Review: ARE YOU SLEEPING by Kathleen Barber

Are You Sleeping

Since there is no novel way I can think of to explain what this book is all about, the synopsis is as follows:

Josie Buhrman has spent the last ten years trying to escape her family’s reputation and with good reason. After her father’s murder thirteen years prior, her mother ran away to join a cult and her twin sister Lanie, once Josie’s closest friend and confidant, betrayed her in an unimaginable way. Now, Josie has finally put down roots in New York, settling into domestic life with her partner Caleb, and that’s where she intends to stay. The only problem is that she has lied to Caleb about every detail of her past—starting with her last name.

When investigative reporter Poppy Parnell sets off a media firestorm with a mega-hit podcast that reopens the long-closed case of Josie’s father’s murder, Josie’s world begins to unravel. Meanwhile, the unexpected death of Josie’s long-absent mother forces her to return to her Midwestern hometown where she must confront the demons from her past—and the lies on which she has staked her future.

I was faced with a dilemma when I decided to write about Kathleen Barber’s debut thriller novel, Are You Sleeping. However, I don’t know how to write about it without giving any spoilers. At times, I’m not even sure if this is an actual quandary or some sort of mistake on the part of Ms Barber. If it’s the former, the issue could have been framed in a much better way. If it’s the latter, she really needs to get a better editor.

But then, when it comes to framing plot points, this novel is an extremely subpar example. I get why Josie decided to sever ties with her family. But when she gets the call about her mother’s death from her cousin, their easy bond and love for each other belie the hostility Josie says she feels about everyone back home. If she has been so cut off from her family, why isn’t there more tension when she decides to go back home?

The idea of a podcast based on a previously solved murder is timely, given the popularity of Serial and its ilk, and the idea of a novel about a podcast based on a previously solved murder sounds like publishing gold. The usage of this format at the beginning of some chapters was helpful in contextualizing the plot from the POV of someone who wasn’t the protagonist. The character of podcast host, Poppy Parnell, was extremely under-developed, reverting to the stereotype of a pushy journalist who has no respect for privacy and just shows up at random moments shoving microphones and cameras in the Buhrman family’s faces asking them “how they feel.”

Another major plot point in the story is the relationship Josie has with her twin sister, Lanie. Again, I’m not sure what I can say about this without giving out spoilers. Their characterization, along with that of the rest of the Buhrman family, felt very one-dimensional. Everybody has “explosive” secrets from everybody else at some point, yet no groundwork is laid to justify the actions of said characters.

What the characters lack in depth the book makes up for in pace. Ms Barber cuts in and out of past and present with admirable precision. Transcribed episodes of the “Reconsidered” podcast, along with Twitter and Reddit commentary from listeners, demonstrate how easily we can all get involved with (interfere with?) the lives of others today. For example, at the funeral-home viewing for Josie’s mother, acquaintances tweet out observations about the family. No one is safe from prying eyes.

Except for someone who disappears into a cult that prohibits all contact with the outside world (one of the book’s rare funny moments happens when a Life Force Collective member named Sister Amamus agrees to meet Josie at a Dairy Queen and insists that Josie pay for her Blizzard treat before talking). But as Josie’s renewed contact with Lanie runs the gamut of emotions from quiet sweetness to deep chaos, a box arrives from the Collective containing their mother’s effects, mostly beads and clothing and a few books. It will wind up being a Pandora’s Box for sure, but how and for whom?

All will be revealed — or will it? By the time Josie understands her family’s sad and complicated story, there’s more sadness to come. The twins’ mother suffered throughout their childhood from “melancholy”, and not always able to care for them in a consistent manner. Has her unstable mental health been passed on to her daughters? Which brings me back to that dilemma. If it’s deliberate, it’s one of the most subtle sleights of hand I’ve seen in a novel of suspense and proves that there are some places inside the human mind even social media can’t reach. But if it’s not, this was just a book with some exciting and intriguing aspects, that did not make complete sense to me in the end.

I was provided with an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.



Review: WONDER by Emma Donoghue

The Wonder

With my severely limited knowledge about the Crimean War, I always pictured Florence Nightingale as a lonesome figure, stalking hospital corridors with only a glow of light for assistance. A little Googling told me she travelled to Constantinople in 1854 flanked by a 38-strong team of volunteer nurses. During the War, the Lady with the Lamp trained these women in her pioneering nursing practices. Those who returned to Britain in the conflict’s aftermath brought with them a certain repute. Emma Donoghue’s new novel, The Wonder, shines a light on one such “Nightingale”: Elizabeth “Lib” Wright, a young widow working in a hospital in London, who is singled out to travel to the Irish midlands on a well-paid but somewhat obscure mission.

 It isn’t until Lib has been deposited in a pub/grocer’s/undertaker’s/inn in a village outside Athlone that the bizarre nature of her assignment is outlined by the local doctor. she has been summoned by a committee of “important men” on behalf of the O’Donnell family’s only daughter, Anna, who is “not exactly ill.”

