Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Bear and the Nightingale - Katherine Arden (The Winternight Trilogy #1)

The Bear and the Nightingale (Winternight Trilogy, #1)The Bear and the Nightingale is what I wanted from a Russian-themed fantasy and what I didn't really get from the Grisha trilogy.  Yes, Grisha was meant to be bigger and flier, and it was that--but it lacked warmth and depth and heart, and TBATN has that in spades.

The main character here is Vasilisa, though she doesn't really come into her own until the second half of the book, being too young to do much for the first half.  The first half instead follows her family and other characters as they come together in Vasilisa's small town on her father's lands.  Among these are Konstantin, a priest who paints icons and wants to save souls at any cost, and Anna, the daughter of the Grand Prince who becomes Vasilisa's stepmother following the death of Vasilisa's birth mother.  Also coming the village is a strange pendant given to Vasilisa's father by a man no one else remembers, who seems almost inhuman--the pendant being meant for Vasilisa herself, though her nanny keeps it from her for years.

Vasilisa is the daughter of a witch, or so it's said, and she can see the household and forest spirit s that populate her father's lands.  But with the arrival of the priest and the fear he puts into the villagers, the spirits begin to weaken and a menace in the forest becomes stronger and stronger.  Fear, fire, and famine threaten the village, and while Vasilisa does what she can to keep the friendly spirits strong and the evil at bay.  But she is just one person, and the duel between the menace in the woods and the strange blue-eyed man who wants Vasilisa becomes ever more fraught with peril.

This starts out as a very low fantasy and slowly escalates into the higher realms as it progresses--more magic, more spirits, more supernatural conflict.  Vasilisa does not go along slinging spells or enchantments; the magic she possesses is more of a "seeing and understanding" type aided by the stories that her nanny told her when she was younger.  Consequently, the magic is very atmospheric and has a mystical and yet cozy feel to it, with the dark lurking beyond at the same time.  The setting is a period when Russia was ruled by the Tartars (aka the group composed of Mongul and Turkish elements that came together under Genghis Khan) and kind of lends itself to a fairy tale setting.  The writing itself is very good; I think Arden balanced the characters and plot elements well.  That said, the first half of the book is very slow.  It takes a long time for things to get set up and going, and I kept telling myself it would but at times I felt like despairing that anything would ever happen.  This book also isn't a romance, and I felt like that was an element I was looking for to some degree in the later parts of the book, as it would not have been appropriate in the earlier parts; there wasn't much room left for it, but man, Morozoko is awesome.  Maybe something for future books???

Overall, this was a fabulous read to start the new year with.  I'm greatly looking forward to reading the second volume, which was released in December, but I think I'll hold off on it so that I can space it between this one and the third book's release, which is dated for August.

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Happily Ever Ninja - Penny Reid (Knitting in the City #5)

Happily Ever Ninja (Knitting in the City, #5)This is the worst romance book I'v read in quite some time, and that pains me because I typically really, really like Penny Reid.  She's written some of my favorite contemporary romances.  This one?  No.  Not so much.

The fifth book in the Knitting in the City series, this focuses on Fiona, the only member of the knitting group who was married before the series began.  Her husband, an ex-Marine, is a consultant of some type in the oil business, working to try to make oil drilling more environmentally friendly and ethical (or something--it's kind of vague).  Fiona is an ex-CIA agent (you can kind of intuit this from former books in the series) turned stay-at-home mom and part-time consultant.  Their relationship is under some strain because of Greg's long absences from home for work, but they're trucking along, as they have been doing for fourteen years...until Greg gets kidnapped, and Fiona goes to save him.

First let's talk about this hare-brained plot.  This is nothing like the other books.  Reid mentions that, other than Neanderthal Seeks Human, this was the book she was most looking forward to in the series.  It's basically a spy novel, though, and it does't fit in with the rest of the books at all.  There is no character or emotional depth here.  There is a novella about Fiona and Greg's origin story floating about somewhere, but that does not excuse shoddy plotting and characterization in the main book.  We know that Greg was a Marine and something happened to his parents; but what?  We know that Fiona was apparently a child gymnast and spent six to eight hours a day training, but beyond Greg throwing that out in an argument, there's nothing else about it or how it might have formed her as a character and influenced her decisions.  And, by the way, you can want your kids to have a normal childhood even if you weren't a child gymnast, so it wasn't even a good point for the argument.  Fiona's rescue mission was the most half-thought-out thing I've ever seen, and Greg's improvisations on it were even worse.

