Who Gets What — and Why: The New Economics of Matchmaking and Market Design, by Alvin E Roth

>> Sunday, July 17, 2016

TITLE: Who Gets What — and Why: The New Economics of Matchmaking and Market Design
AUTHOR: Alvin E Roth

COPYRIGHT: 2015
PAGES: 272
PUBLISHER: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

SETTING: N/A
TYPE: Non Fiction
SERIES: None

Most of the study of economics deals with commodity markets, where the price of a good connects sellers and buyers. But what about other kinds of “goods,” like a spot in the Yale freshman class or a position at Google? If you’ve ever sought a job or hired someone, applied to college or guided your child into a good kindergarten, asked someone out on a date or been asked out, you’ve participated in a kind of market. This is the territory of matching markets, where “sellers” and “buyers” must choose each other, and price isn’t the only factor determining who gets what.

In Who Gets What—and Why, Nobel laureate Alvin E. Roth reveals the matching markets hidden around us and shows us how to recognize a good match and make smarter, more confident decisions.
Roth is well known for his work on market design, which garnered him a Nobel Prize in Economics back in 2012. I've been following his blog for a while, so I bought his book as soon as it came out.

This is a fascinating exploration of matching markets, which are the markets where things don't simply work by finding the right price at which supply equals demand. As Roth puts it, "prices don't do all the work" there (in fact, in some, prices don't do any work at all). In matching markets, both supplier and consumer have choices, and have to choose each other. It's not enough for the consumer to decide on a product, as they would in a commodities market, the supplier has to choose the consumer as well (e.g. I can't just decide to attend Oxford University, they have to accept me as well. And Oxford can't just decide I'm going to study there!).

Roth presents several such markets and explains how they work and what problems such markets might suffer from, and proposes some solutions, including several he and his colleagues have implemented in the past for markets as disparate as kidney exchanges, school placements and the hiring of new doctors.

I'd recommend this one to both professional economists and lay readers alike. There was plenty here that was new to me (I fall in the former camp), and plenty that, although familiar, I'd never thought about in quite that way before. And it sparked off some really interesting further reading. Roth writes in a way that somehow manages to be clear enough that non-economists will get it perfectly, while not feeling simplistic and condescending to those of us familiar with many of the concepts.

And it's super practical (while making it clear that there is a hell of a lot of very technical stuff behind it all). As someone who bemoans the unintelligible maths arms race that has engulfed current economics research, this was great.

MY GRADE: An A-.

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House of Shadows, by Nicola Cornick

>> Tuesday, July 05, 2016

TITLE: House of Shadows
AUTHOR: Nicola Cornick

COPYRIGHT: 2015
PAGES: 449
PUBLISHER: Mira

SETTING: Various
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

For fans of Barbara Erskine and Kate Morton comes an unforgettable novel about three women and the power one lie can have over history.

London, 1662:

There was something the Winter Queen needed to tell him. She fought for the strength to speak.
‘The crystal mirror is a danger. It must be destroyed – ‘
He replied instantly. ‘It will’.

Ashdown, Oxfordshire, present day:

Ben Ansell is researching his family tree when he disappears. As his sister Holly begins a desperate search, she finds herself inexplicably drawn to an ornate antique mirror and to the diary of Lavinia, a 19th century courtesan who was living at Ashdown House when it burned to the ground over 200 years ago.

Intrigued, and determined to find out more about the tragedy at Ashdown, Holly’s only hope is that uncovering the truth about the past will lead her to Ben.
House of Shadows tells the story of two beautiful and dangerous paranormal objects across three different time periods.

In the 17th century, Cornick fictionalises the story of a real historical character, Elizabeth of Bohemia. Elizabeth Stuart was an English princess who married Frederick V, Elector Palatine. Frederick lost his kingdom, and Cornick's story starts as Elizabeth and Frederick are in exile in The Hague. Cornick's addition is that Elizabeth inherited two powerful objects from Mary Queen of Scots: the so-called Sistrin pearl and a jewelled mirror. They can do a number of things (can you tell I was never quite sure what?), but the main thing is that they allow the user to scry the future. Frederick has taken to using them, together with the knights of the Rosicrucian Fellowship, to try to recover his crown. Elizabeth is completely against this, as the objects have a history of taking payment for their use in blood, but Frederick won't listen. The book follows Elizabeth's story over the years, particularly her relationship with William Craven, a soldier she's rumoured to have secretly married after the death of her husband.

In the present day, Holly Ansell's brother Ben has mysteriously disappeared from from the holiday house he and Holly inherited from their parents in a little village in Oxfordshire. That house used to be part of the estate where William Craven had his manor house (which has since burned down), where he's rumoured to have brought Elizabeth after their marriage. Holly discovers Ben has been researching their family history (very uncharacteristic of him), and through some of the material he left behind, deduces he was seeking the Sistrin pearl, which has been lost since the 17th century.

One of the things Ben left behind is a diary written by a courtesan in the early 19th century (here's our third time period), telling of her life as the mistress of a Lord Evershot, a spoilt aristocrat decended from William Craven. Evershot is clearly looking for something he believes is hidden in his estate. Could it be the Sistrin pearl?

