Mini Reviews: 2014 mid-year bundle

For the sake of my sanity, my memory and my goal of reviewing every book I read, I am doing a bunch of mini reviews today in order to clear my backlog (and my desk) before I totally forget what I thought of them. These books are ones I read as far back as February but haven’t had the time to review properly; I still want to discuss them and share them with you, but I can’t remember enough about the plot or details I enjoyed etc., to be able to write a full review. Hence, this bundle of mini-reviews. I’ve left out a few titles that I still hope (or need) to review properly; my reading tally this year has been scarily low so this won’t be a long list.

chocolate thiefThe Chocolate Thief by Laura Florand
Amour et Chocolat #1

Kensington 2012
Paperback
303 pages
Fiction; Romance



Summary from Goodreads:

Paris

Breathtakingly beautiful, the City of Light seduces the senses, its cobbled streets thrumming with possibility. For American Cade Corey, it’s a dream come true, if only she can get one infuriating French chocolatier to sign on the dotted line…

Chocolate

Melting, yielding yet firm, exotic, its secrets are intimately known to Sylvain Marquis. But turn them over to a brash American waving a fistful of dollars? Jamais. Not unless there’s something much more delectable on the table…

Stolen Pleasure

Whether confections taken from a locked shop or kisses in the dark, is there anything sweeter?

I have Angie at Angieville to thank for getting me to read this – it is SO MUCH FUN!! Funny, sexy, exciting, engrossing… It’s hard to go wrong when you combine chocolate with Paris with love and chemistry, isn’t it? And boy is there some sizzling chemistry going on here! If nothing else, read it for the sheer joy of Sylvain’s reaction when he discovers Cade broke into his chocolate shop and ate his chocolates – he follows her path through bins and trays of delicate chocolates like someone tracking an animal. His reaction is not what you’d expect. I just loved this, it’s the perfect read when you want cheering up, or a pleasurable distraction, or simply because you enjoy reading good books.

Read in February 2014





undead next doorThe Undead Next Door by Kerrelyn Sparks
Love at Stake #4

Avon 2008
Mass Market Paperback
369 pages
Paranormal Romance



Summary from Goodreads: Three signs that something is very different with your new man:

1. He sleeps all day…which would be annoying except he’s so attentive at night.

2. He’s attacked by sword-wielding assailants, yet insists he can handle it on his own.

3. He never seems to age.

Heather Westfield has always lived a quiet life, but that all changes when she helps a very handsome, very mysterious stranger. There’s something not quite right about Jean-Luc, but still, she’s never been with a man so charming, so attractive…so wonderful. Now if only a murderous villain wasn’t after them, they might get their happily-ever-after.

I really enjoy this series. They’re warm, funny, they focus a lot on building chemistry and genuine love between the main characters as well as touching on the practicalities and logistics of mortals having relationships with vampires (Shanna and Roman from book 1 are often handy for providing insight to the newest female mortal on how a relationship could actually work). Plus the idea of “good Vamps” surviving on synthetic bottled blood is a better solution than Lynsay Sand’s “bagged blood” from blood banks – that’s always bothered me a bit because of how hard it is to get people to donate blood in real life, and so the idea that so much of it would get sidelined for vampires to drink has never really sat well with me. You know what they say: even fantasy must be believable, plausible, realistic (within the realms of said fantasy). Okay so “they” don’t say it but I do.

Heather and Jean-Luc were an engaging pair and well suited. Plus in this book the first were-animal is revealed, and Ian finds a way to physically age so he no longer looks like a teenager despite being over five hundred years old. There’s a lot of tension and excitement in this one; a very good addition to the series.

Read in June 2014.





slave to loveSlave to Love: Erotic Stories of Bondage and Desire edited by Alison Tyler
Cleis Press 2011 (2006)
Trade Paperback
217 pages
Erotica; Anthology; Short Stories



Summary from Goodreads: The right kind of punishment can be a powerful turn on. Restraint can release hidden desires. A simple leather strap, a shiny pair of handcuffs, a delicate silk scarf, a dominant’s stern gaze. The yearning for a partner who will take control can grip one as powerfully as the most intricate, indecipherable rope knot. In Slave to Love, Alison Tyler gathers the most popular — and often most taboo — fantasies of sexual control and erotic restraint. Featuring such popular erotica writers as Marilyn Jaye Lewis, Saskia Walker and Rachel Kramer Bussel, Slave to Love is luscious, naughty, and infinitely sexy.

This book took me forever to read – I started it about eight months or so before finally finishing it – and while short story anthologies do lend themselves to being read slowly over time, that wasn’t my aim. I simply didn’t enjoy this volume. I think I may have reached my limits, or discovered my limits, something like that. I didn’t find these stories sexy, which certainly puts them firmly in the “erotica” category – if you haven’t read any, erotica is not romantic, it can be quite stifling and heavy and uncomfortable. The stories here were often dark, or a bit strange, or simply uninteresting.

This is the third anthology like this that I’ve read, and each one I like less than the one before. Think I’ll have to stop here.

Finished in May 2014.




fault in our starsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Penguin 2013 (2012)
Trade Paperback
313 pages
YA Fiction



Summary from Goodreads: Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.

Insightful, bold, irreverent, and raw, The Fault in Our Stars is award-winning author John Green’s most ambitious and heartbreaking work yet, brilliantly exploring the funny, thrilling, and tragic business of being alive and in love.

Several years ago I read Looking for Alaska and was more annoyed than impressed. Didn’t stop me from reading this one, though. While it was much less annoying and depicted believable characters in heartbreaking situations – I can’t imagine what it would be like to know that you’ve got such limited time left (it’s the knowing that is especially awful, aside from the diminished able-body-ness that the narrator, Hazel, must accept on a daily basis) – it still didn’t wow me the way it has many other readers. I was mostly afraid it would be self-indulgent, sentimental and emotionally manipulative. It isn’t, not much anyway. Hazel’s first-person narration is part of the success of the novel, and it can’t have been easy to get inside the head of a young girl slowly dying of cancer. Green manages to bring her to life and let her breathe (ooh ouch the irony) on her own.

