Wicked All Day, by Liz Carlyle

>> Tuesday, November 29, 2011

TITLE: Wicked All Day
AUTHOR: Liz Carlyle

PAGES: 421

SETTING: 19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Related to several of Carlyle's early books (see review for details)

New York Times bestselling author Liz Carlyle continues her enthralling historical series with the story of an impetuous, illegitimate beauty and the forbidding nobleman who protects her—while fighting an obsession to possess her...

Miss Zoë Armstrong is beautiful, charming, rich—and utterly unmarriageable. So, while she may be the ton's most sparkling diamond, her choice of husbands looks more like a list of London's most unsavory fortune hunters. Since a true-love marriage seems impossible, Zoë has accepted—no, embraced—her role as society’s most incomparable flirt and mischief-maker . . . until in one reckless, vulnerable moment, her future is shattered.

Stuart Rowland, the brooding Marquess of Mercer, has been part of Zoë’s extended family since she was a child. As dark and cynical as Zoë is lively, Mercer has always known they would be the worst possible match . . . until his scapegrace brother Robert does the unthinkable, and winds up betrothed to Zoë. Now, secluded on Mercer’s vast estate to escape a looming scandal and the ton’s prying eyes, Zoë and Mercer may find that a dark obsession has become a tempestuous passion that can no longer be denied...
Wicked All Day brings together the children from two of my favourite Carlyle books, and the result is some lovely, lovely angst!

We met Zoë Armstrong in the fantastic My False Heart, Carlyle's debut which landed her straight on my autobuy list. Zoë was the hero's young illegitmate daughter, massively spoilt, as her father was fulfiling her every wish out of guilt. The Zoë we meet at the beginning of this book has grown up in a loving family, but being society doesn't take female bastards very well, no matter how much they're loved by their father's wife and how much money and status their parents have. As a result, Zoë disdains society completely, and has become reckless, quite the risk-taker. If society will automatically think badly of her, then she'll give them something to resent her for!

We met Stuart, the Marquess of Mercer in the wonderful A Woman Scorned, where he and his brother, Robin, were the heroine's young sons. Stuart inherited the title very young, and has become a serious, responsible man, while Robin has taken on the role of the charming scoundrel. He and Zoë are so similar that they have become great friends, and quite close.

And then one night everything comes to a head. Zoë's bad behaviour has made her dad issue an unwise ultimatum. Upset about it, Zoë runs to her best friend. Robin is quite drunk, and the two end up being caught in a very compromising position, and summarily engaged.

Being such good friends, you would think that this would be no tragedy. But Robin soon realises that his feelings for his mistress are much deeper than he had thought, and Zoë that her previously antagonistic relationship with Stuart (her future brother-in-law, no less!) hid an attraction that they suddenly can't hide.

Did I say angst? Oh, yes! Stuart and Zoë's relationship borders on obsession. Once they realise that the attraction is there, they can barely keep their hands off each other, no matter how much they both care for Robin and don't want to hurt him. It's so well done that I really couldn't blame them for it, whenever they were together you could cut the sexual tension with a knife. And Carlyle also succeeded in showing us that it wasn't just lust going on there, these two were perfectly matched and needed the other to temper their more extreme traits.

This is a fully character-driven romance, and there's enough tension here that I couldn't stop turning the pages. This is vintage Carlyle, and one to reread.

MY GRADE: A strong B+.


Hero, by Perry Moore

>> Sunday, November 27, 2011

AUTHOR: Perry Moore

PAGES: 428

SETTING: Alternate version of present-day US
TYPE: Superhero / gay / YA

The last thing in the world Thom Creed wants is to add to his father’s pain, so he keeps secrets. Like that he has special powers. And that he’s been asked to join the League – the very organization of superheroes that spurned his dad. But the most painful secret of all is one Thom can barely face himself: he’s gay.

But becoming a member of the League opens up a new world to Thom. There, he connects with a misfit group of aspiring heroes, including Scarlett, who can control fire but not her anger; Typhoid Larry, who can make anyone sick with his touch; and Ruth, a wise old broad who can see the future. Like Thom, these heroes have things to hide; but they will have to learn to trust one another when they uncover a deadly conspiracy within the League.

To survive, Thom will face challenges he never imagined. To find happiness, he’ll have to come to terms with his father’s past and discover the kind of hero he really wants to be.
Thom's father used to be one of the world's most famous superheroes, until tragedy struck, thousands of people died, and everyone started hating him. Now he wants nothing to do with the superhero scene. Thom, however, has recently discovered he has superpowers himself, and when he's given a chance to try out to join the superheroes, he knows it would really hurt his father if he found out. And that's not Thom's only secret, he's also gay, which in this world is a bad, bad thing.

I liked the idea of this. No, actually, I loved the idea of this. The execution, though, not so much. It felt off, somehow. It's difficult to put my finger on exactly what it was, but there was something about the writing style that kept making my attention wander and which made it difficult for me to get what was going on. Too often I couldn't understand why characters were reacting in a certain way. Someone would get angry and I, for the life of me, couldn't see why. So I'd go back to see if I'd missed something, if another character had said something offensive, and wouldn't find anything.

Still, there were enough things I liked when I wasn't puzzled that I kept turning the pages, mostly enjoying myself. Thom's fellow wannabe superheroes are a truly fascinating bunch, and I really liked the bit of romance that was introduced.

And then, things kind of disintegrated as we approached the conclusion. It became harder and harder to understand what was going on (and seriously, I'm a reasonably intelligent person who can normally cope just fine with complex plots), and some quite jarring violence suddenly appeared on the page. It made the book end on a low note.



Craving The Forbidden, by India Grey

>> Friday, November 25, 2011

TITLE: Craving The Forbidden
AUTHOR: India Grey

PAGES: 192
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Presents

SETTING: Contemporary UK
TYPE: Category romance
SERIES: Followed by In Bed With a Stranger

The wrong Fitzroy brother?

Ticket-dodging in a first-class train carriage is not how bubbly Sophie Greenham envisaged meeting Kit Fitzroy, wealthy aristocrat, fearless army hero and brother of her friend Jasper. The smouldering heat between her and Kit is an unwelcome shock—especially as Sophie is masquerading as Jasper's girlfriend all holiday!

