Monday, May 22, 2017

Ransom Canyon - Jodi Thomas (Ransom Canyon #1)

Ransom Canyon (Ransom Canyon, #1)Ransom Canyon was my pick for a cowboy/western romance for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' 2017 reading challenge.  It was on some lists of best western romances; lists have been the source of many of my picks for this challenge since I'm not knowledgeable about many of the categories.  This was also a different pick for me because I favor historical romance, even in other categories, and this was a contemporary western read.

This is categorized as a romance--it says it right on the cover--but honestly, it doesn't read as one.  There are several romantic relationships blossoming throughout the course of the book.  There's cowboy/ranch owner Staten, who's been sleeping with his dead wife's best friend for a few years and is now growing closer to her, while Quinn has loved him the whole time.  There's Lucas and Laura, two high school students from very different backgrounds.  And then there's Yancy, an ex-con who arrived in Ransom Canyon with the goal of stealing but found himself quickly adjusting to life as a handyman, and attracted to nurse Ellie.  But here's the thing: despite all this love in the air, none of the characters have any chemistry with each other.  This book doesn't steam.  It doesn't sizzle.  It doesn't even make you go, "Aw, how sweet."  It  At least in the romance department.

Where this book does excel is in establishing a sense of place.  Thomas builds up the town of Crossroads, which is near Ransom Canyon, which I guess has more of a ring to it than Crossroads does.  But with the establishment of the quirky retirement community full of ex-teachers, the quaint little diner, and even the varying ranches with their different dynamics, and the creepy so-called Gypsy House...well, it all comes together to create a great atmosphere, a feeling of a small town with its small town troubles but also small town sense of community that's missing in so many books.  The last book I read featuring a small town was Hannah Coulter and it was downright boring; I think Thomas does a much better job here.  Just because a place is small and relies on a traditional economy--in HC, farming, and in RC, ranching--doesn't mean that it has to be snooze-worthy.  In fact, RC manages to excel in a lot of areas that HC failed in, which made it a somewhat refreshing read following so closely on the more boring book's heels.

Ultimately, I did like this book, but it's not a good romance.  I think the sense of place and the drama were good, and the retirees were so funny...but if it's being billed as a romance, I expect to feel a little attraction between the members of at least one of the romantic couples in the book, and here there were three couples and not an ounce of chemistry to be found.

With those things in balance, I think this will be 2.5 stars out of 5.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Wayfarer - Alexandra Bracken (Passenger #2)

Wayfarer (Passenger, #2)Wayfarer is the second book of Alexandra Bracken's Passenger duology, and it picks up right where Passenger itself left off: with Nicholas and Sophia searching for the astrolabe and Etta, and Etta herself being "orphaned" to a timeline that's no longer her own due to changes that have been made in the past.

In this second volume, Bracken continues the wonderful trend she began in the first one with utilizing places and times that are rarely, if ever, seen in young adult fiction.  From Carthage during the time of the third Punic War to the Vatican in 1499, before it was filled with the art that makes it so known today, Bracken shuttles her characters about into wonderful times and places.  And now she's actually begun messing with the timeline itself, too, showing alternative possibilities--a version of Russia in which Nicholas II wasn't killed (until he was) and a New York ravaged by nuclear warfare before the United States was able to enter into World War II.  The possibilities are both dazzling and terrifying at the same time, showing the rippling effects that changing a small event can have on the timeline as a whole.  She also continues to have interesting characters, bringing in Li Min as a new addition--a Chinese girl who has served as a pirate, assassin, thief, etc. and has an intriguing past.

