The Sweetest Seduction, by Christa McHugh

>> Tuesday, August 19, 2014

TITLE: The Sweetest Seduction
AUTHOR: Christa McHugh

COPYRIGHT: 2013
PAGES: 200
PUBLISHER: Self-published

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

Never, ever, mix business with pleasure...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt

>> Sunday, August 17, 2014

TITLE: The Blazing World
AUTHOR: Siri Hustvedt

COPYRIGHT: 2014
PAGES: 368
PUBLISHER: Simon & Schuster

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY GRADE: A B+.

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The Vor Game, by Lois McMaster Bujold

>> Friday, August 15, 2014

TITLE: The Vor Game
AUTHOR: Lois McMaster Bujold

COPYRIGHT: 1990
PAGES: 350
PUBLISHER: Baen

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

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Hugo Award Winner! Miles Vorkosigan graduates from the Academy, joins a mutiny, is placed under house arrest, goes on a secret mission, reconnects with his loyal Dendarii Mercenaries, rescues his Emperor, and thwarts an interstellar war. Situation normal, if you're Miles..
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The Vor Game starts right after The Mountains of Mourning when Miles, just graduated from the academy as a new Ensign, is given his first assignment. It's a baffling one. He's to be meteorology officer at a remote station in the Arctic. When he asks, he's told that as long as he keeps his nose clean for the 6 months of his assignment, he'll be given the ship duty he craves. If only it was so easy!

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

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

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

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

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

MY GRADE: A B+.

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Eight Feet in the Andes, by Dervla Murphy

>> Wednesday, August 13, 2014

TITLE: Eight Feet in the Andes: Travels With a Mule From Cajamarca to Cuzco
AUTHOR: Dervla Murphy

COPYRIGHT: 1983
PAGES: 293
PUBLISHER: Flamingo

SETTING: Early 80s Peru
TYPE: Travel
SERIES: None

The eight feet referenced in the title belong to Dervla Murphy, her nine-year-old daughter, and an elegant mule, who together clambered the length of Peru, from Cajamarca near the border with Ecuador, to Cuzco, the ancient Inca capital—traveling over 1,300 miles in high altitudes. Despite extreme discomfort and occasional danger, mother and daughter, a formidable duo, were unflagging in their sympathetic response to the perilous beauty and impoverished people of the Andes.

This was the August book for my book club. It's a travel book and recounts a trip in the Peruvian Andes that Murphy undertook with her 9-year-old daughter and a very handsome mule called Juana in the early 1980s. They start in the North of the country and go all the way to Cuzco, clambering up and down mountains, staying away from the few motor roads and struggling to find food to buy in tiny hamlets that are even more desperately impoverished than they'd expected.

I read a bit under half the book and abandoned it. I don't usually do that with book club books, but it was just so, so boring, and I couldn't see it changing at all. It's the story of what sounds like a great trip, but it's not a great book. Murphy's writing is not very good, but that's not the main problem. The main problem is that what I want from a travel book is to travel with an interesting person who tells good stories, and I didn't get that.

I don't know if Murphy is an interesting person. I don't know her at all, even after reading 130 pages of her book. We get some of her opinions about what she's seeing (which were not unproblematic), but nothing about who she is as a person. By the time I gave up, I felt I knew more about the inner life of Juana the Mule than about Dervla Murphy's. All I knew was that she's an incredibly tough, no nonsense lady, but even that hid as much as it revealed. I mean, at the beginning, she basically walks for days with a nail sticking out inside of her boot and making her foot bleed. She mentions a couple of times that she needs to find a cobbler, but that's it. Is she worried? In pain? Angry that the stupid makers of this shoddy boot are ruining this trip she's been planning for so long? I had absolutely no idea. Her daughter Rachel is an enigma as well. Murphy often quotes things Rachel said or wrote in her diary, but those just didn't ring true. The diary entries, especially, sounded too, too precious, with their careful misspellings.

