Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016 Reading Challenge Wrap Up

-A book based on a fairy tale: Confessions of an Ugly StepsisterAn interesting take but overall not very fairy tale-like.  I wish the elements of the original tale had been a bit more prevalent though the historical fiction setting take was one I liked.

-A National Book Award winner: The Shipping News.  A book that was a strange mix of many different things, some good and some bad.  Overall I enjoyed it, but I don't see what made it an award winner.

-A YA bestseller: Clockwork Angel.  This was the first book of Cassandra Clare's Infernal Devices trilogy.  I don't like Clare as a person but her books are basically the epitome of YA.  I liked this book's switch from a modern setting to a Regency/Victorian one but I haven't found it in me to read the other two in the trilogy yet.

-A book you haven't read since high school: The Ropemaker.  This a simple, wonderful fantasy story that reads just as well now as it did back when I was in high school.

-A book set in your home state: Perks of Being a Wallflower.  This was okay.  I think the ending was a little cloudy, shying away from what the point really was, and I wasn't a big of of the epistolary style.

-A book translated to English: The Little Paris Bookshop.  This had some beautiful writing and some quirky characters but I didn't find the central plot to be compelling, and I really disliked the woman at the center of it.

-A romance set in the future: Their Fractured Light.  I still think I liked the first book in this trilogy the best, but this book was a wonderful step up from the second one and a worthy conclusion.  It's sci-fi for young adults with a strong romance component, the main characters are wonderful, and this ties together the threads from the other books nicely.

-A book set in Europe: Lunch in Paris.  This is the sort of memoir I like: one about relationships and food.  It's sweet, and while I had read the second book first accidentally I didn't feel like either volume was re-hashing anything big.  This book also featured less about children (not my favorite) than the second, which was a plus.

-A book that's under 150 pages: Goldenhood.  I wanted to like this but found that the plot was a bit weak, particularly at the end.  It was a short book, true, but I still think it could have been wrapped up a little better.

-A New York Times bestseller: The Cuckoo's Calling.  This was written by J. K. Rowling under a pseudonym, and her mastery of characters and atmosphere continues here.  It's not fantasy, and is a mystery instead, but definitely turned me on to the series, and I devoured the other two in short order.  I can't wait until the fourth one comes out, though there's no release date in sight!

-A book that's becoming a movie this year: The Girl on the Train.  I'm normally not a big fan of unreliable narrators, but I really liked this.  It was one of those things that I could tell something was up, but I wasn't quite sure what that something was.  The movie adaptation of this was good, too, very loyal to the book!

-A book recommended by someone you just met: The Machinery.  I did not like this.  I think the world was well-built and had an interesting premise but nothing happens in this book.  It was so boring I kept putting it down to nap instead.

-A self-improvement book: An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth.  You can tell Chris Hadfield is a cool, likable guy from his Youtube videos about life in space, and this book is no different.  Light, readable, and yet with surprising insights about life.

-A book you can finish in a day: My American Duchess.  I love Eloisa James and I love her series, and I wish this book was the start of another one.  That said, this wasn't anything particularly new, and the amnesia incident was a bit worn.

-A book written by a celebrity: Elixir.  Coming from Hillary Duff I was skeptical

-A political memoir: I Am Malala.  What an extraordinary young woman!  This was written along with another person, who presumably did the background-information bits while Malala focused on her own experiences.  It's brilliant, but at the same time it does read like a teenager wrote it--though a very articulate teenager.

-A book at least 100 years older than you: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  What another boring book!  If you like books listing all the fish the narrator has ever seen, this is the book for you.  And what a cop-out ending.  This has some cool concepts that have endured the test of time, but as a story I don't think it has.

-A book that's more than 600 pages: The Goldfinch.  A lot of people abandoned this book, and I can see why.  It's slow.  That said, I didn't find it a boring type of slow.  Watching Theo grow, change, and backslide was fascinating, though the end seemed a bit too neat.

-A book from Oprah's Book Club: Stolen Lives.  This was a fascinating book both because of its subject, a woman who was held prisoner for twenty years because her father led a coup against the King of Morocco, and because it was a portion of history I'd never even heard of before.

-A science-fiction novel: The Three-Body Problem.  Sci-fi isn't usually my thing, but The Three-Body Problem was an interesting book.  The actual conflict is somewhat removed from the timeline of the book, which makes its sense of urgency rather lacking, but the actual story was intriguing.

-A book recommended by a family member: The Killing Floor.  Did not like this.  It's poorly conceived and written and didn't make me interested in the other books in the series at all.

-A graphic novel: Bone, Vol 1: Out from Boneville.  This is a light, quick read with elements of adventure, mystery, and humor.

-A book that is published in 2016: The Mirror King.  While I loved the first book in this duology, The Orphan Queen, I found this one a bit lacking.  The romance that bolstered the first to such a lovely degree wasn't present here and it relied on politics more than adventure, taking some of the magic out.  But the ending was wonderful.

-A book with a protagonist who has your occupation: Blood, Bones, & Butter.  I did this as an occupation I would like to have, since books about college admins are both pretty much nonexistent and would be terribly boring.  While the food descriptions here were mouth-watering, the author was pretty much insufferable and I couldn't bring myself to like her one bit.

-A book that takes place during summer: The Sound of Glass.  This was my first Karen White book, though something about her covers has always intrigued me.  I really enjoyed it; she seems to have a knack for real, compelling characters, without feeling the need to drop them into insane circumstances to justify their specialness.  It has a wonderful sense of place, too.

-A book and its prequel: Wool and Shift.  Hugh Howey is basically the dream every self-publisher has, and these books make it clear why.  A post-apocalytpic dystopian series, Wool, Shift, and the third book, Dust, build a world that is both remote and menacingly close.  I think they don't have quite the magic of Sand, but I enjoyed them nonetheless.

-A murder mystery: Grave Beginnings.  This is a paranormal mystery and it is one that is without the romance plots that are so prevalent in the genre.  (I like the romance plots, but they're not for everyone.)  It was fun but I think the writing was a bit rough; it definitely shows as an indie author's first book.

-A book written by a comedian: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?  Mindy Kaling is adorable but I also had the reaction to this that I have with many "celebrity" books, in that the author isn't being real with us.  Like, no one can be this adorable and quirky and charming all the time.  It's just not possible.  So what is Mindy hiding?

-A dystopian novel: The Children of Darkness.  This was an indie book I received for free in exchange for a review, and while I ultimately did enjoy it, it was pretty slow.  There are also heavy pseudo-religious elements in this that are keeping me away from a bit.  I seem to have enjoyed it when I read it, but in retrospect I'm not compelled to keep reading.

-A book with a blue cover: Sea Glass.  This book and the rest of its series are trash that suggest that marrying your abuser is a totally healthy and good thing to do.  Terrible.  I love Snyder's Poison Study, but her other books seem to have seriously gone downhill and she has been scratched from my favorites list.

-A book of poetry: I Was the Jukebox.  I don't like poetry but if you have to read a book of poetry, this'll do.  "Cast of Thousands" is particularly moving.

-The first book you see in a bookstore: Every Anxious Wave.  I used this as "The first book you see in a library" because I didn't want to buy something I wasn't sure I would like.  It was okay, but it deals with time travel and that rarely goes well.

-A classic from the 20th century: One Hundred Years of Solitude.  The writing here is so wonderful and the town depicted is interesting, with elements of magical realism mixed in with a robust culture.  But there are definitely some icky moments here, too; incest is rampant, which made me shudder a bit.

-A book from the library: The Shadowed Sun.  I really like Jemisin, and this book was an improvement upon its predecessor, The Killing Moon.  The setting and characters are so complex and compelling, and Jemisin draws on the rich history of Egypt while making a world that is still entirely her own.

-An autobiography: Papillon.  It turns out that this book is probably only semi-autobiographical at best, and parts of it may have been outright lifted from another author's works.  Awkward, but not surprising given the content.  It's good, but keep those things in mind if you decide to read it.

-A book about a road trip: Walk On Earth a Stranger.  Probably the most unusual pick for this category, because it's not a road trip in the traditional sense but rather a trip across the Oregon trail.  An interesting character and a good story, and the final book comes out next year!

