Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

>> Thursday, November 27, 2014

TITLE: Station Eleven
AUTHOR: Emily St. John Mandel

COPYRIGHT: 2014
PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Knopf

SETTING: Contemporary and future North America
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

DAY ONE
The Georgia Flu explodes over the surface of the earth like a neutron bomb.
News reports put the mortality rate at over 99%.

WEEK TWO
Civilization has crumbled.

YEAR TWENTY
A band of actors and musicians called the Travelling Symphony move through their territories performing concerts and Shakespeare to the settlements that have grown up there. Twenty years after the pandemic, life feels relatively safe.
But now a new danger looms, and he threatens the hopeful world every survivor has tried to rebuild.

STATION ELEVEN
Moving backwards and forwards in time, from the glittering years just before the collapse to the strange and altered world that exists twenty years after, Station Eleven charts the unexpected twists of fate that connect six people: famous actor Arthur Leander; Jeevan - warned about the flu just in time; Arthur's first wife Miranda; Arthur's oldest friend Clark; Kirsten, a young actress with the Travelling Symphony; and the mysterious and self-proclaimed 'prophet'.

Thrilling, unique and deeply moving, this is a beautiful novel that asks questions about art and fame and about the relationships that sustain us through anything - even the end of the world.

This is a novel not about the end of the world, but about what comes next. We start in the present day, when a famous actor called Arthur Leander is playing King Lear in an innovative new production. Halfway through the play, Arthur has a heart attack. The first person who realises what's going on when he starts to mess up his lines is Jeevan Chaudhary, an audience member who's training to be an EMT. Jeevan charges onto the stage and performs CPR, but can't save Arthur's life. Everyone's in shock and no one realises one of the child actresses, Kristen Raymonde, is still there watching it all.

That's the very night when the Georgia Flu begins its final spread. A sick passenger leaves its area of origin in the former Soviet republic and infects everyone on the same flight, and through them, people all around the world. This particular flue is airborne, extremely contagious and fast-acting, and kills over 99% of those who get it. It ends the world as we know it.

Twenty years later, we meet Kirsten Raymonde again. She's still an actress, now part of the Traveling Symphony. The Symphony is a group of actors and musicians who travel around the small settlements of survivors that remain in the area round the Great Lakes, specialising in Shakespeare's plays. And the action moves back and forth, as we follow the Traveling Symphony, then move onto the lives of people somehow connected to Arthur Leander, before and after the flu swept the planet.

I loved this book. I loved it because it's not your typical post-apocalyptic setting, where it's all violence and the strong abusing the weak. It's made clear that there was violence and fear at first, but in the last 5-10 years, things have got much more peaceful. People are getting on with living the best lives they can live, and travellers can expect a good reception in most towns. They might even expect a cautious welcome when coming upon an isolated dwelling, whereas we're told in the early days, the people there would have shot first and asked questions later. There are still exceptions, like a town they go through where a crackpot preacher has taken over, taking every woman and girl he fancies as his wives, but mostly people are good.

What surprised me the most, for a book that's basically killed over 99% of the Earth's population, is how hopeful it made me feel about humanity. It's strange, because it's also a book that's tinged with sadness and with a strong sense of loss. That sense of loss is for the people who died, but there's also a surprisingly strong grief for the world that has been lost, for a way of life whose relics the survivors can still see all around them. People can still remember a world where an infected scratch didn't pose a serious risk of death, but also a world where the light turned on when they flipped a switch, where they could speak to anyone anywhere in the world just by pressing a button and where warm air came out of ducts in buildings. It seems prosaic, but it felt true that people would mourn for that loss as well, and that those who were born after the collapse, or only a bit before it, would think of such things as computers as almost mythical. And that's where the hopefulness comes in: this is a book that says that our world and our humanity today are valuable, and that we would and should mourn if they were lost.

I also loved the structure of the book. The best way I can describe it is that the narrative starts out flying overhead and zooms in to focus on a particular character at a particular time, before zooming out again and going for someone, sometime else. At the beginning you can't really understand why we are seeing pre-collapse scenes of particular characters, but the connections come through later and make everything make sense. The structure helps us see the macro as well as the micro, but the focus on characters makes us really feel the significance and impact of the big things. And Mandel's occassional use of an omniscient point of view is truly arresting.

I highly recommend Station Eleven. A week after finishing it, random images from it still haunt me.

MY GRADE: An A-.

