October wish list

>> Saturday, September 29, 2012

Only 3 I know I'm definitely getting, but several interesting-sounding ones this month.

Books I'm definitely planning to get

Tempting the Bride Sherry Thomas (Oct 2)

Helena’s story. I’ve only read (and loved) book 1 so far, but from what I saw of Helena in that book, I’m very interested.

The Duchess War, by Courtney Milan (Oct 19)

I had this one my September wish list, as at the time I put it together, Milan had it marked as “late-middle to late September”. As I said then, I read the prequel novella that sets up this series, and it did its job wonderfully. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy it, it made me really want to read the main trilogy.

Suddenly You, by Sarah Mayberry (Oct 30)

Mayberry is one of the very few category romance authors on my autobuy list. This one also has a hero falling in love with his friend’s ex, which is a trope that appeals to me.

Books that interest me and I'll keep an eye on

Lost In The Light, by Mary Castillo (Oct 1)

This self-pubbed book sounds interesting. I’m a sucker for the setup of someone restoring an old house and coming across an old, unsolved mystery. The description makes it sound as if the hero is a ghost, though, which I’m not sure about.

One Final Step, by Stephanie Doyle (Oct 2)

I heard Doyle talking about her book on the DBSA podcast a while back, and it sounded interesting. Something she said about an issue it deals with made me add it to the wish list immediately.

Flirting With Intent, by Kelly Hunter (Oct 2)

I want to give Hunter another try. I liked the very funny Wife For A Week, but thought Exposed: Misbehaving With The Magnate was pretty bad (almost as bad as the title. This one... well, the description doesn’t really say much (except for the fact that it’s set in Singapore, which is a draw), so I’ll check out the reviews.

Snowbound In The Earl’s Castle, by Fiona Harper (Oct 2)

I guess I was just curious because it’s a contemporary, when the title makes it sound like a historical.

The Second Seduction of a Lady, by Miranda Neville (Oct 16)

This novella sounds interesting. There's a bet, and I expect a nice bit of grovelling.

Running in the Dark, by Regan Summers (Oct 29)

Ok, the plot sounds like your average urban fantasy, which is not my thing. BUT: it’s set in Santiago, in Chile. Chile!! Most romance novels set in Latin America are either in Mexico or an unspecified jungly location. We in the Southern Cone don’t seem to exist. I have got to read this!

Scorched, by Laura Griffin (Oct 30)

I’ve tried a couple of Griffin’s RS books before and haven’t fully clicked with her writing, but she’s got interesting ideas, so I think I’ll keep trying her.

Stolen, by Shiloh Walker (Oct 30)

Walker is an author I’ve been meaning to try for a while, and this one sounds quite interesting - the type of plot Nora Roberts would do in one of her RS single titles.

The Recruit, by Monica McCarty (Oct 30)

Hmm, not sure about this one. I tend to stay away from Scottish romances, but this one sounds quite interesting, actually (and the Highland Games sound like a fun thing to read about). Plus, I seem to remember hearing good things about McCarty.

Monsoon Wedding Fever, by Shoma Narayanan (Oct 30)

Love the cover! And the plot sounds like fun.


Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy

>> Thursday, September 27, 2012

TITLE: Swimming Home
AUTHOR: Deborah Levy

PAGES: 176
PUBLISHER: And Other Stories

SETTING: 1990s France
TYPE: Fiction

Swimming Home is a subversive page-turner, a merciless gaze at the insidious harm that depression can have on apparently stable, well-turned-out people. Set in a summer villa, the story is tautly structured, taking place over a single week in which a group of beautiful, flawed tourists in the French Riviera come loose at the seams. Deborah Levy's writing combines linguistic virtuosity, technical brilliance and a strong sense of what it means to be alive. Swimming Home represents a new direction for a major writer. In this book, the wildness and the danger are all the more powerful for resting just beneath the surface. With its deep psychology, biting humour and deceptively light surface, it wears its darkness lightly.
Levy takes the very familiar setup of two middle-class British families on holiday in a French villa and, according to seemingly hundreds of gushing reviews, uses the introduction of a stranger bent on causing trouble to make it into an affecting examination of depression and madness.

I'm afraid I'll have to file this one under "not for me", even if it marks me as a complete philistine. I read about half the book, so I did honestly give it a shot. All I got from that, however, was characters who weren't really characters, but puppets created by the author to make a point. They didn't behave like real people, they didn't feel like people at all. They weren't even interesting.

Was Levy just drawing their silhouettes, leaving it to readers to do half the work and flesh out the rest of the space? If so, I don't think she was successful. These characters didn't feel sparingly written, they felt underwritten and half-baked.

It seemed to me as I was reading that Levy was trying to create a sense of menace and doom. Something was clearly going to go tragically wrong, and we didn't know exactly what or how. Well, I guess she was successful in creating that menacing atmosphere, but the problem is, if you don't give a fig about any of the characters, then the tension doesn't work. I felt a small degree of intellectual curiosity about what would happen, but no particular sense of urgency to find out. So if this atmosphere and mood were the point of the book, rather than the characters (as I'm beginning to suspect), then that didn't work for me at all, either.


MY GRADE: It was a DNF.


The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller

>> Tuesday, September 25, 2012

TITLE: The Song of Achilles
AUTHOR: Madeline Miller

PAGES: 368
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury

SETTING: Ancient Greece and Troy
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: There might be a book about Odysseus, from what I hear!

Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia to be raised in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles. “The best of all the Greeks”—strong, beautiful, and the child of a goddess—Achilles is everything the shamed Patroclus is not. Yet despite their differences, the boys become steadfast companions. Their bond deepens as they grow into young men and become skilled in the arts of war and medicine—much to the displeasure and the fury of Achilles’ mother, Thetis, a cruel sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.

When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece, bound by blood and oath, must lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.

Built on the groundwork of the Iliad, Madeline Miller’s page-turning, profoundly moving, and blisteringly paced retelling of the epic Trojan War marks the launch of a dazzling career.
The basic plot of The Song of Achilles is one that a lot of people will already know, whether they've read The Iliad or not. I'm kind of in the middle: we did it in school when I was about 16-17, and unfortunately, there's no better way to describe our teacher's approach than 'doing' the book. We read and talked around it, mostly: about oral history, about Homer, a little bit about the Trojan War, and even less about the book itself. We talked more about some of the stylistic quirks of the book than about the actual story in it.

Still, I managed to absorb enough that I knew the gist of the plot. I do remember my attention being caught by this whole "Wrath of Achilles" thing, and wondering at what was clearly being left unsaid there. Madeline Miller's story covers much of the same ground as the Iliad, but starting much, much earlier, and from the perspective of a character, Patroclus, who has such disproportionate influence in the Iliad, compared to the attention paid to him as a character.

Miller starts her story when Patroclus is a young boy. Being a quiet, withdrawn sort of child, he's a disappointment to his brawny father, and after a fight that turns accidentally tragic, he's exiled from his home. He's taken in by King Peleus, and at first, he's as much a target of the bullies as he was at home. Until, that is, the King's son, the heroic Achilles himself, befriends him.

From there, Miller follows the boys as they become friends, and, as they grow up, lovers as well. But the events leading up to the Trojan War are in motion, and Achilles bears the weight of being the prophesised greatest warrior in the whole world, so they won't be able to stay out of the fray forever.

I really enjoyed this. I'm generally allergic to Tragic Love Stories (probably as a reaction to those horrid snobs who think they're the only type of love story worth telling in proper literature), but this one hit the spot. I guess sometimes the cathartic feelings can really feel quite satisfying...

Miller definitely tugs at the old heartstrings, but in the best way possible. She's not manipulating her readers, she's simply telling a story that wouldn't make any sense other than with its tragic ending, and making her characters so well-realised and their romance so deeply felt, that the sadness of the ending arises naturally, without any manipulation on her part. That is very important to me, I absolutely HATE authors trying to manipulate me into weeping (I'm looking at you, Jodie Picoult!).

Even though this is all narrated from Patroclus' point of view, and his feelings for Achilles are pretty biased, you still get a sense of what he really is like and how his fatal flaw drives him straight into tragedy. Miller shows how the way he is drives him into agreeing to go to war, when he knows the prophecy says it won't end well, and to his inaction at a crucial point. He's very definitely not perfect.

Apart from the main relationship, there were many other things I liked. The way Miller incorporated the gods was great. I kind of expected she'd make it a story about people in a world where everyone believes in the gods, but it's a world where the gods actually exist. That was really interesting to see. I also thought she handled the action scenes wonderfully, and I liked how her prose was deceptively simple, rather than overblown and poetic. Oh, and the secondary characters. They really came to life. I especially liked Odysseus and Briseis, and appreciated how Miller allows the latter to become a real character.

Fantastic, highly recommended.


PS - This may sound obtuse, but what's the difference between this and fanfiction? Is it just that the Iliad isn't in copyright any longer?


The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng

>> Sunday, September 23, 2012

TITLE: The Garden of Evening Mists
AUTHOR: Tan Twan Eng

PAGES: 350

SETTING: Late 1950s and 1980s Malaysia
TYPE: Fiction

Malaya, 1951.
Yun Ling Teoh, the scarred lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace among the jungle-fringed tea plantations of Cameron Highlands. There she discovers Yugiri, the only Japanese garden in Malaya, and its owner and creator, the enigmatic Aritomo, exiled former gardener of the emperor of Japan. Despite her hatred of the Japanese, Yun Ling seeks to engage Aritomo to create a garden in memory of her sister, who died in the camp. Aritomo refuses but agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice “until the monsoon comes.” Then she can design a garden for herself.

As the months pass, Yun Ling finds herself intimately drawn to the gardener and his art, while all around them a communist guerilla war rages. But the Garden of Evening Mists remains a place of mystery. Who is Aritomo and how did he come to leave Japan? And is the real story of how Yun Ling managed to survive the war perhaps the darkest secret of all?
The last couple of years I've read a few books off the Man Booker longlist and, except for the winners (which were both meh reads for me), I've loved them all. This year I've decided to read as many books from the long-list as I possibly can, and The Garden of Evening Mists was the only one my library had right there.

The narrator, Teoh Yun Ling, is a Chinese Malaysian woman who was sent to a POW camp by the Japanese during World War II. After the end of the war, she became a one of the country's top judges. When we meet her, it's the late 1980s and she's just announced her retirement. We soon find out Yun Ling has a condition which is starting to affect her memory more and more, and before her mind goes completely, she decides she wants to record her memories, both of that time and of events that took place in the late 1950s.

Yun Ling was the only survivor of that POW camp, and her sister was one of those who died there. Her sister's love of Japanese formal gardens was one of the things that sustained her in the camp, so, despite the resentment Yun Ling feels for anything related to that country, she is determined to fulfil her sister's wish for a memorial garden in that style.

