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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Eve of a Hundred Midnights - Bill Lascher

Eve of a Hundred Midnights: The Star-Crossed Love Story of Two WWII Correspondents and their Epic Escape Across the PacificI recently realized I haven't read a lot of nonfiction this year.  This is actually kind of strange for me because I really like nonfiction, and Eve of a Hundred Midnights is a great example of why.

This is the true story of two news correspondents during WWII.  The first, and main one, is Mel Jacoby, who was a relative of the author's.  Mel worked for his college newspaper and went to China on a study abroad during his junior year, at which point he absolutely fell in love with the country.  After his graduation, he found his way back, working as a reporter for a propaganda station in China's wartime capital.  He continued to move around in various reporting capacities, coming and going from different points in Asia for several years.  Eventually, he convinced a girl, Annalee, who had also worked at the college newspaper, and who he had connected with during a stop back in the United States, to also move to China in a news capacity.  But as the war intensified, Mel ended up stationed in the Philippines, and Annalee ended up joining him there and the two got married.  And then the United States suddenly joined the war, and the two found themselves stuck in the islands, with the Japanese army--who were likely to kill Mel if they caught him--growing ever closer.

This book has a lengthy subtitle, "The Star-Crossed Love Story of Two WWII Correspondents and Their Epic Escape Across the Pacific."  Well, that's part of the story.  It's not all of it, and it's really not even most of it.  The actual escape across the Pacific takes up a relatively small part of the book, and it's probably actually one of the most uneventful portions.  It must have been nerve-wracking at the time, I'm sure, but in retrospect, with more than a half a century between us and the story, it wasn't nearly as exciting as reading about dodging falling bombs in China.  The book also isn't really the story of two star-crossed lovers.  First off, star-crossed implies there was something keeping them from each other, and there wasn't.  Second, Annalee is NOT very prominent in this book.  The focus is definitely on Mel, which is understandable, given the author's relation to him, but it's a bit misleading to make it out like Annalee was more of a player than she was.

Most of the book is really about Mel and how he ended up in Manila prior to the US retreat and Japanese army's arrival.  It's a very interesting story, about living in a war capital, navigating the different censors and political bodies, and seeing war grow ever closer, all the while trying to report the news in a way that no one back home was actually doing.  I really enjoyed this, because it was a perspective that we don't usually get.  Lascher includes a hefty reference section in the back, and it's a pretty good bet that Mel and Annalee actually did think and feel as he portrays them, because he quotes their letters and cables extensively.  Lascher is a very engaging writer, and makes Mel and Annalee's story into just that: a story.  I think he does wax poetic a couple of times; the epilogue is a great example of this.  It's very purple and completely unnecessary to the content of the book.  Overall, though, this was a really great book that offered a fairly unique perspective into a part of the war, and the lead-up to it, that we don't typically get to see.  Very interesting.  I just found myself wishing that the part of the story that was actually advertised had been a little more prominent and gripping!

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Little Paris Bookshop - Nina George

The Little Paris BookshopGuess what?  This book was translated into English!  What a pleasant surprise that was, because it means that I can count it for one of my reading challenge categories.  My reaction upon realizing this (though I'd been planning on reading the book anyway) can be summed up thusly: "O frabjous day!  Callooh!  Callay!" I chortled in my joy.

The Little Paris Bookshop is the story of Jean Perdu.  He owns a floating bookshop upon a barge moored in the Seine in Paris, which he calls The Literary Apothecary.  He prescribes books for all of life's woes and aspires to write a sort of encyclopedia of feelings that haven't really been pinned down in most works yet.  He has a routine and sticks to it like clockwork, something he has done ever since the woman he loved left him two decades ago.  When a new neighbor moves into the flat across from him, he gives her a table--a table he has to haul out from a room that's been walled up ever since said lover left.  And in the table, the new neighbor finds a letter that's never been read.  The neighbor and the letter are a pair of catalysts that have Jean casting off from his mooring and starting off on a journey to the south of France aboard his floating bookshop, along with a famous author facing a serious case of second-book writer's block and, eventually, an Italian chef looking for a woman he loved and lost.  Along the way they explore the canals of France, go to a secret tango society, rescue a woman from drowning, and look for the pseudonym-ed author of Jean's favorite book.