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The Double Cross, by Carla Kelly

>> Tuesday, November 25, 2014

TITLE: The Double Cross
AUTHOR: Carla Kelly

COPYRIGHT: 2013
PAGES: 240
PUBLISHER: Camel Press

SETTING: 1780s New Mexico
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: First in the Spanish Brand series, followed by Marco and the Devil's Bargain

The year is 1780, and Marco Mondragon is a brand inspector in the royal Spanish colony of New Mexico. A widower and rancher, Marco lives on the edge of Comancheria, the domain of the fierce Comanche.

Each autumn, he takes cattle and wool, and his district's records of livestock transactions to the governor in Santa Fe. he is dedicated, conscientious and lonely. This year, he is looking for a little dog to keep his feet warm through cold winter nights.

He finds a yellow dog but also meets a young, blue-eyed beauty named Paloma Vega. Paloma is under the thumb of relatives who might have stolen a brand belonging to Paloma's parents, dead in a Comanche raid. As a brand inspector, Marco has every right to be suspicious of brand thieves. If Marco has anything to do with it, Paloma's fortunes are about to change.

Don Marco Mondragón is a rancher and brands inspector living in 1780s New Mexico. His ranch is in what's quite literally the frontier, the remote Valle del Sol, just on the edge of the Comanchería. Marco has been on his own for many years, since his beloved wife and twin sons died of cholera while he was away on his duties. Since then, the only warmth he's had has been from his late wife's dog (not like that, you dirty-minded pervs! The dog simply sleeps on the foot of his bed and keeps his feet warm).

Now that little dog has died, leaving Marco with cold feet. He decides to get another one on his upcoming trip to Santa Fe, and as luck would have it, he sees a likely candidate in the first place he stops. That is at the house of Señor Moreno, whose daughter one of Marco's companions on the long trip to Santa Fe will be marrying within days.

The dog is the runt of a litter Paloma Vega is taking care of. Paloma is Moreno's niece, whom he took in after her whole family was killed in a Comanche raid. Well, "took her in" is a bit of an exaggeration. Paloma hasn't been treated as family, but as a servant, and a neglected one, at that. She works from dawn to dusk and is painfully thin from lack of food.

Marco is immediately attracted to Paloma, but the death of his wife has left him scared. The idea of coming to care for another woman, potentially for children as well, and having to leave for work with the fear that they might be dead when he comes back... well, that's enough to put him off. Reluctantly, he takes with him only the dog.

But thanks to some meddling, sympathetic priests, that's not the last Marco and Paloma see of each other.

This is a bit of a strange one. It's a romance (in the sense that the romance is the main focus) only in the first half. That's when Marco and Paloma meet, start developing feelings for each other and overcome adverse circumstances to get together again. But by the 50% mark, they have married, love each other and are very comfortable with the fact. They're loving their relationship (physical and otherwise) and are perfectly happy to tell each other so. There's not really anything to resolve in their relationship. I was wondering where the tension was going to come from. Well, the second half is about Paloma becoming established in Valle del Sol. There are goings on in a neighbouring ranch which force her and Marco to intervene, and as a result of that Paloma must reconsider her fear and mistrust of all Comanche people. Both plots were actually all right, it just felt a bit weird and episodic to have the book structured that way.

There is a lot to like. The setting felt really fresh. This is back when New Mexico was still Spanish, and the flavour is completely different to the sort of Westerns we're used to in romance, which take place much later. Actually, it felt more similar to what things would have been like in South America. That is especially the case with the religion, I think. All the characters here are Catholics, and religion is a big part of their lives. It doesn't cross the line into inspirational, but religion is something that's always at least in the background.

Also Kelly is doing a difficult balancing act here with her portrayal of the Comanches. At the time, for the people living here, they were the enemy. They would have been feared and hated, and people in this book do feel that way, even our protagonists. But through developments in the second half and a Comanche character who becomes very important, Kelly introduces some changes in attitude. These were borderline too modern, but mostly stayed on the right side of being believable.

What I didn't like so much was Paloma herself. She's fine at the start, but then she develops into an intensely annoying character. She doesn't put one foot wrong, ever. She's perfect, and everyone loves her. Well, every single good character. In this book, not liking Paloma is shorthand for being a shitty person. The scenes featuring her often cross the line into saccharine and twee. I think I was supposed to find such scenes adorable and sweet, but they made me go "oh, spare me!", instead. Like when Marco proposes and Paloma goes off on one because she doesn't have a dowry, and she doesn't want to dishonor such an important man. If she truly felt that way, ok, I could deal with that, but she's happy to accept his solution of her giving him her dilapidated sandals as a dowry, so it really musn't have been an issue. Yet it's clearly not a flirting, playing sort of episode, she really did seem to think the lack of dowry was a problem. So we're left with the conclusion that she's the type of person who cares about the letter of the law, but not the spirit.

