August 2013 wish list

>> Wednesday, July 31, 2013

August is looking pretty good, with a couple of my favourite authors releasing much-anticipated books.

Will definitely read

Guardian Demon, by Meljean Brook (Aug 6)

My most anticipated book of the last few years. It technically shouldn’t be here, since I’ve already read it (I loved it, the review will be up right after the release date). I couldn’t leave it out, though.

Here Without You, by Tammara Webber (Aug 6)

Here Without You continues the story in a book I really liked, Good For You. This was originally amongst the books below, those I wanted to read a few reviews for before I made up my mind, since some of what is in the blurb made me fear Webber was going to take their supposed HEA in a direction I didn't want to see. However, Jane from Dear Author has assuaged some of those fears, so I'm definitely reading it.

Deception Cove, by Jayne Castle (Aug 27)

JAK's books have ranged from blah to good-ish for the last few years, but I still haven't managed to cut the cord. Also, it might be wishful thinking, but the past couple of books have seemed to be getting better on the romance side and not putting so much emphasis on the tedious paranormal aspects.

The Arrangement, by Mary Balogh (Aug 27)

Balogh has been on my autobuy list forever, and I liked the first book in the series. I'm hoping she's been cured of her extreme seriesitis, though.

Into The Light, by Meljean Brook (possibly Aug 30)

This is a novella in the Guardian series. In the page I link to above, Brook explains that it is basically a subplot she had to cut out of Guardian Demon when it got too long. I love that this is coming out, as much as I adored GD, it made me really sad to think there'd be no more Guardians books.

Books I'm interested in. Will keep an eye out for reviews

The Double Cross by Carla Kelly (Aug 1)

I love Carla Kelly’s writing, and the history in this one sounds fascinating, but I want to see whether it’s an inspirational before I decide to buy.

Omens, by Kelley Armstrong (Aug 20)

I read and enjoyed several of Armstrong's Otherworld books. This one seems to be a new series, and I'm not sure whether it's paranormal or not. Either way, it sounds interesting. I'm intrigued by the setup of the heroine investigating an old murder, one that her birth parents are supposed to have committed.

The Lotus Palace, by Jeannie Lin (Aug 27)

I've been meaning to try Jeannie Lin for a while, and I really like the sound of both the setting and the plot. The author's note (which you can see on the amazon page) sold me on it.


Untouched, by Kresley Cole

>> Saturday, July 27, 2013

TITLE: Untouched
AUTHOR: Kresley Cole

PAGES: 280 (70K words)

SETTING: Contemporary / Fantasy
TYPE: Paranormal romance
SERIES: 8th in the Immortals After Dark series

KRESLEY COLE delivers a breathtaking tale of a brutal vampire soldier about to know love for the first time...and a Valkyrie aching to be touched.

Murdoch Wroth will stop at nothing to claim Daniela the Ice Maiden -- the delicate Valkyrie who makes his heart beat for the first time in three hundred years. Yet the exquisite Danii is part ice fey, and her freezing skin can't be touched by anyone but her own kind without inflicting pain beyond measure. Soon desperate for closeness, in an agony of frustration, Murdoch and Danii will do anything to have each other. Together, can they find the key that will finally allow them to slake the overwhelming desire burning between them?
Untouched is a slightly shorter than usual entry in Kresley Cole's Immortals Afer Dark series (it was published in a book called Deep Kiss of Winter, together with a short story by Gena Showalter). It tells the story of the 4th Wroth brother, Murdoch.

The Wroths were an Estonian (IIRC) family who were turned into vampires in the Middle Ages, and the turning was more unwilling for some than for others. The stories of 3 of the 4 surviving brothers were told in earlier books in the series, and Untouched covers all that territory again, but showing it all from Murdoch's POV, and including what's going on in his life.

Murdoch is in New Orleans with his brother Nikolai (from the novella which starts the whole series, called The Warlord Wants Forever), who's chasing his Bride (in this universe, vampires have fated mates called Brides and are basically eunuchs until they meet them and are 'blooded'). Murdoch has seen the torment that being blooded but not being able to be with his Bride has been for Nikolai, so he's not amused when he's blooded himself, as he helps a pale young woman under attack.

But it gets worse: his Bride is Daniela the Ice Maiden, part Valkyrie, part Icere. The Valkyrie bit is bad enough, since they're not too fond of vampires, but the Icere, or ice fey bit means that any touch from a non-icy being is agonisingly painful for Daniela. The story is all about how Daniela and Murdoch can make things work.

This all takes place over quite a long period, which gives it a bit of a weird feel. We're constantly being caught up with what's going on outside, which basically means the first 7 books in the series, so quite a lot of territory. We're constantly being told "oh, this has happened", which sort of made sense to me because I've read the books, but even then, it's been over a long period, so I don't remember all the details. I can only imagine how puzzling this would be to someone who hasn't read them. Plus, it's poorly done, with no attempt to integrate it into the story. It's all: 'so this is what Murdoch has been doing while he's away from Daniela'. Didn't work for me at all.

To be honest, neither did the romance. I didn't see any connection between Daniela and Murdoch, and although I liked the way Cole resolved their big problem, it was too little, too late. Not great.



Man Booker prize 2013

>> Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The longlist for the 2013 Man Booker Prize was announced yesterday. In the past few years, I've found quite a few excellent reads amongst the listed books. Last year I decided to read all the books on the shortlist, so that I could have an informed opinion about who should win. I didn't finish them all, as a few really didn't work for me, but I read enough that I got a sense of them. Here's my post about it. I loved doing this, and as a result, I enjoyed following the prize much more than usual.

I'm planning to do the same this year. It will be difficult, as quite almost half of the longlisted books aren't out yet (and 3 of them won't come out until after the shortlist is announced on September 11). Still, I'll do my best to get them read, or at least started, by the time the winner is announced on October 16.

Here is the list and summaries, ordered by how badly I want to read them, purely based on blurbs and early reviews.

Extremely interested, would probably start with these

The Luminaries Eleanor Catton (published Sep 5)

It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes. A wealthy man has vanished, a whore has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky. The Luminaries is an extraordinary piece of fiction. It is full of narrative, linguistic and psychological pleasures, and has a fiendishly clever and original structuring device. Written in pitch-perfect historical register, richly evoking a mid-19th century world of shipping and banking and goldrush boom and bust, it is also a ghost story, and a gripping mystery. It is a thrilling achievement for someone still in her mid-20s, and will confirm for critics and readers that Catton is one of the brightest stars in the international writing firmament.

The Kills, by Richard House

Camp Liberty is an unmanned staging-post in Amrah province, Iraq; the place where the detritus of the war is buried, incinerated, removed from memory. Until, suddenly, plans are announced to transform it into the largest military base in the country, codenamed the Massive, with a post-war strategy to convert the site for civilian use.

Contracted by HOSCO, the insidious company responsible for overseeing the Massive, Rem Gunnerson finds himself unwittingly commanding a disparate group of economic mercenaries at Camp Liberty when the mysterious Stephen Lawrence Sutler arrives. As the men are played against each other by HOSCO the situation grows increasingly tense. And then everything changes. An explosion. An attack on a regional government office. When the dust settles it emerges that Sutler has disappeared, and over fifty million dollars of reconstruction funds are missing.

Sutler finds himself accused and on the run. Gunnerson and his men want revenge for months of abuse and misinformation. Out of the chaos a man named Paul Geezler rises to restore order, a man more involved than he’s willing to admit.

And then there’s the vicious murder of an American student in Italy. A murder that replicates exactly the details of a well-known novel.

