Best books of 2014

>> Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 was a really good reading year for me. I read almost 170 books and found some I really loved.

It wasn't a great year for romance, though. I've been finding myself less and less interested in what's out there in the romance genre, so much so that for the first time since I started tracking my reading, over half of what I read was non-romance.

And also, while finding truly excellent non-romance books to include in this post was really easy (so much so that I've included a top 13, rather than a top 10, and there were several that narrowly missed out being there), I struggled to get enough romance novels I thought were good enough. I've ended up doing only a top 6!

Preparing this, I realised there are quite a few of these books I haven't yet reviewed. I find it hardest to review books I loved.... to write something that does these books justice, I guess! I've got half-written reviews for all of those, and I'll try to finish and post them early in the new year.

Best romance read in 2014

The Kraken King, by Meljean Brook

Of course there will be a Meljean Brook on this list. The Kraken King is a wonderful adventure romance. Fantastic world-building and great characters. It was a serial, so I've linked here to my review of part 8, which includes links to all the other parts. The serial format didn't quite work for me, but the story was more than strong enough to overcome that.

Mark of Cain, by Kate Sherwood

A romance between an ex-con and the brother of the man he killed, so very angsty. Sherwood develops it slowly, so it works. And in addition to the great romance, there is a real exploration of themes of redemption and forgiveness, as well as a hero who's an Anglican minister and is struggling with how his church deals with gay priests like him. Loved it.

The Countess Conspiracy, by Courtney Milan

This is about women being suppressed, all those who wanted to do things that society didn't approve of for women and had to hide behind a male someone else to be able to do them. The heroine is a scientist, and the hero her friend, who's providing the male front. Beautifully satisfying, even if I had some doubts about the believability of the ending.

The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion

This was a charming comedy romance, hilarious but also affecting. It's about a man who has some issues with social interaction and who comes up with a plan to find himself a wife. He ends up co-operating with a woman called Rosie, who's exactly wrong according to everything on his list.

Unbound, by Cara McKenna

Cara McKenna can make me like anything. This one includes BDSM, which I usually avoid, but managed to make me feel completely engaged in the relationship. I couldn't stop reading.

The Luckiest Lady In London, by Sherry Thomas

I really loved the story of two people seen as perfectly proper by all of society, but who immediately recognise hidden, darker depths in each other. Thomas is one of the few historical romance authors I've got left.

Best non-romance read in 2014

The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

My first A+ in a very long time. It's the story of a young half-goblin who unexpectedly comes to the throne of the kingdom of the elves and is completely unprepared. The way he comes into his role and becomes an excellent Emperor is just beautiful. It's a long, dense read, and I adored every second of it.

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah follows a young Nigerian woman as she moves to the US and then, a few years later, back to Nigeria, where she again encounters her old boyfriend. I don't often feel the visceral recognition I felt when reading this book. Ifemelu's experiences echoed mine in many ways... things like discovering the completely different implications of your race when you move to a new country and how it all interacts with class and privilege. I read this one for my book club, and it generated the best discussion we've had in the 5 years we've been running.

The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth

The Wake tells the story of the resistance after the Norman invasion of 1066, written in what the author describes as a shadow version of Old English. This was a book that completely wowed me on all fronts. Its use of language is incredible. I wondered when I started it whether the whole shadow 'Old English' thing would be a bit of a stunt, but it really wasn't. It was essential to achieve a great recreation of a time and place and a fascinating character who felt completely of his time.

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks was a fabulous read. Mitchell does his usual thing here of having a book composed of a group of novellas, six here. There is a strong narrative thread, though, as we have Holly Sykes in whose point of view we are in the first and last stories, and who's very present in the middle four. There's also a big fantasy Good vs. Evil-type element which is mostly in the background but pops up periodically in the different sections. I'm not describing it very well here, but it's great storytelling, with really interesting characters I cared about intensely and done with Mitchell's gift for mimicking different genres. I didn't want to leave this world when the book finished, and it will definitely be one I'll reread, probably soon.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

There's been a bit of a backlash against The Goldfinch, but I still really enjoyed it. It's a big, fat book about a young man whose life is blown apart when his mother is killed in a terrorist attack in a museum. The effects of that continue to be felt in his life, not least through a painting he takes with him after the explosion and neglects to return. The protagonist is really not a nice character, but he was interesting, as were all the supporting characters. I was absorbed, and even liked the final, controversial 30 pages.

And All The Stars, by Andrea K Höst

This excellent sci-fi young adult novel has an ensemble cast fighting off an alien invasion. The characters are wonderful and diverse and the plot unfolds in ways that feel fresh and different. My first novel by this author was a DNF, so I'm really glad I decided to give her another chance.

The Circle, by Dave Eggers

A satire about a scarily believable Google-like company that is taking over the world. Eggers sometimes hits you over the head with his metaphors, but on the whole, I thought this was great. Familiar and surprising at the same time, and it made me think about debates that are actually going on (e.g. would requiring real identities on-line solve the problem of trolling?) in different ways.

Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King

A burned-out retired detective teams up with some unlikely people to hunt down a mass murderer. Great, tense storytelling and characters I really cared about. I hadn't read King for quite a while, and I'd only read some of his classic horror, so this surprised me, in a very good way.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

This is about a woman who grew up in a family that was unique in a very interesting way. When we meet her we know that the family has pretty much disintegrated, and we explore why. The book looks at themes like how families work, the nature of sisterhood, the treachery of memory, animal rights, and activism, but it does this by telling a wonderfully engaging story and doing so in a way that was really interesting structurally. I really enjoyed it.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

A post-apocalyptic novel that manages to be positive and optimistic about humanity and the value of our current lives. It was a huge surprise, and I loved it. The characters were great, and the structure of it was wonderfully handled. Just fantastic.

The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber

This is about a missionary selected to go to a remote planet and preach for the people there, who have been demanding someone is sent to tell them all about this "Book of Strange New Things", i.e. the Bible. This was a very unexpected book, full of fascinating characters who emotionally engaged me.

The Martian, by Andy Weir

An astronaut is accidentally left behind in Mars when his team suddenly need to evacuate their camp in an emergency, and he must apply all his considerable knowledge to survive. Brilliant, gripping stuff.

The Borders of Infinity, by Lois McMaster Bujold

I'd cheat by nominating the entire chunk of the Vorkosigan series that I've read this year, but I wouldn't know which cover to put up *g*. This is probably the most perfectly formed and put together entry. It's a novella featuring Miles being sent into a Cetagandan prison camp for a mysterious mission. This is Miles at his most Miles-ish, and it's great. I should mention I'm currently listening to Mirror Dance and so far it's even better, but I'm only about 50% in.


On holiday

>> Saturday, December 13, 2014

It's that time of the year again, so this evening I'll be boarding a flight to Uruguay for a month of family, old friends and sitting by the pool doing nothing but reading.

Plaza Independencia all decorated for Christmas... my office used to be in a building right behind where this photograph was taken
I might pop back in nearer the end of the year for a quick round-up of my 2014 favourites, but in case I don't, I'd like to wish you all a lovely Christmas and a great end to 2014 and even better start to 2015. Bye bye, and thanks so much for visiting! x


The Secret Heart, by Erin Satie

>> Wednesday, December 10, 2014

TITLE: The Secret Heart
AUTHOR: Erin Satie

PAGES: 308
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: 19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: It's supposed to be first in a series called No Better Angels. I'm not quite sure from reading the blurb how the next book is related to this one, but I've bought it :)

She’s a fortune-hunter. He’s nobody’s prey.

Adam, Earl of Bexley, lives to work. His only relief is the sordid savagery of bare-knuckle boxing. Not women, and definitely not a disreputable, scheming woman who dances in secret with such passion…

Caro Small is desperate to escape her selfish family. Her only chance is a good marriage, and she intends to marry Adam—whether he likes it or not. But the more she schemes to entrap him, the more she risks trapping her own heart.

