The Sleeping Beauty, by Mercedes Lackey

>> Sunday, October 30, 2011

TITLE: The Sleeping Beauty
AUTHOR: Mercedes Lackey

PAGES: 416

SETTING: Alternate world
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 5th book in the Five Hundred Kingdoms series

Godmother Lily serves the Kingdom of Eltaria, which may be the most imperiled of all the Five Hundred Kingdoms. It has the misfortune of being small, rich, and surrounded with enemies. Governing it has been a constant juggling trick.

But now The Tradition has decided to land the blow of making the King a widower, and his daughter the Fairest In The Land. This can only mean bad things for the King, the Princess Rosa, and above all, the Kingdom itself.
I've been reading Lackey's Five Hundred Kingdoms series since the first one, the amazing The Fairy Godmother. While I've enjoyed the three books that came out since, I haven't absolutely loved them. A couple of them have felt a bit YAish, and I've sometimes found the actual story a bit meh, even as I was still loving the world-building. The Sleeping Beauty brings the series back up to the level where it started. I adored it and couldn't put it down.

The premise of the series, for those of you who haven't read any of the books yet, is a world which is influenced by something called The Tradition. The Tradition is a sort of mindless, unthinking force which tries to shape events into traditional stories. So, for instance, if a king with a beautiful daughter is widowed, evil sorceresses will feel the need to descend in force and try to seduce him into marriage, and he will feel somehow compelled to actually marry one of them, thus giving the young princess an evil stepmother.

The Tradition, however, is not an absolute compulsion, and people who understand how it works can manipulate it and undermine it, forcing it into paths less harmful to everyone involved. This is the role of Godmothers, who protect the Kingdoms assigned to them.

Godmother Lily protects the very rich and very small Kingdom of Eltaria, a full time job if there ever was one. Eltaria is seen as a valuable prize by all of its neighbours, and for centuries, its kings have spent most of their time defending it. As the story starts, the King is widowed, and in order to protect him and his young daughter, Rosamunde, Lily agrees with the King that she'll pose as his evil sorceress wife. She'll be a little bit mean to Princess Rosa, thus satisfying the Tradition without doing lasting damage.

But things still require constant vigilance, as a few years later, with Rosa all grown up, it becomes clear that the Tradition is still trying to force her into some quite harmful traditional paths.

I had a blast while reading this. It a mashup of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, with a big chunk of Norse mythology mixed in. There are seven horrid dwarves, an evil Huntsman clearly working for a mysterious someone, and a young man called Siegfried, who is desperately trying to find a way to avoid having to wake up a shieldmaiden called Brunhilde, who's also his aunt, asleep in a ring of fire (which, he's heard, will trigger all sorts of tragedy and Doom). There's also a traditional tournament, with a huge number of princes vying for Princess Rosa's hand.

If this sounds all very vague, it's on purpose. The fun of this is seeing where Lackey takes the story, and how everything fits in, with bits of different stories tied together that I would never have imagined. It's magnificent, extremely clever world-building, as always, and I lost count of the times when I was expecting a certain thing and Lackey just took the action in a completely unexpected (usually quite subversive) direction.

But the reason I actually crossed the line into loving this book is that we also get a proper story and a lovely romance. Even though at one point it looks like Lackey will try to set up a bit of a triangle (when at the beginning, both Siegfried and the slightly rakish Leopold happen upon Rosa asleep at the same time, and fight for the right to wake her), it's clear from the start that Siegfried is the one we should be rooting for.

And root for thim I did. I absolutely loved him. He's the perfect beta hero in a huge warrior package: kind, considerate and extremely clever, as well as big and burly and a consummate swordsman. I especially enjoyed how Lackey played with some characteristics that are typically presented as feminine in romance, such as the fact that he befriends animals, and that unicorns looooove him (well, he comes from a kingdom where all the women he meets are his aunts, after all, so no wonder he's quite virginal). He likes Rosa from the start, and the romance develops very nicely.

Rosa herself is great as well. She didn't shine for me quite as much as Siegfried did, but she's sensible and capable (including capable of participating quite actively in her own rescues), and just as nice as Siegfried. Their romance is not heavy on the lusting, but it's plenty heartwarming and sweet, not in a saccharine way, but in a way that made me smile throughout the entire book.

If you haven't tried this series yet, you're missing out.



The Bellini Bride, by Michelle Reid

>> Friday, October 28, 2011

TITLE: The Bellini Bride
AUTHOR: Michelle Reid

PAGES: 192
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Presents

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Category romance

Marco Bellini thinks he has it all: success, wealth...and Antonia -his beautiful, sensual mistress. Then his father becomes ill, and Marco feels bound to marry and produce an heir to the famous Bellini fortune.

But who should Marco choose as a bride? Antonia isn't suitable, but she's the only woman he wants in his life and his bed. Dare he take his mistress to be his lawful wedded wife?
I bought this one because of the review at Dear Author. It sounded interesting, an HP that played with the conventions of the line, and it sounded like it acknowledged the bits I've always found troublesome.

