Saturday, November 28, 2015

Second Position - Katherine Locke (District Ballet Company #1)

Second Position (District Ballet Company #1)Whew!  It's been a while.  Sorry about that, but things have been busy at work, and then I traveled with the boyfriend to visit his family for Thanksgiving, and the internet in northern New Jersey is about as fast as 1990's dial-up.  On top of that, I started reading a few slow-going books at the same time.  I finally needed something a little faster, so I picked up Second Position.  (I was originally tempted to write "something a little lighter, but this book was anything but, so that didn't really fit.)  I needed to read a book that took place in Washington, DC for the Popsugar Reading Challenge's category, "A book that takes place in your hometown."  Really, this seemed to me like a poor choice of category because many, many people live in towns that do not feature as the settings in books.  My hometowm of Erie, Pennsylvania happens to be one of them.  I did some Googling, but nothing came up and no one I talked to had any ideas, either.  So I switched tactics and began looking at my second hometown, Washington.  The Seamstress hadn't worked out for this, but one of my friends had added Second Position to her list, and an author I quite like (Sherwood Smith) gave it a favorable review, so I figured it was time to get reading.

Second Position is a beautiful book that tackles an extraordinarily complicated relationship.  Aly and Zed danced ballet in Philadelphia, and their close friendship morphed into something more--until they got in a car accident and everything changed.  Zed lost his leg.  Aly lost their baby.  In the wake of the accident, the pair were separated and didn't see each other for years, until Aly walks into Zed's favorite cafe in Washington.  She's on leave from the Philadelphia Ballet Company after having a mental breakdown, hitting another dancer, and seeking treatment for an eating disorder.  Zed now lives in DC, where he teaches theater.  The chance encounter in the cafe sets them on another collision course, this time with each other and a discussion of all the things they could gain or lose.

Because of the characters' backstories, the book takes on a lot of big, complicated issues that most romance authors don't choose to include in their stories.  Depression, anxiety, amputations, eating disorders, miscarriages--it's a lot of issues to cram into one book.  But Locke handles them well, with finesse and respect.  Aly's eating disorder is not disparaged or glorified, but treated with a gentle respect and consideration for how it affects all areas of her life, and how she works to overcome it.  Oh, and did I mention that Zed is a recovering alcoholic?  His issues aren't touched on as deeply as Aly's, an interesting decision but one I suppose makes sense.  Having both parties as messed up as Aly, at the same time, would have been a disaster waiting to happen, and probably an not a salvageable one.

This is not, in any way, a happy book.  There is not witty banter, no tete a tetes, no side characters lending a little levity to the situation.  There are supporting characters, but they're very minor.  It's all Aly and Zed, all the time, and they're so incredible intense that I sometimes needed a break.  They were, at times, overwhelming.  This definitely isn't a book to read for a light afternoon, but the writing and tragic reality of it, and how healthy Zed and Aly's relationship ultimately is, made it a beautiful story nonetheless.  I would have liked to see more of Zed's struggle, at least in hindsight, because how he was so together in comparison to Aly almost made his problems seem less than hers, though they definitely were equal.  Hopefully this will be touched on more in the second book, Finding Center, which I will definitely be picking up.

4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens' London - Judith Flanders

The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens' LondonI've read Flanders' other book, The Invention of Murder, and liked it but didn't love it.  I was glad that I checked it out from the library instead of buying it, because it wasn't the sort of book I'd go back to.  Still, the Victorian and Regency periods are my favorite historical fiction settings--specifically, my favorite settings for historical romances and the inspiration for historical fantasies.  So when I saw Victorian City on the library shelf, I checked it out.  I paid little attention to the part about Dickens' London, figuring it was just a way to characterize the time period for people rather than an actual focus of the book.  In that, I was partially right, but because of the partially wrong part... Well, let me put it this way.  I hate Dickens.  I date it to the horrible experience of reading A Tale of Two Cities in the tenth grade, when my teacher tried to merge an obsession with Star Wars into an obsession with Dickens to the detriment of us all.  It's one of those things that you can't quite get over, and shapes your reading tastes forever more.

