My best reads of 2015

>> Thursday, December 31, 2015

So, best reads of 2015. This didn't feel like a great reading year, and that was all about me going through a bit of a romance reading slump. When I started looking back through my spreadsheet, there were loads of books I enjoyed, just not many in the romance genre.

In the second half of the year I actually went through a 5-month period where I didn't read even one romance that I rated a B+ or better. Everything I tried felt really lackluster. Not sure if it's me or where the romance genre is going, but it's still going on. I hope that changes in 2016.

I haven't tried to come up with a top whatever number of books. Below I list the ones I rated A, plus a selection of the B+ titles that, after a few months, still make an impression.

Hope you all had a fantastic 2015, and here's to an even better 2016!

Shining Through, by Susan Isaacs: A+

I wasn't sure whether I should include this here, since it was a reread, but hey, why not? This is an old favourite, the story of a secretary in 1940s New York whose humdrum life changes in unexpected ways. It's got one of my favourite characters ever, the incomparable Linda Voss, and I adore the writing.

Mirror Dance, by Lois McMaster Bujold: A

I was in the middle of reading this one when I posted my 'Best of 2014' list, and I could already see I'd need to save it a spot on this year's. Having read a lot further in the series now (as you can see below!), I can say that this is where things start to get really, really, REALLY good. This is the book where we get to know Miles' brother Mark and where he comes into his own, which is something I didn't know I want. I thought I didn't, but Bujold clearly knows best!

Memory, by Lois McMaster Bujold: A

Memory is completely different to Mirror Dance. It's a much quieter book, with what's really a mystery plot... a very good one. It's also the book where Miles Vorkosigan and Admiral Naismith come together and become one person. A super satisfying read.

A Civil Campaign, by Lois McMaster Bujold: A+

The culmination of Miles's romance (it starts in Komarr, which I loved but not quite enough to include it in this list... there are enough Vorkosigan books here anyway!). It's a wonderful read, featuring Miles at his most Miles-ish, which is something that leads to both disaster and triumph. Brilliant.

The Girl With All the Gifts, by MR Carey: A-

This is a post-apocalyptic zombie novel narrated from the point of view of a little girl who, we realise quite quickly, is actually one of the very zombies that terrify the rest of the population. Great storytelling, culminating in one of the best endings I've ever read.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell: A-

Mitchell's most traditionally-structured novel, it tells the story of characters, both Dutch and Japanese, living around Nagasaki in 1799-1800. It's super fun as an adventure novel, but it also has wonderful characters and an excellent sense of place. And as usual, Mitchell's writing just sucks me in...

Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell: A-

This is the third book I've read from Rowell, and they've all been quite different. This is about the protagonist learning to make her own way in life during her first year in university. It's funny and sweet and I wanted to hug her so hard!

Why I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, by Mike Brown: A-

I bought this ages ago but only picked it up around the time the New Horizons probe was going past Pluto. It seemed timely :) Anyway, it was wonderful. Brown has a really engaging writing style, and he never lost my interest. I was entertained by the skullduggery and manouvering (who knew?) and fascinated by the details of what exactly it is that an astromer does. Did I choose the wrong career?

A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler: A-

Probably my favourite of the Man Booker books (it's either this one or A Little Life -see below). It's the story of a family, told in ways that are structurally really interesting but don't get in the way of the story and the characters. I loved that such a domestic story was shortlisted!

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers: B+

A quiet, character-focused science fiction story. There's a plot (and quite an interesting one, too), but the story is basically all about the interpersonal relationships of a spaceship's multi-species crew. It's a celebration of good people trying to be good people.

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara: B+

This was the other book I really liked on the Man Booker shortlist. It starts out seeming like it's going to be the story of four friends in New York, but soon focuses on one of them, Jude. Jude is a survivor of horrific abuse as a child, and that abuse has had lasting consequences, both physical and psychological. The book is an in-depth exploration of his life and struggles. It's pretty harrowing (even though some elements are so over-the-top that this diminishes their impact), hard to read emotionally, but with prose that grabs you and keeps you turning the pages compulsively.

Blonde Date, by Sarina Bowen: A-

New Adult novella with a nerd-perfect princess plot, which is not usually a favourite of mine. This one worked for me completely. Bowen managed to make it clear that Katie wasn't an object to Andy, and her attraction for him felt just as well-developed. It felt just right.

The Beast of Blackmoor, by Milla Vane: B+

Milla Vane is a pseudonym for Meljean Brook, who's one of my favourite authors, so I was predisposed to like it. It's a setting I'd never come across before for romance, a sort of mythical barbarian time. It's quite a dark romance, but Vane manages to keep enough hope in there and avoids it going into stereotypically grimdark territory. It's a novella and I was left wanting more, so definitely a success.

A Desperate Fortune, by Susanna Kearsley: B+

This one has Kearsley's usual dual-timeline storylines and, also as usual, both are fascinating. I particularly loved the heroine in the present-day story and the hero in the one in the past, who starts out actually quite scary and is revealed only gradually as a sweetie.

Trade Me, by Courtney Milan: B+

I'm always a bit doubtful about historical romance authors moving to contemporary, but Milan has done it beautifully. Her characters felt truly modern, and I liked the way she played with the "let's switch lives" idea. It's a lot more complex than the use of the trope might indicate, probably because that isn't what the book is about at all.


On holiday

>> Thursday, December 10, 2015

It's December, so I'm off to Uruguay to visit family again. The bags are packed (mostly full of spidermen and minions for my nephew) and the kindle and mp3 player are charged and loaded in preparation for 24 hours of travelling. I'm connecting in Paris with a very quick turnaround, so wish me luck

Looking forward to my morning walks.
I'll be posting my best of 2015 at the end of the year... it's written up with the best books so far, but I've been saving a few for my trip, so I'm hoping I'll have to add a few more. In the meantime, I'd like to wish you all a lovely Christmas and a great end to 2015 and even better start to 2016. Bye bye, and thanks so much for visiting! x


Blonde Date, by Sarina Bowen

>> Wednesday, December 09, 2015

TITLE: Blonde Date
AUTHOR: Sarina Bowen

PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: New Adult romance
SERIES: I think it might be related to some of Bowen's other books

A blind date. A nervous sorority girl. A mean-spirited fraternity prank. What could go wrong?

As a sorority pledge, there are commandments that Katie Vickery must live by. One: thou shalt not show up for the party without a date. Two: the guy shall be an athlete, preferably an upperclassman.

Unfortunately, Katie just broke up with her jerkface football player boyfriend. Even worse, her last encounter with him resulted in utter humiliation. She’d rather hide under the bed than attend a party where he'll be.

Yet staying home would mean letting him win.

Enjoying herself tonight was out of the question. She could only hope to get through the evening without her blind date noticing that he was spending the evening with a crazy person.

Andrew Baschnagel is living proof that nice guys don’t finish first. He’s had his eye on Katie since the moment her long legs waltzed into his art history class. So when her roommate sets Andy up to be Katie’s date, he’d be crazy to say no. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a lot of practice with either girls or parties. Yet.

Last year I tried the first of Sarina Bowen's Ivy Years books, The Year We Fell Down and was very underwhelmed. The romance just didn't work for me. There were some good things there, though, so when I read a couple of reviews of Blonde Date which appealed to me, I gave her another shot.

Well, I absolutely loved it.

