Walk On Earth a Stranger, by Rae Carson

>> Tuesday, August 30, 2016

TITLE: Walk On Earth a Stranger
AUTHOR: Rae Carson

PAGES: 448
PUBLISHER: Greenwillow Books

TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: Starts Gold Seer trilogy

The first book in a new trilogy from acclaimed New York Times-bestselling author Rae Carson. A young woman with the magical ability to sense the presence of gold must flee her home, taking her on a sweeping and dangerous journey across Gold Rush era America. Walk on Earth a Stranger begins an epic saga from one of the finest writers of young adult literature.

Lee Westfall has a secret. She can sense the presence of gold in the world around her. Veins deep beneath the earth, pebbles in the river, nuggets dug up from the forest floor. The buzz of gold means warmth and life and home—until everything is ripped away by a man who wants to control her. Left with nothing, Lee disguises herself as a boy and takes to the trail across the country. Gold was discovered in California, and where else could such a magical girl find herself, find safety?

Rae Carson, author of the acclaimed Girl of Fire and Thorns series, dazzles with the first book in the Gold Seer Trilogy, introducing a strong heroine, a perilous road, a fantastical twist, and a slow-burning romance, as only she can.
I loved Carson's previous Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy, so I picked this up as soon as it came out. Walk On Earth a Stranger is the first in a new trilogy set during the Gold Rush, which made me really happy.

Leah Westfall lives with her parents in 1849 Georgia. There used to be lots of gold in their area, but by the time the story starts, no one is finding much at all. No one but Lee, that is, but that's because she has a special ability. Leah can sense gold, and that allows her to find any nugget and tiny piece anywhere around. Over the previous years she's found enough that people would suspect if they were to take it into town to sell, so the Westfall's fortune is just hidden in their cabin.

And then tragedy strikes and Leah is left alone in the world. It appears her abilities are not a secret from her evil, greedy uncle, and he's determined to use her to find even more gold than he stole from Leah's family. Faced with that prospect, Leah decides to turn into "Lee", a boy looking for adventure, and follow the crowds to California, where it's rumoured there's plenty of gold for everyone, and someone with her abilities would be able to build a life quite easily.

Walk On Earth a Stranger tells of Lee's journey West, and Carson really doesn't sugarcoat things. Things start out well. There are loads of people going, all sorts of convoys, and everyone is well-prepared for what they know will be a difficult trip. Only they're not quite prepared for just how tough things get.

It was really interesting, particularly because I wasn't quite prepared for it, either. This is not a part of US history that I was too familiar with. I'd heard of the California gold rush and I knew the journey West was not an easy one, but no more than that. It was fascinating to see just why it was tough, and just how much so.

I also liked how Carson brings alive the people in the convoy Lee is travelling with, and their interesting interactions. It's a convoy made up of several distinct groups who didn't know each other before the trip but decided to club together at the start point to give themselves a better chance. So it's basically a small collection of tribes, and when the going gets really difficult, the tensions between working together as a group and each person choosing the welfare of their own little group and doing their own thing come to the forefront.

The only real problem with the story is the villain, Lee's uncle. Carson is pretty subtle with most of her characterisation, but not with him. He's just over-the-top evil, and in one of my least-favourite tropes, he's the sort of all-powerful villain who seems to be able to find his prey anywhere. Hmmm....

The other thing I should mention is that this book doesn't really feel like a whole story itself (although the journey sort of functions as one), but as the setup for the real story. There's a sense that the story about the girl who can sense gold is only going to start once Lee gets to California, and this book only serves to get her there, ready to start the real thing in book 2 (nothing much is made of Lee's gift here). That didn't bother me that much, although it did make the ending feel a bit anticlimactic.

Book 2 is coming in September, so if you haven't read this one and it sounds interesting to you, now might be a good time to pick it up.



The Sellout, by Paul Beatty

>> Sunday, August 28, 2016

TITLE: The Sellout
AUTHOR: Paul Beatty

PAGES: 304
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Fiction

A biting satire about a young man's isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, Paul Beatty's The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. It challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality—the black Chinese restaurant.

Born in the "agrarian ghetto" of Dickens—on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles—the narrator of The Sellout resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: "I'd die in the same bedroom I'd grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that've been there since '68 quake." Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father's pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family's financial woes. But when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that's left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.

Fuelled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town's most famous resident—the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins—he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.
Another of my Man Booker reads.

The Sellout is satirical exploration of race in a supposedly post-racial USA. The plot, such as it is, involves the narrator's efforts to bring back the city of Dickens, a poor suburb of LA wiped off the maps by city planners too embarrassed by it to acknowledge its existence. So how will he do it? Why, by bringing back segregation and slavery!

The plot doesn't make a lot of sense, but it's not really meant to. Because the plot is not the point here. It's simply a backdrop for what's basically (and I'm totally stealing this from several amazon reviewers) an extended standup routine.

