July 2014 wish list

>> Monday, June 30, 2014

Surprisingly, there are several historicals on my list this month.

Books I'm definitely planning to get

The Escape, by Mary Balogh (Jul 1)

The last book in this series was slightly disappointing, but Balogh's books are hits with me often enough that I'll be getting this one.

The Suffragette Scandal, by Courtney Milan (Jul 15)

Courtney Milan is my favourite writer of historical romance currently writing. I'd buy this whatever it was about, but this one is Free's story, and I've loved what I've seen of her in previous books.

The Winter King, by CL Wilson (Jul 29)

I loved Wilson's previous epic fantasy romance series. I was surprised to see this one starts a new series, rather than continue the story of some particularly interesting characters in the previous one, but fair enough.

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

Have Mercy, by Shelley Ann Clark (Jul 1)

This is one I've put on my wish list purely due to voice. The rock band element is one that puts me off, but I've liked the author's writing very much when she's posted at the Wonk-o-mance blog, so I'm giving this one a shot.

The Dead Will Tell, by Linda Castillo (Jul 8)

This is the latest book in a series I'm really interested in. I really liked the author's romantic suspense books and I've heard good things about these books. Normally I'd start the series with book 1, but that hasn't always been the best strategy.

Landline, by Rainbow Rowell (Jul 8)

I'm not a fan of marriage-in-trouble plots, but the description of this one intrigued me. "That night, Georgie discovers a way to communicate with Neal in the past. It’s not time travel, not exactly, but she feels like she’s been given an opportunity to fix her marriage before it starts..." What? How? I might read this just to find out!

A Tangled Web, by Sandra Schwab (Mid Jul)

I've liked Schwab's books before, and this one caught my eye in the Dear Author open thread for authors last month. It was basically the comic artist hero in a historical setting.


The Kraken King Part 7, by Meljean Brook

>> Sunday, June 29, 2014

TITLE: The Kraken King Part 6: The Kraken King and the Empress' Eyes
AUTHOR: Meljean Brook

PAGES: 105

SETTING: Steampunk version of the 19th century
TYPE: Adventure romance
SERIES: Seventh part of 4th full length book in the Iron Seas series

In the imperial city, nothing escapes the attention of the empress’s spies. After a visit from an old friend rekindles her every fear, Zenobia must decide whether to trust Ariq with her heart—and the Kraken King must decide whether he can ever let her go.

But when danger invades their lovers’ sanctuary, Ariq and Zenobia will have to put aside their troubled emotions. Outwitting their enemies and the Empress will be no easy feat. Luckily, they have a few allies waiting in the wings…

Link to my review of Part 1

Link to my review of Part 2

Link to my review of Part 3

Link to my review of Part 4

Link to my review of Part 5

Link to my review of Part 6

I'm assuming that if you're reading this, you've read the first 6 parts (but not necessarily this part, so no spoilers for that here).

I mentioned in my post about the previous installment that it was a bit of a setting up one in terms of the action, which gave Ariq and Zenobia some quiet time to be together and work through some of the issues keeping them from being fully committed to each other (well, more keeping Zenobia from doing so, really). Part 7 starts in the same vein. Ariq is waiting to be received by the Empress, but at the same time, he worries that he hasn't heard anything from Krakentown for a while. Should he keep waiting or go back there to help (because if no news are coming out, it's surely for a reason)?

And then we get action, and how! It was a hard section to read, as Ariq and Zenobia are really put through the wringer here. But even the most painful-to-read bits felt necessary, and action and romance came together there in the most perfect manner. I found these two characters admirable in previous episodes, but never more than here. I admired their courage and intelligence and cared even more deeply about them.

The end is one that made me want to read the final part really badly. I wanted to continue more than I've wanted to continue at any part in the series, and yet, I still wouldn't call the ending a cliffhanger. It was a great place to stop. Still, I wouldn't bet on me waiting more than a couple of days before starting the final episode!


Listening material

>> Saturday, June 28, 2014

In addition to audiobooks, I listen to a number of podcasts. I thought it would be a good idea to share those which I have particularly enjoyed every week or so.

In A Good Read, the host and two guests discuss 3 books, one chosen by each of them. In this week's episode I particularly enjoyed the discussion of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (not to mention Alvin Hall's infectious laugh!). Download mp3 here (right click & "save target as / link as") or listen below.

In this week's Making History there was a really interesting piece on Spain's Valley of the Fallen (Franco's controversial memorial to those fallen in the Civil War, and the place where he's buried), in the context of anniversaries. Download mp3 here (right click & "save target as / link as") or listen here.

The Why Factor had an episode on accents, which I loved. Really not what I expected. There was a woman who, after an illness, had started speaking with a foreign accent, cows with regional accents, plus practical advice on what you need to do with your mouth and tongue to put on different accents. Download mp3 here (right click & "save target as / link as") or listen here.

In In Our Time, host Melvin Bragg discusses a particular topic every week with academic guests. This week they talked about Hildegarde of Bingen, someone I knew nothing about. Fascinating stuff. Download mp3 here (right click & "save target as / link as") or listen below.


