Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Royally Screwed - Valerie Seimas

Royally ScrewedI don't read a lot of contemporary romances.  I typically find them...lacking.  I don't know why.  Maybe I've just picked up one too many that involved a heroine who was incapable of thinking of anything other than what clothing she was going to wear or buy next.  Maybe it was just one too many control freak love interests.  Maybe it was something else.  But when someone posted Royally Screwed to the writing group I'm a member of on Facebook, it looked...charming.  So I gave it a try, and I'm glad I did, because charming is exactly what it was.

Kat is barely making ends meet as a caterer in New York when she bumps into Sebastian, Prince of Sezynia, at a party she's working--and avoiding him was the one thing she was supposed to do.  She catches his eye, and knows it; she's also determined to not let him get what he wants.  She wants to put him in his place a bit, and does so...until she doesn't, and ends up sleeping with him instead.  She's determined to leave it at that, but Sebastian isn't.  He needs to get married in a hurry if he wants to have a shot at claiming his rightful place as heir to the Sezynian throne, and immediately tries to get Kat to marry him.  She says no.  He persists.  She continues to decline.  And then, she decides to say yes--not to marrying him, but to being his matchmaker and finding someone else for him to marry.

You can probably guess how this goes.

I liked Kat, and I liked Sebastian, and I liked the supporting characters, for the most part.  A few of them had some catchphrases that got really annoying really fast (like Kat constantly telling Sebastian that she's "too hot to handle") but overall I think there was a good dynamic, without too many superfluous characters taking up page time.  Kat's relationship with her brother is a driving force in the book, which I thought was well done.  Sebastian is kind of a jerk, but in an adorable way, and he's always respectful of Kat.  He persists in asking her to marry him, but most of the time he doesn't really mean it, and when they start to get physical and she tells him "no" for any reason, he backs off.  That's good.  The story was, as I said, charming--a modern day Ruritanian romance, and I can definitely see Sezynia being next-door neighbors with The Princess Diaries' Genovia. 

I pretty much devoured this, and didn't see any huge plot problems along the way.  I did find a few things that baffled me.  For example, Seimas talks about Kat being a lifeguard and swim instructor (she carries a lifeguard whistle and can teach kids the breaststroke) but it's never actually mentioned that she works as one, though her work as a caterer is mentioned multiple times.  At the beginning, it's suggested that Kat's brother works at the same business, but we never see any evidence of this.  There weren't big plot holes, but there were little continuity problems that could definitely be tightened up.  Royally Screwed could also really, really do with another serious round of line edits.  Seimas has a penchant for Random Capitalization, which comes across as rather 18th century, and also has a tendency to misuse words, particularly homophones or words that sound similar but not exactly the same.  For example: Sebastian's sister finds Kat wondering the corridors (should be wandering) and his grandmother thinks (or Sebastian says she thinks) that Kat's hips aren't wide enough to bare children.  I hope no children are being bared, though if they're considering Kat bearing children, that's another issue entirely.  Seimas also really needs a refresher in how commas work in dialogue, and maybe a bit of brushing up on quotation marks, too.  Overall, I think another round of edits could have immensely improved this as a quality product.  The plot is solid, but the line edits are desperately needed.

And I'm not a huge fan of the cover (it seems a little middleschool to me, and a middleschool novel this most decidedly is not) but that might just be my personal preference.  Seimas could benefit from making her name a little larger and easier to read, though, regardless of the rest of the cover design--the author's name should always be prominent on a cover.

3.5 stars out of 5--it's strong in plot and characters, but needs some polish overall.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Shades of Milk and Honey - Mary Robinette Kowal (Glamourist Histories #1)

Shades of Milk and Honey (Glamourist Histories, #1)The final line of the description for this book says that "Shades of Milk and Honey is precisely the sort of tale we would expect from Jane Austen...if only she had been a fantasy writer."  That description seems pretty spot-on to me, because this book is pretty much Pride and Prejudice with a little bit of light magic sprinkled in.

This is a novel of manners, focused on Jane Ellsworth, her family, and the neighbors that surround their estate.  Jane is nursing a tendre for one neighbor, Mr. Dunkirk, and has befriended his sister; Jane's sister Melody has a crush on pretty much everyone; and all the other characters are involved in their own romantic entanglements of some sort, with the exception of the parents, who are just kind of nudging everything along.  In the style of Austen and not more contemporary Regency romance novels, this is a sweet romance, which means there's nothing more heated than a bit of kissing--a very, very little bit of kissing, right at the end.  There's mostly banter between the characters, conducted during a series of dances, visits, and picnics.

The magic in this story is of the light and fluffy kind.  In Kowal's world, most people, with the proper training, can work glamour, just casting minor illusions of light and sound, even smell.  The glamour is also a stable force; it can only be placed in one spot, and has to be moved manually, at great physical cost, which means that it's pretty much used to pretty up houses and such, rather than in practical applications.  This aspect could have been handled better; it makes the magic seem rather superfluous, and while the descriptions of some of the glamours are quite lovely, it doesn't feel well-integrated into the world.  If the characters had used magic for anything other than adding decoration to their homes, I might have been a bit more impressed.  I think I was hoping for a magic system similar to that of Mercedes Lackey's Elementalist series, but I didn't find any such thing.

My other main complaint was that Mr. Vincent was a very secondary character in the novel; he and Jane only share a handful of interactions, and I never really felt that they had a relationship develop.  Maybe it would have been different if we had seen some of the story from Vincent's point of view, as his feelings seemed to be the stronger of the two.  Jane was pretty much interested in anyone who was interested her until the very end, which is understandable considering that she was twenty-eight and still unmarried in a time when that made you a spinster, but it made the actual romance part of this feel a little...lacking.  I kept reading at a stupendous pace, thinking that the pivotal reaction between Vincent and Jane would be just around the corner, never really happened, and that wasn't very satisfying.

Overall, I liked this, but I probably won't read the next one.  I think others have done the historical-fantasy-romance better (like Lackey) and while this was a quaint novel, it didn't have any real substance to bring me back for the next one.

3 stars out of 5.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Entwined - Heather Dixon

EntwinedAzalea is oldest of elven princesses, and she feels the weight.  She is Princess Royale, which means her future husband is picked out by Parliament because he will one day be king.  Her mother is ailing, and has been for a long time, so Azalea acts as a mother figure to her ten younger sisters.  And her father...well, he's not really interested in them.  And then, on the night of the Yuletide Ball, Azalea's mother dies while giving birth to a twelfth and final princess, and the girls are left basically alone as their father first retreats into himself, and then leaves for war with a neighboring kingdom.  The girls are left alone, with instructions to follow the strict rules of morning: all black clothing, they can't be seen in public except on Royal Business, the windows must remain covered at all times, and--worst of all--absolutely no dancing.  But Azalea and her sister's can't resist dancing, an activity their mother loved, and after the ballroom is locked against them, they're left looking for somewhere else to go.  They find a sanctuary at the bottom of a hidden passage in their bedroom--a garden of silver, with a pavilion at its center that is watched over by a man named Keeper, who conjures magical dances night after night for the princesses...and eventually asks them to free him.

