Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

>> Monday, September 24, 2018

TITLE: Frankenstein
AUTHOR: Mary Shelley

COPYRIGHT: 1818
PAGES: 288
PUBLISHER: Penguin

SETTING: Various European countries, early 19th century
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein when she was only eighteen. At once a Gothic thriller, a passionate romance, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of science, Frankenstein tells the story of committed science student Victor Frankenstein. Obsessed with discovering the cause of generation and life and bestowing animation upon lifeless matter, Frankenstein assembles a human being from stolen body parts but; upon bringing it to life, he recoils in horror at the creature's hideousness. Tormented by isolation and loneliness, the once-innocent creature turns to evil and unleashes a campaign of murderous revenge against his creator, Frankenstein.

Frankenstein, an instant bestseller and an important ancestor of both the horror and science fiction genres, not only tells a terrifying story, but also raises profound, disturbing questions about the very nature of life and the place of humankind within the cosmos: What does it mean to be human? What responsibilities do we have to each other? How far can we go in tampering with Nature? In our age, filled with news of organ donation genetic engineering, and bio-terrorism, these questions are more relevant than ever.
This keeps happening to me with classics. I was sure I must have read Frankenstein already at some point, but I hadn't. All I remembered was stuff from its many extended lives in pop culture, and a lot of it turned out not to be in the text at all. But the book itself turned out to be so much more interesting than the stuff I was remembering.

The start made me go 'huh?'. An English ship captain writes to his sister about something that happened when his ship got stuck in the ice in the Arctic Sea. First he and his men saw a sled in the distance carrying what seemed to be a huge man (clearly a trick of the light reflecting off the ice, they thought), and then another sled, which had seemingly been in pursuit, approached the ship. The man on it introduced himself as Victor Frankenstein and, taking refuge in the ship for a while, told the captain the story the latter is now conveying to his sister.

His story is a doozy, and that's the one with the elements readers will recognise. Young Victor Frankenstein is a student of science who decides he wants to try to create a living being. He scavenges bits and pieces off different bodies, and on a fateful night, gives his creation the spark of life (just how is coyly hidden from his listener -and thus readers- as knowledge that is just too dangerous). When the creature rises, Victor is struck by the horror of what he has done (partly, apparently, due to the extreme ugliness of his creation) and runs away, abandoning the creature.

Over the next months Victor tries to forget what he has done, but his path crosses with that of the creature again, and he finds out what has become of his creation's life. It's a story that starts with hope that he will be accepted by the world, but ends with those hopes being destroyed. And the rejection sours in the creature into a desire for revenge against the man who was the first to reject him, Victor himself.

You hear much about Frankenstein being about the dangers of scientific curiosity and a cautionary tale about what happens when scientists play God. This is not how it struck me at all. I think this may be, in small part, because this is one of the areas in which the book isn't really too good. I didn't find Victor believable as a scientist, precisely because of the lack of scientific curiosity that he showed at every point. His motivation in trying to put together the creature is completely glossed over. One may assume it is about scientific curiosity, but that is not on the page, and his reaction after succeeding shows zero curiosity.

But mostly, the reason why the "scientists playing God" didn't seem to me the real theme of the book is that the "playing God" bit was clearly not the problem! The outcome of the experiment was a creature with all the best of humanity in it, as well as the worst. And when in his 'natural' state, it was the best that seemed to come out first. There's a long section where he tells the story of how he came across a family living in an isolated house and spied on them, thus learning to speak and how the world of other humans works. He loved these people very much, and having encountered fear from the few people he'd come across before, he carefully planned how to approach them to befriend them without scaring them. But that all failed, and he encountered painful rejection again.

So at first, he showed instinctive compassion and caring for the human beings he encountered. He wanted to help, and did. All he wanted was to be, in turn, accepted and cared for by the people he met. It was only when he was met with rejection and violence for the sole reason of his appearance, that the worst impulses of humanity came out. But even then, when he was telling Victor about what had happened, it was clear that the creature was not irredeemably bad. He was sorry about the bad things he had done so far and ready to repent, if someone were to show him even a tiny bit of compassion. It was only because he didn't get it that what happened next took place.

So to me, there were themes that came out of all that much more clearly than "the dangers of scientists playing God". Like the dangers of not taking responsibility for what you do. Like what makes a human a human. Like whether people can be innately evil, or whether evil may be influenced by context and how people are treated. Those themes were much better explored by the plot, and quite successfully, too.

The book is not perfect. The plotting is sometimes a bit creaky and clunky, and some of the melodramatic tone doesn't quite land (oh, Victor was one emo, overdramatic, self-indulgent SOB!). I was literally laughing at some of the supposedly touching moments. But when the pathos does work, such as in the creature's tale, it's incredibly powerful. There's definitely a reason this is a classic.

MY GRADE: A B+.

PS - I listened to the audiobook, and chose one of the best reviewed versions on Audible, narrated by Dan Stevens (you'll probably recognise the name if you watch Downton Abbey). I'm not sure if it was the right choice, to be honest. A large proportion of the book, both when it's Victor and when it's the creature speaking, Stevens hams it up massively, the voices so overly dramatic that it feels like the characters are constantly on the verge of weeping. And yes, the text does support the utter melodrama, but I think the narration may have been what tipped it into ridiculousness for me. Like I said, I was literally scoffing and laughing and going "oh, come off it!" out loud during the most dramatic bits, which is probably not the intended effect, and some of this was down to the narration.

