Elmore Leonard said: I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ''full of rape and adverbs.''

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Beast of Burden

My TBR pile is overflowing; quivering on the verge of insurmountable. It stares at me accusingly, an ungainly presence on my troubled conscience. etc.

This (sideways) pile is by no means exhaustive. There are books I own that I can’t even begin contemplating at the moment (Moby Dick, anyone? What was I thinking? That is definitely one for a long vacation). There are also the two books currently weighing down my bag - Murder on the Leviathan by the Russian writer Boris Akunin and Voices of the Night, by Lydia Joyce.

Now, I must admit I have seen worse piles, but not in my house. Never have I spent so expansively and read so slowly. I blame the blogs. There are so many great books out there, read and recommended by all and sundry, that I simply can't resist. Combine this with my trigger happy internet shopping 'problem' and there is no saving me from my own folly.

This is the list as far as I can tell:
  • Demon Angel
  • Demon Moon (These books have come sooo highly recommended I don't know why I keep putting them off. Anticipation? I think I'm waiting for the third to come out, so I can read all in a happy, gluttonous haze.)
  • Kafka on the Shore (Murakami)
  • Dead Sky (Hoag)
  • Duke of Sin (Ashworth)
  • The Devil to Pay (Carlyle)
  • Theft (Carey)
  • Cold Comfort Farm (Gibson)
  • Slightly Married (Balogh)
  • Simply Love (Balogh)
  • Slightly Wicked (and again)
  • Simply Unforgettable (I've never read a Balogh and went a little mad here...)
  • The Victorian House (Flanders)
  • Midsummer Moon (Kinsale)
  • For My Lady's Heart (Kinsale)
  • My Sweet Folly (Kinsale)
  • The Crimson Petal and the White (Faber)
  • If his Kiss is Wicked (Goodman)
  • Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Pessl)
  • The Inheritance of Loss (Desai)
  • Skylight Confessions (Hoffman)
  • The Editor's Wife (Chambers)
  • Absurdistan (Shteyngart)
  • The Plot Against America (Roth)
  • Consuming Passions, Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain (Flanders)
Also - but not pictured
  • The Tin Drum (Grass)
  • Lady Audley's Secret (Braddon)
  • Not Quite a Lady (Chase)
  • Disobedience (Alderman)
  • Jane Eyre (one day...)
  • The Dream Thief (Abe)
  • Bliss (Cuevas)
  • Dance (Cuevas)
  • Moral Disorder (Atwood)
  • The Tent (Atwood)

Saturday, 22 September 2007

On Football (or "soccer" to the unenlightened)

I've had a general interest in football for a couple of years now, which has only recently developed into a fully-fledged love affair. I love the game (obviously) but there's the other stuff that I love just as much. I love the sports pages, I love the feuds and the history and the antics of players and managers both off and on the pitch. I love the tea-time football newsletter I get every weekday and my favorite football podcast and of course I love my football team (Manchester United - I know, know, but I love them, I can't help it!) and my favorite Manager (Alex Ferguson) and I loved to hate Jose Murhino; that dark, satanic, provocative imp. Ah, Jose, you will be missed.

This week I entered "Pick the Score," The Guardian's new predictions game. It's devilishly simple (which is a good thing). All I have to do is predict the score for upcoming premiership games. If I predict the score correctly I get 3 points, if I merely predict the outcome I get 1. Simple! So I joined belatedly this week and started with the average number of points accrued by the participants so far - 26.

My current rank: 9,514

Top score currently: 60

I've predicted my first set of scores and those games begin today. I have to be honest, I've checked the latest scores and it's not looking good. At this point if I can get my rank up to 5,000 I'll be a happy camper.

ETA: Congratulations to the United State's women's football team, who soundly spanked England in the quarter-finals of the World Cup. And to England, dammit, for getting so far.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

The Smoke Thief, by Shana Abe

Ten minutes into this book (I was on the bus, bored) left me enthralled and excited, as I feel when I know I’ve got hours of great reading ahead of me.
“Imagine a place so ripe and thick with the promise of magic that the very air breathes in plumes of pearl and gray and smoky blue; that the trees bow with the weight of their heavy branches, dipping low to the ground, dropping needles and leaves into beds of perfume.”

Isn’t that pretty? Overwrought, yes, but pretty!

Clarissa Rue Hawthorne is a halfling. A member of the Drakon tribe, living in seclusion among the green hills of northern England, she is a perpetual outsider in this closely knit society - for her father was a mortal. The Drakons are a beautiful and mysterious breed, with the ability to shift from human to smoke to dragon and back again. There’s just one problem; only a dwindling number of males can Turn and no woman has for generations. Thus the tribe lives in fear of its own extinction.

From a young age, Clarissa has loved Christoff, son and heir of the tribe’s Alpha, the Marquess of Langford. She loves in vain, however, as Christoff - older, beautiful, bored - pays her scant attention, sowing his wild oats among the impressionable young women of the tribe.

And so Clarissa contrives the impossible - she escapes the tribe (runners are hunted down and brought back without fail) and contrives to make a life for herself in London. As the Smoke Thief, she steals the brightest, most dazzling of jewels from the highest echelons of society.

Years later, her fame has reached the ears of the tribe, most particularly the new Marquess of Langford, Christoff, or Kit. Using the famed Langford Diamond as bait, a trap is set for the Smoke Thief. It is only when Kit catches Clarissa that he realises the thief is a woman - and she is the only drakon female alive able to turn. This makes her the female Alpha and his mate.