It’s a story about living life to the fullest and what that actually means for quiet, ordinary people like Hazel. It was easy to forget that she was dying, or ill, even. She’s a brave soul and that just makes it harder: you so want her to live. It’s not just her story, though: it’s also Augustus’, and his is even more tragic. Predictable, but no less tragic for it.

To be honest, I just don’t have much to say about this book. It’s got humour and intelligence, but oddly enough (considering how readily this happens), it didn’t make me cry. There’s just something missing in Green’s writing that would enable me to connect better with his characters. It’s like … it’s a little too … polished, a little too … neat and tidy. Hard to put my finger on it. It’s been a couple of months or so since I read it and it isn’t sticking in my mind like good books usually do. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it, or didn’t care about the characters – I certainly did. It’s just that, as a novel, it didn’t work magic for me, and that’s that special quality that readers are always looking for, aren’t we?

Read in May 2014.





john dreamerJohn Dreamer by Elise Celine
John Dreamer #1

Elise Celine 2014
E-ARC (galley)
203 pages
YA Speculative Fiction



Summary from Goodreads: Andy wasn’t usually sure about much, but she was absolutely certain this was the weirdest day of her life as she stood stranded in the middle of a great white room with six strangers. Well, they were mostly strangers. She could have sworn she’d seen the guy with the green eyes before, and maybe that was why he kept staring at her.

When a man calling himself the Guardian appeared and said they had come to make their deepest dreams come true, they embark on an adventure none of them ever imagined, and the consequences of their actions would change them forever.

This was a nice, quick read, quite engrossing and interesting. The format reminds me of some other story – a book or a film – but I can’t think what and it’s really bugging me. I don’t mean that it’s derivative, only that I think it might be inspired by an older tale, if only I could what it is! Oh wait, am I thinking of the film Brazil maybe? Dreams within dreams? I feel like I’m getting warmer.

The characters are a bunch of misfits, except perhaps for the main character and John. The mystery, then, was why they were there and what their connection was. The story follows a pattern that you think is going to get repetitive and boring but isn’t because the “real” world, the dream space (the white room) gets incorporated into the scenarios. Though the characters are surprisingly slow at realising this.

It moves swiftly and keeps the momentum up, but to do so Celine had to sacrifice some much-needed character development. The characters are fairly thin sketches, a bit stereotypical, though they hint at greater depths. This is the first book in a series and while I’m not sure where the story goes from here (same characters??), it makes for fun, interesting reading.

Read in May 2014. My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley.





all I want for christmas is a vampireAll I Want for Christmas is a Vampire by Kerrelyn Sparks
Love at Stake #5

Avon 2008
Mass Market Paperback
350 pages
Paranormal Romance



Summary from Goodreads: Toni Davis’s Christmas wish list:

    1. Springing my best friend from the psych ward.
    2. Living somewhere that doesn’t have coffins in the basement. Occupied coffins.
    3. Finding Mr. Right. Please make him tall, dark, handsome, and alive.

This Christmas isn’t so merry for Toni. Her best friend’s been locked up in a mental hospital ever since she told the police she was attacked by vampires, and the only way for Toni to get her out is to prove that bloodsuckers really do exist. So she’s taken a job as a bodyguard for the Undead, but she gets more than she bargained for, especially when she meets Ian MacPhie, a Scottish rascal looking for Ms. Right.

Although Ian’s nearly five centuries old, he looks and acts like a twenty-seven-year-old hunk.

How can a dead man be so damn sexy? Could Mr. Wrong be Mr. Right? One forbidden kiss could lead to an eternity of passion—and all it takes is one moment under the mistletoe . . .

Hugely enjoyable, this one was. Really, I’m so glad I gave this series another try after starting with book 3 (Be Still My Vampire Heart) and disliking it so much, because all the other books I’ve read (eight so far) have been so much fun and not at all annoying. Toni is a solid heroine, hired as a day guard by the “good Vamps” to watch over them while they sleep because her fighting skills impressed Connor so much when he rescued her from a group of Malcontents.

There are several storylines going here, including Ian’s search for a nice Vamp lady to marry that results in some rather hilarious (and rather sad) dating fiascos, and Toni’s neighbour Carlos’ big secret. Lots of action and some attempt on the part of the bad guys (the Malcontents) to use some brain cells and come up with a plan of attack. Plus there’s some delightful chemistry between Toni and Ian and we get to see young Constantine work his magic. Literally.

Read in July 2014

Review: The Fever

feverThe Fever by Megan Abbott
Little, Brown & Co 2014
E-ARC (galley)
320 pages
Fiction; Mystery



Summary from Goodreads: The panic unleashed by a mysterious contagion threatens the bonds of family and community in a seemingly idyllic suburban community.

The Nash family is close-knit. Tom is a popular teacher, father of two teens: Eli, a hockey star and girl magnet, and his sister Deenie, a diligent student. Their seeming stability, however, is thrown into chaos when Deenie’s best friend is struck by a terrifying, unexplained seizure in class. Rumors of a hazardous outbreak spread through the family, school and community.

As hysteria and contagion swell, a series of tightly held secrets emerges, threatening to unravel friendships, families and the town’s fragile idea of security.

A chilling story about guilt, family secrets and the lethal power of desire, The Fever affirms Megan Abbot’s reputation as “one of the most exciting and original voices of her generation” (Laura Lippman).

I didn’t enjoy this as much as I’d hoped, partly because I was hoping it was more along the lines of speculative fiction (it certainly hinted at it!) and partly because I was reading a galley on my Kindle, and I struggle to interact with stories electronically. The other reason would be that I simply wasn’t all that interested in the characters. Deenie is perhaps the central character, but her father, Tom – a teacher at her school – also gets his point-of-view chapters. His side story is his status as bachelor and a vague flirtation with the French teacher. Her older brother, Eli, gets some air time too. No one character was particularly well developed, and the shift between such different characters gave it a choppy, uneven feel.

