Thursday, December 12, 2013

Rooftops of Tehran - Mahbod Seraji

6001011Rooftops of Tehran is the story of Pasha, a 17-year-old Iranian, and his best friends as they go through about a year in Tehran in the 1970s.  Pasha and his friend Ahmed spend lots of time on the roof of Pasha's house, joking and talking about life and Ahmed's crush, and later on Pasha's own crush.  Pasha is in love with girl-next-door Zari, who is engaged to Doctor, a revolutionary young man whom Pasha greatly admires.  Revolutionary activity is on the rise at this time period, and everyone is terrified of SAVAK, the secret police force.

The first half of the book was just okay.  It's about Pasha and his friends, including Zari, as they go through a summer and grieve the loss of someone close to them.  The first half concludes with a catastrophe that completely overturns everything Pasha had planned for his life.  It's also filled with snippets of life in Pasha's alley, like soccer games and incidents at school.  This part of the book, while it had its moments, was overall boring to me.  I understand its purpose in the buildup to and contrast with the second half, but it just didn't grab me.  This part is also cut with "interludes" every couple of chapters, which detail Pasha in a mental hospital trying to piece together what happened and why he is there.

The second half is Pasha trying to recover from his experience and move on.  This half was truly beautiful to me.  I think Seraji did a beautiful job of depicting Pasha's grief, his distance from everyone and everything around him, and how he copes with his new world.  It was wonderfully written, overall.  I suspected the ending was coming from pretty much the first chapter in the second half--which isn't good, because I never saw the climax of the first half coming.  I was actually a little let down that Seraji didn't have some twist at the end, because the ending is hinted at all along.  While the ending was good, I think it could have been better if Pasha had been forced to actually deal with something rather than just having it handed to him again.

The character development in this was great on all fronts, and I got a really good feel for life in Pasha's alley.  I think the whole setting was done very well.

Overall, an above-average book, but not an absolutely fabulous one.  I doubt I'll remember it in a year or two, but it was a pleasure reading now.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Crazy in Paradise - Deborah Brown (Paradise #1)

Crazy in ParadiseMadison Westin has recently gone through a divorce and is now mourning the death of her aunt, who has left Madison most of her estate in Tarpon Cove, part of the Florida Keys.  Madison moves into her aunt's old house and plans to take up management of a commercial property called The Cottages which her aunt owned.  However, not everything is fine in paradise, and Madison has to contest with a shady lawyer, shady manager, interfering relatives, and a guy by the name of Zach who shows up with a gunshot wound in her backyard.

Madison was absolutely infuriating as a main character and narrator.  She's a complete moron.  I wanted to slap her for the entire length of the book.  Let's examine a few things that Madison does that no sane person would.  She does not hire her own attorney to handle the shady attorney and property manager who insist they were hired by her deceased aunt, even though she suspects from the beginning that they're lying and up to something.  She lets a guy with a gunshot wound, who she's literally just met, stay in her house for days because he says he knows her aunt.  How does she know this guy is telling the truth?  And then she gets involved with him physically.  Okay, he's hot, whatever, go ahead and get your physical pleasure, but what about the fact that he's apparently a criminal of some variety?  Madison, you don't know what you might be getting mixed up in!  She then lets this stranger's even stranger brother stay with her, even though Zach openly admits he's a criminal.  She then agrees to house a just-released convict for several months.  She gets involved with a ton of people who she knows are criminals, and when something goes wrong, guess what?  She's completely blindsided by it.  Because who would ever think that something could go wrong with a setup like that?

There's no real mystery in this book.  I think it was supposed to be one, but it's not.  There's a murder, but it doesn't show up until well into the book and even then Madison isn't any sort of mystery-solver.  There are no twists, no turns; everyone who seems skeevy actually is.  You can see the ending from a mile away.  No one is anything except what they seem.  And honestly, for what's supposed to be a mystery or suspense novel, we spend an awful lot of time hearing about what Madison is wearing.  Oh, and the "big reveal" comes from a character who Madison speaks to on the phone, once, and is not otherwise involved with the story at all.  Why?  What's the purpose?  To fill a narrative gap?  That should have been thought out first and tied in.  Mysteries can't have sprawling casts of characters because it makes no sense for them to have those sprawling casts.  Rather, they should have small- to medium-sized groups, and you should constantly be forced to question the truth and motives of everyone except the narrator--whose motives and involvement should be questioned by everyone else involved.

The writing is fairly sub-par, too.  Brown has no conception of how to properly use quotation marks in regards to dialogue.  The dialogue itself is sloppy and stilted, not natural at all, and is extremely formal even between characters who supposedly know each other very well, such as Madison and her mother and brother.  Oh, and did I mention that everyone around her endorses Madison's poor decisions?  They work out, of course, because why would there ever be consequences for poor-decision making?  There were so many cool ways this story could have gone, but Brown didn't take any of them.  A much easier, neater route with a good potential for real mystery and romance would have had Madison unwittingly getting pulled into Zach's business busting a ring of thieves; it would have brought about natural interaction between the two, and she would have had a chance to organically grow and meet the other characters in the book.  But that's not what happened.  Instead, Brown went with a plot that was completely contrived and unbelievable.

1 star out of 5.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Dream Jumper's Promise - Kim Hornsby (Dream Jumper #1)

The Dream Jumper's PromiseI've said before that my two great loves are food and history.  Well, if I had to pick a third, it'd be water.  I was raised in the water.  I grew up on Lake Erie, and my father owned a SCUBA and swim shop named Fantaseas with some of his friends.

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Excuse the poor quality of the logo; the shop went out of business years ago, and I think the resolution was about as good as it got back then.  Anyway, my father and mother, along with their friends, all taught SCUBA, so I was in the pool before I could walk.  I was on a swim team when I was in first grade.  My mom ran the aquatics department of a local  YMCA, so I had complete access to two pools in the winter and five in the summer, and my neighbors had an in-ground pool they let us use whenever we wanted.  I got lifeguard certified when I was 16 and went straight into a position as a lifeguard at another YMCA, where I stayed for four years before moving permanently to Washington, DC.  I've always loved vacations that involve water, too, whether it's giant wave pools (my favorite is the one at Typhoon Lagoon at Disney World, which has 6-foot waves every minute and a half) or the ocean itself.  So, if I have to say why I grabbed this book for my Kindle, I'm going to have to say it was a mixture of the cover (ocean, swimming, beach, palm trees...mmmmm, yeah, baby, gimme some of that location, please!), the description that included the words "SCUBA" and "surfing," which are two things I've always wanted to do (the dive shop closed before I was old enough to get SCUBA-certified), and the story took place in Hawaii, which is somewhere I've always, always, always wanted to go.  I wasn't entirely sold on the whole "dream jumper" thing, 'cause it sounded hokey, but hey, there were those other facts playing in, so I went for it.  Oh, and it was free.  Or 99 cents.  I can't actually remember.

Okay, so, the story is about (Kris)Tina Greene/Perez, who was widowed less than a year ago when her husband tragically disappeared while out surfing.  Tina refuses to believe Hank is actually dead, because his body was never found, and keeps hoping he's going to turn up.  Meanwhile, she tries to recover from her ordeal and get her business, a dive shop in Hawaii, running properly again so she can pay all of her bills.  Then James/Jamey shows up.  He's an ex-boyfriend from years ago, and he's very interested in what's going on with Tina.  We soon learn that Jamey can jump into people's dreams and interfere with them, and he wants to use his abilities to help Tina deciper the wacky dreams she's been having lately in hopes that they might reveal something about Hank's disappearance.  Also meanwhile, Tina tries to balance things with Hank's best friend, Noble, who is also very interested in her.

I did like this book, overall, but it wasn't fabulous.  First, everybody wants to fuck Tina.  I don't know why.  She's pretty, I guess--I can't actually really remember much how she's described, other than being small and having dark hair and big breasts, but being pretty is a safe bet for a heroine--but everyone appears to connect with her on a Deeper Level.  They don't want to sleep with her because she's hot, but because she's Special.  Blah.  Boring.  Second, pretty much half the characters in this novel are total creeps, and you can definitely tell they're scheming something all along.  The exact something might evade you--it evaded me until the end--but you can tell they're in on it in some form.  Third, Jamey's entire Kandahar story line is completely hokey and unnecessary.  I think it was an attempt to make him "deep," but it wasn't needed.  I think a perfectly good background for him could have been made up with just the non-military aspects of his life.  I'm willing to suspend a lot of disbelief when I'm reading, but that whole plot line (if you can call it that; it was mostly in the past) went too far.  Finally, the happily-ever-afters for everyone were too sickly sweet to seem realistic in the slightest.