Bolivar: American Liberator, by Marie Arana

>> Friday, June 27, 2014

TITLE: Bolívar: American Liberator
AUTHOR: Marie Arana

PAGES: 624
PUBLISHER: Simon & Schuster

SETTING: 19th century Northern South America
TYPE: Non Fiction - Biography

Simon Bolivar's life makes for one of history's most dramatic canvases, a colossal narrative filled with adventure and disaster, victory and defeat. This is the story not just of an extraordinary man but of the liberation of a continent. Drawing on a wealth of primary documents, Marie Arana brilliantly captures early 19th-century South America and the explosive tensions that helped revolutionise the young Simon Bolivar. In 1813 he launched a campaign for the independence of Colombia and Venezuela, commencing a dazzling career that would take him across the rugged terrain of South America. From his battlefield victories to his ill-fated brief marriage and legendary love affairs, Bolivar emerges in this compelling biography as a man of many facets: fearless general, brilliant strategist, consummate diplomat, passionate abolitionist and gifted writer. A major work of history, Arana colourfully portrays this dramatic life and explores the rivalries and turmoil that bedevilled Bolivar's tragic last days.

Did you know that Simón Bolívar, the liberator of what are now 6 different Latin American countries, at one point ruled more territory than Alexander the Great or Napoleon? I didn't, and I'm Latin American. It's quite an indictment of the Uruguayan history curriculum. In spite of spending months and months in school covering the revolutionary wars, it was almost exclusively the wars that resulted in Uruguayan independence that my teachers were concerned about. I had only a very shallow knowledge of Bolívar, and considering what an incredible, exciting life he had, that's a crying shame.

Arana's follows the traditional structure of starting with Bolívar's immediate family history, his birth, and then moving forward chronologically. Through her narration, Bolívar really comes alive, and dominates the story, just as he dominated the politics of the time. Although I must say, when his late mistress, Manuela Sáenz, appears, she's even more larger-than-life than him! She was a revolutionary in her own right, as committed to the cause as Bolívar was, and the one of th emost fascinating, complex characters I've ever encountered.

I particularly enjoyed the beginning of the book, in which Arana does a bit of a mise en scène for the rest of her story, describing what the life of a patrician Venezuelan criollo was like in the late 18th/early 19th centuries and giving some background of Spanish colonial policy and history. That felt like revisiting a place I hadn't been to since childhood, and that's exactly what it was. For all that we didn't cover Bolívar's revolutions practically at all in school (or, even more shockingly, the Argentinian San Martín's), there were a lot of features there that were the same or similar in the colonial Banda Oriental (what what's now Uruguay used to be called). History classes covering that period created a certain world in my mind, and I haven't been back there. For the last couple of decades, all I've read in Spanish has been literary fiction. The historical novels I read are in English, and South America is a part of the world that is largely ignored by them. Too bad, because the time of the Revolutionary Wars would make for a really interesting setting, and there's so much scope for stories to be told there. I could see, for instance, Carla Kelly writing a fascinating story featuring one of the thousands of British soldiers who decided to join Bolívar's army after being decommissioned when the Napoleonic Wars ended!

The book does, however, get a bit bogged down when describing the one battle after the other of the Revolution proper. It's not too bad, but I'm sure there would have been ways to do it in a more interesting way. Also, there were what felt like disconcerting gaps, where the narrative just broke down. For instance, we'd be at a point where Bolívar is struggling for funds to keep his army going, and a few paragraphs later he'd be recruiting new soldiers and preparing a campaign, with nothing telling us how we got from one point to the other. There were a few too many moments like that, when I'd just go "What? How?". To be honest, after a while I sort of gave up trying to understand the detailed ins and outs of the different campaigns and concentrated on the more global aspects, and that worked much better. This is, after all, not a history of the Revolutionary Wars, but a book about Bolívar, and in that it suceeds perfectly.

The other thing I wasn't crazy about is that, for a very recent book, this can at times have somewhat old-fashioned sensibilities. It's things like Bolívar's father's penchant for sexually harassing the women of the house being written in a mildly amused tone, which I found disconcerting. Also, at certain points the way racial issues were described made me uncomfortable, such as the derisive terms in which the campaigns of Boves and his "pardo" (mixed-race) llaneros where described. I get that Arana might have been trying to describe these in the way they would have been seen by people of Bolívar's time, but it didn't quite work for me. These issues are not pervasive or even frequent during the book, but they were certainly enough for me to notice them at times, so definitely worth a mention.

At the end of the book, Arana has a section that's not purely biographical, more her thoughts on Bolívar's influence on the continent and the region, not least on Hugo Chávez and his "Bolivarian revolution". That felt like a good way to end it.

On the whole, I enjoyed listening to this one, and it has sparked my interest in the people and the times. I'm definitely going to be seeking out a biography of Manuela Sáenz!

MY GRADE: This was a B.

AUDIOBOOK NOTES: I listened to this version, narrated by David Crommett. He's not the best narrator ever in terms of the dynamics and the storytelling, but he was all right enough. What made me really happy was that he pronounced the Spanish perfectly, and that he did so the Latin American way (i.e. not pronouncing the c and z as "th", as they do in Castilian Spanish).


The Kraken King Part 6, by Meljean Brook

>> Wednesday, June 25, 2014

TITLE: The Kraken King Part 6: The Kraken King and the Crumbling Wall
AUTHOR: Meljean Brook


SETTING: Steampunk version of the 19th century
TYPE: Adventure romance
SERIES: Sixth part of 4th full length book in the Iron Seas series

Reunited, Ariq and Zenobia must journey over the red wall and make a desperate appeal to the one woman with enough power to halt the marauders’ plans—the Empress of Nippon.

But even the Kraken King cannot demand the attentions of an empress. Masked and quarantined, Ariq and Zenobia are forced to bide their time. Despite the fact that they are as physically close as two people can be, Zenobia is trying to keep the man she can’t help but love at a distance, terrified she’ll be hurt again. And all the while, the mysteries of the Living City grow around them…

Link to my review of Part 1

Link to my review of Part 2

Link to my review of Part 3

Link to my review of Part 4

Link to my review of Part 5

I'm assuming that if you're reading this, you've read the first 5 parts (but not necessarily this part, so no spoilers for that here).

