The Borders of Infinity, by Lois McMaster Bujold

>> Wednesday, October 29, 2014

TITLE: The Borders of Infinity
AUTHOR: Lois McMaster Bujold

PAGES: 1987
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Futuristic
TYPE: Science Fiction
SERIES: One of a couple of short stories set right after Cetaganda

On a rescue mission gone wrong, Miles Vorkosigan is captured by the enemy Cetagandans and thrown into a dome-shaped prisoner of war camp that seems a literal Circle of Hell. Against impossible odds, Miles organizes thousands of angry and dispirited prisoners into military formation that may offer the only chance for escape..

This is the 3rd story in the anthology of the same title. As I mentioned in my recent review of Labrynth, the first story is set much earlier in the series, so I read it a while ago. This one comes right after Labrynth.

It starts right in the middle of things, with Miles being dropped into a Cetagandan POW camp. It's a fiendishly ingenious camp, one which complies with the letter of galactic rules for how POWs must be held, but definitely not with the spirit. Prisoners are simply dumped into a force-field dome and left. The exact amount of food required by the rules is sent in all in one lump, with no distribution. The result of this has been chaos and the victimisation of the weak by the strong. And into this chaos goes Miles, naked and on his own, and creates a functioning, functional society.

It's a really clever story. Miles obviously knows what's going on and what he's there to do, but we readers don't. Bujold manages to give us his point of view in a way that makes sense taken at face value, but which I'm sure will reward a second reading with a further layer, once readers find out what was really going on. It's a hell of an "a-ha!" moment.

The only thing I wasn't crazy about is really an incremental issue. Miles seems to be taking a page out of the James Bond rulebook and having a different love interest in each book or story. I don't have a problem with each of those romantic threads in isolation, but the fact that there's one in each story, and that they're all with different women, bothers me. It's not the women themselves. They've all been quite fabulous characters, and I have no issue with their portrayal, or even with the way Miles has treated them. It's just a distaste for the device, I guess.


NOTE: There's a really interesting review on goodreads where someone theorises that the story is "a riff on Dante's inferno". It's pretty convincing!


Labyrinth, by Lois McMaster Bujold

>> Monday, October 27, 2014

TITLE: Labyrinth
AUTHOR: Lois McMaster Bujold

PAGES: 101
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Futuristic
TYPE: Science fiction
SERIES: Comes after Cetaganda, which is the 5th full length book in the series.

Miles and his Dendarii mercenaries are on a mission in Jackson's Hole to retrieve a geneticist, who unexpectedly says he won't leave until a certain "monster" is neutralized and a tissue sample is taken from it. What Miles finds is something vastly different from what he was led to expect....

This short story was published in an anthology called Borders of Infinity, just like the third story in it (which I'll be reviewing next). The first story is The Mountains of Mourning. I read that one a few months ago, as it's set quite early in the series, and waited until I'd read to the right point in the series before I started the other two.

In Labrynth, Miles is in Jackson's Whole to rescue a scientist from an earlier contract and deliver him to the Barrayarans. It really is rescuing; Dr. Canaba wants to get himself far, far away from the morally corrupt uses science is put to in Jackson's Whole, where money really can buy anything. However, he refuses to leave until Miles recovers some particularly valuable genetic material... which Dr. Canaba had earlier stored on the product of a super-soldier genetic experiment.

Miles is meant to not only retrieve the genetic material but to kill the 'monster' on whom it's stored, whom Dr. Canaba now regrets having agreed to create. Not an easy mission, and one in which everything goes wrong, ending with Miles being locked into a dank basement with the monster, to the amusement of the sadistic guards. But it turns out the monster is much more human that expected...

I liked this one. I was initially a bit queasy about a certain sexual element, but felt a lot more comfortable with it by the end. I liked the friendship that develops between Miles and Taura (the name he offers to the creature previously known only as #9). It felt like there was a real connection, two people whose outside shape conceals the person inside, although in completely different ways. And of course, there's the usual creative genius from Miles, manipulating people like crazy and wiggling out of an impossible situation by playing off the various evil sides against each other.