Action moves between the time periods, but particularly the first two. A shame, because I particularly enjoyed the character of Lavinia Flyte, our 19th century courtesan. Like Holly, I thought she was fabulous: brave, pragmatic and determined to make the best of things, presenting a brave front but clearly hiding vulnerabilities. I would totally read a book all about her!

Elizabeth and William's storyline I liked less. I suspect we were meant to find their relationship oh-so-romantic, but I wasn't particularly engaged. Plus, there's a point when Craven allows his mistress to walk all over him in a way that helped the plot go in a particular way but felt completely unrealistic for the character (I'm not even sure why Cornick needed to do this, plot-wise, as there are plenty of other ways in which the same ends could have been achieved). I wasn't fussed about either of them, to be honest.

I liked the present-day story more. The mystery of Ben's disappearance is interesting and I liked Holly well enough. That said, I never really got a good sense of her. She's fine, I guess, and worked ok as the main character for the plot, which is the main thing here. Holly gets a romance as well, and quite a nice one. The guy was intriguing, a former soldier who now runs an engineering company in the village. I wish we'd got more of him. The romance is nice, but underdeveloped. And given that I picked up this book because it was mentioned by Susanna Kearsley together with In Another Time, I should clarify we do get a HEA!

This was diverting enough and mostly harmless. I enjoyed the history but didn't feel any deep emotions. It was fine.

MY GRADE: A C+.

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Marrying Winterborne, by Lisa Kleypas

>> Sunday, July 03, 2016

TITLE: Marrying Winterborne
AUTHOR: Lisa Kleypas

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 416
PUBLISHER: Avon

SETTING: Victorian England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 2nd in the Ravenels series

A ruthless tycoon

Savage ambition has brought common-born Rhys Winterborne vast wealth and success. In business and beyond, Rhys gets exactly what he wants. And from the moment he meets the shy, aristocratic Lady Helen Ravenel, he is determined to possess her. If he must take her virtue to ensure she marries him, so much the better . . .

A sheltered beauty

Helen has had little contact with the glittering, cynical world of London society. Yet Rhys’s determined seduction awakens an intense mutual passion. Helen’s gentle upbringing belies a stubborn conviction that only she can tame her unruly husband. As Rhys’s enemies conspire against them, Helen must trust him with her darkest secret. The risks are unthinkable . . . the reward, a lifetime of incomparable bliss. And it all begins with…

Marrying Winterborne
I sort of abandoned Kleypas after reading her contemps. Her "billionaire businessmen are amazing!!" gushing really put me off and felt very pre-2008. When she went back to historicals with Cold-Hearted Rake last year I wondered if I should go back, but that one didn't particularly call to me. This, the second book in the series, did. My one bookish resolution is to worry less about reading series from the start, so I went for it.

Marrying Winterbourne being the second book in the series does show quite a bit, particularly at the start of the book, as the whole beginning of the main relationship happened in book 1. In that book, self-made tycoon and owner of the world's biggest, most profitable and all-around most amazing department store, Rhys Winterborne accompanied his friend (the cold-hearted rake of the title, I take it) to take possession of an earldom the latter had unexpectedly inherited. They were apparently caught up in a train crash and Winterborne was pretty poorly for a while. He was nursed by Helena, his friend's new-found cousin, and sister of the previous Earl.

Helena was innocent and naive and spent a lot of time with Winterborne, who fell madly in lust with her. At some point they became engaged (we're told his proposal was very much a sort of business proposition), but that didn't last long. The end of it, as far as I could tell by reading this, came when he kissed her a bit too passionately and her reaction triggered a migraine. Then the heroine of the previous book took it upon herself to tell Winterborne the engagement was over, even though Helena had wanted nothing of the sort. All of this is backstory, and we're told it right at the start of the book, in a way that felt a bit flat. Lots of telling, no showing.

As the book starts, Helena is determined to get her engagement back. Contrary to what Winterborne thought, she hadn't accepted the engagement because of the excellent arguments he made about how much he could give her, being so incredibly rich. Nope, Helena found Winterborne really attractive and intriguing, if a bit frightening, and couldn't wait to marry him and live a less circumscribed life. Winterborne is in no mood to listen at first, but she soon convinces him that she really, really does want to marry him (enough to prove it by allowing him to "ruin" her).

So they become engaged. And nothing much happens. Helena finds out a secret that she fears will put Winterbourne off marrying her, but it's obvious it won't, and that he'll put her mind at ease as soon as she tells him about it (the resolution of this conflict is extended by Helena refusing to have the conversation and instead deciding to spend just a bit more time with Rhys before it all ends, as that will be all she has to sustain her in her old age -great reasoning, and one of my least favourite romance tropes). There's a damp squib of a blackmail plot, with a blackmailer who quite obviously poses very little danger and generates very little tension. And there is the rescue of a little girl, including a sword/cane-wielding female doctor who was by far my favourite character in the book. That last bit was fab, but unfortunately lasted for only a few pages.

