Once Upon a Marquess, by Courtney Milan

>> Monday, February 08, 2016

TITLE: Once Upon a Marquess
AUTHOR: Courtney Milan

PAGES: 277
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: 19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: First book in the Worth Saga

The last man Judith Worth wants to see again is Christian Trent, the Marquess of Ashford—the man who spent summers at her family home, who kissed her one magical night…and then heartlessly ruined her father. But when a tricky business matter arises, he’s the only one she can ask for help. With any luck, he’ll engage a servant to take care of the matter, and she won’t even have to talk with him.

But Ashford has never forgotten Judith. He knows she will never forgive him for what he’s done, but when offered the chance to assist her, he arrives in person. His memory of Judith may have haunted him, but it pales in comparison to the reality of the vivacious, beautiful woman he rediscovers. Throughout his life, he has always done what is correct. But now, he finds himself doing something utterly wrong…falling in love with the one woman he can never have.
Once Upon a Marquess was in my list of my most highly anticipated books last year. I resisted the temptation to inhale it as soon as I'd bought it, and saved it for my holiday. Once in Uruguay, when I was sitting in the shade by the pool and wonderfully relaxed I finally opened it... and was underwhelmed.

Almost ten years before the star of this story, Lady Judith Worth and Christian Trent, the Marquess of Ashford, were friends, and that friendship was clearly turning into something else. But then Christian was asked to investigate accusations against Judith’s father for a trial in the House of Lords. His reluctance to do this was only overcome when he was told this would guarantee the man had a fair trial. Fully expecting to find evidence of his innocence, Christian was shocked when he didn't. And it turned out he not only found damning evidence to condemn Judith's father, he found evidence to condemn her eldest brother, his own best friend, as well.

As the story starts, Judith is living an impoverished life. Her father committed suicide and her brother disappeared at sea while being transported to Australia. She now needs help getting a solicitor to give her information, and since Christian has just contacted her asking for a favour himself, she feels she can ask him to borrow a man of business in return. But Christian comes himself and insists he's the one to help her. And as they spend time together, it becomes clear the feelings they had for each other all those years earlier have not disappeared.

Weirdly, although the fact that this book didn't work for me was a surprise, the problem I had wasn't one, really. Milan is one of my favourite authors and I’ve adored quite a few of her historicals, but there's something that has been growing in her books lately, and here it went over the tipping point. Basically, I found the game-playing and artificial cleverness between Judith and Christian quite tiresome. They play this sort of pretend game where Judith has asked Christian to make sure she continues to hate him. Therefore they must turn every interaction into a way that they can keep this going, even when he does something nice for her like making her her favourite sandwiches. Every one of their interactions is coloured by this dynamic, and a little went a long way. I just wanted them to interact normally, after a while. They basically spend most of their time speaking in code, and this made it really hard for any real feeling to shine through. Like I said, in previous books there’s been a bit of this, but Milan judged better how far to take it. Here it’s just much too much. What was charming and felt like amazing characterisation in other books became tedious.

I also wasn’t particularly enamoured of the plot. There's A LOT of setup for the series, and parts just didn’t make sense. One of the things Judith is trying to do is to find one of her sisters, who was taken in by relatives and then passed along until seemingly everyone has lost track of her. First, I didn't get why Judith didn't make more of an effort to keep in touch at the start. And then there’s a point where Judith and Christian basically stop making an effort to find her, not because it made any sort of sense, but... I don't know, because Milan forgot about it? Even when they were hunting for her it felt like they would forget about it for quite a long time.

The whole thing just didn't gel together. I will be reading the next books because Milan has written such amazing books that it will take several duds in a row before I give up, but I suspect I won't be quite as excited about the next one.



Archivist Wasp, by Nicole Kornher-Stace

>> Saturday, February 06, 2016

TITLE: Archivist Wasp
AUTHOR: Nicole Kornher-Stace

PAGES: 256
PUBLISHER: Big Mouth House

SETTING: Alternate reality
TYPE: Fantasy

Wasp's job is simple. Hunt ghosts. And every year she has to fight to remain Archivist. Desperate and alone, she strikes a bargain with the ghost of a supersoldier. She will go with him on his underworld hunt for the long-long ghost of his partner and in exchange she will find out more about his pre-apocalyptic world than any Archivist before her. And there is much to know. After all, Archivists are marked from birth to do the holy work of a goddess. They're chosen. They're special. Or so they've been told for four hundred years.

Archivist Wasp fears she is not the chosen one, that she won't survive the trip to the underworld, that the brutal life she has escaped might be better than where she is going. There is only one way to find out.
Archivist Wasp is set in a sort of post-apocalyptic world, in a village where a tradition has developed of 'archivists'. The archivist's mission is to find out and record whatever she can about the world of the past, the world whose ruins her people see all around them. The main resource for this are the ghosts that roam the place. The archivists both protects the townspeople from any aggressive ghosts and gleans all possible information from them (what are they wearing? what words are they repeating? what can they deduce about how they died, and what does this tell them about the past?), before destroying them. The holy grail is to find a ghost that can actually communicate with archivists and answer questions, but that hasn’t happened yet in all the centuries archivists have been at it.

You would think the archivist's job is a low-key, repetitive one, but in this place, it’s not. It’s part of the cult of a deity called Catchkeep, and Catchkeep’s rituals are brutal. The Catchkeep-priest presides over and trains a group of young women called upstarts, who every three years challenge the incumbent archivist in a fight to the death, aiming to take her post.

And we start right in the middle of one of those challenges. Archivist Wasp is tired. She’s done this a few times already, and she’s sick of it, sick of killing upstarts, sick of the tyranny of the Catchkeep-priest, sick of the constant destroying of ghosts. She’s tried to run away a few times, but the priest always catches her, and the punishment is brutal.