This was an interesting take on The Twelve Dancing Princesses.  While it takes a while for the main plot to get going, it's ultimately much darker than the original, which is a good thing; there's an air of menace about the dances that only strengthens with time, until Azalea is desperate to make it all stop but isn't sure how to do so without bringing down serious consequences on all of them.  And while the original fairytale is very much a man's story--a king who wants control over his daughters and their actions so badly that he offers to give one of them, any of them, away to the first man who can help him--this one is much more a story of family.  Azalea is both sister and mother to many of her sisters, and tries to do what is best for all of them while balancing their father's complicated role in their lives.  In this way, Entwined is very much a Frozen-esque story: family takes precedence over romance, though there is a light dusting of romance here and there.  To me, the romantic story lines weren't really strong enough to be entirely believable, and I kept hoping they would become more prominent, but if they had, the family story might have fallen by the wayside, and I do think that, ultimately, the family story was the one that had to remain central.

There is a danger in writing a story about twelve princesses, of course, and that is that it can be very easy to simply have too many main characters running about.  I think Dixon handled this nicely.  Azalea is very obviously the main character--she is the only main character, really, as the book is written entirely in third-person limited, from Azalea's view.  And by making Azalea young (sixteen or seventeen-ish), Dixon manages to make the youngest of the princesses so young that they're not really characters at all; they're bodies with names and sometimes actions, like chewing on someone, who are mostly toted around by the older girls.  While most of the girls have personalities and dialogue and purpose, the only one who comes close to being a main character like Azalea is Bramble, the second-eldest, and I think that was as it should be; it gave a good supporting cast without cluttering the pages, and overall made Azalea a stronger character because the sheer youth of some of the girls emphasized how much Azalea had to do to keep them all together.

As for the writing itself--it's charming, utterly charming.  It definitely has a fairytale feel to it, while still being just a little bit more grown up.  This is distinctly a young adult piece, not an adult one, but it's also not all sugar-coated with sunshine and rainbows like some adaptations can be.  Things go very, very wrong, and Azalea is left struggling to fix them with the little knowledge she has, and there's no absolute certainty that she'll manage to do so.  The Twelve Dancing Princesses is a story that, in the original, lacks in many things, like character development, a strong central villain, and even a strong plot, and I thought Dixon managed to immensely improve upon all of these aspects.  This is the second adaptation of TDP that I've read this year, the first being Girls at the Kingfisher Club, and while I really liked Girls, in my opinion, Entwined is how the story is meant to be.

4 stars out of 5.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Gates of Thread and Stone - Lori Lee (Gates of Thread and Stone #1)

Gates of Thread and Stone (Gates of Thread and Stone #1)
"Death lived in a glass tower at the center of the white court.  I could see the tower from anywhere in the city.  It cut the skyline like a blade.  Death--she probably had a real name--was Kahl Ninu's right hand and his personal executioner.  Or, at least, that's what the rumors said.  I didn't really care if they were true so long as it wasn't my head on the chopping block."

So begins Gates of Thread and Stone.  Just look at that cover.  Isn't it gorgeous?  Absolutely beautiful.  And the title.  There's something very poetic about it, don't you think?  And really, the cover sums up the book very well: a very gray world with a little bit of light in it, just waiting to shine through.  Let's get down to it.

Kai doesn't have any memories before she was eight, when her adoptive brother Reeve found her by the river of the city of Ninurta and took her in.  They've been pretty much inseparable ever since, and both work to earn enough credits to buy their way out of the Labyrinth, the slum-like neighborhood where they live.  Kai works as a mail carrier, and Reeve works as a bouncer at a brother.  One day, Kai is nearly killed by a strange young woman in an alley--but uses her abilities to control time to severely injure her attacker instead.  Just a few days later, Reeve is missing.  Desperate to find him, Kai seeks out answers from anyone who could possibly help, and she and her friend/love interest Avan eventually find themselves fugitives from Ninurta, seeking out the Black Rider, who is rumored to have been kidnapping Ninurtans for years.

This book has a very strong start, and a very strong finish.  It does not have such a strong middle.  There's a lot of momentum at the beginning, with one event leading into the other with just enough breathing space in between.  The initial attack on Kai, her use of the strings, Reeve's disappearance, the escape from Ninurta--it's all very dramatic.  And then the plot...stalls.  Kai and Avan end up in a sort of limbo, just waiting for the next thing to happen.  They do some talking.  They find out some plot points.  They train.  But nothing of real impact happens.  There is some cool stuff that they find out, and the setting where they do all of this talking/learning/training is neat, but there's not a ton of action, and this action-less time continues for a big part of the book.  Once they leave and move on to the next phase of the adventure, the pace picks up a little bit, and then barrels back up to full speed for the climax, and a denouement that is just long enough.

The settings in this book were, I thought, very well done.  Ninurta is a city, supposedly the last one left in the world after an apocalyptic event called the "Rebirth," and it is very...gray.  Everything in it seems to be gray, except the White Court, where the king and Death, his executioner, live.  The sun comes out for exactly one week a year, and those who aren't lucky enough to be connected to the White Court live their lives in various forms of poverty.  Despite that, the people of Ninurta are still people.  They're not just some ground-down populace on the edge of revolution; in fact, they're not on the edge of revolution at all.  They're living their lives, with some trials and tribulations, to be sure, but they're still living.  Ninurta is not District 12, which was good, because it was different.  There's a tournament setting inside the White Court where kids fight other kids--but it doesn't appear to be to the death, and the kids do it voluntarily, because coming out on top gives them a great career path.  All of this is really important, because it means that, despite the fact that Gates is a post-apocalyptic novel, it doesn't really feel like one; the apocalypse was a long time ago, and contributes more to mood than to the structure of the plot.  And then there's the castle in the Void, protected by gargoyles, that sprouts up different rooms and wings whenever it feels like, and is composed of lost and forgotten things.  There's a real beauty to some of these settings, and they definitely contributed to the mood of the book, as a good setting does.  The Outlands and the forest, not so much.

And then there's Kai.  Overall, I really liked Kai as a character.  She finds herself struggling to make her own choices in situations where the ability to choose really isn't hers, all while wielding a power that no one seems to understand, least of all her.  I thought her decisions and motives were believable, and I rarely felt a deep desire to smack her across the face for sheer stupidity, which is a common emotion with me when it comes to YA heroines.  While she is a #specialsnowflake, I'm hard-pressed to think of a YA heroine who isn't, and Kai doesn't let it rule her entire existence or spend all of her time fighting it or anything like that; she works it in, and that worked in the story.