PPS - The cover I've included in this post is the one I think best reflects the tone. Caspar Friedrich's Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. Very fitting.

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Take the Lead, by Alexis Daria

>> Saturday, September 22, 2018

TITLE: Take the Lead
AUTHOR: Alexis Daria

COPYRIGHT: 2017
PAGES: 332
PUBLISHER: Swerve

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: #1 in the Dance-Off series

Gina Morales wants to win. It’s her fifth season on The Dance Off, a top-rated network TV celebrity dance competition, and she’s never even made it to the finals. When she meets her latest partner, she sees her chance. He's handsome, rippling with muscles, and he stars on the popular Alaskan wilderness reality show Living Wild. With his sexy physique and name recognition, she thinks he’s her ticket to the finals—until she realizes they’re being set up.

Stone Nielson hates Los Angeles, he hates reality TV, and he hates that fact that he had to join the cast of the The Dance Off because of family obligations. He can’t wait to get back to Alaska, but he also can’t deny his growing attraction to his bubbly Puerto Rican dance partner. Neither of them are looking for romantic entanglements, and Stone can’t risk revealing his secrets, but as they heat up the dance floor, it’s only a matter of time until he feels an overwhelming urge to take the lead.

When the tabloids catch on to their developing romance, the spotlight threatens to ruin not just their relationship, but their careers and their shot at the trophy. Gina and Stone will have to decide if their priorities lie with fame, fortune, or the chance at a future together.
Gina Morales is a professional dancer and one of the pros in a TV dancing contest/reality show (think Dancing With the Stars or Strictly). She's done ok in her first couple of years, but this year she's determined to work hard and get onto the finals (at least). She'll do it whoever her celebrity partner is, but she's been hoping for a good one... maybe an Olympian? Someone used to training hard and with good coordination, anyway.

She doesn't quite get an Olympian in the modern sense of the word, but the contestant she gets looks like a literal ancient one. Stone Nielsen is a mountain of sculpted muscle. He's the star of a reality show himself, one focusing on his family and their life off the grid in Alaska. Stone's not keen on being on a dancing competition, but there's certain medical bills to pay, and he can't say no to his family.

There's quite an instant attraction between Gina and Stone, but as they spend intense hours together training, she's determined to keep things professional, even though the show producers are clearly angling for a 'showmance' between them. She will absolutely not be portrayed as a stereotypical promiscuous, sexualised Latina. But as she and Stone start getting to know and actually care for each other, it's hard.

There were some really good and interesting things here, enough that I'll probably read Daria again, but on the whole this felt insubstantial, and like an author who's still learning about how to do characterisation really well.

This was visible mostly in Stone, who felt like quite a thin character, with certain key things in his background lacking convincing motivation. And this meant that he felt a bit spineless, to be honest. He is living his life being part of a reality TV show 24/7, and one that seems to be based on lies. The Nielsons are supposed to have lived all their lives off-the-grid and grown up like that, but in reality their lives seem to have been a lot less unusual. Stone doesn't like it, but he feels pressured by his family to be part of the whole thing. Why? We don't know. He loves his family and can't say no to them, that's all we get. Then they pressure him to go on yet another reality show, this Dance-Off. One where things are going to be even more manipulated by producers. If he hated being on his family reality show, this is clearly going to be a nightmare. It really seems a lot to ask of someone, and we never understand why he doesn't push back. There's some hand-waving about having to pay medical bills for his mother's hip replacement, but that seems preposterous. They're stars in a reality show that seems quite successful (enough to warrant one of the brothers going on Dance-Off), and yet the the producers have not arranged for health insurance? Seriously?

Gina felt like a much more well-rounded, real character. I understood her better. She's a dancer, she wants to have a successful, lasting career. Being on a programme like Dance-Off makes sense. She doesn't love the producer manipulation (and seriously, that producer, Donna, was such a cartoonishly evil character!), but it's part of the deal, and she does like the fame aspect of things. She has fun with the press junkets and so on. That's fine. Personally, it would be my worst nightmare, but different strokes and all that.

Her desire not to be made into yet another example of the oversexualised, "fiery" Latina by the show's producers also really resonated with me. I grew up in Uruguay, where that stereotype is just not a thing. All the people around me growing up were Latin American (whether white, brown or black), so we didn't have that outsider generalised view of what "Latinxs" are supposed to be like. If anything, our own view of ourselves as Uruguayans is that we're melancholy and grey, far from the fiery and passionate idea outsiders seem to have of all Latinxs. And then I moved to Europe, and it was a bit of a shock to see that I was often assumed to be impulsive and hot-blooded, when I'm actually much more on the cold and analytical end of the spectrum. It hasn't been a huge problem, just something that's nagged at me, but it made Gina's motivations for absolutely and resolutely not wanting to be seen as a dancer who would sleep with her partner completely understandable.

But even with her there are what seem to be plot-driven inconsistencies. Like her instant grabbiness with Stone, even while she was talking sense about how it was best to keep things professional (if friendly) with him. Why the hell is she suddenly holding hands with him, going "lie back, I've been dying to play with your hair" and cuddling next to him when they take a nap in the park? There's some talk later on about it being important for the dance chemistry that they're comfortable with touching each other's bodies, but at that point it's all 'Professional, professional, professional, "I'm gonna play with your hair"'. She's basically giving them man super mixed messages, and indeed, he's pretty confused.

