In The Dark, by Loreth Anne White

>> Saturday, March 14, 2020

TITLE: In The Dark
AUTHOR: Loreth Anne White

PAGES: 407
PUBLISHER: Montlake Romance

SETTING: Contemporary Canada
TYPE: Suspense

A secluded mountain lodge. The perfect getaway. So remote no one will ever find you.

The promise of a luxury vacation at a secluded wilderness spa has brought together eight lucky guests. But nothing is what they were led to believe. As a fierce storm barrels down and all contact with the outside is cut off, the guests fear that it’s not a getaway. It’s a trap.

Each one has a secret. Each one has something to hide. And now, as darkness closes in, they all have something to fear—including one another.

Alerted to the vanished party of strangers, homicide cop Mason Deniaud and search and rescue expert Callie Sutton must brave the brutal elements of the mountains to find them. But even Mason and Callie have no idea how precious time is. Because the clock is ticking, and one by one, the guests of Forest Shadow Lodge are being hunted. For them, surviving becomes part of a diabolical game.
Lately there seems to have been a spate of homages to Agatha Christie's masterful And Then There Were None coming out in the book world -possibly because of the recent TV adaptation? In any case, I find them irresistible. Loreth Anne White's In The Dark is the latest I've found.

The structure of the book is quite interesting, but requires the reader to pay attention, as it moves between two different groups of characters, and back and forth in time. The earliest timeline concerns a group of strangers who have been invited for different purposes to a wilderness spa which is about to open. One has won a stay in a contest. Another owns a cleaning company and has been invited to bid to provide the spa's cleaning services. Another is the pilot of the tiny plane that flies them all to the very remote location. And so on; each thought the invitation came for a pretty normal reason.

But pretty much as soon as they arrive they realise the supposed spa is not a spa at all, and it doesn't take long before they are stuck there without a way to leave again or call for help. And it soon becomes clear that all they have some relation to a tragic event in the past, and that someone with a fondness for Agatha Christie's book has brought them there. There are even an ominous nursery rhyme and figurines that get destroyed as guests are killed... which soon starts happening.

We switch between these people and Mason Deniaud and Callie Sutton. Mason is a cop, and he's working with Callie, a search and rescue specialist. The wreck of a small plane has been found with a corpse inside, and not one who died in a plane crash. Callie soon figures out where the group is stuck, and she heads over to help with her rescue group and Mason.

And in yet another timeline, we see that Callie and Mason did find a survivor. We don't know who it is, and they seem to have something to hide.

This was loads of fun and I really enjoyed it most of the way, although I found it fell a bit short in the end.

The suspense element was particularly good most of the way through. What's going on is not really a mystery to the reader, but the fun is in seeing how it all comes out, and the increasing tension amongst those stuck in the isolated cabin. White succeeds in making it believable that the characters would immediately figure out the "And Then There Were None" connection, and yet behave in ways that gave the killer the chance to pick them off one by one. The interactions between them are super interesting, and very effective in making the atmosphere more and more tense. The one thing that was not as effective for me was the final revelation, which I didn't completely, 100% believe.

I liked the structure and the going back and forth, even though at times I had to stop and remind myself where we were in the timeline. I felt it was very effective in ratcheting up the tension. I did want to find out more about Callie and Mason, and White left me wanting more on that end. But that's not necessarily a bad thing (as long as White is intending to bring them back in another book!)

Which means I should warn possible readers that although the book is published by Montlake Romance, it's not really a romance. Best to know this before going in!



The Ruin, by Dervla McTiernan

>> Wednesday, March 11, 2020

TITLE: The Ruin
AUTHOR: Dervla McTiernan

PAGES: 380

SETTING: Contemporary Ireland
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: Cormac Reilly #1

It's been twenty years since Cormac Reilly discovered the body of Hilaria Blake in her crumbling Georgian home. But he's never forgotten the two children she left behind...

When Aisling Conroy's boyfriend Jack is found in the freezing black waters of the river Corrib, the police tell her it was suicide. A surgical resident, she throws herself into study and work, trying to forget - until Jack's sister Maude shows up. Maude suspects foul play, and she is determined to prove it.

