On hiatus and a request

>> Monday, December 16, 2013

Bye for a month or so! I'm in Uruguay visiting family for the next month or so, and will be back mid-January.

In the meantime, could I ask you all for some suggestions? My book club have asked me to select a genre romance novel for us to read in February, and I'm not quite sure what to choose. I want something really well-written, obviously, and I'm thinking something that is mainstream. What I mean by that is that the romances I most appreciate these days are the ones that do something different and subvert the usual tropes in some way, but that's probably because I've read so much in the genre. These are people who've read little if any romance, so they would not appreciate that aspect of them.

So far, I've thought of 3:

- Lord of Scoundrels, by Loretta Chase, which I can tell them is the classic romance

- Bet Me, by Jennifer Crusie, as I lent my copy to one of my other non-romance reading friends and she loved it. However, this is one that's not very typical romance, what with its childfree characters.

- The Viscount Who Loved Me, by Julia Quinn, mostly for the Mallet of Death scene.

All three are books I found hilarious, although they also gave me that angsty stomach-knotting feel. Do you think this approach is a good idea or should I go for more 'serious' books? Thanks for any opinions and suggestions!


Emma, by Jane Austen

>> Thursday, December 05, 2013

AUTHOR: Jane Austen

PAGES: 512

SETTING: Early 19th century England
TYPE: Fiction

'I never have been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall.'

Beautiful, clever, rich - and single - Emma Woodhouse is perfectly content with her life and sees no need for either love or marriage. Nothing, however, delights her more than interfering in the romantic lives of others. But when she ignores the warnings of her good friend Mr Knightley and attempts to arrange a suitable match for her protegee Harriet Smith, her carefully laid plans soon unravel and have consequences that she never expected. With its imperfect but charming heroine and its witty and subtle exploration of relationships, Emma is often seen as Jane Austen's most flawless work.

Of the Austens I've reread so far, Emma has been by far my favourite. I had a similar experience with it than I did with Northanger Abbey a couple of months ago, in that what I remembered of it happened pretty early on, and there was practically a whole book left where I wasn't sure what would happen. In NA it was the whole gothic parody bit, here it was the confusion about Mr. Elton being in love with Harriet. I remembered it as being what the book was about, so when that misunderstanding was over by the end of CD 2, I was nonplussed. The rest, though, was just as good.

Out of Austen's books that I like (i.e. excluding Mansfield Park, for which my only memory is of dislike for Fanny... hmm, maybe I should reread it), Emma is probably the one where the romance is least the point of the story. It's all about the comedy of manners, and it worked brilliantly because the characters involved are so rich and real. I said in my summary of the month that Austen had made me like, dislike, love, pity, despise and admire Emma, all in one book. She is a complex character, to say the least. And the brilliant thing is, I have no doubt that all of my reactions are fully intended. Austen is in full control here; I felt she had played with my feelings masterfully, and felt no resentment about it.

The rest of the characters were just as good. With some of them, Austen really exaggerates a particular characteristic, such as Miss Bates' inane babbling, or Mrs. Elton's vanity and bitchiness, but it never crosses the line into something cartoonish. There's too much truth underneath for that. They are all characters that feel so real that I couldn't help but react to them. I actually went "the bitch!" out loud once as Mrs. Elton spoke, getting some strange looks in my gym.

I did like the romance, as far as it went. It's interesting, because I tend to hate romances where the heroine is always wrong and has to be put right by the hero, and this was a bit the dynamic between Emma and Mr. Knightley. But it doesn't feel as if she's being humiliated because a woman has to be put in her place. Emma is wrong just because she's human and she's absorbed too well the lesson that, as the most socially prominent person in her little world she is the most important person, and therefore anything that would please her is, by definition, the right thing to happen. She has to learn that this isn't the case.

It wasn't a perfect book. There was a bit where I got kicked out of the story because the reaction Austen was intending to get was quite different from the one she got, and that was the very short episode with the gypsies. It's not a big part of a the book at all, but it did make an impression, as the prejudices and attitudes revealed (and quite clearly shared, to a certain extent, by the author) were so clearly ugly and horrible to me.

I also thought the book took a little too long to wrap up. Everything was pretty much settled and I still had a whole CD (which was almost 1.5 hours long) to go. There was a lot of rehashing. It sounded like the sort of discussions you have with friends after you find out something surprising about someone you know, the whole "ah, so when we met so and so in such and such a place this was why he was there and what he was doing". That's fun and very satisfying to do, but feels very tedious and static to read, especially when there are no surprising revelations there. That was the case here, we found out nothing that we couldn't have deduced quite easily.

MY GRADE: Still, although these flaws lower my grade somewhat, it's still an A-.

AUDIOBOOK NOTES: There are loads of audio versions of Austen's books available, and after listening to quite a few samples, I've realised Juliet Stephenson is by far my favourite. She made this a joy to listen to. She had me in stitches quite a few times, like with her rendering of Miss Bates' babbling. I absolutely loved it.


Dark Witch, by Nora Roberts

>> Tuesday, December 03, 2013

TITLE: Dark Witch
AUTHOR: Nora Roberts

PAGES: 368
PUBLISHER: Berkley Trade

SETTING: Contemporary Ireland
TYPE: Paranormal romance
SERIES: First in the Cousins O'Dwyer trilogy

With indifferent parents, Iona Sheehan grew up craving devotion and acceptance. From her maternal grandmother, she learned where to find both: a land of lush forests, dazzling lakes, and centuries-old legends.


County Mayo, to be exact. Where her ancestors’ blood and magic have flowed through generations—and where her destiny awaits.

Iona arrives in Ireland with nothing but her Nan’s directions, an unfailingly optimistic attitude, and an innate talent with horses. Not far from the luxurious castle where she is spending a week, she finds her cousins, Branna and Connor O’Dwyer. And since family is family, they invite her into their home and their lives.

When Iona lands a job at the local stables, she meets the owner, Boyle McGrath. Cowboy, pirate, wild tribal horsemen, he’s three of her biggest fantasy weaknesses all in one big, bold package.

Iona realizes that here she can make a home for herself—and live her life as she wants, even if that means falling head over heels for Boyle. But nothing is as it seems. An ancient evil has wound its way around Iona’s family tree and must be defeated. Family and friends will fight with each other and for each other to keep the promise of hope—and love—alive...

Dark Witch felt off. Just completely off, and it's one of Nora Roberts' very few misses in the last years.

We start out with an extended prologue which sets up the trilogy. 800 years earlier, dark witch Sorcha (who's the good one here; in this series a dark witch is not one engaged in dark magic) is besieged by the evil Cabhan, who wants to take her powers. She succeeds in escaping him and passes on her powers to her 3 children and their descendants, knowing that at some point in the future, 3 dark witches of her blood will come together to fight the final battle against Cabhan.

In the present, Iona Sheehan has decided to up sticks and move from the US to Ireland, where her beloved Nan was born. There's something about the place that calls to her, and she somehow knows she's meant to be there. And as soon as she knocks on the door of her cousins' place, it becomes clear why. She, and her cousins, Brenna and Connor, are Sorcha's descendants and the ones who are meant to finish off Cabhan.

As Iona trains and develops her powers, she also finds a job that's right up her street. She's always had a connection with horses (each of the three dark witches has that; Brenna and Connor with dogs and falcons respectively), and she's hired at the local stables. There she meets the owner, Boyle McGrath, whom she's immediately attracted to. Iona's always been on the diffident side with men, but she's never wanted one like she wants Boyle.

Ok, so, where to start? I suppose the first thing to say is that this felt derivative. Now, Nora's books have never been unpredictable, but I usually don't care at all. Until this one. It was a bit too much, a mix and match using bits of previous series. The biggest chunk is from the Three Sisters Island trilogy. There's the witches, there's the fight against an old evil, and then there's the characters. To me, that was the most striking bit. Iona reminded me a lot of Nell, the nervous, very unsure and tentative new arrival in the island, who's taken under the wing of the established, confident Brenna/Mia (Iona does prove to be a bit more confident than Nell was, especially with Boyle, but at the beginning, she was forever apologising and babbling). Brenna/Mia is clearly being set up for a romance with a man (Fin/Sam) with whom she shares a history and quite a bit of resentment, a man with his own powers, which will be needed for the final confrontation. Meara, who works with Iona at the stables, is a sort of blander version of Ripley, with some of her experience but none of her "I don't give a shit" abruptness. I liked Meara, but Ripley was much more fabulous To all that, we add a dash of the Ireland from the Gallaghers of Ardmore trilogy, and shades of the Circle Trilogy in the nature of the evil that must be confronted and there, new trilogy.

