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Sunday, November 19, 2017

An Extraordinary Union - Alyssa Cole (The Loyal League #1)

An Extraordinary Union (The Loyal League #1)Rushing to finish my reading challenges by the end of the year means more weekend book reviews!  Oh boy.  After several attempts at fulfilling the category for a Civil War or Reconstruction romance for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' challenge, I stumbled upon An Extraordinary Union, which had high reviews, the right setting, and an interracial romance.  I don't end up reading a lot of interracial romances because I heavily favor historical romances, primarily Regency-era ones set in London society, which was not exactly brimming with interracial couples, but I'm not at all opposed to them as a concept, so this was a pleasant discovery.  (I do have to read an interracial romance for another category and have a different book picked out for it; I just had too much trouble finding a good Civil War romance to slot this one into another category.)

The story here follows Elle(n) Burns, a free woman of color who was born a slave before being freed with her family as a child.  Now, Elle has returned to the South to spy for the Loyalty League, a group of blacks working for the North, the Union, and Lincoln.  Her disguise necessitates her posing as a mute slavery and subjecting her to humiliations that she'd thought she'd escaped.  It also puts her in the path of Malcolm McCall, a Pinkerton detective who is also spying on the South, though he has the privilege of being a man and white and so gets to pose as a soldier instead of a slave.  Upon their first encounter, Elle and Malcolm are both attracted to each other--at least after they establish that Malcolm hasn't shown up to rape Elle.  But despite their attraction, Elle is leery of Malcolm for very good reasons.  You know, like the fact that she's black and he's white and there can never be an equal power dynamic between them, society will never accept them, and she's not really sure if he really likes her or if he just wants a taste of something taboo.  So there are a few obstacles in the way of their romance.

Cole does such a great job bringing Elle and Malcolm together.  There's a keen awareness of unequal power dynamics in the very nature of their relationship and Cole (and Malcolm, by extension) does everything possible to even the playing field, making sure that Elle's consent is highly visible at every step of the way and that Malcolm backs off every time she seems like she's about to say no.  After he saves her twice, she makes a request that she save him the next time--and then she does, in spectacular fashion.  And of course, Elle is the one who puts together the pieces to figure out what is going on with a ship that could threaten the the outcome of the blockade and the war itself.  Elle is a strong, remarkable woman even when she's being humiliated and put down, in direct contrast to her "mistress" who is a downright bitch and petty and vindictive even when she already has everything she could ever want.

The writing here is excellent, the pacing is on-spot, and the chemistry between Elle and Malcolm absolutely sizzles.  However, I do have two issues.  My first complaint is that not a lot is done to show Elle and Malcolm's backgrounds; a few things are stated, like the reason for Malcolm's family's immigration to the United States and how Elle came to be free and lost her best friend and former lover, but there's not a lot of insight into how that made them the people that they are.  And second, while I think the individual plots of the spy mission and romance are done well, they're not necessarily woven together well.  I liked how Elle and Malcolm teamed up to pool information and find out about the ship, but the spying aspects and romance aspects seemed to seesaw from one extreme to the other without much in-between.  Still, this was highly enjoyable and I'm definitely interested in reading more books in this series and by this author.

4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

In Flight - R. K. Lilley (Up In the Air #1)

In Flight (Up in the Air, #1)So, there are a few categories in the Unapologetic Romance Readers' 2017 challenge that I wasn't super-psyched about.  A BDSM romance was one of those categories.  It is sooo not up my alley and I was also leery of falling into the "Fifty Shades" trap where it's actually not a BDSM romance but a story about a horribly abusive relationship.  So I basically had a few requirements for this category.  One, it needed to be an actual book, not a short that consisted entirely of sex--which was a requirement for all of the categories for me.  (I did cheat on the holiday romance one for this, but read 3 novellas to make up for it.)  Two, it couldn't be a Fifty Shades book.  Three, I didn't want it to be downright awful in writing or content.  So of course I headed off to the Goodreads lists.  This was something I knew I was going to have to buy, because the library wouldn't have it and I was skeptical of anything in this category that was for free, and after some perusal I purchased In Flight, which appeared to be both an actual romance novel with BDSM aspects instead of just straight sex and had a very strong reading (4.1/5) on Goodreads.