Antonia has been Marco Bellini's mistress for a few years, since he saw a nude portrait of her and went after her. She loves him, but at the same time, she's well aware that although he has feelings for her, he very much sees her as mistress material, not the person he will marry.

And you know what? That's exactly right, and Marco knows it. She's got a scandalous past (there's that famous nude portrait, and everyone knows about her relationship with its painter), so his family will never accept her, and most of all, Marco himself sees her as not quite on his level. It's a double standard, but there you go. Marco, whatever else he may be, is much more self-aware and honest about himself than most HP heroes.

And this is just the situation at the beginning of the book. Before long, everything blows up. With Antonia not willing to let the status quo go on, Marco must realise what exactly losing her would mean. Marco and Antonia end up revealing to each other much more about the real people under the glossy facade than had come to light in the years they'd been together.

The Bellini Bride was all I hoped it would be. It has the level of delicious angst of a true HP, and it superficially even has all the conventions, but Reid doesn't just regurgitate them, she builds something completely new with them. I liked it, I really did.

That said, I must admit to a small disappointment. I don't think it's a spoiler to reveal that Antonia's past is not quite the scandalous one everyone (including Marco) thinks they know. But, I wondered as I finished, what if it had? I think that would have made for an even better book.



Hotter Than Wildfire, by Lisa Marie Rice

>> Wednesday, October 26, 2011

TITLE: Hotter Than Wildfire
AUTHOR: Lisa Marie Rice

PAGES: 352

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romantic suspense
SERIES: 2nd in the Protectors series, follows Into The Crossfire

The world knows her only as Eve...

Though her songs have sold millions she is an enigma, a bewitching mystery. But to former Delta Force operator Harry Bolt, she is an angel whose sultry, smoky voice brought him back to life after the nightmare of Afghanistan. Nothing else matters.

And now a scared, helpless beauty has walked through the door of his San Diego private security firm, running from something secret, something deadly . . . and Harry knows immediately that this is the woman who saved him. He is the last hope for this intoxicating siren without a past—not even in his hottest dreams did he imagine that the lady Eve could be so tempting, so achingly desirable. But though she burns to lose herself in Harry's powerful arms, Eve is wary of trusting this tough, haunted ex-soldier who promises to protect her. Surrender could mean sweet ecstasy or certain doom. Can she open her heart, even if it means risking her life?
The premise of the Protectors series is that the heroes are a group of friends whose really awful childhoods have led them to dedicate their lives to protecting women from violence. They own a high-end security company together, and the profits from that subsidise the project they really care about: the Lost Ones Fund. Basically, the fund helps women in need get away from the people who threaten them and stay away safely, providing them with the practicalities, such as new documents, financial help and advice.

As with many refuges for abused women, knowledge of the fund is spread only by word of mouth, and that's exactly how Ellen Palmer finds out about it. Ellen is on the run after being a bit too good an accountant and discovering that her very scary boss, who's also been showing a creepy personal interest in her, is a very dangerous man and up to his neck in illegal business. Ellen runs for her life and hides out in a nightclub, where she's not able to resist the temptation to sing. And she's got such an amazing voice that it doesn't take her long to be noticed and offered a deal, leading to the creation of the mysterious "Eve", the singer everyone is dying to find out about.

Unfortunately, Ellen's voice is so distinctive that her former boss recognises it, forcing her to make use of the card one of her fellow nightclub employees once passed on to her, with the details of the Lost Ones Fund.

And it's not just the bad guy who recognises her voice, so does our hero, Harry Bolt, as soon as she comes into his office. Harry suffered really bad injuries in Afghanistan, and it was only the voice of a certain mysterious singer that kept him alive...

I feel I always write the same thing with LMR books, but here goes: if you've tried this author and didn't like her, don't bother with this one. It's got the same things that would have bothered you in previous books. There is one exception to this rule, and that's if you read the couple of books with the amoral heroes and this was what you didn't like. Harry and his friends are honorable, good men, so you'll be fine with this book. The over-the-top sex scenes and the hero's almost-creepy obsession with and adoration of the heroine, however, are all here. Me, I love this about LMR's books, and so that was a Very Good Thing and I really, really enjoyed this.

What this one also has is a heroine who's more proactive than many of the previous ones. Sure, Ellen's in a really bad situation and needs help, but she's not one to sit around wringing her hands. She's already rescued herself once, and is smart enough to realise when she's in over her head and needs help. She's also smart enough to ask for that help.

The suspense wasn't the greatest I've read from this author. It's something I've felt is underappreciated about LMR, but she's often got suspense plot which feel more original and different than the usual Romantic Suspense fare, and her villains are quite interesting, which makes spending time in their point of view pretty good. It wasn't bad here, but she's done better.



Pigeon English, by Stephen Kelman

>> Monday, October 24, 2011

TITLE: Pigeon English
AUTHOR: Stephen Kelman

PAGES: 288
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury

SETTING: Contemporary London
TYPE: Fiction

Pigeon English tells the story of 11-year-old Harrison Opoku who, with his mother and sister, is newly arrived from Ghana on a rough London estate.

