Playing With Fire, by Tess Gerritsen

>> Tuesday, August 15, 2017

TITLE: Playing With Fire
AUTHOR: Tess Gerritsen

COPYRIGHT: 2015
PAGES: 250
PUBLISHER: Ballantine

SETTING: Contemporary US and Italy, and 1940s Italy
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: None

In a shadowy antiques shop in Rome, violinist Julia Ansdell happens upon a curious piece of music—the Incendio waltz—and is immediately entranced by its unusual composition. Full of passion, torment, and chilling beauty, and seemingly unknown to the world, the waltz, its mournful minor key, its feverish arpeggios, appear to dance with a strange life of their own. Julia is determined to master the complex work and make its melody heard.

Back home in Boston, from the moment Julia’s bow moves across the strings, drawing the waltz’s fiery notes into the air, something strange is stirred—and Julia’s world comes under threat. The music has a terrifying and inexplicable effect on her young daughter, who seems violently transformed. Convinced that the hypnotic strains of Incendio are weaving a malevolent spell, Julia sets out to discover the man and the meaning behind the score.

Her quest beckons Julia to the ancient city of Venice, where she uncovers a dark, decades-old secret involving a dangerously powerful family that will stop at nothing to keep Julia from bringing the truth to light.
I'm addicted to Gerritsen's Rizzoli and Isles series. I haven't read her earlier single titles yet (I'm saving them for a rainy day, and yes, I know that doesn't make sense), but if they're as good as this one, I'm in for a treat.

Violinist Julia Ansell has just finished a tour in Italy and is happily puttering around antique shops in Rome when she happens upon a piece of music she has never come across. It's a hand-written score, a waltz called the Incendio, and it sounds complex and wonderful when she reads it. It's expensive, since it's, the shop-owner tells her, one of a kind, but she knows she has to have it.

Once back home, Julia sets out to play her new piece of music and is shocked by the results. Not only does the piece consume her and set her into a sort of hypnotic state, it seems to possess her young daughter, as well. Faced with a daughter who seems to become a violent killer when she hears those particular notes, Julia is determined to find out what's wrong. But when her initial approaches to neurologists and psychologists result in disbelief and questioning of her own sanity, Julia realises she must find out more about the piece of music and its creator.

Interspersed with the modern-day story of Julia and her daughter, we get the story of the musician who created the piece. It's the early 40s and Lorenzo lives in Venice, part of a Jewish community where most people consider themselves to be fully integrated and Italian, so surely they have nothing to fear?

This was just great. It's creepy and mysterious and the thriller element really worked. I did have a few issues at the start of the book, where I had some doubts about whether the use of the Holocaust storyline felt appropriate, but this was a book that really won me over. The 1940s thread ended up being extremely moving. The depiction of the situation, where Italian Jews felt so well-integrated that they refused to believe that all those things that were rumoured could possibly be true, felt real. Surely it couldn't happen here, surely not these days? I kept wanting to shout at them to "Go, go! Leave!", while understanding completely why they wouldn't.

And the present-day storyline was really well-done as well. I don't want to say a lot, as not knowing quite what to expect is one of the best aspects of it, but I will say that the resolution was what really made it. It's a resolution that could conceivably feel like a cop-out, like the author had painted herself into a corner and was taking the easy way out, but it doesn't feel like that at all. It feels right. And by being what it is, not what we might have thought it would be (sorry to be so cryptic!) it feels somehow more respectful of the WWII sections.

MY GRADE: A strong B+.

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Swing Time, by Zadie Smith

>> Sunday, August 13, 2017

TITLE: Swing Time
AUTHOR: Zadie Smith

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 453
PUBLISHER: Hamish Hamilton

SETTING: Contemporary UK and West Africa
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

An ambitious, exuberant new novel moving from North West London to West Africa, from the multi-award-winning author of White Teeth and On Beauty

Two brown girls dream of being dancers—but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It's a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.

Tracey makes it to the chorus line but struggles with adult life, while her friend leaves the old neighborhood behind, traveling the world as an assistant to a famous singer, Aimee, observing close up how the one percent live.

But when Aimee develops grand philanthropic ambitions, the story moves from London to West Africa, where diaspora tourists travel back in time to find their roots, young men risk their lives to escape into a different future, the women dance just like Tracey—the same twists, the same shakes—and the origins of a profound inequality are not a matter of distant history, but a present dance to the music of time.
I get ridiculously excited about the announcement of the Man Booker longlist. I love the speculation beforehand (and I've picked up quite a few books from those discussions), and I love that so many bloggers I follow read the books. As I have for the last few years, I'll be attempting to read as many as I can from the longlist and all of the books on the shortlist. Liz McC and Sunita are going to be reading quite a few as well, which will make it even better. They've both got off the starting blocks a lot more quickly than I have, so do check out the reviews already on their blogs.