That said, I did find this book informative.  The thing is, it's supposed to be about "everyday life," but it's not really.  It focuses mostly on the lower-middle class, with brief asides about the utterly poor and the upper-middle class.  Flanders doesn't cover any class thoroughly across all the topics she touches on, including transportation, food, and entertainment.  Really, those are the only areas she touches on.  She doesn't really deal with work or family, which seem to me pretty big areas of everyday life.  To my relief, Dickens' works are used more to illustrate Flanders' points than to create them or build an overarching narrative.  That said, this book might have been better with an overarching narrative.  The closest Flanders comes to using a consistent source is Sophia Beale, an eight-year-old who apparently kept a diary of her doings, but even she isn't a common appearance in the pages.  Using a handful of repeating "characters" to tie together the different points of life might have led to something a little more interesting.

Some of the chapters in this book are also very repetitive.  For example, the first three chapters focus entirely on transportation, whether it be on foot, by boat, by train, by carriage...all matter of transportation.  But of course, people often use more than one, so there's some overlap there, and it was something I felt could be reduced to one chapter rather than three.  Also, transportation probably isn't the most thrilling place to start the book.  Entertainment, violence, or food all probably would have been better places to start than transport, which isn't exactly a thrilling apsect of life.

There were some really interesting aspects of this book, which I didn't know about before--like how most parks were private, how "illuminations" were a big source of entertainment, and the many eating options available to the middle classes--but overall I didn't feel particularly enlightened by this.  At least The Invention of Murder was about something dark and twisted.  But Victorian City is just about life, and it seems like just as good a picture could have been had by reading books (like, unfortunately, Dickens') set in the period.

2.5 to 3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Winter - Marissa Meyer (Lunar Chronicles #4)

Winter (The Lunar Chronicles, #4)Last month I read Cress because I thought Winter was coming out like three days later, only it wasn't.  So I had to have the agonizing one-month wait until it actually did come out, which was yesterday, November 10th.  So, obviously, I took the day off work to read it in one go.  Was it a good decision?  Does Winter stand up to its predecessors?  Well...

It was an okay decision, and while Winter was good, I don't think it was excellent.  I really enjoyed it, but it suffered a lot of the same problems as Cress did, but on a larger scale.

Winter is the conclusion to the Lunar Chronicles, which follow Cinder, a cyborg, as she discovers that she's actually a moon princess with mind-control abilities who has to wrest the throne back from her evil aunt Levana.  Along the way, she falls in love with a prince, picks up a bunch of sidekicks, and pretty much has to save the world.  Each book in the series adds a pair of main characters as a new fairytale-inspired couple: Wolf and Scarlet, Cress and Thorne (though Thorne first showed up in Scarlet) and Jacin and Winter (again, Jacin and Winter showed up before, but weren't main characters).  Winter rises to MC status in her titular book, but I don't think it was as well-done as Cinder and Scarlet's stories were.  Which comes back to the biggest issue I have with the series...

There's a lot going on.  It's not hard to follow, necessarily, but with 8+ main characters running around at the same time, it means that no one really gets the page time they should.  Winter probably gets the second-most page time in the book, after Cinder (who is really THE main character, let's be honest) but considering this book had her name on the title, I didn't think that Winter had a very prominent roll.  She's supposed to be Cinder's crazy princess cousin, who can't ever actually rule because she doesn't have any royal blood, and who has gone insane because she refused to use her gift for glamour.  There's some good background there, but because there's so much going on, Winter just doesn't get the same degree of development as the other characters because she came to the game so late--even her Snow White plot kind of gets lost in the fray.

While Cinder and Winter got a good amount of page-time, and Cress and Thorne probably got the second-most, Scarlet and Wolf once again got shoved to the side.  Scarlet's not even present for a large chunk of the book as she's still locked up in the menagerie as Winter's "pet."  Once she gets free, she and Wolf are reunited for a brief period--and then he gets taken prisoner and is completely absent for a long time.  Meanwhile, Scarlet gets sidelined by Winter, meaning that even after she re-enters the fray she's not really doing all she could be doing, except posing as Winter's sidekick.  This is disappointing, because Scarlet was such an awesome character in her own book only to be shoved to the side in the two volumes following it.