Then there's the plot about fighting Cabhan, which never even began to engage me. The problem starts with the immediate coming together of the group of 6 (Iona and her cousins, Boyle, Fin and Meara) and their absolute commitment to the future fight. Iona has learnt a bit about her magic from her Nan, but had absolutely no idea of the history or that she's meant to risk her life to fight Cabhan. And yet there is no hesitation when she hears the story. She experiences no doubt or wonders why she should do this or what might happen if she doesn't. She's all "risk my life to defeat this powerful being who's done nothing to me but killed an ancestress 800 years ago? Of course, sure, let's do it." Bizarre. I kept thinking of Iolanthe, in Sherry Thomas' The Burning Sky, whose first reaction in a similar situation was, very sensibly, "the hell I will, I want to live and this is a suicide mission!", but who was convinced of the necessity of the struggle by experiencing the reality of the evil of what they're up against.

I think that realisation of the reality of what they're up against was precisely what was lacking here. Because you see, Cabhan is just not scary. He's nothing more than a sort of cloud of... well, I can't really say "evil", because although our protagonists think he is, he doesn't really do much here to warrant that description. He attacks them because he wants their power and because he knows they mean to destroy him. Sure, you wouldn't want him to succeed, but evil? For all we know, he seems to have spent the ensuing 800 years waiting as this disembodied force. There isn't much of a sense of menace.

It didn't help that the magic in this book feels silly. It's all very twee, with rhyming spells (which made me giggle uncontrollably) and floating bits of fire and stuff like that. There are some scenes where Iona is supposed to do things that are spectacular, but they didn't feel so, they felt meh.

The romance just wasn't great. I did like how the otherwise shy Iona basically blurts out her feelings for Boyle in front of everyone and pursues him, but then the romance develops in a bit of a frustrating way. Everything's fine, and then there's a point where they experience a crisis which felt very forced, making what to me was a lot about nothing much. I didn't particularly care whether they got back together or not, and that's the mark of a very boring romance.

The final thing in my litany of complaints is the way Roberts approaches her setting here. It's an area she's usually great at. Her settings, both physical and thematic (by that I mean, say, the world of smoke jumpers in Chasing Fire) are big parts of her books, and they usually come alive and are fascinating. Ireland, though, she seems to fetishise, and that's a problem. There's no shred of anything that feels real in her setting here (for instance, this is a world where every small business is thriving and doesn't seem to have experienced any issues in the previous years), but the problem is how it's all romanticised. Things like the way her Irish characters spoke felt really off. I live in Liverpool, so I have a fair few Irish friends and acquaintances. Not one of them speaks like Yoda.

There were some things I did like here. Iona is the child of extremely distant parents, and it's lovely to see her begin to build a family with the rest of the circle. The developing friendship between her and Meara and Fin, and the way Brenna and Connor become her family were the strong points of the book. Other than that, though, this was a bust.



November 2013 reads

>> Sunday, December 01, 2013

Not my best month ever numbers-wise, in spite of lots of travelling. Not great in terms of quality, either. I loved Emma and had a couple of solid, good books, but a few disappointments as well.

1 - Emma, by Jane Austen: A-
review coming soon

Audiobook. Reread, after many years. Emma is such a brilliant character. Austen made me like her, dislike her, love her, pity her, despise her, admire her, all in one book. I was fully involved in the goings-on at Highbury and the engaging secondary characters, some of whom are true comedy gold. The narrator, Juliet Stephenson, had me in stitches with her rendering of Miss Bates' ramblings.

2 - The Burning Sky, by Sherry Thomas: B
review coming soon

Audiobook. YA fantasy. Iolanthe's life is turned upside down when it emerges she's the greatest Mage of her generation. She ends up reluctantly helping the young Master of the Domain, Titus, in his quest to defeat the evil Atlanteans, who have usurped real power in the Domain. The start is not great and the worldbuilding feels a bit rough, but I did get into it and enjoy it.

3 - Blood Atonement, by Dan Waddell: B
review coming soon

Audiobook. 2nd in a series featuring genealogist Nigel Barnes. The case this time concerns the murder of a woman and kidnapping of her teenage daughter, and then the ensuing deaths of further members of their distant family. Good, solid mystery, but didn't feel quite as enjoyable as the first one.

4 - Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, by Kathryn Schulz: B
review coming soon

Non fiction. Epistemiology. The author examines what it means to be wrong and how we feel about it and how we react. Interesting stuff, although sometimes made a bit annoying by faux-folksy writing.

5 - Dark Witch, by Nora Roberts: C-
review coming soon

Starts trilogy about cousins who are witches and must struggle with a centuries-old evil. It takes place in Ireland, and the heroine of this first one is an American who's just decided to move there. Not great, I'm afraid. I only liked the family and friends relationships. The romance was blah, the paranormal stuff tedious (except when it was unintentionally hilarious), and the Irish characters a bit cringe-inducing.

6 - Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself, by Harriet Ann Jacobs: DNF
review coming soon

This is exactly what the title says, an autobiographical account written by a former slave. It was published in the 1860s and was intended to influence Northern women to support not sending runaway slaves back to the South. While I appreciated its importance and historical significance, the writing didn't work for me.

7 - In Love With a Wicked Man, by Liz Carlyle: still reading
review coming soon

The hero is the disreputable owner of a gambling hell who suffers amnesia after a fall and has to recover at the heroine's house. The first half has reminded me of a slightly blander My False Heart. Good so far (no more half-baked paranormal stuff, yay!), but not great.

8 - Falling Free, by Lois McMaster Bujold: still listening
review coming soon

Audiobook. I wanted to read this one before I immerse myself in Miles's story. It's set a few centuries before the main books and stars an engineer who's posted to a station where they're doing some very dodgy genetic manipulations. I'm enjoying it.


December 2013 wish list

>> Saturday, November 30, 2013

I usually divide my wish list into two groups: one with books I'm definitely getting and one with books that interest me, but which I want to read some reviews for first. This month, all the books are on the second group.

No Place For a Dame, by Connie Brockway (Dec 1)

A new Connie Brockway, yay! I do love her historicals. The plot is not something that I’m particularly drawn to (heroine dressing up as a man to join the Royal Astronomical Society, a bargain with the hero, who’s engaged in solving a mystery, etc.), but in her hands, it could be great.

Christmas At The Castle, by Marion Lennox (Dec 1)

I’m not too sure about this one (since moving to England, I have a lot of trouble with aristocrats in contemps), but it’s Marion Lennox, and I do like her books.

Out To Lunch, by Stacey Ballis (Dec 3)

This looks like it could be quite the angsty one. From the description, it looks like the heroine falls in love with her late best friend’s widower, which could be an iffy setup if handled wrong. I’ll keep an eye on reviews.

A Christmas For Carrie, by Alison Packard (Dec 5)

I’ve got a bit of a love-hate relationship with Christmas stories. They can be great, but they can also be much too saccharine for me. I like the sound of this one, with its Christmas-hating heroine and what sounds like a nice, beta hero.

Tinsel My Heart, by Christi Barth (Dec 5)

Another Christmas novella, and one that sounds even better to me. It’s got a theatre setting, and this particular sentence draws me in: “Even though it means working with Becca, the girl he always wanted, lost to Ty, but never forgot.”

Beguiled, by Joanna Chambers (Dec 24)

I liked Chambers’ The Lady’s Secret, and have been meaning to read her again. I liked the sound of this one, mainly the idea of a romance between a lawyer and a lord during the Scottish Englightenment.


Crystal Gardens, by Amanda Quick

>> Thursday, November 28, 2013

TITLE: Crystal Gardens
AUTHOR: Amanda Quick

PAGES: 400

SETTING: Victorian England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Ladies of Lantern Street #1

Evangeline Ames has rented a country cottage far from the London streets where she was recently attacked. Fascinated by the paranormal energy of nearby Crystal Gardens, she finds pleasure in sneaking past the wall to explore the grounds. And when her life is threatened again, she instinctively goes to the gardens for safety.

Lucas Sebastian has never been one to ignore a lady in danger, even if she is trespassing on his property. Quickly disposing of her would-be assassin, he insists they keep the matter private. There are rumors enough already, about treasure buried under his garden and occult botanical experiments performed by his uncle—who died of mysterious causes. With Evangeline’s skill for detection, and Lucas’s sense of the criminal mind, they soon discover that they have a common enemy. And as the energy emanating from Crystal Gardens intensifies, they realize that to survive they must unearth what has been buried for too long.

