More short ones

>> Saturday, February 27, 2010

TITLE: Sundays with Vlad: From Pennsylvania to Transylvania, One Man's Quest to Live in the World of the Undead
AUTHOR: Paul Bibeau

I think the idea of this book was to trace the origins of the Dracula myth, while exploring how it's lived, enjoyed and exploited both around the world and in Romania. I'm interested in the subject, but the execution was a bit of a mess, with pretty bad writing that didn't flow at all, some very forced humour and extremely roundabout ways of getting at the point of stories. I read some 100 pages before I gave up and moved on to something else.


TITLE: Being There (read in Spanish, with the title Desde el Jardín)
AUTHOR: Jerzy Kosinski

I read this because it's my dad's favourite book (which he rediscovered this summer) and he insisted I should. It's quite a weird story (which was made into a movie in the 70s) about a man who's spent his entire life as a servant, locked up in a house. He's a gardener, and his only connection to the world is his TV. When the master of the house dies, he leaves, without much idea what to do.

And what happens is that people see in him whatever they want to see, and start projecting into his simple, innocent replies a wealth of intentions and depth of meaning, and he starts acquiring influence and power without actually doing anything.

The book says some quite interesting things, and I suspect they might have been new and revolutionary when it was published. However, some of it felt old-hat to me, today, and the book suffered and felt dated for that. Still, it's worth a read (and it's so short and simply written, that it takes only a couple of hours to get through!).

PS: My dad, who despises the Uruguayan president-elect, Jose Mujica, tucked into the book a photocopy of a newspaper article in which the author attempted to project sophisticated theoretical frameworks into some of Mujica's extremely off-the-cuff remarks. I kind of see dad's point!


TITLE: Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance
AUTHOR: Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

"Sequel" to Freakonomics. Levitt and Dubner continue to apply their economics, incentive-based methodologies to unlikely subject areas. Most of it was good, although not as great as the first book. The last chapter, on climate change and geoengineering has been causing quite a stir, with accusations that they got a lot of the science involved wrong. I don't know enough about the subject that I would have noticed that, but I did feel that they were being awfully cavalier about the uncertainties involved. The other thing was, the strange use of the word "freak" is beginning to bother me. Is this an American/British thing? Because I just don't think it means what they think it means...



Fantasy in Death, by JD Robb

>> Thursday, February 25, 2010

TITLE: Fantasy in Death

PAGES: 433

SETTING: New York in the 2060s
TYPE: Police procedural / romance
SERIES: 31st full novel in the In Death series

REASON FOR READING: Autoread series

Bart Minnock, founder of the computer-gaming giant U-Play, enters his private playroom, and eagerly can't wait to lose himself in an imaginary world, to play the role of a sword-wielding warrior king, in his company's latest top-secret project, Fantastical.

The next morning, he is found in the same locked room, in a pool of blood, his head separated from his body. It is the most puzzling case Eve Dallas has ever faced, and it is not a game. . . .

NYPSD Lieutenant Eve Dallas is having as much trouble figuring out how Bart Minnock was murdered as who did the murdering. The victim's girlfriend seems sincerely grief-stricken, and his quirky-but-brilliant partners at U-Play appear equally shocked. No one seemed to have a prob lem with the enthusiastic, high-spirited millionaire. Of course, success can attract jealousy, and gaming, like any business, has its fierce rivalries and dirty tricks-as Eve's husband, Roarke, one of U- Play's competitors, knows well. But Minnock was not naive, and quite capable of fighting back in the real world as well as the virtual one.

Eve and her team are about to enter the next level of police work, in a world where fantasy is the ultimate seduction-and the price of defeat is death...
Fantasy in Death falls into the good but not spectacular group of In Death books. It was an interesting case, with well drawn characters, and Eve's interactions with her friends were nice and satisfying. I enjoyed it, but it was basically a comfortable read, without much oomph.

Robb pushes the technology she has dreamed up for her series to the limit in this case. Bart Minnock is found by his girlfriend locked up in his holo room, decapitated while he was playing an exciting new game his gaming company was developing. It's a perfect locked room mystery. How did the killer get through building security and his droid? How did they smuggle in an electrified sword, and where on earth did they get it? Eve and her team are baffled.

Only we readers know that they are barking up the wrong tree, because the very first scene of the book shows the murder from Bart's point of view, and it looks like, to all intents and purposes, the game killed him.