Katie Vickery and Andy Baschnagel are going out on a blind date. Well, half blind. Katie doesn't know Andy, but Andy knows her, from afar. In fact, he's had a bit of a crush on her for a while, but he never thought the perfect blonde sorority girl who only dates football players would give a nerdy basketball player the time of day. But Katie's just been through an experience with her ex which has left her shaken, and she needs a date to a sorority party where she's sure to see the jerk. Thus, her friend fixes her up with Andy.

This is basically a nerd / perfect princess story, which is not my favourite. I always feel a bit disappointed when the smart, nicer than anyone else hero is obsessed with the beautiful girl he doesn't know. There's an element of that in Andy's initial crush, but it's soon clear after he and Katie get to know each other that there's real chemistry there. It's clear that, whatever the reason for his initial crush, Katie is much more than the perfect princess for him.

I also liked what Bowen did with Katie herself. She's someone who has been pretty shallow, the sort of girl who's determined to be in a sorority and be popular and date only athletes. However, her confidence has been dinged, and this has brought her to appreciate kindness and decency over cachet.

I also loved that one of the big themes here is the issue of consent, and Bowen addresses it both explicitly and through the way she develops the romance. The love scene, for instance, is a good example of that. It's very uniquely written, not your usual love scene, which might mean that some readers will feel cheated. I liked it, myself, but I'm someone who's been feeling bored with love scenes in romance for quite a while. The emphasis here is on the preliminaries and the whole thing illustrates the characters and their personalities perfectly.

I also particularly liked the ending. It's from an unexpected point of view and it makes it clear that Katie and Andy are building something together. It does so in a completely non-saccharine way. It also gives us emotional justice for what happened to Katie. I wanted blood, really, but this was enough to give me assurance that the culprit had at least received some punishment.



Fun science and mysterious cooking

>> Tuesday, December 08, 2015

TITLE: What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
AUTHOR: Randall Munroe

I loved the premise for this book. Basically, it does what it says on the tin. Munroe takes a reader's absurd (or maybe not so absurd!) hypothetical question (If humanity disappeared, what would be the last light to go off? Can you build a jetpack by strapping machine guns to your back and firing them downwards? What's the furthest a human being has been to any other human being?), and answers it seriously. With the help of stick figure cartoons.

Sometimes it's intuitive, sometimes it takes quite a bit of science. The delight of this, really, is seeing the approach Munroe takes to each question. My favourites are the ones where he takes a sideways approach, one that surprises the reader because it's so non-obvious. My least favourite ones were the chapters that were merely detailed working out of the physics. Those I found a bit boring.

I guess it's kind of pointless to do a review of this one. Go to If you like what you see, you'll like this book. If you don't, you won't like this book either. Simple. Me, I like both very much.


TITLE: The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook: Wickedly Good Meals and Desserts to Die For
AUTHOR: Kate White (ed)

This really is a cookbook. Each author provides a recipe and writes up a little intro, sometimes seriously, giving the history of the recipe, sometimes jokingly, from the point of view of their character. Those were fun to read and I did check out a few of the authors based on their voice in their little segments.

As a recipe book, however, it was mostly useless to me. Way too many recipes had ingredients that weren't really ingredients, but processed food, and even when there were proper ingredients, it was often stuff that's only available in the US. Often the problem was a combination of the two: ingredients that are processed food only available in the US. We're talking things like one of the authors listing "1 package Pillsbury Crescent dinner rolls" (I don't even know what that is!) and several recipes prescribing "Miracle Whip" (again, not sure I've ever seen that here). Other recipes have authors suggesting particular brands of things like "dry ranch dressing mix" (I have no idea what is special about brand X, so I can't really substitute it properly) or types of cheese I can't find here (e.g. Winsconsin red hoop cheese). Plus (and this is picky) all the measurements are in cups, which I can probably work with if necessary, but I find difficult to buy groceries for (if I need a half cup of grated carrot, how many carrots do I need to get?).

There were some recipes that were appetising and used ingredients I recognised, and I made a note of a couple of them, but on the whole, this was a bit of a waste of time.



The Lover's Knot, by Erin Satie

>> Saturday, December 05, 2015

TITLE: The Lover's Knot
AUTHOR: Erin Satie

PAGES: 300
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: 19th century England
TYPE: Romance

Memory is his weapon. Forgetting is her armor.

Sophie Roe was once a wealthy young lady, with an adoring fiancé. But that was ten years ago.

Now Sophie barely scrapes a living in trade. Her benefactor, the Duke of Clive, is dead. And the man she jilted is the new duke: rich, powerful, and determined to think the worst of Sophie.

Julian has never been able to forget Sophie. He intends to find out just why she rejected him—and why she’s lying about the old duke’s death.

Sophie is hopelessly entangled in the past. But as long-buried secrets and betrayals come to light, Julian may be the man to set her free...

I loved Erin Satie's début book, The Secret Heart. I loved the complex characters with fascinating passions outside of each other, as well as the mood and the vivid sense of place. The Lover's Knot shares many of those characteristics, but didn't work quite as well for me.

After 10 years Julian has returned to the part of the world where he grew up, having unexpectedly inherited a dukedom. Before he left he had been betrothed to Sophie Roe, a young local lady. However, that ended badly when Sophie inexplicably cast him off at their engagement party.

Now Sophie makes a living by making ink, the best ink in the country. Julian knows she's good at it, just as he knows she's good at forgery. He's convinced the letter supposedly written by the previous Duke as he lay dying is one, and that Sophie has a lot to explain.

There was a lot here that appealed to me. I love a romance with a painful past, and I loved all the stuff about Sophie's inks, which are more a mission than an occupation. I've never really thought about the subject all that much, but it was surprisingly fascinating.

What didn't work so well for me were the characters. Yes, they were complex, but that was kind of the problem. See, Sophie has a memory-related disability. Basically, as far as I could understand it, her memories start fading away pretty much as soon as they are formed. Sophie's way of dealing with this is chronicling everything that happens to her in her diary, and then coming back to it. What's in her diary becomes the reality of her past. Her diary says that Julian did something unforgivable on the night of their engagement, and even though she doesn't remember it, that must be the truth, because it's written down.

This was something that really, really didn't work for me. Part of it is completely me, not the book. One of my least favourite tropes is having a protagonist who can't trust their senses or mind. Mostly this arises in paranormals where there is a villain who engages in some sort of mind-control, but situations like Sophie's also qualify. Something in me just goes "nope" when this happens. I don't want to think about it, don't want to consider it. I guess I'm so terrified of not being able to trust my own mind that I refuse to engage with the possibility. I wish this wasn't the case (I do realise that this predisposes me against books with non-neurotypical protagonists), but it is. And this worked against my enjoyment of The Lover's Knot.

But this wasn't the whole of the problem I had with Sophie's memory issues. A big part was that I didn't feel it was very well done. I was never sure quite how it worked, and what we saw of it didn't completely make sense. It felt like some memories were fine, some weren't, and the reason a memory would fall in one or the other category was purely whether it needed to be ephimeral for the purposes of the plot or not.

And since the memory issue was the key thing about Sophie's character (even her passion for making the best ink, one that doesn't fade or deteriorate, is about her memory issues), she never completely made sense to me. It's a shame, because I love complex, flawed characters, but they need to feel recognisable to me. I never quite got why Sophie reacted in particular ways. One minute falling for Julian is the worst possible thing that could happen, because it was so awful when she loved him last time, the next she's read some old diaries and it's suddenly all fine, and I had no idea how she'd gone from one point to the next.

Oh, well. This won't put me off from reading more from this author. In fact, The Orphan Pearl is already on my TBR.

