A Place of Execution, by Val McDermid

>> Sunday, August 20, 2017

TITLE: A Place of Execution
AUTHOR: Val McDermid

COPYRIGHT: 1999
PAGES: 480
PUBLISHER: St. Martin's

SETTING: 1960s and 1990s Derbyshire
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: None

Winter 1963: two children have disappeared off the streets of Manchester; the murderous careers of Myra Hindley and Ian Brady have begun. On a freezlng day in December, another child goes missing: thirteen-year-old Alison Carter vanishes from her town, an insular community that distrusts the outside world. For the young George Bennett, a newly promoted inspector, it is the beginning of his most difficult and harrowing case: a murder with no body, an investigation with more dead ends and closed faces than he'd have found in the anonymity of the inner city, and an outcome which reverberates through the years.

Decades later he finally tells his story to journalist Catherine Heathcote, but just when the book is poised for publication, Bennett unaccountably tries to pull the plug. He has new information which he refuses to divulge, new information that threatens the very foundations of his existence. Catherine is forced to re-investigate the past, with results that turn the world upside down.

A Greek tragedy in modern England, Val McDermid's A Place of Execution is a taut psychological thriller that explores, exposes and explodes the border between reality and illusion in a multi-layered narrative that turns expectations on their head and reminds us that what we know is what we do not know.
McDermid is one of the best-known mystery writers in the UK, but even though she's someone I really enjoy as a commentator and broadcaster (I'm always interested when she's on Radio 4, particularly when she's one of the participants in the wonderful Round Britain Quiz, where's she's awesome!), I'd never read one of her books. Until now. My book club decided to read A Place of Execution, which is one of her few stand-alone books.

On a cold, dark evening in December 1963, police in Buxton, Derbyshire receive a desperate call from a woman in the small village of Scardale. Her 13-year-old daughter left the house a few hours earlier to walk her dog, and hasn't returned. The mother has knocked on all the doors in the village but no one has seen her, and she's very concerned.

Detective Inspector George Bennett, newly promoted and one of very few university graduates in the Buxton police force, is sent over with his sergeant. All the organised search turns up is the dog young Alison Carter took with her on her walk -its muzzle taped shut with Elastoplast. It seems clear nothing good could have happened to Alison.

35 years later, journalist Catherine Heathcote has managed to get George Bennett to speak to her, the first time he'll tell the story of what ended up being a bit of a cause célebre. Everything's going great, until out of the blue, George writes her a letter demanding the book is cancelled. There's new information that means it should not be published, only he doesn't say what.

Despite what felt like a slightly saggy middle, I really enjoyed this book. It's an interesting mystery, with plenty of turns I didn't expect, and even when I guessed certain things (not bragging here -there are a couple of elements that are not difficult to guess), that didn't hamper my enjoyment.

The book shines in two areas: the atmosphere and the characterisation. 1960s Scardale is fantastic, a tiny village living in almost feudal times. It would have been easy for the portrayal of the taciturn, distrusful villagers, a combination of three families intermarrying for decades, to veer into the comic or the gothic, but McDermid steers clear of all that. These are strong-minded, independent people, used to making do with just themselves and coming together as a community. Don't make me wrong, there are some comic aspects here (I spend a fair bit of time in Buxton with my work, and it really tickled me to see how the Scardale villagers would speak about it. One would think the quiet, quaint little town was some sort of corrupt fleshpot, from the way they'd go on!), but McDermid does not make fun of them.

What felt really interesting and different, as well, was how McDermid portrays the police. It's an almost idealistic portrayal, and the wholesome characterisation of George Bennett and his Detective Sergeant, Tommy Clough (decent, honest men who truly care about finding Alison and works themselves to the bone to get justice for her) provides a much needed contrast to some of the more horrific revelations in the plot. At the same time, it's made clear that there are some institutional ways in which the police are very far from perfect (and some of the final revelations make it clear that part of the reason why certain things happened the way they did in the 60s was precisely because of the police's institutional attitudes -is that cryptic enough?).

I found very few negatives here. The main one, which I alluded to above, is that the middle section does go on a bit. Because of what's going on about then, there is a lot of repetition and going over the evidence again and again, and again. Part of the problem might have been that I was listening to the audiobook, so whereas if I'd been reading I could have sort of skimmed over the familiar ground if necessary, I was having to listen to every single detail. Still, that's not a big problem. Things liven up a fair bit soon enough, and I didn't mind the lull much at all.

MY GRADE: A strong B+.

