March 2014 wish list

>> Friday, February 28, 2014

A few interesting ones, but my wish lists have been a bit sparse the last few months.

Books I'm definitely planning to get

Carolina Man, by Virginia Kantra (Mar 4)

I enjoyed the first in the series, which reminded me of some of Nora Roberts trilogies (a bit like the Chesapeake Bay trilogy, I thought).

The Lost Sisterhood by Anne Fortier (Mar 11)

The heroine is a scholar in search of the Amazons. That’s all I need to know.

Sweet Disorder, by Rose Lerner (Mar 18)

I've heard really good things about this one. It’ll sound a bit weird, but the fact that there seems to be a good bit of local politics here is quite appealing to me.

Shadow Spell, by Nora Roberts (Mar 25)

Second in the Cousins O'Dwyer series. I thought the first one was pretty crap, but this is Nora, so she can turn it around.

Books that interest me and I'll keep an eye on

City of Jasmine, by Deanna Raybourn (Mar 1)

After reading Bill Bryson's One Summer, I love the idea of a story set in the aviation world in the 1920s, especially when the aviator is an aviatrix. Plus, it's set in Damascus!

The Jade Temptress, by Jeannie Lin (Mar 3)

I must say, I didn't love the first book I read by this author (which happens to be the first in this series), but it's not like there's a glut of historical romances set in China, so I'll be trying Jeannie Lin again.

Four Years Later, by Monica Murphy (Mar 4)

I'm kind of embarrassed to put this on my wish list, as the 1st person blurb is cringe-worthy. I've been meaning to try this author, though.

Forever’s Promise, by Farrah Rochon (Mar 18)

I like Rochon's books. They're not standouts, but they're really dependable and consistently good.

Fool Me Twice, by Meredith Duran (Mar 25)

Similarly to the Nora Roberts above, I DNFd the last Meredith Duran I tried, by I generally like her books, so I'll probably give this one a shot.


Barrayar, by Lois McMaster Bujold

>> Wednesday, February 26, 2014

TITLE: Barrayar
AUTHOR: Lois McMaster Bujold

PAGES: 389

SETTING: Futuristic
TYPE: Sci-fi
SERIES: I'll call it #2 in the Vorkosigan series

Believing her warship days are over after she defeats the Barrayaran militarists and marries their leader, former commander Cordelia Naismith is astounded by the role her unborn son will play in a world on the brink of civil war.

There seem to be endless ways of reading the Vorkosigan series. Chronological vs order of publication, just the main novels vs. interspersing the short stories, or even none of the above, as Bujold has said she tries to write them to stand alone. Well, I chose to mostly* follow the internal chronology of the series, and start with the two novels telling the story of Miles' parents, Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan.

In the first, Shards of Honor, Cordelia and Aral met and fell in love through a number of military campaigns in which they were in opposing sides. In addition to telling their story, the novel introduces the wider universe of the series and gives us a very good idea of how Barrayar is seen from the outside. The story closes with Cordelia deciding to move there to make a life with Aral, and the realisation that they won't be able to keep far away from the complex and dangerous Barrayaran politics.

In Barrayar we see exactly what all that entails. Cordelia is now pregnant and doing her best to find a way to fit in. A lot of things about her new home seem backwards and barbaric to her. It's a patriarchal, militaristic, quasi-feudal society. It's also one where there was a sudden jump in technology when the world was rediscovered by the rest of the universe after centuries of isolation. That was just a couple of generations back, and so high-tech still lives uncomfortably side by side with attitudes which, in Cordelia's planet, were left behind centuries earlier. There are plenty of pressures for reform, and it's a fine balance for her and Aral, now the Regent, to figure out how far they can go and in which areas.

It's brilliant stuff, even if objectively, it maybe shouldn't work. There isn't really an overarching plot, it's more surviving Barrayaran politics in general, in a bit of an episodic way. There is very heavy stuff happening. Not only is there a war, but, if you've read any further books in the series (or if you know the basics about Miles), you will realise that something very bad is going to happen during Cordelia's pregnancy. So in addition to the horrors of war (and it's clear to all characters, even war hero Aral, that war is horrible), and even once it becomes clear that there's some hope the baby won't die and might be viable, there's the challenges of bringing what's clearly going to be a child with some disabilities into a society that has a very fucked up attitude towards that.

So it sounds really depressing, but Bujold manages to write it in a way that is not only bearable, but positively enjoyable. Maybe it's because the characters retain their humanity and love, both romantic and fraternal. Aral and Cordelia are two of the most honourable characters I've ever read, and it's clear here how hard it is to maintain that honour.

