August 2014 reads

>> Tuesday, September 02, 2014

I took quite a few chances on new authors this month. Several unfortunately ended in DNFs (even though with most of them I read a fair bit before giving up), but some (especially Mark of Cain and those which are on the Man Booker Prize longlist, which I'm attempting to read) were excellent.

1 - Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson: A
review here

A sort of literary Groundhog Day. This is the story of Ursula Todd and all the different paths her life could have taken. I read it for the first time when it came out a couple of years ago, but reread it (or rather, relistened to it) for my September book club. I thought it might be too soon, but it was fantastic, and I'd forgot just enough to enjoy it fully. This time around, the image in my head was someone in a maze, trying one route, a slightly different one only going back one turn, another, going "sod it, I'm just going back to the beginning and taking a completely different route", and so on. I found the refusal to take the easy answer about what the "right" life should be very interesting, too.

2 - Mark of Cain, by Kate Sherwood: A
review coming soon

This is a romance between an ex-con and the brother of the man he killed, which might be a hard sell. It's wonderfully done, though. In addition to a very nice romance, there is a real exploration of themes of redemption and forgiveness, as well as a hero who's an Anglican minister and is struggling with how his church deals with gay priests like him.

3 - We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler: A-
review coming soon

So far, this is my favourite of the books on the Man Booker longlist. Rosemary once had a brother and a sister, but when we meet her, as a college student in 1996, her sister has been out of the picture for many years, and her brother is on the run. We don't know why, and we discover why throughout the book. Some fantastic ideas here, and Fowler executes them perfectly. It's also very readable, even compelling.

4 - To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris: B
review coming soon

Also on the Man Booker longlist. This one is about a dentist whose online identity is taken over by someone determined to spread the word about the Ulms, a Middle Eastern "lost tribe". It's a fascinating book, with its combination of the mundane (and often hilarious) goings on in the protagonist's dental surgery and his desperate search for something bigger (also often hilarious).

5 - The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan: B
review here

Another Man Booker read. A bit of a mixed bag. The sections about the main character and his men, Australian POWs, working on the Death Railway and the aftermaths of this, both on the POW's and their captors, were extraordinary. The sections about the protagonist's love life were just tedious.

6 - The Escape, by Mary Balogh: B
review coming soon

Latest in the Survivors´Club series, centred round a group of characters recovering from the Napoleonic Wars. The hero had his legs crushed during the wars, and after completing the initial stage of his recovery, finds himself at lose ends. The heroine is a recent widow who had hoped the nightmare would be over when her husband died, but now finds herself suffocated by his inflexible family. It's a nice read, but no more than that.

7 - The Collector, by Nora Roberts: B-
review coming soon

The heroine witnesses a murder, and the hero is the brother of the man initially thought to be responsible for it (a murder-suicide). There's a psycho assassin and a search for priceless objets d'art. I liked a lot of it, but the characters never completely gelled for me. Not amongst Roberts' best.

8 - A Letter of Mary, by Laurie R King: B-
review here

I read this one a long time ago, after picking it up at random in Uruguay. Now I've started the series at the beginning. The letter of Mary refers to a manuscript left to Mary Russell and her husband, Sherlock Holmes, by an archeologist friend. The manuscript makes it clear that it was written by Mary Magdalen, who refers to herself as an apostle. Turns out the archaeologist was run over by a car in suspicious circumstances the very day after she visited Russell and Holmes, and they decide to investigate her death. I enjoyed this very much for the investigation and the character development (and for the little visit with Lord Peter Wimsey!), but this time around I found the ending just as disappointing as Russell and Holmes did. Probably more. Plus, there's a promise Russell makes at the end of the book which I thought was completely unwarranted. I did realise there were other reasons for her decision, but it left a bad taste in my mouth.

9 - Too Hot To Handle, by Victoria Dahl: B-
review coming soon

Merry is someone who's always treated like a "buddy" by men. Shane, a carpenter who's a neighbour of hers and her friend, doesn't feel at all buddy-ish towards Merry, but her friend and the friend's boyfriend are super protective. It was nice, but not Dahl's best.

10 - Have Glass Slippers, Will Travel, by Lisa Cach: D
review here

The heroine, having just lost a solid if unexciting job, decides to follow her dream by travelling to England and hunting herself an aristocratic husband. She runs into the hero, who's a duke but doesn't like to boast about it. She thinks he's "just a farmer", and wavers between him and his aristocratic-but-assholic cousin. Cach's humour usually works for me, but here it relies too much on the heroine behaving like a total idiot.

11 - Cold Magic, by Kate Elliott: DNF
review here

Fantasy, set in an alternate version of England. The heroine is suddenly plucked from her home by a dark mage, whom she has to marry to fulfill a contract. It's an interesting premise and the world was quite interesting, but it was all much too slow-moving and the world-building was info-dumpy. Plus, baffling character motivations.

12 - Eight Feet in the Andes: Travels With a Mule From Cajamarca to Cuzco, by Dervla Murphy: DNF
review here

About a trip the author took with her 9-year-old daughter and a mule through the Andes in the early 80s. Very boring, I'm afraid. It's written in diary format, so we get to hear every single detail of every single step they take, and very little of the impressions and stories and characters that good travel books give you.