MY GRADE: A C+, since I rate purely on my enjoyment of a book.


Shining Through, by Susan Isaacs

>> Thursday, December 03, 2015

TITLE: Shining Through
AUTHOR: Susan Isaacs

PAGES: 464
PUBLISHER: Harper Torch

SETTING: 1940s New York and Germany
TYPE: Fiction

It's 1940 and Linda Voss, legal secretary extraordinaire, has a secret. She's head over heels in love with her boss, John Berringer, the pride of the Ivy League. Not that she even has a chance--he'd never take a second look at a German-Jewish girl from Queens who spends her time taking care of her faded beauty of a mother and following bulletins on the war in Europe. For Linda, though, the war will soon become all too real. Engulfing her nation and her life, it will offer opportunities she's never dreamed of. A chance to win the man she wants...a chance to find the love she deserves.

Made into the movie of the same name starring Melanie Griffith, Michael Douglas, and Liam Neeson, Shining Through is a novel of honor, sacrifice, passion, and humor. This is vintage Susan Isaacs, a tale of a spirited woman who wisecracks her way into heroism and history--and into your heart.

I discovered Shining Through in my late teens/early twenties, and read it again and again and again. I reread it again this year after not going back to it for quite a while (I don't have a review of it on the blog, which suggests I hadn't reread it since 2002. That can't be right, surely? I guess I stopped rereading frequently since I started my switch to ebooks). I'm always a little bit worried when I do that, afraid that the book won't be quite as amazing as I remember, or that it might have aged badly. I shouldn't have worried. Shining Through has held up wonderfully.

If at all possible, I would suggest reading this without knowing much about the plot and where it's going, so I'm going to try not to go into too much detail. The story takes place in the early 40s and it's about Linda Voss, a young Jewish woman from Queens. Linda doesn't quite fit in. Girls like her are supposed to go to secretarial school and then just get a job until they get married. Linda did go to secretarial school and got a job at an uptown law firm, but marriage to the men she met never quite felt right. Now she's an old maid, for the standards of the day (31!).

Linda also feels a sense of dissatisfaction with her life. She has nothing in common with the people she works with and lives with. None of them thinks what's going on in Europe has anything to do with them, while she obsessively follows the news and worries. The other secretaries would much rather gossip about the private lives of the partners in the law firm. Linda doesn't care.

Well, actually, she does care about the private life of one of the partners, the very one she works for. Because for all that she's different from the other secretaries, she has managed to become that old cliché, the secretary who's in love with her boss. John Berringer is handsome and cultured and very Ivy League. Linda pictures them gazing into each other's eyes while discussing the war in Europe, him taking her very seriously. Unfortunately, John is married, and to a woman just as Ivy League as himself.

But Linda's life is soon to be shaken up. She will get everything she thought she wanted and discover it's not quite what she expected. She'll also be pulled into the war effort in a way she would never ever have predicted.

This is a story full of memorable characters, drama and adventure. Best of all, there's just as much drama and adventure in the more domestic portions of the story as there is in the non-domestic ones. I also particularly loved the sense of place and time. Is it accurate? I don't really know. I do know it feels real and it's wonderfully vivid.

There are several elements that made this such a favourite for me. First, Linda Voss is one of my favourite characters ever. She's intelligent and funny and brave. I loved her self-awareness, and I also loved how that wasn't perfect and she sometimes managed to blind herself to what was in front of her (Isaacs is good at making sure the reader can see more clearly than her, while not making Linda come across as stupid). She felt real to me, and I loved her. I felt happy with her and felt crushed when she felt crushed. I was terrified for her and felt triumphant with her. I wanted her to be happy.

And this brings me to the romance. I don't want to say much about it, just that although we don't see a great deal of it, it's absolutely perfect and these two people are exactly right for each other. Sometimes it's good to be left wanting more.

The final thing that I adore about this book is the writing. It's narrated from Linda's point of view and her voice feels just right. Isaacs writing is brilliant. She creates characters that feel real, even the tiny secondary ones, and there were many little details and images in this book that stayed in my mind for years. As I reread it this time, I looked forward to old favourites. Isaacs is one of the very few authors, if not the only one, whose voice is so compelling that I would honestly be happy to read her shopping list.

I'm very glad I went back to this book, and I suspect it's going to be reread again soon. I will definitely be rereading other books of Isaacs' soon.


NOTE: The book was made into a 1992 film starring Michael Douglas, Melanie Griffith and Liam Neeson. If you watched it, don't let this put you off. This film differed substantially from the book and, IMO, wasn't anywhere near as good.


November 2015 reads

>> Tuesday, December 01, 2015

This was a pretty good month. I even read a romance I really liked!

1 - A Taste of Heaven, by Penny Watson: B+
review coming soon

Contemporary, set in a cooking competition. Our amateur heroine, a recent widow, is paired for the competition with a grumpy Scottish chef, for whom the competition is his last hope to save his restaurant. It's fun and really sweet. I liked it very much.

2 - Walk On Earth a Stranger, by Rae Carson: B
review coming soon

First in a new trilogy set during the Gold Rush. The heroine has the power to sense gold, and this book covers her journey west. It's fascinating to see just how difficult that journey would have been, and I liked the characters (except for the villain, who seemed a bit OTT), but this book really feels like the setup of the real story.

3 - Brother Grimm, by Craig Russell: B-
review here

Serial killer mystery set in Germany. I liked the detectives and their relationships very much, and I liked the initial setup of fairy tale-related crimes, but the development of the mystery wasn't as good as it could have been.

4 - My Favorite Countess, by Vanessa Kelly: C+
review coming soon

The heroine was the villain in a previous book. She needs to marry a nobleman with lots of money, but finds herself much too attracted to a doctor. This started out pretty good, but I kind of lost interest, as the conflict felt forced.

5 - All Of You, by Christina Lee: C+
review coming soon

New adult with a heroine who is a commitmentphobe and a virgin hero, who is determined to wait until he meets the right girl. It was ok.

6 - Illuminae, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff: DNF
review here

Futuristic YA. The two main characters are teens who used to date, and broke up the day before their planet was attacked and they had to evacuate. It's narrated through a collection of documents. I had high hopes for it, but the snarky tone really didn't fit with what was going on.

7 - The Yiddish Policemen's Union, by Michael Chabon: still reading
review coming soon

This has a fascinating setup. It's a noir mystery set in an alternate history, one where the state of Israel never got started and Jews settled in a small piece of land in Alaska. That land is about to revert to the US, so what's the point of investigating a murder? I'm almost done with it and I've mostly enjoyed it, although I've found it hard to care about what happens to the characters.

8 - The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, by Dan Jurafsky: still reading
review coming soon

Non-fiction. Food and linguistics. For instance, the first chapter analyses the types of words used in menus in different kinds of restaurants, and it's fascinating. I'm kind of struggling with the writing, even though the material is interesting.

9 - Unnatural Death, by Dorothy L Sayers: still listening
original review here

Lord Peter is intrigued by the tale of a doctor who isn't convinced that an apparently natural death is that natural, all evidence to the contrary. It's a neat case and I enjoyed following the steps of the investigation. Lord Peter is still in his pre-Harriet Vane 'silly ass' persona, but you can see the glimmers of the real person beneath that.

The book also works very well as a portrait of the time it was written (and set in). This is good, but also brings up some issues. There's a cringeworthy portrayal of a black man -he's a sympathetic character and there's no overt racism in our main characters (although a secondary character speaks quite shockingly), but some of the ways in which he's described felt very uncomfortable. Also, the sort of 'theme' of the book is women who don't live the society-sanctioned role of wife and mother, whether by choice or by lack of opportunity. Some of the ways in which this is portrayed verged from patronising to homophobic. This was very of its time, I guess, but it was still hard to take.


