November 2015 wish list

>> Friday, October 30, 2015

I'm almost back to normal after holidays and a really busy period as well, so back to posting my wish list for the next month!

Books I'm definitely planning to get

Jeweled Fire, by Sharon Shinn (Nov 3)

New entry in the Elemental Blessings series. I love the world Shinn has created in this series, and though the second book wasn't quite as fantastic as the first one, I have high hopes for this one.

Stars of Fortune, by Nora Roberts (Nov 3)

First in a new trilogy called The Guardians. The last trilogy was pretty crap and it's been a while since Roberts has done a good one, but I can't not give her a try!

Playing with Fire, by Tess Gerritsen (Nov 5)

The main thing to note with this one is that it's not part of the Rizzoli/Isles series, but a standalone thriller. Seems to have a bit of a paranormal twist, too. I'll totally read it.

S.P.Q.R.: A History of Ancient Rome, by Mary Beard (Nov 9)

Non fiction. I love Mary Beard as a public figure and broadcaster,and the reviews of this one have been really good.

Once Upon a Marquess, by Courtney Milan (Nov 10)

This has been on my wish list marked as "coming out soon" since July. It's actually showing with a Nov 10th date on Milan's website, so I'm thinking it might actually be about to come out this time! What's it about? Who cares, it's Courtney Milan!

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

The Game Plan, by Kristen Callihan (Nov 1)

Callihan's NA books are of the type that is not usually my thing (regular girl falls and high-status guy -an NFL player, int his case), but the first was actually an ok read (still need to review that one!). This one seems to have a virgin hero, so I might give it a shot.

Burn It Up, by Cara McKenna (Nov 3)

Just noting this one, at this stage. I have the first in this series, but I haven't read it yet. It's a motorcycle club book, which is really, REALLY not my thing, but it's Cara McKenna, who can pretty much sell me on anything. We'll see.

Smoke and Mirrors, by Elly Griffiths (Nov 5)

I haven't been 100% enamoured of the Elly Griffiths books I've read, but this one sounds really good. It's a different series from the one I read, it's set in Brighton in the 1950s during pantomime season, and the crimes seem to have some sort of fairy tale inspiration. Too tempting!

Incapable, by Ainslie Paton (Nov 8)

The hero is a voice actor, which, as an audiobook fan, is something I find fascinating.

Unnatural, by Joanna Chambers (Nov 24)

Sounds interesting. It's about two childhood friends who became estranged "after a passionate encounter". One of the guys, the one who (I deduce from the blurb) caused the rift, is determined to restore their friendship. I've liked Chambers' writing before, so I might try this.


The Circle, by Dave Eggers

>> Wednesday, October 28, 2015

TITLE: The Circle
AUTHOR: Dave Eggers

PAGES: 504

SETTING: Near future, in the US
TYPE: Fiction

Fast, thrilling, compulsively addictive - The Circle is Dave Eggers's timely novel about our obsession with the internet.

When Mae is hired to work for the Circle, the world's most powerful internet company, she feels she's been given the opportunity of a lifetime. Run out of a sprawling California campus, the Circle links users' personal emails, social media, and finances with their universal operating system, resulting in one online identity and a new age of transparency. Mae can't believe her great fortune to work for them - even as life beyond the campus grows distant, even as a strange encounter with a colleague leaves her shaken, even as her role at the Circle becomes increasingly public...

Mae Holland's humdrum life changes when she gets at job at The Circle, a company that's basically Google + Facebook on steroids. The Circle is the product of a backlash against internet abuse. By linking everyone's online activities into one real identity they have, they claim, brought civility to the web.

Initially, all goes well. The campus-style offices are all about fun and a shared social life, and when her father gets ill, the company ensures her health insurance covers him. She's ecstatic at working for a company that treats its employees so well and that is trying to do good in the world, creating a more civil, transparent society. But soon things cross into territory that is not quite as comfortable. Transparency means that privacy is suspicious by definition, and some of the ways in which this manifests in everyday life makes Mae feel some twinges of discomfort.

