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Sunday, April 30, 2017

Killers of the Flower Moon - David Grann

Killers of the Flower MoonThis was my choice for my April Book of the Month.  As soon as I read the description--about how, in the 1920s, the Osage Native American tribe was the richest per capital group in the world, and its members suddenly began dying under mysterious circumstances, and how the FBI became involved, trying to make a name for itself after a restructure--I knew it had to be my selection.  Nonfiction of this variety is fairly rare in Book of the Month; most of the nonfiction they feature is contemporary memoirs and collections rather than actual investigations like this, so I snatched it up while I could.  It sounded fascinating.  Terrible, but fascinating.

And that's exactly what it was.  A string of mysterious murders plagued the Osage, particularly the family of Mollie Burkhart, who lost essentially her entire family in a short span of time.  Eventually, with more than twenty-four murders looming over the Osage, with the tribe members afraid to go out at night, the FBI under the newly-appointed J. Edgar Hoover was told to do something about it.  The FBI had existed before this, so in that sense it's really not a story about the birth of the FBI.  But it is a story about the rebirth of the FBI, which prior to its restructure had been plagued with corruption and inefficiency.  Granted, most people know that the FBI under Hoover wasn't exactly squeaky clean, but he certainly wanted his new bureau to look good when it came under his control, and that led to a lot of pressure for Agent White, the man put in charge of the case, to solve the murders.

This is a complicated story involving a ton of twists and turns and strings of murders that point to multiple serial killers involved in the Osage murders.  While the case was eventually "solved" and closed, Grann found while writing the book that there were holes in the case and that, while the person who was convicted was definitely involved, there was more going on.  He conducted interviews, combed through archives, and eventually managed to piece together more of the story, uncovering a whole string of serial killers targeting the Osage in an attempt to gain control of the headrights that granted them money from the oil companies drilling on land the Osage owned the mineral rights for.  That this happened with one serial killer is imaginable, though of course terrible; that multiple people thought that this was acceptable, and either got away with it or got off lightly, is a travesty of justice.  That people beyond the Osage have completely forgotten about this or never known about it shows how little the Osage's lives were valued by those outside their community, and that is a tragedy.

This is a well-researched book; you can definitely see the legwork that Grann put into writing it.  He has extensive end notes including interviews and archival sources that aren't in publication, and read the case files from the FBI regarding the case.  That he not only reported on the original case but went beyond it and seems to have solved several more and established that the Osage's "Reign of Terror" actually extended much further and longer than most people had previously thought is remarkable and admirable.  The writing was also eminently readable.  It really reads like a narrative about Mollie and her family, and then about Agent White when he comes in to solve the case with his band of miscreants.  It was a real page-turner that had me trying to carve more time out of my day to finish reading.  And when I found myself wondering how Grann could possibly fill up another third of the book when I neared the end of part two, that's when he dropped the revelation that there was so much more than White and his fellows had ever thought.

This is an Old West story with cowboys and "Indians" and oilmen and people being thrown off trains to hide the dirty deeds of other.  It has cattle rustlers and undercover agents and all of the elements of a good Western story, except it is tragically and almost unbelievably true.  Grann has done a marvelous job with this, creating a book that had me raring to talk about it with others the moment I finished it.  I definitely recommend!

5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Silver Storm - Cynthia Wright (Rakes & Rebels #1)

Silver Storm (Raveneau, #1)Silver Storm was the Unapologetic Romance Readers' theme read for "A pirate romance," which we took on for the month of April.  We've been doing theme reads every month to try to cover some of the categories in our romance reading challenge.  Silver Storm had the benefit of being free on Amazon, which is a big draw in the group.  It's apparently the first in two combined series, which together are known as "Rakes & Rebels" though I guess the Raveneaus were the original series, named for the hero in this book.

And what a terrible book this is.  But, looking at the original date of publication--1979--that's not entirely surprising.  Romance was a completely different genre almost 40 years ago!  But while some books have withstood the test of time, Silver Storm has not.  Set during the American Revolution, it follows Devon Lindsay who ends up aboard the privateering ship of Andre Raveneau after her home in New London is destroyed by the British.  It's a typical bodice ripper which of course means that the first sexual encounter between the hero and heroine is of dubious consent at the best, the hero walks all over the heroine's feelings, everyone wants to screw the heroine, and the heroine, of course, possesses a magical vagina that convinces the hero that she's all he ever wanted despite all evidence to the contrary.  Oh, and that the characters have no depth at all.  And the writing is generally terrible.