So this was one of those mysteries where the reader knows more about the murder than the police we see investigating. That can be frustrating, if the investigators are too oblivious, but that wasn't the case at all. I couldn't fault Eve or any of her team for not seeing a clue, or not coming to the right conclusions. When Eve finally does make the leap of logic and guess what could have happened, it was a moment of brilliance. At the same time, it was plausible that she would be the one to do it, rather than one of the geek squad. As she explains, coming at it from the outside, she didn't have the "knowledge" that such and such a thing couldn't be done.

It also worked because even though we saw the murder happen, we couldn't be 100% sure of what exactly had happened. Clearly Bart didn't run into his murder and invite him/her in for a quick game, that was clear enough, but how exactly did the murder happen? We saw it, but we saw what Bart saw, so we're not sure.

On the personal areas, friendship plays a large role in this book. We see a lot of Eve interacting with her female friends, and she's much more mellow and relaxed about it now. For her it's never going to be girly-girly relationships with her friends, but what she has with Mavis and Nadine and Reo is real and is strong.

And this links in with the case, because friendship is important there as well. Bart and his partners look like an ideal group of friends. They love and complement each other. When the possibility that one of them could have done that to Bart, I really, really recoiled at the idea.

On the romance front, nothing much going on. Roarke knows the murdered man and so his death affects me, which leads to a bit of a spat at one point, but that's pretty much it. No big developments here, but still always nice to see Eve and Roarke together.



The Impostor, by Celeste Bradley

>> Tuesday, February 23, 2010

TITLE: The Impostor
AUTHOR: Celeste Bradley

PAGES: 389
PUBLISHER: St. Martin's

SETTING: Regency England
TYPE: Romantic suspense
SERIES: Second in The Liar's Club series.

REASON FOR READING: I enjoyed The Pretender, which I read some years ago.

It isn't easy moving about Society dressed like a dandy-especially when one is a ruthless spy. But that's precisely the latest mission for Liar's Club agent Dalton Montmorecy. Dalton is posing as Sir Thorogood, the elusive cartoonist whose scathing political caricatures have all of London abuzz. The true identity of Sir Thorogood is a mystery, and Dalton hopes that impersonating him will flush out the real menace before his cartoons do further damage to the Crown. Now, if Dalton could only find a way to get the irksome, yet oddly appealing widow, Clara Simpson, off his trail...

When Clara meets Sir Thorogood at a ball, she's certain he is an impostor-because she's the true Sir Thorogood. Secretly penning the cartoons under the frothy nom de plume, Clara hopes to save enough money so that she can leave her in-laws and find a new residence. Now she is determined to reveal an imposter's identity-and that means doing some undercover work herself. But pretending to be someone you're not has a funny way of making a woman do things she wouldn't ordinarily dream of-even if it drives her straight into the arms of her devilishly handsome adversary!
Clara Simpson is an impoverished widow, stuck living with her late husband's silly relatives. She's got a talent for drawing cartoons, and in order to get enough money to set up her own home, she started drawing political cartoons. She sent them to a paper and since then, they have been a runaway success, both making really good money and exposing the injustices in society that bother Clara.

Clara publishes her cartoons under the pseudonym of Sir Thorogood, and is very careful to hide her identity. Not only would it be disastrous for her reputation if it came out that she is Sir Thorogood, but some of her cartoons have managed to upset some very powerful people. These people, it turns out, are well-connected in government, and the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, determined to maintain order at all costs, orders the Liar's Club to investigate.

Dalton Montmorencey, Lord Etheridge, has very recently taken over as leader of the Liar's Club, after the retirement of the previous head, in book 1 of the series. He's not well-known in society, so his brilliant plan is to go about in society pretending to be Sir Thorogood, thus goading the real Sir Thorogood into revealing himself. For a reason that is never fully explained, this involves going round town dressed in ridiculous bright clothing and prancing about like a dandy.

Clara, obviously, is incensed that this ridiculous man is stealing her thunder. Just as brilliantly as her foe, her plan to deal with this is to pretend to be flighty and silly, thus making sure no one suspects her. And with both hero and heroine behaving like complete braindead idiots, the plot moves forward to involve them feeling inexplicably attracted to each other, mistaken identities and a possible betrayal of Dalton by the men supposed to be serving under him.

