On hiatus and a request

>> Monday, December 16, 2013

Bye for a month or so! I'm in Uruguay visiting family for the next month or so, and will be back mid-January.

In the meantime, could I ask you all for some suggestions? My book club have asked me to select a genre romance novel for us to read in February, and I'm not quite sure what to choose. I want something really well-written, obviously, and I'm thinking something that is mainstream. What I mean by that is that the romances I most appreciate these days are the ones that do something different and subvert the usual tropes in some way, but that's probably because I've read so much in the genre. These are people who've read little if any romance, so they would not appreciate that aspect of them.

So far, I've thought of 3:

- Lord of Scoundrels, by Loretta Chase, which I can tell them is the classic romance

- Bet Me, by Jennifer Crusie, as I lent my copy to one of my other non-romance reading friends and she loved it. However, this is one that's not very typical romance, what with its childfree characters.

- The Viscount Who Loved Me, by Julia Quinn, mostly for the Mallet of Death scene.

All three are books I found hilarious, although they also gave me that angsty stomach-knotting feel. Do you think this approach is a good idea or should I go for more 'serious' books? Thanks for any opinions and suggestions!


Emma, by Jane Austen

>> Thursday, December 05, 2013

AUTHOR: Jane Austen

PAGES: 512

SETTING: Early 19th century England
TYPE: Fiction

'I never have been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall.'

Beautiful, clever, rich - and single - Emma Woodhouse is perfectly content with her life and sees no need for either love or marriage. Nothing, however, delights her more than interfering in the romantic lives of others. But when she ignores the warnings of her good friend Mr Knightley and attempts to arrange a suitable match for her protegee Harriet Smith, her carefully laid plans soon unravel and have consequences that she never expected. With its imperfect but charming heroine and its witty and subtle exploration of relationships, Emma is often seen as Jane Austen's most flawless work.

Of the Austens I've reread so far, Emma has been by far my favourite. I had a similar experience with it than I did with Northanger Abbey a couple of months ago, in that what I remembered of it happened pretty early on, and there was practically a whole book left where I wasn't sure what would happen. In NA it was the whole gothic parody bit, here it was the confusion about Mr. Elton being in love with Harriet. I remembered it as being what the book was about, so when that misunderstanding was over by the end of CD 2, I was nonplussed. The rest, though, was just as good.

Out of Austen's books that I like (i.e. excluding Mansfield Park, for which my only memory is of dislike for Fanny... hmm, maybe I should reread it), Emma is probably the one where the romance is least the point of the story. It's all about the comedy of manners, and it worked brilliantly because the characters involved are so rich and real. I said in my summary of the month that Austen had made me like, dislike, love, pity, despise and admire Emma, all in one book. She is a complex character, to say the least. And the brilliant thing is, I have no doubt that all of my reactions are fully intended. Austen is in full control here; I felt she had played with my feelings masterfully, and felt no resentment about it.

The rest of the characters were just as good. With some of them, Austen really exaggerates a particular characteristic, such as Miss Bates' inane babbling, or Mrs. Elton's vanity and bitchiness, but it never crosses the line into something cartoonish. There's too much truth underneath for that. They are all characters that feel so real that I couldn't help but react to them. I actually went "the bitch!" out loud once as Mrs. Elton spoke, getting some strange looks in my gym.

I did like the romance, as far as it went. It's interesting, because I tend to hate romances where the heroine is always wrong and has to be put right by the hero, and this was a bit the dynamic between Emma and Mr. Knightley. But it doesn't feel as if she's being humiliated because a woman has to be put in her place. Emma is wrong just because she's human and she's absorbed too well the lesson that, as the most socially prominent person in her little world she is the most important person, and therefore anything that would please her is, by definition, the right thing to happen. She has to learn that this isn't the case.

It wasn't a perfect book. There was a bit where I got kicked out of the story because the reaction Austen was intending to get was quite different from the one she got, and that was the very short episode with the gypsies. It's not a big part of a the book at all, but it did make an impression, as the prejudices and attitudes revealed (and quite clearly shared, to a certain extent, by the author) were so clearly ugly and horrible to me.

I also thought the book took a little too long to wrap up. Everything was pretty much settled and I still had a whole CD (which was almost 1.5 hours long) to go. There was a lot of rehashing. It sounded like the sort of discussions you have with friends after you find out something surprising about someone you know, the whole "ah, so when we met so and so in such and such a place this was why he was there and what he was doing". That's fun and very satisfying to do, but feels very tedious and static to read, especially when there are no surprising revelations there. That was the case here, we found out nothing that we couldn't have deduced quite easily.

MY GRADE: Still, although these flaws lower my grade somewhat, it's still an A-.

AUDIOBOOK NOTES: There are loads of audio versions of Austen's books available, and after listening to quite a few samples, I've realised Juliet Stephenson is by far my favourite. She made this a joy to listen to. She had me in stitches quite a few times, like with her rendering of Miss Bates' babbling. I absolutely loved it.