Also, from all the pain and suffering, Bujold manages to extract a happy ending, even one that is completely believable. First there's the amazingly triumphant moment when Cordelia comes home with... er.. shopping (those who've read this will know what I mean). I actually rewinded (is that the right term for an mp3?) and listened to it again as soon as it was over. And then there's an epilogue that I might have thought too sweet, but that was necessary and right for the story.

I think I liked this one even a little bit more than Shards of Honour.


* I say 'mostly', because the first entry, really, is a novella called Falling Free which takes place a couple of centuries before the rest. I didn't want to start with something so unrelated to the rest of the series and for which reviews are kind of lukewarm, so I left that one for a bit later.

AUDIOBOOK NOTES: I'm listening to the Readers' Chair versions, rather than the new ones, and the male reader is beginning to annoy me. The voices for Aral and a couple of other characters are ok, but some verge on caricature. Count Pyotr's was horrible, Kudelka sounded buffoonish and poor Prince Gregor (and 5-year-old Miles, in the epilogue) sounded creepy. The female narrator is good, but I worry that once we get to Miles' stories, it'll be mainly the bloke reading. We'll see. I might end up using some of my audible credits and getting the new versions.


A couple of underwhelming books

>> Monday, February 24, 2014

TITLE: The School of Essential Ingredients (aka The Monday Night Cooking School)
AUTHOR: Erica Bauermeister

Growing up, Lillian discovered the power of food when she was able to use it to reach her mother during a time she'd become completely withdrawn. Realising she had a particular affinity for using food in such a way, she became the owner of a restaurant, one which offers very special cooking classes. After our introduction to Lillian, the book covers one particular cooking course, each chapter exploring a month and a participant.

I liked the sound of it, but it really didn't work for me. I wasn't particularly interested in the characters, just barely enough to keep reading and not DNF the book (it was close, though, and I only finished it because it's short). Their stories felt pretty trite and superficial. There was nothing there to offend me, but nothing that I liked, either. The worst, though, was the writing. Your mileage may vary on this (certainly, many reviewers on amazon comment particularly that this was something they loved), but to me, the writing style felt really corny. It's self-consciously poetic, overloaded with overworked metaphors and trying too hard for magical realism, as if the author is trying to channel Like Water For Chocolate and can't quite make it. Instead, it all feels unnatural and forced. Not a success for me.

MY GRADE: This was a C-

TITLE: Murder On The Home Front
AUTHOR: Molly Lefebure

This is a memoir written by a woman who worked during World War II as secretary to a forensic pathologist. We're not talking office management here, this basically meant being with him as he carried out his work, whether it was examining a crime scene or performing a post-mortem.

I was interested in the content, not just seeign what forensic science was like in the 40s, but what day-to-day life would have been like in wartime London. Of course the war would loom large in people's minds, but life, including completely unrelated murders and deaths, would go on.

Unfortunately, Lefebure's writing style didn't work for me. It's clear and understandable, but that's all it's got going fot it. There's no dynamism, no flow, no storytelling. In the sections I read she writes about crimes that sound like they must have been fascinating in a way that doesn't go much beyond a bare statement of the facts, making reading about them very dull. Also, the narration felt very old-fashioned in a bad way. It was written in the 50s, and some ugly attitudes shine through.

MY GRADE: A DNF, unfortunately.


Aftershock, by Jill Sorensen

>> Saturday, February 22, 2014

TITLE: Aftershock
AUTHOR: Jill Sorensen

PAGES: 384

SETTING: Contemporary US (San Diego)
TYPE: Romantic Suspense
SERIES: Starts a series of related books. Followed by Freefall and Badlands

As an emergency paramedic, Lauren Boyer is dedicated and highly capable. Until an earthquake strikes, trapping her beneath the freeway with a group of strangers—including Iraq war veteran Garrett Wright…

Handsome and take-charge Garrett aids Lauren in her rescue efforts, even as the steely look in his eyes seems to hide dark secrets. When a gang of escaped convicts goes on the attack, Garrett's bravery makes him more than a courageous bystander to Lauren. If they can save the others before time runs out, maybe, just maybe, they can explore the fire igniting between them—if the truth about who he really is doesn't pull them apart forever…

Aftershock certainly starts with a bang. San Diego paramedic Lauren Boyer is riding in her ambulance with her partner when a huge earthquake hits. The highway they're driving on collapses completely, with vehicles flying off in every direction. Lauren manages to survive and get out of the ambulance (her partner is not so lucky), but they were on an underpass, and the highway above has collapsed in such a way as to trap her.

Many have died, but there are several survivors. One of them is war veteran Garrett Wright, who immediately starts working with Lauren to save as many injured survivors as possible. A small group of them, including a very pregnant teenager and a grandfather and granddaughter in a camper van, team up to try to survive until rescue comes, if it ever does.

