India Black

India_BlackAuthor: Carol K. Carr
First Published: November 2010
Publisher: Berkley Trade
Series: Madam of Espionage Mysteries #1
296 pages (paperback)

I discovered this series via Goodreads’ “Readers Also Enjoyed …” recommendation section. The combination of a promise of exciting espionage by a femme fatale kind of character and the gorgeous cover had me persuaded to give the book a try. Also, I love the time period this book takes place in, during Queen Victoria’s reign.

Bizarrely enough, despite the word “mystery” being used to describe this book (it’s right on the cover!), it’s not a mystery novel at all. At least, I don’t think so … The story is about a woman named India Black who is a madam that runs a whore house in London, called the Lotus House. She becomes pulled into an international crisis of some sort when one of the clients of her establishment dies inside Lotus House. Said client is a pretty high ranking government official, who was supposed to be carrying a briefcase with top secret military documents that could be very detrimental to Britain should they fall into the wrong hands — such as Russian hands. India is forced/blackmailed by the Prime Minister of Britain and a government spy agent nicknamed French (real name is confidential) to help them in retrieving this briefcase that was stolen from the Lotus House. India becomes engaged in a cat-and-mouse chase with Russian spy agents as they both race to be the first to retrieve these documents.

If any part of it is a mystery, I suppose it’s when India was just trying to figure out who the gentleman was that died in her brothel, but that was solved very early on. I really don’t think this is a mystery at all. It’s certainly a thriller kind of novel though, and action oriented. Another thing about this novel that might throw you off is that the plot summary and even the cover of this book look “serious” and “cool”– however, it’s actually humorous. I read some reviews where people said the characters were kind of ‘idiotic’ and certain plot points is nonsensical or bizarre, in a “why the heck would they do that?” kind of way. I really think it is all intentional, as my impression of the novel is that it’s all meant to be sort of comedic. No, I don’t buy the reason why the British government would recruit a brothel madame to help them retrieve top secret documents and various other events in the book, but I never, for once, felt this was a serious, realistic espionage novel. So I was able to easily suspend my belief and enjoy the ride.

With all that being said, I actually found myself quite enjoying the story. Mainly because I found it funny. The plot is kind of predictable, but India’s wittiness, sarcasm and humor held my interest. And you know what, it was just a plain ol’ fun novel to read. It didn’t take itself seriously, and it was so easy to slip into the story.

I think the main shortcomings of this novel is that it was packaged all wrong (not really a mystery, looks too serious on the outside); as well, the official book premise includes a promise of India starting to develop feelings for the British spy agent French … but that never happened in the book!! To be fair, I did get a vibe that India and French were to be an item in the future, however, this vibe came from my own ‘intuition’, if you will, about how characters in such novels usually end up. I don’t think I could find much contextual evidence to support this vibe I have. I think there was only one scene where the two of them had a slightly meaningful conversation, but 99% of the time, they were just bickering at one another.

So, all in all, initial expectations from the book’s premise and book cover could be potentially disappointing, especially if you thought you were getting a certain story but really wasn’t. However, overall, a very fun book and a series that I would love to continue reading.

My Rating:

Victoria: May Blossom of Britannia, England, 1829

victoriaAuthor: Anna Kirwan
First Published: November 2001
Publisher: Scholastic
Series: The Royal Diaries
219 pages (hardcover)

This time around in my reading of The Royal Diaries series (one of my absolute favourite childhood series, though I never managed to read ALL of them when I was a kid), the focus is on Queen Victoria from England. I am really interested in Queen Victoria, but it’s hard to find historical fiction on her (I only know of two novels that are about Queen Victoria, including this one). There are lots of books that take place in the Victorian Era, but very few where Queen Victoria is the main character … sad!

This book is about Victoria when she was 9 to 10 years old. The book centers around her childhood and her relationships to the various people in her lives. In particular, she is fond of the king of her time, George IV, who she calls Uncle King. She doesn’t have the strongest relationship with her mother, but does love her; unfortunately she is under the influence of John Conroy, her mother’s comptroller, who also is hoping to rule over Victoria (through her mother). For unbeknownst to Victoria, Uncle King’s heir (his brother) is most likely unable to have children with his wife, making Victoria, their niece, very likely to become Queen of England one day.

One thing that stood out to me in this Royal Diaries installment is that the writing actually feels more authentic to its time period than others. I mean, I understand some of the Royal Diaries are going to have a difficult time making the writing seem authentic to the time period when the princess writing it isn’t even supposed to know English. But some of the other Royal Diaries do take place in European countries and none of them had writing that felt as “real” as this one.