And the Infinite...that was some Gaiman stuff, right there, though there are apparently many more Infinite than there are Endless.  But I liked it, and I want to see more.

Overall, I really liked this, despite the slow middle, and I think it has a lot of potential for the future books.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

How To Start a Fire - Lisa Lutz

How to Start a FireWhelp, this book inadvertently ended up fulfilling one of my Popsugar Reading Challenge categories - "A book that makes you cry."  Not that I knew this going into it, of course, but it did make me cry and put me in a mopey mood for the rest of the day.  Still, overall I really liked the book, even though I didn't really like any of the characters in it, which is a strange situation but one that I think illustrates Lutz's skill as an author.

This is a very character-driven book, with no real central "plot" to speak of other than the growth of the characters over time.  These books can be kind of boring at times--illustrated by how much people dislike J. K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy, which was a character-driven book.  Lutz balances this out by using a non-linear style to follow the characters.  This, however, also has a downfall--it can be a little confusing about what happens when.  At a few points, I did have to flip back and forth to look at the chapter headings, which include the year, just to make sure I was ordering things correctly in my head.  Overall, however, it's not too hard to put together a general timeline by the end of the book and come away with an understanding of the order of events.

There are three main characters in this book: Anna, Kate, and George, which is short for Georgianna.  Anna and Kate are roommates in college, and after they find George passed out in someone's yard one night, she is adopted into their group.  Over the years, the three separate and reunite at various times, and all of them have crises that pretty much link back to one fateful night when a door to their house is left unlocked and George is almost killed as a result.  All of the characters have different problems and neuroses, though George is the most normal of the bunch.  Kate jumps from obsession to obsession, ranging from giant redwoods to the plague to mushrooms and all topics in between, and feels a need to share everything she knows about these topics with anyone within hearing distance.  Anna is an addict, who starts with alcohol and moves on to various other substances as time goes by, facing a permanent struggle to get clean. mostly George, although she has marriage problems later that she links back to the night of the unlocked door.  As time goes on (or back and forth) the characters face various crises, heartbreaks, and dilemmas, sometimes among themselves and sometimes with other characters like parents, lovers, siblings, etc.  Sometimes they have to face these problems alone, because they've alienated the other members of the group; sometimes they have each other to fall back on.  In the end, however, they have a strong friendship that survives the trials of time, a few scars notwithstanding.

Lutz's writing is absolutely beautiful, and she made me care about the characters in this book even though I only liked one of them--and he wasn't even a main character.  She knows how to jerk at people's heartstrings without coming across as too "purple" or outright sentimental; she makes it easy to see why these people are the way they are--with one exception.  I didn't really understand why Anna blamed herself so much for one of the tragedies (there are many) that occurred in this book, and why so many other people blamed her when it clearly wasn't her fault.  Many other bad things that happen in this book were Anna's fault, and I think they would have left her fucked-up enough without including self-blame for this other one.  I toyed with the idea that she felt she was culpable for the event because she was responsible for so many other bad things, but that just didn't fit, especially because other characters were blaming her, too...  That really rubbed me the wrong way, and was one of the very few things that I disliked about the book.

There's also a repetition of a "fire" theme in this book, which you could probably guess from the title.  However, there is no fire-building instruction here, and while I'm sure the fire theme was supposed to be symbolic, I'm not sure that I really understood what it stood for.  Baptism by flames?  Burning away the sins of the past?  That's my main guess, but I'm just not sure.  Apparently I'm not very good at recognizing things like that.

Overall, not a perfect book, but a really lovely one that has some big emotional impact and left me sniffling a little at work.  And you know whose fault that is?  Teddy fucking Roosevelt.

4 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Flight - Alyssa Rose Ivy (Crescent City Chronicles #1)

Flight (The Crescent Chronicles, #1)Young adult paranormal romances have this thing about having "heros" who are really bad bad bad news and who girls with any sense should not get involved with.  This one is no different.  Combined with the myriad of other problems in this book, I'm glad I didn't pay for it (it's currently free on Amazon) because I would have been very, very disappointed if I had.  The main character is the only one with any semblance of dimension; the supporting characters might as well not even be there, because their interactions with the heroine only serve as filler; the plot is nonexistent until 70% of the book is already done; the worldbuilding is seriously lacking in believability; and then there's the aforementioned problem with the hero, who is a lying, manipulative sonofabitch but who we're supposed to like anyway???  Why does this always happen?!  I think it's an example of something I read about recently called "the likeable misogynist," who is a male prototype in which misogyny is used to make him "not perfect" because wink-wink, nudge-nudge, he loves the girl, he's just kind of a jerk about it, but it's no big deal, amiright?  WRONG.

So, the hot mess starts when Allie and her best friend Jess go to New Orleans to work at Allie's Dad's hotel for the summer.  Of course, later the hotel turns out to be the center of a ton of paranormal activity, which of course Allie's dad doesn't seem to know about at all, and yet the giant, rich conglomerate that runs all of the paranormal activity in New Orleans just let this random guy from New York buy it anyway... Sure.  Yeah.  That makes sense.  Totally.  (I'm being sarcastic.  It doesn't.  None of this makes sense.)  Allie has sworn of men but immediately lays eyes on a Total Hottie and that's it for that vow.  Now, Allie is allowed to be attracted to people--of course she is.  Everyone is.  But she kind of sets herself up as all "high and might, I'm not into men, blahblahblah" and then loses her resolve in about two seconds.  It's called willpower, girl!  Jess, the friend, stays around for about two seconds before leaving and is never seen again.  No character development.  No purpose.  Nada.  Why was she there in the first place?  Allie could have literally gone to New Orleans on her own and the story would not have been any different.  This goes for most of the side characters who show up.  They have no purpose and the narrative would have been exactly the same if they had never appeared.  Every single piece of your book needs to have a purpose that all build up to the main plot and enrich it; that is not the case here.  At all.

The Hottie in question, Levi, of course turns out to have wings, which he reveals after about two days of knowing Allie because...reasons.  (He likes her, but that seems like a terrible reason to reveal your secret species to someone you just met who could bring the freakin' X Files down on your head if she were so inclined.)  Allie thinks this is cool.  Allie insists she likes biology and is good at it, and she's going to Princeton in the fall, but all things considered, I think Allie thinking this is cool and not finding it all very creepy speak to her lack of intelligence or at least lack of self-preservation.  A human getting mixed up with non-humans...there cannot possibly be any problems there, right?

Wrong.  Obviously.  Though you wouldn't know it for a long time because Allie spends all of her days shopping or eating ice cream or clubbing (apparently there is no minimum drinking age in this version of New Orleans; I understand that underage kids do get alcohol, but Allie is drinking at every single meal, including out with her parents) doing exactly two things before she goes back to bed, and doing remarkably little work into the bargain considering that's the reason she was in New Orleans to begin with.  This could very easily be just a "slice of life" book about a girl about to go to college, because the plot for the vast majority is completely lacking.  People keep popping up knowing things that they shouldn't know (one character assumes that Allie is Pteron, the same "species" as Levi and his friends, and then 2.5 seconds later knows she's human without anything changing to indicate that) and people not telling Allie things that she should know even though she demands answers more than once.

