Turning It On, by Elizabeth Harmon

>> Monday, August 13, 2018

TITLE: Turning It On
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Harmon

PAGES: 248
PUBLISHER: Carina Press

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 2nd in the Red Hot Russians series

Book editor Hannah Levinson couldn't be happier. This "Nice Jewish Girl" is ready to marry the man she's longed after for half her life. When her fiancé suggests they audition for Last Fling, a steamy new reality show for engaged couples, she lets herself be swayed. Maybe she'll learn a thing or two.

Vlad Shustov's fall from a once-bright career as a competitive figure skater was swift. Now trapped by a shameful past and an uncertain future, "Vlad the Bad" strips for cash. Joining the cast of Last Fling could earn him a fortune—or at least enough to finally leave stripping. But to win the show's prize, he must seduce an engaged woman, something he can't even bear the thought of.

Hannah's not like any woman Vlad's met before. Betrayed by the man she thought she loved and relegated to the ugly-duckling role she'd worked so hard to shed, can she trust there's more to Vlad than meets the eye? With sleazy TV tactics shattering the last shreds of the contestants' confidence, they'll have to believe true happiness is not only possible...it may be looking right at them.
I bought the following 2 books in the series after reading book 1, Pairing Off. That one wasn't perfect, but there was so much potential! I loved the Russian setting and all the stuff about ice skating. Some of the characterisation and conflict weren't great, but that's the sort of thing that I thought would improve with more experience. By the way, looking back at my review now it's interesting that one of the things I criticised was that Carrie didn't seem to realise that it would create a problem for her Southern Republican politician father that she was taking up with a Russian skater and taking Russian citizenship to be able to compete. I posted my review in August 2016, and little did I know how wrong I would be proved to be!

So anyway, I pretty much bought the following books automatically, without checking the plot summaries. And when I decided to read book 2 and checked out the description I was a bit taken aback. There was nothing in the setup of what I had liked in the previous book. No ice skating, apparently a US setting. And the plot was based around a reality TV show! But ok, I thought, let's try.

Unfortunately, actually reading the book made things even worse. First of all, the reality TV show around which the plot revolves was the worst possible kind of reality TV show for me. I'm fine with reality TV that is about talented people being talented -I love Bake-Off and Masterchef, for instance. But no, this is a sleazy "relationships" reality show, sort of like The Bachelor or Love Island, and I despise that crap. It's called "The Fling". Engaged couples go on a holiday resort, and are surrounded by people they're attracted to (you know that whole thing about people getting 'a pass' to sleep with a particular celebrity if they ever get the chance? That sort of thing), who are their possible flings. The potential flings try to seduce them. If one of them succeeds, they win. If both in the couple resist temptation and stay loyal, they get a prize (designer wedding dress, etc). I found the very concept revolting.

And then there's the characters. Hannah Levinson is a quiet book editor who's just got engaged to her longtime boyfriend, Jack. She loves her job, but Jack, a lawyer, is very discontented in his. He wanted to do something in the entertainment industry, but ended up in the (to him) most boring job in the world. And then his old friend Eric shows up. Eric has become a TV producer, and is casting engaged couples for The Fling. Jack jumps at the chance, and manipulates and bullies Hannah into agreeing (putting a very likely promotion at risk, no less).

I despised Jack for being an asshole. I despised Hannah for being a spineless idiot who let Jack treat her like shit and do something that is obviously going to humiliate her. This might be victim-blaming, but so be it. I also despised their 'friend' Eric for inflicting this turd of a show onto the world and throwing his supposed friends under the bus (he promises all sorts of things to them, like that Hannah will be able to continue working, since she can't get a 10-week holiday to film and they'll film around her commitments, which he knows very well won't happen). This piece of shit is supposed to be the hero in the secondary romance, no less.

The hero, a down-on-his-luck Russian former skater now making a living as a stripper in Las Vegas, seemed ok, and I actually found him pretty interesting, but the more I read the more I wanted to slap everyone else. Literally, everyone. There's no point putting myself through that kind of aggravation, so bye bye!



The Flowers of Vashnoi, by Lois McMaster Bujold

>> Saturday, August 11, 2018

TITLE: The Flowers of Vashnoi
AUTHOR: Lois McMaster Bujold

PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Barrayar
TYPE: Science Fiction
SERIES: Part of the Vorkosigan series (comes after Captain Vorpatril's Alliance)

Still new to her duties as Lady Vorkosigan, Ekaterin is working together with expatriate scientist Enrique Borgos on a radical scheme to recover the lands of the Vashnoi exclusion zone, lingering radioactive legacy of the Cetagandan invasion of the planet Barrayar. When Enrique’s experimental bioengineered creatures go missing, the pair discover that the zone still conceals deadly old secrets.
I completely missed this novella coming out! I only found out about it last week, and of course, I downloaded it immediately and gulped it down that very evening.

The Flowers of Vashnoi takes place not long after Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, but plotwise, it's a bit of a continuation of a particular element in A Civil Campaign. Yep, Enrique Borgos and his butterbugs strike again! He and Ekaterin have been working together in a project to use a modified version to recover some of the still-radioactive lands in Vorkosigan Vashnoi. They're at the stage where they're running a pilot project in a small patch in the middle of the forest, when they realise that some of the bugs are going missing. And their investigation turns up some very old secrets.

The story reminded me a bit about the Mountains of Mourning in that we explore the effects the attempted Cetagandan invasion of many decades earlier still has on the backwaters of the Vorkosigan's territories -both physically and psychologically. It's heartbreaking and touching and beautifully told. There's some very intriguing characters who are introduced here, and I wanted to know more about them and see what would happen to them.

Most of the story here focuses on Ekaterin, with Miles playing a bit of a supporting role. Much as I love him, I was perfectly fine with this, because Ekaterin is fab. They are very much themselves here, by which I mean they're determined to see justice done, not the letter of the law, but the spirit. I may have devoured the story in one gulp, but it did leave an aftertaste that had me thinking about the issues it raised for a while longer.



A food linguist, a stand-alone Nora, and a psychic

>> Thursday, August 09, 2018

TITLE: The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu
AUTHOR: Dan Jurafsky

This is a collection of articles on language relating to food. It's a mixed bag. There is a lot about etymology and word origins (Why do we "toast" someone or something when drinking? Are macaroons and macarons related, and do macaroni have anything to do with either of them?). This was ok, if not particularly captivating. I was much more interested in the chapter on the language used in menus and how it varies depending on the price point of the restaurant. That was actually quite fascinating, and there's a related chapter that looks at a similar thing in bags of crisps. I also liked the chapter on the phonetics of different foods and how different types of sounds suggest different qualities in the foods (crispy and crunchy? Soft and pillowy?).

As a book, this didn't really feel very cohesive, more a random collection of articles probably written for something else originally and just gathered together here. And the writing style was a bit variable as well. Some chapters feel quite narrative and flowed well, some felt pretty dry. Worth reading, but not that great.


TITLE: Whiskey Beach
AUTHOR: Nora Roberts

Eli Landon, a successful lawyer, has just had a nightmare being the main suspect in the murder of his soon-to-be ex wife, and has taken refuge at the family pile in Whiskey Beach. He wants to be left alone to lick his wounds, but Abra Walsh just keeps butting into his life. Abra is many things: housekeeper / yoga instructor / masseuse / general all-around nurturer, and she will help Eli heal, whether he's ready to come back to life or not.

The plot revolves around someone who is convinced that Eli did kill his wife and has literally got away with murder. This person is obsessed, and determined to make Eli pay, and the danger follows him from Boston to Whiskey Beach. At the same time, of course, there is the romance between Eli and Abra. The book is pretty well-balanced between the two elements, and I liked both. I was a bit unsure about Abra at the beginning, as she seems a bit too far towards the quirky end of the spectrum, but there's a nicely sensible baseline under the beads. Eli was fine. Not a particularly interesting hero, but solid enough.

And that's kind of the theme of the book, really. Competent, but not flashy. But a competent Nora Roberts book is still very enjoyable.


