Friday, November 29, 2013

Review: THE ENGLISH GIRL by Daniel Silva

the english girl cover

Harper sent me a copy of The English Girl for review consideration, which did not influence my review in any way.

Infamous Israeli intelligence agent Gabriel Allon is enjoying his retirement from the spy business by dedicating himself to art restoration. But when an old friend in MI-5 calls in a favor, Gabriel agrees to go on the search for a missing English girl—technically woman—who just happens to be the Prime Minister's secret mistress. Will Gabriel be able to save the girl and find her mysterious kidnapper, a man who supposedly doesn't exist?

I think this is probably the best modern (as in, not in the public domain) spy/thriller novel I've ever read. Admittedly I don't read a lot of them, mainly because they tend to bore me out of my pie holes (I'm writing this during Thanksgiving... mmmm, pie). I managed to get through Mission to Paris, I'm not entirely sure how, and I can drag myself through a Dan Brown novel (with much whining about how long it is along the way), but that's about it. Even though it's in the same genre, however, The English Girl doesn't seem comparable to those books—it blows Mission to Paris and any other spy/thriller novel I've come across out of the water in terms of storytelling, writing, and characterization.

In the beginning, The English Girl feels slightly reminiscent of the TV show Scandal. The UK Prime Minister is being threatened with the publication of his affair if he doesn't give in to the kidnappers' demands, so he does what any powerful politician would: calls in the fixers to try and cover it up. As the story progresses, however, the problem evolves from something very specific and localized—find the girl and rescue her—into something with huge consequences for the British Isles and all of Europe. That probably sounds over-the-top, but it's not entirely unbelievable, and at least one of the things Daniel Silva mentions as a potential threat to Israel in The English Girl has recently come to pass.

But The English Girl has more than solid research and plausibility to back it up; for one thing, Silva is a really good writer. There's an almost a poetic use of repetition in the novel that reminds me a bit of Charles Dickens or the chorus of a Greek tragedy. It's the use of ideas and phrases to underscore cycles within the story, rather than the repetition of plot points just because you might not have gotten it the first time. I never once felt like Silva was talking down to his readers or assuming they're idiots—Allon is smart, and there were a few times where he was a few steps ahead of me. Finally, even though Silva's writing style is by no means humorous or light-hearted, there's an underlying wit to the novel that I loved. There are some great one-liners in The English Girl, mostly coming from Gabriel. Here are just a few of my favorites:

Hamdi... had been posing as a playwright, and Gabriel had given him a death worthy of his literary pretensions.

"Jews don't camp, Keller. The last time the Jews went camping, they spent forty years wandering in the desert."

"We have a saying in our service, Graham. We believe that a career without scandal is not a proper career at all."
"We're British," Seymour answered. "We don't have sayings, and we don't like scandals."

The English Girl is also a surprisingly emotional novel, something I've personally never encountered in a spy/thriller like this before. The director of Israeli intelligence accuses Gabriel of making emotional decisions, and it's true: even though he's a trained assassin, he's not some sort of automaton. He acts out of love, anger, and fear exactly as any normal person would, despite his far-from-normal life. But then the same is true for the other characters in the book, too, and the fact that there are personal feelings and motivations driving the characters and tying them together is one of the major reasons why I like the book so much.

I also enjoyed Christopher Keller, or "the Englishman," who serves as a foil to Gabriel. Unlike Gabriel, Keller behaves more like the trained assassins one encounters in movies and novels—a tough, cold-blooded, emotionless killer. But Gabriel doesn't buy his act, just like Keller doesn't buy into his old man routine, and watching the two of them work together is pretty entertaining.

Women also play a strong role in the novel, although it's an indirect one. The English Girl depicts, by and large, a man's game in a man's world, but those men have self-identities and beliefs that are shaped by their mothers, sisters, wives, and female friends. Again, this is an example of the emotional nature of the novel and how well-drawn the characters are. I'd hardly call The English Girl a feminist novel, but it does acknowledge the importance of women to men, and not just as some sort of sidekick or sexual object.