It was also nice to see people I remembered. I loved that the quaddies have thrived in the 200 years since Falling Free. Also, I remember being very intrigued by Taura when I read about her in Winterfair Gifts (which comes much later in the series, but is the only Miles story I'd read before starting on this read-through, as it was on an anthology with other authors I really liked). I also liked that Bel got a nice romantic entanglement. Very enjoyable.



A couple of DNFs

>> Sunday, October 19, 2014

TITLE: Murder in the Marais
AUTHOR: Cara Black

I picked this one up based on its setting: it's a mystery set in Paris. Aimée Leduc is a PI specialising in computer-based investigations (the book is set in the mid-90s, so that element felt a bit quaint!). She's approached by an old Jewish man asking her to do a decoding job for him, which she reluctantly accepts (she's wary of getting involved in dangerous work, since her policeman father was killed as a result of doing just that). Having broken the relevant code and accessed a photograph, she takes it to the location her client instructed. And there she discovers her instincts were right. The woman she was supposed to give the photograph to, an old Jewish lady, has been murdered, a swastika carved on her body.

And here we get to what didn't work for me. Of course, if Aimée just turned over all she knew to the police and butted out of the investigation, we wouldn't have a story. But there are ways of keeping her involved, and not all of them require her to behave like an idiot and illegally hide evidence from the police for no good reason, and in ways that completely wreck the police investigation. I didn't understand why Aimée did the things she did, and felt the plotting lacked subtlety. As did, actually, the parallel storyline about a former SS member who's now a minister in the German government and has been pressured by a Neo-Nazi secret organisation into coming to Paris.

The bones of the plot seemed ok, and I'd normally be interested in it, but the execution felt much too clumsy and contrived. The secondary characters were stereotypical and I found Aimée quite preposterous. I gave up after about 100 pages.


TITLE: Black at Heart
AUTHOR: Leslie Parrish (now Leslie A. Kelly)

This is the third in a series whose first two books I really liked a few years ago, about an FBI team investigating cyber-crimes. In the previous book, Lily decided decided to go all vigilante and try to catch a paedophile the team had come across in an online investigation (her nephew had been killed by a paedophile, so her work was always really personal for her). Lily went outside her team to do so, and was captured by the man she was after, who kept her captive for days. Her team, including her enigmatic boss, Wyatt Blackstone, thought she was dead. She managed to call Wyatt for help, though, and he rescued her. Since then, Wyatt has helped her stay in hiding and everyone thinks she's dead. Except the paedophile suspects she might still be out there, and has hatched a plan to force her out.

This just didn't work for me. It took me ages to get into it at the beginning (weeks and weeks to read the first half of the book), mainly because I didn't find the characters particularly interesting. This was a trilogy constructed to have the last book contain the romance the readers would be dying to read, but I... wasn't. The relationship between Wyatt and Lily felt unequal in the first two books, and even though now she's supposed to be so much stronger, I just didn't feel it. Plus, I was a bit annoyed at the direction the suspense element was taking. The villain was revealed to be rich and powerful and preparing to use that power and money to target Lily, even using the police and justice system. That's not a plot that is to my taste.

So, a disappointment. I'm not sure if I would have liked this better when the series first came out, but I didn't now.



Man Booker Prize 2014

>> Monday, October 13, 2014

For the last few years, I've been reading more and more from the Man Booker prize lists. I've found some fantastic books that way, books that I wouldn't have read otherwise, as they don't obviously sound like my sort of thing. Also, I like being able to participate in the very animated discussions about about who should win, and to do so with an informed opinion. The winner will be announced Tuesday evening, so I'll post here my impressions of the books I read.

The experience this year was really interesting. It was a pretty controversial longlist, very white, and with fewer women than in the last few years. There also weren't as many "Commonwealth" novels as usual. True, there were more books there than in previous years that appealed to me a priori, but that only meant that I was going to be more in my comfort zone, not necessarily a good thing.

I started reading like crazy as soon as the longlist was announced, and I was wowed by the books I chose to start with. By the time the shortlist was announced, I'd read 6. I absolutely loved 3 and liked the others very much. Three of those books (2 on the 'liked' camp, 1 on the 'loved') were on the shortlist, so I immediately embarked on reading the rest of the shortlisted books.

