Review: “The City of Mirrors” (The Passage #3) by Justin Cronin

City of Mirrors

The night is ours again. The vampire apocalypse is finally over. And I apologise in advance for all the lame vampire jokes I’m about to crack.

As survivors know, the bloodletting started in 2010 with The Passage, an engorged thriller by Justin Cronin. A graduate of Harvard and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Cronin had published a couple of literary novels before going to the dark side and selling his projected vampire trilogy for over $3.5 million. Fox 2000 landed the first book — then half-written — for $1.75 million for Scott Free to produce. Originally developed as a feature, the producers eventually determined that the property would be better served as a TV series. Sophisticates may have sucked their fangs, but how electrifying it felt to have a fine writer spread his wings and swoop into this garlic-breath genre. With its blood-slick pacing and sympathetic heroes, The Passage was a killer antidote to the CrossFit vampires colonizing the twilight.

Yes, it’s true: Cronin’s story of a bat virus that destroys human civilization got a bit bogged down in the second volume, The Twelve. But those of us hypnotized by this tale were eagerly awaiting the finale. In The City of Mirrors, we finally find out what happens to the remnant of humanity that survived those decades of terror.

But beware all who enter. This is very much a sequel for the twice-bitten. The uninfected reader will wander around these dark passages entirely lost. The City of Mirrors opens a few years after the cataclysmic confrontation that ended The Twelve. So far as anyone can tell, the vampires were all destroyed. Our modest warrior-hero Peter Jaxon eventually assumes the presidency of a bustling settlement of a hundred thousand souls in Texas. There are now substantial settlements of beleaguered humans, and the real crisis is not shooting a “smoke” or “drac” or “flyer” in the chest, but creating a feasible tax regime. “People had begun to openly talk about moving outside the wall,” Cronin writes. “The age of the viral was over; humankind was finally on the upswing. A continent stood for the taking.”

The epic climax turns out to be bathetic, though the flashback to Patient Zero’s former life as Timothy Fanning is actually rather good. An inset novella, it tells of being a middle-class boy in a prestigious university, beguiled by wealth and crippled by self-doubt. In the intervening century, he’s devolved into some kind of vampiric Miss Havisham, determined to make the whole world pay for his broken heart. Fortunately, one of the emotionally wounded characters from the previous book has found a massive freighter in the Gulf of Mexico. He’s determined to turn it into a latter-day Noah’s Ark — an insurance policy just in case the vamps come leaping back.

The trilogy exemplifies Anthropocene masochism. When humanity has irreversibly changed the nature of the environment, the environment bites back – literally, in this case. Humanity’s ubiquity conjures fantasies of its own extinction. What survives of us is not, despite the book’s sentimentality, love; but bureaucracy. Throughout the trilogy, the central concerns are planning, management, pragmatism and resource allocation.

The Passage focused on the response to the cataclysm and the strict government of the survivors (for example, children are not allowed to know about the disaster until a certain age). The Twelve was less concerned with the serial killer vampires – most of whom were never even fleshed out – than with the totalitarian regime in Iowa that collaborated with them. The City of Mirrors is more thrilling when dealing with the relationship between the black market and the official economy than the boo-hooing of the principal villain. Even the vampires have to deal with a diminishing food supply and the results of their over-plundering. The monster in the first book tried factory farming humans; the Iowan quislings were very keen on biofuels in the second book, and now Zero himself embarks on a proactive rewilding strategy. In the earlier books, the walled townships could be seen as a prophetic parody of Donald Trump’s isolationism. The third book has everyone except the Americans dead, and they are thus charged with making humanity great again. Zero has a great affection for the poetry of T.S. Eliot and Hamlet; the courageous pioneers think Moby-Dick is too difficult, wondering if it is even written in English. The future is delightfully philistine.

Cronin picks open the wound with a few unnerving disappearances, but then once the lights go out, he launches breathtaking Homeric battles between viral hordes and soft-bellied humans. Back in New York, the conflict soars from one abandoned skyscraper to another — a spectacular clash that looks ready-made for Ridley Scott. And he’s even more frightening in crowded, locked rooms where sweaty survivors listen to the vamps sniffing under the door. The lucky ones are eaten alive; the others become blood brothers of the nastiest sort.

It’s all deliciously exciting — right up until the epilogue, which zooms ahead 900 years to a world that seems as alien as last Thursday. Inexplicably, the passing of a millennium and the murder of 7 billion people have given birth to a new civilization pretty much like ours. “History teaches us that there are no guarantees,” drones some professor at an academic conference around the year 3000. “We ignore the lessons of the Great Catastrophe at our peril,” he says, which suggests that platitudes, like cockroaches, will survive us all.