The Circle, for all that it is satire, is probably one of the scariest books I've read. It's scary because it's believable and plausible. It's basically taking ideas that really exist in the world today (and which seem pretty reasonable!) to their extreme but impeccably logical conclusions. It's also scary because since its publication, several of those ideas have actually moved in the exact directions posited in the book, and because most of them feel like a continuation of what's already going on. If we've already privatised big chunks of the justice system and are thinking of privatising things like defense procurement, why not the running of elections?

So to me, as a commentary on society and the direction in which we seem to be going, this was great (I think my favourite moment was Mae's grave decision whether to send a frown to some evil Guatemalan paramilitaries, and her thoughts about how brave this made her). But this is fiction, so how does it work as a story, the device Eggers uses to develop his message?

Actually, pretty well. There are issues. There are elements that are predictable (e.g. the identity of the mysterious guy who becomes Mae's secret lover), and it's not exactly subtle (the company has procured and keeps in a tank a rare creature from the deep sea, a transparent shark who devours and destroys everything, including a turtle who looks a little bit like one of Mae's viewers' grandfather... if you don't see it immediately, and without the need for the explicit explanation provided, as a metaphor for the ultimate destructiveness and voracity of the Circle's drive for transparency, then you weren't paying attention). But it works, and that's because of Mae.

Yes, Mae is a bit thin as a character. She doesn't have much agency and is very reactive, almost submissive. But that, I felt, was the point. One of the things I thought was best about the book, and this might be spoilerish, so keep reading at your own risk, is that it turns out we're seeing things from the point of view of a character I didn't expect. I expected Mae would turn out to be someone who'd start out believing, but who'd increasingly feel trapped by the oppressiveness of the Circle. But no, Mae turns out to be a true believer. She's not in denial about the negative consequences (which come through loud and clear to the reader, even through her point of view); she just doesn't see them as negative consequences. She simply cannot conceive of points of view different from her own being other than crazy or antisocial. They are therefore discountable, and the people who hold them need to be brought in for their own good. It's chilling. So, in effect, the protagonist of the book is the villain, and her villainy is of the passive, unquestioning kind. And this comes to a truly fantastic climax with the ending. It was totally the right one.


AUDIOBOOK NOTES: I listened to the audiobook, and the narrator, Dion Graham, was brilliant. We're in Mae's point of view, so I was a bit surprised to see that the narrator was male, but given that Mae is not much more than a vehicle for Eggers' views (even though she herself doesn't espouse them), that kind of made sense. He got the nuances right, and I particularly liked the little bit of dismissive laughter in his voice when Mae made her rationalisations to be able to accept something particularly troublesome.


Two disappointing DNFs

>> Monday, October 26, 2015

These are two books I was really sure I'd enjoy. I didn't.

TITLE: Cinder
AUTHOR: Marissa Meyer

I love stories inspired in fairy tales, and a cyborg Cinderella set in a sort of post-apocalyptic, plague-ravaged Beijing sounded really intriguing. Cinder is a mechanic, repairing all sorts of machinery (even other cyborgs) for her family, who exploit her. Things kick off when Prince Kai brings her a favourite cyborg of his for her to repair.

I just couldn't get into this one properly. The world-building is a mess. History and social structures seem either shallow or not thought-out at all, and some aspects are downright contradictory (like the status of cyborgs. I didn't buy that for a minute). I was particularly disappointed to see that Meyer did nothing at all with the New Beijing setting. This could be set absolutely anywhere. The characters don't ring true, either, which in my book, is even worse than bad world-building.

Lots of people seem to like this one, but it didn't work for me at all. I gave up before the halfway point.


TITLE: When A Scot Ties the Knot
AUTHOR: Tessa Dare

This is about a young woman who suffers from quite severe social anxiety, to the point that she resorts to inventing a fiancé to keep relatives from forcing her to participate in the marriage mart. Problem is, the random Scottish name and rank she invents actually belong to a real man, and he ends up receiving her letters, in which she explains exactly what she's doing (which doesn't make a great deal of sense). Years later, once the war is over, he seeks her out. This is not because he fell in love with her letters, or anything like that, but because she's a property owner and he's desperate to give the men he commanded during the war, and who've been abandoned by the system, a place to settle and build a life. Ergo, she must marry him or he'll reveal her deception.