And then, of course, everything goes into hell in a handbasket, 70% of the way through; the action here lasts about 15 pages and then ends, going back to just a lot of talking, though at least now we know that something is going on in the larger scope.

Levi is, of course, an asshole.  He is the main person who will not give her answers even though he apparently thinks he wants to spend the rest of his life with her.  He does not tell her things that will have a huge impact on her life.  He will not leave her alone even though she tells him no, repeatedly and very loudly.  He pretty much stalks her, terrifies her, humiliates her in front of her coworkers and parents.  When he puts her life in danger, he says it's her fault--because obviously she shouldn't have had any objections to the way he was treating her and should have acted the way he wanted her to even though she had no logical basis to do so.  Does Allie stand for all of this?  Well...yes and no.  She gets pretty pissed off at him on a regular basis, so the girl has some expectation of respect, but she also forgives him super easily, so apparently that expectation isn't a very large one.

Other issues with this book: Ivy uses the threat of rape as a plot device just for the shock factor of it; there is not actual "plot" worth to it and no character dimension.  Shame.  Rape is a serious, serious thing and shouldn't be used so lightly.  The book doesn't read like a first draft, but it does read like a draft that has been edited for typos and major grammar errors and then put up without any plot or character refinements.  The hierarchy of the paranormal world doesn't really make sense; you seriously want me to believe that crows are at the top of the food chain?  Not so much.  Oh, and the cover looks like the characters don't have legs, but that's minor in the grand scheme of things.

I will absolutely not be reading the sequel to Flight.  This book was enough of a train wreck; I feel no need to see how Ivy can make it worse.

1.5 stars, mainly because the book is set in New Orleans, which is cool.  The rest is not.

Monday, July 20, 2015

American Catch - Paul Greenberg

American Catch: The Fight for Our Local SeafoodI've said it before, and I'll say it again: I love food.  And of all the foods I love, seafood is at the very top of that list.  When I was in high school, if I got straight As, my dad would take me out for all-you-can-eat snow crab legs at one of our favorite restaurants.  In more recent times, I've dragged my boyfriend out on a quest for fried clams because I decided I had to have them right now, and then spent a week in Maine eating sea food at literally every meal.  Fish and chips (cod), fish tacos with a cilantro-lime crema (tilapia), lobster pots, crab cakes, steamed mussels, grilled trout, spicy crunchy yellowtail rolls, broiled scallops, blackened catfish...the list goes on and on.  If it dwells in water, I'll eat it.  I trace much of this back to growing up in Erie, Pennsylvania, which was once the largest fresh-water fishing port in the world, mainly for one item: Lake Erie perch.  When I visit home these days, I make a point of ordering up some fried perch, one of the most delectable fried fish you can ever consume and one that came right out of the waters I grew up by.  Until now, it never occurred to me that eating Lake Erie perch--a fish that was caught within miles of where I ate it--was unusual.  But guess what?  It is.  It's very unusual.  And that's a very, very bad thing.

Greenberg uses American Catch to dig into all the problems with how Americans use and view seafood.  The US controls more fishing grounds than any other country, and we have an extremely long coast line, and yet the vast majority of our seafood is shipped off to countries like China--and most of the seafood we eat is imported from those same countries, which doesn't seem to make a lot of sense.  Using three examples--New York oysters, Gulf shrimp, and Alaskan sockeye salmon--Greenberg illustrates how this came about and what the implications for it are.  We constantly decimate our coastlines and the salt marshes that comprise them in order to create more land for agriculture and more desirable places for the rich to vacation, all the while destroying the habitats and breeding grounds of local sea food; we did this to such a degree in New York City that it's actually illegal to eat the New York oysters that survive there, because the water is so polluted that eating said oysters can make people sick.  And we do this even though creating an environment that can sustain oysters is good for the city: oysters filter water and create reefs that can help lessen the effects of of storm surges, like the one that decimated so much of the city in Hurricane Sandy.  On the shrimp front, we allow industry, such as big oil, to pollute the Gulf of Mexico and destroy our coast and the shrimp that live and breed there, and mess with the Mississippi River until it's basically just shooting washed-off fertilizers from big agriculture into the Gulf and creating a deoxygenated dead zone where nothing can live.  And in Alaska, on Bristol Bay, the largest salmon run in the world with some of the best salmon there is, we ponder letting a huge mine destroy the area because it offers a faster payout than fishing does.  And for some reason, we don't see most of this as a problem.

Greenberg really digs into why this is; why we're blind to the problem of seafood because it doesn't present itself as a problem.  After all, I can still grab as many pounds of shrimp as I want from the grocery store, so why should the problem of the Gulf come to my mind?  Does it really matter that the shrimp I'm buying come from farms that are wreaking similar havoc in Asia, and that the shrimp are likely heavily dosed with antibiotics to avoid the diseases that can decimate harvests? probably does.  And if it doesn't, it should.  I can very easily see this book being painted as a tool of the "liberal media" by conservatives, who, as Greenberg points out, tend to see any attempt at regulation as an interference with their god-given rights to do whatever the hell they want, and screw anyone who disagrees.  But the fact of the matter is, the way that we treat seafood isn't sustainable, and if I want to be able to enjoy a big piece of salmon years down the road, our attitudes toward it have to change.  This isn't really a new idea, but it is an important one that nonetheless seems to get lost in the shuffle, and the more it's brought up, the more potential there is for people to listen and enact change.

This is a great book, one that uses a few solid examples in conjunction to make a much larger and powerful point, and one that brings in a lot of the people who are actually, personally affected in order to illustrate how the issues in the industry can drag us down.  It doesn't focus on just one geographic area, instead showing that our abuse of seafood truly is a national problem, from New York to Louisiana to Alaska, and that we need to consider the bigger picture of how we view seafood if we're going to fix it.  Because of the subject matter, it's a book that can come across a little preachy at times, which is typical for books like this and somewhat unavoidable, and Greenberg gets all cheery at the end in what I think was an attempt to avoid blatant fearmongering.  Still, after reading this one, I know one thing: I'll probably be looking into where my seafood comes from a little more closely from now on.

4 stars out of 5.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Zhivago Affair - Peter Finn and Petra Couvee

The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden BookIf this book were a web article, I'd call the title clickbait, because it's pretty misleading.  After taking a class about Soviet and CIA operations during the Cold War a few years ago, I've been drawn to true spy stories, and thought this would be another one.  It's really not.  In fact, The Zhivago Affair isn't really about the Kremlin, the Cia, or the battle over a forbidden book.  It's more about the book itself and the reaction to it, both inside and outside the Soviet Union, and the trouble that it caused the author, Pasternak.  While there is some involvement of the Kremlin (who banned the book, without having ever read it) and the CIA (who printed copies to give to people traveling to the Soviet Union as part of a campaign to introduce a wider variety of viewpoints behind the Iron Curtain) it's mostly about Pasternak and those directly involved with him, and his struggle to stand by his work while facing derision from many officials in the USSR.