Crystal Gardens is the first in a new Amanda Quick trilogy (alas, still within the Arcane Society world), called the Ladies of Lantern Street. It's centred around a group of women who work for Flint and Marsh, a sort-of detective agency which specialises in looking into the backgrounds of potential suitors. They do so by posing as paid companions, but secretly all use their paranormal powers in addition to their investigative skills.

Evangeline Ames is one of these investigators and as the book starts, she's installed in a small village a good distance from London. A recent case of hers had a distressing end, when a suitor she had discovered to be a fortune-hunter tried to kill her for interfering and ended up dead himself. Evangeline, who is also on the way to becoming a successful author of gothic stories, decides to take a little break and get out of town, and concentrate on her writing.

And then one night, another attempt is made on her life. Evangeline is able to escape her house and leads her pursuer onto the neighbouring Crystal Gardens. She's aware of the paranormal energy in the gardens, and knows it will give her an edge.

Evangeline is aided by Lucas Sebastian, the man who's recently inherited the gardens (and the big house that goes with them!). His uncle, the previous owner, died under mysterious circumstances, and Lucas and Evangeline end up working together to uncover both mysteries: that of Lucas's uncle and of who wants Evangeline dead.

On the plus side, I really liked the romance here. I thought it had some of the elements I loved in vintage JAK, where there often was a palpable feeling of need for each other in the hero and heroine. With Lucas, especially, she conveyed well the loneliness and the yearning for intimacy, which only Evangeline could give him. The romance also feels more central than it has in previous books, where the emphasis has been much too much on the half-baked paranormal and suspense elements.

Those, by the way, were still ho-hum. The mystery was pretty boring and by the numbers, but at least the paranormal aspect of it was not that prominent and didn't bother me.

What did bother me was that, ever since I've started listening to JAK's books in audio, I've started noticing an issue that I hadn't picked up on in previous ones (I'm not sure if it wasn't there, or if it's listening to the text that brings it out). The dialogue is written as if for people who can't go from A to B, however close those two points may be, without being led by the hand. There is a LOT of stating the obvious here, to the point that it's actually quite funny (if unintentionally so). Paraphrasing here, it went something like: "He attacked me with a knife" - "Are you saying, sir, he tried to murder you?" - "Yes, Miss Ames, he did". It might not look too annoying here, but the constant repetition was quite extraordinary.


AUDIOBOOK NOTES: The version I listened to was the unabridged one, narrated by Justine Eyre. I didn't like her narration very much. I felt sometimes she gave the dialogue intonations that weren't really supported by the text, and she spoke with a sort of quaver in her voice that I found a bit annoying. Her male voices were also not very good. Still, not bad enough to stop listening, just not great.


Stir Me Up, by Sabrina Elkins

>> Tuesday, November 26, 2013

TITLE: Stir Me Up
AUTHOR: Sabrina Elkins

PAGES: 268
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Teen

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: New Adult romance

Cami Broussard has her future all figured out. She'll finish her senior year of high school, then go to work full-time as an apprentice chef in her father's French restaurant, alongside her boyfriend, Luke. But then twenty-year-old ex-Marine Julian Wyatt comes to live with Cami's family while recovering from serious injuries. And suddenly Cami finds herself questioning everything she thought she wanted.

Julian's all attitude, challenges and intense green-brown eyes. But beneath that abrasive exterior is a man who just might be as lost as Cami's starting to feel. And Cami can't stop thinking about him. Talking to him. Wanting to kiss him. He's got her seriously stirred up. Her senior year has just gotten a lot more complicated...

In her final months of high school, Cami Broussard spends all her non-school time either in her dad's restaurant or hanging out with her boyfriend, Luke. It's a bit of a stressful time. Cami is engaged in a battle of wills with her father. She wants to follow in his footsteps and become a chef, while he insists she go to university, rather than embark so young on what he knows is a tough, all-consuming career. As for Luke, he's lately been pressuring Cami into having sex, something she's not sure she wants to do with him just yet.

And then Julian comes into her life. Julian was practically brought up by his Aunt Estelle, Cami's stepmother. He went into the military right after high school, and has been in Afghanistan in the couple of years since. But as the book starts, Julian is involved in a really bad incident, one which results in the death of several of his friends dying and his losing a leg. He ends up moving in with Cami's family while he recovers.

Things do not go well at first. Julian is in constant pain, both physical and from grieving the loss of his friends, and that manifests as a really foul temper. Cami, who's already feeling a tiny bit resentful about having to turn her whole daily life inside out to accomodate this guy she's never met, and ashamed of those feelings, is the only one who won't take any shit from him. As they start getting to know each other and spending more time together, Cami starts to realise that she'd rather be with Julian than with Luke, and Julian might feel the same.

I liked this quite a lot when I started it. Cami is a focused and sensible young woman, and completely believable as a chef. I liked the way she thinks about food, and the way it invades her thoughts all the time. It was great, except for a few hiccups (like her Indian food mishap: what experienced cook doesn't taste as she goes along, especially when trying something completely new?). I was particularly interested in her conflicts regarding what to do with her life. It really wasn't a straightforward decision, as both she and her father were right in different ways.

My interest, however, waned as I read on. I guess it all felt too far on the YA end of NA for my tastes. What I like about NA is reading about people establishing their grown-up life, making those crucial decisions about what direction their life is going to take, and doing so in an environment that's changed hugely since when I made those decisions myself. I got a little bit of that from Cami's career issues, but not quite enough. It's the difference between 'what do I want to do after high school?' and 'what is my adult life going to look like?', and Cami's decisions seemed to be more about answering the first question than the second. I'm less interested in that.

The romance was sweet, but definitely much too YA for me, sex or no sex. The ending was appropriate, I felt, recognising that these two (but especially Cami) were too young to be making significant decisions about the directions their lives would take based on a romantic relationship. But that's exactly why, to me, the romance didn't feel completely satisfying, because they were young enough that they couldn't yet decide to build their lives together.

I haven't really said much about Julian. That's because I felt that while the issues around his amputation and recovery were handled well and quite sensitively, he was mainly there to be Cami's love interest. There wasn't really all that much about him and what his own life would look like, just a small bit at the end that felt kind of throwaway.

This is one that worked only partially for me, but readers who like YA romance will probably enjoy it a lot more than I did.



Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

>> Sunday, November 24, 2013

TITLE: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
AUTHOR: Robin Sloan

PAGES: 284
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Fiction

The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a San Francisco Web-design drone—and serendipity, sheer curiosity, and the ability to climb a ladder like a monkey has landed him a new gig working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. But after just a few days on the job, Clay begins to realize that this store is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few customers, but they come in repeatedly and never seem to actually buy anything, instead “checking out” impossibly obscure volumes from strange corners of the store, all according to some elaborate, long-standing arrangement with the gnomic Mr. Penumbra. The store must be a front for something larger, Clay concludes, and soon he’s embarked on a complex analysis of the customers’ behavior and roped his friends into helping to figure out just what’s going on. But once they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, it turns out the secrets extend far outside the walls of the bookstore.

Our protagonist is Clay Jannon, a web designer whose job in a dotcom company has just gone south. While he finds another one, he gets a position at the very strange establishment called "Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore". It's a strange place because, for a bookstore, it doesn't seem to sell many books -in fact, no one there seems interested in selling any books. The only clients are eccentric characters who come in to borrow obscure tomes written in some sort of code.

It's not hard to realise that something more than bookselling is going on, and Clay, stuck in the night shift and with plenty of time on his hands, decides to do a little bit of programming to analyse the data from the records. To his surprise, he actually discovers something, something which sends him on a real quest -one in which the prize is immortality. But Clay's got a secret weapon, because in addition to talented friends, he's got a new lady friend who works at Google!

The best way to describe Mr. Penumbra is "good fun". There's codebreaking and secret societies and strange characters, there's a love of books but without a disdain of non-print ones, and there's a big chunk of high tech mixed in with all of it. I had a blast reading it.

Fun or not, the book does have plenty of flaws, the main one being that it never feels like there's all that much at stake, so it was hard to really care about the characters and whether they would succeed. That might sound weird. After all, if they solve the puzzle, they’re supposed to get immortality, which is pretty damned big. The thing is, it’s too obvious that this is never going to work that way, and I couldn’t believe that these people would believe it, either.

Additionally, the characters are thinly drawn and slightly cartoonish and the plot relies on coincidences and on Clay having friends with obscure skills/access to obscure things which are just the right ones that are needed at particular times.

Did I care, though? Not really. It's not a book that will stay with me, but I enjoyed it while I was reading it, and sometimes that's exactly what I want.



