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REVIEW:  Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch

REVIEW: Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch

Dear Mr. Aaronovich,

I enjoyed all your earlier books in the Peter Grant urban fantasy series, from Midnight Riot (aka Rivers of London) to Moon Over Soho to Whispers Under Ground, although I put off reading book four, Broken Homes, because I had mixed feelings about your comments in the discussion thread following this post.

BrokenHomesThen my husband and a good friend urged me to read the book, saying they enjoyed it a great deal. I decided to read Broken Homes to see what I was missing, but while I enjoyed some of it, it wasn’t to the same degree that I enjoyed your earlier books.

The book begins with a strange car accident. The driver, Robert Weil, runs a red light and hits another car, but when the police investigate, they find blood in the backseat but no sign of the missing passenger.

Police constable and magician’s apprentice Peter Grant receives an email alert because Weil is a member of the Little Crocodiles, an Oxford University dining club investigated by Peter and his cohorts in earlier books for dabbling in magic.

The car accident case turns up nothing of a magical nature, however, and life goes back to normal, which means that Peter and the coworker he’s had a crush on, Leslie, study for detective classes, learn Latin for their magic practice with their supervisor Nightingale, and begin work on crafting their wizard staffs.

Then a few other unusual things happen. A man named George Nolfi is hospitalized with burns after conjuring a fireball for his six year old granddaughter’s birthday party. He claims he hasn’t practiced magic since early childhood when his mother taught him a few spells.

Another man, Richard Lewis, kills himself, but his apparent suicide may be no suicide at all. And Peter stumbles on a German book whose title translates to On the Fundamentals that Underlie the Practice of Magic in the London Stolen Art Directory.

Of this handful of cases, one on further investigation inarguably points to the Faceless Man, a magic practitioner whom Peter and Nightingale have been fighting for three books now. But are these cases connected? What is the Faceless Man plotting? And are Peter, Leslie and Nightingale adequately prepared to face an opponent of the Faceless Man’s power and skill?

The beginning of this book felt exciting, with one incident of magical violence following after another. But that level of excitement wasn’t sustained and Broken Homes didn’t hang together quite as well as the earlier books.

As the most helpful positive review on Amazon points out and this plot summary shows, the structure of this novel is different from that of the earlier books. Rather than following one case, Peter and company work on a few cases before one turns up something that leads them to their archenemy, the Faceless Man.

Consequently, the book feels more disjointed and episodic than the earlier books. It meanders here and there but doesn’t gel into anything cohesive until the final third of the story.

On the upside, there is an interesting development in Leslie’s personal life. On the downside, I really missed the London history that was woven into the first three books. It felt like a significant loss.

The novel’s pacing feels off, too. After the exciting beginning, not enough headway is made on the cases being investigated during the long and sagging middle. In the final third, the engine of the story revs up and things finally start happening again.

Fortunately the writing is as witty as ever. Here’s an example:

Negotiating the inerface between the Folly and the rest of the police is always tricky, especially when it’s the murder squad. You don’t get to be a senior investigating officer unless you have a degree in skepticism, an MA in distrust and your CV lists suspicious bastard under your hobbies.

And here’s another:

Tracking down the exploding granddad’s antecedents was yet another thing that was still sitting in the low priority things-to-be-done pile. It might have to be moved up.

“Indeed,” said Nightingale. “I’d like you to have a look at the house today.”

“Today?”

“If possible,” said Nightingale which meant, yes absolutely today.

I still love Peter. He still has the same core of human decency and honor, and he still makes me laugh. He still comes up with creative solutions to the problems that he faces. He still wants to do the right thing by the people he cares about and by the people of London, whom he serves.

I still like Peter’s companion characters, from by-the-book Leslie to bright, curious Dr. Walid, to snooty-but-impressively-good-at-magic Nightingale to magic-sensing dog Toby. I still like the Rivers and the goblin Zack and the Quiet People and the other magical characters. The diversity of the cast (Peter himself is biracial—his father a white jazz musician and his mum a black immigrant from Sierra Leone) appeals to me as always, and the Faceless Man and those aiding him still scare me.

But much of Broken Homes feels like groundwork being laid for future books, and for the explosive twist that comes at the end of Broken Homes. For a reader who doesn’t foresee what happens, the big plot turn is likely to be impactful, and I’m sure its reprecussions will reverberate through the upcoming Foxglove Summer.

Unfortunately for me, I first started suspecting that this might be where the series was heading two books back. So for me, the twist wasn’t as twisty as it is for some readers. Rather than having the surprise come out of nowhere, I felt helpless as I watched what I’d predicted unfold, and a little frustrated that one or two characters who should have been able to anticipate it didn’t see it coming.