But the danger doesn't only come from injuries and lack of food and water. One of the vehicles trapped in the collapse was a prison van, and several of the prisoners have escaped. And a couple of them make it immediately very clear that the others aren't safe from them.

I liked this very much on the whole, but the components were a bit of a mixed bag.

As suspense, this worked brilliantly. The setup was intriguing, and it was developed wonderfully. The tension brought in by the presence of the convicts, in addition to the danger of the situation itself, makes things extremely tense, and this is sustained throughout. I was turning the pages like crazy.

I particularly liked that this danger the convicts brought didn’t come about because our core group of survivors behaved stupidly (e.g. deciding to trust people who patently shouldn’t be trusted). There really wasn’t much more that they could have done. Still, that said, I loved that while Garrett is strong and competent and behaves intelligently, he’s also capable of miscalculation and mistakes. He might be a war veteran, but that doesn't mean that he's unbeatable. Sometimes with romance heroes you just know that as soon as they make a plan, it will go off without a hitch. Not here, even if it was a really good plan, and that made things even more tense and suspenseful.

The characters were well done, too. We get an excellent sense of the who they are through their actions. There's obviously little time for sitting around chatting, but what there is really counts. The evil convicts are possibly a bit cartoonish, but I was willing to go with it.

I join several other readers in being particularly interested in Owen, one of the convicts, who turns out to have a lot more to him than his horrible white supremacist tattoos would suggest. He's been quite divisive amongst readers, with many finding him hard to accept at all, because he chose to align himself with the Aryan Brotherhood gang in prison as a survival strategy. Sorensen doesn't go into much detail, leaving much to our imagination. I kind of took what we do know at face value, thinking that I’d also do quite a lot of unsavoury things to avoid constant rape, but completely see why that would be an impossible line to cross for other readers.

And now we come to the negatives, unfortunately. For all that I liked the plot and the characters, the romance was disappointing. I cared about Lauren and Garrett individually (quite a bit, too), but the romance didn’t quite capture my interest. There didn't seem to be much more than physical attraction there. I was more interested in Penny (the pregnant teenager) and Owen, but even there there was quite a bit of inappropriate lusting that I found annoying. There was a particular moment when Penny (about to give birth!) is seeing Owen with his shirt off for the first time and she sees his tattoos (we're talking burning crosses and the like). And yet she thinks that what really caught her attention were his chiseled abs. Oh, come on!

I'm in two minds about the writing style. It felt a bit simplistic at times, but it worked well to ratchet up the tension, and could also be described as ‘spare’, I suppose.

MY GRADE: It was a B.


Sleigh Bells in the Snow, by Sarah Morgan

>> Thursday, February 20, 2014

TITLE: Sleigh Bells in the Snow
AUTHOR: Sarah Morgan

PAGES: 384

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 1st in the O'Neil Brother series

Once upon a time, Christmas was Kayla Green's favorite time of year. Now all the workaholic wants for Christmas is for it to be over—as fast as possible! So when duty calls her to snowy Vermont to close a deal with a new client, Kayla is grateful for an excuse to avoid the holidays for another year.

Jackson O'Neil left a thriving business behind to return home and salvage his family's resort—it's in his blood, and he can't let it fail. Now that he's got marketing whiz Kayla Green working with him to put Snow Crystal on the map, success is on the horizon. The fact they strike enough sparks off each other to power all the Christmas lights in Vermont is just an added bonus.

Kayla might be an expert at her job, but she's out of her depth with Jackson—he makes her crave the happy-ever-after she once dreamed of, and it's terrifying. As the snowflakes continue to swirl, will the woman who doesn't believe in the magic of Christmas finally fall under its spell?

Because of events in her childhood, PR professional Kayla Green really doesn't like Christmas. All the ubiquitous cheer really gets her down. So when a project comes up right before the holidays, she seizes the chance. She'll 'selflessly' volunteer to work through the Christmas period in a little isolated resort in rural Vermont.

Unfortunately for her, what she hoped would be a refuge becomes a complete nightmare. The man now running the resort, Jackson O'Neil, is struggling to apply his hard-won business experience to the task, as his family, who own the resort, don't see why they should change the way they've always done things. Because it's about to go under, that's why. But of course, because of 'reasons' (i.e. because the plot requires it) Jackson can't tell them that. And Kayla, used to doing no wrong in business and being the best PR exec ever, doesn't fare any better with them. To make things worse, everyone seems determined to welcome her into their Christmas celebrations.

Gah. I've enjoyed Sarah Morgan's books before (including, surprisingly, a couple of her Harlequin Presents titles), but I really, really did not like this one.