Aaand, we're back to the Red City. Ariq and Zenobia's only option to stop the destruction of Ariq's village is to appeal to the Empress. It's easier said than done, though, as access to the Empress must be carefully negotiated.

This is an installment that, on the plot side, works mainly to set things up for what I'm assuming will be the grand finale. Not a great deal actually happens, beyond Ariq and Zenobia arriving back to the embassy from which they were kidnapped, and moving into the Quarantine zone. Plans are made, and the first bits begin to be executed. It's not boring, though, because it all serves to ratchet up the tension. It's clear things aren't going to be easy, and the presence of the Empress' Eyes (mechanical devices in each room, which must be kept wound up) create a sense of danger, of something unknown that's not quite right and can (probably will) go wrong in the near future.

The lack of vertiginous action gives Ariq and Zenobia time and space to move their relationship forward (if you know what I mean!) and those were some lovely scenes. Still, Ariq continues to need Zenobia to marry him, just as he has married her, so there's a way to go there and major emotional developments at stake. Good, because much as I'm enjoying the plot here, I prefer it when neither plot nor romance are resolved until the end.

Bring on the last 2 parts!


Snow Blind, by PJ Tracy

>> Monday, June 23, 2014

TITLE: Snow Blind

PAGES: 384

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Mystery/Thriller
SERIES: #4 in the Monkeewrench series

When the corpses of three police officers are discovered entombed in snowmen, Grace MacBride and her team of crime-busting computer jocks at the Monkeewrench firm are called in to assist. What they discover is a terrifying link among the victims that reaches beyond the badge and crosses the line between hard justice and stone cold vengeance.

It's winter in Minnesota and Detectives Leo Magozzi and Gino Rolseth are participating in a snowman-making contest. Things are going great, until the sun melts some of the snow on a particular snowman and the dead body inside is exposed. It turns this is not the only entrant containing a dead body, and it later transpires that another snowman-cadaver has been found in a small town not far from Minnesota. The one thing connecting all the bodies? The victims were all in law-enforcement.

Having been there, Magozzi and Gino take on the case and provide assistant to the very inexperienced sheriff of the town where the other body was found. And of course, they have the help of the Monkeewrench team, who use their super computer skills to uncover hidden connections online.

This is a solid entry in the series. As usual, we get a complex, multi-layered case and an investigation that feels sensible and keeps my attention fully engaged. This one was not my favourite so far, but it was above average for the genre. It kept me guessing right until the end, and the conclusion made sense and felt satisfying.

However, the reason I keep coming back to the series is not the mysteries, but the characters. I love Magozzi and his relationship with Grace McBride, the leader of the Monkeewrench team. This is a relationship that has been developing veeeery gradually throughout the series, mainly because Grace has major issues stemming from a horrific attack in her youth. Here we see her finally taking some steps that will make her romance with Magozzi, if not quite happen, at least be a possibility.

They are the central characters, but only barely, because the strength of the secondary characters make these books more of an ensemble piece. Gino is probably my favourite (he's adorable), but the others in the Monkeewrench team come close behind. They're quirky, but without being irritating.

I also particularly liked the new character who was introduced here (and I suspect will only return as a very minor character in further books), Iris Rikker. She's the very newly-elected sheriff in the town where the other body is found, and she's majorly inexperienced. And when I say newly-elected, I mean that the body was found on her first day in post, and when I say inexperienced, I mean that she was previously a schoolteacher and has absolutely no law-enforcement experience (it does make sense when the authors explain). She could have been made into a figure of fun, but she wasn't. I really liked how she came into her own.

I'm not sure how well this stands alone. That is, the police procedural element will do just fine, but the relationships? I'm not sure. You'll definitely get more out of the series if you start at the beginning, and Monkeewrench is fab, so why not?



Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

>> Saturday, June 21, 2014

TITLE: Bel Canto
AUTHOR: Ann Patchett

PAGES: 318
PUBLISHER: Fourth Estate

SETTING: Unnamed South American country
TYPE: Fiction

Somewhere in South America, at the home of the country's vice president, a lavish birthday party is being held in honor of the powerful businessman Mr. Hosokawa. Roxane Coss, opera's most revered soprano, has mesmerized the international guests with her singing. It is a perfect evening—until a band of gun-wielding terrorists takes the entire party hostage. But what begins as a panicked, life-threatening scenario slowly evolves into something quite different, a moment of great beauty, as terrorists and hostages forge unexpected bonds, and people from different continents become compatriots. Friendship, compassion, and the chance for great love lead the characters to forget the real danger that has been set in motion... and cannot be stopped.

A group of diplomats and high officials attending a sophisticated party in a South American country, are taken hostage by terrorists. As the hostage-takers negotiate with the authorities and the situation lengthens, the relationships between those stuck in the luxury compound develop way beyond what they expected when they decided to go to the party.

It's a setup that felt very familiar to me, as I remember the hostage crisis in the Japanese embassy in Peru so very clearly, even though it's been a while. The end of the siege happened not long after I'd started uni, and I remember all of us in my class skipping class to hang around in the canteen, waiting to see what had happened. With such clear memories, there wasn't much doubt in my mind about how the plot would develop, but that didn't matter. In fact, this was written not too long after that happened, so I'm assuming Patchett was expecting people would be aware of how things would turn out. I'm not going to go into detail here, as if you're hazier about the exact facts of the case, it would probably be an interesting experience to read it 'blind', but knowing doesn't spoil things in the least. The tension and suspense don't come from wondering what's going to happen, they come from the characters and their relationships.

