage he finds goes to the team that gets to kick first, and I really think FIFA should be looking at those.

Another example I particularly liked: How to test the efficient market hypothesis (basically, that the market incorporates any new public information fully and so immediately that no one can take advantage of it to make money, say, trading stocks)? Palacios Huerta's answer is to use the existence of half time, a period when no new information is emerging, and examine how betting markets react. He looks particularly at a situation when there has been a goal right before the interval, therefore providing a significant shock of information.

The book is basically a collection of papers, many adapted from papers already published. I was expecting a pop science-type book, a sort of Football Freakonomics, if you will, but it was quite a bit more technical than that. If Palacios Huerta simplified the papers, he did so only mildly. You get a good level of detail about his exact models, with equations and econometric results aplenty. This makes it ideal for a football fan with a good knowledge of economics. From what I could tell, though, anyone not comfortable with getting into the detailed economics could just skip the most technical bits and still get a very good understanding of the intuitions and results.

If you like football, I'd recommend this.

MY GRADE: A B.

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The Year We Fell Down, by Sarina Bowen

>> Friday, March 20, 2015

TITLE: The Year We Fell Down
AUTHOR: Sarina Bowen

COPYRIGHT: 2014
PAGES: 270
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: New Adult
SERIES: Followed by several related books

The sport she loves is out of reach. The boy she loves has someone else. What now?

She expected to start Harkness College as a varsity ice hockey player. But a serious accident means that Corey Callahan will start school in a wheelchair instead.

Across the hall, in the other handicapped-accessible dorm room, lives the too-delicious-to-be real Adam Hartley, another would-be hockey star with his leg broken in two places. He's way out of Corey's league.

Also, he's taken.

Nevertheless, an unlikely alliance blooms between Corey and Hartley in the "gimp ghetto" of McHerrin Hall. Over tequila, perilously balanced dining hall trays, and video games, the two cope with disappointments that nobody else understands.

They're just friends, of course, until one night when things fall apart. Or fall together. All Corey knows is that she's falling. Hard.

But will Hartley set aside his trophy girl to love someone as broken as Corey? If he won't, she will need to find the courage to make a life for herself at Harkness -- one which does not revolve around the sport she can no longer play, or the brown-eyed boy who's afraid to love her back.

Corey Callahan's life has always been all about ice hockey. When she was accepted at Harkness College, what she was looking forward to the most was not so much the university experience, but playing on the varsity ice hockey team. And then she had a serious accident on the ice which caused a spinal injury. So she had to start school as a wheelchair user instead of a star hockey player.

Her injury means that she can't live in the regular dorms (very old buildings, accessibility is problematic), so she gets given a room in the accessible section, where her neighbour is Adam Hartley. Hartley is living there only temporarily, while he recovers from a badly broken leg, and he's a star hockey player himself. The only difference is he will go back as soon as his leg heals, while Corey will never be able to play hockey again.

This could have become the root of conflict between them (and, to be honest, I initially assumed that it would), but it doesn't. Instead, Corey and Hartley bond. They become good friends, and Corey starts developing romantic feelings for him. Problem is, he has a girlfriend.

This was a bit of a mixed bag for me. I liked the characterisation of Corey (for some reason, I felt the name didn't fit her. Whenever I saw the name I was all... "who?". Didn't help that Hartley (who was totally not an Adam, either), always called her Callahan). Corey is not mopey and miserable. She obviously has had some trouble adjusting to the fact that there are some things she loved that she now can't do, and she's certainly sometimes annoyed and resentful about the changes, but she gets on with it. I liked that the way she was written emphasises what she can do (and does), rather than what she can't. Also, given that I've only seen characters in romance who are wheelchair users 100% of the time, I liked that her wheelchair use was more complex.

Unfortunately, I wasn't crazy about the romance. I liked that they were friends first, before anything happened even though they did fancy each other from the beginning. But that's kind of related to what I didn't like, which was basically the whole thing about Hartley's girlfriend, Stacia. First of all, I was annoyed at how she's used as a foil to Corey. Look, Stacia is beautiful, rich and glamorous, but she's selfish and superficial (a 'monster', as she's described), while Corey is a complete contrast: genuine and good. That sort of thing annoys me.

I also found Hartley's relationship with Stacia horrible. He's not an asshole to her, which is good, but the way he treats her reminded me of an indulgent father with a spoilt child, which was really icky. There is an explanation very close to the end of why he's been in a relationship with her all these months, and that makes a very vague sort of sense, but I didn't buy that he wouldn't have just ended that relationship a lot sooner, given his feelings for Corey. Also, the explanation came too late, once I'd already been annoyed at him for the entire book and had lost a lot of respect for him.

