Monday, January 16, 2017

Idol - Kristen Callihan (VIP #1)

Idol (VIP, #1)Hello to the first book I completed in 2017!  Idol is one I've had for a while (though apparently not as long as I thought, as it came out in 2016 after both Prince AND Bowie died), and that I picked up while I was binge-reading Mariana Zapata books earlier this year.  It came up on Amazon as one of those "If you liked this, you might like..." books, probably when I was reading Rhythm, Chord & Malykhin, which was Zapata's rock star romance.  I honestly wasn't expecting that much out of Idol, but I wanted a fast romance read for the last day of my winter vacation, so I went for it...

And I really liked it!  The story follows Killian James, one of the founding members of the rock group Kill John, who are basically the hottest thing since sliced bread, and girl-next-door Liberty Bell (yes, really).  The book starts with Libby finding Killian drunk on her lawn, and then finding out that he's to be her new neighbor.  She's initially less than pleased by this, but over the course of a few months the two end up close...and then Libby finds out that he's Killian James, and makes the connection.  And Killian has to go back the band, which is reuniting after a year apart in the wake of another member's attempted suicide, and he ASKS LIBBY TO GO WITH HIM AND PERFORM.  Gasp.  Because clearly Libby is also an amazing singer/songwriter/guitar player.  Obvs.

Okay, okay.  I admit it.  The premise of this book is basically super cliched.  But I did still like it.  Libby and Killian have undeniable chemistry, and there was a nice switch in the story where the woman is the one who wants to keep the relationship secret, rather than the man.  (It's normally the other way around.)  The other band members are fun, as are Scottie and Brenna, their manager and publicist (and Killian's cousin), respectively.  There are some hot scenes in here, and the main conflict was one that I found believable.  Killian and Libby both want each other and they both know they want each other, but they're simultaneously trying to protect each other, which causes some problems.  Libby doesn't want to put pressure on the fragile dynamics of the newly-reunited band (she doesn't want to be a Yoko) and Killian wants Libby to be able to pursue her own career and have her own life, and not just be subsumed by his.  While they could have communicated a bit more (you almost always can in romance novels) I thought this was a really realistic way to go with it.

There are a few issues, though.  Callihan doesn't seem to have a firm grasp of the timeline for her book.  The length of time that Killian and Libby spent together before he returned to New York fluctuates several times, from a few weeks to two months.  There are also a few typographical editing issues; several times I found myself re-reading a line because I was confused, only to realize that it was because there was a word missing, or a word that was where another word should be.  Nothing major, and the spelling and grammar are overall very good, but it was something that tripped me up.  And yes, I did find myself eye-rolling a few times at the sheer ridiculous of it all, but I'm still looking forward to reading the books about the other band members and Scottie.

Overall, though, I really enjoyed this, and I can't wait to read Book 2, Managed.

Friday, January 13, 2017

A Torch Against the Night - Sabaa Tahir (An Ember in the Ashes #2)

A Torch Against the Night (An Ember in the Ashes, #2)This was the last book I finished in 2016!  It came in through the library just in time for me to breeze through it.

The book picks up right where An Ember in the Ashes left off, with Elias and Laia fleeing Serra.  They are on a mission to get to the prison of Kauf and free Laia's brother, who knows the mysteries of Serric steel that could held the repressed races and classes of the Martial Empire throw off their oppressors.  Meanwhile, Helen, as the new Emperor's Blood Shrike, is put in charge of the Black Guard and ordered to hunt Elias down for public execution, or her family will pay the price.

I don't think that this book was quite as breathtaking as its predecessor, though it doesn't quite fall prey to Second Book Syndrome.  A lot of this is because Elias and Laia, despite starting the book together, end up separated for a large portion of it, and so the chemistry between them that is so intriguing is, obviously, not there, because they're not together.