I also found it quite disturbing that all the men are all portrayed as really nice and supportive to each other, while the only "villains" are two women. And their villainy is of the stereotypical misogynistic kind: they're manipulative and bitchy and vindictive. That kind of characterisation got old several years ago. Also, one of them sexually harasses Stone in what I thought was quite a severe way. If it had been a man doing that to a woman, it would have been taken a lot more seriously. Here it's just ignored by everyone, including Stone. This jarred.

The bits about the actual dancing competition could also have been done a lot better. Well, we do get quite a bit about the rehearsals, but once we get to the TV shows, it's basically "and then they danced and got X points". Only maybe once we get to hear the judges. That seemed like a bit of a waste, as this could have provided quite good tension (as well as being fun).

Finally (appropriately), the ending (spoilerish, so beware if you decide to read the next paragraph). Very mixed feelings about it. Daria had been telling us all along how difficult it would be to have a relationship work, since they each want such different things. Stone loves Alaska and living in uncrowded Nature, while Gina is a woman who thrives on the energy of the city, and the career she is so passionate about demands she be there. To be honest, I wasn't sure they should be together. But suddenly Stone (thin character that he is) seems to decide he's not that determined to live permanently in Alaska after all, cue HEA. Huh. On one hand, nice not to have the heroine give up her dreams, but on the other, it felt like a cop-out to wave a magic wand and say that actually, neither has Stone and he's now happy living in big cities and going to Alaska in off-season times.

The other good thing about the ending was that Daria made me aware of some unexpected internalised sexism within myself. So, Stone, who has an engineering degree and lots of experience working on construction projects, ends up giving it up and taking up a career of being a catwalk model instead, which allows he and Gina to better mesh their lives. I had quite a negative reaction to that, and on interrogating it, turns out I felt it was 'unmanly' in some way. I tried to tell myself at first that it was about the waste of a good brain, blah, blah, blah, but really, it was about the manliness. Silly, but there we go. A book that makes you get to know yourself better is always a worth read, IMO.

It feels like I've mostly nitpicked in this review, but on the whole, I had a good time reading it. It flowed well and kept me engaged. Hopefully the next will have improved characterisation and work for me even better.

MY GRADE: This was a B- for me.

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3 DNFs: Oxford, a Man Booker title and body-invaders

>> Thursday, September 20, 2018

Today a few recent DNFs.

TITLE: My Oxford Year
AUTHOR: Julia Whelan

My Oxford Year is about Ella Durran, a young American woman who moves to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship to do a postgraduate degree. She will be there only for a year, so when she meets a guy she really connects with, setting out to have a temporary relationship seems reasonable. But of course, things get complicated.

This sounded like it would be right up my alley. I got a scholarship to do a postgrad degree in the UK as well! Fulbright, rather than Rhodes, but hey, close enough. I hoped I'd connect to Ella's experiences of arriving in a different country, one that you know a lot about through pop culture, and then getting the real experience. For a little while at the start the signs were good, but no. It's weird, because I understand the author spent a year in the UK as a Rhodes scholar herself, but Ella's experience didn't feel real to me. What she describes, the way people interact and speak, it all felt like a theme park version of England. I was rolling my eyes so hard I found it hard to read. Also, Ella seems extremely impressed with herself and the extreme cleverness that allowed her to get the scholarship. Get over yourself, girl!

MY GRADE: A DNF.

TITLE: Snap
AUTHOR: Belinda Bauer

I've been looking forward to the announcement of the Man Booker prize longlist for months (yes, literally; I'm not exaggerating). When it came out most of the drama seemed to be about a graphic novel being nominated, but complaints about this genre mystery/thriller being on the list ran a close second on the drama stakes. I'm all for recognising that good genre fiction can be just as good as literary fiction, so I picked it up first of all.

It started out well. The first scene, with three little kids being left behind in a broken-down car as their mum goes for help, was great. But things just went downhill from there. Lots of characters behaving in unbelievable ways, the cops were boring and stereotypical at the same time and some developments (like the decision to reopen the case of Jack's mum's murder) were poorly justified. I couldn't muster the interest to keep going, and to be honest, this year I haven't been able to muster any interest in other books on the longlist. I will probably take a break and try again next year.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

TITLE: Touch
AUTHOR: Claire North

Our narrator, Kepler, is a being who is able to skip bodies just by touching the destination one. He used to be human, but at the moment of his death, he reached out to touch his killer and somehow went into him. Since then he has been moving around. He likes to be respectful of the bodies he inhabits, but not all beings like him are, and now members of a shadowy organisation are hunting them. When the host he's inhabiting is shot and killed, Kepler is able to move to the killer at the last minute, and the race to find out what's going on begins.

There were some interesting concepts here, and the author seemed to have put a lot of thought into the practicalities that would result from her premise, which is something I always enjoy. There was also a lot of travelling around all over the world, which should have been fun. It wasn't. The whole thing was extremely tedious. The book is merely longish (430 pages or so), but it feels so, so much longer. I felt like I wasn't advancing at all, possibly because I didn't care about the characters, and the whole plot seemed faintly ridiculous. The shadowy organisation made no sense, the 'villain' is one of those uninteresting 'he's evil because he's a psycho, period' ones, and things started to get so convoluted that I got bored.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler

>> Tuesday, September 18, 2018

TITLE: Vinegar Girl
AUTHOR: Anne Tyler

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 237
PUBLISHER: Hogarth Press

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

‘You can’t get around Kate Battista as easily as all that’

Kate Battista is feeling stuck. How did she end up running house and home for her eccentric scientist father and uppity, pretty younger sister Bunny? Plus, she’s always in trouble at work – her pre-school charges adore her, but the adults don’t always appreciate her unusual opinions and forthright manner.

