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Monday, December 5, 2016

The Killing Floor - Lee Child (Jack Reacher #1)

Killing Floor (Jack Reacher, #1)The Killing Floor is the fist book in the Jack Reacher series, and it was a book my mother had mentioned she was interested in reading, so I picked it for a reading challenge category.  I'm coming to it nearly twenty years after it was first published, but I have to say that I wasn't terribly impressed with it as a whole.  There were aspects of the mystery that I didn't have quite pinned down, but I had an idea of them, and other parts of it were glaringly clear.

But here's the thing: it's not a bad book.  But it's very generic and the writing isn't particularly riveting.  It was Child's first book, so I can completely understand that.  Reading my favorite author's first books at this point in life makes me wince, though I can definitely trace her growth as a writer over time.  But for this particular one...  The writing is very stilted, the sentences choppy--though complete, which is more than I can say for some books I've read this year--and Reacher as a character just grated on my nerves.  He has a massive superiority complex to everyone around him, who are all cardboard cutouts of characters.  He also seems to have a detrimental effect on everyone around him.  When he stumbles into a problem occurring in a small town, he manages to convince the few honest people he encounters--who are cops, nonetheless--to be okay with at least a dozen murders, several arsons, and a dozen other crimes to boot, and then to just let him walk away.  That's something that most thriller/mystery books never seem to get right: the legal aftermath.  But this book seems to get it even wrong-er than most, if for on other reason than the sheer scale of what the aftermath would have realistically been.

It's another recurring pet peeve of mine that in mysterious no one ever seems to call in backup.  Case in point here: despite the main plot revolving around a massive counterfeiting scheme, Reacher and his cronies spend their time doing everything except the one thing that actually makes sense: calling the Secret Service.  Instead they apparently think that Treasury bureaucrats and university professors will do a better job of solving their problems.  And Child can't really play it off as if the thought that the Secret Service was corrupt; it's pretty clear from early on that the counterfeiting is a small, local operation.  It's one of those things that just grated on my nerves for the duration of the book, and I couldn't get over it.  Someone like Reacher, who apparently spent decades working in military police, should have known better.  But apparently, because he's no longer in the military and doesn't have a permanent home, he's free to do whatever he wants, and damn the consequences.  Honestly, what he and his buddies did her merits a coverup at least as big as that of the counterfeiting scheme--they did destroy several million dollars, on top of everything else--but no one seems to care, at all.  What?

First books can be rough.  I get it.  But something that I do expect in a first book, even though the writing might not be as polished as that of an established author (and, let's be honest here, there are plenty of authors that debut with beautifully written books, so we can still only push that one so far) is that they be thoughtful, and this was not that.  This is clearly a massively popular series (I believe a movie adaptation of one of the later ones came out recently) but it's obviously not something that's up my alley, and I think I'll be skipping most of these.

1.5 stars out of 5.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Marked - Elisabeth Naughton (Eternal Guardians #1)

Marked (Eternal Guardians, #1)Marked was the Unapologetic Romance Readers book for November.  No, we are not good at reading things in a timely manner.  Thank you for noticing.  It's a paranormal romance with a focus on Greek-based mythology, but set in a modern world.  The main characters are Theron, head of the Argonauts from the mystical realm of Argolea, who work to protect humanity (Or Argolea.  Or something.  There seems to be some disagreement over what they actually do.) and Casey (short for Acacia, of course) a young woman who works the used bookstore her grandmother formerly owned and waitresses at a strip club to help ends meet.  The book starts with Theron barging into the club, sweeping another woman out of it, and then promptly being almost killed by demons, who scatter when Casey shows up despite her being someone they are supposed to kill. (?)  Casey rescues Theron, helps nurse him back to health (which happens very quickly because he is not human) and they almost have steamy sex before he notices a mark on her and jets off to figure out what's going on.

This book didn't have many highlights for me.  What I did like about it were the almost-sex scenes, which were very, very steamy.  The actual sex scenes suddenly went from steamy to "I'm going to die in three days so we must gently make love now!" very quickly and sort of made me want to gag.  But what really drove me up the wall here was the lack of internal logic in this book.  "But it's a paranormal book!" you might say.  And to that I still say, as I always do, "Yes, but it must play by its own rules."  I don't think Naughton did a very good job of that here.  At the climax of the book, she ultimately seems to go, "Screw the rules, I'm the author!" and the very thing that was supposed to have massive consequences for the entire length of the book didn't have any.  Also on this point, she uses the style of speech for all the characters, who all sound like foul-mouthed teenagers (I have nothing against foul language but really, I found myself rolling my eyes at it here), even the princess who has supposedly been sequestered away from the rest of society, which makes the whole "Oh, the Argoleans learned it from humans!!!" argument a bit weak.  The big romantic conflict is also ultimately resolved with no effort at all other than one character being stubborn, and really wasn't a conflict to begin with since none of the characters actually intended to go through with any of the things that would have made it a conflict to begin with.  Sigh.

