Two fantastic fantasies

>> Tuesday, October 16, 2018

TITLE: The Thief
AUTHOR: Megan Whalen Turner

A scruffy thief called Gen is brought out of jail by the King's advisor for a mission: stealing an object that will change the fate of kingdoms. Together with the advisor himself, a couple of apprentices and a soldier, Gen travels to the kingdom of Attolia, where the mysterious object is.

I don't want to say too much, because the best thing about this book are the constant surprises. There are some great twists and turns I never saw coming. Nothing is quite what it looks like with Gen. I guessed one thing, but definitely not everything, and even as things not quite right kept happening, which should have been clues that more surprises were coming, I kept gliding right over them.

Hmm, actually, the best thing about the book was probably Gen himself. He's irreverent and hilarious, but he's got an extremely honourable core, and you come to care for him quite deeply.

The setting is also wonderful. It's sort of reminiscent of Ancient Greece, with a very well-developed history and mythology. Just excellent all around.


TITLE: Bitterblue
AUTHOR: Kristin Cashore


Bitterblue is the third book set in this particular universe. We were introduced to the evil Leck in Fire, and then got a look at his reign as King of Monsea in Graceling, where we also saw him get killed. He left behind a traumatised kingdom and a very young daughter, Bitterblue, who ascended to the throne.

Bitterblue is now older, and ready to take over responsibility for her kingdom from her advisors. It's not a tale of action and adventure and derring-do, but a quiet, somewhat somber tale of a serious young woman seeking to become a good queen and help her kingdom finally heal from the trauma inflicted by her father. I found this extremely touching. It's hard, with some moments that are very uncomfortable to read, but it also feels cathartic.

The book is also a bit of a mystery, as we find out more about what exactly happened during Leck’s reign. It’s a really great mystery, as well, especially because at first it doesn’t seem like there’s a mystery at all. It all comes out really slowly and gradually, and the reasons things were still hidden make sense.



I was just trying to read about Finland

>> Sunday, October 14, 2018

I read these two earlier this year, right before moving to Helsinki. My main interest in them was reading more about what was about to become my new home, which may be why they didn't really work for me.

TITLE: Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home
AUTHOR: Malachy Tallack

Mallachy Tallack has spent a lot of his life in Shetland. Shetland is on the Northern Hemisphere's 60 degrees parallel. In this book he travels round the world, exploring the different places where this particular parallel hits land. First to Greenland and Canada, through Alaska, and then Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway.

There are some interesting bits and pieces, but this was really not what I wanted. I've been finding this more and more in non-fiction, both in books and in TV, where it seems to be frowned upon to just have it be about the particular topic, and there's more and more emphasis on the person creating the work. You get a bit about the topic that drew you in and made you buy the book or watch the programme, but this comes along a big helping of "the journey" of the creator, or their musings on whatever... grief, the loneliness of modern life, environmental degradation. The thing is, most times, I don't care! That was the case here. The personal stuff was not why I picked up the book. I wanted to know about these places! Seriously, this approach seems to be everywhere. Have you ever searched for a recipe online and ended up having to read through paragraphs and paragraphs about how the writer's daughter loves this food and how the first time they made it it reminded them of their childhood? Well, that, but in a more literary style.

If the musings had been what I was after, I may have enjoyed this book. As it was, I didn't much. To be completely fair, there is a hint of what's inside on the back cover blurb. I should have read it more carefully and avoided.


TITLE: Icebreaker: A Voyage Far North
AUTHOR: Horatio Clare

In Icebreaker, Clare jumps at the chance to spend some time on a working Finnish icebreaker. Not while it's on shore for the summer, but right in the winter, as it trundles along freeing stuck ships and helping get them to where they need to go.

To an extent, this suffers from some of the same problems as Sixty Degrees North. I wanted to know about icebreakers, but even though pretty much the entire book takes place on an icebreaker, there wasn't enough about icebreakers! I read the whole thing and I don't feel I completely understand how the whole system works.

Plus, the book felt a little bit boring. There are pages and pages of extremely non-scintillating conversation with members of the crew. They all seemed like a nice bunch, but bless them, not great conversationalists. Underwhelming.



Women of the Dunes, by Sarah Maine

>> Friday, October 12, 2018

TITLE: Women of the Dunes
AUTHOR: Sarah Maine

PAGES: 384
PUBLISHER: Hodder & Stoughton

SETTING: Contemporary, 19th and 9th century Western Scotland
TYPE: Fiction

On the rugged, sea-lashed coast of west Scotland lies Ullaness: home to the Scottish legend of Ulla, a Viking woman who washed up on Scottish shores centuries ago. The legend will bring the stories of three different women together...

In AD 800 there is Ulla, lost in a foreign country after her lover is brutally killed. Ellen, a servant-girl in the 1800s, catches the unwanted attentions of the master of the house's lascivious son. And, in the present day, there is Libby - an archaeologist who is determined to uncover an age-old mystery.

When a body is excavated from Ullaness - the body of someone who was murdered long ago - the mystery deepens, and the fates of the three women become ever more tightly bound.
Just like The Boundless Deep, which I recently reviewed, this is the kind of book I love, a story about women in different time periods, their lives tied together in some way.

In the present day, Libby Snow is an archaeologist. She's soon to be part of a project to excavate a burial mound in the remote island of Ullaness, in the West Coast of Scotland. Libby has a personal connection to the area: as a child she spent a lot of time in Nova Scotia with her grandmother, who loved to tell young Libby stories passed on by her own grandmother, Ellen, who had been born in Ullanness herself.

Ellen had worked as a domestic servant in the manor, and she was the one who immigrated to Canada at some point in the 19th century. Ellen loved to entertain her granddaughter with stories about the island's legend, which featured a 9th century viking woman, Ulla, and a monk Odrhan (her lover? protector? friend?), and in turn, granny passed all those on to Libby. But Ellen also spoke about other things, including mentions of a "murder that had been done", and Libby has heard of those as well.

A few weeks before the dig is due to start, Libby decides to pay a quick visit to the island. Mostly it's that she wants to get the lay of the land, but there's something else on her mind. She's recently received from her grandmother a clearly very old cross, something that is supposed to have come from Ellen. And the cross is suspiciously similar to a chalice that used to be part of a medieval cache found on Ullaness, and which has been recently stolen in a mysterious burglary. Libby is a bit worried. How did Ellen come to have the cross? Did she steal it? She's not quite sure what she should do with it, but part of her hopes visiting the island will give her some ideas.

But the visit to Ullaness is more eventful than she was expecting. First an unexpected meeting with Rodri Sturrock, brother to the man who owns the manor and the land the excavation is supposed to take place on. Rodri is his brother's agent, and the bloody-minded man Libby and her colleagues have had so much trouble getting agreement from. And then, after a bit of a storm, Libby discovers a body in the area her team is meant to excavate. It's not a recent one, likely Victorian. And suddenly Libby is remembering Ellen's mutterings about murder.

Most of the time is spent in the present with Libby (and Rodri), but interspersed with her story, we get the story of Ulla and her monk, as well as that of Ellen. The former is very short, but the latter is a lot more developed. Ellen is a maid at the big house, and when the two sons of of the house arrive, it's a mix of good and bad news. One is a predatory piece of shit, and she's rightfully scared of him, while the other is a very nice, caring man, and Ellen has a bit of a crush on him.

I particularly enjoyed the present-day story, which is what takes up the biggest proportion of the book. Libby quickly becomes entangled in the lives of Rodri and two women, Alice and Maddy, who are his friends and business partners. They become her friends, actually, and it was really nice to see. Libby is not the most deeply developed character ever, but there's certainly the impression that she's been a bit lonely in the past. Growing up she was quite unmoored from family, forever moving between different relatives, so being adopted by these people is a new experience for her, and clearly one she enjoys.

The stakes in this section are not really about the investigation into the past. I had expected the events of Ellen and Ulla's lives to have some bearing on Libby and her life, but they don't really. In the present-day section, the big thing that's going on is the threat to Rodri and his friends and to the estate itself from Rodri's brother and his wife, who are seemingly determined to bleed the place dry. There are some surprises there, and some of them are unexpectedly dramatic (possibly in a way that didn't quite go with the tone of the book that well).

The mirroring I was expecting in Libby's life actually takes place mainly between Ulla's story and Ellen's. The patterns repeat themselves there, and both are very sad stories. We know things will end in tragedy, given Libby's find, but not quite how. I was a bit less interested in these stories, but they were ok.

