The Lost Book of the Grail, by Charlie Lovett

>> Tuesday, September 19, 2017

TITLE: The Lost Book of the Grail
AUTHOR: Charlie Lovett

COPYRIGHT: 2017
PAGES: 336
PUBLISHER: Viking

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Bookman's Tale comes a new novel about an obsessive bibliophile's quest through time to discover a missing manuscript, the unknown history of an English Cathedral, and the secret of the Holy Grail.

Arthur Prescott is happiest when surrounded by the ancient books and manuscripts of the Barchester Cathedral library. Increasingly, he feels like a fish out of water among the concrete buildings of the University of Barchester, where he works as an English professor. His one respite is his time spent nestled in the library, nurturing his secret obsession with the Holy Grail and researching his perennially unfinished guidebook to the medieval cathedral.

But when a beautiful young American named Bethany Davis arrives in Barchester charged with the task of digitizing the library's manuscripts, Arthur's tranquility is broken. Appalled by the threat modern technology poses to the library he loves, he sets out to thwart Bethany, only to find in her a kindred spirit with a similar love for knowledge and books and a fellow Grail fanatic.

Bethany soon joins Arthur in a quest to find the lost Book of Ewolda, the ancient manuscript telling the story of the cathedral's founder. And when the future of the cathedral itself is threatened, Arthur and Bethany's search takes on grave importance, leading the pair to discover secrets about the cathedral, about the Grail, and about themselves.
This book is The Da Vinci Code's shy, bookish cousin, the one who doesn't get out much.

Arthur Prescott is right where he wants to be. He's forever loved the city of Barchester, with its quaint centre and its beautiful cathedral. Arthur's grandfather, a retired clergyman, lived there, and Arthur would spend his childhood summers with him and feel he was home. So when a job as an English professor became available in the University of Barchester, Arthur didn't hesitate to take it, even though he despises its glass and concret campus in the outskirts of town. After all, he doesn't have to live there. Arthur has a little house in what used to be a medieval close, and spends all his free time in the cathedral, mostly immersed in the Cathedral Library, surrounded by all those lovely manuscripts and old books.

Being in Barchester Cathedral allows Arthur to work on his secret lifelong project, the search for the Holy Grail. See, his grandfather confided in him his belief that the Grail came to Barchester at one point, and there are several suggestive clues in paintings and old books.

And then a threat arrives. American Bethany Davis shows up to digitise all the manuscripts in the Cathedral Library. The nasty tech element would be bad enough (Arthur is very much in the "only physical books are real books" camp), but Bethany's work is being funded by a millionaire known for his determination to find Biblical objects, including the Holy Grail. Clearly Bethany must be kept at a distance.

The thing is, Arthur ends up discovering in Bethany someone who loves books just as much as he does, and soon they're working together to find, not just the grail, but the lost book of Ewolda, Barchester Cathedral's founder.

The Lost Book of the Grail was really good fun. It's low-key fun, without over-the-top thrills or glamour. There are puzzles to solve and clues to follow, but no evil villains or huge, unbelievable conspiracies. And we also have one of my favourite devices, the group of friends working together to solve a mystery. In addition to Arthur and Bethany, we've got Oscar and David, who have been meeting weekly as part of as book-lovers group. Initially looked like they'd be the sort of blokes who went all "euww, girls", but they accept Bethany as a fellow bibliophile really easily, and it was lovely to see them all become friends.

I also liked the nuanced treatment of a couple of topics. First, the issue of "real books" vs electronic. I thought I'd get really annoyed at Arthur's attitude, but he's made to realise and admit quite quickly that yes, although there's something unique about books as objects, there's all sorts of value in the digital. Second, the issue of faith. Arthur is a non-believer who attends services just because he loves the music and ritual so much. Throughout the book, he thinks about faith quite a bit, and this might be a minor spoiler, but he comes to believe by the end of the story. As someone who wavers between atheism and agnosticism and who also loves old churches and church music, I very much identified with early Arthur. So it's probably worth mentioning that I liked how his coming to faith was handled. It's not preachy, and dealt with as something that is very personal, not to mention that not having faith is not treated as a moral failing. I do disagree with Bethany's "you can choose to believe" stance, but didn't have a problem with any of it.

On the more negative side, Bethany is not as well-developed as I would have liked. She never really completely gelled, and her characterisation seemed to be almost as an accessory to Arthur... someone to challenge his narrow-mindedness about digital aspects of books, someone to move the plot along and help him make discoveries, someone for him to fall in love with.

This was not a huge problem for me, though, and on the whole, I enjoyed this. I'll be looking at Lovett's backlist next.

MY GRADE: A B.

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Sector General, by James White

>> Sunday, September 17, 2017

TITLE: Sector General
AUTHOR: James White

COPYRIGHT: 1983
PAGES: 196
PUBLISHER: Del Rey

SETTING: Space!
TYPE: Sci-fi
SERIES: Part of Sector General series

The incredible floating intergalactic hospital, where exotic beings receive treatment from equally exotic doctors and nurses. Each new species brings new problems, but no case is too big, too small, too hopeless - or too weird - for Sector General.

Accident: A spaceship crashes and two war heroes must decide how many - and which - victims can be saved...

Survivor: A doctor contracts a fatal illness and his only hope lies in a colleague's courage...

Investigation: The victims have all lost their limbs and the medics think they have the answer - but they are wrong...

Combined Operation: To reassemble a living jigsaw puzzle, Dr Conway needs an alien's cooperation - but first he must learn to communicate with it...

Four fabulous stories from Sector General Hospital - including the story of the birth of the great hospital itself.
Random read, a collection of short stories halfway through a series I knew nothing about. Probably not a great idea. There were 4 stories in this omnibus, and I read only the first 2.

The first one, Accident, is a kind of origin story. I gather the series is set in an intergalactic hospital for all species, and this story shows how the concept of it came to be. It stars two people who are war heroes, each from a different side. They were brought forward into the future (not sure if cryogenically frozen, or what), into a peaceful time, and so they are the only two people alive in their time who have known war. And in spite of the existing peace, they are worried. Relationships between species are now characterised by extreme, careful politeness. Every species is terrified of doing something that will offend other species. As a result, there is a great deal of distance between them. People from different species don't get to really know each other. And the men's fear is that, at some point, this will lead to war.

And then the men are involved in an accident in a spaceport. A vehicle crashes into one of the buildings, and it's all hands to the pump trying to rescue people and keep them alive. And the idea of the right forum for species getting to know one another is sparked.

I liked the concept of this, and had fun with the weird and wonderful alien species on show, but it felt kind of slight. Some parts of it also felt a bit confusingly written. Mostly, it was fine.

The second story, Survivor, is set once the intergalactic hospital is already in operation. An ambulance on a rescue mission finds a single survivor from a ship that had a really bad accident. It's an alien of a kind they've never seen before, and an extremely weird one (and that's saying quite a lot, given some of the characters here). On the way back, one of the medics, an empath, starts not feeling well, and her condition deteriorates worryingly quickly.

This one wasn't particularly good. It's a mystery, trying to figure out what happened to the sick medic. I like that concept, but felt the answer was a little bit too obvious. For me, the story really suffered because there were a lot of elements there that I felt I was supposed to understand how they worked, but I had no idea. I spent a lot of time feeling confused. I didn't dislike the story, but it didn't feel satisfying.

After those two, it didn't really seem worth it to read the other two. I felt I got a good sense of what this series is like, and it's not really my thing.

MY GRADE: This was a DNF.

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Genealogy and translation

>> Friday, September 15, 2017

TITLE: Blood Atonement
AUTHOR: Dan Waddell

When I read the first one in this series, which I loved, I sort of thought of it as a series following genealogist Nigel Barnes. The two detectives, Heather Jenkins and Grant Foster, were important characters, but I felt the main focus was Nigel. Well, in this one, it's clear they are protagonists as well!

The case in this one revolves around the murder of a woman and the disappearance of her 14-year-old daughter. A combination of forensic evidence and Nigel's genealogical investigations lead to events in the US many years earlier, and Nigel and Heather head across the pond to investigate.

I liked this one almost as much as book 1. The characters (both our detectives and Nigel) are interesting, the mystery is intriguing, and the genealogy aspect is really cool. At one point we visit the Mormon archives in Salt Lake City, and that is a fantastic moment for anyone with even a passing interest in genealogy.

It's too bad there are no further books in this series available. Blood Atonement was published in 2009, and the next one is nowhere to be seen. The annoying bit is that it looks like it does exist... Waddell's blog has a post explaining that it's been published in French, and that the English version will likely be self-published soon. Unfortunately, this post is over 3 years old, and One Soul Less is still not out :(

MY GRADE: A strong B+.