-A book about a culture you're unfamiliar with: Shutting Out the Sun.  This book is half interesting and half pretty much trash, which completely ignores the roles of globalization and American imperialism in creating the current environment in Japan that has contributed so greatly to the phenomenon of hikikomori.  Read the first half, forget the second.

-A satirical book: What If?.  This is a compilation of entries from Randall Munroe's What If? blog, attached to the XKCD comic.  There are a few new scenarios thrown in, but if you've read the blog, then that's the majority of content of the book.  It's amazing how many ways the world can be destroyed, but it was also disappointing to not find much new in the book.

-A book that takes place on an island: Enchanted Islands.  This takes place partially in the Galapagos Islands, following two spies who have been dispatched there during World War II.  The relationship, or lack thereof, between Frances and Aisnslie was touching, but Frances' continual excuses for Rosalie and how terrible of a friend she was really dragged this down for me.

-A book that's guaranteed to bring you joy: A College of Magics.  I love this book.  It seems to have suffered in ratings due to an unfortunate cover quote comparing it to Harry Potter, which it is not like, at all.  But Greenlaw, Galazon, and Aravis, and Faris and Tyrian and Jane and the very proper magicness of it all... I love it.

I also took on these additional reading goals from Modern Mrs. Darcy:

-A book you've been meaning to read: Street Fair.  This is a fun YA series that deals with faeries, but it trends a little young for me.  I'll probably read the other two in the series at some point, but I think that Melissa Marr's Tattoo Faeries series and Holly Black's Tithe series are more up my alley in this department.

-A book recommended by your local librarian or bookseller: Midnight's Children.  Ugh, this was a drag.  I believe people when they say this is an important book for Indian literature, but I found it incredibly boring and a struggle to get through.

-A book you should have read in school: The Odyssey.  This actually wasn't what I was expecting and had far less to do with Odysseus' journey home than with his revenge once he got there.  I find myself slightly disappointed in that, though it's a typical story of heroes, gods, and monsters in all other aspects.

-A book chosen for you by your spouse, partner, sibling, child, or BFF: The Samurai's Tale.  If this book had been written in the past decade, it would have been YA.  As it wasn't, it falls into a weird category in between teen and adult that still manages to not be YA.  It was't entirely to my taste for various reasons but I can see how it could easily get younger readers interested in Japan and Japanese history.

-A book published before you were born: Wuthering Heights.  I actually liked this quite a bit.  It's a story of obsession and revenge, not love as some portray it, but it had a wonderful atmosphere and I can see why it has persevered as a classic.

-A book that was banned at some point: Sophie's Choice.  What a terrible book.  I can't stand how pretentious this author is, and I will most definitely not be reading anything else by him.  He manages to make the Holocaust into something that is entirely about himself.

-A book you previously abandoned: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.  This had some interesting elements, but it was so incredibly slow.  I think a good few hundred pages of this could have been trimmed and the story made overall better by it.

-A book you own but have never read: The Mapmakers.  This was interesting regarding mapmaking in antiquity, but it quickly devolved into a listing of technologies used to make maps now--and yet manages to be outdated at the same time.

-A book that intimidates you: The Count of Monte Cristo.  I picked this one because of its sheer length but managed to get through it rather quickly.  I didn't find it a great story of revenge, as many make it out to be.  In fact I found the logic sadly lacking and the story overall incredibly boring.

-A book that you've already read at least once: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.  Most people know of this.  It's an enjoyable read and everyone knows that Rowling's characters and world are her great strengths...but what was the point of opening the Chamber of Secrets, again?  Someone please tell me, because I seem to have missed it.

Pull Me Under - Kelly Luce

Pull Me Under: A NovelPull Me Under was my Book of the Month selection for December.  I wasn't really thrilled with any of the selections, but I wanted to get two other books, and you can't skip the month and still do that, so I went with Pull Me Under.  The story here is about Rio, originally Chizuru, who is half American and half Japanese, and spent the first half of her life there--though eight years of that time was spent in a juvenile detention facility after she stabbed and killed a classmate with a letter opener.  After she was released from the center, she moved to the United States, changed her name to Rio, and essentially erased her entire past.  Now married and with an eleven-year-old daughter, Rio Silvestri is completely disconnected from the life she once led...

...until she gets a letter that her father, a Japanese National Treasure and renowned violinist, has died.  Rio decides to return to Japan to attend the funeral despite the fact that she and her father haven't spoken in at least eighteen years.  She leaves her husband and daughter behind in the US, not wanting them to realize who she was in her past life, and jets off for the funeral.  Once in Japan, she runs into Danny, one of her former teachers, and basically invites herself along into Danny's life and onto a pilgrimage to eighty-eight temples that Danny has sent herself to doing.  Meanwhile she continues to avoid telling her husband what's really going on, despite his obvious frustration and knowledge that something is going on.

We know from the beginning that Rio killed someone, and that she doesn't really feel like a murderer.  There's a sense of disconnect from the actual murder and its aftermath and what her life has become.  That said, I still didn't like Rio.  She has this real sense of righteousness about her and is, again, a very selfish character.  I understand her fear that her husband might not want anything to do with her if he knows about her path--that I get.  But when she returns to Japan and forces herself into Danny's life, when Danny clearly does not want her there, and then inviting other people along, too...that was incredibly inconsiderate and very selfish of her.  She holds no consideration for other people and how they might feel regarding her father, and instead seems to feel that she should be the center of this trip even though she and her father have been completely out of touch for more than half her life.

There was some lovely writing here, and I feel like Luce got a real sense of Japan for someone like myself who hasn't ever been there.  I don't think Luce is a bad writer, not at all, and I liked how the story was constructed, all of the supporting characters, and how unique everything was.  I just didn't like Rio as a character or a person, finding her far too selfish for my tastes--refusing to be there for her daughter because her daughter was "testing" her, feeling indignation that her husband is upset that she was hiding her past for their entire marriage, etc.--and that really dragged down the book as a whole for me.

3 stars out of 5.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Favorite Books of 2016

Good morning everyone!  Following a current trend that's going on, I thought I'd wrap up the year with 1) A roundup of my reading challenge books (scheduled for tomorrow) and 2) A list of my favorite books that I read in 2016, with a bit about what really made them shine.  These aren't necessarily all books released in 2016 (though some of them are), just the ones I read in 2016.

Born a Crime
Born a Crime - Trevor Noah
The review for this is scheduled for early next week but I read it earlier in December.  Noah takes his charming, funny style and turns it on a childhood and young adulthood spent in South Africa in apartheid and its wake, shining a light on racial relations and how they've shaped his life and divided the nation of his birth even after apartheid's fall.

Because of Miss Bridgerton (Rokesbys, #1)
In this first of the prequel series to Quinn's flagship Bridgerton series, Sybilla "Billie" Bridgeton falls in love with her neighbor, which she always assumed would happen...just that it's the wrong brother!  This was light and fun, and it has the feel of a slow burn even though the actual time table for the book isn't that long.  It's also set during the time of the American Revolution (though still in Britain) which is unusual for Quinn.

A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic, #1)
A Darker Shade of Magic - V. E. Schwab
A stunning fantasy that deals with interlocking worlds and travelling between them.  Schwab's writing style, along with her two main characters Kell and Lila, was fantastic.  Kell is a prince by adoption but also the most powerful sorcerer of his world, matched only by one from the menacing White London, and Lila (from our own Grey London) is a thief who dreams of being a pirate.  And then there's Black London, thought to be dead and gone but looming its destructive powers over everything...

The Ropemaker (The Ropemaker, #1)
The Ropemaker - Peter Dickinson
This is one of my favorite fantasy books.  It follows Tilja, a young girl who leaves her secluded valley in an attempt to restore the magic that keeps her home protected.  It features a world that seems rich and well-built without any info-dumping sessions by the author and a heroine who I think could appeal to readers of almost any age, and of course a wonderful sense of magic even in a world where magic is forbidden to most people.

When a Scot Ties the Knot (Castles Ever After, #3)
The third book in Dare's Castles Ever After series, this is the story of Maddie, a young woman with a sever case of social anxiety who invents a fiance (with her aunt's help, kind of) so that she won't have to go out and have a Season.  Maddie writes Captain Logan MacKenzie tons of letters to bulk up her story...and then finds him turning up on her doorstep years later.  Oops.  The two have such a grudging romance, but it's charming, and actually made me much more open to Scottish romances in general, as they are a subcategory I typically avoid like the plague.  (All the lairds and bairns and lasses, oi.)

