The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale

>> Thursday, November 20, 2008

TITLE: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House
AUTHOR: Kate Summerscale

PAGES: 304
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury

SETTING: 1860s England
TYPE: Non Fiction

REASON FOR READING: I was browsing in the library and it looked interesting.

It is a summer's night in 1860. In an elegant detached Georgian house in the village of Road, Wiltshire, all is quiet. Behind shuttered windows the Kent family lies sound asleep. At some point after midnight a dog barks. The family wakes the next morning to a horrific discovery: an unimaginably gruesome murder has taken place in their home. The household reverberates with shock, not least because the guilty party is surely still among them.

Jack Whicher of Scotland Yard, the most celebrated detective of his day, reaches Road Hill House a fortnight later. He faces an unenviable task: to solve a case in which the grieving family are the suspects.The murder provokes national hysteria. The thought of what might be festering behind the closed doors of respectable middle-class homes - scheming servants, rebellious children, insanity, jealousy, loneliness and loathing - arouses fear and a kind of excitement. But when Whicher reaches his shocking conclusion there is uproar and bewilderment.

A true story that inspired a generation of writers such as Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle, this has all the hallmarks of the classic murder mystery - a body; a detective; and, a country house steeped in secrets.
THE PLOT: This is an account of a true case which reads like the prototype for every country house locked-room mystery novel that came afterwards. It's 1860 and a murder is discovered in the home of respectable, middle class Samuel Kent. After the local police initially make a complete mess of things and it becomes clear that the murder had to have been committed by a resident of the house, notorious Det.Inspector Jack Whicher is called in. The shocking investigation that results is even more shockingly reported in the media, with every detail of the previously sacrosant private life of the members of the family being considered fair game. Summerscale uses police reports, newspaper articles and all kinds of private documents to provide an extremely detailed account of both the case and the ins and outs of the investigation.

I'm probably being a bit too coy in my description above, given that this is apparently a *really* notorious case, but I didn't know anything about it, not even who'd turn out to be the murder victim. This resulted in the book being a very suspenseful read to me, and I think Summerscale was excellent at bulding it up. I see that the synopsis at amazon pretty much gives everything away, on the understanding that it was something everyone would know, anyway, so beware!

MY THOUGHTS: The main flaw I found in the book was that, for all its research and deep level of detail, I didn't find it to be particularly illuminating about motivations. I never really understood the exact reason for the murder, never really felt it in my gut. But not only that; I also found it hard to understand why pretty much every character behaved in whatever way they behaved. Things like, why would the police develop a certain theory and be certain of it? No idea what was in their minds. Why would the governess claim certain things? Don't know.

I do recognise, however, that this might be a bit unfair of me, given that this is a true case and that Summerscale was working basically from documents and newspaper accounts. Could she have conveyed a better instinctive understanding of the characters' motivations? Possibly, but I'm not sure how without speculating even more. What's clear in my mind is that she could never have achieved the same level of understanding that is possible in a fiction book, where authors know exactly what's inside their characters' minds. That I wish this would have been a fiction case, so I could really know all about what happened, is probably a flaw in me as a reader.

All the illumination lacking about particular characters, however, is compensated by just how telling the book is about the cultural climate in which the action takes place. The very wording and tone of the newspaper accounts alone was enough to impress in me just how foreign these people and their attitudes felt to me. I think what I found most baffling and surprising was just how much people felt comfortable in concluding from witnesses physical appearance, especially when it came to female witnesses. Does she have an open face? Her ugliness makes it clear there must be ugliness inside her. Is she crying enough? Í suppose we still do it, more or less unconsciously, but it shocked me to see how explicit they were at the time.

MY GRADE: I'll go with a B. Fascinating stuff.


Getting back in the saddle

>> Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Wow, I never meant to stay away from the blog so long! But well:

· Writing a dissertation
+ Moving to a new city
+ Starting a new job (involving a great deal of travelling)
+ Spending a month in internet hell
3 and a half months hiatus

Yep, I wrote my last post on July 24th, over three months ago (I did post a review in early September, but I had that one written in advance, so it doesn't count). I just hope I haven't completely forgotten how to do this!

So onwards. I have a lot of catching up to do, so let's start with lightning reviews of all my September and October reads (not such a tall order, as both were piss-poor reading months):


TITLE: Tribute
AUTHOR: Nora Roberts

Her newest. I feared from the synopsis that it might be a flashback to what I call her Judith Krantz years (glitz, glamour and celebrities), a bit like Genuine Lies or Public Secrets, for instance. But, no, it was very much in line with what she's been writing lately, so that's good news. It's about the granddaughter of a late movie star, who buys her grandmother's old house and intends to renovate it. And while doing that, she discovers her grandmother's suicide might actually have been something else (not to mention falling in love with her next door neighbour).

There was a lot about home renovation, which I enjoyed, even though it was almost as detailed as Linda Howard's survival stuff in Up Close and Dangerous. While the Howard bored me, I felt all the detail was much better integrated here. The romance was lovely as well... I enjoyed the role reversal of the incredibly capable and handy heroine and the sweet, goofy hero who couldn't even hammer a nail without losing a finger :-) And finally, what I loved best: all the family and friend relationships, which were both very real and heart-warming. I especially enjoyed Cilla's relationship with her dad (who had been absent most of her childhood) and with her ex-husband, who had become a really close friend. Oh, and the dog! How can I forget Spock? He was a star.

Very enjoyable, a book to sink into. And now I can't wait for whatever comes next!

MY GRADE: A very strong B+.

TITLE: Moonstruck
AUTHOR: Susan Grant

Very, very nice, and a bit of a change from what I'm used to from Grant. Her previous books that I've read have been good, but a bit light, especially on the romance (not that there's not much romance in her previous books, it's just that the romance there is doesn't feel particularly deep). The romance in this story was amazing, dark and full of angst and reminiscent of the amazing Games of Command, by Linnea Sinclair.

The story's set in a universe where a war between two empires has just finished. One side has been beaten, but the winners seem to have taken lessons from World War I, and rather than humiliate the losers, they decide to take them on as valued (if junior) members of their coalition. The heroine, Brit, is a respected and feared admiral on the winning side, while the hero, Finn, is a former pirate/rogue-cum-captain of his own ship in the losing side. They're ordered to work together on a new ship, which will be a symbol of the new alliance, with Finn as Brit's second-in-command. But it won't be easy for them, as Brit has a very bitter history with Finn's people, and Finn has for years been half in love with the admiral who chased him relentlessly during the war.

It's a very good story, with two damaged characters who complement and heal each other perfectly, and a cool spaceship setting. The world-building and the plot (someone wants to break the new peace) were enjoyable, too.

MY GRADE: A B+. The Warlord's Daughter is definitely on my wish list for next February.

TITLE: Alpha and Omega (in the On The Prowl anthology)
AUTHOR: Patricia Briggs

This one is a short story from the On The Prowl anthology (and the only story I read from it). It starts a werewolf series that has been highly recommended. This was good, introducing to us Anna and Charles. Anna has been abused by her pack since she was turned, because she's supposedly a submissive wolf. But when she discovers something wrong in her pack and reports them to the head of all packs, the head's son, Charles, comes to the rescue. Turns out Anna's not a submissive wolf, but something much more valuable, and Charles wants nothing more than to protect her.

The story was too short to develop much, but it was an intriguing, complex introduction, and I mean to read the first full-length book soon.

MY GRADE: Another B+

TITLE: Dark Light
AUTHOR: Jayne Castle

Can you guess what I'm going to say? Yep, predictable, nothing spectacular, but perfectly solid and enjoyable.

The hero is a Guild boss, the heroine has a problem with Guild men, but is strangely attracted to the hero anyway, there's new, mysterious alien artifacts around, and the heroine's dust bunny steals the show (this one hilariously channels the spirit of Elvis Presley).


MY GRADE: I'll go for a B. Solid fun is nothing to sneeze at.

TITLE: Sex, Murder and a Double Latte
AUTHOR: Kyra Davis

Disappointing. It's about a mystery author who finds herself targeted by a killer who's very accurately copying the murder scenes from her books. The police don't believe her, of course, and there's a mysterious new man in her life, who might or might not be the killer. The set-up was good, but I found the heroine incredibly irritating after a while. She just wouldn't shut up, had to keep spouting snarky one-liners, even when it was completely STUPID for her to do so. In the end, blah.