And it's great standup. The humour is ceaseless, with devastating one-liners and images coming fast and keeping coming. It's not the kind of humour that makes you laugh-out-loud, but the kind that makes you wince, because it's a bit too true. Beatty creates a fully-realised world, populated by characters who feel real even when they accept the absurdist occurrences Beatty throws at them with complete naturalness.

My only "issue" is that this is very much a book about the US experience of race, so at certain times I felt that I was missing some of the references (this book is so dense with meaning that I could very well believe that every single word and image choice is chosen for a very particular reason). But I got enough that the book worked perfectly well for me, anyway.

I should also mention that I listened to this one on audio, which might well be the best way to read it. The narrator, Prentice Onayemi, is fantastic, and the audio emphasises the "standup" element.

MY GRADE: A strong B+.


And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie

>> Friday, August 26, 2016

TITLE: And Then There Were None
AUTHOR: Agatha Christie

PAGES: 320

SETTING: 1930s England
TYPE: Mystery / Thriller

"Ten . . ."
Ten strangers are lured to an isolated island mansion off the Devon coast by a mysterious "U. N. Owen."

"Nine . . ."
At dinner a recorded message accuses each of them in turn of having a guilty secret, and by the end of the night one of the guests is dead.

"Eight . . ."
Stranded by a violent storm, and haunted by a nursery rhyme counting down one by one . . . as one by one . . . they begin to die.

"Seven . . ."
Which among them is the killer and will any of them survive?
The BBC broadcast a much-talked-about adaptation of And Then There Were None last Christmas. I missed it (oh, poor me, I was sunning myself in Uruguay instead!), but the raves about it made me want to reread the book.

This is one of the non-typical Christie books, the kind which you read and love and then are disappointed when you realise there aren't any more quite like it in Christie's oeuvre. An odd group of people are lured to a mansion on a lonely island off the coast of Devon. None of them know any of the others, and it turns out none of them know the person who invited them. This becomes clear right the first night, when a recording suddenly starts playing, accusing each of them of a crime they've so far got away with.

Ridiculous!, they all cry. This U.N. Owen or Una Owen or whatever their host is really called must be playing a joke, but it's in bad taste, and they will all be leaving in the morning. When one of their group dies, it's a bit worrying, but it must have been an accident, surely. They'll just be careful and leave as soon as they can. But then another person dies, and another, and all in exactly the way coyly described in the nursery rhyme prominently displayed in each of their bedrooms:

Ten little Indian boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.
Nine little Indian boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were eight.
And then the next morning there is no boat to take them away, and there is a storm, so there's not much they can do. And after a thorough search of the island makes it clear they are all alone and there's no master villain hiding anywhere, picking them off, the remaining guests start eyeing each other nervously...

This really is a masterful book. The plotting is top-notch: incredibly tense and well put-together, and running like clockwork. There is no way anyone will guess whodunnit, and yet when you find out and you go back and reread, Christie hasn't cheated at all. It's all there.

I was also really impressed by her characterisation. You get 10 people who are basically a type: the soldier of fortune, the hanging judge, the drunk doctor, the athletic, ambitious young woman, the rigid spinster. And yet they are all impressively distinct right from the start. At no point did I confuse them, wonder "Oh, so is X the doctor or the judge?". Even more impressive: I remembered most of them from the time I last reread this, many, many years ago.

I was also pleasantly surprised by something else, which was how well it's held up. Oh, it's very much of its time, starting with the title (the previous one, Ten Little Indians was changed to And Then There Were None for obvious reasons, but that was the second one, changed to after the first one, which used the N word instead of "Indians", became clearly inappropriate even earlier), but continuing on with some of the attitudes expressed. Oh, so the accusation is that you abandoned some natives in Africa to die? But they were only natives, says the character we come to think of as our heroine to the soldier of fortune. The thing is, it turns out she's not our heroine (I hope that's not too much of a spoiler), and we're not being told this by the narrative. The narrative is not insisting that some of these characters are innocent, the narrative is telling us they're guilty and responsible for the consequences of their actions, even the spinster whose rigid morality led to the death of a young servant in her house who 'got herself in trouble'. That's actually a remarkably modern worldview.

The characters were not all I remembered from all those years ago. I fully remembered the resolution, and the fact that I still enjoyed it as much as I did is a testament to just how good this is.



Serious Sweet, by AL Kennedy

>> Wednesday, August 24, 2016

TITLE: Serious Sweet
AUTHOR: AL Kennedy

PAGES: 528
PUBLISHER: Jonathan Cape

SETTING: Contemporary London
TYPE: Fiction

A good man in a bad world, Jon Sigurdsson is fifty-nine and divorced, a senior civil servant in London who hates many of his colleagues and loathes his work for a government engaged in unmentionable acts.

