Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Picnic in Provence - Elizabeth Bard (Lunch in Paris #1)

Picnic in Provence: A Memoir with RecipesThe Popular Reading section strikes again!  I haven't actually read Bard's Lunch in Paris, though I certainly intend to now, which should tell you something about my attitude toward this one.  And I'll be honest--it was the combination of "Provence" and that little sub-title, "A memoir with recipes" that got my attention, because I fricking love food and there's no secret about it.

In this book, Bard talks about her experiences moving to the small town of Cereste in Provence, France, with her husband and small child.  Consequently, the book follows several themes: living in a new place, food, and the struggles of motherhood.  Two of these appealed to me.  One of them did not.  Can you guess which two I liked?

You got it, new places (I long to travel freely; someday I might actually make enough money to do it) and food.  Motherhood strikes no chord for me because I am not, and never intend to be, a mother.  Children are not my cup of tea, to put things politely.  That said, the sections about Bard's struggles with her son, Alexandre, didn't alienate me.  Bard has a warm way of writing and while I certainly don't envy her status as a mom, let alone a mom in a foreign land, I never felt like I needed to skip portions or roll my eyes in exasperation.  She also had a good way of interspersing the different themes so that they balanced each other out, not leaving one portion of the book more "top heavy" than the others.  Toward the middle/end, Bard and her husband decide to open an ice cream shop, which largely devours their lives and hence the narrative, but I suppose that's to be expected for a memoir.

The recipes sounded scrumptious, and there are even a few I think I might make.  Ice cream recipes do me no good, because I do not own an ice cream machine and have little inclination toward buying one, but there seemed to be a few good, hearty recipes in here that anyone could use, ice cream machine owners or no.  White beans with tomatoes and herbs sounded scrumptious, and while I'm pretty sure that the folks at Safeway would look at me like I was crazy if I asked for a butchered rabbit, zucchini soup, zucchini gratin, and many other recipes might need to make an appearance in my kitchen.  I'll have to hold on to the book a day or two longer to glean out the ones I want before returning to the library.  Bard has a way of describing food that just makes it sound delicious, and while I'm pretty sure I'll never roast a whole lamb, no part of me would object to eating such a thing if it's as good as she says it is.  She even made me want to give blood sausage a try, and let me tell you, that's an accomplishment.

There were a few things that did bother me, though.  First, Bard switches between present and past-tense a lot, which drives me absolutely crazy.  I am a very firm believer in writing entirely in past tense, especially for things like memoirs.  Very rarely is present tense necessary, even when what you're discussing might technically still be true--yes, Bard loves her husband and child, but the tense switching wasn't necessary.  She could have left it in past tense and I wouldn't have found her feelings suspect.  And there's this string of logic through it that I just can't quite seem to get my head around.  Bard talks about taking her son to day care, about working full-time and not being around him, and yet, for the life of me, I can't figure out what she actually does.  She talks about writing, but it's in a way that makes it seem like she puts off writing (as all writers do!) and that getting a few hours to write is a blessing, so I have no idea what all of this "full time work" she talked about actually was.  Her cover bio says she's a journalist, but given that she can't drive, I don't exactly see her roaming all over the countryside looking for stories, and I'm not sure how much Cereste has to offer--it's beautiful and charming, I'm sure, but even that can be exhausted at a point.

Still, I definitely want to pick up Lunch in Paris, Bard's first book.  It's another memoir with recipes, but it seems like it will focus more on her early relationship and experiences in France, before her wedding and subsequent move.  Given where I am in my life, that seems like it'll be more up my alley.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

A Little Princess - Frances Hodgson Burnett

A Little PrincessPart of me wonders why people, including myself, review old books.  I mean, at this point plenty of people have read them and if it's a book this old that's still in popular circulation, then there must be a reason people read it, right?  And then I think, Well, why not?  Write the review.  It's not going to hurt anyone, after all.  And so here we are.

This book has been on my Kindle for years (Literally.  Years.) and I finally dug it out for the Popsugar Reading Challenge, for the category of a "A book more than 100 years old," or something like that.  A Little Princess was published in 1905, which makes it fit that category nicely.  I'd originally planned 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for that slot, but I really wasn't feeling it when I decided to start another book for the challenge, and so I picked this one up instead.  Several of my friends quite liked it, and it looked like a good, fast read.  Well, it was, but it left me with a few...issues.