The book started as a bit of a trainwreck. So bad, in fact, that I was close to dropping it within the first 20 pages (this was one of the volumes in my old Uruguayan TBR, and I'd promised myself I'd allow myself to do this if the book didn't engage me immediately). The hero and heroine behave like idiots (see above), not to mention that the whole concept of the spy society, the Liar's Club, is pretty cheesy.

But after the author got the contrived setup out of the way, the story actually became pretty decent. This was mainly because of Dalton, who was a pretty complex character. This is a guy who came into his title at a very young age and was raised by his mentor, Lord Liverpool, to be serious and loyal. What he's also become is very lonely and detached, and not a particularly charismatic leader. Even though he has been named the head of the Liar's Club, he hasn't managed to connect with his operatives, and he feels uncertain of their loyalty. I really liked the complexity of his patriotism. He sympathises with Clara's causes, but he's willing to sacrifice this sort of thing for the good of the country as a whole (well, for the good of the Crown, which I wouldn't be 100% sure is the same thing, but which clearly was so in people's minds at the time).

Clara I liked significantly less. Her intelligence goes up and down like a rollercoaster, sort of mirroring my enjoyment of the book. She starts out quite silly, so much so that I didn't think her Widow Simpleton play-acting was that much of a stretch. Then she's good for the middle section of the book, but then her IQ plunges yet again and she becomes dumb as a brick.

In this final section, the plot goes off the rails again. It was cruising along at a B grade right until then, but things then became ridiculous and contrived again, not to mention stupidly complicated. And Clara follows suit by arbitrarily deciding to go off on her own to "investigate", with predictably disastrous consequences. The nitwit figures out something treasonous in front of the person she suspects of being the traitor and blurts out what she's just figured out, that sort of thing. And I started getting the feeling that that imbecilic behaviour was catching, because supposedly master spy Dalton, as well as one of his best operatives, both suffer from it in that section, behaving recklessly and allowing bumbling idiots to get the drop on them.

And you know what else I disliked? The way real historical characters are brought into the story, and not just as background. Lord Liverpool, especially, is an important character and doesn't come off very well. I don't really know enough about him to know if he deserved such a portrayal, but this sort of thing makes me uncomfortable.

MY GRADE: I think a C+ is about right. Some of the bits at the beginning and end are more like C-, but the middle was good.


In the Bleak Midwinter, by Julia Spencer-Fleming

>> Sunday, February 21, 2010

TITLE: In the Bleak Midwinter
AUTHOR: Julia Spencer-Fleming

PAGES: 384
PUBLISHER: Minotaur Books

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: 1st in the Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyn series.

REASON FOR READING: I've been hearing good things about this series for a while now, but I think what made me pick it up in the end was something Katharina said.

Heavy Snow...Icy Desires...Cold-Blooded Murder

Clare Fergusson, St. Alban's new priest, fits like a square peg in the conservative Episcopal parish at Miller's Kill, New York. She is not just a "lady," she's a tough ex Army chopper pilot, and nobody's fool. Then a newborn infant left at the church door brings her together with the town's police chief, Russ Van Alstyne, who's also ex-Army and a cynical good shepherd for the stray sheep of his hometown. Their search for the baby's mother quickly leads them into the secrets that shadow Miller's Kill like the ever-present Adirondacks. What they discover is a world of trouble, an attraction to each other-and murder...
At the start of In The Bleak Midwinter the new Episcopalian priest of Miller's Kill finds an abandoned baby outside the church. Police chief Russ Van Alstyn, called in to investigate, is surprised to find the new priest to be not only a woman, but one who's ex-Army, just like him, and who's nothing like any other priest he's known.

As Russ investigates the case (which soon begins to get more and more complicated, when murder is thrown into the pot), much helped by the things Clare runs into as she tends to her parishioners, the two become friends.

I know that was a pretty sketchy summary, but it's a good mystery, with plenty of twists and turns and red herrings, and it's best to discover what happens as you go along. The one thing I'm going to say about it is something about the way the investigation proceeds, just because I always mentally groan a little bit at the idea of amateurs "dabbling" in murder investigations. Most of the book, Clare isn't playing detective, or anything silly like that. She's too sensible for that. She just comes across relevant things doing perfectly normal priestly things. She does do something pretty stupid near the end, but that a relatively minor annoyance, and on the whole, the whole issue of "what on earth does she think she's doing?" doesn't arise at all.

