The Man In The Brown Suit, by Agatha Christie

>> Monday, September 22, 2014

TITLE: The Man In The Brown Suit
AUTHOR: Agatha Christie

COPYRIGHT: 1924
PAGES: 292
PUBLISHER: Harper Collins

SETTING: 1920s England and South Africa
TYPE: Thriller
SERIES: None, although one of the secondary characters does appear in later books

The newly-orphaned Anne Beddingfield came to London expecting excitement. She didn't expect to find it on the platform of Hyde Park Corner tube station. When a fellow passenger pitches onto the rails and is electrocuted, the 'doctor' on the scene seems intent on searching the victim rather than examining him...

Armed with a single clue, Anne finds herself struggling to unmask a faceless killer known only as 'The Colonel' - while 'The Colonel' struggles to eliminate her...

I've mentioned before that I basically cut my teeth on Agatha Christie's novels. My mum and dad had them collected in these tomes that looked like they should contain the entire works of Shakespeare... you know the kind: onion skin-type paper, thick burgundy covers. I tore through them. The Man in the Brown Suit was one of my favourites, possibly because it had a bit of romance in it. This was right before I discovered the romance genre proper (I must have been in my very early teens), so I came back to it again and again.

Well, now I'm in my mid 30s, and I hadn't reread it for a very long time. How would it work for me, after all these years?

The story is not typical Christie. It's an adventure/caper type, rather than a cozy mystery. It's probably closest to They Came To Baghdad, with a young, plucky heroine, all alone in the world, an exotic location and a plot involving the usual staples of spies/international super-villains/mysterious assignations.

Our heroine is Anne Beddingfeld. She's spent all her life buried in a tiny village, keeping house for her absent-minded professor-type father. Now he's died, and all Anne wants is some adventure and excitement. Excitement finds her while temporarily staying in London with family friends. She's waiting in a Tube station, on her way back from a job interview, when she witnesses the death of a man who falls on the tracks and is electrocuted.

It turns out that there seems to be a connection between the dead man and the strangling of a mysterious foreign woman, and Anne finds herself in possession of what she's sure is a clue. The police don't agree, so Anne decides to investigate on her own. And within days, her investigation sees her ensconced in a first-class cabin on a ship to South Africa. There are suspicious characters and mysterious events galore. And it's clear that the villains have noticed Anne, and her investigations are seen as a threat!

This time around, I had very mixed feelings about TMITBS. The romance was a complete bust. It was very dated, all full of admiration for brutal, masterful men. Anne basically raves over her love interest's dangerousness, and because she's attracted to him, she completely refuses to believe he may have been involved in the murder of the foreign woman, all evidence to the contrary. She even thinks "he may have gone to the house intending to kill her, but I'm sure he didn't", and feels hatred towards the dead woman "because he must have loved her at some point". This spot of victim-blaming is long before she knows any details. Ugh.

However, I did actually still enjoy quite a bit of the book, because the romance was such a small part of it. The intrigue is just fun, full of running around and derring-do and tales about lost diamonds. The plot (especially the way Anne gets involved in it all) is very far-fetched, but I was willing to go with it. And apart from her awful taste in men, Anne is wonderfully resourceful and cool-headed, and often saves herself.

I also quite liked the cast of secondary characters. They are fun and fully realised. There's Suzanne, an older married woman with whom Anne forms a friendship. There's Colonel Race, the perfect example of the "strong, silent Rhodesian" type Anne so admires, but a man who makes her very nervous. There's the eccentric Sir Eustace Pedler MP, hounded into doing work he has no interest in doing by his surfeit of secretaries. And one of those secretaries is a particular favourite: Guy Pagett, a man with a sinister, 15th century poisoner's face and an extremely respectable soul.

Finally, the book has a very strong sense of place, which is is both a blessing and a curse. A large section of it takes place in South Africa, but it's not just that. I also loved the glimpses we got of 1920s England and the sections onboard the ship. Still, South Africa is the most interesting -and most problematic. Anne writes that she's not going to do a travelogue for us, but her descriptions still create a very vivid portrayal of the setting. Also, as far as I can tell, the action takes place during the Rand Rebellion. All we're told is that there is unrest and fighting, and several of the characters discuss the "labour situation" and Sir Eustace has ostensibly been asked to play some sort of role in negotiations. It's assumed that the reader knows what's going on. And I suppose at the time readers would have. I didn't mind that at all, but then when I did a bit of research about it and found out what this was all about, the fact that Anne doesn't seem to have an opinion or even care about what's going on seemed very problematic.

But, alas, that wasn't even the most problematic element. The overt racism is actually quite horrific. Black South Africans are almost completely erased. They are barely noticed, other than as, say, natives swarming round the train selling "darling wooden animals". The low point for me was when Anne and her man are together in an isolated place after an incident, and she's talking about how they are alone together. They're not actually alone, though, because a "native woman" who keeps house for this man is there too. But no, they're actually alone, because "Old Batani hovered about, counting no more than a dog might have done." Of its time, of course, but still very jarring and upsetting.

MY GRADE: I can't give this more than a B-.

