April 2014 wish list

>> Monday, March 31, 2014

April is going to be an insanely expensive month. If you hear any screaming around the 14th/15th, it'll be my credit card. A lot of those (the sports romances, mainly) are Carina Press books I added after reading the letter from the editor at the front of Emma Barry's Special Interests. That one I've actually already read, so it shouldn't be here, technically, but I liked it and want to highlight it

Books I'm definitely planning to get

Her Kind of Trouble by Sarah Mayberry (Apr 1)

Mayberry is an autobuy, and I like the sound of this one: a couple building a relationship after having a one-night-stand years earlier. There’s kids, though, which is something I don’t like that much.

The Wedding Ring Quest by Carla Kelly (Apr 1)

Ditto the previous one. It sounds like a lot of fun, too.

Special Interests, by Emma Barry (Apr 7)

As I mention above, I've read this already (I don't request ARCs very often, maybe a couple of times a year, and this was one of them). I was interested because the hero and heroine are in politics, but both are working on the nitty gritty of policy behind the scenes, which is a point of view we don't see often.

The Kraken King Part I: The Kraken King and the Scribbling Spinster, by Meljean Brook (Apr 15)

Talking about serials a while ago I said I'd only go for one if it was written by someone like Meljean Brook. Well, this is it. The Kraken King is the story of Archimedes Fox's sister, Zenobia. There are two further entries coming out in April: The Kraken King and the Abominable Worm on the 22nd, and The Kraken King and the Fox's Den on the 29th. There will be 8 episodes, with the latest coming out in early June.

Her Best Laid Plans, by Cara McKenna (Apr 15)

I’ll be honest, the “Cosmo Red Hot Reads” sign on the cover sort of puts me off, but it’s Cara McKenna, and I adore her books.

Hard Time, by Cara McKenna (Apr 15)

Not sure why McKenna has 2 books coming out on the same day, but hey, brilliant for me. This one I’ve actually preordered, as it sounds to be along the same lines as the wonderful After Hours and Unbound.

The Collector, by Nora Roberts (Apr 15)

Another autobuy. I’ve been enjoying Roberts’ latest stand-alone romantic suspense novels, so even though the early reviews I've seen of this one are very lukewarm, I know I'll still be reading it.

An Unsuitable Husband, by Ros Clarke (Apr 21)

Lots of sports romances this year, but this is the only one centred on a sport I actually care about. Not many details around yet (not even a cover!), but the author posted on the Dear Author open thread for authors and called it "the sexy French footballer story". I'm really not convinced a footballer would feel he has to enter a marriage of convenience as "a way to clean up his act for the sake of his next contract" (not when Wayne Rooney is the highest paid footballer in the Premier League), but hey, I'll give it a chance!

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

Silence for the Dead, by Simone St. James (Apr 1)

A ghost story set in a hospital for World War I soldiers. I didn’t love the one book I read by this author, but her plots always intrigue me.

Prince's Fire, by Amy Raby (Apr 1)

I’m always looking for good fantasy romance, so I’ll keep an eye on this one.

Night Diver, by Elizabeth Lowell (Apr 8)

I'm always hoping for another series from Elizabeth Lowell like the one that starts with Amber Beach. Maybe this one will be it.

Imaginary Lines, by Allison Parr (Apr 14)

I liked the first in the series, Rush Me, and what I saw of the hero of this one there. Also, there aren’t enough romance novels with Jewish protagonists out there.

Playing It Close, by Kat Latham (Apr 14)

A sports romance centred on rugby? Oh, yeah! The only thing that would make me happier would be if it was League, rather than Union.

On the Surface, by Kate Willoughby (Apr 14)

And this one is a hockey romance. I’ve heard good things about it from Jane, from Dear Author. She says the hero is really sweet.

Love in Straight Sets by Rebecca Crowley (Apr 14)

And finally, tennis! With the heroine being the professional athlete, too!

Heaven's Queen, by Rachel Bach (Apr 22)

This one is part of the series that starts with Fortune's Pawn, which is on my TBR and has had excellent reviews.

Ladder to the Red Star, by Jael Wye (Apr 28)

Part of a series called Once Upon a Red World. I’m intrigued by the idea of sci-fi fairy tale adaptations. This entry, as you might deduce from the title, appears to be based on Jack and the Beanstalk, which sounds like fun. There was a review recently on SBTB of the first in the series which said the plot was good but pointed out some issues with misogynistic portrayal of some of the female characters. I'll wait and see on this one.


The Surgeon's Lady, by Carla Kelly

>> Saturday, March 29, 2014

TITLE: The Surgeon's Lady
AUTHOR: Carla Kelly

PAGES: 299
PUBLISHER: Mills & Boon Historical

SETTING: Early 19th century England
TYPE: Historical romance
SERIES: Follows Marrying The Captain

Coldly sold for marriage to the highest bidder, Lady Laura Taunton does not hold much faith in love and kindness. The war against Napoleon only serves to echo this feeling, until she meets intriguing Royal Naval surgeon Lieutenant Brittle – a man who’s the exact opposite of her cruel late husband. Taking up his offer to help aid the battle’s injured, Laura starts to believe that she could have a place in the world…and a man who can show her true happiness.

We meet Lady Laura Taunton at a bit of a turning point in her life. She's recently widowed and the death of her husband, meant relief, rather than bereavement. It's not just that he was a much older man her father forced her into marrying and he was obsessed with getting her pregnant. It's also that Laura spent the last few years nursing her husband after a really bad stroke, and she's glad both of them are free of this (I didn't quite get why she felt she had to do the most intimate tasks of nursing an invalid herself, when she did not like the man, they had plenty of money to hire someone else to do them, and it's not like fine ladies were expected to take on such tasks, anyway, but I was willing to suspend disbelief and go with it).

Laura has recently found out that she wasn't her father's only illegitimate daughter, and as the book starts, she decides to get over her fear and contact one of the others, Nana. Rather than write and give herself time to chicken out, Laura just gets on a carriage and travels to the house where Nana lives with her new husband.

Nana is married to a ship captain, and at her place, Laura meets Lt. Philemon Brittle, a naval surgeon. Each is very impressed by the other, but their stations are far apart, and both assume they'll never see each other again. But then Nana, who's far along in her pregnancy, asks Laura to make the trip to the hospital to visit a boy who served on her husband's ship and has been wounded in battle. And of course, the boy is being cared for in Philemon's ward, so the two reconnect.

The Surgeon's Lady started out pretty confusing. This is the 2nd book in a series, and Kelly drew heavily on the events of the 1st book in this section. For a while I wondered who Nana and Lord Ratcliff were and why Laura was afraid to contact Nana, and I felt hopelessly muddled. I got it after a while, and things got off the ground, but throughout the book, I felt like there were things I didn't quite get, and I suspected I'd understand their significance a lot better if I'd read book 1. For instance, all the stuff about Laura and Nana's father and his perfidy. We only get passing references to his treatment of Laura and what happened when he forced her to marry her husband. It sounds like he wasn't at all a loving father to Laura, but deciding whom his daughter should marry doesn't seem extraordinarily mean or cruel. And yet Laura flips at the very idea of seeing him again, while she seems to forgive her late husband, who was basically verbally and sexually abusive. I'm pretty sure if I'd read the first book I'd have understood her feelings towards her father much better, but from what was in this book, it doesn't quite make sense.