But after the last fight she comes across a ghost like no other she’s ever seen. This ghost is powerful. He can talk to her just fine, and not just talk, but negotiate. And before long, Wasp and the ghost have made a deal. She’ll come with him and help him find a lost companion, and in exchange, he’ll give her an object that should allow her to escape. Together, they will travel through the world of ghosts, which presents not just dangers, but dangerous knowledge.

The first word that comes to mind when I think about this book is 'inventive'. I’m not sure how much I believe of this world, how much sense it makes (well, it makes more sense at the end, after we’ve learnt more about how the archivist rituals came to be, than it makes at the start), but it’s super fresh and original and things kept surprising me, and that's not something that happens that often these days. I liked it.

There’s a lot of action and some of it feels episodic, but really, the focus is on characters. We get to know Wasp very well and understand her, and through her travels through the ghost’s memories, we find out more about the world before the collapse (which includes genetically modified supersoldiers and civil war and was pretty cool to find out about).

The key relationship, and this was a surprise to me, wasn’t between the ghost and Wasp, but between the ghost and the friend he’s looking for. I liked that there are no romantic relationships here. Rather, it’s about friendship and honour. And this follows onto the subversive, defiant ending, which I loved very much.

This is definitely one worth reading.

MY GRADE: A strong B.


Stars of Fortune, by Nora Roberts

>> Thursday, February 04, 2016

TITLE: Stars of Fortune
AUTHOR: Nora Roberts

PAGES: 336

SETTING: Contemporary Corfu (Greece)
TYPE: Paranormal Romance
SERIES: Starts the Guardians series

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author Nora Roberts comes a trilogy about three couples who join together to create their own family and solve an ancient mystery through the powers of timeless love...

Sasha Riggs is a reclusive artist, haunted by dreams and nightmares that she turns into extraordinary paintings. Her visions lead her to the Greek island of Corfu, where five others have been lured to seek the legendary fire star, part of an ancient prophecy. Sasha recognizes them, because she has drawn them: a magician, an archaeologist, a wanderer, a fighter, a loner. All on a quest. All with secrets.

Sasha is the one who holds them together—the seer. And in the magician, Bran Killian, she sees a man of immense power and compassion. As Sasha struggles with her rare ability, Bran is there to support her, challenge her, and believe in her.

When a dark threat looms, the six must use their combined powers—including trust, unity, and love—to find the fire star and keep the world on course.
I must admit, the first book in the last Nora Roberts trilogy was so bad that I didn't have high hopes for this one, particularly because this trilogy seems to be all woo-woo, big fight between good and evil, just as the previous one. However, I decided to give it a shot anyway for three reasons: 1) I'm still loving the author's JD Robb releases; 2) Roberts' single titles have been hit or miss lately, but I've enjoyed some of them, and even elements of the ones that have been mostly misses; and 3) I know Roberts can do good "woo-woo, big fight between good and evil" books. I loved the Circle Trilogy, after all!

Stars of Fortune begins with the myth, as per usual with Roberts lately. The three goddesses (sorry, ‘goddesses three’) meet to decide on a present for a new queen. A dark goddess intervenes and curses the gift, creating a danger that could destroy the world, and the goddesses three amend it in what they can to diminish the danger. And in the future, six must come together to yadda yadda yadda and save the world, and so on.

Now, this little chapter is probably one of the worst things I’ve ever read. The mythology is non-sensical and laughable, with no motivations beyond ‘bad goddess is bad’, and the way it’s supposed to be written to sound mythical falls spectacularly flat. So not a good start at all.

And then we must line up the six people in the present-day story who will have to work together to find the MacGuffin. Sasha Riggs is an artist who has dreams which are more like visions. She's long known she's got a measure of power, but has always suppressed it. The visions get stronger and stronger, though, and she decides she'll follow them and travel to Corfu. While there she immediately meets two of the people who've been in her dreams for months, including the man who's starred in some pretty erotic ones, Bran Killian. And it turns out both are after the same thing, the fire star, one of the three which were supposed to be the gifts created by the goddesses. And what do you know, so are three more people they meet (all of whom have been in Sasha's dreams, of course), and they all end up teaming up.

This whole process is done in the most perfunctory way possible. I think it would have worked much better for me if they’d come across each other coincidentally, without knowing they would be part of a team, and come to work together more naturally. Here it was very “You’re one of the team, Sasha’s seen it in her visions” - “Ok”. It felt extremely unsatisfying.

The plot is just silly. As I mentioned earlier, the villian is a villian because she's evil, and I have no idea what the rules are regarding her powers. Even though the fate of the whole world is supposed to be at stake, I didn't feel it. It's all about cool, acrobatic fights and cool paranormal beings, who cares if it feels real?

There were some things I liked. Corfu sounds lovely and I did like some of the interactions between the characters, particularly as they interact separately and become friends (Sasha and Bran I don't count here; there is 0 chemistry there).

Unfortunately, the characters themselves were mostly bad. I did like the fighty warrior woman with the unapologetic sex life, and the archaeologist guy seemed sweet (although he's going to end up with Annika -yuck! See more later), but the others... oh, dear. Sasha is incredibly wet. Bran is pushy and annoying (and it might be just me, but billionaire magician and club owner is not something that screams sexy to me). The incredible warrior with the big sword is a cypher, and then there is Annika.