She also cherry-picked mythological elements, which drove me crazy, because if you're going to do mythology, at least try to make it all work together or put some story behind it rather than just taking what you like and throwing out the rest with no explanation.  And what exactly was the point of this prophecy/separation of powers deal, anyway?  It didn't actually seem to serve a purpose?

Overall, I was not a big fan of this.  Naughton has a way of writing some steamy scenes but I don't think they could carry the book through all of its other weak moments.  I liked some of the other Argonauts and wouldn't mind seeing more about them...but I'm not quite sure I'm ready to go through another book of this to do so.

2 stars out of 5.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Shipping News - Annie Proulx

The Shipping News
The Shipping News was a pick for my reading challenge for 2016, for the category of "A National Book Award winner."  I thought it was going to be a real slog for some reason; it wasn't, but at the same time it left me baffled as to what makes a book a bestseller and award winner and what doesn't.

The main character here is Quoyle, whose family hails from Newfoundland but who was born and raised in New York.  Following the end of a terrible marriage, Quoyle takes his two young daughters, Bunny and Sunshine, back to Newfoundland along with his aunt, who is a professional upholsterer.  The town they end up in Newfoundland seems like a terrible place, which was one of the baffling parts of the book.  Objectively, it's horrible: car crashes and sexual abuse abound, and the food is, by all accounts, horrible as well.  The cliffs are charming despite the bodies found at the bottom of them; the house on the rock is charming despite the menace of the moaning cables and house's own background.  But somehow Proulx makes the place, food and all, seem charming.  But this was a baffling book overall, so that probably suits it just fine.

What's so strange about the book is that it can't seem to decide what it wants to be.  A narrative of a family recovering from loss and finding a new way?  Maybe; that's what it tends towards most of the time.  But there are also paranormal and supernatural elements, and elements of mystery and horror, that are never fully explored and are just kind of floating around the background.  And in the end, there's a startling lack of resolution.  The story just sort of...ends.  Now, there wasn't a real running "plot" to wrap up, but some of the elements are left hanging in a strange way.  For example, what on earth is up with Bunny and her apparent premonitions?  And what happened to her fear of the white dog, that just vanished?  And where did the house go?

Overall, I thought this was an interesting book, with some beautiful writing at times and a wonderful sense of atmosphere.  But I'm not sure what propelled it into actual award territory.  It's very confusing to me.  I've read so many books that are absolutely stunning that can't shoulder their way into the awards, and yet ones that have a few compelling elements but are overall just okay somehow end up being bestsellers and lauded from all angles.  If someone can explain this to me, please do.  In the meantime, I'd be up to reading something else from Proulx, but I don't think she's someone who I will search out as being on an auto-buy list, or whose back catalog I'll ravage.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Friday, December 2, 2016

David and Goliath - Malcolm Gladwell

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling GiantsI've read one Malcolm Gladwell book before, What the Dog Saw, which was a collection of articles Gladwell had written over the years that basically examine how people think about different things.  Each article used a couple of different case studies that played into the same theme.  David and Goliath, which was the book for the Deliberate Reader Book Club for November, is basically an expanded version of that.  This book is about how apparent underdogs actually usually have unapparent strengths, and how the "giants" the underdogs face off against typically have weaknesses that can be used against them.  He starts with examining the actual "David and Goliath" story and putting forth a few historical facts and modern theories that make clear that the story isn't what it initially seems to be--and then he expands upon that theme throughout the rest of the book.  It's divided into three sections, which each examines a different aspect of his argument.  Each chapter builds up to the "argument" for that part, and uses several different examples twisted together to do so.

This is a very readable book, but I think its third part was its weakness.  The first two parts are more obviously about "the art of battling giants" than the third, which is more about how apparent power isn't always everything.  Though that argument makes sense in the whole structure of the book, I found myself unconvinced about how Gladwell went about it.  In the "David and Goliath" story, Goliath's weaknesses--enumerated by Gladwell in the foreword--contributed to his downfall.  In the book, however, it seemed like Gladwell's examples were more just about how the "giants" weren't as tough as they thought, not how the "Davids" of the equation actually went about defeating them.  I think, in a way, this might have been because the argument went on for a bit too long.  The point Gladwell was trying to make here was made perfectly well in the earlier parts of the book, though not as explicitly.  When he tried to make it more explicit using more examples that he hadn't brought in before, I think it got a bit lost in the muddle.

