Snow Angels, by James Thompson

>> Saturday, January 31, 2015

TITLE: Snow Angels
AUTHOR: James Thompson

PAGES: 304

SETTING: Contemporary Finland
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: Starts a series

The first thriller in a new series featuring Inspector Kari Vaara: the haunted, hardened detective who must delve into Finland's dark and violent underbelly.

Kaamos: Just before Christmas, the bleakest time of the year in Lapland. The unrelenting darkness and extreme cold above the Arctic Circle drive everyone just a little insane . . . perhaps enough to kill.

A beautiful Somali immigrant is found dead in a snowfield, her body gruesomely mutilated, a racial slur carved into her chest. Heading the murder investigation is Inspector Kari Vaara, the lead detective of the small-town police force. The vicious killing may have been a hate crime, a sex crime-or one and the same. Vaara knows he must keep this potentially ex­plosive case out of the national headlines or else it will send shock waves across Finland, an insular nation afraid to face its own xenophobia.

The demands of the investigation begin to take their toll on Vaara and his marriage. His young American wife, Kate, newly pregnant with their first child, is struggling to adapt to both the unforgiving Arctic climate and the Finnish culture of silence and isolation. Meanwhile Vaara himself, haunted by his rough childhood and failed first marriage, discovers that the past keeps biting at his heels: He suspects that the rich man for whom his ex-wife left him years ago may be the killer.

Endless night can drive anyone to murder.

I was really close to moving to Helsinki last year, so I’ve since felt a sort of personal interest in Finland and picked up several books set there. The fashion for Scandi noir being what it is, they are all mysteries (and yes, I know Finland is not a Scandinavian country, but it kind of fits in the trend!).

Snow Angel features Inspector Kari Vaara. Kari spent some time as a detective in Helsinki as a young man, but has returned to his hometown, a really small town close to the Arctic circle. As the book starts, he's been living there for a few years and he is as happy as he's ever been. He has recently got married to Kate, an American woman who moved to the area to run a ski resort, and they are expecting their first child.

And then Kari gets called to a crime scene. It's very ugly. The victim is a young Somali woman, an actress who's been making a name for herself in a series of B movies. She's been horribly mutilated, including racial slurs being carved onto her chest. And the investigation quickly turns up suspects with connections, both to power and to Kari's personal life, making an already delicate case particularly difficult.

The setting was probably the best thing about this book. It's not an urban setting, which might be a bit more international (as Kari mentions, there is a large expatriate community in Helsinki), but an isolated, rural setting beyond the Arctic circle. The writer is from the US and lives in Finland and is clearly writing for an international audience, so some of the things that would be just presented unquestioned by a Finnish author writing for a Finnish audience are given a lot more context and explanation. One one hand, this makes the narrator not feel particularly natural, but it WAS interesting stuff and I enjoyed it. It’s a completey different view from the shallow conventional wisdom about Finland, a lot more negative and dark, which was interesting. I’d be interested to know what a Finn would say about some of Thompson's views of the country, though!

Unfortunately, the setting was not just the best thing about the book, it was pretty much the only good thing. The mystery was terribly done. First, the initial crime feels quite exploitative unnecessarily graphic, and the horror doesn't stop there. The body count keeps climbing, with the plot getting more and more preposterous.

And then there was Kari's investigation, which was just plain jaw-droppingly bad and unbelievable. For all that Kari tells us that Finnish police are amongst the world's best and that he has lots of experience in real investigations from the time he worked in Helsinki, he shows a remarkable lack of judgment. Just to give one single example (and there are many): the first viable suspect he identifies is the man his ex-wife left him for. That part was fine, the evidence really was pointing his way. But does Kari recuse himself from the investigation? Nope, even though he's offered the opportunity. He picks the man up himself and heads the interrogation. The fact that he doesn't see just how stupid an idea this is is bad enough, but the fact that the chief of police, supposedly a man with a great awareness of public relations, doesn't insist was incredible. And this is just the start of a string of actions that range from obliviousness to naiveté (my favourite was how he kept telling everyone everything in great detail).