Oh, Annika. Annika is a mermaid (seriously, this is not a spoiler. If you don't guess the minute she shows up then you're not paying attention). She made me cringe so hard that I almost seized up. She’s simple and childlike, completely literal in how she understands what the others say. She comes across as someone with learning difficulties. Which would be fine if that’s what she was meant to be (that would actually be quite nice to have in a romance, Simple Jess is the only one I can think of), but she isn’t. She’s just meant to be, they say quite clearly, “pure”. That's quite a worrying vision of purity. Even more worrying, they think "oh, it's probably just that English is not her first language". Yeah, fuck you guys. She's basically treated like a child by everyone around her, and that pissed me off. Let me give you a random sprinkle of her dialogue so that you see just how annoying she is. And I promise, this are just a few examples, there's plenty (plenty!) more where they came from.

When they got to the kitchen, she released his hand, ran hers over the refrigerator. “It shines.”

After tugging on the handle, she let out a long ahh.

“Are you hungry?”

“Yes! It’s very cold inside.”

“And Sawyer.” Annika beamed at him.


Her eyes went huge, her voice dropped to a reverent whisper. “You’re a king?”

As Riley snorted, Sawyer looked into those wide eyes, sea green, flecked with gold. “My last name’s King.”

“I’m Annika, first name… Waters, last name. Annika Waters,” she said more definitely. “Hello.”

“I think she’s a little high,” Riley said to Bran in an undertone.

“We climbed the steps to the house. It’s very high.”

“Good ears. You been doing some drugs, Annika?”

“No. Am I supposed to?”

“That’s a myth.”

“I’m apology. A mist?”

“Myth. A fable,” Riley added.
(This one probably doesn't seem quite as bad as the others, but her English lapses are so inconsistent that they annoyed the bloody hell out of me)

“Shopping.” Annika bounced in her chair. “You buy things. I have coins.”

“No trouble understanding how was shopping works,” Bran added. “Coins?”

“I have many coins. I'll get them.”
I hated her. I resented Roberts for creating such a character and presenting her to us as the epitome of purity and goodness.

Also, even more disturbing than the fact that all these chosen ones have to be Americans (with a token Irish guy who also lives in the US) is the fact that the whole thing takes place in a Greek islands and yet there is not one Greek named character. In fact the only named foreign character that we see is a villain. Bah!

This was utter crap, and lazy crap, at that. I'll be skipping the next two.



A Taste of Heaven, by Penny Watson

>> Monday, February 01, 2016

TITLE: A Taste of Heaven
AUTHOR: Penny Watson

PAGES: 208
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Romance

“Create one perfect bite.”

Good little widow Sophia Brown always follows the rules. When the producer of a cooking competition requests an amuse-bouche, the chefs stick with proteins. Sauces. A savory concoction. She has only one shot to impress the judges on A Taste of Heaven. But in a moment of defiance, she creates an extraordinary dessert, one that combines both the bitter and the sweet, just like her own life.

That one bite changes everything.

After a year grieving for her dead husband, forty-seven-year-old Sophia is finally ready to break out of her shell. Unfortunately, there is a large, angry obstacle standing in her way. Scottish chef Elliott Adamson has a chip on his shoulder the size of Loch Ness, and he’s blocking her path to victory.

Spurred by her daughters, she embarks on a poignant adventure that takes her from the wildflower fields of Vermont to the wind-swept vista of North Berwick, Scotland. Fear, courage, and inspiration from unlikely places will mark this journey, and Sophia is determined to persevere until the very end.
This is a book I never realised I wanted to read. I've always been sniffy about the idea of romances set in reality shows, but clearly when the reality programme is a TV cooking competition, it's a whole other matter. You'd have thought my love for the Great British Bake-Off would have been a clue!

Sophia Brown has been widowed for about a year, and it's still hitting her hard. She was used to being part of Sophia-and-David, and now that's gone, she's not sure who she is or what she's meant to do with her life. Her daughters, worried about her, decide enough is enough. Sophia's always been an excellent cook, so when they find out a TV cooking competition is going to be filmed nearby and that they're calling for amateur cooks, they sign her up.

Sophia is not sure at all about this, but decides to give it a go and does wonderfully well in the first test. But it turns out the producers have been a little bit sneaky, and the contest is not what the participants expected. It's not just amateurs, there are also just as many professional cooks there. The idea is to pair up one of each and have it be a team competition. The amateurs are nonplussed, but the professionals are furious, and none more so than irascible Scottish chef Elliott Adamson. And guess who ends up paired with Sophie?

I thoroughly enjoyed this, even the scene where the teams have got to do a spot of butchery (and I'm a vegetarian!). For a change, the romance really worked for me, just as much as the other elements of the plot. I loved the way Watson developed the relationship between Elliott and Sophia. It doesn't start out well, because Elliott has come into the competition with one objective, to prove that traditional Scottish cuisine is wonderful and worthy of being considered haute cuisine. He will achieve this objective, come what may. Having to collaborate with a partner would mean melding his cooking with hers, so he stubbornly refuses to collaborate at all. He's the professional chef, so he'll make every decision, and that's that.

A hero like that will only work if the heroine will not let him get away with his crap, and fortunately, Sophia does exactly that. The romance is all about them learning how to be a team... well, actually, about Elliott learning how to work as part of a team, and the process of his changing his tune and starting to respect Sophia's judgement and cooking was gradual and believable.

It turns out that becoming part of a team is exactly what he needs on a personal level, too, which made it possible for me to warm to him. See, Elliot comes across as rather stupid sometimes, with his obsession with cooking traditional Scottish food whatever the requirements of the contest and even when it's obvious to anyone with one gramme of common sense that it's going to do down like a lead balloon with the judges. He does listen, in the end, but it takes a while and in the process he says some jaw-droppingly idiotic things. The saving grace, though, is that his blind insistence on Scottish food reveals some really heart-rending vulnerability which makes him into a much more appealing character. He doesn't just want to win this contest and make his point about Scottish food being as good as any other cuisine, he needs it. He needs it, not because he's ambitious and wants to prove a point, but because he's started from scratch so many times already, and he's tired. Tired and alone. He's too old to start yet again. He wants to make his restaurant work and be able to relax just a little bit, and I completely sympathised with that. The resolution made me feel all warm and fuzzy.