I didn't hate this, but I didn't love it either, and it didn't put me off the author. Which is a good thing, because her Blonde Date, which I read a few weeks later, was lovely. I shall review that shortly!

MY GRADE: A C+.

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Interesting non-fiction

>> Monday, March 16, 2015

TITLE: I Wouldn't Start From Here: The 21st Century and Where It All Went Wrong
AUTHOR: Andrew Mueller

Mueller is a journalist and this is an edited collection of articles which are a sort of travelogue of trouble spots (mainly; he also goes to Luxembourg!) in the first few years of the 21st century. They're basically Mueller trying to get a handle on what the hell is going on. I was a bit worried when the first chapter featured Bono and I realised Mueller is a (former?) rock journalist. I was not in the mood for celebrity sycophancy, so I was relieved to see this was a one-off. There are some well-known people who show up in a few chapters, but they are more along the lines of Al Gore and Gerry Adams (whom Mueller asks why he never joined the IRA!).

I really enjoyed it. The writing is good, with enough of Mueller in there to keep it interesting but not make it about him, and I felt that what he had to say tended to be refreshingly non-trite.

MY GRADE: A B+.



TITLE: The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture
AUTHOR: Euny Hong

A look at the ascent of Korean Pop Culture, exploring how it's generated and exported, with a little bit about more general Korean culture as well. The author is Korean but she spent the first years of her life in the US, where her father was working, before moving back to Seoul in the 80s (where she lived in the Gangnam area). She therefore has an interesting insider-outsider perspective.

I thought the material was interesting, mostly, but I felt Hong did best in the sections where her personal experience was relevant. There were times when she was covering issues like industrial policy and it seemed she was a bit out of her depth. Those chapters mainly consist of her talking to people (lots of government officials) and parrotting back what she's told, without applying much critical thinking to it. In those sections we never really go beyond the most surface look at issues, and there were several chapters like that.

Interesting read, but it could have been much better.

MY GRADE: A B-.

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Heartless, by Mary Balogh

>> Saturday, March 14, 2015

TITLE: Heartless
AUTHOR: Mary Balogh

COPYRIGHT: 1995
PAGES: 400
PUBLISHER: Signet

SETTING: Late 18th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: There's a later related book, Silent Melody.

Life has taught Lucas Kendrick, Duke of Harndon, that a heart is a decided liability. Betrayed by his elder brother, rejected by his fiancée, banished by his father, and shunned by his mother, Luke fled to Paris, where he became the most sought-after bachelor in fashionable society.

Ten years later, fate has brought him back home to England as head of the family who rejected him. Unwilling as he is to be involved with them, he must assume responsibility for his younger siblings, the family estate he once loved—and the succession. He faces the prospect of marrying with the greatest reluctance—until he sees beguiling Lady Anna Marlowe across a ballroom one night.

Anna, far from being the bright-eyed innocent Luke takes her for, is no more a stranger to the shadows of a painful past than he is. But for her, marriage cannot so easily solve what is wrong in her life—not when a tormentor stalks her to the very doors of Bowden Abbey, where Luke and Anna must learn to trust in each other or risk any chance they may have for a happy future.

Heartless was my biggest disappointment so far this year. It's a book I've kind of been hoarding, since it's a favourite for many Balogh fans and I really love some of the books she was writing round that time (for instance, the quartet that starts with Dark Angel). Unfortunately, 20 years after its release it felt very dated and old-fashioned, and I thought it highlighted what I always thought was Balogh's worst tendency: her heroines who seem much too determined to be martyrs and victims (see my favourite entry in All About Romance's much-missed Purple Prose Parody - this is not quite the book that inspired the parody, I don't think, but the heroine is very much in that vein).

This DNF review will include SPOILERS, so please proceed with caution!

Lady Anna Marlow has a Big Secret in her past. It's not really a huge spoiler, because you kind of get most of the story close to the beginning, if not all the details, but here goes. Anna's late father had got into trouble gambling and the debts were mounting. She confided in this kindly neighbour, a man about her father's age, and this guy pounced. He bought up the debts and used them to coerce Anna into helping him with illegal activities... distract people while playing at cards so that he could cheat, create a distraction so that he could steal jewellery, that sort of thing. There was also a possessive, sexual element, but instead of making her his mistress, he kidnapped her and had his servants tie her to the bed and remove her hymen. That way she would be "unmarriageable" (because no 18th century woman ever had her hymen broken while horseriding. Bah!). Then he told her he needed to go to America to do... something, and he'd claim her on his return. She would wait for him, otherwise he'd reveal that she helped with his criminal activities (although how he would do that without giving himself away Balogh doesn't explain) and even worse, "the truth": that he has "witnesses" that she pushed her father off the roof of their house.