Silver Storm checks off all of these boxes.  While I originally had some hope for the story based mainly on the setting--the American Revolution isn't a time, and revolutionary America isn't a place, that is typically utilized in romance novels.  But the writing put me off right away, when the book opens with Devon and her mother sighing about their lives.  I thought I might adapt--the writing style of a book is something that I typically get used to and can look past.  But that wasn't the case here.  The writing is just stiff and stilted, and it has no depth at all.  What this means is that no parts of the book have any depth.  The characters are two-dimensional.  There's absolutely no chemistry between Devon and Raveneau.  None.  At all.  I didn't find their interactions any more intriguing than those between Devon and Morgan, Devon's childhood friend and eventual fiance who wants to have sex with Devon (of course) but whose sexual advances Devon finds herself appalled by.

The story travels a lot, as bodice rippers are wont to do, and invents several nonsensical subplots to bulk up all of the arguing, foot-stamping, and hair-tossing that comprises the main story.  There's even a castle on an island and a former mistress who shows up with a child of questionable parentage and a secret pregnancy to contend with.  The drama is eye-roll-worthy, not of the delicious and intriguing type.  A few side characters offered promise but ultimately nothing came of it, because why would any character in this book be allowed to have actual dimension or strength here?  Sigh.

Ultimately, this was pretty terrible.  It wasn't the worst thing I've ever read and didn't outright offend my sensibilities--though it came close at a few points, such as when Raveneau tells Devon he won't be held responsible for taking her virginity even though she's drunk and clearly not in a good place to be seducing someone.  It was just, for the most part, lacking.  So, as I am in a generous mood, I am going to bestow upon this book...

2 stars out of 5.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Gumbo Tales - Sara Roahen

Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans TableI have never been to New Orleans.  The boyfriend has, and he dubbed it the worst place he's ever been.  That said, it's hard to believe after reading Sara Roahen's delightful Gumbo Tales.  Focused on New Orleans food and the struggle to fit in as a transplant to the city, Roahen divides her book into chapters that each focus on a dish or beverage and a theme that goes along with it.  For example, the chapter about Sazeracs focuses on parallels between New Orleans and Roahen's native Wisconsin as well as the evolution of the cocktail.  The history of all the dishes are dug into, though for most of them there's a lot of ambiguity about how the food really came to be, such New Orleans hosts such a mish-mash of peoples and always has.

Roahen clearly started writing this book pre-Katrina, which leads to an odd and heartbreaking duality.  She has a lot of nostalgia for the city "before the storm" and a lot of heartbreak for how it's suffered "after the storm," as the history of New Orleans has become divided, but there's also a lot of hope there, too.  She notes which restaurants and stands have closed their doors, seemingly never to return, but also the ones that have opened again stronger than ever, or the ones that aren't open yet but show signs of life, slowly stirring.  Even the rebuilding of the city's Vietnamese community is touched upon, with the revival of the street market and the Tet festival.  Carnival is described, both pre- and post-Katrina, in a way that most who are not native to New Orleans could possibly imagine.

But of course, this is primarily a book about food, and Roahen's descriptions are tantalizing.  She manages to make foods that I would likely never try, like tripe and turkey necks, sound delicious.  The only dish that even she couldn't make me crave was fertilized eggs--yes, eggs that actually have chicks in them.  That one brought up a shudder, but aside from that, I think every single thing she mentioned sounded delicious.  And it was educational, too!  She clearly did a lot of research here, citing various books from various time periods as part of her research into the evolution of New Orleans cuisines (including Cajun, Creole, Vietnamese, and all sort of hybrids and others that pop up here and there) and some of them seem like they could be great reading on their own.  Additionally, she provides a lot of insight into how some of the dishes are actually prepared, in their many preparations--something that she learned as someone trying to cook New Orleans style.  For example, I'd never known that the color of a roux affected a gumbo so much!  Or that so many different types of meat were supposed to go into red beans and rice!  This book has definitely inspired me to try some more New Orleans-style recipes, though I can't by any stretch call myself a New Orleansian.