A Little Princess is a book that's aimed at young readers, with a distinct message.  If you are good and nice and kind, like Sarah Crewe, good things will happen to you.  However, if you are mean and nasty, like Miss Minchin or Lavinia, good things will not happen to you.  However, when you look at the rest of the book with a bit more adult eye, things get a little murkier.  Sarah is not, of course, the only character.  The Large Family and Mr. Carrisford also factor in, and I had issues with them.  Both the Large Family and Mr. Carrisford are depicted as good, kind people, who want the best for Sarah and are willing to go to great lengths to find her.  Mr. Carrisford goes so far as to provide for Sarah while not knowing who she really is. But why?  Well, because he thinks it's fun.  And while the Large Family are nice, only the little boy (who Sarah calls Guy Clarence and whose real name has escaped me) stops to actually help Sarah, though the whole lot of them see her all the time.  Mr. Carrisford only helps her out of some sense of entertaining himself, not because he really wants to provide for her--she reminds him of, ironically, herself, and he does it for that reason, not because he sees someone who genuinely needs help and decides to provide it.

Honestly, the only real altruistic character in this book, other than Sarah, is the baker woman who gives Sarah more buns than she paid for and ultimately takes in a little beggar girl--this woman does everything she within her slender means to help another poor child, and she does so without expecting any sort of compensation or getting some form of amusement out of it.  The rest of the characters play with Sarah until they find out who she really is, enjoying watching her dance to their tune without her even knowing what's properly going on.  That bothered me, maybe more than it should have.  But A Little Princess clearly isn't meant to be realistic, and so it seemed to me like if the author was going to write about good people providing for others, she should have just done so instead of making the side characters really more manipulative than they seem at first glance.  The more I read, the more their "I'm so good and pure" attitudes, mixed with their really not caring at all, rubbed me the wrong way.

On the surface, this is a great, light read, and good for younger readers who probably won't see the other layers to the story.  But for me, I just couldn't take it as such a pure story, and that bothered me.

3 stars out of 5.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Glittering World - Robert Levy

The Glittering WorldI picked this book up for one reason only, and that's because the cover sparkles.  It's amazing, guys.  Gorgeous.  The digital version really can't do the dustjacket justice.  And while I got some sass from the librarian, who apparently thought I was checking out too many books (I will read them, thank you very much!) I took it off with me without more than a baleful glare back at the circulation desk.  And then I started figuring out what this book was about.

It's about four people--Blue, Elisa, Jason, and Gabe--when they travel from New York to a town in Nova Scotia so Blue can sell his late grandmother's house.  Elisa is Blue's best friend, Jason is her husband, and Gabe is just kind of along for the ride.  When they arrive in Starling Cove, however, things are just...weird.  Blue feels like something is watching him, or maybe he's watching himself, and he's hearing voices and finding out strange things about his past that he has no memory of.  All of Starling Cove is a strange place, and a menacing one.  It's clear that there's something in the woods, but it's not clear what.  Monsters?  Aliens?  Faeries?  All of these are floated and discarded for the ultimate "mushy" term of "Other Kind," and those Other Kind cause a host of problems.

At first, I thought this was going to be a faerie book, one a little more in line with Tithe than the last fae-oriented book I read, Foul is Fair.  But ultimately, I'm not sure I can categorize this as a "fae" book because...none of the traditional things are used.  There's a colony of somethings living under a mountain, which is kind of faerie-like, and there's a dark edge of menace (this was a legitimately creepy book at times) but it's never really driven home that these are fae, or anything else in particular, and the lack of definition really bothered me.  I think Levy might have used it as a technique, let the reader decide what they really are, but to me it just felt like a cop-out, like he couldn't really explain what his creations were so he just let them go.  To me, it ended up feeling like he kind of took Tithe, with its changelings and such, and swapped out the faeries for the Buggers from Ender's Game.  Ultimately, that's what this reminded me of more than anything else: Ender's Game, especially the end of Ender's Game.  Gabe's part in particular, when he goes down under the mountain.

The characters I liked, for the most part.  They do a lot of stuff I really frown upon--there's absolutely no excuses for infidelity in my book--which Levy explains way by way of "oooooh maaaaagic," making the characters completely unresponsible for their own actions.  That's a real cop-out of character development, as is Gabe in general.  Gabe had such an awesome backstory and original motives for going along with the group, but his decisions ultimately didn't make sense--he couldn't bear to live without Blue, but yet that's exactly what he wants to do?  While self-conflict can be a great inclusion, it needs to be resolved, and this really wasn't.  It just is, and we're supposed to accept that.

The writing I both liked and disliked in turns.  There were some great chunks of description, but the writing overall made me feel vaguely seasick.  Or carsick.  Some sort of motion sickness, even though I was never actually moving while reading this.  It's not the first time this has happened; it's just some sort of rhythm that Levy implemented that left me a little bit repulsed for a reason that I can't really put my finger on.  I had to fight through to the very end, especially through Gabe's part of the book, and I was glad to be rid of it when I finished.

