Someone To Hold, by Mary Balogh

>> Wednesday, November 21, 2018

TITLE: Someone To Hold
AUTHOR: Mary Balogh

COPYRIGHT: 2017
PAGES: 379
PUBLISHER: Berkley

SETTING: Early 19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 2nd in the Westcotts series

Humphrey Westcott, Earl of Riverdale, has died, leaving behind a fortune and a scandalous secret that will forever alter the lives of his family—sending one daughter on a journey of self-discovery...

With her parents’ marriage declared bigamous, Camille Westcott is now illegitimate and without a title. Looking to eschew the trappings of her old life, she leaves London to teach at the Bath orphanage where her newly discovered half-sister lived. But even as she settles in, she must sit for a portrait commissioned by her grandmother and endure an artist who riles her every nerve.

An art teacher at the orphanage that was once his home, Joel Cunningham has been hired to paint the portrait of the haughty new teacher. But as Camille poses for Joel, their mutual contempt soon turns to desire. And it is only the bond between them that will allow them to weather the rough storm that lies ahead...
Book 1 in this series started with a bang. During the reading of the Earl of Riverdale's will, a mysterious young woman walked in, having been invited by the lawyers. The Countess immediately knew she must be the young woman her husband had been supporting in an orphanage since she was a child. How inappropriate for an illegitimate daughter to force herself upon her father's legitimate family! But it turned out Anna wasn't an illegitimate daughter. The Earl had actually married her mother. That was shocking enough. But the next revelation was even more shattering: Anna's mother had died after the Earl married again. The second marriage was bigamous, and thus, invalid. In one stroke, all the Earl's children but Anna were declared illegitimate. Anna inherited piles of money, as the Earl's only legitimate child, and the title passed onto a distant cousin.

Camille Westcott is one of Anna's disgraced half-sisters. She's had a very tough time in the months since the reading of the will. Her highborn fiancé immediately dumped her, her beloved brother Harry decided to run off to join the Army in the Peninsular War, and her mother retired to the country to live a quiet life with her own parents. Camille and her younger sister are living in Bath with their grandmother, and while their grandmother's friends are still friendly, none of the young people they would have befriended in previous years will give them the time of day. The young women don't want to be associated with them, the young men have no interest in courting them.

To be fair, Camille's had a tougher time than she need have. Anna offered to share her fortune, but was rejected out of hand. So were her friendly overtures. It was mostly Camille's doing. Harry was off like a shot (hah!) as soon as he found out the news, and Abby was young and led by Camille. But Camille is in a place where she's... well, not quite 'wallowing', but sort of, and also kind of punishing herself. She feels she and Abby should adjust to their new circumstances, and all the efforts by the people who love them to keep them in the world they grew up in are just postponing the inevitable, even if they mean well. I found that attitude that so puzzles and frustrates her grandmother and sister really psychologically believable; it told me so much more about how traumatised she was feeling about the changes in her life than if we'd simply been told so.

It just so happens that the orphanage where Anna grew up is also in Bath, and it seems to hold some sort of fascination for Camille. First she applies to be a teacher there (illegitimate young women should probably learn how to earn a living), just as Anna had been. Then, when the rest of the Westcotts announce they're about to descend on Bath, supposedly to celebrate a birthday, but really to bring the girls back into the fold, Camille decides she can't stand that and requests to move into living quarters in the orphanage (you guessed it, the same room where Anna used to live).

While at the orphanage, she comes to know Joel Cunningham. Joel grew up there with Anna, and they were best friends. Actually, he thought he was in love with her, but she loved him like a brother, and he's starting to realise she was right. Particularly because he's started to care for Camille in a way he never cared for Anna...

I liked this one quite a bit, mainly because of Camilla. She's exactly the sort of heroine I'm most interested in these days: a somewhat difficult woman, who's difficult for understandable reasons. She was quite unlikeable in book 1, and she's still the same person in this book, only you get to see things from her eyes, and that perspective makes a difference.

I've talked above about how I found some of her more 'illogical' reactions psychologically believable, and that was the case for everything about her. I recognised her as a person, and I loved seeing her begin to heal from the hurt that was done to her. And there were sections that really touched me, like how Camille begins to identify with a particular child at the orphanage with certain quite unattractive qualities (the sections with that child close to the end had me sniffling a bit).

The romance was nice enough, albeit relatively low-chemistry, but I was more interested in all the other stuff going on, from Joel's unexpected discovery of his birth family to Camille's thawing relationship with Anna. That was all particularly satisfying. Nice.

MY GRADE: A B.

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A bunch of early DNFs

>> Monday, November 19, 2018

I abandoned all three of these relatively early on.

