Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Smoke - Dan Vyleta

SmokeSmoke seems to be a book that has wildly underperformed for the average reader, even though critics have generally liked it.  At least, that's the impression that I got while clicking through some reviews.  And honestly?  I have to agree.

Smoke has a really interesting premise, which is that sin and misdeeds seep from the skin as smoke, different colors for different things, and leave traces on clothes, skin, and other surfaces as soot.  People can breathe in each other's smoke and it will spread whatever their affliction is--lust, hate, etc.  It's possible to control how much you smoke through exercises of will and through (we eventually find) illicit sweets.  The only people who can afford the training for the self-control, and who can afford the sweets, are the rich.  Of course.  That means that the rich walk around all squeaky clean while the poor, who can not afford sweets and training, are generally filthy.  All of this helps fuel a class divide that, of course, exists even without visible signs of sin.  This is one thing that had stuck out to several people whose reviews I read; the classism in the book.  I don't necessarily see the book as classist so much as the characters in it.  And yes, I do perceive a difference.  For example, I didn't get any sense that Vyleta was actually saying the rich were better than the poor.  I more thought he was highlighting the differences between the classes that naturally arose in this world.  Also, his characters are interested, to various degrees, in finding a way to eliminate the barriers of smoke, or eliminate smoke entirely, which doesn't seem like it would have been the case if the book was inherently classist.  So, that's my thought on that: not a classist book, just classist characters.  Which, given the time and location of the book, is perfectly natural.

It's a really interesting concept, the smoke, and I think the quest to find a way to eliminate its problems was interesting.  There was some interesting worldbuilding involved as well, with the government of England being removed from London because that city is such a smoky, filthy mess.  But other parts of the worldbuilding just fell entirely flat.  For example, England is completely cut off from the world in a way that doesn't seem likely.  All technology needs special permits to be imported, which is certainly a possibility, but even the people have no conception of what's happening in the world beyond.  Surely someone, somewhere would have told someone, who would have told someone else, that the telegram had been invented somewhere along the line?  It's not the internet age in the book, that much is certain, but I feel like the isolated-but-not-isolated (shipping was still going on with other countries, explorers were still going to uncharted lands, etc.) were something that really wouldn't have worked.  There's also a very real problem of a "noble savage" trope in here, which honestly concerned me more than anything else here.

As for the writing, it was...okay.  I think it had some moments, but overall I didn't find it very engaging.  I think it was definitely the best in the first and second parts, at the boarding school and the manor.  The first had a very typical "creepy boarding school" feel to it, and I feel like the part with the manor a real Gothic vibe.  I think this could have been a real gem, but as other reviewers have established, in its current form it wasn't really something to write home about.

2 stars out of 5.

Monday, August 29, 2016

When Strangers Marry - Lisa Kleypas (Vallerands #1)

When Strangers Marry (Vallerands, #1)I'm a big Lisa Kleypas fan.  She's one of my favorite authors, and The Devil in Winter, one of her Wallflowers books, is one of my favorite historical romance books in general.  She has a very extensive back catalog that I haven't read a ton of, and when I saw that When Strangers Marry is actually the first book she wrote for Avon, published way back in 1992.  In 1992 I was still a couple of years away from being able to read at all, and probably a decade and a half from having an appreciation for historical romance novels!  Kleypas has written a lot since then, and is still going strong, so I thought this would be a fun one to read and see how her style has changed over the years.

Let me put it this way: this book is one of Kleypas' first, and it was published in 1992, and it shows.  This was a book that I ended up skimming a lot of because the writing just wasn't engaging.  I ended up putting it down for large chunks of time because I was--gasp!--bored.  The story is about Lysette, a young woman from France who is engaged to a man in New Orleans who she doesn't want to marry.  She runs away to avoid the marriage and gets lost in the bayou.  Two boys, Justin and Philippe, find her and bring her to their father, Max, who has a grudge against Lysette's fiance.  To get back at the fiance, Max decides to compromise Lysette and steal her for himself.  The two like each other well enough and there you have it.

That's like the first third of the book.

The rest of the book is filled up with sex (and not particularly engaging sex; I Kleypas' writing has really evolved since this book came out in all areas, but particularly in the "steamy scenes" area), a flimsy mystery plot surrounding the death of Max's first wife, and a weird political side plot about the Burr Conspiracy.  I have no idea why that last one was included at all.

Lysette and Max liked each other for the majority of the book, which is something that you don't see a ton of in romance.  There's a reason for that: it eliminates a huge source of conflict, and makes the romantic plot easy to wrap up early.  Which leaves you with a couple of hundred pages to fill after that.  And while they liked each other, I didn't really feel any chemistry between them.  Their dynamics were very weird, with Max loving how outspoken Lysette was and how she challenged him, but still being extremely dismissive of her opinions and feelings.

And then there were the twins, Justin and Philippe.  They're apparently fifteen, and when the book starts Lysette is described as being their age, but apparently she's actually about five years older.  Lysette wasn't very involved with them, but was surprisingly open to Justin considering how it was heavily implied he was okay with raping her at the beginning of the book when he and Philippe find Lysette in the bayou.  I really couldn't get over that rocky start, and it bothered me all the way through the book, especially when Lysette and Justin were so buddy-buddy in the later parts.  The "forced seduction" is a big trope in romance, especially in romances from the 80s and early 90s, but this wasn't a case of that because Justin wasn't the love interest, which made it seem extra strange and out of place.

Overall, I'm glad this wasn't my first experience with Kleypas' work.  I really love her more recent books and try to snap them up as soon as they're out (though I'm still on the library's waiting list for Marrying Winterbourne) but this was not a book that would encourage me to read more.  It's nice to see that Kleypas has grown so much as a writer in the years since this came out, but honestly this was a hard one to read in general.

2 stars out of 5, and most of that is because of the setting.  Romances set in New Orleans are rare, in my experience, and I think it was a nice change from the ton romances that normally fill this genre--though I love those, too!