Adam won’t be caught by a fortune-hunter’s ambitious schemes. But the vulnerable, passionate woman underneath the plots might just bring him to his knees.

I'm one of those who are not too happy about the state of historical romance. I've got a few authors on my autobuy (Courtney Milan, Sherry Thomas, Cecilia Grant, a few old favourites like Connie Brockway and Mary Balogh), but it's been at least a couple of years since I've discovered a new author I could add to my autobuy list. All this year, several of us on twitter have informally agreed to read and review at least one historical a month, but none of the new authors that has spurred me to try have really worked out. Until now.

The Secret Heart is exactly the kind of historical romance I have found difficult to find. It features complex and challenging (some might even say 'unlikeable') characters who have passions in their lives outside of their romance, which is something I find lacking in so many books.

Caroline Small's passion is ballet. She fell in love with it when her disreputable father installed his ballerina mistress as her governess. Caro doesn't aspire to perform; it's the dancing itself that fulfils her. And to keep her craft at the level she needs it to be, she must practice every day, even when visiting her friend Daphne at her uncle the Duke of Hastings' country estate.

It is when returning from her clandestine practice session that she runs into Adam, who's Earl of Bexley and heir to the dukedom. Adam is out in the middle of the night because he was doing something a bit clandestine himself. He boxes. Boxing was quite common amongst gentlemen (if you've read historical romance for any length of time, you'll have read about countless heroes who box at Gentleman Jackson's), but what Adam does is way beyond that. He trains like a proper athlete (to the point of observing a strict diet to keep his weight down) and he fights incognito in meetings frequented by the navvies building the nearby railway.

As they start getting to know each other (including sharing what it was they were each doing out at night quite early in the relationship, which I found refreshing) Caro sees her chance. See, her father and two older brothers gamble away any money that comes into the house and are slowly but surely destroying any chance of Caroline being considered respectable and making a good match. Worse, her younger brother's schooling keeps getting put off whenever money runs low. Caro needs to marry well, and she needs to marry soon. Bexley is the perfect candidate. He's well-off, aristocratic, clearly attracted to Caro and Caro is attracted to him. She coolly decides she will target him. And she does.

I really enjoyed this. There is a lot to these characters. They have real lives and personalities, and I could understand perfectly how and why they connected as they did. They're not perfect; they have their flaws, and they are self-aware enough to recognise them. I also loved the depth of the writing, especially in the world-building. Where so many historical romance authors just gloss over what they assume is hyper-familiar territory for their readers, Satie really digs in. She clearly has thought about how things would feel and look and smell, and she conveys this perfectly. The book felt incredibly fresh.

So what keeps this from an A grade? Well, I felt some of the secondary characters were a bit cartoonishly and unremittingly nasty, particularly (but not exclusively) Adam's cousin and the cousin's step-mother, who are having an affair. It would have been nice at least some of the subtlety Satie used to create her main characters there. Also, for all that I loved the writing and characterisation, some of it occasionally felt a bit self-conscious. It's hard to explain, but at times I could clearly see the author trying to do X, rather than just seeing X. These were the only instances when I was reminded this is a début, and really, there weren't that many of them. Other than that, the book flowed beautifully.

If you're looking for something new and different from the usual romances set in Regency-land, I highly recommend this.



Indexing, by Seanan McGuire

>> Tuesday, December 09, 2014

TITLE: Indexing
AUTHOR: Seanan McGuire

PAGES: 404

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Urban Fantasy
SERIES: None that I know of!

“Never underestimate the power of a good story.”

Good advice…especially when a story can kill you.

For most people, the story of their lives is just that: the accumulation of time, encounters, and actions into a cohesive whole. But for an unfortunate few, that day-to-day existence is affected—perhaps infected is a better word—by memetic incursion: where fairy tale narratives become reality, often with disastrous results.

That's where the ATI Management Bureau steps in, an organization tasked with protecting the world from fairy tales, even while most of their agents are struggling to keep their own fantastic archetypes from taking over their lives. When you're dealing with storybook narratives in the real world, it doesn't matter if you're Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, or the Wicked Queen: no one gets a happily ever after.

Indexing is New York Times bestselling author Seanan McGuire’s new urban fantasy where everything you thought you knew about fairy tales gets turned on its head.

Hearing about the premise of this book was enough for me to buy it. It's set in a version of our world where an unseen force, the "narrative" keeps trying to reenact fairy tales in real people's lives. This can have really horrific consequences for those involved, so the ATI Management Bureau secretly works to deactivate situations where it looks like the narrative has taken over.

Our narrator, Henrietta 'Henry' Marchen, is a Snow White who was brought up by Bureau agents after her mother's death (her mother was a Sleeping Beauty). Through constant vigilance she has managed to keep her narrative from really manifesting (the bluebirds splatting against her windows trying to get close to her and the wildflowers growing on her carpet every morning don't really count), and now she's a team leader at the Bureau herself.

Indexing was originally a serial, with episodes coming out every two weeks, and at first, I felt it showed. The first two or three episodes each cover a case Henry and her team are called out to handle. The first case, for instance, is a Sleeping Beauty who manifests as a woman infected by an airborn virus. As soon as she gets to the hospital and collapses, the virus spreads through the air conditioning vents and puts everyone around her to sleep. So I thought that was going to be what the book was like... stand-alone mini cases. It felt a bit disjointed and episodic (with a fair bit of repetition, to remind readers of details they might have forgot in the previous fortnight), but the cases were clever enough that I would have happily read on.

However, after McGuire establishes her world a bit, an overall plot starts to emerge. Something is going wrong with the narrative, with cases suddenly coming fast and furious, and some of them being a bit wonky. Henry and her team begin to suspect someone might be behind that, and before long they're in an all out fight to save the world as they know it.

This was really great fun. The cases the team encounter were really interesting and the use of fairy tales was great. I loved how McGuire turned well known fairy tales on their heads, often following the logic implicit in them and pointing out the inevitable consequences if they happened in the real world. I also loved the clever ways Henry and her team found to turn things around. They were always unexpected, and yet they made perfect sense. Finally, I enjoyed how this all developed an idea about the role and importance of storytelling in the world. There were great little details, like the danger of urban myths achieving enough status that the narrative would start incorporating them into its stock of stories.

I also liked the characters McGuire created for Henry's team and how they grow and develop throughout the book, both individually and as a team. Sloane was probably my favourite. She didn't start that way. I hate people who are rude and mean for no reason, but the thing is, Sloan has a reason. She's an evil stepsister, so she has major anger management issues. The episode which showed us exactly how it feels to be inside her was really touching, but in a way that didn't defang her.

There's even a bit of romance. There's the team archivist (who specialises in identifying how a particular situation fits in in the canon, and what routes are open to it, at least, based on past experience), who might just have a thing for Henry. And even better, there's a transgender character who's dealt with sensitively and who gets his own HEA.

It wasn't a perfect book, though. Some of the writing didn't completely work for me. I think it might have something to do with this being urban fantasy, which too often means authors feel the need to create 'snarky' characters. McGuire doesn't quite succeed, especially at the beginning. Some of the snarky reactions felt off. Here's Henry thinking about transporting a victim's cat back to the Bureau:

"The idea of sharing a car with her overly amorous cat, which was now rolling on its back and trying to entice me to rub its belly, made me feel faintly ill."

'Faintly ill', really? She's not allergic to cats or disgusted by them, just tired of always having animals adore her (e.g. those bluebirds!) because of her Snow White nature. 'Faintly ill' feels wrong. There were loads of little details like this. It messes with making the characters feel like real people. I think this worked best when the characters were being realistic emotionally when dealing with really fantastical stuff, and these off reactions messed with the emotional believability.

Also (and sorry, this won't make much sense if you haven't read the book), the scenes where Henry is in the whiteout world were a bit too much for me. I didn't quite get them or their significance in the book. I think the story would have worked much better without this element.

Still, this was really enjoyable.


