Why would you apologize for what you read for pleasure? Every book read for pleasure should be celebrated. And novels that celebrate love, commitment, relationships, making relationships work -- why isn't that something to be respected? - Nora Roberts

I Tweet not, neither do I Like.

Here we may criticize the book, but never the one who reads it.

Proud supporter of the Oxford comma, and any other comma I can wedge into a sentence.

Authors: You are welcome to comment here, on the review of your book or any other post.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Witness, by Nora Roberts (contemporary, romantic suspense) (long review)

While I'm a big fan of the In Death series - I think the first three books of that series will long outlast any anachronistic problems there may be on down the road - I'm less a fan of Ms. Roberts's standalones and I mostly don't care for her trilogies. Although I haven't read them all; I mean, the woman has published, what, 200 books? Oh my gosh, I loved this book. I loved it. I got sucked in right away. I'm going to gush like Sally Fields on Oscar night.

Elizabeth, age 16, is the product of a cold, robotic, totally self-centered and narcissistic woman who selected a sperm donor based on the donor's health, appearance, and intelligence in order to produce a perfect child = someone just like her. She turned the baby over to a nurse and resumed her career as a neurosurgeon, apparently having minimal contact with Elizabeth except to order her life right down to the minute, the calorie, the thread. Elizabeth has just graduated from Harvard and is bound for med school [does anyone remember Spike Jones's I Was A Teenage Brain Surgeon? I'd make you a YouTube link but I'm out of internet … again. Sometimes I go days without internet service here. Apparently the retrofitting into this old building didn't go well.] This poor child has never made a decision in her life, has never eaten a McDonald's hamburger, never been on a date, never gone to the mall with a pack of girls, never - lived. My heart went out to this poor abused child immediately, IQ of 210 or not. Because that is abuse.

One day, Elizabeth rebels. She had already had a taste of rebellion, sneaking off to buy a pair of jeans and eat some fries. Mother Dearest had promised her the summer off - she's never had one - but has now changed her mind and has enrolled her in a summer program to help her get a leg up in med school.

Nobody has ever asked Elizabeth what she wants to be when she grows up. She's never even been asked what she wants for supper.

Elizabeth throws the whole thing over and does a couple of really stupid things - heavens, she's only 16 and socially is about 2 due to lack of social interactions with others and the almost (but not quite) unbelievably over-controlling mother. The end result of her impulsive decisions is that she is a witness to some murders by the Russian mafia, and barely escapes with her life. Put into witness protection (mother walks away, just like that), she bonds with the law enforcement officers for what was probably the best 3 months of her life, allowed to read whatever she wanted, watch TV, eat pizza, and to learn to handle firearms and do some self defense. When the protection goes pear-shaped due to corruption from within law enforcement, once again she is on the run, shocked to her toes but able to use her considerable computer skills and intelligence to carve out a life for herself.

Skip ahead 12 years. Elizabeth, now calling herself Abigail, moves to small town Arkansas and buys a little acreage just outside of town. She lives like a hermit - a well-armed hermit - making careful runs into town for whatever food she can't grow and other necessities, and having at least one weapon on her at all times. Plus all the security a security systems specialist (how she makes a living) could possibly dream up. Plus a wonderful bull mastiff who speaks (responds to commands) multiple languages and is super protective of her as well as being probably the only thing in the world that has ever loved her. (It's okay to buy into the dog - he's still there at the end.) (Well, this stuff always worries me, so maybe it worries you, too, and if so, well, don't.)

She doesn't talk to the locals. In the first place, she needs to hide in plain sight, and in the second, well, it could be dangerous for anyone to form a relationship with her. Because of her serious hacking skills, she knows that the mafia types are still looking for her, and as far as that goes, the police are also because the corrupt cops have accused her of setting up the situation in protective custody that resulted in the death of two cops. So. She keeps a low profile.

Brooks, named after a baseball star, is the chief of police of this town. He is a 30-ish thoroughly nice guy who grew up in this town and has returned after some years on the Little Rock PD. He likes the people and the pace of the town. Product of parents who loved one another and him, he is easy going but can be firm when needed, but you can see that he's not quite fulfilled with his life yet. The old patterns don't fit him anymore. There's some restlessness underlying his conversations.

If I tell you that Abigail and Brooks meet and sparks fly, you can write the rest of the book yourself, right?

And that's where you would be wrong, darlings. Ms. Roberts takes us on a ride with unexpected plot developments and an ending that actually took this ancient mystery and thriller reader by surprise. Happy surprise. She did not take the easy way out. I thought it was ingenious.

I'm not going to spoil it for you. You'll just have to read it yourself. (You probably already have since this was published in 2012.) I've left out serious amounts of plot detail but the book is almost 500 pages and really, not a scene is wasted. Even the sex scenes give us progression of the plot.

