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.



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