This is not a book I would read again.  While I think it had some real potential, it overall just felt lacking, and I feel like it needed to pick a more solid direction and go with it.  I am, however, going to count it for the Popsugar challenge as "A book that scares you."  It didn't give me nightmares or have me double-checking the locks, but no book ever has--and this creeped me out sufficiently several times.

2.5 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Popsugar Reading Challenge Update!

Hello out there!  After a flag in my reading due to a few very busy weeks at work, I'm back up to my regular pace, and thought I'd check in with my reading challenge.  I'm slowly whittling away at the categories, while mixing in a good number of non-challenge books as I do.  So, since the last time we spoke, these are the categories I've completed, and what I have left to do.

-A book based on a true story.  For this, I decided to use The Dressmaker, which relies heavily on the sinking of the Titanic and the trials that followed.  I originally intended this title to fulfill the category of "A book that takes place in your hometown," for Washington, DC (my adopted hometown) but felt that not enough of the narrative took place in DC for it to really count.  Luckily, it fulfills this category instead!

-A book your mom loves.  My mom loves The Thorn Birds, and after reading it, I really enjoyed it to.  What I did not enjoy so much was that, while I was reading it, I left it on the nightstand and her devil dog Fiona (they were visiting at the time) decided it looked like a good chew toy, so I had to buy the library a new copy.  Which was more difficult than it sounds because the book isn't published in hardcover anymore!

-A book with antonyms in the title.  I hadn't even realized I completed this category until Jeffrey Cook, author of Foul Is Fair, pointed out that his title counted for it!  Doi!  How could I have missed that?  Well, it's a bonus, because I didn't think I'd have it done yet, but I do!  Ha!

-A book with bad reviews.  I technically used Maggie Shipstead's Seating Arrangements for this, after seeing the reviews when I finished the book, but you could easily count Katie MacAlister's Improper English, too.  Neither of these absolutely tanked in ratings, but the reviews, upon scrolling through, certainly aren't favorable.

In Progress
I'm reading several books for the challenge right now, so I thought I'd separate those out, too!

-A book that became a movie.  As planned, I'm using Monuments Men for this one.

-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'm reading A Little Princess instead.  It was originally published in 1905, so it works!

-A book that came out the year you were born.  I started Outlander for this category, as planned.  It's...not quite what I thought it was?  We'll see!

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.  Oh, this was a hard one to find a candidate for, because all of the authors I thought were really young are actually older than I thought!  Oi.  So, very reluctantly, I have decided to take up Veronica Roth's Divergent.  I've avoided it until now, but now it seems to have become unavoidable.

-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 book from an author you love but haven't read yet.  Well, I absolutely adore Tamora Pierce, but for some reason I haven't read Battle Magic yet, so that will fill this category.

-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 at the bottom of your to-read list.  My to-read list is in a constant state of flux and doesn't really have a concrete "bottom," so at some point I'll just pick the most recently added book (which is, by default, at the bottom) and read that.

-A book that scares you.  I have no idea for this one, honestly.  Horror books don't actually scare me, so I think I might have to go with some nonfiction that's terrifyingly true.  We'll see where that goes.

-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 book from your childhood.  The obvious one that comes to mind is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.  This might finally give me the excuse to order that new box set I've been eyeing up...

-A book with a love triangle.  I've gotta fill this one with Endless Knight, Kresley Cole's sequel to Poison Princess.  I loved Princess (review here), but haven't cracked Endless yet.  But it has definitely got a love triangle.

-A book set in high school.  Pretty sure that Perks of Being a Wallflower is going to flesh out this category.  I kind of hate books set in high school, but Perks is supposed to be great, so I hope it won't let me down!

-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.

-A banned book.  Well, books in the US are never actually banned by the government, but according to a list of frequently challenged books, The Kite Runner fits this category.  I read A Thousand Splendid Suns, also by Hosseini, several years ago and liked it, so this should be a good contender.

-A book you started but never finished.  I swear to year, this is the year I finally take down Vellum, which I have started multiple times but have never been able to complete.  But this time, I will do it!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania - Erika Larson

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the LusitaniaErik Larson's books apparently have appeal to me, since all but one of them are on my "to read" shelf.  I think he just covers historical moments that I find particularly interesting.  From the look of his books (and my experience with this one) he doesn't feel the need to write broad, sweeping historical narratives, but rather focuses on smaller moments and events in the context of the larger ones everyone studies so intently.  I knew about the Lusitania, a large passenger liner that sailed in the early twentieth century, and had a conception about it that a lot of people probably shared: that when Germany sank it, it was the even that catapulted the United States into World War I.  This was, as Larson points out at the end of the book, not the case; the US didn't enter the war for more than two years after the Lusitania sank, though the sinking was certainly the cause of a huge amount of outrage in the neutral US.

