March 2015 wish list

>> Saturday, February 28, 2015

Not a huge number this month, but a couple I really, really want to read.

Books I'm definitely planning to get

Vision in Silver, by Anne Bishop (Mar 3)

I find the books in this series (this is the 3rd one) strangely compelling, just like the worldbuilding.

Shadow Scale, by Rachel Hartman (Mar 10)

I read the first one in the series (Seraphina) recently and loved it. It's fantasy, with dangerous dragons and a heroine who's part human, part dragon, something that's not supposed to happen. It was recommended as appealing to those of us who loved Addison's The Goblin Emperor, and Megan Whalen Turner's and Kristin Cashore's books, and that was spot-on.

Sweet Agony, by Charlotte Stein (Mar 26)

I love Charlotte Stein's closed off heroes.

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

Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein (Mar 5)

I haven't yet read Wein yet (I have Project Verity in my audio TBR), but I've heard such universally positive reviews that I'm noting this one down.

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson (Mar 10)

I quite liked Larson's The Devil in the White City, and I'm interested in the subject matter here. I'll see what reviews look like.

Shooting for the Stars, by Sarina Bowen (Mar 16)

I'm not a huge fan of the whole "my best friend's sister is off limits" plot, but I liked Blonde Date well enough that I'm willing to give Bowen a few chances.

Red Queen, by Victoria Aveyard (Mar 26)

I'm not sure about the plot (there seem to be some logic issues), but I think I'm being seduced by the cover!


The Winter King, by CL Wilson

>> Thursday, February 26, 2015

TITLE: The Winter King

PAGES: 613

SETTING: Fantasy world
TYPE: Fantasy romance
SERIES: Starts a series

An epic new fantasy romance from New York Times and USA Today bestselling author C. L. Wilson

After three long years of war, starkly handsome Wynter Atrialan will have his vengeance on Summerlea's king by taking one of the man's beautiful, beloved daughters as his bride. But though peace is finally at hand, Wynter's battle with the Ice Heart, the dread power he embraced to avenge his brother's death, rages on.

Khamsin Coruscate, Princess of Summerlea and summoner of Storms, has spent her life exiled to the shadows of her father's palace. Reviled by her father, marriage to Wintercraig's icy king was supposed to be a terrible punishment, but instead offers Kham her first taste of freedom—and her first taste of overwhelming passion.

As fierce, indomitable Wynter weathers even Khamsin's wildest storms, surprising her with a tenderness she never expected, Kham wants more than Wynter's passion—she yearns for his love. But the power of the Ice Heart is growing, dangerous forces are gathering, and a devastating betrayal puts Khamsin and Wynter to the ultimate test.

I loved CL Wilson's Tairen Soul series. It felt big and epic, interesting fantasy with a satisfying romance. Since I finished it I've been keeping an eye out for a new book by this author, and was really excited when I heard she had another series coming out.

Unfortunately, this didn't feel like a book written by the same author. The world-building felt silly and obvious, and the characters infuriated me. I read quite a bit, about half the book (and it's long), but I was so bored I gave up.

The story is that there are two kingdoms, Wintercraig and Summerlea (yes, that's how sophisticated the world-building is). They have been at war for a few years, since the heir of Summerlea stole a bride and priceless treasure from Wynter, the king of Wintercraig, and killed his young brother. The war is now at an end, and Wintercraig has won. Wynter shows up at the palace of Summerlea and lays down his conditions. The King of Summerlea must give him one of his beloved daughters as a bride. If after a year she's not pregnant, she will be sent to "face the mercy of the mountains", and Wynter will take another of the princesses as his bride. Rinse and repeat.

But the king of Summerlea has just the way to get one over Wynter. He has one daughter he hates, because her weather-mage powers killed her mother (the king's adored Queen) during childbirth. Khamsin has been brought up hidden away from the court, so most don't know she exists. So with the use of veils and scents, she'll take the place of her sister, punishing both her and Wynter at the same time.

Wynter is furious when he finds out about the substitution, especially because he'd previously encountered Khamsin in the castle pretending to be a servant, and he'd found himself dangerously attracted to her. But what's done is done, and she must make a life for herself in cold, forbidding Wintercraig, where everyone hates her.

This felt very old-school, particularly Khamsin. Her default setting is feisty, and she's defiant for no reason, in sometimes almost suicidal ways. She will constantly risk a hell of a lot for reasons which felt flimsy, and then just completely fold like a wet tissue as soon as Wynter kisses her. She’s got her weather-mage powers, which are supposed to be considerable, but they are nothing compared to Wynter's. He just brushes any of her efforts aside like not-even-particularly-bothersome gnats. That’s not even considered an issue in the book... as in, this is not something Wilson takes seriously and explores; it’s just presented as the way things are supposed to be and unremarkable. That feels very old-school as well.

I also despised Wynter, and thought he was a misogynistic asshole. I deplored his “peace” conditions. The idea that he'd basically fuck a woman for a year and send her to die if she's not pregnant, and start again with her sister... that just felt beyond the pale. Because of course, it’s not conceivable that Wynter might have fertility issues; it MUST be the woman’s fault. Asshole. I could have just about tolerated this if it had been just a plan made in the heat of battle, something that he realised once he met the real persons involved that he wouldn't be able to take forward. But it’s not. There’s a scene when Khamsin confronts him with the fact that he plans to kill her if she doesn't get pregnant and the vile asshole just says “I must get an heir quickly”. I hated him for that. He KNOWS Khamsin has been mistreated by her father and his court, so he can’t really blame her for the actions of the Summerleans, but he still doesn't give a shit and is happy to terrify her.

And that idiot Khamsin, even knowing this, is still perfectly happy to have hot sex with Wynter whenever he wants. I would have respected her if it had been a conscious, survival decision. Like, make sure your potential murderer sees you as a real person so that he’s less likely to actually kill you. And of course, the more sex they have, the more likely she is to get pregnant and actually survive. But no, it’s simply presented as that her body just can’t resist him and she can’t help but develop feelings for him. The man who’s made a serious-as-a-heart-attack threat to kill her! Ugh!

Turns out the "facing the mercy of the mountains" thing is not quite as bad as it sounds. I -and Khamsin- assumed it meant being sent out to the mountains to die. Turns out villagers will show mercy to people they think deserve it, so it’s not necessarily a death sentence (although it could be!). And Wynter expects to be dead before the end of the year, anyway. But the fact that he feels the way to treat his wife is to instill fear in her made me hate him.

In the end, I just got bored. I just didn't care about these two idiots and the nasty, catty women in court and the judgemental men. I might have pushed on if the book had been shorter, but it was ridiculously and unnecessarily long, and I didn't care to spend that much of my time on it.



The Infinite Sea, by Rick Yancey

>> Tuesday, February 24, 2015

TITLE: The Infinite Sea
AUTHOR: Rick Yancey

PAGES: 320
PUBLISHER: Putnam Juvenile

SETTING: Near-future US
TYPE: Sci-fi
SERIES: 2nd in a trilogy, follows The 5th Wave

How do you rid the Earth of seven billion humans? Rid the humans of their humanity.

Surviving the first four waves was nearly impossible. Now Cassie Sullivan finds herself in a new world, a world in which the fundamental trust that binds us together is gone. As the 5th Wave rolls across the landscape, Cassie, Ben, and Ringer are forced to confront the Others’ ultimate goal: the extermination of the human race.

