Friday, October 30, 2015

Seabiscuit - Laura Hillenbrand

Seabiscuit: An American LegendSeabiscuit had been on my to-read list for a while, and relatively toward the top of it because my university's library system had a copy.  I requested it, along with a bunch of other books, and took it home.  Where it sat.  And sat.  And sat.  At one point, it even ended up in the laundry basket, because I had to move it and that's just where it ended up.  And then, of course, it got buried by clothes.  It came overdue; I renewed it, but still didn't touch the book to actually read it.  And then I came to a realization: I didn't really want to read it at all.  This meant, of course, that even though it was numerically high on my to-read list (the books the library has are always numerically high; I sort through them pretty often) it was actually very low on the want-to-read list.  Hm.  A book at the bottom of your to-read list... Popsugar, is that you?  Why yes, it is!  When I realized this, I immediately fished the book out and began to read it.

Most of the delay is my own fault.  After checking Seabiscuit out, I realized I'd been mixing up horse movies the entire time.  See, I have a few movie weaknesses: sport movies (Friday Night Lights, Miracle) figure skating movies (Ice Castles, The Cutting Edge, Ice Princess) and horse movies.  And I'd been mixing two up!  In my head, Seabiscuit had gotten all muddled up with Hidalgo, and after checking the book out I realized that Hidalgo was the movie I'd actually wanted to read.  However, Hidalgo isn't a book, and so I was left with Seabiscuit.  I started it anyway, because now the book would count for a category of the Popsugar challenge that I hadn't locked down yet.  And... I was pleasantly surprised!

Laura Hillenbrand is an excellent writer.  That's probably why her two books, Seabiscuit and Unbroken, were both made into movies.  She has a way of writing that really makes historical scenes come alive.  In Seabiscuit, she follows the horse himself, as well as owner Charles Howard, jockeys Red Pollard and George Woolf, trainer Tom Smith, and some of Seabiscuit's rivals.  She follows the threads through all their lives as they come together and move apart, building up the tension of Seabiscuit's wins, losses, injuries, and comebacks.  I like horse movies, but I don't actually care one whit about horse racing, and Hillenbrand still managed to keep me riveted even though I knew how the story ended.  It's a really good author who can do that, and Hillenbrand definitely managed it.  The edition I read was even illustrated, which Hillenbrand apparently really pushed for, so that you could follow the whole saga in pictures.  While this made it a rather unwieldy book, one that was definitely suited for the coffee table rather than the bus, I think it was a nice touch overall.

Was this one of my favorite books of nonfiction?  No.  It wasn't.  Nonfiction books that fall onto my favorites list make me think, give me revelations, or bring out something that I never knew before.  This didn't do any of those, but that's just the nature of this book.  It's not really Hillenbrand's fault, and I think that, if I were really into horse racing or had known even less about the sport, it would have resonated much more with me.  I just happened to fall into the part of the spectrum where it didn't have that sort of impact.  Still, a very enjoyable book, and I read it over the course of a few lazy evenings.  I'd recommend it to someone who's interested in what's probably one of the greatest stories of horse racing, but doesn't feel like slogging through pages and pages of backstory and information in order to do it.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Compulsion - Martina Boone (Heirs of Watson Island #1)

Compulsion (The Heirs of Watson Island, #1)If you're a fan of young adult fiction, I heartily recommend signing up for PulseIt, a website that weekly posts free books and extended excerpts of books that you can read online.  The site is run by Simon & Schuster, which means all of the books posted are published by that house, but they still cover a wide variety of genres within the young adult sub-set.  They've recently lengthened the postings from one week to two, doubling the amount of time you have to read a title, but still post weekly so that, at any time, you have two books and two (or sometimes more!) extended excerpts to look at.  I found Poison Princess and the rest of the Arcana Chronicles, which I've really enjoyed, through this site, along with some frustrating titles, but I still think it's worth looking at.

Compulsion was a book that middle in quality.  It had great potential out of the gate, but I think it fizzled later on and never really lived up to it.  I expected it to be a sort of teen southern Gothic, maybe something like Servants of the Storm, which I thought was wonderfully written but fell agonizingly flat at the end.  I thought that Barrie, moving to Watson Island, South Carolina from her mother's home in San Francisco, would face some sort of lurking menace in her new abode, something that would utterly change her life, but she really didn't.

So, as I said, Barrie moves to Watson Island.  This comes in the wake of her mother's death.  Her mother, Lula, was seriously disfigured in a fire while pregnant with Barrie, and remained a shut-in for the rest of her life, often applying the same rules to Barrie, who's rather sheltered as a result.  Barrie's caretaker, Mark, was diagnosed with cancer and was going into hospice care, so Barrie couldn't stay with him anymore.  Instead, she moves to Watson's Landing on Watson Island to live with the aunt she never knew she had.  At the beginning of the book, she's not look forward to it, which is fair because I imagine few people savor moving for their final year of high school.  On top of that, the move doesn't exactly go well.  Her aunt doesn't pick her up from the airport, and when Barrie takes a cab to the family plantation, she finds that Aunt Pru might be a little bit crazy.  And on top of that, the house is apparently trying to kill Barrie, and her special ability--that to find lost things, which she's always had--starts going haywire.  On the bright side, there's a really cute guy she's attracted to and who's attracted to her, and now Barrie has a family that she never even knew existed.

Not too far into the book, Barrie meets her cousin, Cassie.  There's a lot family intrigue going on between the families of Barrie, Cassie, and Eight, who is Barrie's love interest.  Basically, it all boils down to their ancestors being a group of pirates, and while Barrie and Eight's families got gifts (the Watsons can find what is lost, the Beauchamps or Beauregards or whatever the heck they're called know what people want) Cassie's got a curse.  Cassie wants Barrie's help to break the curse by finding a family treasure that was buried during the Civil War, though how that's supposed to help I'm not quite sure.  The gifts and curses supposedly stem from the Fire Carrier, a Cherokee witch who trapped evil spirits on Watson Island, which is also interesting because the Cherokees didn't have territory along the Carolina coast.  Meddling with Native American customs, including "magic," is a tricky business, and while I can't really say if Boone did her research on it or not because I don't know enough on the subject to call her out on any errors, I hope she tread carefully regarding that aspect of the story.  But, historical accuracy aside, let me talk about Fire Carrier for a moment.  At the beginning of the book, he's made out to be very menacing.  As the book goes on, he gets more benevolent.  That's fine; character development and all, though he's not really a main actor.  At least, he's not a main actor until the very end, when he neatly wraps up the book's main conflict on his own in a very deus-ex-machina moment.