Meg Williams is a bankrupt accountant—two words you don’t want in the same sentence, or anywhere near your résumé. She’s forty-five and shakily sober, living on Telegraph Hill in London, where she can see the city unfurl below her.

Somewhere out there is Jon, pinballing around the city with a cell phone and a letter-writing habit he can’t break. He’s a man on the brink, leaking government secrets and affection for a woman he barely knows as he runs for his life.

Poignant, deeply funny, and beautifully written, Serious Sweet is about two decent, damaged people trying to make moral choices in an immoral world, ready to sacrifice what’s left of themselves for honesty and for a chance at tenderness. As Jon and Meg navigate the sweet and serious heart of London—passing through twenty-four hours that will change them both forever—they tell an unusual and moving love story.
Another read from the Man Booker longlist.

Serious Sweet tells the story of a day in which two damaged people try to meet up and find something good in a world that's otherwise full of cruelty and indifference.

He is Jon Sigurdsson, a disenchanted senior civil servant who's been rebelling against what his department is doing by leaking information. Jon is recently divorced from a woman who treated him with cruelty and contempt, and as a reaction to this, took to writing kind and sweet letters to women. He set that up as a sort of service (advertising it and charging a modest amount for a dozen of bespoke hand-written letters), but he gets as much, if not much more, out of it than his correspondents.

Not that his correspondents don't get quite a lot out of his letters. The second person is one of them, Meg Williams, a woman who's struggling to rebuild her life after a few years in which alcoholism cost her both relationships and career. Jon's letters touched her and helped her, enough to make her take the uncharacterstically bold step of finding him in person.

Jon was just as drawn by Meg's replies to his letters, so that was the first of a couple of meetings. So the meeting on the day of the story is just one more, but as circumstances conspire against their getting together, this one becomes more and more significant.

The bare story told here was one that appealed to me. These are good people who have been deeply wounded, and I was rooting for them to find something good, the kindness and tenderness each desperately needed. At its heart this is a romance, and the relationship was one I believed in. The tone was sad and yet hopeful, and this worked well.

However. Oh, however. My main issue was the writing. It's very challenging. That's not a problem per se; the thing is, it was not challenging in a good way. There's lots and lots and lots of internal monologue interspersed throughout any dialogue or action, and that felt overpowering. It often starts fine, but then devolves into stream of consciousness nonsense. I confess to a prejudice against this particular narrative technique. I accept it can be done well, but I find it all too easy to lose interest when it's not. And I didn't feel it was great here. There are some nuggets of sharp observation, yes, but it felt like wading through treacle to get to them. And there was such a lot of pointless treacle. I really had to force myself to keep going.

The other thing that didn't work for me was the... I guess I could call it "setting" of Jon's life. Jon's supposed to be a senior civil servant, and quite a lot of the plot, such as it is, revolves around that. I was actually drawn by this, because this is my world, and it's not one I see portrayed in fiction very often. There was an initial thrill of recognition: Oh, his office is in Tothill Street? That's probably Caxton House, I wonder if he's supposed to work in DWP. Oh, he clearly does! But that was all it was, superficial recognition of some of the trappings of his life. I didn't really recognise the characters. Jon didn't feel like any senior civil servant I know, with his dithering and seeming isolation (funny thing is, I actually know someone who used to do the job I'm guessing Jon is supposed to be in!). The world of the civil service Kennedy portrays is the stereotype: faceless, anonymous, middle-aged white men. That's not what I see day to day, and it was disappointing.

The whole thing was disappointing, actually. And the most frustrating thing is that the book demonstrates what Kennedy can do. There are these little vignettes at the ends of chapters, basically showing us little scenes around London, and these are fantastic. They are sharply observed and interesting and poignant. I wanted more of that, less of the waffle.



Ice and fog

>> Monday, August 22, 2016

TITLE: On His Watch
AUTHOR: Katie Ruggle

After reading and loving Hold Your Breath, book 1 in Ruggle's Search and Rescue series I went looking for more books and discovered all that was out there was a free prequel novella. I really wanted a bit more time with Ruggle's voice, so I downloaded and started reading it immediately.

On His Watch happens right before Hold Your Breath. The Search and Rescue team are at a school for careers day, demonstrating what ice diving rescue entails. Derek Warner is part of that team, and he's pretty distracted by the presence of one of the teachers, Artemis 'Artie' Rey. Derek and Artie were once together, and Derek is still madly in love with her. When things go pear-shaped and two of the kids get lost, Derek and Artie pair up as part of the search team, and spending time together leads to them finally talking and sorting things out.

