Monday, October 24, 2016

The Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas

The Count of Monte CristoThe Count of Monte Cristo was my long-awaited pick for the category of "A book that intimidates you" for my reading challenge.  The intimidating factor was the sheer page count; while I like long books, I was a bit concerned about the timing of this long book throwing off my count for the rest of the year.  I mean, it took me almost a year to read my last very long book, Dragonfly in Amber.  But the pressure of having a deadline helped me push through, and I managed it in a decent amount of time--though it did kill my reading numbers for September!

This is a classic, with a classic's story line: Edmond Dantes, in line to be promoted to the captain of the ship he works on, is struck down by the jealousy of one of his crew mates who, with the help of a man jealous of Edmond's relationship with Mercedes, Edmond's fiancee.  Added into the mix, though unwittingly, is a crown prosecutor who hopes to hide his own connections to Napoleon in hopes of advancing himself under the restored monarchy.  Edmond is thrown in prison, where he stays for fourteen years before escaping and seeking revenge on his persecutors with the assistance of a massive fortune he acquires on the tiny island of Monte Cristo.

I didn't really find this book that intriguing.  I found the plot contrived, and that it relied too much on coincidence to move forward--for example, Edmond just apparently sails around the Mediterranean until someone just happens to invite him to Paris?  What?  How is that a valid plan for revenge?  Also, it's repeatedly mentioned that people always comment on how freakishly pale Edmond is, and yet when he puts on a wig and a robe, no one can possibly imagine that it might be him in disguise!  I also felt like it read like a kind of RP or fanfic, in which Dumas was continually going, "You know what would be cool?  IF IT ALL GOT EVEN CRAZIER."  The way that several of the plots tied up didn't really seem to make sense, either.  We never find out what happens with Andrea, Danglars seems to get off lightly compared to the other people Edmond targets, and Edmond keeping Morrel, the son of the man who tried to help him, in sheer agony for a month before bothering to tell him the big reveal with Valentine.  What?  Some of this stuff might have worked better when the book was originally published as a serial, when readers might forget some of this ridiculousness between installments, but getting it all in short order made it stand out a lot.

The portions of the book that took place in the Chateau d'If, the recollection of what happened at Janina, and some other portions of the book were interesting, but reading about Morrel and Valentine swooning all over each other was not intriguing.  Seeing Albert get duped at Carnival was amusing; hearing about everyone's costume changes for every day of it was not.  It alternated between interesting and dreadfully boring, and Edmond lingers in the background for most of the book, taking away the intriguing main character who was so built up early on.  We can see his machinations coming to life, but without seeing him actually do them, I felt like it lost some of the impact.  I liked Edmond, even as he became bitter in prison and began plotting his escape and his revenge.  I didn't really like the Count of Monte Cristo, who felt very one-dimension in comparison to his previous identity.

This book didn't overall leave me as a huge fan of Dumas.  I might read more of him someday, but I won't be diving for another volume of his work anytime soon.

2.5 stars out of 5.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas - Jules Verne

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Extraordinary Voyages, #6)Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is an interesting novel because it both has and has not aged well.  On one hand, Verne really nailed down the scientific aspects of the book.  The Nautilus is, of course, a submarine that was beyond its time and is still remarkable in our own for how well it pinned down features of subs that hadn't actually been developed yet.  And then there's the stuff like the pseudo-scuba equipment, and the portable lights for under water, and the deep sea exploration in general.  These are things that are still very much in use and relevant even if their form isn't exactly as Verne portrayed it in his book.

At the same time, though, this book dates back to a time when serials for the masses were the craze and when many people couldn't afford to travel, and things like aquariums weren't really accessible to the general populace.  The endless descriptions of every fish that Aronnax (our narrator) sees really wore on my patience, though they probably would have been remarkable to people who couldn't go to an aquarium or turn on a seven-hour nature documentary series about the oceans.  Still, they didn't really age that well and seemed to take up a lot of page space compared to the actual content.  Things like the mysterious passage under the Isthmus of Suez are also total bunk now and really seem like a reach compared to the more finally-wrought pieces of the book.