The Lotus Palace, by Jeannie Lin

>> Friday, November 22, 2013

TITLE: The Lotus Palace
AUTHOR: Jeannie Lin

PAGES: 384

SETTING: Tang dynasty China
TYPE: Romance

It is a time of celebration in the Pingkang Li, where imperial scholars and bureaucrats mingle with beautiful courtesans. At the center is the Lotus Palace, home of the most exquisite courtesans in China...

Maidservant Yue-ying is not one of those beauties. Street-smart and practical, she's content to live in the shadow of her infamous mistress-until she meets the aristocratic playboy Bai Huang.

Bai Huang lives in a privileged world Yue-ying can barely imagine, yet alone share, but as they are thrown together in an attempt to solve a deadly mystery, they both start to dream of a different life. Yet Bai Huang's position means that all she could ever be to him is his concubine-will she sacrifice her pride to follow her heart?

I've heard loads of good things about Jeannie Lin's books and have picked up a few over the years. I got distracted by the shiny new one, though, so those are still in my TBR.

Lin's books have a very unique setting in romance. The Lotus Palace is set in China during the Tang Dynasty (I'll save you the googling: that's between 618 and 907 AD). The action takes place in the pleasure district of Pingkang Li, which as far as I can tell is in the ancient city of Chang'an, now Xi'an, in Shaanxi province.

That's where our heroine, Yue-ying, lives, in the famous Lotus Palace. Yue-ying is maidservant to one of the city's reigning beauties, the legendary and much-pursued courtesan Mingyu. The hero, Bai Huang, is one of Mingyu's admirers, a young scholar-wannabe from a wealthy, influential family. Yue-ying's and the reader's first impression is that he's a spoilt, privileged wastrel, his life all about drinking and gambling and throwing money around.

But there's more to Bai Huang than meets the eye, and the first indication of it is the attention he pays Yue-ying, who's completely ignored by all the other people who frequent the Lotus Palace. Used to being considered insignificant and ugly due to a birthmark on her face, Yue-ying is made very uncomfortable by his attention and professed admiration. But after the murder of a courtesan, one as high-up as Mingyu and a good friend of her, they must work together to discover what's going on before the danger reaches Mingyu.

There is a lot to like here, and I completely get why so many people whose taste I respect like Lin's books. The setting is just fabulous. Lin manages to make both the physical location and the way the society works come alive, and does it quite deftly, without any infodumps. All the very unfamiliar information comes up naturally and allows us to understand the restrictions and issues relating to characters in such different positions as Bai Huang and Yue-ying.

The characters are also very well done. There's a real depth and history to them, and they feel real. Lin shows us exactly how their experiences have both shaped and been shaped by their personalities, and all this sets up the main conflict in the romance beautifully.

And yet... I acknowledge all this, and yet, it took me ages to read the book, over 3 weeks. I don't know whether it was something about the writing, or the fact that I had very little interest in the tedious murder investigation element, but the book felt extremely draggy. It didn't flow as well as I would have hoped. It meant that I admired the book for the things it did really well much more than I actually liked it.



AAR's latest Top 100 poll

>> Tuesday, November 19, 2013

All About Romance recently published the results of its latest Top 100 poll. I was planning to vote, as I have in quite a few of the earlier versions, but left it too late and then ran out of time. The story of my life these days *sigh*.

I feel like to prove that I've got excellent taste in romance I should be saying how the results don't reflect my votes (or rather, what they would have been) at all, and boasting about how far from the mainstream my reading tastes are. Well, there are a couple of WTF details there (for instance, I thought #4 in the list, The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie was pretty terrible and #2, The Devil in Winter was just ok), but the truth is, it turns out I'm really, really mainstream!

I have read a whopping 82 books out of the top 100. I loved 39 of them enough that I suspect they would have been on my own Top 100 ballot. A further 29 were books I liked ok, but not enough to consider them for that list. 12 were books I didn't like and I absolutely hated the remaining 2.

I was hoping when I went through the list that I'd find some good stuff to add to my TBR, but it didn't work that way. Of the books I haven't read, there are 11 which I'm not planning on reading, whether because I've tried the authors before and know they don't work well for me (Georgette Heyer, Julie Garwood) or because I've heard enough about them that I have no interest in reading them (Outlander). There are 7 books that I do want to read, but... they're already in my massive TBR!

Books I've read and loved, probably in my top 100

1. Lord of Scoundrels Loretta Chase Eur Hist 1995
3. Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen Classic 1813
7. Slightly Dangerous Mary Balogh Eur Hist 2004
9. The Viscount Who Loved Me Julia Quinn Eur Hist 2000
11. The Spymaster's Lady Joanna Bourne Eur Hist 2008
12. Mr. Impossible Loretta Chase Eur Hist 2005
15. Bet Me Jennifer Crusie Contemporary 2004
19. It Had To Be You Susan Elizabeth Phillips Contemporary 1994
20. Welcome to Temptation Jennifer Crusie Contemporary 2000
21. Match Me If You Can Susan Elizabeth Phillips Contemporary 2005
22. The Raven Prince Elizabeth Hoyt Eur Hist 2006
23. A Week To Be Wicked Tessa Dare Eur Hist 2012
26. Lord Perfect Loretta Chase Eur Hist 2006
27. Naked In Death J.D. Robb Futuristic 1995
28. Paradise Judith McNaught Contemporary 1991
33. Private Arrangements Sherry Thomas Eur Historical 2008
34. Lover Awakened J.R. Ward Paranormal 2006
36. A Summer To Remember Mary Balogh Eur Hist 2002
37. A Knight in Shining Armor Jude Deveraux Time-Travel 1989
42. When He Was Wicked Julia Quinn Eur Hist 2004
44. What Happens in London Julia Quinn Eur Hist 2009
48. Dream Man Linda Howard Romantic Suspense 1995
49. Heaven, Texas Susan Elizabeth Phillips Contemporary 1995
51. As You Desire Connie Brockway Historical 1997
52. This Heart of Mine Susan Elizabeth Phillips Contemporary 2001
53. More Than A Mistress Mary Balogh Eur Hist 2000
55. Slave To Sensation Nalini Singh Paranormal 2006
57. The Last Hellion Loretta Chase Eur Hist 1998
58. Ravished Amanda Quick Eur Hist 1992
63. See Jane Score Rachel Gibson Contemporary 2003
64. A Lady Awakened Cecilia Grant Eur Hist 2012
67. Cry No More Linda Howard Rom Suspense 2003
69. After The Night Linda Howard Contemporary 1995
74. My Dearest Enemy Connie Brockway Eur Hist 1998
76. Unveiled Courtney Milan Eur Hist 2011
77. The Iron Duke Meljean Brook Steampunk 2010
89. For My Lady's Heart Laura Kinsale Medieval Romance 1993
90. To Have and To Hold Patricia Gaffney Eur Hist 1995
97. Natural Born Charmer Susan Elizabeth Phillips Contemporary 2007

Books I've read and liked, not enough for top 100

2. Devil In Winter Lisa Kleypas Eur Hist 2006
8. Dreaming of You Lisa Kleypas Eur Hist 1994
10. Romancing Mr. Bridgerton Julia Quinn Eur Hist 2002
16. The Duke and I Julia Quinn Eur Hist 2000
18. Nobody's Baby But Mine Susan Elizabeth Phillips Contemporary 1997
24. Jane Eyre Charlotte Bronte Classic 1847
25. Morning Glory Lavryle Spencer Amer Hist 1990
30. It Happened One Autumn Lisa Kleypas Eur Hist 2008
32. Devil's Bride Stephanie Laurens Eur Hist 1998
35. Persuasion Jane Austen Classic 1818
41. Mr. Perfect Linda Howard Contemporary 2000
54. The Rake Mary Jo Putney Eur Hist 1998
59. The Forbidden Rose Joanna Bourne Eur Hist 2010
62. Then Came You Lisa Kleypas Eur Hist 1993
65. The Duke Of Shadows Meredith Duran Eur Hist 2008
68. Bound by Your Touch Meredith Duran Eur Hist 2008
72. Open Season Linda Howard Contemporary 2001
78. To Beguile A Beast Elizabeth Hoyt Eur Hist 2009
80. Suddenly You Lisa Kleypas Eur Hist 2001
82. The Secret Pearl Mary Balogh Eur Hist 1991
83. An Offer From a Gentleman Julia Quinn Eur Hist 2001
84. Sugar Daddy Lisa Kleypas Women's Fiction 2007
85. Secrets of a Summer Night Lisa Kleypas Eur Hist 2004
86. The Shadow and The Star Laura Kinsale Historical 1991
87. The Governess Affair Courtney Milan Eur Hist 2012
92. Simply Love Mary Balogh Eur Hist 2006
93. Rising Tides Nora Roberts Contemporary 1998
95. A Hunger Like No Other Kresley Cole Paranormal 2006
96. Lady Sophia's Lover Lisa Kleypas Eur Hist 2002