In the late 50s, Yun Ling is a young judge who finds herself in trouble due to her strong opposition of some of the policies of the colonial British government. She decides to spend some time staying with friends in the Cameron Highlands, in central Malaysia, where she can approach their neighbour and former gardener to the Japanese Emperor, Nakamura Aritomo, to commission her sister's garden. Aritomo declines her business, instead proposing that Yun Ling become his apprentice and create the garden herself.

The relationship between Yun Ling and and Aritomo cautiously develops over the months, as she comes to terms with the events of the war and finds out more about Aritomo and why he's in Malaysia, and about what the mysterious POW camp she was in was really about. And all the while, the Malaysian Emergency is raging, with communist guerrillas rising against the state and the state brutally repressing them, and the fight is much closer in the central Highlands than it was in the city.

This was a book where I liked how the different individual elements were done: the author's treatment of the issue of forgiveness, Yun Ling's struggle to reconcile her resentment and her increasingly closer relationship with Aritomo, Aritomo's past, the Emergency, and overarching all that, the gardens. But all those elements didn't completely gel together in my mind. It might be a shortcoming on my part, rather than a flaw in the book, but I struggled to see the unifying theme. This wasn't a major issue in my enjoyment of the book, since I felt all the elements did work on their own, but having it all click together better would have made the difference between a book I thought was good and one I thought was fantastic.

Also, while for the most part the writing was evocative and lovely, I thought it sometimes crossed the line into overwritten and style won out over substance (even straying a few times into spiritual mumbo-jumbo). This meant that it was sometimes difficult to properly understand the characters, since the writing acted as a barrier.



The Bro-Magnet, by Lauren Baratz-Logsted

>> Friday, September 21, 2012

TITLE: The Bro-Magnet
AUTHOR: Lauren Baratz-Logsted

PAGES: About 250, I would guess
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance

Women have been known to lament, "Always a bridesmaid, never a bride." For Johnny Smith, the problem is, "Always a Best Man, never a groom."

At age 33, housepainter Johnny has been Best Man eight times. The ultimate man's man, Johnny loves the Mets, the Jets, his weekly poker game, and the hula girl lamp that hangs over his basement pool table. Johnny has the instant affection of nearly every man he meets, but one thing he doesn't have is a woman to share his life with, and he wants that desperately.

When Johnny meets District Attorney Helen Troy, he decides to renounce his bro-magnet ways in order to impress her. With the aid and advice of his friends and family, soon he's transforming his wardrobe, buying throw pillows, ditching the hula girl lamp, getting a cat and even changing his name to the more mature-sounding John. And through it all, he's pretending to have no interest in sports, which Helen claims to abhor.

As things heat up with Helen, the questions arise: Will Johnny finally get the girl? And, if he's successful in that pursuit, who will he be now that he's no longer really himself? THE BRO-MAGNET is a rollicking comedic novel about what one man is willing to give up for the sake of love.
Johnny Smith is a great guy. All his friends love him, and any man who's not his friend wants to be. Unfortunately, the things men appreciate about him are exactly the things that make women assume he's a laddish asshole. He isn't, truly. In fact, Johnny is a genuinely nice man, who would like nothing better than to find a woman to love and be loved by.

Johnny is also quite self-aware. He knows exactly what the problem is, he just can't figure out how to change things. So when he meets the lovely Helen, a successful and clearly sophisticated District Attorney, who seems surprisingly interested in him, he won't let that opportunity pass him by. He drafts in his family and friend to make him over into someone such a woman could see herself with, with some interesting reasults!

Whether or not you like The Bro-Magnet will depend on whether the humour appeals to you or not. I could see how it might not work for everyone, but me, I found it hilarious. I liked that the humour isn't mean or cruel. By trying to be what he and his clueless friends assume would appeal to a woman, Johnny gets into completely absurd situations. He's not humiliated, though. He makes the best of things, and we end up laughing just as much as he is.

I also liked that Johnny is truly not trying to deceive Helen. If that's what it takes to win her, Johnny genuinely wants to change and actually be that guy he's presenting himself to be. It's sweet, and Johnny's very real longing for love made me want to hug him.

The book's not perfect. It's a bit too clear to the reader, but not to any character in the book, that Helen might not be as repelled by the real Johnny as other women. Also, Johnny's mind didn't strike me as a real guy's, but as what a woman would like to imagine a guy who's a bit of a lad really is like. But you know what? I didn't care a jot. I had no problem suspending disbelief and still really enjoyed the book.



Never Stay Past Midnight, by Mira Lyn Kelly

>> Wednesday, September 19, 2012

TITLE: Never Stay Past Midnight
AUTHOR: Mira Lyn Kelly

PAGES: 192
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Presents

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Category romance

"You are so wrong for me."

Levi had to agree—he was. He was leaving Chicago in a few short weeks. He didn't do commitment—ever. But everything about this night, this girl, was so good. So right. Until at 11:59 p.m. she got out of his bed, got dressed and left!

What had he done? Things had hardly started and she was off! Yet he was bored with simpering women he couldn't get rid of. Elise was a breath of fresh air. How was he going to find her…and get her back in his bed—for the whole night this time? It seemed Mr. Levi-and-Leave-Them might have found the one woman to leave him begging for more...
It was never supposed to be more than a one-night stand: an exception for Elise, normal MO for Levi. Anything more would never work: Elise is in the middle of setting up her own business, and just has no time for a relationship, while Levi's career involves setting up nightclubs and selling them on after a few months, after which he moves to another city to start again.

But then the one-night-stand turns into a no-strings-attached affair, in theory only getting together every once in a while, whenever they both fancy it. Except they're soon spending pretty much every evening together, doing plenty of non-sex stuff, like supporting each other in difficult situations and getting to know one another.