What was the best about this book was Tina as a stand-alone character.  She's very confused, not sure what to think about anything that's happening around her or who she should trust, and I think Hornsby wrote her very well.  She wants to be a confident, sassy woman like she once was, but she sees everything she loved rapidly slipping away from her and isn't entirely sure what to do about it.  Throw in her freaky dreams on top of that, and it's no wonder she was losing it.  Though I did think that maybe Hornsby didn't go far enough with the "mental health system" repercussions.  I mean, she's walking around vividly hallucinating and all her shrink does is tell her not to take quite as much Xanax?  And mixing alcohol with meds is a BIG no-no.  Come on, Hornsby!

This book does contain an instance of near-rape, which I also thought Hornsby handled well.  She manages to perfectly capture the confusion that many victims of rape suffer when their abuser was someone they knew and might have had romantic connections with before while not engaging in the epidemic of blaming the victim.  The whole thing was handled very well.

Finally, I loved how Hornsby wrote the setting. I've never been to Hawaii, and my experience with the islands goes as far as a trip to Key West for a week (not quite the same) and numerous viewings of Lilo & Stitch.  But I still felt that I got a very clear picture of what Tina's life in Hawaii was like.  It made me want to visit all the more, despite the dark goings-on in the story.

Overall, I liked the book, but it did have some issues.  The biggest annoyance was the Kandahar story, because it was so prevalent throughout the book and was so incredibly unnecessary.  Still, I guess if you want a paranormal suspense book with some romance in it, I wouldn't discourage you from reading it.

2 stars out of 5. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Gods in Alabama - Joshilyn Jackson

Gods in Alabama
Arlene Fleet is a graduate student in Chicago, Illinois, who suspects that her boyfriend is about to propose to her...until he overhears a phone conversation with her aunt and suspects that she might be ashamed of him, as she's never taken him home to meet her family.  He demands that she attend the party her aunt is trying to harangue her into going home for, and that she take him with her.  A fight ensues.  In the midst of it, a girl from Arlene's Alabama hometown shows up on Arlene's doorstep asking questions about a guy named Jim Beverly, and suddenly the book isn't a romantic comedy anymore, because Arlene knows exactly where--or, more accurately, what--Jim Beverly is, and that's dead.  The rest of the book follows Arlene and Burr as they head down to Alabama to throw Rose Mae off Jim's trail, though Burr doesn't know that's the real purpose of the trip.  Arlene is trying to work up the guts to tell him, but faced with everything against her, it's not exactly easy.

I thought I was absolutely going to love this book up until the last chapter.  Five stars, all the way.  The writing is phenomenal, and I can completely imagine Arlene, her crazy family, Rose Mae Lolley, Burr, and the small town of Possett, Alabama.  I loved the multi-faceted way in which she portrayed not only Arlene, the grad student, good Southern Baptist girl, slut, and murderer, but also Jim Beverly, who could protect his girlfriend from her abusive father and usher a girl to the nurse's office so she doesn't have to be embarrassed by having blood all over her pants, but also turn into a violent drunk.  Arlene and Burr's relationship was very real, with conflicts and bumps and moments when you think it might be over, but always lasting because they really and truly do know each other.  I loved the way Burr dealt with Arlene's crazy, mostly-racist family, and I was really loving the book in general.

And then there was that last chapter.  See, in the last chapter, Jackson pretty much unravels the gorgeous narrative she had built up until that point.  I was expecting a House of Sand and Fog-type ending, and I would have been okay with that.  That's not the way this goes, though.  In the end, everyone gets away with what they've done, Jim is a monster after all, Arlene and her family are reconciled, and she and Burr presumably live happily ever after.  It's just too perfect.  Murder doesn't end that way.  Or, it does, sometimes, but very, very rarely.  Arlene & Co. are just primed to be starring on an episode of Cold Case 25 years from now.  That last chapter knocked a couple of stars off my rating of this one.  A more "flawed" ending for Arlene & Co. would have been more satisfying, I think; heart-wrenching, yes, but I think Jackson could have pulled it off if she tried.  She just didn't try.

2.5 stars.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Haven - A. R. Ivanovich (War of the Princes #1)

11758870Ivanovich's Haven is the story of Katelyn Kestrel, a girl with an uncanny ability to find things who decides she wants to find a way out of her home in Haven Valley to see the Outside, which her people abandoned seven hundred years ago.  She does so with remarkable speed and in the process runs into Rune, a wounded soldier who's so sick he thinks Katelyn is either a delusion or a ghost.  In the process of helping him, Katelyn is captured and taken prisoner in the Outside world, and must escape back to Haven Valley.

I really loved Ivanovich's world.  It's a mix of fantasy and steampunk, with magical abilities existing alongside steamships and things like the Clockwork Ferris Wheel.  I would have liked to see more of the people in Haven Valley, like Ruby and Katelyn's other friends, but I think they might appear more in the second book of this series.  Katelyn herself wasn't exactly a fantastic character.  She was whiny and selfish and for the longest time had no idea about the consequences of her actions.  For example, the character Dylan explains to her that soldiers like Rune are not allowed to have connections; they have no family, no friends, no lovers, and forming those connections would result in death for the involved parties and the recruitment of another child to fill the soldier's place.  Despite that, Katelyn goes on and on about how betrayed she is that Rune won't turn into a mushy pile when he sees her, even after she meets his former younger sister--you know, the type of kid who'd be forced to become a soldier if Rune strayed from the rules.  Katelyn does eventually grow up a bit, but it's not until the very end of the book, and then it was remarkably abrupt.

The romance in this book isn't quite insta-love, but it is perilously close to it.  Rune is, obviously, the main love interest, though there's an almost-love-triangle with Dylan at points.  I wouldn't go so far as to say Katelyn falls in love with Rune as soon as she meets him; rather, she is intrigued by him and wants to help him, very much like Dylan is intrigued by her.  However, her intrigue rapidly ascends into what might be called outright obsession, and two kisses later she's declaring she's in love.  So, not quite insta-love, but almost as bad.  I did like Katelyn and Rune together, I'm just not sure I liked how it was done.  Also, where did Rune get the impression that he and Katelyn had kissed before they ever actually did?  That was never explained.

I'm going to let the whole "knack for finding things" go because that was explained later in the book, and worked into the world.  It was well done, and I approve of the way Ivanovich went about it.  The whole thing with the different levels of command was excellent, and the behind-the-scenes dealing and intrigue that we don't see until very late in the book was awesome.  It's what really forced Katelyn to grow up, and I liked it.

Ivanovich isn't the best writer I've ever read.  Her style is engaging enough, I guess, but she has some grammatical issues that need to be worked out; as they are, they can jar you out of the story, and then you have to work to get settled back in.  Still, a good plot can compensate for a lot, and I think Ivanovich has that.  A lot of the issues I had with this book early on worked themselves out later, and I think I would definitely be interested in reading the second installment of the series.

3.5 stars.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Never - Kristina Circelli

The NeverThe Never is supposed to be Peter Pan all grown up, with the main character Arianna serving as a modern, kick-ass Wendy.  She's a modern 26-year-old artist who is engaged to man named John, and takes medication to fight off what are thought of as delusions, but are actually real--memories of a place called The Never and the people and creatures who inhabit it.  However, she often forgets to take her medication, and when she does, The Never comes calling until she finally returns.

That's what the book is supposed to be about, and you can certainly read it in that way.  It's not a bad fantasy.  In its course, Arianna learns how to fly, fights with and against pirates, consorts with mermaids, and changes The Never forever.  But let's touch on a few points as to why I don't think it reads like that.

The first is Arianna herself, and also Malachi.  They're supposed to be adults, all grown up, and yet they're entirely obsessed with adventures and games.  They don't act like adults at all, and have absolutely no comprehension of the consequences of their actions.  They're selfish and cruel to everyone they love.  Arianna up and abandons her mother, her fiance, and her brand new puppy to go play Peter Pan somewhere.  It's completely ridiculous, and made me not like either of them at all.  Once Ari started trying to fix things, I regained a bit of respect for her, but I could never like Malachi, who hid things from her that ended up being disastrous, even though he knew they could end up being disastrous, because he was too wrapped up in his "games" to do otherwise.

My other big issue with this was Ari's medication.  She takes these little blue pills that apparently cut her off from The Never and anchor her on earth.  Which just seemed...weird?  Like, why would that exist?  They're apparently pills to combat mental illness, so why would they work against something that's actually real?  Why wouldn't they jumble up her thoughts and memories of earth as well as of The Never?  It doesn't make sense at all.  Which brings me to...