DI Cormac Reilly is the detective assigned with the re-investigation of an 'accidental' overdose twenty years ago - of Jack and Maude's drug- and alcohol-addled mother. Cormac is under increasing pressure to charge Maude for murder when his colleague Danny uncovers a piece of evidence that will change everything...

This unsettling crime debut draws us deep into the dark heart of Ireland and asks who will protect you when the authorities can't - or won't. Perfect for fans of Tana French and Jane Casey.
The Ruin starts a new mystery series set in Galway, Ireland. DI Cormac Reilly has just moved back there after many years working in Dublin, and for the last few weeks he's been stuck working cold cases. It's clear that his new bosses aren't welcoming him with open arms, and there are some difficult dynamics going on amongst his fellow officers.

One of the cases he's given is one from his past. When Cormac was just starting out, he was sent to check on a report of a domestic disturbance. But in an isolated house in the country, rather than what he expected, he finds the corpse of a woman who's died of a heroin overdose. Her death was reported by her teenaged daughter, Maude, and also in the house is a young boy, Jack, clearly neglected, possibly abused. And right after the two kids are taken to the hospital, Maude disappears. Now, in the present day, Cormac is being asked to look into the accidental overdose, since information has come up that it may not have been accidental after all, and Maude may have been responsible.

This all seems to be happening at a very coincidental time, since not long before Cormac was assigned the case, Jack died. The police consider it to have been a suicide and are refusing to look into it further, no matter how much evidence Jack's sister Maude, just returned after decades abroad, presents showing his dead was not suicide or accidental.

The Ruin was a really good, promising start to this series. McTiernan has an engaging writing style, and the action flows well. She also creates a very interesting case. It was one I was genuinely interested in, and I wanted to know what had happened. I couldn't wait to find out how the older case connected with Jack's death in the present-day, and spent a good couple of evenings wondering about it. The solution was a good one, and one that made complete sense. McTiernan had very successfully led me in completely the wrong direction, but in a way that felt perfectly fair. I had felt the actual culprit's behaviour was suspicious, but I had guessed a completely wrong reason for it.

I was also very intrigued by Cormac's relationship with his girlfriend, Emma. He's moved back to Galway mainly due to her job (even though he has some very credible rationalisations regarding why it makes sense from a career point of view for him to do this anyway), and there seems to be a bit of difficulty in them settling in. Emma is super busy setting up her team at the lab where she works, and their attempts to spend some time together seem to fail every time. Additionally, there are hints about them having got together in an unorthodox way, one that may cast some negative lights onto Cormac's behaviour as a police officer, but no real details are given. I wanted to know more, but I'm content to wait, because it seems the next book will provide that.

The only thing I wasn't crazy about was that the police in this book are not great. There seems to be a good deal of unprofessional behaviour, verging (if not going right over the verge) into corruption, and it wasn't really resolved. I always find that frustrating to read, as I prefer my detective main characters to be able to concentrate on the case, not to have to fight against the authorities to be able to do their job. I did find it frustrating here, but it was not too bad. I'll definitely keep reading.



A Madness of Sunshine, by Nalini Singh

>> Sunday, March 01, 2020

TITLE: A Madness of Sunshine
AUTHOR: Nalini Singh

PAGES: 352

SETTING: Contemporary New Zealand
TYPE: Romantic Suspense

New York Times bestselling author Nalini Singh pivots in a new direction with her first mainstream thriller that will be sure to keep readers on their toes.

Anahera Rawiri left New Zealand at twenty-one, fleeing small-town poverty and the ghosts of her childhood with no plans to look back. But eight years later, she returns, seeking familiarity as respite from the shattered remains of her new life. And despite the changes brought on by a bump in tourism--the shiny new welcome sign at the town line and a decidedly less shiny new police presence--Golden Cove appears much as it ever was: a small settlement on the savage West Coast of the South Island, populated by all the remembered faces and set against a backdrop of lush greenery, jagged cliffs, and crashing waves.

