Thursday, May 30, 2024

Gretchen Berg - The Operator

In a small town, everyone knows everyone else’s business . . .
Nobody knows the people of Wooster, Ohio, better than switchboard operator Vivian Dalton, and she’d be the first to tell you that. She calls it intuition. Her teenage daughter, Charlotte, calls it eavesdropping.
Vivian and the other women who work at Bell on East Liberty Street connect lines and lives. They aren’t supposed to listen in on conversations, but they do, and they all have opinions on what they hear—especially Vivian. She knows that Mrs. Butler’s ungrateful daughter, Maxine, still hasn’t thanked her mother for the quilt she made, and that Ginny Frazier turned down yet another invitation to go to the A&W with Clyde Walsh.
Then, one cold December night, Vivian listens in on a call between that snob Betty Miller and someone whose voice she can’t quite place and hears something shocking. Betty Miller’s mystery friend has news that, if true, will shatter Vivian’s tidy life in Wooster, humiliating her and making her the laughingstock of the town.
Vivian may be mortified, but she isn’t going to take this lying down. She’s going to get to the bottom of that rumor—get into it, get under it, poke around in the corners. Find every last bit. Vivian wants the truth, no matter how painful it may be.
But as Vivian is about to be reminded, in a small town like Wooster, one secret usually leads to another..

Comment: The blurb of this book made me very curious and I pictured an interesting story about a mystery investigation conducted by a woman who heard what she shouldn't, especially considering her work. However, the mystery wasn't as heavily developed as I imagined.

In this story we meet Vivian, whom we learn has always been a curious child, eager to know what everyone is gossiping about or saying without her around. Due to this, she learns to eavesdrop and once her father even advised that the way to do it well is to not get caught. Vivian took this to heart and she considers herself to be a great finder of secrets, which is helped when she starts working as an operator, placing calls for everyone around the city. Although she her co workers should not listen to people's private conversations, they still do it and that is how Vivian learns about a secret related to her! Now she has to find a way to know who told such a story to her enemy Betty Miller, and how did the person found out that secret... but once gossip spreads, the consequences are unstoppable... is there a way for Vivian to discover what she needs before her family's reputation is lost?

I will have to agree with the readers who reviewed this book and said the story doesn't quite get there. By this I mean that the potential was huge but it felt to me that the author was more interested in writing about Vivian and the secondary characters' personal issues and how living in a small town, and living through the rules of the 50s and society's expectations affected their behavior, rather than focus on the really interesting element, which is the investigation of who told the secret and why.

This is definitely more a study on people's behavior and how elements from the 50s affected people's lives, mostly women's, in a way that would always mean social disgrace. Vivian and her co workers have a job which turned out to be obsolete eventually, and the norms for people's racial interaction changed, as did women's rights. Of course these (and other) elements make for a proper historical setting, which explains so many of the characters' steps, but I think the author could have gone further with every detail to make this story even more captivating and rewarding.

Vivian is the main character and we learn very early on how much of a gossip she is, which is usually a trait in people that often is considered negative. I didn't like how much importance Vivian gave to this interest of hers, but she does change a little as the story advances and I started to care for her more as things evolved. It also helped that most things are told from her POV (not first person) and we can commiserate more with her feelings this way. Still, I thought that as soon as she learns about that big secret which affects her family, even more so in the 50s setting, something more fast paced would happen.

It is true that she has a mystery to investigate and she does what is possible in her circumstances, but I felt this wan't really the major goal of the story, and what she does learn doesn't seem to affect her daily life in the way it should. I can't explain it without spoilers, but let' say the big secret affected her position in society and what others would think of her, but at home this didn't seem to be such a big deal... I suppose part of me understands this, but then the overall effect is one of blandness and not the eagerness of knowing what would happen next...

At the same time we follow Vivian's issues, we are told about a few secondary characters and at first it seemed as if that was only fillers, so that we could see the reinforcement of how much damage gossip can cause, sometimes unfairly or without cause, to others. It turns out that two secondary sub plots - regarding Betty Miller's character, Vivian's "enemy", and a couple who run away after stealing money from Betty Miller's father's bank - are actually connected, and when we learn about the twist in this, I'll have to say some details were quite surprising. But, by then, the story was close to an end and the tone wasn't as remarkable as it could have been.

I liked the story enough to be interested in reading until the end, but if only some extra flavor had been given... the end is quite promising for Vivian and for who she will become after this ordeal, but I cannot say if I'll look for other books by the author on purpose.
Grade: 6/10

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Tim O'Brien - Tomcat in love

A wildly funny, brilliantly inventive novel about a man torn between two the desperate need to win backhis former wife and a craving to test his erotic charms on every woman he meets.
He is 6'6" tall, a cross between Ichabod Crane and Abe Lincoln. He is a professor of linguistics, bewitched by language, deluded about his ability to win the hearts of women with his erudition and physical appeal. He is Thomas H. Chippering, a.k.a. Tomcat, a masterly addition to the pantheon of unforgettable characters in American fiction.
And in his private dictionary of love, three entries stand out.
Tampa. Just the word makes Tom Chippering's blood curdle. That's where his ex-wife, the faithless Lorna Sue, now lives with a suntanned tycoon whose name Chippering refuses to utter.
Revenge. If Chippering can't get Lorna Sue back, at least he can wreak havoc with her new marriage. (How about some strategically placed lingerie in the tycoon's "ostentatiously upscale Mercedes"?) He also has plans for Lorna Sue's brother, Herbie, with whom she has always had an unnaturally close relationship.
Love. His ex-wife may have disapproved, but is Chippering's fondness for women--especially the nubile coeds who attend his classes--really so wrong? And now love finds a new Mrs. Robert Kooshof, the attractive, demanding, and, of course, already married woman who may at last satisfy Chippering's longing for intimacy.

Comment: This will be a short comment, for I have DNF'd this book.

