Someone To Hold, by Mary Balogh

>> Wednesday, November 21, 2018

TITLE: Someone To Hold
AUTHOR: Mary Balogh

PAGES: 379

SETTING: Early 19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 2nd in the Westcotts series

Humphrey Westcott, Earl of Riverdale, has died, leaving behind a fortune and a scandalous secret that will forever alter the lives of his family—sending one daughter on a journey of self-discovery...

With her parents’ marriage declared bigamous, Camille Westcott is now illegitimate and without a title. Looking to eschew the trappings of her old life, she leaves London to teach at the Bath orphanage where her newly discovered half-sister lived. But even as she settles in, she must sit for a portrait commissioned by her grandmother and endure an artist who riles her every nerve.

An art teacher at the orphanage that was once his home, Joel Cunningham has been hired to paint the portrait of the haughty new teacher. But as Camille poses for Joel, their mutual contempt soon turns to desire. And it is only the bond between them that will allow them to weather the rough storm that lies ahead...
Book 1 in this series started with a bang. During the reading of the Earl of Riverdale's will, a mysterious young woman walked in, having been invited by the lawyers. The Countess immediately knew she must be the young woman her husband had been supporting in an orphanage since she was a child. How inappropriate for an illegitimate daughter to force herself upon her father's legitimate family! But it turned out Anna wasn't an illegitimate daughter. The Earl had actually married her mother. That was shocking enough. But the next revelation was even more shattering: Anna's mother had died after the Earl married again. The second marriage was bigamous, and thus, invalid. In one stroke, all the Earl's children but Anna were declared illegitimate. Anna inherited piles of money, as the Earl's only legitimate child, and the title passed onto a distant cousin.

Camille Westcott is one of Anna's disgraced half-sisters. She's had a very tough time in the months since the reading of the will. Her highborn fiancé immediately dumped her, her beloved brother Harry decided to run off to join the Army in the Peninsular War, and her mother retired to the country to live a quiet life with her own parents. Camille and her younger sister are living in Bath with their grandmother, and while their grandmother's friends are still friendly, none of the young people they would have befriended in previous years will give them the time of day. The young women don't want to be associated with them, the young men have no interest in courting them.

To be fair, Camille's had a tougher time than she need have. Anna offered to share her fortune, but was rejected out of hand. So were her friendly overtures. It was mostly Camille's doing. Harry was off like a shot (hah!) as soon as he found out the news, and Abby was young and led by Camille. But Camille is in a place where she's... well, not quite 'wallowing', but sort of, and also kind of punishing herself. She feels she and Abby should adjust to their new circumstances, and all the efforts by the people who love them to keep them in the world they grew up in are just postponing the inevitable, even if they mean well. I found that attitude that so puzzles and frustrates her grandmother and sister really psychologically believable; it told me so much more about how traumatised she was feeling about the changes in her life than if we'd simply been told so.

It just so happens that the orphanage where Anna grew up is also in Bath, and it seems to hold some sort of fascination for Camille. First she applies to be a teacher there (illegitimate young women should probably learn how to earn a living), just as Anna had been. Then, when the rest of the Westcotts announce they're about to descend on Bath, supposedly to celebrate a birthday, but really to bring the girls back into the fold, Camille decides she can't stand that and requests to move into living quarters in the orphanage (you guessed it, the same room where Anna used to live).

While at the orphanage, she comes to know Joel Cunningham. Joel grew up there with Anna, and they were best friends. Actually, he thought he was in love with her, but she loved him like a brother, and he's starting to realise she was right. Particularly because he's started to care for Camille in a way he never cared for Anna...

I liked this one quite a bit, mainly because of Camilla. She's exactly the sort of heroine I'm most interested in these days: a somewhat difficult woman, who's difficult for understandable reasons. She was quite unlikeable in book 1, and she's still the same person in this book, only you get to see things from her eyes, and that perspective makes a difference.

I've talked above about how I found some of her more 'illogical' reactions psychologically believable, and that was the case for everything about her. I recognised her as a person, and I loved seeing her begin to heal from the hurt that was done to her. And there were sections that really touched me, like how Camille begins to identify with a particular child at the orphanage with certain quite unattractive qualities (the sections with that child close to the end had me sniffling a bit).

The romance was nice enough, albeit relatively low-chemistry, but I was more interested in all the other stuff going on, from Joel's unexpected discovery of his birth family to Camille's thawing relationship with Anna. That was all particularly satisfying. Nice.



A bunch of early DNFs

>> Monday, November 19, 2018

I abandoned all three of these relatively early on.

TITLE: Too Hot To Handle
AUTHOR: Tessa Bailey

This starts a series about 4 siblings on a road trip to fulfil their mother's last wish: a winter dive into the ocean in New York. Too Hot To Handle focuses on Rita, the older sister, who followed her mother's steps and became a chef. She's not in a good place, since she just created a mess by going after a fellow contestant in a cooking show with a knife (!) and her mum's restaurant burnt down, for which she blames herself (with good reason). On the way from California to New York, the car breaks down and the siblings are rescued by Jasper Ellis, a bad boy who doesn't want to be a bad boy any more.

I was really interested in Jasper's story. He has developed a bad reputation, and is struggling to be seen as more than just a wild guy and a good lay. But I gave up on this one relatively early on because all the characters' reactions and interactions felt fake. I was constantly going "huh?" and wondering why on earth a particular character was reacting in a particular way. Just didn't click with me, I guess.


TITLE: One Cretan Evening and Other Stories
AUTHOR: Victoria Hislop

I was in Crete, so wanted to read about Crete. But I read only the remarkably pointless title story. A man arrives to a small Cretan village and enters a house abandoned since the previous occupant's death. This was a woman who'd been ostracised by the village, seemingly for no good reason. I really didn't get the significance of the man's visit, or even the point of the story. I just pressed delete before wasting more time on the other stories.

Also to note that a big chunk of the book is an excerpt from one of Hislop's novels. Meh.


TITLE: The Girl from Summer Hill
AUTHOR: Jude Deveraux

This sounded like fun, and I used to really like Jude Deveraux way back when. It's a Pride and Prejudice homage, centred around a local theatre company putting on a play of it. The heroine, Casey, is a chef who's catering for the cast, while the hero, Tate, is a famous actor who helps his cousin out by playing Darcy in the production the cousin is directing. But all the amateur actresses are so star-struck, that they can't handle playing Lizzie opposite Tate! Enter Casey, who has taken an immediate dislike to him and thinks he's an arrogant arsehole, and she gets the part.

The setup was ok (although there's a fair bit of people acting like impetuous idiots), but it was the writing that made me put this down sharpish. It felt very simplistic, with a lot of telling and no showing at all. It was as if Deveraux was describing the skeleton of the thing and would come back to fill it in later, only she didn’t. It also felt very old-fashioned... the sort of book where beauty means being blonde and blue-eyed and that's it. I don't think there was a woman depicted as beautiful in the whole chunk that I read who didn't fit that pattern. Not for me.



First Star I See Tonight, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

>> Saturday, November 17, 2018

TITLE: First Star I See Tonight
AUTHOR: Susan Elizabeth Phillips

PAGES: 384
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Not really, but some characters from previous books show up

A star quarterback and a feisty detective play for keeps in this sporty, sexy, sassy novel—a long-awaited new entry in the beloved, award-winning, New York Times bestselling author’s fan-favorite Chicago Stars football series.

Piper Dove is a woman with a dream—to become the best detective in the city of Chicago. First job? Trail former Chicago Stars quarterback, Cooper Graham. Problem? Graham’s spotted her, and he’s not happy.

Which is why a good detective needs to think on her feet. “The fact is . . . I’m your stalker. Not full-out barmy. Just . . . mildly unhinged.”

Piper soon finds herself working for Graham himself, although not as the bodyguard he refuses to admit he so desperately needs. Instead, he’s hired her to keep an eye on the employees at his exclusive new nightclub. But Coop’s life might be in danger, and Piper’s determined to protect him, whether he wants it or not. (Hint: Not!) If only she weren’t also dealing with a bevy of Middle Eastern princesses, a Pakistani servant girl yearning for freedom, a teenager who just wants of fit in, and an elderly neighbor demanding Piper find her very dead husband.

And then there’s Cooper Graham himself, a legendary sports hero who always gets what he wants—even if what he wants is a feisty detective hell bent on proving she’s as tough as he is.