On the whole, this was quite an enjoyable read.



Broken April, by Ismail Kadare

>> Wednesday, October 10, 2018

TITLE: Broken April
AUTHOR: Ismail Kadare

PAGES: 218

SETTING: Early 20th century Albania
TYPE: Fiction

From the moment that Gjorg's brother is killed by a neighbour, his own life is forfeit: for the code of Kanun requires Gjorg to kill his brother's murderer and then in turn be hunted down. After shooting his brother's killer, young Gjorg is entitled to thirty days' grace - not enough to see out the month of April.

Then a visiting honeymoon couple cross the path of the fugitive. The bride's heart goes out to Gjorg, and even these 'civilised' strangers from the city risk becoming embroiled in the fatal mechanism of vendetta.
Why did I read this? Bit of a long story. A couple of years ago I read and loved Mary Stewart's This Rough Magic. The book is set in Corfu, but much of the suspense plot revolves around Albania, sort of the North Korea of its time, the forbidding snowy peaks of which loom right over the water. Something about that really captured my imagination, and last year I decided to go there for a holiday. Snowy peaks were in my mind, so I decided to do some hiking up in the mountains in the North.

So then I wanted to do some reading about Albania. There are not a lot of travel books about the country, so I quickly switched to fiction by Albanian authors, and the obvious place to start was with Ismail Kadare. And as luck would have it, the first book that most people recommend (one of the few of his books considered "accessible" by those who know his work) is Broken April, which happens to be set in the very area I was planning to visit, albeit several decades previously.

Broken April was written in the late 70s, but it's set in the early 20th century (I would guess!). The central government is pretty much non-existent in the mountains of Northern Albania, and villagers abide by a code called the Kanun, a literal written guide on how life should proceed. Most of it is mundane and boring, but some is not, like the parts that concern blood feuds.

One of the central characters is Gjorg, a young man from a family that has been involved in a blood feud with another for many, many years, maybe even generations. The origin of this blood feud is linked with another central Kanun teaching, the treatment of guests. Basically, guests are precious and the honour of the family sheltering a guest is at stake in their protection. If someone kills them, then the hosts are honour-bound to avenge the death. And having killed the killer, the now-dead person's family is honour bound to avenge them as well. That is what happened in the case of Gjorg's family, and even though the original guest was just a stranger who had asked shelter for the night, for generations these two families have been killing each other, one person at a time, in strict turns.

It's now Gjorg's turn, and as the book starts, he has just killed the man who killed his brother. He knows someone in the man's family will now hunt him down, kill them, and the cycle will continue. He's got a bit of time, since after a blood feud kill the killer is granted something called besa, a period where the feud is suspended and he won't be killed, and during which he can do things like settle his affairs. But the first thing he must do is visit the Kulla of Orosh, the castle of the regional strong man (can't think of a better term) who is the guardian of the Kanun, and pay a blood tax. It's a long walk from the village and he sets off, unsettled about what's coming.

The other central characters are a newlywed couple, Bessian and Diana. They are both cosmopolitan, educated people from Tirana. Bessian is fascinated by the accounts of life in the Northern mountains. He finds it all very exotic and exciting (and this is as patronising as you might imagine). He decides that for their honeymoon, he and Diana are going to travel in the area.

Obviously, our three travellers' paths will cross, and this will set off a tragic chain of events.

As a portrayal of a way of life and a place and time, this works really well. The oppressiveness of living under a system where your destiny is determined by events set in motion generations ago is overpowering and vivid.

Whether it was ever quite as portrayed is another topic, though. In one of our first walks in Albania we visited a kulla. Kullas are stone towers where men involved in blood feuds could take refuge when they were the ones being hunted, and this was one of the very few left intact.

I had a really interesting conversation with the guide there about Broken April. He said that Kadare had an agenda when writing this, and that his point was to portray the Kanun as negatively as possible. His portrayal of the Steward of the Blood at the Kulla of Orosh as someone whose job is to make sure there are enough blood feuds active, so that money keeps rolling in as blood taxes, seemed to rankle particularly. Certainly, when the guide spoke about the Kanun to our group he emphasised all the different ways to reach reconciliation much more than you see in Broken April. He also gave a couple of examples of things that, he said, are used in the book to imply barbarism, when they are anything but. One example was the tradition of a bride's family including a bullet in her dowry when sending her to her new husband. The meaning in the book is basically "if she betrays you, use this bullet to kill her. You have our support". The guide said that it actually meant "We trust you so much that we trust you with the life of our daughter". Hmmm.... Still, food for thought.

As much as I liked the setting and 'world-building', the story itself wasn't quite as successful for me. Gjorg's storyline did make psychological sense, but I found it very hard to understand Diana, and that made some of the action pretty frustrating.


PS - I can't resist including a couple of bonus pictures from Albania :)


Rye and Mirrors

>> Monday, October 08, 2018

A couple of books by Agatha Christie today. I read all of hers as a young teen, and I'm really enjoying revisiting them in audio. They work perfectly as short palate-cleansers in between more intense, heavy audiobooks.

Both of these feature Miss Marple, whom I'm a big fan of. Just as big a fan as of Hercule Poirot. I really can't decide on a favourite between the two.

TITLE: A Pocket Full of Rye
AUTHOR: Agatha Christie

The first victim was a rich businessman, dead after drinking poisoned tea. The second was his wife, also by killed by poison. She had previously been considered the main suspect in her husband's death. And then the third victim, the maid, strangled in the garden. It is the last murder that brings in Miss Marple, as the maid had worked for her several years back.

On finding out that one of the most baffling aspects of the crime is that the first victim was found with some sort of grain or cereal in his pocket, Miss Marple realises it's rye, and that there are all sorts of other clues that also point towards a particular nursery rhyme. You know the one... "Sing a Song of Sixpence, a pocket full of rye..." Not least, the maid being killed as she was hanging clothes to dry and being found with a clothespin on her nose ('pecked off'), and the family's ownership of a mine in Africa called the Blackbird Mine. Is the family being targeted by a nursery-rhyme obsessive serial killer?

The truth is much more interesting than that. There are plenty of red herrings along the way, and the resolution is both clever and one of those satisfying ones that make complete sense when you look back. The characters are very well done here, as well. A really good one.


TITLE: They Do It With Mirrors
AUTHOR: Agatha Christie

Miss Marple visits an old friend, Carrie Louise Martin, at the request of her friend's sister, who thinks something is wrong and Miss Marple is the only one who can figure out what. Carrie Louise's current husband, Lewis (she's had several, and accumulated a variety of relatives, many of whom are living with her as well), has turned their house, a large Victorian mansion, into a institution to rehabilitate "young delinquents".

It all seems like a recipe for trouble, everyone seems to think, and trouble does occur. One of the boys shoots at Lewis, but when the metaphorical smoke clears, it's someone else who's dead.

This was fun, but not a favourite. This is one of the Christies where the point really, really isn't the characters (who are a bit flat -with the exception of Miss Marple, who is in great form), but the plot. The plot makes for a very clever puzzle, super ingenious, but ultimately one that doesn't quite stand up when you think about it too much. I found it a bit unbelievable that the culprit would choose to go for such an unnecessarily complex method, so reliant on other people behaving in particular ways and therefore so risky.

Still, a very entertaining book while I was reading it.



The Queen of Sorrow, by Sarah Beth Durst

>> Saturday, October 06, 2018

TITLE: The Queen of Sorrow
AUTHOR: Sarah Beth Durst

PAGES: 419
PUBLISHER: Harper Voyager

SETTING: World of Renthia
TYPE: Fantasy
SERIES: Follows The Queen of Blood and The Reluctant Queen

The battle between vicious spirits and strong-willed queens that started in the award-winning The Queen of Blood and continued in the powerful The Reluctant Queen comes to a stunning conclusion in The Queen of Sorrow, the final volume of Sarah Beth Durst’s Queens of Renthia trilogy.

Queen Daleina has yearned to bring peace and prosperity to her beloved forest home—a hope that seemed doomed when neighboring forces invaded Aratay. Now, with the powerful Queen Naelin ruling by her side, Daleina believes that her dream of ushering in a new era can be realized, even in a land plagued by malevolent nature spirits who thirst for the end of human life.

And then Naelin’s children are kidnapped by spirits.

