The Shelf: From LEQ to LES, by Phyllis Rose

>> Saturday, February 25, 2017

TITLE: The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading
AUTHOR: Phyllis Rose

COPYRIGHT: 2014
PAGES: 271
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Non Fiction
SERIES: None

Phyllis Rose embarks on a grand literary experiment—to read her way through a random shelf of library books, LEQ–LES

Can you have an Extreme Adventure in a library? Phyllis Rose casts herself into the wilds of an Upper East Side lending library in an effort to do just that. Hoping to explore the "real ground of literature," she reads her way through a somewhat randomly chosen shelf of fiction, from LEQ to LES.

The shelf has everything Rose could wish for—a classic she has not read, a remarkable variety of authors, and a range of literary styles. The early nineteenth-century Russian classic A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov is spine by spine with The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux. Stories of French Canadian farmers sit beside those about aristocratic Austrians. California detective novels abut a picaresque novel from the seventeenth century. There are several novels by a wonderful, funny, contemporary novelist who has turned to raising dogs because of the tepid response to her work.

In The Shelf, Rose investigates the books on her shelf with exuberance, candor, and wit while pondering the many questions her experiment raises and measuring her discoveries against her own inner shelf—those texts that accompany us through life. "Fairly sure that no one in the history of the world has read exactly this series of novels," she sustains a sense of excitement as she creates a refreshingly original and generous portrait of the literary enterprise.
The premise of this book is a project that really appealed to me. In fact, I've half convinced myself I should do something like it myself (if maybe not write a book about it). Rose decides she will take a quasi-random shelf in her local library and just read through it.

It's only quasi-random because she immediately realises she needs a couple of rules, otherwise, popular and prolific authors being what they are, she'll end up reading a shelf that's just, I don't know, Danielle Steel. Her shelf must have at least one classic she hasn't read but is interested in, it must have enough different authors (including a respectable number of female authors), and if there's an author there with several titles, she is required to read only 3. All sounds eminently sensible to me!

And that's what the book (mostly) is: Rose talking about her experience in reading those books. She starts out with the classic, a Russian book called A Hero of Our Time, and it was clear she was taking this seriously when she tries several different translations to see if any of them help her 'get it' (I'd never heard of the book, but strangely, just last week I saw a ballet based on it advertised!). She tries an almost forgotten South African author. She reads The Phantom of the Opera. She reads a picaresque Spanish novel which she finds unexpectedly appealing. She discovers a contemporary author she really enjoys, to the point that she even contacts her and meets her.

Strangely enough, even though I wasn't particularly tempted to read any of them (and a couple of them evoked a 'hell, no!'), I still really enjoyed her discussions of them. She approaches her books with a very open, generous mind, willing to look for something valuable, even in books that do not appeal to her. And she does find it! I guess I'd describe her as "game". She gives these books an open-minded shot.

I said the book is only 'mostly' Rose's experiences reading those books. She also has a couple of chapters that don't quite fit into that theme and are basically essays on a particular subject that interests her. I had a mixed reaction to these. The one about how libraries weed out books was fascinating, while the one where she moans about negative reviews, not so much. Good or not, I had a bit of an issue with them being there at all. That was not what I signed up for when I chose to read the book, and it felt a bit like these chapters were only there to fill up space.

Still, on the whole I liked the book and found the idea quite inspiring. I might visit the lovely Liverpool Central Library soon and look up a likely shelf!

MY GRADE: A B-.

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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by JK Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorne

>> Thursday, February 23, 2017

TITLE: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
AUTHOR: JK Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorne

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 320
PUBLISHER: Pottermore

SETTING: Alternate reality
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: 8th in the Harry Potter canon

Based on an original new story by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne, a new play by Jack Thorne, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is the eighth story in the Harry Potter series and the first official Harry Potter story to be presented on stage. The play received its world premiere in London’s West End on 30th July 2016.

It was always difficult being Harry Potter and it isn’t much easier now that he is an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, a husband and father of three school-age children.

While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted. As past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places.
I wasn't sure I wanted to read this one. For starters, it wasn't really fully written by Rowling herself, and it's not a novel but the script for the play, which is something I'm not used to reading (not since reading Shakespeare in secondary school, I guess). And still, even with such low expectations, this was a massive disappointment.

The play takes place some 20 years after HP7, and stars Albus, one of Harry's children. Albus has a tense relationship with his father, mainly because he's keenly feeling the pressure to live up to his legend. He feels his father expects him to be just like him. He isn't, though. He enjoys different things and wants different things in life. Harry doesn't react well to this, which doesn't help. In a fit of rebellion, Albus decides to do something that he knows his father will disapprove of. And this is as far as the spoiler-free bit of this review will go. There will be only relatively mild spoilers in the rest (i.e. only more details about the setup, as that's as far as I got), but if you want to read this or see the play blind, you might want to stop reading here.