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To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris

>> Saturday, September 20, 2014

TITLE: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
AUTHOR: Joshua Ferris

COPYRIGHT: 2014
PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Little Brown

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

Paul O'Rourke is a man made of contradictions: he loves the world, but doesn't know how to live in it. He's a Luddite addicted to his iPhone, a dentist with a nicotine habit, a rabid Red Sox fan devastated by their victories, and an atheist not quite willing to let go of God.

Then someone begins to impersonate Paul online, and he watches in horror as a website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account are created in his name. What begins as an outrageous violation of his privacy soon becomes something more soul-frightening: the possibility that the online "Paul" might be a better version of the real thing. As Paul's quest to learn why his identity has been stolen deepens, he is forced to confront his troubled past and his uncertain future in a life disturbingly split between the real and the virtual.

At once laugh-out-loud funny about the absurdities of the modern world, and indelibly profound about the eternal questions of the meaning of life, love and truth, TO RISE AGAIN AT A DECENT HOUR is a deeply moving and constantly surprising tour de force.

If there's a type of book that's "Man Booker material", this is not it, at least at first sight. When you actually read it, though, you see why it made it through to the shortlist this year.

To Rise Again At A Decent Hour is about Paul O'Rourke, a New York dentist with a thriving practice and a sense of dissatisfaction with life. His dental surgery is doing great in spite of not having an online presence. And then it does. Someone has created a website for the surgery, and on Paul's bio there's some weird Biblical-sounding mumbo-jumbo. And things escalate. The fake Dr. Paul C. O'Rourke creates all sorts of accounts on social media, and he starts putting out all sorts of weird shit in Paul's name. Fake-Paul is devoted to getting out the word about the Ulm, a lost tribe of Israel even more persecuted than the Jews (in fact, persecuted by the Jews). And before long, Paul is involved in an ever-more-absorbing email exchange with his alter-ego.

This is one truly funny book. Ferris can really write. Some of the dialogue is fantastic, especially Paul's interactions with the people in his surgery. I kept laughing out loud when reading his conversations with Betsey, one of his dental hygienist. We get only her half of the conversation: Paul reports what she said, and then says "I told her." and then what she says back to him, and it works beautifully. Fantastic stuff. Oh, and the way he describes people! So deft, just with a few words.

But this is a comic novel about some very serious things: the meaning of life, no less. Paul is a man desperately in search of something bigger than him, something that will give meaning to his life. His life has been a constant cycle of unsuccesful attempts at devoting himself to all sorts of things that he hopes will do it. Baseball, girlfriends with very religious families, anything will do it. And now he gets drawn into the chance of being part of the select group of the Ulms. Is it any wonder that he finds this irresistible? He's exactly the sort of person who would, atheist or not. But is this actually happening, or is it all in his mind?

This seriousness bangs against the mundane world of Paul's surgery in a way that jars, but at the same time feels quite right. However, I felt the whole thing lacked a sense of resolution. It felt somewhat unfinished, like it just needed something to make the whole thing click properly. I still enjoyed it, but it was not my favourite of the bunch.

MY GRADE: A B.

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

>> Thursday, September 18, 2014

TITLE: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
AUTHOR: Karen Joy Fowler

COPYRIGHT: 2014
PAGES: 321
PUBLISHER: Serpent's Tail

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

Rosemary's young, just at college, and she's decided not to tell anyone a thing about her family. So we're not going to tell you too much either: you'll have to find out for yourselves, round about page 77, what it is that makes her unhappy family unlike any other.

Rosemary is now an only child, but she used to have a sister the same age as her, and an older brother. Both are now gone - vanished from her life. There's something unique about Rosemary's sister, Fern. And it was this decision, made by her parents, to give Rosemary a sister like no other, that began all of Rosemary's trouble. So now she's telling her story: full of hilarious asides and brilliantly spiky lines, it's a looping narrative that begins towards the end, and then goes back to the beginning. Twice.

Right, so I should probably get a move on posting the reviews for my Man Booker project reading before the winner is announced! I read this one before the shortlist came out, purely because it sounded great (trying to guess what would be on the shortlist hasn't been the most successful strategy in previous years), and it's actually made it through. It's probably the one title there that would have been commercially very successful regardless of its inclusion, too.

We meet Rosemary Cook at the point she herself tells us is the middle of her story. It's 1996, and Rosemary is in university, a quiet young woman determined not to share any details about her family history. We know she once had a brother and a sister, Lowell and Fern, but that Lowell has run away, while Fern is not in the picture any longer. We also know that there's something about their family that Rosemary knows will change other people's perception of her, but for a while, we're not quite sure what it is.

And then Fowler takes as back and forth in time to find out just what made Rosemary's family unique and what happened to destroy it. But there is not just a truth; we have to contend with memory and how that can distort things. And through almost-random vignettes of Rosemary's childhood, we slowly discover the secrets about what happened to Fern.