But the real problem with this book is Greg.  Greg is the worst romantic hero ever.  You know who I didn't say that about?  Gray Eagle, the "hero" of Savage Ecstasy, which was terrible.  Greg is worse.  Why?  Because Gray Eagle isn't supposed to be a good guy, and Greg is.  Let me discuss some of why Greg is terrible with you.  Ultimately, what much of it boils down to is that while he purports to love Fiona, he does not trust or respect her, which are, you know, kind of important factors of love.  The examples of this are numerous and infuriating, such as...

-Greg's job takes him away from home for long periods of time; okay, that happens.  However, while he's gone, he expects Fiona to live and parent by ridiculous decrees that he leaves behind, such as their five-year-old daughter is not allowed to have a princess costume, or their son can't play soccer unless their daughter does too, and their daughter doesn't want to play soccer.  Greg pushes this as not molding their children to gender norms, but it doesn't work, because the daughter has lots of other interests that are not typically keyed to women, she just doesn't want to play soccer and she happens to like princesses.  When it comes out that Fiona is letting her children have a bit of freedom--the daughter gets her costume, the son gets to play soccer--Greg pretty much flips and blames Fiona for making decisions without him.

-On the note of making decisions without him: Greg and Fiona do talk while he's gone, via Skype.  However, Greg doesn't seem to want to be involved with making decisions, he just wants Fiona to follow his rules while he's gone and have phone sex with him.  The book opens with Fiona trying to talk to Greg about their retirement, which he argues about why they basically shouldn't have a retirement investment because all corporations are evil, and then says he'll sign the papers if she has Skype sex with him, shows him her boobs, sends him dirty pictures, etc.  He never does sign the papers, and his demands for sexual favors in return for acting like a Goddamn adult are ridiculous in the extreme.

-Even when Fiona basically single-handedly saves him from Nigerian kidnappers using her elite CIA training, he does not trust her planning or skills enough to get them out of Nigeria.  Instead, he chooses to drug her against her will and haul her off into an even bigger mess of his own creation, which involves him getting re-kidnapped and almost killed in a gunfight and Fiona almost being arrested for treason.

-He has no respect for the work Fiona does or the hard decisions she has to make as a functionally single parent; he comes home, trashes the apartment, gets upset at Fiona for having a male neighbor/friend, and then mocks her when she expresses her anger and frustration at his behavior, before saying he loves her and leaving, as if saying that you love someone fixes everything you've done to hurt them.

-He was furious at her for keeping her CIA status from him earlier in their relationship and made her promise not to do anything dangerous beyond her abilities, but he doesn't have the respect for courtesy to act the same in his own career.  Per a promise he made, he never brings up the CIA thing in arguments, at least vocally--however, he makes his resentment known, even a decade and a half later, through his actions towards her.

-He makes rape jokes that he actually thinks are funny.

Fiona eventually addresses Greg's behavior, demanding that he value and respect her.  And poof!  He suddenly does!  But I don't for one secton believe that, if he clearly has not valued or respected her for the first fourteen years of their marriage (and eighteen or nineteen years of their total relationship; I forget the exact number), that he is about to start now, harrowing near-death experiences or no.  Yes, marriages have problems; but this is beyond reasonable.  Greg seems to have really loved Fiona when they were younger, and I don't blame her for marrying him.  However, I do blame her for not divorcing him in a hot second by the end of this book, and I have to wonder where her spine has been for the past fourteen years if she's supposedly such a kick-ass person.

There are other problems with this book, too; Marie is apparently suddenly a lawyer though she never went to law school because she decided to take the bar exam one day, when this isn't actually possible--you can take the bar without going to law school, but you have to spend an extended period studying under an attorney or judge to do so.  This might be addressed in the next book, Dating-ish, which focuses on Marie as the main character, but is an illustrated point that while Reid seems to have done some research on Nigeria for this book, she skimped in other areas.  It's also not as well-edited, with misspelled, misused, misplaced, or just plain missing words in several places.  It kind of feels like Reid was so eager to write Fiona's book that she just did it and never looked back to see if it was actually any good.

Let me wrap it up this way: if Happily Ever Ninja was the first Penny Reid book I read, I would never read another.  That is not the case, however.  I've read many of Reid's other books and like them quite a bit, so I will read more...but knowing that this is what Reid sees as one of her favorite stories and implied favorite heroes has made me lose quite a bit of respect for her as an author.