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Daughter of the Empire, by Raymond E. Feist & Janny Wurts

>> Friday, August 18, 2017

TITLE: Daughter of the Empire
AUTHOR: Raymond E. Feist & Janny Wurts

COPYRIGHT: 1987
PAGES: 421
PUBLISHER: Spectra

SETTING: Fantasy world
TYPE: Fantasy
SERIES: Starts the Empire trilogy

Magic and murder engulf the realm of Kelewan. Fierce warlords ignite a bitter blood feud to enslave the empire of Tsuranuanni. While in the opulent Imperial courts, assassins and spy-master plot cunning and devious intrigues against the rightful heir. Now Mara, a young, untested Ruling lady, is called upon to lead her people in a heroic struggle for survival. But first she must rally an army of rebel warriors, form a pact with the alien cho-ja, and marry the son of a hated enemy. Only then can Mara face her most dangerous foe of all--in his own impregnable stronghold. An epic tale of adventure and intrigue. Daughter of the Empire is fantasy of the highest order by two of the most talented writers in the field today.
Things have been kind of stressful lately, so I've been doing a fair bit of rereading. Lots of Nora Roberts and Jayne Ann Krentz, which have always been my go-to comfort reads, but there's a new kid on the block! You wouldn't think a book with loads of political intrigue in a high fantasy setting could be a comfort read, but Katherine Addison's wonderful The Goblin Emperor manages it. I loved it just as much as the first time (yep, the A+ was well-earned), and the last page left me wanting to read more of something like it.

So I yet again went looking for read-alikes. I wasn't particularly successful the first time round, but but lo and behold, this time I found a thread on reddit with quite a few seemingly well-considered responses! The Empire trilogy was one of the recs, and it sounded like it might be exactly what I was looking for.

Mara is within seconds of taking vows and entering a religious order forever, when news arrives of the death of her father and brother. Mara is the only one in the family left, and without pausing for breath she has to take over as Ruling Lady of the House of Acoma.

It's a dangerous time. Her father and brother died as a result of treachery from an enemy House, and it was quite the massacre. The Acoma House has been left in a terribly weakened state, and keeping it alive will take a cool head, ruthless nerve, and creative thinking about how tradition can be bent without fully breaking it. Fortunately, Mara has all that, and has been lucky in her advisors.

I found this to be quite a mixed bag, unfortunately, starting well but then incorporating more and more elements that didn't work for me at all. I did like the political intrigue and seeing how Mara thought outside the box and turned impossible situations into triumphs. The authors are successful in not revealing all of her plans, even though we're in her POV, without making it feel fake. They would introduce some hints about Mara's ultimate aims, but keep the details hidden, and that succeeded at raising the intrigue quite well.

I also liked the setting, which felt sort of Japanese to me (although now that I finished it I've seen it mentioned that the authors took some inspiration from Korean traditions), with a complex structure of traditions.

Unfortunately, that was about it for what I liked. There were too many elements that I thought weren't good at all. For starters, I wasn't a great fan of the writing. I always find it hard to describe what it is about a particular style of writing that doesn't work for me, but I'll give it a shot. The best way I can describe it is that it felt dated. It's strange, because I happily read 19th century novels without feeling the writing is dated, but that's the word that comes to mind for this book. It's kind of bombastic and self-important, and it gets only more so as the book goes on.

My next problem is one that is purely a matter of personal taste, but what can I say, it was a problem for me. At one point in the book Mara enters a marriage which turns abusive extremely quickly. It's obvious throughout that Mara is playing some sort of long game, and it's not really a spoiler that she's successful in it, but I hated it anyway. Up until then we'd had a heroine who'd taken to power like a duck to water and had been awesome at the machinations required. And then suddenly she's in a situation where she's subservient to a brute and all the agency she has for a very long section is through suggestion and manipulation. It annoyed me. I wasn't sold on the idea that taking this huge risk (and there was a huge element of chance involved in the right outcome coming about in the end) was necessary. I kept wanting to go back to the Ruling Lady all through that section.

And that issue I mentioned about not being convinced that taking that risk was necessary was something that kept coming up. There are an awful lot of instances when Mara makes plans that seem unnecessarily risky and that depend on a large number of things happening just so... people reacting in exactly the way predicted, timing working out perfectly, that sort of thing. They all do work out, but the uncertainty inherent in that planning made Mara look reckless, rather than bold and machiavellian.

Finally, and actually, probably most importantly, I was very disturbed by some of the attitudes displayed by both Mara and the narrative. There's Teani, Mara's husband's concubine, who's this horrid Evil Other Woman, irrational and hysterical, and whose portrayal is one of the most slut-shamey I've read in a while. There's the attitude to slaves and other 'unimportant' and 'dispensable' people. So the raiders killed the herder when they stole the cattle, but it was only a slave boy, so it's unimportant, not an issue. The slaves carrying Mara's litter happen to be in the room when something is casually mentioned that Mara wants kept a secret. They'll all have to be put to death. Mara is completely unaffected by her husband raping and beating the household's maids, which is referred to with no judgment as him having his "sport". These are all really minor, throwaway points. Mara doesn't think the lives of these people are important, and the narrative completely supports that. It's not just the writing that is dated.