Lib’s only duty will be to watch her for a period of two weeks, in a schedule of eight-hour shifts shared with a surly nun from the House of Mercy in Tullamore. Such surveillance is required because, since the day of her 11th birthday, Anna is said to have consumed nothing but a few sips of water.

For four months she has survived on what she describes as “manna from heaven”, and because she remains mysteriously well, the parish is beginning to attract attention. Pilgrims come from far and wide to catch a glimpse of the girl sustained by grace–a living, moving statue–and deposit coins in a collection box as they leave.

This is all happening in rural Ireland circa 1860, a place, we are told, the 19th century hasn’t reached, a country still in recovery from “that terrible failure of the potato.” The O’Donnells are simple people, their walls cemented with mud, their mattresses stuffed with straw. They keep shorthorn cattle; subsist on oatcakes, turnips and tiny, bony river fish; attempt to solve problems by means of votive masses and miraculous medals. This is a landscape steeped in “the enigmatic atmosphere of stone circles, ring forts or round barrows”, but all Lib sees is ugliness and morbidity: “flat fields striped with dark foliage. Sheets of reddish-brown peat…the occasional grey remains of a cottage, almost greened over.” And all she tastes is peat from the fire her food is cooked in, imagining that “if she did stay the full fortnight, she’d have consumed a good handful of boggy soil.”

The English nurse is scathing about the “shiftless, thriftless, hopeless, hapless” Irish, always brooding over past wrongs–“Their tracks going nowhere, their trees hung with putrid rags.” She “wonders” at many aspects of the O’Donnells’ simple life: their farming practices, religious devotions and superstitious rituals– a saucer of milk beneath the dresser to placate the “little folk”, a slice of bread carried in the pocket while walking.

Most of all, Lib wonders what is going on with Anna, who appears, indeed, to be swallowing nothing but “God’s own water.” One by one, Lib suspects everyone around her: is the nun in on the family’s plot? Is the priest manipulating the child in order to make money for the Church’s “shrine-building fund”? But as the watch grinds on, the doubt that has collected inside her like peat softens into compassion. When that happens, she is able to set aside her litany of Irish prejudices and face the truth: If she doesn’t do something to stop it, Anna O’Donnell is going to die in front of her.

In the stubborn zealotry of the committee that has hired Lib and Sister Michael (the local doctor suspects that Anna is turning into a kind of plant, capable of living on air), there is a touch of The Crucible, but I was more reminded of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. As in that book, each visit to the afflicted child is more terrifying. The difference, both ironic and awful, is that while Regan MacNeil is possessed by a demon, Anna O’Donnell is possessed by the suffocating dogma of the church in which she was raised. In both cases, we are introduced to a bright and loving child who is, essentially, being tortured to death. Anna’s plight and Lib’s efforts to save her (initially reluctant, ultimately frantic) make this book, flawed though it is in some respects, impossible to put down.

When we discover the reasons for Anna’s fast, it feels just a little too gothic and a little too convenient. I would have been happier to settle for the heavy cloak of religiosity that lay over Ireland in the 19th century (and even the 20th). It would have been quite enough without adding the dreaded Family Secret. The best historical fiction shows the past in close-up, letting us understand how, in spite of its foreignness, many of its issues are still with us. Donoghue’s ideas about the non-traditional family do this well; sometimes, a child is “a bird in the wrong nest.” The Wonder is built on surveillance and celebrity, disordered eating and the fetishizing of the child’s body, but keeps mainly to the surface, leaving the sense that it could have dug in harder here. Anna is an empty plate, a “blank page,” a fascination, but her portrayal leaves us hungry for more.

One doesn’t have to look any further than Wikipedia to find the case of Sarah Jacob, a Welsh girl who stopped eating on the occasion of her 10th birthday in 1867. The local vicar corroborated her claims, and for two years she attracted gift-bearing pilgrims until, in 1869, her family consented to have her monitored by professional medics. When Sarah began to show clear signs of starvation, her parents continued to insist that there was no need to intervene; that their daughter was miraculous. In a little over two weeks, she died. Mr and Mrs Jacob were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to hard labour in Swansea prison.

The first two-thirds of The Wonder sets a superb pace, but in the final third, it’s as if Ms Donoghue the novelist had had her pen taken off her by Ms Donoghue the scriptwriter (Oscar-nominated a couple of years ago for her Room). Heroes and villains begin to emerge; there’s even a love interest. The case of Anna O’Donnell comes to a close with significantly less poignancy and poetic justice than that of Sarah Jacob.

Fans of Ms Donoghue might find something to be interested here, but for everybody else, it’s just another entry in the ever-growing catalogue of mediocre suspense novels about children in pain.