Eh. You can probably tell from my descriptions that I found a lot here quite tedious. The book started well enough, in spite of the backstory infodump. I liked Helena. She's a little bit terrified of Rhys, but she realises it's a good terrified, and he's the most exciting thing that's likely to happen to her in her life. So she takes things into her own hands and takes the risk to go see him. And she stands her ground and absolutely does not let him intimidate him. For the rest of the book, though, the relationship didn't live up to that start. Kleypas really plays up the contrast between the upper-class, delicate blonde innocent and the big, working class dark brute, which is not my thing. It was relatively inoffensive, though, as Helena does have a spine and Rhys shows quite a bit of respect for her wishes. But it wasn't that interesting, and to be honest, for a long time all that was happening in their relationship was far too many sex scenes that didn't add anything.

I think Kleypas is now an author whose sensibilities just don't work for me. I just could not stand her gushing -there really isn't a better word to describe it- both about the nobility, and about just how incredibly rich Rhys is and how wonderful his department store is and just how many amazing luxury goods he stocks. He is, at least, pretty progressive (takes care of his workers, is happy to hire women for high-responsibility roles), but that only makes it more weird when we get things like this bit:

“A department store?” Lady Berwick sounded disconcerted. “I only frequent small shops, where the tradesmen are acquainted with my preferences.”

“My sales clerks would show you the greatest variety of luxury goods you’ve ever seen in one place. Gloves, for example—how many pairs do they bring out for you at a little shop? A dozen? Two dozen? At the glove counter at Winterborne’s, you’ll view ten times that many, made of glacĂ©ed kid, calf suede, doeskin, elk, peccary, antelope, even kangaroo.” Seeing her interest, Rhys continued casually, “No fewer than three countries have a part in making our best gloves. Lambskin dressed in Spain, cut in France, and hand-stitched in England. Each glove is so delicate, it can be enclosed in the shell of a walnut.”

“You offer those at your store?” the countess asked, clearly weakening.

“Aye. And we have eighty other departments featuring items from all over the world.”

“I am intrigued,” the older woman admitted.
Yay for big department stores putting small shopkeepers out of business!

I was also seriously annoyed by the essentialisation and objectification of Rhys's Welsh background. There's a constant litany of "I'm Welsh therefore this", "I am like this because I'm Welsh". Yes, it's all positive ("Ohhhhh, Welshmen are so hawt!"), but that doesn't make it any less distasteful.

In general, this felt old-fashioned to me. It's just the sort of historical that I would have really liked back in the 90s, when I was first starting out in my romance reading and something like this would have felt wonderful compared to old-school bodice-rippers. But now I tend to prefer something that's a bit more subversive when I read historical romance, something that questions the setting a bit more, rather than celebrate it. This is not it.

MY GRADE: A C-.

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Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J Ryan Stradal

>> Thursday, June 09, 2016

TITLE: Kitchens of the Great Midwest
AUTHOR: J Ryan Stradal

COPYRIGHT: 2015
PAGES: 316
PUBLISHER: Viking

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

Who is Eva Thorvald?

To her single father, a chef, she's a pint-sized recipe tester and the love of his life. To the chilli chowdown contestants of Cook County, Illinois, she's a fire-eating demon. To the fashionable foodie goddess of supper clubs, she's a wanton threat. She's an enigma, a secret ingredient that no one can put their finger on. Eva will surprise everyone.

On the day before her eleventh birthday, she's cultivating chilli peppers in her wardrobe like a pro. Abandoned by her mother, gangly and poor, Eva arms herself with the weapons of her unknown heritage: a kick-ass palate and a passion bordering on obsession.

Over the years, her tastes grow, and so do her ambitions. One day Eva will be the greatest chef in the world. But along the way, the people she meets will shape her - and she, them - in ways unforgettable, riotous and profound. So she - for one - knows exactly who she is by the time her mother returns.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest is about the family you lose, the friends you make and chance connections that can define a life. Joyful, quirky or brazen, everyone lends their voice to tell Eva's story - one that's as heartwarming as it is irresistible, taking the bitter with the sweet.
This is the story of Eva, a girl who grows up with a miraculous palate and a deep love of food, in spite of her unpromising upbringing. Eva's father was a chef, but he died when Eva was still a baby. Since her mother had just abandoned the two of them when he died, Eva is then brought up by her uncle and aunt, who are... well, whatever the opposite of "foodies" is!

While Eva is the protagonist of the book, her story is told indirectly. Stradal uses a really interesting structure, with a book that is a novel, but also close to a collection of short stories. Each chapter of the book jumps a few years into the future, and is told from a different perspective. Only one chapter is narrated by Eva herself, and that is one that takes place when she's a young child. The narrator is different in each of the others, and it's sometimes characters we've seen before, often people we haven't yet met. In these chapters, the focus really is on the person narrating. Eva is significant to different extents: sometimes she's almost the whole point of the story (like in the chapter narrated by her teenaged suitor), sometimes she's only a peripheral character (like in the chapter narrated by a lady entering baking competitions with her bars). I liked figuring out the connections (e.g. the lady entering baking competitions? She happens to be the teenage boyfriend's stepmum -there are lots of connections like that), and it all comes to a great climax in a fantastic final episode, where quite a few of the different threads come together.

The structure may sound a bit weird, but I really liked it and thought it worked wonderfully. I liked seeing Eva from the outside. Yes, we do lose some intimacy with her, but I think her slight air of mysteriousness worked.

