Concrete Island, by JG Ballard

>> Monday, May 30, 2016

TITLE: Concrete Island
AUTHOR: JG Ballard

PAGES: 176

SETTING: 1970s London
TYPE: Fiction

On a day in April, just after three o'clock in the afternoon, Robert Maitland's car crashes over the concrete parapet of a high-speed highway onto the island below, where he is injured and, finally, trapped. What begins as an almost ludicrous predicament soon turns into horror as Maitland―a wickedly modern Robinson Crusoe―realizes that, despite evidence of other inhabitants, this doomed terrain has become a mirror of his own mind. Seeking the dark outer rim of the everyday, Ballard weaves private catastrophe into an intensely secular allegory.
Driving too fast in his Jaguar, on the way back from a weekend with his mistress, architect Robert Maitland crashes through the barriers off the motorway and onto a traffic island. He's basically ok, and assumes the ambulances and police will be coming soon. They don't, and getting off the island on his own is much harder than Maitland assumed.

This started out well. The metaphor is a bit heavy-handed (yeah, yeah, alienation, disconnection, in this society no one cares about the life-and-death struggles going on right under their noses as they hurry to their appointments), but the point does stand, and the metaphor is an interesting one. I also liked the way it was written. I had expected that the setup was going to be somehow supernatural (e.g. he'd try to climb an embankment that looked only a couple of metres high, but no matter how much he climbed he'd always be in the same spot... that sort of thing). But Ballard opted to write it as real, and to me, that made it a lot more effective. I believed in Maitland himself. In that absurd, surreal situation he finds himself in he still behaves like a real human being would (the fact that right after the accident he's not particularly rational is both necessary for the plot and completely understandable). Also, he's a bit of a shit, but he's meant to be.

But then Maitland realises that he's not alone on his island, and as soon as other characters are introduced, the book turns to shit. Ballard is fine when his character is a middle-aged straight white man. As soon as he moves away from that, he's lost. There's an older man, a tramp with a brain injury who's basically depicted as animalistic and grotesque. There's a young prostitute who's all the most offensive stereotypes about women combined. The interactions between the characters are stiff and unbelievable. The point when I realised the book was not going to recover was when Maitland decided to assert his dominance (which the narration implies is only natural and something we readers should see as the reestablishment of order) by pissing on the tramp and fucking the woman. The book completely lost me then.



A Seditious Affair, by KJ Charles

>> Sunday, May 22, 2016

TITLE: A Seditious Affair
AUTHOR: KJ Charles

PAGES: 253
PUBLISHER: Loveswept

SETTING: Early 19th century London
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Part of the Society of Gentlemen series

K. J. Charles turns up the heat in her new Society of Gentlemen novel, as two lovers face off in a sensual duel that challenges their deepest beliefs.

Silas Mason has no illusions about himself. He’s not lovable, or even likable. He’s an overbearing idealist, a Radical bookseller and pamphleteer who lives for revolution . . . and for Wednesday nights. Every week he meets anonymously with the same man, in whom Silas has discovered the ideal meld of intellectual companionship and absolute obedience to his sexual commands. But unbeknownst to Silas, his closest friend is also his greatest enemy, with the power to see him hanged—or spare his life.

A loyal, well-born gentleman official, Dominic Frey is torn apart by his affair with Silas. By the light of day, he cannot fathom the intoxicating lust that drives him to meet with the Radical week after week. In the bedroom, everything else falls away. Their needs match, and they are united by sympathy for each other’s deepest vulnerabilities. But when Silas’s politics earn him a death sentence, desire clashes with duty, and Dominic finds himself doing everything he can to save the man who stole his heart.
I bought this one without reading the blurb. I think I confused it with another Charles book I'd seen people talking about, and when I saw it was about 50p on amazon, I just clicked. It became obvious I'd been thinking of a different book pretty much as soon as I started it, when I found myself in the midst of a BDSM sex scene. Really, really not my thing. I'll be honest, if I'd been somewhere with wi-fi I would probably have returned it right there and then, but I wasn't, and I thought it might be a good idea to step out of my comfort zone and give something different a try.