When a local boy is knifed to death and a police appeal for witnesses draws only silence, Harrison decides to start a murder investigation of his own.
Readers of this blog in the UK will probably have seen the controversy surrounding this year's Man Booker Prize, with some criticising the judging panel for apparently choosing "readability" over quality. Well, as far as I'm concerned, they can go hang. This year's longlist looked fantastic. I've already read 3 and have a few more in my TBR pile. All 3 I read were excellent reads, but so far, Pigeon English has been the best. It was this month's book at my book club, but I already had it out from the library.

The book's narrator is Harrison Opoku, a recent immigrant from Ghana. Harri is 11, and is living with his mum and older sister, Lydia, in a council estate in London. His father and baby sister stayed behind until his mum can make enough money to bring them as well, a shame, since Harri would much rather have baby Agnes with them than that odious Lydia.

As the book starts, one of the older boys from the estate has just been stabbed to death. Harri liked the boy: he was nice and very good at football. The police appeals for witnesses to come forward and offers a reward, but no one comes forward. And that's when Harrison has his bright idea, and with his friend Dean (who has a vast store of knowledge acquired by watching all sorts of police TV shows), they decide to investigate the murder.

Objectively, the stuff going on around Harri is pretty grim. Gangs of young boys terrorise the estate, his sister is clearly in over her head is something quite bad and his mum owes money to his auntie's boyfriend, whose baseball bat called "The Persuader" gives a clue to what he does. Interestingly, though, it's not as harrowing a book to read as this might indicate. I guess it's because seeing it all through Harri's eyes makes all the difference. He's exuberant and good tempered, curious about everthing around him. He does not quite understand the implications of everything he's seeing -I think part of it is that everything in this country is new to him, the good and the bad, so he cannot fully differentiate between what he's just never experienced before, because this is a different country, and what he hasn't experienced before because he didn't live amongst gang members. But even when Harri doesn't quite get it, we, as readers, do.

Harri's narration makes this a surprisingly funny book. This is probably also part of what makes it bearable and readable, those truly hilarious moments. I think my favourite is when Harri and Dean make a list of traits that distinguish a potential suspect for their investigation, and the last item on their list is Religious Hysteria. It doesn't even sound that funny out of context, but as you're reading, you can't help but laugh.

One of my favourite things about Pigeon English is the use of language. Harri has a very distinctive voice. It's not just the use of Ghanaian slang (hutious for scary, asweh as an interjection, kind of "I swear!" - I remember those because I looked them up the first time I saw them), but also the use of, say, "only" and "even" in ways that feel quite novel and make Harri uniquely Harri. I don't know any Ghanaians, so I obviously can't really say how authentic this sounds, but a lot of things about how Harri speaks reminded me of a Nigerian friend of mine, like the use of terms and expressions that sound a bit formal and old-fashioned, but are clearly used quite colloquially by the characters (e.g. "easing oneself" for weeing... Harri loves to go for a wee right after his mum has cleaned the toilet because he loves feeling like God as he eases himself on a cloud, as he puts it :-D)

We had a really interesting discussion at the book club, and one of the most fascinating bits was about how Kelman depicts Harri as a quite recent immigrant. I mentioned something above already about how he seems to accept all the different things, the good and the bad, with some equanimity. He's integrated pretty quickly, both in good and bad ways, but there were quite a few other very telling details, where Kelman shows that while Harri's miming what's going on around him, he doesn't fully "get" things. One example of that that was mentioned was when he draws Adidas stripes on his cheap trainers and then is disappointed when everyone at school laughs at him. This whole issue was something I hadn't noticed as I was reading, but it made perfect sense when it was pointed out. Maybe because as a relatively recent immigrant myself (4 years last September!), I've probably had a few Harri moments myself and never even noticed.

The only bad thing about the book was the talking pigeon. Well, he doesn't really talk, but almost. See, there's this particular pigeon that Harri likes and considers his friend. He leaves food out for him, that sort of thing. And there are a few passages (not many, and not long) narrated from that pigeon's point of view. It did not work at all. I agree with the person in my book club who said it was the only thing in a wonderfully genuine book that smacked of literary pretentiousness. I can (kind of) see what Kelman was trying to do with it, but still, no. Fortunately, it's not a dominating element, and this is a book that can be enjoyed without the pigeon idiocy leaving a bad taste in the mouth, but I reckon that must have been one of the reasons it did not win the Booker. I can just see the judges discussing who should win and debating whether they could go as far as to award the prize to a book with a talking pigeon.