I liked the relationship between Kari and his wife a bit better. Kate is starting to struggle. She knows very few people apart from Kari and none of them well, so she is understandingly feeling isolated. It was an interesting conflict, but the problem was that she sometimes reacted in ways that didn’t feel emotionally believable, like getting really shrill and unreasonably demanding when Kari is just doing his job (that's not a problem necessarily; what bothered me most was that the narrative seemed to imply some of these demands were reasonable).

So, not a success, this one. I don't think I'll be reading more in this series.



Hard Time, by Cara McKenna

>> Thursday, January 29, 2015

TITLE: Hard Time
AUTHOR: Cara McKenna

PAGES: 310

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance

Annie Goodhouse doesn’t need to be warned about bad boys; good sense and an abusive ex have given her plenty of reasons to play it safe. But when she steps into her new role as outreach librarian for Cousins Correctional Facility, no amount of good sense can keep her mind—or eyes—off inmate Eric Collier.

Eric doesn’t claim to be innocent of the crime that landed him in prison. In fact, he’d do it again if that’s what it took to keep his family safe. Loyalty and force are what he knows. But meeting Annie makes him want to know more.

When Eric begins courting Annie through letters, they embark on a reckless, secret romance—a forbidden fantasy that neither imagines could ever be real…until early parole for Eric changes everything, and forces them both to face a past they can’t forget, and a desire they can’t deny.

Annie Goodhouse is a relatively new librarian, only just settling into a new job in a new town, far away from home. The book is set, as far as I can tell, in the same decaying Michigan town as my favourite McKenna, After Hours, while Annie is originally from the South (one of the Carolinas, IIRC). Everything's different, and her new role as an outreach librarian doesn't make it any easier to settle in. That's because on Fridays the population she will be reaching out to is that living in the Cousins Correctional Facility.

Annie is initially very nervous about dealing with the inmates, but as she starts to know them and work with them, she starts feeling a bit less tense. The exception is one of them, Eric Collier. Annie has felt drawn to him right from the beginning, and familiarity doesn't really diminish the electricity of that connection. Because right from the start, Annie and Eric have began a very secret, very intimate and very forbidden correspondence.

And then Eric is given early parole, and he and Annie must figure out whether what they built through letters means something more than just words.

When I read the description of this book, that it was about an outreach librarian who started falling in love with a convict through letters, I kind of assumed automatically that it would be a correspondence that would only gradually become more personal and then more intimate. I pictured he would start writing about, say, his life and his views (maybe as a class assignment, or something), and after a while, this would turn into love letters.

This wasn’t the case. On Annie’s very first visit, Eric ‘writes’ her a letter under the guise of asking her for help writing to someone else. “Darling”, it starts, and there’s some mild sexual content. And the very next time she comes to the prison, he hands her a letter where the sexual content is quite high. He gives her the option to signal him to stop or continue, and, after some soul-searching, Annie goes for telling him to continue.

And that just felt wrong to me. I didn’t quite buy that Annie would have been ok with that, no matter how sexy she’d found him. Her acceptance of this showed a lack of judgment on her part, which she admits, but more extreme than I was willing to accept as a reader. Furthermore, I felt it was stupidly naive of her to take Eric's letter personally. What I mean is: this is a guy who hasn’t had any intimacy with a woman in 5 years and who’s latching on to the first pretty woman he has access to. It felt stupid of Annie to read anything more into it, at least at the beginning (even though it turns out she was right to do so!).

Those early letters...she and Eric don’t know each other at all when they start writing this really intimate stuff, so how is this intimacy meaningful? At the beginning, it feels more like two people writing out their fantasies. I really think this would have worked much, much better if things had been more gradual, if there had been a degree of mutual knowledge before things got intimate. Oh, the letters themselves are quite touching and sexy, it's just that they would have worked better in that different situation. And yes, this is basically me dinging McKenna for not writing the book as I would have liked it to be written. It's just that this initial setup just required stretching my suspension of disbelief way more than it could go, and it would have been so easy to write this same premise in a way that made it more believable!

The second half worked A LOT better for me. It's a really interesting conflict when Eric unexpectedly comes out. He and Annie have built something in their letters, but they can’t just pick up where they left off when Eric is out, not when for Annie, part of the appeal of her correspondence with Eric was the safety of knowing nothing could come of it. They must explore how this relationship can translate into… not a ‘real’ one (as Eric says, that was his reality when they were writing), but one with both of them outside and unrestricted.

And it's not just adapting to physical contact being a possibility. Annie has a big issue with Eric’s view of what he did that got him sent to prison. He still feels he did what he had to do, punishing the man who hurt his sister (and neither we nor Annie know the details there, as Eric’s sister doesn’t want to share them). Annie doesn’t have a problem with that so much, but with the fact that Eric feels he would have to do the same again in similar circumstances, even if it’d have disastrous consequences to himself (and by extension, to the woman who’s contemplating being his long-term partner). The interesting thing is that this showcases a very different world-view between Eric and Annie, one that, as I was reading, I thought might well be a valid reason why the relationship shouldn’t go anywhere. In romance, 99.9% of the times I think of any internal conflict “of course you can get over this!!”. I wasn’t so sure here, which was interesting.

McKenna resolves this in a way that was satisfactory to me, but didn't stretch either too far from their original world-view. It's a good ending, and I liked seeing Annie begin to build a relationship with Eric's family, even though they come from very different backgrounds. However, I really would have liked to see how Annie’s family dealt with Eric, too. Annie's father is in law enforcement, so it's going to be much more of a stretch for him to accept an ex-con as a brother-in-law than it was for Eric's family to accept a comparatively posh woman as a partner for him.

This wasn't my favourite book by this author, mainly because my difficulty buying the circumstances of the start of the relationship. Apart from that, though, I enjoyed it. I particularly like how McKenna has regular working-class people as characters and how they live in regular working-class places. Those places are shown, warts and all, but without being used as plot points to, say, create danger for the protagonists. In a genre where aspirational fantasy seems to get more and more dominant (Billionaires! Pro athletes! Billionaire pro athletes!), I really appreciate McKenna's style.



Breasts, by Florence Williams

>> Tuesday, January 27, 2015

TITLE: Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History
AUTHOR: Florence Williams

PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: WW Norton and company

TYPE: Non Fiction

An engaging narrative about an incredible, life-giving organ and its imperiled modern fate.

Did you know that breast milk contains substances similar to cannabis? Or that it’s sold on the Internet for 262 times the price of oil? Feted and fetishized, the breast is an evolutionary masterpiece. But in the modern world, the breast is changing. Breasts are getting bigger, arriving earlier, and attracting newfangled chemicals. Increasingly, the odds are stacked against us in the struggle with breast cancer, even among men. What makes breasts so mercurial—and so vulnerable?

In this informative and highly entertaining account, intrepid science reporter Florence Williams sets out to uncover the latest scientific findings from the fields of anthropology, biology, and medicine. Her investigation follows the life cycle of the breast from puberty to pregnancy to menopause, taking her from a plastic surgeon’s office where she learns about the importance of cup size in Texas to the laboratory where she discovers the presence of environmental toxins in her own breast milk. The result is a fascinating exploration of where breasts came from, where they have ended up, and what we can do to save them.

I didn't really do much research before borrowing this one. A "natural and unnatural history" of breasts sounded interesting. Turns out I was hoping for something a bit different from what I got.

I thought this would be a mix of science and social history, but it was all science. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; I like science. And the first few chapters were great. They covered things like: how and why the breast evolved and how there is a history of male scientists automatically assuming that it evolved to please men visually, when the evidence is quite different; how the “plumbing” works; and how breast implants started.

