Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Bronze Horseman - Paullina Simons (The Bronze Simons #1)

The Bronze Horseman (The Bronze Horseman, #1)The Bronze Horseman was a group read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers group in September, but I just got around to it this month.  I'm also slotting it in for the "military romance" category in the group's 2017 reading challenge.  Let me tell you, this book is a whopper of a romance--over 800 pages, and it looks like the two sequels are even longer!

What I have to give Simons credit for in this is her sense of time and place.  Set during the time leading up to and during the siege of Leningrad in World War II, the main characters are swept up in all of the hardship that the siege entails.  Starvation, freezing, bombings, deaths en masse--they suffer through it all.

But then, they're also infuriating people.  So not so much credit there.

The main characters are Tatiana Metanova and Alexander Belov.  They spy each other across the street one day during the white nights in a Leningrad summer, just as the war really moves into Russia, and fall in love immediately.  Problem: Alexander is dating Tatiana's older sister, Dasha.  This is the conflict that will fuel the first half of the book, as Tatiana is so scared to lose her sister's love and affection that she insists that Alexander keep dating her despite all of the trouble it causes everyone involved.  Tatiana's love for Dasha also apparently doesn't seem to go both ways, as Dasha uses Tatiana mercilessly and is fine with writing her off at the first available opportunity.  Of course, there's only one way a conflict like this can end, and the book then moves onto what's an incredibly slow start to a second half, where Tatiana and Alexander are reunited and proceed to have sex for about a hundred straight pages before diving back into the war and the siege.

The story is definitely much weaker in the time that Simons moved it away from Leningrad.  The siege provided such structure to the story, a time and place that people might not act as they otherwise would.  In Leningrad, Alexander's controlling behavior comes across as protective, especially because Tatiana is not only naive but possesses feathers for brains for much of the book--yes, she's seventeen, but in a time when "adolescence" wasn't really a thing (I mean, this is Soviet Russia, for crying out loud) she doesn't really have an excuse to continue being as dumb as she is for as long as she is, and miraculously still alive.  In other circumstances, though, Alexander's behavior strikes me as downright abusive, and doesn't bode well for the future.  He's also ruthless with using Tatiana for his own gains, especially because he knows what's likely to happen to her down the road because of his own background.  And then there's Alexander's "best friend" Dimitri, who is vile in his own special way.  Tatiana doesn't mean to be vile--in fact, I firmly believe she has a good heart, and that's the only thing that saves her character from being absolutely death-worthy--but ultimately, this is a book about terrible people doing terrible things to each other, and basically getting away with it because of the war pressing in on them from literally all sides.

There are two more books to this series, and geeze, I have no idea how much more wringing Simons can put these people through, especially given how the book ended.  It's like a train wreck--absolutely terrible, not in writing but in happenings, and yet it's so impossible to look away.  I do intend to continue reading this series, but oh man, I just don't know where it's gonna go.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Emma In the Night - Wendy Walker

Emma in the NightEmma In the Night was another Book of the Month selection this month, and looking at it, I was definitely intrigued.  The story is about Cassandra, who vanished with her older sister, Emma, three years ago, and has just reappeared--but without Emma.  As an FBI forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Abby Winter, becomes involved, it becomes increasingly apparent that something is deeply wrong in Cass' family.  Cass is clearly orchestrating something, but what?  And where is Emma?

I pegged a lot of the general twists in this book pretty early on.  It's relatively easy to figure out where the holes in Cass' story are, if you're paying even a semblance of attention.  She pretty much admits in the first chapter that she is an unreliable narrator, telling a story that she has rehearsed, and therefore you can't believe anything she says--so when the "big reveals" come along later in the story, they're not really as shocking, because we as readers know that something was off the entire time.  The way that Cass talks about certain things also lays out a lot of what's happened far before she comes out and says what she wants to say outright; the foreshadowing is pretty clumsy in that regard.