This was so, so problematic. Positives first: I loved the idea of the story. How would Harry Potter cope with a child very different from himself? I also loved several of the new characters, particularly Scorpius Malfoy, Lucius's son, who becomes Albus's best friend. Scorpius is a total sweetheart, and I wanted to reach into the pages and hug him.

That is about it, though. I did not really recognise the characters I knew in their adult version. Harry is an oblivious idiot, Ron is a bumbling fool, and Ginny and Hermione don't come out that well, either. And the plot is just stupid. Albus basically decides almost on a whim to go back in time and make a massive change, with zero thought. Things we’ve been told in the canon are difficult and require huge amounts of planning, such as a raid on the Ministry of Magic, using polyjuice potion and playing with fucking time, are done with no effort, very deus ex machina. They just happen.

And then we get to what looks like it might be the central plot of the book. Albus has changed something in the past and boom! All sorts of things in the present he knew have changed. How will he fix that? Aaaand... I was out. This is hands down my least favourite plot device ever. I hate time travel books in general, will only cope with time travel if I’m otherwise loving the book (e.g. Azkaban), and this particular plot device in particular is not one I want to read. Add to this dialogue that might work perfectly in a theatre, but that feels dull and lifeless on the script, and I just didn’t want to go on. So I didn’t.

Too bad, because because this could have been a good one.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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Someone To Love, by Mary Balogh

>> Tuesday, February 21, 2017

TITLE: Someone To Love
AUTHOR: Mary Balogh

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 400
PUBLISHER: Signet

SETTING: Early 1800s England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Starts the Westcott series

Humphrey Westcott, Earl of Riverdale, has died, leaving behind a fortune that will forever alter the lives of everyone in his family—including the daughter no one knew he had...

Anna Snow grew up in an orphanage in Bath knowing nothing of the family she came from. Now she discovers that the late Earl of Riverdale was her father and that she has inherited his fortune. She is also overjoyed to learn she has siblings. However, they want nothing to do with her or her attempts to share her new wealth. But the new earl’s guardian is interested in Anna…

Avery Archer, Duke of Netherby, keeps others at a distance. Yet something prompts him to aid Anna in her transition from orphan to lady. As London society and her newfound relatives threaten to overwhelm Anna, Avery steps in to rescue her and finds himself vulnerable to feelings and desires he has hidden so well and for so long.
I still haven't finished reading Balogh's previous series, the Survivors' Club (I liked the first books well enough, but the latest seemed to have lost a bit momentum), but I was tempted by this, the first book in a new series. Part of it was also that my mum, a huge Balogh fan, told me she was about to start it and how about we read it at the same time? Living so far away means that the opportunities for mother-daughter activities are scarce, so I couldn't resist that. This was while I was in Uruguay and spending about 10 hours a day sitting by the pool and reading, though, so I finished it a lot earlier than she did :)

The Earl of Riverdale has died. As part of the task of sorting out his affairs (in more than one sense!), his widow discloses to his lawyer and the Duke of Netherby, as executor of the will, that the Earl has been supporting a young woman in an orphanage for the last 20 years or so. The obvious conclusion, to which they all come, is that this is a natural daughter of the Earl's. The widow is a kind soul, and her intention is that a generous sum should be settled on the young woman, rather than having payments stopped.

Straightforward enough, it seems, but things turn out to be much more complicated than that. Because the young woman, Miss Anna Snow, is not illegitimate. The Earl married her mother when he was a thoughtless young man, and although she did die not too long afterwards, this happened after his marriage to the rich young lady his parents insisted he marry under pain of being cut off.

Result? The Earl's other three children, who all had their lives mapped out, need to think again. They are now illegitimate. Their position in society is gone, and they do not inherit anything, not the earldom, which passes onto a cousin, not the Earl's fortune, which goes to Anna Snow.

Anna Snow, whose life is just as uppended by the news. Anna had grown up, like all the other orphans, fantasising that her family would some day be revealed to her. Sometimes she even dreamed she would turn out to be an heiress, and her being sent to the orphanage (a very nice orphanage, where the children are well-treated, but an orphanage all the same) would prove to have been a mistake. When that old dream comes true, it's all much more challenging than she ever thought in her vague fantasies. She's now heiress to a huge fortune and must take her place in society, and her family, many of whom have reasons to resent her, feel they have a stake in making sure she'll "do", and feel entitled to tell her what she needs to do to get there. It's pretty overwhelming.