While waiting for that sword of Damocles to fall on her head, Anna accompanies her younger sister to London so that she can have a Season. Anna considers herself unmarriageable, but her godmother, who's sponsoring them, doesn't. She and her lover conspire to throw her together with the lover's nephew: Lucas Kendrick, the new Duke of Harndon. Luke is newly returned to England after being exiled there for years as a result of almost killing his elder brother in a duel, and his uncle thinks he needs to get married an settle down.

Luke doesn't initially think so but he's quite taken by Anna's warm, cheerful disposition (which is this mask she can't help but adopt, even as she's terrified and upset), and thinks that if he needs to get married, she'll do. Anna accepts Luke's marriage proposal against her better judgment, all the while telling herself that she shouldn't, that when the weirdo comes back he will cause trouble, but goes ahead with the marriage anyway. And obviously, Luke realises she's not a virgin on the wedding night and asks her about it (in a really insulting way). She refuses to say anything and he assumes that she loves whoever it was she had sex with, after which the bloody hypocrite (who's been sleeping around in Paris like there's no tomorrow) is angry and hurt and has punishing sex with her.

And of course, Anna was right about her tormentor coming back. Pretty much right after the wedding he's writing her threatening letters, telling her she's merely "on loan" to her husband and that he'll be claiming her soon, and following her to the duke's country estate and tormenting her there with the help of the Evil Other Woman, who's Lucas' brother's widow.

I got to about 60% and couldn't stand the idea of continuing to read about Anna doing all she possibly could not to solve her problem, worrying herself sick and drowning in self-pity. She has chance after chance after chance to tell her husband what is wrong (he even keeps asking what's wrong when she's upset), but she doesn't take them. This makes very little sense. The man is a powerful duke who can fix her problems (a pesky baronet like the weirdo against the might of one of the richest dukes in England? Please!). Luke also already knows "the worst" (i.e. that she wasn't a virgin). Anna is just determined not to communicate with him and to cause a Big Misunderstanding. And all the while she's wearing this weird cheerful mask, pretending to be warm and happy, except for when she goes all upset and Luke realises something wrong, but she'll refuse to say anything. I found her incredibly frustrating.

The whole thing is a mess. The villain is just unbelievable. This is an area where Balogh usually excels. Her villains tend to be more like antagonists, people who cause trouble/conflict for the protagonists in understandable ways and for understandable, nuanced reasons that are completely believable. This guy simply didn't make sense. The whole thing about him coercing Anna into helping him with his cheating and stealing was kind of preposterous, and the sexual element was squicky and seemed rooted not in any sort of psychologically realistic motivation, but in Balogh needing to have her hymen-less heroine still be technically untouched by any man. And same thing for this whole thing about him letting Luke have her "on loan" and him not simply showing up before the wedding and pressuring Anna not to get married (she would have folded, easily). That made no sense whatever and seemed purely driven by Balogh's plot requiring it.

The other villain, Luke's sister-in-law, was just as frustrating as a character. Basically, she and Luke had grown up together and were in love. And then she turned up pregnant by his elder brother, the heir to the dukedom, and told Luke his brother had raped her. So Luke called out his brother and in the duel he accidentally almost killed him (he was a terrible shot back then), leading to his exile from his family. Now he's back, and she thought she could have him back and continue to, in effect, be the Duchess, plans which were frustrated by his wedding to Anna. Anyway, the sister-in-law was this really retrograde Evil Other Woman, and her sort of villainy was of the kind that I find most insulting and mysoginistic. She was manipulative, falsely accused Luke's brother of rape (I'm assuming here, as the truth hadn't been revealed when I stopped reading, but it was pretty obvious that she had seduced the brother, rather than being raped), and helps Anna's stalker stalk her just to cause trouble. And of course, they have skanky villain sex. Of course. We can't miss out on the slut-shaming.

What else? Oh, there's also Anna's little sister who's deaf-mute and whose role in the story seems to be "magical disabled girl who heals all those around her". Great.

