What the Librarian Did, by Karina Bliss

>> Wednesday, March 31, 2010

TITLE: What the Librarian Did
AUTHOR: Karina Bliss

COPYRIGHT: 2010
PAGES: 256
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Superromance

SETTING: Contemporary New Zealand
TYPE: Category romance
SERIES: None

REASON FOR READING: Jane's tweets.

Is Rachel Robinson the only one on campus who doesn't know who Devin Freedman is? No big deal except that the bad-boy rock star gets a kick out of Rachel's refusal to worship at his feet. And that seems to have provoked his undivided attention. Devin, the guy who gave new meaning to the phrase "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll." Devin, the guy who somehow becomes wedged between her and the past she's kept hidden for years.
It's up to this librarian to find out firsthand just how "bad" he really is. Because her secret—and her growing feelings for a man who claims he's bent on redemption—depend on his turning out to be as good as he seems. Which is really, really good.
Rachel Robinson and Devin Freedman's lives changed at the same time, when they were both 16. They were on opposite ends of the globe at the time. Shy Rachel defied her restrictive parents to secretly go out with a popular, attractive boy. She ended up pregnant and putting the child up for adoption. Devin's life changed in a completely different way: he joined his brother's band and it quickly took off, making him one of the world's most famous rock stars.

Almost 18 years later, their lives have evolved very differently. Rachel is a librarian in a New Zealand university. She's tried to make contact with the child she gave up, but her attempts haven't been successful. Devin, meanwhile, is burnt out after living the rock star lifestyle for so many years, ending in an on-stage collapse. He's moved to New Zealand, where his mother is from, and has decided to go to university, the same university at which Rachel works.

Rachel doesn't pay much attention to popular culture, so when a mature student, all grungy but with suspiciously expensive-looking boots approaches her, she doesn't recognise him and treats him like anyone else. And as someone who positively abhors celebrity gossip and works hard to avoid any whiff of it (not that I always succeed, sadly), and yet is still a normal person, I didn't find that at all strange or unbelievable. I think the only famous musician I would recognise by sight is Amy Winehouse!

Anyway, for Devin, being treated like a regular joe and being called on his arsey behaviour is a completely new thing. Not a welcome new thing, though, and at first he doesn't like Rachel at all. But they just seem to run into each other and have to have some contact, mainly because of Mark.

So who's Mark? Mark's the child Rachel gave up all those years ago. He's at the university (not an unbelievable coincidence, he's done a bit of detective work, knows his birth mother works there and is seeking her out). She soon realises his identity, but oh, dear, Mark's become good friends with that horrible Devin, who's sure to lead him down the wrong path!

Clearly, as you can probably deduce from the length of my summary, there's a lot going on. But rather than seeming overcrowded, it seemed like I was getting two for the price of one, both a wonderful romance, with the best sort of banter between well-matched protagonists, and the angsty, poignant story of Rachel and Mark reconnecting.

Really, the book is a bit of a rollercoaster in emotional terms. There are extremely funny, light moments, but there's also quite a bit of angst in Rachel and Mark's relationship, especially when she knows he's her son and he doesn't. It was very poignant to see the very cool Rachel acting incredibly not cool when she's around her son. Devin describes it as acting like a puppy, yapping around and getting underfoot, wanting to get petted, and that's exactly how it is. It's painful to read, but oh, so real!

Did I mention that Rachel is really, really cool? She is. She's got a very barbed tongue and as I mentioned, takes absolutely no shit from Devin, famous or not. This is part of her charm for him (even as he tells himself he doesn't need the aggravation). She especially takes delight on challenging librarian stereotypes. I loved the sound of her vintage 1950s wardrobe, as well. That sounded really cool. Actually, Devin's wardrobe's pretty distinctive as well. His taste is still very rock star. Not really to my own taste in men's couture, but I thought it was really cool to read about a hero with the confidence to wear a pinstripe jacket with a huge red dragon embroidered all over it!

Anyway, the romance is lovely. Both have issues. Devin has spent all of his grown-up life surrounded by people who want things from him, so his first reaction when faced with anyone is to wonder what they want from him. So when he manages to establish a more normal, non-using relationship and convince himself that this is so, and then it looks like there actually might have been ulterior motives involved, it hits him especially hard. Rachel, meanwhile, finds it very hard to lose control, and that has meant that her relationships haven't been too exciting, since she's been chosing men who are quite "safe" to be with... i.e. they won't threaten her control. Neither is what the other is used to, so when they meet, it's wonderful to watch. The dialogue zinged, and I couldn't get enough of their scenes together.

Strangely, I even liked it when Devin kept calling Rachel "Heartbreaker". It shouldn't have worked, but it did. Probably that was because there's actually a history in the book to why he decided to call her that, and I thought it hit the right note of slight mockery at the beginning, quickly turning into fondness. Much as Devin's feelings for Rachel as a whole, really.

The secondary characters were great, as well, and added to the story. I liked the subtlety in the way Devin's brother, Zander, was drawn. It would have been very easy to make him into a complete villain, but although self-absorbed and sleazy, he was very much a real person, with good and bad things.

Same thing about Rachel's relationship with her mother. Again, like Zander, it was so subtly drawn. Even after the childhood she had (which we don't fully appreciate until the end of the book), Rachel is able to see her mother very clearly. Rachel's not this unrealistic paragon of forgiveness and acceptance, and she does get frustrated and hangs up on her mother and makes very sharp retorts sometimes, but she also tries to keep the contact going. I think the best moment there was a point when Rachel gets really, really pissed off at her mother, and is tempted to just tear her to pieces and force her to really look at the truth. But then she thinks, does she really want to make this old woman's life miserable by ripping away the survival mechanisms she's built up over years? Makes me think more of Rachel than if she was just the forgive and forget type.

MY GRADE: I loved everything about this book. I was thinking I'd go with a B+ before I started, but as I wrote this review, I remembered just how good it was. An A-, then.

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

>> Monday, March 29, 2010

TITLE: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
AUTHOR: Stieg Larsson

COPYRIGHT: 2005
PAGES: 533
PUBLISHER: Quercus

SETTING: Contemporary Sweden
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: First in the Millenium trilogy.

REASON FOR READING: It was selected for my book club.

"I want you to find out who in the family murdered Harriet, and who since then has spent almost forty years trying to drive me insane"

The Industrialist:

Henrik Vanger, head of the dynastic Vanger Corporation, is tormented by the loss of a child decades earlier and convinced that a member of his family has committed murder.

The Journalist:

Mikael Blomkvist delves deep into the Vangers' past to uncover the truth behind the unsolved mystery. But someone else wants the past to remain a secret and will go to any lengths to keep it that way.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo:

Lisbeth Salander, the enigmatic, delinquent and dangerous security specialist, assists in the investigation. A genius computer hacker, she tolerates no restrictions placed upon her by individuals, society or the law.
The book:

Mikael Blomqvist is an investigative journalist who's just lost a huge slander case and with it, his reputation. When he's approached by an old industrialist who wants him to investigate a 40-year-old case, Mikael isn't sure, but accepts the project. After all, he'll be paid as long as he tries, even if he doesn't solve the mystery of the disappearance of Henrik Venger's 16-year-old grand-niece, Harriet.

As Blomqvist immerses himself in the reams of evidence Henrik has collected over the years, we also follow the life of Lisbeth Salander, a young antisocial hacker who freelances for a security agency. And when the two of them come together, the mystery explodes and it looks like they just might get somewhere.

This was not an easy book to read. The level of violence, both sexual and otherwise, and both in the present and in the past, is shocking and disturbing. It's not a book for the sensitive reader. I cringed and felt sick to my stomach more than once. But I was also tremendously absorbed by the characters (well, one character more than others) and the mystery.

When the mystery got going and Blomqvist started actually getting interested in Harriet's disappearance, things became truly fascinating. It's a very intriguing setup, a classic locked-room mystery, only with an island playing the part of the room, and the characters involved are well done. And when Blomqvist starts making some breakthroughs, the pages flew by, even more when Salander got involved.

