Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J Ryan Stradal

>> Thursday, June 09, 2016

TITLE: Kitchens of the Great Midwest
AUTHOR: J Ryan Stradal

COPYRIGHT: 2015
PAGES: 316
PUBLISHER: Viking

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

Who is Eva Thorvald?

To her single father, a chef, she's a pint-sized recipe tester and the love of his life. To the chilli chowdown contestants of Cook County, Illinois, she's a fire-eating demon. To the fashionable foodie goddess of supper clubs, she's a wanton threat. She's an enigma, a secret ingredient that no one can put their finger on. Eva will surprise everyone.

On the day before her eleventh birthday, she's cultivating chilli peppers in her wardrobe like a pro. Abandoned by her mother, gangly and poor, Eva arms herself with the weapons of her unknown heritage: a kick-ass palate and a passion bordering on obsession.

Over the years, her tastes grow, and so do her ambitions. One day Eva will be the greatest chef in the world. But along the way, the people she meets will shape her - and she, them - in ways unforgettable, riotous and profound. So she - for one - knows exactly who she is by the time her mother returns.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest is about the family you lose, the friends you make and chance connections that can define a life. Joyful, quirky or brazen, everyone lends their voice to tell Eva's story - one that's as heartwarming as it is irresistible, taking the bitter with the sweet.
This is the story of Eva, a girl who grows up with a miraculous palate and a deep love of food, in spite of her unpromising upbringing. Eva's father was a chef, but he died when Eva was still a baby. Since her mother had just abandoned the two of them when he died, Eva is then brought up by her uncle and aunt, who are... well, whatever the opposite of "foodies" is!

While Eva is the protagonist of the book, her story is told indirectly. Stradal uses a really interesting structure, with a book that is a novel, but also close to a collection of short stories. Each chapter of the book jumps a few years into the future, and is told from a different perspective. Only one chapter is narrated by Eva herself, and that is one that takes place when she's a young child. The narrator is different in each of the others, and it's sometimes characters we've seen before, often people we haven't yet met. In these chapters, the focus really is on the person narrating. Eva is significant to different extents: sometimes she's almost the whole point of the story (like in the chapter narrated by her teenaged suitor), sometimes she's only a peripheral character (like in the chapter narrated by a lady entering baking competitions with her bars). I liked figuring out the connections (e.g. the lady entering baking competitions? She happens to be the teenage boyfriend's stepmum -there are lots of connections like that), and it all comes to a great climax in a fantastic final episode, where quite a few of the different threads come together.

The structure may sound a bit weird, but I really liked it and thought it worked wonderfully. I liked seeing Eva from the outside. Yes, we do lose some intimacy with her, but I think her slight air of mysteriousness worked.

Something I particularly liked was the humour. There are a couple of instances of laugh-out-loud humour, but mostly it's just a constant, low-key thing, present in pretty much every paragraph. It's an observational and quite gentle kind of humour, just my sort of thing.

I also really enjoyed the setting of the US Midwest. There's quite a variety there, from the Scandinavian heritage prominent in the first few chapters, to the much more multicultural city settings later on. Oh, and the food! I felt Stradal hit a happy medium there. There's a true love of food here, both the traditional and the super-sophisticated, and Stradal pokes fun at both sides (my favourite chapter for that was the one with the baking competitions!).

This is not a deep or deeply affecting book, but it was a deeply enjoyable one.

MY GRADE: A B+.

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In Another Life, by Julie Christine Johnson

>> Friday, June 03, 2016

TITLE: In Another Life
AUTHOR: Julie Christine Johnson

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 368
PUBLISHER: Sourcebooks Casablanca

SETTING: Contemporary and 13th century Southern France
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

Three men are trapped in time. One woman could save them all.

Historian Lia Carrer has finally returned to southern France, determined to rebuild her life after the death of her husband. But instead of finding solace in the region's quiet hills and medieval ruins, she falls in love with Raoul, a man whose very existence challenges everything she knows about life-and about her husband's death. As Raoul reveals the story of his past to Lia, she becomes entangled in the echoes of an ancient murder, resulting in a haunting and suspenseful journey that reminds Lia that the dead may not be as far from us as we think.
Steeped in the rich history and romantic landscape of rural France, In Another Life is a story of love that conquers time, and the lost loves that haunt us all.
I bought this one (and House of Shadows, by Nicola Cornick, which I'll review soon) after Susanna Kearsley mentioned it in an interview on the DBSA podcast. It sounded like the sort of thing one might like if one likes Susanna's books. It went into my digital TBR and was just sitting there till Kaetrin had a review of it on Dear Author. Kaetrin really didn't like it, and one of the reasons was that it wasn't like Susanna's books in that it wasn't a romance at all -no HEA, or even HFN.

