August 2014 wish list

>> Thursday, July 31, 2014

August 5th and 26th are the dates to look forward to this month!

Books I'm definitely planning to get

My Beautiful Enemy, by Sherry Thomas (Aug 5)

I love Thomas' historicals, especially her heroines. The one in this one sounds great. I see the words "cunning" and "daring" in the blurb as good signs!

Lay It Down, by Cara McKenna (Aug 5)

Bikers and motorcycle club books hold no absolutely no appeal for me in theory, but this is Cara McKenna. She's one of a tiny, tiny number of authors who'd sell me such a book.

Heroes Are My Weakness, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips (Aug 26)

Hmmm. I have loads of issues with SEP's books (mainly, the way her heroines always start out humiliated and powerless really gets on my nerves), but I always end up liking them in spite of myself.

The Hot Zone, by Jayne Castle (Aug 26)

The last couple of JAK's books have actually been quite good, with less of the Arcane Society nitty gritty that I found so boring. The Hot Zone blurb sounds interesting, too.

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

Truly, by Ruthie Knox (Aug 5)

I like Ruthie Knox's books, but I've mixed feelings about the blurb of this one. I'm intrigued by the initial setup (the NFL quarterback is the jerk boyfriend who is dumped at the start, rather than the hero, and what would be "the world's worst marriage proposal"?). But then there's this whole "it’s not every day he meets a genuine, down-to-earth woman like May". I just hope not every other woman in New York is portrayed as fake and money-grubbing.

Dark Skye, by Kresley Cole (Aug 5)

I haven't read Kresley Cole for a while. I'm going to be what sorts of reviews this one gets.

Across the Line, by Kate Willoughby (Aug 11)

I think I like the idea of sports romances more than I actually like the books themselves, but out of the ones I've seen lately, this one sounds most interesting.

A Scandal to Remember, by Elizabeth Essex (Aug 26)

I keep putting Elizabeth Essex's books here, but I haven't yet tried her. I do like the sound of this one (scientist heroine, shipboard romance, desert island!), so it might well be my first one!

The Earl's Mistress, by by Liz Carlyle (Aug 26)

I really like the sound of this one (possibly because one of my favourite of Carlyle's older books involves a heroine employed by the hero and a plot that could have been all about sexual harassment but wasn't). Her latest have been disappointing, but I live in hope.

What I Love About You, by Rachel Gibson (Aug 26)

Similar to the previous SEP book. I'm not completely sure about this one, but we'll see.


Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King

>> Sunday, July 27, 2014

TITLE: Mr. Mercedes
AUTHOR: Stephen King

PAGES: 417
PUBLISHER: Hodder & Stoughton

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Thriller

A cat-and-mouse suspense thriller featuring a retired homicide detective who's haunted by the few cases he left open, and by one in particular - the pre-dawn slaughter of eight people among hundreds gathered in line for the opening of a jobs fair when the economy was guttering out. Without warning, a lone driver ploughed through the crowd in a stolen Mercedes. The plot is kicked into gear when Bill Hodges receives a letter in the mail, from a man claiming to be the perpetrator. He taunts Hodges with the notion that he will strike again.

Hodges wakes up from his depressed and vacant retirement, hell-bent on preventing that from happening.

Brady Hartsfield lives with his alcoholic mother in the house where he was born. And he's preparing to kill again.

Only Hodges, with a couple of misfit friends, can apprehend the killer in this high-stakes race against time. Because Brady's next mission, if it succeeds, will kill or maim hundreds, even thousands.

In the early days of the Great Recession, hundreds of unemployed people are camping out outside the building where a job fair will take place the next day. They're not sure whether the "guaranteed 400 jobs" really will materialise, but they're desperate to be the first ones in and have a good shot at one of them. And then, at dawn, a big Mercedes comes off the road and starts driving right at them. It doesn't slow down; in fact, it accelerates. All hemmed in, people can't get out of the way fast enough and many get run over. Eight people die and many more are gravely injured. The killer gets away.

A year later, Bill Hodges receives a surprising letter. Hodges is a recently retired detective and one of his last cases was that of the Mercedes killer. In the months since his retirement he has been feeling his life is pretty much over. He sits all day in front of the television, eating junk food and playing with his gun, thinking of all the retired policemen he knew who ended their lives by eating their guns soon after retirement.

All that changes with the letter. The author claims he's Mr. Mercedes and taunts Hodges. There is enough information there for Hodges to be certain that the writer is who he claims he is, but he also sees beyond that. The letter is "cleverly" trying to nudge him towards suicide. It has the opposite effect. Now Hodges has a mission, a reason to live, especially when he discovers he's not the first person connected to the case the killer has targetted for manipulation.

King is a fantastic storyteller. The story is told in short, punchy chapters and it fairly flies. We flip back and forth from what Hodges and the unlikely group of people he takes into his confidence are doing to catch the killer and the actions of the killer himself. His name is Brady Hartsfield, and even though he calculatedly told Hodges in his letter that he doesn't have the urge to kill again, he's definitely planning to. He wants to go out with a bang.

This is suspense with a real sense of danger and loads at stake. King is willing to put his characters through the wringer, and even good people are not safe from having really bad stuff happen to them. I tried to tell myself not to get too attached to characters, but King beat me, and I couldn't help but believe in them and care deeply about what happened to them. The sign of a good audiobook is when I end up actually talking out loud when something particularly bad or good happens, and that was the case here. "Oh, no, no, no, no, NO!!".

I liked that none of these two antagonists are larger-than-life. Hodges is a good cop, but he's certainly fallible and not some perfect hero. Brady is a complete loser, pathetic rather than master criminal. This made the story completely unpredictable, and much more exciting to me.

This is basically suspense, but you can see the horror writer shining through in some sections. There's one point in particular, when one of Brady's vindictive little plans goes horribly wrong, when it's chillingly clear that this is the same writer who created books like It and Pet Sematary. It gave me the shivers, as did Brady's very disfunctional relationship with his mother.

The race against time to stop a killer plot is not new, but when done well, that doesn't matter. And I particularly liked the way King incorporated his setting to this timeless suspense plot. Most of the action takes place in 2010, in a medium-sized city in the Midwest of the US badly hit by the recession. While that doesn't play a huge part in the plot, beyond the shocking first scene, it creates a very vivid atmosphere. Great book.



Sworn To Silence, by Linda Castillo

>> Friday, July 25, 2014

TITLE: Sworn To Silence
AUTHOR: Linda Castillo

PAGES: 384

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: 1st in the Kate Burkholder series

Some secrets are too terrible to reveal. Some crimes are too unspeakable to solve...

In Painters Mill, Ohio, the Amish and “English” residents have lived side by side for two centuries. But sixteen years ago, a series of brutal murders shattered the peaceful farming community. A young Amish girl named Kate Burkholder survived the terror of the Slaughterhouse Killer... but ultimately decided to leave her community.

A wealth of experience later, Kate has been asked to return to Painters Mill as chief of police. Her Amish roots and big-city law enforcement background make her the perfect candidate. She’s certain she’s come to terms with her past—until the first body is discovered in a snowy field.

Kate vows to stop the killer before he strikes again. But to do so, she must betray both her family and her Amish past—and expose a dark secret that could destroy her.