Kindle formatting fine, no howling errors in grammar that I caught, and thank the heavens, nobody in this book has "long eyes." There are the typical NR sex scenes, not many and not a lot of extraneous detail. There's some violence but it's not described to speak of and would be, at most, a 2 on the ick scale. The characterization was excellent, some of the best I've seen from this author. Watching Brooks and especially Abigail grow - oh, it was wonderful. The plot was pretty doggone good, but I tell you straight, as long as Ms. Roberts worked out a HEA for these two people, I wouldn't have cared if the plot was full of holes. Dialogue up to her usual high standards, and I do like her sibling relationships and depictions of warm, caring parents (=the Miras from the In Death series if Mira were a hippie artist instead of a psychiatrist). I was happy and satisfied with the development of the plots and subplots, and happy with the ending, and I'm just happy.

Elizabeth/Abigail may take a bit of getting used to. She is very, very literal and does not understand jokes or teasing, does not understand human relationships except clinically. I'd almost think she's somewhere on the spectrum, but I do think her way of communicating is more related to her limited social interactions, her isolation from the day she was born, and her intense shielding. The poor woman had to Google to find out what correct behavior is for a backyard barbecue - she'd never been to one. (Her reaction reminded me some of Eve Dallas when she goes off on the Rules of Relationships - both funny and touching.) She's very complex, and I liked her a lot. Brooks was nice, too, a real sweetie, the ideal boyfriend and potential father of your children, but I've met his character before. Abigail is someone special, unique.

I save the A shelf for things that I think I would take with me to the nursing home, where there's a three-foot shelf to hold your stuff. Did I like this enough to take it with me to the nursing home? No, which makes it a B-plus. Will Elizabeth/Abigail stay with me awhile? Yes. Does this book do what it set out to do, and is it an exceptionally good example of its type of book? Yes. That makes it an A-minus. It was a very good read for me, and came to me when I was just about ready to give up on romance as a genre.

There are good books out there. There are. It's just a matter of finding them, finding the one that speaks to your heart. It's nice when you don't have to leave your brain at the door when you read them, too. This book warmed my heart and did not insult my intelligence (well, not a lot, at least :-) Grade B+/A-.

Personal note: Mr. Bat is tolerating cardiac rehab, although he's not making much progress. Still, it's early days yet. He's no quitter, my guy. One side benefit of the extra exercise is a good appetite, and I've been cooking up a storm. 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Boo! (personal, not a review)

For the first time since I was, oh, four years old, I won't be participating in Beggars' Night tonight. Beggars' (or Beggar's - opinions vary) Night is a local thing, only in parts of Iowa and the Midwest as far as I can tell. It was proposed and implemented in the middle 1940s as a way to let little kids trick-or-treat without running into gangs of older kids bent on mischief. It is celebrated, even if it falls on a Sunday, on October 30.

We moved to senior housing in a secure complex last November. I asked, and no, local groups do not bring in children to trick-or-treat here.

So for the first time since Truman was president, I will not be passing out treats or receiving them tonight. Won't be encouraging shy little ones to tell me their riddle or do a somersault on my living room rug. Won't have to pretend not to recognize that neighboring first grader under the cat makeup. Won't be listening to young mothers - gawd, they get younger every year, I swear - nudging toddlers with, "Now, what do you say to the nice lady who gave you the candy bar?" Won't be pulling cats out from under the sofa when it's all over, or putting hot packs on my knees from all that squatting down to talk with the under-four-foot set. Won't be torn between taking leftover candy to work vs. eating it ourselves.

Did I buy candy? Why, of course I bought candy! I may be a bit (a lot) to the left politically but I'm a red-blooded American and of course I bought over-priced, already stale, darned near impossible to open with arthritic fingers, single-bite chocolate (hah! a drop of chocolate in a pound of wax and fat, call that chocolate?) candy in convenient pound bags at my local grocery. (Criminy, at our local Walgreen's a week ago, they were already moving out the Halloween candy to display the Christmas candy.) I'd like to say that I buy candy I don't like so I'm not tempted, but I like all of it. Even the molasses-peanut butter toffee that will pull out every filling you own, although I do draw the line at black licorice.

Oh, well. More for me, I guess.

Meanwhile: What did the skeleton order for supper? Spare ribs!


[Reading NR's The Witness. Good book! Unless she lets me down in the last quarter, may be the best book of hers I've read. Review coming.]

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Glassblower (first book of a trilogy), by Petra Durst-Benning, translated by Samuel Willcocks (historical fiction, mostly)

I used to read a lot of historical fiction. My dad enjoyed westerns and any fiction about immigration to the US, or any of the Michener books, and all those sagas from the 1970s and 1980s, and we used to pass them back and forth. I got tired of them, however, and quit reading historical fiction entirely after he died.

I picked this book from the Kindle Free email. Every month I get an email from Amazon with four books listed, pre-publication, and I can choose one free as a part of Amazon Prime. I rarely see anything that interests me, but this one caught my eye. It is the story of women in a small German village around 1890. The village's entire life revolves around glassblowing. It sounded interesting.

When widower and glassblower Joost Steinmann dies in his sleep one night, unexpectedly, in the prime of life, he leaves his three grown daughters (I'm guessing late teens to mid-twenties) with no savings, no assets, and no way to support themselves. Joost protected them from the world to the point that they've never had a man interested in them, never were allowed to go to the village festivals, and never had anything much to do with his glassblowing. After all, glassblowing is a man's job.

