Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt

The GoldfinchThe Goldfinch was listed as one of the most-abandoned books by Amazon, based on reader tracking data acquired from Kindle software.  This is probably for a few reasons.  First, it's quite long for a fiction title, at nearly 800 pages.  Second, despite a promising beginning, it doesn't move particularly fast.  Things are building up in the background the entire time, but nothing is really happening in the foreground, which probably frustrates a lot of readers more familiar with fast-moving titles like the works of Dan Brown.  You really have to care about the characters in order for this book to pull you on, and not all readers are deeply character-connected.  And with a book this thick, with not that much blatant action occurring...well, it's an easy one to put down, meaning to continue on, and then just kind of forget about.  But not me.  No, this was one of Amazon's most abandoned books, which some might see as a deterrent, but which I (and probably a good number of other people) saw as a challenge.

Here's the basic premise.  Theodore Becker got suspended from school for getting caught with the wrong crowd.  The day he and his mother are supposed to meet with his principal, they head out early, get caught in the rain, and seek shelter in one of New York City's many art museums.  Theo's mother wants to see the titular Goldfinch painting currently on display.  When she pops off to buy an art book as a gift for a coworker, Theo lingers behind trying to get up the nerve to chat with a girl he's noticed--and the world dissolves into chaos as the museum is bombed, the target of a terrorist attack.  When Theo comes to, he's one of only two living people that he can find in the museum--the others having been evacuated due to a concern about another bomb--and the other man, the cute girl's uncle, is on his way out.  Concussed, disoriented, and otherwise mentally and physically unstable due to his recent trauma, Theo finds himself accepting the man's signet ring, with instructions on where to take it--and also accepting the man's orders to take the Goldfinch painting out of the museum.  And so Theo ends up a functional orphan--his father not being in the picture--and an accidental-on-purpose art thief, all in one day.

The story follows Theo from place to place as he struggles with the aftermath of the explosion and its impact on his life, all the while toting (and worrying about) the painting, which he realized (once he wasn't so concussed) he definitely should not have, but isn't sure how to take back without getting in massive amounts of trouble for taking it in the first place.  From the home of an old friend to a subdivision in the desert skirting Las Vegas and then back to New York, Theo's life seems to be continually built up, only to crumble around him once again.  Alcohol and drugs gain a prominent position in his psyche, as does a generalized anxiety order associated with his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  A cast of colorful characters supports him, from Boris the Russian/Ukranian (it's a bit fuzzy where he's actually from, as he's moved around quite a bit; he definitely lied in Ukraine for a good chunk of time, but I can't remember if it's where he was actually from originally) to Theo's wayward father (who does turn up again) to Hobie, the owner of an antiques shop in New York and a master of restoring old pieces of furniture, and also Pippa, the girl Theo saw at the museum who becomes a recurring and obsessive part of his life.

At points, this was a hard book to read.  Theo's substance abuse and his recurring, crushing depression can be hard to watch and difficult to deal with, especially his thoughts on the fate of everyone--which basically amount to death and decay.  At some points, he has life so good, having pulled himself up and really made something of himself, and to watch him crumble back into drugs is just awful to see.  Some of the people around him genuinely love and support him, even if they don't know what's really going on, like Hobie and Popper, Theo's kidnapped dog, and others love him but don't really seem to care what's actually best for him...though Theo debates about what's best for people in the "follow your heart" regard at the end of the book.  But the writing is beautiful, particularly the sections that take place in the stark, desert development where Theo lives with his dad and his dad's girlfriend for a bit.  Tartt can evoke some wonderful imagery, and keeping this cast of characters so real an poignant over almost 800 pages with only occasional bursts of action to propel things is really masterful work.  I can see why this won a prize.

My only real complaint about this book is the ending.  It just seemed too neat for me.  Theo was in about a dozen things over his head by the end of the book, and yet everything just seemed to get tied up and swept away, with few to no lasting consequences.  He seems on the way to getting everything he ever wanted, which appeared to me to be unlikely at best.  I think I would have actually liked to see a more bittersweet ending on this one, because it would have come across as more realistic than what actually happened.  Still, a beautiful book overall, and I encourage anyone who starts it to stick with it, if you have the time.

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

My American Duchess - Eloisa James

25817386The romance binge-read continues!  (I'm reading other things, I swear.  I'm working through The Goldfinch at a pretty good clip and have a few other things on my radar, too, but sometimes a girl just needs a historical romance to get her through the day.)  My American Duchess is Eloisa James' newest book, and I actually forgot it was coming out until  Goodreads emailed me about it, so of course I rushed out, purchased it, and read it in one sitting.  (All right, two sittings.  There was a break for some Jimmy John's in the middle.)  The plot follows Merry, an American heiress who has gone to London to find a husband after pretty much ruining her reputation in Boston by jilting not one, but two fiances.  The book begins with her accepting the proposal of Fiance #3, Cedric Allardyce, the younger brother of the Duke of Trent.  Shortly after, she runs into the Duke himself out on the romantically-dark balcony, and the two are instantly attracted to each other, though they don't know that they're engaged to be relatives soon.  Cue mayhem.

This book is a great example of James' wit and charm and her ability to tell a story that, while not exactly ground-breaking (few historical romances are, and when you've written as many as James has, I think you tend to re-tread the ground a bit) is still deliciously good.  Merry and Trent have excellent chemistry, of course, and while Trent isn't exactly a stand-out from James' other heroes (who all tend to blur together, after a point...) the story involves not just two people falling in love, but two people building a relationship after they are married.  This is actually fairly unusual for historical romance books, which tend to end with or shortly after the marriage or proposal.  Merry and Trent, however, go from attracted friends who happen to be married to a genuine couple, and that's an interesting relationship to see grow.

And then there is, of course, the pineapple incident, which was great on its own.  Watching Merry fumble her way through British society was great.  She has enough grace and charm to do it, but not enough knowledge, grace, and charm to do it without a few snafus, like eating someone's prized, rented pineapple.  These serve a triple purpose: humor, letting Merry stand up for herself against the people who will one day be her peers and make sure she doesn't get trampled, and letting Trent swoop in to rescue her/bolster her, at the same time.  Having "damsel in distress" moments without making the damsel into a total milquetoast is one of my absolute favorite tropes, and I think James does it well.  And Merry has a bulldog!  Well, a bulldog mix.  But since I have a bulldog, that gave her an extra point in my book automatically.  And yes, Merry, his skin really is supposed to be that loose.  I mean, come on, how can you not love a face like this?

Overall, another delightful historical romance from James' pen.  I can't wait to see what's next!

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, January 25, 2016

One Week Girlfriend - Monica Murphy (One Week Girlfriend #1)

One Week Girlfriend (One Week Girlfriend, #1)So, for those of you who don't follow weather news, Winter Storm Jonas has been wreaking havoc on parts of the east coast of the US--namely, the parts of the east coast that aren't used to having winter havoc wreaked on them and therefore are completely unequipped to deal with such winter havoc.  One of those areas is the Washington, DC metro--which happens to be my place of residence.  Work ended at noon on Friday and was cancelled for today (Monday) and it's debatable whether or not we'll be in tomorrow.  And with the amount of snow we got--two to three feet, which is a ton for this area and is higher than my dog is tall, but she loved it anyway--it's basically impossible to go anywhere.  Many streets haven't even been touched by plows yet.  You can't order takeout.  The drugstores are devoid of snacks.  Cabin fever is setting in for many and for me, that means I want to read an endless stream of trashy romances, so I went combing through the pages of my Kindle for something suitable.  And based on the cover...this seemed to fit.  Away I went.

One Week Girlfriend wasn't actually as trashy as I thought it would be, but it was a quick read and I enjoyed it quite a bit.  So, the story follows Fable and Drew.  Fable is known as the campus slut in a college town, even though she doesn't actually go to college; Drew is the football star.  He has to go home for Thanksgiving, something he's dreading because is family is very, very screwed up.  In order to keep his father and, more importantly, his stepmother off his back, he hires Fable to pretend to be his girlfriend for the week.  Fable is in desperate need of money because she pretty much single-handedly supports her thirteen-year-old brother.  Her mother is in the picture but is a deadbeat and spends most of her time with her alcoholic boyfriends, so Fable manages on her own.  For three thousand dollars, she agrees to go with Drew, on the condition that he doesn't expect a real relationship out of the deal.  You can pretty much guess how that goes.