Books I've read but didn't like

4. The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie Jennifer Ashley Eur Hist 2009
6. Flowers From The Storm Laura Kinsale Eur Hist 1992
13. What I Did for a Duke Julie Anne Long Eur Hist 2011
29. The Bride Julie Garwood Medieval 1989
43. A Kingdom of Dreams Judith McNaught Medieval 1989
45. Venetia Georgette Heyer Classic Fiction 1956
50. MacKenzie's Mountain Linda Howard Series/Category 1989
71. Perfect Judith McNaught Contemporary 1993
73. Honor's Splendour Julie Garwood Medieval 1987
79. Dream A Little Dream Susan Elizabeth Phillips Contemporary 1998
81. Something Wonderful Judith McNaught Eur Hist 1988
94. Almost Heaven Judith McNaught Eur Hist 1990

Books I've read and hated

31. Blue-Eyed Devil Lisa Kleypas Contemporary 2005 
99. Whitney, My Love Judith McNaught Eur Hist 1985 

Books I haven't read and I'm not planning to

5. Outlander Diana Gabaldon Time-Travel 1991 
38. Devil's Cub Georgette Heyer Classic 1932 
40. Kiss An Angel Susan Elizabeth Phillips Contemporary 1996 
46. Smooth Talking Stranger Lisa Kleypas Contemporary 2009 
47. The Secret Julie Garwood Medieval 1992 
61. Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake Sarah MacLean Eur Hist 2010 
66. And Then He Kissed Her Laura Lee Guhrke Eur Hist 2007 
70. Frederica Georgette Heyer Classic Fiction 1965 
75. Ransom Julie Garwood Medieval 1999 
98. The Grand Sophy Georgette Heyer Classic Fiction 1950 
100. Sylvester Georgette Heyer Classic Fiction 1957 

Books I haven't read but want to

14. Not Quite A Husband Sherry Thomas Hist Rom 2009 
17. The Black Hawk Joanna Bourne Eur Hist 2011 
39. Ravishing the Heiress Sherry Thomas Eur Hist 2012 
56. Love in the Afternoon Lisa Kleypas Eur Hist 2010 
60. When Beauty Tamed the Beast Eloisa James Eur Hist 2011 
88. His At Night Sherry Thomas Eur Hist 2010 
91. Mine Till Midnight Lisa Kleypas Eur Hist 2007 


Sweet Enemy, by Heather Snow

>> Sunday, November 17, 2013

TITLE: Sweet Enemy
AUTHOR: Heather Snow

PAGES: 359
PUBLISHER: Signet Eclipse

SETTING: Early 19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 1st in the Veiled Seduction series

Geoffrey Wentworth, a war hero and rising political star, never wanted to be the Earl, but when his brother dies, he knows his duty--take up the responsibility for his family's estates. His mother's definition of duty differs from his, however, and can be summed up in one word--heirs. When Geoffrey rushes home to answer her urgent summons, he finds himself host to a house full of women, all vying to become the next Countess of Stratford. But his love is Parliament, where he wields his influence and reputation to better the lives of ex-soldiers, until a tempting houseguest and a secret from his past threaten his freedom...and his heart.

Liliana Claremont, a brilliant chemist, doesn't want to be any man's wife, much less a countess. If she had tuppence for every time she'd been told her place was filling the nursery, not experimenting in the laboratory, she could buy the Tower Bridge. However, when she receives a coveted invitation to the Earl's house party, she trades in her beakers for ball gowns and gladly takes on the guise of husband hunter--for the chance to uncover what the Earl had to do with the murder of her father.

Liliana believes the best way to get the answers she needs is to keep her enemy close, though romance is not part of her formula. But it only takes one kiss to start a reaction she can't control...

It's been ages since I've discovered a new historical romance author that I liked. I do still have some old favourites, but I've been reading less and less regular historical romance in the last couple of years (by regular, I mean non-steampunk, non-paranormal... you know). The sound of this one intrigued me, though, and new author, yay!

Liliana Claremont is a gifted chemist, and she intends to devote the rest of her life to the pursuit of her science. This means not getting married, but Liliana is ok with that. Her father left her a modest amount of money when he died, and that's enough for her to live as she wants to.

And then she discovers evidence that her father was killed for his involvement in some sort of spy activity. The evidence points towards her father's betrayer being from Somerton Park, the residence of the Earls of Stratford, and Liliana feels she has an obligation to her father to investigate. Pretending she wants to find a husband, she gets her aunt to let her join her and her daughter at a house party in Somerton Park.

That house party has been thrown by the Geoffrey Wentworth, the current Earl's mother against his will. She's determined to find him a wife, and has invited as many eligible young woman as she could think of -including, cleverly, some with fathers who are influential in Parliament, and whose support Geoffrey does want to court. He's a military man, you see, and he's determined to use his unexpected title (he was a second son) to improve the lot of men like those he commanded.

Geoffrey doesn't intend to find a wife during the party, but then he meets Liliana, and his attention is engaged. She'd much rather stay under the radar, but once her aunt realises Geoff's interested, Liliana can't but spend time with him if she wants to stay there long enough to discover the truth.

I was a bit doubtful at first when I realised that Liliana, supposedly a scientist, and whom I would have expected to do a bit more logical forward planning, goes off half-cocked, intending to discover who betrayed her father... somehow, and to expose the culprit... somehow. I rolled my eyes. But if you stick with it and get past that particular silliness, this is a good book.

It is Snow's first book, and it shows. There's a bit of clunkiness here and there, but there's also a lot of originality and freshness, and the characters are well drawn. Apart from that blip of the setup, Liliana is believable as a scientist, and Geoffrey as a man who never wanted or expected to be an Earl, but who now feels obligated to use the power of his station to better the lives of others. The chemistry between them is well done, and I liked that Geoffrey was attracted to Liliana's intelligence. I even thought the suspense element was handled well.

This is an author to watch, and I will definitely be reading more by her.



Lessons in Love, by Charlie Cochrane

>> Friday, November 15, 2013

TITLE: Lessons in Love
AUTHOR: Charlie Cochrane

PAGES: 186

SETTING: 1905 England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Starts the Cambridge Fellows series

Jonty Stewart is handsome and outgoing, with blood as blue as his eyes. When he takes up a teaching post at the college where he studied, his dynamic style acts as an agent for change within the archaic institution. He also has a catalytic effect on Orlando Coppersmith.

Orlando is a brilliant, introverted mathematician with very little experience of life outside the university walls. He strikes up an alliance with Jonty and soon finds himself heart-deep in feelings he’s never experienced. Before long their friendship blossoms into more than either man had hoped.

Then a student is murdered within St. Bride’s. Then another…and another. All the victims have one thing in common: a penchant for men. Asked by the police to serve as their eyes and ears within the college, Jonty and Orlando risk exposing a love affair that could make them the killer’s next target.

This series came highly recommended, and I loved the sound of it. It's set in a Cambridge College in the early 1900s, and features what was described to me as a sweet romance between two young dons.

Jonty Stewart is new to the college, and his first encounter with mathematician Orlando Coppersmith doesn't go great. Jonty has taken what the very structured, introverted Orlando sees as his chair, and he demands it back. Things get better from there, though, and the two men become friends, spending more and more time together. In time, their feelings become about more than friendship, but although Jonty is experienced in that area, Orlando isn't, and he's a bit skittish about it.

It doesn't help that about the time when they start acknowledging their feelings, the murders start. Students are being killed, and it quickly becomes clear to Jonty and Orlando that the victims were all gay, and that the murderer was motivated by this knowledge. This adds another layer of danger to their relationship: being together now makes them risk not only dismissal from their jobs, but their lives.

There's a lot to like here. I particularly appreciated having a romance based on liking and respect, both gradually developed, rather than one based on insta-lust. I liked the time period and the feel of the setting, and I do like mystery series with a developing romance.

The thing is, I liked the idea of it all much more than the execution. The romance is probably amongst the strongest elements, but there are still issues with it. There's way too much back and forth: oh, no we can't be together because it's too dangerous right now - actually, maybe we can - no, we can't - yes, we can. It got to be too much.

I also had a lot of trouble with the dialogue, which often felt stilted and unnatural. For starters, Jonty and Orlando used each other's names much too frequently. "Hello, Orlando" "Oh, hello, Jonty" "Where are you heading, Orlando?" "I'm going to the pub, Jonty". Argh!!