As for stories... forget about it. Murphy describes everything she sees and does, and it's midly interesting when she and her daughter interact with people. Mostly, though, it's "we left camp at 8.15, went up this mountain, took this path, had to double back, the ground was difficult to walk on". Very tedious. I think part of the problem is that the book is written as a diary, with one entry for each day. I think it might have worked better if she hadn't had to write a full-sized account every day and just concentrated on the interesting bit and summarised the daily grind.

I mentioned her opinions above. The book was originally published in 1983 and it's very dated. Murphy is quite patronising in some of her thoughts about the native Peruvians, and some of her general opinions are just startling, like when she says, just in passing, about a particular village: "It certainly isn't ravaged by disease, violence, drunkenness and homosexuality, as so many of the larger settlements have been in the past."Uhm.. ok.

Finally, I got really annoyed by how bad the Spanish was. If you're going to publish a book about travelling in Peru, at least get your Spanish checked. It's fine if it's "I said X" and X is wrong, because hey, if your Spanish was not great, you would have said some things wrong. My problem was with things in the descriptions, like her referring to a river as the Río Negra quite a few times ('río' is masculine, so it would be "Río Negro", "Black River").

Anyway, not a success. I might be completely off-base here, but I don't get the feeling Murphy is principally a writer, in the sense of someone for whom the writing comes before the travelling. With my favourite travel authors, I get the feeling they would write about anything, and their travelling just provides them with raw material. Here there was something of a grudging quality to the writing, as if it was only a means to an end, and that end was financing the travel. Like I said, I might be wrong, but that was the vibe I got.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

>> Monday, August 11, 2014

TITLE: Americanah
AUTHOR: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

COPYRIGHT: 2013
PAGES: 497
PUBLISHER: Fourth Estate

SETTING: Contemporary Nigeria, US and UK
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

From the award-winning author of 'Half of a Yellow Sun,' a powerful story of love, race and identity.

As teenagers in Lagos, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are fleeing the country if they can. The self-assured Ifemelu departs for America. There she suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.

Thirteen years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a blogger. But after so long apart and so many changes, will they find the courage to meet again, face to face?

Fearless, gripping, spanning three continents and numerous lives, the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning 'Americanah' is a richly told story of love and expectation set in today's globalized world.

This is probably the best of the books I've read for my book club in the over 4 years it's been running, and the one that generated the best discussion.

Americanah is the story of Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman. We meet her at a turning point in her life. After being in the US for over a decade and having built a successful career and relationships, she has decided to move back to Nigeria. The book then moves back and forth, telling us about her life in Lagos as a teenager, her move to the US and the life she builds there, and in the final sections, what happens when she moves back home.

The book also tells the story of Obinze, the boyfriend Ifemelu left behind when she emigrated. Obinze always meant to join her in the US at some point, but by the time but when he tries to he finds it impossible to get a visa. He manages to travel to the UK instead, and overstays his visa there. So while Ifemelu is, after some initial struggles, working legally and initiating a career that will culminate in a fellowship at Princeton, Obinze is having to work using someone else's papers and ends up returning to Lagos in disgrace. When he and Ifemelu meet again, though, Obinze has become a rich, succesful man, with exactly the sort of life a wealthy Nigerian is supposed to have.

I enjoyed Americanah as a good story with interesting characters I really cared about, but also even more on a political level. Adichie has a lot to say about race and privilege and how they will intersect and create completely different experiences in different countries. I appreciated that aspect of the book most of all, I think: the acknowledgment that there isn't one particular experience of race and racism that is universal. That's what I tend to run across, both online and in books, the assumption that there is one valid racial narrative, and that it is the US one (and to an extent, the British one). When it gets imposed on people from other countries (and those doing it don't even realise that they're doing it), that's a problem. Adichie completely gets it, and even her look at race in the US felt fresh to me. She has fascinating (and completely germane to the story she's telling) dissections of the ways in which Ifemelu's experience of race as an African in the US will be different from the experience of someone who's African American, and how even amongst Africans living in the US, class will determine their experience. It places race in a more global context than I'm used to seeing, and I loved it.