I also found Luke's character arc predictable and clichéd. He was betrayed by his family so now he lacks a heart and cannot love. Oh, spare me. The only thing interesting about him was that the book is set in the late-18th century and he is a dandy in the French style: powdered wig, heels, peacock clothes, fans, make-up. That was fine by me, but make-up does not an interesting character make.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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The Night Villa, by Carol Goodman

>> Thursday, March 12, 2015

TITLE: The Night Villa
AUTHOR: Carol Goodman

COPYRIGHT: 2008
PAGES: 434
PUBLISHER: Ballantine

SETTING: Contemporary Italy and US
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

An evocative tale of intrigue, romance, and treachery, Carol Goodman’s spellbinding new novel, The Night Villa, follows the fascinating lives of two remarkable women centuries apart.

The eruption of Italy’s Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79 buried a city and its people, their treasures and secrets. Centuries later, echoes of this disaster resonate with profound consequences in the life of classics professor Sophie Chase.

In the aftermath of a tragic shooting on the University of Texas campus, Sophie seeks sanctuary on the isle of Capri, immersing herself in her latest scholarly project alongside her colleagues, her star pupil, and their benefactor, the compelling yet enigmatic business mogul John Lyros.

Beneath layers of volcanic ash lies the Villa della Notte–the Night Villa–home to first-century nobles, as well as to the captivating slave girl at the heart of an ancient controversy. And secreted in a subterranean labyrinth rests a cache of antique documents believed lost to the ages: a prize too tantalizing for Sophie to resist. But suspicion, fear, and danger roam the long-untrodden tunnels and chambers beneath the once sumptuous estate–especially after Sophie sees the face of her former lover in the darkness, leaving her to wonder if she is chasing shadows or succumbing to the siren song of the Night Villa. Whatever shocking events transpired in the face of Vesuvius’s fury have led to deeper, darker machinations that inexorably draw Sophie into their vortex, rich in stunning revelations and laden with unseen menace.

The Night Villa was my introduction to author Carol Goodman, who's got a fair few books which sound like just my sort of thing. The set-up here is my catnip: interesting location and parallel storylines set in the past and the present, with the latter including an investigation into the former.

The book starts out in Texas, where Classics professor Dr. Sophie Chase has the misfortune of being in the room when a student's jealous ex comes looking for her with a gun. Sophie is injured in the ensuing shooting and her recovery is hard, both physically and mentally. When her colleague insists she joins his team in Herculaneum in what he calls the Papyrus Project, it seems like the perfect chance to get away.

It's not just about escaping, the project is irresistible to Sophie. Years ago she came across records of a legal dispute between a young woman called Iusta, daughter of a freed slave, and her mother's former owner, who claimed Iusta had been born before her mother was freed, and therefore was still a slave herself. Sophie has always wanted to know more about what happened to the young woman, and the Papyrus Project promises to deliver some information on that subject. The project involves using spectrograph technology to read burnt scrolls found in the Villa della Notte (the Night Villa, in English) in Herculaneum, and what's been decoded shows that they are the diaries of a traveller called Phineas, who mentions a young slave woman called Iusta. It's the right time and place, so Sophie is convinced it must be the same Iusta. She joins the team in a villa that's a reproduction of the original Villa della Notte, built by the billionaire backer of the project close to the site of the original one.

As the scrolls are slowly deciphered and Iusta comes alive in the days right before the eruption of Mt. Vesubius, while her household prepares for some mysterious rites in which Phineas is to be the protagonist (which, the story intimates, might not be a good thing for him), mysterious events are afoot in the modern Villa della Notte. It appears Phineas, who was an explorer and all-around scoundrel, might have been carrying some lost manuscripts containing teachings of Pythagoras. And this would be gold to a group called the Tetraktys, a cult that worships Pythagoras and follows his teachings. It's a group Sophie is very familiar with, because a few years before the start of the book she lost her boyfriend to them. She suspects they might be involved with some of the weird things happening at the site.

As you can probably tell from reading this convoluted description, there is a lot going on. When you're reading this, though, it doesn't feel convoluted. Both main stories, that of Iusta in the last days of Herculaneum and of Sophie as she and the team investigate what happened to Iusta, are really well done, and the subtle echoes between them worked. The whole Tetraktys cult thing was maybe a bit over-the-top, but there needed to be some external threat to the present-day excavation, and in the end I thought that thread worked very well.

There is an element of romance here, and I quite liked how it was done. I really had no idea which of the 3 different potential candidates would be the one for Sophie, because I really wasn’t quite sure which one could be trusted. Any could have ended up being the villain, and I liked that. It was refreshing, since with most romances which try this I can tell within 10 minutes who the hero is meant to be!