Well, unfortunately, sometimes giving something different a try doesn't pay off.

Dominic Frey is a well-born gentleman who has a kink he's never been able to properly indulge in. He's submissive and needs a sexual partner who orders him around and humiliates him. This has even ruined a relationship with a man he loved, who just couldn't deal with what Dominic needed. As the book starts, Dominic has been able to make an arrangement. Every Wednesday night he goes to an establishment where a great big brute gives him exactly what he wants. Dominic is happy, the other man, Silas Mason, is happy.

Problem is, Dominic works for the Home Office and his job involves stamping out the publication of seditious printed material (basically, anything that questions the Government). Which is exactly what Silas is involved in: he owns a bookshop known as a gathering place for radicals and operates a secret printing press. The first time they meet outside of their trysting place is when Dominic supervises a raid on Silas' bookshop.

If the BDSM had been the only thing I had a problem with, I think I'd have been ok (I probably sound really judgmental here. I don't have a problem with BDSM itself, it's just that when something is written with the intention of being hot and sexy and it doesn't strike the reader that way, that's an issue). But it wasn't the only thing. The whole setup of the series struck me as sordid. This group of men seem to all have slept with each other, and I was uncomfortable by how much detail of each other's sex lives was shared with others, even those who weren't particularly intimate. Everyone seems to know about Dominic's Wednesday deal and his kinks. That almost "sex club" setup really didn't work for me.

I also had issues with this beyond the sex, particularly with Dominic's politics. I have enough of a problem with modern-day Tory politics already, so 19th century Tory politics simply enraged me. Dominic is very much for maintaining the existing social order (which benefits toffs like him, duh) and dismissing the concerns of those who are not as well treated by it. He does have some (very mild) problems with his Government's proposals to trample on people's civil rights in an extreme fashion in order to contain any radicalism. However, his position is that, even though he doesn't support these measures, if they do become the law, then he must enforce them. Look, I'm a civil servant myself, so I do understand that your job will sometimes involve implementing policies you don't agree with. But there's a limit there, and if you have grave enough ethical problems with something, the only honourable path is to resign. This won't happen often, but the sorts of policies we're talking about here are one such situation. To be fair, this might happen later in the book, but I didn't like that Dominic was the sort of person who would need to be in a situation where this impinged on his own welfare (by putting a man he cares about in danger) before he'll even consider whether what he's doing is wrong.

Not for me, I'm afraid, which is a shame, because several people whose taste I usually share love Charles' books.



The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K Dick

>> Friday, May 20, 2016

TITLE: The Man in the High Castle
AUTHOR: Philip K Dick

PAGES: 259

SETTING: Alternate version of the US, 1962
TYPE: Speculative fiction

“The single most resonant and carefully imagined book of Dick’s career.” – New York Times

It's America in 1962. Slavery is legal once again. The few Jews who still survive hide under assumed names. In San Francisco, the I Ching is as common as the Yellow Pages. All because some twenty years earlier the United States lost a war—and is now occupied by Nazi Germany and Japan.

This harrowing, Hugo Award-winning novel is the work that established Philip K. Dick as an innovator in science fiction while breaking the barrier between science fiction and the serious novel of ideas. In it Dick offers a haunting vision of history as a nightmare from which it may just be possible to wake.
Alternate history. This is a world where the Axis powers won the war. Japan and Germany have pretty much divided the whole of the United States, and the rest of the world has changed in even more cataclysmic ways. The Mediterranean has been drained to create more farmland, almost the entire population of Africa has been exterminated, and South America is going in the same direction. Not content with world domination, the Nazis have began colonising the entire galaxy (I must say, the idea of "Nazis in Mars" struck me as funny, for some reason).

It's now just over 15 years from the end of the war and things in the US West coast have settled down a bit. And in this world, Dick unfolds several somewhat interlocking stories. There's a strange new book circulating called "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy", telling an alternate history of the war, where it's the Allies who've won. There's Frank Frink, a Jew who's just started a new venture making modern jewellery. There's Bob Childan, owner of an antique store which specialises in authentic American pop culture artifacts from before the war. There's Baynes, a supposedly Swedish industrialist, newly arrived in the US to meet with a high-ranking Japanese and impart some dangerous knowledge. And there's Julianna Frink, Frank's ex wife, who embarks on an adventure with her new lover to meet the author of the Grasshopper book.