Something else I appreciated was the thrill of identifying with a character and her experiences. It's not something that's an important driver for my reading, but it feels good when it happens. There were quite a few instances of visceral recognition here. For instance, the experience of growing up somewhere where you're part of the racial majority and then moving somewhere where suddenly, the privilege of not having to think about race disappears (although you still have the privilege of not having had to spend your formative years in an environment where your race was an everyday issue). You're suddenly part of a minority and there are all sorts of assumptions made about you and your life which you don't even know about, and which might be very far from the mark, especially if you come from a privileged background. Ifemelu's and my experiences weren't identical in this, but they had more in common than not.

Some of my favourite sections were when Ifemelu goes back to Lagos after so many years. There were things that cut really close to the bone (I remember the first time I went back to Uruguay for a visit, after about a year and a half in England. The returnees in the Nigerpolitan club, with their incessant moaning about all the ways in which Nigeria is not like the US, had nothing on me. I must have been unbearable). I was also surprised at how similar Ifemelu's circle, the upper middle and upper class elites felt to my former world in Uruguay. Maybe it's that they're both elites that look outwards, rather than inward, and are aspirational about things from abroad. Here in England, the elites are very confident about the superiority of themselves and their culture. Where I'm from, everything from the US and Europe is better. And again, that identification thing when Ifemelu finds them ridiculous and can't help but feel quite derisive.

I don't want to make this sound as if the book was one giant screed. Yes, there is a lot more explicit discussion, even preaching, than in most books I enjoy, but it works because there's a story there that works in its own right. Ifemelu feels real, and her snarky, funny voice was very engaging. She's quite the difficult woman, and I love difficult women! There's even a romance there, and one that worked for me, too.

I adored this book, please consider reading it!

MY GRADE: An A.

AUDIOBOOK NOTES: If you do consider reading this, I highly recommend the audiobook. It's narrated by an actress called Adjoa Andoh, who truly makes the book come alive. I loved, loved, loved the accents. There is a lot of care taken there; there are differences in the Nigerian accents according to class and according to age (Ifemelu's accent sounded quite similar to that of Adichie herself, which I think is a good sign!), and quite a lot of variation in the non-Nigerian ones as well. The US ones sounded ok to me, and I'm even more confident that the British ones were good. Also, I particularly liked Ifemelu's voice. It fit her personality, and I liked how her voice would change depending on the situation and who she was talking to, but still remaining the same voice. Very well done.

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Have Glass Slippers, Will Travel, by Lisa Cach

>> Saturday, August 09, 2014

TITLE: Have Glass Slippers, Will Travel
AUTHOR: Lisa Cach

COPYRIGHT: 2005
PAGES: 324
PUBLISHER: Pocket

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: None

Single twentysomething seeks Prince Charming.
Those without royal castles need not apply.


Inspired by a famous talk show host to "live her best life," out-of-work tech writer Katy Orville flies off to London to find the man of her dreams. But in order to catch a prince, she has to shed her all-American girl image and transform herself into a hip, fashionable heiress. Can she really pull it off? Will she?

At a society wedding, it seems like a dream come true when a handsome man in a formal kilt begins a hot pursuit, clearly smitten with Katy. Unfortunately, Will Eland is more interested in rebuilding some old estate in the countryside than in partying with the aristos -- how can she be attracted to Mr. Handyman when she's looking for a nobleman? But appearances can be deceiving, as Katy well knows. Sometimes a prince is disguised as a pauper -- and sometimes an ordinary bloke is really a duke. And she hopes that playing make-believe hasn't ruined her chance for happily ever after...

I've been reading ebooks almost exclusively for 10 years, so my electronic TBR is large (very large) and unwieldy. I keep books on my kindle ordered by most recently opened, so I mainly end up reading new additions to it. I've decided that once a month I'll read a book chosen randomly (thanks to Calibre + a random number generator), and the first one that came up was this Lisa Cach contemporary, bought when I glommed her backlist after reading and loving The Erotic Secrets of a French Maid (not erotica, but a lovely romance and hilarious to boot).