One of the positive surprises, however, is Avery, the Duke of Netherby. Avery is a family friend, and for reasons he doesn't really understand, he feels compelled to help her.

I liked the setup. The revelations about Anna throw things right up in the air for many, many people, and for once, I am really interested in how things turn out for them (sequel-baiting usually annoys me). One of Anna's sisters gets jilted by the nobleman she was supposed to marry now that she's illegitimate (and the way he gets his comeuppance is extremely satisfying). Her brother, who thought he was the Earl for all of a few days and was enjoying himself as only a young, privileged man with not a care in the world could, ends up joining the army. Both their stories should be interesting. But I'm most interested in two. First, the Earl's supposed widow. We don't get much from her, but I was intrigued by what I saw. Second, the cousin who ends up inheriting the earldom. This is a man who never expected to get it. He worked like crazy to get his own estate in order after he received it in a poor state, and was looking forward to settling down in the country and living a cozy life, as soon as he found a woman to love him. Now he needs to basically start again, since he's received another estate in a bad state, but not the fortune that was supposed to come with it. His story should be interesting.

And I suspect that the fact that I'm going on and on about the family stuff and haven't really said a word about the romance says it all. I'm afraid the romance was very meh. It was fine. There was nothing objectionable about it. In fact, I think Anna and Avery fit quite well. There just was no chemistry whatsoever there. So while I liked reading it well enough, it didn't excite me and I was a lot more interested in the other stuff going on around them.

Before closing this review, I should mention the bit about the mysterious Chinese man who taught Avery martial arts. There's a good explanation here, in the Smart Bitches review about why that element is problematic. I won't repeat it, as it's expressed there both by the reviewer and by commenters such as Courtney Milan much better than I could, but it bothered me. Not enough to overly ruin my enjoyment of the book, but I certainly noticed it. At least Balogh seemed to take the point well, which is refreshing.

MY GRADE: A B-.

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Apprentice in Death, by JD Robb

>> Sunday, February 19, 2017

TITLE: Apprentice in Death
AUTHOR: JD Robb

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 384
PUBLISHER: Berkley

SETTING: 2060s New York
TYPE: Police procedural
SERIES: By my count, 44th full-length title in the In Death series

The shots came quickly, silently, and with deadly accuracy. Within seconds, three people lay dead at Central Park's ice skating rink. There's a sniper loose on the streets of New York City, and Lieutenant Eve Dallas is about to face one of the toughest and most unsettling cases of her career.

Eve knows that only a handful of people could have carried out such an audacious but professional hit. Even more disturbing: this expert in death has an accomplice. Someone is being trained in the science of killing - and they have a terrifying agenda of their own. With a city shaken to its core, Eve and her team are forced to hunt not one but two killers. Worse still - this talented young apprentice has developed an insatiable taste for murder...
The ice skating rink in Central Park. Tourists, regulars and casual visitors are having a great time, until a skater goes off balance in the middle of a flying twirl and crashes into a young family. But she didn’t go off balance, she was hit by a laser shot, and within seconds, two more people have been fatally hit.

Eve Dallas is called to investigate, and it soon becomes clear the shots came from nowhere near the rink. They're looking for a sniper, a really good one, and that's not even the biggest surprise. Turns out they're looking for two people, teacher and student, and the apprentice is clearly getting into killing.

Every time a new book in this series comes out, and they have been doing so at 6-month intervals for over 20 years, I'm suprised that Robb hasn't ran out of steam. I'm aware lots of people disagree and have gone off the series, but I'm still fully engaged. Yes, there are flaws (fantasy-billionaire Roarke has felt out of place in Eve's world for quite a few books now, as I've said again and again!), but not enough to matter to me. I continue to love these books.

Apprentice in Death featured a particularly solid case. It’s an interesting setup, but more than that, there’s solid detective work in identifying the culprits, and then even more in catching them and getting enough evidence for a conviction. It's a tense chase, as well, and it worked wonderfully.

The different books in this series have a different balance between the case and personal stuff. In this case, the focus was solidly on the case, but that didn't mean there was no character development. It's just that there wasn't really much external character stuff going all (we did get Bella's first birthday, but that was really minor). Here the character development comes directly out of the case. There's the way the random victims weigh on Eve, supporting one of the most appealing features of this series, which is that the victims are always portrayed as real people. They're given personalities and motivations, and their deaths affect others. But there are also the issues raised by the relationship between the culprits, as they lead Eve to ponder the nature of the mentor-mentee relationship, not to mention what might have been if Feeney had not been Feeney.

MY GRADE: A nice, solid B+.