TITLE: Too Hot To Handle
AUTHOR: Tessa Bailey

This starts a series about 4 siblings on a road trip to fulfil their mother's last wish: a winter dive into the ocean in New York. Too Hot To Handle focuses on Rita, the older sister, who followed her mother's steps and became a chef. She's not in a good place, since she just created a mess by going after a fellow contestant in a cooking show with a knife (!) and her mum's restaurant burnt down, for which she blames herself (with good reason). On the way from California to New York, the car breaks down and the siblings are rescued by Jasper Ellis, a bad boy who doesn't want to be a bad boy any more.

I was really interested in Jasper's story. He has developed a bad reputation, and is struggling to be seen as more than just a wild guy and a good lay. But I gave up on this one relatively early on because all the characters' reactions and interactions felt fake. I was constantly going "huh?" and wondering why on earth a particular character was reacting in a particular way. Just didn't click with me, I guess.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

TITLE: One Cretan Evening and Other Stories
AUTHOR: Victoria Hislop

I was in Crete, so wanted to read about Crete. But I read only the remarkably pointless title story. A man arrives to a small Cretan village and enters a house abandoned since the previous occupant's death. This was a woman who'd been ostracised by the village, seemingly for no good reason. I really didn't get the significance of the man's visit, or even the point of the story. I just pressed delete before wasting more time on the other stories.

Also to note that a big chunk of the book is an excerpt from one of Hislop's novels. Meh.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

TITLE: The Girl from Summer Hill
AUTHOR: Jude Deveraux

This sounded like fun, and I used to really like Jude Deveraux way back when. It's a Pride and Prejudice homage, centred around a local theatre company putting on a play of it. The heroine, Casey, is a chef who's catering for the cast, while the hero, Tate, is a famous actor who helps his cousin out by playing Darcy in the production the cousin is directing. But all the amateur actresses are so star-struck, that they can't handle playing Lizzie opposite Tate! Enter Casey, who has taken an immediate dislike to him and thinks he's an arrogant arsehole, and she gets the part.

The setup was ok (although there's a fair bit of people acting like impetuous idiots), but it was the writing that made me put this down sharpish. It felt very simplistic, with a lot of telling and no showing at all. It was as if Deveraux was describing the skeleton of the thing and would come back to fill it in later, only she didn’t. It also felt very old-fashioned... the sort of book where beauty means being blonde and blue-eyed and that's it. I don't think there was a woman depicted as beautiful in the whole chunk that I read who didn't fit that pattern. Not for me.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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First Star I See Tonight, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

>> Saturday, November 17, 2018

TITLE: First Star I See Tonight
AUTHOR: Susan Elizabeth Phillips

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 384
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Not really, but some characters from previous books show up

A star quarterback and a feisty detective play for keeps in this sporty, sexy, sassy novel—a long-awaited new entry in the beloved, award-winning, New York Times bestselling author’s fan-favorite Chicago Stars football series.

Piper Dove is a woman with a dream—to become the best detective in the city of Chicago. First job? Trail former Chicago Stars quarterback, Cooper Graham. Problem? Graham’s spotted her, and he’s not happy.

Which is why a good detective needs to think on her feet. “The fact is . . . I’m your stalker. Not full-out barmy. Just . . . mildly unhinged.”

Piper soon finds herself working for Graham himself, although not as the bodyguard he refuses to admit he so desperately needs. Instead, he’s hired her to keep an eye on the employees at his exclusive new nightclub. But Coop’s life might be in danger, and Piper’s determined to protect him, whether he wants it or not. (Hint: Not!) If only she weren’t also dealing with a bevy of Middle Eastern princesses, a Pakistani servant girl yearning for freedom, a teenager who just wants of fit in, and an elderly neighbor demanding Piper find her very dead husband.

And then there’s Cooper Graham himself, a legendary sports hero who always gets what he wants—even if what he wants is a feisty detective hell bent on proving she’s as tough as he is.

From the bustling streets of Chicago to a windswept lighthouse on Lake Superior to the glistening waters of Biscayne Bay, two people who can’t stand to lose will test themselves and each other to discover what matters most.
It's been quite a while since I've read a SEP book, mainly because for everything in them that's appealing, I tend to find something that's very problematic. However, when she's good, she's really good. So I got home one day after a particularly stressful day, and decided this one was exactly what I needed.

Piper Dove has finally managed to get a client who might be the ticket to the survival of the fledgling detective agency her father founded. If she can impress them, many more important clients will follow. She only needs to follow Cooper Graham around without him seeing her, which shouldn't be too hard, considering the amount of attention he attracts whenever he goes out. Cooper has recently retired as the Chicago Stars football team star quarterback, and the city still loves him to bits (well, the parts of the city that don't support The Stars' rivals, as Piper does).