It was a bit disappointing, though, that when things started getting explained, there was a bit of a lack of coherence about what I thought was the most spectacular and interesting evidence, Harriet's list of names and numbers. When that was cracked, I thought it was brilliant, and moved the book to a whole new level, but then, when the truth came out, I just couldn't understand what was the point of it. Why had Harriet felt the need to write this down and in such cryptic fashion? Who didn't she want to understand the references? It makes no sense. And what that evidence showed was a bit iffy as well. There was not much analysis of it, just a glib assumption that oh, this person must have had some obsession with this and that. And that was it. Oh, well.

Salander is a wonderful character, like no other I've ever read. She's fiercely intelligent, but has some trouble functioning in society, which results in her being placed in a position that I found outrageous, if sadly believable. Anyone who reads this book will probably be haunted by a particularly shocking and horrific string of scenes involving her. I was, and I briefly contemplated dropping the book (good thing I had to finish it for the book club). But on reflection, horrible as they were, they really work in telling us more about Salander and who she is.

[spoiler]Although, I must say that I'm still having trouble reconciling the Salander who at the end of the book very sophisticatedly steals millions from one of the villains with the scared creature who is not at all aware of her rights and who feels she needs to approach a man who scares her (not to mention, has already raped her) for a miserly 10,000 kroner.[/spoiler] But I'll discuss my problems with the final sections later.

Each section starts with a shocking statistic about sexual violence about women in Sweden. It warns you even before you start, and for the first time that I remember these little quotes actually added to my reading. When I stopped in disbelief about the level of sexual violence the women in this book are subjected to, I thought of those statistics and realised it was believable, after all. When I wanted to shake the women for not going to the police, same thing.

So all that was excellently done, and I really could understand why the book has become such a big hit. However, there were some very significant weaknesses, things that made me wonder what on earth the author was thinking.

The worst one is the pacing. It's off, off, off. The problem is that slander case I mentioned. Blomqvist had got a tip about shady dealings by a big businessman called Wennerstrom. The sources seemed solid, but then he wrote his story and the sources disappeared. All very fishy. This serves to provide a reason for why Blomqvist agrees to Henrik's request, and it's in the background all book. That's all right, the problem is when it comes to the forefront, as it does at the beginning and the end.

Fortunately, I was warned by a friend that the book starts out a bit slow. Slow and tedious, I would add. Even with the warning, it was hard going. All detailed business dealings and industrial policy and how to play the system. Dead boring. And hey, I'm an economist, I've worked in industrial policy. If it bored me, I don't know how other people get past it. Once you do, though, the book flies.

But if the beginning is not particularly well-paced, the ending is a train-wreck. The pacing goes to hell when the book approaches its last part. This is one drawn out ending. The villain is discovered and the danger to our protagonists is over when the book still has, in my edition, about 130 pages to go. Then the rest of the mystery is resolved with 100 pages to go. The final 100 pages are devoted to tying up trivial loose ends, a lot of talking, and the resolution of the extremely boring Wennerstrom affair. It reads easily enough, to be fair, but I didn't care in the least. I suppose the bright side of this is that when the big, showy denouement started, I wasn't expecting it at all, since I knew there was still a lot of book to go.

The other thing that I didn't particularly like was the sex. There was a lot of sex in the book, but it was all either horrific and painful or perfunctory and cold. I've already discussed the horrific and painful bits, but there's also the fact that characters in this book fall into bed with each other at the drop of a hat, and with a strange lack of thought. To be fair, most of the sex itself probably wasn't perfunctory and cold (I'm sure the characters were enjoying themselves), but the way it was presented was. There's absolutely no thinking about it. It's hey, why not, whether or not there's any chemistry between the characters. And there isn't, in any of the cases that come to mind. Blomqvist's sex life feels very much as stereotypical male fantasy. Every single woman who sees him wants him, and he has no objection to doing them all (and "doing them" is a perfect description of his SOP with women).

MY GRADE: A B-.

The film:

(WARNING: some spoilers here, as I'm mostly discussing the differences between book and film)

Atypically for me, I really wanted to watch this (I'm never in too much of a hurry to see films based on booksI've enjoyed, and even less if I didn't enjoy them). But with TGWTDT, I thought the film could easily correct the pacing problems, which I thought were the book's main weakness. I also hoped it would tone down somewhat the horrendous sexual violence.

For the most part, I got what I hoped for. The pacing was much, much better. The film didn't deviate from the book's plot that much, but it did majorly gloss over the beginning and the last 130 pages, especially the boring, boring business bits.

The sexual violence did feel less disturbing, but I suppose that was just because I always find it more disturbing in general to read things rather than watch them (my mind is very effective at scaring me). However, the scene between Lisbeth and her guardian felt more gratuitous. In the book, disturbing as it was, it served to develop Lisbeth's character, showing how she functioned (or not) in society. We didn't get much of that in the book, and so the scene lost that purpose. It did still show her sense of justice, though, and how she was perfectly willing to take justice in her own hands, and not squeamish at all about it.

What was a surprise was how much more I liked the relationship between Lisbeth and Mikael in the film. This is one area in which we move away from the book quite a bit. No more pathetic male fantasy sex life. Cecilia doesn't throw herself at Mikael here, his relationship with Erica is much toned down and there is a tenderness and vulnerability on his part in his relationship with Lisbeth that just wasn't there in the book at all. I liked it, and it made me like him more.

MY GRADE: B+.

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DNF roundup

>> Saturday, March 27, 2010

TITLE: Squeeze Play
AUTHOR: Kate Angell

This was a case of lack of connection -both with the story and with the author's writing style.
Risk Kincaid is a top baseball player. Since he was in high school, he and Jacy Grayson have had something going. He's her rebound lover. Whenever she breaks up with her latest boyfriend, Risks comes back to their home town and they have a few torrid days. But this time, Risk wants more (or at least, that's what the back cover says; I didn't get far enough to really see that).

The basic plot appealed to me, but the first thing that happened was that I had trouble clicking with the author's writing. It's sort of breezy and glib, maybe too much so. And then it turns out Jacy has been lying to Risk -he's not her rebound lover at all, because she has made up all those lovers. Oh, yes, for the past 13 years, she's been living for Risk's sporadic visits. How pathetic is that? I was thinking I didn't really want to keep reading, when a single paragraph made up my mind of me. Jacy's friend, Stevie, weighs 136 pounds, but in the next sentence, Angell describes her obesity with relish... her non-existent cheeckbones, the ways her thighs rub together. Give. Me. A. Break.

MY GRADE: DNF.



TITLE: Gobsmacked
AUTHOR: LB Gregg

In the first scene, our narrator confronts his cheating newly ex boyfriend as he's sitting in church, beating him up with a Bible. I actually thought that was quite a cool scene - way to start with a bang! But then he discovers that the cheating scum has also been systematically cheating him of his money. And that was when the author started to lose me. I just couldn't make heads or tails of the narrator's actions. The writing also started to feel awkward and the narrator's voice annoying. I gave up at the point where he hides evidence at the house of his crush (a policeman, no less). I just couldn't be bothered to go on.

MY GRADE: DNF.


TITLE: The Trickster
AUTHOR: Kathleen Nance

I just wasn't in the mood for this one. I've read and enjoyed a couple of other books in this series, and The Trickster was much in the same vein, but it just wasn't doing it for me.

I read only the first bit, in which the hero returns after abandoning the heroine years earlier, without any warning or explanation. Wacky hijinks ensue (he gets attacked by an ostrich or emu, IIRC?), and she ends up agreeing to hire him in her farm. What drove me crazy was that the guy just wouldn't give a straight answer to any of the heroine's questions, just as he didn't all those years earlier. He frustrated me as much as he did her, and I just gave up.

I've seen very good reviews of this book, so I suspect it gets better after the rocky beginning. Who knows, maybe I'll try again at some point.

MY GRADE: DNF.

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Waking the Dead, by Kylie Brant

>> Thursday, March 25, 2010

TITLE: Waking the Dead
AUTHOR: Kylie Brant

COPYRIGHT: 2009
PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Berkley

SETTING: Contemporary US (Oregon)
TYPE: Romantic Suspense
SERIES: 3rd in the Mindhunters series

REASON FOR READING: The review at AAR.