And there I hit a bit of a bad patch. I did not enjoy those three books, not at all. In fact, they ended up being DNFs, after reading good, long chunks of each. We're talking between a quarter and a third of the whole book, definitely enough to judge whether it was my thing or not. These 3 weren't.

I'll start with those, just so I can end in a positive note. How To Be Both, by Ali Smith and J, by Howard Jacobson I gave up on for the same reason, even though they are seemingly very different.

How To Be Both is quite experimental with form. It's got two halves, which the author instructs can be read in any order. In fact, half the printed copies have them in one order, half in the other, and the ebook comes with both versions for the reader to choose from. The section I started with is set in the present day, and it's about George, a teenager whose mother has just died. The other section is set in 15th century Italy, and it's about an artist who painted some wonderful frescoes in a palazzo George visits in her section.

J is set in a dystopian future, after an event referred to by the characters as "what happened, if it happened". It's a totalitarian world, in which the approach taken to ensure that event is not repeated is to force people to forget about it and deny what's happened, rather than our world's "never forget".

Both are very much novels of ideas, which is something I usually like. In particular, I thought the ideas explored in the Jacobson were really intriguing (the way I've heard him describe it is what happens when you actually succeed in annihilating 'the enemy', and there's no one to attack but yourself). But in both books the characters created to explore those ideas just weren't up to it. They didn't behave in ways I felt made any sense or recognised as human. It might be that I'm a failure as a reader of serious literature by insisting on characters with internal coherence and with something in them that feels true, but if that's the case, so be it.

The other book that didn't work for me was the one that's the bookies' favourite to win: The Lives of Others, by Neel Mukherjee. It's set in Calcutta in the late 1960s. Mukherjee protests that it isn't a family saga, but in the 150 pages or so that I read, that's exactly what it felt like. The Ghosh family all live together in a large house, and we get to see all the resentments and jealousies and rivalries. Actually, not all live together, because the eldest grandson, Supratik, leaves home early in the book and joins a group of revolutionaries living amongst impoverished villagers and trying to create an uprising.

There were some things I liked here. It's a vivid portrayal of a time and a place, and I'm attracted to the idea of the Ghosh household as a sort of metaphor for the divisions and inequalities of society. I had problems with the characters, though, although in a different sense as in the previous two books. These characters felt real, but they were overpowering and uninteresting in their small-mindedness and pettiness. I particularly resented the way the relationships amongst the women were depicted. They were all purely about competition and nastiness, which made me tired and frustrated. The Supratik sections could have opened up the focus a bit, but I found those much too heavy on the preaching, even if it was preaching of a message I agreed with.

Like How To Be Both and J, I'm sure The Lives of Others is a good book; it's just not to my taste.

And now we come to the ones I actually liked. First, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan (my review here). This one was a bit mixed. The action covers pretty much the whole life of a man who during World War II commanded a group of men being quite literally being worked to death in the Burma Death Railway. The sections directly related to the Death Railway were incredibly powerful. It's not just the sections set directly during the war, but those afterwards, showing what became of the men who were there (both Australian and Japanese) and how they dealt with those events. Unfortunately, there's also quite a bit of space devoted to the main character's private life: forbidden romance with his uncle's wife before the war, his marriage, his constant womanising. Those sections I didn't like at all. They didn't feel emotionally true and frankly bored me. Still, the book is definitely worth reading.

I also liked To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris (my review here). It's a deceptively readable and funny book about a New York dentist whose identity is stolen by someone who uses it to get out the word about the Ulm, a lost tribe of Israel even more persecuted than the Jews (in fact, persecuted by the Jews). I say 'deceptively' because behind the comedy and witty conversations is a really interesting exploration of the search for something bigger than onself. It's a good one, and definitely worth a read

Finally, my favourite of the shortlisted 6 was We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler (my review here). It's 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. I really enjoyed it.

So, out of the 6 shortlisted books, I have a clear favourite. I'd love it if We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves won. I'm pretty sure that won't happen, though. If I had to call it, I'd definitely go with one of my DNFs, quite possibly The Lives of Others.