December 2015 wish list

>> Monday, November 30, 2015

Not a huge number of books for December, but some really good ones.

Books I'm definitely planning to get

Once Upon a Marquess, by Courtney Milan (Dec 1 8)

First in a new series by one of my favourite authors. It's been about to come out for a while now, but the (I hope) final timing works quite well for me, as I've got a long flight on the 10th. What is it about? I don't care; I'm buying it!

Secret Sisters, by Jayne Ann Krentz (Dec 8)

JAK is the author I just can't quit. Her latest books have been a bit better (no more Arcane Society, yay!), but still have the preposterously over-complicated suspense subplots. I'm hoping that will get better as well, so I'm probably going to read this one.

Her Every Wish by Courtney Milan (Dec 15)

Short story in the new series. It sounds like fun.

Dukes Prefer Blondes, by Loretta Chase (Dec 29)

I haven't read all the books in the Dressmakers' series, as I found them a bit too improbable. This is part of that series, but it seems to move a little bit away from that original premise, so I'll give it a shot.

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

Clockwork Samurai by Jeannie Lin (Dec 1)

Lin's writing hasn't clicked with me in the past, but her books sound so amazing that I will try her again. This one seems to be steampunk set in China and Japan in the 19th century. How could I resist?

Shelter Me by Shelley Ann Clark (Dec 29)

This one features a heroine who's a recovering addict and a hero who knew her before, when she was, as the blurb puts it, "a hot mess". It sounds good.


Two annoying DNFs, space and a mysterious shipwreck

>> Saturday, November 28, 2015

TITLE: Illuminae
AUTHOR: Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

It's some 500 years in the future, and for a couple of centuries, a corporation has been secretly mining for a rare metal in a distant planet. Many thousands of people live in the settlement that has grown around these operations. And then one day ships from a rival corporation arrive, but instead of simply reporting the illegal settlement to the interplanetary authorities, they destroy it. A few thousand survivors manage to evacuate and face a long, cramped trip to safety, all the while being pursued by the evil corporation. They clearly don't want witnesses. And then things start to go wrong.

This sounded great. It's narrated through a collection of documents, from transcripts of interviews to chat logs and official and unofficial communications, which is a device which, if well done, works wonderfully for me. It didn't here. The problem was the YA-ness of it all, I'm afraid. The action focuses on two teens amongs the evacuees, Kady and Ezra, who used to be together but broke up right before the attacks. This focus means that a lot of the book is written in this really annoying snarky tone, one which feels really out of place given what's going on. Actually, it's not just Kady and Ezra. The whole thing is like that, and it just didn't feel believable. The worst were these little notes left by the supposed editors of the thing, the people who collected the material (for purposes that are not 100% clear in the sections I read). The little snarky jokes there were particularly out of place. Between that and (possibly because of it) the fact that the characters really weren't coming alive, I gave up at about 25%.


TITLE: Twelfth Sun
AUTHOR: Mae Clair

Regan Cassidy has agreed to help out her uncle by attending an auction and bidding for a volume he's been after for a while: a journal written by someone who was on a ship that was mysteriously lost at sea. She's to meet up with a professional contact of her uncle's, a marine archaeologist who's going to authenticate the journal. And it was their first meeting that put me off. Basically, Reagan is exactly the kind of heroine that really annoys me. The book opens with her mistakenly going into the wrong hotel room. She manages to come in right at the moment when the occupant (no points if you guess that it's the very marine archeologist she's meant to meet up with) is coming out of the bathroom naked. She flips. Fair enough. But then once they sort out the misunderstanding, she acts like a twit. She's all mortified and becomes really weirdly aggressive and formal with him, even in their further interactions when it becomes clear who Eli is. She treats him as if he's done something horribly wrong and offensive to her, when he did nothing of the kind (other than make some mild jokes when she was invading his room and accusing him of being a sexual predator). Seriously, woman, get over yourself.

The problem with this is that although the storyline was potentially intriguing (I loved the idea of the shipwreck and the mysterious log) and the hero seemed fine, Regan continued to be a complete ninny. I couldn't face spending more time with her, so I bailed.



The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell

>> Tuesday, November 17, 2015

TITLE: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
AUTHOR: David Mitchell

PAGES: 512
PUBLISHER: Random House

SETTING: 1799-1800 Japan
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None, although some characters recur in other books

The year is 1799, the place Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor, the Japanese Empire’s single port and sole window onto the world, designed to keep the West at bay. To this place of devious merchants, deceitful interpreters, and costly courtesans comes Jacob de Zoet, a devout young clerk who has five years in the East to earn a fortune of sufficient size to win the hand of his wealthy fiancée back in Holland. But Jacob’s original intentions are eclipsed after a chance encounter with Orito Aibagawa, the disfigured midwife to the city’s powerful magistrate. The borders between propriety, profit, and pleasure blur until Jacob finds his vision clouded, one rash promise made and then fatefully broken—the consequences of which will extend beyond Jacob’s worst imaginings.

I've only read 3 books by David Mitchell (including this one), but those have been enough to earn him a space amongst my favourite authors. There's something about his voice and his characters that just does it for me. Weird, because one of the things he specialises in is what I guess you could call literary ventriloquism... both Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks were made up of sections that read each like a different genre or type of novel. No matter, all those voices had that mesmerising quality in common.

The structure of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is slightly more straighforward, at least in comparison with those two. The story takes place in a single time period, 1799-1800 and in a single geographical location, the area round Nagasaki. We start out with the arrival of Jacob de Zoet, a Dutch clerk about to take his post in the Dutch trading post in the island of Dejima, in Nagasaki Bay (quick historical note: at the time the Dutch were the only Europeans allowed to trade with Japan, and they were contained and limited to this area to make sure they didn't engage in any missionary activities). Jacob is an honest guy, which doesn't earn him many friends amongst his fellow employees of the Dutch East India Company. Most of the men in the island (including Jacob's superiors) are cheerfully and openly cheating the company, and they resent Jacob's interference.

But if you think this is a novel about a European's adventures in an exotic land, with the natives providing colourful background, that's not at all what Mitchell is doing. Because Mitchell doesn't completely move away from his preferred structure of self-contained sections with different main characters and in later sections the action moves squarely to Japanese characters and their own concerns. These are characters with some links to Jacob in the first section, but those links are relatively inconsequential in their stories, and Jacob is merely a secondary character in their lives.

There's Aibagawa Orito, a young woman whose disfiguring facial scarring has allowed her to move away from the usual life of a woman of her station. Instead of going straight from her father to a husband, she's been allowed to study midwifery with the doctor at the Dutch Trading Post, Dr. Marinus (readers of The Bone Clocks will certainly know him!). On her father's death, however, she comes to the attention of Lord Abbot Enomoto, which places her in great danger. There's also Ogawa Uzaemon, a young Dejima translator who's got a past with Orito, and who must choose whether he'll endanger a comfortable life to do what is right. Even if they aren't named in the title, they're just as much the main characters as Jacob.

I really wasn't quite sure where the story was going when I started, and it never got predictable. I kept being surprised by where Mitchell took things. It's a book that succeeds both as a fun adventure story (in fact, it gets quite schlocky at one point!) and as a historical novel, giving us a really vivid picture of the time and place. I highly recommend it.