Cassie and her friends haven’t seen the depths to which the Others will sink, nor have the Others seen the heights to which humanity will rise, in the ultimate battle between life and death, hope and despair, love and hate.

The Infinite Sea picks up right where The 5th Wave left off, so if you haven't read that one, you probably don't want to read this review. Spoilers ahoy, plus, it might not make much sense.

So, plot? Well, Cassie and Ben's team (including Sammy, whom Cassie was so determined to rescue) survived the escape and as the book starts, they are holed up in an abandoned hotel, figuring out what to do next. Cassie is convinced Evan survived as well and will return to them, so she wants them all to stay put a bit longer. The others aren't as convinced. Ringer leaves to reccy some nearby caves where they could find safer refuge, and things go wrong. Meanwhile, Evan has indeed survived and has been rescued by Grace, another Silencer he knew from before the attacks started. She's very curious about his actions, clearly wondering what's going on. And things go from there.

Unfortunately, I didn’t like this one nearly as much as I did the first one. It suffers from middle-book syndrome, in that we're basically just in a holding pattern, waiting for the big conclusion. Nothing much happens, really, in spite of the non-stop action. The only development of the larger plot is that we find out something mildly surprising about the Silencers and something happens physiologically to Ringer. Compared to book 1, where the revelations came fast and furious, that’s nothing, and it made this feel a bit boring and pointless.

The structure is also strange. I really liked the split structure with alternating stories in book one, but this didn't work nearly as well. The split structure is there, but not so much alternating. We have a bit of Ringer at the beginning, then she and the rest become separated and for half of the book we stay with Cassie and Ben and the others. Then the second half goes back to Ringer, and these two halves never really marry up. In fact, we leave the larger group at the halfway point in what seems to be the middle of things. At least book 1 had some sort of natural closure.

Leaving Cassie and the others wasn't a problem, though, because I would have DNFd this if I'd had to spend more time with Cassie. I really liked her in book 1, even though at times she was needlessly, stupidly sarcastic, but I couldn’t stand her here. Her snarkiness gets even more extreme here, plus she’s added a nice side of slut-shaming and cattiness. She just hates any girl who’s better-looking than her, and boy, her inner monologue does not let us forget it. She's just unforgivable to Ringer, who's done nothing to her, and when they run into Grace, the female Silencer, instead of worrying about the fact that this woman has a really good chance of killing them all, Cassie starts obsessing about the fact that she looks like a supermodel. On and on and on and ON and it was then I very, very nearly decided to make this a DNF. I was much happier with Ringer, really.

The other issue I had was that the writing style drove me crazy here. It's not hugely different from what it was in book 1, but it felt like Yancey amped it up here, and it became over-the-top. It’s much too heavy on the laboured metaphor and the inane, quasi-deep cod-philosophical bullshit.

Now, I did like some things about the book. It’s still very dark and goes places I didn't expect, and the little bits we got about Poundcake, the recruit we met in book 1 who does not speak and is a bit pudgy, were really touching and well done. And yes, I do want to know what happens in the end (even though there was a big fucking anvil of a clue dropped here… either that or it was a huge AK 47 that was hanging on the wall in the first act and never fired). I will be reading book 3 when it comes out, but I probably won't be as excited about it as I was about this one.



Out of Control, by Suzanne Brockmann

>> Sunday, February 22, 2015

TITLE: Out of Control
AUTHOR: Suzanne Brockmann

PAGES: 470
PUBLISHER: Ballantine

SETTING: Contemporary US and Indonesia
TYPE: Romantic suspense / thriller
SERIES: 4th in the Troubleshooters series

Savannah von Hopf has no choice. To save her uncle’s life, she goes in search of Ken “WildCard” Karmody, a guy she barely knew in college who is now a military operative. She must convince him to help her deliver a cache of ransom money into the hands of terrorists halfway around the world. What she doesn’t expect is to end up in WildCard’s arms before she can even ask for his help.

WildCard has always had a soft spot for beautiful women. But when he discovers Savannah’s hidden agenda, he is determined to end the affair. But Savannah is bound for Indonesia with or without his protection, and he can’t just walk away. When her plan goes horribly wrong, they are trapped in the forsaken jungle of a hostile country, stalked by a lethal enemy. As time is running out, they scramble to escape, risking their lives to stop a nightmare from spinning even further out of control...

I decided to reread Out of Control after a run of a few books I had to push myself to continue reading. I wanted something that would engage me, and I remembered exactly just how much these early books in the Troubleshooters series had done that. I remembered that so clearly that I was surprised to realise I haven't reviewed this one. OOC has stuck in my mind enough that I was sure I'd reread it recently, but the first one in the series I have a review of is Into the Night, read in December 2002.

OOC does that typical Brockmann thing from that time of having lots of simultaneous storylines and moving between them constantly.

The main one is the romance between Savannah von Hopf and Ken "Wildcard" Karmody, a character readers of the series would have already known well. He's the off-the-wall, think-outside-the-box guy without a filter who's part of SEAL Team 6. As the book starts, Kenny is still a bit bruised after his girlfriend of over a decade left him. They'd had a long-distance on-again, off-again sort of relationship, very unhealthy and high-maintenance, but Kenny thought he genuinely loved her. Now he feels used.

When a gorgeous woman has a flat tire in front of his house and his offer of help turns into dinner by his pool and mind-blowing sex, he's in heaven. She's amazing and clearly wants him like crazy, so before long he's convinced himself he's madly in love with her. Until he finds out Savannah knew exactly who he was. In fact, she knew him (and had a huge crush on him) when they were in university, as she's a distant friend of Kenny's ex. She has travelled all the way to San Diego with the explicit purpose to ask for his help. Her favourite uncle has just called from Indonesia, completely out of the blue, asking Savannah to bring him a quarter of a million dollars. Savannah is understandably nervous, and thought she would approach Kenny, whom she knows is a SEAL, and hire him to escort her.

Of course, given what happened the night before, Kenny assumes she tried to manipulate him with sex and is majorly pissed off. (BTW, Brockmann makes it believable and understandable -though clearly a Bad Idea- why she didn't say anything at the time). He ends up agreeing to go with Indonesia, although making it very clear he despises Savannah. But as soon as they land in Jakarta things go wrong, and they end up stranded in the jungle in a faraway island, trying to avoid all sorts of armed bands and get to safety. And as Kenny spends time with Savannah and gets to know her, he begins to realise he might have misjudged her.

Also on the Indonesian island are missionary Molly Anderson and pilot and black-marketeer Jones. Jones is not the conscience-less, only-out-for-himself guy he tells himself he is, and Molly is the only one who sees it (and calls him on all his bullshit). After they begin a relationship they each realise they are crazy for the other, but it's a relationship that has no future. Molly is about to head to her next mission in Africa, and Jones has major baggage, including a very high price on his head.

Brockmann always included a WWII story, and the one here involves Savannah's grandmother, Rose, who is a huge war hero. She was a double agent and was involved in really influential missions, and she has now written up her story in a bestselling book. We get sections from it, as pretty much all the characters are reading it, and those mainly cover her relationship with Heinrich von Hopf, an Austrian prince who, we know from the start, became her husband.

Rose has quite a bit of influence, so as soon as it becomes clear her son, and then her grandniece, are missing, she makes sure she's involved with the American team trying to rescue them. And of course, which team would that be but Max Bhagat's, which includes Alyssa Locke. And SEAL Team 6 is involved as well, since Kenny's also missing, and Sam Starrett is there too.