Johanna, Ruth, and Marie are three sisters who have not a lot in common except their parentage. And their prickliness. (Lord, I got tired of the bickering.) Johanna is probably the most practical of the three, Ruth is the beauty who dreams of marrying well, and Marie has a strong artistic bent.

When a neighboring glassblower offers them work assisting him in his family shop, they learn just how insulated from the world they have been. This is the story of how they cope with loneliness, poverty, betrayal, accidents, and the death of dreams, and how each one finds her own way toward balance and happiness.

The book was said to be a detailed narrative of life in village Germany at that time, and was supposed to give us a lot of information about glassblowing - which is why I picked it up. I was disappointed in the limited detail of village life or of glassblowing. I would have liked, for example, to hear more about the difference between blown glass and molded glass.

But otherwise it's a reasonable bit of historical fiction. I got into it right away, and in fact Mr. Bat had to ask me three times if there would be supper because the first, oh, 20% of the book practically read itself.

The first half of the book probably qualifies as historical fiction. The second half is more like a romance novel as the women work their way toward their own destinies. The first half was good. I got bogged down in the second half.

Also, and I don't know if this is a consequence of translation, but the emotion seemed pretty flat. At times I couldn't tell what the characters were thinking. The prose did not come to life for me. This series is well-loved in Germany, I understand, so I'm thinking it may be the translation.

More than anything else, I found the constant bickering and fighting amongst the sisters to be exhausting. I have one sibling who is quite a bit older than I, so we were raised almost as only children. For this reason, I have little understanding of what it must be like to have to share a room, belongings, or parental attention with others. Still, these women seemed to take offense when none was meant - at all. The slightest thing had them flaring up and stomping out. It got almighty old. If you come from a larger family or have a sibling close to your age, this bickering may seem normal and even amusing, but it really got on my nerves. 

Potential readers should know that there is a rape as well as marital rape and wife beating in this book. It's not long and drawn out, the episodes are short, but they are moderately detailed. Also, one of the characters commits adultery and apparently gets away with it; the fact that her husband was a brute did not make me feel any better about this, but then adultery is a bugaboo of mine. YMMV.

It was good to see women written strong enough to take on roles traditionally held by men, rather than - for the most part - looking for men to rescue them. I would like to have read more about the business being run by the women.

Kindle formatting fine, grammar fine. Again, the narrative was rather flat emotionally, rather stilted in places. There is violence but not prolonged and not excruciatingly detailed, maybe a 3 on the ick scale. I think it's healthy for us occasionally to be reminded of how precious is a woman's autonomy, how precious our ability to decide how we will spend our lives. It has not always been and in places still is not thus. Our freedom has been bought with the blood of other women; let us not forget that.

A sequel will be published next spring. I don't know, if I could get it free also I might be interested enough to read it but I would not pay for it given my present fixed income (although this will be published soon for less than $5, which would have looked like a bargain to me before I retired). It's a C-minus - worth the time but several problem areas that were close to being deal-breakers. The first half was probably a B but the second half was less inspired. Now that I've written this, I'm looking at other reviews - there aren't a lot - and almost everyone liked it more than I, mostly 4 and 5 star reviews. I guess I read too much Michener :-) 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Halloween story (personal, not a review, and quite long)

It is with some trepidation that I offer this story during this week of not reviewing. This has been one of those "when I was a kid" memories until recent events changed its status and it has been, um, haunting me a bit. I'm not sure why I never told anyone about this, at the time or later in life when people would be sitting around yarning. Not sure why I have never, until now, shared My Halloween Story.

This is a true story, one I have never told another person, except for Mr. Bat.

When I was a child, in my part of the world, trick-or-treating was done on October 30, saving the 31st for bigger kids and young adults to tip over outhouses, get rowdy, carry the principal's car to the roof of the school, and other serious mischief. We went out on the 30th until we were 10 or 11 years old. We would cover the entire town (population about 2500) from one side to the other, as far as we could go in the time allotted, doing our tricks (a somersault, a riddle, a joke, a song) and picking up in return full-sized candy bars (they were 5 cents then) and homemade candy apples or popcorn balls (oh, Mrs. Harrison's popcorn balls - what I would give for one of them right now!). (The town dentist, mindful of our teeth, instead served charcoal-grilled hot dogs with fixin's. Your trick was to give him the biggest gooiest treat in your bag, often Mrs. Harrison's popcorn balls.) There were a few houses to avoid, mostly old people, or people who had been sick or recently bereaved, and you knew better than to go there. Porch light on was the go-ahead signal.

The last year I trick-or-treated, I was 10, and I dressed as a fortune teller. I started the evening with kids from my neighborhood but got separated, went around with church friends for a time, and eventually found myself on the far west side of town trick-or-treating alone. Fine with me - I was a quiet child.

In those days, kids roamed all over small towns. It wasn't unusual for any of us to start a summer day with a peanut butter sandwich and an apple stuffed into the pocket of our dungarees, off with the sun, not to return home until the 5:00 whistle blew.