The examples themselves are this book's real strength, though.  Especially the people the examples feature.  Each chapter has two or three "main characters," real people who were involved in the events that Gladwell relates.  While some of the background info, which tends to include technical explanations and some data sets and figures, can get a bit dry, the people in the examples really bring the story home and make their experiences shine, and therefore make the point that much clearer.  Gladwell does an excellent job of interweaving the stories and the background to make what could be some very dry and academic info into something that's a pleasure to read, with examples that stick in the mind and stick the point there with them.  It's nonfiction, but it's not heavy, and that was a very good reason for Sheila to pick it as the book club selection for the month.  I'm looking forward to discussing it, and I would definitely be open to reading another Gladwell book in the future, though I don't think they're something I would seek out unless the topic was one that specifically interested me.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Trespasser - Tana French (Dublin Murder Squad #6)

The Trespasser (Dublin Murder Squad, #6)The Trespasser was my Book of the Month choice for November.  Book of the Month tends to stay away from series selections in general, but there have been a few that appeared in the time I've been subscribed; The Trespasser is one of them.  It's the sixth book in French's Dublin Murder Squad series, though it can definitely be read as a stand-alone book, which I suppose justifies its inclusion.

The plot revolves around the main character Antoinette Conway, who finds herself and her partner (Stephen Moran) investigating the murder of a young woman named Aislinn Murray. At first, Antoinette assumes the case is just a domestic, as that's all she and Steve ever get handed.  But they desperately want the case to be something more, something exciting, and the more they dig the more they're shifted between nothing exciting and something that they are not ready to dig into.

In all, this is not a particularly twisty mystery.  I'm not normally good at solving mysteries, but I got a sense of where this one was going pretty early on.  French included enough waffling that I had doubts at a few points, but I never bought into the big red herring, which I normally fall for hook, line, and sinker.  There was also no "big reveal" that left me shocked and awed.  The solution, when it becomes evident, is pieced together bit by bit rather than just slamming into the reader like in some mysteries.  I also expected Antoinette's father to play a bigger role than he ultimately did.  Given that the book starts off with her history of stories about him, it would have seemed like more would be going on there than there actually was.  I didn't necessarily want a tearful, heartwarming reunion, because that would not have been in Antoinette's character, but having it tied in a bit more completely would have been nice.  I was also hoping that something more exciting would happen with Steve, and that he wouldn't be all he appeared--though I think if I'd read the book before this, maybe my perceptions of this one would have been different on this front.

Here are what I think the high points of the book were.  I did like the use of the slang and language here.  Normally I'm not big on phonetic accents, but I think French did well in using just enough slang and phonetically-spelled words to give the story the flavor of setting, but without making the bok a mental exercise to read or creating difficulty in deciphering what the characters were saying.  And while I ultimately didn't like Antoinette as a character (I felt she really did have a victim complex that primarily served as something for everyone, including her, to whine about) I did like the concept of her.  She's the only woman on the Murder Squad and she's a minority to boot.  And ultimately, though she and Steve pursue some crazy theories, she is ultimately the skeptic on the team.  This is refreshing, as female partners on male-female teams in fiction are typically the ones with the crazy ideas.  Antoinette in this respect was very much like Scully from the X-Files; she wanted to believe that there was something crazy going on with the case, but she was ultimately the grounded one on the team.

Overall, I think this was an enjoyable book, but nothing to rave over.  I'm actually very surprised it made the cut for Goodreads Choice nominations for 2016, because there was nothing in that really wowed me.  Still, I found the noms for those awards very lackluster in general, so I guess it fits in.

3 stars out of 5.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Crowned - Jennifer Chance (Crowns & Gowns #4)

Crowned (Gowns & Crowns, #4)Crowned is the conclusion to the main "arc" of Jennifer Chance's Gowns and Crowns series, though it seems like there is a spin-off fifth book, Cursed, in the works which will move the story away from the fictional Garronia and onto US soil.  In the meantime, Crowned is about the last of four American friends visiting Garronia to not have been set up with a romantic interest: Fran.  In the wake of the rescue of the amnesiac crown prince, Fran is pulled in to act as a sort of companion and to help him remember himself, which the queen thinks will happen because Fran is young and pretty and oh yeah, she's a graduate psychology student with her focus for the past year having been on soldiers with PTSD.  It's this that really made me have serious reservations about this book--though there were other glaring problems, too--because a therapist having a relationship with a patient is a huge, huge no-no.