Linda Castillo used to write Romantic Suspense, and I always thought her books were very good. They were very dark, the sort of stories that put the reader through an emotional wringer, but in the end they were emotionally satisfying and felt worth reading.

With her Kate Burkholder series she has moved away from the romance genre into mystery. Sworn to Silence is the first in the series, and introduces Kate, a woman who was raised in the Amish community of Painters Mill but decided to leave it after her rumspringa. Kate became a police officer in the big city, but after her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, she moved back to Painters Mill to become the chief of police.

It's usually pretty uncomplicated work, but everything changes when one of her deputies finds the body of a woman in a field. She has been murdered and shows signs of horrific torture. And what shocks everyone even more is the Roman numeral XXIII carved into her stomach. Sixteen years earlier, a serial killer terrorised Painters Mill. His victims, all killed in the same way as this latest one, had numerals carved into their stomachs. The first was IV and, over the following couple of years, the numbers went up to IX. This was a detail that was never released to the public.

Seeing the XXIII, then, the conclusion is inescapable for all those in law-enforcement. The murders just stopped after victim IX. Has the killer returned? The only one who knows that can't be true is Kate. She believes that sixteen years earlier she killed the man who was intending to make her victim number X. So why is she still investigating the case, you ask? Well, that would be because her family decided the police should not be told. And now Kate must decide whether catching the killer will require making those secrets public.

Keeping her secrets becomes even harder when the town council, dissatisfied about her responsiveness to their concerns about scaring away tourists, call the state's Bureau of Criminal Investigation for help. Agent John Tomasetti arrives before Kate is even told about this, and suddenly, Kate has an experienced agent to deceive as well.

Sworn To Silence started strong. I found the characters interesting and was intrigued by the story (yes, for some strange reason, I'm one of those who aren't tired and bored of serial killer stories). And I was fully engaged throughout, and turning the pages like crazy (or rather, the audiobook equivalent, which is basically staying on the treadmill for a lot longer than intended!).

As the story moved forward, however, issues that had been niggling at the start turned bigger. The main amongst them was Kate herself. On one hand, she's a really intriguing, imperfect character. There's the Amish angle, which makes Kate's perspective particularly interesting. She's someone who knows the community very well, having been brought up in it, but who's now very much an outsider. I liked how Castillo portrayed that as just being part of her and how it affected how she dealt with the community. There's also the fact that investigating the murders while keeping her own secrets is definitely not straightforward. That's an interesting complication, but I had some problems with how she actually did so. Kate's efforts to keep the secret of what happened all those years earlier does compromise her investigation, mainly because it keeps her from calling in other law enforcement agencies for help, which she herself admits she would have otherwise done. I lost some respect for her because of that. Also, her investigation didn't seem too logical to me. There were some very obvious gaps that were never even considered. For instance, Kate and her team spend no time investigating how the victims were taken by the killer. Surely that would have told them a lot? Like: is this someone the victims knew? What sort of vehicle must he have to transport them? Could anyone have seen something?

Tomasetti has potential to be developed into an interesting character over the next several books, but he feels a bit inconsistent here. This case is his last chance, but he's not sure he wants it. A couple of years earlier, when working in Narcotics, one of the people he was investigating killed his wife and children. John went rogue and got his revenge, later being exonerated by a grand jury. In the time since, he's spent most of his time drinking, abusing prescription drugs and bunking off work. Management at BCI decide it's time to get rid of him but dare not fire him, so they instead send him off to assist in a high-profile case. The thinking is that, with his current psychological state, he'll obviously mess up. Armed with an official complaint from the local police, they'll be able to get rid of him. When he's introduced, he's majorly screwed up. He's barely functioning. But he's perfectly fine in Painters' Mill, apart from a bit of mild drinking! There's the beginning of a romantic relationship between him and Kate (which I assume will be further developed in the following books), and it's sort of suggested that this has helped him get his issues on track. I wasn't convinced. He was too messed up at the start for "cured by meeting a good woman" to work. Still, Castillo might be able to pull it off if she makes it clear in further books that this was just a first step, and that he gets proper professional help.

Just as with the characters, I had mixed feelings about the suspense plot. It's absorbing and tense. As I mentioned earlier, I had some issues with the lack of logic of the investigation, but I was still engaged in the twists and turns. The final sections, once Kate finally gets hold of the right thread and starts pulling, were incredibly tense. I was literally talking to the characters out loud, getting really angry at them for making what I thought were the wrong decisions (I'd guessed the culprit not long before and thought some of the evidence Kate was collecting was a lot more convincing than she or John seemed to think). So yeah, I was definitely emotionally involved!

Fortunately, I was able not to get too emotionally involved when it came to the description of the victims and what had been done to them. It was graphic, very graphic and truly horrific. I thought it actually crossed the line into too much a couple of times. I'll be honest, I would rather have had a bit less detail, but I can understand the author's choices here.

Finally, vigilatism is a major theme in the book, and I wasn't very comfortable with how few qualms anyone (even the narrative) had about it. I was more or less ok with Kate and John's actions in the past. They were both under enormous psychological strain, Kate actually protecting her own life. I'm not endorsing John's actions, especially, but I do understand them. It's the smaller things that happen during the investigation that I was really bothered by. A couple of times the police question people they have reason to think are lowlifes and all-around nasty pieces of shit, and when they do so, they go completely over the line. The one that's most illustrative is when Kate and Tomasetti question this guy who works at the slaughterhouse and is a recently released sex offender, having been in jail during the period no murders took place. Obviously, he looks great as a suspect on paper. As soon as they meet him, however, it becomes clear that this guy does not have the right physical characteristics to be the killer, and they have absolutely no reason to think he might have any valuable information. They still barge into his house and harass him. They threaten him. Tomasetti forces his way into the guy's house while he's speaking to Kate on his back door, and then he goes into his bedroom and looks around his computer without a warrant, finding pretty mainstream porn and behaving as if this is a unerring sign of a deviant human being (seriously, this dude needed to start listening to Dan Savage's podcast). Kate actually smacks the man on the side of the head when he's not 100% forthcoming with his responses. Their attitude really angered me. This guy might be a piece of shit, but it's not the police's role to dispense justice. They needed to, at the very least, not break the law.

So, not a 100% success, but I was intrigued enough to read on in the series. I'm interested in Kate and John, and the setting, with Amish and 'English' coexisting, and our main protagonist right in the middle of that divide, has a lot of potential.


AUDIOBOOK NOTES: The audiobook is narrated by Kathleen McInerney, and I liked her style. Most of the action is narrated in 1st person by Kate, and the voice she did for her felt right. There was enough emotion put into the narration, especially at particularly tense moments, to have the performance come alive, but it never crossed the line into overacting. I wasn't crazy about the voice McInerney did for John -a bit too whispery/raspy-, but it didn't really bother me.


Fortune's Pawn, by Rachel Bach

>> Wednesday, July 23, 2014

TITLE: Fortune's Pawn
AUTHOR: Rachel Bach

PAGES: 352

SETTING: Futuristic
TYPE: Sci-fi romance
SERIES: 1st in the Paradox trilogy

Deviana Morris isn't your average mercenary. She has plans. Big ones. And a ton of ambition. One of those is going to get her killed one day - but not just yet.