Clare is the kind of priest an agnostic (i.e me) can be comfortable reading about. She clearly has a deep faith but isn't judgemental about it and is very human, with flaws she knows she has and works to get beyond. Clare sees her duty as being as much about helping those who need help as about the ritual and pomp and tending spiritually to her congregation.

This conception of her duty places her at odds with much of her solidly middle-class, conservative congregation's wishes. They'd like the congregation to grow, so they're happy to have Clare plan projects to raise their profile, but they'd like the new additions to the congregation to be the "right" sort of people, so the sort of projects Clare thinks she should be doing (i.e. helping people in real need, such as single mothers, etc.) won't necessarily do it for them. Clare, however, regards it as her duty to do what she whole-heartedly believes is right and what she believes God would want her to do, not what her congregation wants. This conflict is always in the background here, and from what I've read of the upcoming books in the series, it doesn't disappear easily.

Russ is also an interesting character, although maybe not as fascinating to me as Clare was, maybe because his background isn't quite as unique. What intrigued me the most about Russ at this point was his marriage. Russ has been married for years. He's not particularly happy, but he's not unhappy, either. He cares for his wife, even loves her and is very loyal to her, but isn't in love with her, either. This is not a cheating hounddog at all... at least, he doesn't seem to be one (keep in mind I've read only the first to books in the series at this point and have avoided any spoilers), which makes his relationship with Clare palatable. Speaking of which...

Good as the mystery was and as much as I liked the main characters on their own, what makes this book outstanding is the relationship between Clare and Russ. At this point, it is all about them becoming friends. I know many other readers see their relationship as being non-platonic from the beginning, but I didn't. It'll sound corny, but what came to my mind when I was reading was that Russ and Clare were clicking soul to soul, meeting and liking the very essence of the other person. It doesn't matter that Russ is agnostic and Clare a priest, that he's a cynic and she's not, or that there's a 14-year age difference betwen them. There's chemistry there, just not the sexual kind. It's a rare thing to read about, a completely platonic friendship between a man and a woman who soon start to deeply care about each other. By the time a slightly different awareness enters the relationship, near the end of the book, they were already friends. I'm really going to enjoy seeing this develop.

Something else I liked about the book was how well the setting is done. Miller's Kill really comes alive, and the winter is a character in its own right. It's vividly described and plays a huge part in the story, especially because Clare is new to the area and has never had to experience rural upstate New York in December. Neither have I, nor anything at all like it, and now that the coldest January in years in England has given me some experience of snow and ice, I really identified with her mistakes.



The Sinister Touch, by Jayne Castle

>> Friday, February 19, 2010

TITLE: The Sinister Touch
AUTHOR: Jayne Castle

PAGES: 187

TYPE: Series romance
SERIES: 3rd in the Guinevere Jones quartet: follows The Desperate Game and The Chilling Deception.

REASON FOR READING: I wanted something short and sweet, and the first two in the series were good examples of early JAK.

Were They Dealing with a Demonic Cult or a Devilishly Clever Killer?

GUINEVERE JONES - Being a good neighbor was easy when the window across the way framed a handsome young handsome young artist. But when she became witness to sudden violence in his apartment, it was only a hint of the trouble to come.

ZACHARIAH JUSTIS - He was up to his ears with an enchanting new client whena twitch of jealousy, the ticking of biological clocks, and a confrontation with mortal danger made him rethink his relationship to Gwen.

A slashed canvas, a pentagram streaked by a bolt of lightning, chilling blood rites - they lead Gwen and Zac into the dark heart of mystery where art, magic, and money weave a dangerous spell.
As the previous two, this was a fun read, with a mystery in which our Guinevere gets mixed up and into which she drags along her reluctant PI boyfriend, Zach, as well as further development to their relationship.

The mystery this time starts out with the defacing of a painting. The artist who's been working on it lives across the street from Gwen, and their polite nodding at each other every morning through the window has long aroused Zac's jealousy. The painting incident leads to Gwen and the artist actually meeting for coffee (leading to Zach gnashing his teeth even more), and to Gwen's insistence on helping solve the mystery (i.e. getting into trouble), much to Zac's disgust.

The mystery's pretty meh, nothing special, even though it involves supposedly "exciting" elements like weird Satanic cults and strange symbols. I think my main irritation with it was that Gwen comes off a bit TSTL, in her insistence on butting into something that doesn't concern her at all and which is likely to put her in danger.