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The Red Notebook, by Antoine Laurain

>> Friday, February 17, 2017

TITLE: The Red Notebook
AUTHOR: Antoine Laurain

COPYRIGHT: 2014
PAGES: 159
PUBLISHER: Gallic Books

SETTING: Contemporary Paris
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

.

Bookseller Laurent Letellier comes across an abandoned handbag on a Parisian street and feels impelled to return it to its owner. The bag contains no money, phone or contact information. But a small red notebook with handwritten thoughts and jottings reveals a person that Laurent would very much like to meet. Without even a name to go on, and only a few of her possessions to help him, how is he to find one woman in a city of millions?
.
Coming home late one night, a young woman called Laure is mugged and her handbag is stolen. By the next morning, a bump in the head she received during the mugging has put her into a coma. That same morning, Laurent, a bookseller walking to work notices a handbag on a bin. Coming to exactly the right conclusion about what must have happened, Laurent picks it up and looks inside to see if he can work out whom to return it to.

And so begins an obsession. The objects in the handbag, including a red notebook where the owner writes a sort of journal, full of painfully honest observations, tell him a lot about her, just not her name. Laurent follows clue after clue to discover the identity of this woman he's come to think he might get along with really well.

The Red Notebook is sweet, but a bit insubstantial. On the whole, I enjoyed it. There were things I really liked, such as the sense of place. The book is set in Paris and it feels completely different to an UK urban setting, but at the same time it has quite a few touches of modernity that make it clear it's not (completely, maybe) idealised. It does feel a bit Amélie-ish, but that's no bad thing.

When I read the description I was a bit doubtful and, indeed, a lot of things happen here that could be seen as crossing the line into creepy and invasive. To the author's credit, however, he mostly keeps his main character on the right side of that line. He does try to do the right thing every time, it's just that events conspire to move him in the direction where he secretly wants to go, There was a single moment when I thought "Oh, no, no, no!", but he does make amends for that. And I liked the way he acted at the end, which did a lot to dispel the worries that he might be a bit stalkerish.

So I liked that ok. For all that, though, the characters didn't really succeed in engaging me and making me interested in their story, beyond the detective elements of Laurent trying to figure out his beloved's identity. I wasn't really convinced of the romance, although I was not convinced that the romance wouldn't work out, either.

MY GRADE: A C+.

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The Woman in Cabin 10, by Ruth Ware

>> Wednesday, February 15, 2017

TITLE: The Woman in Cabin 10
AUTHOR: Ruth Ware

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 340
PUBLISHER: Gallery/Scout Press

SETTING: Contemporary UK, Norway, and on board a cruise ship
TYPE: Mystery/Trhiller
SERIES: None

From New York Times bestselling author of the “twisty-mystery” (Vulture) novel In a Dark, Dark Wood, comes The Woman in Cabin 10, an equally suspenseful novel from Ruth Ware—this time, set at sea.

In this tightly wound story, Lo Blacklock, a journalist who writes for a travel magazine, has just been given the assignment of a lifetime: a week on a luxury cruise with only a handful of cabins. At first, Lo’s stay is nothing but pleasant: the cabins are plush, the dinner parties are sparkling, and the guests are elegant. But as the week wears on, frigid winds whip the deck, gray skies fall, and Lo witnesses what she can only describe as a nightmare: a woman being thrown overboard. The problem? All passengers remain accounted for—and so, the ship sails on as if nothing has happened, despite Lo’s desperate attempts to convey that something (or someone) has gone terribly, terribly wrong…

With surprising twists and a setting that proves as uncomfortably claustrophobic as it is eerily beautiful, Ruth Ware offers up another intense read.
Lo Blacklock's week-long stay on the Aurora should have been the highlight of her year. The Aurora is a new luxury cruise ship, and Lo, a lowly staff writer at a travel magazine, would not usually get such a perk. However, her boss is pregnant and her really bad morning sickness does not mix well with the idea of a week sailing in the North Sea, so Lo it is.

Lo plans to grab the opportunity with both hands, but then someone breaks into her flat (while she's there, no less) just a couple of days before she's due to sail. Physically she's mostly fine after the experience, but the trauma puts her off her stride right from the start, and she boards the ship already feeling off-balance and not quite right.

Things get even worse the very first night, when after a long, boozy gourmet dinner, Lo is woken up by what she's convinced is a scream from the cabin next door. That is shortly followed by the sort of splash only a heavy object (like a body) could make going overboard, and when Lo runs onto the balcony outside her room, she sees a bloody smear on the glass screen that connects it to the balcony belonging to the cabin next door.

