Friday, June 22, 2018

The Hate U Give - Angie Thomas

The Hate U GiveSometimes a book comes out that everyone is talking about.  Sometimes it's in a good way, sometimes it's in a bad way, sometimes it's in a mix of the two.  The Hate U Give seems to fall into the third category; from what I've seen, it's mostly good chatter, but then a handful of people who seem to feel that Thomas is just "stirring the pot."  Which...let's not get into it.  Anyway, this is a book that had people talking, and made the long list for the National Book Award.  So when Emma Watson put it up as the May/June read for her Our Shared Shelf book club, of course it was an easy one to pick up.

The story follows Starr, a high school student who sees her best friend shot by a police officer after they're pulled over for having a tail light out.  Starr is the only witness, but she doesn't want anyone to know who doesn't absolutely have to, because she knows it could tear her life apart.  But the trauma itself has a lasting impact, and the events shake her city to its core, dividing communities, families, and friends.

Is the writing in this book the most amazing ever in style?  No.  However, it's very, very good.  Thomas uses slang and dialect without making it seem obnoxious--like the dreaded phonetically-written Scottish accent I seem to encounter so much--and instead it reads as natural.  She shows the division that inherently exists in Starr's life, between her home life and her school, where she carefully monitors her clothing and behavior so she doesn't come across as "ghetto" or "an angry black woman" and can fit in better with her peers.  She has a masterfully-crafted narrative of empathy, and that is really what this book knocked out of the park.  It truly does allow the reader to step into Starr's shoes and see things from her perspective--how there are conflicting narratives and how those narratives came to be from one set of facts, and how they affect her and those around her.  Starr is not a person of conflict by nature, but finds herself surrounded by it, from protests that turn to riots in her neighborhood to a friend who doesn't outright mean harm but is unwilling to recognize or work to correct her prejudices and racist tendencies.

This book does not have a specific location, as far as I can tell.  It has generic place names and a generic place feel.  It is not a retelling or a spin of any one incident, but instead a look at a mentality and the events that lead up to it, and provides a lens for which those of us who have not and never will experience things like this because of our privilege and background and can really see where these characters are coming from.  There is some info-dumping; there is some awkward time-skipping.  There is some "It's two months later"-ing, which is never really a good narrative device.  But the emotion and purpose in this book ring true, and once I figured out the out-of-order pages at the beginning of my library copy (a printing error and not something inherent in the book, I'd guess) I was truly engrossed.

4.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Firelight - Kristen Callihan (Darkest London #1)

Firelight (Darkest London, #1)Firelight is a book that kept catching my eye as it popped up on various to-read lists.  I like Kristen Callihan's contemporary romance books in her VIP series--both Idol and Managed were very good.  If that caliber of writing with a Victorian-era fantasy setting, I thought we'd be good to go.  And the library even had a copy!

The story here follows Miranda, a young woman who has the ability to start fires, and Benjamin Archer, a lord who has fallen under a curse and never shows his face or other parts of his body, instead going about in a mask and dark clothing.  Several years after an initial encounter in an alley, Archer gets Miranda to marry him through coercion.  Despite this, Miranda decides he's hot and that she loves him immediately, no matter why he's so weird--and despite the fact that he might be, you know, a murderer.

And herein lies the root of our problem.  Callihan's contemporary novels have great chemistry and build in the romance department, and that is entirely absent here.  There is no spark between these characters, despite Miranda being literally able to create fire.  There is no sense of fairy tale whimsy or destined or doomed romance, despite the story drawing heavily on East of the Sun and West of the Moon, my favorite of all fairy tales.  And there is no decent-strength fantasy to propel the story in lieu of these other elements.  There is no apparent reason that Miranda has these abilities.  Archer's curse is a mishmash of religions that don't really seem to click together, and seem to have been compiled merely to seem mystical without any thought as to what might actually be behind them.  And his curse doesn't really make much sense, either...  What information we are provided is dumped into our laps in a monologue by one character literally as Miranda gets ready to walk into the final conflict.

