The Little Shop of Happy-Ever-After, by Jenny Colgan

>> Sunday, April 23, 2017

TITLE: The Little Shop of Happy-Ever-After (aka The Bookshop on the Corner in the US)
AUTHOR: Jenny Colgan

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 368
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: Contemporary England and Scotland
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: None

Nina Redmond is a librarian with a gift for finding the perfect book for her readers. But can she write her own happy-ever-after? In this valentine to readers, librarians, and book-lovers the world over, the New York Times-bestselling author of Little Beach Street Bakery returns with a funny, moving new novel for fans of Meg Donohue, Sophie Kinsella, and Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop.

“Losing myself in Jenny Colgan’s beautiful pages is the most delicious, comforting, satisfying treat I have had in ages.”—Jane Green, New York Times bestselling author of Summer Secrets

Nina Redmond is a literary matchmaker. Pairing a reader with that perfect book is her passion… and also her job. Or at least it was. Until yesterday, she was a librarian in the hectic city. But now the job she loved is no more.

Determined to make a new life for herself, Nina moves to a sleepy village many miles away. There she buys a van and transforms it into a bookmobile—a mobile bookshop that she drives from neighborhood to neighborhood, changing one life after another with the power of storytelling.

From helping her grumpy landlord deliver a lamb, to sharing picnics with a charming train conductor who serenades her with poetry, Nina discovers there’s plenty of adventure, magic, and soul in a place that’s beginning to feel like home… a place where she just might be able to write her own happy ending.
I was hoping to love this. It's very much a wish fulfillment plot, but while I steer far clear of such plots involving "celebrity/rock star/billionaire businessman/other high status man falls for regular girl", as it's not a fantasy of mine, this one hit the target.

Nina is a librarian struggling with what austerity is doing to her work (basically: libraries closing and the authorities focusing on novelty management crap over providing users a good experience). She ends up chucking it all in, buying a large van to turn into a mobile bookshop, and setting up shop in a gorgeous little village in Scotland. After a few small initial difficulties, she lands on her feet. The villagers (both in hers and neighbouring villages) love her and her bookshop van, and she happens to find a wonderful place to live, with a grumpy-but-very-attractive farmer landlord/neighbour.

I did start out loving it all. It was twee (in both content and writing style), and twee is not my thing, but I was reading this during a week work was kicking my arse, so it was just right. Nina was a fun character, the setting was charming, and I loved the different characters in the village. Everything was lovely, everything was charming.

And I suspect if the book had been (a lot) shorter, I would have closed it happy. After a while, either the tweeness escalated beyond what I could tolerate or my patience with it ran out. My happy sighs started turning into "oh, please" and "give me a break". What I had been finding charming started to feel preposterous and silly. There were some very nice moments, but pretty much every time, I felt Colgan just took the cuteness too far.

I was also majorly annoyed by the conclusion to the story of a particular character. So, when she moves to Scotland, Nina meets a young Latvian man called Marek, who's one of the drivers of the train that goes from her area to London. They become friends and meet up regularly. There's quite a bit of attraction which seems reciprocal. In the end, though, he gets deported (!). He's is sent home to Latvia in a plane full of deportees (!!). Yes, when the lawyer Nina asks for help calls the Home Office they say he's going voluntarily (would they even give that sort of detail to a random lawyer?), but the implication is that he would have been deported otherwise. This is not because he's some sort of criminal, or anything like that. It's simply because he's lost his job, as far as I can tell. Eh, Ms Colgan, Latvia is an EU member. Marek (and a full planeload of people!) wouldn't get deported for not having a job. This is set in 2016, not 2020. We EU citizens aren't being deported en masse just yet! This is objectively a minor detail, in the grand scheme of things, but given what's been going on in this country, it made me really angry. The attitude with Marek is very much that he's other, even though he's portrayed as a nice character. Of course he has a wife and kids back in Latvia. That's the way it is with foreigners, they come here to make money, but they don't actually integrate.

Bah, humbug.

MY GRADE: A C+.

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The Games: A Global History of the Olympics, by David Goldblatt

>> Friday, April 21, 2017

TITLE: The Games: A Global History of the Olympics
AUTHOR: David Goldblatt

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 528
PUBLISHER: WW Norton

SETTING: N/A
TYPE: Non Fiction
SERIES: None

The Olympic Games have become the single greatest festival of a universal and cosmopolitan humanity. Seventeen days of sporting competition watched and followed on every continent and in every country on the planet. Simply, the greatest show on earth. Yet when the modern games were inaugurated in Athens in 1896, the founders thought them a "display of manly virtue", an athletic celebration of the kind of amateur gentleman that would rule the world. How was such a ritual invented? Why did it prosper and how has it been so utterly transformed?

In The Games, David Goldblatt - winner of the 2015 William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award - takes on a breathtakingly ambitious search for the answers and brilliantly unravels the complex strands of this history. Beginning with the olympics as a sporting side show at the great Worlds Fairs of the Belle Epoque and transformation into a global media spectacular care of Hollywood and the Nazi party, The Games shows how sport and the olympics been a battlefield in the global Cold War, a defining moment for of epoch social and economic change in host cities and countries, and a theatre of resistance for women and athletes colour once excluded from the show.

Illuminated with dazzling vignettes from over a century of olympic completion - this stunningly researched history captures the excitement of sporting brilliance and the kaleidoscopic experience of the Games. It shows us how this sporting spectacle has come to reflect the world we hope to inhabit and the one we actually live in.
I bought this one while in the flush of excitement about the Olympics last year, but surprisingly, I actually read it, even once my enthusiasm had dissipated a fair bit. It wasn't quite what I expected, but in hindsight, it probably worked all the better for it. I was expecting a sort of "greatest hits" structure. Instead, Goldblatt concentrates more on the stuff behind what we see on our tellies.

Yes, Goldblatt does cover the great moments (as the book description puts it: "such seminal moments as Jesse Owens and Hitler at Berlin in 1936, the Black Power salute at Mexico City in 1968, the massacre of Israeli athletes at Munich in 1972, and the Miracle on Ice at Lake Placid in 1980"), but the real insight is in how he explores different themes, looking at the issues that really made the Olympics what they are. These themes are things such as the organisers' attitudes towards amateurism vs. professionalism and how and why that evolved (oh, the class prejudices!), or the participation of women in the different sports.

The structure is interesting. Goldblatt goes chronologically, through each and every Olympics, but the thematic analysis carries through. He also groups sets of 3 or 4 consecutive Olympic Games and identifies what the themes were that linked them. We have, for instance, "Not the Only Game in Town: The Olympics and Its Challengers in the 1920s" and "Things Fall Apart: Bankruptcy, Boycotts and the End of Amateurism". So it's sort of overarching themes that carry all the way through, and then these mini-themes that characterise different eras. It works beautifully.

I confess I did struggle a bit to get into the book, as the initial sections on the ancient history and the very initial actions that led to the Olympics felt a bit diffuse and not that interesting. But once we got into the Games themselves, things really started moving, and I was gripped.

Also, Goldblatt can definitely write, which to me is just as essential in non-fiction as it is in fiction.

MY GRADE: A B+.

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A Great Deliverance, by Elizabeth George

>> Wednesday, April 19, 2017

TITLE: A Great Deliverance
AUTHOR: Elizabeth George

COPYRIGHT: 1988
PAGES: 416
PUBLISHER: Bantam

SETTING: 1980s England
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: 1st in the Inspector Lynley and DS Havers series

To this day, the low, thin wail of an infant can be heard in Keldale's lush green valleys. Three hundred years ago, as legend goes, the frightened Yorkshire villagers smothered a crying babe in Keldale Abbey, where they'd hidden to escape the ravages of Cromwell's raiders.

Now into Keldale's pastoral web of old houses and older secrets comes Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley, the eighth earl of Asherton. Along with the redoubtable Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, Lynley has been sent to solve a savage murder that has stunned the peaceful countryside. For fat, unlovely Roberta Teys has been found in her best dress, an axe in her lap, seated in the old stone barn beside her father's headless corpse. Her first and last words were "I did it. And I'm not sorry."

Yet as Lynley and Havers wind their way through Keldale's dark labyrinth of secret scandals and appalling crimes, they uncover a shattering series of revelations that will reverberate through this tranquil English valley—and in their own lives as well.
This was a bit of a trip down memory lane. Elizabeth George was one of the authors I used to read as a teenager in Uruguay. This was some 20 years ago, before I discovered how to buy books online, when I'd constantly haunt the 2 bookstores in Montevideo which carried English-language books (it got to the point where the managers would let me know when a new box of books arrived, and just let me into the back of the shop to open the boxes myself). I would discover an author I liked, more often than not reading a book that was halfway through a series (in the case of Elizabeth George, I'm pretty sure it was For the Sake of Elena), and then just pick up any other book I came across. Probably why I'm a bit obsessive about reading things in order now!

