Conclave, by Robert Harris

>> Friday, August 31, 2018

TITLE: Conclave
AUTHOR: Robert Harris

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 416
PUBLISHER: Vintage

SETTING: Contemporary Vatican
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

The best-selling author of Enigma and Fatherland turns to today's Vatican in a ripped-from-the-headlines novel, and gives us his most ambitious, page-turning thriller yet--where the power of God is nearly equaled by the ambition of men.

The Pope is dead.

Behind the locked doors of the Sistine Chapel, one hundred and eighteen cardinals from all over the globe will cast their votes in the world’s most secretive election.

They are holy men. But they have ambition. And they have rivals.

Over the next seventy-two hours one of them will become the most powerful spiritual figure on earth.
A few years ago I read Harris' Pompeii. I loved it. I wondered before I started it how he'd manage to create suspense when we all knew exactly what was coming, but he somehow did -and how! So when I heard he'd written a book set in the Vatican, during a conclave, I never even questioned whether he'd be able to make a story about a mostly geriatric group of men voting again and again exciting. I knew he would.

Conclave is narrated from the point of view of Cardinal Jacopo Lomeli. After a long career spent mostly working on official Vatican positions, he's now the Dean of the College of Cardinals and experiencing a bit of a crisis of faith. He's even spoken to the Pope (to whom he's pretty close) about resigning, but the Pope asked him not to, as his services as a manager are too valuable to him (which didn't help Lomeli's crisis of faith at all!).

And then the Pope dies, quite unexpectedly. As Dean, Lomeli has the responsibility of convening the conclave, the gathering that will elect a new Pope, and to preside over the proceedings. And it's going to be a big one. The Pope in the story is very clearly modelled on Pope Francis, in that he has shunned a lot of the pomp normally associated with the position and made changes that have incensed the more conservative of the cardinals. The strong reaction he's generated in them means that the Catholic Church is poised at a very critical point, which will decide in which direction it will go. Lomeli himself is on the more progressive side, but as Dean, he must be fair to all sides.

Organising a conclave is serious business, with over 100 cardinals arriving from all over the world and spending several days sequestered at the Vatican, fiercely lobbying each other for votes while pretending they're not doing so. And this time, there's plenty of intrigue going on. There are claims that one of the front-runners was dismissed from his position by the Pope right before he died, but he denies it, and there's no proof. Lomeli feels he must get to the bottom of this before any definitive votes. A mysterious new cardinal, apparently created in secret by the Pope (that secrecy for reasons that make complete sense), arrives unexpectedly and joins the conclave. And then there's the weird behaviour of one of the nuns who are taking care of the cooking and cleaning during the conclave -just what is that about?

I loved every minute of this book. The characters are super interesting -not just Lomeli, who I found incredibly endearing, but all the other many cardinals. They're well-developed as individual characters, for all that they also symbolise the different factions (e.g. the old-school Italian who wants to turn back Vatican II, the charismatic Nigerian cardinal who is just as, if not more, conservative, the low-key guy who would have been just the right candidate in other years, but is a bit too uninspiring this time around, etc.). Seeing them all interact was gripping. The whole book was gripping, even when we were spending page after page on a slow count of votes. I've no idea how Harris did that.

I’m someone who’s quite critical of the Catholic Church -quite common in someone who was brought up as a Catholic but is categorically not one now (I'd argue that I was never really one, in fact, for all that I was baptised and took first communion). But one of the things I really liked about this book is that there are no out and out villains here. The narrative is very clearly on the side of the progressives who want to modernise the church and the election of the conservative faction is portrayed as clearly bad for the Church and the world. But the conservatives themselves are not demonised. They are good people who want to do what they clearly think is best. “We” simply disagree with them about what is best. “We” don’t think they’re evil or stupid. There are also a couple of individual characters who have done things that are very wrong and which disqualify them as candidates. Again, they are not demonised, but portrayed as human men who have made mistakes. (Of course, Harris stays far, far away from any child abuse issues here, otherwise that equanimity and even-handedness would not have been that suitable). Anyway, I really appreciated the way this created a much more realistic conflict. This is not The Da Vinci Code!

For all that I adored the book, I found myself slightly disappointed by the ending. I was expecting a massive twist, and… well, I got what Harris clearly thought was a massive twist. My reaction was more: "ehh...".

This is EXTREMELY spoilery, so discussion whited out and below.

S

P

O

I

L

E

R

So, it turns out that the person who is (very surprisingly) elected pope has… well, it’s never explained in detail, but the best description is probably “ambiguous genitalia”. This is implied to be quite subversive, but I just didn’t think it was, at least not compared to the stuff I had been imagining. After all, this is simply yet another cis man, just one with non-typical genitalia. He has always identified as male, he has always been brought up as male, he has always presented as male. Big deal. I was imagining woman, trans man, or even some sort of impostor who wasn’t actually the cardinal he was supposed to be (now that one would have been a shocker, although I admit, not in keeping with the even-handedness of the rest of the book).

Still, even with that, this was amazing. Highly recommended.

MY GRADE: This was an A- for me.

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The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker

>> Wednesday, August 29, 2018

TITLE: The Age of Miracles
AUTHOR: Karen Thompson Walker

COPYRIGHT: 2012
PAGES: 294
PUBLISHER: Random House

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Speculative Fiction
SERIES: None

“It still amazes me how little we really knew. . . . Maybe everything that happened to me and my family had nothing at all to do with the slowing. It’s possible, I guess. But I doubt it. I doubt it very much.”

Luminous, haunting, unforgettable, The Age of Miracles is a stunning fiction debut by a superb new writer, a story about coming of age during extraordinary times, about people going on with their lives in an era of profound uncertainty.

On a seemingly ordinary Saturday in a California suburb, 11-year-old Julia and her family awake to discover, along with the rest of the world, that the rotation of the earth has suddenly begun to slow. The days and nights grow longer and longer, gravity is affected, the environment is thrown into disarray. Yet as she struggles to navigate an ever-shifting landscape, Julia is also coping with the normal disasters of everyday life--the fissures in her parents’ marriage, the loss of old friends, the hopeful anguish of first love, the bizarre behavior of her grandfather who, convinced of a government conspiracy, spends his days obsessively cataloging his possessions. As Julia adjusts to the new normal, the slowing inexorably continues.

With spare, graceful prose and the emotional wisdom of a born storyteller, Karen Thompson Walker has created a singular narrator in Julia, a resilient and insightful young girl, and a moving portrait of family life set against the backdrop of an utterly altered world.
What would happen if one day the Earth's rotation began to slow down? As both days and nights get longer with each rotation of the earth, and as that begins to have its effects on nature, we follow 11-year-old Julia as she comes of age in that world.

It's an interesting premise for speculative fiction, but in the half or so of the book that I read, I didn't feel the author was particularly interested in it. The issue of the slowing of the rotation of the Earth really makes no sense. I didn't buy it. Yes, the science felt pretty sketchy, but that was not the problem. I'm perfectly happy to suspend my disbelief about a premise as long as the way the characters react to it feels emotionally true. I didn't get that here.

Walker Thompson doesn't seem to be interested in exploring what would actually happen in the event of such a thing, with its extremely disastrous consequences. This is simply the background. All she cares about exploring is the inner life of her protagonist. Who cares if there are riots all over the world and millions are dying? Let's ask the important questions here! How does Julia feel? What is occupying her mind?

And Julia is boring. Instead of a book about how a slow-moving catastrophe might feel, what I got was the super narrow experience of a white suburban American pre-teen. And I'm sorry, but I'm so bored of that. It had all the tropes... the obsession with the first bra (this is something I've seen in so, so many books and I have to take on faith. Is this really such a big deal for American girls? I can't even remember when I first got one. In Uruguay it's just not a thing. It's not expected to be a big deal, therefore it isn't), the school bullies, the best friend who's suddenly not such a good friend anymore, the boy she has a crush on... I feel like I have read this a thousand times before, and nothing here felt like it added anything. So I gave up.

I'm really not sure why this book was so talked about and celebrated. Meh.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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The Death of Mrs. Westaway, by Ruth Ware

>> Monday, August 27, 2018

TITLE: The Death of Mrs. Westaway
AUTHOR: Ruth Ware

COPYRIGHT: 2018
PAGES: 368
PUBLISHER: Gallery/Scout Press

SETTING: Contemporary UK
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: None

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of In a Dark, Dark Wood, The Woman in Cabin 10, and The Lying Game comes Ruth Ware’s highly anticipated fourth novel.

On a day that begins like any other, Hal receives a mysterious letter bequeathing her a substantial inheritance. She realizes very quickly that the letter was sent to the wrong person—but also that the cold-reading skills she’s honed as a tarot card reader might help her claim the money.

Soon, Hal finds herself at the funeral of the deceased…where it dawns on her that there is something very, very wrong about this strange situation and the inheritance at the center of it.

Full of spellbinding menace and told in Ruth Ware’s signature suspenseful style, this is an unputdownable thriller from the Agatha Christie of our time.
I loved Ware's The Woman in Cabin 10 a couple of years ago. I enjoyed the mystery very much (and kind of get all the Agatha Christie comparisons in the marketing), loved the setting, and thought it made some interesting feminist points, if in a non-obvious way. I meant to read her backlist asap, but I never got to them, and instead was tempted by her new release.

In The Death of Mrs. Westaway, Ware seems to be channelling not Agatha Christie, but Daphne du Maurier.