But overall, this book isn't as strong as the first.  Though Nicholas and Etta's relationship moved quickly in the first book, it was still a compelling part of the plot, and that's largely missing here as the two remain separated until the climactic events.  Without their attraction and bond to propel the plot, Bracken throws in a side romance that only kind of develops, between Li Min and Sophia (lending a LGBT dynamic to the book as well, though it's very minor) as well as what I think was meant to be a web of intrigues, which also only kind of develops.  Henry Hemlock is introduced in this book (which was kind of strange because for some reason I thought he was dead) as Etta's father and I kept waiting for some grand scheme to center around him and his "I just want a relationship with you" act, but it wasn't an act and there actually wasn't any further depths to that part of the story.  Bracken tries to explain the origins of time travel and add in another enemy to face, but that only kind of develops to and just floats around in the background as a side bit.  And then Nicholas, in his search for Etta, ends up poisoned as some sort of incentive for him to kill Cyrus Ironwood, which doesn't make any sense at all...because why would you poison someone in a way that impedes them from actually doing what you want?

While the traveling remained breathtaking and the characters were good, this one didn't feel as well-thought-out as Passenger did.  It rather suffered from second book syndrome, feeling incomplete, and it's especially problematic as it's the final book as well, with no third volume to redeem it.

3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Afterworlds - Scott Westerfeld

Afterworlds (Afterworlds #1)Scott Westerfeld has some great books.  I loved his Uglies series, particularly the fourth book, Extras, which was an interesting alternative perspective on the world--the main character's story but through the eyes of someone who would typically be considered a minor character.  And so when I was looking for a book to fulfill a reading challenge category for "a story within a story," Afterworlds seemed to be an obvious selection.  Half of the book is about Darcy Patel, a teenager who's just scored a huge publishing contract for a book she wrote during National Novel Writing Month (though the event itself is never referred to by name)--and I mean a huge publishing contract.  Three hundred thousand dollars of a publishing contract for the book and its sequel.  The other half of the book is Afterworlds, Darcy's book, itself, about a girl named Lizzie who survives a terrorist attack by thinking herself dead, and then finds out she's been transformed into a psychopomp/valkyrie/grim reaper type of being along the way.

Both halves of this book are intriguing in and of themselves, but I'm not sure they work as a coherent whole.  On one hand, Darcy is going through a rewriting process for much of the book, so we get to hear what the inner story was like before it becomes the version we read, which is an interesting dynamic.  But on the other hand, fitting both stories into a normal-length book means that neither really feels like it's getting fleshed out or is as interesting as it could potentially be.  For example, there's not much that actually happens in Darcy's own story.  She moves to New York, eats, writes or avoids writing, and begins a relationship with another Young Adult author, Imogen Gray (more on this later).  But that's pretty much it.  Darcy doesn't actually do a ton of growing throughout the book, and her part actually felt like it was giving aspiring young authors extremely unrealistic expectations of how writing and selling a book works.  A first-time author getting a six-figure advance for a book?  Hm...seems unlikely.  As did everything that followed.  The parts that felt the realest were Darcy's travails, but they're frequently overshadowed by her new and glamorous New York Life which...doesn't really seem like it's how it would work...

For the Afterworlds story, it's really only half a story, which is part of the problem.  Part of Darcy's task is to write a sequel to Afterworlds, but Westerfeld himself actually hasn't and doesn't appear to have plans to do so, which means that Lizzie's story just kind of stops with a lot of threads unresolved.  Additionally, there's a relatively dark story line at the center of Lizzie's story about her seeking justice for the ghost of a little girl, which results in terrible actions on Lizzie's part, but the seriousness of these are never really addressed, she gets off without any big consequences, and there doesn't even seem to really be a permanent affect on her character, which was rather disappointing.  And while the version of Afterworlds that we read is supposed to be Darcy's finished product, after her edits and re-writes, some of the issues that her editor mentions linger on, almost making it seem like a caricature of itself at some point.  I think a full-length Afterworlds would have been fascinating and probably a best seller in and of itself, but mixed in with real-world Darcy's story, it just doesn't mesh well enough.