The actual "adventure" portions of the book also seemed few and far between.  There are two instances here that I think really stand out: the excursion to the ruins of Atlantis and the maelstrom at the end.  Both of these episodes are rather short, disappointingly so amidst the endless fish descriptions, and it's actually a bit surprising that Verne didn't do more with them.  With Atlantis, there's a lot of walking, a couple minutes of standing in one spot and going "Wow!  Atlantis!" and then a lot of walking back to the Nautilus.  With the maelstrom, there's so much drama building up, and then--suddenly--Aronnax wakes up with all the drama glossed over and done with, and with no memories of what actually happened.  For an adventure novel, it's very strange, and it makes it feel very much like Verne was more comfortable with spouting a stream of locations, distances, and fish species than he was with actually writing action.  There are only two big action scenes here that I can think of: when the Abraham Lincoln actually encounters the Nautilus, and the incident with the giant squid.  Even things that are made out to be big events, like the undersea hunting expedition, are mostly a bunch of walking back and forth.

I can definitely see where some of the appeal of Twenty Thousand Leagues comes from, but while it has some cool components that have lingered, I think that the bulk of the book just drags too much for it to be a really riveting read in the modern era.

2 stars out of 5.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Shutting Out the Sun - Michael Zielenziger

Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation
Shutting Out the Sun is really about Japan in the first decade of the 2000s, and as such parts of it might be just a tiny bit outdated.  However, there's still some really interesting stuff in here.  The thing is, I think Zielenziger divided the book into two parts.  A very interesting, well-written first part, and a second part that's basically just economic info and isn't as good for reasons I'll discuss more below.

The first part of the book really focuses on the phenomenon of hikikomori, which is a mental health epidemic (Is epidemic too strong a word?  I don't really think so, but maybe.) affecting primarily young men in Japan, where the sufferers shut themselves away, refusing to leave their rooms for months or even years, and refusing to let anyone else see them, as well.  The cause seems to be rooted in what amounts to a form of social anxiety that's brought out because Japan's social constructs are very rigid and community-based, and there's not a lot of ways to exert one's personality.  Zielenziger even points out that things that Westerners would normally count as asserting one's personality, such as unusual clothes, collections, etc., tend to be just another way of fitting in with a certain social group in Japan.  In this part of the book, Zielenziger makes a point to talk to a lot of Japanese citizens who either identify as hikikomori or who study and try to help the hikikomori.  In his introduction, he even made a point to say that he felt a need to include as many Japanese voices as possible because, as an outsider and a Westerner to boot, he couldn't really get a grasp on the hikikomori phenomenon as well as those who are "inside" Japanese society do.  I thought this was a very good point, and was happy to see that Zielenziger did such a good job with this.  I also particularly liked his chapter on women in contemporary Japanese society, and how careers, marriage, and birth control are handled; this was another chapter in which I think there were a good number of Japanese voices to help give us outsiders a look at what's really going on in Japan.

But then we hit the second part of the book.  In the second part, Zielenziger tries to make an argument for the economic and social issues that have formed an atmosphere in which young men can shut themselves away from society and the national birth rate can plummet because women refuse to have children.  In the second part of the book (roughly the second half; there is no real "part" division built in) the Japanese voices nearly vanish.  Zielenziger still has a lot of citations and there's definitely some research here, but it's pretty much all from a Western point of view and, though he does make an attempt to point out American imperialism towards the end, it's somewhat of a weak one and lets the West in general and the United States in general off very lightly for contributing to Japan's current situation.  Granted, many social constructs play into the social problems now facing Japan--but if you're going to make an argument that economics is essentially behind the social problems, then you really need to put a heavier does of the blame on the country that forced the economic situation on Japan in the first place.  That would be us, the good ol' US, and Japan probably doesn't have as much freedom to just "ditch" the US as Zielenziger implies.  Because of the lack of voices in the second half of the book, it does come off as very superior-sounding.  Very much, "Well the west is like this, why can't Japan just change to be like this, too?" with only a passing nod to the conditions that do prevent Japan from just adapting Western attitudes.  And then, of course, there's this kind of expression that the "Western" way is the only way and a presenting things as globalization when they're really imperialism.  Yes, globalization is a real force, but the things that Zielenziger brings up here more often than not fall into imperialism instead.