Even in translation, there was some beautiful writing in this book.  The descriptions of the settings in particular were wonderfully vivid and I could just see the canals, the locks, the flowers in my mind.  I think the supporting characters added just the right amount of flavor to the story, though their losses and longings are really side notes to the main story.  There are also a few chapters which are excerpts from Jean's former lover's travel diary, which help to explain what was going on with her, and why she did what she did, long before Jean gets the full story.  I found those a bit long and sappy for my taste, but I can see why they were included.  Maybe Manon herself just didn't agree with me; her actions in how she conducted her relationships aren't really something that I'm on the same page with, which made her hard for me to empathize with in that regard, though other parts of her story were routine enough.

Honestly, Manon's reason for leaving Jean was the part of the story I liked the least, just because it seems so...done.  I didn't find anything particularly interesting about it, and honestly felt like she'd played the whole thing up more than she had to.  This spills over into the rest of the story, because Jean has been tied up in all of this drama for twenty years, which honestly...I mean... Ugh.

So, I think the writing and descriptions here are the real strength, and the central story was not.  George has a way of making her locations just come to life in a way that I don't think many authors can, and I really enjoyed that.  The central plot didn't do much for me, though.  The side plot--about finding the author of Jean's favorite book--was much more intriguing.  The problem for me is, the central story is one that's about grieving and moving on, and I'm not really at a point in my life where I can empathize with that.  Sympathize, yes.  But empathize?  Not really.  Jean Perdu believes that each person needs different books at different times throughout life, and maybe this just wasn't the right time for me to read this one, though I definitely do appreciate the skill that George put into it.

3 stars out of 5.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Her Wicked Ways - Darcy Burke (Secrets and Scandal #1)

Her Wicked Ways (Secrets & Scandals #1)Romance novels that aren't very romantic are so frustrating, and this was, unfortunately, one of them.  It starts when Montgomery Foxcroft, aka Fox, the hero, pretends to be a highwayman to waylay a coach and rob it for money to help with the upkeep of an orphanage his family has maintained for generations.  He doesn't end up with much money, but he does end up with an armful of Lady Miranda Sinclair.  Miranda was on her way into exile with some variety of family friends who live in the country when Fox stopped them, and she's more than happy to kiss him.  In fact, kissing someone in the dark is the very reason she got sent into exile to begin with.  Soon enough, Miranda finds herself forced to go work at the orphanage as a sort of punishment that's supposed to better her, and she rubs up wrong against Fox right away--having no idea that he's the highwayman with the magic lips, of course.

There were abundant problems with this book that placed it squarely outside of my interest, though I forced myself through to the end.  (It takes a lot for me to actually give up on a book.)  First, I didn't feel that there was any real chemistry between Miranda and Fox, despite how they kept insisting (internally) that they couldn't resist each other.  The words were there, but the emotion wasn't.  Second, Miranda herself was absolutely insufferable.  She's the very definition of a spoiled rich girl.  She parades around the orphanage in the finest gowns money can buy and, while Burke tries to show her growing and coming to accept that her way of life isn't the only one or even the best, she constantly relapses to her spoiled state.  Even up to the very end, where she's supposed to be gaga over Fox and willing to do anything to be with him, she can't stand up to her parents and instead just silently agrees with them about how shabby Fox's entire lifestyle is.  And then she abruptly grows a backbone and everyone lives happily ever after.  What?

And finally, the writing isn't really engaging at all.  There's so much nothing going on here.  And honestly, while a hero who takes care of orphans can be a really sweet idea, reading about someone combing lice out of those orphans' hair isn't romantic at all.  I picked this book up because it was a group read for Unapologetic Romance Readers on Goodreads, as a "free" selection for everyone, and found that I'd already purchased it more than a year before--and I'd actually started to read it!  But I hadn't continued much past the first chapter before abandoning it.  After finishing it this time, I can see why I ditched out the first time.  I don't think Burke is an author I'll be picking up again.