That said, there are some high points here.  There's some really good advice for aspiring writers woven throughout, especially regarding story structure, that's likely to make anyone working on a first draft re-think about how things should be set up.  And then there's Darcy and Imogen themselves.  They have a wonderfully sweet and supportive relationship, even when they have rough patches.  Darcy's family is also ultimately so supportive of her relationship--not knowing that Darcy liked girls before she moved to New York, since even Darcy herself hadn't been sure.  But Westerfeld doesn't try to turn this into a book about "discovering one's sexuality" and doesn't turn to the trope that so many authors do that a gay relationship automatically fails to add #drama.  I think it was well-done and it's balanced by Lizzie's straight relationship with Yama in Afterworlds in a sort of contrast...especially because Lizzie and Yama's relationship is the one with dark tones to it.  It was also fun wondering what parts of characters Westerfeld might have incorporated from other authors of his acquaintance, and what titles and story ideas that have been discarded over time made appearances in the book as other authors' stories.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read but I don't think it was an excellent one.  Neither part of the book was really enough on its own, and it kind of felt like Westerfeld had two half-done ideas so he decided to combine them rather than digging into expand either one into a full-length work of its own.  But I got to read it for free on Riveted, where it was featured for part of April, so I still think it was a worthy use of time.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Phantom of Fifth Avenue - Meryl Gordon

The Phantom of Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Life and Scandalous Death of Heiress Huguette ClarkThere's something about high-society scandal that's just so intriguing.  It's why I like the Luxe series even though it's actually pretty much terrible.  It's why shows like Gossip Girl have so many fans, why the Kardashians are so popular.  And The Phantom of Fifth Avenue promised to be that, but true: the biography of an heiress who vanished from the public eye and then died in the midst of a scandal.  Well, it was really only one of those things, and scandal wasn't really involved.

The heiress in question was Huguette Clark, the daughter of a copper baron and his second, much-younger wife.  William Andrews Clark might have been the subject of some scandal in his attempts to earn money and social climb--there were certainly fishy happenings involved in his race for the Senate at one point--but the most scandal Huguette was involved in was probably being born to Anna Clark, who was a much-younger "ward" of sorts of Williams Andrew Clark years after the death of his first wife.  Huguette really lived a quiet life, traveling with her mother and sister, practicing violin, painting, and collecting dolls.  She got married and divorced once; I guess that could be a scandal, in those times, but it's nothing to write home about for a modern audience.  But what did happen with her is that, decades after she disappeared from the public eye and her relatives last heard from her--her relatives being the children and sometimes grandchildren of her half-siblings from her father's first marriage, the half-siblings who always looked down on Huguette and her mother and who, consequently, Huguette didn't want much to do with--those same relatives decided that Huguette was clearly being manipulated and abused, despite not having heard from her, and decided to see what happened to her.  That she was over a hundred years old and worth $300 million dollars with a questionably legal will of course had nothing to do with the matter.

Gordon definitely did research for this, quoting newspapers, letters, and even conducting interviews with those involved in the story who had known Huguette, or known the people who knew her.  She even got to tell one of the people that they had inherited a decent sum of money from Huguette's estate, having clearly been following the story even more closely than some of those directly involved.  But ultimately, Gordon does the same thing that many of the papers did and tries to make a mountain out of a molehill.  Most of the book is basically Huguette's biography, which is mildly interesting at best, though slightly envy-inspiring.  Seeing her evolving psychology from socialite to recluse was interesting, and I think Gordon did a good job in her analysis on that aspect, but as for the rest... Meh.  Huguette didn't die under mysterious circumstances and the only "scandalous" aspect of her death was that she left a significant portion of her $300 million estate to her longtime nurse.  A lot of people had a problem with this and threw a fit and the whole thing got dragged into court, as is wont to happen when large amounts of money are up for grabs.  Did Huguette's family really want the money for themselves?  Maybe  they were already individually wealthy, but that's not to say they didn't want more.  There certainly seems to be less at the end of the book to indicate that Huguette was being manipulated or abused than Gordon made there out to be at the beginning.

