Burning Lamp, by Amanda Quick

>> Tuesday, August 31, 2010

TITLE: Burning Lamp
AUTHOR: Amanda Quick

PAGES: 352

SETTING: Victorian London
TYPE: Paranormal Romance
SERIES: Second in the Dream Light trilogy, which combines all of JAK's three pseudonyms and settings.

REASON FOR READING: Autoread author

In this second novel of the Dreamlight Trilogy from New York Times-bestselling author Amanda Quick, psychic power and passion collide as a legendary curse comes to a burn...

The Arcane Society was born in turmoil when the friendship of its two founders evolved into a fierce rivalry. Nicholas Winters's efforts led to the creation of a device of unknown powers called the Burning Lamp. Each generation of male descendents who inherits it is destined to develop multiple talents-and the curse of madness.

Plagued by hallucinations and nightmares, notorious crime lord Griffin Winters is convinced he has been struck with the Winters Curse. But even has he arranges a meeting with the mysterious woman Adelaide Pyne, he has no idea how closely their fates are bound, for she holds the missing lamp in her possession.

But their dangerous psychic experiment makes them the target of forces both inside and outside of the Arcane Society. And though desire strengthens their power, their different lives will keep them apart-if death doesn't take them together.
As mentioned above, Burning Lamp is the second in a trilogy (I suspect it might have been planned as the first in the series, but that release schedules for JAK's different pseudonyms might have influenced the order). Not wanting to reinvent the wheel, here's the description of the series' premise that I wrote in my review of the first one, Fired Up:

The idea is that while one of the founding members of the Arcane society concentrated on enhancing his powers through a potion (the Founder's Formula that so bored me in previous books), another went the engineering way and did so through an artifact, the Burning Lamp. This artifact created a mutation in his genetic makeup, one that manifests in only some of his descendants. When it does, it can lead to them becoming psychic monsters. The only hope for these individuals is to find a woman who can operate the energy produced by the burning lamp and use it to reverse those genetic changes before they become so dangerous that they have to be put down, so to speak.

Each of the books in this trilogy will take place in a different period, coinciding with JAK's three pseudonyms. The books are not in chronological order. This first one, a Jayne Ann Krentz title, is set in the present day. The next one, Burning Lamp (coming out in late April), will be an Amanda Quick and take place in the 19th century, while the last one, Midnight Crystal (coming out August) will be a Jayne Castle and thus be one of her futuristic books set in Harmony. A further thing is that Burning Lamp will have been lost in between the different books, so each of the heroes will have to first find it, and then find the woman who can help them use it.
Anyway, on to this story!

At the start of Burning Lamp, 15-year-old Adelaide Pyne is awaiting her first client at the brothel her guardian sold her to. Adelaide is not giving up easily, though. She has a talent for manipulating dream energy, and plans to use that talent to escape. But her first client is not your usual drunken brothel patron, he's a clearly dangerous man with a talent of his own, and he has no qualms about using it to kill the brothel owner. Adelaide succeeds in overpowering him, however, and escapes, taking with her a strange artifact the man had brought with him.

Fast forward some years (can't remember how many, but about 15, I would say?) and Griffin Winters has begun to suspect he inherited the Winters curse. He fears that unless he finds both the Burning Lamp and a woman who can help him operate it, he'll go mad.

Griffin is a crime lord (yes, he's refered to as that constantly throughout the book, but it's never quite clear exactly what crimes we're talking about -he doesn't really do anything other Amanda Quick heroes don't do), and he has the pulse on London's underworld. He has been hearing about someone who's been engineering raids on brothels known for providing particularly young prostitutes, and there's something about the raider's MO that makes him think he should meet the person responsible. So he arranges a meeting through one of his contacts, and is pleasantly surprised to find out that not only is Adelaide as strong a dreamlight reader as he suspected, but she already has the Burning Lamp, and is quite willing to help him out.

But just as Griffin was able to identify Adelaide, so are other people, and they're determined to get their hands on her and the Burning Lamp.

This was a nice read. Some elements were a bit repetitive and predictable (I'm thinking mostly about Griffin finds the lamp, and then the way it ends up working -pretty much exactly as in Fired Up), but I found the characters fresher than usual.

You know how Amanda Quick's heroines keep protesting "I'm a woman of the world", when they clearly aren't? Well, Adelaide actually is, very much so. She has lived. After escaping the brothel, she moved to America and made her fortune as a performer in a Wild West show. She's played the psychic, held up the targets for the sharpshooting demonstration, all sorts of things. And she hasn't remained chaste and pure throughout, either. There isn't a fuss made about it, but she's had lovers in the past. It's clearly not a big deal for her, mainly because she has no aspirations to any sort of nobility. And neither has Griffin. Both were orphaned when young teens, and have had to make their own way in the world, and so they are perfectly ok with their positions now.

