Sunday 26 May 2013

#CBR5 Book 54. "Shadow's Claim" by Kresley Cole

Page count: 481 pages
Rating: 2.5 stars

Trehan Daciano is a Dacian vampire. Dacia is a realm hidden in mist (so hardly anyone knows where to find it) and Trehan's job, is to hunt down and kill anyone who finds out about Dacia or the Dacians before they can tell anyone about them, or how to get into their super secret realm. Being a Dacian vampire also means that you don't drink blood directly from their victims or some virtuous thing like that, they may even drink only animal blood, it doesn't really come up, but Trehan and his relatives are wicked smug about it. Trehan, one of the princes of the Realm, has lived for nearly nine centuries, and is pretty bored. All he does is read, play with his extensive weapons' collection, occasionally hunt down and with ruthless efficiency kill any threats to Dacia. He and his cousins, all in line for the Dacian throne appear to try to playfully murder one another, but even that seems to be losing its charm.

Then, as he is trailing a demon who visited Dacia and then broke the decree about never leaving, he meets his fated mate (all of Kresley Cole's vampires, and werewolves, and most of the demons have one fated person who they're waiting for, and once they meet them, they can't think of anyone else). Unfortunately she is in love with the demon he is determined to kill, and also the prize in an epic tournament, where the winner gets her hand in marriage, and control of the throne of Abbadon, her kingdom.

Princess Bettina (and yes, she is, at least on occasion, as drippy and dumb as that name makes her sound) is the orphan daughter of the demon king of Abbadon and a powerful sorceress. Unfortunately, her mother was brutally killed by a band of evil winged rival demons (there's a whole host of various demon breeds in Kresley Cole's fictional universe, not all of them unsympathetic) when she was little, and her father died trying to avenge his wife. After a gang of the same evil demons got hold of Bettina, and nearly killed her, her demon godfather and sorceress godmother (who hate each other, but love her) have decided that she, and her kingdom, needs a strong protector, and the best way to find one is to hold an epic tournament, where all the contestants fight in a number of challenges to the death, and the winner gets the kingdom, and Bettina. She is in love with her childhood friend (the one Trehan is there to kill) and hopes that he will enter the tournament, and win, so they can get married, even though her bestie (who's name I seriously cannot remember) only loves her like a sister.

Surprising to no one, Trehan and the best friend both enter the tournament, as do two hundred and something other dudes from various supernatural realms. Will Trehan win the tournament and be able to claim his fated bride? Will Bettina have to watch the man she's starting to have all sorts of tingly feelings for, kill her best friend? Will anyone care by the time they get to the end of the tournament?

I'm not going to lie. I've read a lot of Kresley Cole books. I sort of like the various crazy supernatural races and the extended universe she's created, populated with vampires (both "good" and "evil"), werewolves, vampires, ghosts, valkyries, witches, demons and what have you. The books definitely fit the label of paranormal romance, as central to each book it's all about getting the main couple together. They're also really rather smutty, which I think is one of the main reasons this book was selected as the main read for May in Vaginal Fantasy Hangout, where there's been some complaints that some of the recent books haven't had enough sex.

While Kresley Cole's Immortals After Dark series currently numbers 12 books (book 13 is out later this year), this is technically the start of a spin off series, about the various branches of the Dacian royal house, which means that each of Trehan's many cousins are likely to get their own stories and fated mates in the next few years. So in theory, it might be a good jumping on point if you haven't read any of the others. Unfortunately for new readers, this book is really rather tedious. The smexy scenes are plenty scorching, no complaints there, but I spent much of the book wanting to slap Bettina senseless, and Trehan isn't much better.

There is very little actual tension in any book that features fated mates. They have to get together. In most of Cole's books, I can at least have fun seeing how they get to the point where they do accept that they're meant to be together for all eternity (yeah, cause all her characters are supernatural beings who live forever - at least at by the end of their respective books). In this book, I mainly finished so I could cross off one square of my Book Bingo card. It doesn't help that the book is nearly a hundred pages longer than your standard Cole book, so there were more pages to get exasperated with the main characters in. One of the few saving graces, is that there are some cameo appearances by characters from earlier Kresley Cole books, most notably Lothaire, who is also a long lost Dacian cousin. If you've read his book, you also know who ends up on the throne of Dacia. Lots of people don't like him, here he threatened to smack some sense into both protagonists and I applaud him for it.