I absolutely could not read this as a full-fledged fantasy.  I just couldn't.  The medication thing completely screwed it up for me, and I ended up reading it as a beautifully-written story of mental illness, manipulation, and abuse instead.  That was fascinating.  The whole medication thing just didn't make sense to me, and so I had to twist the entire narrative so that it did.  Also, if Ari isn't actually visiting The Never, but is in fact just intensely delusional, it would also explain her selfish, erratic behavior.

Circelli's prose itself is absolutely lovely, and I think it's very well crafted in a word-smithing sort of way.  I could perfectly imagine The Never and the worlds around it, as well as all of the characters which inhabit it.  It was great.  I think she does a good job of spinning out the story and working in pertinent details at good points, rather than just dumping it all in your lap at one time.  And if you read it as I did, it's even more fabulous, because every single thing in The Never represents some part of Ari's life and why an active imagination might have been spurred on into full-blown delusions.  Still, I'm not sure that's how this book is meant to be read, so I'm not sure I can actually give Circelli credit for that.  Still, she's definitely a good writer, and I would be interested in reading more of her books.

3.5 stars out of 5.  This would probably be higher if I knew exactly how I was supposed to read it.  And if I liked Ari.

PS.  There's also a suggestion that John's (Ari's fiance) great-grandmother is the original Wendy of Peter Pan, which was cool and a clever little nod to the original story, if I do say so myself.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Cornerstone - Kelly Walker (Souls of the Stones #1)

Cornerstone (Souls of the Stones, #1)Cornerstone by Kelly Walker is a young-adult fantasy novel, and it's absolutely nothing to write home about.  While there's a bit of intrigue involved, it doesn't actually unravel until the very end, and the plot barely had enough to keep me going to get to that point.  The writing style also isn't all that great.  Walker absolutely does not have a clear grasp of how grammar works with dialogue.  In her non-dialogue sentences, it's fine, but when it comes to dialogue she seems to have no idea where periods, commas, and quotation marks go in relation to each other and to line breaks.  Some of this might be typos, and that's excusable to a point; even the most professionally-published books usually have a typo or two.  But these grammatical slip-ups were absolutely rampant in Cornerstone.  Also, within the first couple of chapters, Walker feels the need to dump absolutely everything you need to know about the Three Corners (the trio of realms in the book) right into your lap through boring political dialogue.  Yawn.

In addition to the info dumping, there was a ton of completely unnecessary description and prose in this book.  Honestly, I don't care if Emariya (the heroine; we'll get to her in a second) likes the feel of fur against her cheek if it doesn't have anything to do with her development as a character or the plot as a whole.  I don't care what color dress she was wearing while out traipsing around the countryside; in fact, being told that she was wearing a white dress after days on the road without a bath or any hope of one just made me wonder if she was completely moronic.  Like, I know it's a medieval fantasy-based world, but there were only two people around.  I'm pretty sure the girl could have worn pants, or at least a simpler dress.

Okay, let's get to the plot.  So, the story revolves around Emariya, who's the daughter of an important lord in the realm of Eltar.  Eltar is under attack by Sheas, another realm, and doesn't really have the weapons or manpower necessary to fight off the attackers.  In order to get weapons and supporting troops, she agrees to marry the prince of the third realm, the name of which I don't remember.  Anyway, the prince's name is Torian, and that's the important part.  Emariya doesn't actually set out to marry Torian until a good chunk into the book, and even then, not a hell of a lot happens.  There's a lot of walking, and riding, and talking, and it's very Lord Of The Rings-esque in that there are tons of descriptions of scenery but not much actually going on.  So, the Lord-Of-The-Rings thing isn't actually a compliment.  I hated Lord of the Rings.  Emariya is a completely boring heroine.  Totally insipid.  Absolutely no flavor to her at all.  She's generic in every way, shape, and form.  She's beautiful, everyone's in love with her, she has a hidden power and dead parents, she's being forced into an arranged marriage, blah blah blah.  Nothing original here, folks.  Also, absolutely everybody except her seems to know she's got hidden powers, but somehow she never got clued in.  What?  I mean, the maids who work in the kitchen and the peasants living in the countryside know she has magical abilities, but her?  Noooooo.  Of course not.

Torian was boring, as well.  He falls in love with Emariya the moment she sees him, and the feeling's mutual.  She struggles against it a bit, because she doesn't think it's real or whatever, but Walker never actually gives us a reason to doubt the sincerity of either of their feelings.  There's not real struggle, no heart-rending moment when you think things might not work out.  Instead, the two of them just go sailing off in their blissful little romance.  It wasn't badly-written, necessarily... In fact, there were a few very good kissing scenes.  But as a whole, their romance just doesn't do anything except have gushy lines like, "But no one loves the moon."  "I do."  So, yeah.  The romance was just meh.  Torian doesn't really have that much depth to him, either.  He's got some cool family issues that I think had a lot of potential to make him a much more complex character, but Walker never elaborated on them.  I honestly liked him better when I thought he was a complete bastard, because it would have given him a dimension other than the standard cookie-cutter hero.

And then there's Garith.  Oh, Garith.  Who has been friendzoned so hard and knows it but is still in love with Emariya, and actually loves her all the more for it, because "his love is all he can give her."  Gag me with a spoon.  I'm not a huge fan of love triangles, but at least if Garith had posed some competition to Torian, the whole Torian/Emariya thing might have been a bit more interesting.

Also, why the hell did Walker pick a name like Russell for one of the characters?  The rest of the world is filled with Jessas, Emariyas, Torians, Rinks, and Gariths, and yet Russell is the name of a villain?  I think not.  THIS is Russell:

Anyway, at the end of the book I felt like I was where I should have been 1/3 or 1/2 of the way through.  The characters are just on the verge of setting out to encounter conflict; no real conflict has actually occurred yet.  The whole book is just set-up for the next one, and it shouldn't be.  Books in a trilogy should all strengthen each other, and yet should be able to stand alone.  This doesn't.

2 stars out of 5.

Friday, November 15, 2013

What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures - Malcolm Gladwell

What the Dog Saw and Other AdventuresWhat the Dog Saw is a collection of essays by Malcom Gladwell, all of which were originally published in The New Yorker.  The essays are divided into three sections.  The first is about what Gladwell calls "obsessives and minor geniuses," the second is about theories, and the third is about predictions about people.  Now, because these latter two sections are themed so specifically...the book gets a bit repetitive.

The first section is great.  The stories are varied.  Every single one talks about a person in a different area of life, from a guy who sells kitchen gadgets to the Dog Whisperer to a person obsessed with making a ketchup better than Heinz.  I really did feel like I was reading a new "adventure" with every article.  In the second section, things started out well.  Soon, though, I started to feel like I was reading the same story over and over again.  This is party because of Gladwell's writing style and partly because of how the book is compiled.

Let's talk about the writing style first.  It's not dry, it's not boring, it's not badly-done.  On the contrary, it's quite good, which is what I would expect from someone who's written for The New Yorker for years.  The stories don't drag on; they focus on one topic, such as homelessness, but tackle it from different angles.  For example, in the story about the Dog Whisperer, entitled "What the Dog Saw," Gladwell talks not only about what Cesar Millan does with the dog, but how movement specialists examine his posture and gestures.  It's a different approach.  It lets Gladwell incorporate a lot of different stuff into one article, and it also lets him research a myriad of stuff and then break that stuff up into different articles where various sections of it might be relevant.

 But on the other hand, I got sick of reading about Enron, which comes up not only in its own story but in one or two others.  And the theories, while they were technically different, were all too closely-related for me to really enjoy that section.  Some of the stuff was awesome on its own.  The story about homelessness and the one about troublemakers were great.  But some of them just began to blur together and consequently weren't as interesting.  This is mainly because of how the book is constructed.  Articles just aren't written to be read en masse like this; they're meant to be read as stand-alone things, in the magazines or papers they were written for.  When you get a collection like this, there's bound to be some repetition.  That doesn't mean it's bad; it just means it's not a book that's meant to be read straight through.  I feel like it's more something that should be picked up every now and then to read one article, and then to be put back down for a while before being looked again.

At least, that's what I saw.

3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Book of Lost Things - John Connolly

The Book of Lost ThingsThe Book of Lost Things is for those who like their stories with a heavy dose of fantasy influence, with a few twists but nothing that makes the underlying stories completely unrecognizable.  The story revolves around David and his experiences following the death of his mother.  With only his overworked father for company, David takes to reading.  His father meets a new woman, Rose, who becomes pregnant.  David and his father move in with her in her old family home.  David's room is filled with the books of the former occupant, and David can hear them speaking.  Not only that, but he's started to have fainting fits, and when he wakes up he had memories of a different place.  Oh, and did I mention The Crooked Man, who looks like something out of a nightmare, is stalking him?