TITLE: Is That A Fish In Your Ear? The Amazing Adventure of Translation
AUTHOR: David Bellos

Translation has always been a topic that fascinates me, but it's not one I've ever looked at in any orderly way, or read much about. All my experience has been in actually doing it, so part of the joy of reading this collection of essays on different aspects of translating was in putting into words concepts I recognised intuitively. Another part of the joy, however, was in discovering things I'd never noticed.

The book itself wasn't quite what I was expecting. I think I'd assumed it would be more of a "pop science" sort of thing (probably because of the title), but this was quite technical and philosophical. It wasn't the breezy, funny read I was expecting; in fact, at times it was hard going. We get into topics like the meaning of "meaning", the different schools of translation and just what translation actually is. It's still an accessible book (in the sense that you don't need a background in linguistics to understand it), but you do need to put in a bit of effort and attention.

The required effort and attention are well-rewarded, though. This is one I'd recommend.

MY GRADE: A B.

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Airs Above the Ground, by Mary Stewart

>> Wednesday, September 13, 2017

TITLE: Airs Above the Ground
AUTHOR: Mary Stewart

COPYRIGHT: 1965
PAGES: 384
PUBLISHER: Harper Voyager

SETTING: 1960s England and Austria
TYPE: Romantic Suspense
SERIES: None

Lovely Vanessa March, two years married and very much in love, did not think it was a strange for her husband to take a business trip to Stockholm. What was strange was the silence that followed. She never thought to look for her missing husband in Vienna -- until she saw him in a newsreel shot there at the scene of a deadly fire. Then she caught a glimpse of him in a newsreel shot of a crowd near a mysterious circus fire and knew it was more than strange. It was downright sinister.

Vanessa is propelled to Vienna by the shocking discovery. In her charge is young Timothy Lacy, who also has urgent problems to solve. But her hunt for answers only leads to more sinister questions in a mysterious world of white stallions of Vienna. But what promises to be no more than a delicate personal mission turns out to involve the security forces of three countries, two dead men, a circus and its colourful personnel. And what waits for Vanessa in the shadows is more terrifying than anything she has ever encountered.
After feeling a bit lukewarm about Mary Stewart when I read her 10-15 years ago, reading This Rough Magic made me realise I'm a different person now, one for whom Mary Stewart's "thing" is right up her street. I'm going to start out by reading the ones I hadn't got to 10 years ago and then move on to rereads. Airs Above the Ground was top of the first list. Dancing horses, Austria and the circus? Yes, please!

Vanessa March is a young, relatively recently married woman. She and her husband are at that stage in their relationship where they are still working out how their marriage will function. Things are basically good, but there are annoyances -as the book starts, Lewis has cancelled a long-planned holiday to take a business trip to Stockholm, even though he and Vanessa had agreed that he was moving to a job requiring a lot less travel. Still, it's nothing serious. Or so Vanessa thinks.

At the cinema one day, while watching the newsreel they play right before the film (I loved that detail!), she catches sight of a man who looks just like Lewis, hovering round the scene of a deadly fire in a circus. Problem is, the fire happened in Vienna, not Stockholm. Vanessa becomes convinced this actually was Lewis, and when an opportunity arises to travel to Vienna, escorting the son of a friend who's going to his father, she grabs it.

I'm not going to say exactly where we go from there, because it's just too much fun finding out, but it won't surprise any Mary Stewart readers that, through a mix of sensible detective work and the odd coincidence, Vanessa ends up finding the right circus, and involved in much adventure and danger.

When I started this, I was a bit iffy when I saw we had a heroine already married to the romantic interest. The only other Stewart I remember like that is was Wildfire at Midnight, and I absolutely detested the romance there. I wanted to murder the cheating scumbag ex-husband. Airs Above the Ground is nothing like that. Lewis does have a bit of an arrogant streak, but he is refreshingly respectful of Vanessa and appreciative of her competence. He was also much nicer, and definitely not a cheat! So, you can be assured, the romance is a nice one!

Everything else is just as lovely. I really enjoyed the characters. Vanessa is the usual Mary Steward trademark plucky, resourceful heroine, which is always a plus. She's a vet, and extremely capable. Her expertise in that area is actually crucial in some of the plot developments, which was great. I did find it a bit disappointing that she did not practice her profession, but well, this is set in the early 60s, so that sort of thing wouldn't have been uncommon. And although we're not told anything at the end, I decided that after her adventures she would decide to do work in her area.

I also really liked Timothy, the young man Vanessa is escorting. Mary Stewart's children characters are always great fun, and though Tim is older than most of those characters (he's an older teenager), he fits that bill well. Tim has got his own agenda, and provides some really valuable help, and not just in helping Vanessa seem particularly harmless!

The setting is as wonderful as ever. Both the world of the circus and the Lippizzaners, I could see and smell and hear in my mind (although, unlike the original readers of this book in the 60s, I did have the advantage of YouTube to see just what Lippizzaner horses doing "airs above the ground" looks like -and wow!).

It's also quite a nice suspense plot. Well, the actual crime going on was a bit prosaic and not really interesting to me, but the adventure it sparked off was great.

This is Mary Stewart in good form, and one I'm sure I'll return to!

MY GRADE: A strong B+.

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Rush Me, by Allison Parr

>> Monday, September 11, 2017

TITLE: Rush Me
AUTHOR: Allison Parr

COPYRIGHT: 2013
PAGES: 246
PUBLISHER: Carina

SETTING: Contemporary New York
TYPE: New Adult romance
SERIES: Starts New York Leopards series

When post-grad Rachael Hamilton accidentally gate-crashes a pro-athlete party, she ends up face-to-face with Ryan Carter, the NFL's most beloved quarterback.

While most girls would be thrilled to meet the attractive young millionaire, Rachael would rather spend time with books than at sporting events, and she has more important things to worry about than romance. Like her parents pressuring her to leave her unpaid publishing internship for law school.

But when Ryan's rookie teammate attaches himself to Rachael, she ends up cohosting Friday-night dinners for half a dozen football players.

Over pancake brunches, charity galas and Alexander the Great, Rachael realizes all the judgments she'd made about Ryan are wrong. But how can a Midwestern Irish-Catholic jock with commitment problems and an artsy, gun-shy Jewish New Englander ever forge a partnership? Rachael must let down her barriers if she wants real love—even if that opens her up to pain that could send her back into her emotional shell forever.
Rachael Hamilton is a postgraduate student living in New York. One evening, while out with her roommate, she gets lost and walks into the wrong party. That party turns out to be hosted by Ryan Carter, an NFL player, and full of his fellow players and their entourages and groupies. Rachel is the intellectual, arty type, even a little bit snobbish. This is definitely not her scene, so she tries to extricate herself asap. But it's not easy, as one of Ryan's teammates, Abe, gloms onto her and is determined they should be friends (he's Jewish, like her, and no one in his peer group shares that background).

So as she helps him host Shabbat dinners and ends up slowly being sucked into the group's social life, Rachel is forced to see more of Ryan than she wants. And in spite of a really, really bad first impression, she starts to like him.

What I like in general about books in the New Adult genre is seeing young people starting to build a life in today's world. It's a different world to what it was like 15 years or so ago, when I was doing the same thing, and I love seeing this explored. I've really enjoyed the few NA books I've found that did that well. Unfortunately, this is not where the subgenre has gone, mostly. Instead of focusing on regular people who happen to be young, NA seems obsessed with celebrities. It's all 'regular girl falls in love with the rock star, the famous actor, the quarterback'. I find that tiresome.

Still, everything, even the most unpromising storyline, can be done well, so the fact that Ryan's a millionaire athlete is not necessarily a problem. It raises really interesting issues in terms of dealing with certain inequalities in a relationship. And to be fair, this was an element of the story. Rachael does find it hard to strike a balance between not wanting to sponge off Ryan and distancing herself from him (e.g. she never attends his away games because she can't afford to and feels uncomfortable asking him to pay, and Ryan feels this as Rachael stepping away from a real relationship). I just wish they had had a proper conversation about it, though, because I didn't feel these issues were resolved in a satisfying way There's a big fight which kind of skirts around these issues, but while Rachael, as the narrator, is very articulate about her feelings to us readers, she can't seem to communicate them to Ryan, and instead strikes out at him and is very hurtful (he's hurtful right back; it's an ugly fight).

The problem is, when they reconcile, they don't even touch on these issues. It's all 'I love you' and that's it. No acknowledgment that there are areas they still need to do something to resolve, which was worrying.

The other issue I had was the lack of chemistry. There's banter and there's hostility, and their relationship sometimes felt closer to the latter. It's mostly Rachael who's pretty bitchy, although Ryan can give as good as he gets (in his case, though, it's mostly defensive!). I did get a kick out of Rachael being so rude at times (as a general rule I'd much rather a bitchy heroine than a sweet, demure one), but she went over into properly mean and cruel in certain situations, and that wasn't ok. I couldn't really get what the attraction was, on either side. On Ryan's side, I could understand, I suppose, that here's one woman who doesn't fall all over herself to get to him, and that might have been a novelty, but that would only have gone so far. And if Rachael was honest about who she was and what she cared about, being with a celebrity football player would be the last thing she wanted to do. I didn't really feel they had made a connection below the surface and the physical attraction, I guess.