Now, Chance makes it very explicit throughout the book that Fran is not technically Ari's therapist...and yet she really is acting as one, and I feel like in this case it's the spirit of the thing rather than the letter of it that really made the big difference. 

Chance has a knack for writing both steamy and sweet interactions, but her plots themselves really weakened as this series went on.  For example, in this book, Ari eventually does start to regain his memories--I'm not going to get into that part of it, because I'm not really qualified to--and yet he has no problem that Fran, and all of his other friends and family, decided to keep his identity a secret and let him walk around Garronia like a nobody when pretty much everyone who saw him had at least some idea of who he was.  He has no problems that Fran slept with him under, essentially, false pretexts.  There's absolutely no questioning of any of her actions or why she kept any of the secrets she did; none of them are hugely harmful, and yet the very fact that she felt the need to do so, and had broken laws in the process of doing so for no good reason except that she felt like it, really seemed to have no effect on anyone.  What?  What is in the water in Garronia that the fact that their apparent future queen is a complete fake does not bother them?  Is the royal family planning on perpetuating this lie for all eternity?  Surely someday, someone would recognize Fran and go, "Hey, isn't that...?"

I think this series has made abundantly clear that plot is not Chance's strong point.  The romantic interactions are right on-point, sweet when they need to be and steamy when you want them to be, but the plots that surround and hold up these romances are very weak and can really take away from the romance as a whole.  I am still curious to read Cursed, whenever it comes out, but I had serious, serious reservations about this book, and I don't think it was a great end to the main series.

2.5 stars out of 5.

Friday, November 25, 2016

A Gathering of Shadows - V. E. Schwab (Shades of Magic #2)

A Gathering of Shadows (Shades of Magic, #2)Sigh.  This was an enjoyable book and a disappointment at the same time.  A Gathering of Shadows is the second book in a series, following A Darker Shade of Magic, which was absolutely beautiful.  Unfortunately, it suffers a case of second book syndrome.

When the book starts, Kell is still living in Red London and dealing with the aftermath of the first book.  The people who once thought him blessed now seem to think him cursed, and he's lost the trust and respect of his adoptive parents, the king and queen.  He and his adoptive brother Rhy, their lives now tied together, are also chafing as the bond brings them even closer than they first anticipated, making it seem like neither has a life, feelings, or a mind of his own again.  And to top it off, Kell's power seems to have been permanently altered by the Vitari stone, and he struggles to keep it under control.

On the other hand, we have Lila, who has fulfilled her lifelong dream of becoming a pirate--to a degree.  She's found a captain and a crew and has been living it up on the high seas.  But now her ship is bound back for London (Red London, that is) for the Element Games, which is basically like the Triwizard Tournament of the Red London world, with twelve competitors from three different countries facing off against each other for glory.  Lila's captain intends to compete in the tournament, and Lila, having learned a bit of magic herself, decides that she's going to do so as well.  But there's a slight catch: Lila's not on the rosters.  So she decides to steal someone's identity in order to compete.

And meanwhile, Rhy has made up an identity for Kell so that Kell can compete.

The plot of this book is ultimately nonexistent.  There's a developing of inter-personal dynamics on each side, Kell and Lila's, but very little interaction between them.  This book is 509 pages long and the two protagonists don't meet until page 426, despite having spent most of the first book in each other's company.  They think about each other a bit before that, but honestly they're not mooning over each other the whole time.  Meanwhile, the actual plot, which is actually the plot for the third, upcoming book and not this one, develops over just a handful of very short chapters which follow up with what happens in White London after the downfall of the Dane twins in the first book.  Seeing the emergence of another Antari was interesting.  "Seeing" the tournament was interesting, because we didn't get to see a lot of magic-use other than from Kell and Holland in the first book, but at the same time I feel like if I wanted some really good element-style fight scenes I could have just gone and watched a few episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender or Avatar: The Legend of Korra.  This whole lack of movement is utterly indicative of the dreaded second-book syndrome, and it is rampant in this book.  The tournament gives there an illusion of things happening, but there's really not.

I'm very much looking forward to the third and final book in this series, which comes out in early 2017, because this book's conclusion set A Summoning of Light up very well, but despite the nice writing in this book I found it a disappointment compared to the first.

3 stars out of 5.