November wish list

>> Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Not my longest wish list ever, but a good few books I can't wait to read.

Books I'm definitely planning to get

Heart of Danger, by Lisa Marie Rice (Nov 6)

LMR is an author whose voice and themes unexpectedly resonate with me. Her hypermasculine, super-protective heroes shouldn't really work for me, but they do. This is the first in a new series.

The Perfect Hope, by Nora Roberts (Nov 6)

Third in the Inn Boonsboro trilogy. I haven't read the first 2, as I like to read NR's trilogies once they're all out. So far, it's garnered very "meh" reviews, so I'm not that anxious to read it, but Roberts is still an autobuy.

Still Life with Shape-Shifter, Sharon Shinn (Nov 6)

Similarly to the previous book, I haven't read the earlier book in the series and it hasn't had the greatest of reviews, but Shinn is an author I really love, so I'll be buying this.

The Duchess War, by Courtney Milan (mid-November)

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". Then it moved to my October wish list, and now it's November. Guess the uncertainty's the one negative of self-publishing! 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.

Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Nov 27)

Taleb's The Black Swan had quite a bit of influence on my thinking. It's a brilliant book, but it's difficult to see how to apply its lessons in reality. This sounds like it might provide some insight into that.

Shadow's Claim, by Kresley Cole (Nov 27)

Looks like Shadow's Claim starts a new series, a spin-off of the Immortals After Dark series, which I really like.  The plot description talks about a competition for the hand of a beautiful sorceress in a blood-sport tournament and "a millennium's worth of savage need". Par for the course for Kresley Cole!

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

Naughty & Nice, by Molly O'Keefe, Stefanie Sloane & Ruthie Knox (Nov 5)

I loved Ruthie Knox's Ride With Me and Molly O'Keefe's Can't Buy Me Love, so I quite fancy trying their stories here. I like the sound of Knox's story, but the idea of a heroine just out of high school doesn't appeal to me as much. Still, I'll give it a shot. Don't really know much about Stephanie Sloane, but 2 out of 3 is good enough.

A Gentleman Never Tells by Juliana Gray (Nov 6)

I've got the previous book, A Lady Never Lies, in my TBR. I've heard good things about it, and this one seems to have the same early 20th century Italy setting.

Night Whispers by Alisha Rai (Nov 6)

Post-apocalyptic adventure romance. It sounds like a thousand other books out there, but I've been meaning to try Alisha Rai's books for a while.

The Colony, by AJ Colucci (Nov 13)

The world is under attack by "a deadly supercolony of ants". I quite like the idea of an Outbreak-type romance, and this sounds interesting. Not sure if I can read it without becoming a bit paranoid, though!

Where Angels Rest by Kate Brady (Nov 20)

I liked Brady's first, One Scream Away. It had some issues, but showed lots of promise. This serial killer-type RS looks pretty good, guess I'll see if all that promise has been fulfilled.

Running Wild, by Linda Howard and Linda Jones (Nov 27)

First in a contemporary Western series called The Men from Battle Ridge. Seems to be a woman on the run plot. I've kind of gone off Linda Howard in the last few years, but this sounds like it could be a return to romance, and it's probably worth a try, if only from the library.

The Gilded Lily, by Deborah Swift (Nov 27)

My wanting to read this one is all about the 1660s setting.  As the blurb has it: "Set in a London of atmospheric coffee houses, gilded mansions, and shady pawnshops hidden from rich men's view". Nice!


Murder At The Vicarage, by Agatha Christie

>> Monday, October 29, 2012

TITLE: Murder At The Vicarage (audio)
AUTHOR: Agatha Christie

PAGES: 304
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: Late 1920s, in a small English village
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: 1st Miss Marple mystery

“Anyone who murdered Colonel Protheroe,” declared the parson, brandishing a carving knife above a joint of roast beef, “would be doing the world at large a favor!”

It was a careless remark for a man of the cloth. And one which was to come back and haunt the clergyman just a few hours later—when the Colonel is found shot dead in the clergyman’s study. But as Miss Marple soon discovers, the whole village seems to have had a motive to kill Colonel Protheroe.

Yet another audiobook (I'm becoming addicted!). In it, we're introduced to the village of St. Mary Mead, home of Miss Marple, who appears here for the first time in Christie's oeuvre.

Colonel Protheroe, an odious man, liked by no one in the village, is shot dead in the vicarage while our narrator, the vicar himself, is out. We see the investigation through his eyes, as the police seem quite happy to tell him everything and have him tag along. But of course, it's Miss Marple who notices all the important clues and deduces their significance, and Miss Marple who solves the case!

This isn't the best Christie ever, but it's a fun one. I thought it was especially interesting to see the very beginning of Miss Marple. You can see the basis of her character here, but she does evolve quite a bit in later books. Here we do get things like her very characteristic habit of comparing the current situation with seemingly unrelated situations from her long years in St. Mary Mead, and she's as nosy and as interested in other people's business as ever (Christie contrasts the utter lack of malice in this with the behaviour of the other "old cats" in the village). Still, she's not quite the full Miss Marple yet. There's something missing here, something that I'm having difficulty putting my finger on, the quality that makes her so amazing in later books.

Christie's strong point is, of course, her plotting, and we do get some very clever clues and red herrings. It really is an interesting case. I did, however, feel she went a bit too far with the solution. Although everything fit perfectly and neatly, and every knot was tied in a satisfying manner, this was accomplished by requiring the culprit to have come up with a fiendishly complex plan. That a first-timer could have come up with this and carried it out with clockwork precision, and without repeated rehearsals was a bit too preposterous for my liking. I am willing to suspend disbelief with Christie, but this was too much.

Still, I enjoyed this very much. Christie's rural England is a place I love visiting (even as I shudder at the thought of actually living there). We also get a nice bit of romance, as usual with Christie, even though it doesn't come from where you at first think it might. I quite liked having my expectations overturned there.

The audio was just adequate. I didn't love James Saxon's narration. The voices he did for women were sometimes grating, and the jolly hockey sticks accents a bit overdone, but after a while I got used to it, and it didn't bother me too much.



Déjà Dead, by Kathy Reichs

>> Saturday, October 27, 2012

TITLE: Déjà Dead (audio)
AUTHOR: Kathy Reichs

PAGES: 416
PUBLISHER: Simon & Schuster

SETTING: 1990s Montreal
TYPE: Mystery / Suspense
SERIES: 1st in the Temperance Brennan series

Her life is devoted to justice -- for those she never even knew.

In the year since Temperance Brennan left behind a shaky marriage in North Carolina, work has often preempted her weekend plans to explore Quebec. When a female corpse is discovered meticulously dismembered and stashed in trash bags, Tempe detects an alarming pattern -- and she plunges into a harrowing search for a killer. But her investigation is about to place those closest to her -- her best friend and her own daughter -- in mortal danger...
Déjà Dead starts the well-known series focused on forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan. It's especially well-known, I guess, because the TV series Bones is based on it (from all reports, however, the books and TV series are quite different). Anyway, I read books 4, 5 and 6 some years ago. I liked book 4, but then things started going a bit downhill with the rest, and I got a bit tired of them. I did, however, always have a vague intention to go back to book 1. And then I started listening to audiobooks last month, and when I realised that Barbara Rosenblat was the narrator, I headed straight for my library.