From there, the story twists and turns, revolving around these compelling characters and their passionate, absorbing relationship.

I don’t think Abe strikes a wrong note throughout the book, sustaining elements of romance and fantasy and adventure in a very particular time and place (18th century England). Her writing is assured and poetic, her dialogue never jars. I gobbled up the book in one day and immediately went on-line to order the next. (To my disappointment, the third in the series is out next spring, not as Amazon claim in December).

What did I like? Everything! Kit - his golden hair and sleepy green eyes; an Alpha in the true sense, without resorting to the ass-holism so often synonymous with the term. He is the leader of his tribe, and this is an integral part of him; his duty to the tribe and the sacrifices he makes for its greater good have shaped him.

Clarissa (or Rue) is the perfect mate for Kit - strong, brave, loyal and smart. Her decisions are logical, her desire for freedom and autonomy real and valid - indeed, I was utterly indignant on her behalf when this freedom is threatened by the tribe. Often novels have heroines acting wildly out of character to serve the plot - didn’t happen here. Rue is great. My only quibble was with her great and unearthly beauty, but all drakon are beautiful, so I suppose I have to let that go.

The dragon aspect is well done. Abe skillfully avoids the cheesy and creates magical, wondrous creatures of beauty and grace. Rue and Kit’s first flight - more of a midnight chase - is high octane, thrilling, brutal.

What a wonderful surprise this book was. I haven’t read an A-story in months. Highly recommended!

(As an aside, there are some excellent reviews of this book out there, on the big wide web. I recommend Dear Author as one such place).

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Match Me If You Can, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips.

I’m a huge SEP fan and have been for years. YEARS. I read my first one when I was school all those years ago... she’s consistently smart, funny and her characters are alive. Larger than life, brash, unrepentantly outrageous.

So why did I put this book off for an entire year?

Her last two left me feeling a little flat. Writers evolve, grow in confidence and skill, become more serious. In her last couple of books, I think SEP toned down the high camp of her earlier novels, giving her characters more maturity and self-awareness. Which is fine but, necessarily, some of the dramatic tension, the highs and lows of a roller-coaster romance are also missing. In its place was more of the earnestness, the self-growth, the finding-yourself-in-your-lowest-moment stuff that is always central to an SEP novel. Whilst enjoyable, I was left feeling a little unsatisfied.

So does this latest - a return to her popular Chicago Stars series - turn things around?

Annabelle Granger is a professional matchmaker. Her small struggling company - Perfect for You - desperately needs business and that’s where Heath Champion(!) comes in. Heath is a very successful sports agent and the hottest bachelor in town. Wealthy, driven and gorgeous Heath is Annabelle’s polar opposite. For - of course - Annabelle is a bit of a flake. Her life is as unruly and out of control as her wild red hair. She is the disappointment of her uber-successful family, the perpetual failure. What saves Annabelle from annoying the hell out of me is her very droll sense of humour and her amusing sparring bouts with Heath.

Annabelle manages to (very cleverly) trick Heath into hiring her services. Heath’s looking for Mrs Champion - refined, beautiful, upper class, the very antidote to his humble beginnings - and Annabelle brings him fresh candidates to consider. Heath insists that Annabelle sit through every introduction and thus their odd, quirky relationship begins. Indeed, thinks Heath,
If Annabelle were a few inches taller, a hell of a lot more sophisticated, better organised, less bossy and more inclined to worship at his feet, she’d have made a perfect wife.

The good: My favourite romances are the ones where I don’t want the verbal foreplay to end. When the flirting, bickering, falling-in-love-and-not-knowing goes on and on and I just love it. This was perfect. Heath and Annabelle had a great, fizzing chemistry, sparkling repartee and the whole friends to something more was handled with just the right touch. And how great was it that they were friends first? (I’m reading some Shannon McKenna short stories at the moment and I think my eyes were starting to bleed...) Pretty damn great. These two, the reader thinks, fit in more ways than good old sexual compatibility.

The bad. Well, I would say this begins when Heath and Annabelle start to get serious about their feelings. From this point on, it’s all self-doubt and denial and angst. As per practically every SEP book in existence, the heroine can’t believe that the hero loves her and throws his declaration back in his face (how many times does SEP use this device? How many times has the hero publicly declared himself, only to be rejected and humiliated?) There is that moment of self-realisation when the heroine thinks “I DESERVE to be LOVED” and, of course, there is much abasement of the hero before she gets that yes - YES - he really, really loves her as she so rightly DESERVES to be LOVED.

Unh. After the fizz and crackle of the first two thirds of the book, this was a real downer.

The other thing that brought me down were all the visitors from previous Chicago Stars novels. This is such a tired device, the author really milking her franchise - buy the other books, buy the other books! At one point, as the women approach their men, Phoebe murmurs
“Welcome to the Garden of the Gods, ladies.”

I mean, come on! The premise - that footballers are smart, articulate, romance novel material - is shaky enough to begin with. When they stand together - Gods among men - I felt my credulity stretched beyond repair.

The secondary romance - featuring a rival matchmaker and Heath’s friend - was tacked on and slightly jarring even though there is a very funny bit at the end that had me snorting to myself.

Overall, a solid B.