Only the job is not a piece of cake, and Cooper spots her. He wants to know who hired her, and threatens to sue. But when Piper refuses to betray the confidentiality of her relationship with her client, only assuring Cooper that there's nothing there that will harm him, he has to grudgingly respect her. And after she points out some really shitty schemes ran by Cooper's employees at the nightclub he's founded, she ends up in his employment.

The description sounded like I'd have to get over a lot of cringe. The bit whoever wrote the cover copy chose to highlight as a good example of just how hilarious this book is comes from when Cooper makes Piper following him and she has to come up with some sort of excuse on her feet. And the best she comes up with is: “The fact is . . . I’m your stalker. Not full-out barmy. Just . . . mildly unhinged.” And that scene was pretty ugh. Hah hah, mental illness, so funny.

But that's not really Piper at all! I was afraid that whole thing, with Piper pretending to have mental health issues, would continue on, and on, and on, but it doesn't. It lasts for exactly one short scene. The very next time they meet, Cooper finds out she's actually a PI, which was a huge relief. And she's good at it! I really liked that Piper is actually super competent, and she doesn't fall all over herself with lust for Cooper. She does find him very attractive, but she's perfectly capable of controlling those feelings, unlike so many romance heroines of old (and often new, unfortunately).

Actually, in general I felt this was a slightly more enlightened SEP at times! We've got no slut shaming or demonisation of beautiful, stereotypically 'feminine' women, in spite of our heroine being one of those "just like one of the guys" heroines. This felt like it was being done on purpose, like SEP acknowledging the toxic romance trope and intentionally subverting it. There's a scene in Cooper's nightclub where Piper's been thinking disparaging thoughts about the gorgeous blondes with uniformly swishy hair in the VIP section. She runs into one of them in the loo, and they get talking. Turns out the other woman is about to get her PhD in Public Health! Huh, Piper thinks, she needs to stop making assumptions about the swishies! It's a bit too on the nose, but better than the other extreme, at least.

The romance was a bit mixed for me. I liked a lot of it, mostly because of Piper. Cooper was nice enough, typical SEP hero, but on the low end for assholishness. Still, nothing too special. Piper was the character who shone. Which is why the way late in the book she undergoes a complete change of heart about something very important to her left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. I can just about choose to believe that this was what she actually wanted all along, it's just that she was afraid to want it because of her upbringing, but only just about.

Finally, I really should mention that there's also a big mess of an incredibly ill-judged subplot which felt a lot more like the old, insensitive SEP. It involved Saudi princesses a "Pakistani servant girl", and it was terrible. Very simplistic and old fashioned, with a distinct 'white saviour' vibe. It didn't ruin the book for me, but it could (and should) just have been cut out of it.

MY GRADE: This was still a mostly very positive reading experience. A B.

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The Outsider, by Stephen King

>> Saturday, November 03, 2018

TITLE: The Outsider
AUTHOR: Stephen King

COPYRIGHT: 2018
PAGES: 576
PUBLISHER: Scribner

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Paranormal fiction
SERIES: I'd say this is #4 in the Bill Hodges series

An unspeakable crime. A confounding investigation. At a time when the King brand has never been stronger, he has delivered one of his most unsettling and compulsively readable stories.

An eleven-year-old boy’s violated corpse is found in a town park. Eyewitnesses and fingerprints point unmistakably to one of Flint City’s most popular citizens. He is Terry Maitland, Little League coach, English teacher, husband, and father of two girls. Detective Ralph Anderson, whose son Maitland once coached, orders a quick and very public arrest. Maitland has an alibi, but Anderson and the district attorney soon add DNA evidence to go with the fingerprints and witnesses. Their case seems ironclad.

As the investigation expands and horrifying answers begin to emerge, King’s propulsive story kicks into high gear, generating strong tension and almost unbearable suspense. Terry Maitland seems like a nice guy, but is he wearing another face? When the answer comes, it will shock you as only Stephen King can.
TW for sexual abuse of children. Doesn't happen on-screen, but you do get some pretty nauseating details.

The sexual assault and murder of a local child is one of the most horrific crimes Flint City Police Detective Ralph Anderson has ever had to investigate. The details of how things went down and the mutilation of the body are truly stomach-churning.