Brother Grimm, by Craig Russell

>> Sunday, November 15, 2015

TITLE: Brother Grimm
AUTHOR: Craig Russell

PAGES: 448
PUBLISHER: Arrow Books

SETTING: Contemporary Hamburg, Germany
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: 2nd in the Jan Fabel series

A girl's body lies, posed, on the pale sand of a Hamburg beach, a message concealed in her hand. 'I have been underground, and now it is time for me to return home...'

Jan Fabel, of the Hamburg murder squad, struggles to interpret the twisted imagery of a dark and brutal mind. Four days later, a man and a woman are found deep in woodland, their throats slashed deep and wide, the names 'Hansel' and 'Gretel', in the same, tiny, obsessively neat writing, rolled tight and pressed into their hands.

As it becomes clear that each new crime is a grisly reference to folk stories collected almost two hundred years ago by the Brothers Grimm, the hunt is on for a serial killer who is exploring our darkest, most fundamental fears. A predator who kills and then disappears into the shadows.

A monster we all learned to fear in childhood.

When the murdered body of a young girl is found on a beach near-Hamburg, a paper stating her name is Paula Ehlers clutched in her hand, Kriminalhauptkommissar Jan Fabel and his team initially take this at face value. Paula has been missing for 3 years, and the dead girl looks about what you'd expect Paula to look 3 years later. But then it turns out the body isn't that of Paula. A few days later, two more people are found dead, with similar pieces of paper in their hands. They, the papers state, are "Hansel" and "Gretel". And it becomes clear to Fabel and his team that they're facing a serial killer with some fascination for the stories of the Brothers Grimm.

My reaction to this one was mixed. On the plus side, I really enjoyed the characters and wanted to see more of them and their relationships. The people in Fabel's team are interesting and all very different, and I liked the way Fabel treated them. He's a good boss, interested in getting the work done but also in developing and nurturing the people in his team, seeing them as capable professionals, but not losing sight of them as human beings. I was also very interested in Fabel's relationship with Suzanna, a forensic psychologist (I think that's the right term; she's on that field, anyway!) It's clear that all these relationships started in book 1 in the series, Blood Eagle, but while I did feel that I was missing something, it was still satisfying and Russell gave me enough to catch up.

I also liked the setting. I'm not quite sure what Russell's background is and if he's lived in Hamburg, but the setting feels vivid. There are a few instances of a bit toomuch exposition about the history of a particular district and stuff like that, but these instances were minor and didn't really bother me much. I know some readers on goodreads were uncomfortable with the amount of German Russell used (e.g. all the titles and names of the places, even the simply descriptive ones, are given in German), but I didn't mind. It was fairly easy to deduce what was meant, and I felt it added to the colour.

The actual case, unfortunately, ended up on the negative side. It just wasn't as good as it could have been. It started out really intriguing, with the fairy tale connections, but it soon turned into a bit of a bloodbath, with the connections crossing the line into preposterously overcomplicated and non-sensical. And then the actual ending was pretty bad. Yes, I didn't guess the culprit, but purely because I don't think I really could have. I won't say more because I don't want to spoil it, but I didn't feel Russell played quite fair. Also, it was all pretty anticlimactic. No tension or risk, basically. The cops do a bit of quite good deduction and identify the culprit, but he's done with his killings, anyway, and the arrest is super smooth and he confesses all. In fact, he confesses all to an excruciating level of detail. Almost the last hour in the audiobook could have been dispensed with, as it was all either covering stuff we already knew or could deduce, or boring stuff about the killer's sick mind that really had no point.

On the whole, I'm glad I read it, though, and I mostly enjoyed it, but it was disappointing that it could have been so much better!



A Civil Campaign, by Lois McMaster Bujold

>> Friday, November 13, 2015

TITLE: A Civil Campaign
AUTHOR: Lois McMaster Bujold

PAGES: 544

SETTING: Barrayar
TYPE: Science Fiction
SERIES: 8th full-length title in the Vorkosigan series

The recently widowed Ekaterin Vorsoisson returns to Barrayar, following the events described in KOMARR, and finds herself under siege from several suitors, including Miles Vorkosigan. Miles' initial attempts at courtship result in colossal disasters, affecting as well Miles' brother Mark, who is forbidden from courting his own ladylove by the girl's outraged parents. Some nasty political maneuverings by ambitious Vor aristocrats create new trials for Miles while he wages his campaign for Ekaterin's heart. Intrigue, wit and high hilarity make this Hugo and Nebula finalist a must for readers of science fiction and romance alike.

I took a little break from the Vorkosigan series after reading this one (it's intense!), so I'm a bit late with this review. But now I've just started Diplomatic Immunity, so I'd best catch up!

A Civil Campaign takes place right after the events in Komarr, and it's basically a romance. There are a few other threads here, including Mark and Kareen's romance and their latest business venture, the preparations for Gregor's upcoming wedding, as well as plenty of political intrigue, including a couple of tricky succession questions involving friends of Miles' that are going before the Council of Counts. The focus, though, is on Miles and his wooing of Ekaterin.

Now, I must say Komarr lulled me into a false sense of security. Everything seemed to be going fine. Miles had made an impression, Ekaterin, in spite of telling herself she had been put off marriage for good after her experiences, had admitted to herself she was really attracted to Miles. Surely it would all be plain sailing from there? But oh, how things fell apart!

Basically, Miles is constitutionally unable to take things easy. He approaches wooing Ekaterin as a campaign he must win. He applies all his guiles and his well-earned experience in manipulation. But the problem with that is, a campaign suggests a war, and if you're waging a war, then someone must be the enemy, and that's exactly how it feels from Ekaterin's end.

I'm not going to spoil things, but there's a scene (the dinner party scene, for those of you who've read the book) which was probably the most painful I've ever read, in a truly excellent, wonderful way. It was the perfect collapse of Miles' elaborate strategies. What was so wonderful about it was that I was really impressed by how well Bujold inspired mixed, contradictory reactions in me. On one hand, I wanted Miles to succeed in his quest to get a HEA with Ekaterin. So I felt anger, real, almost incandescent anger at the careless sabotage of Miles' arrangements. He's such a vulnerable character inside his maniacal, powerful outside. But at the same time, I'd got more and more uncomfortable with the calculating way he was going about wooing Ekaterin. That bit I think might have hit on a personal soft spot. I have had a couple of experiences with guys who I thought were friends suddenly revealing that they had never actually been interested in friendship in the first place, that the friendship bit was only an excuse to get close. That feels like a betrayal, and what Miles was doing with Ekaterin felt like just that. So I also wanted him to get his just desserts for how he was treating Ekaterin as a prize to be won, and I felt that scene delivered satisfaction in spades.

And so did the rest of the romance, once we were over that. I loved that Miles does, in the end, get it. He understands what he did wrong and he makes up for it, not because he needs to do that to get Ekaterin, but because he's truly sorry he's hurt her and wants her to be happy. And I just loved the big gesture at the end. I don't usually, but this was a bit of a reversal of the usual scenario, and it worked for this couple. It felt triumphant.

On the whole, this book reminded me very much of Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane's romance in Dorothy L. Sayers' books, which, considering the dedication of A Civil Campaign, seems like a conscious homage. I saw the conflict as being about how an individual couple can build a truly equal relationship, one in which the woman is completely free, in the midst of a sexist, patriarchal society. A society, too, where both have been brought up, so one which they've absorbed in their upbringing and subconscious attitudes, even as they tell themselves (well, in this case, more like "he tells himself") they're modern and galactic. Bujold made me believe they'd succeeded in building something beyond those constraints.