This isn't a very long book--less than 300 pages, which is fairly short for a nonfiction book regarding the Cold War, but it wasn't a particularly riveting read.  Maybe I would have been more interested if I'd known what the book was really about going into it; as it was, I found myself putting it down often to read other things that were more interesting.  Knowing about how history has treated people it views as dissenters, either rightly or wrongly (when Krushchev, one of the Soviet leaders who was eventually ousted by his compatriots, eventually read the book, he said there was "nothing Soviet" about it) is important, but at the same time I'm not quite sure there was 266 pages of things worth knowing in this.  It was interesting reading about how Pasternak reacted to his persecution, and how others both inside and outside of the Soviet Union reacted to Doctor Zhivago and Pasternak's treatment, but it was...pretty much all the same?  There wasn't a lot of repetition, but once you realize that Pasternak was being persecuted by the Soviet administration, there's not really that much more to it.  It never really stops, right up until Pasternak dies, and if you know anything about the USSR, you wouldn't really expect it to.

The bits about the CIA are very short--maybe a chapter and a half total, focusing on the CIA publishing copies of Doctor Zhivago in Russian and getting them into the hands of Soviet citizens both at home and abroad, at the World's Fair and at a youth festival.  The bits about the Kremlin are very short, too; a few parts about different people being followed or interrogated about the novel, royalties coming in from abroad, stuff like that.  There really is no "battle" over the book, at least not between the Kremlin and CIA; if there's any sort of battle, it's in the press and with the Nobel Prize Committee.  Overall, the story, while interesting and historically important, wasn't what it was made out to be, and that's worth keeping in mind when going into this book.  It was okay, but not particularly riveting, and it's not a nonfiction book I would pick up again.

2 stars out of 5.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

A Matter of Grave Concern - Brenda Novak

A Matter of Grave ConcernI obviously need to start reading the descriptions of books before I buy them, because for some reason I thought this was a paranormal romance.  A Victorian-era paranormal romance, to be sure, but I thought something paranormal would be involved.  That said, when I realized it wasn't (very quickly) I wasn't disappointed.  I love me a historical romance, so I dove right in.  Novak's premise was interesting, especially because it didn't seem to involve the well-born ton characters that historical romances so often feature, and I defintely have never read a historical romance (or any sort of romance) that featured body-snatching as a plot point.  This seemed to have a lot going for it.  However, in the end I was vastly disappointed.

Why was I so disappointed with this?  Well, in a nutshell, I was bored.  There are a lot of plot lines in this book, none of which are particularly hard to follow by themselves or in conjunction, but none of which were particularly interesting, either.  There's the main storyline, in which our heroine, Abby, tries to buy a corpse for her father's medical school from some resurrectionists, ends up losing a lot of money, tries to get it back, and ends up kidnapped by the handsomest man of the lot, Max.  There's the plot where Max has joined the bodysnatching gang in order to find his missing sister, Madeleine, who was last seen in the company of the gang's leader.  In yet another plot, more bodies start turning up (and people go missing) and it's a question of whether they died naturally, ran off, or were (gasp!) murdered.  And then there were a few other subplots, most of which I can't remember because they just weren't interesting. 

The characters were all very flat and one-dimensional, and I didn't really empathize with any of them.  Absolutely every single one of them was boring.  I didn't find Abby believable as a character, either; all of her actions seemed extremely unlikely for a young woman from her situation.  I didn't find it likely that she would track down grave robbers; I didn't find it likely that she would know words like cock (she lived at a medical college; her knowing the physiological terms wouldn't surprise me, but I found the slang she used very out of character); and I didn't think it likely that such a smart young woman would dive headfirst into such stupid situations without thinking.  Some would probably try to say that this was because of her feelings for Max; I say that she did this even beforehand, and that if you're going to make your character out as smart enough to become a surgeon, if only the time's gender rolls allowed, you have to remember that she's a smart character and not have every ounce of her intelligence vanish the second someone with nice eyes shows up.  Believe it or not, women are capable of thinking even when emotions are involved, though Novak apparently feels differently.

Max and Abby's relationship was a dazzling display of Stockholm Syndrome that played out over the space of about three days and was a constant chain of annoyances.  Had there been more involvement of the obstacles between them (I would have loved to have seen Max's fiancee as a real character; that would have added a lot of dimension, or maybe some example of why Max had to marry her) it might have led to some emotional involvement from my end, but as it was, I just didn't care.  Madeleine's mystery is literally impossible to solve, which is annoying; a good mystery is one that you can't figure out, but the answer is revealed, you look back and go, "Of course!"  This wasn't like that.  At the end, I was left going, "That's it?  Really?"  The build-up takes forever and the climax wasn't very climactic at all, but seemed more like an after-thought.  And then Max and Madeleine suddenly have a relationship when before they had nothing to do with each other?  I'm not buying it.

I think I lot of the reason this was so boring was the writing style.  Novak's writing style just doesn't work for a juicy historical romance.  Her sex scenes were bland (never a good thing) and overall there was just a lot of telling and not showing (such a cliched expression, but that's how it was) that left me disconnected from the world she created.  I can typically take down a good historical romance in less than six straight hours, exact time depending on page length; I rarely need more than one sitting to finish a good one.  But despite starting this on a weekend with plenty of time, I spent more than a week chipping away at this one, hoping it would get better with each chapter.  It never did.  The book was far longer than it needed to be, with the "action" climax taking place way before the "emotional" climax and not much to keep the story moving in between.  When I found that this book actually ends at 87% on the Kindle (the rest is a preview of another book), I found myself praising the heavens, because I could not have taken another 13% of this.

Novak's clever titles and beautiful covers are very intriguing, but after this book, I'd be very leery of picking up any of her other books.

1.5 stars out of 5.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Three Weeks With Lady X - Eloisa James (Desperate Duchesses #7, Duchesses by the Numbers #1)

Three Weeks With Lady X (Desperate Duchesses by the Numbers, #1; Desperate Duchesses, #7))Eloisa James is one of my favorite historical romance authors, and Three Weeks With Lady X is a sterling example of just why.  It has all of the elements that James does so well: a hero and heroine with a fabulous capacity for witty banter, a family dynamic (the hero here is the child of one of James' other couples), obstacles between them that are just likely enough to allow suspension of disbelief but just small enough to be overcome, a secondary love story that, while not terribly interesting, adds a little bit of a different dynamic to make you want the main couple to get together even more, and a great country-house setting.