The plot itself started strongly, and built great atmosphere, but fizzled all too soon. It became fairly predictable, or rather, the build-up at the start created high expectations that didn’t hold. That said, I could have had a very different reading experience had I read this as an actual print book. The other issue is that, as a story about young adolescent girls and their complicated psychological make-up, I felt I’d read better, more thought-provoking stories. The Fever didn’t add anything or teach me anything new. Overall, simply disappointing.

Read in February 2014. My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley.

My Top Ten ... Authors I Own the Most Books Of

Top Ten Tuesday badge

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. This week’s topic is:

Top Ten Authors You Own the Most Books Of

I wasn’t even sure how I’d find this out, but hoped Goodreads would help, since I have all my books catalogued there – yes, all 3803 of them: if I own it, it’s there. This list excludes authors of picture books and cookbooks. A few surprises here, or at least, an author or two I’m not so keen on admitting… ;)

1. GEORGETTE HEYER – 41 BOOKS

No surprise there, I have almost all her regency romances and historical fiction novels (but none of her detective books). I used to read and re-read these all the time, but it’s been years since I read a Heyer book.

2. CHRISTINE FEEHAN – 23 BOOKS

Okay so this one is a bit embarrassing, mostly because her books are so badly written and laden with clichés and stock characters. Truly, every book is pretty much the same and I could make fun of the language but it doesn’t bear repeating. But I have 23 of her books!! As you’ll see, this is partly due to the Paranormal Romance phase I went through in 2008, and partly because, as bad as they are, they can be oddly addictive.

3. KRESLEY COLE – 22 BOOKS

Continuing the Paranormal Romance theme, this author at least is one that I really love. Her Immortals After Dark series is pure awesome, especially due to its blend of Fantasy and Romance and the wonderfully unpredictable plots – can’t think of any other author who routinely puts her characters in the most impossible situations yet always manages to find an ingenious way of getting them out of it.

4. LYNSAY SANDS – 21 BOOKS

I have all of her Paranormal Romance books – her delightfully entertaining and saucy Argeneau series – up until #18 (there are, to date, three I don’t have) plus some of her historical romance titles. I got into her books after meeting her at the Toronto Book Expo in 2006 (back when Toronto had a book expo, before it was bought by the American one and swiftly cancelled), and was given a free signed copy of The Perfect Wife, which is rather silly yet so enjoyable.

5. BETH KERY – 19 BOOKS

This number is a bit inflated, because one of her books was first released as an e-book serial on Amazon and I bought them all, never got around to reading them (you know how much I dislike reading stories electronically), and then bought the story as a whole novel when it came out in print. But I am a big fan of Kery’s stories, ever since Wicked Burn.

6. L.M. MONTGOMERY and KATE ELLIOTT – 17 BOOKS EACH

I have accumulated a lot of Montgomery’s novels, and while I particularly enjoy her lesser-known books (The Blue Castle, Jane of Lantern Hill, A Tangled Web for instance), I never really got into her Anne books. One day.

Elliott is a fantastic fantasy writer, but I’m woefully behind! After devouring her first major fantasy series, Crown of Stars, I moved to her older science fiction series, Jaran, and loved that just as much. I have her two more recent trilogies, Crossroads and Spiritwalker, but haven’t found the time to read them yet. She is an author I buy whenever she has a new book, though.

7. HARUKI MURAKAMI, ROALD DAHL, KERRELYN SPARKS and J.R. WARD – 16 BOOKS EACH

Murakami writes awesome and often surreal speculative fiction. Dahl everyone knows – I have some from my childhood (I was a big fan in primary school) but I’ve been adding to my collection as an adult and re-reading them. I particularly enjoy Sparks, whose books are so much fun and quite well written. Ward’s books I’m really behind on, I guess I got a bit tired of her writing and the repetitiveness of her language. Since I’m still buying her books, I suppose I do plan on finishing the Black Dagger Brotherhood series as well as read the others I have.

8. ISOBELLE CARMODY and ROBERT JORDAN – 15 BOOKS EACH

Isobelle Carmody is one of my all-time favourite authors; between her beautiful imagination, her ability to weave philosophy and broader issues into her stories and her great characters, she’s my hero. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series was one of the fantasy series I started reading as a teenager, but I’m two and a half books behind (I nearly finished the first Brandon Sanderson co-written book, but I was heavily pregnant at the time and struggling to finish anything at all, so it got put aside).

9. CHARLAINE HARRIS – 13 BOOKS

I have 13 of her books because there are 13 books in the Sookie Stackhouse series – sound about right? I haven’t read the very last one yet so don’t spoil it for me!

10. DAPHNE DU MAURIER, SHARON SHINN, MARIA V SNYDER, JOHN MARSDEN, KATIE MACALISTER and TERRY GOODKIND – 11 BOOKS EACH

I love du Maurier, she’s an incredible writer with an impressive imagination and so much skill with words, she really gets into the human psyche. If there was one writer I wish was still alive today so I could meet them, it’d be her. Shinn, Snyder and Goodkind are all fantasy writers – love Shinn to bits, though I haven’t read all the books I have of hers; Snyder is great, very engrossing and readable. Goodkind was a writer I was really into at first, until his very right-wing political side squeezed the life out of his story. Haven’t read the last couple of books in the Sword of Truth series because of it. MacAlister is a paranormal romance writer – one of the funny ones – who I got into in 2008.


Honourable Mentions:

10 BOOKS: Sophie Kinsella

9 BOOKS EACH: Alexander Dumas, Diana Gabaldon, Scott Westerfeld, Lynn Flewelling, J.K. Rowling, Jackie French, Jacqueline Carey, Jennifer Fallon, Kelley Armstrong, Keri Arthur, Jeaniene Frost and Maya Banks

8 BOOKS EACH: Laura Lee Guhrke, Ann Aguirre, Sara Douglass, Philippa Gregory, Elizabeth Gaskell, Nicci French and Cassandra Clare

7 BOOKS EACH: China Mieville, Anne Bishop, Gena Showalter, Meg Cabot, Michael Chabon, Stephen King, Robin Hobb and Larissa Ione

Review: Fangirl

fangirlFangirl by Rainbow Rowell
St Martin’s Griffin 2013
Hardback
435 pages
YA Fiction



Summary from Goodreads: Cath is a Simon Snow fan. Okay, the whole world is a Simon Snow fan, but for Cath, being a fan is her life — and she’s really good at it. She and her twin sister, Wren, ensconced themselves in the Simon Snow series when they were just kids; it’s what got them through their mother leaving.

