Saturday, 29 May 2010

Changless by Gail Carriger

Alexia has now married Lord Maccon and has become alpha female of the Woolsey Pack.  She has quickly adapted to pack life and her new role as muhjah to Queen Victoria.  However, her husband disappears and there's some sort of "weapon" that turns all the supernaturals back to human form and exorcises the ghosts.  Alexia is on the case with her entourage including friend Ivy, sister Felicity and the suspicious Madame Lefoux.  Her search to solve the mystery means a traipse up to the badly dressed backwater of Kingair Castle in Scotland and Maccon's previous pack. As the body count stacks up and her husband remains human they have to get to the bottom of it all.
I have to say I found this sequel disappointing, overall.  Although there are flashes of the wit from the previous book, particularly the name of Channing Channing of the Chesterfield Channings, Biffy and Lyall (although both only appear very briefly - which is a huge waste of brilliant characterisation), I got a tad bored by it all.  I think the main problem is that by marrying them off at the end of the first book, things moved on too quickly and the sparky relationship between the two was the most interesting part, which is lost as Maccon disappears for most of the first 200 pages and then is humanised!  That's the whole point of Connall, he's a WEREWOLF!!  The first book was great fun and sexy and that is sadly missing for me in this one.
Ivy remains silly, but instead of funny is slightly pathetic and Madame Lefoux is a stereotyped ambiguous spy/ally.  Okay, for fans of steampunk, there's a lot more content and fantasy mechanical creations with the Victorian version of a fax machine, an advanced parasol and the dirigibles, but I was fairly "meh" about all that and they really were vital to the plot.  As for the plot, I didn't really care what/ who the weapon was...and as for the cliffhanger ending...was it done to make us buy the next book even though this has missed the mark or simply to make us turn against Maccon?!  Is he really that stupid?  I will read the next in the series purely to see how it's all resolved and hope it gets back to the promise of Soulless with huge parts for Lyall and the amazing Biffy!

Friday, 28 May 2010

The Strangley Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker by Leanna Renee Hieber

Set in Victorian times, six teenagers are chosen to be "The Guard" and keep London safe from paranormal disturbances. 
Twenty years on, pale (and not particularly interesting) Percy Parker arrives at Athens Academy.  Although older than their usual students she has been recommended due to her amazing ability to learn languages.  Abandoned at a convent by her dying mother and left only a phoenix pendant to remember her by, Percy is also able to see and hear ghosts and has strange visions that she doesn't understand.  After suffering the contempt of the church for her "gifts" and compounded by her unusual looks Percy finds it difficult to be around people and so wanders through life swathed in fabric.
The Guard have all taken on day jobs with Rebecca Thompson the headmistress of Athens and Alexi Rychman a professor in the school.  Prophesy has told them that at some point they will find a seventh to join them and Alexi, the leader of the group, is convinced that this will be the return of their Goddess and his soul mate. 
Percy is immediately taken by the aloof and powerful professor Rychman, her failure to cope with his classes in mathematics leads to remedial tutorials which leads Alexi to question whether it is possible that Percy could be the seventh?
I thought this  bit of an odd one, to me it's could be retitled The strangely rather boring tale of Miss Percy Parker, as not a lot happens and I'm a bit underwhelmed by it all.  It's a reworking of the Persephone myth (guess what Percy is short for!) where she is tricked by Hades into the underworld and parted from her true love.  the book itself is a mix of mildly Gothic paranormal and twee romance, with lots of restrained desire and longing glances.  At first I suspected it was written for the teen audience but as all The Guard characters are mid to late thirties and regularly described as old and/or longing for their youth I doubt it, but when reading it with that audience in mind, I could forgive some of the more cringe worthy sections. (Okay, mini gripe here, and I know mid thirties were truly middle aged in Victorian times, but come on - they're hardly in their dotage!)
I have several reservations, firstly Percy is sooo dull.  She's a timid little creature with no self respect, she has victim written all over her and so that makes the transformation at the end even more unbelievable.  She hates her looks, spends all her time telling people that she is reviled despite the evidence in the book that most men seem to find her different but alluring because of it.  She shows no backbone and is pathetic when Alexi turns her away. 
Alexi is meant to be the stereotypical dark, brooding, magnetic hero and it sort of works but I can only stand "regal" and "noble" so many  times and both were overused to describe all aspects of his bearing throughout.  This insistent on withdrawing from any relationships due to the prophesy was also a bit trite...and made him come across as a bit of a sanctimonious, self righteous prig.  Not what you want in your romantic lead, really.  The chaste, restrained love affair did fit with the setting and atmosphere of the story, but was all a bit too agonised for my taste.
The rest of the guard were pretty forgettable and unimaginative, most suffering from unrequited love and i didn't care! I also sussed what Lucille was straight away without the heavy hints, and suspect the majority of readers would!  I found the descriptions of London at the time of the Ripper to be weak and not atmospheric, it was all a bit too pedestrian and missed a trick.
I bought this as it came up as an Amazon recommendation and didn't realise it was part of a series, I doubt I'll bother with the others as the characters didn't make sufficient impression on me to care what happens next.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