Dr Battista has other problems. After years out in the academic wilderness, he is on the verge of a breakthrough. His research could help millions. There’s only one problem: his brilliant young lab assistant, Pyotr, is about to be deported. And without Pyotr…

When Dr Battista cooks up an outrageous plan that will enable Pyotr to stay in the country, he’s relying – as usual – on Kate to help him. Kate is furious: this time he’s really asking too much. But will she be able to resist the two men’s touchingly ludicrous campaign to win her round?

Anne Tyler’s retelling of The Taming of the Shrew asks whether a thoroughly modern, independent woman like Kate would ever sacrifice herself for a man. The answer is as individual, off-beat and funny as Kate herself.
Vinegar Girl is part of Hogarth Press's Shakespeare project, where bestselling authors take his plays and rewrite them for the modern world. Several are out already. For instance, Margaret Atwood has taken The Tempest and set it in a theatre course in a modern prison (Hag-Seed), while Jo Nesbø has Macbeth and Duncan as policemen in a drug-infested 1970s industrial town (Macbeth).

I'm sure those were challenging, but they couldn't have been any harder than what Anne Tyler took on. Making The Taming of the Shrew into a modern romantic comedy? Surely that couldn't be done! But it could, and she did.

Kate Battista has found herself living with her father, the archetypal absent/single-minded scientist, and younger sister, basically keeping house for them. She's not some sort of model of domesticity (actually, she's very forthright and direct, and a bit socially awkward), but things drifted, and here we are.

Her father is at a very delicate stage in his research, one that depends on his assistant at the lab, Pyotr. But Pyotr's immigration status is just as delicate, and it looks like he could get deported. The obvious solution to Dr. Battista's problem is to have his daughter marry Pyotr, which will sort everything out. Kate, however, is not too enamoured of the idea, and isn't shy about saying so.

I thought Vinegar Girl did the retelling element really well. It played with the source material in a very fun way, taking what I find completely infuriating and gross about the play and twisting it in a way that works. For instance, the things Petruchio says come from his being a mysoginistic arsehole. Pyotr sometimes shows similarly insulting lack of tact, but from him this comes from his lack of understanding of American social niceties. And somehow Tyler manages to do this while not making it feel like "hah hah, look at the stupid foreigner!" (something I'm a teeny bit sensitive to).

The book was also hilarious. Part of that is just Kate's deadpan point of view and observations, but a big part of it is also about the increasingly farcical plotting, which stays just on the right side of unbelievable. Pyotr's and Dr. Battista's attempts to convince Kate that this is an excellent idea are preposterous and completely ridiculous, but they fit their characters so well that they seem like exaggeration, not wholesale invention.

It even works as a romance. It soon starts becoming clear that for Pyotr, the attempts to get Kate to marry him are not just about not getting deported. The parts of her behaviour that are tutted at by society he finds refreshing and wonderful. He and Kate are similar in the ways that matter, and yet different enough that they make up for each other's faults. I bought the romance completely.

MY GRADE: A B+.

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The Last Cruise, by Kate Christensen

>> Sunday, September 16, 2018

TITLE: The Last Cruise
AUTHOR: Kate Christensen

COPYRIGHT: 3018
PAGES: 304
PUBLISHER: Doubleday

SETTING: Contemporary, US and the high seas!
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

From the acclaimed PEN-Faulkner Award-winning author of The Great Man comes a riveting high-seas adventure that combines Christensen's signature wit, irony, and humanity to create a striking and unforgettable vision of our times.

The 1950s vintage ocean liner Queen Isabella is making her final voyage before heading to the scrapyard. For the guests on board, among them Christine Thorne, a former journalist turned Maine farmer, it's a chance to experience the bygone mid-20th century era of decadent luxury cruising, complete with fine dining, classic highballs, string quartets, and sophisticated jazz. Smoking is allowed but not cell phones--or children, for that matter. The Isabella sets sail from Long Beach, CA into calm seas on a two-week retro cruise to Hawaii and back.

But this is the second decade of an uncertain new millennium, not the sunny, heedless fifties, and certain disquieting signs of strife and malfunction above and below decks intrude on the festivities. Down in the main galley, Mick Szabo, a battle-weary Hungarian executive sous-chef, watches escalating tensions among the crew. Meanwhile, Miriam Koslow, an elderly Israeli violinist with the Sabra Quartet, becomes increasingly aware of the age-related vulnerabilities of the ship herself and the cynical corners cut by the cruise ship company, Cabaret.

When a time of crisis begins, Christine, Mick, and Miriam find themselves facing the unknown together in an unexpected and startling test of their characters.
The small but glamorous ship Isabella is on its last cruise before it's decommissioned, a 2 week jaunt to Hawaii with a 1950s theme. It's all going to be perfect: the luxurious food, the entertainment, even the lack of mobile phones.

Christine Thorne is there as a guest of her friend Valerie, who's a successful journalist and writer. Christine used to be a journalist in New York as well, but for several years now she's lived in a small farm in Maine, working alongside her farmer husband. She's at at a point in her life where she's feeling increasingly dissatisfied and antsy about her quiet life, and hopes the break in her routine might help.