AUDIOBOOK NOTES: This was narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal, which surprised me, as I had no idea she did narration in addition to writing. It wasn't great; tolerable, but just barely. In keeping with the whole snarky thing of urban fantasy, she kept doing 'uptalk' in her narration, which I can take only in very small doses. I think for the next one (if there is one), I'll read the ebook.


The Janus Stone, by Elly Griffiths

>> Sunday, December 07, 2014

TITLE: The Janus Stone
AUTHOR: Elly Griffiths

PAGES: 337

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: 2nd in the Ruth Galloway series, following The Crossing Places

Forensics expert Ruth Galloway is called in to investigate when builders, demolishing a large old house in Norwich to make way for a new development, uncover the skeleton of a child - minus the skull - beneath a doorway. Is it some ritual sacrifice or just plain straightforward murder? DCI Harry Nelson must find out.

The house was once a children's home. Nelson meets the Catholic priest who used to run the home. He tells him that two children did go missing forty years before - a boy and a girl. They were never found.

When carbon dating proves that the child's bones predate the children's home, Ruth is drawn more deeply into the case. But as spring turns to summer it becomes clear that someone is trying very hard to put her off the scent by frightening her half to death...

In this second book in the Ruth Galloway series, Ruth is again brought into what turns out to be a police case. She's a forensic archeologist at the local university in Norwich, so she's the obvious person to call when builders find a headless skeleton of a child under the doorway of a house they're working on. Since the house was once a children's home, and one from which two children disappeared some 40 years earlier, the police also gets involved. And wouldn't you know it, the policeman in charge of that investigation is DCI Harry Nelson, whose relationship with Ruth developed into something quite interesting in book 1.

It was an intriguing set-up, but I'm afraid it was much too easy to figure out the whodunnit, and even something which should have been a surprise about the identity of a particular character. It was all a bit too obvious, really. Now, that's not necessarily an issue if the process through which the police investigate is particularly good, but it wasn't really in this case. The investigation felt like it went in the directions the plot needed, rather than in those an investigation would naturally have gone. As for the explanations behind it all, they were disappointing as well. There's basically two cases related to the house, one of the inital skeleton discovered (which turns out to predate the dates during which the house was a children's home) and the disappearance of the two kids. We know a lot of what happened in the earlier case through diary entries that are interspersed throughout the story, and which were just icky, rather than interesting. The modern disappearance is a bit more interesting, although some of it is easy to guess. And then there's trying to understand why someone is harassing Ruth and trying to hinder her work. The explanation behind that was just a bit silly and nonsensical. A "'cause he's a nutter" sort of thing, which is not at all satisfying.

A lot of space is devoted to the personal lives of the characters, and I like that in a mystery series. Ruth and DCI Nelson are really not one-note, and Griffiths takes some risks with them. This is a bit of a spoiler for book 1, so don't read on if you're planning to start at the beginning with the series, but at the start of this book, we find out that Ruth and Nelson's one-night-stand, which took place after particularly traumatic events in book 1, has resulted in Ruth becoming pregnant. Nelson is married, so this is an issue. Not that Ruth is asking anything of him (a bit stupidly, really. She's so concerned with not being demanding that she doesn't even think that it won't be easy to bring up a child on an academic salary and without any family around to help her. Of course you should demand Harry financially support his own child, you idiot!).

I couldn't stop myself from comparing this with the Rev. Clare Fergusson / Russ Van Alstyne series, by Julia Spencer-Fleming. The situation is similar, in that the male characters in both series are happily married to beautiful women they love at the start of the series, and then they start feeling a connection to women who are on the sensible, non-glamorous side. The difference is that Russ would not cheat on his wife. He doesn't immediately leave her when he realises he feels something for Clare, but the conflict is centred on whether he and Clare can still be friends when those feelings are there, or do they just need to cut off contact because those very feelings are cheating. With Harry, his whole conflict was more along the lines of "I screwed up, how do I keep this from my wife", which I found very sordid.

I found myself not liking these characters at all, and not really in a way that I think was intended. The narrative itself feels a bit misogynistic. Women seem to all be in competition and are all really catty. Ruth, in particular, is bitchy and resentful and envious about any woman who's younger than her and traditionally attractive. But it's not that Ruth is a flawed character who tells herself she's beyond caring if men find her attractive, but actually isn't (this would actually be interesting). The narrative actually portrays any woman younger than Ruth and more traditionally attractive than her as shallow and stupid and unlikeable, and that really annoyed me.

Also, it all feels a bit cartoonish. Characters' reactions don't ring true. They often don't behave like real humans. It's the little things that drove me crazy, because I kept going WTF every page. It's things like this: we're at a particularly tense moment, close to the end, as the case is unravelling. One of his officers is telling Nelson about a crucial finding she's made, and she's telling him that what gave her the clue was a piece of knowledge that's quite obscure. And in the middle of this tense development, he finds the time for a bit of anti-intellectual bitching: "Classical scholar, are you now?" Oh, seriously!

So, not a huge success, this one. I like the setting, which has a very vivid sense of place, and the bare bones of the cases very much, but I'm not sure I'll be continuing with this series. I might give the next one a shot, but I might not.



Miracle and Other Christmas Stories, by Connie Willis

>> Friday, December 05, 2014

TITLE: Miracle and Other Christmas Stories
AUTHOR: Connie Willis

PAGES: 336

TYPE: Short story collection

The winner of multiple Hugo and Nebula Awards, Connie Willis capture the timeless essence of generosity and goodwill in this magical collection if Christmas stories. These eight tales-two of which have never before been published-boldly reimagine the stories of Christmas while celebrating the power of love and compassion..

My first Christmas read of the season wasn't a success, but this one really hit the spot. I read it for my book club, where we have a tradition of reading something Christmas-related for our December meeting.

This collection had a nice variety of stories.

The first story is Miracle, where we get the crazy preparations for a completely over-the-top office party. This one is about how you sometimes don't know what you want, even when what you need is right in front of you. It's themed around the contrast between It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street (liking the latter over the former is a sign of being a great person). The crazy office politics reminded me quite a bit of Bellwhether, and there are other stories in the collection where Willis' satirical view of office life plays a part. I enjoyed that, but on the whole the story was just ok, not very subtle and a bit predictable. Also, I think I would have enjoyed the story more if I'd watched the two movies in question!

In Inn, a choir singer sneaks around her priest to shelter a young, foreign homeless couple who are clearly about to become parents (it might be snowing outside, but homeless people steal stuff, and it's more important to get the Christmas service just right than to help them). Obviously, there's more to the homeless couple than meets the eye. This one wasn't my favourite. The message was a bit heavy-handed, and the farce element (lots of going out one door right before someone comes in the other) was a bit much.

In Coppelius's Toy Shop features a selfish young man who grudgingly agrees to do a favour for a young mum (he wants to get into her pants), and ends up in a crowded toy shop right before Christmas. This one was really well done, and pretty creepy. I think I might have identified with the (objectively pretty horrid) protagonist more than I was intended to, because this toy shop felt like my version of hell as well. Maybe it's because I had to go into Hamley's when I was in London last week. I really, really couldn't wait to get out!

The Pony is the shortest one in the book and one of my favourites. On the surface it's quite a mundane situation: a young girl opening presents with her mum and aunt, and a present unexpectedly arriving for the aunt. There's nothing overtly wrong, but the sense of threat and creepiness grows and grows until it was really screaming at me in the end. I'm not sure how Willis did it, but it was great.

The main character in Adaptation is a bookshop employee whose ex-wife is determined to sabotage his plans for Christmas with their daughter. Into the mix come the Ghosts of Christmas, who are not as effective these days as in the 19th century. I was underwhelmed by this one, particularly because I found the ex-wife character much too cartoonish.

Cat's Paw was probably my favourite. It's a Golden Age-type mystery, with a Poirot-like detective and his Hastings-equivalent narrator, but set in the near future. Touffét is invited by an aristocrat to solve a mystery in her manor right before Christmas-time. Before long it becomes clear there's no mystery: she's an apes' rights activist who was just looking for some publicity, but an unforeseen event means there's a mystery to solve after all. I had lots of fun with this one. It's a knowing and funny parody of Agatha Christie's mysteries (complete with the big reveal scene, in which the detective points out in turn how every single character had a motive), made surreal by the setting and the talking, intelligent apes. And then there's the neat little twist at the end. I loved it.