So many storylines for a short book, and none of them go anywhere, or are peopled by characters who interested me in the least. And that meant I found the book pretty disappointing.

It's a book with a great idea. Dick builds up his world in great detail. I loved that he basically changes a few small things that happened during World War II and this means that events then unfold in what felt to me a pretty plausible way, leading to a completely different outcome. The Grasshopper book changes those events back to what actually happened in our real world, but then changes others as well, and we end up with a version of history where the Allies won, but that is not our real history. I really enjoyed the intricacy of that.

The thing is, though, I'm a reader who needs a bit of story and, most of all, characters I care about. I don't have to like them, but I must recognise some germ of realness in them, and I must care about what happens to them. That was not the case here at all. These people didn't feel real (particularly the one female significant character, who was a weird mix of stereotypes), and I never cared at all. There's no suspense, no narrative drive, nothing.

It felt to me like Dick wasted the potential of his concept, as well. He doesn't seem too concerned about the politics, either. There's a bit of intrigue, yes, but the author seems more interested in exploring concepts like authenticity and cultural appropriation. There was some interesting stuff there (the Japanese going native in the US and patronisingly asking Americans for advice in how to do authentic things was something that really hit home), but not enough.

I was left feeling I wasn't really getting it. I didn't particularly enjoy this, but there's something niggling making me wondering if I might not have to read it again to understand it.



Hold Your Breath, by Katie Ruggle

>> Wednesday, May 18, 2016

TITLE: Hold Your Breath
AUTHOR: Katie Ruggle

PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Sourcebook Casablanca

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romantic suspense
SERIES: First full length title in a series

In the remote Rocky Mountains, lives depend on the Search & Rescue brotherhood. But in a place this far off the map, trust is hard to come by and secrets can be murder...

As the captain of Field County's ice rescue dive team, Callum Cook is driven to perfection. But when he meets new diver Louise "Lou" Sparks, all that hard-won order is obliterated in an instant. Lou is a hurricane. A walking disaster. And with her, he's never felt more alive...even if keeping her safe may just kill him.

Lou's new to the Rockies, intent on escaping her controlling ex, and she's determined to make it on her own matter how tempting Callum may be. But when a routine training exercise unearths a body, Lou and Callum find themselves thrust into a deadly game of cat and mouse with a killer who will stop at nothing to silence Lou-and prove that not even her new Search and Rescue family can keep her safe forever.
I don't know what caught my attention when I saw this book in a 'new releases' list. It might have been the very concept of an ice rescue dive team. Whatever it was, I'm glad it got me, because I thoroughly enjoyed the story.

Lou Sparks is a new member of the ice rescue dive team in a small town in the Rocky Mountains (they're basically the people who are called in when someone's gone through the ice). Lou is a relative newcomer to the area and is determined to make herself part of the community, which is where the dive team comes in. Bringing a bit of chaos into the cool and controlled and extremely attractive dive team captain, Callum Cook, is a nice bonus. Lou doesn't realise, although we readers do, right from the first scene, that Callum is just as attracted to Lou and welcomes her brand of chaos.

On a training session, Lou, who's still getting used to the weirdly buoyant dry suit, flails around a bit and kicks something underwater. Seconds later a headless body bobs up from the depths, to everyone's shock.

Now, the back cover blurb will have it that the discovery of the body means that "Lou and Callum find themselves thrust into a deadly game of cat and mouse with a killer who will stop at nothing to silence Lou-and prove that not even her new Search and Rescue family can keep her safe forever." Eh, not so much. What happens is that we've got two separate suspense threads. On one, Lou, out of a combination of boredom and a sense of responsibility since it was her actions that led to the discovery of the body, decides to mount her own investigation (with Callum's help; he insists) into the identity of the headless dead guy (HDG, as she calls him). But at the same time, Lou has acquired a stalker whose actions are rapidly escalating. This has started before the discovery of HDG, so the characters and we readers are never in any doubt that the two threads are unrelated.