I found this one a bit hard to get into, to be honest. The story starts in the middle of things, right after they first get together. I had no idea who these people were, and suddenly I was reading sex scene after sex scene, and that got pretty tedious. Not to mention, I had no idea why they just didn't get together, since they liked each other so much.

So Elise is busy setting up her yoga/pilates studio. Big deal. Levi clearly knows what setting up a business entails, and he's never anything but supportive. So what's the problem? We have no idea. Levi's business requiring him to move cities every few months is a harder problem to solve, but it's a self-imposed rule that this is the way his business works. What's keeping him from just changing it? We have no idea.

It's only much later that we understand why Elise would feel she can't follow her very time-consuming dream and have a proper relationship at the same time, and why Levi is so terrified of commitment and feels the need to uproot his whole life every few months. They're very good reasons. They just came a bit too late in the book for me. Once we understand more and I got a feel for who these two people really were, the book becomes quite good. The feelings felt real and both Levi and Elise had interesting issues.

Unfortunately, for the first half, I struggled to connect with the characters at all. At about a third in, it was touch and go whether I'd finish the book. I'm glad I decided to do so, because I really liked the second half or so (except the diabetic shock-inducing epilogue, sorry), but the characters needed fleshing out much earlier.



The Cards of Life and Death, by Colleen Gleason

>> Monday, September 17, 2012

TITLE: The Cards of Life and Death
AUTHOR: Colleen Gleason

PAGES: 283
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Related to The Shop Of Shades And Secrets

A modern gothic romance in the tradition of Barbara Michaels and Antoinette Stockenberg...

Diana Iverson is an up and coming malpractice attorney with a logical, scientific mind and a handsome fianc√©--until she walks in on him with a sexy female surgeon playing doctor. When Diana’s eccentric Aunt Belinda dies, leaving her a big old house in Maine along with a box of Tarot cards, she takes the opportunity for a summer get-away from the painful memories at home.

The last thing she wants to deal with is Ethan Tannock, the unnervingly handsome neighbor who seems to have conned Aunt Belinda into thinking he’s some sort of ghostbuster. But when the old house becomes the scene of vandalism and a number of break-ins, and it begins to appear as if Aunt Belinda's death was not as it seemed, Diana finds that life isn't always black and white and filled with logic. And then there are Aunt Belinda's Tarot cards...which seem to be trying to tell her something from beyond the grave...
When Diana Iverson was growing up, her great-aunt Bee was one of her favourite people. But then her mother decided she was a bad influence and refused to allow contact, to the point of lying to Diana and telling her Aunt Bee was dead.

Diana discovered the truth as a grown-up, but before she could arrange a visit, Bee died. Now Diana has inherited her house in rural Maine, and she decides to leave her increasingly successful medical malpractice firm for a week to sort the place out. It will also give her some space away from her fiance, Jonathan, whom she recently discovered cheating on her. She allowed him to convince her to keep the engagement going, but things are still strained.

The problem is that, in addition to the house, Diana has inherited some more problematic things. There's her aunt's pack of Tarot cards, to which Diana is inexplicably drawn, and from which she keeps drawing the same card over and over. There's a disturbingly attractive neighbour, Ethan Tannock, who seemed to have quite a close relationship with Bee. And most problematic of all, there's someone who seems determined to drive Diana away, and she soon begins to suspect that there might have been more to Bee's death than a heart attack

This is supposed to be related to The Shop of Shades and Secrets, which I really enjoyed last year. Ethan is apparently Fiona's brother, but you wouldn't know it from reading this book. Unfortunately, it's also nowhere near as good.

There was quite a bit of potential here. I liked the basic plot and the bare bones of the characters, but the execution just wasn't great. One of the most interesting elements, which was the paranormal aspect, felt underbaked. It quickly becomes apparent that Diana has paranormal powers, just as her aunt did, and that her constant migraines are a result of her trying to block them. Ethan is a university professor whose work involves doing formal testing for paranormal powers. He was working with Belinda, and would very much like to work with Diana. This element, like many others in the book, quickly goes nowhere.

There was a fair bit of WTFery as well. For instance, Diana and Ethan first meet when he lets himself into the house, not knowing that Bee has died. They clearly had a kind of relationship where it was perfectly acceptable for him to do that. Fine. But then he gets really pissy about Diana not being particularly welcoming to him. Err, mate, you are a big man who's just let himself into a house where a woman is on her own. It was an honest mistake, but as soon as you realise what is going on, you need to apologise profusely, turn around and leave. She doesn't know you. She doesn't know if you really are her aunt's friend, or if you're just a potential rapist. If you want to make friends, you can give her a call when you get home and are not a potential threat. But nope, the utter idiot gets offended, and then lets himself in AGAIN the next morning when Diana is out, because he wants to grab some beer from the fridge. And then he's offended when Diana changes the locks. Worse, in the narrative, Diana is portrayed as being mean and wrong for changing the locks. I almost put the book down then and there.

This was the worst bit of the book, and things got better, but the character development still wasn't great. The secondary characters were cartoonish, and there were still plenty of other WTF moments with Ethan and Diana. Things like why the hell Diana was still with her cheating fiance, when she didn't even like him, and the resolution of the suspense subplot.

So, disappointing, but I'll still give Gleason another try, on the strength of the other book, which really hit all the right notes.