Katy Orville has been laid off from her job as a technical writer for an IT company. It wasn't a job she loved, by any means, but she'd made up her mind to feel the safety of it compensated for the boredom. Losing it makes it clear to her that this safety wasn't real, so she can't seem to get inspired to look for another job like it. She's been sensible and put some money away for a rainy day, so she's got a bit of space to look for something closer to a dream job, but the problem is she doesn't know what her dream is.

All real enough, right? But then the zaniness starts. Katy worships Oprah Winfrey (as in, she's got a sort of altar in her room with a photo of Oprah and lights candles to her). She asks herself: "What Would Oprah Do?", and downloads instructions for a Life Map from her website. After making a collage of all the images and words from magazines that "feel right" to her and not knowing what on earth it all could mean, she falls asleep and Oprah comes to her in a dream. When she wakes up, Katy knows exactly what she wants to do. Her dream is to marry an English aristocrat, so she'll spend her rainy day fund on a trip to London, where she'll stay in Mayfair and frequent the places where she imagines "lordlings" hang out. That's what Oprah would do.

And for such a harebrained, idiotic plan, it actually works. While queueing for entrance to the Tower of London, she notices groups of very well-dressed people going in and showing invitations at the door. There's clearly a high-society wedding inside. And when she goes in and drifts in that direction wondering if she should try to sneak in (surely there'll be lords in there!) she sees someone she knows: the kilted young man who nearly ran her over in his dilapidated van a little while earlier, when she (of course) looked the wrong way before crossing the road.

The young man is Will Eland and he's a real, live duke. An impoverished one who got his title unexpectedly and doesn't care a hoot about it, and who's trying to keep a roof over his (as dilapidated as his van) castle by farming organic vegetables. He assumes the suited, high-heeled Katy is a guest, rather than a tourist (when deciding what she should wear to attract her dream lordling she thought the most sensible thing to do was to model her wardrobe after Queen Elizabeth -posh, right?-, so she's been wandering round London in a yellow skirt suit and a huge brooch), so she escorts her in, accidentally making everyone assume she's his guest.

The first person Katy is introduced to is Will's supercilious cousin Trevor, who's a viscount, and who wants nothing better than to get one over Will. Seeing how Will's looking at the frumpy American girl, Trevor decides to pursue her. And that's Katy's conflict right there: should she go for the rather nasty and dismissive guy who's a nobleman, and therefore everything she wants, or for the strangely attractive, rumpled regular guy (she thinks), who's nothing like her dream man?

This is a wish fulfillment book. There are loads of them around lately, and that aspect didn't work for me any better than when it's all about regular girls dating rock stars. Maybe the idea of a contemporary aristocrat would have been more to my taste if I hadn't moved to England a few years go, but I did, and it wasn't. Part of me despised Katy for going "ohh, noblemen!" without even considering social realities.

The humour is really frustrating. A lot of it depends on Katy being completely oblivious and mind-numbingly stupid (in ways that are not even internally coherent -she's on this huge aristo-hunting trip and she never thought of checking what the wife of a marquess is called?). Humour's so very personal, but here's a quick test: a girl who thinks that dressing like Queen Elizabeth is a good idea if one wants to attract a privileged young man - hilarious or painful? But at the same time, there are some scenes that really tickled me (e.g. the one where Katy's push-up bra springs a leak and Will thinks she's mortally injured and about to do major surgery on herself). The balance moves more to the latter as the book progresses, which ends things in a slightly happier note, but the beginning made me groan quite a bit and left me not believing in Katy as a real person at all.