I quickly came to care from these characters. There is much more to them than you might think at first, and Patchett kept surprising me. I'd think she was going somewhere expected with a character, and then she'd do something much more interesting and subtle. I think my favourites were Mr. Hosokawa, the powerful businessman whose birthday party it was, and the man for whom the famous soprano Roxane Coss was invited to perform, as well as Gen, the translator who helps those two (as well as several other characters) communicate. The latter actually does much more than facilitate communication, and I fell a little bit in love with him.

My only issue was with the character of Roxane. Having this woman who's the object of everyone's desire, no matter what culture they are from, is bad enough, but it was even more predictable than that. Of course, she has to be a blonde American. It didn't feel like Patchett was making a particular point about this, which would have been more interesting. It's unexamined, and it felt like something a bit too obvious, especially stuck as it was amongst exquisitely drawn characters.

Still, I found myself very moved by this book. It's a sad one, but the ending felt like exactly what it should be. This is one I would recommend.



Proof By Seduction, by Courtney Milan

>> Tuesday, June 17, 2014

TITLE: Proof By Seduction
AUTHOR: Courtney Milan

PAGES: 352

SETTING: 19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Followed by Trial By Desire

She was his last chance for a future of happiness…

A gifted fortune-teller from a humble background, Jenny can make even the most sophisticated skeptic believe her predictions simply by batting her smoky eyelashes. Until she meets her match in Gareth Carhart, the Marquess of Blakely, a sworn bachelor and scientist.

He just didn't know it yet

Broodingly handsome, Gareth is scandalized to discover his cousin has fallen under the spell of "Madame Esmerelda," and vows to prove Jenny a fraud. But his unexpected attraction to the fiery enchantress defies logic. Jenny disrupts every facet of Gareth's calculated plan—until he can't decide whether to seduce her or ruin her. Now, as they engage in a passionate battle of wills, two lonely souls must choose between everything they know…and the boundless possibilities of love.

Proof By Seduction is my least favourite Courtney Milan book so far. However, given how much I adore all the others, this merely means it's only quite good.

Jenny Keeble has for years been supporting herself by playing Madame Esmerelda, a fortune-teller. One of her clients is Ned Carhart, a young aristocrat. Ned has issues with depression, but since Madame Esmerelda told him he had a wonderful, happy future, that has given him hope and he seems to be doing better.

And then his cousin Gareth, the Marquess of Blakely, finds out about her. Gareth is a scientist, so he immediately knows the woman is a fake and must be taking advantage of Ned. He insists on coming to meet her, and when Ned sees him challenge her, he asks Jenny to demonstrate to Gareth that she's the real thing by making a prediction. I won't go into details about this (it's pretty silly), but it works to throw Gareth and Jenny together and the silliness helps slowly thaw Gareth's cold kind of rationality.

This is a mainly character-driven romance. That's my favourite kind, when done well, and it requires really good characters. Milan gets that mostly right. I liked Gareth well enough (although the cold scientist thing felt a bit clichéd, to be honest, and I really enjoyed Jenny. She's in a difficult situation, where she knows what she's doing with Ned is not *right*, but can't really see a way of telling him the truth without harming him. I wasn't crazy about the way it turned out, but I did understand it.

Jenny and Gareth are a good couple together, even if having the cold aristocrat being made to unbend and become more human by the inappropriate heroine is not particularly revolutionary. Milan takes this common plot and makes it feel more real, by making her characters feel real.

There is a further book in this world, telling Ned's story. I will be reading it at some point, even though I suspect I could have some issues buying a HEA for a character with mental health issues in a historical setting. However, if anyone can be trusted to deal with this well, it's Ms. Milan.



Cold Touch, by Leslie Parrish

>> Sunday, June 15, 2014

TITLE: Cold Touch
AUTHOR: Leslie Parrish

PAGES: 368

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romantic Suspense
SERIES: 2nd in the Extra Sensory Agents series

Since being gifted-or cursed-with the ability to touch a lifeless body and relive the deceased's final moments, Olivia Wainwright has died a hundred deaths. And every glimpse into this darkness draws her deeper into danger.

Though he doesn't believe in psychics, Savannah Detective Gabe Cooper offers her a glimmer of light. As their bond deepens, Olivia will have to choose between her cold gift and the warmth Gabe can provide. And Gabe can't refuse when she needs his help solving a crime that's haunted her for over a decade-her own murder.

Some 3-4 years ago, category author Leslie Kelly published 5 romantic suspense novels under the pseudonym Leslie Parrish. They were very well-reviewed, but I imagine they must not have done too well, because none have come out since. It's a shame, because they were really good, and Cold Touch is an excellent example.

It's the second book in a series about people with paranormal abilities that allow them to investigate crimes. Olivia Wainwright is one of them. She was kidnapped as a teenager, and the man holding her tried to kill her. He actually succeeded, if only for a little while, and since then, Olivia has had a really nasty power. If she touches a dead body, she's able to relive the person's last couple of minutes -including the moment of their death. Very handy in murder cases, but horribly traumatic for her.

She usually works through the eXtreme Investigations agency, relying on their protection and having them sort out things with local law enforcement. As the book starts, though, she hears a skeleton has been found close to the place where she was held during her kidnapping. This is significant for her because she was able to escape only due to the help of a younger boy, and she fears this might be his body. She fears her agency won't let her get involved, so she decides to approach Detective Gabe Cooper herself.