So I was not at all distressed to find myself as far from my home as I could be on the west side of town, alone, about 10:00 p.m., with not another soul on the streets. We had an early autumn that year, and all the trees were bare. It was warmish and windy, and the bare tree limbs made a sort of music as they banged together and the wind whistled through them. The moon was full. With every gust of wind, the sound of dry leaves skittering down the sidewalk reinforced my awareness of autumn now, winter coming.

I set off toward home, about a 30-minute walk, rummaging in my bag for a Hershey bar and thinking about the math test scheduled for the next day. An owl flew by and I marveled at its wingspan and silence. As I walked through town and passed by familiar houses, I could faintly hear radios and a few TVs tuned to the 10:00 news and the sounds of people rinsing out their coffee cups in the kitchen sink before going to bed. All porch lights and most front room lights were off. I was comfortable. This was my home. I knew every crack in every sidewalk, every pothole on every street, every cat and dog by name and disposition, and the name and ancestry of every person in every house I passed by.

Suddenly, and for the first time in my life, I had the feeling that someone was watching me. It's an itchy feeling between your shoulder blades and up the back of your neck. Initially, I was not nervous about it. It didn't feel particularly malign, just odd, especially when I turned and no one was there. Still, I knew I was late getting home, another 20 minutes to walk, and I walked a little faster. As I did, I heard a few soft footsteps a good way behind me. I stopped, they stopped. I turned around - nothing there. Resumed walking. I heard footsteps from time to time, just one or two at a time, usually about a block behind me, sometimes a little closer. I didn't like it particularly but wasn't actually frightened. I was more worried about being in trouble when I got home for being out late, and obsessing about the math test.

In order to get home, I had to pass by a vacant corner lot, two sides of a long block, filled with now-dead weeds and debris. There was a diagonal path, a shortcut, through the lot but I never took it because of snakes and bugs and mud.  

Just before I got to the lot, by this time at a double-time walk, still doing long division in my head, I felt the observation become more intent, somehow focused and not at all friendly. The hair went up on my arms. Just past the lot lived the Harrisons, then the Madisons, then the Johnsons, and then my family. Walking past the lot, I could hear that the footsteps had taken the diagonal and would probably meet me just in front of the Harrisons' place.

I ran. Long-legged and very tall for my age, but chubby, I ran as I had never run before. Skirts hiked above my knees, high-heeled slippers long since kicked off, goody bag dropped somewhere along the line, I ran for my life. Why I didn't scream, I'll never know, other than nice girls don't make noise. As I passed the Johnsons' house, I heard the steps, close behind me, slow and stop, and with one last frantic look behind me - nothing there but a shadow that seemed too large for the bush casting it - I burst into my house to find my folks playing Scrabble at the kitchen table. So normal. So ordinary.

I never told anyone. My folks were so involved in their game they didn't notice that I was red-faced and panting, didn't notice the time, and didn't notice that I didn't have candy bars to share. I washed off my makeup and went to bed. It was awhile before I could sleep, but I did, and I passed the math test the next day.

Overactive imagination fueled by sugar and food dyes? More than likely just a teenage boy out to scare a girl and maybe score some candy on Beggars' Night.

Several weeks later, a 14-year-old girl from the west side of town didn't come home from band practice one night. She was a troubled girl and eventually the authorities and even her folks decided that she had run off. It happens sometimes like that. She had done it before. No milk carton photos in those days, no Amber Alerts, and not all that much attention given to a nearly-grown girl taking off for parts unknown. It was easier to disappear and reinvent yourself in those days. Easier to find a job working for cash. No I-9 forms then.

They found her bones awhile back, just outside of town in the woods by the river.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Death Comes to Pemberley on TV PBS, BBC Oct 26?

You may want to check your local listings. Here in Iowa, my local public broadcasting TV station is showing Death Comes to Pemberley - based on the P.D. James P/P murder mystery novel, in two parts, starting tomorrow evening (October 26).

I found the novel mildly disappointing, and I don't think I even reviewed it. It suffered greatly - for me - from over-promotion. I think if I were to read it again, and I suppose I will now, I would approach it as high-grade fanfic rather than the latest mystery novel by an author I admire very much. I think the change in approach would allow me to enjoy the book more.

In any event, heads up. I looked at some of the sneak peeks on YouTube, and while I see that I will have to watch with the remote in my hand in order to mute Lydia's shrieking and Mother Bennet's presence in general, it looked like a decent way to spend a couple of hours.

YMMV, of course.

link to PBS webpage: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/programs/series/death-comes-pemberley-s1/

Friday, October 24, 2014

Blogger refocus.

So some of us are not reviewing books this week, switching our focus until Monday, as protest against the recent wild over-reaction and downright malfeasance of certain - very few - authors and publishing companies, redirecting our energies to the sheer pleasure of reading a good book. We're ignoring recent and upcoming publications and concentrating on beloved old books, dead authors (who will not stalk us and come to our house or call our employers in response to a negative review for the love of all that's holy, not even on Halloween), brownie recipes, letters of opinion, community of readers, and photographs of our pets being their adorable little furry selves.