What good is immortality, Count Dracula might wonder, if the distant future is so deadeningly familiar?

Review: “A Way Back Into Love” by Veronica Thatcher

Way Back Into Love

I don’t have any particularly strong feelings on plagiarism. I’m from India. Some of our most famous songs and movies have been directly “inspired” from the works of others, to the extent that we just change the names of the characters and the setting to something that is “Indian” and release it. While it is true that it is insanely difficult to be truly original when it comes to artistic endeavours, creators should be aware of the thin line that divides an homage from a rip-off. Sadly, Ms Thatcher, a debut author, and an evident Grey’s Anatomy superfan, was unable to do so in her book, A Way Back Into Love.

Emily Stevens and Derek Thorpe (yes, Derek) have been best friends since childhood and it is blindingly obvious to the reader that they are both madly in love with each other. Of course, neither is sure of the other’s feelings even though they have no trouble in understanding every other innermost desire of their friend. After a drunken night and a busload of misunderstandings, Emily leaves California for Boston, heartbroken. Five years later, she returns to do her internship at the hospital where her parents are big-shots, carve an identity of her own and face Derek again. Derek, in the meantime, is engaged to Emily’s bitchy half-sister, Emma, and there seems to be no love lost between them. The big question is: Will Emily and Derek find their way back into love with each other?

To clarify, I don’t think it’s wrong at all to want the characters you create to resemble the characters you love. Hell, if I ever publish a book, I will strive to ensure that my hero is a mixture of Fitzwilliam Darcy, Rhett Butler, Chuck Bass and any Nora Roberts male protagonist. But when the similarities also extend to the family structure (Derek grew up in all-female household), the backstory (Emily’s mother is an accomplished surgeon but a cold mother), the secondary characters (Renee resembling Cristina and the nerdy guy contracting syphilis from a nurse) and an instance where Derek’s womanizing best friend, Carter, is accidentally referred to as Mark, it all becomes a bit too much. In addition, I found the banter between the protagonists very juvenile considering the fact they are surgical interns. The shifting POVs in the midst of the plot and the unconventional story structure that seemed to go on and on after what I thought should have been the Happily Ever After made this a very difficult read for me to like.

I would like to end my post by saying that I don’t hate the book. Despite its many shortcomings, I saw some potential in Ms Thatcher’s writing, especially in the moments when Derek and Emily are finding their way back to each other. I wish her all the best for her future.

I was provided a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The views expressed are personal and not meant to be derogatory in any respect.

Review: “The Paris Wife” by Paula McLain

Paris Wife

The story of The Paris Wife is familiar to anyone who knows A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir of “how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy“. Feast was written some 30 years after Hemingway left Hadley for her friend Pauline Pfeiffer, who would become the second of his four wives. McLain retells Feast from Hadley’s perspective, in the tradition of novels such as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, giving voice to a pivotal and yet comparatively silent woman from a classic book. The difference between the two is that the action here is largely seen through Hadley’s eyes; the domestic takes precedence and there are more emotions and exposition than Papa would permit.

Hadley Richardson is 28 when she first meets the glamorous young war hero at a party. Wholesome, a little old-fashioned, she’s resigned to a spinsterish existence, living unmarried and unemployed in the upper floor of her sister’s house. Despite the cobwebs she is, as Ernest quickly spots, “a good clear sort“, and so he marries her and whisks her from St Louis to the whirlwind of 1920s Paris, in part because it was comparatively cheap for expatriates just after the First World War. The young Hemingways were soon befriended by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Ezra Pound and Dorothy Shakespear, James Joyce, and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Modernism was taking flight: in February 1922 Sylvia Beach would publish Joyce’s Ulysses, and in December 1922 T.S. Eliot and Pound published The Waste Land. Hemingway absorbed it all.

Even stripped to the core, the story possesses a classically tragic arc, and it’s not hard to see its appeal to a novelist bent on re-fleshing bare bones. Ernest and Hadley – Tatie, as they call each other – begin their expat life in a flush of love. He writes, she cooks, and they drink away the evenings “until we were beautifully blurred and happy to be there together“. The first ripple of disharmony comes when Hadley decides to bring all Ernest’s manuscripts – three years of work, copies included – with her in a valise to a rendezvous in Switzerland. Of course, the case is lost, and the disaster exposes a fault line between the pair that’s only further strained when Hadley discovers she’s pregnant.