The middle sections, though, I loved. Laura's visit to Philemon's hospital ends up with her accepting an offer to work as a matron, both organising the place and dealing with patients. The hospital stuff is fascinating, and I really liked the camaraderie that develops. I particularly loved Philemon's immediate assumption that Laura is competent and caring and will want to and can help. It's not based on nothing (after all, he knows she's nursed her late husband even though she wasn't in love with him), but he could have assumed that as a lady there was no way she would even consider coming within a mile of, as they're described here, "common tars". Actually, it might strain disbelief that he does assume this, but it's just such a Philemon thing to do. The man is completely focused on healing and helping people, and I thought he was lovely.

I loved all this, but Kelly kind of lost me as we got closer to the end. I lost interest in what was going on once the main thrust of the plot wasn't the work in the hospital any longer, but the romance and whether Laura could trust another man given her treatment by her late husband. I don't know why I wasn't interested in this, it's exactly the sort of plot that appeals to me and that I've liked in the past. It just didn't work for me here. I guess it might be that there wasn't much tension to it. I knew exactly what was going to happen, and there were no surprises, so I was bored.

So, a really good middle, bookended by a begining and an end that didn't really work for me. I'd still recommend reading it (especially if you have read the 1st book in the series), but Kelly's definitely written better.



Unlocked, by Courtney Milan

>> Thursday, March 27, 2014

TITLE: Unlocked
AUTHOR: Courtney Milan

PAGES: About 110 pages
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Early 19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Part of the Turner series (not many connections, though)

A perpetual wallflower destined for spinsterhood, Lady Elaine Warren is resigned to her position in society. So when Evan Carlton, the powerful, popular Earl of Westfeld, singles her out upon his return to England, she knows what it means. Her former tormenter is up to his old tricks, and she’s his intended victim. This time, though, the earl is going to discover that wallflowers can fight back.

Evan has come to regret his cruel, callow past. At first, he only wants to make up for past wrongs. But when Elaine throws his initial apology in his face, he finds himself wanting more. And this time, what torments him might be love...

Something I've often thought when it comes to Regency-set historicals is that these young women coming out in society would have been very, very young, and so would have many of the young men attending all those balls with them. Would they have been any less thoughtless and cruel than teenagers today?

It's clear that the young people in Unlocked could be just as cruel and thoughtless as the most self-absorbed teens today, as shown by the treatment meted out to Lady Elaine Warren. Elaine couldn't wait to have her first season. A happy, exuberant girl, she was ready to enjoy herself. And then she met Evan Carlton.

Evan found himself very attracted to Elaine's vitality, but young as he was, he opted to show this attraction by basically pulling her pigtails. He kept mocking her, and since he was the popular boy, the rest of society followed suit. By the time Evan realised what he had done the damage was done, and like the immature idiot he was, he ran away instead of trying to fix the mess he'd created.

Elaine had nowhere to run to, though, and 10 years later, she's still stuck in the same cycle. She's a laughingstock, especially because she refuses to be cowed and hide in a corner. So her laugh makes her sound like a horse? Well, she'll keep laughing, and let them mock her. But continuing to smile in the face of humiliation is not easy, and her defiance has taken a huge toll on her.

And then Evan comes back from his self-imposed exile, and is shocked to see that what he set in motion has taken on a life of its own. He had expected (or hoped, rather) that society would have got bored of mocking Elaine and moved on to other victims, leaving her to make a good marriage. He can't believe they're still picking on her and that, as a result, she's still single. And he's even more surprised to realise that his old attraction is still there, and even stronger now.

Ahh, the lovely, lovely angst. I really enjoyed this. Milan is really good at novellas, and Unlocked is one of her best. It's not an easy conflict to solve, because Elaine has excellent reasons to detest Evan and, at the beginning, I honestly didn't know whether she should forgive him at all. Evan has his work cut out for him, and I liked that he realised it and understood that Elaine had no obligation to forgive him, no matter how sorry he now felt about what he'd done all those years ago. He also didn't set out to get her to forgive him, his motivation in the present day was simply to make amends for the harm he had caused. This is romance, so of course, Elaine does forgive him, but it was important to me that Evan wasn't doing it for that. And I believed fully in Elaine's forgiveness. This is a novella, so there isn't a whole lot of space, but Milan convinced me about the gradual development of a changing relationship between them. Lovely.

In addition to this, I particularly liked something that I've liked in other Milan works, and that is the mixture of love and pain that can occur in the parent/child relationship. Elaine's mother is a genius, an absolutely brilliant woman in her field, but completely oblivious. She loves her daughter, but has absolutely no idea what her social situation is. So Elaine is not just defending herself from society, but also her mother. Her mother, meanwhile, and with the best of intentions, keeps making things worse. These sections made me cry.

So, so good.



Dark Matter, by Michelle Paver

>> Tuesday, March 25, 2014

TITLE: Dark Matter
AUTHOR: Michelle Paver

PAGES: 256

SETTING: 1930s London and and island beyond the Arctic circle
TYPE: Horror

January 1937. Clouds of war are gathering over a fogbound London. Twenty-eight year old Jack is poor, lonely and desperate to change his life. So when he's offered the chance to join an Arctic expedition, he jumps at it. Spirits are high as the ship leaves Norway: five men and eight huskies, crossing the Barents Sea by the light of the midnight sun. At last they reach the remote, uninhabited bay where they will camp for the next year. Gruhuken. But the Arctic summer is brief. As night returns to claim the land, Jack feels a creeping unease. One by one, his companions are forced to leave. He faces a stark choice. Stay or go. Soon he will see the last of the sun, as the polar night engulfs the camp in months of darkness. Soon he will reach the point of no return - when the sea will freeze, making escape impossible. And Gruhuken is not uninhabited. Jack is not alone. Something walks there in the dark...

It's 1937. Jack Miller had hoped his escape from poverty would come through academia, but after that turned into a failure, he's stuck in an impoverished, depressing life. An offer to take part in an Arctic expedition as a wireless operator is not particularly tempting, but as the only way to change his life, Jack takes it.

The group, mainly composed of upper class academics, aim to settle in Gruhuken, on a small island in the Barents Sea, and spend a year there. As they approach the site, though, it becomes clear the locals are very uneasy about it. A couple of the expedition members drop out before they even get to their destination. Only three of them make it to the camp, where Jack experiences some of the same discomfort the locals seemed to show. He even sees something, but convinces himself he must have been wrong.

And then disaster strikes, and his two companions must leave. Jack can either go with them, allowing the expedition to fail, or stay on his own through the Arctic winter. He chooses to stay. And through his diary entries, we get to share his experiences.

This is one of the best, most original and most terrifying ghost stories I've ever read. Everything about it is perfectly executed. One of the things that impressed me the most was how Paver used characterisation to justify what was the main suspension of disbelief issue: why Jack would decide to stay on on his own in Gruhuken, ignoring his unease. Jack's motivations were completely convincing. There's the class envy-based need to prove himself by keeping the expedition going, plus his hero-worship, maybe more, of Gus. It made complete sense that he would stay. After all, he doesn't know what's going to happen.

What does happen after Jack is alone is something I'm not even going to hint at. All I'll say is that it's deliciously chilling, and that Paver relies on suggestion and psychological development, rather than on gruesomeness, to generate the growing sense of terror. The narration, through Jack's diary entries, is genius. The writing itself conveys Jack's state of mind much better than any description could.

If you're even mildly interested in horror, you should read this. Just, maybe, wait until the summer.



The Chocolate Rose, by Laura Florand

>> Sunday, March 23, 2014

TITLE: The Chocolate Rose
AUTHOR: Laura Florand

PAGES: 245
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Contemporary France
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Part of two different series: #3 in Amour et Chocolat and #1 in La Vie en Roses

Romantic Times calls Laura Florand's writing "sensuous and sumptuous", awarding her their Seal of Excellence, and NPR says it's "explosive, sensual... and utterly sweet".