MY GRADE: A C-, I'm sorry to say.

And that's it for September. On to OCTOBER!

TITLE: A Year in the Merde
AUTHOR: Stephen Clarke

This book has an interesting story. The author is an Englishman who worked in France for a few years, and the books are a fictionalised account of the experiences of an Englishman in France (how autobiographical is this? I've no idea). Paul West has been hired to open a chain of English tea rooms, and the book follows him as he adapts to the French way of doing things. Apparently, Clarke self-published it and the two sequels, intending to give them to his friends, but the book became a word-of-mouth phenomenon and he ended up selling the rights to a big publishing house.

I quite liked it. There are some truly hilarious bits, and I liked that the author seems to truly appreciate and enjoy the best things about life in France, while being completely exasperated by others. The only bad thing was that the main character was a bit too sleazy and amoral for my tastes.

MY GRADE: A B-. It really made me laugh, but left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth at points.

TITLE: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
AUTHOR: Malcolm Gladwell

First of the several non-fiction books I read this month (a couple of them I merely started reading and haven't yet finished, which is why they're not in this round-up). Hmm, how to explain what this is about in just a few words? Allow me to let Gladwell himself explain: "The best way to understand the dramatic transformation of unknown books into bestsellers, or the rise of teenage smoking, or the phenomena of word of mouth or any number of the other mysterious changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do."

In this book, Gladwell explores just how this happens; what qualities the "message" needs to have to be "sticky" enough to cause an epidemic, what kinds of persons need to be involved, and much more. He does this in a very readable fashion, through fascinating anecdotes. Eye-opening stuff.


TITLE: Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness
AUTHOR: Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

I read this one for work, as we've been looking into the application of behavioural economics concepts in some of the areas we´re working on. Like The Tipping Point, Nudge was eye-opening, but it's recommendations were a lot more immediately applicable.

The main idea of the book is that real human beings don't behave as what the authors call "Econs"... the famous homo economicus that all classic economic fields assume. Thaler and Sunstein look into how "choice architects" (i.e. those who design how to present people with choices) can influence people's choices in a way they call "libertarian paternalism". That is, they believe there's ways of designing choices (by deciding what the defaults should be, for instance), which lead to people being better off, as judged by themselves. But the key for them is to do it in without coercion, allowing those who would truly *want* to choose something else to do so without much trouble.

This sounds all a bit abstract, so a quick example of one of the areas they cover. Among many examples, they look at people's pension choices, and note that many people simply do not even MAKE a choice. They just stay with whatever the default option at their job is, because making a choice involves looking at complicated choices they might not really understand. And this is not uneducated, ignorant consumers... they mention how many of their university professor colleagues have done exactly that (and to my shame, so have I, although I would defend myself by saying I still have a couple of months to change, and my decision will be retroactive!). So they propose that this default option should be designed to be what choice architects would consider people would choose themselves, if they were Econs (what they themselves would judge leaves them better off). But the key thing is that it should not be prescriptive: people should be allowed to move from this default easily, if they so want. Hmmm... I don't know if this is clear at all. You really need to read the book to appreciate the argument.


TITLE: Never Romance a Rake
AUTHOR: Liz Carlyle

A good book, but Carlyle isn't what she used to be. Her books used to be incredibly absorbing, rich and amazing. This story was more than competent, but not particularly compelling. As much as I did enjoy it, I just couldn't get completely into it, submerge myself into the action. What's it about? Dissolute rake Kieran wins a heiress in a card game and they marry, something the heiress, Camille, is perfectly happy to see happen, as she needs to marry in order to get the inheritance. Kieran is determined not to care for Camille, nor to let Camille care for him, as he believes he doesn't deserve happiness (not to mention that he's also sick and convinced he's got only a little time to live). But of course, he can't resist his new wife.


TITLE: Night Pleasures
AUTHOR: Sherrilyn Kenyon

This one I abandoned after some 50 pages, at most. It was disappointing, because I very much liked the first one in the series, Fantasy Lover, and was looking forward to sinking into a long, complex series.

Problem is, I read Fantasy Loverback in 2003. I have a very strong feeling that I would have liked Night Pleasures well enough back then, but I'm a much more demanding reader these days, especially with regards to heroines. Back then, a silly ninny was par for the course. I would have sighed and rolled my eyes at Amanda's shrill stupidity, her priggishness, her foolish determination to ignore anything to do with magic, even though she's perfectly aware that it exists and that there's supernatural danger all around her. I would have sighed and rolled my eyes, but I would have continued reading and probably would have been reasonably content with the book.

But this kind of heroine isn't par for the course anymore, thank heavens, so I have no reason to persevere through gritted teeth. There are much better heroines around, smart women who I actually enjoy reading about. With my reading time suddenly scarce, I'd much rather spend it on them and not on all those Amandas in romance-land.


TITLE: Thyme Out (aka Second Thyme Around in the US)
AUTHOR: Katie Fforde

I was about two-thirds into Thyme Out when I decided I wouldn't finish it. It was basically a hot-button thing.

The heroine, Perdita, is a gardener who grows exotic veg. One of her clients is a posh hotel, whose new chef turns out to be her ex-husband, Lucas. She and Lucas were briefly married almost 10 years before, when Perdita was a very naive 18, until Lucas dumped her for another woman. But now both have grown, and Lucas seems to be interested in another chance.

Here's the thing: I refuse to read a book with a cheating hero. Just plain refuse to. I'm not too technical about it and can buy the more exotic excuses (say, stuff like in JR Ward's Lover Eternal, when Rhage had to sleep with other women to keep his beast under control... I was ok with that). But plain, garden-variety, boyfriend/husband sleeps with another woman just because he feels like it, even though he's in a relationship where fidelity is expected? That will make me close the book in a minute.

And that's exactly what I did here. I had kind of hoped that the whole "left Perdita for another woman" thing had been a misunderstanding, a way to make a clean break, whatever. So I kept reading, especially because I was enjoying Perdita's relationship with her 80-something friend, Kitty. Now that was something fresh and wonderful. But then Lucas clearly admitted coming home smelling of all those other women's perfume and actually had the gall to blame Perdita's passiveness for it. And sorry, that was it for me.

Too bad about the Kitty thing, but this cheating thing wasn't my only problem with the book. Perdita was also getting on my nerves a little bit, especially because she didn't feel 29 at all; she felt like a little old lady. Plus, she had this martyr complex + obnoxious stupid pride that made for a horrid combination.

MY GRADE: DNF, either.

Ahhhh, feels good to be back!


Hostage to Pleasure, by Nalini Singh

>> Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Drive-by post... I know I'm MIA, but I'm just really, really busy. I'm finishing up my dissertation, plus preparing for a move to Liverpool in less than a week. Fortunately, I had this post already written down from a while back. Hope to be back soon, once things have calmed down a bit, but meanwhile, here you go: one of the best books I've read so far this year!

TITLE: Hostage to Pleasure (excerpt)
AUTHOR: Nalini Singh

COPYRIGHT: 2008 (release date: yesterday!)
PAGES: 352

SETTING: Near future alternate-reality version of the US
TYPE: Paranormal romance
SERIES: Book 5 in the Psy/Changeling series. Just like I said in my review of the last entry, I'm not going to go into details about the universe set-up in my review, so if you want to know more, read the first few paragraph of my post about Slave to Sensation, the first book in the series.

REASON FOR READING: Simple: I love this series!

Separated from her son and forced to create a neural implant that will mean the effective enslavement of her psychically gifted race, Ashaya Aleine is the perfect Psy--cool, calm, least on the surface. Inside, she's fighting a desperate battle to save her son and escape the vicious cold of the PsyNet. Yet when escape comes, it leads not to safety, but to the lethal danger of a sniper's embrace.

DarkRiver sniper Dorian Christensen lost his sister to a Psy killer. Though he lacks the changeling ability to shift into animal form, his leopard lives within. And that leopard's rage at the brutal loss is a clawing darkness that hungers for vengeance. Falling for a Psy has never been on Dorian's agenda. But charged with protecting Ashaya and her son, he discovers that passion has a way of changing the rules...
THE PLOT: The protagonists of HTP are two characters we already met in earlier books in the series. Two characters, in fact, who I was fascinated by from the first minute.

Dorian is one of the DarkRiver sentinels, a man no less tough and dangerous because of his inability to shapeshift into the leopard that very definitely is within him. We know by now that changelings don't generally like the Psy very much, but Dorian has more reason than most, as his sister was one of the victims of the Psy serial killer from the first book in the series. So wouldn't you know it? It turns out that his mate is a Psy.