Something I particularly liked was the humour. There are a couple of instances of laugh-out-loud humour, but mostly it's just a constant, low-key thing, present in pretty much every paragraph. It's an observational and quite gentle kind of humour, just my sort of thing.

I also really enjoyed the setting of the US Midwest. There's quite a variety there, from the Scandinavian heritage prominent in the first few chapters, to the much more multicultural city settings later on. Oh, and the food! I felt Stradal hit a happy medium there. There's a true love of food here, both the traditional and the super-sophisticated, and Stradal pokes fun at both sides (my favourite chapter for that was the one with the baking competitions!).

This is not a deep or deeply affecting book, but it was a deeply enjoyable one.

MY GRADE: A B+.

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In Another Life, by Julie Christine Johnson

>> Friday, June 03, 2016

TITLE: In Another Life
AUTHOR: Julie Christine Johnson

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 368
PUBLISHER: Sourcebooks Casablanca

SETTING: Contemporary and 13th century Southern France
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

Three men are trapped in time. One woman could save them all.

Historian Lia Carrer has finally returned to southern France, determined to rebuild her life after the death of her husband. But instead of finding solace in the region's quiet hills and medieval ruins, she falls in love with Raoul, a man whose very existence challenges everything she knows about life-and about her husband's death. As Raoul reveals the story of his past to Lia, she becomes entangled in the echoes of an ancient murder, resulting in a haunting and suspenseful journey that reminds Lia that the dead may not be as far from us as we think.
Steeped in the rich history and romantic landscape of rural France, In Another Life is a story of love that conquers time, and the lost loves that haunt us all.
I bought this one (and House of Shadows, by Nicola Cornick, which I'll review soon) after Susanna Kearsley mentioned it in an interview on the DBSA podcast. It sounded like the sort of thing one might like if one likes Susanna's books. It went into my digital TBR and was just sitting there till Kaetrin had a review of it on Dear Author. Kaetrin really didn't like it, and one of the reasons was that it wasn't like Susanna's books in that it wasn't a romance at all -no HEA, or even HFN.

I don't mind unhappy endings if they work for that particular book (and if I'm not expecting one, thinking I'm reading a romance novel!), so that aroused my curiosity. The book did sound like exactly my sort of thing, so I was intrigued to see if it would work any better for me, having had Kaetrin's warning about the ending.

Lia Carrer is still mentally recovering from the death of her husband, Gabriel, in a cycling accident in Southern France. Lia is a historian and her area is the Cathars, so two years after the tragedy, she has overcome her reluctantance to go back to that part of the world, where her mother's family is from, and has accepted an invitation from some close friends to stay in a house they own near their own.

But what she expects to be a quiet time of study and research and healing becomes life-changing when her life becomes entwined with that of three men who've got links to a murder that happened in the early 13th century. This was a murder that led directly to the Albigensian Crusad, the military campaign launched by the Catholic Church to eliminate Catharism in the South of France, and it turns out it still echoes in Lia's present.

I found this book a little bit meh. The ending was actually fine. I thought the way things were resolved made sense for the story (if I've understood it all correctly -Kaetrin and I had quite a discussion in the comments of her DA review!), so I didn't have a problem with the non-happy ending. It felt like the right ending for this particular story. But it's also that it was an ending that didn't really affect me emotionally, because Johnson didn't really succeed in making me care for her characters. My reaction was not "Noooooooo!I can't believe she did that to Lia!". It was "Eh. Ok." That is a bit of a problem, because I felt the book was meant to be quite emotional. There's all the doomed romance between one of the men, Raoul, and his wife in the 13th century, Paloma. There's also the romance in the current day between the modern Raoul and Lia. I didn't particularly care.

The other issue I had is that the paranormal element was not particularly well-developed. For instance (and this is not a spoiler, since it becomes clear pretty quickly), Raoul dies in the 13th century, and then the next thing he knows, he wakes up in the 21st century (this is something that happened a few years before this book starts, at about the time Lia's husband died -ding, ding, ding!). But he's not simply a 13th century man waking up in a radically changed world. He's familiar with it -knows how to drive, understands how it all works, etc. He just has memories of the 13th century. He even has a history as Raoul in the modern world. He’s part of a family (they are all dead by the time the book starts, but we're told he inherited his farm from an uncle). So what happened to the soul of the person who was Raoul until that moment when the 13th century Raoul woke up in his body? This issue is completely ignored. We don’t get told if this Raoul remembers anything of the life before he “awoke”, or what that life was like. That didn't seem to me a deliberate choice, but more a bit of hand-waving of the "it's too complicated, best to just ignore it" kind. There are quite a few elements that are like that. Paranormal things happen with neither rhyme nor reason, simply because they're necessary to move the plot along in a particular way. I could go with it, to a certain extent, but it felt pretty unsatisfying.

All that said, I did enjoy quite a bit of the book. Johnson is really good at creating an atmosphere and a really vivid setting. Both her modern-day and 13th century France settings are wonderfully done (in fact, the one thing that did remind me of Kearsley was the atmosphere in the present-day France bits -put me in mind of her latest, A Dangerous Fortune) and I loved wondering round with Lia and finding out more about the history. If only the story being told had been more engaging!