TITLE: Stealing Shadows
AUTHOR: Kay Hooper

Stealing Shadows has a premise that probably felt much fresher when it was published, back in the year 2000. Cassie Neill is a psychic. She spent many years helping police catch murderers, but after a case goes wrong, she exiles herself to a small town. And then she starts connecting with a killer there as well, and she's back doing what traumatised her in the first place.

It all feels pretty generic. The police at first don't believe her, the killer at some point focuses his attention on Cassie, etc. There's also a romance with a man on the law enforcement side (in this case, the DA, Ben Ryan). The mystery was ok, but unexciting, and same goes for the romance.

This is the first in a series (or rather, a series of connected trilogies) involving FBI agent Noah Bishop, clearly some sort of psychic himself, and his Special Crimes Unit. Not a lot of that in this particular book, just some hints, but I remember that playing a much larger role in later books (I read some soon after they came out).

MY GRADE: This was a C for me.


Bobiverse series, by Dennis E Taylor

>> Tuesday, August 07, 2018

This trilogy by Dennis E Taylor feels like a long story cut into 3 chunks, so much so that I started the second and third books as soon as I'd finished the previous ones, which I don't usually do. So it probably makes more sense to review them together.

We Are Legion (We Are Bob) starts in the present day. Bob Johansson is looking forward to the rest of his life. He has just sold his software company and is now financially very comfortable, enough that he doesn't need to work any longer. One of the first things he does with his money is to sign up with a cryogenics company to preserve his head when he dies. The idea is that once technology has progressed enough, he'll be brought back to life and given a new body.

Bob thought this cryogenic freezing would happen many decades later, but a freak car accident means that the contract is triggered a lot sooner than he expected. Next thing he knows, he's being woken up over a century later, and in a very different world. Bob has not been given a new body. In fact, he's not considered a person at all by the theocratic government that has taken over what was the US. The whole cryogenic preservation thing is considered an aberration and those like Bob are now property of the state.

In Bob's case, the government is intending to use him as part of a project to colonise space. His consciousness has been uploaded to a computer matrix and he's now an artificial intelligence meant to control a von Neumann probe (more info here, but the basic idea is that this is a spaceship that will use raw materials in other galaxies to replicate itself, then those replicas will do the same further away, and so would theirs, and so on, till there are enough that they can explore a hell of a big territory). Turns out the international geopolitical situation has got pretty tense, and several superpowers are competing to be the first out to claim new habitable worlds (the environmental situation has got pretty bad as well). Bob is in a bit of a dicey situation. If he agrees, he's painting a great big target on his "back", as the other superpowers will be trying very hard to destroy his probe, and consequently, him. If he refuses, then the government will just turn him off and destroy him. So he agrees.

And thus starts the adventure. Bob, and soon his replicas and theirs (all of whom take on different names inspired by pop culture works the original Bob enjoyed, and 90% of which I didn't recognise), explore the universe, face danger from rival probes, encounter other civilisations, come up with a plan to save humanity, and cope with their nature.

So that's the setup. What the books are like is maybe a bit harder to describe. On one hand, it's relatively "hard" science fiction, in that Taylor geeks out on the science quite a bit. I'm sure there's a bit of handwaving in there, but if there is, it's at a point where I was either lost or my eyes had glazed over. Because the detail on the science was maybe a little bit more than I like. Just a little; definitely not enough to put me off the book.

At the same time, there is quite a bit of humour. So, the title of the first one, "We Are Legion (We Are Bob)"? That's a good summary of the tone. It's irreverent and... well, I think a good description would be "dad humour". It's also not at all mean-spirited and quite gentle. I liked the tone very much.

But it's not all fun and games and science. The series is also concerned with exploring some very interesting concepts, such as what makes an individual an individual, the consequences of immortality on a being's worldview and whether what's basically an artificial intelligence can be just as much a person as a biological human. It's not done in a lot of depth (no one sits down and expounds on it, it's more demonstrated by what is going on), but it's thought-provoking and very interesting, particularly seeing how as the Bobs get more and more degrees further away from Bob-1, they change.

The book has a very long time-span, so it doesn't really get too deeply into the character development. But there's still a fair bit of emotion, and a lot of it relates to a basically immortal being caring about humans, who are, as some of the Bobs start calling them, "ephemerals". I thought that was well done.

The series wasn't perfect. My main issue was that I got a bit confused with all the different Bobs and systems. Each chapter starts by listing the name of the Bob and where they are and when, which you'd think would help. But half the time I'd go "Huh, so which one was this one, and what was going on here?". To be fair, this was particularly a problem in book 2, For We Are Many. In book 1 there are fewer Bobs and locations, so it was easier to keep track, and in book 3, All These Worlds, it felt like the focus was narrowed a bit and things were more manageable.

And by the way, book 2 was definitely the weakest. In addition to (because of?) the confusion, it had what felt like a really saggy middle. Whereas I tore through books 1 and 3, I actually sort of abandoned book 2 for a few weeks there in the middle. I'd pick it up and read one chapter (they're mostly very short), but without it grabbing me, and then put it down and not feel the need to pick it up again. I still wanted to finish it, so I pushed through and then closer to the end it started picking up again. But yeah, it took some effort.

Finally, the other thing I disliked was the way one of the probes was depicted. So, in the world where Bob wakes up, one of the big superpowers is the Brazilian Empire. They are also competing in the space race, and Bob later encounters a Brazilian probe also controlled by an AI which, just like Bob, is actually a "downloaded" human being, in this case a military man called Ernesto Medeiros. Throughout the series they have several extremely hostile encounters. And they are hostile basically because Medeiros is portrayed as insanely aggressive and irrational, chauvinistic and hot-headed. At one point the Bobs discuss how the probe (then engaged in attacking a colony), just wants to smash things. "It seems to be a theme with the Brazilian probes, Gar. I don't know if that's a cultural thing...". Yeah, cheers for that. Bit of a problematic portrayal of Latin Americans, and I couldn't help but take it a little bit personally.

This is a relatively small part of the book, though, so I was able to slide over it. On the whole, this was really good fun!

We Are Legion (We Are Bob): B+

For We Are Many: B-

All These Worlds: B+


The Shape of Desire, by Sharon Shinn

>> Sunday, August 05, 2018

TITLE: The Shape of Desire
AUTHOR: Sharon Shinn

PAGES: 336

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Urban Fantasy
SERIES: First in the Shifting Circle series

For fifteen years Maria Devane has been desperately, passionately in love with Dante Romano. But despite loving him with all of her heart and soul, Maria knows that Dante can never give all of himself back-at least not all the time.

Every month, Dante shifts shape, becoming a wild animal. During those times, he wanders far and wide, leaving Maria alone. He can't choose when he shifts, the transition is often abrupt and, as he gets older, the time he spends in human form is gradually decreasing. But Maria, who loves him without hesitation, wouldn't trade their unusual relationship for anything.

Since the beginning, she has kept his secret, knowing that their love is worth the danger. But when a string of brutal attacks occur in local parks during the times when Dante is in animal form, Maria is forced to consider whether the lies she's been telling about her life have turned into lies she's telling herself...
The Shape of Desire is the first book in the Shifting Circle series, Shinn's foray into Urban Fantasy. The fantasy element here comes from shapeshifters living amongst us. The hero, Dante, is one of them. It's not a gentle, controlled thing for these shapeshifters. The shift comes every month, but they're not able to control when and where, or to stop it, and they don't know when they'll shift back to a human body.

This is particularly difficult for Dante's long-term partner, Maria. Maria is not a shifter, but she found out about Dante's nature long ago and has learnt to cope with the man she loves disappearing at a moment's notice. She tries to help in what she can and realises there's no point being upset about something neither she nor Dante can change, but it's hard. It's not just the unpredictability and the worry that, as time passes, Dante is spending more and more time in his animal form (does this mean he'll end up shifting for good?). There's also the fear that while he's in his animal form, he's not human and in control. Anything could happen to him... an accident, someone capturing him or killing him... and Maria may never know what happened.

And then a series of attacks take place not too far from Maria and Dante's place, all of them at times when she knows Dante has shifted. And Maria starts to worry that when Dante's in animal form and not in control, it may not be just him that's in danger.

This one felt quite different from other Shinn books. It had a bittersweet, melancholy vibe, and this was one that went pretty well with the topic and characters.