I'm not entirely turned off this series.  I do have faith in Callihan's writing skills, and Miranda's sisters have promise as main characters in other books.  Hopefully this was just a bad start to a series, in which Callihan hadn't really fully thought through what she wanted to put forth, and the other ones will be better.  I'll give it another try, but this one in particular was not a home run for me.

2 stars out of 5.

Monday, June 18, 2018

In the Garden of Beasts - Erik Larson

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's BerlinErik Larson is an awesome history author.  I've read both Dead Wake (about the sinking of the Lusitania) and Devil In the White City (about a serial killer and the Chicago World's Fair) by him, and found both of them to be excellent in quality.  When I was looking for a book linked to my family history for my reading challenge, I decided to just pick something set in Germany, because I didn't know what else to focus on.  (Despite this book focusing on the family of an ambassador in WWII Germany, I am neither related to the Dodds, nor am I aware that any of my direct family were Nazis, though I suppose anything is possible; wouldn't that be a nasty surprise?)

In this book, Larson focuses on Ambassador William Dodd, the first US ambassador to Hitler's Germany, and Dodd's daughter Margaret.  His wife and son were also present in Germany, but are not looked as much in the course of the book.  And what the book is, is a startling examination of the old adage "Hindsight is 20/20."  Now, we have such clear hindsight, being able to see that Hitler was bad news, and that something should have been done sooner--but through the Dodds, we can see how that wasn't the case at the time.  They initially were kind of friendly toward Nazism in general, being somewhat anti-Semitic themselves, though Hitler himself was seen as kind of a kooky guy who Hindenburg had well in hand and who probably wouldn't remain in power very long.  But the Dodds slowly become more and more aware of what a terrible situation is brewing in Germany--and are stonewalled by everyone else, who either outright don't believe them or don't want to believe them, or do believe them but don't want to get involved with European affairs and instead only want to focus on Germany paying its reparations from World War I.  It's an incredibly frustrating story to read, because you can see the trouble building in the background, and the Dodds growing increasingly concerned and Ambassador Dodd's attempts in particular to do something without causing an international incident--and without getting himself fired in the process, as he isn't well-liked in the State Department to begin with--and knowing that it's all futile.

Larson builds the tension here wonderfully.  This is a true work of nonfiction, as well--everything he implements is taken from letters, cables, diaries, etc.  He does step back to speculate once or twice, but always notes that he's doing so, saying something such as, "Perhaps, but they didn't write about it they did, so we can't really know."  The Dodds aren't really the most interesting people on their own; the details of their day-to-day lives can be boring, mostly consisting of Dodd's colleagues at the State Department planning to oust him and working to undermine him at pretty much every turn and Margaret having a bunch of affairs, but I think that provided exactly what it was supposed to: an idea of how life went on for most people in Germany, and it was not a sudden event that Hitler rose to power, made being Jewish illegal, and started killing people and planning to take over Europe.  Rather, it was a slippery slope that rose against a background of existing tensions, and no one action took place until the preceding ones seemed normal.  Hm...does that sound familiar to anyone alive today...?

This is not a "fast" read, nor is it a thrilling one.  But it is one that is chilling in the way that it, in many ways, mirrors the world we live in now.  They say that those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it--so study up, folks.

4 stars out of 5.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord - Sarah MacLean (Love By Numbers #2)

Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord (Love By Numbers, #2)Sarah MacLean is an author whose back catalog I am now working through.  After reading Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake, I got another of her books, The Rogue Not Taken, from the library.  However, I quickly discovered that the heroine of that book was a side character in the third book of the series that Nine Rules started, so I set to reading through those first.  Ten Ways is the second book there.

Our heroine here is Isabel, the daughter of an earl who has barely kept the estate together in the face of his wasteful behavior--and has run a house for women looking to escape terrible situations to boot.  All of that seems to be in danger when her father dies, the estate is left to a mysterious guardian until her ten-year-old brother can come of age, and there's not a penny to be found.  Oh, and the daughter of a duke shows up on her doorstep looking for help, which Isabel knows is going to cause trouble.