Also, and this is an issue I've long had with Carla Kelly, the portrayal of pretty much every single woman of Paloma's class is horribly mean. Paloma's cousin and aunt are irrational, cruel, stupid and mean. The neighbour's daughter is a harridan. Ugh.

The second book apparently continues Paloma and Marco's story. I'm not in a hurry to read it, but I liked the world portrayed well enough that I might pick it up in the future.

MY GRADE: A C+.

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Christmas With Her Boss, by Marion Lennox

>> Sunday, November 23, 2014

TITLE: Christmas With Her Boss
AUTHOR: Marion Lennox

COPYRIGHT: 2010
PAGES: 192
PUBLISHER: Mills & Boon Cherish

SETTING: Contemporary Australia
TYPE: Category romance
SERIES: None

Meg Jardine, personal assistant extraordinaire, is convinced she's about to lose her job. Her gorgeous, dark and deeply unimpressed boss, William McMaster, is stranded in Melbourne over Christmas - and it's all her fault! With her heart in her mouth, she invites the intimidating billionaire home for the holiday..

At Meg's chaotic, cozy family farm, William's cold reserve begins to melt away. Suddenly they're seeing each other in a whole new light, and country girl Meg has shot straight to the top of William's Christmas list!

This was a random pick from the depths of my TBR (literally random, as in choosing a number with an online generator and seeing what it corresponded to on Calibre).

It's (obviously) a Christmas story. Meg Jardine is billionaire William McMaster's Australian PA. She gets paid a really excellent (and much needed) salary for being completely at his beck and call and solving all his problems during the short periods when he's in Australia. The latest has fallen right before Christmas, and he's due to fly out to New York when disaster strikes. Air traffic controllers go on strike and there's no way to fly out. There are also no hotel rooms to be had in the whole city.

Even though none of this is her fault, Meg feels she must come through with a solution to have any hope of keeping her job. The best she can come up with is to invite her boss to stay with her family over Christmas. There's an en suite room he can stay in and internet for him to work, and she promises no one will bother him.

But all plans for a simple continuation of their 100% professional working relationship fall by the wayside almost immediately. The internet is down, Meg's grandmother refuses to countenance anyone referring to William as Mr. MacMaster and William finds himself learning more about Meg the woman and her family.

This is a nice enough story, but I'm afraid I got very bored after the first third or so. I've read this so many times before. The rigid person who deals with any feelings in a completely dysfunctional way thrust into a situation where others won't respect those boundaries and so our stuffed-shirt character must adapt. I don't like this story very much, I'm afraid. I keep wanting to shout at the presumptuous characters: respect others' wishes!! If someone honestly doesn't want to join in with the cheer, don't try to force them to. But of course, it always turns out to be exactly what they needed, etc., etc.

Plus, I'm SO over billionaire businessmen as romance heroes. Sorry, but no. Just no.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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Gentle On My Mind, by Susan Fox

>> Friday, November 21, 2014

TITLE: Gentle On My Mind
AUTHOR: Susan Fox

COPYRIGHT: 2013
PAGES: 385
PUBLISHER: Zebra

SETTING: Contemporary Canada
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 3rd in the Caribou Crossing series

In her latest contemporary romance, Susan Fox welcomes readers back to Caribou Crossing, the ruggedly sexy Western town that seems made for starting over...

Brooke Kincaid knows second chances don't come cheap. She's spent five years repairing past mistakes and making her life in Caribou Crossing steady and predictable. But now a stranger's Harley has shattered her fence and her peace of mind in one swoop. Brooke is drawn to everything about wounded undercover cop Jake Brannon--his raw masculinity, his tenderness, and the undisguised desire that makes her feel more alive than she's ever been.

By rights, Brooke should curse Jake for complicating her life. Instead she's offered him a place to heal and a cover story as he searches for a wanted man. Jake knows she's vulnerable, but she's also strong, kind, and hotter than hellfire. It's a combination that could make even a die-hard loner long to put up his boots and put down roots at last, and show her just how good a second chance can get...