Nothing is more important to her than her family, and Naelin would rather watch the world burn than see her children harmed. Blaming the defeated Queen Merecot of Semo for the kidnapping, Naelin is ready to start a war—and has the power to do it.

But Merecot has grander plans than a bloody battle with her southern neighbors. Taking the children is merely one step in a plot to change the future of all Renthia, either by ending the threat of spirits once and for all... or plunging the world into chaos.
NOTE: spoilers here for the first two books in the series. Don't read further if you haven't read them. The books in this series don't really stand alone, so you should really be starting with book 1. Links to my reviews above.

The first two books in this series were great. An imaginative, fresh world. Strong female characters, each strong in her own way. Action, danger, emotion, everything. This last one is good, but it doesn't quite end the series with a bang. I mean, it doesn't end it with a whimper, either. It's just good.

The action picks up where book 2 left off. Daleina and Naelin are adapting to sharing the queenship of Aratay. They seem pretty complementary: Naelin supplies the raw power, while Daleina, for all her youth, brings the the measured thoughtfulness and experience. But the threat posed by Merecot over the border in Semo is not over. And that's all I'll say about the plot, as it's much more fun to read it without knowing what is coming!

There is certainly an external plot here, but what I like so much about this series is that the way things play out is driven by character. Our three powerful women act and react in ways that reflect who they are. And what they are is real and flawed. Naelin is extremely powerful and a good person, but she's a crap queen. She cares more about her children than about her kingdom, and makes no bones about it. Merecot is basically a charming psychopath. The ways she acts in the book are sometimes counterproductive and she could get much more by asking nicely, but she would not be generous herself and do something without getting something in return, so it doesn't occur to her to ask. Daleina is probably the least flawed of the queens, but she is a little bit too trusting sometimes, to eager to see the good in people.

The interactions and dynamics between all these characters are what makes the book tick, and I enjoyed reading it. There's romance and action and cool world-building, but it's all in the background behind these well-developed and interesting characters, and that works perfectly.

As for flaws... well, I mentioned about Merecot being a charming psychopath. Well, there are two such characters here, she and Hamon's mother, Garnah, who's now been elevated to Queen's Poisoner, despite Hamon's protestations. They kind of steal the show here, because they really are very charming and funny, and I'm not sure they should have been quite so cool. Naelin and Deleina feel a bit earnest and uncool in comparison, which I'm not sure is the best choice for the story.

Still, that was a minor issue. This was an excellent series, and I will look forward to seeing where Durst goes next.



Looking into the (near) future

>> Thursday, October 04, 2018

Two books set (or partially set) in the near future. They also share a non-traditional, somehow fragmented structure.

TITLE: Tell the Machine Goodnight
AUTHOR: Katie Williams

For some reason, this somewhat reminded me of Kitchens of the Great Midwest. Probably the structure, which was sort of like a collection of vignettes, almost short stories, from the points of view of various people in this world, some of whom we return to, some of whom we don't.

The first one is Pearl, a woman who works for a company that offers consultations with a machine called Apricity that, based on a swab test, tells people the things they need to change in their life to be happy (this could be anything... learn a language, cut off contact with your sister, cut off the tip of your left index finger). Then comes one from the POV of her manager at the company, who gets drawn in by another manager, a rising star, into using a pimped up Apricity machine to get ahead in his job. Then there's one from the POV of Clark, Pearl's son, who is helping a friend find something out, and comes up with a way to use his mum's Apricity machine to do so. So, you get the picture, a sequence of lightly connected vignettes, all somehow using the concept of the Apricity machine.

The Apricity machine is a really interesting concept to play with. The book is set about 20 years in the future, but the themes speak very clearly about today, about the ways we try to pursue happiness by trying all sorts of gimmicks, rather than going along more slow (but boring) paths. I enjoyed it, but I would say it felt ultimately not quite satisfying. I was hoping there would be something that tied everything together in the end (at least a bit), but instead, it felt like things were sort of left hanging.


TITLE: Speak
AUTHOR: Louisa Hall

Speak follows 6 characters living in different times and spaces. There's the diary of a girl travelling to America from England in the 1600s. In the current day, there's a scientist working on an artificial intelligence programme and struggling to connect with his wife. There's letters sent by Alan Turing to the mother of a recently dead friend. Some 25 years into the future, writing his memoirs in a prison, there's a man who created something called "babybots", dolls with AI that many children ended up attaching to and becoming ill, seemingly as a result. There's a transcript (evidence in the babybot trial) of girl talking to an AI after her babybot was taken away. Finally, there's a babybot on the way to being destroyed.

Some of these storylines connect quite clearly (the link between the 3 characters in the future is obvious, but there's more. For instance, the scientist's wife edited and published the 17th century young girl's diary. The artificial intelligence programme created by the scientist builds on Turing's work. And so on).

I was really excited about this book at the beginning. It was reminiscent of Cloud Atlas (purposely, I would say) and I was hoping it would be as good. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. The themes were potentially interesting: the way communication and technology interact, the difficulties of really connecting with other humans. But I didn't feel Hall did all that much with them. Or maybe I just wasn't able to get beneath the surface of the different stories.



Five Star Billionaire, by Tash Aw

>> Tuesday, October 02, 2018

TITLE: Five Star Billionaire

PUBLISHER: Fourth Estate

SETTING: Contemporary China
TYPE: Fiction

In the Man Booker prize-longlisted ‘Five Star Billionaire’ Tash Aw charts the overlapping lives of migrant Malaysian workers, forging lives for themselves in sprawling Shanghai.

Justin is from a family of successful property developers. Phoebe has come to China buoyed with hope, but her dreams are shattered within hours as the job she has come for seems never to have existed. Gary is a successful pop artist, but his fans and marketing machine disappear after a bar-room brawl. Yinghui has businesses that are going well but must make decisions about her life. And then there is Walter, the shadowy billionaire, ruthless and manipulative, ultimately alone in the world.

In ‘Five Star Billionaire’, Tash Aw charts the weave of their journeys in the new China, counterpointing their adventures with the old life they have left behind in Malaysia. The result is a brilliant examination of the migrations that are shaping the new city experiences all over the world, and their effect on myriad individual lives.
This year for the first time, after several consecutive years of reading as much as I could work through of the Man Booker longlist, I've mostly ignored it. I started to make the attempt and tried to read Snap, but I really didn't fancy most of the rest. Sunita's reviews have made me reconsider reading a few of the others, but mostly, I'm unenthusiastic. So instead, here's a review of a book from another year's longlist.

I bought this one a few years back, on the year when it was on the longlist. It was one I was looking forward to reading, but when it wasn't on the shortlist it kind of got lost in my TBR. I came across it again after DNFing a couple of disappointing books and it felt like exactly what I was looking for.

Five Star Billionaire follows a group of Malaysian people living their lives in the fast-paced capitalism of Shanghai. They're a mix of people trying to make it and people dealing with having made it. There's Phoebe, a young girl from a rural village who moved to China for an excellent job that disappeared on arrival. There's Justin, the scion of a rich family dealing with the pressure of having to save their real estate empire. There's Gary, winner of a talent competition trying to cope with sudden fame. There's Yinghui, who by her late 30s has built a successful career and is struggling with those around her think that unmarried women her age are, by definition, to be pitied, however successful they may be (and oh, how I identified with that!). Finally, there's Walter, immensely rich and trying to sort out his legacy, the linchpin of the novel, whose actions affect each of the previous four.

This is not really about the characters but about life in the new China, a fast-moving (so fast-moving that it may have changed drastically in the 5 years that this book has been out), merciless world. The characters all connect superficially, but struggle to make deeper connections. And in the end, each of the four younger characters needs to make a choice.

The book employs a loose "self-help book" structure, with chapter named things like "Move to Where the Money Is" and "Choose the Right moment to launch Yourself". I enjoyed figuring out how the content of those chapters would give us a twist on their titles. I note that this came out at about the same time as Mohsin Hamid's How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, so there must have been something in the air right then :)

Interesting book, definitely worth a read.



The Boundless Deep, by Kate Brallier

>> Sunday, September 30, 2018

TITLE: The Boundless Deep
AUTHOR: Kate Brallier

PAGES: 432

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance

Philosophers have said that we travel through our lives, past and present, surrounded by the same souls, that we spend each new life trying to mend the hurts we've done to one another in the past. In The Boundless Deep, Kate Brallier explores this idea in a combination of strong storytelling and gifted characterization.