McLain atmospherically evokes the garret apartments in which they lived; the notorious trip to Lausanne during which Hadley lost all of Hemingway’s drafts; the outings to the Paris races, skiing in Austria and bullfighting in Pamplona – the trips that would inspire The Sun Also Rises. It was an era of “open” marriages, although the openness was often one-sided, as McLain pointedly shows male artists such as Pound, Ford and, eventually, Hemingway, trying (often successfully) to install their mistresses in the same home as their wives. McLain resists the facile idea that such ménages were a jolly party in the first era of free love: as Hadley gradually becomes aware that Hemingway might be unfaithful, first with Lady Duff Twysden, the inspiration for Brett Ashley, and later, much more seriously, with her friend Pauline, she must decide how “modern” she’s prepared to be.

Hadley is a deeply touching character, dignified even as she loses almost everything she’s loved, and making her goodness both convincing and interesting is an impressive feat. McLain captures Hemingway’s legendary charisma and his fatal tendencies toward bullying and boastfulness. She also manages to evoke his hypnotic, infectious cadences in her own prose without straying into parody: Hadley remembers “The wine and the sunshine and the warm stones under our feet. He wanted everything there was to have, and more than that.” Some might wish McLain had given Hadley a voice more distinct from the highly stylised prose of Feast – but for anyone steeped in that book its idiom is an undeniably effective way of making the story feel good and simple and true.

McLain writes with vivid, memorable touches: the pregnant Hadley, game to the last, sewing baby blankets between bullfights; Hemingway declaring that Pound can’t be “the devil”, because “I’ve met the devil . . . and he doesn’t give a damn about art“. Fitzgerald assures Hadley the first time they meet that he’ll write something new if she will “promise to admire every word extravagantly“; McLain has a similarly good ear for Zelda’s famously imagistic language, having her describe a flapper as “decorative and unfathomable and all made of silver“. The Paris Wife sings with such pitch-perfect renderings of famous voices, grounded in a tale made all the more poignant for our knowledge of how sad all the young men and women will turn out to be, how the bright young things will tarnish and disintegrate. In drafts cut from the first edition of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway explains: “This is about the first part of Paris . . . That Paris you could never put into a single book.” Maybe not – but Paula McLain has come impressively close.

Review: “Big Little Lies” by Liane Moriarty

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When I picked up my first Liane Moriarty at an airport a couple of years ago, I had to choose between an exploding rose and an exploding lollipop. From what little I could gather from the cover, The Husband’s Secret, my alternative, was about women with ethical and emotional issues, men with possibly criminal ones, and contentious goings-on at a school. If you’ve read Big Little Lies, or seen the Reese Witherspoon-Nicole Kidman-Shailene Woodley drama now on HBO, you’ll know it has more of the same.

I have always found Ms. Moriarty’s books to be long and gossipy as if she’s using stalling as a literary device. She introduces several sets of major characters, cutting back and forth among them, and scatters the narrative with foreshadowing about the terrible, terrible night — on which something terrible happened. The book is peppered with parents’ voices commenting cryptically and amusingly about whatever it was. Was the root cause a French nanny? An erotic book club? Head lice? Seeing how its predecessor was a #1 New York Times bestseller, Ms. Moriarty seems assured that her readers will happily plow through countless minor incidents to find out.

After a calamity has been established, we jump back to a chapter called “Six Months Before the Trivia Night.” And the book establishes what a power-crazed group parents of kindergarteners can be. The book is set on a scenic peninsula outside Sydney, Australia, near a beautiful beach, where there is only one school, which must accommodate children of very different backgrounds. So there are rich, bossy power moms and mousy stay-at-home types. One of the mice is the literally plain Jane, a single mother trying to make ends meet. New to the area, she gets into trouble before school has even started. At the end of orientation day, a hotshot mother with a high-powered job accuses Jane’s son, Ziggy, of having tried to hurt her daughter. Ziggy becomes a pariah, and Jane becomes a victim.

Two other moms come to Jane’s rescue. One is Celeste, who is impossibly perfect and beautiful — impossibly because, in Ms. Moriarty’s literary universe, everybody is hiding something awful. The other is Madeline Martha Mackenzie, for whom the wearing of spike heels is a main character trait and who tends to get outraged at the drop of a hat. Despite her apparent bubbly nature, Madeline was abandoned by a husband who now has a New Age-y wife and a young daughter who is in the same class with Madeline’s daughter with her second husband. And on and on it goes.

As the book proceeds and the schadenfreude kicks in, we discover just how secretly miserable these women are. Suffice it to say that bullying and cruelty were major themes throughout, with some well-researched parts about domestic violence thrown in. As for the question of whether Ziggy, who turns out to be the product of a one-night stand, really is a vicious boy at heart, the book traces a long strand of DNA right into one of the other kindergarten families.