As Sunita has said so eloquently (as always), some of us are re-evaluating our role as cogs in the publishing machine.

Because you can't serve two masters.

[At any rate, not in any of the erotica I've read to date, which is admittedly not a lot.]

My own experience with ARCs was largely not positive. Yes, I read some good books, and read them before they were published, and read them without paying for them. After awhile, I figured out (slow study, me, and reviewing even then not the focus of my life) that I got more books to read if I gave favorable reviews. (This is speaking generally, and not reflective of the behavior of all publishing companies.) Well, that's uncomfortable, isn't it? If I call La Nora, for example, on serious continuity problems in an In Death book, does that mean that I won't get an ARC for the next In Death book? And what's with the pressure to post reviews on Amazon?

Some people post only 4 and 5 star or A and B reviews. There's nothing wrong with that, but if I read a book that made my toes curl with poor formatting, impossible grammar, or absurd plotting, I feel duty bound to tell the world about my opinion. Books are expensive, and the time it takes to read one can never be recaptured. So you'll find plenty of F, fail, stupid, WTF, and DNF reviews here. Not because I'm mean, which I can be, but because I'm honest. To a fault, sometimes.

Oddly enough, I hear from people more often than I would have thought that they bought a book based on a negative review here, because things I found troublesome (forced consent, for example) are catnip to them. So there you are.

I enjoy author contact here. So far nobody has crossed a line. I've had authors comment to correct an error in my review - always appreciated, since I crank these things out early in the morning before coffee or shower. Sometimes they've suggested other books they think I might like, their books or others. They've offered recipes. They've prayed for my husband's health. Some have contacted me privately by email. Not one of them (so far) has been abusive, although a couple have been annoyed. Well, hell, I get annoyed, too. We'll be annoyed together. The next time you're in my city, email me and I'll meet you at Starbucks and we'll pound it out over coffee. If you can learn to live with the fact that I wouldn't know literary analysis if it rose up and bit me in the butt, maybe I can learn to live with the fact that you don't know the difference between "their" and "they're".

So there we are. I'll be posting my very own true Halloween story this weekend. But no book reviews until next week. Mine is a small voice, but I will not be silenced.

For more, take a look at the Dear Author blog, or read Sunita's very eloquent soul searching and boundary setting at her blog, which for now is still available to all to read, at http://vacuousminx.wordpress.com/2014/10/22/blog-blackouts-and-minor-adjustments-to-vm/#more-5689

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Christmas in The Duke's Arms, novellas by Grace Burrowes, Carolyn Jewel, Miranda Neville, Shana Galen (Regency novellas)

I said I was going to read a Christmas book and I did and I'm glad I did. This was a sweet change of pace. Christmas as a religious holiday is not prominent in these stories, but there's a lot of mistletoe gathering and time spent with friends and family. So a secular Christmas, no religion - for those of you who don't care to read such.

A Knight Before Christmas, by Grace Burrowes. I've said before that I love this author's voice and will excuse her anachronisms and 21st century relationships just to read the stories. And so it goes. Oh, I enjoyed this story, even though the author felt she had to explain things to me more than I care for (lady, I've got a brain). Penelope is a recent widow but because of an oddly-written will, she must marry in haste or else condemn her family of origin, parents and younger sisters, to near-poverty or worse. Her late husband's solicitor and friend, Sir Levi, is drafted to help her find a suitable mate. He has feelings for her but there is a serious impediment to his marrying Pen. She definitely has feelings for him but of course can't show this or say it because woman. Their internal monologues tickled me. Their journey toward one another made me smile. I loved the way they nurtured one another. Also, there's a cool pet rabbit who maybe gets a little bit more page time than is comfortable but it didn't bother me. The author's asides about lawyers and the practice of law tickled me no end (she is a practicing attorney).

In the Duke's Arms, by Caroline Jewel. We have here a different type of hero, one so socially isolated as a child that he's nearly non-functional in company and continues to isolate himself. He's abrupt to the point of rudeness and is seen as arrogant and autocratic. Edith has just come into a little money (I loved the way this happened and I won't spoil it for you) and has found a little property near the duke - security for her, oh, what a wonderful thing. She's nervous, however, about spending money at all (spendthrift family background) and the duke assists her in helping her feel more confident about her decisions. They become friends, but as the duke becomes more socialized, he wants more.  [I'm in error. The duke knew her from before, when she was companion to a relative, and he's been attracted to her for a long time. This is what I get for writing a review pre-coffee. My apologies for the inaccuracy.] Again, the thoughts of the characters made them very real to me. Lovely, lovely story and so well-written. Oh, I enjoyed this!

Licensed to Wed, by Miranda Neville. I've read a couple of Ms. Neville's books before, and while I appreciated the good writing, the humor that everyone raves about flew right past me, which is odd, because I do have - or did have - a pretty good sense of humor. She hit me with this one. I chuckled more than once, and smiled. Wyatt, a viscount, has been responsible for so many people and things for so long, and his sense of duty is so strong, that when he learns that childhood friend Robina is in trouble, well, she becomes one more thing on his daily To Do list (this list became pretty funny as the story progressed): Marry Robina. She does not want! She's got her pride (if not a whole lot else) and she's not about to end up with a little tick beside her name as a project completed. Another lovely story about people opening up to love. Real characters, good dialog, not one word wasted.