I had it in the pile for years, I got this Portuguese edition at a book fair, and if I remember well, I got it because it was at a discount, and the blurb made me think the protagonist would go on a self discovery path and on the way he would find love again, after his divorce.

Well, I've managed to read until page 157 of my 403 pages edition. I actually liked the writing, I could see the author is very clever and smart in his commentary, although he does write in that style that seems someone is writing as randomly as thoughts come one's mind and while in a conversation this can be easier to follow (if not still rather annoying), on paper I don't think the effect is the same, and things jumped from thing to thing without much coherence.

Despite liking some of the things here and there, I started to become more and more frustrated by how repetitive everything was. The protagonist is a teacher of linguists and while at first this interest in specific words and how he linked them to his personal life was cute, but after the first two or three times this happened, I was already tired of the same thing. It was also incredibly annoying to have the protagonist describing himself in the way he did. I wondered if the goal was to show how sarcastic he was, but apparently he did consider himself to be that special.

Then, to make things even more disappointing, he loved his wife but they got a divorce and he can't get over it. I can't be certain if he wasn't such a devoted faithful husband either, but if he really was the title's tomcat, I lost interest about that as well. Plus, I didn't find what I read to be funny, even though comedy seems to be a possible way to describe this book for some readers.

Since I have more things to read and, to be honest, this story stopped being appealing, with also the probable repetitiveness of what would come, I decided to not finish.
Grade: DNF

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Dianne Duvall - The Akseli

Simone has hunted and slain psychotic vampires night after night for hundreds of years and desperately needs a change. When the leader of the Immortal Guardians offers her an opportunity to guard ten mortal women who are venturing to another planet, she dives right in and finds traveling into space and meeting amazing alien races just as exciting as she'd hoped… until an enemy attacks. Simone saves everyone she can before she's thrust into an escape pod and the ship explodes. Alone, fearing some—if not all—of her friends have been killed, she vows to seek vengeance.
Despite his fierce reputation and propensity for violating the law, Janwar has formed a friendship with strait-laced Prince Taelon of Lasara. When the prince's ship is destroyed, Janwar joins the massive Aldebarian Alliance-wide search and rescue mission and soon locates the Gathendien ship that launched the attack. An odd thing happens, however, as he and his crew stealthily approach it. The lifeforms inside begin to perish, two or three at a time in quick succession. Much to his surprise, someone else has reached the ship first: one of the very Earth women he hoped to rescue.
Fascinatingly fierce, Simone bands together with Janwar and his crew to search for her missing friends and wreak havoc upon those who wish to harm them. She also widens eyes, drops jaws, and sparks laughter and mischief as she banishes the warriors' world-weariness and makes each day seem like a new adventure. The friendship that grows between Janwar and Simone swiftly deepens into love. But the enemy warriors they face are tenacious and boast more weapons in their arsenal than the alliance knows. Can Janwar, Simone, and such a small crew vanquish them?

Comment: This is the fourth installment in the Aldebarian Alliance series, a spin off of the Immortal Guardians one by author Diane Duvall. I have now read all full length books in both series, except the last installments in each. I will have to say that I have enjoyed the spin off series' installments more (maybe not the first one, that was rather meh to me) than some of the books in the original series...

In this story we continue following the fate of Kandovar travelers, the space ship with the several elements from Earth and other planets traveling to Lasara, after they were attacked by an enemy ship. Now, several people are lost in space or were rescued or captured, and it's the intention of prince Taelon from Lasara (hero book #1) to rescue everyone and take them safely into Lasara, as promised. Among them were several gifted Earth women and the Immortal Guardians who would help them, such as Simone. 
Simone finally got a reply from a nearby ship after several attempts, and she is aware that it's an enemy ship, but she is more than eager to be caught and get revenge. At the same time, thankfully, another ship is approaching her, and at the command is the pirate Janwar. Not many know, but he is a good friend to prince Taelon and is actually an honorable pirate, and he will help Simone... even though she proves to be so much more than he ever anticipated in a guest...

This Aldebarian Alliance spin off is obviously structured to make sense for any reader, but it's one of those situations where having read the original series, or knowing what the background is, helps in making the stories more appealing and worthy. In my opinion, many elements or small hints make a lot more sense with that previous knowledge, even though there isn't enough here to spoiler the Immortal Guardians series to the point of ruining anyone's reading experience.

I find myself quite entertained by these stories set in space ships. I have read other sci fi stories with elements of romance and it's always so rewarding to read about incredible things the authors imagine... sometimes certain elements work out better than others in the big scheme of things, but I'm always amused by the details, even when so many things seem similar between different books. For instance, just as it happens with other books, so here the alien technology is far superior, and many technological stuff is expensive but common, many things work in a logical way when compared to "human" knowledge we already have....

It can be said that the more scientific elements or the ones which are meant to give credibility to this aspect, are well done and used within the story. Simone finds herself in a space ship with so many amazing possibilities that I feel the author herself dreamed of experience something like that... well, I suppose virtual reality things could make it seem so nowadays... but it's simply fun to follow the characters in their tasks, and we can follow Simone as she discovers what she can do now. So, the whole technological/scientific side of the story feels rich and structured to me, even though one could say it's not realistic... but who would care!

The plot of this story is quite simple, Simone wants revenge on the aliens who caused the explosion of the Kandovar, which meant many people died and those who escaped in pods weren't all rescued yet. Then she is helped by Janwar's crew, they all become friends and Simone and Janwar fall in love. Basic, isn't it? In fact, so basic that it's quite predictable, but for me the fun in these stories is not on how complex the plot can be, but the eye for detail, the adventure, the consistency in the characters, their relationships... I especially liked how Simone is so likable and how quickly she makes friends with everyone on board of Janwar's ship. Perhaps this is a bit too easy... perhaps a more complex/dramatic development in this regards could have made for a different story.