MY GRADE: A C.

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Concrete Island, by JG Ballard

>> Monday, May 30, 2016

TITLE: Concrete Island
AUTHOR: JG Ballard

COPYRIGHT: 1974
PAGES: 176
PUBLISHER: Picador

SETTING: 1970s London
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

On a day in April, just after three o'clock in the afternoon, Robert Maitland's car crashes over the concrete parapet of a high-speed highway onto the island below, where he is injured and, finally, trapped. What begins as an almost ludicrous predicament soon turns into horror as Maitland―a wickedly modern Robinson Crusoe―realizes that, despite evidence of other inhabitants, this doomed terrain has become a mirror of his own mind. Seeking the dark outer rim of the everyday, Ballard weaves private catastrophe into an intensely secular allegory.
Driving too fast in his Jaguar, on the way back from a weekend with his mistress, architect Robert Maitland crashes through the barriers off the motorway and onto a traffic island. He's basically ok, and assumes the ambulances and police will be coming soon. They don't, and getting off the island on his own is much harder than Maitland assumed.

This started out well. The metaphor is a bit heavy-handed (yeah, yeah, alienation, disconnection, in this society no one cares about the life-and-death struggles going on right under their noses as they hurry to their appointments), but the point does stand, and the metaphor is an interesting one. I also liked the way it was written. I had expected that the setup was going to be somehow supernatural (e.g. he'd try to climb an embankment that looked only a couple of metres high, but no matter how much he climbed he'd always be in the same spot... that sort of thing). But Ballard opted to write it as real, and to me, that made it a lot more effective. I believed in Maitland himself. In that absurd, surreal situation he finds himself in he still behaves like a real human being would (the fact that right after the accident he's not particularly rational is both necessary for the plot and completely understandable). Also, he's a bit of a shit, but he's meant to be.

But then Maitland realises that he's not alone on his island, and as soon as other characters are introduced, the book turns to shit. Ballard is fine when his character is a middle-aged straight white man. As soon as he moves away from that, he's lost. There's an older man, a tramp with a brain injury who's basically depicted as animalistic and grotesque. There's a young prostitute who's all the most offensive stereotypes about women combined. The interactions between the characters are stiff and unbelievable. The point when I realised the book was not going to recover was when Maitland decided to assert his dominance (which the narration implies is only natural and something we readers should see as the reestablishment of order) by pissing on the tramp and fucking the woman. The book completely lost me then.

MY GRADE: A D.

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A Seditious Affair, by KJ Charles

>> Sunday, May 22, 2016

TITLE: A Seditious Affair
AUTHOR: KJ Charles

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 253
PUBLISHER: Loveswept

SETTING: Early 19th century London
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Part of the Society of Gentlemen series

K. J. Charles turns up the heat in her new Society of Gentlemen novel, as two lovers face off in a sensual duel that challenges their deepest beliefs.

Silas Mason has no illusions about himself. He’s not lovable, or even likable. He’s an overbearing idealist, a Radical bookseller and pamphleteer who lives for revolution . . . and for Wednesday nights. Every week he meets anonymously with the same man, in whom Silas has discovered the ideal meld of intellectual companionship and absolute obedience to his sexual commands. But unbeknownst to Silas, his closest friend is also his greatest enemy, with the power to see him hanged—or spare his life.

A loyal, well-born gentleman official, Dominic Frey is torn apart by his affair with Silas. By the light of day, he cannot fathom the intoxicating lust that drives him to meet with the Radical week after week. In the bedroom, everything else falls away. Their needs match, and they are united by sympathy for each other’s deepest vulnerabilities. But when Silas’s politics earn him a death sentence, desire clashes with duty, and Dominic finds himself doing everything he can to save the man who stole his heart.
I bought this one without reading the blurb. I think I confused it with another Charles book I'd seen people talking about, and when I saw it was about 50p on amazon, I just clicked. It became obvious I'd been thinking of a different book pretty much as soon as I started it, when I found myself in the midst of a BDSM sex scene. Really, really not my thing. I'll be honest, if I'd been somewhere with wi-fi I would probably have returned it right there and then, but I wasn't, and I thought it might be a good idea to step out of my comfort zone and give something different a try.

Well, unfortunately, sometimes giving something different a try doesn't pay off.

Dominic Frey is a well-born gentleman who has a kink he's never been able to properly indulge in. He's submissive and needs a sexual partner who orders him around and humiliates him. This has even ruined a relationship with a man he loved, who just couldn't deal with what Dominic needed. As the book starts, Dominic has been able to make an arrangement. Every Wednesday night he goes to an establishment where a great big brute gives him exactly what he wants. Dominic is happy, the other man, Silas Mason, is happy.

Problem is, Dominic works for the Home Office and his job involves stamping out the publication of seditious printed material (basically, anything that questions the Government). Which is exactly what Silas is involved in: he owns a bookshop known as a gathering place for radicals and operates a secret printing press. The first time they meet outside of their trysting place is when Dominic supervises a raid on Silas' bookshop.