Ashaya Aleine is an M-Psy (M=Medical), seemingly the Council's pet, and who's been working on the very scary Protocol I project we found out about in the previous book. Why scary? Think hive mind, and we find out in this book that it can actually get even scarier than that. It turns out, however, that as we discovered earlier in the series, Ashaya is not there voluntarily. Her son is being held hostage by the Council in order to pressure her into working on this project, and she's even willing to defy them in order to help the changelings.

As the book starts, things have come to a head between Ashaya and the Council. The changelings owe her for her actions in Mine to Possess, so as a favour in return, she has them rescue her son and take him out of the Net. And then she escapes herself, fully knowing her chances of making it are on the slim side.

But she hasn't counted on Dorian's protective side. As much as he tells himself this is just another cold Psy, part of him recognises her as The One, his mate, and that part just won't let her go. And as several spectacularly scary elements about the Council's actions come to light, he's going to have to work overtime to keep her alive.

MY THOUGHTS: Verdict? Loooooooooved this. I've probably said this again, and again and again, but this series just keeps getting better and better.

As I said above, both Dorian and Ashaya were characters I was very much looking forward to knowing more about, and I wasn't disappointed. They were even more interesting than I had hoped for, and my hopes were sky-high.

Ashaya... well, wow! I don't want to give too much away, as one of the best things about this book is discovering just what is going on with her. There are some things that don't add up about her, right from the start. I tried to guess what was going on, but I was far, far from the reality, and yet, the reality made perfect sense.

As for Dorian, he's a hell of a wounded character. You can really feel his pain, both his guilt and hurt about his sister's death and his frustration and sadness at his inability to shift into the leopard that's within him. His feelings for Ashaya are thus satisfyingly complicated. On one hand, he sees his increasing attraction to her, a cold Psy, as a betrayal of her sister. But on the other, he can't help but recognise that this woman is his mate. And by now we know what it's like for changelings to find their mates. It's not something that they can deny, so seeing Dorian battle with his feelings and fear that even though she's broken Silence a long time ago, Ashaya might still be too much of a Psy to really return these feelings was fantastic. Powerful stuff!

Strictly speaking, I think you could probably read this book without having read the previous ones. The romance is strong enough for it and Singh is good at catching you up with what's going on without going into info-dump mode. However, I really wouldn't recommend it. This is one series where there is an overarching story arc that's actually going somewhere, where the world-building is not some ad hoc scramble to get the characters to do what the author wants (à la JR Ward), but is well-planned-out in advance.

A big part of the fun in reading this series is seeing how the relationship between Psy, changelings and humans evolves, following the machinations of the Psy Council, finding out more about the increasingly important role of the seemingly powerless humans in this world, understanding exactly what the NetMind's role in the whole thing is and so on and on and on. It's complex and intrincate, but at the same time, not hard to follow. And best of all, it's brilliantly well-integrated with the romance. The actions of the protagonist couples in each of the books have a decisive effect on their world, and at the same time, are affected by it.

MY GRADE: A, A, A!!!


Shipwrecks, Piles of Books, Psychics and Beverages

>> Thursday, July 24, 2008

TITLE: Beau Crusoe
AUTHOR: Carla Kelly

It's strange how one quite peripheral element can pretty much ruin an otherwise lovely book. This was what happened with Beau Crusoe.

When it came to the hero and heroine and their relationship, it was wonderful. James Trevenen and Susannah Park are two wounded characters. A former sailor, James spent years in a deserted island after a shipwreck. The circumstances of the shipwreck itself were just horrific, and James is still haunted by them, as well as by the years and years he had to spend alone. Susannah's past is less dramatic, but also painful. She eloped with her father's secretary, which resulted in her being ostracised by the ton. She didn't care when she was married, but now she's a penniless widow and has had to go back to her parents' home, and she's not allowed to forget for even a minute the social ruin her inconsiderate actions brought about.

Susannah and James are brought together when her godfather asks her to accompany James, the winner of a scientific prize (through an essay on crabs written while stuck on his island), while he's in London. The godfather also asks James to do him a couple of favours, small stuff like marrying Susannah and doing something about her bitter sister and her father's aggressive birds, and all the while taking those requests as a joke, James ends up doing just that.

These two are perfect examples of why I love Carla Kelly's characters. They're genuinely good people, brave and caring, two vulnerable, wounded characters healing each other. They're people who have a sense of humour and can laugh about their flaws, and who really do deserve each other. I very much enjoyed their growing closeness.

Or rather, I would have settled down and enjoyed it if it hadn't been for Lady Audley. When James was rescued, Lady Audley was in the same ship as him travelling home, and they pretty much spent the entire trip having vigorous sex (which is described in detail, many, many times). James broke it off with the woman soon thereafter, and she, being a bitter slag, is determined to make him pay for it.

Oh, the book would have been so much better if Kelly had just cut out the Lady Audley character completely! It's not Lady Audley herself that I objected to (in fact, I had a sneaking sympathy for her, especially at the beginning), but the way she was demonised and had so much abuse heaped on her head. Foul, disgusting, a whore, overactive genitals, blah, blah, blah. CK just couldn't stop calling her names and made her a pathetic laughingstock. It just made me uncomfortable, because much of the abuse was motivated by behaviour James had no right to condemn, and by simply being an older woman (and not that much older, at that!) with a sexual appetite. She did do some awful, vengeful stuff nearer the end, but in the first half, I just couldn't see what was so disgusting about her. This element of the book offended me, and the worst thing was that it wasn't an isolated bit I could ignore. Oh, no, Lady Audley is mentioned almost as much as Susannah. *sigh*

MY GRADE: I'm conflicted. My instinct is to give it a C+, but the Susannah / James relationship is much better than that. So I'll be generous and go for a B-.

TITLE: The Complete Polysyllabic Spree
AUTHOR: Nick Hornby

TCPS is a series of columns Hornby wrote for the Believer magazine. They're basically about his reading life: what he read that month, how he liked it, what he bought and why. It was interesting, even if many of the books I've never even heard about. Hornby's voice is great, and he perfectly conveyed his love of reading in his column, and I got a long list of recs. It actually felt a bit like reading a blog, one of those many reading journals I blog-hop around :-)

The only thing I wasn't very convinced about was how he wasn't allowed (by the magazine's rules) to say anything bad about books written by contemporary writers. Hornby says he likes the idea, but then he had trouble with it when he read a book he didn't like. So his solution was to read only books he thought he'd like. Well, duh. Problem is, sometimes you think you'll like a book, actively WANT to like it (because the plot appeals to you, or because the writing is so beautiful), but still dislike it. It happens, and it's ridiculous that he had to resort to hiding the identity of book in question when this happens. Some of those sections when he was talking about "unnamed literary fiction book" were a bit annoying.

I did like the intro, though, especially his emphasis on the importance of people reading what they enjoy. He says, and I completely agree, people should stop treating reading as a chore, and should not choose books based on what they think they ought to read. Reading fiction should be for pleasure!

Oh, BTW, I had to laugh when one month he listed 12 books as bought and then felt the need to explain that "ludicrous" number. Heh, I don't think most people reading this will be too scandalised by that!


TITLE: Sizzle and Burn
AUTHOR: Jayne Ann Krentz

This is the latest contemporary entry in JAK's Arcane Society series, which alternates contemps under this name and historicals under her Amanda Quick pseudonym. I felt about Sizzle and Burn pretty much as I did about the previous JAK in the series, White Lies: tedious suspense (that whole thing about the founder's formula is nowhere near as interesting as the author thinks it is), but decent romance.

The plot? Nothing remarkable. Raine Tallentyre can psychically "hear" voices when she touches objects, a talent which has allowed her to help the police solve many cold cases before. Entering the house of her recently deceased aunt, her talents lead her to discover the latest victim of a local serial killer, fortunately still alive. This episode brings her in contact with Zack Jones, a private investigator, who's in town for a completely different reason. He's part of a PI agency that works for the Arcane Society, and he's after an organisation which is, in turn, after the founder's formula.

Zack has psychic abilities very similar to Raine's (he sees stuff when he touches objects, rather than hear, as Raine does). Raine has been used to hiding her abilities (actually, the last time she told a man about them, it was a guy she fancied, who then immediately broke things off with her), so finding someone like Zack is a novelty.