Anyway, Simone is a grand protagonist, does almost everything well and the fact she was already special on Earth makes her still very special in space. I will have to wonder on how smooth the transition from being on Earth to live only space is for all the women who accepted that idea, but one needs to think about the science fiction expectations, otherwise this would be too crazy. It does help that everything is easy and fluid for Simone in terms of physical experiences, but it can also make the story rather repetitive in relation the the previous ones in the series.

The romance was fine, sweet and romantic enough, but it felt as if they recognized one another very easily and early on, I would not have minded that the sexual tension could have been prolonged and debated more before they so easily accepted their friendship, their feelings for one another... Janwar is a great guy, one of those protagonists who is rumored to have a bad reputation but isn't that bad in fact, and all his interactions, explanations and actions prove the opposite. A little too good to be true, but...

Everything ends up well, and, of course, with the promise of more adventures as more women are rescued or their whereabouts get known.
I had a good time reading this story, it was entertaining like I said, and I will definitely read the next installments, both the one out and those which might be published after. The stories aren't out of this world (ah ah ah) but they are far better than books which fail to engage.
Grade: 8/10

Saturday, May 25, 2024

A.M. Arthur - Lucky Break

Shawn Matthews never imagined he’d be living out of his car, trying to make ends meet, but life doesn’t always go your way—he knows that better than most. When an accident leaves the Clean Slate Ranch shorthanded, Shawn is enlisted to help cook and finds himself bunked next to the sexiest cowboy he’s ever laid eyes on.
The first time Robin Butler spots the new chef, he thinks he’s seeing an actual ghost. Shawn is the spitting image of his late husband, and it spooks the hell out of him. The former rodeo-star-turned-ranch-hand does his best to avoid the soft-spoken cook—except it’s kind of tough when the man makes the best damn grub this side of the Mississippi and has a boy-next-door charm that’s impossible to resist.
Even though the tension between them practically sizzles, Shawn doesn’t do hookups and Robin isn’t ready for a new relationship. Besides, Robin can tell Shawn’s been hurt and deserves a partner who isn’t saddled with a tragic past. But chemistry doesn’t lie. Maybe finding each other—and a second chance at love—is the lucky break they both need.

Comment: I got interested in this book after seeing a positive review. The fact one of the main characters is homeless, trying to make ends meet while helping his grandparents made me eager to see how the author would turn this character's luck around and put him on the road to a HEA.

Shawn Matthews is a young man working as a baker chef in seasonal business and he is treated fairly, but he sends most of his money back home to his grandparents and there isn't enough for rent. He has lived in this situation for two years until kind people around him decide to help. At the same time, while helping out at a ranch to help a cook with a medical issue, he meets Robin, one of the hands and he can't help but feel attracted to him. However, Robin is a widower and Shawn reminds him of his late husband, which means they don't start with the right foot right away. As the days go by and their proximity increases, will they be able to let go of their past disappointments and fears and start something that could be special?

This story is #4 in the Clean Slate Ranch series and I have not read the previous installments. There are many references to the main characters in those stories, even though the structure of this book stands on its own. Since the characters live and/or work close together I didn't find it intrusive and was, in fact, an interesting way to understand some dynamics. Consequently, I don't think it's necessary to have read the others to follow this one.

At first, I was quite excited to read the story. Usually, when done well, plots revolving around characters making ends meet, or down on their luck while trying to have their life on track and so on are intriguing to me. I thought Shawn was a sweet young man, who clearly had some awful secret about his past and why he is living so far away from his grandparents whom he loves, and I hoped he would fall in love with another great guy and things would progress naturally to a better life for him. This does happen eventually, but the road there wasn't as amazing to me, from a certain point on.

While Shawn is homeless, his vulnerability and pride made for a common combination which I think worked out well for his attitude in life. He wasn't needy nor greedy to make demands or to deceive others and I was, obviously, rooting for him. I don't think it's a spoiler to say that his luck does change due to several reasons and his coworkers and employers help him, which meant that, the way I saw it, an important part of the set up was fixed and I thought the plot, then, would be about him falling in love, getting more confident, but these would be slow developing things, which we could see at the same time Shawn went though changes.

Although this does happen, I gradually started to lose most of my interest because when Robin enters the picture, I just could not see the supposed sizzle between them. Robin is a man with his own issues and I wasn't too keen on seeing their romance because it failed to engage me. Plus, Robin is older, has a different life experience and it is true this doesn't have to be a deal breaker, but here didn't impress me. I should say that the guys do speak a lot about what they want or not, about what works for them or not and this is certainly refreshing but their chemistry just wasn't there, for me.

As things move long, and the guys start dating, they try different situations to do together, from top of my head I can immediately remember they try clubbing, because Robin likes it and used to do it often and even had a f* buddy, then they find another character who was protagonist in a previous book, clubbing along with them but not with his partner, which fine, couples don't need to do things together all the time, but... it was a setting that put me off. At this point I thought the story would be more focused on the characters' work at the ranch and more specific situations related to it, and then this scene comes along... I didn't like it that much, especially the vibe it hinted at.

Towards the end of the story, most elements one would come to expect happening, do: each protagonist deals with his past fears, they decided to become a couple, they become intimate, they interact with others in key scenes to advance their lives and work, they conclude they could be happy, etc, etc. 