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Dressmaker's War - Mary Chamberlain

The Dressmaker's War
On the eve of World War II, Ada Vaughn is a mannequin for a dressmaker in London.  She has a fair bit of dressmaking skill herself, and hopes to one day open her own fashion house: House of Vaughn, something that she holds in her mind as parallel to Chanel.  She dreams of living a higher-style of life in general, to the point of taking elocution lessons in an attempt to "better" herself from her common origins, living in a small flat with her parents and many siblings.  And when a young man approaches her on the street one day, claiming to be an Austrian count, Ada is completely swept away.  It's a whirlwind romance, but it ends badly, with Ada stranded in Europe after the war begins, with no money and no way to get home.  The series of events that follows leads us in a full circle, back to the prologue and Ada's preparation for her own execution, and serves to read "between the lines" of a story of a young woman swept up in the tide of war.

If I could compare this book to only one other, I would compare it to Hannah Kent's Burial Rites.  The time, location, and characters have absolutely no crossover; they take place more than a century apart, in different countries and to very different people.  But from the very beginning we know--or can at least infer with very little difficulty--that both the main characters, Kent's Agnes and Chamberlain's Ada, are sentenced to die.

We don't know why Ada is sentenced to death.  We have to actually read the story for that.  But the feels of the two books, of the story going back in time to trace the path to the heroine's death sentence, is very similar.  The structures aren't; other than the prologue, Chamberlain's story is told in a very straightforward manner whereas Kent has a few more narrative devices employed.  But there's just this feel to The Dressmaker's War, one that really matched Burial Rites even when there was very little in content to connect the two of them.

Stories of women in WWII are, I think, very few and far between.  There aren't a lot of prominent female historical figures, so finding a good character to write in a historical fiction context can be difficult.  Chamberlain completely invented Ada, but uses her as a lens to view a few other historically-based people that come and go, and to show the overall plight of a woman, and a civilian, stuck in the war.  AS a female civilian, Ada isn't a prisoner of war.  She's just a prisoner.  There's no sort of prisoner exchange for her.  No one knows where she is or if she's even alive.  She's gone through a lot of trauma, and even when she returns home, no one wants to help or support her.  Everyone wants to leave the war completely behind them, even though its consequences haunt every moment of Ada's life.  It's a tragic story, really, and as Chamberlain says in the afterword, Ada didn't stand a chance.  It's the story of untold stories here that's really intriguing, and how those stories were untold not only because people didn't want to talk about them, but because even the people who did want to talk were cognizant of the fact that no one wanted to listen.

That said...I didn't really like Ada as a person or a character.  The only portion of the book I really liked her for was the Dachau portion.  I felt like, under the strain of her situation, she became a much more real and likable person.  For the rest of the book, I found her stuck-up, bratty, and pretty stupid at the same time.  She made all sorts of crazy decisions that, even in a narrative context, just had me rolling my eyes and wanting to shake her, and she made those decisions for reasons that came off as flimsy more than anything.  I though the Dachau portion would really be a turning point for Ada, and that she'd be more sympathetic from then on--but as soon as she left and returned to London, I found that all of her brattiness and poor decision making came roaring back.

Chamberlain does a great job of capturing atmosphere here, and it's interesting to see how clueless Ada was due to her isolation in Germany, but because I didn't really like Ada as a character, this book didn't have the emotional impact it should have.  I liked many of the supporting characters much more than Ada herself, and at the end, quite frankly I wasn't very sad to see her go.

3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Eve of a Hundred Midnights - Bill Lascher

Eve of a Hundred Midnights: The Star-Crossed Love Story of Two WWII Correspondents and their Epic Escape Across the PacificI recently realized I haven't read a lot of nonfiction this year.  This is actually kind of strange for me because I really like nonfiction, and Eve of a Hundred Midnights is a great example of why.

This is the true story of two news correspondents during WWII.  The first, and main one, is Mel Jacoby, who was a relative of the author's.  Mel worked for his college newspaper and went to China on a study abroad during his junior year, at which point he absolutely fell in love with the country.  After his graduation, he found his way back, working as a reporter for a propaganda station in China's wartime capital.  He continued to move around in various reporting capacities, coming and going from different points in Asia for several years.  Eventually, he convinced a girl, Annalee, who had also worked at the college newspaper, and who he had connected with during a stop back in the United States, to also move to China in a news capacity.  But as the war intensified, Mel ended up stationed in the Philippines, and Annalee ended up joining him there and the two got married.  And then the United States suddenly joined the war, and the two found themselves stuck in the islands, with the Japanese army--who were likely to kill Mel if they caught him--growing ever closer.

This book has a lengthy subtitle, "The Star-Crossed Love Story of Two WWII Correspondents and Their Epic Escape Across the Pacific."  Well, that's part of the story.  It's not all of it, and it's really not even most of it.  The actual escape across the Pacific takes up a relatively small part of the book, and it's probably actually one of the most uneventful portions.  It must have been nerve-wracking at the time, I'm sure, but in retrospect, with more than a half a century between us and the story, it wasn't nearly as exciting as reading about dodging falling bombs in China.  The book also isn't really the story of two star-crossed lovers.  First off, star-crossed implies there was something keeping them from each other, and there wasn't.  Second, Annalee is NOT very prominent in this book.  The focus is definitely on Mel, which is understandable, given the author's relation to him, but it's a bit misleading to make it out like Annalee was more of a player than she was.

Most of the book is really about Mel and how he ended up in Manila prior to the US retreat and Japanese army's arrival.  It's a very interesting story, about living in a war capital, navigating the different censors and political bodies, and seeing war grow ever closer, all the while trying to report the news in a way that no one back home was actually doing.  I really enjoyed this, because it was a perspective that we don't usually get.  Lascher includes a hefty reference section in the back, and it's a pretty good bet that Mel and Annalee actually did think and feel as he portrays them, because he quotes their letters and cables extensively.  Lascher is a very engaging writer, and makes Mel and Annalee's story into just that: a story.  I think he does wax poetic a couple of times; the epilogue is a great example of this.  It's very purple and completely unnecessary to the content of the book.  Overall, though, this was a really great book that offered a fairly unique perspective into a part of the war, and the lead-up to it, that we don't typically get to see.  Very interesting.  I just found myself wishing that the part of the story that was actually advertised had been a little more prominent and gripping!