I'm afraid the romance here was fine, but a bit lackluster. Nothing to be offended by, but nothing to be excited about, either. The voice was the one I enjoyed so much in Hold Your Breath, though, full of gentle humour. And I loved the glimpse of Lou and Callum, the protagonists of that book. We see here how they met and how the dynamic I enjoyed so much in their own book got started, and it's hilarious.

I think if I'd started with this one I'd probably have decided to buy Hold Your Breath on the strength of the voice and the Lou and Callum scene, and in spite of the lukewarm main romance, but I can't be sure. The perils of the introductory novella when it's clearly not the author's strongest skill!


TITLE: The Tiger in the Smoke
AUTHOR: Margery Allingham

Allingham is the only one of the famous "Golden Age" mystery writers that I hadn't tried yet. I think I saw this one mentioned somewhere and thought I'd start here.

What started as a strange plot where a young woman is about to get married and starts getting letters from her supposedly-late husband quickly turns into a story of underworld characters and a dangerous killer on the loose. I liked the former, but the latter got old really quickly. The sections with the criminal gang are preposterous and horribly dated, and I honestly didn't care (or really get, to be completely honest) about any of the characters or what was going on.

I gave up at about the halfway point. Having read some reviews after, it appears that: 1) Quite a lot of the secondary characters here are recurring characters. I'd probably have got a lot more joy out of them if I'd read previous books, but I hadn't. 2) This is very different from Allingham's other books. I might have to give her another try. I might just start right at the beginning.

MY GRADE: This was a DNF.


All That Man Is, by David Szalay

>> Saturday, August 20, 2016

TITLE: All That Man Is
AUTHOR: David Szalay

PAGES: 448
PUBLISHER: Jonathan Cape

SETTING: Various European contemporary settings
TYPE: Fiction

A magnificent and ambitiously conceived portrait of contemporary life, by a genius of realism

Nine men. Each of them at a different stage in life, each of them away from home, and each of them striving--in the suburbs of Prague, in an overdeveloped Alpine village, beside a Belgian motorway, in a dingy Cyprus hotel--to understand what it means to be alive, here and now. Tracing a dramatic arc from the spring of youth to the winter of old age, the ostensibly separate narratives of All That Man Is aggregate into a picture of a single shared existence, a picture that interrogates the state of modern manhood while bringing to life, unforgettably, the physical and emotional terrain of an increasingly globalized Europe. And so these nine lives form an ingenious and new kind of novel, in which David Szalay expertly plots a dark predicament for the twenty-first-century man.

Dark and disturbing, but also often wickedly and uproariously comic, All That Man Is is notable for the acute psychological penetration Szalay brings to bear on his characters, from the working-class ex-grunt to the pompous college student, the middle-aged loser to the Russian oligarch. Steadily and mercilessly, as this brilliantly conceived book progresses, the protagonist at the center of each chapter is older than the last one, it gets colder out, and All That Man Is gathers exquisite power. Szalay is a writer of supreme gifts--a master of a new kind of realism that vibrates with detail, intelligence, relevance, and devastating pathos.
As I've done for the past few years, I'm aiming to read as many of the books on the Man Booker prize longlist as I possibly can before the winner is announced. This year's list actually has quite a few that sound really intriguing to me, and I almost randomly chose All That Man Is to get started.

There's been some low-level controversy about the inclusion of this book in the longlist, as the rules call for novels, and this is more of a short story collection. The only connection between the stories here is in theme and, I guess, sensibility. Whether that is cohesive enough to move this from "collection of works" to "a work" I don't know and, to be honest, I don't care.

Each of the stories gives us a portrayal of a man at a certain point in his life. These are different men, from different backgrounds and nationalities, and at different stages of their lives (we start with a 17-year-old and the central character gets a few years older in each story, until we finish with one close to the end of his life). We see these men in some sort of crisis, somehow displaced from their regular lives and contemplating the meaning of those lives in some way.

These are more vignettes than full stories. The point seems to be to examine a character, rather than to tell a full story. There are no real resolutions here; the stories kind of fade away, rather than come to a climax. I didn't mind this at all, actually, because the observation is well done. Internal lives (and there's a lot of internal contemplation) feel true and well observed, and I liked the little external details reflecting those internal lives. And the key thing is that we're observing these people and the prose is remarkably value-free. We're not judging, we're observing and understanding.

Now, the problem with this is that a secondary effect of the detailed focus on these men is that the female characters are not rendered to the same standard. They don't feel as layered and nuanced as the male characters, but more like objects, characterised only in terms of what function they serve in the male protagonist's story. One could say this is only a function of what Szalay is trying to do here, but I don't think I'd agree with that. Better characterisation of the female characters would not have interfered with the focus on the central characters.

The tone is a melancholy one. Szalay's is a pessimistic view of what man is. It seems to be that man is lonely and adrift, struggling with feelings of meaninglessness. I'm more of an optimist myself, someone who thinks one can find meaning and joy in mundane things, so for all that I liked the detailed observation of the characters, the book probably resonated less with me than it might with others.