Miriam Koslow is on the Isabella for work. She's a veteran of the Six Days War, and with her ex-husband and two other friends, all of them fellow war veterans, they make up the Sabra string quartet, based in Tel Aviv. The owner of the ship and his wife have long been the Sabra's main benefactors, with a big proportion of the quartet's income coming from commissions of theirs just like this one. Miriam is thinking of slowing down, as they're all getting old, but she's not slowing down on the romance front. One of the other members of the Quartet, a man with whom she's always had a bit of chemistry, is newly widowed, and both seem in the mood to do something about it.

And then there's Mick Szabo, also part of the onboard staff. Mick is a chef, originally from Hungary. He's been cooking on cruise ships for many year, but this trip represents a bit of a promotion for him. He's been working as a line cook, but one of the sous chefs on the Isabella injured himself shortly before the cruise started, and Mick's been offered his role for this trip. He's hoping to impress the head chef, who's rumoured to be starting a restaurant in Amsterdam and looking for good staff. This would allow Mick to stay put a bit more and maybe get a proper relationship with the Frenchwoman he's in love with (since he's never there, she's made it clear she's not going to be faithful).

And as Mick cooks, Miriam plays her viola and Christine gorges herself on food and drink and vegetates by the pool, there's tension behind the scenes. The staff of the ship have been told their contracts will be cancelled as soon as they reach their destination (the better to hire people a bit more desperate than them, at lower salaries), and the atmosphere below-decks is one of simmering discontent and resentment.

This was very promising. The atmosphere was beautifully done and the increasing hints of something brewing below the luxury worked really well to ratchet up some tension. I liked that I didn't really know much more than what's in the last paragraph as I read the first sections, so for the first half of the book, I had no idea where this was going and what kind of book it was supposed to be.

When things finally did bubble over and the conflict erupted, I practically rubbed my hands in glee, looking forward to what was coming. But the second half turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. All the tension seemed to simply dissipate, and the narrative turned into a low-key... well, I won't say precisely a "slog", but it was close. It felt like a waste, because what had been set up as the big surprise really should have been great. The contrast between the world of the staff below-decks and their treatment, compared to the luxurious experience they're supposed to deliver to passengers, it created the opportunity both for excellent conflict and for some very interest social commentary. But Christensen just didn't do all that much with it. Other things happen that mean that attention shifts to external threats which are a lot less interesting.

My other issue was that I found several of the characters a bit annoying. Mick was not particularly interesting, but Christine, particularly, was super tedious. She's consumed with her domestic problems, even while people's lives are collapsing around her. She doesn't seem to have a social conscience at all. It's not that she's got a particular ideology I don't like, it's that other people's struggles don't even seem to register with her. I think we're meant to sympathise with her, rather than with her friend Valerie, whose reason to be on the ship is that she's researching a book about labour conditions in places such as cruise ships. It felt like we were meant to find Valerie somehow laughable and annoying, but I liked her a huge deal more than Christine, the strikebreaker who does it with zero consideration of the consequences.

Miriam was the one character I found interesting, and I really did like her. I liked the good-humoured way she dealt with the indignities of older age and the way she didn't allow them to stop her enjoying life and seeking happiness. There's a great deal of humour in the interactions between the members of the quartet. Not funny 'ha-ha' humour, but the humour of people who have known each other for a long time and are all-too-aware of each other's foibles, and refuse to take them too seriously.

Having a look at reviews I've seen a lot of complaints about the ending. I don't want to spoil it, but I'll say it's on the open side. I didn't mind it. Partly, it may have been that I was ready for the book to end, but also, it did seem to fit well.

MY GRADE: A C+.

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The Copenhagen Connection, by Elizabeth Peters

>> Friday, September 14, 2018

TITLE: The Copenhagen Connection
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Peters

COPYRIGHT: 1982
PAGES: 358
PUBLISHER: Avon

SETTING: Early 1980s Copenhagen
TYPE: Mystery/Thriller
SERIES: None

A strange twist of fate brings Elizabeth Jones face to face with her idol, the brilliant, eccentric historian Margaret Rosenberg, at the Copenhagen Airport. An even stranger accident makes Elizabeth the esteemed scholar's new private assistant. But luck can go from good to bad in an instant -- and less than twenty-four hours later, the great lady is kidnapped by persons unknown. Suddenly desperate in a foreign land, Elizabeth must cast her lot with Rosenberg's handsome, insufferable son Christian in hopes of finding her vanished benefactor. On a trail that leads from modern wonders to ancient mystery, a determined young woman and an arrogant "prince" must uncover shocking secrets carefully guarded in the beautiful Danish city. And they must survive a mysterious affair that is turning darker and deadlier by the hour.
Elizabeth Peters is one of my favourite authors, both under that name and as Barbara Michaels. As Elizabeth Peters she wrote several different series (the best-known of which is, of course, the Amelia Peabody Egyptology-themed mysteries). But she also published quite a few standalone novels, including several that could best be described as "crime capers in exotic locations". This is one of them.

Elizabeth Jones is a plucky young woman (of course) on her first trip to Europe. Things get extremely exciting for her right on the flight to Copenhagen, when she spots an author she idolises. Margaret Rosenberg is a historian who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and she also publishes bestselling historical fiction. Elizabeth admires her so much that she got a job at the publishing house where she works purely because they publish Margaret's books, and she hoped she'd be able to meet her. That hasn't happened, but Margaret's presence on her flight is Elizabeth's perfect opportunity.