Not when she just got a job on a tiny trade ship with a nasty reputation for surprises. The Glorious Fool isn't misnamed: it likes to get into trouble. And with a reputation for bad luck that makes one year as security detail on this ship equal to five years everywhere else - Devi knows she's found the perfect way to get the jump on the next part of her Plan. But the Fool doesn't give up its secrets without a fight, and one year might be more than even Devi can handle.

Devi Morris career as a mercenary has been extremely impressive. Not yet 30, she has worked her way up military ranks, and then to the top of the active service ranks in a well-regarded mercenary company in Paradox. With nowhere else to go other than management, she has quit her job and is looking at what her next step should be. Because Devi's ultimate dream is to be a Devastator, one of the Paradoxian King's elite armoured unit, and that's not a job you apply for. It's by invitation only.

Trying to figure a strategy to get closer to her dream, she gets a tip from an occasional lover: the rumour is that surviving a tour of duty on a certain Captain Caldswell's ship is a surefire way to get noticed. Several people who've served on his ship as security officers have gone on to be Devastators. Of course, the negative is that, although this is a freighter that works in routes that aren't particularly dangerous, Caldwell seems to go through security personnel like tissues.

Devi duly gets herself a post on Caldwell's ship, the Glorious Fool, and it almost immediately becomes clear that the rumours were right. The ship somehow ends up involved in dangerous situations all the time, and it's obvious nothing is quite what it seems. Devi is intrigued, but trying to find out more might put her in even graver danger.

I really loved this book, right until the end.

Mainly, it's all about Devi. I've seen her compared to Ripley, in Alien, and yep, I can totally see that. She's fabulous: strong, ambitious and unapologetic about it, and above all, extremely competent at what she does. She is a warrior, and I loved that since Paradoxian soldiers fight in sophisticated armour (her Lady Grey is almost a character in its own right), the whole issue of physical strength is moot. It's all about intelligence and bravery and tactical awareness, and this means Devi can be just as formidable a warrior as any man. And she's very, very formidable. There is a no-nonsense attitude to her that I found really appealing, and I respected her determination to find out what on earth is going on with the Fool and its captain, as well as the cleverness with which she goes about it.

And there are lots and lots of Secrets for her to discover on the Glorious Fool. There's a captain who's supposed to be a trader but doesn't do much trading. There's his daughter, a young girl who spends her days in eery silence and whom everyone is incredibly protective about. There's Rupert Cherkhov, the ship's very attractive cook, who is seemingly in the captain's confidence and capable of incredible physical feats. And that's even before Devi goes off ship on a misguided rescue attempt and ends up witnessing some unexplainable creatures she was meant to forget about. Not to mention the weird episode of the ghost ship.

And that leads me to that ending. Lots and lots of secrets, and by the ending, we've only scratched the surface. And then the book ends in what feels like a massive cliff-hanger. A lot of the ground Devi has managed to gain is just wiped away, which felt kind of annoying, but worst of all was that there was no sense of any conclusion. Obviously if you have a trilogy like this one, with a strong overarching story that has such an emphasis on mysteries, you're not going to get all, or even most of the answers at the end of the first book. But there needs to be some sort of internal closure for each of the volumes, at least something for a reader who wasn't crazy about the book and is not interested in continuing with the series. That reader needs to feel like they got some sort of self-contained story, if not all the story. Here it felt simply like a longer story that stopped and will continue in the next volume. It feels manipulative. Fortunately for me, I would have read the next books even without the manipulation and all 3 books in the trilogy are out already. If either of these hadn't been the case, though, I would have been majorly pissed off.

Finally, I started the book thinking this was straight sci-fi with maybe a small romantic subplot between Devi and Rupert, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that the romance was quite a big element. I liked it. There's definitely a lot more to come, especially since a lot of the big secrets involve Rupert, and I'm looking forward to the rest.

MY GRADE: A strong B. It would have been higher if not for my annoyance at the ending.


Hubble Bubble, by Jane Lovering

>> Monday, July 21, 2014

TITLE: Hubble Bubble
AUTHOR: Jane Lovering

PAGES: 300

SETTING: Contemporary England (Yorkshire)
TYPE: Romantic comedy

Be careful what you wish for...

Holly Grey only joined the women's group to keep her friend out of trouble – and now she’s knee-deep in hassle, in the form of apocalyptic weather, armed men, midwifery... and a sarcastic Welsh journalist.

Kai has been drawn to darkest Yorkshire by his desire to find out who he really is. What he hadn’t bargained on was getting caught up in amateur magic and dealing with a bunch of women who are trying really hard to make their dreams come true.

Together they realise that getting what you wish for is sometimes just a matter of knowing what it is you want...

Holly doesn't believe in magic, but her best friend is determined to drag her along to this new coven she's heard about. It was founded by a woman who seems convinced that checking out a couple of books on witchcraft from the library and following the instructions will allow them to cast spells and obtain their hearts' desires. Suddenly, Holly is spending too much time wandering around the cold woods, making disgusting concoctions. She's also distracted by Kai, a mysterious Welsh journalist she's met through her brother, who seems to be playing games with her.

My main problem with Hubble Bubble was that the author's voice didn't appeal to me. It felt like Lovering was trying too hard to be zany and hilarious, but instead, it made pretty much all the characters (including Holly, the narrator) sound like they couldn't stop blabbing and were not very intelligent. Kai was the exception, since he's meant to be mysterious (witness the short, cryptic chapters written from his POV as if he was talking to someone, or writing in a diary), but even that didn't quite work, as he came across as melodramatic instead. Reading all this kind of exhausted me, so I gave up at about the halfway point.

A shame, because there were elements that I was quite intrigued by. I was tickled by the idea of someone doing magic almost by mistake, casting a spell they thought was just pretend, and then having to face the consequences (at least, that's where I assume this was going). Since Holly thought the whole spell thing was rubbish, she made her wishes in a sort of jokey way, so I imagine they would have been fulfilled in unexpected ways.

I was also interested in Holly's relationship with her brother. He's got mental health issues, and Holly functions as a sort of carer to him. They don't live together, but Holly frequently goes to his house and sorts all kinds of things out for him, from washing to doing his shopping for him and of course, making sure he's functioning. What I was interested in was her very matter-of-fact attitude towards this. It's just what she does. She would love her brother to be better, but she seems quite content to be doing this for him. I did want to see how that would develop, especially in the context of Holly's wishes during the spell-casting, but not enough to keep reading.



Listening material

>> Sunday, July 20, 2014

Some good stuff recently.

This American Life. This podcast has stories exploring a particular theme every week. A couple of weeks ago the episode was called "The Human Spectacle". I was particularly fascinated by the first segment, which was about a Japanese reality show. Just mind-blowing. I also liked the third one, which basically talked to Iraqis from different cities, discussing what it was like to live in Iraq right now. It's not available for download any longer, but can be streamed here.

Bannockburn Begins. A BBC Radio 3 documentary about the battle of Bannockburn. It discusses the battle itself and its context, but also its significance and the impact it's had. Really interesting stuff. Download mp3 here (right click & "save target as / link as").

The Infinite Monkey Cage's latest episode, "Are Humans Uniquely Unique?", discusses the ways in which we're different from other animals. I love this programme; it's interesting and hilarious at the same time. Download mp3 here (right click & "save target as / link as").