The Food of Love by Anthony Capella

Laura Patterson is an American studying art history in Rome and after several disappointing dates with Italian men she decides on her friend's advice to only go out with a man that can cook.  Tommaso is incredibly handsome and knows it!  He's used to making many conquests amongst the female tourists and keeps photos of them all in his wardrobe.  He is instantly taken with Laura, and whilst busy flirting manages to tell her he's a chef at a leading restaurant, which would be fine but he's only a waiter and even the pot washer gets to boss him around!  Tommaso finds he has to rely on his friend Bruno to keep up the charade.  Bruno is an amazing chef but lacks the natural charm and good looks that his friend has in spades, however, cooking for Laura is a labour of love and he uses his food to demonstrate his feelings by tempting and seducing her.  When Laura discovers their dishonesty she rebounds into her older, controlling lecturer whilst Bruno discovers himself and further cooking skills in the mountains.
A retelling of the Cyrano de Bergerac story but with food!  As with The Wedding Officer, the descriptions of food (even offal!) is gorgeous.  It's a sexy and light hearted read and the described effects of eating tartufo were hilarious.  Some of the imagery was a bit disturbing - I have no desire to be spit roasted, or rubbed with rosemary - but each to their own!  The slight downer was that Laura was a bit weak and thinly drawn, apart from being beautiful and a complete foodie I couldn't really see why she was so special.  Benedetta was far more interesting and substantial and a little bit of me wanted her and Bruno to live happily ever after! Bruno was okay, but again a bit whiny and weak in parts - I just wanted him to get on with it and either 'fess up to Laura or get a life.  I felt the mafia sub-plot got lost along the way, it seemed a big deal at first and then disappeared and what happened to Carlotta and her family? 
Enjoyable in a different way to his other novel and again a good read, but still had something missing for me.

Monday, 17 May 2010

The Shoe Queen by Anna Davis

Society beauty Genevieve parties every night with the bohemian artists of Montparnasse and longs to be taken seriously for her poetry. She has an amazingly rich and indulgent husband, a fabulous apartment and huge hole in her life which she fills with her extravagant shoe collection. When she sees a rival wearing the most amazing pair of shoes, Genevieve has to have a pair by the same designer.  However, Paolo Zachari, although renowned for his exquisite and eye-wateringly expensive shoes is more famous for his eccentric insistence on ruthlessly selecting his clients, Zachari's footwear is definitely exclusive!  Genevieve becomes obsessed with the shoes and their designer and begins an affair that makes her question her life and the circumstances that lead her to Paris.
I found this interesting, but strangely a strangely empty experience overall.  The detail of 1920's Paris, including the fashions and lifestyle of the debauched artistes is fascinating and Lulu of Montparnasse could fill another book by herself.  It's a blend of luxury and seediness, glamour and TB, a place where shallowness and self indulgence reign...and that's probably why it didn't completely take me over.  I found Genevieve, despite the revelations about her younger self to be an unsympathetic character, I really couldn't find anything to like about her and sadly, all the female characters were similarly hardened, self seeking and ultimately rather pathetic.  For me it was all a bit Moulin Rouge-ish (and yes, I know I'm about 25 years out with the setting) but without the humour!
It is beautifully and cleverly written and I appreciate the research involved to create the atmosphere, but was left feeling a bit disappointed.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