I quite liked the romance. It was a bit too fast, but there's chemistry between Zack and Raine, and they did feel right together. They fit, and not just because of their talents, though those did add another dimension. However, the relationship was badly overwhelmed by all the other boring stuff going on around them. There were way too many plot threads here, none of them well done.

MY GRADE: A B-. Clearly I'm feeling generous today, but however bad the suspense, JAK's voice just comforts me.

TITLE: A History of the World in Six Glasses
AUTHOR: Tom Standage

As the title suggests, this book tracks the history of the world through six drinks that, in turn, shaped and reflected the periods in which they came to prominence.

It took me a while to get into it, because the first two chapters, on beer in Mesopotamia and Egypt and Wine in Greece and Rome weren't as interesting as I'd hoped for. What's more, the author failed to really convince me of anything more than the fact that beer and wine were important to these people in this particular period. No more than that. Shaped the history of the period, reflected it? I had my doubts.

But then the chapter on spirits in the Colonial period started, and wow, now we were talking! Not only was it fascinating, but here, at last, the author made a real case for what he'd set out to show. His arguments and evidence were neat and elegant: reading the passage where he finally closed the triangle between spirits, sugar and slavery gave me the same pleasurable "a-ha!" feeling I get when reading a particularly perfect mathematical proof. And there were plenty of little details that made me pause and think. Like the link between spirits and the British command of the seas in the 19th century: British sailors had started being given rations of spirits to drink, and their rum was cut with water and had lime and sugar added to it (it was called "grog" a kind of early mojito). And due to this daily dose of Vitamin C, British sailors had less scurvy and were thus much healthier than the sailors of other countries, like France. Neat, huh?

The spirits chapter was my favourite, but the ones that came after it were also great stuff. The last two were very enjoyable, even if they were nothing really new and didn't surprise me much. I think we're all aware of the importance of tea in the history of the British Empire (although, I must correct myself: I would never have guessed that in the early 18th century practically no one in Britain drank tea, as it was very much an exotic, luxury item!), and we've all been spectators to (at least the latter stages of) the links between Coca-Cola and the Rise of America. Coffee in the Age of Reason was a bit more novel to me, especially the huge role of coffeehouses in Britain in terms of the spread of information and in encouraging political, cultural and scientific debate. The author calls them the Internet of the Age of Reason, and he does have a point.

All in all, a book I'd recommend. Just read the first two chapters knowing there's much more interesting material to come.



My favourite M&B line

>> Monday, July 21, 2008

Mills & Boon Medical has fast become my favourite M&B line. I tried a couple at first that had a bit of a Presents-ish feel to them, which isn't something I particularly enjoy, but since I've got some author recommendations, I've had much better luck. Marion Lennox, for instance, has become a fave. What I most like here is that the heroines are usually in the medical profession as well, so they tend to be highly competent and in a position of relative equality to the hero. Oh, and the Australian settings! I seem to be liking mostly the Australian ones, for some reason.

TITLE: The Surgeon's Family Miracle
AUTHOR: Marion Lennox

This is a reunion/secret baby story. Lily Cyprano and Ben Blayden met in medical school and fell in love. They always knew their relationship wouldn't last beyond school, though, because Lily was committed to return to practice medicine at her homeland, the island of Kapua, while Ben wanted a life of adventure and travelling. So when Lily discovered she was pregnant right before she was due to return home, she said nothing to Ben, knowing that he'd do the right thing but resent her forever.

Eight years later, Ben is working as a frontline doctor for a Special Forces team and they're called to Kapua, where there's a bloody coup attempt. He and his team arrive to find the rebels holed up with hostages and Lily, the island doctor, frantic about one of them, her son Benjy.

This was quite good. The opening scenes, especially, with the coup attempt and the arrival of the Special Forces team, were fast-paced and exciting, and very good at giving us an idea of who these characters are now. The story did lose a bit of steam afterwards, as Ben and Lily were nice, but not particularly exciting together, but it was nice enough on the whole. I actually liked how the secret baby angle was handled, because as much as Ben now thinks Lily should have told him about her pregnancy, he does admit that his reaction would have been what she expected.


NOTE: I must be softening, but I really like the cover. The kid really seems to be having fun, and so does the guy!

TITLE: The Doctor's Rescue Mission
AUTHOR: Marion Lennox

The setup of this one is very similar to that of The Surgeon's Family Miracle. The protagonists have a history together, but she had to leave him and Australia to become responsible for the health care needs of a small, isolated island. When disaster hits her island some years later, the hero shows up as part of the emergency rescue team, and the relationship recommences.

In this case, the disaster in question is a tsunami, which kills a bunch of people and sweeps away much of the island's infrastructure. This is an April 2005 book, and there's a clearly hastily affixed sticker at the back telling readers that the book was written before the Asian tsunami and that there was a donation made by M&B to the relief fund. Wow, Lennox was amazingly prescient! I suppose it must have been chilling to read it right after it came out.

Again, the opening scenes were excellently done, very exciting and interesting. However, in this case the book continued just as strong. In part, I liked it better because of the heroine, Morag. At the same time that she feels responsible for the island, she does resent having to be there and not having been able to have the life in Australia that she was planning on having.

Also, the conflict between Morag and Grady, what prevented them from just getting back together, was very interesting. As I said, the tsunami has completely destroyed the community's infrastructure. It was already costing the government a ton of many to maintain services to such an isolated area, so there had been some overtures to try and settle people somewhere else. Now, considering the immense expense and difficulty of repairing what's been flattened, the government is even more serious about resettlement, and Grady has been charged with doing a kind of preliminary evaluation of how viable what's left is. Morag, on the other hand, is determined that they WILL rebuild, and not lose the community spirit by resettling elsewhere (not to mention that the Aboriginal settlement on the island won't be abandoned).

Interesting, no? I enjoyed seeing Morag and Grady work around the issue, even while thinking Lennox's implicit arguments were much too simplistic. I got the feeling that we readers were supposed to automatically sympathise more with Morag and her efforts to keep Petrel Island going, but I wasn't so convinced. I kind of felt the argument was mainly: how can you be so heartless to think about the money when there's the life of a community and its spirit to be considered? Well, I think I must have spent too much time working as a government economist, but I found this reasoning really flawed. It's not heartless to think about the money, it's necessary. That money is coming out from somewhere. Financing a huge project such as this one means resources taken away from or not devoted to other uses. The government has limited resources, however rich it might seem to people, and it has to decide how to use them best. What is best for society? Rebuilding Petrel Island or more funds for, I don't know, cancer research? Rebuilding Petrel Island or funds for free childcare? Of course, it can be: rebuilding Petrel Island or more tax cuts to the rich?, but the thing is, that's not obvious. It could be anything, and it has to be considered. And it's not heartless to think that other things might be more valuable than rebuilding one particular community.

Anyway, off from my soapbox, sorry for the rant! All in all, a good book, with a nice romance and issues which made me think.


TITLE: Bride by Accident
AUTHOR: Marion Lennox

Yet another Marion Lennox that starts with a bang. Or rather, a crash, in this case. A school bus crashes right outside an isolated Australian community, and Dr. Devlin O'Halloran rushes to help, only to find that the pregnant woman in another of the cars involved in the accident (and who ends up helping out quite heroically) is also Dr. O'Halloran. Emma O'Halloran is Devlin's brother's widow, on her way to meet her late husband's family, who know nothing about her.

Emma's pregnancy is very advanced, and the accident ensures that she can't get on a plane until the baby is born. So she stays at Devlin's place and in the process, helps both him and his mother come to terms with her husband's death, and the whole community get over the tragic school bus accident.

I really liked BBA. It's got a pretty melancholic tone, which is fitting, as the story is as much about people allowing themselves to grieve and heal as about Devlin and Emma finding love with each other. Lennox does this well, and the story is touching and heartbreaking, without ever becoming maudlin.


TITLE: Coming Home to Katoomba
AUTHOR: Lucy Clark

This is the sequel to Crisis At Katoomba Hospital, which I read and enjoyed a few months ago. I'd found the heroine, who's the sister of the hero of the previous book, an interesting character. Stephanie is a very competent doctor with a quirky sense of humour, happy enough to shave her head to support her cancer patients and dye her stubble green.