Grad student Liza has long been plagued by vivid dreams of whaling. Offered the chance to trade her land-locked existence for a summer on Nantucket, the well-preserved heart of New England's whaling trade, Liza jumps at the chance, eager to see how well her dreams mesh with historical reality.

The answer is: all too well. Liza's dreams become highly sexual; her visions of ship's captain Obadiah Young grow increasingly intense. At times the past and present mix before her eyes, with automobiles replaced by horse-drawn carriages.

Though skeptical of Liza's claims of a past life, whaling museum curator Adam is drawn to Liza's intense desire to know the truth—about herself, and about Obadiah, accused of murdering his beautiful, young wife. But Adam isn't the only man with an interest in Liza—handsome Lucian, whose home Liza is sharing for the season, has designs on her as well.

In a single summer, Liza must answer the riddle of her dreams, reunite lovers separated by death, solve a hundred-year-old murder... and figure out her heart's desire.
I'm a total sceptic in real life, but in fiction, past lives/timeslip plotlines are my crack. Most authors can't do them as well as the masters, such as Susanna Kearsley or Barbara Michaels, but whenever I come across one, I can't help but buy the book and try.

In The Boundless Deep, grad student Liza has had strange dreams about whaling ships since she can remember. Detailed, recurring dreams, so vivid that she can't help thinking they might be something more than dreams. When her kooky roommate Jane finds out, she's fascinated. She's also determined to do something about it.

Jane is in a position to do so, because her Aunt Kitty owns a large house in Nantucket, and is happy to have Jane and Liza join her other nephew, the mysterious Lucian, as guests for the summer. And as soon as Liza gets there, she starts having strange spells, 'recognising' the house as it used to be a couple of centuries earlier, and her dreams start getting more frequent and vivid. More and more, she dreams of the man who built the house, Obadiah Young. All sorts of dreams, including vivid, erotic ones of having sex with him. It seems the dreams actually have a point now, and there's something Liza is meant to find out.

I had fun reading this. It's a bit slow-moving and not an awful lot actually happens, but it was still pleasant to read. I particularly enjoyed the atmosphere of both contemporary and historical Nantucket, as well as the stuff going on in Liza's life in the present day. There's a lot to keep her occupied in the present as well, between a summer job at the local historical museum and a developing relationship with one of the curators, the very hunky Adam. But there's something about Lucian that intrigues her as well. I'm not the biggest fan of the love triangle setup, but this was actually really nicely done.

I also quite like the dynamics between the characters. Liza and Jane have a really nice, supportive friendship. I thought at the beginning that Jane was going to be an unbearable 'quirky' character, but though she's definitely quirky, she's really cool and grounded. I also liked how they all interacted with the rest of the people in the house, and how the two young women, together with Lucian, Aunt Kitty and Aunt Kitty's boyfriend, Jim, make up a sort of team for the summer.

And this team is very supportive of what Liza's going through. That was a bit strange, in a way, as it felt like everyone was a bit too ready to accept that Liza's visions were true. But it worked for me.

What didn't work for me so much was the stuff in the past. I mean, I liked how it related to the present, but the actual storyline probably didn't strike me as it was meant to strike me. I don't want to give too much away, because what Liza thinks is going on at first is not quite what turns out to be happening, but all I'll say is that central relationship in the past was clearly meant to be super-romantic, but I didn't find it to be so in the least.

Still, that didn't really matter too much for me, and there was more than enough in the present day that I found super-romantic to compensate :)



Three short reviews for three short books

>> Friday, September 28, 2018

TITLE: The Reluctant Nude
AUTHOR: Meg Maguire

Max Emery is a sculptor. His latest commission is a strange one. He's supposed to be making a nude sculpture of a woman, Fallon Frost, who doesn't seem to want it done, yet insists he proceed. Turns out that's because Fallon is being coerced into it by a man who's threatening to demolish the one place in the world where she was happy as a child, unless she poses for a nude statue for his private collection.

I liked this. The romance between Fallon and Max is slow and gradual in developing, and pretty intense. The conflict, for all the external stuff, feels character driven. The whole thing felt quite fresh and new to me, not the same-old, same-old. At the same time, though, the external premise felt a bit pointless to me, kind of unnecessarily strange, considering the use that is made of it in the end.


TITLE: Aquamarine
AUTHOR: Catherine Mulvany

Several years ago, a heiress disappeared. Our heroine, Shea, is a dead ringer for her. Teague, who used to be the heiress's fiancé, is convinced she was murdered. He asks Shea to impersonate her in an effort to draw out her murderer (and make her dying dad happy). Shea is all "hell, no", until she sees a photo of the sick dad, and realises he looks exactly like her supposedly dead birth father.

This one just felt off to me. The tone was wrong. It all felt awfully casual, way too cheery when we're talking about murder and duping a dying father. Plus, I found Shea's motivation for going along unconvincing. Mulvany tries to justify her agreement to this plan, but it feels flimsy. There is no reason why she couldn't just ask this man questions directly once she's got access to him, instead of purposely putting herself in what is obviously quite a dangerous position. I also felt wrong of Teague to ask this much of a stranger. Finally, the book felt pretty dated in the way the heiress's character was assassinated in order to make Teague look better.



TITLE: Intrusion
AUTHOR: Charlotte Stein

Intrusion is about two people, Noah and Beth, who were affected by violence in a way that still shapes their lives today. Both are very damaged by it, and it affects their day-to-day existence. They meet when Beth takes the immensely courageous step of confronting Noah, thinking he's done something to her dog, only to realise they have a lot in common. Things go from there.

I tend to love Stein's books. I usually adore her almost-stream-of-consciousness writing style and find it builds intensity beautifully. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work for me this time. I found it a bit distracting and hard to follow, even hard to understand what on earth was going on sometimes. I also didn't like the ending, where I felt the book turned into something completely different and I found it all preposterous. So an odd miss for me with Stein here. Eh, well.



Listen to the Moon, by Rose Lerner

>> Wednesday, September 26, 2018

TITLE: Listen to the Moon
AUTHOR: Rose Lerner

PAGES: 316
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: 19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 3rd in the Lively St. Lemeston series

She’s a maid-of-all-work, and he’s a valet of no play...

John Toogood always prided himself on being the perfect gentleman’s gentleman: skilled, discreet, and professional. But now he finds himself laid off and blacklisted, stuck in tiny Lively St. Lemeston until he can find a new job. Any job.

His instant attraction to his happy-go-lucky maid Sukey Grimes couldn’t come at a worse time. Her manners are provincial, her respect for authority nonexistent, and her outdated cleaning methods...well, the less said about them, the better.

Sukey can tell that John’s impeccably impassive facade hides a lonely man with a gift for laughter—and kissing. But she also knows he’ll leave her sleepy little town behind the moment he gets the chance, and she has no intention of giving him her heart to take with him.

John learns that the town vicar needs a butler—but the job is only for a respectable married man. Against both their better judgments, John and Sukey tie the knot. The ring isn’t on her finger long before Sukey realizes she underestimated just how vexing being married to the boss can be...
Listen to the Moon is part of the Lively St. Lemeston series. In the first book in the series, Sweet Disorder, John Toogood was the hero's valet and helped him marry someone his mother thought was an unsuitable woman (mostly, he didn't rat the hero out to his mother). Unfortunately, it was mum who actually employed John, and he was let go and blacklisted from working in the sorts of high society households he'd been used to being part of.

Temporarily living in a boarding house while he searches for a job, John meets Sukey Grimes and is very surprised by just how much he finds himself attracted to her. She's in her early 20s to his 40, and just a not particularly well-trained maid-of-all-work. There's definitely a class system below stairs, and John and Sukey are as far apart on it as a duke and a pauper.

But when the only good job John can find requires a married man, suddenly he has a very good, logical reason to take things further with Sukey (not an excuse to give in to the attraction, not at all).

I enjoyed this very much. I really liked having the two main characters really being servants, and not some sort of nonsense like one of them being from the nobility but in hiding or in desperately reduced circumstances (which would, of course, have been reversed by the end of the book). No, both John and Sukey are perfectly normal people, with backgrounds that are perfectly normal for their jobs, and who see domestic service as a perfectly respectable and good, even satisfying, career.