I didn't have an objection to the basic plot. Dare herself has made me buy more preposterous stuff. I didn't even have an objection in principle to the lack of historical accuracy. Dare herself has written books I've enjoyed which don't even attempt to be historically accurate. But this one just didn't work for me. In my opinion, it failed the internal logic test. The characters and motivations made no sense, even in the context of the situations Dare had created. I kept going "Why ever would she not do X?", and "Why would he do Y?" And the humour, which has always been one of the main attractions of Dare's books, just didn't appeal. The whole thing felt completely insubstantial... very Avon, I'm sorry to say. Not for me. I stopped reading at about the halfway point when I realised I didn't care in the least about these people.



An Heir of Uncertainty, by Alyssa Everett

>> Saturday, October 24, 2015

TITLE: An Heir of Uncertainty
AUTHOR: Alyssa Everett

PAGES: 250
PUBLISHER: Carina Press

SETTING: Early 19th century England
TYPE: Romance

Yorkshire, 1820

Lina, Lady Radbourne, thought being a countess would rescue her from poverty. Unfortunately, her young groom failed to plan for the future, and his drunken accident left her widowed and pregnant. Now Colonel Winstead Vaughan—Win—will inherit her late husband's fortune…unless she gives birth to a boy. Win is her natural enemy, so why can't she stop thinking about him?

Win is stunned to learn he stands to inherit a vast fortune. He's even more surprised to find himself falling for the beautiful, spirited Lady Radbourne, who is the one woman who stands in the way of a life he'd only imagined.

When someone tries to poison Lady Radbourne, suspicion falls on Win. There's a clever killer in their midst, and if Win doesn't solve the mystery fast, Lina may perish. He needs to win her trust, but how can he prove it's she he wants, and not the fortune?

Lately I've been forcing myself to try more new historical romance authors, as it's a subgenre I used to love and now I've almost abandoned. Way too many have been unsuccessful experiments, but fortunately, this was one of the rare successes.

Lina grew up in an impoverished family. When a young local nobleman became completely besotted with her she decided to accept his marriage proposal and become Lady Radbourne, ending all her financial woes. She didn't love him, but she was fond of him, so it didn't seem very wrong.

But not long afterwards, everything goes to pot. Her young husband is, well, young, and he behaves exactly like you might expect a spoilt young nobleman to behave. His foolhardy, risky behaviour ends up with him getting killed trying to win a bet while hopelessly intoxicated. And now the title and his property are going to a cousin, unless Lina is expecting a child and that child is male.

And it turns out that Lina is actually pregnant. The problem is that right after the accident, in a conversation in which she was still in shock and the magistrate was being a bit too delicate in his enquiries, she gave him the impression that she wasn't. So when the cousin in question, Colonel Win Vaughan, arrives to claim his property, daughter and teenaged brother in tow, it's a big shock to him to find that his future is not as secure as he'd been given to believe.

I thought An Heir of Uncertainty was really solid. I liked Everett’s writing, which flowed wonderfully and carried me through. Most of all, I enjoyed the characters and the conflict. Both Lina and Win are sensible, grown-up people, and that's one of the things that attracts them to each other. They're placed in an uncomfortable situation by the circumstances, and it's circumstances that aren't really anyone's fault. All, even the magistrate, behaved reasonably. But rather than set Win and Lina up as enemies who lust after each other (as I thought would be the case afer an inauspicious first meeting), Everett has them push through the mistrust that results and get to know and like each other.

I also liked the secondary characters, particularly Freddy, Win's teenaged brother. Freddy is a young man modern readers will most likely recognise as being somewhere on the autism spectrum, with his obsession with pigeon rearing and his difficulties functioning normally in society. Obviously, that's not recognised as such in the time period, and he's just considered eccentric and weird. It's a fond portrayal, and the way Win interacted with Freddy was sweet.

