Monday, October 31, 2016

Magic Bites - Ilona Andrews (Kate Daniels #1)

Magic Bites (Kate Daniels, #1)Magic Bites was a book that repeatedly came up on lists of paranormal romances that I was perusing, along with a ton of Patricia Briggs books.  It's also apparently won some sort of online tournament for best romance book.  This confuses me, because while this is a fun paranormal mystery, it's not really a romance.  The main character goes on a few dates, but they're half-hearted at best and don't really involve any actual romance.  Because I was specifically looking for paranormal romance, this disappointed me, but I enjoyed the book as a whole all the same.

Kate Daniels is a semi-broke young woman working for the Guild, a sort of mercenary society, and living outside of Atlanta, Georgia in a time when technology is quickly losing ground to magic, which does things like make tech unusable and devours skyscrapers in addition to making things, well, magical.  Vampires and shapeshifters are real--and actually some of the strong parts of the book.  Vampires here were interesting in that they're completely mindless, possessing only a blind bloodlust, unless they're piloted by a Master of the Dead, who is a human with necromantic magic that trends toward the control of vampires.  And shapeshifters come in many, many varieties, not just wolves.  There are also other magical creatures out and about that I haven't encountered in fantasy before, which was interesting and I think a nice touch to make this book stand out--it reminded me of Liz Copen's Guilty by Association and its sequel more than anything else, which was good because I really liked the Judah Black books (and am looking forward to more).  When Kate's long-time guardian is murdered, she takes on the investigation on a pro-bono basis for the Order, a group of magical knights, in an effort to find out what actually happened.  Along the way she finds herself dating a plastic surgeon who does reconstruction on cadavers, and tangled up with the Beast Lord, Curran, who is a lion shapeshifter (hello, cover!) and rules over the rest of Atlanta's shifters, known collectively as the Pack.

Atlanta is a setting I haven't seen used a lot in paranormal fantasy, so that was interesting, and so was the use of a world in which technology is on a slow slide into obscurity while magic reigns supreme.  Andrews puts out some interesting explanations for why magic affects certain things as it does, which shows me that she put some thought into her world building.  And Kate is a cool heroine, armed with a magical sword called Slayer and trying to take on the world on her own, though she's smart enough to not turn down help when it's offered.  One thing that I did find a little eye-roll worthy here is that, ultimately, the plot does revolve around Kate being The Best (because no heroine can only be average, right?) and someone wanting to impregnate her for that reason, which seems like a bit of a tired trope to integrate into what was otherwise a very interesting plot and world.  Curran was very cool and I was disappointed that this didn't turn into the romance that I'd thought it would; I guess Andrews draws it out over the course of the series?  This partly makes sense (you want to keep up the romantic tensions) but is also frustrating because I've seen how well a romance can be played out over the course of a lengthy series even though the characters get together in the first book and stay together throughout (Rachel Caine's Weather Warden series comes immediately to mind in this regard).

Still, I think this was a good book; it kept me reading a little later than I would have normally stayed up, and I think it sets up the rest of the series well.  The unusual elements combined with a solid main character are a good premise, and I'm looking forward to reading at least the next book, Magic Burns, though I can see myself losing patience with this "oh it's a romance but there are NO ROMANTIC ELEMENTS" mentality eventually if it continues.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Captured - Jennifer Chance (Crowns & Gowns #2)

CapturedFollowing up on Courted, I liked it enough to pick up Captured--and despite a few issues with Captured, I liked this one enough to buy the last two books in the quartet (I think it's just a quartet!) so that should give you some indication of how this went.

Captured picks up basically right where Courted left off, but with different main characters, of course.  Lauren is the heroine in this one, and the hero is hunky bodyguard Dimitri--bodyguard and client are one of my favorite pairing tropes, which was one of the reasons I went for this one!  Lauren and her friends are still hanging out in Garronia following Em's engagement to Prince Kristos, and figuring out what they're going to do next.  Lauren slips away from a party to go down into the city and get drunk with the locals, and Dimitri follows to bring her which point she discovers a package hanging out in the palace that she recognizes.  It's from Henry Smithson, who has been sending Lauren packages in that style for years.  Sometimes they contain lavish gifts--clothes, jewels, etc.  Sometimes they contain more sinister things, like spiders, scorpions, or even what she suspects are the ashes of the family dog that went missing.  But Henry is one of her father's best friends and business partners, and haven't believed her in the past when she expressed her feelings that something is very wrong with him, that he's stalking her, etc. and she's convinced the pattern is going to continue now.  But it doesn't, because unlike her parents, Dimitri and the royal family, particularly Queen Catherine, believe her.  And when Henry shows up with Lauren's parents at Kristos and Em's engagement party and tries to coerce Lauren into marrying him, they (well, Dimitri) spirits her off to safety.

Dimitri and Lauren are one of those couples that are attracted to each other, but get on each other's nerves.  Dimitri annoys Lauren because he's a little overbearing, and she frustrates him because she acts like an ice queen when he suspects she's really not.  I really liked this dynamic, and how it slowly began to unwind once Lauren felt safely away from Henry for a while.  The chemistry between the two main characters was definitely there, and for most of the book I think it progressed in a logical manner.  I wasn't rolling my eyes at insta-love the way I was for the entire first half of Courted.  The whole "Lauren has a stalker" thing was a much darker and more menacing plot line than the "oh the media thinks we're together" plot that propelled Courted, and I think it was a nice change.  And this plot also gears up the "search for the missing prince" plot that Courted only hints at.

That said, I did still have a few issues with this.  For the most part, I think the romance progressed in a sensible way, but it did make a big jump to "Oh btw I love you and want to be with you forever" at the end, which seemed very abrupt in the face of how it had been building for the rest of the book.  There's also an attempt to redeem Lauren's parents that I don't think really worked out.  For so much of the book, they were portrayed as not caring, and then suddenly at the end they were like, "Oh, we cared the whole time, we just couldn't do anything about it then," which didn't sit right with me.  I think Lauren's relationship with her parents in light of the whole Henry thing would have suffered a lot more, and the way it was so neatly tied up just didn't seem to fit properly.

That said, this does lay out the plot for the next book nicely, and I'm looking forward to it.  Despite the darker plot of this book, it's still a pretty light series--but I think the plot here tempered it and helped stop it from being too sickly-sweet.  The third book, Claimed, looks like it might be along the same lines, which is good!

3.5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Papillon - Henri Charriere

6882Papillon was my choice for an autobiography for my 2016 reading challenge--and it's a notably interesting one because, while author Henri Charriere insisted its contents were true up until his death, there's some definite room for doubt about large chunks of the book.  Similarities to an earlier book along with the sheer incredibility of some of the events Charriere relates definitely seem to lend themselves to the theory that Papillon is, ultimately, an autobiographical framework (Charriere really was sentenced to life in the French penal colony of French Guiana, and he really did escape and eventually become a Venezuelan citizen) with a lot of narrative embellishments, many of which are suspected to be lifted from the aforementioned earlier work, or perhaps from other inmates with whom Charriere became acquainted during his time in the penal colony.

Basically, Papillon is about a guy who gets sentenced to hard labor for life in French Guiana, and who stages a series of escapes of various levels of elaborateness, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing, but ultimately never being punished as severely as one would think for his failures.  I mean, think about, the guy's escaped from various prisons four or five times, and you're going to let him just wander around the islands?  Doubtful.  While each incident that Charriere relates is interesting and an adventure in and of itself, all of it added up together, along with the fact that everyone seems to love him--from his guards to the prison wardens to all of the inmates he encounters to a tribe of Native Americans that apparently kill every white person they encounter--really does strain the bounds of incredulity.  It does read like a memoir put together years after the events it depicts actually happened; while there is dialogue included, it seems like it's more rough outlines of conversations than actual conversation, which makes sense, but then at the same time other details that probably wouldn't spring to memory seem to proliferate.  It's a strange imbalance, and it does make me believe that while some of the parts of it are real, others are embellished, lifted, or straight-up invented.

