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Saturday, February 25, 2017

Emma - Jane Austen

EmmaEmma is the March book of the month for the digital book club over at The Deliberate Reader.  You read the book the month before so that you're done with it (or almost done with it) by the time the discussion month rolls around.

I've read Pride and Prejudice from Austen before, but none of the other ones.  I have to admit that while many people fawn over the Colin Firth film adaptation, I really do like the Kiera Knightley one.  And I liked P&P as a book, too.  I'd also picked up one of those nice, leather-bound (well, probably faux leather) with gold edges collected Austen books over Thanksgiving, so I was looking forward to reading Emma, which also fulfilled a category for both my Popsugar and romance reading challenges.

Unfortunately, I didn't really like Emma.  Most of this is because I didn't like Emma herself.  Austen's books, to my knowledge, all basically revolve around moderately-well-off people looking to marry other moderately-well-off or even well-off people, and the comedies of manners that ensue.  They're mildly mocking of this polite society.  Emma is no different in this.  The eponymous Emma Woodhouse is a young woman who lives with her widowed father, following the marriage and departure of her older sister.  Emma's former governess and companion has also recently married, a match that Emma fancies she helped along, and she decides to start playing matchmaker for others, namely a young woman living at a nearby boarding school, Harriet Smith.

The problem is that Emma is absolutely insufferable.  She can't see anything beyond what she's built up in her own head, and she's incredibly classist.  "Well, of course," you might say.  "Think of her background, the time period!"  But to that I say, No.  Yes, Emma came from a well-off background.  But Harriet, who is a bastard daughter, has no claims to any class, and yet Emma deems the man who loves Harriet, and who Harriet genuinely loves in return, to be too low-born for her.  She has so many pretensions and prejudices that honestly Pride and Prejudice might have been a better title for this one than for the book about Lizzie Bennett!  Austen is perfectly aware of this, of course, and it's part of the point of the book--it's all part of the way that Austen makes a point about the society she writes about.  The other characters are all very skeptical of Emma and her actions and pretensions, raising eyebrows and sometimes working directly to counter her when she gets a little too crazy about the matchmaking.  But Emma was still too annoying, not taking into the consideration the thoughts or genuine feelings of anyone else, instead thinking that she knows better than everyone and that only what she has decided on knows about.

Other than that, the book is charming.  Of course it is.  Austen creates a quaint little village that's embroiled in a series of love affairs (though they are, of course, perfectly appropriate love affairs) and the gossip and entanglements that those affairs bring with them.  Mr. Knightley is a wonderful hero, and definitely too good for Emma; it's hard to say what he saw in her, honestly.  Mr. Woodhouse is completely absurd, which is the point, with his hypochondria and concerns that eating an apple that hasn't been baked three times will lead to an untimely death.  And then there's Jane Fairfax, who is a perfectly bland and boring person until she's not.  All of this was basically exactly I was expected; it was just marred by a main character who I couldn't stand.  Maybe if Emma had actually learned a lesson from all of this, it would have been different, but it wasn't--instead, she just proceeded to get whatever she wanted, regardless of how she walked over other people in order to do it.

I've read Pride and Prejudice, so I know how good Austen can be.  Emma definitely hasn't put me off reading her other works, but this was not the best reading experience I've had.

2 stars out of 5.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Chasing Cats - Erin Bedford (The Underground #2)

Chasing Cats (The Underground, #2)Last year, I read Bedford's first book, Chasing Rabbits, as part of an indie-author feature I ran for a short time.  I ultimately ended the feature without really saying anything about it because I was just being disappointed too much.  There is some amazing indie work out there--one of my favorite authors, Intisar Khanani, is indie--but so many times something that's highly rated isn't actually good because it's people supporting an author just for being indie.  Yes, there's a lot of crap in traditional publishing that's highly rated, too--I am well aware.  However, it's normally easier to spot from a distance, as opposed to indie, where my experience has been overwhelmingly to see things that have a neat concept, but aren't actually well-executed.  That said, I had picked up Chasing Cats a while ago while it was on sale (I think this might have involved pre-ordering it) and found myself in the mood for something involving sexy fae over the weekend, so I dug through my dusty Kindle archives and found it.