The romance is more interesting and better done (I think I say the same in every single JAK review). Gwen and Zac's relationship has been developing since their first meeting in book 1, and it's progressing quite slowly. At the start of the book, Zac, especially, is struggling with how to get the relationship up to the level of commitment he would want.

It's all about biological clocks here (and I was very amused by the way the whole concept was treated as this newfangled thing that Zach has only now found out about and half doubts even exists). Zac suspects Gwen (who's getting a bit long in the tooth, being in her 30s *sobs*) might start wanting a child soon, and worries that if she does, she might not perceive him, the owner and sole employee of a struggling PI agency, as prime father material.

Gwen, meanwhile, is suspicious of Zac's latest client, a glamorous businesswoman who seems to be taking up too much of his time during non-working hours. And her suspicions are pretty much justified, because the woman has a fully operational biological clock of her own, and she certainly thinks Zach is suitable father stud material. I must say, watching tough Zach getting terrified and freaked out was great fun.

I mostly enjoyed this part of the book. Some aspects of their relationship are a bit dated, like Zac's thinking that his role is to "lay down the law" to Gwen and "read her the riot act" when she "misbehaves". On the positive side, though, Gwen won't let herself be bullied, and just treats this part of Zac's personality as the throwback it is, as well as a manifestation of his insecurities regarding her. This made Zac's caveman instincts funny rather than irritating.

I'm looking forward to the final book in the quartet now, and won't let too much time pass before I get to it.



A few short ones

>> Wednesday, February 17, 2010

TITLE: Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evie
AUTHOR: Marianne Stillings

The plot apparently includes a treasure hunt, orchestrated by a recently murdered mystery author in order to a) find his murderer (he knows he's made many enemies over the years) and b) determine who gets his fortune. The heroine is forced to team up with a childhood foe of hers if she wants to have a chance at the money.

I loved the idea of it, but the actual book, not so much. I read only the first 70 pages, and in them I encountered mainly forced humour and unbelievable characters. It's not that there was anything truly egregious, just lots of inane one-liners and bickering when no normal person would react that way.

This was one of the books in my Uruguayan TBR, and since I had given myself permission to drop anything that didn't appeal sooner rather than later, I did just that.


TITLE: Cold Comfort Farm
AUTHOR: Stella Gibbons

It's the 1930s* and Flora Poste's parents have died, leaving her with only a small allowance, not enough to live on very well. So Flora decides to move in with distant cousins, the Blackadders, who live in the country, and who turn out to be extremely strange. There's nothing for Flora to do but to use her modern woman's talents to sort them all out!

I've read a bit about this book now, and apparently, pastoral novels, idealising rural life were all the rage at the time, but after the brilliant send-up that was Cold Comfort Farm, the genre all but died. I think I probably would have enjoyed it more if I'd known more about what it was supposed to be parodying and been able to identify the archetypes, but I still enjoyed this quite a bit.

* Actually, I realise now that it was supposed to be set in the future, in the mid-1940s, I believe, but at the time I thought it was set in 1930, and was extremely puzzled by the mention of something happening in 1946, and the Anglo-Nicaraguan war, as well as by the way everyone seemed to fly off in private planes at the drop of a hat!


TITLE: A Long Way To The Floor
AUTHOR: David Byck

Lent to me by my yoga teacher, it's a practitioner's account of how he got into Ashtanga yoga and how his practice has developed. It was an interesting read. It's not going to get any writing prizes, but I found his experience useful to read about and enjoyed it. I especially appreciated the author's honesty. I know I'm not the only one who struggles with the "no ego" thing, but it was still good to actually read about someone else struggling not to compare himself with others and show off!



My Hero, by Marianna Jameson

>> Monday, February 15, 2010

TITLE: My Hero
AUTHOR: Marianna Jameson

PAGES: 384

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Straight romance
SERIES: I don't think so

REASON FOR READING: Random pick up from my TBR -see below!

Romance writer Miranda Lane is famous for her sensitive heroes, but her new editor wants something different: a tough cop who's sexy as Hell and twice as hot. But cops leave Miranda cold—until she encounters Stamford detective Chas Casey. Arrestingly handsome, this Connecticut Yankee packs the kind of heat Miranda needs.