MY GRADE: It was a C+ for me. It had its moments, but didn't really work.

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The Reluctant Queen, by Sarah Beth Durst

>> Saturday, September 09, 2017

TITLE: The Reluctant Queen
AUTHOR: Sarah Beth Durst

COPYRIGHT: 2017
PAGES: 368
PUBLISHER: Harper Voyager

SETTING: Fantasy
TYPE: Fantasy
SERIES: 2nd in the Queens of Renthia series

Filled with political intrigue, violent magic, and malevolent spirits, the mesmerizing second book in Sarah Beth Durst’s Queens of Renthia epic fantasy trilogy.

Everything has a spirit: the willow tree with leaves that kiss the pond, the stream that feeds the river, the wind that exhales fresh snow . . .

And those spirits want to kill you.

It’s the first lesson that every Renthian learns.

Not long ago, Daleina used her strength and skill to survive those spirits and assume the royal throne. Since then, the new queen has kept the peace and protected the humans of her land. But now for all her power, she is hiding a terrible secret: she is dying. And if she leaves the world before a new heir is ready, the spirits that inhabit her beloved realm will run wild, destroying her cities and slaughtering her people.

Naelin is one such person, and she couldn’t be further removed from the Queen—and she wouldn’t have it any other way. Her world is her two children, her husband, and the remote village tucked deep in the forest that is her home, and that’s all she needs. But when Ven, the Queens champion, passes through the village, Naelin’s ambitious husband proudly tells him of his wife’s ability to control spirits—magic that Naelin fervently denies. She knows that if the truth of her abilities is known, it will bring only death and separation from those she loves.

But Ven has a single task: to find the best possible candidate to protect the people of Aratay. He did it once when he discovered Daleina, and he’s certain he’s done it again. Yet for all his appeals to duty, Naelin is a mother, and she knows her duty is to her children first and foremost. Only as the Queen’s power begins to wane and the spirits become emboldened—even as ominous rumors trickle down from the north—does she realize that the best way to keep her son and daughter safe is to risk everything.

Sarah Beth Durst established a place of dark wonder in The Queen of Blood, and now the stakes are even higher as the threat to the Queen and her people grows both from within and beyond the borders of Aratay in this riveting second novel of the Queens of Renthia series.
Spoilers for book 1 in this review! I suggest you don't start here, go back to The Queen of Blood. It's worth it.

The Reluctant Queen starts as Deleina, still new in her role as Queen, discovers she's gravely ill. She's got something called the False Death, and seemingly a quite advanced case. It's an illness without a cure, which is bad enough, but the situation is particularly dangerous to the whole Kingdom of Aratay for two main reasons. One, the nature of the False Death means that when a fit is triggered Daleina falls into a sort of short-lived coma so intense that she appears to be dead, even to the spirits. And when the Queen is death, the spirits consider themselves released from her orders not to kill humans and go on a rampage until an Heir orders them to stop, or, in this case, until the Queen revives. Two, this is happening so soon after the Coronation Massacre that killed every heir but Daleina, that there hasn't been time to even find suitable Candidates, let alone Heirs.

Being the level-headed and responsible person that she is, and someone who always puts her Kingdom first, Daleina's first reaction is to tell her Champions and task them to do their best to find her a suitable Heir. It's going to be a challenge. They've got just a few months. So many of the best died in the Coronation Massacre, and after seeing what happened, there's been a bit of an exodus from the Academies, so most of the students there are basically children.

Champion Ven, accompanied by Captain Alet, of the Queen's Guard, soon realises there's no point in following the usual ways and trying to find his Candidate in one of the Academies. He decides the way to go is to find someone with power that somehow "missed out on her chance", as he puts it. Someone who, for whatever reason, didn't go the Academy route.

He finds just such a person in Naelin. A fully grown woman, married and with two young children, Naelin has a huge amount of raw, natural power. The thing is, she "missed out" on her chance to be a Candidate quite intentionally. Naelin has no interest in putting her life and that of her family in danger by mucking about with spirits. She knows how that turns out -with death and tragedy. She wants nothing better than a simple life where she can protect her children. So when her useless and ambitious husband betrays her by making her power clear to the visiting Champion, she's not at all interested in meekly going with them.

This second book is maybe not quite as fantastic as the first one, but that might be simply because that one surprised me so much with the freshness of its worldbuilding and the subversiveness of Durst's plotting and characterisation. Much of that is still the case here, the subversiveness most of all.

I just adore the way Durst refuses to do the expected, and that can be seen really clearly in how Naelin deals with her husband. He is truly bad as a husband. He's not mean or evil, but he's not at all interested in who Naelin really is and what she wants. When that becomes clear and Naelin realises she has given him one too many chances, she cuts him out of her life. She will not make him into a villain, since she knows he's not one, but he's just not the man for her. I still expected much angst about how the children need a father, and how horrible to destroy the family. I didn't get that. Naelin knows she's important as well. When she wavers, it's only for a minute, till she remembers the very good reasons why she left him in the first place.

I also liked that the book turned into a sort of mystery at one point, one related to Daleina's illness. It was all quite intriguing, and I really liked the way Durst found out of the seemingly impossible situation she'd created for her characters. It all clicked really well and made sense. There's a lot of darkness along the way (the spirits are still not light and fluffy), but as with the first book, things don't feel oppressive.

There was a particular storyline that I started out hating. It did improve, but it was still probably the weakest element in the book. Hamon, ready to try anything if it increases the chances of finding a cure for Daleina, grits his teeth and gets in touch with his mother. See, his mother is an incredibly amoral and just as incredibly talented herbalist. She can create potions to do pretty much anything, and she does. Hamon ran away from her after she used his developing talents in her crimes, and he's taken pains to avoid her finding out where he is, but needs must. So the woman arrives at the castle and is set to work, in a tower room with several guards at the door, to analyse Daleina's blood. I found myself really disliking this. First of all, Hamon's mother is portrayed as a bit too all-powerful. There's nothing she can't do, including pretty much mind control. I hate having characters like that in my books. Secondly, Hamon's precautions are a bit lackadaisical. He warns the guards about her, but he does it in a way that seems calculated not to have the right effect. Just "do not touch her, do not take anything she tries to give you", but no explanation as to why. It's as if he's trying to make them not take him seriously. Would it have been so difficult to explain that it's because she can create and has previously been known to use potions that can do this and that, and that she can administer them in very creative ways? As a result of Hamon's poor communication, Daleina's sister pretty much immediately falls under his mother's spell, her mind manipulated by potions. Sigh. Fortunately, this does get resolved before I feared, but it goes on for half the book.

Still, that is a relatively minor flaw. It's a very satisfying book, and I really enjoyed the last little bit, right after all had been resolved. It's a very clear instance of sequel-baiting, but it was so intriguing that I didn't mind.

MY GRADE: A B+.

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Kulti, by Mariana Zapata

>> Thursday, September 07, 2017

TITLE: Kulti
AUTHOR: Mariana Zapata

COPYRIGHT: 2015
PAGES: 570
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: None

“Trust me, I’ve wanted to punch you in the face a time or five.”

When the man you worshipped as a kid becomes your coach, it’s supposed to be the greatest thing in the world. Keywords: supposed to.

It didn’t take a week for twenty-seven-year-old Sal Casillas to wonder what she’d seen in the international soccer icon—why she’d ever had his posters on her wall, or ever envisioned marrying him and having super-playing soccer babies.

Sal had long ago gotten over the worst non-break-up in the history of imaginary relationships with a man that hadn’t known she’d existed. So she isn’t prepared for this version of Reiner Kulti who shows up to her team’s season: a quiet, reclusive, shadow of the explosive, passionate man he’d once been.

Nothing could have prepared her for the man she got to know.

Or the murderous urges he brought out in her.

“Sal, please don’t make me visit you in jail. Orange isn’t your color.”

This was going to be the longest season of her life.
I should have known better. I did supect from what the reviews (even those from people who loved the book) said about the writing style that this wouldn't be for me. But I was seduced by the football plot and by other comments people made: about the heroine, about the set-up. And there were no surprises. I liked what I expected to like, but the writing was too big a problem for me to be able to even finish the book.

Sal Casillas is a soccer player (I had to get over my instincts to use the word 'soccer' rather than 'football' here, but this does take place in the US, so that's the right term for what Sal does). She plays as professionally as the vast majority of women players do, which means she juggles a day job around the very professional training and playing schedules. I liked that the struggle of doing this this is not what the story is about. This is a fact of life, and Sal deals with it. She likes her day job (running a landscaping business with a friend), it's not a big deal.