The book also has a pretty strong mystery (much as I liked the romance, the internal conflict was not particularly substantial, so having a strong mystery was good). Someone is trying to harm Lina, either by making her miscarry or killing her. Win would be ann obvious suspect, although it seems he's being targetted as well. It was really intriguing, and I enjoyed trying to guess what was going on. Unfortunately, the solution was not quite as good as I’d hoped, as it relied on a certain motivation that just makes me sigh and I didn't find particularly convincing.

Still this was good. I'd happily read more by Alyssa Everett.



In Her Defense, by Julianna Keyes

>> Thursday, October 22, 2015

TITLE: In Her Defense
AUTHOR: Julianna Keyes

PAGES: 300
PUBLISHER: Carina Press

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Follows Time Served

Caitlin Dufresne has never loved anyone as much as she loves winning. A ruthless fifth-year associate at an elite Chicago law firm, she's on the fast track to partner... until a stupid, serious error enrages her bosses. Caitlin's continued refusal to share work—or credit—lands her a forced two-week vacation. She needs to regroup and learn to be part of a team, not just the star.

When she meets Eli Grant, head of the firm's IT department, Caitlin knows the overgrown frat boy isn't her type. But too much alcohol and a very public game of Truth or Dare turn into a dirty, breathless one-night stand. Which turns into a (mostly naked) two-week fling. Which turns into something that makes Caitlin incredibly nervous, despite the great sex.

Eli shows her the many upsides to sleeping in, and for the first time ever, Caitlin has more than the law waiting for her at home. But when she returns to the office and the relentless demands of a high-profile case, Caitlin must decide if winning this one is worth losing Eli forever.

I love difficult heroines, so when I read a few reviews about this book, it was an easy decision to buy it.

Our heroine, Caitlin Dufresne, was apparently the villain in the first book in this series, Time Served. She's a star at her law firm, working harder than anyone else and getting outstanding results. She also makes sure her colleagues see her disdain at their lazy work habits (imagine, doing only 14-hour days!) and that everyone is aware of just how good she is. Her non-stop working habit bites her in the ass one day, though, when sheer exhaustion causes her to make a mistake.

The partners at her law firm are not angry at her, but they are worried and want to make sure she won't just burn out. Their solution is to force her to take a holiday, and while she hands over her cases, they place restrictions on her work times, enforced by limits on when she can operate her computer. This brings her into conflict with the firm's head of IT, Eli Grant, and when they run into each other at a bar after work, the initial antagonism turns into something else.

I liked the idea of a bitchy, unapologetic heroine. However, what I got really wasn't good. My feelings about Caitlin herself were mixed, and about the romance itself wholeheartedly negative.

I'll start with Caitlin. Yes, she's unapologetic about her ambition and her sex life and doesn't suffer fools gladly at all. But at the same time, she's an asshole. There's a particular scene close to the start where she goes off at a guy in accounting who's pointed out to the partners her high level of billing, and the stuff she says to him points at some really ugly attitudes. I just couldn't buy that she'd changed by the end of the book, not without some major introspection. It was a bit like those people who go on racist rants when they're drunk and then try to blame the drink. Sorry, that was inside you, and the drink let it out.

Another problem was that Caitlin's character didn't really gel for me. She's supposed to be this fantastic litigator, but has absolutely no emotional intelligence. Well, we're told she has it when interacting with witnesses and others in the courtroom, but she demonstrates none of it outside of the courtroom. Does she just turn it off? Because she can't understand other people's motivations worth shit, and she makes quite a few decisions and assumptions here that are just plain stupid.