13 - The Sweetest Seduction, by Crista McHugh: DNF
review here

The hero owns the building where the heroine is renting space for her very successful restaurant. He, however, is planning to evict her and use that space to attract a celebrity chef. They meet before they know this, though, and they're instantly attracted to each other. Some good things (especially the insistence on talking and avoiding Big Misunderstandings), but I got a bit bored and the characters (especially the secondary ones) felt completely preposterous.

14 - Buried, by Kendra Elliot: DNF
review coming soon

The hero and heroine's respective brothers were on a school bus that disappeared without a trace 20 years earlier. Her brother walked out of the woods 2 years after that, but with no memories of what had happened. Now the bodies of the still-missing kids have been found -except for the hero's brother's. He's determined to talk to the guy who survived, and tries to find him through his sister, the heroine. Another one with preposterous characters, I'm afraid, plus pretty bad writing. Oh, and I was listening to the audiobook, and the narrator was awful.

15 - Tales of the City, by Armistead Maupin: DNF
review coming soon

Originally published as a serial. It´s about a group of people living in and around and appartmente building in 1976 San Francisco. I wanted to like it, but I had trouble being interested in all but one of the characters. Plus, pretty much all of the male characters were incredibly sleazy!

16 - The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth: still reading
review coming soon

Another on the Man Booker longlist. Historical fiction about the resistance against the Norman invasion of 1066. Two remarkable things about this one: a) it was crowdfunded, and b) it's written in what the author describes as "a shadow version of Old English". It's hard to read, but I've got into it, and the story's actually really good (even often really funny, in a very dark way).

17 - Carolina Girl, by Virginia Kantra: still reading
review coming soon

The heroine left her small town and made a successful career in the city. She gets fired and goes back to the family inn, not telling anyone about being laid off. The hero is her brother's friend, with whom she had a bit of a romance when she was younger. It's a setup I don't trust (too often there's a "small town: good; big city: evil" message), but I read the first in the series and there are overarching series things I'm interested in, so I thought I'd try it anyway.

18 - The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith: still listening
review coming soon

Second in Galbraith (aka JK Rowling)'s series of detective novels. Our private detective, Cormoran Strike, is a fantastic character, and I love his relationship with his secretary/wannabe detective Robin. The case is also very interesting. It's about a missing writer who's just finished a roman à clef basically slandering all sorts of powerful people. This gives the author the chance to poke a lot of fun at the literary establishment. I'm enjoying this tremendously.


September 2014 wish list

>> Sunday, August 31, 2014

Quite a mixed selection on my wish list this month. I'm really looking forward to some of these.

Books I'm definitely planning to get

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell (Sep 2)

This sounds wonderfully strange. There seem to be a lot of seemingly unconnected characters, which is a bit reminiscent of Cloud Atlas, which I loved. Also, I'm reading the Man Booker Prize longlist, and this is on it.

Private Politics, by Emma Barry (Sep 8)

I really enjoyed Barry's previous political romance, Special Interests. The plot of this one intrigues me a bit less (it sounds more thriller-like), but I'm planning to read it anyway.

Festive In Death, by JD Robb (Sep 9)

It sometimes feel like I'm the only In Death fan in the blogosphere who's still completely enjoying the series. These are the perfect comfort read for me.

The Perilous Sea by Sherry Thomas (Sep 16)

Second in Thomas' fantasy YA Elemental trilogy. I liked the first one, The Burning Sky more than I expected, and I'm really interested in what happens next.

The Infinite Sea, by Rick Yancey (Sep 16)

From a perilous to an infinite sea, also the second in a series. This is a sci-fi, post alien invasion series. I really liked the first one, The 5th Wave. It was terrifying and twisty. I've no idea what direction Yancey's going to take the action now, and can't wait to find out.

The Songbird’s Seduction, by Connie Brockway (Sep 16)

This could be a lot of fun. An up-and-coming operetta singer, a straitlaced professor, a road trip to the Pyrenees. It sounds like exactly the sort of story Brockway is really good at.

The Rosie Effect, by Graeme Simsion (Sep 25)

A follow-up to The Rosie Project, which I really liked.

Us, by David Nicholls (Sep 30)

I really enjoyed the two Nicholls book that I've read, One Day and Starter For Ten, but I was very surprised when I saw Us was on the Man Booker longlist. The other two books didn't strike me as Man Booker material. I'm very interested to see what Nicholls has done here.

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

Winning Ruby Heart, by Jennifer Lohmann (Sep 1)

The heroine is an athlete, the hero is a journalist who ruined her career by writing some sort of exposé. Both of those elements really interest me, and I was impressed by the book I read by this author.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, by Hilary Mantel (Sep 1)

Collection of short stories. I love Mantel's writing, and how could I resist that title?

Breaking His Rules, by Alison Packard (Sep 8)

This has a heroine who loses a significant amount of weight. What I thought was quite interesting was that the blurb makes a point of the fact that the hero, her personal trainer, was attracted to her before she lost the weight.