Former forensic anthropologist Caitlin Fleming knows bones. So the investigator is the first one called when seven sets of skeletal remains are found dumped in a makeshift graveyard in the Oregon wilderness. Each skeleton bears the same distinctive marks. And each is minus a skull.

Cait needs outdoors guide Zach Sharper for one reason only—to help her find her way through the Willamette Forest as she pieces together clues. Despite the attraction that burns between them, nothing will be allowed to shake her focus. Until the killer closes in to terminate the investigation…and the ones on the verge of unmasking him…
While checking out a remote cave for a potential client, outdoors guide Zach Sharper discovers several sets of human bones. The local sheriff, knowing when she's in over her head, immediately calls for help. Help comes in the form of Cait Fleming, forensic anthropologist, investigator with the highly-esteemed Mindhunters agency, and former super-model (yes, really).

Cait and her assistant soon establish that the bones are all relatively recent, and with the help of Zach (who's been roped in by the sheriff into showing Cait around the area) Cait immediately dives into the investigation.

Waking the Dead was an all right read, especially most of the suspense element (more later about that "most"). It's an intriguing case, with some fascinating details. I appreciated that for a mystery with such a strong forensic element, things didn't get too gorey. Also, the investigation was well done. The police are smart, and work well with Cait, and they all go about their business quite intelligently. I especially liked Cait's assistant, Kristie, the elf-lookalike with a mouth like a sailor.

We get into the villain's head a few times -not a favourite of mine, this, but those scenes were actually well done. Creepy, but not disgusting, and ambiguous enough that I was never quite sure of exactly what was going on. The only false step here is that Brant is a bit too obviously coy about something when writing these scenes, and that only served to focus my attention on this element, and guess why she was doing this. Consequently, something that was supposed to be a big shock near the end didn't shock me in the least.

So why did I say that only most of the suspense worked for me? Mainly because there was absolutely no way we readers could have guessed the identity of the villain. There just wasn't anything there we could have used to even suspect there was something wrong, I'm afraid, with the result that the conclusion felt a bit out of the blue.

The romance wasn't the most compelling I've ever read. I thought Cait was a good character, and I liked her. The whole "former supermodel" angle never completely gelled for me, and it felt a bit unnecessary, but I really liked that she was sensible and tough and not at all prone to stupid behaviour. She was also perfectly willing and able to get Zach to cut the crap when he was been particularly rude.

And unfortunately, she has to, and often, possibly the reason why I never completely got the romance. Zach I liked a lot less. He immediately prejudges Cait because he recognises her, and never completely recovers from that. Quite a few times I wondered exactly what his problem was, as he was gratuitously rude and stupid.

By the end of the book things had improved somewhat, but I never really felt like their relationshiop was anything more than a hot affair. I saw no connection other than the sex, and that does not a great romance make, does it?

MY GRADE: A B-.

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Juliet, Naked, by Nick Hornby

>> Tuesday, March 23, 2010

TITLE: Juliet, Naked
AUTHOR: Nick Hornby

COPYRIGHT: 2009
PAGES: 249
PUBLISHER: Penguin

SETTING: Contemporary Northern England
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: No

REASON FOR READING: I loved the two Hornby books I read (About a Boy and A Long Way Down) and have quite a few in my TBR. This one was discussed in a programme called the TV Bookclub, so it was in a special shelf at the library and caught my eye.

Annie loves Duncan-or thinks she does. Duncan loves Annie, but then, all of a sudden, he doesn't. Duncan really loves Tucker Crowe, a reclusive Dylanish singer-songwriter who stopped making music ten years ago. Annie stops loving Duncan, and starts getting her own life.

In doing so, she initiates an e-mail correspondence with Tucker, and a connection is forged between two lonely people who are looking for more out of what they've got. Tucker's been languishing (and he's unnervingly aware of it), living in rural Pennsylvania with what he sees as his one hope for redemption amid a life of emotional and artistic ruin-his young son, Jackson. But then there's also the new material he's about to release to the world: an acoustic, stripped-down version of his greatest album, Juliet-entitled, Juliet, Naked.

What happens when a washed-up musician looks for another chance? And miles away, a restless, childless woman looks for a change? Juliet, Naked is a powerfully engrossing, humblingly humorous novel about music, love, loneliness, and the struggle to live up to one's promise.
It's hard to write a good summary of this book, since a lot the fun of it is not knowing what direction Hornby might take, and just finding out as you go along. But here goes, a description of the setup, rather than the book itself.

Annie has been with Duncan for 15 years, even though they've never been passionately in love, and lately, he has really began to annoy her. A big part of Duncan's life is being a fan of Tucker Crowe, an obscure and mysterious singer who's been in retirement for over 20 years, and this interest/obsession of his has become a big part of Annie's life, too. Which is how she starts exchanging emails with Tucker, unbeknownst to Duncan.

What I like about Hornby is the way there are always little nuggets in his book that ring emotionally completely true. It's the small, unflattering things that I recognise with some embarrassment, like the dislike and resentment you can feel for your partner when the relationship's failing, the way you fantasise about petty revenges, even if you don't end up carrying them out. Juliet, Naked is full of those.

Some of the aspects of fandom were uncomfortably recognisable as well. Duncan's really a rabid fan of Tucker Crowe's, and Hornby does a brilliant send-up of the website he frequents, where he and other fans got together engage in (no other way to describe it) mental masturbation. They write long, "learned" articles about influences and inspirations and hidden meanings and intentions, and basically squabble among themselves over their interpretations. Oh, I've SO been in groups like that. There was this Harry Potter one in particular that I could swear MUST be behind the descriptions of this group. And a couple of romance ones are not that far behind, really, especially the ones devoted to a single author.

Fandom aside, it was really interesting to me to see the nitty-gritty of serious music fandom and quasi-scholarship. I'm not a music fan. Oh, I like a lot of stuff well enough, even love some very few pieces, but it's not really something I think about all that much, and analyse even less. Seeing the level of analysis that can be done was quite awesome (in the literal, filled me with awe, sense).

Juliet, Naked is funny without being fluffy, and real and deep without being too angsty. I highly recommend it.

MY GRADE: A B+.

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Mortal Sin, by Laurie Breton

>> Sunday, March 21, 2010

TITLE: Mortal Sin
AUTHOR: Laurie Breton

COPYRIGHT: 2004
PAGES: 377
PUBLISHER: Mira

SETTING: Contemporary US (Boston)
TYPE: Romantic Suspense
SERIES: No (although I think there are some characters from a previous book who show up)

REASON FOR READING: Random pick from TBR in Uruguay

Park Square. Mass Ave. The Combat Zone. All home to Boston's sex trade. Home also to runaways and lost souls, home to high rollers and politicians looking for action they can't find anywhere else. It is home, too, for Father Clancy Donovan, who spends his time here trying to get young girls off the street. Bone weary and frustrated, he has lost the joy in his life and has no idea how to get it back.

Divorced three times and not yet thirty-five, Sarah Connolly is trying hard to make a new start when life throws her a curve. Kit, her fifteen-year-old niece, has run away from home, and Sarah will need every ounce of her stubbornness and determination to track her down. Suspecting Kit has disappeared into the Combat Zone, and with no one else to turn to, Sarah appeals to Clancy for help.

The unlikely pair team up to find Kit, but in the process find something else -- something powerful, something unexpected and something that will shake them to their core.
What was it with me and priests these last holidays? Two books with female priests, and then this one, with a Catholic (male, of course) priest.

Sarah Connolly has recently moved to Boston from the South with her teenaged niece, Kit, after the girl's new stepmother refused to accept her. Kit isn't adapting well to her new life and feels no one cares about her so, as the book starts, she runs off.

Sarah is terrified when she discovers Kit is missing and she soon realises the police won't be much help in helping her find a runaway who, from all indications, left voluntarily. At a friend's recommendation, she approaches Father Clancy Donovan, a priest at a Catholic church in the inner-city church who spends much of his time helping young runaways and trying to get them off the streets, especially once they turn to prostitution.

Clancy is nothing like most people's image of a Catholic priest. He hasn't been a priest all that long, and before entering the seminary, he spent many years travelling the world with the Merchant Marine. Clancy is not at all out of his depth in the rough streets of the inner city, and he brings his experience to bear in his work there.

