Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King

>> Sunday, July 27, 2014

TITLE: Mr. Mercedes
AUTHOR: Stephen King

COPYRIGHT: 2014
PAGES: 417
PUBLISHER: Hodder & Stoughton

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Thriller
SERIES: None

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY GRADE: An A-.

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Sworn To Silence, by Linda Castillo

>> Friday, July 25, 2014

TITLE: Sworn To Silence
AUTHOR: Linda Castillo

COPYRIGHT: 2009
PAGES: 384
PUBLISHER: Minotaur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY GRADE: A B-.

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

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Fortune's Pawn, by Rachel Bach

>> Wednesday, July 23, 2014

TITLE: Fortune's Pawn
AUTHOR: Rachel Bach

COPYRIGHT: 2013
PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Orbit

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

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

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

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

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

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

I really loved this book, right until the end.

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

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

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

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

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

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Hubble Bubble, by Jane Lovering

>> Monday, July 21, 2014

TITLE: Hubble Bubble
AUTHOR: Jane Lovering

COPYRIGHT: 2013
PAGES: 300
PUBLISHER: Choc Lit

SETTING: Contemporary England (Yorkshire)
TYPE: Romantic comedy
SERIES: None

Be careful what you wish for...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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Listening material

>> Sunday, July 20, 2014

Some good stuff recently.

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

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

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

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

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

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Play To Kill, by PJ Tracy

>> Saturday, July 19, 2014

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

COPYRIGHT: 2010
PAGES: 320
PUBLISHER: Putnam

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

It begins with a floater.

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY GRADE: A B.

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Love In The Time Of Cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez

>> Thursday, July 17, 2014

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

COPYRIGHT: 1985
PAGES: 464
PUBLISHER: Vintage

SETTING: Late 19th and early 20th century Colombia
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY GRADE: It was a DNF.

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The Martian, by Andy Weir

>> Tuesday, July 15, 2014

TITLE: The Martian
AUTHOR: Andy Weir

COPYRIGHT: 2014
PAGES: 384
PUBLISHER: Crown

SETTING: Near future, Mars and Earth
TYPE: Sci-fi
SERIES: None

I'm stranded on Mars.

I have no way to communicate with Earth.

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

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

So yeah. I'm screwed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, I finished this with a happy sigh.

MY GRADE: A very solid B+.

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

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The Kraken King Part 8, by Meljean Brook

>> Sunday, July 13, 2014

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

COPYRIGHT: 2014
PAGES: 85
PUBLISHER: InterMix

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

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

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

Link to my review of Part 1

Link to my review of Part 2

Link to my review of Part 3

Link to my review of Part 4

Link to my review of Part 5

Link to my review of Part 6

Link to my review of Part 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY GRADE: An A-.

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Suddenly You, by Sarah Mayberry

>> Friday, July 11, 2014

TITLE: Suddenly You
AUTHOR: Sarah Mayberry

COPYRIGHT: 2012
PAGES: 288
PUBLISHER: Harlequin Superromance

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

The definition of a happy man?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY GRADE: A B.

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