After a bit of a humiliating first attempt on the plane, Elizabeth fears she's wasted that incredible opportunity. But an accident at luggage collection leaves Margaret without a secretary, and Elizabeth seizes her chance. She makes use of her connection to her employers to offer her help, and ends up giving up her holiday to serve as Margaret's secretary herself. It's a dream come true.

But that dream turns a bit weird when Margaret disappears from her hotel room, and it becomes clear that the accident that put her original secretary out of commission was an attempt to insert someone else into her circle -an attempt that Elizabeth unwittingly foiled. Elizabeth has to team up with Christian, Margaret's supercilious son to find out what's going on.

This was just wonderful. Pure, unadulterated fun. We get to run around Copenhagen following completely absurd clues, seeing our characters get into (and out of) ridiculous situations. Elizabeth is probably not the deepest character ever, but what there is of her is great -Peters' usual sensible, brave heroine. Christian is perfect for her, the initially stuffy, overly logical man who ends up behaving completely out of character out of true love :)

And Margaret... oh, Margaret. I adored her. She's eccentric in a really great way, in that she doesn't give a crap about other people's approval, but she does give a crap about being kind. There's a little thread here about people's children becoming a bit overbearing and overprotective when their parents age, and how that feels. It's the one serious note, a lightly made point, but well-made all the same.

The setting was also a highlight. We get quite a bit of the tourist-eye view of Copenhagen, and I had a blast with that. I almost wish I could visit early 1980s Copenhagen :) Because yes, this is a pretty old book. It was published in 1982, and that's quite clear. But not because the book feels at all dated... not at all. In Peters' books, the attitudes always feel remarkably modern (maybe with a few little occasional wobbles). Her female characters face sexism, but it's not internalised, and they are strong and capable women. So I don't cringe in the way I sometimes do when I read other books written a few decades ago. You can only tell this is not written today because of how external things work (no mobile phones or internet, etc.). Elizabeth, Christian and Margaret could comfortably inhabit a book written right now.

Now that I've reread one of Peters' books, I may not be able to stop. I foresee many happy rereading hours as the days get longer and darker!

MY GRADE: A strong B+.

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A Dark and Stormy Murder, by Julia Buckley

>> Wednesday, September 12, 2018

TITLE: A Dark and Stormy Murder
AUTHOR: Julia Buckley

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 304
PUBLISHER: Berkley

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Cozy mystery
SERIES: Writer's Apprentice #1

An aspiring suspense novelist lands in the middle of a real crime, in the first in a captivating new series by the author of the Undercover Dish Mysteries.

Lena London's literary dreams are coming true—as long as she can avoid any real-life villains...

Camilla Graham’s bestselling suspense novels inspired Lena London to become a writer, so when she lands a job as Camilla’s new assistant, she can’t believe her luck. Not only will she help her idol craft an enchanting new mystery, she’ll get to live rent-free in Camilla’s gorgeous Victorian home in the quaint town of Blue Lake, Indiana.

But Lena’s fortune soon changes for the worse. First, she lands in the center of small town gossip for befriending the local recluse. Then, she stumbles across one thing that a Camilla Graham novel is never without—a dead body, found on her new boss’s lakefront property.

Now Lena must take a page out of one of Camilla’s books to hunt down clues in a real crime that seems to be connected to the novelist’s mysterious estate—before the killer writes them both out of the story for good...
A Dark and Stormy Murder was recommended as a book that would appeal to those of us who miss Mary Stewart's brand of romantic suspense. It turned out to be a bit of a misrecommendation. While the heroine herself is a huge fan of a writer whose books sound distinctly Mary Stewart-ish, the book itself was a very run-of-the-mill small town cozy mystery, and not particularly well-done, either.

Lena London can't believe her luck when her best friend's new knitting group buddy turns out to be Lena's idol, writer Camilla Graham. Even better: Camilla is looking for an assistant, and a suggestion that Lena would be perfect for that role has been well-received. Within a few days, Lena is driving to the small town of Blue Lake, Indiana, with a car loaded with all her possessions and her cat, Lestrade.

Camilla is as nice as Lena could have hoped and the job is great (her first task is to review Camilla's latest manuscript and provide her with some notes. Lena almost swoons at the thought). But although the town is as pretty and quaint as she had hoped, Lena is immediately brought face to face with its dark side, when someone is killed on the beach right outside the house. And not all is right with her next-door neighbour, either. Sam's wife disappeared a few months earlier and the entire town is convinced he is a killer.

This sounds like fun, doesn't it? I thought it did, and as I read and read, tried to convince myself it was as good as I was wishing it to be. It wasn't, though, and I ended up giving up at about the halfway point.

What was the problem? Well, Lena. Everything about her. First of all, she's way too much of a wish-fulfillment character. Her dream job lands on her lap without her having to do anything to get it (or particularly deserving it). Camilla is a dream, and decides to pay her an astronomical amount of money for something Lena would have done for free. Even more annoyingly, as soon as Lena arrives at Blue Lake every single man is simply smitten with her. It was tiresome. Mary Sue characters are.

I think I could have coped with that, but then, there's the fact that Lena is incredibly stupid. My favourite bit was when her friend is warning her about Sam and that he might be dangerous and she insists he's fine and the situation is really unfair and that he doesn't know where his wife is. Why is she so sure? Well, he told her he doesn't know where his wife is. I stopped reading after the scene when the police officer (another of her smitten suitors) has turned up to warn Sam the New York cops have found blood in his flat and he will be arrested. Lena is incensed! So incensed, in fact, that she throws nuts at the cop and his partner. Nuts!! What is she, a monkey? Seriously!