A Court of Mist and Fury (A Court of Thorns and Roses, #2)
A Court of Mist and Fury - Sarah J. Maas
The second book in its series, this goes far above and beyond the first.  Feyre, our heroine, finds that her fairy tale romance has suddenly turned toxic, and wants nothing more to escape...something that the hawtt Rhysand, High Lord of the Night Court, is more than willing to help her do.  It's a slow burn romance, giving Feyre time to recover from her heartbreak and move on while still building the attraction between her and Rhysand, and all the while further developing the world and the menace that could destroy it.

Memories of Ash (The Sunbolt Chronicles, #2)
Memories of Ash - Intisar Khanani
My favorite indie author does it again, with a stunning fantasy that follows up on her book Sunbolt.  Dealing with amnesia, Hitomi's life is disrupted once again when her mentor is arrested.  Following to save her, Hitomi finds herself on the run through lands infested with monsters, befriended by a phoenix, and finally in the city that could be her doom.  Khanani's writing is absolutely enchanting, her world is magical, and watching Hitomi grow and come to accept her fate (but know that it does not entirely define her) was captivating,  and I cannot wait for the next book in this series.

A College of Magics (A College of Magics, #1)
A College of Magics - Caroline Stevermer
Another of my favorite books.  Don't let the cover quote by Jane Yolen fool you--this book is nothing like Harry Potter and shouldn't be compared as such.  Faris, the young Duchess of Galazon, finds herself exiled to the boarding school of Greenlaw by her wicked uncle until she reaches her majority and can take her rightful place.  But Greenlaw teaches magic.  Except Faris doesn't believe in magic.  And when things at Greenlaw suddenly go far, far south, Faris finds out that she might have to do something even more extraordinary than survive boarding school and oust her uncle: she might have to save the world.

Ink and Bone (The Great Library, #1)
Ink and Bone - Rachel Caine
Do you like books?  Do you like books about books?  Does the destruction of the Library of Alexandria make you sick to your stomach?  This is the book for you.  In an alternative, steampunk universe where owning books is illegal to anyone but the Library and those who pay a heavy price to it, Jess Brightwell goes to Alexandria to apprentice at the Great Library and maybe help out his book-smuggling family along the way.  Featuring an ensemble cast of hugely diverse characters and a breathtaking world, this is the stunning start to a series with great promise.

Poison Study (Study, #1)
Poison Study - Maria V. Snyder
This is Snyder's first book and far and away her best.  Yelena is condemned to death for a murder she committed, but finds herself spared the noose to instead become the food taster for the Commander of her country.  Suddenly in the custody of the assassin Valek, who is to be her handler, Yelena tries to figure out how to escape while dealing with threats on her life, a deadly poison, and a slowly growing connection with Valek himself.  This book is awesome, but a word of warning: leave the rest of Snyder's books on the shelf.  They are terrible in comparison.

The Water Knife
The Water Knife - Paolo Bacigalupi
Bacigalupi writes books that take place after various apocalyptic crises.  This one is set in the American Southwest in a water crisis; Las Vegas' aquifer has dried up, every drop of water in the Colorado is owned by someone, and Angel, our main character, is sent to Phoenix in order to find papers that will give his employer water rights beyond all imagining.  Meanwhile, journalist Lucy has come to love Phoenix and will do anything to help it thrive, and Maria is a Texan refugee just trying to survive and eventually get even further away.  As their stories grow and intertwine, a horrifying picture of what could happen when water begins to leave us emerges.

The Orphan Queen (The Orphan Queen, #1)
The Orphan Queen - Jodi Meadows
Princess Wilhelmina is a thief and a refugee.  Years ago, her country was overtaken by the neighboring realm following the kidnapping of that realm's heir, and Wil has paid the price.  Now, she and her fellow Ospreys steal to survive and dream of taking back their land.  Wil even forges documents to help them do it...such as documents that give her access to the castle so she can steal the treasury.  But a magical menace is growing ever closer, and Wil's own magic seems to be feeding it.  And then there's the growing attraction between herself and the Black Knife, a vigilante who's helping the people the crown seems to ignore, but who may be a member of the crown himself...

Walk on Earth a Stranger  (The Gold Seer Trilogy, #1)
This is a stunning example of low fantasy.  Instead of the strong magic and fantastic world that defined Carson's Girl of Fire and Thorns and its sequels, this book relies on a sense of place (America during the 1849 gold rush) and a wonderful heroine (Leah, who can sense gold) to move it along.  Fleeing her evil uncle, who definitely killed her parents, Leah runs west to where she can make her fortune with her "witchy" ability.  But being disguised as a boy has its own problems, and her uncle is in hot pursuit, ready to enslave Leah to his own greedy desires.

So, what can we see from these selections?  Well, as per usual for me, they trend heavily fantasy and heavily young adult (I like the pacing more than "adult" books) though there are a few that don't fall into those categories.  This has been a great year for YA fantasy in general--there are some really innovative series coming out by some stand-up authors.  Trevor Noah of course is an outlier here, but his book was just too good and heartfelt to be excluded, and The Water Knife is its own brand of scary, well deserving of inclusion.  And while I read a lot of romance this year, Because of Miss Bridgerton was definitely the most fun and charming, and When a Scot Ties the Knot was definitely the most different, making them both worthy of the list.

What were your favorite books that you read this year?

Starflight - Melissa Landers (Starflight #1)

Starflight (Starflight, #1)Starflight has been on my radar for the better part of a year, since I saw it on My Subscription Addiction as a book that came in a subscription box.  (I don't remember which box.)  It's a young adult sci-fi story with a slow-burn romance, which hooked my attention easily because I had recently finished reading the These Broken Stars trilogy, which I enjoyed immensely.

Starflight follows two main characters, Solara and Doran, in their flight across the galaxy.  Solara needs to find someone to hire her as a servant in exchange for paying her passage to the outer rim of the galaxy where there's a job waiting for her as a mechanic.  Doran, the guy who bullied her relentlessly in school, ends up hiring her, though he seems to have done it mostly to torment her even more.  But when he learns that Solara is a convicted felon and tries to toss her off the ship, Solara manages to switch their positions and get them onto another ship, with Doran suffering some memory loss and now in the position of Solara's servant, instead of the other way around.

This memory loss was my one big issue with the book.  It doesn't last long, but for the duration of it Solara gaslights Doran mercilessly, leading him to believe that he's a different person entirely.  Doran's memory comes back in full force and he's furious with her and everything gets resolved, of course, but this was very not cool of Solara to do in the first place.  I can think of a dozen other ways she could have gotten them off that ship and onto the Banshee without gaslighting Doran (even if she did still use the stunner on him) so the fact that she chose this method made me think a lot less of her, which wasn't a great way for the book to get started.

Overall, though, I really liked this book.  The Banshee's crew are fleshed-out and three-dimension with all of them having their own quirks and backgrounds, which serve purposes rather than just being there as props.  And there are sugar gliders!  And of course, not everything is exactly the way it seems to be when Solara and Doran depart the Zenith for the Banshee, and soon they're all renegades running across the galaxy and trying to figure out how they're going to clear their names or escape.  Everything in this book seems to serve a purpose; it's very well-crafted to that end.  And of course the slow-burn romance is wonderful.  And there are sugar gliders!  Well, a sugar glider.

And here's the thing... Yes, I'm going to do it.  I'm going to compare Starflight to Firefly.  Because that's basically what this book is: YA Firefly.  A ship full of misfits of questionable legality travel across the galaxy doing jobs along the way, with two paid passengers who aren't exactly what they seems, etc.  Some scenes draw upon Firefly very heavily; for example, a scene where a medical clinic is raided for supplies.  It goes down differently from the show, but the parallels are there.  And the Daeva seem to be somewhat like not-crazy versions of the Reavers.  And there's definitely a conspiracy going on, too!

This was a great YA sci-fi romance.  I really enjoyed it despite my doubts at the beginning because of Solara's actions--she really does redeem herself throughout the story, as does Doran.  I hope that the other young members of the crew feature as the main characters in the future books, however--I liked Solara and Doran, but at the same time I don't think they would be interesting as main characters for at least another two books.  I think relegating them to the supporting cast and elevating someone else to main is definitely the way to go.