Friday 24 May 2013

#CBR5 Book 53. "Does My Head Look Big in This?" by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Page count: 360 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Amal is sixteen, and about to start her second year as the only Muslim at a posh private high school, when she has an epiphany while watching Friends.She decides to start wearing the hibab full time, fully aware that this will attract all sorts of attention, and that it may be the most popular of decisions. Her parents, worried that it will give her too much negative attention, try to make her change her mind, but the more she thinks about it, the more resolved she is. Of course, when she shows up in school, the principal and a lot of the teachers think she's been coerced into it by her parents, or religious leaders, and she has to be very firm about the fact that it's her own choice, her own decision, and that they can't prohibit her from her personal expression of her faith, no matter what the school regulations about uniforms state.

Most of her friends, while a bit puzzled at first, are extremely supportive. Only the mean girl clique try to bully her about it, but as Amal points out to herself and her friends, now they have something specific to tease her about. Amal is more concerned about the opinions of Adam, her lab partner, and one of the cutest and most popular boys in school. She has a massive crush on him, and would hate for him to see her as some sort of religious fanatic just because she chooses to wear a head scarf.

While it may seem as if this book is all about heavy issues like religion and personal choice, it's mostly a very light and frothy young adult book about being a teenager. Through Amal's first person narration we get insight into her life, which is full of text messages, internet chats, shopping, girl talk, swooning over boys and conflicts with parents. Amal's parents are a doctor and dentist, respectively, highly educated with very progressive views. They're concerned Amal will be limiting her choices and opportunities by choosing to wear the hijab at such a young age, but they're also supportive of her decisions.

As a contrasting view of Muslim traditions, there is Amal's good friend Leila, whose parents are still living their lives dictated by old village traditions from the small place they're from in Turkey. Leila's brother is allowed to run wild and do whatever he pleases, while they expect Leila to do all the housework and get married, rather than go to university to become a lawyer and fulfill her dreams. Amal is deeply critical of this, and only after Leila does some very drastic things, does she come to realize that she may have been a bit narrow minded and judgemental herself.

In some ways, this book is like a young adult chick lit. Amal is a girly girl, and despite her choice to wear the hijab, and trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life (like most teenagers), she lives a fairly typical life, without any big conflicts. I'm glad her choices weren't made into major issues, but at the same time, it feels as if the author had a chance to explore some serious topics, in an easy to relate to way, and squandered this opportunity a bit.

Saturday 18 May 2013

And another one: A to Z Reading Challenge

Because I'm pretty much drowning in work at the moment, every excuse for procrastination is welcomed with open arms. Hence my browsing on the internets brought me yet another reading challenge that sounds very interesting. The 2013 A to Z Reading Challenge is exactly that. Read 26 books, each with a title starting with one of the letters of the alphabet (removing articles like a, an, the). Because Q, X, and Z are really tricky ones, you're allowed to have those anywhere in the title.

I've looked through my TBR list on Goodreads, and should be able to complete this by the end of the year. It should also be perfectly easy to combine with other reading challenges.

I've made myself a list in a Word document, and for most letters, I have two or three possible options. Which is good, because I'm a very fickle person, and like to have a variety of things to choose from.

Thursday 16 May 2013

New Reading Challenge: Book bingo!

So with the previous review, I finished my primary reading challenge of the year - The Cannonball Read. I'm also doing fairly well in my other three reading challenges, having nearly completed the 24 books I signed up to read for Mount TBR reading challenge (Mount Blanc). At this rate, I'm going to have to upgrade my mountain to Mount Vancouver. I've already reached Ancient History level in the Historical Fiction reading challenge, and I've managed to read at least two books a month that qualify for the Monthly Key Word challenge. It helps that a lot of the books qualify for more than one reading challenge.

As everything is going so well, I figured I should sort out something that is a little more, well, challenging. When linking to Jen Ks blog yesterday (from whom I've pretty much nicked all the other challenges I'm doing this year), I discovered that she's doing a challenge I hadn't heard of before: Anne and Kristilyn's 2013 Book Bingo (the challenge where we read all the books). Readers of this blog know I'm all about reading all the books (except the ones that I don't like or think sound boring - where's the fun in that?). For this challenge, I wouldn't be able to have as much cross over, either, what with only being able to use the books once each. Having looked over the books I've read so far this year, I discovered that I could already almost fill the full bingo card. That wouldn't be very challenging at all. So I will start from the beginning, and obviously I aim to cover the whole board by the end of the year.

The one that's going to be the most difficult is "Read x books everyone but you has read", as I tend to be one of those people who jumps on a band wagon really early. To fill this whole bingo card, I will have to read 73 books in total (although 15 are re-reads), of which 15 are books "everyone else" has read and possibly reviewed before me. It's absolutely going to be a tricky one. Wish me luck!

#CBR5 Book 52. "Dead Ever After" by Charlaine Harris

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 3 stars

This is the thirteenth and final (whoo!) Sookie Stackhouse novel, the series on which the HBO series True Blood is now only extremely loosely based. This is absolutely NOT the best place to start if you've not read the books before. Better go back to the beginning and start with Dead Until Dark. This review will also contain spoilers for the ending of book 12: Deadlocked, so if you want to avoid that sort of thing, look away now.

Still here - then spoilers be on your own head. After literally bringing Sam back from the dead at the end of the previous book, using her magical fairy artifact, Sookie was sort of hoping that he might at least be a bit grateful. Instead, he seems mostly out of it. Eric is furious with her, as she could have used her "make any wish" bling to get him out of his wedding contract with the Vampire Queen of Oklahoma. Now, when Sookie goes to try to talk to him about it, she gets banned from Fangtasia.

Soon Sookie has bigger worries than the fact that her boss and close friend seems to want to avoid her, and her imperious vampire husband is about to divorce her and marry another. Arlene, former barmaid at Merlotte's and once Sookie's good friend (until she tried to lure Sookie into the hands of people who wanted to crucify, torture and murder her), has been released from prison on bail, and arrives at the bar to ask for her job back. Now, the answer is clearly no, but the fact that she was seen storming out of the bar looking angry certainly doesn't help Sookie's case, when Arlene's body is found in the dumpster behind the bar, strangled with one of Ms. Stackhouse's scarves.

Sookie's only alibi is verified by a vampire, not something necessarily helpful in a court of law. Luckily, she has made a lot of influential and resourceful friends over the years, who all turn up to help her clear her name.

I honestly can't remember whether the early books in the series (which I started reading nearly ten years ago) went into quite as much tedious detail about every aspect of Sookie's life as these later ones do. In the last one, very little of any consequence happened, and I was ready to tear my hair out if I had to read more about how Sookie shopped for groceries and pottered about around her house. There is still a fair bit of "and then I got dressed, and put on make-up and put my hair in a ponytail and drove to work" to this one, especially in the first half of the book, but there is also clearly a tying off of threads, and closing doors and saying goodbye to all the various characters in these books.

There are a lot of very angry fans out there on Goodreads and Amazon. So many people feel cheated by the way Harris chose to end her series. Frankly, after the last book, I was pretty much determined to read this book just out of stubbornness, because I'd stuck with the previous twelve. I don't want to spoil the ending (there's more than enough sites out there on the internet that will, though), but I can tell you that it didn't end, as I'd hoped, with Sookie simply choosing herself. God forbid that a woman in a paranormal fantasy series come to the conclusion that she's actually fine on her own, without a man to lean on. I can see why some people are pissed off, but considering the way the character development of certain prominent characters have been handled in the last few books, there really wasn't any other way for this to go. I'm sorry there wasn't more Pam in the book, she's always been my favourite character. All in all, I'm just glad the series didn't end with Deadlocked, and went out on a bit more of a high note.

And with that, I finish second in the race to complete the first 52 books of the CBR5, after the incomparable Jen K. Let's see if I can beat her to 104, shall we?