They both felt mature and centred. Not that there isn't some internal conflict, to add to the external one of people coming after them. Griffin has some issues with loss, but they weren't taken to ridiculous lengths, and he was willing to work to get over them. And as in the best books by this author, the chemistry between Griffin and Adelaide is nicely done, and it's clear that they find in each other's company something they've never been able to find elsewhere. Not the most exciting romance ever, but nice.

Something else I liked was the friendship between Griffin and Caleb Jones (from The Perfect Poison), the founder of the J-and-J detective agency that's featured heavily in the contemps. Griffin thinks Caleb is bound to want to execute any Winters male who shows any indication of potentially becoming a multi-talent, but even so, they end up becoming good friends. It was a bit disconcerting, because Griffin and Caleb read so similar that it was hard to know which was which when they were together, but it was nice reading some male bonding scenes!

MY GRADE: A B. Nice enough.


Some non-fiction

>> Sunday, August 29, 2010

TITLE: At Home: A Short History of Private Life
AUTHOR: Bill Bryson

Bryson is one of my favourite writers ever. He writes in several subgenres, and my favourite book of his is Made in America, which deals with the evolution of American English. At Home does something similar, but with the evolution over the centuries of houses and their contents.

The idea was apparently that he'd move around different rooms of the house and write about them and what is and used to be in each, but that really was only a starting point, as Bryson immediately goes off on tangent after tangent. They were really delicious, fascinating and often amusing tangents, though, so I didn't mind in the least that the book ended up being a bit of a hodge-podge, jumping from one thing to another without much structure. The criterion for inclusion of a particular story clearly wasn't relevance but whether it was interesting, and that was fine by me!


TITLE: The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right
AUTHOR: Atul Gawande

I read this for work, in my quest to come up with ways to use behavioural economics in our area. It's about tasks involving so much information that our fallible brains might easily make mistakes, with the author proposing a deceptively simple way of dealing with this. It was a bit dry in spots, but in the end I found it extremely convincing. Alas, no useful ideas for my work, but if I were a hospital administrator, I'd be running around making changes as we speak!


TITLE: In Defence of Food: An Eater's Manifesto
AUTHOR: Michael Pollan

"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants". That's the first line, and it's an excellent summary of the book's advice. As the title indicates, most of the meat (heh!) of the book is in the first two words, and in his dissection of the differences between real food and the "food products" that have become so prevalent in supermarkets. There's a fair bit of repetition, even though it's a relatively short book, but it was interesting and useful (especially some of the rules of thumb i.e. don't eat food that makes health claims).



The Memory Garden, by Rachel Hore

>> Friday, August 27, 2010

TITLE: The Memory Garden
AUTHOR: Rachel Hore

PAGES: 421

SETTING: Contemporary Cornwall and London
TYPE: Romance / Women's Fiction hybrid

REASON FOR READING: Someone linked to an interview with the author on twitter (Maili, I think?), and I checked out some of her book descriptions and thought they sounded a bit like something Susanna Kearsley might write. And since I'm always looking for books like Kearsley's to tide me over until her next release...

Magical Cornwall, a lost garden, a love story from long ago...

Lamorna Cove - a tiny bay in Cornwall, picturesque, unspoilt. A hundred years ago it was the haunt of a colony of artists. Today, Mel Pentreath hopes it is a place where she can escape the pain of her mother's death and a broken love affair, and gradually put her life back together.

Renting a cottage in the enchanting but overgrown grounds of Merryn Hall, Mel embraces her new surroundings and offers to help her landlord, Patrick Winterton, restore the garden. Soon she is daring to believe her life can be rebuilt. Then Patrick finds some old paintings in an attic, and as he and Mel investigate the identity of the artist, they are drawn into an extraordinary tale of illicit passion and thwarted ambition from a century ago, a tale that resonates in their own lives. But how long can Mel's idyll last before reality breaks in and everything is threatened?

Shifting imperceptibly from one generation to another, The Memory Garden vividly evokes the lives of two women, born a century apart, but who face the same challenges to their happiness and survival.
Mel Pentreath has just been through a very stressful year. Her mother died after a painful illness, and not long after that, she broke up with her boyfriend. When the dean of the university she works at as a lecturer suggests she take her paid sabbatical a bit earlier than it's due, she realises it's the sensible thing to do.