Lovely book, it made me buy Watson's entire backlist.

MY GRADE: A very strong B+.


The Perfect Touch, by Elizabeth Lowell

>> Saturday, January 30, 2016

TITLE: The Perfect Touch
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Lowell

PAGES: 368
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romantic Suspense

The New York Times bestselling queen of romantic suspense returns with a heart-racing tale in which a former soldier turned rancher and a beautiful designer race to stop a vicious killer—a battle for survival that threatens to explode in an intense and irresistible passion.

An art dealer and owner of her own design studio, Perfect Touch, Sara Medina travels the world to find the ideal artwork for her clients. Her sophisticated, comfortable life in San Francisco is light years away from the poverty of her family’s dairy farm, and Sara will do whatever it takes to keep her business strong. A dedicated urban career woman focused on her work, she doesn’t have time or energy for a family or distracting romantic entanglements.

Jay Vermillion recently inherited Vermillion Sky, a working ranch near Wyoming’s breathtaking Grand Teton Mountains—and the estates of the rich and restless. While he was fighting in two wars, his father tried to keep the homestead running, until illness stole his fight and then his life. Jay’s determined to restore Vermillion Sky, but first he’s got to settle a vicious battle with his former stepmother over some of his late father’s paintings. The last thing on his mind is a finding a wife and creating a seventh generation of Vermillions.

When Jay hires Sara to handle his father’s artwork, it’s love at first sight—a mutually inconvenient attraction that is soon complicated by a double murder at the edge of the ranch and a potential betrayal even closer to home. Working together to unmask a murderer, Sara and Jay try to fight the intense heat between them. Then the killer targets Sara. And suddenly, Jay, the war-weary soldier, finds something he’s once again willing to die for...

Once, many years ago, I used to love Lowell's books. In later years that love turned into mild like, but I still found her books worth reading. I fear that mild appreciation might have further degraded.

Sara Medina is an art historian with a particular interest in Western Art. She has her own art dealership, which she has developed through trustworthy advice and eschewing any flashy “pump and dump” practices (unlike some of her colleagues).

She is the perfect person for Jay Vemillion to call when his ownership of a bunch of paintings by a soon-to-be-quite-valuable painter is challenged by his late father’s second wife. Sara’s testimony turns out to be quite crucial in the judge’s decision in the matter, but as a bonus, she and Jay become quite friendly through their phone conversations. What started out as business discussions develops into quite intimate conversations. So when Sara comes to Jackson Hole, where Jay’s ranch is located, to hear the judge’s decision and see if Jay wants her to handle the paintings for him, they’re well on the road to friendship.

One of the first things to happen in Jackson is that her hotel room is burgled. With the town full up with tourists, she takes Jay up on his invitation to stay at the ranch. But trouble hasn’t been left behind. When they visit a distant part of the ranch where some of the paintings are stored, it becomes clear that something very dangerous is going on.

I read the first half of the book, and then realised I did not want to continue. Part of it was that I was not interested in the characters or plot, and that I didn’t really believe in the characters. A secondary character, in particular, was bothersome. Jay’s little brother was annoying in a way that a) was unbelievable, and b) made Lowell’s prejudices about what’s ‘manly’ very clear (if you’ve read Lowell before you won’t be surprised to hear that she thinks urban, urbane men are weak and effeminate). And then there was the evil step-mother, a terrible character and exactly the sort of evil gold-digger that I’ve really had enough of in romance novels. Pretty over the top.

The biggest reason I stopped, though, was that I found the writing excruciating. I used to think Lowell had a way with colourful language and similes, but I don’t know if I have changed or she has, but her writing now feels a bit much. The dialogue, especially, feels over-the-top in its baroqueness, a bit like bad Aaron Sorkin dialogue. She also has lots of instances of a character finding another character’s utterances hilarious and incredibly witty, and I as a reader going “Huh?” Oh, and there’s also a lot of mental conversation going on, much along the same lines.

At least she had an interesting conflict between Sara and Jay: Jay is country, can’t see himself ever leaving the ranch, which feels to him like a refuge after a traumatic deployment in Afghanistan. Sara, meanwhile, grew up poor in a rural area, and shudders at the thought of going back to the countryside. She loves San Francisco, where she lives now, loves things which actually resonated with me quite a bit, like being able to see faces of all colours around her (I tend to find it quite shocking when I go back to Uruguay for a visit after living in England, and Liverpool is not even particularly ethnically diverse, as England goes). I was a bit nervous about how she was going to resolve it, though. Again, knowing Lowell, I couldn’t see it going any other way than with the countryside winning over the city. I might be wrong, but I suspect I’m probably not.

MY GRADE: A DNF after reading over half of it.


Hoy Caviar, Mañana Sardinas, by Carmen Posadas

>> Thursday, January 28, 2016

TITLE: Hoy Caviar, Mañana Sardinas (translates as Today Caviar, Tomorrow Sardines)
AUTHOR: Carmen Posadas

PAGES: 271

SETTING: 1960s-80s Spain, USSR and England
TYPE: Non-Fiction / Memoir

Cócteles, almuerzos, cenas… Para una embajada, la comida es imagen, y la imagen es particularmente importante cuando se trata de la misión diplomática en el extranjero de un país pequeño como Uruguay, donde hay que suplir la falta de medios con imaginación, encanto personal, trabajo y enormes dosis de suerte. Y en el caso de estos países, la presión del éxito o el fracaso recae en una sola persona: la mujer del embajador. Inspirándose en sus anotaciones, y rebosante de humor, este libro retrata las aventuras y desventuras de la familia Posadas en su constante trasiego por las diferentes capitales donde el padre, por su cargo diplomático, es destinado.