It's a book that is as funny as it is intense (Mark's latest business venture, which includes an absent-minded scientist and disgusting bugs that vomit a yummy edible butter, adds a much-needed element of farce). It was wonderful. I can certainly see why it's so beloved by everyone who's read this series.

There was only one element which I felt was a bit dated, for all that this book is set in the far future, and that is the transphobia in a couple of sympathetic characters' reactions. One of the subplots involves a character who has had a sex-change operation, and there were some reactions which had more than a tinge of revulsion. It's something that I'm pretty sure Bujold, who shows a remarkably progressive attitude in other areas of the narrative, would write differently today, as it feels like in the last 15 years the issue of trans people has become more visible and understood.



The Monogram Murders, by Sophie Hannah

>> Wednesday, November 11, 2015

TITLE: The Monogram Murders
AUTHOR: Sophie Hannah

PAGES: 320
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: 1920s England
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: Supposedly an Hercule Poirot book

"I'm a dead woman, or I shall be soon..."

Hercule Poirot's quiet supper in a London coffeehouse is interrupted when a young woman confides to him that she is about to be murdered. Though terrified, she begs Poirot not to find and punish her killer. Once she is dead, she insists, justice will have been done. Later that night, Poirot learns that three guests at a London Hotel have been murdered, and a monogrammed cufflink has been placed in each one's mouth. Could there be a connection with the frightened woman? While Poirot struggles to put together the bizarre pieces of the puzzle, the murderer prepares another hotel bedroom for a fourth victim.

The Monogram Murders is a new Hercule Poirot book. Almost 40 years after Agatha Christie's death, her estate has followed the example of so many other literary estates and commissioned a new book featuring her famous detective. The author chosen is Sophie Hannah, who's written a number of very successful psychological mysteries. I read one a couple of years ago and enjoyed it ok. I therefore entered this with a pretty open mind.

The book is set in the 1920s. Poirot is giving his little grey cells a bit of a holiday and has moved out of his house into a nearby guesthouse. He's also avoiding his usual haunts, and it's at a very good coffeehouse he has recently discovered that he meets a terrified woman called Jennie. He manages to coax out of her that she's afraid she will be murdered, but she asks him not to find the killer and let justice be done. With that, she runs out.

When Poirot comes home that evening, he hears about a strange case from one of his fellow residents at the guesthouse, Mr. Catchpool, from Scotland Yard. Three people have been found dead, each in a different room in a nearby hotel, each poisoned and posed in an almost ritualistic position, each with a monogrammed cufflink in his or her mouth. Poirot immediately remembers one of the things Jennie said: "Let no one open their mouths", and is convinced her fear and this crime are related. His little grey cells are no longer on holiday!

There are two ways to judge this book: as an Hercule Poirot mystery or as a mystery with a lead character whose name happens to be Hercule Poirot. It fails utterly as either. It was probably the worst book I've read in several years, and this includes Fifty Shades of Grey. It's that bad.

Hannah shows absolutely no understanding of what made Christie's books so enjoyable. The only thing that rang true was the one thing that tends to bother me in Christie's books and I would happily have lost: the offensively stereotypical Italian character. The rest did not feel right at all.

The plot is preposterous and overly complicated and makes absolutely no psychological sense. No one in this book behaves as a real human being. And Poirot is absolutely not Poirot. The real Poirot operates on deduction and a fine understanding of human psychology. This guy makes what I can only describe as supernatural guesses and Hannah's justifications are laughable. This Poirot is also a terrible judge of character. Right at the start of the book he describes Catchpool as a young policeman who will go far. He won't. Unlike the policemen the real Poirot often works alongside, the problem with Catchpool isn't that he's solid, but a bit plodding and unimaginative. He's just plain stupid.

Really, I can't even begin to describe how stupid Catchpool is, and since he's the main POV character, that is a huge problem. He's terrible at his job. He misses everything. There's a thing right at the start where he and Poirot are discussing how the murders might have been done. We're talking 3 people poisoned, each in different hotel rooms, during a window of 45 minutes. As far as Catchpool is concerned, all he needs to take from that is that the murderer went in each of the rooms and killed them. Done. No consideration of how the murderer might have gained access, how he might have got each of them to take the poison, why he laid them out in a specific position. The man is thick. And he's negligent, as well. He gets upset at seeing the dead bodies (a homicide detective!), so he runs away and leaves the bodies, neglecting to even make arrangements for the morgue to collect them. Seriously? And when we find out why he was so upset it's the silliest of things. And this is only the beginning of the book. It gets worse, much worse.

I hated every minute I was reading this, and if I hadn't been reading this for book club, I would have tossed it. The Christie estate should be ashamed of themselves for approving this rubbish.

MY GRADE: You know when I just said that I only finished this because it was for book club? Well, I lied. I also finished it because I don't give grades to DNFs, and it gives me great satisfaction to give this putrid pile of poo an F.


A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

>> Monday, November 09, 2015

TITLE: A Little Life
AUTHOR: Hanya Yanagihara

PAGES: 736
PUBLISHER: Doubleday

SETTING: Contemporary(ish) New York
TYPE: Fiction

When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they're broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he'll not only be unable to overcome-but that will define his life forever.

This was a book I read purely because it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I'd heard quite a lot about it, even before it was longlisted, and it really didn't sound like something I'd want to read. Over-the-top trauma isn't usually my thing, much less 750 pages of it. But then it was shortlisted, so I forced myself to pick it up. I expected to struggle with it and have to push myself to continue reading. But I didn't! I was completely absorbed right from the start and practically raced to the end. Don't get me wrong; it was pretty harrowing and often difficult, but it was much more of a "good read" than I expected.

The blurb and many reviews make this sound as if it's the story of four friends. There are four friends and when the book starts out it does feel like it's going to be about them and their friendship, but you soon see it's not. This is the story of one of them, Jude. The start is only a way to tell us a bit about the people who revolve round Jude, tell us their stories and show us the big space Jude takes up there. But Jude is the centre. Jude endured horrific abuse as a child, and as an adult, the consequences (both physical and psychological) have a huge impact on his entire life. What we have here is basically a character study. We get to know and understand Jude and really get under his skin. It's not really a story of triumph over adversity, even though Jude has overcome a lot to become very succesful in his career and amassed a group of people around him who love him. The consequences of his abuse are too big for that. This is really a tragedy. For me, it was still worth reading and I'm glad I did, but it really won't work for everyone.

And even though it did work for me, I did have some issues with it. Mainly, I thought it would have worked even better if it hadn't been so extreme. I've listened to a couple of interviews with the author and she makes no bones about the fact that she was going for just that. I just didn't feel that was well-judged. Not because it made the book too hard too read or too harrowing, but because I felt that it detracted from the impact it could have had.

See, to be upset about something, I need to believe in it. I didn't quite believe in Jude's past. His early life is is 100% full of 100% evil monsters. It was not so much that I doubted there would be people quite so evil; we all know there are monsters in this world. It was more the logistics of Jude encountering quite so many of them (pre-internet, too, though it's true that time in this book doesn't really pass), with no one even half-decent in between, and the contrast between that and how in the life he builds in New York he is surrounded by so many people who love him unconditionally and are there for him uncompromisingly, willing (actually, eager!) to dedicate their entire lives to him. The contrast between those worlds felt too strong. So because I didn't fully buy the details of the abuse, it felt less traumatic to read. When Yanagihara was describing Jude falling into the clutches of yet another monstrous abuser, I wasn't that affected, because it didn't feel like something that was happening to a real person, it felt like something an author was coolly doing to a character. That drained a lot of the effectiveness.