Now, in the third book in the Amour et Chocolat series, a book USA Today calls "so romantic and sexy", Florand takes us from Paris to summer in Provence, for the steamy encounter between top chef Gabriel Delange and the daughter of his worst enemy, Jolie Manon. Hot-tempered Gabriel isn't above blackmail to get what he wants, but what he wants might very well be Jolie herself. Because in the heat and sun of Provence, where jasmine and roses climb up old colored walls and fountains play in ancient stone villages, even a beast can prove he is a prince at heart...

Jolie Manon's father Pierre, one of the world's top chefs, has always been a difficult man. Jolie loves him, though, so she's very disturbed when she sees the letter announcing that a former pastry chef of her dad's is suing him. Gabriel Delange, now the head of his very own 3 Michelin starred kitchen, claims that the recipe book that Jolie (a food writer) and Pierre recently cowrote includes several recipes created by Gabriel, including the spectacular and extremely famous chocolate rose on the cover.

Pierre is recovering from a pretty bad stroke which has left him with some motor impairment, and Jolie refuses to put his recovery in danger by bringing up the lawsuit. She'll deal with it herself, even if it means travelling to the little village where Gabriel has set up his own restaurant.

The premise of The Chocolate Rose is quite clearly based on the Beauty and the Beast basic storyline, which is always something I like. There's the father who steals a rose from the Beast, whom the daughter must then appease (Gabriel even roars quite frequently, at least at the beginning). Gabriel, who's attracted to Jolie from the start, demands that she cowrite a recipe book with him, as an excuse to spend time with her.

I think this might not have been the best book to start reading Florand. I did end up liking it and it made me want to read more by her (good thing, too, because I have several of her books in my TBR). However, it was touch and go for a while. It was a very rocky start and I really struggled with it, coming close to abandoning the book several times.

The problem was that in the first sections of the book, Gabriel's behaviour came across as sleazy and smarmy, rather than seductive. When Jolie first shows up in his kitchen there's a mixup and he thinks she's a new potential staff member, there for a trial. She knows she shouldn't, but she jumps at the opportunity of doing a day in a kitchen such as Gabriel's, even if all she's doing is the nasty, boring jobs. She doesn't do great, but doesn't humiliate herself, either. At the end of the day, Gabriel fires her, which is fair enough, because she clearly doesn't have the experience the job candidate claimed. What is not fair enough is that he thinks to himself that he's so attracted to her that the choice was between sexually harassing her if she continued to work there or fire her now and just ask her out (which he then promptly does). There follow loads of overly familiar and sexually aggressive innuendo (including constant talk about how she's clearly aroused by him, and look at how perky her nipples are, etc.) that I didn't find charming or sexy. I found it offensive, and would have liked to see Jolie tell him where she could shove his advances.

He also kept (as in, every couple of paragraphs, when we were in his POV) using the expletive "putain", which means 'whore' in French. Things like "Putain, but she was beautiful". I understand he wasn't calling Jolie a whore (we have a similar expletive in Spanish, and while you can (and I do) argue that it's offensive that the word should be an expletive at all, it doesn't mean you're calling anyone a whore). Once or twice would have been fine, it was the neverending litany, combined with his sleaziness at that point in the book. It was especially weird at one point when Jolie had just complained that the way he was treating her made her feel like a prostitute.

It took me weeks to get past the first quarter or so of the book. But then things suddenly got a LOT better. Jolie and Gabriel start a relationship of sorts, where the attraction is acknowledged. Gabriel continued to be a bit out there about his sexual interest in Jolie, but now it felt more like mutual flirting... consensual foreplay, basically. Now that it was appropriate, the same sorts of things felt hot, rather than smarmy, as they did when they were directed at a total stranger.

I also started to find Gabriel endearing, with his lack of a filter that keeps getting him in trouble and loneliness and need for a mate. He envies men, especially other chefs, who have managed to find someone to love them and tolerate a chef's long hours. But at the same time, I never got the feeling he fell for Jolie just because she was the first to be willing to do so.

Florand managed to convince me that these two fit together perfectly. She made the argument well, making it clear that Jolie's personality and her need to have her own space would make Gabriel, with his long hours and focus on his own thing as well, exactly the right guy for her, someone who wouldn't cling and smother her.

MY GRADE: A B. The last section is more like a B+, but I really was annoyed by the start.


Hero, by Alethea Kontis

>> Friday, March 21, 2014

AUTHOR: Alethea Kontis

PAGES: 304
PUBLISHER: HMH Books for Young Readers

SETTING: Alternate world
TYPE: Fantasy
SERIES: Second in the Woodcutters series

Rough-and-tumble Saturday Woodcutter thinks she's the only one of her sisters without any magic—until the day she accidentally conjures an ocean in the backyard. With her sword in tow, Saturday sets sail on a pirate ship, only to find herself kidnapped and whisked off to the top of the world. Is Saturday powerful enough to kill the mountain witch who holds her captive and save the world from sure destruction? And, as she wonders grumpily, "Did romance have to be part of the adventure?" As in Enchanted, readers will revel in the fragments of fairy tales that embellish this action-packed story of adventure and, yes, romance.

Hero is the second in a series based around a family that will sound familiar from pretty much every fairy tale you've ever read. Saturday Woodcutter's magical brother and sisters have had all sorts of adventures already. One sister married a king, a brother was once captured by a witch and managed to escape after stealing her eyes, that sort of thing. Saturday is the only one who doesn't have any magic of her own, but it's been predicted she'll have some sort of Destiny, and as the book starts, things get going.

One day, Saturday accidentally breaks a magical mirror and calls up a huge sea. Her Pirate Queen sister sails up to her door and Saturday goes with her, only to be plucked from the deck by a bird and taken to the same witch who'd captured her brother all those years ago. Turns out Saturday, who is tall and strong and wears trousers (and who has cut off her hair) has been confused with her brother, and the witch is demanding her eyes back.

Joining a young prince who was tricked long ago by the witch's daughter into taking her place, and some interesting creatures, Saturday must figure out how to stop the witch from releasing a dragon and causing the end of the world.

There were things I liked about Hero. I liked the role reversal of having a heroine who has the characteristics more commonly ascribed to male heros in fairy tales, and a hero with traditionally 'female' characteristics. I also like it very much when authors chop and mix up different fairy tales and create something new.

And yet, this did not work for me at all. It all came down to me not being able to buy the internal truth and coherence of the plot and characters. The plot felt disjointed and confusing and made little sense to me, and the characters didn't feel like real people at all. They kept behaving in ways that made me go "Hang on, what? Who does that?". I didn't buy the characters' motivations and often didn't understand why they did what they did.

It was a pretty quick read, thankfully, and I give Kontis points for originality, but it felt very unsatisfying.



River Road, by Jayne Ann Krentz

>> Wednesday, March 19, 2014

TITLE: River Road
AUTHOR: Jayne Ann Krentz

PAGES: 352

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romantic Suspense
SERIES: Not sure. If it is, it's the first in the series.

It's been thirteen years since Lucy Sheridan was in Summer River. The last time she visited her aunt Sara there, as a teenager, she'd been sent home suddenly after being dragged out of a wild party-by the guy she had a crush on, just to make it more embarrassing. Obviously Mason Fletcher-only a few years older but somehow a lot more of a grown-up-was the overprotective type who thought he had to come to her rescue.

Now, returning after her aunt's fatal car accident, Lucy is learning there was more to the story than she realized at the time. Mason had saved her from a very nasty crime that night-and soon afterward, Tristan, the cold-blooded rich kid who'd targeted her, disappeared mysteriously, his body never found.

A lot has changed in thirteen years. Lucy now works for a private investigation firm as a forensic genealogist, while Mason has quit the police force to run a successful security firm with his brother-though he still knows his way around a wrench when he fills in at his uncle's local hardware store. Even Summer River has changed, from a sleepy farm town into a trendy upscale spot in California's wine country. But Mason is still a protector at heart, a serious (and seriously attractive) man. And when he and Lucy make a shocking discovery inside Sara's house, and some of Tristan's old friends start acting suspicious, Mason's quietly fierce instincts kick into gear. He saved Lucy once, and he'll save her again. But this time, she insists on playing a role in her own rescue...

As a teenager, Lucy Sheridan had a very close escape. Visiting her aunt in the small California town of Summer River during her holidays, she was (she felt) lucky enough to be invited to a party thrown by the popular kids. When Mason Fletcher, the somewhat older boy she'd been crushing on for weeks, turned up and announced he was taking her back home to her aunt, Lucy felt humiliated. What she didn't know was that the ringleader of the popular kids had been planning to drug her and rape her. Mason, having heard about what was going to go down, was taking matters into his own hands. A few days later, the would-be rapist disappeared and after a while, was declared dead. Mason, who'd had a bit of a conversation with him after his rescue of Lucy, had some attention by the police, but he had an alibi, so nothing came from that.

Thirteen years later, Lucy is back in Summer River. She hasn't been back since that summer all those years earlier, but her aunt and her partner have recently died in an accident, and Lucy has inherited from them. She has their house to sort out, but also, surprisingly, she's been left shares in a local company owned by the town's preeminent family. Everyone keeps advising her to sell the family back those shares, as she seems to have stumbled into a battle for control of the company.

Lucy, however, is not quite ready to sell and get out of town. She suspects that the accident that killed her aunt and her partner wasn't an accident, and that it might have something to do with those shares. Lucy is determined to investigate, and it soon becomes clear that she might be right about the accident not being one. Furthermore, it looks like there might also be a connection with the would-be rapist, who, it turns out, might actually have been a serial rapist the police had been looking for.

Lucy had planned to do her investigating on her own, but Mason is back in town as well, and she's finding him hard to shake off. He's determined to be helpful to her, and supposedly businesslike appointments with him have a way of turning into dates.

This is the first JAK book in years that isn't part of her paranormal Arcane Society series. I've been quite vocal about my opinion that all this Arcane Society stuff hasn't been good at all. From the start, the paranormal elements have been half-baked and remarkably tedious (surprisingly, because her Jayne Castle books, which have a sort of paranormal element to them, have always been great). So as you might imagine, I was ecstatic to hear JAK was ditching that element. I was hoping to a return to the sort of books she was writing in the 90s.

Did I get that? In part, I did. There were bits here that reminded me of older JAKs. For instance, the way Lucy's forced by circumstances into the midst of a family dispute, one based on issues around the family business but born from family relationships, reminded me of books like The Golden Chance. That was really enjoyable, as was all the small town stuff. The balance between the mystery and the romance was also better than it's been for a while, with quite a bit of emphasis on the relationship between Lucy and Mason. It was a nice romance, too.

What didn't quite work as well was the nature of the mystery element. It felt like it didn't go well with the tone of the book, which was mainly nice and pleasant. The crimes here were much too traumatic and there were too many of them. Some of them were also very close to Lucy (her beloved aunt, for instance) and yet she didn't seem to be grieving, particularly. I also couldn't quite wrap my mind around the timing of the serial rapist thing. 13 years ago it was 2001. The things that the rapist did at the time (namely, filming his rapes and putting them online) felt a bit too modern. I mean, YouTube was only founded in 2005. Also, no one seemed particularly fussed about it all, not at the time and not even in the present day. That element just didn't gel at all.

At least, given the balance between romance and mystery, it wasn't enough to put a dent in my enjoyment of all the other stuff.

MY GRADE: A B. I fully admit I might be being a bit overenthusiastic here. Objectively, maybe it wasn't that great. I guess I'm just so happy that JAK's books seem to be moving in the right direction that I've temporarily suspended judgement.


Burning Angel, by James Lee Burke

>> Monday, March 17, 2014

TITLE: Burning Angel
AUTHOR: James Lee Burke

PAGES: 468

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: 8th in the Dave Robicheaux series

Sonny Boy Marsallas, a New Orleans street hustler, entrusts Detective Dave Robicheaux with a mysterious notebook, kicking off a series of violent incidents and raising questions that need answers, and fast… What did Sonny’s girlfriend know that got her murdered? Why is Sonny known as Red Angel by Central American guerrillas? And what do the Mafia want with a desolate stretch of New Iberia? This time Sonny Boy may have pushed his luck with the Giacano family one deal too far. A rich, sardonic and terrifying portrayal of contemporary America with a setting which is as charged as an electric storm.

This was the book chosen for my January book club. It's the 8th entry in James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux series of crime thrillers/detective novels set in Louisiana. Dave Robicheaux is a detective in a rural parish (I get the feeling he used to work in the big city earlier in the series). At the start, he runs into an old contact, Sonny Boy Marsallas, who entrusts him a notebook. After that, all hell breaks lose. Clearly someone is after Sonny Boy, but who is it, amongst the legions who might have a problem with him? The man spent some time as a DEA agent and a mercenary in Latin America at the time really nasty stuff was going on. He also has mafia connections. People related to all of this seem to be crawling out of the woodwork, and Dave doesn't know what's going on.

I’m going to be pretty unfair here. I suppose for what it is, the book may be well done. All the fans of the series on goodreads and amazon seem to think so. It’s just that I really, really, really don’t like what it is. I wouldn’t choose to read about mobsters and criminals and generally dodgy people living in what comes across here as a real shithole. And if I accidentally started reading a book like that, I’d normally just not finish it. Guess that’s the thing about book clubs. Picking up stuff you wouldn’t normally read can work, but it can also go horribly wrong.

So yeah, all I have are gripes. Even the things that normally would be good (e.g. a vivid setting) turned out to be negatives for me (e.g. the more vivid a nasty, horrible setting is, the more I hate it).

I particularly hated the way the cops worked here. They were awfully ready to operate outside of the rules, it was done as a matter of course. Dave’s partner Helen beats up suspects, he smashes a glass into someone’s face because they give him a bit of lip, and all sorts of stuff like that. They are very self-righteous about it, too, going on about how “when the rules start working for the lowlifes, get a new set of rules” and crap like that. No. Just no. The rules are there because the police DOES NOT have the right to decide whether someone is guilty or not. And at the same time this crap morality is being preached, violence is glamourised and criminals made protagonists. Ugh.

Even if I did like this sort of book, I think I might still have had trouble with this particular title. For starters, it really doesn't stand alone very well. I felt like I was lost, because the characters clearly had a history that strongly influenced their characters and relationships, and Burke didn't find it necessary to allow new readers to catch up at all. It made it very hard to understand why people were reacting in the way they did. Also, I often found the slang completely incomprehensible, the sort of thing I just couldn’t figure out from context. That happened all the fricking time.

Oh, and by the way, the female characters were really horribly done. Mainly they were pure stereotypes (like Ruthie Jean, who couldn’t have been more of a cliche if she'd tried, or Helen, the butch lesbian). The one who sounded like she might be a bit more interesting (Dave's wife, Bootsie, whose late husband was apparently a mobster) felt like a blank. Bootsie had absolutely no personality, she was just there. Infuriating.

The ending was particularly bad. Things just petered out, without much resolution. During the book club discussion, even those who'd liked the book couldn't really explain what the 'solution' to the mystery plotline was. To be fair, I don't think this was a mystery/thriller at all. I think it's literary fiction that borrows some of the staples and conventions of a crime thriller. As such, Burke is not concerned with story and plot at all, he seems more interested in creating an atmosphere and characters. Still, it was unsatisfying.

MY GRADE: A D. I really didn't enjoy it at all.


So Tough To Tame, by Victoria Dahl

>> Saturday, March 15, 2014

TITLE: So Tough To Tame
AUTHOR: Victoria Dahl

PAGES: 380

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Part of the Jackson Hole series

Tough to tame, but not too tough to love…

Charlie Allington is supposed to be on the fast track to the top—a small-town girl who was making it big in her career. Instead, she's reeling from a scandal that's pretty much burned all her bridges. Now, out of options, she needs a place to lick her wounds and figure out her future. True, working at a ski resort in rugged Jackson Hole, Wyoming, isn't her dream job. But if there's one perk to coming back, it's a certain sexy hometown boy who knows how to make a girl feel welcome.

Cowboy Walker Pearce never expected a grown-up Charlie to be temptation in tight jeans. She's smart and successful—way out of league for a man like him. But he's not about to let that, or his secrets, get in the way of their blazing-hot attraction. Yet when passion turns to something more, will the truth—about both of them—send her out of his life for good…or into his arms forever?

Victoria Dahl is one of my favourite authors of contemporary romance, but I let myself be put off by the very lukewarm reviews of her latest series (especially the first book in it). Well, I shouldn't have, because her contemps just work for me, even when I see some issues with them.

So Tough To Tame is the third in the series (which also includes a couple of short stories), but stands alone fine. Charlie Allington is used to being respected. She was a studious girl in school and, after leaving the small town of Jackson Hole, she started to build a very successful career in security. She was flying high until she trusted the wrong person and was left holding the bag (if you forgive the mixed metaphor). While the police withdrew criminal charges, her reputation in the business was ruined, as people assumed there must have been something to the accusations.

As the book starts Charlie is back in Jackson Hole, where a former school friend and her husband have given her a job as head of security in the new resort they're about to open. It sounded like a great opportunity, but it's turned out to be a nightmare. The former friend has turned into a complete nutter who disrespects Charlie and makes it clear she suspects her of all sorts of misconduct, including wanting to seduce her husband. At her wits' ends, Charlie decides the only way her sanity will survive is to keep their interactions only to working hours, so she moves out of the provided accomodation in the resort and into an appartment in town.

And immediately, things start to look up. One of the first people she meets there is Walker Pearce, whom she used to tutor when they were in high school. Walker was attractive as a teenager, but he's off the charts now. And he's just as attracted to her. He used to fantasise about her during their tutoring sessions, but he felt clever, good girl Charlie was out of his league.

I really liked both characters, especially Walker. I thought his character was particularly well done. Walker is dyslexic, and this has had a big effect on how he sees himself and what he's capable off. This is not one of those books where dyslexia is ridiculously presented as this huge, horrible, shameful secret. It’s not at all a secret. People know and some mild accommodation was made for Walker when he was in high school, although not really as much as he needed, or as would be made today as a matter of course (at least from what I hear from my friends who have kids). But, combined with the fact that his father saw and treated him as stupid, and that Walker has absorbed those views, this has resulted in a man with a low view of his own intellectual abilities and capabilities.

Walker is a cowboy, and although he enjoys some of the work, Dahl gives us a more realistic and unromantic view of the job than found in most romances. It can be back-breakingly hard work, especially as a man gets older. It's pretty miserable in bad weather and the job security sucks. When Walker is earning money he makes enough to live comfortably, and has managed to set aside a small amount, but he doesn't know what he'll be able to do in a few years, or what would happen if he got injured and had to miss even a couple of months of work. It's heart-breaking, because it becomes quite clear that he's got some outstanding skills, especially with people, and he could get a job that he'd like more and would be better for him, if only he dared go for it.

The relationship between him and Charlie was also affected by this, and in a way that broke my heart as well. Over the years, Walker has become someone who's seen as only good for showing a girl a great time in bed. He's just not someone women will consider as a prospect for a relationship. Walker feels that this is because he's just not good enough for the kind of intelligent woman he feels attracted to. And once he starts a relationship with Charlie, it feels like it's going to follow the script of all other relationships in his life. Charlie thinks so as well, not because she feels he's not good enough, but because he's developed a reputation for loving them and leaving them, so she feels that trying to have something serious with him is setting herself up for a fall. Watching them negotiating all this made for fascinating reading. This sort of plot is also a weakness of mine. I enjoy the role reversal, because it’s so often the hero is all confident and arrogant, and the heroine who’s suffering from self-esteem issues. I love it when it’s the opposite.

And by the way, those love scenes. Dahl is one of the very few authors whose scenes work for me (although there was one in this one where she lost me). Her love scenes are all about the feelings, not so much about what is going on physically. Oh, we get the physical as well, it's just that it’s not the whole point. They are also about developing the relationship. You couldn't just cut them out, because the relationship just wouldn't work without what's being shown in them.

Something else I really appreciated here was that there was none of the 'blood is thicker than water' crap we get in so many romances, where there’s this decree that you MUST forgive and love your relatives, even if they’ve been crap to you. We could have got that with both Walker and Charlie (father and brother, respectively), but we absolutely don’t. In fact, the resolution of a certain threat against Charlie is exactly as it should be (don’t want to add more detail than that), and I cheered her for it.

I had more mixed feelings about another element I usually love in Dahl's books, which is how her books often deliver an explicitly feminist message. This happens here as well, although with mixed success.

The successful part was the characterisation of Charlie, who is completely unconflicted about her sexuality. She knows (and even insists out loud to her slut-shaming boss) that there is absolutely nothing wrong with her enjoying sex and that no one has the right to judge her for it. I loved that.

However, what I didn’t love is that Dahl seems to think that it’s sex-positive and feminist to have women engage in the sort of behaviour that would brand men sexually harassing assholes. I’m talking about Rayleen, who seems to be a recurring character in the series. She is the owner of the apartment complex where Walker and Charlie rent, an old woman who constantly makes crude sexual comments to Walker (and apparently to any other young man who may live in the complex -she insists on only renting to hot “studs”). I get that she’s meant to be funny (Charlie finds her absolutely hilarious), but I didn’t find her so at all. Yeah, call me humourless, but I don’t think the aim of feminism should be to allow women to objectify men in exactly the same hurtful way they have objectified us over the years. Doing so can be a weapon in the fight (‘this is what it feels like, see why I’m saying it’s harmful and awful for us?’), but I didn't feel that was what was going on here. I had similar mixed feelings about the girls’ night Charlie has with her new friends. I'm all for women being frank about sex and about enjoying it, and I’ve had plenty of girls' nights with my own friends,where we bullshit about sex and it’s so much fun. This one, I'm afraid, felt forced and fake and pretty immature, like a bunch of little girls trying hard to be shocking.

This is only a very minor element of the book, though. On the whole, I enjoyed it very much, and will definitely go back and read all the others in the series.



Simon Said, by Sarah Shaber

>> Thursday, March 13, 2014

TITLE: Simon Said
AUTHOR: Sarah Shaber

PAGES: 220
PUBLISHER: St. Martin's

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Cozy mystery
SERIES: First in a series

Forensic historian Simon Shaw likes his murders old and cold, and his first case fits the bill. An archeologist friend has found a skeleton with a bullet hole in its skull under historic Bloodworth House, and Simon investigates with his usual doggedness until he discovers that the corpse is Anne Bloodworth, an heiress who disappeared in 1926. Shaw feels compelled to find out who killed her. But this turns out to be more than an academic exercise when someone who wants to hide past secrets tries to murder him!

I can't remember who recommended this one, but reading the blurb, I can see exactly why I picked it up. Simon Shaw is a historian and academic working in a small university in North Carolina. When a friend of his finds a clearly old skeleton with a bullet hole through the skull while restoring an old house, Simon is brought in by the police. Given his knowledge of local history, they hope he might be able to identify the murder victim.

Doing so is quite easy. Simon quickly deduces that it must be Anne Bloodworth, a daughter of the house who disappeared in the 1920s. It was quite the scandal at the time, and Simon has read all about it. But now that he knows what happened to Anne, he feels compelled to find out why she was killed and who did it. As far as the police are concerned, it's too old a case to waste any resources on it -officially. Unofficially, both the chief of police and their legal advisor would quite like to know the truth and follow Simon's investigation with interest, providing help when they can.

But what looks like a nice, simple historical investigation turns into something a bit more, when it becomes clear that someone is trying to hurt Simon.

Well, meh. It was an interesting idea, but although I liked a few little things about the story and the characters, the whole didn't quite work for me.

My main problem was that Simon didn’t really gel for me as a character. Shaber tells us he’s a regular, if really intelligent, man, but he doesn’t read particularly like a man in his 30s. And I swear, I’m not at all prescriptive about models of masculinity. I’m ecstatic when an author moves away from the alpha male and adds characteristics more associated with femininity. It’s just that Simon often behaved, thought and spoke like a missish old lady. I would have found it just as hard to buy his character as a woman in his 30s. It’s hard to explain. I mean, say, the fact that he kept getting embarrassed. It wasn’t the embarrassment itself (after all, at the same time I was reading So Tough To Tame, by Victoria Dahl, where the hero keeps blushing, and I thought it was lovely), but the sorts of situations in which it happened. It reminded me of this friend of my mum's who feels mortally embarrassed if someone sees her come out of a bathroom, or even eat in public. Not that he does that, in particular, it was the vibe I got from him. His interactions with Julia, the police legal counsel, come to mind as well. She's supposed to be the love interest here, but Simon's attitude when he meets her is “nice looking gal, but that dress is really the wrong colour for her”. No chemistry at all there, I bought that they liked each other, but Shaber showed absolutely no attraction from her POV character.

I did like some of what she did with Simon, though. For instance the fact that, without much fuss being made out of it, Shaber tells us Simon became clinically depressed recently, when his wife left him, and was prescribed antidepressants by his doctor. It’s not a huge plot point (a jealous rival at the college tries to make it so, but it doesn’t work). Simon thinks it’s mildly embarrassing and would prefer it if people didn’t know, but if it has to come out, oh well. That, I thought, was handled well.

The case, which I hoped would be really fascinating, was mildly interesting, at best. I probably would have liked a bit more on the details of doing the investigation, the way Simon approaches the historical research necessary to dig up the facts. There was a bit of that, but it was mostly glossed over. As for the resolution, it was a bit predictable. Right from the beginning I thought “I hope it’s not X, doing it because Y”. If it was X, it would have been much too obvious, and yep, it turned out it was. But fortunately, they weren’t doing it because of Y, because that would have been a stupid, stupid reason. The reason they did it was much more believable, but still, not particularly interesting.

I also had some issues with the writing style, which felt a bit too simple and unsophisticated, to the point of being clunky. It felt sort of amateurish, and interfered with the flow of the story.

I didn't hate this, but I definitely didn't like it enough to continue with the series.



Year Zero, by Ian Buruma

>> Tuesday, March 11, 2014

TITLE: Year Zero: A History of 1945
AUTHOR: Ian Buruma

PAGES: 384
PUBLISHER: Atlantic Books

SETTING: 1945, various locations around the world
TYPE: Non fiction

Many books have been written, and continue to be written, about the Second World War: military histories, histories of the Holocaust, the war in Asia, or collaboration and resistance in Europe. Few books have taken a close look at the immediate aftermath of the worldwide catastrophe.

Drawing on hundreds of eye-witness accounts and personal stories, this sweeping book examines the seven months (in Europe) and four months (in Asia) that followed the surrender of the Axis powers, from the fate of Holocaust survivors liberated from the concentration camps, and the formation of the state of Israel, to the incipient civil war in China, and the allied occupation of Japan.

It was a time when terrible revenge was taken on collaborators and their former masters; of ubiquitous black markets, war crime tribunals; and the servicing of millions of occupation troops, former foes in some places, liberators in others. But Year Zero is not just a story of vengeance. It was also a new beginning, of democratic restorations in Japan and West Germany, of social democracy in Britain and of a new world order under the United Nations.

If construction follows destruction, Year Zero describes that extraordinary moment in between, when people faced the wreckage, full of despair, as well as great hope. An old world had been destroyed; a new one was yet to be built.

Year Zero, as the blurb describes, takes "a close look at the immediate aftermath of the worldwide catastrophe" that was World War II. As soon as I heard about the book, I realised that this was a subject I’d never actually thought about properly, although I should have. I knew about some things (e.g. that rationing continued in Britain, about the Marshall plan, some bare facts about the American occupation of Japan), but I'd thought pathetically little about all the other hundreds of areas where there had to have been something between the enormous upheaval of the war and normality. For instance, how do you get the millions of displaced people back to where they came from? Should you send them back to where they came from? Could you?

Well, after reading this, I feel I know a lot more. Year Zero is not a book with a thesis or argument to try to convince us of, the point is just to paint a picture of what things were like. It covers all sorts of themes (the celebration of just after the war, the desire for revenge) and locales (from Holland to the Philippines, Greece to Japan). Buruma manages to constantly give us arresting and fascinating vignettes that perfectly illustrate what the situation would have been like.

It's also a very readable and well-written book. It does get a tiny bit dry near the end... still really interesting, but a bit dryer than the first sections. That wasn't a huge problem for me, though.

I particularly liked the sensitivity with which Buruma wrote about certain subjects. For instance, when writing about the women who fraternised, either with the Allied 'rescuers' or with the Germans, he does so in a way that is subtle (going beyond the seeing of such women as either exploited or calculating prostitutes), sensitive and sympathetic. It's also very non judgmental. Sometimes history books feel callous when taking a wide view (especially with things like rape), but Buruma never seems to lose sight of the fact that he's talking about real people here.

I was also particularly struck by his point that when a country is taken over (whether by invaders or rescuers) it is entirely understandable that minorities would seek to ally themselves with the new prople in charge against their former oppressors. That's a little bit of insight that I will remember, as it still helps understand the world today.

Highly recommended, and I'm glad to see my library has got several books by this author.



Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself, by Harriet Ann Jacobs

>> Sunday, March 09, 2014

TITLE: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself
AUTHOR: Harriet Ann Jacobs

PAGES: 246
PUBLISHER: Project Gutenberg

SETTING: Mid 19th century US
TYPE: Memoir

This autobiographical account by a former slave is one of the few extant narratives written by a woman. Written and published in 1861, it delivers a powerful portrayal of the brutality of slave life. Jacobs speaks frankly of her master's abuse and her eventual escape, in a tale of dauntless spirit and faith..