The series starts in Montreal, where Tempe is working at the Coroner's office. It's quite common for her to be asked to have a look at any bones that are found in the area, and most often it's either animal bones or a really old burial site that has been disturbed. The ones she's asked to look at as the story starts, however, are different matter. They're human, they're recent, and from a body that's been dismembered. And though the police don't want to hear it, they remind Tempe of another body that came across her examination table not that long ago, one from an unsolved murder.

As she works to find the evidence to convince the recalcitrant cops that a serial killer might be out there, Tempe has plenty of personal issues to deal with: a long-time friend who's behaving very strangely and might be in danger, a daughter who wants to drop out of school, the constant temptation to have a drink. And as it becomes clear that a serial killer is, indeed, responsible for the murders, it's also increasingly obvious that he's got an interest in Tempe herself.

I had very mixed feelings about Déjà Dead. There were several things about it that I liked and thought were well-done, but just as many that drove me bonkers.

What I liked

  • Tempe is an interesting character. She's a professionally succesful woman in her 40s, quite the lone wolf, and a complete workaholic. She's recently divorced, has a 19-year-old daughter she loves, but who's driving her crazy, and is a recovering alcoholic. Mainly, what I liked about her is that she was so very individual, and her character was drawn so strongly by the author.

  • There is a tiny smidgen of a romantic thread here, one that I vaguely remember developing in later books. It was nice to have it there, but it was also perfect that it wasn't any more prominent.

  • I know the acceptable taste is that one is SO over serial killer plots, but me, I'm really, really not. I do like a good serial killer book, especially the "treasure hunt" element of it, the examination of the evidence to find the unlikely elements that connect and, through a blinding moment of insight, reveal a clue. I definitely got quite a bit of it here, loads of elements coming together, and it was very good.

  • The forensics, while gory, were used to good effect in the plot, providing some quite unique clues.

  • There was a palpable sense of place (although some elements of how this was achieved didn't work as well, see below). Montreal really comes alive, and the flavour of it is definitely there. This is the second book I've read in a couple of weeks that's set in Quebec, and it was fascinating to see the distinctions made between Anglophone and Francophone. I guess it's one of those things that an outsider doesn't really think about.

  • It was an absorbing read. Apart from some sections with a bit too much detail (again, see below), it was whatever the audio equivalent of a page-turner would be. There was a particular evening when I was listening while I did some chores around the house, and when I was done with them, I found myself walking around looking for something else to tidy up, unwilling to stop listening. I ended up sitting in front of the oven, staring at my loaf of bread as it baked, à la one of the contestants in Great British Bake-Off!

What I didn't like

  • The biggest thing is that Tempe, although displaying a top-notch brain while in the lab, shows the common sense of a gnat when out of it. If you want to know what TSTL looks like, read this. She just kept constantly going off on her own and placing herself in danger needlessly. Like, they find a map at a suspect's house where he's marked with an "x" the sites where two of the bodies have been recovered. There's a third "x". Does Tempe wait till the police investigate this third "x"? Nope, she goes to this pitch-black, isolated area on her own, late at night, in the middle of a storm, and with no backup torch.

    Yes, Reichs gets a really dramatic scene out of this, but she makes her main character look like a complete twit. She does this sort of thing again, and again, and again. At one point Tempe actually asks herself why she's done a particularly stupid thing, trailing a suspect on her own, without requesting assistance from the cops (even though by this point in the book, they're on her side). Her answer: "Because it was personal". My answer (said out loud while on the treadmill, and provoking some worried looks): "Because you're STUPID, Brennan!".

    My favourite, though, was the garage door she kept finding open. So, a serial killer is after you and several times, you arrive home to find your garage door didn't latch properly and is beeping. Do you a) think "oh, that's annoying, I'll have to report it to the super", or b) suspect it might have something to do with the evil serial killer who's after you? If you're Tempe Brennan, the answer is a).

  • To be fair to Tempe, the cops were on the incompetent side. For instance, with the investigation of the sites marked with an "x" which I mentioned above, I just couldn't believe that they wouldn't have immediately gone off to have a look. That made the investigation frustrating at times.

  • Reichs doesn't really know where to stop when it comes to detail. She has a habit of providing tonnes and tonnes of irrelevant detail (like, the exact route, street by street, taken by Tempe to get to a particular address, or the exact detail of the distances between each tooth mark left by a saw on a bone). It's annoying when reading it, but even more annoying when listening to the audio, as there's no chance to skim. Barbara Rosenblat's narration is brilliant, but even she can't make this interesting. She might as well have been reading the phone book.

  • On a related note, the gore level is quite high, and the level of detail provided here is also a bit overwhelming. And again, while I could skim a bit while reading, I was forced to listen to every grisly word here. It wasn't a huge problem, as my tolerance for this sort of thing is relatively high, but I think I'd rather have skimmed.

So, very mixed picture here. I think I might actually listen to the second book, though. I didn't consider Brennan to be particularly TSTL in the later books that I read, so clearly Reichs sorted that out at some point...



11/22/63, by Stephen King

>> Thursday, October 25, 2012

TITLE: 11/22/63
AUTHOR: Stephen King

PAGES: 880

SETTING: Present day and 1950s and 60s US
TYPE: Time Travel

Dallas, 11/22/63: Three shots ring out.

President John F. Kennedy is dead.

Life can turn on a dime—or stumble into the extraordinary, as it does for Jake Epping, a high school English teacher in a Maine town. While grading essays by his GED students, Jake reads a gruesome, enthralling piece penned by janitor Harry Dunning: fifty years ago, Harry somehow survived his father’s sledgehammer slaughter of his entire family. Jake is blown away... but an even more bizarre secret comes to light when Jake’s friend Al, owner of the local diner, enlists Jake to take over the mission that has become his obsession—to prevent the Kennedy assassination. How? By stepping through a portal in the diner’s storeroom, and into the era of Ike and Elvis, of big American cars, sock hops, and cigarette smoke... Finding himself in warmhearted Jolie, Texas, Jake begins a new life. But all turns in the road lead to a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald. The course of history is about to be rewritten... and become heart-stoppingly suspenseful.
We've been meaning to read this for months at my book club, but had to wait until the paperback came out. Well, now that it has, we made it our September read.

High school teacher Jake Epping's life is turned upside down when his friend Al tells him his secret. Al has discovered that there's a "rabbit hole" at the back of his diner from which he can travel back and forth to the past. A very specific point in the past, a particular day in 1958.

Al's been doing it for years and is pretty confident he's figured out how it works. You always go back to the same moment in time, and no matter how long you spend in the past, you are gone for only 2 minutes in the present. You can change things in the past, but it's difficult to do, as the past is resistant to change. And no matter what you change in the past, it's all reset if you come back to the present and then go back to the past again.