I don't mind unhappy endings if they work for that particular book (and if I'm not expecting one, thinking I'm reading a romance novel!), so that aroused my curiosity. The book did sound like exactly my sort of thing, so I was intrigued to see if it would work any better for me, having had Kaetrin's warning about the ending.

Lia Carrer is still mentally recovering from the death of her husband, Gabriel, in a cycling accident in Southern France. Lia is a historian and her area is the Cathars, so two years after the tragedy, she has overcome her reluctantance to go back to that part of the world, where her mother's family is from, and has accepted an invitation from some close friends to stay in a house they own near their own.

But what she expects to be a quiet time of study and research and healing becomes life-changing when her life becomes entwined with that of three men who've got links to a murder that happened in the early 13th century. This was a murder that led directly to the Albigensian Crusad, the military campaign launched by the Catholic Church to eliminate Catharism in the South of France, and it turns out it still echoes in Lia's present.

I found this book a little bit meh. The ending was actually fine. I thought the way things were resolved made sense for the story (if I've understood it all correctly -Kaetrin and I had quite a discussion in the comments of her DA review!), so I didn't have a problem with the non-happy ending. It felt like the right ending for this particular story. But it's also that it was an ending that didn't really affect me emotionally, because Johnson didn't really succeed in making me care for her characters. My reaction was not "Noooooooo!I can't believe she did that to Lia!". It was "Eh. Ok." That is a bit of a problem, because I felt the book was meant to be quite emotional. There's all the doomed romance between one of the men, Raoul, and his wife in the 13th century, Paloma. There's also the romance in the current day between the modern Raoul and Lia. I didn't particularly care.

The other issue I had is that the paranormal element was not particularly well-developed. For instance (and this is not a spoiler, since it becomes clear pretty quickly), Raoul dies in the 13th century, and then the next thing he knows, he wakes up in the 21st century (this is something that happened a few years before this book starts, at about the time Lia's husband died -ding, ding, ding!). But he's not simply a 13th century man waking up in a radically changed world. He's familiar with it -knows how to drive, understands how it all works, etc. He just has memories of the 13th century. He even has a history as Raoul in the modern world. He’s part of a family (they are all dead by the time the book starts, but we're told he inherited his farm from an uncle). So what happened to the soul of the person who was Raoul until that moment when the 13th century Raoul woke up in his body? This issue is completely ignored. We don’t get told if this Raoul remembers anything of the life before he “awoke”, or what that life was like. That didn't seem to me a deliberate choice, but more a bit of hand-waving of the "it's too complicated, best to just ignore it" kind. There are quite a few elements that are like that. Paranormal things happen with neither rhyme nor reason, simply because they're necessary to move the plot along in a particular way. I could go with it, to a certain extent, but it felt pretty unsatisfying.

All that said, I did enjoy quite a bit of the book. Johnson is really good at creating an atmosphere and a really vivid setting. Both her modern-day and 13th century France settings are wonderfully done (in fact, the one thing that did remind me of Kearsley was the atmosphere in the present-day France bits -put me in mind of her latest, A Dangerous Fortune) and I loved wondering round with Lia and finding out more about the history. If only the story being told had been more engaging!

MY GRADE: A C.

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Concrete Island, by JG Ballard

>> Monday, May 30, 2016

TITLE: Concrete Island
AUTHOR: JG Ballard

COPYRIGHT: 1974
PAGES: 176
PUBLISHER: Picador

SETTING: 1970s London
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

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.

MY GRADE: A D.

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A Seditious Affair, by KJ Charles

>> Sunday, May 22, 2016

TITLE: A Seditious Affair
AUTHOR: KJ Charles

COPYRIGHT: 2016
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.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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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

COPYRIGHT: 1962
PAGES: 259
PUBLISHER: Vintage

SETTING: Alternate version of the US, 1962
TYPE: Speculative fiction
SERIES: None

“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.

MY GRADE: A C+.

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Hold Your Breath, by Katie Ruggle

>> Wednesday, May 18, 2016

TITLE: Hold Your Breath
AUTHOR: Katie Ruggle

COPYRIGHT: 2016
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 terms...no 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.