I had mixed feelings about this book. My main problem was that I found it really hard to root for Maria and Dante's relationship. There seemed to be an imbalance of power there, since it was very clear that there was nothing Dante could do that Maria wouldn't forgive. In fact, she would completely ignore it and protect him from the consequences, even if it was him being a murderer. Maria basically adores Dante, and will not make any demands from him. Yes, there are things that are not in his power to do (like change the way the biological facts of shape-shifting work), so there is no point in demanding, but there were things he could have done to make things easier on Maria (and a lot of information he had and just did not share).

And the problem is that this uncompromising love and adoration were very clear on her side, but not so much on Dante's. I think Shinn was probably trying to tell us he felt just as strongly about Maria as she did for him, but that didn't really come through, and the relationship felt extremely one-sided. All I got from his actions was that she was convenient for him, but not really much more. That's partly because we were only in her point of view, but only partly. I have read plenty of books where another character's feelings were perfectly clear, even when the narrator is completely oblivious to them. As a result of this imbalance, I'm afraid I found Maria a bit pathetic.

Outside of the main relationship, though, if I accepted that this was a portrayal of a sad, one-sided relationship, there were quite a few things that worked for me. The plot is interesting, and Shinn does some quite interesting world-building. There's the obvious one of the shapeshifters, but there's also a lot of work in making Maria's world real. Like, a lot of mundane detail about office life... Maria is an accountant and we find out whom Maria had lunch with, hear her conversations with her friend Ellen, and so on. Sounds tedious, maybe, but I actually liked that. With Shinn, I always sink into her stories, and this was not the exception.

So, not great, but I still enjoyed it, mostly.



Three shorts

>> Friday, August 03, 2018

TITLE: Wrecked
AUTHOR: Meljean Brook

This novella, set in the Iron Seas universe, was originally published in the Fire & Frost anthology. Elizabeth escaped from her father several years ago and has been evading the people he's sent after her ever since. One of them is Caius. Caius actually captured her at one point, but she escaped, and in a way that made him believe she'd fallen to her death. Now they have met again.

This is a short one, but it packs a punch. Elizabeth and Caius have had many years to develop feelings for each other, but have had to suppress them. When they finally don't have to, it's very, very satisfying. Caius' regrets about the past and the way he reacts when he realises Elizabeth is still alive were lovely. Also, the protagonists' long history made the novella work perfectly, since we didn't have to believe they'd fallen madly in love in a few hours. Add the intrigue about why exactly Elizabeth had needed to escape from her father, plus some danger (daddy dearest hasn't given up on getting her back, of course), and this made for a very exciting story.


TITLE: Ember
AUTHOR: Bettie Sharpe

So, we have a Prince Charming situation where the charming is literal. When he was born, a witch bestowed the "charm" on him that he would be irresistible to everyone. And it works. No one can resist him. He gets whatever and whomever he wants. The exception is Ember, a powerful witch in her own right, whose mother has helped her use magic to be immune to the false attraction.

This is obviously a fairy tale retelling, but what's probably not obvious from the above is which one. What this is is a wonderfully subversive version of Cinderella. That element works beautifully, because it's lots fun of seeing how Sharpe can follow the bare lines of the traditional fairy story quite closely, while changing the spirit of it completely. But that's not all that this story provides. It's also a really satisfying romance, with a particularly strong heroine. I'm not going to say much more, because even in the romance there are quite a few unexpected things. I would highly recommend reading it to find out what these are.

MY GRADE: Also a B+.

TITLE: Agamemnon Frost and the House of Death
AUTHOR: Kim Knox

I bought this one because it's set in Liverpool. Steampunk Victorian Liverpool, but Liverpool all the same, and the first scenes actually take place in the neighbourhood where I used to live. It's the first in an m/m series.

Edgar Mason used to be a soldier, but then the British Army decided to employ machines rather than men, and he was out of a job. Since then, he's made a living as a personal servant through a sort of employment agency. One night he's hired by a man throwing a party to serve one of his guests, Agamemnon Frost. Edgar's first thought is that Agamemnon is a useless dandy, but it turns out his dandyish appearance conceals some very dangerous skills. And he soon needs to put them into use, with Edgar's help, because all hell breaks loose.

I gave up after a while with this one. It was all a bit too ridiculous. It wasn't so much the alien invasions and shocking, dastardly plans, but the interactions between the characters. The characters, their reactions, the dialogue, it all felt completely unbelievable. Not for me.



To Have and to Hold, by Lauren Layne

>> Wednesday, August 01, 2018

TITLE: To Have and to Hold
AUTHOR: Lauren Layne

PAGES: 384

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: First in the Wedding Belles series

USA TODAY bestselling author Lauren Layne is the “queen of witty dialogue and sexy scenes” (Rachel Van Dyken)! Now, Sex and the City meets The Wedding Planner in The Wedding Belles, her sizzling brand new contemporary romance series about three ambitious wedding planners who can make any bride’s dream come true…but their own.

Discovering her fiancé is an international con man just moments before they exchange vows devastates celebrity wedding planner Brooke Baldwin’s business—and breaks her heart. Now a pariah in Los Angeles, she seeks a fresh start in New York City and thinks she’s found it with her first bridal client, a sweet—if slightly spoiled—hotel heiress. Then she meets the uptight businessman who’s holding the purse strings.

Seth Tyler wishes he could write a blank check and be done with his sister Maya's fancy-pants wedding. Unfortunately, micromanaging the event is his only chance at proving Maya’s fiancé is a liar. Standing directly in his way is the stunning blonde wedding planner whose practiced smiles and sassy comebacks both irritate and arouse him. He needs Brooke’s help. But can he persuade a wedding planner on a comeback mission to unplan a wedding? And more importantly, how will he convince her that the wedding she should be planning…is theirs?
Lauren Layne is a new author to me, and one I hadn't really heard all that much about, even though she has quite an extensive backlist and has clearly been writing for quite a while. I wanted a fun, relatively uncomplicated contemporary, and having seen some reviews of this author at Bona's site, this seemed like just the ticket.

To Have and to Hold starts a series focused round a wedding planning agency. Brooke Baldwin has just moved to New York to start a new job at The Wedding Belles, after her life in California came crashing down around her. Her own wedding was supposed to be the pinnacle of her very successful career as a wedding planner, the best one she's ever done. Instead, the groom was arrested at the altar by the FBI, right before the vows were exchanged. Turns out the man was a complete scammer and, rather than the successful businessman he was supposed to be, he was running a Ponzi scheme and defrauding people left, right and centre.

On her first day at work at the Belles, Brooke is asked to take on a new client, hotel heiress Maya Tyler. The only problem is that along with Maya and her fiancé comes Maya's brother, Seth, the CEO of the family hotel chain. And Seth is being difficult.

Seth's attitude is not due to overprotectiveness or to not wanting to spend the honking amount of cash needed for a big society wedding. Seth actually has some very well-founded concerns about the fiancé and what he's after with Maya. He has decided to spend as much time with the man as he can, to see if he can get some evidence to back up his suspicions, and that means inserting himself into the wedding planning. And that, in turn, means spending time with the wedding planner he's finding a bit too attractive.

Sooo, this was ok. It was a pleasant enough way to spend a few hours, and I did like the strong female friendships.

However, I spent more time than usual going "but that doesn't make sense!" at things that were there, not because they made sense for the characters, but because Layne wanted to push the plot in a certain direction, or needed conflict. I guess the best example is the complete freak-out everyone has at Seth's decision, after much soul-searching, to set a private detective to look into Maya's fiancé. Yes, it's a bit overbearing, but the way Brooke and his best friend react, you'd think he was killing someone (and this is the same best friend who at the start of the book was asking "so, what are we going to do to stop the wedding?". Makes no sense). But we need a reason for Brooke and Seth to break up for a while, so instead of a mildly dodgy thing to do, it's a huge violation of trust. Bah.

Brooke didn't really completely gel for me, either. It seems that being betrayed by her former fiancé, instead of leading to her becoming a bit more cynical and questioning, has made her determined to believe in the fairytale (there's something mentioned about her not being able to do the job she's doing otherwise, which is complete bullshit). So when Seth confides his concern about Maya's fiancé, Brooke basically closes her eyes, ignores the somewhat questionable reactions she herself has seen from the man, and goes "nananah can't hear you". I didn't get her.