As the book starts, Sal receives the news that her team has hired Rainer Kulti as a coach. Kulti is a recently retired football superstar. I'm not sure who to compare him to -maybe Zlatan, but better looking? Possibly David Beckham, only a properly good player? (Sorry, Liverpool fan here). Sal has a bit of a complicated history with him, only one he's not really aware of. She idolised him when she was a girl, but that flew out of the window when her brother (also a pro football player) got a career-damaging injury at Kulti's hands (or rather, feet).

Still, Sal can't help but be super excited about working with Kulti. That is, until he actually arrives. He is, undeniably, a bit of a dick. He doesn't engage with people, he's abrupt and rude, and he doesn't coach, just criticise. But then circumstances bring them together, and a friendship begins to develop.

I tried, and tried, and tried with this book. I just couldn't. There was so much to like here (like Sal herself, and the plot), and in the hands of a more polished writer, or someone with a more forceful editor, I might have loved it. The way Zapata actually wrote it, sorry, but no.

For starters, it's slow. I don't mind a low-key, leisurely pace, but this was ridiculous. Whole paragraphs of extraneous, pointless detail. Description of events and conversations that added nothing to characterisation or plot. And way, way too much time spent inside Sal's head. Which brings me to...

The writing style really, really wasn't for me. It's from the EL James school of writing. No, no, it's not as horrendously awful as 50 Shades, but it reminded me of it in that it's very heavy on the snarky stream of consciousness interior monologue and the heroine talking to herself. There's tons of that in between pretty much every line of dialogue, to the point that you forget what was the last thing said by the time you get to the next one. It didn't help that Sal's mind, as portrayed on the page, is really chaotic. I liked her fine, but being in her mind was exhausting, and I hated being there. I was reduced to almost screaming at the book "Stop saying 'poop'!!!" (that was her very mature way of trying to prevent freaking out when confronted with Kulti: saying 'poop' in her mind a lot. Not as part of sentences, just 'poop').

Beyond that, Kulti never came alive as a character for me. That might have been because any development of his character happens after I stopped reading (at about the 40% mark), but in the parts I read, he's just mysterious and dickish. I also didn't really buy him as a professional footballer. His career didn't quite make sense (it doesn't help that in this world the biggest competition seems to be something called the Altus Cup, played by club teams, not national teams, and happening every 3 years. It was hard to relate it to anything real), and his post-career choices were pretty much inconceivable for a man supposed to have been such a superstar.

I did love Sal and her no-nonsense, take-no-shit attitude towards Kulti (when she was not freaking out in her mind). I was also interested in what was going on in her career, why she'd been elbowed out of the national team and how that was going to be resolved. That made me keep going for longer than I should. Ultimately, though, it wasn't worth it.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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The Steerswoman series (books 1-4), by Rosemary Kirstein

>> Tuesday, September 05, 2017

I picked up the first in the Steerswoman series after reading a review in Eyrie.org (this is a site I don't see mentioned much at all, probably since it's pretty low-key, but I've been following it for many years it's led me to quite a lot of wonderful books, mostly in the fantasy/sci-fi and non-fiction genres). I had never heard of Rosemary Kirstein and never heard of this series before reading the review. Having finished all 4 available books now, I can tell you they should be much better known!

The books were written over quite a long period. The first two came out in 1989 and 1992, while the last were published in 2003 and 2004. And I really should note here that the series is not yet complete (I didn't know that when I started, as I only read the review of book 1). We do have a fair bit of resolution and closure by the end of book 4, so it still feels satisfying, but if you don't want to get into a series that might never been completed (I think Kirstein is supposed to be working on another book, but it's been 13 years...), this might not be for you.

Onto the books themselves, then! They are set in a world that feels vaguely medieval. Rowan, our main protagonist, is a Steerswoman. Steerswomen are part of an order devoted to seeking out, sharing and preserving knowledge. Some of their number work in archives, doing mostly the preserving part, but Rowan is one of the many who spend their time travelling. She talks to people and finds out stuff, basically, which she then makes sure is written down and gets to the archives. If she finds anything interesting or remarkable, her job is to investigate it and understand it, using her extensive training about how to think and reason.

Steerswomen have some fascinating rules about how they operate. They must answer truthfully any questions they are asked. In exchange, anyone they interact with must, in turn, answer Steerswomen's questions just as truthfully. If anyone refuses to answer a question, or the Steerswoman realises they have lied, then that person is placed under the Steerswomen's ban. No Steerswoman will answer any of their questions. This is a world where the Steerswomen's knowledge is considered extremely valuable (they are welcomed pretty much everywhere and will often not have to pay for anything), so the ban is something most people want to avoid.

The exception are the wizards. The wizards are the only ones in this world who have magic, and they hold themselves apart. They are extremely powerful, and operate sort of as a kind of nobility, the ones who control territory and have carved up the entire country amongst themselves. The wizards refuse to answer any questions from Steerswomen, and no one knows what they're about. They're, as a class, all under the ban.

So, that's the setup. As the first book starts, Rowan is puzzling over some strange flat blue jewels she's found over the years. They're like nothing she's seen elsewhere, and she's very intrigued by the pattern of where they've been found. It seems almost as if they've been flung with great force and from a strange point of origin. As she begins to investigate in earnest, it becomes clear wizards are trying to kill her. And it's just as clear this has got something to do with the jewels, which only makes Rowan more determined to find out what they are.

Right at the start of the book, Rowan meets an Outskirter named Bel. Bel owns a belt with some of the blue jewels encrusted in it, and it's her information about where those were found that leads to Rowan deciding to investigate properly -and consequently, puts the wizards after her. Bel is intrigued by the whole thing, and suggests she join Rowan on her travels for a while. The Outskirters are a nomadic people who live in, well, the outskirts of the 'civilised' world. They are known for being fierce warriors, and those of the Inner Lands who leave close to the edge fear them, as they are prone to raiding. Someone like Bel is useful to have around when people are trying to kill you, plus, Rowan recognises and likes the curiosity and intelligence in Bel.

Later on they're also joined by a young man named William, who comes from a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. William has managed to teach himself some magic, and is determined to parlay that into a better life and become a wizard's apprentice.

The books all follow Rowan, sometimes with Bel and/or William, sometimes not, as she works to solve the mystery of the jewels. And what she finds out is quite earthshattering, something that will change her entire conception of how her world works.

It's a fabulous series. The worldbuilding is fresh and complex, and really intriguing, which I hope will be obvious from my description above. But what really makes these books are the characters. The worldbuilding and revelations are perfectly integrated into the story of characters who feel well-developed and who we come to care about very deeply. It's not just about what we find out, it's about the process, and about how that affects people and their worldview.

Rowan is just awesome. She's intelligent and determined and brave. I loved her complete devotion to knowledge, because it's driven by a very ethical and idealistic and, well, humanistic worldview. She's devoted to knowledge because she believes it will make people's lives better, and because she therefore believes they have a right to it. I just loved seeing her think. She's an extremely logical person, and Kirstein made me believe in the thought processes that led her way, way out of her sphere of experience and into the completely inconceivable.

Bel is also fantastic, and makes a perfect foil for Rowan. She's just as intelligent, but more intuitive, more adventurous. She brings Rowan back to Earth when she occasionally goes off into the abstract plain, and her real-world knowledge and understanding of people are crucial in helping Rowan achieve her mission.

Book 1, The Steerswoman, functions as set-up and introduction, but without it feeling like mere worldbuilding. There is a proper plot and we get enough resolution, and we also find out some initial answers (e.g. we find out what the jewels are and have a pretty good idea of where they came from). So it's one where, even if you decide not to go on, you'll have had some satisfaction if you stop there. But you really shouldn't stop there, because...

Book 2, The Outskirter's Secret, is by far the best out of all four. I'm not sure how Kirstein gets it to work so well, because the set-up is not necessarily promising. Having found some answers in the previous book, Rowan decides she needs to go visit the area where the jewels in Bel's belt were found. This is way beyond the civilised world, in an area of the Outskirts that is remote even to Outskirters themselves. It's a dangerous journey, so she joins Bel's tribe, which is headed in that general direction, for part of the way.

There is a lot of travelling here, and a lot about Rowan exploring Outskirter culture and customs. That's the bulk of the book. That can be episodic and boring, but here, it absolutely isn't. It's all fascinating and gripping, and there are several moments that brought me close to tears (the scene where new people are brought into the clan, and the way the recitation of ancestors worked to do that... wow!). And then we come to the resolution of the book, which was just awesome, full of danger and massive revelations, and left me gasping in astonishment. It's a wonderful book, and one where, weeks later, I still relive certain scenes.