At Last Comes Love, by Mary Balogh

>> Saturday, October 22, 2011

TITLE: At Last Comes Love
AUTHOR: Mary Balogh

PAGES: 416

SETTING: 19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 3rd in the Huxtable quintet

Step into a world of scandal, intrigue, and enthralling passion as New York Times bestselling author Mary Balogh sweeps us into the lives of an extraordinary family: the Huxtables. Margaret, the eldest, embarks on the most risqué adventure of her life and agrees to marry the most notorious man in London.…

Only desperation could bring Duncan Pennethorne, the infamous Earl of Sheringford, back home after the spectacular scandal that had shocked even the jaded ton. Forced to wed in fifteen days or be cut off without a penny, Duncan chooses the one woman in London in frantic need of a husband. A lie to an old flame forces Margaret Huxtable to accept the irresistible stranger’s offer. But once she discovers who he really is, it’s too late—she’s already betrothed to the wickedly sensual rakehell. Quickly she issues an ultimatum: If Duncan wants her, he must woo her. And as passion slowly ignites, two people marrying for all the wrong reasons are discovering the joys of seduction—and awaiting the exquisite pleasure of what comes after…
Scandalous is a favourite word of romance novel marketers, often even inserted in titles of books where there is no scandal to be seen. But to call Duncan Pennethorne scandalous is no exaggeration. He earned that description 5 years earlier, when he dumped his fiancee right before the wedding and ran off to the continent with her sister-in-law (and no, this wasn't even a widowed sister-in-law, she was very much married).

Just returned to England, Duncan is now the Earl of Sheringford and he's got that very typical romance novel dilemma: his grandfather is threatening to cut him off completely unless he gets married to someone respectable, and he's only got a matter of days to find such a bride.

Margaret is the eldest of the Huxtables. The family grew up in genteel poverty until her brother, Stephen, turned out to be the heir to a title (see my review of First Comes Marriage for more detail). With their parents dead, the responsibility for bringing up her siblings fell mostly on Margaret, and so when her fiancé went off to war and insisted they get married beforehand, she felt she had to refuse and stay with her family. The fiancé insisted he'd wait for her, blah, blah, blah, but ended up marrying someone else before his return.

Years later, Margaret is pretty much an old maid, and when her former fiancé shows up in society, her pride doesn't allow her to admit she's alone. So she invents a secret fiancé... not as stupid as it sounds, since there's this nice but very staid man who's proposed a few times, and Margaret just thinks to herself that she'll accept next time he does. However, her plans go belly-up when the guy comes to her with the news that he's fallen madly in love and proposed to someone else.

Can you guess what happens next? Man in urgent need of a wife, woman in urgent need of a secret fiancé... yep, marriage of convenience. After a chance encounter, Duncan proposes and Margaret accepts, and the engagement is announced, all before she realises just how scandalous Duncan's past is.

At Last Comes Love provides exactly what a marriage-of-convenience story should: the wonder of two strangers forced to spend time with each other and realising that they truly like the person they've almost accidentally ended up with, and that a relationship which promised contentment at best, might actually deliver love.

Margaret had come across in the previous 2 books as a the good and self-sacrificing type, possibly a bit boring. But there were indications even then that there was a real person underneath, one with real feelings, and human enough that, though she didn't regret having made the decisions she did, she somewhat resented not having been able to choose her own happiness. And in a way, Duncan is in a very similar situation. As you might have imagined, there's a lot more to the big scandal in his past than meets the eye, and he and Margaret have a surprising amount in common. I loved seeing them look beyond appearances and discover this, and I also loved seeing them finally get the happiness they deserve.



Compromised, by Kate Noble

>> Thursday, October 20, 2011

TITLE: Compromised
AUTHOR: Kate Noble

PAGES: 368

SETTING: 19th century England
TYPE: Romance

Miss Gail Alton was not having a good day. Or a good year. First, she's strong-armed into attending the Season as a foil to her beautiful sister Evangeline. Then, while riding her mare in the park, she gets toppled by a stuffy, self-important, too-handsome-by-half "gentleman" who has the audacity to blame her for their fall into the chilly lake! Little does Gail know that the very same man will soon be found in a compromising position with her sister...

Forced into asking for Evangeline's hand in marriage, Maximillian, Viscount Fontaine, can't take his mind off the irksome girl who threw him from his horse and who can match wits with him at every turn. He's determined to follow through with his best intentions, yet he can't deny that Gail makes him want to cast propriety aside-and whisk away the sister of his soon-to-be bride...
Kate Noble has been billed as a new Julia Quinn, and say what you will about wallpaper historicals, sometimes JQ just hits the spot for me. I was hoping for charming and funny, including a sweet romance which, nonetheless, had plenty of emotion. But although I do see where the comparison is coming from, Compromised felt a bit amateurish to me and didn't completely satisfy.

The plot is reminiscent of Quinn's wonderful The Viscount Who Loved Me: Max, Viscount Fontaine is newly engaged to Gail Alton's younger sister, after they were accidentally caught in compromising circumstances. Max doesn't mind, as he developed a crush on little sister Evangeline as soon as he met her.

Max isn't pleased to discover that he'd already ran into Evangeline's older sister, in quite an embarrassing encounter. Max and Gail's relationship is adversarial, to say the least, but as Max gets to know Evangeline better and realises they really don't have much in common, he's also realising that not only does he like Gail, he's got a sneaking suspicion that she would suit him much better than Evangeline...

I liked this well enough. Max and Gail are well suited to each other, and I enjoyed how they became good friends before other feelings developed. It's a difficult situation they're in, especially because Gail does love her sister and -shocker!- Evangeline is quite a lovely person as well. She might be petite and delicate and pretty, but she's a real person, who loves her sister right back, rather than a cardboard bitch it would have been easy to hate.