Intrigued by this sexy, sharp-tongued writer who's full of fire one minute and cool as a breeze the next, Chas tolerates Miranda's off-beat research tactics with one goal in mind: seduction.

Chas is the perfect research subject - until he steals Miranda's heart. A specialist in drive-by romance, Chas doesn't do commitment. But Miranda doesn't do casual, so she ends their affair, underestimating the steep, unexpected cost of that plot twist in her life story.

When his involvement in her research costs Chas a coveted promotion, a shaken Miranda writes her way back into his heart knowing their love story will never end.
My Hero was my first read while on holiday in Uruguay. When I went back last year I mainly read from my keeper shelf, after being away from it for over a year, but this year I decided to tackle the TBR I left behind when I moved to England. I decided to go for stuff I wasn't too sure about and be ruthless about it. If it wasn't capturing my attention, I'd just stop and go for another one.

I started My Hero with that mindset and after a very slightly rocky start, I soon knew there was no danger it'd turn into a DNF.

The rocky start was due to a bit of an iffy setup. Miranda Lane is a romance writer known for her dreamy beta heroes. She's got a new editor now, though, a brash, opinionated woman who demands Miranda completely rewrite her latest (due to come out in a matter of months). If she doesn't change her kind Southern gentleman hero into an alpha Northern cop (and make the book a LOT steamier), then the book won't come out at all. Unfortunately, the new editor means it, not to mention that she's known as a bit of a magician who can turn authors into superstars, so after a bit of convincing by her agent, Miranda reluctantly decides to go ahead with the rewrite.

Now, let's stop right there. Does this sort of thing actually happen, or is it as preposterous as it sounds? I mean, I could understand and editor asking the author to amp up or tone down some element, or possibly even any of the changes I described above in isolation, but this is pretty much writing a completely different book, just because the editor has some hangups. But oh, well, moving on.

When she receives these news, Miranda just happens to be visiting a friend in Connecticut, a perfect place to do some research and try to understand this "type" that's so foreign and unlikeable to her, the alpha male. And it just so happens that, although the local police force reject her formal request to interview one of its cops, Miranda has already met Detective Chas Cassidy through some friends. Chas is very attracted to Miranda, in spite of her standoffish attitude, and he agrees to help her with her research.

I think my favourite thing about My Hero was its lack of predictability. At first sight, both Miranda and Chas are familiar characters. Miranda's past has given her a distrust and dislike for alphas, most especially cops, and Chas is the scion of a very wealthy family, who hate him being a cop and constantly pressure him to join the family business instead. So quite a few times, I thought the story and characters were ready to head into well-worn, commonplace territory, but it always turned out that Jameson would immediately veer off into something a lot more original and which I tended to like quite a bit better than what I'd been expecting. It meant that both Miranda and Chas (and therefore, their relationship) turned out to be quite subtly drawn and to have plenty of depth, and this made them real.

Something else I wasn't expecting was the fact that My Hero is a plain, straight contemporary romance. From the back cover, I thought it was going to be a romantic suspense. With Chas being a cop, and involved in several cases during the book, I kept half expecting one of them to somehow endanger Miranda there at the end... visions of her being kidnapped by the baddie and this making Chas realise he loves her, etc. But this is not at all what happens. See what I mean about the book not going in the directions I expected? Instead, the cases were either background into Chas' life (he's a cop, and he clearly works), or, in the case of another of the investigations, provides insight and development into his relationship with his family and his decision to join the police. This element, by the way, was yet another thing that went in a direction that was completely different to and much better than the one I was expecting.

I think this is intended to be a celebration of the true alpha, the non-Neanderthal kind, the type who is tough and a clear leader but is also kind. To me, Chas was more a mix of alpha and beta (I think some people call that an omega?) than a proper alpha, but never mind, he was just lovely and I enjoyed it. He deserved to be celebrated!

MY GRADE: A very excellent B+.


What Happens in London, by Julia Quinn

>> Saturday, February 13, 2010

TITLE: What Happens in London
AUTHOR: Julia Quinn

PAGES: 384

SETTING: Regency England
TYPE: Straight romance
SERIES: Not that I know of

REASON FOR READING: After a couple of disappointing books, I haven't been reading JQ in the past couple of years, but the buzz about this one was that it was a return to what we all loved about her.