That said, even though I didn't completely believe the circumstances that affected Jude so much, I was able to suspend disbelief somewhat, and appreciate the character study. I found the portrayal of the way the abuse had changed him and still affected him sadly believable. Now, that was harrowing, and tremendously so. It's heartbreaking. As a reader I celebrated whenever something good happened to him, and part of me hoped it would be the thing that was going to help him start believing that he's worth loving, that he was not at fault for what was done to him. That part of me kept hoping he'd finally make a breakthrough. The other part of me knew he wouldn't, though. It's not really a spoiler; it's quite clear what this book is, and really, it's what makes it so good.

One element I found particularly thought-provoking was the relationship that develops between Jude and one of his friends. After many years (and this book covers many decades, all weirdly taking place at a time that feels like more or less the present), they become a couple, and that has its own big challenges. What's most interesting is that I've seen this described as a gay novel, but I don't think it is. I don't think Jude is gay (the other guy is bisexual, I would say). It feels more like this romantic relationship is the only model they have to deepen their friendship, even though that doesn't really fit with what Jude needs (and because that is the case, it doesn't quite fit with what his partner needs). That was a particularly successful aspect of the book for me.

As I mentioned in my final Man Booker post, after finishing this I really thought the bookies were right and it was going to win it. I'm still surprised it didn't!



Only Enchanting, by Mary Balogh

>> Saturday, November 07, 2015

TITLE: Only Enchanting
AUTHOR: Mary Balogh

PAGES: 400

SETTING: Early 19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: #4 in the Survivors' Club series

The Survivors' Club: Six men and one woman, all wounded in the Napoleonic Wars, their friendship forged during their recovery at Penderris Hall in Cornwall. Now, in the fourth novel of the Survivors' Club series, Flavian, Viscount Ponsonby, has left this refuge to find his own salvation-in the love of a most unsuspecting woman.…

Flavian, Viscount Ponsonby, was devastated by his fiancée's desertion after his return home. Now the woman who broke his heart is back-and everyone is eager to revive their engagement. Except Flavian, who, in a panic, runs straight into the arms of a most sensible yet enchanting young woman.

Agnes Keeping has never been in love-and never wishes to be. But then she meets the charismatic Flavian, and suddenly Agnes falls so foolishly and so deeply that she agrees to his impetuous proposal of marriage.

When Agnes discovers that the proposal is only to avenge his former love, she's determined to flee. But Flavian has no intention of letting his new bride go, especially now that he too has fallen so passionately and so unexpectedly in love.

Only Enchanting is part of the Survivors' Club series. The 'club' in question is a group of people who bonded over the traumatic effects on their lives of the Napoleonic Wars. Recovering together led to a strong friendship and the seven, six men and a woman, meet up once a year to catch up. Well, by the fourth book in the series, and given that each of the first three has featured one of them falling in love and getting married, their gatherings have become larger and larger. This year they're coming together at Vincent's (from The Arrangement), since the dates of their meeting fall shortly after his wife, Sophia, is due to give birth.

For Flavian, Lord Ponsonby, this comes at a very good time. His former fiancé, who deserted him when he came back from war with brains pretty scrambled after being kicked in the head by his horse, is now widowed. Worse: his and her family make it very clear that they hope for a renewal of their relationship. Flavian is in a bit of a panic.

He finds a distraction in Agnes Keeping, a widow who's good friends with Sophia. He's very attracted to her, and she falls in love with him practically at first sight. And of course, since she's a respectable woman and a friend of his friend's wife, the only real way to do something about that attraction is marriage.

Balogh is one fo the few historical romance authors I still read, but I think I might be falling out with her as well. It may well be an "it's not you, book, it's me" thing, but I'm afraid Flavian and Agnes bored me to tears. I didn't find anything about them interesting, or feel they were particularly well-developed characters, and there really didn't seem to be any sort of realistic conflict keeping them apart. This series started out well, but the last couple of installments have been a bit meh and suffered from characters with motivations that didn't quite make sense, and this continued that trend.

I thought things might get a bit better a the halfway point of the book, when the focus changed from the self-contained and boring romance to the drama of dealing with Flavian's family and his ex-fiancé. Things did slightly perk up then, but that improvement didn't last long, and the conflicts that came up felt like much ado about nothing. Flavian's attitude towards Velma never really gelled. Why is he in such a panic? And while Agnes' issues with her mother (who left the family when Agnes was very young) could have been really interesting, they felt like they came out of nowhere at the end of the book, and Balogh didn't really do much with them.

MY GRADE: This was a C. Meh for me, but your mileage may vary. I think I should probably reread the (as I remember) wonderful Slightly Dangerous and see if it really is just me and not Balogh.

PS - It tickled me that Flavian was Viscount Ponsonby. There was a real Viscount Ponsonby who was alive at the time (although he was not created Viscount Ponsonby until a little bit later), and he was the one who was basically responsible for Uruguay being an independent country (to explain it very simplistically, we wanted to join up with what's now Argentina, but a buffer state between Argentina and Brazil was better for Britain's commercial interests, so here we are).


Nice Dragons Finish Last, by Rachel Aaron

>> Thursday, November 05, 2015

TITLE: Nice Dragons Finish Last
AUTHOR: Rachel Aaron

PAGES: 287
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Futuristic, alternate-universe
TYPE: Urban fantasy
SERIES: #1 in the Heartstrikers series

As the smallest dragon in the Heartstriker clan, Julius survives by a simple code: keep quiet, don’t cause trouble, and stay out of the way of bigger dragons. But this meek behavior doesn't fly in a family of ambitious magical predators, and his mother, Bethesda the Heartstriker, has finally reached the end of her patience.

Now, sealed in human form and banished to the DFZ--a vertical metropolis built on the ruins of Old Detroit--Julius has one month to prove he can be a ruthless dragon or kiss his true shape goodbye forever. But in a city of modern mages and vengeful spirits where dragons are considered monsters to be exterminated, he’s going to need some serious help to survive this test.

He only hopes humans are more trustworthy than dragons...

I first came to Rachel Aaron's writing with her Paradox trilogy, written as Rachel Bach. That was sci-fi with a strong dollop of romance. I loved it, so I took the plunge with this book, which is urban fantasy. That's a subgenre I've tried again and again and it's usually not my thing, but there are always exceptions.

The story is set in sort of post-apocalyptic world, where a disaster woke up long-sleeping magical forces and created all sorts of ructions. Our hero, Julius, is a dragon shifter who's part of one of the biggest clans, the Heartstrikers. Dragons are wild, violent creatures, feared by all humans and most other magical beings, and they take pride in this.

The problem is that Julius' natural inclination is to be nice. He'd rather deal with others reasonably and reach a mutually beneficial conclusion than threaten and demand on pain of his counterpart being eaten. His mother and leader of the clan, Bethesda, is not happy about this. She's tried all sorts of tactics to harden up Julius (some of which almost killed him), but nothing's worked. So she makes a final attempt: she bounds Julius to his human form, preventing him from shifting into a dragon, and sends him to the Detroit Free Zone. This is a particularly dangerous area for dragons, as they are forbidden and this rule is enforced by one of the few beings much more powerful than dragons. While there, he must accomplish a mission set by one of his brothers, and if he can't, he's done for.