We basically rotate between all these threads, getting a scene from each. I remember that with the early books in the series it was always the case that I was more interested in one of the minor threads than in the main romance. I don't know whether that was the case when I first read the book (I was pretty involved with the Sam/Alyssa relationship then), but this time it was Kenny and Savannah I kept wanting to go back to. Sam and Alyssa were interesting, but nothing much happens here. And Molly and Jones didn't particularly appeal to me this time. Their thread is fine, but I wasn't dying to get back to them. As for Rose's story, I did like that quite a lot. She's one cool woman, and I loved her resourcefulness and the way Heinrich adored her for it.

There's a lot of action, but also plenty of emphasis on the romance. I liked both elements and thought both were really well done and perfectly integrated. The book certainly kept me turning the pages like crazy. However, I had some issues with both, which I don't think were a problem when I read the book

On the action side, I got a bit annoyed with the rah-rah attitude towards SEALs. They're the bestest most wonderfulest people ever, and no foreigners can beat them. And they and the FBI basically go around taking over all over the world, because they're clearly so much better than the locals, that the latter can't but bow to them and let them run things. Sigh.

As for the romance, Brockmann is good at going straight for the gut. She still got me this time, but as I was enjoying it, I still found it ever-so-slightly cringey. Kind of in a similar way that JR Ward's book are cringey, but not quite (nowhere near as shameless!).

Still, I enjoyed the hell out of this book. I might well go back and reread the series from the start.



Scandal of the Season, by Christie Kelley

>> Friday, February 20, 2015

TITLE: Scandal of the Season
AUTHOR: Christie Kelley

PAGES: 353

SETTING: Eartly 19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 4th in the Spinsters Club series

A Daring Charade...

For ten years, Anthony Westfield, Viscount Somerton, hasn't been able to forget the woman with whom he spent one scandalous night. When their paths cross again, he's shocked to discover Victoria Seaton is an accomplished pickpocket. But Somerton leads a double life of his own. Working on an undercover assignment, he makes Victoria a proposition: pretend to be his mistress or risk ruin. Yet soon he's tempted to turn their charade into reality--and surrender to an explosive passion. . .

A Holiday To Remember...

Victoria can't believe the man who almost destroyed her life a decade ago is now threatening to unravel her secrets. But posing as his mistress at a holiday country party is a game she can play well. For just one look into Somerton's eyes still weakens her with lust. And with Christmas fast approaching, every kiss they share under the mistletoe only makes Victoria fall more deeply in love...

Another of my random picks from old stuff in the TBR. I'm starting to think I should maybe just delete anything that's been there for a few years, because I really haven't had much success.

The first scene has our hero, Anthony, drunk and being dragged along to a whorehouse by his friends, who are determined he should lose his virginity. He virtuously thinks he doesn't want to, and that some of the women might not be there willingly, but oh, well, he's horny, so maybe best not to think about icky things and just have a nice time. He only deflates when he comes face to face with the madame, who turns out to be his mother (!). His father had said she was dead, but instead there she is, running the most exclusive brothel in London. Angry Anthony refuses to listen and runs out, where he meets the pretty orange seller he's been ogling for days. He kisses her.

10 years later, scandalous rake Anthony, who also moonlights as a spy (that bit's not even surprising), is still looking for the orange seller. It seems like the forced kiss we just saw turned into sex against a wall, and he remembers the encounter as rape and wants to apologise (because why even consider whether the woman is at all interested in reencountering the man who raped her; Anthony's conscience will feel better, and everyone knows a man's conscience trumps a woman's potential terror). To find the mysterious woman, he's enlisted the help of his secret half-sister, who's a psychic (!). At a party, sis tells him she's finally found the woman and she's right in the next room! Hmmm, none of the servants look like the woman he remembers. But there's something familiar about the mousy vicar's daughter who's a friend of the hostess...

And then he gets home and someone's stolen the rubies he had in his pocket. He remembers the vicar's daugther bumped into him at the party. Aha, she's the former orange seller, and she's a pickpocket! (Don't worry, she's only a pickpocket to fund an orphanage she's founded). He must get the rubies back. And he's been given a new super-special spy mission, to steal a letter a nobleman will receive where someone else has thoughtfully written down all the details of a plot to assassinate the Prince Regent. This will all happen at a house party thrown by a very jealous host. Best bring a mistress with him! But he has no official mistress, and asking one of the many women he randomly fucks will give the silly woman ideas beyond her station. Oh, of course! What better idea than to blackmail the woman to whom he was just about to apologise for raping her into pretending to be his mistress? Because there's no reason she might feel uncomfortable about spending some private quality time with her rapist...

Ugh, what a mess of WTF. It's a cracked setup, plus, this is book 4 of a series, and it shows. Maybe some of the whatthefuckery would make a bit more sense if I'd read the previous 3 books... I'm guessing some of those elements must have been introduced with a bit more care. Here, they're just plunked down. Long-lost mum who runs a brothel! Psychic sister! Harebrained spy plots!

We also have a truly entitled, obnoxious hero I wanted to smack several times. What elastic morals he's got! I got to about 12% on this gem. It might have calmed down a bit after that, but I wasn't going to hang about to find out.

MY GRADE: A DNF, but the bits I read I would probably rate an F.


The 5th Wave, by Rick Yancey

>> Wednesday, February 18, 2015

TITLE: The 5th Wave
AUTHOR: Rick Yancey

PAGES: 480
PUBLISHER: Putnam Juvenile

SETTING: Near future US
TYPE: Sci-fi
SERIES: Starts a trilogy

Took out half a million people.

Put that number to shame.

Lasted a little longer. Twelve weeks . . . Four billion dead.

You can't trust that people are still people.

No one knows.

But it's coming.

On a lonely stretch of highway, Cassie runs. Runs from the beings that only look human, who have scattered Earth's last survivors. To stay alone is to stay alive, until she meets Evan Walker. Beguiling and mysterious, Evan may be her only hope.

Now Cassie must choose: between trust and despair, between defiance and surrender, between life and death. To give up or to get up.

When the aliens arrived, people didn't know what to expect. They didn't have to wait long to find out: the intended destruction of all humans. The waves of attack came fast and furious, the 1st an electromagnetic pulse that destroyed all electronics (and a fair few people, in things like plane crashes), the 2nd a huge earthquake, followed by a resulting massive tsunami, the 3rd a deadly avian flu, the Red Death. Billions died.

It was the 3rd wave that killed Cassie's mum, but her father and little brother were fine. They managed to get out of the city and clustered in a camp with other survivors, far away from the cities. And then came the 4th wave. The people you thought were human and like you are not, and they will kill you. They came to the camp to take the little kids (including Cassie's brother, Sammy) to safety. Then they massacred everyone else (including Cassie's father). Cassie managed to escape, and now she's alone. She's only got her rifle and her determination to somehow rescue her brother.

And then she's not alone any more. Evan rescues her from a very tight spot and takes her to recover at his family's now-empty farmhouse. But Cassie continues to be just as determined to rescue Sammy, and Evan has some inside knowledge that can help.

The 5th Wave was one tense, fast-paced read. It was quite tough and bleak. Yancey doesn't pull his punches, and if you can't stand to have children in peril, you really want to stay far, far away from it, but for me, it worked.

