April 2016 wish list

>> Thursday, March 31, 2016

Not a lot of books next month. Either that or I need to find new places to look at for new releases.

Books I'm definitely planning to get

Fellside, by M.R. Carey (Apr 5)

I loved Carey's previous book, The Girl With All the Gifts. I've no idea if this one is set in the same world (from the description it doesn't sound like it is, but it's a bit cryptic), but I don't really care. I don't think I'll be reading any reviews and I look forward to discovering what it's about.

The Obsession, by Nora Roberts (Apr 12)

I'm still liking Nora Roberts' single title romantic suspense a little bit more than her latest trilogies, so I'll be giving this one a try. The plot sounds a little bit like The Witness, which I loved (actually, it was probably the last one I properly liked!).

'Til Death Do Us Part, by Amanda Quick (Apr 19)

Kind of us above. It's been a while since I've really enjoyed one of this author's books, but I'm still reading them and hoping for the best.

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

Lost Among the Living, by Simone St. James (Apr 5)

I really love the sound of St. James' 1920s-set, atmospheric and chilling books. I've got a couple on my TBR, so I'll probably wait till I read those before buying this one, but it sounds good.

The Murder of Mary Russell, by Laurie R. King (Apr 5)

I need to catch up with this series first, so I'm just noting this one (and my *gasp*... "Murder"?? reaction).


This Rough Magic, by Mary Stewart

>> Tuesday, March 29, 2016

TITLE: This Rough Magic
AUTHOR: Mary Stewart

PAGES: 254
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: 1960s Corfu
TYPE: Romantic Suspense

When Lucy Waring's sister Phyllida suggests that she join her for a quiet holiday on the island of Corfu, young English Lucy is overjoyed. Her work as an actress has temporarily come to a halt. She believes there is no finer place to be "at liberty" than the sun-drenched isle of Corfu, the alleged locale for Shakespeare's The Tempest. Even the suspicious actions of the handsome, arrogant son of a famous actor cannot dampen her enthusiasm for this wonderland in the Ionian Sea.

But the peaceful idyll does not last long. A series of incidents, seemingly unconnected - but all surrounded in mystery - throws Lucy's life into a dangerous spin, as fear, danger and death - as well as romance - supplant the former tranquility. Then a human corpse is carried ashore on the incoming tide... And without warning, she found she had stumbled into a nightmare of strange violence, stalked by shadows of terror and sudden death.
This was a bit of a revelation. I read a few of Mary Stewart's classics about 10 years ago and (with a single exception) liked them a lot. I found them atmospheric and fun, but I didn't quite get why people would absolutely adore these books. Well, I think I do now. Looks like I've finally reached the right point in my life for them, a bit like with the Vorkosigan books.

The setup is Stewart's usual "English heroine having adventures in exotic location". Fledgling actress Lucy Waring is between jobs, after her latest play folded abruptly in London. At loose ends, she accepts her sister's invitation to join her in Corfu for a few weeks. Lucky Lucy, her sister is married to a very rich Italian businessman whose family has had property in Corfu for many generations, so there's a lovely villa in a beautiful seaside location for her to stay in rent-free.

Lucy soon becomes embroiled in the life of the neighbourhood. This, most excitingly, includes the renowned actor Sir Julian Gale, who has been in seclusion after a family tragedy. This seclusion continues in Corfu and is guarded by his stand-offish son Max, whose first interaction with Lucy doesn't go too well. There's also Godfrey Manning, a photographer who's become friends with Lucy's sister, as well as a small group of locals who work for the foreigners. There's Maria, whose husband has been missing for years, presumed stuck in Albania (I didn't quite realise before starting this just how close these two places are). There's her two teenaged children, Spiro and Miranda, named by Sir Julian, who's their godfather. There's also their beautiful friend Adonis, whose name Lucy struggles with until he laughingly suggests she uses the local pronunciation of the name.

Trouble starts with an accidental drowning, closely followed by another one. Both are explainable on their own, but something is not quite right, and Lucy is soon mixed up in some very mysterious goings on.

This was wonderful fun. There's a suspense plot that makes sense and is entertaining. The identity of the villain isn't a huge mystery, but it's not meant to be. It's all in the figuring out of why and of how he can be stopped. I particularly loved that Lucy is an active, sensible participant in this investigation, and she's extremely brave. That said, the ending wasn't perfect. The final confrontation was fine, but felt a little bit anticlimactic, because Stewart had been building and building and building the tension, leading me to expect a magnificent, dramatic 'boom' moment, but it didn't quite deliver. Still, it worked perfectly fine.

There's a lovely bit of romance. No romance reader can look at my description and fail to guess that Max is going to be the man for Lucy. From that first encounter, I thought at first he was going to be one of those cruel, punishing heroes so popular at the time (really, really not my cup of tea), but he wasn't. He turned out to be much more to my taste than expected. And of course, it helps that Lucy is a strong, capable heroine who doesn't put up with any crap from anyone.

There's also the setting, which was fabulous. The location itself comes alive, but there's also a fair bit of geopolitics and a vivid sense of time and place. This was written in the mid-60s, and the sense of Corfu being at the crossroads of the fight between the West and the communist world is striking. The snowy peaks of Albania loom over much of the action, and I loved that.