In Dead Wake, Larson examines day-to-day life on the Lusitania amidst the building tension of the war, particularly a warning from Germany that any UK-bound ships were considered valid for sinking and which mentioned the Lusitania specifically.  He also includes the operations of U-20, the German submarine which sank the Lusitania, and the operations of Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill, and a few other areas/departments, such as the secret British intelligence group in the so-called Room 40.  He relied on a wide variety of resources to create this narrative, including letters, memoirs, and logs--pretty much everything except interviews.  The Lusitania sank in 1915, after all, which means that none of the survivors are still around.  He did an extraordinarily good job of it, making the people who sailed on the ship and submarine, and who watched and manipulated events from afar, seem real and relatable even though he only had limited resources on which to rely.  He builds tension throughout the entire book until the ultimate sinking, and then winds everything up quite neatly without too much hemming and hawing about consequences.

At the end of the book, he does bring up one thing that I think is ultimately a flaw: he doesn't answer any real questions about what happened.  No one really seems to know why the Lusitania didn't receive a naval escort, why the instructions (or lack thereof) were so ambiguous, why it wasn't diverted to a safer route given the intelligence available.  While it's interesting that no real answers have come out regarding this, I would have liked to have seen Larson take a stab at answering them given the information he dug up.  Ultimately, this was an informative book but nothing that was really groundbreaking, because it doesn't include any sort of argument or thesis, only facts.

4 stars out 5.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Thorn Birds - Colleen McCullough

The Thorn BirdsI picked this book up purely for the Popsugar Reading Challenge, to fulfill the category "A book your mother loves."  The Thorn Birds is her favorite book, though I don't remember her reading it or even owning a copy of it.  In fact, I would have never, ever guessed that this was her favorite book--except that when we were in Italy for my sister's wedding last September, my mother got a little tipsy (well, more than a little--she was, to be fair, having an extraordinarily bad week) and got involved in a conversation with an Australian tourist who asked us to take a picture for her.  At some point during the conversation, The Thorn Birds came up.  I obviously assumed that it came up because the book takes place in Australia, so imagine my dismay when I began reading it and found the setting was New Zealand!  Did my other actually not know the difference between Australia and New Zealand?  No, it couldn't be true.  Maybe she just hadn't read the book in a while, and was mis-remembering the setting.  That was entirely possible, wasn't it?  But as I kept reading, I became immensely relieved.  Yes, the book starts in New Zealand, but the setting quickly moves to Australia and stays there for most of the book.  Whew!  What a close call!

The Thorn Birds is the story of the Cleary family.  Originally living in New Zealand, they move to Australia to live and work on Drogheda, a massive sheep farming operation owned by the sister of Paddy Cleary, the patriarch of the Cleary family.  The "main" character in this book, if there can be one more so than others, is Meggie, Paddy's daughter, who is only a few years old when the book begins and is in her fifties when it ends.  Throughout the book, Meggie grows up and experiences all sorts of things, most of them focused around a priest named Ralph who is quickly climbing through the ranks of the Catholic church.  Meggie's mother, Fee, also features prominently, and so do her two eventual children, Justine and Dane.  The rest of the family is present, of course, but typically don't feature as strongly as those few.

The Thorn Birds, because of its sweeping scope of time and location and happenings, is a bit hard to describe, except in that it reminded me immensely of Gone with the Wind.  Now, Gone with the Wind is my favorite book, so maybe it's suitable that The Thorn Birds is my mother's.  Just as Gone with the Wind is a love story but also a powerful historical fiction, a story about people who had gumption and people who didn't, so is The Thorn Birds.  They're very different in time, place, and characters, but they still had a similar writing style and feel to them, which was awesome.  I think this a great book for people who liked Gone with the Wind for the feel and artful writing and are opening to trying something set in a completely different locale and era.  I'll definitely need to obtain a copy of this for my own collection, once the library book goes back to the library.  It's not a book I imagine myself reading often, because it's just too long and heavy for that, but much like Gone with the Wind I can see myself picking it up now and then when I need something that's just plain good.

4.5 stars out of 5!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Improper English - Katie MacAlister

Improper EnglishI loved this book.  Many people did not.  I can understand that.  I, however, loved it, devoured it, thoroughly enjoyed it.  It was great.  Is it trashy?  Yes, yes, yes.  It is complete and utter trash.  Delicious trash.

Here are the reasons why people might not like this book.  They might find the main character obstinate.  Alix (which, I will admit, is a stupid way to spell a nickname for Alexandra) could be perceived as very, very annoying.  This is all a matter of taste, which I will admit can vary greatly.  She was definitely stubborn, to the point of obstinacy at many times, and she lashed out needlessly and hurt those close to her on purpose.  This frustrated a lot of people, as I can see by scanning some other reviews.  It didn't frustrate me, and there's a reason for that: I see a lot of myself in Alix.  A lot of self-doubt and insecurity, and a desire to push people away before they hurt her drives much of her behavior, just has it has, in the past, driven much of mine.  Part of her character development is getting over that insecurity, though it takes much of the book for her to get to that point--it all has to be pointed out to her, repeatedly, by various people, until she will listen and self-reflect enough to act.