Fowler has some really interesting things to say about big things like how families work, the nature of sisterhood, the treachery of memory, animal rights, and activism. But she's also a fantastic storyteller, and she creates characters that feel real and that I cared about. In fact, I actually cried. There's a particular point when Rosemary is at a lecture and the lecturer talks about a certain research, which turns out to raise some possibilities about something that Fern might have experienced. Rosemary is devastated, can't stop thinking about it, and I completely understood. It's the idea of someone suddenly being moved from a situation where she's important and valued into one where she's not, and not only can the most horrible, violent things happen to her, no one will particularly give a shit. Oh, even thinking about it makes my stomach clench. And yes, I know that it should be just as upsetting for anyone to be put in such a situation, but for some reason, when it's someone who's known a better life, it seems to hit me much worse. Sorry, this will sound cryptic to anyone who hasn't read the book yet, so the tl;dr version: there is a lot of emotion here, and it's honestly earned.

I also loved the way this story was told. There is a lot of experimentation and playing with structure in this year's Man Booker books, and Fowler uses to excellent effect. The moving around between timelines and the way Rosemary directly addresses the reader and openly discusses her choices in how she's telling us her story, it all goes to developing some of her themes, especially that of memory. I should mention, too, it doesn't make the book hard to read. In fact, it's very readable. I couldn't put it down.

It's also a satisfying book, really satisfying, mainly because of the ending. It wasn't a fairy tale ending, but one that really comforted me and made me close the book with a happy sigh. Highly recommended. If you do decide to read it, though, do not, I repeat, DO NOT, read other reviews. The chances of seeing spoilers are very high, and you really don't want that to happen (if it does happen, though, never mind. I was spoilt, and I still loved it. I just think I would have loved it even better if I hadn't been).

MY GRADE: An A-.

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Mark of Cain, by Kate Sherwood

>> Monday, September 15, 2014

TITLE: Mark of Cain
AUTHOR: Kate Sherwood

COPYRIGHT: 2014
PAGES: 338
PUBLISHER: Samhain

SETTING: Contemporary Canada
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: None

When a man is consumed by hatred, is there anything left to love?

After a tough day of counseling sessions, Anglican priest Mark Webber is looking forward to a relaxing dinner at a local restaurant. When he sees who’s bellied up to the bar, though, he reaches for his cell phone to call the police.

It’s Lucas Cain, the man who killed Mark’s brother three years ago. Apparently he’s out of jail and hanging out with his old crowd, which has to be a breach of parole, right?

Pulled over upon leaving the bar, Lucas blows a clean breathalyzer and hopes this isn’t a harbinger of things to come. He’s ready to build a sober, peaceful life. His friends aren’t ready to let him move on, though, and he ends up taking refuge in an Anglican half-way house.

Thrown together, Mark and Lucas find common ground in the struggle to help a young gay man come to terms with his sexuality—and the fight against homophobic townsfolk. As attraction grows, the past is the last stumbling block between them and a future filled with hope.

A romance between an ex-con and the brother of the man he killed? I found the idea intriguing when Sherwood posted about it on the Dear Author promo thread for authors. The premise has the potential to be pretty awful, but I liked the way the author described it. It sounded like she was actually interested in exploring themes of redemption and forgiveness. So I bought it, and I'm very glad I did.

Lucas Cain is just out of prison after spending 3 years in for manslaughter. On a night out with his friends when he was 19, Lucas got into a fight, just the latest of many. He was completely wasted, and the fight ended when he hit his opponent over the head with a bottle. The man died, and Lucas was sent to prison. In there, he was a model prisoner, and he's managed to get parole.

The small town he comes back to is divided on him. Many are angry that he did only 3 years, and none more than the dead man's family. This includes his brother, Father Mark Webber, an Anglican priest, who is outraged that someone like Lucas can be out so fast, when his brother will be dead forever.

Lucas' old rabble-rousing friends, on the other hand, are delighted to have him back. Now they can just forget about the last 3 years and things can go back to normal: i.e. nights out partying hard and fighting just as hard.

But the Lucas who came out of prison is not the same as the man who went in. He was comparatively lucky, in that he ended up in a pretty good place. Prison did the job it's meant to do, and Lucas was both punished and rehabilitated. He's come out having completely repented for what he did. He's determined to keep his nose clean and make sure he doesn't go back to prison for breaching his parole, even though part of him is not sure he deserves his freedom. After all, he's still alive, while the man he hit is dead forever.

Unfortunately, his friends don't get that, and he ends up estranged from them. With nowhere to go, his parole officer arranges for him to stay at the church-run halfway house. And it just happens that it's the Anglican church that runs it, and one of the priests who's most involved in it is Mark.

I think this book works so well because Sherwood takes her time. The romance doesn't start straight away. In fact, there's not one hint of romance between Lucas and Mark until almost halfway through. In that first half, both are dealing with their own issues and there are some very limited interactions between them. As I was reading (and really enjoying) that half, I wondered if having these two fall in love would not be a step too far, especially considering Mark's parents and their very uncompromising attitude.

But it does work. Circumstances bring them into contact in ways that I found plausible, and they start getting to know each other almost despite themselves. They each like what they see of the person the other really is, and that slowly develops into a very satisfying romance. It was wonderfully done.