Ms. Moriarty writes all this in an easy, girlfriend-y style that occasionally sounds flat. And a low-level bitchiness thrums throughout the narrative, becoming one of its indispensable pleasures. The witnesses’ descriptions of whatever happened are usually comically distorted, as in a game of telephone, so that everyone’s understanding of what happened at Trivia Night is at best half-wrong. The Australian busybody is a type very much in evidence here, and if there’s one trait all the mothers share, it’s wanting to bad-mouth all the other ones.

Ms. Moriarty also sends up the kinds of crises that rise to epic proportions in the hothouse of a contentious kindergarten. Woe betide the mother who loses Harry the Hippo, the official class toy. Here’s what she gets for trying to make reparations: “That cheap synthetic toy she replaced it with smelled just terrible. Made in China. The hippo’s face wasn’t even friendly.” Then there are the opposing forces that face off over a petition to ban birthday cupcakes. (“It’s so adversarial. Why can’t you just make a suggestion?”) But by the time the teacher insists that the kids make posters illustrating their family trees, real harm is being done over a supposedly innocent matter. Ziggy doesn’t even know his father’s name. And all hell will break loose if Jane reveals it.

The ferocity that Ms. Moriarty brings to scenes of masculine sadism really is shocking. A seemingly fluffy book suddenly touches base with vicious reality, in ways that gives Big Little Lies a definite edge over her earlier works. She’s done her homework well in describing the uh-oh moments, the tiny slights, the faint changes in the atmosphere around a charming, loving Dr. Jekyll who is about to turn into Mr. Hyde, and the battered woman who has learned to live with this and make excuses for it. Big Little Lies isn’t likely to attract much of a male readership, aside from the demographic of guys who enjoy being demonized. But it champions its women with a handy, all-purpose rationale: Sometimes doing the wrong thing is also right.

Review: “A Window Opens” by Elisabeth Egan

a-window-opens

There was this article in The New York Times a couple of years ago about Amazon, which sparked a larger debate about work culture at tech companies, that kept flashing in my head as I read Elisabeth Egan’s A Window Opens. Although the debut novelist sends her protagonist to work at a company called Scroll, the similarities between the two retail giants are fairly obvious. Both start off selling books and quickly expand to include anything a customer might want. Both make use of computer-generated data for a laser-like focus on commercial success. And both, apparently–if the Times report is to be believed–expect nothing less than complete, servile allegiance from their employees.

As A Window Opens begins, Alice is a part-time books columnist and a full-time mother of three. A New Jersey suburbanite, she enjoys spending time with her best friend, who owns an independent bookstore, her lawyer husband, and their extended family. The only disruption in her merry life is her father’s cancer, which has robbed him of his voice but appears to be in remission. All that changes when her husband’s career goes off the rails, and Alice is forced to seek a full-time job.

At first, the position at Scroll sounds ideal. Although Alice doesn’t understand much of the jargon of her new workplace, she is thrilled to be “Content Manager-slash-Industry Liaison,” or, as she is told by her chummy supervisor Genevieve, “an arbiter of impeccable taste,” collecting titles to sell in upscale Scroll “lounges.” She learns to call printed books “carbon based” and to mouth tenets like “we don’t sell merchandise, we sell the future.”

Although the job quickly becomes more than full-time and Alice misses “the kindergarten ice cream social, the first day of school, a PTA meeting,” she is content. Only just as Alice is almost accustomed to both the new grind and the loss of family time, her father’s health takes a turn for the worse. And then her bosses begin to ask for more, pushing Alice into a new position that targets her sensitivities both as a longtime bibliophile and as a mother.

That’s where Ms Egan, currently the books editor at Glamour magazine after a brief stint at Amazon Publishing, falters. Although the “pivot,” to use a Scroll word, isn’t that far-fetched, it is one step too far. It’s all a little too perfectly horrid, just as Genevieve is a little too duplicitous, bonding with Alice over House Hunters before firing off denigrating emails to Alice’s work account.

Likewise, her colleagues–all younger and apparently childless–are a little too clueless. Not one seems to have any understanding of how cancer affects a family, as if illness were only confined to the over-35 crowd, and when, on a visit to corporate headquarters, Alice overhears the line “What can I say? She’s a mom,” she recognizes it as an insult.