MY GRADE: A B+.

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The Obsession, by Nora Roberts

>> Sunday, May 01, 2016

TITLE: The Obsession
AUTHOR: Nora Roberts

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 464
PUBLISHER: Berkley

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romantic suspense
SERIES: None

“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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Demon's Fire, by Emma Holly

>> Saturday, April 16, 2016

TITLE: Demon's Fire
AUTHOR: Emma Holly

COPYRIGHT: 2008
PAGES: 336
PUBLISHER: Berkley

SETTING: Alternate reality
TYPE: Erotic romance
SERIES: Part of the Tales of the Demon World series

The thrilling new erotic paranormal romance from the USA Today bestselling author

Fleeing the routine life her family wanted for her, Beth joins an archaeological dig spearheaded by her cousin Charles. For such an adventurer, the desert city of Bhamjran is perfect for making unusual discoveries-especially when it comes to forbidden appetites. Like his own unnatural desire for a Yama demon. And as he and Beth are about to learn, some Yama find humans equally irresistible...
This was this month's random pick from my TBR, and it was a random pick that made me happy when I saw what book it was. I like Emma Holly and most of her books have really worked for me, so I'm not too sure why it's been almost 10 years since I've read one.

This is part of Holly's series about the Yama. The earlier books were set in Ohram, which is basically an alternate version of Victorian England, where a race of very advanced beings who live underground have been discovered a few decades previously. The Yama (called "demons" by humans, due to markings on their tongues that make them look like they're forked) have all sorts of technology, which gives this world a quite steampunk feel. Queen Victoria quickly realised the potential benefits of access to their tech and allowed them to settle in her empire, but people are still really wary of them. Part of this is because of their physical appearance, but part of it is because of their penchant for feeding off humans' energy, an act that, although harmful to the human if uncontrolled, can be extremely pleasurable and sensual for both sides.

This particular book is set in what seems to be an alternate version of India, a country recently conquered by the Ohramese. This alternate India is matriarchal and people (particularly women) are a lot freer about their sexuality than in Ohram.

And in keeping with that attitude, what we have here is a ménage book. On one angle of the triangle we've got Prince Pahndir, who was a character in the previous book in the series, Prince of Ice (which I must confess I barely remember). Pahndir is a prince of the Yama, who lost his beloved soulmate when she killed himself. Since Yama get only one chance at a soulmate (and for royalty it's even worse, since they can't really have proper orgasms without this person), Pahndir fell to pieces at her death, which felt to him as a huge betrayal. His family, horrified at his lack of control, faked his death and sent him away, selling him to a brothel. He lived there for years, being used to train the prostitutes (this was where we met him in the previous book, where he was the heroine's friend). At the start of this book we see his rescue, and we see him again when he's running his own brothel (where everyone is wonderfully treated, of course).

Then we've got Charles, a young Ohramese working for an expedition that's excavating an ancient tomb close to the city. Charles's background has some things in common with Pahndir. He's not royal; in fact, he's far from it: his mother was a street prostitute. When she died he ended up in a brothel himself, but he carried with him her fear of the Yama, who had just started to get settled in Ohram, and although he was terribly intrigued and tempted by the concept of their feeding off his energy, he never allowed that particular act. He is still obsessed with this by the start of this book, and when he comes in contact with Pahndir, who makes it clear his kink can be easily accomodated, the temptation becomes too strong for him.

And then there's Beth. Beth is a sheltered young Ohramese woman working in the same expedition as Charles. She's the sister of the heroine of the first book in this series, and she doesn't have any horrible things in her past. She's just adventurous and fancies Charles madly. Turns out she also becomes fascinated by Pahndir.

For the first two thirds of the book, I mostly really liked this. I loved the main relationship. Pahndir is a vulnerable, lonely character, having almost accepted that there's no one out there for him. Charles is tortured by what he sees as his kinks and has to be dragged almost kicking and screaming into his relationship with both Pahndir and Beth. Beth... well, Beth is just horny. She might be a virgin, but she has absolutely no problem accepting her somewhat unorthodox desires and just going for it with Charles, with Pahndir, with both at the same time. She's up for pretty much anything, and I thought that was great.

But there was so much here that was problematic! There were some things in the first two thirds, but then things started getting really gross and horrible, and I ended up giving up about 75% in.

At the start of the book we've got a scene where Charles goes into Beth's room while she's sleeping and they do all sorts of sexual things while she sleeps. Definitely non-consensual, but fine, I was ok to go with this in this fantastical setting.