The interesting part of this book wasn't actually the relationship, though Fable and Drew definitely had chemistry.  No, the interesting part was Drew's past and family dynamic.  It's super, super messed up, but I think Murphy did a good job of handling it.  She doesn't glorify Drew's abuse--not really a spoiler, it's really obvious what's going on here from the beginning--and doesn't try to downplay it.  She does make it out like Fable can "fix" him, which is a bit unsettling.  Love, sex, whatever, can't fix abuse victims, who indeed don't need to be fixed because they're not broken, but beyond that I think she did a good job.  The abuse is made out to be just as disturbing as it actually is, and its impact on Drew's life isn't downplayed at all; it haunts everything he does because the consequences of it really are that bad.  As for what comes out later... Was it necessary?  I don't know.  It was certainly an added shock factor (kind of; again, it was sort of predictable, but it was definitely a shock to the characters if not to the reader) but I don't know, it might have been going just a tiny bit too far... Hm.  I don't know about that one.

This is only the first half of Fable and Drew's story; the second half is another book titled Second Chance Boyfriend.  I haven't read the second one yet, but I think I will--though I don't think they needed to be separate books.  They're quite short, with this volume clocking in at 155 pages, and while the place to break it made sense I think it could just as easily have been a "Part 1" and "Part 2" of a single volume.

Overall, an interesting new adult dynamic.  It's very unusual to see the male character with the more substantial problems in a book like this, and I liked the change.  Male abuse is very underrepresented in fiction, and seeing a book that handled it mostly well was very refreshing.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Once Upon a Marquess - Courtney Milan (Worth Saga #1)

Once Upon a Marquess (The Worth Saga #1)Judith Worth once thought she would have a fairytale romance with Christian, the Marquess of Ashford.  They were young, in love...what could go wrong?  Well, what went wrong was that Judith's father and brother were accused of treason, and Christian helped to prove them guilty.  In the following scandal, Judith's father hung himself in prison, her brother disappeared in a storm while being transported to Australia, the family lost its fortune, Judith's younger sister Camilla got separate from the rest of the family, and Judith ended up with her little sister Theresa and her little brother Benedict in much-reduced circumstances.  Now, eight years later, something is awry with her accounts and her guardianship of her siblings, and she--unfortunately--needs someone with a little more influence to help her straighten things out.  Someone like...the Marquess of Ashford, of course.

This was a cute historical romance, but I don't think it matched up with the plot of some of the other Courtney Milan books I've read.  Judith is definitely a strong character, who has cared for her family for eight years despite having to scrimp and save and learn skills that would be considered unbecoming of a lady.  She's managed to send her brother to Eton and to provide dowries for both her sisters.  She only turns to Christian for help because someone people, as is fitting to the time period, don't respect her, and because she doesn't have the same level of authority as someone holding a title and whose family reputation hasn't been tarnished by two traitors.  Christian had some great dynamics, too--the color blindness was an interesting character trait, though not one necessary to the story, but his addiction to laudanum/opium is the real interesting one.  I think Milan used it well, without using it to pander.  Christian's real battle with the drug is in the past, but it's made abundantly clear that he's just one taste away from sliding back into addiction, and that he'll never really stop being an addict, even if he never touches it again, which is very true of many addictions.  Theresa was absolutely insufferable.  Benedict was better but was too young to be a really compelling character yet.  Overall, though, the cast of this was pretty solid.

That said, I didn't find Christian and Judith's romance particularly romantic in comparison to Milan's other works.  It's a fine line between having a steamy romance and having a book where the guy is just trampling all over the heroine, and I think that Milan held off on the romance in order to make sure that Judith's strength didn't get lost or discarded in the process.  A lot of this lack of romance is also because, well...Judith and Christian don't fall in love in this book.  They fall in love eight years before the events of the book.  There are a few flashback moments, but the plot is more about them--mostly Judith--admitting that those feelings are still there than discovering and building them in the first place.  This means that the whole romance plot reads as the last 25% of most books, rather than the entirety of most.  If there had been a break and reconciliation of most sides, it might have been a bit more bodied, but with just Judith harboring these conflicted emotions--Christian's devotion never falters--it...drags somewhat.  The other events of the book, like the attempts to reconnect with Camilla, are really more intriguing than the actual romance, which doesn't end up really escalating until late in the book.

I think there's a lot of potential for the Worth family; Milan says in the afterword that she plans on the series being seven books long, the second being about Camilla, which seems like it's going to be awesome.  The dynamic that this book sets up is intriguing, with the elements of treason, missing persons, and so on, but I don't think it is a strong book on its own.  It's more of a prologue for the others.

3.5 stars out of 5, but for the elements other than romance.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Girl Underwater - Claire Kells

22571605I read this book in one sitting.  Granted, I had forgotten what it was about by the time it started, and I needed to read the flap to refresh my mind--and then I had to skip ahead to the ending to make sure that I wasn't walking into an emotional boobytrap, because I don't like emotional boobytraps.  Let me phrase it this way: this story involves survival following a plane crash.  Clearly not all the people involved survive, and the beginning of the story was quite misleading in regards to who lives and who dies.  Luckily, even if you don't skip ahead like I did, that matter is resolve pretty quickly, and then we just have to catch up with what happened.

So.  Avery has always liked swimming, and moved to California for college to swim on a nationally-ranked team whose members frequently qualify for the Olympics.  There she meets Colin Shea, who is a little too real for her liking, and who she avoids like the plague.  She, Colin, and their teammate Phil are all on the same flight back to Boston for the winter holidays when their plane crashes in the Rocky Mountains.  Avery, Colin, and three little boys are the only survivors.  It's clear from the beginning that they're not in the mountains that long.  The plane is headed back to Boston two days before Thanksgiving, and Avery gets out of the hospital on December 10th after having evidently been there for a while--and later we learn that they were missing for five days.  But it's what happened in those five days that torments Avery, leaving her with a mean case of PTSD even if she doesn't initially want to admit it.

I loved Avery as a narrator, and Kells as a writer.  Her prose could be so achingly real, and Avery as the point-of-view character meant that just enough things were kept in the dark to keep things intriguing.  Not just because Kells was trying to hide them (though, of course, she was; that is the job of a good author, to keep us hooked) but also because Avery herself was avoiding thinking about them, trying to move on from the crash and the events following without ever actually addressing them.  Clearly this is not a good coping mechanism, and Avery slowly falls apart from the inside out as we watch through her eyes.  Her interactions with Colin were so achingly--beautiful?  Terrible?  Painful?  All of the above!  They just were, in the best way possible.  And then there's the love triangle that's done in a really good way, because Avery really likes her boyfriend, and is devoted to him, and appreciates him, and he's super supportive and wants her to succeed--he just doesn't understand what she's going through in the same way that Colin does.  And Kells doesn't use the love triangle to propel the story.  Instead, it's more of a support, and a way in which she can show how Avery is growing and changing and coming to terms with "before" and "after."

This is a survival story, but it's not Hatchet by any means.  Survival is only part of the story; actually living is the rest.  And that, I think, is what sets this book apart from other "disaster" stories.  I really loved this.  Kells doesn't have any other novels out right now, but I hope she has a long and fruitful career, because she seems to me like a very talented writer indeed.

4 stars, because she played with my heartstrings a little too much at the beginning for comfort, and unnecessarily so.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Trigger Warning - Neil Gaiman

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and DisturbancesI love Neil Gaiman.  I do not love short stories.  I have not read Gaiman's other collections of short stories, though they're on the bookshelf waiting for my attention.  But the library had Trigger Warning available, and really, how could I resist?

I'm going to ignore the title on this one, because "trigger warning" is a really charged term right now, very politicized, and I don't want to get into that.  (But, for the sake of argument: I am against trigger warnings.  The world will not baby you, so why should people?  Also, I am a cold-hearted individual.)  Gaiman makes a kind of weak argument for the title of the collection, but honestly I think he could have found something better, because there doesn't really appear to be much in here that actually qualifies as a typical trigger warning--there's not sexual assault, which is the one that immediately comes to mind, no situations of abuse, no suicide, no... I mean, there's a lot of stuff, but not the stuff that normally falls into "trigger warning" discussions, so the title seems a bit off.