What I really did like here was the way that Keenan's reintroduction was handled.  His plot is developed and his role in the Elias-Laia-Keenan love triangle is made so that it's not just a love triangle for a love triangle's sake; there's actually a compelling plot point behind it, which I absolutely adore.  It's so refreshing to see a love triangle that exists for a reason other than "Oh no I don't know which drooling boy to chooooooose!!!!"  This was something that really bothered me for a lot of the book, but how it was tied up really made up for it and showed that Tahir has a firm grasp of what's going on with that particular story thread.  I also liked Helen's plot.  While I hated that her chapters tore me away from Elias and Laia, the way she struggles with her choices and lack thereof is very real, and I appreciate that.  And the way the Soul Catcher plotline is integrated--at first, I had no idea where it was going and couldn't see the point, and was in agony over wanting Tahir to just move on.  But in the end, I did like where it went, though I'm unsure of how it will make the third book in the series really possible.

Still, the strange time jumps continued in this book.  We'd have a few chapters with Laia and Elias, and then there would be a "Two Weeks Earlier" sort of chapter with Helene.  The notations of time changes are helpful, but they still disrupt the flow of the story overall.  I also would have liked to see more of Helene's family.  Ultimately, despite the peril they face, it's a bit hard to feel much for them because we just don't know that much about them.  Even Livvy, her nicer sister, isn't truly seen enough to be a catalyst in our emotions, though she clearly is a focal point for Helen's own feelings.  Finally, while I liked the inclusion of the Soul Catcher's story line because I love that sort of trope (escorts to the other side FTW, people literally tied to their jobs FTW, disgraced spirits trying to make amends FTW) it did feel sort of senseless for much of the book.  The obvious path with Elias' injury was not taken, and while that's nice in one way, it also would have been nice for it to take that route--it would have been neat and tidy and tied Helene even more closely to Elias' cause while forcing her to still be Blood Shrike.  I liked it but I still wonder what on earth Tahir is planning on doing with it, and I'm not totally convinced it will work for future books.

So, yes, I liked it!  But some of the issues from the first book persisted here, some of the magical chemistry between Laia and Elias was lost due to their separation, and while I liked the things Tahir introduced as their own elements, I'm not convinced they fit properly into the story as a whole.  I guess we'll have to see when the other books eventually come out.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Windup Girl - Paolo Bacigalupi

The Windup GirlThis is the second Bacigalupi book I've read, the first being The Water Knife.  He seems to delight in writing stories that detail all of the ways that humanity is fucking itself over and what might happen after that.  TWK focused on the water crisis in the American west.  The Windup Girl is about genetically modified organisms.

As with TWK, TWG has several main characters.  Anderson Lake is living in Thailand and working undercover for an American food company called AgriGren.  He's investigating varieties of foods that have started popping up in Thailand (which has restrictions against dealing with the big food companies) because something is not quite right about them, and he suspects a Western geneticist (or generipper) of working with Thailand's seed bank on bringing the foods back into existence.  (Because, of course, no one in Thailand could do this themselves.)  As part of his cover, he runs a factory that makes kink springs--this is a spring-powered world, as apparently most gasoline has been used up, and there are strict carbon emission restrictions in place.

Our other big characters are Emiko, the titular windup girl.  Windups are genetically engineered people created by the Japanese to fulfill different tasks.  Emiko was built as a secretary/assistant/all around pretty girl, and lived a life of luxury until her owner abandoned her in Thailand instead of paying to bring her back to Japan after a business trip.  Now she works at a strip joint/brothel where she is raped onstage nightly by one of her fellow performers.  She's also reviled by the people of Thailand in general because they believe windups have no souls.  Tan Hock Seng is Anderson Lake's factory manager who's using his position to advance himself, and Jaidee, the head of a band of "white shirts" who work as enforcers for the Environment Ministry and are the arch enemies of the Trade Ministry.