Me, I thought I'd start with one that looked to be a quick, accessible read. Swing Time was actually already in my TBR, and sounded like it'd be fun. Turns out I found it more challenging than I expected. The challenge was not on the technical side, but in caring enough to continue reading.

There are two main threads that we follow throughout the book. The first one is the relationship between our unnamed narrator and her childhood friend Tracey. The two girls met when very small, as the only two mixed-raced girls in a neighbourhood dance class, and then in school. Tracey was always a natural dancer, while our narrator was fascinated by the dancing and its history and ideas, but less of a dancer herself.

The second thread is the narrator's job as personal assistant to Aimee, a huge international pop star (think, I don't know, Madonna, maybe?). Aimee has decided she wants to start a school in a West African country and, as part of her staff, our narrator is one of the several people taking care of all the details.

There are a lot of interesting ideas and little bits and pieces here, but I felt the book never really gelled. It felt disjointed, and there wasn't a through-line that pulled the whole thing together. Part of the problem, I felt, was that I never quite got what linked the two main threads together, beyond our narrator.

And she was probably the biggest problem with the book. Our unnamed narrator never really comes alive. She seems to float around absorbing stuff from those around her and simply reacting. She doesn't know what she wants, where she wants to go, who she wants to be. Even her most decisive moments are simply rebelling, just not wanting to do what her mother wants. This is particularly frustrating, because Smith has a way of capturing her secondary characters (or not even secondary, even those who are only present in the margins and show up for a single scene... tertiary characters, maybe?) with a deft couple of lines and making the reader recognise them. But our narrator... no idea who she is, unfortunately.  And yes, the fact that she's an unnamed narrator suggests there's a fair bit of intentionality in her being a non-entity, but I felt the book could have been a lot more interesting with someone with more personality narrating it.

The other issue I had was that the Aimee storyline gradually took over the Tracey one, and I was much more interested in the latter. That felt a lot fresher and potentially more interesting, but Tracy disappears from the story in the same way as she disappears from our narrator's life (so yes, it does make sense). And the Aimee storyline made me terribly cross. In part, that is probably just me. I despise celebrity culture and take pains to avoid anything celebrity-related in my life, so some of that crossness was because it felt I was being forced to spend time with the sort of celebrity-obsessed people I run a mile from in real life. Yes, the point of a lot of that was to ridicule aspects of that celebrity culture, but the thing is, Smith doesn't really do anything new or interesting with her satire. It's pretty obvious targets and these targets are mocked in obvious ways.

Lots and lots of moaning above, and it sounds like I hated the book. I didn't. There were nuggets there that I did like. I liked the sort of abstract bits and pieces about dancing. I also liked the character of our narrator's mother and their complex relationship, which were both very well done. And the writing was often beautiful. There was enough there that I would read more by Zadie Smith, despite this one not being a particularly successful first try.

MY GRADE: A C+.

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Card parties and Marx

>> Friday, August 11, 2017

TITLE: Cards on the Table
AUTHOR: Agatha Christie

A very imprudent man called Mr. Sheitana decides to tempt fate and organise a unique dinner party. He invites 4 "detectives", all of them well known to Agatha Christie readers: there's Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard; there's a Secret Service man, Colonel Race, there's Ariadne Oliver, the detective novelist, and there's none other than the inimitable Hercule Poirot. They join 4 other guests, all of whom Mr. Sheitana believes have got away with murder.

Whatever he intended to accomplish, what Mr Sheitana gets is more than he expected. While they're all playing bridge after dinner, one of his guests kills him. Which of the 4 did it, and which of the 4 detectives will be able to discover whodunnit?

It's a neat little mystery, super ingenious, albeit probably best enjoyed by someone with an understanding of bridge, since the game actually plays a bigger part than you might expect. That being said, I know nothing about the game and still had fun. The characters are interesting, both the suspects and the detectives. A big part of the fun is in seeing each detective do their own thing and their different approaches.

A good one.

MY GRADE: A B.

TITLE: The Marx Sisters
AUTHOR: Barry Maitland

The Marx Sisters is the first in a long-running series called Brock and Kolla. Brock is Scotland Yard Chief Inspector David Brock, an experienced officer. Kolla is the much younger Kathy Kolla, a much more inexperienced officer. This first case is set in a little forgotten enclave in the middle of central London, an area where longtime Eastern European immigrants live in the old houses they moved into decades earlier, in between the shiny office blocks.