And that is the main reason why this is not a good readalike for The Goblin Emperor. Mara lacks human decency in comparison to the hero of that book, the quite similarly-named Maia. I was happy to see her triumph at the start of the book, but by the end of it, I only wanted her to win because everyone else was worse. I don't think I'll be continuing with this series.

MY GRADE: A D.

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Playing With Fire, by Tess Gerritsen

>> Tuesday, August 15, 2017

TITLE: Playing With Fire
AUTHOR: Tess Gerritsen

COPYRIGHT: 2015
PAGES: 250
PUBLISHER: Ballantine

SETTING: Contemporary US and Italy, and 1940s Italy
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: None

In a shadowy antiques shop in Rome, violinist Julia Ansdell happens upon a curious piece of music—the Incendio waltz—and is immediately entranced by its unusual composition. Full of passion, torment, and chilling beauty, and seemingly unknown to the world, the waltz, its mournful minor key, its feverish arpeggios, appear to dance with a strange life of their own. Julia is determined to master the complex work and make its melody heard.

Back home in Boston, from the moment Julia’s bow moves across the strings, drawing the waltz’s fiery notes into the air, something strange is stirred—and Julia’s world comes under threat. The music has a terrifying and inexplicable effect on her young daughter, who seems violently transformed. Convinced that the hypnotic strains of Incendio are weaving a malevolent spell, Julia sets out to discover the man and the meaning behind the score.

Her quest beckons Julia to the ancient city of Venice, where she uncovers a dark, decades-old secret involving a dangerously powerful family that will stop at nothing to keep Julia from bringing the truth to light.
I'm addicted to Gerritsen's Rizzoli and Isles series. I haven't read her earlier single titles yet (I'm saving them for a rainy day, and yes, I know that doesn't make sense), but if they're as good as this one, I'm in for a treat.

Violinist Julia Ansell has just finished a tour in Italy and is happily puttering around antique shops in Rome when she happens upon a piece of music she has never come across. It's a hand-written score, a waltz called the Incendio, and it sounds complex and wonderful when she reads it. It's expensive, since it's, the shop-owner tells her, one of a kind, but she knows she has to have it.

Once back home, Julia sets out to play her new piece of music and is shocked by the results. Not only does the piece consume her and set her into a sort of hypnotic state, it seems to possess her young daughter, as well. Faced with a daughter who seems to become a violent killer when she hears those particular notes, Julia is determined to find out what's wrong. But when her initial approaches to neurologists and psychologists result in disbelief and questioning of her own sanity, Julia realises she must find out more about the piece of music and its creator.

Interspersed with the modern-day story of Julia and her daughter, we get the story of the musician who created the piece. It's the early 40s and Lorenzo lives in Venice, part of a Jewish community where most people consider themselves to be fully integrated and Italian, so surely they have nothing to fear?

This was just great. It's creepy and mysterious and the thriller element really worked. I did have a few issues at the start of the book, where I had some doubts about whether the use of the Holocaust storyline felt appropriate, but this was a book that really won me over. The 1940s thread ended up being extremely moving. The depiction of the situation, where Italian Jews felt so well-integrated that they refused to believe that all those things that were rumoured could possibly be true, felt real. Surely it couldn't happen here, surely not these days? I kept wanting to shout at them to "Go, go! Leave!", while understanding completely why they wouldn't.

And the present-day storyline was really well-done as well. I don't want to say a lot, as not knowing quite what to expect is one of the best aspects of it, but I will say that the resolution was what really made it. It's a resolution that could conceivably feel like a cop-out, like the author had painted herself into a corner and was taking the easy way out, but it doesn't feel like that at all. It feels right. And by being what it is, not what we might have thought it would be (sorry to be so cryptic!) it feels somehow more respectful of the WWII sections.

MY GRADE: A strong B+.

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Swing Time, by Zadie Smith

>> Sunday, August 13, 2017

TITLE: Swing Time
AUTHOR: Zadie Smith

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 453
PUBLISHER: Hamish Hamilton

SETTING: Contemporary UK and West Africa
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

An ambitious, exuberant new novel moving from North West London to West Africa, from the multi-award-winning author of White Teeth and On Beauty

Two brown girls dream of being dancers—but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It's a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.

Tracey makes it to the chorus line but struggles with adult life, while her friend leaves the old neighborhood behind, traveling the world as an assistant to a famous singer, Aimee, observing close up how the one percent live.