Let me put it out there right away: I think this was an improvement over Chasing Rabbits.  Much of this has to come from the fact that, apart from a tiny, tiny part of the book, none of it takes place in the Underground/Wonderland.  The main character, Kat, is trying to come to terms with both her newly-revealed identity as a faerie princess reincarnated as a human and with the magical powers that come with that status, as well as with the fae beings who keep popping up in her house without ever bothering to knock.  Included among them?  Dorian, her former fae fiance and the UnSeelie prince, and Chess, aka the Chesire Cat, who, let me remind you, is a fae guy with ears and a grope-prone tail and a love for tight and/or revealing clothing.  While the third book in the series is clearly headed back to Wonderland, I have higher hopes for it after this, because Bedford seems to have edged a bit away from equating every single thing in the traditional Wonderland story something fae.  It's a bit hard to say, because this is mostly set in our human world, but I have hope based on how this one went.

That said, there's second-book syndrome here.  While Kat worries about finding herself, she has a few short magic lessons until she's told to "just do it," essentially, and does (because magic works like that?) and flirts with Chess.  That's about it.  There's a bit going on in the background, the repercussions of things that Kat did in the first book, but they're all happening in the background rather than in Kat's direct line of vision and action.  Aside from her self-discovery bend, she deals with her bitchy boss and her bitchy mother(s) and her bitchy sister.  Seriously, why is every woman other than Kat a bitch here?  It makes me side-eye female authors when all of their female characters other than the heroine are one-dimensional bitches.  Additionally, she continues to use the threat of rape as a motivating trope.  Sigh.  The Big Betrayal also doesn't ring true to me from how it's written here, but maybe it follows through more in the third book?

And, again, this book needs more editing.  There are misused words--conscious instead of conscience immediately springs to memory, though there were more--and missing words and a dearth of proper comma use and just some overall very awkward sentence structure.

But I still enjoyed this more than Chasing Rabbits.  CR felt like it was trying too hard.  This one might have felt a bit like it wasn't trying hard enough, but I think it was an improvement.  Bedford can also write a pretty good makeout scene, though Kat having her tongue down the throat of every fae male she encounters at some point (and vice versa) also got a little old.  I get it.  Pheromones.  And no, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Kat as a woman enjoying getting some--her lectures to Alice on this point were humorous--but I felt there could have been a more productive use of page time here.  And apparently there's going to be a fae/human war?  Where did that come from?  There was no indication of this, it feels like an attempt to escalate the drama but there's no way that it's actually tied in.  Oi, I'm whining again, aren't I?  Sigh.

Okay, so, basically, what I'm trying to say is, this book has its issues.  Definitely.  I think it needs polishing and refining and all sorts of stuff.  But I also think that it was better than its predecessor, and I think that if Bedford actually stays away from the Wonderland tropes (hard, maybe, because of how this got started, but doable) this could be a better series than it started off as.

3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Goldenhand - Garth Nix (Abhorsen #5)

Goldenhand (Abhorsen, #5)This is a walking book, which was immensely disappointing.  Here's the thing.  This is the fifth book in a series.  The first book could be read as a stand-alone.  The second and third were closely linked and could be read as a duo, but really drew on the first book.  The fourth was a prequel, set far before the first three, and wasn't the same in quality though it did give some fascinating character backstory to villain encountered in another book.  And now there's this one, which feels like Nix just wrote it because people asked him to, rather than because there was a story asking to be told.  Consequently, the pacing was terrible, and the vast majority of the book (about the first 70% of it) are spent with characters travelling somewhere with only the flimsiest of goals.