Another thing I liked was how the Corfiot characters were important and had a life of their own. The reason I picked this one up now was a comment Susanna Kearsley left on my review of the first book in Nora Roberts' latest trilogy. There I complained that, although the book was set in Corfu, there was not one named Greek character. Susanna suggested This Rough Magic as a sort of antidote, and it definitely was that. Spiro, Miranda, Adonis, Maria and several others were real people, with their own interests apart from the lives of the foreigners. Lucy's narration was a touch condescending on one or two occasions, so it wasn't perfect, although she dealt with them as people, and people she liked and respected. Definitely a lot better than the Nora Roberts book!

I thoroughly enjoyed this. I think I'll be digging up my Mary Stewart collection over the next few months. The only disappointment is that they don't seem to be available as audiobooks. As I was reading This Rough Magic it struck me they would be absolutely perfect in that format. But no, audible only seems to have the Merlin books, and even my library system, which still has a fair few CDs and even cassettes, has nothing. Someone please get on this quick!


PS - I have said nothing about the dolphin! I loved the dolphin! :)


The Story of Alice, by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

>> Saturday, March 19, 2016

TITLE: The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and The Secret History of Wonderland
AUTHOR: Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

PAGES: 497

SETTING: 19th century England
TYPE: Non-Fiction

This is the secret history of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Wonderland is part of our cultural heritage. But beneath the fairy tale lies the complex history of the author and his subject. Charles Dodgson was a quiet academic but his second self, Lewis Carroll, was a storyteller, innovator and avid collector of ‘child-friends’. Carroll’s imagination was to give Alice Liddell, his 'dream-child', a fictional alter ego that would never let her grow up.

This is a biography that beautifully unravels the magic of Alice. It is a history of love and loss, innocence and ambiguity. It is the story of one man’s need to make a Wonderland in a changing world.
I read (or attempted to read) this for my book club. We wanted to choose a biography and the shortlists for the Costa Book Awards had just come out, so we picked one from there. This one sounded interesting to most people, so we went with it.

As the title indicates, this is the story of Alice in Wonderland. It's the story of the book, but also of its author and of the girl that inspired it.

I did not get on with it at all and neither did my fellow book clubers... so much so that we had to cancel the meeting because there really wasn't a quorum.

My main problem was that I found the author's style incredibly annoying. I felt he read much too much into the most minor details. He would draw really fanciful conclusions that weren't reasonable or plausible. Even worse: he would present them in an overly assured way. It's hard to convey just how preposterous it all was, so probably best to let Douglas-Fairhurst himself do the work for me. I'll give you just a couple of random examples, but I can assure you, there are bits like this in practically every page.

Speculating about why Carroll zeroed in so much on Alice Lidell (the young girl, daughter of the college's Dean, to whom Carroll told the proto version of the story):

"...in any case there were plenty of other things about Alice that Carroll would have found attractive. She was born on 4 May 1852, a year which happened to fall exactly halfway between the first recorded uses of ‘nonsense poetry’ (1851) and the adjective ‘no-nonsense’ (1853), and if the close conjunction of those phrases neatly sums up a much larger struggle in the Victorian imagination, between a sensible but rather straitened approach to life and a much zanier alternative, it also hints at the mixture of qualities in Carroll’s potential new friend."
I'm sorry, but WTF? He goes on later in that section:

"Clearly Alice Liddell’s personality was a significant attraction, as was her proximity in Christ Church, which made her friendship convenient as well as genuinely enticing. [OK, that kind of makes sense...] But another and much simpler reason may have been her name.

Some years later Carroll invented the word game Doublets, in which players were supposed to turn one word into another, making the dead live (DEAD, lead, lend, lent, lint, line, LIVE) or mice rats (MICE, mite, mate, mats, RATS). Transforming ALICE LIDDELL into LEWIS CARROLL, or performing the same trick the other way round, is impossible without falling into gobbledygook, although meeting someone whose name had the same shape may still have appealed to a writer who only a few weeks earlier had published ‘Solitude’."
Huh? Do you see why I found myself so annoyed by this crap?

I was also uncomfortable with how the author dealt with the controversial issue here, which is the nature of Carroll's relationship with Alice Lidell. He was clearly drawn to children, especially young, pre-pubescent girls, to an extent which is very disturbing and creepy to the modern reader. People seem to take all sorts of positions on the issue, from thinking it was all innocent and simply a product of a man who was a bit socially awkward, to assuming full-blown paedophilia (interpretations closer to the latter end of the spectrum seem supported by the fact that Carroll's family members cut out and destroyed several pages of his diary which seem clearly to be about the relationship in question). I have no idea where on this spectrum I am, mainly due to ignorance of the subject, and this book didn't particularly help dispel that. Douglas-Fairhurst seems to mostly be on the "innocent" part of the spectrum, but rather than convince me, the way he would twist himself into knots trying to argue this made me suspicious.

In this section, he speculates on something Alice's sister Ina says about a time when Carroll distanced himself from the Lidells:
"Looking back on events in 1930, Ina told Alice that the biographer Florence Becker Lennon had asked her why Carroll stopped coming to the Deanery. ‘I think she tried to see if Mr. Dodgson ever wanted to marry you!!’ Ina wrote, with a double exclamation mark that perhaps indicated how ridiculous the idea was, or alternatively how close Lennon had come to stumbling upon the truth. Her next letter to her sister was equally ambiguous. ‘I said his manner became too affectionate to you as you grew older and that mother spoke to him about it,’ she explained, ‘and that offended him so he ceased coming to visit us again, as one had to find some reason for all intercourse ceasing.’ But this could indicate either that ‘his manner became too affectionate towards you’ (i.e. he behaved inappropriately), or ‘his manner became too affectionate towards you’ (i.e. I was jealous of the attention you were getting, or glad that you were attracting it rather than me). Even her final comment that ‘Mr. Dodgson used to take you on his knee. I know I did not say that!’ is not straightforward. Was she reminding Alice of a childhood secret they had shared, or complaining that Lennon had tried to put words into her mouth?"
Sorry, but what about "as you grew older" bit on the accusation that Carroll's manner towards Alice became too affectionate? That seems obvious that it wasn't the second interpretation.