Clancy agrees to help Sarah to help Kit, and they both soon find out that it's not going to be easy, and that Kit may be in grave danger. And as they work together to find the girl, something begins to develop between the two.

This is one dark book, both in tone and subject matter. It's also one that's most probably going to hit some very sensitive hot buttons. Having a Catholic priest as the hero is likely to be a problem for many, especially if they're Catholic themselves. It was actually a bit of a problem for me, even though I'm agnostic and no big fan of Catholicism.

Oh, I had no problem whatsoever with the idea of a priest discovering that he's falling for a woman, especially when their relationship started innocently enough. He's human, it can happen. It has happened, time and time again. Not to mention that Clancy's doubts about his vocation didn't exactly start when he met Sarah. He's been struggling with some of the Church's attitudes for a while, and has already begun to has some glimmers of doubt about whether this is where he should stay in the long term. I suspect, given who he is and what he cares about, that even without Sarah entering his life, he wouldn't have been long for the clerical life.

What I had trouble with was what I saw as too much hemming and hawing on Clancy's part about what he was going to do after he and Sarah got involved. At one point he actually half considers staying as a priest, while keeping Sarah as his lover. That, I didn't like at all. If you can't fulfill the promises you made when you entered the priesthood, then you leave. You might think that the rules are stupid (and as a former Catholic, I think many of the rules are extremely stupid!), but if you don't want to follow them, then you need to go. Even if you still believe the Catholic church is the place for you, you don't stay as a priest. I didn't know I had such strong opinions about it, but I clearly do.

Anyway, Clancy does make what I thought was the right decision in the end, but his waffling left a bad taste in my mouth.

The other thing that didn't completely satisfy was the suspense. It started out well enough. It's not a spoiler to reveal that Kit is taken by a guy who's planning to prostitute her. The character of the girl herself is well developed, a stubborn teenager who thinks she knows everything and can take care of herself, even though to the reader, she's tremendously naive and gullible. So that was good.

What wasn't so good was the fact that her "captor"'s actions were, I thought, completely preposterous. The guy spends weeks grooming her, a lot of effort making her falling love with him and sleeping with her and being very generous and nice in bed. Why? When after a while he'll just try to force (force, mind you, not convince) her to have sex with a john, which is obviously going to make her a bit upset with him? What was the point of the seduction? I just couldn't buy that a pimp would put so much time and effort into a girl (who was pretty enough, but hardly multi-million dollar material), and then just blow it. That character of the pimp felt very, very fake, and I couldn't take this subplot seriously.

There were some good moments, and the characters were interesting and their issues unusual and original, but I had too many problems with the book, especially in the second half, to really like it.

MY GRADE: I can't give it a better grade than C-.

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Do-Over, by Dorien Kelly

>> Friday, March 19, 2010

TITLE: Do-Over
AUTHOR: Dorien Kelly

COPYRIGHT: 2003
PAGES: 218
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Flipside

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Category romance
SERIES: None

REASON FOR READING: Random TBR pick when I was in Uruguay.

If the gods decided to grant Cara Adams one "do-over," the choice would be a no-brainer--she wouldn't have been sucked in by Mark "the Shark" Morgan. Back in law school, Cara had "dumbed down" to catch Mark's eye. Thanks to her stunt, she lost a plum job at a Wall Street firm, and the Shark is enjoying life in the Big Apple. Now Cara's thirty and doing just fine, thank you very much. Positive she's a shoo-in for a partnership at her prestigious Michigan law firm, Cara's bought herself a new loft, paid off her student loans and is ready for the success she deserves. But the gods are laughing now. Her ally in the law firm bolts in the middle of the night, her secretary gets fired for using the file room as her own boudoir, and...Mark the Shark has come home. Really, the gods must be crazy.

Will Cara go down without a fight? Not this time.
What a deceptive cover this book's got. No one looking at the fluffy cartoon cover and the Harlequin Flipside logo would suspect that what's actually inside is a powerful story about a woman fighting to find her place in a man's world. Not fluffy, not flip, just plain good and quite a powerful story, as well.

Cara Adams has been working her tail off for years at her law firm, and it appears her efforts are beginning to pay off. Everything points to her being made a partner in the coming few months, with the ensuing prestige, money and security. A good thing, too, because otherwise the killer mortgage on Cara's new condo will really begin to bite.

Cara's world begins to unravel when she arrives at work one morning only to discover that her longtime mentor at the firm has jumped ship and gone to work for another. Having been very close to this person, Cara is immediately suspect in the partners' eyes, and confidence in her is put on hold while they assess the damage over the weekend.

And things go from bad to worse when Cara finds out Mark Morgan has just joined her firm. Mark was in uni with Cara, and her big crush on him meant she underperformed in her interview when they were competing for the same job. Cara has always remembered that moment with shame, and she'll be damned if she'll allow him to beat her again. But it seems sexism is alive and well at her firm, and just by being a man, Mark is able to build an immediate rapport with the senior partners.

Even worse, what's also alive and well is the attraction between Cara and Mark, hard as she might work to ignore it.

Do-Over was a book that really affected me viscerally. It's probably a weird comparison, but you know how I felt when I was reading it? Exactly like I did when I read Susan Elizabeth Phillips' Ain't She Sweet, and Sugar Beth had just returned to her home town, only to face hostility all around. Exactly like I did when I used to read mountains of Harlequin Presents years ago, and they all featured the heroine being the victim of a Big Minsunderstanding that meant the hero despised her.

It's the unfairness and injustice of it all that affects me. I got terribly frustrated with what Cara was facing at work, the overwork, the good-old-boy sexism. Even though I've never faced anything like it myself, I completely identified with Cara and her reactions. It sounds like an unenjoyable read, but that wasn't the case at all. I found it cathartic, actually, and it's a credit to Kelly that she was able to make me feel so strongly, without feeling manipulated in the least.

So as sort of denunciation of the good-old-boy club and sexism in the workplace, this works. Kelly had a harder time with the romance, I thought, since Mark is pretty oblivious a lot of the time. He's not a sexist pig himself, but he doesn't quite get it. He doesn't really understand what Cara is going through. He'll accept the invitation to play golf with the senior partners without even thinking about it, even though if he did, he would agree that it would only be fair that Cara be afforded the same opportunities. So he supports her, but it doesn't even occur to him to give up his advantages for the sake of fairness. Could he? Should he? Is it really his problem that the other parners are a bunch of fossils? Those were all questions it was interesting to think about.

In the end, the romance does work, because oblivious or not, Mark is a good guy, and Cara ends up getting what's best for her. That, the ending, was something else I had to pause to think about. Now, this might be a bit of a spoiler, but I thought there was a danger, if the book went in the direction it ended up going, of getting a "women can't cut it under pressure" message.

In the end, though, that wasn't the message I got. I didn't feel that the book was arguing that Mark was any better than Cara because he was all right with the pressure. For starters, as a man, it was clear he didn't have to push himself as hard as Cara did, just to keep running in place. The message I got was that Cara (not women in general, Cara), because of the person she was, and the pressure she automatically put on herself if in an environment such as the law firm she was in, would do a lot better and be a lot happier in a more relaxed place, where the focus was on satisfying work, rather than getting more and more money. Ergo, happy ending all around, even for my extremely feminist sensibilities.

It's not often that a barely-200-pages-long category romance will make me think about things and feel so strongly as this one did. It's a good one.

MY GRADE: A B+.

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The Keys To The Street, by Ruth Rendell

>> Wednesday, March 17, 2010

TITLE: The Keys To The Street
AUTHOR: Ruth Rendell

COPYRIGHT: 1996
PAGES: 376
PUBLISHER: Dell Mystery

SETTING: Contemporary London
TYPE: Mystery / Fiction
SERIES: None

REASON FOR READING: Random pick from the old TBR, I just felt like a mystery.

Each of the murdered men was found impaled on the spiked fence around Regent's Park. Except for one, all were street people - like Pharaoh the Key Men - whose real identities had vanished with their descent into the city's underside. The bodies were found near the museum where Mary Jago worked and the mansion where she house-sat during the owners' absence. But quiet, pretty Mary could never have suspected that the threads connecting the dead would soon become tangled around her own simple, ordinary life.