#CBR5 Book 51. "Across the Nightingale Floor" by Lian Hearn

Page count: 320 pages
Rating: 4 stars

16-year-old Tomasu lives in a secluded Japanese village in an alternate version of feudal Japan. Most of the people there are of the Hidden, a secret religion of peace and tranquillity. One day, when Tomasu is out on a ramble, he returns to see that the entire village has been slaughtered by the soldiers of warlord Iida Sadamu, who want to eradicate all of the Hidden. The boy runs, and just as he is about to be captured by the hostile soldiers, he is rescued by the powerful Lord Otori Shigeru, who has his own score to settle against Iida.

Lord Otori tells Tomasu to forget his old life, and never mention the teachings of the Hidden again. From now on, he will be Otori Takeo, and Shigeru will adopt him as his heir. Most of Shigeru's loyal retainers think he's gone mad, still grieving the death of his brother, but Shigeru will not be argued with. He makes sure Takeo is tutored as befits a young lordling, and taught deportment, and etiquette and fighting. As time passes, and he gets to know Lord Otori better, Takeo understands that he is to be an important game piece in Shigeru's revenge.

Half the book is told from Takeo's first person narrative, but the other half is told in third person, narrating the experiences of Kaede, a young lady kept as a hostage by one of the vassal lords to Lord Iida. For much of her childhood, she is kept among the servants, despite her high birth. As she matures, and the soldiers start taking notice of her in all sorts of unfortunate ways, it becomes obvious that she needs to be kept more sheltered, or she'll get raped, and no longer useful as a bargaining piece. She is told that a marriage has been arranged for her, with the powerful Lord Otori Shigeru. She travels to her new home with the beautiful Lady Maruyama, who seems very friendly until she discovers the identity of Kaede's intended bridegroom.

This book had been on my shelf for nearly ten years, so it certainly qualified well for the Mount TBR reading challenge. I liked that it was a fantasy novel with a very different setting from what I am normally used to, and that the style of the characterisation was simplistic and a bit exaggerated, a bit like in one of the many beautiful wuxia films, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In a different book, I would be annoyed when two of the characters fall passionately in love the first time their eyes meet, as is the case with Takeo and Kaede. Here, it seems fitting, somehow.

This is primarily a fairly tragic story of revenge, and tragic romance, and a young man discovering his true heritage and what he has the potential to become. As I know little about feudal Japan, or the true traditions and history behind this period, any anachronisms and inconsistencies didn't annoy me, as it seems to have done a whole bunch of other people on Goodreads. I thought it was the very promising start to a fantasy series, as it is quite obvious that although the revenge plot of this book is wrapped up, it is not the end to Takeo and Kaede's story. Strongly recommended.

Tuesday 14 May 2013

#CBR5 Book 50. "Sandor slash Ida" by Sara Kadefors

Page count: 284 pages
Rating: 4 stars

From the blurb, as it sums up the first impression of the characters quite well: She's pretty and popular. He's a nobody. She lives in the middle of Stockholm. He lives in a hole outside Gothenburg. She spends hours in cafes with her friends, he devotes all his time to dance. She's fed up with sex, he's a virgin. She gets called bimbo, he gets called fag. She hates her life. He hates his life. Her name is Ida. His is Sandor.

 Ida's father lives in the US, with his new wife and children. Ida is left, trying to cope as best she can, even though her mother suffers from deep depression (and likely alcoholism, as well). Ida has to be the grown up, making sure that the rent and bills are paid, that groceries are bought and dinner is made. She's very pretty, seemingly a ditzy party girl, who secretly loathes her Mean Girl lifestyle and super popular friends, who she can't really talk to about anything important. She knows that if she tells anyone about her mother's neglect, Social Services are likely to come and put her in a foster home.

Sandor is the middle child of Hungarian immigrants. His mother used to be a top class ballet dancer, and desperately wants her children to follow in her footsteps. Sandor's younger sister has already decided she never wants to dance again, but Sandor loves the ballet, and practises four times a week, enduring the jeers and taunts of most of his classmates. He's in love with Christina, one of the girls in his ballet class, but barely has the courage to say hello to her at practise, let alone confess his feelings. One day, when his mother's sky high expectations towards him feels especially heavy, and the jerks on the bus have been more offencive than usual, he goes online and pours out his frustration in a chat forum. Only Ida, feeling very similarly, is the only one who sends him a serious response. Soon the two strike up a friendship by e-mail, which impacts on their lives in more ways they could have imagined at first.