This did not appeal to me as much as The Water Knife did.  Something about the passion of the characters that moved TWK was not really present in The Windup Girl.  Emiko yearns to be free, but that's about as passionate it gets.  Even Jaidee, with his hatred for the Trade Ministry and his love for the people of Thailand, doesn't seem to embody the same passions that the characters in TWK did.  The world here is fascinating; the genetically-modified organisms that populate it, from the plants to the megadonts (like elephants, but not) to the windups (who also come in many-armed varieties, for factory for field work, and presumably other types, too) and more.  But what initially seems like a strong central plot revolving around Anderson's search for the new food and the generipper behind it and Emiko's quest for freedom, seems to quickly get derailed into a plot that more revolves around the de-evolution of relations between the different Ministries into a scramble that will determine the country's future.  While this makes sense for the character of Jaidee, it doesn't seem to really "fit" the other characters, who sort of all end up along for the ride.  And while Emiko ultimately is a catalyst, and I thought that part worked well, I feel like this just missed the boat for me overall.  It did win a Hugo and a Nebula, though, so clearly not everyone feels the same way.  The ending is powerful and open enough that it lets the reader imagine the different ways the story might go from there, but again...the body of the book just didn't capture me.

3 stars out of 5 for wonderful world building and a good catalyst and ending, but an unconvincing body.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Reader - Traci Chee (Sea of Ink and Gold #1)

The Reader (Sea of Ink and Gold, #1)What an interesting start to a new YA fantasy series.  The Reader follows Sefia, a teenager who's been on the run for most of her life with her aunt, Nan, following the murder of her father.  In her possession, she has an object she's never encountered before, and hardly dared to look at--but when Nan is captured by the same people who killed Sefia's father, she looks into the object further and finds one thing that clearly defines the rest of her journey: This is a book.

See, Sefia lives in a world where things are not written down.  Stories are passed down in an oral tradition, and if someone stops telling your story, you've essentially vanished from the world, forever.  It's also a world that consist of islands and ocean, no large continents, which is a setting that I always like to see.  But as Sefia begins to examine the book and slowly unlock its secrets, she also begins to unlock an interesting ability, one that allows her to read not only words on paper, but the very world and people around her: their pasts and their futures.  And in the process she discovers Archer, a mute young man a year or two older than she who has been captured and forced to fight in the ring, and who Sefia frees and then can't get rid of as she continues to search for Nan and revenge for her father.

Meanwhile, there are two other stories going on: the story of Captain Reed and the Current of Faith, a privateer ship whose captain has led his crew to the edge of the world and beyond.  His story unfolds simultaneously as part of the main narrative and as part of the book that Sefia reads.  And then there's Lon, a young man who's taken to a library and inducted into its secrets, leading to an interesting duality in the story, because Lon is one of the people who works to keep books and the written word secret from the rest of the world, whereas Sefia is clearly out in the world.  This would have been a very interesting duality to keep going through the rest of the series, but unfortunately it falls apart by the end of the book; I wish it had continued, because having real protagonists on both sides of the issue could have been a very compelling storyline and one very unusual in young adult fiction.

Sefia and Archer are both compelling characters for their backgrounds, and they reminded me a lot of Laia and Elias in Sabaa Tahir's An Ember in the Ashes, though the stories themselves are certainly different enough to merit reading (though there are some commonalities between them, as in many YA books these days).  I do wish that Archer had remained a mute, however--that is such an unusual character trait that having it magically fixed at the end of the book was somewhat disappointing.  I think that Chee did a very good job of having him being an interesting, compelling, and involved character without him ever actually speaking that it would have been nice to have it continued.  I was actually hoping his loss of voice had something to do with his vocal cords being injured by the scarring around his neck rather than psychological trauma.

Anyway, the real strength of the story here is the intertwining of the stories.  The layering of the stories from the book with what is actually happening in the world isn't an entirely new concept, but it's very well done and the layers work here in a way that enhances the whole rather than re-treading ground or being used as an unnecessary exposition device.  Reed and his crew were awesome and I hope they continue to be prominent in future books.  I think they were arguably more interesting than Sefia herself, and I would very happily read books just about them, though I didn't dislike Sefia.

