Friday, March 16, 2018

Always the Bridesmaid - Lindsey Kelk

Always the BridesmaidThis is a book that was on my radar for a while because I kept seeing it on the DC library's Overdrive page.  There was always a waitlist and it wasn't something I wanted to use a hold on, so I just waited until it eventually came up as available.  It looked like it was going to be a romance, something along the lines of 27 Dresses--so, light and fluffy but still enjoyable for what it is.

Upon reading, it's actually chick lit.

Oh, chick lit.  It seems like a derogatory title for a category of books, but ultimately, it fits them.  They're basically entirely fluff.  There might be romance and friendships, but none of the emotional connections ever seem to ring true.  It's mostly women who are at a low point in their careers bumbling around and wondering why everyone is doing so much better than they are, wondering why they can't get a man, and so on and so forth.  Don't get me wrong; this can be fun.  They're typically reads that only take a few hours and watching some other person bumble through life can honestly make you feel a little better about yourself.  They are good reads for the pool or the beach with some yummy snacks.  For some reason, the ones that I've encountered also seem to predominantly take place in Britain, which means that there's British slang and they spend a lot of time drinking tea and everyone just seems charming.

Unfortunately, this one really didn't hit the spot.  Mainly because Maddie is an idiot.  (This is, unfortunately, another feature of chick lit books, but it seemed particularly egregious here.)  She meets a guy at a wedding she's working, takes him home for a one-night stand, and then continues to pursue him even when it is gratingly, blindingly clear that he is only interested in her for sex and she is not his girlfriend, as she has deluded herself into believing.  Also, girl appears to be wearing mismatched shoes on the cover, so perhaps her mind-boggling obviousness shouldn't come as that much of a surprise.  She lets literally every single person in her life walk all over her, so she's without much of a spine as well.  Her friends are not friends at all, but rather people who take advantage of her again and again--though she takes advantage of them as well, so maybe all's fair play on that matter.  Either way, it seems like it's not really a group of "friends."  Her family is universally horrible as well.

There's a small actual romance element in this book (other than the hooking up) but it didn't ring true in the slightest.  Maddie talks to him for about fifteen minutes total on a couple of separate occasions and suddenly he's willing to drive miles and miles to pick her up, declares he loves her, etc.  This does not say "romance" so much as it says "unhealthy fixation."

Overall, this was a book of self-centered and selfish people who I wanted to push in front of a double-decker bus for much of the book.  Maddie has a few cute moments, there are a few moments of connection, but they couldn't redeem the slap-worthy behavior taking up most of the pages.

2 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes AirThis is a book that I had seen many, many times in various contexts, but avoided like the plague.  Why?  Because it sounded depressing, that's why.  The author, Paul Kalanithi, was finishing up his time as a chief resident in neurosurgery when he was diagnosed with extensive lung cancer, and then eventually brain cancer.  Having struggled with life and medicine and the meaning of it all throughout his life and career, Kalanithi set out to make sense of his own life--and death--and purpose before the end came.  You know all of this from the flap of the book, or the foreword at the very least.  It sounded like a serious downer and possibly preachy as well, which was not a conversation I wanted to delve into.  However, when I needed a book on death or grief for my reading challenge, it seemed like an obvious choice.

I was very much surprised by this book.  It's not religious at all, which I appreciated--a lot of people who aren't even really religious turn to it in the end--though it is deeply introspective.  In his career as a neurosurgeon, Kalanithi worked with the brain which, he points out, ultimately contains the self.  Part of this book looks at what makes life living--is it worth living if you have an injury or disease that takes away your language and ability to communicate?  If it leaves you in a coma or a vegetative state?  And in the process of coming to terms with his own death, he sees the people around him go through their own stages of grief--not only for him, but for things that they thought might be, especially when hope briefly seemed to be so close.