Although Kit's bravery is legendary, he's dreading the return to his magnificent ancestral manor. But Sophie's vibrancy dispels the shadows in his tortured soul, consuming Kit with a potent desire for the one woman he's forbidden to touch...
Oh, how I love my Kindle. As I settled back on my comfy sofa for an evening of reading, I checked my favourite blogs on my phone, and happened upon a review of the latest India Grey at Dear Author. It struck me as exactly what I felt like reading, so Kindle on, clicked to the book, clicked to buy, and I was reading it within a minute. Well, I did stop to ask Jane a question before I started reading it properly... more on this later.

The plot of Craving The Forbidden, is not a particularly original one, but it's one that really appeals to me. It's almost exactly the same as an old Harlequin Presents that I used to reread every year ages ago: the heroine is asked by a male friend to pretend to be his girlfriend on a visit home. There she meets her friend's older brother, and there's a very obvious mutual attraction. However, the heroine can't give her friend away by telling the truth about their relationship, so that leaves the older brother thinking the worst.

The heroine in this case is Sophie Greenham, a not-very-successful actress who's asked by her aristocratic gay friend, Jasper, to accompany him to the old family pile in Northumberland for his father's birthday. Jasper is not out to his very traditional father, nor to his intimidating older brother, Kit, an officer currently serving in Afghanistan.

Kit's first sight of Sophie comes at the perfect time. He's just attended a funeral service for one of his men in London and is settled on the train to Edinburgh on a journey he isn't particularly looking forward to. It might be his father's birthday, but they have never got along. Growing up, his father seemed to dislike him, showing a marked preference for his very charming younger brother, Jasper. So understandably, Kit is not in a great mood. Until, that is, a whirlwind of a young woman bursts into his train carriage and sits across the table from him.

Sophie makes Kit feel like smiling, and he can't seem to get rid of the feeling (or the strong attraction he feels for her) even when they arrive at Alnburgh and he realises this is Jasper's girlfriend that he's lusting after.

There aren't any real surprises here. I quite enjoyed the book, but my enjoyment was more because I so loved the setup, than because the execution was anything more than adequate. There were some things I really liked, like the family tensions surrounding Kit (which are explained by a revelation later in the book), which make him a bit of an outsider even though he's the eldest and independently wealthy. There were others that didn't work quite so well, though, like the fact that Sophie really did seem pretty flightly and unfocused, and even at the end of the book, I didn't know what the hell she planned to do with her life.

I must say, as well, that I got a bit distracted by details. There were random, pretty unimportant ones, like: is it likely that a train from London to Edinburgh would stop at a tiny village like Alnburgh? Others annoyed me more. For instance, Grey takes pains to show that Sophie is a honest person who wouldn't dream of cheating a train company of a fare. See, on the train to Alnburgh, she falls asleep in first class and Kit pays her fare when the inspector comes round, without her knowing. She gets off the train in a rush, having woken up at the last minute, and is almost immediately struck with guilt at not having paid. Later on, Grey makes a point of showing us that she buys two tickets when she only needs one, to compensate. But then we have Kit, whose main reason to be in Alnburgh is that he needs to convince his father to be sensible and put the estate in his name, otherwise when he dies, the inheritance tax would be high enough that Alnburgh Castle would have to be sold and turned into a hotel, or a conference centre for businessmen to do those awful bonding exercises. And no one worries about the morality of that massive tax avoidance, which to me, although technically legal (apparently, if this happens 7 years before the death takes place it's ok), is very morally dubious. So cheating a private company of a relatively small sum (even with the massively overpriced train tickets we have in this country) = wrong. But cheating the State of a huge sum (which will go to pay for things like hospitals) = no problem at all. Yeah, well, I might be overanalysing this.

Now, going back to something I said earlier: I mentioned at the beginning of this review that I had to stop to ask Jane a question. That was because on opening the book, the first thing I saw just after the title page was: "The epic romance of Kit and Sophie begins with Craving the Forbidden, and concludes with” In Bed With a Stranger coming out in December. I couldn't find anything about this on Grey's out-of-date website, but Jane assured me that this had a proper HEA ending, which it does. In fact, I wouldn't really have noticed anything missing if I hadn't seen that bit at the beginning. There is, however, another book coming out which continues their story. Much as I did enjoy this, I don't think I'll be reading that one. From what Jane has said, Kit is redeployed to Afghanistan, which doesn't particularly tempt me to read this, and also, there's this evil upper class woman who turns up in Craving who doesn't do all that much, and I suspect she'll have a bigger role to play in the next one.



Through The Language Glass, by Guy Deutscher

>> Wednesday, November 23, 2011

TITLE: Through The Language Glass: How Words Colour Your World
AUTHOR: Guy Deutscher

PAGES: 249
PUBLISHER: William Heinemann

TYPE: Non fiction

A masterpiece of linguistics scholarship, at once erudite and entertaining, confronts the thorny question of how—and whether—culture shapes language and language, culture

Linguistics has long shied away from claiming any link between a language and the culture of its speakers: too much simplistic (even bigoted) chatter about the romance of Italian and the goose-stepping orderliness of German has made serious thinkers wary of the entire subject. But now, acclaimed linguist Guy Deutscher has dared to reopen the issue. Can culture influence language—and vice versa? Can different languages lead their speakers to different thoughts? Could our experience of the world depend on whether our language has a word for "blue"?

Challenging the consensus that the fundaments of language are hard-wired in our genes and thus universal, Deutscher argues that the answer to all these questions is—yes. In thrilling fashion, he takes us from Homer to Darwin, from Yale to the Amazon, from how to name the rainbow to why Russian water—a "she"—becomes a "he" once you dip a tea bag into her, demonstrating that language does in fact reflect culture in ways that are anything but trivial.
Mind-blowing. That's the best description for this book. Anyone who's got even a mild interest in linguistics has probably heard all that rubbish about how language determines what a culture is able to think about: how cultures who don't have a future tense are incapable of thinking about the future, and so on. Deutscher thinks this is rubbish as well (and gleefully demolishes these claims), but his point is that we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Yes, we're perfectly able to think (and talk!) about the future even if we don't have a future tense, but what he sees as the big difference between languages is what they force their speakers to include. A very simple example he uses: if he says in English that he spent last evening with his neighbour, he can easily keep to himself whether it was a female or male neighbour. But if I was telling my mum the same thing in Spanish, I'd have to necessarily disclose that fact, when I used either "vecino" or "vecina"!