And then there's this:

"Mrs Liddell might have been even more nervous if she had read Carroll’s diary entry after his final boat trip with her daughters: ‘A pleasant expedition,’ he wrote, ‘with a very pleasant conclusion.’ Was this a kiss? And if so, was it a ceremony conducted with the chaste solemnity of the Dodo giving Alice a thimble, or was it just a spontaneous muddle of mouths?"
This bit combines all I disliked about this book. How the hell do you go from Carroll saying the expedition had a "pleasant conclusion" to interpreting this means that the conclusion involved a kiss? And "spontaneous muddle of mouths"? Euwwww!! This is a little girl we're talking about!

I pushed through almost to the halfway point, but when it became clear there wasn't going to be much of a discussion at book club, I gave up.



Alice in Italy

>> Tuesday, March 15, 2016

TITLE: Wonderment In Death (from Down the Rabbit Hole anthology)

I decided to read this while I was struggling with a Lewis Carroll biography for my book club (probably not a coincidence). Eve investigates an apparent murder-suicide, which we readers know was orchestrated by a killer using mind-control techniques and more than a few drugs. Eve looks under the surface and realises something else was going on, and that whoever was responsible has a bit of an obsession with Alice in Wonderland.

This was ok. The Alice connections were fun, and it was a nice glimpse of the characters we know and love. Unfortunately, this short story suffered from the same issue as the previous ones, and that is that paranormal stuff does exist in the world of the short stories, but this doesn't translate into the world of the novels. That feels just wrong.

This short story comes in an anthology with three others, but I didn't read any of those. I've tried the authors before and they don't work for me at all. No point wasting my time. I do wish I'd known that if I waited a while I'd be able to purchase just the Robb story in e!


TITLE: The Dark Heart of Italy
AUTHOR: Tobias Jones

The Dark Heart of Italy is about the country Jones discovered when he moved there in the late 90s. He looks beyond the glamorous, beautiful façade the tourist will see. What Jones is interested in is what life is really like in Italy for those who live there. He covers a wide range of topics, and this is basically a collection of essays, each very different in both tone and content. Jones has added a final paragraph to each of them that that links it to the next one, but that often feels a bit shoehorned in.

I enjoyed most of this. It didn't start great: a couple of chapters at the beginning were about the anni di piombo, or "years of lead", the period when the struggle between the fascists and the left got really heated, to the point of terrorist attacks and atempted coups. Those should have been really interesting, but the way they were written, with much too much detail on the legal proceedings, made them stultifying. Other chapters were much better. Those tended to be the ones where he looked into the way Italians are and tries to understand it. Particular favourites were the chapters on Italian football, television and Catholicism. Those felt pretty insightful.

The title suggests something the book is not... well, not really. He does look at the dark and ugly, but he clearly loves the country and its people, and that shines through. The tone is often not of aggressive criticism, more of bemused fondness.



The Others series (books 1-3), by Anne Bishop

>> Sunday, March 13, 2016

Anne Bishop's most recent series is set in an alternate version of our reality, one in which humans share the planet with beings they call The Others and who call themselves the Terra Indigene. We discover some of the many different varieties of Terra Indigene through the series, and there are many, but in general they are beings of great power and much closer to nature than humans. Some of them can shapeshift into human forms, and this is how they interact with the species they see as greedy and invasive and troublesome.

Humans developed in parts of the continent which in this universe would be roughly equivalent to Europe (I think!). A few centuries before the start of these books they evolved technology to the point where they could travel across the ocean to what would correspond to our North America, which was where they encountered the Others. The first few colonies they tried to establish were easily wiped out by the Terra Indigene, who had no intention of sharing their land with them. However, later wannabe settlers were able to negotiate an agreement. The Terra Indigene found some of the technologies the humans had had to develop to compensate for their lack of power and lack of connection with nature quite useful, so they traded. In exchange for providing the Terra Indigene with their clever inventions, humans would be allowed areas to settle in and establish cities and towns, as well as access to food and raw materials they could trade for.

Over the centuries, this arrangement has worked, albeit with many tensions. Neither side trusts the other, and they don't really interact much, so each side knows very little about the other. This despite the existence of "Courtyards" inside every city, enclaves where Terra Indigene live and keep an eye on humans to police the agreements between the two sides.

The books centre around precisely one of those Courtyards, that in the city of Lakeside, where a woman called Meg Corbyn finds refuge. Meg is human, but a very special kind of human. She is a blood prophet, which means she sees extremely accurate visions when her skin is cut. These visions can be directed through questioning, which makes them very useful. Meg grew up a prisoner in a place where many of her kind were kept under close control and their prophetic abilities sold to the highest bidder. Want to know what the biggest risk to your business is in the next few months? Pay for a cut to be made to a blood prophet's skin and the right question to be asked.