But this was still an interesting story; even though I figured out most of what had happened, I still wanted to know why, and that's something that's not as clear throughout most of the book.  It was definitely what kept me reading.  I also wanted to read more from Dr. Winter, because I love forensic psychology-type stuff.  However, Dr. Winter ultimately disappointed me; the daughter of a narcissist, she specializes in narcissistic personality disorder and quickly pegs Cass' mother as someone else with the disorder, leading her to want more deeply into the family to figure out what happened and why it did.  Seeing all of this unravel from Cass' perspective is interesting; from Winter's, less so.  Dr. Winter also puts forth that people are essentially formed by the time that they're three, and she has research into whether or not daughters of mothers with narcissistic personality disorder can break free of the cycle.  Ultimately, she concludes that Cass has--but it's pretty clear that Cass hasn't.  She might not be a narcissist, but there are still things deeply wrong with Cassandra Tanner.  She ruthlessly manipulated everyone around her, ruined the lives of several people to various degrees, led the FBI on what was, essentially, a wild goose chase, and contributed strongly to the tearing apart of her family--all because she wanted to feel powerful.  That doesn't really seem like someone who's mentally healthy to me.  She also blatantly manipulates a psychological evaluation, which should be a red flag in and of itself, and is something that Dr. Winter notices--but dismisses.

So, while the story itself was interesting here, I felt like Walker kind of fell down on the psychological aspects of it.  There is no happy ending here, only something looming in the distance as I worry about what Cass will do next, because she is clearly not as well as we are supposed to believe.  An interesting unraveling, but one that, in the end, wasn't done as well as it was made out to be.

3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris - Jenny Colgan

The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in ParisWhat a quaint book.  With a simple plot and colorful characters, it was a nice and light weekend read.  The story is about Anna, a chocolate taster at a factory in England, who loses two of her toes when a chocolate vat falls on top of her.  While she's recovering, she shares a hospital room with Claire, her former French teacher who once again endeavors to teach her the language.  Claire hooks Anna up with a past acquaintance--or more--of hers who owns a chocolate shop in Paris, and off Anna goes (once she recovers) on a new adventure.

Anna's adventure in Paris working in the chocolate shop of Thierry Girard, which is nothing like the industrial chocolate operation she interacted with in England, is charming.  She repeatedly crosses paths with Thierry's estranged son, Laurent, who is also in the chocolate business.  She deals with her over-the-top coworkers and Thierry's nasty wife.  And interspersed with this story is Claire's story, of going to France for a summer as an au pair when she was a teenager to have some freedom from her overbearing father and meeting Thierry herself.  Claire's story also has a contemporary component, as she fights cancer and ponders returning to Paris one last time before she dies.

The story was quaint and will, of course, make you want to eat chocolates.  However, it is very surface-level.  The cover sports a Sophie Kinsella quote, and this is definitely similar to Kinsella books.  Anna has a newly-deformed foot but, despite admitting that she knows nothing about actually making chocolate--machines did all of that at her previous workplace--she comes to the rescue of the chocolate shop and, while she's not a master, surpasses her two more experienced coworkers very quickly.  She has a romance with Laurent that doesn't seem like it is insta-love, but then at the end it apparently was, even though it wasn't?  Either way, it's still only based on a handful of encounters, only one of which has any real emotion tied to it.  Claire and Thierry seem to have a sizzling romance, but nothing ultimately comes of it and, in the end, it's a bit disappointing.  And of course, Claire's terminal illness means that this book isn't quite as fluffy as one would think from the cover of the book.

There are a handful of recipes included in the back of the book, mostly for different kinds of chocolate cake; I didn't try any of them, but they seemed fine at a quick glance.

Overall, Paris is lovely, the story is quaint, but it's very surface-level and lacks any sort of deep emotion or resonance.  I liked it, but it was nothing extraordinary and won't have me rushing out to buy Colgan's other books.

3 stars out of 5.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Trickster's Queen - Tamora Pierce (Daughter of the Lioness #2)

Trickster's Queen (Daughter of the Lioness, #2)I wasn't actually planning on reading Trickster's Queen so soon after reading Trickster's Choice, but after a few books that were just "meh," I found myself in a bit of a reading slump.  And when I'm in a reading slump, I like to go back to books that I know I enjoy to get me out of it.

What struck me immediately upon re-reading Trickster's Queen is its great disconnect from the first book.  It picks up several months and much character development after Choice, which Pierce tries to bridge with a couple pages of prologue that is essentially all info-dump about what the characters have been doing in the interim.  However, the effect of this is that it feels like this is the third book in a trilogy in which the second book is missing.  Most of the development of Aly's relationship with Nawat, which was so sweet and charming in the first book, is just skipped over; so is Aly's building of her position as spymaster for the growing rebellion.