The basic setup of having a psychic heroine trying to convince the detective hero that she can help solve a case is not an uncommon one, but the reason I liked Parrish's books so much is that whatever plots she writes, they feel fresh. This is the case here. It didn't feel like these two were just plodding along set paths, they reacted to things in ways that felt right for the characters they were.

The romance is not great. I don't mean it bad, it's just perfectly serviceable, but didn't particularly captivate me. Also, it gets overshadowed completely by the suspense. I didn't particularly care, because the investigation and the way it affected Olivia and Gabe were really interesting and well done. It's a dark book, not just because of what happens but because Parrish creates a really sad, melancholy atmosphere and the whole book is steeped in it. And yet, there are enough lighter moments that it doesn't feel a slog to read.

Unfortunately, it seems there are not more books in this series, but the good news is the author has self-published all her Parrish books as Leslie A. Kelly, and there's a new one in a previous series (the Black CATs series) coming out this year (it says "Spring" in her website). I also discovered while digging around that she has published a couple of futuristic thrillers under the name Veronica Sloan. They are available cheap as a boxed set, so that was an easy decision to make!



Tinsel and Freaks

>> Friday, June 13, 2014

TITLE: Tinsel My Heart
AUTHOR: Christi Barth

Becca Huntley is the producer of a celebrated, huge Christmas show in Minneapolis. This year the show is crucial for the Lyndale Park Players' financial viability, so of course, something goes massively wrong. Tyler, a school friend of Becca's who has become a famous Hollywood director and has been lending a hand and directing the show, has gone into rehab. Disaster! But then Jack Whittaker, the third in their trio of drama nerds in school, who's also Tyler's directing partner in Hollywood, saves the day. He always hated the town and promised he'd never come back, but he feels he needs to make amends for Tyler's behaviour.

I really liked the sound of this short story. The amateur theatre setting sounded like fun, and there's also the fact that Jack was crazy about Becca in high school, but she got together with Tyler. I like that sort of setup. Unfortunately, I had issues with the execution. It's something that I'm finding to be a problem more and more, especially in contemporaries: people who don't act like recognisable human beings. All the reactions here were completely over-the-top and unbelievable. When I'm going "Seriously? Who does that?" in my mind three times a page, it's not a book that's going to work for me. It's only some 80 pages, but I abandoned it after reading about half.


TITLE: Freaks
AUTHOR: Tess Gerritsen

Freaks is a short story, part of the Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles series. It's really short, about 15-20 pages, but it covers a whole case. Two teens havee convinced themselves they are vampires and are living in a church. One of them dies and the other is accused of her murder. Jane and Maura come in a do their thing. There's a surprise discovery by Maura and Jane gets an action scene.

The story was just meh, but more interesting is the stuff around it. It was originally put up on the website of the network that broadcasts the TV series "Rizzoli and Isles" in the US as promo for the books, and Gerritsen then put it up as a kindle freebie. She writes in her website about her disappointment with the results: all she got were complaints from people who didn't like it. Two quotes stood out for me: "...for some, “free” wasn’t cheap enough; they complained that the offer wasn’t “worth it.”" (you might want to look up the concept of 'opportunity cost', Ms Gerritsen) and "Do people really expect a short story to be as good as a book?" (er... well, they can be!). She calls the short story experiment "if not a failure, a disappointment."

I'd agree with that, actually, but not for the same reasons. What stories like this are meant to do is give new readers a feel for what the books are, and this one just didn't cut it. The characters in it are called Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles, but we get absolutely no sense of who they are. And what I love about the mysteries in the books is the complexity of the cases and the twisty, puzzle-like feel of the investigations. The case here told us none of that. To be fair, it does tell us that forensic science will play a role and come up with unexpected discoveries, but that's it. So yeah, if this story was my first experience of a Gerritsen mystery, then I wouldn't be in any particular hurry to read the books. Mind you, it wouldn't put me off. It's not bad. It's just very bland and mediocre.



The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

>> Wednesday, June 11, 2014

TITLE: The Goblin Emperor
AUTHOR: Katherine Addison

PAGES: 447

SETTING: Fantasy
TYPE: Fantasy

The youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor has lived his entire life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court and the deadly intrigue that suffuses it. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an "accident," he has no choice but to take his place as the only surviving rightful heir.

Entirely unschooled in the art of court politics, he has no friends, no advisors, and the sure knowledge that whoever assassinated his father and brothers could make an attempt on his life at any moment.

Surrounded by sycophants eager to curry favor with the naïve new emperor, and overwhelmed by the burdens of his new life, he can trust nobody. Amid the swirl of plots to depose him, offers of arranged marriages, and the specter of the unknown conspirators who lurk in the shadows, he must quickly adjust to life as the Goblin Emperor. All the while, he is alone, and trying to find even a single friend . . . and hoping for the possibility of romance, yet also vigilant against the unseen enemies that threaten him, lest he lose his throne–or his life.

Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor is an exciting fantasy novel, set against the pageantry and color of a fascinating, unique world, is a memorable debut for a great new talent.

Maia Drazhar is one of the heirs to the Emperor of Ethuveraz, but that's never brought him any happiness or privilege. His elf father was pressured into marrying his goblin mother to make an alliance with her empire, and regretted his decision not long after the marriage. Soon after Maia, grey-skinned and goblin-featured, was born, he and his mother were exiled to a remote, isolated estate. His mother died after not many years and Maia was left in the care of Setheris, a former courtier, who took out his bitterness and anger at his own banishment on Maia. He was both emotionally and physically abusive to the boy, without any fear that he would ever be called to account by someone from the Ethuveraz court. After all, Maia had three older brothers and was never expected to be recalled to court at all.