The story of Sandor and Ida is told in changing perspectives all through the book, we get to see both the teenagers' lives, from their own point of view. A fair bit of the first half is told through the e-mails Sandor and Ida send each other, and show the ways in which they pretend to be someone they're not to the stranger they've met on the internet. Neither is able to keep up the pretence for very long, however. Though from very different backgrounds, they are both teenagers, struggling with doubts, insecurities, hopes and dreams. The book is just as much about the two protagonists discovering who they are, and want to become in the future, as finding friendship, and later possibly something more. It's not a book I'd heard of before, but one of the more enjoyable ones I've read this semester.

Thursday 9 May 2013

#CBR5 Book 49. "Lord of Wicked Intentions" by Lorraine Heath

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

This is the third and final book in the Lost Lords of Pembrook trilogy. It can obviously be read in isolation, but I suspect it works better if you've read at least one of the preceding novels about the two eldest brothers, the first of which is She Tempts the Duke.

Lord Rafe Easton was ten when his uncle killed his father, and tried to have him and his two older twin brothers murdered. Saved by the daughter of the neighbouring estate, Mary, the brothers escaped the tower they were locked in, and ran away. Sebastian (the oldest by a few minutes) became a soldier (and eventually horribly scarred Two-Face style in the Crimean war), Tristan was sold to a ship's captain and worked his way up to become a successful captain (and sometime privateer). Rafe was left at a workhouse, because his brothers (then 14), had no idea what horrifying conditions the children there suffered and what a fate they condemned their baby brother to.

Now the proprietor of a successful gambling club (this seems to be a really common way for the heroes of Romancelandia to support themselves), Rafe is happy that they've got their revenge on their uncle, Sebastian is restored to his rightful title as the Duke of Keswick with Mary at his side, Tristan has found love and is also happily settled. He is not really interested in spending a lot of time with his brothers, though, as he's unable to completely blame them for the years of torment he went through in the poorest areas of London, fighting his way through the seedy underworld. His life has taught him that everyone abandons him, sooner or later, and so it's best just not to get attached to them in the first place.

Until he meets the very special someone who can crack his hardened and bitter shell, obviously. Evelyn Chambers is the illegitimate daughter of an Earl. When her mother died, her father took her in, and had her raised in comfort at his country estate. When the Earl dies, she naively believes that her half brother will keep his death bed promise to see her comfortably taken care of, by helping her find a husband. Her brother, being a cowardly weasel of the highest order, instead intends to sell her as a mistress to the highest bidder, to gain funds to repay his many gambling debts. Rafe is present, as the holder of the debts. He's surprised by his own disgust at seeing the other men lech over the oblivious Evelyn, and his own strong attraction to her, and insists on claiming her himself.

He intends to make her his mistress, but while he thinks of himself as the cruelest of villains, he makes sure to give her enough time to get used to the idea, insisting that he would never force her, and he wants her to make the choice to stay with him of her own free will. Deeply uncomfortable with the strength of his feelings towards her, he keeps trying to be controlling and order her about (because that's clearly what a man with a mistress should do) but he's clearly terrified that she will leave him, and keeps painting a very bleak picture of her chances of managing on her own to ensure that she believes that staying with him is her only option.

Evelyn may start out as blithely innocent and naive to the point of TSTL, but it's quite clear that the reason she's so oblivious is that her father, while claiming to have acknowledged her, kept her hidden away in the countryside, far away from polite society where she might learn that not everything was pretty dresses and dollies and her being a bastard might not mean that she had a bright future as the wife of some kind man ahead of her. She has a very rude awakening, and wises up really quite quickly once her brother deposits her on Rafe's doorstep. She also realises very quickly that Rafe is a good, but extremely lonely and private man, who believes himself to be much harsher and crueler than he really is. All his servants are people he rescued off the streets, who are deeply grateful and loyal to him.