1 star out of 5.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Long May She Reign - Rhiannon Thomas

Long May She ReignAn intriguing cover and a promising premise--about a young woman who is twenty-third in line for the throne and only wants to become a scientist, but finds herself queen when most of the nobility is poisoned and everyone in the succession before her abruptly dies--this has been on my radar for quite a while.  Of course, it's also been on quite a few other people's radar, since I was number eighty-something on the hold list at the library and it took quite a while for me to actually get the book to read it.

 I will say that I expected this to be a sci-fi book, maybe a space opera with a monarchy in place, something like Empress of a Thousand Skies.  Nope.  This is a fantasy world, one in which all innovations were supposedly left behind by a race called the Forgotten and one in which apparently Freya, our heroine, is the only person in the entire kingdom with the intelligence and desire to do something related to science.  Literally.  The hopes of the kingdom rest on her not because she's queen, but because she's apparently the only person who can figure out a test to detect arsenic and the only person who actually wants to figure out who killed the vast majority of the court.  Of course she has some communists (ish) to win over to her side as well as higher-born political enemies and the public at large.  And a love interest in the form of the illegitimate son of the king, who might want the throne for himself!  Gasp!

This was fairly well-written for what it was.  Despite the thin plot and overall a lack of action--Freya spends most of the book looking for a way to detect arsenic/figure out who poisoned the court and waffling about her duties as queen and letting other style her appearance for her--it was a fun teenage court drama.  Having a heroine interested in STEM is always a good thing, even if her being the only person is somewhat suspicious; an easy way to make her the best, perhaps?  Because of course if a girl is ever going to be good at something in a book/movie/show, she has to be the best or it doesn't count.  See: Celaena Sardothien, Alanna the Lioness, etc.  I did like how Thomas handled the romance; things go south (of course), and at the end it's not all happily ever after.  Freya admits things are on shaky ground and it will take work to repair the relationship, whether it ultimately ends in romance or just friendship.  This was a nice change from the "we are teenagers but must be in love forever" vibe that most young adult books put out.

Additionally, the book was a bit surface-level but Freya wasn't stupid.  Of course, you might say.  She's a scientist, after all.  But you'd be surprised.  What I mainly mean is that I didn't want to slap Freya upside the head.  She can sometimes get wrapped up in her own thoughts, but for the most part, she thought things through and acted accordingly, based on the information she had available to her.  I approve!  Additionally, it seems like Thomas neatly wrapped this up in one book and won't be drawing it out for a whole series.  Young adult stand-alones are so rare in the fantasy genre that I feel like I have to give this book a point just for that.

One thing that I do feel like I have to mention was the world building.  There was some stuff that seemed really intriguing here, but then it was never expounded upon.  Why is Epria so isolated from "the continent"?  What the heck is up with the Forgotten?  It seems to be implied that they're not real, but where did all of this other stuff come from?  Because this isn't a series, these seem like aspects that will never be explored fully, and consequently there are holes left in the fabric of the world.

Still, overall an enjoyable book.  Not an extraordinary one, but a solid young adult fantasy that can stand on its own and with a heroine better than most.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Perennials - Mandy Berman

PerennialsI never went to sleepaway camp as a kid or teen.  I went to week-long day camp a few summers as a Girl Scout, and I think there were a few weekend-long overnight excursions, but nothing long-term.  It was just something that never came up and something, reflecting back, that my family probably couldn't have afforded even if it had come up.  So to me, summer camp has all the sheen of media, and typically in the horror movie sense.  You know, campers missing in the woods, something in the lake that's killing people...that kind of stuff.

Perennials both is and isn't like that.  Ostensibly about two young women, Fiona and Rachel, who attended a camp as children, as they return for one final summer as camp counselors and learn about growing up in the face of a tragedy.  Well, there is a tragedy indeed--more than one.  And while there are no serial killers lurking in the woods and no monsters cruising the lake, this book sometimes struck me as a horror story of another kind entirely, because what is up at this camp is very, very wrong.  Counselors are sleeping together--as teenagers do--and the camp director even gets involved.  Someone witnesses a rape--a very obvious one, in which the victim is seen saying she wants to go to bed, and is blatantly pulled into the woods and raped despite her protests--and the victim is punished for it along with the perpetrator.  Ill fates await not one but two campers over the course of the same summer. 

The lens Berman chose for this was interesting.  The story is told in third-person through a variety of perspectives; Rachel and Fiona each have a couple of chapters, but most of the book has the viewpoints of a variety of other characters.  The camp director, the two girls' mothers, Fiona's little sister, other counselors, campers, etc. all get to chime in with things happening over the course of the summer.  My favorite was probably Sheera, and I would have liked to see more of her; she was so different from the other characters, which was no doubt the point, and I felt a little robbed when she exited the stage relatively early in the book.  Seeing things through both Rachel and Fiona's perspectives was interesting, though--from Fiona's perspective we can see that she thinks Rachel doesn't really care about her except to serve as the "responsible" one, but from Rachel's we get another view: that she really does love Fiona, she just wishes she would come out of her shell and not need constant reassurance that she's liked.