If the BDSM had been the only thing I had a problem with, I think I'd have been ok (I probably sound really judgmental here. I don't have a problem with BDSM itself, it's just that when something is written with the intention of being hot and sexy and it doesn't strike the reader that way, that's an issue). But it wasn't the only thing. The whole setup of the series struck me as sordid. This group of men seem to all have slept with each other, and I was uncomfortable by how much detail of each other's sex lives was shared with others, even those who weren't particularly intimate. Everyone seems to know about Dominic's Wednesday deal and his kinks. That almost "sex club" setup really didn't work for me.

I also had issues with this beyond the sex, particularly with Dominic's politics. I have enough of a problem with modern-day Tory politics already, so 19th century Tory politics simply enraged me. Dominic is very much for maintaining the existing social order (which benefits toffs like him, duh) and dismissing the concerns of those who are not as well treated by it. He does have some (very mild) problems with his Government's proposals to trample on people's civil rights in an extreme fashion in order to contain any radicalism. However, his position is that, even though he doesn't support these measures, if they do become the law, then he must enforce them. Look, I'm a civil servant myself, so I do understand that your job will sometimes involve implementing policies you don't agree with. But there's a limit there, and if you have grave enough ethical problems with something, the only honourable path is to resign. This won't happen often, but the sorts of policies we're talking about here are one such situation. To be fair, this might happen later in the book, but I didn't like that Dominic was the sort of person who would need to be in a situation where this impinged on his own welfare (by putting a man he cares about in danger) before he'll even consider whether what he's doing is wrong.

Not for me, I'm afraid, which is a shame, because several people whose taste I usually share love Charles' books.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K Dick

>> Friday, May 20, 2016

TITLE: The Man in the High Castle
AUTHOR: Philip K Dick

COPYRIGHT: 1962
PAGES: 259
PUBLISHER: Vintage

SETTING: Alternate version of the US, 1962
TYPE: Speculative fiction
SERIES: None

“The single most resonant and carefully imagined book of Dick’s career.” – New York Times

It's America in 1962. Slavery is legal once again. The few Jews who still survive hide under assumed names. In San Francisco, the I Ching is as common as the Yellow Pages. All because some twenty years earlier the United States lost a war—and is now occupied by Nazi Germany and Japan.

This harrowing, Hugo Award-winning novel is the work that established Philip K. Dick as an innovator in science fiction while breaking the barrier between science fiction and the serious novel of ideas. In it Dick offers a haunting vision of history as a nightmare from which it may just be possible to wake.
Alternate history. This is a world where the Axis powers won the war. Japan and Germany have pretty much divided the whole of the United States, and the rest of the world has changed in even more cataclysmic ways. The Mediterranean has been drained to create more farmland, almost the entire population of Africa has been exterminated, and South America is going in the same direction. Not content with world domination, the Nazis have began colonising the entire galaxy (I must say, the idea of "Nazis in Mars" struck me as funny, for some reason).

It's now just over 15 years from the end of the war and things in the US West coast have settled down a bit. And in this world, Dick unfolds several somewhat interlocking stories. There's a strange new book circulating called "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy", telling an alternate history of the war, where it's the Allies who've won. There's Frank Frink, a Jew who's just started a new venture making modern jewellery. There's Bob Childan, owner of an antique store which specialises in authentic American pop culture artifacts from before the war. There's Baynes, a supposedly Swedish industrialist, newly arrived in the US to meet with a high-ranking Japanese and impart some dangerous knowledge. And there's Julianna Frink, Frank's ex wife, who embarks on an adventure with her new lover to meet the author of the Grasshopper book.

So many storylines for a short book, and none of them go anywhere, or are peopled by characters who interested me in the least. And that meant I found the book pretty disappointing.

It's a book with a great idea. Dick builds up his world in great detail. I loved that he basically changes a few small things that happened during World War II and this means that events then unfold in what felt to me a pretty plausible way, leading to a completely different outcome. The Grasshopper book changes those events back to what actually happened in our real world, but then changes others as well, and we end up with a version of history where the Allies won, but that is not our real history. I really enjoyed the intricacy of that.

The thing is, though, I'm a reader who needs a bit of story and, most of all, characters I care about. I don't have to like them, but I must recognise some germ of realness in them, and I must care about what happens to them. That was not the case here at all. These people didn't feel real (particularly the one female significant character, who was a weird mix of stereotypes), and I never cared at all. There's no suspense, no narrative drive, nothing.

It felt to me like Dick wasted the potential of his concept, as well. He doesn't seem too concerned about the politics, either. There's a bit of intrigue, yes, but the author seems more interested in exploring concepts like authenticity and cultural appropriation. There was some interesting stuff there (the Japanese going native in the US and patronisingly asking Americans for advice in how to do authentic things was something that really hit home), but not enough.

I was left feeling I wasn't really getting it. I didn't particularly enjoy this, but there's something niggling making me wondering if I might not have to read it again to understand it.

MY GRADE: A C+.

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Hold Your Breath, by Katie Ruggle

>> Wednesday, May 18, 2016

TITLE: Hold Your Breath
AUTHOR: Katie Ruggle

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Sourcebook Casablanca

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romantic suspense
SERIES: First full length title in a series

In the remote Rocky Mountains, lives depend on the Search & Rescue brotherhood. But in a place this far off the map, trust is hard to come by and secrets can be murder...