Review: DARK IN DEATH (In Death #46) by J.D. Robb

Dark in Death


I have certain unwritten rules when it comes to my reviewing. As I have mentioned earlier, I don’t like reviewing the latest books in a series if I haven’t reviewed the earlier works too because it completely messes with what I plan on writing. However, all my rules go out the window and down the drain when it comes to the inimitable Ms Nora Roberts aka J.D. Robb. And they certainly don’t matter in the least if I love a book as much as I loved the 46th part of the In Death series, Dark In Death.

A woman gets murdered with an icepick in a movie theatre while watching the shower scene in Psycho. When Lieutenant Eve Dallas starts investigating, she is briefly stumped to find no apparent motive or suspects. When crime novelist Blaine DeLano arrives at Cop Central the next day to tell her that someone has been recreating the murder scenes from her bestselling series, Eve understands that she is up against a murderous fan. You would think knowing the profile of the next victim as well as the form taken by the perp to commit the murder should make this case a walk in the park for Lieutenant Eve Dallas and Detective Peabody. But Robb turns the plot into a thrilling chase with exciting subplots and a largely satisfying conclusion.

“A vid comes to you, even at you. It’s visual, it’s auditory, and can, of course, pull you in. Its purpose is to do just that, draw you into the world you see and hear. But a book? You go into it. There’s no visual or auditory other than what forms in your own mind. You visualize the characters, the scene, through the words. You, as reader, interpret the tone of voice, the colors, the movement as you physically turn the pages. Now you have a killer not just experiencing the story, not just replicating it, but living it. So you have to do the same, and that’s frustrating for a woman as reality-based as you. “And more,” he added, “with each killing she becomes a different character with a different motive, a different psyche.”

If it’s not glaringly obvious, I am a huge fan of the series. However, the last few books had majorly disappointed me. I felt like the plot was stuck and Ms Roberts seemed reluctant to take big risks when it came to the stakes involved in each case. I wouldn’t say that Dark In Death was a superb work of crime fiction. But it hit all the right chords with me, kept me up till 4 AM, laughing and reading as fast I could to find out who the killer was, and now writing this post, so I’m just delighted that the J.D. Robb I absolutely love is back. 😀

The plot, with its similarities to the pilot episode of Castle, had me hooked from the beginning. And the truth bombs Robb kept dropping about being a writer had me in splits and nodding my head as I recalled a post of hers I’d read recently. In it, Ms Roberts talks about writing from within a bubble, with no regard for the “chatter” she received from her readers on her work. It annoyed me initially but having made my own little forays into writing a book, I now completely get where she comes from.

She started to say she’d take coffee, then he distracted her. Just loosening his tie as he walked across the room to a fancy cabinet. Why was that sexy? she wondered. She didn’t even get why men insisted on wearing ties—and don’t get her started on Jenkinson. But the way Roarke loosened that knot, flipped open a couple buttons on the shirt? It was kick-in-the-guts sexy.

Now, what did I love the most? Eve and Roarke are ambitiously trying to have sex in every room of the house while Summerset’s on vacation. And they sit and read murder mysteries together in front of a fire in their home library! If it wasn’t for another one of those pesky rules, I would flood this post with all my highlighted quotes about their marriage and their chemistry. Roarke is a GOD among fictional men. Almost all of my favourite secondary characters make an appearance, and a new character is introduced that I hope to see a lot more of. Dark In Death was a delightful whodunit with a compelling and believable killer that made me ultra glad for having stuck with the series. As if I would have ever stopped.  😛

Lastly, I’m just gonna reiterate how effing happy I am to have fallen back in love with the In Death series. I can’t believe I have to wait until September for the next book.

Review: SHADOW SPELL (Cousins O’Dwyer Trilogy #2) by Nora Roberts

Shadow Spell

If you’re like me, a longtime fan of Nora Roberts, it will be nearly impossible for you to not compare Cousins O’Dwyer series with her other (read: better) paranormal romance trilogies. Sadly, making such comparisons can end only badly for Shadow Spell. Much like The Dark Witch, it had a fairly predictable storyline and an average-at-best romance.

As I read Shadow Spell, I couldn’t help comparing it to one of Ms. Roberts’ older books in a similar setting, Tears of the Moon. I absolutely loved that book. Shadow Spell follows the same plot of friends falling in love with each other and the same Nora Roberts’ brand of easy Irish charm. The difference is that Connor and Meara lack the chemistry and genuine conflict that made me enjoy reading these stories. The protagonists have been friends their whole lives and, although they were each other’s first kiss, they never had any romantic feelings towards each other. Until, one fine day, the adrenaline rush from an encounter with an ancient evil sorcerer drives them into each other’s arms.