Mel plans to spend her sabbatical writing a book about a group of painters that settled in Cornwall in the turn of the century. It just so happens that a friend of her sister's, Patric, Winterton, has just inherited a big white elephant of a house in the very area the artists in question settled, and there is a small cottage on the grounds that he would like to let out.

Mel accepts the invitation, and before too long, she and Patrick become friends, and start spending a lot of time together. Both are on the rebound, and things soon take a romantic turn. And meanwhile, Mel has discovered some paintings by an unknown artist, and is busy trying to find out who the mysterious P.T. is.

Mel might not know much about this mystery artist, but we readers do, because Mel's chapters are interspersed with chapters set in the early 20th century. These tell the story of Pearl Treglown, who works as a maid at the big house. Pearl is a talented artist, and the nephew of her employers, also an artist, takes an interest in her, with the consequences you might expect.

I started the book with high hopes, but although I did like it, I found many aspects of it disappointing.

The most disappointing on of them all was how the device of having the two supposedly interlinking stories, set 100 years apart, ended up working. This is something I've very much enjoyed in the past, and not only in Susanna Kearsley's work. But this kind of thing works best when there are some parallels between the two stories being told, when when the story in the past somehow foreshadows the issues in the present one in some way. The summary seems to suggest that is the case ("The Memory Garden vividly evokes the lives of two women, born a century apart, but who face the same challenges to their happiness and survival"), but I just didn't see that. I couldn't see the relevance of Pearl's story to Mel's. At all. To me, Mel's personality and situation were nothing like Pearl's, and neither was the way she dealt with the issues she did have.

Nor did finding out more about Pearl ever feel like it was going to have much of an effect on Mel or her work, which could have been a way to make Pearl's story relevant. Discovering this new painter never, ever felt like it was going to be the sort of discovery that makes an academic career, because Pearl's paintings were described as good, but hardly amazingly wonderful. The whole thing amounted to an interesting footnote or two, but that was it.

It also didn't help that I kind of disliked Pearl's story and wasn't much interested in it. Was I supposed to find Pearl and Charles' romance tragic and heart-wrenching? Because I didn't. Yes, it's sad, but it's the very run-of-the-mill story we've all seen a hundred times before of a maid falling for the young son of her employers (well, nephew, in this case), and believing him when he says that he actually feels something for her. Charles was so obviously a useless, selfish idiot that Pearl's falling for his lies just exasperated me. Yes, poor girl, but she never came that alive for me, so I found it hard to care. Every time I came to a chapter set in the past I wanted to skim past it and go straight back to the present.

And the present, Mel's story, was more interesting, fortunately. It's not a high-excitement page-turner, but apart from a a bit of a saggy middle, the pace felt leisurely rather than slow and enhanced the wonderfully done atmosphere. That atmosphere, by the way, was one of the best things of the book. I really, really want to go to Cornwall now!

I quite liked Mel. She's a sensible sort and quite centred, but human enough that she has doubts and sometimes makes decisions that are not the best. I also thought the issues she was facing were interesting, both in her professional life and in her relationship with her family.

The romantic elements were interesting as well, but I wasn't too enthused about the two men Mel is supposed to have to chose between. Her ex, Jake, was quite clearly a very selfish man, resentful of Mel's successes. Patrick seemed better, but then he was way too easily manipulated by his own ex, and just couldn't see through her. It got to the point where he was waffling between her and Mel. I suppose that's probably a realistic situation many women go through, but I just found it very unromantic. The book does have a happy ending and Mel makes what I thought was the right decision, but it all felt a bit humdrum.

So, all in all, I have unfortunately not really found an author to tide me by until the next Kearlsey comes out, but I think I'd read Hore again. There's one that deals with painted glass windows, apparently, and even though I didn't get to learn as much as I hoped for about the painters Mel was writing about here, I'm hopeful.



The Search, by Nora Roberts

>> Saturday, August 21, 2010

TITLE: The Search
AUTHOR: Nora Roberts

PAGES: 488

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romantic Suspense

REASON FOR READING: Autobuy author

To most people, Fiona Bristow seems to have an idyllic life-a quaint house on an island off Seattle's coast, a thriving dog-training school, and a challenging volunteer job performing canine search and rescues. Not to mention her three intensely loyal Labs. But Fiona got to this point by surviving a nightmare...

Several years ago, Fiona was the only survivor of the Red Scarf serial killer, who shot and killed Fiona's cop fiancé and his K-9 partner.