The Spy Beneath the Mistletoe, by Shana Galen. I confess I did not read the fourth story all the way. I tried, heaven knows I tried, but it's a spy story, and the multiple references to James Bond stories just made me nuts. I'm not crazy about spy stories anyway - overdosed on them years ago and now they make me cross-eyed - and the business of people named Q or Moneypence, and the other Bond references threw me out of the story before I could even get into it. Also, there's a series featuring this hero and heroine, and I haven't read it, so even though I tried, I couldn't care much about the characters. It seemed really well-written, though, and this author has devoted fans.

Kindle formatting fine, grammar fine. No real violence, although I did not finish the last story. Some moderate sex scenes, nothing too graphic, too long, or too purple. No kidnapping, fires, or pirates, although there's a recurrent thread about a highwayman. Stories loosely connected mostly by locale. Good stories that made me smile and let me sleep well. I will surely read this book again, probably before Christmas, maybe tonight. I'll make it a B.

Personal note: Mr. Bat is holding his own. He's definitely looking better since I retired. I think isolation and loneliness are very hard on older people. We're getting him into cardiac rehab this week and we'll see how that goes. He feels well, no pain, just tires easily. We spent a couple of hours yesterday out driving around in the country, looking at the autumn leaves and checking out the harvesting, which is a little bit behind due to wet weather. He enjoyed being the passenger with unlimited gawking ability. We picked up some tacos from a food truck and parked under a massive oak with the sun streaming down and lighting up the copper leaves, and the meadowlarks and brown thrashers singing, and the grasshoppers and other insects doing their late-fall buzz and hum, and the squirrels gathering up as many acorns as they could carry. Down the road a bit we saw a squirrel carrying three walnuts - in husk - in his mouth at the same time, and he couldn't see around them and was seriously front-loaded, so was walking a bit drunkenly. These are good days, and we give thanks.
Edited for correction 1109 10/22/14. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Lady of Ashes, by Christine Trent (Victorian, historical fiction, mystery-thriller) (long, get a cup of coffee)

Boy, did this book look good to me. Right down my alley. Woman who is an undertaker in mid-Victorian London. Said to be well-researched and accurate, and the mystery said to be an interesting one. Plus, I accidentally signed up for Kindle Unlimited, and I'm trying to cram as many books into my free 30 days as I can before I cancel, and this one was free for Kindle Unlimited.

Unfortunately, and this is not criticizing the book, in fact, in a way it is praise. The relationship of the main female character, Violet, with her husband, Graham, is so dysfunctional, and it struck so close to home (not my marriage, thank God, but that of someone I am close to) that it was extremely hard for me to read it. The opposite of love, we know, is not hatred, but indifference, and seeing Violet progress to indifference, watching the interactions between this man and this woman, well, it was just too much. So that colors my entire review, and you need to know that straight off.

Okay. Violet, age about 30, has been married to Graham for about eight years I think, and she married into the family undertaking business. She started helping him and has gradually taken over quite a bit of the business, including embalming (rare) and the laying out and arranging the funeral, while Graham becomes increasingly obsessed with some secret bit of business he is hiding from Violet.

Graham hates Americans, and this hatred was nurtured by his grandfather, who had been terribly mistreated as a POW during the War of 1812 [why don't we have a better name for that war?]. Graham and his loosey-goosey brother get involved in supplying the American South with goods. Sent over by the North's government to impersonate a Virginian with an interest in such matters is Sam (who becomes a bit of a love interest). As Graham becomes more and more distant, and more and more of a loose cannon, Violet goes on with the business, and is disturbed when several of the dead she is asked to lay out don't seem to her to have died a natural death. But she's a woman, what does she know.

There is a lot going on in this book. About 400 pages and subplots galore. There's just too much going on here. I appreciated the historical detail, from the clothing Violet wore to the funeral customs to the rarely-explored (in fiction) relationship between England and both halves of the US during our Civil War. But the detail got in the way of the story and should have been edited out.

For example, Violet adopts an orphan. I guess this is to show us her nurturing side. Violet's exasperating mother-in-law dies - from being gored by a rhino at the zoo. (What, cholera wasn't good enough for her?) Violet meets Prince Albert and ends up covering his funeral and becoming Queen Victoria's BFF for a time. Violet is in a terrible train wreck and has extensive burns to her arm but we don't hear how that may have restricted her range of motion or strength - or else I missed it. While we have detailed diary entries by the villain, we don't meet the villain until really rather late in the show. So I guess the mystery with Graham wasn't enough, we have to have a serial killer.

None of this hangs together well. It's as if the author read the London Times for every day from 1860 to 1865, and almost in a Forrest Gump-y way, Violet has to be involved somehow in all the worst of the stories. (Lemme tell you, there were a lot of ways to die in Victorian London. And we get to read about most of them.)