It was very hard for me to buy Connor and Meara’s transition from friends to lovers. The whole thing happened out of the blue and they were both very accepting of this drastic change in their dynamic. In contrast, Tears of the Moon was so great because of how genuinely shocked Shawn was over Brenna’s sexual interest in him. I mean, if the idea of becoming lovers was so easy for Connor and Meara, why hadn’t they done it already? They were both unattached adults with no overt issues to a relationship. The lack of conflict in their story just made me lose interest in it. Then, the whole thing just seems overly evident that the timing of their relationship is totally contrived to fill in the gap between Boyle and Iona’s and Fin and Branna’s stories.

The dream scenes when Connor meets his ancestor, Eamon, are some of my favorites. Family is the running theme throughout the story, something Cabhan will never understand, and watching those two come together to share ideas and memories is heartwarming. Other favorite scenes are those of the gang around the kitchen table spread with a meal lovingly prepared by Branna. They theorize, strategize, argue, laugh, and just be a family at that table. The teasing and playfulness they all share is wonderfully done.

The biggest plus I can give this book is that at least Connor and Meara were interesting characters. Conner is kind of charming and fun to read. Also, we got a little more interaction between Branna and Fin. Of the three, theirs is the story I actually want to read. They have some built-in tension to work through thanks to their past and Fin’s relation to Cabhan. I am holding out hope that Ms. Roberts makes the best out of that in the next book and doesn’t resolve things too easily.

I think one of the biggest complaints longtime fans will have with Shadow Spell is that it really is nothing new. It seems obvious that Ms. Roberts’ trilogies have gotten formulaic, which may be all that can be expected from someone writing two-hundred plus books in roughly the same category. This new trilogy is much like the Gallaghers of Ardmore and the Key trilogies, although probably not as well written. I am really holding out hope for the last book, Blood Magick, but they’re not high hopes. As for the first two books, maybe just skip them and read one of her better trilogies that will give you the same magical or Irish feel.

Review: YOU DON’T HAVE TO SAY YOU LOVE ME by Sarra Manning

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me looked like a fairly predictable book to me. Even before I cracked open its spine, I knew it was going to be a typical romantic comedy, a prime example of “chick lit”, just like hundreds of books I’d already read, but was always willing to give a try nonetheless. Mostly, I picked it up because a person whose taste in books I trust implicitly told me it was a must-read. Needless to say, she was absolutely right.

Along the lines of the inimitable Bridget Jones, Ms. Manning’s protagonist, Neve Slater, is an intelligent young woman who works at the London Literary Archives, but she’s also a highly insecure person. Since her teenage years, Neve had been teased mercilessly about her weight. Over the last three years, she has taken great pains to lose that weight, but she’s still not happy. For Neve, happiness means a size 10 dress and a happily-ever-after with her intellectual soulmate, William, a friend from university who currently lives in L.A, and will be returning in a few months. Neve is not only physically preparing herself for their reunion but, as a 25-year old virgin, she desperately needs some experience with relationships and romance as well. Thus, after a super bumpy start, she winds up in a “pancake relationship” with her sister’s boss and charismatic womanizer, Max.

To cut a long story short, Max and Neve fall in love, have issues they end up resolving, and readers of the genre can easily predict what happens when Wiliam returns. And still, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is a beautiful book I will read multiple times in the future. What makes it such a page-turner is the endearing way Ms. Manning has fleshed out Neve. From the start, her voice has an authenticity that I instantly related to. Even when it seemed like she was constantly cribbing about her size, her insecurities came across as real and her journey is one many women can identify with.

The manner in which Ms. Manning explored Neve’s world, showing how her issues affected not just every part of her life but also her thought process, and the change that came about in her as her relationship with Max progressed, was delightful yet plagued with the same issues a lot of feminist readers have with the genre of romance. Neve’s sense of happiness was constantly linked with the state of her relationship with Max. While their relationship is shown to progress in a very realistic manner, it was only when Neve was finally sure about her feelings with Max does she stop caring about how she looks. While that’s great for her, it still sends an incredibly problematic yet very common message. You don’t need a man to love you for who you are (as amazing as that is) to feel good about your body. You can be single and still live a happy life without constantly weighing and measuring yourself. That’s not a message this book succeeded in sending because it felt like if Max ever left the picture, Neve would just relapse.

Neve, when the story begins, is just another woman who was been body-shamed by society and its idolization of stick-figure beauty. Her insecurities persist despite having lost over 200 pounds because of the psychological trauma inflicted by her childhood bullies. The worst of the lot is now her sister-in-law, who lives downstairs and still terrorizes the hell out of Neve. An independent and well-educated woman, completely healthy for her size now,  Neve refused to see herself as “fit” or “healthy” or happy till she attained her goal of fitting into a particular dress size. And while this is a very common struggle, Ms. Manning paid scant attention to the body image issues of the other women in the book, like Neve’s younger sister Celia.