The writing here was fine, but not particularly engaging.  After a while of reading, I began to wonder what the point of my reading really was since most of the book was very repetitive.  Huguette travels.  She paints.  She flirts a bit.  As she gets older she gives away money in increasingly-large denominations.  But honestly I didn't find any of this particularly suspicious or even unbelievable.  It doesn't seem worth a 300+ page book, certainly.  Overall, this was a book that promised more than it delivered, and wasn't what it promised at all.

2 stars out of 5.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Rainshadow Road - Lisa Kleypas (Friday Harbor #2)

Rainshadow Road (Friday Harbor, #2)What a baffling book.  Lisa Kleypas does this, all the time, where she takes a perfectly good story and then just adds in some element that doesn't fit and turns a cohesive whole into something that's just a  She did it in her most recent release, Devil in Spring, by turning a historical romance into something involving a half-baked plot involving Fenian assassins in the last few chapters.  In her Hathaways series, some weird spirit popped up at least a couple of times--and I'm told the ghost trope makes a reappearance (though with a different ghost) in the third book of this series, Dream Lake.  In Rainshadow Road, she takes what looked like it was going to be a good contemporary romance series and randomly--yes, randomly, because the first book in this series didn't hint at this happening at all--decided to add magic.

Lucy was seven when she discovered that she had magic that could turn glass into living creatures.  Though apparently only flying living creatures--fireflies, butterflies, hummingbirds, bats.  Plagued by a younger sister who was relentlessly spoiled after nearly dying of meningitis, Lucy has always loved her glass and the vitality she feels within it.  As an adult in Friday Harbor, she owns a glass studio and is in a relationship with a good guy...until he breaks up with her for none other than that same spoiled younger sister.  Who's now moving in with him, meaning that Lucy has to move out.  Baffled and broken-hearted, she packs up and moves in with two friends who run a bed and breakfast.  And she also happens to run into Sam Nolan along the way, the middle Nolan brother who owns a Victorian house and accompanying vineyard on Rainshadow Road.  The two have an immediate connection but Lucy doesn't want to date anyone and Sam is completely against commitment--but he's open to a friends-with-benefits relationship, if Lucy decides she's interested.  And when he ends up taking care of her after she's in a bicycle accident, their connection and attraction begins to grow...

One thing that I did like here was that Kleypas avoided a conflict that revolved entirely around a simple miscommunication or silly secret; when Lucy's ex tries to get Sam to take her out to benefit himself, Sam immediately tells Lucy that he was asked to do it, and they move past it.  I also liked Holly's continuing inclusion in this book.  She seemed like a normal, silly kid and, while she wasn't exactly necessary to the story, I didn't feel she dragged it down unnecessarily, either.  Friday Harbor itself continues to have a great atmosphere that makes me want to go on vacation there.  And of course, as in all Kleypas books, the banter between the characters is good, the side characters are clearly set up to become main characters in future (or past!) books and are therefore a bit more three-dimensional than side characters tend to be, and the kissing and sex scenes were deliciously steamy.

But the magic elements... Why?  I just don't understand.  They're just not necessary, and they were entirely absent in the first book of the series, so I'm not sure why Kleypas decided to integrate them now with a clear path for more to show up in the rest of the books.  I think she was trying to add in a bit of magical realism, but it didn't work in that sense.  Additionally, Lucy insists throughout the book that she doesn't really know how to control her ability, that things just happen when she gets emotional, and yet at the end she just suddenly knows how to exactly control it.  And somehow her glass magic suddenly manages to change Sam's house and vineyard?  What?  Where did that come from?

The writing here also isn't Kleypas' best.  While she excels at building atmosphere and background in her historicals, it seems like in her contemporaries she tends to tell rather than show and info-dump in an attempt to get allllll the info out there when it seems like most of it could have just been integrated a bit more gracefully throughout the book.  And her hero, Sam, is mostly good, but had some controlling tendencies.  Lucy did some glass work for a biker church, and the bikers are eager to help her throughout the book--they take her car to get it fixed after it breaks down, seem inclined to give her rides, help her out in a bar, etc., and yet Sam is adamant that he doesn't want her involved with them.  And instead of insisting that her friends are her friends, Lucy just goes along with it, which was somewhat disappointing.  The bikers seemed like decent guys, and even if they weren't, Lucy was a grown woman who could make her own decisions.