I loved the romance, but this book is more than just good because there's so much more to it. I mentioned earlier that both main characters are struggling with their own issues, and those are truly different and fascinating.

Lucas desperately wants to make a life for himself after jail, but it's not easy. His friends and their families are, in effect, his family, but they want him to be someone he's not, and he loses his entire support structure in one blow. It's especially hard with his friend Sean, who really does seem to care about him. And it's not plain sailing either with others in the town. I thought that was really well done, because it's a very mixed situation. There are people who will absolutely not give Lucas a fair chance (including some in the police), while others are trying very hard to make help him (including others in the police, and his parole officer). And Lucas' struggles are complicated by how guilty he still feels about what he did, and how part of him feels he deserves the mistreatment. I was gripped.

That said, I did feel that Lucas was maybe a bit too good to be true. Because of that, I found Mark an even more interesting character. He's having to fight his impulses to get vengeance for his brother (even if we're just talking about things like reporting to the police that this man who's on parole seems to be drinking alcohol), because it conflicts with his deeply-held ideals about redemption and forgiveness. But Mark is also dealing with issues with the way the Anglican church deals with its gay priests and, in his view, don't fully accept them. He does appreciate that his church is more liberal than most other churches or religions on this issue, but it is slow to make changes that go deeper than the surface fact of allowing priests to be out and continue being priests. It frustrates him that instead of making a moral decision and seeking to lead their congregation, the church hierarchy seems more interesting in trying not to offend anyone. At the same time, the church is not demonised. Mark understands their point of view, and it's clear they're trying to do things as best they can, but it comes to a point where he needs to decide whether this is the right place for him. It's a thoughtful exploration of the issue, and I appreciated it. Church politics as conflict in m/m romance, who knew it could work so well?

So yeah, a complete success for me, this one. Kate Sherwood seems to have a pretty long backlist, so I'm looking forward to more reads along the lines of this one, with well-developed characters and a thoughtful exploration of issues beyond the romance. If any of you have read more from her, I'd really appreciate some suggestions for where to start.

MY GRADE: An A.

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Carolina Girl, by Virginia Kantra

>> Sunday, September 14, 2014

TITLE: Carolina Girl
AUTHOR: Virginia Kantra

COPYRIGHT: 2013
PAGES: 312
PUBLISHER: Berkley

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Follows Carolina Home.

Ambitious Meg, the daughter who never looked back
Steady Matt, the son who stayed
And rebel Luke, the Marine who thought he’d never return


Meg Fletcher spent her childhood dreaming of escaping Dare Island—her family’s home for generations. So after she landed a high-powered job in New York City, she left and never looked back. But when she loses both her job and the support of her long-term, live-in boyfriend, she returns home to lick her wounds and reevaluate her life.

Helping out her parents at the family inn, she can’t avoid the reminders of the past she’d rather forget—especially charming and successful Sam Grady, her brother's best friend. Their one disastrous night of teenage passion should have forever killed their childhood attraction, but Sam seems determined to reignite those long-buried embers. As Meg discovers the man he’s become, she’s tempted to open her vulnerable heart to him. But she has no intention of staying on Dare Island—no matter how seductive Sam’s embrace might be...

I liked book 1 in this series very much. It reminded me of classic Nora Roberts trilogies like the Chesapeake Bay one. There was a nice romance, plus quite a bit of family drama that was presented as storylines that would develop throughout the entire series. At the end of Carolina Home, I wanted to know more about Taylor, the daughter of the youngest brother, who no one knew existed until a few months earlier, and I wanted to know what would happen to Tess, the three siblings' mum, after her car accident.

The premise of this one, book 2 in the series, didn't really appeal to me. It's all about Meg, who left the island as soon as she could, determined to make it in the big city. She's almost there, with a VP job at a large company, a boyfriend who's the CFO at her company, plus a new condo they've just bought together. And then Meg is fired, and comes back to the island to lick her wounds. And there, hanging around, is Sam Grady, old friend of her brother's. Sam and Meg had a one-night stand right before leaving for university, and Sam seems to think there's unfinished business between them.

The reason this setup makes me so wary is because it has the potential for being all about small town=good, big city=evil. And unfortunately, that's exactly what this book was, at least in the first third, after which point I gave up in disgust.

Meg's life in New York is portrayed as all emptiness and cold sterility. She gets no satisfaction from her job, only money. Her relationship with her boyfriend is completely devoid of any warmth or caring. She has seemingly no friends at all. Because obviously, you can't get any sort of fulfillment or happiness while living in a big city, working in a senior management job, or with a man who doesn't work with his hands. Excuse me while I go cry in a corner about my horrible life. How deluded I've been, thinking I was happy.

What does Meg need to be happy? Why, Meg needs a man who can bully, harass, badger and guilt-trip into wanting the sort of life he thinks she should want. Because he obviously knows best. And that's Sam. I hated his overbearing, entitled guts. My hatred started when he decides that Meg and her boyfriend clearly don't love each other because they haven't got married after 6 years together (no commitment or love without marriage, in Sam's worldview, even though his father has had more than a few failed marriages in his time). And then he keeps sexually harassing Meg, constantly cornering her and snogging and groping her, even though she has said quite clearly that she's with her boyfriend and is not going to cheat on him. But since Sam has decided this isn't a real relationship (too long without getting married, remember), Meg therefore doesn't have a real reson to reject his advances and all her protestations should be disregarded. Of course, Meg doesn't help herself by not being able to resist him when he kisses her. Kantra doesn't explicitly use the words "traitorous body" (*shudders*), but it's as if she had.