As for the stories themselves--they vary.  I definitely consider "The Truth Is A Cave In the Black Mountains," "The Sleeper and the Spindle," and "Black Dog," which are the three longest stories, to be the strongest pieces here.  "A Calendar of Tales" also had some very strong pieces included in it, though they all stand independent of each other and there's not a real thread tying them together.  The poetry was not up my ally (particularly "Making a Chair," which did not fit with the rest of the collection at all) but then most poetry isn't, and Gaiman characterizes the poems as "freebies," placed in addition to and not instead of other prose pieces.  Other bits, such as "The Lunar Labyrinth" and "Down to a Sunless Sea," I would have liked to see worked into longer pieces, something a little more fleshed out, because the premise intrigued me, but the end left me wanting more.  I suppose this is the goal of short stories, but there seemed to be so much potential lurking beyond the end of these pieces that I would have loved to see what Gaiman could do with it fully unleashed.

"The Sleeper and the Spindle" and "The Truth Is A Cave In the Black Mountains" have both been re-worked by Gaiman and some partners into illustrated volumes; I haven't read either of them, but I can see why that was done, definitely.  They come across as the most fairytale like (and one of them is, of course, based on fairytales) and have just the sort of menace and whimsy that could lend itself to beautiful illustrations.  "Black Dog" is a story associated with Gaiman's full-length work American Gods, and is the second story released along those lines--I haven't read the first, but didn't feel it was necessary to understand this one.  Knowledge of American Gods, however, would be very useful.

Overall, I think if you like Gaiman's work, this is quite good.  Some of the pieces are very short, only a few pages, but the longer works help to bulk it up and are evenly-spaced enough to keep the book moving forward pas what could be considered weaker pieces.  Still, I like Gaiman's long-form better than his short, and can't wait until he comes out with another full-length novel.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Four Nights With the Duke - Eloisa James (Desperate Duchesses #8, Duchesses by the Numbers #2)

Four Nights With the Duke (Desperate Duchesses by the Numbers, #2; Desperate Duchesses, #8)After having some rather befuddling historical romance-themed dreams last night (Fever dreams?  I am a bit ill.) I woke up absolutely needing to read a historical romance.  And a good one.  That's the thing with so many of these period romances; they're bad.  Luckily, I knew of two titles out that I hadn't read yet from two of my favorite HR authors: Four Nights With the Duke by Eloisa James, and Once Upon a Marquess from the pen (keyboard?) of Courtney Milan.  I adored Milan's works when I read them before, but I know James' work better, since there's so much more of it to go to, so I decided to start with Four Nights, also because I liked the one that came before it, Three Weeks With Lady X, so very much.  This wasn't Three Weeks, and while I devoured it, I didn't like it as much as I did Three Weeks.  Here's why.

I like a few things in my historical romances: a smart heroine who can be strong without necessarily needing to literally kick butt, some witty banter, chemistry between the two leads, and something to lighten up anything that gets a little too heavy.  While I think most of James' work checks off these boxes, I found Four Nights a little lacking in these respects.  This is mainly because of the couple.  The hero is, of course, Vander, Duke of Pindar, who we met in Three Weeks when he courted India.  India's now happily married to Vander's best friend, and Vander himself is quite happy to have escaped marriage because he's come to the conclusion it's not for him.  This has a great deal to do with his parents' marriage, which wasn't exactly happy.  In fact, his father spent most of Vander's life locked up in a mental institution, while Vander's mother swanned about having an affair with the landowner next door...

...who happens to be our heroine, Mia's, father.  Oh.  That is awkward, isn't it?  Also awkward is that Mia has been pretty much in love with Vander since she was fifteen and wrote him a rather ridiculous love poem, and then had the unfortunate experience of having him get a hold of it and hearing him make fun of it with his friend and someone who might be best described as a frenemy.  The encounter ended with Mia confronting Vander and saying she'd never marry him, not even if he was the last man on earth.  Which makes it extra awkward when, following the deaths of her father and brother, she finds out that she needs to marry in order to get custody of her nephew, Charles Wallace, so that his maternal uncle can't squander his estate away.  Mia's proper fiance jilted her, and now she's left scrabbling for a husband before a year--a period of time specified in her brother's will--is up.  Luckily, she has a rather incriminating letter written by Vander's father.  She plans to use it to blackmail him into marrying her.

Vander and Mia had chemistry.  I can't say they didn't; as always, James can write a pretty good love scene.  But the other aspects that I enjoy in historical romances were somewhat missing.  Mia's smart and can do the whole "witty banter" bit, if she's not too embarrassed, but Vander himself has trouble communicating in general, and so banter is largely missing here; instead, he spends his time pretty much insulting Mia when he intends to compliment her.  There's also no secondary love story going on here, like there is in many of James' works, which meant there weren't really any light moments to bring up the heavier parts of the book.  And there are some heavy parts--the details of Vanders' parents relationship, the long struggle, both in Mia's own mind and between herself and Vander, for Vander to respect Mia... This was missing a lot of the light-heartedness I enjoy in James' books, and that dragged it down somewhat for me.  I'm also not convinced of Vander and Mia as a couple, despite their sexy kisses.  Something about their relationship just didn't ring true for me.  I was never really convinced that they did respect each other, and that's a major downfall to any relationship, even a fictitious one.  Vander was also extremely possessive of Mia, edging on too much so; James tries to justify it as that's just how he expresses his emotions, but really, it seems like that's something he would seriously have to work on!

However, this book did have high points.  Vander's uncle is an utter delight, Charles Wallace is adorable, Mia's notes on her in-progress novel are quite amusing, and there are several references to Julia Quinn and (once) to Lisa Kleypas.  Quinn and Kleypas, under different names but ones that are obviously in reference to them, make cameos as other authors that Mia mentions.  Since James, Quinn, and Kleypas are pretty much my holy trinity of historical romance writers, so I got quite a bit of enjoyment out of these references, minor as they were.  I still liked James' writing overall, I just felt like the relationship, and the book as a whole, didn't come together quite as well as some of her other works did.  I'm still greatly looking forward to reading her other titles that I haven't picked up yet, though; not every book can be a hit, but James does have more hits than most, and I have high hopes for her next book!

Oh, and this fulfills my Popsugar 2016 Reading Challenge category for "A book you can finish in a day."  Easy as pie!

3 stars out of 5.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Magnus Opum - Jonathan Gould

13570616It's very rare that I don't know what to make of a book, but Magnus Opum was one of those instances.  Let me give a brief outline of the plot to start to explain why this is.  Magnus is a Kertoobi, who are kind of like hobbits except that they don't live in houses build into hills and they have some other weird customs instead, but they do frown upon people having adventures.  One day, Magnus' brother gets wanderlust and goes off, writes for a bit, and is then never heard from again--until some Doosies, all of whom love gossip, come bearing news of his death.  Magnus sets out to find out the truth about his brother's death, see the sights his brother saw, and perhaps even seek revenge.  On the way, he gets swept up with a Cherine named Shaindor; Cherines are all obsessed with goodness and beauty, and also happen to be in a perpetual war with Glurgs, the awful, hideous race who killed Magnus' brother.  Of course, nothing is what it seems, and as the story goes on Magnus has to adjust his vision of the world and come to terms with his new discoveries.

In theory, this all sounds fine, but something about Magnus Opum just rubbed me the wrong way.  Partly it's because it's so silly that it's hard to tell if it's meant to be a satire of these sorts of fantasies--where a person goes off and has adventures and comes back changed and everything--or if it's meant to be serious in its own regard.  The abundance of made-up words, analogies, and metaphors all contributes to the general silliness, as does the fact that all members of each race are the same as each other--all Doosies love gossip, all Cherines love beauty and music and goodness, all Glurgs are ugly and horrible (or are they?) and to be feared, and so on.  This is one of my pet peeves in fantasy.  Not all humans are the same; all humans have different wants and dreams and personalities, and these races being painted with such broad strokes is one of the things that made me lean toward it being a satire--because I wanted to like it, but... I don't know.  Thank heavens that the story became more complex than it originally seemed, because I was on the verge of not finishing it from sheer exasperation.  I was hoping that things would turn out to be not quite what they seemed, and they did--but there the twists ended, and everything went back to being predictable once again.