It was challenging to read, though. I'm a bit of a control freak, so insecurity really disturbs me. And the life of a servant is full of insecurity. They can be in a job with a master or mistress that they trust, where they feel they're set for life, but then this person dies, and who knows what the next master will be like? Or a master who they thought they could trust might turn on them unexpectedly. And then they lose their livelihood, at a time where safety nets were pretty threadbare, and what if the master blacklists them (as his former mistress did John), and even finding another job is super difficult? Even by the end of the book I worried for John and Sukey, although Lerner did the best to reassure her readers.

I also really liked that both John and Sukey are flawed, complex people. Like how John struggled with his first impulses, which in some cases were to be unkind, even to the people he loves. Or how Sukey is not particularly good at the 'technical' aspects of her job. And they're each aware of each other's flaws. They love each other even though they don't like everything about the other. Their relationship felt more real for it.

The one aspect of the book that didn't quite work for me was that the sex felt a bit off, like Lerner was making it explicit in a way that didn't fit well with the rest of the book. Sukey (who is a virgin, even though she's done a bit of experimenting) is oddly shamelessly adventurous, and we don't really get told where that is coming from. I mean adventurous in ways that would feel pretty daring even today. At one point she and John are making love and she starts going on about whether he'd find it sexy to see her fucked by another man, or to see another woman licking her pussy. And John is not even surprised, he just takes it in his stride. I didn't buy it, and it felt unnecessary.

Other than that, though, this was great.



Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

>> Monday, September 24, 2018

TITLE: Frankenstein
AUTHOR: Mary Shelley

PAGES: 288

SETTING: Various European countries, early 19th century
TYPE: Fiction

Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein when she was only eighteen. At once a Gothic thriller, a passionate romance, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of science, Frankenstein tells the story of committed science student Victor Frankenstein. Obsessed with discovering the cause of generation and life and bestowing animation upon lifeless matter, Frankenstein assembles a human being from stolen body parts but; upon bringing it to life, he recoils in horror at the creature's hideousness. Tormented by isolation and loneliness, the once-innocent creature turns to evil and unleashes a campaign of murderous revenge against his creator, Frankenstein.

Frankenstein, an instant bestseller and an important ancestor of both the horror and science fiction genres, not only tells a terrifying story, but also raises profound, disturbing questions about the very nature of life and the place of humankind within the cosmos: What does it mean to be human? What responsibilities do we have to each other? How far can we go in tampering with Nature? In our age, filled with news of organ donation genetic engineering, and bio-terrorism, these questions are more relevant than ever.
This keeps happening to me with classics. I was sure I must have read Frankenstein already at some point, but I hadn't. All I remembered was stuff from its many extended lives in pop culture, and a lot of it turned out not to be in the text at all. But the book itself turned out to be so much more interesting than the stuff I was remembering.

The start made me go 'huh?'. An English ship captain writes to his sister about something that happened when his ship got stuck in the ice in the Arctic Sea. First he and his men saw a sled in the distance carrying what seemed to be a huge man (clearly a trick of the light reflecting off the ice, they thought), and then another sled, which had seemingly been in pursuit, approached the ship. The man on it introduced himself as Victor Frankenstein and, taking refuge in the ship for a while, told the captain the story the latter is now conveying to his sister.

His story is a doozy, and that's the one with the elements readers will recognise. Young Victor Frankenstein is a student of science who decides he wants to try to create a living being. He scavenges bits and pieces off different bodies, and on a fateful night, gives his creation the spark of life (just how is coyly hidden from his listener -and thus readers- as knowledge that is just too dangerous). When the creature rises, Victor is struck by the horror of what he has done (partly, apparently, due to the extreme ugliness of his creation) and runs away, abandoning the creature.

Over the next months Victor tries to forget what he has done, but his path crosses with that of the creature again, and he finds out what has become of his creation's life. It's a story that starts with hope that he will be accepted by the world, but ends with those hopes being destroyed. And the rejection sours in the creature into a desire for revenge against the man who was the first to reject him, Victor himself.

You hear much about Frankenstein being about the dangers of scientific curiosity and a cautionary tale about what happens when scientists play God. This is not how it struck me at all. I think this may be, in small part, because this is one of the areas in which the book isn't really too good. I didn't find Victor believable as a scientist, precisely because of the lack of scientific curiosity that he showed at every point. His motivation in trying to put together the creature is completely glossed over. One may assume it is about scientific curiosity, but that is not on the page, and his reaction after succeeding shows zero curiosity.

But mostly, the reason why the "scientists playing God" didn't seem to me the real theme of the book is that the "playing God" bit was clearly not the problem! The outcome of the experiment was a creature with all the best of humanity in it, as well as the worst. And when in his 'natural' state, it was the best that seemed to come out first. There's a long section where he tells the story of how he came across a family living in an isolated house and spied on them, thus learning to speak and how the world of other humans works. He loved these people very much, and having encountered fear from the few people he'd come across before, he carefully planned how to approach them to befriend them without scaring them. But that all failed, and he encountered painful rejection again.

So at first, he showed instinctive compassion and caring for the human beings he encountered. He wanted to help, and did. All he wanted was to be, in turn, accepted and cared for by the people he met. It was only when he was met with rejection and violence for the sole reason of his appearance, that the worst impulses of humanity came out. But even then, when he was telling Victor about what had happened, it was clear that the creature was not irredeemably bad. He was sorry about the bad things he had done so far and ready to repent, if someone were to show him even a tiny bit of compassion. It was only because he didn't get it that what happened next took place.

So to me, there were themes that came out of all that much more clearly than "the dangers of scientists playing God". Like the dangers of not taking responsibility for what you do. Like what makes a human a human. Like whether people can be innately evil, or whether evil may be influenced by context and how people are treated. Those themes were much better explored by the plot, and quite successfully, too.

The book is not perfect. The plotting is sometimes a bit creaky and clunky, and some of the melodramatic tone doesn't quite land (oh, Victor was one emo, overdramatic, self-indulgent SOB!). I was literally laughing at some of the supposedly touching moments. But when the pathos does work, such as in the creature's tale, it's incredibly powerful. There's definitely a reason this is a classic.


PS - I listened to the audiobook, and chose one of the best reviewed versions on Audible, narrated by Dan Stevens (you'll probably recognise the name if you watch Downton Abbey). I'm not sure if it was the right choice, to be honest. A large proportion of the book, both when it's Victor and when it's the creature speaking, Stevens hams it up massively, the voices so overly dramatic that it feels like the characters are constantly on the verge of weeping. And yes, the text does support the utter melodrama, but I think the narration may have been what tipped it into ridiculousness for me. Like I said, I was literally scoffing and laughing and going "oh, come off it!" out loud during the most dramatic bits, which is probably not the intended effect, and some of this was down to the narration.

PPS - The cover I've included in this post is the one I think best reflects the tone. Caspar Friedrich's Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. Very fitting.


Take the Lead, by Alexis Daria

>> Saturday, September 22, 2018

TITLE: Take the Lead
AUTHOR: Alexis Daria

PAGES: 332

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: #1 in the Dance-Off series

Gina Morales wants to win. It’s her fifth season on The Dance Off, a top-rated network TV celebrity dance competition, and she’s never even made it to the finals. When she meets her latest partner, she sees her chance. He's handsome, rippling with muscles, and he stars on the popular Alaskan wilderness reality show Living Wild. With his sexy physique and name recognition, she thinks he’s her ticket to the finals—until she realizes they’re being set up.

Stone Nielson hates Los Angeles, he hates reality TV, and he hates that fact that he had to join the cast of the The Dance Off because of family obligations. He can’t wait to get back to Alaska, but he also can’t deny his growing attraction to his bubbly Puerto Rican dance partner. Neither of them are looking for romantic entanglements, and Stone can’t risk revealing his secrets, but as they heat up the dance floor, it’s only a matter of time until he feels an overwhelming urge to take the lead.

When the tabloids catch on to their developing romance, the spotlight threatens to ruin not just their relationship, but their careers and their shot at the trophy. Gina and Stone will have to decide if their priorities lie with fame, fortune, or the chance at a future together.
Gina Morales is a professional dancer and one of the pros in a TV dancing contest/reality show (think Dancing With the Stars or Strictly). She's done ok in her first couple of years, but this year she's determined to work hard and get onto the finals (at least). She'll do it whoever her celebrity partner is, but she's been hoping for a good one... maybe an Olympian? Someone used to training hard and with good coordination, anyway.