There's also a subplot about the ancient queen whose tomb Beth and Charles' expedition is excavating. The idea is that this queen, who was extremely powerful, was highly sexed, and by being in the tomb Beth has somehow been influenced by her and sort of absorbed her insatiable appetites and her powers. She has vivid dreams about the queen's life, and we get treated to the detail of one of them, in a long dream sequence. That dreams was clearly intended to be super hot, but it wasn't to me.  The queen has a harem of men, slaves sent in as tributes by all the many tribes she's conquered, and she chooses 5 each night. They're all desperate to serve her in that way. I was icked out by this. I know it's meant to be complete fantasy and I'm being humourless and earnest here, but the concept of having sex with slaves and this being portrayed as erotic is hugely problematic to me. I didn't really find that scene erotic in the least. Actually, I probably wouldn't have even if the men involved had not been slaves... this scene involved the queen being fucked by dozens of her slaves in one night.. all I could think was "gross" and "ouch!".

But since I could kind of ignore this and it didn't really affect the real protagonists' relationship, I kept going and mostly enjoying the book. What made me delete this angrily from my kindle was what happened when the suspense subplot got going. Basically, his family have found out that Pahndir has escaped the brothel, and fear he might try to come back. They have him kidnapped by a desert tribe of female assassins. And this casually leads to horrific sexual assault that is portrayed in a way that I thought was exploitative and titillating. There's loads of this, and even the rescue scene by Beth and Charles is horrendous (they decide that since they are outnumbered they need to pretend to be people sent by the villain to properly break their captive). I just could not stomach this crap, so gave up.

No. Just, no.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell

>> Thursday, April 14, 2016

TITLE: Eleanor and Park
AUTHOR: Rainbow Rowell

COPYRIGHT: 2012
PAGES: 336
PUBLISHER: St. Martin's

SETTING: 1980s US
TYPE: YA
SERIES: None

Eleanor is the new girl in town, and she's never felt more alone. All mismatched clothes, mad red hair and chaotic home life, she couldn't stick out more if she tried.

Then she takes the seat on the bus next to Park. Quiet, careful and - in Eleanor's eyes - impossibly cool, Park's worked out that flying under the radar is the best way to get by.

Slowly, steadily, through late-night conversations and an ever-growing stack of mix tapes, Eleanor and Park fall in love. They fall in love the way you do the first time, when you're 16, and you have nothing and everything to lose.

Set over the course of one school year in 1986, Eleanor & Park is funny, sad, shocking and true - an exquisite nostalgia trip for anyone who has never forgotten their first love.
I read this for my book club, although having loved Rowell's Attachments, I almost certainly would have picked it up at some point anyway.

This is the story of two 16-year-old misfits. Eleanor is resigned to the prospect of being the weird girl at her new school. With her horrible charity shop clothes, her crazy red hair and too-large body, she fully expects no one to slide over to let her sit on the school bus. Awful as that sort of thing is, it pales in comparison to her home life. Eleanor lives with her cowed mother, her siblings, and an abusive, alcoholic step-father. She's just come back to live with them after a year of living on family and acquaintances' sofas, after her step-father kicked her out.

She's shocked when Park silently moves over and wordlessly offers her the seat next to him. Park is not quite as much of a misfit as Eleanor, but he's definitely not mainstream. He's half-Korean in a neighbourhood where mixed-race families really aren't a thing, and he's into stuff like alternative music and comic books and wearing make-up. His parents love him (and each other), but they (and particularly his white father) don't get him at all.

Neither Park nor Eleanor mean to even talk to each other. They have enough trouble already. But they do, and they discover they have things in common. Slowly, they discover they like the same things and each other, and fall in love. But things aren't easy.

Eleanor and Park are fantastic characters. Reading about their lives is like a punch in the guts. Eleanor's life, in particular, was brilliantly done. We're not told everything at the beginning, we just know there is something obviously wrong in that house, and at the beginning we only get hints of the creepiness, like Richie not allowing shower curtains. As the book progresses, we see more and more details. How he's controlling. The way he turns the other kids into his allies. Eleanor has to be always on edge, always walking on eggshells, trying not to be noticed, not to set him off. Even thinking about living that way stresses me out, imagine actually having to go through it. Rowell builds the dread little by little by little, and it's very effective.