The length of the stories really works. The characters are, by necessity of the theme, self-involved. In small chunks, it's just right for the reader to care and not just want them to get over themselves.

The other element that I liked was the European theme. This is basically "All That (European) Man Is". Although there's always some English link, the stories happen all over Europe. There's a French guy from Lille taking a holiday in Crete and meeting two English women. There's a Danish tabloid journalist meeting a Danish politician in Spain. There's a couple of Hungarians going to London for work. There's a Belgian guy taking a car to Poland and meeting up with his Polish girlfriend in Germany on the way. But this is the mundane side of globalisation. If you think "lots of European locations" you probably get the impression things will be all glitzy and glamorous, but here, they mostly really aren't. We do get luxury hotels in London and a yacht in the Mediterranean, but we also get industrial estates in Lille, bargain-basement mass holiday hotels in Crete, and flimsily-built condos in the French Alps. There are plenty of very regular people here, and their stories are not dramatic. But these days regular, unglamorous, commonplace people also get to travel and treat exotic-sounding European locations as commonplace. You get the point of just how far European integration has gone. Reading this right after the shock of the referendum result, it felt very bittersweet.



Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson

>> Thursday, August 18, 2016

TITLE: Aurora
AUTHOR: Kim Stanley Robinson

PAGES: 466

TYPE: Sci-fi

Our voyage from Earth began generations ago.

Now, we approach our destination.

A new home.


Brilliantly imagined and beautifully told, Aurora is the work of a writer at the height of his powers.
I really didn't know what to expect when I started this book. You might have noticed that the blurb is pretty cryptic, and the person who recommended it flatly refused to tell me much more than the basic premise. I will now do the same, because I really do think that's the best way to read this. So all I'll say is that the story starts as, after over 150 years of space travel, a generation ship approaches the planetary system where its inhabitants plan to settle.

Although we do focus on particular characters, the scope of the book is not narrow, but wide. The story that is being told is that of the mission to establish a colony in a new planetary system, not the story of particular persons. That's very much a stated premise: with some minor exceptions, what we're getting is the product of the ship's Artificial Intelligence being asked to produce a story of the mission. This works wonderfully, as this AI has slowly been becoming self-aware, and you see that increasing "humanity" as its narration develop. It's a nice, organic development of the concept of storytelling making us human.

Also, I listened to this on audio, and the narrator does an excellent job of the narration. The voice sounds quite machine-like, with slightly odd pauses and a somewhat monotone tone. This description of it sounds like it could be unbearable, but the narrator somehow manages to keep it really "listenable".

Is it hard science fiction? There is a hell of a lot of hard scientific detail... a bit too much, to be honest (although the balance gets better as Ship gets more self-aware), but I thought Robinson was just as interested in the social science. The hard science is important, but mainly for the impact it has on the ship's society and how they react when things happen. That's where the drama truly comes from, and I was gripped.

It works because Robinson gets the characterisation right. The people whose story he's telling are all human. Some are arseholes, but there are no cartoonishly evil characters running around purely for the sake of creating conflict. The conflict feels real and understandable and like something that would actually happen, given human nature.

I'd recommend this.



Two Russian non-fiction DNFs

>> Tuesday, August 16, 2016

TITLE: The Romanovs: 1613 - 1918
AUTHOR: Simon Sebag Montefiore

I started this with genuine excitement. It's the story of the Romanov tsars, from the birth of the dynasty in 1613, until Nicholas II's execution in 1918. The introduction promised some truly wild stories and larger-than-life personalities. I was fully on-board. I happily opened the first chapter...

...and encountered some of the flatest and deadest prose ever. The first chapter is basically a recitation of facts. This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened. And I'm not paraphrasing that much! We get no sense of the people involved. Even worse, the recitation of facts is so bare-bones that there's not enough there for the reader to understand how one thing led to another or why things happened. It's all "And then the next year Poland invaded". Why? No idea.

The positive reviews talk about how the characters come alive, so I wondered if things would get better in later sections, when there is more source material available. So I continued to try to plow through the first sections. I didn't succeed. I'd read 2 or 3 pages, get bored to tears, and stop. And when I put the book down I felt no interest in picking it up again. I had to force myself to do so. This went on for over a month before I gave up.


TITLE: Travels in Siberia
AUTHOR: Ian Frazier

Clearly I'm on a Russia kick, because I soon as I gave up on The Romanovs, I picked this one up. Travels in Siberia is also non-fiction, a mix of history, social commentary and travelogue. Frazier first visited Siberia when invited to join exiled Russian friends several decades earlier, and that made him obsessed with the place.