In this particular piece of work, Thorn Dautry, born Tobias and later called Juby, is trying to marry into respectability.  The bastard son of the Duke of Villiers, Thorn is beloved by his father and stepmother, has just enough polish to be noticed by well-born women (but not enough to be taken as a true gentleman) and is absolutely filthy rich to boot.  Thorn has set his eye on Laeticia, whose family has a title but is dirt poor.  Lala doesn't particularly want to marry Thorn, but is willing to do so for her family's well-being, provided that her mother will give her blessing.  Thorn figures that he needs to buy a country house to make himself out as a good choice to Lala's mother (who is a true bitch, of course) and buys Starberry Court.  He then hires Lady Xenobia, who goes by her middle name India, to make the estate into something presentable.  India is well-born and rich, but through her own doing; her parents squandered the family fortune and spent their time pretty much worshipping nature, leaving India very much on her own until they were killed in a carriage accident when she was fifteen.  Ever since, India's guardian Adelaide has shuttled her from house to house, letting India work her magic and right their woes while Adelaide visits with her friends.  Now, at twenty-six, India plans to make Starberry Court her last project before retiring and finding a husband of her own.

Over the course of the book, India and Thorn of course engage in witty banter, the exchange of witty notes, and have other witty encounters of various varieties, and of course they become attracted to each other, though Thorn is always very clear that he intends to marry Lala.  This is partly because he really does intend to marry Lala, who he feels is the ideal wife because she will bear his children, love them terribly, and never get in his way, and partly because he feels like he's not good enough for India, or that India thinks he isn't good enough for her because of his low-born origins.  This second part is, of course, not true, but becomes the main source of conflict between Thorn and India, even more than the fact that Thorn intends to marry another woman.

Fleshing out the cast of characters is Vander, Thorn's best friend who also takes a liking to India; Adelaide, India's aunt who means well but seems rather absent-minded, as she is always leaving her unmarried ward alone in Thorn's company; the Duke of Villiers and his wife, Eleanor; Lala's bitch of a mother; and even a brief appearance by Thorn's former mudlark friends.  And then, of course, there is Rose--the daughter of one of the former mudlarks who is entrusted to Thorn after her father dies.  Rose acts more like sixty than six, and bears a resemblance to Thorn even though she isn't related to him, which causes some problems relating to Thorn's respectability.

What more is there really to say?  It's a charming historical romance, which is what James does best.  Despite a few flubs in the past, I think her more recent series have really shone and I've thoroughly enjoyed them.  She does play around with history at some points (this one deals with Thorn running a rubber factory several decades before such a thing would have been realistic, which seems silly; she could have easily picked another industry for him) but honestly, do we really read historical romances for the history?  No.  No we do not.  We read them because they have a charm that is hard to capture in modern-day romances, and that is what James excels at.

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Gretel and the Dark - Eliza Granville

Gretel and the DarkThis book had a lot of things that I absolutely love: fairy tales, historical fiction, a psychological element.  At times, it was absolutely enchanting.  But despite the book's very good reviews, I didn't really like it overall.  There were a few reasons for this.  First, until the very end of the book, you're left wondering what the heck is going on.  The two alternating storylines are obviously connected, but I was left wondering if one of the stories was a dream, a delusion, or if Granville was actually going with the idea of someone time-traveling in order to try to kill Hitler.  Second, I'm not sure how, but Granville actually managed to make a main character who is a Holocaust survivor utterly unlikeable.

Okay, that was kind of a lie.  I know exactly how Granville managed to make her Holocaust-survivor main character unlikeable.  Mainly, she made Krysta a complete brat, so much that I wanted to slap her and lock her in a cupboard just as much as most of the characters that surrounded her did.  We weren't supposed to like Johanna, but man, I sympathized with Johanna and her desire to put Krysta in her place way more than I sympathized with Krysta herself.  Her constant streams of "Won't," "Want," "Don't want to," and so on were absolutely unbearable at more than one point.  Granville tried to turn her obstinacy into a positive trait later in the narrative, successfully, but even that wasn't enough to wash away the dislike of Krysta that had built up over the first three-quarters of the book.

The other characters I liked.  Lilie's character was weird but cool, Josef's character was creepy but realistic and added an interesting psychological element to the story, Benjamin was easily the most empathy-worthy character of the lot, and Gudrun and Greet both had the "gruff housekeeper who means well" dynamic to them.  I found that I enjoyed the Vienna storyline much more than the Ravensbruck storyline, which is kind of problematic given the structure of the two and how they fit together.  Whenever Krysta appeared on the page, I wanted her off it as soon as possible, and considering she was our main point-of-view character...that's an issue.  I know Krysta was young--exactly how young I don't remember, if it was ever mentioned, though it is mentioned that she's older than one would think--and had somewhat-recently lost her mother, but let me tell you: in all my years of dealing with precocious children and entitled students, I have never met a child as insufferable as Krysta is.

The inclusion of all the different fairy tales and how they fit together and morphed from telling to telling was interesting, but trying to figure out how they fit into the different timelines and storylines was disorientating and didn't allow me to get a good feel for the story as a whole.  It was just a weird feeling, and in the end I wasn't sure where I was left standing with this one.  Normally I would read a fairy tale-inspired book more than once, but this one?  Not so much.

2.5 stars out of 5.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Tastemakers - David Sax

The Tastemakers: Why We're Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with FondueMy name is Chelsea, and I'm crazy about cupcakes.  It's true.  As a resident of Washington, DC, I am one of the people absolutely mad for Georgetown Cupcakes, one of the many cupcakeries mentioned in The Tastemakers.  On the other hand, I'm not "fed up with fondue," as the rest of the subtitle would insinuate.  Granted, I don't think I've had fondue on many occasions, but I'm not fed up with it.  It's fun.  We should call it fundue!  Haha.  I am 100% positive no one has ever made that joke before.  However, apparently a lot of people are fed up with fondue, and The Tastemakers tries to explain why.

Sax dives into a lot of the reasons foods become trends, from pop-culture appeal (cupcakes appearing on Sex and the City) to money (bacon is a huge industry) to health appeals, true or not (acai and chia, anyone?).  While the concepts are interesting, the book itself didn't really capture my interest.  I thought Sax's writing could trend purple and a lot of the time he lost my attention as he wandered off on philosophical bents that weren't exactly on-topic.  While anecdotes about the author's childhood can add to some aspects of a book, I thought Sax went overboard, feeling the need to shoehorn mini-memoirs into every aspect of Tastemakers.  I also thought this book would dive more into why people like foods for the foods themselves, but instead it's completely about how we are manipulated into liking certain foods by different industries.  I understand that industries do manipulate us into liking different foods (I read Salt, Sugar, Fat a couple of winters ago, and a finer example of food-industry manipulation there cannot be) but I though Tastemakers would be a little different.  The diverse focus of foods was good, but overall I found that Sax couldn't hold my attention.  I put this book down almost constantly to read other things, which never happens with food books.  An intriguing concept this was, but I found it just didn't live up to my tastes or expectations.