Is it possible that having to convey particular bits of information every single time we speak changes our perception of the world in any way? You'll have to read to find out, and I strongly recommend that you do. In addition to being mind-blowing and very clearly evidence-based, which I appreciated, it's a very entertaining book. Deutscher transmits his enthusiasm for his subject matter beautifully, and you can't help but share his excitement as you read.



Talk Me Down, by Victoria Dahl

>> Monday, November 21, 2011

TITLE: Talk Me Down
AUTHOR: Victoria Dahl

PAGES: 352

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 1st in Tumble Creek trilogy

Molly Jennings has one naughty little secret: her job as a bestselling erotic fiction author. Until her inspiration runs dry—thanks to a creepy ex—and it's time to skip town and move back to tiny Tumble Creek, Colorado.

One look at former high school hunk chief of police Ben Lawson and Molly is back in business. The town gossip is buzzing at her door and, worse still, a stalker seems to be watching her every move. Thankfully, her very own lawman has taken to coming over, often. The only problem now is that Molly may have to let the cat out of the bag about her chosen profession, and straitlaced Ben will definitely not approve...
I had a bit of a weird time with Talk Me Down. I read the first couple of chapters and wasn't really feeling it. Not that I thougth it bad, I just didn't find it interesting, so much so that I ended up putting the book down for a couple of weeks. I must have read at least 4 or 5 books in that period. I was even tempted to call it a DNF and be done with it. And then I picked it up again, forced myself to read a couple more pages, and was completely hooked. I finished it in a couple of sittings. Not only that, I really, really enjoyed it!

Molly Jennings has lived away from the small and isolated mountain town of Tumble Creek for years, but after a bad relationship with an ex who doesn't seem to get the message that he is an ex, she's decided to come back.

One of the first people she runs into is her former crush, Ben Lawson. Ben is now the town's police chief, and as attractive as he was when Molly was a teen, so before long, the crush is back with a vengeance. Best of all, it turns out it's not (and never was) one-sided.

Molly and Ben waste no time putting that mutual crush to good use, but "let's have hot sex" swiftly turns into something more, as pesky feelings start to develop on both sides. So what's the problem, you ask? Well, the problem is that Molly has a secret, a Big Secret, in fact. See, she's a very popular erotic romance author, and her first published novel is very obviously based on her and Ben. Molly knows Ben has got a well-earned phobia of being the subject of scandal (his dad was caught up in a sexual scandal when Ben was a boy), so she suspects that her career will be a deal-breaker for him. So she keeps her job a secret, which generates its own trust issues...

Big Secret plots are hard to do well in a contemporary. So Molly's an erotic romance writer? For heaven's sake, this is the 21st century! If anyone has an issue with that then it's their own problem! And yet, this worked perfectly. The combination of the content of Molly's first story, the nature of Tumble Creek (Dahl is not one to romanticise what a small town is like), Ben's job and his history, and even Molly's feelings of inadequacy compared to her brother, all came together in the perfect storm that made me understand Molly's reluctance completely.

I loved the tension this situation added in Molly and Ben's relationship, as without it, things would have been too easy. Hot as hell, but too easy. Because these two are perfect together, and they know it.

Ben's a sweetie, no tough alpha even though he is the police chief. I loved how completely delighted he was in Molly, especially how he appreciated her indulging her naughty side. And that she had a very well-developed naughty side was one of the things I enjoyed the most about Molly. She knows and trusts Ben enough to really let it out, and how!

So 10 points for the romance from me! The rest was slightly more mixed. There's a bit of a suspense plot that I didn't think was particularly interesting, or even necessary. And the secondary characters were mixed as well. I found Brenda frankly a bit offensive. She has a thing for Ben, but she's fat and ugly, so she's also sullen and resentful with Molly. Oh, come on. On the other hand, Cameron Kasten, Molly's ex, is a fantastic character. He's manipulative and charismatic, and no one other than Molly seems to be able to resist falling under his spell, including the men Molly tries to date, who end up convinced that Molly should stop being a silly girl and go back to their best new buddy Cameron. Reading his interactions with Molly made me want to scream and cry with frustration, exactly like she felt.

After writing the review up to here, I had a look at some reviews, and it seems a fair few people absolutely hated Molly. Me, I adored her, and it was some of things other people didn't like about her that I liked most. I guess you're going to have to give Talk Me Down a shot and see which side of the fence you fall!



The Object of Love, by Sharon Cullars

>> Saturday, November 19, 2011

TITLE: The Object of Love
AUTHOR: Sharon Cullars

PAGES: 320

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance

In Sharon Cullars' dazzling new novel, two unlikely lovers give in to explosive desire. But guilt and long-buried secrets could destroy their future before it begins...

It's been five years since Lacey Burnham saw Sean Logan, and in that time her son Calvin's best friend has turned from a surly youth into a handsome, self-assured young man. Crushed with grief over Cal's sudden death, Lacey offers Sean a place to stay while he's in town--an innocent proposal that quickly becomes anything but. Lacey is stunned and confused by the yearning he ignites with a single kiss...

Beautiful, warmhearted Lacey Burnham was a haven of comfort in Sean's troubled youth. Now, against every shred of logic she possesses, Lacey is falling hard for Sean and for a heady carnal bliss she's never experienced before. But the ghosts of the past are waiting. And sooner or later, every shadow must face the light of day...
Lacey Burnham has endured more loss than she would have thought possible to live through. Her husband died some years earlier, and now she's lost her 21-year-old son, Calvin, in a crash caused by his own recklessness. The story starts at Calvin's funeral, where his former best friend, Sean Logan, offers Lacey his support.