The title here was especially poignant; while marigolds, the plant the camp is named after, are annual flowers, Fiona and Rachel themselves are perennials, coming back year after year and seeming to pick up right where they left off.  The difference is this final summer, when things seem to change so drastically in such a short period of time.  Both of their lives are ultimately turned upside down and the two are pushed apart by the events of the summer--however, the book ends on a positive note, with the potential for them to recover and grow closer together as a result, if they want to.

On the downside, the multiplicity of viewpoints leads to a lot of info-dumping.  Because there are so many characters and Berman wants to give you the full story about what brought each of them to Camp Marigold, there's a lot of "This happened to this person, which made them feel this way, which led to this."  There are a few great flashback scenes that did far more to contribute to character building than the straight-up info dumping, which showed some of what Berman could do, but the book's short length limited them by necessity and so we were left with long periods of info separating out bits of character interaction and forward movement.

Ultimately, I liked this.  However, I think it's much darker than Berman intended it to be.  Obviously there are some tragic events here, but there's another layer of darkness underlying it all that I'm not sure was deliberate.  And if it was--well, this was marketed in entirely the wrong way.  But for a character-driven book, I thought this was very good.

4 stars out of 5.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher for winning a Goodreads giveaway.

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Wilderness of Ruin - Roseanne Montillo

The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America's Youngest Serial KillerI adore true crime books.  I adore things about serial killers, who are obviously terrible but are also fascinating.  I've watched Criminal Minds through like six times.  So when The Wilderness of Ruin popped up in the libraray's true crime category, I was intrigued.  Why?  Because, according to the cover, this book is supposed to be "A tale of madness, Boston's greatest fire, and the hunt for America's youngest serial killer."  In reality, it is none of those things.  In fact, it is three separate things: an account of the evolution and of the so-called "youngest serial killer," Jesse Pomeroy (who wasn't really a serial killer, though he undoubtedly would have become one--he killed two people, and technically you need to kill three people over a span of more than a month to be considered a serial killer), a short telling of a huge fire that swept through Boston, and a mini-biography of Herman Melville. 

This book was pretty awful.  Why?  There is absolutely nothing in these three narratives to tie them together.  Montillo tries for a "well, the fire happened while Jesse lived in Boston, and Melville probably read articles about Jesse and was interested in mental illness!" as an explanation for why these three things comprise the book, but it's a very weak explanation and doesn't work at all in context.  The fire takes about two chapters and is never mentioned again.  There is no "hunt" for Jesse Pomeroy; because he'd assaulted younger children before, the police knew exactly where to look when they found a body that matched his MO and had him arrested in pretty short order.  I kept expecting a jail break or something that would lead to an actual hunt, but that never happened.  And the Herman Melville thing was just...weird.  I have no idea why a biography of Herman Melville occupied approximately a third of this book.  In addition to these three main threads, other random topics are delved into with an amount of detail that wasn't appropriate for what was going on in the larger narrative, such as the production of dime novels or penny dreadfuls.  Montillo seems to want to tackle the ethics of Jesse's sentencing--both the death sentence and his commuted life in solitary confinement sentence--but doesn't really do so well; perhaps she was afraid of getting too political?

The writing itself wasn't bad, but the content was scattered and the structure did not hold together.  This seemed like it was going to be fascinating, but really was just disappointing.  Talk about a premise that did not deliver.

1.5 stars out of 5.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Ordinary Grace - William Kent Krueger

Ordinary GraceThis was the November book for the Deliberate Reader online book club, but despite putting a hold on it well in advance (in September!) I didn't get it until mid-December, so I kind of missed out on the discussion.  Still, I wanted to read it so I was read up for the year.

This is a sort of mystery, but it's not a pavement-pounding one or one where people are getting shot or anything like that.  Instead, the main character is a twelve-year-old boy whose town is plagued by a series of deaths, some of which may or may not be murder, over the course of one summer.  Starting with the suspicious but possibly accidental death of a boy who was hit by a train, the deaths affect main character Frank and his town in different ways.  Because his father is a local minister and his father's friend works to dig graves in the town, Frank has a front-row seat to the various deaths and becomes ever-more entwined in them, particularly when one hits close to home.