Trouble comes calling indeed, though Isabel doesn't know it right away.  It arrives in the form of Nicholas St. John, the brother of the hero from the first book, who has been asked by the aforementioned duke to find the missing sister, a task he gladly takes up to escape the slavering women of London, who are eager to nab him as one of London's most landable lords.  But when he and Isabel first run into each other, she sees Nick's value in his knowledge of antiquities, particularly marble statues--a bunch of which she owns and is eager to sell to fund the ongoing existence of Minerva House.  With an invitation into Isabel's abode, things are set for the two worlds to collide.

This book relies much more heavily on instalove than the first book did.  While the pacing in the first book was somewhat whacky, it still took place over at least a few weeks.  This book takes place over a number of days, and suddenly Isabel, who has always been leery of men because of the behavior of her father and the plights of women--mostly done over by men--who she shelters at Minerva house, is suddenly gaga over the first cute guy who shows up.  (Note how I said "cute"; other guys showed up at Isabel's house, claiming she had to marry them because her father gambled her away, but none of them seemed remarkably attractive.)  Honestly, Georgianna was a more interesting plot line here.  I wanted to know about her failed romance, what was going to happen to her.  She has her own book later down the line, in another of MacLean's series, but she definitely overshadowed Isabel, who didn't seem nearly as steady and levelheaded as we're supposed to think.  Her instant gaga-ing, but how she refuses to accept help she so desperately needs, just didn't seem to fit, and it didn't work well as a coherent whole.

But this book was mercifully lacking in mentions of "sweet rain," so at least there's that.

Overall, this was enjoyable, but I didn't like it as much as the first one.  I probably wouldn't read it again, and honestly couldn't remember much about it--even Isabel's name--by the time I went to read the third book only a few days later, which doesn't really speak highly of it.  I think there was a lot of cool concepts here, such as Minerva House.  Women helping women is so great to see!  However, as nothing every really happened to threaten this in any serious way, it was underdone and didn't have enough impact to carry the rest of the book.

2 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Salt & Storm - Kendall Kulper

Salt & Storm (Salt & Storm, #1)This is a book that I eagerly waited for before its release, then didn't purchase because it was too expensive--seriously publishers, what's up with the ridiculous prices for Kindle books?  If authors were getting more of it I'd understand more, but that doesn't appear to be the industry standard--and I was hedging on the library to purchase it, and then finally got when it was on sale...and then proceeded to not read for ages because something was always more pressing.  But I finally queued it up for my 2018 reading challenge for "a book with alliteration in the title."

Salt & Storm is the story of Avery Roe, the youngest in a line of woman who possess magical powers on the fictional Prince Island, which is based on Nantucket.  The island's industry is whaling, and the women of Avery's family have a tradition of supporting the industry through their magic, one at a time.  But Avery's mother forswore magic and her heritage and left her mother, and eventually took Avery away, as well.  But Avery wants nothing more than to claim her birthright and become the Roe witch, taking over the position from her aging and ailing grandmother.  Cursed by her mother and unable to find a way to use her own magic, she turns to a young sailor from the South Pacific, Tane, for help in exchange for reading his dreams which he hopes will help him gain revenge for the murder of his family.

This book got off to a slow start, but things started building when Tane entered the picture and he and Avery began working together.  I had high hopes for this book at that point.  Tane's magic conflicting with Avery's was an interesting aspect, and while I knew Avery's mother couldn't be quite the raging bitch she appeared, I was unsure of how she was really going to enter the narrative.  I wanted Avery to reclaim her magic and become everything she wanted--maybe even save the island from some disaster!  Cliched?  Yes.  Satisfying?  Also yes.  But when Avery came under fire for being a witch, rather than being lauded for it, I was good with that, too.  After all, it was the logical course of things based on how the story had happened up until that point.  And things were finally building, obviously coming up to some big, climactic finish...

But let's talk about Tane, shall we?  An interracial romance set in New England?  Yes.  Please.  More.  He possesses his own magic and is looking to reclaim it, and his heritage, in a similar way to Avery, making them an ideal pair.  But then there's that Roe curse in play...but it could have played out so much better.  I can think of a billion ways that this could have ended rather than the way it actually did, which is Tane fulfilling the Magical Negro trope.  Unfamiliar with this?  It's a trope in which a character of color, usually from a much less privileged background than the white protagonist, enters the story only to help the privileged white protagonist achieve her goals, rather than existing as a character with his own path and journey.  Tane seemed to have so much more going on at first, but ultimately, no, he was tossed to the side so Avery could go off and ~be free~.  Utter garbage.  I expected more of Kulper than this.