Word of Mouth. This episode is about situations in which it's really important to weigh your words. They interview oncologists and cancer patients, a journalist involved in a particularly sensitive story (the guy worked in the Scum and the Daily Heil, though, so I'm not sure how much I believe him about having actually taken care with his words) and someone reporting during peace negotiations. Thought-provoking. Download mp3 here (right click & "save target as / link as").

Inside Health had an episode is about the risks and benefits of breast cancer screening programmes. No easy conclusions about whether it's worth it for individual women to attend, but it made the case well that it's something we need to think about. Download mp3 here (right click & "save target as / link as").


Play To Kill, by PJ Tracy

>> Saturday, July 19, 2014

TITLE: Play To Kill (released as Shoot To Thrill in the US)

PAGES: 320

SETTING: Contemporary Minnesota
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: 5th in the Monkeewrench series

It begins with a floater.

When Minneapolis homicide cops Gino Rolseth and Leo Magozzi are called to a derelict stretch of the Mississippi River, they see the bride, facedown, dead in the water. And when the Monkeewrench crew-computer geeks who made a fortune on games, now assisting the cops with special anticrime soft-ware-are invited by the FBI to investigate a series of murder videos posted to the Web, it's not long before the group dis- covers the frightening link between the unlucky bride and the latest, most horrific use of the Internet yet. Using their skills to scour the Net to prevent more killings, the team must race against the clock... before it's too late.

With sophisticated special effects now so widely available, it can be hard to distinguish whether a death scene on film is staged or a real murder. Being aware of the real-life crime scenes, however, the cops have managed to determine that several videos posted online are of real crimes. It's not easy to make that distinction, though, so FBI Special Agent John Smith is sent to work with the Monkeewrench crew, to see if their clever software can find a way to identify the other real videos the FBI are afraid might be out there already, so far undetected. And when one of the videos proves to be from a crime in Magozzi and Rolseth's jurisdiction, they get involved as well.

This was a good one. I keep wanting to see more detail of what the Monkeewrench software can do, and it certainly gets a workout here. The theme is an interesting one, too: is technology facilitating behaviour that just wouldn't have happened before? It used to be that people with particularly aberrant desires and fantasies had no means to connect to others like them, but now they can do it with impunity. Are the benefits of modern technology enough to compensate for this? It's a theme that could have been developed a bit more subtly, but I was interested in the questions the authors were asking.

I liked the new character that was introduced here. John Smith is about to retire, and at first sight he's just as anonymous as his name would indicate. His job is his life. He has moved through life staying away from others, concentrating all his energy in work. Grace and him have a lot in common, and she notices that.

I was very interested to see that the halting progress of Grace and Magozzi's relationship is beginning to have an impact in the others. Gino Roselth, who might be my favourite character in the series, is starting to resent Grace here. He's starting to think that Grace's difficulties establishing a normal relationship with his good friend Magozzi might just be tipping into screwing with him, and he doesn't like it. That added an exciting and, actually, welcome edge into the relationship between the police and the Monkeewrench crew, which has always been pretty smooth.

I enjoyed the investigation very much, and then got to the ending. That was... wow. Surprising, to say the least, as well as very intriguing. It was so intriguing, in fact, that I can't wait to read the next book and see what it actually means.



Love In The Time Of Cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez

>> Thursday, July 17, 2014

TITLE: Love In The Time Of Cholera (read in Spanish: El Amor en los Tiempos del Cólera)
AUTHOR: Gabriel García Márquez

PAGES: 464

SETTING: Late 19th and early 20th century Colombia
TYPE: Fiction

In their youth, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza fall passionately in love. When Fermina eventually chooses to marry a wealthy, well-born doctor, Florentino is devastated, but he is a romantic. As he rises in his business career he whiles away the years in 622 affairs--yet he reserves his heart for Fermina. Her husband dies at last, and Florentino purposefully attends the funeral. Fifty years, nine months, and four days after he first declared his love for Fermina, he will do so again.

Well, shit. I pick this book for book club myself, and then I get so revolted before I get to the end that I can't even finish.

No summary from me, as the one above is perfect and to the point. I'll start with the good. First: the language. The language is incredible. García Márquez plays with it, stretches it one way and the other, mixes baroque, dense language with earthy content in ways that sound almost surreal. The tone suits his setting perfectly, the Old World, elegant charm of the patrician families, but living in a tropical, messy, smelly and disease-prone Caribbean town. His metaphors and imagery are vivid, often surprising and even puzzling, but in ways that serve the effects he was looking for (e.g. a woman Florentino lusts after has "Portuguese eyelids that made her seem even more aloof" - my first reaction was "huh?", but the mystery of the image somehow made the woman seem more mysterious herself). In short, the man can write.

It's an entertaining story, too. The characters are too exaggerated (albeit with a kernel of truth in them) for me to particularly care about, but they kind of had to be that way for the author to be able to illustrate love as a physical, rather than only emotional, affliction, which is one of the themes here.

But then we immediately get to the negatives. All throughout the book, I found myself very disturbed by the portrayal of women (and I've had the same issue with other Latin American writers, such as Mario Vargas Llosa and Isabel Allende). Women here are always male fantasies. They are subservient to men, all they want in life is to be loyal and loving to men, most of whom treat them cruelly. These men cheat on their women, completely disregard them, but the women portrayed positively are all pathetically, dog-like loyal anyway, basically gagging for it. They fall madly in love with their rapists and seek to find them again for the rest of their lives. They're forever available, forever ready to be used. I hated it.

Bad enough, but then we get to one of Florentino's latest "conquests" at the time Fermina's husband dies. América Vicuña is 13 and has been sent by her family to the city, to be in the care of Florentino, who's a distant relative. What happens then is portrayed in the book as Florentino seducing her into a passionate affair, but it read quite clearly as what it actually was: a vile, dirty old man grooming a child and raping her. I was repulsed by the events themselves, but it was the way they were written that made me physically sick and made me want to throw up. The narration doesn't seem to feel there's anything too wrong with Florentino's actions. They're naughty in the same way as his affairs with married women are naughty, that's all. América is not harmed by this at all... in fact, after a few years of this, when Fermina's husband finally dies and Florentino indicates that their "affair" (sorry for the constant quote marks, but I just can't bring myself to leave them out) is at an end, she reacts like a jealous mistress who wants to keep her man. No, just, no. I could quote some choice sections if I wanted to make you all want to feel sick, but I'm not that evil (if you think I'm exaggerating, follow this link, which includes the English translation of a particularly horrific passage and explores how this is a problem in other of this author's books).

MY GRADE: It was a DNF.


The Martian, by Andy Weir

>> Tuesday, July 15, 2014

TITLE: The Martian
AUTHOR: Andy Weir

PAGES: 384

SETTING: Near future, Mars and Earth
TYPE: Sci-fi

I'm stranded on Mars.

I have no way to communicate with Earth.

I'm in a Habitat designed to last 31 days.

If the Oxygenator breaks down, I'll suffocate. If the Water Reclaimer breaks down, I'll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I'll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I'll eventually run out of food and starve to death.

So yeah. I'm screwed.

Mark Watney is stuck on Mars. His mission was supposed to last only about a month, but after only a few days he and his team were caught by a particularly vicious dust storm, which risked tipping over and breaking their exit vehicle. And as if aborting the mission wasn't bad enough, disaster struck during the evacuation, when Mark was struck by flying debris. For very good reasons, his teammates thought he was dead. After wasting some precious time searching for him, they had to leave anyway. And then Mark woke up, alone in Mars.