Rock Addiction , by Nalini Singh (Sep 9)

Honestly? I'm only taking a second look at this one because it's Nalini Singh. Rock star falls in love with regular girl is absolutely not my kind of thing.

Honeymoon Hotel, by Hester Browne (Sep 11)

I've got some sort of weird thing for books about wedding/party planners. Not sure why this is. I might give this a try.

Theatre of Cruelty, by Ian Buruma (Sep 16)

I read Buruma's Year Zero: A History of 1945 earlier this year and thought it was great. I've now borrowed all of his books in my library system. This new one sounds interesting. It's about how art responds to war.


Cold Magic, by Kate Elliott

>> Friday, August 29, 2014

TITLE: Cold Magic
AUTHOR: Kate Elliott

PAGES: 528

SETTING: 19th century alternate version of England
TYPE: Fantasy
SERIES: 1st in the Spiritwalker trilogy

From one of the genre's finest writers comes a bold new epic fantasy in which science and magic are locked in a deadly struggle.

It is the dawn of a new age... The Industrial Revolution has begun, factories are springing up across the country, and new technologies are transforming in the cities. But the old ways do not die easy.

Cat and Bee are part of this revolution. Young women at college, learning of the science that will shape their future and ignorant of the magics that rule their families. But all of that will change when the Cold Mages come for Cat. New dangers lurk around every corner and hidden threats menace her every move. If blood can't be trusted, who can you trust?

I was really excited to read Cold Magic. I've heard great things about Kate Elliott's books, and this sounded fantastic. I've seen the setting described as "icepunk". It's basically an alternate version of the 19th century in which the ice age has continued and the history is different. From the bits I read, the Roman empire seems to have continued on for a longer time, there was a significant migration North from Africa, and there are all sorts of creatures like trolls. Also, there is magic. Technology is evolving, and this is being resisted by a group of people called the Cold Mages.

Our heroine, Catherine Hassi Barahal, from an old Phoenician family, was taken in by her uncle's family after her parents' death. She's been raised with her cousin Bee, who's only slightly younger. Until suddenly, one day, a cold mage comes to the house and states that he's there to enforce a contract with Cat's uncle. We're not told what's in the contract, just that this means that Cat must marry this man and go away with him. The marriage takes place immediately, and he takes her away with him then and there, with no time for goodbyes or explanations.

I really struggled with this. I listened to some 4 hours of it, and it was only in the last hour or so that something actually happened, the marriage. For a long, long time, it was all world-building, and it was very clumsily done. Lots of people telling each other (in great detail) things they knew very well they both knew already. Loads of "As you know, Bob"s, only more archaically expressed. It might be an interesting world, but there needs to be something going on for me to care about it.

Plus, the characters' reactions felt fake. I didn't understand these people, it didn't feel like they were reacting like people at all. I kept asking myself why on earth they were doing things which didn't make sense.

I felt a bit more hopeful when the cold mage appeared and it seemed things were finally going to get going. They sort of did, but he and Cat still were behaving like no human beings would, and he seemed unnecessarily mean and cruel and thoughtless. I was struggling to force myself to keep listening, so I finally gave up.

Enough people whose opinions I often share love Elliott's books that I think I might still give another one of hers a try (probably Jaran, which sounds good), but this one really wasn't for me.



Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

>> Wednesday, August 27, 2014

TITLE: Pride and Prejudice
AUTHOR: Jane Austen

PAGES: 254
PUBLISHER: Relevant audiobook version produced by Clipper Audio.

SETTING: Early 19th century England
TYPE: Fiction

In one of the most universally loved and admired English novels, a country squire of no great means must marry off his five vivacious daughters. Jane Austen's art transformed this effervescent tale of rural romance into a witty, shrewdly observed satire of English country life. A selection of the Common Core State Standards Initiative..

It may be a predictable choice, but P&P really is my favourite Austen. I love most of her books (Emma, particularly), but those I enjoy mainly for reasons other than the romance. I love them for the characterisation and the comedy and the insight into how that particular level of society worked at the time. P&P has all that, but it also has a romance that I find truly romantic.

I hadn't reread it for a while, so I got myself one of the audiobook versions from my library. I wanted the Juliet Stevenson version, since her versions of Emma and Northanger Abbey have been so brilliant, but my library system seems to have lost the CDs. I then opted for the Emilia Fox version. It wasn't as great as Stevenson has been, but pretty damn good. Her Mrs. Bennett is particularly hilarious, and she does a great Mr. Collins -he positively oozes.

A few impressions:

- As with Emma and Northanger Abbey, I had very distinct memories of particular episodes. The memories themselves were pretty accurate, but I had a very distorted sense of when they occurred in the story. For instance, I was sure Mr. Darcy's proposal took place before Mr. Collins's. It didn't, and that change in the context does change the significance somewhat.

- Speaking of the famous Darcy proposal, I'd forgot that we don't get it verbatim. Rather, we're told the gist of what he said. Strangely, this doesn't make that scene any less powerful. It's a bit like with horror and not showing the monster directly: my mind was quite ready to fill in the condescension and offensiveness.

- The romantic, even sexual, tension between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy fairly crackles. There isn't anything explicit here, not even one touch or unchaste thought, but Austen still makes it very clear they really, really fancy each other.