Overall, this is another great addition to my trove of food books.  I don't think it's something I'd go back and read again and again, but I definitely made some mental notes about things to look into further, and it was certainly an enjoyable read.

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Anna and the French Kiss - Stephanie Perkins (Anna and the French Kiss #1)

Anna and the French Kiss (Anna and the French Kiss, #1)
So, one of the categories for the Popsugar Reading Challenge for 2017 is to listen to an audiobook.  Originally I'd slated The Nightingale for this, since it's supposed to be a great audiobook.  But then I figured that, given my attention span with listening to things, I'd better pick out something I'd actually read, so that when I inevitably tuned out, I could catch up without constantly having to rewind.  So, because of that and library availability, I got Anna and the French Kiss on audiobook.

I liked Anna a lot less on audio than I did when I read it.  Part of this is the narrator.  I don't think it's really the narrator's fault, but she reads in this high, breathy voice that kind of made me want to punch Anna (not the narrator herself, let's be clear) in the face because she came off so much more brainless and immature and downright bitchy than she did in the actual book.  I didn't agree with the inflections she used and felt that it gave a completely different feel to the entire story; if I'd listened to this originally, never in a million years would I have picked up the two companion books, Lola and the Boy Next Door and Isla and the Happily Ever After.

But hearing the book did bring to light a few things that I think I glossed over the times that I read it.  Like how there's a surprising amount of slut-shaming and homophobia in this book, and not all of it is from the antagonists; there's actually a good deal from Anna herself, which makes me flinch away from the book as a whole.  There's an incident in which the stereotypical "bitchy" girl calls one of Anna's friends a dyke, and Anna gets into a fight with her.  Anna is so offended that this term was used, not because it's a derogatory term, but because the friend isn't a lesbian, so how dare someone imply that she is?  Later she backtracks some and tries to say that the insult doesn't make any sense, but her knee-jerk reaction is that, somehow, being a lesbian was the insult here, not the way in which it was referred to.  She doesn't show this attitude toward a man who's implied to be gay at another point in the book; rather, this seems to be confined to lesbianism, which makes the whole thing so icky.

And then there's the slut-shaming.  This is rampant from all directions.  Someone spreads a rumor that Anna slept with the guy she was dating, which of course automatically makes her a slut.  Anna views girls who date boys she likes as sluts, even if she never uses the term in relation to them--the implication is definitely there.  Anna's friends say they don't believe that she slept with the guy, but it's also implied that if she had, they wouldn't be friends anymore.  Because sleeping with your boyfriend obviously means you're a total slut.  Yes, this is a book about high school students, but one would expect better behavior from our protagonists--both Anna and her friends.

There's also an uncomfortable amount of "friendzone" mentality in this, in which Anna thinks that, because she's close friends with St. Claire when he's having a hard time, he should totally break up with his girlfriend and be with her, even though she actually has no idea what his relationship with his girlfriend is right.  Ultimately, of course, St. Claire is attracted to Anna in return, but that isn't my point.  My point this that, just as girls are not machines you put friendship coins into until sex comes out, neither are boys, and this mentality isn't any healthier on a female main character than it would have been on a male one, though I think this book would be getting a lot more flack if it was St. Claire who had displayed this attitude and not Anna.

Anna was my second-favorite book in this trilogy, and despite the new flaws that I've seen it I think it retains that spot.  It has inherent flaws, yes.  But I am willing to give it some slack, because the story is so charming and the slow-building romance is so delicious, and it's a first book.  Lola is my least favorite and Isla takes the top spot, though now I might have to re-read and re-evaluate those with a more studied eye, as well.

Originally I had rated this 5 stars; at this point, I'm knocking it down to somewhere between 3.5 and 4 stars, marking at 4 for Goodreads purposes.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Wallbanger - Alice Clayton (Cocktail #1)

Wallbanger (Cocktail, #1)Wallbanger is a book that was much-talked-about in the Unapologetic Romance Readers group on Goodreads, was featured quite highly on many "enemies to lovers" lists (a category I needed to fill for my romance reading challenge) and also had a hefty waiting list for the library, which is usually a good indicator.  So I went for it!