Lacey hasn't seen Sean for several years, since he and Calvin fell out, but she was always very fond of him. Sean, for his part, has also long had warm feelings for Lacey. Well, scorching hot, really, not warm. He only intends to offer her support when he speaks to her after the funeral, but before long, that has turned into something more. And Calvin's ghost is NOT happy about it.

This is only the second book I've read by Sharon Cullars, but she seems to write the most amazing edgy, scary paranormals. As in the fantastic Again, the sense of threat is palpable, and the ghost a very human one. Calvin's actions arise not out of evilness, but out of love for his mother and possessiveness. He doesn't mean to hurt her, but what he wants for her is not necessarily what's best. As Calvin found out what he could do from the realm where he was, things escalated and I felt more and more creeped out, all the way to a really good, climactic ending.

The other thing that I find really different about Cullars is that she makes me truly question whether her main characters are actually good for each other. In Again, the answer was yes, but I wasn't so sure with this one, and this meant it didn't 100% work as a romance. I just had a niggling feeling that I would have preferred this story as erotic fiction, if it had been simply about Lacey's healing and coming back to love through a beautiful, positive sexual relationship. It's not that I didn't want a romance with the premise of this book. I very much did, but I simply wasn't completely and fully convinced by it. It wasn't the age difference so much as that I felt Lacey and Sean were in different places in their lives, and their interactions didn't spell out "relationship among equals". I think I was fine with how Sean felt about Lacey, but I kind of got the feeling that Lacey had much more of a problem with seeing him as young and less mature than herself.

Still, even if it ultimately didn't succeed completely, it failed in a really good way. I see in Cullars' website that she has two other novels that sound just as unique as these two, and I'm looking forward to reading them.



The Last Hundred Days, by Patrick McGuinness

>> Thursday, November 17, 2011

TITLE: The Last Hundred Days
AUTHOR: Patrick McGuinness

PAGES: 377

SETTING: Late 1980s Romania
TYPE: Fiction

The socialist state is in crisis, the shops are empty and old Bucharest vanishes daily under the onslaught of Ceaucescu's demolition gangs. Paranoia is pervasive and secret service men lurk in the shadows. In The Last 100 Days, Patrick McGuinness creates an absorbing sense of time and place as the city struggles to survive this intense moment in history. He evokes a world of extremity and ravaged beauty from the viewpoint of an outsider uncomfortably, and often dangerously, close to the eye of the storm as the regime of 1980s Romania crumbles to a bloody end.
I read this one for my bookclub in September; we have a tradition of choosing something off the Man Booker longlist the month it's announced. It was a bit of a problem to get hold of it, as I take it it was a surprise nominee, and most bookstores seemed to have ran out!

The narrator is a young man who moves to Romania in the late 80s. He's been mysteriously hired to work in a university there, even though he never actually interviewed for the job. Before long, he's well in the thick of things, involved with people as dissimilar as a foreign professor who's up to his neck in the black market, the beautiful daughter of a man high up in the Party, an intellectual who used to be high up in the Party himself before he was defenestrated, and an idealistic doctor. And though he doesn't know it, December 1989 and the Romanian revolution are rapidly approaching.

The book took a while to get going, but once it did, it was fascinating. I knew only the basics about Romania, so most here was completely new and mindblowing to me. One of the first books that we read in the book club was The File, in which the author gets access to his Stasi file from the time he lived in East Germany and finds out who amongst the people around him were informing on him. That book was supposed to reflect what it was like to live under constant surveillance, in a police state, but compared to this, it was dry and forgettable, telling rather than showing. The Last Hundred Days made me really feel what it must have been like, definitely a case of fiction feeling truer than non-fiction, sometimes. The fact that our narrator was actually an observer, a foreigner who didn't really face anything worse than deportation, made no difference. In fact, I think it probably made it more understandable to me.

The Last Hundred Days was also beautifully written. McGuinness is a poet, and it shows. I'm not talking about overblown "lyrical" language, the writing is actually clean and relatively spare, it's just that he has a knack for choosing words and imagery that feel fresh and absolutely perfect.



My Sister's Keeper, by Jodi Picoult

>> Tuesday, November 15, 2011

TITLE: My Sister's Keeper
AUTHOR: Jodi Picoult

PAGES: 448
PUBLISHER: Washington Square Press

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Fiction

Anna is not sick, but she might as well be. By age thirteen, she has undergone countless surgeries, transfusions, and shots so that her older sister, Kate, can somehow fight the leukemia that has plagued her since childhood. The product of preimplantation genetic diagnosis, Anna was conceived as a bone marrow match for Kate - a life and a role that she has never questioned… until now.

Like most teenagers, Anna is beginning to question who she truly is. But unlike most teenagers, she has always been defined in terms of her sister - and so Anna makes a decision that for most would be unthinkable… a decision that will tear her family apart and have perhaps fatal consequences for the sister she loves. My Sister's Keeper examines what it means to be a good parent, a good sister, a good person. Is it morally correct to do whatever it takes to save a child's life… even if that means infringing upon the rights of another? Is it worth trying to discover who you really are, if that quest makes you like yourself less?
Thirteen-year-old Anna is a designer baby. The fertilised egg that would become her was carefully selected, not for blue eyes or high intelligence, but because it was a perfect match for her older sister, Kate, who was suffering from a very aggressive form of leukemia. Anna's first donation to her sister was the blood from her umbilical cord, and since then, she's given blood, bone marrow, platelets and undergone all sorts of "minor" interventions to keep her sister alive.

Now Kate's kidneys are failing, and Anna is supposed to donate one of her own to her sister. No one has asked her, just as no one has ever asked her if she was willing to donate any of the other bits and pieces harvested from her over the years. It's just assumed she will. But before that can happen, she goes to a lawyer and asks him to sue for medical emancipation from her parents.

My experience of reading My Sister's Keeper was very much like that of reading Dorothy Koomson's The Ice Cream Girls. I had quite a few objective problems with it, but the main reason for my dislike of it was that I really, really didn't want to think about the issues it presented. Issues is the right word here, this is very much an "issues" book. Unfortunately, these were issues I had an almost violent repulsion against. Picoult's characters are stuck in an extremely difficult situation, one in which there are no easy answers, and one from which they can't escape, and reading this made me feel claustrophobic. I did NOT want to think about this. Just, no. I know there are plenty of people out there who have no choice about it, who have to live with situations as hard as this one, so what kind of self-centred idiot am I? I'm just reading it, imagine having to actually live it? But still, that was my instinctive reaction to it, and if I hadn't been reading this for my book club, I wouldn't have finished. Well, actually, I wouldn't have even started it.