Unfortunately, although there are interesting snippets in the approximately 100 pages that I read, the writing style is really dull, particularly on the travel sections. There's a lot of "I did this, and then I did that", in way too much detail about the mundane and not enough on what we readers are interested in.



Pairing Off, by Elizabeth Harmon

>> Sunday, August 14, 2016

TITLE: Pairing Off
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Harmon

PAGES: 250
PUBLISHER: Carina Press

SETTING: Contemporary Russia and US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: First in the Red Hot Russians series

American figure skater Carrie Parker's Winter Games dreams were dashed when her philandering partner caused one of the greatest scandals in skating history. Blacklisted from competing in the United States, her career is over…until she receives a mysterious invitation and is paired with the most infuriating, talented—and handsome—skater she's ever met.

Russian champion Anton Belikov knows sacrifice. He gave up a normal life and any hope of a meaningful relationship to pursue his dream. And he's come close—with a silver medal already under his belt, the next stop is the gold. All he needs is a partner. While he's never forgotten the young American skater he seduced one long-ago night in Amsterdam, he never expected to be confronted with their past…never mind share the ice with her.

When what starts as a publicity stunt grows into something real, Carrie and Anton's partnership will test their loyalties to family, country and each other. With only a few months to train for the competition of a lifetime, can they master technique and their emotions, or will they lose their footing and fall victim to the heartaches of their pasts?
Carrie Parker's promising career in pairs figure skating collapsed in a scandal when her arsehole of a partner was caught in bed with a judge. Most people just would not believe she had nothing to do with his transparent attempts at cheating. So when Carrie receives an invitation from a Russian trainer to compete for that country, she decides to accept. She's shocked to discover her prospective partner is Anton Belikov, one of Russia's best, and the man with whom she had a one-night stand several years earlier.

Turns out Anton doesn't recognise Carrie. Even though that night was as earth-shattering for him as it was for her, he was a bit hazy (this happened in Amsterdam, so you can guess what was going on!) and she looked completely different. But even not recognising her, he's always admired Carrie's skating, so when his long-time partner deserted him at the last minute for a partner she felt gave her more of a chance for a medal, he asked his trainer to try to get her as his new partner. After all, it seemed like a bit of a sign that both would be partner-less at the same time.

Carrie's first reaction is to turn around and leave. How can she skate with this man? But she's eventually persuaded to stay, and the work starts.

It's hard. Carrie is initially expected to basically slot into the old partner's slot and just learn the routine that was prepared for Anton and Olga (the previous partner). Problem is, Olga and Carrie are completely different kinds of skaters. Carrie is used to just adapting herself to her partner's preferences (remember, arsehole previous partner), so at first she doesn't complain. But when she and Anton start warming up to each other and actually start talking, their partnership really takes off, both off and on the ice.

I really liked a lot of this book, and a lot of it was down to the setting and setup. Harmon clearly loves Russia. The title of the series, Red Hot Russians, might suggest the sort of icky essentialisation found in so many Harlequin Presents book, where the hero's background (Sicilian! Latino!) serves only as a shorthand way of indicating that he's alpha and macho. This is a much more thoughtful book than that, though, and the setting is much more than a way of screaming "Exotic!". I really can't say how authentic the Russian characters or the setting are, but they felt distinct and vivid, and that was enough for me to enjoy this a hell of a lot.

And I just loved the whole ice skating element, which is a huge part of the book. We get as much of the skating partnership as of the romantic one. I'm not the world's biggest ice skating fan, more the kind that will only watch it when the Winter Olympics are on, but this was just fascinating to me. Again, no idea about the accuracy or verisimilitude, but I loved reading about it.

The romance, unfortunately, while starting out pretty good, didn't quite live up to the rest. The problem was mainly about the characters separately, rather than with how they interacted.

Anton felt a little bit passive, particularly in his relationship with Olga. He's been unhappy with her for years. He mentions he stayed with her after her constant cheating (albeit having agreed on a non-exclusive relationship) because he didn't want to harm their on-ice partnership. Fair enough. But as the present-day section of the book starts, she's dumped her as a skating partner, and he's still travelling to see her every weekend, I'm not quite sure what for. He doesn't even seem to be in it for the sex. He does do the right thing in the end, but I really don't get why he didn't do it much earlier, other than the author wanting to maintain the tension of Carrie thinking Anton is taken.

As for Carrie, she feels a bit naive and almost stupid. She just doesn't get the potential implications of what she's doing, when they really seemed pretty obvious. Her dad is a Southern politician, and his constituents have a little bit of a problem with his daughter pairing up with a Russian skater and (gasp!) taking Russian citizenship. No big surprise. The Cold War might be over, but I can totally see people still having that distrust (my quite right-wing parents, born in the 40s,  still call anyone who's too left-wing for their tastes a "bolche", for bolshevik). So it was obvious that Carrie's actions would have consequences on her father's career, but Carrie just doesn't consider it at all. Even worse, the narrative very clearly takes Carrie's side, implying this is something she couldn't have predicted. Sorry, but no. She really should have known her taking up Russian citizenship was going to go down like a lead balloon with her father's conservative Southern voters, rather than be so terribly surprised. I'm not saying that she shouldn't have done it, just that she should have done it after considering the consequences.