As the captain of Field County's ice rescue dive team, Callum Cook is driven to perfection. But when he meets new diver Louise "Lou" Sparks, all that hard-won order is obliterated in an instant. Lou is a hurricane. A walking disaster. And with her, he's never felt more alive...even if keeping her safe may just kill him.

Lou's new to the Rockies, intent on escaping her controlling ex, and she's determined to make it on her own terms...no matter how tempting Callum may be. But when a routine training exercise unearths a body, Lou and Callum find themselves thrust into a deadly game of cat and mouse with a killer who will stop at nothing to silence Lou-and prove that not even her new Search and Rescue family can keep her safe forever.
I don't know what caught my attention when I saw this book in a 'new releases' list. It might have been the very concept of an ice rescue dive team. Whatever it was, I'm glad it got me, because I thoroughly enjoyed the story.

Lou Sparks is a new member of the ice rescue dive team in a small town in the Rocky Mountains (they're basically the people who are called in when someone's gone through the ice). Lou is a relative newcomer to the area and is determined to make herself part of the community, which is where the dive team comes in. Bringing a bit of chaos into the cool and controlled and extremely attractive dive team captain, Callum Cook, is a nice bonus. Lou doesn't realise, although we readers do, right from the first scene, that Callum is just as attracted to Lou and welcomes her brand of chaos.

On a training session, Lou, who's still getting used to the weirdly buoyant dry suit, flails around a bit and kicks something underwater. Seconds later a headless body bobs up from the depths, to everyone's shock.

Now, the back cover blurb will have it that the discovery of the body means that "Lou and Callum find themselves thrust into a deadly game of cat and mouse with a killer who will stop at nothing to silence Lou-and prove that not even her new Search and Rescue family can keep her safe forever." Eh, not so much. What happens is that we've got two separate suspense threads. On one, Lou, out of a combination of boredom and a sense of responsibility since it was her actions that led to the discovery of the body, decides to mount her own investigation (with Callum's help; he insists) into the identity of the headless dead guy (HDG, as she calls him). But at the same time, Lou has acquired a stalker whose actions are rapidly escalating. This has started before the discovery of HDG, so the characters and we readers are never in any doubt that the two threads are unrelated.

Lou's investigation into HDG is the only false step in the book. It seems to be a way to make Lou and Callum spend some time together, but the stalker storyline would really have given them more than enough reasons. And unfortunately, Lou's actions trying to track HDG's identity went beyond the reasonable. She acts as if, if she didn't investigate, the case would go unsolved. No idea why; the police give no indication of being incompetent or uninterested (in fact, my spidey romance senses tell me the chief of police is a future hero in this series). I didn't believe for one moment that Callum would go along with her idiocy, even if he's really attracted to her. Honestly, I was fine with her being bubbly and ebullient and didn't read that at all as being ditzy, but her decisions on this issue really did seem silly and ditzy.

Silly as though this was, I was easily able get over it, because I was too busy enjoying the hell out of the rest of the book. I really loved the romance, mainly because Lou and Callum seemed to fit together really well. I loved it in spite of the fact that there are several things there that shouldn't work.

First, there is nothing here from Callum's point of view. If you asked me, I'd say I find the hero's POV essential. And yet it didn't bother me. I kind of liked seeing him from Lou's POV and had fun reading all the signals she was not quite getting. And you know what? I felt I got to know him quite well from his actions and what he told Lou about his chaotic life growing up. He made sense, and he was lovely.

The other potential problem is that there is no reason Callum and Lou couldn't or shouldn't be together, no conflict at all between them. And yet Ruggle manages to keep the tension going, both from the external danger to them and from from the relationship not being consummated until pretty late on. And this she does while making it all feel natural and perfectly reasonable. And -oh, joy!- The romance is concerned more with the relationship and how they come to care more and more about each other and make each other happy and less with the sex (although there is certainly some of that) which is the sort of balance I'm into these days. It was great: sweet without being at all saccharine.

I also really liked the writing. It's all very smooth and the story flows perfectly. This seems to be a debut, so that's pretty impressive. And there is so much humour! It's not slapstick at all -in fact, I particularly appreciated that Lou, for all that her role is the bringer of chaos, is remarkably capable and sensible (well, when she's not deciding to hijack police investigations). She's not the butt of the jokes, and neither is anyone else. The humour is more gentle and wry - constant smiles at bits of dialogue and interactions, rather than laugh-out-loud (although I did chuckle several times). It felt good to read this.

I also really enjoyed the setting, both the physical setting (including what it's like to live in a cabin that's off the grid) and the ice diving stuff. There's just enough of both, and perfectly well-integrated to the story. No info-dumps at all.

Before I finish a couple of notes on the suspense. The stalker plot was actually pretty good. It was a bit obvious who it was (in fact, I'm really not sure that we weren't meant to know from the start), but that was fine. It still provided the external tension and a good insight into Lou's past and what had brought her to her new home (an incredibly overbearing and controlling family and relationship, in short). And that scene with the final confrontation with the stalker... wow! I'm not normally into fight scenes, but this one was really, really cool and cinematic, and had Lou as the rescuer, yay!