All good, but just... not great. I can´t really pinpoint what didn't work, simply that it all felt a bit meh. Gail and Max, especially. I found it hard to get too excited about them. They're fine, but that's it. Fine, but nothing special.



Feed, by Mira Grant

>> Monday, October 17, 2011

AUTHOR: Mira Grant

PAGES: 574

TYPE: Fiction - Thriller/Horror
SERIES: Book 1 in the Newsflesh Trilogy


Shaun and Georgia are orphans of the Rising, the cataclysmic event which left the world reeling in the aftermath of the zombie uprising. Adopted by the Masons and raised in the strange world of the post-Rising media, they've spent their lives chasing the next big story, the one that will allow them to break into the big leagues once and for all. Now, in Senator Peter Ryman's run for the Presidency of the United States, they've finally found it.

All they have to do is survive until the election.

In a world filled with the constant threat of both the living and the living dead, it will be all that Shaun and Georgia can do to keep themselves in one piece. Accompanied by the rest of their blogging team, Senator Ryman's staff, and a whole lot of caffeine, they might succeed…or they might finally answer the big question of their post-Rising world: When will you rise?
In 2014, it looked like there was nowhere to go but up. Scientists had managed to cure the common cold and cancer. But on that year, the viruses engineered to do that combined, and the results were catastrophic. For people infected with the combined virus (and this quickly came to include everyone on the planet), death triggered a process called amplification. The result: the dead person would "rise", becoming a mindless being bent on feeding on other humans and on spreading the now live version of the virus rampant through their body. Yep, zombies.

It is now some 25 years after the Rising and society exists in an uneasy balance. Zombies haven't been defeated so much as contained (it's not even theoretically possible to defeat this particular threat, when any unattended death will end up in the deceased turning zombie in a matter of minutes).

Georgia Mason and her brother Shaun have grown up in this world, having been born after the Rising. They are bloggers, in a world where the traditional media's failure to properly report the Rising, causing much unnecessary death, has lost it a great measure of trust. News blogging has grown to fill the void. It's a competitive, very structured world, where bloggers are divided into objective, factual Newsies, devoted to the truth; thrill-seeking Irwins, focused on the action and danger of reporting in what's effectively a war-zone; and Fictionals, who concentrate on writing fiction reflecting the world they live in. Ratings are everything, with blogs competing against each other for visitors and attention.

As the book starts, George, a Newsie, and Shaun, an Irwin, together with the Fictional in their team, Buffy Messonier, are selected to cover the campaign of a presidential hopeful, Peter Ryman. Ryman is the first presidential candidate to have grown up after the Rising, so he'll the first to accept a blogging team embedded in his campaign, allowing them access that has previously only been granted to traditional media outlets.

George and her team start out determined to be objective and detached, but at the same time, they soon come to like Ryman and believe he's the real deal (which doesn't compromise their determination to be truthful and not betray their readers -they all take this very seriously). But as the campaign advances and Ryman's candidacy looks more and more possible, tragic "accidents" start happening around it, and it's soon clear that someone is willing to stop at nothing to derail the campaign.

Now, the plot here is serviceable enough, a conspiracy story with a denouement that did not particularly surprise me, but which was quite readable and entertaining, nonetheless. Similarly, the characters were interesting and I liked their interactions (even if I found George and Shaun's closeness a bit strange), but they weren't the most amazing characters I've ever read.

The reason to read this is for the fantastic, amazing and mindblowing world-building. Can great world-building be enough to save a book that's otherwise bad? Probably not. But it can certainly elevate one that's otherwise average into excellence, and that's exactly what happened here.

What's great about it is how detailed it is, how Grant has really clearly thought hard about things. She's not only come up with a really coherent explanation for how the zombies originated and how they behave, she has also gone all the way in understanding how society might change due to their presence. This is not set in a world where people are and interact just like today, only with better technology, since it's the future. No, society has changed massively. For instance, there's the constant and neverending care and vigilance that need to be sustained in order to prevent an outbreak. There's the fact that this is a world where a gathering of a large number of people, all in the same physica space, is seen by many as an accident waiting to happen. There's the powers that government agencies have taken on, arguing that they're needed to keep the country safe.

It wasn't a surprise that I loved the deep level of world-building, but I was actually amazed that the techniques Grant used to explain to us what this world was like didn't annoy me. The world-building was just not seamlessly integrated, like, say, Meljean Brook's in the Iron Seas books, where you only find out thinks organically. You get quite a few infodump-type sections here. There are some sections which are excerpts from our characters' blogs which were fine, but the main narration, from George's point of view, read as if she was explaining her world to people just like us, from before the Rising. These sections were very good infodumps, chock-full of fascinating stuff and written beautifully, in George's very individual voice, but I still should have found that a bit annoying. I just... didn't. I loved it all.

Even if you're not particularly interested in zombies, this is one to read.


PS: How cool is it that the zombies are the George Romero type, so much so that he has become a national hero? Yep, that's who Georgia (and half the kids in her generation) was named after! And I guess we've got Shaun of the Dead, as well.