Through log entries, the book follows Mark as he fights to stay alive, searching for creative solutions in a situation where fatal disaster lurks in every corner. We also follow the people working on Earth in mission control and his former crew, as they all do whatever they can to bring him back.

The Martian is fantastic. It's an incredibly tense and gripping story. I must say, I was afraid it wasn't going to be so at first. I wasn't particularly enthralled for the first few chapters, where it's basically Mark working his way through a number of different problems, in quite a lot of technical detail. It was all interesting enough, in its own way, but lacking narrative drive. Well, if you do decide to try this, do stick with it through the first bit, because once you get to the first chapter set in Earth, things really get going, and how!

It's fascinating to see all the characters, but most of all Mark, working through the huge number of problems Mark's situation brings up. It all boils down to how Mark can be kept alive long enough to be rescued, but there are so many aspects to this, and that's not even considering what he might need to do if things go wrong. Which they do, in all sorts of ways. I loved seeing the sort of lateral thinking this required. There was a fair bit of technical detail here, all of which made sense to me, but then again, I'm not an expert. I did think the detail was sometimes a bit too much, but that might be because I was listening to the audiobook, and so listening to every word (including, at one point, to a readout of a computer log as it went through a reboot procedure). You can probably sort of glance quickly over this sort of thing when you're looking at the text.

So that was great, but what really made the book for me were the characters, especially Mark. He's a fabulous narrator. As I mentioned earlier, we get his point of view through log entries. That may not sound too promising, but his personality and humour really shine through, as does his fear when things aren't looking good. But mostly, it's the humour. Mark is a bit of a clown (or rather, as the mission psychologists would put it, he's the type of guy whose reaction to extreme stress is to crack jokes), and this makes it really entertaining to be in his point of view.

I loved the other characters as well. It's interesting, because we only see them at work and the way they react to the developments in Mars is really the only aspect of their personality we're witness to. And yet I got a really good sense of who all these people were. I particularly loved Mark's crewmates and the team dynamics, and really appreciated that the mission commander was female and that wasn't an issue at all.

The one thing I thought was lacking in The Martian was any but the shallowest discussion of the ethics of spending that much money on saving one particular man. It's brought up very briefly and discounted with what I thought was a bit of a sleight of hand (and a copout, I'm afraid). There's a feeling that because a life is at stake, it's just not right to even consider the costs. Well, I'm quite impatient with that sort of stance. It's a cop-out. Maybe it's because I work in health economics and public policy and I'm therefore more comfortable than most with thinking about people's lives and health in the context of finite resources, combined with an almost infinite number of options to use those resources. I would probably have been a villain in this book, going "Hang on, can we think about this?"

Still, I finished this with a happy sigh.

MY GRADE: A very solid B+.

AUDIOBOOK NOTES: The reader is really, really good. I was, however, not completely convinced by the decision to have him read the entire text. Mark's logs are, obviously, in the first person, so it's quite disconcerting to have the voice which in my head is Mark, reading the other third person sections, whether telling what's going on on Earth or giving us an omniscient update of what's going on with bits of equipment.


The Kraken King Part 8, by Meljean Brook

>> Sunday, July 13, 2014

TITLE: The Kraken King Part 8: The Kraken King and the Greatest Adventure
AUTHOR: Meljean Brook


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

Arriving in Krakentown with their enemies in hot pursuit, Zenobia doesn’t know how they can even hope to win. Being terrified brings forth an undeniable truth: she loves Ariq and will do whatever it takes to stand by him.

But as their adversaries appear on the horizon, they realize that not all is lost. Drawing on the power of the terrible war machine, Ariq, Zenobia, and the entire town must put their lives on the line to protect what they love...

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

Link to my review of Part 7

I'm assuming that if you're reading this, you've read the first 7 parts (but not necessarily this part, so no spoilers for that here).

And finally, we get to the end! I must confess that, though I'm writing this review a couple of weeks after that for part 7, I wasn't able to wait quite as long as I'd planned in between installments. Part 7 left things at quite an intriguing point, and after some 4 days, I gave in.

I don't want to give too much away here. Suffice it to say that we get our final confrontation here, and it's fantastic. It's a clever, if still dangerous, plan and the execution made complete sense. It was also incredibly cinematic. There was a point where I was sitting there open-mouthed, as some truly awesome (in the formal sense of the word) scenes played out in my mind.

And the romance. Ahhhh! We're almost there when we start this, but the final step, the final acceptance of each other here, it was really sweet. I closed the book with a happy sigh.

So, I loved the story itself, but a big element with this one was how well the serial format would work for me. In the end, the results were mixed.

On the positive side, I liked the pause for thought in between installments. I actually did find myself thinking about the story in those periods, and the story might have felt fresher each time because of them. The catching up was seamless, with each installment starting with a letter from Zenobia to her brother that was much more than "...and this is what's happened in the last few days." I loved those, they were lovely. There were also some really unobtrusive bits during the text itself. That all worked beautifully, and I wouldn't expect it to be clunky (or even noticeable) for those who are planning to read the book in one go when it comes out later in the year. I also never got annoyed by being left hanging, mainly because I wasn't. The breaks came at places which felt like natural stopping points. There would be unresolved overall things, but each part felt self-contained and we'd get small resolutions in each. It felt like a well-done television series, in that respect.

On the negative side it's all about the mechanics. Reading one installment a week requires you to be in the right mood for that kind of story every week. Much as I love Meljean's books, sometimes I'm in the mood for adventure romance, sometimes I'm not. Also, I would obviously read other stuff in between episodes and would normally be in the middle of another book when the next part came out. Mostly I'd happily put that down for a couple of hours to read the new episode of The Kraken King, but sometimes I didn't want to. That's what happened when I was on holiday in Italy. I'd just started The Goblin King on the flight there. That is a fantastic book which I just didn't want to put down. I didn't have much time to read anyway, but when I did, The Goblin King it was. So yeah, in summary, I found real life interfering much more with my reading rhythm with a serial format than it would have with a regular novel.

Would I try the format again soon? Yes, but my position hasn't changed much from before I started this. I'd said I'd try a serial if it was by a trusted author and not simply a regular book chopped into roughly equal parts, and that hasn't changed.



Suddenly You, by Sarah Mayberry

>> Friday, July 11, 2014

TITLE: Suddenly You
AUTHOR: Sarah Mayberry

PAGES: 288
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Superromance

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Category romance
SERIES: Stands alone, but the hero was in All They Need

The definition of a happy man?

The guy who knows exactly what he wants and has it. That's Harry Porter. He's got the perfect job, the best buddies and no commitments beyond the next good time. It's the ideal life.

Then he stops to help Pippa White when she's stranded by the side of the road. He's known—and liked—her for a while, but as the ex of a friend, she's entirely off-limits. And as fun as the banter with her is, Harry knows single moms are out of his league.

So why all the excuses to see Pippa again…and again? And why can't he stop thinking about her? But most puzzling of all is how Harry suddenly wants to swap a night with the boys for one with only Pippa!

One night, heading into town for some fun, Harry Porter sees a car he recognises by the side of the road, clearly having broken down. It belongs to Pippa White, ex-girlfriend of a friend of his. That relationship didn't end well: Pippa became pregnant and decided to keep it, and Harry's friend has gone on and on about how she harassed him, even getting the government on his case to bleed him dry.