The introduction of two new characters with magical abilities makes me anticipate good things in book five, so I suspect I will be reading it. Then again, when I finished book three, Whispers Under Ground, I was sure we were in for some big things in this, book four. And to be fair I think that readers who don’t figure things out ahead of time may get that from this book to a greater degree than I did. C.

Sincerely,

Janine

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JOINT REVIEW:  Return on Investment by Aleksandr Voinov

JOINT REVIEW: Return on Investment by Aleksandr Voinov

Return on investment voinov

Martin David, an eager but inexperienced financial analyst, is the newest member of the investment team at Skeiron Capital Partners in London. His boss is an avowed financial genius, but he’s also overbearing and intense. Despite his erratic behaviour, Martin can’t help being drawn to him both professionally and personally.

Too bad his boss doesn’t seem to feel the same. In a firm where pedigree and connections mean far more than Martin’s newly-minted business degree, Martin feels desperately inadequate—at least until he meets the enigmatic investment manager Alec Berger, who promises to help Martin establish himself in the financial community. Martin is so charmed by Alec’s sophistication and wit that he gives him data that should have stayed confidential.

Then the financial crisis hits. Banks burn, companies teeter on the brink, and Skeiron’s survival is at stake. Martin is pushed into the middle of the fight for Skeiron—against both the tanking economy and a ruthless enemy who’s stepped out of the shadows to collect the spoils.

Return on Investment is the new gay financial thriller from EPIC Award winner and Lambda Award finalist Aleksandr Voinov.

Dear Aleksandr Voinov,

You kindly sent me a copy of your new, self-published novel and Sirius was also keen to read it, so we decided on a joint review. While the book is a Kindle Select release, it is free of geographical restrictions.

Sirius: I will confess that despite really enjoying your writing in the last couple of years I have read very few if any of your solo project due to the subject matter not being my cup of tea. This book sounded like something I could read, so of course I was interested in reviewing it. I do not know how I would characterize this book, but I do think that “gay financial thriller” is not a sufficient description for me. There is a very strong erotic element in it and I would argue that a romantic storyline is also present, although I definitely would not call this book a pure romance.

Sunita: I have the same subject matter issue with Voinov’s solo backlist, although the Dark Soul series remains one of my favorite m/m reads of the last few years. I totally agree with your take on this new novel. It is strongly erotic and there is an obvious romance storyline by the midway point of the book (although it’s not clear at all at the beginning). The erotic parts drive the story forward but they do not need to be as long and detailed as they are for that to take place. I’m not complaining about them, just pointing out that this kind of detail is usually present in erotica and romance, not in the thriller category (even when there is on-page sex). That said, it didn’t matter to me that I couldn’t categorize it easily, because I like books like that. I agree that someone looking for a traditional romance would find aspects of the story to violate some of the unspoken rules, but other parts of the book reminded me a lot of mainstream romance.

Sirius: For the first 30-40 percent of the story I was very irritated with the main character of this book. I could barely tolerate his stupidity in any character of any genre. In theory I had no problem with Martin being attracted to Alec. I mean to me he had all the charm of a snake from the very beginning, but I fully admit that I may have been influenced by the blurb. The blurb clearly states that Martin gives him confidential information, so this probably made me prejudiced againt him from the start. Quite honestly, I feel that the blurb gave out a very significant spoiler which should have stayed hidden, because it made me form expectations and I usually try very hard to enter the book without any preconceived expectations.

To go back to Martin and Alec, I guess I can see how Martin was charmed by Alec but only to a certain degree. I do not see how Martin could share confidential information so easily and without much (if any) hesitation. And he did it twice, although apparently he remembered that he had a brain eventually and did not give out a final piece of information which I guess was more confidential than what he gave to Alec the first two times. I get that people in real life do criminal things like “insider trading” because they want to make a lot of money and they do not care that it is illegal. But making a lot of money at least counts as some kind of reason to do illegal things, right? This was a young idiot doing stuff and I am not quite even sure why. I do not want to give out even more spoilers, but it felt strange. I did not feel that he was even in love with Alec – in lust maybe, not that it would have been enough for me, but at least it would have been some kind of explanation. Martin acted as if he did not understand all the seriousness of passing confidential numbers about his firm productivity to an outsider. Was he not given a drill about any information about a firm being confidential the first day he started work? I know I am sensitive about the issues of confidentiality, I am a lawyer, but I just could not buy that somebody in the world of finance is so dim. He just acted as if he had no or very little clue – without any thought. If he acted as a seasoned criminal I may even had less problems with this. I also think that in light of another thing Alec did Martin should have run away pronto.