On Orcas Island, Fiona found the peace and solitude she needed to rebuild her life. But all that changes on the day Simon Doyle barrels up her drive, desperate for her help. He's the reluctant owner of an out-of-control puppy, foisted upon him by his mother. Jaws has eaten through Simon's house, and he's at his wit's end.

To Fiona, Jaws is nothing she can't handle. Simon, however, is another matter. A newcomer to Orcas, he's a rugged and in-tensely private artist, known for the exquisite furniture he creates from wood. Simon never wanted a puppy-and he most definitely doesn't want a woman. Besides, the lanky redhead is not his type. But tell that to his hormones.

As Fiona embarks on training Jaws, and Simon begins to appreciate both dog and trainer, the past tears back into Fiona's life. A copycat killer has emerged out of the shadows, a man whose bloodlust has been channeled by a master with one motive: to reclaim the woman who slipped out of his hands...
Simon Doyle has a psycho puppy. Jaws may look cute, but that cuteness hides the soul of a plunderer. Attila the Hun could take lessons from the little guy on how to raze a place to the ground and destroy everything in sight.

Fortunately, Orcas Island has a top dog trainer living there, just a few minutes from Simon's. Fiona Bristow is happy to take Jaws on, and is even happier to meet his sexy owner. Simon is less ready to fall for this woman who just isn't his type (he tells himself), but Fiona's courses are as much about training the owners as about training the dogs, so they end up spending a lot of time together.

But the relatively smooth development of their new relationship is interrupted by a horror out of Fiona's past. Years earlier, Fiona was the target of a serial killer called the Red Scarf killer by the press. She was actually abducted by this man, but managed to escape. In retaliation, the killer murdered Fiona's fiance, but was injured during the attack and captured by the police. Since then, he has been sitting in jail. But then someone else starts killing in the exact same way as the Red Scarf killer, down to details that the police never released to the press. And it quickly becomes clear that this new Red Scarf killer wants to outdo the original one, and that can only involve killing the one that got away.

As with all of Nora Roberts latest single titles, reading The Search was an immersive experience. It's a meaty, satisfying read, with a really good and balanced combination of romance and suspense.

It felt quite fresh, too. Sometimes with NR, much as I love her books, I'll meet the characters and immediately think "Oh, she's like so-and-so in book X, and he's a bit like that other guy in book Y, and their relationship is like the one in book Z". I didn't get that feeling at all here, most especially with Simon. He's quite a refreshingly different character. He's a bit grumpy and defensive of his own place, and not particularly looking for someone to nurture and love, but he's not a jerk or a commitment-phobe. He doesn't see Fiona and immediately think that he's got to have her, it takes longer than that. It's more that he becomes used to her and her friendly overtures, and once he is, he misses her if she's not there. This probably sounds unromantic, but it really isn't. I found it more convincing that this was real love than I might have with a "romantic" coup de foudre.

Improbably, considering how many romantic suspense books with serial killers are out there, the serial killer angle also felt fresh. I liked that by the time the story started, Fiona has very much dealt with what happened to her all those years ago, and she's very strong for it. Having the copycat emerge and being plunged into things all over again isn't easy for her, but she copes. She needs support to do so, and she doesn't refuse to get it. I also liked that the FBI agents investigating the case are competent and good about keeping Fiona involved and up-to-date, and that she and Simon actually let them get on with it. Fiona has some insights into things based on her work with the dogs (which, in a way, requires to get into their minds in the way the FBI profilers would do with the killer), but she and Simon don't fool themselves into believing that they should be the ones investigating the case. The only time when they take over is right at the end, and that made complete sense, as Fiona had much more experience in the particular area needed than any FBI agent could.

NR's books these days seem all to have a "thing" that permeates them, and about which we learn more than we ever imagined we would. There was home renovation in Tribute, animal sanctuaries in Black Hills, wedding planning in her latest Brides quartet, and here we have dog training and canine search and rescue. Fascinating stuff, and even though I'm more a cat person, the dogs were just fabulous. They felt real and had their own very distinct personalities, which I loved.

The other thing I found interesting was that it's not just that we see a lot of exactly what Fiona does when she trains her clients and when she leads search and rescue operations. The work she does affects the very way she sees the world and relates to people. A lot of the dog training methodology and vocabulary extends to her human-human relationships, as well. Simon, especially, gets a bit annoyed when he realises that in many ways, Fiona is "training" him! It is, however, not presented as this awful manipulativeness on Fiona's part, which I found refreshing. It's more that she can tell how Simon will react to different things, so she behaves accordingly. Nothing wrong with that!