2 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

A Court of Thorns and Roses - Sarah J. Maas (A Court of Thorns and Roses #1)

A Court of Thorns and Roses (A Court of Thorns and Roses, #1)I'm a Sarah J. Maas hipster, by which I mean that I liked her before it was cool to like her, back when she had a real doorstop of a book called Queen of Glass posted on  That doorstop is now the best-selling Throne of Glass series.  After reading the first one, I found that I didn't like it as much as I had the original draft, which was much darker (at least in my memory) and, while A Court of Thorns and Roses looked beautiful, I was leery about reading it because I didn't want to be disappointed again.  But then a friend read it and gave it four stars, and so up to the top of my list it went.  And was I disappointed?  No.  No I was not.

The plot follows Feyre, a human girl who is spirited off to the faerie realm of Prythian after she kills a faerie wolf one winter day.  In Prythian, she lives on the estate of Tamlin, a High Fae lord with the power of shapeshifting into the form of a beast.  Feyre aches to return to her village and her family, whom she promised to care for, but slowly becomes sucked into the world of Prythian and into Tamlin's life.  But when a magical blight threatens Prythian and everything beyond it, Feyre is both terribly out of her depth and the world's only hope for stopping the blight before it destroys everything.

A Court of Thorns and Roses is supposedly based off of Beauty and the Beast, and I can see that; however, I think it falls in more closely with another fairytale, East of the Sun and West of the Moon, which features a more active heroine.  In fact, Thorns and Roses reminded me of a lot of my favorite books: the faerie world, so beautiful and terrible, of Holly Black's Tithe, the overall plot structure of Dennis L. McKiernan's Once Upon a Winter's Night (STRONG resemblance there), the same "mortal falls in love with immensely powerful immortal" vibe as N. K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and an overall feel like that of Kristin Cashore's Graceling and Rae Carson's Girl of Fire and Thorns.  This was a very good thing, because it meant I really liked this book.  Did I absolutely love it?  Well...not quite.  For most of the book, I did.  But I felt like the ending left something to be desired.  It's obviously sequel-bait, and I have a nasty feeling that Maas is setting up the future books to include a love triangle, which I feel doesn't work well with the dynamic established in Thorns and Roses.   I found the plot setup and writing truly lovely, but that ending makes me dock a star.  I don't like eyeing future books with apprehension because of the way one ended, and that's exactly what happened here.  I don't feel like this quite ranked up there with Graceling and Girl of Fire and Thorns, but it was certainly very, very good.

4 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Lucky Us - Amy Bloom

18316089Whoever decided on the title for this book--whether it was Bloom, her editor, publisher, whoever--has a sick sense of humor, because the characters in Lucky Us are lucky only in the sense that they survived infancy.  Beyond that, they are perhaps the unluckiest set of people I have ever read about.  This book was almost painful to read because just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, it does.

The story follows Eva and Iris, half-sisters who share a father.  When Iris' mom dies, Eva's mother (the father's mistress) takes Eva to Edgar's (Iris and Eva's father) house and leaves her there.  Iris and Eva bond pretty quickly and eventually run away to Hollywood where Iris tries to make it as an actress and Eva plays support.  Eventually, a scandal results in Iris being blacklisted from the Hollywood scene, and Edgar tracks the girls down.  The family, plus makeup artist Francisco, heads to New York where Francisco found Edgar a job as a butler and Iris a job as a governess for a rich family.  Things continue to go wrong, however: Iris falls in love with the family's cook, who happens to already be married; the cook's husband is arrested an interned as a Nazi spy; Edgar's health starts going downhill, fast; and so on.  Also involved: a kidnapping and a fatal fire.  Throughout it all, Eva supports herself, and later her family, by reading tarot cards and telling fortunes.

I wasn't a huge fan of how the book was composed.  Most of the chapters are written in first person, from Eva's point of view.  Also interspersed are letters from the other characters to Eva and sections written in third person that focus on the other people.  While I didn't mind the inclusion of letters, many of them seemed very strangely written; they were obviously letters written that were to tell the reader backstory, and therefore didn't feel like genuine letters.  After all, Eva would have known what had happened to herself and Iris.  She wouldn't have needed Iris to write her a letter describing it all, which is exactly what happened.  That didn't quite fit to me, and the letters, especially those from Iris, didn't seem to fit with the content of the book.  Iris gets really roughed up at one point, and ends up going to England for plastic surgery, and it's apparently a smashing success because she writes about her life like she's super pretty and everything is awesome, but according to the rest of the narrative she was terribly disfigured and I'm skeptical of how well plastic surgery would have gone in the mid 1940s.  I certainly don't think it would have been enough to restore her looks to the starlet ones she had before.  I also didn't like the third person bits, because while the things that happened in them were interesting, they jarred me out of the narrative.

ALSO this book involves lesbianism!!!  Very prominently!!!!  Iris realizes her sexuality as a lesbian relatively early on (there is a lesbian orgy in this book, guys; not a very explicit one, but still) and has two major relationships with other women (none with men) throughout.  This seemed to be remarkably well accepted, considering the time period; I would have thought there would have been a lot more stigma attached to a homosexual relationship in the 1940s, though female homosexual relationships have never been frowned upon quite to the degree that male ones have been.  Anyway, it was cool to see a non-straight character in a historical fiction, and especially one where her sexuality is an element of the plot but is not the main thing driving it.  So many books that involve non-straight characters can become completely about the character's non-straight identity, and this one didn't do that.  Which was good, because there is always more to a person than their sexuality, and Iris was no exception.

One more thing: this book is full of terrible people.  Pretty much all of the main characters (with the exception of Francisco) do terrible things at one point or another, Iris most notably of all.  This made them hard to like, and almost made you feel like they deserved all of the hardships that came their way which....might have been the point?  I'm not sure.  I liked Eva, overall, but even she facilitated a kidnapping at one point, which obviously is not good.  Some of their actions were very jarring for protagonists, because protagonists are supposed to be easy to identify with, and I didn't find Eva or Iris that easy to empathize with.  I can't imagine kidnapping someone or reporting someone as a spy so that I could hook up her husband; it just doesn't work in my mind, and it alienated me from Eva and Iris quite a bit.

And can we talk, briefly, about how that cover has nothing to do with the book?  Nothing.  At all.

Overall, 3 stars out of 5.  It was short but complicated, and not necessarily in a good way...the end somewhat made up for the other bits, but not entirely.