I have probably spent enough time on this issue. I just want to say that there is *a lot* of page space devoted to sex between Martin and Alec and a lot devoted to their “relationship” – them together is the main reason why I would insist on the word “erotic” in the book description.

Sunita: I found Martin frustrating as well. At first I felt sorry for him, since he was clearly in over his head with Alec and apparently in thrall to him. But I didn’t understand at all why he was so willing to give Alec confidential information. He didn’t hate his job, he seemed to want to progress in his career, so why would he jeopardize his future like this? For secret trysts at the Ritz and some fancy suits? There’s a word for someone who unethically exchanges confidential data for fancy gifts, and that word is not “ingenue.” I would have had a much easier time seeing Martin as going through a coming-of-age experience if he hadn’t *started out* so ethically challenged. Maybe this is influenced by the movie Wall Street and Martin is Charlie Sheen, but we just didn’t get enough of a sense of why he behaved the way he did at the beginning for me to have much sympathy for him. Since Alec was pretty clearly a weasel and dangerous from the first chapter and Martin experienced those qualities first-hand, I wasn’t on board to see the latter as starting out dumb and then growing up.

About halfway through the book I started to think about what it would be like if Martin had been an unreliable narrator. That would have been fun and I would have found his character much more interesting, because I really had trouble liking him as a naif (which I felt I was supposed to do).

“It’s not personal, Martin. Maybe it is for you. Be smart.” Francis gave him a smile, then brushed past and raised a hand to shoulder level. “Good night”.

Sirius: Martin’s crush on one of his bosses, a financial genius who is one of the partners in his firm, was much easier to understand and much easier to sympathize with. Feelings of never being able to measure up to him, wanting to mean something in Francis’ eyes, while I would not consider this storyline a full blown romance, I felt that this provided romantic element to the book and I liked them together.

Sunita: Yes, the Francis-Martin storyline was much more conventional and made more sense. Francis was a bit too larger-than-life in his character traits for me to fully warm to him as an individual: he was so handsome, so smart, so obsessed with his job, even his quirks seemed predictably fabulous, if that makes sense. I thought it was interesting that in the end he turned out to be quite old-fashioned in his approach to finance. It was as if we were supposed to see old-time M&A as somehow more ethical than the current financial world, and I’m not sure I buy that. But it was an intriguing twist and not one I expected.

There was something about Francis that intimidated Martin, from the first, rushed meeting during his interview to now, and probably for the rest of his time at the firm. The best way to deal with it was to stick to the claustrophobic concerns at Skeiron, pounding out one report after another. He knew those portfolio ultimately now, knew their market shares, their profit margins, their current value. To him, they were just set of stats, not people. Maybe the management figured prominently in Francis’s mind; after all, he did catch up with his CEOs regularly – but the people on the bottom rungs were invisible.

Sirius: I thought that Martin grew up a lot by the end of the book. I was very happy that apparently he learned enough ruthlessness from the villain but also had some fundamental decency in him. I really liked that and when I finished I even was glad that I “met” him.

Sunita: I wanted Martin to pay for the stupid things he did, or pay in a different way. In the end he had a bright future, the romantic relationship he wanted, and loyal friends. Everyone around him sacrificed more than he did. That kind of annoyed me, mostly because I didn’t think he deserved his good fortune.

Sirius: I really liked the settings of this book and this is a testament to the writer’s talent that he made finance sound so fascinating. Although I think the fact that I am completely ignorant about the finance played its part too – usually the more ignorant I am about the setting, the more eager to learn I am. The finance part of the book is written with authority, and since I have no knowledge to question it, the story swept me away.

Sunita: I agree, the setting was terrific, and the small details about the office, about deal-making, and many of the secondary characters were among the best parts of the book. The pacing felt off; it took a long time for the crash to happen, especially considering that’s the tagline of the book, and the last third was overstuffed with events (some of them really eyebrow-raising, like the bit with the priest).

Sirius: I also want to mention that I really liked Martin’s trainer and friend Josh – I get that Martin needed a friend outside of the crazy world of finance, but Josh ended up being such a sweet normal character in the sea of crazy, more importantly he felt like his own person with agency, not just existing to support Martin if that makes sense. Grade: C+

Sunita: I liked him too, and I liked Martin’s friendship with Ian. That was a very good depiction of how competitors are also friends. I found many of the smaller scenes (between Martin and Ian, Josh, and some of the other business associates) were more effective than the big set pieces. The one consistent misstep was the way the Dubai investor (and other potential Arab investors) were portrayed; they came way too close to stereotypes for my comfort (and the blanket description of “Arabs” didn’t help). Also, the description of British Asians as “exotic” needs to die a fiery death. Immediately. So, overall, a mixed but interesting read for me. Grade: C+

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