I had loads of issues with it, but the main one was that I just didn’t buy Kayla at all as the character we're told she is: a super successful PR executive. Yes, yet again, we have a romance heroine who's supposedly a successful career woman, but not to worry, she's not, really. Instead, she behaves like an unprofessional emotional mess. That initial meeting with the O’Neils... ah, so much wrong with it. Sure, we’re told the reason she froze and rolled over and generally made a fool of herself was because of all the inappropriate personal questions and the questions about her family, and because being confronted WITH a family being a family, rather than a group of business people, threw her.

Sorry, I don't buy that. Things were very wrong long before she set eyes on the O’Neils, and they were wrong because she prepared for her meeting in a way that I highly doubt the character she’s supposed to be would have. A big part of being a PR professional is that you are an expert in how to deliver messages to different audiences in ways that catch their attention and engage them, whether your audience is the different segments of the press, people who run social media sites, general public, whatever. She has been amply warned that the people she’ll be meeting with are Jackson’s family, and that a big part of the problem is that it’s a family business with an emphasis on the first word, and that they are not making decisions in a cool, professional way. And the idiot turns up to a home in a mountain lodge in pencil skirt and high-heels, armed with a laptop which she assumes she’ll be able to plug into a projector (in someone’s home!!), and a presentation full of jargon such as “media impressions”. Seriously! Anyone who does presentations regularly and succesfully (me included) knows that the first thing you think about is who your audience are going to be, and you tailor things accordingly. That meeting was doomed long before she was asked whether she was wearing thermal underwear, and it was doomed while she was in her comfort zone in New York, preparing for it.

And then there's the logical fallacy that she must get to know Snow Crystal really well before she can do her job. Actually, sorry, but no. She's not there to run the place. It's more important that she knows the audience and what it wants. She must know something about the resort for that, of course, but she definitely doesn't need to go skiing if she doesn't want to, FFS! But no, the author needs a reason to have her make a complete cake of herself. Ugh.

I also disliked the strong message that if you don’t like Christmas there must be something wrong with you, you must have been screwed up in some way. It’s wrong not to like Christmas, and Kayla must be made to see the errors of her ways! And Kayla does not just not like Christmas, she hyperventilates at the very idea of trimming a Christmas tree. Again, seriously!

I read about 60% of it, hoping against hope it would get better. I stopped when I realised that not only was the plot driving me crazy, I didn't care about the romance. All there is to that is basically lots of heavy mental lusting right from the start, and on, and on, and on. Boring. I think it would have had a chance at working if that aspect had been developed much more gradually.

Eh, well.

MY GRADE: It was a DNF.


The First Move, by Jennifer Lohmann

>> Tuesday, February 18, 2014

TITLE: The First Move
AUTHOR: Jennifer Lohmann

PAGES: 304
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Superromance

SETTING: Contemporary US (Chicago)
TYPE: Category romance
SERIES: Follows Reservations For Two

An unlikely encounter... but he'll take it!

It seems like fate…or something! When Miles Brislenn spies the girl he had a crush on in high school—at his ex-wife's wedding, no less—he can't let the opportunity pass. He might not have had the courage to talk to Renia Milek back then, but he definitely does now. And that's not the only thing that's changed. Gone is the rebel Renia used to be. In her place is a beautiful woman who's reserved, cautious... and holding on to secrets.

For Miles, this second chance with Renia is too important to let her past stand in their way. He'll do whatever is necessary to help her accept her choices and move on—even if that means a salsa lesson or two! Because now that he's made the first move, he wants the second to be hers.

My copy of The First Move was provided to me by the Jennifer Lohmann herself, after I tweeted her to ask whether she knew if the e-version would be available in the UK. I'd read Wendy the Superlibrarian's review, you see, and it sounded like just my sort of book.

Renia Milek's world was crushed when she was a teenager, when her father, grandfather and one of her brothers were killed in a car accident. Her mum withdrew into her own head, and Renia (Rey, as she called herself then) reacted by acting out. There was drinking, drugs and sleeping around. It all ended with Rey getting pregnant and her mother shipping her off to an aunt to have her baby. The aunt was very supportive and helped Rey do what she needed to screw her head back on, including giving her baby up for adoption.

At the time Rey thought it best to cut ties to the baby, so she opted for a closed adoption. There was a provision for her daughter to contact her when she turned 18, though, and now that the time has come where she might receive a phone call from her, Renia is both scared and terrified.

It's a really bad time to come across Miles Brislenn again. Miles was a shy kid who went to the same school as her, and he had a huge crush on her. He recognises her the minute he sees her, but Renia has no idea who he is. She only knows he calls her Rey, so he must know her from her worst times. But as things come to a head with her daughter, Miles becomes a surprising source of support.

There was a lot to like here. Renia is a really interesting character, and at a really interesting time in her life. I really appreciated how sensitively the issue of her having given her daughter in adoption was handled. This is not yet another book saying that giving a baby up, even when it’s patently the right thing to do, will screw you up for life. It’s true that Rey IS pretty screwed up about what happened, but I’d argue that it’s clear that this is more about her mother’s abandonment of her teenage self than about her own abandonment of her baby.