In CHTK, she falls in love with newcomer Oliver, the new hospital chief (or administrator, I forget the exact title. He's in charge, at any rate). Her house had burned down shortly before he arrived and she was living at a friend's, but there was some mix-up with the property agent, and the house ends up having been rented to Oliver as well. They decide to share, sparks fly, even when Oliver's young daughter comes visit, etc., etc.

This was a nice book until the halfway point, when Steph goes a bit psycho. So there's chemistry between her and Oliver, they like each other, they feel a connection. They've done nothing more than share a few kisses and feel something real might develop, when Stephanie suddenly decides she loves Oliver. Ok, a bit sudden, but ok. But then, when he says he thinks they should date, get to know each other better, etc, she just goes batshit crazy and starts accusing him of using her and telling him he needs to make a commitment and blah, blah, blah. Mind you, it's been only a couple of weeks since they've even met! I thought Oliver was just proceeding the normal way, and that it was Steph who was completely out of line. But no, everyone else seems to find her behaviour perfectly justified, while I was going WTF?? At one point Oliver wonders "had he really behaved so badly?" He answers "yes" to himself, but I'd say "Definitely not".

I also disliked the demonisation of Oliver's ex wife. She's a completely cartoonish figure here, and it irritated me.


TITLE: Pregnant on Arrival
AUTHOR: Fiona Lowe

The title of this one is more accurate than most: Dr. Bronte Hawkins discovers her pregnancy on her arrival to a small outback town, where she's joining the area's Flying Doctors team. Huon Morrison was looking forward to getting a new partner who could share his backbreaking workload, and is now quite angry that the new partner has turned out to be pregnant and obviously will be going back as soon as she can. But Bronte is determined to stay, and soon he's helping her settle in Muttawindi and feeling more and more of an attraction to her.

I loved the portrayal of Bronte and Huon's day-to-day work, providing medical care for the people living in a wide area of the Australian Outback, whether over the phone or radio or flying all over the place on emergency calls. There's a variety of interesting cases, and Lowe gives us a fascinating glimpse of what an outback doctor's life might be like.

The romance? Nice. Nothing to phone home about, but on the other hand, nothing that bothered me, and the setting and the other stuff that was going on around them was strong enough to earn this a recommend.



Life As We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer

>> Friday, July 11, 2008

TITLE: Life As We Knew It
AUTHOR: Susan Beth Pfeffer

PAGES: 339
PUBLISHER: Scholastic

SETTING: Contemporary Pennsylvania
TYPE: Young Adult / Apocalyptic Fiction
SERIES: There's a related book, taking place at the same time as the action of this one, but in another location: The Dead and the Gone.

REASON FOR READING: I was intrigued by a review of The Dead and the Gone at Dear Author.

No shops. No TV.

No electricity. No daylight.

No idea if your family is alive or dead...

Could you survive?

An asteroid will hit the moon at 9.30 this evening. The astronomers say there's nothing to worry about.

What if they're wrong?
THE PLOT: An asteroid is about to hit the moon. It's supposed to be nothing more than a fun, educational event to watch through a telescope... see how a new crater is created, enjoy some natural fireworks, that kind of thing. But it turns out that the asteroid was much denser than astronomers supposed, so it kicks the moon off its normal orbit. And soon the effects of the changes in the gravitational pull of the moon are being felt: massive tsunamis kill millions on the coast, earthquakes shake up unlikely places.... and that's just the beginning.

Narrated by 16-year-old Miranda through her diary entries, Life As We Knew It shows us the aftermath of the asteroid hit from the point of view of one family living in north-eastern Pennsylvania.

MY THOUGHTS: Wow! Just... wow! I think this book is going to be one of the highlights of the year. I love end-of-the-world catastrophe movies (as much as I love romance in my reading, I'd much rather go watch a disaster movie than a chick flick), but I always end up wanting to see more detail about the everyday things that are going on around our heroes as they're involved in whatever outlandish and dangerous adventure the moviemakers have come up with.

This is exactly what we get here. The book has a narrowish focus, which is something that I might have considered a weakness before I read it, but which I ended up considering one of its main strengths. We know a bit of the horrors that are happening in other places, but we are not seeing them. We spend all the book isolated in an area which didn't bear the brunt of the natural catastrophes, but which is still suffering. So what we experience are the everyday kind of horrors: the lack of food, the petrol shortage, the cold, the disease, and most of all, the isolation and hoplessness of not knowing. Communications have been cut, so Miranda (and so, us) can't have a very accurate idea of what's going on in the whole world or whether there is any hope, whether somehow things are improving somewhere. Basically, whether there is going to be a future at all.

This narrow focus, which actually gets narrower and narrower as the book advances, adds up to a claustrophobic feel at times, which intensifies the very well done family relationships. Miranda's family is a good one, not at all dysfunctional. They all clearly care about each other, but four people spending months in close proximity are going to clash, however much love there is there. The trick is to still show that love through the discussions and tension, and Pfeffer does so well.

I especially liked how Laura, Miranda's mother comes across. We're seeing her only through the eyes of Miranda, but Pfeffer succeeds in showing her beyond her mother role. You can glimpse the real woman there, worried about her children, yes, but also a person in her own right, with a wicked sense of humour (I loved the scene where they finally get radio reception after months of silence and there's an inane speech made by the president "from his ranch in Texas", full of platitudes about how they've turned the corner and how everything's going to be better. Laura's reaction: "The idiot is still alive, and he's still an idiot!") and her own romantic interests. She's not perfectly strong all the time... there are fights in which she's just as irrational as Miranda, and you can certainly see she almost reaches the end of her rope sometimes.

As for Miranda, she's an excellent narrator. She's sixteen, and feels sixteen. A mature enough sixteen, yes, but she's not a grown-up, and this is reflected in her concerns. Obviously, as the situation worsens, she becomes more and more worried about serious, life-threatening issues, but she never stops caring about things as her education (what happens if there's no school, will she be able to get to a good college? Will there be any good colleges left?) and boys.

I really liked that these are common people, not highly competent MacGyver types who are able to jury-rig a generator out of an old battery, some wire and a piece of chewing gum. They do the best they can with their limited resources, and they do go beyond the limits of what they would have thought they could do, but it's believable, and they behave as you or I (assuming you're not a MacGyver type, either) would.

Something else I thought was excellently done was how there's an ominous feel about certain things that are going on in town, how people are not being Pollyanna-ish nice and sweet and solidary, but that this is hardly explicit. There's the say Sammi finds to leave, there's the fear that women are not safe being alone in town, there's the hospital guard who creeps Miranda out... we don't actually see much happening, but the suggestion is enough to create a mood. Very effective stuff, especially because what one imagines can be worse than reality.

As you can imagine, the whole book has a dark feel to it, partly because characters you care about do die, but actually, mostly because the difficulty in staying hopeful about the situation. Fortunately, there is no waving of magic wands at the end. The moon doesn't spontaneously go back to where it was, it doesn't turn out that things were nowhere near as disastrous as people had thought. And yet, you close the book feeling optimistic. As the book finishes, you trust that at least there is going to be a tomorrow and that people will tirelessly work until they find ways to deal with the changed circumstances. And that was good enough for me.

Do give this a try, even if you're not generally a YA reader. I'm not (other than the Harry Potter series), and I'm very glad I made an exception for this one.



Catching up with the Otherworld

>> Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Having reserved Personal Demon at my library as soon as it came out, I'm now all caught up with Kelley Armstrong's Otherworld series. So now to post about them. I'm only up to the third book here, so here's a little something about the rest.

BTW, if you don't know anything about this series, this review is probably not the best place to start reading about it (which makes sense, because these books are not the best place to start with the series itself).

TITLE: Industrial Magic (# 4)
EXCERPTS: prologue, chapter 1, chapter 2

Industrial Magic again has Paige Winterbourne as a narrator, and continues to develop her relationship with Lucas Cortez and their tense interactions with his powerful Cabal family. Lucas is used to his father, Benicio, trying all kinds of ploys to involve him in Cabal business. He usually has little trouble resisting his offers, but the latest case he's asked him to investigate touches a chord both with him and Paige. Cabal kids are being murdered, and only someone with Cabal links, and yet operating outside them (i.e. only Lucas and Paige) have a shot at stopping the murderer before more children die.

I liked this a lot. The case and the investigation are cool; we finally meet Jaime here, and she's a great character from the very beginning, but there's also some very eccentric vampires and a glimpse of what's on the other side. But the best thing about the book is the relationship between Lucas and his father. It's as complicated and impossible as Benicio himself, and you really feel for Lucas, torn as he is between his ethics and his love for his father.