Bah!

MY GRADE: It was a DNF.

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Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

>> Friday, September 12, 2014

TITLE: Cloud Atlas
AUTHOR: David Mitchell

COPYRIGHT: 204
PAGES: 528
PUBLISHER: Random House

SETTING: Varies
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

A postmodern visionary who is also a master of styles of genres, David Mitchell combines flat-out adventure, a Nabokovian lore of puzzles, a keen eye for character, and a taste for mind-bending philosophical and scientific speculation in the tradition of Umberto Eco and Philip K. Dick. The result is brilliantly original fiction that reveals how disparate people connect, how their fates intertwine, and how their souls drift across time like clouds across the sky..

Cloud Atlas is structured like 6 open books stacked on top of each other and then closed. We start with the first half of story 1, which is a journal written by a 19th century man travelling in the South Pacific. This is followed by the first half of story 2, an epistolary piece detailing the escapades of a young English composer in late 1930s Belgium. And then, as you might guess, the first halves of stories 3 (a noirish thriller set in the 1970s, starring Luisa Rey, a plucky reporter investigating a nuclear power station), 4 (the picaresque memoirs of Timothy Cavendish, an old editor and all-around cad, set at about the present time) and 5 (the testimony of Sonmi~451, a kind of clone living in Korea in the relatively near future, and who was born into the service of a corporation that owns her). And as we come closer to the middle of the book, we get the whole of story 6: the story of Zachry, a young man living in a post-civilisation world.

I must admit I wasn't too engaged by the start of the first story, but by the time I got to the second one, I was off. I liked each more than the previous one, but -funny thing-, my enjoyment didn't diminish all that much after I finished the sixth and started to go back to the earlier ones.

The middle, post-apocalyptic story was absolutely my favourite, though. The language was amazing. It's a sort of dialect (it's called "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After", which gives you a bit of an idea), and it's done in a way that completely makes sense. I must say, though, I listened to the audiobook, which made it much less challenging than it would have been to read it. Not only that, it really brought out the amazing poetic rhythm of it, which I loved. It was a fantastic story, as well, and I particularly enjoyed the friendship between Zachry and Meronym, the older woman from a part of the world which seems to have retained much more advanced technology. It's a violent, sad story, but brilliant.

The Sonmi~451 story was almost as fascinating. I had some issues with the setting, though. It felt a bit heavy-handed, so much so that although I completely agree with the danger of what Mitchell's trying to highlight, the increased influence of corporations, I felt it was a bit too much.

Those two were the most original. The others felt more like Mitchell was playing with the conventions of different genres, although as they continued, they came into their own and became enjoyable stories in their own right, rather than simply experiments. With The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, at one point it became pretty kafkaesque (think The Trial), and I thought I really, really didn't want to read this. But then the focus moved from the horribly frustrating situation to being a sort of picaresque escape caper, and I adored it.

There are connections between the different stories (e.g. in story 2, the protagonist finds pages from the journals that make up story 1, although this is a very minor part of the story). These increased as the book went along and I started to see the point of them and why this wasn't just a collection of independent stories. It is about just that, stories. It's about how who we are and what we do can survive as a story, and how this can have an impact in the future.

Finally, I should probably mention, I expected this to be much more difficult to read than it actually was. It seems to have that reputation. There's certainly complexity in the echoing and thematic links between the different stories, and I'm sure it must have been incredibly complicated to write, but as a reader, I found it a cracking good story.

MY GRADE: An A-.

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Tales of the City, by Armistead Maupin

>> Wednesday, September 10, 2014

TITLE: Tales of the City
AUTHOR: Armistead Maupin

COPYRIGHT: 1978
PAGES: 386
PUBLISHER: Harper Collins

SETTING: 1976 San Francisco
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: Starts a series

.For almost four decades Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City has blazed its own trail through popular culture—from a groundbreaking newspaper serial to a classic novel, to a television event that entranced millions around the world. The first of nine novels about the denizens of the mythic apartment house at 28 Barbary Lane, Tales is both a sparkling comedy of manners and an indelible portrait of an era that changed forever the way we live.

There seems to be amongst my friends a lot of love for the Tales of the City series, so I thought I'd try the first one. It started life as a newspaper serial about a group of people in 1976 San Francisco, and the action is centred round the building ran by excentric landlady Anna Madrigal. There are loads of characters, including the somewhat naive Mary Anne Singleton, newly-arrived from Cleveland; her friend Connie and neighbour Mona, both of whom are really into the swing of things in town; her friend Michael, who's out and proud, and of course, Mrs. Madrigal herself.