And then a messenger arrives with the news that the airship carrying the Emperor and his three sons has crashed, with everyone on board killed. Maia is next in line and Setheris, while a horrible person, is keen and clever, and he knows his fellow courtiers and the games they play very well. He makes sure Maia is in court before anyone can take control of proceedings. And thus begins Maia's reign.

And that's what this book is about: Maia finding his place as an emperor and learning to do his job. I thought at first that it would be a bit of a detective story, as it soon becomes clear that the airship accident that killed the rest of the royal family was caused by sabotage, but no. There is an investigation and this is a significant part of the plot, but it's not the main focus. The main focus is fully and completely on Maia's character development and growth.

The Maia who first arrives at court is completely out of his depth and he knows it. He's been taught a few things by Setheris, but none of the practical things he'll need to be able to understand what on earth is going on. It's things like who people are, beyond their formal titles and roles, and what the history between them is. It's the significance of what they say to him and why. He feels lost, and he is. He does, however, have the help of the messenger who was sent to tell him the news of his father's death, who turns out to be an immensely capable secretary, a source of both masses of information (messengers do get around and see quite a lot of what's going on in court) and sensible advice. And slowly, Maia builds around him a circle of people who support him in his growth and with whom he develops some really fascinating relationships.

I liked how Maia changes, but I also liked the stuff that was in him from the start. He is a genuinely kind person. He also has a deep well of inner strength. That has been beaten down by Setheris, but it's still there, and it's clear it's still there, even at the beginning. His treatment of Setheris when they arrive at court makes it clear. There's the strength in refusing to let Setheris be part of his circle, immediately expelling him out of any areas where he might exert influence on him. But there's also the kindness of not wanting to take a revenge on Setheris that will have adverse consequences on the man's wife, however much selfish pleasure it would bring Maia (and, to be honest, this reader).

As the book progresses, Maia comes into his power. He learns about the court and starts becoming more and more confident and willing to lead, as well as to perform a ceremonial role. But the internal characteristics of inner strength and kindness don't change, and they ensure that he is still the person we can recognise from the beginning of the book. They make him a leader with great empathy, one who can see the need for change in several areas, and who has the fortitude to make that change happen, if gradually. Seeing this come to pass is just lovely. One of my favourite sections was on Maia's birthday, when we see, in a subtle, understated way, the effect his insistence on being kind and doing what he feels is right has had on his subjects.

I also loved the setting. It's complex and rich, and I particularly liked that there are no easy read-throughs to existing societies. It's not a world inspired on a particular country, or on any particular worlds created by other authors (that I know of, at least; I admit I'm not hugely well-read in the fantasy genre). Oh, and the romance. I really liked that, too. It's subtle and there's not a huge emphasis on it, but what there is was perfect.

In objective terms, this is possibly not a perfect book, but to me, the flaws that others might perceive were strengths. The Goblin Emperor might be seen as a boring, slow book. I saw the gradual character development and the strong focus on this as making it particularly gripping. I was as entranced by the short action sequences as by the detailed exploration of their consequences, as interested in who had sabotaged the airship as in the discussion of the arguments for and against building a bridge over a particular section of the river.

There were also a tonne of strange, unpronounceable names, sometimes looking quite similar, and with some characters having both a name and a title, sometimes used separately. I was sometimes left to wonder just who someone was, but that only made me feel exactly as Maia would have felt: overwhelmed and confused. A quick kindle search fixed the matter, and print readers will be easily able to refer to the pronounciation guide and list of characters provided (at the end of the ebook edition, so it didn't do me much good). Even then, I only needed to search a couple of times. The rest of the time I just went with the flow and trusted that things would become clear and make sense on their own, and they always did.

Finally, some might argue that Maia was improbably lucky with his initial choice of secretary, but I prefer to think that what we are told about how messengers work and what their function is gives us a clue as to how exactly the right person for the job was the first person from court Maia came across. It worked for me.

I enjoyed every minute I was reading this. Every single minute. I kept trying to slow myself down as the end was approaching. It's not a perfect book, but my experience of reading it was perfect. I can only thank Janine Ballard for her review at Dear Author, because without it, I don't think I would have picked it up.

MY GRADE: An A+, and I don't hand these out often.


To Charm a Naughty Countess, by Theresa Romain

>> Monday, June 09, 2014

TITLE: To Charm a Naughty Countess
AUTHOR: Theresa Romain

PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Sourcebooks Casablanca

SETTING: 1816 England
TYPE: Historical romance
SERIES: Follows It Takes Two To Tangle

Can a reclusive duke...

Brilliant but rumored mad, Michael Layward, the impoverished Duke of Wyverne, has no success courting heiresses until widowed Lady Stratton takes up his cause—after first refusing his suit.

Win London's most powerful countess?

Caroline Graves, the popular Countess of Statton, sits alone at the pinnacle of London society and has vowed never to remarry. When Michael—her counterpart in an old scandal—returns to town after a long absence, she finds herself as enthralled with him as ever. As she guides the anxiety-ridden duke through the trials of London society, Caroline realizes that she's lost her heart. But if she gives herself to the only man she's ever loved, she'll lose the hard won independence she prizes above all.