But when Aimee develops grand philanthropic ambitions, the story moves from London to West Africa, where diaspora tourists travel back in time to find their roots, young men risk their lives to escape into a different future, the women dance just like Tracey—the same twists, the same shakes—and the origins of a profound inequality are not a matter of distant history, but a present dance to the music of time.
I get ridiculously excited about the announcement of the Man Booker longlist. I love the speculation beforehand (and I've picked up quite a few books from those discussions), and I love that so many bloggers I follow read the books. As I have for the last few years, I'll be attempting to read as many as I can from the longlist and all of the books on the shortlist. Liz McC and Sunita are going to be reading quite a few as well, which will make it even better. They've both got off the starting blocks a lot more quickly than I have, so do check out the reviews already on their blogs.

Me, I thought I'd start with one that looked to be a quick, accessible read. Swing Time was actually already in my TBR, and sounded like it'd be fun. Turns out I found it more challenging than I expected. The challenge was not on the technical side, but in caring enough to continue reading.

There are two main threads that we follow throughout the book. The first one is the relationship between our unnamed narrator and her childhood friend Tracey. The two girls met when very small, as the only two mixed-raced girls in a neighbourhood dance class, and then in school. Tracey was always a natural dancer, while our narrator was fascinated by the dancing and its history and ideas, but less of a dancer herself.

The second thread is the narrator's job as personal assistant to Aimee, a huge international pop star (think, I don't know, Madonna, maybe?). Aimee has decided she wants to start a school in a West African country and, as part of her staff, our narrator is one of the several people taking care of all the details.

There are a lot of interesting ideas and little bits and pieces here, but I felt the book never really gelled. It felt disjointed, and there wasn't a through-line that pulled the whole thing together. Part of the problem, I felt, was that I never quite got what linked the two main threads together, beyond our narrator.

And she was probably the biggest problem with the book. Our unnamed narrator never really comes alive. She seems to float around absorbing stuff from those around her and simply reacting. She doesn't know what she wants, where she wants to go, who she wants to be. Even her most decisive moments are simply rebelling, just not wanting to do what her mother wants. This is particularly frustrating, because Smith has a way of capturing her secondary characters (or not even secondary, even those who are only present in the margins and show up for a single scene... tertiary characters, maybe?) with a deft couple of lines and making the reader recognise them. But our narrator... no idea who she is, unfortunately.  And yes, the fact that she's an unnamed narrator suggests there's a fair bit of intentionality in her being a non-entity, but I felt the book could have been a lot more interesting with someone with more personality narrating it.

The other issue I had was that the Aimee storyline gradually took over the Tracey one, and I was much more interested in the latter. That felt a lot fresher and potentially more interesting, but Tracy disappears from the story in the same way as she disappears from our narrator's life (so yes, it does make sense). And the Aimee storyline made me terribly cross. In part, that is probably just me. I despise celebrity culture and take pains to avoid anything celebrity-related in my life, so some of that crossness was because it felt I was being forced to spend time with the sort of celebrity-obsessed people I run a mile from in real life. Yes, the point of a lot of that was to ridicule aspects of that celebrity culture, but the thing is, Smith doesn't really do anything new or interesting with her satire. It's pretty obvious targets and these targets are mocked in obvious ways.

Lots and lots of moaning above, and it sounds like I hated the book. I didn't. There were nuggets there that I did like. I liked the sort of abstract bits and pieces about dancing. I also liked the character of our narrator's mother and their complex relationship, which were both very well done. And the writing was often beautiful. There was enough there that I would read more by Zadie Smith, despite this one not being a particularly successful first try.

MY GRADE: A C+.

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Card parties and Marx

>> Friday, August 11, 2017

TITLE: Cards on the Table
AUTHOR: Agatha Christie

A very imprudent man called Mr. Sheitana decides to tempt fate and organise a unique dinner party. He invites 4 "detectives", all of them well known to Agatha Christie readers: there's Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard; there's a Secret Service man, Colonel Race, there's Ariadne Oliver, the detective novelist, and there's none other than the inimitable Hercule Poirot. They join 4 other guests, all of whom Mr. Sheitana believes have got away with murder.

Whatever he intended to accomplish, what Mr Sheitana gets is more than he expected. While they're all playing bridge after dinner, one of his guests kills him. Which of the 4 did it, and which of the 4 detectives will be able to discover whodunnit?

It's a neat little mystery, super ingenious, albeit probably best enjoyed by someone with an understanding of bridge, since the game actually plays a bigger part than you might expect. That being said, I know nothing about the game and still had fun. The characters are interesting, both the suspects and the detectives. A big part of the fun is in seeing each detective do their own thing and their different approaches.

A good one.

MY GRADE: A B.

TITLE: The Marx Sisters
AUTHOR: Barry Maitland

The Marx Sisters is the first in a long-running series called Brock and Kolla. Brock is Scotland Yard Chief Inspector David Brock, an experienced officer. Kolla is the much younger Kathy Kolla, a much more inexperienced officer. This first case is set in a little forgotten enclave in the middle of central London, an area where longtime Eastern European immigrants live in the old houses they moved into decades earlier, in between the shiny office blocks.