Actually, no one feels real. Cach has some strange ideas about English people, and nothing feels remotely true or plausible. Yes, it's supposed to be farce, but the ways in which she got things (like her take on what a British tabloid article about a rich American newcomer might sound like) were not just off-base, they were cringe-worthy and laughable and made me feel embarrassed for her. I was also annoyed by how all the young, female characters (who could have been rivals for the heroine) were unbelievably nasty.

The shame is that at the heart of this is a hero and a romance that could have been pretty good. Will was a nice character, a hard-working and (literally) down-to-earth guy who cares passionately about the land that has come to him. He's rather lonely, though, and actively dreams of someone to share his life with. He falls for Katy really hard as soon as he meets her (lovely, but why on earth does he?), and his pursuit of her is mostly really sweet (I did get a bit annoyed at his insistence that the man has to be the breadwinner, though).

It's a shame, because I could see this written in a way that isn't so offensively stupid.

MY GRADE: A D.

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The Mountains of Mourning, by Lois McMaster Bujold

>> Thursday, August 07, 2014

TITLE: The Mountains of Mourning
AUTHOR: Lois McMaster Bujold

COPYRIGHT: 1989
PAGES: 89
PUBLISHER: Self-published

SETTING: Futuristic
TYPE: Sci fi
SERIES: Vorkosigan series #3.5

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Miles Vorkosigan is sent to a small mountain village to investigate the murder of an infant, killed because she had a physical defect. Miles must deal with deep-seated prejudice against “mutants” and uncover the real killer in this novella that won both the Hugo Award and Nebula Award..
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This short story comes in an anthology with two others, set later in the series (after books I hadn't yet read when I read this one). Bujold's written a sort of framing device for them which, unfortunately, is also set chronologically later. I kind of ignored it, and stuck to the short story itself.

The Mountains of Mourning is set 3 years after the action in The Warrior's Apprentice. At the end of that book, Miles succeeded in gaining entrance to the Barrayaran Imperial Service academy (in fact, we got a really neat scene right at the end showing just how well he was going to do there). He's now graduated and is looking forward to spending a nice holiday at Vorkosigan Surleau, in the family's summer residence.

On the very first day, though, his plans have to change. Coming back to the house he encounters a clearly exhausted, desperate young woman who refuses to go away until she can see someone to demand justice. Miles discovers she has walked all the way from a distant village, and assists her in seeing his father, Count Vorkosigan. He thinks that's his work done and Aral will just make sure she can see the District Magistrate, but his father has other ideas.

It turns out the crime the young woman, Harra, is so desperate to report is the murder of her newborn daughter. She had been born with what Miles knows is a cleft palate, but the villagers call "cat's mouth". It's an easily repairable birth defect, but Barrayarans have long been terrified of mutations. Traditionally, mutants have been killed at birth. Aral Vorkosigan, intent on modernising Barrayar, has had his government ban the practice, but old traditions die slowly out in the middle of nowhere.

Harra is convinced her husband had their little daughter killed, very much against her will. She wants justice, but the Village Speaker, who is supposed to dispense justice, won't even accept there's a case. The entire village have been putting immense pressure on Harra to just accept it was a natural death and leave it at that. She won't.

Instead of sending Harra to the District Magistrate, Aral decides Miles will go back to the village with Harra to investigate the murder. His role will be to represent his, Aral's, voice, but also to provide a clear visual message. Because the Barrayaran attitude towards mutants is one that Miles, with his physical issues, has experienced himself (even if he keeps reminding people his physical aspect was caused by teratogenic harm, not a mutation!).

It's a melancholy story with a very neat plot, and I thought it was very good. It's structured a bit as a classic Golden Age mystery, with its closed number of potential suspects and an investigator with the power to do the classic Hercule Poirot reveal, but Harra's pain about her daughter prevents it from really being a cosy mystery. It's sad, but the ending is hopeful.

Miles is quite interesting here. I'm writing this after reading the next story, and he feels more mature here, possibly because of the sombre nature of what's going on around him. The story provides some insight into his character by increasing our understanding of the attitudes he would have faced growing up, even insulated by his father's position. We knew some of it already (witness his grandfather's reactions in the previous books, for instance), but this brings it home even more.