I couldn't cope with the idiocy.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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The Great Escape, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

>> Monday, September 10, 2018

TITLE: The Great Escape
AUTHOR: Susan Elizabeth Phillips

COPYRIGHT: 2012
PAGES: 448
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Related to First Lady

Where do you run to when your life has fallen apart?

Lucy Jorik is a champ at never embarrassing the family she adores—not surprising since her mother is one of the most famous women in the world. But now Lucy has done just that. And on her wedding day, no less, to the most perfect man she's ever known.

Instead of saying "I do" to Mr. Irresistible, Lucy flees the church in an ill-fitting blue choir robe and hitches a ride on the back of a beat-up motorcycle plastered with offensive bumper stickers. She's flying into the unknown with a rough-looking, bad-tempered stranger who couldn't be more foreign to her privileged existence.

While the world searches for her, Lucy must search for herself, and she quickly realizes that her customary good manners are no defense against a man who's raised rudeness to an art form. Lucy needs to toughen up—and fast.

Her great escape takes her to his rambling beach house on a Great Lakes island. Here, she hopes to find a new direction . . . and unlock the secrets of this man who knows so much about her but reveals nothing about himself. As the hot summer days unfold amid scented breezes and sudden storms, she'll also encounter a beautiful, troubled beekeeper; a frightened young boy; a modern-day evil queen; and a passion that could change her life forever.

In this dazzling follow-up to her New York Times bestseller Call Me Irresistible, Susan Elizabeth Phillips tells the funny, touching, enchanting story of a young woman searching for her destiny... and of a damaged man who doesn't believe in second chances.
The Great Escape is the story of Lucy Jorik, the older daughter from First Lady. Lucy is engaged to be married to a genuinely nice and absolutely perfect guy. She's been listening just to her head, which is telling her that of course she loves him and of course she should marry him, but her heart is not in it. Unfortunately, Lucy does not decide to listen to her heart until right before the wedding is supposed to take place. Like, about-to-walk-down-the-aisle right before.

In a panic, Lucy just takes off, and in a very SEP move, gets a rough-looking, extremely rude and grumpy biker to give her a ride away from the church. The guy is Patrick Shade, aka Panda (yet more WTFery), and they end up spending a fair bit of time together. Patrick (sorry, I refuse to call him Panda) doesn't want to be taking care of a woman he sees as a spoiled princess, but instead of having a conversation with her and levelly explaining to her that she needs to be on her way, he decides he'll be a complete arsehole to her and make her want to leave on her own. Immature idiot.

You might be guessing that I absolutely hated this book at the start. Not Lucy so much (yes, her running away from the church is stupid, but it felt understandable to me), but Patrick and the dynamic between them. But mainly Patrick. I just found it hard to accept a ‘hero’ who’d have bumper stickers on his motorcycle reading ‘Gas, grass or ass, nobody rides for free’ and ‘Don’t trust anything that bleeds 5 days a month and doesn’t die’. You can argue all you want that he doesn’t really mean it, or that he only put them there to get a rise out of people, but he still put them there, and I find that unacceptable. I despised him.

But, but, but... this is par for the course for SEP. Her setups are so often idiotic and even her best characters so often start out hateful, that the sorts of things that would make me toss other authors' books aside with no compunction just make me grit my teeth and carry on, hoping to get to the other side.

And you know what? There was another side here, and one that made the rough start worth it. There’s a reason for Patrick's meanness (a good one), and he actually feels guilty about it, and feels he should apologise. He ends up being someone I mostly liked and who I thought was good for Lucy.

Because Lucy's journey was the best thing about the book. She starts out as a bit of a spineless wonder, but then it became clear that her goody-goody behaviour and reluctance to make a fuss arose from a huge sense of obligation to her parents, a fear that she needed to deserve their love, otherwise she might lose it. And that's when it started making sense why SEP chose to have her heroine be that character from First Lady. Until that realisation, I was wondering what was the point of taking that tough-but-vulnerable amazing character and have her supposedly be this idiot, but it made sense that Lucy's character would develop that way. Even her immaturity and delight in stuff that was really pretty juvenile made sense. That was all stuff she'd missed doing when she felt she had to turn into the perfect daughter and not embarrass her parents.

I even loved (don't judge me!) Lucy’s assumption of the identity of Viper. I’ll be honest, when she first starts fantasising about being this tough biker chick called Viper, who doesn’t give a shit, I thought it was pathetic. But it turned into a way for Lucy to stand up to Patrick (and everyone else, really). There’s a lot of ‘Lucy would have been nice and caved, but Viper didn’t’, until it became second nature for Lucy to be that stronger person and Viper wasn't needed any more. It was actually great to see.

So yeah, I'll never be Patrick's biggest fan, but Lucy was such a good character that the book worked for me.

This is already going on too long, but before I close, I should also mention how much I liked the secondary characters. SEP always has a secondary romance (it was actually a couple of them here), and she seems to feel she can go less traditional with them than with her main characters. These ones were particularly nice.

MY GRADE: A B.

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A long walk, grumpy women and space opera.

>> Saturday, September 08, 2018

Three B books today. All enjoyable, to different degrees.