There's some very nice romance as well. In the previous book, we saw Lucas and Paige getting together, but here their relationship strengthens and grows, and reaches a commitment, and it was just as satisfying as the courtship.


TITLE: Haunted (# 5)
EXCERPTS: prologue, chapter 1, chapter 2.

Haunted is one weird book. Good, but weird. For starters, it takes place almost wholly in this strange kind of afterlife for paranormal beings, where black witch Eve Levine went after she died. Eve is Savannah's mother, and she's been obsessed with watching over her daughter and trying to contact her ever since she passed on to the other side. She owes a favour to the Three Fates, the beings who control the afterlife she's living in, and as the book starts, they call it in. Eve must capture the Nix, a half-demon who's escaped and has been wreaking havoc in the human world for years and years. Basically, the Nix craves chaos, and what it does is go into humans and give them the courage to kill. The Fates have already sent three hunters after the Nix, but all have failed. Maybe Eve won't?

It's hard to conceive of a book like this succeeding when the main character is, after all, dead, but Armstrong manages it. Eve is a fantastic character. We'd heard a lot about her in the previous books, and even seen her briefly in the last one, and she fulfills all that promise. She's resourceful and tough, and unapologetic about all she's done in life, and yet does have a core of goodness. She loves her daughter, and as much as she would like to deny it, cares deeply about Kristof, Savannah's father, who's joined her in the afterlife and would very much like to have a real relationship with Eve (and if it's hard to conceive of a plain story where the main character is dead, how about a romance where both are? And yet it works as well).

Eve's hunt for the Nix takes her to some fascinating places. This afterlife Armstrong's created is certainly unique, with some very scary and original places. Very definitely not fluffy clouds and harps! But the most interesting element is seeing her deal with a very big and surprising decision regarding the Fates plans for her. Cool stuff.


TITLE: Broken (# 6)
EXCERPTS: chapter 1, chapter 2.

Probably the weakest book in the whole series. We're back to Elena and Clay (probably by popular demand, and my theory is that this is probably why the book was so weak), who in this book get sucked into in a situation involving stolen letters from Jack the Ripper. By accident, a portal between Toronto and Victorian London seems to have opened, through which some very scary characters may be crossing. And making things even more complicated, Elena is pregnant. First female werewolf, first pregnancy in the pack? Protective insticts triggered!

I was very excited when I started reading because I thought the Jack the Ripper connection sounded promising, but it ended up being a bit boring. No the plot itself, but the actual investigation. Elena and Clay just seem to be doing the same things again and again, coming across as a bit ineffectual, I'm afraid.

I did like the relationship stuff better, though. There's a level of trust between Elena and Clay that just wasn't there in earlier books, and it made me have a bit more confidence in them. Clay seems to be getting better at controlling his controlling tendencies (if not because he thinks it's the right thing to do, because Elena wants him to, and that counts), and I also liked the whole Pack dynamics, as well as Jeremy and Jaime's developing relationship.


No Humans Involved is # 7, but I read it out of order and so I've already reviewed it here.

TITLE: Personal Demon (# 8)
EXCERPTS: chapter 1, chapter 2.

This time we've got two narrators. The one I'd consider the main one is Hope, whom we met in the previous book. Hope is an Expisco half-demon, which means she senses chaos, making her an excellent trouble detector. Problem is, she also craves chaos, and though she's a good person and not someone who'd do evil things just to create chaos she can consume, she's still afraid of what's inside her.

In this book, Hope is asked by Benicio Cortez to infiltrate a supernatural gang who's apparently giving the Cabals some trouble in Miami. Since it's a way to repay him for a favour (and it's NOT a good idea to owe the Cabals a favour) Hope agrees, telling herself that the fact that she'll be coming in contact with some chaos while doing a good deed is not one of the reasons for her agreement. Soon Hope is realising that she relates to some of the gang members quite a bit, so when someone starts targeting and killing them one by one, she's determined to find out what's going on. In this, she'll have the help of werewolf Karl Marsden, with whom she shares a very complicated relationship.

I quite liked this one. It's not the best in the series, but it's good. I enjoyed Hope and her voice, and I appreciated her mixed feelings about the gang, as well as the development of her relationship with Karl. I wish we'd seen a bit more of Karl, actually, maybe from his point of view.

I also liked having Lucas as the secondary narrator. Hmmm, maybe calling him the "secondary" narrator is a bit misleading, because there are some huge things happening on his end, especially relating to his complicated family relationships. In this book, Lucas and Paige have to make some complicated decisions, decisions where none of the options are ideal. I liked this area even more than the Hope parts.

As for the negatives, there is a developement there near the end which worried me, in terms of what it's going to mean for the series and the direction it's going to go in. There are characters introduced which have some powers I thought were excessive. I'm not sure why this makes me so uncomfortable, maybe because if used right, there's no way they can be defeated. I'm at the same time intrigued by how Armstrong's going to deal with this and worried, because it's just too much. And I'm probably not explaining this well, but there it is. *Sigh*, just ignore me.



Two (well, three) Shakesperean experiences

>> Friday, July 04, 2008

Two books today. Completely different genres, but with strong links. Plus, another link (a literal one, this time), to a related visit.

TITLE: The Book of Air and Shadows
AUTHOR: Michael Gruber

PAGES: 561

SETTING: Contemporary US and England.
TYPE: Literary thriller

REASON FOR READING: Malvina recommended it.

Tap-tapping the keys and out come the words on this little screen, and who will read them I hardly know. I could be dead by the time anyone actually gets to read them, as dead as, say, Tolstoy. Or Shakespeare. Does it matter, when you read, if the person who wrote still lives?

These are the words of Jake Mishkin, whose seemingly innocent job as an intellectual property lawyer has put him at the center of a deadly conspiracy and a chase to find a priceless treasure involving William Shakespeare. As he awaits a killer-or killers-unknown, Jake writes an account of the events that led to this deadly endgame, a frantic chase that began when a fire in an antiquarian bookstore revealed the hiding place of letters containing a shocking secret, concealed for four hundred years. In a frantic race from New York to England and Switzerland, Jake finds himself matching wits with a shadowy figure who seems to anticipate his every move. What at first seems like a thrilling puzzle waiting to be deciphered soon turns into a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse, where no one-not family, not friends, not lovers-is to be trusted.

Moving between twenty-first-century America and seventeenth-century England, The Book of Air and shadow is a modern thriller that brilliantly re-creates William Shakespeare's life at the turn of the seventeenth century and combines an ingenious and intricately layered plot with a devastating portrait of a contemporary man on the brink of self-discovery . . . or self-destruction.
MY THOUGHTS:The summary quoted above is pretty good... the plot is convoluted enough that if I tried to summarise it myself it'd probably take a while. I'll only add that while Jake is the main character, Albert Crosetti, a wannabe filmmaker who works for an antiquarian bookseller and makes the original discovery, plays almost a big a role as Jake... and is much more appealing (more on this later).

The book has an interesting structure. We start almost at the end, and then go back and forth, finding out just what happened and how each of the players got involved, with visits to the 17th century every now and then. There's letters from Richard Bracegirdle, the 17th century soldier who inadvertently set all this to-do in motion, there's diary entries written by Jake as he awaits danger, there's third person narration following Crossetti. It sounds like it could get confusing, but Gruber keeps all the balls in the air and pulls it off. He even makes the double- and triple-crosses understandable, all the while making the story move fast. Secret codes, forgeries, 400-year-old spy plots... it was fun.

I didn't love the thriller bits all that much, though. Gangsters and mafia and "exciting" kidnappings and murder attempts... that just doesn't entertain me much. Now, the literary detection bits, those were truly exciting. The very thought of.... ah, you'll have to read the book yourself to discover just what this is all about, but it really captures the imagination.

What made it even more fun to read this book was that while I was in the middle of it, I spent a day in Stratford-upon-Avon, and that town's pretty much Shakespeare, Shakespeare and in case you didn't have enough, even more Shakespeare. So I went there and recognised a lot of what I saw, and then came back and got back to the book, and could visualise what I was reading much better. I saw some documents in Stratford and went: "ah, so this is Jacobean secretary hand? (a kind of handwriting) No wonder Crosetti couldn't make head or tails of it at first!" And then I went back to the book and read a mention of Shakespeare's will and though: "yeah, yeah, the one where he left his second-best bed to his wife". The two experiences really complemented each other.