1.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Love Hacked - Penny Reid (Knitting In the City #3)

Love Hacked (Knitting in the City, #3)The Knitting in the City series is one that I've really enjoyed so far.  Love Hacked is the third book, following up on Neanderthal Seeks Human and Friends Without Benefits.  As with the other books in the series, this story is about one of the girls in a knitting club and her search for love.  In this case, the girl in question is twenty-eight-year-old Sandra, who despite having a date every other Friday night, hasn't had a kiss in two years.  That would be because she manages to make all of her dates cry, which obviously doesn't bode well for kisses.  The thing is, Sandra is a therapist, and she can't seem to quite get away from that, not even on her dates.  So when yet another date ends in disaster, Sandra settles in to enjoy her butter chicken on her own...only to find Alex, the very hot waiter she's been eyeballing for two years, sitting at her table with her.

Sandra thinks Alex is smokin' hot, but he's younger than her.  A lot younger.  She's twenty-eight, and she estimates him at being twenty-two or twenty-three, which, as she points out, means that there's really a gulf of experience between them.  But Sandra isn't entirely opposed to a fling with a younger man...except Alex doesn't seem to want a fling.  He wants something more serious.  But he's clearly hiding things, lots of things, like why he's being followed by FBI agents and why he and Sandra can't talk in public.  It's all very, very strange.  Oh, and Alex doesn't really seem to have any sense of how to behave around people either.  He can go from being super sweet to super weird to super aggressive, all within a few blinks of the eye.

Honestly, Alex's weird behavior is the part that concerned me the most about this book.  The age-gap raised my eyebrows at first, but I've definitely seen weirder, and I don't think an age-gap is something that can't be overcome.  But the way that Alex was so secretive and passive-aggressive at times raised a lot of red flags for me.  That is what I could not put up with in a relationship, not his hacking background and time in prison and all the other stuff.  The way he acted sometimes... Sandra was a saint for putting up with him, and honestly I'm not sure that she should have.

But, as with the other stories, we get to see about the other girls in the club and where they are, and we even learn something about the mysterious Fiona, she who knows how to stab men with knitting needles!  Reid also did another thing I think was very good for this, and that is that she just went for it with the sex scenes.  In the first book, she faded to black, which was fine.  In the second, she did this weird thing where she included a "fade to black" version and a "non-fade to black" version, with a note about what was going on a the top of each chapter, and it was very jarring to the reading experience.  She did away with that this time and just went all in, which I think was a smart solution.  Fading to black worked with Janie because she was so much more self-conscious, but Sandra was all in for the physical aspects of the relationship from the beginning, so I think this worked better for her.  Also, Alex is (gasp!) a virgin!  So we get to see how Sandra, who is very much not a virgin, deals with that.  It was an interesting perspective flip, and I think Reid did it really well.

Honestly, this book had a lot going for it, and I really enjoyed it...but Alex's sometimes sociopathic behavior just lingers there in the back of my mind, bugging me and telling me that I probably shouldn't have enjoyed it as much as I did, leaving me to give this book...

3.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Night Sister - Jennifer McMahon

The Night SisterWhen I was little, my dad bought this movie called The Mothman Prophecies.  He did it because one of the offices he oversaw was in the movie, doubling as a dress shop on the main street of the town it was filmed in, and he wanted to see it.  The movie itself is about the people in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, and a newcomer to the town, all of who keep seeing a creature referred to as the Mothman leading up to the collapse of the Silver Bridge just before Christmas.  We, as movie viewers, never actually see the Mothman, just glimpses and hints.  Really, that's what makes it scary: we don't know what's really going on, what's lurking in the shadows.  It's the same way Jaws is much scarier before we actually see the shark.  The difference is, in Jaws we do end up seeing the shark.  In Mothman, we never see the monster at hand, which I think makes it all the more creepy.