One thing that's worthy of noting is that the writing here is absolutely beautiful.  Kalanithi certainly had a way with words, and his aspirations to spend the second half of his career--the half he never got to experience--as an author were certainly well-merited.  He faces down some of the things that were piling up, such as a dissolving marriage that even most of his family wasn't aware of, the deep pain he was in all the time, and the terror he faced at leaving his life not fully lived, and turns it all into poetry.  When I read the foreword and saw how Verghese lauded Kalanithi's writing, I had to roll my eyes.  Surely the book couldn't actually be that good.  And honestly, depressing as it sounds, it really sounded kind of gimmicky as well.  But no, Verghese was right--the writing really is that good.

This is one of those books that it feels weird to say you enjoyed, because hey, does the average person really enjoy reading about a real person dying tragically?  No, not really.  But it was a wonderful book.  Was it ground breaking in anything it revealed?  No, not really.  But just as Tuesdays with Morrie or The Last Lecture were sad books but lovely at the same time, so was this.  It's not a book that's going to reveal the secrets of the universe.  But it's a personal, insightful journey, and hey, you can learn some about neurosurgery to boot.

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, March 12, 2018

#Starstruck - Sariah Wilson (#Lovestruck #1)

#Starstruck (#Lovestruck, #1)I recently had a bunch of books become available from holds at the library, one of them being the somewhat heavy (but also, in retrospect, somewhat uplifting) When Breath Becomes Air, my reading challenge book for the "book about death or grief" category.  Knowing that was coming up, I knew I was going to need some pure fluff to balance a deeply introspective memoir about dying and the meaning of life.  You know, all that fun stuff.  And then up popped #Starstruck.  I haven't read any of Sariah Wilson's works before, but I've had Royal Date by her sitting on my Kindle for ages.  Still, #Starstruck caught my eye.  There's something intriguing about celebrity romances, and since I had such a great experience with Idol last year (though that celebrity was a rockstar, not an actor) I thought I'd give this a go.

Heroine and narrator Zoe adores Chase Covington, an obsession she picked up in order to bond with her now-best friend, Lexi, when they were children.  Because Zoe didn't have friends and Lexi said that if they both liked Chase Covington (and Lexi loves Chase Covington), then they could be friends.  And so when a Twitter exchange leads to Zoe eventually meeting and then becoming involved with Chase, she is starstruck indeed.

Was this the strongest celebrity romance book I've read?  No.  Something about it just seems to ring false, like how these people would ever actually meet, how fast they fell for each other, etc.  For example, this book takes insta-love to a new level, in which the two characters love each other from before they even lay eyes on each other, just from a series of 140-character Tweets over the course of like, three days.  However, there were a lot of elements I really liked here.  Let's talk about a few.

First, despite Zoe's self-proclaimed "obsession" with Chase, she is not really obsessed with him.  She's a fan, definitely, but she does not do anything crazy.  Lexi is the one who makes Chase scrapbooks, who stalks his manager to get close to him, who would reportedly do anything to be with him.  Despite Zoe saying how much she "loves" Chase even before they meet, she seems remarkably sane and her priorities always lay elsewhere.  The "obsession" is really more just going along with Lexi.  This was good, because Chase falling for a stalker would have been, uhm, weird to the extreme.

Zoe as a character is actually great in general.  Her family is important to her.  While she's attracted to Chase, she's also keenly aware of how fame can bite back, and so remains wary of their relationship.  Additionally, Zoe is abstinent, and it's not because of religion.  Whaaat?  Yes.  This is great to see--not because I'm anti-sex in romances (hey, if you can write a good sex scene, go for it) but because it suits her character and background.  But Wilson has an abstinent-by-choice character who also doesn't feel the need to bash you over the head with religion every two seconds, which is so refreshing.  While waiting for a committed relationship to have sex isn't strange at all, for some reason in fiction, it's always because of religion and not just because it's a personal choice.  Consequently, this was refreshing.  But never fear!  Wilson can write a sizzling attraction and some delicious scenes of kissing and making out without anyone's clothes coming off.  The one thing that bugged me was that, though Chase told Zoe how the media would spin things and that he'd tell her what she wanted regarding what was actually happening, she just freaked out at him whenever something happened.  I understand jealousy and insecurity, but she really seemed to take it to an extreme.