Now the abusive relationship Mary Jago recently left, the mysterious man she was about to love, the inheritance suddenly thrust into her hands, and the dog walker who sas something he shouldn't were opening a Pandora's box into Mary's comfortable world. And the lies, sins, and violent acts that spilled out would be entirely unexpected, chilling to the bone… and suddenly, shockingly deadly.
The Keys To the Street is marked as mystery on the spine, but I think I'd characterise it as plain fiction. Oh there is the mystery of who's killing homeless men living on the streets of London and impaling on the rails around Regent's Park, but the book is not about that. It's about the characters, about Mary Jago, finally leaving an abusive relationship and seemingly finding her soulmate in a man she donated bone marrow to, about Roman Ashton, living on the streets after tragedy in his comfortable middle class life and about Bean, the dog walker. It's about the many ways they all connect and how each's actions affect the other.

Rendell is brilliant at fleshing out her characters fully. I might not like many of them, but they always ring true, and I always end up understanding it. Mary, for instance, is an unlikely heroine. I felt impatient with her at times for not standing up for herself, but couldn't help but enjoy reading about her, mainly because this is a very self-aware character. Mary knows she's a bit of a victim, and slowly but surely, she gets over it, and I cheered for her triumph. She doesn't get a perfectly happy ending, but a hopeful one that's more to do with her personal growth than with any external circumstances.

My favourite character, however, was Roman. He was the one I cared most about and really, really wanted to be well at the end. I also thought the role he played in the narrative was very well done. He provides the very interesting point of view of an insider in the dossers' world but with an outsider's clarity of view.

Much as I enjoyed the characters, the very best thing about TKTTS was its ending. The solution to the mystery was breathtakingly perfect. A real "a-ha, now I understand!" moment. And best of all, Rendell trusts her readers and doesn't give unnecessary explanations about the implications of the perfectly chosen few little words with which she wraps everything up. If you've been paying attention, you'll know exactly who this is and why they did it. If not, well, if not, you're screwed.

Finally, a word about the setting. Rendell clearly knows the streets around Regent's Park like the palm of her hand, and the area comes alive under her hand. I'm not that familiar with the area (beyond getting off my train at Euston every couple of weeks and having once stayed in a hotel near Regent's Park tube station), but I think I could pretty much recognise it and walk around easily after reading this! I should try it the next time I'm in London!

MY GRADE: A B.

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Eclipse, by Stephenie Meyer

>> Monday, March 15, 2010

TITLE: Eclipse
AUTHOR: Stephenie Meyer

COPYRIGHT: 2007
PAGES: 559
PUBLISHER: Atom

SETTING: Contemporary Washington state, USA
TYPE: Young Adult / Vampire
SERIES: Third in the Twilight series.

REASON FOR READING: I read Twilight a few years back and wasn't particularly impressed. I was entertained by it and didn't hate it, but I had absolutely no desire to continue. But a friend dragged me to see New Moon recently, and that got me curious to find out how things would turn out.

As Seattle is ravaged by a string of mysterious killings and a malicious vampire continues her quest for revenge, Bella once again finds herself surrounded by danger. In the midst of it all, she is forced to choose between her love for Edward and her friendship with Jacob -knowing that her decision has the potential to ignite the ageless struggle between vampire and werewolf. With her graduation quickly approaching, Bella has one more decision to make: life or death. But which is which?
Eclipse picks up pretty much where New Moon left off (and apologies, but I'm not summarising the basic setup of this series. If you haven't read Twilight and New Moon, you shouldn't be reading Eclipse, anyway). Edward and Bella are back in Forks after their European adventure. Graduation is fast approaching and with it, the date of Bella going through her change and become a vampire, just like Edward.

At the same time, Bella is still struggling to keep up her friendship with Jacob, in spite of the natural enmity between werewolves and vampires. It's not just that Edward is very reluctant to have her close to a creature he sees as unpredictable and dangerous; Jacob doesn't know if he even wants to continue being Bella's friend, given that she's planning to willingly become a creature he finds intolerable.

External threats are also still an issue. Victoria is still after Bella, and it's quite clear she won't give up. The Volturi, as well, are always there in the background of their minds, with the threat they pose to Bella if she doesn't become a vampires soon.

And as if that wasn't enough, a serial killer is stalking nearby Seattle, taking people seemingly at random and from the most unlikely places. It's clear to the vampires that it's not a human killer, but one of theirs, and thus we get introduced to the concept of the newborn vampires, something that at last succeeds in making Bella at least a little bit scared of the consequences of the massive transformation she's decided to go through.

So, a lot going on, but the real meat of the book is the romantic triangle. Edward or Jacob, Jacob or Edward, which will Bella choose? We get into their minds quite a bit this time (including in a scene in a tent which is a fan-ficcer wet dream), and even as I was mentally groaning, I was lapping it up.

Was I happy with the conclusion? Well, it's not that it wasn't quite obvious who Bella was going to end up with, but I felt especially disappointed after getting a bit more from Jacob's POV. Yes, he's a bit young and immature, but I still found him a much better match for Bella than Edward.

I think the main problem I have is that I find Bella and Edward's relationship incredibly creepy. I recently read a blog where someone went through one of those "Are you a victim of domestic violence" checklists and making quite a convincing case that Bella would have to answer yes to pretty much all the questions. Having read that, I can't help but see their relationship in that light. Yes, in this installment Edward succeeds in becoming a bit better about trusting Bella's judgment about what's dangerous, and thus less controlling, but there's still a huge difference in maturity and outlook that squicks me out completely, especially because Bella is such a typical teenager herself.

All in all, and even with my doubts about the romance, this was an enjoyable book. It's been a while since I read Twilight, but I have the impression the writing was better, and the action scenes significantly so. Almost despite my better judgment, I'm going to have to read Breaking Dawn and see how things turn out.

MY GRADE: A B-.

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Ghosts of Spain, by Giles Tremlett

>> Saturday, March 13, 2010

TITLE: Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through a Country's Hidden Past
AUTHOR: Giles Tremlett

COPYRIGHT: 2006
PAGES: 426
PUBLISHER: Faber and Faber

SETTING: Well, Spain, I suppose!
TYPE: Non Fiction
SERIES: No

REASON FOR READING: Picked it at randomly at my local library.

The appearance, more than sixty years after the Spanish Civil War ended, of mass graves containing victims of Francisco Franco’s death squads finally broke what Spaniards call “the pact of forgetting”—the unwritten understanding that their recent, painful past was best left unexplored. At this charged moment, Giles Tremlett embarked on a journey around the country and through its history to discover why some of Europe’s most voluble people have kept silent so long. In elegant and passionate prose, Tremlett unveils the tinderbox of disagreements that mark the country today. Ghosts of Spain is a revelatory book about one of Europe’s most exciting countries.
"Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Spain", says the BBC History Magazine. I couldn't agree more. In this collection of beautifully crafted essays, Tremlett, an Englishman who's been living in Spain for years, lovingly explores what Spain is like and the past that has made it that way.

The subtitle (Travels Through a Country's Hidden Past) might be a bit deceptive, as it really only describes the first couple of chapters. These open the book by looking at the Spanish Civil War and its legacy of Francoism, as well as the Transition and people's attitudes to it today, the "pact of forgetting", as Tremlett describes the collective amnesia Spain decided on after emerging from Francoism (especially interesting to me, since we attempted something very similar one emerging from our own dictatorship, only it cracked a lot more easily and faster).

But there are lots of things as well, explorations of what Spain is today. This is often linked to the past, as a way of giving readers an understanding of how things developed. Whether Tremlett's discussing the experience of childbirth in Spain and the attitude towards children, flamenco music, Spaniards' attitude towards brothel-going and their general refusal to be shocked by sexuality, while still managing to be pretty sexist sometimes, the emergence of mass tourism and its effects, or the Basque country (unfortunately, as the author says, necessarily with a focus on ETA), he does a brilliant job, being clear and illuminating, and having the knack to give his reader the perfect amount of background information. I especially liked the Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians) chapter, with its analysis of the links between the train bombings in Madrid and the history of Al Andalus. Beautifully structured, and really making sense of things that were later cynically twisted by parts of the international media.