 With its sharp, perceptive humour, this novel plays like The Devil Wears Prada for the online giant, poking fun at the kind of ridiculous situations that anyone who has worked with a start-up will recognize. But A Window Opens lacks The Devil Wears Prada‘s moment of realization–that is, any revelation about the awful boss’s humanity. While we do get to see the toll of the stress on Genevieve–“her nails were dull, bitten to the quick. There was a greenish cast to her skin“–we never learn what motivated her. Without more understanding of how she became the “befriend then berate” leader who so disappointed Alice, Genevieve remains one-dimensional, as do too many of the supporting characters in this book.

Ms Egan obviously tapped into the zeitgeist with her debut, capturing not only the craziness of an Amazon-like company but also the debate over the “Lean In” philosophy that would have women, even mothers of three, commit to their jobs at any cost. She does so with wit, weaving the family stories into the workplace saga. But at almost-400 pages, A Window Opens is a little too long for what is simply a humourous, topical novel. The Scroll jargon must have been great fun to write, but replacing some of that with more fully realized characters would have made this book better.

Exposed in Darkness (In Darkness #1) by Heather Sunseri

exposed-in-darkness

I am a Nora Roberts superfan. I have read and reread every one of her books and the woman redefined the genre of romance for me, whether it was between vampires and witches, or a super badass cop with a charming Irish billionaire. Right after I finished her latest, Echoes In Death,  I was left wanting more. Thankfully, I had a copy of Heather Sunseri’s foray into romantic suspense, Exposed in Darkness, and I am so happy to have found a new favourite author in the genre.

Brooke Fairfax left the FBI after the tragic death of her husband in an op that went south. Overpowered by grief and guilt, she cut off all ties with the Bureau until a message from her Confidential Human Source (CHS), Romeo, shows her the poisoning of Kentucky’s Lt. Governor. Believing the Governor, her ex-brother-in-law, to be the actual target, Brooke heads to Lexington to stop the threat.

Suspect number one: Declan O’Roark. Charming Irish billionaire with a passion for great bourbon and thoroughbreds. Despite being pursued by the feds, all Declan wants is to unravel the mystery that is Brooke and take away the pain she seems determined not to share with anyone. When a second attack results in the death of another innocent man, Declan and Brooke race to figure out who the mastermind is and how to stop him from committing an act of terrorism at the Bluegrass Derby.

At first glance, there are an awful lot of similarities between the iconic In Death series by Nora Roberts writing as J.D. Robb and Ms Sunseri’s new In Darkness series. But what sets this book apart is Ms Sunseri’s strong and complex sense of storytelling. Unlike Robb, Ms Sunseri gives us a peek into Declan’s mind and I loved it.  The location and history of the small Kentucky town truly make it a character of its own. The characters are motivated by a complicated web of culture, political, and socio-economic factors. In other words, Exposed in Darkness is both timely and realistic.

There is a really interesting climax scene that juxtaposes the Derby race with the final threat. While I found the big reveal to be slightly predictable, there were a lot of questions left unanswered and I, for one, am eagerly waiting for Ms Sunseri’s next book in the series. I would recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of the romantic suspense genre but especially to my fellow In Death superfans.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review: “Blue-Eyed Devil” (Travises #2) by Lisa Kleypas

blue-eyed-devil

Haven Travis thought she was in love. Not even a passionate makeout session with a stranger in the wine cellar at her brother’s wedding could stop her from marrying Nick Tanner, the boyfriend her overprotective family strongly disapproved of. Two years later, after having endured the worst kind of hell in her abusive marriage, Haven returns to Houston to rebuild her life. As she tries to work in her brother’s property management company, start therapy and get a divorce, Haven runs right into Hardy Cates, her sister-in-law’s trailer park teenage crush and now a wealthy Houston oil tycoon. Her body still recovering from Nick’s last beating, Haven is still drawn to Hardy, just as she was when she kissed him two years ago.

Hardy, intent on pursuing Haven, has no idea about the trauma she has suffered. In fact, he still sees her as a spoiled college girl whose apparent liberalism was more intellectual snobbery than authentic sentiment. So when Haven tends to act a bit standoffish in response to his assertive, even aggressive pursuit, Hardy isn’t sure she’s merely skittish or a tease, and he tries even harder to win her over, purchasing a condo in the Travis building where Haven works, buying her a gift that brings back memories of Haven’s childhood, and inviting her to a dance with him in front of her family, who see him as a no good, lying jerk who will take advantage of Haven if given half a chance.