Overall, some interesting information and interviews to begin with, but the second half is a work I'm very leery of praising.  I liked this book overall, because of that first half, but have some reservations about the second and don't feel confident giving it more than...

3 stars out of 5.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Jewel - Amy Ewing (Lone City #1)

The Jewel (The Lone City, #1)This book kept popping up on my Overdrive dashboard for the library, and I'll be honest: I thought it was a sequel to The Selection.  The covers and titles are just so similar.  But apparently, it's not!  When another member of the NaNoWriMo book on Facebook was looking to read it, I decided that I would, too, so we could discuss.

It was okay.  The story is about Violet, who is slated to be a surrogate for a rich family in the Jewel, the center and wealthiest ring of the Lone City, which is apparently surrounded by ocean that will destroy them all if they're not careful.  (There is absolutely not a chance that they don't find out there's something out there beyond the city during the course of this series.)  The families in the Jewel can't bear their own children because they need the surrogates, who have special abilities called Auguries, to repair the gene damage in their families that resulted from generations of in-breeding amongst the same elite set.  At the surrogate auction, Violet is purchased by the Duchess of the Lake, the matriarch of one of the four founding families.  She's swept off to the Duchess' house, where she's known only as "the surrogate of the House of the Lake," and is rewarded if she behaves, and punished if she doesn't.  She's separated from her friends and family and really only has a looming pregnancy to look forward to.  She wants to escape...and then, of course, she meets dreamy Ash, who was hired as a companion to the Duchess' niece to get her ready for marriage.  Love at first sight ensues.

Honestly, I think the best part of this book was the potential it laid out for the next ones.  It felt very formulaic, trope-y, and patched together to me.  Basically like Ewing read a bunch of other YA books and pieced together the parts she liked, together with the whole "surrogate" thing which is apparently somewhat like The Handmaid's Tale, but I haven't read that so I can't really look into it.  The love at first sight was very eye-roll worthy, and I didn't buy the "romance" between Violet and Ash at all.  Violet really wasn't a very interesting character in general; she played the cello and wandered around looking pretty and moping about her fate instead of really trying to do anything about it, all while waiting for rescue from a guy she literally met twice before the plan was hatched, and who she doesn't really have any reason to trust.  The more interesting characters were the minor ones, so I'm hoping that they become a bit more prominent in the next book.  I also didn't buy into the world of the Lone City; there were all these things that didn't make sense to me.  The whole way the city was set up, with the rings of different industries, and jewels and riches and stuff, but no where that the resources actually came from, seems either extremely poorly thought out, or very fishy.  I haven't decided which one yet.  It's also very strange to have a plot that relies so heavily on pregnancy and its threats, problems, etc. but shies away from sex.  I understand it's a YA book, but I feel like you can't have it both ways on this issue.

I will be reading the second book in this series, The White Rose (and I believe the third just came out) because I'm hoping that the plot is about to become a bit more complex, and that the side characters who showed such promise will become more prominent.  Oh, and I hope they kill Ash.  He's lame.

2.5 stars out of 5, but with hope for the future.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Courted - Jennifer Chance (Gowns & Crowns #1)

Courted: Gowns & Crowns, Book 1There are basically two things to keep in mind regarding Jennifer Chance's Courted.  First, it's a love at first sight book.  Second, the second half of the book is much better than the first.

The story follows Emmaline, who is on vacation in Europe with her friends, taking a break from taking care of her parents, who were in an accident that left both with a lot of health problems.  Their first stop is Garronia, which is basically like a Greek version of Genovia.  Yes, that's right, it's a Ruritanian romance.  Em is out for a swim in the riptide-plagued waters of the beach, and is struggling a bit but on track to be fine, when she is rescued by the ruggedly handsome Kristos, Prince of Garronia, who is out training with his military buddies.  It's also Kristos' last day with the military, as he has to take up his place as the Crown Prince and heir apparent in the wake of the death of his older brother, Ari.  As Kristos sits comforting Em after her "near death experience" (seriously, she was fine) they start making out.  Uhm.  What?  Obvs, people catch this on camera, and suddenly there's a media storm.  And then when Em goes on a tour of the Visitor's Palace later that day, Kristos appears again, and kisses her again, really setting things off, and suddenly Kristos and Em are off to hide in a mountain chateau while Em's friends are left behind in the city, hiding in the main palace.  Of course they proceed to have crazy sex with each other in a ton of places.