There's no doubt in Lo's mind that the young woman staying in that cabin, whom Lo briefly met right after she boarded, must have come to a sticky end. But when she reports what's happened to the head of security, the man is baffled. The cabin next door is empty, since the man who was supposed to stay there had to cancel at the last minute. The ship's records show there isn't, nor ever was, a young woman staying there, and when they open the cabin to check it, its completely empty state seems to bear that out. Lo can swear up and down all she wants that she saw the woman -even borrowed a tube of mascara off her!- but it doesn't seem very probable to the head of security. And his doubts solidify into certainty when he discovers Lo takes anti-anxiety medication. Mental health issues + a lot of alcohol = unreliable woman, as far as he's concerned. He'll be polite and won't say anything, even allow Lo to ask a few questions of the staff, just to ease her mind, but it's obvious to Lo that he's not taking her seriously at all.

Someone else is, however. Lo's attempts to figure out what happened lead to a reaction. Someone clearly wants her to stop digging.

The Woman in Cabin 10 did not start out well for me. I was getting more and more annoyed with Lo, until I suddenly had a big "think again" moment. My annoyance with Lo was because I thought she was just pointlessly making things harder for herself by being all hysterical and incoherent and jumping to conclusions when reporting the crime to the head of security. I was thinking "If only you had said this and this and this to him, it would have been fine!". And then I just stopped dead and thought about all those cases of women not being believed when reporting crimes (rape, particularly), because they don't behave exactly as whatever police officer takes their statement has in their mind as the way a woman reporting a rape should behave. And my whole view of the book and the character shifted. Well, of course Lo would be a mess when reporting what has happened! She has just had a traumatic experience, which has come after the break-in, so she was already traumatised. And yes, she has been drinking, but she has just attended a well-watered bazillion-course dinner! She behaved in one of the many ways a normal person might in similar circumstances. After that point, my perception of the book changed completely, and I started to enjoy it loads.

The mystery turned out to be really good. It works wonderfully as a whodunnit, since the plotting is very well done. There are plenty of red herrings and I took several wrong turns trying to follow them. Ware plays completely fair, though, and when I finally understood what had happened, everything clicked into place perfectly. I had that magical 'a-ha!' moment every good mystery should have. That happens a bit before the end, and that's when the book becomes a really good thriller. I was at the edge of my seat... well, not quite literally, since it was an audiobook and I mainly listen while I exercise -let's just say I completely lost track of time while ont he treadmill, and my workout was over before I knew it. And then there's the dénouement. I thought for a minute things had kind of gone a bit anticlimactic, but then we get a little final revelation, and I just smiled happily.

The book also has a really great sense of place. The ship feels real and Ware creates a vivid atmosphere, combining the closed spaces and Lo's mental state to create an oppressive sense of claustrophobia. Mind you, I still wanted to go on the ship myself!

Something else I appreciated was the lack of romance as the point of the book. Lo has a boyfriend, and their relationship has a bit of space here, but it's in the background. It's not what the book is about, although the events in the book do develop it. Also, she has what feels like a realistic life for a woman her age today, with friends and social media. It's ridiculous that is so uncommon, but it is, and I liked seeing here for once.

A solid, enjoyable read. It will probably not be for everyone (most of the reviewers on amazon seem to have felt really frustrated by Lo), but it was definitely for me.

MY GRADE: A B+.

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Flawless, by Carrie Lofty

>> Monday, February 13, 2017

TITLE: Flawless
AUTHOR: Carrie Lofty

COPYRIGHT: 2011
PAGES: 416
PUBLISHER:Pocket

SETTING: Early 20th century South Africa
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: 1st in The Christies series

A passion this seductive is more precious than diamonds...

Sir William Christie, ruthless tycoon and notorious ladies' man, is dead. Now his four grown children have gathered for the reading of his will. What lies in store for stepsiblings Vivienne, Alexander, and twins Gareth and Gwyneth? Stunning challenges that will test their fortitude across a royal empire...and lead them to the marvelously passionate adventures of their lives.

Lady Vivienne Bancroft fled England for New York, hoping to shed the confines of her arranged marriage to unrepentant rogue Miles Durham, Viscount Bancroft—though she never forgot the fiery desire he unleashed with his slightest touch. And when the gambling man arrives on her doorstep for a little sensual revenge for her desertion, he is met with Vivienne's dilemma: She must earn her father's inheritance by profitably running a diamond business worth millions in colonial South Africa.

Swept together in an exotic undertaking filled with heated passion and hungry temptation, will Vivienne and Miles discover that the marriage vows they once made are the greatest snare—or the most treasured reward?
Such a disappointment! I have accumulated quite a few of Carrie Lofty's books in my TBR. Several people have recommended her writing, and her settings all look so very interesting. This one was no exception.