Al has a plan to change something and then not reset events, though. A BIG something. He has decided that if he could stop the JFK assassination, then all sorts of bad events could be prevented, like the Vietnam war. The problem is, even though for every visit you're gone for only 2 minutes in the present, your body ages normally as time goes by in the past. Al has developed cancer, and it's terminal. He doesn't have enough time left in his body to wait the 5 years till November 1963. But his friend Jake does.

I was a little bit intimidated by the size of this monster. At 880 pages, it looked massive even on my kindle! Books this big can be a little bit slow to get going, but not this one. As soon as I opened it, it started zipping right along. King is a fantastic storyteller, and it shows.

On the whole, I enjoyed this well enough, but didn't love it. The story itself is good, but I thought the characterisation didn't live up to it. The characters felt pretty cliched and two-dimensional (especially the love interest), and I didn't particularly care about them.

Also, fantastic storyteller or not, King needs an editor who can stand up to him. This was very episodic, and I thought the book as a whole suffered for it. First, Jake decides to test how this thing works and spends a couple of months in 1958 Maine, where he intends to prevent a tragic event in an acquaintance's past. That takes a couple of hundred pages, and it's a pretty full story in its own right. Then he moves to Texas, and moves to a small town, where he teaches in the high school and falls in love. Then the whole JFK plot kicks in properly. I think it could potentially work ok as a TV miniseries (and I wouldn't be shocked if I heard this might be happening), but as a full book it felt a bit wrong.

Also, even though it was so fast-paced, the length itself ended up being a bit of a drawback. Things that wouldn't have bothered me in a shorter book happened so many times that they started to become annoying. Like, for instance, the heavy foreshadowing King uses as a device. At first it works really well, but after the 50th time we get a "Little did I know that..." type thing, I wanted to scream. Also, I'm not sure if this makes sense, but, although I wasn't bored by the book, I ended up feeling bored of it. It felt like I'd been reading it for such a long time that I couldn't wait to move on to something different.

So, not a complete success, but I'm not sorry I read it.



Still Life, by Louise Penny

>> Tuesday, October 23, 2012

TITLE: Still Life (audiobook)
AUTHOR: Louise Penny

PAGES: 336
PUBLISHER: St. Martin's

SETTING: Contemporary (well, 1990s) Canada
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: 1st in the Inspector Gamache series

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team of investigators are called in to the scene of a suspicious death in a rural village south of Montreal. Jane Neal, a local fixture in the tiny hamlet of Three Pines, just north of the U.S. border, has been found dead in the woods. The locals are certain it’s a tragic hunting accident and nothing more, but Gamache smells something foul in these remote woods, and is soon certain that Jane Neal died at the hands of someone much more sinister than a careless bowhunter.
Still Life was my third audiobook (and at what point will I stop counting and mentioning it in the review?). I keep getting recs for mystery series and picking up the first book, but then I often don't get to them for ages, if I do at all. I'm hoping audiobooks will change that, since I don't think I'll be listening to romances, as the idea of the love scenes being read out feel a bit weird.

The first in the Inspector Gamache series, the book is set in a small village in Quebec, close to Montreal. A former teacher, loved by everyone in the community, is found killed by an arrow. In most places, this would point to the killer pretty quickly, but this is a part of the world where hunters use arrows as often as they do guns, and pretty much everyone knows what to do with a bow and arrow.

Gamache and his team are called to investigate, even though most in the village assume this was just a tragic accident. But Gamache soon finds too many clues pointing to murder.

Still Life wasn't perfect, but I thought it was a very promising start to the series. The case is an interesting one, with plenty of red herrings and possible avenues of investigation, and I really liked the final sections of it, when something quite unique gives the final clue to the culprit. The best thing about the book, however, is Gamache himself.

Gamache is a great character. He's a thoroughly decent guy, someone who is keenly aware of the way a violent death affects the community amongst which it happens, and more interested in the people affected by it than in the puzzle. He has no arrogance, and is willing to accept information and ideas from anyone, and glad when those in his team (whom he consciously mentors in the best way he can) do well. At the same time, he can be a tough boss when someone is not doing a good job because of attitude, rather than capabilities issues. This happens with the newest member of his team, Yvette Nichol, and I'm very interested to see how that situation develops.

This emphasis on collaboration and teamwork means that, while Gamache is in charge, it feels very much like the murder is solved by a team, rather than an individual. The closest I can think to this is a Swedish mystery I read a few years ago, written even longer ago, by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. It felt very much like that. I wonder if the more collective approach is a more Canadian/European think, as opossed to the the more individualistic approach that's demanded in the US. I tend to always compare mysteries to the In Death series (which I love, by the way). While Eve trusts her team and they make important contributions, it feels like it's important to the series that Eve solves the case. That wasn't the feeling I got from this at all, and I enjoyed the different approach.

All that said, I had several issues with the book, mainly regarding the characterisation of a number of secondary characters, where it felt to me like Penny did not trust her own writing and really overdid it. Take the overload of adjectives regarding Yolande and her husband and son. There is no need to tell us over and over that these people (and everything about them, from their looks to their laughs) are "vile" and "disgusting" and all around awful. How about trusting that we'll draw our own conclusion from what you show us of their actions? And it's a similar case for other characters, especially Agent Nichol, where Penny found it necessary to tell us a bit too much about what was going through her head, rather than show us. That felt pretty amateurish, but I hope it's ironed out as the series advances and Penny becomes more experienced.

As for the narration (done by Ralph Cosham), it was ok. It felt less alive than that of Barbara Rosenblat, mainly because he did less with the dialogue, but well, she is supposed to be one of the best narrators around. Still, I guess I don't mind a more neutral narration, and his French accent was fine. Not sure if it was proper Quebecois, but I wouldn't be able to know the difference!



Bonds of Justice, by Nalini Singh

>> Sunday, October 21, 2012

TITLE: Bonds of Justice
AUTHOR: Nalini Singh

PAGES: 368

SETTING: Near future US
TYPE: Paranormal romance
SERIES: 8th in the Psy-Changelings series

Max Shannon is a good cop, one of the best in New York Enforcement. Born with a natural shield that protects him against Psy mental invasions, he knows he has little chance of advancement within the Psy-dominated power structure. The last case he expects to be assigned is that of a murderer targeting a Psy Councilor’s closest advisors. And the last woman he expects to compel him in the most sensual of ways is a Psy on the verge of a catastrophic mental fracture…

Sophia Russo is a Justice-Psy, cursed with the ability to retrieve memories from men and women so twisted even veteran cops keep their distance. Appointed as Max’s liaison with the Psy, she finds herself fascinated by this human, her frozen heart threatening to thaw with forbidden emotion. But, her mind filled with other people’s nightmares, other people’s evil, she’s standing on the border between sanity and a silken darkness that urges her to take justice into her own hands, to become judge, jury... and executioner...
Books in this series have so far concentrated on the Psy and Changelings (well, it is called the Psy/Changeling series!), but in Bonds of Justice we finally get to see the roles a human can play in this world.