A good entry in the series.

MY GRADE: A B+.

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Honor's Knight, by Rachel Bach

>> Tuesday, August 05, 2014

TITLE: Honor's Knight
AUTHOR: Rachel Bach

COPYRIGHT: 2014
PAGES: 400
PUBLISHER: Orbit

SETTING: Futuristic
TYPE: Sci-fi romance
SERIES: 2nd in the Paradox series, follows Fortune's Pawn.

Devi Morris has lots of problems - and not the fun, easy-to-shoot kind either.

After a mysterious attack left her short of several memories and one partner, she's determined to keep her head down, do her job and get on with her life. But even though Devi's not looking for it this time, trouble keeps finding her.

She sees ghostly creatures no one else can, the inexplicable black stain on her hands keeps getting bigger and she can't seem to stop getting into compromising situations with a man she's supposed to hate. But when a deadly crisis exposes far more of the truth than she bargained for, Devi discovers there are worse fates than being shot - and that sometimes the only people you can trust are the ones who want you dead.

I guess the first thing I should say is that there's no point you reading this book if you haven't read the first one, Fortune's Pawn. It absolutely does not stand alone (and neither did book 1, which ended in a somewhat annoying cliffhanger). Furthermore, you shouldn't read this review if you plan to read book 1 at all.

So, those of you who did read Fortune's Pawn will remember that it ended with Rupert scrubbing all of Devi's memories relating to the Big Secrets he and Caldswell are keeping. Honor's Knight starts pretty much straight afterwards. Devi wakes up after an injury thinking all is perfectly normal. There are things she doesn't remember, like what on earth happened in the xith'cal ghost ship, but that's not unusual given the trauma she endured. The only strange thing is the revulsion she feels whenever she sets eyes on the ship's cook, whose name she can't quite remember.

I wasn't crazy about that development, because it felt to me like going back to square one, erasing all the progress that was made in the first book. A bit like "it was all a dream", if you will. I was glad to see that this state of affairs didn't last long, and Devi was soon in possession of all the knowledge she'd acquired, plus a hell of a lot more.

The situation Bach creates is one that I thought was fascinating. There are two sides here, both with basically the same final objective. They want the same thing, but their methods are so diametrically different that it has led to enmity, and with very good reason. The discussion is about whether the ends justify the means, as long as the ends are crucial enough to the survival of the entire universe, and each side has a different answer to that. Devi must make up her own mind. I liked that I could see both sides here and understand their logic, even though, like Devi, it was very clear to me what side I was on.

Devi rings completely true to me as a mercenary. The way she thinks feels real, especially the things she's not bothered by (e.g. killing people/beings who are combatants and know exactly what they're getting into) and the things she is... how she feels that some of the actions taken by both sides (but especially one) just cross a line that shouldn't be crossed.

I also really liked that the romance gets very complicated here. Rupert has done and does here things that could be seen as unforgivable. They are not excused. I truly don't know how Bach will move this forward, but I want to find out.

The ethical dilemma is played out in the midst of non-stop action that never gets dull. Bach has a gift for writing action scenes in a way that's very cinematic and allows the reader to know exactly what's going on. That's not easy to do, and many authors get it wrong.

Finally, we also get to explore quite a bit of the universe, including planets populated by non-humans. I don't completely buy the aeons, but I was quite excited about this, and I want more!

MY GRADE: A B+.

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Falling Free, by Lois McMaster Bujold

>> Sunday, August 03, 2014

TITLE: Falling Free
AUTHOR: Lois McMaster Bujold

COPYRIGHT: 1988
PAGES: 288
PUBLISHER: Baen

SETTING: Sci fi
TYPE: Futuristic
SERIES: Prequel to the Vorkosigan series

Leo Graf was an effective engineer...Safety Regs weren't just the rule book he swore by; he'd helped write them. All that changed on his assignment to the Cay Habitat. Leo was profoundly uneasy with the corporate exploitation of his bright new students till that exploitation turned to something much worse. He hadn't anticipated a situation where the right thing to do was neither save, nor in the rules...