Finally, I liked how Silva took a standard thriller plot and turned it into something epic by taking Gabriel on a journey through the Underworld (metaphorically speaking, of course). He goes into hell and it's "white, pure white," to quote North & South. The English Girl isn't just an entertaining story, it's a book that's about something—resurrection, second chances, and accepting who you are and your place in the world.

Not that the novel was absolutely perfect, of course—Part Three was a much-too-long epilog, and there were some things that were left hanging or answered. But overall I not only enjoyed reading The English Girl, but was super-impressed with it. I am definitely going to be digging into Silva's backlist in 2014!

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Review: THE GREAT MISTAKE by Mary Roberts Rinehart

the great mistake cover

Patricia Abbott is the social secretary to Mrs. Maud Wrainwright, the mistress of a huge mansion called the Cloisters because a good portion of it is a medieval monastery, shipped stone-by-stone from Europe to the idyllic hill overlooking the small town of Beverly. Pat likes her employer and her job, but a pall is cast over the Cloisters when a series of attacks and murders take place in the estate's ominously-named Playhouse. Will Pat and her friends from Beverly be able to discover who the murderer is, or will an innocent person go to jail?

As long-time readers of this blog know, I'm a fan of Mary Roberts Rinehart, the so-called American Agatha Christie (I somewhat disagree with that statement, but if it inspires other people to read her books, I'm good with it). The Great Mistake reminded me of another book of Rinehart's, The Swimming Pool—not just because the covers look similar, but because three quarters of the people who are attacked in this novel wind up either in or next to a swimming pool. I'm going to guess "the great mistake" was installing a pool. Never put in a pool! That way murder lies.

The Great Mistake also deals with similar themes to The Swimming Pool: wealth, the precariousness of the American dream, and so on. It's less successful than The Swimming Pool at fleshing those themes out, but I do think The Great Mistake is much better than The Swimming Pool at telling a good story with sympathetic characters.

The beginning of The Great Mistake immediately sucked me in. I loved Pat and how she definitely had people she liked and people she didn't. I also loved the chemistry between her and Tony Wrainwright, Maud's son. He's definitely charming, whereas Pat isn't, and it takes her a while to warm up to him. And then his wife shows up. Dun-dun-dun!

The mystery was also very complicated and difficult to figure out. For most of the novel I thought this was a good thing. But after the attack on Maud, I felt like it was time things started wrapping up. They didn't; there was a good 100 pages to go and people STILL kept being attacked. It was annoying because these attacks didn't further the plot of the book at all, nor did they provide me clues as to who the murderer was. Keeping readers in the dark is all well and good, but at some point one does need a collection of viable suspects. Even after the detective explained how he figured out who the killer was, Rinehart STILL kept the name of the murderer from us. I was like, "JUST TELL ME WHO THE FUCKING MURDERER IS ALREADY!" Seriously, I said that aloud, while banging the book against my forehead. I was THAT annoyed. If this novel had had a neck I would have strangled it.

The Great Mistake also employs a strange narrative device where Pat describes scenes to the reader as if she witnessed them personally, when she didn't (it's written in the first person, from Pat's point of view). I didn't hate the device, but it was a little odd, and it stretched the story out by a good third or maybe even a half. I don't need to sit in on every freaking conversation the police have, you feel me? If Rinehart wanted to include scenes that didn't involve Pat, why write The Great Mistake in the first person? It was just odd.

Because of the ending, my feelings toward The Great Mistake are mixed. I loved the first half and all the drama between Tony, his wife, Pat, and the other drama going on in Beverly. But by the second half neither Tony nor Maud do very much except panic because another person's dead in the Playhouse, which made them pretty boring; and the final quarter tried my patience to the nth degree (not that that's very difficult to do). There was a point where Rinehart just really needed to stop and wrap things up, and she went way beyond that point. That being said, Pat was a great character, and for the most part it was good mystery. Overall I think The Great Mistake was an okay read, but it's a bummer how a terrible ending can completely alter one's opinion of a novel.

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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Review: HURRICANE LILY by Rebecca Rogers Maher

hurricane lily cover

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess who was trapped at the top of an ivory tower. Actually, it was a cottage on Cape Cod, but the end result was the same. Then a carpenter with a ginger beard showed up at her door to reinforce the walls of her self-imposed prison. Ironically, what he actually wound up doing was tearing them down (metaphorically speaking, of course).