All that said, I'm still able to analyse the book objectively, and there were a few things that I had trouble with, and would have had trouble with even if I hadn't been resenting having to read this. First is the characters' voices. The way the book is structured is that you constantly flip between shortish sections narrated from different characters' point of view. There's each of the parents, Anna, her brother Jesse, and even Anna's lawyer, Campbell, and Julia, the woman who is appointed by the court as her guardian ad litem (her role is to recommend to the court what's in Anna's best interest). All these felt much too similar. Anna's and Jesse's felt downright off. I didn't believe them for a minute. There was this tendency that all six of them had to go into these really fake-sounding philosophical musings. I guess if it had been just one character, they wouldn't have sounded fake, but just part of the character. Having all six do exactly the same thing was too much.

I was also a bit doubtful about the relationship between Campbell and Julia. These two have a history, dating back from when they were teenagers in secondary school, when Campbell was a privileged rich boy, fascinated by scholarship student Julia, a pink-haired rebel. Things ended badly when he just suddenly blew her off. On one hand, I guess it provides some much needed hope and levity, but if a romance writer tried to pull what she did with the revelation about just why Campbell had left Julia all those years earlier, the book would have turned into a wall-banger.

Also, for all that there were moments of genuine emotion, I kept getting the feeling that Picoult was very transparently trying to manipulate her readers' feelings. The ending, especially, pissed me off. I guess I saw it as an author trying to shock her readers, rather than necessarily doing what the story needed. To me, it was a mockery of what the book was about all along, which was difficult decisions and having to live with their consequences. It also makes the twist that came a bit earlier, when we find out what really is behind Anna's actions, make absolutely no sense, because suddenly this is not an issue anymore. Sorry, this is cryptic, but I'm trying to avoid a spoiler.

MY GRADE: A C-, just because for all my dislike, it was a very readable book, and I basically tore through it.


In Too Deep, by Portia da Costa

>> Sunday, November 13, 2011

TITLE: In Too Deep
AUTHOR: Portia da Costa

PAGES: 233

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Erotic romance

Librarian Gwendolyne Price starts finding indecent proposals and sexy stories in her suggestion box. Shocked that they seem to be tailored specifically to her own deepest sexual fantasies, she begins a tantalizing relationship with a man she's never met. Soon enough, erotic letters and toe-curlingly sensual emails don't suffice; she has to meet her mysterious correspondent in the flesh.
On a perfectly normal day at work, librarian Gwen receives a wonderfully smutty letter. Signed "Nemesis", the letter goes into all sorts of naughtiness, and despite herself, Gwen feels flattered and turned on, rather than creeped out and stalked (and it's a testament to da Costa's talent that I was right behind her on that). The letters keep coming, and before she knows it, she's drawn into her anonymous admirer's sexy games.

At the same time, Gwen begins a wild affair with a handsome celebrity professor who's temporarily working at her library. Daniel Brewster is both hot and seemingly shy, and the combination inspires the normally unadventurous Gwen to be atypically forward.

So before long, from a very boring life and being in the middle of a bad divorce, Gwen is involved in two different erotic adventures, and wondering if the sexy professor and her anonymous correspondent might not be one and the same.

I had a bit of a strange experience with this one. It's exactly my sort of book. Gwen is amazing, Daniel is dreamy, and I loved the plot with the letter writer. It's my type of erotic romance, too: pretty vanilla in terms of what actually happens, but steamy in its intensity. While I was reading it, I enjoyed it immensely.

For some reason, however, the story didn't completely engage me, and it took me days and days to read, when I normally would tear through a book like this in one or two sittings. When I put it down, I didn't feel much of a compulsion to pick it up. No idea why... there's nothing wrong with it at all. It might be a case of me not being in the right mood, so I'll have to give it another go at some point. In the meantime...



A lovely historical, irrationality and Belgians

>> Friday, November 11, 2011

TITLE: Bound By Your Touch
AUTHOR: Meredith Duran

This was one that slipped through the cracks... I read it quite a long time ago, wrote down a few notes and then forgot about it. So, no full review, which is a shame, because what I do remember is that I really enjoyed it.

Anyway, the basic setup is bluestocking heroine, devoted to absent-minded Egyptologist meets wastrel, good-for-nothing rake, determined to get back at his father for his cruel treatment of his sister. There's a fake artifact that's the McGuffin, but the story itself is about the romance and the characters dealing with family issues (the heroine, Lydia, also has a very fraught relationship with her sister, who stole her suitor years earlier).

It sounds like a very typical historical romance setup, but it's so much more than that. I can't quite articulate the ways in which that is so, not after so many months, but I just remember (and my notes confirm this) finding these two real and complex, and really caring about them. I also remember thinking that the setting was really great, it's unobtrusive, but provides a lot of texture.


TITLE: The Upside of Irrationality
AUTHOR: Dan Ariely

Another one read for work. Ariely's previous book, Predictably Irrational was an excellent introduction to behavioural economics (which, in a nutshell, studies how we behave "irrationally" in predictable ways, and the implications of this for economics). The Upside of Irrationality continues to look at human irrationality, but with the premise that by being aware of our own instincts and biases, we can either rise above them or use them in order to improve our lives.

This was quite an inspiring and interesting read. All the other behavioural economics books I've read so far either concentrate on policy implications or warn about the dangers of the findings, so it was refreshing to read a more optimistic and personal take on things. Of course, that means that the book was not particularly helpful for work, but I didn't mind!


TITLE: A Tall Man in a Low Land: Some Time Among the Belgians
AUTHOR: Harry Pearson

I don't know that much about Belgium. Most people I know don't, either. I guess, as Pearson himself states in his book, it's just considered a pretty boring place. I actually have been there on a couple of overnight trips for work and liked it well enough, but that's just not enough to begin to know a place. Even after my visits, Belgium to me was Hercule Poirot, moules frites, Hergé and beer that's delicious but also so strong it'll knock you on your butt.