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Sarah's Key - Tatiana De Rosnay

Sarah's KeySarah's Key was a book lent to me by a coworker who thought I would like it.  Well, I'm not sure that I liked it overall--but when we discussed, we liked the same parts of it, and it's those parts that really resonate, so I think that was more the point overall.  The story is in two timelines.  One takes place in France in 1942, when the French police round up thousands of men, women, and children and lock them in the Velodrome d'Hiver before sending them on to camps near Paris, and then on to Auschwitz to be gassed.  The orders for this were issued by the Nazi German occupiers, but the operation itself was entirely carried out by the French.  The main character on this timeline is Sarah (who is referred to, for the longest time, as "the girl," which is annoying, because we know her name is ultimately Sarah, it's right in the title) who is caught in the round-ups with her family.  Before they're dragged from their home, Sarah locks her little brother in a hidden cupboard in an attempt to keep him safe, thinking that she'll be coming back within a few hours.  This goes about as well as you can expect.

The second timeline takes place in 2002.  Julia Jarmond is an American living in Paris, with a French husband, who works for an American magazine aimed at expats in Paris.  She's assigned  a story about the Vel d'Hive round-ups as part of the memorial taking place for the 60th anniversary.  While investigating the story, she finds out that the apartment that her husband's family owns, and which they are currently renovating, belonged to a family caught in the round-up in the 40's.  The husband's family moved into it in a hurry soon after it was vacated.  Julia becomes absolutely obsessed with finding out about the family who lived in the apartment, tracking them down, and letting them know that they haven't been forgotten.

Sarah's part of the story, no matter which timeline it's being told in, is ultimately the more powerful.  I had no idea that the Vel d'Hive round-ups happened.  It seems most people don't.  While I knew that the Vichy government in France was complicit with the Nazis, I was clueless that they had collaborated to such a high degree.  This is the important part of the book.  Knowing that these things happened and not forgetting them, even though many seem eager to do so, or at least to gloss over French participation in these terrible events.  In this respect, I can totally sympathize with Julia's actions, because not forgetting is paramount.

...but at the same time, Julia was an incredibly selfish character, and I didn't much like her.  (I don't actually really care about her pregnancy.  This seems to have been handled relatively well, in my opinion, having her go through her options without being preachy.  She didn't make the decision that best benefited her husband, but that relationship was on the rocks, anyway, so I think it was probably best for everyone involved that it went the way it did.)  She allows her obsession with Sarah to take over her life and proceeds to drop a bomb on someone else regarding it, someone who didn't ask for it, and then she continues to basically cyber-stalk the guy when he asks her to stay away.  And naming the baby Sarah?  I think that's incredibly creepy and very poor taste.  Ultimately, Julia does well to remember, but she goes beyond remembering and into appropriating Sarah's story as her own, which is not appropriate, at all.  And when William expresses a feeling that Julia failed him, she is upset, which struck me as highly hypocritical.  She made it out like she was doing him a favor, but ultimately all of her actions were for her own peace of mind, not for anyone else, and consequently I don't think she really had the right to get to offended when William opened up to her--which was what she wanted all along.

The writing here is a bit lopsided, too.  The chapters in the first half are very short, and alternate between Julia and Sarah, which meant that as soon as I got into one part of the story, I was jerked back out of it in favor of the other part.  I would have liked if the chapters had been just a bit longer to help smooth that jerky feeling.  And the writing itself is a bit uneven; there are some wonderful, evoking images, but there also short, choppy patches, and the two don't always seem to fit together.

Overall, I think Sarah's story was the powerful, important part of the book here, and Julia was a terrible character.  Skimming some other reviews, I don't seem to be alone in these sentiments.  Sarah's narrative chapters vanish halfway through the book, but her story doesn't, which is good because that's the compelling part.  Remembering the history is vital...but Julia went about it in a terrible way, and I absolutely could not like her for it.

3 stars out of 5.

Monday, December 26, 2016

A Shadow Bright and Burning - Jessica Cluess (Kingdom On Fire #1)

A Shadow Bright and Burning (Kingdom on Fire, #1)A Shadow Bright and Burning is a new fantasy offering set in an alternative England in something like the Regency period.  In this England, seven creatures called the Ancients terrorize the country, killing people and turning other into monsters called Familiars who do their bidding.  These monsters were unleashed on the world by a magician and a witch, though only the witch appears to have suffered very much for it--she was burned at the stake and other witches, who are apparently always female, are also forbidden and killed.  Magic in general appears to be forbidden to women now.

The story here follows Henrietta Howel, who has magic.  When she's found out by a sorcerer sent to test the girls at the school Nettie teaches at, he thinks she's the chosen one from some sort of prophecy and whisks her, and her best friend Rook, off to London.  Rook is Unclean, meaning he's been marked by one of the Ancients but not turned into a Familiar.  And London is a mess of ruins surrounding a bubble of warded territory where the sorcerers and wealthy families and nobility live.

While I like some of the things here, there seemed to be a lack of logic in the background here.  Why do the Ancients only care about England, and not the rest of the world?  What makes the English so different from the French, for example?  Why are women only (generally) witches, and not magicians or sorcerers?  Before two characters in this book, the last female sorcerer was apparently four hundred years before the start of the book.  The pacing is strange, as well.  Some things, mundane occurrences like Nettie flirting with Magnus (everyone loves Nettie, of course) are really drawn out and played up, while other things that seem more relevant to the plot, like Nettie receiving her stave, are rushed.  And when Nettie seeks outside magic lessons because she's struggling with her powers, she ends up getting a lesson in something that she has already demonstrated an ability for.

But, of course, there are lots of good things here, too.  The three types of magic have a lot of promise in them.  While there is romance here, there's no insta-love, and while there's the potential for a love triangle it's not the be-all and end-all of Nettie's motivations.  Rook is a particularly interesting character because of how his character, in relation to being Unclean, develops, and I definitely am looking forward to how he develops.  And, finally, there are a lot of intrigues and dark goings-on behind the scenes that come out later and end a touch of dark menace that was otherwise lacking in the book (despite, you know, the giant monsters stalking the land) and was much needed.

There are also some great displays of prejudice in here that I hope can make readers think a bit.  There's not really any racism--I don't think there are any minority characters in this book, though there are two men who, it's hinted, are homosexual--but there is classism and examples of sorcerers lording their superiority over everyone else, as well as "normal" people being biased against the Unclean.  I hope that these social divisions can be played up and then broken down in future books, showing how these prejudices and divisions can be detrimental to society but how working for the betterment of everyone can be beneficial.  (Real world parallels, anyone?)

I think this is a series that has a lot of potential--Nettie herself wasn't an insufferable heroine, which was great, and there are some good concepts here--but I'd like to see some more background built in so that the world makes more sense, and I'd like to see some integration of other parts of the world, too.  I think there is so much untapped potential here, and I hope Cluess determines how to better use it in future books.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Magic Bleeds - Ilona Andrews (Kate Daniels #4)

Magic Bleeds (Kate Daniels, #4)Magic Bleeds is the fourth Kate Daniels book by Ilona Andrews, and it takes place a few months after the third book, Magic Strikes, when Kate is supposed to cook Curran dinner naked because she lost a bet with him in the third book... Oops.  However, dinner doesn't go as planned and the timeline jumps a few weeks to Kate, being mopey but still doing her job as a supposed go-between for the Order and the Guild.  She immediately encounters trouble, of course, but this time it's in the form a guy who's spreading a plague, despite the fact that he's dead and nailed to a telephone pole.  Whaaaaat?

This is another book that had some interesting components, but the plot was a bit all over the place.  The book starts off with the problem of mysterious cloaked figures spreading various plagues across the southern US, and then suddenly changes track and goes off on a mysterious cloaked figure with seven mysterious cloaked figure henchmen, all with different abilities, and none of them actually appears to be geared at spreading plague.  So that's kind of weird.  Again, Andrews tries to tie all the mythology together (this time the "flavor of the book" appears to be Mesopotamian) but I'm not completely convinced.  Both of the plots seemed interesting on their own (I definitely thought there was going to be a Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse vibe going on, but nah) but seemed to fall apart a bit when they got tied together.  The cool part was that we get to meet Kate's (gasp) aunt!  Who we've never heard of until this point!  Okay, that seems like it was a little bit "made up in a hurry" for this but I really liked Erra despite her being, you know...evil.  I actually wish she could have stayed along longer because I loved her so much.  Other things to like are more of Dali (and is there something between Dali and Jim?!?!) and, oh yeah, the whole Kate/Curran thing finally coming to a head.