I have one other main complaint about this book, and that's its false climax.  Halfway through, there's a scene that really seems like it could end it all--except you know that it can't, because half the characters aren't there and there's still like 400 pages to go.  The "false climax" isn't in and of itself bad, because, hey, you've got 800 pages, and you've gotta keep the action going for all of them.  What is bad is that, after this big scene, it takes a long time for the action to get up and moving again.  It meant that, while I took the day off work to read this because I thought I was going to devour it like I did the first three, I didn't really need to; there are plenty of points like this, when the action just falls off and takes a long time to get going again, that would have made it very easy to put down this book and walk away.  I think this could have been fixed by some more alternating of the chapters, instead of having a big chunk of Cinder and then a big chunk of Winter at this point, which would have kept more suspense as we flipped from one character to another.

Finally, there was a plot thread that seemed like it was going to become prominent, but didn't.  It involved Adri giving up legal rights to Cinder, which made it seem like something all plot-y was going on, but...that never really came to fruition.  It just kind of dropped off.  That's a pretty minor thing in the grand web of plots that was going on, but it did stick out because everything else tied together pretty nicely.

Oh, and Luna really started to resemble Panem from The Hunger Games at some points, with a capital full of happy citizens who thrived off the labor of other, repressed sectors that all specialized on one specific type of industry.  Like, the rock miners (District 12) start the rebellion, and the lumber people (District...7?) join in, but the technology people stay mostly loyal to the Capital Artemisia.  I would have liked to see this avoided.

All of this complaining makes it seem like I didn't like the book.  I did.  I really did like it.  I thought it was a good, solid ending to the series, with enough rough and tumble-ness that it made it serious but without characters being killed off all willy-nilly, and with everything being tied up pretty nicely.  I don't think any huge loose ends were left hanging.  Meyer seems to have done a good job keeping track of all of them.  The writing was, as always, excellent, the characters were great.  I just feel like it got too big, and maybe some of the plots would have been better off if they'd wound up a tad earlier than they actually did.  Wolf and Scarlet, for example, got pushed aside because they were so very unnecessary for most of the book, and it might have made sense to just end their plotline a bit earlier.  Still, I did like this, and I can see myself reading it again in the future.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Popsugar Reading Challenge Update!

Hello fellow readers!  I've made quite a bit of progress on my reading challenge since I last updated it, and thought I should get around to that!  I only have a handful of books left to read for this, two of which should be quite short (the graphic novel and the play) so I think I'm in good shape for finishing this before the end of the year!

-A book that became a movie.  I read Monuments Men for this one, and really liked it.  I thought it was going to closely overlap with The Rape of Europa, which I read in school, but it didn't.  It's much more of a narrative history, and includes tons of stuff that Europa didn't even touch on in regards to the Monuments Men and their efforts to protect Europe's treasures during the Allied advance.

-A book more than 100 years old.  I'd originally planned to use 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for this, but I really wasn't feeling that, so I read A Little Princess instead.  Published in 1905, it fit the category, and I liked the story.  I remember having a movie when I was little that had a preview for A Little Princess' film adaptation attached, but I never actually saw the adaptation.  Now I think I can see where some of the preview imagery was coming from!

-A book that came out the year you were born.  I read Outlander for this category, and had mixed feelings about it.  That said, I'm reading on in the series, and have started Dragonfly in Amber.  I basically want to get to the books where Brianna becomes more of a character.  It seems like she does from the descriptions, and I hope that's true, because I think I'll like her more than I like Claire.

-A book from an author you love but haven't read yet.  I read Tamora Pierce's Battle Magic for this, and was quite disappointed.  I feel like a lot of the problems I had with it came from its nature of being an mid-quel--a book written after two other books, but taking place between them.  It felt like Pierce was more locked into the plot than in others, and that she couldn't really develop things as she normally would have, which meant the magic I so frequently find in her books was lacking.

-A book at the bottom of your to-read list.  I used Seabiscuit for this.  It wasn't numerically at the bottom of my to-read list, but my list isn't actually sorted by "want" as much as "when added," so it doesn't correspond much.  After checking Seabiscuit out, I realized I had the wrong horse story in mind and pretty much lost my interest in reading it--at which point I realized I could use it for this category.  And when I started reading it, I liked it quite a bit!  What a pleasant surprise.

-A book from your childhood.  I asked for the wonderful anniversary edition of the Harry Potter box set for my birthday last month, and quickly read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone for this.  I read the book initially when I was pretty young (probably 9 or 10, I'd say) but it was definitely just as magical today as it was then.

-A book that scares you.  This was another category I ended up inadvertently filling, with The Glittering World.  It was definitely very creepy and made me sort of nauseous, in a weird way.  Books never scare me in a "keeps you up at night" sort of way (TV shows do, though!) so I think this was as close as I'm going to get for this category.