And despite the above-mentioned flaws, I really cannot stress how much I loved reading this book. I enjoyed the hilarity and realness of Neve’s narration and her blundering, romantic and utterly sweet relationship with Max. Of course, I love wicked, sexy, and surprisingly sensitive Max. I can’t remember his last name, but I fell hard for him. I feel like Ms. Manning could have told us a lot more about him, but whatever I read, I adored. Despite my problems with the trope, it was amazing to see him deal with Neve’s food issues and accept her for who she was, even at her worst moments. So while Neve’s self-image is linked to her love life, it is also glaringly evident that she has come a long way from the person she was, and like all of us, she has a long way to go.

Ms. Manning has written a compulsively relatable novel that kept me reading and laughing well into the night. Although the book tackled some very real issues, it was still a super-cute contemporary romance. I just wish there was an epilogue so I could read more. 🙂

Review: “THE DARK WITCH” (Cousins O’Dwyer Trilogy #1) by Nora Roberts

Dark Witch

County Mayo, 1263. Sorcha, the Dark Witch, is being relentlessly pursued for her power by the evil sorcerer, Cabhan. Her husband is off to war, and she’s home with her children: Brannaugh, Eamon, and Teagan. Each of her children has the gift of magick as well, and a special animal guide in their dog, hawk, and horse respectively. She’ll go to any length to protect and defend them, and the magick within her. But in order to vanquish Cabhan, she must harness both her power and that of her children. Sadly, in banishing Cabhan, Sorcha dies, and the legacy of the three who comprise the Dark Witch lives on, as does Cabhan, who will stop at nothing to steal their power.

County Mayo, 2013. Iona Sheehan has sold all of her belongings and left her beloved Nan and neglectful parents to move to Ireland and find her destiny. She’s hoping to meet and make a connection with her cousins, Connor and Branna O’Dwyer. She knows the story of Sorcha and of the magick that lives within her, but she has no idea how to harness it. But she’s hoping that in finding her cousins, they’ll complete the circle of the Dark Witch and she’ll be able to learn to control the power within her.

Of course, Iona’s coming to Ireland revitalizes Cabhan. He wants her power and immediately identifies her as the weak link of the three. Iona must scramble to catch up with her cousins, who have known of their power and how to handle it all their lives. Branna immediately invites Iona to come and live with her and Connor, and to begin training for their fight against Cabhan. Iona readily accepts and finds a job at the local stables working for a man named Boyle McGrath. She had always been an exceptional rider, partly due to her mental connection with horses, but she did not count on falling for her new boss.

The horse, big and beautiful at easily sixteen hands, tested his rider with the occasional buck and dance, and even with the distance, she could see the fierce gleam in his eyes. His smoke gray coat showed some sweat, though the morning stayed cool – and his ears stayed stubbornly back.

But the man, big and beautiful as well, had his measure. Iona heard his voice, the challenge in it if not the words, as he kept the horse at a trot.

And something in her, just at the sounds of his voice, stirred. Nerves, excitement, she told herself, because the man held her happiness in his hands.

But as they drew closer, the stir grew to a flutter. Attraction struck her double blows – heart and belly as, oh, he really was as magnificent as the horse. And every single bit as appealing to her.

Of course, the horse, Alastair, is the modern incarnation of Iona’s guide for her quest. The connection between Boyle and Iona is every bit as strong. However, Boyle, aware of the impropriety of getting involved with someone he just hired, much less a witch, is reluctant to acknowledge their attraction. That being said, he can’t stop himself from sweeping her off her feet and into his arms. Oh well, he’s cranky about it. As the two of them fall for each other, Cabhan’s power grows and the cousins, along with their friends, must join together to again try to vanquish him before he steals the power of the Dark Witch.

It’s been a long time since I read this book for the first time. Paranormal romances are generally my least favourite subgenre, but this book had three things I’ve always loved: Nora Roberts, Ireland, and a strong cast. Her Born In and Sign of the Seven trilogies are some of my favourites, so this series was easy to fall for. The book sets up an interesting mythology by focussing the first three chapters on Sorcha and her battle against Cabhan, raising the stakes and investing the reader in the storyline. By the time we arrive in present-day Ireland, I found myself engrossed in the urgency of the fight to protect the Dark Witch’s power.

I really liked Iona and I’ve always been a fan of Ms. Roberts’ cranky heroes. However, their characterization doesn’t necessarily cover any new ground. That being said, the description of County Mayo is so vividly drawn that you can almost smell the peat moss burning. As always, the relationships between the friends, cousins, and (obviously potential) lovers is supremely entertaining. I also really enjoyed the fact then when Boyle and Iona hit a speed bump (and it’s a pretty legit one, for a change), they handle it in a mature and realistic manner. The final battle in the book is obviously just laying the groundwork for the next two books so I won’t hold that against the story.

To be honest, I’m not completely sure if I enjoyed this book because it was written by Nora Roberts, or because it was a really good. Either way, it got me out of my reviewing slump.