The book is written in first-person from the perspective of the heroine, Bianca, who works as a first-class flight attendant on an unnamed airline and encounters a hot young billionaire with a taste for BDSM.  (Okay, so maybe there are a few Fifty Shades similarities here, but I'm willing to let that go.)  She and James, said billionaire, are immediately attracted to each other and James outwardly states his intentions to get Bianca so sleep with him, though he doesn't want the relationship to be public.  Though she initially is reluctant, she finally caves, because she's young and hot and is still, of course, a virgin--though James didn't know that initially so at least he's not coveting her for it, though he admits it's a perk.  Bianca is also the least-connected woman on the face of the planet--no TV, no internet, no social media... Basically all she does is work and paint.  That said, none of this actually hit me until later in the book, when I started to go, "Wait a minute..."

There's definitely some wonky language in here that was funny more than sexy, and could put an instant damper on the mood.  The writing was average--not good, not bad.  There's some annoying slut-shaming, because clearly every other girl who has ever been interested in James is a dirty whore where Bianca is pure as the driven snow, though she has a Dark Past and can orgasm on command.  *eyeroll*  But what I will give this book credit for is that, as far as I can tell, it's an okay portrayal of a BDSM relationship that isn't actually abusive, which is how these things apparently tend to go in books--not that I am an experienced enough reader in this subgenre to make a firm call of my own.  They discuss a safe word, James provides aftercare and time for Bianca to rest even when neither of them particularly wants to take a break.  But he seems to flipflop between personalities and not just when they're getting freaky, and that put me off a bit from him--he's warm and welcoming and cuddly one minute, and absolutely frigid the next for little to no reason.

I think this was a decent book for what it is, and the writing is certainly better than Fifty Shades (no "inner goddess"es here).  The actual BDSM is pretty light (good for me!) though it seems like it might head into slightly heavier territory in future books.  Also, as this is a proper series and not a string of connected books with different main characters like most romance series are, there is no Happily Ever After ending here--that's left for the future.  But still decent, and I didn't hate every second of it like I expected to for this category, though I'm not sure if I'll take on the other two books or not.

3 stars out of 5.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Beard Science - Penny Reid (Winston Brothers #3)

Beard Science (Winston Brothers, #3)In the midst of scrambling to finish my two reading challenges for the year, I needed something else.  So I reached for Beard Science, which I'd been hanging onto for a rainy day, because I wanted to read Cletus' story!  While one of my reading challenges is a romance one, this book doesn't fit any of my remaining categories in it, and so it was still a separate treat from scrambling to finish the challenge books.

This was the book I was most looking forward to in the Winston Brothers series (though, to be fair, the series hasn't been completed yet).  Cletus was clearly the oddball in the first few books (including Beauty and the Mustache) and I thought he would be a very intriguing hero.  Additionally, I was looking for the hidden depths that there must be to Jennifer, the heroine, aka the Banana Cake Queen.  Ultimately, I got what I wanted on one front but not on the other.

The plot kicks off when Jennifer's parents, who dominate her entire life despite her being a grown woman, inform her that they have people coming down to talk to her about a cooking show and promotion opportunities with Chiquita, which Jennifer definitely doesn't want.  She's been forced into a mold her entire life because she doesn't want to displease her mother, but what she really wants is to be her own person.  So when she accidentally catches Cletus on film in the act of stealing evidence from the police department, she decides to blackmail him into helping her find a guy to marry so she can have an easy way to leave her parents.  Why does she pick Cletus for this?  Because Jennifer is an observant person, partially because people don't think she has a single brain cell and say things in front of her they probably wouldn't in front of other people, and she knows that Cletus gets up to all kinds of mischief.  Why this makes a good husband hunter, I'm not sure I know, but hey, it's the plot.  Of course, over the course of the hunt, the two grow closer...