Detective Will Gallagher knows all about ghosts; his own chased him out of a promising career in Christchurch, landing him as the sole cop in a quaint town where his most pressing concerns are petty theft and the occasional drunk. When Golden Cove resident Miri Hinewai goes out for a run and fails to return, Will finds himself heading up a missing person's search that rapidly escalates into an official investigation after this case is connected with similar ones from the past. As an outsider, Will begins to rely on Anahera's knowledge of the area and its residents to help him delve into Golden Cove's secrets, and to determine whether it shelters something far more dangerous than just an unforgiving landscape.
Right at the start of A Madness of Sunshine, Anahera Rawiri returns home to Golden Cove, a tiny town in the West Coast of New Zealand, after almost a decade abroad. Her superficially shiny life was not a happy one, and she feels the need for a refuge and the comfort of a familiar place. But before Ana is able to even start to settle in, a young woman disappears while out on a jog.

Will Gallagher is a former big-town police officer who's recently been assigned to Golden Cove. Like everyone else, he initially assumes Miri must have had an accident during her run. But the search and rescue operation soon turns into an investigation, when clues emerge that Miri's disappearance may be related to the disappearance, several years earlier, of a couple of visitors. Back then it had also been assumed that the visitors, also young women, had encountered difficulties while hiking. But as Will investigates, it becomes more and more possible that all of the disappearances may have actually been foul play.

I was really looking forward to this book, but unfortunately, it didn't work for me at all. There were a couple of element that I liked, though, so maybe I should start with those. First was the setting. It was vivid and interesting. I liked how Singh described the contrast between the oppressive claustrophobia of such a small town and the comfort of being in a community where everyone knows each other, and then how the high-end tourism developments overlay it all. I also liked the feeling that while the wild nature surrounding the town is incredibly beautiful, it's also deadly, and it's necessary to be always on your guard against it.

I also liked that there isn't a "you must forgive your abusers" message here. Ana grew up with an abusive father, and is understandably angry at him still. This anger is portrayed as valid, and when Ana refuses to simply forgive and forget, it's made clear that this is ok. This shouldn't be so revolutionary, but it is.

And I'm afraid that is it for the positives. What bothered me the most, I think, was how the latest victim was portrayed. First of all, Miri herself didn't really make sense to me as a character. She did not feel like the real, contemporary young woman she was supposed to be. She felt like a dated stereotype, especially when we got to her her voice late in the story. And even worse was how everyone seems completely obsessed by her beauty. All the men lust after her and want her, and a lot of them end up behaving horribly, and it it's portrayed almost like 'oh, they couldn't help themselves'. It was disturbing.

Actually, the portrayal of men in general was disturbing. The sheer amount of domestic abuse and general psychopathic behaviour amongst the men in the town made the book feel really heavy, and made me wonder why anyone would want to live here.

The mystery itself was quite mediocre. I found the revelations about what had happened psychologically unsatisfying, and felt they were unbelievable. It felt like cheating, rather than something that felt like an organic solution. I want an 'ahhh' moment at the end, but the reaction I had was more like 'really?'. Maybe the problem was that it was all a bit too convoluted. It was reminiscent of Jayne Ann Krentz's latest romantic suspense books.

And the romance element was just as mediocre, I'm afraid. I never connected with Anahera or Will, and I certainly didn't feel any sense of connection between them. The word that came to me when I thought about them was 'humourless', which is a bit weird, since this is certainly not a book that is supposed to be humorous. I guess what I mean is that their inner worlds are all heavy and oppressive and there is not a single bit of lightness in them. I did not want to spend any more time with them.

MY GRADE: Unfortunately, this was a C- for me.


All about languages

>> Sunday, February 23, 2020

Gaston Dorren is a Dutch linguist, who's so far published 2 books in English. I've always been interested in languages, and since starting a job at an EU institution a couple of years back, the very multilingual environment has only deepened that interest. So these books were irresistible!

TITLE: Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages
AUTHOR: Gaston Dorren

Lingo was the first one I read. It's basically lots of short little chapters, each sort of like a vignette about a language. Some are exploring a particular aspect of the language (e.g. pronouns in Swedish), others a bit more creative (e.g. Hungarian having a consultation with a language expert and discovering she’s not quite as alone as she thought, as she been becoming more and more like her neighbours). The one about why Spanish sounds like a machine gun made me laugh (you should hear this Uruguayan speaking it!).