The Marx Sisters of the title are some of those residents. Their last names are not Marx, but they're all great-grandchildren of the man himself. And then one dies. Was it a personal thing (she wasn't the nicest person in the world), or is there more going on? A developer trying to get their hands on the property? Someone after the Marx manuscripts rumoured to be hidden in the house?

This one wasn't great. I liked the sense of place, but that was about it. The plot could have been interesting, but the twists became a bit too much, tried to be too clever and this made the characters just not ring true. Also, I was bothered by the casual sexism and even misogyny in the characterisation. Wives are nagging shrews, our female detective is a bit of an impulsive airhead, our older male detective is irresistible to even women much younger than him. Bah. I'm not planning to read further in this series.

MY GRADE: A C.

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The Night Of The Mi'raj, by Zoë Ferraris

>> Wednesday, August 09, 2017

TITLE: The Night Of The Mi'raj (aka Finding Nouf in the US)
AUTHOR: Zoë Ferraris

COPYRIGHT: 2008
PAGES: 357
PUBLISHER: Little, Brown

SETTING: Contemporary Saudi Arabia
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: First in a series

In a blazing hot desert in Saudi Arabia, a search party is dispatched to find a missing young woman. Thus begins a novel that offers rare insight into the inner workings of a country in which women must wear the abaya in public or risk denunciation by the religious police; where ancient beliefs, taboos, and customs frequently clash with a fast-moving, technology-driven modern world.

The missing woman is Nouf Shrawi, one of several sheltered teenaged daughters of a powerful local family. Hired to track her and her potential abductor is Nayir, a solitary, pious desert guide of dubious origin, and a friend of the family. As Nayir uncovers clues that only serve to deepen the mystery behind Nouf's disappearance, he teams up with Katya, a liberated Saudi woman who is engaged to one of Nouf's brothers.

As they move closer to the truth, the pair's detective work unveils layers of secrets. In a land of prayers, purity, and patriarchy, the dreams of mere mortals often go unrealized, and the consequences of misbehavior for both men and women are disastrous
This is a mystery set in Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia. It's written by a Western author who lived in the country for a while with her Saudi husband, but the characters themselves are Saudi.

The plot concerns the disappearance of a 16-year-old girl, Nouf, the child of a wealthy family. A lorry and a camel have disappeared at the same time, so whether she left of her own accord or was taken, she seems to have disappeared into the desert. The family want to find her without any scandal, as she was about to get married and they'd rather like that to go ahead, so rather than going to the police, they ask Nayif for help.

Nayif is a friend of the family, and a man who knows a lot about the desert, as he often works as a guide. The hope is that this will allow him to track Nouf, but it's not that easy to find her. Nayif is forced to accept the help of Katya, Nouf's brother's fiancée, who works at the forensic department, and together they work to find out the truth. Nouf's body is soon discovered, but the investigation doesn't end there. Nayir feels the obligation to uncover what happens, even if some in Nouf's family are not on board with his continuing enquiries.

I really liked this. The mystery itself is fine and the plotting ok, but where the book was really good was with the characters and setting. Nayif is a quite conservative and devout man, which really wasn't what I was expecting, for some reason. He's a bit of an outsider, being of Palestinian origin, and this is something he's made to feel often. Katya was more expected, a modern, educated woman who is determined to have a career, but is struggling somewhat with the strictures placed on her by her society. Where the book shines is in the interactions between these two. Neither is particularly comfortable with the other at first, but it turns out there is great chemistry between them. I don't mean necessarily in a sexual sense (although that's not completely absent), but in the sense of two people who click with each other. It's understated here, but it's clear that this is a relationship that will continue in further books, and I really want to read more.

The setting is also great. Societal mores and expectations (and laws) determine how the investigation progresses and how the characters are able to relate to each other. I have no idea how accurate it all is obviously, but I enjoyed reading it. And maybe because the author is not Saudi herself, she makes a point of subtly highlighting the little details that a Saudi author might take for granted and not think worth a mention, like the fact that people keep oven gloves in their car's glove compartments, as car door handles can get so hot that you'll get proper burns if you touch them with your hands.

MY GRADE: A solid B.

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Final Girls, by Riley Sager

>> Monday, July 31, 2017

TITLE: Final Girls
AUTHOR: Riley Sager

COPYRIGHT: 2017
PAGES: 342
PUBLISHER: Dutton

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Thriller
SERIES: None

Ten years ago, college student Quincy Carpenter went on vacation with five friends and came back alone, the only survivor of a horror movie–scale massacre. In an instant, she became a member of a club no one wants to belong to—a group of similar survivors known in the press as the Final Girls. Lisa, who lost nine sorority sisters to a college dropout's knife; Sam, who went up against the Sack Man during her shift at the Nightlight Inn; and now Quincy, who ran bleeding through the woods to escape Pine Cottage and the man she refers to only as Him. The three girls are all attempting to put their nightmares behind them, and, with that, one another. Despite the media's attempts, they never meet.