One night, David crawls through a hole in the garden wall and finds himself in a strange land that's infested with monsters and creatures of myth and fairy tale.  His only hope of getting home, he's told, is to go see the king.  The king has a mysterious book called The Book of Lost Things, and it might hold the answer to David's safe return to his family.

The strange world in this book is heavily influenced by fairy tales, which was very cool.  Connolly subtly modified all of them to make them fresh and foreboding, but they were still recognizable enough that I could feel I was "in" on the secrets of the world without actually being there.  Also, not only well-known fairy tales are used.  Sure, there are elements of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Little Red Riding Hood, but there is also The Goose Girl, The Three Army Surgeons, and a few things out of poetry and myth which haven't been as heavily represented in the current fad of retelling fairy tales.  The overall plot of the book isn't entirely ground-breaking; it's extremely reminiscent of the movie Labyrinth.  You know, the one with David Bowie as the Goblin King?

Yeah.  That one.  Anyway, The Book of Lost Things is definitely more about the journey than the destination, because honestly, I don't like the destination.  I don't like destinations like that in general, because, um...

That's why.  Awkward.  Also, some of the stuff in the book doesn't work the way it says it works, which was kind of weird.  Like the Loups.  Their presence is explained (via the Red Riding Hood story) but later on, they don't actually fit that story at all in their transformations.  It was kind of weird.  David's character seems kind of immature for his age, too; he's supposed to be around the age of twelve or thirteen, but he acts much longer.  I see this a lot in books; it's like authors have a couple of pre-conceived "child" characters and jump straight from the 8-year-old to the 17-year-old, with no shifts in behavior in between.  Still, though, a good read for the bulk of the book.  OH!  And it has this awesome section at the back where all of the "origin stories" of the fairy tales are laid out, so if you ever want to know more about one of the elements Connolly uses, he goes right on and tells you!  Very cool.  Kudos for that one.

Overall, good book.  I didn't like the ending, but I can forgive it because the body was so great.

4 out of 5 stars.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Blood of Flowers - Anita Amirrezvani

The Blood of Flowers
So, this is one of those books where the heroine never gets a name.  I've seen this before, most memorably in Daphne DeMaurier's Rebecca, but I don't particularly like it.  I know the book is written in first person, so we shouldn't really need that much of a name, but I still like knowing how to refer to the main character.  However, I didn't actually realize she doesn't have a name until I wrote this review.  Throughout the entire book, I did keep wondering what her name is, but I just presumed that it was mentioned and I forgot about it.  So I guess it works, as long as you don't really want to discuss the main character with anyone.

This is the second book of Amirrezvani's that I've read, the first being Equal of the Sun.  Honestly, I liked EotS better.  The main characters were far more engaging, the setting more entrancing, and the plot actually moved.  Most of The Blood of Flowers involves the heroine wanting to get married, making rugs, drawing pictures, and being subjected to the whims of her wicked aunt.  While this isn't a bad lifestyle (hey, I've said it before and I'll say it again: I would be perfectly fine being a 50s housewife) it's not exactly the most thrilling to read about.  Most of the intrigue comes from the heroine's relationships with other people, but even those peter out and aren't as artfully dramatic as they could be.

I was expecting more of this book.  The back promises that the heroine "blossoms as a brilliant designer of carpets."  She doesn't.  She makes one good design throughout the entire book, and can't even pull that off without copious amounts of work from her uncle.  While I appreciate that Amirrezvani wanted to show her heroine stumbling, making mistakes, and learning from them, I just felt like some awesome storyline was being missed out on.  Something about the heroine's genius rug designs and using them to gain influence and power or make political statements or something like that.  Something, I don't know...more Equal of the Sun-like.  This was a completely different premise than EotS, and I can respect that, but that doesn't mean I particularly liked it.  While the writing is generally good, it tends to telling more than showing in some places, and the story just isn't as engaging as it could be.

On the other hand, I did learn a lot about making rugs.  So there's that, I guess.

2.5 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Rape of Nanking - Iris Chang

The Rape of NankingThere's a saying that those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it.  There's also a saying that those who do study history are doomed to watch others repeat it.  Being a history major at a university that is very politically-focused, this is frequently made blatantly clear to me.  My politically-minded classmates wander about arguing foreign and domestic policy, spatting about how we should deal with Syria, or Egypt, or whatever crisis is in the news that day.  My historically-minded classmates and I wander about going, "But isn't it like when...?"  But it doesn't matter.  No matter how similar a situation is to the past, there will always be differences, and those differences will always stall action.  So, when dive into this book, let's keep a few things in mind, shall we?

-Iris Chang was not, by trade, a historian.  She was a journalist.  This means a few things.  Journalists, by nature of their work, can be very, very skilled at research, finding stories, and putting them together.  They're typically not so great at contextualizing those stories.  I'll talk more about this later.

-Chang was also the Chinese-American daughter of two Chinese immigrants who fled China during WWII with their families.

-Guilt is a slippery animal, and can't always be placed where we would like it.

-History is never one-sided, and in modern times, it is not written exclusively by the victors.

That all said, some people will not like what I have to say here, but I still feel a responsibility to say it in the interests of being as neutral as possible.

Okay, so, this is a good book for people who are not familiar with the Rape of Nanking and its place in WWII, but want to learn about it.  It's a narrative history, but not a terribly scholarly one; while there are notes included at the end of the book, there are no footnotes or endnote numbers directing you to those notes, and there's no way of knowing whether or not you'll be able to track down a reference for the piece of information that interested you.  This probably comes from Chang's journalistic, rather than historic, background.  That's not a bad thing.  "Popular history" books are all the rage these days, and I don't see anything wrong with that; they get people interested in history.  We just have to keep in mind that they're not as scholarly as some other books, and consequently don't usually analyze events as closely as they could.  For those wanting a quick overview of an event, this is fine.  For those hoping for a complete understanding, however, it can be problematic.  Chang's book is immensely readable, and I went through it in about two days.  It gives a quick history of what Chang apparently sees as the Japanese culture that led to the Rape, and then covers the lead-up to the Rape, the Rape itself, and the aftermath, as well as telling what foreign individuals did and what the rest of the world knew about the events as they were happening.  It's a good overview.  In the epilogue, though, it gets a bit preachy.  Chang talks about how Japan needs to sever ties with its past, acknowledge that the Rape was wrong, and embrace a new future.  She talks about that a lot.  And while she's not wrong, necessarily, she leaves out a lot of considerations.

First, as I mentioned above, we need to consider Chang's background.  She's Chinese-American and was raised in the Midwest of the USA, in the midst of an extremely individualistic culture.  Eastern cultures, such as China, Japan, and India, tend to be much more collectivistic than western ones.  That's not bad; it's just different.  It means their values are placed on the good of of the many, instead of the good of the few.  It's apparently worked for them for thousands of years, so I don't see a need to judge that.  What I do think we need to consider, though, is how something like the Rape of Nanking might be viewed in different cultures.  I'm not Japanese; I've never been to Japan.  I certainly can't speak for them.  However, as someone with a background in history, I have to say that when the Japanese say they saw what they did as necessary...well, they might not be lying, like Chang claims they are.  In hindsight, it's easy to see how horribly awry Japan's plans went.  But in the heat of the moment, it's also very easy to see how the Japanese army, massively outnumbered in most cases in Nanking, could have seen the situation as "them or us," and chosen, as most of us would, "us."  Chang mentions on repeated occasions that the Nanking natives, even unarmed, could have easily overwhelmed the Japanese through sheer numbers alone.  As horrible as the Japanese actions in Nanking were, and as reprehensible as they are from an outside perspective over half a century later, it's easy to see where, at the time, those actions might have seemed necessary for self-preservation.  (And let me clarify--I'm talking mostly about the killing, here.  The rampant raping and torture can't really be excused, but Chang does offer a pretty good psychological analysis for why this might have happened in the epilogue, so I'll let that speak for itself.)

Second, lets consider the aspect of guilt.  Who is guilty for the Rape of Nanking?  There are some easy to answers to that, and some not-so-easy ones.  It's hard to tell who knew what, who ordered what, who did what, especially when many documents have been destroyed and many victims refuse to speak.  There is definitely guilt to be laid out, those most of the people deserving of it are probably, by this point in time, dead.  Then there is the idea of collective guilt: that the youth of today's Japan are somehow responsible for the Rape of Nanking because they deny its reality and refuse to make reparations to the victims.  There's a whopping problem with this analysis, and that's that you can't hold Japan's youth responsible for denying the existence of something they don't know about.  I'm not sure how much has changed since Chang's book came out--it was published in 1997--but in the epilogue she talks at length about how the events of the Rape of Nanking have been censored from school curriculum, deleted from books, and shunned in the public sphere.  How are you supposed to correct something you don't know about?  Some people claim to have seen Bigfoot and to have evidence of his existence, but that doesn't mean I believe them.  While the Rape of Nanking isn't Bigfoot, and we know that objectively, it might be hard to comprehend in an environment where it has been treated as Bigfoot for decades.