De la mano de dos de sus hijos, testigos de excepción de momentos interesantes, estratégicos o simplemente curiosos, y envuelto en un halo gastronómico, el libro recorre el Madrid de los sesenta, con su tardofranquismo y primeros aires de renovación, el Moscú de los setenta, con Breznev y sus desfiles militares, y el Londres de los ochenta, con la flema e idiosincrasia de los británicos y en plena euforia con Lady Di. En una original combinación de relato de viajes, jugoso anecdotario y libro de recetas, por sus páginas desfilan toreros, ministros, reyes y reinas, príncipes y princesas, adivinos, divas de la ópera, famosos y famosas en general, hablando en primera persona y como protagonistas, en ocasiones, de las más delirantes escenas. En resumen, un relato amable de la vida diplomática y su lado gastronómico, un viaje divertido y suculento.

NOTE: As far as I know, this book has not been translated into English. I should probably write my review in Spanish, but I've been away for so long now that I find writing in that language really hard, and I'm lazy ;)

In 1965 Carmen and Gervasio Posadas’ father was named Uruguayan ambassador to Spain, and the whole family moved to Madrid. They spent many years abroad, as the father was then sent to the USSR and the UK. This is a sort of collaborative memoir. The authors, writer Carmen Posadas and her younger brother, Gervasio, tell us they have taken annotations their mother, Bimba, had made for a book herself at the time and they have edited them, adding some little asides with their own impressions remembered from those times (Carmen was about 12 when they initially left for Madrid, and married a Spaniard right after the family moved to Moscow, so she doesn’t have many memories from there. Gervasio was very young on the first move, but old enough to remember lots from the Moscow years).

I found this really interesting, although I had very different feelings for each of the three sections.

The Spanish sections were a mix of really interesting and gossip about the aristocracy, which is not really my thing. I was particularly intrigued by the Carmen's comments on how different things were then in terms of relative positions, so to speak. She speaks of how she was seen as exotic and had quite a bit of cachet as a South American, because people’s thoughts instinctively turned to the “rich uncle” who had emigrated to “hacer la América” (loosely translated, “make it in America”) and always came back fabulously rich. That's certainly quite different to how Latin American immigrants in general are seen these days! The world the Posadas family move into in Madrid is one of aristocrats and military men (Franco was still alive, but apparently not in great health), and I felt a bit disturbed by how happy they all seemed to be with the status quo, and didn’t question much.

And then came the USSR sections, which I found just fabulous. First of all, it’s quite a unique perspective that the family were able to get. As diplomats, but from a tiny, unimportant country the Soviets were not particularly fussed about, they had both a degree of access to the highest reaches of the Soviet authorities and to somewhat regular people. Unlike the US embassy people, who (Bimba tells us with much envy) had their own little well-stocked supermarket to buy food in, the Posadases had to struggle to get food to run the entertainment expected of them. Gervasio was sent to a regular school and pioneer camps, and the stories from those are wonderful.

Actually, this section is just full of amazing scenes. Particular favourites include an all-female tea dance in the Kremlin, hosted by Mrs. Brezhnev for International Women Workers’s day, where I was smiling ear to ear at Bimba’s descriptions of Mrs. Brezhnev opening the dancing by inviting Bimba’s 15-year-old daughter onto the dance floor, and then Bimba dancing with a charming aerospace engineer and being harangued into dancing properly by the Bolshoi’s artistic director. Also the reception thrown on the occasion of a visit by Richard Nixon, where Bimba ended up as a human torch. I was laughing out loud at that.

The UK sections I enjoyed only mildly. Again, it’s a lot of name-dropping (we had a party and Miguel Bosé ended up playing waiter!), aristocrats and meeting the Queen and fabulous parties. I was tickled by how Bimba has a really funny sniffy attitude towards the Brits, though! It was one based on prejudices and her view of the British felt pretty off for someone who’s lived there for a while, but well, she clearly didn’t meet any people beyond the diplomatic circles.

One of the things I was curious about when I started the book, was how the authors would deal with the fact that while they were abroad representing the Uruguayan government officially, the military coup took place back home. This is addressed very briefly. It happens when they are in the USSR, and the Bimba sections make it clear that her husband, belonging to the Partido Nacional (one of the two "traditional" parties; the coup was perpetrated by the other one), is against it and very worried. We hear they are both worried about the reports coming out of Uruguay of disappearances and of people being released from jail speaking of horrific violence. But then that subject sort of disappears. We are not really party to how the decision to continue to represent such a government took place, and I really felt the lack of that.

Also, for all that I enjoyed so many of the memories, I found myself disliking Bimba herself. Mainly, it's that her attitudes are very much of her time. They visit Hong Kong at one point, and the casual racism is quite startling. She’s clearly hostile about the fact that the supposedly British wife of her butler is actually from somewhere in the Commonwealth (she “suspects” Malaysia). She fires these people because they were doing sexual fantasy role play (in their own private rooms, while they were off work - she barges in uninvited), and clearly thinks that obviously she has to do this because they’re perverts (it’s all pretty vanilla, really). Hmm...

And another thing that bothered me was that a cursory google search unearthed some worrying accusations against the ambassador. There are accusations of corruption while in the embassy in London and of an illegal prison in the basement of the Uruguayan embassy in Buenos Aires during the dictatorship while he was ambassador there. I stress that these are just accusations, as far as I know, but the whole thing just leaves a bad taste. I kind of wish I hadn't googled.