Intrigued, sound like something I might like

Five Star Billionaire, by Tash Aw

Phoebe has come to China buoyed with hope, but her dreams are shattered as the job she was promised seems never to have existed. Gary is a successful pop star, but his fans disappear after a bar-room brawl. Yinghui was once a poetry-loving activist and is not sure how she became a wealthy businesswoman. Justin works hard for his powerful family, but begins to wonder if his efforts are appreciated. And then there is the Five Star Billionaire himself, pulling the strings of destiny, his lessons for success unsettling the dynamics of these disparate lives.

Harvest, by Jim Crace

As late summer steals in and the final pearls of barley are gleaned, a village comes under threat. A trio of outsiders – two men and a dangerously magnetic woman – arrives on the woodland borders and puts up a make-shift camp. That same night, the local manor house is set on fire.

Over the course of seven days, Walter Thirsk sees his hamlet unmade: the harvest blackened by smoke and fear, the new arrivals cruelly punished, and his neighbours held captive on suspicion of witchcraft. But something even darker is at the heart of his story, and he will be the only man left to tell it...

The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, by Eve Harris (published Sep 19)

19 year-old Chani lives in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community of North West London. She has never had physical contact with a man, but is bound to marry a stranger. The rabbi’s wife teaches her what it means to be a Jewish wife, but Rivka has her own questions to answer. Soon buried secrets, fear and sexual desire bubble to the surface in a story of liberation and choice; not to mention what happens on the wedding night...

The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri (published Sep 26)

From Subhash’s earliest memories, at every point, his brother was there. In the suburban streets of Calcutta where they wandered before dusk and in the hyacinth-strewn ponds where they played for hours on end, Udayan was always in his older brother’s sight.

So close in age, they were inseparable in childhood and yet, as the years pass – as U.S tanks roll into Vietnam and riots sweep across India – their brotherly bond can do nothing to forestall the tragedy that will upend their lives. Udayan – charismatic and impulsive – finds himself drawn to the Naxalite movement, a rebellion waged to eradicate inequity and poverty. He will give everything, risk all, for what he believes, and in doing so will transform the futures of those dearest to him: his newly married, pregnant wife, his brother and their parents. For all of them, the repercussions of his actions will reverberate across continents and seep through the generations that follow.

Unexploded, by Alison MacLeod (published Sep 5)

May 1940, Brighton. On Park Crescent, Geoffrey and Evelyn Beaumont and their eight-year-old son, Philip, anxiously await news of the expected enemy landing on their beaches.

It is a year of tension and change. Geoffrey becomes Superintendent of the enemy alien camp at the far reaches of town, while Philip is gripped by the rumour that Hitler will make Brighton's Royal Pavilion his English HQ.

As the rumours continue to fly and the days tick on, Evelyn struggles to fall in with the war effort and the constraints of her role in life, and her thoughts become tinged with a mounting, indefinable desperation.

Then she meets Otto Gottlieb, a 'degenerate' German-Jewish painter and prisoner in her husband's internment camp. As Europe crumbles, Evelyn's and Otto's mutual distrust slowly begins to change into something else,

which will shatter the structures on which her life, her family and her community rest. Love collides with fear, the power of art with the forces of war, and the lives of Evelyn, Otto and Geoffrey are changed irrevocably.

A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

Ruth discovers a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the shore of her beach home. Within it lies a diary that expresses the hopes and dreams of a young girl. She suspects it might have arrived on a drift of debris from the 2011 tsunami. With every turn of the page, she is sucked deeper into an enchanting mystery.

In a small cafe in Tokyo, 16-year-old Nao Yasutani is navigating the challenges thrown up by modern life. In the face of cyberbullying, the mysteries of a 104-year-old Buddhist nun and great-grandmother, and the joy and heartbreak of family, Nao is trying to find her own place - and voice - through a diary she hopes will find a reader and friend who finally understands her.

Hmmm, let's see

We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo

Darling and her friends live in a shanty called Paradise, which of course is no such thing. It isn't all bad, though. There's mischief and adventure, games of Find bin Laden, stealing guavas, singing Lady Gaga at the tops of their voices. They dream of the paradises of America, Dubai, Europe, where Madonna and Barack Obama and David Beckham live.

For Darling, that dream will come true. But, like the thousands of people all over the world trying to forge new lives far from home, Darling finds this new paradise brings its own set of challenges - for her and also for those she's left behind.

Almost English, by Charlotte Mendelson (published Aug 15)

In a tiny flat in West London, sixteen-year-old Marina lives with her emotionally-delicate mother, Laura, and three ancient Hungarian relatives. Imprisoned by her family’s crushing expectations and their fierce unEnglish pride, by their strange traditions and stranger foods, she knows she must escape. But the place she runs to makes her feel even more of an outsider.

At Combe Abbey, a traditional English public school for which her family have sacrificed everything, Marina realises she has made a terrible mistake. She is the awkward half-foreign girl who doesn't know how to fit in, flirt or even be. And as a semi-Hungarian Londoner, who is she? In the meantime, her mother, Laura - an alien in this strange universe -, has her own painful secrets to deal with, especially the return of the last man she’d expect back in her life. She isn’t noticing that, at Combe Abbey, things are starting to go terribly wrong.

The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín

In a voice that is both tender and filled with rage, The Testament of Mary tells the story of a cataclysmic event which led to an overpowering grief. For Mary, her son has been lost to the world, and now, living in exile and in fear, she tries to piece together the memories of the events that led to her son's brutal death.

To her he was a vulnerable figure, surrounded by men who could not be trusted, living in a time of turmoil and change. As her life and her suffering begin to acquire the resonance of myth, Mary struggles to break the silence surrounding what she knows to have happened. In her effort to tell the truth in all its gnarled complexity, she slowly emerges as a figure of immense moral stature as well as a woman from history rendered now as fully human.

The Spinning Heart, by Donal Ryan (published Oct 11)

In the aftermath of Ireland’s financial collapse, dangerous tensions surface in an Irish town. As violence flares, the characters face a battle between public persona and inner desires. Through a chorus of unique voices, each struggling to tell their own kind of truth, a single authentic tale unfolds.

Not particularly tempted

TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann

TransAtlantic tells the story of four generations of women. Spanning the onset of the Irish potato famine in 1845, the American Civil War and the more recent troubles in Northern Ireland, it is an epic and engrossing story of slavery, poverty, struggle and survival.

1919. Emily Ehrlich watches as two young airmen, Alcock and Brown, emerge from the carnage of World War One to pilot the very first non-stop transatlantic flight from Newfoundland to the west of Ireland. Among the mail being carried on the aircraft is a letter which Emily’s mother, Lily, wrote when she first left Ireland in 1845. The letter will not be opened for almost one hundred years.

1845. Lily Duggans is just seventeen years old and living as a maid when Frederick Douglass, a black American slave, lands in Ireland to champion ideas of democracy and freedom, only to find a famine unfurling at his feet. On his travels he inspires Lily to go to New York and embrace a free world, but the land does not always fulfill its promises for her. From the violent battlefields of the Civil War to the ice lakes of northern Missouri, it is her youngest daughter Emily who eventually finds her way back to Ireland.

1998. Senator George Mitchell criss-crosses the ocean in search of an elusive Irish peace. How many more bereaved mothers must he meet before an agreement can be reached?

Can we cross from the new world to the old? How does the past shape the future? In TRANSATLANTIC, Colum McCann has achieved an outstanding act of literary bravura. Intricately crafted, poetic and deeply affecting it weaves together personal stories to explore the fine line between what is real and what is imagined, and the tangled skein of connections that make up our lives.