Jennifer did end up having hidden depths, and a backbone that she just didn't know how to show before.  I liked her; she proceeded with things in a logical manner, didn't get into trouble trying to do things the hard way, and was open about what she wanted.  Cletus, on the other hand, was somewhat of a disappointment.  Being inside his head wasn't nearly as interesting as I thought it would be; it seems like, when Reid elevated Cletus from supporting character to hero, he lost a lot of the zaniness that made him special in the process.  We can still see that he has some schemes, but none of them seem as kooky or complicated as they did when viewed by the characters in previous books; some are just downright pranks instead of any sort of actual scheming like we've been told again and again Cletus is prone to.  Seeing more of Billy, a character who hasn't been on the page much in the past few books, was also nice, setting him up for his own book in the near future.  (Though we have to get through Duane first.)

The writing overall was pretty good; I think Reid writes really good chemistry, and that wasn't any different here.  But she does tend to lose track of minor threads and details throughout the course of the book; for example, one of the guys visiting from New York to check out Jennifer for a cooking show has his name changed from Allen to Alan and back again, twice, within the span of three pages.  The plot with the Iron Wraiths is also starting to get pretty far-fetched and overdrawn, and I wish Reid had wrapped it up already; I don't see how she can possibly drag this on for three more books!

Overall, a good read, and one that I would definitely read again, as with most of Reid's books.  However, it wasn't what I was hoping for, falling more in line with the previous books instead of blowing them out of the water.

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Mutiny on the Bounty - Charles Nordhoff & James Norman Hall (Bounty Trilogy #1)

Mutiny on the Bounty (The Bounty Trilogy, #1)Continuing on with my reading challenge (I'm nearing the end!) I chose Mutiny on the Bounty for the category of a "A book with multiple authors."  It also had the added benefit of allowing me to cross off a book from the list I have pinned up by my desk of every book Rory Gilmore reads, mentions, etc. during the duration of Gilmore Girls

What's important to remember about Mutiny on the Bounty is that is a fictionalized account of the (in)famous mutiny; my edition has a foreword from the authors that goes into their sources, some of the changes they made, etc., but I think it would be easy to think that this was actually a personal account because of the way in which it is written.

In the book, Nordhoff and Norman Hall remove one of the midshipmen from the Bounty and replace him with their narrator, Roger Byam, basing him upon the original sailor but deviating in some respects.  Byam tells the story of how he was invited to join the Bounty's crew for a bit of adventure by its captain, William Bligh, on a journey to Tahiti to gather breadfruit trees for transportation to the Indies, during which he will compile a dictionary and grammar of the Tahitian language for use by others journeying there.  After a paradisaical stay in Tahiti, while en route to the Indies, Bligh's temper seems to get worse and worse and feuds he started with the crew before Tahiti are refueled and exacerbated, culminating in the mutiny, led by the first mate, Fletcher Christian.  Byam is not involved in the mutiny, but is forced to stay aboard the Bounty because there's not enough room for all those loyal to Bligh in the launch he and some of his supporters are forced into.  The rest of the book deals with the aftermath of the mutiny for Byam, and includes two "splits" that break off into the other two books in the trilogy--one book deals with Bligh and the men in the launch, and the other with Christian and some of the mutineers going to the Pitcairn Islands.

This is a classic seafaring story.  Byam is the perfect choice for a narrator because his position allows us to sympathize both with Bligh and the loyalists as well as with the mutineers.  It is, however, a story that is definitely not plot-driven as there is no plot, rather just a tale of how the mutiny came to be and what happened to Byam and the others after.  Not everyone lives; a good number of the crew meet their demise in various ways.  The story seems to proceed in spurts, with Byam sometimes relating every day, sometimes skipping over weeks or months at a time.  He's also not the greatest, abandoning his wife and child in Tahiti in favor of the hope of naval glory back in England--something that was probably a common thought process and motivation for his time and place, but a shitty action nonetheless.  And because the story is based in fact though not entirely factual, the "villain" of the piece, Bligh, never gets his comeuppance.  And because this is a "classic," aka it was written in an earlier time (originally published in 1932) it has that old-timey feeling to it, and the writing can sometimes be dry and seem rambling.  Still, this was an overall enjoyable read and one of the foundation books of its genre.