Chase was harder to get a handle on.  This is probably because he's not the narrator, and consequently we can't really get inside his head.  We only have what he says, and while Zoe believes him, she also has doubts from time to time, and those spill over to the reader.  But at the end of the book, I was left with this key question: Why did Chase go out with Zoe?  Once they were together, it's easy to see and understand why they would keep it up.  I don't have any issues with that.  But I have trouble believing that, upon re-entering the dating world, Chase and everyone around him would decide that Zoe was "the one" based on literally a single Tweet, which only said that she didn't think his most recent movie was his best.

Overall, I liked this.  It was a fast read, the two characters had a lot of chemistry even if they never, ahem, got down to business, and I liked Zoe as a main character.  But I never felt like the actual meeting and initial connection rang true.  But hey, Wilson can write a really good kissing scene!

4 stars out of 5.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Practical Magic - Alice Hoffman (Practical Magic #1)

Practical MagicOne of the Book of the Month selections last fall was The Rules of Magic, the recently-released prequel to Hoffman's classic Practical Magic, which has also been adapted to the screen in a version featuring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman as the main characters.  I've seen the movie, and liked it quite a bit, and the prequel intrigued me--but I felt like to be on the same page, I should read the original first.

To those who've seen the movie: the book is very different.  But I think they are equally good, in different ways.  The book has less of a focus on the trouble brought on by the vile Jimmy and more of a focus on the relationships between the two sisters, the growing-up of Sally's daughters, and the powerful ways in which love affects all of their lives.  Jimmy and the trouble he brings are still present, but they don't provide the same central propulsion that they do in the movie.  Additionally, while the movie takes place on the island in Massachusetts, the setting moves away from there after the first part of this book, instead being set mostly in a small community in New York where no one has ever heard of the Owenses and never thinks they might be witches, which in itself lends a very different atmosphere to the story.

This book definitely falls into the magical realism category.  Fantastic things happen and are treated as just everyday happenstance, not just by Sally and Gillian and their family but by others around them.  The Owenses might be the source of the magic, but it's not strange in and of itself.  Magical realism tends to have a definite writing style associated with it; not a ton of dialogue, but a lot of prose narrative relating what's happening, probably because the characters commenting too much on the magical events would contribute to breaking the spell, as it were.  That said, the characters still feel real and complete and the events of the book, while of course strange and unreal, still seem to ring true.

The focus of the book here is on the relationships between the characters, with the Jimmy subplot being just that.  The sisters, the aunts, Sally's daughters--the ties between all of them are stretched and warped and torn, and the story here is both that separation and bringing them back together, with a few extra folks thrown in for good measure.  Luckily, this is a definite strength of the book.  Hoffman shows that you can absolutely hate someone for what they've done or what they've pulled you into, but love them and want to help them at the same time.  Additionally, part of the "relationship" aspect of this is Sally and Gillian's relationships with themselves.  Both ultimately fled Massachusetts and the aunts, leaving their whacky childhoods and accusations of witchcraft behind, but are forced to come back to their heritage and embrace it in order to solve the problems that rear their ugly heads.  The climax isn't very climactic in a movie sort of way--there's no possession, no calling of the phone tree, etc.--but is extremely climactic in how you can see Sally and Gillian change.  It might not look monumental, but it certainly feels so.

It's a slow story, a lot of wandering rather than racing, backtracking and then jumping back to the present.  Some people feel like they should have been included more than they were--like Gary!  Where the heck was all of his page time?  Ben got so much in comparison, and even the teenage love interests got more.  But overall, it still felt, well, magical, and I really enjoyed reading it.

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Beard in Mind - Penny Reid (Winston Brothers #4)

Beard in Mind (Winston Brothers, #4)It took me a while to get back into the Winston Brothers series because I was somewhat disappointed by Beard Science, which I had really been looking forward to.  That, and Beau wasn't really a character I cared much about.  He featured in the other books but in a comparatively minor supporting role, against his brothers who, even as supporting characters, seemed a bit more prominent.  I also wasn't super interested in Shelly, who we encountered in Beard Science for the first time.  All of this together meant that this was kind of a "Yeah, sure, I guess," book, but I was still hoping it would take me by surprise and I would love it.

