11. “On the edge” by Ilona Andrews

Publisher: Ace Fantasy, part of The Penguin Group, 2009
Page count: 309 pages

“On the edge” is the first novel in a (for me) new urban fantasy series called The Edge. The series got its name from the Edge, a smallish strip of land caught between the Weird, a country filled with magic, and the Broken, a non-magical universe very much like our own. Residents of the Weird and the Broken seldom pass into each other’s respective universes, so the Egers residing in-between are usually the only ones to move between worlds. That is why Rose Drayton, an Edger with unusually strong magical abilities, is so surprised when she meets Declan, a haughty blueblood warrior stemming from the Weird.

Rose is instantly suspicious of Declan’s intentions, as well she might: not only has she grown up in poverty and ridicule with a mother who slept around and a father who left her to care for her younger brothers, but also Rose’s white flash (a sign of her inner magic power) has attracted nothing but trouble from families wanting her to breed with their sons to produce strong heirs. Consequently, when Declan shows up on her doorstep declaring that he won’t leave without her, Rose sets him three seemingly impossible challenges that he will have to overcome before she will agree to leave. Soon, however, it becomes apparent that foul monsters want to kill Rose and her brothers to consume their magic powers, making Declan something of a bodyguard despite Rose’s strong objections. Together (to quote the blurb), they “must overcome their differences and work together to destroy [the monsters], or the beasts will devour the Edge and everyone in it…” (cheesy, I know, but that’s basically what happens next).

So, for the review part: After breezing through the Kate Daniels series this summer, I expected the Edge-series to run in the same vein. And in some ways it does: both series are urban fantasy novels featuring a universe with elements of magic as well as the mundane, and both series have an evolving romantic relationship between the two protagonists. That said, it is blatantly obvious that “On the edge” was written by two authors with far more experience than when they published “Magic bites”, the first novel of the Kate Daniels-series. Where “Magic bites” showed promise in constructing a decent fantasy universe but failed miserably at creating any semblance of a plot, “On the edge” scores equally well for the urban fantasy setting but delivers far better goods in terms of plot and characters.

That is not to say that the reader is ever left in doubt as to whether or not Cinderella will end up with Prince Charming; after all, the nascent romance is pretty much implied from the blurb. But, to their eternal credit, Andrew and Ilona Gordon make the characters’ journey in getting there supremely entertaining and that, to my mind, is the whole point for this genre. I laughed out loud multiple times while reading this book, and am already looking for an excuse to re-read “the good bits” (writing this review was one of them). Assuming you like urban fantasy mixed with romance, I think you will laugh, too.


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10. “Origin in death” by Nora Roberts (writing as J.D. Robb)

Publisher: Penguin, 2005
Page count: 347 pages

“Origin in death” is the twenty-second book in the crime/romance series about Lt. Eve Dallas. In this instalment, Eve and her trusty aide, Detective Peabody, investigate the death of a famous surgeon and philantropist, Dr. Wilfred Icove. When his son is later found killed in the same manner, Eve begins to suspect that there is more to this family than their perfect facade would suggest… Meanwhile, on the home front, Rourke is more nervous than we have ever seen him before, as he has invited dozens of Irish relatives over to New York for Thanksgiving.

The “in death”-series is a guilty secret of mine: they are predictable, formulaic, fluffy books with little to no substance… And yet I absolutely love them! Despite their predictability, or perhaps because of it, I find them strangely satisfying to read and far more addictive than the recycled plots would seem to suggest. Thus, I think of them as the litterary equivalent of comfort food, and indeed I find myself reaching for a new instalment every time I require some mental downtime in much the same way you might eat ice cream in front of your favourite chic flick.

That said, formulaic books seldom make for interesting reviews, and hence I don’t usually bother with writing them up. However, I wanted to make an exception for “Origin in death” because it has a genuinely decent storyline. Moreover, the author uses its futuristic setting (2059 A.D) to explore the ethical dilemmas of human cloning, thereby giving the book far more substance than usual. As a result, there is somewhat less emphasis on the relationship between Eve and Roarke than usual; however, I can reassure faithful readers of the series that the kick-ass finale more than makes up for this potential shortcoming. Overall, therefore, “Origin in death” is one of my absolute favourites so far in the “in death”-series.

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9. “The blue castle” by Lucy Maude Montgomery

Publisher: Project Gutenberg Australia (first published in 1926)
Page count: 214 pages

Valancy Stirling is 29 and unkissed, ergo she has long since been relegated to the ranks of the old maids, a fact that her family is never going to stop giving her grief about. Consequently, she spends every minute of every day stitching quilts, running errands for her mother, or rubbing in her old aunt’s back with foul-smelling ointments. Moreover, Valancy was never amongst the popular crowd in school, instead having to suffer in silence as she watched her cousin Olive get all the praise and attention. So Valancy has no friends, no privacy, and frankly no life to speak of as she trudges dutifully on pleasing everyone but herself.

One day, however, Valancy steals a few moments to herself to see the local doctor about her heart, which hammers unpleasantly at times. Before the doctor can give his diagnosis, however, he receives news of an accident involving his son, and storms out the door. Instead, Valancy receives a letter from the doctor a few days later informing her that she has a fatal heart condition and less than a year left to live. This becomes a turning point in Valancy’s life: rather than continuing her respectable but thoroughly boring life, she decides to flaunt society’s convetions and instead say and do whatever she likes. Not surprisingly, she is deemed mad (she has kept the doctor’s letter a secret) and her family is scandalised, but Valancy herself has never had more fun. And before she knows it, the love of her life is heading her way…

I very seldom review romance novels, simply because the outcome is always given at the outset (boy meets girl and after various mishaps they fall in love, before living happily ever after…), which makes for boring reviews. However, I decided to make an exception for “The blue castle” since I grew up reading “Anne of Green Gables” by the same author, and really, this book is almost as delightful as that old children’s classic. “The blue castle” is old-fashioned and sweet, with a thoroughly satisfying plot vindicating our heroine and seeing her fall in love with the quirky disreputable neighbour (who of course turns out to be quite the catch in the end, this is romance after all :). My only gripe with this novel is the overly long and flowery nature descriptions which litter the second half of the book, but I suspect this might be characteristic of the era during which it was written, and so it is really a very minor gripe. Well worth the read if you are into romance!

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8. “The night circus” by Erin Morgenstern

Publisher: Vintage, 2012
Page count: 512 pages

“The night circus” is the story of Celia and Marco, two magicians/illusionists who are pitched against each other in a competition that, unbeknownst to either of them, can only end when one of them dies. Using their magical tricks and illusions, Celia and Marco strive to outdo one another by creating ever more fantastical and mindblowing circus tents at Le Cirque des Rêves, a night circus kept entirely in nuances of black, white and gray, with attractions unlike any you have ever come across. What their respective trainers hadn’t counted on, however, was the budding romance between the two contestants…

While this was an unusually short summary for me, I will leave it at that. The reason is simply that this book reminds of “The thirteenth tale” by Diane Setterfield, a book that hooked onto me within the space of the first few pages and made me read it cover to cover throughtout the night even though I had school the next morning. So did “The night circus”. Seriously, it’s that good: it’s the kind of “totally absorbed, removed from the world” reader’s experience that all lifelong readers dream of but so seldom get to experience. Enough said, now go read it.

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7. “The merry misogynist” by Colin Cotterill

Publisher: Lao Insight, 2009
Page count: 236 pages

Despite the ominous title, this is yet another delightful book in the series about Dr Siri Paiboun, the 73-year old (fictitious) doctor who was made national coroner by the Lao Communist revolution in the mid-1970s. In this latest installment, Dr Siri is investigating a Lao mass murderer who woos young, innocent girls, promising to take them away from their destitute villages to be a diplomat’s wife abroad, only to kill them on their wedding nights. Given the disorganised state of police affairs and the underdeveloped communications across Laos, Laos is full of villages cut off from the world, making Dr Siri’s task of tracking down the killer about as easy as finding a needle in a haystack…

In addition to this criminal case, Dr Siri and his wife, Madame Daeng, are investigating a mystery closer to home: whatever happened to Rajid, the Indian crazy man who used to wander harmlessly around, lost in a universe of his own? Retracing Rajid’s footsteps, they discover that the man they thought was an imbecile and an orphan, is in fact neither: not only do they manage to track down Rajid’s father, but also Rajid has left them beautifully written riddles and poems in Sanskrit giving them clues of his current location! But will they manage to solve the riddles before time runs out for Rajid?