My other main problem with this is that, well, Chang is American.  We Americans find it very easy to cast judgment against other peoples and refuse to do the same to ourselves.  Chang criticizes Japan for enshrining some of the people who are responsible for the Rape of Nanking and practically worshipping them.  I'm not going to get into the worshipping thing; that's a culture issue.  But the enshrinement of war criminals I'm not afraid to tackle.  Chang criticizes the emperor of Japan for knowing about the Rape and doing nothing about it--perhaps even approving of it.  Fine.  But if we're going to go down that path, we have to keep in mind that that's not just a Japanese trait.  In Washington DC, the Vietnam memorial contains the names of soldiers known to have committed atrocities in Asia, such as cutting off the ears of victims for trophies.  The Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb, is preserved as a national treasure at the National Air and Space Museum's annex.  We condemn Iranians for flooding to the street chanting against the USA, but when Osama bin Laden was killed, thousands flooded the National Mall, White House, and 9/11 Memorial Site chanting "USA, USA" in a way that is unnervingly similar--we were, after all, celebrating someone's death.  I am not saying that enshrining war criminals is worthy of praise.  But I am saying that those in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, and if you're going to write about history, even an isolated event such as the Rape of Nanking, you still have to consider its place--and your conclusions--in a larger context.

Chang's book is a good introduction to the Rape of Nanking, but it is weak in the historiographical elements and modern context that are vital to actually understanding historical events in their entirety.  I enjoyed reading it, but I am a bit worried about the message that it could leave someone who read only this book and considered it the "all you need to know about the Rape of Nanking" book.  That message seems to be that the Chinese are all that is good, the Japanese are all that is bad, and the current generation needs to pay for the sins of their forefathers in order to move forward to a better world.  But if we're hoping to move forward to a better world, wouldn't holding grudges not be the way to go?  Honestly, the Japanese government as a whole probably should make some sort of apology or reparation to remaining survivors or the families of victims of the Rape of Nanking--but I don't think we should make the leap that this would magically solve the problem, and to some degree that seems to be what Chang implies.

3 stars out of 5.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Tigers in Red Weather - Liza Klaussmann

Tigers in Red WeatherSo, this book isn't what I thought it would be.  The book jacket describes it as F. Scott Fitzgerald-like, and while I didn't particularly like The Great Gatsby as a book, it does have a lovely sense of atmosphere for the time period it's written in.  Oh, and there's that whole thing that popped up in past year or two about how "There ain't no party like a Gatsby party 'cause a Gatsby party don't stop until at least two people are dead and everyone is disillusioned with the Jazz Age as a whole."  I like that.  And to a degree, this did have that feel...but it still wasn't quite what I was looking for.

The book is about a pair of cousins, Nick and Helena, and their lives in the wake of World War II and the following decades.  Nick is married to a Navy man returning from the war; Helena's husband died early on in the war, and she is about to be remarried to a man from Hollywood.  Both cousins are leaving their wartime residence in Cambridge to meet up with their significant others and carry on with their lives.  Nick, however, isn't very happy in her new home in Florida and feels like her husband has changed drastically since he went to war--he isn't the man she married anymore.  As for Helena, her new husband isn't quite what he seemed when she married him, and her life in Hollywood quickly begins falling to pieces.

The story also introduces Nick's daughter Daisy and Helena's son Ed.  The book is broken up into five parts, each focusing on a different character.  The first four parts focus on Nick, Daisy, Helena, and Hughes, in that order, and are written in third person.  The last part is from Ed's perspective and is written in first person.  The sudden switch from third to first person was a bit jarring, and didn't really mesh well with me, though I could see the logical reasons why Klaussmann chose to use that style for the final part.  There isn't much retreading of plot in the parts--a few events are mentioned in more than one perspective, but for the most part we get new information in each part.  This is very much a character-driven novel, not a plot-driven one, except...

...except that Klaussmann tried to work a murder mystery in, too.  I don't know why.  While it provided a bit of intrigue for Daisy's part of the novel, it doesn't go much beyond that except in gossip, but it's still supposed to play a pivotal role in the overall plot as pertaining to the family.  It's just not explored enough to provide that forward motion, and when it finally is explored more, it's the end of the book and there isn't much more to be done with it.  This definitely could have been integrated more, had a larger impact on the lives of the characters, or else wise probably shouldn't have been included.

It's true that not much happens for a lot of this book.  It isn't very action-packed.  However, I didn't mind that at all.  The book's main goal seems to be to explore the characters and how they came to be who they are, and I think Klaussman does a good job with that for everyone except Ed, because with Ed it's just...uhm...well, let me put it this way: I'm not sure Klaussmann really knew how to get inside his head, and that's a good thing.

There are some loose ends that are never tied up, such as what happened to Helena's husband Avery, and I would have liked to see a bit beyond where the book ended--some sort of reveal to Daisy and Helena about what Ed did.  That didn't happen, and it was a bit disappointing, but not hugely detrimental to the overall quality of the book.

So, I liked it overall, for what it was: a good character sketch novel with a great atmosphere for the setting.  It wasn't what I was expecting--I was expecting a lot more drama and mystery--but I liked it all the same.

3 out of five stars.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Shorecliff - Ursula DeYoung

Honestly, I didn't really enjoy this much.  I've this out from the library for what seems like forever, because I just couldn't get into it.  It has something to do with the plot, something to do with the characters, and something to do with the writing style, which all combines to just make you go "bleh."

First, there are the characters.  The narrator, Richard Killing II, is a grown man talking about a summer he spent at his family's house in Maine, Shorecliff, with his extensive network of aunts, uncles, and cousins.  This extensive network is not good, because it means you have to keep up with upwards of twenty characters at any given time, and many of them are only distinguishable from each other by one particular trait.  For example, Isabelle is the gangly, awkward one, and Fisher is the one who likes birds, and Francesca is the beautiful one.  Lengthy physical descriptions of these characters are dumped in your lap during the first chapter, not in a very artful way, and then never mentioned again.  Their personalities and manners of speaking aren't very different from each other at all, and they tend to blur together and leave you wondering who exactly is doing what.  Also, Richard in the story is supposed to be 13 years old; he acts more like he's 8.  This might be because the book is set in 1928, but honestly there isn't much made of this setting and it's very easy to forget that the story doesn't take place in modern times, which leaves things a little squishy in your brain--and not in a good way.

Then there's the plot.  In the first chapter, one of the aunts--who are also apparently supposed to be indistinguishable from each other, for the most part--proclaims that Shorecliff is "ripe for incest."  This seems to be setting up the plot for the rest of the book, but really it isn't.  The plot is more along the lines of no plot at all; it's just a bunch of people rambling about in Maine during the summer and having issues with each other.  Sure, a couple of the cousins have things for each other or pretend to have things for each other, but none of it actually goes anywhere, and it seems like a huge potential conflict was left behind.  Narrator-Richard keeps talking about the "catastrophe" of the summer and DeYoung attempts to make it seem like all of the summer's events led up to that moment, but in reality it doesn't seem like they did.  The "catastrophe" was not a climax of events--it could have just as easily happened in the beginning of the book as the end, which doesn't make it seem very climatic at all.  The "mystery" of the loss of the family fortune also isn't very stunning, nor is Uncle Kurt, who's supposed to be a "mysterious" character.

The writing style is bland; there's a lot of telling and not a heck of a lot of showing, which is exasperating, and a ton of info-dumping that could have been done in a much more artful way.  Additionally, there's a ton of exposition at the end of the book, telling where each ended up and what they did for pretty much the rest of their lives.  That was boring, and for the most part unnecessary, because I didn't particularly care about these characters.  None of them were very lovable, and DeYoung didn't go out of her way to make me root for any of them.  They were just there, and I didn't care what happened to them in more than a, "Oh, that's vaguely interesting but I would have been just as happy not knowing" sort of way.

Overall, a pretty dull book that didn't get any better as it went on.

1.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

With True Love's Kiss - Jessica Woodard (Once Upon a Romance #3)

Let me preface this by saying that I have read Jessica Woodard's other two "Once Upon a Romance" books, and I enjoyed them quite a bit.  The Scottish accents in the second book were almost enough to drive me mad, because reading Scottish accents (or most accents, actually) is agonizing.  However, I still liked them.  And honestly, I liked this one, to...