-A book with a love triangle.  I read Endless Knight for this, along with its sequel Dead of Winter.  The love triangle starts in Endless but doesn't really get going until Dead, so I think they're best paired together for this category.

-A book set in high school.  When I couldn't get my hands on Perks of Being a Wallflower, I read The Unraveling of Mercy Louis instead.  While I found the writing beautiful and the story compelling, I was frustrated by the ambiguity of the ending.

-A banned book.  As planned, I read The Kite Runner for this.  I can see why people banned it in certain schools and areas, though I heartily disagree with their ideas for doing so, and feel that the beauty of the book and the compelling plot line more than outweigh any cursing or "dangerous" depictions of homosexuality that people object to.

Still to Go
-A classic romance.  I picked up Anna Karenina at a used bookstore a while back, so I'm going to use that one.

-A book written by someone under 30.  I really didn't want to read Divergent for this, so I went to the NaNoWriMo Facebook group and asked for suggestions.  Allison Beckert volunteered her book Mishap Mansion as fitting this category, due to her age, so I bought it.  Now I just have to get around to reading it!

-A popular author's first book.  I wanted to go with a big author for this one, and because Terry Pratchett died recently, I've settled on The Carpet People.

-A Pulitzer Prize-winning book.  Like pretty much everyone else out there, I'm going to knock this one out with All the Light We Cannot See.

-A book you were supposed to read in school but didn't.  I was a good student and read the books I was assigned, and I could only think of one exception that wasn't an actual textbook: Affairs of Honor.  It's apparently about early congressmen, senators, etc. being bitchy to each other, so it shouldn't be too bad of a read.

-A graphic novel.  Sharaz-de is a graphic novel inspired by 1001 Arabian Nights, and I've been eyeing it up for a while now.  Plus, Scheherazade is pretty much my favorite fairy tale ever.

-A book that takes place in your hometown.  After finding that The Dressmaker didn't really work for this one, I've re-directed myself toward Second Position by Katherine Locke.  This takes place in DC.

-A play.  I haven't decided on this yet, though I'll probably keep it basic and do Shakespeare.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

This Shattered World - Annie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner (Starbound #2)

This Shattered World (Starbound, #2)
I'd been eking out the moments until I read This Shattered World, even though I wanted to devour it in the wake of These Broken Stars, which I read in March.  Coming off These Broken Stars, I was absolutely in love with Tarver and Lilac and their universe--because world is too small a world when it comes to settings like these--and TBS was just so good that I had to force myself to wait to read the next one.  See, when a series isn't completely published yet (and the conclusion to this one won't be out until December) I try to space out the extant books so that I can get a hit every now and then, instead of bingeing and then suffering until the next one comes out.  But with Their Fractured Light looming on the horizon, I decided it was time to read This Shattered World.
And I was disappointed.  Kaufman and Spooner wrote such a vivid world and such a breathtaking, heart-wrenching romance in These Broken Stars that I came to This Shattered World eager for the same.  I didn't get it.  I understand, in a way; I mean, not all of your stories can be the same, or else you're just writing the same thing over and over again.  But even if the plot was different and the characters were different, coming from different directions with different motivations, I still expected there to be that spark, that connection that drew Tarver and Lilac together and made them so fascinating to follow even when they seemingly couldn't stand each others' guts.  Instead, I got Jubilee the soldier and Flynn the rebel.  They were interesting characters, with great stories and motivations, and watching them learn to work together for a common cause that wasn't actually so common was interesting, but it just didn't work for me as a romance--which was the main thing I was looking for in this book.  Jubilee and Flynn are both so focused on their own ends that they only engage in thinking of relationships for brief periods of time.  Granted, those brief periods are great--some very steamy kissing happens during one of them.  But overall, they just came across as distant and awkward, and at the end of the book I remained unconvinced about them as a couple, especially when juxtaposed with how Tarver and Lilac were shown to be so strong together again in this one.
Jubilee was a strong character, and it was interesting to see a female character who's a total badass and a male who's a pacifist, when most fictions have those roles reversed.  But overall I thought the plot and the setting were just...lacking.  Again, this was in comparison to the first book.  In the first book, the Icarus and the planet the characters ended up on was strange and beautiful and terrible in all sorts of ways.  In comparison, Avon is just...meh.  It's a swamp, with will o' the wisps that occasionally show up and ultimately play a part but aren't really explored fully enough to be an enticing element of the setting.  The plot itself focuses on a shaky peace between the soldiers posted on Avon, who are subject to a killing madness called the Fury, and the natives of Avon, who want their planet to pass its inspections so they can have a voice but are constantly told it's "not ready" yet, and who have an ongoing revolt in response.  Ultimately, I felt like the ending was on shaky ground at best.  I didn't feel Jubilee and Flynn's actions would actually realistically result in a peace, no matter how uneasy, or that they would stop whatever fate was coming Avon's way from LaRoux industries.  Let's face it: Avon is a backwater that it's unlikely anyone would care about.  If we can't get people to care about crises a few thousand miles away on one planet, I find it unlikely that people light years away would care about a crisis on another.  Maybe that's just the cynic in me, but I found Tarver and Lilac's use of small-scale blackmail a much more feasible ending than Jubilee and Flynn's declaration.
I'm still looking forward to reading Their Fractured Light, mostly because one of the main characters is Sophia, who was introduced in This Shattered World and was really one of the highlights of it.  I want to see how her charm and harsh background intersect to bring the trilogy to its conclusion.  But for this one...meh.
2.5 to 3 stars out of 5.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Golem and the Jinni - Helene Wecker