With the help of Marci Novalli, a mage Julius meets and forms an alliance with on his first night in the DFZ, Julius must find a way to prove himself to his family without betraying his nature.

I'm glad to report this was one of the happy exceptions where I actually liked an UF title. I mean, the UF aspects of it weren't that successful. All the dragon politics and plotting here were my least favourite part of the book, mainly because it was all complicated and twisted to the point that it was preposterous and the motivations didn't make sense.

The thing is, I loved the characters. I loved Julius' kindness and intelligence and his cleverness in coming at problems sideways. I loved they way he started out lacking in confidence (and who could blame him?), but still made a decision to stop trying to be a good dragon in the traditional definition and start operating the way his moral code told him was right. And I loved his increasing realisation (which is no spoiler, the reader can see this coming a mile off) that acting that way is much more effective than the usual draconic action... making his way the real draconic way! It was all heart-warming in the best of ways, particularly the sections with Marci, when he realises how wonderful it is to be appreciated for what he actually is.

Marci is possibly a bit less developed and has less of a journey than Julius, but she's still a character in her own right, rather than simply a potential romantic interest. And I l iked that she brings quite a lot to the table in terms of power.

I also liked the world Aaron has created. There's lots of potential there, and I will happily read more books in this setting. Oh, and the humour. I may not have quite conveyed it in my review above, but for all the potentially disastrous consequences and the constant threats to kill Julius, there's quite a lot of humour there. The juxtaposition is hard to pull off, but I think Aaron does it.



Pray For Silence, by Linda Castillo

>> Tuesday, November 03, 2015

TITLE: Pray For Silence
AUTHOR: Linda Castillo

PAGES: 304

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: Book #2 in the Kate Burkholder series. Follows Sworn to Silence

The sound of a scream in the early morning dawn leads to a case that will change Kate Burkholder's life irrevocably...

When the police arrive at the Amish farmstead in Painters Mill they can't imagine the horror that awaits them. An entire family slaughtered: the men shot, the young women tortured and killed. The Amish are peace-loving, gentle folk and the town is shocked by what appears to be a particularly brutal - and random killing. But is it random?

Every family has its secrets. Kate knows that better than anyone. And as she and Agent John Tomasetti dig deeper into the victims' lives they discover a young woman who was living a lie. A girl who had to live in silence.

With her own past resonating - Kate knows she has to maintain some distance. From the case, and from Tomasetti. She knows what could happen if she gets too close. But when she puts herself in the line of fire - she realizes that, this time, there may be no going back.

This series centres arount Kate Burkholder, who's Chief of Police in the small Ohio town of Painters Mill. Kate grew up in an Amish family but left the community as a teenager. Still, her past helps her deal with cases involving any members of the large Amish community in the area, as they have a tendency to mistrust the "English" police.

In this, the second book in the series, Kate must investigate the shockingly brutal murder of an entire Amish family. Initial enquiries indicate that the Planks were upstanding members of the community and had no enemies. Why would anyone kill them, and with such vicious violence and cruelty that motives like robbery make no sense? But Kate soon discovers that, like everyone else, members of the Plank family had secrets. And with the help of John Tomasetti, her on-and-off lover, currently on leave from the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Kate must get to the bottom of them.

I think I'm done with this series. Kate Burkholder is a bad cop: bad in the sense of her investigations being illogical and downright dumb, and bad in the sense of her being utterly contemptuous of suspects' civil rights. I might read a book with such a main character if they're a sort of anti-hero protagonist, but as far as the narration is concerned, Kate is a great cop and all her actions are justified (and none of what are clearly lapses in judgment have any negative consequences).

So, a family has been massacred, no indication of drugs whatsoever, and yet Kate's first instinct is to go harass the locals who she suspects (knows, as far as she's concerned) make meth. Why? Just because they are bad people and she judges they deserve to be harassed, even when there's nothing to indicate they've done anything wrong. Obvious lines of enquiry (e.g. which men were frequent visitors to the store where young Mary Plank worked?) must wait till much later.Then she decides she'll go harass someone because he once assaulted an Amish man, and there are indications that was a hate crime. The guy goads her (pretty mildly, to be honest), and she responds by assaulting him with her baton. And when the guy complains, both Tomasetti and her deputy, who were in the room, say they didn't see anything. Classic. It takes some doing to make me sympathise with scum like these guys, but Castillo manages it. In both those interactions, I was on the side of the suspects, not Kate's, and it really shouldn't have been that way. There were a couple of instances which were along the same lines in the previous book, too, so it's not a problem that's likely to get better.

Additionally, both the first and second books in the series have young women tortured horribly and graphically, in ways that feel exploitative and titillating. If I'd felt more positively about Kate I might have given this series another shot and hoped this trend didn't continue. As it is, I'm done. Shame, because Castillo's previous books were just as dark but in a much more imaginative, original way, and with much better characters.


AUDIOBOOK NOTES: The narrator is the same as in book 1, Kathleen McInerney. I liked her in that book, but she started to get on my nerves in this one. The voice she does for Tomasetti really isn't great (she does it raspy, but to me, in a way that crosses the line into creepy). Also, there was a particular scene where Kate is interrogating a young man with learning disabilities, and the way McInerney did her questions, exageratedly as if she was talking to a young child, disturbed me (well, Kate does describe him as "mentally retarded", which is a whole 'nother problem, and which McInerney might have taken as a clue as to what her attitude might be!).


October 2015 reads

>> Sunday, November 01, 2015

I didn't do a great deal of reading this month, and it was mostly a bit meh. Only one really good book, and it wasn't romance. I haven't read a good (B+) romance since July, and there weren't many in the first half of the year, either. I suspect it might be me, not the genre. I'm getting really picky.

1 - The Italians, by John Hooper: B+
review coming soon

This is a collection of essays about Italy and Italians, written by an author who lived there as a foreign correspondent for many years. I really enjoyed it, and recognised much of what he described, as we've inherited quite a lot of these attitudes and customs in Uruguay!

2 - Don't Want To Miss A Thing, by Jill Mansell: B-
review coming soon

Ostensibly about a man who gives up his care-free London life to take guardianship of his baby niece after his sister dies and becomes friends with his neighbour. These two are central characters, but this is just as much about the people in the Cotswolds village he moves to. It's nice, but not really great.

3 - Only Enchanting, by Mary Balogh: C-
review coming soon

Part of the Survivors' series. The characters bored me to tears. It got mildly interesting at several points but never for long!

4 - All Seated on the Ground, by Connie Willis: C
review coming soon

A Christmas story with aliens! I liked the idea, but the madcap nature of it got to be a bit much for me, even in under 130 pages.

5 - In Her Defense, by Julianna Keyes: D
review here

The heroine is an ambitious lawyer who was the villain in a previous book, and I love difficult heroines. I didn't love this book, though. I particularly had trouble with the romance, as I didn't like the hero or believe they were in love.

6 - A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James: DNF
review (such as it is!) here

Winner of the Man Booker Prize this year. This is a story about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley. It was the last of the listed books that I got to, and the writing really didn't appeal to me. I'm wondering if I was just getting a bit burnt out and should give it another shot.

7 - Turbulence, by Jordan Castillo Price: still reading
review coming soon

Originally published in serial format. I'm reading the collection all in one go. The plot involves a pilot and a flight attendant and mysterious goings-on in the Bermuda Triangle. Ok so far.

8 - The Monogram Murders, by Sophie Hannah: still reading
review coming soon

Reading this for book club. It's a new Hercule Poirot book, authorised by the Agatha Christie estate. So far it's the worst book I've read this year.


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