But that was before I read this book. Pearson's meticulous exploration of all sorts of places and people in Belgium gave me the background I was missing. He goes for the funny and quirky and disturbing, but there's also enough about the normal feel of the place to make me want to go back and experience it myself. It's not a particularly gripping book, but I liked the dry humour in the writing and enjoyed the read.



Travels in Blood and Honey, by Elizabeth Gowing

>> Wednesday, November 09, 2011

TITLE: Travels in Blood and Honey: Becoming a Beekeper in Kosovo
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Gowing

PAGES: 248
PUBLISHER: Signal Books

SETTING: Contemporary Kosovo
TYPE: Non Fiction

Kosovo: the name conjures up blood: ethnic cleansing and war. This book reveals another side to the newest country in the world a land of generous families, strong tastes and lush landscapes: a land of honey.

Elizabeth Gowing is rushed to Kosovo, on a blind date with the place , when her partner is suddenly offered the position of adviser to Prime Minister Agim Çeku. Knowing nothing of the language or politics, she is thrown into a world of unpronounceable nouns, unfamiliar foods and bewilderingly hospitable people. On her first birthday in Kosovo she is given a beehive as a gift, and starts on a beekeeping apprenticeship with an unknown family; through their friendship and history she begins to understand her new home.
In 2006, Elizabeth Gowing's husband is offered a job advising the Prime Minister of Kosovo, and they move there together. On her first birthday there, her husband gives her a beehive as a present, and this gives her a way into the country's inner life. Over the next couple of years, her beekeeping allows her to meet people she wouldn't otherwise have known, and to begin to understand and love this country she's now living in.

I picked this one up a few months ago, after hearing the author being interviewed on a Radio 4 programme called Excess Baggage (you can hear it here). I was intrigued by what she described,and I also liked the warmth and humour with which she spoke, and hoped this would be reflected in the book as well.

Well, it was. I knew very little about Kosovo before I started reading this, so of course, there was the fascination of learning about something completely unfamiliar. But what made this a fantastically enjoyable book was Gowing's voice, her appreciation of what's around her and her fondness for the people she becomes close to. Her love for her new home shines through, but at the same time, there are definitely things she doesn't like about it, and we hear about both.

I also liked that there's plenty of self-awareness here, too. Gowing is aware of the danger of being a rich Western expat only skimming the surface of Kosovar culture and focusing on the exoticism, and she tries very hard not to fall into that trap. I felt she didn't. She comes across as someone who's genuinely interested and curious and who does her best to integrate as much as she can. She doesn't present herself as some sort of expert on Kosovo, the tone of the book is more about her wanting to share with us just how amazing this place is, a bit like her efforts with several projects she got immersed in in Kosovo, like promoting the Ethnological Museum.

I'm very glad I remembered the book's title after the programme and decided to seek it out. And as a bonus, I've now got a nice pile of delicious-sounding recipes to try. I see myself going through quite a lot of honey in the next few months!

MY GRADE: A very strong B+.


Seducing an Angel, by Mary Balogh

>> Monday, November 07, 2011

TITLE: Seducing an Angel
AUTHOR: Mary Balogh

PAGES: 325
PUBLISHER: Delacorte

SETTING: Early 19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: #4 in the Huxtables series

Meet the Huxtables—three headstrong sisters and their dashing brother—each searching for love that’s always a shocking indiscretion away. . . . In her magnificent new novel, New York Times bestselling author Mary Balogh sweeps us into a world of scandal and intrigue—glittering Regency England—and introduces the youngest Huxtable: Stephen, the only son. Here Stephen will risk his reputation and his heart as he enters a scandalous liaison with the infamous beauty intent on seduction. But when passion turns the tables on them both, who can say who has seduced whom?

He must be wealthy, wellborn, and want her more than he wants any other woman. Those are the conditions that must be met by the man Cassandra Belmont chooses for her lover. Marriage is out of the question for the destitute widow who stands accused of murdering her husband and must now barter her beauty in order to survive. With seduction in mind, she sets her sights on Stephen Huxtable, the irresistibly attractive Earl of Merton and London’s most eligible bachelor. But Stephen’s first intriguing glimpse of the mysterious, alluring Lady Paget convinces him that he has found the ideal woman to share his bed. There is only one caveat. This relationship fueled by mutual pleasure must be on his terms.

As the two warily circle each other in a sensual dance of attack and retreat, a single night of passion alters all the rules. Cassandra, whose reputation is already in tatters, is now in danger of losing the one thing she vowed never to give. And Stephen, who wants Cassandra more than he has ever wanted any woman, won’t rest until she has surrendered everything—not as his mistress—but as his lover and wife...
It's a double standard of mine, I suppose, but while I don't particularly care for the rakish hero / innocent virgin combination, I love bad, jaded heroine / sweet, decent hero pairings. Seducing an Angel certainly had one. Cassandra, Lady Paget is no mere "fast" woman, she's actually rumoured to be an axe murderer. Yep, I've certainly never seen that before in a historical romance!

Cassandra was left in an untenable situation when her husband died. She's got very little money left, no family that can support her and a household she feels responsible for. The only asset she has left is her own beautiful self. She refuses to even consider marrying again, after the disaster that was her first marriage (not that the offers are thick on the ground, anyway, with all the rumours flying about accusing her of having killed her husband), so the only option left is to find a rich lover. She wants someone who'll be easy prey, and the Earl of Merton seems like the perfect candidate.

Stephen Huxtable, the Earl of Merton, is certainly young, inexperienced and angelic looking, but he's no easy prey. While he's attracted to Cassandra from the moment they meet, and there's no reason to say no to her offer to be his mistress, he refuses to just fall into the stereotypical role of the rich man who uses his mistress only for impersonal sex. Stephen is intrigued by her and wants a much more intimate connection than she's offering.