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Little Paris Bookshop - Nina George

The Little Paris BookshopGuess what?  This book was translated into English!  What a pleasant surprise that was, because it means that I can count it for one of my reading challenge categories.  My reaction upon realizing this (though I'd been planning on reading the book anyway) can be summed up thusly: "O frabjous day!  Callooh!  Callay!" I chortled in my joy.

The Little Paris Bookshop is the story of Jean Perdu.  He owns a floating bookshop upon a barge moored in the Seine in Paris, which he calls The Literary Apothecary.  He prescribes books for all of life's woes and aspires to write a sort of encyclopedia of feelings that haven't really been pinned down in most works yet.  He has a routine and sticks to it like clockwork, something he has done ever since the woman he loved left him two decades ago.  When a new neighbor moves into the flat across from him, he gives her a table--a table he has to haul out from a room that's been walled up ever since said lover left.  And in the table, the new neighbor finds a letter that's never been read.  The neighbor and the letter are a pair of catalysts that have Jean casting off from his mooring and starting off on a journey to the south of France aboard his floating bookshop, along with a famous author facing a serious case of second-book writer's block and, eventually, an Italian chef looking for a woman he loved and lost.  Along the way they explore the canals of France, go to a secret tango society, rescue a woman from drowning, and look for the pseudonym-ed author of Jean's favorite book.

Even in translation, there was some beautiful writing in this book.  The descriptions of the settings in particular were wonderfully vivid and I could just see the canals, the locks, the flowers in my mind.  I think the supporting characters added just the right amount of flavor to the story, though their losses and longings are really side notes to the main story.  There are also a few chapters which are excerpts from Jean's former lover's travel diary, which help to explain what was going on with her, and why she did what she did, long before Jean gets the full story.  I found those a bit long and sappy for my taste, but I can see why they were included.  Maybe Manon herself just didn't agree with me; her actions in how she conducted her relationships aren't really something that I'm on the same page with, which made her hard for me to empathize with in that regard, though other parts of her story were routine enough.

Honestly, Manon's reason for leaving Jean was the part of the story I liked the least, just because it seems so...done.  I didn't find anything particularly interesting about it, and honestly felt like she'd played the whole thing up more than she had to.  This spills over into the rest of the story, because Jean has been tied up in all of this drama for twenty years, which honestly...I mean... Ugh.

So, I think the writing and descriptions here are the real strength, and the central story was not.  George has a way of making her locations just come to life in a way that I don't think many authors can, and I really enjoyed that.  The central plot didn't do much for me, though.  The side plot--about finding the author of Jean's favorite book--was much more intriguing.  The problem for me is, the central story is one that's about grieving and moving on, and I'm not really at a point in my life where I can empathize with that.  Sympathize, yes.  But empathize?  Not really.  Jean Perdu believes that each person needs different books at different times throughout life, and maybe this just wasn't the right time for me to read this one, though I definitely do appreciate the skill that George put into it.

3 stars out of 5.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Her Wicked Ways - Darcy Burke (Secrets and Scandal #1)

Her Wicked Ways (Secrets & Scandals #1)Romance novels that aren't very romantic are so frustrating, and this was, unfortunately, one of them.  It starts when Montgomery Foxcroft, aka Fox, the hero, pretends to be a highwayman to waylay a coach and rob it for money to help with the upkeep of an orphanage his family has maintained for generations.  He doesn't end up with much money, but he does end up with an armful of Lady Miranda Sinclair.  Miranda was on her way into exile with some variety of family friends who live in the country when Fox stopped them, and she's more than happy to kiss him.  In fact, kissing someone in the dark is the very reason she got sent into exile to begin with.  Soon enough, Miranda finds herself forced to go work at the orphanage as a sort of punishment that's supposed to better her, and she rubs up wrong against Fox right away--having no idea that he's the highwayman with the magic lips, of course.

There were abundant problems with this book that placed it squarely outside of my interest, though I forced myself through to the end.  (It takes a lot for me to actually give up on a book.)  First, I didn't feel that there was any real chemistry between Miranda and Fox, despite how they kept insisting (internally) that they couldn't resist each other.  The words were there, but the emotion wasn't.  Second, Miranda herself was absolutely insufferable.  She's the very definition of a spoiled rich girl.  She parades around the orphanage in the finest gowns money can buy and, while Burke tries to show her growing and coming to accept that her way of life isn't the only one or even the best, she constantly relapses to her spoiled state.  Even up to the very end, where she's supposed to be gaga over Fox and willing to do anything to be with him, she can't stand up to her parents and instead just silently agrees with them about how shabby Fox's entire lifestyle is.  And then she abruptly grows a backbone and everyone lives happily ever after.  What?

And finally, the writing isn't really engaging at all.  There's so much nothing going on here.  And honestly, while a hero who takes care of orphans can be a really sweet idea, reading about someone combing lice out of those orphans' hair isn't romantic at all.  I picked this book up because it was a group read for Unapologetic Romance Readers on Goodreads, as a "free" selection for everyone, and found that I'd already purchased it more than a year before--and I'd actually started to read it!  But I hadn't continued much past the first chapter before abandoning it.  After finishing it this time, I can see why I ditched out the first time.  I don't think Burke is an author I'll be picking up again.

1.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Love Hacked - Penny Reid (Knitting In the City #3)

Love Hacked (Knitting in the City, #3)The Knitting in the City series is one that I've really enjoyed so far.  Love Hacked is the third book, following up on Neanderthal Seeks Human and Friends Without Benefits.  As with the other books in the series, this story is about one of the girls in a knitting club and her search for love.  In this case, the girl in question is twenty-eight-year-old Sandra, who despite having a date every other Friday night, hasn't had a kiss in two years.  That would be because she manages to make all of her dates cry, which obviously doesn't bode well for kisses.  The thing is, Sandra is a therapist, and she can't seem to quite get away from that, not even on her dates.  So when yet another date ends in disaster, Sandra settles in to enjoy her butter chicken on her own...only to find Alex, the very hot waiter she's been eyeballing for two years, sitting at her table with her.