Book 3, The Lost Steersman, was a bit of a letdown, after the wonder that was The Outskirter's Secret. Rowan is back to the Inner Lands, and stops at one of the Archives. The Steerswoman who was supposed to be in charge of it has died and no replacement has been sent, which is a problem, since the woman had done a piss-poor job of organising and preserving new material. Rowan's efforts to sort out the records, while finding anything that will help with her mission, are interrupted by increasingly frequent attacks on the town by monsters from the Outskirts, and Rowan is determined to use her skills as a Steerswoman to help the town survive.

There's a lot of good stuff here. I liked Rowan's conflicted relationship with the townspeople. They were used to the previous Steerswoman, who might have been terrible at her job, but was the beating heart of town life. When Rowan comes in, with her efficiency and proper Steerswoman attitude, they resent her. I also loved seeing Rowan using her logic to solve the problem of the monsters. Unfortunately, at one point the book becomes all about the monsters, and there's a much-too-long section of exploration related to them. There's also the Lost Steersman of the title (yes, there are some male ones, although not many at all). All in all, although enjoyable enough to read, this one felt like a bit of detour, with little progression on the overarching plot.

Book 4, The Language of Power, brings us back to the main plot. Rowan has realised she needs to find a particular wizard, and the book builds up to a major confrontation. The focus here is in what we find out about the wizards and what they do, and there are many, many revelations here about the main plot (even if not everything is resolved, Rowan does get a long way towards understanding). For the first time since book 1, we get Rowan working together with both Bel and William (who's spent several years working with the wizards and has learnt a whole lot), which felt lovely.

I think my favourite element about this book is (again!) seeing Rowan using her reason to grasp stuff that is just out of her experience completely. Kirstein manages to make it feel believable. It's not easy, and yet when Rowan makes leaps, it feels plausible. It was great fun to read.

And now we get into a more spoilery part, which is one of the main attractions of the series: the particular idea it explores. I'll mark this section with a spoiler warning, but I will say that it was obvious to me that this was the theme being explored from relatively early in the first book, so it's not something that will ruin the books if you find out.

Ready? Spoiler starts: So, basically, Kirstein is playing with Arthur C. Clarke's third law, which states that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Turns out that this is some sort of post-apocalyptic world, where the secrets of the extremely advanced technology of the civilisations that came before were somehow (and we don't quite learn how yet) preserved by a small group of people, the wizards. Those people have kept a monopoly over that knowledge, and turned it into the basis of their power.

It's a simple premise, but it lets Kirstein do so, so much. There's the contrast between the Steerswomen's attitude to knowledge and that of the wizards. There's the fascinating process through which theories are formed and then accepted about the unexplained. And in almost opposition to that, there's the exploration of the power of logic and reason in the face of the same unexplained. It's beautifully done, and I got enormous amounts of satisfaction from it.Spoiler ends.

I was also particularly impressed by how Kirstein handled a main character who knows less than the reader. As soon as we cotton onto the basics of what's going on, we're able to make very good guesses about explanations for certain things that leave Rowan and her friends baffled. Seeing them gradually almost stumble towards what is obvious to us could have felt frustrating. It never is. Instead, I felt wonder and admiration for Rowan's sharp, sharp mind.

In sum, read this. It's worth it.

MY GRADES:

Book 1, The Steerswoman (1989): B+

Book 2, The Outskirter's Secret (1992): A-

Book 3, The Lost Steersman (2003): B

Book 4, The Language of Power (2004): B+

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Dukes Prefer Blondes, by Loretta Chase

>> Sunday, September 03, 2017

TITLE: Dukes Prefer Blondes
AUTHOR: Loretta Chase

COPYRIGHT: 2015
PAGES: 372
PUBLISHER: Avon

SETTING: 1830s England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Part of the Dressmakers series (a bit of a spinoff of it).

Biweekly marriage proposals from men who can't see beyond her (admittedly breathtaking) looks are starting to get on Lady Clara Fairfax's nerves. Desperate to be something more than ornamental, she escapes to her favorite charity. When a child is in trouble, she turns to tall, dark, and annoying barrister Oliver Radford.

Though he's unexpectedly found himself in line to inherit a dukedom, Radford's never been part of fashionable society, and the blonde beauty, though not entirely bereft of brains, isn't part of his plans. But Clara overwhelms even his infallible logic, and when wedlock looms, all he can do is try not to lose his head over her . . .

It's an inconvenient marriage by ordinary standards, but these two are far from ordinary. Can the ton's most adored heiress and London's most difficult bachelor fall victim to their own unruly desires?
Loretta Chase has written some of my favourite books (I'm in the "Lord of Scoundrels is the best romance novel ever" camp), but in the last few years, she's become a bit hit or miss for me. I liked the first book in this series, but Chase does seem to have gone on the typical Avon preposterous, historically laughable, punnily-titled books route. I have to be in exactly the right mood to be able to stomach those, and even then, they don't always work for me. This one had elements that I really liked, but a bit too much that I didn't.

Lady Clara Fairfax is a woman dissatisfied with her life. She comes from a rich, aristocratic family and is incredibly beautiful (not to mention well-dressed, as the Noirot sisters have taken her under their wing), so she receives several wedding proposals a week. However, she feels trapped in the life expected for her. She wants to do something meaningful, and she's latched onto the idea of helping one of the girls attending a charity school she patronises. The girl's brother has been lured into a dangerous gang, and Clara is determined to rescue him.

To do that, she appeals to Oliver Radford, a barrister known for prosecuting cases protecting street children. He's an extremely intelligent man, known for not suffering fools gladly and making that obvious to anyone around him. He knows he should ignore Clara's request, but he can't quite ignore her. It's not that she's beautiful enough to make him dizzy, but that she clearly does have a very well-functioning brain.

The one thing I really liked about this book was the relationship between Clara and Oliver. These are two people who see each other very clearly and love what they see. They banter and quarrel, but both give as good as they get. It was actually loads of fun to see them spar. I also loved that Oliver really does get Clara's dissatisfaction with the restricted life of a noblewoman, and supports her in her desire to break out of it. There are a couple of instances where his protective instincts overrule what he knows is right in that respect, but as soon as he can think straight he's willing to admit he was wrong.

The problem was pretty much everything else outside of the romance. And unfortunately, Chase doesn't really do as much with Clara and Oliver as she could (e.g. I enjoyed the idea of the trial, when basically Oliver puts himself on trial before Clara's parents to defend himself against their "charges", the reasons why they don't think he's a good prospect for their daughter. But that is dispensed with in just a couple of pages). That means there is a lot of other stuff. And this stuff goes from pointless and boring to offensive, sometimes all three.

There is a truly tedious and preposterous plot about this guy who's head of a criminal gang who wants to kill Oliver. I'm really not quite sure why he's so obsessed with that idea, particularly as it's a very good way of getting all the police after him, but we're supposed to accept this. So we get a lot of this guy and his young minions plotting to get Oliver and how they're going to use Clara to get at him. None of it made much sense, and there was something about the tone in which this plot is told that felt really distasteful. It's this arch, snarky tone, trying but failing to be funny, because it's clearly showing the ways these people's lives are horrible. I hated every sentence of this plot thread, and unfortunately, this crap takes over the entire last fifth or so of the book. I was very tempted to skim.

There's also a subplot about Oliver's father unexpectedly inheriting a dukedom, and Clara having to help them cope. She's been basically trained to be a duchess, so she's supposedly in her element, organising their household and their new social position. It was boring, and I resented the fact that this had happened at all. The message is that being the wife of a relatively prosperous barrister is not good enough to be a happy ending for a romance heroine, that it's not a happy ending if there isn't a title involved. Sigh.

MY GRADE: A C+.

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Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie

>> Friday, September 01, 2017

TITLE: Home Fire
AUTHOR: Kamila Shamsie

COPYRIGHT: 2017
PAGES: 272
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

Isma is free. After years spent raising her twin siblings in the wake of their mother's death, she is finally studying in America, resuming a dream long deferred. But she can't stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister back in London – or their brother, Parvaiz, who's disappeared in pursuit of his own dream: to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew.

Then Eamonn enters the sisters' lives. Handsome and privileged, he inhabits a London worlds away from theirs. As the son of a powerful British Muslim politician, Eamonn has his own birthright to live up to – or defy. Is he to be a chance at love? The means of Parvaiz's salvation? Two families' fates are inextricably, devastatingly entwined in this searing novel that asks: what sacrifices will we make in the name of love?

A contemporary reimagining of Sophocles' Antigone, Home Fire is an urgent, fiercely compelling story of loyalties torn apart when love and politics collide – confirming Kamila Shamsie as a master storyteller of our times.
More reading from the Man Booker longlist.

This is a novel with a message. It has points it wants to make. Too often, books for which this is the case end up being diatribes, or they end up being purely novels of ideas, with characters who feel like puppets, only there to make particular points or represent a particular viewpoint.