On the whole, however, this book has less infodumping than the first one.  The prologue is the vast majority of it, and the narrative itself is less interrupted with intermittent infodumps than Choice was.  Additionally, I think this one does a better job of building the environment, culture, and overall feel of the Copper Isles.  Aly also really has room to come into her own and show off her skills in this book, rather than scampering to use them while also hiding them as she had to in the first book.  Tensions come to a head regarding Sarai, and the twist that's hinted at all along finally actually happens.  Dove continues to be an excellent character, far wiser than her years, and the integration of many of the side characters is done very well.  The other minor flaw that comes to mind is that the end does feel a bit rushed; Pierce lists off a list of casualties, one of which was a major-minor character (if that makes sense) in the first book and then was just brushed aside in the second and then written off as a sacrifice of the rebellion.  With all of the build-up to the rebellion, it just seems to be over in remarkably few pages, and then the epilogue just feels a bit off as well, though I can't quite put my finger on why.

Overall, this is a good book; I definitely enjoyed re-reading it.  However, I don't think that it's as good as the first book in the duology.  It feels disconnected from the first part of the story, and the ending also feels rushed and off-kilter with the rest of the book.  The body has a good feel and good characters and a good plot, but without a strong beginning or end, I don't think it can be stronger than the first book.

4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

V for Vendetta - Alan Moore

V for VendettaI slotted in V for Vendetta as my "book set around a holiday other than Christmas" for the 2017 Popsugar Reading Challenge, with the holiday here being Guy Fawkes Day aka Bonfire Night aka the 5th of November.  Most of the book does not take place on November 5th; however, the pivotal parts of the story do, and the characters' actions draw their influence and strength from that day.

I'm not a big graphic novel person, finding that they lack some of the depth and substance of prose books; a picture is not, necessarily, worth a thousand words.  And, following in this vein, I was not a huge fan of V.  Not necessarily because it was a graphic novel, though I wasn't terribly impressed by its art or flow in that respect, but because V is a pivotal character who just doesn't make sense.

The story is about Britain, following a war, which has become a totalitarian state under the control of a far-right party whose policies have included killing homosexuals, non-whites, and other groups that don't match their perfect idea.  There's an early panel which contains the words "Make Britain Great Again."  Hm...  In this world, Evey is a teenage girl who, desperately in need of money, tries to turn to prostitution, only to find herself caught by a sting targeted at sex workers.  On the verge of being raped and killed, she's rescued by the mysterious, masked, preternaturally strong and fast caped crusader, V, who takes her back to his home in "the Shadow Gallery" and begins to tell her of his plans to free Britain, and eventually to integrate her into them.

But V as a character never made sense to me.  He is an anarchist, wanting people to be able to live in "the land of do-as-you-please," but with an order instilled by the masses.  He evidently became this person after being the subject of a medical experiment in a "resettlement," aka concentration, camp, where he received an injection that damaged his mind.  This part was one that made me go, "What?"  Because the injection apparently killed everyone else who received it in horrible ways, and yet it just makes V into an anarchist with superhuman strength and computer skills...?  What?  And apparently a criminal mastermind to boot.  I think Moore was going for some sort of superhero origin story here (and V's mysterious identity contributes to this, too, and that worked) but I'm not convinced he truly pulled it off.  He's also a brutal, unnecessarily cruel character; what he did to Evey is absolutely unforgivable, unconscionable, and it was certainly not the only way to persuade Evey to his way of thinking.  She was halfway there already.  Yes, V is supposed to be an anti-hero instead of your typical mainstream hero...but I was never convinced of his heroism in any regard.

As for the art, I found it very bland, very washed out--which I at first thought might be an artistic choice, maybe saving splashes of color for particular points that would need emphasizing, but not--and with some of the characters being very hard to distinguish from each other.  There's also a shift in it at one point, probably because the original serialization of V was paused, and then resumed for the compilation later, but it means that some of the characters look quite different in later parts of the book than they did in the earlier parts, despite only about a year passing in the course of the book.

The end of the story is striking, and I commend Moore for going the way he did with it--however, Evey is not V, and I remain skeptical that she could pull off many of the things that V wanted her to, considering she didn't have any of the "abilities" that his background apparently gave him.  The strength of this book is clearly in its nature as a cautionary tale, and that is more important now than ever; its clear demonstration of the "slippery slope" is particularly noteworthy.  But I'm not sure that its message and ending can carry a story that was, ultimately, only so-so.  Overall, an okay read, but nothing I would go back to in the future.