Additionally, the mystery was very weak. The initial idea of it is intriguing, but then it's poorly developed and the resolution was predictable and boring.

With all this, though, I think I might continue with the series, hoping this was just a weak start.



Thankless in Death, by JD Robb

>> Wednesday, November 13, 2013

TITLE: Thankless in Death

PAGES: 416

SETTING: Futuristic: 2060 New York
TYPE: Police procedural & Romance
SERIES: By my count, 39th full-length title in the In Death series

In the latest suspense thriller in the #1 New York Times bestselling series, the year 2060 is drawing to a close in New York City and loved ones are coming together for Thanksgiving. But sometimes the deepest hatreds seethe within the closest relationships, and blood flows faster than water…

Lieutenant Eve Dallas has plenty to be grateful for this season. Hosting Roarke’s big Irish family for the holiday may be challenging, but it’s a joyful improvement on her own dark childhood.

Other couples aren’t as lucky as Eve and Roarke. The Reinholds, for example, are lying in their home stabbed and bludgeoned almost beyond recognition. Those who knew them are stunned—and heartbroken by the evidence that they were murdered by their own son. Twenty-six-year-old Jerry hadn’t made a great impression on the bosses who fired him or the girlfriend who dumped him—but they didn’t think he was capable of this.

Turns out Jerry is not only capable of brutality but taking a liking to it. With the money he’s stolen from his parents and a long list of grievances, he intends to finally make his mark on the world. Eve and her team already know the who, how, and why of this murder. What they need to pinpoint is where Jerry’s going to strike next.

The latest installment of the series is not a whodunnit, or even a why- or how-dunnit. It's all about how Eve and her team can catch a useless, entitled, self-absorbed arsehole who's determined to get even with the multitudes he feels have slighted him.

Jerry Reinhold, mooching off his parents' after his ex girlfriend kicked him out for stealing her savings and losing them in Las Vegas, is incensed when his mother tells him they'll be asking him to move out. He snaps and, angry, stabs her with a knife (the same one she's using to make him a sandwich). But instead of being horrified about what he's done, he finds it a revelation. He feels he's found his life's calling. Killing will be both a way of getting even with the multitudes he feels have wronged him throughout his life, and of getting the big money he needs to live the life he deserves.

I initially thought "oh, no". Jerry is a horrible, horrible character: entitled, mean, and generally hateful. He's also rather stupid, and only gets away with so much because of dumb luck. So when I realised we would end up spending quite a bit of time from his POV, I really, really didn't look forward to the way it seemed the book would develop. But it was a lot better than I thought.

The hunt for Jerry turned out to be solidly enjoyable. As usual, Eve and her team follow all the logical avenues and there are no unlikely intuitive leaps. It's all solid police work, and very satisfying to read. As for Jerry's POV, well, I won't say I liked it, but it was necessary for the book to work. It was also less disturbing than I would have thought, which was weird. There is some very graphic and explicit on-stage violence (torture, mainly), and I tend to find this really traumatic. But here, after the first couple of scenes, I didn't really find myself that disturbed by it. I think it may have been because it was so graphic, so horrendous, that I disconnected myself from it as a sort of defence mechanism.

On the personal front, there's all the stuff about family and friends coming to Eve and Roarke's for Thanksgiving, and although that was fun, it was something else that was my favourite. More and more in the last few books, Robb has focused on aspects of Eve's job beyond her day-to-day work as a detective. For instance, an earlier book explored her role as a leader (and euw, this does sound horribly managementy, almost like some sort of case study, but it really isn't how it's done in the books. It feels very natural there). Here, we see Eve struggling with an issue I've been thinking about more and more in the last couple of years: the move from a specialist role into a more senior, managerial one. There's opportunity to have more influence and the prestige of the more senior role, but there's also the nightmares of management and the leaving behind of a hands-on occupation that is enjoyable, and has become intertwined with one's identity. So far I've been making the same decision Eve makes, and for exactly the same reasons, but like her, there's always the sense that the move will have to happen at some point. For someone who, from her bio, has never worked in jobs where she's had to face these issues, Robb gets it remarkably right.

Something else that was interesting here (to me, at least!) was my reaction to Roarke. I know a lot of readers have been put off from the series by how OTT everything about him is. I do agree he's OTT and really would prefer someone not quite as perfect in every single way, but this book was the first time I felt he was out of place in the series. As I said earlier, in the last few books, the focus has been on Eve as a leader, Eve as a boss, and this has felt so realistic that having Roarke pop up owning everything in the known world kicked me out of the story a time or two. It felt wrong, and like he was in the wrong book.

I also found the Irish relatives (they visit for Thanksgiving) annoying, maybe because constant contact with actual Irish people has made me realise how off Robb's rendering of the language is, and how stereotypical and cringey is her portrayal of the actual characters. It was a tiny part of the book here, but it's making me sort of dread her upcoming Dark Witch.



Skios, by Michael Frayn

>> Monday, November 11, 2013

TITLE: Skios
AUTHOR: Michael Frayn

PAGES: 272
PUBLISHER: Faber and Faber

SETTING: Contemporary Greece
TYPE: Fiction

On the private Greek island of Skios, the high-paying guests of a world-renowned foundation prepare for the annual keynote address, to be given this year by Dr. Norman Wilfred, an eminent authority on the scientific organization of science. He turns out to be surprisingly youthful, handsome, and charming—quite unlike his reputation as dry and intimidating. Everyone is soon eating out of his hands. So, even sooner, is Nikki, the foundation's attractive and efficient organizer.

Meanwhile, in a remote villa at the other end of the island, Nikki's old friend Georgie has rashly agreed to spend a furtive horizontal weekend with a notorious schemer, who has characteristically failed to turn up. Trapped there with her instead is a pompous, balding individual called Dr. Norman Wilfred, who has lost his whereabouts, his luggage, his temper, and increasingly all sense of reality—indeed, everything he possesses other than the text of a well-traveled lecture on the scientific organization of science.

Farce is not my favourite kind of comedy. I tend to find it tiresome and annoying, but that's probably because it's ridiculously hard to do well; therefore, in most cases, it's badly done. Skios is high farce, but it is also beautifully done, and I loved it.

The setup is, almost by definition, ridiculous and improbable. Oliver Fox arrives at Skios for an assignation with a married woman. He sees a beautiful young woman holding a sign for Dr. Norman Wilfred and, on impulse, approaches her. She assumes he is, indeed, the eminent scientist Dr. Wilfred (although he looks a lot younger and better looking than in his photograph) and carts him off to the prestigious conference she's organising, where he's expected to deliver the final lecture.

When the real Dr. Wilfred walks out past customs, there's no one holding a sign with his name on it. There's a taxi driver waiting, though, and he takes Dr. Wilfred to a house that's already occupied by a madwoman who thinks he's some sort of rabid rapist. The woman is called Georgie, and she was expecting her lover, Oliver.

On the surface, this is pure entertainment, and it really is fun and hilarious. The farcical elements are choreographed like clockwork and the funny bits are hilarious. I'm sure just reading it would already be funny, but the delivery achieved by Martin Jarvis, the narrator of the audiobook I was listening to, made it even more so. The scenes with the taxi drivers, particularly, made me almost cry with laughter.

But there's a lot more to it. The satire is extremely well-observed and spot-on, not relying on meanness or easy targets. There's also a deceptive depth to the characters. Oliver, for instance, initially comes across as a charming rotter, simply out for a lark. But after a while, it becomes clear there's more going on inside his head, a touch of something darker than one might assume. And Dr. Wilfred, boring pompous Dr. Wilfred, discovers a side to himself he never knew was there.

Just fantastic.


AUDIOBOOK NOTES: As I mention above, I listened to the audiobook narrated by Martin Jarvis, and it was fabulous.


Ten Tiny Breaths, by KA Tucker

>> Saturday, November 09, 2013

TITLE: Ten Tiny Breaths

PAGES: 262
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: New Adult
SERIES: There's a sequel telling the sister's story

Kacey Cleary’s whole life imploded four years ago in a drunk-driving accident. Now she’s working hard to bury the pieces left behind—all but one. Her little sister, Livie. Kacey can swallow the constant disapproval from her born-again aunt Darla over her self-destructive lifestyle; she can stop herself from going kick-boxer crazy on Uncle Raymond when he loses the girls’ college funds at a blackjack table. She just needs to keep it together until Livie is no longer a minor, and then they can get the hell out of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

But when Uncle Raymond slides into bed next to Livie one night, Kacey decides it’s time to run. Armed with two bus tickets and dreams of living near the coast, Kacey and Livie start their new lives in a Miami apartment complex, complete with a grumpy landlord, a pervert upstairs, and a neighbor with a stage name perfectly matched to her chosen “profession.” But Kacey’s not worried. She can handle all of them.