The Wedding Officer by Anthony Capella

Livia Pertini meets her husband to be, Enzo in her village on the day her favourite buffalo wins the beauty prize.  However, their honeymoon is cut short by him being recalled back to the front and she never sees him again.  Slimy crook Alberto wants to get Livia into his bed and when his efforts leave her family without any food or money she returns to Naples to find work in the munitions factories.
James Gould is posted to Naples in 1943 and has the dubious honour of being the "wedding officer" where he has to judge the suitability of the Italian fiancees of the British soldiers.  He has to be sure they are of good character, which basically means that they're not a prostitute...unfortunately it's the only employment most women in Naples are able to find.  James is increasingly frustrated by the work and takes a hard line on both the fiancees and the local black market.  The locals take an imaginative view on solving the problem and get Livia a job as James's cook to make him happy as "a contented stomach, a forgiving heart" will make life much easier for everyone.  James is a complete innocent but he finds himself quickly falling for Naples, the food and the charms of Livia,  they gradually develop their relationship based on a love of great food and each other. 
In the background to this the war is ongoing, but Vesuvius is also rumbling.  The volcano explodes whilst Livia is back in her home village and her father is seriously injured.  James is unable to get to her, but tirelessly works on the relief operation until the roads are clear.  By this time Livia has had to give in to the demands of Alberto but refuses to marry him and in revenge he arranges for her to be shipped of to Rome.  When James discovers her fate he joins the front line battle to get her back.
I did enjoy this book, and I have Capella's first novel on my "to be read" pile, so I'll look at that a bit quicker.  The descriptions of Italy and its food are gorgeous, I spent most the first two thirds drooling, which isn't great as I read mostly in bed before going to sleep!  The unfolding love story is engaging and sexy.  I do like my characters a bit more "fleshy" - I found them interesting and likable, but I wasn't totally taken over by them.  Livia starts out as a bit abrasive and clever which comes across through her mocking humour and although the circumstances she goes through obviously change her, some of this fun was lost by the end.  James is a bit wet, but as he "goes native" he becomes more interesting.
I dropped a star as I felt that the book was taking itself a bit too seriously, particularly in the last 100 pages.  What started out as a delicious foody romance became rather too embroiled in the last stages of the war in Italy with a brief sojourn through communism...which I personally felt was too big a leap in terms of what the book was about and also in characterisation of James.
Still, a really good read and I'm looking forward to reading others by the same author.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

The Botticelli Secret by Marina Fiorato

Luciana Vetra is blonde, beautiful and lives in fifteenth century Florence.  She knows nothing of her past other than she arrived in the city as a baby in a Venetian bottle.  Now in her teens, after escaping the convent, she is making her living as a whore but through one of her regular customers becomes a model for Botticelli.  She is cast as the beautiful goddess Flora in the painting La Primavera, but after unknowingly upsetting the artist is sent away without payment.  In annoyance and frustration she steals the cartone of the painting and sets off a trail of murder, where someone is willing to kill her or anyone connected to her in an effort  to get the initial plan of the painting back.  Luciana turns to the only man who has not been enticed by her obvious charms, Brother Guido, a novice monk.  Guido is pious and devout, but also knowledgeable and highly connected.  They realise the reason behind their predicament is hidden in La Primavera and so strive to break the code.  Together they flee Florence and travel through the major Italian cities to avoid their enemies and discover the truth.  In doing so, Luciana discovers her past and both characters learn about themselves.
Summed up very quickly...this for me was da Vinci code style romp with a monk and a Florentine prostitute! And I loved it!! No it's not perfect (hence the loss of half a star) but it is a great read!  The detail of Renaissance Italy is gorgeous and Fiorato manages a huge cast of characters including famous historical figures.
If you're keeping up with my reviews, it's not that long since I read "Painting Mona Lisa" which covers similar ground, particularly the rule of il Magnifico in Florence.  It was actually really useful to know a bit about the historical events, (and that particular book was a bit overstuffed with it all, at the expense of the plot) particularly as I'm no art historian...however, this book really showed up how flat and unemotional I found the Kalogridis novel.
On the plus side, Luciana is a really great protagonist!  She's bright, brash and by being uneducated is allowed to ask the daft questions the reader may want to ask when Brother Guido covers biblical or classical ground that is unfamiliar.  She is amusing (not always intentionally) and keeps the tone fairly light, even in the more sinister sections.  Her "colourful" language can be a distraction, I understand it quickly conveys her background and life experiences, provides strong contrast with Guido and shocks the norms of the setting, but although I'm not offended by it, I don't think it was always necessary. 
Brother Guido is lovely, he's handsome, educated and noble but I wanted to know more!  His first meeting with Luciana is when she is having a sneaky pee in the river Arno and he tries to save her soul.  Obviously naive and devout, his intelligence and honour come through as he agrees to help Luciana.  My main problem is that the whole book is told from Luciana's point of view and although she is an engaging narrator, I did find it frustrating at times as I'd have liked the opportunity to hear things from Guido's view, particularly his loss of faith and becoming a soldier in Milan as these were the turning points in his character development and it would have given him much more depth.  By only hearing Luciana's view Guido had a tendency to be a little flat; the flashes of humour and his sudden changes of personality when impersonating Niccolo were underdeveloped.  I thought the overall pace of the story slowed when the she and Guido were separated as the sparring and unfolding romance on her side and his reluctance to accept it were a ongoing feature through the book.
However, that's me being picky and wanting more!  Overall it's a fabulous read with intrigue, murder and romance.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Soulless by Gail Carriger