Harriet Westaway is a young woman getting on by her wits since her mother's death a few years earlier, right before she turned 18. She makes a living doing Tarot readings on Brighton pier (she's under no illusions that she's a real psychic or that there's anything supernatural going on, she just learnt from her mum how to be excellent at cold reading). It's not a very good living. She's in desperate need of money, not just because she's at the point where her utilities are about to get cut off, but because she owes money to some very nasty people, and they're getting ready to collect, whether it's money or a few teeth.

At that point, Hal gets a very unexpected letter. A lawyer contacts her regarding the death of her grandmother, Mrs. Westaway, and asks her to come to her estate in Cornwall for the reading of the will. A quick google of the name of the house shows a picture of a proper mansion, so clearly there's a fair bit of money there. This could be an unexpected respite for Hal, as even a small bequest will allow her to keep her head above water. The problem? This particular Mrs. Westaway was absolutely not Hal's grandmother. But Hal is desperate enough that she decides she'll put her cold reading skills to use and travel to Cornwall all the same.

Trepassen House turns out to be a crumbling old pile, complete with an odd, rude housekeeper, full of ominous warnings. And family, quite a bit of family. There were three brothers, in addition to the missing sister whose daughter Hal is purporting to be, and they're all there, two of them with their families. And as Hal starts to get to know them, she begins to get queasier and queasier about her plans. Particularly because things turn out to be much more complicated than her simply getting a few thousand quid.

And soon, it becomes clear that Hal's getting that letter was not simply a mistake. There are lots of secrets to be discovered, and digging into them could be very dangerous.

I loved this book to pieces. I loved the characters, I loved the mystery, I loved the setting and the gothic atmosphere, and I loved how this turned out to be much more than just a fun Gothic thriller.

Not that it wasn't a great Gothic thriller. It was. The atmosphere was fantastic, and I particularly loved how Ware used the tarot theme throughout the book. There's a faint hint of the very slightly supernatural at some points, in a way that felt just right and enhanced the ambiance beautifully. And the mystery was just great, with twists and turns that kept the plot ticking along at a perfect pace. I did guess one of the plot twists relatively early (a particularly convoluted one, too -I'm very proud of myself), but this did not lower my enjoyment of the book even a tiny bit.

One of the things that made this much more than a bit of fun were the characters, most of all Hal. It may be because I listened to the audiobook (amazing narrator, BTW), but Hal felt real to me. She wasn't just a plot device to deliver Gothic thrills and chills. She was not just real, but someone I cared deeply about. Right from the start, I was with her. When she received the letter and decided what she was going to do, I had no qualms, even though she was setting out explicitly to con the Westaways into thinking she was the heir. Clearly Ware was concerned that this could be a problem for some readers, because she took great pains to reassure readers that Hal is a good person, really, it's just that she's in a desperate situation! To be honest, I think she lay it on a bit too thick there. I would have been with Hal without all the justifications. Her feelings about the situation she was in were ones I understood and identified with, and I also understood her actions, at every single point. There's also always a simmering sense of grief about her mother, whom she misses desperately even after a few years, and that comes through stronger and stronger as the book progresses. When I got to the end of the audiobook I felt a little bit in mourning myself. I wanted to stay with Hal for a bit longer, reassure myself she was going to be fine.

The other element that elevates this above "just" a Gothic thriller is that while on the surface, this is pure fun, almost old-fashioned in its construction, it's not. To me, it became clear as we were coming to the end that this is very much a book of today. It's about female friendship and about how sometimes other women enforce the worst elements of patriarchal attitudes. It's also about horrible entitled masculinity and its effects. Those points are subtly made, but they really land. They don't detract from the enjoyable Gothic feel, but make it mean more than you may think at the start.

I think I may have found a new autobuy author.

MY GRADE: An A-.

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Catching up with Elizabeth's George detective series

>> Saturday, August 25, 2018

Many years ago I read several in Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley series. This was back in Uruguay pre-ebooks, so I picked them up as I found them in the few bookshops that sold books in English. Obviously, I did not read them in order, which made figuring out the tangled love lives of Lynley and his friends a bit of a challenge.

Last year I decided to start from the beginning and read my way through the series, this time in order. I started with A Great Deliverance, and although dated in some ways, it held up really well. Short reviews here of the following books, none of which I remember reading back then.

TITLE: Payment in Blood
AUTHOR: Elizabeth George

It's a snowy winter in the Scottish Highlands. In a stately home that is now a hotel, a group of theatrical types have gathered to sort out the details of an upcoming play. And then one of them, the playwright, is murdered (stabbed with a dirk, to make it geographically appropriate). Although Scotland Yard has zero jurisdiction there, Lynley is sent round to investigate, on the premise that because a peer is involved, this can't properly be handled by just regular police. Lynley, not happy with the whole "only an aristocrat can investigate this" nonsense, insists in bringing Havers with him -knowing full well that Havers is more, not less likely to look hard at any aristos.