The ABC Murders, by Agatha Christie

>> Saturday, September 15, 2012

TITLE: The ABC Murders
AUTHOR: Agatha Christie

PAGES: 272
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: 1930s England
TYPE: Mystery

Ascher in Andover, Barnard in Bexhill, Clarke in Churston – all are dead, each with an ABC Railway Guide found beside the body. A serial killer is on the loose, one who is determined to play games with the great Hercule Poirot. But can the Belgian detective come to grips with the mind of a psychopath? With the help of Hastings and Japp, Poirot must travel the length and breadth of England. Is he always destined to be too late?
I grew up reading Agatha Christie. My mum has a whole shelf with most, if not all, of Christie's books. I can still see them in my mind, 5 novels a volume, bound in red, and printed in really thin, almost Bible-like paper. I worked my way through them, from beginning to end, and loved them. I haven't reread many of them since then, and I've decided I'll do more of that.

Visiting England from his ranch in Argentina, Hastings, Poirot's longtime chronicler, finds his friend preoccupied by an anonymous letter announcing an upcoming murder. A man of his fame gets a number of strange letters, but Poirot finds something in this particular one that makes him worry. He's right; soon enough, Alice Asher, who runs a newsagent, is found murdered in Andover, with an ABC Railway Guide lying open next to her. When, following similar taunting letters, Betty Barnard is killed in Bexhill, and Sir Carmichael clarke is murdered in Churston, both with ABC guides found near the body, it becomes clear that something unheard of is going on.

To me (and I guess, to most readers), Agatha Christie is closely associated with domestic, cozy murder mysteries. She's done the odd international conspiracy-type thriller, which I never found particularly successful, but this seems to be something completely different. Serial killer books are a dime a dozen these days -is this a very early entry in the genre by Christie's? Well, all I'll say is that there's more to things than meets the eye, and I don't think anyone will be surprised by that.

I read this book many, many years ago, and I guess it must have made an impression, because I remembered the shape of the solution, if not the details. I think I would have enjoyed the book more if I'd had no idea of what was going on, but even taking out the element of surprise, it was a fun read.

As always, I loved the setting, and all the more because Christie was just writing a contemporary novel, so the glimpses of a bygone era all feel really natural and matter-of-fact.



Sinful in Satin, by Madeline Hunter

>> Thursday, September 13, 2012

TITLE: Sinful in Satin
AUTHOR: Madeline Hunter

PAGES: 368

SETTING: 19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 3rd in the Rarest Bloom series (follows Ravishing in Red and Provocative in Pearls).

When famed London courtesan Alessandra Northrope passes away, her daughter Celia Pennifold inherits little more than a hopelessly contaminated reputation, a house in a middle class neighborhood, and an education that prepared her to take her mother’s place the way Alessandra intended. Celia hopes to make her own life on her own terms, however, and moves into the house only to discover one more legacy—an enigmatic, handsome tenant who knows her mother’s plans for her future rather too well.

Jonathan thinks he is on a simple mission to discover whether Celia’s mother left accounts of her lovers that might embarrass important men. Instead he finds himself embroiled in a mystery full of dangerous betrayals and secrets, old and new, that touch on his life as well as Celia’s.
The Rarest Bloom series revolves around a group of four women who, until book 1, lived together very quietly in a property just outside London. That property belongs to one of them, Daphne, who took in the other three when they needed it. All four women clearly have secrets, and the reason they can live so peacefully together is that they have a pact not to ask questions. They each know the others are there to offer support if needed, but they won't be interrogated, whatever happens.

Celia Pennifold's secret is that she's the daughter of a notorious courtesan. All her life, as she was growing up, she knew she was supposed to follow in her mother's footsteps, and she was trained accordingly. But right before taking that last step and choosing her first protector, Celia changed her mind. She ran away, and was taken in by Daphne. She's been living there for the last five years, but now her mother is dead, and although she hasn't left her the answer to the question Celia has been asking since she was born, about her father, she has left her daughter a house.

What Celia doesn't know is that her mother had a tenant, who's still in the house. That tennant is Jonathan Albrighton, who works for the government and has been tasked with finding some Very Important papers which his employers believe Celia's mother might have had. Celia's arrival, and her decision to stay in the house, complicate matters slightly, as does the attraction between them.

I quite liked this book while I was reading it. It wasn't much of a page-turner, and there were a couple of slow bits I had to slog through, but Hunter's writing is a cut above the average romance writer, and Celia and Jonathan were interesting. Celia's someone who has had to become a pragmatist because of the way she was raised, which allowed for no illusions. That's not her nature, however, and meeting Jonathan makes her want to hope. I also liked Jonathan, a man who takes his job seriously, but whose growing feelings for Celia make him reluctant to do what's supposed to be his duty.

Much as I liked this at the time, however, it was a bit forgettable. I read it some time ago (yep, this was one review that fell through the cracks) and the only reason I remember what I liked about Celia and Jonathan is because I'd written a few notes which I've now shaped into this review. The characters and their relationship didn't make much of a lasting impression on me.

Also, there's a big niggle that has been there since the beginning of the series, and that is Castleford, a secondary character who tends to come in and save the day in this series. I keep getting the feeling with him that I'm supposed to find him incredibly sexy, but I find his brand of debauchery quite repulsive. Book 4 is about him and Daphne, and I'm really not sure I want to read it.



Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

>> Tuesday, September 11, 2012

TITLE: Mockingjay
AUTHOR: Suzanne Collins

PAGES: 448
PUBLISHER: Scholastic

SETTING: Futuristic
SERIES: Follows The Hunger Games and Catching Fire.