I loved Susan Fox's Planes, Trains and Automobiles series so much that it placed her on my autobuy list. Her latest work is a small town/modern Western series, which is not usually what appeals to me, but her name on the covers made me pick up the books anyway. They'be been sat in my TBR for a while, until I read Wendy's really intriguing comments on Gentle On My Mind. It's the third book in the series, but why not?

As Wendy says, what's most interesting about this book is the heroine. You certainly don't get many heroines like Brooke in romance novels. She's 43, and as the book opens she's just found out she's going to be a grandmother. This is wonderful news to her, especially since just a few years earlier the idea of being involved in her son's life would have been beyond her wildest dreams.

See, Brooke is a recovering alcoholic. She became an alcoholic while raising her son, Evan, whom she'd had at 15, and coping with a hard-drinking, violent, minor criminal of a husband. She would be the first to admit that she screwed up with Evan, and it wasn't a surprise to her that for many years he would want nothing to do with her.

But in events that happened in book 2 (I think!), Evan came back to Caribou Crossing and evidently reconciled with Brooke. By then Brooke had been sober for some 4 years, after landing in hospital after a car accident and being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The treatment for that was very successful, and spurred her into giving up alcohol as well.

As this book starts, Brooke is almost at the 5 year mark in her sobriety and has put together a satisfying life designed to keep her condition under control. She has a routine she enjoys, which includes things like regular exercise, healthy meals and lots of quality time with her son and his new wife and step-daughter.

And then Jake Brannon crashes his motorcycle into her white picket fence. Jake is a policeman working undercover to expose a drug dealer and grower who's also a murderer. He has received information that the culprit is a pillar-of-society type in Caribou Crossing, where Brooke and her family live, and he's been looking around the area. The reason he crashed into Brooke's fence is that he was running away from bad guys who shot him when he found their marijuana-growing operation, and he lost control of his motorcycle due to the loss of blood.

Jake doesn't start with the right foot with Brooke, as the best approach he can come up with in his half-unconscious state is to threaten to kill her family if she doesn't keep him hidden. But that doesn't last long, and Jake soon takes Brooke into his confidence and reluctantly accepts her help in vouching for him as a long-lost cousin, so he can infiltrate the town properly.

The whole undercover operation plot works mainly as a way to explore the community of Caribou Crossing and Brooke's status in it. After so many years of living there as the town drunk, she still feels uncertain about interacting with people, even though she's been sober for quite a while. Jake, with his outsider's perspective, is able to make her see the respect and true friendship people are offering. I also loved seeing Brooke with her son and his family. She's a bit tentative with him, as well, but you get the feeling that they're going to be fine.

The romance is nice, if not particularly revolutionary. Jake is hot and a motorcycle-riding adrenalin junkie. He won't ever give up undercover work, he tells Brooke, and this makes it obvious to her that there's no future in their relationship. She knows herself, and knows that she wouldn't be able to cope with the fear of knowing he's constantly putting his life in danger. I particularly liked how Fox used the romance as a way of showing us how Brooke had got so much stronger than she'd been a few years earlier. After she and Jake begin their affair she starts worrying, because she mistrusts the strong emotions he's making her feel. She worries that it might be triggering the sort of maniacal states she felt when her bipolar disorder was out of control. So what does she do? Well, in a refreshingly sensible move, she talks to her doctor, who reassures her and helps her start to learn the difference between strong emotions that are healthy and what she was used to feeling when she was ill.

I also loved the way something was dealt with at the end of the book. It's very spoilerish, so all I'll say before the spoiler tags is that an issue comes up that is present in very few romances (even though it happens much more commonly than that in real life), and that I thought the characters' reactions and actions were great. So, moving into spoilers: [start spoiler]Brooke gets pregnant, even though they've been careful. There might be issues with her continuing with her usual lithium doses while pregnant, so she seriously considers having an abortion. Her fears are not portrayed as irrational, and no one assumes this would be the wrong choice for her. Her doctor sets out the options for her and they discuss the risks of each, and Brooke thinks about it. She does decide to continue with the pregnancy, but never thinks abortion would have been wrong, just not the right option for her in that situation. Jake is supportive, too. Brooke writes him a letter when she finds out about her pregnancy, in which she tells him what's happened and that's she's considering a termination. Jake is on an assignment when the letter arrives, so he doesn't get it until much later. He assumes she has now had an abortion and doesn't judge her at all. He goes to see her to give her his support, not to condemn her or to try and stop her in case she's still pregnant.[end spoiler]

A really good book, and I'll definitely be reading the first two soon.