But there's something weird about the Kate/Curran thing, too, and that's that as soon as they're together, they (for the most part) stop butting heads.  Before, they were at each other's throats every two seconds, and not in a sexy way.  But they have sex and then suddenly they're all goo-goo over each other?  It didn't seem to fit, and you can't convince me that all of their previous head locked moments were due to the now-relieved sexual tension.  I just won't believe it.  I like the part at the end, with Kate at the Keep, but that seemed to work mainly because Curran wasn't really present for it.  While I appreciate there finally being movement on this front, it's also frustrating to see the dynamic of the relationship apparently change drastically just because they got naked together.  Possible?  Yes... Likely?  No.

This was another "fun" book and I did really enjoy it, but I don't think it's quite as strong as its predecessors in the actual story.  However it does make up some of that in the romance department, so I'll give it 3.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Hot Sauce Nation - Denver Nicks

Hot Sauce Nation: America's Burning ObsessionHot Sauce Nation showed up on a Buzzfeed list of gifts for hot sauce lovers.  My stepfather is a hot sauce lover, so I clicked into it, and being a book lover myself, the book jumped out at me.  So I bought it for some light weekend reading.  After slogging through Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, the light non-fiction of Hot Sauce Nation was refreshing, and it was a pretty decent book overall.

In this book, Nicks endeavors to explain how hot sauce became such a national phenomenon.  To this end, I'm not entirely sure he succeeds, but I do believe that he provides a lot of fun information about hot sauce, the people who make it, and the people who love it along the way.  He talks about self-proclaimed "chiliheads," who love all things spicy, and a number of small hot sauce making operations, as well as short looks at two of the larger ones, Huy Fong Foods' sriracha or rooster sauce and the ever-present Tabasco.  He even talks about the Washington, DC region for a good portion of time in two different places.  First, he talks about the fish pepper, a type of chili that was grown in the Chesapeake Bay area and is now on the verge of extinction because people haven't seen a continuing use for it, but which is still grown and used in a sauce by a small operation in Baltimore.  It had me Googling away, looking for where I could find a bottle of this mysterious sauce, but to no avail.  And later in the book he talks about mumbo sauce!  This is a sauce that's very popular in the less-affluent areas of DC, though there appears to be debate of whether it's actually native to the area of not.  It's more of a sweet sauce than a spicy one, which makes its inclusion in this book somewhat puzzling, but still.

Nicks has a way of talking about food and people that is deeply inviting, though his asides and his own narrative format, at times, tend to the "frat boy" end of the spectrum.  He is also easily distracted.  One chapter of the book talks more about an interesting character by the name of Baron Ambrosia than about hot sauce or chilies.  Nicks tries to integrate this by saying how Ambrosia was trying to get a hot sauce certification system up and running, complete with member cards to show that you really, really love spicy food, as hot as it can be, but this never actually got up and running so it's a rather poor sort of inclusion.  He also makes some questionable decisions about places to praise; for example, he lauds the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, NY, the ostensible birthplace of the buffalo wing (like with mumbo sauce, this appears to be up for some debate) but anyone from that region knows that, while the buffalo wing might have originated at the Anchor Bar (maybe), it certainly wasn't perfected there, and going to the Anchor Bar for buffalo wings (or just "wings," as they are known locally) is one of the surest ways to mark yourself as a tourist rather than a serious wing eater.

Still, I think this was a worthy read.  It's short, less than 300 pages and with only about 75% of it being actual book content rather than a bibliography and other end content, but it was enjoyable.  It even inspired me to make my own hot sauce--no recipes are included here, but a bit of searching on the internet ultimately led me to an easily-customized one that is now aging away in my fridge as a homemade Christmas present.  (It has to sit for 2 weeks before use).  If you like spicy foods, even if you're not a self-proclaimed "chilihead" (I am certainly not.) this is a good, light nonfiction book to add to your shelf.

4 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Reading Challenge Updates

Well, guys, that's a wrap!  I've finally finished my 2016 reading challenge.  Here's the final few books that I finished!  I'll also get an "overall" post up on the 31st with some brief thoughts about the total books for the year, and how the challenge went as a whole.

-A National Book Award winner.  For this, I pulled up the list of National Book Award winners and selected The Shipping News.  It's a strange book, with a lot of different elements that I'm not sure always work together, but I really did like the writing style, and I enjoyed reading it overall.

-A book of poetry.  I reread a book for this: I Was the Jukebox by Sandra Beasely.  I am not a poetry person in general but Beasely has this really striking poem that I think is the gem of the entire collection, "A Cast of Thousands," that I loved.  I still enjoyed it a lot rereading that, but on the whole I am reaffirmed in my position that poetry is not for me.

-A book recommended by your local librarian or bookseller.  I hate talking to people and therefore didn't actually ask for a book in this category, but lucky me, I got one anyway!  A local bookstore always puts bookmarks in the books you buy, and for their 40th anniversary this year the bookmarks are printed with book recommendations from some of their sellers past.  From this list, I got Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie.  While I do believe what everyone says about it being an important book, I didn't enjoy reading it.

-A book you should have read in school.  In tenth grade, every English class in my school was supposed to read The Odyssey.  However, my teacher never got around to assigning it to us because she was too busy going gaga over the Hero's Journey in Star Wars and having us make heraldic crests.  (Why?  I don't know.)  So I finally got around to it this year!  It's a classic tale of heroes and gods and monsters, but I'm not sure my translation was the best, and the tale in general is so repetitive.

-A book chosen for you by your spouse, partner, sibling, child, or BFF.  My boyfriend selected The Samurai's Tale for this category for me.  While I didn't find the story itself to be that good (it was highly unrealistic, I had a lot of problems with suspension of disbelief) I can definitely see how it might serve as a "gateway book" to other books about the time period in question, like James Clavell's Asian Saga.

-A book recommended by someone you just met.  I asked the NaNoWriMo Facebook group what they thought I should read this year and got a reply of The Machinery.  It has a good premise and strong world but stars above, it was boring.  Nothing happens in this book.  I do not at all feel compelled to read its sequels.

-A graphic novel.  Though I originally intended to read a Sandman volume, my boyfriend directed me to Bone, Vol 1: Out from Boneville instead.  This was a cute, quick read, and while I don't feel compelled to read further I think this is a series that could have some appeal for a wide age-range because of its mild but amusing content, quirky characters, and light dialogue with a bit of adventure and mystery mixed in.

-A book you previously abandoned.  I finally trudged through Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell for this one.  I'd had the book for years and had never gotten very far in it, but was hoping for a different outcome this time.  Well, I read it, and finished it, but it never really pulled me in.  I've started watching the BBC adaptation on Netflix and am enjoying it much more--I would definitely recommend watching over reading for this one.

Bone, Vol 1: Out From Boneville - Jeff Smith (Bone #1)

Bone, Vol. 1: Out from Boneville (Bone, #1)This was the final book for my 2016 reading challenge!  To fulfill the category of a graphic novel, I was originally planning to read a Sandman volume, but my boyfriend said it wouldn't be worth it if I wasn't going to read the entire series (I wasn't planning on it, graphic novels not being my thing) and directed me to the Bone series instead.  He's the graphic novel expert in our house, so I took his advice.

Out from Boneville is the first installment in a series about some creatures called Bone.  Fone Bone, the main character, is fleeing Boneville with his cousins Smiley Bone and Phoney Bone--the latter of whom is the crook who got them run out of town.  They're lost, wandering in the desert, when they find a strange piece of a map, and then are promptly separated by a swarm of locusts.  Eventually the three, through different routes, end up in a valley where they're stuck for the winter.  Fone Bone is being followed around by a red dragon who's keeping an eye out for him, defending him against rat-creatures who are looking for Phoney Bone and aren't opposed to eating anyone who gets in the way.  And he's helped throughout the winter by the animals that live in the valley, and is eventually connected with the human girl Thorn.