I've read a fair few series where there's a number of brothers (either biological or in spirit) who over the course of the books will find their true loves and live HEA. It seems to be tradition that the most messed up of these individuals are saved for last. The best example of this is obviously the amazing Smite Turner in Unraveled. Rafe, for all that he's had a horrible childhood, at least had a stable and happy life until he was ten. He has a lot of unresolved issues and fear of commitment because of his experiences in the work house, being forced to work in a mine and being a street kid, but he also seems to resolve quite a few of them as soon as he actually lets Evelyn get close to him. I suspect that in reality it would take years of therapy as well as the love of a good woman, but we have to take these things with a pinch of salt when dealing with historical romance. The fact that in Milan's book, there is no insta-healing, is why I love her the mostest of all the writers out there.

#CBR5 Book 48. "Snow White and Rose Red" by Patricia C. Wrede

Page count: 278 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Another fairy tale retelling, this one is set in Elizabethan England, in a town not too far from London, where the Widow Arden lives with her two pretty daughters, Blanche and Rosamund. Mrs. Arden is a wise woman, who has taught her daughters some of her healing arts. Sometimes the girls have to cross the invisible border to the realm of Faerie to collect more unusual herbs and plants. John Dee, famous occultist and astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, also lives in town. The book is set in the 1580s, when Dee was working with Edward Kelley and experimenting with alchemy and investigations into the paranormal.

As well as the widow and her daughters, and John Dee and Edward Kelley, the major players are the Queen of Faerie's two half-mortal sons. Hugh, the eldest, is quite content to stay put with his mother and her subjects, having pretty much forsaken his human side. His younger brother John, who was actually baptised as a baby, is much more restless, and feels compelled to return to the mortal realm, but returns home around Halloween and May Day. Some of the fairies at the court are displeased by the close connection between the Faerie and human world, and are hatching a plot to get rid of John. They manage to manipulate a spell Dee and Kelley are casting, but something goes wrong, and Hugh is hit instead. Soon he is turning into a giant bear, and his mother has no choice but to expel him from Faerie. John promises not to rest until he has restored his brother.

It doesn't take long before the stories of Arden daughters and the Faerie princes join up. Hugh the bear arrives on the widow's doorstep, and as he's still able to think, if not to speak, he's able to nod or shake his head to all the women's questions. They resolve to help him, and after an attempt at a healing spell, he at least gets the power of speech back. Now the young women and John need to figure out how to heal Hugh completely, which is tricky when part of Hugh's essence is trapped in a crystal in John Dee's heavily warded house.

As a Medieval historian, with a particular interest in Tudor history, it was especially fun to see Wrede's take on this story. I must admit, the story of Snow White and Rose Red is not one I know all that well. Helpfully, each new chapter starts with a little excerpt from the original fairy tale, letting the reader see exactly how the story has been altered and adapted. With it being a fairy tale, none of the characters are especially complex. The widow Arden is wise, sensible and a bit suspicious of her daughters getting involved in Faerie dealings. The girls are pretty and virtuous. Blanche is the calm and diplomatic one, Rosamund is the headstrong and feisty one. It's obvious from the start which brother will end up with which sister, but it's still fun to see the story develop much more gradually than in a fairy tale.

Including John Dee and Edward Kelley into the story and the complications that ensue from their botched spell casting, give a creative explanation as to why Dee packed up his family and suddenly left for Poland in 1583. This is yet another book that had been on my shelf for years and years, languishing unread. I'm glad my various reading challenges finally gave me the push to read it.

Monday 6 May 2013

#CBR5 Book 47. "Briar Rose" by Jane Yolen

Page count: 245 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Rebecca, or Becca, is the youngest of three sisters, and has always been captivated by her grandmother Gemma's unusual version of Briar Rose, or Sleeping Beauty. Even after her older sisters got sick of hearing it, she would ask her grandmother to tell it. So when her grandmother claims to actually have been Briar Rose on her deathbed, making Becca promise to find out the truth about her family background and the castle she came from, the rest of the family, especially her sisters, are scornful and disbelieving. As Becca starts looking into her grandmother's past, she realises that no one in the family really knew who Gemma was, or where she came from.

Aided by the handsome editor at the independent newspaper where she works, Becca starts looking into her grandmother's past, and the claims that her story of Briar Rose is true. Her quest to find her family's origins take her to first through refugee records in the US, then to Europe, and Poland, and the remains of the concentration camps of the Second World War.