Dark Witch, by Nora Roberts

>> Tuesday, December 03, 2013

TITLE: Dark Witch
AUTHOR: Nora Roberts

PAGES: 368
PUBLISHER: Berkley Trade

SETTING: Contemporary Ireland
TYPE: Paranormal romance
SERIES: First in the Cousins O'Dwyer trilogy

With indifferent parents, Iona Sheehan grew up craving devotion and acceptance. From her maternal grandmother, she learned where to find both: a land of lush forests, dazzling lakes, and centuries-old legends.


County Mayo, to be exact. Where her ancestors’ blood and magic have flowed through generations—and where her destiny awaits.

Iona arrives in Ireland with nothing but her Nan’s directions, an unfailingly optimistic attitude, and an innate talent with horses. Not far from the luxurious castle where she is spending a week, she finds her cousins, Branna and Connor O’Dwyer. And since family is family, they invite her into their home and their lives.

When Iona lands a job at the local stables, she meets the owner, Boyle McGrath. Cowboy, pirate, wild tribal horsemen, he’s three of her biggest fantasy weaknesses all in one big, bold package.

Iona realizes that here she can make a home for herself—and live her life as she wants, even if that means falling head over heels for Boyle. But nothing is as it seems. An ancient evil has wound its way around Iona’s family tree and must be defeated. Family and friends will fight with each other and for each other to keep the promise of hope—and love—alive...

Dark Witch felt off. Just completely off, and it's one of Nora Roberts' very few misses in the last years.

We start out with an extended prologue which sets up the trilogy. 800 years earlier, dark witch Sorcha (who's the good one here; in this series a dark witch is not one engaged in dark magic) is besieged by the evil Cabhan, who wants to take her powers. She succeeds in escaping him and passes on her powers to her 3 children and their descendants, knowing that at some point in the future, 3 dark witches of her blood will come together to fight the final battle against Cabhan.

In the present, Iona Sheehan has decided to up sticks and move from the US to Ireland, where her beloved Nan was born. There's something about the place that calls to her, and she somehow knows she's meant to be there. And as soon as she knocks on the door of her cousins' place, it becomes clear why. She, and her cousins, Brenna and Connor, are Sorcha's descendants and the ones who are meant to finish off Cabhan.

As Iona trains and develops her powers, she also finds a job that's right up her street. She's always had a connection with horses (each of the three dark witches has that; Brenna and Connor with dogs and falcons respectively), and she's hired at the local stables. There she meets the owner, Boyle McGrath, whom she's immediately attracted to. Iona's always been on the diffident side with men, but she's never wanted one like she wants Boyle.

Ok, so, where to start? I suppose the first thing to say is that this felt derivative. Now, Nora's books have never been unpredictable, but I usually don't care at all. Until this one. It was a bit too much, a mix and match using bits of previous series. The biggest chunk is from the Three Sisters Island trilogy. There's the witches, there's the fight against an old evil, and then there's the characters. To me, that was the most striking bit. Iona reminded me a lot of Nell, the nervous, very unsure and tentative new arrival in the island, who's taken under the wing of the established, confident Brenna/Mia (Iona does prove to be a bit more confident than Nell was, especially with Boyle, but at the beginning, she was forever apologising and babbling). Brenna/Mia is clearly being set up for a romance with a man (Fin/Sam) with whom she shares a history and quite a bit of resentment, a man with his own powers, which will be needed for the final confrontation. Meara, who works with Iona at the stables, is a sort of blander version of Ripley, with some of her experience but none of her "I don't give a shit" abruptness. I liked Meara, but Ripley was much more fabulous To all that, we add a dash of the Ireland from the Gallaghers of Ardmore trilogy, and shades of the Circle Trilogy in the nature of the evil that must be confronted and there, new trilogy.

Then there's the plot about fighting Cabhan, which never even began to engage me. The problem starts with the immediate coming together of the group of 6 (Iona and her cousins, Boyle, Fin and Meara) and their absolute commitment to the future fight. Iona has learnt a bit about her magic from her Nan, but had absolutely no idea of the history or that she's meant to risk her life to fight Cabhan. And yet there is no hesitation when she hears the story. She experiences no doubt or wonders why she should do this or what might happen if she doesn't. She's all "risk my life to defeat this powerful being who's done nothing to me but killed an ancestress 800 years ago? Of course, sure, let's do it." Bizarre. I kept thinking of Iolanthe, in Sherry Thomas' The Burning Sky, whose first reaction in a similar situation was, very sensibly, "the hell I will, I want to live and this is a suicide mission!", but who was convinced of the necessity of the struggle by experiencing the reality of the evil of what they're up against.