Max Shannon is a cop. The police force is heavily dominated by the Psy, who find it convenient to have humans being part of it. They can do most of the work, and when they happen to turn up something the Psy would rather keep hidden, it's easy enough to manipulate their minds to sort it out. Max, however, has a very strong natural shield which makes him resistant to Psy manipulation. His career prospects are therefore not spectacular.

Max meets Sophia Russo after he apprehends a serial killer, when her skills are required. Sophia is a J-Psy, the J standing for Justice. Basically, she can delve into people's minds, search them, and locate particular memories, which she can then show to other people. That's pretty handy for nice, pleasant things like, for instance, finding out where a close-mouthed serial killer dumped his victims' bodies. Understandably, J-Psy tend to burn out early, their minds degenerating into madness. Sophia is pretty sure she's close, and refuses to undergo the process known as 'Rehabilitation', which will basically turn her sharp mind into mush.

Max and Sophia meet again when a killer starts targetting a Psy Councilor, and their services are required. Before long, the attraction between them becomes irresistible, but is there any point, when Sophia's increasingly unsteady mind is surely leading her to either Rehabilitation or suicide?

I really enjoyed both Max and Sophia. Max really shows how, even in a world where so many people have paranormal powers that seem to put them at a massive advantage, lowly, normal humans can still hold their own. Sophia is great as well. There isn't a tentative bone in her body. She's in a horrible, heartbreaking position, but she's determined to deal with it in her own way, and to make the best of whatever time she's got left. I really enjoyed their interactions.

The problem is that I'm looking at this book, not in isolation, but having read all the previous entries in the series. One of the things I've liked so much in them is that there didn't seem to be an obvious way out of the seemingly impossible situations Singh put her characters in. But after so many of them, and seeing so many Psy characters be able to get out of the PsyNet and maintain their minds' stability, I know it's perfectly possible to do, even if the characters themselves aren't sure. This made the stakes lower than they might have been, and made the book less than a page-turner.

Still, page-turner or not, this was really enjoyable.



Covet, by JR Ward

>> Friday, October 19, 2012

TITLE: Covet

PAGES: 496

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Urban Fantasy / Romance
SERIES: Book 1 in the Fallen Angels series

Redemption isn't a word Jim Heron knows much about-his specialty is revenge, and to him, sin is all relative. But everything changes when he becomes a fallen angel and is charge with saving the souls of seven people from the seven deadly sins. And failure is not an option. Vin DiPietro long ago sold his soul to his business, and he's good with that-until fate intervenes in the form of a tough- talking, Harley-riding, self-professed savior. But then he meets a woman who will make him question his destiny, his sanity, and his heart-and he has to work with a fallen angel to win her over and redeem his own soul.
The Black Dagger Brotherhood series has been a guilty pleasure of mine for years, even if lately it's become more guilty than pleasure. Still, I knew that at some point, I was going to read Ward's new series, vampire-free, but set in the same universe.

The series will apparently be linked by the character of Jim Heron. Jim dies early in the book, and for unexplained reasons, he's chosen to play a crucial role in the fight between Good and Evil (yup, capital G and E, it's that sort of portentous premise). Jim is to become a fallen angel and go back to Earth, with the mission to save seven souls, each of which is in danger of becoming damned through a particular deadly sin. If he succeeds, Good wins, if he doesn't, Evil does.

His first mission is to save Vin di Pietro, a man whose besetting sin is avarice. Vin grew up with nothing, and now his business is purely intended to make as much money as humanly possible. He can never have enough and needs to have nothing but the best surrounding him (which gives Ward the excuse to name-check boatloads of brand names... as if she needed an excuse). One of those "things" is the perfect woman, and he is about to propose to the sophisticated Devina. He's got the ring, and everything, but for some reason, he just can't.

Jim, with somewhat fuzzy logic, decides that what he needs to do to save Vin is to make sure he marries Davina (why, I'm not sure, since right before Jim died, Davina cheated on Vin with him). But then he makes the mistake of taking Vin to one of those hardcore clubs Ward loves to write about so much. Vin meets one of the prostitutes who works there, Marie-Terese, and he can't help but become pretty much obsessed with her.

This is a very... well... JR Ward type of book. I kept wincing and rolling my eyes. Vin and Marie-Therese annoyed me. He's very over-the-top (as is the entire book) and faux-tortured, and she's a total martyr. Seriously, she keeps whining and carrying on about having to be a prostitute even though she hates it, when it's made clear in the book that she can actually get out of it by accepting an offer of help that has absolutely no strings attached. Their romance isn't particularly interesting, when they get together.

But still, I kept turning the pages. Jim was by far the most interesting character, and there is quite a lot of him (as usual with JRW, there is loads of stuff here in addition to the romance). And the whole plot had the sort of cracky feel that I'm used to with this author.

It's the sort of book that you inhale, but that doesn't bear much thinking about. For instance, after finishing the book and escaping its crackiness, the premise didn't seem to me to be well-thought out at all. Like, is she really going to do Sloth? That doesn't sound like a very romance hero-type characteristic! Or, the impression I got is that the soul-saving is a 4 out of 7 deal. So, will Jim fail in some cases? That would mean a book's hero is going to be damned! But if he doesn't, where is the tension going to come from in books 5 to 7? Or are there only going to be 4? Gah, I don't know! There's also another issue, which is that I bet all seven souls that Jim is going to have to save are going to be American. Even though it shouldn't, this annoys me, as it seems to imply that in this world, only Americans matter.

MY GRADE: Eh, well. Even with all that, I still mostly enjoyed this, so I have to go with a B-.


Reading the Man Booker

>> Tuesday, October 16, 2012

In the last couple of years I've read several of the books listed for the Man Booker prize, and absolutely loved them. Last year's Pigeon English, by Stephen Kelman; The Last Hundred Days, by Patrick McGuinness and The Testament of Jessie Lamb, by Jane Rogers, were excellent, and so were Room, by Emma Donoghue and The Slap, by Christos Tsiolkas, from 2010. I did find both years' winners really unexciting, but still, that's a pretty good record.

As an experiment, I decided this year to read all the books on the shortlist before the winner was announced. I quite liked the idea of being able to have an informed opinion about whether the winner was a worthy one, and which book should have won.

I started out with Tan Twan Eng's The Garden of Evening Mists, set in Malaysia in the 1950s and 80s. The only reason I picked that first was that it was the one book my library had readily available. I've posted my review already (here), but in short, I liked, but not loved it. I enjoyed how Tan dealt with all the different elements, but didn't feel the whole was as coherent as it should have been. So, an ok book, but not one I think has a real chance of winning.

I then moved on to Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy, which had had some excellent reviews, with many tipping it to win. I found this story about British families on holiday in a French villa, with stranger arriving and threatening to cause trouble, unbearably boring and pretentious, a huge disappointment. My review is here, but mainly, it was a matter of me not feeling the characters were remotely human. It's a short book, but I disliked it enough that I refused to finish it. I figure reading the first half is a fair shot, and enough for me to decide how I feel about it. As I closed it, I had a horrible feeling that it has a very good chance of winning, though.

The Lighthouse, by Alison Moore, was next, and I thought it was very good. This story features a nondescript, middle-aged man on a walking holiday in Germany, thinking back about his wife, who's recently left him. My review is here. Real characters (hurrah!) and a beautifully done structure. I was left thinking I wouldn't mind at all if The Lighthouse wins.

I then decided to bite the bullet and tackle the two books I was least looking forward to. The first was Narcopolis, by Jeet Thayil, which is set in the opium dens of Bombay in the 1970s. It's the first bit of that description that put me off. Drug addicts bore me rigid, as a subject matter.

I was actually surprised to find this more readable than I expected. There wasn't much of a plot in the first half, which was as far as I read. Rather, it's random scenes from the present and pasts of various, interacting characters. These scenes are written in a languid, distant tone, rather as they were some sort of opium dream, which I guess is the effect the author was going for.

I didn't abandon this in disgust, as I did with the Levy, but in mild disinterest. Some of the characters were good (especially Dimple, a woman who used to be a man and now works in a brothel), but not enough to make me want to continue reading. Definitely not a contender, I think.

The second book I didn't really want to read was Umbrella, by Will Self. The subject matter sounded fascinating. I mean, from all reports, there's a woman who falls ill with something called encephalitis lethargica, a brain disease which leaves her in a kind of sleep, and who's woken from her stupor in the 1970s by the psychiatrist protagonist. I was definitely interested.

The problem is that the narration is a stream of consciousness mess. I congratulate any readers who were able to put in the hard work to actually read this, and I do hope the reward was worth the superhuman effort. Me, I just couldn't do it. I found it literally unreadable, and gave up after a matter of pages. I would have slogged through if this was just an initial section, as I did with Narcopolis, but the whole bloody brick of a book is like this.

I think that, unfortunately, this might actually be a potential winner, if only as a reaction to the ridicule last year's judges suffered for daring to suggest a good book should be readable. Yeah, most people in the literary fiction world are twats.

I was strong and left the book I was most sure I'd like till the end, as a sort of reward. I loved Wolf Hall, and from all the reviews I'd seen, it was clear that Bring Up The Bodies was a continuation of the story, but even better, as Mantel became even more confident in her chosen style.

That was exactly what I found. I loved it to bits. I'm going to write a proper review of it soon, so I won't say more here, just that in my opinion, this is by far the best book in the shortlist, and I hope it wins.

What will count against it is that, although the Man Booker is supposed to be only about the books, judges have often clearly taken into account external things (e.g. last year's prize basically being a career recognition award for Julian Barnes). I fear this year there'll be two issues going through their minds: a) that Hilary Mantel's already had the Man Booker, and for a book that's very similar to Bring Up The Bodies, and b) that they need to make some sort of statement regarding the "readability" brouhaha, and show the Man Booker still supports experimental and/or difficult fiction that's "properly" literary. That leads me to think the winner might be either Swimming Home or Umbrella.

Well, we'll see. I'll definitely be watching tonight, hoping the judges prove me wrong!

ETA: And they did, indeed, prove me wrong! Congratulations to Hilary Mantel on a well-deserved win.


Northern Lights, by Philip Pullman

>> Monday, October 15, 2012

TITLE: Northern Lights (aka The Golden Compass in the US)
AUTHOR: Philip Pullman

PAGES: 416
PUBLISHER: Scholastic

SETTING: 19th century alternate Europe
TYPE: YA Fantasy
SERIES: Starts a trilogy

In a landmark epic of fantasy and storytelling, Philip Pullman invites readers into a world as convincing and thoroughly realized as Narnia, Earthsea, or Redwall. Here lives an orphaned ward named Lyra Belacqua, whose carefree life among the scholars at Oxford's Jordan College is shattered by the arrival of two powerful visitors.

First, her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, appears with evidence of mystery and danger in the far North, including photographs of a mysterious celestial phenomenon called Dust and the dim outline of a city suspended in the Aurora Borealis that he suspects is part of an alternate universe. He leaves Lyra in the care of Mrs. Coulter, an enigmatic scholar and explorer who offers to give Lyra the attention her uncle has long refused her.

In this multilayered narrative, however, nothing is as it seems. Lyra sets out for the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate, Roger, bearing a rare truth-telling instrument, the compass of the title. All around her children are disappearing -victims of so-called "Gobblers"- and being used as subjects in terrible experiments that separate humans from their daemons, creatures that reflect each person's inner being.

And somehow, both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are involved.
I tried to read this in paper a few years ago, but lost interest and gave up after a couple of chapters. It was therefore the perfect candidate for my second-ever audiobook, a nice test to see if audio might help with some hard-to-get-into books. In this case, it did. I quickly got caught up in the story, and the story of Lyra Belacqua's adventures helped pass several hours on the treadmill.

Lyra lives amongst the scholars in Jordan College, in Oxford, in an alternative version of Victorian England, one in which people have companions called daemons (I had to look up the spelling, the one problem with audiobooks!) which take animal forms and are a sort of extension of their souls. It's also a version of the world in which strange creatures abound and experimental theology is an influential field.

The setup of the story is that children all over the country are disappearing, including a friend of Lyra's. When she's taken away from the College to be educated by the mysterious and clearly powerful Mrs. Coulter, Lyra can't help but realising something very wrong is happening to the children, and that Mrs. Coulter is clearly involved.

I really enjoyed Lyra's adventures. She's brave and clever, all the while still being very much a child. The action is non-stop, and Lyra meets really fascinating characters along the way. what I liked best about it, though, is that while I'm sure it works fine as a children's book, it's not just a simple adventure story.

This is a non-melodramatic battle of Good vs. Evil, and there's a very clear moral core here, and Pullman explores some very big questions about the soul and original sin, not to mention parallel universes! It's got many layers, but it's done in such a way that no matter at which layer you stop, the story is still a good and satisfying one.

On the audiobook itself, it was great. As far as I can tell (since I got it from my library and the cover looks different), it's this one, the BBC Radio 4 full-cast dramatisation. The way it works is that Pullman himself narrates all the non-dialogue bits, and the different lines of dialogue are read by actors. Very different to my first, Elizabeth Peters' The Snake, The Crocodile And The Dog, where the amazing Barbara Rosenblat does the voices for all characters, but I thought both worked wonderfully.

Onto The Subtle Knife, as soon as whoever's listening to it checks it back in!



Amorous Liaisons, by Sarah Mayberry

>> Saturday, October 13, 2012

TITLE: Amorous Liaisons
AUTHOR: Sarah Mayberry

PAGES: 224
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Blaze

SETTING: Contemporary Paris
TYPE: Category romance
SERIES: Part of something called Lust in Translation

Max Laurent has always wanted Maddy Green. But he let her go once before rather than stand between her and her dreams. Now she's on his Paris doorstep, needing a place to stay. She's just as hot and he wants her just as much. How can he resist seducing her?