I think what I liked best were the characters and that they didn't seem to be taking the typical character arcs. I'm really not sure what's in store for them. Cassie, for instance, gets a romance, but that's not the point of the book. She remains committed to rescuing Sammy, and then there are twists in her relationship with Evan that were really interestingly done. Cassie was a really good character, as well. There were a couple of instances when the snarkiness just felt unnecessary, but on the whole, she was great. Completely focused on her mission, but without losing the humanity that separated her from the aliens and that was what she was fighting for.

I also liked the structure and how that propelled the plot forward. Cassie is our first-person narrator from the start, but she's not the only POV character. We also get a couple of others, including her little brother. Cassie's story alternates with that of Ben, her former high school crush, who ended up almost dying in the 3rd wave right outside a big military base. Ben was then taken in by the military and put in an intense training programme together with kids as young as 6. This superarmy made up of kids will bring the aliens down, helped by technology found by the military when they recaptured the base from aliens disguised as humans. Those sections were just heartbreaking, and I became very attached to the people on Ben's team.

So anyway, we see things from both those perspectives, therefore knowing a bit more than each of the individual characters about what's going on and how things are coming together, but not enough to stop this from being surprisingly. It made the tension almost unbearable.

This is a trilogy and obviously there is a lot yet to be resolved at the end of the book. However, there is some closure, enough for the book to feel satisfying even if you don't have the next book available straight away (which I didn't when I read this, as this was a few months before the second book came out -and yes, I've read that one now, review soon!).



Twisted, by Laura Griffin

>> Monday, February 16, 2015

TITLE: Twisted
AUTHOR: Laura Griffin

PAGES: 400

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romantic suspense
SERIES: 5th in the Tracers series


Motive, opportunity, and no alibi—rookie detective Allison Doyle knows it’s as close to a slam dunk as most investigations get. But even though her small-town Texas police department has identified a prime suspect in a young woman’s vicious murder, she can’t rest easy. And when legendary FBI profiler Mark Wolfe shows up with a startling new theory, all her doubts are amplified. If Wolfe is correct, the real killer is an elusive psychopath who has left a trail of bodies behind him. And he’s just days away from his next kill. . . .

Allison was supposed to be Wolfe’s way into the case, nothing more. But she’s ambitious, stubborn, and far too tempting. With the help of her contacts at the Delphi Center crime lab, Wolfe is within striking distance of the monster he’s pursued for ten years. Except the closer Allison and Wolfe get, the more reason there is to fear. Because with a predator this brutal, every thread of evidence can make a difference between hunting a madman—and becoming hunted yourself.

I have tried Laura Griffin again and again and I always end up disappointed. I keep trying her because everyone seems to love her books, so I feel I must be missing something, but I think this was my last.

The plot concerns a serial killer. Detective Allison Doyle works for a small-town police department. She's one of the least experienced detectives and mainly does grunt work. The most recent case her department is investigating is the murder of a young woman. They think they've got a pretty good suspect, the woman's ex boyfriend.

But then FBI profiler Mark Wolfe turn up, convinced that the murder is actually the work of a serial killer, one he's been pursuing for years. Allison's boss is not convinced, but Mark's theories are enough to get Allison suspicious and start looking at the evidence again.

There's nothing wrong with the basic plot here. It could be done really well and be the basis of a great book. It just isn't. It's boring. The case is kind of interesting, but nothing particularly novel or great. But it was the characters that bored me to tears.

Allison and Mark never completely clicked for me as individuals, and there were a washout as a couple. There was utter and complete lack of chemistry between them. The romance just never took off for me, I never cared, and mainly I thought it felt inappropriate, like they should have been concentrating on the case rather than angsting about having sex.

Also, I've noticed in the few books I've read by her that Griffin’s heroines always feel like they get put at a disadvantage. Allison starts out that way, by embarrassingly being caught off guard during a hold-up, right at the beginning of the book, and having to be rescued by Mark. She never really recovers. She does notice a few clues and does all right in that, but mainly she’s constantly doing stupid/foolhardy things, and that annoyed me. There was the scene in the jail, when an unarmed prisoner gets the drop on her, then the end, where the killer captures her (twice, really). I found it extremely annoying.

This series was originally built around the Delphi Institute, a private forensic lab that engages in cutting-edge science and helps outclassed police departments. That element is interesting enough, but it's quite peripheral here, in a way that's typical of a late entry in a series. While in early books it has been a main player in the way the stories have developed (usually one of the protagonists works there), here it felt kind of shoehorned in.




The Girl With All the Gifts, by MR Carey

>> Saturday, February 14, 2015

TITLE: The Girl With All the Gifts

PAGES: 416

SETTING: Near future in what's now England
TYPE: Horror / speculative fiction

Melanie is a very special girl. Dr Caldwell calls her "our little genius."

Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don't like her. She jokes that she won't bite, but they don't laugh.

The Girl With All the Gifts is a groundbreaking thriller, emotionally charged and gripping from beginning to end.

When I posted my favourite books of 2014 a few weeks ago, several people whose tastes tend to be similar to mine shared their own top reads. The Girl With All the Gifts featured in several people's choices. Turns out my book club had just chosen it for our January read, and even though I couldn't make this meeting (I was in London having dinner and rhapsodising about the Vorkosigan saga with CD instead! *g*), I read the book anyway. And I was wowed!

The book starts with a little girl called Melanie. Melanie lives in a cell and knows about the world she lives in only through what she learns in class. She knows the place where she and the other children in her class live is surrounded by "Hungries", but she's never seen them. She knows about flowers and animals and the population of Birmingham, but she's never seen any of these either. All she remembers is her current existence, spending most of her time in her cell, except for when she's wheeled out, limbs and head strapped to the chair, to class or to the weekly feeding. It's an existence where she's never, ever touched.

We, of course, know that Melanie and her classmates are Hungries themselves, but of a different kind from the mindless, lumbering majority. And when things happen and Melanie's world widens, we find out a whole lot more about what's out there.

And that is all I will say about the plot, because the originality of this book makes it all the more enjoyable. I find that more and more, I really like reading books and having absolutely no idea where they are going. I still like the certainty of romance novels, but these days I crave unpredictability. But it has to be unpredictability with all characters behaving like real human beings, where the motivations make sense. If you get your unpredictability from making characters behave in unbelievable ways, you've lost me. Carey never lost me.

Melanie felt real, as did the people who become her companions. Dr. Caldwell is a driven doctor, determined to understand the infection that turns people into hungries if it's the last thing she does (and no matter whom she needs to sacrifice or endanger). Miss Justineau, Melanie's beloved teacher, is idealistic and moral, but in a way that sometimes leads her to act in self-destructive ways. Sergeant Parks is determined to keep those around him safe, and just as determined to see Melanie as a monster. And Private Kieran Gallagher is just heartbreakingly young.

It's an incredibly compelling, compulsive read. It can be tough, it can be tender, it's always surprising. And the ending was one of the most brilliant endings I've ever read. It makes complete sense, and it was still a surprise. And the way it brings things full circle feels strangely satisfying. I know it won't work for everyone (one of my friends at book club hated it), but to me, it felt just right. It felt like it was actually a happy ending, of sorts. The world itself has been redefined, why not happy endings too?



Agnes Moor's Wild Knight, by Alyssa Cole

>> Thursday, February 12, 2015

TITLE: Agnes Moor's Wild Knight
AUTHOR: Alyssa Cole

PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Medieval Scotland
TYPE: Romance

Agnes Moor knows her place in the court of King James IV—as one of the “exotics” in his employ. When the king makes a kiss from Agnes the prize of a tourney, a mysterious knight plows through his opponents to claim it. But it isn’t chance. The Wild Knight has come for her, and her champion is after after the most elusive prize of all: her heart..