Home Fire is that rare beast where the message is just as strong as the story and the characters. The message is revealed through characters who feel real and act in ways that are well-motivated and understandable. They are human, people who may want to do the right thing, but often make decisions that are not so great, but for understandable reasons. And through their feelings and actions, the message shines through powerfully.

The book is also a retelling of a classical story, the myth of Antigone. The theme explored in Antigone is basically the conflict between the law of the land and natural law. What happens when our obligations to the state and our obligations to those we love clash? That's the background theme in Home Fire as well, but it's not quite what the book is about. That background theme is used to illustrate what the book is really about: what is it like to be British-Pakistani in today's Britain? We explore this through the eyes of several characters, all of whom bring a different perspective.

Isma is the older sister in the Pasha family. Their father was a jihadi who died on his way to Guantanamo when the children were very young (and this particular plot point made me feel quite old!). Isma and the twins, Aneeka and Parvaiz, grew up with only their mother, who died herself when the twins were still very young. Isma was in university at the time, and had to give up further education to raise her brother and sister. As the book starts, the twins are 19 and Isma feels they're old enough that she can go back to her own life and follow her dreams. She's been accepted to do a Master's degree in a university in the US.

While there, she befriends a young man called Eamonn. Eamonn happens to be the son of a well-known politician in the UK, Karamat Lone, who's also of Pakistani background (the name Eamonn does make sense: his mother is Irish, and the use of a non-Pakistani name for his son fits very well with Karamat's personality). Karamat has just been named Home Secretary (for American readers, this is sort of like being head of Homeland Security in the US, or Minister for the Interior, in the case of several other countries). This leads to Isma being a bit nervous about becoming friends with Eamonn, as there's not just the issue of her father, but that of her brother. You see, not long before Isma left, the family found out that Parvaiz had not travelled to Pakistan to visit family, but had crossed the border from Turkey into Syria to join Islamic State. And the story goes from there.

Isma is 'the good immigrant' (she's not an immigrant, she's British, but you know what I mean). With her it's all about conciliation and following the rules to show she's well-integrated, nothing to fear. When she's interrogated in Heathrow airport for such a long time that she misses her flight to the US, she's annoyed, but she still answers the questions straight, no matter how offensive. Her attitude is very much "Accept the law even when it is unjust.".

Aneeka is very different. She rebels against the injustices her sister accepts,and doesn't hesitate to let that be known. To her, the injustice in the ways she's treated for being a hijab-wearing Muslim is something to be resisted and fought against, even if that makes those around her uncomfortable.

Karamat is the immigrant whose strategy to be accepted and respected is to become more Catholic than the Pope. He renounces his background and, as Home Secretary,  he's tougher on those he sees as betraying Britain than many native-born people would be.

Eamonn, Karamat's son, was probably the least distinct character for me. He's the one who feels like he has integrated fully, and his Pakistani background means very little to him. He's part of Britain's elite, and he feels perfectly comfortable, if somewhat unsatisfied there.

And finally, Parvaiz. Parvaiz is the unmoored, a young man desperate for belonging, for a community where he's accepted, for a family. He's naive, and his desperation leads him to believe what he shouldn't have and end up in Raqqa, where all his illusions about what he's joining are quickly destroyed. He wants to come back home. But because of anti-terror laws passed by people like Karamat, he can't. For people like Parvaiz, a single mistake made as a teenager will destroy his life.

Or at least, that is what the narrative is telling us. I struggled with the character of Parvaiz. I don't think I had as much sympathy for him as I was supposed to have. Yes, I understood his motivations and bought that he'd acted out of idealism and naivete. Shamsie's portrayal of the grooming process rang true, and I could believe that even a good young man in Parvaiz's situation would have been vulnerable. His groomers use the void that exists where his father should have been. I also found interesting that they paint a very idealistic picture of what life in the caliphate is, and they do this by using exactly the sorts of arguments a that would appeal to a young man whose previous political activities have been limited to campaigns to save the local library. "Look at all those cuts here, the Tories are destroying the wonderful welfare state that was this country, wouldn't you love to live somewhere where this is done properly?" Of course they wouldn't emphasise the barbarity, the religious oppression, to someone like Parvaiz.

And yet! All that being said, I couldn't quite travel all the way to the idea that his mistake should be forgiven and he should be able to come back, as I suspect I might have been meant to. It's not so much a matter of the fact that he's associated himself with agents who oppose what's supposed to be his own country, betrayed Britain, so to speak, but the fact of the brutality and barbarity of IS. That is just too much. And I kept thinking 'He should have known. At every point when I felt sympathy for him, my brain just went to the accounts of Yazidi women who have been captured by IS and forced to become sex slaves. And my brain would go 'Nope'. Just no.

At the same time, I suspect I sympathised with Karamat more than I was meant to. I think I may have been supposed to consider him an egotistic monster, who only cares about power and doesn't care about who he destroys to get it. I didn't. I thought he was a man who was genuinely trying to get the best outcome for British Muslims, only with a very dogmatic idea of what the best way to accomplish acceptance as an integral part of Britain is. He's taken a particular approach, and thinks it's the one everyone should take. Those are not the actions of a monster, but of an arrogant man. He is trying to do the right things, it's just that his values were not quite the same as mine.

The wonder of Home Fire, though, is that this did not affect my enjoyment of the book one jot. I didn't need to agree with a particular viewpoint to feel the power of the story. Even not agreeing with Aneeka that it was an absolute injustice that her brother should not be able to return home to her, her plight still resonated. Even if my own view was a little bit closer to Karamat's than the narrative assumed, the plot worked. The book made me think and made me feel in ways that very few books achieve, and it felt profoundly satisfying.

Before I close, a quick note on the Antigone connection. I knew when I started that this was supposed to be a retelling of that story, so I had a very good idea of the basics of where the plot was going and what the conflict would be. I read Jean Anhouil's WWII-set version of the story for my French class when I was in secondary school, and that was seared in my mind. I think this might be even better. The motivations felt even more understandable, and the story didn't feel derivative. Shamsie takes the themes and basic setup from the Antigone story, but does not feel beholden to follow them exactly. She eliminates the character of one of Antigone and Ismene's brothers, and thus changes slightly the nature of the crime the other brother has committed and is being punished for. She also creates a father for Isma, Aneeka and Parvaiz whose backstory is key to Home Fire, but has very little relationship to that of OEdipus. And most of all, she does her own thing with the ending, which makes much more sense and is possibly more powerful with the changes Shamsie makes. It's wonderfully done.

This one shoots up straight to the top of my favourites of all the ones I've read from the longlist so far, and I'd be shocked (and delighted) if I like any others as much.

MY GRADE: An A.

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I See You, by Clare Mackintosh

>> Wednesday, August 30, 2017

TITLE: I See You
AUTHOR: Clare Mackintosh

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 372
PUBLISHER: Sphere

SETTING: Contemporary London
TYPE: Thriller
SERIES: None

Every morning and evening, Zoe Walker takes the same route to the train station, waits at a certain place on the platform, finds her favorite spot in the car, never suspecting that someone is watching her...

It all starts with a classified ad. During her commute home one night, while glancing through her local paper, Zoe sees her own face staring back at her; a grainy photo along with a phone number and a listing for a website called FindTheOne.com.

Other women begin appearing in the same ad, a different one every day, and Zoe realizes they’ve become the victims of increasingly violent crimes—including murder. With the help of a determined cop, she uncovers the ad’s twisted purpose...A discovery that turns her paranoia into full-blown panic. Zoe is sure that someone close to her has set her up as the next target.

And now that man on the train—the one smiling at Zoe from across the car—could be more than just a friendly stranger. He could be someone who has deliberately chosen her and is ready to make his next move...
I See You is Clare's Mackintosh's second book. Her first one, I Let You Go, had excellent reviews. I'm not sure why I started with this one instead, but that might have been a mistake.

Zoe Walker is killing time while on a stalled tube train, reading the free newspaper, when her eye is caught by one of the photographs illustrating an advert for one of those escort/chat line services one often finds in the classifieds. The photo seems to be of Zoe herself. It's grainy and not great quality, but Zoe is convinced, even if her boyfriend and her two grown-up kids tell her it surely must be someone else. It's a mystery. All the advert includes, in addition to the photo, is a phone number (which doesn't work) and the address for a website (which shows nothing but a white page and a box instructing visitors to enter their password.

Zoe becomes obsessed with this, and starts seeking out the advert every day. Every day it has a photo of a different woman, same number, same web address. Creepy, but not quite enough to do anything more. Until Zoe recognises the photo of one of the women elsewhere in the paper, in a story about crime, where the woman is one of the victims. And it's not just her.