Harry always liked Pippa fine, though, and he's a good guy (not to mention a mechanic), so he stops to see if he can help. Pippa is reluctant to accept anything from him, even a lift home, which he finally persuades her into. After seeing her house and noticing that after a few days she still hasn't had her car towed, Harry suspects she must be suffering financially. Surely his friend will help the mother of his child, even if the kid was unwanted?

It turns out, to Harry's surprise, that his friend is a real turd. Pippa isn't bleeding him dry; in fact, the sack of shit falsified his books so that it looked like his company was insolvent, just to get out of paying any child support. He's not giving her a cent.

Harry doesn't think that's right at all. He's ashamed of his friend and he admires Pippa for the way she's been dealing with things, so he decides to help out with stuff, starting with her car. But spending time together leads to attraction, and soon they're both trying to remember why they shouldn't give in to it..

It's a setup with plenty of potential for angst, although mainly on Harry's side, really. He feels uncomfortable with the idea of a relationship with an ex of a friend, even if that friend was the one in the wrong and clearly doesn't have feelings for her any longer. He's also very uncomfortably trying to reconcile his friendship with the man with the knowledge that he behaved so badly to Pippa. That felt very real and painful. It's easy to think (and that was my instinct) that he should just dump the bastard as a friend, but I understood completely how the history they had together would make that easier said than done. There's also stuff going on with his father, who wants Harry to take over his garage when he retires, and doesn't understand why Harry would rather do the same work but independently. I loved the way that was developed.

Harry's great, but Pippa I found much less engaging. I'm quite a heroine-centric reader, so that was a bit of a problem for me. To be completely honest, I think part of it might be that being on my own with a baby and struggling to make ends meet, forced to live a life very different from the one I'm living and enjoying now, is possibly one of my worst nightmares. My difficulty engaging with her as a character might have something to do with that. It's very probably an "it's not the book, it's the reader" situation, and I expect she'll work much better as a romance heroine for most readers.

On the whole, though, and even with those issues, this was one I enjoyed very much.



Can't Buy Me Love, by Molly O'Keefe

>> Wednesday, July 09, 2014

TITLE: Can't Buy Me Love
AUTHOR: Molly O'Keefe

PAGES: 368

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Starts Crooked Creek Ranch trilogy

In Molly O’Keefe’s captivating new contemporary romance, a woman with a past and a man without a future struggle to find a place where they belong.

A girl from the wrong side of the tracks, Tara Jean Sweet knows that opportunity will never knock; she’ll have to seize it. Elderly Texas rancher Lyle Baker has a dying request: He will give Tara Jean a stake in his leather business in exchange for a little family subterfuge. All Tara Jean has to do is play the part of a gold-digging fiancée to lure Lyle’s estranged children home. The mission is soon accomplished.

Now Lyle’s gone—and his ridiculously handsome son, Luc, an ice hockey superstar sidelined by injuries, is the new owner of Crooked Creek ranch. He’s also Tara Jean’s boss. But being so close to sinfully sweet Tara Jean does crazy things to Luc’s priorities, like make him want to pry her deepest secrets from those irresistible lips. But when Tara Jean’s past demands a dirty showdown, will Luc stay and fight?

Lyle Baker was a mean, abusive son a bitch, and his two children rightly detest him and want nothing to do with him. Lyle is also great at manipulation, and knowing he's about to die, he does the only thing guaranteed to have them rushing to his deathbed: he hires a trashy young blonde to pretend to be his fiancée.

The son, Luc, an extremely successful hockey player, basically doesn't give a shit. He's got enough on his plate already, what with doctors telling him he's got scarring on his brain that would make any head injury particularly dangerous. They advise that he retires (he's probably not got more than one or two seasons in him, anyway), but he's determined not to. Hockey was what saved him and gave him a sense of self-worth, after all those years growing up with an abusive father and weak mother, and he doesn't know what he'd do if he gave it up. So yeah, his father can marry his blonde bimbo for all Luc cares.

His sister Victoria does care, though. Her husband has recently killed himself after it was discovered he'd bilked large numbers of people out of their savings, and Victoria has been left practically destitute and lost her position in society. She convinces Luc to take the bait as well, and they make their way to Crooked Creek Ranch.

The woman who awaits them there is Tara Jean Sweet. Tara certainly looks the part of the gold-digger, with her big hair and short skirts, and it's an accusation she can't quite deny. For many years, she and her boyfriend used her charms to convince old men in nursing homes to give her money, until she wasn't able to justify this to herself any longer. This time, though, it's a business deal. Tara has a talent for fashion design, and she was instrumental in turning around the fortunes of Lyle's leather business. She's playing the gold-digger in exchange for a large stake in the business. She doesn't really have a problem with this deal: she's earned the chunk of the business, plus, Lyle has been the first person ever to treat her well and value her talents. She relishes the thought of screwing around with his ungrateful children, who want his money but won't even come visit.

When all these people come together in the Crooked Creek Ranch, there's a hell of a lot of pain and anger and angst, not to mention attraction and surprise, when they start to know each other better.

This is very much a character-driven book. There's a small element of an external plot, to do with Tara's old boyfriend, but that was tangential. It's all about the characters here, and I really liked what O'Keefe did with them. Both Luc and Tara are much more than what they seem on the surface, but at the same time, I liked that what was on the surface was also part of who they were. She's more than just the big-haired girl from the trailer park, but she is the big-haired girl from the trailer park, and that is part of her identity. He's more than the athlete with anger-control issues, but he is that, too. I often didn't like them, but I always understood them. I totally got Tara's need for security, Luc's anger, even his determination to take very stupid risks just to keep playing. They felt real and they felt nuanced. I cared about what would happen to them.

The secondary characters were just as subtly done. Lyle was an abusive parent, but he was also very good to Tara (and those conflicting perceptions add conflict to their relationship). Victoria is weak and spoiled and insecure, willing to use her child as a bargaining chip, but her actions closer to the end make it clear there's more to her as well. Her book is the next one in the series, and I couldn't imagine wanting to read it when we first met here here. After finishing this, I'll be definitely picking that up.



The Haunting of Maddy Clare, by Simone St. James

>> Monday, July 07, 2014

TITLE: The Haunting of Maddy Clare
AUTHOR: Simone St. James

PAGES: 318

SETTING: 1920s England
TYPE: Paranormal Fiction

Sarah Piper's lonely, threadbare existence changes when her temporary agency sends her to assist a ghost hunter. Alistair Gellis-rich, handsome, scarred by World War I, and obsessed with ghosts- has been summoned to investigate the spirit of nineteen-year-old maid Maddy Clare, who is haunting the barn where she committed suicide. Since Maddy hated men in life, it is Sarah's task to confront her in death. Soon Sarah is caught up in a deperate struggle. For Maddy's ghost is real, she's angry, and she has powers that defy all reason. Can Sarah and Alistair's assistant, the rough, unsettling Matthew Ryder, discover who Maddy was, whereshe came from, and what is driving her desire for vengeance-before she destroys them all?