I did still like the book, though.  Honestly, it reads to me like the best parts of The Count of Monte Cristo.  The most interesting bits of that book, to me, were when Edmund was imprisoned in the Chateau D'If and when he made his mistake, before the time-jump to his revenge.  And actually, Papillon references Monte Cristo, though Charriere is referring to Edmund's desire to get revenge on those who wronged him.  Still, it seems like this was a blown-up version of the "imprisonment and escape" sequence, and set in Central and South America rather than France.  I can definitely see the influence there, as well as that of the sources mentioned above.  At the same time, though, it's somewhat of a pity that Charriere apparently felt the need to mash all of these stories into one book.  One would think that the story of an actual escape would be much more riveting for its very truth than a book that's pretty obviously been cobbled together and inflated to make its narrator seem like more of a genius and model person than he really was.  But hey, maybe that story wouldn't have sold well in the time that this book was published, though it almost certainly would have been preferred to audiences of today.

I am going to keep this as my autobiography selection for the reading challenge, because it's presented as such and for a long time it was (and by many, still is) accepted to be a true story.  But I side with the doubters--as much as one wants this to be true, I just can't bring myself to believe that more than a fragment of it actually is.  It's almost as if Jules Verne had taken a day trip on a submarine, written Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea...but then named his main character Jules Verne and insisted that all the events of the book were true, you know?  Still, a good adventure story, and I enjoyed reading it even if I did side-eye it a bit.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Friday, October 28, 2016

I Would Never Let My Children Read That!

And now for something completely different, I'd like to take a few minutes to discuss something that I see come up probably at least once a week in one of the several writing and book groups I belong to.  Inevitably, someone posts something like, "Wow!  This sex scene!  I wasn't expecting that in this book!"  Usually it's just a post expressing surprise, because the book wasn't what the poster thought it was--this usually comes up in reference to books marketed to the "Young Adult" demographic.  Perfectly understandable.  People pile on.  "Oh, yeah, I read that too.  What did you think about...?"  And then, inevitably, someone chimes in with, "That's terrible!  I would never let my children read that."

And I always have to sit back and go, "What...?"

My parents never censored what I read.  Ever.  They might have been keeping an eye on what I purchased with my allowance, but I was never told that I couldn't buy a book or check one out of the library.  I'm not sure to what degree they were aware of the books that I was reading in the bookstore (Borders had the most comfortable chairs), because when we arrived they would just turn me loose and I would wander off to wherever suited me.  I ended up in the "Adult" fiction section when I was probably eleven or twelve, because I'm a voracious reader and had a high reading level for my age, and "Young Adult" wasn't a category that really existed then.  I read whatever I wanted.  All the time.  I'm pretty sure I read my first sex scene when I was had to be sixth grade, I think?  It was in a Sweet Valley U book that had a yellow cover; looking at the series now, I can't remember exactly which yellow-covered book it was, but one of the characters owned (I am fairly sure) an ice-blue pair of pants and had sex with a guy who turned out to be gay, but had sex with her anyway so she could get passed around with his friends, or something like that.  Crazy, right?

I think I was thirteen, on a road trip to Michigan, when I got my first real "sex book."  It was my first historical romance, and my dad actually got it for me.  We stopped at one of the "state welcome centers" that appear out of nowhere as soon as you cross state lines.  I stayed in the RV and he went in, and apparently they were giving away used books inside, because he came back with a copy of this book called Hopelessly Compromised.  It's not like he didn't know what he was picking up.  This book's cover practically screamed "Sex scenes within!"  But he picked it up anyway and gave it to me because he knew I loved to read.

Hopelessly Compromised (Precious Gem Historical Romance, #49)

In the years since, I've developed a voracious appetite for historical romances and I've re-read that battered copy of Hopelessly Compromised several times.  It's pretty good; there's one scene of questionable consent at the end, but I distinctly remember that even when I read that for the first time, I thought, "Hey, that's not so cool."  What I can't remember is if the book acknowledges it or not.

So when parents jump to lead their precious teenagers away from books with--gasp!--sex in them, I'm always left scratching my head a bit.  One particular book that came up recently was S. J. Maas' A Court of Thorns and Roses, which is published by Bloomsbury Children's and is marketed to the Young Adult audience.  One person who commented was aghast that the book, which features a pretty explicit sex scene, was shelved among the children's books.  This is, by the way, typically where "Young Adult" books are shelved when there's not a dedicated "Young Adult" section.  This person was shocked that the library had even purchased the book for that section, though S. J. Maas is a wildly popular YA author who writes (mostly) strong female characters who build powerful relationships with the people around them while facing seemingly insurmountable odds.  I have issues with some of her books, but the inclusion of sex scenes isn't one of them.  Why?  Well, the characters are adults.  They are in committed relationships, having consensual sex that both parties enjoy.  What's wrong with that?  How is that a bad thing to have your children read about?  Is having them look up porn on the internet better somehow?  (No.  It's not.  Porn, unlike sex scenes in most modern books, is extremely denigrating to women and does nothing to build up a healthy image of sex.)  I'm not saying that you should be handing them out to your eight-year-old (who probably wouldn't get it, anyway) but what's wrong with your teenager reading them?

"They're my children," you might say, "and I can raise them as I wish."  Fair enough.  That's your prerogative.  But to that, I have to ask... What favor do you think you're doing to them?  Do you think that you're preventing them from becoming crazed sexual deviants at a young age?  Books don't do that to people, just like video games don't.  I read my first sex scene in fifth grade but I was well into college before I had a relationship that was anywhere near sexy.  And kids are pretty good at self-censoring if they think they're not up to something; I remember a particularly graphic torture scene in a book that I paged ahead through because I was definitely not up to it at that point in my life.  Going back to the book a few years later, it wasn't nearly as bad as I'd thought, but at the time I knew I wasn't up for it and so I passed it over.  Do you not trust your children to make those decisions for themselves?  Is it against your religion for unwed people to have sex?  That's fair, but if so, does your child share your faith and that particular opinion?  And if the answer to that is yes, then perhaps consider why your child is still interested in the book.  Maybe it's that there's something else there that it offers.  And there's always the consideration that, even if that is the position of your family, it's not the position of everyone, and people your child encounters in life are going to be having sex about marriage, and are, at some point, probably going to talk about it.  Or is it that you don't want them reading something which might bring up questions that make you uncomfortable, and that you'd rather not discuss?  Because that's not doing anyone a service.  Open and honest discourse in a manner respectful to all involved parties is always the better answer.

I had a friend once whose parents refused to let her read the Harry Potter books because witchraft!!!! She didn't adjust well when she left home, and even when we were still in high school together she was very out of the loop with what everyone else was doing because, even though we weren't doing anything bad (seriously; no drinking, no drugs, no sex) her parents wouldn't let her be exposed to anything even slightly controversial.  Which doesn't leave a lot to talk about for teenagers, now does it?  And I've seen it, time and time again, with other kids.  I work in higher education, and those kids who've never been allowed to make their own decisions are the ones that are left flailing around, helpless, or plunging headfirst into what's real trouble as soon as they're on their own, because their parents never let them figure things out for themselves.  Things like what their limits are, how to handle negative know, all the stuff that we can learn lessons in books from.

I think it comes back to this preconception that sex is dirty, and that women who enjoy it are particularly nasty.  (Such a nasty woman.)  Guys.  It's not true.  I know, I know.  I'm preaching to the choir.  If you're reading this, we're probably (at least mostly) on the same page already.  But it baffles me, and continues to do so every time.  "I would never let my children read that."  Why?  Is it somehow bad for them?  And even if it is, do you let them drink soda?  Eat candy?  Sit around and play video games instead of going outside?  That's all bad for them, and arguably more so than a book with a sex scene.

