The Firemaker by Peter May

18948710Isn’t it strange how, when you discover an author whose work you adore you immediately reach for anything else they’ve written. But, if you’d picked up a different one to the first you selected, there is a chance you may never have read another they wrote… has that happened to you? Am I making sense? You see, this is what has happened to me with the uber talented writer, Peter May.

Fortunately, the very first book of his I read was The Black House, book one of the marvellous Lewis Trilogy. I followed those three books up with Coffin Road and Entry Island and was stunned by the breadth of this man’s talent, his knack for weaving complex but credible plots, the poetry of his prose and his fascinating characters. Then, I read Extraordinary People, book one in the Enzo series (yet to be reviewed). I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much, but once I accepted it was very different to the others and was sort of a Dan Brown lite, and pure escapism, I managed to go with the flow. Still, I won’t read another in that series. So, I tried to The Firemaker, the first book in what’s known as his China series. And here’s where how I opened this review comes into play.

If this had been the first of Peter May’s books I’d read, I doubt I would ever have picked up another. This was such a disappointment at so many levels. I know it’s an earlier book, and it’s setting is different – and I enjoyed that very much having spent some time in Beijing, but it’s so full of stereotypes, clichés, a tendency to tell instead of showing, and pure didactics, I really struggled. To make matters worse, I simply loathed the lead female character and found most of what she did and said didn’t gel with her life experience, qualifications or the romance that blossomed… who could love this xenophobic silly bitch? The male lead, though full of contradictions, was at least likeable and I wanted to scream at him to run a mile from this intolerant, gabby woman who had no respect for another culture or other people.

The plot is also convoluted and it’s difficult to suspend your disbelief. The basic story (without spoilers) revolves around an American female pathologist, Margaret someone (she’s so awful, I don’t want to remember her) taking up a short-term position at a Chinese university in order to escape a turgid relationship and period in her life. After an inauspicious (and frankly ridiculous) start, she is asked to aid in the investigation of a murder. You see, her speciality is burns victims and it turns out the police have found the badly burnt corpse of a prominent Chinese businessman and government official. When Margaret gets embroiled in not only the investigation but with a rather sinister American figure and the body-count grows, both she and the newly-promoted and popular Inspector Li realise they’ve stumbled into something bigger than they ever imagined, something that raises the stakes and the danger levels high.

The plot sounds great, but it’s encumbered by all the things I mentioned above. Even the romance is squirm-worthy as are the sex scenes. Maybe it’s just me, because other people loved it and May IS a good writer, despite what I’ve said. But, I am SO glad I didn’t read this first, as I would have missed out on the pleasure of his other sublime novels. Needlesstosay, I won’t be reading the rest of this series, even though reviews suggest it gets better…

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Book Review: The Undomestic Goddess, Sophie Kinsella

All banking lawyer Samantha Sweeting has ever wanted since she joined the firm seven years ago was to make partner. The day after she turns 29, and her workaholic mother and one of her brothers fail to show for a planned celebration dinner due to work commitments, it appears as though her ambitions are about to be realized. That is, until she discovers she’s made a terrible and very costly mistake. Walking away from her job, central London, her barely lived-in flat, long hours, no holidays or time for the self, where every second is accounted for and answering mobiles and blackberries mid conversations and meetings is the norm, Samantha stumbles into the countryside and the lives of a nouveau-riche couple, landing the job of their housekeeper even though, she cannot cook, clean or iron. As improbable as this sounds, she also discovers that she enjoys these things as she also learns what it’s like to relax, have time to think and socialize and simply be. And, of course, as you would expect in a Bridget Jones’ style rom-com, she meets a man. Is he Mr Right? Perhaps now, she has the time to find out. But when her past comes back to bite her, Samantha has to make a choice….

OK. I have read a couple of other Kinsella books (Do You Want to Know a Secret and Confessions of a Shopaholic) and I admit, they’re not really my cup of tea. While there are a couple of laugh out loud moments, these are mostly stifled by cliched portrayals of the sexes and redundant stereotypes – even for the genre. But, when you pick up one of her books, you do know what you’re getting and I was in the mood for light… Only,not quite this light. Though the message underpinning the novel – about the importance of finding a work-life balance and not letting modern living and career consume you, are relevant in this day and age and can be explored well in this oeuvre, I struggled with the fact that this corporate lawyer, with an IQ of 158, not only found her bliss by cooking and cleaning, in other words, back in domestic space (a later character accuses her of betraying feminist principles and while that might be a way for the author to circumvent those accusations as well, I think they’re quite warranted) but she works for two nice idiots! The fact she gives up a degree of autonomy willingly for service where she is constantly, if kindly, patronized and assumed to be stupid galled me. Talk about swallowing your pride, she consumed hers! Her employers even buy her basic English and other books for goodness sakes! That she also curtsies is almost too much. I also become frustrated when characters remain silent about their abilities to further plot or play dumb without really serving the narrative… Grrrrr… For goodness sake, speak up!!! It simply didn’t ring true, all the secrets… Not keeping them from everyone! Why??? And then, there’s the whole romance thing. The choice question is asked again: career or man/love; professional life or a private one. It’s still, in twenty-first century romances an either/or resolution… Why??? So, while I understand this is froth and bubble, it was still annoying froth and bubble and I wanted more from and for the central character. In fact, it was only when she becomes suspicious about her professional mistake that she demonstrated the nous she apparently had a reputation of possessing… But even that quickly evaporated.

Overall, a good, light read that doesn’t touch let alone challenge any boundaries. 2.5 stars.

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