This is a charming story--the dragon is awesome--with a lot of comedic elements.  One rat-monster refuses to start a fire to cook Fone Bone because another rat-monster called it fat.  Fone Bone questions a bug's threats against him until the bug's giant older brother shows up.  And then of course there's Fone Bone's silly crush on Thorn.  The art is detailed without being overly complex; you don't need to spend a lot of time examining each page or panel to see what you need to see.  And the story is one that can apply to a lot of different age groups; this is just as appropriate for middle-grade readers as it is for adults looking for something light.  I don't feel any great need to continue this series--that's something that is missing here, a sense of urgency--but I also don't feel like I wasted my time on it.  Overall it was a good quick read to round out my final challenge category.

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Mom & Me & Mom - Maya Angelou

Mom & Me & MomMom & Me & Mom was Emma Watson's November/December pick for her feminist book club, so I picked it up to read over Thanksgiving Break.  It is, to my understanding, the seventh autobiographical work written by Angelou, and it focuses on her relationship with her mother and (to a lesser extent) her grandmother, and how these relationships allowed her to grow into an empowered woman despite rocky spots along the way.

I think this book both showed how women can be supportive of each other, and also served as a terrible example for feminism.  (Which is, let's remember, about equality, not superiority.)

Over the course of the book, Angelou works on showing how her mother, who sent her away to be raised by her grandmother from ages three to thirteen.  While Angelou had a very strong relationship with her grandmother, she obviously didn't have one with her mother when she returned to her as a teenager.  She was so distanced from her that she wanted to call her "Lady" instead of "Mother."  But over the years, Angelou shows how her mother was there for her during tough situations, and eventually came to be the person that she called upon whenever she needed support.  Of course, the relationship wasn't entirely flowers and sunshine; there were fights, rocky periods, stony silences, and even an incident where Vivian hit Maya so hard that it messed Maya's face up--so bad that her brother wanted them to leave.  There are also some questionable parenting techniques, like letting her leave school to be a streetcar conductor.  Angelou tries to tie lessons to these, but I think some of the lessons are rather undermined by the context that they're in.  For example, there's a line about how "A woman needs to support herself before she asks anyone else to support her," but this message is embedded in an episode in which Vivian almost shoots a guy because he cheated on her.  Now, if the gender roles were flipped here, would this seem like an empowered individual...or someone who's being abusive towards their significant other?  This seems to be the case throughout much of the book.  Vivian's "empowerment" often comes as the cost of others, and not in an "equality" sense.

I also wasn't exactly a fan of the writing here.  It seems very short and jerky, taking much of the emotion out of the story, and jumps from topic to topic without transitions; this combined with a progressively more non-linear format often made the narrative hard to follow as a whole.  Maya Angelous is so lauded by so many that I really expected more here, but from some other reviews I've seen, it seems like maybe her earlier works flowed a bit better than this one.

Overall, I didn't like this book or the message that it put forth.  Yes, it was nice to see a pair of women who helped and supported each other, rather than tearing each other down, which women are prone to doing...but then again, this is the way a mother/daughter relationship is supposed to work.  And that support often came, at least on Vivian's end, by tearing down other people and toting around a gun in case anyone pissed her off.  That's not feminism; that's not being a strong woman.  That is perpetuating abusive relationships in which the abuse is perpetrated by the woman, and presenting them as being beneficial to women.  It's not okay for men to be abusive (and there are some terrible portrayals of abuse by men here, of physical and emotional varieties) and it's not okay for women, either.  Trying to gloss over that is not okay, and I'm very disappointed that's what I found in this book.

1.5 stars out of 5.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Machinery - Gerrard Cowan (The Machinery #1)

The MachineryThe Machinery was recommended to me by a random person in the unofficial National Novel Writing Month Facebook group to fulfill my reading challenge category of "A book recommended by someone you've just met."  I put it off and put it off because there were just more intriguing things on my list, and honestly I'm glad I did because if I hadn't read it with a looming end-of-year deadline, I don't think I would have finished it.

The main draw of this book is the world.  The story takes place on one continent of the world (though it's made apparent the world is larger than that, and there has been some contact beyond this continent) where the government is chosen by something called the Machinery, which was created by a man known as the Operator.  The Strategist is the head of the government and he's supported by a number of Tacticians.  There are a group of people called Watchers who can see into your soul using their masks, also created by the Operator.  And then there is a string of suspicious deaths, starting with the current Strategist and expanding to involve some of the Tacticians, in the year in which the Machinery was prophesied to break down and not select a new beneficial government, but rather someone who will bring ruin.  And then there's Katrina Praprissi, the last of a once-powerful family, who watched her brother be stolen away by the Operator ten years ago and has spent the time since becoming a Watcher.

This is all a very interesting setup, but here's the thing... Nothing actually happens in this book.  A few people are discovered dead.  The people wait for new ones to be selected by the Machinery.  There is a lot of going to and from different places and describing different buildings and how impressive it is that they exist.  That's it.  Even the most promising bits, typically involving Katrina and, later, one of the Tacticians, tended to drag a bit, and then peter out into nothing at the very end.  But the end wasn't enough to redeem the sheer dullness of the rest of the book here.  Honestly, a lot of this could have just been cut and the end brought up further, giving room for things to actually happen.  But as it stands, I was pretty much bored out of my mind while reading this, and as I mentioned above, I think I would have abandoned it if I hadn't been on a deadline for my reading challenge.  There's really not that much else to say about it.

2 stars out of 5, for a promising world but a story that failed to live up to its full potential.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Odyssey - Homer

The OdysseyThe Odyssey was my pick for the category "A book you should have read in school but didn't" for my 2016 reading challenge.  Now, strictly speaking, I was never assigned The Odyssey to read.  But every other English class in the 10th grade was.  My teacher was just too busy having raptures about the hero's journey in Star Wars and having us make heraldic crests to actually assign it.  (The only two books we actually read in this class were A Tale of Two Cities and Julius Caesar.)  So, I thought this was a good chance to get around to it.

The Odyssey is the second part of Homer's epics surrounding the Trojan War.  While the first book, The Iliad, covers the war itself up until the Greeks hatch their plan to build the Trojan horse, The Odyssey is about the homeward journey of one of the Greek heroes, Odysseus, and the perils that befall him.  From having his men ensnared by the Lotus-Eaters to having some fall pray to a multi-headed beast while attempting to dodge a whirlpool, bot being kept for years by the witch Circe and the nymph Calypso, it takes Odysseus twenty years to get home from Troy--and all the while his wife is being wooed by other suitors, and his son seems helpless to drive them off.  Telemachus is actually the character we encounter before Odysseus, but he's pretty useless overall.

My translation was the Samuel Butler one, and it did have a few eye-raising moments in it that I'm pretty sure aren't in the original Greek.  It started when the ocean was described as "blue"--this is a word that didn't really exist in ancient Greece, which is why the sea is always being described as "gray" and "wine-dark."  But it really hit me when he described Odysseus' raft as being tossed around like a "shuttlecock," which I'm 100% positive was not a thing in ancient Greece.  So, this translation, while I think it conveyed the story well enough, I wouldn't say it's likely to be 100% loyal to the original.  It's also been converted into a prose format rather than remaining in that of an epic poem.  This doesn't bother me because the rhyme scheme and rhythm of the original are disrupted through translation anyway and I prefer reading prose, but some people might take that into consideration.  (It does seem that Barnes & Noble has switched to a different translation since the book that I read was published, so that's also to be taken into consideration.)

As for the story, while it's a solid tale of gods and monsters and heroes, there were a few things that rubbed me the wrong way.  It was very repetitive; people seem to go from place to place, and in every new place they're asked what they've been up to, and they have to relate all the things they did at the last one.  Also, it must have been terribly convenient for the Greeks to believe in gods that had tendencies to take the forms of people who actually existed--if anyone ever accused you of doing something wrong, you could say, "Oh no, that wasn't me, it must have been a god who looked like me!"  Telemachus and Penelope are just "blah" as characters--though I liked how Penelope had schemed to keep from marrying any of the men continually harassing her, I don't have much to say for her doing not much else but crying for the past twenty years.  It's also a story with a very violent ending, but I expected that.  The only thing that surprised me was how little of the story actually had to do with Odysseus' trials on the way home--from the way people talked about this boo, I'd thought that would be all of the story, when in fact more of it actually has to do with Telemachus going from place to place and Odysseus making up stories so that people won't recognize him and scheming on how to get rid of the suitors in the most violent way possible.  And ow my gosh, if I have to read about "The daughter of morning, rose-fingered Dawn," one more time I might just scream.