Now for the negatives. Gruber creates some interesting and complex characters, but I just wish he hadn't made the main narrator quite so despicable. Jake was... well, a total and complete sleaze; there's no other word for it. I usually like self-deprecating humour in a character, but while this guy saw his failings quite accurately and saw the humour in them, he did so in a "yes, I'm a disgusting cheating bastard, that's who I am, what can I do?" kind of way, with no desire to change whatsoever. Am I supposed to like him better just because it's as clear to him as it is to me that he's despicable? Even if at the end he does change his ways (apparently), I didn't feel he deserved the break. He should have paid a LOT more. Hmmph!


TITLE: Shakespeare: The World as Stage
AUTHOR: Bill Bryson

PAGES: 195
PUBLISHER: Harper Collins

TYPE: Non Fiction - Biography
SERIES: Part of a series called Eminent Lives: "brief biographies by distinguished authors on canonical figures".

REASON FOR READING: I love the distinguished author and I'm very interested in the canonical figure.

William Shakespeare, the most celebrated poet in the English language, left behind nearly a million words of text, but his biography has long been a thicket of wild supposition arranged around scant facts. With a steady hand and his trademark wit, Bill Bryson sorts through this colorful muddle to reveal the man himself.

Bryson documents the efforts of earlier scholars, from today's most respected academics to eccentrics like Delia Bacon, an American who developed a firm but unsubstantiated conviction that her namesake, Francis Bacon, was the true author of Shakespeare's plays. Emulating the style of his famous travelogues, Bryson records episodes in his research, including a visit to a bunkerlike room in Washington, D.C., where the world's largest collection of First Folios is housed.

Bryson celebrates Shakespeare as a writer of unimaginable talent and enormous inventiveness, a coiner of phrases ("vanish into thin air," "foregone conclusion," "one fell swoop") that even today have common currency. His Shakespeare is like no one else's—the beneficiary of Bryson's genial nature, his engaging skepticism, and a gift for storytelling unrivaled in our time.
MY THOUGHTS: This is a short book, basically because the central idea is just how little we know, 100% actually know about Shakespeare. There's a lot of supposition and theorising (usually on very doubtful and scant basis), and what Bryson does is cut through all this to the few bare, undeniable facts. He does present some of the suppositions, but always clearly marking them as such, and actually, a lot of the book is about what we don't know rather than about what we do.

I don't know if it sounds very promising, but it was fascinating, mainly because the mystery of who exactly Shakespeare was is so intriguing. And BTW, I mean who he was as a person, not his actual identity. The last chapter shows just how little convincing all those "so-and-so actually wrote the Shakespeare plays" theories are, and provides a good example of how Shakespearean scholars have tended to be an entertainingly eccentric bunch. Mean as it is, I'm still chortling at how three of the proponents of those theories were called Looney, Batty and Silliman.

It's an enormously enjoyable book, very much a Bryson, with his humour enhancing the material, rather than overwhelming it.

As an aside, as I was reading, I couldn't help but think back on the (I know, wholly fictional) plot of The Book of Air and Shadows. Seeing what little real information we have about the man made me appreciate exactly how huge a discovery the Bracegirdle letters would have been, even if the Big Find had remained lost.



A few short reviews

>> Wednesday, July 02, 2008

TITLE: Birds of a Feather
AUTHOR: Jacqueline Winspear

In this second book in the Maisie Dobbs series, Maisie investigates the disappearance of the daughter of a rich grocery-story tycoon. Maisie suspects Charlotte Waite left of her own accord, but when her friends and former friends start turning up murdered, it becomes urgent to find her and discover just what is hiding in her past.

I'm finding the Maisie Dobbs mysteries fascinating, both because of the settings and because of Maisie's unique investigative techniques. It's not just that the 1920s make a rich, vivid backdrop to the stories, it's that Winspear chooses to tell stories that couldn't have been set in any other period. So far both of her plots that I've read have had some essential ties to the First World War, and this makes them even more interesting to me.

I also like Maisie's approach to solving her cases, with such huge emphasis on the responsibility of the investigator to consider the impact of what she turns up on everyone involved, and Maisie's reliance on the new field of psychology to make her deductions.

What I'm not liking all that much is the tinge of the paranormal in the series. I think in a way it devalues the investigative method, which is really interesting enough that it deserves to shine alone. As it is, it's a bit devalued by the cheap psychic tricks of Maisie sensing auras and having physical reactions that show her when she's near a clue.

Also, I dislike it when the author is coy and plain hides things from her reader, and that's what Winspear does here. Maisie finds something in the houses of the murdered women, and we're told only that she found something she believes is significant, but doesn't tell us what. And then someone tells her something about Charlotte and her friends, and same thing. Well, I cry foul! I hate to be kept in the dark, told she found something that made her think hard and not be told what it was. Why do it? Maybe because the reason for the murders would have been obvious to us -as it REALLY should have been to Maise, much sooner than it actually was.

Still, other than this (which really, really irritated me, clearly), I enjoyed the book and thought the mystery a good one.


TITLE: I'll Be Seeing You
AUTHOR: Beverly Bird

I picked this one up from the 10p bin at the library. I can't seem to pass it up without buying something *sigh*. It's about Kate, a caterer who finds one of her clients murdered in his soup (well, it wasn't soup, but you know what I mean). Turns out the client was part of the Irish mob, and it soon becomes clear that whoever ordered the hit thinks Kate might have witnessed something. This lands her with around-the-clock protection, in the person of Det. Rafe Montiel.

I developed an antipathy for Rafe from the beginning. Basically, I thought he was a total asshole and a disgusting slob (hot-button for me, living with 6 flatmates, some of whom don't seem to understand that it might be the right thing to do to wipe the table after you use it and not leave it all sticky and disgusting for the next person). For all that she was annoying, Kate was just trying to keep things going to save her livelihood. I do understand that it was more important to preserve her life and that this might not permit her to keep going as normal with her engagements, but the way Rafe did it, constantly mocking her and sabotaging her at every turn made me want to hit him. And so what if she's a control freak? It's her house and her kitchen, she can do what she likes. It gives you no right to leave everything a mess. Damn, I'm like Kate!

On the whole, this was a very run-of-the-mill category romantic suspense, with a slightly preposterous plot and characters with cookie-cutter issues... Kate's former fiancée left her for a beautiful bimbo so she's all woe-is-me, no man will ever want me, Rafe fears getting close to any woman because she might be in danger. Oh, he *does* have a reason for feeling this way, because a killer he was after murdered a woman he was seeing, just because he was seeing her, but it's a bit irrational to think it will definitely happen again and, er, not very interesting.

Oh, and there's this huge WTF thing, with a dog who is actually an angel and protects Kate. Clearly just a left-over from an earlier, related book, which might have been relevant and fun in that book, but which was just silly and useless in this one.


TITLE: The World Cup's Strangest Moments
AUTHOR: Peter Seddon

I happened upon this one at random, just caught sight of it in my library. It's from a local-ish author (from Derby), apparently. Being a big football fan, I couldn't pass it up. And I had a blast reading it. I meant to make it last, read a couple here, a couple there, but I couldn't stop. I'd think "just one more", and keep reading. I was done in 2 days.

I'm going to have to quote the back cover blurb, because it gives an excellent idea of what this collection of World Cup anecdotes feels like:

Among the dodgy refs, eccentric mascots and manic managers that appear in this end-to-end collection of amusing, bizarre and shocking true stories is a dog who saved the Football Association's blushes, shameful fixes, outrageous cheats, bespectacled strikers, gangland disputes, tragic hairstyles and the most unpronounceable team of all time. Not to mention the odd assassination attempt, an excitable witch doctor and the minnows who didn't quite make the finals after losing 31-0.

Why was an England captain arrested by Colombian police? Which team stole a bus? Where did the Mexican wave really start? Was a defender really shot for scoring an own goal? Do robots have good vision? Why do the Germans taunt the Dutch with cheesy insults? How did a firework cause a Brazilian woman to bare all? And who was the fan who cycled over 4,000 miles to see his beloved team?

