The Death House by Sarah Pinborough
Published 2015, Gollancz
This is one of the free books I picked up at FantasyCon 2015. I’ve not read anything by Sarah Pinborough before but I have heard her speak at events.
In a post-apocalyptic future some people have developed a genetic mutation that reveals itself in the teenage years. It is so serious that children have regular blood tests and those that show the markers are removed from society. They are taken to homes where they are fed and watched until the illness presents itself and then they are taken to the sanitarium.
The Death House is the story of Toby and Clara who meet in the house and develop a sweet teenage relationship. It is beautifully written and the interactions of the characters are engaging and moving.
The trouble is I had expectations that something gory and gruesome was going to happen and it never did. I liked the book and I will read more of Sarah Pinborough’s work; she’s a great writer. I guess I had it in my mind that she was a horror writer of a more physical sort. The Death House is a lyrical horror of a more subtle type.
Marked, by Sue Tingey
Published 2015 by Jo Fletcher Books
First read of the books acquired at FantasyCon 2015 is Sue Tingey’s Marked, book 1 of the Soulseer Chronicles.
It is the story of a woman, Lucky de Salle, who sees the dead and makes a living helping them pass on. Her best friend is Kayla, who she believes to be a ghost. When Lucky is asked to return to her old school to exorcise the spirits of two little girls it opens a new phase in her life. She learns there are more worlds than she thought there were and nothing she thought she knew is true.
Marked is the first book of a series and it very much feels like it. I got to the end of the book and felt as though I’d just reached the beginning. There is plot, in that Lucky has to work out what’s going on and what has happened to her best friend, but there are some false starts. Is is a ghost story? Is it a mystery? It’s not really either. The real plot is what choice will Lucky make when faced with a new world?
Lucky is a bit of a Mary Sue character and this is most evident in her relationship with Jamie (the angel) and Jinx (the devil). They are both very taken with her, which I don’t find wildly unrealistic as they both know she’s a demon princess rather than the mousy human she thinks she is, but I find it icky the way they coo about how sweet she is. It’s patronising and infantilising. At the end of the book this love triangle could go either way. It could devolve into Lucky having to choose between them and be all Mills and Boon. Or, it could open into a polyamorous relationship and it would be lovely to see that portrayed. In the demon world polyamory and a full expression of the variety of love is accepted, but on the other hand a high premium is placed on virginity. To my mind those things are contradictory. I hope Tingey takes the opportunity to explore less traditional paths.
It was an easy read and mildly entertaining. I’m aware that the things I don’t like about it are things that have irritated me much more in other books, so they’re not that bad. I think the thing is that it didn’t quite live up to its potential. But if you’re looking for something unchallenging and you like paranormal romance you could do worse.
I ran out of book while I was at work so went raiding the book drop. I wasn’t feeling that mentally energetic so I went for an easy read. And I’m still looking for that sweet and sexy feminist romance. At this rate I might have to write it myself. Please leave any recommendations in the comments!
Stupid Cupid by Arabella Weir is the story of a woman who persists with a wedding despite the absence of the groom. Hat is dumped by her fiance, Jimmy, about six weeks before their wedding. She’s in shock and without any better idea, she just continues with the wedding train. Part of her thinks that Jimmy is just having cold feet and will change his mind. Part of her just doesn’t want to deal with calling off the wedding. And part of her wanted a wedding far more than she wanted a marriage.
The weeks pass quickly and the situation is complicated by Hat’s perfect sister and hypercritical mother. A friend suggests a beard; Hat should have a stand-in pretend to be Jimmy and go through with the wedding with her. Said friend just happens to have a suitable man to hand. Naturally, Hat finds the new chap much more to her liking.
It was ok. Not nearly as infuriating as the last romance I read and Hat was a reasonably rounded character, even if she did suffer from low body-confidence and too much self-deprecation. The supporting characters were a little stereotypical and included the gay best friend and louche old lady. It’s supposed to be a comedy but it didn’t make me laugh. My taste isn’t for farce though, so if you like that sort of thing, you might enjoy it more than I did.
It turns out I don’t like writing reviews of books I really didn’t enjoy. (Even though I do it a fair bit). I’ve been putting this one off for some time.
Romance isn’t my normal genre and it’s not a favourite, but I occasionally read it because sometimes I do want a romantic story. Unfortunately, it seems that I what I consider romantic isn’t the same as the romance genre and I’m often disappointed. Also, I claim to read widely and sometimes I have to prove it. 😉 When I bought The Big, Not-so-Small, Curvy Girls, BBW Romance Dating Agency I was looking for something sexy and sweet and easy to read. And if not too much to ask, non-stereotypical gender roles. That was too much to ask so I settled for a protagonist that is fat.
What I got was depressing and infuriating. The main character Becky, wants to start her own business, a dating agency for big women and men and those that appreciate them. A laudable goal, except the book was written in 2013 and it doesn’t appear to have occurred to her that online dating is a thing. There are loads of websites, catering to all sorts of persuasion, from people wanting to date within their own religion to people looking for a specific body type. She’s got a lot of competition.