Anyway, I remember really liking George's books, even though I was getting the developments in the personal lives of the detectives (particularly the soap opera that is Inspector Thomas Lynley's love life) in random bits and pieces. I know there are developments in the later books that many readers have not liked (I know several people in the romance blogosphere have even stopped reading the series because of those developments), but I really fancied going back to the early ones, at least, to see whether they still appealed to me.

Backtracking a bit: it's the mid- to late-1980s, and in a small Yorkshire village, pillar of the community William Teys has been found dead in his barn. It's a gruesome sight: his head has been chopped clean off, and he's lying on top of the family dog, whose throat has been slit. His daughter, 19-year-old Roberta, is sitting right next to the headless body, cradling the axe and wearing her Sunday best. All she will say is "I did it. And I'm not sorry."

The whodunnit doesn't seem like much of a mystery, and the regional police don't seem inclined to look any further than Roberta, whom they cart off to a mental hospital to await trial. But two of the senior police officers in the area have quite the history of disagreement, and yet another clash over this case leads to the decision to send someone from Scotland Yard to have another look.

The person chosen is Inspector Thomas Lynley. Lynley is a bit of a golden boy in the Yard, and he also happens to be one of those aristocratic detectives no British author would dare write in a contemporary setting. He's properly aristocratic, being the eighth Earl of Asherton, with such grand trappings as a massive estate in Cornwall and a full-time valet.

For this case, Lynley is paired with DS Barbara Havers. Havers is an officer who has been demoted back to being a beat cop after not being able to get along with (male) partner after (male) partner. The superintendent is still convinced there is something in her, though, so he takes the chance to see if she can work with the man who's her polar oppposite in background (she's proudly working class), personality (she's bitter and truculent; he's got effortless charm) and looks (she's plain and dumpy; he's gorgeous and stylish).

So the book is just as much a mystery as it is about Lynley and Havers slowly starting to get along and becoming real partners. They're far from there by the end of the book, and there are times when they seem like the worst of enemies, but it's clear that there is a germ of real compatibility there and that once they've ironed out the misconceptions, they'll work well together. I really liked this element, particularly because Havers is far from the dutiful working class assistant to the masterful aristocratic sleuth.

The book is also about Lynley and Havers as individuals, and I liked this just as much. We don't get a lot about Havers in this book, beyond her complicated relationship with her parents, which is very different from what it seems at first glance. However, I do remember there's quite a bit more coming. With Lynley, I've mentioned the soap opera love life, and that's definitely there. We first meet him when Havers has to go find him at the wedding of his (former?) best friend, Simon Allcourt-St James, one of the best forensics scientists in the country. So, the drama: Simon was badly injured some years earlier in a car accident where Lynley was driving (drunk, apparently, although I'm not 100% sure if that's true, or just the rumour Havers picked up). His bride? Lynley's former fiancée, Deborah, whom Lynley's still madly in love with. The other character in this quartet, which we will return to in further books, is Lady Helen. She and Lynley are very close friends, and she seems to be in love with him. So yeah, Havers may assume Lynley leads a charmed life, but he's not a happy man. I seem to remember feeling a bit frustrated with this element, after reading several of the books, so it will be interesting to see if reading them in order makes a difference. For now, I'm really intrigued.

I meant to write a short, snappy review, but I'm going on and on and I haven't even got to the mystery yet! Possibly because I'm slightly conflicted about it. On one hand, the investigation is very well done, and I loved getting to know the villagers and finding out their myriad secrets. George excels at creating some quite vivid characters, and I found them all very believable.

On the other hand, if a mystery has to be mysterious, this doesn't quite work. When they came, the revelations about what had happened were not surprising in the least. In fact, I knew exactly what had happened from the start. Every single little clue and puzzle piece, I zeroed in and put it in exactly the right place. Now, it might be that I remembered the plot from when I first read the book, 20 years ago, but I don't think so. I think what's happened is that what would have been unthinkable and shocking back then is sadly all too obvious in these less innocent times (trying not to include spoilers, but seriously, if you have a case where a pillar of the community type seems to have been clearly murdered by his daughter, what possible explanation does your 2017 mind immediately go to?).

That, however, is not necessarily a problem. I felt the characters, setting, and procedural elements were strong enough to support a non-mystery. And as long as you read the book as a historical mystery (yes, I feel old as well thinking of the 80s as 'historical'), and don't expect the detectives to have the same knowledge (particularly about the psychological aspects of a certain issue) as modern-day detectives would have, then the investigation is perfectly satisfying to read.

And if you need some convincing that the 80s were another time, I leave you with this little snippet, which made me smile. This is Havers imagining a typical posh neighbour of Lynley's in Belgravia:

"We're in Belgravia now. Did we mention it? Oh, do stop by for tea! It's nothing much. Just £300,000, but we like to think of it as such an investment. Five rooms. With the sweetest little cobblestone street that you've ever seen."

I wish I could find such investment!

MY GRADE: A B+.

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Italian food and the the Persephone myth

>> Wednesday, April 12, 2017

TITLE: A Portrait of Emily Price
AUTHOR: Katherine Reay

Emily is an art restorer who works for an insurance company. On assignment in another city, she meets the Vassallo brothers when her company hires her some workspace in the studio belonging to one of them. But it is other brother, Benito, who captures his attention. Ben is visiting his brother from his hometown in Italy, and Emily finds him as fascinating as he seems to find her. And as they spend time together helping redo his aunt and uncle's restaurant, they fall for each other. But Ben is supposed to return home to Italy in only a couple of weeks...

Unfortunately, this book never really gelled. There's some good stuff, don't get me wrong. I was interested in Emily and her relationship with her family. I was interested in Ben and the hint of family secrets. I was interested in the setup of Emily following Ben to a small town in Italy. What I wasn't really interested in was the romance.

The problem was that Ben didn't work for me as a character at all. I read over half the book, and Reay never succeeded in making him real. It didn't seem to me that she even tried. Ben was this idealised image of a sexy Italian... lots of calling Emily "bella", lots of exuberance, lots of waving arms around when he spoke (with no contractions, of course, which is supposedly adorable). Actually, he seemed a bit like an excitable toddler. There was nothing that made him an individual. When he and Emily started exchanging 'I love you's and decided to marry, my reaction, which I'm guessing was supposed to be 'awww, how romantic!', was more along the lines of 'WTF??'.

Not for me.

MY GRADE: A DNF.




TITLE: A Tangled Web
AUTHOR: Mercedes Lackey

This novella, originally published in the Harvest Moon anthology, is part of Lackey's Five Hundred Kingdoms series, which I love. No books in that series have come out since 2011, so I've been hoarding this one. Unfortunately, it was a disappointment.

What I love about this series is the subversive, twisty take on fairy tales, and the very fun way in which Lackey uses the concept of the Tradition, an amorphous force that guides people's actions into paths that fit within the traditional tales of their culture. Lackey has these characters called the Godmothers, who understand the Tradition really well and know just how to manipulate it for the good of the kingdoms they protect.

The problem was, not much of what I like about the series was really present here. Greek mythology instead of fairy tales, fine, no problem with that. But Lackey told the story pretty straight. Apart from bringing in two characters from the previous book, visiting from Norse mythology, the Persephone story proceeded right as is traditional, with very minor changes. There was nothing particularly clever, nothing particularly surprising. The Greek mythology characters felt, well, mythological, in that they were paper thin and had no human personalities, unlike the fairytale characters in previous books. There was also very minor manipulating of the Tradition, all in a way that felt much too easy (and no Godmothers!).

Also, the story felt like it was cut down from a novel-length version. We're moving along fine, at a normal pace, seeing all the scenes we'd expect to see, and then we reach a point where we jump a few months and Lackey has a character go "this has happened, and this, and that, and the other, and we need to deal with it", and off we go again. It didn't fit.

MY GRADE: A C+. This was a bit of a waste of time.

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Turbulence, by Jordan Castillo Price

>> Monday, March 13, 2017

TITLE: Turbulence
AUTHOR: Jordan Castillo Price

COPYRIGHT: 2013
PAGES: 261
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: None

The foundation of superstition is ignorance. First Officer Paul Cronin has no use for magical thinking—he’s a logical guy, a skeptic who only believes what he can see. When a new assignment on Flight 511 takes him directly through the legendary Bermuda Triangle, he’s not concerned about losing his aircraft to supernatural forces. He’s busy trying to hook up with handsome flight attendant Dallas.

Dallas seems eager to oblige at the airport, but his ardor cools quickly when he finds out he and Paul are now on the same crew. Then the turbulence hits, and Paul soon discovers there’s more to the Bermuda Triangle than made-for-TV movies.

While trying to decipher his cryptic predecessor’s notes and guide Flight 511 around the Triangle phenomenon, Paul attempts to piece together a relationship with Dallas. It seems that forces—both paranormal and mundane—are stacked against them. Can Paul navigate a successful course through the turbulence while he finds a way into Dallas’ heart?
Turbulence had a really fun setup. Paul Cronin is a pilot who has just been given a new assignment. It's a regularly scheduled flight out of Miami that goes right through the Bermuda triangle. Paul doesn't even bat an eyelid at the idea. Everyone knows the whole Bermuda Triangle thing is just silly superstition.