What she can’t handle is Trent Emerson in apartment 1D. Kacey doesn’t want to feel. She doesn’t. It’s safer that way. For everyone. But sexy Trent finds a way into her numb heart, reigniting her ability to love again. She starts to believe that maybe she can leave the past where it belongs and start over. Maybe she’s not beyond repair.

But Kacey isn’t the only one who’s broken. Seemingly perfect Trent has an unforgiveable past of his own; one that, when discovered, will shatter Kacey’s newly constructed life and send her back into suffocating darkness.

The basic plot here is very typical NA: Heroine with a huge, horrible tragedy in her past, which has made her withdrawn from life. Hero who tries to reach her, but who has secrets of his own. With such a popular set-up, you're always going to get good and bad executions, and I thought this was one for the 'good' column.

Kacey Cleary is the sole survivor of a drunk driving accident which killed not only her parents, not only her boyfriend, but her best friend as well. Understandably, this left her pretty messed up. For a while she tried all the standard self-destructive ways of coping with tragedy, until her younger sister, Livie made her promise Kacey wouldn't leave her as well. As the book starts, Kacey is still not coping that well, but she's doing better. And then she discovers that the uncle they live with has made sexual advances on Livie, and realises they need to get out of there.

The two end up living in an appartment complex in Florida (I pictured something like the one in Melrose Place), where Kacey ends up getting close to two of the neighbours. The first is Storm, who becomes a friend and offers Kacey a job as a waitress in the club where she strips. The second takes a while longer. His name is Trent, and he's about Kacey's age and much too attractive. After a while, Kacey beings to feel that she can start building a regular life and begin to develop relationships with people again. But it turns out Trent has his own issues, and they are such that they threaten his relationship with Kacey.

Ten Tiny Breaths is an angsty read, but angsty in a way I enjoyed. Although there is a romance, the highlight for me was seeing Kacey heal, moving away from a numb state, where she hardly cares what happens to her and is completely isolated from anyone but her sister. This is done in a gradual, believable way. The romance fit well into that theme. It was possibly a bit too fast to be believable, but I did buy it. Finally, I particularly appreciated the non-stereotypical way in which Tucker portrayed Storm, and how she got her own really sweet (in a good way) HEA.

My only problem with this book is, like most people I know who've read it, with the ending. There's a twist, and those developments (I'm trying to be vague here) result in a resolution which I'm not sure was a healthy one for everyone involved.

Since this is self-published, I should say something about the writing. It's not awful, but it's not great, either. There are some typos, some words used incorrectly, and the author needs to learn how to use hyphens properly, but it wasn't too distracting, or even bad enough to lower the grade.



October 2013 reads

>> Friday, November 01, 2013

Fewer than usual this month, but on the other hand, no duds. I'll take that!

1 - Barrayar, by Lois McMaster Bujold: A
review coming soon

Audiobook. This one continues the story where Shards of Honor left off. Cordelia is now Lady Vorkosigan, and expecting a baby. But with Aral named Regent for the underage Emperor, it's not a peaceful life. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. I love Bujold's honourable, competent main characters and I love how they deal with what are really serious issues. Why on Earth didn't I continue with the series the first time??

2 - Thankless in Death, by JD Robb: B+
review coming soon

Eve and the team are after an entitled, self-absorbed arsehole who kills his parents for daring to ask him to get a job and move out, and then, having discovered a taste for killing, decides to get even with the multitudes whom he feels have slighted him. I liked it much better than I thought I would at the beginning.

3 - Troubled Waters, by Sharon Shinn: B+
review here

Reread in preparation for the release of the sequel in early November (I realised reading that blurb that I had no idea who the heroine was!). The books are set in a world dominated by the 5 elements. The heroine was born amongst the ruling families, but her father was disgraced and she grew up in exile. After her father dies, the King's advisor turns up to collect her, telling her she's meant to become the King's fifth wife. And so it all starts. As I noted in my review, it's a book with not much of a sense of peril, but it's still hugely enjoyable. I always sort of sink into Shinn's prose, and this was no exception.

4 - The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey: B+
review here

Reread for my book club (well, listened to the audiobook this time). Detective Alan Grant is laid up in hospital after an accident and very bored, so he uses his investigative techniques to look at the accusations that Richard III murdered the little Princes in the tower. The material is as fascinating as ever, and the structure really clever. I enjoyed it this time as well, but it really is very partisan. Also, this time around I particularly noticed some of the more dated elements, such as the difference between the cultured, upper class characters (all of whom are interested in and appreciative of the new point of view Grant offers them) and the working class characters (who refuse to consider it at all). The narration by Derek Jacobi really made clear (quite in line with the tone of the text, really) how patronisingly working class characters are dealt with. Other elements, such as the personalised, even somewhat defferential care Grant gets in an NHS hospital (in which he stays for weeks on end for what's basically a broken leg!) are just as much of the time the book was written in (the 1950s), but charming, rather than infuriating.

5 - The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín: B+
review here

On the Man Booker shortlist. Mary of Nazareth reminisces about the events of her son's life. Short, but her ambivalence about what's going on, as well as the way the brutality of the crucifixion is brought to life, pack a punch. It's a fascinating perspective.

6 - Appointment With Death, by Agatha Christie: B
review coming soon

Audiobook. I chose this one as my next Christie because part of it is set in Jordan, including some really interesting scenes in Petra. That was great fun to read, as was the plot about the horrible, controlling matriarch, whose death is suspected to have been caused by someone in her family having had enough of her psychological torture.

7 - We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo: B-
review here

On the Man Booker shortlist. We follow the heroine from her childhood in Zimbabwe to her teenage years in the US. The first Zimbabwe-set part was good, but the second got really unfocused as the author just chucked in everything but the kitchen sink.

8 - The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri: B-
review here

On the Man Booker shortlist. The story of two brothers. One of them leaves Calcutta and settles in the US after completing his studies, the other becomes a revolutionary. I liked it, but it felt a bit too stretched and the really interesting themes at the beginning of the book then narrowed into something a lot less interesting.

9 - Stir Me Up, by Sabrina Elkins: B-
review coming soon

New Adult. The heroine is about to finish high school and is determined to become a chef, over her father's objections. The hero is a young veteran who had a leg blown off in the war, and is recovering at the heroine's house, as his aunt is her stepmother. I thought it started well, and I liked it, but I sort of gradually lost interest as the book progressed.

10 - Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell: Still listening
review coming soon

Audiobook. I've heard enough about this one to know it's supposed to be 6 different stories nestled within each other. So far I've had 3: a journal written by a 19th century man travelling in the South Pacific, letters detailing the escapades of a young English composer in 1920s Belgium and a noirish thriller set in the 1970s, starring a plucky reporter investigating a nuclear power station. I've enjoyed all of them in their own right (and knowing we return to each later made me feel ok about leaving them at quite key moments to move on to another), but in spite of some links (so far, each protagonist finds the previous story), I don't yet get why these stories have been put together in this book. I'm hoping this will become clearer.

11 - The Lotus Palace by Jeannie Lin: Still reading
review coming soon

I've actually only just started this one. I've been meaning to try one of Lin's China-set historicals for ages. So far, all I know is that the heroine is maidservant to a courtesan and the hero a client there. He seems like a bit of a wastrel so far, but I'm sure there'll be more to him.


November 2013 wish list

>> Thursday, October 31, 2013

A relatively modest month, but I'm very excited about a couple. November 5th looks like a particularly good day!

Books I'm definitely planning to get

Royal Airs, by Sharon Shinn (Nov 5)

I loved Troubled Waters, the first in the series. I especially loved the world Shinn had created, and felt very disappointed when it looked like it was going to be used for just the one book. Well, we’re back to Welce here, and I’m looking forward to visiting again.

The Luckiest Lady in London, by Sherry Thomas (Nov 5)

Thomas is an autobuy author for me, and this one has one of my favourite romance plots, the marriage of convenience. It sounds like a particularly interesting example of it, too.

Through The Evil Days, by Julia Spencer-Fleming (Nov 5)

I’m a bit behind with this mystery (but with strong romantic elements) series, but I loved the first books enough that I’ll just stockpile the later books. It’s one I’m confident I’ll catch up with.

Books that interest me and I'll keep an eye on

Don’t Want To Miss a Thing, by Jill Mansell (Nov 5)

I read one book by Mansell a while ago and liked it. It was gentle and comfortable, and that’s exactly what I want sometimes. I’ve been meaning to read her again.