Meg was able to escape, however, and made it to the city of Lakeside, where she ended up in the Courtyard. Fortunately for her, this particular courtyard is a pretty special one, one where the Terra Indigene have set out to learn more about humans. To do this they have opened a few businesses where humans are allowed to come in, and Meg ends up being hired as Human Liaison / mail clerk, and adopted by the Terra Indigene, who see her as different from the other horrid humans.

Now, usually I would write a separate review for each of these books, but having read the first three now, that didn't seem particularly necessary. It's true that each book has its own plot, to an extent. The first one has "The Controller", the guy in charge of the institution from which Meg escaped, trying to find her and bring her back. The next two are more focused on the bigger-picture tensions between the Terra Indigene and humans: in book 2 the danger is a kind of drug created to target the Terra Indigene, in the third it's a human-supremacist group trying to fan hatred. However, for all that each book has some closure for these plots, the broader story feels like it continues through all three books.

There's Meg's efforts to understand her powers and how they work and to keep them from destroying her. The way the whole blood prophecy thing works is a bit more complex than I described earlier. Cuts generate euphoria, so cutting becomes addictive. Many a blood prophet has lost her mind after a few years (the general consensus seems to be that prophets get a thousand cuts before their minds go). That's obviously not a great prospect to look forward to, and throughout the series Meg, with the help of the Terra Indigene and the "human pack" she develops in the Courtyard, learns more about what she can do and how to do it safely.

There's also Meg's adaptation to the outside world, which is a major feature in book 1 but continues in later books as well. Blood prophets are kept isolated from the real world, learning about it only through image albums which help them put their prophecies into words. When they leave that controlled environment (and as the series develops, many more do), the real world overwhelms them. So Meg must learn how to function without breaking down and how to help others do so.

And of course, there's Meg's relationship with Simon Wolfgard (and I'm surprised at myself that I haven't mentioned him earlier in this post, as Simon and Meg are basically the main characters in the series, even if they're not the only POV characters!). Simon is a Wolf, and he owns the Courtyard's book shop, into which Meg stumbles that first day. There's something about Meg that doesn't trigger Simon's usual distaste for humans, and they become good friends. Simon is very much not a human, no matter how much he looks like one when in his human shape, so their relationship doesn't follow human patterns, and is as much a learning experience for him as it is for Meg. It's also not really (not completely?) a romantic relationship. Well, it's kind of weird, because parts of it feel like one, but not quite. It's hard to describe, and really has to be experienced. It's really interesting, anyway.

And in addition to the character stuff, the big picture developments very much carry through the series, slowly building and changing. The relations between Terra Indigene and humans become worse and worse, something that our protagonists try to mitigate through the deepening relationships between the inhabitants of the Courtyard and an increasing cast of humans who see that if humanity tries to go head to head with the Others, they're basically screwed.

So I've written a bit of a treatise here, but not very much about what I think of the series, really! Do I like it? Well, yes, but. None of the elements work perfectly, and there are (many, many) flaws and things I find annoying. But I still find this addictive. Basically, I find this world and these people absorbing and fascinating and weirdly comforting to read about. Bishop's got the sort of writing style that makes you sink into a story. It really is strange. A big part of book 1, particularly, is spent following Meg around as she basically learns how to live a normal life. That means a lot of time spent with her sorting mail. And I loved it.

The world I find pretty much as intriguing as I find it disturbing. For starters, I'm not sure if I should read the Terra Indegene as Native North Americans. If I do, it's disturbing because it feels uncomfortably close to the Magical Indian stereotype. If I don't, then it means the entire existence of Native Americans has been erased, which feels even more disturbing.

I also find myself very bothered by the attitude of the Terra Indigene, especially Simon, to humans. Humans other than Meg are called derogatory names ('monkeys', which feels a bit too close to real world racism towards black people), and basically seen as potential food ('clever meat', they actually call humans). The Terra Indigene are very clear that humans are inferior, and really, it often feels like so does the narrative. Although we're periodically told that there are also some bad Terra Indigene, all the villains in this series are human. The lack of empathy to humans does evolve, though, and in later books Simon and others are much better able to see things from the point of view of humans, at least the ones they like.

Really, though, for all that I enjoyed being in this world, it feels like it doesn't bear deep thinking about it. The actions of the evil humans feel a bit unbelievable, too eeeeevil, and other than our small minority of good humans, the rest are like sheep, either willing to swallow anything or not wanting to get involved (hmm, well....).

The imbalance between the power of humans and the Terre Indigene is interesting. At first sight, it shouldn't work. Bishop has made her Terre Indigene so powerful that it is obvious this is not a contest humans have a prayer of winning. So how does she even have a plot and generate a sense of danger and tension? Well, part of it is a bit of handwaving. There's a character who becomes important in the second and third books, a motivational speaker who has huge influence on humans and uses it to create hatred against the Others. Considering how casual the Terre Indigene feel about human lives, it doesn't make sense that they don't just send someone to kill him. It would be extremely easy and easily made to look like natural causes. But they don't, and it makes no sense. On the positive side, though, the main tool Bishop uses to create tension is making it clear that the danger of the situation is to humans. The Terra Indigene will be fine (even if a handful of individuals die), it's humanity in general and the group of humans who are the Courtyard's 'human pack' in particular who are in danger. It works.

In terms of the characterisation, there are several annoyances. Meg is portrayed as childishly innocent and this is equated with purity and goodness. And the other thing that annoys me is the weird cutesiness that permeates the series. A lot of these books is pretty dark, what with what's going on in the world and the violence we see first-hand quite often, but this is mixed in with instances of whimsy that don't really fit in well with the characters or the tone. Even the names of the shops in the Courtyard, like Howling Good Reads and A Little Bite (a café). Am I really supposed to believe Simon and Tess (a truly scary being) named them that?