And then there are Lucy's parents, the king and queen of flip-flopping.  After apparently putting Lucy down for most of her life in order to give her sister Alice whatever she wanted, they abruptly jump ship to Lucy's side when Alice steals Lucy's boyfriend.  They make it seem like it was the last straw for them, but honestly I found that unrealistic; it seemed more to me like they would have just gone along with it, since this didn't seem that much more extreme than some of the other things Alice had done.  Alice herself also had no appeal to me; Kleypas tries to include some redeeming sister time near the end, but honestly I don't think that Alice could really change.  Lucy spent so much time saying how you shouldn't date someone with the expectation that you could or would change them, but then suddenly Alice was able to be changed?  I doubt it.

Overall, this is not as good as Kleypas' historicals, for the most part.'s still weirdly appealing.  The characters and atmosphere are charming and the romance still sizzles, and that seems to override some of the many other weaknesses.  And they're quick reads, as well, so I guess I don't mind too much.

3 stars out of 5, but I'm not really expecting the future books to improve--though I'll likely still read them!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Tale of Despereaux - Kate DiCamillo

The Tale of DespereauxThe Tale of Despereaux was my pick for a category for my 2017 reading challenge for "A book from a non-human perspective."  This was a really hard category to find a book for; the obvious books, like Black Beauty, I had already read or, like The Art of Racing in the Rain, refused to read because I don't like to read books where the dog dies.  A list of books with non-human main characters suggested The Tale of Despereaux.  It's kind of a loose fit for the category, but half of our point-of-view characters are non-human, so I'm going to go with it since I'm having such hard time finding a title for this category.

The tale is a whimsical, middle-grade level story about a very small mouse who falls in love with a princess and is condemned to death for treading into the human world, but escapes his fate and embarks on a quest to save said princess from a rat named Chiaroscuro.  Also involved is a simple serving girl named Mig.  There's an omniscient narrator who tells the story, but each character has a background portion of the book and then they all come together later on.

The writing here is very fairy tale-like, which was probably the point.  There's some very poignant prose as well, which surprised me for a middle-grade book, but then I guess that's why this won a Newbery Medal.  Take this line from near the end of the book, for example: "But, alas, he never really belonged in either place, the sad fate, I am afraid, of those whose hearts break and then mend in crooked ways."  This is such a simple yet powerful statement that I kind of had to take a step back and examine how it fits not just this story, but so many other ones, and so many people in the real world.  Even when it's not explicitly stated about a character, it's easy to see in hindsight how this suits so many people both real and fictional, and it's a very insightful line and good lesson for a book of this level.

The characters here are all sympathetic, even the "bad" ones.  You can see how they came to where they are and how they've grown, and continue to grow as the story progresses.  The simple narrative style actually lends itself to this because the circumstances are laid out in such a matter of fact manner that everything is very clear, without DiCamillo trying to twist things around and add so many layers that you can't really see to the truth of the thing.  It's also a quick read, which makes it even more impressive that it packs so much emotion and dimension into a relatively small page count, and an even smaller one once you factor in the illustrations that take up a significant portion of space.  The illustrations were actually the one thing I didn't really like about the book; I don't feel like they added to the story, and illustrations actually take away some of the ability of the reader to visualize things as they wish, so I'm pretty much always against them for all but the most junior-reading-level books.

Overall, though, a wonderful, simple story with a good heart that I think even older readers such as myself can enjoy.