Now, Quincy is doing well—maybe even great, thanks to her Xanax prescription. She has a caring almost-fiancé, Jeff; a popular baking blog; a beautiful apartment; and a therapeutic presence in Coop, the police officer who saved her life all those years ago. Her memory won’t even allow her to recall the events of that night; the past is in the past.

That is, until Lisa, the first Final Girl, is found dead in her bathtub, wrists slit, and Sam, the second, appears on Quincy's doorstep. Blowing through Quincy's life like a whirlwind, Sam seems intent on making Quincy relive the past, with increasingly dire consequences, all of which makes Quincy question why Sam is really seeking her out. And when new details about Lisa's death come to light, Quincy's life becomes a race against time as she tries to unravel Sam's truths from her lies, evade the police and hungry reporters, and, most crucially, remember what really happened at Pine Cottage, before what was started ten years ago is finished.
I sort of fell for the hype with this one. But then, I really liked the premise. The thought has crossed my mind more than once after watching a horror movie: what would it be like to have to live having gone through that? This is what Final Girls is about. The title refers to the horror movie trope of the single survivor of some sort of horrendous massacre, usually a young woman.

Our protagonist, Quincy Carpenter, was one such final girl, after all her friends were killed while at a drunken party weekend in a remote cottage in the forest. In the eyes of the press, she joined two others: Sam, who survived a massacre in a motel, and Lisa, who lived through a killing spree in a sorority house (to continue with our horror movie tropes!). The press would like nothing better than to have all 3 women get together, but although Quincy and Lisa have spoken on the phone, that has never happened.

Some years later, Quincy feels like she's doing well. She runs a popular baking blog and leads a quiet life with her boyfriend, a public defender. Yes, she still can't remember most of what happened in Pine Cottage, and she needs antidepressants to get through the day, not to mention her intermittent fits of kleptomania, but considering what she went through, that's understandable.

And then Quincy receives news that Lisa has killed herself, not long after sending Quincy an email saying she needs to speak to her. And that is quickly followed by Sam showing up at Quincy's apartment, where she proceeds to immediately upend Quincy's life.

This didn't work at all. The plot, which was the main draw for me, ended up being nothing more than an intriguing setup. The way it was developed felt clunky and unbelievable. The author sprinkled red herrings all over, which I guess were effective, in that I did fall for them, but they felt manipulative and artificial, rather than organic. It all ends up being too convoluted to be remotely believable, and I just couldn't buy the ending.

The characters were even weaker. Quincy is incredibly meh, a sort of vacuum where a personality should be, and her relationship with Sam just annoyed me, because it felt so forced and fake. Sam is incredibly clichéd, the bad girl who shows up and immediately starts getting the good girl to misbehave and do really stupid stuff and take pointless risks. I didn't believe any of it for a minute.

So yeah, my main problem with this one was that I was just not able to suspend my disbelief, so I spent the entire book going "Oh, seriously!" and "No, no, no!". Not great.

MY GRADE: A C-. And I'm probably being a bit generous.

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The Queen of Blood, by Sarah Beth Durst

>> Tuesday, July 25, 2017

TITLE: The Queen of Blood
AUTHOR: Sarah Beth Durst

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 368
PUBLISHER: Harper Voyager

SETTING: Kingdom of Aratay
TYPE: Fantasy
SERIES: First in the Queens of Renthia series

Everything has a spirit: the willow tree with leaves that kiss the pond, the stream that feeds the river, the wind that exhales fresh snow...

But the spirits that reside within this land want to rid it of all humans. One woman stands between these malevolent spirits and the end of humankind: the queen. She alone has the magical power to prevent the spirits from destroying every man, woman, and child. But queens are still only human, and no matter how strong or good they are, the threat of danger always looms.

Because the queen’s position is so precarious, young women are specially chosen to train as her heirs. Daleina, a seemingly quiet academy student, simply wants to right the wrongs that have befallen the land. Meanwhile, the disgraced champion Ven has spent his exile secretly fighting against the growing number of spirit attacks. When Daleina and Ven join forces, they embark on a treacherous quest to find the source of the spirits’ restlessness—a journey that will force them to stand against both enemies and friends to save their land... before it’s bathed in blood.
This is the sort of book that, if you only read the back cover, might seem like pretty generic YA fantasy. It's anything but! A huge thank you to Carrie S at Smart Bitches Trashy Books for the excellent review, otherwise I never would have picked it up.