That issue with Renia's mother leads to my favourite aspect of the book, which is the very complicated relationship between the two. They have a very civilised relationship now, but a distant one, and it's clear Renia's mother is desperate to fix that, but doesn't know how. There's a long overdue conversation near the end that had me choking back tears.

In fact, the family angst was the best thing about the book, and it was really, really good. In addition to the sections about Renia's mother, there's the stuff with her birth daughter. This is developed really slowly, and Lohmann doesn't make it into some sort of insta-connection. It feels realistic, both painful and hopeful at the same time, and I really liked it. I also liked Renia's relationship with Sarah, Miles’ daughter, in whom she sees bits of herself.

I was a bit less enthused by the romance. Renia questions whether Miles loves the real her or whether he’s just reacting to his old crush on her 16-year-old self, and I must say, I questioned that at times. Also, although Miles was pitch-perfect most of the time, always being very accepting of Rey’s past and her current issues, there was that fight at the end, which seemed to show that deep down, he wasn’t quite as accepting as all that. I’m in two minds about that. On one hand, I liked seeing he wasn’t quite perfect, but on the other, that might have come a bit too late in the book, and he didn’t quite redeem himself from what I felt was a really mean, almost unforgivable thing to say.

On the whole, though, I really enjoyed this. The writing is good and flows smoothly, and the pacing is generally good as well. There's a bit of a draggy section round the middle, but things got going again soon after, and I raced to the end.

MY GRADE: It's a B.


Stray, by Andrea K. Höst

>> Sunday, February 16, 2014

TITLE: Stray
AUTHOR: Andrea K. Höst

PAGES: 278
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Parallel world
TYPE: Sci-fi
SERIES: Part 1 of the Touchstone trilogy

On her last day of high school, Cassandra Devlin walked out of exams and into a forest. Surrounded by the wrong sort of trees, and animals never featured in any nature documentary, Cass is only sure of one thing: alone, she will be lucky to survive.

The sprawl of abandoned blockish buildings Cass discovers offers her only more puzzles. Where are the people? What is the intoxicating mist which drifts off the buildings in the moonlight? And why does she feel like she's being watched?

Increasingly unnerved, Cass is overjoyed at the arrival of the formidable Setari. Whisked to a world as technologically advanced as the first was primitive, where nanotech computers are grown inside people's skulls, and few have any interest in venturing outside the enormous whitestone cities, Cass finds herself processed as a 'stray', a refugee displaced by the gates torn between worlds. Struggling with an unfamiliar language and culture, she must adapt to virtual classrooms, friends who can teleport, and the ingrained attitude that strays are backward and slow.

Can Cass ever find her way home? And after the people of her new world discover her unexpected value, will they be willing to let her leave?

Stray has a fascinating setup. Cass Devlin is having a perfectly normal last day of school. She's looking forward to university and, more immediately, to some great graduation parties. And then, while she's walking home the same way she's done hundreds of times before, she's suddenly somewhere completely different. There's no explosion, no feeling of falling into a void, no sci-fi-type transitions, she's just suddenly in a forest. She's completely on her own, other than some strange animals, and even worse, it soon becomes clear that she's not even on Earth.

Through entries in her diary, we follow Cass as she does her best to survive and explore her new environment, looking for... something, anything. We then also follow her as she's rescued by humans from a very technologically advanced civilisation and becomes what they call a 'stray'. She's not the first person who's accidentally stumbled through a 'gate' from somewhere else in the universe, although she's the first one from Earth. Cass is granted a sort of refugee status, but hasn't even began to adapt to regular life when it is discovered she's got a special ability, one that might of great value in this world's struggle against outside forces.

There was a lot here that I liked. Cass is a great character, wonderfully sensible and insightful about herself, but at the same time believable as a teenager. She reacts to the really strange circumstances in which she finds herself in ways that I felt made complete sense.

Also, the concept is one that I think is absolutely fantastic, and I really liked the directions in which Höst took it. The ways in which this other world differed from Earth and the implications of the technology all make perfect sense and were really throught-provoking.

And yet... frustratingly, I ended up DNFing this after reading about 60%. The problem was the format, I think. Here's the thing: the diary entries were done in a way that was completely believable. That is a positive thing, in a way, but it also meant that the book was mainly exposition, as there are lots and lots of sections of Cass writing what she's learnt and reporting, in blow-by-blow fashion, what she did that day.