My main complaint with the book was Barrie.  I liked her as a character in general.  I thought her gift was unusual enough to be interesting and that her adaptation to the new situation was realistic.  What I didn't like about Barrie was that she's completely incapable of doing anything for herself.  Whenever she gets into any sort of situation, whether it's finding a secret room, going into town, or escaping the boat of her wicked drug-dealing uncle, she can't get out of it on her own.  She always has to be rescued, usually by Eight but once by Fire Carrier.  It's hard to view her as a capable person when she can get into trouble, but she can't get out of it, not even the most mediocre sort.  And she does this even after Eight points out that she's doing it.

The southern Gothic air I expected in this book was also lacking.  It was there at the beginning--spooky plantation, weird powers, family secrets and intrigue, etc.  But then the menacing shadows became cute little sidekicks, the family intrigue turned out to be not-so-intriguing, and the weird powers didn't end up packing that much punch.  The spooky plantation underwent a makeover to become just another charming southern locale.  It seemed like Boone lost a lot of her atmosphere and momentum in having Barrie try to improve her surroundings, and the entire book suffered for it.  The writing was beautiful, and I can only imagine what Boone could have done with a properly creepy atmosphere, but she gave up that opportunity way too early on for it to add to the book as a whole.

Finally, the title.  The title and the book's description both describe the abilities of the families as "compulsions."  Except a compulsion means that you have to do something.  Barrie likes finding things that are lost, because she gets a headache if she doesn't, but she certainly doesn't have to.  It doesn't eat away at her sanity if she doesn't.  She just gets a headache.  Compulsive disorders are a serious mental condition, and I can't help but feel that Boone trivialized that in how she worded and structured her novel.

I'm mildly interested in the sequel to this, Persuasion, but I'm not sure I'll be picking it up.  Barrie didn't really grow much as a character, other than deciding that she liked Watson Island.  Which is good, considering that she's stuck there in more ways than one.  It would have been interesting to see her struggle more, and with things just working out for her so easily, I'm not sure how compelling of a read the sequel will be.

2.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini

The Kite RunnerI feel like I'm one of a rare group of readers who didn't jump on The Kite Runner back when it came out.  I remember people reading it when I was in high school, but it didn't really intrigue me.  I did read A Thousand Splendid Suns, which focuses on a mainly female cast in Afghanistan, a premise I found much more interesting because of how women's situation in Afghanistan has changed so much over such a relatively short period.  However, the Popsugar Reading Challenge has a category for "A banned book," and I thought this would fit nicely.  We don't actually have banned books in the US, so I think this is a silly category to include at all, but some institutions (especially schools, and especially religious private schools) often take issue with books and ban them from the curriculum and libraries.  The Kite Runner often falls into the "banned" category in institutions for a few reasons, including swearing, but let's be honest: it's the parents who don't want their kids reading about Muslim and homosexual characters who push for the ban.  I'm a huge proponent of letting kids read what they want, because widening your worldviews is good and reading a book can't hurt you, but some people apparently feel differently and that leads to books like The Kite Runner being banned.

So, the plot.  The book is narrated in first-person by Amir, the son of a wealthy businessman who spends his days with a servant his age, Hassan.  Hassan is the son of a man who Amir's father considers to be family, and so Hassan is also considered family.  He was born with a harelip, and for his birthday one year, Amir's father pays to have it fixed.  Amir's father includes Hassan in everything, which leads Amir to be jealous of Hassan, who he considers more than a servant but not quite a friend or brother.  Amir craves his father's love and approval, which often seem to be lacking, for himself, and sometimes wants to exclude Hassan so he can have his father's attention.  It's a complicated relationship, with a lot of complicated feelings behind it.  The reasons for these come out later in the book (which I did not see coming; clearly I am out of the loop) and make a lot of sense, and I think Hosseini did a really good job building up to it and tying it all together, making it logical and not just a "Hah!  Gotcha!" moment.

Every winter in Amir's neighborhood, there is a kite fighting competition.  The kids try to battle each other's kites out of the sky, and other kids chase down the falling kites, which are viewed as trophies--especially the last kite to fall.  One winter, Amir and Hassan win the competition and are the last kite flying; while Amir celebrates, Hassan takes off to "run" and retrieve the second-place kite, which they knocked out.  When he doesn't return quickly, Amir goes looking for him.  He finds him cornered by a bunch of bullies who have harassed Amir and Hassan for years.  Amir wants to help Hassan, but he also doesn't; he doesn't want to get in the middle, and he has always been a self-admitted coward.  Torn, he ends up standing by as Hassan is raped by the bullies.  Ashamed of his actions, he avoids Hassan from then on, and eventually drives Hassan and his father Ali away.  Some time after, Amir and his father flee war-torn Afghanistan for San Francisco, where they start up a new life, one that Amir welcomes because it's free of the taint of shame that followed him in Afghanistan.  However, decades later the shame comes back when a friend from Afghanistan requests that Amir return to see him before he dies, and tells Amir that there is a way to make things right.

The book is both Amir's fall from grace and his path to redemption, and all of the threads tie together in a way that makes a wonderfully-woven whole.  It's a depressing book, at times, the very picture of "bad things happen to good people," but it also includes villains getting what's coming from them.  There's no "happily ever after" here, and Amir admits he doesn't know if there will be one at all, but the book ends on an overall hopeful note, with the suggestion that, even though Amir cannot fix the past, he might be able to atone for some of his sins and help pave the way toward a brighter future.  I didn't find this a riveting book, one I couldn't put down, but it has lovely language and development, and I can certainly see why it's so popular.  I think that some of the people who insist this book be banned could actually benefit greatly from reading and understanding it, but that's probably too much to hope for.

4 stars out of 5.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Unraveling of Mercy Louis - Keija Parssinen

The Unraveling of Mercy Louis: A NovelIn my quest to finish the Popsugar Reading Challenge, I needed to fulfill the category "A book set in high school."  Or something along those lines.  I'd planned to read Perks of Being a Wallflower to finish the category, but for some reason none of the libraries in my university's circle would give it to me.  One of them had it on hold because, apparently, it's used in a class.  At another, the book had been lost and they never replaced it.  As for the rest...well, who knows?  At any rate, I couldn't get it from the university library, didn't feel like going to get a public library card, and didn't want to buy it, so I started looking for alternatives.  In the meantime, I found The Unraveling of Mercy Louis on the popular reading shelf at the library and picked it up because I'd read a good review of it...somewhere.  I thought it was over at The Armchair Librarian, but if that was it, now I can't find it.  So maybe it was somewhere else.  Anyway, as I flipped through my Kindle a day later, I found that I already had the book, because apparently I'd purchased it at some point.  I must have really wanted to read it!  I returned the library copy so someone else could get it and started reading the Kindle one.