Sandra thinks Alex is smokin' hot, but he's younger than her.  A lot younger.  She's twenty-eight, and she estimates him at being twenty-two or twenty-three, which, as she points out, means that there's really a gulf of experience between them.  But Sandra isn't entirely opposed to a fling with a younger man...except Alex doesn't seem to want a fling.  He wants something more serious.  But he's clearly hiding things, lots of things, like why he's being followed by FBI agents and why he and Sandra can't talk in public.  It's all very, very strange.  Oh, and Alex doesn't really seem to have any sense of how to behave around people either.  He can go from being super sweet to super weird to super aggressive, all within a few blinks of the eye.

Honestly, Alex's weird behavior is the part that concerned me the most about this book.  The age-gap raised my eyebrows at first, but I've definitely seen weirder, and I don't think an age-gap is something that can't be overcome.  But the way that Alex was so secretive and passive-aggressive at times raised a lot of red flags for me.  That is what I could not put up with in a relationship, not his hacking background and time in prison and all the other stuff.  The way he acted sometimes... Sandra was a saint for putting up with him, and honestly I'm not sure that she should have.

But, as with the other stories, we get to see about the other girls in the club and where they are, and we even learn something about the mysterious Fiona, she who knows how to stab men with knitting needles!  Reid also did another thing I think was very good for this, and that is that she just went for it with the sex scenes.  In the first book, she faded to black, which was fine.  In the second, she did this weird thing where she included a "fade to black" version and a "non-fade to black" version, with a note about what was going on a the top of each chapter, and it was very jarring to the reading experience.  She did away with that this time and just went all in, which I think was a smart solution.  Fading to black worked with Janie because she was so much more self-conscious, but Sandra was all in for the physical aspects of the relationship from the beginning, so I think this worked better for her.  Also, Alex is (gasp!) a virgin!  So we get to see how Sandra, who is very much not a virgin, deals with that.  It was an interesting perspective flip, and I think Reid did it really well.

Honestly, this book had a lot going for it, and I really enjoyed it...but Alex's sometimes sociopathic behavior just lingers there in the back of my mind, bugging me and telling me that I probably shouldn't have enjoyed it as much as I did, leaving me to give this book...

3.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Night Sister - Jennifer McMahon

The Night SisterWhen I was little, my dad bought this movie called The Mothman Prophecies.  He did it because one of the offices he oversaw was in the movie, doubling as a dress shop on the main street of the town it was filmed in, and he wanted to see it.  The movie itself is about the people in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, and a newcomer to the town, all of who keep seeing a creature referred to as the Mothman leading up to the collapse of the Silver Bridge just before Christmas.  We, as movie viewers, never actually see the Mothman, just glimpses and hints.  Really, that's what makes it scary: we don't know what's really going on, what's lurking in the shadows.  It's the same way Jaws is much scarier before we actually see the shark.  The difference is, in Jaws we do end up seeing the shark.  In Mothman, we never see the monster at hand, which I think makes it all the more creepy.

The Night Sister is Jaws.

The story here is about sisters Margot and Piper and their friend Amy. The book begins with the death of Amy and her family, with the heavy insinuation that something not human was behind it, though the police are initially eager to frame it as Amy losing it and killing herself, her son, and her husband.  The only survivor is Amy's daughter, who is found outside on the roof, and the only clue is a picture Amy has with her, on which is written "29 rooms," a strange message considering her home, the Tower Motel, only has 28 rooms.  Margot hears of the whole incident, calls Piper (who lives across the country) and Piper hops on the first plane back to Vermont to comfort her pregnant sister--who happens to be married to a cop.  The book flips back and forth in time, going from the modern day to when the girls were young, to even further back in time, when Amy's aunt vanished during another spate of mysterious happenings.  Monsters and sex and murder are all discussed here, and as the story goes on, it's clear that something not right is happening at the Tower Motel, and has been happening for quite a while.

I really liked this book right up until the "monster" is revealed.  We know for quite a while what the monster must be, but as soon as people start putting forth more detailed explanations and confessions, I think the story lost a lot of its creepy mystique, it become a much less intriguing tale.  As soon as all this came out, I found myself rolling my eyes and just wishing that the book would be over.  I think there's a great atmosphere going on up until that point, but once we hit that critical piece of information, the intrigue just dissolves and the climax is rather lackluster.  It was so disappointing, because there had been sch a good build, and then it just lost it all, knocking what could have easily been a 5-star book down a bit.

Overall, I really wish this had been Mothman instead of Jaws.

3 stars out of 5.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Charming the Prince - Teresa Medeiros (Fairy Tales #1)

450924Charming the Prince was the main buddy read for August in the Unapologetic Romance Readers group on Goodreads.  (We also have a bodice ripper for this month, which I'm planning on reading as well.)  It's supposed to be a historical romance Cinderella retelling, though honestly the "historical" and "Cinderella retelling" parts are painted in with only the broadest strokes.  The main plot follows Branson, the bastard-born lord of some lands in the fourteenth century and Willow, the daughter of another lord who lost all his money and married a rich widow, bringing her and her posse of children into his home.  Now, years later, Willow has basically been relegated to a servant, taking care of her step- and half-siblings, until Branson's men show up at her father's holdings looking for a wife for Branson.  He has specifically requested someone who is "maternal" and "bovine" who can act as a mother to his posse of children, numbering around a dozen, while not awakening his lusts at all, because he doesn't want more children; the ones he have terrify him enough.  Due to a bonnet and an apron full of apples, Willow is mistaken for being both maternal and bovine and has been married off before Branson's representative really realizes his mistake.  The rest of the book consists of Branson coming to terms with his children and Willow and Willow trying to get Branson to appreciate her for herself, which no one has done in a long time.

The writing here is decent, and some of the incidents involving Willow and the kids were amusing, but overall I don't think this was anything remarkable to write home about.  The whole "Branson is so fertile he can get you pregnant just by looking at you" thing was way overdone, especially considering some of the information that comes out later in the book.  There's also a subplot involving one of Willow's stepsisters, who stows away in her luggage and ends up being present throughout the book, and who wants to marry Branson herself.  That felt overly contrived and, honestly, didn't add anything to the book--nor did the whole creepy stepbrother thing.  The "historical" setting lends nothing because it's sketched in very lightly.  The main thing the setting does that I can think of is help distinguish this book from the more plentiful Regency romances we normally see, which are set several centuries later.  That did make for a nice change, but I don't think it was so terribly important to the plot or characters.  Honestly, I feel like this could have been placed in almost any historical era and would have varied very little because of it.