Roman Holiday 1: Chained, by Ruthie Knox (Nov 11)

Ruthie Knox seems to be trying out some very novel formats in her latest books. Well, novel formats for romance, because the serialised novel has a long history. She’s previously done a serial on something called Wattpad, and Roman Holiday goes back to the format, only the different episodes will just be regular ebooks. It will apparently be 10 parts, each published a week apart (there are a couple more in November). Except, that is, that there will be a gap of “a few months” between the first 5 episodes and the last. I’ll be honest, although I’m interested in the story, but have no interest in reading it in serial form, especially with that long gap in the middle. I might buy now and wait till all bits are out, or just wait until (hopefully) the whole thing is published in one piece.

Yours To Keep, by Serena Bell (Nov 11)

The heroine is an undocumented immigrant, which is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in romance, and the author blogs at Wonkomance, which is always a good sign.


The Girl of Fire and Thorns, by Rae Carson

>> Monday, October 21, 2013

TITLE: The Girl of Fire and Thorns
AUTHOR: Rae Carson

PAGES: 448
PUBLISHER: Greenwillow

SETTING: Fantasy world
TYPE: Fantasy
SERIES: 1st in a trilogy

Once a century, one person is chosen for greatness.

Elisa is the chosen one. But she is also the younger of two princesses. The one who has never done anything remarkable, and can't see how she ever will.

Now, on her sixteenth birthday, she has become the secret wife of a handsome and worldly king--a king whose country is in turmoil. A king who needs her to be the chosen one, not a failure of a princess.

And he's not the only one who seeks her. Savage enemies, seething with dark magic, are hunting her. A daring, determined revolutionary thinks she could be his people's savior, and he looks at her in a way that no man has ever looked at her before. Soon it is not just her life, but her very heart that is at stake.

Elisa could be everything to those who need her most. If the prophecy is fulfilled. If she finds the power deep within herself. If she doesn't die young, as most of the chosen do.

First off, apologies if I get names wrong here, as I listened to the audiobook and there were some issues with the pronounciation of Spanish words. I checked a few things against summaries and reviews, but I might have missed some.

Princess Lucero Elisa of Orovalle is the bearer of a Godstone. The Godstone is a real, physical stone lodged in her belly button (which, writing it now, I realise sounds slightly ridiculous. Don't worry, it isn't), and is a mark from God that she's been chosen to do something great. What exactly that might be is a bit hazy to Elisa. Previous bearers she knows of have done all manner of heroic, great and more pedestrian good deeds. Many have lost their own lives in the process.

We meet Elisa when she's about to marry Alejandro, the king of the neighbouring country of Joya d’Arena. Elisa is 16, and although her Godstone marks her as very special (Bearers come along maybe once a century), she doesn't feel she is, especially next to her beautiful, clever sister, the heiress to the throne. Elisa is shy, overweight and awkward, more comfortable studying religious texts than dealing with the issues of government. When she hears she's about to get married to Alejandro, she wishes with all her heart for an ugly husband. Maybe that way she'll have a chance of a good marriage. No such luck, Alejandro is gorgeous.

We follow Elisa as she travels to her new home and faces many challenges. There's the fact that Alejandro decides to keep their marriage a secret "for now", and courtiers aren't kind to an unattractive, scared girl of apparently little importance. But there's also danger to Elissa's very life, and the harrowing challenges she ends up having to face also give her the chance to come into her own.

I have to thank Jane from Dear Author from making me aware of this series. I'm not a huge YA reader, so I might easily have overlooked this hugely enjoyable book without her review. It was a really satisfying read, one with a character who undergoes a big change which is also believable. I particularly liked what Carson did with the issue of Elisa's weight and her relationship with food. She does lose weight, but it's not about being prettier, but about being fitter. The emphasis is on the change in her character. She becomes tougher and firmer in character as her body does the same (and the difficult conditions and exhausting adventures that she has to go through cause both). Neither the weight nor her fear melt away easily, it's tough, and she earns both every single pound that goes off and every bit of leadership skills.

I also liked how Carson used Elisa's perception of food to show she's still the same character, one who really appreciates good food. There's one particular scene that was very telling. Elisa is in an incredible dangerous situation, captive and about to be tortured, when her captor offers her some food. And Elisa can't help but take the time to notice that the meatball she's being offered is not just "a meatball", but venison flavoured with garlic and herbs. That was so Elisa!

Additionally, the perception of her physical changes by other characters were a really good way of emphasising which of them were worthy, especially the male characters. Having the ones who are worth Elisa's time being able to see beyond her looks is a bit of an obvious thing to do, but I've read so many "makeover"-type books where the heroine's change causes the hero to look at her differently that I particularly appreciated this.

I liked pretty much everything about this. Elisa was great, but so were the myriad secondary characters, all of whom were well-drawn and felt like individuals, with their own concerns outside of our protagonists. The romance element was surprising and served the story, and I thought turned out exactly as it should have (don't go into this book expecting a romance novel, though; that's not what this is about). I also mostly liked the Medieval Spain-inspired setting. It didn't feel particularly fresh (all of it felt very based on existing things: places and religions, for instance), but it was detailed and made sense. The only thing there that didn't quite convince me was the language, which was a sort of bastardised Spanish, but bastardised in a way that didn't completely make sense. I could put up with it ok, althought things like having female names being given to prominent male characters (Belén and, FFS, Rosario) tried my patience.

Still, minor annoyances didn't detract from this at all. I can't wait to read the rest of the trilogy. There is good closure here (no cliff-hanger endings, don't worry), but at the same time, plenty of territory that could be explored, and I shall join Carson when she does that.


AUDIOBOOK NOTE: The narration was fine, with the voice and tone sounding exactly how I'd expect Elisa to sound. My only complaint is that the narrator, Jennifer Ikeda, kind of butchered some of the Spanish pronounciation. For instance, for quite a long time, I assumed Joya d'Arena was actually Joya de Reina, because that's what it sounded like when she read it. It was annoying, but only mildly so.


Calculated in Death, by JD Robb

>> Saturday, October 19, 2013

TITLE: Calculated in Death

PAGES: 416

SETTING: Futuristic: 2060 New York
TYPE: Police procedural & Romance
SERIES: By my count, 38th full-length title in the In Death series

On Manhattan's Upper East Side a woman lies dead at the bottom of the stairs, stripped of all her valuables. Most cops might call it a mugging gone wrong, but Lieutenant Eve Dallas knows better.

A well-off accountant and a beloved wife and mother, Marta Dickenson doesn’t seem the type to be on anyone's hit list. But when Eve and her partner, Peabody, find blood inside the building, the lieutenant knows Marta's murder was the work of a killer who's trained, but not professional or smart enough to remove all the evidence.

But when someone steals the files out of Marta's office, Eve must immerse herself in her billionaire husband Roarke's world of big business to figure out who's cruel and callous enough to hire a hit on an innocent woman. And as the killer's violent streak begins to escalate, Eve knows she has to draw him out, even if it means using herself as bait...

It's been a while since I've been truly excited by a new In Death, but they're dependably enjoyable comfort reads, and that's exactly what this new installment turned out to be.

When the body of accountant Marta Dickenson is found at the bottom of the stairs of a building in renovation, Eve and her team immediately know it's not the mugging gone wrong that it appears to be. It looks like a hit to them, but one performed by a not particularly professional hitman. Evidence points towards the reasons for the murder being somehow related to the Marta's work, so there we go, perfect opportunity to involve Roarke!

The case is more interesting than it sounds. Going through an accountant's workload could be a bit (well, a lot) mind-numbing, but Robb keeps it interesting by focusing on the people and personalities involved as much as on the business dealings they're involved in. I ended up really enjoying the investigation, even if I did think the ramp-up in violence at the end was unnecessary. I think the original case alone was strong enough to stand on its own.

I particularly appreciated that there was a very real sense of tragedy here. Marta never becomes just "the victim". She was a real person, and it's clear her death is felt as a huge blow by the people who knew and loved her. I came close to tears quite a few times.

The "personal" side of this book was nothing huge, but it was still interesting, and showcases the many ways in which Eve has changed over the series. The premiere of the Icove film that has been rumbling on for several films is coming up, and though Eve is not at all excited about going, she's a lot more chilled out and relaxed about doing so than she would have been at the start of the series. I also liked that through the case, she got a little bit of a better sense of what Roarke's everyday life is about. And as in previous books, we got to see more of Eve the manager and leader at work, advising Trueheart of career development. Again, it sounds boring, but when you know the characters involved as well as longtime readers of the series do, it's not.



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