The romance didn't work for me at all. For starters, I found Eli very unappealing. Actually, I thought he was a passive-aggressive little shit. I think the book would have been improved by us readers seeing Eli's point of view, rather than have first-person narration from Caitlin. The way Keyes wrote it, when we have situations such as him blowing Caitlin off and lying to her about what his plans are so that he can hang out with his ex because he's "confused", he feels like a sleazy liar. If we'd been in his head I might have been a bit more sympathetic. I wasn't. I didn't want Caitlin to forgive him. I wanted her to dump him and go for someone better, because I didn't believe he loved her. Nor did I believe she loved him.

I also didn't like that Keyes found it necessary to make Eli the heir of a powerful family, rather than just simply a guy with a normal job, as is initially setu p. I think part of the problem is that Keyes has clearly no concept of what being head of IT in a corporate setting actually looks like. She (and by extension, Caitlin) seems to think a head of IT would be a basement-dwelling nerd who repairs computers (she even has him drilling holes in the walls in the new office). Erm, no, it's a corporate, management job, at least at the sort of level and in the sort of company she's describing here.

I also had issues with the portrayal of other women: they're either bitchy and desperate for men (Caitlin's colleagues, the women who are after Eli), or oblivious and unbelievable (Caitlin's sister). Ugh!

I even had problems with the cover! I know that the stuff at the bottom of the image is supposed to be a bedsheet, but my eyes keep reading it as the guy's shoulder and back, and that grip looks painful!

MY GRADE: A D. I did finish it, at least, but I enjoyed very little of it.


Man Booker Prize reading 2015

>> Monday, October 12, 2015

The Man Booker Prize winner for 2015 will be announced tomorrow, so I thought I'd post my impressions of the nominated books. As I have for the past few years, I have read (or at least, had a very good go at reading) most of the books on the longlist and all of the ones on the shortlist.

I should stress that I do this not out of a sense of obligation, but because in previous years I've discovered many truly wonderful books on these lists. Not one or two, but several, more than enough to make the whole thing worth it.

This year it was different. I had a really high proportion of DNFs, and this was DNF after reading a good portion, at least a third and more than that in several cases, so I did invest a significant amount of time in those books. Half of the six books on the shortlist were DNFs! There were a few ok books, and only a couple that truly worked for me.

I don't think it's necessarily that it was a bad selection, more that the judges' concept of a good book does not ring my bells. It seemed to be very much a writers' selection (and yes, I realise not all of the judges this year are authors), in that formal experimentation seemed to be more important than whether the books delivered.

All that said, the two books that worked best for me are actually on the shortlist, which is unusual (my favourites usually don't make it through).

A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler, was the one I enjoyed the most. It is the story of a family. At first sight it's a very domestic story, and when you go deeper, it still is a domestic story. And that doesn't mean that it doesn't deliver important insights or striking moments of truth. I loved that about it, as I loved that it was also a really good, satisfying read. The structural experimentation (shifting points of view, non-linear timeline) really worked for me here. Full review here.

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara was one I really wasn't looking forward to, based on all I'd heard about it (and it was probably the most talked about book on the list). I can't say I enjoyed it, but it was actually really good. It starts out as the story of 4 friends in New York but ends up being mainly the story of one of them, Jude, a man who survived horrific abuse as a child. This abuse has left him badly damaged, both physically and psychologically, and Hanagihara explores this in long, harrowing detail. It's tough to read but very powerful. However, I think it would have been even more powerful if the author had not made the childhood abuse quite as extreme, to the point that it made me disconnect because I found some of it unbelievable. I think a little bit less would have been more in this particular case. Anyway, I read it late and finished it while on holiday last week, so no review yet, but I think I'll do a full one soon.

Satin Island, by Tom McCarthy, was a weird one and I still don't know what to make of it. It's basically a guy philosophising about random stuff, as I said in my review "the sort of moderinst crap I detest: pretentious, self-indulgent, uncaring of the reader". But I actually enjoyed myself while I was reading it, so maybe it's not as uncaring of the reader as it might seem. I'm not sure I got the point of it (reading reviews, the theory that resonates the most is that it's satirising how people these days feel that every minute detail of their lives is significant of worthy of being examined in detail), but I found it compelling and still remember quite a few haunting images from it. Full review here.