Our two main characters here are Lirael, the heroine of books two and three, who is now the Abhorsen-In-Waiting under Queen Sabriel, who still holds the title of Abhorsen.  Together, they are working to quell the still-trouble-making spirit of Chlorr of the Mask (previously known as Clariel, the Lost Abhorsen) until she gets away, and then Sabriel and her husband go away on vacation, neatly banishing them for the majority of the story.  Lirael eventually sets off to help and recover Nick Sayres, who seems to have gotten into some trouble on the other side of the Wall that divides the Old Kingdom from Nick's homeland.  Meanwhile, a girl called Ferin, who's from a group of nomadic tribes we've never heard of before in the four books that we've had so far(?) is trying to deliver a message to Lirael, and is being pursued by other tribespeople who want to kill her because she's escaped a death dictated by the Witch with No Face--three guesses who that is.  Consequently, Lirael spends a lot of time going to the Wall, and then to the glacier where the Clayr live with Nick in tow.  Ferin spends a lot of time on a boat and then running down a road and over some ridges with a messed-up foot.  There are a few interesting encounters along the way, but they are few and far between and are over far too quickly.  Sabriel and King Touchstone's people show up to magically save Ferin and her companions.  Lirael doesn't have much to do.

And there's a distinct problem with Ferin as a character, which is that she is only mildly interesting at best.  Sabriel and Lirael both came across as fully-developed characters from the beginnings of their books.  Sabriel always had a sense of duty, a calling to the position as Abhorsen, that drove her actions to save her father and the Old Kingdom.  Lirael didn't know what her purpose was, not possessing the future sight of most of the Clayr, but longed to find a purpose, and made that her goal in her first book and then set out to fulfill her destiny as Remembrancer and Abhorsen in her second book.  While Clariel's book didn't have the same breathtaking, epic scope, there was a sad poetry about it as we saw her struggle for her own place and then slowly spiral down into the dark lure of Free Magic.  But Ferin?  Ferin's just a messenger.  Toward the end of the book, she gains a bit of a humorous element (a bit discordant with her character for the rest of the book) and her backstory is interesting, but I never felt like it pulled into her character and made her an interesting, compelling character like our other heroines.  In fact, I couldn't bring myself to really care about Ferin at all.  Skipping her chapters entirely was a very tempting prospect.

And then there's the last part of the book, where Lirael and Nick set out to find Chlorr's "anchor" and finally banish her beyond Death into the final resting place, or however it's called.  While the first part of the book was far too long, this part, this interesting part where Lirael and Nick actually start to talk to each other and build some sort of relationship, and voyage beyond where the Charter lives and into the Great Rift and then into Death itself (on Lirael's part), was far too short.  Everything is just kind of thrown together, and at the same time that the nomads are trying to invade the Old Kingdom lands.  Sigh.

I also felt like Nix wasn't entirely playing by his own rules here.  The bell that's supposed to banish people to the final gate of Death apparently doesn't actually do so if you only ring it quickly and then make it shut up.  Looking at that final gate of Death is supposed to take you beyond it, permanently, and yet Lirael just looks away and escapes from it.  The Disreputable Dog told Lirael that they wouldn't see each other again, and yet here she is.  It felt very much like Nix knew people wanted certain things, and so he wrote them in, rather than writing them in because they worked, fit, or built the world further.  Which...basically means that it reads like fanfiction, rather than as another "real" installment.  It is another real installment, of course, but it doesn't feel anything like the original books, or even the slow, tragic spiral of Clariel.

Overall, I really wanted to like this book, but it was just okay at best.

2 stars out of 5.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Selkie Bride - Melanie Jackson (Sea Fey #1)

The Selkie Bride (Sea Fey Prequel)I read this book for the Unapologetic Romance Readers 2017 Reading Challenge.  Specifically, I read it for the Shapeshifter/Werewolf Romance category.  While werewolf romances are easy, I'd already read a romance involving werewolves for the Paranormal Romance category, and I wanted to do something a little different for this.  So I went for The Selkie Bride, in which the hero, Lachlan, is a selkie.  For those not familiar with selkies, they're a type of fantasy creature that can wear a sealskin to transform into the shape of a seal, and they hide the skins when they go ashore in their human shapes.