It boggles my mind that we are in the year 2016, almost 2017, and yet I still see this constant refrain of "I would never let my children read that."  Children are, believe it or not, people too, and letting them read what their interests take them to (which isn't, really, the sex; the books are not about sex, they just have sex in them) and letting them know that, if they have questions or concerns, you're willing to speak with them without judgment is pretty much guaranteed to be a better course of action than banning them from those books.  And besides, reading anything, even if it's straight smut, is always better than not reading at all.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail - Malika Oufkir and Michele Fitoussi

Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert JailWow.  What a story.  Stolen Lives was my pick for "A book from Oprah's Book Club" for my 2016 reading challenge, and it was amazing.  It's the story of Malika Oufkir, the daughter of a Moroccan general who was close with the king--until he tried to assassinate the king, and was executed in turn.  Malika, her mother, and her siblings were placed under house arrest and eventually locked away in a desert jail for over a decade.  All together, they spent twenty years imprisoned for something they hadn't done.  What makes the story even more astounding is that Malika had been adopted by the previous king and raised alongside his daughter, and has fond memories of living in the palace with King Hassan II (the one her father tried to assassinate and who ordered her family imprisoned), though she did always miss her family and the freedom of life outside the palace.

The story is a very simplistic style, which I think is explained somewhat in the prologue.  Malika wrote the book with her friend Michele Fitoussi, who she met in Paris.  Fitoussi explains in the prologue that they recorded Malika telling the story of her life, and Fitoussi did the writing based off that.  The writing style definitely sounds like the oral recitation of a story, so I think that Fitoussi probably did a good job there--and that the person who translated it into English (I don't recall the name and it's not on the cover, I'm sorry) did a good job of bringing that style over into another language.  The simplicity helps highlight the immense changes Malika's life went through, without playing anything up.  In fact, the years of her family's imprisonment actually come across as less severe than I'm sure they were.  While she certainly relates the many difficulties they faced--the rats, the starvation, the separation--it wasn't until she began relating the many physical and mental health problems that plagued the family even after they were released that I truly began to realize the severity of their plight.

One thing that I wish had been highlighted a bit more was Malika's life after her family was released.  She talks about how they still weren't truly welcome in Morocco, despite the support many people expressed for them; no one wanted to be so open about their support that they risked difficulty with the government.  But Malika never actually relates anything past meeting her husband, and I would have liked to know some about how she actually came to leave Morocco and go to France, as she mentions towards the end that the family wasn't allowed to leave.

I had never known that the political situation in Morocco was so fraught, and that the problem of the "disappeared" had been such a large one.  I knew about this issue in other countries around the same time period (in various places in South America, particularly) but not about Morocco!  This book was enlightening, heartbreaking, and uplifting all at the same time.  It's a wonderful autobiography (I think it definitely falls into this category) that tells a story that I don't think many people (thankfully) have to offer, and it is definitely a change from the comedian-authored autobiographies I've read recently.  This is the compelling material that I think a good autobiography truly demands, and it makes the trials of the rich and famous really pale in comparison.

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas

The Count of Monte CristoThe Count of Monte Cristo was my long-awaited pick for the category of "A book that intimidates you" for my reading challenge.  The intimidating factor was the sheer page count; while I like long books, I was a bit concerned about the timing of this long book throwing off my count for the rest of the year.  I mean, it took me almost a year to read my last very long book, Dragonfly in Amber.  But the pressure of having a deadline helped me push through, and I managed it in a decent amount of time--though it did kill my reading numbers for September!

This is a classic, with a classic's story line: Edmond Dantes, in line to be promoted to the captain of the ship he works on, is struck down by the jealousy of one of his crew mates who, with the help of a man jealous of Edmond's relationship with Mercedes, Edmond's fiancee.  Added into the mix, though unwittingly, is a crown prosecutor who hopes to hide his own connections to Napoleon in hopes of advancing himself under the restored monarchy.  Edmond is thrown in prison, where he stays for fourteen years before escaping and seeking revenge on his persecutors with the assistance of a massive fortune he acquires on the tiny island of Monte Cristo.

I didn't really find this book that intriguing.  I found the plot contrived, and that it relied too much on coincidence to move forward--for example, Edmond just apparently sails around the Mediterranean until someone just happens to invite him to Paris?  What?  How is that a valid plan for revenge?  Also, it's repeatedly mentioned that people always comment on how freakishly pale Edmond is, and yet when he puts on a wig and a robe, no one can possibly imagine that it might be him in disguise!  I also felt like it read like a kind of RP or fanfic, in which Dumas was continually going, "You know what would be cool?  IF IT ALL GOT EVEN CRAZIER."  The way that several of the plots tied up didn't really seem to make sense, either.  We never find out what happens with Andrea, Danglars seems to get off lightly compared to the other people Edmond targets, and Edmond keeping Morrel, the son of the man who tried to help him, in sheer agony for a month before bothering to tell him the big reveal with Valentine.  What?  Some of this stuff might have worked better when the book was originally published as a serial, when readers might forget some of this ridiculousness between installments, but getting it all in short order made it stand out a lot.

The portions of the book that took place in the Chateau d'If, the recollection of what happened at Janina, and some other portions of the book were interesting, but reading about Morrel and Valentine swooning all over each other was not intriguing.  Seeing Albert get duped at Carnival was amusing; hearing about everyone's costume changes for every day of it was not.  It alternated between interesting and dreadfully boring, and Edmond lingers in the background for most of the book, taking away the intriguing main character who was so built up early on.  We can see his machinations coming to life, but without seeing him actually do them, I felt like it lost some of the impact.  I liked Edmond, even as he became bitter in prison and began plotting his escape and his revenge.  I didn't really like the Count of Monte Cristo, who felt very one-dimension in comparison to his previous identity.

This book didn't overall leave me as a huge fan of Dumas.  I might read more of him someday, but I won't be diving for another volume of his work anytime soon.

2.5 stars out of 5.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea - Jules Verne

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Extraordinary Voyages, #6)Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is an interesting novel because it both has and has not aged well.  On one hand, Verne really nailed down the scientific aspects of the book.  The Nautilus is, of course, a submarine that was beyond its time and is still remarkable in our own for how well it pinned down features of subs that hadn't actually been developed yet.  And then there's the stuff like the pseudo-scuba equipment, and the portable lights for under water, and the deep sea exploration in general.  These are things that are still very much in use and relevant even if their form isn't exactly as Verne portrayed it in his book.

At the same time, though, this book dates back to a time when serials for the masses were the craze and when many people couldn't afford to travel, and things like aquariums weren't really accessible to the general populace.  The endless descriptions of every fish that Aronnax (our narrator) sees really wore on my patience, though they probably would have been remarkable to people who couldn't go to an aquarium or turn on a seven-hour nature documentary series about the oceans.  Still, they didn't really age that well and seemed to take up a lot of page space compared to the actual content.  Things like the mysterious passage under the Isthmus of Suez are also total bunk now and really seem like a reach compared to the more finally-wrought pieces of the book.

The actual "adventure" portions of the book also seemed few and far between.  There are two instances here that I think really stand out: the excursion to the ruins of Atlantis and the maelstrom at the end.  Both of these episodes are rather short, disappointingly so amidst the endless fish descriptions, and it's actually a bit surprising that Verne didn't do more with them.  With Atlantis, there's a lot of walking, a couple minutes of standing in one spot and going "Wow!  Atlantis!" and then a lot of walking back to the Nautilus.  With the maelstrom, there's so much drama building up, and then--suddenly--Aronnax wakes up with all the drama glossed over and done with, and with no memories of what actually happened.  For an adventure novel, it's very strange, and it makes it feel very much like Verne was more comfortable with spouting a stream of locations, distances, and fish species than he was with actually writing action.  There are only two big action scenes here that I can think of: when the Abraham Lincoln actually encounters the Nautilus, and the incident with the giant squid.  Even things that are made out to be big events, like the undersea hunting expedition, are mostly a bunch of walking back and forth.

I can definitely see where some of the appeal of Twenty Thousand Leagues comes from, but while it has some cool components that have lingered, I think that the bulk of the book just drags too much for it to be a really riveting read in the modern era.