One complaint that I have with some romance novels is how some heroines who are recovering from abusive relationships somehow subconsciously recognize the hero as “safe” and have little to no compunction about jumping into a relationship–and in bed–with him. What I liked about Blue-Eyed Devil the most is that it did not follow this cliched path. From Sugar Daddy, we know that Hardy has a dark past, and Haven, who had no sexual experience before Nick, was at a double disadvantage, leading to some scenes where there is a realistic sense of conflict between the protagonists, showcasing their vulnerabilities. Hardy has his own demons from his trailer-park childhood, which makes his attraction to Haven very believable in a way that it wasn’t with Liberty, in the same way that Haven’s attraction to a man who reminds her of her approval-withholding father seems kind of logical. For many readers, this kind of psychological layering makes Blue-Eyed Devil an “issue book,” but for me, it’s really a book about people who have issues that make them good for each other but in ways that are really complicated and not instantly negotiable.

Still, the story is a romance at heart, and there is a certain amount of tension between the way the book tries to show Haven’s emotional journey in an authentic way and the almost fairy tale level of happiness we know Haven and Hardy will ultimately enjoy. On the one hand, I was really moved by Hardy’s reaction when he finally learns about Haven’s past and starts putting all the mixed signals in order. On the other hand, it is obvious that the scene was set up to push Hardy and Haven into physical intimacy so that their romance arc could progress. So, while we see Haven struggling to move forward from her abuse by dealing with a sociopathic boss and freaking out about Hardy in therapy, there is also a sense of her recovery being rushed so that Haven can have a healthy romantic relationship as soon as possible.

Plus, it’s not like Hardy is without his flaws, even though we know that he is supposed to be The One for Haven.But his missteps give his character some much-needed depth and let us see that this is a man who understands how vicious families can be, especially when he has his own self-destructive streak to manage. In Sugar Daddy, he was shown to be ruthless, selfish and willing to betray a trust to get what he wanted. But by Blue-Eyed Devil, we are supposed to be able to trust him as an appropriate partner for a largely fragile Haven, which means we have to believe he is fundamentally a decent guy. It might not be a problem for people who haven’t read  Sugar Daddy, but to me, his rehabilitation seemed quite artificial. It was a lot more believable to see what Haven gives to Hardy than to see Hardy as the guy who “saves” Haven.

In the end, though, Blue-Eyed Devil is as misleading a title for what was mainly Haven’s story as Sugar Daddy was for Liberty’s story. It’s not that the romance was an unimportant or peripheral aspect, or that the men were forgettable characters, but that the plot had a lot more substance by being about a woman’s journey to being able to trust and accept herself again. Overall, it was an engaging, emotionally fulfilling and psychologically satisfying read despite its many flaws and inconsistencies.

Review: “Do You Want to Start A Scandal?” (Castles Ever After #4) (Spindle Cove #5) by Tessa Dare

do-you-want-to-start-a-scandal

Tessa Dare has a special place in my heart. Her book, Romancing The Duke, was the novel that got me back to reading historical romances. Its sequel, Say Yes to the Marquess, gave me one of my favourite couples. And When A Scot Ties the Knot, while not as good as the first two, was an enjoyable read I loved because it was right in the middle of my Outlander phase. Do You Want to Start A Scandal is a crossover between Ms Dare’s Spindle Cove and Castles Ever After series, bringing together Rafe’s brother, Piers Brandon, and Charlotte, the last unmarried Highwood sister.

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It starts with the best of intentions. Charlotte Highwood has been labeled the “Desperate Debutante” by the tabloids because of her Mrs Bennet-on-PCP mother who literally keeps flinging her at eligible suitors. At a house party to convince her friend Delia Parkhurst’s parents to permit them to go to Europe before they both become well-married, bored-out-of-their-brains ladies of the ton, Charlotte sneaks into the library to “save” Piers by warning him to stay out of her way. However, her plans go up in flames when she and Lord Granville have to hide behind a curtain in a ‘compromising position’ so as to not be discovered by another couple who enter the room to have a tryst on the desk. Outed by their hosts’ ghoulish son to her overeager mother, Charlotte ends up exactly where she didn’t want to be: forced into a betrothal with a man she doesn’t love.

“I can’t agree to a convenient arrangement, my lord. Your devotion to duty may be admirable, but ‘lie back and think of England’ simply isn’t for me.”

His voice became low and dark. “I cannot promise you everything you might wish, but I promise you this: When I take you to bed, you will not be thinking of England.”

Piers Brandon had hoped to keep a low profile at the house party. A well-traveled diplomat (read: spy, obviously), he did not expect to be distracted from his mission by an outspoken chit. Having spent his life controlling his surroundings to forget his family’s troubled past, the last thing he wanted was any emotional entanglement. And that is exactly what Miss Highwood will be. However, Piers cannot seem to stop himself from continually seeking out Charlotte or putting them in situations that could further ruin her reputation. The easiest thing to do would be to find out who started the whole fiasco and make them fess up. But Piers isn’t so sure he can walk away from the golden-haired beauty or imagine a life without her laughter and charming ways.