Graham is so unlikable that I never did figure out why Violet married him in the first place. We have a lot of historical figures - Albert and Victoria, the Adams family, Lincoln - inserted into the narrative, which I always find annoying. There are some words or phrases that I doubt were in use in that way at that time: being "tasked" to do something is the one that sticks in my memory, but there were others. (Language has evolved a good deal in my lifetime.) I keep coming back to the complaints that there was too much detail and there were too many plot lines going. Plus - you wouldn't believe the ending. I didn't. Way, way over the top.

Violet was never brought to life for me. (Oh, is that a bad phrase for this book.) She never seemed real and I never cared much about what happened to her or anyone else in the book. I was never sure whether I was supposed to admire her lack of housekeeping skill, find it amusing, or what. Something else I found annoying was - I don't know if there's a term for this - but at the end of some chapters, the author would give away, or partially give away, what was going to happen in the next chapter. Along the lines of: Violet walked home contented with her day, but little did she know that her world was about to change forever. I don't know what that's called, but it's annoying. I can deal with subtle foreshadowing, even appreciate it at times, but this was so clunky.

Kindle formatting fine, grammar fine. Some violence with respect to the murders and war, and there's some moderately graphic detail about various ways to die in a train wreck. The embalming and laying-out details may give some readers the squicks. There's no sex in the book that I recall. The murderer is a caricature of homicidal mania (murderer is also a historical figure, by the way). It was just such a salad of a book, with nothing to hold it together. There are sequels but I'm not going to read them.

I'm not going to grade it because I took an unfair and immediate dislike to it due to the marital situation. But trying to set that aside, I still wouldn't give this much above a D-plus because of the really excessive detail, the excessive plot lines, the lack of cohesiveness, the flat characters, the glacial pacing, and the Forrest Gumpiness of the heroine's scenes.

You know what I'm going to do? I am going to re-read some Christmas books. I want something sweet and light. I want to close my Kindle with a smile. Maybe some early Carla Kelly. Otherwise I'm going to have to break out the Ros Clarke or Courtney Milan I've been hoarding for some months against the hard times.

Cool cover, though:

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Scandal and the Duchess, by Jennifer Ashley (part of the Mackenzie series … barely)

I don't know what's wrong with me. It's been ages since a book, any book, thrilled me. I suppose part of it is life circumstances, but I've read my way through and then past bad patches in life before, eyes and attention focused on something other than what's going on inside my own head. I just can't find anything that pleases me these days except non-fiction and my tried-and-trues. Even I can read Jane Eyre only so many times.

So forgive my jaundiced eye, please. I picked this up because I've enjoyed the Mackenzie series so much - oh, the first one, Lord Ian's book, mercy me! The series has been uneven but the latest installments have been iffy. This one might be the one that turns me off the series. [Edit to correct: This is not true. I was thinking of another series. Please forgive me. I am exhausted and distracted. I'll try to be more careful in the future.] 

Rose, who loves roses and uses rose cologne because of course, is a notorious widow. Journalists are having a field day with her life and her misfortunes. Without family or two shillings to rub together in her pocket, she somehow caught the eye of a middle-aged duke and they married. Happily, if perhaps a quieter life than Rose would have chosen. Briefly also, because he had a hidden heart problem and died soon after the wedding. The tabloids say that she married him for his money and then stressed him so much in bed that it killed him. There's an evil step-son, the new duke, who hates her because daddy never loved him, and he's spreading lies about her and tying up the assets so she can't get the little bit that was her dower right. He's keeping hunting dogs in the dower house, a touch of color I appreciated, having known of a similar circumstance in real life.

I'm not sure exactly how she's been getting along. She's living in the coachman's garage or something like that. It's been more than a year and she can't change out of her blacks because there's no money for clothes. Sounds pretty grim, if awfully vague. She has money to tip hotel staff, so I'm not sure what exactly her status is, other than uncertain.

One night our hero, Steven McBride, brother of one of the Mackenzie's brother's wives, Ainsley maybe, is out getting drunk while on leave from the military. He's barely knee-walking, estimated BAC over 400, when he runs into Rose - I never did figure out what she was doing out at night - who takes pity on him, thinking he is homeless, and brings him home to dry out. Right. The next morning, even though he is vastly hungover, he is studly and she wants his body (my experience with drunks the next morning is that they smell like a compost pile on a hot summer day, and they're cranky and self-pitying, and definitely not studly. But what do I know?) and she's so beautiful that he is instantly in lust and would definitely have had her on the spot if the bed hadn't been too narrow or something.

The journalists, beasts every one of them, have been keeping watch over her door by night and are all ready to write juicy gossip bits about her and a certain handsome military man who clearly spent the night with her. To spike their guns - pens? - Steven announces to them that he and Rose are engaged to be married. This will take at least some of the heat off Rose, and Steven has his own reasons for wanting to appear to be spoken for. Plus he can use his money and connections to clear up that pesky little problem of the will. They can always call the marriage off later - he'll see to it with his dissolute behavior giving her an excuse. (He drinks a lot and is hungover for much of the book. Yep, nothing sexier than a guy with a hangover.)