Architects and serial killers and a supernatural dating agency

>> Tuesday, July 23, 2013

TITLE: The Devil in the White City
AUTHOR: Erik Larson

Devil In The White City tells the story of the 1893 Chicago World Fair and of two men: the architect who built it, Daniel Burnham, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who operated in the city at the time of the Fair.
Larson is excellent at painting a picture of what life in Chicago would have been like at the time, and I found myself fascinated by that. The action moves between Burnham and his titanic efforts in organising and building the Fair and Holmes and his gruesome activities, and both were interesting characters. However, I struggled to see the connections, other than being present in the same time and place. It felt more like two independent stories chopped into pieces and mixed up.

MY GRADE: A B-. I enjoyed it, but wasn't crazy about it.

AUDIOBOOK NOTES: The narration is ok, but I think listening to the audiobook exacerbated the slow pace. There were also a few things that didn't lend themselves well to narration, such as a long menu of what was served at a particular celebratory dinner, which in written format would have made the desired point about the lavishness and abundance of the food without the need to be read in detail. Unfortunately for the narrator, there was nothing to do but just read the whole thing!

TITLE: Beauty Dates The Beast
AUTHOR: Jessica Sims

Beauty Dates The Beast is set in a world where humans and all sorts of paranormal creatures coexist. The heroine, Bathsheba, is a regular human who works for a dating agency for supernaturals, even though that puts her and her sister in close contact with them. This is a risk, as her sister is a shifter herself, and really doesn't want other shifters to know and force her into their packs. Beau, a cougar-shifter, is one of their new clients, and when his first arranged date cancels, Bathsheba panics. Her boss is going to kill her, she thinks, so when Beau proposes she replace his date, she accepts.

This was a bit of a mess. I didn't click with the voice or the supposed humour at all. To me, the situations weren't hilarious or lighthearted, they were stupid and juvenile. Bathsheba and her sister didn't have a brain to share between them (see, among many other idiotic decisions, their job at exactly the right place where the sister would be most at risk), and Beau was smarmy and a borderline psychopath. I read almost half of this, but it took me over a week, and I couldn’t be bothered to continue.



After Hours, by Cara McKenna

>> Friday, July 19, 2013

TITLE: After Hours
AUTHOR: Cara McKenna

PAGES: 281

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Erotic Romance

A dangerous infatuation with a rough and ready man...

Erin Coffey has been a nurse for years, but nothing’s prepared her for the physical and emotional demands of her new position. Needing to move closer to her dysfunctional family, she takes a dangerous job at Larkhaven Psychiatric Hospital, where she quickly learns that she needs protection—and she meets the strong, over-confident coworker who’s more than willing to provide it.

Kelly Robak is the type of guy that Erin has sworn she’d never get involved with. She’s seen firsthand, via her mess of a sister, what chaos guys like him can bring into a woman’s life. But she finds herself drawn to him anyway, even when he shows up at her door, not eager to take no for an answer.

What Erin finds even more shocking than Kelly’s indecent proposal is how much she enjoys submitting to his every command. But he can’t play the tough guy indefinitely. If they want to have more than just an affair, both will have to open up and reveal what they truly need.
Initially, I was very reluctant to read this book. Although a lot of the things people said about it sounded amazing, there were many people who were positively squeeing about how the hero is really bossy, and ohh, this is so sexy. This is obviously something that's a turn-on for some readers, but it isn't one for me. In fact, it's a huge, massive turn-off. My default reaction to hero bossiness (or any BDSM element, in general, where the man is the dominant partner) is to mentally urge the heroine to run far, far away, or at least to dig her heels in and resist, and not let the hero tell her what to do. It makes me pissy. The reason I'm going a bit TMI into my own personal turn-ons and turn-offs is because I don't want people who might feel the way I do to be put off reading this. Because, you see, the way it is done, with thoughtfulness and sensitivity, meant that I was absolutely fine with it. Yes, it did make me a little bit squirmy a couple of times, but I loved Erin and Kelly's relationship, and wouldn't change one thing about it. So please, don't let that element put you off if this book otherwise intrigues you.

Ok, let's backtrack a bit. After Hours is narrated by Erin Coffey, a young woman starting a new post as a psychiatric nurse. Although Erin has nursing experience, it was all as part of being a carer for her grandmother, so this is her first formal job. It's not an easy one. Erin will be working in a ward with men who often suffer from violent psychotic episodes. Not only that, the job is in a new city, where she has moved in order to be closer to her nephew and make sure he's ok with her fuck-up of a sister. So understandably, Erin is feeling a bit uncertain and off-balance.

From her first day at the hospital, Erin can't help but notice one of the orderlies, a huge, rough-looking man who practically exudes an air of confidence and calm and goes by the incongrously female name of Kelly. Kelly's attention is also drawn by Erin, and although she finds him scary and intimidating, the fact that he's wearing what she thinks is a wedding ring calms her down, and she accepts his offer of a friendly drink. This is clearly a man who knows what he's doing at work, and she needs all the help she can get. Kelly does provide that help, but after a while, he makes it clear to Erin that no, that isn't a wedding ring, and he's very attracted to her. He offers her a weekend of full-on sex, where he makes it clear he'll be in complete control, and in return, she'll get the best sex of her life. Actually, he doesn't just toss it out as a possibility, he pushes for it, in an aggressive way that to me, bordered on creepy.

At that point, my inside voice was kind of going "run away, run away, Erin", but the thing is, so was Erin's. The way McKenna writes her thought processes when she decides to accept Kelly's proposal convinced me completely. She doesn't have that hated (by me, at least) romance novel staple: the 'traitorous body'. Yes, Kelly makes her go weak in the knees, but she is perfectly capable of saying no, thank you very much. The thing is, she recognises the rarity of the chemistry between her and Kelly. She realises that if they get together, the sex will be truly phenomenal, and that's nothing to sneeze at. It's certainly nothing she's ever had before (she's not a virgin, she's just had ok lovers), and she suspects she might not ever have the chance again. So, once she gets to know Kelly a bit and starts to get an inkling of who he is, and that he's basically a good guy, there's no reason not to grab that chance with both hands. She's not convinced about his 'I'll be in control' thing, but she very rationally decides to try it out. She knows that if at any point she doesn't like it, she can just up and go. She's not pushed into it by Kelly's aggressiveness, she accepts in spite of it.

Erin doesn't up and leave during that weekend, and as I read what happens next that protesting voice in my head calmed down. In addition to the thoughtful writing, the reason this worked for me when I stay far, far away from BDSM, is that this isn't even close to heavy-duty, lifestyle-choice BDSM. As Jackie, from Romance Novels for Feminists put it in her review (which was what finally gave me the push to read this), "...his be-my-bed-slave thing struck me as a special-occasion deal, not his baseline sexual MO." Quite.

McKenna is excellent when exploring the theme of how a feminist character such as Erin can be with a man like Kelly and still not compromise her feminism in any way (Jackie, in the link in the previous paragraph, has an excellent and much more detailed analysis of this element). One of the reasons Erin's freaked out by the strength (hell, even the existence) of her attraction to Kelly is that he initially seems to her like the sort of complete and utter asshole her sister and mother have always gone for. An aggressive, sexist bully, in short. We see one such character here, but even without his presence to illustrate, I think I would have completely got what McKenna is saying. Kelly is nothing like that. He doesn't want to tear Erin down. He wants to be there for her to occasionally lean on while she stands on her own two feet, and that makes all the difference.