This was my book club's choice for November last year. The title is pretty self-explanatory: it's a former slave's account of her life. Right from the start, Jacobs (writing under a pseudonym, Linda Brent) tells us exactly what she's set out to accomplish. This is intended to be a call to arms, to convince Northern women that they should support ending the practice of sending runaway slaves back to the South. So the first thing I wondered was: would the narrative work well on its own now, as a read for someone who doesn't need to be convinced? I'm afraid it didn't.

There were some things about it (or, at least, the first half, which was what I read) that I thought were really good. I had a similar experience to when I've read in the past about huge things like the Holocaust, where I know they were horrendous and evil, but don't really think about the details on a day-to-day basis. When I do, by reading a book like this, even if I don't learn something new and it's all things I knew about already, the reality of the enormity of what we're talking about really hits me.

I was also fascinated by the sideways, delicate manner in which she writes about her owner's constant sexual harassment and rape threats. I'm assuming she's had to write it that way to avoid offending these Northern women she's trying to convince, to avoid appearing vulgar and indelicate in front of them, which indirectly says almost as much about Jacobs' world as what she says directly.

All that said, the book didn't work for me well as a 'read', as much as I appreciated its value as a historical document. It just felt completely off. No, I'm not going to go into that stupid, racist "it's too well-written to have been written by a slave" sort of argument I've seen in some goodreads reviews (ffs!). What I mean is that the characters and the events in the narrative sometimes felt presented in a way that was a bit too calculated to appeal to 19th century sensibilities. On one hand, I think that's absolutely fine. The point of this book was to change the minds of a particular kind of 19th century woman: liberal enough that reading this would make her want to convince her husband and relatives that things needed to change, but at the same time a woman who was very respectable, a pillar of the community type, otherwise her husband and relatives would not have the power to change the law at all. So of course, Jacobs would want to present things in a way that would move them. Unfortunately for me, the way she chose to do so was by using saccharine sentimentality and making her characters so one-note that they felt completely unreal and made me lose interest.

MY GRADE: It was a DNF, having read over half of it.


And All The Stars, by Andrea K Höst

>> Friday, March 07, 2014

TITLE: And All The Stars
AUTHOR: Andrea K Höst

PAGES: 204, according to amazon. It's 90K words, feels longer than 200 pages!
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Contemporary Sidney
TYPE: Sci-fi

Madeleine Cost is working to become the youngest person ever to win the Archibald Prize for portraiture. Her elusive cousin Tyler is the perfect subject: androgynous, beautiful, and famous. All she needs to do is pin him down for the sittings.

None of her plans factored in the Spires: featureless, impossible, spearing into the hearts of cities across the world – and spraying clouds of sparkling dust into the wind.

Is it an alien invasion? Germ warfare? They are questions everyone on Earth would like answered, but Madeleine has a more immediate problem. At Ground Zero of the Sydney Spire, beneath the collapsed ruin of St James Station, she must make it to the surface before she can hope to find out if the world is ending.

Stray, the first book I tried by Andrea K Höst, was a DNF, but that didn't put me off her books. I'd enjoyed the setup and the writing, and it was quite clearly a matter of the format not quite working for me. I was quite willing to try another of her books, especially because loads of people who share my taste in books told me I should :)

Well, they were totally, absolutely right, especially in telling me to read And All The Stars next. It was fantastic.

AATS starts similarly to Stray, right in the middle of things. Madeleine Cost had snuck out of school to meet her cousin Tyler. Madeleine is an excellent portraitist, and is determined be the youngest winner of a prominent prize for the discipline. Tyler, a famous actor, is the perfect subject. She's waiting for him at the train station when all hell breaks loose.

The book starts as Madeleine comes to after... well, she doesn't know after what. The station is in pieces and there's bodies lying all over, which Madeleine tries to avoid as she laboriously makes her way out of the ruins, and everything is covered in a strange, colourful, sparkling dust. And there's something weird right in the middle, a sort of structure, which violently flings her off when she touches it.

When she manages to get out, walking through deserted streets, with people looking at her dust-covered self in horror from inside locked shops and houses, she makes her way to a television. And there she discovers that every large city in the world has experienced the same: they all have spire-like structures shooting up in some central location, and everything is covered in the strange dust.

And that is all I'm going to say about the plot, because part of the fun is to read this without having any idea of what on earth is going on or where Höst is going to take her story. All I will tell you is that it's original and fresh and brilliantly done. Madeleine is a great character, but this is basically an ensemble story, where the dynamics of the group who gather together to do what needs to be done are as important as the individual characters (all of whom are really well developed and characterised, as well). I particularly liked the matter-of-fact multiculturalism of the group. It makes sense, because if you take a random selection of people in downtown Sidney (or quite a few major cities, really), of course you're going to get a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds! It would have been positively stupid to have an all-white cast in a story with this setup.

The reason I stopped with Stray was because I got bored. Well, there wasn't any danger of that happening here. There are plenty of heart-pounding moments of adventure, but just as gripping was the planning for those moments. I also loved the interactions between the characters and seeing how all the different relationships developed. I particularly liked how the turns some of them took actually questioned the idea of what is identity and what makes someone's self. It made me think.

Additionally, I thought the story struck the perfect balance between the local and the global. Obviously, we're in Sidney and following the story of what happens with this particular group of people, but there is no sense of isolation. It's a global crisis, and there's a sense of a global community coming together and sharing information. Communications are still up and used to develop an understanding of what's going on. I thought that was really well done.

So yes, thanks to all who urged me to give Höst another try. I think I might even go back to Stray and give it another shot.

MY GRADE: A very solid A-.


Always and Forever, by Farrah Rochon

>> Wednesday, March 05, 2014

TITLE: Always and Forever
AUTHOR: Farrah Rochon

PAGES: 224

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Category romance
SERIES: Follows A Forever Kind of Love.

After a run of lousy luck, Phylicia Philips is finally close to reclaiming her cherished girlhood home in Louisiana. But before she can buy it back, Jamal Johnson beats her to the punch. The renowned architect plans to completely renovate the old place – and he wants Phylicia to help him!

She doesn’t trust Jamal, but she’s helpless to fight the passion building between them. Hiring the home restoration specialist to help convert the stately Victorian into a B&B was a stroke of genius. Until Jamal finds out the house was in Phylicia’s family for generations.

Blindsided by his desire for this alluring beauty, Jamal vows to transform their working relationship into an intimate one. But will threatening troubles from the past keep them from building a blueprint for love?

Phylicia Philips is devastated when she hears architect Jamal Johson is the new owner of her childhood home. A few years back she'd trusted the wrong man, who wiped her out financially when he left. She had to choose between paying for the specialised care for her mother, who suffers from dementia, and paying the mortgage, so she chose to sell off the wonderful Victorian. She was getting close to being able to buy it back when Jamal swooped in. It only adds insult to injury that she's seen some of Jamal's work (he's very big on sustainable) and suspects he'll take the same radical approach to renovating the house.

And as if the situation needed to get any more tangled, Jamal and Phyl originally met at the wedding of mutual friends and really hit it off, until Phyl found out who he was and then began to ignore him completely.

As the book starts, Jamal approaches Phyl once again, only from a professional point of view. He's realised he's bit off a bit more than he could chew with the house, and that without professional help, he won't be able to get it ready in time (there's this festival thing it needs to be ready for). Phyl, a very well-regarded restoration specialist, is the perfect person to help. She initially rejects the offer out of hand, but then relents, and as the two spend some time together, Phyl begins to soften towards Jamal.