Our heroine is Megan Culbin, recently widowed and broke due to the debts her husband left behind.  With very little to her name, Megan moves to Scotland to the cabin of her former husband's uncle, who is also deceased.  The cottage is located in the town of Findloss, which was buried by the sands some years ago in a freak storm that didn't touch any other town along the coast, and then was un-buried about fifty years in the past.  The book itself is set in the 1920s as a record Megan leaves behind her upon her departure.  As such, it has a definite period feel to it, much more so than stories that are written in the third person but set in the past.  It was something I actually really liked here, because I think it did help to establish the time and place.  Megan is an American living in Scotland, and there is a lot of phonetic Scottish accent use here, but I managed to muddle through.  I think the writing style actually helped it be not as obnoxious as it typically can be to me.

The hero here is Lachlan, a selkie warrior who shows up on Megan's doorstop one stormy night in pursuit of a wicked finman (another creature) who is terrorizing Findloss.  He also reveals that Megan seems to be tied up in the drama to a greater degree than she initially imagined.  Lachlan is, of course extremely attractive, and while Megan isn't a virgin widow (which was nice, as it's kind of a tired trope) her relationship with her former husband was rocky at best and downright disastrous at worst, so despite having decided to forsake relationships, she's still intrigued by him to a great degree.  There's also something of a growing level of affection between them, though I never felt that it had as much chemistry and "sizzle" as a lot of other books.  I think this was, in part, due to the writing style.  Megan is somewhat of a reserved character, and I think that the book being from her perspective (and written as a record she left behind for others, rather than just an ongoing internal monologue) lent a level of restraint to it that, accompanied with time and place, means the romance here doesn't "pop" like you'd find in Eloisa James, Lisa Kleypas, Julia Quinn, or Courtney Milan books.

Still, I found this an enjoyable story.  I think selkies are a somewhat under-utilized mystical creature class, and I'm glad that I used this for the category.  The setting here is done very well, with great images that really evoke the town of Findloss.  There's also just enough dark creepiness in it to have me looking a bit nervously out into my dark living room while reading in my bedroom, even though I knew I was being silly.  So, yes, enjoyable.  Did I devour it?  No.  But I liked it, enough that I might look into the second book, The Selkie (more of a companion than a direct sequel from the sound of it) sometime in the relatively near future.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Forbidden - Beverly Jenkins (Old West #1)

Forbidden (Old West, #1)In the Unapologetic Romance Readers' group, we're doing a reading challenge where one of the categories is "An African American romance."  And since February is Black History Month, we decided that it would be a great time to tackle the category as a group!  One member put forth Temptation as the nomination for the category, and it was pretty unanimously agreed upon, and so on we went.

In the years after the Civil War, former slave Rhine moves west to Virginia City, Nevada, where he starts up a new life passing for white.  Meanwhile, Eddy Carmichael dreams of leaving Denver, Colorado for California, where she wants to set up her own restaurant.  Unfortunately, Eddy's plans fall apart when she's robbed and left for dead in the desert in the midst of her journey.  Rhine finds her and rescues her, taking her back to Virginia City and helping get her healthy again.  After a few days, Eddy is transplanted to a boarding house owned by Sylvia Stewart, another woman of color, where she signs on as a cook to rebuild the money she needs to go to California and start her restaurant.  But there lingers an attraction between Rhine and Eddy, one that's problematic for two reasons.  One, Rhine is passing for white, while Eddy is very obviously a woman of color, and while some people in Virginia City are accepting, others remain entrenched in the racism of the antebellum era.  And two, Rhine is already engaged.  To a white woman.  Whoops.

There are a few strengths to this book.  The time, place, and premise are all strong--the tug of attraction across (presumed) racial lines, Rhine's desire to both be with Eddy and help "his" people in ways he couldn't if he wasn't passing as white, and the setting of the antebellum period in the West, rather than in the South (where even this premise probably would have resulted in someone being killed) all lend this a great degree of depth.  The side characters are also well-done, with all of them having backgrounds and places in the story that serve as more than just window dressings for the main characters to flit between.