The premise of this story sold me on it immediately, without even looking at reviews (especially at 77p!). It’s an interracial romance set in medieval Scotland, in the court of James IV. Agnes is a black woman who has been taken in by James and his wife, Margaret, and is an important part of the court. As the book starts a tourney is taking place called the Tourney of the Black Lady (based on a real event, according to the author’s notes), where the winner’s prize will be a kiss from Agnes. And it’s becoming very clear that a particular, mysterious knight is determined to win. He’s basically cutting through opponents like he’s on a mission, and Agnes can’t help hoping he’s a certain highland laird, even though she knows it’s impossible he should be.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid I liked the idea and the setting more than the actual story I got. There are good points. For instance, the writing is vivid and the story has a good sense of place. And there were elements of the story I liked… for instance, that Agnes was valued for her diplomacy skills, not just for being a novelty who can act as an ice-breaker and conversation starter. In fact, she doesn’t like the latter, but she accepts that it’s got its uses for her diplomatic role.

The problem is that this was much too short. It’s a short story, rather than a novella, but that’s not necessarily a problem. I’ve read plenty of short stories that felt satisfying. This one didn’t. It feels undeveloped as a romance. I did more or less get a sense of who Agnes was, although I would really have liked to have known more about her background… how she came to the court, that sort of thing (there are hints that it’s quite an interesting story). However, I had no idea who the hero was, really. He’s a highland laird who fell for her pretty much on sight and is determined to have her. That’s all. There are some conversations, but mainly the few pages available are used on them having sex. And not even sex where the characters are developed, just plain generic sex. Any proper courting happens off-stage, and we're just told it happened.




I Want It That Way, by Ann Aguirre

>> Tuesday, February 10, 2015

TITLE: I Want It That Way
AUTHOR: Ann Aguirre

PAGES: 352

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: New Adult
SERIES: Starts a series

Nadia Conrad has big dreams, and she's determined to make them come true. But between maintaining her college scholarship and working at the local day care to support herself, dating's the last thing on her mind. Then she moves into a new apartment and meets the taciturn yet irresistible guy in 1B….

Daniel Tyler has grown up too fast. Becoming a single dad at twenty turned his life upside down—and brought him heartache he can't risk again. Now, as he raises his four-year-old son while balancing a full-time construction management job and night classes, the last thing he wants is noisy students living in the apartment upstairs. But one night, Nadia's and Ty's paths cross, and soon they can't stay away from each other.

The timing is all wrong—but love happens when it happens. And you can't know what you truly need until you stand to lose it.

When there was all that to-do about this new genre, New Adult, I got quite excited about the idea. The issues people face during and right after the transition from high school are quite different from those they face in their late 20s-early 30s (the usual age for romance). I was really interested in reading about people going through that time, whether in college or right afterwards. It's all about setting up a life as a grown-up, which often is an interesting, challenging time, and there really wasn't all that much out there looking at this.

Unfortunately, there still isn't much out there, even in the New Adult genre. That seems to have been turned into a vehicle for wish-fulfillment fantasies and daydreams about plain Jane dating the quarterback, which really does nothing for me. And I should make it clear, I don't have a problem with the subject matter itself. That can be done in a way I enjoy. What I have a problem with is books where, if the subject matter is not a fantasy of yours, there's nothing else there for you. And way too many NA books have that problem.

All that ranting is my introduction to saying that I Want It That Way is what I wanted when I got so excited about New Adult. It's got regular people living normal but interesting lives and dealing with conflicts that are not larger than life, but nonetheless are pretty big in their own lives. More like this, please!

Our narrator is Nadia Conrad, who's in her next-to-last year at university studying special education. Nadia and three of her friends have got tired of living in dorms and have clubbed together to rent a flat off-campus. Ty, only a couple of years older than Nadia, lives directly downstairs from her and they meet cute when Nadia is almost flattened by her sofa as they try to push it upstairs. There's an instant strong attraction, but Ty is single dad to a 4-year-old, Sam, and this complicates things (even more because Sam starts attending the same day care where Nadia works part time). But as they start hanging out and talking, Nadia on her balcony, Ty right downstairs in his patio (very Romeo and Juliet), resisting the attraction becomes hard.

There are no huge, dramatic developments here. It's just about Ty and Nadia coming together despite their best intentions, carving out some time in their very busy lives (they're both ridiculously hard workers... Nadia has classes, practicums and her part-time job, while Ty has a full-time job and is going to night-school to get an architecture degree, not to mention raising a 4-year-old. They could be in a Nora Roberts novel!). And Nadia's flatmates have their own issues going on, in which Nadia becomes involved, as they're all really good friends. I really liked that aspect of the book, actually. These are secondary characters who feel fully formed and real. Some of them will have their own stories in the series, but it sounds like not all of them, and those feel real too.

Something else I loved was the way Aguirre dealt with Diana, Ty's ex and the mother of his son. Basically, what happened was that she became pregnant accidentally when they were about 20. She wanted to have an abortion, but Ty badgered her into having the baby. She never wanted to have it and had a miserable pregnancy and birth, so she took off pretty much as soon as she'd given birth, and disappeared into thin air. Many romances would demonise her for even half of what she's done. A woman who would consider abortion? Evil! A mother who doesn't see her son? Unthinkable! That's absolutely not the case here. There's understanding and compassion from both Ty and Nadia towards a woman who was clearly caught in a shitty situation and did what she felt was necessary. I particularly liked the ambiguity of Ty's reactions. He feels awful about pushing Diana and pressuring her into something as important as having a child, but at the same time, he can't regret Sam's existence. Anyway, I loved how this was done, and I'd really love to read Diana's story.

This experience has obviously had had an impact on Ty, and it informs much of his reluctance to be with Nadia. But I must say, Ty's complete insistence that he and Nadia couldn't have any sort of proper relationship beyond friends with benefits felt a bit extreme, considering Sam and she already have a relationship and he adores her. His thinking seems to be that he's already ruined Diana's life so he doesn't want to do it to Nadia, too, but if you really think about it, what he did to ruin Diana's life was to dictate her choices, and he's doing exactly the same thing to Nadia!

Things do end happily though, and coming back to what I was saying about wish fulfillment fantasies, this is the perfect demonstration of what I mean. Nadia and Ty's relationship is very much not what would be a happy ending for me. What makes her happy (i.e. basically becoming mum to a 4-year-old when she's 22) is very definitely not a life that would make me happy. But you know what? She's a solid enough character that I have no problem believing that they're a life and a relationship that are going to make her happy, and that's really all I want in a romance.

Beyond the romance, there is maybe a bit too much emphasis on the mundane detail of life as a college student living off campus, things that add colour but don't really have any effects on the plot and conflicts (e.g. they go to a club and have fun dancing, Nadia's first attempt at a lesson plan is pretty bad, but she comes up with a much better idea next time). I actually really liked having some of that detail there, but I think Aguirre didn't quite get the balance right. I will be reading the other books in the series and hope she gets it right there!

MY GRADE: A strong B.