I enjoyed this one. The mystery is neat (I do love a country house mystery), and there are plenty of secrets in the incestuous world the characters inhabit. I loved Havers' refusal to play along with the histrionics. She does all the heavy lifting here, because Lynley is really not at his best. Turns out one of the guests is Lady Helen Clyde, and she's there with a man. Suddenly Lynley is extremely jealous, so much so that he can barely do his job properly. It seemed a bit too dramatic on his part, to be honest, but eh, well. On the whole, this one worked quite nicely.

MY GRADE: This was a B.

TITLE: Well-Schooled in Murder
AUTHOR: Elizabeth George

The third book in the series represents a change in tone. Whereas Payment in Blood was almost gleeful, this is much more tragic and serious. A 13-year-old boy has gone missing from his boarding school. Again, not quite in Lynley's jurisdiction, but the boy's housemaster is a former school friend, so he's asked to help.

The mystery is quite good, if very sad. There are plenty of secrets to be found out in the school, and as soon as Lynley and Havers begin their digging, they start to pop out. The resolution was unexpected, and it felt very satisfying.

I just wish George had cut the sections with Deborah St. James way, way down. Quick reminder: Deborah used to be engaged to Lynley, but she married one of his best friends, Simon St. James (who is disabled, due to a car accident that, to make things even more complex, occurred when Lynley was driving). Deborah and Simon are travelling around on a sort of honeymoon (and happen to be in the area long enough to discover a body). She basically mopes around for the whole book, in what's basically a very heavy-handed anti-abortion screed. I wanted to shake her.

MY GRADE: A B-. But it would be a bit higher for the mystery alone.

TITLE: A Suitable Vengeance
AUTHOR: Elizabeth George

A Suitable Vengeance is next in the series in order of publication, but it actually takes place some years before the rest of the series. Lynley is back at the family estate to introduce his fiancé to his mother, and in the midst of much drama, a journalist gets killed.

I tried and tried, but really could not get into it. The first sections are almost entirely about supposed adults moping around like emo teenagers, and it was extremely annoying. These people clearly do not want to be happy (Simon St. James, I'm particularly looking at you). There's also an element of creepiness in Simon's obsession with Deborah. Deborah is the daughter of his manservant, Cotter, and she grew up in his house. Simon is 11 years older than her, and to be honest, it felt a bit as if he'd been grooming her as she grew up. Pretty disturbing.

That, plus the knowledge that the book is supposed to be set almost entirely in George's cringey, forelock-tugging interpretation of the world of English aristocracy, put me off. Plus, this takes place before Lynley met Havers, so I couldn't even look forward to her coming in and pricking these people's self-importance (reading the reviews on goodreads I see that she does show up at some point, but not for long).

I'm hoping this one is not necessary to continue reading the series (well, I'm pretty sure it isn't, since I enjoyed the later books just fine when I first read them).

MY GRADE: This was a DNF.

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Love, Irresistibly, by Julie James

>> Thursday, August 23, 2018

TITLE: Love, Irresistibly
AUTHOR: Julie James

COPYRIGHT: 2013
PAGES: 304
PUBLISHER: Berkley

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Set in the same world as several others, but not really a series as such

HE’S USED TO GETTING WHAT HE WANTS…

A former football star and one of Chicago’s top prosecutors, Assistant U.S. Attorney Cade Morgan will do anything to nail a corrupt state senator, which means he needs Brooke Parker’s help. As general counsel for a restaurant company, she can get a bug to the senator’s table at one of her five-star restaurants so the FBI can eavesdrop on him. All Cade has to do is convince Brooke to cooperate—and he’s not afraid to use a little charm, or the power of his office, to do just that.

AND WHAT HE WANTS IS HER

A savvy businesswoman, Brooke knows she needs to play ball with the U.S. Attorney’s office—even if it means working with Cade. No doubt there’s a sizzling attraction beneath all their sarcastic quips, but Brooke is determined to keep things casual. Cade agrees—until a surprising turn of events throws his life into turmoil, and he realizes that he wants more than just a good time from the one woman with whom he could fall terrifyingly, irresistibly in love...
Cade Morgan is a high-level prosecutor working with the FBI on getting the evidence to prosecute a state senator for corruption. They need to record a crucial meeting, and for that, they require Brooke Parker's help. Brooke is general counsel for the company that owns the luxurious restaurant in which that meeting will take place. Cade's illusions that he can just walk in and tell, not ask, Brooke to help are dispelled within minutes. She's a tough, intelligent woman, and she can negotiate the hell out of any situation.

There's an attraction there and, Cade and Brooke being two single, compatible people, no reason not to indulge it. And as their relationship started, I did wonder if this might not be a little bit too low-conflict. But then the complications ensued, things not necessarily about the relationship, but ones where dealing with them together moved the relationship forward from a hot fling to something that was much more than that. I particularly liked how James brought in Cade's issues with his father (who abandoned him when he was very young) into the picture and how she used them to help him and the relationship grow. That was very satisfying.