But it turns out there really is something supernatural going on, involving alternate realities. Paul is determined to get to the bottom of it and understand how the phenomenon works, and with the help of handsome flight attendant Dallas Turner, he begins to investigate. Might his predecessor, a pilot who died mysteriously not very long before, have hit on something?

Turbulence was originally published as an 8-part serial, and that's how I read it. It started out really strongly. The setting is cool, and the supernatural mystery is really good fun. What's going on is quite unique, much more interesting than the simple "Planes disappear in the Bermuda Triangle" thing. It's all very Twilight Zone, and I loved the idea of it. I couldn't wait to see how Castillo Price would resolve it and what the explanation would be.

I also really liked the romance. It's not hugely developed, but Paul and Dallas clearly share a connection and it's not just chemistry (which is definitely there, by the way). Before too long believed that these two were just right for each other. I also liked how the author dealt with the realities of an interracial relationship. It's subtly done, but it's clear that it's not all plain sailing. It's also just as clear that these two can and will work past any problems.

So far, all good. The problem is that Castillo Price chose to explain the supernatural in her story through half-baked metaphysical crap. And the more we got into the story, the more this metaphysical crap piled up. Worse, we were clearly supposed to take it seriously. I just couldn't. I found it all kind of laughable. So by the time we got to the end, I basically had no idea what the hell was going on. I read the final episode twice, and I still can't figure it out. I'm not an idiot, and I was paying attention, I promise!

MY GRADE: I enjoyed a lot of it, but in the end it was somewhat of a disappointment. C-.

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One Sinful Night in São Paulo, by Amber Belldene

>> Saturday, March 11, 2017

TITLE: One Sinful Night in São Paulo
AUTHOR: Amber Belldene

COPYRIGHT: 2015
PAGES: 108
PUBLISHER: Entangled

SETTING: Contemporary São Paulo
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: None

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Cassie Wilson has traveled to Brazil for her brother's wedding; yet she's the one with cold feet. She's all set to begin seminary, but she's sick and tired of being treated like a saint, especially by the best man. What she really needs is one sexy night with him to ease her jitters and give her a taste of normal life.
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I was on my way to buy another of Belldene's books based on a review, but as soon as I saw that she had a novella set in São Paulo, I got that one instead. Urban Latin American settings are remarkably lacking from pretty much all sorts of fiction in English (in fact, the only other two I can think of are a Kathy Reichs mystery and Ann Patchett's Bel Canto). There are plenty of books with jungle or Mexican desert settings, some rural towns, but almost no big cities. This was irresistible.

The book is about Cassie Wilson, who is about to enter the seminary to become a priest. Her brother is getting married to a Brazilian woman, and the wedding will take place in São Paulo, where her family live. Cassie is delighted to be there for the wedding, except for the prospect of having to spend time with the best man, her brother's best friend Adam. She has long been attracted to Adam and it seems the attraction is reciprocated. However, her vocation seems to have made him put her on a pedestal as someone who is halfway to being a saint, someone he clearly shouldn't touch.

I found myself extremely annoyed right at the beginning of this novella. What annoyed me was the butchering of the Portuguese in the dialogue. I am getting more and more intolerant about this. It's always bothered me, but I used to just be able to let it roll off me. Now, not so much. It's just that really, if you're taking a culture not your own and using it as a setting in one of your books, the very least you can do is do some basic checking to make sure you're getting the language right. I'm fine with a few mistakes -typos do creep in! But here it was way too much. Within the first couple of pages we have: a Portuguese woman saying "Obrigado" instead of "Obrigada" and receiving the heroine by saying "Cassandra, bienvenudo", "fejoida" for "feijoada", "Pao de quejo" for "Pão de queijo", and many more. The most annoying thing is that I got the impression that Belldene must actually have spent some time in São Paulo, because this felt otherwise pretty real.

The language issues were just an irritant, which I could have got over if I'd otherwise liked the book. However, the romance did not work for me at all. It's possible that being annoyed by the Portuguese right at the start might have affected how I read the rest of book, but I don't think that was it, or at least not the whole of the story. The most frustrating thing is that I was interested in the basic conflict as it was theoretically set up. A woman who has a vocation to be a priest, and struggles with men not treating her as a real woman, but as some sort of pure, untouchable saint because of it... that's interesting. The thing is, it didn't really feel like that was Adam's problem. It felt more like the stupid, old-fashioned perception that women are the possession of their male family members, so he can't have anything to do with Cassie because it would be an offense against his best friend, her brother. He even goes and asks the brother for permission, for pity's sake.

There's also zero chemistry between Adam and Cassie. We're told there is, and we immediately have this scene where Cassie basically pounces on Adam and grabs his cock. Whoa there, maybe you could just ease me into the romance? I didn't feel I knew the characters, therefore I didn't care about them, therefore the sex was boring.

Yeah, this one didn't work for me at all.

MY GRADE: A D.

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The Blackhouse, by Peter May

>> Thursday, March 09, 2017

TITLE: The Blackhouse
AUTHOR: Peter May

COPYRIGHT: 2009
PAGES: 386
PUBLISHER: Quercus

SETTING: Isle of Lewis, Scotland
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: First in the Lewis Trilogy

A brutal killing takes place on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland: a land of harsh beauty and inhabitants of deep-rooted faith.

A MURDER

Detective Inspector Fin Macleod is sent from Edinburgh to investigate. For Lewis-born Macleod, the case represents a journey both home and into his past.

A SECRET

Something lurks within the close-knit island community. Something sinister.

A TRAP

As Fin investigates, old skeletons begin to surface, and soon he, the hunter, becomes the hunted.
Fin MacLeod grew up on the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides. It was a small, oppressive community for a boy who wanted much more from life, so he left as soon as he turned 18. A futher 18 years later, he's a police detective in Edinburgh and recovering from a tragedy in his personal life.

When a murder takes place in Lewis that has quite similar characteristics to one that took place in Edinburgh not long before, Fin is sent to investigate by his superiors. He is not keen. There are memories and people in Lewis that he does not want to face, but his investigation requires him to do just that.

The Blackhouse is as much about Fin's life growing up in Lewis as it is about his investigation of the murder. May alternates chapters in the first person narrating Fin's life, first as a child and then a teenager, right up till the a traumatic event we know is coming and his leaving the island, and chapters in the third person covering the present-day investigation. It works beautifully, mainly because the sections in the past are not just about getting us to understand Fin as a character, but are also completely relevant to the present-day sections. It was also one of those rare books structured this way where I always wanted more of each section before switching, rather than being annoyed because I preferred one to the other.

That said, much as the sections dealing with the crime investigation were really good, the sections set in the past were just fascinating. May creates an incredibly vivid sense of place, and you get an excellent view of what it must have been like to grow up there at the time. The challenging landscape and climate, the importance of tradition, the pressure to conform... it all coalesces around a tradition that has a key place in the story. Every year a small group of specially selected men from the island travel to a nearby rock to spend a couple of weeks harvesting the small number of gannets (or guga, as they call them) that they're allowed to hunt, since it's a protected species. It's an incredibly grim and difficult task, not just because of the wildness of the environment, but because of what the bloody task entails. It's also clearly the way the young men of the island prove their manhood, and even though in theory men have to volunteer to go, in reality the pressure to do so is immense. This tradition resonates all through the book, in both the timelines.

If this had been all, the book would have been coming onto an A grade for me. However, there was an aspect I found extremely problematic. I've had a look at several reviews on goodreads and it's not something people even note, but it really bothered me. So get ready for a bit of a rant!

Basically, the treatment of women in this book is terrible. They're not developed and are nothing but objects who only matter for the effect they have on the male characters. For instance, there's this character who was Fin's first love and who's now married to the man who used to be Fin's best friend growing up. We know she left for the mainland with Fin, but something happened, and she ended up back on Lewis, living what is clearly a crappy life. She was interesting, or rather, she should have been. The book doesn't really care about her as a character, beyond how she affects Fin. That's the case for pretty much every woman in the book.

I also had massive issues with how mysogynistic the book sometimes felt. There were certain sections in the flashbacks where the young Fin engages in actions I found reprehensible. It starts when he and his friend decide to have a joke on some girls who are sunbathing topless on a beach (lying face down) and drop some crabs on them from a cliff, hoping to have them scatter and see their breasts. It's portrayed as something that's just a bit of fun, who cares how the girls feel about it, and well, boys will be boys. It annoyed me, but ok. But then there was yet another scene of non-consensual voyeurism, and that one was particularly offensive. This happens when Fin and his friends are 17-18. One of them has a crush on a girl who seems to be flirting with him to make someone else jealous. And of course, the boys consider her a prick-tease. That's the word they use. When the town's bully shares that the girl has a bath every Sunday at 10, and that there's a bit of roof outside where he and his mates have been going to watch her, Fin's friend decides he will be going to watch. Because of course, he's entitled to her attention and she deserves to be punished for not giving him what he wants. Fin has misgivings, but he accompanies his friend. But his misgivings are absolutely not about whether it's right to do this to a woman who's really done nothing wrong; that's fine and dandy by Fin! All he's worried about is that the bully must be planning something, and that his friend doesn't know what he's getting into.