Reluctant Fundamentalist

When I was a third of the way through Mohsin Hamid’s second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the narrator, a young Pakistani man named Changez, tells the American stranger about how he first learned of the destruction of the World Trade Center. While on a business trip to Manila, he turned on the television in his room and saw the towers fall.

“I stared as one–and then the other–of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.”

The novel begins a few years after 9/11. Changez happens upon the American in Lahore, invites him to tea and tells him the story of his life in the months just before and after the attacks. That monologue is the substance of Hamid’s elegant and chilling little novel.

In 2001, as he explains, Changez was hardly a radical. Fresh out of Princeton, he was living in New York City and working as a financial analyst. He appears to have been something of an enigma until his reaction to the attacks–a sudden smile–pierces the shell. It seems to have come as a surprise even to himself, and while hardly endearing, it sets his tale in motion.

A less sophisticated author might have told a one-note story in which an immigrant’s experiences of discrimination and ignorance cause his alienation. But Hamid’s novel, while it contains a few such moments, is distinguished by its portrayal of Changez’s class aspirations and inner struggle. His resentment is at least in part self-loathing, directed at the American he’d been on his way to becoming. For to be an American, he declares, is to view the world in a certain way–a perspective he absorbed in his eagerness to join the country’s elite.

However, his indoctrination was never total. Starting with his job interview at Underwood Samson, a small firm that appraises businesses around the world, and a post-graduation trip to Greece with friends from Princeton, Changez maintains an outsider’s double perspective. One the trip he is smitten with Erica, one of the other travelers, but is also bothered by his rich friends’ profligate spending and the condescension with which they give orders to anyone they’ve paid for a service.

“I…found myself wondering by what quirk of human history my companions–many of whom I would have regarded as upstarts in my own country, so devoid of refinement were they–were in a position to conduct themselves in the world as though they were its ruling class.”

Yet even as he recognizes the foibles of that ruling class, Changez, who comes from a high-status but downwardly mobile family, also aspires to join it. Given his oft-mentioned phenomenal aptitude for his new job and a talent for winning over people, that goal seems all but guaranteed.

By the time he reaches Manila, where he is sent to appraise a recording business, Changez finds himself trying to assert his Americanness. Suddenly he is the one ordering around men his father’s age. Unnerved when a jeepney driver gives him a hostile look, Changez puzzles over its significance until he glances at one of his colleagues and feels his own hostility toward the other man’s “oblivious immersion” in his work.

So which is he, the ignorant master or the canny subaltern? And has he sacrificed his identity in pursuit of status? Changez has already begun to ask himself these questions when he sees the towers fall. And in the wake of the attacks, as tensions escalate between India and Pakistan, and the United States is meanwhile caught up in patriotic displays that strike Changez as a dangerous form of nostalgia, he loses interest in his work. Assigned to help appraise a publishing company in Valparaiso, Chile, he spends his time visiting Pablo Neruda’s house and lunching with the publisher, who compares Changez to a janissary–one of the Christian youths captured and then conscripted by the Ottomans, compelled to do battle against their own civilization.

And then there is the matter of Erica, who is friendly with Changez but mourning the death of her former boyfriend, Chris, from lung cancer. Changez is polite and formal; Erica is uninhibited, going topless, for instance, on a beach in Greece. The two become intimate, but she is haunted by Chris, and after 9/11 her sadness mysteriously turns pathological. She lands in an institution, then disappears.

This part of the story seems a bit too convenient–Erica’s obsession with the past engineered to dovetail with America’s nostalgia and with Changez’s yearning for a lost Lahore–while her disappearance neatly parallels his departure from America. (The protagonists’ names get no points for subtlety either.) Hamid, who himself attended Princeton and worked in corporate America, aptly captures the ethos and hypocrisies of the Ivy League meritocracy, but less so its individual members. Throughout the book, secondary characters are sketched rather than distinctively rendered.

We never learn the American man’s identity, yet Changez regularly interrupts the story to address him. Perhaps, it is suggested, he had been pursuing Changez, who has become a leader of anti-American protests. Apparently, the man is “on a mission“–and he may be carrying a weapon. While these interruptions came too frequently for my taste, they do lend the tale an Arabian Nights-style urgency: the end of the story may mean the death of the teller.

It seems that Hamid would have us understand the novel’s title ironically. We are prodded to question whether every critic of America in a Muslim-majority country should be labeled a fundamentalist, or whether the term more accurately describes the capitalists of the American upper class. Yet these queries seem less interesting than the novel itself, in which the fundamentalist, and potential assassin, may be sitting on either side of the table.