The Snow Queen, by Mercedes Lackey

>> Tuesday, August 10, 2010

TITLE: The Snow Queen
AUTHOR: Mercedes Lackey

PAGES: 416

SETTING: Fantasy world
TYPE: Fantasy, with a touch of romance
SERIES: 4th book in the Five Hundred Kingdoms series.

REASON FOR READING: I've enjoyed this series

Aleksia, Queen of the Northern Lights, is mysterious, beautiful and widely known to have a heart of ice. But when she's falsely accused of unleashing evil on nearby villages, she realizes there's an impostor out there far more heartless than she could ever be.

And when a young warrior disappears, Aleksia's powers are needed as never before.

Now, on a journey through a realm of perpetual winter, it will take all her skills, a mother's faith and a little magic to face down an enemy more formidable than any she has ever known...
The Big Concept behind Lackey's Five Hundred Kingdoms series is the premise that in this world, people are influenced by something called the Tradition, which tries to force people into the paths of traditional fairy tales. Once it recognises the elements of one of them (e.g. a young woman living with an evil stepmother and two ugly stepsisters), forces start to gather to push events in a certain direction.

If left alone to act, the Tradition can cause quite a lot of unhappiness and tragedy (fairy tales are not the most sweet and light of stories, after all). Which is why Fairy Godmothers watch over the Five Hundred Kingdoms. They are well versed in the ways the Tradition acts, and are tasked to harness and manipulate it to keep things from ending in tragedy.

The Snow Queen is about Aleksia, the Godmother watching over the Northern-most territories. Aleksia has started to feel a bit lonely in her big castle in the mountains, bored with doing the same "interventions" over and over and over. But then strange things start happening amongst the Sammi people (who I think are based on Laplanders?). Entire villages have been found frozen to death, young men are being stolen, and the culprit is reputed to be the Snow Queen.

So instead of sitting in her castle manipulating events, Aleksia now has to plunge into the fairy tale herself and not only aid two brave Sammi women in rescuing their lost young man, but rescue her own reputation before the Tradition takes matters into its own hands and sends a company of Heroes after her.

This was a fun, easy read. I've loved the concept of the Tradition since the first book, and I'm as fascinated by it and admiring of Lackey's imagination as ever. Her characters are nicely done, and I appreciated the look at a tradition I knew nothing about.

I do have to say that even though there is a main storyline, the book at times feels quite episodic. For long stretches, things are more about the world and how the Tradition works than about any storyline. But you know what? I don't care. I find this world so fresh and amazing, especially after going without reading any book set in it for a couple of years, that I don't mind. I WANT to explore and see how things work. I don't mind a pretty pointless visit to the Sammi underworld, which really doesn't tell us (or Aleksia) much, just because it's so fascinating to see how Lackey portrays this bit of her world.


NOTE: Lackey always provides lengthy exerpts on her website. You can read the first 3 chapters of The Snow Queen: chapter 1, chapter 2, chapter 3.


Demon Blood, by Meljean Brook

>> Sunday, August 08, 2010

TITLE: Demon Blood
AUTHOR: Meljean Brook

PAGES: 414

SETTING: Contemporary Europe
TYPE: Paranormal romance
SERIES: 6th full novel in the Guardians series. There are also several novellas, but all except the first one (IMO), are "extra" to the overarching story that's developed throughout the series.

REASON FOR READING: This is my absolute favourite ongoing series.

Long before she was transformed into a Guardian and trained to fight demons, Rosalia knew darkness all too well. Raised by a demon, Rosalia learned to guard her heart—and her soul—until she found a man worthy of her love. Once, she thought that man would be the powerful vampire, Deacon…until he betrayed the Guardians.

After losing everything to the lies of a demon, Deacon lives only for revenge—and is taken aback when Rosalia offers to help. A vampire who has nothing—who is nothing—isn’t worthy of her attention. But Rosalia wants to do more than just look, and the explosive need between them can’t be held in check. And when Deacon’s vengeful quest creates a dangerous alliance of their enemies, she will be his only hope…
As with previous books, I won't bother summing up the series for newcomers to it. Too much stuff has happened over the last 5 books and I'd probably screw up and spoil things. So if you're a newcomer best go read this excellent primer at the author's website. Or even better, start at the beginning. Quite a few of the books stand alone, but you'll be missing out by not seeing the story develop as it was meant to. And now stop reading this review, because you're about to get spoilt! ;-)

For those who've been following the series, Demon Blood follows the traumatic events at the end of Demon Forged and very surprisingly to me, has as its hero the vampire Deacon, whose actions triggered all that chaos.