MY GRADE: A strong B+.

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Midwinterblood, by Marcus Sedgwick

>> Wednesday, November 19, 2014

TITLE: Midwinterblood
AUTHOR: Marcus Sedgwick

COPYRIGHT: 2011
PAGES: 272
PUBLISHER: Orion

SETTING: Varies
TYPE: Horror
SERIES: None

Have you ever had the feeling that you've lived another life? Been somewhere that has felt totally familiar even when you've never been there before, or felt that you've known someone even though you are meeting them for the first time?
In a novel comprising seven short stories each of them influenced by a moon - flower moon, harvest moon, hunter's moon, blood moon - and travelling from 2073 back in time to the dark of the moon and the days of Viking saga, this is the story of Eric and Merle who have loved and lost one another and who have been searching for each other ever since. In the different stories the two appear as lovers, mother and son, brother and sister, artist and child as they come close to finding each other before facing the ultimate sacrifice.

Beautifully imagined, intricately and cleverly structured this is a heart-wrenching and breathtaking paranormal romance, but it also has the hallmark Sedgwick gothic touch with plenty of blood-spilling, a vampire and sacrifice.

Midwinterblood is made up of 7 stories, all set in the remote Northern island of Blessed. We start in 2073, when a journalist called Eric Seven travels there to investigate rumours that there's a flower that islanders cultivate and helps them live forever. There is talk that this is sold at a huge price to the richest people on the planet, very illegally.

One of the first people Eric meets is Merle, a young woman he feels he recognises even though he's never seen her before. The other people he meets are all very helpful in terms of finding him somewhere to stay in this island without hotels and getting him food, but not in terms of answering any questions. Not that Eric is, after a while drinking the islanders' special tea, particularly interested in asking any questions, or even remembering that he meant to ask some.

Things don't end well for Eric and Merle, and as we go back in time in the following stories, we realise their souls have met many times over the centuries, in all sorts of different circumstances. They've been brother and sister, mother and child, old man and young girl. Always on Blessed, always the powerful dragon-shaped flowers playing some sort of role.

I thought the idea of Midwinterblood sounded amazing, but the execution of it wasn't to my taste. None of the stories were particularly interesting of themselves, all having boring characters and plots that just didn't capture my attention. I hoped at least the connections between the stories would end up gelling into something that would make the whole thing worth it, but they didn't. You'd see some things recurring and echoing, but it was all a bit pedestrian.

And then there was the writing style. That didn't work for me at all. It's... well, the best way I can describe it is 'fairy-taleish' and sort of dream-like. It didn't engage me, and in fact, I felt it distanced me from the emotions that were supposed to be evoked by the story. This is supposed to be horror, but it wasn't scary in the least. It wasn't even creepy. You need to care about characters, at least to an extent, before you feel afraid for them, and the people and situations need to feel real before you are afraid for yourself.

MY GRADE: A D.

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Blackout, by Tim Curran

>> Monday, November 17, 2014

TITLE: Blackout
AUTHOR: Tim Curran

COPYRIGHT: 2014
PAGES: 234
PUBLISHER: DarkFuse

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Horror
SERIES: None

In the midst of a beautiful summer, in a perfectly American suburban middle-class neighborhood, a faraway evil is lurking, waiting to strike the unsuspecting residents.

First come the flashing lights, then the heavy rains, high winds, and finally a total blackout. But that's only the beginning...

When the whipping black tentacles fall from the sky and begin snatching people at random, the denizens of Piccamore Way must discover the terrifying truth of what these beings have planned for the human race.

I read this just after Hallowe'en, when I fancied reading something scary. Blackout started well on that front, but the scariness didn't carry all the way through.

Our narrator, Jon, and his wife live in a typical suburban American street. It's summer, and they and their neighbours have had a huge barbeque. Jon's had a bit too much to eat and drink, so he falls asleep on the sofa. When he wakes up everything is dark except for the strangely regular and much too frequent lightning, and his wife is not in the house. The neighbours are soon roused and helping with the search, until it becomes awfully clear that something big is going on. The tentacles falling from the sky and snatching people up are a bit of a clue.

Like I said, this started out great. The first part, with Jon and his neighbours not knowing what's going on and going round in the darkness, trying to get help and figure things out, worked perfectly for me. Curran creates a really effective creepy atmosphere and it felt believable. I had no problem buying that even if your gut is telling you that something is just WRONG, your response to your wife going missing is going to be to do what you're supposed to do: organise a search, try to get to the police, and so on.