2 stars out of 5.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Shutting Out the Sun - Michael Zielenziger

Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation
Shutting Out the Sun is really about Japan in the first decade of the 2000s, and as such parts of it might be just a tiny bit outdated.  However, there's still some really interesting stuff in here.  The thing is, I think Zielenziger divided the book into two parts.  A very interesting, well-written first part, and a second part that's basically just economic info and isn't as good for reasons I'll discuss more below.

The first part of the book really focuses on the phenomenon of hikikomori, which is a mental health epidemic (Is epidemic too strong a word?  I don't really think so, but maybe.) affecting primarily young men in Japan, where the sufferers shut themselves away, refusing to leave their rooms for months or even years, and refusing to let anyone else see them, as well.  The cause seems to be rooted in what amounts to a form of social anxiety that's brought out because Japan's social constructs are very rigid and community-based, and there's not a lot of ways to exert one's personality.  Zielenziger even points out that things that Westerners would normally count as asserting one's personality, such as unusual clothes, collections, etc., tend to be just another way of fitting in with a certain social group in Japan.  In this part of the book, Zielenziger makes a point to talk to a lot of Japanese citizens who either identify as hikikomori or who study and try to help the hikikomori.  In his introduction, he even made a point to say that he felt a need to include as many Japanese voices as possible because, as an outsider and a Westerner to boot, he couldn't really get a grasp on the hikikomori phenomenon as well as those who are "inside" Japanese society do.  I thought this was a very good point, and was happy to see that Zielenziger did such a good job with this.  I also particularly liked his chapter on women in contemporary Japanese society, and how careers, marriage, and birth control are handled; this was another chapter in which I think there were a good number of Japanese voices to help give us outsiders a look at what's really going on in Japan.

But then we hit the second part of the book.  In the second part, Zielenziger tries to make an argument for the economic and social issues that have formed an atmosphere in which young men can shut themselves away from society and the national birth rate can plummet because women refuse to have children.  In the second part of the book (roughly the second half; there is no real "part" division built in) the Japanese voices nearly vanish.  Zielenziger still has a lot of citations and there's definitely some research here, but it's pretty much all from a Western point of view and, though he does make an attempt to point out American imperialism towards the end, it's somewhat of a weak one and lets the West in general and the United States in general off very lightly for contributing to Japan's current situation.  Granted, many social constructs play into the social problems now facing Japan--but if you're going to make an argument that economics is essentially behind the social problems, then you really need to put a heavier does of the blame on the country that forced the economic situation on Japan in the first place.  That would be us, the good ol' US, and Japan probably doesn't have as much freedom to just "ditch" the US as Zielenziger implies.  Because of the lack of voices in the second half of the book, it does come off as very superior-sounding.  Very much, "Well the west is like this, why can't Japan just change to be like this, too?" with only a passing nod to the conditions that do prevent Japan from just adapting Western attitudes.  And then, of course, there's this kind of expression that the "Western" way is the only way and a presenting things as globalization when they're really imperialism.  Yes, globalization is a real force, but the things that Zielenziger brings up here more often than not fall into imperialism instead.

Overall, some interesting information and interviews to begin with, but the second half is a work I'm very leery of praising.  I liked this book overall, because of that first half, but have some reservations about the second and don't feel confident giving it more than...

3 stars out of 5.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Jewel - Amy Ewing (Lone City #1)

The Jewel (The Lone City, #1)This book kept popping up on my Overdrive dashboard for the library, and I'll be honest: I thought it was a sequel to The Selection.  The covers and titles are just so similar.  But apparently, it's not!  When another member of the NaNoWriMo book on Facebook was looking to read it, I decided that I would, too, so we could discuss.

It was okay.  The story is about Violet, who is slated to be a surrogate for a rich family in the Jewel, the center and wealthiest ring of the Lone City, which is apparently surrounded by ocean that will destroy them all if they're not careful.  (There is absolutely not a chance that they don't find out there's something out there beyond the city during the course of this series.)  The families in the Jewel can't bear their own children because they need the surrogates, who have special abilities called Auguries, to repair the gene damage in their families that resulted from generations of in-breeding amongst the same elite set.  At the surrogate auction, Violet is purchased by the Duchess of the Lake, the matriarch of one of the four founding families.  She's swept off to the Duchess' house, where she's known only as "the surrogate of the House of the Lake," and is rewarded if she behaves, and punished if she doesn't.  She's separated from her friends and family and really only has a looming pregnancy to look forward to.  She wants to escape...and then, of course, she meets dreamy Ash, who was hired as a companion to the Duchess' niece to get her ready for marriage.  Love at first sight ensues.

Honestly, I think the best part of this book was the potential it laid out for the next ones.  It felt very formulaic, trope-y, and patched together to me.  Basically like Ewing read a bunch of other YA books and pieced together the parts she liked, together with the whole "surrogate" thing which is apparently somewhat like The Handmaid's Tale, but I haven't read that so I can't really look into it.  The love at first sight was very eye-roll worthy, and I didn't buy the "romance" between Violet and Ash at all.  Violet really wasn't a very interesting character in general; she played the cello and wandered around looking pretty and moping about her fate instead of really trying to do anything about it, all while waiting for rescue from a guy she literally met twice before the plan was hatched, and who she doesn't really have any reason to trust.  The more interesting characters were the minor ones, so I'm hoping that they become a bit more prominent in the next book.  I also didn't buy into the world of the Lone City; there were all these things that didn't make sense to me.  The whole way the city was set up, with the rings of different industries, and jewels and riches and stuff, but no where that the resources actually came from, seems either extremely poorly thought out, or very fishy.  I haven't decided which one yet.  It's also very strange to have a plot that relies so heavily on pregnancy and its threats, problems, etc. but shies away from sex.  I understand it's a YA book, but I feel like you can't have it both ways on this issue.

I will be reading the second book in this series, The White Rose (and I believe the third just came out) because I'm hoping that the plot is about to become a bit more complex, and that the side characters who showed such promise will become more prominent.  Oh, and I hope they kill Ash.  He's lame.

2.5 stars out of 5, but with hope for the future.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Courted - Jennifer Chance (Gowns & Crowns #1)

Courted: Gowns & Crowns, Book 1There are basically two things to keep in mind regarding Jennifer Chance's Courted.  First, it's a love at first sight book.  Second, the second half of the book is much better than the first.

The story follows Emmaline, who is on vacation in Europe with her friends, taking a break from taking care of her parents, who were in an accident that left both with a lot of health problems.  Their first stop is Garronia, which is basically like a Greek version of Genovia.  Yes, that's right, it's a Ruritanian romance.  Em is out for a swim in the riptide-plagued waters of the beach, and is struggling a bit but on track to be fine, when she is rescued by the ruggedly handsome Kristos, Prince of Garronia, who is out training with his military buddies.  It's also Kristos' last day with the military, as he has to take up his place as the Crown Prince and heir apparent in the wake of the death of his older brother, Ari.  As Kristos sits comforting Em after her "near death experience" (seriously, she was fine) they start making out.  Uhm.  What?  Obvs, people catch this on camera, and suddenly there's a media storm.  And then when Em goes on a tour of the Visitor's Palace later that day, Kristos appears again, and kisses her again, really setting things off, and suddenly Kristos and Em are off to hide in a mountain chateau while Em's friends are left behind in the city, hiding in the main palace.  Of course they proceed to have crazy sex with each other in a ton of places.