Last To Die, by Tess Gerritsen

>> Sunday, February 08, 2015

TITLE: Last To Die
AUTHOR: Tess Gerritsen

PAGES: 512
PUBLISHER: Ballantine

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: 10th in the Rizzoli / Isles series

For the second time in his short life, fourteen-year-old Teddy Clock has survived a massacre. Orphaned once more when his foster family is murdered, the traumatized teenager has nowhere to turn—until the Boston PD puts Detective Jane Rizzoli on the case. Jane spirits Teddy to the exclusive Evensong boarding school, a sanctuary where young victims of violent crime learn vital skills of survival. But even behind locked gates, Jane fears that Evensong’s benefactors aren’t the only ones watching. And when she learns of two other students whose pasts bear a shocking resemblance to Teddy’s, it becomes chillingly clear that a circling predator has more than one victim in mind. Joining forces with medical examiner Maura Isles, Jane races to stop an obsessed killer’s twisted quest—before an unspeakable secret dooms the children’s fate.

It's become a bit of a tradition for me to listen to the next-to-latest Tess Gerritsen while I'm on holiday in Uruguay (not the latest because what if there's a cliff-hanger on the personal stuff and I need to know straight away what happens next?). It's a bit strange to read her dark, often gory books while on my morning walks by the beach, but it works for me.

In Last to Die, Detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles are called to a really bad crime scene. A couple and all but one of their foster children have been killed, almost execution style. The sole survivor is a little boy called Teddy Clock, and Jane is shocked to discover this is not the first time the same thing has happened to him. Only a few years earlier his parents and siblings were all killed as well, leaving only Teddy alive. And when someone tries to break into the foster home the police have placed Teddy, Jane decides she needs to stash Teddy somewhere really safe and really secret.

And what do you know, one such place falls right into her lap. Readers of this series will remember Julian, the teenager Maura befriended during her adventure in Ice Cold. Well, he's been placed at a boarding school called Evensong, run by Anthony Sansone and staffed by people who are members of his Mephisto Society (yeah, there is quite a lot of history between all these characters by now. You'd have to read The Mephisto Club to fully understand, but basically, these are people who believe evil is real and are determined to fight against it). Anyway, Maura has gone to visit Julian there and she discovers a couple of kids there have had the same experience as Teddy: families exterminated, with them being the sole survivors, and then the same thing happening again with the people they go to live with next. Evensong is a secure location (if there's something that can be said about the Mephisto Society is that they are paranoid about security) and it makes sense to keep these 3 kids where they can keep an eye on all of them, so Jane takes Teddy there. And then strange things start happening, from bloody dolls hanging from a tree to mysterious deaths.

Oh, I'm so conflicted about this one! I was fully engaged and interested in all that was going on and I had to force myself to not just wander round the house with my headphones on (I was staying at my parents' and they wouldn't have appreciated that). The setup was really interesting and well done, and I thought both the premise and the development were good. I also really cared about the personal, non case-related stuff going on. But on the other hand, I had Quibbles. Lots and lots of them.

The dénouement was the main thing that I had quibbles with. On one hand, it really surprised me, and yet it made sense, psychologically. I love it when that happens. On the other, there were some threads left hanging. Some of the creepy things that happened (a particular suicide that wasn’t really a suicide, creepy figures hanging from trees outside Evensong school) didn’t make any sense, given the resolution and who ended up being responsible. No sense at all. They weren’t necessary to what this person was trying to do, and they seem to suggest a sort of person this person is not, according to the narrative (how's that for cryptic?). These things were great at the moment they happened, really gave the book an eery, scary feeling, but the lack of sense at the end made me feel those scares weren’t earned at all.

Also, I felt I was being asked to root for and be sympathetic towards a character I thought was morally horrible. This will be very spoilerish, so read on only if you don’t plan to read this book or if you've already read it:

Basically, the reason for the family massacres was that one of the parents in each family was a CIA agent, and another agent wanted to silence them. All had been involved in a particular episode in which the murderous agent had been bought off and the others had figured this out. But one of the three agents survived, and he shows up at the end. And we’re supposed to think it a happy ending when he survives with his kid and goes off into the sunset. I really, really didn’t. This is a person who was involved in kidnapping foreign nationals (which caused the death of innocent bystanders), extraordinary rendition and torture (sorry, “enhanced interrogations”). And I’m supposed to feel positive about him, just because the people whose lives and human rights he had no regard for weren’t Americans? Fuck that.

In addition to the case, we get some development in the soap opera of Jane Rizzoli’s parents. Previously in this series, sexist lout Frank Rizzoli left his wife for a younger woman (a bimbo, Angie calls her). Angie was devastated, but after a while fell in love with Jane’s former partner, Vince Korsak, who cherishes her and treats her so much better than Frank. As this book starts, they’re planning their wedding, as soon as Angie and Frank’s divorce goes through. Well, now Frank’s girlfriend has left him, and he realises he screwed up. He wants his wife back, with things exactly as they were before. And he and his equally loutish son, Frankie Jr., want Jane to pressure her mother into going along with this. They’re FAMILY, you see, and "that means something”. Oh, this section made me sooooooo angry. We don’t have a resolution here, and I really hope Gerritsen makes Angie stand firm against all the revolting patriarchal pressures that are pushing her towards going back to an entitled prick who treats her like shit. I will absolutely stop reading this series if she goes back to him. My problem in this book was Jane. I hated her for even contemplating agreeing to her father’s and brother’s demands, for thinking she doesn’t know what to do, and that their arguments have any value at all. She is married to a man who loves her and respects her and treats her well. She knows that wasn’t how Frank treated Angie, and she knows very well that nothing will change if he gets his way. He himself admits that what he wants back is the unpaid maid who cooks him good food and waits on him hand and food. Ohhh, I hated him so much, more than the killer, even. I wanted him to end up castrated with a rusty spoon. Maybe the plot of the next book? (I can only hope!)

Finally, this is quite minor, in the grand scheme of things, but it's an issue that has been bothering me later. Now, Evensong school is amazing. It sounds just like Hogwards, and I want to go there. But there was one thing that didn't make sense to me, and that was that Gerritsen seemed to feel she had to include “mean girls” and bullies. This is a school where the teachers (and there are a lot of them) pay a lot of attention to what’s going on and it’s suggested they’re perfectly aware of this. Every single kid has therapy sessions every week. Why is this allowed to go on? I don’t know, this is something that bothers me when I read books set in US high schools. It’s kind of suggested bullies are an essential part of the school experience. They are there in every single school, and teachers NEVER do anything about it. Is this what it's like, really? I can understand nothing happening when you’ve got a school with underpaid, overwhelmed teachers, but in a school like Evensong?

MY GRADE: Contrary to what it might seem with all my ranting, I did, on the whole, enjoy this. A B-.


Mars Evacuees, by Sophia McDougall

>> Friday, February 06, 2015

TITLE: Mars Evacuees
AUTHOR: Sophia McDougall

PAGES: 336

SETTING: Future Earth and Mars
TYPE: Middle grade YA
SERIES: Not sure

From bestselling UK author Sophia McDougall comes one fresh and funny, adventure-filled tween debut about a group of kids evacuated to Mars! Perfect for fans of Artemis Fowl, this laugh-out-loud series is packed with nonstop fun. When Earth comes under attack by aliens, hilarious heroine Alice Dare and a select group of kids are sent to Mars. But things get very strange when the adults disappear into thin air, the kids face down an alien named Thsaaa, and Alice and her friends must save the galaxy!

For when plucky twelve-year-old Alice Dare learns she's being taken out of the Muckling Abbott School for Girls and sent to another planet, no one knows what to expect. This is one wild ride that will have kids chuckling the whole way through.

