Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Trespasser - Tana French (Dublin Murder Squad #6)

The Trespasser (Dublin Murder Squad, #6)The Trespasser was my Book of the Month choice for November.  Book of the Month tends to stay away from series selections in general, but there have been a few that appeared in the time I've been subscribed; The Trespasser is one of them.  It's the sixth book in French's Dublin Murder Squad series, though it can definitely be read as a stand-alone book, which I suppose justifies its inclusion.

The plot revolves around the main character Antoinette Conway, who finds herself and her partner (Stephen Moran) investigating the murder of a young woman named Aislinn Murray. At first, Antoinette assumes the case is just a domestic, as that's all she and Steve ever get handed.  But they desperately want the case to be something more, something exciting, and the more they dig the more they're shifted between nothing exciting and something that they are not ready to dig into.

In all, this is not a particularly twisty mystery.  I'm not normally good at solving mysteries, but I got a sense of where this one was going pretty early on.  French included enough waffling that I had doubts at a few points, but I never bought into the big red herring, which I normally fall for hook, line, and sinker.  There was also no "big reveal" that left me shocked and awed.  The solution, when it becomes evident, is pieced together bit by bit rather than just slamming into the reader like in some mysteries.  I also expected Antoinette's father to play a bigger role than he ultimately did.  Given that the book starts off with her history of stories about him, it would have seemed like more would be going on there than there actually was.  I didn't necessarily want a tearful, heartwarming reunion, because that would not have been in Antoinette's character, but having it tied in a bit more completely would have been nice.  I was also hoping that something more exciting would happen with Steve, and that he wouldn't be all he appeared--though I think if I'd read the book before this, maybe my perceptions of this one would have been different on this front.

Here are what I think the high points of the book were.  I did like the use of the slang and language here.  Normally I'm not big on phonetic accents, but I think French did well in using just enough slang and phonetically-spelled words to give the story the flavor of setting, but without making the bok a mental exercise to read or creating difficulty in deciphering what the characters were saying.  And while I ultimately didn't like Antoinette as a character (I felt she really did have a victim complex that primarily served as something for everyone, including her, to whine about) I did like the concept of her.  She's the only woman on the Murder Squad and she's a minority to boot.  And ultimately, though she and Steve pursue some crazy theories, she is ultimately the skeptic on the team.  This is refreshing, as female partners on male-female teams in fiction are typically the ones with the crazy ideas.  Antoinette in this respect was very much like Scully from the X-Files; she wanted to believe that there was something crazy going on with the case, but she was ultimately the grounded one on the team.

Overall, I think this was an enjoyable book, but nothing to rave over.  I'm actually very surprised it made the cut for Goodreads Choice nominations for 2016, because there was nothing in that really wowed me.  Still, I found the noms for those awards very lackluster in general, so I guess it fits in.

3 stars out of 5.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Crowned - Jennifer Chance (Crowns & Gowns #4)

Crowned (Gowns & Crowns, #4)Crowned is the conclusion to the main "arc" of Jennifer Chance's Gowns and Crowns series, though it seems like there is a spin-off fifth book, Cursed, in the works which will move the story away from the fictional Garronia and onto US soil.  In the meantime, Crowned is about the last of four American friends visiting Garronia to not have been set up with a romantic interest: Fran.  In the wake of the rescue of the amnesiac crown prince, Fran is pulled in to act as a sort of companion and to help him remember himself, which the queen thinks will happen because Fran is young and pretty and oh yeah, she's a graduate psychology student with her focus for the past year having been on soldiers with PTSD.  It's this that really made me have serious reservations about this book--though there were other glaring problems, too--because a therapist having a relationship with a patient is a huge, huge no-no.

Now, Chance makes it very explicit throughout the book that Fran is not technically Ari's therapist...and yet she really is acting as one, and I feel like in this case it's the spirit of the thing rather than the letter of it that really made the big difference. 

