Turning It On, by Elizabeth Harmon

>> Monday, August 13, 2018

TITLE: Turning It On
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Harmon

PAGES: 248
PUBLISHER: Carina Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The Flowers of Vashnoi, by Lois McMaster Bujold

>> Saturday, August 11, 2018

TITLE: The Flowers of Vashnoi
AUTHOR: Lois McMaster Bujold

PUBLISHER: Self-published

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

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

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

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

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



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

>> Thursday, August 09, 2018

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

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

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


TITLE: Whiskey Beach
AUTHOR: Nora Roberts

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

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

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


TITLE: Stealing Shadows
AUTHOR: Kay Hooper

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

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

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

MY GRADE: This was a C for me.


Bobiverse series, by Dennis E Taylor

>> Tuesday, August 07, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Are Legion (We Are Bob): B+

For We Are Many: B-

All These Worlds: B+


The Shape of Desire, by Sharon Shinn

>> Sunday, August 05, 2018

TITLE: The Shape of Desire
AUTHOR: Sharon Shinn

PAGES: 336

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Three shorts

>> Friday, August 03, 2018

TITLE: Wrecked
AUTHOR: Meljean Brook

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

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


TITLE: Ember
AUTHOR: Bettie Sharpe

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

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

MY GRADE: Also a B+.

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

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

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

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



To Have and to Hold, by Lauren Layne

>> Wednesday, August 01, 2018

TITLE: To Have and to Hold
AUTHOR: Lauren Layne

PAGES: 384

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Secret societies, Twitter terrorists and the summer of 1927

>> Monday, July 30, 2018

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

TITLE: The Secret History
AUTHOR: Donna Tartt

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

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

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


TITLE: About That Night
AUTHOR: Julie James

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

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


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

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

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

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



The Fireman, by Joe Hill

>> Saturday, July 28, 2018

TITLE: The Fireman
AUTHOR: Joe Hill

PAGES: 768
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: Near future, US
TYPE: Thriller / Horror

Nobody knew where the virus came from.

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

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

CNN reported both sides.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Bed of Flowers, by Erin Satie

>> Thursday, July 26, 2018

TITLE: Bed of Flowers
AUTHOR: Erin Satie

PAGES: 305
PUBLISHER: Self-published

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

Bonny Reed is beautiful, inside and out.

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

An old enemy shatters her illusions.

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

How will she choose?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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