Honestly, I think the story improved some after the first round of sex; up until that point, I was rolling my eyes and actually walked away from the book for a good chunk of time because it was just so... Ugh.  Love at first sight makes me nauseous, and this book was just going a bit too far for me.  But after that first time (which is not either of the characters' first times), they both (temporarily) decide that they're just going to enjoy it when it lasts, even if it won't be long-term, and the story moves on.  It introduces the queen, who was awesome, and the story does eventually spiral back around to what happens when the media turns on a former darling.  This was really one of the strongest parts of the book for me.  The way that Em's friends and family counter the media shitstorm came across as much more polished than I've seen in other places, and actually dealing with it in general was a step up from another "modern royal romance" I've read recently (The Royal We).  This second half of the book was enough to keep me interested in the series in general, though the implication that the next book will be about Lauren and Dimitri (who are one of those "we're attracted to each other but we don't like each other" couples) is an even bigger draw to me.  I do love a good bodyguard/client pairing.  This definitely wasn't a deep, intricate story.  It's most assuredly fluff, and it got off to a rough start.  But the second half did redeem it somewhat and I have hopes that the other books in the series will be more even in quality overall.

3 stars out of 5.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister - Gregory Maguire

Confessions of an Ugly StepsisterConfessions of an Ugly  Stepsister was my pick for a fairytale retelling for my 2016 reading challenge.  I read Wicked back when I was in high school, and wasn't a huge fan.  There were some interesting aspects to it but I found it overall very strange and it didn't really agree with me.  I liked Confessions much better!

The story takes place in seventeenth-century Holland, where the Fisher family has just fled after the death of the father.  Our main character is Iris, the younger of the two "ugly stepsisters" from the traditional Cinderella story.  When the family finds refuge with a painter, Iris finds a love for drawing and a growing attraction to the master painter's assistant, but is too busy helping her family to survive to act on her desires.  Eventually, the family finds themselves moved into the house of a prosperous trader dealing in tulips, and this is where the Cinderella tale really begins to take shape.  Iris is a much more sympathetic character than the stepsister in the story, but she still has her "ugly" moments on the inside--her looks are nothing to write home about, but her actions are, for the most part, well-intended.

But honestly, the most fascinating character here is Clara.  She is such a weird Cinderella-character, and seeing her essentially relegate herself to her reduced status was something very different, as was her agoraphobia and her, honestly, bitchiness.  For much of the book, Clara acts more like the stereotypical ugly stepsister than Iris and the older sister, Ruth.  Clara's firm belief that she is a changeling is strange, but evidently a mechanism for coping with something that happened to her when she was younger.  While some of the details come out eventually, not all of them do, but based on Clara's actions, I think we can probably make some educated guesses.  It's definitely a darker take on the story than one typically reads, all of the grit of harsh reality without any of the light touches of magic to lighten things up.  Some of the feel of it was, honestly, very similar to The Miniaturist, and I think readers of one would like the other.  The Cinderella story is an overall minor aspect here, and this is more of a historical fiction with a bit of a fairytale-inspired treatment than a true fairytale retelling, because the retelling doesn't truly come into play until so late in the game.

SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH: The thing I didn't like here was Ruth.  I thought the treatment of her character was an interesting one, and she has her own sort of growth throughout the story.  When the revelations came out in the end, I at first thought that it was a fascinating way to go about it--but then there was an assertion by Ruth that I really didn't agree with.  It just didn't seem to fit.  While I think some of her actions, and that everyone underestimated her, suited the story overall, the suggestion that she had basically faked her mental/developmental disorder for her entire life in order to pull one over on her mother was...mildly offensive.  I did not think that aspect worked, at all, and it really turned me off to the ending in general, which is a shame.

Overall, this was good.  I liked it, and it's made me more inclined to read more of Maguire's work than Wicked did.  I think the historical fiction-style retelling worked better than his treatment of Oz, though maybe if I went back to that book now I would feel differently.  The revelation at the end here was a bit of a turn-off, but I think the bones of this story were good and the writing was elegant, I enjoyed it as a whole.