After finishing The Bridge, I immediately downloaded Rebecca Rogers Maher's backlist. Hurricane Lily wasn't as good as The Bridge, mainly because it was too much with the narration of backstory and inner reflection. But I did like the unconventional characters and how Rogers brought class conflicts and environmental issues into the story.

Basically Hurricane Lily is about two people who are extremely angry. First you have Lily, an agoraphobic with OCD who's obsessed with hurricane-proofing her run-down cottage BECAUSE YOU NEVER KNOW. At first it might seem like Lily's afraid of everything, but actually she's just pissed off and terrified of her own anger against humanity in general and her dad in particular. Then you have Cliff, a Vassar-educated reverse snob who hates rich people and dreams of writing a mystery that "means something." He's sick of dealing with rich people and their selfish crap. SICK OF IT. More specifically, he's pissed that his dad died because he didn't have health insurance.

So you have an uptown girl meeting a downtown boy with a chip on shoulder, and whenever they start talking--usually about how the ice caps are melting or the like--they fight, then have sex. Usually I'm a total sucker for books like this, but in this case Cliff was just way too self-righteous and annoying. I also thought his expectations were unrealistic—he kept acting like he was at Lily's house to attend a soiree or something, expecting her to feed and water him and his crew while they're working. Keep in mind she is paying an exorbitant amount of money in order for him to DO HIS JOB, not have tea with her. Methinks he can provide his own lunch and soda pop.

As for Lily, I thought Maher played the poor-little-rich-girl card in a really interesting way and turned her into a very sympathetic character where she might otherwise have come across as pathetic or annoying. I also liked that Maher used Lily's wealth as a source of conflict in the story. Usually in romance novels, if there's a huge socio-economic disparity between the hero and heroine (and, let's face it, that's pretty common) the tensions that might result from that are either completely ignored or glossed over. Ooops, she's a secret heiress! Problem solved. Not in Hurricane Lily; Maher shows how Lily's been judged by others because of her family's wealth and how the money doesn't solve her problems or make her happy.

That being said, the pace of the novella was really slow because there was way too much time spent on the characters' thinks, feels, and backstory that I don't think was necessary. Also, the ending was REALLY abrupt. Like, whiplash-abrupt.

Overall I liked Hurricane Lily, though, despite those problems. If you like unusual romances with working-class heroes, it's worth the $2 to try it.

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Thursday, November 7, 2013


flirting with the camera cover

Tom Metcalfe is an über-successful fashion photographer. But he wants to be more—he wants to be an artist! To that end, he's planning an exhibit of depressing and hopeless landscapes reflecting the emotional wasteland that is his life. Now he just has to find that punch of humanity and pathos the gallery manager insists he needs. At an open casting call, he makes his way through numerous models; but it's only when Hattie Bell shows up that Tom realizes he's found his muse. Will these two crazy kids get together despite their emotional Issues?

Ahead there be major spoilers...

I picked up Flirting with the Camera because Penny from Penny Romance recommended it, saying it was about "a chunky girl heroine who has good self-esteem and thinks she's beautiful." That sounded unusual and refreshing! And indeed, Hattie had no body issues whatsoever, something I found interesting (and a tad unrealistic, but delightfully so) considering she wants to work in an industry obsessed with appearances and maintaining a certain look.

I loved the character of Hattie, who was over-the-top, confident, and full of personality in a His-Girl-Friday kind of way. She's sexy and doesn't put up with any bullshit. I also liked Tom, despite the fact that the frequency with which he "dragged his eyes" over Hattie's curves made me roll my eyes a few times. Tom's kind of an asshole when we first meet him, which is entirely consistent with my preconceived notions of fashion photographers (anyone seen Blow-Up?), but Ros Clarke does a good job of making him seem like someone who could maybe possibly be a good guy. Deep down in there, somewhere.