When Maddy's world falls apart, it's only natural that she turns to Max for support. But fall into his bed? Never…until one steamy night, that is. And having had a taste of him, she's hungry for more. Then she has the chance to resume her career, although it means leaving him. Can she throw away the best sex—and the best friend—she's ever had?
Sarah Mayberry is one of my very few category romance autobuys. Her Blazes are my favourites, and she is, in fact, the only Blaze author I'm still reading. After reading the first couple of titles I bought her entire backlist, and I'm doing my best to make them last.

Amorous Liaisons is a particularly good one. Maddy Green's entire life has been consumed by her determination to become a prima ballerina. It's all she's ever cared about, and she's pushed everything else out of her life. She's finally made it, but she doesn't get much time to enjoy it. As the story starts, she is forced to accept that the knee injury she's been battling with is, indeed, bad enough that she won't be able to keep dancing at the top level she's at.

Devastated, Maddy runs to the only person she's ever felt truly close to. She and Max Laurent used to be roommates and best friends when they were starting out as dancers. Max, however, chose to leave Australia and go back to his native France to take care of his father, who'd fallen ill. He stopped dancing, and is now a successful sculptor in Paris. Over the years, his and Maddy's relationship has become pretty distant.

Max is therefore stunned when he finds Maddy waiting for him at his door. He also can't help but still feel some of the love he felt for Maddy all those years ago. Because his leaving Australia wasn't all about his father, it was also about him being madly in love with Maddy and realising she was never going to make room in her life for a romantic relationship.

Max has got a bit of the white knight in him, and he takes Maddy in, and helps her heal. Their closeness is still there, but now, suddenly, Maddy is noticing (and feeling) the romantic tension. But, as Maddy explores new options, will she again close her eyes to anything but her determination to dance?

This was a really yummy, sexy and romantic book. Maddy and Max are fully realised, and their relationship feels real. There's a lot of pain and yearning there, which made reaching their HEA very satisfying.

The relationship felt a bit unbalanced at the beginning, with Maddy in the position of needing comfort and emotional support from Max and not giving anything back. Meanwhile, Max helplessly gives and gives, no matter how much pain it causes him. But that was only the position from which they started. Mayberry obviously realises this is an issue, and it's something they have to work through. Both characters grow, and by the end of the book, their relationship has become a mature, mutually supportive one.

In addition to the relationship, there's a lot about ballet here (and about Max's sculpture, but mostly about the ballet), which I found fascinating. I gather there are a number of issues with some of it (there's a 1-star review in amazon with a detailed critique of this element, by someone who clearly knows a lot about ballet, including Australian ballet), but I don't really know much about the subject, and so was perfectly satisfied by what I got.

Loved it, one of my favourites by Mayberry.



The Lighthouse, by Alison Moore

>> Thursday, October 11, 2012

TITLE: The Lighthouse
AUTHOR: Alison Moore

PAGES: 192
PUBLISHER: Salt Publishing

SETTING: Contemporary Germany
TYPE: Fiction

The Lighthouse begins on a North Sea ferry, on whose blustery outer deck stands Futh, a middle-aged, recently separated man heading to Germany for a restorative walking holiday.Spending his first night in Hellhaus at a small, family-run hotel, he finds the landlady hospitable but is troubled by an encounter with an inexplicably hostile barman.In the morning, Futh puts the episode behind him and sets out on his week-long circular walk along the Rhine.

As he travels, he contemplates his childhood; a complicated friendship with the son of a lonely neighbour; his parents' broken marriage and his own. But the story he keeps coming back to, the person and the event affecting all others, is his mother and her abandonment of him as a boy, which left him with a void to fill, a substitute to find. He recalls his first trip to Germany with his newly single father. He is mindful of something he neglected to do there, an omission which threatens to have devastating repercussions for him this time around.At the end of the week, Futh, sunburnt and blistered, comes to the end of his circular walk, returning to what he sees as the sanctuary of the Hellhaus hotel, unaware of the events which have been unfolding there in his absence.
This continues my mission to read all the 6 books on the Man Booker short-list before the winner is announced. The story starts with a man called Futh, who's on his way to Germany for a walking holiday. He isn't particularly looking forward to it, but he and his wife have only recently separated, and he's adrift and lonely and doesn't know what to do with himself.

His walk is to be a circular one, and he sets out from the Hellhaus hotel. His story, as he walks his route back to it, remembering his marriage and his relationship to his cold father and his mother who abandoned them, is told in every other chapter. The chapters in-between go back to the Hellhaus, and tell the story of Ester, who runs the hotel with her husband. Ester is just as lonely and adrift as Futh, in a marriage with a husband who doesn't care about her, but who, we realise, does care about her infidelities.

I really liked this one. It's quiet and melancholic, but beautifully written. The best thing about it, in my opinion, was the structure. It's basically circles upon circles upon circles. Futh's walk is the obvious one, but the narrative itself continues the theme. Moore keeps circling back to the same incidents, the same memories, each time adding a tiny bit more, changing the meaning of things and increasingly illuminating the characters. She also circles back to the same images and descriptions, even words, and they pop up in different contexts, immediately inviting us to draw intriguing parallels.

As she does so, she combines the increasing sense of something definitely going to go wrong, as Futh circles back to the Hellhaus, with touches of low-key humour, which don't dampen the tension in the least.

The writing is perfect for the story. It's spare and simple, but powerful. Moore draws her characters one stroke at a time, only what's strictly necessary. I get the feeling that's what Deborah Levy was going for in Swimming Home, but whereas that didn't work for me at all, it's just right here. Why? Mainly because the product is actual characters, who feel real.

The ending was interesting. I'm not the world's biggest fan of open, or even open-ish endings, but sometimes an intriguing one, which leaves things a bit up in the air and up to the reader to interpret is what is needed, and this is one of those cases. However, the story is slightly let down by the fact that some of Futh's actions leading to that ending are not quite convincing. It's a shame, but doesn't spoil what is a very good book. With this one, I kind of see the point the judges made about the short-listed books repaying rereading.



Hearts of Darkness, by Kira Brady

>> Tuesday, October 09, 2012

TITLE: Hearts of Darkness
AUTHOR: Kira Brady

PAGES: 352

SETTING: Alternate version of contemporary Seattle, US.
TYPE: Paranormal romance
SERIES: Starts the Deadglass series

Nurse Kayla Friday has dedicated her life to science and reason. But for her, Seattle is a place of eerie loss and fragmented, frightening memories. And now the only clue to her sister's murder reveals a secret battle between two ancient mythologies...and puts Kayla in the sights of lethally sexy werewolf mercenary Hart. He'll do whatever it takes to obtain the key to the Gate of the Land of the Dead and free what's left of his soul. But seducing the determined Kayla is putting them at the mercy of powerful desires neither can control. And as the clock ticks down to hellish catastrophe, the untested bond between Kayla and Hart may lead to the ultimate sacrifice.
Nurse Kayla Friday is in Seattle to identify her sister's body. This is not Seattle as we know it. The Gate to the other side is broken, and dark spirits are moving in the wrong direction. As a result, electricity is failing, and the city is disintegrating. Kayla, like most humans, has no idea what's going on. Within minutes of arriving at the morgue, however, Kayla finds herself in the middle of a war between two mythologies she never knew existed.