Reading. Rereading. Hanging out in Simon Snow forums, writing Simon Snow fan fiction, dressing up like the characters for every movie premiere.

Cath’s sister has mostly grown away from fandom, but Cath can’t let go. She doesn’t want to.

Now that they’re going to college, Wren has told Cath she doesn’t want to be roommates. Cath is on her own, completely outside of her comfort zone. She’s got a surly roommate with a charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fan fiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words . . . And she can’t stop worrying about her dad, who’s loving and fragile and has never really been alone.

For Cath, the question is: Can she do this? Can she make it without Wren holding her hand? Is she ready to start living her own life? Writing her own stories? Open her heart to someone? Or will she just go on living inside somebody else’s fiction?

I love Rainbow Rowell’s books and highly recommend them any chance I get. Loving an author, it does tend to set the bar high, and so going into Fangirl I was expecting to love this, no matter what. Well, I don’t quite love it. It is a much longer story than her previous two, which made me gleeful: more pages of Rowell! But I think she actually writes better, stronger, when she keeps the page count down. Fangirl was a little too long. But it was enjoyable, and the longer page count allowed for well-developed characters and a natural, realistic feel to the gentle-moving plot.

The story is mostly a coming-of-age story for Cath, who, in her first year of university, is struggling to find space in her life for fanfiction – space, appreciation and forgiveness. It’s about reaching the cusp of adulthood and our struggle to abandon our childhood, about reconciling two halves of our selves, and giving ourselves permission to hold on to the things that give us joy. Entangled in every coming-of-age story (in real life) is the expectation that we must give up what we enjoyed as kids and teens, that we should “grow out of it” and move on – as if it’s something to be ashamed of, or things that will hold us back and prevent us from maturing. Genre fiction, especially Fantasy fiction, suffers greatly from this common, often subconscious social expectation, and we spend years of our adult lives apologising or justifying our appreciation of fantasy stories (and, often, romance, but that’s another story). Really, it’s not the fans of Fantasy that must change, but society’s understanding of what being an adult is.

Using Simon Snow fanfiction – a deliberately clear parallel to Harry Potter and the wealth of fanfiction (and passionate followers) it spawned – provides the perfect vehicle for exploring Cath’s conflicted maturity. Or rather, she is always true and honest to herself, but is pained and upset watching her twin sister Wren ditch it in favour of more socially-acceptable (or expected) young adult behaviour. Namely, going to parties, getting drunk and having sex. I could relate much more to Cath than to Wren, and it’s easy to see that in reality, it’s Wren who has the biggest maturity learning-curve to figure out. She stuffs up and makes big mistakes, and enters that tenuous period where young adults either continue to stuff up or decide to try a different path.

There is romance for Cath, and for me that was a driving force in the story. There were many elements to this that I loved; it was perhaps the fanfiction itself that dulled it a little for me. I’m not a big fan of fanfiction (ha ha), and could never write it myself. I’m very different from Cath in that regard, but it was great seeing it from a real fanfiction writer’s perspective. Looking forward to reading Rowell’s newest, Landline, next.

Read in February 2014 – apologies for not being able to remember all the things I wanted to say about this book!

Review: Endangered

endangeredEndangered by Jean Love Cush
HarperCollins Armistad 2014
Hardback
258 pages
Fiction



‘I believe we can make a solid argument that African-American boys ought to be deemed legally endangered. Their very lives are threatened with extinction, or at least any meaningful existence, and thereby ought to be afforded certain protections based on their classification as such.’

Roger Whitford, an attorney for the Centre for the Protection of Human Rights, has a plan to put a stop to the prejudiced treatment of black men in the United States, men – and boys – who make up a third of prison inmates. When Janae Williams’ fifteen-year-old son Malik is arrested for the murder of his friend Troy – the twenty-ninth murder in Philadelphia in the twenty days since the start of the year – Roger decides to take on the case, not just to free Malik, but to launch his big campaign to get black males in America extra support and protection.

Janae is a classic statistic: pregnant as a teen, she put her education on hold to have the baby and raise it on her own. Now she works as a cashier in a hospital cafeteria, striving to make ends meet and give Malik a chance to make something of his life. But now, he’s not just been accused of murder, the prosecution wants to try him as an adult – the standard response to murder cases. Keeping him in the juvenile court is just the first step in Roger’s plan, but first he needs to get Janae on side – not an easy task when you’re comparing her son to an animal.

Roger plans to use the Endangered Animals Act and have it extended to include African-American males, but it’s a hard pill to swallow for the community and Janae in particular. Even more so for young, ambitious Calvin Moore, a hotshot lawyer at a big firm with grand plans who studied his way out of the community Janae is stuck in. Roger wants Calvin on the case, but it’s a tough sell. Not until Calvin stops seeing his origins as something to turn his back on and instead as something he should try and use his skills and position to help, do the pieces start to fall into place.

But will Roger sacrifice Malik for the sake of the bigger picture? Can Janae truly trust an old white man to keep her son out of jail?

Cush’s debut novel has a clear aim and agenda, and tackles it well. With a tight focus, a neatly delivered storyline and believable characters, she brings the human angle to a serious issue of race, discrimination, prejudice and poverty. It’s a fairly short book that makes the wise decision to keep the spotlight on Janae and her son, rather than a long, drawn-out legal and political battlefield that could end who knows where. As much as you can’t help but want to follow through and see where Roger’s plan ends up, it would detract from the story without adding anything – especially considering that the situation Malik finds himself in is pretty much unchanged today. The point, I would think, is to get people thinking in a different way about the issues, to open a debate (or contribute to an already-existing one), not to launch into an actual, fictional campaign.