It's 1922 and Sarah Piper is making ends meet by temping. Her jobs usually involve boring secretarial work, but not the latest job she's offered by her temp agency. Her employer would be Alistair Gellis, a wealthy young war veteran, and what Alistair wants from Sarah isn't secretarial work. Far from it; Alistair is a ghost hunter, and his latest case involves a haunting by a man-hating ghost. He hopes Sarah will be able to do the direct contacting of the ghost, which is the bit that won't work quite as well for him.

Sarah is reluctant initially, but she accepts and sets off with him to the small village where the ghost resides. There they are joined by Matthew Ryder, Alistair's usual assistant and also a war veteran. Sarah doesn't quite believe in ghosts, but is willing to go along with the man who's paying her salary. However, before too long, there are no doubts left in her mind.

The ghost is real. She's the ghost of Maddy Clare, a young maid who hanged herself in a barn and is now haunting it, terrifying anyone who comes close. Alistair's plan works, and Sarah is able to communicate with her, after a fashion. Maddy is very angry and very powerful. She wants revenge for whatever it was that drove her to suicide, and she demands Sarah help.

This one was a bit of a mixed bag for me. There were certain things that I thought worked wonderfully. First and foremost, the haunting itself is really well done. The ghost of Maddy Clare really is quite scary, and the author succeeds in creating an extremely creepy atmosphere. I also liked Sarah very much. She is a woman who really does value her independence, even if it means that she has to scrimp and save. She's sensible and knows her own mind, and this manifests in a low-key way. Finally, I liked the setting, even if it was a bit shallow, more atmosphere than exploration of the world in the 20s (to be honest, this story could have been set in quite a few other time periods with a tiny number of adjustments).

There are several negatives, though. Much as I enjoyed the ghost story, I found myself very uncomfortable with the priorities of our ghost-hunters. The focus seemed to be a lot more on the threat from Maddy, and how to make the scary ghost go away, and not so much on what happened to her and making sure the culprits be made to pay for it. Those Maddy wanted revenge against were dangerous people; who's to say they wouldn't do the same thing to someone else? That doesn't seem to worry them particularly.

I was just as uncomfortable with the romance. It felt tacked on and unnecessary, with Sarah's love interest being paper-thin as a character. I was also quite disturbed by the rapey way in which it starts, especially considering what we're discovering at the same time about what happened to Maddy. It would have been a better book with that element pruned out.



A Secret Affair, by Mary Balogh

>> Saturday, July 05, 2014

TITLE: A Secret Affair
AUTHOR: Mary Balogh

PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Delacorte

SETTING: Early 19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 5th and last in the Huxtable series

Hannah Reid, born a commoner, has been Duchess of Dunbarton since she was nineteen years old, the wife of an elderly Royal to whom she is rumoured to be consistently and flagrantly unfaithful. Now the old Duke is dead and, more womanly and beautiful than ever at thirty, Hannah has her freedom at last. And she knows just what she wants to do with it. To the shock of a conventional friend, she announces her intention to take a lover - and not just any lover, but the most dangerous and delicious man in all of upper class England: Constantine Huxtable.

Constantine's illegitimacy has denied him the title of Earl, but otherwise he denies himself nothing. Lounging in a country house he populates with trollops, vagabonds and thieves, drinking deep from the goblet of his own carnal lust, he always chooses recent widows for his short-lived affairs. Hannah will fit the bill nicely. But once these two passionate and scandalous figures find each other, they discover it isn't so easy to extricate oneself from the fires of desire - without getting singed.

A Secret Affair is the closing book for the Huxtable quintet, and tells the story of one of the most intriguing characters in the series. These books came out a long time ago, and even those of you who read them might not remember the setup that well, so a bit of a summary. The previous books have told the stories of the four Huxtable siblings, an impoverished but genteel country family. They know they're distantly related to the titled branch of the family, but when the holder of the title dies, it unexpectedly turns out that Stephen is now the Earl of Merton.

The previous Earl, Jonathan, actually had an older brother, Constantine, from the same two parents. However, Constantine was born just a couple days before his parents got married, so he's technically illegitimate. Everyone assumes that Con must resent his younger brother and that his fondness for him can't be anything other than pretense. Obviously he's out to take advantage of the boy, who was born with what the reader will recognise as Down syndrome, so will be easy prey to an unscrupulous man.

Con has been presented with a bit of a mysterious "is he or isn't he?" slant in the previous books in the series, but we know from the start of this one that he adored his little brother. His reaction to the public distrust he experiences is basically to behave exactly as they would expect. He's still accepted in polite society, but he's got a bit of a dangerous reputation.

It is exactly that dangerous reputation that leads Hannah, the recently widowed Duchess of Dunbarton, to decide on Con as her first lover after the mourning period is over. Hannah's husband was much older than her, and that, plus the fact that she's constantly surrounded by admiring men, has meant that she's got a bit of a scandalous reputation herself.

Hannah's decision comes without much of an interest being expressed by Con himself. She basically targets him and goes after him, which was quite the role-reversal. Her determination is almost cold-blooded, in the way she very deliberately plays games with him. I was intrigued.

It's a strong start, but things become a bit more traditional after they become lovers. It's still a good, solid book, one with enjoyable characters, but I must admit, after that start, I was hoping for a bit more envelope-pushing. I had other niggles with it, like the amount of psychobabble, and the fact that there are way too many love scenes at the beginning, when they first become lovers (I ended up wishing for a fade to black, to be honest). It still ended up as a book I liked, but I did close it with a sense of slight disappointment.



Dying for Siena, by Elizabeth Jennings

>> Thursday, July 03, 2014

TITLE: Dying for Siena
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Jennings (aka Lisa Marie Rice)

PAGES: 315
PUBLISHER: Cerridwen Press

SETTING: Contemporary Italy (Siena)
TYPE: Mystery

Everything that can go wrong will go wrong. That just about sums up talented mathematician Faith Murphy's life. After a disastrous one-night stand with hockey heartthrob Nick Rossi, she flees to a conference in Siena, Italy. She expected her Boss from Hell, Roland Kane, to be unbearable. She wasn't expecting him to be dead. A head injury has destroyed Nick Rossi's hockey career. Maybe if he hadn't been devastated and drunk, he wouldn't have seduced Faith Murphy. By the time he realizes she might be the woman of his dreams, she's run off to Siena.

It's Palio season in Siena. The Palio, a no-holds-barred medieval horse race, has the whole city in a lather. Nick knows Siena like the back of his hand. He knows he can get Faith back if he follows her to Siena. But there's the little matter of suspicion of murder in the way… Cops don't have time for murder in Siena during Palio season. Police Commissario Dante Rossi finds it hard to focus on murder when there's a horse race to be won. But when his cousin Nick shows up in pursuit of a pretty American who's the prime suspect, all bets are off.

NOTE: Dying for Siena was recently republished with a different title, Murphy's Law, and under the author's Lisa Marie Rice name. According to the description on amazon, it's been "extensively rewritten" and is "much sexier and funnier".

I've had Dying for Siena in my TBR for years, even since I read LMR's Midnight series and immediately bought her entire backlist. When I heard she'd written some books as Elizabeth Jennings, I bought those too. I had heard that this one didn't have much romance in it, so it languished for several years. I decided to pick it up now purely because of the setting. I recently had a really lovely holiday in Tuscany, which included a visit to the wonderful Siena, and fancied another little visit.