Against all odds, Katniss Everdeen has survived the Hunger Games twice. But now that she's made it out of the bloody arena alive, she's still not safe. The Capitol is angry. The Capitol wants revenge. Who do they think should pay for the unrest? Katniss. And what's worse, President Snow has made it clear that no one else is safe either. Not Katniss's family, not her friends, not the people of District 12...
Mockingjay is the conclusion to the Hunger Games trilogy. I won't provide many details, as they would spoil the enjoyment of anyone who hasn't read the first 2 books. All I'll say is in this one, the battle against the evil Capitol becomes an all-out one, and Katniss is very much in the middle of things.

I had a bit of a weird experience with this book. I inhaled it, just as I did the first two, and I was disappointed with it. I thought that, while there were some really interesting ideas there, the way they were developed felt anticlimactic. I also found Katniss' role frustrating. I didn't like that she was basically nothing but a symbol, a pawn who was moved around the chessboard by others. She grumbled and was a bit awkward, but she did it, and didn't really seem to have much agency. I wanted Katniss to finally, FINALLY acknowledge her power and take on her responsibility, and become the shining heroine who inspires everyone onto victory. I didn't get that, and felt disgruntled.

And then I read it again, and suddenly, I saw that some of the things that had bothered me were precisely what makes this book so good. It's not about Katniss becoming a heroine, but about heroism itself and the choices and compromises it can require, and about the manipulation that can be necessary to achieve it in the real world. It's also about Katniss struggling to stick to her ethics and ideals in a structure that she didn't choose, and where none of the choices she has is ideal.

The war is not romanticised and the whole tone is not one of triumphalism, but of sadness. The ending is perfect. I liked the choice Katniss made on the romance front in my first read of the book, as it was the choice I wanted her to make, but I appreciated certain other things on reread. Chief amongst them was that the violence these characters have been surrounded by and subjected to in all three books is not something that can be shrugged off once the war is over. It has effects on them, and while it doesn't ruin happiness, it shapes it, and that's as it should be.

Well, that was a bit of a cryptic review, probably not much use to someone who hasn't read the book, I'm afraid. But believe me, if you haven't read it, you'll thank me for not ruining it.



A mystery and a social history

>> Sunday, September 09, 2012

TITLE: The Affair of the Mutilated Mink
AUTHOR: James Anderson

In this book, written in 1981, but set in the 20s, a "talkies"-mad Earl is immensely flattered when a movie producer wants to set his latest costume drama in the Earl's country house. The producer (together with the Earl's favourite actor, who's supposed to star in the film) are invited to the house to scope it out. And before the Earl knows it, the whole thing has turned into a house party, with every single room in the massive house in use.

I read the first 120 or so pages. It started out well. The author was clearly having fun with the setting and the characters were nicely quirky. After a while, though, the quirky characters turned cartoonish. The dialogue, especially, started to do my head in. Stilted, exaggerated and (in the case of an Italian character who turns up out of the blue) frankly offensive. I was also annoyed by characters behaving in extremely stupid ways. There's a very confusing scene set in the middle of the night, with characters creeping around and hitting each other, and the next morning, no one says anything to anyone else, even the characters who were doing absolutely nothing wrong (and who no one would have thought were doing something wrong).

I just couldn't be arsed to continue.


TITLE: Hope and Glory: The Days That Made Britain
AUTHOR: Stuart Maconie

The premise of Hope and Glory is Maconie setting up to explore the places and people related to events that made Britain into what it is today, one for each decade of the 20th century. He visits the spot where each of those significant events took place, and tells us about it all, with a generous helping of his own views and opinions in the commentary.

It was an entertaining, enjoyable book to read. I liked the premise, but I wasn't so wedded to it that I minded the frequent detours, especially since they were interesting in themselves. I really enjoy Maconie's writing and humour, and since we're kind of on the same side politically, his inclusion of so many of his own opinions didn't annoy me in the least.

An added bonus was that quite a few of the subjects he covers I didn't know all that much about -for instance, this was the first place I ever heard of Enoch Powell's "Rivers of Blood" speech (well, it's not the first thing people tell you about when you've just emmigrated to this country!). Reading about them here sparked off a bit of further research, which I enjoyed as well.



Shadows at Midnight, by Elizabeth Jennings

>> Friday, September 07, 2012

TITLE: Shadows at Midnight
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Jennings (aka Lisa Marie Rice)

PAGES: 320

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: None (I don't think)

She was just a shadow of her former self.

Until he came back into her life.

U.S. intelligence agent Claire Day and former Marine Sergeant Dan Watson must solve a deadly conspiracy-or forfeit any chance of having a future together.
Shadows at Midnight starts in an African city, Laka. It's Thanksgiving, and intelligence analyst Claire Day has stayed behind in the American embassy to work while everyone else is off celebrating. And then, suddenly and unexpectedly, a rebel army enters the city and besieges the building.

Marine Daniel Weston is one of the few guards left on duty, and his first thought when the danger becomes apparent is to protect Claire. Even though she doesn't know it, because the sweet dear has been adoring her from afar, Daniel is madly in love (and lust) with Claire, to the point that he moved heaven and earth to get himself assigned to Laka just because she was there. They finally talk to each other properly while trapped in the building, and it's clear Claire is very attracted to Dan, as well, but this interlude ends when a bomb falls a bit too close.

Months later, Dan, who was injured in the attack, believes Claire has died. He's left the military and has set up a security business. Claire, meanwhile, doesn't remember a thing about that day, and has found it very difficult to go back to normal life. Recovery from her injuries was bad enough, but the mental ones are even harder. She suffers from crippling nightmares and is withdrawing from the world, and can't seem to stop the process.