Newsletter was my second favourite, very closely behind Cat's Paw. It's a hilarious story featuring a protagonist who suspects people are being taken over by aliens who make them unfeasibly polite and nice (which, this being set right before Christmas, is NOT the usual behaviour). Again, there's a really good twist at the end.

Finally, Epiphany follows a priest who has an epiphany and feels compelled to drive east for the second coming. He's joined on the road by others, and the reader suspects that the Bible story he thinks he's in is not the one that's actually being reenacted. It was an interesting story, but the ending felt a bit abrupt.

All in all, this was a good collection. No real duds here at all, and some really good stories.



About the Baby, by Tracy Wolff

>> Wednesday, December 03, 2014

TITLE: About the Baby
AUTHOR: Tracy Wolff

PAGES: 288
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Superromance

SETTING: Contemporary US and Eritrea
TYPE: Category Romance
SERIES: Seems to be related to a couple of other books, dealing with Lucas' friends in the clinic

Kara Steward and Lucas Montgomery have always been the best of friends. As doctors, they're too busy saving the world to commit to anything more. Still, Kara knows exactly who to go to when she needs a little support. But one night she turns to Lucas and…everything changes. And once they've crossed that line to more than friends, it's impossible to go back.

Their situation is even more tangled when Kara's job calls her away for several weeks. How can they talk about the new "them" when she's half a world away? She can't put off this discussion too long, however. Not after she discovers there's a baby to consider...

Lucas and Kara met at university, when they were starting on their way to becoming doctors. They became best friends and have kept up that friendship all through their eventful careers. Lucas is in a good place in his, as he's started a clinic with two good friends in inner-city Atalanta, but Kara's career is in more of a flux.

Kara is an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and is constantly travelling to troubled spots to trace the origins of disease outbreaks. The work itself is satisfying, but she's getting more and more frustrated with the politics around it. Her last deployment has been almost the last drop, as her team was pulled out of the country halfway through their work when its government and Washington got into a spat.

Lucas can tell there's something wrong with Kara, and he manages to get her to talk about how disheartened she's feeling and share her doubts about whether she wants to continue working with the CDC. It's a difficult, emotional exchange, and things end up with them giving in to an attraction neither had believed was there and sleeping together.

But the very same night a call comes for Kara from her boss. Even though she's just arrived back home that very day, she'll need to leave for Eritrea the next morning. There's an outbreak of Ebola (I know, I know, but I've had this in my TBR for ages and if I ever knew about it I didn't remember), potentially a mutated strain, and the CDC need their best people out there. However close to a breakdown Kara is feeling, she must go.

And while she's out there, she discovers there were consequences from that night with Lucas.

There were good things here, some real, fully-earned angst. It was surprising, because I was pretty sure when I started this that any angst would come from Kara. There's the way she's really torn about her job, believing in it and wanting to do what she signed up for but frustrated about the politics of it all. Then there's her pregnancy, which ends up being a really high-risk one, because of a disease she contracts in Eritrea in the very early stages of her pregnancy. There's also her family history, which has left her reluctant to rely on anyone, especially not someone like Lucas, whose family rely on him way too much already.

Lucas, in contrast, seemed like he was going to be the one in the stable place, balancing Kara. His job is challenging but he enjoys it as it is, and his family drama seemed more garden-variety: his mother and sisters got used to unlimited money and no responsibilities thanks to his indulgent father, and now that he's dead they can't really cope with the real world. They're burning through their inheritance (already have done, in his mother's case), and expect Lucas to pick up the slack.

And yet, once Lucas and Kara reunite after her return from Eritrea and he finds out about her pregnancy, most of the drama comes from his family, who really are jaw-dropping. Lucas' first instinct when finding out the full-extent of the risk to Kara's pregnancy is an automatic assumption that this is another woman he'll be taking care of. He doesn't resent it, just assumes it. But nope, when some distressing news come through about one of Lucas' sisters, Kara ends up taking care of him just as much as he takes care of her. I thought that showed quite well that this was going to be a relationship amongst equals, and I liked it.

The romance itself, however, is a bit sketchy. These two really don't spend that much time together, and I didn't quite get a love vibe from them. They clearly care about each other, but love? I wasn't completely convinced.

I was also conflicted about the sections dealing with Kara's work. There seems to have been quite a bit of research here, and some of the setup was interesting, but things didn't really come alive, even in the sections that were set in the field. I was also disturbed by how when Kara speaks of 'Africa' at the beginning of the book it's as if she thinks of it as one homogenous, hellish place. Africa is not a country, it's a huge, diverse continent, and a doctor who's spent a lot of time in different parts of it would know that, even if she's tended to go to the bits having trouble. All in all, this aspect of the book felt like a missed opportunity. Other than making Kara's pregnancy a risky one and keeping her out of reach of Lucas for a few months, it didn't really have much impact on the story.

MY GRADE: I guess a C+? The book was readable and there was enough good stuff there, but it was far from perfect.


November 2014 reads

>> Monday, December 01, 2014

It feels like I'm really enjoying fewer and fewer romances these days, but this was a pretty good month for them!

1 - Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel: A-
review here

It's 20 years after a flu pandemic killed a huge proportion of the world's population and made civilisation collapse. Our protagonists are in a travelling theatre company specialising in Shakespeare plays, which they perform in the tiny settlements that have developed over the years. An excellent book. It made me feel quite sad, but at the same time, positive about humanity.

2 - The Fall, by Kate Sherwood: B+
review here

Small-town m/m romance with a lot of really interesting family dynamics and personal growth. Sherwood is a newish author to me, and I'm liking her books very much.

3 - Gentle On My Mind, by Susan Fox: B+
review here

Another small-town romance, one with a great heroine. Brooke is in her 40s, a recovering alcoholic and has only recently got successful treatment for bipolar disorder. Into her ordered life comes an undercover cop looking for a murderer in her town. Really good.

4 - Indexing, by Seanan Maguire: B+
review coming soon

This is set in a version of reality where fairy tale narratives are determined to manifest in people's lives (usually with horrendous results). It's about a police team that specialises in keeping the narrative under control. I liked it, it was clever. It even had a couple of quite nice romances!

5 - Blackout, by Tim Curran: C+
review here

Novella about an alien invasion. I liked the very creepy start, but it didn't have characters who were developed enough for me to care what happened.

6 - About The Baby, by Tracy Wolff: C+
review coming soon

Hero and heroine are both doctors: he works in an inner-city clinic, she's an epidemiologist tracing outbreaks in far-flung places. They're best friends, and a one-night stand when the heroine is in a difficult place emotionally leads to the baby in the title. I found the romance pretty meh, but I liked some of the external drama.

7 - Midwinterblood, by Marcus Sedgwick: D
review here

A series of 7 linked vignettes, all taking place in a mysterious Nordic island and going back further and further in time with each vignette. I never really got what the point of the whole thing was, I'm afraid.

8 - Playing Dirty, by Susan Anderson: DNF
review coming soon

The hero did a very bad thing to the heroine in high school and publicly humiliated her. Now he's hired her house and her services to film a documentary, which throws them together. The writing wasn't working for me, plus I felt the hero wasn't trying to make amends, but to make himself feel better when he badgered the heroine with his apologies.

9 - Christmas With Her Boss, by Marion Lennox: DNF
review here

The heroine is the hero's PA and invites him to her family home for Christmas when he's stranded in Australia (her responsibility, they both think, which I didn't get). It felt very old hat, and it annoys me when not wanting to participate in Christmas cheer is portrayed as something that must be fixed.

10 - Miracle and Other Christmas Stories, by Connie Willis: still reading
review coming soon

Does what it says on the tin. It's my book club's pick for December. I liked Willis' take on the traditional stories and her weird angles. I'm forcing myself to read only one a day.