Honestly, I think the story improved some after the first round of sex; up until that point, I was rolling my eyes and actually walked away from the book for a good chunk of time because it was just so... Ugh.  Love at first sight makes me nauseous, and this book was just going a bit too far for me.  But after that first time (which is not either of the characters' first times), they both (temporarily) decide that they're just going to enjoy it when it lasts, even if it won't be long-term, and the story moves on.  It introduces the queen, who was awesome, and the story does eventually spiral back around to what happens when the media turns on a former darling.  This was really one of the strongest parts of the book for me.  The way that Em's friends and family counter the media shitstorm came across as much more polished than I've seen in other places, and actually dealing with it in general was a step up from another "modern royal romance" I've read recently (The Royal We).  This second half of the book was enough to keep me interested in the series in general, though the implication that the next book will be about Lauren and Dimitri (who are one of those "we're attracted to each other but we don't like each other" couples) is an even bigger draw to me.  I do love a good bodyguard/client pairing.  This definitely wasn't a deep, intricate story.  It's most assuredly fluff, and it got off to a rough start.  But the second half did redeem it somewhat and I have hopes that the other books in the series will be more even in quality overall.

3 stars out of 5.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister - Gregory Maguire

Confessions of an Ugly StepsisterConfessions of an Ugly  Stepsister was my pick for a fairytale retelling for my 2016 reading challenge.  I read Wicked back when I was in high school, and wasn't a huge fan.  There were some interesting aspects to it but I found it overall very strange and it didn't really agree with me.  I liked Confessions much better!

The story takes place in seventeenth-century Holland, where the Fisher family has just fled after the death of the father.  Our main character is Iris, the younger of the two "ugly stepsisters" from the traditional Cinderella story.  When the family finds refuge with a painter, Iris finds a love for drawing and a growing attraction to the master painter's assistant, but is too busy helping her family to survive to act on her desires.  Eventually, the family finds themselves moved into the house of a prosperous trader dealing in tulips, and this is where the Cinderella tale really begins to take shape.  Iris is a much more sympathetic character than the stepsister in the story, but she still has her "ugly" moments on the inside--her looks are nothing to write home about, but her actions are, for the most part, well-intended.

But honestly, the most fascinating character here is Clara.  She is such a weird Cinderella-character, and seeing her essentially relegate herself to her reduced status was something very different, as was her agoraphobia and her, honestly, bitchiness.  For much of the book, Clara acts more like the stereotypical ugly stepsister than Iris and the older sister, Ruth.  Clara's firm belief that she is a changeling is strange, but evidently a mechanism for coping with something that happened to her when she was younger.  While some of the details come out eventually, not all of them do, but based on Clara's actions, I think we can probably make some educated guesses.  It's definitely a darker take on the story than one typically reads, all of the grit of harsh reality without any of the light touches of magic to lighten things up.  Some of the feel of it was, honestly, very similar to The Miniaturist, and I think readers of one would like the other.  The Cinderella story is an overall minor aspect here, and this is more of a historical fiction with a bit of a fairytale-inspired treatment than a true fairytale retelling, because the retelling doesn't truly come into play until so late in the game.

SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH: The thing I didn't like here was Ruth.  I thought the treatment of her character was an interesting one, and she has her own sort of growth throughout the story.  When the revelations came out in the end, I at first thought that it was a fascinating way to go about it--but then there was an assertion by Ruth that I really didn't agree with.  It just didn't seem to fit.  While I think some of her actions, and that everyone underestimated her, suited the story overall, the suggestion that she had basically faked her mental/developmental disorder for her entire life in order to pull one over on her mother was...mildly offensive.  I did not think that aspect worked, at all, and it really turned me off to the ending in general, which is a shame.

Overall, this was good.  I liked it, and it's made me more inclined to read more of Maguire's work than Wicked did.  I think the historical fiction-style retelling worked better than his treatment of Oz, though maybe if I went back to that book now I would feel differently.  The revelation at the end here was a bit of a turn-off, but I think the bones of this story were good and the writing was elegant, I enjoyed it as a whole.

The Kindle edition, though, does need some serious work--there are a huge number of missing quotation marks, the paragraph/page breaks are strange, and the formatting is overall not good; very disappointing for a release from a major house.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Cruel Beauty - Rosamund Hodge (Cruel Beauty #1)

Cruel Beauty (Cruel Beauty Universe #1)Cruel Beauty is a book that I think had a lot of potential and, for a while, was well-executed, but in the end fell flat.  It was the book club pick for October for the Unapologetic Romance Readers group on Goodreads, and I was pretty excited for it--I had voted for it--because it had been on my to-read list for a while.  It's a Beauty and the Beast-based story in which Nyx, the heroine, has been raised to marry a demon prince as payment for a bargain her father made prior to her birth.  The setting is somewhat strange.  It appears to be the island of Great Britain, but magically cut-off, and on a timeline in which Britain continued to be ruled a sort of Greco-Roman dynasty after the fall of the Roman Empire.  But there's also magic and what seem to be pseudo-Victorian or -Regency trappings.  It's a strange mishmash, and Hodge continues this mash into other areas of the story, which are ultimately what I think led to its downfall.

The story starts with Nyx on the day of her wedding.  She's married by proxy (a statue) to the Gentle Lord, and then promptly deposited on his doorstep with the expectation that she will never return.  But her sacrifice isn't to be for naught.  Once inside the demon's castle, she's supposed to find its four magical centers and destroy the castle, with the demon inside, and free the people of her country from his rule.  But she quickly finds that everything isn't as it seems.  The Gentle Lord, Ignifex (not his real name), lets her know that every night, she'll have the chance to guess his name.  If she gets it right, she goes free.  If she gets it wrong, she dies.  (She also has the option to just not guess.)  And she has a key that unlocks all the doors she's allowed to go through, and told that if she goes through other doors, it's likely she'll die.  Demons lurk in the shadows, ones that don't have the seemingly good intentions of Ignifex, and there seems to be little hope of Nyx ever successfully navigating the constantly-shifting castle and destroying it.  But she does have the help of Shade, Ignifex's shadow who takes on physical, human form at night, and--just maybe--of Ignifex himself, who doesn't actually seem to want to kill her.  Or ravish her.  But of course, as time goes on, feelings grow between them...

Beauty and the Beast is the main basis of the story here, but Hodge also mixes in Greek mythology, mainly the story of Pandora and a weird creation called The Kindly Ones, who seem to be based on the Furies (The Kindly Ones is another word for furies, who have pursuit of oath-breakers as part of their job, and breaking oaths is a big deal in this world) but also have some strange component of making bargains with strings attached, a la Rumplestiltskin. 

Image result for all magic comes with a price

While these strings play together in an interesting fashion throughout the story, at the end they all collide in a sort of series of climaxes, which don't really fit together and seem to go on for far too long--seriously, this book could have ended at least twice before it actually did.  And then there's a weird time paradox involved that I didn't really "buy" the workings of, either.  It's such a shame, because this was a cool world and an interesting premise, but ultimately some of the things that made it so cool made it too complicated to work in a sensible manner, and it kind of fell apart under its own weight.

Nyx was an awesome character, though.  The thing that ultimately her so strong and so different was that she wasn't a nice person, and she wasn't afraid of showing it.  She had a noble goal in mind, but her motive for attaining it had more than a little resentment and guilt attached to it, rather than being selfless.  As Ignifex says, she has "a little malice in her heart," and she never really gets rid of that.  Even at the end, she maintains it, and that's what made her so strong and so different.  Heroines in these sorts of books are always so good and pure, and seeing someone who had a splotch of black on her heart was a very different feelings.  And the same with Ignifex and Shade, both--none of the characters here, not even Nyx's oh-so-sweet twin, are actually good, but they're also not utterly despicable to the point that you don't want to root for them.  It was an interesting balance, and I think that was an aspect that Hodge handled very well.

Ultimately, this is a first book, and I think the construction of it shows in the end.  I'm still interested in reading more of Hodge's work, because I think authors certainly learn a lot from the first book they produce, and come back much stronger in future volumes.  Hodge had strong beginnings here, and with a bit of refinement, I think she could become a real powerhouse in the "fairy tale retelling" genre.