That was my other issue with this story.  It was predictable.  There were no big twists, no big reveals, no "hooks" that pulled me along and kept me reading.  Magnus was an interesting character, going against the grain of his race as he does, but is also stereotypical in that regard.  The epic "quest" here didn't seem to be one as such, and the ultimate conflict...isn't.  Everything is resolved so nicely and neatly, and there ultimately didn't seem to be anything propelling the plot forward other than random coincidences.  This is a silly story more than a compelling one, and I'm sure some people value it for that; personally, I found myself wanting something more, something more complex, something with a little more body and a little more plot.  Would I read other books by this author?  Maybe.  I think I'd probably want to sample them first, to see if they're more up my alley than this one is.  It wasn't bad, it was just...meh.  I think there was a lot of potential here, but it wasn't fleshed out or utilized as fully as I think it could have been, and came off as more juvenile than anything else.  To others, this might not be the case, but to me...this one wasn't a hit.

2.5 stars out 5.

I received this book free from Awesome Indies Books in return for an honest review.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Dust That Falls From Dreams - Louis de Bernieres

The Dust That Falls from DreamsI picked this book up at the library because, quite frankly, that is one of the loveliest titles I've seen in a while.  The Dust That Falls From Dreams...  There's just something incredibly romantic about it, don't you think?  That, and because when I read the flap, I saw that the story takes place in the years of and surrounding World War I, which I think is an underrepresented conflict in historical fiction given its impact on the world.  World War II has tons of historical fiction surrounding it, but I see much less taking place during WWI.

The story here is definitely character-driven, following the McCosh family, particularly the eldest daughter Rosie, through the years before, during, and after the war.  Before the war, Rosie and her sisters are friends with the boys who live on either side of them, forming a large group called "the Pals."  Rosie and Ashbridge, the eldest Pendennis boy, are very close and become engage (formally; they were informally engaged since Rosie was twelve) right before Ash goes off to fight in France with his brothers.  From a very early time, we know that Ash is doomed, and can see the consequences of this looming up for Rosie.  Rosie and her sisters eventually take up wartime occupations, their mother witnesses a tragedy, and their father opens a number of new ventures.  Meanwhile, Daniel Pitt, one of the boys from the other side of the fence, becomes an ace pilot.

Because this is a character-driven story, there's not really a plot.  It's more about watching as Rosie, because she is definitely the main character, develops.  Rosie can be extremely frustrating at times, especially to a reader who (like me) isn't particularly religious.  Rosie is very religious, and while I could see why she was so, the degree to which she clung to her beliefs could be absolutely infuriating.  She has a tendency to ruin her own happiness, as well as that of others, because she clings to her faith so strongly, even when other parts of her religion--and religious figures such as Fairhead the chaplain--tell her that it's okay to move on.  Daniel was an utter saint for putting up with her, and if I had been his mother, I probably would have smacked Rosie upside the head for the way she behaved toward him.  That said, I still liked Rosie, quite a bit.  Her frustrating qualities were greatly balanced by her overwhelming goodness.  She's just so nice that you can't help but like her.  And it's not an infuriating or fake niceness, because she has her angry moments--she throws a Wedgewood vase at someone at one point--but because she's genuinely a good soul.

Daniel was, by far, my favorite character; his charm, his quirks, everything about him was good.  His doubts, both in himself and in his country, are genuine, but he still does his duty because he feels it's the right thing to do, and perseveres in his relationship with Rosie because he does love her, even when it doesn't seem like she cares about him in return.  He's really better than she deserves at many points, but holds out.

The supporting characters were also, for the most part, delightful.  I would have liked to see a few more of their plots tied up, though--at the end, several people are just left hanging.  Rosie and Daniel's plot wound up fairly nicely.  Everything was pretty much resolved in regards to them, or at least it was suggested that everything was.  But for Ottilie, Mr. McCosh, and Archie (who I would have liked to see more of in general) things were left somewhat hanging.  It felt like de Bernieres almost created too many characters, and then decided he couldn't have plots for all of them, and so focused in on a few, ignored a few, killed a few, and sent a few off to distant locales so he wouldn't have to deal with them.

This book also got off to what I felt was a very slow start--but once the war started, I liked it more.  The pace picked up, the characters became more interesting, and the story itself became more complex.  I have mixed feelings about how the non-narrative chapters were written; journal entries and letters have never been my favorite ways of portraying or reading action in books.  However, they do fit the time period and theme of how war affects people, so I suppose they were all right.  They got fewer and farther between later in the book, which I appreciated; the plain narrative chapters definitely suited me more.

Overall, though, I quite liked this book; I feel like it's a solid 3.5 to 4 stars for its overall art and portrayal of a somewhat underrepresented turbulent time on the global stage, while focusing in on that times' effects on a small group of people who are still somewhat representative of the whole.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Their Fractured Light - Annie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner (Starbound #3)

Their Fractured Light (Starbound, #3)After reading the first Starbound book, These Broken Stars, I carefully rationed myself before reading This Shattered World, the second book, in order to break up the time between reading Shattered World and the release of Their Fractured Light.  Unfortunately, This Shattered World was definitely a case of second-book slump for me, with the romance that had so captured me in Broken Stars being largely missing.  As a result, I bought Their Fractured Light on its release date, but I kind of put off reading it.  Partly it was because I had a stack of library books that I had to work through before their due dates, but it was also partly because I was afraid I'd be disappointed again, and I really didn't want to be.  LUCKILY, when I finally got around to reading it this past week, I was NOT disappointed at all!

Their Fractured Light moves the story to the city where it all began, from whence LaRoux Industries is based, from where the Icarus was launched, and where it all comes to an end.  Our heroine is Sofia Quinn, who we last saw fleeing Avon so she wouldn't be put into the foster system following her father's death at the hands of the whispers/the Fury.  She's been conning her way across the galaxy ever since.  And our hero is Gideon Marchant, the infamous hacker known as the Knave of Hearts and also the younger brother of another Marchant...who was also Lilac LaRoux's first love.  Dun dun DUN!  Gideon and Sofia's paths cross at the headquarters of LaRoux Industries, and they help each other escape when everything goes horribly awry.  There's instant chemistry, and when Gideon leaves, he gives Sofia his contact info in case she ever needs him again.  Which, of course, she does.

In short order, Sofia and Gideon find themselves on the run through and below Corinth, hiding from LaRoux's veritable army and trying to stop him from taking over the galaxy with the whispers as his main weapon.  Betrayals abound, safe havens do not, and through it all are scattered so many other characters that we've encountered along the way.  We also finally get to meet the infamous Monsieur LaRoux, the man behind it all...

My main complaint with This Shattered World was that it was greatly lacking in the romance department.  Jubilee and Flynn were great, they just weren't necessarily great with each other.  I didn't feel like they had the chemistry that Lilac and Tarver had.  Well, that wasn't a problem in Their Fractured Light.  Gideon and Sofia had that chemistry.  Of course, it's a very different dynamic than Tarver and Lilac, because Tarver and Lilac were never keeping secrets the way that Gideon and Sofia are--but that's good, because it means it's not just a repeat, it's a new story, and I felt that it was one that fit the world of Corinth and the story that Kaufman and Spooner built up around the setting and characters.  I'm not so sure about the technology stuff that was going on--sure, it's sci-fi, but some of it still read a little flimsy to me--but I excuse it on the basis that everything else was so good.  My only other issue was that the climax retreads ground a bit--I feel like the authors could have done something a little fresher to tie it all up.  Oh, and that I'm not sure the end would have been as neat and tidy as it came across.

Overall, though, Their Fracture Light definitely didn't suffer from the same slump that This Shattered World did.  It came full circle, tying together plots and characters and bringing everything to what was a satisfying (if a little sickly sweet) conclusion.  I really enjoyed this, and as a bonus, it fits the "Romance set in the future" category for my Popsugar 2016 Reading Challenge!

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Additional Reading Challenge Goals

Hello all!  Given that there were fewer categories in the Popsugar 2016 Reading Challenge than in the 2015 version, I decided to integrate a second challenge into it.  This challenge is from Modern Mrs. Darcy and I found it at The Deliberate Reader.  Some of these categories are repeats, so I'm only going to add in the new ones.