The Golem and the Jinni (The Golem and the Jinni, #1)I'm not sure what brought this book onto my To Read list, but it was there, languishing, for a long time before I got around to reading it.  And honestly, I only got around to it when I did because it appeared on the front desk of the library while I was checking out some other books, and I added it to the pile.  The girl working the circulation desk was pretty excited; she'd chosen the book to put out, and had been eagerly awaiting someone to pick it up--and then I came along and took it.  A fairytale in the making, wouldn't you say?

I'm so glad I picked this up.  It's a beautiful historical fantasy, set in New York in the early twentieth century.  Streetcars and the Elevated are in place, but the streets are still ruled by horses and carriages and cars haven't yet been invented.  More precisely, the story takes place in two main neighborhoods: a Jewish neighborhood, which didn't have a real name (or if it did I can't remember) and Little Syria.  Into the Jewish neighborhood arrives a female golem, who will eventually be named Chava.  Created by an ex-rabbi in Poland to serve as a wife for a merchant, Chava found herself masterless shortly after being brought to life when the man meant to be her master/husband died of appendicitis during the journey to New York.  Chava is taken in by a well-meaning but sickly rabbi, who helps her pretend to be human, find a job, and adjust to the constant sounds of other people's thoughts in her head.  In Little Syria, a tinsmith receives a flask to repair, and unwittingly releases a jinni.  The jinni, bound to human form and unable to access most of his powers due to an iron cuff around his wrist, can produce heat but not do much else.  Like the rabbi for the golem, the tinsmith helps the jinni pretend to be human so as not to risk himself.  Meanwhile, Chava's creator follows her to New York in the search for the secret of eternal life.

Wecker is a brilliant storyteller.  In the back of the book, Neil Gaiman's American Gods is recommended for people who liked The Golem and the Jinni, and I can see why.  Wecker has a very matter-of-fact manner of storytelling, and her two main characters are a pair of fantastical creatures that normally aren't seen in fantasy separately, let alone together.  She also juggles a myriad of small strings and details, any of which could easily been lost, forgotten, or tangled, but instead come together into a beautiful masterpiece where every little thing has significance.  The characters, even the ones who aren't human, seem to live and breathe, and I could definitely empathize with their struggles.  That's really something, considering that I've never had to pretend to be human.  (Or have I?  Mwhahahahaha!)  But the Golem and the Jinni, as their stories meet and entwine and they face more and more struggles and emotional moments, and actually become more human, even though they don't. 

My only complaint about this one is that I wish the Golem and the Jinni had come together sooner; it takes a while for them to run into each other and for their stories to meet and link up, which means that the book has a somewhat slow beginning despite a lot happening to the two individually.  The main plot only really kicks into gear once they've met, and I would have loved to see more of their interactions and further development of their relationship.

This was a beautiful fantasy all around, and I can't wait to read the sequel...

...which doesn't come out until 2018?!  How am I supposed to wait that long?!

4 stars out of 5!