But the case is also the easiest to solve in Ralph's career. Witness after witness after witness identify previously squeaky-clean Little League coach Terry Maitland as the man who was seen stopping by the little boy, who was walking home pushing his bike with a broken chain. Terry was seen talking to the boy and putting the bike in his van. He was seen coming out of the woods where the child was found, covered in blood. He was seen at pretty much every stage of committing his crime. There's physical evidence galore, as well. Fingerprints everywhere you'd expect them to be if the perpetrator hadn't worn gloves or wiped them off, even DNA evidence. No murderer has ever been this careless, no case has ever been this watertight.

But once a very public, very humiliating arrest has been made, evidence starts to emerge that seems at odds with the facts Ralph is so convinced of. Terry claims to have been somewhere else at the time of the murder, somewhere quite far from Flint City. And the evidence for that is rock-solid as well...

And that's all the detail I'm going to give about the plot, as I don't want to ruin any surprises. Suffice it to say that Ralph ends up pursuing the doubts generated by Terry's alibi, and these threads lead into some quite scary directions.

The Outsider is a page-turner, even though if you think about it objectively, there's less plot than you would expect in a book that is almost 600 pages long. That's because the plotty bits are very nicely balanced out by quite a bit of character development and interaction, and that, to me, was what made this book so excellent.

I particularly liked the way Ralph is not acting alone in his investigation. Almost without trying, a sort of team is created, made up of people whose interest in the case comes from several different directions. They each bring their strengths to the case. And that is something that I always love. In this case, it was also a wonderful bonus to have one of the people in the team be Holly Gibney, who readers of King's Bill Hodges series (which starts with Mr Mercedes) will surely remember. She's still very much Holly, but she's also a character who has evolved and changed and gone a long way from the little mouse of a woman of the first book. I loved the connection and growing friendship between her and Ralph. That was just beautiful.

The supernatural element was really interesting. We go into the mythology of Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries, a particular being that was a part of my childhood but in a very mild, disembodied way. It was fascinating to see the much more concrete forms, with some very detailed mythology, that it takes in other Latin American countries. I'll never think of a particular lullaby in the same way again, I can tell you that!

Finally, the conclusion of the book was great. Exciting and surprising, and plenty of closure afterwards. Loved it.

MY GRADE: A very enjoyable A-.

AUDIOBOOK NOTES: This one had the same narrator as the Bill Hodges series, Will Patton. He does some very idiosyncratic voices. I found them annoying at first when I started reading Mr Mercedes, but by the time I got to this one, they feel just right. It was nice to have Holly have exactly the same voice as before, even if I did feel Ralph's voice was maybe a bit too close to Bill's in the previous series.

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Two very different (but similarly average) historicals

>> Thursday, November 01, 2018

TITLE: Aiding the Enemy
AUTHOR: Julie Rowe

Aiding the Enemy has a pretty unique premise. It takes place in 1915 in Brussels, which was then under German occupation. Rose Culver is a nurse who has been secretly helping British and other allied soldiers escape into neutral territory, right under the noses of the Germans. She knows it's almost inevitable she'll be caught; in fact, she has been on borrowed time for a while already. The hero is Herman Geoff, a German doctor working in the same hospital. German is well-aware of what Rose has been doing, but that's fine by his ethical code. He worries about her, though, and when it becomes clear his worries are well-founded, he decides to help.

This was very promising and the setup was fab, but the execution was not great. Herman was a bit too one-dimensional, and I never felt I got to know him at all. As for Rose, I found her actions too often impetuous and stupid ("oh, no, even though us marrying is the only way to save my life, it's not the right reason to do something as important as get married. I'm gonna run away instead!!"). Add to that zero chemistry, and this was pretty meh.

MY GRADE: A C-.

TITLE: The Mystery Woman
AUTHOR: Amanda Quick

Beatrice Lockwood started out life working as a clairvoyant, but left that life behind after her employer was killed and the murderer almost caught Beatrice herself. Since then she's been working for a detective agency where the detectives are all women and investigate by being placed as companions and governesses (this is second in a series based around this agency). The hero, Joshua North, is a former spy whose sister is being blackmailed. He initially thinks Beatrice is the blackmailer, but they're soon working together to investigate.

This was very average. The Mystery Woman was written back when Krentz was just stopping with her tedious Arcane Society stuff, so the paranormal element was not as bad as it could have been, but still not great. There are some nice moments, but nothing special. And same for the romance. I liked that Beatrice and Joshua are both mature grown-ups having perfectly good lives earning a living. They also seem to suit each other well. But for all that, they were a bit indistinct.

Nice enough way to pass a few hours, but unremarkable.

MY GRADE: A C+.