I think that realisation of the reality of what they're up against was precisely what was lacking here. Because you see, Cabhan is just not scary. He's nothing more than a sort of cloud of... well, I can't really say "evil", because although our protagonists think he is, he doesn't really do much here to warrant that description. He attacks them because he wants their power and because he knows they mean to destroy him. Sure, you wouldn't want him to succeed, but evil? For all we know, he seems to have spent the ensuing 800 years waiting as this disembodied force. There isn't much of a sense of menace.

It didn't help that the magic in this book feels silly. It's all very twee, with rhyming spells (which made me giggle uncontrollably) and floating bits of fire and stuff like that. There are some scenes where Iona is supposed to do things that are spectacular, but they didn't feel so, they felt meh.

The romance just wasn't great. I did like how the otherwise shy Iona basically blurts out her feelings for Boyle in front of everyone and pursues him, but then the romance develops in a bit of a frustrating way. Everything's fine, and then there's a point where they experience a crisis which felt very forced, making what to me was a lot about nothing much. I didn't particularly care whether they got back together or not, and that's the mark of a very boring romance.

The final thing in my litany of complaints is the way Roberts approaches her setting here. It's an area she's usually great at. Her settings, both physical and thematic (by that I mean, say, the world of smoke jumpers in Chasing Fire) are big parts of her books, and they usually come alive and are fascinating. Ireland, though, she seems to fetishise, and that's a problem. There's no shred of anything that feels real in her setting here (for instance, this is a world where every small business is thriving and doesn't seem to have experienced any issues in the previous years), but the problem is how it's all romanticised. Things like the way her Irish characters spoke felt really off. I live in Liverpool, so I have a fair few Irish friends and acquaintances. Not one of them speaks like Yoda.

There were some things I did like here. Iona is the child of extremely distant parents, and it's lovely to see her begin to build a family with the rest of the circle. The developing friendship between her and Meara and Fin, and the way Brenna and Connor become her family were the strong points of the book. Other than that, though, this was a bust.



November 2013 reads

>> Sunday, December 01, 2013

Not my best month ever numbers-wise, in spite of lots of travelling. Not great in terms of quality, either. I loved Emma and had a couple of solid, good books, but a few disappointments as well.

1 - Emma, by Jane Austen: A-
review coming soon

Audiobook. Reread, after many years. Emma is such a brilliant character. Austen made me like her, dislike her, love her, pity her, despise her, admire her, all in one book. I was fully involved in the goings-on at Highbury and the engaging secondary characters, some of whom are true comedy gold. The narrator, Juliet Stephenson, had me in stitches with her rendering of Miss Bates' ramblings.

2 - The Burning Sky, by Sherry Thomas: B
review coming soon

Audiobook. YA fantasy. Iolanthe's life is turned upside down when it emerges she's the greatest Mage of her generation. She ends up reluctantly helping the young Master of the Domain, Titus, in his quest to defeat the evil Atlanteans, who have usurped real power in the Domain. The start is not great and the worldbuilding feels a bit rough, but I did get into it and enjoy it.

3 - Blood Atonement, by Dan Waddell: B
review coming soon

Audiobook. 2nd in a series featuring genealogist Nigel Barnes. The case this time concerns the murder of a woman and kidnapping of her teenage daughter, and then the ensuing deaths of further members of their distant family. Good, solid mystery, but didn't feel quite as enjoyable as the first one.

4 - Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, by Kathryn Schulz: B
review coming soon

Non fiction. Epistemiology. The author examines what it means to be wrong and how we feel about it and how we react. Interesting stuff, although sometimes made a bit annoying by faux-folksy writing.

5 - Dark Witch, by Nora Roberts: C-
review coming soon

Starts trilogy about cousins who are witches and must struggle with a centuries-old evil. It takes place in Ireland, and the heroine of this first one is an American who's just decided to move there. Not great, I'm afraid. I only liked the family and friends relationships. The romance was blah, the paranormal stuff tedious (except when it was unintentionally hilarious), and the Irish characters a bit cringe-inducing.

6 - Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself, by Harriet Ann Jacobs: DNF
review coming soon

This is exactly what the title says, an autobiographical account written by a former slave. It was published in the 1860s and was intended to influence Northern women to support not sending runaway slaves back to the South. While I appreciated its importance and historical significance, the writing didn't work for me.

7 - In Love With a Wicked Man, by Liz Carlyle: still reading
review coming soon

The hero is the disreputable owner of a gambling hell who suffers amnesia after a fall and has to recover at the heroine's house. The first half has reminded me of a slightly blander My False Heart. Good so far (no more half-baked paranormal stuff, yay!), but not great.

8 - Falling Free, by Lois McMaster Bujold: still listening
review coming soon

Audiobook. I wanted to read this one before I immerse myself in Miles's story. It's set a few centuries before the main books and stars an engineer who's posted to a station where they're doing some very dodgy genetic manipulations. I'm enjoying it.


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