And yet, all this feels minor in terms of my enjoyment. I keep reading and liking, if not every minute, most of them.


Written in Red: B+

A Murder of Crows: B

Vision in Silver: B-


Don't Get Me Wrong, by Marianne Kavanagh

>> Friday, March 11, 2016

TITLE: Don't Get Me Wrong
AUTHOR: Marianne Kavanagh

PAGES: 336
PUBLISHER: Atria/Emily Bestler Books

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: Chick Lit / Romance

For fans of Jojo Moyes, David Nicholls, and Sophie Kinsella, here is a Pride and Prejudice for the modern era: Londoners Kim and Harry can’t see eye to eye... until the life of the person they both love most hangs in the balance.

Kim and Harry are total opposites who happen to have the same favorite people in the world: Kim’s older sister, Eva, and her young son, Otis. Kim has never seen what her free-spirited big sister sees in a stuck-up banker like Harry and has spent her childhood trying to keep him out (must he always drive the most ostentatious cars and insist on charming everyone he meets?), while Harry’s favorite occupation is provoking Kim.

Both Harry and Kim are too stuck in their prejudices to care about what’s really going on beneath the surface of each other’s lives. They’ll never understand each other—until the worst of all tragedy strikes. Faced with the possibilities of losing the person they both love most, long-buried secrets come to a head in ways that will change both Harry and Kim forever.

As in her “hilarious, poignant, and profound” (Daily Mail) novel For Once in My Life, Marianne Kavanagh tackles the bonds of family, friendship, and love through sophisticated storytelling. Don’t Get Me Wrong is a witty and heartwarming book that will charm readers everywhere.
Kim adores her older sister Eva, but she can't stand her best friend Harry, who's always hanging around when she wants some sister time. Harry is everything Kim despises: he's smooth and sophisticated and a rich banker, who's able to help Eva in ways Kim just can't. Everything he does seems designed to annoy Kim, and worst of all, he always comes out looking like the kind, reasonable one and she like an irrational shrew.

And then tragedy strikes, and Kim and Harry finally have to communicate.

The idea of this one really appealed to me... well, mostly the marketing did. I love Jojo Moyes, David Nicholls and Sophie Kinsella, and the sort of Pride and Prejudice plot that was promised seemed to be right up my street. It just didn't work. The book was baggy and directionless, and I found myself really, really annoyed by it.

My main problem was that I had issues with the politics of the book. Right from the beginning, Kim spouts opinions on things like vegetarianism, climate change, the value to society of investment bankers that are in essence actually quite close to my own. But Kavanagh makes her shrill and silly and oblivious and rude, not to mention humourless and clearly wrong, which annoyed me. Meanwhile, smug, charming, investment banker toff Harry is all conciliatory and lovely and it’s clear we readers are meant to be on his side.

It turns out the whole book is like that. All the lefties are hypocrites. Well, Kim isn’t, really, but she’s pretty stupid. And her first boyfriend Jake and the whole homeless charity they work for and all their friends through it turn out to be awful, basically spending all their time and effort bigging themselves up and screwing over other people. There is not one character who espouses left-wing political views that is a good person.

Meanwhile, all the investment bankers, from Harry to all his friends, and the one businessman character, are all lovely, sweet people. There’s Harry, who turns out to be practically a saint. There’s his ex girlfriend Titania, who's kind and really sweet. There’s the typical public schoolboy Giles, who turns out to be really decent. There’s Syed, who’s flawed, but like them, is kind and nice and it’s clear Kavanagh is fully on their side. There’s even a random ex colleague of Harry’s Kim meets in Newcastle. All lovely.

The relationship between Kim and Harry did not work for me either, not at all. Kim’s dislike is all based on misunderstandings that could have been cleared up in a 5 minute conversation... actually, they ARE cleared up in a 5 minute conversation, only 8 years too late. It was 8 years’ worth of suffering (really! the whole thing basically makes Kim hugely unhappy every minute she spends with her sister) for nothing. And actually, I had trouble believing that Eva, who knew what was going on, would never sit Kim down for a minute and tell her what was what. Instead, she was all vague and floaty and annoying. I think I was supposed to be oh-so-happy at the end, when they spoke. I was annoyed instead.

I was also particularly annoyed by how Kim was a total pushover with people who were completely awful to her. Her mother is the worst. Every now and then there are sections which are conversations with her mother, but only showing the mother’s part of the dialogue, and they are fucking painful. The woman is over-the-top and unbelievably deluded and selfish. Kim is aware of this, and she does acknowledge it in other conversations, but she never stands up to her. I lost a lot of respect for Kim over this, and there wasn’t much respect left to begin with. And whatever small portion was left after that was lost during her conversations with Jake, which followed the same pattern. Fucking doormat. Except with Harry, of course. She was all prickly with Harry.

Finally, I had some issues with the writing. The POV switches weren't handled very well. They were confusing, particularly the way it was mostly written in third person but often switched for long periods to first-person when portraying Kim thoughts. It was a bit disconcerting. The writing in general was also very unsubtle, and not just when making any sort of social or political point.

Not good!