After his disastrous forced bargain with a demon, Deacon is out for revenge and has decided to kill demons until he's killed by one himself. When the beautiful Guardian Rosalia (you'll remember her as the one who was found in a crypt at the beginning of Demon Forged, with a spike through her head and nephilim feeding of her for months) offers her help, Deacon is suspicious. She offers the chance to kill demons much more easily and with much less risk than he could on his own, but it's clear she wants something from him. It's clear she has a plan she wants Deacon to be a part of, and Deacon is tired of being manipulated.

Ah, Demon Blood, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways*.

I love thee because I couldn't stop turning the pages, because I started reading and fell into your world, and never wanted to come up for air.

I love thee because of the complexity and subtlety of your characters. The ways they react to things are not obvious or even (in quite a few cases) at all predictable. And yet they feel right for those particular characters. Because the author has actually taken the time to develop them and they feel like real people, with all their irrationalities and contradictions.

I love thee for proving yet again (as if I wasn't convinced!) that it's all in how the character is done. Rosalia might be virginal and in love with Deacon from afar forever, with him hardly knowing she exists. She's might also be a bit of a martyr sometimes, especially with her son. But though this has often bugged the hell out of me, I realise it's because those authors made their heroines all about their innocence and weakness. They were one-dimensional, and their virginity and doormat qualities were meant to be shorthand to tell us readers that these characters were nice and good and what women should be. Rosalia was so much more than those particular elements of her character. She was a strong woman with some weaknesses, with insecurities, as we all have. I understood and loved her and wouldn't have changed a thing about her.

I love thee because Rosalia is the most amazing strategist there could ever be. Because she plans ahead and has thousands of possible permutations worked out, and yet can be flexible enough to and grab opportunities when they appear from nothing and work them into her plan. I'd hire her in a minute, if I had a company. In fact, if she was real, I'd create a company in order to hire her, because she could turn it into an empire within weeks. She illustrates perfectly the fine line between manipulation and strategic thinking.

I love thee because Rosalia's huge, game-changing plan was actually huge and game-changing, and breathtakingly beautiful in its simplicity.

I love thee because Deacon was a hero to die for, because I loved seeing this broken man slowly, so slowly, come to realise his worth. And I loved his vulnerability mixed up with his huge strength.

I love thee for the romance, for two characters who are clearly meant to be together and yet don't think they can. There are little slightly cliched moments there that I've read a hundred times before, like Rosalia telling Deacon the truth about her long-time crush on him, but not telling him that she's talking about him, and Deacon then becoming jealous and for a while interpreting every tender gesture as Rosalia seeing this man in him. But for being in such a fresh, unusual, completely non-cliched book, the bits that are cliches feel fresh again.

I love thee because in your world there are rules and those rules have consequences, and none more than those regarding free will. The exploration of that angle was fantastic. It has been always floating there in the series, but here the concept and its implications are made clear. And while other authors might create a loophole, no matter how illogical, for its implications on motherhood, Brook doesn't, and takes things to their most logical, if heartbreaking, conclusion.

I love thee for your exploration of motherhood - the good, the bad, and how the same feeling of fierce, protective love can sometimes be for the good, sometimes for the bad.

I love thee because you're beautifully written and because it's writing that expects me to keep up and make the effort. Because while not being needlessly complicated, not every single detail is spelled out, and I feel that the author trusts me to understand things.

I love thee for the big story and for the small. Because this is very much part of the Big Picture good vs. evil fight, but the smaller story also stands alone. Because there is balance between the two.

I love thee because the bits setting up the final and much-expected book are integrated perfectly into Rosalia and Deacon's story and don't feel like sequel-baiting.

I even love thee for thy cover, which is beautiful, and is exactly the way I imagined Rosalia.

But most of all, I love thee for being right there with the best books of this series, keeping the quality high and making me crave the next book like a drug.


* With apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I know I'm not quite paraphrasing!


Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, by Mario Vargas Llosa

>> Friday, August 06, 2010

TITLE: La Tia Julia y el Escribidor (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter)
AUTHOR: Mario Vargas Llosa

PAGES: 489
PUBLISHER: Punto de Lectura

SETTING: 1950s Lima, Peru
TYPE: Fiction

REASON FOR READING: For my book club. This was actually my suggestion. I read it for the first time many years ago, in my early teens (we're talking over 15 years ago), and I remember loving it.

Mario Vargas Llosa's masterful, multilayered novel is set in the Lima, Peru, of the author's youth, where a young student named Marito is toiling away in the news department of a local radio station. His young life is disrupted by two arrivals.