This is sci-fi, set in a future where aliens are threatening the Earth. Apparently, when they showed up and offered to sort out global warming for us we just agreed and didn't ask for any details. So they fixed it, and then some. The mirrors they set up in space to reflect back sunlight are cooling the Earth to the point of sparking off a new Ice Age (presumably, the aliens prefer their new homes on the chilly side).

Our heroine is Alice Dare, whose mother, a fighter pilot, is currently the big heroine and symbol of the Earth's defence forces. That makes Alice pretty important, and gets her in the group of teenagers chosen to be evacuated to Mars, far from the war taking place on and around Earth. They're meant to be educated and trained so that they can join the fight when they turn 16. But things don't go as planned.

Sigh. This was a disappointment, and the setup was so cool that it makes me really cross that the execution really wasn't my thing. Things started out well, and even when the kids first arrive on Mars, I was fully on board. Some of the details (e.g. the toy-shaped robots programmed a bit too young for the age-groups they’re supposed to be teaching) were funny and interesting. I liked the diversity of the characters. I was also interested to see what would happen.

But then it all started feeling a bit too young… I was expecting YA, but I kind of think of YA as mid-to-late teens. This felt younger, which is not my thing. The problem might have been that the main character was 12. I thought when I started that maybe she’d age quickly through the story… after all, she’s not supposed to be ready to fight until 16, but by the time I stopped (about a third in), only a couple of months had gone by.

And worst of all, I didn't buy any of the characters. They didn't feel like real people. The point I stopped was when things turned into Lord of the Flies in Mars. Basically, at one point all the grown-ups just suddenly disappear, and the kids are left on their own, with no instructions or knowledge of what is going on. And the way people started behaving had no emotional believability whatsoever. The older kids were evil just because they were evil, and the younger ones felt awfully blithe and unconcerned. It annoyed me and bored me and I didn’t want to keep reading.

MY GRADE: It was a DNF.


The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber

>> Wednesday, February 04, 2015

TITLE: The Book of Strange New Things
AUTHOR: Michel Faber

PAGES: 512

SETTING: Near future Earth and planet of Oasis
TYPE: Fiction

A monumental, genre-defying novel that David Mitchell calls "Michel Faber’s second masterpiece," The Book of Strange New Things is a masterwork from a writer in full command of his many talents.

It begins with Peter, a devoted man of faith, as he is called to the mission of a lifetime, one that takes him galaxies away from his wife, Bea. Peter becomes immersed in the mysteries of an astonishing new environment, overseen by an enigmatic corporation known only as USIC. His work introduces him to a seemingly friendly native population struggling with a dangerous illness and hungry for Peter’s teachings—his Bible is their “book of strange new things.” But Peter is rattled when Bea’s letters from home become increasingly desperate: typhoons and earthquakes are devastating whole countries, and governments are crumbling. Bea’s faith, once the guiding light of their lives, begins to falter.

Suddenly, a separation measured by an otherworldly distance, and defined both by one newly discovered world and another in a state of collapse, is threatened by an ever-widening gulf that is much less quantifiable. While Peter is reconciling the needs of his congregation with the desires of his strange employer, Bea is struggling for survival. Their trials lay bare a profound meditation on faith, love tested beyond endurance, and our responsibility to those closest to us.

Marked by the same bravura storytelling and precise language that made The Crimson Petal and the White such an international success, The Book of Strange New Things is extraordinary, mesmerizing, and replete with emotional complexity and genuine pathos.

I haven't read Faber before, but the premise of this book really intrigued me. We meet Peter and his wife Bea on their way to Heathrow, where Peter is about to start a journey which will take him unfathomably far from home. His final destination is Oasis, a planet several galaxies away, where he is to become a Christian missionary. We follow him throughout his journey, as he explores his new environment and works with the native Oasans. They are the reason he is there, as they are hungry for him to share the stories in his Bible, the book of strange new things of the title.

But as he takes forward his mission, Peter is in contact with Bea, and things aren't going as well on Earth. Through her written messages, we find out that environmental catastrophe is making things on Earth increasingly desperate. And that distance in their experiences, more than the physical distance between them, tests what was a solid, loving relationship.

I'm not usually attracted to books that deal with themes of faith or troubled marriages, but the space exploration and colonisation aspect intrigued me. And, it turns out, I ended up enjoying all these aspects of the story.

I found myself fascinated by the world Faber created and by the characters. Objectively, this was a bit slow at the start. It takes Peter about 4 hours (as in, 4 audiobook hours, much longer to him) to even get out of the main base in Oasis, but I really didn't mind. It's all so interesting and different that I was absorbed by it. The world is strange and compelling, and the contrast to the mundane reality of living in the base, run by a mysterious corporation, really worked.

Peter is a really interesting character. His most prominent characteristic is his goodness. It's very important to him to be a good, decent person who treats others respectfully. His interactions with the native inhabitants of Oasis are a good example. I was a quite leery at the beginning (the very idea of missionaries is fraught with all sorts of negative associations for me), but Peter is very careful to respect the Oasans' culture (I use the term 'Oasans' here, but Peter calls them by the name they use for themselves, which is rendered in the book in symbols the audiobook narrator pronounces something like 'Shishoda'). His approach to missionary work is not to try to 'civilise' or change their culture in any way, but to share the joy of the religion that gives him such a sense of meaning with people who are explicitly demanding he do so (in fact, getting someone to teach them about the 'book of strange new things' was one of the the conditions the Oasans demanded before they would agree to help the people on the base survive).

But Peter is good in a believable way, which -I'll be honest- made him feel incredibly annoying at times. And that's what Faber was going for, I'm pretty sure, because clearly he exasperates Bea at times, too. His serene goodness and self-satisfaction when Bea's world is falling apart is more than she can bear. He's especially infuriating when he really can't grasp what Bea is going through and is clearly more concerned that she, say, uses the word 'godforsaken' than the fact that the world around her is falling apart and she feels forsaken by her God. He shows an almost psychopathic lack of empathy... or rather, it's more a difficulty taking in problems that are not right next to him. I totally identified and sympathised with Bea's anger with him.

In fact, even though we are always in Peter's POV and in Oasis, I was mentally and emotionally with Bea. With her, I found myself getting angrier and angrier at his lack of response and empathy, and at how he could remain so detached from what Bea was saying. Because I was getting only Bea's letters as well, and with me, she's just a character in a book, whereas with Peter she's real and his wife, and I was getting a lot more emotionally upset than him about what she was going through! There's an episode close to the end (basically, what leads to the final breakdown of her faith in God), where I wept at what had happened to her. It's something that's minor, on the grand scheme of things, but I could feel her heartbreak and completely identified with it. And Peter goes around blithely feeling more worried about the state of her faith than the state of her life. Faber made me really feel in this book.

The exception was Peter's big crisis of faith. I could intellectually understand his faith and his utter certainty that losing it would be the worst possible thing that could happen to him, but I couldn't really feel the anguish of this. I'm agnostic and have absolutely no interest in being part of any religion, even from a 'tradition' point of view. And I lead a life that makes me happy and is full of meaning. I just can't understand emotionally the way losing your faith can feel like a tragedy (although I'm perfectly willing to believe the lived experience that says that for many people, it is). So that aspect didn't resonate with me very much.

Still, speaking of faith, one of the most intriguing aspects of the book is Peter's gnawing suspicion that what the Oasans are getting from his teachings about Christianity is not quite what he intended or expected. I won't reveal much here, because one of the most intriguing things about the book is trying to figure out what's going on with the Oasans, why the fascination with Christianity and what they're interpreting. I really came to care for them. Faber creates people who are almost unbearably vulnerable and made me feel tenderness and fear for them.