I didn't have a problem with the format in the first sections, as Cass is wondering through the forest with no idea what's going on. In those sections Höst manages to convey a lot of emotion through the writing, even as Cass is trying hard to be brave and sensible when she writes. Later, though, the emotion felt very distant and I found it hard to care. I'd even go as far as to say it became a bit of a slog. I did persevere and read on for a few days, but I didn't feel I was getting anywhere, and ended up putting it down.

MY GRADE: It's a DNF. But DNF or not, I would still read more by Höst, I think. I like her ideas, and maybe something not in diary form would work better for me.


All Roads Lead To Austen, by Amy Elizabeth Smith

>> Friday, February 14, 2014

TITLE: All Roads Lead To Austen: A Yearlong Journey With Jane
AUTHOR: Amy Elizabeth Smith

PAGES: 384
PUBLISHER: Sourcebooks

SETTING: Contemporary, several Latin American countries
TYPE: Non fiction


With a suitcase full of Jane Austen novels en español, Amy Elizabeth Smith set off on a yearlong Latin American adventure: a traveling book club with Jane. In six unique, unforgettable countries, she gathered book-loving new friends— taxi drivers and teachers, poets and politicians— to read Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice.

Whether sharing rooster beer with Guatemalans, joining the crowd at a Mexican boxing match, feeding a horde of tame iguanas with Ecuadorean children, or tangling with argumentative booksellers in Argentina, Amy came to learn what Austen knew all along: that we're not always speaking the same language— even when we're speaking the same language.

But with true Austen instinct, she could recognize when, unexpectedly, she'd found her own Señor Darcy.

All Roads Lead to Austen celebrates the best of what we love about books and revels in the pleasure of sharing a good book— with good friends.

I knew I had to read this book as soon as I read a review of it on Mean Fat Old Bat's blog. A Literature professor travelling around Latin America, doing book club discussions of Jane Austen books with locals? This South American Jane Austen lover was so there!

I expected to at least like it, but it was much, much better than that. I absolutely loved it. There are basically three more or less distinct aspects to it, the book clubs, the 'travelogue' and the personal stuff, and all three were beautifully done.

The book clubs were what I originally picked up the book for. In them, Smith leads discussions on Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma. I was impressed by how well that was integrated into the book. I thought this could be boring after the second time a particular book was discussed, but I found it fascinating. The editing is absolutely perfect. It's a great combination of verbatim and reporting on the themes coming out of discussions. It was seamless, and I never got the feeling I was missing anything.

The discussions were illuminating, both regarding the books themselves and the context in which they were being analysed. I especially loved that there were no stereotypical “Latin American” views. Rather, it was a great illustration of how different people will look at the book in different ways. That's the key thing: different people, not different nationalities. The biggest differences seemed to come out of different personal circumstances, not national origin. For instance, I loved how the group that was composed mostly of writers focused so much on the writing, things like pacing and how characters were constructed, while another group who were language teachers looked at that, while ‘non professionals’ were much more likely to draw parallels between the story and their lives.

There’s also the travelogue element, as Smith visits 6 different countries. We get a fair bit of setting and Smith's activities as she settles in and sets up the book clubs, with varying degrees of local help. And of course, there are Smith’s views on the places she goes to and the people she meets. I really enjoyed that. She doesn't like everyone she meets, but while she makes it clear, she isn't mean about it.

On a bit of a side note, you know that someone really is talking to local Latin Americans when she reports on the endless jokes about Argentinians. The only other place I remember seeing this is in a book by Elizabeth Peters, The Night of the Four Hundred Rabbits. It really is ubiquitous over there, and there really are some bad feelings behind the jokes. My own (Montevideo) accent sounds almost exactly like a Buenos Aires one (I suspect only we can tell the difference), and I've often experienced the complete change in attitude towards me by other Latin Americans when I say that no, I'm not Argentinian, as they’d assumed.

Anyway, back to the book, I think what makes the travelogue aspect so good was that Smith seems to travel with a truly open mind, recognising that she will inevitably have prejudices (some she might even not know she had), but being willing to let them go when they’re proved wrong. I particularly liked her awareness of her own privilege. Obviously, she’s very privileged in comparison to some (but not all!) of the people she meets, sometimes in ways she’s not even aware of (for instance, the section where she realises, with much chagrin, that people with kids and who have to work many hours a day might have difficulty finding the time to read a stonking long book, unlike a single university professor. I totally would have fallen into the same trap). She recognises this privilege, just as she recognises her prejudices, and seeks to keep them from intruding in her relationships with the people she meets.

But best of all is that I never got the feeling that the book was ABOUT a privileged American’s personal discovery ‘journey’. What I mean is, it’s not about how some Latin Americans change how an American feels about them. They’re there in their own right, not defined by how they affect Smith. It’s a travelogue and it’s about Austen's books and how people in very different circumstances to those in which Austen wrote them can relate to them. Smith as the narrator has a role, but she doesn't overshadow the rest.