Turns out he's right. It's not the beautiful girl who's having the bath. It's an older woman, and she sees the boys standing on the roof outside her window. She's about 60, and she's fat and wearing a shower cap. Oh, the horror! Euww! The way this woman, this completely innocent, blameless woman, who's just trying to have a bath, is described is horrible and painful to read. There's a lot about her "folds of pink flesh" and the narration makes her sound almost obscene. And the cherry on this utter pile of shit: when confronted with strangers spying on her she screams for help. "Rape!" she screams. And Fin thinks that's "wishful thinking". The whole incident is completely repulsive and vile.

Now, I know very well that the fact that a character does something reprehensible doesn't mean that the author condones it. But I'm sorry, you can tell perfectly well when the narrative is trying to say that something is A-OK, and that's the case here. The narrative (which in this sections is basically the older Fin thinking back, not a hormone-addled teenager -not that that's an excuse!) at no point considers the impact of these pranks on the women they're aimed at. It's all about the boys. At no point is it acknowledged that spying on a naked woman is a violation of her. Who cares about that! And that is what I found so offensive.

So much as I enjoyed the plot and the setting, I'm not sure I want to read further in this series, or in May's backlist. Things like pacing and characterisation and plotting are problems that can be fixed with experience, but not this sort of attitude towards women that can just permeate a book. We'll see. I might yet feel in the mood for Lewis again and choose to grit my teeth through the problematic bits.

MY GRADE: A C+, one that's very much balancing the aspects I loved and those I hated.

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Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil, by Melina Marchetta

>> Tuesday, March 07, 2017

TITLE: Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil
AUTHOR: Melina Marchetta

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 416
PUBLISHER: Mulholland Books

SETTING: Contemporary UK and France
TYPE: Suspense / thriller
SERIES: None

Bashir “Bish” Ortley is a London desk cop. Almost over it. Still not dealing with the death of his son years ago, as well as the break-up of his marriage.

Across the channel, a summer bus tour, carrying a group of English teenagers is subject to a deadly bomb attack, killing four of the passengers and injuring a handful of others. Bish’s daughter is one of those on board.

The suspect is 17 year old Violette LeBrac whose grandfather was responsible for a bombing that claimed the lives of dozens of people fourteen years ago; and whose mother, Noor, has been serving a life sentence for the part she was supposed to have played in the attack.

As Bish is dragged into the search for the missing Violette, he finds himself reluctantly working with Noor LeBrac and her younger brother, Jimmy Sarraf.

And the more he delves into the lives of the family he helped put away, the more Bish realizes that they may have got it wrong all those years ago, and that truth wears many colours. Especially when it comes to the teenagers on board the recent bus bombing. Including his daughter.

Tell the truth. Shame the devil. Bish can’t get Violette LeBrac’s words out of his head. But what he may get is some sort of peace with his own past as the worlds of those involved in two bombings, years apart, collide into the journey of his life.
Argh!! This had what was potentially a really interesting plot. A bus bombing in a campsite in France. The bus is full of British teenagers. Or mostly British -one has joined them from Australia, and she's from a family where several members were convicted of planning and executing a terrorist attack in London several years earlier. Violette's mother is in jail for aiding and abetting her own father, who set up a bomb in a London supermarket that killed several people. No one believes Violette's presence on the bus was a coincidence, and according to the press and pretty much anyone else speaking in public, she's as much of a terrorist as the rest of her family.

Our protagonist, Bashir "Bish" Ortley is a cop whose daughter was on the bus as well. He was involved in the supermarket bombing as an investigator, and he was the one who arrested Violette's's mother. Bish's daughter is fine and wasn't injured in the bus bombing, but his role as a father allows him access to the case, and shadowy figures in some sort of secret intelligence organisation pressure him to make use of that access. When Violette and one of her friends disappear, Bish seems to be the only one with a way to find them and discover what happened.

I really, REALLY wanted to know what the hell was going on here. I wanted to know what was up with Violette and what she had been doing on that bus, not to mention who'd set the bomb and why. I wanted to know what had actually happened in the supermarket bombing, and what secrets Violette's mother was keeping. So if anyone would like to spoil me, please do, because I'm afraid I just couldn't continue reading. Much as I wanted to know, the characters were so terribly written, so 'off', that I just couldn't. The offness starts on the very first page, with a little vignette showing one of the victims of the supermarket bombing just before it happend. It's this scouse guy living in London, who thinks about how he's becoming a fan of this young guy who's just been signed by Man Utd, even though his people back home would disapprove. Yeah, right. That set the tone. I didn't believe in any of the characters or their reactions, and the writing was overdramatic.

It wasn't just the main characters that I didn't believe in; the whole context in which these things were happening felt wrong. Everything, from the reactions of bystanders to the headlines in the press. I could see what issues Marchetta was trying to explore, issues of racial profiling and sterotypes and discrimination, but it was as all so heavy-handed and unsubtle that it wasn't effective in the least.

Such a shame.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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The Best Of All Possible Worlds, by Karen Lord

>> Sunday, March 05, 2017

TITLE: The Best Of All Possible Worlds
AUTHOR: Karen Lord

COPYRIGHT: 2013
PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Del Rey

SETTING: Cygnus Beta planet
TYPE: Science fiction / fantasy
SERIES: There's a companion book set in the same world, The Galaxy Game

The Best of All Possible Worlds is a stunning science fiction epic that is also a beautifully wrought, deeply moving love story.

A proud and reserved alien society finds its homeland destroyed in an unprovoked act of aggression, and the survivors have no choice but to reach out to the indigenous humanoids of their adopted world, to whom they are distantly related. They wish to preserve their cherished way of life but come to discover that in order to preserve their culture, they may have to change it forever.

Now a man and a woman from these two clashing societies must work together to save this vanishing race—and end up uncovering ancient mysteries with far-reaching ramifications. As their mission hangs in the balance, this unlikely team—one cool and cerebral, the other fiery and impulsive—just may find in each other their own destinies... and a force that transcends all.
When the home planet of the Sadiri was completely destroyed, only the very few who were out of the planet on various missions survived. Most of them were men. With nowhere to return to, these people have had to accept the invitation to settle in Cygnus Beta, a planet that is happy to receive these refugees.

The people of Cygnus Beta are keen to make the resettlement as smooth as possible, so Grace Delarua, a bio-technician, is asked to liaise with them and work with their councillor, Dllenahkh, to get them settled where and how they'll be most comfortable.

Given that The Best Of All Possible Worlds' setup involves a whole world being destroyed, one might expect a plotty adventure story, with revenge and excitement. That's not what this is. All the big explosions happen off the page, and before the action here starts. What we get is an exploration of deracination and the different ways of dealing with it. Should the Sadiri try to keep themselves isolated and preserve their culture unchanged (technically, they could, since they are long-lived enough for the men to start again with young brides), or do they accept that to survive, their culture should adapt to its new surroundings?

It's a leisurely book. The small group led by Delarua and Dllenahkh travel around and meet the different peoples present in Cygnus Beta. So what we get is two kinds of simultaneous explorations. They are exploring the variety of cultures in the planet, but those who are part of the team are also exploring each other’s cultures in a much deeper, personal way.

It’s not that nothing happens; in fact, quite big things happen, but Lord purposely writes this in a very low-key way. It's somewhat episodic, but that works perfectly for the story. The only overarching thread is the decision about what path to take with regards to integration. Lord does not create some sort of of external danger to drive the plot. And through the small episodes and encounters with different people, the relationships are developed.

I loved it all, and particularly discovering the different cultures they visit. They are clearly built out of bits and pieces of different cultures on Earth, and I enjoyed how Lord played with them. The visits were brief, so much so that they always left me wanting more, but that felt just right.

There’s a bit of romance, too, but again, very leisurely, very low key. In writing it that way, though, Lord made me fully believe that Delarua and Dllenahkh really were perfect for each other.

A very enjoyable book.

MY GRADE: A B+.

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Cowboys, authors, a firefighter and a librarian

>> Friday, March 03, 2017

Two short reviews, one of a promising old book which I turned out not to like, and a novella by a favourite author that turned out to work really, really well.

TITLE: Rest and Be Thankful
AUTHOR: Helen MacInnes

I had Helen MacInnes pegged in my head as writer of spy novels, but this is one that is anything but. It's about two American friends, writers Sarah and Margaret, who are somewhat at loose ends after spending most of their adult lives in Europe, culminating in some very adventurous years during WW2. They've returned to the US, and since they are both well set up in terms of money, they have resorted to filling their time with long drives across the country.