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Seven Minutes in Heaven - Eloisa James (Desperate Duchesses #9, Desperate Duchesses by the Numbers #3)

25256835Oh, Eloisa James.  You never fail me.  Not really.  Unlike the last historical romance I read, Lisa Kleypas' Devil in Spring, James' latest, Seven Minutes in Heaven, was an utter delight, even if trying to keep the relations of all the characters straight made my head ache.
Seven Minutes is the third in the Desperate Duchesses by the Numbers series, which is a continuation of the Desperate Duchesses series, but with the "next generation" of couples finding love.  The hero, Ward Reeve, is the illegitimate son of the hero of the first Desperate Duchesses book, the Earl of Gryffyn.  The heroine, Eugenia Snowe, is the widowed daughter of the hero of Duchess by Night, which I think was DD #3.  But pretty much all of the couples make an appearance here in one way or another, and the way they're all connected--having read the original books several years ago and even the most recent one around a year ago--gave me a bit of a headache as I tried to keep everyone straight.
The plot is simple.  Since her widowing, Eugenia has operated a registry for governesses, sending out the best child-rearers in the country to families in need.  Ward is definitely in need.  He's recently found himself the guardian of his two younger half-siblings, who are eight and nine years old and have to this point been raised under rather unusual circumstances.  Unusual enough that they're little hellions and have driven away not one but two of Eugenia's best governesses in short order.  So he decides he wants Eugenia--and it doesn't hurt that he's attracted to her, and that she's decided that maybe moving on from her dead husband to have a little fun would be in her best interests...
As with all of James' books, this is charming.  There's a simple misunderstanding at the heart of the book, albeit one that, for most of the time, the two main characters don't really know exists.  Yes, a little more communication could have been useful and derailed most of it, but the two protagonists were so concerned with being proper even within the bounds of a rather improper relationship that I can kind of see why they were being so circumspect with each other.  Their banter was delightful and witty, as James' banter always is.  And while Eugenia is willing to compromise on many things, one thing she is not willing to compromise on is that the man she ends up with must respect her--and while she thinks Ward might love her, she's not sure he respects her, and she's willing to walk away without that respect.  For a long time, I was worried that James wasn't going to resolve this, and that Eugenia would compromise on that demand for respect--but she didn't! James resolved it wonderfully, just as she always does.
And another high point here was the children.  I don't typically like child characters in books, but James has actually used them to her advantage quite a bit.  I don't remember Eugenia and Ward as children from the original DD books, though now I'm tempted to go back and read particularly for them, but Lizzie and Otis, Ward's younger half-siblings here, are wonderful.  They add such color to the story, but they're not weird for the sake of being weird.  Rather, they're weird because of the way they were brought up prior to their arrival on Ward's doorstep, and they have additional depths that come out as the story unfolds--such as why Lizzie really wears that veil.  They're integral to the plot and they're well-rounded characters, which is so rare for children that seeing them done so well was refreshing.
One thing, though: James brought a character back from the dead here!  The Dowager Duchess of Gilner was apparently killed off in one of the original DD books.  I don't remember that, but I believe that it happened--James has even owned up to it publicly on Goodreads, professing how embarrassed she was that she didn't realize it until a reviewer pointed it out and it was too late to fix, presumably by subbing in another distant relative to serve as an antagonist here.  I believe this was a mistake and not, as some readers have clamored, James taking advantage of her readers and presuming they're too stupid to notice what she did.  I mean, even James' editors have to be having issues keeping up with all her entangled families and characters by now, but I feel like James herself should have been a bit more on top of who was dead and who was still alive.
Overall, this was a great read, particularly in juxtaposition to Devil In Spring.  Like DIS, SMIH has a woman with her own business who also wants love but doesn't want to give up her dreams--though Eugenia's dreams, at least in a professional capacity, have already been fulfilled, where Pandora's had just begun.  But where Pandora throws out her dreams in the space of a few chapters once she experiences sex, Eugenia knows better.  She's older and wiser, yes, but overall she's just a better character.  If you read DIS and were disappointed, I'd definitely recommend this one instead--or, really, any of the Desperate Duchesses by the Numbers books, which all feature women who have their own professions despite the times in which they live.
4 stars out of 5.

This also fulfills my 2017 Popsugar Reading Challenge category for "A book by an author who uses a pseudonym."  Eloisa James is the pseudonym used by Mary Bly for her romance novels.