While the writing does, at times, carry the whiff of a beginner novelist – especially in some of the descriptions and language – there’s no denying that Endangered has the necessary ingredients for a great story, is highly readable and shows the author’s great potential. At times a bit simplistic, I nevertheless appreciated the human angle to the story. If the characters seemed a bit stereotypical, part of that would be because there’s some truth in stereotypes, and part of it would be because the author hasn’t yet reached her full range and stereotypes are unavoidable. Perhaps more time could have been spent on fleshing the main characters out, to make them feel and sound less like stock characters, but the writing was nicely, smoothly consistent throughout and the simple touch was actually refreshing.

Cush stretches her legal chops in the legal-drama side of the story; an attorney for many years, she has a focus on domestic abuse, urban violence, and inner-city education. The descriptions and dialogue between the lawyers and the judge, for instance, were accessible to a layman like me while still sounding authentic and believable.

Throughout the story, I couldn’t help but feel a chill at the thought of children – children – being tried as adults and sent to adult prison. This is, according to the story, a law in Pennsylvania, and is just one of several laws that I, as a non-American, hear about and shudder at. As Endangered shows, it casts the wrong emphasis on crime, and neglects – and downright ignores – the issues behind crime. I’m naturally leery whenever I hear the words “zero tolerance” because it’s so black-and-white and encourages black-and-white thinking, prejudice and a “hard-ass” attitude based on the idea that everyone’s equal and there are no excuses. There aren’t excuses, but there are reasons, and if you don’t stop and consider those reasons and what’s really going on – if you don’t get at the crux of the matter – then you’re never going to really, truly stop it from happening. Because clearly the threat of jail time doesn’t do much at all, and as this novel pointed out, prisons create hardened criminals out of people who made mistakes or did something dumb, for various reasons. It’s a big, complex mess of issues that throws open the debate of nature versus nurture – whether you’re a criminal, or whether your environment and various social factors contributed to you going down a particular path that, if the factors had been different, you might not have gone down.

Endangered doesn’t try to please those “hard-asses”: it clearly posits the understanding that these boys slip into crime because of poverty, peer pressure and other social factors. The lack of good male role models is also a contributing factor – not just in black American communities but everywhere – but again, Cush manages to blend the two sides: that you do have a say in how your life turns out, and you can change it; and that the world you come from does mean that we don’t all start out equal.

An enlightening and thought-provoking novel, Endangered blends readable entertainment with prevalent social issues to position Jean Love Cush as a writer to watch.

My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours.

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It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?-sm


Busy weekend! We headed up north on Friday arvo to spend the weekend at my parents’ house. We ended up going separately as I had to drive my brother’s car up – he was selling it to someone who lives at the other end of the state and Launceston was a good halfway point. I have to say that my mid-90s Nissan Pulsar (which is actually my sister’s) is a more comfortable and, strangely, fuel-efficient car than his three-year-old Mitsubishi Lancer. Probably because of the things he’d had added to the car to make it more of a young man’s hoon car! The tyres, especially. I felt every bump (at one point I hit a pot hole – that was scary!!) and the steering wheel was always being wrenched around, whereas the old Pulsar is a very smooth ride. Noisy (no insulation, really) and the windshield wipers don’t work too well (yes the blades are new!), yet it’s a nicer drive.

But first I’ll tell you about my son’s birthday party on Sunday – he turns 3 today, but we held a joint party for him and his cousin Felix, who turned 4 on the 8th. We had it at the Road Transport and Safety Centre – otherwise known as the “Bike Centre” – in Launceston, which has been around forever and is super cool. You rent the whole place for a couple of hours and get the key ahead of time. The kids had to bring their own bikes, and then they happily whizzed around the pretend streets and gleefully ignored the traffic lights, so much fun! We had nice weather for it too – while it was a bit chilly in the morning (we could only get a 9am booking), it became very sunny and even a bit warm! (We’ve been having a very easy winter so far – bit worried about what that means for the coming summer, though.)

I made a cake for Hugh’s birthday – having had iffy success in the past (including Hugh’s 2nd b’day cake which was meant to be a Thomas the Tank Engine cake but turned out to be … not) I keep trying, and it worked out pretty well this time. He’d asked for a Curious George cake, and after considering and dismissing some kind of three-dimensional monkey cake, I decided to try my hand at one of these:

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I didn’t take photos of everyone, but here are Hugh and his cousins (from top: Hugh, Felix, Tamsyn and Angus):

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Cake time! Hugh pretty much complained about having cold hands all morning, and before we sang Happy Birthday he fell off the bench, hence why he looks like he’s been crying (he was). It wasn’t until after they’d all eaten cake and we had to start packing up that he got on his trike and started having a blast – typical! Felix had a chocolate tractor cake – the kind of cake I wish I could make but so far haven’t been very good at!

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In terms of reading, reviewing and blogging, I didn’t, as you could have predicted, get very much done. I managed to get two reviews written, but I’m struggling with motivation these days. And this week is a write-off – I have so much to do before school goes back, so this might be the last of me you see this week. Hopefully not, but it’s not likely I’ll find the time to do more than this post. A sorry state of affairs!

POSTS

The Shelves are Groaning

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BOOKS FINISHED:

Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch

summer house with swimming pool

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BOOKS REVIEWED:

Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch
Ignite Me by Tahereh Mafi

summer house with swimming pool ignite me



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CURRENTLY READING:

endangered

Endangered
by Jean Love Cush

I’m reading this for a TLC Book Tour – expect my review next Monday – and enjoying it so far. Here’s the publisher’s summary:

An innocent black teenager is accused of murder in this provocative and compassionate thriller that skillfully probes issues of race, class, crime, and injustice and offers a searing portrait of modern America.