3 stars out of 5.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Elixir - Hilary Duff (Elixir #1)

Elixir (Elixir, #1)Oh, Elixir.  What a twisted path we've taken to each ohter.  See, the thing is, I noticed Elixir when it first came out because it was seemingly everywhere in the bookstores I was going to.  But I didn't read it.  (Why?  Two reasons: it was written by Hilary Duff, and while The Lizzie McGuire movie is the pinnacle of all things amazing, I am skeptical of celebrities' writing abilities, and because the font was too big.  Yes, I did in fact judge books by how large they were printed, in some though that the larger the font, the poorer the quality.  I still think there is something to this idea.)  But it came to mind when I needed a book to fulfill the "written by a celebrity" category of my reading challenge, so off to the library I went.

It was better than I thought, but not great.

Here's the thing.  I think this is a premise that would make an awesome late teen/young adult TV show.  It has all the markings of a great one for these times: a pretty girl with a penchant for photography, a love triangle with two attractive guys, a hint of the supernatural, and various times and places that would make sets and costuming a clear standout.  And for a book in the same vein, it wasn't horrible.  In fact, I liked it quite a bit until about 2/3 of the way through.  The plot follows Clea, who, after looking at pictures taken on vacation with her best friend, finds that the same guy is lurking in the background in all of them, including in places there's no way he actually could have been--like hundreds of feet up in midair.  And then she starts having dreams about him, in four distinctly separate times and places, with her taking on the persona of four different young women.  And then, when she tells her friend Ben about them, he reveals to her that she's not the first person to see this guy in photos.  Clea's father saw him in photos of and by her, too, all through her life up until he vanished a year before while on a trip to Brazil.  Wanting answers about both the guy in the pictures and her father's disappearance, Clea accepts a photojournalism assignment to cover the Samba Parade at Carnival and plans to stop by the last place her father was seen on the way.  And then, while she's there, she and Ben run into the guy from the photos, and everything gets weird very fast.

Here's the thing... Once Clea and Ben run into Sage, all logic goes out the door and the pace of the story dissolves into complete goop.  I think it was actually pretty well-structured leading up to this point, and even for a bit afterwards I thought it was going to go well.  But then Clea decides to dive head-first into a relationship with a guy that she thinks might have killed her in past lives and might be planning to do so again because her other best friend, Rayna, tells her to listen to her heart.  Oh, suddenly instead of just looking for answers, Clea & Co. are being chased by a bunch of baddies who have no problems shooting up malls in Tokyo to get at them.  (This is another scene that was tailor-made for TV but did not work so great on paper.)  Very little is found out about Clea's dad, except that he might actually still be alive, but that didn't really bother me, because that's something that's clearly going to come out more in the other books in the series.  But the end of the book... Ugh.  Clea is all blame-y on Ben for something that was really her fault, and that was so against the logical person she'd been for most of the book that it annoyed me even more than it would have if she'd been a normal brainless YA heroine.  That and a few more minor things (Clea's dad was declared dead after four months?  What?  It's typically seven years for someone to be declared dead without a body, people...) really grated one me, even though I could see how awesome this really could have been.

Overall, I think this is a book that was written with the screen, rather the page, in mind--not surprising, considering Duff's background.  And I think it would have done well on the small screen.  But as a book, the pacing just doesn't feel right, and the way that Clea as a character kind of falls apart at the end, putting a guy she's just met before everyone else, including friends and family she's had for, uhm, ever, really knocked it down for me.

2 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Marrying Winterborne - Lisa Kleypas (Ravenels #2)

Marrying Winterborne (The Ravenels, #2)It took me forever to get this book because there were no fewer than twenty-six people ahead of me on the hold list at the library.  I've eagerly awaited it for months...and I'm disappointed.  Marrying Winterborne is not Kleypas' finest work, and there's basically one reason for this: it's not really a romance in the sense we typically think of.  The actual romance took place in the previous book, Cold-Hearted Rake, and wraps up very early in this book, leaving a typical romance subplot (family drama) to carry the rest of the book on its own.  But the thing is... I'm not sure how else to really do it for this particular one.

Here's the problem.  Our hero, Rhys Winterborne, ended Cold-Hearted Rake as a real ass.  Like, a real bastard.  And then he's pretty manipulative in the beginning of this volume, too, which means that, once he and Helen actually reconcile, he can't put a single toe out of the line before straying dangerously in the territory of "might not be redeemable in the readers' eyes."  But since this reconciliation takes place so early, Rhys actually ends up staying off the page for far more of the book than Kleypas' heroes typically do, mainly only appearing so he and Helen can have sex and so he can rant about his arch nemesis, something Vance.  The rest of the time, Helen pines, deals with the twins (Pandora and Cassandra, who are awesome.  I want their books to be written, STAT.) and finds out a Secret about herself that could jeopardize everything she wants!  GASP!

...except it can't, because plainly she and Rhys can't really have a falling out of over this Secret, because, uhm, they already had a falling out, and Rhys blowing up at Helen over something that's so clearly not her fault really would push him into the Land of Irredeemable Heroes.  (This is totally a real place.)  I am all for suspension of disbelief in books, and Kleypas really usually does well in this area, but I just could not find it in me to believe that real conflict was going to arise from this.  And part of the problem is because Helen is just  She's all sweetness and light and despite apparently liking shocking people (which she doesn't actually seem to other than one moment) there's really not all that much to her.  She's thought of by her family and friends as a delicate wallflower who hangs out in the background, and she's exactly that, and doesn't really have any hidden qualities that elevate her to the status of "interesting main character."  Wallflowers totally can be interesting main characters, and Kleypas has done it before.  I just don't think she's done it here.  There are just so many other interesting characters (Pandora, Cassandra, West, Severin! and even Charity/Carys) flitting about that making Helen the star is difficult, and I don't think it was really successful.

I have really high hopes for the rest of this series, because now Kleypas has burned through the two boring heroines and should have the more interesting ones coming up.  The next book, Devil in Spring, is going to tie in her Wallflowers series to this one, which is great, because that was my favorite series of hers.  But this particular installment wasn't a strong one, and it's not one I anticipate going back to time and time again to read the juicy bits.  (Come on, you do it too.)

2 stars out of 5.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Ropemaker - Peter Dickinson (The Ropemaker #1)

The Ropemaker (The Ropemaker, #1)The Ropemaker has been one of my favorite fantasy stories for a long time, but I hadn't read it in a while, which meant that it was a perfect candidate for my reading challenge category of "A book you haven't read since high school."  I knew that I hadn't read this since high school because I lent my copy to someone and they never gave it back!  Don't you have when that happens?  But now I have the Kindle version, so all is well--though really, the Kindle version could so with some updating format-wise.  Also, did you know that Peter Dickinson was married to Robin McKinley?  I didn't!

So.  The Ropemaker is the story of Tilja, a girl who lives in the peaceful Valley, which has been cut off from the Empire to the south and the land of the horse tribes to the north for twenty generations due to an act of magic that has been maintained by two families, one of them Tilja's own.  The story starts with the slow failure of the magic that protects the Valley, and Tilja ends up going with her grandmother and two members of the other family who protect the magic to find Faheel, the magician who cut the Valley off in the first place, to renew the spells that keep them safe.

This is, at its heart, a simple story, but I love it.  I think Dickinson has managed to create one of those worlds that might seem simple on the surface, but you absorb a very deep sense of it while reading.  From the Valley to the Empire's capital of Talagh, to the city of the dying in the south, to all of the things and people and customs that Tilja and her companions encounter in between, it's just a very rich world and one that has a lot of cultural characteristics that aren't very commonly seen in fantasy novels.  Tilja is also a simple character, but one that I think makes her approachable for a wide variety of readers.  She's a little bit of a misfit, being the elder daughter in her family but not being on track to inherit her family's farm because she can't hear the cedars in the forest that protects the Valley.  Indeed, Tilja is actually the least magical person, well, ever, and as she goes on her journey she learns to grow into that and use it to her own advantage, turning it into her own sort of special ability.  And while we know Tilja isn't a full adult, it's hard to get a handle on exactly how old she is until about two-thirds of the way through the book, which I think allows you to read her as a variety of ages...and they pretty much all work.