TITLE: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
AUTHOR: Rachel Joyce

Harold Fry has recently retired and is feeling a bit at a loss. When he receives a letter telling him a friend he hasn't seen for a very long time is dying, he's sad, but not devastated. But then his walk to the postbox to send his response letter suddenly turns into a walk to visit her, hundreds of miles away.

I really liked this. The setup has a touch of the Forrest Gump to it, but the feel is quite different. Harold is an ordinary man who never quite realised he was in a bit of a crisis. His sudden decision to start walking (in completely inappropriate shoes and no gear) is as big a surprise to him as it is to those around him (probably bigger, actually). And through his adventures he start dealing quite effectively with what ails him.

I think what I liked best was that the story is as much about him as about his wife Maureen, left at home. Maureen changes just as much, and strangely, they grow together even though they're physicallyapart. I found this to be quite a moving book, with some nice, gentle humour.

MY GRADE: A B+.


TITLE: Along Came Trouble
AUTHOR: Ruthie Knox

This one is part of Knox's Camelot series (starts with the How To Misbehave novella). What sparks everything off is the stormy romance between a famous pop star and a girl-next-door type pregnant woman. But this story is not about them, it's about Ellen, the pop star's sister (and neighbour to pregnant lady) and Caleb, the security specialist hired to keep troublesome paparazzi away from her.

This one was ok, but not particularly memorable. The most interesting thing about it was how Ellen was quite grumpy and difficult with Caleb (for very good reasons). I got a sort of perverse pleasure out of it. There's also a nice secondary romance (the pop star brother and Ellen's neighbour), where actually, the woman is pretty difficult as well. A bit of a theme in the book, I guess! The story did take quite a while to get going, and it wasn't particularly a page turner even once it did, but it was nice enough.

MY GRADE: A B-.


TITLE: Finders Keepers
AUTHOR: Linnea Sinclair

I do love a bit of space opera, and that's what I got here. Trilby Elliot, our heroine, is a small-fry freighter captain. She's making some repairs to her ship in an uninhabited planet in the middle of nowhere when an enemy ship crashes close by. She's surprised to find a survivor there, and not an enemy, but a Big Deal military man from an empire that is a new ally to Trilby's. Rhis Vanur was on a spying mission and he needs to go back to base with what he discovered asap. And he is now reliant on Trilby and her battered ship to get him there.

I loved the dynamics between Trilby and Rhis. Trilby is from the Conclave, a fairly easy-going group, whereas Rhis is part of the Zafharin Empire, ruthlessly organised and with a reputation for being cold and cruel and humour-less. The setup reminded me a little bit of my beloved Cordelia and Aral in Lois McMaster Bujold's Shards of Honor, and Rhis is exactly my favourite kind of hero: one who's had to be rigid and closed down all his life, but who is a softie underneath.

I was less enamoured of some of the twists and turns of the plot, but romance-wise, this was very good.

MY GRADE: A strong B.

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Star wars and five gods

>> Thursday, September 06, 2018

Two really enjoyable novellas today.

TITLE: Kindred Spirits
AUTHOR: Rainbow Rowell

Elena is a Star Wars superfan. She's grown up hearing about what it was like when the original films came out, and would have liked nothing more than to have been there for the party. Imagine, queuing for days with a group of like-minded people, all of you getting more and more excited, until you go in and the film is just as good as you expected! So when the new Star Wars movie comes out, Elena doesn't hesitate. A few days before opening night, she heads to the movie theatre to join the party. But there is no party. There's just a couple of other people, and the experience is decidedly unglamorous. But what starts out extremely unpromising may just turn out to be perfectly wonderful.

This was a fun, very sweet read (sweet in a good way, kind of quirky and interesting). It's got moments of fun and a very real heart. I liked it. Most of all, it's a celebration and exploration of fandom, which may be why it didn't resonate with me as much as it has with other readers. See, I've no experience of fandom. There are things I love, even things I've been super into (maybe even semi-obsessed?) for periods, but I've never experienced that... well, that melding of object and self that Rowell seems to describe, that feeling that this thing defines an aspect of you, and that part of your identity is enmeshed in this thing you're a fan of. So while I could appreciate this book and understand it intellectually, it didn't have the impact it probably would have if I had identified with this feeling a bit more.

MY GRADE: A B.


TITLE: Penric's Demon
AUTHOR: Lois McMaster Bujold

This is the first in a series of novellas set in the World of the Five Gods (same universe and, most importantly, religion as the Chalion novels, but set a long time before, and in a different location). The novellas follow a young man, Lord Penric, who accidentally ends up playing host to a demon. And when I say "playing host", I mean within his own body. The demon, who he decides should have a name and goes for Desdemona, brings with her centuries of experience and skills, plus some very cool supernatural powers, all of which are now at Penric's disposal. She is also super snarky and contrary. Penric, who until his fateful encounter with Desdemona had been a sweet, inoffensive and pretty innocent young man, gets quite the education.

I loved it. The world-building is great. You don't need to have read the other books set in this universe to understand this one, but I had reread The Curse of Chalion just a few weeks before, and I felt that already knowing a bit of the context about the gods (particularly the Bastard) enhanced my enjoyment. There are great characters, a fair bit of intrigue and danger, and lots of the gentle humour Bujold is so good at. But the best thing was the relationship between Penric and Desdemona. Before Penric, Desdemona had always been considered as a tool and a prize by all the people she'd been hosted by. Penric is the first to extend her the courtesy of considering her a being deserving of respect. I may have teared up slightly at some points :)

MY GRADE: A very strong B+.

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