Like most of the other Royal Diaries books, this book is also mainly concerned with the day to day life of little Victoria in 1800′s England. Maybe that would be more interesting to a child reading this book (which I realize is its intended age group); I thought it was just okay. I wouldn’t say I’m really knowledgeable in what life was like in 1800′s England, but I probably know more than a child reading this book, so probably the educational portion of this novel would be much more fascinating to a kid. This book has not much action, I’m afraid. Towards the end, it gets a little more exciting (though I use that word in the relative sense) when Victoria begins to piece together how the inheritance of the throne of England is going … and her shock when she realizes it could be her, though she tries to brush it off at first.

All in all, it was a solid read with both pros and cons. I’m just glad to read something on Queen Victoria, there should be more his-fics on her life!

My Rating:

Reached

reachedAuthor: Ally Condie
First Published: November 2012
Publisher: Dutton
Series: Matched #3
512 pages (hardcover)

If you’ve read my reviews for the first two books of this series, you might be wondering why I bothered reading book three, Reached, at all, since I didn’t really like the first two books that much. Well, my line of thinking was something like, “I’ve come this far, it’s the last book.” I didn’t really care about how the story was going to end, but I did want some sort of closure with the series. Well, I got to the end and it’s pretty much the same as the first two books, though somehow this one managed to be even more boring.

So, the Rising (the rebellion) is supposed to be up and fighting the Society in this final book.During all this, there is a Plague going around and our main characters are trying very hard to find the Cure for. Even worse, the Plague mutates, so that their previous Cure no longer works and they have to find a new one. And of course, during all these events, it is expected (as the third and final book in the series and all), that Cassia is going to finally make a proper decision between Xander and Ky, the two boys who are in love with her.

It all sounds very exciting, but it wasn’t. I thought book two was going to be the most boring book in the series, but I was wrong: book three is! The first 300-ish pages of this book, it honestly felt like nothing was happening. There is nothing that happens that sticks out in my mind. There was just so much “fluff” writing. It felt like the author wanted to be “deep” and thoughtful in her writing, but none of it was convincing. And while I normally like poetry, I don’t buy what this book (or rather, this series) has done with poems. They become almost like a form of currency, people trading bits of poems to get what they want. Why would a bunch of rebels who can’t even write decide that poetry was worth anything? I hardly think their Society mandated education would help them learn how to appreciate poetry, especially poetry that was written decades or even centuries ago. Maybe modern poetry … Anyway, I digress …

I kept expecting the Rising to finally do something against the Society. But there was no fighting, no nothing! I don’t NEED there to be actual fighting to be interesting, but I did expect something exciting to go down. Instead, I got this super anti-climatic realization from Cassia that the Rising and the Society are one, that the Society engineered the Rising to make people think there’s change and be satisfied. The reveal was not very exciting and the events that followed this realization were pretty boring!

The love story between Cassia, Xander and Ky ended very predictably too. I did not expect the “leftover” boy to find love too, but he did. That didn’t make me feel happy though. I feel that having the “leftover” boy find true love suddenly just undermines the “leftover” boy’s feelings for Cassia during the entire series. If he can love another girl so soon after Cassia makes up her mind about who she wants to be with, then he never truly loved Cassia at all, you know?

I don’t feel satisfied after reading this final book, but I can’t really say I’m disappointed either. I just feel nothing, like none of it mattered.

My Rating:

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane

the_ocean_at_the_end_of_the_laneAuthor: Neil Gaiman
First Published: June 2013
Publisher: William Morrow Books
181 pages (hardcover)

For whatever reason, I have been coming across Neil Gaiman’s name a lot lately (probably read it in some articles dealing with Hachette and Amazon or whatever). When I saw this book at the bookstore, I recognized his name. It sounded like a fantasy-esque novel and I’m a big fan of fantasy … so that’s how I ended up reading this book.

As someone who has never read a Neil Gaiman book in my life, let me just say this wasn’t fantasy — well, not really. Definitely magical though. It’s kind of hard to describe the story. Okay, I admit, it’s sort of fantasy, but not it is also definitely not your usual flavor of fantasy. The story reminds me a lot of something that Studio Ghibli would create (Studio Ghibli is a Japanese animation studio that created such classics as My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle). If you’ve ever watched a Studio Ghibli film, then you’ll probably understand what I mean when I say the fantasy in this novel is a lot like a childhood story that is “darker” somehow, and very dream like, like you’re not sure where the line between real and not-real is.