Eleanor's life is also a very affecting portrayal of poverty. There's one scene where she goes to her manchild dad's house to babysit and she thinks how he clearly has money, because there are all these luxuries lying around, and when she explains what she means, it's truly heartbreaking. She's talking about things like quilted loo roll.

Park's home-life, in contrast, seems like paradise to her. They're not rich, but there's enough to live well and for little luxuries (like a walkman). When she's there, she's liked and appreciated and treated with respect, even fondness. It's not perfection for Park, though. He knows he's not the son his father would like, a kid into sports and hunting and cars. His dad doesn't know what to do with a son like Park, and though he doesn't do it on purpose, this comes through loud and clear, and Park hurts.

I was completely into these two and their lives, fully absorbed and engaged. What I wasn't absorbed and engaged in, however, was the romance. And since this is a huge part of the story, it made the book as a whole not work that well for me. My problem was that it felt corny and, honestly, a bit cringey. YA romance is almost never my thing, and this one wasn't, either. I actually would have much preferred it if they'd simply been friends.

Also, there is a heavy dose of nostalgia here. The book is set in 1986 in Omaha, Nebraska, and the music and pop culture of the time are huge elements. I feel no nostalgia or fondness for any of that (it's not that I dislike it, it's just not something that's part of my culture), so all that was simply meh for me.

Still, I liked Eleanor and Park enough individually that it mostly compensates for the fact that I didn't care for them together.

MY GRADE: A B.

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Graceling, by Kristin Cashore

>> Tuesday, April 12, 2016

TITLE: Graceling
AUTHOR: Kristin Cashore

COPYRIGHT: 2008
PAGES: 471
PUBLISHER: Harcourt

SETTING: Fantasy world
TYPE: Fantasy
SERIES: Graceling Realms #1, follows Fire chronologically.

In a world where people born with an extreme skill - called a Grace - are feared and exploited, Katsa carries the burden of the skill even she despises: the Grace of killing. She lives under the command of her uncle Randa, King of the Middluns, and is expected to execute his dirty work, punishing and torturing anyone who displeases him.

When she first meets Prince Po, who is Graced with combat skills, Katsa has no hint of how her life is about to change.

She never expects to become Po's friend.

She never expects to learn a new truth about her own Grace - or about a terrible secret that lies hidden far away...a secret that could destroy all seven kingdoms with words alone.
This is the first book in Cashore's Graceling Realm series. Well, it's the first one that came out, but chronologically, Fire takes place first, which is why I started with that one.

This takes place, not in the same place, but in the same world as Fire, some 35 years later. The Middluns is a place where a small number of people are born with what's called a Grace, an affinity and inborn ability to do something, to the point that they are incredibly good at it. Graces can go from the mundane (say, being a preternaturally good baker) to the dangerous. Katsa's is an example of the latter. Her Grace is killing.

You can't hide that you have a Grace (the mismatched eyes are a dead giveaway), and Katsa also happens to be the King's niece, so it was even more impossible. Graced individuals belong to the King by law, and King Randa finds Katsa very useful indeed. She takes care of all his dirty work and is crucial to his keeping an iron grip on power.

Having been raised to do this for her uncle, Katsa doesn't even consider the possibility of refusing to obey his orders. But she's not comfortable with the work she does, and this has led to after-hours work with the Council. The Council is a group set up by Katsa and the very few people she trusts fully to help fight injustice. The work they do makes her feel her Grace is finally being put to good use.

It is on a mission for the Council that Katsa encounters Prince Po. And that's when things start to change.

I don't want to say much more about the plot, because one of the things I absolutely loved about reading this was not knowing where things were going. All I'll say is that there is adventure and excitement and tough decisions, and through it, Katsa finally comes into her own. For all her power, the restrictions on how this power can be used have prevented her from being her own woman. The process of her throwing off her shackles and achieving true control over her own life is really, really satisfying.

Although there is so much plot and adventure here that I'd hesitate to call this a character-driven novel, I will say that the characters are really strong. Katsa herself is fantastic, but so are all the secondary characters (except, perhaps, the villain, who felt a bit more sketchily drawn). These people felt real, and I loved to see how the different relationships developed. I particularly loved the romance, even though it wasn't the focus of the novel. I loved that Katsa gains strength through it, and that Cashore never feels she needs to bring her down to make her and Po more evenly matched. And the conclusion is one that might be considered unconventional by some, but I absolutely thought it was the right one, and I loved it.

This series is amazing, and I hope Cashore publishes something (anything!) else soon.

MY GRADE: An A-.

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