The Marx Sisters of the title are some of those residents. Their last names are not Marx, but they're all great-grandchildren of the man himself. And then one dies. Was it a personal thing (she wasn't the nicest person in the world), or is there more going on? A developer trying to get their hands on the property? Someone after the Marx manuscripts rumoured to be hidden in the house?

This one wasn't great. I liked the sense of place, but that was about it. The plot could have been interesting, but the twists became a bit too much, tried to be too clever and this made the characters just not ring true. Also, I was bothered by the casual sexism and even misogyny in the characterisation. Wives are nagging shrews, our female detective is a bit of an impulsive airhead, our older male detective is irresistible to even women much younger than him. Bah. I'm not planning to read further in this series.

MY GRADE: A C.

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The Night Of The Mi'raj, by Zoë Ferraris

>> Wednesday, August 09, 2017

TITLE: The Night Of The Mi'raj (aka Finding Nouf in the US)
AUTHOR: Zoë Ferraris

COPYRIGHT: 2008
PAGES: 357
PUBLISHER: Little, Brown

SETTING: Contemporary Saudi Arabia
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: First in a series

In a blazing hot desert in Saudi Arabia, a search party is dispatched to find a missing young woman. Thus begins a novel that offers rare insight into the inner workings of a country in which women must wear the abaya in public or risk denunciation by the religious police; where ancient beliefs, taboos, and customs frequently clash with a fast-moving, technology-driven modern world.

The missing woman is Nouf Shrawi, one of several sheltered teenaged daughters of a powerful local family. Hired to track her and her potential abductor is Nayir, a solitary, pious desert guide of dubious origin, and a friend of the family. As Nayir uncovers clues that only serve to deepen the mystery behind Nouf's disappearance, he teams up with Katya, a liberated Saudi woman who is engaged to one of Nouf's brothers.

As they move closer to the truth, the pair's detective work unveils layers of secrets. In a land of prayers, purity, and patriarchy, the dreams of mere mortals often go unrealized, and the consequences of misbehavior for both men and women are disastrous
This is a mystery set in Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia. It's written by a Western author who lived in the country for a while with her Saudi husband, but the characters themselves are Saudi.

The plot concerns the disappearance of a 16-year-old girl, Nouf, the child of a wealthy family. A lorry and a camel have disappeared at the same time, so whether she left of her own accord or was taken, she seems to have disappeared into the desert. The family want to find her without any scandal, as she was about to get married and they'd rather like that to go ahead, so rather than going to the police, they ask Nayif for help.

Nayif is a friend of the family, and a man who knows a lot about the desert, as he often works as a guide. The hope is that this will allow him to track Nouf, but it's not that easy to find her. Nayif is forced to accept the help of Katya, Nouf's brother's fiancée, who works at the forensic department, and together they work to find out the truth. Nouf's body is soon discovered, but the investigation doesn't end there. Nayir feels the obligation to uncover what happens, even if some in Nouf's family are not on board with his continuing enquiries.

I really liked this. The mystery itself is fine and the plotting ok, but where the book was really good was with the characters and setting. Nayif is a quite conservative and devout man, which really wasn't what I was expecting, for some reason. He's a bit of an outsider, being of Palestinian origin, and this is something he's made to feel often. Katya was more expected, a modern, educated woman who is determined to have a career, but is struggling somewhat with the strictures placed on her by her society. Where the book shines is in the interactions between these two. Neither is particularly comfortable with the other at first, but it turns out there is great chemistry between them. I don't mean necessarily in a sexual sense (although that's not completely absent), but in the sense of two people who click with each other. It's understated here, but it's clear that this is a relationship that will continue in further books, and I really want to read more.

The setting is also great. Societal mores and expectations (and laws) determine how the investigation progresses and how the characters are able to relate to each other. I have no idea how accurate it all is obviously, but I enjoyed reading it. And maybe because the author is not Saudi herself, she makes a point of subtly highlighting the little details that a Saudi author might take for granted and not think worth a mention, like the fact that people keep oven gloves in their car's glove compartments, as car door handles can get so hot that you'll get proper burns if you touch them with your hands.

MY GRADE: A solid B.