People might also not like the amount of sex in this book.  As an avid reader of historical romances, I was a bit surprised by the amount.  Alix is certainly a girl in touch with what she wants physically, and she's not afraid to go for it.  Alix and Alex (her love interest; the naming is, I easily admit, trite) go at it fast and frequently.  I'm used to romances not having sex until at least a little later in the book, but I don't think it derailed anything and, in fact, was one of the things that fueled the conflict.  That conflict, by the way, largely revolved around Alix and Alex being wildly attracted to each other but wanting and expecting wildly different things out of their relationship.  It's not a hugely inventive conflict, but I liked it.  I found it realistic.  I maybe found the reconciliation a little less realistic, but a romance has to have a happy ending, amiright?  Because of that, it didn't sit poorly with me.  If MacAlister had been aiming for a more literary twist, maybe--but not in a pure romance.

Like I said, those things might bother some people; they didn't bother me.  I thought that, initially, there might be a mystery squeezed in somewhere to match Alex's occupation as a detective, but there wasn't, for which I was happy.  I often find that when people try sandwich side-plots into romances, it doesn't work out very well.  A few other things come to mind as worthy of mention, though.  Each chapter starts out with an astonishingly bad portion of a historical romance novel that Alix is trying to write.  These portions parallel parts of the story, but they also show Alix's shifting psyche.  I, personally, liked it.  Also, if you're picking up the Kindle edition, as I did, there's some wacky formatting going on in a few spots that looks positively bad.  This book was originally published in 2003, well before the advent of Kindle, and its conversion doesn't appear to have occurred without a few bumps in the road.  It had me nervous at first; I wasn't sure if the dialogue formatting and paragraph spacing would allow me to retain my sanity for the duration.  Luckily, they improved immensely with only a few rough spots later on.  The cast of supporting characters also sports a wide variety of sometimes-stereotypical building-mates that I thoroughly enjoyed but the easily-offended might find offensive.  (I admit it; I'm not a social justice warrior.  I'm also intelligent enough to realize that just because two lesbians in a book come across as stereotypical doesn't mean that all lesbians are.)

So, does this book have its flaws?  Yes.  Yes it does.  But I loved it anyway.  I found it light and funny, I devoured it in one sitting, and thought it was a perfect treat with which to end a long day.  And you know what?  I'd probably read it, and enjoy it again.  So there.

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Prisoner of State - Susan Ruth (Chronicles of Deva #1)

Prisoner of State (Chronicles of Deva Book 1)
Susan Ruth is (or was; I can't find her anymore!) a member of the 20,000-member NaNoWriMo group on Facebook, of which I am also a member.  I'm not a very active one, but a good deal of their stuff shows up on my feed, and when Ruth was getting ready to put out Prisoner of State, she posted a few different versions of the cover for the group to see.  That was it: I was hooked.  I have a thing for silhouette covers, especially ones as gorgeous as this, and when Prisoner of State dropped, I scurried off to buy it.  It then sat unread on my Kindle for months because it was buried in the midst of 600 other ebooks.  But I finally dug it up and read it, and let me say was an experience that left me unsure of how I feel about the book as a whole.

This isn't a short book.  It's also not an extraordinarily long one, but it's 400 or so pages of dense content, and a convoluted plot that left me feeling like I needed charts in order to follow it.  Felix Skryker, the main character, makes a variety of notes and charts and family trees in his attempts to unravel the mysteries surrounding Prisoner of State Xanthe Chance, who comes into his care in a whirl of strangeness that permeates the entire novel.  He uses charts to solve the mystery...but I feel like I shouldn't have to use them to just keep track of what's going on.  Part of this is that the threads are all so tangled together, which makes for a realistic mess, but which also makes following the story hard.  It's intensely convoluted, with a ton of names to keep track of.  Some characters (most characters) also go by multiple names and titles, and everyone is also related somehow, which makes it an even bigger mire of trying to figure out who is who and who did what.  But when it came to the characters actually solving the mystery, about 70% of the way through the book, Xanthe decides she's been quite long enough and talks--and then the bulk of the intrigue is done, names and actions and consequences all dumped in your lap over the course of a few pages.

This sudden unraveling has the result of leaving the last 30% of the book feeling rather disconnected.  There's a sudden time-jump of about 5 years, which seems to have been manufactured for the singular purpose of shoving in a pseudo-romance that never really gets off the ground.  One little bit of the mystery is left to be solved here, but it really isn't, with the mystery just vanishing to live (or die?) another day.  This chunk honestly felt like a different book, or like it was fanfiction of the rest of the book.  It seemed to float almost entirely apart from the bulk of the narrative, and that...didn't agree with me.