Leo Graf adopted 1000 quaddies now all he had to do was teach them to be free.

Falling Free is set in the same universe as the Vorkosigan books, but a couple of centuries before Aral and Cordelia's time. It's a time before artificial gravity has been perfected, so maintaining space stations is an expensive undertaking. Workers can't spend more than a few months in zero-gravity environments (it's really bad for muscles and bones), so need to be constantly shuttled back and forth to terra firma for a bit of rest and physical recovery.

A large corporation has come up with the perfect solution to the problem. They have genetically engineered a group of human beings to be ideally suited to zero-gravity. Quaddies, as they're called, can spend all their lives in space stations without ill effects, and their name comes from the fact that they have two extra arms instead of legs. Perfect from holding on while leaving their other arms free to do whatever work needs doing. As the book starts, the programme has been going on for a couple of decades, and the oldest quaddies are in their late teens.

Leo Graf is an engineer who's also an employee of the corporation. He's come to the quaddies' workstation to deliver instruction in welding, and is very surprised to see the physical characteristics of his new trainees, as the corporation has not particularly advertised their existence. He's even more surprised to discover that quaddies are not considered workers, but property. The corporation created them, so under the law, they own them. Quaddies are superficially well-treated, but they are basically slaves. They're not paid and the details of their lives are tightly controlled, from what reading material they're allowed, to whom they're allowed to mate with. Leo is uncomfortable with this from the start, but should he really jeopardise his career and pension over it? However, when it becomes clear the quaddies' entire existence is at risk, he determines to help them go free.

I didn't love this one as I've done the Vorkosigan books, but it was enjoyable. Like all of Bujold's books, although there is plenty of action and derring-do, it's fundamentally a character-driven book. That's just as I like it.

Leo is a good, decent man, but one whose first instinct is to mind his own business and not rock the boat. He's an engineer, his job is teaching welding, not meddling in how the corporation runs its business, he thinks. There are plenty of people like that on the space station, but only Leo ultimately decides to risk it all for what he thinks is right and help the quaddies. Because even though they've been brought up to believe this is the way things should be and that's that, several of the quaddies have rebelled against this. They want to be free. Leo, with his outside experience, can help.

I liked that the quaddies have a role in their escape, and it isn't all about Leo as a saviour. I also liked that they are fully developed as characters, even if only a small number. A couple are on the young and innocent and naive side, but not all. Silver was my favourite. She's cunning and manipulative, and for her sex is just a tool to be used and no big deal (and who has, in fact, used sex as a tool). She's not demonised or punished. She's deemed a perfectly good person by the narrative, given her own romance plot and not judged at all. I loved that.

I also found it really interesting that this is not a hand-wringing diatribe against genetic manipulation. The problem is not that the quaddies exist, it's the way they're being treated, denied the dignity and rights that should be theirs as human beings. My views are a lot less casual than that, but this approach worked for this book.

On the whole, this was fun. There are flaws (for instance, there's a bit too much engineering detail in some cases. I appreciate that this is how Leo thinks, but my eyes glazed over a few times), but it's pretty good.

MY GRADE: A B.

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July 2014 reads

>> Friday, August 01, 2014

This month I just couldn't stop reading. Some very, very good stuff here, plus a very unexpected disappointment.



1 - Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King: A-
review here

Audiobook. Retired detective plays a game of cat and mouse with a mass killer, whose case was one of the last he investigated. I really enjoyed it. It's tense and surprising and full of interesting characters. Very good narration, too.




2 - Close Enough to Touch, by Victoria Dahl: B+
review coming soon

A prickly heroine and a cowboy hero who can't resist her. Dahl's contemporaries always click with me, and this was vintage stuff. Great.