“What’s your plan…?” she whispered. “Do you mean to kiss me so long and so hard that I’ll forget your identity?”
“No.” His hand slid to the back of her head, tangling in her hair–so tightly she gasped. “I mean to kiss you so long and so hard that you’ll forget yours.”

Since the hero’s a spy, the story has the requisite lock-picking, dangling from windows, mysterious fires being set, poison, and even more mystery solving. Actually, most of that is done by Charlotte, not Piers, which drives him up a wall. Piers may be the worldly one, but Charlotte has so much more emotional maturity. She knows what she wants for her future. She doesn’t want to settle; not for a loveless marriage, even if it is with a man above her station. And as she grows to care for Piers, she wants more for him as well.

She unsettled him; he anchored her. Together, they could be more than they were apart.

Their romance is so lovely and sensual. I loved every single thing about it. It builds slowly and believably while they are embroiled in the search for the couple actually in the library having sex. The more time they spend together the more they want each other. The more they want each other, the deeper they fall in love. Piers is sigh-worthy, Charlotte is so fierce and kind and loving. Together they are sure to have fans of this genre squealing in excitement and swooning from the love overload.

For all the fun and froth, though, there are some very well-realised moments of deeper emotion in the story.  I particularly enjoyed the scene when Charlotte comes to a fuller appreciation of what her mother’s life has been, which is poignant and nicely understated.

Although the book fits into two different series, it’s not absolutely necessary to have read either of those in order to enjoy it as it works perfectly well as a standalone.  Charming, sexy, and often laugh-out-loud funny – seriously, I’ll never think of perfume or look at an aubergine in quite the same way again! – Do You Want to Start a Scandal? is just the ticket if you’re looking for a well-written, feel-good read.

Review: “Sugar Daddy” (Travises #1) by Lisa Kleypas

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I’ve never written a review of a romance novel I have such mixed feelings about. From what I gather, Lisa Kleypas is a legend in the ‘historical romance’ genre, and this is her first attempt at in the ‘contemporary’ genre so I’m willing to be a little forgiving. But there are several things in this book that made absolutely no sense to me.

When the story begins, Liberty Jones is a shy girl growing up in a trailer park in Welcome, Texas with her mother and the mother’s loser boyfriend. At this point, we’re told that Liberty’s father was Mexican and she has faced some backlash for not resembling her caucasian mother. Her mixed race heritage is brought up repeatedly throughout the book but never dealt with.

Liberty falls for bad boy Hardy Cates, who is driven by his desire to get the hell out of Welcome ASAP, even though he and Liberty have undeniable chemistry. She is heartbroken but her problems multiply thousandfold when her mother suddenly dies in a car accident and leaves her to take care of her 2-year old half-sister, Carrington. Why anyone would name a kid Carrington escapes me, but I’m going to chalk it down to a ‘Texan thing’ like the author has to excuse a lot of erratic behaviour by different people throughout the story.

At some point, I started to wonder why the series was called “Travises” considering nobody named Travis had appeared so far. But then we see Liberty move to Houston after she hustles for a couple of years and becomes a cosmetologist. Working at a top-notch salon, she meets old multimillionaire Churchill Travis, who takes a shine to her. She convinces him to get manicures and they become good friends. All this time, I’m really hoping that they don’t sleep together primarily because I’m still convinced Hardy is the hero of this tale. Liberty says he is The One enough times.

But, wait. Churchill breaks his leg and asks Liberty to become his live-in nurse. That’s when we meet Churchill’s disapproving oldest son, Gage Travis. He is the typical alpha male who charms the damsel by giving her a glimpse of his many, many flaws. He enters the story so late that for a while I was really doubtful if he was the hero. (His name’s not even mentioned in the blurb!) However, sparks fly and now Liberty and Gage enter into a romantic relationship and my dubious HEA seems within grasp.

With some 60-odd pages left in the story, Hardy reappears and Liberty’s reaction to him is so powerful, I am surprised he was not the one she ended up with. But then, there was a painfully bad industrial espionage scene and Liberty sees how Hardy has grown up to be a ruthless money-grubber. So she goes back to Gage, who was having her followed without her knowledge and who pins her down and has sex with her when she tells him that she needs a break from him. That she liked it and he apologized for it afterward, does not take away from the fact that it was rape and Gage is a stalker.