Anyone who says beta heroes are boring and wimpy should read this book. Stephen is the ultimate beta hero. He's good and honourable and wonderfully nice. He treats Cassandra with respect and wants to help her. But he's also no pushover. When he thinks something is not right, he doesn't let anyone, not even this woman he's come to love, push him into it. And when he wants something, such as Cassandra in his life, he will get it.

It was a conflict I really enjoyed, especially in the first half. There's Cassandra, determined that her relationship with Stephen will be limited to sex, and Stephen determined that it will be much more. I'm sure some readers will find Cassandra unlikeable and prickly. Well, she sometimes is all that. She's not automatically happy and grateful when a wonderful man falls in love with her and wants to get married. And yet, I liked her all the more for that, because she certainly had reasons to be as she was.

The first half was an A, and I couldn't stop reading, but things became a bit predictable in the second half (if Balogh has any faults, is that she does like her "I'm not good enough for him" plots), and ended with a way too drawn-out ending. Still, this is one to enjoy.



Senseless, by Mary Burton

>> Saturday, November 05, 2011

TITLE: Senseless
AUTHOR: Mary Burton

PAGES: 412

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romantic Suspense
SERIES: Followed by Merciless

Every serial killer knows...

The vicious burns scarring the victims' flesh reveal the agony of their last moments. Each woman was branded with a star, then stabbed through the heart. With every death, a vengeful killer finds a brief, blissful moment of calm. But soon it's time for the bloodshed to start again.

The perfect time...

Ten years ago, Eva Rayburn and her sorority sisters were celebrating the end of the school year. That party turned into a nightmare Eva can't forget. Now she's trying to start over in her Virginia hometown, but a new nightmare has begun. Every victim is linked to her. And Detective Deacon Garrison isn't sure whether this mysterious woman needs investigating - or protecting.

To make his mark

Only Eva's death will bring peace. Only her tortured screams will silence the rage that has been building for ten long years. Because what started that night at the sorority can never be stopped - not until the last victim has been marked for death.
The marketers got me with this one. I was waiting in line at the library when I spotted this book on a display case. The UK cover (above) looks very much like those of Karen Rose's books (see here), so at first I thought it was one of hers. And then I noticed it wasn't, but it had a prominent sticker on the cover reading: "A Perfect Thrill for Fans of KAREN ROSE, or your money back". I do like Karen Rose, so I grabbed it.

Anyway, onto the book itself. During her first year in university, Eva Raybourn experienced a horrible nightmare. She was raped and then branded with her own pendant by her attacker. She remembers nothing after that until she and the rapist were dragged out of the burning remains of the house where she lived with her sorority sisters. Her attacker was dead, not in the fire, but hit with a fireplace poker. Unfortunately for Eva, he was a spoiled rich boy, and his father was determined to protect his reputation. The man pressured and threatened, getting the police to charge her, Eva's friends to say she and the rapist had been lovers and Eva herself to resign herself to her fate. She was sent to jail for 10 years.

Now newly out of prison, Eva wants nothing more than to rebuild her life and forget about the past. It's always difficult for an ex-con, but she's managed to find a few jobs. One of them is at a homeless shelter, and that is where trouble finds her again. When she arrives to work one night, she finds the place on fire. All the residents manage to get out ok, but the police find a dead body just outside the house. And when it turns out the woman is one of Eva's former sorority sisters, and one who testified against her, and that she's been branded with the same shape as Eva was, it's clear someone's determined to revive the past.

I quite liked the first half of the book. Burton set up a story that interested me, and which did, in fact, remind me of what I like about Karen Rose's books. I wanted to know what had actually happened and I liked Eva. She had been the victim of a massive unjustice, but while that can often feel frustrating (why didn't she just do X??? I too often find myself asking), in this case, I could really understand what led everyone to behave as they did.

I also liked the way Burton was setting up the potential romance. Deacon Garrison is the detective investigating the case, and the connections between the murder and Eva's old case soon lead him to her. I liked that there was no insta-lusting, just a bit of a sense of connection, and that Garrison knows almost from the beginning that Eva had been railroaded.

But, unfortunately, the second half pretty much disintegrated. The romance ended up feeling completely out of the blue and perfunctory. It would have been better if there had been no sex at all here, just a realisation after all was finished that these two might like to get to know each other a bit better. And the mystery just got much too over-the-top. I guess we were still kind of in Karen Rose territory, but a bit like the last two Vartanian books, where I really disliked the mystery. Plus, the killer made no sense at all. The fact that this was a mad, psycho killer wasn't enough to provide a satisfying motivation, especially since there were a few too many psychos running around the pages. Oh, and no total closure, either. The main killer was found, but there was someone else helping them, and at the end, we're told... oh, we'll find them at some point. It felt like a bit "to be continued..." sign right there.




Heart of Steel, by Meljean Brook

>> Thursday, November 03, 2011

TITLE: Heart of Steel
AUTHOR: Meljean Brook

COPYRIGHT: 2011 (out last Tuesday)
PAGES: 320

SETTING: Alternate reality Europe and North Africa
TYPE: Steampunk romance
SERIES: 2nd full-length novel in the Iron Seas series

Return to the gritty, alluring world of steampunk with the New York Times bestselling author of The Iron Duke.

Growing up in the dangerous world of the Iron Seas, the mercenary captain of the airship Lady Corsair, Yasmeen, has learned to keep her heart hard as steel. Ruthless and cunning, her only loyalty is to her ship and her crew-until one man comes along and changes everything...

Treasure hunter Archimedes Fox isn't interested in the Lady Corsair-just the captain and the valuable da Vinci sketch she stole from him. When it attracts a dangerous amount of attention, Yasmeen and Archimedes journey to Horde-occupied Morocco- and straight into enemy hands.
NOTE: If you haven't read the previous books, you might want to read this page the author has put together explaining what this world is like.

Captain Yasmeen commands one of the most notorious airships around, the Lady Corsair. She's been a magnetic presence in two earlier stories in the series, the magnificent Here There Be Monsters and The Iron Duke. In the latter, we saw just how important maintaining discipline in her ship is, when she tossed adventurer Archimedes Fox overboard, into the canals of zombie-infested Venice. Archimedes had made the mistake of pulling a gun on Yasmeen when trying to convince her to fly him where he wanted to go, and any captain worth their salt knows that you do not ever allow anyone to attempt to usurp your authority.