The first half of Flirting with the Camera was fun and fast-paced, but then Hattie's photoshoot ended and she and Tom went their separate ways. How would they get back together? I wondered to myself. Now, maybe I was off my game the week I read Flirting with the Camera or something, but for some reason Hattie's deep, dark secret—that she had an abortion when she was younger—didn't warn me that she would magically become pregnant during the course of the book, thus resolving all issues.

boom! pregnant
Yes! I knew I'd find a use for this GIF some day.

I'm not a huge fan of "convenient baby romances" to begin with, but my main problem with Hattie's pregnancy was that it was used as a shortcut to resolving Tom's issues and bringing him and Hattie together in a believable and emotionally satisfying way. They have to get together for the sake of the baby, so Tom abruptly goes from being a complete commitment-phobe who's convinced he'll kill Hattie just like he did his last girlfriend, to "knowing" he couldn't have saved Lianne (like Lulu in The Cuckoo's Calling! What is it with models and these L-names?). Not only does the baby magically appear, it magically fixes all Tom's Issues! So instead of focusing on Tom gradually working through his feelings of guilt and fear, the conflict in the second half of Flirting with the Camera focuses instead on whether or not Hattie's going to get another abortion. And then if she doesn't, whether or not Tom will step up to the plate and be a father to the little tyke. Settling down for the sake of a kid is a solid on his part, but it's not terribly romantic.

To be fair, I thought the fact that Hattie had an abortion in the past, and the reason[s] why she might have one again (she doesn't, naturally, but the decision was up in the air for a bit) was handled fairly. She's not a Horrible Person just because she had an abortion, and she's not exactly scarred for life either (though she is broken hearted). Still, the focus on the pregnancy in the second half of the novella slowed the story down and didn't further the romance much, either.

Since I felt like the conflict was misplaced and the conclusion was rushed, Flirting with the Camera left me a bit frustrated and unsatisfied. But overall it's an okay read, and if you like confident heroines who aren't shrinking violets or innocent ingenues, this one's worth picking up.

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Sunday, November 3, 2013

J'ai Deux Amours, Neither of Which Are These Books

I really need to stop reading every book that crosses my path and has the word "Paris" in the title, you guys.

In the past two weeks I've read two books that both take place in pre-War Paris (well, kinda). And they both kind of sucked, although for different reasons.

bones of paris cover

The first was The Bones of Paris by Laurie R. King. It follows the walking and talking of Harris Stuyvesant, an itinerant PI who's trying to find a missing girl in what the author continually reminds us is 1929 Paris. As in, "But hey, it's 1929 Paris!" The "twist" is that Harris slept with Pip before she disappeared. Quelle horreur, y'all. As he follows Pip's trail, he discovers artists are assholes, and one of them might have killed Pip.

Now, I didn't pick up this book JUST because it had the word Paris in the title; I was also intrigued because I like King's Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes novels (or I did, until I DNF'd two in a row because they were boring me). Based on those books I expected better research and writing from King than I got in this novel. It was almost as if she got all her research from watching Midnight in Paris and Discovery Channel documentaries: everything from the historical characters to the bone-filled catacombs has been treaded and retreaded a thousand times. Even the scenes with Sylvia Beach (whom Harris naturally knows, because I'm sure she loved hanging out with aging private investigators) are so obviously based on those two photographs of her that are in every documentary about Paris in the 1920s. And naturally Picasso, Salvador Dalí, F. Scott Fitgerald, and Cole Porter all have to be mentioned. Come on, I can get this stuff from any book. I had to roll my eyes when it turned out Harris knew Ernest Hemingway, and Kiki de Montparnasse (but never even heard of the guy Kiki lived with for nearly a decade, Man Ray? Makes no sense).

The lack of original and unexpected story lines wouldn't have bothered me too much if King actually brought the city and society of Paris to life, but she didn't. There was a whole lot of tell and not show going on—some passages read distinctly guidebook-y—and while King might have been going for a crime noir type novel, the tone of the writing was too light to pull it off. I was also a little bothered by the way some of the surrealists, like Man Ray and Lee Miller, were portrayed. But to be fair, that's probably because of my background in art history.