It is while driving in Wyoming that a fortuitous automotive mishap leads them to finding the perfect ranch. It's love at first sight, and they end up purchasing the ranch house, which the owner of the land is quite happy to get rid of, as it's a bit of a white elephant to him. Margaret and Sarah's first project is to use the ranch as a literary retreat, and before too long a motley crew of mostly-unknown-to-them writers start to arrive.

It's a fun setup, but I just didn't like it. I found it extremely frustrating. The writing felt old fashioned and kind of arch and elliptical. But I could have got over that. Mainly, I got frustrated with the two main characters and how they allowed themselves to be treated by people who were guests into their own home. These guests are all nasty, self-absorbed arseholes, and I found it astounding that women who just a few years earlier were involved in the Resistance, so were clearly no pushovers, would allow themselves to be bullied in such a way. I was also frustrated by the preaching about politics. The book is very of its time in that area (it was published in 1949), and I got a really annoyed at the politics that were inserted when they had little to do with the plot. This wasn't so much that the characters had views, but that the book had views, and those views were pretty much McCarthyism. There's also a fair bit of how people from rural areas are so morally superior to people from the city (particularly New York!). Sorry, but I'm not here for that.

I was bored, as well as annoyed, so I gave up after about 100 pages.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

TITLE: Fanning the Flames
AUTHOR: Victoria Dahl

Fanning the Flames is a novella that works as a prequel to Dahl's Girls' Night Out series.

Lauren Foster is a librarian. She's been divorced for a while, and recently she's been noticing fireman Jake Davis quite a bit. He's a friend of her ex's, so they've known each other for a while. Both try hard to resist the temptation, but then they give in.

There is not a lot of conflict here. What there is comes mainly from Lauren’s head. She was, as she saw it, bad at being married. She did not just meekly accept that she needed to do “wifely” things, like making a dish for her husband’s work potluck, or taking care of all the school things for their kid. She resented her husband not pulling his weight. She got angry. So she doesn’t see herself as a “nice” woman, not like Jake’s perfect, sweet, pre-school teacher late wife (as she puts it, the maximum amount of time she can spend with a group of 6-year-olds is 55 minutes. She’s timed it when they come in to the library in which she works. After that she needs to lock herself in an office and fantasise about whiskey). But Jake is baffled as to why people think he needs or wants a "nice" woman. He likes Lauren. He likes that Lauren is not shy at all about what she wants sexually, and the person she is fits him perfectly.

I think in a longer book, the story might have suffered because of the lightness of the conflict, but in novella length, it was perfect. This was hot and sweet and absolutely hilarious (that scene when they are surprised in Jake’s house... I'm still giggling). Just right.

MY GRADE: A B+.

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Cream of the Crop, by Alice Clayton

>> Wednesday, March 01, 2017

TITLE: Cream of the Crop
AUTHOR: Alice Clayton

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 320
PUBLISHER: Gallery books

SETTING: Contemporary New York
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 2nd in the Hudson Valley series

Manhattan’s It Girl, Natalie Grayson, has it all: she’s a hot exec at a leading advertising firm, known industry-wide for her challenging and edgy campaigns. She’s got a large circle of friends, a family that loves her dearly, and her dance card is always full with handsome eligible bachelors. What else could a modern gal-about-town wish for? The answer, of course, is...cheese.

Natalie’s favorite part of each week is spending Saturday morning at the Union Square Farmer’s Market, where she indulges her love of all things triple cream. Her favorite booth also indulges her love of all things handsome. Oscar Mendoza, owner of the Bailey Falls Creamery and purveyor of the finest artisanal cheeses the Hudson Valley has to offer, is tall, dark, mysterious, and a bit oblivious. Or so she thinks. But that doesn’t stop Natalie from fantasizing about the size of his, ahem, milk can.

Romance is churning, passion is burning, and something incredible is rising to the top. Could it be... love?
Natalie Grayson has a life she enjoys very much. After growing up constantly self-conscious and hiding her body, going to culinary school was a revelation. Not because she learnt to cook (she's still terrible at it), but because meeting people as obsessed with good food as she is, and who clearly found her curves attractive, changed her view of herself. Since she's moved back to Manhattan she's embraced the way she looks and never lacks for a date. She also started a career in advertising, a career she's really, really great at. Life is good.

The only times Natalie is not supremely confident is when she goes to the farmer's market on Saturday and stops at the Bailey Falls Creamery stall. The creamery is owned by beautiful Oscar Mendoza, and Natalie thinks he's even more delicious than his Brie (and she really loves his Brie). Problem is, she just can't talk to him. She goes stupid every time she sees him, and can't get out more than two words ("oh, yes", to his question of "Brie?").

And then the mayor of the town of Bailey Falls approaches Natalie's ad agency, wanting a campaign to increase tourism there. Natalie goes all out to get the account. Her best friend Roxie (heroine of the first book) lives there. And the fact that she'll obviously meet Oscar when she goes there on her research trip does help...

I did love the idea of this. I do love cheese, and I loved having a plus-sized heroine (size 18, I think is said at one point, which I believe is about size 16 UK) who is confident in her attractiveness, and with very good reason. However, the execution of what really should have been a very fun story annoyed me.

Natalie basically drove me crazy. Much as I loved the concept of her being big and fabulous, Natalie crossed the line into obnoxiousness. She just kept bragging about how irresistible she was, and how she could make men eat from the palm of her hand (literally, in one case). A little of that might have been fine, but it's was much too heavy-handed. Seriously, Natalie, get over yourself, I wanted to say.

I also got annoyed by her very similar attitude to her career. She goes on and on about how she has achieved all her success in business through her own hard work, and how she made sure she took nothing from her wealthy developer father (apart from living rent-free in a brownstone he owns right in the middle of Manhattan. Hmmm...). No self-awareness, no realisation of the advantage and privilege it is to grow up rich, with parents who love you and give you the best education and build your confidence.

And then she takes her trip to Bailey Falls. First there was the dialogue between Natalie and Roxie. They talked about sex in a way that felt like they were trying to be shocking. It felt seriously immature.

And then we get to Natalie meeting Oscar, one-to-one, without the buffer of his stall in front of him. It was painful. Natalie randomly starts going on and on about how she lusts after him, even though this is a man who hasn't really shown much interest in her, beyond holding her cheese for a little longer than usual the last time he handed it to her. It felt inappropriate. And he comes back with how he likes to see her walk away from his stall because of her "great big ass". He clarifies that he means that he thinks her big as is great, not that her ass is huge, but still, what a boor! That was it for me.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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East West Street: On the Origins of "Genocide" and "Crimes Against Humanity", by Philippe Sands

>> Monday, February 27, 2017

TITLE: East West Street: On the Origins of "Genocide" and "Crimes Against Humanity"
AUTHOR: Philippe Sands

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 448
PUBLISHER: Knopf

SETTING: Contemporary and mostly 1st half of the 20th century
TYPE: Non fiction
SERIES: None

When human rights lawyer Philippe Sands received an invitation to deliver a lecture in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, he began to uncover a series of extraordinary historical coincidences. It set him on a quest that would take him halfway around the world in an exploration of the origins of international law and the pursuit of his own secret family history, beginning and ending with the last day of the Nuremberg trial.

Part historical detective story, part family history, part legal thriller, Philippe Sands guides us between past and present as several interconnected stories unfold in parallel. The first is the hidden story of two Nuremberg prosecutors who discover, only at the end of the trial, that the man they are prosecuting may be responsible for the murder of their entire families in Nazi-occupied Poland, in and around Lviv. The two prosecutors, Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin, were remarkable men, whose efforts led to the inclusion of the terms 'crimes against humanity' and 'genocide' in the judgement at Nuremberg. The defendant, Hans Frank, Hitler's personal lawyer and Governor-General of Nazi-occupied Poland, turns out to be an equally compelling character.

The lives of these three men lead Sands to a more personal story, as he traces the events that overwhelmed his mother's family in Lviv and Vienna during the Second World War. At the heart of this book is an equally personal quest to understand the roots of international law and the concepts that have dominated Sands' work as a lawyer. Eventually, he finds unexpected answers to his questions about his family, in this powerful meditation on the way memory, crime and guilt leave scars across generations, and the haunting gaps left by the secrets of others.
My non-fiction reading tends to be in two categories. The first is books I picked up because their subject matter was interesting to me. With those, the writing can make or break them. Even books about a fascinating subject, if the writing is not good, will end up in a DNF. The second category works very differently. It's the minority of books I bought because I like or have heard good things about the author's writing. With those, even if the subject is not something that would have normally interested me, the writing will carry me till the end and make me interested.

East West Street is solidly in that second category. It won the 2016 Baillie Gifford prize for non-fiction (formerly known as the Samuel Johnson prize), and when the author was interviewed in Front Row, the interviewer raved about the writing. I immediately ordered it from the library, even though the subject matter was one which, while it didn't not interest me, didn't particularly interest me, either, if you know what I mean.