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Inherit Midnight, by Kate Kae Myers

>> Tuesday, October 30, 2018

TITLE: Inherit Midnight
AUTHOR: Kate Kae Myers

COPYRIGHT: 2015
PAGES: 390
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury

SETTING: Contemporary, various locations around the world
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

The Competition

Seventeen-year-old Avery VanDemere's ridiculously wealthy grandmother has decided to leave the family fortune to the relative who proves him or herself worthiest--by solving puzzles and riddles on a whirlwind race around the globe.

The Contenders

For Avery, the contest offers a chance to escape. As the black sheep of the VanDemere clan--the illegitimate daughter, sent away to boarding school--she'd love to use that prize money to run away from the family who ostracized her . . . and discover the truth about her long-lost mother.

Marshall might be Avery's uncle by blood, but there's no love lost between them. He'll do anything to win, even if it means turning on his own children.

Riley is the charming son of Grandmother VanDemere's lawyer. As the game progresses, Avery finds herself drawn to him--even though she isn't quite sure she can trust him.

The Winner?

Treacherous turns in the competition serve as brutal reminders that only one person can win it all. Is Avery willing to risk both her heart and her life to claim the grand prize?
Oh, so conflicted about this one!

On one hand, it is super fun. The plot is basically an Amazing Race-type competition. Avery VanDemere's family is extremely wealth (and pretty disfunctional). Her grandmother has decided to have all her potential heirs compete for a chance to inherit the family fortune. To do that, they'll have to travel round the world, solving puzzles and completing challenges. All of these have some connection to family history, so those relatives who have taken an interest in that will have an advantage.

Avery is not that fussed about the inheritance, but her grandmother sweetens the deal. Not only will she be able to leave the horrible boarding school where she is stuck now, she will also be given information about her mother the more she progresses with the challenges. Avery was taken away from her by her grandmother and has been given almost no information about who she was. She's desperate to know more, so she'll play the game. She'll be helped by Riley, son of the family lawyer, a guy only slightly older than her. So clearly, there's a bit of potential romance as well.

So, you need to suspend disbelief pretty vigorously, but if you do, the plot is fun. The challenges are creative and cool and it was fun to travel round the world with Avery. The characters are kind of preposterous, but I could get over that. And Avery is clever and resourceful, and I loved all the different ways in which she bested her competitors.

All that said, this book is immensely problematic. Basically, the supposedly responsible adults behave disgustingly. Avery's grandmother, Justine, vile and pathetic in equal measures.

She's vile for what's she's done to Avery, from stealing her from her mother (using her money and power to basically bully a young woman horrifically) to isolate her from every single other child other than her bullying cousins (and completely ignoring that bullying, even though it must have been obvious), to sending her to a frankly abusive boarding school (she supposedly didn't know about that, but seriously, it was more that she didn't want to know, IMO). I did NOT want this horrible person to get what she wants out of the competition. I wanted her to be told to go fuck herself. While there is some recognition of the unacceptableness of Justine's behaviour, it wasn't enough. She mostly gets away with it, albeit with Avery taking her to task a little bit. But then, I would not have been truly satisfied with anything less than Justine being put in jail for child abuse.

Her patheticness is not dealt with at all. Justine is pathetic because she's pathologically obsessed with the family history. It's all about how the family must be proud about what their ancestors did, and that is basically all that makes the family important and valuable. They're better than everyone else because they can trace their ancestors and those ancestors were people who did important things. Sorry, but having amazing ancestors says nothing at all about how valuable you are. Rather than being called out on this unhealthy obsession, this is more or less validated, with Avery feeling that the competition has worked wonders in helping her appreciate where she's come from, etc.

Riley's father, the family lawyer, also behaves abominably, IMO. He's implementing Justine's wishes with the info about Avery's mother, but seems to have some latitude in how he does so. So this is a grown-up man who consciously manipulates a 17-year-old girl by withholding information about her long-lost mother and using it to get her to do what he wants. It's all about his business. Sorry, but no. I wasn't crazy about the romance, because of that. Riley seems nice and does seem to care about Avery, but he's working with his father, knowing exactly what his father is doing. I lost a lot of respect for him for playing that game.

MY GRADE: This was a B- for me, a mix of the fun I had while reading it and trying not to think of the problematic issues and the appallingness of those issues.

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Back to the 1920s

>> Sunday, October 28, 2018

Two novels set in the 1920s today.