Lou's investigation into HDG is the only false step in the book. It seems to be a way to make Lou and Callum spend some time together, but the stalker storyline would really have given them more than enough reasons. And unfortunately, Lou's actions trying to track HDG's identity went beyond the reasonable. She acts as if, if she didn't investigate, the case would go unsolved. No idea why; the police give no indication of being incompetent or uninterested (in fact, my spidey romance senses tell me the chief of police is a future hero in this series). I didn't believe for one moment that Callum would go along with her idiocy, even if he's really attracted to her. Honestly, I was fine with her being bubbly and ebullient and didn't read that at all as being ditzy, but her decisions on this issue really did seem silly and ditzy.

Silly as though this was, I was easily able get over it, because I was too busy enjoying the hell out of the rest of the book. I really loved the romance, mainly because Lou and Callum seemed to fit together really well. I loved it in spite of the fact that there are several things there that shouldn't work.

First, there is nothing here from Callum's point of view. If you asked me, I'd say I find the hero's POV essential. And yet it didn't bother me. I kind of liked seeing him from Lou's POV and had fun reading all the signals she was not quite getting. And you know what? I felt I got to know him quite well from his actions and what he told Lou about his chaotic life growing up. He made sense, and he was lovely.

The other potential problem is that there is no reason Callum and Lou couldn't or shouldn't be together, no conflict at all between them. And yet Ruggle manages to keep the tension going, both from the external danger to them and from from the relationship not being consummated until pretty late on. And this she does while making it all feel natural and perfectly reasonable. And -oh, joy!- The romance is concerned more with the relationship and how they come to care more and more about each other and make each other happy and less with the sex (although there is certainly some of that) which is the sort of balance I'm into these days. It was great: sweet without being at all saccharine.

I also really liked the writing. It's all very smooth and the story flows perfectly. This seems to be a debut, so that's pretty impressive. And there is so much humour! It's not slapstick at all -in fact, I particularly appreciated that Lou, for all that her role is the bringer of chaos, is remarkably capable and sensible (well, when she's not deciding to hijack police investigations). She's not the butt of the jokes, and neither is anyone else. The humour is more gentle and wry - constant smiles at bits of dialogue and interactions, rather than laugh-out-loud (although I did chuckle several times). It felt good to read this.

I also really enjoyed the setting, both the physical setting (including what it's like to live in a cabin that's off the grid) and the ice diving stuff. There's just enough of both, and perfectly well-integrated to the story. No info-dumps at all.

Before I finish a couple of notes on the suspense. The stalker plot was actually pretty good. It was a bit obvious who it was (in fact, I'm really not sure that we weren't meant to know from the start), but that was fine. It still provided the external tension and a good insight into Lou's past and what had brought her to her new home (an incredibly overbearing and controlling family and relationship, in short). And that scene with the final confrontation with the stalker... wow! I'm not normally into fight scenes, but this one was really, really cool and cinematic, and had Lou as the rescuer, yay!

The HDG storyline, I'm afraid that was not so good. There's how unbelievable Lou's involvement is, which I covered, but honestly, it wasn't that interesting, and then it's not even resolved by the end of the book. I think this mystery is meant to be some sort of overarching storyline across the whole of the series, and but it really wasn't interesting enough for me to be fussed, which, at least, meant I wasn't disappointed at the end when we didn't get a resolution. But yeah, if you really detest having anything unresolved, it might be worth waiting a few months until all the books are out (looks like the last one comes out in October).

So, even with a few niggles, this was a really strong read for me.



The Obsession, by Nora Roberts

>> Sunday, May 01, 2016

TITLE: The Obsession
AUTHOR: Nora Roberts

PAGES: 464

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romantic suspense

“She stood in the deep, dark woods, breath shallow and cold prickling over her skin despite the hot, heavy air. She took a step back, then two, as the urge to run fell over her.”