She doesn't quite get an Olympian in the modern sense of the word, but the contestant she gets looks like a literal ancient one. Stone Nielsen is a mountain of sculpted muscle. He's the star of a reality show himself, one focusing on his family and their life off the grid in Alaska. Stone's not keen on being on a dancing competition, but there's certain medical bills to pay, and he can't say no to his family.

There's quite an instant attraction between Gina and Stone, but as they spend intense hours together training, she's determined to keep things professional, even though the show producers are clearly angling for a 'showmance' between them. She will absolutely not be portrayed as a stereotypical promiscuous, sexualised Latina. But as she and Stone start getting to know and actually care for each other, it's hard.

There were some really good and interesting things here, enough that I'll probably read Daria again, but on the whole this felt insubstantial, and like an author who's still learning about how to do characterisation really well.

This was visible mostly in Stone, who felt like quite a thin character, with certain key things in his background lacking convincing motivation. And this meant that he felt a bit spineless, to be honest. He is living his life being part of a reality TV show 24/7, and one that seems to be based on lies. The Nielsons are supposed to have lived all their lives off-the-grid and grown up like that, but in reality their lives seem to have been a lot less unusual. Stone doesn't like it, but he feels pressured by his family to be part of the whole thing. Why? We don't know. He loves his family and can't say no to them, that's all we get. Then they pressure him to go on yet another reality show, this Dance-Off. One where things are going to be even more manipulated by producers. If he hated being on his family reality show, this is clearly going to be a nightmare. It really seems a lot to ask of someone, and we never understand why he doesn't push back. There's some hand-waving about having to pay medical bills for his mother's hip replacement, but that seems preposterous. They're stars in a reality show that seems quite successful (enough to warrant one of the brothers going on Dance-Off), and yet the the producers have not arranged for health insurance? Seriously?

Gina felt like a much more well-rounded, real character. I understood her better. She's a dancer, she wants to have a successful, lasting career. Being on a programme like Dance-Off makes sense. She doesn't love the producer manipulation (and seriously, that producer, Donna, was such a cartoonishly evil character!), but it's part of the deal, and she does like the fame aspect of things. She has fun with the press junkets and so on. That's fine. Personally, it would be my worst nightmare, but different strokes and all that.

Her desire not to be made into yet another example of the oversexualised, "fiery" Latina by the show's producers also really resonated with me. I grew up in Uruguay, where that stereotype is just not a thing. All the people around me growing up were Latin American (whether white, brown or black), so we didn't have that outsider generalised view of what "Latinxs" are supposed to be like. If anything, our own view of ourselves as Uruguayans is that we're melancholy and grey, far from the fiery and passionate idea outsiders seem to have of all Latinxs. And then I moved to Europe, and it was a bit of a shock to see that I was often assumed to be impulsive and hot-blooded, when I'm actually much more on the cold and analytical end of the spectrum. It hasn't been a huge problem, just something that's nagged at me, but it made Gina's motivations for absolutely and resolutely not wanting to be seen as a dancer who would sleep with her partner completely understandable.

But even with her there are what seem to be plot-driven inconsistencies. Like her instant grabbiness with Stone, even while she was talking sense about how it was best to keep things professional (if friendly) with him. Why the hell is she suddenly holding hands with him, going "lie back, I've been dying to play with your hair" and cuddling next to him when they take a nap in the park? There's some talk later on about it being important for the dance chemistry that they're comfortable with touching each other's bodies, but at that point it's all 'Professional, professional, professional, "I'm gonna play with your hair"'. She's basically giving them man super mixed messages, and indeed, he's pretty confused.

I also found it quite disturbing that all the men are all portrayed as really nice and supportive to each other, while the only "villains" are two women. And their villainy is of the stereotypical misogynistic kind: they're manipulative and bitchy and vindictive. That kind of characterisation got old several years ago. Also, one of them sexually harasses Stone in what I thought was quite a severe way. If it had been a man doing that to a woman, it would have been taken a lot more seriously. Here it's just ignored by everyone, including Stone. This jarred.

The bits about the actual dancing competition could also have been done a lot better. Well, we do get quite a bit about the rehearsals, but once we get to the TV shows, it's basically "and then they danced and got X points". Only maybe once we get to hear the judges. That seemed like a bit of a waste, as this could have provided quite good tension (as well as being fun).

Finally (appropriately), the ending (spoilerish, so beware if you decide to read the next paragraph). Very mixed feelings about it. Daria had been telling us all along how difficult it would be to have a relationship work, since they each want such different things. Stone loves Alaska and living in uncrowded Nature, while Gina is a woman who thrives on the energy of the city, and the career she is so passionate about demands she be there. To be honest, I wasn't sure they should be together. But suddenly Stone (thin character that he is) seems to decide he's not that determined to live permanently in Alaska after all, cue HEA. Huh. On one hand, nice not to have the heroine give up her dreams, but on the other, it felt like a cop-out to wave a magic wand and say that actually, neither has Stone and he's now happy living in big cities and going to Alaska in off-season times.

The other good thing about the ending was that Daria made me aware of some unexpected internalised sexism within myself. So, Stone, who has an engineering degree and lots of experience working on construction projects, ends up giving it up and taking up a career of being a catwalk model instead, which allows he and Gina to better mesh their lives. I had quite a negative reaction to that, and on interrogating it, turns out I felt it was 'unmanly' in some way. I tried to tell myself at first that it was about the waste of a good brain, blah, blah, blah, but really, it was about the manliness. Silly, but there we go. A book that makes you get to know yourself better is always a worth read, IMO.

It feels like I've mostly nitpicked in this review, but on the whole, I had a good time reading it. It flowed well and kept me engaged. Hopefully the next will have improved characterisation and work for me even better.

MY GRADE: This was a B- for me.


3 DNFs: Oxford, a Man Booker title and body-invaders

>> Thursday, September 20, 2018

Today a few recent DNFs.

TITLE: My Oxford Year
AUTHOR: Julia Whelan

My Oxford Year is about Ella Durran, a young American woman who moves to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship to do a postgraduate degree. She will be there only for a year, so when she meets a guy she really connects with, setting out to have a temporary relationship seems reasonable. But of course, things get complicated.

This sounded like it would be right up my alley. I got a scholarship to do a postgrad degree in the UK as well! Fulbright, rather than Rhodes, but hey, close enough. I hoped I'd connect to Ella's experiences of arriving in a different country, one that you know a lot about through pop culture, and then getting the real experience. For a little while at the start the signs were good, but no. It's weird, because I understand the author spent a year in the UK as a Rhodes scholar herself, but Ella's experience didn't feel real to me. What she describes, the way people interact and speak, it all felt like a theme park version of England. I was rolling my eyes so hard I found it hard to read. Also, Ella seems extremely impressed with herself and the extreme cleverness that allowed her to get the scholarship. Get over yourself, girl!


AUTHOR: Belinda Bauer

I've been looking forward to the announcement of the Man Booker prize longlist for months (yes, literally; I'm not exaggerating). When it came out most of the drama seemed to be about a graphic novel being nominated, but complaints about this genre mystery/thriller being on the list ran a close second on the drama stakes. I'm all for recognising that good genre fiction can be just as good as literary fiction, so I picked it up first of all.

It started out well. The first scene, with three little kids being left behind in a broken-down car as their mum goes for help, was great. But things just went downhill from there. Lots of characters behaving in unbelievable ways, the cops were boring and stereotypical at the same time and some developments (like the decision to reopen the case of Jack's mum's murder) were poorly justified. I couldn't muster the interest to keep going, and to be honest, this year I haven't been able to muster any interest in other books on the longlist. I will probably take a break and try again next year.


TITLE: Touch
AUTHOR: Claire North

Our narrator, Kepler, is a being who is able to skip bodies just by touching the destination one. He used to be human, but at the moment of his death, he reached out to touch his killer and somehow went into him. Since then he has been moving around. He likes to be respectful of the bodies he inhabits, but not all beings like him are, and now members of a shadowy organisation are hunting them. When the host he's inhabiting is shot and killed, Kepler is able to move to the killer at the last minute, and the race to find out what's going on begins.

There were some interesting concepts here, and the author seemed to have put a lot of thought into the practicalities that would result from her premise, which is something I always enjoy. There was also a lot of travelling around all over the world, which should have been fun. It wasn't. The whole thing was extremely tedious. The book is merely longish (430 pages or so), but it feels so, so much longer. I felt like I wasn't advancing at all, possibly because I didn't care about the characters, and the whole plot seemed faintly ridiculous. The shadowy organisation made no sense, the 'villain' is one of those uninteresting 'he's evil because he's a psycho, period' ones, and things started to get so convoluted that I got bored.



Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler

>> Tuesday, September 18, 2018

TITLE: Vinegar Girl
AUTHOR: Anne Tyler

PAGES: 237
PUBLISHER: Hogarth Press

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Fiction

‘You can’t get around Kate Battista as easily as all that’

Kate Battista is feeling stuck. How did she end up running house and home for her eccentric scientist father and uppity, pretty younger sister Bunny? Plus, she’s always in trouble at work – her pre-school charges adore her, but the adults don’t always appreciate her unusual opinions and forthright manner.

Dr Battista has other problems. After years out in the academic wilderness, he is on the verge of a breakthrough. His research could help millions. There’s only one problem: his brilliant young lab assistant, Pyotr, is about to be deported. And without Pyotr…

When Dr Battista cooks up an outrageous plan that will enable Pyotr to stay in the country, he’s relying – as usual – on Kate to help him. Kate is furious: this time he’s really asking too much. But will she be able to resist the two men’s touchingly ludicrous campaign to win her round?

Anne Tyler’s retelling of The Taming of the Shrew asks whether a thoroughly modern, independent woman like Kate would ever sacrifice herself for a man. The answer is as individual, off-beat and funny as Kate herself.
Vinegar Girl is part of Hogarth Press's Shakespeare project, where bestselling authors take his plays and rewrite them for the modern world. Several are out already. For instance, Margaret Atwood has taken The Tempest and set it in a theatre course in a modern prison (Hag-Seed), while Jo Nesbø has Macbeth and Duncan as policemen in a drug-infested 1970s industrial town (Macbeth).

I'm sure those were challenging, but they couldn't have been any harder than what Anne Tyler took on. Making The Taming of the Shrew into a modern romantic comedy? Surely that couldn't be done! But it could, and she did.

Kate Battista has found herself living with her father, the archetypal absent/single-minded scientist, and younger sister, basically keeping house for them. She's not some sort of model of domesticity (actually, she's very forthright and direct, and a bit socially awkward), but things drifted, and here we are.

Her father is at a very delicate stage in his research, one that depends on his assistant at the lab, Pyotr. But Pyotr's immigration status is just as delicate, and it looks like he could get deported. The obvious solution to Dr. Battista's problem is to have his daughter marry Pyotr, which will sort everything out. Kate, however, is not too enamoured of the idea, and isn't shy about saying so.

I thought Vinegar Girl did the retelling element really well. It played with the source material in a very fun way, taking what I find completely infuriating and gross about the play and twisting it in a way that works. For instance, the things Petruchio says come from his being a mysoginistic arsehole. Pyotr sometimes shows similarly insulting lack of tact, but from him this comes from his lack of understanding of American social niceties. And somehow Tyler manages to do this while not making it feel like "hah hah, look at the stupid foreigner!" (something I'm a teeny bit sensitive to).

The book was also hilarious. Part of that is just Kate's deadpan point of view and observations, but a big part of it is also about the increasingly farcical plotting, which stays just on the right side of unbelievable. Pyotr's and Dr. Battista's attempts to convince Kate that this is an excellent idea are preposterous and completely ridiculous, but they fit their characters so well that they seem like exaggeration, not wholesale invention.

It even works as a romance. It soon starts becoming clear that for Pyotr, the attempts to get Kate to marry him are not just about not getting deported. The parts of her behaviour that are tutted at by society he finds refreshing and wonderful. He and Kate are similar in the ways that matter, and yet different enough that they make up for each other's faults. I bought the romance completely.



The Last Cruise, by Kate Christensen

>> Sunday, September 16, 2018

TITLE: The Last Cruise
AUTHOR: Kate Christensen

PAGES: 304
PUBLISHER: Doubleday

SETTING: Contemporary, US and the high seas!
TYPE: Fiction

From the acclaimed PEN-Faulkner Award-winning author of The Great Man comes a riveting high-seas adventure that combines Christensen's signature wit, irony, and humanity to create a striking and unforgettable vision of our times.

The 1950s vintage ocean liner Queen Isabella is making her final voyage before heading to the scrapyard. For the guests on board, among them Christine Thorne, a former journalist turned Maine farmer, it's a chance to experience the bygone mid-20th century era of decadent luxury cruising, complete with fine dining, classic highballs, string quartets, and sophisticated jazz. Smoking is allowed but not cell phones--or children, for that matter. The Isabella sets sail from Long Beach, CA into calm seas on a two-week retro cruise to Hawaii and back.

But this is the second decade of an uncertain new millennium, not the sunny, heedless fifties, and certain disquieting signs of strife and malfunction above and below decks intrude on the festivities. Down in the main galley, Mick Szabo, a battle-weary Hungarian executive sous-chef, watches escalating tensions among the crew. Meanwhile, Miriam Koslow, an elderly Israeli violinist with the Sabra Quartet, becomes increasingly aware of the age-related vulnerabilities of the ship herself and the cynical corners cut by the cruise ship company, Cabaret.

When a time of crisis begins, Christine, Mick, and Miriam find themselves facing the unknown together in an unexpected and startling test of their characters.
The small but glamorous ship Isabella is on its last cruise before it's decommissioned, a 2 week jaunt to Hawaii with a 1950s theme. It's all going to be perfect: the luxurious food, the entertainment, even the lack of mobile phones.

Christine Thorne is there as a guest of her friend Valerie, who's a successful journalist and writer. Christine used to be a journalist in New York as well, but for several years now she's lived in a small farm in Maine, working alongside her farmer husband. She's at at a point in her life where she's feeling increasingly dissatisfied and antsy about her quiet life, and hopes the break in her routine might help.

Miriam Koslow is on the Isabella for work. She's a veteran of the Six Days War, and with her ex-husband and two other friends, all of them fellow war veterans, they make up the Sabra string quartet, based in Tel Aviv. The owner of the ship and his wife have long been the Sabra's main benefactors, with a big proportion of the quartet's income coming from commissions of theirs just like this one. Miriam is thinking of slowing down, as they're all getting old, but she's not slowing down on the romance front. One of the other members of the Quartet, a man with whom she's always had a bit of chemistry, is newly widowed, and both seem in the mood to do something about it.

And then there's Mick Szabo, also part of the onboard staff. Mick is a chef, originally from Hungary. He's been cooking on cruise ships for many year, but this trip represents a bit of a promotion for him. He's been working as a line cook, but one of the sous chefs on the Isabella injured himself shortly before the cruise started, and Mick's been offered his role for this trip. He's hoping to impress the head chef, who's rumoured to be starting a restaurant in Amsterdam and looking for good staff. This would allow Mick to stay put a bit more and maybe get a proper relationship with the Frenchwoman he's in love with (since he's never there, she's made it clear she's not going to be faithful).

And as Mick cooks, Miriam plays her viola and Christine gorges herself on food and drink and vegetates by the pool, there's tension behind the scenes. The staff of the ship have been told their contracts will be cancelled as soon as they reach their destination (the better to hire people a bit more desperate than them, at lower salaries), and the atmosphere below-decks is one of simmering discontent and resentment.

This was very promising. The atmosphere was beautifully done and the increasing hints of something brewing below the luxury worked really well to ratchet up some tension. I liked that I didn't really know much more than what's in the last paragraph as I read the first sections, so for the first half of the book, I had no idea where this was going and what kind of book it was supposed to be.

When things finally did bubble over and the conflict erupted, I practically rubbed my hands in glee, looking forward to what was coming. But the second half turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. All the tension seemed to simply dissipate, and the narrative turned into a low-key... well, I won't say precisely a "slog", but it was close. It felt like a waste, because what had been set up as the big surprise really should have been great. The contrast between the world of the staff below-decks and their treatment, compared to the luxurious experience they're supposed to deliver to passengers, it created the opportunity both for excellent conflict and for some very interest social commentary. But Christensen just didn't do all that much with it. Other things happen that mean that attention shifts to external threats which are a lot less interesting.