The new categories from below are:

-A book you've been meaning to read.
-A book recommended by your local librarian or bookseller.
-A book you should have read in school.
-A book chosen for you by your spouse, partner, sibling, child, or BFF.
-A book published before you were born.
-A book that was banned at some point.
-A book you previously abandoned.
-A book you own but have never read.
-A book that intimidates you.
-A book that you've already read at least once.

I don't have titles chosen for these yet, but I'm sure I'll get around to them soon enough!

MMD-2016-Reading-Challenge | One of my 2016 Reading Goals

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Chef's Mail-Order Bride - Cindy Caldwell (Wild West Friontier Brides #1)

The Chef's Mail Order Bride (Wild West Frontier Brides #1)I love historical romances, but for some reason I tend to gravitate toward the ones set in ton society in England--there's something about the dresses and manners and battles of wits that just appeals to me (and many others) that I find other settings just don't match as well.  But here's the thing: there's no reason other genres shouldn't match that feeling as well.  Witty banter and charged interactions are far from limited to the ballrooms of London, although the balls themselves might might.  But for some reason, the chemistry that comes across in ton books just seems to be missing from books in other historical settings--such as the American West.  The Chef's Mail-Order Bride is an example of that.  One reviewer called it a short story or a novella, but at 234 pages, it's a bit long for that--plenty of time to build up a real relationship and chemistry between the characters.  Unfortunately, that was greatly missing until the last few pages of the book, and it really lowered my enjoyment of the story.

So, the story is about a young woman named Sadie, who has worked in her family's Chicago bakery her entire life and has run it ever since the death of her parents.  Unfortunately, her parents--unbeknownst to her--left the bakery in a great deal of financial trouble, and the bank that holds the mortgage has decided to foreclose.  Unsure of what she's going to do next, Sadie is relieved to get a letter from her sister--except it proposes that Sadie move to the area of Tombstone, Arizona, and get married to an aspiring chef.  Thinking it will be an adventure, and at least she'll get to be near what family she has left again, Sadie agrees, and sets off to Arizona.  In short order, she marries Tripp Morgan, the friend of Sadie's brother-in-law who wants to open a restaurant in town, but needs to be married in order to secure the loan to do so.  Their marriage is supposed to be a business arrangement, with Sadie's help in both getting the loan by marrying Tripp and then helping him out in the restaurant.

And that's exactly what it is.  There's some blushing and a flash of--gasp!--ankles at one point, but there isn't really any chemistry between these two characters.  In fact, Tripp seems downright dismissive of Sadie in most ways, even though he's absolutely sunk without her in more ways than one.  In the last few pages, of course, the two abruptly fall in love after Sadie is proven right, but I found the build-up to their relationship to be lacking.  I get that not all romances have to be steamy, and I wasn't expecting this one to be, but there can be some romantic tension without the characters making out every few pages.  Brushing hands, romantic gazes, wistful sighs...all these things can be built up to a lot more romantic atmosphere than Caldwell utilized in this book.  I didn't find the writing bad, and the supporting characters were enjoyable, but without that really romantic element at the core, I think the book fell a bit flat overall.  This appears to be the first in a series, and I'd be interested in reading the others, but only if I can pick them up on sale or for free, because this one didn't leave me chomping at the bit to get the next one.

2.5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the TrainI read Gone Girl recently, so The Girl on the Train seemed like the next logical step, given how often people compare them.  Having finished it, I can see why they do--but also feel like the comparison doesn't really do either book justice, as they're not really similar in a larger sense.  Both feature people behaving badly and narrators who could be classified as unreliable--but whereas a narrator in Gone Girl is intentionally unreliable, none of the narrators in The Girl on the Train are intentionally misleading.  The bad behaviors are similar in part--you know, murder, adultery, mental and emotional manipulation, the usual--but are set up in such a different context that they work into the story very differently.  The Girl on the Train also seemed to move faster, to me--maybe because all of the characters become involved so early on, while in Gone Girl things just keep coming up slowly.

Anyway.  The Girl on the Train follows Rachel, who is pretty much a hot mess.  She's an unemployed alcoholic (and yes, the two are related) who has been in a sort of limbo ever since she and her husband divorced two years ago.  Well, really the mess of her life started earlier than that, when they tried to have a kid and couldn't, sending Rachel into a spiral that ended in their divorce.  She has a roommate now, and to hide her unemployment she still takes the train into London every day.  On the way, she looks at the houses by the tracks, particularly one a few doors down from where she used to live so that she can see the couple she has deemed "Jason" and "Jess," who she imagines to be wildly in love with each other--until she sees Jess with another man.  Several days later, news comes out that a woman has gone missing, and by her picture Rachel immediately realizes it's Jess.  She gets swept up in the drama of the entire investigation, hooked by her imaginings of Jason and Jess' life together, even though she knows that those aren't really their names and that their lives were really nothing like she pictured in her head. 

Out of all the characters in this book, Rachel is the only good one.  Yes, she is an alcoholic--but her life is pretty shit, so that's pretty understandable, and as the story goes on she tries to improve herself.  The other characters (well, with the exception of a few supporting folk, like Rachel's roommate and the guy on the train) are all abusive, manipulative, and cheaters, in various combinations of those characteristics.  This made it very easy to root for Rachel, to want her to figure it all out and improve her own life into the bargain, though the logic of how that would, exactly, tie in is somewhat missing.  On the other hand, it's hard to want to root for a character who wants to "get rid of the bitch once and for all" or who spends her time having a string of affairs or any number of other poor behaviors exhibited by the people in this novel.

The mystery is intriguing because there are so many different possibilities for who killed Jess/Megan, and to some degree all of them make sense.  As the layers of the story get pulled back, everything becomes more and more tangled, more and more twisted, until the big reveal and the climax.

I think I liked this more than Gone Girl, overall; it wasn't as long, it moved faster, and I found the characters more intriguing on the whole than those in Gone Girl.  And Rachel was a much more relatable protagonist than Nick, who I never really liked because of the shitty choices he made.  Rachel made shitty choices, too, but not like Nick did.  And come on--Girl on the Train is British, which just makes absolutely everything sound so much more posh and sophisticated, don't you think?  Sure, the logic of "woman solves mystery and therefore improves her own life" isn't entirely there, but that's not really the point of the genre, and so I'm willing to give it a pass on that one.  I loved this, and heartily recommend it.  Also, it can count for the Popsugar 2016 Reading Challenge category of "A book being made into a movie this year."  Yay!

5 stars!

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Buried Giant - Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried GiantI did not like this book.  I'd never heard of Ishiguro before reading it, but it was listed on an article about the best sci-fi/fantasy books of the year, and it was up for a Goodreads Choice Award for Fantasy in 2015, so hey, it had to be good!  Right?  Well, evidently a lot of people liked it, and Ishiguro is a celebrated author, having won a Booker prize and all, but I have to say that, based on this, I was not a fan.

The premise is that Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple living in a fantasized England in the era just after King Arthur, set out on a road trip to find their son, who they dimly remember moving away years ago.  They only dimly remember this because a sort of mist has taken over the land, dimming people's memories.  On the trip, they encounter a boatman and a widow, and learn that the boatman takes people to an island--but can only ferry one at a time, and couples who try to go get separated or not based on how they answer the boatman's questions about their relationships.  If they're separated, they never see each other again.  Frightened at the prospect of being separated at some point, Beatrice wants to find a way to dispel the mist.  They also pick up a Saxon warrior named Wistan and a young Saxon who's been run out of his town after being involved with some ogres.  Together, the group sets out to find Axl and Beatrice's son, though they keep getting sidetracked by things like questioning monks and slaying dragons.

I liked the world Ishiguro built here, with its realistic and fantasy elements blended together, but I didn't like the story itself.  It moved at a positively glacial pace, and the writing was so emotionally distanced from the characters that I couldn't really empathize with any of them.  Even when in situations that are life threatening, the characters maintain this distanced calm that doesn't seem to fit the conditions at hand.  And Axl had this really annoying habit of calling Beatrice "princess" in every sentence he spoke.  Dear lord, that was annoying.  A world with ogres, dragons, and other fiends roaming about, where even the birds seem to have turned against people, has such potential, and I really feel like Ishiguro didn't build it up to its full potential.  And so many things aren't answered!  What about the birds?  Why were they evil?  How the hell is the thing in the tunnel dragon spawn?  Are there more of them?  How are creatures like dragon spawn and ogres going to play into the coming conflict?  Ultimately, this whole thing was built up to something that was probably supposed to be death and the ending of a relationship, but it lacked emotion and urgency and left me picking away at it instead of devouring it whole-heartedly.