- She also makes it abundantly clear why they fit each other so perfectly, and how even their respective character imperfections are what make them so compatible.

- Characters who, in another author's hands might have been cartoonish (Mrs. Bennett, Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine, even Lydia) feel real. That's because there a big dollop of truth right in the centre of each. I've known people who are like each of them in their essence. They just don't take those character traits quite as far.

- Jane is probably the least effective character, in that I suspect my perceptions of her weren't quite as Austen intended her to be seen. I found her determination not to think badly about anyone ever quite exasperating, rather than kind and admirable. True, Elizabeth does joke a little bit about it, but with more fondness than I felt for her. Well, Jane isn't my sister, after all!

- How did I forget that fabulous scene near the end where Lady Catherine tries to browbeat Elizabeth into promising never to accept Mr. Darcy? This, THIS is why Elizabeth Bennett is such a beloved character. She refuses to be bullied and, quite properly and politely, tells Lady Catherine exactly where she can go. I was cheering out loud!

- Austen does like a protracted ending. It's not as effective as it might have been, and the story kind of fizzles out (just a little bit, it's not as bad as, say, Emma).

On the whole, any criticism is very minor. I loved this.



Ethan of Athos, by Lois McMaster Bujold

>> Monday, August 25, 2014

TITLE: Ethan of Athos
AUTHOR: Lois McMaster Bujold

PAGES: 256

SETTING: Futuristic
TYPE: Sci-fi
SERIES: Off-shoot of the Vorkosigan series - it comes after Cetaganda, chronologically.

Our hero is a quiet, upstanding citizen of Athos, an obstetrician in a world in which reproduction is carried out entirely via uterine replicator, without the aid of living women. Problem: the 200-year-old cultures are not providing eggs the way they used to, and attempts to order replacements by mail have failed catastrophically. But when Ethan is sent to find out what happened and acquire more eggs, he finds himself in a morass of Cetagandan covert ops and Jackson Whole politics - and the only person who's around to rescue him is the inimitable - and, disturbingly, female - Elli Quinn, Dendarii rent-a-spy.

This one is a bit of an off-shoot from the main Vorkosigan series. It's set in the same universe, and we recognise a couple of characters, but Miles shows up in name only.

Ethan Urquhart lives in Athos, a planet on which no woman has ever set foot. Reproduction there is a very serious matter, and Ethan is an obstetrician and head of a reproductive centre. As such, he's aware that Athos is in a very risky position: the ovarian cultures they depend on to create new babies are getting very old and deteriorating at a fast rate. Before long, they won't be usable at all.

No matter! The ruling council of Athos have decided to devote a big chunk of the planet's meagre foreign reserves (they're a VERY remote planet, and they don't produce much that other planets want to buy) to buy new cultures, and the parcel has just arrived. Ethan unwraps it with much anticipation, only to realise they've been cheated. The shipment is full of useless bits and pieces, not the supposedly high-quality ovarian cultures they'd ordered.

Something needs to be done, and clearly middlemen can't be trusted. It somehow falls to Ethan to do what's necessary. He's to take the remaining foreign reserves and go off-planet to make sure they get the cultures. It will be tough to be in environments where he must come into contact with... *shudder*... women, but someone has to do it.

Problems start as soon as Ethan gets to the nearest travel hub, Kline space station. A party of Cetagandans spies are convinced that Ethan has something they've been looking for, and it's all somehow connected to the faulty cultures sent to Athos. Fortunately for Ethan, who's a bit of a babe in the woods, Elli Quinn is there. Readers of the previous books will remember her as the mercenary who got her face burnt off in The Warrior's Apprentice. Well, her much-admired Admiral Naismith made sure she got a new face (and she delights in using it to freak out people who knew her before), and she's still part of the Dendarii Free Mercenaries. She's on Kline Station on an intelligence mission, investigating why the Cetagandans destroyed the biotech labs which produced the order meant for Athos and trying to find out what it is they're after. Ethan is her best bet at finding out, so she rescues him when she finds him in desperate trouble and convinces him to co-operate with her to find out what's going on.

There were things here I liked. Elli is a great character. I believe she has a larger role in future books, and that makes me happy. She's competent and intelligent and has a wry, dry sense of humour. I also liked the plot. It's a bit convoluted, but that's par for the course for Bujold. Everything clicks at the end, which feels satisfying. Finally, I also really liked the setting. Bujold has some interesting points about what it would take to run a massive space-station on a permanent basis, and there are some really interesting touches, like the complete obsession with sanitary precautions and ensuring nothing contaminates or destabilises the very delicate balance of the station's ecosystem. Best of all, this element of the world-building plays an important role in the plot.

However, there were also elements that didn't work for me at all, and those were quite crucial. They were all related to Ethan and his world.

First of all, Ethan. He just didn't gel as a character. He's supposed to be a man from a planet where not only are there no women, they are considered dangerous and treacherous. He's never seen a live one in his life, and images of women are censored. On the first scene, we even see him hesitating to use the "w word" in a professional conversation, even though, he assures himself, it's the correct scientific term. And yet, apart from a little bit of shyness at the beginning and some minor mistrust of Elli Quinn (which really, anyone in his situation would have felt, since he can't be sure of what her agenda is), he has absolutely no trouble interacting with women. I didn't buy it for a minute.