What Kulper does really well here is, ultimately, the atmosphere.  I listened to In the Heart of the Sea as an audiobook last year, and Salt & Storm really nailed the way that I expected a Nantucket-based fictional island to feel.  The way that the Roe magic had changed the island, and eventually turned on it, made perfect sense.  Despite the slow pace, all of these things really had me rooting for this book.  If only Kulper hadn't gone and fucked it all up.  And don't get me wrong--I can really go for a good bittersweet ending, one that has me thinking for days, wondering and wishing, "What if...?"  But this was not good.  Characters of color deserve to be characters in their own right, just as white characters are, rather than just tools for white characters to find fulfillment and then toss by the wayside.

2 stars out of 5.

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Unimaginable - Dina Silver

The UnimaginableA beautiful cover and convenient timing left me in the mindset that The Unimaginable was going to be something like Station Eleven--not in topic, because the book summary made it very clear that this was nothing like Station Eleven, but for some reason I had it in my mind that this would have the same beautiful writing, construction, and love of life that Station Eleven contained.  Unfortunately, this was not the case.

The story is about Jessica Gregory, who moves to Thailand in the wake of her mother, who she never really got along with.  She has a job teaching English and gets another job at a bar.  After a few months of this she has three weeks of vacation and decides to look for an adventure by crewing on a boat for a long distance sail, despite having no sailing experience or really any sense in her head at all.  She also falls immediately and conveniently in love with a man almost twice her age who really doesn't want anything to do with her, but of course as soon as she bats her eyelashes at him he falls in love with her, too, despite being in mourning for his deceased wife, and takes her on as crew essentially so he can get around to boning her.  And then, of course, come the pirates.

The writing here is sloppy and the romance is eyeroll- and gag-worthy.  I am an avid reader of romance, but this is not good.  The chemistry is nonexistent, the sex scenes sloppy and deserving of nothing more than cringing.  Despite going into detail, it's ultimate unclear whether Jessica--our narrator--even gets to have a decent orgasm.  Poor thing.  The danger, despite being very real, is completely overblown.  And though the entire book builds up to it from a brief--very brief--prologue, it only lasts about fifteen pages and then is over, and the focus of the book is back to Jessica mooning over Grant, in a relationship that seemed more than a little skeevy to me, mainly because Grant just kept putting Jessica off and wouldn't emotionally commit to her, even for a little bit, but was perfectly willing to fuck her all the way across the Indian Ocean.  Ew.

This is also one of those books where the heroine, despite wanting adventure in the great wide somewhere a la Belle, promptly gives up everything when she meets the hero.  This bothers me in any context, but in contemporary books more than in historical ones, because in times like the Regency era women were taught not to have expectations or dreams and, if they did, to give them up to men.  A modern woman should know better than this.  If what Jessica had wanted was to be a wife and nothing else, then fine--that's a woman's prerogative.  But to claim she wanted adventure and to teach and see the world and not be one of the women from her hometown who just got married and gave up on life, and then to immediately abandon everything in favor of mooning over a guy who has literally said three sentences to her.

The pacing is also awful, and the writing itself is terrible.  It's full of sentences like, "And the, on the Imagine, came...the unimaginable.  You can just tell that Silver wants us to gasp and clutch our pearls and be so dismayed by the drama, but I really didn't care about any of the characters and so this ploy was completely unsuccessful.  There is only one remotely dismaying thing that happens in the book, and it has nothing to do with Jessica or Grant.

There is an author's note at the end of the book about where the story--and all of the character names--came from.  While the origins are remarkable, tragic, and worthy of their own story, this particular story did not do them justice, not in any way.  I would not recommend this, nor will I be picking up anything else by this author in the future.