From the bustling streets of Chicago to a windswept lighthouse on Lake Superior to the glistening waters of Biscayne Bay, two people who can’t stand to lose will test themselves and each other to discover what matters most.
It's been quite a while since I've read a SEP book, mainly because for everything in them that's appealing, I tend to find something that's very problematic. However, when she's good, she's really good. So I got home one day after a particularly stressful day, and decided this one was exactly what I needed.

Piper Dove has finally managed to get a client who might be the ticket to the survival of the fledgling detective agency her father founded. If she can impress them, many more important clients will follow. She only needs to follow Cooper Graham around without him seeing her, which shouldn't be too hard, considering the amount of attention he attracts whenever he goes out. Cooper has recently retired as the Chicago Stars football team star quarterback, and the city still loves him to bits (well, the parts of the city that don't support The Stars' rivals, as Piper does).

Only the job is not a piece of cake, and Cooper spots her. He wants to know who hired her, and threatens to sue. But when Piper refuses to betray the confidentiality of her relationship with her client, only assuring Cooper that there's nothing there that will harm him, he has to grudgingly respect her. And after she points out some really shitty schemes ran by Cooper's employees at the nightclub he's founded, she ends up in his employment.

The description sounded like I'd have to get over a lot of cringe. The bit whoever wrote the cover copy chose to highlight as a good example of just how hilarious this book is comes from when Cooper makes Piper following him and she has to come up with some sort of excuse on her feet. And the best she comes up with is: “The fact is . . . I’m your stalker. Not full-out barmy. Just . . . mildly unhinged.” And that scene was pretty ugh. Hah hah, mental illness, so funny.

But that's not really Piper at all! I was afraid that whole thing, with Piper pretending to have mental health issues, would continue on, and on, and on, but it doesn't. It lasts for exactly one short scene. The very next time they meet, Cooper finds out she's actually a PI, which was a huge relief. And she's good at it! I really liked that Piper is actually super competent, and she doesn't fall all over herself with lust for Cooper. She does find him very attractive, but she's perfectly capable of controlling those feelings, unlike so many romance heroines of old (and often new, unfortunately).

Actually, in general I felt this was a slightly more enlightened SEP at times! We've got no slut shaming or demonisation of beautiful, stereotypically 'feminine' women, in spite of our heroine being one of those "just like one of the guys" heroines. This felt like it was being done on purpose, like SEP acknowledging the toxic romance trope and intentionally subverting it. There's a scene in Cooper's nightclub where Piper's been thinking disparaging thoughts about the gorgeous blondes with uniformly swishy hair in the VIP section. She runs into one of them in the loo, and they get talking. Turns out the other woman is about to get her PhD in Public Health! Huh, Piper thinks, she needs to stop making assumptions about the swishies! It's a bit too on the nose, but better than the other extreme, at least.

The romance was a bit mixed for me. I liked a lot of it, mostly because of Piper. Cooper was nice enough, typical SEP hero, but on the low end for assholishness. Still, nothing too special. Piper was the character who shone. Which is why the way late in the book she undergoes a complete change of heart about something very important to her left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. I can just about choose to believe that this was what she actually wanted all along, it's just that she was afraid to want it because of her upbringing, but only just about.

Finally, I really should mention that there's also a big mess of an incredibly ill-judged subplot which felt a lot more like the old, insensitive SEP. It involved Saudi princesses a "Pakistani servant girl", and it was terrible. Very simplistic and old fashioned, with a distinct 'white saviour' vibe. It didn't ruin the book for me, but it could (and should) just have been cut out of it.

MY GRADE: This was still a mostly very positive reading experience. A B.


The Outsider, by Stephen King

>> Saturday, November 03, 2018

TITLE: The Outsider
AUTHOR: Stephen King

PAGES: 576

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Paranormal fiction
SERIES: I'd say this is #4 in the Bill Hodges series

An unspeakable crime. A confounding investigation. At a time when the King brand has never been stronger, he has delivered one of his most unsettling and compulsively readable stories.

An eleven-year-old boy’s violated corpse is found in a town park. Eyewitnesses and fingerprints point unmistakably to one of Flint City’s most popular citizens. He is Terry Maitland, Little League coach, English teacher, husband, and father of two girls. Detective Ralph Anderson, whose son Maitland once coached, orders a quick and very public arrest. Maitland has an alibi, but Anderson and the district attorney soon add DNA evidence to go with the fingerprints and witnesses. Their case seems ironclad.

As the investigation expands and horrifying answers begin to emerge, King’s propulsive story kicks into high gear, generating strong tension and almost unbearable suspense. Terry Maitland seems like a nice guy, but is he wearing another face? When the answer comes, it will shock you as only Stephen King can.
TW for sexual abuse of children. Doesn't happen on-screen, but you do get some pretty nauseating details.

The sexual assault and murder of a local child is one of the most horrific crimes Flint City Police Detective Ralph Anderson has ever had to investigate. The details of how things went down and the mutilation of the body are truly stomach-churning.

But the case is also the easiest to solve in Ralph's career. Witness after witness after witness identify previously squeaky-clean Little League coach Terry Maitland as the man who was seen stopping by the little boy, who was walking home pushing his bike with a broken chain. Terry was seen talking to the boy and putting the bike in his van. He was seen coming out of the woods where the child was found, covered in blood. He was seen at pretty much every stage of committing his crime. There's physical evidence galore, as well. Fingerprints everywhere you'd expect them to be if the perpetrator hadn't worn gloves or wiped them off, even DNA evidence. No murderer has ever been this careless, no case has ever been this watertight.

But once a very public, very humiliating arrest has been made, evidence starts to emerge that seems at odds with the facts Ralph is so convinced of. Terry claims to have been somewhere else at the time of the murder, somewhere quite far from Flint City. And the evidence for that is rock-solid as well...

And that's all the detail I'm going to give about the plot, as I don't want to ruin any surprises. Suffice it to say that Ralph ends up pursuing the doubts generated by Terry's alibi, and these threads lead into some quite scary directions.

The Outsider is a page-turner, even though if you think about it objectively, there's less plot than you would expect in a book that is almost 600 pages long. That's because the plotty bits are very nicely balanced out by quite a bit of character development and interaction, and that, to me, was what made this book so excellent.

I particularly liked the way Ralph is not acting alone in his investigation. Almost without trying, a sort of team is created, made up of people whose interest in the case comes from several different directions. They each bring their strengths to the case. And that is something that I always love. In this case, it was also a wonderful bonus to have one of the people in the team be Holly Gibney, who readers of King's Bill Hodges series (which starts with Mr Mercedes) will surely remember. She's still very much Holly, but she's also a character who has evolved and changed and gone a long way from the little mouse of a woman of the first book. I loved the connection and growing friendship between her and Ralph. That was just beautiful.

The supernatural element was really interesting. We go into the mythology of Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries, a particular being that was a part of my childhood but in a very mild, disembodied way. It was fascinating to see the much more concrete forms, with some very detailed mythology, that it takes in other Latin American countries. I'll never think of a particular lullaby in the same way again, I can tell you that!

Finally, the conclusion of the book was great. Exciting and surprising, and plenty of closure afterwards. Loved it.

MY GRADE: A very enjoyable A-.

AUDIOBOOK NOTES: This one had the same narrator as the Bill Hodges series, Will Patton. He does some very idiosyncratic voices. I found them annoying at first when I started reading Mr Mercedes, but by the time I got to this one, they feel just right. It was nice to have Holly have exactly the same voice as before, even if I did feel Ralph's voice was maybe a bit too close to Bill's in the previous series.


Two very different (but similarly average) historicals

>> Thursday, November 01, 2018

TITLE: Aiding the Enemy
AUTHOR: Julie Rowe

Aiding the Enemy has a pretty unique premise. It takes place in 1915 in Brussels, which was then under German occupation. Rose Culver is a nurse who has been secretly helping British and other allied soldiers escape into neutral territory, right under the noses of the Germans. She knows it's almost inevitable she'll be caught; in fact, she has been on borrowed time for a while already. The hero is Herman Geoff, a German doctor working in the same hospital. German is well-aware of what Rose has been doing, but that's fine by his ethical code. He worries about her, though, and when it becomes clear his worries are well-founded, he decides to help.

This was very promising and the setup was fab, but the execution was not great. Herman was a bit too one-dimensional, and I never felt I got to know him at all. As for Rose, I found her actions too often impetuous and stupid ("oh, no, even though us marrying is the only way to save my life, it's not the right reason to do something as important as get married. I'm gonna run away instead!!"). Add to that zero chemistry, and this was pretty meh.