The book's great weakness, though, is the writing.  It is very "tell" and hardly any "show," and consequently I didn't find it engaging at all.  I understand that Jenkins is trying to convey an immense amount of information about time, place, and background, but the result is that it doesn't come across as an immersive experience.  The writing was just too jerky to keep me fully engaged in the story and what was happening between the characters.  The other, great elements of the book were enough to persuade me to keep reading and finish the book, but the overall flow just wasn't there.  There was inconsistency on some details, too--for example, Eddy's last name appears to change from Carmichael to Cunningham and back again.  It's not enough to turn me off Jenkins entirely--I have another of her books, Through the Storm, that I was supposed to read in 2016 but never got around to--but I wasn't terribly impressed with this as a first offering in the writing department, especially not for a book that was named the American Library Association's Romance of the Year.

3 stars out of 5.

Friday, February 17, 2017

A Gentleman in Moscow - Amor Towles

A Gentleman in MoscowA Gentleman in Moscow was one of my Book of the Month selections back in September 2016, but I hadn't gotten around to reading it yet.  This made it the perfect choice for my 2017 reading challenge category, "A book that takes place in a hotel."  This is because almost the entirety of the book takes place in the Hotel Metropol in Russia.  The main character, Count Alexander Rostov, lives in the hotel when he is arrested by Stalin's administration because of his background.  But instead of being executed, he's sentenced to house arrest in the hotel because of a poem he wrote years ago.  His rooms are downgraded--from a luxurious suite to a tiny attic garret--but he got off easy, and the story follows his life in the hotel as he bonds with staff and visitors, develops a long-lasting rivalry, and makes his life into something of meaning despite the narrow confines of its physical space.

This was an absolutely lovely book.  When Rostov begins to waste away in the hotel, settling into listlessness in the time after his initial sentencing, a nine-year-old girl with a penchant for yellow named Nina pulls him out of his funk and shows him all that the hotel really has to offer.  And as the years go on he transitions from a guest--even under house arrest, he has quite a bit of money stashed away that he can draw on--to a staff member, helping the Boyarsky dining room work as he has always imagined it should.  And he ultimately ends up caring for a young girl left in his hands when her mother goes off to Siberia in search of her husband.  All the while, he tracks the changes in the world through the guests who come and go and the things that happen around him, only venturing outside the hotel's confines once in the several decades he spends there.

The characters here were wonderful.  I could perfectly picture the chef Emile, ruling the kitchens with his giant chopping knife, and Nina in her yellow dress and her passkey on a ribbon around her neck, and little Sofia with her big eyes and solemn face, and Marina the seamstress with her wandering eye and talented hands, and even the characters who come and go, like Mishka and Osip.  And then, of course, there's the Bishop, coming up from being a lowly waiter to the manager of the hotel and wreaking havoc on the hotel and its inhabitants in the process.  The antics that Rostov and his compatriots get up to, from exploring dusty basements for treasure to making illicit French fish stews, are a sort of grown-up, Soviet-era version of that Disney Channel show The Suite Life of Zach and Cody.  But because this is the Soviet era, there's also an underlying sense of danger.  The hostesses are reporting on guests to the Secret Police.  Characters receive the Minus Six, an exile from the six largest cities in Russia.  And there's always the sense that, if Rostov does something wrong, his house arrest might end and he might end up against a wall with a firing squad pointed at him--a fate he just avoided to begin with.

One thing I was disappointed with was the ending.  I do suppose that it fits, in a way, but I was definitely hoping for something else.  I love that Rostov did what he thought was best for everyone else, and then took care of himself, but I was hoping he would take a slightly different path.  And Anna, too.  And that maybe everything could have worked out for Sofia...