Review: Luck Be A Lady (Rules for the Reckless #4) by Meredith Duran

Luck Be A Lady

For a good story, an antagonist is important as a protagonist. In Lady Be Good, Meredith Duran made her heroine overcome a greedy crime lord uncle and a snooty boss lady before she got her HEA. In this next book, however, the characters are properly humanized and by the time I finished reading Luck Be A Lady, I was thoroughly enchanted by Mr. Nicholas O’Shea and Ms. Catherine Eversleigh.

Ms. Duran understood that Nick and Catherine might not make the most sympathetic of protagonists so the book starts off with prologues that show us why all that Catherine seems to care about is her family’s auction house and why Nick had to turn to a life of crime. The events of Luck Be A Lady are set in the immediate aftermath of Lady Be Good. Lilah and Christian are off on their honeymoon and Catherine still needs to find a way to save Eversleigh’s from the hands of her crook of a brother. While her father groomed her to take over after his death, his will mandated that she be married before she gets access to her share.  To that end, she turns to Nicholas O’Shea, portrayed here as a benevolent revolutionary who only wants the best for his people. Oh, and he also runs the biggest (illegal) gambling den in all of London.

I was very excited to read this story because I had never read a historical romance where neither the hero nor the heroine was a member of the aristocracy. Catherine proposes a marriage of convenience to the only man she thought could protect her from her asshole brother and still give her a free rein in running her business. She never had any aspirations to be a woman of leisure and is shown as treating her beauty as an inconvenience. Nick accepts her proposal because he has some issues with a local government functionary and he had been fascinated with Catherine ever since his niece had gone to work for her.

To ensure that the marriage can’t be challenged by Catherine’s brother, Ms. Duran writes a very innovative, hilarious and yet sensual “consummation” scene that was a highlight of the book. However, as the story progresses there is still a lot of “will they or won’t they” kind of sexual tension that builds up as Nick and Catherine get to know each other better. Catherine cuts a very sympathetic figure and I really admired her single-minded focus on her business and how she refused to bow to society’s expectations and become just a wife. Nick’s reformation is also very convincing. His past transgressions were watered down to justify his actions, but that was expected.

The ending was very satisfying, poignant yet hilarious, and left me asking questions like “Does a grand gesture count if you have to go point it out?” Nick and Catherine come out as an unlikely match that brought out the best in each other. The fact that neither paid any mind to their class gap or what society would say about it reminded me of Chuck and Blair (one of my all-time favourite couples) and Nick’s arc about going legit was also very reminiscent of Roarke (favourite hero EVER). The story did leave a couple of threads dangling loose and it’s times like these that I wish Ms. Duran would set her sequels in a more interconnected universe. I would love to know more about what happens next in Nick and Catherine’s story.

Luck Be A Lady was a fun, unconventional historical romance that will stay with me because of its innovative handling of the usual tropes of a marriage of convenience and redemption. Nick and Catherine push each other into becoming more fearless and still desirous of the ties that came with marriage in the Victorian age. If that isn’t true love, I don’t know what is. I’m hoping Ms Duran succumbs to the trend and writes them a worthy epilogue!

Review: ‘You Say It First’ (Happily Inc #1) by Susan Mallery

You Say It First

Famous sculptor Nick Mitchell decides to live with his brothers in Happily, Inc, “an entire town devoted to the destination wedding,” for a while before a huge international commission that he is confident he will get (He is a ‘Mitchell’, after all) will whisk him off to Dubai for two years. There, he decides to take up a temporary job with wedding planner Pallas Saunders. Little did he know that his first gig would be to bronze up and carry a palanquin for a ‘Roman-themed’ wedding.

Local girl and newly-minted owner of ‘Weddings in a Box,’ Pallas Saunders is struggling to figure which direction to take her life in after her old boss died and left his wedding planning business to her. The plan was to go to college and work in the bank with her mother. Eight years later, Pallas is armed with a degree in finance but no real desire to follow in her mother’s footsteps. When the sexy and thoughtful Nick focusses his charms her way, she is bewildered by what she feels for a man she has done nothing for.

While Nick and Pallas fall into an easy relationship, both of them come into it with a lot of baggage. Growing with a disapproving mother was very hard for Pallas, who could never understand why she had to earn her only parent’s love. That hole is filled by her circle of supportive friends, who will obviously be protagonists in subsequent books, and her family. Nick grew up in the shadow of a famous and abusive father, which made him swear off passion because he does not “want to destroy someone or be destroyed.” He likes Pallas well enough, but he is sure that there can never be anything long-term for him here. When Nick and Pallas receive some unexpected news that forces them to re-evaluate their long-held beliefs, will they have the courage to make it or not?