I should also add that the book is sprinkled with recipes, some of the ones Bimba made up in order to entertain properly on a budget (there’s a delirious one for fake lobster, which apparently fooled several Spanish gourmands), but also ones she picked up on the way, such as the recipe for Borscht given to her by the mayor of a far-east soviet town. The majority are for very Uruguayan food, which basically means most recipes are not my thing (as a vegetarian, I think of myself as a culinary refugee -yes, in England!). I sort of skimmed most of them.

Anyway, for all these criticisms, I did find quite a lot of value here. The USSR sections alone made it worth reading.



Carla Kelly’s Christmas Collection, by Carla Kelly

>> Tuesday, January 26, 2016

TITLE: Carla Kelly’s Christmas Collection
AUTHOR: Carla Kelly

PAGES: 240

SETTING: Early 19th century England and Spain
TYPE: Romance short stories

Beloved romance writer Carla Kelly shares a treasured collection of wonderfully written stories of dashing war heroes and the sassy heroines who can't help falling for them. From daring sea captains to genteel lords, there's a little something for every heart's fancy. Readers everywhere will adore these four regency romances—-now available together for the first time in one must-have book!

This anthology contains two stories I’d already read (Make A Joyful Noise and The Three Kings), but a) I read them many years ago, b) I've no idea where the physical books have gone, and c) the e-version of the anthology was about 2 pounds, so I didn’t mind. Well, I didn’t mind until I finished the book and realised I’d liked the two stories I’d already read and disliked the two I hadn’t!

The first story is The Christmas Ornament, originally published in A Regency Christmas.

James and Olivia have known each other for years, but after Olivia’s brother, who was James’ best friend, died in the war, the families have grown apart. Olivia is now about to come out in society, and her loving father is worried about her. She’s an intelligent, studious girl, and he fears she won’t take (or worse, that she’ll end up with a man who’ll want to quash her intellect). Who better than James, who’s an Oxford don by now, to give her the life she deserves?

James is actually quite taken by the idea, and determines to go back to the old home over Christmas and court Olivia. But his shyness, combined with his intellectual arrogance, makes it harder than expected.

James was sweet, but the story lacked tension. I didn’t really feel he loved Olivia. He just seemed to like the idea of a wife, and the idea of Olivia (by the time the story started he hadn’t seen Olivia since she was really young). To be honest, I found the thing pretty boring.


Then came Make a Joyful Noise (originally in Regency Christmas Carol), one of the ones I'd already read (original review).

Peter, the Marquess of Chard (he gets called Chard, mainly, and all I could think of was green leafy vegetables) is a widower and a farmer, raising his children peacefully in his Northumbria estate. He’s lonely, but he had a pretty bad marriage, so he’s a bit wary of women. Until Rosie comes to live with his neighbours. Rosie is the daughter of a Welsh colour sergeant (not quite sure what that means, really, but it sounds pretty cool), whom one of the sons of the house married while soldiering in Portugal. He was a bit of a blockhead and died only a few days later. Her new in-laws are making Rosie's life hell, and under the excuse of recruiting her for the local church choir, Chard tries to help her.

This is a cute story. Chard is an honourable, decent man, and I felt his loneliness. The romance is nice, although we don’t really get to know Rosie that well, because the story is all told from Chard’s point of view. I liked what I saw of her, though. She’s not a pushover, which is hard to pull off when she’s in a situation where her in-laws have all the power and are being jackasses. She doesn’t just roll over, but there’s really not much she can do. The one thing I didn’t like in the romance and characterisation was the demonisation of the first wife. That was pretty mild, actually, but Kelly seems to do it much too often, and I’ve become violently allergic to it.

I quite liked the choir element. See, there’s this supposedly benign choir competition between neighbouring parishes that is actually really cutthroat, and Chard “cheats” by getting a load of Welsh workers on his estate just so he can induct them into the choir (that felt dangerously close to stereotype, but hey, I’ll be charitable and give this a pass). I wish I’d been able to hear what they sounded like!

MY GRADE: This was a B.

After that came An Object of Charity, first published in A Regency Christmas Present.

Captain Michael Lynch has had to come home from the blockade after an accident that took the life of his first mate, who was also a good friend, and damaged his ship. As soon as he's back on land he meets the Purslows, niece and nephew of that first mate, who are there to meet him after their own father died and they were left broke. The news that their uncle is dead is a huge blow, as they are completely penniless and were counting on his help. Michael feels he can’t leave them on their own with no money, so he takes them home to his mother for Christmas, even though he hasn’t been there for over 20 years, since he was thrown out.

I did not get on with this story at all. The romance was a bust, because I saw absolutely no chemistry between Michael and Sally Purslow, and the family drama was overly dramatic. I did not believe any of it for a minute, not the original fight between Michael and his brother, not the interactions between them in the present-day scenes. I was tempted to skim.

MY GRADE: This one was a D.

The book ends with The Three Kings, from the A Regency Christmas II anthology, the other story I'd already read (original review).

Lady Sarah Comstock came to Spain with her scholar brother, who was seeking access to some really important papers and travelled in the wake of the British army to get to them. In Salamanca, however, disaster strikes, and Sarah is left alone in a French-controlled town after her brother gets killed. She manages to get to relative safety with one of the straggling groups of the retreating army, and Colonel Luis Sotomayor agrees to escort her to safety, with the French army hot in pursuit.