(And BTW, the scammer ex-fiancé of Brooke's didn't make much sense either. I was never sure what he was after with her, why he'd go all the way into marrying her. He'd already got his future in-laws to give him their money, after all, and he clearly did not care at all about Brooke).

Most of the time I was able to go with the flow and ignore the stuff that didn't quite convince me, but I did finish this with the feeling that Layne doesn't seem to be very good at characterisation and plotting. However, I've seen several reviews suggesting that this is one that many people who love her work didn't really like, so I might give her another shot.



Secret societies, Twitter terrorists and the summer of 1927

>> Monday, July 30, 2018

Not blogging for such a long time has meant a big backlog of books that I haven't reviewed (I was still reading, just not reviewing!). Many are books that are just ok, where there isn't a lot to say and I'd struggle to do a proper review that wouldn't put people to sleep. But there are also many that I really liked and would love to do a proper review of, but that's just not going to happen for all of them. So while I'll still be doing full-length reviews, particularly of recent reads, you'll be seeing a lot more of these mop-up-type posts in the next few weeks.

TITLE: The Secret History
AUTHOR: Donna Tartt

Richard Papen is a very bright working-class young man who gets accepted to a small private college in New England. Keen to leave his unromantic roots behind, he falls in with a group of privileged and elitist students. We know from the start (like, from page 1) that at some point they will kill one of their number, but we don't know how and why. The book tells the story of how they get to that point, and of what happens next.

I suppose you could describe this about being about entitled, snobbish rich kids living in their own little world, laughing at people who don't have the same privileges and being completely wastes of space, for all that they're objectively clever. And that's actually a fair description. I still found this utterly gripping and basically inhaled this quite massive (650 pages!) story. I cared about every single one of those rotten little shits and found the depiction of their friendship fascinating. I cared about their fates. I loved the setting (the 80s feel so long ago!) and was extremely intrigued by the 'mystery' plot, which is not so much a mystery plot as a plot engine that lets Tartt explore the relationships. The ending is not quite as brilliant as the rest of the book, but on the whole, this was really enjoyable.

By the way, I listened to the audiobook, which, interestingly, was narrated by Tartt herself. Now, she's clearly not a professional audio narrator, and at the beginning I wasn't sure her narration worked, but she grew on me. Her quite idiosyncratic way of speaking ended up suiting the story quite perfectly.


TITLE: About That Night
AUTHOR: Julie James

This is the Twitter Terrorist book :) Kyle Rhodes is a very privileged young man who did something stupid (brought down Twitter in a bit of a drunken tantrum) and got sent to jail, as the authorities decided to make an example of him. Rylan Pierce is an Assistant US Attorney. These two had met before and made an impression on each other, and now they meet again when Kyle becomes a witness in a murder investigation Rylan is involved in.

This was classic Julie James in that it was fun and uncomplicated, with a super competent and sympathetic heroine I was a bit in awe of, and a nice hero who was quite chilled out and easygoing. But it was not classic Julie James in that her books are usually a bit more memorable. This was one I really enjoyed while I was reading it, but proceeded to forget as soon as I finished it. I think it was that the romance was pretty unexciting. There didn't seem to be any conflict or any growing for either to do. A good way to pass the time (I read it in a couple of sittings), but nothing that lingered.


TITLE: One Summer: America, 1927
AUTHOR: Bill Bryson

In One Summer, Bill Bryson travels back to the US in 1927 and explores that world. His thesis seems to be that this is the point when the US started its path to superpowerdom, and that what was going on at the time provides a lot of insight into what that path would be like.

There are gangsters, baseball players, movie stars actually speaking on-screen, floods, the start of television, and most of all, pilots. The summer of 1927 was when Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic. This makes up a big chunk of the focus of the book, and strands related to that event pop up even when Bryson is exploring other stories.

One Summer was great fun to read. I'm not sure the unifying theme worked that well, but I didn't even mind that it felt more like a collection of interesting things related to 1927. I just love Bryson's voice (Road to Little Dribbling notwithstanding -let's just hope that one was an aberration), and when he's at the top of his game, I'm happy to listen to him going on about pretty much anything. Well, he is at the top of his game here and the topics are fascinating, so even better.



The Fireman, by Joe Hill

>> Saturday, July 28, 2018

TITLE: The Fireman
AUTHOR: Joe Hill

PAGES: 768
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: Near future, US
TYPE: Thriller / Horror

Nobody knew where the virus came from.

FOX News said it had been set loose by ISIS, using spores that had been invented by the Russians in the 1980s.

MSNBC said sources indicated it might've been created by engineers at Halliburton and stolen by culty Christian types fixated on the Book of Revelation.

CNN reported both sides.

While every TV station debated the cause, the world burnt.

Pregnant school nurse, HARPER GRAYSON, had seen lots of people burn on TV, but the first person she saw burn for real was in the playground behind the school.

With the epic scope of THE PASSAGE and the emotional impact of THE ROAD, this is one woman's story of survival at the end of the world.
I love a good horror novel, but I'm picky. This one by Joe Hill sounded like exactly my sort of thing (or one of them; I love creepy paranormal as well). Apocalyptic horror? Sign me up!

We meet nurse Harper Grayson just as the world has started to disintegrate. A disease called dragonscale is spreading quickly. Those infected first get ash-like patterns on their skins, almost like tattoos. At first they're fine, but at some point, they all start to smoke and smolder and they ultimately burst into flames. And dragonscale seems more unstoppable every day.

Harper's husband, Jakob, decides that if they get dragonscale, it will be best to just end it, rather than wait to burn and die in pain. Harper, numb by the horrors she's seeing, is sort of willing to go along. But then she discovers she's pregnant and has dragonscale almost at the same time, and that doesn't seem like such a great idea. She becomes determined to stay alive long enough to give birth to her child. After all, there are rumours that dragonscale is not transmitted in childbirth. But Jakob is not willing to diverge from his plan, so Harper is soon on the run, helped by a mysterious figure called The Fireman, who seems to have a special relationship with the dragonscale.

Well, on the plus side, the writing is vivid and propels you forward, and the descriptions of how the world would react to something like dragonscale feels uncomfortably true. And I liked Harper. She's someone whose role model is basically Mary Poppins, and I like to see some variety in the all the different ways in which women can be portrayed as strong.

However, although the book has a great setup and lots of promise, I had quite a lot of issues with the execution.

My main problem is that Hill didn't seem to know what kind of book he wanted to write. Was it going to be about resisting a cult? Was it going to be about escaping from the Cremation Crews? As soon as it seemed that the book was taking a particular direction, it was as if Hill got bored of it, and just got rid of it with a gleeful bloodbath, changing tack completely. As a result, the book feels too long, as if it's a first draft, where the author was just trying out different things.

I also felt the dialogue was not great, particularly in how Hill wrote Harper. For instance, there are a couple of instances where sweetness and light Harper gets a bit raunchy and crude, which, I get it, is actually meant to be a contrast with her usual MO. But she sounded nothing like a woman. And to be clear, I'm not saying women can't be crude (I'd be an absolute hypocrite if I did), it's just that her crudeness felt very male-gazey, such as when she said something about someone wanting to plunge balls-deep into a hot piece of ass. That sounded really off to me.

I was also pretty meh about the ending. I don't want to say too much about it, but I got the feeling it was supposed to be surprising, but it really wasn't.

So, not a great one, but not one that puts me off Hill completely. I might try another by him. I hear his latest collection of short stories is actually pretty good, and I get the feeling he could be good at that format.


AUDIOBOOK NOTES: I actually started by listening to the audiobook, but I returned it after a while and bought the ebook. Not great, particularly the supposedly British Fireman character, who (kind of appropriately, in a weird way) sounded like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, rather than the Northerner he was supposed to be.


Bed of Flowers, by Erin Satie

>> Thursday, July 26, 2018

TITLE: Bed of Flowers
AUTHOR: Erin Satie

PAGES: 305
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: 19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Sweetness and Light #1

Bonny Reed is beautiful, inside and out.