...just not as much as I wanted to.  The main issue I found with this story was Bianca.  She's cute, she's charming, she's endearing, she's kind, she wants the best for her people...and she is completely and utterly boring.  Robin was cool.  I liked Robin.  I liked Queen Isabella, and I enjoyed the returning characters from other books.  But Bianca, as the main heroine, was just bland.  While I wanted her to succeed, I was simultaneously left feeling like I didn't care if she did or not.  In fact, if she failed, that would have opened up a whole new can of worms, which could have been quite interesting.

The ending wasn't my cup of tea, either.  It wasn't nearly as emotional as it could have been, and while it paves the way for future books, it didn't make me actually care about Robin and Bianca any more.  It felt more like a cop out than anything else.  I'm still interested in reading future books from Woodard, but I hope she returns to a style more like the first two books in the series.  I'm not sure how she'll do that, as I suspect the next book is Sleeping Beauty-themed, and it's kind of hard to make a girl who sleeps for most of the story into a great heroine, but I hope Woodard will manage.

Two out of five stars.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Beyond - Maureen A. Miller (Beyond #1)

BeyondOh, Beyond.  Oh, how I wanted to like you.  And I did.  It's have some issues, and those really get in the way of the reading experience.  Logic is seriously lacking in parts of this book, and not in a way that can be covered by the typical "suspension of disbelief" we agree to when we read something like sci-fi or fantasy.

Here are the basic facts of the story, just to lay the foundation for the rest of the review.  One day, just after graduating high school, Aimee Patterson takes her dog Ziggy out for a walk and ends up abducted by aliens.  Well, kind of aliens, because they're not little green men, but are instead normal human beings from another planet called Anthum.  They are cruising the universe collecting samples from all kinds of different planets in hopes of finding a cure for a plague that has decimated their people.  Aimee is told that they can return her to Earth, but by the time that happens, almost five Earth-years will have gone by.

So, let's talk about the time line first, because that's one of the biggest problems here.  At one point Aimee works out that 90 Earth days equals one week on the Horus, the spaceship in the book.  Let's just equate that to three months, for simplicity's sake, even though it's not an exact conversion.  So, for every year on Earth, Aimee would experience approximately four weeks of time on the Horus.  She would be gone for a total of twenty weeks, so about four months.  The issue here is, the story on the Horus doesn't take place over what seems like a five-month period.  It takes place over what seems like a little under a week.  Granted, there's a point at which we're told Aimee was unconscious for approximately two weeks, but that still doesn't make up for the bizarre time gap.

Second, there's the plague.  I am not at all opposed to stories dealing with weird, alien, space-plagues.  Not at all.  This one, however, doesn't make sense.  Unfortunately, I'm going to have to reveal part of the plot here, so if you're interested in not spoiling part of (but not all of) this book, skip the rest of this paragraph.  As you might be able to guess, Aimee turns out to possess the cure to the plague in her biology.  Okay.  Except...there's a point at which she's told she is genetically identical to the "mecaws," AKA humans, of Anthum, so why would her body have the cure?  Doesn't make sense.  Then that is explained away by saying that, "Oh, the cure is actually an antioxidant in her saliva that comes from something she ate that was stored in her glands."  Your body, by the way, does not store extra antioxidants for future use, so good luck with making that one work logically.

Now let's talk about Aimee and Zak.  I liked the two together, I really did.  I didn't mind the instant attraction too much because, hey, you can be instantly attracted to someone.  It wasn't insta-love, at least. least not at first, because suddenly that attraction turns into love about three days later.  Mushy, gooshy, yucky love.  Blah.  Not good.  Also, Zak was repeatedly described as a "warm haven," which was really only worthy of eye-rolling.

Now for a couple more minor things.  The "prologue" should have been the first chapter, but that's just semantics, really.  There is some inconsistent characterization with Aimee.  At one point, Aimee wishes she had her glasses--but then later, in the epilogue (which should have been just the last chapter, not an epilogue) her eyes are described as having never needed glasses.  That epilogue also seemed rushed, blowing through five years without much of a purpose.  Instead of being the end of this book, it seems more like it should have been the beginning of the next one.

Overall, it wasn't a completely awful read, but there wasn't enough cohesion to make it come across as Miller seems to have wanted it to.  It felt disjointed, and there wasn't a sense of time progressing as it should have.  If the basic story line--girl from Earth leaves Earth, visits other places in the universe, fights an alien plague to which she is strangely immune, falls in love along the way--then I recommend reading the Stardoc series by S. L. Viehl.  It's a little more graphic in the romance department, so be prepared for that, but overall it's a superior read.

Two out of five stars.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Around the Roman Table - Patrick Faas

Around the Table of the Romans: Food and Feasting in Ancient RomeFood and history are two of the great loves of my life.  I thought Around the Roman Table would fit nicely into those categories. did, but I didn't really like it.  Don't get me wrong--it was okay.  It was just a more boring than I expected it to be.  It includes a lot of descriptions about what people ate, how they ate it, and how food tied into culture in Rome.  That part was interesting.  But there was also an entire second part that included recipes from Roman times.  I thought this was going to be pretty interesting, too...but I wasn't really impressed.  Reading the recipes requires you to pound down some Roman terms for food that Faas explains earlier in the book, or else keep flipping back to those pages to figure out what he's talking about.  Additionally, Roman recipes weren't really "recipes" in the same sense as we have "recipes."  There often weren't fixed amounts, and I'm skeptical as to how accurate Faas' interpretations of them are.  It seems like he might have just guessed at the amounts of ingredients to best suit modern readers' tastes.  That said, I'm really not sure how many people would be putting copious amounts of fish sauce in every dish they make.  Some of the ingredients I've never even heard of; for example, what the hell is lovage?  That was explained, but not very well.  Some ingredients are actually extinct, like laser, a plant that the Romans loved so much they actually drove it to extinction.  And then there are other ingredients that, while technically still around, aren't exactly easy to get.  For example, where would I find half a kilo of minced dolphin?  The writing style wasn't all that fabulous, either; there were multiple cases of sentences that didn't make sense, and the recipes Faas included were also included in Latin, in their entirety.  Really, I don't care about a quarter of a page of Latin that I can't read.  More quoting often meant that, in the first half of the book, Faas quoted more than he actually wrote.  Some of the clumsiness in writing may be because the book is translated (I believe it was originally in Dutch) but that doesn't really excuse it.  Overall, interesting topic, but not the best book.

2 stars out of 5.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Royal Seduction - Jennifer Blake (Royal Seduction #1)

Royal Seduction (Royal, #1)Royal Seduction begins when a prince comes to town looking for the lover of his murdered brother.  He wants to ask her some questions.  Unfortunately, he thinks that Angeline is the girl he's looking for, when in fact her cousin Claire is the former prince's lover.  When Angeline insists that she's not the right person, Rolfe refuses to believe her, or even ask anyone else at the party where they meet if she is who she says she is.  Rather than try to verify her story, he kidnaps her and rapes her.  Then, having realized that Angeline is the wrong girl on the basis that she was still a virgin, he refuses to apologize or release her, and continues raping her periodically as he drags her about the countryside in search of Claire.  Along the way, Angeline is kidnapped by other people several more times, and is nearly raped by other men on at least three occasions, while falling in love with Rolfe in a dazzling display of Stockholm Syndrome.  Apparently we're supposed to think that Rolfe's rapes are romantic, while the other near-rapes are horrendous.

Rolfe never apologizes, merely displays a tremendous sense of entitlement that makes him think he's entitled to take whatever and whoever whenever he wants.  He drinks copiously and displays extremely violent tendencies.  This might not be historically inaccurate; of course, horrible things like rape did occur in "courting" and in some places probably still do.  But that doesn't make it right, and it doesn't make it romantic.  Portraying it as so only presents a twisted vision of a severely traumatizing experience and lends itself to the culture of blaming the victim.  It's because of shit like this that people say women are responsible for rape, because hey, they never explicitly said no.  And it's romantic.  Stop crying, bitches.

Hey, Blake, I have news for you.  Rape is rape is rape, and it's not sexy.

1 star out of 5.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Poison Princess - Kresley Cole (Arcana Chronicles #1)

Poison Princess (The Arcana Chronicles, #1)
In a post-apocalyptic world, a guy named Arthur lures a girl named Evie into his home, promising food, drink, and safe rest in exchange for the story of how she got to his little crossroad.  Of course, Evie doesn't know that other girls have been lured here and have met gruesome deaths in Arthur's basement.  She wants the food, and the rest, and to have a shoulder to cry on, so she tells him her story.

Evie thinks she's crazy.  In fact, before the apocalypse (called "the Flash") left the planet barren, Evie had just gotten out of an asylum, where her mother placed her for her "hallucinations."  Actually, though, they're not hallucinations; they're visions of the future, and only Evie seems to know what's coming.