Once it becomes clear(ish) that what's going on is an alien attack, however, things concentrate more on the action, and that's just a bit humdrum. I mean, there's a lot going on, a lot of excitement, but I found it hard to care much and I certainly didn't feel scared (even though I was reading this in a mountain lodge in the middle of nowhere). Maybe it was that the characters were too undeveloped for me to care what happened to them. We get to know Jon a bit, but after the first sections, I wasn't quite feeling his reactions. It all felt a bit cold an unemotional. The resolution was cool in an intellectual way, but I get the impression I should have been feeling horror and despair. I didn't. I just closed the book and went to sleep.

So, I enjoyed it, but it wasn't great.

MY GRADE: A C+.

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The Fall, by Kate Sherwood

>> Saturday, November 15, 2014

TITLE: The Fall
AUTHOR: Kate Sherwood

COPYRIGHT: 2013
PAGES: 214
PUBLISHER: Dreamspinner Press

SETTING: Contemporary Canada
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: There's a follow-up

Every relationship leaves something behind. Dumped by his sugar daddy, part-time model Scott Mackenzie somehow ends up owning an abandoned church in rural Ontario. He dreams of using it for gay weddings, even if he’ll never have one of his own.

Joe Sutton is trying to keep his family together after his parents’ deaths. Between the family ranch, his brother’s construction company, and commitments around town, he doesn’t have time for a relationship. But Mackenzie is hard to ignore.

As both men fight their growing attraction, challenges to Mackenzie’s business threaten their relationship. If he can’t make it work, he’ll have to crawl back to the city in defeat. But the only solution involves risking the ranch Joe loves, and each man has to decide how much he’ll sacrifice for the other.

Mackenzie (his first name is Scott, but he goes by his last name) has spent the last few years in a relationship with an older, much richer man. In exchange for being the perfect boyfriend, always considerate of his man's needs and not of his own, always at his beck and call, Mackenzie got security and a very comfy lifestyle.

And then the older boyfriend decides Mackenzie's getting too old for a boy-toy, and should be replaced by a younger model. Now all Mackenzie has left is a small nest egg and a run-down, deconsecrated old church in rural Ontario. The plan when he bought it was to turn it into a venue for gay weddings, which with the ex's money and connections, would have been a nice hobby. Mackenzie is determined to make it work anyway.

Joe Sutton meets Mackenzie when he accompanies his twin brother Will to have a look around the church. Joe mainly takes care of the family ranch, but he sometimes helps Will in his contracting business. He finds Mackenzie really attractive (not that he shows it), but he has a lot on his plate. Work is really busy, but there are also loads of family responsibilities. He and Will raised their younger siblings after the death of their parents, and the whole family are now raising the 4-year-old son of the younger brother, who was too young to do it himself.

But of course, this wouldn't be a romance if temptation didn't get to be too much for Joe, and what starts as casual turns more serious as the two men start liking and depending on each other more and more.

I picked this one up after adoring Sherwood's Mark of Cain. While The Fall doesn't have the angsty plot of Mark of Cain, it has a lot of what I liked about it. There's the romance that is about much more than good sex, there's the sense of community and characters who are dealing with much more than what's going on in their love lives.

I'm a sucker for well-done, real-feeling family drama. I particularly like it when what we've got is real tensions and conflicts that arise in a loving family, who continue to love each other even when they are driving each other crazy and might momentarily not like each other very much. This is what we get here. It's people acting like real people, not like evil cartoonish villains, and the tension was much better for it. I loved all those scenes with Joe's family, and I loved seeing Mackenzie fitting in with them at the end. And I particularly loved little Austin, the 4-year-old nephew being brought up by the whole family. I haven't got a maternal bone in my body, but he is truly adorable. I don't know if he's realistic (I suspect not, he's always really good), but I don't care, because he's so sweet in a completely non-saccharine, non-sickening way.

I liked the romance. It wasn't perfect, mainly because Joe's issues behind his reluctance to get involved with Mackenzie don't feel as clearly understandable as they could have been, but that was a relatively small issue. What I loved best was Mackenzie's character arc. I loved that this was not about him finding another protector, but about him coming into his own and meeting the über-competent Joe on his own terms.