I thought I'd love this, but I didn't. I listened to about 2 and a half hours (out of a total 10), but I wasn't feeling it and didn't really want to continue. There were things I really liked, like just how 70s it was. I actually thought that it must have been written quite a bit later, because the 70s-ness of it was so overpowering it was almost self-conscious, but nope, the copyright is 1978, so the original serial must have come out around the time it's set.

I just felt there were way too many characters and I didn't get to know them enough to actually care much about any of them or understand who they were. Mary Anne, for instance, is supposed to be quite serious and she gave off a vibe of being reluctant to just dive into the fun, but then she goes and starts an affair with the extremely sleazy son-in-law of her boss. In fact, all the men are really sleazy, and I didn't particularly like any of the women, except for Mrs. Madrigal. Now she was intriguing, and I'd have liked to know more about her, because she seems to be a woman with some secrets. My theory is that she's trans, but I'm not quite sure what made me think that. If that's the case, I suppose that's one of the reasons why this series is so beloved, because she's a very sympathetic character. I do wish I'd liked this better.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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Close Enough to Touch, by Victoria Dahl

>> Monday, September 08, 2014

TITLE: Close Enough to Touch
AUTHOR: Victoria Dahl

COPYRIGHT: 2012
PAGES: 384
PUBLISHER: HQN

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 1st in the Jackson Hole series

For makeup artist Grace Barrett, Hollywood isn't the land of golden opportunity. It's the land of difficult divas, cheating boyfriends and unemployment. So when her great-aunt offers her a free place to stay in Jackson Hole, Grace thinks she'll spend a little time in the sticks to figure out her life, and then move somewhere exciting to live out her dreams. But it turns out that there are a few more thrills in this small town than Grace was expecting….

Cole Rawlins is a rugged Wyoming cowboy born and bred. Yet he can't help but be drawn to the fascinating big-city girl who moves in across from him. He wants to get close enough to Grace to see past her tough facade, but if he does, she might see the real Cole. The one with a Hollywood history gone bad. As they discover a sizzling attraction, it becomes harder for him to keep his demons at bay—and those fires from long ago may burn them both.

They'll need more than scorching-hot passion to make this opposites-attract affair work. But if they can learn to trust one another enough to reveal their secrets, they just might have a chance at forever.

This book has had very lukewarm reviews (full-blown negative reviews, in many cases), so it's taken me a while to get to it. I started this series with book 3, So Tough To Tame. I loved it. It reminded me of what I love so much about Victoria Dahl's contemporaries, so I decided to read this one, bad reviews or not.

When Grace Barrett gets off the bus in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, she's got all she owns in the world in a rucksack and her funds are down to about $40. A successful career as a makeup artist in Hollywood ended in disaster when she let herself be pushed by her boyfriend into trying to get into the A-list world. Working with big stars and producers required a lot more brown-nosing than prickly Grace was easily able to engage in, and she ended up blacklisted. Turns out the boyfriend was mainly interested in her for the access to the Hollywood scene she could provide, and before long, Grace was pretty much on the street, with her boyfriend accusing her of stealing from him.

Grace has a chance to get another job in Vancouver in a few months, but in the meantime, she needs somewhere to stay. Which is how she ends up taking up her great-aunt on her grudging offer of a free flat in the building she owns in Jackson Hole.

Cole Rawlings rents a flat in the same building. He used to live on the ranch where he works and which he's planning on buying from the owner and good friend, but he had an accident. A horse rolled on him, and badly broke some of his bones. Cole is recovering, but he's terrified that his bones won't heal well enough to allow him back on his horse.

Grace's arrival provides the perfect distraction. She's exactly the sort of edgy, dangerous woman that he finds really exciting, even though he tells himself he shouldn't. And before long, they've both given in to this attraction. But life has taught Grace to keep her barriers high, and it's not easy for Cole to get past them.

I think the main reason people didn't like this book is Grace. She is prickly, very, very prickly. She doesn't want to need or want anyone, and with good reason. She has had a hard life, and her relationships with men have mostly been about them wanting to use her. Her response to that has been to use them right back. That makes for a sex life she enjoys, but not much caring. With Cole, she tries to apply her usual MO, but it's harder than usual.

Cole has his own issues, in addition to his worries about his hip and what not making a full recovery might mean for his future. His liking for dangerous women led to a stint in Hollywood which left him with very little self-respect. He's since rebuilt it, but still has a huge aversion to anything to do with the film industry. That felt, at first, a bit OTT. I was afraid it would be this massive barrier between him and Grace: "you once worked in Hollywood, therefore you're forever tainted". Well, Dahl is too good to make her conflict something as dumb as that. Cole's discomfort with the culture of Hollywood is understandable, it's the story of every starlet who thought a party life sounded great and ended up doing stuff that's supposed to be fun and glamorous but actually makes them feel really uncomfortable and dehumanised. He's taken refuge in going back to the ranching life, and then a film crew turns up at his ranch, and it was Grace who (completely innocently) suggested it as a possible location. Having his old life, complete with its old protagonists, show up in his refuge freaks him out. He does lash out at Grace once, but he's a reasonable person. He immediately realises his reaction was wrong.