It was (mostly, more on that below) a fun book to read, with plenty of banter and humour, and a main couple that felt perfectly suited to each other.

The only reason this is not an A is that I found myself feeling uncomfortable about things that, to the narrative, were tangents and completely besides the point (strap yourself in; I'm about to go on and on about this). There was an episode, clearly there just to illustrate the sorts of things Brooke's work involves, where the manager of one of the restaurants comes to her when he discovers one of his cooks has a conviction for murder. Oops, he was perfectly truthful when he filled out his employee form, and did tick 'Yes' to the question about whether he's a convicted felon! How can we fire him now? I was shocked by this immediate, unquestioned assumption by everyone, including Brooke, that of course, he would and should be fired. There is absolutely no questioning in Brooke's mind, no thoughts about whether someone who's been in jail and, according to the law, paid off his debt to society, deserves to keep a job he's clearly good at (we're talking about someone who works in a kitchen here, not someone hired to work in a daycare centre, or anything like that). There is no interest in finding out the particulars of the man's case. Just: you're a convicted felon, we won't hire you. I lost some respect for her then.

I also saw a lot of unthinking adulation of lavish privilege and high pay. On one hand, yes, Brooke is making quite a lot of money for her company, and she's being compensated for this. Great! It's good to see a brilliant woman confident in demanding to be compensated just as men would. On the other, my instinctive lefty heart finds really high executive pay obscene. I also reacted in what I'm guessing is not the expected way to the scenes where Cade and Brooke are at a baseball game and are invited to watch from the executive box. I suspect I was supposed to think how amazing it sounded, and wish I could experience something like that, but I curled my lip and sneered instead. I'm more of a 'stand in the Kop' kind of person in my preferences, and loathe how sports grounds are becoming all about corporate entertainment and are becoming basically theme parks. Those softies sitting in the executive boxes eating pudding from the cake trolley are taking up space that should be for the real fans, and they're sure as hell not going to generate any atmosphere. Off with their heads! ;)

I've written more about the annoyances than about how much I liked the romance and the book in general, but that doesn't at all reflect the experience of reading the book. Those annoyances were things that took me out of the book for a little while, but I was able to go back in and enjoy the rest. Still, I think the second one, particularly, is one of those things that when seen, cannot be unseen, so will probably be on my mind when I read further books by this author.

MY GRADE: A B.

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When All the Girls Have Gone, by Jayne Ann Krentz

>> Tuesday, August 21, 2018

TITLE: When All the Girls Have Gone
AUTHOR: Jayne Ann Krentz

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Berkley

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romantic suspense
SERIES: Cutler, Sutter & Salinas #1

Jayne Ann Krentz, the New York Times bestselling author of Secret Sisters, delivers a thrilling novel of the deceptions we hide behind, the passions we surrender to, and the lengths we’ll go to for the truth...

When Charlotte Sawyer is unable to contact her stepsister, Jocelyn, to tell her that one of her closest friends was found dead, she discovers that Jocelyn has vanished.

Beautiful, brilliant—and reckless—Jocelyn has gone off the grid before, but never like this. In a desperate effort to find her, Charlotte joins forces with Max Cutler, a struggling PI who recently moved to Seattle after his previous career as a criminal profiler went down in flames—literally. Burned out, divorced and almost broke, Max needs the job.

After surviving a near-fatal attack, Charlotte and Max turn to Jocelyn’s closest friends, women in a Seattle-based online investment club, for answers. But what they find is chilling...

When her uneasy alliance with Max turns into a full-blown affair, Charlotte has no choice but to trust him with her life. For the shadows of Jocelyn’s past are threatening to consume her—and anyone else who gets in their way...
This was exactly what I expected. Zero surprises. If I had had to predict what I'd think of this romantic mystery before starting it, I would have been spot-on. A nice romance with flashes of what made JAK such a beloved author in the 90s (but not quite enough of it). But a tedious mystery that tries for twistiness but instead goes for pointless, unbelievable overcomplication.

I won't waste much time describing the mystery plot. It involves a group of women who have formed an investment club which, we realise early, is a cover for something else. One of them, Louise, is dead in a seeming drug overdose, and another, Jocelyn, has disappeared, purportedly to a month-long no-electronic-devices-allowed retreat. PI Max Cutler is investigating the overdose death (as Louise's cousin suspects foul play), and during the investigation he meets Charlotte Sawyer, Jocelyn's sister. But after Max and Charlotte discover Louise's death might have something to do with events in Jocelyn's past, Jocelyn's absence starts to look worrying, and Max and Charlotte start working together to find out what's going on.