This was a really good one. There's apparently a sequel, continuing Joe and Mack's story, but I don't know if I'll go for it. I liked where this stopped. It felt like a wonderful ending to me, and I'm always reluctant to take the risk of ruining that. But then, that's how I felt about the In Death books (it took me years to go beyond Naked in Death), so I'm well aware the pay-off can be great.

MY GRADE: A strong B+.

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Appointment With Death, by Agatha Christie

>> Thursday, November 13, 2014

TITLE: Appointment With Death
AUTHOR: Agatha Christie

COPYRIGHT: 1938
PAGES: 256
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: 1930s Jordan
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: An Hercule Poirot mystery

A tyrannical old martinet, a mental sadist and the incarnation of evil. These were only three of the character descriptions levelled at Mrs. Boynton, the matriarch who kept her family totally dependent on her. But did she really deserve to die on the excursion to beautiful Petra? Hercule Poirot hears about the murder and feels compelled to investigate-despite the family's request not to do so. Do they have something to hide and, if so, can they keep it hidden from this master sleuth?

I chose this one as my next Christie when I realised part of it is set in Jordan. After my visit last year, I find myself fascinated by the place.

The plot centres around a very disfunctional family, the Boyntons. Old Mr. Boynton passed away years ago and left control of the family finances to his second wife. Since then, she has kept an iron grip on both the finances and the family members themselves. There are two sons and a daughter from Mr. Boynton's first marriage, as well as a daughter of his and the second Mrs. Boynton. All four are seemingly in thrall to the woman and unable to break free of her domination. The eldest son is married, and his wife is desperate for them to move away from her influence, but he can't manage it.

And then, on a family trip to Petra, Mrs. Boynton dies. It looks like an accident, but Hercule Poirot is also on holiday in the area, and he suspects someone in her family finally had enough of her psychological torture. Because when he first met the Boyntons in Jerusalem, he overheard one of them say to another: “You see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?”.

I had a bit of an issue with this one, which I'm not sure I would have had if I'd read it at the time it came out. No matter how much I tried to rationalise it (it's the 1930s and the economy is awful, Mrs. Boynton made sure none of the children got a useful education, why should they walk away from the fortune that should belong to them by rights?), I just couldn't buy that these people would not have had enough long before. It would have been more believable if Christie had written them as brainwashed or otherwise psychologically damaged, but as soon as Mrs. Boynton dies, they're all perfectly fine. Plus, the old woman herself didn't seem to be as monstrous as we're told she is... as the blurb puts it: "a mental sadist and the incarnation of evil". She's pretty horrid, but in a much more normal way.

The mechanics of the plot are fun, though. There are some good red herrings, and Poirot is on form. Also, I particularly enjoyed the setting. It's not a travelogue, but quite a good picture emerges of what Jordan would have been like at the time.

Not Christie's best, but a good read, nonetheless.

MY GRADE: A B-.

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Taken In Death, by JD Robb

>> Tuesday, November 11, 2014

TITLE: Taken In Death (originally in Mirror, Mirror anthology)
AUTHOR: JD Robb

COPYRIGHT: 2013
PAGES: 100
PUBLISHER: Jove

SETTING: Mid 21st century New York
TYPE: Mystery/suspense
SERIES: Part of the In Death series, comes after book #39, Thankless in Death

The evil witch killed Darcia. Henry knew it because he'd seen Darcia on the floor, and all the blood. Everything felt funny and sleepy and wrong. He knew he was under a spell. The evil witch's magic spell.'

When twins Henry and Gala are kidnapped and their nanny killed, Lieutenant Eve Dallas steps in to take control. But video footage shows what appears to be their mother arriving and leaving with the obviously drugged seven-year-olds. Something is wrong, and Eve, her husband Roarke and her brilliant team are ready to work round the clock to get the children back alive...

Lately, the In Death short stories have been published in anthologies following particular themes. This time it's fairy tales (as you might guess from the title). I'm quite intrigued by the idea of mystery/crime + fairy tales (in fact, I just bought a book that qualifies: Brother Grimm, by Craig Russell. Mixed reviews, but it's a Hamburg-set, fairy tale-themed police thriller. How could I resist?). However, I know I don't like the authors JD Robb is always packaged with, so I resisted the temptation in this case and read just the Robb story.

Robb picks an unexpected fairy tale to base her story on: Hansel and Gretel. Eve Dallas is called to the scene of a murder and kidnapping. A woman working as a nanny is dead, her two charges (twins) missing. The security video hasn't been tampered with and it's clear: it's the mother who took them. But when the mother and father come back from travelling, she has a reliable alibi. She also has an evil twin, one who's suposed to be locked up in a mental health ward in Sweden, but isn't.