The romance was nice, but again, nothing stellar.  Branson and Willow were immediately attracted to each other and wanted to like each other but also didn't at the same time, which was weird.  I think the ongoing "conflict" between them, which mainly consisted of "warfare" between Willow and her forces (the kids and her stepsister and some of the servants) and Branson and his forces (his men) was honestly the most amusing part of the book.  Once it ended, the whole thing got rather bland rather quickly.  There was some nice kissing, but honestly this is something I think the setting worked against--drafty castles with straw strewn everywhere, no matter how clean, don't really strike me as romantic.

Overall, I don't think this was anything special.  It was an okay romance, but just okay; the "Cinderella" plot it purported to have was barely present, most of the characters were just meh, and despite the title, there wasn't a prince anywhere in sight.  I wouldn't be totally opposed to reading something else by this author, but she's not someone I'll be purposefully seeking out anytime soon based on this book.

2 stars out of 5.

Climbing the Mango Trees - Mathur Jaffrey

Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in IndiaThis title came to me via the virtual book club over at The Deliberate Reader.  I've been following along via the club (which discusses via Facebook) but haven't actually read most of the selections because, well, I've been doing other things.  But July's book was The Cuckoo's Calling, which I read earlier this year.  I joined in the discussion and had such a good time that I decided to bump the other books up on my priorities list!  I won't be reading September's book, which is Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, because I read it a while ago and don't care enough for it to re-read, but I'll spend the rest of this month and next catching up on the other titles for the year that I haven't read, and join back in for October.

Madhur Jaffrey is apparently a chef and an actress, but I had honestly never heard of her until I picked up this book.  She grew up in India in the years of WWII and India's independence.  Her family lived in a multi-family setup in the area of Delhi.  Jaffrey was a fairly privileged child, as far as I can tell.  Her father managed various factories, but they could afford private schools and private drivers and could go on vacations in the hill resorts that involved servants packing picnics and renting out multiple houses for the family to stay in.  Because of this, I don't think this is a really good example of what "life in India" was like.  Granted, it's a memoir, and therefore limited to Jaffrey's view--but I'm also reading another memoir currently, that of Malala Yousafzai, and I think that one does a good job of including not only Malala's experiences but a broader view of how life in her area was in general.  I don't think Jaffrey quite managed to do that.

The memoir is very food-focused but not in the way that many food books are.  Jaffrey admits to not being interested in cooking until later in life, past the point in time at which this memoir occurs.  Why would she have been?  Her family had servants to cook for them, and while it seems like the family as a whole was more involved with food for special occasions, Jaffrey focuses more on other aspects of those--for example, the throwing of paint pigments and such during Holi--than on the food.  Consequently, there's talk of food but not a real understanding of it.  I know that Jaffrey possesses that understanding as an adult, but she keeps it entirely removed from the years of her childhood that are depicted in this book.  The last forty pages or so are recipes for some of the things that she discusses in the book, and I guess it's there that the real appreciation and understanding is meant to be conveyed; but as much as I love food and cooking, I'm not going to sit down and read forty pages of recipes, so that was kind of lost on me.

Something else that I found rather lacking in this was a larger sense of what was going on.  Jaffrey was in India for the time of both the second World War and India's independence, and yet, except for a few small excerpts such as going to watch Ghandi speak once, a sense of any of this going on is completely absent.  This memoir could have place at almost any point in history, because there's nothing there to ground it.  Even if Jaffrey didn't pay much attention to those things at the time, I feel like she could have put in a little bit of "looking back" perspective that would have helped to anchor this memoir in that specific era.

Overall, I didn't really enjoy this book.  I think that Jaffrey (or her ghostwriter; I'm always so skeptical of memoirs like this) didn't actually have a lot to say because she doesn't really have any compelling experiences behind her, at least not in this particular point of her life.  While that makes for a happy childhood, it doesn't really make for an interesting one.  It's the old "every happy family is happy in the same way, but every unhappy family is unique" thing, or however the quote goes.  The points that stood out at this were the unhappy ones, such as when her parents were so devastated that they had to re-join the bigger family because of her father's job changing, and knowing that it would put an end to the happy independence they'd had for several years.  But as for the's a steady stream of frolicking that I don't think really had much of a larger message or purpose lingering behind it, which made for boring reading.  The writing itself isn't bad, but there's not really any compelling content to propel it along.

2 stars out of 5.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Read This, Then That Vol. 1

The Great GatsbyFirst, let me introduce what this is: Read This, Then That is a new series I'll be doing from time to time with book pairings that complement each other.  They might be two fiction books, or a fiction and a nonfiction; two different portrayals of the same event, or the background information on the fiction, or just books that are thematically similar.  What gave me this idea was how similar Mary Chamberlain's The Dressmaker's War felt to Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, and how reading them together could be a very good pairing.  But for this first edition, I'm going to focus my attentions on a book that's famous to the world: F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

Read This...
Most people know about Gatsby.  He's obsessed with the green light across the way, the light that signifies, to him, his true love Daisy.  A story of a man who's not all he seems to be, seen through the eyes of an interloper on the scene, The Great Gatsby is known for its fantastical parties, starcrossed lovers, and ultimately how futile and hollow the lives these people have been living seem.  It's easily Fitzgerald's most famous book, and has become a sort of icon for fiction set in the 1920s, when "paper millionaires" abounded and life, for many, was very, very good.  This is definitely a book you've at least heard of.  There's a good chance you've already read it.  If not, give it a read, take it in...

Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby...Then That
And then read about some of the things occurring in the world that Fitzgerald encountered while writing Gatsby. Sarah Churchwell's Careless People is both the story of the Fitzgeralds, both F. Scott and Zelda, during the time in which F. Scott was writing Gatsby, and of a double homicide that occurred and which very well might have inspired large chunks of the story.  It's nonfiction, but a riveting one, and seeks to not only portray the frantic partying of the Fitzgeralds but also plays with solving the double murder.  I really pondered the order in which to put these two books: which one to read first?  Ultimately, however, I decided that Gatsby should come first.  It lets you take in the story as a whole, without fishing around in for the details that come out in Careless People.  Reading Careless People second gives you the chance to follow along for the points of the "plot" that were paralleled in Gatsby, as well as fill in the background of the time period in which Gatsby was written and view the literary work with new eyes.  Careless People is definitely a longer book than Gatsby, but I think the writing is very engaging and that it's a worthy use of your time if you're at all interested in Fitzgerald, Gatsby, historical crimes, or the Roaring Twenties as a whole.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Dust - Hugh Howey (Silo #3)

Dust (Silo, #3)Dust is the final volume in Hugh Howey's Silo trilogy, which began with Wool, jumped backward to prequel Shift, and has now returned to the "present" for the finale.  It picks back up with Jules and Silo 18, Jimmy/Solo and Silo 17, and the folks inside Silo 1.  Jules is engrossed in trying to burrow her way back to Silo 17 to rescue Jimmy and the kids, and all the while dissent is growing in her own silo because she's basically challenging the world order.  Jimmy is waiting for Jules, and then eventually unnerved by what has happened with the silos being connected.  And in Silo 1, the truth is starting to come out about who is awake, who is asleep, and who is dead...and what it might mean for all of them.

I don't think that Dust was the greatest conclusion to this series.  Wool and even Shift were so twisty and full of surprises, and Dust just...wasn't.  The story is pretty straight forward here, with everyone's intentions all out in the open after the drama after the first two books.  While the actual writing hasn't deteriorated in quality, the fact that there weren't as many "OH MY GOD" moments meant that this wasn't as riveting a book as the first two were.  I also had more problems with the logistics of this one; I let a lot go in sci-fi because I am not a scientist and am in no way qualified to nit-pick at the details, but the whole way in which the "apocalypse" had been contained, and that it was contained, just didn't make any sense to me.  I also wasn't sure if this was another thing in which the "apocalypse," such as it was, had only effected the United States, as seems to be the case in many, many books of this genre.

I think that's about all there is to say with this one; I mean, it's very...meh.  I don't think there's ever a big climax.  The most "climactic" event happens probably midway through.  Some people might have found the end, especially with Silo 1, surprising, but I've read another of Howey's books, Sand, which basically solves the same problem in the same way, so there wasn't really anything to turn my head there.  In fact, the repetition actually disappointed me a little.  I think Howey has some good ideas and some really creative settings and dilemmas, but I would have liked to see a different method of problem solving in the end here.

2.5 stars for this one; I enjoyed it, but only marginally more than it being "just okay."

Monday, August 8, 2016

When a Scot Ties the Knot - Tessa Dare (Castles Ever After #3)

When a Scot Ties the Knot (Castles Ever After, #3)So, here's the thing.  I'm not a big fan of highland romances.  Or, really, anything that involves Scottish characters.  It's the accents.  Many people find Scottish accents very, very attractive.  I'm not one of them.  In fact, watching Brave was a trial that had me doing this the entire time:

And yes, I've been picking at Dragonfly in Amber, the second Outlander book, for going on a year now, but I think the very fact that I've been working on it for that long speaks for itself.  It's all the "lairds" and "lasses" and "bairns" that has me rolling my eyes heavenward and praying for someone to make the agony just stop.  But this was the book that had been recommended and brought me to the Castles Ever After series to begin with, and the premise was interesting.  What is that premise, you ask?  Well, our heroine, Maddie, has a pretty bad case of social anxiety.  To avoid having to go to balls and socialize and find a husband, she invented a Scottish military captain whom she had met, fallen madly in love with, and promised to marry while on vacation with her aunt.  She proceeds to write letters to him for close to a decade, and then she does what needs to be done to end the charade: she kills him off and goes into mourning.  This works out quite well, because her godfather leaves her a castle in Scotland, to which she retreats and begins concentrating on her career as a naturalist illustrator.

And then a guy shows up at her doorstep: Captain Logan MacKenzie.  Yes, indeed, there is a guy behind the name, though Maddie didn't know it when she wrote the letters.  But he got them, and now he's arrived to collect on her promises.  You know.  Of marriage.  And everything that comes with it.  And he brought his fellow soldiers with him.

You see, the thing is, Logan is broke.  No money, no home, and his men came home from the war to find that many of their spouses and lovers had died or given up on them in their absences.  So Logan needs to marry Maddie to get a hold of her castle and the lands that come with it to give his men a new place to call home.  And then there's Maddie herself, of course, though there's some animosity lurking there on both sides.  Logan has his reasons, and Maddie...well, she doesn't exactly appreciate a guy she thought was fake turning up and demanding to marry her.  She doesn't hate him, but she made him up to avoid marriage, so marrying him isn't exactly the outcome she'd pictured.

I loved this one.  Despite my general dislike for highland romances, I thought this was both sweet and spicy, and that Maddie and Logan were great mains with a strong supporting cast.  I loved that Maddie had her own burgeoning career that she was ready to fight and take credit for, which is something lacking in a lot of heroines; she was ready to do it from the very beginning, and didn't need no man to tell her that she could.  She already knew that she could.  And Logan was a self-made man, rather than the rich dukes that proliferate in historical romance--though I think rich dukes have their place, too!  He's also a bookworm, another welcome surprise.  Women are frequently given bookworm status in books because it's an easy "how to make a reader like her" trick, but it was nice to see a guy who actually liked reading for a change.  Maddie and Logan don't fall instantly, madly in love, but instead have a steady push and pull that they slowly work to resolve.  Honestly, this was just a very refreshing book, and I wholeheartedly enjoyed it.  Definitely the best out of the series!

5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Rhythm, Chord & Malykhin - Mariana Zapata

Rhythm, Chord & MalykhinRhythm, Chord & Malykhin was the last Mariana Zapata book I took on as part of my binge.  (She has one more book out, Lingus, but a porn star as a romantic lead just doesn't appeal to me on a personal level.)  This one follows Gaby, who has just gone through a bad breakup and, faced with no other job prospects, agrees to join her brother's band on tour to man the merchandise booth.  This means a cross-country trip in the tour bus, packed with her brother's band and the headliners (and the only woman in the bunch) and then a span of time in Australia and another in Europe.  And it means time with the headlining band's lead singer, Sacha Malykhin, who is, of course, a total dreamboat.  Gaby swears she falls in love with him the first time she hears him sing.