The other issue is that sometimes the book felt a bit rough (it's a debut, and it shows). Mainly this showed in how crudely Harmon created conflict in the second half. There's plenty here that could be really interesting, like cultural differences and the stress of trying to pull off a comeback with the press in both countries against Carrie. Instead, Harmon has Carrie decide that because of her relationship with her dead mother she can't get close to anyone and must therefore push Anton away. It made very little sense to me and was, frankly, a bit tedious. Harmon should have trusted that what she had was more than enough, rather than trying to suddenly introduce this new element right at the end.

All that said, there's a lot of potential here, though. In addition to what I described about the ice skating and the setting, Harmon at times does quite interesting things. For instance, I was initially a bit annoyed at Olga's potrayal... the bitchy other woman who lies, cheats and manipulates. I do think it could have been done a bit more subtly, but then Harmon provides some more layers for her, and she did start making sense as a character and becoming much more interesting. There's loads of little touches like that going on, enough that I'd definitely give this author another chance, and not just because the next book also features ice skating and a Russia setting!



The Dead, by Ingrid Black

>> Friday, August 12, 2016

TITLE: The Dead
AUTHOR: Ingrid Black

PAGES: 416

SETTING: Contemporary Dublin
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: Starts a series

Five years ago, the serial killer known as the Night Hunter vanished without trace after murdering five women. Now another killer claiming to be the notorious Ed Fagan is back prowling the streets of Dublin in search of new victims - but Saxon, former FBI agent turned true crime author, knows that it can’t really be him. Joining forces with Detective Superintendent Grace Fitzgerald of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, Saxon soon finds herself in danger as the body count starts to rise and old secrets come to light.
Ingrid Black is a writing team made up by married couple Eilis O'Hanlon and Ian McConnel. I came across this novel after reading an article written by O'Hanlon last year, after the book had been plagiarised. The article itself was interesting, but I thought the book sounded even more so, so I bought it.

Saxon is a former FBI agent who used to specialise in serial killers. After writing a tell-all book that destroyed her relationship with her former colleagues, she ended up in Ireland, advising the Dublin police in the case of the Night Hunter serial killer. That case ended abruptly when main suspect Ed Fagan seemingly fell off the face of the earth. Saxon stayed, though, not least because of her relationship with Detective Superintendent Grace Fitzgerald.

And then, five years later, Fagan is back. Apparently. Someone is sending letters to the papers claiming to be him and directing the police to bodies, which start piling up. The only problem is, Saxon knows it can't be Fagan. Because five years earlier, she killed him.

This started out well, but ultimately foundered. The case was interesting enough in premise, but the execution of the investigation never really gelled. I think the problem was that we were seeing it from the point of view of Saxon, who although she's getting all of what's going on through her relationship with Grace (and that felt a bit off -this is the boss's lover who's been brought in as a consultant. Even though she's obviously got very relevant and valuable experience, it felt a bit Roarke-ish, and that has never sat well with me), is outside the investigation and doing her own thing. And it feels like she's basically flailing about, happening upon clues almost at random. There's no plan or coherence in how she investigates.

I think the bigger problem is that I disliked Saxon and had very little respect for her as an investigator. She is incredibly cavalier about doing stuff that could potentially get Fitzgerald into huge trouble, like breaking into the home of someone she suspects. She doesn't particularly think about it or every acknowledge the potential consequences of what she's doing on Fitzgerald. She also withholds the very crucial information of Ed Fagan being dead, even though she sees that quite a lot of effort on the police's part is being wasted -effort that, if well-directed, could have had a positive effect on the investigation.

There are also loose ends. At one point Saxon becomes convinced that Fagan must not have operated alone, and gives really compelling reasons for thinking so... compelling enough that I was shocked she hadn't considered that earlier. That gets dropped completely in the resolution.

And oh, that resolution. That's when my respect for Saxon hit rock bottom. This might be a bit spoilerish, although it does not reveal the identity of the killer, so be warned: Basically, what happens is that Saxon realises who the murderer must be, and confronts the person, armed with a gun. And then this person basically goes "oh, well, let's have a drink and I'll tell you all about it" and starts serving her scotch -which she drinks!! Refill after refill. And what do you know, the scotch has poison in it. Seriously!

The other disappointment was in the personal stuff. The romantic relationship between Saxon and Fitzgerald had the potential to be really interesting. Unfortunately, there's really not much there about that. They practically don't interact, other than talking about the case. There's really no chemistry, and the reader is given no clue to what they see in each other and why they're together.