A loyal friend and loving daughter, she’s newly engaged to her small town’s most eligible bachelor. She’s happy for herself—but mostly for her family, who need the security her marriage will bring.

An old enemy shatters her illusions.

First Baron Loel cost Bonny’s family her fortune. Now he’s insisting that her fiancé has hidden flaws, secrets so dark that—if she believed him—she’d have to call off the wedding.

How will she choose?

When the truth comes out, Bonny will have to choose between doing what’s right and what’s easy. Between her family and her best friend. And hardest of all—between her honor and the love of a man who everyone wants her to hate.
Bonnie Reed's family's fortunes changed the day a fire destroyed the warehouses round her small town's port. Her father owned several of them, and even though they didn't end up in the streets, it's been a steep comedown. Whereas they were one of the richest families in town, they are now living in what can best be described as genteel poverty. Before the fire, Bonnie's prospects were very high. She's beautiful, and with a nice dowry she would have expected a great marriage. These days, she's been half-heartedly courted by a rich man in town, who clearly can't quite bring himself to propose to someone so clearly beneath him.

The fire changed the lives of many people in town, and that includes that of the man who caused it. Until that day, Orson, now Baron Loel, didn't have a care in the world. He was the spoiled son of the local nobility. And then a simple stumble when mooring his yacht overturned a lamp and whoosh! That was it. A lot of the family fortune went in trying to compensate the town's losses, and his parents blamed him so pointedly that they tied up the estate in such a way that he could take no advantage of it when he inherited. He still lives there, and has found a way to make a living while fulfilling the terms of his parents' will (he has become a sort of orchid grower/dealer, which is a huge part of the book -see below), but it's a difficult life.

As the book starts, Bonnie's suitor has finally decided to propose (think Darcy's proposal to Elizabeth, but if you were to imagine Darcy as cruel and careless). She agrees, but then circumstances lead her to come into contact with Loel more often (he's a bit of a pariah, so she's barely seen him since the fire), and he ends up sharing some very worrying information about what her fiancé gets up to in his spare time. And now Bonnie needs to decide whether restoring her family's social position is worth her unhappiness.

I enjoyed this one very much. Satie's writing is beautiful. It's vivid and evocative without veering into purple territory. In her first couple of books I thought that, for all its beauty, the writing was maybe a bit self-conscious and on-the-nose, but that's resolved itself with experience. No such problem with this book.

I also like that Satie creates characters and relationships that feel fresh and are never clichéd. In this particular book, I was particularly taken with Bonnie's complex relationship with her family. It's clear that her parents love her, but at the same time, they don't take well her doubts about her fiancé. Their fall in social position has taken a toll on them, and when certain of Bonnie's actions threaten to have an even more negative impact on them, they're not particularly forgiving, in a way that I must say felt understandable.

I was also quite intrigued by Bonnie's friends (Bed of Flowers starts a series, and I expect the next books will be about them) and enjoyed their relationships. They've got super interesting backstories (e.g. one seems to be inspired by Sara Forbes Bonetta), and I'm looking forward to their books.

The other thing I loved was all the orchid stuff. This is set at the time of what's known as the Orchidelirium, a sort of English version of the Tulip Mania. People were going gaga over orchids, and new or particularly exotic varieties sold for huge amounts. There was a lot of money to be made in dealing in them, but also a lot of risk, because very little was known about how to grow them and keep them alive, so keeping new ones from dying on the way back to England was almost as hard as finding them. Anyway, in addition to the topic being fascinating, Loel's venture importing, nurturing and selling orchids plays a big role in the relationship between him and Bonnie, both in setting up the circumstances in which it gets started and in developing it. And by the way, in one of those lovely coincidences that life sometimes throws your way, the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast had an episode about the Orchidelirium at the same time I was reading the book. Worth a listen.

So, lots of good stuff here. Unfortunately, what didn't really work for me that well was the romance itself. I just didn't feel the connection between Bonnie and Loel. My reaction to their realisation that they were in love was that I just didn't feel they knew each other well enough for that. It's not that there was something wrong with the concept of these two being together, it's just that it all felt a bit uninteresting compared to the other stuff going on.

I also had some issues with the way Satie set up a conflict between them. There's a point when Bonnie does something that Loel gets extremely angry about, and I genuinely did not get why he a) would think that of her and not believe her (really, what she explained was a lot more believable than what he assumed about her actions), and b) why he'd be so incandescently angry about it anyway.

You'd think that since this is a romance novel the main romance not quite working would ruin it, but for some reason, that just wasn't the case here. Plenty other stuff that I enjoyed, so I didn't mind not getting excited about what's supposed to be the main course. Oh well.

To finish, I'm usually annoyed about those "several years later" epilogues (oh, look how many adorable kids they have!), but this was one book where I did genuinely want to see how the main characters would get on, not so much in their relationship, but how they'd get on in a more material sense. I guess we might catch glimpses of how they're doing in future books, and I will look forward to that.



Hate To Want You, by Alisha Rai

>> Thursday, June 28, 2018

TITLE: Hate To Want You
AUTHOR: Alisha Rai

PAGES: 371

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: #1 in Forbidden Hearts series

One night. No one will know.

That was the deal. Every year, Livvy Kane and Nicholas Chandler would share one perfect night of illicit pleasure. The forbidden hours let them forget the tragedy that haunted their pasts-and the last names that made them enemies.

Until the night she didn’t show up.

Now Nicholas has an empire to run. He doesn’t have time for distractions and Livvy’s sudden reappearance in town is a major distraction. She’s the one woman he shouldn’t want…so why can’t he forget how right she feels in his bed?

Livvy didn’t come home for Nicholas, but fate seems determined to remind her of his presence–and their past. Although the passion between them might have once run hot and deep, not even love can overcome the scandal that divided their families.

Being together might be against all the rules…but being apart is impossible.
This may have been 2017's most hyped book. It was mostly people whose taste I share who loved it, too, so I bought it immediately. And, well... I didn't love it.

The premise of this series is that the Kanes and the Chandlers used to be partners in a grocery store. Over the years, it grew and grew until it became a very successful chain. But then the Chandler daughter-in-law and the Kane son were killed in a car accident together. And in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the Chandler son (father of Nicholas, the hero of Hate To Want You) buys the Kane daughter (mother of Livvy, the book's heroine)'s half of the company for a pittance.

At the time this happened, Nicholas and Livvy were teenagers involved in a budding romance. But Nicholas wasn't able to resist his father's pressure to break up with Livvy, and devastated, she soon left town and has been away for many years. It turned out, though, that they never could really stay away from each other, and after a few years, they started an arrangement where they'd meet wherever in the US Livvy happened to be and have sex for a single night.

As the book starts, things have changed. Livvy never contacted Nicholas this year, and now she's back in town. Her mother is having some health issues, and despite their difficult relationship, Livvy feels obliged to come help. She's become a quite well-known tattoo artist while she was away, and so she's able to work for a period in the local studio. She doesn't mean to see Nicholas, but once he finds out she's there, they can't help coming together, in spite of Nicholas's father disapproval.

Ok, so let's start with the pluses. For starters, I got quite invested in the family drama. What actually happened at the time of the accident and right afterwards? How about the main characters' siblings? There's enough here to make things really tantalising, but there are clearly several big revelations still to come, and I get the feeling they’re the ones that will help us understand the motivations of key characters like Livvy's mother, Nicholas’s father and Jackson, her brother (who was forced to leave town after a fire in the grocery store right after the purchase).

I also liked the difficult relationships Livvy and Nicholas had with their parents, who are definitely not easy people. That felt interesting and real.

Finally, I loved the matter-of-fact diversity. Livvy is half-Japanese, and her widowed sister-in-law, Sadia, is Pakistani-American as well as bisexual. It's part of their identity, but not the point of the book. It's simply that this is set in a world that looks a more like the real world than many romance novels, and that's great.

The big negative, though, is that I found myself strangely disconnected from the romance, even though there was a lot there I should have liked. I guess it felt like the characters weren’t completely real to me, and neither was their relationship. It's hard to describe, but it didn't feel like it was developing organically. Most of their interactions seemed like they were playing a game, like they were making up arbitrary rules about how they could interact, just to prevent an honest relationship. I got bored with that.