Theresa Romain has been on my radar for a while. Her plots sound interesting, and especially the description she posted of her upcoming book in the Dear Author promo thread: "A Pygmalion story with a virgin hero and a rakish heroine." A few of us on twitter have decided to try and read and review at least a classic historical romance a month, trying to rekindle our love for the genre. It hasn't been going great, but this seemed like a good candidate.

Michael, duke of Wyverne, has always been socially awkward. His first real interactions with high society came when he travelled from his Lancashire estate to London at 18, and they ended in disaster. Since then, he's been holed up in his estate, putting in place careful plans to repair the family fortunes. Things are going all right until 1816, the Year Without A Summer. With crop failures all around, the little credit he had left dries up completely. The obvious solution is for Michael to use his biggest asset, his dukedom, and find himself a rich heiress who's interested in a title.

The problem is, Michael's isolated life has led to rumours that he's mad. He hopes that by showing up in London he'll show that this is not the case, but the truth is, he's pretty eccentric and has no idea how to behave. The rumours are not that easy to dispel. And that's where Caroline comes in.

Caroline is now a rich widow, the Countess of Stratton, but when she first met Michael, she was a young débutante. We know from the beginning that she was somehow involved whatever happened to chase him out of London all those years earlier, and that this had social consequences on her as well. However, we don't know the details until quite late. When Michael meets her again, he immediately proposes. For him, she's the perfect solution to his problems. He liked her then and he still likes her now. Caroline, though, can't see what she'll get from the marriage, and instead proposes that she help Michael repair his reputation and find him a bride.

There were many things I appreciated here. I liked Caroline's attitude. Yeah, Michael might be a duke, but she's already a countess, she's rich, she enjoys her life in London and it's not like she's celibate (we even see that classic HR scene of one of our protagonists' post-coital interactions with a lover, but it's the heroine here, rather than the hero). Why on earth would she give up her freedom, and for someone who doesn't love her? Even after they have sex, she's still being cool-headed about it.

I also liked the constant awareness of the unusually cold weather. It's not just the setup, it's how it affects things like the availability of food, even for aristocrats in London, and the activities people do. Without explicitly going on about it, Romain evokes what a tough time this must have been for regular people. And I must say, before I moved to England I think I would have found it unbelievable that people wouldn't have been freaking out much more about a year where there was no summer at all, wondering if it was the end of the world. Having experienced a few "summers" here, I was not quite as worried!

And now we come to the negatives. While I had no trouble believing the stuff above, I had trouble buying character motivations and behaviour. Michael felt unbelievably naive about the way society works, even for someone who's spent his life in relative isolation. The episode with Caroline the first time they met, for instance, which led to him leaving London and her reputation being endangered: I just couldn't buy that he wouldn't have been even dimly aware that there would be consequences for her. Or that if he didn't then, as an 18-year-old, he wouldn't now have caught on. Some of his actions and reactions seem to point towards him having some sort of mental health issue, but that's not really borne out in the text. The conclusion seems to be that he's basically someone who gets stressed out by difficult social situations and can have panic attacks due to that stress, but that didn't seem like quite enough for his behaviour and reactions. I was also doubtful about the way other people react to him, the extent to which his social position was vulnerable. It didn't ring quite true.

I also had issues with the main romantic conflict, the reasons that kept Caroline and Michael apart. I didn't get why Caroline was so convinced Michael just couldn't fall in love. She was awfully certain about it. It all wore a bit thin after a while. It felt like they were going round and round in a circle, never really moving anywhere, and it got very tedious. To be honest, I ended up wanting to skim.

So, another month, another historical that doesn't work. Sigh.



The Kraken King Part 5, by Meljean Brook

>> Saturday, June 07, 2014

TITLE: The Kraken King Part 5: The Kraken King and the Iron Heart
AUTHOR: Meljean Brook


SETTING: Steampunk version of the 19th century
TYPE: Adventure romance
SERIES: Fifth part of 4th full length book in the Iron Seas series

With their lives and the fate of an empire at stake, Ariq is forced to leave Zenobia behind. Held captive by their enemies, Zenobia can only pray that Ariq keeps his promise to come for her—until a terrible loss prods her to action.

Ariq has no intention of handing over the Skybreaker to the two men responsible for the marauders’ attacks against Krakentown—but without a ransom to give them, Ariq must risk everything to rescue Zenobia and stop the swarming forces bent on destruction…

Link to my review of Part 1

Link to my review of Part 2

Link to my review of Part 3

Link to my review of Part 4

I'm assuming that if you're reading this, you've read the first 4 parts (but not necessarily this part, so no spoilers for that here).

I was a bit anxious at the end of the last installment, when we had the "inevitable abduction" of the title. Was this going to be the beginning of a long separation? Even though Ariq and Zenobia are good enough characters to be able to keep me interested on their own, the joy of this book has been seeing them interact.

Well, no long separation here, I'm glad to report. Ariq and Zenobia are fabulous separately for a while, but it doesn't take long before they're being fabulous together again. The installment starts with some exciting action (which, very nicely, continues to develop our understanding of the characters) and then we get some lovely quiet moments.

I think what I appreciated the most in this part (and this is something that I've been seeing throughout this serial -and all of this author's books) is just how much deeper than most authors Brook goes with her characterisation. The reactions always go beyond the obvious and mechanical, and tell you exactly who these people are, and that they are interested in looking under the surface of who the other is. It makes the books unpredictable. Certain situations will take place and I, after reading romance for so many years, will automatically expect a particular thing to happen, and it almost never does. And when it does, there will be a little twist, something that will add an extra dimension. It makes Brook's books incredibly satisfying to read.