The story is told in a first-person narrative by the titular character, Mercy, and in third-person from the perspective of one of Mercy's classmates, Illa.  The setting is Port Sabine, Texas--a small town that is still recovering from an explosion at the local oil refinery three years earlier.  The year is 1999, and between the explosion a few years before, a dead baby found in a dumpster, and her prophetic visions, Mercy's grandmother thinks that the Rapture is coming.  Mercy, raised by her grandmother, follows closely in her beliefs, and wants to live out the remainder of the days before the end of the world enjoying her final summer vacation, playing at least part of the basketball season of her senior year--the world's supposed to end partway through it--and staying out of trouble so she can go to Heaven.  Over the summer, though, things start to fall apart.  Mercy and her best friend Annie have a disagreement, and Annie refuses to speak to Mercy.  Mercy speaks in tongues and delivers orders to find the baby's killer at church.  And then, as she tries to find her basketball groove again in the wake of a terrible game during States in the schoolyear, she runs into Travis and gets herself a boyfriend, something her grandmother has strictly forbidden.

Illa, meanwhile, is an anorexic who wants to shrink herself down to nothing, and to be friends with Mercy above anything else.  Illa spends most of her time in the summer taking care of her mother, who was seriously injured in the refinery fire and is now confined to a wheelchair.  Illa resents her mother for not trying hard enough and tries to escape through photography and managing the Lady Rays, the varsity basketball team that Mercy and Annie play on.  Through her outsider's eyes, Illa sees things and asks questions that Mercy isn't able to, being so wrapped up in her own life.  And so Illa is the one who manages to piece some things together and help when Mercy begins to unravel in earnest.

The book goes through the summer and into the school year, when Mercy, Annie, and other girls in the school are suddenly struck by a mysterious illness that leaves them trembling and making strange sounds.  No one knows how or why it's happening.  Meanwhile, the quest to find who killed the baby continues.  It's a mess, a big mysterious mess, and no one is entirely sure of anything.

I loved the language of this book.  It was beautifully written, and I think it managed to really encapsulate the feeling of being young and having everything suddenly fall apart, and not understanding why.  Illa is a young woman struggling with her bisexuality, which I thought was also a lovely touch; she's bisexual and figuring it out, not knowing if she wants to kiss Lennox or Mercy, but Parssinen doesn't make that the entire focus of her character like so many authors might be tempted to do.  Instead, it's just something that adds dimension and focus to her character, something that makes her more real, just like her anorexia.  Mercy and Illa are both extraordinarily flawed, but you still can't help but like them and want things to work out for them in some way.

On that note... Do things work out?  It's hard to say for Mercy, easier to do so for Illa.  This book has an extraordinarily ambiguous ending.  There's hope in it, on some fronts, but a complete lack of resolution on others.  I appreciate that Parssinen apparently trusts us to figure out what's important, but at the same time, I still want to know more about the not-so important stuff.  I guess it's supposed to be a lesson, that in life we don't always get all the answers--but I already knew that.  I didn't need to read a book to learn it, and I think that if the author trusts us to know what's important, she should also trust us to know that life is unfair without her having to tell us.  It was a beautiful book, but it lacked a bit of cohesion at the end, leaving too many loose threads to even having a pleasantly ambiguous ending.

3 stars out of 5.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Aeronaut's Windlass - Jim Butcher (Cinder Spires #1)

The Aeronaut's Windlass (The Cinder Spires, #1)Some people are rabid Jim Butcher fans.  I'm not.  I read Storm Front, the first book in his best-selling Dresden Files series, and while it was good, it wasn't really my thing and I didn't read further.  But when I saw The Aeronaut's Windlass, the first book in his new Cinder Spires series, I was intrigued.  Windlass is a steampunk-inspired fantasy, which is the best sort of steampunk in my view.  I like the fantastical elements that crystals (a la "Atlantis: The Lost Empire") and talking cats and the warriorborn and weird and deadly creatures can add to the mix.

Let me tell you this: I can see Butcher's genius here.  In Windlass, he sets up a mystical world in which humanity lives in a series of far-flung towers called the Spires, each one a state in and of itself.  Captain Grimm is a privateer for Spire Albion, which has long been locked in a trade war with Spire Aurora.  As the book begins, we see a young noblewoman named Gwen march off to join the Spirearch's Guard, and then the trade war with Aurora suddenly turns into a hot war, as Albion is attacked.  Joining Captain Grimm on the page are Gwen, her cousin Benedict, another member of the Guard named Bridget who is technically an aristocrat but doesn't seem to know it, and the cat Rowl.  Turning up a little later are a pair of etherialists, people who can see and manipulate the fantastic energies that power airship, provide light, and generate electricity: Ferus, the master, and his apprentice Folly.  This bunch of misfits teams up to hunt down an invading Auroran force, a story which is both compelling in and of itself and which sets up a future path of conflicts hinted at by Folly's prophetic dreams.

The narrative moves between the main characters, though given that the book's description focuses only on Grimm, I'm moved to believe that he's the character who will be the main in the entire series.  All of the chapters are third-person, and of them I liked Gwen and Bridget best, though I might just be biased towards female main characters.  I liked Rowl's chapters the least; while I found the set-up and idea of intelligent cats interesting, I didn't really like Rowl as a point-of-view character.  He annoyed me more than any other character.

The thing I liked least about this book was the Enemy.  It's set up pretty early on that the group, and Spire Albion in general, is going up against some Big Bad.  The Big Bad is a concept that I really don't like in any book.  I want villains who are multi-faceted and have clear motives other than just "being evil," but that was all Butcher provided in this book.  It's clearly a setup for future books, but he gave me no reason to believe that the villain is a character who will gain any real amount of depth as the series go on.  I hope I'm mistaken, because having a Big Bad as a main antagonist (even if there are other antagonists with their own motives sprinkled throughout, as there are here) tends to remove reality from the story.  All of the biggest and baddest people in history had real, human motives for what they did; Hitler might have hated Jews, gays, gypsies, and a lot of other people, but he also had a genuine desire to improve the lives of the people he viewed as "his."  As we all know, that didn't exactly go well for anyone involved, but still: it is what it is.  Granted, it seems that Butcher's Big Bad might not be exactly human, and therefore it could be argued that he/she/it isn't subject to human motives and emotions, but still.  I hope there's some dimension there than "it's big and bad and wants to destroy humanity" in the future.