TITLE: The Mystery Woman
AUTHOR: Amanda Quick

Beatrice Lockwood started out life working as a clairvoyant, but left that life behind after her employer was killed and the murderer almost caught Beatrice herself. Since then she's been working for a detective agency where the detectives are all women and investigate by being placed as companions and governesses (this is second in a series based around this agency). The hero, Joshua North, is a former spy whose sister is being blackmailed. He initially thinks Beatrice is the blackmailer, but they're soon working together to investigate.

This was very average. The Mystery Woman was written back when Krentz was just stopping with her tedious Arcane Society stuff, so the paranormal element was not as bad as it could have been, but still not great. There are some nice moments, but nothing special. And same for the romance. I liked that Beatrice and Joshua are both mature grown-ups having perfectly good lives earning a living. They also seem to suit each other well. But for all that, they were a bit indistinct.

Nice enough way to pass a few hours, but unremarkable.



Inherit Midnight, by Kate Kae Myers

>> Tuesday, October 30, 2018

TITLE: Inherit Midnight
AUTHOR: Kate Kae Myers

PAGES: 390
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury

SETTING: Contemporary, various locations around the world
TYPE: Fiction

The Competition

Seventeen-year-old Avery VanDemere's ridiculously wealthy grandmother has decided to leave the family fortune to the relative who proves him or herself worthiest--by solving puzzles and riddles on a whirlwind race around the globe.

The Contenders

For Avery, the contest offers a chance to escape. As the black sheep of the VanDemere clan--the illegitimate daughter, sent away to boarding school--she'd love to use that prize money to run away from the family who ostracized her . . . and discover the truth about her long-lost mother.

Marshall might be Avery's uncle by blood, but there's no love lost between them. He'll do anything to win, even if it means turning on his own children.

Riley is the charming son of Grandmother VanDemere's lawyer. As the game progresses, Avery finds herself drawn to him--even though she isn't quite sure she can trust him.

The Winner?

Treacherous turns in the competition serve as brutal reminders that only one person can win it all. Is Avery willing to risk both her heart and her life to claim the grand prize?
Oh, so conflicted about this one!

On one hand, it is super fun. The plot is basically an Amazing Race-type competition. Avery VanDemere's family is extremely wealth (and pretty disfunctional). Her grandmother has decided to have all her potential heirs compete for a chance to inherit the family fortune. To do that, they'll have to travel round the world, solving puzzles and completing challenges. All of these have some connection to family history, so those relatives who have taken an interest in that will have an advantage.

Avery is not that fussed about the inheritance, but her grandmother sweetens the deal. Not only will she be able to leave the horrible boarding school where she is stuck now, she will also be given information about her mother the more she progresses with the challenges. Avery was taken away from her by her grandmother and has been given almost no information about who she was. She's desperate to know more, so she'll play the game. She'll be helped by Riley, son of the family lawyer, a guy only slightly older than her. So clearly, there's a bit of potential romance as well.

So, you need to suspend disbelief pretty vigorously, but if you do, the plot is fun. The challenges are creative and cool and it was fun to travel round the world with Avery. The characters are kind of preposterous, but I could get over that. And Avery is clever and resourceful, and I loved all the different ways in which she bested her competitors.

All that said, this book is immensely problematic. Basically, the supposedly responsible adults behave disgustingly. Avery's grandmother, Justine, vile and pathetic in equal measures.

She's vile for what's she's done to Avery, from stealing her from her mother (using her money and power to basically bully a young woman horrifically) to isolate her from every single other child other than her bullying cousins (and completely ignoring that bullying, even though it must have been obvious), to sending her to a frankly abusive boarding school (she supposedly didn't know about that, but seriously, it was more that she didn't want to know, IMO). I did NOT want this horrible person to get what she wants out of the competition. I wanted her to be told to go fuck herself. While there is some recognition of the unacceptableness of Justine's behaviour, it wasn't enough. She mostly gets away with it, albeit with Avery taking her to task a little bit. But then, I would not have been truly satisfied with anything less than Justine being put in jail for child abuse.

Her patheticness is not dealt with at all. Justine is pathetic because she's pathologically obsessed with the family history. It's all about how the family must be proud about what their ancestors did, and that is basically all that makes the family important and valuable. They're better than everyone else because they can trace their ancestors and those ancestors were people who did important things. Sorry, but having amazing ancestors says nothing at all about how valuable you are. Rather than being called out on this unhealthy obsession, this is more or less validated, with Avery feeling that the competition has worked wonders in helping her appreciate where she's come from, etc.

Riley's father, the family lawyer, also behaves abominably, IMO. He's implementing Justine's wishes with the info about Avery's mother, but seems to have some latitude in how he does so. So this is a grown-up man who consciously manipulates a 17-year-old girl by withholding information about her long-lost mother and using it to get her to do what he wants. It's all about his business. Sorry, but no. I wasn't crazy about the romance, because of that. Riley seems nice and does seem to care about Avery, but he's working with his father, knowing exactly what his father is doing. I lost a lot of respect for him for playing that game.

MY GRADE: This was a B- for me, a mix of the fun I had while reading it and trying not to think of the problematic issues and the appallingness of those issues.


Back to the 1920s

>> Sunday, October 28, 2018

Two novels set in the 1920s today.

TITLE: A Monstrous Regiment of Women
AUTHOR: Laurie R King

This is the second book in a series about Mary Russell, a young woman who becomes Sherlock Holmes' colleague, friend, and then something more (review of book 1 here). In this book, Mary 's relationship with Holmes has reached a bit of a turning point, and she seeks a bit of distance, to better consider things. As luck would have it, she meets an acquaintance from university and through her, comes into contact with a feminist/religious society led by an extremely charismatic figure. When she discovers a series of mysterious deaths (with all the deceased leaving their wealth to the society), Mary feels she must investigate. She's in a good position to do so, as she's about to come into her inheritance and, for someone looking at her from the outside, she may look like exactly the sort of person who'd go for the sort of cult the society seems to be. Of course, before long, Holmes is involved as well.

The mystery is interesting, and I particularly liked the setting. Not just the details about life in those circles in the 1920s, but also the feel of it. But what I liked the most was the character development. Mary launches into her investigation feeling very sure she's immune to the charisma of the leader, but it's not that straightforward, and this helps her understand where she still needs to work on herself. And her relationship with Holmes continues to develop very satisfyingly. I'm not usually the biggest fan of relationships with such big age gaps, but with these two, King convinces me that their minds are so in sync that age really doesn't matter.


TITLE: The Other Side of Midnight
AUTHOR: Simone St James

Ellie Winter is a medium operating in 1920s London. She's the real deal, which is why she's given up on the heavy stuff, the contacting-the-dead kind of work. That's much too traumatic when you're not faking it. But when one of her former colleagues dies, Ellie can't disregard the message from the dead woman asking her to investigate. Gloria was the only other person with real psychic powers that Ellie knew of. So she ends up working with James Hawley, a veteran who's dedicated to debunking fake psychics, to find out what happened to Gloria.

Simone St James writes books that should be my crack, but don't quite hit the mark. Everything about this one should have really worked for me. The plot, the time period, the conflict in the romance (Ellie and James have a bit of a past, when he was part of a group that set out to discredit her mother and her in a way she thought was unfair). There's nothing truly wrong in any of it, but the book just didn't captivate me. I'd put it down and then never felt particularly keen to pick it back up. There's something in the writing and plotting of her books that keeps me a bit distant. I guess sometimes an author's style doesn't completely click with a particular reader...



Real Kind of Love, by Sara Rider

>> Friday, October 26, 2018

TITLE: Real Kind of Love
AUTHOR: Sara Rider

PAGES: 242
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Books & Brews #1

What happens when a fake relationship turns into a real kind of love?

As an audiobook narrator, Clementine Cox has no trouble mastering the voices of space aliens, elven warriors, or even demon-possessed cats. But the moment she tries her hand at an erotic romance, she’s stumped. With her deadline looming, she books a week at a secluded cabin to restore her inner muse, telling her loving-but-overbearing family it’s a romantic getaway with her not-so-existent new boyfriend to keep them from worrying. She never expects them to invite themselves along to meet the new guy. Now, she has less than twenty-four hours to find a pretend boyfriend in order to save her job and, potentially, her sanity.

Workaholic Jake Donovan isn’t interested in a real relationship. After a broken engagement, all he wants to do is focus on keeping his brewpub, the Holy Grale, afloat. But when he finds out his favorite customer is in need of a fake boyfriend, and his business partners insist he take a much overdue vacation, he has no choice but to help Clem out. All he has to do is enjoy the sunshine, play nice with her family, and keep his hands to himself for the week.