Romance is hands down my favourite genre. But justifying disturbing, violent and abusive behaviour in the name of love is not romantic. Stalking is not romantic. Sex with questionable consent is not romantic. A heartfelt apology after the fact is not a cure-all. I haven’t read any of Lisa Kleypas’ other books so I won’t make it personal, but I’d like to appeal to romance authors out there and say that love is one of the most powerful emotions a human being can experience, but it is meaningless without consent. Please keep that in mind.

The book has many other flaws and some redeeming chapters but since the aforementioned issue is so important, I will not be dealing with the rest in this post. Hopefully, Ms Kleypas’ other books are not this sickening.

P.S. If anyone figures out why, in the name of God, was this book titled Sugar Daddy, please let me know. Thanks.

Review: “The Solitude of Prime Numbers” by Paolo Giordano

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When I read The Solitude of Prime Numbers, I had no idea that it was originally published in Italy, had been translated into over 30 languages and had sold over a million copies. The few reviews I read before writing this post were nothing but complimentary, calling real-life particle physicist Giordano a literary genius and an incontrovertible  hottie.

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 At first glance, the novel seems to be a very conventional love story about two people who have been marked by tragedy in their childhood. When she was a plump little girl, Alice used to be forced by her domineering father into taking ski lessons. On one such freezing, very foggy morning, she manages to urinate and defecate into her ski suit, get lost in a fog and lose all sensation in one of her legs. Of course, that means Alice is justified in growing up seething with resentment, taking her revenge upon the world by becoming an extreme anorexic.

Meanwhile, her counterpart, Mattia, a little boy suffering from an undiagnosed variant of autism,  is growing up across town, imprisoned in a desperately lonely childhood largely because of his twin, Michela, who is developmentally disabled. Mattia’s clueless parents persist in sending both children to the same school, so Mattia never gets to play with his classmates and, above all, never gets invited to any birthday parties. When Mattia and Michela finally do get an invitation, Mattia ditches his sister in a public park right next to a turbulent river, telling her to wait a few hours until he comes back. Of course, little Michela is never heard from again. There’s nothing for Mattia to do but turn into a mathematical genius with a propensity to self-harm.

Flash forward to the traditionally harrowing high school years, Mattia and Alice go to the same school. Alice is being systematically tortured by the Italian version of Mean Girls, exacerbating her anorexia. Then the main tormentor orders Alice to find herself a boyfriend. Alice picks Mattia, who may be smart but is utterly lacking in social skills. They kiss at a party, and this experience, though it seems somewhat repugnant to them both, has the effect of making them soul mates for life.

While writing this, I keep thinking of those reviews which claimed that every reader of this novel will find small pieces of themselves in it. What particular small piece would that be? Alice spends the next 15 years or so sulking in her room, blaming her oaf of a father for her loneliness and depression. When she finally does get a job, it’s a transparent plot setup for Alice to punish her high school tormentor. She finally marries a nice-enough man who wants nothing more than to have a normal life with some children in it, but Alice’s concave belly is far more dear to her than any hypothetical kid. Her husband is intelligent enough to recognise “Alice’s profound suffering,” but obviously not close enough to help her battle her condition.

Things haven’t been going well for Mattia either. He’s grown up to be a mathematical genius, but when he gets an offer from a foreign university to take a prestigious research position, even his own mother isn’t sorry to see him go: “She hoped with all her might that he would accept, that he would leave this house and that place that he occupied opposite her every evening at dinner, his black hair dangling over his plate and that contagious air of tragedy surrounding him.”

Since I’ve been on a spree of watching Hitchcock movies and listening to Sinatra all day, I can’t help drawing parallels between Solitude and Dean Martin’s Rebel Without A Cause. Except in the latter, James Dean was not only smarter than his obviously moronic parents, but more special, better in every way. He was better because he was cuter, but he was also better because he suffered more; he had a livelier sense of the sorrows of the human (adolescent) condition. It’s a given here that both Alice and Mattia are better, made of entirely finer clay than their parents. To look at your own parents, with all their drooping skin and personal shortcomings, and to realise that odds are pretty good that you’ll end up with the same skin and shortcomings is the quintessential adolescent tragedy. Did I mention that Mattia carves up his skin and puts out the flames on stove tops with his bare hands? He manages to be in agony most of the time. And of course, Alice refuses to treat her behaviour as problematic on any level.

There’s no arguing with this depressive emotional position, besides growing up. We all have to die, and that means in the end that the depressives are right. I’m just wondering about the thousands upon thousands of Europeans who (presumably) subscribe to this position, and have turned, by their adulation, this whimpering cub into a literary lion.