Tremlett's perspective is an interesting one, since he's a bit of an insider-outsider -an integrated outsider, I think he calls it. He's married to Spanish woman, with children being raised as normal Spanish children, so he knows Spain and clearly feels part of it, but he can still with a slight detachment and with complete lack of defensiveness. It's the perfect combination

And the writing is wonderful. Sometimes with non fiction the actual writing loses importance, so you end up slogging through dry prose to get at interesting material, but that wasn't the case here at all. From the first page, the writing just wraps you up and carries you with it. You don't want to stop reading, and that's not just because of the interesting things you're reading, but because of the way they're being communicated to you.

On a very personal note, this book was one I feel I've been waiting all my life to read. I probably know Spain and Spanish culture better than most of the English readership of this book. I grew up in Uruguay, and as one of Spain's former colonies, we still have significant cultural links. But that means that for things that were before my time, I never really got it, because a certain degree of knowledge was assumed in any, say, newspaper or magazine article. For instance, I never happened on the whole story, from the beginning, of General Tejero's attempted coup. I knew of it, I'd recognise the pictures from the day, but all articles I read assumed that I knew the basics already, or that I knew the people involved and what their background and political leanings were. Even trying to do a bit more research about it, I faced the same "assumed knowledge" problem. For things like that, reading Tremlett's account, where the target audience was people who probably had never heard of it, or knew very little, was priceless.

I was also very struck by how much of the Spanish we Latin Americans still have in us. Our generals seemed to take a page right out of Franco's book, and the attitudes are very similar in many, many ways. At one point Tremlett describes a kind of Spanish film that emerged in the late stages of Francoism, in which (paraphrasing here, since I can't find the quote now) a stupid, ugly Spanish man is chased by beautiful women, just because he's a "macho espaƱol", a species much prized, especially amongst Northern European woman. Oh god, I SO recognise that! That's pretty much every single Argentinian comedy programme from the 80s! Alberto Olmedo and his "bebotas", etc. That sort of thing has always made me want to throw up.

The only flaw I find in the book is that it didn't cover something I'm really interested in, and which is immigration, especially from Latin America. I know that the fact that I'm interested in something isn't a reason it should be in a book (I'm not that egocentric), but I would think this is an important issue in Spain. Whenever I've been, immigrants are pretty visible.

But oh, well, that only lowers my grade from an A+ to an A, and I don't give out those very often. Read this, even if you're only slightly interested in Spain. You won't regret it.

MY GRADE: An A.

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Turn Me On, by Kristin Hardy

>> Thursday, March 11, 2010

TITLE: Turn Me On
AUTHOR: Kristin Hardy

COPYRIGHT: 2004
PAGES: 251
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Blaze

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Category romance
SERIES: 1st in the Sex and the Supper Club series

REASON FOR READING: I've liked previous Hardy Blazes, even gave one (My Sexiest Mistake) an A-.

Members of the Sex & Supper Club cordially invite you to a sneak preview of intimacies best shared among friends

When a gang of twenty-something women get together, men are always on the menu!

Stripping school? Exhibitionism? Fetishes? ... all sexy, all topics for Sabrina Pantolini's uncensored sex TV series. True Sex explores wild secret sensual desires and will be her masterpiece. Friends at the Club agree that covering voyeurism, lap-dance lessons and X-rated toys - the more off-beat the better - will rock everyone's world.

Including her own.

Stef Costas is Sabrina's most dangerous decision yet. Bringing him on board as director for the no-holds-barred project is like throwing gasoline on a fire. Her once sizzling affair with the enigmatic hunk burned them both. Badly. Now their relationship is strictly business - unless, of course, the scorcher they're filming turns into their reality, and the go-for-it producer goes for it, again...
Sabrina Pantolini and Stef Costas were college sweethearts. Their relationship ended when the more traditional Stef decided that Sabrina's Hollywood royalty upbringing and what he saw as her party-girl behaviour didn't mesh with what he required in a serious relationship.

Years later, Sabrina (after a few years of being a party girl for real) is trying to get her career as a producer off the ground. She's half-sold the idea of a pilot to a network. The programme is to be a documentary series called "True Sex", exploring real people's sex lives. She has everything lined up, when her director quits.

Over those years, Stef has become one of the best documentary directors in the country. He's about to begin the project he's been working towards all his life, when his funding suddenly gets cut off. One of his connections promises to help, but Stef needs to do him a favour first: help out his niece by directing this pilot for a documentary series she's producing.

Of course, neither Stef nor Sabrina are happy to find themselves forced to work with the other, but they've got no choice. And working on the hot-hot-hot subjects of the documentary is not helping to keep things cool.

This is one of those "look how edgy I am!" Blazes. It clearly aims to have modern characters who are (especially the heroine) really cool and relaxed about sex, but what it feels is self-conscious. There's, for instance, the obligatory scene where Sabrina gets together with her girlfriends to talk about sex, and that felt really, really uncomfortable. Not the explicitness of the conversation (we don't really hold back all that much with my friends, either), but the feeling that they were all trying as hard as they could to be edgy and out there.

Same thing for the scenes of them working on the documentary. Supposed to be edgy and out there, but while entertaining enough, I didn't find them particularly hot. Maybe it was because while the documentary's intention is described as exploring all the different ways people live their sexuality, from the scenes that were described, it seemed to be mostly about exhibitionism. I'm afraid that doesn't happen to push any of my buttons, so coupled with that very self-conscious feel I've mentioned that I detected in these scenes, I found these scenes a bit meh.

The romance wasn't too interesting, mainly because the conflict depended on Stef being a bit of a self-righteous prig and getting all judgmental about Sabrina. Oh, he's hot for her and happy enough to hook up when they get turned on by what they've been filming, but can he trust her when he suspects she might still be as much of a party girl as she was all those years earlier and have all those slutty Hollywood values? I could never warm up to either of these characters.

This is not a bad book, by any means. I suspect it will work much better for other readers (actually, I suspect it would have worked for me a few years ago), but it didn't do it for me.

MY GRADE: A C+.

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The Oldest Kind of Magic, by Ann Macela

>> Tuesday, March 09, 2010

TITLE: The Oldest Kind of Magic
AUTHOR: Ann Macela

COPYRIGHT: 2005
PAGES: 379
PUBLISHER: Medallion Press

SETTING: Contemporary Texas
TYPE: Paranormal romance
SERIES: I'm not sure, I think it might be related to this one?

REASON FOR READING: Random choice, it looked intriguing

Daria Morgan is a magic practitioner, one of a group of people who uses magic and spells to do their everyday jobs. Her job: A management consultant. John "Bent" Benthausen is a CEO who, despite every improvement in product and production, can’t get his bottom line out of the Red Sea. He needs a management consultant. With her special gifts, Daria gets right to the heart of her employer’s problem—crooked employees. Crooked, vicious, employees who are now out to get Daria. Those are just Problems One and Two. Problem Three: There is an ancient force, an irresistible compulsion, called the soulmate imperative. It’s known throughout the practitioner ranks for bringing together magic-users and their mates in a lifelong bond. And it won’t be happy until the participants surrender to the inevitable... the Oldest Kind of Magic...
I'm being lazy today and not providing a summary. The one quoted above is pretty accurate, so I'll leave it at that. The only problem is that, accurate or not, a simple description of the plot kind of makes you think this is a silly, wacky book. It is not. Absolutely not. It's quite thoughtful, actually, and I liked it quite a bit.

This is a soulmates book, but it's a good soulmates book. It doesn't just use the concept unquestioned and as an excuse to get out of showing us two people falling in love. Here, soulmates means simply that two people are perfectly compatible, and Daria and Bent truly are that. We see that and can't help but see that of course they'd be in love and perfect for each other.

And even with this, Daria truly has trouble with the concept of soulmates. As most sane people would, she hates the idea of a compulsion pushing her anywhere, and of something artificial making her fall for a random guy. It's only when she realises this is not quite how this operates in her world that she does accept her feelings for Bent.