I love me a good fairy tale retelling. This one is more creative and better than most that I've read. Normally these retellings are fantasy, this is not one of those books. Be warned that this is not an easy read, and while this is a fictional account, the remains of the death camp that Rebecca finds in the idyllic village of Chelmno in Poland, and the stories of what went on there, are all too real. The Sleeping Beauty story that Gemma tells is very clearly a loose metaphor for the terrifying atrocities perpetrated there during the war, and it's clear that Becca's grandmother survived against all odds.

Set in a time which will have been more or less contemporary when the book was released in 1992, it's even more of a historical novel now, when the collapse of the Soviet Union and Communist Poland is almost a distant memory. It gives us insight into not only the terrifyingly efficient and systematic persecution of the Jews by the Nazis, but also that of the homosexuals, Gypsies, and anyone else who didn't fit into their vision for the Third Reich. Not all the concentration camps were for the Jews, and not all of them were places were death camps. There were also the hard labour camps, where obscene medical experiments were performed on the prisoners. Recent historical research has shown that there were a lot more camps than we previously suspected, and the extermination machinery of the Nazis was a lot more wide-spread and gruesome than anyone could have believed. Books like this are necessary so coming generations can learn about the horror, and so that we never repeat our mistakes.

Sunday 5 May 2013

#CBR5 Book 46. "The Shadow in the North" by Philip Pullman

Page count: 361 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

Sally Lockhart has used her head for numbers to start up a consulting firm where she gives people financial advice. When an elderly teacher she's advised loses all her savings after putting all her money into a shipping company Sally told her was a sound investment, Sally is determined to find out what happened. She is reluctant to ask her friend Frederick Garland for help, even though he now mainly works as a private investigator, as Fred would like nothing more than to marry her, and Sally's really not sure she wants to give up her independence and business and become a wife.

Fred and Jim, a former street kid, who now works backstage at a theatre, and also assists Fred in his investigations, have a case involving a magician wanting protection from some very sinister underworld thugs, and as they start investigating, it turns out that the case of the threatened conjurer is closely connected to Sally's investigation into the failing shipping company, and the formidable and sinister Swedish tycoon Carl Bellman seems to be the very dangerous mastermind behind all of it. He wants to marry a young and innocent noblewoman, and seems capable of using any means to rid himself of anyone who might get in his way.

This is the second book in the young adult mystery series about Sally Lockhart, but the books work perfectly fine as stand alone novels. Since The Ruby in the Smoke, Sally has gone to Cambridge and got an education (but not a degree, as these were still not granted to women), invested heavily in the Garland photography business and used her organisational skills to make them successful and profitable. She's started her own business, and made a name for herself. The situation between her and Fred is decidedly tense, as she's rejected his marriage proposals more than once, and he's growing more and more hurt and frustrated.

Fred's frustration, and criticism of Sally, that she's brilliant, but cold and rather callous, is absolutely true, yet to a modern reader it's very clear why Sally might have misgivings about marriage. Even in the late Victorian age, her business, property, money and independence would all become subject  to Fred's whims if she allowed him to become her husband. Yet she clearly loves him, and hates the pain she's causing him. The rocky nature of their relationship, and the gradual way they manoeuvre through it, to find a resolution, is one of the things that held my interest the most.

That's not to say that the interconnected mysteries aren't engaging. Bellman, the extremely wealthy and dangerous businessman who's none too happy about Sally, Fred and Jim's investigation into his affairs. At first, it's not clear how the two cases are related, but as the industrious young people keep investigating, it becomes clear that Bellman has his fingers in a lot of pies, and that there are reasons why he won't hesitate to threaten, injure or even have people killed to avoid his schemes being revealed.

I was all set to give this book four stars, when events in the last third of the book went a lot darker than I was expecting from a young adult book, and Pullman upset me so much that I just couldn't enjoy the story as much anymore. I'm sure he had his reasons for doing what he did, but I'm not sure it was necessary, and I wish the resolution of the story had been accomplished differently.

#CBR5 Book 45. "Maskeblomstfamilien" (The Figwort Family) by Lars Saabye Christensen

Page count: 285 pages
Rating: 1.5 star

"I had a good childhood. My father died when I was twelve. My mother went to bed early. I was an only child." 