Max and Charlotte are just lovely together. They're people who might be seen by certain others as boring and somewhat loser-ish. Max used to be an FBI profiler but his career and marriage imploded, and he's now struggling to get his PI business off the ground and kind of regretting having bought a big house for which the term fixer-upper may be a bit of an understatement. Charlotte has just been jilted, only days before her wedding, and even her therapist has gently enquired if it might not be because she's so unspontaneous and boring (the last was unstated, but unmistakable). But to each other, they are fascinating and incredibly exciting. They instinctively mesh and work perfectly together, each respecting the other's abilities, with complete trust. They were sweet. I wanted more of them together.

This is the first in a series (a trilogy, I'm assuming) featuring three men who were taken in and fostered by a gruff police chief, Anson Salinas, after he rescued them from a cult when they were young children. The boys became brothers and Anson their father. But as they grew up, they remained convinced that the cult leader is still alive, in spite of him having supposedly died in an accident. There's not a lot about this particular element in WATGHG beyond it being a big reason behind the implosions of Max's career and marriage, and some lovely interactions with Anson, who's recently retired and is clearly seeking something to do. I suspect it's going to become a larger element later in the series, and I think it could be quite good (the family stuff, not the plot, necessarily).

There's also some nice stuff with Max's birth family. He's discovered who his birth father is, but the man is not happy when Max contacts him and thinks he's a scammer (it was a sperm donor situation, and the man is now very successful, so it's understandable). I liked those sections, but they were much too light and short and I wanted more.

Most of the time, unfortunately, was spent on the mystery. The investigation itself was fine, as we followed Max and Charlotte working together. It was just the crap plotting. Every single time Krentz will have like 4 different killers working quasi independently, with different motivations. I think she probably thinks it makes the mystery more exciting and surprising, but when you do it for every single book, it's just predictable. Meh.

MY GRADE: Still, I liked the romance enough to give this a B-.

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The Drowned Girls, by Loreth Anne White

>> Sunday, August 19, 2018

TITLE: The Drowned Girls
AUTHOR: Loreth Anne White

COPYRIGHT: 2017
PAGES: 524
PUBLISHER: Montlake

SETTING: Contemporary Canada
TYPE: Romantic Suspense
SERIES: First in the Angie Pallorino series

He surfaced two years ago. Then he disappeared.

But Detective Angie Pallorino hasn’t forgotten the violent rapist who left a distinctive calling card—crosses etched into the flesh of his victims’ foreheads. When a comatose Jane Doe is found in a local cemetery, sexually assaulted, mutilated, and nearly drowned, Angie is struck by the eerie similarities to her earlier unsolved rapes. Could he be back?

Then the body of a drowned young woman, also bearing the marks of the serial rapist, floats up in the Gorge, and the hunt for a predator becomes a hunt for a killer. Assigned to the joint investigative task force, Angie is more than ready to prove that she has what it takes to break into the all-male homicide division. But her private life collides with her professional ambitions when she’s introduced to her temporary partner, James Maddocks—a man she’d met just the night before in an intense, anonymous encounter.

Together, Angie and Maddocks agree to put that night behind them. But as their search for the killer intensifies, so does their mutual desire. And Angie’s forays into the mind of a monster shake loose some unsettling secrets about her own past. How can she fight for the truth when it turns out her whole life is a lie?
The Drowned Girls starts a romantic suspense series set in British Columbia, in a city called Victoria (I confess I wasn't sure whether it was a real place or not, but it appears it is). Angie Pallorino is a detective in the Sex Crimes Unit. One day she's called in to a crime scene where a young woman has been found, seemingly left for dead but still barely alive. She has clearly been sexually assaulted as well, and there are certain ritualistic elements in what has been done to her that Angie has seen before. This was a couple of years back, but back then the victims were left alive. Most of those details were not released to the press, so Angie suspects the rapist is back and has escalated.

When a body is found in the sea showing similar signs, the cases become the territory of Homicide, rather than just Sex Crimes. Angie has been wanting to get a place in Homicide for a while, but she is contending with some pretty retrograde attitudes in her colleagues and supervisors. But with the decision to put together a joint task force with people from Homicide and Sex Crime, she gets her opportunity. And then she gets a big shock, when the man assigned to be her temporary partner turns out to be the man with whom she had a one-night stand just a few hours before.

Angie is a protagonist I don't think we would have seen in romantic suspense even a few years ago. She's not "nice". For starters, she's pretty self-destructive and this self-destructiveness takes the form of going to a rough bar and picking up random men and tying them to her bed. She can also be very defensive and hot-headed and make decisions that are not very wise. Not in a stupid way, just in a very human way. I liked that about her.

Angie is also going through a particularly difficult time in her life. Her mother has been having some mental health issues (seeing things, being out of it for a big proportion of the time), and has just been moved to an institution, as it's got too hard for her husband to care for her at home. The thing is, Angie has been seeing things lately as well and hearing voices speaking in a language she doesn't understand. She's afraid that whatever her mother has may be hereditary and that she might be going down the same road. At the same time, she discovers that certain things she believed about her past may not be correct. And maybe all these things are related. So yeah, while she passionately cares about catching the killer, her head is all over the place and she's a bit of a loose cannon.