Okay, so, this was part high school drama, and part post-apocalyptic story.  The high school drama occupies the first 30% of the book, and it almost drove me crazy.  Evie struggles to fit in with the other kids at her school, even though she still hallucinates and has visions of the "red witch," whose design has essentially been lifted straight from Batman's Poison Ivy, though the witch's MO is different.  Kind of.  Considering Evie is supposed to be the Empress of the tarot deck, I don't really see where this came from.  See, this

does not bear a lot of resemblance to this

Evie deals with her issues by drawing, and not just any old stick-figure drawings.  She paints murals on her bedroom walls and has a whole sketchbook full of beautifully disturbing images.  This means that she is not only a Popular Cheerleader, but also an Artiste.  She is "friends with everyone," and also apparently thinks she knows better than everyone else.  For example, at one point, she says that "no girl walked the hall with a wardrobe malfunction under my watch," which she's trying to use as an example of how friendly she is, but really just comes across as her trying to force people into a form that she likes.  She is totally into slut-shaming, thinking Clotile is a slut because she wears short skirts and cutoff t-shirts and is "readily available for sex," and that other girls are "slores" because they are attracted to Evie's boyfriend Brandon.  Now, considering that Brandon is supposedly the most eligible guy ever, I'm pretty sure I would be attracted to him, too.  However, when Evie practically hooks up with another guy and wears clothes just like Clotile's, she is considered to be...practically Amish.  Not only that, but her teachers are "bitches" because they won't let her retake quizzes she failed--there is no mention of her ever giving a valid reason for wanting to retake it, other than she didn't know she would have a pop quiz, and she certainly doesn't explain her rather unique mental condition.

As for the other characters, there is the Sweet Boyfriend, Brandon; the Sassy Best Friend, Mel; the Overbearing Mother, Karen; and the Possessive Love Interest, Jack.  Who, by the way, Evie does not like because he is from the Wrong Side of Town and checked her out while she was in her boyfriend's car.  She got mad that he was checking her out when she stuck her butt up in the air in a moving convertible while wearing a skirt. Granted, some of the comments made after this incident were unnecessary, but really, she chose to do that.  He didn't touch her.  He didn't make any rude comments; those were made by one of his friends.

Anyway, the long and short of this is, if the entire story had been like the first part of the book, it would have driven me crazy.  Luckily, though, Cole started out with the creepy post-apocalyptic introduction starring Arthur, and that was intriguing enough for me to go on.  And while I'm not sure the PA part actually redeemed the first part (that would be hard to do) it was very, very good.  It shows what a brutal world earth is after the Flash, with no vegetation, no water, few animals, and even fewer women who survived.  Evie's struggle with her powers and identity was well-done.  I didn't really like how she was hating on Selena for being so secretive when Evie herself wouldn't tell anyone the truth, but Selena was kind of annoying... Actually, she was annoying in a cliche way, obviously intended to sway sympathies even more toward Evie.  However, I did understand Selena's secretive motives, while Evie's secret-keeping was only detrimental to all of her goals.  Finn and Matthew, though, I liked.

Now, about Jack... I like Jack, as a character.  I think his Cajun background was an interesting addition to the story and it will be interesting to see how his Catholic beliefs play with the supernatural happenings of Evie's new world.  The thing is, I don't like him as a love interest.  He's supposed to be Dark, because girls like Bad Boys, but it's just not...good.  I mean, sure, there should be some conflict; I don't expect it all to be sunshine and daisies.  But Jack is a violent alcoholic who wants to possess Evie to the point that she can't make her own decisions regarding her own life. Not cool.  Hopefully Jack will see some serious character growth in future books, because if he doesn't, I'm ashamed of Cole for putting him forth as a desirable boyfriend.

Obviously I had a lot of thoughts about this book; the long and short of it is that I liked the latter two-thirds quite a bit, and I'm interested to see where the series goes.  I'm not sure if I'll actually keep reading it, but that's primarily because I'm terrible about keeping up with series that aren't fully published by the time I get to it.  Still, this has enormous potential, and once you get past the infuriating high-school beginning, the new world and its inhabitants are a great read.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Dragon Hunter - Charles Gallenkamp

This book is not about hunting dragons.  It's about looking for dinosaurs.  This is evident from the jacket flap, so I knew it before starting; I just wanted to toss it out there so everyone knows it's a non-fiction biography of Roy Chapman Andrews, focusing on his time fossil-hunting in the Gobi Desert, and not a fantasy story about a guy who hunts dragons.  The title evidently comes from the nickname "dragon hunters" bestowed upon Andrews' expedition by the Chinese and Mongolians he encountered, who supposedly thought that fossils were dragon bones.  I'm always a little bit skeptical when a Western book cites eastern "superstitions," because I'm never quite sure if the superstitions are legitimate or simply an elaborate joke played on gullible foreigners--especially when the author appears to have used only English-language sources, many of them by Andrews himself.  Still, you can't deny that it's a good title, so I guess we'll let that one slide for now.

This was an entertaining book.  It doesn't really drag, except for some excessive listing of names.  Honestly, I have no idea who was "high society" in New York City in the 1920s, and I certainly don't keep track of the employees of museums, so these lists meant absolutely nothing to me--the names went in one eye and out the other, and I don't really know if they were of any importance at all.  I mean, they were obviously supposed to convey how important Andrews was, since he was associated with those people, but aside from a couple really big names (Rockefeller and Roosevelt, for example) they were essentially meaningless.  However, the accounts of life for foreigners in China, Japan, and in the Gobi were very interesting, as were the stories about Andrews' exploits before he went to the Gobi, such as his extensive studies of whales.

That said, this is a White Man's book.  By that, I mean that the native Chinese and Mongolian members of the expedition, or those who worked to help make it a reality in the government, are almost completely missing.  Gallenkamp addresses the terms "boy" and "coolie" near the end of the book, explaining that they weren't really all that derogatory at the time because the Chinese used them, too, so I'll give him that.  However, it's pretty easy to see that without the aid of the Chinese and Mongolians, the expeditions would have gone nowhere.  Not only that, but even out in the Gobi, Andrews was not usually forging new trails, but being pointed in the right direction by native nomads.  Still, Gallenkamp holds to the spirit of imperialism in insisting that Andrews was the first person to "explore" the great "unknown."  Just because an area is mapped doesn't mean it's unknown, you know.  It might actually mean that people know it so well they don't have to rely on a map.  That said, this isn't an intentionally racist book.  It tries to be neutral, and it's relatively successful on that front.  Obviously Gallenkamp is a huge fan of Andrews, and I'm not really sure if he's leaving out any negative aspects that might cast a different light on the story.  As with all nonfiction books, I think it's good to remain a bit skeptical when reading it--every author has an agenda, after all.

A good read, but not a compelling one.  If you like fossils, explorers, or anything like that, you'll probably like this.

3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Abandon Trilogy - Meg Cabot

Meg Cabot's Abandon trilogy is like candy, or soda, or popcorn absolutely smothered in butter and salt.  What I'm getting at here is that it's good, but it isn't good for you.  I really like Meg Cabot's paranormal romances (I adore the Mediator series, and I've also enjoyed the 1-800-Where-R-U books) and this trilogy was no different.  The idea of a modern retelling of the story of Hades and Persephone appealed to me, so I was eager to pick this up.  In some ways, it disappointed.  In others, it did not.  So, here is a brief summary of what I liked and did not like about the three books (Abandon, Underworld, Awaken) in this series.

I liked the setting of Isle Huesos.  This should not surprise me, because Cabot based the setting off Key West, which is one of my favorite places in the world.  Am I sure she captured the spirit of Key West?  I'm not really sure, but since she lives there part of the time, I'm going to assume she knows it much better than I do and put my faith in her basis.  I liked the characters, generally.  Some of them were a little one-dimensional, but the main characters were all pretty well-done.  I generally liked the plot, which revolves around the heroine, Pierce, coming to terms with her position as the queen of the underworld and battling against the evil forces of Furies.  I liked parts of her relationship with John, but certainly not all of it.

So, what did I not like?  Well, the first book in the trilogy is almost entirely setup, and the whole "relationship" aspect doesn't exactly make much sense.  Pierce says at the beginning that her heart is "broken," presumably by John, but she doesn't spend much of the book acting like she likes him.  In fact, she spends most of it terrified of him.  Which makes the sudden romance later a little weird.  The parents in these books also show a remarkable lack of involvement, considering their children are skipping school, disappearing from town entirely, and getting involved in murder investigations.  Seems unlikely to me, even with the "supernatural" aspect.  Also, for a series that is always going on about "consequences," there are remarkably few.  There is a controlling, possibly emotionally-abusive relationship.  There is unprotected sex.  There is an "imbalance" that never actually seems to get fixed, and what the hell is up with Pierce's necklace being purple, anyway?  That's never explained.  And half the plot of the third book appears to have been thrown in because Cabot had nothing better to write about for the first half of the book.  And the syrupy-sweet ending kind of made me sick.  All of these things are things that make these books not good for you.  You should not really encourage teenage girls to run off with guys they met when they were dead, especially when those guys have been stalking you and plan to keep you hostage in the underworld for the rest of, well, forever.  You shouldn't encourage the rampant lying to parents, the investigations into drug trafficking, the fear of the police.