I was happy for them and I liked the overall feel of the book, I can see the tight community of friends, who sometimes call themselves family more often than not, but a few details here and there, some plot choices and situations just didn't vibe with my taste and it's one of those things, it was readable, I liked the elements that interested me in the first place, but reading this does not make me interested in reading the previous one and, considering the writing style, probably not the following ones either.
All in all, good enough, but not as great as I wished for.
Grade: 6/10

Friday, May 24, 2024

Julia Spencer-Fleming - To Darkness and To Death

Saturday, November 14, 5:00 A.M.
In the small Adirondack town of Millers Kill, an old lumberman sits in the dark with his gun across his knees. Not far away, an unemployed logger sleeps off his bender from the night before. The owner of the town's last paper mill tosses in his bed. And a young woman, one of three heirs to the 250,000-acre Great Camp, wakes alone in darkness, bound and gagged.
Chief of Police Russ Van Alstyne wants nothing more than a quiet day of hunting in the mountains on his fiftieth birthday. His wife needs to have the town's new luxury resort ready for its gala opening night. The Reverend Clare Fergusson expects to spend the day getting St. Alban's Church ready for the bishop's annual visit. Her long-distance suitor from New York expects some answers about their relationship during his weekend in town.
In Millers Kill, where everyone knows everyone and all are part of an interconnected web of blood or acquaintance, one person's troubles have a way of ensnaring others. What begins as a simple case of a woman lost in the woods leads to a tangle of revenge, blackmail, assault, kidnapping, and murder. As the hours tick by, Russ and Clare struggle to make sense of their town's plunge into chaos---and their own chaotic emotions.
Something terrible waits in the ice-rimed mountains cradling Millers Kill. Something that won't be content with just one death---or two. . .
Julia Spencer-Fleming continues her moving story of the way a small town, as well as a great city, can harbor evil, and the struggle of two honest people to deal with the ever-present threat of their feelings for one another.

Comment: This is the 4th installment in the series featuring the investigations by Clare Fergusson and Russ van Alstyne, whose first books I've read and enjoyed, and I was quite curious about this one too.

In this new story Russ celebrates his 50th birthday and he is eager to spend it hunting with friends, but life never goes according to all plans and the news that Milly, who is a member of a rich family in the area involved in a big environmental business, is missing, starts of the plot when a group of rescuers is reunited to look for her after. Of course Russ is off duty but since he can't ignore his role as chief of police he soon is in the middle of things, and Clare, being who she is, is working along with the rescue team. As everyone searches for Milly, other people carry on with their lives, and some ill made decisions... but when a death occurs, isn't that going too far in regards to what has been going on?

As it happened when I read the other books in the series, once more I was transported to a fast paced plot about an apparently simple investigation which leads into something way more complex as the pages advance. Perhaps this author's stories aren't the most complex or psychologically demanding, but I like how things are sequenced and developed and the writing style makes for a compelling read.

This time, the story is developed in an interesting time line, the whole story is told from a certain hour of the day to the next, which means every situation is quickly followed by something else and, if I remember correctly, practically everything takes place in the same day. The true interest in this particular story is how we are able to follow several characters and what they do and a seemingly simple/routine decisions can have a much bigger impact than the person anticipated. It was also slightly amusing - in a dark humor kind of way - to see how some characters made silly decisions and the consequences were often dire.

The plot is quite simple: several people are involved in a business deal between landlords and a big company which aims to secure the protection of a certain environmental area. Of course that this might sound good for some, but it will also impact others in a more negative way. Some characters deal with this by making decisions which aren't always correct or based on all the necessary information and misunderstandings or wrong moves turn out to have terrible outcomes, without need. I will say that this and the presentation of the hourly plot development made for a compelling read, and a fast paced sequence of events which, sometimes for me, bordered on ridiculous but was extremely engaging.

The plot isn't too complicated to follow, although I must say that in order to maintain some mystery or doubt until a certain moment in the story, a few situations felt a little unrealistic. Or, at least, it felt so from the way the author decided to write them. This didn't ruin my reading experience, but it made some parts a little confusing and I'd say this was avoidable. The whole environmental matter wasn't as highlighted as I imagined, in the sense that this might be a story about the usual good vs bad side of protecting the environment at the cost of other things, it felt to me that it was only a vehicle for some character's choices.

The characters were, as they always are, the true interest in the series. We keep following Clare and Russ as they go on with their professional lives and how much of a coincidence it is that their paths often cross in this regard...well, it's a small town setting after all. Their personal relationship is at a knotty point, though, because they had admitted their feelings to one another but several factors prevent them from taking things to a different level. I'm curious to see what will happen and how long they will try to avoid it changing their lives. 

In general, this was another engaging story to me, although in the beginning there was a moment or two where it felt nothing special was happening... well, slowly at frat and then at a faster pace, things did improve. I'm now eager to read the next one!
Grade: 8/10

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Diana Vieira - The Heir of Monsaraz

Comment: I borrowed this book recently, for the person who lent it to me sometimes thinks about books I might like to try and I will confess that some make me curious and others not so much, but I feel guilty if I say no without a valid reason (like having read it already). Anyway, I had never heard of this author and I decided to not investigate so that my opinion would not be influenced. The title can be literally translated to "the heir of Monsaraz". Nowadays, Monsaraz is both a region and a city in the southeast area of Portugal.

In this historical story, set in the 14th century in Portugal, we follow a small group of friends as they deal with challenges and difficulties in their lives, while trying to help one another. The main character, Duarte, is the oldest son of an influential man in the region of Monsaraz, but he dies and his children all all minors, which means a tutor needs to be chosen. Suddenly, when Duarte thought his future and of his siblings will be helped by a close family friend, a will comes out nowhere, naming a man as tutor whom Duarte knows is not a good person and he even suspects him of having devised his father's death. Since he has no proof the decision is made, but Duarte and his friends know it will only be a matter of time until this man takes control of his family's legacy...

This is a long book, more than 600 pages and while reading there were two things that kept circling in my head: first, the realistic choice of having the main characters so young (between 11 and 15) and already mature enough for the life they lead (despite contemporary times making them seem too young for specific content), kept jarring me into appreciating, or not, certain things they went through, and second, the author certainly used a lot of the research information in the novel, sometimes even more than necessary...