Then I had issues with Athos itself. It's basically a planet full of mysoginists, a bunch of men with the sort of medieval mindsets that see women as dangerous and evil and out to ensnare and control men. Bah! I feel uncomfortable with a narrative that asks me to root for them to be able to continue with their life as it is. It could be argued they're not doing any harm, but I'm unconvinced. What about men who are heterosexual and are forced, just because of the place they are born, to never meet a woman? Also, Bujold seems to be proposing homosexuality to be just something you drift into if there are no other options... a choice, basically. This is contrary to evidence (although maybe in 1986, when the book was written, that wasn't so clear), and if you follow down the obvious logical path it implies that homosexuality can be "cured", which is an idea that has caused huge amounts of suffering.

I was also very uncomfortable with Ethan's choice at the end. This is a spoiler, so let me leave some space:








Turns out the suspense plot hinges around a young man who is a product of Cetagandan genetic manipulation. He is a telepath, and the Cetagandans are desperate for his genes, so they can create more. The man started all the mess by bribing the biotech lab preparing the cultures for the Athosians into inserting telepath genes into all the cultures, which would mean that Athos would be come wholly populated by telepaths within a couple of generations.

Ethan finds this out, and then right at the end, quite in love with the young man, he chooses to switch the new cultures he bought and use the original ones, with the telepath gene. This he does without consulting anyone, just because he feels if he takes it to the Council, the decision would be split and no one would act. Hell, no! No consideration at all for the privacy of those who would not be telepaths in the first few generations but who'd have their minds read, none for the future children who'd be born with the capacity to read minds and whether this is a good thing, no thinking at all about whether he has any right to make that decision. No, no, no, no.

I really can't believe Bujold, who's usually pretty thoughful about this sort of ethical consideration, just threw it in at the end, almost as an afterthought. It's a huge thing and it deserved a lot more development.



The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan

>> Saturday, August 23, 2014

TITLE: The Narrow Road to the Deep North
AUTHOR: Richard Flanagan

PAGES: 352

SETTING: Mid-20th century Australia and Southeast Asia
TYPE: Fiction

August, 1943. In the despair of a Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma Death Railway, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his affair with his uncle’s young wife two years earlier. His life is a daily struggle to save the men under his command from starvation, from cholera, from pitiless beatings. Until he receives a letter that will change him forever.

Moving deftly from the POW camp to contemporary Australia, from the experiences of Dorrigo and his comrades to those of the Japanese guards, this savagely beautiful novel tells a story of love, death, and family, exploring the many forms of good and evil, war and truth, guilt and transcendence, as one man comes of age, prospers, only to discover all that he has lost.

Part of my project to read from the Man Booker Prize longlist.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North tells the story of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor who was the commanding officer of a group of Australian soldiers captured by the Japanese during the 2nd World War. At that time, the Japanese were determined to build a railway between Thailand (then Siam) and Burma. This had been rejected as an impossible endeavour by Britain and the US, but the Japanese were determined they would do it. Hundreds of thousands of Allied prisoners of war and slave workers from Asian countries were put to work clearing the jungle and building the railway, labouring increasingly long hours under conditions that started out brutal and only worsened as time passed. As a result, over 100,000 people died in the construction of what came to be called the "Death Railway".

We know from the start that Dorrigo managed to survive, as we meet him as an old man, when he has become a highly respected war hero. The action jumps around from that point to Dorrigo's childhood, the prisoners working on the Death Railway, Dorrigo's doomed love affair with his uncle's wife right before the war, and what happened after the war.

I had very different feelings about the different sections in the book. The sections set on the Death Railway were just brilliant. They were moving and illuminating. I recognised the truth in the characters. They felt real, even when their actions and emotions went places I had not expected and never considered, like when Flanagan wrote of what was going on in the Japanese prison guards' minds. It was harrowing to read, not just because of the violence and brutality and the graphic reality of just what it means to be worked and starved to death, but because of the bleakness of it all. But actually, I felt the whole point of the book was that bleakness, the realisation that there just wasn't a meaning to some things. Sometimes there isn't, and I felt the way Flanagan conveyed this was raw and powerful.

I also particularly liked the sections exploring what happened after the war. We not only look at the prisoners but at the guards as well, and the hopelessness and bleakness continues there. Not everyone gets what they deserve, and in fact, some of the most vile characters escape all punishment and live quite happy lives, never even having to face their own sins.

Those sections I discuss above affected me, hit me right in the stomach. I was close to tears pretty much constantly through several sections, and they spilled out a few times (when Darky Gardiner lost the sole of this boot, for instance, or during the scene at Nikitaris' Fish Restaurant after the war).