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyThis was a charming book.  I read it for the Popsugar 2017 Reading Challenge, for the category of "A book of letters."  I originally meant to read The Color Purple for this category, but couldn't quite figure out if it was mostly letters or included other items in an epistolary style, such as news articles, and I wanted something that really stuck to the category.  I do still plan to read TCP, just not for this!

Taking place just after World War II, the story that of Juliet, an author who wrote comedic articles during the war that have just been released as a book.  While she's on a book tour, she receives a letter from Dawsey, a man who lives on Guernsey in the Channel Isles, asking about a used book of hers which has come into his possession.  The article sparks a stream of correspondence between Juliet, Dawsey, and many of the other inhabitants of Guernsey, as well as Juliet's friend/editor and the friend/editor's sister, also her friend, and her touring agent.

While Juliet is charming in her own writing, the strength here is really in the setting of Guernsey.  I'd never even heard of the Channel Islands before reading this--I have an American education to thank for that--or known that this British territory had been occupied by Germany during World War II.  As Juliet decides to make Guernsey and the titular Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society the focus of her next book, more and more information about the Isles during that time comes to light, as do stories about the characters directly involved in the story.  It's a war story, but one that has plenty of levity along with sobriety, and a little bit of a romance running along underneath the surface--though definitely not a significant part of the main plot.

Now, some of the letters aren't exactly the most sensible, relating information that the recipient should already know as if it is brand-new.  I actually didn't even realize this until another reviewer pointed it out--the information was new to me, after all, and its importance to the reader is clearly why it's included, but it is a bit of a hole in the actual construction of the novel.  Also, Juliet, while charming, can sometimes be so to the point that I found myself grinding my teeth at her, because even when she's angry or frustrated or not at her best, she still manages to be irritatingly perfect, if that makes sense.  Everyone loves her on sight, or on receipt of a letter, or on reading her works, and that was just...ugh.  No one is that likable! 

Still, this was a fun, short book.  For some reason I thought there were two timelines here, a post-WWII one and a modern one, but that's not the case--it's all post-WWII, which is a time that I think is somewhat underutilized, so I was glad to see it, even if it dips back into the war itself in the characters' recollections.  It's somewhat lacking in depth, but the fun characters and charming setting helped to make up for that, and I enjoyed reading it.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Artemis - Andy Weir

ArtemisAnother hotly-anticipated book this season, Artemis is Andy Weir's follow-up (though not a sequel, not even related) to his smash hit The Martian.  This is still a sci-fi, with the setting being the town of Artemis on the moon, made up of a series of domes and some subterranean levels.  The main character is Jazz, a woman who was born in Saudi Arabia but emigrated to Artemis with her father when she was six and so considers herself a true Artemisian, especially because people can't actually have children on Artemis and have to go to earth to do it because of how the lunar gravity can affect gestation.  Jazz works as a porter, delivering packages, and also as a smuggler--also delivering packages.  And when one of her clients offers her a million dollars (essentially; that's not the currency used, but it's the gist) to destroy some machinery used by a smelting company, Jazz sees her chance to claw her way up out of poverty and into the good life.  Unfortunately, it goes wrong, and she quickly finds herself running for her life and entangled in a plot that could lead to Artemis' downfall.