The Queen of Blood is set in a world where humans live in a sort of armed truce with the spirits that reside in every bit of nature. There are spirits in the wood, in the ice, in the fire, in the earth, in the air and in the water, and every single one of them wishes to push the humans out of what they feel is their world. The only thing holding them back from killing humans and driving them out is the human Queen, who is able to control them, to a certain extent, and mostly keep them from attacking.

In such a world, it's crucial to have someone ready to take over as soon as the Queen dies, someone with enough power to be able to control the spirits. The way it works is that the Queen's Champions select Candidates (usually from Academies devoted to training any girls with power -and it's only girls, not boys, who have power) and train them to be able to pass the tests that allow them to become Heirs.

That is the future that Deleina is determined should be hers. When she was a child, spirits attacked her village. Deleina was able to protect her family with her powers, and they were the only survivors. This has made her determined to develop her abilities enough to, if not become Queen, be able to better protect those around her. She's probably one of the students with least raw power in her Academy, but she's hard-working and conscientious and very, very determined.

And I'll leave the plot description at that, just the basic setup, because one of the things I loved most about this book was that I had no idea where it was going to go next. There were plenty of times when my jaw just dropped. I only realise how much a lot of what I read is a bit predictable and how much I crave being surprised when I read books like this.

One of the surprises was how feminist and subversive of bad fantasy tropes this book is. Part of me was expecting demonising (or at least negative portrayal) of other women: Daleina's fellow students at the Academy, the Queen, all clear rivals to our protagonists... and what does it say about our world that enough books have done this that I was expecting it (even if kind of dreading it)? Durst surprised me, and I loved what she did here. The students forge a strong sisterhood. They are rivals and they understand this, but they are invested in making it a fair, healthy competition, and that doesn't preclude friendship. My favourite was what Durst did with Merecot (sp? I listened to the audiobook), who's the strongest student in terms of control over the spirits, and who is extremely ambitious and ruthless about it. She's prickly and can be mean, but even she is not portrayed as bad. She and Daleina forge a real friendship, even if one with a fair bit of conflict. And the Queen! We know almost from the start that something is wrong there, and that the destruction of villages such as Daleina's is down to the Queen's actions (or inactions). Surely she is a villain? Nope. Again, she's a very flawed person, but even she is not portrayed as a villain. I loved it.

Another surprise: the relationship between Daleina and Ven, the Champion who takes her on as his candidate and trains her to become an Heir. I sort of assumed there was going to be some sort of romance there between them, but there wasn't! Which was great, because the book worked so much better because of that. There is romance, and each of them has their own relationships, but their relationship was one that felt so much fresher and new because of the lack of the romance.

Daleina herself is surprising as well. She seems a bit tentative at first, and she is probably the least ambitious of the candidates, but she is absolutely not tentative when it comes to doing what is best for her country. Durst goes places with this that I wasn't expecting, and I loved it.

I also loved that the world is really original. There's a real darkness here (things can get really bloody!), and Durst doesn't guarantee that even nice characters survive. There's also an interesting environmental message here: what happens when humanity seeks to impose its will over nature rather than work with it? It's made clear that the reason spirits can be controlled by humans is that they need humans as much as humans need the spirits. Each are essential to keeping the world in balance, so the power to influence and control the spirits has evolved to ensure that. Most women with power use it to control, but Daleina is not powerful enough for that. She coaxes the spirits, uses her limited power to distract them from destructiveness and push them towards an expression of their own power and impulses that helps humans (to grow, to build, rather than to kill and destroy). This is one of the elements I hope to see explored in future books.

MY GRADE: An A-. Highly recommended

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Come Sundown, by Nora Roberts

>> Sunday, June 11, 2017

TITLE: Come Sundown
AUTHOR: Nora Roberts

COPYRIGHT: 2017
PAGES: 480
PUBLISHER: St. Martin's

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romantic Suspense
SERIES: None

The Bodine ranch and resort in western Montana is a family business, an idyllic spot for vacationers. A little over thirty thousand acres and home to four generations, it’s kept running by Bodine Longbow with the help of a large staff, including new hire Callen Skinner. There was another member of the family once: Bodine’s aunt, Alice, who ran off before Bodine was born. She never returned, and the Longbows don’t talk about her much. The younger ones, who never met her, quietly presume she’s dead. But she isn’t. She is not far away, part of a new family, one she never chose?and her mind has been shattered...