It's not a perfect book, especially from the plot mechanics point of view. And strictly speaking, there are some issues with the logic. It somewhat strained my credibility that Peter would go so far, in a journey on which he is fully and completely dependent on the goodwill of the mysterious corporation who runs the trading post in Oasis, without asking certain questions. But that seems to be who he is, his faith that God will take care of things makes it credible. That just seems to be how he rolls. But still, it was a book that made me think and feel, the sort of book I really, really want to discuss with people. So please, someone read this!


AUDIOBOOK NOTES: The narrator, Josh Cohen is really good. This must have been a challenging book, mainly due to the Oasan characters. Some of them speak English (the base has been going for a while, and a couple of people before Peter spent quite a bit of time with them), but there are sounds their physiology really struggles with, and Cohen comes up with a credible way to pronounce those sounds (the 't', the 's'). I wondered whether he was making it up, but I've had a look online and Faber actually substitutes those letters with strange symbols in the Oasans' speech, which would have probably worked just as well as Cohen's narration.


Love’s Persuasion, by Ola Awonubi

>> Monday, February 02, 2015

TITLE: Love’s Persuasion
AUTHOR: Ola Awonubi

PAGES: 250
PUBLISHER: Ankara Press

SETTING: Contemporary Nigeria
TYPE: Romance

Things are changing for the staff of Lagos firm City Finance, and not necessarily for the best. But for Ada Okafor, a bright, dedicated and beautiful trainee accountant, the only change worth noticing is the dashing, British-trained new assistant managing director Tony Okoli.

Ambitious and determined, Ada ignores her feelings for Tony and focuses on juggling her work in accounts with completing her degree in business and finance. But their love of books draws them closer together and soon they embark on a secret but passionate affair.

They soon discover that the course of love does not run smooth and a host of obstacles - from Tony’s disapproving family to jealous colleagues - litter their path. Their passion for each other is truly tested as they fight to persuade themselves and the world that love, in the end, trumps social status.

I heard about Ankara Press through CD, who often comments here. It's a new romance imprint based in Nigeria, publishing contemporary stories set in Africa and with African protagonists. This is something that I've long wanted to read... not Africa in particular, but romances set in places outside the US and Western Europe, with protagonists who are both locals (all those HPs with American/English girls falling in love with Greeks/Italians/South Americans in exotic locations which have only a distant relation to reality are an extremely poor substitutes).

Anyway, Ankara Press only have a handful of titles available so far, but several of them appealed to me. I also really liked some of what I read in their About us page: Their stories feature women "who work, play and, of course, fall madly in love in vibrant African cities from Lagos to Cape Town" and men who "are not afraid of independent and sexually assertive women". They want to publish books that "reflect the realities of African women's lives in ways that challenge boundaries and go beyond conventional expectations". Sounds pretty damn good to me!

Of course, the proof is in the pudding, so I bought one of their books to try. Love's Persuasion is set in Lagos. Ada Okafor is a young woman working as a receptionist in a large family-owned business. She's determined to build a successful career, so she's studying to be an accountant and getting some experience by helping out in the accounts section.

When the big boss's son is brought in to take on the role of assistant managing director (clearly a first step in him taking over from his dad), Ada doesn't expect anything to change, other than, she hopes, the firm becoming more professionally run. Tony Okoli is one good-looking man and she really liked what she saw of him when they briefly chatted at the reception announcing his appointment, but she's not going to endanger her job by messing about with the boss. But Tony was really taken with Ada, and, although he knows he shouldn't, he keeps making friendly overtures.

The book started out very well. I liked Ada a lot, with her determination to stand on her own and make a success of her own life, rather than simply marrying a rich guy, as people in her life keep pressuring to do. She takes no shit from Tony, and is quite happy to tell him that she’s not going to be one of those wives who will just put her diploma up as a trophy while they keep house for a man. No, if she marries a man it will be someone who will share the housework and make it possible for her to have a career, just as much as he does. There’s a scene when Tony invites her to his place for a meal and suggests having Chinese. She’s surprised when, instead of ordering in, he starts taking shrimps and fresh veggies out of the fridge. She wonders, outraged, if this guy is imagining she’ll be cooking him a meal. Nope, Tony cooks HER a meal, which is a good way of signaling that he might be exactly the sort of man she’s looking for.

But Tony is a character who feels a lot less developed than Ada. We know he has no real interest in taking over from his father. Tony wants to write and when in London, he actually left a job in the City (he’s an accountant) to write. But then his father became ill and pressured Tony to come back and take over the business, even though his sister, Samantha, also has a business degree and is willing and able to take over instead. But that’s as deep as his character goes, really. Tony feels pretty passive about all this. And some of his actions were hard to understand. He’s formally engaged to a family friend's daughter, mainly because their parents have pressured them into a relationship, but he doesn’t love her. And he pursues Ada anyway (all the while telling himself he shouldn’t), without really giving much thought as to whether he will go forward with the engagement. He seems to be the kind of person who thinks that if they ignore a problem, it doesn't exist. The engagement issue does gets sorted out, but not through anything HE does. I got to the point where I doubted he would have done anything at all.

Mainly because of Tony’s lack of depth, the romance is not great. I kind of liked the first half, mainly because they bond over a shared love of books and Tony’s support of Ada’s ambitions, and the action centres on Ada and her life and her work. But things started going downhill at about the halfway point, when Tony suddenly declares he loves Ada (I was like… Whaaa???? When did that happen??) and they start dating in earnest. That’s kind of the signal for the crazy soap opera stuff to start happening. Female characters, particularly, go all catty and horrible and slut-shamey and start attacking Ada. Even the previously quite professional, good people round Ava in her job go weird.

It does come good in the end, in an unexpected way, but that was in the last, quasi-epilogue chapter. Tony has become a very appealing character and clearly has grown some decisiveness, but unfortunately, we haven’t seen the transition.

I must say, though, the setting partly compensated for the so-so romance. I couldn’t help but compare this to Snow Angels, which I've recently reviewed and which I read just before. That was written by a foreigner living in Finland, mainly for a foreign audience. Snow Angels carefully explained the context of all the particularly Finnish things and functioned almost like a cultural travelogue. I actually enjoyed this element of the book, but I also liked the completely different experience of Love’s Persuasion. This one was written for a local audience. There’s no allowance made for foreign readers. Things like: people will use Pidgin English when they would normally do so, and the reader is assumed to know the connotations of the characters living in or going to different Lagos neighbourhoods, that sort of thing. I was sometimes a bit lost (mainly with the Pidgin English - I could get the gist of what was being said, but often not the details), but I did not mind at all. The details of the lives of the Okoli side of the book seemed familiar, as they did in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (the quirks of the elites do seem remarkably similar in Nigeria and Uruguay). But what was most fascinating were the details of Ada’s life… how a young Lagos professional who’s only just starting out would live. Things like her sharing a room with a friend in a large house, or the struggles of working in a local company, run in the local way, influenced by the local culture. All this made this a book worth reading for me.

Finally, I really should mention the writing and editing. They weren't great. The writing is plain, sometimes a bit clumsy (e.g. when the author goes on about exactly what music the characters are listening to), but it was readable. I didn’t mind that a lot, but I did mind that there were quite a lot of mistakes. Not enough to drive me crazy, but definitely enough to notice. A lot of those were just things a basic copy-edit should have sorted out, too. A shame.



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