Their relationship was one I enjoyed. I think what I liked most is that Grace's change doesn't only come about because of Cole's love. Female friendship is shown to be just as important to her character development. She has only ever had one friend, Merry (who's the protagonist of book 2 of the series), but she lives a long way away, and she's know Grace for a very long time. To Grace, it's really important to realise that people actually like her and appreciate her as she is now, with all her prickliness and bagagge. She can have girlfriends, and realising that they like her makes it easier to like herself and to accept that Cole could love her.

One of the people who Grace realises cares for her is Rayleen, the owner of the Stud Farm (and Grace's great aunt). Rayleen was pretty much the only thing that didn't work for me in So Tough To Tame. She rents her flats only to hot cowboys and constantly makes sexual, objectifying comments to them. She is the female equivalent of the dirty old man, and it's all portrayed as hilarious. I wish I'd read this one first, because I probably would have felt much more charitably towards her if I had. She was nowhere near as offensive in this one, and worked very well as a view of what the future might hold for Grace if she continues to push people away. I felt quite moved by Rayleen, actually. She mostly comes across as an awkward person who doesn't quite know how to get close to people, though she desperately wants to. There's a scene where she unexpectedly shows up at a girls' night that actually made me tear up.

MY GRADE: A B+.

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Buried, by Kendra Elliot

>> Saturday, September 06, 2014

TITLE: Buried
AUTHOR: Kendra Elliot

COPYRIGHT: 2013
PAGES: 362
PUBLISHER: Montlake

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Romantic Suspense
SERIES: Part of the Bone Secrets series.

Eighteen years ago, Chris Jacobs walked out of the forest, the lone survivor of a school bus load of children who’d vanished two years before. His memory was gone, his body beaten and emaciated.

Today, the sad remains of the missing children have been discovered along with evidence that they were held captive for years. But investigative reporter Michael Brody’s brother is still missing. He sets out to question Chris, hoping his memory has returned.

Constant fear of being found by his kidnapper has driven Chris into hiding. The only lead Michael has is Chris’s sister, Jamie. As they race to find Chris, Michael and Jamie somehow find each other among the decades of wreckage. But locating Chris may not be so easy. Now grown, his scars go far deeper than skin.

In Buried, the next thrilling Bone Secrets novel from bestselling author Kendra Elliot, a damaged hero digs deep into his terrifying past…and unearths a chance at love for the future.

I was drawn to this one purely by the really intriguing setup. Twenty years ago, a school bus carrying students from an expensive private academy disappeared into thin air. Not a trace was ever found. As the book starts, it's 2 years after that, and a starving, weakened young boy named Chris Jacobs walks out of the woods. He's one of the kids who was on that bus.

We then move on to the present day, 18 years later. We find out that Chris was never able to provide any information, beyond the fact that he showed signs of torture. He had a head injury and even spent a few months in a coma, and after that he always claimed he could not remember a thing.

The police have given up on finding anything, until the chance discovery of human remains in a barn deep in the woods. The skeletons are identified as the teacher who was on the school bus and all but one of the missing children.

Michael Brody, a journalist, is the older brother of the one missing child whose body was not found. He's determined to find out what happened to his brother, and for that he needs to talk to Chris Jacobs and somehow make him remember. But Chris is a very reclusive man who's living completely off the grid, and Michael's only hope of finding him is through his younger sister, Jamie.

I gave up on this after listening to about 2 hours of the total 10. It just wasn't very good. The writing was clunky and pedestrian (I got bored of having every single POV character gushing about how other characters were oh-so-hot and oh-so-sexy), and the characters' reactions were too often on the baffling side. They kept thinking and doing and saying things that came off as completely inappropriate for the circumstances. Like, Michael comes over to Jamie to discuss the discovery of the kids' bodies, and Jamie gets hung up on how his eyelashes are so dense and black and what a waste it is for a man to have such great eyelashes and she remembers every tube of mascara she's ever had to buy and... what the hell? These characters just didn't behave like real people.

Also, I didn't trust that the decisions by some characters to withhold crucial information really made sense, other than to make the plot work in particular ways. Chris is the most obvious one. With so many other kids missing and his very existence proof that more could be alive, I didn't quite buy that he would have been basically left alone after a little while. We are told early on that he does remember more than he says and that the killer threatened to get at his family, but surely that's the first thing his psychiatrists would consider when first talking to him? I didn't buy that he wouldn't have been pushed a lot harder than he seems to have been, especially with the other missing children being from such wealthy, powerful families.

I was also getting a bit queasy about the descriptions of what had happened to the kids. There wasn't anything too graphic in the sections I read, but there was certainly the suggestion and some very firm hints. I wasn't sure I wanted to get more.

It also didn't help that the narrator, Luke Daniels, was frankly awful. He didn't narrate, he intoned. And he kept going off-text with what he put in the chracters' tones. Michael constantly sounded like a total arsehole (especially when interacting with Jamie), and though some of his actual actions did cross the line, Daniels was adding things that weren't really there in the text. Also, the way he voiced the female characters was atrocious. They all sounded breathy and childlike and either whiny or close to tears.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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The Collector, by Nora Roberts

>> Thursday, September 04, 2014

TITLE: The Collector
AUTHOR: Nora Roberts

COPYRIGHT: 2014
PAGES: 496
PUBLISHER: Putnam

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romantic Suspense
SERIES: None

When professional house-sitter Lila Emerson witnesses a murder/suicide from her current apartment-sitting job, life as she knows it takes a dramatic turn. Suddenly, the woman with no permanent ties finds herself almost wishing for one...