PS - 2: The cover is fantastic, too. The RSS feed symbol, but written in blood combines horror and blogging perfectly, and so does the title.


Attachments, by Rainbow Rowell

>> Friday, October 14, 2011

TITLE: Attachments
AUTHOR: Rainbow Rowell

PAGES: 336

TYPE: Romance

It's 1999 and for the staff of one newspaper office, the internet is still a novelty. By day, two young women, Beth and Jennifer, spend their hours emailing each other, discussing in hilarious detail every aspect of their lives, from love troubles to family dramas. And by night, Lincoln, a shy, lonely IT guy spends his hours reading every exchange.

At first their emails offer a welcome diversion, but as Lincoln unwittingly becomes drawn into their lives, the more he reads, the more he finds himself falling for one of them. By the time Lincoln realizes just how head-over-heels he really is, it's way too late to introduce himself. What would he say to her? 'Hi, I'm the guy who reads your e-mail - and also, I think I love you'. After a series of close encounters, Lincoln decides it's time to muster the courage to follow his heart . . . and find out whether there really is such a thing as love before first-sight.
1999. Most companies are still leery of allowing their employees access to that scary world, the internet and email. The publishers of the Courier, a small-town Nebraska paper, are especially terrified of their own employees, and so they hire Lincoln to take care of IT security.

Lincoln thought his job would involve such exciting stuff as building firewalls and fighting off hackers, but it turns out to be basically sitting round until 1 AM, spending some 10 minutes a night reading emails flagged up by the system as inappropriate and sending out template warnings. The job pays well, but it's boring and Lincoln feels like a bit of a creep for reading other people's emails. Especially because he's particularly relishing reading the often-flagged email exchanges between two female employees, so much so that he hasn't actually got round to sending them a warning.

The story is told in alternating chapters. Sections narrated in the third person, but showing Lincoln's point of view, are followed by the email exchanges between Jennifer, an editor, and Beth, a movie reviewer. They gossip, they whine and they share quite a lot about their lives, including the fact that Beth, in spite of her 8-year relationship with her emotionally unavailable musician boyfriend, Chris, has developed a crush on a mysterious Cute Guy she's seen round the office. A Cute Guy who, all the details indicate, is none other than Lincoln himself, who himself has been crushing on the sweet, funny woman Beth has proved to be in her own emails.

Attachments was a fun, charming and sweet romance, one I just couldn't stop reading. The chapters are pretty short, which unfortunately meant that I naively kept telling myself I'd read only one more, resulting in a couple of unexpectedly late nights.

Lincoln is a character whose description practically screams "loser". He's 28 and has moved back with his mom (who makes his dinner every day -and by the way, every single one of those dishes sounded amazing!). He's also still almost in mourning for his one significant relationship, which was with his high-school girlfriend (she broke up with him in the first year of uni). His only social interactions when the book starts are with his fellow dungeons and dragons-playing friends.

But for all this, Rowell manages to create a character who's not a loser at all. Instead, Lincoln comes across as shy, sweet and quite endearing. He's a genuinely good guy, but one who hasn't been able to resist the temptation to do something quite dodgy, and now he's in a bit of an untenable situation. He likes Beth, he knows she likes him, but how could it work out, when he's been reading her private emails? If they do get together and he confesses, she will break up with him, but if he doesn't, then they'll always have that secret between them.

Attachments is actually right on the line between romance and chick lit, only with the hero in the place of the heroine, having to be the one who grows up and finds his way. I'd call it lad lit, but the lad lit I've read has a completely different feel to it, this is definitely chick lit! We do get to know Beth quite well as well, but since it's only through her emails, there's a bit more of a distance there.

The emails, by the way, were hilarious. I have to say, most of the time they felt more like instant messages than email, but I had no trouble letting that go. You really get a feeling for who these women are, and I loved the portrayal of female friendship.

I also loved the setting. The book's written as a historical, albeit one that's set only 12 years ago, in an era I remember well, when I was just getting into the working world myself. It was funny how this felt very different from reading a contemporary actually written in 1999. I guess it's the way Rowell chooses to pinpoint the things that really bring that time back to us now (e.g. the Y2K hysteria), when a contemporary author has no idea which things will stay in people's memories (and she's probably had advice from critique partners to not include anything that will date the book -stupid advice!!). I did find the lack of worries about the "death of newspapers" a bit poignant -I guess I kind of felt about this as I would feel about a romance novel set in 1911, knowing the war is coming, and soon.

Attachments has had fantastic word of mouth (that's what made me pick it up), and this lovely book deserves all that buzz. It's landed Rowell on my autobuy list.

MY GRADE: A very strong B+.


A Visit From The Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

>> Thursday, October 13, 2011

TITLE: A Visit From The Goon Squad
AUTHOR: Jennifer Egan

PAGES: 352

SETTING: Contemporary, variety of locations
TYPE: Fiction

Bennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Here Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. With music pulsing on every page, A Visit from the Goon Squad is a startling, exhilarating novel of self-destruction and redemption.
Yet another book read for my book club, and yet another one that I loved, and would never have picked up otherwise. Yay for book clubs!