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Final Girls, by Riley Sager

>> Monday, July 31, 2017

TITLE: Final Girls
AUTHOR: Riley Sager

COPYRIGHT: 2017
PAGES: 342
PUBLISHER: Dutton

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Thriller
SERIES: None

Ten years ago, college student Quincy Carpenter went on vacation with five friends and came back alone, the only survivor of a horror movie–scale massacre. In an instant, she became a member of a club no one wants to belong to—a group of similar survivors known in the press as the Final Girls. Lisa, who lost nine sorority sisters to a college dropout's knife; Sam, who went up against the Sack Man during her shift at the Nightlight Inn; and now Quincy, who ran bleeding through the woods to escape Pine Cottage and the man she refers to only as Him. The three girls are all attempting to put their nightmares behind them, and, with that, one another. Despite the media's attempts, they never meet.

Now, Quincy is doing well—maybe even great, thanks to her Xanax prescription. She has a caring almost-fiancé, Jeff; a popular baking blog; a beautiful apartment; and a therapeutic presence in Coop, the police officer who saved her life all those years ago. Her memory won’t even allow her to recall the events of that night; the past is in the past.

That is, until Lisa, the first Final Girl, is found dead in her bathtub, wrists slit, and Sam, the second, appears on Quincy's doorstep. Blowing through Quincy's life like a whirlwind, Sam seems intent on making Quincy relive the past, with increasingly dire consequences, all of which makes Quincy question why Sam is really seeking her out. And when new details about Lisa's death come to light, Quincy's life becomes a race against time as she tries to unravel Sam's truths from her lies, evade the police and hungry reporters, and, most crucially, remember what really happened at Pine Cottage, before what was started ten years ago is finished.
I sort of fell for the hype with this one. But then, I really liked the premise. The thought has crossed my mind more than once after watching a horror movie: what would it be like to have to live having gone through that? This is what Final Girls is about. The title refers to the horror movie trope of the single survivor of some sort of horrendous massacre, usually a young woman.

Our protagonist, Quincy Carpenter, was one such final girl, after all her friends were killed while at a drunken party weekend in a remote cottage in the forest. In the eyes of the press, she joined two others: Sam, who survived a massacre in a motel, and Lisa, who lived through a killing spree in a sorority house (to continue with our horror movie tropes!). The press would like nothing better than to have all 3 women get together, but although Quincy and Lisa have spoken on the phone, that has never happened.

Some years later, Quincy feels like she's doing well. She runs a popular baking blog and leads a quiet life with her boyfriend, a public defender. Yes, she still can't remember most of what happened in Pine Cottage, and she needs antidepressants to get through the day, not to mention her intermittent fits of kleptomania, but considering what she went through, that's understandable.

And then Quincy receives news that Lisa has killed herself, not long after sending Quincy an email saying she needs to speak to her. And that is quickly followed by Sam showing up at Quincy's apartment, where she proceeds to immediately upend Quincy's life.

This didn't work at all. The plot, which was the main draw for me, ended up being nothing more than an intriguing setup. The way it was developed felt clunky and unbelievable. The author sprinkled red herrings all over, which I guess were effective, in that I did fall for them, but they felt manipulative and artificial, rather than organic. It all ends up being too convoluted to be remotely believable, and I just couldn't buy the ending.

The characters were even weaker. Quincy is incredibly meh, a sort of vacuum where a personality should be, and her relationship with Sam just annoyed me, because it felt so forced and fake. Sam is incredibly clichéd, the bad girl who shows up and immediately starts getting the good girl to misbehave and do really stupid stuff and take pointless risks. I didn't believe any of it for a minute.

So yeah, my main problem with this one was that I was just not able to suspend my disbelief, so I spent the entire book going "Oh, seriously!" and "No, no, no!". Not great.

MY GRADE: A C-. And I'm probably being a bit generous.

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The Queen of Blood, by Sarah Beth Durst

>> Tuesday, July 25, 2017

TITLE: The Queen of Blood
AUTHOR: Sarah Beth Durst

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 368
PUBLISHER: Harper Voyager

SETTING: Kingdom of Aratay
TYPE: Fantasy
SERIES: First in the Queens of Renthia series

Everything has a spirit: the willow tree with leaves that kiss the pond, the stream that feeds the river, the wind that exhales fresh snow...

But the spirits that reside within this land want to rid it of all humans. One woman stands between these malevolent spirits and the end of humankind: the queen. She alone has the magical power to prevent the spirits from destroying every man, woman, and child. But queens are still only human, and no matter how strong or good they are, the threat of danger always looms.