From what I gather, Ms. Mallery’s new series is linked to her Fool’s Gold series. However, since I haven’t gotten around to reading those yet, I am sure I missed out on the pleasure that longtime fans will get from the characters that recur. While this book has a lot of elements of contemporary romance, for me it veered more into the “women’s fiction” or “chick lit” genres. Nick and Pallas’s romance, while sweet, was nothing memorable. The best plot development happens when the protagonists are with their friends and family. It was the joy to see the group come together for Pallas every time she had a big event, giving me serious Bride Quartet (Nora Roberts) vibes. Since this is my first Susan Mallery, I can only imagine how she managed to lay out a convincing love story while simultaneously sowing the seeds for another 3-4 books, at least. For me, the best part of the book was watching Pallas become a confident woman who could take on the world with a new kickass business and the hunky Nick by her side.

Though a shaky start to the series, I will definitely read the rest of the books in the Happily Inc universe to see how all the characters I learned of in You Say It First end up.

I was provided an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.


Review: ‘Lady Be Good’ (Rules for the Reckless #3) by Meredith Duran

Lady Be Good

Even though I absolutely adored the last Meredith Duran book I read, my experience with her writing has been pretty erratic to date. Still, I had my finger crossed when I read Lady Be Good and, luckily, I wasn’t disappointed.

London, 1882. Lily Monroe is a precocious thief working for her uncle in return for her sister Fiona’s medical treatment. While she is used to a life of hard knocks and dangerous encounters, she is not prepared for her only sibling’s untimely death. Meanwhile, Major Christian “Kit” Stratton is being tortured by a Russian madman somewhere in the Hindu Kush mountains. The Russian, Bolkhov, blames Kit and his men for the deaths of his family (read: captors he raped and impregnated) and vows to exact revenge by killing everyone Kit holds dear.

The story then takes a four-year leap. Back in London, Christian, now a viscount after the sudden deaths of his father (riding accident) and elder brother (house fire), is a celebrated war hero. Suspecting foul play, he is determined to save the lives of his mother and sister from a megalomaniacal Bolkhov. Christian meets Lily, now calling herself Lilah, at Everleigh’s Auction House. Now a ‘hostess’, Lily gets caught by him as she attempts to steal Peter Everleigh’s correspondence as a last favor for her Godfather/Robin Hood uncle. Instead of ratting her out, Christian decides to use Lily to get to Catherine Everleigh, the beauty co-owner of Everleigh’s who has had contact with a mysterious Russian antique dealer that Christian suspects to be Bolkhov. He blackmails Lily into spying on Catherine, telling her that he just wants help in wooing the icy proprietress. In return, he insists that he will return Peter Everleigh’s letters to Lily when her job is done.

Lily has been trying to fulfill her sister’s dream of living a respectable life. She was living on the straight and narrow when her uncle threatened to expose her sordid past to her new employers if she didn’t steal the letters. Now, she is being blackmailed by two men, and in order to pay the first, she has no choice but to obey the second.

The story then shifts to a country estate that Christian has inherited from a distant cousin. After some expert maneuvering, he has made sure that Catherine, and not her brother, will accompany him to the property to assess the valuables in the house for an auction. Lily is forced to be her assistant-cum-chaperone. Though she hates the fact that she is being blackmailed by Christian, the new job is an opportunity for Lily to learn from Catherine and maybe move up in the world. Unfortunately, Catherine Everleigh is too sharp and exacting in life, making both of Lily’s jobs difficult.

In the meanwhile, Christian and Lily are attracted to each other despite the many reasons they shouldn’t be. For all their differences, they have both lost an older sibling and in some ways are living the lives those people were meant to lead. Christian has no desire to be a peer of the realm; Fiona dreamed of becoming an Everleigh hostess while Lily trained as a typist.

There is nothing stellar about Lady Be Good. As with most Meredith Duran books, its strength lies in its execution, through strong prose and extensive characterization, leading Christian and Lily to emerge as more than stereotypes. Sure, he’s ruthless, but Christian is also deeply conflicted. He feels like he’s playing a role–‘the hero of Bekhole’ to an adoring British public–but it’s not really him. He was once the carefree spare heir, then the disciplined military man, but neither of these labels fit him anymore. As for Lily, she has tried really tried to shake off her past, but not without regret. Her cunning uncle and her other friends and family from the London underworld make her feel ashamed of wanting to be something different, someone more respectable. And she can never quite the lose the fear that one day the truth about her past will come out and her carefully constructed new world will come crashing down.

Lily and Christian’s relationship develops slowly and gradually–from intrigue and attraction to respect and liking and then to love. There were times when I felt that the characters could have overcome the mental constraints imposed on them by their antiquated time period. Also, Bolkhov was woefully underdeveloped as a villain. He maintains a menacing background presence for most of the book, but the actual confrontation with him was rather anti-climactic.

Lastly, Lady Be Good left me very eager to start its sequel Luck Be A Lady, which pairs Lily’s uncle Nick O’Shea with Miss Catherine Everleigh. It will be interesting to see how Ms. Duran manages to redeem him. (Catherine’s a piece of work, too, but she softens considerably in this book.) Another fun read by Meredith Duran.