I found Lingo fascinating. I think having lately spent a lot of time learning Finnish made this even more enjoyable. I've learnt foreign languages before, but it was always pretty informal. I've got a huge dose of grammar with Finnish, though, and quite a few of these new things I've now learnt properly (like cases, of which Finnish has a ridiculous number!) really enriched the experience of reading this.

The way the book was written was also hugely entertaining. I loved the variety in approaches, and the unpredictability. I had no idea what was coming, and I found myself laughing and smiling quite a bit.

MY GRADE: Highly recommended. A B+

TITLE: Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages
AUTHOR: Gaston Dorren

After loving Lingo, I immediately bought Babel. This one goes global, and focuses on the 20 most commonly-used languages in the world.

As in Lingo, Dorren tries to keep things lively by using different approaches for each chapter, which was something I enjoyed. However, here he's less successful at making everything interesting. Some were much too technical for me. Actually, in general, I think all the chapters here were a lot more technical than those in Lingo. For some, this worked (e.g. the one on Vietnamese, where the detailed language descriptions were livened up by the author's personal experience trying to learn the language, or the Spanish chapter, where the technical stuff was made easier by me being a native speaker!), but other got boring quite fast (e.g. the one on Chinese).

The less technical chapters enjoyed mixed success as well. For instance, I really enjoyed the one on English, which basically explored whether there is something about it that makes it particularly well-suited to being the global lingua franca or whether it is simply a matter of right time, right place (right colony). But then there was the one on Arabic, that is simply a list of arabic words which we may recognise in English and other Western languages (some immediately, some a little bit more distantly). I understand and like the idea of what Dorren was trying to do (point out that although many in the West these days may see Arabic as this alien, scary thing, it's not really), but it was basically like reading a glossary.

So, not a complete success for me, but still an author I'll continue to keep an eye on.



Steadfast, by Sarina Bowen

>> Friday, February 21, 2020

TITLE: Steadfast
AUTHOR: Sarina Bowen

PAGES: 335
PUBLISHER: Self-published

TYPE: Romance
SERIES: #2 in the True North series

She’s the only one who ever loved him—and the only one he can never have.

Jude lost everything one spring day when he crashed his car into an apple tree on the side of the road. A man is dead, and there's no way he can ever right that wrong. He’d steer clear of Colebury, Vermont forever if he could. But an ex-con in recovery for his drug addiction can’t find a job just anywhere.

Sophie Haines is stunned by his reappearance. After a three year absence, the man who killed her brother and broke her heart is suddenly everywhere she turns. It’s hard not to stare at how much he’s changed. The bad boy who used to love her didn’t have big biceps and sun-kissed hair. And he’d never volunteer in the church kitchen.

No one wants to see Sophie and Jude back together, least of all Sophie's police chief father. But it's a small town. And forbidden love is a law unto itself.
As teenagers, Sophie and Jude were as far apart socially as you could be in a small Vermont town. Sophie was the good-girl daughter of the chief of police, while Jude was the bad-boy son of a drunk car mechanic dad. But they fell in love anyway, and with a bit of careful sneaking around, were able to keep a relationship going for quite a while.

And then tragedy struck, in the form of a car accident that killed Sophie's brother and sent Jude to jail. The accident also uncovered Jude's drug addiction, which he had so far managed to keep from Sophie. She tried to get in touch with Jude in jail, but he refused all contact, thinking it was for the best.

Several years later, Jude is out of jail and back in his hometown, having completed rehab. He's clean, but he knows it's going to be tough to stay that way. He would love to move away from a place where he's back in the environment where his addiction started and where the police make it clear he's going to be harassed whatever he does (Sophie's father is the chief of police), but as a convicted felon with zero savings, a job with his dad is the best he can do. But at least there's no risk he'll run into Sophie. Surely she went off to college to study music long ago, just as she always wanted.

But Sophie didn't. The accident that killed her brother has also left her mother majorly depressed and in need of care that her father won't provide. So Sophie has stayed home and chosen a different path, studying social work.