I read about half of this, mostly because I liked the idea of the world building. It's like nothing I've ever read, pitching creatures inspired in Ancient Babylonian and norse mythology (the Drekar) against Native American bird shifters (the Kivati), and incorporating the idea of wraiths, dark spirits that can possess humans and feed off them.

The plot is that Kayla's sister got her hands on a very special necklace belonging to the Drekar, and Kayla must find it and give it to the Kivati. She immediately latches on the hero, Hart, as he seems to be the only person willing to help her navigate this weird new world (albeit grudgingly). Problem is, Hart has made some sort of blood oath to return the necklace to the Drekar. Meanwhile, we discover that, in the wrong hands, the necklace could bring about the end of the world.

So, the world and the story had the potential to be great. Unfortunately, they never really gelled for me. The world was actually rather boring, complicated rather than complex. And I'm fine with gradual revelations, but even after reading half the book, I didn't really understand who hated whom and why, and why someone would want to bring on Armaggeddon. Worse, I didn't care.

The romance didn't help. Kayla is boring in this first half, as she's perpetually out of her depth and doing stupid things. She's improbably a virgin, too, of course, the kind whose attraction towards a man every sensible person would be scared shitless of makes her go silly in the most dangerous circumstances. She's the naive nurterer type, who decides to trust someone for no reason, just because he makes her go gooey inside. As for Hart, who's a renegade shifter of a lower status than the birds and working for their enemies, he's a generic tortured hero with absolutely nothing to distinguish him.


MY GRADE: It was a DNF.


Delusion in Death, by JD Robb

>> Sunday, October 07, 2012

TITLE: Delusion in Death

PAGES: 400

SETTING: 2050s New York
TYPE: Police procedural
SERIES: 36th full length novel in the In Death series

'What would cause someone to want so many people, surely many of them strangers, to slaughter each other?'

The scene that greets Lieutenant Eve Dallas and her team one terrible evening in New York is more shocking than any of them have ever witnessed. The usually comfortable downtown bar is strewn with bodies - office workers who have been sliced, bludgeoned or hacked to death with the nearest weapon available. It appears they all turned on each other in a desperate blinding rage.

As Eve and her husband Roarke - who owned the bar among his many properties - investigate the big-business workers of the city, they link the attacks back to the Urban Wars and the chemical warfare used all those years ago. With another slaughter imminent, Eve must turn to unexpected sources in order to stop a killer who is getting revenge by creating mass carnage...
When Eve and her team are called in to investigate an incident at a popular after-work bar, the scene they encounter is horrific. Some 80 people are dead, almost everyone who was in the bar at the time, and they have suffered horrific injuries.

It soon becomes obvious that it wasn't some sort of explosion. It's even worse: these people suddenly started attacking each other with anything at hand, fighting to the death within a matter of minutes. The very few survivors report a sudden headache and then hallucinations, and initial forensic analysis finds traces of a mix of substances designed to incite a murderous frenzy.

What happened is clear, but why? The obvious answer is terrorism, and the links that Eve soon discovers to incidents that happened during the Urban Wars point in that direction. But Eve is not so sure.

This one was a pretty average installment in the series. Average for the series, that is, which means it's above average in general, but while I enjoyed it, I had a few issues with it.

What I liked the most about it was the glimpses into the events of the Urban Wars. I'm always very intrigued about the recent past of the world these characters live in, and like it when it's relevant to the stories. I'm not sure how much sense Robb's world-building makes, but I enjoyed this element.

I also liked well enough the bits dealing with Eve and Roarke's personal issues. Eve is still unsettled by the events that happened in New York to Dallas, and Roarke helps her seek the help she desperately needs, but is reluctant to admit. It wasn't the most original conflict, as it kind of retreads some areas, but it does nicely make the point that it's not a matter of Eve being "cured", but that it will be a constant process, which hopefully will get easier every time.

What I had some big issues with was the main investigation. Now, the case itself was fascinating, and I thought the solution was really well done. The investigation itself, however, felt a bit off. I'm willing to accept Eve's immediate insight that this wasn't typical terrorism, that there was more to it, and that she needed to run this as a normal homicide investigation. Fine. But would she have been allowed to do this, and run it as she did? I don't think so. There doesn't seem to be a particular media frenzy about this, and people are still going about their business. Can you imagine that these days? It felt weird.



Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn

>> Friday, October 05, 2012

TITLE: Geek Love
AUTHOR: Katherine Dunn

PAGES: 355

SETTING: Mid and late 20th century USA
TYPE: Fiction

Geek Love is the story of the Binewskis, a carny family whose mater- and paterfamilias set out–with the help of amphetamine, arsenic, and radioisotopes–to breed their own exhibit of human oddities. There’s Arturo the Aquaboy, who has flippers for limbs and a megalomaniac ambition worthy of Genghis Khan . . . Iphy and Elly, the lissome Siamese twins . . . albino hunchback Oly, and the outwardly normal Chick, whose mysterious gifts make him the family’s most precious–and dangerous–asset.

As the Binewskis take their act across the backwaters of the U.S., inspiring fanatical devotion and murderous revulsion; as its members conduct their own Machiavellian version of sibling rivalry, Geek Love throws its sulfurous light on our notions of the freakish and the normal, the beautiful and the ugly, the holy and the obscene. Family values will never be the same.
The main character and narrator of Geek Love is Olympia Binewski, whose 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.

I read Geek Love for my book club. From the basic description, this isn't a book I would have picked up on my own, but being pushed right out of my comfort zone is exactly why I'm in a book club. Still, I feared (especially after reading the first few pages) that I would struggle to get through it. I didn't, really. It's basically a disfunctional family saga/soap opera, and pretty engrossing. Much as I flew through it, however, I didn't enjoy it.

There are quite a few thought-provoking things here and elements I liked (like the concept behind the cult, and having a character who's got flippers for arms and legs be, not a tragic object of pity, but a powerful figure who ruthlessly takes over control over everyone around him, and everyone in the story considering his physique one of his weapons).

Unfortunately, there were many more things that didn't work for me at all. Chief amongst them was that I found Dunn's emphasis on being constantly shocking a bit juvenile and manipulative. A lot of it didn't serve any purpose in the story, and was clearly put in only to arouse feelings of shock and disgust in the reader. I could picture Dunn cackling in the background "Oh, they're going to be so shocked at this!". That sort of thing just makes me cross.

I also didn't completely get Olympia, especially in the sections set in the present day (the 80s, I guess). I didn't understand some of her actions, and didn't find her to be a particularly interesting character. And that whole section in the present, with Miss Lick, felt like it added nothing to the story. I get that it was supposed to be a counterpoint to the main storyline, but it didn't quite work that way, and felt half-baked. And then there's the way Dunn seems to lose interest in her story at climactic moments, and although she will spend paragraph after paragraph on marginally interesting things, she'll dispense with the entire tragic conclusion in a couple of lines.