Ishiguro's book Never Let Me Go has been lauded by many people, but I'm thinking that maybe fantasy isn't really his genre.  Fantasy readers like myself tend to look for certain things, I think, and those things were missing here because it's really meant to be more literary than fantasy...but I don't think it really manages to land itself firmly in either genre, and also doesn't blend the two well enough to really appeal to fans of both.  There are messages here, about memory and love and all that junk, but they're just too out there to be subtle and too preachy to be swept on past and enjoy the story for what it is.  All of the elements that I really would have liked to see were just sketched in at the edges, while the most boring people in the world were left as the central focus.  I wouldn't really recommend this one.

Oh, and despite the title and there being an actual buried giant at one point in the book, the story actually doesn't involve buried giants as anything other than a landmark.

2 stars, and those are entirely for the world and not for the story.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Popsugar Reading Challenge - 2016 Edition!

So, 2016 is upon us, and with it a new Popsugar Reading Challenge.  This challenge clocks in at forty books, more than the required 52 from last year; last year there were 50 categories, but one category was a trilogy, which tacked on an additional two books.  That's a book a week, and my guess is that some of Popsugar's readers found it a little grueling, and so reduced the number of categories for this year.  Some of the categories I'm looking forward to more; a book based on a fairy tale, a YA bestseller, a book becoming a movie this year, and a book guaranteed to bring you joy all sound like great categories.  On the other hand, I'm less than thrilled about the self-improvement book, book of poetry, and political memoir categories, none of which are exactly on my "favorite subjects" list.  But I guess the point of all of this is to broaden my reading horizons, so I'll go through with it.  Below I've listed all of the categories for this challenge, some of which I have planned titles for and some of which I don't.  As always, if you have a suggestion for a category (even if there's already something listed for it!) let me know and I'll look into your suggested title!

-A book based on a fairy tale.  I adore fairy tales, so this category had a whole bunch of possibilities for me!  I settled on Gregory Maguire's Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, which is quite clearly an adaptation of Cinderella from the stepsister's point of view.  I read Wicked in high school and found it good but weird, so I'm interested in seeing how this one plays out.

-A National Book Award winner.  I don't really know much about book awards, as I tend to ignore them in favor of reading whatever interests me at the time.  So I had to pull up the list of National Book Award winners to have something to go off for this one.  Most of them didn't really intrigue me (who decides what makes a book award-worthy, anyway?) but I eventually picked The Shipping News off the list as looking at least mildly interesting.

-A YA bestseller.  Cassandra Clare has made mega-bucks (I'm sure) with her Mortal Instruments series, which was originally Harry Potter fanfiction.  I read the original trilogy and found it okay, but I'm very interested in the prequel series, which starts with Clockwork Angel, because it seems like it has a total steampunk vibe going on!  So intriguing.  I hope it's as good as its sales would suggest.

-A book you haven't read since high school.  This is hard.  I tend to re-read books that I like on a fairly regular basis; hardly a year goes by when I don't re-read most of Tamora Pierce's works in a one-week binge.  That said, I think I was in high school the last (and only) time I read Scott Westerfeld's Uglies, which I quite liked but didn't get around to re-reading because I was so busy devouring other stuff.

-A book set in your home state.

-A book translated to English.  I'm thinking Toilers of the Sea for this one.  Les Miserables, which is probably about on par with The Hunchback of Notre Dame for Victor Hugo's most famous book, is one of my favorites, so this should be a good one while adding in another classic for this list.  However, I also got Becoming Marta for free through the Kindle First program, so I might end up reading that instead.

-A romance set in the future.  I'm going to finish off the Starbound trilogy for this one and read Their Fractured Light.  It's a young adult romance, and I hope it can live up to the first book in the series; the second was somewhat of a letdown.  Fingers crossed for a strong finish! 

-A book set in Europe.  I read Elizabeth Bard's memoir Picnic in Provence this year and was charmed by her writing and intrigued by her recipes, so the first book she wrote, Lunch in Paris, seems like a good candidate for this European category.  And maybe I'll get a good recipe out of it!

-A book that's under 150 pages.  I've picked out Goldenhood by Jessica L. Randall for this one.  It clocks in at 98 pages according to Goodreads, and I really liked her book The Obituary Society, so I'm looking forward to reading something fantasy- and fairytale-based from her.

-A New York Times bestseller.  I haven't read The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J. K. Rowling) yet, and this seems like an excellent time to do so, wouldn't you say?

-A book that's becoming a movie this year.  I saw the movie Sisters over winter break, and attached to it was a preview for the movie Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which stars Tina Fey just like Sisters did.  The trailer intrigued me, so I looked it up, and guess what?!  The movie is based on a book!  The book is The Taliban Shuffle by Kim Barker, a longtime news correspondent posted to Afghanistan and Pakistan who wrote this book as a memoir of her time overseas.  I'm also reading The Girl on the Train which is being adapted into a movie staring Emily Blunt.

-A book recommended by someone you just met.

-A self-improvement book.  I don't really know what a self-improvement book is, other than a self-help book, and I don't really think I need a lot of help from books, so this one was a bit challenging.  So I went to Google and pulled up a list of best self improvement books!  An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth jumped out at me because one of my friends from college read it recently and rated it quite highly, so this one it is!

-A book you can finish in a day.

-A book written by a celebrity.  Okay, so I saw Elixir by Hilary Duff ages ago, probably when it first came out, but I didn't read it because I was skeptical.  I mean, celebrities writing?  Who does that?  And I'm always convinced it's really a ghostwriter doing the real work.  But now it seems like it's a good time to try this one out.  I was going to read Tina Fey's Bossypants for this, but I'm already reading a comedian's book for another category, so I didn't want to double-dip.

-A political memoir.

-A book at least 100 years older than you.  I'm actually going to get around to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for this one, because I want to read one of the steampunk novels that started it all as research for my own writing.

-A book that's more than 600 pages.  I'm going to continue on with the Outlander series and tackle Voyager for this one.  I've been picking away at Dragonfly in Amber ever since I finished Outlander, and I'll finish it in time to take on Voyager for 2016.  I won't have Dragonfly finished by the new year, but it seemed a bit unfair to consider it as counting for the challenge when I started it in 2015.

-A book from Oprah's Book Club.

-A science-fiction novel.

-A book recommended by a family member.

-A graphic novel.  I love Neil Gaiman but am not a huge fan of graphic novels, so I've avoided his Sandman series up until this point, despite buying my boyfriend the entire series for various occasions.  Now seems like a pretty good time to give them a go and start in Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes.

-A book that is published in 2016.

-A book with a protagonist who has your occupation.

-A book that takes place during summer.

-A book and its prequel.

-A murder mystery.  For this, I plan to read R. R. Virdi's Grave Beginnings.  Virdi is a member of the 20,000-person NaNoWriMo group I'm in on Facebook, and this book has gotten great reviews from other group members, so I'm going to give it a shot!

-A book written by a comedian.  I haven't read Mindy Kaling's Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? yet, and so I plan to read that for this category.  Everyone I know who's read it has said they wish Mindy was their best friend, so that sounds like a nice, light, entertaining read for the year.

-A dystopian novel. I read Hugh Howey's Sand this year, and I'm going to carry on with Wool for 2016.  "Dystopian" is a loose term these days, but as far as I can tell Wool fits the bill--and a lot of other people have categorized it that way, too, so I'm going to go with the flow and say it is.

-A book with a blue cover.  I've never managed to get past Storm Glass in Maria V. Snyder's Glass series, so now I think I'll use this as a reason to take on Sea Glass.  There's a really weird relationship at the heart of this series that's always been kind of off-putting to me; it emerges in Storm Glass and must continue on in Sea Glass, but I'm hoping it'll dissipate and we can move past it.  And the cover is very blue!

-A book of poetry.

-The first book you see in a bookstore.

-A classic from the 20th century.  I'm going to do Lolita for this one, because I feel like I need to squish a Russian novel in here somewhere.  What really makes a classic, anyway?  I don't know, but this list that I found says Lolita is one.