Ultimately, though, I left this book disappointed.  The setup is fairly uneven compared to the others in the series--while both Beau and Shelly get perspective chapters, Shelly's are greatly outnumbered by Beau's.  I don't know what Reid was thinking, but I'm willing to hazard a guess that she didn't want to get too deep "in the head" of someone with OCD and then get slammed by people who actually have OCD for "not getting it right," which would be a motivation that I understand.  The problem is, Shelly is a vastly more interesting character than Beau, and that's not even taking her condition into consideration.  Her links to Quinn, her past with her family, her interest in mechanics, her position as an extremely talented artist, her somewhat abrasive personality--all of this made Shelly seem like a really fleshed-out character, and the very low number of chapters from her perspective was a disappointment.  The imbalance made her feel more like someone Beau pursued and wanted than someone who was engaged in a mutual relationship.

Compared to Shelly, Beau was...blah.  At one point, he says that his twin brother Duane isn't just his brother, he's Beau's other half.  And that's exactly what Beau felt like: half a character.  All of this book is about his fixation on Shelly, and really nothing else.  Even the subplot with the Iron Wraiths that Reid tried to throw in didn't make him feel more complex or complete.  And because he was the point of view character for most of the book, that made it feel just "meh."  I could never really see why he liked Shelly, other than her being off-the-charts gorgeous, which doesn't get you very far in a romance novel.  Even if someone is attracted because of physical appearances at first (which, fine, cool, I get it) it has to evolve, and even though Beau kept saying he loved Shelly for other reasons, I never really saw evidence of it.  I never felt chemistry between him and Shelly, either, and a romance book with no chemistry isn't really much of a romance at all.

Overall, I think this was the weakest book in the series so far.  At times it trended more towards "chore" than "enjoyment," and that's not a good sign.  It had its moments--watching Jennifer and Cletus from another perspective was interesting, and Shelly's parts were good--but I ended up feeling like I probably could have just skipped this one and waited until Dr. Strange Beard came out to rejoin the Winston family.

2 stars out of 5.

Monday, March 5, 2018

White Hot - Ilona Andrews (Hidden Legacy #2)

White Hot (Hidden Legacy, #2)The second Hidden Legacy book by the Ilona Andrews team picks up about two months after the first, and takes an abrupt turn in direction: from fire to ice.  I was super excited to read this one after tearing through Burn for Me, because I wanted to see the relationship between Nevada and Rogan evolve and come into its own as well as see more of Nevada's wonderful family.  While her family continued to be wonderful and their relationship did indeed evolve, I ultimately didn't find this one as good as the first one.

Nevada is pulled back into the ring of high-stakes investigations when Cornelius, the animal mage we briefly encountered in the first book, comes to her to ask her to take on the investigation of his wife's murder.  He wants to know who killed her, and he wants revenge.  Nevada is reluctant, but agrees, for various reasons.  She's quickly re-enmeshed with Rogan (who has ignored her since the end of the last book) when it turns out that his people were the wife's security team, who were killed along with her, and Rogan wants to avenge them.

Cornelius, while not elevated to main-character status, is definitely one of the primary supporting characters in this book, and that was excellent.  His animal mage powers are vastly different from any of the other ones we've encountered in this world, and they're put to good use in several ways here.  Also, I want a Chinese ferret-badger for a pet now.  I definitely hope he'll continue to be a presence in the third book.  In the supporting character realm, Nevada's family continues to be amazing and we get a glimpse into her origins, as well as the abilities of her two younger siblings and one of her cousins.  This was awesome, and as Nevada evolves into a Prime I hope we get to see more in-depth what her equally-powerful siblings can do.

Nevada's evolution was another interesting aspect of this book.  We knew--or could infer--that she was a Prime from the events of the first book, even if she hadn't come into her own yet.  But here, she's no longer flying under the radar, as much as she might like to be.  She's gathering attention, and it's pretty clear that it's going to come to a head in the third book.  This is a good progression, and I was pretty happy with it.