Erin and Kelly are among the best and most fully-realised characters I've ever read. As I read, I kept thinking "These are people like me." The interesting thing is that their circumstances and experiences are nothing like mine. Kelly and Erin don't make much money (in fact, as the book starts, Erin is underweight because while she was caring for her grandmother, she was living on what she describes as "the Social Security diet", something she says just in passing but which hit me right in the gut), work in physically and mentally draining jobs and live in quite a deprived area of the US. I share not one of those things. In fact, my experiences have been completely the opposite. And yet, I still thought "these are people like me". I think what it is is that they feel real and like they live in the real world, which is just not the case in most novels. So I was missing a comma: "These are people, like me".

I think this feeling of reality was helped by the normality with which the setting was written. Erin and Kelly live and work in a very impoverished town, one with few services or cultural amenities. But this is not used as a plot point. I kept half-expecting it to be, for Erin to witness a drug deal gone wrong, or something like that, and I don't know if that says worse things about my assumptions about impoverished areas or about how romance novelists have treated them in the past. But no, this is just where they live, just as so many people do. And that's exactly what McKenna did with their job at the hospital. Things happen there, but not big plotty things. It's everyday things, like having good and bad days, or opportunities for further professional development coming up. Reality, again.

And by the way, I don't know how correct the description of what Erin and Kelly's job entails is, but if it's even half right, I'm in awe of the real people who do it. Work this valuable to society should be a lot better paid, and it angers me that in every country I've lived it, it isn't valued the way it should be.

Finally, I have to say, I thought the writing was amazing. McKenna has a knack for coming up with images and similes that feel fresh and original and perfect. For instance:

Kelly and I had basically spent all of Thursday and Friday in one long, carnal conversation. No wonder my body felt hoarse.
'You need something to sleep in?' he asked, answering my unspoken question and filling me to the brim with a weird, giddy energy, like I was suddenly made of kittens."
(Ok, that last one is right on the line between great and WTF, but I can totally, viscerally feel what being 'made of kittens' means, so to me, it's definitely great).

This is a fantastic, wonderful book. I've racked my brain trying to think if there were any negatives here, and all I can come up with is that McKenna overuses the word "smirk". Kelly smirks a bit too often. That's it.



The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie

>> Wednesday, July 17, 2013

TITLE: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
AUTHOR: Agatha Christie

PAGES: 304
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: 1920s England
TYPE: Mystery

Considered to be one of Agatha Christie's most controversial mysteries, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd breaks all the rules of traditional mystery writing.

The peaceful English village of King’s Abbot is stunned. First, the attractive widows Ferrars dies from an overdose of veronal. Not twenty-four house later, Roger Ackroyd—the man she had planned to marry—is murdered. It is a baffling, complex case involving blackmail, suicide, and violent death, a cast that taxes Hercule Poirot’s “little grey cells” before he reaches one of the most startling conclusions of his fabled career.
For my July book club, someone suggested reading an Agatha Christie. Turns out almost none of the mostly British other members had read her before, so it felt to me, the foreigner amongst them, to suggest the title. It was a hard choice. Definitely a Miss Marple or a Poirot, but which? Poirot, I thought, slightly edges out Miss Marple as being the quintessential Agatha Christie detective (although some of you may not agree!). I also wanted one that showed her plotting at its best, so maybe one of her really surprising ones, the ones that leave you reeling at the end and wanting to go straight back to the beginning to see how she did it? The 3 that came to mind were And Then There Were None, Murder On The Orient Express and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The former I discarded for being more a thriller than a mystery, and not having Poirot (or any of her other detectives, for that matter) in it. Of the other two, Roger Ackroyd edged it, just because its English village setting and its plot are more typical Christie.

Although this is only Christie's 4th full-length Poirot novel, we find him here in his retirement and incognito. Our narrator is the local doctor in the village of King's Abbott, Dr. Sheppherd, who, along with the rest of the village, is intrigued by the eccentric Frenchman who's bought the house next door and spends his time growing vegetable marrows. Clearly a retired hairdresser, they all think; no other possible explanation for that luxuriant moustache!

And then the richest man in the village, Roger Ackroyd, is murdered. All evidence seems to point towards Ackroyd's feckless stepson and the police seem convinced, so the young man's fiancée (Ackroyd's niece) asks Poirot for help. He has no end of suspects and motives to consider. There's all of Ackroyd's lovely money, for starters, but there was also a blackmailer in operation in the village. We know from the start that Mrs. Ferrars, whom Ackroyd was intending to marry, killed herself recently because she was being blackmailed, and wrote to Ackroyd revealing who was behind it. Did the culprit kill Ackroyd to silence him?

There's loads of characters behaving suspiciously for what turn out to be perfectly good reasons, giving Poirot plenty of leads to follow and unravel. The characters are also well-drawn and distinct, and I found them fascinating. I particularly liked Christie's portrayal of Dr. Sheppherd's sister, Caroline, the town gossip. Christie makes it clear that this is a woman with a brilliant organisational mind, and the fact that the strictures of her age and class determined that she became the town gossip, rather than, say, the country's head of itelligence, was tragic.

The twists and turns are really good, and Poirot's investigation is classic. Not a minute's rest for his little grey cells, and his deductions are startling, if perfectly well-based. But all this would result merely in a good, solid read, if it weren't for the solution, which was a famous shocker at the time, and left many readers crying foul. I hadn't reread the book for years, but I remembered how things turned out very well, and it was great to read it with that in mind. Christie peppers the book with little nods and clues, and she does it so cleverly that I honestly think there's no way you could call her twist unfair.

It's all a bit overcomplicated, yes, but that's the case with many mysteries of the time, especially hers. It's always hard to believe that what's often a first-time murderer would come up with a fiendishly complex plot, where all sorts of things could go wrong. It's the genre convention, though, so I accept it, even if it does slightly lower my grade from an A.

On the whole, this was a great one, and I can't wait to see what people thought.

MY GRADE: A very solid B+:

AUDIOBOOK NOTES: This one was read by Robin Bailey, who was great. Probably my favourite Poirot so far. He doesn't ham it up too much, but still makes Poirot his flamboyant self. Still, maybe the fact that I liked this so much is down to the book not containing any other foreigners or working class characters, as it's the voices done for these which too often annoy me.


The Blood Detective, by Dan Waddell

>> Monday, July 15, 2013

TITLE: The Blood Detective
AUTHOR: Dan Waddell

PAGES: 304
PUBLISHER: Minotaur Books

SETTING: Contemporary London
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: 1st in the Nigel Barnes series

When the naked, mutilated body of a man is found in a Notting Hill graveyard and the police investigation led by Detective Chief Inspector Grant Foster and his colleague Detective Superintendent Heather Jenkins yields few results, a closer look at the corpse reveals that what looked at first glance like superficial knife wounds on the victim’s chest is actually a string of carved letters and numbers, an index number referring to a file in city archives containing birth and death certificates and marriage licenses. Family historian Nigel Barnes is put on the case.

As one after another victim is found in various locations all over London, each with a different mutilation but the same index number carved into their skin, Barnes and the police work frantically to figure out how the corresponding files are connected. With no clues to be found in the present, Barnes must now search the archives of the past to solve the mystery behind a string of 100-year-old murders. Only then will it be possible to stop the present series of gruesome killings, but will they be able to do so before the killer ensnares his next victim? Barnes, Foster, and Jenkins enter a race against time – and before the end of the investigation, one of them will get much too close for comfort.
When you've got a handless body to investigate, you might be tempted not too pay too much attention to some superficial scratches on the torso. DCI Grant Foster, however, is more perceptive than most, and he notices that the scratches form letters and numbers. What do they mean, though? He's stumped, but they look familiar to his colleage, DS Heather Jenkins. Heather's mother recently investigated their family history, and the carved characters remind her of the index references which so flummoxed her mother. Heather remembers that her mother ended up hiring a family historian to help her in the search, and they decide to contact him to see if the letters and numbers mean anything to him.