Maddocks is more standardly "nice" and stable. He was quite high up in his previous job, but after he and his wife divorced he decided to move to Victoria in what was a bit of career backwards step, just to be able to spend time with his daughter. He does take risks in trying to solve the case, but his are more calculated risks. Basically, he's in a better place than Angie, that's all.

I described this above as romantic suspense and it is that, but balance-wise, it's quite heavy on the suspense. Angie and Maddocks are both focusing on catching the killer, as well they should, and what's starting to build between them takes a bit of a back seat. There is plenty of chemistry, but between the case and the fact that Angie is basically falling apart at some points, all White does here is set up a very early relationship. Any further development will have to take place in later books. And I'm perfectly fine with that.

Something else I liked were the hints about Angie's past. This is a thread that doesn't get completely resolved (just enough to give us readers some closure and not leave us hanging), so I expect we'll get more in future books. It works well here, as it's interesting in its own right and provides a very good reason for Angie's not ideal mental state.

There were a couple of things I didn't like, though. One thing was something that will probably not bother many readers. In addition to having to find a killer, the detectives have to contend with the fact that the case has connections to some politically powerful people in the city, and they will not hesitate to interfere. I don't know why I hate so much to see this in a book I'm reading, but I do. I find it incredibly frustrating. Fortunately, it wasn't too bad here, but it brought in a bit of annoyance for me.

The other may be problematic for more people, and it's that I'm getting more and more tired of the whole sexually sadistic killer who preys on women thing. It's more about the accumulation of so many books, TV series, films, anything, than about this book itself, but there was that element of 'oh, not another one' in my reaction to the plot.

Still, this was a very promising start to the series. There are 2 more books out now, and I've immediately bought both.

MY GRADE: A B.

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A Greek wedding, local news and dreams

>> Friday, August 17, 2018

A bit of a random collection of sort of underwhelming reads today.

TITLE: Wedding Night
AUTHOR: Sophie Kinsella

When Lottie breaks up with her boyfriend, she rushes to make one of the unwise decisions she always makes after her break-ups. Her sister Fliss knows that MO and, determined to stop her, chases her to a Greek island, where the mess she's getting into is about to take place. Lorcan, friend of the man Lottie is about to make her unwise decision with, follows close behind. Farce ensues.

On one level, this was mindless fun, with that little bit of heart that makes Kinsella's books feel a bit more substantial that they might seem. I mostly enjoyed reading it. But I felt this particular story needed a bit more grounding. Pretty much all the characters behaved like utter dingbats for much too long. I think it would have all worked better with more 'straight guys'. Also, it all felt a bit more glitzy and glamorous than I'm used to with Kinsella, and that was a bit disconcerting.

MY GRADE: A B-.

TITLE: The News Where You Are
AUTHOR: Catherine O'Flynn

Frank Allcroft is a local television news presenter in Birmingham. He has a good life, but has been dealing with a sense of loss, particularly since the death of his predecessor, Phil, in a hit-and-run accident. Phil made some strange phone calls to Frank not long before he died, and there's also the matter of a lone old man who was found dead on a park bench and who Frank has reason to believe is somehow related to Phil. Frank decides to look into things, and we follow him as he does, and as he remembers his childhood.

I liked this well enough. Frank is an endearing character and there are lot of interesting, vivid details. The mystery of what happened to Phil works well as a good propulsive engine, even though that mystery is not really the point of the book. What is? Well, that was the issue for me. It was enjoyable as I read it, but though I got the feeling O'Flynn was trying to explore something profound, I didn't really get it. I was stuck skimming along the surface... a very nice, entertaining surface, but a surface all the same. Whether that's an issue with the book or about me being a bad reader, I don't know. But that's what it felt like.

MY GRADE: A B-.

TITLE: Dream Eyes
AUTHOR: Jayne Ann Krentz

I really should stop being a JAK completist. Her books have got better lately, but she went through a pretty bad patch a few years back, and this is a prime example.

Gwen Frazier is a psychic counsellor. Several years back, she survived (and stopped) a serial killer who was targeting psychics. Now, her mentor is dead, and the mentor's ghost asks Gwen to investigate. Gwen gets help from a psychic PI firm, who send over investigator Judson Coppersmith. Judson has his own issues, as he experiences the feelings of murderers when he's at the location where they killed, and this is having an effect on his mental health.

This was just utterly forgettable. There were some nice elements about the romance... as always, Krentz has a knack for creating characters who make each other better, and that's quite satisfying. But the plot is tedious in the extreme. Paranormal weapons and research, yadda yadda yadda. I didn't care at all.