I was also a bit annoyed at how half-baked some aspects of Livvy's character felt. The fact that she suffers from depression is just dropped in from nowhere, purely as a  new obstacle in the romance once everything else is seemingly sorted out. And then it's dealt with very quickly. "Oh, but it's fine, I don't mind". Ok then.

I'll probably read the next one, as the protagonists interested me far more than Livvy and Nicholas, but I'll go in with low expectations.



Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, by Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths

>> Tuesday, June 26, 2018

TITLE: Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions
AUTHOR: Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths

PAGES: 368
PUBLISHER: Henry Holt and Co.

TYPE: Non-Fiction

A fascinating exploration of how insights from computer algorithms can be applied to our everyday lives, helping to solve common decision-making problems and illuminate the workings of the human mind

All our lives are constrained by limited space and time, limits that give rise to a particular set of problems. What should we do, or leave undone, in a day or a lifetime? How much messiness should we accept? What balance of new activities and familiar favorites is the most fulfilling? These may seem like uniquely human quandaries, but they are not: computers, too, face the same constraints, so computer scientists have been grappling with their version of such issues for decades. And the solutions they've found have much to teach us.

In a dazzlingly interdisciplinary work, acclaimed author Brian Christian and cognitive scientist Tom Griffiths show how the algorithms used by computers can also untangle very human questions. They explain how to have better hunches and when to leave things to chance, how to deal with overwhelming choices and how best to connect with others. From finding a spouse to finding a parking spot, from organizing one's inbox to understanding the workings of memory, Algorithms to Live By transforms the wisdom of computer science into strategies for human living.
Algorithms are basically a set of rules that tell you how you can solve a type of problem. We're most familiar with their use in computer science, and the intriguing idea behind this book is to look at how algorithms are used in that area and see if they can be used to solve similar kinds of problems in everyday life.

I always say that I became an economist not because I was particularly interested in the topic, but because I discovered that the economics logic (such as optimisation, cost-benefit analysis) chimed really well with the way my mind already worked and the way I tended to make decisions even about private matters. So the topic of this book was extremely attractive to me.

The best way to explain what the book is like is probably to give you an example. So, one of the first issues they look at is the problem of optimal stopping. Say you are looking for an X, and there are many candidates available for you to choose. You want to choose as good an X as possible. You know what a good X looks like, but you have no idea what level of quality you might expect from the field of candidates available to you. They might all be excellent X, or there might be 1 or 2 that are ok, and all the rest crap. Furthermore, you have to examine each potential candidate before you know their quality -that is, you can't deduce what they'll be like beforehand. So all you can do is choose candidates in random order and examine them to see how good an X they might be.

In the purest version of the problem, you have to decide right after you've seen each candidate whether you'll chose it or not, and if you decide to keep on examining further candidates, you can't go back to the one you've rejected.

So there clearly is a conflict here between needing to see enough candidates to have an idea of the quality of the field (and whether it's worth holding out for an outstanding candidate or just settling for an ok one) and needing to nab a good candidate before it becomes unavailable to you. If you choose too soon, you miss out on a potentially excellent candidate. If you keep examining more and more, you run the risk that you'll have to end up settling for a mediocre one, just because it's the only one left.

This is a classic problem which is often called the Secretary Problem. As in hiring secretaries (can you tell this issue was originally popularised in the 1950s?). And the problem actually has a mathematical solution. It can be proved that the best strategy is to examine the first 37% of the available candidates without making a choice (even if you find one that seems to you to be the perfect secretary). Once that is done, you continue examining candidates until you find one that is better than the ones you've seen. As soon as you do, you hire them.

Not a wholly realistic situation, of course, but close enough to one I found myself facing when moving to Helsinki. I needed to find somewhere to live. Completely new city and country, so I had very little idea of what the field of available flats was like. Yes, I did have some indication of quality from the online listings, but it's surprising how deceptive those photos can be. And of course, flats didn't magically become unavailable as soon as I'd visited them if I didn't decide straight away, but the good ones do have a tendency to be snapped up really quickly by someone else if you dawdle!

So I decided to apply the algorithm in my search. There wasn't a limited field of candidates, but the book suggested that the 37% figure can be applied either to the number of candidates or to the time available to search. Bingo. I had booked myself a studio flat on airbnb for the first month, with an aspiration to move into a new place on March 1st. So that gave me 11 days to just look, holding back from making any decisions, after which I'd either go for the best I had seen if it was still available (bending the rules slightly), or for the first one I found that was better than the ones I'd seen.

So I did just that. It was hard. The first flat I saw, only on day 2 of the search, I really liked. Good location, excellent layout, bright, with high ceilings, and just within my price range. But I held my nerve, even while I didn't really find anything that great for a while. Even when I saw that nice flat from cay 2 disappear from the online listings, clearly taken by someone else. After day 11, I went on decision mode, and still nothing. Until on day 19, I found the right place and went for it straight away, with zero doubts. My 'wait and see' period had given me the assurance that I knew what the field was like, and so I could be confident that I was making a good choice and that there was little chance that I was missing out on something better. I moved in on March 1st, and I love the place.

Anyway, this is just one chapter of the book. There are quite a few more, and pretty much all of them were just as fascinating and illuminating. In many cases, the point was no so much the algorithm that solved the problem, but the setting out of the problem itself. I kept going "huh, I never thought of that in quite that way!". Although not all chapters were as useful to me in a practical sense as the one on optimal stopping, several of them made me look at things in a different way. In some cases they made sense of something I was intuitively doing, in others they made me adjust my behaviour (when I went back to visit friends in Liverpool a couple of weeks ago I decided to go to my favourite restaurants there, rather than to try the intriguing-sounding new place, based on the chapter on explore/exploit decisions).

The authors have an excellent, accessible way of explaining quite complex topics, and their extrapolations from the abstract into everyday life situations made sense. Yes, some do work better than others and are more intuitively applicable, but on the whole, they really worked.

I loved this book. I'd recommend it to anyone, even if you don't have an interest or background in computer science or maths.



Two Scandi Noir DNFs

>> Thursday, June 21, 2018

What with the move to Finland, I find myself attracted to books set in the Nordic countries, and there's plenty of Scandi noir to choose from (and yes, I do know that Finland is not considered to be in Scandinavia -close enough, though). Here's two which were not successful tries.

TITLE: I'm Traveling Alone
AUTHOR: Samuel Bjørk

The first I chose was this one, the first book in a series following two Norwegian detectives called Holger Munch and Mia Krüger. Kruger is the veteran in the pair, a man who's been sort of exiled recently after a case went to hell. The reason the case went to hell was because of the actions of his then partner, the brilliant but troubled Mia Krüger. Mia has since left the force, and is living in an isolated island. She's planning to kill herself soon and follow her twin sister, whose death led to her screwing up that last case.

And then a little girl is found dead hanging from a tree in the woods, with a sign reading "I'm travelling alone" round her neck. Holger is brought back and asked to take the case, and his first step is to bring back Mia. There's something about the case he can't put his finger on, and he's confident that Mia's brilliant mind will find the clue. And she does. And it's clear that these girl is just the first of many.

It's an intriguing (if gruesome) case, and I was interested in the detectives. Their investigation shows promise as well. But oh, the writing. The writing just killed this book dead. The book felt so painstaking and slow that I was bored out of my mind. I expect the translation didn't help, but I'd say the responsibility for this being such a dull slog is mostly on the writer. I think I particularly struggled with the constant sections taking attention away from the investigation, which bogged things down even more. I gave it several days, but it was one of those where reading another chapter feels like a hardship, and where there's zero compulsion to pick the book up again once you've put it down. I don't have time for this.


TITLE: Unwanted
AUTHOR: Kristina Ohlsson

For the second book, we move eastwards into Sweden. The detectives here are Inspector Alex Recht and Fredrika Bergman. Alex is the experienced investigator, while Fredrika is newer. She's facing mistrust from her team, since she didn't come up through the ranks and was a university-educated civilian till she was "parachuted in", as some in the team would see it.