2 stars out of 5.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Smoke and Mirrors - Neil Gaiman

Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and IllusionsIt takes a certain knack to write short stories, an entirely different knack from writing long-form fiction, and it's one that I think Gaiman possesses.  I've read some of his short stories before, in Trigger Warning, and was glad to read some more.  As with his other story collections, these are fantasy stories.  Gaiman breaks down why he wrote each of them in the foreword of the book, and also includes a little bonus story that you'd  miss if you just skipped straight to the first listed story.  But as with any collection, not everything here can be a total hit.

I don't plan on breaking down every bit of this book; that would take forever.  But here were the high points: "Troll Bridge," about a young man who repeatedly encounters a troll who wants to eat his life; "The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories," bits of which are apparently true (which bits?) and takes place on a surreal trip to Los Angeles; "Shoggoth's Old Peculiar," which is Lovecraft-inspired; "Bay Wolf," which is Beowulf told as if it's an episode of Baywatch; and "Snow, Glass, Apples," which is a creepy retelling of Snow White.  For low points, I would say that the poetry isn't my favorite; "Vampire Sestina" is nice but the rest I could pretty much take or leave.

The stories here are pretty diverse in scope and include some racier things than I've seen in Gaiman's long-form work.  But while most of them were enjoyable, they weren't dazzling, and I can't see myself reaching for this again and again like I can with his novels.  Neverwhere, American Gods, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane in particular are so wonderful and magical, and I just didn't feel like any of the things in this could quite build up to the precedents that those had set for me.  But "Snow, Glass, Apples" is very good, and really reinforces that I love Gaiman's fairy tale-type stories.  He's written another one since this, which I actually read first, called "The Sleeper and the Spindle," which is also wonderful, and of course Stardust is delightful as well and The Ocean at the End of the Lane has a whimsy to it that's similar.

Overall, a nice collection but not something I can see myself reading again.  But it was nice to pick up and put down; I read some big chunks of it at once, but did find this was a better book to pick at rather than to just read.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Fall Guy - James Lasdun

The Fall GuyHmm.... An interesting book, though I'm not sure it was necessarily a good one.  The plot is pretty simple: main character Matthew goes on vacation with his wealthy cousin Charlie and Charlie's wife, Chloe, serving as designated chef as a way of justifying his presence in their guest house.  But as the summer goes on, Matthew finds out something that begins to put increasing pressure on his relationships with both Charlie and Chloe, and which makes them uneasy with him in return.  Another person entering the picture leads to catastrophe.

This is a book that's slow to unfold.  Matthew is not a sympathetic character to begin with, and gets progressively less sympathetic as the book goes on.  Really, the characters in general are meant to be unlikable, but Matthew seemed particularly egregious.  Why?  Because he was dumb, that's why.  He wasn't nasty to hiding things or devious, he was just dumb.  He had all of these very naive visions about the world, despite having apparently lived through a lot, and it made a lot of his actions unbelievable.  It's obvious to us, as the readers, that his relationship with Charlie and Chloe really isn't on good ground to begin with, but Matthew keeps bopping along without picking up on any of the blatantly obvious social clues that float around him, letting him know that he is not, in fact, welcome with them.  Charlie is possibly equally unlikable, but that's just because he's a dick.  (And are seriously supposed to believe Charlie wasn't up to something all summer, too?)  Chloe I actually had more sympathy for, despite her bad behavior.  She seemed more "real" than the other ones and at least some of her actions made sense.

The catastrophic event that occurs near the middle of the book and occupies Matthew for its duration seemed to come out of nowhere, and didn't really fit in with the tone of the rest of the book.  Lasdun makes a genre jump here, and I'm not convinced that it really worked.  Also, there's not really much possibility that this would have gone on for as long as it did, because as I noted above, Matthew just isn't that sharp.  I am glad he got what was coming to him in the end, though it might have been more suitable if the car had run him over instead of having police in it.  Sigh.  Maybe if the book had been told from all three character perspectives and laid more of a chance for someone--or everyone--to be an unreliable narrator, this whole book would have been better, but I don't know.

Overall, a quick read, and not a bad one, but definitely not one that was as good as I thought it would be, and one I don't think I'll return to in the future.

2 stars out of 5.