But Jake’s not prepared to like waking up next to Clem every morning as much as he does. Or to feel so welcome by her quirky family. And as the line between real and fake starts to blur, he realizes one week might never be enough.
Clementine Cox has a loving but extremely loud and overbearing family. When she mentions that she's booked herself a cabin for a much-needed week away, they immediately decide they'll rent cabins right next door (and I paraphrase: "and the twins can bunk with you, Clem, right?"). To try to head them off, she stupidly invents a boyfriend she's going away with for the first time. Stupidly, because that doesn't stop them, and she should have guessed it wouldn't. They're coming anyway to meet him, and now Clem needs to produce said boyfriend.

Fortunately for Clem, Jake Donovan, the owner of the microbrewery and pub where she's a regular, is in need of a place to retreat to for a week himself (ex-girlfriend using his pub for a wedding venue). He offers to pretend to be said boyfriend. Anyone in any doubt of what happens next?

I had to stop reading because this book stressed me out and made me angry. The family is just unbearable. The behaviour Rider describes is not cute-pushy, which is clearly how I was meant to see it. To me, it is extreme and borderline abusive. The message is clearly: if it's your family they don't have to respect your agency or boundaries or even listen to you. They can decide of course you are just like them and of course you like the same things, whatever evidence to the contrary, so you need to do those things and look like you're enjoying them. That's the right and proper thing to happen.

Me, I wanted to strangle them. Seriously, I literally did. And I found Clementine pathetic for not standing up to them, particularly when the only excuse for that given was that she'd hurt their feelings. Fuck that. Maybe she does grow a spine later in the book, but my blood pressure couldn't wait that long.

The romance seemed fine. I liked Jake (apart from the fact that he is much too accepting of Clem's family's actions, and even goes along with some of it) and he and Clem did have some chemistry. I also wanted to know more about Clem's job as an audiobook narrator, as I'm fascinated by what that entails. Not enough to keep reading, though.



America For Beginners, by Leah Franqui

>> Wednesday, October 24, 2018

TITLE: America For Beginners
AUTHOR: Leah Franqui

PAGES: 320
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Fiction

Recalling contemporary classics such as Americanah, Behold the Dreamers, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a funny, poignant, and insightful debut novel that explores the complexities of family, immigration, prejudice, and the American Dream through meaningful and unlikely friendships forged in unusual circumstances.

Pival Sengupta has done something she never expected: she has booked a trip with the First Class India USA Destination Vacation Tour Company. But unlike other upper-class Indians on a foreign holiday, the recently widowed Pival is not interested in sightseeing. She is traveling thousands of miles from Kolkata to New York on a cross-country journey to California, where she hopes to uncover the truth about her beloved son, Rahi. A year ago Rahi devastated his very traditional parents when he told them he was gay. Then, Pival’s husband, Ram, told her that their son had died suddenly—heartbreaking news she still refuses to accept. Now, with Ram gone, she is going to America to find Rahi, alive and whole or dead and gone, and come to terms with her own life.

Arriving in New York, the tour proves to be more complicated than anticipated. Planned by the company’s indefatigable owner, Ronnie Munshi—a hard-working immigrant and entrepreneur hungry for his own taste of the American dream—it is a work of haphazard improvisation. Pival’s guide is the company’s new hire, the guileless and wonderfully resourceful Satya, who has been in America for one year—and has never actually left the five boroughs. For modesty’s sake Pival and Satya will be accompanied by Rebecca Elliot, an aspiring young actress. Eager for a paying gig, she’s along for the ride, because how hard can a two-week "working" vacation traveling across America be?

Slowly making her way from coast to coast with her unlikely companions, Pival finds that her understanding of her son—and her hopes of a reunion with him—are challenged by her growing knowledge of his adoptive country. As the bonds between this odd trio deepens, Pival, Satya, and Rebecca learn to see America—and themselves—in different and profound new ways.

A bittersweet and bighearted tale of forgiveness, hope, and acceptance, America for Beginners illuminates the unexpected enchantments life can hold, and reminds us that our most precious connections aren’t always the ones we seek.
When I'm travelling, I like to read stuff that's somehow relevant. Sometimes it's a book about or set in the area I'm travelling in, but in this case it was more about the circumstances. I was travelling around Georgia as part of a small organised group (I like to get off the beaten track, but if I'm not in a country I'm quite familiar with, I'm a bit nervous of doing it on my own -very good decision in this case; I would NOT have wanted to drive some of those mountain roads!). So, I thought, a book about an Indian woman on an organised tour of the US seemed fitting, albeit in an oblique kind of way.

Pival Sangupta is a recent widow living in Kolkota. Her life feels empty and pointless, not because she misses her husband Ram, but because his actions when he was alive isolated her and took away what she loved most in the world. When their son, then studying in the US, came out as gay, Ram decreed that neither of them would speak to him again. Their son is now supposed to be dead, but Pival is not even sure that is true: there was an unexpected phone call, Ram picked up, he said their son was dead, and that was that.

So now that she's finally free, Pival has decided to go find out the truth. But it will take a bit to work up the courage, so she arranges for a tour of the US, starting in New York and finishing in Los Angeles, where her son used to live (lives?).

The travel agency she contacts is one that caters to Indian travellers, but is secretly run and staffed by Bangladeshis. The owner, Ronnie Munshi, is terrified (with some reason) that his wealthy Indian customers would want nothing to do with Bangladeshis. Since his more experienced guides are either unavailable or unsuitable, Ronnie decides to entrust Mrs Sangupta to one of his newest hires: a recently arrived Bangladeshi young man, Satya. Satya has never actually left New York, but he's hardworking and has spent many hours studying his guidebooks, so he should be fine, Ronnie thinks.

Mrs Sangupta has also requested a suitable female to accompany her and the guide, and that one has Ronnie stumped for quite a while. He ends up chancing on Rebecca Elliot, a young actress who takes the job because things aren't going great for her in New York, and how hard can travelling as a companion be?

America For Beginners was a wonderful read. It brings together three very different characters. Pival, Satya and Rebecca differ in their backgrounds, their worldviews, the stage where they are in their lives, what they're trying to achieve. Pretty much everything. And yet, the intensity of travelling together makes them into a weird sort of team. Each of them is also very well-drawn. I felt I understood them and the way they related to each other (they may become a unit, but they do not become friends) felt right and true. Emotionally believable, I guess I would say. I was especially fascinated by the the dynamics and prejudices between Indian Bengalis and Bangladeshis, which were as new to me as they were to Rebecca.

The book deals with some heavy stuff, particularly Pival's grief about her son, but Satya and Rebecca have issue to work through as well. However, the book itself never feels heavy. In part this is because there is some lovely humour here, a great deal of it courtesy of The First Class India USA Destination Vacation Tour Company. The name itself speaks volumes :) It's a bit of a ramshackle outfit, and all we see about how it works is brilliantly and heartbreakingly hilarious. The way Ronnie speaks is a thing of beauty, a masterpiece of obsequiousness, pedantry, and bullshit, and Satya is his excellent apprentice. This all brings some much-needed levity.

But also, I loved that the book manages to end in a hopeful note that felt believable. No, we're not talking fairytale happy endings here, but hope is enough for me.

Finally, I genuinely enjoyed the more 'travelogue' sections. It was really interesting to see what struck Pival about the US, as it's all so different to what has struck me, also a foreigner, but from a very different place, when I have visited.



The Empty Mirror, by J Sydney Jones

>> Monday, October 22, 2018

TITLE: The Empty Mirror
AUTHOR: J Sydney Jones

PAGES: 320

SETTING: 1898 Vienna
TYPE: Mystery/thriller
SERIES: Viennese mysteries #1

The summer of 1898 finds Austria terrorized by a killer who the press calls 'Vienna's Jack the Ripper'. Four bodies have already been found, but when the painter Gustav Klimt's female model becomes the fifth victim, the police finger him as the culprit. The artist has already scandalized Viennese society with his erotically charged modern paintings. Who better to take the blame for the crimes that have plagued the city?

This is, however, far from an open-and-shut case. Klimt's lawyer, Karl Werthen, has an ace up his sleeve. Dr. Hans Gross, the renowned father of criminology, has agreed to assist him in investigating the murders. Together, Gross and Werthen must not only clear Klimt's name but also follow the trail of a killer that will lead them in the most surprising of directions. By uncovering the cause of the crimes that have shaken the city, the two men may risk damaging Vienna more than the murders did themselves.