-A book from the library.  I recently got my DC Public Library card (I've only lived here for almost six years; it was long past time) and one of the books I checked out was N. K. Jemisin's The Shadowed Sun, the second book in her Dreamblood duo.  Jemisin is an amazing fantasy author, and I can't wait to read this one.

-An autobiography.  I picked up Papillon by Henri Charriere at a used bookstore in New Jersey (Broad Street Books in Branchville, if anyone out there is in the area; it was absolutely lovely and I look forward to going back the next time we're in the area) but put it down in favor of another title.  Now I wish I'd bought it!  Charriere wrote this book about his wrongful conviction for a crime and his subsequent escapes from prison.  Most autobiographies bore me on principal, but this one actually sounds interesting.

-A book about a road trip.

-A book about a culture you're unfamiliar with.

-A satirical book.

-A book that takes place on an island.

-A book that's guaranteed to bring you joy.  This is easy.  A College of Magics is one of my favorite books ever.  The beautiful Ruritanian-romance aspects of it (bodyguard/client!  one of my favorites!) blend so wonderfully with the fantasy elements that I find it pretty much irresistible, and this is a great excuse to re-read it.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Perfect Ruin - Lauren DeStefano (Internment Chronicles #1)

Perfect Ruin (Internment Chronicles, #1)This isn't so much a review to start the new year as it is to end the old, even though it comes in the new one.  I squeaked this title in just before the end of 2015, and it was my last-read book for the year.  It was one of the free reads on PulseIt, Simon & Schuster's social media/book promotion website where they post free books to read once or twice a week.  The books are up for two weeks; I noticed this one when there were two days left to read it, so I had to make progress fast!  Luckily, I did so, and managed to finish it before it went away.  Not that it was a difficult read, because young adult books never are, but because there was a lot else going on for vacation.  I know the PulseIt site is going down this year (I believe sometime in January) to make way for a new site, though their multiple emails on the subject have assured users that their policy of posting free reads will remain the same.  Though they don't post books I'm interested in often, I do think it's a great service for discovering young adult books, so I encourage you to check it out if that's a genre you're interested in, and I'll be sure to highlight the new service once more is known about it.  Anyway, here's the review!

Lauren DeStefano is perhaps better known for her first young adult dystopian series, The Chemical Garden, than she is for these Internment Chronicles books.  I read Wither, the first of the Chemical Garden books, in 2013 and found myself rather unimpressed by it.  The romance wasn't what I wanted, the plot wasn't what I wanted, and despite an interesting premise, the book and I just didn't click.  I didn't move on to the other books in the series, though I heard dissatisfied mutters from others--and so I was a bit apprehensive about reading Perfect Ruin.  But the description, about a city in the sky where the only rule is not to approach the edge, just seemed too delicious to ignore.

Well, it turns out that DeStefano's worldbuilding is a bit inconsistent there, because despite the fact that the "only rule" thing is stated multiple times, in the description and in the book itself, it's really clear that not approaching the edge is not the only rule.  And despite the narrator saying that everyone's life is theirs to do with what they choose, to use or to squander, that's also patently not true.  In fact, Morgan (our heroine) and her fellow Internment-ites are in a highly regimented society, and it's hard to believe that Morgan really doesn't see all of these other rules floating about her just as Internment floats about the sky.  Take the pills the government sends you.  Go to school, go to work, go to support groups, and so on and so forth.  Don't talk about this, or that, or the other...  It drives me crazy when authors are so inconsistent about their worlds, and how the characters view them, so this flip-flopping on how Internment's society functioned was extremely frustrating.  I was expecting a world more like Scott Westerfeld's Pretties, where people really are free to do whatever the hell they want, and do so--crazy parties, drinks and games and fun, not a worry to be had by most.  Interment wasn't like that, not at all, despite how it was originally made out to be.

The rules in Internment become even more prevalent following the murder of Daphne Leander, a girl in Morgan's grade who wrote a downright heretical essay about her doubts regarding the god of the sky.  Following her death, copies of the essay begin to appear all over the city, and a hunt begins for her killer--a hunt which eventually sweeps up Morgan, her friends, her betrothed, and her family.  Which was another frustrating thing for me: Morgan has very little agency.  For the most part, she's dragged along for the ride.  She does make a few choices, and they become a little more pronounced as the book goes on, but still, she's not a very active heroine.  She is a follower, not a leader; she doesn't charge into action, but merely lets herself get swept along by it.  Don't get me wrong: not every heroine has to kick butt in a very literal way.  But quiet, calm Morgan sees so many things going on around her, but hardly ever acts on them.  She seems completely content to live within Interment's confines, even though she professes to dream of the ground constantly.

Honestly, the things that redeemed this book for me are the mythology and the relationships.  Morgan's relationships with other characters feel very real, from her tenuous yet strong (contradictory, but true) bond with her brother, to her strained relations with her parents, her love for her betrothed, Basil (please don't turn this into a love triangle, it comes across as so pure and true and I'd hate to see it ruined by a love triangle trope) and her almost psychic friendship with Pen.  How Morgan deals with people and the troubled web surrounding them was so genuine that I couldn't help but like her, despite the qualms I discussed above.  And then there's they mythology, about the god of the sky and the god of the earth, and how Internment came to be and the people who believed and questioned, all of it surrounding Morgan's crisis of faith.  Because ultimately, that's what this book is about: a young woman's struggle to maintain her faith or find enough proof to cast it to the winds.  Daphne Leander's essay, portions of which headline each chapter, contributes greatly to this and makes it more prominent than it would seem from the main text alone.  But Morgan is indeed questioning, unsure of exactly where she stands, and I think that questioning is also a very real experience for people her age--sixteen--in one way or another, and it makes her easy to empathize with.

This book had its frustrating aspects, but ultimately I found the writing engrossing, the mythology and relationships beautiful, and I hope to read the other two books in this series soon.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Popsugar 2015 Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

Hi all!  This is a few days late due to vacation, but I wanted to provide the final list of titles I read for the 2015 Popsugar Reading Challenge, along with a brief thought about each--basically whether I think it's worth reading or not.  You can find links to the Goodreads listings for all of these books on my Popsugar 2015 Reading Challenge shelf here.

-A book with more than 500 pages.  For this I read Oliver Stone's The Untold History of the United States, which is a good history book that takes an alternative (but still factual) look at some aspects of the US's history.  Worth reading for those who like history.

-A book published this year.  The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy, which is by Julia Quinn and came out in January 2015.  Quinn's books can be a bit syrupy, and I disliked this one more than her others.  I'd say go for her Bridgerton series before this one.

-A book with a number in the title.  Nayomi Munaweera's Island of a Thousand Mirrors, which takes place in Sri Lanka, is a bittersweet look at how the conflicts in race there manifest, and how they affect communities.

-A book with nonhuman characters.  For this I read Brenda Pandos' The Emerald Talisman, which has vampires in it.  I hated it.  There are far better paranormal romances out there.  Skip this one.

-A funny book.  That would be Where'd You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple, which had me giggling to myself on several occasions.  Definitely recommended!

-A book by a female author.  I read a ton of female authors, but for this one I used Bread & Butter by Michelle Wildgen, which was a great character-driven book that revolves around a trio of brothers in the restaurant business.  I liked it, though those who like plot-driven books with lots of forward motion would likely be disappointed.

-A mystery or thriller.  Well, I finally got around to reading Inferno.  Thoughts?  It's a Dan Brown book.  If you liked the others, you'll probably like this, though I found the overall premise involving the virus to be more hokey than normal, and think it really backs Brown into a corner for future books.

-A book with a one-word title.  Sand by Hugh Howey is a fabulous science-fiction read in a really interesting setting with a great cast of characters.  Highly, highly recommended.

-A book of short stories.  Hilary Mantel's The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher was a very cool book of short stories that all hard really surreal aspects to them, but which were overall just real enough to be believable.  I'm not a huge short story person, but this was excellent.

-A book set in a different country.  I love reading books set in different countries, because I like to get a glimpse of places I will likely never go myself.  Aminta Arrington's Home is a Roof Over a Pig, which is a memoir set in China, filled this category, and I liked it well enough.  But if slice-of-life memoirs aren't your thing, look elsewhere.