Honestly, this book is a lot like The Hobbit to me: a simple, magical journey with what is ultimately a very simple goal, but also a story that is enveloping and beautiful at the same time.  (I don't have the same feelings for the main Lord of the Rings trilogy.)  I was so happy when this received a sequel, Angel Isle, years after I first read it, and I was very pleased to have an excuse to read it again.

5 stars.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Soulless - Gail Carriger (Parasol Protectorate #1)

Soulless (Parasol Protectorate, #1)For some reason, I thought I'd already read something by Gail Carriger--the name just sounds so familiar.  But scrolling through her titles, that doesn't seem to be the case; Soulless is definitely the first book of hers to come across my shelves.  While it had been on my to-read list for a while, due to some good ratings from friends, I ended up getting around to it because it was the September buddy read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers group.

Soulless was a weird book to me, because it was another of those titles that had all the things I typically like, but when looked at as a whole it didn't amaze me.  What are those things I like?  Romance.  Paranormal fantasy. Victorian steampunk settings.  All of these things are tropes that I typically gush over, and they were all combined here.  In Victorian England, Alexia Tarabotti is soulless, AKA a preternatural--her touch nullifies the abilities and supernatural-ness of, well, supernaturals, the main two varieties being werewolves and vampires.  (Ghosts are also included as supernaturals but we don't actually see any in this book.)  While supernaturals are known the world over, England seems to be unique in the way that they have been integrated into society.  For example, in the United States, supernaturals are executed if they're found out.  Alexia inherited her condition from her Italian father, but her mother and family don't know about.  Who does know about it Lord Maccon, head of BUR.  I have no idea what BUR stands for.  I'm not sure it was ever explained.  But it's a sort of agency that helps to govern the supernatural community.  Lord Maccon (which, honestly, I kept reading as Lord Bacon) is also a werewolf.  Oh, and he has the hots for Alexia, even though they always argue and there was apparently a detrimental incident with a hedgehog.

The book starts out with Alexia encountering a very strange vampire and killing him, opening the door to a whole mystery involving the disappearances of supernaturals and someone hunting Alexia.  And of course, her courtship by Lord Maccon.  But here's the thing: this didn't feel like a balanced book.  It felt like the second halves of two separate books.  The paranormal mystery component came across as rushed, and I felt like we only had the second half of the romance--because for all Alexia and Maccon snipe at each other and profess to not liking each other, they certainly end up making out pretty quickly.  I wish that their earlier interactions--like the hedgehog incident--had been included, because I  think that would have really helped to build the romance in a better way.  As it was, it just felt a bit disconnected, and I also never felt like it integrated in a good way with the mystery plot.  This book also would have benefited from a few chapters entirely from Maccon's point of view to help flesh out BOTH sides of the plot.  Because this fleshing-out, in all aspects, never happened, it really feels like this is just the facade of a story, instead of the story itself...which, considering this book is about 360 pages long, seems rather odd.

The other thing that bothered me was the "soulless" thing itself, because there is absolutely nothing to indicate that Alexia doesn't have a soul.  Everyone seems to think that just because she's logical and keeps her head about her, that means she's soulless.  Oh, and the whole neutralizing touch thing.  But the thinking here just didn't make sense to me--Alexia can clearly think and feel and possesses her own free will, so why wouldn't she have a soul?  I thought this was going to come out more as a realization in the end, that she's not soulless at all, but it didn't.  Consequently, the whole book rests upon what is, ultimately, some flimsy thinking, and it totters precariously on its perch.

I did like the bantering between Alexia and Maccon, and I liked the writing in general.  It was snarky and charming.  I've seen a few people mention they thought less time could have been spent describing what people where wearing, and while I can see the point there--it does take up a significant amount of page time that I think probably could have been used for plot and character development--I rather liked it.  It helps the whole book to read as a sort of lengthy gossip column, which I think is an interesting way of looking at a story.  I'm not sure if that was intentional or not, though.  I think Carriger has an interesting world here, and she could do a lot with it...but I'm not sure that she accomplished it in this particular book.

2.5 stars out of 5.  This had some things I liked but I think the flaws outweighed them, and I'm not really intrigued enough to read the rest of the series.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Three-Body Problem - Cixin Liu (Three Body Problem #1)

The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth’s Past #1)The Three-Body Problem is a Hugo Winner.  That means that, in the sci-fi/fantasy category, it's good.  I will trust other people's judgment on that, for the most part, because I am not a connoisseur of "hard" sci-fi, which this is.  I'm more a StarDoc type of girl, personally, if I read sci-fi at all.  Time-travel isn't bad, either.  This...this was a little "hard" for me, but I still enjoyed it overall.

So, the story is about people making contact with aliens.  It jumps between a couple of timelines: the Cultural Revolution in China and modern-day China, when China and the rest of the world are secretly (as in, the militaries and governments are, but the people don't know about it) preparing for a war against said aliens.  The basic story is this: during the Cultural Revolution, Ye Wenjie is thought to be anti-revolutionary and is confined to a base called Red Coast atop a mountain called Radar Peak, for the big antenna located there.  She works on the systems at the base without really knowing what they do, other than that they broadcast and receive signals from space.  Eventually, she figures out some science that makes it more likely that any signals broadcast into space would be picked up by intelligent life, and sends out a signal because she is increasingly disillusioned by life on Earth.

In the current day, Wang Miao is asked by the military to infiltrate a group of scientists among whom suicide has been rampant.  He refuses, but when strange things start happening to him, including a countdown that only he can see, he relents and agrees.  Along the way, he encounters a strange virtual-reality video game called Three Body, which features a world that is plagued by unstable day/night and season cycles.  Wang sets out to solve the problem of Three Body, and of course gets sucked into the drama surrounding it.

I thought this book had some really interesting parallels between Earth and the alien civilization, Trisolaris, and I actually learned quite a bit about the Three-Body Problem itself, too.  It's a physics problem in which three bodies (in this case, stars) affect each other's gravity and orbits and those of anything else near them--like, oh, planets.  The thing is, no one has actually solved the Three-Body Problem and found a way to accurately predict the movements of every three-body system.  I think this was an interesting way to incorporate the alien civilization into the story, as a group trying to solve the problem for their own self-preservation.  The movement of the timeline between past and present also worked here.  I don't think the author held anything back from a misguided attempt to make us gasp with shock, but instead revealed things in a manner that was surprising, and interesting, but still sensible to both the characters and the reader.

I'm not sure if I'll continue this trilogy; I'm not opposed to it, per se, because this was clearly a very solid book, but I'm not quite sure if it was my cup of tea.  The actual "conflict" also doesn't seem to be very immediate to me, because it's removed by almost five centuries from the main characters, which makes it hard for me to just salivate at wanting to know what comes next.

Overall, I'm going to give it 3.5 stars.  It's well-written (and, I would guess, well-translated, which definitely helps) and has a solid base, but I wasn't totally engrossed.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Reading Challenge Updates

 -A science-fiction novel.  I read The Three Body Problem for this, which won the Hugo in 2015.  I thought it was good but not intriguing enough to have me scurrying off to buy the next one--which apparently suffers from translation issues, anyway.  While the premise is interesting I found the problem seemed somewhat removed in time from the "present" of the story, which I think detracted from the urgency somewhat.

-A satirical book.  For this, I took on What If? which uses science to answer absurd hypothetical questions and makes fun of how things work in general in the process.  It's fun but I think it works better in the blog format that it originally premiered in than it does as a book.

-A book you haven't read since high school.  I returned to The Ropemaker for this category, which was one of my favorite books in high school.  I enjoyed it again, still finding that it's a rich world and an interesting main character who I think can appeal to a wide range of ages despite being only twelve herself.

-A book written by a celebrity.  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 had good reason to be.  I don't think this worked particularly well as a book, despite having a few really cool elements going for it.  I think it would be better suited to a TV series which, given Duff's professional background, isn't really surprising.

-A book based on a fairy tale.  I settled on Gregory Maguire's Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister for this, which is a historical fiction take on the classic Cinderella story.  I liked it as a historical fiction novel, but I think it was missing some of the magic that makes the original story and its many other adaptations so, well, magical, and the twist at the end didn't entirely please me.