This is a pretty simple mystery, and despite a few red herrings the author placed I had it figured out pretty early on.  There were a few aspects that I hadn't guessed, but none of them actually affected the outcome at all.  However, this only pertains to one death--despite Frank building up the summer of five deaths, only one of them is really relevant to the story, and another is connected but not part of the mystery.  The others were very tangential, one of them being mentioned in about one sentence at the end of the book, as if the author had forgotten he needed to include another death to get his five until that point, and then threw it in just to be done with it.

I did quite like the writing here, however; the atmosphere of a small town in the sixties is really nailed down, and all of the characters felt fleshed-out, developed, and relevant to the plot in their own ways.  Not all of them were likable, but all of them felt as if they belonged and were serving their own purposes, and had lives beyond just serving the plot, which is definitely not always the case in mysteries.  However, because this book was also a "portrait of a town" book in addition to a mystery, having all of the characters fit so well was very important to the book working as a whole.  The one thing I didn't always like was the pacing; while at some times I was intrigued and pulled along by the pace of events, at other times the flow seemed to slow to a crawl, making chunks of the book seem like they were never going to end.  Still, I liked it overall, and as it picked up speed towards the end it made quite a good airplane read.  It finishes up with a sort of "where are they now" epilogue, though, which I really hate as a literary device; the epilogue could have been structured differently or, honestly, left off entirely, and the ending probably would have been more solid.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud - Anne Helen Petersen

Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly WomanToo Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud is either a book that you will find extremely vapid--it focuses on celebrities, because they are easy examples that Petersen can draw upon to illustrate her points--or that will enrage you because parts of it are just too true.  It's divided into ten chapters, each one focusing on something that women are declared "too" by modern society.  Most of these are listed right on the cover: too gross, too shrill, too fat, too slutty, too loud, too pregnant, too old, too strong, too queer, too old, too naked.  Is the word "too" starting to look weird to anyone else?  Each chapter exams one (or, in one case, two) women in the public eye who embodies the theme of that chapter, though Petersen notes in her introduction that every woman in the book really falls into more than one category, some of which aren't examined in depth; for example, Serena Williams is too strong, but she's also too loud and too black.

I'm not deeply familiar with a lot of the women that Petersen talks about here.  I'm not really dialed into pop culture very much, so while I know who Niki Minaj, Madonna, and Lena Dunham are, I don't know a lot about them, and there were others that I'd never even heard of.  But I do think Petersen did a good job of giving some background information on each and building out her case, including what seems like a lot of research for each chapter.  I was actually pretty impressed by that aspect; I listened to this as an audiobook, and I found myself thinking pretty frequently as she quoted old articles, pieces of interviews she conducted, and different bits of research, "Wow, a lot more work went into this than I thought."  Because Petersen writes for Buzzfeed, I guess I was expecting something a little more Buzzfeed-like--you know, very shallow and surface-level.  I was pleasantly surprised at how deep this actually went.  Petersen lays out all kinds of stuff that woman are penalized for by society for no good reason.  Like aging.  You know, that thing that all people do.  But while older men are allowed to be "Sexiest Man Alive," an older woman would never be given an equivalent title.  Women are only allowed to be pregnant in public if they revel in their pregnancy and play out their roles without mentioning any of the absolutely awful stuff that comes with pregnancy.  If they assert themselves about how they are treated or their opinions, they are too loud or too shrill, things that are used to tear women down when there's no logical argument against them.  The double standards that women face in society are numerous and immense, and it is infuriating.

Petersen makes good points here, but ultimately it was nothing that was new to me.  There were a few nod-worthy moments of, "Oh, I hadn't thought of it exactly in that light," but I think Petersen is preaching to the choir here.  The people who are going to read this book are the people who don't need to be told these things; we already know about them, acknowledge them as the problem they are, address them with others, and try to correct them.  Society at large is not going to read this book.  Society at large does not care.  That is how we got to where we are today, and why it is such a long, slow slog to make any progress at all in fixing things.  Additionally, because these women typically fit into more than one category that Petersen has to touch on, almost every chapter felt like it was rehashing another one to some degree.  I would have also liked to see a few more women who weren't pop culture icons--two members of the Kardashian family (Kim and Caitlyn Jenner), stars of women-oriented shows, etc.  I understand Petersen's point that celebrities are easy to distill down into the categories she wanted to use, but would have liked to see some sort of point of how these things affect all women, not just ones whose very existence revolves around their presence in the public eye.

Overall, a good one, and an important one, but one that feels somewhat like it was shouting into the void and missing a large point of the population both in focus and audience.

3 stars out of 5.