From the time her son, Malik, could walk, Janae taught him that the best way to stay alive and out of trouble with the law was to cooperate. Terrified for his safety, she warned him, “raise your hands high, keep your mouth shut, and do whatever they say,” if the police ever stopped him. But when a wave of murders hits Philadelphia and fifteen-year-old Malik is arrested, Janae’s terror is compounded by guilt and doubt: Would Malik have escaped jail if he’d run?

Unable to see her son or pay for his defense, Janae, a cafeteria worker, reluctantly allows Roger Whitford, a white human rights attorney, to represent Malik. With the help of an ambitious private attorney named Calvin Moore, Roger is determined to challenge the entire criminal justice system and expose its inherent racism–racism that threatens the very existence of America’s young black men.

Offering a startling and unprecedented defense, the lawyers spark a national firestorm of debate over race, prison, and politics that burns to the very core of Janae herself. As she battles to save her son, she begins to discover that she is also fighting for her own survival and that of her community.

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WHAT’S NEXT:

What I posted last week hasn’t changed, sadly. Still lots of books to finish reading, and I haven’t yet started the ones I’d hoped to be starting this week.

What are your plans for the coming week?

Review: Ignite Me

ignite meIgnite Me by Tahereh Mafi
Shatter Me #3

Harper 2014
Hardback
408 pages
YA Speculative Fiction; Romance



The third and final full-length novel in the Shatter Me series (which includes two e-novellas) decides firmly, once and for all, whether Mafi wanted to write a science fiction/speculative fiction story, or a romance. The answer? Romance, in a sci-fi world. More than that, it’s a coming-of-age story for its young protagonist-narrator, Juliette. Everything she’s been through culminates in a triumphant ending in Ignite Me, and I can’t say I’m at all disappointed.

Trouble is, how do you review the third and final book in a trilogy (or the fifth part in a series, whichever way you look at it) without giving away what came before? How do you review it in such a way that you are actually reviewing the final book while also, possibly, encouraging new readers to start from the beginning? That is, essentially, what I’d like to do here, but the truth is I read this in March – over three months ago – and it’s not all that fresh in my head anymore.

For as much as I love a good romance – like, really really love – and for as much as Mafi delivers on that front, I am still disappointed by the thinly-sketched out world-building. This is a place of climatic catastrophe in our near future, a place that suffered a vacuum of power into which stepped a totalitarian regime (the Reestablishment) seeking to completely oppress the working people (which is almost everyone who isn’t a soldier in the regime – and they, too, come from those families and are supporting them even while the repress them). Of course, the limited world-building comes from Juliette’s limited worldview: not only is she ignorant of this world, as are we, but unlike us, she’s not particularly curious about it. And that spells problems for the very ending, and the new step Juliette takes – which I won’t spell out because it’s a spoiler.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, though with less heat than before: There’s no reason why a Young Adult title can’t be intelligent, sophisticated, meaningful, and above all, well fleshed out. There’s smarts here, and some really powerful imagery and insights, but as with so many other YA speculative fiction books, the world-building is thin on the ground. And that’s a huge shame. I’m not asking for pages of exposition, endless descriptions of boring details. Just a few well-placed details, a timely explanation here and there where appropriate, would go far. There are hints, but they often get derailed because of how Juliette internalises everything and makes it personal.

“You think you’ve had it hard,” [Adam's] saying to me. “Living in psych wards and being thrown in jail – you think that was difficult. But what you don’t realise is that you’ve always had a roof over your head, and food delivered to you on a regular basis.” His hands are clenching, unclenching. “And that’s more than most people will ever have. You have no idea what it’s really like to live out here – no idea what it’s like to starve and watch your family die in front of you. You have no idea,” he says to me, “what it means to truly suffer. Sometimes I think you live in some fantasy land where everyone survives on optimism – but it doesn’t work that way out here. In this world you’re either alive, about to die, or dead. There’s no romance in it. No illusion. So don’t try to pretend you have any idea what it means to be alive today. Right now. Because you don’t.”

Words, I think, are such unpredictable creatures.

No gun, no sword, no army or king will ever be more powerful than a sentence. Swords may cut and kill, but words will stab and stay, burying themselves in our bones to become corpses we carry into the future, all the time digging and failing to rip their skeletons from our flesh. [pp.120-1]

I love these powerful insights, I do; they’re raw and honest and powerful and poetic. But I also need context for the characters’ very existence. For the plot to make sense. And in a story like this, context is in world-building. Hints are fine. Using my imagination to fill in the gaps is great. But you need limits first, a border, an outline. Shatter Me has always been a bit sketchy on that front; or maybe that’s because I’m an adult reader and not the intended audience. I’m slightly terrified of re-reading, as an adult, a science fiction-romance novel I read over and over again as a teenager, and finding I have the same complaints – because I didn’t have them when I was younger, that’s for sure. So how much of this is a real criticism and how much of it is a jaded adult griping, I can never really know for sure.

What undoubtedly saves this book, and the series, is Mafi’s determined, unapologetic focus on the troubled relationship between Juliette and Warner, that seemingly psychotic, amoral, evil young man with the angelic face and hot body. The perfect villain-slash-hero. A complete fantasy, and yet Mafi succeeds in bringing the humanity out of Warner and rendering him believable. Ignite Me is really about Juliette moving past her earlier impression of Warner and learning about the person within, and coming to terms with her own feelings for him. Forgiving him, and herself. Letting go of her own black-and-white worldview to see the grey that’s all around her. What we get is a rather tragic unearthing of Warner that just makes him all the more loveable.

This is Warner’s room. And Warner, to me, is no longer something to be afraid of.

These past few months have transformed him in my eyes, and these past two days have been full of revelations that I’m still recovering from. I can’t deny that he seems different to me now.

I feel like I understand him in a way I never did before.

He’s like a terrified, tortured animal. A creature who spent his whole life being beaten, abused, and caged away. He was forced into a life he never asked for, and was never given an opportunity to choose anything else. And though he’s been given all the tools to kill a person, he’s too emotionally tortured to be able to use those skills against his own father – the very man who taught him to be a murderer. Because somehow, in some strange, inexplicable way, he still wants his father to love him.