TITLE: A Monstrous Regiment of Women
AUTHOR: Laurie R King

This is the second book in a series about Mary Russell, a young woman who becomes Sherlock Holmes' colleague, friend, and then something more (review of book 1 here). In this book, Mary 's relationship with Holmes has reached a bit of a turning point, and she seeks a bit of distance, to better consider things. As luck would have it, she meets an acquaintance from university and through her, comes into contact with a feminist/religious society led by an extremely charismatic figure. When she discovers a series of mysterious deaths (with all the deceased leaving their wealth to the society), Mary feels she must investigate. She's in a good position to do so, as she's about to come into her inheritance and, for someone looking at her from the outside, she may look like exactly the sort of person who'd go for the sort of cult the society seems to be. Of course, before long, Holmes is involved as well.

The mystery is interesting, and I particularly liked the setting. Not just the details about life in those circles in the 1920s, but also the feel of it. But what I liked the most was the character development. Mary launches into her investigation feeling very sure she's immune to the charisma of the leader, but it's not that straightforward, and this helps her understand where she still needs to work on herself. And her relationship with Holmes continues to develop very satisfyingly. I'm not usually the biggest fan of relationships with such big age gaps, but with these two, King convinces me that their minds are so in sync that age really doesn't matter.

MY GRADE: A B+.

TITLE: The Other Side of Midnight
AUTHOR: Simone St James

Ellie Winter is a medium operating in 1920s London. She's the real deal, which is why she's given up on the heavy stuff, the contacting-the-dead kind of work. That's much too traumatic when you're not faking it. But when one of her former colleagues dies, Ellie can't disregard the message from the dead woman asking her to investigate. Gloria was the only other person with real psychic powers that Ellie knew of. So she ends up working with James Hawley, a veteran who's dedicated to debunking fake psychics, to find out what happened to Gloria.

Simone St James writes books that should be my crack, but don't quite hit the mark. Everything about this one should have really worked for me. The plot, the time period, the conflict in the romance (Ellie and James have a bit of a past, when he was part of a group that set out to discredit her mother and her in a way she thought was unfair). There's nothing truly wrong in any of it, but the book just didn't captivate me. I'd put it down and then never felt particularly keen to pick it back up. There's something in the writing and plotting of her books that keeps me a bit distant. I guess sometimes an author's style doesn't completely click with a particular reader...

MY GRADE: A B-.

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Real Kind of Love, by Sara Rider

>> Friday, October 26, 2018

TITLE: Real Kind of Love
AUTHOR: Sara Rider

COPYRIGHT: 2018
PAGES: 242
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Books & Brews #1

What happens when a fake relationship turns into a real kind of love?

As an audiobook narrator, Clementine Cox has no trouble mastering the voices of space aliens, elven warriors, or even demon-possessed cats. But the moment she tries her hand at an erotic romance, she’s stumped. With her deadline looming, she books a week at a secluded cabin to restore her inner muse, telling her loving-but-overbearing family it’s a romantic getaway with her not-so-existent new boyfriend to keep them from worrying. She never expects them to invite themselves along to meet the new guy. Now, she has less than twenty-four hours to find a pretend boyfriend in order to save her job and, potentially, her sanity.

Workaholic Jake Donovan isn’t interested in a real relationship. After a broken engagement, all he wants to do is focus on keeping his brewpub, the Holy Grale, afloat. But when he finds out his favorite customer is in need of a fake boyfriend, and his business partners insist he take a much overdue vacation, he has no choice but to help Clem out. All he has to do is enjoy the sunshine, play nice with her family, and keep his hands to himself for the week.

But Jake’s not prepared to like waking up next to Clem every morning as much as he does. Or to feel so welcome by her quirky family. And as the line between real and fake starts to blur, he realizes one week might never be enough.
Clementine Cox has a loving but extremely loud and overbearing family. When she mentions that she's booked herself a cabin for a much-needed week away, they immediately decide they'll rent cabins right next door (and I paraphrase: "and the twins can bunk with you, Clem, right?"). To try to head them off, she stupidly invents a boyfriend she's going away with for the first time. Stupidly, because that doesn't stop them, and she should have guessed it wouldn't. They're coming anyway to meet him, and now Clem needs to produce said boyfriend.

Fortunately for Clem, Jake Donovan, the owner of the microbrewery and pub where she's a regular, is in need of a place to retreat to for a week himself (ex-girlfriend using his pub for a wedding venue). He offers to pretend to be said boyfriend. Anyone in any doubt of what happens next?

I had to stop reading because this book stressed me out and made me angry. The family is just unbearable. The behaviour Rider describes is not cute-pushy, which is clearly how I was meant to see it. To me, it is extreme and borderline abusive. The message is clearly: if it's your family they don't have to respect your agency or boundaries or even listen to you. They can decide of course you are just like them and of course you like the same things, whatever evidence to the contrary, so you need to do those things and look like you're enjoying them. That's the right and proper thing to happen.