Of course, this being a small town, they meet again pretty damn quick. And there's still quite a lot between them.

I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed this. I found myself completely absorbed, particularly by Jude's story. I usually stay far away from stories about drug addiction, but this particular one really worked for me. The path Jude followed into his addiction felt so understandable, and seeing his efforts and determination to sort out his life and stay clean was heart-wrenching. At the same time, I'm glad the book concentrated on his recovery, not his addiction, and that Jude did have people around him who wanted to help.

The romance was really good as well. I liked that it wasn't really about Sophie and Jude picking up where they left off. They've changed a lot since they last saw each other, and for a large part of their relationship, Jude was hiding a big part of what was going on in his life. They relate to each other as grown-ups in the book, not as teenagers. I found their relationship believable.

Something else I liked was the setting. The first book in the series showed a Vermont that was pretty idyllic. This one shows some of the darkness, without making it feel grim. The Shipley farm (where the first book was set) still seems like paradise, and it certainly feels like that to Jude, but it's clear it lives in a world where pretty real people live.

The book is not perfect. Jude is a bit too determined to decide himself what is good for Sophie. There are aspects of the character of Sophie that don't completely gel (e.g. music is supposed to be so important to her, but you wouldn't know from what we see from her POV). And really, the final climactic moment was a bit too quick and easy, which actually made it feel anticlimactic. Still, that was relatively minor, and I enjoyed this loads.



A Heart of Blood and Ashes, by Milla Vane

>> Sunday, February 16, 2020

TITLE: A Heart of Blood and Ashes
AUTHOR: Milla Vane

PAGES: 560

SETTING: Futuristic 'barbarian'-type world
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: #1 in A Gathering of Dragons

A generation past, the western realms were embroiled in endless war. Then the Destroyer came. From the blood and ashes he left behind, a tenuous alliance rose between the barbarian riders of Parsathe and the walled kingdoms of the south. That alliance is all that stands against the return of an ancient evil—until the barbarian king and queen are slain in an act of bloody betrayal.

Though forbidden by the alliance council to kill the corrupt king responsible for his parents’ murders, Maddek vows to avenge them, even if it costs him the Parsathean crown. But when he learns it was the king’s daughter who lured his parents to their deaths, the barbarian warrior is determined to make her pay.

Yet the woman Maddek captures is not what he expected. Though the last in a line of legendary warrior-queens, Yvenne is small and weak, and the sharpest weapons she wields are her mind and her tongue. Even more surprising is the marriage she proposes to unite them in their goals and to claim their thrones—because her desire for vengeance against her father burns even hotter than his own...
What better to end my long break from blogging than with Meljean Brook's new book after several years? A Heart of Blood and Ashes is the first in a new series called A Gathering of Dragons, and set in the same world as the author's short story in the Night Shift anthology, The Beast of Blackmoor. It's written under another name, Milla Vane, and Meljean warns that this is because these books are a lot darker than her other ones. I wasn't super excited about that particular aspect, but this is one of my favourite authors, so it wasn't going to keep away!

This is set in a world recovering from huge trauma. A few decades earlier, a being called the Destroyer  rampaged through the world. After a while he left, leaving destruction behind. In the years since, several of the realms in the area entered into an alliance, hoping it would make them stronger to resist an eventual return.

The hero, Maddek, is the son of the king and queen of the Parsatheans, a nation of nomadic barbarians from the North. He's Commander of the armies of the Alliance, and has been spending his time defending the southernmost realms from the incursions of savage humanoid beings. And then he receives news of the death of his parents.

Initial reports are vague, but after weeks of riding back to the seat of the Alliance Council, Maddek arrives to the news that his parents were executed while visiting another realm. In the weeks since, the Council has investigated the matter, and determined that the execution was a justified response by the king of that realm to crimes on his parents' part, an accusation Maddek knows is untrue. Maddek is expected to respect the Council's decision, and any direct revenge on his part risks destroying the alliance his parents so valued.