This is a typical Zapata romance in that there's a slow build from strangers to friendship to romance, and that the hero is someone who's somewhat in the public eye.  However, in other books the main couple typically had some degree of privacy on their outings and in their living quarters.  Here, Gaby and Sacha are constantly in the company of no less than ten other people who they travel with.  Zapata minimizes this a bit on the Australia and Europe parts of the tour, when there a couple of instances in which the touring groups stay in hotels.  However, this lack of privacy means that, while there is some good making out here, there's never any, ah, consummation.  I'd say that, while there is some heavier physical contact, this is probably the lightest of Zapta's that I've read in that regard.  Sacha and Gaby were also friends, or friendly, from the very beginning, another aspect I didn't see in the other books.  Gaby herself is also lighter, with no "tragic past" backstory; the most tragic her past gets is that she got breast implants because her boobs were uneven.  While no woman would really wish for that, considering Zapata's other heroines have gone through abusive families, cancer, and losing their dreams, I'd say it's pretty mild.  This is definitely the lightest book overall, and while I might have enjoyed it more in a different context, I think this was probably my least favorite of Zapata's, with the status of "favorite" going to The Wall of Winnipeg and Me.

3 stars out of 5.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Blood Debt - E. A. Copen (Judah Black #2)

Blood Debt (Judah Black Novels Book 2)Blood Debt is the second Judah Black novel, following Guilty by Association, which I read back in May and loved.  GBA really reminded me of a Rachel Caine book, specifically one of the Weather Warden series, and that was the case here, too.  I think the writing styles are very similar, and Judah and Joanne (Caine's heroine) have a lot in common, too, in that they're both humans with special abilities, but whose abilities still don't even rate on the same scale as the things they're up against.  Now, Joanne is always getting turned into crazy things and so far that hasn't happened to Judah, but honestly, I think that's for the best, because it makes Judah's struggles seem all the more real.

BD starts about six months after GBA.  In that time, Judah has had to deal with a slew of illegal fae immigrants, several of whom have gone missing, and has also picked up a mentee through a new program the BSI is piloting to mentor young folks with special abilities.  Judah's mentee is Mara, a college girl with rainbow hair and an attitude problem that probably relates strongly to how her parents treated their gifted daughter.  And when this book starts, Judah has just landed another problem: a double-murder with some definite supernatural signs about it, and it's connected to a very powerful clan of vampires.  If Judah wants to avoid a blood debt-related slaughter, she needs to catch the murderer, fast.  But dead bodies are coming back to life and the BSI isn't happy with her.  In fact, they're sending down someone to pull her back into line.  Meanwhile, things with Sal are getting a little tense, and Hunter still hasn't been admitted to Paint Rock's werewolf pack, something that's clearly imperative if he's going to become someone even relatively well-adjusted.

I think this was a worthy follow-up to GBA; second books are often duds, and I don't think that was the case here.  That said, I also don't think it was quite as strong as GBA, for a few reasons.  First, Hunter has been totally sidelined, very much making him into a prop more than an important character.  I totally get that Judah has a busy, important job, but the first book managed to integrate Hunter into that while she still performed admirably.  Second, the creepy factor is mostly missing from this book.  In the first book, we didn't know what the monster was for much of the book.  There were some hints, and I did zero in on it earlier than it was actually said, but the big bad here is made very evident pretty early on.  What's not immediately clear is who, or what, is controlling it.  I think that Copen did a pretty good job concealing that, and when the information comes out, it's both surprising and makes a lot of sense.  Second, I had a few conceptions trailing over from the first book that I thought would be picked up in this one, but weren't.  The one that immediately comes to mind is Patsy, who was (I believe) the head of the vampire coven in Paint Rock.  When I saw this book was going to more strongly incorporate vamps, I thought Patsy and her peeps would definitely play more of a part, and yet the Paint Rock vampires weren't brought into the story at all.

Things that I did like: I liked Mara.  I think she was a well-developed character given her background, and while I can't say that she featured prominently in this book, I think she was well-integrated.  She kind of ends up as a damsel in distress who doesn't want to be, but she's still not a weak character, and Copen makes that abundantly clear.  I think that's a difficult line to toe, but Copen did it with aplomb.  I liked Sal.  I was disappointed in the relative lack of Sal, to be sure, but he remained awesome, and I liked how Copen added more dimension to his character in the later part of the book, with how Sal balances the stresses of pack life with having, well, a life of his own.  Chanter remained awesome, too, and I'll be sad to see him go when the time comes.  And I liked how Copen is building some sort of menace in the background.  The end of the book tied up a little too neatly for my tastes, but I'm hoping that's because it's going to lead to greater drama and consequences in the books to come.  The fae are also integrated a little more here, and I want to believe that that's going to tie in again, too, but after Patsy and the Paint Rock vampires didn't feature at all in a book that revolved heavily around vamps, I honestly can't be sure.

Finally, I like how Copen has continued to integrate different, unusual magical creatures into her works.  I love books about the plain ol' Seelie and Unseelie fae, who look mostly human but are badass; Holly Black's Tithe books are some of my favorites in this category.  But after a wendigo in the first book and now some spreading into Norse mythology in this one, and not in a Thor direction, I'm glad that Copen's trend of pulling from more obscure mythological lines has carried through to this volume, and that's something that I definitely hope to see more of in the future.

And then there's Sal and Judah.  Hmmmm....

Overall, I think this was a strong follow-up, but honestly not quite as good as the first.  If writing patterns are to be believed, though, I expect Copen to come back stronger than ever in the third book, and I'm honestly super pleased that the second book wasn't a total flop, as second books so often and tragically are.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The High Mountains of Portugal - Yann Martel

The High Mountains of PortugalSo, I think Yann Martel is best known for the other book toted on the cover of this one: Life of Pi.  I read Life of Pi a while back, and while I liked the story, I didn't like the religion floating about in the background.  For a while, I thought that was going to be the case with The High Mountains of Portugal, too.  Once I realized that the title was actually Portugal, and not Peru.  For some reason I kept reading this as Peru.  I am well aware that Portugal and Peru are not the same country, but the "mountains" snapped in my mind as Peru, because I didn't think Portugal had mountains.  And guess what?  It doesn't.  But when I opened the book and it started in Lisbon, I was very confused, because I didn't know why we were in Portugal when I thought we were supposed to be in Peru.  Oooooops.  My bad.