11 - The Secret Heart, by Erin Satie: still reading
review coming soon

Historical with a heroine who is a ballerina and a hero who is a boxer. It's a dense, angsty historical, and I'm enjoying it.

12 - The Shape of Desire, by Sharon Shinn: still reading
review coming soon

Urban fantasy, about a woman who's been in a relationship with a shape-shifter for many years. I'm having trouble rooting for this relationship (he spends most of his time in animal form and just shows up at her house when he becomes human again, very occasionally), but we'll see.


December 2014 wish list

>> Sunday, November 30, 2014

I think I must be missing some releases, because there aren't as many books here as I would expect.

Books I'm definitely planning to get

In Too Deep, by Kate Sherwood (Dec 1)

I only recently discovered Kate Sherwood's books. I loved Mark of Cain and The Fall. This one sounds good as well, although it seems to be a reworking of an earlier work. I'm not sure how I feel about that.

Love Me Tender, by Susan Fox (Dec 2)

I recently read and really liked the previous book in this series, Gentle On My Mind. The hero of Love Me Tender is a character there, and I did think as I was reading that I'd be interested in reading more about him.

Die Again, by Tess Gerritsen (Dec 30)

The latest in the Rizzoli and Isles series, which I really like. I've been hoarding the previous one, as I don't want to get completely caught up with it!

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

Say Yes to the Marquess, by Tessa Dare (Dec 30)

Dare has been hit or miss for me lately. Her plots are preposterous and silly, but sometimes they work for me wonderfully. I might try this one.

The Duke of Dark, by Desires Miranda Neville (Dec 31)

Miranda Neville is an author whose books keep catching my eye, even though the two I've read have been Cs. However, one was a novella and the other the first in a series which people told me got a lot stronger in later books. I might give her another shot, and this one sounds interesting.


Into the Blue, by Robert Goddard

>> Saturday, November 29, 2014

TITLE: Into the Blue
AUTHOR: Robert Goddard

PAGES: 498

SETTING: 1980s Greece and England
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: Harry Barnett #1

Harry Barnett is a middle-aged failure. Leading a shabby existence in the shadow of a past disgrace, he is reduced to caretaking a friend's villa on the island of Rhodes and working in a bar to earn his keep. Then a guest at the villa - a young woman he had instantly and innocently warmed to - disappears on a mountain peak.

Under suspicion of her murder, Harry stumbles on a set of photographs taken in the weeks before her disappearance. Obsessed by the mystery that has changed his life and determined to clear his name, he begins to trace back the movements and encounters that led to the moment when she vanished into the blue. The trail leads him back to England, to a world he thought he had left for ever - and a past he has tried desperately to forget.

We meet Harry Barnett sitting on a rock on the side of a Greek mountain, waiting for his companion to come back from walking up to the summit. Heather Mallender is a new acquaintance, a young woman taking a short holiday at the house in Rhodes that Harry takes care of for a rich friend. Harry is starting to get worried, as she's taking a lot longer to come back than she should. He finally decides to go look for her, but it's in vain. The only trace of her is her scarf tangled on a branch.

Reporting the disappearance to the Greek police, Harry finds himself under suspicion of having murdered Heather. Turns out the reason Harry is eking out an existence in Rhodes, taking charity from his friend, is because he was unjustly fired from his job in England. And that job was in Mallender Marine, owned by Heather's family. That's enough of a motive right there for anyone concerned, and though the police indicate after a while that he's no longer a suspect, the English tabloids have a field day with him.

And then Harry finds an indication that there might be something mysterious about Heather's disappearance and feels compelled to investigate. This means returning to England, a country that doesn't feel like home any longer. There Harry sets out to retrace Heather's steps before her disappearance, hoping this will help him understand what happened.

This is my second Robert Goddard book. The first one I tried really didn't appeal to me at all. In Pale Battalions was was all over-the-top dysfunctional families, more soap opera than mystery, and that wasn't really my thing. Into The Blue is completely different. It's a dense, atmospheric mystery, and a genuinely intriguing one. Unfortunately, it turns out to be a bit unsatisfying

ITB has a very interesting and atypical character. Harry Barnett is middle-aged and paunchy and he's a bit of a loser, really. All he's tried has failed, the garage he set up with a friend, his job at Mallender Marine. When he comes back to England all he has is his friendship with Alan Dyeshart (not sure of the spelling, as I listened to the audiobook), the rich MP whose house he was taking care of in Rhodes. Actually, the other thing Harry has is persistence, as well as a great deal of determination to find out what happened to Heather.

With Alan's financial backing, Harry painstakingly follows the clues, going where Heather has gone, talking to the people she spoke to and trying to find out what was said. There are a lot of potential paths to follow, and we're never quite sure which one is the right one, or even if different ones might turn out to be connected. I enjoyed the investigation, even though it's a bit too long. It took a little while to really get going at the start, and then things developed quite slowly, as Harry went from one place to another. I didn't quite get bored, but I remember feeling even when I hit the halfway point that I'd been listening to this book forever! Still, it kept moving and with each discovery there was a feeling of progress being made, so I kept reading with interest.

As the book progressed, though, I liked Harry less and less. And the problem was that I got the feeling the things that bothered me went completely unremarked by the narrative. I wasn't supposed to be bothered by things like him sleeping with a woman and then getting really angry because she'd "made him" betray her husband, who was a friend. I wasn't supposed to be bothered by the way he gets so pissed off at another woman because he feels she's made a fool of him, when it's painfully obvious that the only reason she's done so is because the consequences to her if she hadn't would have been really dire. He was a character who felt quite dated.

The ending was a big problem as well. It all ends in a bit of a whimper. The big revelation was not particularly surprising, and then Harry's entire investigation turns out to be kind of pointless. He does make a big, quite impressive deduction, but then we find out that someone else has taken actions that make the whole thing a moot point. Plus, as with Harry's character, the nature of a lot of what is revealed feels very dated, and not in a good way. The perils of reading older books!



Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

>> Thursday, November 27, 2014

TITLE: Station Eleven
AUTHOR: Emily St. John Mandel

PAGES: 352

SETTING: Contemporary and future North America
TYPE: Fiction

The Georgia Flu explodes over the surface of the earth like a neutron bomb.
News reports put the mortality rate at over 99%.

Civilization has crumbled.

A band of actors and musicians called the Travelling Symphony move through their territories performing concerts and Shakespeare to the settlements that have grown up there. Twenty years after the pandemic, life feels relatively safe.
But now a new danger looms, and he threatens the hopeful world every survivor has tried to rebuild.

Moving backwards and forwards in time, from the glittering years just before the collapse to the strange and altered world that exists twenty years after, Station Eleven charts the unexpected twists of fate that connect six people: famous actor Arthur Leander; Jeevan - warned about the flu just in time; Arthur's first wife Miranda; Arthur's oldest friend Clark; Kirsten, a young actress with the Travelling Symphony; and the mysterious and self-proclaimed 'prophet'.

Thrilling, unique and deeply moving, this is a beautiful novel that asks questions about art and fame and about the relationships that sustain us through anything - even the end of the world.

This is a novel not about the end of the world, but about what comes next. We start in the present day, when a famous actor called Arthur Leander is playing King Lear in an innovative new production. Halfway through the play, Arthur has a heart attack. The first person who realises what's going on when he starts to mess up his lines is Jeevan Chaudhary, an audience member who's training to be an EMT. Jeevan charges onto the stage and performs CPR, but can't save Arthur's life. Everyone's in shock and no one realises one of the child actresses, Kristen Raymonde, is still there watching it all.

That's the very night when the Georgia Flu begins its final spread. A sick passenger leaves its area of origin in the former Soviet republic and infects everyone on the same flight, and through them, people all around the world. This particular flue is airborne, extremely contagious and fast-acting, and kills over 99% of those who get it. It ends the world as we know it.