I liked this all right, although the romance didn’t particularly work for me (it wasn’t bad, I just wasn’t invested in it). I liked the less saccharine tone. I liked that we got to see the effects of war on Spain and regular Spanish people -so often it’s only a background for British aristocrats’ adventures. I liked the characters individually (although in this one, it was all narrated from the heroine’s point of view). In short, it was good, but not great.


So, not a huge success, I'm afraid, with even the stories I'd already read and liked were only ok.



Devoted in Death, by JD Robb

>> Saturday, January 23, 2016

TITLE: Devoted in Death

PAGES: 384

SETTING: 2060s New York
TYPE: Police procedural
SERIES: By my count, 43th full-length title in the In Death series

It's a new year in New York city, and two star-crossed lovers have just discovered an insatiable appetite... for murder.

Lieutenant Eve Dallas has witnessed some grisly crimes in her career and she knows just how dark things can get on the streets. But when a much-loved musician is found dead, Eve soon realises that his murder is part of a horrifying killing spree, stretching right across the country.

Now the killers have reached New York, and they've found themselves another victim. Eve knows she only has a couple of days to save a young girl's life, and to stop the killers before their sadistic games escalate. Eve's husband Roarke is ready to put his brains and his considerable resources behind the search. But even as the couple works closely together, time is running out...

The start of this book almost put me off, and I only continued because I’ve liked every single In Death book before. A young couple, she a small-town waitress and occasional prostitute, he just out of jail, get into an altercation trying to steal a car. Things get out of hand, and the driver is killed. They are shaken, but they realise they loved killing together, and decide that the next time they’re going to take a bit more time over it. And off they go to New York, leaving a trail of death and suffering behind them.

The problem was that the premise put me in mind of Thankless in Death. I liked that one well enough, but a little of it went a long way. I feared Devoted in Death wouldn’t be a whodunnit, but about Eve and her team hunting for these people, and that we would be with them every step of the way. That’s not a problem per se, the thing is, these people are basically completely bonkers and psycho, so they don’t even have an interesting motivation. I really didn’t want to spend time in their head, because I did not really believe in them as characters.

Fortunately, although we see the killers very occasionally, the focus of the rest of the book was fully on the investigation. We know who the killers are, but that’s doesn’t ruin the hunt for us, because Eve and her team have no idea and need to figure out, first of all, what's going on, and then the identity of who's been doing it, which isn’t easy. And they’ve got a deadline, which really ramps up the pressure.

I did have some issues at the start. When the investigation starts, it’s somewhat easier than it should be. Usually one of my favourite things about the In Death books is the painstaking process of investigation, where every step leads logically to the next. With this one, it felt like Robb took some shortcuts. I felt some of the big breakthroughs were guesses, not deductions. They just weren’t logical enough to make sense. When Eve immediately becomes convinced that her victim (and this is right at the start, when she knows of only one) was killed by a couple and that these two were a romantic couple; when she immediately decides that a seemingly random victim, one who died in a completely different way to all the other known victims, is the first one, and the one that got the killers going... that’s not good, solid detective work, that’s supernatural divination. That's about it, though, and after that things get back to normal and Eve and her team again start relying on the good, solid detective work I find so satisfying.

Still, the hunt against the clock really got the book going, particularly in the second half, and I ended up fairly racing through. Initially I had a bit of a feeling that I found the crimes much more disturbing and horrific than was reflected in the characters’ reactions. They do say, oh, how horrible, but I didn’t really feel it completely. Once the deadline kicks in, that wasn't an issue any more. I felt the characters were taking things fully as seriously as they should.

Anyway, I ended up enjoying the procedural aspect of the book a lot more than I expected to when I started it. And you’ll notice I’ve only talked about that aspect here. That’s because there really wasn’t much going on on the character development front. Well, there are a few little things, like Trueheart taking his detective exam, Eve and Garnet DeWinter deciding that they really need to start communicating better, a new friend from Arkansas, but nothing on the Eve and Roarke relationship. That’s fine with me, actually. The OTT nature of Roarke’s character has become increasingly out of place in this series, and if Robb wants to focus on the police procedural side of things, that's not a problem.



Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear, by Margee Kerr

>> Wednesday, January 20, 2016

TITLE: Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear
AUTHOR: Margee Kerr

PAGES: 288
PUBLISHER: Public Affairs

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Non-Fiction

Shiver-inducing science not for the faint of heart.

No one studies fear quite like Margee Kerr. A sociologist who moonlights at one of America’s scariest and most popular haunted houses, she has seen grown men laugh, cry, and push their loved ones aside as they run away in terror. And she’s kept careful notes on what triggers these responses and why.

Fear is a universal human experience, but do we really understand it? If we’re so terrified of monsters and serial killers, why do we flock to the theaters to see them? Why do people avoid thinking about death, but jump out of planes and swim with sharks? For Kerr, there was only one way to find out.

In this eye-opening, adventurous book, she takes us on a tour of the world’s scariest experiences: into an abandoned prison long after dark, hanging by a cord from the highest tower in the Western hemisphere, and deep into Japan’s mysterious “suicide forest.” She even goes on a ghost hunt with a group of paranormal adventurers. Along the way, Kerr shows us the surprising science from the newest studies of fear—what it means, how it works, and what it can do for us. Full of entertaining science and the thrills of a good ghost story, this book will make you think, laugh—and scream.

Margie Kerr is a sociologist who studies fear. She combines academia with a job as sociologist in residence at a haunted house attraction. In this book, she combines stories of her work there with travels to different fear-inducing attractions (from physical fear, like roller coasters and the amazing-sounding outside walk around the CN tower in Canada, to mental fear, like the “suicide forest” of Aokigahara in Japan and an old abandoned prison) to explore what scares us and why we so often seek out these sensations.

My reaction to this was 'meh'. Fascinating subject matter, but the execution could have been much better.