So what is this about? The subtitle is pretty explicit: this is about the origin of the concepts of 'Genocide' and 'Crimes Against Humanity'. They both arose as a result of the actions of Nazi Germany, and Sands explores how and why. His point of departure is a coincidence. During a visit to the city of Lviv, in Western Ukraine, Sands becomes aware of the fact that the two men who came up with and championed each of the concepts either came from Lviv and/or its surrounding areas. And there is a very personal connection as well: so did Sands' grandfather.

What results is a number of interspersed stories. We get the personal and family story of Sands' grandfather, but also of Rafael Lemkin, who created the concept of 'genocide', and of Hersch Lauterpacht, who championed the idea of 'crimes against humanity'. We follow Sands in what is almost a detective story as he researches these people and their families. But they're not the only characters, as their stories are set in the context of what was going on at the time. This brings others into the picture, such as Hans Frank, one of Hitler's henchmen, who governed Nazi-occupied Poland, which came to include Lviv. We also get a fascinating account of the Nuremberg trials, which was something that was completely new to me.

Someone who just reads the subtitle could be forgiven for thinking this will be pretty dry and factual. It's not. While it definitely delivers in terms of being a history of these two legal concepts and does so in a very rigorous ways, it's the personal touches that make this book so amazing. It's not just that they make the book feel human and touching and heartrending; they feel integral to the story of the concepts. They allow us to understand the context in which the concepts arose, and make it clear why they matter.

I always find that with the Holocaust, the horror of it becomes kind of blunted in my mind. It's fair enough, I suppose, because you probably couldn't function if you were feeling it in your gut all the time. Reading this, there were these little details where suddenly I could absolutely FEEL it, where what it must have been like for the people involved in it became clear in my mind and I got the gut-clenching, horrified feeling. This was both valuable on its own, but it also worked for the book, by bringing the point home of what was at stake. Lemkin and Lauterpacht's efforts were not a dry argument about legal terminology, they were about preventing the horror from happening again.

MY GRADE: An A. This was a fantastic book.

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The Shelf: From LEQ to LES, by Phyllis Rose

>> Saturday, February 25, 2017

TITLE: The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading
AUTHOR: Phyllis Rose

COPYRIGHT: 2014
PAGES: 271
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Non Fiction
SERIES: None

Phyllis Rose embarks on a grand literary experiment—to read her way through a random shelf of library books, LEQ–LES

Can you have an Extreme Adventure in a library? Phyllis Rose casts herself into the wilds of an Upper East Side lending library in an effort to do just that. Hoping to explore the "real ground of literature," she reads her way through a somewhat randomly chosen shelf of fiction, from LEQ to LES.

The shelf has everything Rose could wish for—a classic she has not read, a remarkable variety of authors, and a range of literary styles. The early nineteenth-century Russian classic A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov is spine by spine with The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux. Stories of French Canadian farmers sit beside those about aristocratic Austrians. California detective novels abut a picaresque novel from the seventeenth century. There are several novels by a wonderful, funny, contemporary novelist who has turned to raising dogs because of the tepid response to her work.

In The Shelf, Rose investigates the books on her shelf with exuberance, candor, and wit while pondering the many questions her experiment raises and measuring her discoveries against her own inner shelf—those texts that accompany us through life. "Fairly sure that no one in the history of the world has read exactly this series of novels," she sustains a sense of excitement as she creates a refreshingly original and generous portrait of the literary enterprise.
The premise of this book is a project that really appealed to me. In fact, I've half convinced myself I should do something like it myself (if maybe not write a book about it). Rose decides she will take a quasi-random shelf in her local library and just read through it.

It's only quasi-random because she immediately realises she needs a couple of rules, otherwise, popular and prolific authors being what they are, she'll end up reading a shelf that's just, I don't know, Danielle Steel. Her shelf must have at least one classic she hasn't read but is interested in, it must have enough different authors (including a respectable number of female authors), and if there's an author there with several titles, she is required to read only 3. All sounds eminently sensible to me!

And that's what the book (mostly) is: Rose talking about her experience in reading those books. She starts out with the classic, a Russian book called A Hero of Our Time, and it was clear she was taking this seriously when she tries several different translations to see if any of them help her 'get it' (I'd never heard of the book, but strangely, just last week I saw a ballet based on it advertised!). She tries an almost forgotten South African author. She reads The Phantom of the Opera. She reads a picaresque Spanish novel which she finds unexpectedly appealing. She discovers a contemporary author she really enjoys, to the point that she even contacts her and meets her.

Strangely enough, even though I wasn't particularly tempted to read any of them (and a couple of them evoked a 'hell, no!'), I still really enjoyed her discussions of them. She approaches her books with a very open, generous mind, willing to look for something valuable, even in books that do not appeal to her. And she does find it! I guess I'd describe her as "game". She gives these books an open-minded shot.

I said the book is only 'mostly' Rose's experiences reading those books. She also has a couple of chapters that don't quite fit into that theme and are basically essays on a particular subject that interests her. I had a mixed reaction to these. The one about how libraries weed out books was fascinating, while the one where she moans about negative reviews, not so much. Good or not, I had a bit of an issue with them being there at all. That was not what I signed up for when I chose to read the book, and it felt a bit like these chapters were only there to fill up space.

Still, on the whole I liked the book and found the idea quite inspiring. I might visit the lovely Liverpool Central Library soon and look up a likely shelf!

MY GRADE: A B-.

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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by JK Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorne

>> Thursday, February 23, 2017

TITLE: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
AUTHOR: JK Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorne

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 320
PUBLISHER: Pottermore

SETTING: Alternate reality
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: 8th in the Harry Potter canon

Based on an original new story by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne, a new play by Jack Thorne, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is the eighth story in the Harry Potter series and the first official Harry Potter story to be presented on stage. The play received its world premiere in London’s West End on 30th July 2016.

It was always difficult being Harry Potter and it isn’t much easier now that he is an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, a husband and father of three school-age children.

While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted. As past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places.
I wasn't sure I wanted to read this one. For starters, it wasn't really fully written by Rowling herself, and it's not a novel but the script for the play, which is something I'm not used to reading (not since reading Shakespeare in secondary school, I guess). And still, even with such low expectations, this was a massive disappointment.

The play takes place some 20 years after HP7, and stars Albus, one of Harry's children. Albus has a tense relationship with his father, mainly because he's keenly feeling the pressure to live up to his legend. He feels his father expects him to be just like him. He isn't, though. He enjoys different things and wants different things in life. Harry doesn't react well to this, which doesn't help. In a fit of rebellion, Albus decides to do something that he knows his father will disapprove of. And this is as far as the spoiler-free bit of this review will go. There will be only relatively mild spoilers in the rest (i.e. only more details about the setup, as that's as far as I got), but if you want to read this or see the play blind, you might want to stop reading here.

This was so, so problematic. Positives first: I loved the idea of the story. How would Harry Potter cope with a child very different from himself? I also loved several of the new characters, particularly Scorpius Malfoy, Lucius's son, who becomes Albus's best friend. Scorpius is a total sweetheart, and I wanted to reach into the pages and hug him.

That is about it, though. I did not really recognise the characters I knew in their adult version. Harry is an oblivious idiot, Ron is a bumbling fool, and Ginny and Hermione don't come out that well, either. And the plot is just stupid. Albus basically decides almost on a whim to go back in time and make a massive change, with zero thought. Things we’ve been told in the canon are difficult and require huge amounts of planning, such as a raid on the Ministry of Magic, using polyjuice potion and playing with fucking time, are done with no effort, very deus ex machina. They just happen.

And then we get to what looks like it might be the central plot of the book. Albus has changed something in the past and boom! All sorts of things in the present he knew have changed. How will he fix that? Aaaand... I was out. This is hands down my least favourite plot device ever. I hate time travel books in general, will only cope with time travel if I’m otherwise loving the book (e.g. Azkaban), and this particular plot device in particular is not one I want to read. Add to this dialogue that might work perfectly in a theatre, but that feels dull and lifeless on the script, and I just didn’t want to go on. So I didn’t.

Too bad, because because this could have been a good one.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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Someone To Love, by Mary Balogh

>> Tuesday, February 21, 2017

TITLE: Someone To Love
AUTHOR: Mary Balogh

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 400
PUBLISHER: Signet

SETTING: Early 1800s England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Starts the Westcott series

Humphrey Westcott, Earl of Riverdale, has died, leaving behind a fortune that will forever alter the lives of everyone in his family—including the daughter no one knew he had...