But then the rest of the book was basically about chemical exposures and how these affect things like the contents of breast milk and the incidence of breast cancer. And these chapters, I’m afraid, were quite stultifying. Just to make it clear, I don’t find the subject itself boring. I’ve actually worked on chemicals regulation. I’ve written and supervised work on assessing impacts of occupational exposures. And some of the completely dry scientific documents I’ve had to read for that have been much more interesting to read than these chapters. They felt repetitive and the writing style didn’t work for me at all. The latter reminded me a bit of Mary Roach's (I like her books, but am iffy on her writing style, which often makes her come across as a bit lame).

Also -and I don’t blame Williams for this- it all felt very hopeless. As she herself admits, there’s very little we can do as individuals. Even if we know all the complex science and are determined to avoid contact with substances that are problematic, there’s often no way to know what’s out there and to avoid being exposed. We can do something at a societal level (and we really should), but that’s more for the sake of our descendants. We, personally, are screwed already. That’s the message (yeah, perfect holiday reading!).

I was left feeling dissatisfied, in addition to hopeless. There was such a lot that I felt was left out that I would have liked to know about! A lot of it is more on the social science end, but even with this being a hard science book, there were lots of other areas to cover, many potentially more interesting than the ones we got. For instance, Williams talks quite a few times about the effect of different kinds of underwear, but leaves it at that. That could have been a fascinating chapter.

MY GRADE: A C-. The first few chapters were good, but I didn't think much of the rest.


Festive in Death, by JD Robb

>> Sunday, January 25, 2015

TITLE: Festive in Death

PAGES: 400

SETTING: 2060s New York
TYPE: Police procedural & romance
SERIES: By my count, 41st full-length title in the In Death series

Eve Dallas deals with a homicide—and the holiday season—in the latest from the #1 New York Times bestselling author.

Personal trainer Trey Ziegler was in peak physical condition. If you didn't count the kitchen knife in his well-toned chest.

Lieutenant Eve Dallas soon discovers a lineup of women who'd been loved and left by the narcissistic gym rat. While Dallas sorts through the list of Ziegler's enemies, she's also dealing with her Christmas shopping list—plus the guest list for her and her billionaire husband's upcoming holiday bash.

Feeling less than festive, Dallas tries to put aside her distaste for the victim and solve the mystery of his death. There are just a few investigating days left before Christmas, and as New Year's 2061 approaches, this homicide cop is resolved to stop a cold-blooded killer.

Eve's latest case is the death of a womanising personal trainer. Someone's taken exception to his assholic approach to romance and stuck a knife in his chest. Meanwhile, it's coming up to the holidays and the now traditional Christmas party Roarke insists they host at their house.

Festive In Death is an unremarkable entry in the In Death series. I enjoyed reading it, but it's one of the more forgettable ones. There's just nothing here that stands out.

The case Eve is investigating is good, but not great. It's an interesting setup, and the investigation is well-done, as usual. The solution was a little bit surprising to me, which is good, but on the other hand, I don’t know just how much I believed it (especially the final flourish, if you can call it that). This element of the book is... competent, but has nothing to raise it above that. There is no particular urgency to get justice, Eve is not particularly affected by it on a personal level and it's not a particularly clever, intriguing premise. Just ok. It really needed some tension and suspense.

And I guess I could say similarly about the personal stuff. I liked visiting with these old friends, but they keep telling the same stories, so some of the set pieces felt a little bit tired this time. They were just a bit too predictable… “oh, here comes the scene where Trina slathers some gloop on Eve”. Hard to get excited about that.

I still do like Robb's characters, though, both the ones we know very well and the ones who have tiny bit parts in each book and we only meet for a little while. The first scene speaks of how well these characters have been created: the body is found by the victim’s ex and her friend, and the friend, who is unnamed in that initial scene, is clearly someone we know. And I could tell immediately who it was, just through how she spoke and reacted.

I also liked Eve’s continued minute progression. She continues to unbend a bit about loving the people who have become part of her life and showing it, and that's good to see. She's not as she was early in the series, but she's changed in a way that feels believable, especially if one has been with her every step of the way. Good stuff but, again, not surprising and by now not novel in any way.