Written by an acclaimed expert on Vienna and its history, The Empty Mirror introduces a new series of stunning historical mysteries that reveals the culture and curiosities of this fascinating fin de siècle metropolis.
I recently had a long weekend in Vienna before a work conference, so I thought I'd read something set there beforehand. This book, a historical mystery written by an author who's also written guidebooks of the city, seemed to me the perfect choice. The reviews were mediocre, but the main criticism was that there was way too much about city and not enough about the mystery. Given what I was after, that didn't seem like a problem.

It's 1898 and a serial killer is spreading fear in Vienna. The latest victim is an artist's model, and a well-known painter she often posed for is identified as a suspect by the police. Our central character, lawyer Karl Werthen, gets involved when the painter comes to him for help, being a former client. With the help of a criminologist friend, he decides to investigate.

The Empty Mirror is one of those historical mysteries that uses real people as important characters. Our central character, lawyer Karl Werthen, is made up, but many of the people around him are not. The painter is Gustav Klimt, while the criminologist is also a famous one, Hanns Gross. Several other famous people make an appearance. Even Luigi Lucheni, the man who assassinated Empress Sissi, is given a speaking part. This is a concept I'm not wholly comfortable with, but ok, I could just read them as made up as well.

Unfortunately, even ignoring that issue, in the end, I just had to give up. I pushed myself and read almost two thirds of the book, but it felt like a chore, and by the time my trip had passed without me having managed to finish the book, there was no reason to continue. The biggest problem is the writing. The dialogue is extremely wooden and the plotting is just bad. These combine when Gross and Werthen are interrogating people. People speak in ways that just made me laugh, and they reveal things in ways that make no sense, unless it's to move the plot in particular ways.

I was also annoyed at how the book changed from what I thought it was (a relatively straight-forward hunt for a serial killer), to a story of grand conspiracies. The latter is really, really not my thing.



Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating, by Christina Lauren

>> Saturday, October 20, 2018

TITLE: Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating
AUTHOR: Christina Lauren

PAGES: 304

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance

Hazel Camille Bradford knows she’s a lot to take—and frankly, most men aren’t up to the challenge. If her army of pets and thrill for the absurd don’t send them running, her lack of filter means she’ll say exactly the wrong thing in a delicate moment. Their loss. She’s a good soul in search of honest fun.

Josh Im has known Hazel since college, where her zany playfulness proved completely incompatible with his mellow restraint. From the first night they met—when she gracelessly threw up on his shoes—to when she sent him an unintelligible email while in a post-surgical haze, Josh has always thought of Hazel more as a spectacle than a peer. But now, ten years later, after a cheating girlfriend has turned his life upside down, going out with Hazel is a breath of fresh air.

Not that Josh and Hazel date. At least, not each other. Because setting each other up on progressively terrible double blind dates means there’s nothing between them...right?
This book made me happy. Plotwise, it's a simply story about two people who become good friends, try to set each other up on double dates, and then each realises the person they want to spend time with is the other. Simple, and nothing new. What makes it a delight are the characters, particularly the heroine.

Hazel is a character I never would have guessed I would love so much. She is chaos personified. Or rather, chaos follows her. She has the sense of fun of a child (which is why she's so amazing at her job as a teacher for 8-9-year-olds, who share her sense of humour) and puts her all into the things she loves and thinks are fun, even if they aren't what responsible adults are supposed to be into. She's always getting into insane scrapes and saying just the wrong thing.

This has meant that her love life hasn't really taken off. Guys who are charmed by her quirkiness at first soon get tired of it and expect her to act like everyone else. "Would it kill you to be normal for a little while?" is something she has heard often.

Hazel met Josh Im at university. She thought he was really cool, but between the fact that she proceeded to completely humiliate herself in front of him several times (the email she sent him while high on painkillers after dental surgery was a thing of beauty -I giggled for about 10 minutes after reading it) and that she thought he was completely out of her league, he was never a romantic prospect for her. She really wanted to be friends, though.

Hazel gets her wishes when she runs into Josh several years later. Turns out Josh is the brother of one of Hazel's friends, and once she's met him again, she hounds him into becoming her friend. It's adorable. And then one of the friends things they do is to set each other up with people they think may suit. Some of the potential dates are nice, some are horrible, but always, Josh and Hazel enjoy each other's company more than anyone else's.

So, Hazel. Now, I'm someone who loves order and tidiness and peace and quiet. Reading about Hazel should have stressed me out. But it didn't! I adored her. I wouldn't want her in my house for more than a couple of hours, but I loved her to pieces. Writing her must have been a bit of a balancing act. Thinking about other characters who are portrayed as chaotic, I think they often come across as inconsiderate, careless about the consequences of their actions. Hazel never does. She just has joie de vivre in spades and sometimes gets so enthusiastic about something she loves that her judgement is slightly impaired, that's all.

I didn't just love her, but felt incredibly protective of her. There's a point when we see first-hand what it's like for her when someone starts trying to shame her into acting "normal", and I wanted to rip the guy's throat out for hurting her and making Hazel feel bad. That's one of the reasons why I loved Josh so much as well. He gets her and doesn't want to change her. If she's happy, he doesn't care if the people start tutting disapproval.

I suppose Josh is not the most deeply-drawn character ever. As a character, he serves mostly as a foil to Hazel, and his characterisation seems to revolve mostly about how he feels about her and reacts to her hurricane of chaos. I didn't care. I thought this still worked beautifully as a romance.

I'll say though, that I loved seeing an Asian character portrayed as beautiful and desirable (still way too uncommon, for all that this should be the norm), and I liked the little bits of Korean culture that the authors included. This may be slightly spoilery, but I was very interested in how Josh's relationship with his parents was portrayed. It's expected that they will move in with their son when they get old, and I liked that we get neither a "filial obligation, of course it's good" nor a "in-laws living with a couple, of course it's bad". When they move in with Josh and Hazel, it's because this is the right choice for these particular people.

Anyway, this was a lovely book. It was funny and sexy and romantic and made me feel happy. What more could I ask for?



Playing by the Greek's Rules, by Sarah Morgan

>> Thursday, October 18, 2018

TITLE: Playing by the Greek's Rules
AUTHOR: Sarah Morgan

PAGES: 192
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Presents

SETTING: Contemporary Greece (Crete)
TYPE: Category romance
SERIES: Starts the Puffin Island series

It's time to throw away the rule book…

Idealistic archaeologist Lily Rose craves a fairy-tale love, but in her experience it always ends in heartbreak. So now Lily's trying a different approach—a fling with her boss, infamous Greek playboy Nik Zervakis!

Anti-love and anti-family, Nik lives by his own set of rules. There's no one better to teach Lily how to separate sizzling sex from deep emotions! But while Nik has the world at his feet, he also has dark shadows in his heart…

It starts as a sensual game, but can Lily stick to Nik's rules? And what's more, can he?
While sitting by the pool in Chania, in lovely Crete, it occurred to me to do a search for those words in my kindle. From the depths of it, Playing by the Greek's Rules popped up.

The hero is standard Harlequin Presents: Nik Zervakis is a Greek tycoon and playboy, doesn't believe in love or marriage, only goes out with the most sophisticated, elegant women. The heroine is also nothing too new: Lily Rose may be an archaeologist, but she's also the sweet and idealistic type. She's just had a disappointment in love, and has decided that it would be a good idea to have a torrid affair with a man she's in no danger of falling in love with. Her ideal man is supposed to be affectionate, honest and have "strong family values". So she'll have her affair with someone who checks none of those boxes.

The meet cute was where I checked out. Lily has a second job cleaning houses (at her level, archaeology really doesn't pay well), and she's been assigned to clean Nik's. After painstakingly making everything spotless, the last bit before she finishes is the shower. Unfortunately, it's one of those high-tech ones that are more complicated to operate than the space shuttle, and she gets a jet of water in the face after pressing the wrong button by mistake. More panicked button-pressing leaves her completely soaked. No way she's going to drip all over the bathroom floor she's just spent so long making shiny and perfect, so she strips inside the shower, intending to wring out her clothes and dry off as much as she can. The owner of the house is not meant to be there for quite a while, so no harm done, right? Well, wrong, because Nik arrives with his date just then. She catches the naked Lily in the shower, draws some wrong (but pretty well-justified) conclusions, and basically goes "fuck this, I'm off".

I didn't really have a problem with the scenario. It's the kind of situation which may be preposterous, but is arrived at by people behaving understandably and actually quite logically. Fine. What I really did have a problem with was Lily's reaction.