The Kindle edition, though, does need some serious work--there are a huge number of missing quotation marks, the paragraph/page breaks are strange, and the formatting is overall not good; very disappointing for a release from a major house.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Cruel Beauty - Rosamund Hodge (Cruel Beauty #1)

Cruel Beauty (Cruel Beauty Universe #1)Cruel Beauty is a book that I think had a lot of potential and, for a while, was well-executed, but in the end fell flat.  It was the book club pick for October for the Unapologetic Romance Readers group on Goodreads, and I was pretty excited for it--I had voted for it--because it had been on my to-read list for a while.  It's a Beauty and the Beast-based story in which Nyx, the heroine, has been raised to marry a demon prince as payment for a bargain her father made prior to her birth.  The setting is somewhat strange.  It appears to be the island of Great Britain, but magically cut-off, and on a timeline in which Britain continued to be ruled a sort of Greco-Roman dynasty after the fall of the Roman Empire.  But there's also magic and what seem to be pseudo-Victorian or -Regency trappings.  It's a strange mishmash, and Hodge continues this mash into other areas of the story, which are ultimately what I think led to its downfall.

The story starts with Nyx on the day of her wedding.  She's married by proxy (a statue) to the Gentle Lord, and then promptly deposited on his doorstep with the expectation that she will never return.  But her sacrifice isn't to be for naught.  Once inside the demon's castle, she's supposed to find its four magical centers and destroy the castle, with the demon inside, and free the people of her country from his rule.  But she quickly finds that everything isn't as it seems.  The Gentle Lord, Ignifex (not his real name), lets her know that every night, she'll have the chance to guess his name.  If she gets it right, she goes free.  If she gets it wrong, she dies.  (She also has the option to just not guess.)  And she has a key that unlocks all the doors she's allowed to go through, and told that if she goes through other doors, it's likely she'll die.  Demons lurk in the shadows, ones that don't have the seemingly good intentions of Ignifex, and there seems to be little hope of Nyx ever successfully navigating the constantly-shifting castle and destroying it.  But she does have the help of Shade, Ignifex's shadow who takes on physical, human form at night, and--just maybe--of Ignifex himself, who doesn't actually seem to want to kill her.  Or ravish her.  But of course, as time goes on, feelings grow between them...

Beauty and the Beast is the main basis of the story here, but Hodge also mixes in Greek mythology, mainly the story of Pandora and a weird creation called The Kindly Ones, who seem to be based on the Furies (The Kindly Ones is another word for furies, who have pursuit of oath-breakers as part of their job, and breaking oaths is a big deal in this world) but also have some strange component of making bargains with strings attached, a la Rumplestiltskin. 

Image result for all magic comes with a price

While these strings play together in an interesting fashion throughout the story, at the end they all collide in a sort of series of climaxes, which don't really fit together and seem to go on for far too long--seriously, this book could have ended at least twice before it actually did.  And then there's a weird time paradox involved that I didn't really "buy" the workings of, either.  It's such a shame, because this was a cool world and an interesting premise, but ultimately some of the things that made it so cool made it too complicated to work in a sensible manner, and it kind of fell apart under its own weight.

Nyx was an awesome character, though.  The thing that ultimately her so strong and so different was that she wasn't a nice person, and she wasn't afraid of showing it.  She had a noble goal in mind, but her motive for attaining it had more than a little resentment and guilt attached to it, rather than being selfless.  As Ignifex says, she has "a little malice in her heart," and she never really gets rid of that.  Even at the end, she maintains it, and that's what made her so strong and so different.  Heroines in these sorts of books are always so good and pure, and seeing someone who had a splotch of black on her heart was a very different feelings.  And the same with Ignifex and Shade, both--none of the characters here, not even Nyx's oh-so-sweet twin, are actually good, but they're also not utterly despicable to the point that you don't want to root for them.  It was an interesting balance, and I think that was an aspect that Hodge handled very well.

Ultimately, this is a first book, and I think the construction of it shows in the end.  I'm still interested in reading more of Hodge's work, because I think authors certainly learn a lot from the first book they produce, and come back much stronger in future volumes.  Hodge had strong beginnings here, and with a bit of refinement, I think she could become a real powerhouse in the "fairy tale retelling" genre.

3 stars out of 5.