Unfortunately, this is not all there was in the book. We also get a whole lot about Dorrigo and women... his forbidden love affair, his relationship with his wife, all the other women. And those sections just exasperated me. They were pretentious, predictable nonsense. The emotions never resonated with me or even felt remotely believable, and neither did the characters. Even the writing, which in the sections on the prisoners of war had a hypnotic quality and carried you forward like a wave, felt calculatedly "literary" in the worst ways. The adulterous love affair was probably the low point. The emotions in those sections evoked no recognition at all. They felt fake. This stuff sort of disappears at about a quarter of the way in, and really only comes back (a bit less heavily) in the last quarter, so for about half of the book, you get a glimpse of what the whole book should have been, and that was fantastic.

So, definitely worth making the effort to read, but could have been so much better.



Cetaganda, by Lois McMaster Bujold

>> Thursday, August 21, 2014

TITLE: Cetaganda
AUTHOR: Lois McMaster Bujold

PAGES: 352

SETTING: Futuristic
TYPE: Sci-fi
SERIES: 5th full-length title in the Vorkosigan series

Miles Vorkosigan and his cousin Ivan are sent on a diplomatic mission to the court of the Cetagandan Empire, Barrayar's former enemy. This sophisticated, genetically advanced but in many ways alien society both fascinates and repels, and when the Cetagandan Empress and her attendant die suddenly, Miles and Ivan find themselves embroiled in intrigues that are hard to fathom. Ivan's romances and Miles' infatuation with a noble Cetagandan lady further complicate matters.

Cetaganda is one of those "filling in the blanks" books. It comes after The Vor Game in chronological order, but it was actually written after two or three more books were out. As far as I can tell, that means that the whole issue of Miles as Admiral Naismith and the Dendarii Free Mercenaries is left to one side (I'm assuming something will happen in that area in the next few books), and we get a little side-adventure.

That side-adventure takes place in Cetaganda, of all places. Miles and his cousin Ivan Vorpatril are on an official mission, representing Barrayar at a state funeral. Trouble starts even before they properly land. The Barrayaran ship is directed to a docking bay which is strangely deserted. A strange man in a technician's overall comes on-board, a scuffle ensues and he runs off, leaving Miles and Ivan in possession of a mysterious object the man had in his pocket. By the time they get redirected to the right docking bay (containing the expected full complement of Cetagandan officials to provide a proper ceremonial reception), they have decided to keep quiet about it. They'll just tell the Imperial Security man as soon as they get to the embassy.

Turns out the ImpSec man is away on a short trip, and that's enough to get Miles investigating on his own. Because clearly, something very strange is going on. Before long, Miles and Ivan (pressured by Miles, of course) are fully involved in what could become a truly damaging mess, both for Cetaganda and for Barrayar.

I found the plot entertainingly convoluted. Miles is Miles, though, so his brainpower and gift for strategic thinking allow him to make some quite impressive deductions. But really, it's all about the world-building here, and that succeeds only in parts.

On the positive side, Cetaganda is quite a fun place to read about, with its noble ladies floating about in opaque white bubbles and its aristocratic classes obsessed with aesthetics and genetic manipulation. It all creates some fantastic visual pictures. Most of all, I liked that Bujold is trying to explore some quite interesting concepts with this world, such as where does power really come from.

It's a world, however, that doesn't really bear too much examination. When Bujold describes and contrasts Barrayar and Beta Colony, I get it. Given their history, the way they work makes sense. With Cetaganda, I never completely bought the way their culture is supposed to have evolved. I don't know if it's an intrinsically flawed concept or just that we don't get enough depth here, but I just wasn't convinced.

That isn't a fatal flaw, though, and on the whole, I enjoyed this very much.

MY GRADE: A strong B.


The Sweetest Seduction, by Christa McHugh

>> Tuesday, August 19, 2014

TITLE: The Sweetest Seduction
AUTHOR: Christa McHugh

PAGES: 200
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 1st in the Kelly Brothers series

Never, ever, mix business with pleasure...

Lia Mantovani has created one of the hottest restaurants on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, but all that could disappear if she loses her lease with Kelly Properties. Having had her dreams ripped away from her before, she’ll do everything in her power to keep her restaurant. Her fate hangs on the whims of the frustratingly handsome Adam Kelly.

Adam has spent years trying to convince world famous chef Amadeus Schlittler to open a restaurant in Chicago, but he wants the prime location held by Lia. Business has always come first… until sparks fly when Adam meets her. When things get hot outside the kitchen, though, they’re both in danger of getting burned.

I mainly read this one because another of McHugh's books came to my attention. The Heart's Game sounded interesting, with its robotics engineer heroine and "gamer-geek" hero. However, when I looked it up on amazon I noticed that book 1 in the series was free, so I thought I'd read that one first and see how I liked McHugh's voice.

Lia Mantovani is a chef whose innovative take on classic Italian cooking has made her restaurant a success in a very short time. She's managed to sublet a venue in a really exclusive and gourmet part of town, and since the original contract is coming to an end, she's looking forward to renewing the lease. With the restaurant doing so well, there shouldn't be an issue.

And there wouldn't be if Adam Kelly, the guy who runs the company that owns the property, didn't have other plans for the venue. Adam's been courting an international celebrity chef, and the latter demands a great venue in the very area Lia's restaurant is in before he'll deign to consider Adam's offer. Unfortunately for Lia, her restaurant is the only one amongst Adam's tenants in the area that has a lease ending soon.