To genealogist Nigel Barnes, they certainly do. Heather's right, they are, indeed, an index number, and by following that clue, Nigel finds a string of murders which took place in the 19th century. As bodies start piling up and the police find no clues, the events of over 100 years later provide them with the only way to find the killer.

This was a wonderful surprise. It was something I picked up at random in the library, while having a nosey round the audiobook section, so I didn't have any particular expectations for it. But as soon as I started it, I couldn't stop listening.

I was absolutely fascinated by the case, both the facts of it (sorry to be a cliché, but having serial killers and an historical connection ticks all my boxes), and the process of the investigation. The pacing of the successive revelations was flawless, always just enough to keep the booking ticking along nicely and keep me desperate to turn the pages. The police elements were well done and nicely logical, but it was the genealogical part of the investigation that took this from good to great. I really had no idea of the complexity of what that sort of thing involves, and I loved it. There's a lot of detail, which might have been tedious, but it was never boring to me, not for a minute. And remember, I was listening to the audiobook, which can make even the slightly too-detailed feel like death (some of Kathy Reichs' books come to mind, where the forensic detail is bearable when read and sort of skimmed over, but grindingly dull when listened to word by word).

But it wasn't just good plotting; the characters were great, really well-drawn and interesting, with more depths than I expected. I thought at first that Foster was going to be simply an unreconstructed caveman, what with all the moaning about Heather's concern with human rights at the beginning of the book, but there was a lot more to him, from his relationship with his father to his almost-idealistic commitment to justice, and he ended up a much more nuanced character than I expected. Nigel and Heather are also interesting, but with them, it seems like we only got enough to be intrigued and want more, and that we'll see a bit more character development later.

I also enjoyed the London setting. The action takes place in the area round Notting Hill, and the book made the point very well that even in today's giant metropolis, there are still local villages in there, with their own local history and character.

Only an excessively graphic scene kept this from an A grade. The crimes that the police are investigating do have pretty horrific violence, but that all happens off-screen. Seeing it happen on-screen was a bit too much, I thought. But that's the only flaw, and if you're not listening to the audiobook you'll be able to skim, so it won't be too bad.

There is, unfortunately, only one more book in this series, published over 4 years ago (although Waddell has another one published under a pseudonym and set on the Titanic, which I'm planning to read). I had a look at his blog and he mentions the publisher isn't interested in more (boo! to that publisher), but that he's considering self-publishing. I really, really hope he decides to go with it. I can't think of how he'll manage to incorporate genealogy in a natural way (as he did here) to other cases, but I'd love to find out.

MY GRADE: A very strong, solid B+.

AUDIOBOOK NOTES: The audiobook is narrated by Colin Mace, in a competent, enjoyable manner. I wasn't 100% convinced by Heather's Lancashire accent, but that wasn't a big deal. I'd recommend it.


Any Duchess Will Do, by Tessa Dare

>> Saturday, July 13, 2013

TITLE: Any Duchess Will Do
AUTHOR: Tessa Dare

PAGES: 384

SETTING: Early 19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 4th in the Spindle Cove series

What's a duke to do, when the girl who's perfectly wrong becomes the woman he can't live without?

Griffin York, the Duke of Halford, has no desire to wed this season--or any season--but his diabolical mother abducts him to "Spinster Cove" and insists he select a bride from the ladies in residence. Griff decides to teach her a lesson that will end the marriage debate forever. He chooses the serving girl.

Overworked and struggling, Pauline Simms doesn't dream about dukes. All she wants is to hang up her barmaid apron and open a bookshop. That dream becomes a possibility when an arrogant, sinfully attractive duke offers her a small fortune for a week's employment. Her duties are simple: submit to his mother's "duchess training"... and fail miserably.

But in London, Pauline isn't a miserable failure. She's a brave, quick-witted, beguiling failure--a woman who ignites Griff's desire and soothes the darkness in his soul. Keeping Pauline by his side won't be easy. Even if Society could accept a serving girl duchess--can a roguish duke convince a serving girl to trust him with her heart?
Let's get this straight from the start: this is a mistorical of the highest order. The circumstances, characters, and attitudes are all jaw-droppingly historically inaccurate. We're talking about a plot where the hero is drugged and 'kidnapped' by his own mother, who is experiencing what I can only describe as a ticking grandparental biological clock (a first, and, I hope, a last for me as a reader). She's tired of waiting for him to marry and give her grandchildren, so she decides to go for "quantity over quality" and take him to Spindle Cove (aka Spinster Cove). The place is known for being a refuge for unmarried women who somehow do not fit in in society.

The hero, Griff, Duke of Halford, is indignant and decides to teach his mother a lesson. Ok, so he can choose any women there, and his mother will be ok with it? Well, what if he chooses the barmaid? To cut a long story short, they end up agreeing that if his mother can make the young woman, Pauline Simms, into a duchess in a week, then he'll marry her. If not, his mother will never again bother him to get married. Griff is sure he'll win, especially because he's offered an additional monetary incentive to Pauline to sabotage his mother's efforts. But of course, he finds himself uncomfortably attracted and drawn to this woman.

It's not just the plot that's preposterous. Pauline is completely unbelievable as a young woman brought up in the circumstances she was, and the reactions of the characters around them are just as ridiculous. My favourite was the friend of Griff's who, even when thinking Pauline is your average young, gently-bred lady, happily yaps on about how Griff has been behaving like a monk this past year, and it's a good thing Pauline is there because he wants to change that, even though of course, he fully supports Griff in not wanting to get married. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, in front of a young virgin and Griff's mother, her chaperone, this man says that Griff hasn't fucked in a year, and he hopes he soon fucks Pauline and doesn't marry her, and no one bats an eye.

The only way to enjoy this book even a little bit is to pretend it's not set in early-19th century England, but in an alternate universe which looks kind of like it. Even then, the internal logic sometimes fails (see the previous example), but mostly it sort of works. I was able to suspend disbelief in such a way for long stretches, and, it may surprise you to know, after the previous ranty paragraphs, I didn't hate this, even enjoyed some of it.

I think the main thing I liked about it was Pauline (well, she's not a 'thing', but you know what I mean). She's not at all a star-struck pawn in Griff's battle with his mother. From the start, she sees exactly how insulting and patronising Griff's choice of her as his intended bride is (to be fair, so does he, and is embarrassed), and exactly what it's meant to accomplish. She initially only goes along to get back at them ("Oh, yeah? Well, come along to the family hovel and have tea with my parents, since you're so intent in offering for me."). After she makes her point, she goes along only because she will be able to get independence out of it, and the means to care for her sister, who's got learning disabilities and is miserable living with their cruel and aggressive father. And while she's in town, she doesn't take any crap from anyone. Oh, she's got her flaws and insecurities, and Griff's actions can hurt her, but I admired how she dealt with all this. She's awesome.

Griff, not so much. The reason for his extreme reluctance to get married is not hard to guess, but it's heartbreaking. It provides some justification, but for me, it didn't completely gel, and that meant that his character didn't, either, and that neither did the romance, because I didn't quite get what Pauline saw in him. And then the big resolution. The suspension of disbelief required was too big, too internally incoherent, and preposterous.