Me, I wanted to strangle them. Seriously, I literally did. And I found Clementine pathetic for not standing up to them, particularly when the only excuse for that given was that she'd hurt their feelings. Fuck that. Maybe she does grow a spine later in the book, but my blood pressure couldn't wait that long.

The romance seemed fine. I liked Jake (apart from the fact that he is much too accepting of Clem's family's actions, and even goes along with some of it) and he and Clem did have some chemistry. I also wanted to know more about Clem's job as an audiobook narrator, as I'm fascinated by what that entails. Not enough to keep reading, though.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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America For Beginners, by Leah Franqui

>> Wednesday, October 24, 2018

TITLE: America For Beginners
AUTHOR: Leah Franqui

COPYRIGHT: 2018
PAGES: 320
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

Recalling contemporary classics such as Americanah, Behold the Dreamers, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a funny, poignant, and insightful debut novel that explores the complexities of family, immigration, prejudice, and the American Dream through meaningful and unlikely friendships forged in unusual circumstances.

Pival Sengupta has done something she never expected: she has booked a trip with the First Class India USA Destination Vacation Tour Company. But unlike other upper-class Indians on a foreign holiday, the recently widowed Pival is not interested in sightseeing. She is traveling thousands of miles from Kolkata to New York on a cross-country journey to California, where she hopes to uncover the truth about her beloved son, Rahi. A year ago Rahi devastated his very traditional parents when he told them he was gay. Then, Pival’s husband, Ram, told her that their son had died suddenly—heartbreaking news she still refuses to accept. Now, with Ram gone, she is going to America to find Rahi, alive and whole or dead and gone, and come to terms with her own life.

Arriving in New York, the tour proves to be more complicated than anticipated. Planned by the company’s indefatigable owner, Ronnie Munshi—a hard-working immigrant and entrepreneur hungry for his own taste of the American dream—it is a work of haphazard improvisation. Pival’s guide is the company’s new hire, the guileless and wonderfully resourceful Satya, who has been in America for one year—and has never actually left the five boroughs. For modesty’s sake Pival and Satya will be accompanied by Rebecca Elliot, an aspiring young actress. Eager for a paying gig, she’s along for the ride, because how hard can a two-week "working" vacation traveling across America be?

Slowly making her way from coast to coast with her unlikely companions, Pival finds that her understanding of her son—and her hopes of a reunion with him—are challenged by her growing knowledge of his adoptive country. As the bonds between this odd trio deepens, Pival, Satya, and Rebecca learn to see America—and themselves—in different and profound new ways.

A bittersweet and bighearted tale of forgiveness, hope, and acceptance, America for Beginners illuminates the unexpected enchantments life can hold, and reminds us that our most precious connections aren’t always the ones we seek.
When I'm travelling, I like to read stuff that's somehow relevant. Sometimes it's a book about or set in the area I'm travelling in, but in this case it was more about the circumstances. I was travelling around Georgia as part of a small organised group (I like to get off the beaten track, but if I'm not in a country I'm quite familiar with, I'm a bit nervous of doing it on my own -very good decision in this case; I would NOT have wanted to drive some of those mountain roads!). So, I thought, a book about an Indian woman on an organised tour of the US seemed fitting, albeit in an oblique kind of way.

Pival Sangupta is a recent widow living in Kolkota. Her life feels empty and pointless, not because she misses her husband Ram, but because his actions when he was alive isolated her and took away what she loved most in the world. When their son, then studying in the US, came out as gay, Ram decreed that neither of them would speak to him again. Their son is now supposed to be dead, but Pival is not even sure that is true: there was an unexpected phone call, Ram picked up, he said their son was dead, and that was that.

So now that she's finally free, Pival has decided to go find out the truth. But it will take a bit to work up the courage, so she arranges for a tour of the US, starting in New York and finishing in Los Angeles, where her son used to live (lives?).

The travel agency she contacts is one that caters to Indian travellers, but is secretly run and staffed by Bangladeshis. The owner, Ronnie Munshi, is terrified (with some reason) that his wealthy Indian customers would want nothing to do with Bangladeshis. Since his more experienced guides are either unavailable or unsuitable, Ronnie decides to entrust Mrs Sangupta to one of his newest hires: a recently arrived Bangladeshi young man, Satya. Satya has never actually left New York, but he's hardworking and has spent many hours studying his guidebooks, so he should be fine, Ronnie thinks.

Mrs Sangupta has also requested a suitable female to accompany her and the guide, and that one has Ronnie stumped for quite a while. He ends up chancing on Rebecca Elliot, a young actress who takes the job because things aren't going great for her in New York, and how hard can travelling as a companion be?