1.5 stars out of 5, and that's only for the setting.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake - Sarah MacLean (Love By Numbers #1)

Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake (Love By Numbers, #1)For those who aren't avidly watching the romance community, there is currently a trash fire going on in which an author trademarked the word "cocky" for use in titles of books and series.  This is a bitch move, and it's not going particularly well for her, but it's brought up a lot of interesting conversations about titling and tropes in the romance genre as a whole.  We romance readers love our tropes--and why not, as long as they're done well?  And titles tie in very closely with them, because it lets you know exactly what you're going to get, in a way that other genres don't practice that same variety of branding.  For example, Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake implies that a heroine is going to behave badly while falling in love with a man who is known to be a womanizer in high society.  In contrast, here are a few other books I'm currently reading: The Sparrow, In the Garden of Beasts, The Unimaginable, Salt & Storm.  None of these titles really tell you what the book is about--and let me tell you, The Sparrow is definitely not about small birds.  But these romance titling conventions mean that, while you're never guaranteed to like a book, for a variety of reasons, you know if the book you pick up is going to trend in a direction you'll like.  And for that reason, romance can be an extremely comforting genre to browse, because you know exactly what to look for in order to get what you want.

I've been having reading difficulties recently.  While I've liked a lot of books, I haven't loved very many yet this year, and I've found a lot that ended up being just okay.  In the middle of several other books that weren't impressing me very much, I turned away to a good-old standby, the historical romance.  And luckily, I had just gotten off the waitlist for this book.  Sarah MacLean's name has crossed my field of vision many times--due to friends reading her books, due to her books being recommended for people who like other books I've read, due to her writing a romance column for the Washington Post.  Somehow, despite all of this, I had not read any of hers.  But NRTBWRAR (geeze) seemed like as good a place to start as any.

The book starts with an encounter between our heroine, Calpurnia "Callie" Hartwell, who is curvy and plainer than is fashionable and who languishes for ever finding a husband during a terrible Season when she eighteen, and our hero, Gabriel, a marquess with a bit of a womanizing reputation who never wants to marry due to how his mother acted when he was young.  Then we skip ahead ten years--Callie is on the shelf, sitting in "Spinster Seating" at balls, and watching her dazzling younger sister getting ready to marry a duke.  Gabriel, in the meantime, has found a previously-unknown half-sister dumped on his doorstep, and is determined to do right by her and bring her out in society, but he'll need the help of a respectable woman to do so.  When Callie turns up at his house in the middle of the night, looking for an adventure of her own, Gabriel decides she's perfect for the task, as her reputation has never been objectionable at all--though if Callie completes her adventure list, she'll be ruined for sure...

The banter here is good.  Callie is taking charge of her own life, even if only one or two other people know it.  She is determined to live, and to take hold of the experiences she wants even if she isn't supposed to want them--like learning to fence or attending a duel, things that ladies are not supposed to do.  Her sister is also lovely and charming and supportive, to the degree that she knows what Callie is doing, and Gabriel's sister, Juliana, is definitely set up for a good book of her own at the end of the trilogy--I presume the second book will focus on Gabriel's twin brother.  Even Gabriel's former mistress ended up being surprisingly nice, and I was pleased that MacLean didn't go for cattiness between the old lover and the new in order to drive the plot.  Women don't have to be nasty to each other, guys!  It's possible!

I liked Gabriel overall, though I didn't always find him to be the most interesting.  I also found him a bit more...absent, I guess, than I thought a proper romance hero should have been--both emotionally and physically.  He popped in and out, mostly when Callie was having one of her adventures, but I would have liked to see a bit more reaction between them.  Additionally, oh dear stars above, someone please erase the phrase "sweet rain" from the English language.  Like, what?  Ew.  Stop.  Also, Gabriel is kind of a jerk for most of the book.  This is pretty common in the genre, but even when Gabriel blundered quite badly, he was very, very slow to make apologies or amends for it, more so than he should have been.

Overall, I liked this quite a bit.  Not a raving, "must have it again and again" book, but something that definitely leavened my reading slump somewhat.  I'm looking forward to reading some of MacLean's other books and seeing what else she has to offer.

4 stars out of 5.