Overall, this is something that's worthy of reading, but I think a different translation might be a bit better.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Alpha & Omega and Cry Wolf - Patricia Briggs (Alpha & Omega #0.5 and #1)

Cry Wolf (Alpha & Omega, #1)I'm combining two reviews here, because I think it's really necessary.  Continuing on my quest for a good paranormal romance novel, I found Cry Wolf on several lists, though usually several slots below Brigg's other series start-off, Moon Called.  CW takes place in the same world and on the same timelines as MC.  But when I started reading it, I immediately realized that I was missing something.  Which doesn't seem right, does it, given that CW is the first book in its series?  Well...not really.  See, there's a novella that comes before, and it's integral to understanding what the heck is up with this book.  Because if you just start in on reading MC, then you're suddenly dropped in the middle of something that's going on.  I was very disoriented, and I can't imagine anyone else wouldn't be.  I really disagree with this approach, and feel like the novella, Alpha & Omega, should have somehow been integrated into the body of the book.  Because while the book itself is easy to find, it's much less easy to find random novellas that float about, and it means that a lot of readers probably go into this unprepared.

Reading A&O and CW as one work instead of as separate ones, I liked this a good deal more than I liked MC, which I'd read the previous day.  There's more of a romance line here, which is important to the main character, Anna's, development.  See, Anna was part of the Chicago pack that was causing problems in MC, having been a werewolf for three years after she was turned against her will.  She was the lowest member of the pack, being repeatedly abused and raped on the orders of the pack's leaders.  When Charles, the son of the lead of all werewolves in North America, shows up to deal with the pack, he quickly finds himself paired up with Anna, and immediately decides she's his mate.  Anna isn't entirely opposed to that, for a variety of reasons, but she keeps her walls up and is slow to let them down even after she decides that being Charles' mate is what she wants.

The romance takes up part of A&O and about the first half of CW.  As CW gets started, Anna and Charles are headed back to Montana, where Anna hopes to start a new life but finds herself on uncertain ground with the Marrok's pack despite her special status as an Omega.  But her stay there doesn't last long because she and Charles quickly find themselves dispatched to take care of a rogue werewolf who's been killing people in the nearby mountains.  The trip works to help Anna gain a better sense of understanding, both of who and what she is and where she stands, with Charles and with others, and start to repair some of the damage that was done by the Chicago pack.  But still... Her "moving on" seems to happen remarkably quickly.  While I enjoyed the progress and the pacing, I still found myself being very skeptical that Anna would so quickly find herself being comfortable in her new situation when she was repeatedly raped and abused in her previous pack.

Still, Charles was an excellent hero, and the supporting characters here were excellent.  Wallace was cool, Asil was awesome, and while Briggs continued to have a thing about bitchy women, she at least integrated one other good female, Sage, who I would love to have seen more of.  The plot here was also much stronger, consistent, and less twisted in on itself than that of MC, which I appreciated.  But the romance was one of the compelling parts of this story, and it's neatly wrapped up by the end of the book, so while I liked these characters I don't feel super compelled to read the future ones.  Still, I think this was a big step up from MC and it deserves a better rating as a consequence.

4 stars out of 5.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Bride - Julie Garwood (Lairds' Fiancees #1)

The Bride (Lairds' FiancĂ©es, #1)Julie Garwood's The Bride was our book pick for Dcember in the Unapologetic Romance Readers group on Facebook.  It is evidently a classic in its subgenre, which is that of Scottish historical romances.  The most famous of this subgenre is, of course, Outlander, but that takes place in a very different period than this, which is set in the 1100s rather than the 1700s.  The story follows Jamie, a young Englishwoman who's been raised by her stepfamily (who treat her as a maid/girl of all work, though I wouldn't say that this is a Cinderella story because they're not mean to her and Jamie doesn't mind but rather views it as her duty, which is weird but okay) who ends up married to Alec, a Scottish lord (laird, ugh, I hate that word, so many cheesy fake Scottish accents ringing in my head) by order of King Henry after her stepfather doesn't pay his taxes.

There isn't a heck of a lot of story here, and this wasn't a book I particularly enjoyed.  There's a weak murder sub-sub-plot (yes, two subs, it's not even prominent enough for one) in which we learn very early that Alec's first wife was killed, and the killer has it out for Jamie, too...but not a lot actually happens with this.  Most of the time is spent with Alec and Jamie bantering back and forth.  While Jamie isn't a weak-spined woman, she can be incredibly clueless at times, and both her and Alec's ways of talking (constantly calling each other "wife" and "husband," and Alec once calls her "baby," which is just so creepy) grated on my nerves.  They also fell into the trope of "we instantly fell in love but yet we hate each other" which is one that I don't think actually works well anywhere.  Having a character come around to care for someone they once despised is one thing, but having them do it while they're already in love with the person is just a strange dynamic that doesn't make any sense, and I don't think it works.

I also had a real problem with Alec in this book.  For much of the story, he is outright mean to Jamie, and deliberately so.  I get it, he's supposed to be an alpha male character, but there's a difference between that and being mean.  I think Garwood lost of track of what is teasing and what's being outright cruel to another person's feelings here, and that really bothered me.  And yes, it's the medieval period--but it's also fiction, and romantic fiction at that, and a guy who deliberately disregards his wife's feelings is not romantic at all.

I do have to give Garwood kudos on one thing here: despite the book taking place in Scotland, she avoids the horror that is a phonetically-written Scottish accent.  Those are pure agony to read and one of the reasons I tend to avoid this subgenre like the plague.  But Garwood uses a few choice words to illustrate her point, as well noting when conversations take place in Gaelic (which Jamie [who is of course good at everything including riding her horse bareback, while standing up, and archery] understands, even though she is English) in order to distinguish them without resulting to a muddle of letters that's difficult to read.

Overall, I found this a rather simplistic story that didn't have anything to really grip me.  I'm not entirely sure why it's apparently such a foundation for the genre, but it was okay, I guess.

2 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Samurai's Tale - Erik Christian Haugaard

The Samurai's TaleFor my 2016 reading challenge, there was a category of "A book chosen for you by your spouse, partner, sibling, child, or BFF."  This was the book my boyfriend chose for me to read. He really enjoyed it when he was younger, evidently, and it was a nice short title to help fill out the list, so it worked out pretty well for the category.

The story revolves around Taro, a boy born as nobility in the Warring States period but reduced to the status of a servant when the rest of his family is killed.  But Taro still dreams of being a samurai and gladly accepts his new "captor" as a sort of father figure and works his way up the ladder to gain warrior status, which is actually really weird in retrospect.  There is no revenge factor here, and one would think that there would be.  The early chapters are very episodic and focus on specific events that influence Taro as he grows up; later the chapters gain a more continuous flow and cover the story of Taro's role in an ongoing conflict.

Taro is, of course, good at everything he does and all good and wise people like him.  Only evil people are his enemies.  He is also made out to be morally superior to everyone around him.  While most samurai cut off the heads of their defeated enemies for proof and glory, Taro views the practice as despicable and would never dream of such a thing.  Now, I'm not saying we should encourage teenage boys (who are clearly the audience for this; it was also obviously written in the period before YA became a thing, and so it includes a weird mix of middle-grade and more adult content, but is missing the tropes of modern YA) to chop of people's heads, but this characterization doesn't really fit Taro's time or place, or the position to which he aspired.

Overall, this wasn't really a great book for me.  While I liked some of the episodes, I felt like the whole thing felt kind of off in regards to authenticity of characters and setting.  However, I can definitely see how this acted as a "gateway" book for my boyfriend, who has gone on to have a voracious appetite for James Clavell's Asian Saga books.  It has a flavor to it that I can see being appealing, though the writing itself wasn't my cup of tea.  It has the feel of a written oral history rather than a story written for a novel form with the simple language, limited language, etc. and those have never been my favorite.