I say these things because reading this novel wasn't too hard, despite the page count, but the 14th century isn't my favorite setting for historicals and several situations described got on my nerves, which made the elements I've mentioned even more glaring to me. It is true that maturity and knowledge don't depend on age alone, and that in medieval times society and norms were different, but certain things were just too difficult to imagine, even recognizing the likely realism of them. It also meant that when they go through negative and unfair situations as we would see them now, reading about it is even weirder.

In regards to historical content, the author certainly picked up a lot of facts about this time and how documents registered life in the country, she also includes many real historical figures such as the king at the time and his even more famous son, but it felt as if there were parts of the story which suited only to show case that research. This doesn't have to be a bad thing, if the fictional part were to match, but this is also the author's first book, and while I can see the competence in it, even if it was edited, I still think the balance wasn't achieved completely, there were many repetitive parts, many unnecessary scenes and situations, and not enough character depth.

In fact, each main character (the focus is on Duarte, but there are another four or five characters we follow more attentively) has a path to travel, let's say, even though most times they are in contact with one another or even share scenes/life experiences. I liked them all for who they were and what life stories they had, some sadder, some more ingenious, but I also think that with so many pages and enemies coming and going and stuff to deal with, we still could not know them for their personalities that easily, they all blend somehow with the idea of how "good" people should be and what kind of adventures/challenges they would face in those situations.

A lot of the plot is centered on Duarte dealing with happened to his family, going on about his life, and his friends dealing with political decisions, social conventions and the cleverness of anticipating certain decisions or how to deal with them. It's true the action is non stop and that made reading easier, but to be honest, the plot isn't developed that much. The real life changing events could be summarized into half the page count... this said, I liked the experience of reading the book, but it wasn't... spectacular.

I was told the next book (of an intended trilogy) is coming out at the end of the year, it will probably feature the effects of the black plague - which is mentioned in this book and starts being noticeable when the story is ending - and in whatever happens with the main characters. If this friend lets me borrow the book, as she told me she would, I'll likely read it.
Grade: 6/10

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Valerie Perrin - Forgotten on Sunday

Justine is 21 years old and has lived with her grandparents and cousin Jules since the death of her parents. She works as a carer at a retirement home and spends her days listening to her residents’ stories.
After bonding with Hélène, an almost 100-year-old resident, the two women slowly reveal their stories to one another. Whilst Justine helps Hélène to relive her memories of love and war, Hélène encourages Justine to confront the secrets of her own past, and the loss she has buried deep within.
One day, trouble arrives in the form of a mysterious phone call that shakes the retirement home to its core and uncovers a shocking revelation. At once humorous and melancholic, Valérie Perrin’s debut novel is a story of how the past can shape our present, and the scars of undeclared love.

Comment: I saw this book at the library and since it would fit a topic in one of the challenges I'm doing, I've decided this would do. It's the first time I try a book by this French author, but I've noticed her three books have gotten a lot of attention here.

In this story we meet Justine, a 21 year old woman who works at a retirement home. Justine knows that isn't common but she loves working there and talking to all the older people she helps taking care of, especially Helene. Her friendship with Helene makes it possible for them to exchange stories and, deep down, Justine realizes she needs to know what happened when her parents and her uncle and aunt died in a car crash when she was a child. As the revelations about her own life unravel to shocking discoveries, so the stories Helene shares become more and more dramatic. At the same time, someone is making phone calls from the retirement home telling family members someone has died, which turns out to be quite the mystery...

What caught my attention the most here was the fact Justine is willingly eager to work in a retirement home. The usual expectation is that this type of work is not always a choice and the experience I see more often near me and in relation to most places in this field, is that people only accept if they have no other options or for some other convenience reason. Meaning, this is a job most people don't see in the best light, and to have a young woman wanting to do it was different enough to make me notice the blurb.

This means Justine is a fascinating woman but I'll have to say my interest in her character stayed at her job and in regards to the impact of the mystery in her family. I think the author did a good enough job with the personality and with the construction of the character, but I can't be certain about what kind of goal her characterization had... after all, Justine personally didn't have such a big role anyway except when she was doing some investigation...

The story is told from Justine's POV and we also have the sections which she supposedly writes down, shared by Helene. I will confess I wasn't too fond of this technique, nor of the division between these two parts. I would have preferred Justine's contemporary section to have more emphasis, and perhaps Helene's past youth to be more like an afterthought, or a smaller section for comparison if necessary. The way things were done, I had to pay attention to two timelines and neither felt as strong as it could this way. In fact, I'll say that while Helene's story was heartbreaking here and there, I never established an emotional connection with it and if this had only be a much smaller part of the novel, or just referenced, I would not have minded it as much.

I was clearly a lot more invested in the contemporary setting, specially Justine's daily life, and would she change her way of thinking once she discovered her own family's past? Would this plot highlight the phone call mystery more? As a matter of fact, no, none of these things were made to be that important after all, because the big mystery, the big dramatic secret was related to Justine's parents' death, along with her uncle and aunt's. The reason wasn't that hard to guess once some hints were dropped and, of course, things end up as badly as we knew from the start, but the interest was in seeing how would Justine cope.

I think the author plotted quite the story and I did like her choices for Justine's section but since this is meant to be a more introspective novel, there are also moments I felt nothing was really going on. I wish more impact had been gained from the discoveries she makes, from the phone call mystery announcing people were dead at the retirement home, perhaps more importance to her daily routines there (we have some comments about her work but this was more a vehicle for the plot than something truly key for the story), all of which would have been more appealing to me than Helen's sections, for instance. Perhaps I could say the author used too many elements overall.