Becky is self-deprecating to an off-putting degree. While it might be realistic that she’s insecure about whether or not the object of her affections likes her back, I really wanted to read about someone positive, assertive and body-confident. Becky’s best friend Sam seemed a bit like that and I would rather have been reading about her.
The other thing that annoyed me may well be a trope of the genre and not specific to this book. I don’t read enough romance to know. Becky and Reed (said object of affection) spend a lot of time mooning about how lovely and amazing the other is, how they like them more than they should (Diet Coke ad type beefcake Reed has a model girlfriend, who is conveniently unpleasant), and how they are falling in love with the other. All this is based on very little interaction. They are declaring undying love after about three short dates. I spent much of the book frustrated with the total lack of a basis for liking each other. I don’t know how difficult it would be to write a romance where two people develop affection for each other through shared interests and spending a lot of time together, but I suspect it would be hard. And lack drama and be a bit dull for the reader. Even so, the intense emotional reactions appeared elicited by the mere sight of the other and wasn’t convincing at all.
This is a funny little book and I’m not sure what it’s about. In The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (translated from French by Alison Anderson) a concierge, Renee, looks after an apartment building in Paris inhabited by very rich people.
Most of the people who live in the building don’t notice Renee unless they want something and even then they barely condescend to see her. She goes on with her life, reading about philosphy, art, science and anything else that attracts her sharp and broad mind. It suits her to be unseen and to keep her erudition, which she believes inappropriate to her class, to herself. Her best friend is Manuela, who cleans in some of the apartments.
One of the inhabitants of the building is Paloma, a little girl looking for meaning in life but too intelligent to be taken in by the meanings offered to her by her family and culture. Then an elderly resident dies and someone new moves in. Kakuro immediately sees beyond Renee’s facade and gently pursues her.
It is an easy read and an absolute joy . The prose is elegant, the characters likeable, and the diversions on art and philosophy are interesting. But I’m not sure how well it works as a story. There is a reason beyond class that Renee doesn’t want to reveal her self-education but, while it is a perfectly good reason, it is dumped on the reader all in one go, late in the book. There’s no foreshadowing or hinting at a deeper fear of exposure. The feel of the book throughout is one of a very light touch, of delight in life in various ways and the tragic ending doesn’t quite work with it. I couldn’t accept the tragedy as presented and thus couldn’t be moved by it.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog tries to balance philosophical musing with telling a story. The musing is elegant and fascinating and works really well. The story suffers. But, I did enjoy it despite being frustrated by the ending. I would recommend it if you enjoy beautiful prose.
Tiger of Talmare by Nina Scott is a novella that I stumbled across while I was browsing Amazon for contemporary science fiction written by women.
Mel is a space pirate who has been hired to hijack a spaceship carrying the cryogenically frozen Zach to be tried for a massacre on Talmare. Zach is a tiger-human hybrid soldier, who happens to have been chasing Mel across the galaxy for the last ten years, ever since she stole his ship.
The cryochamber is damaged so Mel has to revive Zach. He convinces her he’s innocent. The man who hired her is the real culprit and is trying to silence Zach. As the story is uncovered it turns out there is connection to a troubled member of Mel’s crew so Mel decides to do the right thing. And as this is a romance as much as an adventure, Mel and Zach get it on.
This is a fun romp heavy on action and dialogue. These elements are well done and the book is pretty entertaining. It’s a novella, coming in at a mere 100 pages, so there’s not much room for anything else. I think these characters have a lot of potential and if the story was fleshed out with description and context it would make a great novel.
I liked it. It’s currently free as an ebook, so give it a go.
On a side note, I’m keen to read science fiction written by women. Any suggestions? I’m looking for people publishing now, rather than classics of the genre.
Somewhat disturbingly, I rather enjoyed No Place for a Lady by Louise Allen. I’ve grown so used to not enjoying Mills & Boon that at first I wondered if my critical faculties were on the fritz.
Bree Mallory runs a stagecoach company. She has aristocratic relations but has to make her own living which she does quite well. One night a driver lets her down and rather than cancel the coach, Bree drives it herself. On the way she is caught up in a race between members of a gentlemen’s club. One of the racers is Max Dysart, a handsome, rich and eligible aristocrat.
Rather nicely, the conflict in their relationship is not driven by internal insecurities, but by the differences in their social status and by Max’s uncertainty over whether his first wife is dead. Unfortunately, the plot twist at the end where someone pretends to be his dead wife is rushed and never really becomes a threat to the inevitable wedding.
Well, I sort of enjoyed most of it, because Louise Allen gets right something that really bugs me about Mills & Boon. She provides her romantic leads with context. There are lots of other characters, several of whom are well drawn and rounded, and the Regency set in London is brought to life quite effectively. Bree is genuinely an independent woman and that’s quite refreshing.