Now, since I've been negative long enough, let's talk about what I loved about this, because there were definitely aspects I loved.  First, the atmosphere.  Prisoner of State takes place on an alternate Earth which reminded me, more than anything else, of Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass.  There aren't daemons attached to people, but there are flying machines and automata and masters of colleges sneaking around with their own political machinations that muddle everything up for everyone else and religion still factoring heavily in to the point that people can still be accused of heresy even though it seems like the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.  Xanthe also reminded me, in some ways, of The Golden Compass' heroine, Lyra.  Xanthe and Lyra are about the same age and are both thrown into strange situations, though Xanthe has a tragic past and is messed up in ways that Lyra would probably find hard to fathom.  There are also strange occurrences that aren't quite magic going on--the Dislocation Barrier comes to mind.  The barrier cuts Deva and Mercia (part of what we would call the UK) off from the rest of the world, having arrived abruptly at the end of a civil war.  It has turned Deva into a cut-off, dark place, with menaces lurking around every corner.  It's hinted at that the bad actions of Deva's inhabitants even fuel the barrier, in a sort of self-perpetuating cycle because there are a lot of bad actions--it's a very dark book.  It's a tantalizing look at Ruth's world, which is definitely steampunk-inspired but isn't blatantly so, and I wish we'd gotten a few more lush details like that and perhaps a little bit less of the convolutions that made up most of the plot.

I also really did like the writing itself.  Ruth is a very matter-of-fact story teller.  She sometimes falls into the school of telling rather than showing, which we're all warned against these days, but in this particular narrative, I think it works.  It gives it a slightly dated feel, which makes it feel like the book was actually written in the time period in which it takes place.  She also uses this to build up the mystery and then tear it down quickly, which are less skillful, but the style still worked for me as a whole.  It also makes some of the strangeness feel like it belongs, much like Neil Gaiman writes strange things so matter-of-factly that it seems like of course they must be true.

Ruth has some real skill as a writer and storyteller, and I loved her main characters and her world.  I do hope she continues to write these Chronicles of Deva, though I would like to see a little more streamlining as she matures as an author, so that the narrative doesn't leave me with a headache when I step away from trying to keep everything straight.

3.5 stars out 5.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Dressmaker - Kate Alcott

The DressmakerOh, covers.  Oh, titles.  How you beguile me with your deceptive ways.  These are not the fault of the author; no, not at all.  They are the fault of the publishers and marketers who decide that a book is meant for a certain audience.  This book seems to be marketed at someone looking for a period piece about a woman trying to elevate herself in life through quality work.  What's it really about?  The Titanic, its sinking, and the aftermath, as viewed through the lenses of a handful of characters, only two of which are actually dressmakers and only one of which the title actually refers to.  Deceptive indeed.  Among the characters who are not dressmakers are a female reporter, a female author/script-writer, a sailor, a British aristo, and a senator, most of whom all have their own segments of the book that have absolutely nothing to do with dressmaking and often have very little to do with "the dressmaker" of the title.

The character the title focuses on is Tess, who is arguable the "main" character of the novel and its heroine, though there's really an ensemble cast at work here.  Tess was one of my biggest issues with this novel.  On one hand, she knows what she wants and isn't afraid to go get it, and knows what she's worth.  On the other hand, she's still confused about some areas of her feelings (*coughRELATIONSHIPScough*) and is torn between different aspects of her life that, while not changing her overall goals, maker her question how to best go about achieving them without compromising her morals.  These are all very realistic drives and emotions.  What wasn't so realistic is Tess herself.  She's from France but doesn't speak France, seems to of ambiguous national origin, and has a muddled social background as well; her family is very poor and pretty much sold Tess into servitude, and yet she knows how to ride horses with some skill and knows all manner of social niceties, though she doesn't always bother to use them.  This made her a less-than-convincing character, and I think I know why: she's the only character who isn't real.

Here's the thing.  None of Alcott's other characters had to be created from scratch.  They were all real people, though these are fictionalized versions of them.  Alcott relied heavily on the testimony of the Titanic trials for her novels, though she does blend the US and UK ones a bit.  Still, the other people were real, and even if some of their actions and motivations and words were fictionalized, they still came from the same backgrounds.  It seems like Alcott relied heavily on that and got a little sloppy on the creation of her one main fictional character as a result.  The ending also flip-flopped; like Alcott wanted a bittersweet one but got pressured into just making it sweet instead, and seems weaker for that.

Also, I can never keep Nellie Bly and Pinky Wade straight, even though I know they're different people from different times.  But that's not actually Alcott's fault.

I intended to use this as a book for my Popsugar reading challenge to fulfill the category of "A book set in your hometown."  Nothing is actually set in my hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania (at least nothing that Google turned up!) so I went with my second and current home of Washington, DC instead.  This...kind of fulfills the category.  Bits of it take place in DC, but much of it takes place in New York.  I thought it would be more balanced from the bookjacket description, but I guess I'll count it for now.  If something better turns up in my sights between now and the end of the year, I'll swap that out instead.

Overall, I think the book had a strong central moral premise that focused around the Titanic tragedy, but the main character wasn't entirely convincing and the ending similarly lacked strong conviction.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Foul is Fair - Jeffrey Cook and Katherine Perkins (Fair Folk Chronicles #1)

Foul is Fair (Fair Folk Chronicles Book 1)Guys, I believe that I'm actually legally obliged to say this: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  (How exciting is that?  No one's ever given me something to review before!)

Now that that's out of the way, let's begin.  Foul is Fair is a book about a high school student with ADHD (or some variant) who quickly turns out to be a faerie princess and needs to rescue her father the Unseelie King before the seasons change on Halloween.  If she doesn't, everything is going to go very, very wrong in Faerie and on Earth.  And so Megan (our heroine) sets off with her friend Lani (who is a half-faerie, just like Megan is; both have faerie fathers and human mothers), the pixie Ashling, and the crow Count to rescue her father and save two worlds.

Now, let me get one thing straight right away: Megan's family are not "bad guys."  The description of the book says that "if Megan's getting the terminology straight, it sounds like her family aren't even supposed to be the good guys."  Whether Megan's family is actually bad is never really a serious question to be considered, because as soon as it comes up, it's easily put to rest.  Megan's family is not bad.  Faeries are not bad in general, just different.  That one kind of rubbed me the wrong way, a little, because faeries traditionally come in two varieties, and those are evil and more evil.  Well "evil" might be the wrong word.  "Chaotic" might be more on point, and that faeries love chaos is brought up here (and the definitions do eventually get a little more complicated).  But when it's hinted that the heroine might be more of an antiheroine...well, that's what I expect.  Megan's not an antiheroine.  She's much too "sweetness and light" for that.  It didn't make me dislike her, or lower her in my esteem, but it did leave me feeling rather lackluster towards her.  There's a reason for this, and that reason is one word: Tithe.  Tithe is a book by Holly Black about a girl who turns out to be a changeling faerie and quickly becomes entangled in faerie politics.  That heroine, Kaye, is much more ambiguous in her morals and actions and I think that makes her a more compelling character than Megan.  There are a lot of similarities between Tithe and Foul is Fair, and the main thing that came to my mind, again and again, while reading FiF was that it's Tithe, but meant for a younger audience.  You see, Tithe is marketed at young adults, but I think it really reads more as a new adult fantasy, or maybe even a light adult one.  Foul is Fair shares many of the same central plot points but has younger, lighter main characters and adds in a quest for good measure--and lacks the romantic subplot, too.  Again, this isn't a bad thing, but it means that if you've read other books in the genre, Foul is Fair is going to come off as very, very similar.  I think that's just a problem with the genre, not necessarily with the writing.  If you're going to write faeries, you're (generally) going to have to stick to certain tropes, or people will cry foul that you're "not doing it right."  (Hahaha.  Cry foul.  Like the title.  Get it?  I'm so funny.)  It also has this weird humor element that was also present in Eternal Vows, which made it sometimes feel like a parody more than a serious story.

One thing I did really like about this was that the authors (Are they both authors?  I'm not actually sure.  Books with more than one name on the cover confuse me.) include supernatural mythologies that aren't necessarily British or Irish.  Lani, for example, is a half-menehune, which I gather is a type of Hawaiian supernatural being that really likes to build things.  Mythologies like gods and titans are also tied in, though they aren't present; they're explained as being "sealed away," though how faeries bested gods I'm not really sure.  That was a bit unclear.  But it does work to explain why some "supernatural" things are present and others aren't: in this world, they're all real, they're just not all there.  And of course, trying to include everything would have probably just resulted in a hot mess.