And then, one day she sees a programme on TV featuring Dan Weston, who, being the heroic type, has just made yet another heroic rescue (saved some people from a burning building, if I remember correctly). Claire recognises his face, even though the memories still don't come back fully, and she decides to go find him to see if this will bring anything back.

But there was more to the embassy attack than meets the eye, and Claire contacting Dan prods the villain into action again.

I loved this. It was exactly what I expect and want when I read a Lisa Marie Rice: a completely over-the-top hero who's madly in love with the heroine and worships the ground she walks on, sexual tension so thick you could cut it with a knife, a strong, clever heroine, and an interesting suspense subplot. I got all of that here, and I was one happy reader.

Dan's devotion to Claire was remarkable, even for a LMR hero. Normally the whole love-at-first-sight deal would be cause for much eye-rolling, but here, I found it romantic and sigh-worthy. In fact, that's my neverending refrain when I read LMR: "Normally I'd say I hate element X, but when LMR does it, I eat it up with a spoon and ask for seconds". Yup, still true.

So, if you've read this author before and liked her, this is vintage LMR and I highly recommend it. If you have read her books and they don't work for you, don't bother with this one. And if you haven't tried LMR before, you should, even if you don't normally like over-the-top, larger-than-life macho-man heroes. This is a good a place to start as any.



Riveted, by Meljean Brook

>> Wednesday, September 05, 2012

TITLE: Riveted
AUTHOR: Meljean Brook

COPYRIGHT: 2012 (It came out yesterday)
PAGES: 416

SETTING: Alternate history / steampunk
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 3rd full-length book in the Iron Seas series

A century after a devastating volcanic eruption forced Iceland's inhabitants to abandon its shores, the island has become enshrouded in legend. But the truth behind the legends is mechanical, not magical--and the mystery of the island a matter of life and death for a community of women who once spilled noble blood to secure their freedom.

Five years ago, Annika unwittingly endangered that secret, but her sister Källa took the blame and was exiled. Now Annika serves on an airship, searching for her sister and longing to return home. But that home is threatened when scientific expedition leader David Kentewess comes aboard, looking to expose Annika's secrets. Then disaster strikes, leaving David and Annika stranded on a glacier and pursued by a madman, with their very survival depending on keeping the heat rising between them--and generating lots of steam...
I adore the Iron Seas series, and one of my favourite things about it is how different each of the books and characters are. Riveted is nothing like The Iron Duke or Heart of Steel, but it's just as good.

As the book starts, Annika has been travelling the world for 4 years, working as an airship engineer. She's looking for her sister, for whose disappearance she feels somehow responsible, and won't return to the small village in Iceland where they're from until she's found her. We soon find out there are plenty of secrets surrounding that village, and that it's crucial for her to ensure no one finds out where it is.

On a stop-over at a New World port, Annika is helped out of a potentially sticky situation by David Kentewiss, a vulcanologist on his way to do a survey of Iceland. David has his secrets himself, including the fact that he's on a mission to find the mysterious place his late mother was from, and he hopes to find it in Iceland. And then a clue lands on his lap, when he hears a young woman speak and what he hears makes him suspect he might have found one of his mother's compatriots.

As luck would have it, the airship David and his team are taking to Iceland is the same one Annika is working on, and their meeting is the start of both a lovely romance and an exciting adventure.

One of the consequences of having read so many romance novels is that I've got used to the narrative and characterisation shortcuts so many authors take. The author will give me a small nugget about a character, and based on experience, I'll fill in the blanks with all the things I've learnt over the years that this nugget signifies.

Well, the beauty of reading Meljean Brook's books is that I have to reset my brain to zero before I start. Her characters, I have to take at face value. I find out that, say, Annika is a virgin, and can't assume that this means that she's an innocent and completely ignorant about sex, or that she's never felt desire for anyone, or that this is the author's way of telling me she's "virtuous" or "pure". Nope, the fact that she's a virgin is only one small facet of a very complex character, and all knowing of Annika's virginity tells me is that she hasn't had sex. If I want to know who she is and what her virginity signifies in her case, I have to pay attention to what she says and does. It makes for rounded, interesting, wonderful characters, and I loved it.

And the great thing when two such complex characters fall in love is that you truly get it. You understand why they're falling in love with each other, because it's obvious how perfectly well they fit, and what they bring to the relationship. And just as I said earlier that Riveted is nothing like the other Iron Seas books, neither are Annika or David anything like previous characters in the series. Yes, they are strong people, as all of Brook's characters, but they are strong in their own individual ways.

I just loved them, and I loved their relationship. It's sweet and romantic and filled with longing for each other and for the life they could have together. And this great romance is taking place in the midst of a fantastic exploration of issues of sexuality, brilliant world-building and a plot which has much more than a little adventure. In fact, the best way I can describe the action here is cinematic. There were particular moments (especially one involving a whale) that left me with my mouth hanging open and laughing in delight.

Read this. It stands alone, even though it's set in the Iron Seas world, so if you've never tried Brook before, it's a great place to start.



Mr. Rosenblum's List, by Natasha Solomons

>> Monday, September 03, 2012

TITLE: Mr. Rosenblum's List: Friendly Guidance for the Aspiring Englishman (Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English in the US)
AUTHOR: Natasha Solomons

PAGES: 311

SETTING: Mid-20th century England
TYPE: Fiction

At the outset of World War II, Jack Rosenblum and his family escape Berlin for London. Jack embraces the welcome pamphlet instructing immigrants how to act like "the English." He acquires Saville Row suits and a Jaguar. He never speaks German, apart from the occasional curse. But one key item--membership in a golf club--remains elusive. So Jack hatches a wild idea: he'll build his own.

