Friday, 18 December 2009

CBR 13: "Garden Spells" by Sarah Addison Allen

Publisher: Hodder Paperbacks
Page count: 327 pages
Date begun: December 16th, 2009
Date finished: December 17th, 2009

Everyone in Bascom, North Carolina, knows there is something special about the Waverley women. The flowers in their walled garden blossom all year round, and if you eat an apple from the tree that grows there, you will see the biggest event of your life (this event could be good, or it could be hauntingly bad). Claire Waverley has lived alone in the big Waverley house since her grandmother died years earlier, shortly after her little sister Sidney ran off to New York. Claire runs a catering business specializing in edible flowers from her unique garden, and is much sought-after because of the little touch of magic the dishes contain. Claire's life of routine and predictability is suddenly turned on its head when in short order, a handsome stranger moves in next door, ivy creeps into her garden - and Sidney, with her five-year-old daughter Bey in tow - turns up on her doorstep with nowhere to go.

Sidney never enjoyed her legacy as one of the special Waverley women, and like her mother, never really felt she belonged in Bascom. Despite always being able to tell who a person truly is by the way they wear their hair, Sidney does not feel she has any of her family's abilities, and like her mother before her, tried to run away from the little town. She became trapped in a brutal and abusive relationship, where the only good thing she gained was her little girl. After several years of abuse, she finally manages to flee her abusive boyfriend and escapes to the only place she thinks she'll be safe. Her daughter Bey is a stoic and serious child, who always knows where things belong. She loves her mother, and comes to adore her new home in the big house with the fascinating garden.

Claire is not interested in a relationship with her neighbour, who despite all of Claire's culinary attempts to disuade him insists on still trying to court her. She is both glad and upset that her sister has returned after so long, but is also constantly terrified that Sidney and Bey will leave again. Sidney has to get used to living in the town she never felt she belonged in before, and meeting her old friends, most whom now shun her. She needs to learn to trust that the people around her won't hurt her or Bey, and that there are men out there who are not monsters.

Garden Spells is a book that features magical realism, and does it well. It never gets too kooky or twee. It reminded me of Joanne Harris' Chocolat and Alice Hoffman's Practical Magic (the book, NOT the awful film with Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman and that guy who replaced George Clooney as the hot one on ER). Both Practical Magic and Garden Spells feature two very different sisters with unusual abilities, at least one of whom is afraid of long-term commitment. Like Chocolat, this book features a woman who can do magical and remarkable things with the food she serves people, and whose presence in town changes the lives of those around her.

Garden Spells is a book about love. It features romance, but also the love between sisters, mother and child, and the close affections of true friendship. It's a sweet and uplifting book, which wouldn't have worked if it didn't also have some darkness in parts of the story. It celebrates the love of good food, of companionship and the need to find a place to belong. This novel is Sarah Addison Allen's debut novel, and based on her first book, I would very much be willing to read other books she writes, as well.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

CBR 12: "Wondrous Strange" by Lesley Livingston

Publisher: HarperTeen
Page count: 345 pages
Date begun: December 12th, 2009
Date finished: December 16th, 2009

Kelley Winslow has moved to New York against the wishes of her eccentric aunt Emma, to fulfill her dream of becoming an actress. She works as a stage hand and understudy on a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and shares an extortionately expensive apartment with a model. Things seem to look up for her when the lead actress is injured, and she needs to step in as Titania, with only two weeks until opening night. Rehearsing her lines in Central Park one evening, Kelley's life starts changing for the stranger, as she meets a mysterious and handsome man, and nearly drowns when she tries to save a horse in a lake. A horse that shortly after turns up in her bathroom, and refuses to leave.

Sonny Flannery is a changeling, a mortal child stolen by the faeries and raised as a favourite of King Oberon of the Unseelie Court. Sonny is now one of the Janus, one of thirteen supernatural guards, tasked with the unpopular job of keeping the denizens of Faerie from escaping into the mortal world. The last remaining gateway between the two realms lies in Central Park - and it is normally only open on Halloween night. But every nine years, the gate is open for a full nine nights up to and including Halloween. Sonny and his fellow changeling guards have to deter and even kill all creatures who try to escape through the portal, and this year there seem to be more than usual, and fiercer and wilder creatures too.