And of course, the setting was amazing. It's rich and evocative, wonderfully done. I really wanted to be there and wished the Villa della Notte reproduction actually existed. I also particularly liked the sections set in Napoli. It did feel like Napoli, beautiful but at the same time oppressive and overwhelming and a little bit scary.

I enjoyed this quite a bit. It was maybe a a bit too long and could have been pruned a bit (it did take me quite a while to read, and I was on holiday), but I enjoyed it.

MY GRADE: A B.

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Radio Silence, by Alyssa Cole

>> Tuesday, March 10, 2015

TITLE: Radio Silence
AUTHOR: Alyssa Cole

COPYRIGHT: 2015
PAGES: 200
PUBLISHER: Carina Press

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 1st in the Off The Grid series

No one expects the apocalypse.

Arden Highmore was living your average postgrad life in Rochester, New York, when someone flipped the "off" switch on the world. No cell phones, no power, no running water—and no one knows why. All she and her roommate, John, know for sure is that they have to get out, stat. His family's cabin near the Canadian border seemed like the safest choice.

It turns out isolation doesn't necessarily equal safety.

When scavengers attack, it's John's ridiculously handsome brother, Gabriel, who comes to the rescue. He saves Arden's life, so he can't be all bad…but he's also a controlling jerk who treats her like an idiot. Now their parents are missing and it seems John, Gabriel, their kid sister, Maggie, and Arden are the only people left alive who aren't bloodthirsty maniacs.

No one knows when—or if—the lights will come back on and, in the midst of all that, Arden and Gabriel are finding that there's a fine line indeed between love and hate. How long can they expect to last in this terrifying new world, be it together or apart?

Radio Silence starts right in the middle of things. It's just a couple of weeks after the lights and all communications have mysteriously gone off. Arden Highmore and her best friend, John Seong, had initially just stayed home, waiting for the world to come back online. But as the block party atmosphere gradually turned into something a lot scarier, they realised it might be best to get out. John's family live in an isolated cabin in the forest, so they set out in that direction.

They're almost there when they run into a group of men who attack them, and that's when we join them. John's been knocked out, Arden is being manhandled in a very menacing way, and that's when John's brother Gabriel comes in and rescues them by shooting the would-be rapists.

Most of the rest of the book takes place in the Seongs' cabin, as the group (which includes the Seongs' little sister as well) worries for their loved ones and Arden and Gabriel get over their initial personality clash (not to mention, the fact that Gabriel blames Arden for getting herself and John into trouble) and give into their attraction.

I'm afraid I really wasn't crazy about this one. It had great buzz and I liked the premise and its matter-of-fact diverseness (Arden is African-American, while the Seongs' parents are from Korea), but just like in the other book I read by this author, the execution wasn't great.

My biggest problem with it was that I felt the tone was off. Clearly what's going on around this isolated group of people is very grim. There's the initial, violent scene, there's the fact that Arden and the Seongs are worried about their respective parents, there's the stuff Arden and John saw as they were travelling out of Rochester (one particular memory I found quite haunting was when Arden remembers hearing a woman whose voice she thought she recognised as that of a neighbour shouting for help and then, shortly after that, a group of men whooping and making lewd comments).

But for all that, the characters' interactions felt a bit too light-hearted. Snarky comments, flirting, learning to play guitar... it just felt wrong. And I'm not saying they should have been all moody all the time, it's just that this stuff didn't really seem to affect them. We're told it has, but I never felt it. And another thing: they have no idea what's going on and, by this time, they should be fearing that this apocalyptic situation will not just be going away, but become permanent. Do they spend much time worrying about this? Do they ration the food in the house, come up with any sort of plans? Nope, not beyond taking stock of what they have (which is more an excuse to get Gabriel and Arden along together). Other than that, they're making nice big dinners every night.

Also, speaking of the mysterious cause of the apocalypse, it kind of bugged me that they weren't all more desperate to know what was going on, why the lights had gone off. They sort of wonder a couple of times, but it's kind of like "well, we don't know, so let's just not worry about it". We never find out in this book, although I read the excerpt from the next one and there seem to be some answers there. Thing is, I didn't find them particularly believable, given what we've been told about how events unfolded.

Finally, the romance didn't work for me either. Again, it was all tell and no show. We're told Arden and Gabriel have this huge chemistry, but we're never really shown. They're very meh as a couple.

Eh, well, it was a quick read and not awful, just not very good, either.

MY GRADE: A C.