The case concerns another little girl in peril. This one has been abducted from a crowded train. Her mother had briefly stepped off the train when it was delayed at one of the stations, leaving her sleeping child behind as she didn't want to wake her up. She was then detained by a woman with a dog who asked her for help, and before she noticed, the train had departed. She did the obvious thing and called the train company, which alerted the crew. They were supposed to keep an eye on the little girl, but due to some confusion, by the time the train got into Stockholm the little girl had disappeared.

The main problem with this one was that, other than Fredrika, the police felt pretty incompetent, even Alex. They don't think critically and cotton onto things that feel quite obvious, and they seem weirdly relaxed about the case. They take it very easy, just do a couple of pointless things, and don't even consider doing the obvious things (like an identikit of the fucking woman with the dog that detained the mother while the train left!).

The writing was also not great. It felt simplistic and too on-the-nose. Part of that might be the translation, but part of it is the characterisation. We’re told so-and-so is like this and that, and then they say something that is like the stereotype of what that kind of person would say (like, we're told the sexist colleague is sexist, and then he immediately thinks that clearly Fredrika has no man to give her a proper seeing-to).

MY GRADE: This one was frustrating, rather than boring, but that also means a DNF.


Shelter in Place, by Nora Roberts

>> Sunday, June 17, 2018

TITLE: Shelter in Place
AUTHOR: Nora Roberts

PAGES: 438
PUBLISHER: St. Martin's

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romantic Suspense

It was a typical evening at a mall outside Portland, Maine. Three teenage friends waited for the movie to start. A boy flirted with the girl selling sunglasses. Mothers and children shopped together, and the manager at video game store tended to customers. Then the shooters arrived.

The chaos and carnage lasted only eight minutes before the killers were taken down. But for those who lived through it, the effects would last forever. In the years that followed, one would dedicate himself to a law enforcement career. Another would close herself off, trying to bury the memory of huddling in a ladies' room, helplessly clutching her cell phone--until she finally found a way to pour her emotions into her art.

But one person wasn't satisfied with the shockingly high death toll at the DownEast Mall. And as the survivors slowly heal, find shelter, and rebuild, they will discover that another conspirator is lying in wait--and this time, there might be nowhere safe to hide.
Shelter in Place starts with a truly horrific scene. A packed shopping mall and cinema, full of teenagers and kids and their parents. Three young men armed to the teeth. When they're done, many, many people are dead, including the three gunmen.

Our protagonists were amongst the many people caught up in the shooting. Sixteen-year-old Simone Knox was at the cinema with her two best friends, while Reed Quartermaine was taking a quick break from his job at a restaurant in the mall. After the shooting, they try to rebuild their lives and move on from the tragedy, as do many others.

Except for one person, for whom the shooting was not quite enough. And they are determined to finish the job that, as far as they're concerned, the gunmen botched.

So, this was a bit of a strange one. It started out as something that felt quite different to other Nora Roberts romantic suspense. Not just the subject matter, but the way it felt. Given that the first book in her latest trilogy (Year One, which I hope to review soon) was quite a departure for her, I thought we might be getting another new direction. And, much as I do like the "usual" NR, I got quite excited about that.

But then the book soon returned to familiar patterns. There's the rest of the first half, where we see both Reed and Simone grow up, while the villain does their thing in the background. That felt very reminiscent of books like Blue Smoke, for instance. And then the present-day second half is a bit like Northern Lights, with Reed moving to an isolated small community to become Chief of Police. And there was a lot of time spent with the villain, following along as they killed more and more people, which Nora has done quite a few times (e.g. the first one I thought about, Thankless in Death).

So it turned out to be all pretty familiar. Which is no bad thing, really! I liked the romance quite a bit, with Reed and Simone feeling very well-suited to each other. There's not a hell of a lot of internal tension there, as they seem to click fine from the start and are clearly both on the same page on their relationship throughout, but their low-conflict relationship still managed to keep my attention engaged.

I also liked the family elements, particularly Simone's difficult relationship with her parents and sister and her almost sisterly relationship with her grandma, Cici. Cici was fun, even if, to be honest, in real life she'd probably annoy me as much as she would delight me (the fact that she always smells faintly of weed made me laugh, but euww, I hate that smell!).

The suspense was not awful, but really not great, either. The villain is of the crazy psycho variety, and I just find it hard to work up too much interest in that sort of character. And they seemed unrealistically good at getting away with mayhem. There seemed to be nothing they couldn't do, nobody they couldn't get to. Meh.

I also did wonder why Reed had not tried warning potential victims much, much earlier... years earlier, really, even before he knew who the culprit was. He knew who these people were and they were few enough in number that he could set up an alert to be notified whenever something police-related went down with any of them. So surely he could have contacted them and told them to be on their guard? Yes, it would be hard to be on their guard about everything, all the time, but even when he knew about the culprit, he did not make sure to let the potential victims know either. (Actually, something else that felt a bit off was that the entire country was not completely obsessed by the case when it became clear what was going on.)

Finally, the other thing that felt a bit weird was that there was no mention at all of gun control. It's all down to the shooters and the crazy-psycho villain. That feels quite tone-deaf at the moment. I suppose this will have been written a while ago, but still, that discussion has been going on for quite a long time. I get that wading into the whole gun control issue would likely offend quite a few readers, but at this point, not acknowledging the issue at all with a plot like this doesn't feel like the author being neutral, it feels like taking a particular side (and one which I'm not sure Roberts supports, given her vision of the future in the In Death series).

So, an enjoyable book, but nowhere near prime Nora.

MY GRADE: A B, I guess.


Broken Verses, by Kamila Shamsie

>> Friday, June 15, 2018

TITLE: Broken Verses
AUTHOR: Kamila Shamsie

PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Mariner Books

SETTING: Pakistan, early 2000s
TYPE: Fiction

Fourteen years ago, famous Pakistani activist Samina Akram disappeared. Two years earlier, her lover, Pakistan's greatest poet, was beaten to death by government thugs. In present-day Karachi, her daughter Aasmaani has just discovered a letter in the couple's private code—a letter that could only have been written recently.

Aasmaani is thirty, single, drifting from job to job. Always left behind whenever Samina followed the Poet into exile, she had assumed that her mother's disappearance was simply another abandonment. Then, while working at Pakistan's first independent TV station, Aasmaani runs into an old friend of Samina's who gives her the first letter, then many more. Where could the letters have come from? And will they lead her to her mother?

Merging the personal with the political, Broken Verses is at once a sharp, thrilling journey through modern-day Pakistan, a carefully coded mystery, and an intimate mother-daughter story that asks how we forgive a mother who leaves.
Oops, I timed my last post badly, as immediately afterwards I had visitors staying at mine, so all plans to post reviews went out the window! But ready now.  Anyway, I was a bit too busy to do a top reads of 2017 post at the end of last year, but if I'd done one, Kamila Shamsie's latest, Home Fire, would have been right at the top. So obviously, I went and bought all her backlist. It's not a hugely long list, but it's satisfyingly substantial and there's a fair bit of variety there. Her books go all over the world and several of them are historical novels. But having loved Home Fire so much, I fancied something a bit closer to that experience, so I chose to start with the one that seemed more like it.

Broken Verses is set in Karachi, Pakistan in the early 2000s. Aasmani is a young woman who grew up in the midst of much drama. Her mother, Samina, was a famous feminist activist. Not long after Aasmani's birth she left her husband, Aasmani's father, to live with her lover. He was just as famous as she was, a man considered to be Pakistan's greatest poet (and that's what he's often called all through the novel: 'The Poet').

Aasmani grew up as a bit of a fifth wheel in their tempestuous love affair and lives which were made even more chaotic by external events. Both Samina and the Poet were seen as troublesome by successive governments, and there was a constant cycle of prison and exile, both of which resulted in Aasmani being left behind and then reunited with her mother and stepfather. And then, as a teenager, she's left behind for good. The Poet is killed by the government, and a couple of years later, her mother disappears.

As the book starts, Aasmani is 30 and still living an unsettled life. When she leaves a cushy job at the state oil company to start working at a trendy and hip new TV company, she comes across an old friend of her mother and stepfather's. This woman is just as famous as they were, Pakistan's greatest actress, who retired many years ago and is now making a comeback in a series for Aasmina's TV company. This is mostly as a result of her son working there, and he pays as much attention to Aasmina as his mother does.