That said, I think about exactly half of this book is good.

The book is divided into three parts taking place in different time periods, but which are all linked together by a town in the High Mountains of Portugal.  The first part follows a young man who has recently lost his lover and their son.  Left with nothing but his career at a museum, he sets out for the High Mountains (which are really more of a desert-like plateau) to recover a unique crucifix he's read about in the diaries of a priest (also the crucifix's creator) who spent time in Angola and Sao Tome tending to the spiritual needs of slaves.  Unfortunately, this part of the book focuses mainly around driving.  At first, Tomas' attempts to work his uncle's brand-new automobile, complete with elephant ear mudflaps, are amusing.  But when he's still driving pages upon pages upon pages later, with not much changing at all... It was interminably boring, and while the discovery at the end of this first part was mildly interesting, it didn't justify the monotonous agony that went before it.

The second part was half-and-half.  It starts out with a long, long treatise from the main character (of this part's) wife about finding God in Agatha Christie novels.  Quite frankly, I don't care.  The second half, dealing with the autopsy of a man who is carried into the main character's pathology department in a suitcase, took a turn for the surreal, and suddenly there's a question of reliability.  Is the main character, whose name I can't remember, a reliable narrator or not?  There's definitely a weird element to this, and a ghostly one, and those parts were much more interesting.

Finally, the third part of the book deals with a Canadian senator who adopts a chimpanzee while on a trip to the US, and moves to Portugal.  I liked this part of the book, but probably more because it was a "new pet" story than anything else.  And I liked the end here, with the revelation of something that everyone had thought was gone.

Like Life of Pi, there's this religious aspect running all throughout the book.  Not being religious, I didn't get this and I consequently didn't like it.  I thought there were some good atmospheric and story elements here, and that the second half was better than the first, but overall not a book I would recommend.  The seemingly endless start combined with the rambling about religion in Agatha Christie in the second part were just roadblocks that I don't think the better elements ever really managed to recover from.

2 stars out of 5.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Romancing the Duke - Tessa Dare (Castles Ever After #1)

Romancing the Duke (Castles Ever After, #1)Romancing the Duke and its companion book, Say Yes to the Marquess had both been on my radar for a while because they've both popped up in the bargain book emails I receive daily.  That said, I never actually got either of them, because I haven't had extraordinary luck branching out into "new to me" authors of historical romance.  I mainly stay with my main girls: Julia Quinn, Eloisa James, Lisa Kleypas, and Courtney Milan.  When I've tried branching out, I've mostly found the results to be lackluster at best.  But the third book in this series, When A Scot Ties the Knot, came up in discussion in the Unapologetic Romance Readers group on Goodreads and was pretty highly praised by several of the group members.  I decided to look into it at some point--and shortly thereafter found out that my library had all three of the Castles Ever After books available through Overdrive for Kindle.  Score!  I checked out all three and set to reading.

Romancing the Duke is the first book in this set of related-but-not-related stories.  What I mean by that is, the stories are related in that they all share a premise and a common source: a young woman has been gifted a castle by her godfather and goes to take up residence in it to start her "own" life, as she has firmly set aside dreams of getting married.  In this case, the young woman in question is Isolde "Izzy" Goodnight, the daughter of a famous author who made her a character in his tales, and then died when the characters were left in a variety of perilous positions.  She's penniless, her cousin having inherited everything of her father's, though she has devoted followers across England who associate the name Izzy Goodnight more with the little girl in the stories than with the real woman behind the name.  She's very relieved to find that her godfather has apparently bequeathed her a castle, because now at least she has somewhere to live, decrepit as it may be.  She's somewhat less pleased to find that it's already inhabited, and by a surly though devastatingly handsome duke, no less.

Ransom Vane, the Duke of Rothbury, is equally displeased to find that a young woman has turned upon his doorstep to take possession of his castle--a castle he never ordered sold.  He's even less pleased when Izzy's followers start showing up and intruding on his brooding abode, because brooding is exactly what Ransom has been doing ever since he lost his fiancee and his sight in one fell swoop.  Yes, you read that right: we have a blind hero, my dears.  Ransom isn't entirely blind, his sight varying across times of the day from shapes and colors to nothing at all, but it's bad enough all the time that he's holed himself up in the great hall of the castle, a space he's memorized out of necessity, with no one other than his valet to witness his infirmity.  And of course Izzy challenges all of that.  She's determined not to leave, because where else would she go?  And then there are her followers, who are entranced not only with her...but also, it turns out, with Ransom, because he closely resembles the hero of the Goodnight Tales.

I really liked this.  I liked that we had a blind (or mostly blind) hero, because that's pretty unusual.  Izzy, as a penniless orphan, isn't quite as unusual, and even the later revelations that are supposed to set her apart are a bit tropeish, but I do love a good trope, and I loved Izzy, too.  Her sweetness and determination didn't feel fake, and while they're pretty much hallmarks of every historical romance heroine, I still don't find myself sick of them.  I think there were enough interesting side characters to add flavor, but without needing to shoe in a useless subplot like so many historical romances try to do.  The biggest subplot here is that someone has been skimming money from Ransom's accounts, and it ties back in nicely with the main premise of the book and how Izzy ended up at the castle to begin with, so it didn't feel out of place at all.  But a word to the wise: if you're hoping to see stories regarding those side characters, don't hold your breath, because it hasn't yet happened, something that I consider to be a shame because some of them are just great.  The setting here has a lot going for it, too.  It's a real Beauty-and-the-Beast style castle, with bats in the chimneys and the whole place in disrepair from years of neglect.  It's kind of a refreshing change from the fancy manors, estates, and townhouses of most historical romances, though I do, of course, love those as well.

Overall, I adored this.  It was a delicious, quick read, as historical romances are meant to be, and Tessa Dare has definitely earned herself a spot up with Quinn, Kleypas, James, and Milan as an author to look out for in this genre.

4 stars out of 5.