But I guess another issue is whether I think these are the right books on the shortlist, and the answer to that is absolutely not. Much as I liked the Fowler, there were two books that didn't make the shortlist that I thought were even better.

My absolute favourite on the longlist was The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth (my review here), which tells the story of the resistance after the Norman invasion of 1066. This was a book that completely wowed me on all fronts. Its use of language is incredible and I loved both the recreation of a time and place and the way it creates a fascinating character in its narrator. One of the best books I've read in recent years, and it's a huge shame that it didn't get on the shortlist. It's a bit of a hard sell, being written in what the author describes as a shadow version of Old English, and I suspect being on the shortlist would have meant a lot more people daring to start it.

But The Wake was closely followed by David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks, which I thought 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.

I did read a couple more from the longlist. In fact, the first book I picked when that was announced was The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt (my review here). It tells the story of neglected artist Harriet Burden. This is done through her diaries and all sorts of different materials (interviews, articles, statements from people involved in her life), gathered by an editor after Harriet's death. It's a story about sexism and the willful blindness of people, who only see what they expect to see and will actually make huge efforts to ignore what doesn't agree with their worldview. It's a bit of a challenging one (some of Harriet's diary entries, in particular), but I liked it very much and found it worth the read.

Finally, as I write this, I'm halfway through Richard Powers' Orfeo. It's about a retired avant-garde composer who has been experimenting with using DNA in his music. For this, he's set up a small DIY lab in his home. This comes to the notice of the authorities, and cue the huge overreaction. Most of that plot line is to come, though. In the first half it has been set up, but mostly we've been hearing about the composer's life and about music... a whole lot about music. And the way Powers writes about it is fantastic. I've been trying to read it at home, because whenever he talks about a real, existing piece I want to hear it (and thank heavens for youtube!). I'm enjoying it.

On the whole, this has been an excellent year. There are always going to be some books that aren't my cup of tea, but the ones I liked, I really, really liked!


The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth

>> Sunday, October 05, 2014

TITLE: The Wake
AUTHOR: Paul Kingsnorth

PAGES: 384

SETTING: 11th century England
TYPE: Fiction

Everyone knows the date of the Battle of Hastings. Far fewer people know what happened next...Set in the three years after the Norman invasion, The Wake tells the story of a fractured band of guerilla fighters who take up arms against the invaders. Carefully hung on the known historical facts about the almost forgotten war of resistance that spread across England in the decade after 1066, it is a story of the brutal shattering of lives, a tale of lost gods and haunted visions, narrated by a man of the Lincolnshire fens bearing witness to the end of his world.

The Wake tells the story of Buccmaster of Holland, a man living in a Lincolnshire village at the time of the Norman invasion. The coming of the Normans is catastrophic for Buccmaster, as for so many others. With his family and his house gone, he decides to lead a group of men who've also lost everything and fight the invaders.

Out of all the books on the Man Booker longlist, The Wake is probably the most unlikely one. Not only was it crowd-funded, it's written in what the author describes as a "shadow tongue", a language inspired in Old English, but updated in such a way as to actually make it understandable to modern readers. Basically, there are no words of Latin origin (since the English tongue hadn't yet began to mix with the French) and no letters that weren't used at the time (no k or v or a couple of others I now can't remember), and the spelling, punctuation and sentence structure are very much not modern. The Author's Note gives us a couple of pronunciation rules (e.g. "sc" is pronounced "sh", so "biscop" should be read as "bishop") and there is a short glossary for words that the reader would not be able to guess or deduce (e.g. "fugol" means "bird"), but that's all we get before we are on our way. By the way, these items are both at the end of the Kindle version, which seems counterproductive; you'd definitely want to read them first (I did).

Anyway, I was intrigued when I first read about the book, but I was also quite a bit wary. Was this really necessary, or was Kingsnorth just being willfully difficult and pretentious? Did I really want to struggle through the sort of thing in the photograph below? (click to enlarge). I thought I'd wait and see, and only read it if it got on the shortlist.