-A nonfiction book.  Sarah Churchwell wrote (and I read) Careless People, which is about a murder that took place in the 1920s and how it might have influenced F. Scott Fitzgerald when he was writing The Great Gatsby.  I loved this.

-A book based entirely off its cover.  Ugh, what a disaster this one was!  I read Dorthea Benton Frank's The Last Original Wife based on the cover, and I hated it.  It looked so beachy and light and lovely, and it was a disaster that made me angry.

-A memoir.  I read a lot of these, but for this particular category, let's go with All the Fishes Come Home to Roost, which is Rachel Manija Brown's memoir about growing up as an American kid in an ashram in India.

-A book you can finish in a day.  After removing an earlier selection (Charlie Holmberg's The Master Magician) from this category because I didn't want to duplicate authors, I had to use Eloisa James' Three Weeks with Lady X.  I can pretty much read any Eloisa James book in under a day, because they are all delicious, and I would recommend this to historical romance lovers--though reading her other Duchess books first might help for some context.

-A trilogy.  I devoured and adored Rae Carson's Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy early this year, which is made of The Girl of Fire and Thorns, The Crown of Embers, and The Bitter Kingdom.  These were some of the first books I read this year, and I absolutely loved them.  I'll definitely read them again, and they really got me back in the writing mood!

-A book set in the future.  I pretty much inhaled These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman.  It's a beautiful young adult sci-fi story with a wonderfully worked romance aspect, and I can't wait to read the companion books.

-A book with a color in the title.  Well, that would have to be Scarlet, Marissa Meyer's awesome sci-fi adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood, which picks up where her sci-fi version of Cinderella, Cinder, left off.  The rest of the series was good, too, but Scarlet was definitely the strongest of the four.

-A book with magic.  Vera Nazarian's magical Cobweb Bride definitely fits this category.  It got off to a slow start, but was utterly enchanting (haha, I'm so funny) by the end.

-A book by an author you've never read before.  Burial Rites by Hannah Kent fits this.  I liked it, but it wasn't as mind-blowing as it was made out to be.

-A book that was originally written in a different language.  Skylight by Jose Saramago.  It's a beautiful character-driven novel that was originally written in Portuguese and wasn't published until after the author's death because of an early snafu with a potential publisher.  I enjoyed it, but did find it to be a bit slow, even for a character-driven novel.

-A book set during Christmas.  I hate books that are set during Christmas.  I find them to be really gimmicky, all "love thy neighbor" and "God is great," which is super annoying to be hit over the head with again and again and again.  But I did read Married by Midnight by Julianne MacLean earlier this year, not realizing at first that it was set during Christmas when I picked it up.  It was okay, I guess, but it didn't leave me rushing to pick up the others in the series.

-A book written by an author with your same initials.  Well, my initials are CH, so I'm going with The Paper Magician by Charlie Holmberg, which was a great Victorian-style fantasy about a girl who learns paper magic and has to save her tutor after his heart is literally stolen out of his chest.  I loved it.

-A book a friend recommended.  My friend Vilhelmina tore through Sarah J. Maas' A Court of Thorns and Roses and pushed me to read it so we could discuss, so I tore through it, too.  I liked it, a lot, but it left me a little bit nervous about the next book in the series.

-A book that made you cry.  This was, unintentionally, How To Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz.  Oh, Malcolm...  A beautiful character-driven novel about three girls who come together and separate again over the course of their lives, and the triumphs and tragedies that drive their connections.

-A book you own but have never read.  As I intended, I finished this one with The Martian by Andy Weir, reading it after owning it for about six months.  It's very realistic science fiction, a great intro to the genre for those who are interested in the concept but find the more space-opera-y stories too out there.

-A book based on or turned into a TV show.  Again, as intended, I read Charlaine Harris' Dead Until Dark, the book that started the series that became the HBO show TrueBlood.  As with the show, it was okay but I didn't like it.  The whole necrophiliac aspect of vampire romances kind of creeps me out, to be honest...

-A book set somewhere you've always wanted to visit.  I eventually used Elizabeth Gillbert's The Signature of All Things (which is partially set in Tahiti) for this category, because filling up a category was about all it was good for.  Would not recommend.

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

-A book more than 100 years old.  I'd originally planned to use 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for this, but I really wasn't feeling that, so I read A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett instead.  Published in 1905, it fit the category, and I liked the story.  It's very simple, but full of heart.

-A book that came out the year you were born.  I read Diana Gabaldon's Outlander for this category, and had mixed feelings about it. I kind of hated Clare, and felt it was much too long, but I don't kind of grew on me.

-A book from an author you love but haven't read yet.  I read Tamora Pierce's Battle Magic for this, and was quite disappointed.  This is definitely not her finest work, and I would really put it at the bottom of her works in quality.  Read pretty much anything else by her first.

-A book at the bottom of your to-read list.  I used Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit for this, after some convoluted "reading list" math, and actually really liked it.  I'm not a racing buff or fan, by any means, but this was a story with a lot of heart--and true, to boot!

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

-A book that scares you.  This was another category I ended up inadvertently filling, with Robert Levy's The Glittering World.  It was definitely very creepy and made me sort of nauseous, in a weird way.  But I don't think I would recommend it.

-A book with a love triangle.  I read Kresley Cole's Endless Knight for this, along with its sequel Dead of Winter.  I love this series.  It's a guilty pleasure of mine, though I think it's probably going to get dragged out way longer than it should.

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

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

-A classic romance.  Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina isn't a classic romance in the traditional sense, because not all aspects of it are romantic, or happy, but Tolstoy is, of course, a literary genius, and I think this is really worth reading.  Much less philosophical than War and Peace, but with the same beautiful plot at heart.

-A book written by someone under 30.  Allison Beckert volunteered her book Mishap Mansion as fitting this category, due to her age, so I bought it, read it...and didn't really enjoy it.  I think there were some good ideas here but they weren't treated well, and the whole thing came off as annoying rather than enjoyable.

-A popular author's first book. Terry Pratchett's The Carpet People filled this.  It wasn't what I expected, and I found it a bit simplistic--not surprising, considering he originally wrote it when he was 16--but I liked it.  Probably a necessary read for Pratchett fans, but I don't think it was the best book of his to start with.

-A Pulitzer Prize-winning book.  Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See was absolutely beautiful and I can see why everyone loves it so much.  You should read it, if you haven't already.

-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 by Joanne B. Freeman.  It had good structure and some interesting bits but was ungodly boring.  Would not recommend for pleasure reading.

-A graphic novel.  Sharaz-de by Sergio Toppi put itself forth as an adaptation of "Scheherazade," but it fell flat in my opinion.  It was notable for the beautiful art, but not for the storytelling.

-A book that takes place in your hometown.  Second Position by Katherine Locke takes place in my second hometown of Washington, DC, and dealt with some very heavy subjects like amputation and miscarriage while being strikingly beautiful at the same time. Wonderful, but not light reading by any means.

-A play. I read Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit for this category.  I know people like it, but I honestly can't recommend a play to be read.  Go see it instead; it'll make more of an impact.

-A book you started but never finished.  I'm glad I came back to Hal Duncan's Vellum for this one, because looking at it with more perspective and a fresh pair of eyes made it a book that I loved, rather than one I despised so much I couldn't finish it--but I think it only appeals to a certain type of reader.  Tread with care.

-A book based on a true story.  For this, I decided to use Kate Alcott's The Dressmaker, which relies heavily on the sinking of the Titanic and the trials that followed.  It's good, but I've read better; the main character was too lacking for my taste.

-A book your mom loves.  My mom loves The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough, and after reading it, I really enjoyed it, too.  I bought my own copy after borrowing the one I read from the library, I enjoyed it so much.  I think fans of Gone with the Wind's variety of historical romance and struggle would like this, though the settings are very different in both time and place.

-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!  This was good, but lacked the dark edge of most faerie books, which is (in my opinion) what makes them tantalizing.

-A book with bad reviews.  I used Maggie Shipstead's Seating Arrangements for this, after seeing the reviews when I finished the book--I hadn't looked at them in advance.  The rating isn't terrible but the reviews certainly aren't favorable, and I could see why.  I didn't hate it, but also didn't enjoy it.  Just a meh title for me.