Jack's wife, Sadie, does not share this obsession. She wants to cook her mother's recipes and remember the life they left behind. But when Jack relocates them to the country, Sadie watches their savings deplete as he pursues his quixotic dream.

In this gently surprising first novel, Natasha Solomons tells the captivating love story of a couple making a new life--and their wildest dreams--come true.
Being an immigrant, I'm always on the lookout for stories that might reflect my experience in some way. Most of the ones set in the present-day, though, seem to be about the difficulties and the culture clashes and present immigration as a sort of necessary evil. This has not been my experience at all, and so while I do find these accounts valuable and interesting, I don't particularly identify with them. Me, I actually like England. I could go back and have a perfectly good life back in Uruguay any time, it's just that with all its flaws (which I do see!) this place suits me much better than Uruguay ever did. And so Mr. Rosenblum's List, with its insights into integration and the nature of Englishness spoke to me.

The story concerns a German Jew, the eponymous Mr. Rosenblum, who moves to London with his family when World War II is about to erupt. While his wife, Sadie, misses her former life and grieves for all she left behind, Jack (as he immediately decides to call himself) throws himself wholeheartedly into his new life and his new country, determined to become the most English Englishman of them all. He makes a list of what it means to be English, and will achieve all the items on that list, whatever it takes. All of them, including the one that turns out to be the hardest: membership in a golf club.

Mr. Rosenblum's List is hilarious and heartbreaking, sometimes at the same time, and it's also really insightful. Solomons really gets it, things like how it feels when you embrace something you love about your new home, but at the same time have a tiny niggling fear that some people find if funny that you have done so, or the realisation that some people will always perceive you as different and exotic, however at home you feel. Not that Jack Rosenblum has those realisations (at least that we know), but even so, the insights are there and they definitely resonated.



August 2012 reads

>> Saturday, September 01, 2012

A bit of a strange month. I didn't read as much as usual (partly due to the Olympics: not only was I obsessively watching sports, I also had my brother staying at mine for the first two weeks of the month), and I had many more C reads than in other months. Still, a couple of extremely good ones as well.

Demon Moon, by Meljean Brook: A
original review here

I'm really, really enjoying my reread of the Guardians series. Each of the books and stories have been as good as I remembered (and it's good to see I still agree with my original reviews!), but reading them with knowledge of the entire series so far is even better. I'm so glad I'm doing this!

Shoot To Thrill, by PJ Tracy: B+
review coming soon

Book 5 in Tracy's Monkeewrench mystery series, one of my favourites. People are posting videos of real muders online, and Magozzi and Rolseth, helped by the Monkeewrench crew and an FBI agent with surprising depths, investigate. Interesting, and quite scary, actually, with a surprise ending. The next book has just come out, and I can't wait to see what on earth that ending meant.

Quatrain, by Sharon Shinn: B
review here

This is a collection of 4 short stories, each set in a universe established in one of Shinn's existing books or series. Really good standard. My favourite was the one set in the world of Heart of Gold. Shinn was somehow able to develop some quite complex things in such a short space. The stories set in Samaria and the Twelve Houses universe were also good. The one disappointment was the one related to Summers At Castle Auburn, but then, that book is not a favourite, either.

Never Stay Past Midnight, by Mira Lyn Kelly: B-
review coming soon

First it was supposed to be only a one-night-stand, then a no-strings-attached affair until Levi moved to another city. This being romance, they both want more. I found this one a bit hard to get into, because there was a lot of sex before I actually got to know the characters, and without knowing them, the whole committment-phobia thing didn't make all that much sense. The second half, once I got a feel for who these two were, was much better. The feelings felt real and both Levi and Elise had interesting issues.

A Share In Death, by Deborah Crombie: C+
review here

A Scotland Yard Superintendent is making use of his cousin's week in a time-share in Yorkshire when one of his fellow guests is found murdered. He's got no intention of having a busman's holiday, but he just keeps stumbling upon relevant bits of information, don't you know? This was the perfect C read. Mediocre, but with the plus that it was a fast read. Other than that, predictable, and with awkward characterisation. I've heard the rest of the series is good, so I won't write off Crombie completely, though.

The Cards of Life and Death, by Colleen Gleason: C
review coming soon

When lawyer Diana Iverson inherits a house from her great-aunt, she also inherits a pack of Tarot cards, a meddling, if handsome, neighbour, and someone who's determined to find something in the house. This was pretty mediocre. I liked the basic plot, but the characters were too often annoying, the paranormal plot wasn't particularly well-handled and, in the end, I was bored.

Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn: C
review coming soon

This month's reading group book. Olympia Binewski's parents decided to make sure their children would be assets to their travelling carnival. To that purpose, they experimented with all sorts of chemicals and radiations while Lily was pregnant. The results were the megalomaniac Arturo, the Aqua-boy; the singing Siamese twins, Ellie and Iffy; Olympia herself, a bald, albino, hunchback dwarf; and the disappointingly "norm" Chick, who only has telekinetic powers. This wasn't really to my taste, but to be honest, I thought I'd have a much harder time with it than I did. Still, I found Dunn's emphasis on being constantly shocking a bit juvenile.

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel: still reading

Love, love, love this. It's basically the story of Thomas Cromwell's ascent to power, which is not particularly new territory, but the writing is what makes this so out-of-this-world amazing. I don't know how to describe it, beyond saying that it is beautiful and that every time I open the book I wallow in it (no better way to describe it).


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