The story centers around a nameless seven year old boy. The time is the 1970′s (I think). The boy lives with his mom, his dad and his sister, in a large house that is sometimes rented out to passersby and other miscellaneous people. The boy has no real friends and spends much of his time engrossed reading books. One day, he makes friends with an 11 year old girl named Lettie Hempstock who lives at the farmhouse at the end of the lane. She says she’s 11 but shies away from answering the boy’s question of how long she has been 11. Lettie also insists the pond at their farmhouse is an ocean, and that she and her mother and grandmother sailed across this ocean from the old country to where they are now a long, long time ago. So, some things are already not what they seem to be.

Some strange things and dreams have been happening to the boy and Lettie lets him know she knows what is happening. She takes him across the farm to what seems to be a completely different world. There, they encounter (in the boy’s opinion) some frightening things. During their trip, the boy lets go of Lettie’s hand, which she explicitly told him not to do. When the boy returns home, back in his own world, his mother introduces him to the new babysitter/nanny, and the boy knows that there is something terribly off about this woman, something scary and demon-like about her. The rest of the story primarily dealt with banishing this babysitter/nanny, back to where she came from.

I know I just made it seem like the plot is crystal clear, but believe me when I say the story isn’t that clear-cut and there aren’t straight forward motives. I admit, sometimes I got confused with what was going on, especially since there is such a dream-like quality with this story. However, I found myself rather enjoying this book despite that, staying up till the wee hours of the day to read just one more chapter. I think what I liked about this book is one of the messages of the story, which was packaged together nicely in a quote that I can’t find right now, but basically, that there is really no difference between adults and children. Adults may act like they are in control all the time and know what they’re doing, but inside, they are the same as they always have been, the same as when they were children. And it made me miss being a child.

Another great quote I fell in love with was, “Did I pass?” …. “You don’t pass or fail at being a person, dear.” Like every person on the planet, we have all had our own difficulties and challenges to embrace while growing up, transitioning from child to ‘adult’, and this quote made me feel … relieved. Like, despite it all, no one can truly judge you and decide your worthiness as a person.

My only ‘complaint’ about this novel was that it was so short, and yet the hardcover price is ridiculously high. I mean, I know hardcover books are expensive but come on, this book doesn’t even break 200 pages and yet costs just as much as my hardcover books that are 300-400 pages.  (No, this is not the reason why I am giving this 4/5 stars). Anyway, I’m interested in reading more of Neil Gaiman’s books in the future. I didn’t realize he wrote Stardust and Coraline (which are movies, I believe?) so maybe I will start with those, who knows?

My Rating:

The Longest Ride

the longest rideAuthor: Nicholas Sparks
First Published: September 2013
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
398 pages (hardcover)

Ahh, so this is actually my very first Nicholas Sparks novel. I’ve never read any of his books before this, never even seen any of the movies his books got turned into (yes, I know, this means I never watched The Notebook before …!)  The reason I picked this novel up was because I won a contest at Chapters a long time ago (maybe last year?) The prize was a bag full of merchandise, so I got tea, a mug, candles, a throw blanket … and this one hardcover book, which was a signed copy of The Longest Ride. I was pretty excited that it was autographed, even though I never read his books before, haha.

Anyway, The Longest Ride actually consists of two stories that will overlap at the end of the novel. The first story is about 91 year old Ira Levinson, a war veteran whose wife, Ruth, died 9 years ago. He ends up driving his car into a ditch and is stuck there for several days. Until rescue arrives, he hallucinates seeing his beloved wife, Ruth, in the seat next to him. The vision of Ruth reminisces about their life together, in order to help keep Ira awake and alert.

The second story is about Sophia and Luke, two young 20-somethings in a small town. Sophia is a college student studying art history, who recently broke things off with her three-time cheating boyfriend Brian. Luke is a professional bull rider and helps run and maintains his family ranch nearby. The two meet by chance at a country-themed party, and begin to fall in love with one another.

This was a sweet story and I enjoyed reading this book. I found Ira and Ruth’s love story more romantic than Sophia and Luke’s, but maybe that’s just because there’s something charming about finding love in the 1930′s, compared to the present day story of Sophia and Luke. When it comes to the two couples, I found it easier to immerse myself and believe that Ira and Ruth were very much in love. The hardships they experienced like getting permission from each other’s parents to date, the world wars, infertility, etc. all made their relationship seem so romantic. With Sophia and Luke, I had a slightly harder time, maybe because of stereotypes or something. You know, beautiful college girl meets drop-dead-gorgeous cowboy at a raving party and they fall in love … I guess it just didn’t start off very romantic, at least to me.