It's an interesting idea, the way Macela develops her magic. Very matter-of-fact, really. It kind of reminded me of some of JAK's books, the latest, especially, where people's talents for something are presented as sometimes being a psychic talent that they just don't know they have (e.g. excellent business leaders being strat talents, I think). That's pretty much the case with Daria. Her use of her abilities is pretty overt, but to the outsider she's simply very perceptive and a person people easily open up to. Anyway, it's an intriguing world. I only wish that this particular paranormal framework (or however you want to call it) didn't require all the women to be virgins, while letting the male practitioners do what they damn well please. Tedious, useless, old double-standards.

I loved that Daria and Bent are two characters who truly are grown-ups. They talk and actually *discuss* things. I thought I saw a conflict with the soulmates thingie coming from a mile away. Of course, I thought, when Bent finds out about the soulmate imperative, he'll feel betrayed and reject Daria. Well, it didn't work out quite like that. This is good, since I hate it when the whole conflict is based on a miscommunication that doesn't really fit with the characters' personalities, as it wouldn't have in this case.

However, the fact is that the romance is a bit too conflict-free. Even Bent's commitment issues disappear just like that -poof! It doesn't mean I was bored with the book. I never was, but it was always very low-drama and understated. Even the small suspense subplot is pretty undramatic.

Among the other things I liked was that this is a book with a very strong sense of place. It's set in Texas, and it feels very distinctive. And not just that, the company Bent is running feels like a real company, with issues I recognise. It's all very well done.

Based on this and my previous experience with Macela, I'd recommend her as an author to try.

MY GRADE: A B.

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Practicing History, by Barbara W. Tuchman

>> Sunday, March 07, 2010

TITLE: Practicing History
AUTHOR: Barbara W. Tuchman

COPYRIGHT: 1981
PAGES: 306
PUBLISHER: Macmillan

SETTING: N/A
TYPE: Non Fiction
SERIES: N/A

REASON FOR READING: I've enjoyed many of Tuchman's books, ever since I randomly picked up The Zimmerman Telegram in my high school library.

Practising History is a collection of essays Tuchman published over the years. There's a bit of everything here, from commencement addresses to newspaper articles and editorials, public speeches to book reviews. While some were more interesting than others, and the degree to which they felt dated varied, on the whole, I found the whole collection an excellent, very enjoyable read.

The book is divided into three sections. The first one was the one I found most interesting, called "The Craft". That's Tuchman thinking about how she goes about writing history, what the techniques are, that sort of thing. All essays here were excellent, but I especially liked three. History by the Ounce explored the usefulness of the corroborative detail and the difficulties in choosing exactly what was the most appropriate detail to use in this manner. The Historian as Artist had me nodding all the way through, because it's the very reason I read Tuchman. She's scholarly but beautiful to read. Biography as a Prism of History, meanwhile, was similar in a way to History by the Ounce. In it, she describes how when she's done a biography, it's hasn't been really out of interest in the subject himself, but as a way of saying something about the times he lived in.

"The Yield" was the second section, and contained a selection of articles on either current or very recent affairs, on a host of different subjects. Some were more relevant today than others , but having been written a minimum of 35 years ago, they all very clearly showed the difference between what's considered important at the time and what is destilled by time as key. The ones I liked best here were:

Woodrow Wilson on Freud's Couch, in which Tuchman slices to ribbons a Freudian analysis of the motivations behind some of Wilson's actions. It's easy to forget now, when a Freudian way of looking at things has been pretty much absorbed into our outlook, but the excesses have been rejected, how frustrating it must have been to see everything explained by an absurd reduction to one extremely simplistic cause.

How We Entered World War I: "We" here is the US, and this one was quite illuminating to me. Maybe Americans study this more in detail, but although I knew there had been much resistance there to entering the war, I didn't know the nitty-gritty. Who was for, who was against, and what the arguments were.

Israel's Swift Sword was a celebration of the Israeli Defence Force and its performance in the Six-Days War. I found myself caught up in the worshipful, very passionate mood of the article, and it actually brought a tear to my normally cynical eye. It's easy to forget now that Israel is perceived as the strong one in the area just how precarious and scary their situation must have felt to the early Israelis.

The Assimilationist's Dilemma: Ambassador Morgenthau's Story. A subject I knew nothing about: why some very influential Jews were very definitely not Zionists. As Tuchman describes in an early essay, this says a lot about the spririt of their age.

If Mao Had Come To Washington was something else I knew nothing about, the US's actions in China right before Mao came to power, the missed opportunities and the ways in which one particular man who's the wrong one for his position can have disastrous consequences. This one really clarifies what an essay in the next section (Why Policy-Makers Don't Listen) refers to.

Kissinger: Self-Portrait is a book review of Kissinger's autobiography, and it gave me great pleasure to have her tear down this man I despise. Not very objective, but there you go.

Finally, "Learning From History" was probably the least interesting of the three parts. Some very detailed analysis over the course of the Vietnam war lost me a bit, because it assumed knowledge that her readers would have had at the time, but that I definitely don't.

On the Vietnam area, I thought the most thought-provoking was a commencement address delivered in 1972, The Citizen Versus the Military, in which, in clear frustration, Tuchman castigates liberals for leaving the field in a huff and holding themselves aloft from "them", the military, giving them free rein to do what they want. At one point she basically tells them that rather than chase the ROTC off campus they should all join and then strike. That will bring the (she believed, illegal, unjustified) war to a stop!

Also really interesting were the articles written around the time of the Watergate scandal, arguing for impeachment and for abolishing the presidency. Her arguments do make sense, I have to say!

Finally, I especially liked Why Policy-Makers Don't Listen, which I mentioned above and which analyses why sometimes excellent advice is not listened to, and explains the filters it sometimes goes through, which strip it of its meaning and convincingness.

If you're interested in history, this collection is highly recommended.


MY GRADE: A B+.

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Lover Enshrined, by JR Ward

>> Friday, March 05, 2010

TITLE: Lover Enshrined
AUTHOR: JR Ward

COPYRIGHT: 2008
PAGES: 560
PUBLISHER: Signet Eclipse

SETTING: Contemporary New York state
TYPE: Urban Fiction / Paranormal romance
SERIES: 6th in the Black Dagger Brotherhood series.

REASON FOR READING: JRW's like crack. I resisted until now, but gave up.

In the shadows of the night in Caldwell, New York, there’s a deadly war raging between vampires and their slayers. And there exists a secret band of brothers like no other—six vampire warriors, defenders of their race. And now, a dutiful twin must choose between two lives...

Fiercely loyal to the Black Dagger Brotherhood, Phury has sacrificed himself for the good of the race, becoming the male responsible for keeping the Brotherhood's bloodlines alive. As Primale of the Chosen, he is to father the sons and daughters who will ensure that the traditions of the race survive and that there are warriors to fight those who want all vampires extinguished.

As his first mate, the Chosen Cormia wants to win not only his body but his heart for herself- she sees the emotionally scarred male behind all his noble responsibility. But while the war with the Lessening Society grows more grim, and tragedy looms over the Brotherhood's mansion, Phury must decide between duty and love.
If you haven't read the other books in the series, don't start with this one. In fact, don't bother reading any further here, because it won't make much sense to you. If you've read the others and liked them, I think you'd probably like this one. If you hated them, then Lover Enshrined won't change your mind.

I was warned before I started reading that in this book, the BDB series moved from proper romance to urban fiction. I don't know if I'd go as far as to say that, because there's definitely a romance here. Still, more and more of the book is taken up by other storylines. There's great development of the friendship between John, Qhuinn and Blaylock, there's a lot about Rehvenge, clearly setting up the next book, and there are big things happening with the Omega and the Lessening Society. There's also a bit of Tohr (I think!), there's Zsadist and Bella, there's Xhex, there's Doc Jane... tons of bits and pieces of different storylines.

And you know what? I really liked that this happened. It helped that the romance between Phury and Cormia is probably one of the weakest I've read in the series so far, so I wasn't particularly torn up when the action moved from them to something else. It's not a horrible romance, and Cormia isn't as much of a limp dishrag as she seemed in the previous book, but still. I just couldn't warm up to Phury, with his addiction problems and his indecisions and the way he kept blowing hot and cold with poor Cormia. It was depressing to read about him. Plus, I wasn't too enthused with the whole Chosen / Primale thing, the whole Chosen world pisses me off.