But Archimedes has survived his latest run-in with zombies (as Yasmeen suspected he would, when she sent him into water, which zombies refuse to go into). Bad stuff happens right after they meet again, though, and both are soon immersed in breathless adventure, going after some priceless treasures that will allow Archimedes to be free from a quite dangerous creditor and Yasmeen to restart her life.

When Meljean Brook sent me my review copy, she warned me that Heart of Steel was very different from the previous Iron Seas books, a fast-paced adventure story, rather than the intense romantic mystery that was The Iron Duke and the almost cabin-romance that was Here There Be Monsters. Now, breakneck action is not normally my preferred kind of reading, but this is one of my favourite authors we're talking about, and I had no doubt I'd enjoy her take on it.

And yup, I totally did. It looks like, properly done, I really do enjoy adventure stories. And the bonus of having an adventure set in this particular world, is that we get to do quite a bit of exploring of what's going on all over Europe and North Africa. We even go into Horde-dominated areas and meet some interesting people, including a young budding inventor whom I really hope we'll meet again in the future. It's fantastic worldbuilding, as always. It's also exciting and most of all, fun.

For all that travelling and escaping from extremely hairy situations, Brook does not stint in the romance department. These are two extremely different people. They both have had some difficulties in their past (and who hasn't, in this world?), but have turned out diametrically opposite in their romantic outlook.

Archimedes starts out already half in love with Yasmeen, or rather, determined to fall in love with her, as he puts it. He goes after her full tilt, whereas she, although willing enough to have some good times between the sheets, is much more of a cool customer, and has some well-earned trust issues. But he wins her over, and how! He does it not by being overbearing and macho, but by showing her that he respects and admires the hell out of her. That thing about not challenging the authority of the captain? It doesn't threaten Archimedes' masculinity to defer to Yasmeen in front of others. He knows that they are equals, and he knows she knows that as well. I loved him, and I loved Yasmeen. I especially appreciated that Brook didn't defang her.

My only (quite slight) problem with the story was that the conclusion didn't deliver the big bang that I was hoping for. After all the danger they've faced and especially, after all that Archimedes has gone through, trying to pay his debts, there was something there in the conclusion that I found a bit disappointing... a bit of a "you're kidding me!" kind of moment.

Still, that's a minor thing, considering I loved every other moment of the book. I can't wait to see more bits of this world. Brook has just posted a map of how things look like, and I'm especially looking forward to visiting the Far Maghreb, where I'm from!



The Shop of Shades and Secrets, by Colleen Gleason

>> Tuesday, November 01, 2011

TITLE: The Shop of Shades and Secrets
AUTHOR: Colleen Gleason

PAGES: 354
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Followed by The Cards Of Life And Death.

When Fiona Murphy inherits a small antiques shop from an old man she met only once, she's filled with surprise, confusion and delight – and a little bit of terror at having a new responsibility in a life she prefers to be free and easy.

As she takes over ownership of the quaint shop, odd things begin to happen. Lights come on and off by themselves, even when they are unplugged...and there is a chilly breeze accompanied by the scent of roses even when the windows are closed.

H. Gideon Nath, III, is the stiff and oh-so-proper attorney who helps settle Fiona's inheritance, and despite her quirkiness and fascination with all things New Age, he finds himself attracted to her against his better judgment.

After she finds an unpleasant surprise in one of the shop's closets, scares off an intruder in the store, and uses her skill at palmistry to read Gideon's future--of which she appears to play a part--Fiona begins to realize that her free and easy life is about to change...whether she wants it to or not.
I can't remember what took me to Colleen Gleason's website, but while there, the one-line description for The Shop of Shades and Secrets caught my eye: "Like Dharma & Greg...with ghosts!" Ohhhh, I thought, and clicked right over to amazon, where I found that a) it was only 86p (must have been on sale, it's now £2.90), and b) the longer description also included: "If you love Dharma & Greg or miss finding new novels by Mary Stewart, Barbara Michaels, and Antoinette Stockenberg...". I do, I do, I miss all those authors!!, I thought. Click, bought!

And I'm very happy I did. I'm not going to summarise the plot. There's no point, the one I quote above is exactly right (not a huge surprise, since this is a self-published book, so I expect it was written by the author herself, not a marketing department!)

What I am going to say, is that the story delivered exactly what I was looking for, a type of book you don't see at all these days. It's a bit like a cozy mystery in setting and feel, but with a subtle ghost story delivering some nice chills and a strong focus on the romance (and with no fade-to-black on the love scenes, yay!).

Much as I liked the mystery surrounding the shop and the quite creepy ghost story, I think the romance was my favourite. I just loved Gideon and Fiona relationship. Fiona is a non-annoying free-spirit character. She does her own thing and is confident about who she is, but she doesn't go all judgmental with the much more conservative Gideon. She does encourage the artistic side he keeps hidden, but there's no message here that there's something wrong with someone preferring a bit of structure in their lives.

Gideon is also an interesting character. He grew up with his lawyer grandfather after his own father's life became a complete disaster, due to the man's self-indulgence. His grandfather gave his life structure and security, and he has grown up into someone who distrusts anything that feels like self-indulgence. He is a talented artist himself, but he keeps this part of his life hidden, and refuses to indulge in it indiscriminately. But again, like Fiona, he's not an overly judgmental person. He soon realises Fiona is no flake, and respects her. He tells himself he disapproves of her, but in reality, he loves the more quirky side of her, and what's really going on is that he fears being with Fiona might crack his strict discipline. I loved seeing him thaw and understanding that it's not all or nothing in life.

The only thing that keeps this book from a keeper grade is that there's a development near the end that I didn't particularly like, not because of the way people reacted (in fact, everyone involved reacted in ways that made sense for their characters, and I was very happy that Gleason didn't make a particular person a villain), but because it didn't really fit in with the feel and tone of the book.

Still, minor annoyance. On the whole, this was a success, and I'm glad I bought it. There's a related book, about Fiona's brother, and I've now bought that one as well. I really hope these books sell well, and Gleason keeps writing in this genre.



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