Finally, I feel I should probably mention yet again (as I've done in my previous In Death reviews) that the OTT nature of Roarke as a character continues to not really fit in what the series has become. At least his role in Eve’s investigation was not particularly prominent here. When he did get involved, though, it felt strange and wrong. He goes on all sorts of random interviews as civilian consultant. Seriously, the police show up to question you and this world-famous billionaire businessman just happens to be along for the ride? I question that defence lawyers don’t have a ball with that.




>> Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Hi, everyone, I'm finally back! I had a wonderful, long holiday, mostly spent playing with my baby newphew (who's now almost 2 and incredibly funny and sweet) and sitting by the swimming pool reading up a storm (see the book covers below).

Photo of my nephew
My little nephew drinking mate
I also did some travelling. Physical travelling (a weekend in Buenos Aires, which was fab), but also travelling through books. I spent time in space (Mars and further afield), and in lots of places on Earth. Various locations in the US and Britain, of course, and also places like Italy, Malaysia, Nigeria, Finland, not to mention the imaginary ones (think dragons, barbarians and all sort of cool things). I did have a fair few DNF and meh reads, but I did read several books that I'd been hoarding for my holidays, so a nice proportion of what I read was really good. I'll be posting reviews over the next weeks.


Best books of 2014

>> Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 was a really good reading year for me. I read almost 170 books and found some I really loved.

It wasn't a great year for romance, though. I've been finding myself less and less interested in what's out there in the romance genre, so much so that for the first time since I started tracking my reading, over half of what I read was non-romance.

And also, while finding truly excellent non-romance books to include in this post was really easy (so much so that I've included a top 13, rather than a top 10, and there were several that narrowly missed out being there), I struggled to get enough romance novels I thought were good enough. I've ended up doing only a top 6!

Preparing this, I realised there are quite a few of these books I haven't yet reviewed. I find it hardest to review books I loved.... to write something that does these books justice, I guess! I've got half-written reviews for all of those, and I'll try to finish and post them early in the new year.

Best romance read in 2014

The Kraken King, by Meljean Brook

Of course there will be a Meljean Brook on this list. The Kraken King is a wonderful adventure romance. Fantastic world-building and great characters. It was a serial, so I've linked here to my review of part 8, which includes links to all the other parts. The serial format didn't quite work for me, but the story was more than strong enough to overcome that.

Mark of Cain, by Kate Sherwood

A romance between an ex-con and the brother of the man he killed, so very angsty. Sherwood develops it slowly, so it works. And in addition to the great romance, there is a real exploration of themes of redemption and forgiveness, as well as a hero who's an Anglican minister and is struggling with how his church deals with gay priests like him. Loved it.

The Countess Conspiracy, by Courtney Milan

This is about women being suppressed, all those who wanted to do things that society didn't approve of for women and had to hide behind a male someone else to be able to do them. The heroine is a scientist, and the hero her friend, who's providing the male front. Beautifully satisfying, even if I had some doubts about the believability of the ending.

The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion

This was a charming comedy romance, hilarious but also affecting. It's about a man who has some issues with social interaction and who comes up with a plan to find himself a wife. He ends up co-operating with a woman called Rosie, who's exactly wrong according to everything on his list.

Unbound, by Cara McKenna

Cara McKenna can make me like anything. This one includes BDSM, which I usually avoid, but managed to make me feel completely engaged in the relationship. I couldn't stop reading.

The Luckiest Lady In London, by Sherry Thomas

I really loved the story of two people seen as perfectly proper by all of society, but who immediately recognise hidden, darker depths in each other. Thomas is one of the few historical romance authors I've got left.

Best non-romance read in 2014

The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

My first A+ in a very long time. It's the story of a young half-goblin who unexpectedly comes to the throne of the kingdom of the elves and is completely unprepared. The way he comes into his role and becomes an excellent Emperor is just beautiful. It's a long, dense read, and I adored every second of it.