There are a few inconsistencies here, too.  The most obvious one that came to mind was when Folly, a character who for the duration of the book had only been able to communicate with people by speaking to a jar of crystals instead, suddenly began talking directly to Grimm with no explanation at all.  Is this going to be something that's explored further?  Folly's mad, and Butcher said so blatantly at several points that her madness should only get worse.  So where does this sudden ability to speak like a normal person come from?  Little things like this don't necessarily ruin the story, but they are a bit jarring when they go directly against what has already been established without any apparent reason for the about-face.

I really like Butcher's new world and look forward to reading about it more, though I imagine it'll be a while until the next book comes out.  Despite its flaws, it seems to be a very unique setting and premise in the current world of fantasy, and I hope he can maximize its potential.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

City of Devils - Diana Bretherick

City of Devils: A NovelThis book won an award and I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why.  City of Devils is a historical mystery placed in Turin.  Murray (whose first name I cannot remember--James?) shows up to apprentice himself to Professor Lombroso, who is the pretty much the authority on criminology.  Coinciding with his arrival is a string of murders, with the victims all having an association with Lombroso and found holding notes that say "A Tribute to Lombroso."  Lombroso himself doesn't want to investigate; one faction of the police wants to pin the murders on him, the other feels he's innocent.  To figure out what's what, Murray and his fellow apprentice Ottolenghi decide to join the investigation of Tullio, the man who believes Lombroso is innocent or at least wants to investigate the matter scientifically.
As a murder mystery, I found this one juvenile.  It didn't engage my interest at all, it wasn't particularly twisty or turny, and while the murderer isn't entirely obvious, neither is it entirely surprising.  The writing was entirely bland.  None of the characters are really fleshed out.  I feel the most realistic one was Sophia, who at least had an interesting character background, but who seems to have been included solely because Bretherick wanted a sexy love interest for Murray.  She brings nothing by mysterious babble to the story itself.  If you're going to have a sexy love interest in a mystery, at least give her something useful to do other than play damsel in distress.  Even Dan Brown's Heroine-Of-The-Book usually has something to do with the mystery other than look sexy and hint at things that she knows but doesn't care to reveal.
The investigators themselves, Murray included, were a bunch of bumbling idiots.  Lombroso's brand of criminology is one that is laughable nowadays, which makes him hard to empathize with because it's clear that he's just making stuff up, and that Ottolenghi, Murray, and company buy into it makes it hard to take them seriously.  They stagger about, every now and then asking someone a few questions, but ultimately never figure anything out.  Nothing would have ever been figured out if the killer hadn't chosen to reveal himself.  Indeed, the story would probably have ended very much the same whether Murray was involved or not.
Bretherick is clearly setting this up as the first in a series of books, but I have absolutely no interest in reading the rest of them.  This one was barely tolerable, and I'm astounded it's gotten the acclaim that it has.

1.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Dead of Winter - Kresley Cole (Arcana Chronicles #3)

Dead of Winter (The Arcana Chronicles, #3)So, after finishing Endless Knight, I rushed off and bought Dead of Winter to continue devouring the series.  I had to know what happened between Evie and Death!  What would she do?  Would she allow him to coerce her?  Would he go through with it?  I had to know.  Well, I certainly found out.

Unlike the connection between Poison Princess and Endless Knight, there is a gap of several days between the end of Endless Knight and the beginning of Dead of Winter, and we don't immediately find out what happened between Evie and Death--though we can gather that, because Evie's riding off to join her alliance alone, it didn't go too well.    She arrives at the newly-built Fort Arcana to find Selena and Finn severely injured, Matthew crazy as ever, and Joules' alliance also in residence.  She immediately sets about planning for how to rescue Jack from the camp of the Army of the Southeast.  The army, as we learned last time, is led by Vincent and Violet, otherwise known as the Lovers, the Duke and Duchess most perverse--our newest cards.  The Archpriestess is also nearby, waiting to pull people down to the depths of a newly-formed river, and poses her own problems.  Still, Evie embarks on the rescue mission, and they (of course) get Jack back...just in time for Death to show up in pursuit of Evie.  And this is where the love triangle gets intense.

Oh boy.  I was going to count Endless Knight for my "love triangle" book for the Popsugar reading challenge, but I feel like it needs to be counted in conjunction with Dead of Winter because it's so much more intense in this one.  Death and Jack have to work together, or it's predicted that Evie will die.  To make matters worse, Vincent and Violet kidnap Selena, and they have to rescue her.  The twins are the main enemy for this book, and the group spends most of the story trying to reach them.  Along the way, Death and Jack snipe for Evie's attention, because she's agreed to choose one of them when they get back to base.  The other one will leave her alone.  You can imagine how well this goes, and you can imagine even more when Evie's interactions are heavily weighted toward Jack, with a single one-on-one interaction with Death on the other side.  Which was terribly, terribly disappointing, because Death is such a better character than Jack is.

Again, the pacing in this one is intense--one thing after another after another, which makes it a very fast read.  I tore through it in just a couple of hours, and I feel the quality was much better than the first two books, because the character development is infinitely better.  We get to see Jack and Death actually grow as characters, something that they--particularly Jack--had been severely lacking until now.  Finally seeing some of this is great, and it made the conflict between Evie and Jack and Death more real...though Death is still better.  I'm totally Team Death on that one.  He's just so much better in pretty much every way.

And again, this one ends in a cliffhanger, with the emergence of a new card and a new crisis.  I'm very upset that the next one isn't out yet, because this new card--the Emperor--is hinted to be Evie's arch-nemesis in the series, and I just can't wait to see how this one pans out.

4.5 stars out of 5, because Jack is seriously still a contender?  Seriously?