Fortunately, I then listened to one of my regular bookish podcasts, Adventures With Words. What they do every year is read the kindle samples of all the books on the longlist and talk about their first impressions, and whether they would want to continue reading based on that. One of the podcasters was really enthusiastic about The Wake. She said that she'd quickly got into the rhythm of the writing and that she'd enjoyed what she'd read of the story. What she said tempted me, and I decided to pick it up next.

Well, I agree completely. This is one extraordinary book, and one of the reasons is, yes, the language. It's not some sort of gimmick; it's absolutely necessary to put you inside Buccmaster's mind and looking out of his eyes and to create the world he inhabits. He's not a modern character plonked down in the 11th century, and the language makes this obvious. I honestly don't think Kingsnorth could have achieved anything even close to the same effect without it. It's little things like, for instance, the way the word "women" is "wifmen", highlighting how in Buccmaster's worldview, a woman is a wife, and that's that.

Is it worth the effort on the part of the reader? To me, definitely. And really, although reading The Wake does require more concentration than reading other books, it's not as hard as the pic above would suggest. I started out sounding things out in my head, virtually reading the text out loud. 'Deofyl'? Ahh, devil. And 'triewe' must be 'true'. And what was 'cenep' again? *Checks the glossary* Ah, 'moustache'. That would have been exhausting, if I'd had to keep it up for an entire book, but I really didn't. After a surprisingly short while I had learnt the language, and other than sporadic checks of the glossary when a new term came up, I was just reading, almost as fast as usual. It's an effort, but not a superhuman one, by any means.

I've concentrated on the language and the setting so far, but the book is much more than a recreation of a particular time. There's a story, but mainly, this is a character study. Buccmaster feels completely real, and he's one fascinating character. He's very alien in some ways, but completely believable and understandable and recognisably human. He's basically a self-important braggart who thinks he's better than anyone else. Partly it's that before the Normans came he was "a socman of three oxgangs" (i.e. a free tenant farmer, owning three of that measure of land), as he constantly reminds us and everyone around him, and therefore superior to his companions, who didn't have that independence. Partly it's that he is devoted to the old ways and the old religions, and therefore has nothing but contempt for the idiots who pay any heed to the Christian priests. Here's Buccmaster talking about his grandfather:

he was eald he was ealder than any man in the fenns and there was those saed this was due to his wicce craft for he was not with the crist and that he wolde go on his death to hel. this is the scit what folcs specs if they is left to them selfs and it is why they sceolde be loccd ofer by greater men.
"greater men", of course, being Buccmaster himself.

And that short sentence I think gives you some indication of why, even though he's a terrible human being, Buccmaster is such a wonderful character and I was willing to make the effort to read his story. He's interesting and entertainingly irreverent. He effs and blinds all over the place... "fuccan" this, "fuccan" that, and his utter disdain for everyone else is jaw-dropping, and yet believable. He's a real pill and a right bastard, and he really comes alive during the book.

And I think, because he's the kind of person he is, the sheer hugeness and horror of what has happened to the country really emerges. He's no great leader of men, no paragon, and you get the feeling there must have been many, many like him around the country: people who have had the fabric of their lives ripped apart. People who had a measure of freedom have become unfree, completely beholden to people who just suddenly showed up and care nothing for anything other than what they can extract from them. I really felt the outrage.

And for all that this is a story about people in quite desperate circumstances and where really bad things happen, and are not taken lightly, it's fuccan hilarious. It's all in the details, like Buccmaster and his companions' outrage when they see that the French invaders are bald as eggs (i.e. they don't have huge bushy beards, like them).

I loved it. This is why I keep making the effort to try stuff on the Man Booker lists. There's no way I would even have heard of this book otherwise.



The Clockwork Scarab, by Colleen Gleason

>> Friday, October 03, 2014

TITLE: The Clockwork Scarab
AUTHOR: Colleen Gleason

PAGES: 361
PUBLISHER: Chronicle

SETTING: Steampunk version of Victorian London
TYPE: Mystery / adventure / romance (I think!)
SERIES: Starts the Stoker and Holmes series

Evaline Stoker and Mina Holmes never meant to get into the family business.

But when you're the sister of Bram and the niece of Sherlock, vampire hunting and mystery solving are in your blood. And when two society girls go missing, there's no one more qualified to investigate.