Overall, this was a great YA story in an interesting world, but I think several of its best elements fell off at the end.  I hope that Chee can manage to bring back what made it compelling in future books, though it might be hard because so many of the things that did it can't really be brought back without the story ceasing to make sense.

4 stars out of 5.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Heartless - Marissa Meyer

Wow, guys.  Wow.  What a book!  I knew I liked Marissa Meyer, but this was like a sucker punch to the gut, especially following up on The Lunar Chronicles.  But let me back up...

Following Meyer's last novel, Winter, I was a bit disappointed with how the series had ended.  And when I saw that she'd put out Heartless, about the Queen of Hearts from Lewis Caroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, I eyed it a bit skeptically.  I haven't been very impressed with any of the recent takes on Alice, and while I know that Meyer can weave a tantalizing tale, I wasn't entirely convinced this was the best route for her to take.  Still, I picked it up to read while on winter vacation.

I started it, and I was still skeptical.  And I kept reading, and I was still skeptical.  In Heartless, Meyer looks into the backstory of the Queen of Hearts, and how she came to hate white roses, have a deep desire to chop of people's heads, etc.  But for much of the book, this seems like a simpering teen romance, albeit set in a strange place.  The protagonist is Catherine, the daughter of the Marquess of Turtle Cove, who loves to bake and dreams of opening her own bakery with her maid, Mary Ann.  For some reason these two are also the only people to have "normal" names in all of Wonderland.  But Catherine's parents have other plans for her, primarily having her marry the King of Hearts, something Catherine decidedly does not want.  But when she attends a ball that's supposed to end in a proposal, she ends up running off and encountering the king's new fool, named Jest.  And of course they're immediately attracted to each other.  But Cath is supposed to marry the king and Jest is apparently on a secret mission from another country in the land of Chess, so there are some obstacles to their romance.

Things have a bigger hiccup at the midway point, and then calm down until the end when everything goes to hell in a handbasket.  Having read Meyer's Lunar Chronicles books, I expected this to happen, but to find that there would be another book and it would all be neatly wrapped up, happy ending with a bow on it, voila!  BUT.  NO.  This is not a series book.  According to her website, this is a STAND ALONE NOVEL.  Which means that ending is the end.  Period.  Full stop.  And wow, what a punch to the gut it is.  It's a perfect ending for this, I think--it is, ultimately, a villain origin story, after all.  But it's not a happy one, and I think that could have a lot of people throwing the book across the room in frustration.

But the ending is really what this book has to offer.  Everything comes together wonderfully, but there are no big surprises, and while the writing is solid, it's not tantalizing like some of Meyer's other books are.  The romance didn't have me longing to read more, and I actually didn't really care about Jest that much.  I also found Cath's decisions in the end, that lead to the terminal events, rather questionable.  She seemed to have a strange sense of ethics, even when faced with one of those dilemmas about "Do you let the train kill one person on the tracks, or five?"  I didn't really care for her as a character, either.  The dazzling ending of this one had me pushing all of that aside, forgetting it easily...but looking back, I'm not sure I can quite let it slide.  It was a gut-wrenching conclusion, one that fit perfectly, but honestly I don't think this book was as strong as Meyer's others, though I wouldn't mind seeing her write more in this version of Wonderland, even if they're not direct sequels.

3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

And a Bottle of Rum - Wayne Curtis

And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten CocktailsLet me put this out there to begin with: I am not a big drinker.  I can nurse a cocktail all night long, and beer and wine?  No, thank you.  That said, I don't mind reading about drinking.  And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails seemed like an interesting title, so I tossed it into my Amazon cart a while back when I needed something to push me over the limit for my add on items to ship.  It's a food history, and I love those, and also seemed like a fun spin on American (and Caribbean) history, which is a field I'm normally not too fond of because I find it boring compared to history in the rest of the world.