I did like the main idea behind this story, that as people get older and need help at home or in retirement homes, their families start seeing them more as a duty than a loved family member. I think the social critique here was cleverly inserted in the story and one can read between the lines. I also liked some secondary situations and I liked Justine's story and her sections, but as a whole, I also think the story could have been focused on other elements than the ones the author eventually chose to highlight.
Grade: 6/10

Friday, May 17, 2024

Lynn Kurland - Star of the Morning

Darkness covers the north, since the black mage has begun his assault on the kingdom of Neroche.
Legend has it that only the two magical swords held by Neroche's king can defeat the mage. Now the fate of the Nine Kingdoms rests in the hands of a woman destined to wield one of those blades...
In this land of dragons and mages, warrior maids and magical swords, nothing is as it seems. And Morgan will find that the magic in her blood brings her troubles she cannot face with a sword-and a love more powerful than she has ever imagined.

Comment: I had this book in the pile since 2013, and I think I added it because it was a fantasy story and I tend to like the genre. If I remember correctly, I also saw some vague comments here and there which suggested there would be specific elements in it I would like too.

In this story we meet Morgan, a shied maiden, or warrior, who likes her easy life on the island of Melksam but her mentor and father figure sends her on a mission, to deliver a blade to the king of Neroche. On the way, she travels with a small group of friends and they get mixed up with all kinds of adventures but Morgan is wary of the blade she carries because it has magic and Morgan grew up to despise all types of magic.
At the same time, Adhemar, the king of Neroche is also traveling, dealing with some royal business but also trying to find someone who could carry a magical sword in his castle, since his own magical sword lost its power. His younger brother Maich, the arch-mage, decides to find his brother after he had gone for a while, and he finds him with Morgan's group. He can't help but be drawn to Morgan but decides to keep his identity of of his brother's a secret, because the more time he spends with Morgan, the more he realizes she is the person they are looking for... but what will she do when she finds out the truth?

It can be quite risky to start a book without reading enough information about it because while the idea of keeping things vague for better enjoyment and without possible spoilers is a great one, it can also mean when a less than positive surprise happens, then one can blame only oneself... 

I say this because I had this book in the pile for so long, I barely paid attention to it, and now while reading it felt the story dragged, and I saw myself as one of those readers we see in memes or cartoons who wonder how it will be possible the plot to end that well when there are only, like, twenty pages left... well, it cannot be, for there are more books after and, unlike the majority of series, which have stand alone stories as part of a sequential main arc, here this is truly the first part of an ongoing series, from what I could understand after investigating better.

This means that in this book we only have a part of Morgan and Miach' romance, as well as the overall plot. There is a second and third book with them as protagonists, so... I guess 'd have to read the three to have the full experience and it is true this doesn't have to be that bad, but since I thought I was saving myself from spoilers which might be included in the blurb of the following books, I wasn't aware of this and now I feel a little let down.

That aside, the story was interesting and fantastical enough to make reading it enjoyable, but since things were slow and dragged a little, I will admit there were times I felt I wasn't accomplishing that much. I liked the hints of romance and I liked that this was, at its base, a story about a quest and about love/courage triumphing and so on, but the writing style seemed to also be a little sparse. There were also times it felt as if nothing really was happening, or not quickly enough, considering the characters had some urgency in their goals.

I liked the magical details and I liked that Morgan was clearly someone who had magic bus she despised it. I've found her personality captivating enough and the reasons why she was so opposed magic seemed solid, which was made even more important the more we learned about her past. She is certainly easy to root for, and she is a practical person. Although humor is a subjective matter, I liked some of her comments and some things she did/said were funny in that context.

Miach is harder to read, but deep down he is a softie who wants to do his duty, which he learns later on that could affect his personal wishes. He falls in love with Morgan through actions and time shared, which I found great, and no intimacy happens between them, which highlights the depth of their emotions, but while this is being described, it still felt vague, slightly superficial... I suppose it has to do with the writing style and the fact things were not discussed between the two of them, and I surely miss this, it's something I would have liked seen oriented better at this point.

The whole magic stuff in this world isn't hard to grasp, there are evil guys who need to be stopped, but the sort of cliffhanger in the end, when Morgan finds out who Miach and Adhemar really are, and something about her own identity too, was annoying because I feel there was no real reason to finish the story that way, unless is shock factor. I'm still debating if I really want to read the next book, on one hand I'm curious to see what happens, on the other it seems it's not just one book, but two more I'd need to read to know what I want, so....
Grade: 6/10

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

TBR Challenge: Maeve Binchy - Circle of Friends

It began with Benny Hogan and Eve Malone, growing up, inseparable, in the village of Knockglen. Benny—the only child, yearning to break free from her adoring parents...Eve—the orphaned offspring of a convent handyman and a rebellious blueblood, abandoned by her mother's wealthy family to be raised by nuns. Eve and Benny—they knew the sins and secrets behind every villager's lace curtains...except their own.
It widened at Dublin, at the university where Benny and Eve met beautiful Nan Mahlon and Jack Foley, a doctor's handsome son. But heartbreak and betrayal would bring the worlds of Knockglen and Dublin into explosive collision. Long-hidden lies would emerge to test the meaning of love and the strength of ties held within the fragile gold bands of a...Circle Of Friends.

Comment: Here is the TBR Challenge post for May! This time the theme is "with a little help from my friends", which I interpreted at its more obvious meaning and chose a story where we would see the interactions of a group of friends. It also helped that the title of this book by Maeve Binchy was so suitable from the start as well!

In this story, set in 1957 if I saw correctly, we follow the lives of Eve Malone and Benny Hogan, two friends since childhood, as they embark on their college lives in Dublin. One tragic event brings them closer to Nan Mahon, Jack Foley and other young people who will form their circle of friends. However, as all go on with their more cosmopolitan lives, the roots and the links to each of their childhood homes remain, and sometimes dreams and needs can't match what they still carry with them... or can they? Some choices will be made, and some decisions will have to happen, for will these friends remain the same?