Now fierce Evaline and logical Mina must resolve their rivalry, navigate the advances of not just one but three mysterious gentlemen, and solve a murder with only one clue: the strange Egyptian scarab. The stakes are high.

If Stoker and Holmes don't unravel why the belles of London society are in such danger, they'll become the next victims.

This sounded like fun. All I knew before I started was that it was steampunk and that it featured Miss Stoker (sister of Bram) and Miss Holmes (niece of Sherlock, daughter of Mycroft) investigating a mystery.

The action starts when Evaline Stoker and Mina Holmes are invited to a mysterious midnight meeting at the British Museum. They have been called in by Irene Adler (whom Sherlock Holmes readers will remember). Miss Adler has been tasked by Princess Alexandra to investigate the apparent suicides of several well-born young ladies, and wants to recruit Miss Holmes and Miss Stoker to help her do so. The only clues she has to go on are the Egyptian scarabas that have been found on the bodies. And then the meeting is interrupted by a noise in the supposedly deserted museum, and what should they find but another body, clearly one more in the string of killings?

There were some intriguing ideas here, and I liked the setup of two independent and clever young women who initially don't like each other much, but who must work together. However, this was just too preposterous for me. I didn't buy the setup for the mystery, I didn't find the details of the steampunk setting coherent, and then there's the time-traveller who comes out of nowhere with his iPhone (seriously).

But most of all, I think what made me stop reading was that it felt like Gleason was more concerned with whether something was "visually" really cool than with whether it would make sense, both in her plot and in her setting. As a for instance, take the scene where Evaline and Mina have managed to inveigle themselves into a meeting of a secret society that is obviously very relevant to their investigation. The masked leader is speaking, and what she's saying is all new information to our investigators about what the secret society is all about and what their plans are. But instead of listening till the end and gathering as much information as possible, Evaline suddenly stands up, pushes back her hood and loudly demands to know what the leader has done with the young ladies who've disappeared. Ah, but the utter stupidity and senselessness of her actions don't matter, because this gives her the chance to show off her preternatural strength in a really cool fight and escape scene (in a tie-in with another of Gleason's series, Evaline is a descendant of the vampire hunters in the Gardella Vampire Chronicles).

Adding to the annoyance, the names confused me. "Mina" immediately makes me think of Mina Harker, the character created by Bram Stoker. So part of my brain kept insisting that Mina was Miss Stoker, rather than Miss Holmes. It probably wouldn't have been a huge issue in a book I was enjoying, but since I was already irritated, it was the last drop.



September 2014 reads

>> Wednesday, October 01, 2014

A pretty good month. No huge duds, just a couple of books that weren't for me, and the wonderful Bone Clocks, which I adored.

1 - The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell: A
review coming soon

This is one of the few books on the Man Booker longlist I would have picked up even if it hadn't been on in. I loved it, by far the best on the list so far, and it's a travesty that it didn't make the shortlist. It's similar to Cloud Atlas in that it's made up of 6 chunks that feel like novellas in their own right, but the narrative thread that links them all together is much clearer. It's also very much a fantasy novel, even though the prominence of the fantastical element varies throughout the book. It's a big, chunky read, but I didn't want it to end.

2 - Borders of Infinity, by Lois McMaster Bujold: B+
review coming soon

Short story. Miles is stuck in a Cetagandan prison camp which is a clear example of their propensity for fine-tuned psychological. He is at his most Miles-ish here, and I thought it was a really clever and well-crafted story.

3 - Labyrinth, by Lois McMaster Bujold: B+
review coming soon

Another short story. Miles is contracted to rescue a scientist from an earlier contract in Jackson's Hole, but the man refuses to leave until Miles recovers some genetic material... which the man had earlier stored on the product of a super-soldier genetic experiment. I liked this one. I was initially a bit queasy about a certain sexual element, but felt a lot more comfortable with it by the end.