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Third Plate - Dan Barber

The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of FoodDan Barber is a chef, known for farm-to-table cooking at his restaurants Blue Hill in NYC and Blue Hill at Stone Barns outside the city in a slightly more rural part of New York state.  He was also the subject of one episode of Chef's Table, a recent documentary mini-series produced by Netflix.  The episode, as far as I can remember, didn't mention this book at all, but it left enough of an impression that when I saw the book chilling out in the waiting area of local DC restaurant Founding Farmers (delicious, simply delicious; if  you're ever in Washington, DC, you should make this a stop, but I would suggest a reservation) I was interested.  I didn't have enough time to pick the book up at the restaurant, but it was at the library the next time I stopped by, and so home it came.  I then had to share it with one of my coworkers, who is also a food fanatic, and so when she went out of town I took my chance and devoured it.  (Devoured.  Haha.)

Let me put one thing out there about Dan Barber: I don't know him personally, but in the documentary...he's a jerk.  A real asshole.  He has a tendency to be verbally abusive towards his staff, with a terrible temper, which he freely admits; he also says it's a problem, but admitting it doesn't make it better.  He came off so poorly that when a contestant on Chopped mentioned having interned at Blue Hill, my only thought was, "Oh, that poor kid."  So I was a little leery about the book at first; would he be as much of an ass on the page as he was on the screen?  The answer is, resoundingly, no.  On the page, Barber comes across as charming and a little naive but willing to learn, which is a weird juxtaposition with his documentary persona and I'm not quite sure how I feel about that.

The book is divided into four sections: Soil, Land, Sea, and Seed, and each one focuses on a different aspect of food and relies heavily on Barber's interactions with different farmers who specialize in each section.  Soil revolves around just that: a farmer in New York who switched his farm to organic and uses different crop rotations to enrich the soil and improve the quality of the food he grows, a process that Barber considers vital to the future of good, sustainable food.  Land and Sea both take place mostly in Spain, where Barber looks at sustainable foie gras made without force feeding ("freedom gras") and at a sustainable fish farm that's smack dab in the middle of a national park, both of which produce superior products on a smaller scale.  Seed moves back to the United States and talks about breeding different varieties of vegetables and grains (the focus is mostly on wheat, though a few other things are mentioned) without genetically modifying them.  Overall, the message is one of encouraging diversity of foods, supporting smaller-scale production on a wider scale (more small farms instead of a few big farms, less farms with monocrops, etc.) and generally shifting the way we eat and view food to make the future of cuisine more sustainable.  It's a movement that has to take place at every level, because if one level doesn't change, the others are stuck in the same loop.

Barber's writing (or did he have a ghostwriter?  I don't know; I'm never sure about these things...) is easily readable and very engaging, with a literary nonfiction feel; he tells the stories of the people he works with in the book, so this doesn't feel like a textbook read at all.  I think this is really how nonfiction needs to be written, so that it is enjoyable and educational at the same time, a balance with which some nonfiction writers struggle.  He's clear in explaining his ideas and doesn't repeat himself over and over again, which can be onerous.  The farmers he works with and the locales he visits are note-worthy enough that you might have heard of them in passing at some point, but small enough that learning about them is enjoyable and doesn't feel like a rehashing of something that's been covered time and time again.  And, perhaps most refreshingly, Barber has a positive outlook on the future of food.  As he points out in the introduction, opinions on food's future often tend toward the dystopian, with pills and drinks providing necessary nutrition while food itself becomes scarcer and scarcer and a thing of the past.  This isn't Barber's opinion at all; he belongs to a school of thought that believes yes, food is headed in a bad direction on the large scale, but positive change isn't impossible, and will benefit everyone involved (except, perhaps, Monsanto).

Despite the book's hefty page count (it clocks in at about 450 pages) I found this a quick and easy read, not bogged down by chapters the length of short novels, sensible transitions, good writing, and a logical progression.  This one will probably have to find a permanent place on my bookshelf.

5 stars!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

2 AM at the Cat's Pajamas - Marie-Helene Bertino

2 A.M. at The Cat's PajamasLight books with ensemble casts of kooky characters seem to be all the rage recently, and this one is no exception.  Since I read Where'd You Go, Bernadette recently, this book reminded me immensely of that.  It's a book with a child as the main character, even though the book is for adults, and the child gets up to all kinds of trouble when the parents aren't looking.  In Bernadette, it was fourteen/fifteen-year-old Bea who got into trouble trying to solver her mother's disappearance; in this one, it's nine-year-old Madeleine trying to fulfill her dream of being a jazz singer.  Madeleine is described by Bertino as "a jerk," and consequently doesn't have any friends.  Most of the people who associate with her in the book are the adults who have stepped in to care for her following her mother's death and her father's descent into a prolonged depression in which he does nothing but listen to old jazz records.  Madeleine goes to school by herself, eats at a cafe down the road by herself, gets her hair done by herself, and ultimately decides to find The Cat's Pajamas, one of Philadelphia's jazz clubs, by herself so that she can make her onstage debut.

Other than Madeleine, the book features Sarina, Madeleine's teacher who is not enjoying her holiday season one bit for a variety of reasons, and Lorca, the owner of The Cat's Pajamas who has just been slapped with a huge fine for violating a large number of city laws and codes in regards to his club.  Sarina sets out to cheer herself up and Lorca and his band of misfits at The Cat's Pajamas try to find a way to cover the fine and save the club as Christmas Eve Eve creeps onward.

The entire story takes place over the course of one day, from about 7am on December 23rd to the wee hours of December 24th.  Despite that, the narrative doesn't seem rushed at all.  Indeed, at some times it got a little too bogged down with Bertino's wordiness.  She takes great lengths to describe scenes, scenes which were intended to make the city of Philadelphia seem as much a character as Madeleine, Sarina, and Lorca, but which in fact only seemed rambling and left me wondering where we were actually going with the words on the page.  These scenes took place mostly at the beginnings of chapters, though there were a few (two describing girls and boys, specifically) that were in the middle of chapters and seemed to derail what was happening around them.

There's also a very slight magical realism note to this story which involves Madeleine's singing.  It's pretty strongly implied that when Madeleine sings, things happen.  Things float.  People do weird stuff.  At first, this seems charming; levitating food and dishware isn't so menacing, after all.  However, it's later implied that Madeleine's voice, when she sings, can cause people to do much darker things--like sexually assault people.  Yes, there is a sexual assault in this book (perpetrated by a woman on a man) and it's hinted at there was another that occurred before the book actually again.  This was weird, and creepy and uncomfortable in the extreme, and did not at all fit with the whimsical, charming narrative that comprised the rest of the book.  I'm not sure if Bertino meant for this scene to be so jarring, or if she meant for it to be lighthearted, and if it's the latter (heck, even if it's the former!) I have to wonder what she was thinking.  Sexual assault by either gender is nothing to be lighthearted about, and it definitely put a damper on the rest of the book for me.  Why this sort of thing happens when Madeleine sings (But not always?  It was used pretty inconsistently.) is also never explained.

This is a good book, with good characters and setting and sometimes wonderful writing--good bones, but I think it needed more polish, and some points more outright thought, for it to be great.

3 stars out 5.