First of all, the sections where Kerr describes the science around fear and stress-related reactions were quite technical and bored me a bit. To be fair, they are clear enough and not too long; it’s just that I’m not really that interested in that sort of level of detail on that subject. Also, we got too many pages that were more memoir than exploration of her supposed subject matter, and those didn't work for me at all. I guess I just wasn’t interested enough in Kerr, and it didn’t feel like she’d “earned” the right to make these chapters about herself, when we readers had come for something else. The worst chapter in this sense was the one about confronting the idea of death in Aokigahara (the “suicide forest” I mentioned earlier). That could have been a really interesting, creepy chapter (some key scenes in a really scary book called The Three, which I read earlier this year, took place there, and they were terrifying). It ended up being all about Kerr navel-gazing. There were some insights about what confronting the idea of death can do to people, but not enough.

Another aspect that made this disappointing was that the writing was not as great as could be. It reminded me a bit of Mary Roach, who too often sounds kind of lame, even though her material is fascinating.

The annoying thing was there were some really good bits here, and I wish those had been more developed. I liked the discussions about what sorts of things scare us and how, and why we like to expose ourselves to them. There's quite a bit of variety, and Kerr is good at drawing out what they have in common. And particularly good: there’s some stuff when she visits Colombia about what it’s like to live in a situation where you’re in constant fear all the time, and what that does to you. Kerr could have done so much more with that! There was also a short chapter at the end where the idea is that Kerr takes what she learnt in her adventures and applies them to creating an interactive (or possibly, as she mentions others call it, “extreme”) haunt in the haunted house she works in. That was really interesting, and I also wanted more.

MY GRADE: Disappointing. A C+.


Diplomatic Immunity, by Lois McMaster Bujold

>> Monday, January 18, 2016

TITLE: Diplomatic Immunity
AUTHOR: Lois McMaster Bujold

PAGES: 384

SETTING: Barrayar
TYPE: Science Fiction
SERIES: 9th full-length title in the Vorkosigan series

This is a comedy of terrors...

A rich Komarran merchant fleet has been impounded at Graf Station, in distant Quaddiespace, after a bloody incident on the station docks involving a security officer from the convoy's Barrayaran military escort. Lord Miles Vorkosigan of Barrayar and his wife, Lady Ekaterin, have other things on their minds, such as getting home in time to attend the long-awaited births of their first children. But when duty calls in the voice of Barrayar's Emperor Gregor, Miles, Gregor's youngest Imperial Auditor (a special high-level troubleshooter) has no choice but to answer.

Waiting on Graf Station are diplomatic snarls, tangled loyalties, old friends, new enemies, racial tensions, lies and deceptions, mysterious disappearances, and a lethal secret with wider consequences than even Miles anticipates: a race with time for life against death in horrifying new forms. The downside of being a troubleshooter comes when trouble starts shooting back.

After the emotional rollercoaster that was the amazing A Civil Campaign I took a little break from the Vorkosigan series, and the long trip back to Uruguay seemed like the perfect time to start the next one in audio.

Miles and Ekaterin are on their way back from the honeymoon, when a message from Gregor catches up with them. A Komarran merchant fleet, travelling under Barrayarran military protection, has been impounded in a distant part of the galaxy. Turns out Miles is relatively close, and could he head over and straighten things out? Oh, well, at least he and Ekaterin were on their way BACK from their honeymoon!

When I saw just where the Komarran fleet had been impounded, I cheered. Miles and Ekaterin are heading to Graf Station, in Quaddie-space. Yep, Graf as in Leo Graf, the engineer hero of Vorkosigan series prequel Falling Free. In that book, which took place a couple of centuries before the main books in the series, Graf was sent by his employers to a planet where they used genetically engineered slaves called quaddies. Quaddies were created with several genetic modifications, chief amongst them that they have 4 arms, 2 of them where legs would be in regular humans. They were basically designed for 0-gravity environments. Long story short, in Falling Free Graf helped the quaddies break free and establish their own home world. Centuries later, that’s where the action takes place.

Miles arrives in Graf Station to find a bit of a muddle. A Barrayarran military man has disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and in the aftermath, the aggressive Barrayarrans have let their instinctive disgust for what they see as mutants create a huge mess. Miles must negotiate with the quaddies to straighten things out, and do so quickly enough to get back to Barrayar in time for the birth of his and Ekaterin two children (uterine replicator, of course. Miles would absolutely not put Ekaterin through a barbaric body birth!). But of course, the relatively minor mess Miles was supposed to sort out turns out to be anything but, in true Miles style.

The plot here, which I kind of assumed at first would be a minor imbroglio designed to let us see Miles and Ekaterin interact as newlyweds, turned out to be fantastic. I loved the very gradual way in which the seriousness of what’s going on was revealed. What seemed an inoffensive mystery for Miles to investigate turns into nail-biting suspense, at times truly terrifying. The plot also gave us the chance to see Miles operate in his Imperial Auditor role almost as a diplomat, but with the ingenuity of Admiral Naismith shining through. I also particularly liked the cultural clashes between Quaddies and ‘downsiders’, as they call them, and the way Miles navigated them.

I also loved that we not only see what’s up with the Quaddies and what the world they’ve created is like, but we meet Bel Thorn again. We last saw Bel being dismissed after its actions in Mirror Dance, and it was great to see how its been doing. On the character front, in the end there was a lot less Miles/Ekaterin interaction than I expected. That was a bit of a shame, because I find Ekaterin to be a fantastic character, but Miles’ adventures more than compensated for the loss.

This was a really solid entry in the series. Now onto Ivan's story, so I can be all caught up with the series by the time the next one comes out in February!



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