So, not a success with me, this one. It was a relief to finish it.



Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

>> Wednesday, October 03, 2012

TITLE: Wolf Hall
AUTHOR: Hilary Mantel

PAGES: 674
PUBLISHER: Fourth Estate

SETTING: 16th century England
TYPE: Historical fiction
SERIES: Start of a trilogy

England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?
Wolf Hall covers very familiar territory: Henry VIII's determination to have a male heir, which leads him to break with the Catholic church in order to end his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. What we get here, and one of the things which makes this such a magnificent book, is these events being told from a wholly original and fascinating point of view.

We see the action through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell enters the scene as the right-hand man of Cardinal Wolsey, a man clearly on his way down, due to his failure to get the king what he wants in the matter of his marriage. Rather than going down with his master, however, Cromwell manages to manoeuver his way into the circles of power, and ends up one of the most powerful men in court.

What I loved about Wolf Hall is that this is really Cromwell's book, the story of his ascent to power. Henry and his wives and all the court intrigue are wonderfully done, but they are the background to the story of a man, a character study, really. Whether the Cromwell that emerges is an accurate portrayal of the man is besides the point. He's an amazing character, period.

Mantel makes Cromwell a man of his time, ruthless as anything, a brilliant manipulator and a man who has an innate grasp of politics. At one point Thomas More says "Lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning, and when you come back that night he'll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks' tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.' Just so.

At the same time, however, Mantel manages to make us empathise with him. In this book, she makes us even sympathise with him, because for all the manoeuvering, he comes across as a bone-deep decent character, from his dealings with the women in his life(which Mantel contrasts with the very vilified More), to the fact that he manages to inveigle his way into his master's role as the King's man without ever betraying his master (and in fact, while working very hard on his behalf). He's enlightened, and he has a sense of humour.

It doesn't feel like a whitewash, however, because the feeling I got was of Mantel setting up her entire trilogy, not just the one book. I got the feeling that she wasn't telling us that this is a wonderful, heroic and perfect man, but that, so far, Cromwell has been able to do his work and give the king what he wants, if not while not doing things that bother him, while not doing things that violate his ethics. Thomas More's execution is the perfect example. Cromwell would rather have not had him executed, but he can rest easy that he did all he could to prevent it, and it was More himself, with his obstinacy, that ensured his end. In the next book, though, with Anne Boleyn's execution, he won't have it so easy. He'll have to make the really hard choices, and it's knowing a bit of the history that's coming that makes Wolf Hall so subtle and multilayered.

This is also one of those books where storytelling, characterisation and perfect writing come together. It's a doorstopper, which is why it took me so long to pick it up, but once I started it, it didn't feel a chore to read. Every time I opened it I sank into it and wallowed in the beautiful prose, beautiful in a spare and perfect way.

MY GRADE: A solid A.


September 2012 reads

>> Monday, October 01, 2012

I didn't read a huge number of books this month (not till the end, anyway), mainly because I spent the first 10 days of the month reading through two mammoth ones: the Stephen King below, plus Wolf Hall, which I mentioned I was reading at the end of last month. The total would have been even lower had I not started listening to audiobooks!

1 - Demon Night, by Meljean Brook: A
original review here

As ever since I started by reread of the Guardians series, I start my roundup with a Meljean Brook. I think this one marks the point where Brook perfected the balance between story and world-building. It would be the one I'd recommend to people who couldn't get into the first two because they found them too dense. I love it.

2 - The Snake, The Crocodile and The Dog, by Elizabeth Peters: A-
original review here

I love this book because of its amnesia plot. Yes, really. I love that the amnesia brings the focus back onto Emerson and Peabody's romance, since it allows a bit of courtship to happen all over again. Also, this was my first audiobook ever, and I loved it. It's read by Barbara Rosenblat, who is a goddess. I was a bit worried at the beginning because the voice she did for Emerson was almost exactly like the impression they do of Prince Charles in The Now Show, but I was soon able to forget that :-)

3 - Northern Lights (aka The Golden Compass), by Philip Pullman: B+
review coming soon

I tried to read this in paper a few years ago and gave up after a couple of chapters. I decided to make it my second ever audiobook, and quickly got caught up in the story. It tells the adventures of Lyra Belacqua, who lives in a fantasy version of Victorian England. What is at first sight 'just' a really exciting children's book has some very serious themes running through it, and I liked that.

4 - The Lighthouse, by Alison Moore: B+
review coming soon

Part of my mission to read all the 6 books on the Man Booker shortlist before the winner is announced. I really liked this one, which features a man embarking on a walk in Germany. It's quiet and melancholic, but beautifully written and with a structure that worked really well.

5 - Delusion in Death, by JD Robb: B
review coming soon

Someone releases a substance in a bar that has makes everyone in it mad with rage. When Eve arrives to investigate, she finds over 80 people who have killed each other in a frenzy. It was not the best entry in the series (mainly because I was unconvinced Eve would have been allowed to handle the investigation as she did), but it did hit the comfort reading spot.

6 - 11/22/63, by Stephen King: B
review coming soon

A man goes back to the past to prevent the Kennedy assassination, but the "rabbit hole" he uses connects with 1958, so that requires living in the past for all those years. Very readable, as you would expect from King, but it really didn't need to be almost 900 pages. At several points, I found myself getting bored of it and having to read something else.

7 - Hearts of Darkness, by Kira Brady: DNF
review coming soon

Kayla's sister has just died in Seattle, and when she goes there to claim the body, she finds herself in the middle of a paranormal world she never knew existed. The paranormal elements are quite original and different here, so much so that I read about half the book even though I wasn't engaged by the story at all.

8 - Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy: DNF
review coming soon

I guess my Man Booker mission is actually to try to read all the shortlist. I gave this one a good go (a full half of it), but I found it pretty much unreadable, mainly because the characters are not recognisably human.

9 - Narcopolis, by Jeet Thayil: DNF
review coming soon

With Umbrella (below), probably the books on the Man Booker shortlist that tempted me the least. It's set in the drug world in Bombay in the 1970s. Not really a story, just vignettes and scenes from different characters' lives. More readable than I feared, but really not my thing. Again, I read about half of it, so I really tried.

10 - Umbrella, by Will Self: DNF
review coming soon

The reason this one did not sound like my kind of thing wasn't the subject matter (which sounded fascinating), but the fact that the narration is stream of consciousness. Yep, I tried it and it really wasn't my cup of tea at all. In this case, I couldn't get past the first 10 pages. I found it that unreadable.

11 - Still Life, by Louise Penny: still listening
review coming soon

I haven't got very far into it yet, but it seems ok so far. The narrator isn't particularly great, but I think I'll get used to him.

12 - Bring Up The Bodies, by Hilary Mantel: still reading

Out of the 6 books in the Man Booker shortlist, I saved this one for last. I adored Wolf Hall (my gushing review is due to post in a couple of days), and this being the continuation of the story, I expected I'd like it. So far, so wonderful.


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