The Night Sister is Jaws.

The story here is about sisters Margot and Piper and their friend Amy. The book begins with the death of Amy and her family, with the heavy insinuation that something not human was behind it, though the police are initially eager to frame it as Amy losing it and killing herself, her son, and her husband.  The only survivor is Amy's daughter, who is found outside on the roof, and the only clue is a picture Amy has with her, on which is written "29 rooms," a strange message considering her home, the Tower Motel, only has 28 rooms.  Margot hears of the whole incident, calls Piper (who lives across the country) and Piper hops on the first plane back to Vermont to comfort her pregnant sister--who happens to be married to a cop.  The book flips back and forth in time, going from the modern day to when the girls were young, to even further back in time, when Amy's aunt vanished during another spate of mysterious happenings.  Monsters and sex and murder are all discussed here, and as the story goes on, it's clear that something not right is happening at the Tower Motel, and has been happening for quite a while.

I really liked this book right up until the "monster" is revealed.  We know for quite a while what the monster must be, but as soon as people start putting forth more detailed explanations and confessions, I think the story lost a lot of its creepy mystique, it become a much less intriguing tale.  As soon as all this came out, I found myself rolling my eyes and just wishing that the book would be over.  I think there's a great atmosphere going on up until that point, but once we hit that critical piece of information, the intrigue just dissolves and the climax is rather lackluster.  It was so disappointing, because there had been sch a good build, and then it just lost it all, knocking what could have easily been a 5-star book down a bit.

Overall, I really wish this had been Mothman instead of Jaws.

3 stars out of 5.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Charming the Prince - Teresa Medeiros (Fairy Tales #1)

450924Charming the Prince was the main buddy read for August in the Unapologetic Romance Readers group on Goodreads.  (We also have a bodice ripper for this month, which I'm planning on reading as well.)  It's supposed to be a historical romance Cinderella retelling, though honestly the "historical" and "Cinderella retelling" parts are painted in with only the broadest strokes.  The main plot follows Branson, the bastard-born lord of some lands in the fourteenth century and Willow, the daughter of another lord who lost all his money and married a rich widow, bringing her and her posse of children into his home.  Now, years later, Willow has basically been relegated to a servant, taking care of her step- and half-siblings, until Branson's men show up at her father's holdings looking for a wife for Branson.  He has specifically requested someone who is "maternal" and "bovine" who can act as a mother to his posse of children, numbering around a dozen, while not awakening his lusts at all, because he doesn't want more children; the ones he have terrify him enough.  Due to a bonnet and an apron full of apples, Willow is mistaken for being both maternal and bovine and has been married off before Branson's representative really realizes his mistake.  The rest of the book consists of Branson coming to terms with his children and Willow and Willow trying to get Branson to appreciate her for herself, which no one has done in a long time.

The writing here is decent, and some of the incidents involving Willow and the kids were amusing, but overall I don't think this was anything remarkable to write home about.  The whole "Branson is so fertile he can get you pregnant just by looking at you" thing was way overdone, especially considering some of the information that comes out later in the book.  There's also a subplot involving one of Willow's stepsisters, who stows away in her luggage and ends up being present throughout the book, and who wants to marry Branson herself.  That felt overly contrived and, honestly, didn't add anything to the book--nor did the whole creepy stepbrother thing.  The "historical" setting lends nothing because it's sketched in very lightly.  The main thing the setting does that I can think of is help distinguish this book from the more plentiful Regency romances we normally see, which are set several centuries later.  That did make for a nice change, but I don't think it was so terribly important to the plot or characters.  Honestly, I feel like this could have been placed in almost any historical era and would have varied very little because of it.

The romance was nice, but again, nothing stellar.  Branson and Willow were immediately attracted to each other and wanted to like each other but also didn't at the same time, which was weird.  I think the ongoing "conflict" between them, which mainly consisted of "warfare" between Willow and her forces (the kids and her stepsister and some of the servants) and Branson and his forces (his men) was honestly the most amusing part of the book.  Once it ended, the whole thing got rather bland rather quickly.  There was some nice kissing, but honestly this is something I think the setting worked against--drafty castles with straw strewn everywhere, no matter how clean, don't really strike me as romantic.