I know, I know, that my little summary is vague, but as it happened to other books I've read by the author, her stories are pretty much a study in character's interactions and dynamics, not as much about a complex plot. I feel that explaining better might spoiler a few things too much, and that is not my main goal with my comments. I think the real wonder of this book is in how small things can create big problems and how trusting the right person or not can influence a lot. Isn't this the bread and butter of everyone's lives?

Benny and Eve are the main characters for they are the ones we see developing/evolving the most, even though there are more characters besides them from which we have a POV. Benny is trustworthy, a little naive but friendly and self conscience of her size and how others see her. Eve, on the other hand, feels she might not be recognized enough because of her parent's relationship and the fact she was not legitimated by her rich mother's family. Their personalities should not make for a lasting friendship, but somehow they do and I liked seeing their development for the most part.

This was, in my opinion, a longer book than it needed. We have a full chapter dedicated only to the girls' childhood and how they became friends, which I didn't mind, but from the moment the setting is 1957, when they are about to go to college and all the difficulties that entailed, I felt the author left the setting up of things for too long. I get it that this is her style and in a way I can accept the technique as  valid one, for it does explain very well why some characters behave the way they do, but I think a few less scenes, few pages would not have changed much. There was a point where I did struggle a little to feel focused on what was going on, and I persisted because I kind of expected it to improve, but not every little detail was necessary.

Since the story is set in Ireland and in the late 50s, there is obviously a lot of content related to this era or to the expectations of society in this time. I think that, in part, this does help to create an atmosphere which justifies a few decisions the characters make regarding several things, and one can more easily accept why those and why not something else, after all the pressure of others and of families and society in general influenced a lot of people's choices.

Benny and Eve each have a path to go and of course, a good element was to see their growth into adult women who thought about what they could and should do. I liked that their personalities weren't compromised by the experiences they went through. This aspect was better achieved, i'd say, with the character of Nan, whose alcoholic father colored a lot of her life at home, and while I can understand her actions and thoughts throughout the novel, she is clearly made to look worse by comparison... in fact, the whole group of friends only seem to be more or less something when near someone else. Apart from Eve, Benny and Nan, everyone else had less depth and was more obviously secondary.

Did I like this story? I liked reading it for the most part, but it wasn't exciting all the time, no. I'm aware this is meant to be cozy drama, if I can use this expression, but in terms of writing, there were moments where things simply dragged too long. I also think that someone hoping to be amazed or thrilled by any kind of conclusion or climax will be disappointed, for I don't think the author aimed the plot towards any kind of big reveal. Despite my less favorite aspects, I'll probably read more by this author.
Grade: 7/10

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

JL Merrow - Pressure Head

Tom Paretski’s not just a plumber with a dodgy hip courtesy of a schoolboy accident. He also has a sixth sense for finding hidden things. Called in by the police to help locate a body near Brock’s Hollow, he’s staggered to encounter Phil Morrison, his old school crush—and the closeted bully whose actions contributed to Tom’s accident.
Phil’s all grown up now, and Tom’s unwilling attraction to him is back with a vengeance. Phil’s now openly gay—and what’s more, he’s interested in Tom’s personal charms as well as his psychic talents. As a private investigator called in by the dead woman’s parents, Phil is sceptical about Tom’s unusual gift, but nevertheless quick to spot its potential to aid him in his work.
The further they go with the investigation, the less they can ignore their shared past, and the more the pressure and the heat build between them. But Tom isn’t certain he wants to know the secrets he’s helping to uncover, while there’s a murderer on the loose who won’t hesitate to kill again—and this uneasy couple is moving right into his sights.

Comment: I've decided to try this story after seeing some positive reviews and the premise made me curious enough: a plumber who has some mild psychic abilities teams up with a private investigator who happens to have been one of his old school bullies...

Tom Paretski is a normal guy with a normal job but he has this weird ability to sense hidden things. His police friend Dave asks his help with a case and that is how Tom reconnects with Phil, his former school bully and the first guy he had a crush on. Phil is now openly gay, which makes his homophobic gestures in the past something understandable, but nevertheless a terrible memory for Tom, even more so because it was due to it that he had an accident which caused his limp. Tom and Phil agree to try to see if they can find some information for Phil's case, but Tom can't help being charming and helpful, perhaps too much, placing him in sometimes complicated positions when talking to others... but will his help prove necessary? And what will happen between Tom and Phil after all these years?

I will confess that reading the blurb made me create certain expectations about how this story would be and I thought the combination of romance and cozy investigation would have been slightly more charming. It turns out that the mystery wasn't that complicated but I struggled to remain focused on what was happening, and, I'd say, part of why was my lack of time to read this in a more consecutive progression but also the jarring writing options here and there.

The beginning was quite promising because Tom is a regular guy and he doesn't have any glamorous work or life situation and I was quite interested to see how this would be a part of his personality or development. I liked the whole setup of why he decided to become a plumber and I thought that his old story with the bullies and the accident which caused his limp would have more attention. In truth, things weren't as simple but also not as exploited as that. I think the author really intended to make this a story where the reader would infer stuff from actions, that notion of the "show, don't tell" but I felt some things were too subtle or too vague for this tactic to feel a good choice for me.

Perhaps it's safer to say that I didn't engage with the characters or the story as easily because the writing was a little hard to get into sometimes. Clearly, this is a British author writing very British words in a very British style (meaning, with idiomatic expressions and wording related to British English) and I'll say a few passed me by and others were too strong and constant (the constant drink of tea in every social occasion, the use of expressions such as "darling" or "dear" in dialogues) that instead of putting me in the move and the feel of a British environment, kept reminding me of precisely that and I got distracted.

Likely, this a personal problem and not one related to the story itself, but there was a time I just could not get past that. At the same time, the plot went on, the mystery was related to a woman's body and of course the investigation approached those closer to her... I can appreciate the author's choices of making this a simplistic plot, but the red herrings were just too convenient and some secondary characters felt caricatures... or maybe they were meant to be distracting? Either way, I wasn't really focused on the mystery and discovering who was the culprit didn't make me any happier I was reaching the end.