And I understand that.

I really, really do. [pp.186-7]

Other readers have noted this, and I have to agree with them, that it’s not necessary to demonise one character (in this case, Adam) in order to make another (in this case, Warner), seem like a better love interest. That said, people change, grow, go through crap and get moody – in general, Juliette isn’t the only one figuring stuff out and acting like a cow at times. But while Juliette is discovering the “grey” in Warner, she seems to be cementing Adam in a narrow, black-and-white world, which just goes to show that she’s still got a long way to go, in terms of growing up and growing wiser. As self-indulgent as she is, she seems incapable of truly thinking and caring about someone other than herself, at the rate of more than one person at a time. Then again, she is an adolescent. It’s a hard, rocky road to self-realisation.

The climax, when it finally comes, seems rushed and brief compared to the long, drawn-out set-up that takes up the bulk of the novel. Yet I didn’t mind it. I think I preferred it to a long, drawn-out climax. Climaxes should be brief – they should be climactic. But I did find the resolution at the very end to be a bit … truncated. It works, and yet I wanted more. On the other hand, had I got more, it might have seemed unnecessary, indulgent, and taken away from the oomph of the ending. Thing is, overturning the entrenched, abusive dystopian power in place – the goal of such stories as this – is only the beginning. Rebuilding is a whole other story, and I would love to read that. The ending is the birth of a whole new world; a world that has a long way to go and will suffer greatly along the way; a world peopled by X-Men like characters (love it!). I don’t know what Mafi is planning on writing next, but I don’t feel ready to say goodbye to these characters or this world. Juliette doesn’t need us anymore, it would be time for a new protagonist to step forward, into this equally-dangerous and unknown new world. I would love to be there for that journey.


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Other Reviews:

“Unfortunately all of that magic has been effectively stolen away from me in the wake of the overwhelmingly disappointing series conclusion that was Ignite Me. For me, I think the worst thing about Ignite Me is how much it tries to cheapen and invalidate my experience reading Shatter Me. Everything I once thought was wrong, far beyond what we already discovered in Destroy Me. All my reactions to the characters were incorrect. It sanitizes and simplifies, destroying the complexity of the characters and story in general. I felt like this was an attempt to erase or rewrite the past in a way that felt forced and overdone. To me, Ignite Me was so much less than Shatter Me and its strong sequel Unravel Me – even in the quality and poetry of the writing, and I truly cannot figure out what happened.” Love is Not a Triangle

“Thank you, Tahereh Mafi. Thank you for writing a fantastic end to a fantastic series. Thank you for this this book, this series. Thank you for your beautiful writing. Thank you for this story and these characters and for everything. Just – thank you.” Beauty and the Bookshelf

“Tahereh Mafi is an excellent writer, and I’m so thankful she and I were brought together via the Shatter Me series. Her writing style is refreshing and her characters are squeezeably loveable and amazing. I was so happy that Ignite Me offered a strong finish to this overall stunning series. If you haven’t all these books, I strongly recommend them, including the novellas! Ignite Me will not disappoint longtime Shatter Me fans.” Read. Breathe. Relax

“I think Tahereh Mafi is a brilliant writer — her writing style is incredibly fresh and gorgeous. And, beyond that, I think she’s a lovely person. I was lucky enough to go to lunch with her once when Shatter Me first came out, and she was a delight. So it’s from a place of love that I say this: HOLY COW, TAHEREH, YOUR CHARACTERS INFURIATE ME.” Anna Reads

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Review: Summer House With Swimming Pool

summer house with swimming poolSummer House With Swimming Pool by Herman Koch
Translated by Sam Garrett

Text Publishing 2014
Large Format Paperback
409 pages
Fiction
Netherlands_flag


Marc Schlosser is a general practitioner who caters mostly to artists – writers, painters, comedians, actors – mostly because of his office hours. Unlike other GPs, he prides himself on the generous twenty minutes he gives each patient, even though he’s mentally diagnosed them within the first five. People just like to be able to talk it over and feel that their doctor is listening to them.

One of his patients is celebrity actor Ralph Meier. A large, charismatic man and a good actor, Ralph turned up suddenly in his office one day, needing pills – and having heard through the grapevine that Marc prescribes things without much fuss. Much later, he turns up again, this time with a lump on his thigh. Only months later, Ralph is dead and Marc is due to appear before the Board of Medical Examiners who will decide whether it was a tragic case of mismanagement or something more deliberate.

Between the time of first meeting the actor and his death the following year – which Ralph’s wife, Judith, is holding him personally accountable for – something happened. When Marc, his beautiful wife Caroline and their two young daughters, thirteen year old Julia and eleven year old Lisa, took their summer holiday on the Mediterranean, they ended up spending a week at the Meier’s summer house. How could the lazy days of barbecuing, swimming in the pool, playing table tennis with Ralph and Judith’s two boys, Alex and Thomas, and enjoying the beaches lead to an error that cost a man his life? And if it was deliberate, why would Marc do such a thing?

I haven’t yet read Koch’s previous book, The Dinner – it’s on my shelf, along with many other unread books that I’m just as enthusiastic about – so I can’t compare this or say, “If you liked that, you’ll like this.” But I’m thinking that’s probably the case anyway. This is one of those deliciously confronting, uncomfortable novels, the kind of story that manages to sound so reasonable and ordinary and yet flirts with all those human flaws we like to think we’ve risen above. Touching on issues around sexual attraction, morality, instincts and what it means to be a father, Summer House with Swimming Pool is a black comedy – at once funny and disturbing – featuring a protagonist whom you’re never entirely sure is sympathetic or even likeable. Similar things have been said about The Dinner, so that should tell you if you’d like this one or not.

From the moment I sat down in the bookshop and started reading the first chapter, I was drawn in by the incredible honesty and discomfiting observations of the narrator, Marc. This is one of those stories that reminds us of why we should be so grateful we can’t read other people’s minds: you just don’t want to know what other people are really thinking. But if you stop and listen to your own thoughts about others, and about certain topics, you’ll get an idea: our own thoughts are often best kept to ourselves. Hearing exactly what Marc thinks about things – often contradictory, complex and insightful – makes it hard to decide whether you, the reader, like him or not.