Naomi Bowes lost her innocence the night she followed her father into the woods. In freeing the girl trapped in the root cellar, Naomi revealed the horrible extent of her father’s crimes and made him infamous. No matter how close she gets to happiness, she can’t outrun the sins of Thomas David Bowes.

Now a successful photographer living under the name Naomi Carson, she has found a place that calls to her, a rambling old house in need of repair, thousands of miles away from everything she’s ever known. Naomi wants to embrace the solitude, but the kindly residents of Sunrise Cove keep forcing her to open up—especially the determined Xander Keaton.

Naomi can feel her defenses failing, and knows that the connection her new life offers is something she’s always secretly craved. But the sins of her father can become an obsession, and, as she’s learned time and again, her past is never more than a nightmare away.
The Obsession starts with a real bang, when 12-year-old Naomi innocently follows her dad into the forest one night. She first thinks he's going to take a dip in the lake and she wants to cool off, too. When he goes into a hidden cellar instead, she thinks he's putting together a bike for her birthday gift. She can't resist a peek when he's done, but instead finds a naked, terrified woman. She's still alive, but from photos stuck to the walls, it's clear she's not the first, and others haven't been so lucky. I kept expecting frustrating developments, with Naomi wavering about what to do, but it was one of those incredibly satisfying things where little Naomi shows incredible strength of mind and does exactly what she should do.

For the first quarter or so of the book, we follow Naomi's life as a child and teenager, getting snapshots of her life, including the struggles of living with a mother who is still affected by the mental abused her husband put her through and can't seem to break free of it now that he's in prison. In that sense, the book reminded me a bit of The Witness, which is actually my favourite recent Nora romantic suspense single title.

And then we get onto the present day, which is when the bulk of the story takes place. Naomi is a photographer who lives her life travelling, living all around the US. He spends a little bit of time in one place and then moves on. But as we meet her again in her mid-20s, she's shocked herself by falling in love with a massive, ran-down house in the little town of Sunrise Cove, in Washington State. She hasn't just fallen in love, she's gone and bought it.

And a big long section in the middle of the book is basically about Naomi presiding over the restoration of house (think the Inn BoonsBoro trilogy) and settling into the life of Sunrise Cove. She becomes friends with the contractor doing the restoration and with his wife, and she gets involved with Xander Keaton.

Xander is the local mechanic. He plays in a band, is hugely into reading, and is determined to push past Naomi's barriers. These are considerable, as she's become used to people changing the way they behave with her when they find out who she is (her father, it turned out, was one of the worst serial killers in history, and there were books and a major film based on Naomi's actions). But Xander is relentless (enough to actually put my back up a couple of times, but he stays just on the right side of the line between persistent and pushy), and soon they are involved in a serious relationship.

This section of the book shouldn't really work. There isn't a huge deal of tension (as I said, any obstacles to a romance are soon got over) and what's objectively way too much DIY. Did I care, though? No, I didn't. I was enjoying myself too much.

It's not till the second half that the book becomes romantic suspense. Now, that element was probably the weakest part of the book. It was really, really predictable. I knew the book was romantic suspense from the back cover. The "her past is never more than a nightmare away" bit makes it clear there's going to be some sort of crime like Naomi's father's in her vicinity. This hadn't happened by the halfway point, so I stopped for a minute and thought, and was able to guess exactly which character would be the villain. Even before a crime had taken place. I'm no Sherlock Holmes, it was all really pretty obvious.

I still enjoyed it. I could see the flaws here and the things that shouldn't work, but for me, they did. I loved the shocking start and I really liked seeing the aftermath and the glimpses into Naomi's life as a teenager. I loved the day-to-day life in Sunrise Cove, I loved seeing Naomi start to fit in and make friends, I enjoyed her relationship with Xander. I even enjoyed the investigation once things go into romantic suspense territory, particularly because Naomi's brother Mason has become an FBI agent, and he worms himself into the investigation (I really doubt that would have happened, but I was able to go with it). It's the relationships beyond the romance that make this book so good.

MY GRADE: Surprisingly to me, a B+.


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