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Mirror Dance, by Lois McMaster Bujold

>> Sunday, March 08, 2015

TITLE: Mirror Dance
AUTHOR: Lois McMaster Bujold

COPYRIGHT: 1994
PAGES: 392
PUBLISHER: Baen

SETTING: Futuristic
TYPE: Sci-fi
SERIES: 7th full-length title in the Vorkosigan series


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The exciting follow-up to Brothers in Arms. Miles Vorkosigan is in trouble. His brother, a cloned stranger formed from tissue stolen from Miles when he was a child, wants to murder and replace him. Unfortunately, Mark has learned that without Miles, he is... nothing.
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This was the book that proved beyond all reasonable doubt that I'm putty in Lois McMaster Bujold's hands. At regular intervals she had me exclaiming out loud "no, no, NO!", and telling myself she'd gone too far, and that I wasn't going to follow where she was leading, but every single time, I did. I totally did. And I loved it, more than any of her books up to now.

I'll back up a little bit. Right, plot. You might have noticed that the description above is particularly cryptic and uninformative. To be honest, it was a bit of a job to find anything suitable at all. I'm starting to sound like a broken record now, but spoilers can be a real problem with this series. The blurb on goodreads, for instance, is a bit of a blow-by-blow description of most of the plot! I'll try to do better. Be warned, though, that below are spoilers of the previous book.

Mirror Dance starts with Mark, Miles' twin brother (as Miles sees it)/clone (as Mark does), implementing his plan to assume Miles' identity to free a big group of clones from the same House in Jackson's Hole that created him. The clones are destined for a cruel fate: they have been commissioned by aging powerful people who intend to have their brains transplanted into the bodies that are a younger version of themselves. The brains of the clones simply get dumped. Mark intends to save them from this fate they simply don't know is coming. And right away, I was blown away by Bujold's deftness at psychological characterisation. Mark tells himself he's being heroic, but it's just as clear to the reader that what's mostly driving him is the desire to prove himself to his hyper-successful sibling. Anyway, things go wrong, very, very wrong. And Mark finds himself in a situation where he really must prove himself.

Example #1 of the many times when Bujold took me kicking and screaming in a direction I didn't want to go came a little while after the botched rescue operation, when it had become clear that Mark was going to be a principal POV character in the novel. Initially I was basically "hmm, ok...", but then came a scene when I felt his behaviour had put him completely beyond the pale (it involves a big-boobed rescued clone who looks quite grown up but whom Mark knows is actually really a child). There was absolutely NO WAY I was going to root for that vile little prick. I absolutely, definitely wasn't, and I really resented having to spend any time in his POV. Right until I started caring about him quite passionately and desperately interrogating my friends who've already read the rest of the series about whether Mark was a POV character in any future books.

Because this book is really about Mark coming into his own. Oh, there is a fair bit of Miles as well (and I really enjoyed that, too), but for Miles Mirror Dance mainly sets up the conflict in the next book, the wonderful Memory. This one is about Mark, about him coming to terms with his origins and his history and his family and really, mainly with himself and who he really is. It's funny and exciting and an absolutely gut-wrenching and heartbreaking book, because Mark's journey and his struggle to build his shattered identity isn't easy. But it's definitely worth sticking it out.

Some of my favourite sections take place in Barrayar and concern the relationship between Mark and his parents (merely biological parents when they first meet, closer to real parents after a while). We get quite a bit about Cordelia and Aral and see how they’re doing as a couple and parents, which was nice in its own right. I particularly enjoyed Cordelia’s open-eyed, completely unidealised view of Miles (and Mark), which reminded me very much of Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody and her expert management of Ramses.

The more I read of this series the more amazed I am at Bujold's talent and psychological acuity, and the more I kick myself for not picking this up sooner. Well, I don't know, maybe I needed to grow up a bit before I appreciated this properly. I must say, though, in the spirit of trigger warning, that some sections are very tough to read. This might be spoilerish, but you probably do need to know before you start that there is some really, really upsetting and awful torture, both violent and sexual, and it happens to a character we really care about. It’s not narrated in real time, but what we’re told is pretty graphic. It really upset me, and it was yet another section that made me furiously angry at Bujold as I was reading it. Having finished the book I see why she wrote it the way she did, and I agree it was necessary for the book to work as well as it did. Also, I think my acceptance stems from this character ending the book in a good place, with a hopeful outlook for his life, getting the help he needs.

MY GRADE: An A.

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The Huntress, by Susan Carroll

>> Friday, March 06, 2015

TITLE: The Huntress
AUTHOR: Susan Carroll

COPYRIGHT: 2007
PAGES: 480
PUBLISHER: Ballantine

SETTING: 16th century London
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 4th in the Faire Isle series

In a time of intrigue and betrayal, the huntress is on a quest that could jeopardize two empires and two great queens: Catherine de Medici and Elizabeth I.