And then, through them, Aasmina receives a mysterious letter. It's written in code, but it's one she happens to know. It's a private code that her mother and the Poet used to use when writing to each other. Between that and some of the very private things mentioned in the letter, Aasmina is sure that the letters must be written by the Poet. But the shocking thing is that some of the content makes it clear the letters must have been written after the Poet's supposed death.

I enjoyed this. Aasmina was a bit of a non-entity as a character, but that was the whole point. This is a woman who always felt she came second to others, that she wasn't enough for her mother to want to stay, or even to want to live. She has allowed herself to be defined by that. To herself, she's a person who gets abandoned, and that's pretty much all there is to it. On one hand, this made for a character I wasn't that interested in, but on the other, it is an understandable reaction and I liked seeing her grow out of her passive role. And it made it all the sweeter when the focus moved to the loving relationship between Aasmani and her father and stepmother. They were always the unexciting, dependable ones (anyone would, compared to Samina and the Poet), so it was nice to see their steadfastness appreciated.

The mystery at the heart of the plot regarding the mysterious letters was well done. It kept me interested, and I thought the resolution made sense. Also, I really liked the letters themselves. They are written in a very strong, distinct voice, and they succeeded in making me understand why Aasmani loved the Poet, a man one would forgive her for resenting.

I also really enjoyed the setting, particularly the look back at the tumultous 80s and what was going on in Pakistan then. It was something I really knew very little about. But you know what? I also really liked seeing Pakistan in the present-day sections. I've seen reviews where people complain about this not being "the real Pakistan", meaning, I'm guessing, that it's about upper-middle/upper class people, so too similar to a Western lifestyle and therefore not authentic. Well, it worked for me, maybe because it's one of the very few times where I've read about an experience that seems familiar from my childhood. I too grew up in an upper-middle class family in a developing country, and most of what I read is either about many different social classes in developed countries, or about poor people in developing countries. I enjoy reading all of that, but there's a special pleasure in seeing your own personal experience reflected. I don't need it that often, but a little bit more often than this would be fun. The last book where I identified with the experience was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah, and that was quite a while ago!



Hi again!

>> Friday, June 08, 2018

Well, it's been a while! I do hope some of you are still out there, after so many months. It's been a busy time, but I now feel things are settled enough that I should be able to blog somewhat regularly.

The move to Helsinki has gone really well. I optimistically gave myself a month after I arrived to find a place and move in, and it worked! I think it helped that I'd booked an airbnb studio flat for that first month, so while I was comfortable enough, I was started to feel cooped up and really needed a bit more space! I actually applied some techniques for the flat search from a book I'm planning to review soon which I read on my holidays in Uruguay, and that was super helpful. So I was all moved in and unpacked by early March.

My new neighbourhood in the winter, taken from a little island right across.

It's taken a bit longer to settle into the new job, but it's all good. I actually started the day after I arrived (no point moping around the house being miserable and missing my friends, best to keep busy), and it was a bit more challenging than I expected. The work itself was not a problem, as it's stuff I know I'm good at doing and have plenty of experience at. It was more that it was a shock to go from being the expert (I'd been at my previous organisation for almost 10 years), to being the newbie who knows very little about how things work. I still know very little, but a bit more than I did before, and I've made my peace with having to ask many questions :)

Helsinki itself has been fab. I was lucky enough to already have a good friend who lives here, and she's been wonderful at helping me settle and introducing me to people. I also joined one of those social groups online, which has lots of expat members but also quite a few Finns, so between my friend and her friends and my online group stuff, I've been able to start building a fun social life. There's plenty to do, and I try to do it all.

And I've thrown myself into exploring my new country and its culture. I try all the foods (the pastries are particularly to-die-for), I use the sauna in my building every week, and I have even gone ice swimming! I've also started learning Finnish, which I'm loving. It's a super hard language, but I'm enjoying the challenge. I didn't remember how much fun it was to do language classes, as I hadn't done it since I was in my early teens. It's going to take me a long while to be able to have a real conversation with anyone (good think almost all Finns speak excellent English!), but I'm making progress and starting to understand what's around me.

Two of my favourite Finnish pastries. The one on the right (called a laskiaispulla) is unfortunately available only for a limited time in the winter. The other one is the classic cinnamon roll called korvapuusti (which, strangely, translates literally as slapped ear -maybe that's what you got from the baker if you tried to eat them straight out of the oven?)

Ice swimming. That's me on the right in the grey woolly hat diving in!

I've been quite lucky with the weather, too, which was one of the things I was most worried about, given how people complain about it. It had apparently been a bit of a crap, dark winter up until February, but right on the day after I arrived, the snow came. I opened the door to leave for my first day of work and got hit in the face by a massive blizzard (and I have no experience with snow, so hadn't thought to wear waterproof mascara. I introduced myself to HR that morning with racoon eyes). There was a lot of it, and it settled, and from then on, we had a lovely white winter. It did get super cold for about a week:-20+ degrees C and it "felt like" -30 with the Siberian wind. That is about 0F to -20F, which is probably nothing to some of you if you're in Northern North America ('not too bad', according to the girl from Wisconsin in my Finnish class), but pretty damn cold to me. But it was fine. I'd bought the appropriate clothes and shoes, so I was warm enough when outside. And then the temp settled just a few degrees below freezing point, which was lovely and crisp. Mostly, it was all blue skies and plenty of sunshine, and that has continued now, when we've had the warmest May in a very long time. We even had about a week of 30C temperatures (85F or so?). I was not expecting that, and I'll try not to be disappointed next year when it's probably going to be a lot colder. The best thing about the weather, though, is the lack of rain. I have had to use an umbrella exactly once, and that was just drizzle. I got used to always carrying a little one in my handbag when I was in Liverpool, even when the weather seemed fine, but I've broken that habit. I might have to pick it up again in the autumn, which is supposed to be a lot wetter, but hey, I'm enjoying it all for now!

My neighbourhood in the summery spring!

So anyway, that's what's been going on lately. Book reviews next!


Back from holiday!

>> Saturday, January 20, 2018

Hi everyone, I'm back in Liverpool for a couple of weeks to finish sorting out all the million little details still outstanding before I move to Helsinki at the end of the month. My holiday in Uruguay was exactly what I needed: lots of family time, and days and days of sitting by the pool reading.

There really was a lot of reading. The non fiction was the highlight. I finally read David France's How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS, which I've had at the top of my TBR for a few months. It reminded me a bit of one of my favourite books last year,  East West Street, by Philippe Sands, in that it beautifully combined the personal and the factual, and it had a narrator with a stake in the story. Both books also made me cry. Turns out both books have won the Baillie Gifford prize for non fiction, one in 2016 and the other in 2017, so that's one prize I'll be keeping an eye on.

The other really great non fiction was Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, by Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths, which examines the way computer science looks at certain problems, and how that can illuminate the way we think about real-life issues.

On the fiction side, it was mostly solid but few books really wowed me. I loved rereading The Curse of Chalion (Bujold is always amazing), and Becky Chambers' A Closed and Common Orbit was as great as her first, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. I also enjoyed visiting 1990s Pakistan in Kamila Shamsie's Broken Verses, a TB Hospital in 1950s England in The Dark Circle, by Linda Grant, and the hidden areas of the Vatican with Robert Harris' Conclave (which I haven't quite finished listening to, but I'm enjoying immensely).

There were a few disappointments, books I'd been saving and really looking forward to, but that didn't deliver. The biggest one was Kristin Cashore's Jane Unlimited. It was really weird, but not in a good way, and full of characters that were psychologically unbelievable. It was a DNF for me, which I wasn't expecting. I was also disappointed in The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K Le Guin. The big idea of people who can move from being male to female to gender-neutral is not that revolutionary now (to be fair, possibly helped by this book!) and the plot outside of that was a bit meh. I still liked it, just not as much as I was hoping. I was also disappointed by the couple of Nordic Noir books I tried to read, both of which ended up being DNFs.

Here's a list of everything I read:


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