Well, this is an enemies-to-lovers story, yes, but but it's really an enemies-to-friends-to-lovers story, and the enemies portion is very short.  Essentially, the story is about Carolina, who's newly moved into a gorgeous apartment in San Francisco that her boss at an interior design company is letting her sublet, when she discovers that she has a very noisy neighbor.  Mainly, a guy who's having sex with three women--not at the same time--which Carolina dubs Spanx, Purina, and the Giggler due to their, erm, sexual proclivities.  There's an embarrassing incident in which Carolina confronts the neighbor while wearing a sexy pink nightie, and then at a housewarming party, they officially meet and find that their friends are very attracted to each other but apparently the couples are mixed up.  Carolina and Simon, as the neighbor is called, set out to fix this and begin a long, slow burn of verbal foreplay.  Their banter is witty and sexy, and you can definitely feel the chemistry there...until they actually begin to have sex, which is not nearly as sexy as all of the lead-up led me to believe it would be, given that Carolina is preoccupied with trying to be witty regarding her "lost" orgasm, which she talks about for a lot of the book.

The real strength here is the characters.  Carolina and Simon are both fully fleshed-out characters and their friends are pretty great, too.  It was refreshing to actually see Carolina having positive relationships with other women, because that's so rare in romance novels, where most women are just presented as competition at best.  But these girls had regular brunches, still got together to get ready for parties together, meddled relentlessly but helpfully in each others' love lives... It was nice.  Simon's friends aren't as present because the book is entirely from Carolina's point of view, but Simon himself has a backstory that, while tragic, is also believable.  He has a career and a life and passions other than just sticking his dick in whatever comes by, and even his three sexual relationships early in the book stem from a believable place, and he's also a very respectful guy.  Carolina was also good; her obsession with not being able to have an orgasm for most of the book got old pretty fast, since the maximum amount of time she goes without talking about it is about about two pages, and she tries to be funnier than I think Clayton is really capable of, but she had ambitions and dreams and was overall a good character.

Oh, and Clayton does have a knack for writing descriptions of food and places.  From the Sausalito house to the lodge in Tahoe to the coast of Spain, the locations and all of the foods and drinks that come with them were top-notch.  You could pretty much read this book for food porn in addition to, you know, real porn.

But while the characters and lead-up were enjoyable for this book, it's missing a pivotal conflict.  The "conflict," as it is, consists entirely of Carolina going "Well I like him but I haven't had an orgasm in a while and besides he's having sex with three girls despite the fact that I know very well he hasn't been having sex with three girls since we officially met."  There's a bit of a snafu involving a hot tub in Tahoe, about halfway through the book, but it's relatively minor and once the awkwardness is dealt with, it's just a slide to them having sex for the remainder of the book.

This is the first in a series of four books, with the second also focusing on Carolina and Simon and the other two focusing on different couples.  I'm not really interested more Carolina and Simon, but I might look into the other two books.  I do hope that they have a stronger central conflict other than "I wants the sex but noooooooo!" though.

3 stars out of 5.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Kitchen Confidential - Anthony Bourdain

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary UnderbellyI originally had Bourdain's book No Reservations slated for my reading challenge this year, but absolutely nowhere had it available.  So I picked another book for that category and got this one from the library instead.  It's probably better that way, since this was Bourdain's first book and laid the groundwork for a lot of his career, which is of course what I've been watching on Netflix.

This is the updated edition, which has a bit of a foreword and an afterword that serves as a kind of "where are they now" catch-up section, and a PS section that has discussion, an interview, etc.  I didn't care about the PS stuff but the added foreword and afterword were a nice touch.

Here's the thing.  Having watched collections of "No Reservations" (the show, not the book) and "The Layover" on Netflix, I could totally hear Bourdain's voice.  He lays out what he sees as the fundamentals of the restaurant world and the path of his own career.  But then he goes back later on and turns it all on its head, showing that not all cooking crews are the sort that he experienced and seems to seek out.  He doesn't really go into how his life of booze and drugs affected his career at various points, but he also doesn't hide that away, and finally mentions that he hit a point where he knew if he didn't stop, he probably wasn't going to.