That said, I really liked the personal stuff we did get. At one point Smith gets ill, and given that I went through a similar situation last year (medical issues, not knowing what was wrong, away from my family) I could certainly sympathise. But there are positives, too, like a really lovely romance. I don’t want to say more to spoil it, but I will only say that got to the end with a big smile on my face and loved the way Smith made her final decision using Austen, appropriately enough!

A lovely, lovely book. Thanks Marilyn for helping me find it!



In Love With a Wicked Man, by Liz Carlyle

>> Saturday, February 08, 2014

TITLE: In Love With a Wicked Man
AUTHOR: Liz Carlyle

PAGES: 384

SETTING: 19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Not sure

Ned Quartermaine is a man without scruples— until an unconventional lady brings him to his knees.

As heiress of Bellecombe Castle, Kate, Lady d’Allenay, is devoted to her estate, and never, ever reckless. But when an accident brings a handsome, virile stranger to Bellecombe, Kate finds herself tempted. And with no hope of ever marrying, she sees little risk in surrendering to the heat of her houseguest’s wicked kisses.

When disowned by his aristocratic family, Lord Edward Quartermaine turned his gifted mind to ruthlessness to survive. Before a riding accident cost him his memory, Ned was feared and vilified as proprietor of London’s most notorious gaming salon. Now, captivated by Kate’s grace and beauty as he struggles to find himself, he’s certain of only one thing: that he wants all Kate is offering—and more.

But when Edward’s memory returns, he and Kate suddenly realize how much they have wagered on a scandalous passion. A passion that could be her ruin—and just perhaps, his salvation.

I was really happy to hear that in her newest boook Liz Carlyle had left behind the paranormal elements that helped make her latest so lackluster (I hear JAK has done the same in her January release, and I'm just as happy about that).

In Love With a Wicked Man certainly started out well. Kate, Lady d'Allenay has a great deal of responsibilities. She runs the family estate (her title is a rare one that can be inherited by a woman, which she did after her elder brother died during a stupid, reckless bet), and it's taking strenous work to bring it back into the black. She also has a mother who behaves as if the family was rich and a very young sister who is determined to marry a respectable but poor man. Kate once assumed she'd have the life you'd expect of an aristocratic young girl (she was even engaged for a while), but with her brother's death, that all disappeared.

And then one day, feeling frustrated and angry at the people in her life, Kate impulsively jumps her horse over a hedge and runs into another rider. The man falls and hits his head on a rock, and when he comes to in Kate's house, he's lost his memory. All they can find out from what he's carrying is that his name is probably Edward and that he's definitely well-off, but anything else is a mystery.

Edward might have no idea who he is, but we readers do, from earlier scenes. He's Ned Quartermain, the rich and unscrupulous owner of the most successful gambling hell in London. Ned was born an aristocrat, but his father threw him out when he discovered he was another man's son. He was taken in and raised by that other man, and has grown up into a hard, cynical man who delights in holding power over his aristocratic patrons.

Initially, the book reminded me a lot of one my favourite books by Carlyle, My False Heart. That one didn't have an amnesia plot, but the basic outline of a jaded man tired of life being taken in by the heroine's household and being shown that he could be much happier than he is is quite similar, and works just as well here.

I'm not the biggest fan of amnesia plots, but I liked what Carlyle did with it here. The loss of memory is used as a way to show us and the hero himself what he might have been like without the influence of his horrible upbringing and the way he's treated by society, and thus, what he could still be if he wanted. We meet him at the start as a child and then as the "wicked man" of the title, although rather than "wicked", he's cynical and disillusioned. But when he loses his memory, this allows him to be someone who's a lot nicer, someone Kate can fall in love with. It gives him a bit of a blank slate, and then comes the moment when his memory comes back and he needs to reconcile who he was and who he might have been (and still be).

So the first half, when all this was going on, I really quite liked. The emphasis here is on Edward and Kate spending time together and getting to know each other, while Edward is recovering. There's definitely chemistry there, and a relationship I really liked.

But then Kate's mother arrives with her crazy entourage, Edward recovers his memory and things go sort of downhill. I was particularly annoyed by Aurélie, Kate's mother, who is the sort of character I hate. She plays games all the time with people's feelings, and somehow everyone, even Kate, who's the baroness, is powerless to tell her to stop it. And the narrative tells us that it's actually fine, because the results she gets are good. Ugh.

With all that, the book became a slog, something I didn't particularly relish picking up. It all felt like much ado about nothing for the last half, almost two thirds of the book. There was really no reason why Kate and Edward couldn’t get together, none at all. Edward's true identity really wasn't an obstacle to it, and Kate clearly didn't particularly mind it. I thought Carlyle might do something more with the manner of Kate's brother's death and Edward's involvement in gambling, but no.