3 - Bellwether, by Connie Willis: B+
review coming soon

Audiobook. A social scientist investigating how fads are created teams up with a chaos scientist, and the result is a extremely clever, surprisingly hilarious book. Loved it.




4 - The Countess Conspiracy, by Courtney Milan: B+
review coming soon

The heroine is a scientist engaged in particularly scandalous research. The hero, a childhood friend, has been helping her by acting as her front: pretending it's all his research, and taking the flack of public outrage. I liked this very much, but it didn't resonate emotionally with me quite as much as previous books by this author.



5 - The Martian, by Andy Weir: B+
review here

Audiobook. An astronaut is accidentally abandoned on Mars, and must fight to stay alive. A tense, gripping, extremely funny read. The narrator was fantastic, and I loved the problem-solving. The audio narration was great, too.




6 - Honor's Knight, by Rachel Bach: B+
review coming soon

Second in the trilogy, right after Fortune's Pawn (see below). The story continues, and we find out quite a bit about the many secrets of this world. Middle books in a trilogy are often a bit uneventful, but this one definitely wasn't!



7 - Fortune's Pawn, by Rachel Bach: B
review here

Sci-fi with a truly fabulous heroine who's a tough, no-nonsense mercenary. Loads of secrets still to discover in the rest of the trilogy. Only negative: nothing is resolved here and it ends with a cliffhanger. You really need to continue reading to get any sort of satisfaction.




8 - It Happened One Wedding, by Julie James: B
review coming soon

She's looking to settle down, he's a player. Her sister and his brother are getting married, and the proximity makes it difficult to resist the attraction. It was a fun read, but I found the heroine depicted as a bit too perfect (she did not need to change anything).



9 - Sworn To Silence, by Linda Castillo: B-
review here

Audiobook. Starts a series centred on Kate Burkholder, the formerly Amish chief of police in a small Ohio town. This first book has a serial killer plot. I had a lot of issues with it but found it absorbing, and will continue to read the series.




10 - A Very Long Engagement, by Sebastién Japrisot: B-
review coming soon

Late in WWI, five French soldiers are pushed onto No Man's Land in between their trenches and the German positions. It's punishment for injuring their hands, in an effort to be sent away from the trenches. Some years later, the fiancée of one of them receives news that makes her think that there might be more to the episode. Several elements in this book I should have enjoyed more than I did. The writing style didn't click with me.




11 - Strong Enough To Love, by Victoria Dahl: C
review coming soon

Short story, telling the story of a secondary character from Close Enough To Touch. It could have been interesting, but it felt very underdeveloped.




12 - Ethan of Athos, by Lois McMaster Bujold: C-
review coming soon

Spinoff from the Vorkosigan series, featuring Elli Quinn as one of the main characters (readers of the series might remember her as the mercenary who got her face blown off in the first Miles book). Elli teams up from the titular Ethan. Athos, where he's from, is a planet of only men, and he's on a mission to acquire genetic material to continue their repopulation practices. There were concepts here I was very uncomfortable with and I didn't buy Ethan as a character.



13 - Hubble Bubble, by Jane Lovering: DNF
review here

A bit of a madcap romance/chick-lit book, with involuntary witchcraft and a mysterious hero. The humour and authorial voice really didn't work for me, so I abandoned it at about the half-way point.


14 - The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt: still reading
review coming soon

I'm planning to read the Man Booker shortlist again this year. The longlist was just announced, and The Blazing World was the one I found most intriguing and chose to start with. It's about a woman artist who decides to create a number of male fronts for her work. Her story is presented as a collection of all sorts of material gathered together after her death, from diaries to interviews with people who knew her. Interesting so far.




15 - Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen: still listening
review coming soon

I've reread this one often, but not for the past few years. I'm listening to the audiobook and loving it.




16 - Heaven's Queen, by Rachel Bach: still reading
review coming soon

Last in the trilogy (see above). It's been ages since I've read all 3 books in a trilogy back to back, but this one requires it. I'm about halfway through and enjoying it.

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