I don't think this was as strong a book as The Martian was.  First, I'm not convinced that Weir can write a female main character, at least not from a first-person perspective.  Have you ever read or watched something and had a definitive moment where you went, "This was written by a man?"  I had one of those moments here, just a few pages in, when Jazz/Weir describes Artemis as looking not like a group of domes, but a group of boobs.  This is not the type of thing that I have ever encountered in a woman's writing, though it seems to abound in men's writing for some reason.  In fact, with the fact that Jazz does not have a scientific background and Mark Watney of The Martian does, they are essentially the same person.  Their speech is the same, their humor is the same, I basically could not tell the difference between them.  Weir also seems to use Jazz's non-scientific background as an excuse to skimp on some logic in the book; there's still a demonstration of research into various things like welding, smelting, chemical reactions, etc. but he breezes right by some of the things that really would have been built into an enclosed community literally connected to a smelting facility via air tubes.  Let me put it this way: when you have a character spout off all the things that should have been included at the end of the book to foil your big plot, then you probably should have thought the plot out a bit more carefully.

Artemis was a promising setting for a story like this, and I was also psyched to meet Jazz's Kenyan pen pal, Kelvin, who is featured in letters from Jazz's childhood up through the present that appear between some chapters of the book.  But we never actually meet Kelvin, Jazz continues to be annoying, and all of the supporting characters are completely one-dimensional.  There's a romance that's absolutely forced in between Jazz and a supporting character, but while I think we're supposed to get the vibe that "OMG I've loved him all along and I've just realized it!!!" it really just feels like she decides to hook up with this guy because he has a nice bed and a shower and she wants that life.

Overall, super disappointed in this.  1.5 stars out of 5, a huge comedown from The Martian.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Phantom of the Opera - Gaston Leroux

The Phantom of the OperaTrying to scramble through the remains of my reading challenges, I needed a horror romance, and thought the classic The Phantom of the Opera would suit it perfectly.  It's not gory horror; instead, it's very Gothic in feel, with an unseen menace lurking in the shadows and a twisted love propelling a plot that keeps apart two more suitable protagonists.

Written as a relating of the tale behind "true" events (and apparently inspired by some actual true events, though I couldn't find to what degree) the story follows several people in a Paris opera house haunted by a "ghost."  Two new managers have recently taken over the opera and think they're being pranked by their predecessors, while overlooked singer Christine sees the ghost as the Angel of Music who brings her talent to new heights, and the young viscount Raoul views the ghost as a sort of demon leeching away Christine's life and keeping she and Raoul apart.  There are really two love stories here: the one between Raoul and Christine, which started when they were children and is now foundering in the face of the ghost's obsession with Christine; and that between Christine and the ghost, aka Eric, which is sort of love and sort of obsession and sort of sick fascination, all rolled into one.

The writing here is definitely in a "classic" style, which means that it can seem a bit distant and clinical at first, but it gets very engaging as you get used to the style and become immersed in the world of the opera.  And the opera itself is almost a character in and of herself; the opera house is huge, fantastical in ways that I doubt a real opera house could be.  With a lake built under it, floors beyond imagining, and a cast of minor characters that seem as much a part of the building as a limb does part of a body.  Even Eric and the Persian seem like their true purposes are more to be entities of the opera house than to be their own people--their backgrounds never being as fully or satisfactorily explained as Raoul or Christine's own backstories.  It's a very atmospheric feel, with almost the entirety of the story taking place in the opera house and the characters as extensions of it.

One thing to note is that I feel like Leroux read Dracula and was really pulling in inspiration from it at parts--like, you know, Eric sleeping in a coffin, or not being able to go into daylight (except he can???) and so on.  A lot of it had a very vampire-like feel to it, though I never got the sense that Eric was actually supposed to be a vampire.  Just a crazy guy who stalked a woman to the point of no return.  Cool.  Remind me why people root for Christine to end up with this psychopath, by the way?  He's a genius in his own way, to be sure...but you know, a murderer, torturer, and all around madman.  So, not exactly prime romantic material.

Anyway, this was a suitably creepy read to be going through around Halloween, and a good choice for my horror romance category.  I enjoyed it even though some parts weren't as thought-out or fleshed-out as they probably could have been.

4 stars out of 5.