Rumors and Gossip . . . The lifeblood of London

When Olivia Bevelstoke is told that her new neighbor may have killed his fiancÉe, she doesn't believe it for a second, but, still, how can she help spying on him, just to be sure? So she stakes out a spot near her bedroom window, cleverly concealed by curtains, watches, and waits . . . and discovers a most intriguing man, who is definitely up to something.

Sir Harry Valentine works for the boring branch of the War Office, translating documents vital to national security. He's not a spy, but he's had all the training, and when a gorgeous blonde begins to watch him from her window, he is instantly suspicious. But just when he decides that she's nothing more than an annoyingly nosy debutante, he discovers that she might be engaged to a foreign prince, who might be plotting against England. And when Harry is roped into spying on Olivia, he discovers that he might be falling for her himself...
What Happens in London started out with dark rumours of murder and a bit of spying, but soon turned into a charming, lovely, character-driven romance.

When one of Olivia Bevelstoke's friends comes to her with the tale that her new neighbour is rumoured to have murdered his fiancee, Olivia doesn't quite believe it. Still, her bedroom window gives her an excellent view of Sir Harry Valentine's study, so the temptation to do a bit of spying on him is too great to resist. And what she discovers is quite suspicious. What nobleman spends hours and hours closeted in his study, poring over papers, and sometimes wearing strange, plumed hats?

The answer is: a nobleman who speaks fluent Russian and is therefore invaluable to the War Office, not as a spy, but as a translator. Harry is quite aware that Olivia has been spying on him (let's just say she's not the mistress of concealment she thinks she is) and can't resist jerking her around a little bit (for instance, wearing strange, plumed hats while in his study).

Harry might not be a spy, but the War Office has no problem using his abilities when it turns out that his neighbour has started being courted by a mysterious Russian prince. Harry is ordered to approach Olivia and try to overhear anything Prince Alexei says in his presence.

And so starts a romance that is funny, tender and romantic. Harry and Olivia don't particularly like each other at first. In fact, he thinks she's one cold bitch. But once they start spending some time together... wow. When JQ is good, she's really, really, really good. She doesn't just tell us these two are falling in love; we actually see them doing so, and we follow them every step of the way. And it's unmistakeably not just lust (although things do get pretty intense and steamy at times), it's very clearly love. You see them clicking as persons, and just through conversations, you totally get what they see in each other and how they fit perfectly together.

And I was very happy to watch as they did, because I loved them both to bits. I actually quite liked that Olivia is very much a normal debutante. She's intelligent and capable, but she actually likes her life and is perfectly content that her future is to make a good marriage and settle into society. As much as I love reading about women who pushed at the constraints of their time, it was refreshing to read about someone like Olivia.

It's kind of the same with Harry. Even though a description of the plot makes this sound like this is a spy book, Harry isn´t a spy at all. He was a soldier, but now he really is merely a translator for the War Office. And not just that, Harry knows very well that he would absolutely hate being a spy. He even actually says that he doesn't enjoy risk and danger, that even in war, once the battle was over, he felt like hell. Quite refreshing, and amazingly normal for a romance hero!

In addition to a wonderful romance, we get some great secondary characters. Harry's relationship with his brother was interesting. Their father was a drunk, an amiable and non-aggressive one, but JQ is very good at showing exactly how that would still be hell for a child to live with. Harry got out of the house as soon as he could, and his brother resents him for having left him behind, and seems determined to follow in their father's footsteps. There's one particular scene among Harry and Edward that was particularly heartwrenching, and I wish we'd got a bit more resolution in that particular plotline, although it did end in a hopeful note.

Harry's cousin Sebastian was also a fun character, and pretty intriguing, too. I hope the next book is about him, and I'm one who's usually irritated by sequel baiting. Oh, and Prince Alexei was brilliant, as well! He seemed to be headed towards cartoon characterisation at the beginning, but he soon becomes quite human and interesting (if not particularly likeable). For those who've read this already, I think it was about the time when he's so nonchalant about dying by pigeon-pecking, in one particularly hilarious scene.

Speaking of which, have I mentioned how funny, funny, funny this book is? Lovely, gentle humour infuses the whole thing, and it reaches perfection in that scene I mentioned, the scene in the drawing room with Miss Buttersworth and the Mad Baron was hilarious. Watch out for it if you decide to read this. It's literally laugh-out-loud funny, even approaching the mallet-of-death scene in The Viscount Who Loved Me in perfection.

Ms Quinn, glad to have you back!



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