I still think the random sprinkling of h's is as lame as ever, but I think the lameness actually got a bit lighter here. The brandname-dropping wasn't as heinous and the big, bad vampires didn't use too much silly teen-speak (there was one "I'm outtie", but that was it).

The weakest part of the book was the ending. The resolution of the whole Primale thing was much, much too easy. If that was all it took, then all that angst that has gone on for a couple of books now was a complete waste of time. Plus, the Scribe Virgin has seemingly had a personality transplant. The pretty scarily authority-mad deity of previous books, who gets pissed off and can make you grovel if you as much as ask her a question goes pretty much "yeah, ok", when her wisdom in creating the Chosen world as she did is questioned. Very weird.

My favourite part of the book? The bits about John and his friends, and about John and Xhex. In fact, I'm half tempted to wait to read the next one in the series until John's book comes out in a few months.

MY GRADE: A B.

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The Bridal Bet, by Trish Wylie

>> Wednesday, March 03, 2010

TITLE: The Bridal Bet
AUTHOR: Trish Wylie

COPYRIGHT: 2003
PAGES: 176
PUBLISHER: Mills & Boon Tender

SETTING: Contemporary Ireland
TYPE: Category romance
SERIES: None

REASON FOR READING: Can't remember why I bought it, I picked it up at random from my TBR pile in Uruguay

The biggest gamble of his life!

Ryan Callaghan and Molly O’Brien have been best friends for ever. But a childhood game turns serious when Ryan dares Molly to pretend they’re dating and she accepts!

Ryan’s quick to point out that pretend couples have to do a lot of very real kissing. And, as old friends become brand-new lovers, Molly realizes that the stakes for this bet are far higher than she had first thought.
Boring, boring, boring. It's strange, because I love friends-to-lovers plots, and I was really looking forward to the Irish setting, but I could barely bring myself to finish this. I didn't engage with it at all. At no point was I at all absorbed in the story.

I found the plot ridiculous and contrived. Ryan and Molly have been best friends since childhood. Molly moved in the US for some years, after breaking up with her long-time partner (also a good friend of them both), but she's recently moved back to her tiny hometown in Ireland. She and Ryan are living together, and as the book starts, they decide to pretend to be involved because... well, I never understood the point of it. It involved making Molly seem more interesting, and thus getting this guy to notice her. Sounds like a pretty idiotic way of achieving it, really. If what it takes to get him interested is Molly being in a relationship, then he's a right bastard, IMO.

Anyway, while pretend-kissing, Molly and Ryan realise that they quite like it and find it hard to keep it pretend. But oh, no, they absolutely can't get involved, because.... well, I didn't really understand that, either. I suppose because otherwise the book would end on page 20.

At one point Molly's ex shows up and it looked like the story would get a bit more interesting, but no such luck. Things soon fizzled, ending up with a pretty lame Big Misunderstanding.

There was nothing truly offensive here, but it was all so mediocre and boring that I can't recommend this book.

MY GRADE: A C.

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The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

>> Monday, March 01, 2010

TITLE: The Hunger Games
AUTHOR: Suzanne Collins

COPYRIGHT: 2008
PAGES: 454
PUBLISHER: Scholastic

SETTING: Future
TYPE: YA / Dystopia
SERIES: First in trilogy

REASON FOR READING: I'm not normally drawn to YA, but futuristic dystopia definitely appeals.

Could you survive on your own, in the wild, with everyone fighting against you?

Twenty-four are forced to enter. Only the winner survives. In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. Each year, the districts are forced by the Capitol to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the Hunger Games, a brutal and terrifying fight to the death - televised for all of Panem to see.

Survival is second nature for sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who struggles to feed her mother and younger sister by secretly hunting and gathering beyond the fences of District 12. When Katniss steps in to take the place of her sister in the Hunger Games, she knows it may be her death sentence. If she is to survive, she must weigh survival against humanity and life against love.

WINNING WILL MAKE YOU FAMOUS. LOSING MEANS CERTAIN DEATH.
A few years earlier, all districts of Panem rebelled against the Capitol, the governing district. They were quashed, and to remind them of this, every year, the Capitol organises the Hunger Games.

The Hunger Games are a gladiatorial reality TV show. Every year, a girl and a boy from every one of the outlying districts are selected and forced to compete in the nationally televised games, which pit them against each other in a fight to the death -literally.

This year, even though the odds were extremely low, Katniss Everdeen' younger sister's name came was drawn in the lottery. Knowing that the little girl would have absolutely no chance, Katniss volunteered to take her place. The boy's spot was taken by Peeta Malark, probably one of the last people Katniss would have liked to see there. Peeta was kind to Katniss once when her family was starving, but if she is to survive, Katniss knows Peeta will have to die.

For some reason, took me about a week to get into the book. But once I got to the point where Katniss and Peeta get ready to leave for the Capitol (pretty early on, really), I couldn't stop turning the pages. In fact, I ended up staying up late and finishing the last half in one gulp.

It was a compulsive, page-turning read, which didn't really concentrate on the action (brilliantly written as that element was) but on characters and relationships, which is just how I like it.

Katniss is really, really cool, a brilliant choice for heroine and narrator. She's a kind person and a loving friend, and she's not cruel, but when her survival depends on her keeping her cool and doing things she wouldn't choose to do, she just does them, and with no self-flagellation. She has her vulnerabilities, but is still incredibly strong.

This comes to the fore in her relationship with Peeta. Peeta is very clearly in love with Katniss. Very clearly to us readers, that is, even though Katniss is pretty clueless about his feelings. Katniss doesn't

quite feel the same way about him. She likes him, she becomes more and more fond of him all the time, and there are some feelings there she doesn't quite know what to do with, especially since she also has feelings for her friend Gale back home. It's not as clear-cut to her as it clearly is for Peeta.

This means that since I really liked Peeta, their interactions were, at the same time gripping and very hard to read. Because as part of the strategy that might just save them from certain death, Katniss has to play up the star-crossed lovers angle, and pretend to be madly in love with Peeta. Only she can't tell Peeta she's pretending.

In most circumstances I'd hate a character who does what Katniss does, but it's her life on the line, so you can't but accept that she's doing what she has to. And given that, I quite liked her clear-headedness about it. No self-sabotaging from our Katniss... she doesn't go on and on about how bad she feels that she's pretending and Peeta will be destroyed when he finds out (to be fair, for a long time she's so clueless about Peeta's feelings that this wouldn't arise at all, in the first place). She just gets on with the business of surviving.

And surviving is a huge struggle in the environment they're plunged into. It's not only the human predators (the participants from the richer districts actually seek to go to the Hunger games and train for that for years) that Katniss has to contend with. The people who control the game just love to surprise participants, and every single bit of the place they're in can become (and often does become) a deadly weapon.

I have to say, I'm not the biggest fan of action-oriented books. Action sequences tend to bore me to tears, and I often end up skimming them, hoping to get back to more juicy stuff (i.e. the emotional development). But the action sequences here are so well written that I could see them happening in my mind and never got lost. They are also so linked to the characters, that I wasn't in any particular hurry for them to end. Everything is brilliantly conceived. Even the little silver parachutes, which seem at first like deus ex machina, on second thought, they do have a link to what's going on and are a predictably product of the characters' actions. In that sense, they make sense within the framework of the story.

The only reason The Hunger Games wasn't and A was the ending, which was much too unsatisfying. After the emotionally wrenching experience that was reading the rest of the book, I felt like I deserved a bit more resolution in the emotional areas (basically, the relationship between Katniss and Peeta). I felt all I got was an abrupt "to be continued".

As much as I enjoyed reading THG, I wavered a bit about whether I should keep reading the series (the second book is out now, and there's going to be a third). As well done as it is, I just find the world in which the book is set incredibly depressing and hopeless. With a character as defiant and unwilling to play the Capitol's game and just enjoy the riches she'd get as the winner of the Hunger Games while disregarding the misery around her, I can see no way we can get a happy ending. Because this is not a world where the only problem is an evil government to overthrow. There is that, but there is also the fact that a large proportion of the people, pretty much the whole Capitol, is so morally bankrupt that they enjoy such a barbaric thing as the Hunger Games. I'm weak though, so I'll read the next book anyway and see what I think.

MY GRADE: A B+.

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