4 - Jovah's Angel, by Sharon Shinn: B+
original review here

Reread. The whole Samaria series is one of my favourites. This is the second book, where we get some quite shocking revelations, shocking to the point that they even change the genre of the series. The plot involves the main protagonist, the angel Alleluia, becoming Archangel when the holder of the post gets injured in an accident and can't fly. It's a difficult job, particularly because everything is going wrong. The god is listening to angels' requests and prayers less and less, and this is diminishing the angels' power at a time when they need it to protect the more vulnerable sections of society. It's a really interesting plot and I also liked the romance very much. Alleluia's love interest is an atheist engineer and inveterate tinkerer whom I thought was just lovely.

5 - Have Mercy, by Shelley Ann Clark: B
review coming soon

So this is what it takes for me to like a rock star romance: just make the star the heroine, rather than the hero. This is BDSM, not usually my thing either, but again, when it's femdom, there's a chance I might actually like it, and I did.

6 - Clouds of Witness, by Dorothy L Sayers: B-
original review here

Another reread. Actually, I'm listening to it this time around, since my library has the entire series on audio. In this, the second in the series, Lord Peter must investigate the death of his sister's fiancé. It's particularly important because Peter's brother, the Duke, stands accused of the murder.

I liked a lot of it, like the portait of increasing class tension, but I found sections of this almost unreadable. Mainly, it was the ones that dealt with Mrs. Grimethorpe and her abuse at the hands of her husband. The attitude is "oh, well, that's such a shame, but nothing we can do about it". Probably historically accurate, but I found it so upsetting that it made me hate the "Establishment" characters, even Lord Peter. There's a point, particularly, when they're talking about whether it's right to put this woman's life in mortal and certain danger if it turns out it's the only way to keep Peter's brother from being hanged for murder. And the response is, again, "oh, well, sometimes these things must be done". Because of course, the life of a Duke is so much more important than the life of a working class woman. Bollocks!

7 - The Man In the Brown Suit, by Agatha Christie: B-
review here

Not really a mystery, but an adventure/caper/international conspiracy type of story. It features a young plucky girl who gets involved in a dangerous plot. I thought it was fun, but the oblivious racism of the sections set in South Africa was upsetting. Also, I used to love the romance here many years ago, but it just didn't work for me as a grown-up.

8 - Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell: B-
review coming soon

I feel guilty for not liking this more. I liked the characters and was interested in their lives and their struggles, it's just that I found the romance really corny, and it was a huge part of the book. Also, the heavy nostalgia for something I never knew didn't work for me either.

9 - Grimm Tales For Young and Old, by Philip Pullman: C+
review here

Pullman's version of 50 of the fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm. His versions were too straight for my taste, not doing anything about what I see as the weaknesses in logic of the stories.

10 - How To Be Both, by Ali Smith: DNF
review coming soon

My first DNF of the books on the Man Booker list. This one sounded interesting, but the characters never felt like people, and I found the whole thing a bit pretentious and not really very interesting.

11 - The Clockwork Scarab, by Colleen Gleason: DNF
review coming soon

Steampunk. The premise is that Mina Holmes (daughter of Mycroft, niece of Sherlock) and Evelina Stoker (sister of Bram) are recruited by Irene Adler to perform a service to the crown by investigating a string of murders of young women of good birth. A bit too preposterous and silly for my liking.

12 - Black at Heart, by Leslie Parrish: still reading
review coming soon

Romantic suspense. Someone's killing (horribly) some very bad men, and the hero suspects the heroine. She used to be part of his FBI team and almost died in a way he feels was his fault, so a massive amount of guilt is mixed up with those suspicions. I'm finding it a bit hard to get into, but hope things will start moving soon.

13 - The Lives of Others, by Neel Mukherjee: still reading
review coming soon

Another book from the Man Booker shortlist. It's set in late 1960s Calcutta and centred on a family living all together in a large house, with all the rivalries and relationships that ensue. I'm not loving it (every single character is nasty and petty, at the moment), but I'm still reading.

14 - Possession, by AS Byatt: still listening
original review here

I read this ages ago and was inspired to reread it when I found an audiobook version in my library. It's basic structure is a literary mystery, with two young scholars in the present day (well, 25 years ago, not present day) investigating the relationship between a well-known Victorian poet and a woman author whose work has been neglected over the centuries. I've only just started it, but I'm finding it incredibly absorbing (plus, it's been long enough since I last read it that I've forgotten most of the plot details).


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