America For Beginners was a wonderful read. It brings together three very different characters. Pival, Satya and Rebecca differ in their backgrounds, their worldviews, the stage where they are in their lives, what they're trying to achieve. Pretty much everything. And yet, the intensity of travelling together makes them into a weird sort of team. Each of them is also very well-drawn. I felt I understood them and the way they related to each other (they may become a unit, but they do not become friends) felt right and true. Emotionally believable, I guess I would say. I was especially fascinated by the the dynamics and prejudices between Indian Bengalis and Bangladeshis, which were as new to me as they were to Rebecca.

The book deals with some heavy stuff, particularly Pival's grief about her son, but Satya and Rebecca have issue to work through as well. However, the book itself never feels heavy. In part this is because there is some lovely humour here, a great deal of it courtesy of The First Class India USA Destination Vacation Tour Company. The name itself speaks volumes :) It's a bit of a ramshackle outfit, and all we see about how it works is brilliantly and heartbreakingly hilarious. The way Ronnie speaks is a thing of beauty, a masterpiece of obsequiousness, pedantry, and bullshit, and Satya is his excellent apprentice. This all brings some much-needed levity.

But also, I loved that the book manages to end in a hopeful note that felt believable. No, we're not talking fairytale happy endings here, but hope is enough for me.

Finally, I genuinely enjoyed the more 'travelogue' sections. It was really interesting to see what struck Pival about the US, as it's all so different to what has struck me, also a foreigner, but from a very different place, when I have visited.

MY GRADE: An A-.

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The Empty Mirror, by J Sydney Jones

>> Monday, October 22, 2018

TITLE: The Empty Mirror
AUTHOR: J Sydney Jones

COPYRIGHT: 2008
PAGES: 320
PUBLISHER: Minotaur

SETTING: 1898 Vienna
TYPE: Mystery/thriller
SERIES: Viennese mysteries #1

The summer of 1898 finds Austria terrorized by a killer who the press calls 'Vienna's Jack the Ripper'. Four bodies have already been found, but when the painter Gustav Klimt's female model becomes the fifth victim, the police finger him as the culprit. The artist has already scandalized Viennese society with his erotically charged modern paintings. Who better to take the blame for the crimes that have plagued the city?

This is, however, far from an open-and-shut case. Klimt's lawyer, Karl Werthen, has an ace up his sleeve. Dr. Hans Gross, the renowned father of criminology, has agreed to assist him in investigating the murders. Together, Gross and Werthen must not only clear Klimt's name but also follow the trail of a killer that will lead them in the most surprising of directions. By uncovering the cause of the crimes that have shaken the city, the two men may risk damaging Vienna more than the murders did themselves.

Written by an acclaimed expert on Vienna and its history, The Empty Mirror introduces a new series of stunning historical mysteries that reveals the culture and curiosities of this fascinating fin de siècle metropolis.
I recently had a long weekend in Vienna before a work conference, so I thought I'd read something set there beforehand. This book, a historical mystery written by an author who's also written guidebooks of the city, seemed to me the perfect choice. The reviews were mediocre, but the main criticism was that there was way too much about city and not enough about the mystery. Given what I was after, that didn't seem like a problem.

It's 1898 and a serial killer is spreading fear in Vienna. The latest victim is an artist's model, and a well-known painter she often posed for is identified as a suspect by the police. Our central character, lawyer Karl Werthen, gets involved when the painter comes to him for help, being a former client. With the help of a criminologist friend, he decides to investigate.

The Empty Mirror is one of those historical mysteries that uses real people as important characters. Our central character, lawyer Karl Werthen, is made up, but many of the people around him are not. The painter is Gustav Klimt, while the criminologist is also a famous one, Hanns Gross. Several other famous people make an appearance. Even Luigi Lucheni, the man who assassinated Empress Sissi, is given a speaking part. This is a concept I'm not wholly comfortable with, but ok, I could just read them as made up as well.

Unfortunately, even ignoring that issue, in the end, I just had to give up. I pushed myself and read almost two thirds of the book, but it felt like a chore, and by the time my trip had passed without me having managed to finish the book, there was no reason to continue. The biggest problem is the writing. The dialogue is extremely wooden and the plotting is just bad. These combine when Gross and Werthen are interrogating people. People speak in ways that just made me laugh, and they reveal things in ways that make no sense, unless it's to move the plot in particular ways.

I was also annoyed at how the book changed from what I thought it was (a relatively straight-forward hunt for a serial killer), to a story of grand conspiracies. The latter is really, really not my thing.

MY GRADE: So, a DNF.

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