Because the queen’s position is so precarious, young women are specially chosen to train as her heirs. Daleina, a seemingly quiet academy student, simply wants to right the wrongs that have befallen the land. Meanwhile, the disgraced champion Ven has spent his exile secretly fighting against the growing number of spirit attacks. When Daleina and Ven join forces, they embark on a treacherous quest to find the source of the spirits’ restlessness—a journey that will force them to stand against both enemies and friends to save their land... before it’s bathed in blood.
This is the sort of book that, if you only read the back cover, might seem like pretty generic YA fantasy. It's anything but! A huge thank you to Carrie S at Smart Bitches Trashy Books for the excellent review, otherwise I never would have picked it up.

The Queen of Blood is set in a world where humans live in a sort of armed truce with the spirits that reside in every bit of nature. There are spirits in the wood, in the ice, in the fire, in the earth, in the air and in the water, and every single one of them wishes to push the humans out of what they feel is their world. The only thing holding them back from killing humans and driving them out is the human Queen, who is able to control them, to a certain extent, and mostly keep them from attacking.

In such a world, it's crucial to have someone ready to take over as soon as the Queen dies, someone with enough power to be able to control the spirits. The way it works is that the Queen's Champions select Candidates (usually from Academies devoted to training any girls with power -and it's only girls, not boys, who have power) and train them to be able to pass the tests that allow them to become Heirs.

That is the future that Deleina is determined should be hers. When she was a child, spirits attacked her village. Deleina was able to protect her family with her powers, and they were the only survivors. This has made her determined to develop her abilities enough to, if not become Queen, be able to better protect those around her. She's probably one of the students with least raw power in her Academy, but she's hard-working and conscientious and very, very determined.

And I'll leave the plot description at that, just the basic setup, because one of the things I loved most about this book was that I had no idea where it was going to go next. There were plenty of times when my jaw just dropped. I only realise how much a lot of what I read is a bit predictable and how much I crave being surprised when I read books like this.

One of the surprises was how feminist and subversive of bad fantasy tropes this book is. Part of me was expecting demonising (or at least negative portrayal) of other women: Daleina's fellow students at the Academy, the Queen, all clear rivals to our protagonists... and what does it say about our world that enough books have done this that I was expecting it (even if kind of dreading it)? Durst surprised me, and I loved what she did here. The students forge a strong sisterhood. They are rivals and they understand this, but they are invested in making it a fair, healthy competition, and that doesn't preclude friendship. My favourite was what Durst did with Merecot (sp? I listened to the audiobook), who's the strongest student in terms of control over the spirits, and who is extremely ambitious and ruthless about it. She's prickly and can be mean, but even she is not portrayed as bad. She and Daleina forge a real friendship, even if one with a fair bit of conflict. And the Queen! We know almost from the start that something is wrong there, and that the destruction of villages such as Daleina's is down to the Queen's actions (or inactions). Surely she is a villain? Nope. Again, she's a very flawed person, but even she is not portrayed as a villain. I loved it.

Another surprise: the relationship between Daleina and Ven, the Champion who takes her on as his candidate and trains her to become an Heir. I sort of assumed there was going to be some sort of romance there between them, but there wasn't! Which was great, because the book worked so much better because of that. There is romance, and each of them has their own relationships, but their relationship was one that felt so much fresher and new because of the lack of the romance.

Daleina herself is surprising as well. She seems a bit tentative at first, and she is probably the least ambitious of the candidates, but she is absolutely not tentative when it comes to doing what is best for her country. Durst goes places with this that I wasn't expecting, and I loved it.

I also loved that the world is really original. There's a real darkness here (things can get really bloody!), and Durst doesn't guarantee that even nice characters survive. There's also an interesting environmental message here: what happens when humanity seeks to impose its will over nature rather than work with it? It's made clear that the reason spirits can be controlled by humans is that they need humans as much as humans need the spirits. Each are essential to keeping the world in balance, so the power to influence and control the spirits has evolved to ensure that. Most women with power use it to control, but Daleina is not powerful enough for that. She coaxes the spirits, uses her limited power to distract them from destructiveness and push them towards an expression of their own power and impulses that helps humans (to grow, to build, rather than to kill and destroy). This is one of the elements I hope to see explored in future books.

MY GRADE: An A-. Highly recommended

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Come Sundown, by Nora Roberts

>> Sunday, June 11, 2017

TITLE: Come Sundown
AUTHOR: Nora Roberts

COPYRIGHT: 2017
PAGES: 480
PUBLISHER: St. Martin's

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romantic Suspense
SERIES: None

The Bodine ranch and resort in western Montana is a family business, an idyllic spot for vacationers. A little over thirty thousand acres and home to four generations, it’s kept running by Bodine Longbow with the help of a large staff, including new hire Callen Skinner. There was another member of the family once: Bodine’s aunt, Alice, who ran off before Bodine was born. She never returned, and the Longbows don’t talk about her much. The younger ones, who never met her, quietly presume she’s dead. But she isn’t. She is not far away, part of a new family, one she never chose?and her mind has been shattered...