Sonny finds himself strangely drawn to the girl he encounters in the park, and tracks her down with the help of the script she dropped. Kelley isn't sure why the handsome stranger keeps following her, and appearing as if by chance close to her. Sonny can't understand why he senses Kelley differently from other humans, and why she appears to be able to see through his Faerie cloaking veil. That several other faerie creatures, and Oberon himself seem very interested in the orphaned 17-year-old actress is also making him curious.

I'm a big fan of paranormal fantasy, whether it is aimed at teenagers or adults. In the past two years I have read some amazing Young Adult stories featuring faeries and faery/mortal romance, Holly Black's Tithe, Valiant and Ironside, Melissa Marr's Wicked Lovely and Maggie Stiefvater's Lament: The Faerie Queen's Deception probably being the most excellent examples. Wondrous Strange did not measure up to these. The formerly mentioned books enchanted and delighted me, even took my breath away a couple of times (a sure sign of a great read), this book was just ok.

Neither Kelley nor Sonny were particularly engrossing characters, and while I enjoyed the background characters and the outline of the world that Livingston has created, the protagonists' stories just did not hold my attention all that much. The plot had a bit too many handy coincidences tying the story together. This was by no means a bad or boring book, it just didn't live up to my expectations. I will probably still buy and read the sequels though, in the hopes of seeing more of Livingston's fascinating Faerie-world.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

CBR 11: "Immortal in Death" by J.D Robb

Publisher: Priakus Books
Page count: 336 pages
Date begun: December 6th, 2009
Date finished: December 7th, 2009

THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS FOR OTHER BOOKS IN THE IN DEATH SERIES!

Pandora, world-famous fashion model and the ex-girlfriend of the man designing Lt. Eve Dallas' wedding dress, is found brutally battered to death in the designer's fashion studio. Mavis Freestone, on of Eve's only friends, and the designer's current girlfriend, is discovered next to the body, with the victim's blood covering her hands and body. Eve is only a few weeks away from her wedding to Roarke - but is absolutely convinced of her friend's innocence and promises to do everything in her power to clear her name.

Once a dead informer turns up dead with a new, mysterious drug in his possession, and the body count keeps rising, it's up to Eve to figure out how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. At the same time, her gruelling nightmares occur more and more frequently, she has a wedding to the world's richest man to plan, an aide to train and an unwanted admirer to fend off.

The resolution of the mystery dragged a little in this one, and yet again, I figured out the killer's identity, but not until shortly before Eve herself did. Eve's continued emotional development, and her deepening relationship with Roarke was again very well written, and this book also shows Eve's friendship with Mavis and her starting camaraderie with Officer Peabody.

CBR 10: "Glory in Death" by J.D Robb

Publisher: Priakus Books
Page count: 336 pages
Date begun: December 5th, 2009
Date finished: December 6th, 2009

WARNING! REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS FOR OTHER BOOKS IN THE IN DEATH SERIES!

Lt. Eve Dallas has another complicated murder case on her hands. Prosecuting Attorney Cicely Towers has had her throat viciously slashed in a back alley. All her money, jewelry, as well as her expensive handbag and shoes were left at the scene, nothing is missing except her umbrella. No one can figure out why the victim was in the alley. Eve's boss was a close personal friend of the victim, and needs his best detective's help to solve the case.

Eve's job is complicated by her increased celebrity status, as Roarke's lover is a prized target for the journalists. That Roarke had a personal connection with the victim and her family makes the media even more eager - and when the second victim turns out to have a connection to him as well, the media circus is guaranteed.

Eve is also having trouble adjusting herself to her new romance, and is not entirely comfortable with Roarke's ability to express his strong feelings for her. She insists on keeping her own apartment, and refuses to acknowledge his affection to the point where he presents her with an ultimatum.