2 stars out of 5.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Moon Called - Patricia Briggs (Mercy Thompson #1)

Moon Called (Mercy Thompson, #1)On my search for a good paranormal romance, Patricia Brigg's Moon Called showed up at the top of many lists.  So, of course, I got it from the library.  Well, Mercy is an interesting character (who does not dress anything like the woman on the front on the book, btw, being more sensible than that) whom every male she encounters wants to have sex with, and yet this still avoids being a paranormal romance.  Presumably this is at the top of so many lists because it sets up for romance later in the series, but I still feel terribly misled by those list-creators.

Putting that aside, let me talk about the book itself.  Mercy Thompson lives in Washington state where she owns an auto shop and tries to avoid too being found out as a skinwalker.  In Mercy's world, "lesser" fae have been forced into the public eye by their leaders/overlords the Gray Lords, but other supernaturals such as vampires, werewolves, and Mercy herself have managed to remain out of sight and out of mind--at least for now.  But when a young werewolf shows up at Mercy's shop looking for a job, it sets off a chain of events that might hint at the end of this secrecy, or something even more sinister.

Mercy has an interesting past.  Despite being a skinwalker, she was raised by werewolves, and not just any werewolves but the pack of the leader of all the werewolves in North America.  She left them when she was a teenager and hasn't been back since, but that's another area she gets pulled back to when the leader of the local pack, who is also Mercy's neighbor, is almost killed and his daughter kidnapped.  So Mercy heads to Montana, and then back to Washington in the company of not only Alpha Adam, but her old flame and the son of the werewolf leader, Samuel.  Both of whom, of course, want to get in her pants.  Sigh.

I liked Mercy and I liked Samuel and Adam, despite their constant posturing over her attentions (which she doesn't really deign to give).  I found the lack of other compelling female characters strange; all of the females in the pack she grew up with hate her because apparently she can have children and they can't, which is female bitchiness at its best.  Jesse, Adam's daughter, is great but gets very little page time being as she's, you know, kidnapped for most of the book.  And while I liked the beginning of the plot, by the end I found it had wrapped itself up into a convoluted mess.  "Convoluted" is actually a word Briggs herself uses to describe the plot in another book, which is maybe an indication that it should have been set out a little differently.  Everyone seems to flip-flop on what's happening so many times that even when they laid it out in the end, I wasn't entirely convinced as to what was actually going on.  And ultimately, I don't think this book was memorable.  It's kind of another generic paranormal mystery and didn't really leave me dying to know what comes next for Mercy or her harem of would-be-lovers.

3 stars out of 5, and I don't think I'll be picking up the next one any time soon.  This just isn't what I'm looking for in a paranormal series. 

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell - Susanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellJonathan Strange & Mr. Norell is a book that I've had for probably a decade.  I'd started it before but didn't manage to get very far in, which made it a good candidate for a reading challenge category revolving around a book that I'd previously started but hadn't finished.  It's a long book, at almost 800 pages, but I decided to give it a go again.

The plot revolves around the two titular characters, who claim to be the only two magicians in England.  Strange is Norrell's pupil, but the two have very different views on magic.  Norrell wants to stay away from faeries and faerie magic, claiming that it has no place in a modern England--despite the fact that he used faerie magic to bring a young woman back from the dead, though no one knows that's how he did it.  Strange, on the other hand, wants to embrace faeries, faerie magic, and Jonathan Uskglass, the Raven King, who supposedly once ruled over both part of Faerie and northern England.  After Strange goes to Spain to aid in the fight against Napoleon, their differences begin to become even more pronounced and the two split, leading into a "rival magicians" story, until they must ultimately overcome their differences to deal with the consequences of Norrell's early magic, which have reverberated further than anyone would have thought.

Here's the thing about this book.  It.  Is.  Slooooow.  So, so, incredibly slow.  It gets off to a slow start, and the pace never really quickens.  It continues at a sedate rate for the entirety of the narrative.  This is much due to the style of writing.  It comes across as very proper and English and suitable to the time period in which the book takes place, but it greatly detracts from actual engagement with the story, instead keeping the reader at a distance.  Another problem I found is that, despite it being a story about magicians, very few acts of magic are actually depicted on the page.  The characters talk about them being performed, but most often we don't actually see them.  This starts to change later in the book, a bit, once Strange becomes more of a central character, but by that point I think it's past the point of no return on the "boring" scale.  Because that's what this ultimately is: boring.

It's sad, because there is such promise here with the plot.  Ultimately, it's a very good plot.  I think if a few hundred pages (yes, a few hundred) had been trimmed out of here, the writing could have been greatly streamlined, made more engaging, and the premise and setting used to their full advantage to make this an excellent read.  There's enough mystery floating around in the background to make many of the things discussed, particularly the Raven King, intriguing, and the supporting characters ultimately become very entwined in the plot as well, though they didn't seem to be on that path at the beginning.  As it is, though, this is not something I could see myself slogging through again.  It just takes too much effort for too little payoff.

This book was turned into a TV series (of one season) by BBC, and is available on Netflix in the US currently.  I've started watching it, and at halfway through the first episode we're already making much better progress than we were in the book.  I think this is one that, ultimately, will do far better on the screen than the page.

I'm going to give it 3 stars out of 5, but it's honestly more for the potential of the story, and how it came together in the end, than for overall enjoyment.

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Good Girls Revolt - Lynn Povich

The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the WorkplaceOne of the newest Amazon series is Good Girls Revolt.  I started watching it recently, and immediately began to wonder what was the story behind it.  So I Googled, and it turned out that it was based off this book: The Good Girls Revolt by Lynn Povich, which is about the women who worked at Newsweek in 1970 suing the magazine for discrimination based on their sex.  Though women worked at Newsweek, they were confined to low-paying and low-prestige roles, such as delivering mail, clipping articles from other publications, and checking facts in stories that (male) writers produced.  Unfortunately, this wasn't as riveting a story as I'd thought.

The thing is, the lawsuit wasn't really a lawsuit.  I mean, yes, a lawsuit was filed, several times, but the women kept dropping the suit and turning to arbitration with the management instead.  There isn't really anything interesting here, other than that it happened.  It's mostly just a bunch of negotiations, most of which didn't have any results and few of which had long-term results; in fact, the book starts off with a prologue featuring a few women who found themselves still facing discrimination in the 2000s!  Knowing that going into the story, it was a rather discouraging tale from the beginning.

There were two things I found interesting about this.  First, the exact form that it takes.  Lynn Povich was one of the women who worked at Newsweek and was part of the suit, and was actually the only female writer on the staff of the New York bureau when the conflict started.  Because of her personal involvement and her journalistic background, the book is half memoir, and half traditionally researched book.  While she relates her own experiences and memories of the events, she also makes sure to include plenty of quotes from interviews with the other parties involved, including the women, the management, and the lawyers.  The inclusion of all of these different perspectives helps to give a really cohesive feel to the book, even though it's quite short.  For example, she makes sure to include the women for whom the suit didn't work out, either because they ended up being punished for their daring, or because they didn't actually want to advance, and were happy in their pre-suit positions, but felt like they were being forced to advance so as not let down their fellow women.  The second part was that the first lawyer who took on the case was Eleanor Holmes Norton, who currently serves as the District of Columbia's representative to Congress!  (With limited powers because screw all of us in DC, right?  But still, pretty cool.)

The book finishes up with a rather cheesy "Where Are They Now" epilogue, which feels like it came off an entertainment news broadcast.  It definitely suited the 1970s Newsweek that Povich portrayed in her book.  Honestly, her portrayal of the magazine's atmosphere was probably the most vivid part of the book.  The descriptions of how people there interacted, how they behaved while waiting for the stories to come in--playing baseball in the hallways and having rampant affairs in the infirmary, for example--definitely gave a sense of time and place to the events in the book.  It's hard to imagine such an atmosphere anywhere and anywhen except at Newsweek in the 70s.  (In fact, a few people said that it wasn't like that, even at other magazines.)  But the story itself isn't interesting, even though the prologue hints that it's a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court and essentially changed the workplace forever.  In fact, it wasn't like that at all, and I was left rather disappointed in the end.

Basically, if you're hoping for the drama of the Good Girls Revolt on Amazon, stick with the show.  The book is interesting if you're into feminist negotiations, but even for someone who's interested in law, it was rather a let down overall.

2.5 stars out of 5.