The meeting where Adam breaks the news to Lia isn't made any less awkward by the fact that, until that very moment, neither had realised that the other was the person they'd met the night before. Adam's mother had won a meal cooked by Lia in the winner's own home in a charity auction, and Adam and his brothers were there too. Instant chemistry, followed by a make-out session in Adam's yacht that didn't end up in a one-night-stand only because a policeman decided to check everything was ok (brandishing a very bright searchlight).

This didn't start well. It was all instant infatuation and really heavy and constant mental lusting, which just felt forced. Their actions (at Adam's mother's, with all the other brothers smirking at what was clearly about to happen) felt inappropriate and uncomfortable, rather than hot. And then Lia's reaction the next day when Adam turned up at her restaurant felt just as inappropriate, when she was much too explicit about her sex life to her employees.

Things improved a bit afterwards, though. There were a few things that could have turned into Big Misunderstandings, but Adam and Lia actually talked about them and cleared things up, which I found refreshing (no, the lady who came for dinner with Adam wasn't a date, but a friend who happens to be a food critic, and no, Lia didn't try to poison Adam on purpose; she didn't know he was allergic to prawns. She just thought he disliked them and thought she'd prove how good she was by using them to cook a wonderful dish he'd love).

But for all that, I never really connected with the characters and the romance. It didn't help that the plot about the restaurant was really badly done (the scene where the asshole Austrian chef pitches a fit in Lia's restaurant was a particularly preposterous moment, and so was the "Board meeting" afterwards). I was getting bored and annoyed in equal measures. It's a short book and I was already two thirds in, so I probably would have finished it if I hadn't got to a particular scene that made me instantly delete the book from my kindle.

It's not something huge or offensive. It will probably sound picky to some of you, but it's something that I felt embodied the type of exagerated silliness that I was finding here (and also kind of illustrated the direction in which so many contemporaries are going and which I detest). So, Adam and Lia are looking at a photograph of all the Kelly brothers, and Adam tells her about them. First of all, there are 7, which seems like a really calculated sequel-bait thing that felt completely manipulative (strangely, I never got annoyed like this with Julia Quinn for having 8 Bridgertons). And then Adam tells Lia what they do: a pro hockey player, a pilot in the Air Force, a surgeon, the lead singer in a hot, multi-platinum rock band, a professional American football player, and then the one who's Hollywood's hottest leading man and heartthrob. Oh, and finally Adam, Mr. Big Deal businessman, running the multi-million family business. Oh, FFS, give me a break. It's the calculated WTFery and the obvious romance novelist focus-group nature of the list that made me so annoyed and turned me off completely. Nope, not for me.

Shame, because some of the elements of the story had potential (and I approved of McHugh's pairing of steak with chimichurri with an Argentinian Malbec). Not enough for me to want to bother finishing this, though.



The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt

>> Sunday, August 17, 2014

TITLE: The Blazing World
AUTHOR: Siri Hustvedt

PAGES: 368
PUBLISHER: Simon & Schuster

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Fiction

Artist Harriet Burden, consumed by fury at the lack of recognition she has received from the New York art establishment, embarks on an experiment: she hides her identity behind three male fronts who exhibit her work as their own. And yet, even after she has unmasked herself, there are those who refuse to believe she is the woman behind the men.

Presented as a collection of texts compiled by a scholar years after Burden's death, the story unfolds through extracts from her notebooks, reviews and articles, as well as testimonies from her children, her lover, a dear friend, and others more distantly connected to her. Each account is different, however, and the mysteries multiply. One thing is clear: Burden's involvement with the last of her 'masks' turned into a dangerous psychological game that ended with the man's bizarre death.

For the third year, I'm planning to read all the books on the Man Booker Prize shortlist. Why do that, you ask? I guess I see it as trying to push myself outside of my comfort zone, and I have found some truly fantastic books that way, books I never would have thought of reading (for instance, the wonderful A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki, from last year, or Skios, by Michael Frayn the year before). Also, there is quite a lot of discussion about this particular prize (at least here in the UK), and I like being able to have a proper opinion about who should win!

Anyway, getting to all the books on the shortlist before the winner is announced means starting to read as soon as the longlist is announced and hoping I'm choosing the right ones. Last year I tried to be calculating and guess what was going to be on the shortlist, but I didn't do very well. This year I decided to just start with whatever sounded most interesting. And several of the books did. The longlist has been criticised for being very male, white and middle-class, and I suppose that's true, but I thought "I want to read that!" when I read the descriptions of several of them. In fact, I already owned two (the Karen Joy Fowler and the Joshua Ferris, both purchased after hearing discussions about them in my bookish podcasts).

The book I decided to start with, however, was one I'd never heard about. The Blazing World tells the story of Harriet Burden, an artist whose work has been dismissed and derided by the art world. She's seen merely as her art dealer husband's awkward wife, and it's assumed any small attention her work gets is a product of that.

Convinced that this lack of recognition is just because of who the artist is (i.e. a woman and not even a particularly attractive one), rather than a product of what the art itself is like, Harriet decides to experiment. She will get three male artists to exhibit her work under their own names. She is sure the reception will be completely different, and when she reveals the truth, those bastards in the art establishment will have to eat their words.