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Endless Knight - Kresley Cole (Arcana Chronicles #2)

Endless Knight (The Arcana Chronicles, #2)In the sequel to Poison Princess, Kresley Cole continues on with Evie, the Empress of the tarot deck, as she struggles in a post-apocalyptic world while also trying to survive a game in which a number of teenagers try to kill each other to be "the last card standing."  This one picks up right were the last one left off, with Evie having defeated Arthur and being still a little blood-crazy, and with Jack not knowing what the hell to do with this girl who has very suddenly turned out to be something supernatural.
Now, I linked to my review of Poison Princess because I brought up a few points in it that I would like to re-address here, mostly dealing with Jack.  First, I was interested in how Jack's Catholicism would mix in with what is, quite frankly, a very pagan world and game.  And to answer that...they don't.  While Evie wonders about the issue a bit, Cole pretty much just brushes the whole issue aside and never really addresses it.  Jack just loves Evie for Who She Is.  I think this could have really been an interesting conflict, and I'm very disappointed that it was so quickly abandoned.  Second, let's talk Jack again.  Jack isn't in the picture for a lot of this book, because Evie gets kidnapped by Death.  That said, in the first part Jack is...weird...and in the second part, revelations about him reveal him to be just as controlling and stalker-like as he was in the first book.  Not that Death is much better, though he is at least a little more forthright in his intentions.  
Still, putting forth Death and Jack as Evie's two romantic interests feels a little...weird.  She doesn't have a genuinely nice, if forceful, guy to choose.  She just has Jack and Death, neither of whom is a model citizen and both who seem to want Evie for all the wrong reasons.  Jack just wants her, but doesn't actually seem to care about her beyond that, for all that he says he does.  He doesn't trust her and he feels the need to steal things, like her boyfriend's phone or the tape Arthur made of her life, in order to learn about her, because he can't be bothered to ask her, or he won't believe her if she does tell him--because it's so bad that she didn't tell him she's a total supernatural freak, right?  And Death wants her dead, obviously, except he doesn't, and it's all...weird.  His reasons are better than Jack's, but his behavior often isn't.

As the book goes on, more Arcana are introduced, all of whom are weird in their own ways and most of whom want to kill the others.  We get to see the Hierophant, who heads up a bunch of cannibals, as well as the Tower, the World, Justice, the Devil, and Strength.  And Death, of course, who is...awesome.  I loved Death.  I think his backstory is much more complex than Jack's, which made his actions much more realistic, and while he was manipulative, he was blatantly so.  He was up front with Evie, even as he was manipulating her, and I liked him a hell of a lot more for that than I liked Jack, who was just an asshole.

As for plot, Cole dives into this one and goes.  It moves a hell of a lot faster than Poison Princess did.  There's no mucking about with a third of the book being in high school.  Instead, this just goes from one thing to the next to the the next, until Evie ends up at Death's castle, at which point it slows down significantly to allow Death and Evie to get to know each other.  That part did not go quickly, at all, and I didn't really buy the development of their relationship, which didn't really happen until the book was pretty much over.  Cole definitely leaves this one as a cliffhanger, which made me glad the third one was already out, because I rushed straight off, bought it, and devoured it in one setting.

So, overall?  Trash.  But delicious trash.  God, I hate it when they do this to me...

3.5 stars out of 5.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Battle Magic - Tamora Pierce (The Circle Opens #3)

Battle Magic (Circle Reforged, #3)I was so disappointed by this book.  Tamora Pierce is one of my favorite authors, and I had such high expectations for Battle Magic because everything Pierce writes is normally of very high quality.  In this case, however, I feel like she fell very, very flat.  Part of this is the nature of the book.  It's an "in between" book, a book that happens between two other books but is written and released after them; in this case, Battle Magic comes after Street Magic but before Melting Stones and The Will of the Empress.  Now, doing short stories and novellas in between other works is all the rage these days, but Battle Magic doesn't fit that description.  It's a full-fledged novel, at well over 400 pages.  But, having devoured everything Pierce has written, including Melting Stones and The Will of the Empress, I already had an idea--a pretty good one--of what happened in this book.  That didn't deter me.  I re-read books all the time, and knowing what's going to happen isn't necessarily a bad thing.  Good writing an easily compensate for that.  But in this case, I felt that the writing just...wasn't...good.

It absolutely breaks my heart to say that, but it's true.  Pierce spent this book fleshing out a conflict mentioned in Melting Stones and The Will of the Empress, between two countries that seem to be very loosely based on China and Tibet.  Gyongxe is like Tibet: a high mountain country that is one of the holiest lands in the world, a place where the gods are closer.  Yanjing is like Imperial China, and wants to take over Gyongxe.  Now, these two countries aren't copy-and-paste representations of their real-world "counterparts," but it's easy to see where the inspiration came from, especially in the beginning.  As the book goes on, Pierce fleshes out the countries more and more (this is something she's so good at) and the differences become more marked, the distance between reality and fantasy wider.  That's as it should be.  Pierce also incorporates a wonderful magic system that we haven't seen before, based on teamwork and shamanism rather than the individual mages featured in her other books.  And all the hallmarks of a great, gritty fantasy are there: an invading force, a defending country, a small group of people trying to make a difference, and such wonderful magic.  But then it just fell apart.

Going into this book, I knew things wouldn't go well.  I knew, for example, that there was going to be torture; Evvy talks about her feet being caned in Melting Stones.  "Wow," I thought.  "Pierce is really getting grown up with this one."  But she didn't.  There's a short torture scene, but I felt it lacked real emotion.  I felt that most of the pivotal scenes in this book lacked the emotion that Pierce is normally so good at portraying.  Big, pivotal moments were brushed over and skipped.  It felt like Pierce couldn't decide if she was writing an advanced young-adult fantasy or one for much younger readers, and that muddle really got in the way of enjoyment.  And the end...which is a literal deus ex machina.  Pierce's characters normally have such agency and direction in her books, and in this one they were just dragged about and didn't really affect anything, especially at the end.  Without them, everything would likely have been pretty much the same, and that was disappointing.

This was most definitely not Pierce's strongest work, and considering that I waited so long to read it, I was extra disappointed.  Some of the settings and magic were lovely, and we actually get some scenes from Rosethorn's perspective, which was nice, but so much was just...missing.  I'm very, very sad about this.

2 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Stone Devil Duke - K.J. Jackson (Hold Your Breath #1)

Stone Devil Duke (Hold Your Breath, #1)
Historical romances frustrate me more than any other genre, because in no other genre do I find such a wide array of quality with so few indicators as to what's going to be good and what's not.  Why?  Because they all look the same.  I am a sucker for a girl in a pretty dress (even if the dresses are hardly ever period-accurate) and so whenever they come up, I continue to fall for them. Every.  Single.  Time.  As for this one?  Well, it fell pretty much in the middle, quality-wise.  Let's go!

The plot follows Aggie and Devin.  Devin the titular "Stone Devil Duke," as he is widely known throughout the ton, though there isn't really a reason for him to be known as such.  At one point, it's said that it's because of something he witnessed when he was younger--but then it's said that pretty much no one knows about that, so why it would be such a widespread nickname, I have no idea.  Aggie is a young lady of quality who spends her nights dressed as a cabbie and loaded down with pistols as she hunts for the men who killed her father and scarred her.  She doesn't usually pick up fares, but Devin ends up in her cab and gets pulled into the mess and then, of course, finds himself completely unable to leave.