Obviously, I’m not really recommending this as it’s still a romance and not really my thing, but it was ok.
The second book of the Twilight Saga by Stephanie Meyer is New Moon. In this part Edward leaves Bella, for her own good natch, and she goes into a big funk for months. Then she discovers that if she engages in activities that could kill her, her subconscious provides an hallucination of Edward being all domineering. She hangs out with Jacob who falls in love with her and turns out to be a werewolf. Bella wonders if she can settle for being adored by someone she can’t love but then discovers Edward has gone off to get himself killed because he can’t live without her.
Bella goes off to find Edward in the company of Alice (Edward’s sort of vampire sister), meets lots of scary vampires who like to eat people, and brings Edward back. She bangs on a lot about wanting to be a vampire.
There’s even less plot in New Moon than there was in Twilight and even more disturbing relationships. The quality of the writing has slipped a bit from the first book and doesn’t seem quite as polished. It wasn’t as engaging and afterwards I felt a bit dirty.
Now I really understand what the issue is with these books. Twilight was ok, really it wasn’t any worse than your average romance novel. But New Moon takes it to another level. Bella only regains any happiness when imaginary Edward is abusively yelling at her in her hallucinations.
Then there is a really telling moment at the end. Edward has been his usual terse, controlling self who appears to only speak to Bella in order to correct her, admonish her or berate her over something. He acts as though he hates her. But for a moment, at the end, after he has left her and tried to kill herself, he makes a speech about how he loves her to distraction really, and all his arsehattery is because he loves her so much. It was a little out of place and read like the sort of thing the author wishes someone would say to her.
It is tragic that this resonates with so many women and girls.
More short books! Bride of the Solway by Joanna Maitland is a Mills & Boon (and yes, I still have more of them on book mountain).
Our heroine, Cassie, is the prisoner of her step-brother, the Laird of Langrigg. He has gambling debts and plans to marry his sister to a wealthy but weak husband, just as soon as he can find a suitable mark. Cassie tries to escape and runs into Captain Ross Graham, a man searching for a family. The step-brother captures Cassie, beats up Ross and throws him in gaol.
On getting out of gaol, Ross renews his acquaintance with Colonel Anstruther, whose wife is very sick and is expected to die soon. Cassie’s brother decides that Anstruther will need a new wife soon and that should be Cassie. During visits engineered to endear Cassie to Anstruther, she confides in Ross and they plan an escape to her godfather in England. Once there, Ross discovers that his family are distantly related to Cassie’s godfather. Her brother chased them in their escape and they believe that he died. But he didn’t and snatches Cassie from her godfather’s garden and takes her back to Scotland, where he forces her to marry an old man who paid £5,000 for her.
But Ross comes for her and rescues her at the altar. They are then married and live happily ever after.
This one annoyed me a lot less than the other Mills & Boon have, largely because there was a lot more plot and a not very much mooning about by either protagonist. Having said that, the plot was still pretty thin and really lacked tension. Without the artifical tension created by the mooning about, i.e. the protagonists’ internal monologue about how they love the other but mustn’t, love the other but also hate the other, love the other but don’t want to admit it, love the other but think the other hates them, etc – the tension must derive from the plot. Will Cassie end up in Bedlam or married off for money? Well, no, the possibility is never believable. I suppose if it was, it couldn’t be a Mills & Boon story. I wonder whether my expectations of this genre are so unshakeably set that there is nothing the author could do to make me doubt what the ending will be. The only way would be to tell a different story. And then Mills and Boon wouldn’t have published it.
The other elements were quite thin as well. Characterisation relied on tropes and the dialogue was actually quite bad, especially when it was in dialect. The one exception was the character of Colonel Anstruther, an old man clearly in love with his dying wife – it was sweetly and poignantly drawn.
I try to read as widely as possible and sometimes that means reading things I don’t think I’m going to like. Things I don’t think I’m going to like include romance novels, especially Mills & Boon. However, there is something to be learnt from reading these books, namely ‘how to create emotional intensity through internal monologue’.
A Noble Captive by Michelle Sykes is a historical romance set on the edges of the Roman Empire in 75 BC. The captive in question is a Roman tribune, a contemporary of Julius Caesar, who is captured by pirates in the Mediterranean and taken to the island temple of Kybele. The story is inspired by the capture of the young Caesar by pirates although the ending is significantly less bloody.
The heroine is the assistant priestess, struggling to keep the temple going financially and spiritually while the sibyl is unwell. She is trying to walk a tightrope between political factions she doesn’t really understand.
Actually, there’s a good deal more plot in this than in the other Mills & Boon I’ve read. Although that doesn’t mean there’s a lot of plot. There’s a sprinkling of solid historical detail but this is undermined by a lack of rigour in other areas. For example, tribune was a very high office but in this book it comes across as not much more than a centurion.
So, yeah, there’s not much to say about this. It was fairly fluffy and not as annoying as previous Mills & Boon have been (does that mean I’m getting indoctrinated??), but there’s little to recommend it.