Anyway, despite the ending, this was a lovely book, and I tore through it.  It's not packed with action and it's not heavy on plot; it's definitely driven by character and place more than anything else.  If you're looking for a lot of drama and a lot of action, this isn't the book for you.  But for something that has just a touch of grit and a touch of whimsy, all at the same time, I think this is a great choice.

4.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Enchanted - Alethea Kontis (Woodcutter Sisters #1)

Enchanted (Woodcutter Sisters #1; Books of Arilland #1)Enchanted was one of the first books that I added to my to-read list on Goodreads, all the way back in 2011.  And guess what?  I apparently owned it for a significant amount of time but never realized it.  I must have bought it when it was on sale for Kindle one day and then promptly forgotten.  But it works out, because it means I had it on hand to finally read for my 2017 reading challenge, for the category of "A book that's been on your to-read list way too long."

Honestly, this had been on my list for so long, but I never really made any serious moves towards reading it.  It was something about the cover.  While the premise sounded interesting--it's a fairy tale adaptation, which is basically my favorite trope--something about it just seemed like it was going to come across as very juvenile.  So I braced myself for that when I finally started reading.  And guess what?

I loved it.

This starts off like it's going to be an adaptation of "The Frog Prince."  But it's really pretty much every fairy tale rolled into one.  "The Frog Prince" is the beginning and base, but much of it is quickly resolved.  Elements of "Cinderella," "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Sleeping Beauty," "Rapunzel," and others are all woven into the central story.  The main character is Sunday Woodcutter, the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, who befriends a talking frog in the magical Wood one day when she's writing in her journal.  Sunday only ever writes about her family and things that have already happened, because if she writes about things that haven't yet happened, they have an uncanny way of coming true, but not in the way she wanted.  She starts sharing her stories with the frog, who introduces himself as Grumble, and every day she leaves him with a kiss in hopes that it will break the curse that binds him to frog form--Grumble can't remember who he was as a man.

And one day, the kiss works.  But Sunday doesn't know it, because she's already gone, and when Grumble wakes up as Prince Rumbold, he comes to the realization that Sunday will probably want nothing to do with him, because her family blames him for the breath of Sunday's oldest brother, who was turned into a dog after he accidentally killed Rumbold's puppy years ago, and then vanished and presumably died.  So he sets up an elaborate scheme to win her back, involving a series of balls to which every eligible maiden in the kingdom is invited.  Meanwhile, he's plagued by voices and the ghost of his mother, and something sinister is going on with his father, and it seems to involve Sorrow, his fairy godmother...

...who is the sister of Sunday's fairy godmother, Joy.  And also her aunt.  It's all wonderfully woven together, why Sunday's family is the way it is, what has been going on in the castle, the menace that's lurking over the entire kingdom.  I loved pretty much all of it.  The world is exquisite, with so many background strands going throughout it.  I want to know everything--what happened to Monday, about Thursday's adventures as a captain and the wife of the Pirate King, what happened to Jack Jr. All of it.  But I did have a few reservations.

For example, after Rumbold's curse is broken, what's up with all of the people suddenly trying to kill Sunday?  And why do they just up and give up after a few attempts?  People with fey-purple eyes offering her combs, apples, ribbons--these are all classic fairy tale death traps, as Joy neatly illustrates.  But exactly why it's happening is never made clear.  And I also found myself disappointed in how little impact Sunday had on the climax and end of the story.  Despite her seemingly amazing power, despite the fact that she's the main character, despite that she's the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter and so supposedly has a great destiny...she doesn't do anything at the climax.  Instead, she stands by and watches as others take care of the mess.  Rumbold, Joy, Friday, Saturday, her father--all of them play bigger roles in the end than Sunday does, which was strange and a bit sad to me.

However, I still really enjoyed this book.  There's so much promise in this world and in the characters therein.  The way that Kontis wove together so many different story tropes into a coherent whole was every bit as magical as I had hoped it would be, and so much more than I thought it would be.  I definitely look forward to reading the others in this series.

4 stars out of 5.