The basic setup of the series is one of those "family patriarch trying to control his family from beyond the grave" things. William Christie has died, and his children will need to succeed at a task before they can inherit. They have each been assigned a failing enterprise and they must turn a profit, however small, in a set period. For Vivienne, that enterprise is a diamond brokerage in Kimberley, South Africa. This is taking place in the early 20th century, right after the Boer War, so it's potentially fascinating (actually, the same setting in any time period would be great!).

Vivienne is surprised when arriving in South Africa, her estranged husband is waiting there to meet her. She and Lord Miles Bancroft have been separated for quite a while, after she left him, and she's not sure what he's after, beyond some of the inheritance. To be honest, in the third of so of the book that I read, neither was I. Whenever we're in Miles' head it's all a confusing mishmash of greed, need for revenge and infatuation. Could be interesting, but unfortunately, it's all topped with a massive sense of entitlement.

And that was the problem at that stage: I really disliked Miles, and I despised Vivienne for not standing up for herself with him. It's that very old fashioned thing of the heroine having a traitorous body that betrays her whenever the hero decides to manhandle her in any way. That used to be par for the course, but I've become pretty intolerant of this in the last few years. So yeah, in the section I read, Miles was a total asshole. Their relationship dynamics were all about the power play, which is not my thing at all. Miles spends most of his time trying to enforce his will over Viv, and using sex to do so. There are a lot of punishing kisses and lots of dubious consent (he goes "of course I won't force you", but then tells Viv he will help her only if she sleeps with him and is an enthusiastic participant. Ugh.).

I had the hope things would get better (I gave in and had a look at goodreads reviews, and several people reported they disliked Miles at first but warmed to him as the book went on). However, there is so much mental lusting here that trying to push through felt like a huge chore. I gave up after a few days of only being able to read 5 pages at a time. No one's got time for that, and there are too many good books in my massive TBR.

I will give Lofty another try, hoping I simply chose the wrong book to start with, but I'm a bit worried now.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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The Power, by Naomi Alderman

>> Saturday, February 11, 2017

TITLE: The Power
AUTHOR: Naomi Alderman

COPYRIGHT: 2016
PAGES: 331
PUBLISHER: Penguin

SETTING: Different part of the world in the near future
TYPE: Speculative fiction
SERIES: None

'She throws her head back and pushes her chest forward and lets go a huge blast right into the centre of his body. The rivulets and streams of red scarring run across his chest and up around his throat. She'd put her hand on his heart and stopped him dead.'

Suddenly - tomorrow or the day after - girls find that with a flick of their fingers, they can inflict agonizing pain and even death. With this single twist, the four lives at the heart of Naomi Alderman's extraordinary, visceral novel are utterly transformed, and we look at the world in an entirely new light.

What if the power to hurt were in women's hands?
The Power is an interesting exploration of the nature of power. Alderman looks at the idea of what the world might look like if women were more physically powerful than men; if, when face to face and without any weapons, it was women who could overpower and harm men.

Alderman does this through an almost-paranormal conceit (although she's said in interviews that she chose it because it's something that is possible in nature think of certain eels). Women have a membrane in them that allows them to produce electric shocks. It's never clear if they've always had this or it's a recent evolution, but what we do know is that this ability suddenly awakens in 16-year-old girls all round the world within a very short space of time. And as they spread this power by awakening it in older women as well, the world changes radically.

As the world convulses, we see what happens through a large cast of characters. There's Margot, a US politician. There's Allie, a young abused girl who becomes a powerful spiritual figure. There's Roxie, the daughter of a London gangster. There's Tunde, a young Nigerian man who turns a moment of being in the right place at the right time, camera in hand, into a career as an influential correspondent all round the world. These characters interact and meet each other, but the picture is big and wide.

The Power explores a fascinating idea, but I have mixed feelings about how this exploration was done. A lot of the book was simply showing situations which were the sorts of things that go on today, only role-reversed, which I felt lacked some subtlety and, to a certain extent, verisimilitude. Those things have developed over millenia of patriarchy and oppression. I found it hard to believe that within a couple of years, a population that grew up in a patriarchy would quickly move to the polar opposite. However, these details sometimes did work really work really well to emphasise just how screwed up things that exist today actually are. For instance, in a particularly conflict-stricken part of the world women have started to operate on men's genitals so that erections can only be achieved by the application of an electrical shock by a woman, and in another men must be assigned a female guardian, and can only travel with her explicit permission. And my instinctive reaction of "Oh, come on!" was, of course, swiftly followed by the acknowledgement that this is actually happening today to many, many women. It kind of brought home just how screwed up this was. So in that sense, that worked. The thing is, all but the most disgusting sexists understand this is wrong.