The first is his aunt Julia, recently divorced and thirteen years older, with whom he begins a secret affair. The second is a manic radio scriptwriter named Pedro Camacho, whose racy, vituperative soap operas are holding the city's listeners in thrall. Pedro chooses young Marito to be his confidant as he slowly goes insane.

Interweaving the story of Marito's life with the ever-more-fevered tales of Pedro Camacho, Vargas Llosa's novel is hilarious, mischievous, and masterful, a classic named one of the best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review.
In 1950s Lima, the young Mario, a law student from an upper class family, divides his time between his studies and working in a small radio station. He doesn't spend much time doing either of those things. Rather, he is determined to become a writer, and spends whatever time he can steal from other activities trying to write short stories and get them published.

But then Aunt Julia arrives into his life. Julia is not really his aunt, but the sister of his uncle's wife (I feel like I'm writing a French exercise!). She's in her early thirties and recently arrived from Bolivia, having just got a divorce there. They don't initially get along too well, as Julia insists on treating "Marito" (diminutive of Mario in Spanish - kind of "little Mario"), as she calls him, like a child, much hurting the 18-year-old's pride and deflating his pretensions of wordliness and sophistication. But it doesn't take long before their relationship changes, and they begin a forbidden affair.

Meanwhile, Mario's radio station has hired a new scriptwriter, Pedro Camacho, for its soap operas. Nothing to do with Mario, technically, as he works in the news department, but the young man can't help but become fascinated by the strange little man, who comes up with a prodigious number of outrageous scripts, all of which prove to be incredibly successful.

But this I've just described is only half of the book, because the chapters narrating Mario's story are interspersed with chapters which, the reader soon realises, are the prose version of Pedro Camacho's soaps. And as much as we learn of Camacho through Mario's description of their interactions, we learn even more from the stories he comes up with.

This is a long book, but pages just flew by. I enjoyed myself, but unlike the first time I read it, I think this time I admired it more than I liked it.

I have to take my hat off to Vargas Llosa. His writing, as always, is brilliant, and nowhere is this more clear than in the chapters containing Pedro Camacho's radio soaps. Those were Wonderfully done, and I could have sworn they were not being written by the same person who was writing all the other chapters from Mario's point of view. Whatever the subject matter, they were all clearly written by the same person, and it was a person whose personality you came to know through them.

I actually found it quite fascinating how Vargas Llosa, a writer himself, obviously, told the story of Pedro Camacho, his foibles, his attitudes, his irrational hatreds (I had quite a lot of fun with his rabid anti-Argentinianism), all through what the man was writing. Which raises the very interesting issue of whether you can really come to any conclusions about the writer through his fiction? In Camacho's case, one very clearly can.

Excellently done as they were, I did, however, enjoy these soaps less and less as the story progressed. We start out with incest amongst the upper classes, and believe it or not, things get even seedier after that. That in itself wasn't a problem for me, although sleazy is not really to my taste. The main issue I had was the language, which I came to find incredibly uncomfortable.

I don't know how well language would come through in the translation, but it made my skin crawl. It's not just that it's coarse or turgid (though it is, strangely enough, both at the same time). It's... ugly. That's the best way I can describe it. It comes to the worst, most degrading conclusions about everyone. It sticks labels on people, reduces them to only one element (Camacho keeps using the construction "the (adjective) one" instead of characters' names). The use of technical, police report-style language in some cases (using the relatively undramatic "estupro" instead of "violacion" to describe the rape of a young girl), makes light of very traumatic events. I have no doubt that this was done completely on purpose, and it's very successful in telling us about Camacho, but it's the main reason why I say I admired the book but didn't really like many parts of it.

The chapters on Marito's life were more enjoyable, even if, compared to Camacho's soaps, they weren't as insanely exciting (and that's saying quite a lot, considering they were about a scandalous, forbidden affair!). I especially liked visiting upper middle-class Lima in the 1950s, which felt very familiar (probably because it sounds very much like the environment my parents grew up in back in Uruguay), but also quite alien. Things have certainly changed in term of young people's independence, but in Latin America, it's clear many things haven't changed at all!

In terms of what's changed, I found it sweet that even though Julia is a scandalous divorcee, much more experienced than Mario, they have this old-fashioned courtship where they basically hold hands and make out for months, and don't sleep together while they're not married. Still this is not one to read for the romance, I thought. Theirs is not a forever kind of love, and they know it, Julia even makes Mario promise to stay with her for 5 years, knowing (rightly, it turns out), that their relationship won't last much more than that. Realistic, probably, but not very romantic.