I liked this one a lot. It's not really a whodunnit; rather, it's focused on the hunt for a known culprit, and it's really well done. Given the short space available, concentrating on one particular element works best. And it's really clever, with some really cool moments and even some truly frightening and tense ones. If you can't deal with 'children in peril' plots, then this one's probably not for you.

I particularly liked that there was a genuine fairy-tale feel to the story, even though it still fit perfectly in the usual In Death universe. I've criticised previous short stories in this series for going too far out in the paranormal element, but this was not like that at all.

My only issue with this one was: did Robb really need to make the Hansel and Gretel connection explicit? We’re not stupid!

MY GRADE: A B.

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After the Scandal, by Elizabeth Essex

>> Sunday, November 09, 2014

TITLE: After the Scandal
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Essex

COPYRIGHT: 2014
PAGES: 400
PUBLISHER: St. Martin's

SETTING: 19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 4th in the Reckless Brides series

CAN AN INDECENT PROPOSAL

When Lady Claire Jellicoe agreed to a walk in the moonlight, she never imagined her titled companion might have brutal motives. Nor could she have dreamed up such a brave rescue by the most unexpected savior of all: an inscrutable nobleman with a daring plan of escape—and a deliciously tempting embrace…

LEAD TO EVERLASTING LOVE?

Timothy Evans, the Duke of Fenmore, has palmed more treasures than he can count. Even for a man who grew up thieving in London’s stews, a stolen bride should be beyond the pale. But Fenmore won’t let scandal ruin the spirited beauty’s reputation. And now that she’s stolen his heart, how can he ever let her go...?

I've mentioned a few times that I'm on a bit of a quest to find a few new historical romance authors, as I've kind of been left only with a small number of authors I know I like. I've heard good things about Elizabeth Essex, so I thought I'd try one of hers. Unfortunately, this turned out to be exactly the sort of historical romance that I avoid: one full of characters behaving in preposterous ways and with no regard for history.

At first, I liked it well enough. As the book starts, Tanner notices Lady Claire Jellicoe being led out into the gardens by a man he knows is a rapist (it is not clear why he hasn't already had him kicked out of the party, which is at his grandmother's house, especially since the man came without an invitation). Tanner follows them out and stops the man in the nick of time. Claire is shaken, so instead of returning to the house just yet, Tanner suggests they go for a row on the river for a little while. Tanner has long been in love with Claire from afar, but has never dared approach her (in the part I read, it's not clear why he, a duke, would not have done so). He's trying to help, but he's also deviously thinking that she'll probably end up compromised, and they'll have to get married. Claire agrees to get on the rowboat. Okay, so far, so good. I buy everyone's reactions. Claire is taking a bit of a risk with her reputation by not immediately going back to her parents, but I understand completely why she'd do that. She's pretty upset. And Tanner's manipulation of the circumstances is not beyond the pale for me.

But almost straight away, things started getting iffy. As they're about to turn round to go back, the rowboat hits something. It's a dead body, and when Tanner hauls it up, Claire realises it's her lady's maid. She's been raped and murdered. Tanner is quite comfortable sharing this information with Claire, and she's unfazed.

Tanner suggests instead of going back to Richmond it would be better to go a bit further down the river into Chelsea, where he's got friends in a hospital and they can examine the body. He's determined to get justice for the young woman, he tells Claire, and he asks her if she'll help. She agrees, and they go on to the hospital. No problem at all, Claire blithely says, she'll send her parents a message saying she's gone back to London. She's 20 and unmarried, not an independent widow, or anything like that, but the narrative indicates that this should be fine and dandy.

Tanner has all sorts of low contacts from growing up on the streets before he discovered he was heir to the dukedom, so he feels well qualified to go make enquiries in the slums where the maid grew up (not clear why he'd want to start there rather than in Richmond, at the place where she was actually killed). Claire is insistent that she will come with him and help. She's a gently bred young lady with no experience of anything beyond balls and walks in the park. I think what the author is trying to convey here is that Tanner's good for Claire because he's someone who will help her do things, but Claire comes across as silly, rather than brave and resourceful.

And at this point, I was rolling my eyes so hard I almost passed out. The lapses in logic, the behaviour that no one seems to think is risky in any way, the poor motivations. Not for me.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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