The story follows Zoe and Kelly, a police officer with British Transport Police who is the first person in the police Zoe makes contact with. Kelly has been demoted back into uniform after an incidence of police brutality, and she seizes on her initial involment to get a secondment to the team investigating a murder which turns out to be linked.

My main problem with this book was that it required quite a massive amount of suspension of disbelief, and I just couldn't do it. The investigation was fine, with the police taking perfectly sensible steps and being quite logical. Zoe was believably freaked out and suspicious about everything. It was the actual answer to what was going on that I did not believe for a single second. I'm not going to reveal here what it was, so I won't be able to demolish every single completely unbelievable point about it, but trust me, it makes no sense. There's no way that would have worked, no way that the person(s) involved would have been able to do what they're supposed to have done, no way at all.

And to make things even worse, we kind of know what's supposed to be happening (even though we don't know who's responsible and how they've pulled it off) from pretty early on, so that "Nope, don't buy that" response contaminated the entire reading experience. If there had been a great reveal at the end and that was when the reaction had come in, that would have been a problem, but possibly not as bad (actually, that's happened to me a few times with Agatha Christie books I've otherwise liked just fine). But no, I spent all book feeling annoyed.

The dénouement was particularly awful. The villain basically decides to put Zoe through the wringer in a way that created risks for the villain. This is just to torture Zoe, and the reason why the villain is revealed to hate Zoe so much is actually quite offensive. Mackintosh seems to have felt she needed some heart-pounding excitement at the end, and who cares about character believability? Plot is all that matters. And then there's a twist right at the end, which made me groan with its stupidity. Bad, really bad.

I suppose the other thing that didn't help was that I did not like Zoe at all (I may be being unfair to the villain by not buying why this person hates Zoe so much, because she kind of had the same effect on me!). It's not so much the things she does during the book, but the small revelations about the kind of person she is. She seems very small-minded. It's all little details, like a scene where someone shows her how easy it is to access her facebook page (she's basically left it wide open, not having looked at the privacy settings at all). She's freaked out by how easy it is for anyone to see her posts, including this gem "50K a year and they think they've got the right to strike? I'd swap jobs with a train driver any day!" Oh, fuck you, Zoe. Oh, and she accuses the guy who accesses her facebook page of having "hacked her facebook". Idiot. There are several details like this. I despised her.

On the plus side, I did finish the book, and Mackintosh has a writing style that flows well and carried me along fine. But that's all I can say that's positive.

MY GRADE: A C-.

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Ghostwritten, by David Mitchell

>> Monday, August 28, 2017

TITLE: Ghostwritten
AUTHOR: David Mitchell

COPYRIGHT: 1999
PAGES: 426
PUBLISHER: Vintage

SETTING: Varies
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: No

A gallery attendant at the Hermitage. A young jazz buff in Tokyo. A crooked British lawyer in Hong Kong. A disc jockey in Manhattan. A physicist in Ireland. An elderly woman running a tea shack in rural China. A cult-controlled terrorist in Okinawa. A musician in London. A transmigrating spirit in Mongolia. What is the common thread of coincidence or destiny that connects the lives of these nine souls in nine far-flung countries, stretching across the globe from east to west? What pattern do their linked fates form through time and space?

A writer of pyrotechnic virtuosity and profound compassion, a mind to which nothing human is alien, David Mitchell spins genres, cultures, and ideas like gossamer threads around and through these nine linked stories. Many forces bind these lives, but at root all involve the same universal longing for connection and transcendence, an axis of commonality that leads in two directions—to creation and to destruction. In the end, as lives converge with a fearful symmetry, Ghostwritten comes full circle, to a point at which a familiar idea—that whether the planet is vast or small is merely a matter of perspective—strikes home with the force of a new revelation. It marks the debut of a writer of astonishing gifts.

This is David Mitchell's first book, and you can clearly see here things that will come up again in the future. Just like The Bone Clocks (which I haven't reviewed yet, but absolutely adored) and Cloud Atlas, this is something in between a collection of short stories and a single plot thread novel. We move around the world, jumping from head to head and place to place. There's a fugitive terrorist in the more distant Japanese islands, a jazz-obsessed high-school graduate in Japan, a bent lawyer in Hong Kong, an old woman living at the foot of the Holy Mountain in China, a gallery attendant in St. Petersburg. Each section is not just a different story, but a different style and voice, what I've seen called literary ventriloquism. Mitchell is fantastic at that.

In one of the sections, there's a non-corporeal being who can jump from person to person, and is desperately trying to find the origin of a story that is one of the only memories it has from its very beginning, hoping this can help it figure out its own origins. This was reminiscent (more than that, actually, it's probably the genesis of the idea) of some of the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo in The Bone Clocks, only much better. In The Bone Clocks the metaphysical stuff was, I thought, the least successful element in an otherwise excellent book. In Ghostwritten, however, this section turned out to be one of my favourites, and truly moving.

Other sections are less successful, like the shock-jock DJ taking calls from a very strange being. Now that was proper mumbo-jumbo, and I'm afraid it ended the book in a bit of an anticlimactic note. In general, it felt like the earlier sections were much stronger than the later ones, much more interesting to read and more thought-provoking.

I read this with part of my mind always thinking about what themes linked the different sections together. There are links between the stories. They start out with simply small references in each story about what happened in the previous one (an event is mentioned, a character is seen having dinner in the background), but they become more numerous as we go along, and start going beyond simple references to more thematic echoes. I'm not sure if there's a single overarching theme. I've thought, and thought, but honestly, I don't know. Does it matter? Not really for the first sections, but understanding the thread might have helped me enjoy the last few ones a bit more.

Still, Mitchell is always worth reading. He's a great storyteller, and I love the way he ranges across the world and focus in on characters so very different from each other.

MY GRADE: A B.

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Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid

>> Saturday, August 26, 2017

TITLE: Exit West
AUTHOR: Mohsin Hamid

COPYRIGHT: 2017
PAGES: 231
PUBLISHER: Riverhead

SETTING: Around the present, various locations
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

In a country teetering on the brink of civil war, two young people meet—sensual, fiercely independent Nadia and gentle, restrained Saeed. They embark on a furtive love affair, and are soon cloistered in a premature intimacy by the unrest roiling their city. When it explodes, turning familiar streets into a patchwork of checkpoints and bomb blasts, they begin to hear whispers about doors—doors that can whisk people far away, if perilously and for a price. As the violence escalates, Nadia and Saeed decide that they no longer have a choice. Leaving their homeland and their old lives behind, they find a door and step through. . . .

Exit West follows these remarkable characters as they emerge into an alien and uncertain future, struggling to hold on to each other, to their past, to the very sense of who they are. Profoundly intimate and powerfully inventive, it tells an unforgettable story of love, loyalty, and courage that is both completely of our time and for all time.
My Man Booker reading has started out slowly, with a couple of books I expected to like but found disappointing. Possibly because of that, they were both a bit of a slog. Exit West blew them out of the water, and it was a completely different experience. I listened to the audiobook of this one, and once I started, I had to force myself to stop (I still could only make it last for a couple of days). It's that good.

Nadia and Saeed meet in a city about to fall prey to a fierce civil war. What normally would have been a slow, steadily developing relationship is turbocharged by the danger when the war heats up and all normality disappears. And then rumours start about doors that are appearing and connecting their city to distant places.

This is a book about the refugee experience, but it's focused on a very particular part of it. It's not so much about being a stranger in a strange land, or about the miseries of trying to get into a safer country that doesn't want you to come in, as would be more obvious, but about how leaving their birthplace can change people, some more than others, and how that can lead to people growing apart. There are very few books about the refugee/immigrant experience (I do know the difference, it's just that this element applies to both) that I identify with, where I recognise elements of my own experience, but this is one of the few.

I felt the device of the doors was key in allowing Hamid to concentrate on and explore these particular aspects. I was a bit vague earlier, but these are basically magic doors. They suddenly appear, with no warning, and by walking through them, you find yourself in a different location. I must admit I was a bit leery about the idea when I heard about the book (it might have been what kept me from reading it until now), but but they work beautifully. The doors are not important. They're not the point. We don't find out why they suddenly started appearing, we don't really explore how they work. They just are. And they function as a way of telling the refugee story without focusing on the journey. Assuming refugees can get to developed countries by magic allows Hamid to concentrate on the leaving and the arriving and how that affects the relationship between our two protagonists.

Seeing Nadia and Saeed grow apart (this is not really a spoiler, as it's quite obvious) was strangely satisfying. They are very different people, once out of the structures that made being together feel more natural. Saeed is conservative and devout. He feels nostalgia for his old country, and wants to stick to his own ("his own" being people of his same religion and from the same country). Nadia is a lot more adventurous, and wants to explore the new things her new environment has brought into her life. For her, leaving the old country has been a liberation, not a loss. Growing apart is not a trauma for either of them, even if both feel resistant to do it. It's a happy ending, because it allows them both happiness. They're happier apart than they ever would have been together.