Die Again, by Tess Gerritsen

>> Wednesday, March 09, 2016

TITLE: Die Again
AUTHOR: Tess Gerritsen

PAGES: 353
PUBLISHER: Ballantine

SETTING: Contemporary US and Southern Africa
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: 11th in the Rizzoli / Isles series

Detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles are back—and they’re going into the wild to find a killer. Die Again is the latest heart-pounding thriller in Tess Gerritsen’s bestselling series, the inspiration behind TNT’s hit show Rizzoli & Isles.

When Boston homicide detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles are summoned to a crime scene, they find a killing worthy of the most ferocious beast—right down to the claw marks on the corpse. But only the most sinister human hands could have left renowned big-game hunter and taxidermist Leon Gott gruesomely displayed like the once-proud animals whose heads adorn his walls. Did Gott unwittingly awaken a predator more dangerous than any he’s ever hunted?

Maura fears that this isn’t the killer’s first slaughter, and that it won’t be the last. After linking the crime to a series of unsolved homicides in wilderness areas across the country, she wonders if the answers might actually be found in a remote corner of Africa.

Six years earlier, a group of tourists on safari fell prey to a killer in their midst. Marooned deep in the bush of Botswana, with no means of communication and nothing but a rifle-toting guide for protection, the terrified tourists desperately hoped for rescue before their worst instincts—or the wild animals prowling in the shadows—could tear them apart. But the deadliest predator was already among them, and within a week, he walked away with the blood of all but one of them on his hands.

Now this killer has chosen Boston as his new hunting ground, and Rizzoli and Isles must find a way to lure him out of the shadows and into a cage. Even if it means dangling the bait no hunter can resist: the one victim who got away.
It's become a bit of a tradition of mine to save the latest Rizzoli and Isles novel by Tess Gerritsen to listen to on my early morning walks while on holiday, as soon as I get to Punta del Este. For some strange reason, I find these two experiences the perfect combination.

The book starts out in Botswana, where our narrator, Millie, and her asshat boyfriend are on a week-long photography safari. Millie is not happy. She's not particularly enjoying the experience, and her boyfriend's behaviour (constantly putting her down, flirting with the pretty South African blondes who are part of the expedition) makes it clear their relationship is not going to last very long. She can't wait for it to be over.

And then things get worse: they wake up one morning to find one of their guides dead, apparently eaten by wild animals. Some in the group (read: asshat boyfriend) argue they should continue the trip (the guy is dead anyway, right?). But they can't even do that, because their vehicle won't start. They have no way to communicate with the outside, so all they can do is wait there for a few days, until their pilot alerts the authorities they haven't turned up where expected. And then that night another one of the group is killed, apparently by animals.

The action moves between the travails of the safari group and Boston, where Jane and Maura are investigating the death of a big-game hunter who was found hung on a hook in his own house, just as if he was one of the big animals he himself hunted. And this is not the only suspicious death related to this guy.

This was one of the better books in the series. I was really intrigued by the cases. I couldn't wait to find out was really going on in each of them, but also to find out how they were connected. The bit on the safari was particularly good. Gerritsen managed to create a cast of characters for that section that really came alive and felt real, and more than once I kept thinking about them after I'd finished my walk and had put down my mp3 player. Millie, particularly, was an excellent heroine, and I just couldn't wait to find out what would happen to her and the guide, Johnny. I was really invested in that relationship. I came up with many, many hypotheses, none of which turned out to be right!

The only false step in the suspense came when Gerritsen started bringing in ancient cults and spirit animals and murder rituals and that sort of thing. Fortunately, that's something that turned out not to be a particularly big element, and I was really satisfied with the conclusion of all the different threads. All the solutions fit perfectly, and the killer's motivations, both for the murders and for some of his other actions, made complete sense.

These books also always have some drama going on in our characters' private lives, and just as in the previous book, here we've got quite a bit on the drama between Rizzoli’s mother and asshole father. Now, I was really, really engaged in this in the previous book (see my rant in the previous review). Basically, Frank Rizzoli left his wife Angela for a younger woman. She was devastated but recovered and met a man who treated her well, unlike her chauvinist pig of a husband. But the dog in the manger syndrome kicked in (plus, the other woman got sick of the bastard), and he decided he wanted his wife back, and everything to go back to how it was before. With the help of Jane’s brothers (chauvinist pigs in training) and their Catholic priest, he put the pressure on Angela to take him back. That was the state of affairs on the previous book. We were left hanging without a resolution, and I was looking forward to seeing how it had been resolved when I started this. Well, the whole mess is still going on, and Gerritsen really is dragging it a much too long. I’m tired of the whole sorry mess. She really needs to sort it out soon.



My Favorite Countess, by Vanessa Kelly

>> Monday, March 07, 2016

TITLE: My Favorite Countess
AUTHOR: Vanessa Kelly

PAGES: 352

SETTING: 19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 3rd in the Stanton family series

She is difficult, demanding, and at times, quite fierce. And Dr. John Blackmore can't take his eyes off her. The Countess of Randolph is the most striking woman he has ever seen... and the most infuriating patient he has ever tended.

Mired in responsibility, Bathsheba doesn't have time to convalesce in the country. She should be in London, hunting for a wealthy new lover to pay off her late husband's vast debts, not dallying with a devastatingly handsome doctor.

But it is only a matter of time until the good doctor and the obstinate countess will have to contend with the sparks that fly between them. And once their bodies surrender, their hearts may follow...
This was a random pick from my digital TBR (truly random, as in using calibre and a random number generator). I can see why I bought it originally; it's got one of my favourite tropes: the heroine who was the villain in a previous book.