Anna Snow grew up in an orphanage in Bath knowing nothing of the family she came from. Now she discovers that the late Earl of Riverdale was her father and that she has inherited his fortune. She is also overjoyed to learn she has siblings. However, they want nothing to do with her or her attempts to share her new wealth. But the new earl’s guardian is interested in Anna…

Avery Archer, Duke of Netherby, keeps others at a distance. Yet something prompts him to aid Anna in her transition from orphan to lady. As London society and her newfound relatives threaten to overwhelm Anna, Avery steps in to rescue her and finds himself vulnerable to feelings and desires he has hidden so well and for so long.
I still haven't finished reading Balogh's previous series, the Survivors' Club (I liked the first books well enough, but the latest seemed to have lost a bit momentum), but I was tempted by this, the first book in a new series. Part of it was also that my mum, a huge Balogh fan, told me she was about to start it and how about we read it at the same time? Living so far away means that the opportunities for mother-daughter activities are scarce, so I couldn't resist that. This was while I was in Uruguay and spending about 10 hours a day sitting by the pool and reading, though, so I finished it a lot earlier than she did :)

The Earl of Riverdale has died. As part of the task of sorting out his affairs (in more than one sense!), his widow discloses to his lawyer and the Duke of Netherby, as executor of the will, that the Earl has been supporting a young woman in an orphanage for the last 20 years or so. The obvious conclusion, to which they all come, is that this is a natural daughter of the Earl's. The widow is a kind soul, and her intention is that a generous sum should be settled on the young woman, rather than having payments stopped.

Straightforward enough, it seems, but things turn out to be much more complicated than that. Because the young woman, Miss Anna Snow, is not illegitimate. The Earl married her mother when he was a thoughtless young man, and although she did die not too long afterwards, this happened after his marriage to the rich young lady his parents insisted he marry under pain of being cut off.

Result? The Earl's other three children, who all had their lives mapped out, need to think again. They are now illegitimate. Their position in society is gone, and they do not inherit anything, not the earldom, which passes onto a cousin, not the Earl's fortune, which goes to Anna Snow.

Anna Snow, whose life is just as uppended by the news. Anna had grown up, like all the other orphans, fantasising that her family would some day be revealed to her. Sometimes she even dreamed she would turn out to be an heiress, and her being sent to the orphanage (a very nice orphanage, where the children are well-treated, but an orphanage all the same) would prove to have been a mistake. When that old dream comes true, it's all much more challenging than she ever thought in her vague fantasies. She's now heiress to a huge fortune and must take her place in society, and her family, many of whom have reasons to resent her, feel they have a stake in making sure she'll "do", and feel entitled to tell her what she needs to do to get there. It's pretty overwhelming.

One of the positive surprises, however, is Avery, the Duke of Netherby. Avery is a family friend, and for reasons he doesn't really understand, he feels compelled to help her.

I liked the setup. The revelations about Anna throw things right up in the air for many, many people, and for once, I am really interested in how things turn out for them (sequel-baiting usually annoys me). One of Anna's sisters gets jilted by the nobleman she was supposed to marry now that she's illegitimate (and the way he gets his comeuppance is extremely satisfying). Her brother, who thought he was the Earl for all of a few days and was enjoying himself as only a young, privileged man with not a care in the world could, ends up joining the army. Both their stories should be interesting. But I'm most interested in two. First, the Earl's supposed widow. We don't get much from her, but I was intrigued by what I saw. Second, the cousin who ends up inheriting the earldom. This is a man who never expected to get it. He worked like crazy to get his own estate in order after he received it in a poor state, and was looking forward to settling down in the country and living a cozy life, as soon as he found a woman to love him. Now he needs to basically start again, since he's received another estate in a bad state, but not the fortune that was supposed to come with it. His story should be interesting.

And I suspect that the fact that I'm going on and on about the family stuff and haven't really said a word about the romance says it all. I'm afraid the romance was very meh. It was fine. There was nothing objectionable about it. In fact, I think Anna and Avery fit quite well. There just was no chemistry whatsoever there. So while I liked reading it well enough, it didn't excite me and I was a lot more interested in the other stuff going on around them.

Before closing this review, I should mention the bit about the mysterious Chinese man who taught Avery martial arts. There's a good explanation here, in the Smart Bitches review about why that element is problematic. I won't repeat it, as it's expressed there both by the reviewer and by commenters such as Courtney Milan much better than I could, but it bothered me. Not enough to overly ruin my enjoyment of the book, but I certainly noticed it. At least Balogh seemed to take the point well, which is refreshing.

MY GRADE: A B-.

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Apprentice in Death, by JD Robb

>> Sunday, February 19, 2017

TITLE: Apprentice in Death
AUTHOR: JD Robb

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 384
PUBLISHER: Berkley

SETTING: 2060s New York
TYPE: Police procedural
SERIES: By my count, 44th full-length title in the In Death series

The shots came quickly, silently, and with deadly accuracy. Within seconds, three people lay dead at Central Park's ice skating rink. There's a sniper loose on the streets of New York City, and Lieutenant Eve Dallas is about to face one of the toughest and most unsettling cases of her career.

Eve knows that only a handful of people could have carried out such an audacious but professional hit. Even more disturbing: this expert in death has an accomplice. Someone is being trained in the science of killing - and they have a terrifying agenda of their own. With a city shaken to its core, Eve and her team are forced to hunt not one but two killers. Worse still - this talented young apprentice has developed an insatiable taste for murder...
The ice skating rink in Central Park. Tourists, regulars and casual visitors are having a great time, until a skater goes off balance in the middle of a flying twirl and crashes into a young family. But she didn’t go off balance, she was hit by a laser shot, and within seconds, two more people have been fatally hit.

Eve Dallas is called to investigate, and it soon becomes clear the shots came from nowhere near the rink. They're looking for a sniper, a really good one, and that's not even the biggest surprise. Turns out they're looking for two people, teacher and student, and the apprentice is clearly getting into killing.

Every time a new book in this series comes out, and they have been doing so at 6-month intervals for over 20 years, I'm suprised that Robb hasn't ran out of steam. I'm aware lots of people disagree and have gone off the series, but I'm still fully engaged. Yes, there are flaws (fantasy-billionaire Roarke has felt out of place in Eve's world for quite a few books now, as I've said again and again!), but not enough to matter to me. I continue to love these books.

Apprentice in Death featured a particularly solid case. It’s an interesting setup, but more than that, there’s solid detective work in identifying the culprits, and then even more in catching them and getting enough evidence for a conviction. It's a tense chase, as well, and it worked wonderfully.

The different books in this series have a different balance between the case and personal stuff. In this case, the focus was solidly on the case, but that didn't mean there was no character development. It's just that there wasn't really much external character stuff going all (we did get Bella's first birthday, but that was really minor). Here the character development comes directly out of the case. There's the way the random victims weigh on Eve, supporting one of the most appealing features of this series, which is that the victims are always portrayed as real people. They're given personalities and motivations, and their deaths affect others. But there are also the issues raised by the relationship between the culprits, as they lead Eve to ponder the nature of the mentor-mentee relationship, not to mention what might have been if Feeney had not been Feeney.

MY GRADE: A nice, solid B+.

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The Red Notebook, by Antoine Laurain

>> Friday, February 17, 2017

TITLE: The Red Notebook
AUTHOR: Antoine Laurain

COPYRIGHT: 2014
PAGES: 159
PUBLISHER: Gallic Books

SETTING: Contemporary Paris
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

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Bookseller Laurent Letellier comes across an abandoned handbag on a Parisian street and feels impelled to return it to its owner. The bag contains no money, phone or contact information. But a small red notebook with handwritten thoughts and jottings reveals a person that Laurent would very much like to meet. Without even a name to go on, and only a few of her possessions to help him, how is he to find one woman in a city of millions?
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Coming home late one night, a young woman called Laure is mugged and her handbag is stolen. By the next morning, a bump in the head she received during the mugging has put her into a coma. That same morning, Laurent, a bookseller walking to work notices a handbag on a bin. Coming to exactly the right conclusion about what must have happened, Laurent picks it up and looks inside to see if he can work out whom to return it to.

And so begins an obsession. The objects in the handbag, including a red notebook where the owner writes a sort of journal, full of painfully honest observations, tell him a lot about her, just not her name. Laurent follows clue after clue to discover the identity of this woman he's come to think he might get along with really well.

The Red Notebook is sweet, but a bit insubstantial. On the whole, I enjoyed it. There were things I really liked, such as the sense of place. The book is set in Paris and it feels completely different to an UK urban setting, but at the same time it has quite a few touches of modernity that make it clear it's not (completely, maybe) idealised. It does feel a bit Amélie-ish, but that's no bad thing.

When I read the description I was a bit doubtful and, indeed, a lot of things happen here that could be seen as crossing the line into creepy and invasive. To the author's credit, however, he mostly keeps his main character on the right side of that line. He does try to do the right thing every time, it's just that events conspire to move him in the direction where he secretly wants to go, There was a single moment when I thought "Oh, no, no, no!", but he does make amends for that. And I liked the way he acted at the end, which did a lot to dispel the worries that he might be a bit stalkerish.

So I liked that ok. For all that, though, the characters didn't really succeed in engaging me and making me interested in their story, beyond the detective elements of Laurent trying to figure out his beloved's identity. I wasn't really convinced of the romance, although I was not convinced that the romance wouldn't work out, either.