As is usually the case with the crime novels about Dr Siri, this book is more about Lao society and culture, and about a tight-knit group of friends in Communist Lao, than it is about the crimes themselves. That said, given the heinous nature of the murders in this book, this book is more action-filled than the predecessors in the series, as Dr Siri is quite literally running out of time before the killer woos his next victim. Add to that the comic relief of Dr Siri’s troubles with the Communist housing committee, the birth of Dtui’s daughter, and the hunt for Rajid, and you have all the ingredients needed for an excellent crime-cum-humour novel. Well worth the read!

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6. “The stranger’s child” by Alan Hollinghurst

Publisher: Picador, 2012
Page count: 576 pages

“The stranger’s child” begins prior to World War I when George Sawle, the middle son in the family, brings Cecil Valence, an up-and-coming poet and fellow Cambridge student, to his family home “Two Acres” for a weekend. Cecil is a dashing, upper class dandy and gentleman who makes quite an impression on George’s 16-year old sister Daphne. She’s not the only one infatuated with Cecil, however; unbeknownst to his family, George, too, is in love with Cecil. Before leaving, Cecil writes the poem “Two Acres” which later becomes famous after being quoted by Winston Churchill.

In the remainder of the book, we follow the fortunes, ups and downs of the Sawle and Valence families, with the weekend at Two Acres as the recurring red line running throughout the story. In part two, following Cecil’s death in the trenches of World War I, Daphne marries his brutish brother Dudley and moves in at the posh Corley Court. At the request of her formidable mother-in-law, “the General”, Daphne hosts a very awkward weekend commemorating Cecil with members from both families as well as a biographer prowling around. In the third part, set in the late 60’s, Corley Court has been turned into a boarding school. Paul Bryant, a local bank clerk, attends Daphne’s 70th birthday and has his first love affair with Peter Rowe, who is a teacher at the school. We meet Paul again in the fourth part as he travels around interviewing the people from Two Acres and Corley Court for his biography on Cecil.

This is a fascinating story, and quite a difficult one to describe. I picked up “The stranger’s child” in an airport mostly on the basis of the cover, which made the story look like the book version of “Downton abbey”. Despite the book not being at all like the TV show, I nevertheless enjoyed it immensely and ploughed through it in one sitting even though it is close to 600 pages. This book is a real tour de force, where Hollinghurst seamlessly takes the reader through the twists and turns of the 20th century while at the same managing to link it all back to that long-ago weekend at Two Acres. A fantastic achievement of a book!

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5. “Curse of the pogo stick” by Colin Cotterill

Publisher: Lao Insight

This is the fifth installment in the Dr Siri Paibourn crime series set in Laos during the Communist revolution in the mid- to late 1970s. In “Curse of the pogo stick” (surely one of the most creative names of a crime novel ever?!) Dr Siri has been sent to a Communist national conference that is boring him half to death, while Dtui and Mr Geung are stuck with the auditors at the mortuary in Vientiane.

Things quickly become more exciting, however, when Dtui uncovers a plot to bomb the mortuary – with the help of Phosy, her policeman husband, she soon links the bomb to the Lizard, the spy who was behind the failed Monarchist coup d’état in a previous book. Together Dtui and Phosy set out to capture the Lizard and her cronies. At the same time, Dr Siri is kidnapped by a Hmong tribe to exorcise a curse that has decimated the village’s male population – it all began when one of the men brought home a cursed pogo stick after a training stint in the US…

This is yet another delightful book about Dr Siri Paibourn and his companions. Like the others in the series, “Curse of the pogo stick” is a wonderful depiction of daily life in Laos during the Communist revolution combined with a truly original crime plot. The book also made me laugh out loud on several occasions, for instance when a bored bureaucrat mistakes Siri and Madame Cheung for the bride and groom’s grand parents when they go to tie the knot at the court house. A wonderful read!

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