When a bartender leaves the resort late one night, and Bo and Cal discover her battered body in the snow, it’s the first sign that danger lurks in the mountains that surround them. The police suspect Cal, but Bo finds herself trusting him-and turning to him as another woman is murdered and the Longbows are stunned by Alice’s sudden reappearance. The twisted story she has to tell about the past?and the threat that follows in her wake?will test the bonds of this strong family, and thrust Bodine into a darkness she could never have imagined.
In Come Sundown, we travel to Montana, where the Bodine-Longbow family run a successful ranch/resort. Bodine Longbow, the daughter of the family, is our heroine. She's confident and competent, the sort of woman who doesn't suffer fools gladly. As the book starts, Callen Skinner has just returned to the area and has taken a job at the ranch. Callen grew up there with a father who was a gambling addict and who lost pretty much all of the family's lands. He was best friends with Chase, Bodine's older brother, and she had a bit of a crush on him, but one that never turned into anything. Now that Cal is back after a successful career in Hollywood as a horse wrangler working in films, both are grown, single, and attracted to each other.

As they court, things around them start getting very worrying. A young woman working as a bartender in the resort is found murdered, and soon the same thing happens with a young college student returning home. Someone is killing young women, and one of the deputies is convinced it's Cal.

Interspersed with the present-day story, we get the story of Alice, Bodine's mother's sister. Alice is the family black sheep, as she left in a dramatic huff almost 25 years earlier (on the day of her sister's wedding, no less), and after sending a few postcards for a couple of years, disappeared off the face of the Earth. Her mother still grieves for her absence, but her sister and grandmother are still pretty angry at her.

We soon find out that Alice did not disappear of her own volition. After a couple of years she decided to come home, only she ran into the wrong guy as she hitchhiked closer to home. The man who took her was one of those American survivalist / fundamentalist types, and he decided to take her for his 'wife'. For almost 25 years, Alice has been basically his slave, trapped, beaten, constantly raped and forced to bear her captor's children. And then she escapes.

I have very mixed feelings about this one. I mostly enjoyed it as I was reading it, but now that I've finished and think back about it, I don't think it was very good at all. I like the setting and the family and the writing, and I particularly liked seeing Alice come back to life. However, there were too many elements that could have been a lot better.

The romance was very meh, and that's a problem when the book is supposed to be a romance novel. I never warmed up to Bodine or to Callen. They felt a bit shallow, possibly because neither of them experienced any sort of growth during the book, beyond Callen sort of coming to terms with his mother's love for his gambling-addict father (not that this seems to affect him much at all now). Both Bo and Cal are perfectly fine from the start, two happy people who simply become happier by getting together. That's a great thing to aspire to, but I'm afraid it didn't make for a particularly interesting romance, as there was absolutely no conflict between them. There's no reason why they wouldn't be together, and mostly (other than a couple of scenes where they sort of fight after one or the other flies off the handle for no reason at all, other than plot) they just start dating and it works perfectly fine. There was nothing objectionable there, but nothing that drew me in, either.

I also had some issues with the Alice storyline. I did love it once she came home, but in the first sections there are a lot of scenes showing her in captivity. Those scenes really were harrowing, particularly the ones early on, when Alice's mind is still not beaten down by the abuse. To be honest, they felt unnecessarily graphic to me, and they didn't really go well with the rest of the book.

And then there was the suspense subplot. Exactly the same thing happened to me in the previous romantic suspense release by this author, in that as soon as I met a particular character, long before they'd done anything remotely suspicious, I knew pretty much everything. I'm not sure if it's that it was really telegraphed, or that I'm a bit too familiar with Nora Robert's oeuvre, but there was zero suspense for me. I was picking up every clue, and therefore the moment when the person's identity was revealed, which was clearly written to be a shock to the reader, was flat as a pancake.

I really don't know what's going on with Roberts. Lately her trilogies have gone terrible, her standalone romantic suspense books are hit or miss, but the In Death books are still fantastic. Weird.

MY GRADE: I'd give it a B-, and I'm being pretty generous here.

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My reading in two graphs

>> Monday, May 01, 2017

I just installed a new version of Office and have been playing with pivot tables to familiarise myself with how they work here. I've been tracking my reading for many, many years, so that was the obvious file to play with. Probably of interest only to me, but here are a couple of graphs that tell such a clear story of how my reading has changed over the years:

I'm going off romance (click here to enlarge)


My reading used to be 80% romance, but it's been gradually going down, and is now hovering around a third. Probably a combination of reasons: a) I have changed; b) the genre has changed; and c) I've got better at finding out about non-romance books that appeal to me.

Ebook and audiobooks have taken over (click here to enlarge)


To save you a click, grey is print, orange is ebooks, blue is audiobooks. I did start reading some ebooks back in 2004, but I didn't track format back then. Still, it was very few (not that many were available, anyway, at least not to me in Uruguay), so the number would have been tiny.

These days, I only read print if I absolutely cannot get the book in e or audio. I listen to lots of audio, but the reason audiobooks have gone slightly down since the peak in 2013 is that I keep finding more and more wonderful podcasts, so that takes up a fair bit of my listening time.

None of this was a surprise, but it was fun to be able to see the trends so clearly.

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The End of the Perfect 10, by Dvora Meyers

>> Saturday, April 29, 2017

TITLE: The End of the Perfect 10: The Making and Breaking of Gymnastics' Top Score - from Nadia to Now
AUTHOR: Dvora Meyers

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 336
PUBLISHER: Touchstone

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

Just in time for the 2016 Olympic Games and the fortieth anniversary of Nadia Comaneci’s “Perfect 10,” an exciting and insightful account of the controversial world of gymnastics, the recent changes of the scoring system, and why those changes will drive American gymnasts to the top of the sport in the twenty-first century.

It was the team finals of women’s gymnastics in the 2012 London Olympics and McKayla Maroney was on top of her game. The sixteen-year-old US gymnast was performing arguably the best vault of all time, launching herself unimaginably high into the air and sticking a flawless landing. But when her score came, many were baffled: 16.233. Three tenths of a point in deductions stood between her and a perfect score. But if that vault wasn’t perfection, what was?

For years, gymnastics was scored on a 10.0 scale. During this era, more than 100 “perfect” scores were awarded in major international competitions. But when the 10.0 scoring system caused major judging controversies at the 2004 Olympics, international elite gymnastics made the switch to the open-ended scoring system it uses today, making perfect scores a thing of the past—and forever altering the sport in the process.

Gymnastics insider Dvora Meyers examines the evolution of elite women’s gymnastics over the last few decades. With insight, flair, and a boundless love for the sport, Meyers answers questions that gymnastics fans have been asking since the last perfect score was handed out over twenty years ago. She reveals why successful female gymnasts are older and more athletic than they have ever been before, how the United States became a gymnastics powerhouse, and what the future of gymnastics will hold.

Bolstered by dozens of exclusive interviews with professionals representing every aspect of the sport, The End of the Perfect 10 explores a crucial change in one of the most popular Olympic sports, and is a captivating account of elite gymnastics’ entry into the uncharted world of imperfection.
I'm a bit of a fair weather gymnastics fan, in that I only watch it when it's on the telly. That basically means that, since I don't pay for any dedicated sports TV channels (I know myself -I wouldn't leave the house on weekends if I had football on TV), I only watch it every 4 years, during the Olympics.

So how would a book that dives into the nitty-gritty of the gymnastics world and organisation work for someone like me? Well, some of it worked really well, some of it not so much.

The first half, which is basically what is described in the subtitle, worked beautifully. Meyers uses the starting point of the marking system to explore the sport and how it's changed over the years. It looks at the issues around having that top end, that perfect 10, it looks at the politics around it and at the drivers for change, it looks at how it did change,and finally it explores what that has meant.

Meyers is very much an insider and seems to be able to talk to absolutely everyone, so her exploration relies heavily on her interviews. That element could have been integrated a little bit better to the text (what we get are extensive quotes, which feels a bit clunky), but it paints a really good picture.

I loved this bit because it allowed me to really understand a lot of things which were vague feelings and impressions until I read this. I started the book thinking that of course the change in systems must have been a good thing, as it promotes increased difficulty and envelope pushing. That has to be a good thing, right? But after watching lots and lots of YouTube videos to actually see the performances Meyers describes (and you really need to read this where you are able to access online videos) I realised that my personal preference actually leans more towards the perfect execution, even if it's of less difficult skills, over something super hard but that doesn't look as perfect. Who knew?