I'm also probably a weird person, because my favorite character in this wasn't even a main character and was definitely a bad character--as bad you can get in this one, at least.  Peadar.  Peadar is a redcap.  He, at one point, tries to kill Megan.  He'd probably like to kill Megan (and company) at other points, too.  I loved him.  Not because I wanted him to kill Megan, but because he came off as the most faerie-like faerie in the whole book to me.  H'es not evil, per say, but what he's built to do is not what we humans would define as good.  He's willing to work with others, for the right price, but there's a general menace about him that I absolutely loved.  I wish he'd had more page time or that other characters had the same lurking menace about them.  That's what I look for when humans (or even partial humans, or faeries who didn't know they were faeries) get involved with faeries, because those intruders are so terribly, terribly out of their league.  With Megan and company, everything just seemed very...easy.  I mean, objectively it's not easy to get an enchanted sword from a bunch of iron golems, but it still seemed easy.  They got a little beat up, sure.  Someone dislocated an arm at one point.  Another person got slashed by a golem and another got burned by iron.  But it still had the feeling of it being easier than it should have been.  Again, maybe this is just because of the age group the book is aimed at.  Maybe I'm too old for these types of stories now.  But everyone they encountered seemed to want to help in one way or another, at some point in time.  Some of these people had ulterior motives, but none of them were really that menacing, and we never really had to fear that things wouldn't turn out right.

So, what did I think overall?  I liked it.  It was a light read, a fast one (it only clocked about three hours total, though I split that up over several sessions due to other stuff going on) and it was well-written, without a lot of glaring mistakes or plot holes.  But it did lack the dark edge that I absolutely crave in faerie stories, and everything came across as just a little bit too easy to me.  I will reiterate: this may be because I'm not in the target audience.  This comes across as a book aimed at the younger end of the young adult spectrum, and I don't quite fit there anymore.  So yes, it was good.  Terribly memorable to me?  Not really.  If I was going to pick up something like this again, I'd probably reach for Tithe before this one.  But it certainly wasn't bad.

A solid 3 stars--with a note that Cook also authors a steampunk series, which might be more up my alley.  I have the first book of that, and am looking forward to it.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Seating Arrangements - Maggie Shipstead

Seating ArrangementsSummer is over, and you know what that means: reading time has significantly decreased!  These are the busiest weeks of the year for my office, which means we run all day and by the time I get home all I want to do is eat and sleep!  Consequently, getting through a novel takes more than just a day or two, and it means that when I get a dud, it's even more painful to fight my way to the end.  Thankfully, that wasn't the case here.

I found Seating Arrangements on a list of "best summer books" somewhere--I don't actually remember where now.  But it was settled in among titles like Jaws, and it was available from the university library, so I requested it and off I went.  It's definitely a character-driven novel, with a large ensemble cast of two families and some various other friends/acquaintances who are gathered on a New England island preparing for a wedding.  Now, let me get this off my chest: I hate weddings.  They bring out the absolute worst in everyone, and I think Shipstead really captured that in Seating Arrangements.  There's petty fighting and sleeping around and just general drama, which sounds tedious but really isn't because it captures the real situation of wedding preparations so well.  Oh, and there's an exploding whale!

So there are really two main characters, with the others all factoring in to lesser degrees.  Mainly, Livia (sister of the bride) got out of a serious relationship and had an abortion and is still trying to get over it, preferably with a rebound guy, and Livia's father, Winn, both wants to sleep with one of the bridesmaids and is also obsessed with getting into the Pequod, a club on the island.  Winn being one of the main characters seems to be one of the main reasons people dislike this book.  (Guess what?  I'm counting this for my Popsugar Challenge for "A book with bad reviews," because scrolling through the first page of reviews on Goodreads reveals a steady string of one- and two-star reviews.)  I can understand that.  He's a jerk.  He's a horrible person, who thinks that having an affair is both somehow respectable and will make his marriage better.  What?  That doesn't make sense.  Another reviewer used the word "misogynistic" to describe Winn, and I think I can agree with that.  He has absolutely no regard for the women in his life, whether they be his wife or his daughters, and is absolutely obsessed with archaic clubs.  To him, the world revolves around clubs.  Clearly the world does not actually revolve around clubs.  He's also caught up in some ridiculous decades-old rivalry that no one else cares about anymore.  All of these factors together make him a terrifically unlikable character, and with so much of the book focused on him, I can see why many people were turned off.

But not me.  Oh, no, I love a good drama, and this had drama aplenty.  Between Livia and Agatha and dying lobsters and exploding whales, I was mostly able to push Winn off to the side of my mind and focus on other things which means, for the most part, I enjoyed this.  I liked Livia a lot more than Winn.  I think she's a very identifiable young woman, going through her first real heartbreak and realizing that things aren't exactly the way she thought they were or should be, while still trying to maintain a bit of dignity--with mixed results.  And she breaks someone's finger, which is kind of bad-ass.  Just enough to make me cheer for her a little more.  I thought Shipstead did a good job of capturing the "wedding on an island" atmosphere without really getting to the wedding; she does get to it, but it's literally two pages long and not important other than that Winn gets some of what's coming to him.  So yeah, I liked this.  I didn't love it.  I might read it again.  Maybe.  It was a light drama with an island setting, a good read for summer--just like it was recommended to me as, so really, I can't complain.

3 stars out of 5.