I was also betting my enjoyment on the romance development but two things made it seem less vibrant than what I hoped for: first, the story is narrated only by Tom and while I liked him overall and his "voice, of course his views on the past and about Phil were too limited and I've finished the book very unsure about whether they could have a future together or not. Second, I don't really consider that they spoke enough about what had happened and abut other situations in their lives to make their romance a solid one, now. I guess the fact there are more books might address this, but I can't say I feel that curious now, to keep reading...

I guess I wanted a little more angst, a little more emotional development, and perhaps a third person narrator might have helped, or if the story were to be more about the romance/personal issues with the mystery as a secondary element.... I don't really mind the narrative style or the intention, but the execution didn't wow me... I feel the details I wanted to see explored weren't so, or not the way i imagined... I might read the second book one day, but now I'm doubtful about how rewarding the series might be in the end.....
Grade: 6/10

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Nora Roberts - The Awakening

In the realm of Talamh, a teenage warrior named Keegan emerges from a lake holding a sword—representing both power and the terrifying responsibility to protect the Fey. In another realm known as Philadelphia, a young woman has just discovered she possesses a treasure of her own…
When Breen Kelly was a girl, her father would tell her stories of magical places. Now she’s an anxious twentysomething mired in student debt and working a job she hates. But one day she stumbles upon a shocking discovery: her mother has been hiding an investment account in her name. It has been funded by her long-lost father—and it’s worth nearly four million dollars.
This newfound fortune would be life-changing for anyone. But little does Breen know that when she uses some of the money to journey to Ireland, it will unlock mysteries she couldn’t have imagined. Here, she will begin to understand why she kept seeing that silver-haired, elusive man, why she imagined his voice in her head saying Come home, Breen Siobhan. It’s time you came home. Why she dreamed of dragons. And where her true destiny lies—through a portal in Galway that takes her to a land of faeries and mermaids, to a man named Keegan, and to the courage in her own heart that will guide her through a powerful, dangerous destiny…

Comment: This is the first book in the Dragon Heart Legacy trilogy by Nora Roberts. I've finally got the chance to purchase the third book and will now read the trilogy in three consecutive months. 
(as is my usual tactic with series or trilogies, if I can)

In this first story we meet Breen Kelly, a young woman who is tired and has a rather sad life, she is a teacher and isn't eager to think she needs to this her whole life, but things are what they are. Everything changes when she accidentally finds some paperwork at her mother's house claiming she has a lot of money in the bank, in her own name. After a phone call, she finds out her father had been sending money from Ireland but her mother never told her about it and more, she has not helped Breen, who had to work several jobs at the same time she studied. When she is able, Breen decides to take advantage of this newfound money and travels to Ireland, to find her father or information about him and she ends up discovering more than she imagined, for her father came from another world, a fantastical place where the Fae and other types of beings exist. Breen is actually welcomed by a grandmother and others she forgot existed when her mother decided to take her away as a child. But it turns out not everyone in her family liked this and her grandfather is a terrible enemy, one Breen is supposed to help defeat... but how?  

Considering the years and the experience the author has with writing, her craft - as she likes to say - is as superb as always and if there was a reason why I feel in love with her books and why she is certainly the author whose books I've read the most so far, is her ability to write an engaging story. It does help she is prolific, but even the books I liked less weren't badly written, perhaps just less appealing. This means that this story is as fascinating and as engaging, but I must say the pace was a bit too slow.

Unlike her usual trilogy tactic, this one seems to be about Breen and her discovering of her roots, skills and powers. It doesn't seem this will be divided into three main couples, one book pr couple while the ongoing plot develops sequentially. I can't say if I like this way better or not, but thinking of the amount of pages and how so much was happening so slowly, I got the impression the whole setting up of the plot points took too long.

As a matter of fact, I did like the slower beginning, when we are given scenes of Breen struggling, mostly emotionally, about her days and I think this set up the mood well enough, especially for when she finds out about what her mother kept from her. Perhaps what wasn't as interesting to me, and this is something I've noticed or felt like in regards to other more recent books by her, is that everything is a little too well done, the writing took a very smooth and staged path, which means her style is easily recognizable, but perhaps a little too repetitive. Her older books seemed to be more spontaneous, or the scenes/situations felt like it. Now, her writing is as great, as I've said, but it feels less intrinsic.

Things obviously change when Breen travels to Ireland (reading this author's books through the years, so many set in this country, did make me want to visit, that is true about how captivating her words are) and discovers the new world Tamlah, which I saw as being parallel to ours, where the Fae and other beings co exist, but where magic and paranormal are the norm. This is something done in other series too, but it was interesting to see Breen did feel a little conflicted about the two worlds, about what she should do in regards to her options. The fact Tamlah has an evil man to defeat, her own grandfather means she needs to prioritize this, but I think it's not hard to see where the main story is going.

It is true that Breen isn't an immediately perfect student learning about her powers and her fighting skills, but everything is described in such a way that I can't help think Breen is a perfect heroine. I don't know how to say this but a different type of interaction with others, different dynamics to her surroundings instead of having this incredible task to defeat the bad guy would make for a more compelling story and having Breen deal with these changes in her life in a more realistic way might make for a fresh type of story for the author. I think some ideas are wonderful, or seem so, and then they don't go to any exciting place. I can't say I dislike the author's choices - I like her books - but sometimes the execution is too perfect, too flawless and the characters seem to blend among each other.

Since this is the first in the trilogy, nothing definitive really happens and the book ends on a slight cliffhanger. It's nothing radical, and I can wait one more month to read it, and I predict it will have more content and scenes set on Tamlah, probably so that Breen can get used to this "world" and her role as a supposed savior. I'm still hopeful to see great scenes and more excitement...
Grade: 7/10