A Visit From The Goon Squad seems to be more a collection of related stories than a novel. I can't decide which it is, actually, as these stories are not independent, and there's an overall theme that emerges as we move back and forth in time, and all over the world, picking up the stories of characters whom we'd met in previous chapters, sometimes in the centre of things, more often just on the edge of vision.

This was a structure that quite divided my book club. Some people hated it. They felt cheated when they finished a chapter and knew that they wouldn't find out more about that character, other than by way of them being part of the supporting cast in another character's story. Me, I never felt cheated. Every single chapter, I felt Egan closed it at the perfect point, a point where I was still interested in the character, but where I'd had enough to make the story perfectly satisfying.

It's not just the structure that's different and interesting, Egan is also quite innovative with her narrative choices. There are plenty of traditionally narrated chapters (albeit each with their own very individual voices), but there are also some quite wild ones, such as one that is basically a powerpoint presentation. The latter actually turned out to be one of my favourites, doubtful as I was before I started it. It tells a proper story, complete with feelings and great characterisation. Just that chapter is worth the price of the book.

Other favourites included the chapter about the PR agent who has lately almost accidentally become specialised in rehabilitating brutal dictators (loved the fuzzy hat detail), the final, futuristic episode which felt eerily possible, or the celebrity interview with jaw-dropping footnotes.

I should also say, the reason why I would probably never have picked this up on my own is that all I'd read about it indicated that this was a book where the music business was a big part of the plot. I have absolutely no interest in the music business, and just as little patience for the self-indulgent characters that seem to populate it. But while several of the characters are involved, centrally or peripherally, in that business, this is not what the book is about, and all the characters are interesting enough that I wanted to read about them. I especially appreciated the several moments of complete truth that we got, the sort of writing that forces you to acknowledge feelings that are not particularly pretty, but which really are there. For instance, I'm thinking of Bennie's collection of shameful moments that he can't help thinking about again, and can't keep picking at, like a scab.



Naked Once More, by Elizabeth Peters

>> Saturday, October 08, 2011

TITLE: Naked Once More
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Peters

PAGES: 360

TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: 4th in the Jacqueline Kirby series

She may be a bestselling author, but ex-librarian Jacqueline Kirby's views on the publishing biz aren't fit to print. In fact, she's thinking of trading celebrity for serenity and a house far away from fiendish editors and demented fans when her agent whispers the only words that could ever make her stay: Naked in the Ice.

Seven years ago, this blockbuster skyrocketed Kathleen Darcy to instant fame. Now the author's heirs and looking for a writer to pen the sequel. It's an opportunity no novelist in her right mind would pass up, and there's no doubting Jacqueline's sanity...until she starts digging through the missing woman's papersand her past. Until she gets mixed up with Kathleen enigmatic lover. Until a series of nasty accidents convince her much too late that someone wants to bring Jacqueline's storyand her lifeto a premature end.

Reread of an old favourite, although, to be fair, pretty much all of Elizabeth Peters / Barbara Michaels' books are old faves of mine. This one is the last book in the Jacqueline Kirby series, featuring the adventures of the fantastically self-assured former librarian.

Since the last book, which took place in a romance novel convention (and which shouldn't be read by romance readers unless they can take a bit of fun being poked at the genre, especially its 1980s excesses -remember the author photos where they dressed up as the book's heroine?), Jacqueline has become a successful author herself. But fun as writing her own characters may be, when the possibility of writing a sequel of Naked in the Ice comes up, Jaqueline jumps at it.

Naked in the Ice was the blockbuster to end all blockbusters, a Clan of the Cave Bear-type epic historical romance. It brought its author, Katherine Darcy, fame and fortune. But not long after it came out, Katherine mysteriously disappeared. Her car was found abandoned, what looked like a suicide note left behind, and Katherine's body never turned up. Seven years have passed since then, and now that the courts have finally declared her dead, her family is in quite an unseemly rush to cash in and get someone to write a sequel.

The competition for the chance to do so is fierce (literally: the other authors in the running are willing to go to some bizarre lengths to get the prize), but Jacqueline manages to get selected, and moves to the small town that was Katherine's home to be close to Katherine's archives while she writes. But Jacqueline is quite the amateur detective, and she was already interested in the mystery of Katherine's disappearance even before she finds some tantalising clues in her letters, pointing at someone wanting her dead...

This is vintage Elizabeth Peters. There's the fun plot, the humour that shines through every sentence and the varied and extremely entertaining secondary characters. I enjoyed all of it. The plot might be a little far-fetched, but it's intriguing, and makes for interesting twists and turns, with some good red herrings, and a fun ending, which is a bit of an homage to Agatha Christie. Peters' writing is fantastic, especially when she's describing those secondary characters. She's a bit brutal sometimes, when she's skwering someone particularly unlikeable, but that's because we're seeing them from Jacqueline's point of view, and she's one unsentimental woman.