When we read we tend to look for patterns, signs, clues or motifs that tells us how we’re meant to read something – genre first, then a host of literary techniques and stylistic devices that influence how we understand things and connect to characters. Koch toys with such conventions, with the result that Marc Schlosser reminded me of a David Cronenberg film: a bit surreal, certainly disturbing, uncomfortably confronting, absolutely fascinating, definitely mesmerising. For as much as we might go “ewwww” at things, privately or publicly, deep down we love being exposed to what’s normally hidden. Freak shows may be a thing of the past, but between celebrity gossip magazines (our own version of the freak show, the way they write about people) and the internet (showing us pictures of deformity, excess etc.), we’re still drawn to it all.

We’re inside Marc’s head, but it’s easy to see that on the outside, he’s very normal. That’s perhaps the most disturbing part, because he reminds us that all the ordinary people in our society still think things or perceive things in ways we pretend to be oblivious to. He’s so frank, to us readers, and there’s no real duplicity or manipulation or cunning to him, he simply obeys the rules of our society, our culture. As he says in regards to pedophilia and being attracted to young girls, everyone experiences that attraction, but the difference is that most people don’t act on it. Marc is in control, yet because of that sense of being in his head in “real time”, we don’t know what he’s going to do next. That makes him unpredictable, which is where you get the sense that there’s something off about him, something almost sinister. The whole way through this book, you’re not sure just what kind of man he is or what he’ll do, but because you hear his thoughts, you realise he’s capable. As is everyone, really.

What’s exhilarating about Summer House and its narrator is how realistic it is. Never straight-forward, Marc is just like you and me: full of contradictions, a mix of morally good and reprehensibly, potentially bad. He’s the image in the mirror we’d rather not see, but Koch thrusts us into his head with no mercy. Marc is fiercely protective and loving towards his girls, yet freely admits he’d rather have had sons. As would everyone, he tells us – and its this propensity to dictate and lecture us readers that makes him unlikeable (that and, for me, his often negative and stereotypical views on women, including his wife). Marc is still heavily influenced by his professor of medical biology, Aaron Herzl, whose lectures he repeats for us, lectures on reproduction, homosexuality, women. Marc’s own feelings about women are often less than complimentary, and his behaviour makes him less than sympathetic, especially, I’m sure, to female readers. What it boils down to – what he never, ever, lets himself think – is that everything that happened that week at the summer house could be blamed entirely on him. But as the book shows, nothing is ever that simple.

It’s the psychological aspect to this novel that I really liked. Set in the Netherlands and somewhere around the Mediterranean, there’s little sense of place: this is a story that could have been set anywhere, really. The characters are familiar in the way Western white people are always familiar to Western, white readers. Koch provides no answers, nor does he overtly judge; through Marc’s eyes and thoughts we get Marc’s ideas, perceptions and values. The story reveals itself slowly, with well-placed foreshadowing, much like a lazy summer day. Its disturbing qualities are captured neatly in Marc’s penchant for dwelling on disgusting details, details about the human body – its appearance as well as what goes on beneath the skin – as well as a sharp, if biased and judgemental, insight into other people’s characters and personalities.

That’s how I looked at Ralph when he dived into the pool. Every time, I considered the possibility that he might not surface again. Or that he would bash his drunken skull against the bottom and be paralysed from head to toe. But each time he surfaced again, coughing and sneezing and hawking, and dragged himself up the ladder. Then he would spread a towel over a deckchair and lie down in the sun to dry. He never covered himself. He lay with his legs spread, his body too large for the deckchair, his feet hanging over the end: all loose and lazy, tanning in the sun. ‘Is this a holiday or is this a holiday?’ he said, burping and closing his eyes. A minute later his mouth had dropped open and he was snoring loudly. I looked at his stomach and legs. At his dick, hanging to one side and resting on his thigh. And then I looked at my two daughters. At Julia and Lisa. They didn’t seem offended at all. [...] I wondered whether perhaps I was, indeed, narrow-minded. Whether it was my own fault that the sight of Ralph Meier’s naked dick so close to my young daughters seemed so filthy. [pp.159-160]

That should give you a taste, as well as a pretty good idea of what direction the story goes in. But I won’t say more than that.

Summer House with Swimming Pool is well crafted and deliberately confronting – in the best possible way. And being inside Marc’s head, you start to feel almost culpable, guilty of the same thoughts he has, which leaves you feeling even more repulsed. And indecisive. As it should be. We’re all flawed, complex and contradictory. We all have unpleasant thoughts, or thoughts that others would find unpleasant. At the heart of this story is the distinction between private and public, between what we must keep to ourselves and what we can share. You can’t really blame Marc for the way he thinks, for the hint of misogyny that taints his perception of women, because it’s the private sphere, a sphere we wouldn’t normally get to experience (nor would we want to); at the end of it all, there’s a part of you – the part that stops feeling so superior – that respects him for knowing the difference.

Casual Tourist 2014
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Other Reviews:

“As a study of human nature, it does not get much better than Summer House with Swimming Pool. His characters cross the spectrum of human behaviors and attitudes, with every thought and action a direct consequence of their reactions to each other. It spectacularly shows the intricate culpability an entire group can have on a series of events as well as the degrees of subtlety involved in manipulating others, something readers experience firsthand as their opinions of the happenings and of the characters change page by page. It is quite simply a brilliant piece of literary fiction.” That’s What She Read

“Unfortunately it seems that Koch has followed the formula he used in his best-seller, The Dinner: horrid characters, a terrible incident, moral judgements, an unreliable narrator and parents having to make decisions on behalf of their children. It worked so well in The Dinner, a book that I genuinely could not put down, however, in Summer House, the key plot point provides less room for nuance or moral debate.” Books Are My Favourite and Best

Missed yours? Leave me a link and I’ll add it.