The story is told after Harriet's Death, through a collection of papers curated by someone (an editor? an academic?) trying to put together a definitive version of the events. Harriet was an inveterate diarist and kept several journals simultaneously, covering different areas she was interested in exploring, and these form the backbone of the collection. But there are also statements from people both intimately and more peripherally involved in the story, magazine articles, reviews, all sorts of things.

Right at the beginning, the editor tells us the bare bones of the story, about Harriet having used the three male artists as masks and even about the lack of success of the experiment. I was surprised Hustvedt would just jettison such a potentially good source of tension and suspense. What would push me to keep reading? Well, it's one thing to read the bare bones, quite another to feel the hope, the triumph, the frustration and the rage. And feel them I did.

Because what this book is, really, is an exploration of the obstinacy and maddening pig-headedness of sexism. It's a powerful illustration of the way so many people go into denial and engage in mind-boggling mental acrobatics rather than admit there might just be such a thing as sexism and (even worse!) that anyone with even a shred of decency should be doing something about it. This is not a surprise to anyone who is foolish enough to read the comments after online articles on so-called "women's issues", but that's even more reason why books like this are needed.

The Blazing World was, at times, a challenging book to read. Some of the passages, mainly some of the excerpts from Harriet's journals, are pages and pages of almost impenetrable rambling, paragraph after paragraph peppered with references to this philosopher or this art theorist, and I wasn't even sure if all of those were real or just created by Hustvedt, just as she'd created all the rest. I started out trying to make sense of it and getting a bit annoyed, but then I decided to take these passages as character development. See, Harriet is a wide-ranging and voracious reader and thinker. Her diaries are where she thinks out loud, not having to worry about making sense to other people. Taken as evidence of how this is someone who's not only heard of these people but who understood their thinking well enough to casually drop references into a private journal, someone completely different to how the art establishment sees her, these passages are a lot more meaningful and worked much better, I thought.

But it's not all about the intellectual. The final sections caught me by surprise. I'd best not say too much about why, but I'll say they were heartwrenching and made me tear up a bit. So yes, I cared about the characters. They felt like real people, and that's something I sometimes have issues with in literary fiction, so I particularly appreciated that element.



The Vor Game, by Lois McMaster Bujold

>> Friday, August 15, 2014

TITLE: The Vor Game
AUTHOR: Lois McMaster Bujold

PAGES: 350

SETTING: Futuristic
TYPE: Sci-fi
SERIES: 4th full-length title in the Vorkosigan series

Hugo Award Winner! Miles Vorkosigan graduates from the Academy, joins a mutiny, is placed under house arrest, goes on a secret mission, reconnects with his loyal Dendarii Mercenaries, rescues his Emperor, and thwarts an interstellar war. Situation normal, if you're Miles..

The Vor Game starts right after The Mountains of Mourning when Miles, just graduated from the academy as a new Ensign, is given his first assignment. It's a baffling one. He's to be meteorology officer at a remote station in the Arctic. When he asks, he's told that as long as he keeps his nose clean for the 6 months of his assignment, he'll be given the ship duty he craves. If only it was so easy!

Things, obviously, go wrong, and Miles ends up attached to Imperial Security and sent on a mission for them, trying to use his Admiral Naismith persona to help get intelligence on what exactly is going on in a nearby commerce hub. There have recently been some disturbing developments and Impsec want to know who's behind them. And yes, despite Miles' best intentions, things go wrong again, and Miles is suddenly involved in an extremely hairy situation, trying to survive and protect an unexpected companion.

Ok, so objectively, the structure of The Vor Game shouldn't work. I thought as I was reading it that the big chunk at the beginning, when Miles was on Camp Permafrost, felt completely independent from the rest of the book and actually pretty self-contained. There's a reason for that. It turns out that this section was originally a short story and was later incorporated into this longer book. It should have been an issue, but it wasn't. I enjoyed the insight into what kind of officer Miles had turned out to be (a morally corageous one with issues following orders) and when that bit was over, I was very ready to see what came next.

What came next was the kind of derring-do I expected from him. Miles is given a mission where he's absolutely not supposed to exercise any initiative. His "Admiral Naismith" identity will be useful to the mission, but he's supposed to just play his role and let someone else do the actual intelligence work. Exactly the wrong sort of job for Miles. He's constitutionally unable to not see a better way of doing things, and he's usually right. He does try, bless him, but as soon as he's in a situation where it's even remotely plausible that he had no choice but to act on his own, he's off.

The adventure he embarks on is fun. I must admit I lost a little bit of interest during the sections where Miles was bouncing around, always on his back foot. That didn't last long, though. As soon as he realised "this is what I'm going to have to do", I thought it gathered the necessary momentum and fairly flew. At the end, on the crucial moment, I actually cheered out loud.

As usual, I loved the humour, but particularly appreciated the undertone of seriousness, especially regarding Miles' companion on the trip and the reasons why this person ended up with Miles. It's subtly done, but very clear, and gives us so much more about what kind of person this man has turned out to be (cryptic, me?).



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