"There must be some way I can fix this. I've ruined your date, although for the record I don't think she's a very kind person so she might not be good for you in the long term [fair enough, the date did (understandably) say a couple of unkind things before leaving] and with a body that bony she won't be very cuddly for your children." [emphasis mine].
Oh, fuck you, Lily. From the policing of another woman's body, to the assumptions that a) body type determines whether a woman can be a loving mother, and b) that OF COURSE Nik wants children, this is all kinds of wrong. Another author might have got a raised eyebrow and a conditional pass, with me continuing on as long as nothing else heinous happened, but I DNF'd another Sarah Morgan a few years back for exactly the same of mindless assumptions that the traditional values way of doing things is the only right way. I don't have time for this. Morgan goes firmly into the "not for me" category.



Two fantastic fantasies

>> Tuesday, October 16, 2018

TITLE: The Thief
AUTHOR: Megan Whalen Turner

A scruffy thief called Gen is brought out of jail by the King's advisor for a mission: stealing an object that will change the fate of kingdoms. Together with the advisor himself, a couple of apprentices and a soldier, Gen travels to the kingdom of Attolia, where the mysterious object is.

I don't want to say too much, because the best thing about this book are the constant surprises. There are some great twists and turns I never saw coming. Nothing is quite what it looks like with Gen. I guessed one thing, but definitely not everything, and even as things not quite right kept happening, which should have been clues that more surprises were coming, I kept gliding right over them.

Hmm, actually, the best thing about the book was probably Gen himself. He's irreverent and hilarious, but he's got an extremely honourable core, and you come to care for him quite deeply.

The setting is also wonderful. It's sort of reminiscent of Ancient Greece, with a very well-developed history and mythology. Just excellent all around.


TITLE: Bitterblue
AUTHOR: Kristin Cashore


Bitterblue is the third book set in this particular universe. We were introduced to the evil Leck in Fire, and then got a look at his reign as King of Monsea in Graceling, where we also saw him get killed. He left behind a traumatised kingdom and a very young daughter, Bitterblue, who ascended to the throne.

Bitterblue is now older, and ready to take over responsibility for her kingdom from her advisors. It's not a tale of action and adventure and derring-do, but a quiet, somewhat somber tale of a serious young woman seeking to become a good queen and help her kingdom finally heal from the trauma inflicted by her father. I found this extremely touching. It's hard, with some moments that are very uncomfortable to read, but it also feels cathartic.

The book is also a bit of a mystery, as we find out more about what exactly happened during Leck’s reign. It’s a really great mystery, as well, especially because at first it doesn’t seem like there’s a mystery at all. It all comes out really slowly and gradually, and the reasons things were still hidden make sense.



I was just trying to read about Finland

>> Sunday, October 14, 2018

I read these two earlier this year, right before moving to Helsinki. My main interest in them was reading more about what was about to become my new home, which may be why they didn't really work for me.

TITLE: Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home
AUTHOR: Malachy Tallack

Mallachy Tallack has spent a lot of his life in Shetland. Shetland is on the Northern Hemisphere's 60 degrees parallel. In this book he travels round the world, exploring the different places where this particular parallel hits land. First to Greenland and Canada, through Alaska, and then Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway.

There are some interesting bits and pieces, but this was really not what I wanted. I've been finding this more and more in non-fiction, both in books and in TV, where it seems to be frowned upon to just have it be about the particular topic, and there's more and more emphasis on the person creating the work. You get a bit about the topic that drew you in and made you buy the book or watch the programme, but this comes along a big helping of "the journey" of the creator, or their musings on whatever... grief, the loneliness of modern life, environmental degradation. The thing is, most times, I don't care! That was the case here. The personal stuff was not why I picked up the book. I wanted to know about these places! Seriously, this approach seems to be everywhere. Have you ever searched for a recipe online and ended up having to read through paragraphs and paragraphs about how the writer's daughter loves this food and how the first time they made it it reminded them of their childhood? Well, that, but in a more literary style.

If the musings had been what I was after, I may have enjoyed this book. As it was, I didn't much. To be completely fair, there is a hint of what's inside on the back cover blurb. I should have read it more carefully and avoided.


TITLE: Icebreaker: A Voyage Far North
AUTHOR: Horatio Clare

In Icebreaker, Clare jumps at the chance to spend some time on a working Finnish icebreaker. Not while it's on shore for the summer, but right in the winter, as it trundles along freeing stuck ships and helping get them to where they need to go.

To an extent, this suffers from some of the same problems as Sixty Degrees North. I wanted to know about icebreakers, but even though pretty much the entire book takes place on an icebreaker, there wasn't enough about icebreakers! I read the whole thing and I don't feel I completely understand how the whole system works.

Plus, the book felt a little bit boring. There are pages and pages of extremely non-scintillating conversation with members of the crew. They all seemed like a nice bunch, but bless them, not great conversationalists. Underwhelming.



Women of the Dunes, by Sarah Maine

>> Friday, October 12, 2018

TITLE: Women of the Dunes
AUTHOR: Sarah Maine

PAGES: 384
PUBLISHER: Hodder & Stoughton

SETTING: Contemporary, 19th and 9th century Western Scotland
TYPE: Fiction

On the rugged, sea-lashed coast of west Scotland lies Ullaness: home to the Scottish legend of Ulla, a Viking woman who washed up on Scottish shores centuries ago. The legend will bring the stories of three different women together...

In AD 800 there is Ulla, lost in a foreign country after her lover is brutally killed. Ellen, a servant-girl in the 1800s, catches the unwanted attentions of the master of the house's lascivious son. And, in the present day, there is Libby - an archaeologist who is determined to uncover an age-old mystery.

When a body is excavated from Ullaness - the body of someone who was murdered long ago - the mystery deepens, and the fates of the three women become ever more tightly bound.
Just like The Boundless Deep, which I recently reviewed, this is the kind of book I love, a story about women in different time periods, their lives tied together in some way.

In the present day, Libby Snow is an archaeologist. She's soon to be part of a project to excavate a burial mound in the remote island of Ullaness, in the West Coast of Scotland. Libby has a personal connection to the area: as a child she spent a lot of time in Nova Scotia with her grandmother, who loved to tell young Libby stories passed on by her own grandmother, Ellen, who had been born in Ullanness herself.

Ellen had worked as a domestic servant in the manor, and she was the one who immigrated to Canada at some point in the 19th century. Ellen loved to entertain her granddaughter with stories about the island's legend, which featured a 9th century viking woman, Ulla, and a monk Odrhan (her lover? protector? friend?), and in turn, granny passed all those on to Libby. But Ellen also spoke about other things, including mentions of a "murder that had been done", and Libby has heard of those as well.

A few weeks before the dig is due to start, Libby decides to pay a quick visit to the island. Mostly it's that she wants to get the lay of the land, but there's something else on her mind. She's recently received from her grandmother a clearly very old cross, something that is supposed to have come from Ellen. And the cross is suspiciously similar to a chalice that used to be part of a medieval cache found on Ullaness, and which has been recently stolen in a mysterious burglary. Libby is a bit worried. How did Ellen come to have the cross? Did she steal it? She's not quite sure what she should do with it, but part of her hopes visiting the island will give her some ideas.

But the visit to Ullaness is more eventful than she was expecting. First an unexpected meeting with Rodri Sturrock, brother to the man who owns the manor and the land the excavation is supposed to take place on. Rodri is his brother's agent, and the bloody-minded man Libby and her colleagues have had so much trouble getting agreement from. And then, after a bit of a storm, Libby discovers a body in the area her team is meant to excavate. It's not a recent one, likely Victorian. And suddenly Libby is remembering Ellen's mutterings about murder.

Most of the time is spent in the present with Libby (and Rodri), but interspersed with her story, we get the story of Ulla and her monk, as well as that of Ellen. The former is very short, but the latter is a lot more developed. Ellen is a maid at the big house, and when the two sons of of the house arrive, it's a mix of good and bad news. One is a predatory piece of shit, and she's rightfully scared of him, while the other is a very nice, caring man, and Ellen has a bit of a crush on him.

I particularly enjoyed the present-day story, which is what takes up the biggest proportion of the book. Libby quickly becomes entangled in the lives of Rodri and two women, Alice and Maddy, who are his friends and business partners. They become her friends, actually, and it was really nice to see. Libby is not the most deeply developed character ever, but there's certainly the impression that she's been a bit lonely in the past. Growing up she was quite unmoored from family, forever moving between different relatives, so being adopted by these people is a new experience for her, and clearly one she enjoys.