I didn't find Aggie and Devin's relationship plausible.  Characters in historical romances often have near-instantaneous connections, but this one felt off even when taking that trope into consideration.  Aggie wants absolutely nothing to do with Devin, and yet when she finds herself stuck with him, she suddenly surrenders pretty much her entire quest to him because their relationship is, very abruptly, more important to her.  She has no real reason to think that Devin will actually follow through on his promises to her, as he's done nothing to show that he would.  In fact, given that she sees him talking to one of her attackers at one point, she should have every reason to suspect that he might be in on the whole thing--what a plot twist that would have been!  But no, Devin and his compatriots are nothing but what they appear to be.  For his part, Devin basically marries Aggie because he has to-slash-because he wants to have sex with her.  Fair enough, I guess.  But still, I didn't think these two had any real connection until after they were married, at which point they proceeded to have hot sex (which was well-written, I felt) and the mystery which occupied so much of the first part of the book abruptly fell by the wayside, only to be neatly tied up in the space of two chapters later on.

The mystery was the other thing that bothered me.  When the background for it finally comes out, it makes sense--but it takes forever until that background comes out.  Additionally, there's no real "mystery" to the component of Aggie's brother, who is gone and then just reappears without anyone having any success at figuring out what happened to him--not even a little.  Not much of a mystery if there aren't any clues.  And then the villain... In my view, a mystery should provide you with clues to figure out who the villain really is.  This didn't.  It just suddenly comes out, and everyone is like, "Oh, it's him," and then they go on with their lives.  Blah.

The writing here wasn't bad.  The dialogue seemed a bit stilted in places (a good deal of places) but the rest of it was okay.  The sex was good.  The characters' backgrounds and the setup was good.  I'm just not sure that I really liked how the main story was executed, dropped, and then picked up again; I feel like the threads could have been twined together a bit more artfully.  This was okay, but it wasn't something I devoured, and it's not something I'll be reading again.

2.5 stars out of 5.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Outlander - Diana Gabaldon (Outlander #1)

Outlander (Outlander, #1)Oh my stars, I feel like I've been reading this book forever.  Looking at the page count, I can see that's almost 900 pages, so that's not that surprising.  What makes it even less surprising is that Outlander contains one of very few things that will significantly slow me down while reading: phonetic accents.  Let me tell you, phonetic accents are terrible.  I hate them.  When people in the NaNoWriMo community ask about using them, my advice is always one word: Don't.  To me, phonetic accents make your character not only harder to understand, but also less intelligent, like they don't know how to speak properly.  Most of the time, a phonetic accent is not necessary to delineate where your characters are from, and that was especially the case here.  We get it, Gabaldon: Most of your characters in this book are Scots.  This is abundantly clear in everything they do, your constant references to kilts, plaids, sporrans, dirks, etc., calling your main character "Sassenach..."  Need I go on?  You didn't need to make me struggle through 900 pages of phonetically-written dialogue, too.

Okay, that aside...this is a monster of the book.  I mean, 900 pages for what basically boils down to a historical romance.  That is a huge page count.  And it's only the first of seven books.  One wouldn't think that it would take a time-travel romance so long to unravel.  I don't think it took that long to build Jamie and Claire's relationship--which, for the record, I did think was well done.  It's a classic, and some would say trope-y, relationship: the warrior and the healer.  Still, it's classic for a reason.  Those two roles allow the leads to compensate for each other's weaknesses, and I also that their personalities matched well.  I didn't mind the main plot: modern woman gets accidentally sent back in time to the eighteenth century and gets mixed up with a bunch of Scots while being pursued by those who think she's a spy.  That said, this isn't exactly a book one can take seriously, despite the amount of mortal peril that comes up.  Plot holes abound, and the plot just keeps going and going and going long after it seems like it should have stopped.  I almost think I would have preferred to see the separate plot points here split up and made into separate stories with separate main characters.

Also...Claire's married.  And while everyone tells her it's totally cool that she has a husband, she can still get married again and it's not a problem at all, I just don't buy that.  There's no excuse for being unfaithful. Well, okay, there are, but Claire doesn't have any of those because she can go back and chooses not to.  So basically she just buys into this whole thing that everyone, including priests(!) tells her about adultery being okay.  Which, considering how adultery was viewed (another woman is pretty much burned at the stake for it!) seems terribly unlikely.  Also I find it hard to believe that more people didn't think Claire was a witch, all things considered.  And as for her treatment for PTSD...uhm...what was she thinking?

As others have said, this book isn't exactly a literary masterpiece, and I have to think that, all told, it was written for exactly the same reason Fifty Shades of Grey was: housewife escapism.  However, I am interested in one of the books later in the series, which looks like it involves Claire's daughter Brianna as more of a main character, so I might keep reading for that purpose alone.  And this did knock out my category of "A book published the year you were born" for the Popsugar challenge, which is good, too.  Overall, it's like others have said: it's junk, but the kind you want more of in a weird sort of way, just like more "traditional" historical romances are--except you could fit three of those into this.  Which I would have preferred...

Anyway, 3 stars out of 5.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Cress - Marissa Meyer (Lunar Chronicles #3)

Cress (The Lunar Chronicles, #3)Oh, I love this series.  But let me tell you, I wasn't planning on reading Cress just yet--'til I got the email.  It was Goodreads "New Releases by Authors You've Read" email for October, and when I went to the full page, there it was: Winter.  The final book in Meyer's series.  It was marked as being released on October 13th.  And I went in a frenzy.  I hadn't read Cress yet!  I hadn't read Fairest yet!  I had to read them!  So I scurried off and bought Cress, and absolutely devoured it.  Eager for what was next, I went to check out Winter...and found that it's real release date is not October 13th, but November 10th.  Goodreads had lied to me!  How dare it?  Well, it looks like the first two chapters of Winter will be available for preview on October 13th, and that's what the email referred to--which is a pretty big cop-out, if you're asking me.  Now I have to get Fairest and make its short length last an entire month until I can get my hands on Winter and this series' luscious conclusion.