May 2014 reads

>> Monday, June 02, 2014

I didn't do much reading this month, but for very nice reasons. Early on I had one of my favourite cousins visiting for a week. As many of you know, I only get go to Uruguay to see family once a year, so it's lovely to have visitors to make the 11 months in between seem shorter.

And then on the 20th I went on holiday to Tuscany. My friend and I had a few days to mooch around on our own (Lucca was a particular highlight), and then we joined a "wine and walking" tour, which was fabulous. We were based in a little village in the Chianti area and did different things each day. There were visits to a few towns (the photo here is of Siena), and a hell of a lot of walking and wine. We're talking 15-20+ km (9-13 miles, if I'm doing the maths right) walks in extremely hilly and gorgeous terrains, and every day wine tastings, wine courses, vineyard tours, plus a chance to apply our newly acquired knowledge when selecting a bottle for dinner! And oh, yes, also mounds of pasta and scoop after scoop of the most amazing gelato (my favourite: gorgonzola and walnut + pistachio from a little shop in the Santa Croce area in Florence).

So yeah, reading (and my sensible diet) were left by the wayside, but I didn't care too much. My only regret is that I lost my 1-a-week rythm with The Kraken King, and I'm now a couple of installments behind. The last comes out tomorrow, so I could binge on the last 3 together, but I think I'm going to try not to ruin a good thing and still leave a gap between parts. Maybe not quite 7 days, but at least a few days.

1 - The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison: A+
review coming soon

Fantasy, about a young half-goblin, half-elf who unexpectedly inherits the elflands throne. There's lots about the ins and outs of being an innocent in a treacherous court, but this is mainly character-driven, and I adored it. I don't give A+ grades lightly, but my instinct is that this is one of them. I'll see how I feel after writing my full review.

2 - The Kraken King Part IV: The Kraken King and the Inevitable Abduction and The Kraken King Part V: The Kraken King and the Iron Heart: so far hovering around A-/A
reviews coming soon

The action gets really going here, and the romance keeps moving forward just as much. I'm loving this.

3 - Cetaganda, by Lois McMaster Bujold: B+
review coming soon

Miles and his cousin Ivan are sent to Cetaganda to represent Barrayar in a state funeral and manage to get involved in some very risky business. Miles is as brilliant as ever, but as much as the strange Cetagandans and their world are imaginative and interesting, they never made complete sense to me, not as Barrayar and Beta Colony do.

4 - I Wouldn't Start From Here, by Andrew Mueller: B+
review coming soon

Subtitled "The 21st Century and Where It All Went Wrong". Mueller is a journalist and this is an edited collection of articles about his visits to all sorts of places, mainly conflict-plagued ones. I enjoyed it. The writing is good, and what he has to say tends to be refreshingly non-trite.

5 - The Shock of the Fall, by Nathan Filer: B
review coming soon

Read for my May book club. It's written from the point of view of a young man living with schizophrenia. It's a point of view that I don't think I've ever read, and I'm glad I did. I must admit I was kind of dreading reading it, but even though I was very moved several times, the humour with which it was written meant it wasn't as harrowing as I'd imagined.

6 - To Charm a Naughty Countess, by Theresa Romain: C
review coming soon

The hero, a duke rumoured to be mad, is obliged to travel to London from his remote estate, in order to find himself a rich bride. The heroine, a rich widow, refuses his proposal but offers to help him find a bride. I liked the idea of the book, but not the execution.

7 - Freaks, by Tess Gerritsen: C-
review coming soon

Freebie short story; really short, more like a vignette, actually. Two kids who've convinced themselves they are vampires, one of them dies and the other is accused of her murder. Jane and Maura investigate. Meh. A bit pointless, really.

8 - Tinsel My Heart, by Christi Barth: DNF
review coming soon

Christmas short story (yes, I'm late, so?) with an amateur theatrics setting. It sounded interesting, but the characters' reactions were over-the-top and unbelievable, and I found it all extremely annoying.

9 - Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: still listening
review coming soon

This one's for my June book group, but I started early because I'm listening to the audiobook and it's a longish one. It's about a woman who decides to move back to Nigeria after many years living in the US. I'm about a quarter of the way in and really liking it. There are so many things about Ifemelu's experience that resonate with me, especially around privilege and race and how moving to a country where you go from majority to minority can mess with it massively.

10 - Hidden Riches, by Nora Roberts: still reading
original review here

Reread of one of my favourite Nora Roberts single titles. Dora Conroy, who owns an antiques/curio shop unwittingly purchases some stock in an auction which is not what it seems. An unscrupulous businessman was using the pretty mundane objects to smuggle in priceless objets d'art, but the shipment got mixed up with stuff bound for an auction house. The businessman sends his henchman to recover them, and the man's initial, more subtle attempts get increasingly violent as he fails to find the last item. It doesn't help him that Dora's new neighbour, Jed Skimmerhorn, is a former cop.

 I'm enjoying this very much. Dora is an endearing mix of eccentric and practical, and she stands up to every single bit of Jed's crap. Her family, most of whom are actors, are a hoot. Jed I'm finding a bit less distinct (strong man tortured both by an unhappy childhood growing up in a very dysfunctional rich family and by a recent episode in his police career), but I'm liking how Dora completely discombobulates him.

 The level of violence and the amount of time in the villain's head are maybe a bit much for the tone of the romance (although things are getting a bit darker now that I'm about halfway through), but on the whole, Hidden Riches is living up to my memories. I can't believe it's already 20 years old; it's aged very well.


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