More interesting were the bits and pieces that were a bit more subtly done, such as the changes in how women and men spoke to each other outside the conflict areas. There are these really minor recurring pieces showing a newscast on the television, usually in the background of scenes including one of the main characters in our ensemble cast. At the start you have the distinguished male journalist doing all the hard-hitting stuff and the female anchor doing all the fluffy bits. Gradually, the dynamics of their interactions change, with the woman becoming more and more assertive, and when the male journalist betrays some anger at certain developments giving more power to women, he's immediately replaced by a much younger, extremely handsome piece of eye-candy. By the end of the book, it's the female journalist doing the serious news and he doing the puff-pieces. That's not hugely subtle, but it was developed in such a way that feels quite believable.

My favourite, though, were the letters at the beginning and end. Part of the conceit is that this book has been written a long, long time after the events it portrays, by a male author, Neil. He writes to Naomi, a powerful editor, asking her for her thoughts on it. It's clear that the world these two live in is one where the women have the power, and you really see this through the way they speak to each other. Neil is pleading and flattering, Naomi is patronising and flirty in a really creepy way. And when Neil calls out some of the particularly patronising things, he does so extremely politely, clearly trying really hard not to give offense by standing up for himself. That was extremely effective, as I really recognised it. I've certainly been spoken to that way, and I know exactly how it feels.

The Margot sections were also particularly effective, and some of it felt horribly prescient. There's this debate where Margot does something completely egregious, something that conventional wisdom is certain has lost her the election. She has no chance. And yet she wins, against the predictions of every single poll, because it turns out people want a 'strong' candidate, even if that candidate is abusive and bullying (not to mention, breaks the law) with that supposed strength. Sad.

So a lot of good points, but not a wholly successful book for me. In addition to the lack of subtlety and my difficulties with believability, I felt Alderman completely lost control of her plot in the second half. There was a point where everything became chaos, and also where we went from things sometimes being a bit unbelievable to pretty much everything straining my credulity. The actions that led to the big climactic event (which I won't reveal), for instance, well, I believed nothing to do with them.

In the end, I was glad I read the book. The good stuff really was good, and the discussion it generated in my book club was great.

MY GRADE: I was wavering between a B- and a C+, but I think I'm going to go with the former, because there really was some good stuff there. A B-.

AUDIOBOOK NOTES: I really did not like the narration. Mainly it was some of the voices the main narrator did, particularly the young women (and there are a lot of them). They didn't speak, they squawked, and it all grated on my nerves. I had to switch to the ebook (which basically meant that I ended up buying a book I did not love twice, sigh). YMMV, though: a couple of others in my book club listened to the audiobook and had no trouble with it at all; in fact, they actually liked the narrator.

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The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, by Joël Dicker

>> Thursday, February 09, 2017

TITLE: The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair
AUTHOR: Joël Dicker

COPYRIGHT: 2012
PAGES: 643
PUBLISHER: Penguin

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

August 30, 1975: the day fifteen-year-old Nola Kellergan is glimpsed fleeing through the woods, never to be heard from again; the day Somerset, New Hampshire, lost its innocence.

Thirty-three years later, Marcus Goldman, a successful young novelist, visits Somerset to see his mentor, Harry Quebert, one of the country’s most respected writers, and to find a cure for his writer’s block as his publisher’s deadline looms. But Marcus’s plans are violently upended when Harry is suddenly and sensationally implicated in the cold-case murder of Nola Kellergan—whom, he admits, he had an affair with. As the national media convicts Harry, Marcus launches his own investigation, following a trail of clues through his mentor’s books, the backwoods and isolated beaches of New Hampshire, and the hidden history of Somerset’s citizens and the man they hold most dear. To save Harry, his own writing career, and eventually even himself, Marcus must answer three questions, all of which are mysteriously connected: Who killed Nola Kellergan? What happened one misty morning in Somerset in the summer of 1975? And how do you write a book to save someone’s life?
The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair puzzled me. I've heard so much about it. It's supposed to be this amazing, twisty mystery, really well-written. Well, what the hell, it was plain TERRIBLE!

The book is about a young novelist, Marcus Goldman, who wrote a really successful first book and is having a lot of trouble writing his second. He's visiting his mentor, Harry Quebert, in his house in a small town in New Hampshire, when everything goes to hell. A body is found buried in Harry's garden, and it turns out to be that of a 15-year-old girl who disappeared over 30 years earlier. Even worse, evidence is found with the body that makes it clear she and Harry were having an affair when she disappeared. Marcus decides he is the only one who can save Harry, and that writing a book about it is the way to do it.