Well, at this point, it goes from unlikely to just plain silly, and I'm not going to waste my time or yours on details of the plot. Let's just say that there are secret passages in an outbuilding that lead to a fairy house in the woods, complete with caretakers, and an intelligent, faithful dog who disappears conveniently when his part in the plot is over. When I got to the part about the fairy cottage, I started praying for a kidnapping, fire, or pirates, but there was no salvation.

Historians, I have a question: I'm sure there were bed-and-breakfast establishments in England in the 1880s, but did they call them bed and breakfasts? Steven uses the phrase and it seemed out of time for me. Oh, also: did they have paparazzi in the 1880s? Would they have hounded a titled lady like that? I know there were scandal sheets, but this seems awfully aggressive.

There's some steamy sex - oh, doesn't every girl dream of having her first time with a new fella up against a wall by a chimney? I know I did.

One thing that was interesting was a few throwaway lines about Rose's reaction to Ian's behavior. Those of us who have read the series know that Ian has come a long way because of the love he and Beth share, and, well, he's family and we don't notice or take much account of some of his odd behavior. I thought it was well done of the author to give us at least some scraps of what an outsider might see in Ian's differentness, especially in a time when conformity was essential.

Kindle formatting fine. Grammar fine. There's a HEA, and now Rose has a family to care about her and protect her, although I've always thought that sheer sexual attraction alone was a lousy basis for a marriage. Lord Ian has a bit part that didn't amount to a hill of beans. Way short on characterization and backstory, even for a novella. No violence. Overall disappointing. What we saw of these characters had me thinking that they deserved a real story, a full story, not just a bridge to a different character's novel.

But, you know, it's getting rave reviews on Amazon and Goodreads and other places. So maybe it's just me. Ugh - it's a D. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Not My Field, a short story by Ros Clarke (contemporary)

It's not news to anyone who reads this blog regularly that I'm a big fan of Ros Clarke's books. She hooked me with Twelve Days and reeled me in with The Oil Tycoon and Her Sexy Sheikh and then All I Want For Christmas. I like her characters: they're grownups. They make mistakes but they're honest mistakes, and they try to correct them. Also, the situations her characters find themselves in may be just the other side of everyday at times, but they are still believable, the kind of thing that might happen to someone you know. They might even happen to your very own self.

This short story - and it is short, about 40 pages - shows us the crisis point in a relationship between a pushing-fifty professor and a mid-forties dairy farmer. They live some distance from one another, so getting together in person requires effort and planning, especially for the farmer. Someone has to milk the cows twice a day. But they Skype and email and text, so in the ozone they're in one another's pockets all the time and have been for months. They are friends as well as lovers, even though they have spent precious little time in the same room physically.

She, Carla, has an opportunity, a solid opportunity, to get the job of her dreams … in Germany. Chances are if she takes the job, the relationship with Mike will fall apart, eventually if not immediately. Both characters have seen enough of life to know that long-distance relationships are difficult at best.

We watch Carla and Mike work this out. Should Mike sell the farm and follow Carla? Should Carla pass up this incredible opportunity? Is there a third option? Does Mike even care enough about Carla to make all this agonizing necessary? Would Mike know love if it bit him on the nose? Can Carla be straightforward about what she wants?

As much as I enjoyed the story, I felt as if I was reading selected excerpts of a larger, longer story. While this is a common feeling for me when reading shorts, it doesn't usually arise in one of Ms. Clarke's books, but it did in this one. There just wasn't quite enough here for me to care about whether Carla and Mike worked it out. I didn't feel their passion for one another, or their passion for their work. And yes, you can still have passion later in life, darlings, trust me.

Kindle formatting perfect. I appreciate the way Ms. Clarke does not clean away or translate every British reference. The conversations seemed natural, authentic. There's one very short and non-explicit sex scene. I don't like the word "clean" to describe romances, since the opposite is "dirty", and sex isn't dirty within the meaning of the word to be soiled, disgusting, wrong. Perhaps "gentle" is a better word. In any event, the sex in this story is so brief and quiet that one could almost label the story "clean" which is refreshing.

I just didn't get enough story here. I know Ms. Clarke can do it. I cared deeply about the characters in a couple of her other shorts. This one just seemed superficial and perhaps rushed.

Still, it's a pleasant little read that won't give you nightmares or keep you up worrying about the characters, and there are times and places for that kind of story. If you're a fast reader, you can get through it in a coffee break, or over your more leisurely lunch sandwich and apple, and then go back to work feeling that all is well with the world. I'd give it a high C if I were still grading (and I guess I am) in that it was worth reading but I doubt that I will read it again.

ETA: If you haven't read any of Ms. Clarke's work, you really should. They are reasonably priced and they are gems. My heart broke and then was repaired in All I Want For Christmas. I cringed (in a good way) and chuckled my way through Twelve Days, and you simply must read the Oil Tycoon - turns several well-known tropes on their heads. Others of her works are also highly satisfying but I just can't come up with the titles off the top of my slightly-depressed and tired head. Oh: Table For One - really well-done short story.