Bathsheba, Countess of Randolph, is in a position that becomes more difficult every day. Since her husband's death the financial situation of the estate, never a good one to start with, keeps getting worse. The new Earl is useless, and now it appears that he might be getting married, and to a woman who does not have much fondness for Bathsheba. Bathsheba's position in society is pretty much based on his good will, so this could quickly become untenable. There's not just Bathsheba herself to consider, but her sister, Rachel, who is in really poor health after a bad fever a few years earlier.

Bathsheba needs to find a rich, society husband, and soon. She's been trying for a while (in fact, the reason why she was the villain in a previous book was because she was trying to blackmail her lover -the hero of that book- into marrying her), but now she needs to get serious. No matter how attractive she finds Dr. John Blackmore and how attractive he finds her, he's not a suitable candidate.

There were some good things here. John is a real, working doctor, and he works in an urban hospital, where he constantly has to struggle with the authorities to be able to provide good treatment to the poorest patients. There is a good sense in the story of the clash between the more conservative establishment, who feel poor people don't deserve their time and that pregnant women should be treated like children, and John and his younger colleagues, who have views much more palatable to the 21st century reader (not sure if those attitudes were realistic, but well). I also liked the way John saw beyond Bathsheba's superficial, bitchy façade and assumed she would care about the sorts of things that he cared about. That was nice.

The book as a whole didn't quite work though. First, it suffers from an artificial conflict. I didn't quite get why John wasn't a suitable candidate for Bathsheba. He's not hugely rich, but it was clear to me that he could have supported Bathsheba and provided her sister with good medical care (especially with him being a doctor!). It's not really explained; it's just kind of self-evident that Bathsheba needs a nobleman. There might have been good reasons for that... she wants to live a life of much more comfortable wealth, she would like the status of being married to a nobleman..., but none of those were established in the narrative as being Bathsheba's motivations. In fact, what we're told is that she wants to be able to take care of her sister, and that this is her main motivation. Every time she would go about how she needed to resist her attraction to John I just kept going "Ehh... why?".

Actually, Bathsheba wasn't a particularly well-realised character at all. In addition to the above, her bitchiness, which is something I'm quite well-disposed to in a heroine, didn't quite work for me. It felt kind of forced, not like what the sort of person we were being told she was would do.

Add to this a final quarter which spent a lot of time on a truly pointless "danger" subplot, and this wasn't a big success for me.



Little Black Lies, by Sharon Bolton

>> Saturday, March 05, 2016

TITLE: Little Black Lies
AUTHOR: Sharon Bolton

PAGES: 496
PUBLISHER: Minotaur Books

SETTING: Falkland Islands, 1994
TYPE: Mystery

In such a small community as the Falkland Islands, a missing child is unheard of. In such a dangerous landscape it can only be a terrible tragedy, surely...

When another child goes missing, and then a third, it's no longer possible to believe that their deaths were accidental, and the villagers must admit that there is a murderer among them. Even Catrin Quinn, a damaged woman living a reclusive life after the accidental deaths of her own two sons a few years ago, gets involved in the searches and the speculation.

And suddenly, in this wild and beautiful place that generations have called home, no one feels safe and the hysteria begins to rise.

But three islanders -Catrin, her childhood best friend, Rachel, and her ex-lover Callum- are hiding terrible secrets. And they have two things in common: all three of them are grieving, and none of them trust anyone, not even themselves.

In Little Black Lies, her most shocking and engaging suspense novel to date, Sharon Bolton will keep the reader guessing until the very last page.
I've read Bolton before and liked what I read, but I have to say, I picked this one up almost 100% for the setting. Little Black Lies is set in the Falkland Islands in 1994. Having grown up right next door to Argentina, this is a part of the world that has always intrigued me, particularly since I'm old enough to have some vague memories of the war (I still vividly remember the cover of the Argentinian 'Gente' magazine claiming "We're winning", and when I started school in 1983 people were still talking about the kids from the Falklands who'd studied in my school). So yeah, I one-clicked this one as soon as I read the description.

First of all, I should warn readers that if bad stuff happening to children is a no-go area for you in a book, then you might want to stay away from it. Because there is quite a lot of that.

The book starts right after a child has disappeared. Another child. The third child in a couple of years. One child is a tragedy, two is worrying, but three is downright suspicious. Most of the islanders can't seem to break out of the "that sort of thing simply doesn't happen here” attitude, but it's clear something is going on. But the story is not so much about the disappearance, but about this causing things to come to a head in the relationships between our three main characters: Catrin, Rachel and Callum.

There is a lot going on here, and a lot of history between our characters. It's three years after the death of Catrin's two children, and she hasn't been able to recover at all. She still blames the person responsible for the accident that killed them, her then-best friend Rachel. In fact, we find out very early that she's preparing to take her revenge on her on the anniversary of the death. The disappearance and all that happens as a result throw those plans into turmoil. There's also Callum, a former paratrooper who fought in the war and decided to stay. He and Catrin have a history, but after her children's death she withdrew from him completely.

We see the action from the points of view of these three characters in turn. I was a bit doubtful at first (I guess I was really invested in Catrin and her worldview and was jarred by the POV suddenly moving to someone else), but it really works wonderfully to keep the reader guessing and mistrusting each of the three without resorting to fully unreliably narrator (that can feel awfully like cheating to me). I had several theories, but all of them had to be discarded. I was so proud of them, too, because it felt like I was getting one over Bolton, but in hindsight, she played me like a fiddle. I was cleverly and proudly deducing my way into exactly the wrong theories she wanted me to believe. When the conclusion came, it was completely satisfying and made complete sense.