These are the opening lines of Maskeblomstfamilien, a title which can be translated as The Figwort Family, but which can be interpreted in several ways, and holds more than one meaning. The plants and flowers of the Figwort Family usually have large leaves that cover up and blanket the ground. The flowers are often without scent, but if they do smell, it's more of an unpleasant stench than a refreshing smell. Foxglove, and other flowers in the Digitalis family, which is a subgroup of the Figwort family, are all poisonous.

In Norwegian, the title can also be broken into three - maske means mask, blomst means flower and familien means the family. Every significant person in this novel are not entirely as they appear at first, they all wear masks. The Greek tragedy of Oedipus also plays a central part in the last third of the novel, which is in itself structured as a classical tragedy in three acts. The flower is Adrian, the protagonist, who, considering the environment in which he is raised, unsurprisingly grows up to be a deeply twisted individual. The Wang family, his family, are not supportive or nurturing, and they all have dark secrets.

Adrian Wang might claim he had a good childhood, but the reader quickly learns that he is a very unreliable narrator. Born in the 1950s, during a solar eclipse, living in a dark and mostly empty flat in the centre of Oslo, situated right behind the Royal Palace, the reader quickly sees that he is not quite like other children. He doesn't take part in P.E, with a doctor's note ensuring that he can stay on the sidelines. He is told by more than one adult that he is completely shameless. He overhears his parents arguing with the family doctor about an operation that needs to be performed before he grows too old, and it's too late. He appears completely devoid of empathy for others, a calculating, devious child, always wanting to manipulate situations to his own advantage.

His mother is beautiful, delicate and distant. His father works long hours as a patent engineer. He doesn't seem to be around much, and when he's not working, he shuts himself away in his home office, or sits in the parlor, reading Time magazine with hands covered in white gloves. There is also an aunt, his father's older sister, who Adrian nicknames "the skeleton". She's skinny, bitter and cracks her knuckles loudly. These are the adults our protagonist is supposed to take his guidance from.

When it comes to peers his own age, Adrian doesn't really have any. He's a solitary child, with no real friends to speak of. None of the other boys seem to like him much, and more than once he is bullied and beaten up. The closest thing he has to a friend is Emilie, the Albino girl who lives one floor down from him. She's also an only child, and more of an obvious victim with her milky white skin, cleft lip and red, sensitive eyes. She tries to show Adrian kindness and friendship, but is frequently met with scorn and rebuffed.

The book follows Adrian from the age of 12 until he is 17. As he says in the opening lines - his father died when he was twelve - by shooting himself in the head with a shotgun. Whether it's because his business is failing, or something darker and more sinister, is unclear. Lillian, Adrian's already frequently distant mother, retreats into silent grief and/or shame and becomes the Widow for the remains of the story. The aunt moves in and tries to take control of the household. The Widow is moved from the master bedroom to the maid's pantry, spending most of her time in bed, until she is finally so far gone that she is taken away by the family doctor, and only Adrian and the Aunt remain, locked in a battle of wills. Then, at the end of the first act, Emilie disappears, to be found three days later, dead in the basement. Was her death an accident, or did something worse happen to her?

Lars Saabye Christensen is a very critically acclaimed Norwegian writer, and most of his books deal with boys growing up in Oslo in the 1950s and 60s. His protagonists are often a bit different, wanting nothing so much as to fit in, be one of the guys. He has a brilliant way with words, but despite this being the sixth of his novels that I've read, his books at best leave me indifferent and bored, and at worst, creep me out and disgust me. This book was one of the ones that absolutely disgusted me. I found it completely impossible to even vaguely sympathise with Adrian, despite the ways he is mistreated as a child, and clearly not given the help he so desperately needs. When he was bullied and beaten, a part of me cheered the bullies on. It's obvious from very early on that bad things are going to happen in the book, and that Adrian is going to be the cause of some of them. He is a sociopath and a very evil person. I wanted horrible things to happen to him. I don't like feeling that way when I read, I was comforted to hear that most of the others in my Norwegian course, including the lecturer felt much the same way - you're clearly not meant to like Adrian. Even so, I've given Christensen six chances, and with each new book I read, I'm more convinced than before that his books are not for me. I'm not going to be reading any more of Christensen's books, even if most of them don't have such twisted protagonists.