Tessa Dare can manage to make a mistorical immensely enjoyable. She did it with A Week To Be Wicked, which I adored. She gets halfway through here, but she doesn't quite make it.

MY GRADE: A B-, raised from a C+ just by the power of Pauline's awesomeness.


Two disappointing DNF

>> Thursday, July 11, 2013

TITLE: Forbidden
AUTHOR: Lisa Clark O'Neill

I'm always looking for good self-pubbed romances, and this one came highly recommended. However, it started badly, and the direction it seemed to be heading into didn't interest me.

Basic setup? Clay is an FBI profiler, taking a holiday to recover from a particularly traumatic case. At the beach, he falls in lust at first sight with Tate. She initially turns him down, but then they run into each other again at her family's bar, where she works. There also seems to be something going on with some people traffickers operating in the area. That's where I left it, about 15% in.

I took against Clay pretty much from the first moment he appears. His first action when he sees the heroine at the beach is to come over and put his hand on her back, because "she missed a spot". This is supposed to be an FBI profiler, with a PhD in psychology, so I would really, really expect some awareness of how creepy that is. Tate seems a bit of a doormat as well, rolling over at his aggressiveness, and this type of dynamic continues the next time they meet. I didn't find Clay's behaviour sexy, I found it sleazy. Add to this a potential suspense subplot that didn't intrigue me in the least and mediocre editing (not awful, just a few things like using 'in principal' and a mismatch of tenses in a sentence, but enough to make it clear there wasn't proper editing done here), and I really didn't feel like investing any more time in this.


TITLE: Badlands
AUTHOR: Seleste deLaney

*sigh* I loved the idea of this book. It's steampunk set in North America post the American Civil War. As far as I could tell, in this version of reality, the country split and in between the previously warring factions there's a strip of land called the Badlands. It's a matriarchy ruled by a Queen who is attacked and killed as the book starts. The heroine, Ever, is one of her guard, and her first priority becomes getting to the heiress to the Crown and protecting her. To do so, she needs help from Spencer, who captains an airship which happens to be in the area.

The execution just didn't work for me at all. Ever is just a completely nonsensical character. She’s supposed to be this experienced, seasoned warrior, a leader, with a crucial mission she needs to accomplish as soon as humanly possible. But she acts like a mindless, brutish idiot. She keeps picking fights, making trouble and seems always on the verge of changing ships (thus losing loads of time) for the most stupid reasons, like whether she can wear her clothes on the dirigible! Plus, I didn't feel the romance. There was no chemistry that I could perceive, so when they start going “oh, the yearning!”, it feels silly and tedious.

Bah, it was a short one, at barely 100 pages, but after reading about half of it I decided to cut my losses.



The Casual Vacancy, by JK Rowling

>> Tuesday, July 09, 2013

TITLE: The Casual Vacancy
AUTHOR: JK Rowling

PAGES: 512
PUBLISHER: Little, Brown

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: Fiction

When Barry Fairbrother dies unexpectedly in his early forties, the little town of Pagford is left in shock.

Seemingly an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war.

Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…Pagford is not what it first seems.

And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?

The Casual Vacancy is one of the best books I've read this year. I was always going to read it at some point, but it had a very lukewarm reception, so I sort of lost some of the urgency to read it immediately. I'm very glad I finally did pick it up.

The action takes place in the small English town of Pagford, in the West Country, and opens with the death of a man called Barry Fairbrother. It turns out that Barry, who sits on the parish council, has been somehow keeping all the conflicting factions of Pagford in a precarious balance, so even before the body goes cold, war erupts.

It's tempting to compare the scope of this novel to that of Harry Potter and find it wanting. In fact, several of the reviews in big papers do exactly that, describing the stakes as small and the conflicts as banal. I can kind of see where they're coming from. I mean, the big plot thingie here is where the parish's boundary lines are drawn, for heaven's sake. See, there's this council estate, the Fields, that's only just inside the Pagford limits, and this has long stuck in the craws of many in town (such as Howard Mollison, who is head of the council, and his wife Shirley). Having the Fields being part of their jurisdiction means that Pagford has to fund things like drug clinics for the resident addicts and accept the Fields' trashy children in its lovely, well-funded school. Barry, who was born in the Fields, has been tireless in working to keep it within the Pagford jurisdiction, as he feels coming to school in Pagford was exactly what allowed him to make a success of his life. With him dead, however, Howard sees it as a perfect opportunity to put "one of ours" in his seat, and get rid of the Fields, once and for all.

So yeah, I can see that, at first sight, this looks so much smaller and unimportant than an all-out battle between good and evil. But that’s deceptive. The very type of wrangling we have here, the council spats about funding for drug clinics and catchment areas are exactly the sort of thing that can really, really affect people's lives in a practical way, even make their lives hell. And that is shown in a way that punches you straight in the gut through one of the characters, Krystal Weedon.

Krystal was born and raised in the Fields by a drug-addicted mother, and she's the very person the Mollisons think of when explaining to themselves why they need to get rid of that horrid place. She’s not some sort of idealised character, the noble girl who has the misfortune of being born in a horrible situation. Krystal is foul-mouthed and aggressive, will say the most horrible stuff and does not help her own cause at all. But as a reader, you completely understand how and why she got to that point, and so did Barry. Barry saw through her attitude and to the real person underneath. He insisted she joined the school's rowing team and became a bit of a mentor to her. With Barry dead, though, it seems like any slim chances Krystal had of a halfway good life will disappear, as soon as the Mollisons get their way. Krystal quite simply broke my heart. In fact, if Krystal doesn’t break your heart then I don’t care to know you.

Is this preachy? Yes, it certainly is. It's an angry, angry book. Rowling does have her very strong opinions on social issues, and she makes them very clear here. It's almost like she was taking some sort of challenge with Krystal, trying to make her as big a bugbear as possible. If you think teenage girls who get pregnant to get council housing are what is destroying this country, then you'd better stay away from this book, as the most horrible characters are exactly like you (also, fuck you). My own opinions tend to align with Rowling's, so instead of outrage, this inspired righteous anger.

Krystal might be one of the bigger characters here, but the best way to describe this is that it's a big ensemble piece, with the only really central character being Barry, who, even dead, casts a long shadow. There are a lot of characters here, and Rowling brings them all to life. Many of them (I would even say most) are very unpleasant, which is something that would normally feel a bit tedious to me, and make me not want to read the book, because my brain will just stop seeing them as realistic characters. The thing is, even these unpleasant, horrible people are unpleasant and horrible in really interesting ways, ways that made them feel all too real. Yes, there is quite a bit of caricature here, but there's so much truth at the centre of every single character and their interactions, that I was gripped.

It's not a happy book, this one. I wanted to feel hopeful, close the book knowing that Krystal would get a happy ending, that Howard Mollison wouldn’t be able to take over the council and the people in the Fields would get the help they needed. But as I was reading, I knew I shouldn’t feel too hopeful. The book felt like a “state of the nation” novel, and we all know that, in reality, the mean Torys do take over, and that when they come to power they will give themselves and their friends massive tax cuts and will try as hard as they can to make the lives of those less fortunate as miserable as possible.

So yeah, this made me sob. But as I did, I didn’t feel at all manipulated. When bad things happened here, it didn’t feel like Rowling was doing it to get an emotional reaction. It felt organic. These things happened because they needed to happen, because it was the only way they could go. It’s bad, as it must be, but I liked the tiny amount of hope Rowling put in at the end. Again, it felt organic and rang true, something that possibly could happen, and put in such a way that it was my mind that did most of the work.

MY GRADE: An A. Fantastic.