-A book that intimidates you.  Despite the intimidating page count of The Count of Monte Cristo, I got through it in pretty short order.  People rave about this, but I actually didn't like it so much, finding some of the reasoning lacking and the pacing uneven.

-A book from Oprah's Book Club.  I picked Stolen Lives off an Oprah's Book Club list, before I even realized that the book club is still going on Goodreads and there are still new selections being released!  That's something to keep an eye on, but I really enjoyed Stolen Lives.  The content matter is terrible, but fascinating, and the strength of Malika and her family is truly astounding.

Still to Come
-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 book recommended by someone you just met.  I asked the NaNoWriMo Facebook group what they thought I should read this year; one reply was already on the list (Grave Beginnings) but the other was not; therefore, I shall be reading The Machinery by Gerrard Cowan for this category.

-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 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 with a protagonist who has your occupation.

-A book of poetry.  I'm going to do something I don't usually do (unless a category specifically calls for it) and re-read a book for this one: I Was the Jukebox by Sandra Beasely, which I read for a writing class in college.  I'm not a big poetry person in general, but there is one poem in this book that I found really amazing, and I'd like to read it and write about it again.

-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.

-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 culture you're unfamiliar with.  I'm leaning towards Shutting Out the Sun for this one, which is a non-fiction book about Japan's "lost generation."

-A book recommended by your local librarian or bookseller.

-A book you should have read in school.  This I'm going to fill with The Odyssey, which every other English class in my high school read, but my class as a whole did not because our teacher was too busy having raptures about the hero's journey in the Star Wars series to actually assign it to us.

-A book chosen for you by your spouse, partner, sibling, child, or BFF.  My boyfriend has selected The Samurai's Tale for this category for me.  I don't really know much about it other than the title, so we'll see how it goes!

-A book published before you were born.  Let's face it: most of history is before I was born.  This means that I have a very wide scope of titles from which to choose.  I'm going to go with the classics and choosing Wuthering Heights for this one.

-A book you previously abandoned.  I'm planning on using Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell for this one.  I've had this book for years, and started it at one point, but I just couldn't get into it.  I'm hoping that time will have improved it some for me, just like how I liked Vellum much more when I returned to it years after first purchasing and attempting to read it.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Empire of Storms - S. J. Maas (Throne of Glass #5)

Empire of Storms (Throne of Glass, #5)I feel like it's been forever since I've read a real fantasy novel, but it really hasn't been!  I read both The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate within the past few weeks, and Smoke and Blood Debt not too long before that.  But none of those are really the classic, sweeping sort of fantasy that the Throne of Glass series is, and I guess that's why Empire of Storms felt so refreshing--though the other books were by no means stale.

Empire of Storms is the fifth book in the Throne of Glass series.  By now we know that the King of Adarlan wasn't the Big Bad, it's actually Erawan, the Valg King, who was hiding out inside a duke's body until this point.  Aelin has also made her return to claim her crown as the Queen of Terrasen, and she and her crew know they're going to have down Erawan or the whole world of Erilea is going to be destroyed.  So, with all that in mind, this book does a couple of different things.

It features Aelin's return to Terrasen, which doesn't go very well, and her attempts to both stop Erawan and reclaim her crown.  Manon Blackbeak, our resident witch, struggles with the knowledge she's gained of what exactly is going on in Morath.  And Elide, who escaped from Morath at the end of the last book, attempts to find Aelin/Celaena to give her the Wyrdkey that Kaltain gave her, though Elide doesn't know exactly what it is she's carrying.  Along the way, all of those involved run into plenty of trouble, encounter new monsters, and forge new friendships/ally-ships to get them through.  Oh, and did I mention Maeve the Fae Queen might be up to something dastardly, too?

While I liked this overall, Maas did a few things that really annoyed me.  First, there's a Big Secret that comes out at the end about Aelin and Rowan.  Aelin has been doing things on the sly all along, so I was used to that, but we're typically keyed in about things the other characters are doing--so the fact that three characters other than Aelin knew what happened, and yet we were kept in the dark for it, was annoying.  It wasn't SHOCKING when this thing came out, though Maas clearly meant for it to be.  Instead, I was just irked that she decided to ditch her typical storytelling convention in an attempt to pull at our heartstrings.  And, I might add, not a very successful attempt; I think other parts of the book were far more dramatic and poignant than that.

Second, there is no Chaol in this book, so if you were hoping for Chaol, be prepared to be disappointed.  I expected to see some of Chaol and Nesryn (that was her name, right?) on the southern continent, getting Chaol better while attempting to win allies for Adarlan and Terrasen against Erawan.  That's pretty much where the end of Book 4 hinted at his story going.  But instead, there is a strange Chaol-shaped gap in the story.  Would having him have resulted in too many plots in too many directions?  Maybe... It's hard to say.  But it's very strange to suddenly have a character who was a prominent presence in the former 4 books of the series just suddenly not be there at all.

Third, more Elide and Lorcan, please!  This is kind of combined with another one, which is that apparently normal people aren't allowed to do interesting things in Maas' world?  Honestly, Aelin was a bit more interesting when she was Celaena, a mere mortal who used her wits and strength to change her path, than when she became a super-powered part-fae-whatever-she-is-now.  Even Elide doesn't get to be fully mortal, though she's the closest of the batch to being so.  At first having a few "supernatural" characters sprinkled in was fun...but it's getting old fast.  But specifically with Elide and Lorcan, I wanted more chapters with them.  Aelin and Rowan are clearly together for the long haul and are therefore no longer interesting at this point, so I wanted more of the new blossoming romance here.  (There are also other brewing pairings in Aelin's group, but Elide and Lorcan, off on their own, were far more interesting.)

Fourth, and finally (I'll talk about cool things in a minute), Maas has started really pulling in from the novellas that were published before the first book.  I don't really like this as an approach; little nods to short stories/novellas that tie in with a series are cool, but expecting people to track down and read them so they understand what's going on isn't.  At this point, if you haven't read the novellas, you're going to be pretty lost with some of the characters appearing and things goings on.  I have read the novellas, but it's very rare of me to do so, and I can see how frustrated I would have been if I had come to this book and then realized that there was a whole bunch of other stuff I had to read that hadn't been mentioned until this point, and hadn't been included in a main book in the series.

Okay, now for the stuff I liked!  I liked the writing, as usual--I think that Maas has really matured as a writer throughout this series, and this book is much better than the original Throne of Glass.  There were some very neat settings here, such as the introduction of the Stone Marshes and the re-introduction/introduction (depending on whether you read the novellas or not) of Skull's Bay.  Actually, the entire Skull's Bay sequence, including the big fight, was pretty cool, and was actually one of my favorite parts of the book.  It ends a little bit of a swashbuckling air to the story and is a nice change from the trekking overland we'd seen until this point.

Another interesting point was watching Aelin's growing network of connections.  I totally sympathize with Aedion and wanting to punch her in the face for not telling anyone what was going on, but also understand her reasoning--which Aedion does too, eventually.  All of those connections that Aelin has made in the past are now coming back to help her, and it's the continuation of her actually becoming someone worthy of the title '"Queen."  I'm glad she didn't actually grab her crown right away upon returning to Terrasen, because this fight has made her a continually more compelling character.  Do I like where this book left off with her?  Well... I'm just kind of "meh" about it.  I've moved on to other favorite characters by now, and I think it would actually be kind of of interesting to see how they would fight back if the great and powerful Aelin fell.  But the inclusion of the flashback parts, and the new knowledge of Elena, was very interesting, too.  And I loved how Maas finally tied Manon's storyline more completely into the main one.

Overall, I think there is a lot to like about this one, but there are a few things that just didn't seem to fit that drag it down from a most-excellent rating.  All those things considered, I'm giving this 3.5 stars, but I'm hopeful for the final volume...though I'm unsure of how Maas is going to wrap it all up.