MY GRADE: A C+.

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The Woman in Cabin 10, by Ruth Ware

>> Wednesday, February 15, 2017

TITLE: The Woman in Cabin 10
AUTHOR: Ruth Ware

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 340
PUBLISHER: Gallery/Scout Press

SETTING: Contemporary UK, Norway, and on board a cruise ship
TYPE: Mystery/Trhiller
SERIES: None

From New York Times bestselling author of the “twisty-mystery” (Vulture) novel In a Dark, Dark Wood, comes The Woman in Cabin 10, an equally suspenseful novel from Ruth Ware—this time, set at sea.

In this tightly wound story, Lo Blacklock, a journalist who writes for a travel magazine, has just been given the assignment of a lifetime: a week on a luxury cruise with only a handful of cabins. At first, Lo’s stay is nothing but pleasant: the cabins are plush, the dinner parties are sparkling, and the guests are elegant. But as the week wears on, frigid winds whip the deck, gray skies fall, and Lo witnesses what she can only describe as a nightmare: a woman being thrown overboard. The problem? All passengers remain accounted for—and so, the ship sails on as if nothing has happened, despite Lo’s desperate attempts to convey that something (or someone) has gone terribly, terribly wrong…

With surprising twists and a setting that proves as uncomfortably claustrophobic as it is eerily beautiful, Ruth Ware offers up another intense read.
Lo Blacklock's week-long stay on the Aurora should have been the highlight of her year. The Aurora is a new luxury cruise ship, and Lo, a lowly staff writer at a travel magazine, would not usually get such a perk. However, her boss is pregnant and her really bad morning sickness does not mix well with the idea of a week sailing in the North Sea, so Lo it is.

Lo plans to grab the opportunity with both hands, but then someone breaks into her flat (while she's there, no less) just a couple of days before she's due to sail. Physically she's mostly fine after the experience, but the trauma puts her off her stride right from the start, and she boards the ship already feeling off-balance and not quite right.

Things get even worse the very first night, when after a long, boozy gourmet dinner, Lo is woken up by what she's convinced is a scream from the cabin next door. That is shortly followed by the sort of splash only a heavy object (like a body) could make going overboard, and when Lo runs onto the balcony outside her room, she sees a bloody smear on the glass screen that connects it to the balcony belonging to the cabin next door.

There's no doubt in Lo's mind that the young woman staying in that cabin, whom Lo briefly met right after she boarded, must have come to a sticky end. But when she reports what's happened to the head of security, the man is baffled. The cabin next door is empty, since the man who was supposed to stay there had to cancel at the last minute. The ship's records show there isn't, nor ever was, a young woman staying there, and when they open the cabin to check it, its completely empty state seems to bear that out. Lo can swear up and down all she wants that she saw the woman -even borrowed a tube of mascara off her!- but it doesn't seem very probable to the head of security. And his doubts solidify into certainty when he discovers Lo takes anti-anxiety medication. Mental health issues + a lot of alcohol = unreliable woman, as far as he's concerned. He'll be polite and won't say anything, even allow Lo to ask a few questions of the staff, just to ease her mind, but it's obvious to Lo that he's not taking her seriously at all.

Someone else is, however. Lo's attempts to figure out what happened lead to a reaction. Someone clearly wants her to stop digging.

The Woman in Cabin 10 did not start out well for me. I was getting more and more annoyed with Lo, until I suddenly had a big "think again" moment. My annoyance with Lo was because I thought she was just pointlessly making things harder for herself by being all hysterical and incoherent and jumping to conclusions when reporting the crime to the head of security. I was thinking "If only you had said this and this and this to him, it would have been fine!". And then I just stopped dead and thought about all those cases of women not being believed when reporting crimes (rape, particularly), because they don't behave exactly as whatever police officer takes their statement has in their mind as the way a woman reporting a rape should behave. And my whole view of the book and the character shifted. Well, of course Lo would be a mess when reporting what has happened! She has just had a traumatic experience, which has come after the break-in, so she was already traumatised. And yes, she has been drinking, but she has just attended a well-watered bazillion-course dinner! She behaved in one of the many ways a normal person might in similar circumstances. After that point, my perception of the book changed completely, and I started to enjoy it loads.

The mystery turned out to be really good. It works wonderfully as a whodunnit, since the plotting is very well done. There are plenty of red herrings and I took several wrong turns trying to follow them. Ware plays completely fair, though, and when I finally understood what had happened, everything clicked into place perfectly. I had that magical 'a-ha!' moment every good mystery should have. That happens a bit before the end, and that's when the book becomes a really good thriller. I was at the edge of my seat... well, not quite literally, since it was an audiobook and I mainly listen while I exercise -let's just say I completely lost track of time while ont he treadmill, and my workout was over before I knew it. And then there's the dénouement. I thought for a minute things had kind of gone a bit anticlimactic, but then we get a little final revelation, and I just smiled happily.

The book also has a really great sense of place. The ship feels real and Ware creates a vivid atmosphere, combining the closed spaces and Lo's mental state to create an oppressive sense of claustrophobia. Mind you, I still wanted to go on the ship myself!

Something else I appreciated was the lack of romance as the point of the book. Lo has a boyfriend, and their relationship has a bit of space here, but it's in the background. It's not what the book is about, although the events in the book do develop it. Also, she has what feels like a realistic life for a woman her age today, with friends and social media. It's ridiculous that is so uncommon, but it is, and I liked seeing here for once.

A solid, enjoyable read. It will probably not be for everyone (most of the reviewers on amazon seem to have felt really frustrated by Lo), but it was definitely for me.

MY GRADE: A B+.

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Flawless, by Carrie Lofty

>> Monday, February 13, 2017

TITLE: Flawless
AUTHOR: Carrie Lofty

COPYRIGHT: 2011
PAGES: 416
PUBLISHER:Pocket

SETTING: Early 20th century South Africa
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 1st in The Christies series

A passion this seductive is more precious than diamonds...

Sir William Christie, ruthless tycoon and notorious ladies' man, is dead. Now his four grown children have gathered for the reading of his will. What lies in store for stepsiblings Vivienne, Alexander, and twins Gareth and Gwyneth? Stunning challenges that will test their fortitude across a royal empire...and lead them to the marvelously passionate adventures of their lives.

Lady Vivienne Bancroft fled England for New York, hoping to shed the confines of her arranged marriage to unrepentant rogue Miles Durham, Viscount Bancroft—though she never forgot the fiery desire he unleashed with his slightest touch. And when the gambling man arrives on her doorstep for a little sensual revenge for her desertion, he is met with Vivienne's dilemma: She must earn her father's inheritance by profitably running a diamond business worth millions in colonial South Africa.

Swept together in an exotic undertaking filled with heated passion and hungry temptation, will Vivienne and Miles discover that the marriage vows they once made are the greatest snare—or the most treasured reward?
Such a disappointment! I have accumulated quite a few of Carrie Lofty's books in my TBR. Several people have recommended her writing, and her settings all look so very interesting. This one was no exception.

The basic setup of the series is one of those "family patriarch trying to control his family from beyond the grave" things. William Christie has died, and his children will need to succeed at a task before they can inherit. They have each been assigned a failing enterprise and they must turn a profit, however small, in a set period. For Vivienne, that enterprise is a diamond brokerage in Kimberley, South Africa. This is taking place in the early 20th century, right after the Boer War, so it's potentially fascinating (actually, the same setting in any time period would be great!).

Vivienne is surprised when arriving in South Africa, her estranged husband is waiting there to meet her. She and Lord Miles Bancroft have been separated for quite a while, after she left him, and she's not sure what he's after, beyond some of the inheritance. To be honest, in the third of so of the book that I read, neither was I. Whenever we're in Miles' head it's all a confusing mishmash of greed, need for revenge and infatuation. Could be interesting, but unfortunately, it's all topped with a massive sense of entitlement.

And that was the problem at that stage: I really disliked Miles, and I despised Vivienne for not standing up for herself with him. It's that very old fashioned thing of the heroine having a traitorous body that betrays her whenever the hero decides to manhandle her in any way. That used to be par for the course, but I've become pretty intolerant of this in the last few years. So yeah, in the section I read, Miles was a total asshole. Their relationship dynamics were all about the power play, which is not my thing at all. Miles spends most of his time trying to enforce his will over Viv, and using sex to do so. There are a lot of punishing kisses and lots of dubious consent (he goes "of course I won't force you", but then tells Viv he will help her only if she sleeps with him and is an enthusiastic participant. Ugh.).

I had the hope things would get better (I gave in and had a look at goodreads reviews, and several people reported they disliked Miles at first but warmed to him as the book went on). However, there is so much mental lusting here that trying to push through felt like a huge chore. I gave up after a few days of only being able to read 5 pages at a time. No one's got time for that, and there are too many good books in my massive TBR.

I will give Lofty another try, hoping I simply chose the wrong book to start with, but I'm a bit worried now.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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