And then closer to the end Carlyle clearly feels she must introduce some element of external peril into the mix, and comes up with a truly mediocre suspense subplot.

A shame to see a book that started out so well fizzling out so.



January 2014 reads

>> Saturday, February 01, 2014

I was on holiday for the first half of the month, so it's quite a high total for the month. I had some wonderful reads, and quite a lot of variety.

1 - The Warrior's Apprentice, by Lois McMaster Bujold: A
review coming soon

Oh, Miles! I totally get the love now. He is one fantastic character. I tried to get into the series years ago and didn't quite connect with it. I did this time, and now I have a big pile of books to look forward to. It'll be hard to hold myself back and read them slowly!

2 - Bet Me, by Jennifer Crusie: A
original review here

I mentioned a while ago that I'd been asked by my book club to choose a romance novel for our February meeting. They asked for something feel-good, so I went for this one. I might have loved it even more on reread than I did the first time round, and from what a few people who've already started it have told me, it might be a success. I just wonder if there will be a division along gender lines.

3 - The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion: A-
review coming soon

Chick-lit/romance narrated by a male narrator who's apparently somewhere on the Asperger's spectrum (though the author doesn't actually state it). I enjoyed it thoroughly, and actually identified with the narrator to a surprising extent.

4 - Unbound, by Cara McKenna: A-
review coming soon

I tend to stay away from kink in my romance, but the way Cara McKenna does it, I don't mind at all. If you want the fantasy, this is probably not for you, but since I don't, I loved it.

5 - Year Zero: A History of 1945, by Ian Buruma: B+
review coming soon

Non fiction, looking at what happened right after the war ended, something I'd not really thought about much. Insightful and very readable, and I particularly appreciated the sensitivity with which some potentially problematic issues were written.

6 - The Splendour Falls, by Susanna Kearsley: B+
original review here

This old favourite has been published in the US after almost 20 years, so there have been several reviews. I was thinking of rereading it when I was offered the audiobook for review. Set in Chinon, it's probably the most Mary Stewart-like of all of Kearsley's books. Not her best, but I enjoyed it.

7 - Tethered, by Meljean Brook: B+
review coming soon

Novella. I've heard it described as an epilogue to Heart of Steel, but it's really more a sequel. There's a whole new exciting adventure and some really good development to Yasmeen and Archimedes' relationship .

8 - They Do It With Mirrors, by Agatha Christie: B
review coming soon

Classic Miss Marple, country-house mystery with some interesting characters. Ingenious but overcomplicated, as usual. I enjoyed it, though.

9 - Aftershock, by Jill Sorensen: B
review coming soon

Loved the setup (big earthquake traps people, including some scary ones, together and they need to work to rescue themselves while keeping safe from the bad guys), and the suspense aspect of it was fantastic. Didn't love the romance, though.

10 - Taken In Death, by JD Robb: B
review coming soon

Short story in Mirror, Mirror anthology, a take on Hansel and Gretel. Really good fun and pretty creepy.

11 - Mina Wentworth and the Invisible City, by Meljean Brook: B
review coming soon

Novella, companion to The Iron Duke (wouldn't quite say 'epilogue' either, although it's a bit shorter than Tethered). We see Mina and Rhys a few months into their marriage, investigating a clever case and settling into their life together. Nicely done.

12 - Dark Angel, by Mary Balogh: B
original review here

Reread. I needed a book for the 6 non-kindle periods of landing/take-off in my Montevideo - Manchester flight, and this one was chosen mainly because it was light in weight. It's a nice, angsty revenge plot, and I enjoyed it.

13 - Always and Forever, by Farrah Rochon: B-
review coming soon

The architect hero buys the restorer heroine's old family home, and their relationship goes from adversarial to not while they work on it. Nice. Some issues with the end, but I liked it.

14 - The School of Essential Ingredients, by Erica Bauermeister: C-
review coming soon

Eight very different people go to a cooking class, and each month we get a bit of the story of one of them. Pretty uninteresting, and I found the language forced and trying too hard to be lyrical.

15 - Sleigh Bells in the Snow, by Sarah Morgan: DNF
review coming soon

Grinch heroine thinks she's going to be working over Christmas, and ends up taken in by the hero's family, who do Christmas big. Disappointing. The heroine was the typical romance "successful professional" who's actually utter crap at her job and an overemotional mess.

16 - That Scandalous Summer, by Meredith Duran: DNF
review coming soon

Also disappointing. Liked the idea of a summer in Cornwall away from the strictures of society, but couldn't connect with the characters at all.

17 - Secondhand Charm, by Julie Berry: DNF
review coming soon

The fairytale, whimsical feel didn't work for me. It felt like the characters didn't behave like people.


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