AUDIOBOOK NOTES: I listened to the audiobook, which was narrated by Tom Holland. He was absolutely brilliant. I really can't see how it could have been done better. Also, I was very glad I’d gone for the audiobook when I leafed through my friend’s paper copy to have a look at how the names were spelled (huh, it’s Krystal Weedon, when in my mind it was Crystal Wheedon). Anyway, seeing the way the Weedons’ accents were rendered on the page, I was relieved to have had Tom Holland just reading it out to me. It would have been hard work to read.


The Last Boyfriend, by Nora Roberts

>> Sunday, July 07, 2013

TITLE: The Last Boyfriend
AUTHOR: Nora Roberts

PAGES: 319
PUBLISHER: Berkley Trade

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 2nd in the Inn BoonsBoro trilogy

Owen Montgomery is the organizer of the clan, running the family's construction business with an iron fist and an even less flexible spreadsheet. And though his brothers bust on his compulsive list-making, the Inn BoonsBoro is about to open right on schedule. The only thing Owen didn't plan for was Avery McTavish... Avery's popular pizza place is right across the street from the inn, giving her a first-hand look at the renovation -- and a newfound appreciation for Owen.

The Inn Boonsboro series is centred round the Montgomery brothers and the B&B they redevelop. In book 1 we got the surprisingly satisfying story of Beckett, the creative brother who takes care of the architecture, and Clare, owner of the local bookstore. With them sorted, we now move on to Owen, the organised, dependable brother, a man great at keeping track of the hundred thousand details of the incredible number of projects the brothers juggle.

The heroine is Avery McTavish, the owner of the pizza place across the road. She and Owen were boyfriend and girlfriend when they were little kids, and over the years, they've become good friends. In fact, Avery is treated a bit like a kid sister by the Montgomerys. And then something just switches, and Owen and Avery start seeing each other as a man and a woman.

I found it very hard to get excited about this one, I'm afraid. It was a pleasant, comfortable read, but I never really got Owen and Avery together. I didn't quite get what it was that made them go from plain friends to 'oh, I've suddenly realised I'm very attracted to you'. This should be a significant moment, something that we as readers feel viscerally, but it just wasn't there. And then from there, the romance develops in a very lukewarm, half-hearted way. It meant the romance was a bit of a dud, and it didn't help that there was something about Avery, something I can't quite put my finger on, that kept me from seeing her as a viable romance heroine. I've thought and thought about it, but I don't know why my brain is so reluctant to go there.

In addition to the romance, there are several other threads to keep the reader occupied, and there were hits and misses there. The best one was about Avery's mother. She left when Avery was very young, and returns in the course of this book, setting off some fireworks which brought some much-needed angst and tension to the story. I also liked the friendship between the women and the brothers' relationship. This is something I always enjoy in Roberts' stories, and it's well done here. Surprisingly (I'm the least maternal person you'll ever meet), I still find Clare's three little ones tremendously cute, especially Murphy. They're funny and feel real.

The other stuff... meh. There's the ongoing plot about the ghost, which I'm mildly interested in, even if nothing much happens here. There's the stuff about the inn, and Avery's plans to open a restaurant attached to it. And then there's a fitness centre. It was strange, but I was both slightly bored and completely exhausted by this, all at the same time. Nora Roberts' characters have always been hard-workers, but these people are just ridiculous.



Deep Desires, by Charlotte Stein

>> Friday, July 05, 2013

TITLE: Deep Desires
AUTHOR: Charlotte Stein

PAGES: 101

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Erotic romance

Abbie has done her best to escape her violent past. But in the process, she’s avoided love, life and desire. So when she sees her equally closed off neighbour, Ivan, performing for her one night through his window, she can’t stop looking...

Voyeuristic pleasures become Abbie Gough’s lifeline. But as she comes alive and craves more, Ivan backs away. He has his own secrets, the kind that draw her into kinky games and her own shameful desires, while also preventing the bond of real intimacy between them.

Now she’s found someone so special, she’s not about to give up easily. And she’s willing to do whatever it takes to melt Ivan’s dark and cool exterior. Even if captivating him means pushing through her limits to whatever lies beyond.

I was wowed by the first book I read by Charlotte Stein. Restraint was just the kind of Erotic Romance I like, one that is focused on characters and feelings, rather than actions.

Deep Desires was, at the same time, just like Restraint and completely different to it.

It was different in its themes and kind of plot, which is something I'd find completely unremarkable in any other genre. The thing is, so many ER authors tend to concentrate on a particular kink or type of relationship, whereas Stein seems to be more unpredictable.

Our protagonist is Abbie Gough. She has relatively recently got out of an abusive relationship, but has yet to regain her confidence. She just goes from home to work, work to home, afraid to relate to anyone and call attention to herself.

And then one of her neighbours manages to get through, by standing in front of his window, in plain sight of hers, and masturbating. She's initially convinced he wasn't aware of her presence and even feels guilty at her unwilling fascination, but it soon becomes clear that he knows exactly what he's doing, and that he wants her eyes on him.

It sounds a bit creepy, but such is the atmosphere that Stein creates, that I was willing to suspend disbelief and go along, fully believing these two damaged people were good for each other and were actually building a healthy relationship through their very unconventional sexual adventures.

And this is why I said earlier that Deep Desires is just like Restraint. It's not about having hit on a plot that appeals to me, it's about finding an author whose writing and sensibility chime with me, and whose definition of ER romance relates to how a relationship is developed, rather than about which kinks are present and how explicitly they are narrated. And Stein totally does chime with me. I couldn't begin to guess whether she would work for other readers, I think she's definitely one to try and see, and I strongly encourage you to do so.



My reading year so far

>> Wednesday, July 03, 2013

With the first half of the year gone, I've had a look at my trusty spreadsheet. I'm so over-the-top in what I keep track of that I could do all sorts of nitty-gritty analysis, but don't worry, I'll keep it simple.

- I'm reading loads. Over 100 books read in the first half of the year! That's partly because I went back to Uruguay for a whole month in March (new nephew) and read almost 30 books while I was there, but I've also been reading more each month. This year I'm taking my long holiday over Christmas, as usual, so they'll be a big bump at the end of the year as well. It might well be that I'll read more books this year than ever before *knock on wood*.

- Audiobooks are my friends... The main reason I'm reading more each month is because of audiobooks. I listened to my first one late last year, and never looked back. I love them. It's not that I'm taking time away from reading, it's mostly in addition to my reading time. My daily work-out now flies by. A couple of times I've even stayed on the treadmill (just 10 more minutes longer!) when in the middle of a particularly good bit. I listen while I do housework, while I walk home from the train station, and while puttering round the house. It adds up.

- ... but not all types of audiobooks. Much as I love audiobooks, I haven't really got that much into romance ones. I've listened to a handful and they've been ok, but I tend to listen more to general fiction, mystery, fantasy, etc. I confess that partly, it's that I'm still a bit icked out by someone reading love scenes out loud to me. All the ones I've listened to so far have been warm, rather than hot (JAK, SEP, etc.). Partly it's that audio is a great way to finally read those books I perceive as 'harder work' than romance. Partly (mainly, to be honest), it's that audiobooks are expensive. I'm on the 1-credit-a-month plan on audible, but listen to about 5 a month. I buy stuff on sale, but the shortfall is mainly made up by borrowing stuff from my library. They have a pretty ok selection, but there aren't that many romances.

- Still reading a lot of romance, though. Even though most of those audiobooks are outside of the romance genre, about 2/3 of my reading still is in.