The characters were as good as the mystery. They felt real, like flawed but still decent human beings, and their relationships felt right for the context and the subject matter. There is a bit of romance but it feels appropriate, not easy when a book is as dark as this one.

And the other element I loved was the setting. It was vivid and I felt it had a huge influence on the plot and relationships. This story couldn't just have been set anywhere else. It couldn't even have been set in any other small, insular community, not when that community wouldn't have had the memory of a war quite so close, or that feeling of being British and yet so far away from Britain. I haven't been to the Falklands, so obviously I can't say whether the setting is realistic, but it felt plausible, and I enjoyed the hell out of it.

And there was a final little bonus in the ending. I don’t want to give it away, but I was thinking “Oh, this is much too happy for such a dark book", and then bam! We get a little, almost throwaway thing that was just the right touch and made me go "ohhhhh". It was really well done.

MY GRADE: I started out thinking a B+, but really, I can't see one thing wrong with it, so an A- it is!


The Road to Little Dribbling, by Bill Bryson

>> Thursday, March 03, 2016

TITLE: The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes From a Small Island
AUTHOR: Bill Bryson

PAGES: 400
PUBLISHER: Doubleday

SETTING: Contemporary UK
TYPE: No-Fiction
SERIES: Follow-up to Notes From A Small Island

A loving and hilarious—if occasionally spiky—valentine to Bill Bryson’s adopted country, Great Britain. Prepare for total joy and multiple episodes of unseemly laughter.

Twenty years ago, Bill Bryson went on a trip around Britain to discover and celebrate that green and pleasant land. The result was Notes from a Small Island, a true classic and one of the bestselling travel books ever written. Now he has traveled about Britain again, by bus and train and rental car and on foot, to see what has changed—and what hasn’t.

Following (but not too closely) a route he dubs the Bryson Line, from Bognor Regis in the south to Cape Wrath in the north, by way of places few travelers ever get to at all, Bryson rediscovers the wondrously beautiful, magnificently eccentric, endearingly singular country that he both celebrates and, when called for, twits. With his matchless instinct for the funniest and quirkiest and his unerring eye for the idiotic, the bewildering, the appealing, and the ridiculous, he offers acute and perceptive insights into all that is best and worst about Britain today.

Nothing is more entertaining than Bill Bryson on the road—and on a tear. The Road to Little Dribbling reaffirms his stature as a master of the travel narrative—and a really, really funny guy.
I adore Bill Bryson's travel books. This love is not really because of the subject matter, but mostly due to him. His observations are witty and I find his self-deprecating humour endearing (and hilarious). In short, he's good company.

Or rather, he was.

Unfortunately, in the 15 years since Down Under/In a Sunburned Country, he seems to have turned into someone I don't like very much. The books he wrote in that period were about stuff, so I didn't notice and really enjoyed them. Here, it's all about his opinions (on places, on features of British life, on other people), and there's nowhere to hide.

The premise of The Road to Little Dribbling is that, twenty years after Notes From a Small Island was published, Bryson is about to become a British citizen and takes this as an opportunity to travel round the country again, seeing how it has changed since then. He's not retracing his steps, but broadly following what he has baptised "The Bryson Line", the longest line possible to walk on line, which goes from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath.

And that he does, kind of. Unfortunately, he seems to have taken this book as an opportunity to moan about every single thing that has ever annoyed him. A lot of them are things I agree about (stupid urban planning decisions, celebrities) but the moaning feels so self-indulgent and there's so much of it that it made me want to tear my hair out. I listened to this in audiobook and every time it became clear another whine-fest was starting, I'd start talking out loud: "Oh, for heaven's sake!", "Not again!", "Oh, please make this stop". It's often pedestrian, childish stuff, not even interesting or witty, and the amount of pleasure he takes in venting about random people who offend him is embarrasing. He's also terribly oversimplistic in his analysis of issues. Every time he started a sentence with "Now, I'm not an expert, but...", my heart sank. Forget about not being an expert, he hasn't even bothered to do basic research on quite a bit of this.

And there was also something that was even more troubling. Bryson has always been one to ridicule stupidity, but in previous books it was done in a way that didn't feel like punching down. In The Road to Little Dribbling the punches too often flow downwards, and some of those scenes are quite startling. Too many scenes had a nasty tinge to them, an intolerant "old man moaning about the young today" vibe. There's the unwarranted and frankly vile tirade about a lad coming onto a bus with sticky-out ears, a cap and badly-functioning earphones, which put me in mind of the attitudes Owen Jones highlights in Chavs (the boy didn't do anything other than look a particular way). Then there's the scene in which he reports a sarcastic tirade delivered to a young MacDonald's worker who had the temerity to ask Bryson if he "wanted fries with that". Bryson is really pleased about how he reacted. To be clear, the corporate instruction is stupid (as Bryson said, if he wanted fries with that he would have asked for them), but a prosperous middle-aged bloke going off at a young kid working minimum wage and simply trying to keep his job by doing as instructed by corporate office... well that leaves a bad taste in the mouth. There were much too many scenes like that.

There were also some good moments and some truly funny and witty bits, which is why I finished it (well, that and because part of me couldn't believe I was not liking a Bryson book!). But not enough.



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