Curtis' book does focus exclusively on rum, though a few other types of alcohol are mentioned in passing.  The portions of the book are all named after a cocktail, though the section sometimes only bears a loose connection to the cocktail it's named for and "themed" to.  And this isn't a very comprehensive history, to be sure.  It focuses mostly on the United States, with maybe two chapters looking more at the Caribbean.  And because this book is rum-focused, it doesn't really touch on "New World" history until rum production began, which is significantly after the New World was "discovered" by Europeans, and obviously far, far after the history of people living in the Americas began.  (Remember, there were people in all of these places before the Europeans sailed onto the scene and began killing and enslaving people.)

Curtis keeps his history brief and high-level, glossing over a lot of the messier aspects of history such as slavery (vital to rum production in the Caribbean because of the labor commitments required to grow and process sugarcane, the byproduct of which is molasses and is what rum is based on), war, and even rum production itself.  For example, he talks about producers throwing in things like dung or the contents of a chamber pot to assist with fermentation, but doesn't really go into what this would do or the potential health consequences it might have.  He breezes over a lot of things, focusing on the romantic and patriotic instead of dirtier side of history that is always there, only really lingering on how awful the original rum must have tasted.

This book is basically the cocktail of the history genre: light and fun without a lot of depth.  True, some of this might be attributable to the checkered history that alcohol in general and rum in particular has; with periods of dry states and countries, rum running, and smuggling rampant in the various periods Curtis touches on, there's a lot of documentation on rum that just doesn't exist to be drawn on.  It's a historian's nightmare, and I think probably is a big reason why this is as surface-level as it is.  Still, it did make me want a tiki drink!

3.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Born a Crime - Trevor Noah

Born a CrimeA few weeks ago, my boyfriend was going out for drinks with a friend at a local bookstore and cafe.  I was invited, but am a total homebody and told him have fun, but bring me a book.  He brought back Born a Crime and Neil Gaiman's new nonficton, The View from the Cheap Seats.  Born a Crime was shorter, so I started that first.

Born a Crime is exclusively about Noah's life before he left South Africa, and it's largely about his life before he got into comedy--comedy is only mentioned a handful of times, at best.  The majority of the book takes place during his childhood and teens, when he lived with his mother and, later, his stepfather and younger brother.  During his early childhood, apartheid was still in effect in South Africa, and later on its effects were still being felt even after it was officially abolished.  As a mixed-race child (black South African mother, white Swedish/German father) Noah was literally born a crime, and his anecdotes are about race, discrimination, and the fluidity of identity during apartheid and after.  As a mostly basic white girl, these things were fascinating to read about, because it's a culture I will never be a part of, but something I dearly want to understand in order to be a more educated, worldly, and tolerant individual.

Floating around in the background of many of the anecdotes is Noah's home life, which practically vanishes from the page after his mother marries his stepfather.  This lends a very strange dynamic to the book, because you can tell there's something to do with that, and abuse, floating around in the background, but it seems like Noah's avoiding it.  Which is totally his right, if wants to, but it's a strange feel.  Well, he's not avoiding it.  He comes out with it all in the last chapter of the book, and I can see why.  While much of the book has touching moments, that final chapter is definitely the one with the strongest emotional impact.  It adds so much context that was missing in the rest of the book and makes a lot of things much clearer in hindsight.

Noah has an extremely readable style.  While he's a comedian, this book is frequently poignant rather than laugh-out-loud funny, though a few of his signature jokes are in there--like how, during apartheid, he couldn't walk with his mother when police were around because mixed-race relationships were illegal, and when cops would appear she would drop him like a bag of weed so that they wouldn't be harassed.  Each chapter is prefaced by a shorter section that says something about apartheid and how it affected and still affects the people in South Africa.  He shows both how far South Africa has come, and how far it still has to go, in a variety of ways--from racial equality (not that the United States is exactly a beacon of excellence in this area) to things such as basic sanitation.  But at the same time, he includes touching stories of his relationship with his mother (this book was infinitely better than Maya Angelou's Mom & Me & Mom in that regard) and of finding himself.  It's a great book, an easy read but one that packs a punch at the same time in a lot of areas, and I highly recommend it.

5 stars out of 5.