Overall, I don't think this was anything special.  It was an okay romance, but just okay; the "Cinderella" plot it purported to have was barely present, most of the characters were just meh, and despite the title, there wasn't a prince anywhere in sight.  I wouldn't be totally opposed to reading something else by this author, but she's not someone I'll be purposefully seeking out anytime soon based on this book.

2 stars out of 5.

Climbing the Mango Trees - Mathur Jaffrey

Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in IndiaThis title came to me via the virtual book club over at The Deliberate Reader.  I've been following along via the club (which discusses via Facebook) but haven't actually read most of the selections because, well, I've been doing other things.  But July's book was The Cuckoo's Calling, which I read earlier this year.  I joined in the discussion and had such a good time that I decided to bump the other books up on my priorities list!  I won't be reading September's book, which is Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, because I read it a while ago and don't care enough for it to re-read, but I'll spend the rest of this month and next catching up on the other titles for the year that I haven't read, and join back in for October.

Madhur Jaffrey is apparently a chef and an actress, but I had honestly never heard of her until I picked up this book.  She grew up in India in the years of WWII and India's independence.  Her family lived in a multi-family setup in the area of Delhi.  Jaffrey was a fairly privileged child, as far as I can tell.  Her father managed various factories, but they could afford private schools and private drivers and could go on vacations in the hill resorts that involved servants packing picnics and renting out multiple houses for the family to stay in.  Because of this, I don't think this is a really good example of what "life in India" was like.  Granted, it's a memoir, and therefore limited to Jaffrey's view--but I'm also reading another memoir currently, that of Malala Yousafzai, and I think that one does a good job of including not only Malala's experiences but a broader view of how life in her area was in general.  I don't think Jaffrey quite managed to do that.

The memoir is very food-focused but not in the way that many food books are.  Jaffrey admits to not being interested in cooking until later in life, past the point in time at which this memoir occurs.  Why would she have been?  Her family had servants to cook for them, and while it seems like the family as a whole was more involved with food for special occasions, Jaffrey focuses more on other aspects of those--for example, the throwing of paint pigments and such during Holi--than on the food.  Consequently, there's talk of food but not a real understanding of it.  I know that Jaffrey possesses that understanding as an adult, but she keeps it entirely removed from the years of her childhood that are depicted in this book.  The last forty pages or so are recipes for some of the things that she discusses in the book, and I guess it's there that the real appreciation and understanding is meant to be conveyed; but as much as I love food and cooking, I'm not going to sit down and read forty pages of recipes, so that was kind of lost on me.

Something else that I found rather lacking in this was a larger sense of what was going on.  Jaffrey was in India for the time of both the second World War and India's independence, and yet, except for a few small excerpts such as going to watch Ghandi speak once, a sense of any of this going on is completely absent.  This memoir could have place at almost any point in history, because there's nothing there to ground it.  Even if Jaffrey didn't pay much attention to those things at the time, I feel like she could have put in a little bit of "looking back" perspective that would have helped to anchor this memoir in that specific era.

Overall, I didn't really enjoy this book.  I think that Jaffrey (or her ghostwriter; I'm always so skeptical of memoirs like this) didn't actually have a lot to say because she doesn't really have any compelling experiences behind her, at least not in this particular point of her life.  While that makes for a happy childhood, it doesn't really make for an interesting one.  It's the old "every happy family is happy in the same way, but every unhappy family is unique" thing, or however the quote goes.  The points that stood out at this were the unhappy ones, such as when her parents were so devastated that they had to re-join the bigger family because of her father's job changing, and knowing that it would put an end to the happy independence they'd had for several years.  But as for the rest...it's a steady stream of frolicking that I don't think really had much of a larger message or purpose lingering behind it, which made for boring reading.  The writing itself isn't bad, but there's not really any compelling content to propel it along.

2 stars out of 5.