Artist Ashton Archer knows his brother isn't capable of violence-against himself or others. He recruits Lila, the only eyewitness, to help him uncover what happened. Ash longs to paint her as intensely as he hungers to touch her. But their investigation draws them into a rarified circle where priceless antiques are bought, sold, gambled away, and stolen, where what you possess is who you are, and where what you desire becomes a deadly obsession...

Lila Emerson has the ultimate nomadic lifestyle. An up-and-coming author of YA paranormal books, Lila is also a full-time house-sitter. When people go on holiday Lila comes in and stays at their houses, takes care of their pets, waters their plants, and so on. She has no fixed address. All she owns fits in a couple of suitcases, and she just stays at a friend's on the few days she's ever in between jobs.

Lila is someone who's very interested in people, and she likes nothing better than to watch the world out of her window (with binoculars, which I thought was a little bit over the intrusiveness line). It's a harmless hobby, she thinks, until late one night she witnesses a murder, a woman punched and pushed out a window. It was, the police tell her later, a murder-suicide.

Famous artist Ashton Archer is the brother of Oliver, the young man who apparently killed the woman, who was his girlfriend, and then himself. Ash does not believe it for a minute. And when he overhears a conversation at the police station and realises Lila was an eyewitness, he approaches her.

It turns out there's evidence that Oliver could not have killed his girlfriend. And then it becomes clear that whoever did it is still hovering round, obviously not having got whatever it was they were after.

The Collector was an ok read, but far from Roberts' best.

The plot was a bit of a mess. Roberts managed to make me believe some unlikely things, but others just did't convince. For instance, I had absolutely no problem with how Lila and Ash started talking to each other, even though you might think having a woman who's just witnessed a murder going for coffee with the apparent murderer's brother would be proof she's TSTL. But no, Roberts did it in such a way that it was believable and understandable. On the other hand, when Ash made a discovery about what the killers might have been after and decided that he and Lila should hide it from the police and investigate on their own, I just went "nope". The police had clearly demonstrated they were approaching the investigation with an open mind (they were the ones who found proof that it wasn't murder-suicide, after all), but Ash decides that he (a painter!) should investigate, because the police would not keep him fully appraised of developments (the entitled idiot!). When this leads to something really, really awful happening and Ash blamed himself, I completely agreed. In fact, I thought he should have felt a lot guiltier than he did.

Things do get better on that front, though, and I ended up mostly enjoying the process of the investigation. It's a world of priceless art objects and interesting characters, and the resolution is ingenious (if slightly marred by a completely unnecessary and obligatory-feeling action scene right at the end).

I mostly liked the romance (both the main one and the sweet secondary one between Lila and Ash's respective friends), but I felt the main characters weren't completely successful, and there were parts of their supposed personalities and characters I didn't completely buy.

Lila is supposed to be a bit of a commitment-phobe, but I didn't really see it in her character or the way she behaved. There are quite a few discussions and disagreements with Ash because she neglects to call him when something goes wrong, or she gets upset that he sorted out some details for her, but I just didn't feel that was evidence of issues with commitment. Those incidents were more about Lila being used to being independent, living alone and sorting things out on her own, than about her having any problems with commitment. She just wasn't used to all those things that go without saying when you're in a relationship. I identified with that particular experience quite a bit, because it's exactly what happens whenever I'm in a new relationship or even when I go spend a month with my parents in Uruguay over Christmas. It's not about fearing ties, it's about being used to dealing with things oneself. It just takes a while before it starts ocurring to you that there's another option, that's all. It's an interesting thing to explore in a relationship, those tensions that come when you first get together, and I liked how it was done, I just didn't feel it supported what Roberts was trying to establish.

As for Ash, he's a famous painter who comes from a very privileged and chaotic family. His father's been married quite a few times, and Ash's immediate family is big and complicated enough that he actually has to keep track of it on a spreadsheet (which tickled me). But you can't really see any of that in his personality. He's just a regular, quite centred guy (if you discount his idiotic decision to investigate on his own, but that's a one-off in the book). He doesn't seem to think like an artist. He does think about how he wants to paint Lila a few times, but that was it. He could have had pretty much any occupation and have been the same character (plus, his paintings sounded really naff). I did like how he was clearly the de facto head of the family, instead of his dad, and I thought the conflict between Lila and his father (who thinks she's a gold-digger) was really well done, but Ash himself didn't gel as a character.

Neither did the main antagonist, who starts out reading like a pretty professional enforcer/assassin, and then turns into a psycho. That didn't really work for me, as I didn't find the character believable.

So yeah, I mostly enjoyed this as I was reading it, but there were a few too many problems with it.

MY GRADE: A B-.

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