MY GRADE: This one was more disappointing than underwhelming. A C.

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Concealed In Death, by JD Robb

>> Wednesday, August 15, 2018

TITLE: Concealed In Death
AUTHOR: JD Robb

COPYRIGHT: 2014
PAGES: 416
PUBLISHER: Putnam

SETTING: 2060s New York
TYPE: Police procedural & romance
SERIES: By my count, 40th full-length title in the In Death series

In a decrepit, long-empty New York building, Lieutenant Eve Dallas’s husband begins the demolition process by swinging a sledgehammer into a wall. When the dust clears, there are two skeletons wrapped in plastic behind it. He summons his wife immediately—and by the time she’s done with the crime scene, there are twelve murders to be solved.

The place once housed a makeshift shelter for troubled teenagers, back in the mid-2040s, and Eve tracks down the people who ran it. Between their recollections and the work of the force’s new forensic anthropologist, Eve begins to put names and faces to the remains. They are all young girls. A tattooed tough girl who dealt in illegal drugs. The runaway daughter of a pair of well-to-do doctors. They all had their stories. And they all lost their chance for a better life.

Then Eve discovers a connection between the victims and someone she knows. And she grows even more determined to reveal the secrets of the place that was called The Sanctuary—and the evil concealed in one human heart.
Tidying up my review files, I've found a few where I've got a review almost fully written but never sorted it out to post (this is probably a bit too much detail on how the sausage is made, but my MO is to write chunks of review as I'm reading the book and as soon as I've finished it, and then, usually at some later point, tidy up by writing a summary, putting points in an order that makes sense, add any overarching or linking things, etc.). This is one of them. I've reviewed most of the following books in the series, but this one fell through the cracks. And interestingly, this is one where you see some consequences from it in later books.

Reading reviews of the last few JD Robb titles, it feels as if every single long-term reader of the series is bored with it, feeling it's got a bit stale. I can certainly understand the feeling -I've had it with several series. For some reason, however, I'm not feeling it with the In Death series. Not at all. I still look forward to every single new release and try to save it for the right time, when I can savour it properly. The anticipation is not an anxious, "can't wait to see what happens" one, but the anticipation of knowing I will enjoy every minute of the book. Which I invariably do. I did when I read this book, and I have done so in all the other since then.

In Concealed In Death, what's concealed is the bodies (or rather, skeletal remains) of 12 girls, and they're concealed beneath a false wall in a building Roarke has recently bought for renovation. Starting their investigation, Eve and Peabody soon deduce the crimes would have happened about 15 years earlier, right after a shelter for teenagers moved out of the building. The shelter has continued in another location, now with better funding, but are there still connections to the disappeared girls?

As always, I enjoyed the puzzle solving, the careful, step-by-step unraveling of the evidence. This was a particularly good one. Pretty much all the others in this series (all of them? I'm hedging because I've been reading this series for over 20 years, so I may well have forgotten about one) are crimes that have just taken place. This is a crime from the past, one where the killer thought they'd got away with it, and it made for a different vibe. It was an interesting change.

I also enjoyed meeting every new character, whether they are characters who might become an important part of the series (like the fascinating forensic anthropologist), or one-scene ones (like the parents of one of the dead girls). Each character is individual and unique, and I love to see the way Eve and Peabody handle the conversations.

On the personal side, in this book we learn quite a lot more about Mavis and her past. We knew already that she had come from a pretty rough background, but not much beyond how she and Eve originally met. Turns out 15 years ago Mavis actually knew several of the kids who died, and her backstory adds richness to a character whose quirkiness I thought had started to become a little bit cartoonish.

A solid entry in the series.

MY GRADE: A B+.

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Turning It On, by Elizabeth Harmon

>> Monday, August 13, 2018

TITLE: Turning It On
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Harmon

COPYRIGHT: 2015
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!

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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The Flowers of Vashnoi, by Lois McMaster Bujold

>> Saturday, August 11, 2018

TITLE: The Flowers of Vashnoi
AUTHOR: Lois McMaster Bujold

COPYRIGHT: 2018
PAGES: 73
PUBLISHER: Self-published

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

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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.
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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.

MY GRADE: A B+.

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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.

MY GRADE: A B-.


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.

MY GRADE: A B.


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.

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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+

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The Shape of Desire, by Sharon Shinn

>> Sunday, August 05, 2018

TITLE: The Shape of Desire
AUTHOR: Sharon Shinn

COPYRIGHT: 2012
PAGES: 336
PUBLISHER: Ace

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.

MY GRADE: A B-.

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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.

MY GRADE: A B+.

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.

MY GRADE: DNF

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To Have and to Hold, by Lauren Layne

>> Wednesday, August 01, 2018

TITLE: To Have and to Hold
AUTHOR: Lauren Layne

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 384
PUBLISHER: Picket

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.

MY GRADE: A C+.

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