In the end The Bones of Paris just wasn't interesting enough to hold my attention. I only read it for a few days, but it felt like WEEKS because nothing happened and I didn't give a damn if Harris found Pip or not. Or if he threw himself into the Seine, for that matter. The Bones of Paris was a DNF, and I think it will also be the last book I read by King.

midnight train to paris cover

The second novel, Midnight Train to Paris, was originally released as a Kindle serial and is about a journalist whose twin sister is kidnapped from a train along with two other women. Just so happens, 75 years earlier three other women were taken from the same train, at the same place and time. Coincidence?! Soon Jillian is traveling to Switzerland with her ex-luvarh (who used to be in the CIA but is now a private super-investigator) to find her sister and solve both kidnappings, in both time periods!

There is sooo much going on in this book: corrupt US senators, child abuse, murrrrder, betrayal, scandal (sounds like an ABC lineup), art, time travel, train mysteries, castles hidden in the mountains, insanity... LORDY LORDY. I have to admit that I enjoyed it a lot more than The Bones of Paris because there was stuff going on (what a concept), even though the writing was much worse. For example, the author took care to describe, in detail, the driving routes her characters took to get from one place to another, yet didn't bother to research average weather patterns in the Alps or what people wear when it's cold outside. Hint: it's generally more than a pencil skirt, heels, and a light jacket.

Nevertheless, I was having fun reading it. But about halfway through Midnight Train to Paris, I started to lose interest because there was a complete lack of plausibility. Not just the inconsistencies in clothing, but in the characters' behavior and the numerous incredible coincidences. I didn't care if Jillian and her cookie cutter hero got together, if her sister would survive, or even if Jill would. When the hero and heroine traveled back in time and the heroine started getting messages across space-time from her sister, it got to be too much. I skimmed to the end, so trust me when I say it only gets more ridiculous as the book goes on. Also, there are only about three pages that actually take place in Paris. You can definitely feel free to skip this pulpy mess of a novel.

Have you read any good books set in Paris lately?

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Saturday, November 2, 2013

Jennifer Burrows on What is it About Books?

shot in the dark cover

Today I'm hosting a guest post from Jennifer Burrows, author of A Shot In the Dark, as part of her blog tour with ABG Reads Books Tours. There's a tour-wide Rafflecopter giveaway at the end of her post, so be sure to enter!

I love reading books, almost more than I love writing them.   A good writer can get me so absorbed in the story and the characters that I won’t put down the book until I’ve finished it.  I love the feeling of escaping into another reality especially when I’m stressed, or just need a break from everyday life.  Often times, the feelings the characters have are so palpable, it makes me relate to them.

I recently read the Hard Rock Series by C.M. Stunich.  Without giving up too much of the story, two rock stars, Naomi and Turner,  have a history in which one can’t remember yet he was attracted to the other and wasn’t sure why.  Naomi had been hurt very badly by Turner and was trying her hardest to forget about him.  There was so much raw emotion with this story, and the pull of the love-hate relationship made me eager for more.  Needless to say, I read these books about two months ago and I’m still thinking about them.

I like a book that keeps me guessing.  I don’t like when I can figure out the plot and how the story is going to end in the first three chapters.  I started a book this week and it was just that, very predictable.  I haven’t been able to pick it back up.  There are only so many books I can read about womanizing gazillionares who fall for the girl who drastically changes his life for the better.  I need more from a book.

While I love the dirty romance books, I also love thrillers.  I can’t say enough about Dan Brown’s books.  How many books do you read in which you learn something and yet you’re thoroughly entertained the entire way through.  Now if Dan could add a little more romance, I’d be all in!
I love finding a good book boyfriend.  Who doesn’t?  In the Hard Rock Serious, Turner Campbell is dirty.  He has a dirty mind, dirty mouth, and he’s physically dirty.  I was having a hard time getting into that.  But when I looked at the cover and saw what Turner was supposed to look like, I was all in.  Turner went from dirty gross to dirty hot in about thirty seconds.  That is the power of a great book.  Between the story, the cover, and the mental images the reader creates a connection is created with the author and the story.

Many people say they don’t like to read or they don’t have time to read.  My personal feeling is they haven’t found the right book.  Because when you find the right book, you suddenly love to read and you make the time to finish it.

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