Because that's just what Cress was, just like the Cinder and Scarlet, the first two books in the series: luscious.  The characters, the relationships, the stories, the futuristic setting...It's all just wonderful.  In Cress, Meyer brings in her third heroine of the series, Crescent Moon--the titular Cress.  Cress is our Rapunzel.  She has spent seven years trapped in a satellite orbiting Earth with only an array of computers to keep her company.  A Lunar shell--that is, a Lunar without the gift of glamour, for those of you who haven't been reading along (you should be)--she should have been killed as an infant, but was kept alive by one of Queen Levana's lackeys.  Cress' computer skills are top-notch, and she's been doing Mistress Sybil's bidding for years, hacking Earthen systems and hiding Lunar ships.  Until recently, when a change of heart--or perhaps a realization that what she was doing was wrong--resulted in her switching sides and helping the renegade Cinder and her allies.  All Cress wants in return is for them to rescue her from her satellite and take her to Earth.

Of course, things can't be easy.  The rescue attempt goes wrong.  Cress and Thorne (one of Cinder's allies) end up separated from the rest of the group, castaways in the Sahara desert.  Scarlet ends up a captive of the Lunars.  Wolf is nearly dead.  And Cinder has to figure out how to fix it all and stop Emperor Kaito's marriage to Levana, which would result in pretty much the end of the world.  It's a lot for a teenage girl, even a cyborg princess teenage girl, to handle.  But she does, with aplomb, and you can't help but root for her.  Meanwhile, everything else just gets...worse.  Darker.  Human (Lunar?) trafficking, slavery, torture, and plague all feature in this book, and while it's aimed at young adults, Meyer definitely doesn't pull punches in the telling.

Meyer did something different with Cress' character.  Cinder and Scarlet are both solitary, strong-willed young women who have definite strengths and skills and have been exercising them for a long time.  While they may end up in unfamiliar situations, they're still on their own world (for the most part) and know how to deal.  For Cress, that isn't the case.  An exile for most of her life, her only knowledge of Earth coming through the internet, she's naive and a little immature.  She gets through situations by pretending she's someone else.  She desperately wants a fairytale romance, in opposition to Scarlet and Cinder, who might have love interests but are more concerned with more pressing matters.  Cress isn't as strong as Scarlet and Cinder.  She can't fight.  She can hack a computer, but that doesn't do her much good when she doesn't have one.  She can't navigate, she can't fix things, she has no real knowledge of her new surroundings.  Consequently, she has a very different character growth trajectory than Meyer's other heroines.  Cress has to gain confidence in herself, which is something that Cinder and Scarlet didn't struggle with as much.  It was different, and I liked it.  While Cress is definitely naive, she's not so in a way that made me want to slap some sense into her.  Instead, I cheered for her, watching her grow and develop and come into her own.  Cress isn't going to be a butt-kicker, but she's definitely an asset to Cinder's team and I look forward to seeing more of her.

And Thorne.  God, I loved Thorne.  Maybe that's because, for most of the book, he's not a point-of-view character and you only see him through Cress' perspective, but I loved him nonetheless.  I think Meyer did a great job fleshing him out in this one, making him more than the wacky criminal we'd met previously in Scarlet.

Speaking of Scarlet...I would have loved to see more of her and wolf.  They're greatly lacking in this book, and while I can see why, I still wanted more of them.  Meyer had to separate Scarlet and Wolf for the plot to work and to keep the tension in their relationship.  They got very intense very fast in Scarlet, and I think it might have gotten boring if they had just figured everything out in this one--which they inevitably would have done if they hadn't been separated.  But these are fairytale adaptations, and happily ever after can't come until the very end, so I suppose I'll just have to deal with it.

And Winter!  We got our first glance at Princess Winter here!  So awesome!  I can't wait to see more of her.  How am I going to go an entire month Winter-less?  I don't know.

I only have one complaint about Cress and this series in general.  I love that Meyer adds a new fairytale and a new heroine in every book, but when they're all being added to each other, it means that each one ends up getting progressively less page time.  It means the story has to jump around more in order to cover everyone.  By this point, there is a lot of stuff going on, and while it doesn't get convoluted or hard to follow, none of the girls really got the coverage I would have liked.  This might be a good thing--I liked Cress, but it's possible that too much of her would have driven me away, and the reduction of Scarlet's role sets up for the next book.  But...still.  I felt just a tiny bit like I was getting gipped out of page time with my girls because the book, even at almost six hundred pages, just wasn't long enough to contain the awesomeness of them all.

Here's the thing.  I read many books I like.  I even read a good number of books I love.  But Meyer's Lunar Chronicles fall into a separate category all together: books I will read again and again and again.  They're very different, and they're just good.  I love them, so, so much.  I can't wait until Winter comes out, and then hopefully a box set, because I have the Kindle editions but would love to have these in the flesh (print?).

4.5 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone - J. K. Rowling (Harry Potter #1)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Harry Potter, #1)Does this book even need to be introduced?  I think not.  But let me give you a little insight as to why it's appearing here, so many years after its initial publication when one more review cannot possibly do anything to influence anyone in regards to it...

So, when I was little, my mother bought me the first two books in the Harry Potter series as a reward for helping out with a family garage sale.  The third book was coming out the next day (as I remember it) so she thought it would be a good way to feed my voracious appetite for books.  These were, of course, the original US-edition hardcover editions, very different from the cover art I've posted here.  I read the first two, we picked up the third, and then settled in for the wait for the fourth.  We went to the midnight release for the fourth, and the fifth.  (Am I remembering this right?  Maybe the fourth was coming out and I had the first  We pre-ordered the sixth, but I ended up with two copies because I was on vacation with my dad when it came out and couldn't possibly wait a whole ten days to get the pre-ordered copy when I returned home.  And then the seventh came out, and I...never got it.  I don't know why.  I knew it was out.  It just kind of fell off my radar, and I didn't actually end up reading it until shortly before the seventh movie came out--and even then I only got the copy from the library.  Meanwhile, through forced sharing with my demonic little brother, my beautiful books had been utterly destroyed, which means they never got re-read.

Enter the Popsugar Reading Challenge and its category, "A book from your childhood."  Also enter the beautiful, paperback box-set of the Harry Potter books in which, when you line them all up in their box, the spines form a breathtaking picture of Hogwarts.  I saw that set, and I immediately knew it was a great replacement for the books that were destroyed--so I asked my boyfriend for it for my birthday, and he promptly obliged.  And, reading this for the second time ever, I'm reminded of why so many people find these books to be, quite frankly, magical.