Twenty years later, we meet Kirsten Raymonde again. She's still an actress, now part of the Traveling Symphony. The Symphony is a group of actors and musicians who travel around the small settlements of survivors that remain in the area round the Great Lakes, specialising in Shakespeare's plays. And the action moves back and forth, as we follow the Traveling Symphony, then move onto the lives of people somehow connected to Arthur Leander, before and after the flu swept the planet.

I loved this book. I loved it because it's not your typical post-apocalyptic setting, where it's all violence and the strong abusing the weak. It's made clear that there was violence and fear at first, but in the last 5-10 years, things have got much more peaceful. People are getting on with living the best lives they can live, and travellers can expect a good reception in most towns. They might even expect a cautious welcome when coming upon an isolated dwelling, whereas we're told in the early days, the people there would have shot first and asked questions later. There are still exceptions, like a town they go through where a crackpot preacher has taken over, taking every woman and girl he fancies as his wives, but mostly people are good.

What surprised me the most, for a book that's basically killed over 99% of the Earth's population, is how hopeful it made me feel about humanity. It's strange, because it's also a book that's tinged with sadness and with a strong sense of loss. That sense of loss is for the people who died, but there's also a surprisingly strong grief for the world that has been lost, for a way of life whose relics the survivors can still see all around them. People can still remember a world where an infected scratch didn't pose a serious risk of death, but also a world where the light turned on when they flipped a switch, where they could speak to anyone anywhere in the world just by pressing a button and where warm air came out of ducts in buildings. It seems prosaic, but it felt true that people would mourn for that loss as well, and that those who were born after the collapse, or only a bit before it, would think of such things as computers as almost mythical. And that's where the hopefulness comes in: this is a book that says that our world and our humanity today are valuable, and that we would and should mourn if they were lost.

I also loved the structure of the book. The best way I can describe it is that the narrative starts out flying overhead and zooms in to focus on a particular character at a particular time, before zooming out again and going for someone, sometime else. At the beginning you can't really understand why we are seeing pre-collapse scenes of particular characters, but the connections come through later and make everything make sense. The structure helps us see the macro as well as the micro, but the focus on characters makes us really feel the significance and impact of the big things. And Mandel's occasional use of an omniscient point of view is truly arresting.

I highly recommend Station Eleven. A week after finishing it, random images from it still haunt me.



The Double Cross, by Carla Kelly

>> Tuesday, November 25, 2014

TITLE: The Double Cross
AUTHOR: Carla Kelly

PAGES: 240
PUBLISHER: Camel Press

SETTING: 1780s New Mexico
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: First in the Spanish Brand series, followed by Marco and the Devil's Bargain

The year is 1780, and Marco Mondragon is a brand inspector in the royal Spanish colony of New Mexico. A widower and rancher, Marco lives on the edge of Comancheria, the domain of the fierce Comanche.

Each autumn, he takes cattle and wool, and his district's records of livestock transactions to the governor in Santa Fe. he is dedicated, conscientious and lonely. This year, he is looking for a little dog to keep his feet warm through cold winter nights.

He finds a yellow dog but also meets a young, blue-eyed beauty named Paloma Vega. Paloma is under the thumb of relatives who might have stolen a brand belonging to Paloma's parents, dead in a Comanche raid. As a brand inspector, Marco has every right to be suspicious of brand thieves. If Marco has anything to do with it, Paloma's fortunes are about to change.

Don Marco Mondragón is a rancher and brands inspector living in 1780s New Mexico. His ranch is in what's quite literally the frontier, the remote Valle del Sol, just on the edge of the Comanchería. Marco has been on his own for many years, since his beloved wife and twin sons died of cholera while he was away on his duties. Since then, the only warmth he's had has been from his late wife's dog (not like that, you dirty-minded pervs! The dog simply sleeps on the foot of his bed and keeps his feet warm).

Now that little dog has died, leaving Marco with cold feet. He decides to get another one on his upcoming trip to Santa Fe, and as luck would have it, he sees a likely candidate in the first place he stops. That is at the house of Señor Moreno, whose daughter one of Marco's companions on the long trip to Santa Fe will be marrying within days.

The dog is the runt of a litter Paloma Vega is taking care of. Paloma is Moreno's niece, whom he took in after her whole family was killed in a Comanche raid. Well, "took her in" is a bit of an exaggeration. Paloma hasn't been treated as family, but as a servant, and a neglected one, at that. She works from dawn to dusk and is painfully thin from lack of food.

Marco is immediately attracted to Paloma, but the death of his wife has left him scared. The idea of coming to care for another woman, potentially for children as well, and having to leave for work with the fear that they might be dead when he comes back... well, that's enough to put him off. Reluctantly, he takes with him only the dog.

But thanks to some meddling, sympathetic priests, that's not the last Marco and Paloma see of each other.

This is a bit of a strange one. It's a romance (in the sense that the romance is the main focus) only in the first half. That's when Marco and Paloma meet, start developing feelings for each other and overcome adverse circumstances to get together again. But by the 50% mark, they have married, love each other and are very comfortable with the fact. They're loving their relationship (physical and otherwise) and are perfectly happy to tell each other so. There's not really anything to resolve in their relationship. I was wondering where the tension was going to come from. Well, the second half is about Paloma becoming established in Valle del Sol. There are goings on in a neighbouring ranch which force her and Marco to intervene, and as a result of that Paloma must reconsider her fear and mistrust of all Comanche people. Both plots were actually all right, it just felt a bit weird and episodic to have the book structured that way.

There is a lot to like. The setting felt really fresh. This is back when New Mexico was still Spanish, and the flavour is completely different to the sort of Westerns we're used to in romance, which take place much later. Actually, it felt more similar to what things would have been like in South America. That is especially the case with the religion, I think. All the characters here are Catholics, and religion is a big part of their lives. It doesn't cross the line into inspirational, but religion is something that's always at least in the background.

Also Kelly is doing a difficult balancing act here with her portrayal of the Comanches. At the time, for the people living here, they were the enemy. They would have been feared and hated, and people in this book do feel that way, even our protagonists. But through developments in the second half and a Comanche character who becomes very important, Kelly introduces some changes in attitude. These were borderline too modern, but mostly stayed on the right side of being believable.

What I didn't like so much was Paloma herself. She's fine at the start, but then she develops into an intensely annoying character. She doesn't put one foot wrong, ever. She's perfect, and everyone loves her. Well, every single good character. In this book, not liking Paloma is shorthand for being a shitty person. The scenes featuring her often cross the line into saccharine and twee. I think I was supposed to find such scenes adorable and sweet, but they made me go "oh, spare me!", instead. Like when Marco proposes and Paloma goes off on one because she doesn't have a dowry, and she doesn't want to dishonor such an important man. If she truly felt that way, ok, I could deal with that, but she's happy to accept his solution of her giving him her dilapidated sandals as a dowry, so it really musn't have been an issue. Yet it's clearly not a flirting, playing sort of episode, she really did seem to think the lack of dowry was a problem. So we're left with the conclusion that she's the type of person who cares about the letter of the law, but not the spirit.

Also, and this is an issue I've long had with Carla Kelly, the portrayal of pretty much every single woman of Paloma's class is horribly mean. Paloma's cousin and aunt are irrational, cruel, stupid and mean. The neighbour's daughter is a harridan. Ugh.

The second book apparently continues Paloma and Marco's story. I'm not in a hurry to read it, but I liked the world portrayed well enough that I might pick it up in the future.



Christmas With Her Boss, by Marion Lennox

>> Sunday, November 23, 2014

TITLE: Christmas With Her Boss
AUTHOR: Marion Lennox

PAGES: 192
PUBLISHER: Mills & Boon Cherish

SETTING: Contemporary Australia
TYPE: Category romance

Meg Jardine, personal assistant extraordinaire, is convinced she's about to lose her job. Her gorgeous, dark and deeply unimpressed boss, William McMaster, is stranded in Melbourne over Christmas - and it's all her fault! With her heart in her mouth, she invites the intimidating billionaire home for the holiday..