Funny enough, even though I think Ira and Ruth’s relationship was the more genuine of the two, I like Sophia and Luke’s story better, for some reason. It was the story that took up more parts of the novel, for one. Sometimes, I wished this novel focused solely on Sophia and Luke instead of bouncing back and forth between the two narratives. Sophia and Luke’s relationship may have some stereotypical stuff happening in it that kind of made me groan (the vengeful ex-boyfriend, the perky best friend sidekick, Sophia never really fitting in at her school, you know, things like that), but it was actually a sweet relationship. Romantic? That’s a strong word for them, and one I’d reserve for Ira and Ruth, but sweet? It definitely was.

My only major complaint is the tie bringing the two stories together was kind of weak and didn’t happen until the very end of the novel. This is another reason why I would have liked it if the book just focused on Sophia and Luke.

The novel, overall, was charming pleasant to read. It was no roller-coaster ride, but it was like taking a nice drive around the countryside. Relaxing and satisfying at the end.

My Rating:

The Girl Who Saved The King of Sweden

girl-saved-king-swedenAuthor: Jonas Jonasson
First Published: September 2013
In English: April 2014
Publisher: Harper Collins
384 pages (paperback)

I’ve been seeing this book in a lot of shops lately and decided to pick it up as it piqued my interest (what with my never ending fascination with royalty and all — and look, the word king is right in the title!). I didn’t know much when I dove in. What I did know about this book: I knew the author also wrote The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared, though I have not read that book yet; I knew the book was originally published in Swedish; and I knew the book had a South African girl as the main character. Oh, and based on the title, that said girl was probably going to somehow save the King of Sweden.

This book is a comedy that is mainly about the life of one young girl named Nombeko and how she becomes mixed up with international politics despite being of very low birth. She starts off with not much in the beginning of her life, having been born to a poor family in a shack in South Africa, during the apartheid time period. Nombeko works at the sanitization department for the City of Johannesburg, basically dealing with people’s shit, literally. Cleverly, Nombeko manages to become the boss of said department at the mere age of 14, as well as secretly obtain a fortune in diamonds. Unfortunately, she gets hit by a car, gets sued and winds up working as a cleaning lady for an incredibly lazy and stupid engineer.

From there, Nombeko’s life takes all sorts of twists and turns that I won’t delve too much into because that will just spoil the fun of the story, and she eventually winds up stuck with an atomic bomb in Sweden. Now she, and her new friends (though ‘friends’ is a term being used loosely here, haha) are desperately trying to contact either the Prime Minister of Sweden or the King of Sweden to let them know that, uh, hey, your nuclear-weapon-free country isn’t so nuclear-weapon-free, actually.

When I started this book, I really loved it. I didn’t know it was a humorous book, and it was actually a pleasant surprise after reading so many serious stories. The entire story is kind of like watching an old school cartoon show on television. A lot of improbable events and situations happen, some are downright silly, and the characters are one dimensional as well — which I think is absolutely fine in a comical story such as this. They were memorable and hilarious characters.

I went along for a fast paced and ridiculously fun ride, and before I was even at the halfway point of the book, I was already recommending this novel to my sisters to read. Sadly, around the halfway point was where my feelings towards the book started to change a little bit.

The fast paced plot slowed down — a lot. There were several years in the story’s timeline where Nombeko basically did nothing. She settled down for a while, so to speak, and the story really felt like it was paused or put on hold. As I kept reading, the plot just seemed to drag on and on. I found myself wondering when Nombeko is actually going to do something about that damn atomic bomb to move the story forward.

And you know the whole thing about the girl saving the king of Sweden? That was such a small, tiny part of the story. And I feel as if the title should have been The Girl Who Saved The King and Prime Minister of Sweden, really. Actually, the original Swedish title makes more sense to me — The Illiterate Who Could Count (or translated to something along those lines). Because this book is really about Nombeko’s life, and less so about that small part where she meets the Swedish king.

I still think this book is hilarious till the end, even though the plot kind of got lost or something after a while. Overall, I had a good time reading it and it’s a memorable, farfetched, silly, fun story. I would still recommend it, despite my lack of enthusiasm for the pacing of the latter half of the novel, and I think I have become very interested in this author’s works.

My Rating: