Monday, 31 December 2012

Heiress Without a Cause - Sara Ramsey

After the disappointment of Summerset Abbey, I was really looking forward to something actually light and with a guaranteed happy ending. Where else to look but a romance novel? Romance novels are oddly like old timer sitcoms: no matter what trouble the protagonists get themselves into, you know it will all be solved by the ending of the book. 

This book is the first in a series called The Muses of Mayfair, a group of young women that all have hobbies that aren't very proper for women of their station. Madeleine, our heroine, for example, loves the theatre and would love to be an actress. Unfortunately for her, back in these days, the theatre is only for women with loose morals and Madeleine is definitely not that. So, with a disguise at hand, she takes to the stage for what she thinks will simply be a two week engagement playing Hamlet. How is she to know what a success she will be, attracting even some of the ton to the performance?

Our hero, meanwhile, is William "Ferguson" Avenel, the son of a duke who ran off to Scotland years ago and has only just arrived back in London due to his father's death. Years ago he left behind this life and wants to get all the arrangements done with quickly so he can get back to Scotland and his life of hiding. When he sees Madeleine at a party, he thinks she will be the perfect chaperone for his two younger half-sisters. She is a spinster and of very high moral standing. He doesn't, of course, expect to find out her secret and fall in love with her.

This being a romance novel, you pretty much know what you're going to get when you go into it. Ferguson and Madeleine are going to fall in love. People may find out Madeleine's secret but it's not going to hurt her in any major way. Ferguson will get over his problems with his dead father and become the kind of duke people want him to be. It's all about how we get there, though.

While I enjoyed Heiress Without a Cause, I didn't really think it was anything special, either. I did enjoy the Hamlet references but the plot was nothing new and there were some really melodramatic bits with her getting into a fight with her best friend and quasi-sister that seemed a bit much. 

However, I really liked this introduction to The Muses of Mayfair. I think the series has a lot of potential and would like to read about Ellie, Ferguson's sister, in particular. You can kind of see in this novel what Ellie's story is going to be but it looks much more interesting and dramatic than the others. 

I will probably read more in the series when I feel the need for something light and happy. You really can't beat a romance novel for that and Regency Romance is the best. 

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Summerset Abbey - T.J. Brown

After all of the somewhat serious books that I had been reading the past little while, I was really looking forward to something a bit lighter. Summerset Abbey looked like a sure thing when I saw it on Netgalley and I immediately downloaded it when I saw I was approved. Nothing like a little Edwardian romance to lighten the mood.

Except it really didn't.

Summerset Abbey is set in 1913, an era that was just on the border of the old world of privilege and the  new world of suffrage. The book follows three young girls: sisters Rowena and Victoria, the daughters of a nobleman and Prudence Tate, the girl brought up with them as a sister but actually the daughter of a governess. Although the girls have enjoyed a life of privilege so far, reality has just slapped them in the face at the beginning of the novel when their father dies.

With the death of their father comes also a loss of independence. They are put in the care of their uncle, a man who has much different views on what is appropriate and inappropriate for women of their stations. The girls must move into Summerset Abbey with their relatives. Prudence, once basically a sister, is turned into the ladies maid of her two best friends. Victoria rails against all of the changes but Rowena, overcome with grief and new responsibility, begins to sink under the pressure.

The novel explores how the three girls deal with the changes to their lives. Each girl is forced to give up something their love and deal with a harsh new reality. It's very gripping narrative.

As I was reading Summerset Abbey, I was really hooked. I just had to keep reading to see when, exactly, something positive was going to happen for Prudence. Prudence was always my favorite character from the get go. She wasn't overly dramatic like Victoria nor was she a bit of a stick in the mud like Rowena. She had the hardest going of it and I just wanted to see things work out for her. As every reader does, I suppose.

The book meanders along, telling different tales without actually uncovering all that much. Tales of their uncle's cruelty are hinted at but not fully explained until later in the novel. What I was most interested in, the true story behind Prudence's mother, was a big driving force of the novel and when it was revealed, I did feel moderately satisfied.

It's what happened after that that annoys me so much. You have this book that is just driving, driving driving towards a finale and then, at the last second, it just drops. The last chapter was a bit of a joke. After all the rooting you've done so far, you feel a bit cheated. Sure, that ending is perhaps more realistic than what I may have wanted to happen but it comes out of nowhere and completely unsettles the reader. I was terrifically disappointed.

While the writing is well done and the characters interesting (even if I did want to smack Rowena a bit), ultimately, it was a bit of a let down. This looks to be a trilogy which is promising. However, I just read a summery on Goodreads of the next book and it doesn't look as if it's going to resolve what the first book ends with. It looks a bit like the privileged girls will get a happy ending and Prudence gets none. True to fact, perhaps, but not to my taste.

Summerset Abbey will be available from Gallery Books in January 2013.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Ready Player One - Ernest Cline

I had heard of Ready Player One when it came out last year. It was hailed as an amazing new science fiction voice in the market. When I saw it on the shelves at work, I knew I had to read it.

Ready Player One is set in the 2040s, after the internet has basically been turned into a giant, all immersive separate world which people rarely leave called the OASIS. The creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, has recently died and left a very interesting will: there are three keys that open three gates within the OASIS. Whoever finds all three keys and completes all three gates will win ownership of his estate and OASIS with it. And thus, the great hunt begins.

Our protagonist, Wade Watts, is your average computer geek. He lives in a dystopian RV park with his aunt and spends all of his time locked within the OASIS. He doesn't have the money to level up or buy weapons so he's very low level but has friends in high(er) places. He has spent the past year trying to decipher the puzzle of the first key, along with the rest of the world. However, something special happens to Wade: he actually solves it.

Ready Player One is a ridiculously fun read. It's a strange mix between Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Matrix and the entire decade of the 1980s. Since Halliday was a teenager in the 80s, all the hunters have to know pretty much anything that could halfway be related to the decade. There are more geek references than you can stamp your foot at.

The story is interesting if a bit typical. What's really fun are all of the throwaway references, the characters quoting ridiculous 80s trivia as if it's the holy grail which, for them, it is. Even narration bits have references in them. It's very silly but very fun.

I enjoyed the story overall. I definitely read it rather quickly. It's a bit predictable but never in a bad way. You know things will ultimately go well for Wade, he'll get the girl and win the contest, blah blah blah but along the way are fun characters, silly side quests and more nostalgia than most people can even think of.

It's fun. If you consider yourself any sort of geek, I think you should check it out.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Every Last One - Anna Quindlen

I was given Every Last One by a friend and coworker at my last internship on my last day. She said it was her favorite book by this author, one of her favorite books in general and I had to read it. Although it didn't look like the kind of book I would pick up on my own, I always trust friend recommendations (or at least give them a chance) so I took it happily and decided to read it next.

Every Last One tells the story of Mary Beth Latham, a suburban mother in a typical family situation. She's married to Gene, an eye doctor, with a somewhat successful practice. She has three children: Ruby, the oldest and a free spirit who loves writing and is enjoying her senior year of high school, and two twin 14 year old boys, Alex, the sporty one that is a stereotypical popular high school boy and Max, a bit depressed and introverted who has trouble making friends. Mary Beth herself has a popular landscaping business that is doing quite well.

The first half of this book explores all these characters through Mary Beth's eyes. We see everyone's hopes and dreams, the trials of every day life. It's a very well written slice of every day life and you really get a feel for the characters and connect with them.

Halfway through the book, however, things take a dramatic turn. With just two pages, the entire plot line has changed and things are completely different.

One thing I really enjoyed about this change is that I did not see it coming at all. Also, since Mary Beth is in a bit of a haze while everything goes on around her, the writing is very vague, so that the reader pieces together what has happened around the same time that Mary Beth does. I was reading this section on a train with a friend and kept popping out of the book going, "Oh my God! I think this happened!" and then two minutes later, "No wait! I think it's worse than that!" It was a very effective method and I'm very impressed.

The rest of the book asks questions that I generally had no answer to and that was very interesting. I like books that push me like that, to imagine situations that could happen to me that I would never even consider in normal life. These sections were a bit hard to read but in a good, challenging way. It never felt stale or trite but always real and emotional.

I'm very impressed with Quindlen. She has a great style and by halfing her book like she does, she makes it completely compelling. You spend half the book getting to know the characters so that when the change comes, you care so much. I read the end of the book on a train, tearing up and trying not to cry. It's a very powerful book, something that won't leave you after you've read it. 

I would recommend this book to anyone. It is powerful and compelling, asking questions and making statements that everyone should think about, even if it hurts to. I really enjoyed it and completely understand why my friend gave it to me.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Pure - Andrew Miller

I borrowed Pure from my friend Katrina because I had heard really good things about it. It had won the Costa back in 2011 and I remember friends reading it right after the award was announced. I was curious about it.

Nevermind that when people asked what I was reading and I responded, "Oh, a book about renovating a cemetery," I got some great looks.

Pure tells the story of a young noble(ish) man, Jean-Baptiste Baratte. It's 1785 and he has just finished a program to become an engineer. He gets called to Versailles and is nervous to see what kind of assignment the higher ups have given to him. What he finds out is that they want him to clear a cemetery.

The cemetery of les Innocents has become so overrun that the filth is settling in to the groundwater. You can taste putrid air in the breath of the locals. The city wants to get rid of it and raze the ground. Baratte is the man they want to do it.

The story explores the way Baratte deals with this new task (that he really doesn't want) and how he grows as a man and as an engineer during the ordeal. It also explores the lives of a few of the locals of the neighborhood: Ziguette Monard, daughter of the family Baratte is staying with and a girl who has loved looking at the cemetery for years, Armand, the musician who still plays the organ in the abandoned church, Heloise, the woman just as out of place as Baratte, and Jeanne, the young granddaughter of the sexton who has grown up around the rubble. All of these lives will intertwine as a great task is undertaken.

What really impressed me about Pure is how readable it is. Although a historical fiction on a somewhat obscure (or at least, rarely written about) time period, it reads as if it were happening in front of the reader's eyes. Baratte is completely relatable and all of the characters feel very real. Although I read this book over two weeks before writing this review, I still remember all of them very distinctly and have feelings that I directly relate to each of them. Miller creates real personalities with his characters and it shows a real depth of understanding.

The subject matter, as well, is never boring. Ultimately, this is a book about an engineering project, something I would normally not touch with a ten foot pole. I became interested, however, in how exactly they were going to raze a cemetery, something mostly underground. I became curious about things I normally wouldn't care about and actually felt like I was understanding what I was reading, not skimming through on my way to a better passage. There aren't long, unwieldy paragraphs with technical terms or whole pages of boring engineering talk. It is easy to follow and not overly descriptive, something many historical novels fall into.

I'm very impressed with Pure. I really enjoyed it and read it very quickly but it has stuck with me. I would recommend this to anyone that would like to read something a bit heavier but not too "literary," if that's the right term. It's a good book that isn't overly pretentious and I very much enjoyed it.

Monday, 10 December 2012

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake - Aimee Bender

This book was recommended to me by one of my coworkers at Random House. I had forgotten to bring a book, despite knowing that I would finish The Mad Scientist's Daughter that day and asked her to recommend a book for me to grab. She thought about it and then, discounting the answers to her preference questions, handed me The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. "It doesn't fit what you told me," she said, "but you have to read it."

I had heard of it before, of course. It had gotten great press when it had been published the year before and seemed to be everywhere for a few months. I hadn't been particularly interested at the time but if someone I trusted to have good taste was telling me I should read it, I would happily give it a go.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake tells the story of Rose, a young girl living with her father, mother and older brother in LA. Everything in her life seems to be going well until, on her ninth birthday, she takes a bite of the cake her mother baked for her and is hit with a sense of overwhelming despair. From then on, young Rose can taste the emotions of whoever made the food she eats. Sandwiches taste of anger. Cookies taste of longing. And now Rose can't escape secrets she never wanted to know about the people she loves.

The idea behind this book is very original and I really enjoyed Bender's writing style. It's a quick read, chapters short and kept interesting. Rose is very likable and watching a young girl trying to deal with such an adult problem is unique and heartbreaking. 

I was a bit thrown off by the way the plot progresses. The book is divided into four sections and each section, though obviously by the same author, is very different from the others. At one point, two thirds of the way through the book, I had completely forgotten about Rose's ability because it hadn't been spoken of in so long. I still can't decide if I think that's a strength or a weakness of the narrative. 

It definitely keeps the reader hooked, curious as to what exactly is going to happen to Rose and her family. Her brother, Joseph, overshadows a bit at times and there is an overlying mystery of what exactly is going on with him. I enjoyed Joseph's story but at the same time, felt that it took away a bit from Rose, things that I would have wanted to explore with her story. It was interesting but it was also a bit overpowering.

The book is very good, though. It keeps the reader turning pages with curiosity and interest. I very much enjoyed it and would recommend it. 

Thursday, 6 December 2012

The Mad Scientist's Daughter - Cassandra Rose Clarke

You know when you start to read a book and you know it's good but it's also not particularly your cup of tea? That you probably wouldn't have read it if you knew this is what it actually was? Even though the cover warned you that it was heartbreaking? Yeah.

The Mad Scientist's Daughter follows the life of Catarina Novak, the daughter of Daniel Novak, a preeminent engineer in robotics. Of course, we never learn all that much about it because we start following Cat at the age of 8, when she is much too young to understand what her father does. She's a young girl that enjoys running through the forest and catching fireflies. 

One night, when she comes back with a jar full of fireflies, there is a young man standing on the porch with her father. Finn, Cat comes to understand, is an android but the only one of his kind. He becomes Cat's tutor and as she grows older, her friend and something more.

The book follows Cat from the ages of 8 to roughly mid-thirties, I would say. In that time, society changes around her, as robot rights get bandied around and Cat tries to find herself in a world that doesn't appreciate her feelings for Finn (who she doesn't even know if he can reciprocate) while also doesn't want someone who fails at the sciences. And so, much like the forests of her youth, Cat wanders through life a bit aimlessly.

This book is so sad. This is what I mean when I say I probably wouldn't have picked it up. It's not that tragic kind of sad, where there's some sort of heroic sacrifice (His Dark Materials) or a tragic twist (Never Let Me Go) or just the sense of the end of an era (Lord of the Rings). No, this is that kind of numbing sadness that pervades the entire novel, as you watch Cat wander through her life, not finding joy in anything but brief moments. Sometimes it felt like it physically pained me to keep reading. I don't demand my books be happy by any means but it felt like deliberately making myself miserable.

However, this is not to say the book isn't good. The book is rather wonderful. Clarke has managed to create a world that is at once recognizable and foreign. There are robots and vice stands and tales of the old ways before the disaster. However, there's also marital troubles, dating the wrong guy and raising children. It pulls off what I personally think is the most important part of science fiction: creating a world that feels real and solid without having to actually spend time to explain it. It's all there in the tiny details, fleshing out the world Cat and Finn inhabit.

Clarke is also a wonder at drawing up fully recognizable characters. The reader knows Cat by the first fifty pages, completely inside her head and watching as the excitable young girl becomes to melancholy adolescent to the unfulfilled young adult. She grows and changes and feels and never seems unconvincing. All of her characters have a bit of that in them. Finn is also very real, changing in small, nearly unnoticed ways as the book progresses. In a way, Finn is also growing, becoming more human, despite his best efforts.

I really did enjoy this book, even if it made me mildly depressed. It's very well written and creates a compelling story. Just don't read it as a pick me up. 

The Mad Scientist's Daughter is out in February 2013 from Angry Robot.

Monday, 3 December 2012

City of Dark Magic - Magnus Flyte

Who doesn't love a bit of urban fantasy in their life? When I saw the snippet for City of Dark Magic on Netgalley, I immediately requested it. It sounded absolutely delightful. 

City of Dark Magic tells the story of Sarah Weston, a PhD student studying music (particularly Beethoven) in Boston. At the beginning of the story, she gets invited to spend the summer doing research in Prague where a vast collection of previously lost artifacts are currently being studied and documented in order to put a museum together. She also finds out that her mentor and PhD Advisor, who had been over working on the collections, has unfortunately passed away in an apparent suicide. 

Of course, Sarah makes her way over there and encounters a vast and eclectic mix of characters (academics make the best characters, I swear) as well as the mysterious presence that is just Prague, itself. As she studies and investigates, darker plans seem to come to light and there may just be a lot more going on in the city than first appears.

I've been checking on Goodreads and it seems like this book is either a love it or hate it. I can see how it would be so, as well. It definitely has its pros and cons. I think I will tackle the cons first.

Gratuitous sex. Let's just get it out there. There are a few sex scenes that were uncomfortable and definitely did not need to be included. I'm thinking of the first sex scene especially when I type this. It comes out of nowhere, before we are even properly invested in the characters, has no bearing on the plot and makes us judge Sarah, if only a little bit. Why? Why is that there? It is definitely unneeded and alienates readers more than titillates them. I feel like I'm always harping on this but it's true: Sex scenes are fine as long as they serve a purpose. Unless a person has picked up an erotic novel, they want storytelling, not cheap thrills. Stop with the random sex.

The other big problem this book had was, to be honest, too much plot. It felt like Flyte wanted to get in every single idea he'd had while planning this novel and gosh darn it if it didn't fit, he'd make it. Several threads are picked up and then not explored at all. There's a bit with a Golden Fleece that comes in in the last fifty of so pages out of nowhere and then, while not forgotten, is really not explored much, either. Very exciting characters that could have been explored much more (I'm thinking Nico and Pols here) are just side characters that help Sarah on her way but don't affect much. There's too much and by not focusing, the reader has too much to deal with and can't focus on the actual narrative. 

On the plus side, however, all these threads do make it a book that's hard to put down, if only because you genuinely have no idea what's going to happen next. That's how I felt. With all of these different narratives running through the plot, I was confused but excited. It's a quick moving book, short chapters helping the plot speed along to the conclusion. I thought the climax at the party was very well drawn out and handled. That bit was definitely well plotted and written. I was excited to read the book and even if it was ultimately underwhelming, it was fun while it was being read.

I enjoyed reading City of Dark Magic, even if it ultimately left me a bit confused. I think a sequel exploring the Golden Fleece idea (and Nico and Pols!) would be very much welcomed.