The stakes in this section are not really about the investigation into the past. I had expected the events of Ellen and Ulla's lives to have some bearing on Libby and her life, but they don't really. In the present-day section, the big thing that's going on is the threat to Rodri and his friends and to the estate itself from Rodri's brother and his wife, who are seemingly determined to bleed the place dry. There are some surprises there, and some of them are unexpectedly dramatic (possibly in a way that didn't quite go with the tone of the book that well).

The mirroring I was expecting in Libby's life actually takes place mainly between Ulla's story and Ellen's. The patterns repeat themselves there, and both are very sad stories. We know things will end in tragedy, given Libby's find, but not quite how. I was a bit less interested in these stories, but they were ok.

On the whole, this was quite an enjoyable read.



Broken April, by Ismail Kadare

>> Wednesday, October 10, 2018

TITLE: Broken April
AUTHOR: Ismail Kadare

PAGES: 218

SETTING: Early 20th century Albania
TYPE: Fiction

From the moment that Gjorg's brother is killed by a neighbour, his own life is forfeit: for the code of Kanun requires Gjorg to kill his brother's murderer and then in turn be hunted down. After shooting his brother's killer, young Gjorg is entitled to thirty days' grace - not enough to see out the month of April.

Then a visiting honeymoon couple cross the path of the fugitive. The bride's heart goes out to Gjorg, and even these 'civilised' strangers from the city risk becoming embroiled in the fatal mechanism of vendetta.
Why did I read this? Bit of a long story. A couple of years ago I read and loved Mary Stewart's This Rough Magic. The book is set in Corfu, but much of the suspense plot revolves around Albania, sort of the North Korea of its time, the forbidding snowy peaks of which loom right over the water. Something about that really captured my imagination, and last year I decided to go there for a holiday. Snowy peaks were in my mind, so I decided to do some hiking up in the mountains in the North.

So then I wanted to do some reading about Albania. There are not a lot of travel books about the country, so I quickly switched to fiction by Albanian authors, and the obvious place to start was with Ismail Kadare. And as luck would have it, the first book that most people recommend (one of the few of his books considered "accessible" by those who know his work) is Broken April, which happens to be set in the very area I was planning to visit, albeit several decades previously.

Broken April was written in the late 70s, but it's set in the early 20th century (I would guess!). The central government is pretty much non-existent in the mountains of Northern Albania, and villagers abide by a code called the Kanun, a literal written guide on how life should proceed. Most of it is mundane and boring, but some is not, like the parts that concern blood feuds.

One of the central characters is Gjorg, a young man from a family that has been involved in a blood feud with another for many, many years, maybe even generations. The origin of this blood feud is linked with another central Kanun teaching, the treatment of guests. Basically, guests are precious and the honour of the family sheltering a guest is at stake in their protection. If someone kills them, then the hosts are honour-bound to avenge the death. And having killed the killer, the now-dead person's family is honour bound to avenge them as well. That is what happened in the case of Gjorg's family, and even though the original guest was just a stranger who had asked shelter for the night, for generations these two families have been killing each other, one person at a time, in strict turns.

It's now Gjorg's turn, and as the book starts, he has just killed the man who killed his brother. He knows someone in the man's family will now hunt him down, kill them, and the cycle will continue. He's got a bit of time, since after a blood feud kill the killer is granted something called besa, a period where the feud is suspended and he won't be killed, and during which he can do things like settle his affairs. But the first thing he must do is visit the Kulla of Orosh, the castle of the regional strong man (can't think of a better term) who is the guardian of the Kanun, and pay a blood tax. It's a long walk from the village and he sets off, unsettled about what's coming.

The other central characters are a newlywed couple, Bessian and Diana. They are both cosmopolitan, educated people from Tirana. Bessian is fascinated by the accounts of life in the Northern mountains. He finds it all very exotic and exciting (and this is as patronising as you might imagine). He decides that for their honeymoon, he and Diana are going to travel in the area.

Obviously, our three travellers' paths will cross, and this will set off a tragic chain of events.

As a portrayal of a way of life and a place and time, this works really well. The oppressiveness of living under a system where your destiny is determined by events set in motion generations ago is overpowering and vivid.

Whether it was ever quite as portrayed is another topic, though. In one of our first walks in Albania we visited a kulla. Kullas are stone towers where men involved in blood feuds could take refuge when they were the ones being hunted, and this was one of the very few left intact.

I had a really interesting conversation with the guide there about Broken April. He said that Kadare had an agenda when writing this, and that his point was to portray the Kanun as negatively as possible. His portrayal of the Steward of the Blood at the Kulla of Orosh as someone whose job is to make sure there are enough blood feuds active, so that money keeps rolling in as blood taxes, seemed to rankle particularly. Certainly, when the guide spoke about the Kanun to our group he emphasised all the different ways to reach reconciliation much more than you see in Broken April. He also gave a couple of examples of things that, he said, are used in the book to imply barbarism, when they are anything but. One example was the tradition of a bride's family including a bullet in her dowry when sending her to her new husband. The meaning in the book is basically "if she betrays you, use this bullet to kill her. You have our support". The guide said that it actually meant "We trust you so much that we trust you with the life of our daughter". Hmmm.... Still, food for thought.

As much as I liked the setting and 'world-building', the story itself wasn't quite as successful for me. Gjorg's storyline did make psychological sense, but I found it very hard to understand Diana, and that made some of the action pretty frustrating.


PS - I can't resist including a couple of bonus pictures from Albania :)


Rye and Mirrors

>> Monday, October 08, 2018

A couple of books by Agatha Christie today. I read all of hers as a young teen, and I'm really enjoying revisiting them in audio. They work perfectly as short palate-cleansers in between more intense, heavy audiobooks.

Both of these feature Miss Marple, whom I'm a big fan of. Just as big a fan as of Hercule Poirot. I really can't decide on a favourite between the two.

TITLE: A Pocket Full of Rye
AUTHOR: Agatha Christie

The first victim was a rich businessman, dead after drinking poisoned tea. The second was his wife, also by killed by poison. She had previously been considered the main suspect in her husband's death. And then the third victim, the maid, strangled in the garden. It is the last murder that brings in Miss Marple, as the maid had worked for her several years back.

On finding out that one of the most baffling aspects of the crime is that the first victim was found with some sort of grain or cereal in his pocket, Miss Marple realises it's rye, and that there are all sorts of other clues that also point towards a particular nursery rhyme. You know the one... "Sing a Song of Sixpence, a pocket full of rye..." Not least, the maid being killed as she was hanging clothes to dry and being found with a clothespin on her nose ('pecked off'), and the family's ownership of a mine in Africa called the Blackbird Mine. Is the family being targeted by a nursery-rhyme obsessive serial killer?

The truth is much more interesting than that. There are plenty of red herrings along the way, and the resolution is both clever and one of those satisfying ones that make complete sense when you look back. The characters are very well done here, as well. A really good one.


TITLE: They Do It With Mirrors
AUTHOR: Agatha Christie

Miss Marple visits an old friend, Carrie Louise Martin, at the request of her friend's sister, who thinks something is wrong and Miss Marple is the only one who can figure out what. Carrie Louise's current husband, Lewis (she's had several, and accumulated a variety of relatives, many of whom are living with her as well), has turned their house, a large Victorian mansion, into a institution to rehabilitate "young delinquents".

It all seems like a recipe for trouble, everyone seems to think, and trouble does occur. One of the boys shoots at Lewis, but when the metaphorical smoke clears, it's someone else who's dead.

This was fun, but not a favourite. This is one of the Christies where the point really, really isn't the characters (who are a bit flat -with the exception of Miss Marple, who is in great form), but the plot. The plot makes for a very clever puzzle, super ingenious, but ultimately one that doesn't quite stand up when you think about it too much. I found it a bit unbelievable that the culprit would choose to go for such an unnecessarily complex method, so reliant on other people behaving in particular ways and therefore so risky.

Still, a very entertaining book while I was reading it.



The Queen of Sorrow, by Sarah Beth Durst

>> Saturday, October 06, 2018

TITLE: The Queen of Sorrow
AUTHOR: Sarah Beth Durst

PAGES: 419
PUBLISHER: Harper Voyager

SETTING: World of Renthia
TYPE: Fantasy
SERIES: Follows The Queen of Blood and The Reluctant Queen

The battle between vicious spirits and strong-willed queens that started in the award-winning The Queen of Blood and continued in the powerful The Reluctant Queen comes to a stunning conclusion in The Queen of Sorrow, the final volume of Sarah Beth Durst’s Queens of Renthia trilogy.