I appreciate that from this description it sounds like Phyl is unfairly blaming Jamal for something that isn't his fault. Don't worry, she's not that unreasonable and stupid (in fact, she's not unreasonable and stupid at all). Phyl realises Jamal didn't do anything wrong, it's just that it's painful for her to be reminded of what she sees as her failure to keep the house.

The romance develops in a way I enjoyed. There's a bit too much mental lusting at times (and I really hope that Jamal's thing about always “almost” grabbing Phyl’s arse, even when they’d just met, was an exaggeration and just a way of speaking). On the whole, though, they talk, they get to know each other, they realise they fit in well. It first seems that Phyl's trust issues might be what gets in the way of the HEA, but they work through that. And the stuff about sustainable architecture and renovation was fascinating, I loved seeing it.

In the end it's Jamal's family issues that take centre stage. His father, who's built a very successful business, has made it clear that he doesn't believe in Jamal and doesn't think he's got what it takes. At least, that's what Jamal gets from him. They have become estranged, and at the end of the book, there are some developments there. And that's where I thought the book fell down a little bit. The way the conflict then moved on to Jamal and Phyl felt a bit forced, like Rochon needed a conflict at that point of the book but with her characters as she’d previously developed them, it wasn’t quite believable that they would react in the way she needed them to. It felt like an overreaction. Their last fight didn’t seem quite as bad as Jamal was acting. And I was looking forward to seeing how the whole thing with his dad would be resolved (love some family angst!), but Rochon took that off-page, unfortunately.

A very pleasant way to spend a few hours.



Omens, by Kelley Armstrong

>> Monday, March 03, 2014

TITLE: Omens
AUTHOR: Kelley Armstrong

PAGES: 496

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Paranormal fiction
SERIES: #1 in Cainsville Trilogy

Twenty-four-year-old Olivia Taylor Jones has the perfect life. The only daughter of a wealthy, prominent Chicago family, she has an Ivy League education, pursues volunteerism and philanthropy, and is engaged to a handsome young tech firm CEO with political ambitions.

But Olivia’s world is shattered when she learns that she’s adopted. Her real parents? Todd and Pamela Larsen, notorious serial killers serving a life sentence. When the news brings a maelstrom of unwanted publicity to her adopted family and fiancé, Olivia decides to find out the truth about the Larsens.

Olivia ends up in the small town of Cainsville, Illinois, an old and cloistered community that takes a particular interest in both Olivia and her efforts to uncover her birth parents’ past.

Aided by her mother’s former lawyer, Gabriel Walsh, Olivia focuses on the Larsens’ last crime, the one her birth mother swears will prove their innocence. But as she and Gabriel start investigating the case, Olivia finds herself drawing on abilities that have remained hidden since her childhood, gifts that make her both a valuable addition to Cainsville and deeply vulnerable to unknown enemies. Because there are darker secrets behind her new home and powers lurking in the shadows that have their own plans for her.

Olivia Taylor Jones is a very privileged young woman whose perfect life blows up when she discovers she's adopted. The problem is not so much the adopted bit, but that her birth parents are serial killers Todd and Pamela Larsen, a notorious couple who are currently in jail for life, after being convicted for a spate of ritualistic killings. The revelation sparks off an unbelievably over-the-top media frenzy, which results in Olivia having to go into hiding until things die down.

Olivia finds a refuge in the strange small town of Cainsville, just outside of Chicago, and not by chance. We readers know that mysterious forces are clearly at work trying to ensure Olivia ends up there and is protected. She's very ambivalent about her birth parents, but after she meets her mother, she's persuaded to investigate the last murder they were accused of, one for which Pamela is convinced there is evidence to prove them innocent. And as Olivia does so, it becomes clearer and clearer that she has some sort of paranormal power herself.

Well, what a disappointment. It didn't start well. There was something off straight from the beginning, in the way the situation was set up. I found the reaction of the whole wide world at the revelation of Olivia's identity to be over-the-top and unbelievable. Yes, it would have been a very juicy story, since she had been adopted by such a well-known family and was a relatively public figure herself, but a mob breaking into the house, seriously? And I might be naive and optimistic, but surely most people (anyone not completely disturbed) wouldn't judge a little girl for what her parents did? I think what didn't work well here was that we don't find out until a lot later what exactly the Larsens are supposed to have done, what was so heinous about it, and even when we do, it's bad but not particularly shocking.

I also had issues with Olivia choosing to go without her money during her escape. It's initially presented from her point of view as getting away from the spotlight, just allowing things to calm down a bit so that unwanted, hostile attention doesn't fall onto the people she cares about. There didn't seem to be any element of "now that I'm adopted I don't deserve this money" there. So what's she trying to prove by her no-money stunt, when doing that makes it less likely she'll be able to keep out of sight, therefore actually sabotaging her stated aim? It feels silly and contrived, plot- rather than character-driven.

Things did improve once Olivia washed up in Cainsville, and Armstrong managed to get me really intrigued with her little hints and clues. Very weird things kept happening, and I couldn't wait to find out what was really going on.

Problem is, by the time we got to the end, I was still just as much in the dark. The ending was terrible, a bizarre combination of cliff-hanger and things just fizzling out. It was utterly unsatisfying, with not much being resolved, and yet (at least in my case) no sense of urgency to find out more.

There were hints of good stuff there, like Olivia's struggle to reconcile her emerging memories of total and absolute love for her birth parents and what she now knows about them, but nowhere near enough.



February 2014 reads

>> Saturday, March 01, 2014

It was quality over quantity this month. Really not very many books (the total number of 9 includes one short story, one early DNF and 2 books I'm still reading), but three of those I did read I thought were amazing, and two were B+.

1 - The Luckiest Lady In London, by Sherry Thomas: A-
review coming soon

Historical. Heroine and hero are both 'fakes', and the only ones who recognise each other as such. Sparkling, I loved every minute.

2 - And All The Stars, by Andrea K Höst: A-
review coming soon

Sci-fi. Ensemble cast must fight off alien invasion. Excellent. I'm very glad I gave Höst another try, will even go back and finish Stray, which I DNFd.

3 - The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt: A-
review coming soon

Audiobook. One of the most talked about books last year, deservedly so. It's a long one, but never bored me. Also, the narrator was particularly brilliant.

4 - The Mountains of Mourning, by Lois McMaster Bujold: B+
review coming soon

Short story, a sort of murder mystery, set right after The Warrior's Apprentice. The culprit was a bit obvious, but I loved it anyway.

5 - River Road, by Jayne Ann Krentz: B+
review coming soon

Romantic suspense, no paranormal crap (yay!). Not quite vintage JAK, but closer to it than anything she's done in years.

6 - Midnight Scandals, by Carolyn Jewel, Courtney Milan & Sherry Thomas: B-
review coming soon

Anthology, with stories happening in different time periods but linked by the geographical location. I really liked the Milan and Thomas stories, but Jewel's was not great.

7 - Murder On The Home Front, by Molly Lefebure: DNF
review here

Memoirs of woman who was assistant to forensic pathologist in London during WWII. Potentially fascinating, but bad writing made it tedious.

8 - The Chocolate Rose, by Laura Florand: still reading
review coming soon

Beauty and the Beast homage set amongst French chefs. I'm having a bit of trouble getting into it because the hero is coming across as really sleazy.

9 - Concealed in Death, by JD Robb: B+
review coming soon

Eve investigates when the skeletal remains of 12 girls are found behind false walls in a building Roarke's just bought. Loving it so far.


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