What I less happy with was the relationship between Nevada and Rogan.  When we left them at the end of the first book, Nevada was attracted to Rogan but unwilling to be just his plaything, and Rogan was attracted to Nevada and determined to have her.  When we rejoin them here, it's all, "I love you!" on both parts, even if the actual words aren't said until later in the book.  Most of Nevada's reservations seem to have just up and vanished, which was very strange, and considering that Rogan's emotional attachment seemed...there, but sparse and under-developed, it seems weird that he jumped so full-on into "I must love and protect Nevada"-mode here.

There's a third book in this series (and it seems like there might potentially be more, but nothing solid so far) and I'm still interested in it, but this was something of a come-down from the first book.  I won't say it suffered from second book syndrome, because that's a plot thing and not a relationship thing, and things definitely moved in this book.  But it wasn't as amazing as the first, and I hope the third can make a come back.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Harmony - Carolyn Parkhurst

HarmonyOne of the reading challenge categories that was posing a problem for me this year was "A book by a local author."  I live in Washington, DC.  I knew that there could be no shortage of local authors with great books available.  However, when I Googled, the ones that came up, the Big Names, were ones that I either wasn't interested in (David Baldacci, Tom Clancy) or I'd already read their works (Laura Hillenbrand).  Thankfully, I eventually found an article by DC Refined, "5 D.C. authors you should know (and their latest books)".  While a bunch of the authors and books listed there caught my interest, one in particular stuck out: Harmony by Caroyln Parkhurst, because she has her MA from American University, which is my school!  Also, the premise seemed very interesting.

Told from multiple perspectives, Harmony is the story of a family (the Hammonds) who seek help for their brilliant but troublesome daughter, Tilly, who has a non-specific disorder along the autism spectrum.  In the search for help, they fall in with Scott Bean, who gets them to come to a camp, Harmony, in New Hampshire that is, for all intents and purposes, cut off from the outside world.  They will live and work at the camp, grow their own food, avoid pesticides and stimulation from screens, and anything that's needed from outside, Scott will get while the rest of them stay at the camp.  A few other families are also present, for similar reasons.  But while Harmony initially seems like it might be exactly what the family needs, might it perhaps be a little more sinister?

Camp Harmony treads along the thin line--is it a cult or isn't it?  At some times, it seems like it is, and at other times it seems like it isn't.  Scott Bean is a masterful manipulator.  He gets the families to feel like they are accomplishing something, and every time something unnerving happens, he backs off, reassures them...and then continues on with his own plans.  There's a menace here, but not one that that's obvious,or even always present.  It leads to a strange balancing act in the mind, which I'm sure is exactly what Parkhurst intended--is this okay, or is it not?  Some of it is, and some of it isn't, and some of it is questionably...and it all adds up to a big, big problem that will shatter the Hammond family's existence.

The writing style here was interesting.  There are three perspectives: Alexandra, the mother; Tilly, the older sister; and Iris, the younger sister.  Alexandra's parts are written in second-person, which I typically dislike, but in this case I think it really worked.  It made her struggle more empathetic, made it easier to see where her difficulties were coming from.  Iris has a more traditional first-person perspective, relating the "present" events; she is our main narrator, telling us the story as it unfolds, whereas Alexandra's parts are more of a "how we got here" set up.  And then there's Tilly.  Tilly's narrative is neither here nor there, first person nor third person, just a sort of weird, floating imagining that happens at an ambiguous place and time, and yet perfectly suited to Tilly's character.

This was a book that intrigued me, but that I was unsure I would actually like.  And while the pacing is somewhat slow, the building unease in the background propels the story forward to its climax.  I do wish there had been a bit more closure here--we are definitely left with the question of, "What happened to the Hammonds, anyway?"  I mean, will the daughters be giving TED Talks about growing up in a cult when they get older?  Or will everything be all right?  These are the things I'm left wondering--and while I would have liked more closure, I gather that the wondering was rather the point.

Anyway, I'm very glad that I picked this title for my "local author" reading challenge category.  It wasn't something I would probably have picked up on my own, but I enjoyed it, and I'm looking forward to reading other books by these local authors.

4 stars out of 5.