When a bartender leaves the resort late one night, and Bo and Cal discover her battered body in the snow, it’s the first sign that danger lurks in the mountains that surround them. The police suspect Cal, but Bo finds herself trusting him-and turning to him as another woman is murdered and the Longbows are stunned by Alice’s sudden reappearance. The twisted story she has to tell about the past?and the threat that follows in her wake?will test the bonds of this strong family, and thrust Bodine into a darkness she could never have imagined.
In Come Sundown, we travel to Montana, where the Bodine-Longbow family run a successful ranch/resort. Bodine Longbow, the daughter of the family, is our heroine. She's confident and competent, the sort of woman who doesn't suffer fools gladly. As the book starts, Callen Skinner has just returned to the area and has taken a job at the ranch. Callen grew up there with a father who was a gambling addict and who lost pretty much all of the family's lands. He was best friends with Chase, Bodine's older brother, and she had a bit of a crush on him, but one that never turned into anything. Now that Cal is back after a successful career in Hollywood as a horse wrangler working in films, both are grown, single, and attracted to each other.

As they court, things around them start getting very worrying. A young woman working as a bartender in the resort is found murdered, and soon the same thing happens with a young college student returning home. Someone is killing young women, and one of the deputies is convinced it's Cal.

Interspersed with the present-day story, we get the story of Alice, Bodine's mother's sister. Alice is the family black sheep, as she left in a dramatic huff almost 25 years earlier (on the day of her sister's wedding, no less), and after sending a few postcards for a couple of years, disappeared off the face of the Earth. Her mother still grieves for her absence, but her sister and grandmother are still pretty angry at her.

We soon find out that Alice did not disappear of her own volition. After a couple of years she decided to come home, only she ran into the wrong guy as she hitchhiked closer to home. The man who took her was one of those American survivalist / fundamentalist types, and he decided to take her for his 'wife'. For almost 25 years, Alice has been basically his slave, trapped, beaten, constantly raped and forced to bear her captor's children. And then she escapes.

I have very mixed feelings about this one. I mostly enjoyed it as I was reading it, but now that I've finished and think back about it, I don't think it was very good at all. I like the setting and the family and the writing, and I particularly liked seeing Alice come back to life. However, there were too many elements that could have been a lot better.

The romance was very meh, and that's a problem when the book is supposed to be a romance novel. I never warmed up to Bodine or to Callen. They felt a bit shallow, possibly because neither of them experienced any sort of growth during the book, beyond Callen sort of coming to terms with his mother's love for his gambling-addict father (not that this seems to affect him much at all now). Both Bo and Cal are perfectly fine from the start, two happy people who simply become happier by getting together. That's a great thing to aspire to, but I'm afraid it didn't make for a particularly interesting romance, as there was absolutely no conflict between them. There's no reason why they wouldn't be together, and mostly (other than a couple of scenes where they sort of fight after one or the other flies off the handle for no reason at all, other than plot) they just start dating and it works perfectly fine. There was nothing objectionable there, but nothing that drew me in, either.

I also had some issues with the Alice storyline. I did love it once she came home, but in the first sections there are a lot of scenes showing her in captivity. Those scenes really were harrowing, particularly the ones early on, when Alice's mind is still not beaten down by the abuse. To be honest, they felt unnecessarily graphic to me, and they didn't really go well with the rest of the book.

And then there was the suspense subplot. Exactly the same thing happened to me in the previous romantic suspense release by this author, in that as soon as I met a particular character, long before they'd done anything remotely suspicious, I knew pretty much everything. I'm not sure if it's that it was really telegraphed, or that I'm a bit too familiar with Nora Robert's oeuvre, but there was zero suspense for me. I was picking up every clue, and therefore the moment when the person's identity was revealed, which was clearly written to be a shock to the reader, was flat as a pancake.

I really don't know what's going on with Roberts. Lately her trilogies have gone terrible, her standalone romantic suspense books are hit or miss, but the In Death books are still fantastic. Weird.

MY GRADE: I'd give it a B-, and I'm being pretty generous here.

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My reading in two graphs

>> Monday, May 01, 2017

I just installed a new version of Office and have been playing with pivot tables to familiarise myself with how they work here. I've been tracking my reading for many, many years, so that was the obvious file to play with. Probably of interest only to me, but here are a couple of graphs that tell such a clear story of how my reading has changed over the years:

I'm going off romance (click here to enlarge)


My reading used to be 80% romance, but it's been gradually going down, and is now hovering around a third. Probably a combination of reasons: a) I have changed; b) the genre has changed; and c) I've got better at finding out about non-romance books that appeal to me.

Ebook and audiobooks have taken over (click here to enlarge)


To save you a click, grey is print, orange is ebooks, blue is audiobooks. I did start reading some ebooks back in 2004, but I didn't track format back then. Still, it was very few (not that many were available, anyway, at least not to me in Uruguay), so the number would have been tiny.

These days, I only read print if I absolutely cannot get the book in e or audio. I listen to lots of audio, but the reason audiobooks have gone slightly down since the peak in 2013 is that I keep finding more and more wonderful podcasts, so that takes up a fair bit of my listening time.

None of this was a surprise, but it was fun to be able to see the trends so clearly.

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