**** 1/2
Alexia Tarrabotti is a spinster, however, she also has a dead Italian father, olive skin and a big nose, rather advanced opinions for a woman in Victorian times and she has no soul.  It is her distinct lack of soul that makes her a rarity and also leads to her accidently killing a vampire when he gets a bit peckish at a society event and the treacle tart obviously wasn't to his taste.  Lord Maccon, gorgeous but an alpha werewolf, has to investigate which leads to the discovery that although there are some new, horrifically bad mannered and terribly dressed vampires appearing, a considerable number of established vamps and werewolves have vanished.  Unfortunately for Alexia, her soulless state, which means she turns the supernatural into humans on her touch, is becoming interesting to a number of different parties who believe the mysterious happenings revolve around her.  This leads to Lord Maccon having to protect her, but who's going to protect them from each other?  This is the first book in the parasol protectorate series.
Well, this is a strange one...another recommendation from Amazon, which probably stems from my past vampire crazes and Amelia Peabody choices (more about those in other posts!).  Alexia is in many ways like Amelia, outspoken, awkward and confrontational with a large, overly attractive man (or werewolf in this case).  She also shares the same penchant for parasols to get her out of trouble!  Set in an alternative Victorian period where werewolves and vampires are part of society and have helped create the British Empire.  It comes under the steampunk genre (which I'd never heard of until this, how sheltered am I?!) but is really a mix of supernatural mystery and romance with Lord Maccon being a toothier and hairier hero than most but it works.  The events surrounding the missing supernaturals leads to Alexia and Maccon coming together, yes, they squabble but it obvious where it's all heading...even with the vague references about hedgehogs.
As a supporting character I really like Professor Lyall, the beta, with his slightly put upon, mannered world weariness...I hope there's lots more of him in the rest of the series.
It gets 4 and a half stars for being a funny, sexy read.  It's not thought provoking but Alexia is an engaging heroine and there's lots of scope for future books.

Katy Carter wants a Hero by Ruth Saberton

Katy is a disillusioned English teacher, who writes her historical bonkbuster during staff meetings.  Katy thinks she's found her perfect man in James, and due to this she blithely ignores the evil jibes of his mother and his demands that she becomes the perfect hostess to support his efforts to get a promotion.  A disastrous dinner party including her best friend Ollie, his red setter, a cactus and a lobster called "Pinchy" leads to James deciding that Katy is not suitable wife material even if his mother has got a Vera Wang dress planned, and he throws her out, complete with Pinchy!  Katy wallows in regrets and leans heavily on Ollie for comfort, even the fictional steamy love life of Millandra and Jake are of little comfort.  A health scare leads Katy to find a new life, she packs up and leaves for Cornwall to stay with her friend, Mads, who is convinced that the move will give her a bestselling book and a whole new love life.  It's certainly a change as she sells sex toys from the church mini bus, releases Pinchy back to the wild, meets a handsome but slightly intimidating fisherman and then becomes girlfriend of stunning actor, Gabriel and has to cope with all the associated hysteria from the press this creates.  Katy manages to change her life but has she found love?  Throw in a manic rich aunt, a flamboyant gay best friend and a money grabbing ex and Katy still gets her happy ending.
This book has massively benefited from the Richard and Judy effect...apparently the author's mum in law convinced them to read her manuscript and then she got her publishing deal. (Only jealous!!)  It is pure chick-lit and entertaining, but due to work etc I left off slap in the middle of reading it for a couple of weeks and I wasn't that bothered about going back, which says it all really.  It's simplistic, Katy is mildly annoying by being a weak and irritating girly who gets lucky without any effort on her part.  The cancer scare seemed unnecessary, her life was pretty pointless anyway, so hardly needed that to shake things up!  Ollie had potential but came across as being wet, not my hero type.  It was all a bit too contrived with comic set pieces to my taste, similar to some earlier Sophie Kinsella, and smacks of "fun, chick flick" potential.
Believe the bright pink cover as it sums it up - loud, silly and fun...but instantly forgettable.