And here's the other thing... Bourdain is an ass.  Anyone who's seen him on any of his shows can tell that pretty easily.  But he's so up front about it, without really making himself seem better than others, and I found that I could move past it pretty easily.  There are, of course, moments, when I step back and go, "Wow, Anthony, you're an asshole."  But for the most part, I felt like I could step away from that terribly abrasive part of his personality and still enjoy his writing and his tales of "the culinary underbelly," as the book refers to it.  Bourdain seems to prefer what he calls "pirate crews" which are basically a bunch of former (and sometimes current) criminals and drug addicts and overall people who are just as unsavory as he can be.  But at the same time, as I mentioned before, he brings up kitchens that run as smoothly as a well-oiled clock or a well-choreographed and rehearsed dance.  While he greatly speaks from his own experience, he doesn't pretend that his way is the only way, and I can respect that.

Overall, I found this book a very enjoyable read.  Though I can't say that I look up to him as a person or would ever want to work with him.  But that doesn't meant his stories aren't good or shocking or that this book wasn't good (though sometimes shocking) because it was.

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Tender Is the Night - F. Scott Fitzgerald

Tender Is the NightSo, I was having a case of a book hangover after reading Meagan Spooner's new book Hunted, a Beauty and the Beast retelling that I really enjoyed.  (I could seriously go read it again right now, even though I just read it not even a week ago; timelines with reviews are a bit off on the blog due to advance scheduling.)  The cure for a book hangover is, for me, to typically go somewhere completely different so I'm not comparing what I'm reading now with what I was reading then, at least not to such a degree.  So I checked out Krakatoa, and then I picked up Tender is the Night, which I've had on my bookshelf for a while and hadn't gotten to yet.

Before this, the only Fitzgerald book I'd read was The Great Gatsby.  I didn't really like that the first time I read it through, but then I read a nonfiction book about the Fitzgeralds called Careless People and found it really enhanced the reading experience--and I think that having previously read Careless People helped with the experience here, as well, because it's so easy to see where Fitzgerald drew in his and his wife Zelda's own lives to flavor the book.  The vacations on the Riviera, the small and exclusive groups of people being "made over" by the main people in the group, the travelling, the partying, and the angst underlying it all... It's all so evident both in the fiction and in the reality that underlies it.

The story here initially seems to follow Rosemary, a young woman who's made her break as an actress and is taking a vacation on the Riviera with her mother when she meets Dick and Nicole Diver.  She promptly falls in love, or at least states that she does, with Dick, and spends the rest of her vacation going after him.  He eventually gives in, somewhat--and then Rosemary vanishes from the picture and it becomes evident that Dick is actually the main character, not Nicole.  The book goes into his backstory, catches back up with the present, and then proceeds, all along showing that Dick is a terrible person.  He marries Nicole, who was a patient in a mental hospital where he was working, and then proceeds to continue fooling around to various degrees with every pretty young woman who comes his way, most of whom are also his patients in some way or another.  This is both extremely unethical and extremely immoral because not only are they his patients but he is already married.  And while Rosemary should have known better than to go after a married man when she was eighteen, and definitely should have known better by the time she was twenty-two, there's absolutely no excuse for Dick, who was a full adult in control of his full mental capacities for the duration of the story.

But then, Fitzgerald likes writing about terrible people.  The Buchanans in Gatsby, for example; it all seems to come back to some circle of how wealth just leads to decadence and its accompanying decay, possibly in another parallel to the Fitzgeralds' own lives.  Watching these people spiral together and then apart is almost wince-worthy, because you can just see the disaster coming.  All of the drama is also exhausting.  But Fitzgerald is a modern classic for a reason, and it shows through.  He has a clean and simple style of writing, one that I think contributed to my dislike of Gatsby when I read it in school because I simply wasn't old enough or wide-read enough to really appreciate the style.  But now I am, and I can definitely see the merit here.  While I didn't like the characters here, the book was still written in such a way that not liking them was the point and was enjoyable.  I think some other books aim to accomplish this, but don't.  Fitzgerald, on the other hand, managed it perfectly, and that's something that's something to be remarked upon.

4 stars out of 5.