The HDG storyline, I'm afraid that was not so good. There's how unbelievable Lou's involvement is, which I covered, but honestly, it wasn't that interesting, and then it's not even resolved by the end of the book. I think this mystery is meant to be some sort of overarching storyline across the whole of the series, and but it really wasn't interesting enough for me to be fussed, which, at least, meant I wasn't disappointed at the end when we didn't get a resolution. But yeah, if you really detest having anything unresolved, it might be worth waiting a few months until all the books are out (looks like the last one comes out in October).

So, even with a few niggles, this was a really strong read for me.

MY GRADE: A B+.

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The Obsession, by Nora Roberts

>> Sunday, May 01, 2016

TITLE: The Obsession
AUTHOR: Nora Roberts

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 464
PUBLISHER: Berkley

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romantic suspense
SERIES: None

“She stood in the deep, dark woods, breath shallow and cold prickling over her skin despite the hot, heavy air. She took a step back, then two, as the urge to run fell over her.”

Naomi Bowes lost her innocence the night she followed her father into the woods. In freeing the girl trapped in the root cellar, Naomi revealed the horrible extent of her father’s crimes and made him infamous. No matter how close she gets to happiness, she can’t outrun the sins of Thomas David Bowes.

Now a successful photographer living under the name Naomi Carson, she has found a place that calls to her, a rambling old house in need of repair, thousands of miles away from everything she’s ever known. Naomi wants to embrace the solitude, but the kindly residents of Sunrise Cove keep forcing her to open up—especially the determined Xander Keaton.

Naomi can feel her defenses failing, and knows that the connection her new life offers is something she’s always secretly craved. But the sins of her father can become an obsession, and, as she’s learned time and again, her past is never more than a nightmare away.
The Obsession starts with a real bang, when 12-year-old Naomi innocently follows her dad into the forest one night. She first thinks he's going to take a dip in the lake and she wants to cool off, too. When he goes into a hidden cellar instead, she thinks he's putting together a bike for her birthday gift. She can't resist a peek when he's done, but instead finds a naked, terrified woman. She's still alive, but from photos stuck to the walls, it's clear she's not the first, and others haven't been so lucky. I kept expecting frustrating developments, with Naomi wavering about what to do, but it was one of those incredibly satisfying things where little Naomi shows incredible strength of mind and does exactly what she should do.

For the first quarter or so of the book, we follow Naomi's life as a child and teenager, getting snapshots of her life, including the struggles of living with a mother who is still affected by the mental abused her husband put her through and can't seem to break free of it now that he's in prison. In that sense, the book reminded me a bit of The Witness, which is actually my favourite recent Nora romantic suspense single title.

And then we get onto the present day, which is when the bulk of the story takes place. Naomi is a photographer who lives her life travelling, living all around the US. He spends a little bit of time in one place and then moves on. But as we meet her again in her mid-20s, she's shocked herself by falling in love with a massive, ran-down house in the little town of Sunrise Cove, in Washington State. She hasn't just fallen in love, she's gone and bought it.

And a big long section in the middle of the book is basically about Naomi presiding over the restoration of house (think the Inn BoonsBoro trilogy) and settling into the life of Sunrise Cove. She becomes friends with the contractor doing the restoration and with his wife, and she gets involved with Xander Keaton.

Xander is the local mechanic. He plays in a band, is hugely into reading, and is determined to push past Naomi's barriers. These are considerable, as she's become used to people changing the way they behave with her when they find out who she is (her father, it turned out, was one of the worst serial killers in history, and there were books and a major film based on Naomi's actions). But Xander is relentless (enough to actually put my back up a couple of times, but he stays just on the right side of the line between persistent and pushy), and soon they are involved in a serious relationship.

This section of the book shouldn't really work. There isn't a huge deal of tension (as I said, any obstacles to a romance are soon got over) and what's objectively way too much DIY. Did I care, though? No, I didn't. I was enjoying myself too much.

It's not till the second half that the book becomes romantic suspense. Now, that element was probably the weakest part of the book. It was really, really predictable. I knew the book was romantic suspense from the back cover. The "her past is never more than a nightmare away" bit makes it clear there's going to be some sort of crime like Naomi's father's in her vicinity. This hadn't happened by the halfway point, so I stopped for a minute and thought, and was able to guess exactly which character would be the villain. Even before a crime had taken place. I'm no Sherlock Holmes, it was all really pretty obvious.

I still enjoyed it. I could see the flaws here and the things that shouldn't work, but for me, they did. I loved the shocking start and I really liked seeing the aftermath and the glimpses into Naomi's life as a teenager. I loved the day-to-day life in Sunrise Cove, I loved seeing Naomi start to fit in and make friends, I enjoyed her relationship with Xander. I even enjoyed the investigation once things go into romantic suspense territory, particularly because Naomi's brother Mason has become an FBI agent, and he worms himself into the investigation (I really doubt that would have happened, but I was able to go with it). It's the relationships beyond the romance that make this book so good.

MY GRADE: Surprisingly to me, a B+.

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