This was particularly enjoyable because Jacqueline is a bit of a mysterious character throughout most of the series. The first two books, at least, are quite unusual in that while she's very much the protagonist, we never see her point of view. Both books are narrated by other characters, who are all a bit in awe of the beautiful, clever and very prickly Jaqueline. I'm not quite sure about Die For Love, because I haven't reread it in a while, but in Naked Once More we finally get into Jacqueline's head. And it's quite good, because she's much more human that way. We don't see much of her vulnerabilities in the first two books, but we do see here that she has a few of them. But of course, she doesn't change personality just because of this. She's still unsentimental and doesn't suffer fools gladly, which is something I love about her.



Silk Is for Seduction, by Loretta Chase

>> Thursday, October 06, 2011

TITLE: Silk Is for Seduction
AUTHOR: Loretta Chase

PAGES: 384

SETTING: 19th century Paris and England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: First in the Dressmakers series

From the Design Book of Marcelline Noirot: The allure of the perfect gown should be twofold: ladies would die to wear it . . . and gentlemen would kill to remove it!

 Brilliant and ambitious dressmaker Marcelline Noirot is London's rising star. And who better to benefit from her talent than the worst-dressed lady in the ton, the Duke of Clevedon's intended bride? Winning the future duchess's patronage means prestige and fortune for Marcelline and her sisters. To get to the lady, though, Marcelline must win over Clevedon, whose standards are as high as his morals are . . . not. 

The prize seems well worth the risk—but this time Marcelline's met her match. Clevedon can design a seduction as irresistible as her dresses; and what begins as a flicker of desire between two of the most passionately stubborn charmers in London soon ignites into a delicious inferno . . . and a blazing scandal.

And now both their futures hang by an exquisite thread of silk...

Marcelline Noirot and her two sisters run the absolute best dressmakers in London. Unfortunately, they're having a little bit of trouble becoming established, since the ladies of the ton are too conservative and risk-averse to go somewhere other than where everyone else is going. Although there are a few ladies who have been persuaded to patronise Maison Noirot, none of them are high-born enough to convince the rest to follow them.

But the Noirots have a plan. The rumour about town is that the Duke of Clevendon has finally been persuaded to come back from the continent and propose to Lady Clara, the young woman he's been informally promised to for years. And duke with deep pockets + beautiful, high-born bride, well-known for dressing dowdily = the perfect opportunity for an ambitious dressmaker.

The Noirots are too cunning for directness, and the oblique approach they come up with involves Marcelline travelling to Paris, running into Clevendon and attracting his attention. Which, since Marcelline is a genius at being alluring and irresistible, she does. But it turns out she's captured Clevendon's attention a bit too well, and he's captured hers just as much.

This out of the way first: this clever, clever plan of theirs, which is presented as proof of how fantastically cunning the Noirots are, and how adept at getting their own way? Not as clever as Chase tells us it is. I'd describe it as pretty stupid, in fact. Whatever made them think that manouvering a duke into interacting socially with a tradesperson and acknowledging her as an attractive, sexy woman would convince him to encourage his future, virginal bride to patronise her, I don't know. Of course, it works here, but I very much doubt it would have in any version of real life.

But you know what? I didn't care. Even as I told myself that, I was so completely charmed by this book and captivated by the romance that I loved every second of it. It's a frothy confection of a story, but one that has quite a bit of angst and heart to it, as well.

Marcelline is a total goddess, and I loved her to pieces. She's confident and comfortable in herself, and knows perfectly well what she can expect from Clevendon and what she can't. And yet, there's something about him that makes her do things she knows perfectly well she shouldn't do. Clevendon might have a nobleman's arrogance and the power to ignore social consequences, but Marcelline is aware of the consequences his actions might have. She doesn't completely forget about her purposes in meeting Clevendon in the first place just because she's attracted to him, and Chase successfully establishes why that should be, why Maison Noirot means so much to the sisters.

Clevendon is, in many ways, a much more thoughtless character than Marcelline, but as I mentioned above, this perfectly reflects who he is. He's never had to think about what Marcelline must obsessively consider. This means that it's a thin line he walks between crazy in love with Marcelline and selfishly going after what he wants, with no thought to what this might mean to this woman he's so captivated by.

Readers should know before going in that for much of the book, Clevendon still intends to marry Lady Clara, even as he tirelessly pursues Marcelline. I'm pretty uptight about infidelity in my romances, but I wasn't particularly bothered by this. I saw it more as a situation where someone had been brought up with the idea that "this is what one does", and has never actually stopped to think that he doesn't actually have to do it.

The first sections of the story take place in Paris, where we have an intense focus on Clevendon and Marcelline. The focus widens when they return to London, but any loss of intensity in the relationship is more than compensated by the fantastic secondary characters. I especially appreciated that Lady Clara was no one-note horrible character, whom Clevendon could dump without a second thought. She was real and she was lovely, it was just that those two wouldn't suit. I really would love to see more of her in future books. 

My favourite of the secondary characters, however, was Lucie, Marcelline's young daughter. Yep, a child character. I loved her much in the way I love JAK's dust-bunnies in her Jayne Castle books unreservedly, but feeling somewhat embarrassed about it. But seriously, how could I not love a little girl who solemnly announces she has changed her name to Errol, and then cooly proceeds to charm the adults around her? And also, Princess Errol of Albania, indeed!



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