And by the way, I was not surprised to have Nadia be the one flourishing in a new, completely different world. At the risk of generalising, this might be a male/female migrant thing, because I've seen that again and again. When you leave a patriarchal country, you're much more likely to miss home (or elements of home) if you were amongst the privileged, the group with more freedoms.

Beyond the characters, I was particularly impressed with how well the writing style worked. The tone is almost fairy-tale narrative, which might be why the magical doors, in turn, are not at all an issue. So much writing advice is about showing, not telling, but telling can work just fine, in the right hands. I recognised and understood Saeed and Nadia just the same. And the omniscient narrator, introducing bits and pieces of foreshadowing, worked beautifully to increase the tension.

And to me, the way the audiobook was produced helped the tone come to life. The narration is by the author himself. He's clearly not a professional narrator, but his unpolished voice and his solemn and earnest tone are just right for the story. It helps that we've got that omniscient narrator and very little dialogue, because he didn't need to do voices of different characters, which is where the non-professional would probably stumble worst.

The other thing that struck me while reading this was that there were so many echoes of stuff going on in the world today, beyond the obvious one of this being a story about refugees. The image of the empty mansions in Kensington being colonised by migrants who needed them put me in mind of some of the discussions after the Grenfell Tower disaster. The takeover of empty nearby mansions by survivors never actually happened, as far as I'm aware, but it gave me pleasure to see it here. I also saw echoes in Saeed and Nadia of the theory that (at least in the UK) the faultline that really matters these days is not the one that separates right and left, but the 'Somewheres' and the 'Anywheres'. Saeed has many of the characteristics of the 'Somewhere', while Nadia is very much an 'Anywhere', and that, as much as anything, illustrates why they don't really suit each other, once they're able to be the persons they want to be.

I could go on and on about this one, heading off in tangent after tangent. It's a fantastic book, and one that would probably make for a really good book club discussion. It's at the top of my favourites of the longlist so far (it's only the third I read, of course, but still), and it will probably stay in that area even once I've read them all.

MY GRADE: An A-.

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Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry

>> Thursday, August 24, 2017

TITLE: Days Without End
AUTHOR: Sebastian Barry

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 259
PUBLISHER: Viking

SETTING: Mid 19th century US
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: No

From the two-time Man Booker Prize finalist Sebastian Barry, “a master storyteller” (Wall Street Journal), comes a powerful new novel of duty and family set against the American Indian and Civil Wars.

Thomas McNulty, aged barely seventeen and having fled the Great Famine in Ireland, signs up for the U.S. Army in the 1850s. With his brother in arms, John Cole, Thomas goes on to fight in the Indian Wars—against the Sioux and the Yurok—and, ultimately, the Civil War. Orphans of terrible hardships themselves, the men find these days to be vivid and alive, despite the horrors they see and are complicit in.

Moving from the plains of Wyoming to Tennessee, Sebastian Barry’s latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language. An intensely poignant story of two men and the makeshift family they create with a young Sioux girl, Winona, Days Without End is a fresh and haunting portrait of the most fateful years in American history and is a novel never to be forgotten.
This is the story of Thomas MucNulty and his beloved "handsome John Cole". Tom was born in a middle class family in Ireland, but the Great Famine left him on his own as a very young boy and desperate enough to stow away onto a ship going to the US. When we meet him, he's been making his own way for a while, and has just teamed up with another young boy, John Cole. For a few years they live the high life as dancing girls in a saloon, but once beards start to grow and voices drop, that's not quite the job for them any longer. Without many choices, they join the army, and off they go to kill some Indians.

I really struggled with this one, right from the beginning. Well, actually, not quite right from the beginning, because I loved the bit at the start where Tom and John are dancing in the saloon. But once they join the army and the horrors began to unfold... the senseless killings of Indians, the grime and disease and hardship... I struggled. The horrors were too horrific, and the almost numb way in which they were being narrated, kind of from a distance, even though it was Tom telling us in the first person and he'd been right in the middle of things, kind of made them worse. There was something about the lack of judgment that got into me and made me not want to read any more. It was weird, because I didn't really care about any of the characters beyond Tom and John, and still the ugliness (both in the circumstances and in the spirit of the men around them) got to me.

So I deleted the book from my kindle once I got to about the 1/3 mark. And then I read the summary above again, and the bit about "An intensely poignant story of two men and the makeshift family they create with a young Sioux girl" made me reconsider. I downloaded it again, and kept going.

I soon got to the point about the makeshift family, and that was good. The language worked, and I loved this quite fresh view of life in mid-19th century US, as well as the tender sentiment narrated without a jot of sentimentality. But then we got back to the war. The enemy changed from Indians to "Rebs", but the oppressive, overwhelming ugliness and my difficulty actually caring was the same. I read another third, over several days, forcing myself to pick up the book and having to use all my will not to skim, but after that, I gave up.

It's interesting, because the language is one of the elements that seems to be most appreciated by readers who loved this book, but it was a big reason why I gave up. The writing is quite idiosyncratic, not quite stream of consciousness, but almost, with seemingly lackadaisical punctuation and words and expressions that are carefully chosen to fit the character who's using them. It's effective in telling us about Tom and showing us what it's like to be in his head, so I guess Barry accomplished what he set out to do. It just pushed me away, though, stopped me from being able to get near these characters and stopped me from wanting to read. So for me, it didn't work at all.

I'm really disappointed, because this was one I'd heard nothing but raves about. I really expected to love it, not to be defeated by it.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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Stand-In Wife, by Karina Bliss

>> Tuesday, August 22, 2017

TITLE: Stand-In Wife
AUTHOR: Karina Bliss

COPYRIGHT: 2011
PAGES: 288
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Superromance

SETTING: Contemporary New Zealand
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Follows Here Comes the Groom

Playing with dynamite, a girl could get burned...

What does he know about love and marriage? And exactly how did he, Ross Coltrane—a special forces elite soldier and demolitions expert—end up playing middleman to his kid brother and the estranged wife? And most important, why is he suddenly noticing how beautiful his sister-in-law is? He's never thought about his brother's wife... that way... before.

Then he figures it out and everything makes sense. This tantalizing woman is the other twin! The identical sisters have pulled a swap and duped everyone around them. Furious much? Oh, yeah. Poised to bring down their plan, Ross hesitates. Something about Vivienne Jansen's courage and zest for life gets to him. Except, he's not a man who has feelings. Everyone calls him the Iceman. He doesn't know how to be anything else...
Viv Jansen has always felt claustrophobic about being a twin. While her sister Meredith was always comfortable dressing and looking the same and sharing friends, Viv wanted to be more individual and stand out. She changed her hair and dress style as soon as she could, and for the last few years she has been living in New York.

Merry's marriage has broken up recently, and when Viv arrives back in New Zealand after her sister's urgent call, it's to find Merry in a bit of a pickle. She was at a job interview in another city when she broke a leg, and Viv gets there just in time to help her hide that from her estranged husband. Merry, you see, fears that the possibility of her moving away might provoke him into challenging her custody of their children.

Living so far away from home has helped Viv become more comfortable with who she is. So much so, in fact, that she's gone back to her natural hair. This means that when she goes to pick up Merry's kids and runs into Merry's brother-in-law Ross, he thinks Viv's Merry. Viv doesn't correct him because of... well... reasons, and as they're forced to interact after further tragedy, Ross starts to find himself strangely attracted to his strangely different sister-in-law.

I had a bit of a problem with this one in that the reasons why Viv decides, on the spur of the moment, to pretend she's Merry, are pretty silly. The threat of a custody fight never rang true, and after the accident that happened next, I didn't buy that anyone with two braincells to rub together would think doing a twin swap in those circumstances made any sense. It's a situation where the upside of getting away with the swap is pretty tiny, and the potential downside huge. I tried to overlook this and go onto the rest of the story, but part of me kept coming back to it and going "you bloody idiot!".The thing is, Bliss tried to sell it as a sensible/necessary thing to do, which made things worse. If it had been portrayed as Viv doing something obviously stupid and then feeling caught, then this might have worked a bit better, but that's not the plot we got. Ross does catch on relatively quickly, but by then, the damage was done.

There were some well-done elements there, especially the relationship between the twins. It's a relationship that has been built around labels: Viv is the wild one, while Merry is the good, reliable one. And now good, reliable Merry has screwed up, and Viv feels she must take on the characteristics that are supposed to be her sister's, which feels weird.

I also liked the portrayal of Meredith's troubled marriage, particularly the way Viv and Ross used it to explore what makes a relationship work, through their conversations about their respective siblings struggling one. Other than that, however, the romance was a bit of a dud. There wasn't a lot of chemistry there, and I found it hard to really care.

MY GRADE: A pretty meh book. C+.


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