But all that said, I still liked it.

3 stars out of 5.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Sekhmet Bed - L. M. Ironside (The She-King #1)

The Sekhmet Bed (The She-King, #1)One of my first thoughts about this book was that it had insta-love.  The protagonist, Ahmose, falls in love with the general Thutmose upon their first meeting and marries him shortly after.  Fortunately, however, romance was not the focus of the book, and it was actually a much richer narrative than I expected from that not-so-lofty beginning.

Ahmose is the second, younger daughter of a pharaoh who left no heirs upon his death.  Thutmose is named pharaoh by Ahmose's mother, the queen, and her grandmother, who occupies a lofty, powerful position called the God's Wife.  Ahmose, who is thought to be god-chosen and can interpret dreams and omens, is wed to Thutmose as the Great Royal Wife in order to help give legitimacy to his reign.  Her older sister Mutnofret, the woman who was always supposed to be Great Royal Wife, is wed to Thutmose as his second wife.  The story follows this family, particularly Ahmose, as they struggle through a difficult time in Egypt.  Mutnofret is a viper, and terrifies Ahmose with violent stories of sex so Ahmose will refuse to lie with Thutmose, so she will not bear any children and Mutnofret will be able to oust her from her position.  Thutmose is gone most of the time, and Ahmose is left alone to deal with Mutnofret and with the struggles of ruling Egypt in her husband's absence.  There is romance, but it is not the focus of the story; rather, the story focuses on Ahmose's struggles both politically and personally, and her maturation is easily seen through the progression of the book.

I'm not an expert on ancient Egypt, but it seems like Ironside (a penname, I presume) has done her research.  She does include a little section at the end which details the areas in which she has speculated on history or deviated from known history, and that's quite admirable.  Her writing is very rich and detailed, giving her Egypt a beautiful life on the page.  All of her characters were multi-dimensional, not just Ahmose; even one of Mutnofret's maids, a very minor character, has multiple dimensions.  The only real complaint I have is that there is an episode in which Thutmose turns downright abusive toward Ahmose, and yet there are not any real consequences for his actions.  I mean, I guess you could say there are divine consequences, but I would have liked to see some backlash from Ahmose herself, rather than her remaining a relatively complacent wife.  While the incident doesn't exactly glorify abusive relationships, it doesn't exactly frown upon them, either, being as Ahmose instantly forgives Thutmose for his actions.  Literally instantly.  On the same page as the abuse.

With that in mind, however, this was a great read, and I'll probably return to the other books in the series.

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Suite Scarlett - Maureen Johnson (Scarlett #1)

Suite Scarlett (Scarlett, #1)
Suite Scarlett is a book about a girl whose family owns a hotel.  All of the kids in the family help run the hotel, and receive a suite to care for when they turn fifteen.  Sounds glamorous, right?  Well, while the hotel might seem glamourous at first--designed by a famous Broadway set designer in the 20's, with plenty of history to accompany it and a beautiful appearance--it's kind of failing.  And by "kind of," I mean that Scarlett's family has had to fire their last paid employee, their cook, on the morning on her fifteenth birthday.  In addition to the terrible breakfast her parents make because of an absence of said cook, Scarlett gets some truly awful birthday presents, including a used lipstick sample and an expired ice cream coupon.  She's also given the Empire Suite to care for, and while this is the hotel's biggest, most prestigious suite, it's also rarely rented, suggesting that Scarlett's family doesn't really want her to interact with guests at all.  And THEN they tell her that, instead of getting a summer job, she's going to have to work at the hotel, without pay, for the foreseeable future.

This book also involves a bizarre Shakespeare performance, an eccentric guest, and of course a bit of romance.  The romance didn't sit well with me; Scarlett's love interest is in college, and it kind of skeeved me out to see a college guy going for  fifteen-year-old girl.  I just don't see that ending well, especially because he isn't exactly honest with her about the whole thing.  Johnson tries to redeem this near the end, but the whole thing was just a bit too creepy for my liking.  Oh, and Scarlett essentially falls in love with the guy the first moment she sees him.  Blah for insta-love.  I also wasn't terribly impressed with the supporting characters in this book.  They're all pretty flat, and while Johnson tries to throw in some stuff to make them more multi-dimensional, I wasn't convinced.  Even when Spencer was trying to be a good older brother, I couldn't take him seriously; I mean, his character introduction was him singing about having a butt while he was in the shower.  Marlene, Scarlett's younger sister, is a brat, pure and simple, and really needed a telling off.  She's a cancer survivor, which is the reason behind the hotel's failing state (cancer treatment is very expensive, after all) and one would THINK that she would be a little more clued into that, rather than just obliviously demanding that the world continue to revolve around her.  Mrs. Amberson was too strictly-eccentric to come off as sincere.  Lola, Scarlett's older sister, however, was well-done.  She really struggled with balancing her family, her boyfriend, and her job, and actually acted like a young woman of her age would.  She was very well-written, and I would have liked to see more of her and her boyfriend Chip, who seemed like he had a lot of unexploited potential.

This was a fun story to read, but it wasn't really deep enough to keep me going on the series.  I would honestly rather read about Lola than Scarlett, and while the writing itself wasn't bad, the entire cast of characters with the exception of Lola was too one-dimensional to hold my attention for long.  If you want to read some Maureen Johnson, I recommend Girl at Sea or 13 Little Blue Envelopes, which I believe are of higher quality.

2.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Sunbolt - Intisar Khanani (Sunbolt Chronicles #1)

Sunbolt (The Sunbolt Chronicles, #1)Let me begin by telling you a story of my own.  Once upon a time, on a spring break not too long ago, my boyfriend contracted appendicitis.  We didn't know it was appendicitis, though, rather thinking it was a case of food poisoning brought on by a sketchy breakfast at a Best Western.  (I still have not entirely ruled out the possibility that the breakfast was, somehow, involved.)  As we thought he would get better in a day or two, we didn't go to the hospital and instead flew six hours home, where he was advised by the CVS Minute Clinic to stay in bed.  Ten days later, we were in the ER because he still wasn't better.  By this point, all they could really do was put him on heavy antibiotics because his whole abdomen was so inflamed that they couldn't operate.  I spent about a week and a half lying on a hospital bed next to him, and during that time I read Intisar Khanani's book Thorn, and it took my breath away.

The boyfriend lived (and, about three months after his appendix ruptured, he finally had it removed) and I fell in love with Khanani's writing.  When Sunbolt came out, it was obvious that I had to read it.  And I have to say, Khanani has done it again.  While significantly shorter than Thorn, Sunbolt is also a thing of beauty, and if you look at its reviews on Goodreads, you can see that pretty much everyone agrees with that.  It's very fast-paced, jumping from one event to the next, but it never actually seems "jumpy" or choppy.  Everything flows very well.  The heroine, Hitomi, is an orphan who possesses magical powers that she has to hide to avoid becoming a slave.  She works to help free the island of Karolene from the clutches of a dark mage along with the rest of the League of Shadows, led by the mysterious figure known only as "the Ghost." During an operation to save the lives of a powerful family, Hitomi is captured and begins looking for a way to escape.

Let me tell you, Hitomi has the worst luck when it comes to escape attempts.  Every single time she escapes, she gets captured again.  Eventually, she is given to one monster and imprisoned with another, and they have to work together to get free.  The world is rife with werewolves, vampires, and other non-human creatures, though they are referred to by alternate names.  I wasn't sure how this would work out, not being a fan of the werewolf/vampire craze that's swept young adult fiction lately, but this isn't really focused on those aspects.  And towards the end, with Val (a creature whose like I haven't encountered before) I was really, really rooting for them.  I am dying to see more of Hitomi and Val.  I hope he shows up in future books.  I wasn't sure that Sunbolt was going to hold up to Thorn, but it definitely did--however, I attribute that more to the second half of the book.  The first half, while enjoyable, was not as good as the second.  Hitomi's strength and spunk really come through in the second half, and she also has to face the consequences of her actions, which were masterfully handled.

Anyway, Khanani is a fabulous writer, and I can't wait to see more of her work.

5 stars out of 5.