Football expert and author Peter Seddon introduces the man who played in two countries on the same day, the deceased official appointed by FIFA, the fan who committed suicide to help his team, and the England mascot who tried to prevent World War II by running round the deck of an ocean liner. If 90 minutes plus extra time and penalties is just the sort of entertainment you like, The World Cup's Strangest Moments is guaranteed to score -unlike singer Diana Ross, whose supreme penalty-miss at USA '94 has never been bettered.
Clearly, there's a bit of everything here. I'd say it's a great balance of on- and off-the-pitch antics and weirdness, all written in bite-size pieces. It never feels repetitive. You might say English football is over-represented given its World Cup performance (hah! take that!), but hey, it makes sense. English writer, book written for the Brit market, what can you expect? I didn't particularly mind, those stories were good. There were lots of stories I didn't know (and I've no idea why they're not better known, they're so jaw-dropping), but as they became more recent, I loved that many concerned episodes I actually remember (the ones from Mexico '86 onwards, that is).

Strangely enough, I even loved the writing. I say "strangely" because Seddon is fond of tortured metaphors and painful puns, but the thing is, that made it feel just like listening to a football radio commentator, at least the ones in Uruguay. The tone felt perfectly appropriate to the subject matter, and only added to the charming feel of the book. And even if he did make me wince a couple of times, Seddon IS funny.

MY GRADE: A B+. It just hit the spot.

TITLE: Untouched
AUTHOR: Anna Campbell

Anna Cambpell's debut, Claiming the Courtesan wasn't to my taste, at least not as a romance. But I was very impressed by her writing, and when I saw what her latest was about, and realised that the hero sounded like the complete opposite of the spoiled-little-boy rapist "hero" of CTC, I decided to read it.

The hero of Untouched is Matthew Lansdowne, Marquess Sheene. Matthew had the misfortune of inheriting his title while very young and under the tutelage of his eeeeevil uncle. When Matthew contracted brain fever at 14, evil uncle took his chance and had him declared insane (while he was recovering from the fever, Matthew had some fits, which actually made him doubt his own sanity), in order to take control of his estates. So Matthew's been imprisoned and under the control of violent, sadistic guards ever since.

But Matthew has been getting a bit restless, and to minimise chances of an escape attempt, his uncle decides he should have a woman to keep him happy and pliant. He orders the guards to get him a prostitute, but the guards are not only violent and sadistic but dumb as rocks. Instead of a prostitute, they snatch Grace Paget, an impoverished widow who happened to be lost and wandering around a dangerous area of town. Still, a woman is a woman, and evil uncle decides Grace will do. She must seduce Matthew (who is much more aware than his uncle thinks, and refuses to be manipulated in such a way), or die.

Matthew is a sweetie, a true hero, doing the impossible to protect his lady even from a position of practically no power. As the book starts, he's at a stage where he's pretty much lost all hope of ever being free. He doesn't dare try to escape any more, not after the reprisals his uncle took when he last tried it. What's more, he's not even 100% sure that he's not insane. It's got to the point where he's seriously contemplating dying, as a way to wrest control away from his uncle. That all changes when Grace arrives and gives him a reason to keep fighting. So basically, great, great hero.

Unfortunately, Grace wasn't such an appealing character. She's of the brown cow variety Mrs. Giggles used to love to hate: in short, tedious, self-martyring and a total ninny. Yeah, yeah, poor woman, she lands in a horrible situation and she handles it as well as could be expected, I suppose, but her constant bleating irritated me. I would have liked a better heroine for someone like Matthew.

All in all, this wasn't as good as I was hoping for, or as good as it could have been. Most of the book was all right, but for such a dramatic, larger-than-life plot, there sure were some boring parts, especially around the middle. Also, just as in CTC, the villains were seriously over-the-top. No subtlety at all there, which just made them feel a bit cartoonish.

MY GRADE: I'm giving this extra points for a lovely hero, so a B-.


Not Quite a Lady, by Loretta Chase

>> Monday, June 30, 2008

TITLE: Not Quite a Lady (excerpt)
AUTHOR: Loretta Chase

PAGES: 384

SETTING: 1820s England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: It's at the same time part of the Carsington series and the first in a series of novels about Fallen Women: see this great interview with the author at The Book Smugglers. As I said in the comments there, I love the idea of giving these women happy endings, rather than the horrid ones that they often received in the novels of the period.

REASON FOR READING: Autobuy author


Darius Carsington is a spectacularly handsome rake with a rare intelligence and no heart, a man who divides his time between bedding loose-moraled women and writing scholarly papers. He finds society's “perfect darlings”....exceedingly boring. But there’s something intriguing, and not quite perfect, about faultless Lady Charlotte Hayward. He senses a crack under her polished surface, and finding it is a temptation he can’t resist.


Lady Charlotte is so beautiful, charming, and gracious that no one has noticed what an expert she is at Not Getting Married. Early on, she learned a painful lesson about trust....and temptation. In the years since, she’s devoted her life to all she ought to be--and she’s not about to let a man like Carsington entice her to do everything she shouldn’t.


But the laws of attraction can easily overpower the rules of manners and morals, and sometimes even the best -behaved girl has to follow her instincts, even if it means risking it all.
MY THOUGHTS: I remember reading quite a few lukewarm comments about Not Quite a Lady when it came out, which was probably the reason why I didn't pick it up before this. Stupid me, I ended up loving it.

The fallen woman in this first entry in the series is Lady Charlotte Hayward, and though she's not fallen publicly, she very much feels the effects of being so, inside. Ten years earlier, when she was only 16, Charlotte was seduced and made pregnant and with her stepmother's help, gave birth in secret and gave away her son. Since then, she's been successfully manouvering out of getting married, despite her father's best efforts. Partly it's because her early betrayal has left her leery of men and love, but it's also because not being a virgin, she sees no good way of getting into a marriage that would work, other than lying through her teeth.

But her avoidance comes to an end when Darius Carsington arrives to take over the estate next door to her family's. Darius is there as a challenge by his father, who's bothered by his son's coldblooded behaviour with women. Scientific genius Darius behaves just as scientifically in his liaisons, going through experienced women without caring in the slightest about any of them, and refusing to ever come in contact with anyone elegible. So his father dares him to either take over the almost-ruined estate next door to the Haywards' and make it profitable in a year, or be cut off and have to marry a heiress.

At the beginning of the book, Darius' attitude outraged me just as much as it did the Earl of Hargate. He doesn't dislike women (he's not like those disgusting mysoginistic "heroes" who think all women are whores), but when it comes to sex, he's a mix of the worst parts of animal (in the way sex is purely about physical reactions and impulses, with no feelings involved) and control (in the coolness and calculation with which he chooses his partners). I experienced a twinge of doubt about this guy as a potential hero, but that disappeared the minute he met Charlotte.

It was incredibly satisfying to see him fall, and fall hard. He immediately starts experiencing these uncomfortable, unfamiliar feelings... tenderness, protectiveness, pleasure in just being with this strange woman, and he's got no idea whatsoever what to do with them. He's confused and out of his depth, and doing things he would have condemned as irrational not a day earlier. Charlotte is out of bounds, according to all his rules, and yet he can't seem to stay away.

As for Charlotte, Darius inspires behaviour that is just as uncharacteristic. She's spent the past 10 years repressing every urge, avoiding any kind of involvement, but this irritating man just makes her forget her determination to be all quiet and circumspect. It's a fabulously romantic and spicy and funny relationship, and I loved every minute.

Chase's writing deserves a mention. She's got a certain witty, wry tone, a way of describing things and often poking gentle fun at her own characters that is very much her own. She's one of the few romance authors with voices distinct enough that I'd be able to recognise one of her books immediately. And it's not just voice, her writing is just plain good, with lots of showing instead of telling, and a knack for creating subtle, well rounded secondary characters. In other hands, Charlotte's stepmother or the neighbour who's determined to marry Charlotte would end up being stock characters, but here they are be fresh and original and believable.

Now for what generated most doubts among readers: the resolution of Charlotte's old, scandalous secret. Yes, there are some instances of quite amazingly unlikely coincidence and yes, the solution they arrived at strained credibility a bit. But see, I wanted to believe it very badly, so it worked for me anyway. And there was some very powerful stuff there. When Charlotte confesses the truth to her father, his reaction brought tears to my eyes. An amazing, amazing scene, and so was the one soon thereafter (don't want to spoil things, but I mean what happens when Charlotte's father goes out of the house and meets a certain someone). Just wonderful.

MY GRADE: I was going with a B+, but thinking about the many things I loved about the book and just how much I loved them has made me change my mind. This deserves an A-.


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