I had high hopes for The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma. It tells the story of four boys in a small town in Nigeria. However, the writing just didn't work for me at all and I didn't connect with the characters, so I gave up when I was about 40% in. A shame, because it sounded like the story was right up my alley. Slightly longer review here.

I really liked the first sections of The Year of the Runaways, by Sunjeev Sahota. It was a story I wanted to read, an imagining of the real people behind the tabloid headlines about illegal workers and sham marriages. I liked the variety of the characters' backstories and the writing. And then I got to a scene in which a previously really sympathetic character tries to rape a young woman and it's portrayed in the vilest, most toxic way, the narration making it clear that it was just that he was overcome by his feelings. I quote the offending scene in my review. No. Just no. I lost all trust in the author right then, and put down the book.

Finally, the last book on the shortlist is A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James. It tells the story of an assassination attempt on Bob Marley, and through it, the violent history of Jamaica in the 70s and 80s. There are a lot (and I do mean a lot) of characters and a fair bit of stream-of-consciousness narration. It was the last book I picked up and I did so while I was on holiday, so I possibly wasn't able to give it the sustained attention it needed. I ended up DNFing it as well, I'm afraid.

In addition to the books on the shortlist, I read most of the books on the longlist (mainly before the shortlist was announced... I'm always crap at guessing which ones will go through!).

I liked The Moor's Account, by Leila Lalami, but it was one that felt more insubstantial in hindsight than while I was reading it. It tells the story of a real and doomed 16th century expedition to the Americas, told from the point of view of a black enslaved man whose perspective has been excised from recorded history. It felt fresh and I liked some of the things it had to say about erasure and the importance of being able to tell your own story. However, thinking back, a lot of it feels episodic and repetitive. Full review here.

I really disliked Anuradha Roy's Sleeping On Jupiter. It's the story of a young orphaned girl, Nomi, who grew up in an ashram in an Indian temple town, a place where the spiritual front shown to spiritual tourists covered horrific abuse perpetrated by the guru. Years later, Nomi returns to the town, ostensibly to film a documentary. Interspersed with her story are two other threads: the story of three old ladies on their last holiday together and that of a local guide who's sexually obsessed with a young man. The book started out well, but it soon unraveled completely. The different threads felt really disjointed, and none of them were developed into anything that made any sense. The whole book felt pointless. Review here.

I wasn't sure what to expect of Lila, by Marilynne Robinson. I tried to read Gilead a while ago and although I really liked the characters and the voice, the lack of any narrative drive whatsoever made it very easy to put down and gave me no incentive pick it back up. Lila had what I liked about Gilead (genuinely decent characters and some really lovely humour), but it also had a bit more stuff going on and propelling the book forward. I thought it ended with a bit of a whimper and kind of fizzled out, really, but on the whole, I enjoyed it.

Anne Enright is an author I've long wanted to try, but The Green Road was a disappointment. It's the story of an Irish family, but the writing did not engage me in the least. In fact, I found it kind of repellent, and gave up. Review here.

The Chimes, by Anna Smaill was probably the title on the longlist that sounded most intriguing. It's basically a futuristic dystopia, set in a world where the titular chimes erase people's memories every day. My problem with it was that I didn't find the way it dealt with this particularly convincing (i.e. the things that were remembered and forgotten didn't make much sense to me). So it was another DNF. Review here.

The other two books on the longlist, which I didn't get to in time (and I'll be honest, they didn't really interest me) were Did You Ever Have a Family, by Billy Clegg and The Illuminations, by Andrew O'Hagan.

So, predictions. A Little Life is the bookies' favourite and if it wins, I would be happy with the decision. I did have some issues with it, but it's got substance and style and it's really good. I enjoyed A Spool of Blue Thread more, and it would probably be my pick, but I don't really have much hope that a novel that is so much about the domestic could win. It did get on the shortlist, though, so I won't abandon all hope! I have a feeling The Year of the Runaways might be the dark horse here, as the story it tells is very relevant, but if I had to put money on it, I would probably go for A Little Life.


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