The year is 1585–and prophecy has foretold the coming of a daughter of the Earth whose powers are so extraordinary they could usurp the very rule of the Dark Queen herself, Catherine de Medici. Dispatched from Brittany to London, Catriona O’Hanlon, known as the Huntress, must find this mysterious young girl and shield her from those who will exploit her mystic abilities, which have the potential to change the course of history.

Catriona’s skill with weaponry is all she has to protect herself and her young charge from spies who snake through the courts of Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen–including the girl’s own father, whose loyalties are stretched to the breaking point. But Catriona will soon face menacing forces and sinister plots unlike any she has ever encountered.

From Susan Carroll, the celebrated storyteller of historical fiction, The Huntress is an unforgettable portrait of power and passion–and one woman’s courage to risk everything for those she loves.

Years ago I really enjoyed Carroll's Faire Isle trilogy. I loved her 16th-century France setting and the mix of history and fantasy, peopled by really interesting, fresh characters. There were some obvious threads left hanging at the end and I was really interested in reading the next book, which was not yet out. This was in 2006, but when the book came out the next year, I didn't read it. I think it was a bit on the expensive side when it first came out, and then I moved to England and got a bit distracted. Well, 9 years later I remembered the series and decided to go back and read The Huntress. I'm now really sorry I didn't read it back then, not because I liked it now, but because I think I might have liked it more back then.

The last book of the original trilogy, The Silver Rose, had as an antagonist a woman whose daughter had huge magical powers. Problem was, the antagonist meant to misuse her daughter's powers. At the end of the book she was stopped and killed (not really much of a spoiler, it's kind of part of The Silver Rose having an HEA), and her daughter was taken away by her long-lost father, Martin Le Loup, determined to keep her safe from all the other people wanting to abuse the girl's powers.

As The Huntress starts, Ariane, the Lady of Faire Isle, hears that there are rumours about where the girl might be and that a particularly powerful book, which was supposed to have been destroyed when her mother was killed, is actually still around. Ariane decides to send Catriona O'Hanlon to warn Martin about the threat to his daughter and to, ideally, bring both back to the safety of Faire Isle.

Catriona, originally from Ireland, is none to happy about having to go to London to carry out her mission (that's where Martin and his daughter have settled), but she considers herself Ariane's "gallowglass" (I had to look that up: it's "(in Ireland) a mercenary or member of a special class of soldiers in the service of a chieftain.") and is steadfastly loyal, so she'll do her best.

But once she finds them, Martin won't even consider going back to Faire Isle. He's sure he can keep his daughter perfectly safe himself, plus, he's spent many years setting himself up as a respectable Englishman, and he wants to give that status to his daughter and help her make an advantageous marriage. Cat considers just kidnapping the girl, but after seeing the love between her and her father, she decides to simply stick around and add her considerable powers to Martin's protection.

There were some good things about this. The Elizabethan London setting is vivid and rich, and there's plenty of intrigue. Martin has got himself involved with Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth's spymaster, and is in the uncomfortable situation of having to spy on a nobleman who helped him with his patronage, while hoping against hope he doesn't discover anything damning... like, say, that the man is involved in the plots Walsingham knows very well Queen Mary of Scotland is hatching against Elizabeth.

My problem was that the book had a very old-fashioned feel that put me off. Cat was a particularly frustrating character. She is genuinely powerful and is no unbelievable virgin warrior, but way too much of her characterisation is stereotypical "fiery Irish lass". She's stupidly impetuous and confrontational when it doesn't make sense for her to be, and even worse: she speaks like Nora Roberts' Irish characters.

Martin I just found annoying. I did sympathise with his love for his daughter and his wanting to give her the world, but he came across as yet another man who thinks he knows best and refuses to even contemplate that a woman might have ideas of her own. He is completely blind to all evidence that she might have some interest in magic and still some mixed feelings about her late mother. Oh, no, Martin has decided that it is best to just completely forget all that happened in the girl's life before he came into it, and therefore she has forgotten it. Period. Honestly, I thought he was rather thick.

I read about 2/3 of this pretty long book before realising there was no point forcing myself to pick it up every time I put it down (which was usually after about 20 pages, as I got bored or annoyed). I wasn't really interested in the plot (other than in the very peripheral thread of Ariane's pregnancy, which seemed to be dangerously sapping her strength), and I didn't see any chemistry whatever between Cat and Martin, so the romance really wasn't working for me.