The second half of the book was a lot less interesting to me. Meyers looks at how the US women's gymastics team became what it is today, after the disappointment of the 2000 Olympics. I confess I read the first chapter of that bit, got really bored, and skimmed the rest. I got the gist of it, and that was more than enough for me. There is also a long section about college gymnastics in the US, which I also found less than fascinating. The only chapter I really liked in the second half was one that looked at why some countries have declined so much, as the US have been in the ascendant (the bit about Romania, particularly, was heartbreaking).

Still, this one is worth reading if only for the first half. I'm glad I did, and I wish I'd found it before the Olympics last year.

MY GRADE: A B-.

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The Little Shop of Happy-Ever-After, by Jenny Colgan

>> Sunday, April 23, 2017

TITLE: The Little Shop of Happy-Ever-After (aka The Bookshop on the Corner in the US)
AUTHOR: Jenny Colgan

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 368
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: Contemporary England and Scotland
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: None

Nina Redmond is a librarian with a gift for finding the perfect book for her readers. But can she write her own happy-ever-after? In this valentine to readers, librarians, and book-lovers the world over, the New York Times-bestselling author of Little Beach Street Bakery returns with a funny, moving new novel for fans of Meg Donohue, Sophie Kinsella, and Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop.

“Losing myself in Jenny Colgan’s beautiful pages is the most delicious, comforting, satisfying treat I have had in ages.”—Jane Green, New York Times bestselling author of Summer Secrets

Nina Redmond is a literary matchmaker. Pairing a reader with that perfect book is her passion… and also her job. Or at least it was. Until yesterday, she was a librarian in the hectic city. But now the job she loved is no more.

Determined to make a new life for herself, Nina moves to a sleepy village many miles away. There she buys a van and transforms it into a bookmobile—a mobile bookshop that she drives from neighborhood to neighborhood, changing one life after another with the power of storytelling.

From helping her grumpy landlord deliver a lamb, to sharing picnics with a charming train conductor who serenades her with poetry, Nina discovers there’s plenty of adventure, magic, and soul in a place that’s beginning to feel like home… a place where she just might be able to write her own happy ending.
I was hoping to love this. It's very much a wish fulfillment plot, but while I steer far clear of such plots involving "celebrity/rock star/billionaire businessman/other high status man falls for regular girl", as it's not a fantasy of mine, this one hit the target.

Nina is a librarian struggling with what austerity is doing to her work (basically: libraries closing and the authorities focusing on novelty management crap over providing users a good experience). She ends up chucking it all in, buying a large van to turn into a mobile bookshop, and setting up shop in a gorgeous little village in Scotland. After a few small initial difficulties, she lands on her feet. The villagers (both in hers and neighbouring villages) love her and her bookshop van, and she happens to find a wonderful place to live, with a grumpy-but-very-attractive farmer landlord/neighbour.

I did start out loving it all. It was twee (in both content and writing style), and twee is not my thing, but I was reading this during a week work was kicking my arse, so it was just right. Nina was a fun character, the setting was charming, and I loved the different characters in the village. Everything was lovely, everything was charming.

And I suspect if the book had been (a lot) shorter, I would have closed it happy. After a while, either the tweeness escalated beyond what I could tolerate or my patience with it ran out. My happy sighs started turning into "oh, please" and "give me a break". What I had been finding charming started to feel preposterous and silly. There were some very nice moments, but pretty much every time, I felt Colgan just took the cuteness too far.

I was also majorly annoyed by the conclusion to the story of a particular character. So, when she moves to Scotland, Nina meets a young Latvian man called Marek, who's one of the drivers of the train that goes from her area to London. They become friends and meet up regularly. There's quite a bit of attraction which seems reciprocal. In the end, though, he gets deported (!). He's is sent home to Latvia in a plane full of deportees (!!). Yes, when the lawyer Nina asks for help calls the Home Office they say he's going voluntarily (would they even give that sort of detail to a random lawyer?), but the implication is that he would have been deported otherwise. This is not because he's some sort of criminal, or anything like that. It's simply because he's lost his job, as far as I can tell. Eh, Ms Colgan, Latvia is an EU member. Marek (and a full planeload of people!) wouldn't get deported for not having a job. This is set in 2016, not 2020. We EU citizens aren't being deported en masse just yet! This is objectively a minor detail, in the grand scheme of things, but given what's been going on in this country, it made me really angry. The attitude with Marek is very much that he's other, even though he's portrayed as a nice character. Of course he has a wife and kids back in Latvia. That's the way it is with foreigners, they come here to make money, but they don't actually integrate.

Bah, humbug.

MY GRADE: A C+.

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