At Meg's chaotic, cozy family farm, William's cold reserve begins to melt away. Suddenly they're seeing each other in a whole new light, and country girl Meg has shot straight to the top of William's Christmas list!

This was a random pick from the depths of my TBR (literally random, as in choosing a number with an online generator and seeing what it corresponded to on Calibre).

It's (obviously) a Christmas story. Meg Jardine is billionaire William McMaster's Australian PA. She gets paid a really excellent (and much needed) salary for being completely at his beck and call and solving all his problems during the short periods when he's in Australia. The latest has fallen right before Christmas, and he's due to fly out to New York when disaster strikes. Air traffic controllers go on strike and there's no way to fly out. There are also no hotel rooms to be had in the whole city.

Even though none of this is her fault, Meg feels she must come through with a solution to have any hope of keeping her job. The best she can come up with is to invite her boss to stay with her family over Christmas. There's an en suite room he can stay in and internet for him to work, and she promises no one will bother him.

But all plans for a simple continuation of their 100% professional working relationship fall by the wayside almost immediately. The internet is down, Meg's grandmother refuses to countenance anyone referring to William as Mr. MacMaster and William finds himself learning more about Meg the woman and her family.

This is a nice enough story, but I'm afraid I got very bored after the first third or so. I've read this so many times before. The rigid person who deals with any feelings in a completely dysfunctional way thrust into a situation where others won't respect those boundaries and so our stuffed-shirt character must adapt. I don't like this story very much, I'm afraid. I keep wanting to shout at the presumptuous characters: respect others' wishes!! If someone honestly doesn't want to join in with the cheer, don't try to force them to. But of course, it always turns out to be exactly what they needed, etc., etc.

Plus, I'm SO over billionaire businessmen as romance heroes. Sorry, but no. Just no.



Gentle On My Mind, by Susan Fox

>> Friday, November 21, 2014

TITLE: Gentle On My Mind
AUTHOR: Susan Fox

PAGES: 385

SETTING: Contemporary Canada
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 3rd in the Caribou Crossing series

In her latest contemporary romance, Susan Fox welcomes readers back to Caribou Crossing, the ruggedly sexy Western town that seems made for starting over...

Brooke Kincaid knows second chances don't come cheap. She's spent five years repairing past mistakes and making her life in Caribou Crossing steady and predictable. But now a stranger's Harley has shattered her fence and her peace of mind in one swoop. Brooke is drawn to everything about wounded undercover cop Jake Brannon--his raw masculinity, his tenderness, and the undisguised desire that makes her feel more alive than she's ever been.

By rights, Brooke should curse Jake for complicating her life. Instead she's offered him a place to heal and a cover story as he searches for a wanted man. Jake knows she's vulnerable, but she's also strong, kind, and hotter than hellfire. It's a combination that could make even a die-hard loner long to put up his boots and put down roots at last, and show her just how good a second chance can get...

I loved Susan Fox's Planes, Trains and Automobiles series so much that it placed her on my autobuy list. Her latest work is a small town/modern Western series, which is not usually what appeals to me, but her name on the covers made me pick up the books anyway. They'be been sat in my TBR for a while, until I read Wendy's really intriguing comments on Gentle On My Mind. It's the third book in the series, but why not?

As Wendy says, what's most interesting about this book is the heroine. You certainly don't get many heroines like Brooke in romance novels. She's 43, and as the book opens she's just found out she's going to be a grandmother. This is wonderful news to her, especially since just a few years earlier the idea of being involved in her son's life would have been beyond her wildest dreams.

See, Brooke is a recovering alcoholic. She became an alcoholic while raising her son, Evan, whom she'd had at 15, and coping with a hard-drinking, violent, minor criminal of a husband. She would be the first to admit that she screwed up with Evan, and it wasn't a surprise to her that for many years he would want nothing to do with her.

But in events that happened in book 2 (I think!), Evan came back to Caribou Crossing and evidently reconciled with Brooke. By then Brooke had been sober for some 4 years, after landing in hospital after a car accident and being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The treatment for that was very successful, and spurred her into giving up alcohol as well.

As this book starts, Brooke is almost at the 5 year mark in her sobriety and has put together a satisfying life designed to keep her condition under control. She has a routine she enjoys, which includes things like regular exercise, healthy meals and lots of quality time with her son and his new wife and step-daughter.

And then Jake Brannon crashes his motorcycle into her white picket fence. Jake is a policeman working undercover to expose a drug dealer and grower who's also a murderer. He has received information that the culprit is a pillar-of-society type in Caribou Crossing, where Brooke and her family live, and he's been looking around the area. The reason he crashed into Brooke's fence is that he was running away from bad guys who shot him when he found their marijuana-growing operation, and he lost control of his motorcycle due to the loss of blood.

Jake doesn't start with the right foot with Brooke, as the best approach he can come up with in his half-unconscious state is to threaten to kill her family if she doesn't keep him hidden. But that doesn't last long, and Jake soon takes Brooke into his confidence and reluctantly accepts her help in vouching for him as a long-lost cousin, so he can infiltrate the town properly.

The whole undercover operation plot works mainly as a way to explore the community of Caribou Crossing and Brooke's status in it. After so many years of living there as the town drunk, she still feels uncertain about interacting with people, even though she's been sober for quite a while. Jake, with his outsider's perspective, is able to make her see the respect and true friendship people are offering. I also loved seeing Brooke with her son and his family. She's a bit tentative with him, as well, but you get the feeling that they're going to be fine.

The romance is nice, if not particularly revolutionary. Jake is hot and a motorcycle-riding adrenalin junkie. He won't ever give up undercover work, he tells Brooke, and this makes it obvious to her that there's no future in their relationship. She knows herself, and knows that she wouldn't be able to cope with the fear of knowing he's constantly putting his life in danger. I particularly liked how Fox used the romance as a way of showing us how Brooke had got so much stronger than she'd been a few years earlier. After she and Jake begin their affair she starts worrying, because she mistrusts the strong emotions he's making her feel. She worries that it might be triggering the sort of maniacal states she felt when her bipolar disorder was out of control. So what does she do? Well, in a refreshingly sensible move, she talks to her doctor, who reassures her and helps her start to learn the difference between strong emotions that are healthy and what she was used to feeling when she was ill.

I also loved the way something was dealt with at the end of the book. It's very spoilerish, so all I'll say before the spoiler tags is that an issue comes up that is present in very few romances (even though it happens much more commonly than that in real life), and that I thought the characters' reactions and actions were great. So, moving into spoilers: [start spoiler]Brooke gets pregnant, even though they've been careful. There might be issues with her continuing with her usual lithium doses while pregnant, so she seriously considers having an abortion. Her fears are not portrayed as irrational, and no one assumes this would be the wrong choice for her. Her doctor sets out the options for her and they discuss the risks of each, and Brooke thinks about it. She does decide to continue with the pregnancy, but never thinks abortion would have been wrong, just not the right option for her in that situation. Jake is supportive, too. Brooke writes him a letter when she finds out about her pregnancy, in which she tells him what's happened and that's she's considering a termination. Jake is on an assignment when the letter arrives, so he doesn't get it until much later. He assumes she has now had an abortion and doesn't judge her at all. He goes to see her to give her his support, not to condemn her or to try and stop her in case she's still pregnant.[end spoiler]

A really good book, and I'll definitely be reading the first two soon.

MY GRADE: A strong B+.


Midwinterblood, by Marcus Sedgwick

>> Wednesday, November 19, 2014

TITLE: Midwinterblood
AUTHOR: Marcus Sedgwick

PAGES: 272

TYPE: Horror

Have you ever had the feeling that you've lived another life? Been somewhere that has felt totally familiar even when you've never been there before, or felt that you've known someone even though you are meeting them for the first time?
In a novel comprising seven short stories each of them influenced by a moon - flower moon, harvest moon, hunter's moon, blood moon - and travelling from 2073 back in time to the dark of the moon and the days of Viking saga, this is the story of Eric and Merle who have loved and lost one another and who have been searching for each other ever since. In the different stories the two appear as lovers, mother and son, brother and sister, artist and child as they come close to finding each other before facing the ultimate sacrifice.