Very disappointing. I think back when this came out I was a bit more tolerant about some of the things that annoyed me here, so it's a shame I didn't pick it up then.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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Brothers in Arms, by Lois McMaster Bujold

>> Tuesday, March 03, 2015

TITLE: Brothers in Arms
AUTHOR: Lois McMaster Bujold

COPYRIGHT: 1990
PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Baen

SETTING: Futuristic
TYPE: Sci-fi
SERIES: 6th full-length title in the Vorkosigan series

If his enemies would just leave him alone, Miles Vorkosigan (alias Admiral Naismith) decided bitterly, the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet would collapse all on its own. But his enemies were plotting a more deadly fall.

For some unexplained reason the Dendarii payroll is missing and the orders from the Barrayaran Imperial Command are being delayed by Miles's superior, Captain Galeni. What connects the impeccable insufferable Captain Galeni and the Komarran rebel expatriates on Earth anyway? But the most deadly question of all before Miles is more personal: are Miles's two identities, Admiral Naismith of the Dendarii and Lieutenant Lord Vorkosigan of Barrayar, splitting apart along the lines of his divided loyalties? And who is trying to assassinate which version of him?

When Miles unravels the answers, then the complications really begin.

Right, let's catch up with the Vorkosigan books. I'm up to Memory now and probably won't be able to hold on much longer before reading even further, so best post a couple of reviews before they all become muddled in my mind.

It's not long after the rescue mission told in the wonderful Borders of Infinity, and Miles and the Dendarii mercenaries decide to make a pit stop on good old Earth. There are some necessary repairs to be made, plus, Miles thinks it's a good idea to be somewhere he can keep away from the Cetagandans.

Turning back into Lord Vorkosigan, Miles reports to the Barrayarran embassy. He just needs money from ImpSec for repairs and to pay his people, but the highest-ranking ImpSec officer, who happens to be a Komarran, isn't particularly impressed with him. The payroll, which Miles expected would be there soonish, is taking much longer than it should, and Miles suspects shenanigans.

And, this being Miles, he's constitutionally unable to just wait quietly. Before long he's managed to get into the public eye and is having to come up with a story to explain just why Admiral Naismith looks so similar to Lord Vorkosigan.

This was great. It's a bit of a farce, with people (not quite literally, but almost!) going out one door and in through another, mistaken identities and ridiculous plots and mad chases. And this starts a run of books that deal with the issue of identity in a way that I found fresh and very thought-provoking. The schizophrenic nature of Miles' dual identity comes to the forefront here, and the most implausible tall tales come true in a delicious way. I don't want to give away anything, but this starts a relationship that I've loved in the following books, and that succeeded here in being really intriguing and having great potential. And in addition to identity (or rather, as an extension to identity), Brothers in Arms has some interesting things to say about fathers and sons and how the former can shape the latter. This is when this light romp becomes something a bit weightier, and it works.

What else? Oh, we get some great scenes. There's Miles out-bullshitting a journalist, Miles on Fast-Penta, Ivan bamboozled, and we also find out some more about the complicated history between Barrayar and Komarr, last seen by readers in Aral and Cordelia's books. We now see more about what's been going on since, with Komarr being part of the Barrayarran Empire but many people there still considering Aral The Butcher of Komarr. Again, more on this in later books, and this lays the base very nicely. Oh, and we're introduced to Miles' Komarran commanding officer, Captain Duv Galeni, who is a particularly good character here and only becomes even better later.

We also get a nice romance between Miles and Elli Quinn here. Miles had previously succeeded in staying away from her (non-fraternisation rules seemed like a good idea when he came up with them), in spite of her obvious interest, but things change here. I like Elli Quinn very much and obviously, I love Miles, but the two of them as a couple don't really do a huge deal for me. I mean, they are clearly fond of each other, but it's just as clear that this isn't a huge, life-long love, no matter how much Miles tries to tell himself otherwise.

I highly recommend this one. Just one thing: be very cautious when reading descriptions of the Vorkosigan books, especially this one and the ones after. Too many people who love these books seem to think that no one's reading the series for the first time, so spoilers are just fine. And big spoilers, too. Even the blurbs are sometimes an issue.There's a big thing we find out here that I would have loved to have been a surprise, but no such luck (someone posted a review of an earlier book that said "of course, Miles' so-and-so hasn't yet shown up here". Cheers for that!). It didn't ruin the reading experience, or anything, but it would have been nice not to know!

MY GRADE: A very strong B+.

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