I'm not quite sure how I feel about the fact that that part of the story was semi-autobiographical (or is it fictionalised-autobiographical?). Vargas Llosa did, indeed, have an affair with his Tia Julia (in fact, some years after this book was published she wrote her own version of the story in "Lo Que Varguitas No Dijo" - "What Varguitas Didn't Say". It seems to have been published by a small Bolivian press, so I can't really find a link other than this one). I guess I'm not much of a voyeur, because I was vaguely uncomfortable about it, and I actively tried to read it as fiction and forget it was based on real events.

The one element I haven't mentioned yet is actually one that I really liked, and that is that throughout the whole novel the author explores the idea of what good literature is, whether it can be good in isolation or whether the effect it has on readers should be considered as well. This is done through the contrast between Mario's efforts and Camacho's output. Both are dreadful, but for very different reasons. While Camacho's stories are pulpy and turgid, his stories at least capture his listeners' imagination. Mario's seem much too concerned with being literary and although we never actually get to read any of them, you just know what they would be like: all overwritten and derivative, and probably unreadable.

MY GRADE: A B+ just because what I grade is my enjoyment of books. On technical terms, this is an A.


Unfinished Business, by Karyn Langhorne

>> Sunday, August 01, 2010

TITLE: Unfinished Business
AUTHOR: Karyn Langhorne

PAGES: 385

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance

REASON FOR READING: I read a good review of it at AAR.

Black activist Erica Johnson wears her causes on her sleeve—literally. With her class of beloved fourth graders depending on her to represent their concerns, Erica's ready to confront golden-boy conservative senator Mark Newman. And she's willing to suffer through a night in jail and a battle of wits with a real-life war hero, if it will help get the children the money they need.

Mark Newman's a worthy adversary. But there's a more human side to the ambitious politician with the dreamy blue eyes—from the physical pain of his war wound, to his grief over his wife's death. Though they disagree on every hot-button issue, Erica and Mark can't resist their attraction or ignore the unfinished business between them—much to the delight of those trying to use this new relationship against the senator. And when Erica starts receiving some particularly vicious hate mail she has to decide if this handsome dream from the right/wrong side of the political fence is worth risking her heart for . . . and maybe her life.
Contemporary romance tends to stay far, far away from politics. In the few I have read where a character is in politics, authors have been very careful not to say which party they support. It was quite refreshing, therefore, to read a book like Unfinished Business, where the politics and ideology were the main conflict.

Schoolteacher Erica Johnson is sick of the politicking that means her students are disadvantaged and have few opportunities, while big business gets whatever they want. She realises talk is not enough any more, and decides to take action, by attending a Senate hearing and protesting. As she's dragged out, she challenges one of the Republican senators, golden boy Mark Newman, to actually visit her school and see what she's talking about. Mark, surprisingly, accepts. And he issues a challenge of his own: that Erica spend time in his home district and see the issues there from a different perspective.

This all leads to Mark and Erica spending time together, and surprise, surprise, they like each other more than they expected. Not to mention the attraction that begins to develop. But then Mark starts receiving anonymous threatening letters and pictures from someone who seems to regard Erica and Mark's burgeoning relationship as scandalous...

I confess I was a bit wary, before I started this. The main thing is that Mark is portrayed as very conservative, and I'm not only quite a bit left of centre (and veering more and more to the left as the years go by), but also increasingly repulsed by what I see of the US Republican party. I wondered if I'd be able to like him at all. I was also worried about Erica, and hoped Langhorne wouldn't make her into a stupidly naive caricature of a bleeding-heart liberal.

Fortunately, she didn't. Erica is passionate about what she believes, but she's got her feet well on the ground. Langhorne also succeeded in making me like Mark. I may not agree with most of his positions, but can accept that he's fundamentally a decent human being. I liked that the author didn't tone down the differences between these two people, or portray either of them as wrong. The message here was that since these two respected and liked each other, they were able to live with those differences.

I also liked that race wasn't an issue in their relationship. Not an internal issue, anyway, even though there were some external issues in how Mark's constituents would react to him and also in them being targetted by someone who's clearly disturbed by the idea of an interracial relationshipbeing with a black woman.

Which brings me to my only real problem with the book: I kept wishing this was purely a character driven story. The external plot was a distraction from the really interesting and fresh conflict, and it wasn't very well done, either. By the end of the book, the focus had moved a bit too much in that direction, and I put the book down a few times too many.



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