- Only not historical romance. I used to read a lot of historical romance, but I'm not really finding much new stuff. I read only 9 this year (plus a couple of rereads), which is just sad, considering it used to be my bread and butter. Not only that, there were some good ones (including one by a new favourite author, Cecilia Grant), but also several DNFs amongst authors I hadn't tried before.

- Distaste for print. So far this year, I've read only 3 print books, and only because the ebooks weren't available. It's got to the point where I find print books annoying and actively avoid them. A few times I've had to decide between borrowing the print version from the library and buying the (moderately priced) ebook, and I decided to spend money, just to be able to read it in e. Ebooks are easier to carry round, but I prefer e even when at home. I blame Sybil the cat. The minute I sit on my reading sofa, she's on my lap, and I can hold a kindle with one hand and pet her with the other. With most print books, I'd have to hold them with two hands and Sybil would be ignored.

- I'm a man-hater. Over 90% of the books I read were by women. Sure, that's partly because I read a lot of romance, but even if I just look at my non-romance reads, only a quarter were by men. Also, other than Bill Bryson, all of them were authors I hadn't read before. Indeed, if I think about it, Bryson and Jasper Fforde are the only male authors I can think of whom I'd consider "authors I read" (as in, I keep track of their new releases and pick up new books when they come out, etc.), whereas there are literally tens of female authors in that list. Should I be worried about this?

- Finding some excellent books. It's been a good year so far. Mostly Bs and As. A few Cs, and only 1 D. I've had a couple of DNFs every month, which before I became a bit more ruthless, would have turned into Cs and Ds. But still, it's been great. I've even had 5 straight As. Last year I had only 2 the whole year, and they were both Hilary Mantel. So far this year, 3 out of the 5 have been romance novels. They were: A Gentleman Undone, by Cecilia Grant, Guardian Demon, by Meljean Brook and After Hours, by Cara McKenna. And I promise I didn't list them just to brag that I got an early copy of Guardian Demon.

- Discovering new loves. I've tried 45 new authors so far this year. A full 50% of the books that weren't rereads were by new-to-me authors, which I think is pretty good! I DNF'd a quarter of those books, which I guess is fair enough, but the ones I did finish didn't do much worse than books by authors I already knew I liked. Best new discoveries: Cara McKenna, Kristin Cashore, Maria Semple and Michael Frayn.


June 2013 reads

>> Monday, July 01, 2013

June wasn't a great month. Some good ones, but too many Cs.

1 - Borrower of the Night, by Elizabeth Peters: B+
review here

Audiobook. Prequel to the Vicky Bliss series, one of my favourites. Caper's aren't usually my thing, but they are if they're written by Peters and feature the inimitable Vicky chasing objets d'art in exotic locations.

2 - The Girl of Fire and Thorns, by Rae Carson: B+
review coming soon

Audiobook. Really cool fantasy, set in a world clearly drawing inspiration from Medieval Spain. I loved the way the heroine grows from a scared girl to a strong woman in a way that feels organic, and that there is very real danger here. Just one thing, though: in Spanish, Rosario and Belén are female names. Having two relatively important male character with those names kind of drove me nuts.

3 - The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce: B
review coming soon

A man leaves his house to post a letter to a dying friend he hasn't seen for years, and this turns into a walk to her, right across the country. Suprisingly moving and funny, and my favourite was the development of the relationship between the man and the wife he leaves at home.

4 - Ember, by Bettie Sharpe: B
review coming soon

Novella, a wonderfully subversive version of Cinderella. There's the fun of seeing how Sharpe can follow the bare lines of the traditional fairy story quite closely, while changing the spirit of it completely, but also a really satisfying romance. Best of all: it's still available for free at Sharpe's website!

5 - Carolina Home, by Virginia Kantra: B
review here

I picked this one up because I was told it was reminiscent of some of Nora Roberts' trilogies, and it was. I loved all the family drama stuff. The romance between the single dad hero and the heroine who's his son's teacher didn't work out quite that well (nice enough, but not much chemistry), but I still mostly enjoyed this.

6 - The Perfect Hope, by Nora Roberts: B
review coming soon

Last in the trilogy. Very much like the others in that it was nice and inoffensive, but pretty unexciting. I did like the romance here more than the previous one. It was fun to see prickly Ryder fall for Hope.

7 - All Night Long, by Michelle Jerott: B
original review here

I adored this book when I first read it, about 8 years ago. The heroine is an author and photographer who comes to the hero's dairy farm investigating the disappearance of an ancestor of hers, which took place on that land some 150 years earlier. It's a very character-based romance, with the added interest of the historical mystery. I liked it this time, but there were elements which haven't aged that well, and I didn't love it.

8 - Simply Perfect, by Mary Balogh: C+
review here

Sigh. I loved the development of the relationship between the nobleman hero and the school-owner heroine, but the hero showed a curiously weak spine when it came to marrying a woman he knew would make him miserable. Add to this severe seriesitis, with every character Balogh has ever written parading around showing off how happy they are, and this was quite frustrating.

9 - The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, by Lauren Willig: C
original review here

I loved this when I first read it, but not so much this time around. I found the main characters (Amy and Richard, but also the heroine from the contemporary framing story, Eloise) silly and immature instead of charming, and frankly, rather stupid. I also found the politics of the book infuriating. Amy goes on and on about restoring the monarchy, and the hypocrisy of everyone (including the narrative) condemning actions of the French which are apparently fine if done by the English is staggering. I almost lost it when that rude, horrible Miss Gwen (whose rudeness I did not find  funny) upbraids Napoleon for going into countries where he's not invited. Er.. woman, you're English. Seriously? The text seemed completely oblivious. And of course, every single French character is caricatured completely. They're all ridiculous and/or revolting, and stupid. Their actions in trying to apprehend English spies operating in their own territory are characterised as cowardly and somehow evil. I know I'm supposed to take this a lot less seriously and just enjoy the swashbuckling and adventure, but this time around, I couldn't do it. I did like some bits of the romance, as Richard and Amy (silly as they are) do have chemistry, and I also liked Amy's cousin Jane and enjoyed her part of the story, but that's it.

10 - And She Was, by Alison Gaylin: C
review coming soon

This is a mystery about missing people, with a heroine who's a PI and suffers from a rare psychological disorder which means she remembers everything, every single detail of what she experiences. That last aspect was interested, and well-rendered. The mystery was initially intriguing, but the resolution ended up feeling a bit unsatisfying.

11 - Watchmen, by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons (artist): C-
review here

Read for my book club this month. I guess it's just not for me. I've seen it called an examination and deconstruction of the superhero concept, and I suspect you need to have a bit more of a grounding in that concept in order to appreciate it. It left me nonplussed.

12 - Dangerous in Diamonds, by Madeline Hunter: DNF
review here

It tends to get my back up when the text is screaming one thing at me and I just don't agree. In this case, Hunter seemed very insistent that the hero, the Duke of Castleford was oh-so-sexy, but I found him sleazy, pathetic and an assholic bully.

13 - The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson: still reading
review coming soon

Non fiction audiobook. The author tells the stories of the Chicago World Fair in 1893 and of two men: the architect who built it and a serial killer who operated at the time of the Fair. So far, it's moving slow and has mostly concentrated on painting a picture of what Chicago was like at the time, but I'm very interested.

# - Day of Fire, by Kathleen Nance: still reading
review here

Part of a series I first read ages ago, called 2176 after the year it is set in. This one takes place in Canada, which has been quarantined and isolated after devastating bioterrorism attacks. The heroine is part of the Mounted Police and the hero is a 'plague hunter'.


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