Queen Daleina has yearned to bring peace and prosperity to her beloved forest home—a hope that seemed doomed when neighboring forces invaded Aratay. Now, with the powerful Queen Naelin ruling by her side, Daleina believes that her dream of ushering in a new era can be realized, even in a land plagued by malevolent nature spirits who thirst for the end of human life.

And then Naelin’s children are kidnapped by spirits.

Nothing is more important to her than her family, and Naelin would rather watch the world burn than see her children harmed. Blaming the defeated Queen Merecot of Semo for the kidnapping, Naelin is ready to start a war—and has the power to do it.

But Merecot has grander plans than a bloody battle with her southern neighbors. Taking the children is merely one step in a plot to change the future of all Renthia, either by ending the threat of spirits once and for all... or plunging the world into chaos.
NOTE: spoilers here for the first two books in the series. Don't read further if you haven't read them. The books in this series don't really stand alone, so you should really be starting with book 1. Links to my reviews above.

The first two books in this series were great. An imaginative, fresh world. Strong female characters, each strong in her own way. Action, danger, emotion, everything. This last one is good, but it doesn't quite end the series with a bang. I mean, it doesn't end it with a whimper, either. It's just good.

The action picks up where book 2 left off. Daleina and Naelin are adapting to sharing the queenship of Aratay. They seem pretty complementary: Naelin supplies the raw power, while Daleina, for all her youth, brings the the measured thoughtfulness and experience. But the threat posed by Merecot over the border in Semo is not over. And that's all I'll say about the plot, as it's much more fun to read it without knowing what is coming!

There is certainly an external plot here, but what I like so much about this series is that the way things play out is driven by character. Our three powerful women act and react in ways that reflect who they are. And what they are is real and flawed. Naelin is extremely powerful and a good person, but she's a crap queen. She cares more about her children than about her kingdom, and makes no bones about it. Merecot is basically a charming psychopath. The ways she acts in the book are sometimes counterproductive and she could get much more by asking nicely, but she would not be generous herself and do something without getting something in return, so it doesn't occur to her to ask. Daleina is probably the least flawed of the queens, but she is a little bit too trusting sometimes, to eager to see the good in people.

The interactions and dynamics between all these characters are what makes the book tick, and I enjoyed reading it. There's romance and action and cool world-building, but it's all in the background behind these well-developed and interesting characters, and that works perfectly.

As for flaws... well, I mentioned about Merecot being a charming psychopath. Well, there are two such characters here, she and Hamon's mother, Garnah, who's now been elevated to Queen's Poisoner, despite Hamon's protestations. They kind of steal the show here, because they really are very charming and funny, and I'm not sure they should have been quite so cool. Naelin and Deleina feel a bit earnest and uncool in comparison, which I'm not sure is the best choice for the story.

Still, that was a minor issue. This was an excellent series, and I will look forward to seeing where Durst goes next.



Looking into the (near) future

>> Thursday, October 04, 2018

Two books set (or partially set) in the near future. They also share a non-traditional, somehow fragmented structure.

TITLE: Tell the Machine Goodnight
AUTHOR: Katie Williams

For some reason, this somewhat reminded me of Kitchens of the Great Midwest. Probably the structure, which was sort of like a collection of vignettes, almost short stories, from the points of view of various people in this world, some of whom we return to, some of whom we don't.

The first one is Pearl, a woman who works for a company that offers consultations with a machine called Apricity that, based on a swab test, tells people the things they need to change in their life to be happy (this could be anything... learn a language, cut off contact with your sister, cut off the tip of your left index finger). Then comes one from the POV of her manager at the company, who gets drawn in by another manager, a rising star, into using a pimped up Apricity machine to get ahead in his job. Then there's one from the POV of Clark, Pearl's son, who is helping a friend find something out, and comes up with a way to use his mum's Apricity machine to do so. So, you get the picture, a sequence of lightly connected vignettes, all somehow using the concept of the Apricity machine.

The Apricity machine is a really interesting concept to play with. The book is set about 20 years in the future, but the themes speak very clearly about today, about the ways we try to pursue happiness by trying all sorts of gimmicks, rather than going along more slow (but boring) paths. I enjoyed it, but I would say it felt ultimately not quite satisfying. I was hoping there would be something that tied everything together in the end (at least a bit), but instead, it felt like things were sort of left hanging.


TITLE: Speak
AUTHOR: Louisa Hall

Speak follows 6 characters living in different times and spaces. There's the diary of a girl travelling to America from England in the 1600s. In the current day, there's a scientist working on an artificial intelligence programme and struggling to connect with his wife. There's letters sent by Alan Turing to the mother of a recently dead friend. Some 25 years into the future, writing his memoirs in a prison, there's a man who created something called "babybots", dolls with AI that many children ended up attaching to and becoming ill, seemingly as a result. There's a transcript (evidence in the babybot trial) of girl talking to an AI after her babybot was taken away. Finally, there's a babybot on the way to being destroyed.

Some of these storylines connect quite clearly (the link between the 3 characters in the future is obvious, but there's more. For instance, the scientist's wife edited and published the 17th century young girl's diary. The artificial intelligence programme created by the scientist builds on Turing's work. And so on).

I was really excited about this book at the beginning. It was reminiscent of Cloud Atlas (purposely, I would say) and I was hoping it would be as good. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. The themes were potentially interesting: the way communication and technology interact, the difficulties of really connecting with other humans. But I didn't feel Hall did all that much with them. Or maybe I just wasn't able to get beneath the surface of the different stories.



Five Star Billionaire, by Tash Aw

>> Tuesday, October 02, 2018

TITLE: Five Star Billionaire

PUBLISHER: Fourth Estate

SETTING: Contemporary China
TYPE: Fiction

In the Man Booker prize-longlisted ‘Five Star Billionaire’ Tash Aw charts the overlapping lives of migrant Malaysian workers, forging lives for themselves in sprawling Shanghai.

Justin is from a family of successful property developers. Phoebe has come to China buoyed with hope, but her dreams are shattered within hours as the job she has come for seems never to have existed. Gary is a successful pop artist, but his fans and marketing machine disappear after a bar-room brawl. Yinghui has businesses that are going well but must make decisions about her life. And then there is Walter, the shadowy billionaire, ruthless and manipulative, ultimately alone in the world.

In ‘Five Star Billionaire’, Tash Aw charts the weave of their journeys in the new China, counterpointing their adventures with the old life they have left behind in Malaysia. The result is a brilliant examination of the migrations that are shaping the new city experiences all over the world, and their effect on myriad individual lives.
This year for the first time, after several consecutive years of reading as much as I could work through of the Man Booker longlist, I've mostly ignored it. I started to make the attempt and tried to read Snap, but I really didn't fancy most of the rest. Sunita's reviews have made me reconsider reading a few of the others, but mostly, I'm unenthusiastic. So instead, here's a review of a book from another year's longlist.

I bought this one a few years back, on the year when it was on the longlist. It was one I was looking forward to reading, but when it wasn't on the shortlist it kind of got lost in my TBR. I came across it again after DNFing a couple of disappointing books and it felt like exactly what I was looking for.

Five Star Billionaire follows a group of Malaysian people living their lives in the fast-paced capitalism of Shanghai. They're a mix of people trying to make it and people dealing with having made it. There's Phoebe, a young girl from a rural village who moved to China for an excellent job that disappeared on arrival. There's Justin, the scion of a rich family dealing with the pressure of having to save their real estate empire. There's Gary, winner of a talent competition trying to cope with sudden fame. There's Yinghui, who by her late 30s has built a successful career and is struggling with those around her think that unmarried women her age are, by definition, to be pitied, however successful they may be (and oh, how I identified with that!). Finally, there's Walter, immensely rich and trying to sort out his legacy, the linchpin of the novel, whose actions affect each of the previous four.

This is not really about the characters but about life in the new China, a fast-moving (so fast-moving that it may have changed drastically in the 5 years that this book has been out), merciless world. The characters all connect superficially, but struggle to make deeper connections. And in the end, each of the four younger characters needs to make a choice.

The book employs a loose "self-help book" structure, with chapter named things like "Move to Where the Money Is" and "Choose the Right moment to launch Yourself". I enjoyed figuring out how the content of those chapters would give us a twist on their titles. I note that this came out at about the same time as Mohsin Hamid's How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, so there must have been something in the air right then :)

Interesting book, definitely worth a read.



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