Beautifully imagined, intricately and cleverly structured this is a heart-wrenching and breathtaking paranormal romance, but it also has the hallmark Sedgwick gothic touch with plenty of blood-spilling, a vampire and sacrifice.

Midwinterblood is made up of 7 stories, all set in the remote Northern island of Blessed. We start in 2073, when a journalist called Eric Seven travels there to investigate rumours that there's a flower that islanders cultivate and helps them live forever. There is talk that this is sold at a huge price to the richest people on the planet, very illegally.

One of the first people Eric meets is Merle, a young woman he feels he recognises even though he's never seen her before. The other people he meets are all very helpful in terms of finding him somewhere to stay in this island without hotels and getting him food, but not in terms of answering any questions. Not that Eric is, after a while drinking the islanders' special tea, particularly interested in asking any questions, or even remembering that he meant to ask some.

Things don't end well for Eric and Merle, and as we go back in time in the following stories, we realise their souls have met many times over the centuries, in all sorts of different circumstances. They've been brother and sister, mother and child, old man and young girl. Always on Blessed, always the powerful dragon-shaped flowers playing some sort of role.

I thought the idea of Midwinterblood sounded amazing, but the execution of it wasn't to my taste. None of the stories were particularly interesting of themselves, all having boring characters and plots that just didn't capture my attention. I hoped at least the connections between the stories would end up gelling into something that would make the whole thing worth it, but they didn't. You'd see some things recurring and echoing, but it was all a bit pedestrian.

And then there was the writing style. That didn't work for me at all. It's... well, the best way I can describe it is 'fairy-taleish' and sort of dream-like. It didn't engage me, and in fact, I felt it distanced me from the emotions that were supposed to be evoked by the story. This is supposed to be horror, but it wasn't scary in the least. It wasn't even creepy. You need to care about characters, at least to an extent, before you feel afraid for them, and the people and situations need to feel real before you are afraid for yourself.



Blackout, by Tim Curran

>> Monday, November 17, 2014

TITLE: Blackout
AUTHOR: Tim Curran

PAGES: 234

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Horror

In the midst of a beautiful summer, in a perfectly American suburban middle-class neighborhood, a faraway evil is lurking, waiting to strike the unsuspecting residents.

First come the flashing lights, then the heavy rains, high winds, and finally a total blackout. But that's only the beginning...

When the whipping black tentacles fall from the sky and begin snatching people at random, the denizens of Piccamore Way must discover the terrifying truth of what these beings have planned for the human race.

I read this just after Hallowe'en, when I fancied reading something scary. Blackout started well on that front, but the scariness didn't carry all the way through.

Our narrator, Jon, and his wife live in a typical suburban American street. It's summer, and they and their neighbours have had a huge barbeque. Jon's had a bit too much to eat and drink, so he falls asleep on the sofa. When he wakes up everything is dark except for the strangely regular and much too frequent lightning, and his wife is not in the house. The neighbours are soon roused and helping with the search, until it becomes awfully clear that something big is going on. The tentacles falling from the sky and snatching people up are a bit of a clue.

Like I said, this started out great. The first part, with Jon and his neighbours not knowing what's going on and going round in the darkness, trying to get help and figure things out, worked perfectly for me. Curran creates a really effective creepy atmosphere and it felt believable. I had no problem buying that even if your gut is telling you that something is just WRONG, your response to your wife going missing is going to be to do what you're supposed to do: organise a search, try to get to the police, and so on.

Once it becomes clear(ish) that what's going on is an alien attack, however, things concentrate more on the action, and that's just a bit humdrum. I mean, there's a lot going on, a lot of excitement, but I found it hard to care much and I certainly didn't feel scared (even though I was reading this in a mountain lodge in the middle of nowhere). Maybe it was that the characters were too undeveloped for me to care what happened to them. We get to know Jon a bit, but after the first sections, I wasn't quite feeling his reactions. It all felt a bit cold an unemotional. The resolution was cool in an intellectual way, but I get the impression I should have been feeling horror and despair. I didn't. I just closed the book and went to sleep.

So, I enjoyed it, but it wasn't great.



The Fall, by Kate Sherwood

>> Saturday, November 15, 2014

TITLE: The Fall
AUTHOR: Kate Sherwood

PAGES: 214
PUBLISHER: Dreamspinner Press

SETTING: Contemporary Canada
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: There's a follow-up

Every relationship leaves something behind. Dumped by his sugar daddy, part-time model Scott Mackenzie somehow ends up owning an abandoned church in rural Ontario. He dreams of using it for gay weddings, even if he’ll never have one of his own.

Joe Sutton is trying to keep his family together after his parents’ deaths. Between the family ranch, his brother’s construction company, and commitments around town, he doesn’t have time for a relationship. But Mackenzie is hard to ignore.

As both men fight their growing attraction, challenges to Mackenzie’s business threaten their relationship. If he can’t make it work, he’ll have to crawl back to the city in defeat. But the only solution involves risking the ranch Joe loves, and each man has to decide how much he’ll sacrifice for the other.

Mackenzie (his first name is Scott, but he goes by his last name) has spent the last few years in a relationship with an older, much richer man. In exchange for being the perfect boyfriend, always considerate of his man's needs and not of his own, always at his beck and call, Mackenzie got security and a very comfy lifestyle.

And then the older boyfriend decides Mackenzie's getting too old for a boy-toy, and should be replaced by a younger model. Now all Mackenzie has left is a small nest egg and a run-down, deconsecrated old church in rural Ontario. The plan when he bought it was to turn it into a venue for gay weddings, which with the ex's money and connections, would have been a nice hobby. Mackenzie is determined to make it work anyway.

Joe Sutton meets Mackenzie when he accompanies his twin brother Will to have a look around the church. Joe mainly takes care of the family ranch, but he sometimes helps Will in his contracting business. He finds Mackenzie really attractive (not that he shows it), but he has a lot on his plate. Work is really busy, but there are also loads of family responsibilities. He and Will raised their younger siblings after the death of their parents, and the whole family are now raising the 4-year-old son of the younger brother, who was too young to do it himself.

But of course, this wouldn't be a romance if temptation didn't get to be too much for Joe, and what starts as casual turns more serious as the two men start liking and depending on each other more and more.

I picked this one up after adoring Sherwood's Mark of Cain. While The Fall doesn't have the angsty plot of Mark of Cain, it has a lot of what I liked about it. There's the romance that is about much more than good sex, there's the sense of community and characters who are dealing with much more than what's going on in their love lives.

I'm a sucker for well-done, real-feeling family drama. I particularly like it when what we've got is real tensions and conflicts that arise in a loving family, who continue to love each other even when they are driving each other crazy and might momentarily not like each other very much. This is what we get here. It's people acting like real people, not like evil cartoonish villains, and the tension was much better for it. I loved all those scenes with Joe's family, and I loved seeing Mackenzie fitting in with them at the end. And I particularly loved little Austin, the 4-year-old nephew being brought up by the whole family. I haven't got a maternal bone in my body, but he is truly adorable. I don't know if he's realistic (I suspect not, he's always really good), but I don't care, because he's so sweet in a completely non-saccharine, non-sickening way.

I liked the romance. It wasn't perfect, mainly because Joe's issues behind his reluctance to get involved with Mackenzie don't feel as clearly understandable as they could have been, but that was a relatively small issue. What I loved best was Mackenzie's character arc. I loved that this was not about him finding another protector, but about him coming into his own and meeting the über-competent Joe on his own terms.

This was a really good one. There's apparently a sequel, continuing Joe and Mack's story, but I don't know if I'll go for it. I liked where this stopped. It felt like a wonderful ending to me, and I'm always reluctant to take the risk of ruining that. But then, that's how I felt about the In Death books (it took me years to go beyond Naked in Death), so I'm well aware the pay-off can be great.

MY GRADE: A strong B+.


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