The story actually starts in the US, when Faith Murphy wakes up in a very hungover Nick Rossi's bed. Actually, Nick is pretty much still falling-down drunk, and between that and the fact that he's having some issues with a head injury he got while playing hockey, he can't quite say Faith's name. Faith is offended. This isn't a stranger hook-up; Faith is a good friend of Nick's sister Lou's, and she socialises with the family frequently. She up and leaves (immediately after which, of course, her name finally drops off the tip of Nick's tongue).

A couple of days later, Faith is in Siena. She's a mathematician, and the head of her department has asked her to replace a colleague in a Quantitative Methods seminar. Since it was all very last-minute, Faith hasn't quite finished her preparations, but when she goes to the department head's room to request some supercomputer time for data-crunching, she finds him dead. Even worse, Faith initially thinks he's merely dead drunk, so she makes the mistake of accidentally touching the murder weapon while checking to see if he's ok.

In a not-particularly-convincing coincidence, it turns out that the detective in charge of investigating the case is Commissario Dante Rossi, who just happens to be Nick and Lou's cousin. The cousins are really close, to the point that they spent summers together growing up, and Nick still visits Siena every year at the time of one of the Palios. And when Nick hears what's going on from Dante, and that Faith is a suspect, he's off to Italy like a shot.

That setup does sound like the romance is on the forefront, but it really isn't. Nick does hang around, "helping" Dante with the investigation and trying to protect Faith, who's not particularly open to his overtures, but the focus really isn't on the romance. It's definitely much more of a mystery and a story of a woman whose life is finally getting really good, after years of being put down. Not to mention a story where the setting is almost a character on its own!

Faith could have come across as a bit of a put-upon character. She's been working in a relatively junior academic post, and her supervisor (the murder victim) has been very efficient at claiming the glory for the excellent work she's been doing. She's also been nursing a bit of a crush on Nick, while he goes around womanising and not sparing her a thought, other than as his sister's nice friend. Two things keep her from being a martyr, especially on the work front. First, she really resents the situation, and it's one where I thought it was believable she'd be powerless to change it. And second, we meet her just as things begin to change and opportunities emerge for her to get the appreciation she deserves. She grabs those opportunities with both hands and great relish. As for Nick, she still likes him, but she's not going to be a pushover, now that he's realised he actually cares about her. For starters, she's too busy enjoying her now turbo-charged career, and she makes him feel that.

Something I particularly liked was that the stuff Faith and her colleagues are working on really did sound like the sort of thing mathematicians would do, or at least, what they would have been getting excited about at the time this was written. Such a refreshing novelty, after all those romances where the only defining characteristic of a mathematician is that they can do complicated artithmetic in their heads!

The mystery itself is serviceable, rather than great, but I thoroughly enjoyed the way the investigation of it brought loads of humour into the book. A while ago, when I posted about rereading Woman on the Run, an early LMR, one of my frequent commenters mentioned that something she thought was missing in late LMRs was the humour that was present in earlier books. Well, Fernande, I think you'd like this one.

Dante and his men are responsible for a lot of the humour. Actually, Dante ends up being just as important a character as Faith and Nick, and I was charmed by him. He's really annoyed that he has to investigate this murder (foreigners, typical!) right when more important things are going on. The Palio is about to be ran, and his side finally, after so many years, have a real shot at winning. His thought processes are just beautiful. It's sly, witty and charming humour, and I loved it. Loiacono, the Sicilian inspector who assists Dante deserves a special mention. He is hilarious, with his overeagerness and insistence on behaving as if he was in the FBI, not to mention his over-the-top use of titles (I didn't realise that was a Southern thing, I thought it was just an Italian thing in general. It makes sense, we in Uruguay got mainly Southern Italian immigrants, and that results in people calling me "Economist MyLastName" whenever I vist!).

I think what I liked the most about this humour is how it's done with great and very clear fondness. Dante and Loiacono are not made into ridiculous characters, and neither is the Italian way of doing things excoriated or ridiculed. I believe LMR has spent a lot of time living in Italy, and it shows. Based on the narration, I'd guess she loves the place and the people and admires a lot about it, while seeing clearly that there are things that are a bit surreal.

Finally, I need to say something about the setting. It was like going back to Siena for a while, which is exactly what I wanted. I loved it. As I mentioned, the action takes place right before the Palio, the famous horse race that takes place twice a year there, and with which so many Sienese are completely obsessed. That was one of the things our guide told us when we were there: Siena is quite a touristy place, which might make you suspect they do a thing like the Palio mainly for the tourists, but he said that was very much not the case. He said that the Sienese really, really care about it, and winning the Palio basically gives very coveted bragging rights to particular 'contrade' (these are different areas of the city, which compete against each other in the Palio). If this book tells even half of it, they certainly do take it seriously. There was this really funny scene when the medical examiner comes in and Dante thinks that he's not just a colleague, he's also an enemy, because he is... a Turtle! Yep, some contrade have pretty fierce names (Panther, Dragon, Eagle), but there are also Goose, Caterpillar and Porcupine! And our manly-men Dante and Nick are Snails! I loved it. Romance is too full of Dukes of Falconridge; where are the snails?



June 2014 reads

>> Tuesday, July 01, 2014

My reading during the second half of this month has been woeful. I've spent most of my time watching football, reading about football and listening to football podcasts. The results can be seen below.

1 - The Kraken King Part VI: The Kraken King and the Crumbling Wall
The Kraken King Part VII: The Kraken King and the Empress'Eyes
The Kraken King Part VIII: The Kraken King and the Greatest Adventure
Grade for the book as a whole: A-

The last three parts in the Kraken King serial. They were a fitting end to a novel with truly excellent romance and adventure. I particularly like the way these two elements have combined to basically develop one another. The serial format? Mixed success. I liked the pause for thought, but found my rhythm disrupted by real life, more than it would have been if this had not been a serial. I might try another one, but I won't rush to do so.

2 - Bitter Kingdom, by Rae Carson: A-
review coming soon

Audiobook. Closes a fantasy trilogy which has been just amazing. Elisa's growth from a scared, powerless little mouse to an ruler comfortable with the exercise of her own power was fantastic.

3 - Dying for Siena, by Elizabeth Jennings: B+
review coming soon

This has just been republished (after apparently extensive rewriting) as Murphy's Law, under the author's Lisa Marie Rice name. It's a mystery with a little bit of romance. It has a mathematician heroine who really seems to do mathematician stuff (not just sums in her head) and is set in Siena during the Palio. I really enjoyed it and found it extremely funny.

4 - A Murder of Crows, by Anne Bishop: B-
review coming soon

This starts right where Written in Red left off, and concentrates on human plans to destroy the Others. It wasn't quite as absorbing as book 1 (way too many meetings, which strangely, weren't quite as gripping as Meg sorting the mail).

5 - Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez: still reading
review coming soon

I'm reading this in the original Spanish, so technically it should be El Amor En Los Tiempos del Cólera. It's the book for my book club next month, and I'm enjoying it very much. The man could definitely write!

6 - Sweet Disorder, by Rose Lerner: still reading
review coming soon

I love politics in historical romances. The heroine here is a widow in a marginal constituency. Her husband was able to vote, and the rules in the area allow her to transfer that vote to her husband, if she marries again. Both Tories and Whigs are after her, trying to get her to marry a candidate who'll vote for them. The hero is the brother of the Whig candidate. So far so good, I like Lerner's voice.


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