But even if direct revenge is forbidden, Maddek intends to have revenge all the same, and the perfect opportunity appears when he finds out the enemy king's daughter will be secretly travelling to marry the king of a neighbouring realm. Kidnapping her on the way is child's play. But the king's daughter, Yvenne, turns out to hate her father just as much, and co-operating with her, in spite of his mistrust for her, offers Maddek an even better potential revenge.

Let's talk about the dark tone thing first, shall we? Honestly, to me it was not anywhere near as bad as I feared. Yes, there is violence in this world and a fair bit of gore, but I found all that really easy to take. I think that was because of two key reasons. First, what was distinctly missing here was the constant threat of sexual violence that is so prominent in so many 'dark' fantasy books. I hate that. It stresses me out, and I often find it exploitative and titillating. It's just not part of this book. Yes, there is sexual violence in this world (off the page, in the book), but for reasons that are very well-justified by the culture of this world, it's not normalised and expected. That made a lot of difference for me. Second, there is an element of idealism and respect for personal autonomy in the (good) leaders of this world. In so many dark fantasies there is a sense that power is the only ideal anyone sensible would strive for, and caring about justice and goodness is the mark of idiocy. Cynicism is the only sensible response. Not here. In this world, being a good ruler means caring about the ruled. Naive of me to prefer this? Maybe. But I do.

So yeah, that out of the way, onto the what I thought about the other aspects. Well, I loved basically everything.

First, I loved the world. In addition to being dark in a way that worked for me, the world this is set in is exceptionally well-developed. You get the very real sense that the author knows so, so much more about this world than is on the page, that it is fully-formed in her mind. I can't wait to know more.

But most of all, I loved the characters. They feel as well-developed as the world. Maddek at first comes across as a stereotypical angry barbarian, but in his interactions with Yvenne and with his 'dragon' (the sort of retinue that accompanies and protects the rulers of his people), his depths do emerge. And I loved that he grows during the book. The character development here is explicit, but nuanced. He starts out as a warrior, and Yvenne warns him that a warrior is not a king, and that if he wants to become one, he needs to learn to think as one. And we see as he does. It's very satisfying.

It's even more satisfying to see Yvenne come into her own. All her life his father's fear about her power has led him to brutally try to keep her weak. He's succeeded with her body (in certain ways), but she and her mother managed to keep her spirit strong. Her journey is about fully realising this, and about using her strengths to become a true warrior queen.

These two characters are wonderful on their own, and I also loved them together. For all that there is plenty of plot and action, this is actually a character-driven romance, in that the internal conflict was, to me, just as important as the stuff going on around them. Maddek starts out angry at Yvenne and convinced that she played a part in his parents' deaths. He starts realising the truth earlier, but full trust takes much, much longer. I guess it could be argued that after a while, the main conflict between them is just based on miscommunication, and why won't they actually talk about this certain key fact to each other???. That was a bit frustrating, but then when I thought about it properly, it was clear that the reasons for Yvenne not to tell Maddek that certain key thing were well-justified. What she feared his reaction would be was something she was probably correct about, at least at first. And she was lacking a certain key bit of information about the meaning of this fact. So while not loving it, and screaming in my mind to them not to be idiots, I was able to understand them.

I also loved that we have an overarching storyline here that will be developed throughout the series. In a way, it's a bit like Meljean's Guardians series, in that it's a battle between good an evil. This first book sets up the fact that this battle is coming, while still providing very satisfying closure for the romance. I expect the upcoming books will show the preparations for the battle (and maybe tell us a bit more about what happened during the years the Destroyer was ascendant in this area?), leading up to a final confrontation that I'm hoping will be as amazing as that in the Guardians series.


NOTE: To understand the characters' movements, it was useful to have a map, and I was glad to have seen it posted in the author's facebook feed. If you're going to read the book (and you should!), you may want to keep this on your phone to refer to!


Coming back!

>> Saturday, February 01, 2020

Happy 2020, everyone! I've taken a little bit of a longer break than I was intending, but new year, new resolutions. I have recently returned from my usual month-long holiday in Uruguay (very timely; Helsinki has been stuck in a perpetual grey autumn), and my reading has gone into overdrive. I look forward to reviewing these.


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