I'll give you my top three reasons why this was one of the worst books I've tried to read in a long, long time:

First, I was being told by both Marcus (bad enough) and the narrative (even worse) that this affair between a 35-year-old man and a 15-year-old girl with some real mental health issues was this amazing love story, rather than the abusive relationship it seemed to me. Dicker didn’t think he needed to do any work to justify this, it just was. It didn't work (to say the least).

Second, Marcus is just horrendous. He's this braggart who thinks he's wonderful but is actually nothing special. Insufferable is the word for him. This is not necessarily a problem if that's what the character is meant to be, but the narrative seemed to believe the hype and assume that of course we readers were on his side and loved him to pieces. I didn't.

Third, the writing. It was painful, to the point of being embarrassing. I think I knew I was done when Dicker had the main character’s mum saying “Come home! I’ll make you hot dogs and apple pie!”. Because that’s what American mothers are like. No, sorry. Now, although the book is set in the US, Dicker is Swiss, and the book was originally written in French. I'm willing to give Dicker the benefit of a very small amount of doubt, since some of the issues with the writing might have been due to the translation. The issues around pacing, characterisation, and many, many more, however, are all Dicker, and made this intolerably bad.

I just can't get my head round the success of this one.

MY GRADE: A DNF.

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Cryoburn, by Lois McMaster Bujold

>> Tuesday, February 07, 2017

TITLE: Cryoburn
AUTHOR: Lois McMaster Bujold

COPYRIGHT: 2010
PAGES: 345
PUBLISHER: Baen

SETTING: Another planet
TYPE: Science Fiction
SERIES: 11th full-length title in the Vorkosigan series

Kibou-daini is a planet obsessed with cheating death. Barrayaran Imperial Auditor Miles Vorkosigan can hardly disapprove—he’s been cheating death his whole life, on the theory that turnabout is fair play. But when a Kibou-daini cryocorp—an immortal company whose job it is to shepherd its all-too-mortal frozen patrons into an unknown future—attempts to expand its franchise into the Barrayaran Empire, Emperor Gregor dispatches his top troubleshooter Miles to check it out.

On Kibou-daini, Miles discovers generational conflict over money and resources is heating up, even as refugees displaced in time skew the meaning of generation past repair. Here he finds a young boy with a passion for pets and a dangerous secret, a Snow White trapped in an icy coffin who burns to re-write her own tale, and a mysterious crone who is the very embodiment of the warning Don’t mess with the secretary. Bribery, corruption, conspiracy, kidnapping—something is rotten on Kibou-daini, and it isn’t due to power outages in the Cryocombs. And Miles is in the middle—of trouble!
First things first: I haven't reviewed Ivan's book yet, but I have read it. But if I wait to post this till I've written that review, who knows when this might happen. My new year's resolution is to be less rigid about how I read and review stuff, so here goes!

This was a curious book. For 98% of the book, it’s a pretty light adventure. Miles is away from his growing family and on a mission to a planet called Kibou-daini. It’s a place so obsessed with cheating death that everyone gets cryogenically frozen when it looks they’re about to die. They hope technology will advance and treatments will be developed for whatever ails them in the near future, so they can be revived, healed, and live for many more years. Over the years, this practice has led to all sorts of legal complications, as people are not really dead, and so they still own their assets, which are then controlled by the corporations offering the cryo-freezing services.

Mies has been asked to investigate what’s going on by Emperor Gregor, after one of the Kibou-daini corporations tried to expand into Komarr in a way that feels fishy, although in a way no one can pinpoint exactly where the fishiness comes from. Who better than Miles to get to the bottom of this?

Simple enough, but of course, Miles being Miles, he pretty immediately gets involved in chaos. There’s kidnapping, there’s a young boy with a menagerie, there’s a rag-tag group of street people running their own co-op cryofreezing venture, there’s evil corporations freezing people against their will. So Miles' supposedly easy mission expands (and expands, and expands).

So, fun and games, and mostly nothing that presents much peril to Miles himself. The stakes are high, don't get me wrong, only not to Miles. It's kind of a cozy detective story, in that way. It's clever, there are great secondary characters (the long-suffering consul is a particular favourite), and I was really interested in the issues raised by this strange world and its relationship with death.

And then in the very last bit, the tone changes, and it becomes clear that it is the latter that is key here. The whole thing has been working up to what's really a meditation on the nature of dying. And having read the end, you think back to what you thought was a fun, insubstantial romp, and realise it was anything but. It’s effective, but also a bit startling, I must say. Does it work? I'm kind of in two minds about it, but the more I think about it, the more I think "yes".

MY GRADE: A B+.

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