This is all really too bad. The plot really had potential and the authors do succeed in creating a very atmospheric setting. Unfortunately, the story execution and the characters didn't deliver.



Lay It Down, by Cara McKenna

>> Wednesday, August 10, 2016

TITLE: Lay It Down
AUTHOR: Cara McKenna

PAGES: 327

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romantic Suspense
SERIES: Starts Desert Dogs series

Backbreaking days, wild nights, and the hard hum of steel between your thighs… That’s a life well lived, according to the Desert Dogs—four friends who call Fortuity, Nevada, their badlands home.

Vince Grossier is the self-crowned outlaw king around here. When his town's slick new mayor invites a shady casino development to town, the invaders' cut-throat takeover tactics quickly turn deadly. With the police turning a blind eye, it's up to Vince. It's time to fight back. It's time to call in the Desert Dogs.

Finally free of a controlling ex, Kim Paget's not looking to be taken for a ride-not on the back of some tattooed roughneck's bike and definitely not in his bed. But when she finds evidence that her bosses are rattlesnake-dangerous, Kim must entrust her safety to the man who threatens danger of a whole different kind.
I was kind of dreading this, because I thought it was a motorcycle club book. That is a subgenre I absolutely do not want to read. But this was Cara McKenna, one of my favourite authors, so if anyone was going to get me to give them a shot, it was her. Still, it took me ages to actually pick it up and start reading it after i'd bought it. And when I did, it almost felt like an anticlimax to realise it was absolutely not an MC book.

Yes, Vince Grossier, the hero, does have a motorcycle, and yes, he and his mates used to call themselves the Desert Dogs, but that does not an MC make. The Desert Dogs thing is just a way they played around, and Vince is just the kind of rough-around-the-edges but fundamentally decent guy I’ve already really liked in McKenna’s books. He’s not a saint, but he’s not a proper criminal either. And the plot here is just a regular romantic suspense plot, nothing to do with gangs fighting.

Vince grew up in the small Western town of Fortuity. It’s a small, unsophisticated place, and he likes it that way. But things are about to change, as a huge conglomerate is about to build a luxury resort and casino in town. Vince voted against the plan in the referendum, but his side lost, and he’s still bitter about it.

When he suspects something shady is going on on the site, something that got his good friend Alex killed in a supposed drunk-driving accident, he’s determined to get to the bottom of it. Alex had called him right before he died talking about finding bones on one of the casino’s sites and how he was worried about them. Vince knows the man, and knows that even though he was an alcoholic, he would not have driven drunk. But everyone, including Alex’s colleagues in the Fortuity police department (yes, he was part of the Desert Dogs, but he’d become a cop when he grew up), thinks Vince is just deluded and acting out of his resentment about the casino.

So Vince is on his own, and when he meets Kim Paget, he sees the perfect chance to get on the construction site without getting arrested for trespassing. Kim is a photographer, in town to take beautiful pictures for the casino’s promotional material for investors. But while Vince tells himself that’s the only reason why he’s pursuing her so hard, he can’t deny the attraction.

Kim has just broken up with a controlling, killjoy boyfriend, and she’s ready for a bit of adventure. Vince is not her usual kind of guy and she finds him slightly scary, but it's the good kind of scary, the exciting kind of scary. And it turns out they click together just fine.

I really enjoyed this. Vince and Kim have got plenty of chemistry, and their relationship kept me absorbed, which is not happening as often as it used to in romance novels. And they clearly have quite a lot in common apart from the chemistry, in spite of their very different backgrounds. The romance worked for me perfectly.

As did Vince himself. But for all that I like McKenna’s rough heroes, I love that this is clearly not a statement about what sort of masculinity is appropriate in a romance hero. We also meet here the guy who's the hero in the following book in the series and he couldn't be more different from Vince. He's smooth and polished, a metrosexual kind of guy, to the point of being a bit fussy and dismissive of Vince’s lifestyle. And that's perfectly fine, he can be a Cara McKenna romance hero as well!

The plot was good, but not great. The suspense kept my attention well enough, although not to the point that I'd call myself riveted by it. I should mention some readers might be bothered by the fact that there isn't full resolution of what's going on, and the overall plot continues in the next few books. I didn't mind, because it felt like there was enough resolution here about the immediate issues, but YMMV.

I also didn't mind because I'm interested in reading the next few books anyway. McKenna does a fair bit of setting up for the sequels, developing secondary characters such as Duncan, the guy I mentioned above, as well as Vince's friends and a young waitress new to the town. It didn't feel like sequel-baiting. All these characters felt organic to the plot and worked to make the book richer, as Vince and Kim's interactions with them worked to develop them as characters.

On the whole, this was a good one. Not quite my favourite by this author, but pretty damn solid.



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