The second In Death book was better on some levels than the first, but I also had the murderer pegged about halfway through the book. Still, the character development continues in this book, and we find out more about both Eve and Roarke, as well as some of the many supporting characters. Eve's difficulites with juggling her private and professional life, especially when flashes of her traumatic past keep coming to the surface, are very well described. A very entertaining read.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

CBR Book 9: "Naked in Death" by J.D. Robb

Publisher: Piatkus Books
Page count: 336 pages
Date begun: December 5th, 2009
Date finished: December 5th, 2009

Naked in Death is the first in an ongoing series of so far 30 books (and some novellas and short stories) by J.D. Robb, a pseudonym for the already ridiculously prolific romance novelist Nora Roberts. The books are futuristic police procedurals with a core of romance at the centre. Lt. Eve Dallas is a driven and dedicated homicide detective who is called in when a young and beautiful licenced companion (read: prostitute - in the 2050s, prostitution is legalized and licenced) is brutally murdered. Her superiors are keen to have the case solved quickly and quietly, as the victim was also the granddaughter of a powerful US senator.

Under the murdered woman, there is also a note, suggesting that this murder is just the first of six. Lt. Dallas may be dealing with a serial killer. Her main suspect is the gorgeous, obscenely wealthy and extremely powerful Roarke, a self-made bazillionaire, and a friend of the murdered young woman's family. Normally, Eve has no problems staying focused on a case and utterly professional, but every time she and Roarke meet, sparks fly, and she is having trouble convincing herself that Roarke is bad news and should be best left alone.

I may be spoiling an important part of the book here - but anyone who bothers to find out about the series, will soon learn that Roarke is of course not the killer, and that he and Eve become one hell of an awesome couple, despite the many difficulties in their path, not the least of which is Eve's troubled past.

Reading Roberts/Robb's In Death books is a bit like watching an episode of Castle, if Castle was a bazillionare businessman instead of a crime writer, Beckett had an even more messed up past, and they were actually dating, instead of just flirting all the time. The actual mystery is not always the most interesting part (in 2 of the 3 books I've read so far, I've figured out who the killer quite some time before it is revealed), it's the way the mystery is solved, and the interplay of the characters and what they learn about each other along the way.

Stay tuned for my reviews of books 2 and 3 (yes, I'm a bit hooked on these at the moment).

Saturday, 5 December 2009

CBR Book 8: "First Among Sequels" by Jasper Fforde

Publisher: Hodder Paperbacks
Page count: 404 pages
Date begun: November 30th, 2009
Date finished: December 4th, 2009

In this fifth book about Thursday Next, Fforde's unusual heroine has seemingly retired from her busy and dangerous career as a literary detective and enforcer of justice in the Book world. Her husband thinks she's working with her former colleagues in a carpet laying business, but of course, she is just as busy as before trying to sort out the many complications and problems that occur in literary fiction.

Reading rates in Outland, as the literary denizens like to call the real world, are falling drastically. The attention span of the common man is getting shorter and shorter, only very extreme reality programming such as Celebrity Kidney Swap seem to be holding their attention, and Thursday and her fellow Jurisfiction agents are not sure what to do about it. Sherlock Holmes appears to have been murdered. Bookworld beaureucrats want to turn Pride and Prejudice into a reality reading experience, where readers can vote off characters they don't like. One of Thursday's literary counterparts is trying to take her place, and her son Friday is failing spectacularly to live up to his future potential.

I really loved Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair when I discovered it many years ago. It was original, funny, clever and made me look at Jane Eyre in a completely different light. The second and third book in the series were enjoyable too, but as the series has progressed on, I'm not sure I'm as fond of Fforde's ideas anymore. It took me nearly a week to finish First Among Sequels, which is unusual, considering it's not a very long book. It also took me a year and a half from buying the book to actually reading it, because I just wasn't that bothered about finding out what happens to Thursday. What used to be funny and clever just doesn't seem as good anymore, and while Fforde's writing is still good, I may think about giving up on the series.

The action of the book is slow at first, but picks up towards the end. I may give the sixth Thursday Next book a chance, whenever it comes out, but if it fails to live up to my now-reduced expectations.