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah follows a young Nigerian woman as she moves to the US and then, a few years later, back to Nigeria, where she again encounters her old boyfriend. I don't often feel the visceral recognition I felt when reading this book. Ifemelu's experiences echoed mine in many ways... things like discovering the completely different implications of your race when you move to a new country and how it all interacts with class and privilege. I read this one for my book club, and it generated the best discussion we've had in the 5 years we've been running.

The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth

The Wake tells the story of the resistance after the Norman invasion of 1066, written in what the author describes as a shadow version of Old English. This was a book that completely wowed me on all fronts. Its use of language is incredible. I wondered when I started it whether the whole shadow 'Old English' thing would be a bit of a stunt, but it really wasn't. It was essential to achieve a great recreation of a time and place and a fascinating character who felt completely of his time.

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks was a fabulous read. Mitchell does his usual thing here of having a book composed of a group of novellas, six here. There is a strong narrative thread, though, as we have Holly Sykes in whose point of view we are in the first and last stories, and who's very present in the middle four. There's also a big fantasy Good vs. Evil-type element which is mostly in the background but pops up periodically in the different sections. I'm not describing it very well here, but it's great storytelling, with really interesting characters I cared about intensely and done with Mitchell's gift for mimicking different genres. I didn't want to leave this world when the book finished, and it will definitely be one I'll reread, probably soon.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

There's been a bit of a backlash against The Goldfinch, but I still really enjoyed it. It's a big, fat book about a young man whose life is blown apart when his mother is killed in a terrorist attack in a museum. The effects of that continue to be felt in his life, not least through a painting he takes with him after the explosion and neglects to return. The protagonist is really not a nice character, but he was interesting, as were all the supporting characters. I was absorbed, and even liked the final, controversial 30 pages.

And All The Stars, by Andrea K Höst

This excellent sci-fi young adult novel has an ensemble cast fighting off an alien invasion. The characters are wonderful and diverse and the plot unfolds in ways that feel fresh and different. My first novel by this author was a DNF, so I'm really glad I decided to give her another chance.

The Circle, by Dave Eggers

A satire about a scarily believable Google-like company that is taking over the world. Eggers sometimes hits you over the head with his metaphors, but on the whole, I thought this was great. Familiar and surprising at the same time, and it made me think about debates that are actually going on (e.g. would requiring real identities on-line solve the problem of trolling?) in different ways.

Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King

A burned-out retired detective teams up with some unlikely people to hunt down a mass murderer. Great, tense storytelling and characters I really cared about. I hadn't read King for quite a while, and I'd only read some of his classic horror, so this surprised me, in a very good way.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

This is about a woman who grew up in a family that was unique in a very interesting way. When we meet her we know that the family has pretty much disintegrated, and we explore why. The book looks at themes like how families work, the nature of sisterhood, the treachery of memory, animal rights, and activism, but it does this by telling a wonderfully engaging story and doing so in a way that was really interesting structurally. I really enjoyed it.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

A post-apocalyptic novel that manages to be positive and optimistic about humanity and the value of our current lives. It was a huge surprise, and I loved it. The characters were great, and the structure of it was wonderfully handled. Just fantastic.

The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber

This is about a missionary selected to go to a remote planet and preach for the people there, who have been demanding someone is sent to tell them all about this "Book of Strange New Things", i.e. the Bible. This was a very unexpected book, full of fascinating characters who emotionally engaged me.

The Martian, by Andy Weir

An astronaut is accidentally left behind in Mars when his team suddenly need to evacuate their camp in an emergency, and he must apply all his considerable knowledge to survive. Brilliant, gripping stuff.

The Borders of Infinity, by Lois McMaster Bujold

I'd cheat by nominating the entire chunk of the Vorkosigan series that I've read this year, but I wouldn't know which cover to put up *g*. This is probably the most perfectly formed and put together entry. It's a novella featuring Miles being sent into a Cetagandan prison camp for a mysterious mission. This is Miles at his most Miles-ish, and it's great. I should mention I'm currently listening to Mirror Dance and so far it's even better, but I'm only about 50% in.


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