Rowling has this very British way of writing very outrageous things very matter-of-factly, which somehow makes them seem perfectly plausible.  Neil Gaiman does this, too, and I think it's a trait that makes them so successful as fantasy authors, because this matter-of-factness just makes everything seem real.  Of course there's a school for witchcraft and wizardry lurking in the British countryside; how could I have ever thought differently?  And Rowling is, of course, an astounding world-builder.  Many have droned on and on about her worldbuilding, about all the morals these stories have to offer kids, teens, and even adults, and I won't bore you by repeating what's been said many times before.  All those people were right.  Does the Harry Potter series have plot holes?  Yes.  Yes it does.  But I don't think that those plot holes at all detract from the story.  There's just such a breathtaking world people with such extraordinary people and things that you get swept up in it all, and I don't think the holes that exist detract from that feeling one bit.  The boyfriend has never read Harry Potter (he has seen some of the movies) and I recommended to him that he give it a shot--as everyone should.  This really is an example of fantasy at its finest, with all of the beautiful worldbuilding of some of the more massive books (Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings) but with a much higher "readability" than those doorstopper books.

4.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Headmaster's Wife - Thomas Christopher Greene

The Headmaster's WifeThis novel was split very evenly into two halves: one half that I hated and one half that I liked quite a bit.  I can imagine that the first half might bother some people quite a bit; it definitely rubbed me in a ton of wrong ways--and I definitely don't consider myself a sensitive reader.

So, Arthur Winthrop is the main character in the first half, which is written in first person.  Arthur is found naked in Central Park, wandering through the snow.  When the police take him in and ask him what he was doing, he reveals a strange tale that involves rape (or, at the very least, coerced sex) and murder amongst other less-than-scrupulous activities.  In the second half, Arthur's wife Elizabeth is the main character.  Her part is written in third person.  You definitely have to read both parts to understand the first.  Reading the first part, I could tell that something was off, but I wasn't sure what, and even knowing that something was off, that some of the things that Arthur remembered couldn't be quite true, I still didn't like it.  The fact that Arthur was relating all of these things, that he wholeheartedly believed he had done these things and was okay with it, and that we were still supposed to like him, didn't agree with me at all.  If Arthur had shown real remorse for what he had done, or believed he'd done, it might have might have been different, but as it  I can't be sympathetic toward someone who legitimately believes he has committed rape and murder, and yet only cares about being let go so he can continue to walk around the park naked.

On the other hand, I liked Elizabeth's part--mostly.  It still had some parts that I really frowned upon (there is no excuse for adultery in my opinion) but, overall, Elizabeth was a much more sympathetic character than Arthur, and the reality of the second part agreed with me much more than the strangeness of Arthur's.  The second part is the one that makes everything sensible, and it did make me grateful that I kept reading, though it didn't make the first part sit any better.  The language through most of this was lovely, but the whole conception...I don't know.  It encapsulated a lot of things that I feel could have been handled much, much better, and overall left a bad taste in my mouth and a sick feeling in my stomach.  I don't think there's much more to say about it than that.  The second part was better than the first, but couldn't fully redeem it, and because of that (combined with a wishy-washy ending) I felt this one was severely lacking.

2 stars out of 5.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Monuments Men - Robert M. Edsel

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in HistoryThe Monuments Men came to my attention during one of the most awesome courses I took in college, "Indiana Jones in History," which wasn't about Indiana Jones so much as it was about historiography--that is, who gets to tell history and how they form those narratives.  As part of the course, we read The Rape of Europa, which is about the looting of art, sculptures, etc. from locations all across Europe during World War II, as well as the efforts to protect and preserve those same cultural items and to retrieve the ones that were stolen.  It was interesting, and the Monuments Men factored into it, and I consequently didn't really have any interest in reading The Monuments Men because I figured The Rape of Europa had already covered it all.  And then, of course, The Monuments Men became a movie.  I still didn't really have any interest in reading it...until the Popsugar Reading Challenge threw out "A book that was made into a movie."  While I had other books that had become movies, I'd also picked up The Monuments Men when it was on sale on Kindle, so I figured this was as good a time as ever to read it.  And?  Well, it was much, much better than The Rape of Europa.

Don't get me wrong.  Europa was good.  But it was a very academic work, one that was written for more of an art history audience.  It seemed to rely heavily on the reader knowing the names of tons of artists and tons of pieces of art, and its scope meant that it went from place to place very quickly.  The Monuments Men also jumped from place to place, but Edsel did this very purposefully to build tension and cover a select handful of people rather than to just cover as much territory as humanly possible.  Edsel also focuses exclusively on the work of the Monuments Men in the areas of France, Germany, and Austria, mostly from D-Day onward, and the recovery efforts of the few who made it into the Monuments Men's ranks.  By restraining his scope, Edsel manages to make this a narrative history that, while it's well-noted and researched, still manages to be engaging and readable to someone who isn't totally versed in either WWII history or art.  Instead of producing laundry lists of art and artists, Edsel uses a few well-known artists (Vermeer, Michelangelo) and a few iconic pieces of art (The Astronomer) to illustrate his points and keep a continuous narrative.  Consequently, the book is informative while also reading like a gripping war story.

I had two main complaints about this book.  The first was the chapter length.  Edsel's chapters vary wildly in length; some are only a handful of pages long, taking less than five minutes to read.  Others are more than four times that long.  While none of the chapters were bad, the differences in length could be frustrating.  There were many times that I wouldn't start a new chapter because I just didn't have time for it--though if it had been the length of the other chapters, I could have read two or three more.  The other complaint was that, at the end, Edsel suddenly seems to switch from telling a story to solving a mystery.  I didn't necessarily mind the mystery-solving aspect, because most history books do revolve around an argument that tries to "solve" some aspect of history.  However, in most cases, the entire book revolves around building and supporting an argument; any narratives are secondary to the argument.  In this case, it was the other way around.  Most of the book was a narrative, and the argument came out of nowhere at the end, which just seemed...odd.

Okay, there was a third thing, and that was that Edsel suddenly took a moralistic approach at the end.  World War II was horrible on so many fronts.  We know that.  (Well, most of us do.  There are certainly Holocaust deniers out there, but I doubt they'd be reading this to begin with.)  Edsel's random preachy moment at the end, about one of the Monuments Men recovering a painting that he, as a German Jew, had never been allowed to see when it was on display, came across as rather abrupt, and it would have been best if it had been either left out or worked in a bit more subtly...which would have been hard, because the Monuments Man in question really wasn't even involved for most of the story, and instead seemed to have been incorporated only for this purpose.  It was weird.

Despite the rather jarring bits at the end which didn't seem to properly incorporated, I did enjoy this.  The narrative style worked well, and the book as a whole was engaging.  I definitely read on later than I should have on several occasions, because it was just so good.  I might even read this one again.  Maybe.  We'll see.

4 stars out of 5.