My other issue was that I found several of the characters a bit annoying. Mick was not particularly interesting, but Christine, particularly, was super tedious. She's consumed with her domestic problems, even while people's lives are collapsing around her. She doesn't seem to have a social conscience at all. It's not that she's got a particular ideology I don't like, it's that other people's struggles don't even seem to register with her. I think we're meant to sympathise with her, rather than with her friend Valerie, whose reason to be on the ship is that she's researching a book about labour conditions in places such as cruise ships. It felt like we were meant to find Valerie somehow laughable and annoying, but I liked her a huge deal more than Christine, the strikebreaker who does it with zero consideration of the consequences.

Miriam was the one character I found interesting, and I really did like her. I liked the good-humoured way she dealt with the indignities of older age and the way she didn't allow them to stop her enjoying life and seeking happiness. There's a great deal of humour in the interactions between the members of the quartet. Not funny 'ha-ha' humour, but the humour of people who have known each other for a long time and are all-too-aware of each other's foibles, and refuse to take them too seriously.

Having a look at reviews I've seen a lot of complaints about the ending. I don't want to spoil it, but I'll say it's on the open side. I didn't mind it. Partly, it may have been that I was ready for the book to end, but also, it did seem to fit well.



The Copenhagen Connection, by Elizabeth Peters

>> Friday, September 14, 2018

TITLE: The Copenhagen Connection
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Peters

PAGES: 358

SETTING: Early 1980s Copenhagen
TYPE: Mystery/Thriller

A strange twist of fate brings Elizabeth Jones face to face with her idol, the brilliant, eccentric historian Margaret Rosenberg, at the Copenhagen Airport. An even stranger accident makes Elizabeth the esteemed scholar's new private assistant. But luck can go from good to bad in an instant -- and less than twenty-four hours later, the great lady is kidnapped by persons unknown. Suddenly desperate in a foreign land, Elizabeth must cast her lot with Rosenberg's handsome, insufferable son Christian in hopes of finding her vanished benefactor. On a trail that leads from modern wonders to ancient mystery, a determined young woman and an arrogant "prince" must uncover shocking secrets carefully guarded in the beautiful Danish city. And they must survive a mysterious affair that is turning darker and deadlier by the hour.
Elizabeth Peters is one of my favourite authors, both under that name and as Barbara Michaels. As Elizabeth Peters she wrote several different series (the best-known of which is, of course, the Amelia Peabody Egyptology-themed mysteries). But she also published quite a few standalone novels, including several that could best be described as "crime capers in exotic locations". This is one of them.

Elizabeth Jones is a plucky young woman (of course) on her first trip to Europe. Things get extremely exciting for her right on the flight to Copenhagen, when she spots an author she idolises. Margaret Rosenberg is a historian who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and she also publishes bestselling historical fiction. Elizabeth admires her so much that she got a job at the publishing house where she works purely because they publish Margaret's books, and she hoped she'd be able to meet her. That hasn't happened, but Margaret's presence on her flight is Elizabeth's perfect opportunity.

After a bit of a humiliating first attempt on the plane, Elizabeth fears she's wasted that incredible opportunity. But an accident at luggage collection leaves Margaret without a secretary, and Elizabeth seizes her chance. She makes use of her connection to her employers to offer her help, and ends up giving up her holiday to serve as Margaret's secretary herself. It's a dream come true.

But that dream turns a bit weird when Margaret disappears from her hotel room, and it becomes clear that the accident that put her original secretary out of commission was an attempt to insert someone else into her circle -an attempt that Elizabeth unwittingly foiled. Elizabeth has to team up with Christian, Margaret's supercilious son to find out what's going on.

This was just wonderful. Pure, unadulterated fun. We get to run around Copenhagen following completely absurd clues, seeing our characters get into (and out of) ridiculous situations. Elizabeth is probably not the deepest character ever, but what there is of her is great -Peters' usual sensible, brave heroine. Christian is perfect for her, the initially stuffy, overly logical man who ends up behaving completely out of character out of true love :)

And Margaret... oh, Margaret. I adored her. She's eccentric in a really great way, in that she doesn't give a crap about other people's approval, but she does give a crap about being kind. There's a little thread here about people's children becoming a bit overbearing and overprotective when their parents age, and how that feels. It's the one serious note, a lightly made point, but well-made all the same.

The setting was also a highlight. We get quite a bit of the tourist-eye view of Copenhagen, and I had a blast with that. I almost wish I could visit early 1980s Copenhagen :) Because yes, this is a pretty old book. It was published in 1982, and that's quite clear. But not because the book feels at all dated... not at all. In Peters' books, the attitudes always feel remarkably modern (maybe with a few little occasional wobbles). Her female characters face sexism, but it's not internalised, and they are strong and capable women. So I don't cringe in the way I sometimes do when I read other books written a few decades ago. You can only tell this is not written today because of how external things work (no mobile phones or internet, etc.). Elizabeth, Christian and Margaret could comfortably inhabit a book written right now.

Now that I've reread one of Peters' books, I may not be able to stop. I foresee many happy rereading hours as the days get longer and darker!

MY GRADE: A strong B+.


A Dark and Stormy Murder, by Julia Buckley

>> Wednesday, September 12, 2018

TITLE: A Dark and Stormy Murder
AUTHOR: Julia Buckley

PAGES: 304

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Cozy mystery
SERIES: Writer's Apprentice #1

An aspiring suspense novelist lands in the middle of a real crime, in the first in a captivating new series by the author of the Undercover Dish Mysteries.

Lena London's literary dreams are coming true—as long as she can avoid any real-life villains...

Camilla Graham’s bestselling suspense novels inspired Lena London to become a writer, so when she lands a job as Camilla’s new assistant, she can’t believe her luck. Not only will she help her idol craft an enchanting new mystery, she’ll get to live rent-free in Camilla’s gorgeous Victorian home in the quaint town of Blue Lake, Indiana.

But Lena’s fortune soon changes for the worse. First, she lands in the center of small town gossip for befriending the local recluse. Then, she stumbles across one thing that a Camilla Graham novel is never without—a dead body, found on her new boss’s lakefront property.

Now Lena must take a page out of one of Camilla’s books to hunt down clues in a real crime that seems to be connected to the novelist’s mysterious estate—before the killer writes them both out of the story for good...
A Dark and Stormy Murder was recommended as a book that would appeal to those of us who miss Mary Stewart's brand of romantic suspense. It turned out to be a bit of a misrecommendation. While the heroine herself is a huge fan of a writer whose books sound distinctly Mary Stewart-ish, the book itself was a very run-of-the-mill small town cozy mystery, and not particularly well-done, either.

Lena London can't believe her luck when her best friend's new knitting group buddy turns out to be Lena's idol, writer Camilla Graham. Even better: Camilla is looking for an assistant, and a suggestion that Lena would be perfect for that role has been well-received. Within a few days, Lena is driving to the small town of Blue Lake, Indiana, with a car loaded with all her possessions and her cat, Lestrade.

Camilla is as nice as Lena could have hoped and the job is great (her first task is to review Camilla's latest manuscript and provide her with some notes. Lena almost swoons at the thought). But although the town is as pretty and quaint as she had hoped, Lena is immediately brought face to face with its dark side, when someone is killed on the beach right outside the house. And not all is right with her next-door neighbour, either. Sam's wife disappeared a few months earlier and the entire town is convinced he is a killer.

This sounds like fun, doesn't it? I thought it did, and as I read and read, tried to convince myself it was as good as I was wishing it to be. It wasn't, though, and I ended up giving up at about the halfway point.

What was the problem? Well, Lena. Everything about her. First of all, she's way too much of a wish-fulfillment character. Her dream job lands on her lap without her having to do anything to get it (or particularly deserving it). Camilla is a dream, and decides to pay her an astronomical amount of money for something Lena would have done for free. Even more annoyingly, as soon as Lena arrives at Blue Lake every single man is simply smitten with her. It was tiresome. Mary Sue characters are.

I think I could have coped with that, but then, there's the fact that Lena is incredibly stupid. My favourite bit was when her friend is warning her about Sam and that he might be dangerous and she insists he's fine and the situation is really unfair and that he doesn't know where his wife is. Why is she so sure? Well, he told her he doesn't know where his wife is. I stopped reading after the scene when the police officer (another of her smitten suitors) has turned up to warn Sam the New York cops have found blood in his flat and he will be arrested. Lena is incensed! So incensed, in fact, that she throws nuts at the cop and his partner. Nuts!! What is she, a monkey? Seriously!

I couldn't cope with the idiocy.



Blog template by

Back to TOP