Chance has a knack for writing both steamy and sweet interactions, but her plots themselves really weakened as this series went on.  For example, in this book, Ari eventually does start to regain his memories--I'm not going to get into that part of it, because I'm not really qualified to--and yet he has no problem that Fran, and all of his other friends and family, decided to keep his identity a secret and let him walk around Garronia like a nobody when pretty much everyone who saw him had at least some idea of who he was.  He has no problems that Fran slept with him under, essentially, false pretexts.  There's absolutely no questioning of any of her actions or why she kept any of the secrets she did; none of them are hugely harmful, and yet the very fact that she felt the need to do so, and had broken laws in the process of doing so for no good reason except that she felt like it, really seemed to have no effect on anyone.  What?  What is in the water in Garronia that the fact that their apparent future queen is a complete fake does not bother them?  Is the royal family planning on perpetuating this lie for all eternity?  Surely someday, someone would recognize Fran and go, "Hey, isn't that...?"

I think this series has made abundantly clear that plot is not Chance's strong point.  The romantic interactions are right on-point, sweet when they need to be and steamy when you want them to be, but the plots that surround and hold up these romances are very weak and can really take away from the romance as a whole.  I am still curious to read Cursed, whenever it comes out, but I had serious, serious reservations about this book, and I don't think it was a great end to the main series.

2.5 stars out of 5.

Friday, November 25, 2016

A Gathering of Shadows - V. E. Schwab (Shades of Magic #2)

A Gathering of Shadows (Shades of Magic, #2)Sigh.  This was an enjoyable book and a disappointment at the same time.  A Gathering of Shadows is the second book in a series, following A Darker Shade of Magic, which was absolutely beautiful.  Unfortunately, it suffers a case of second book syndrome.

When the book starts, Kell is still living in Red London and dealing with the aftermath of the first book.  The people who once thought him blessed now seem to think him cursed, and he's lost the trust and respect of his adoptive parents, the king and queen.  He and his adoptive brother Rhy, their lives now tied together, are also chafing as the bond brings them even closer than they first anticipated, making it seem like neither has a life, feelings, or a mind of his own again.  And to top it off, Kell's power seems to have been permanently altered by the Vitari stone, and he struggles to keep it under control.

On the other hand, we have Lila, who has fulfilled her lifelong dream of becoming a pirate--to a degree.  She's found a captain and a crew and has been living it up on the high seas.  But now her ship is bound back for London (Red London, that is) for the Element Games, which is basically like the Triwizard Tournament of the Red London world, with twelve competitors from three different countries facing off against each other for glory.  Lila's captain intends to compete in the tournament, and Lila, having learned a bit of magic herself, decides that she's going to do so as well.  But there's a slight catch: Lila's not on the rosters.  So she decides to steal someone's identity in order to compete.

And meanwhile, Rhy has made up an identity for Kell so that Kell can compete.

The plot of this book is ultimately nonexistent.  There's a developing of inter-personal dynamics on each side, Kell and Lila's, but very little interaction between them.  This book is 509 pages long and the two protagonists don't meet until page 426, despite having spent most of the first book in each other's company.  They think about each other a bit before that, but honestly they're not mooning over each other the whole time.  Meanwhile, the actual plot, which is actually the plot for the third, upcoming book and not this one, develops over just a handful of very short chapters which follow up with what happens in White London after the downfall of the Dane twins in the first book.  Seeing the emergence of another Antari was interesting.  "Seeing" the tournament was interesting, because we didn't get to see a lot of magic-use other than from Kell and Holland in the first book, but at the same time I feel like if I wanted some really good element-style fight scenes I could have just gone and watched a few episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender or Avatar: The Legend of Korra.  This whole lack of movement is utterly indicative of the dreaded second-book syndrome, and it is rampant in this book.  The tournament gives there an illusion of things happening, but there's really not.

I'm very much looking forward to the third and final book in this series, which comes out in early 2017, because this book's conclusion set A Summoning of Light up very well, but despite the nice writing in this book I found it a disappointment compared to the first.

3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Wuthering Heighs - Emily Bronte

Wuthering HeightsWuthering Heights is one of those books that people seem to classify as a classic romance sometimes, but it's really not.  It could be a type of love story, and obsessive one, I suppose--but it's definitely not a romance, not in the modern sense of the word.

At its heart, Wuthering Heights is about revenge for something that's really quite petty.  Though it's told through two different first-person perspectives (a tenant of the house that neighbors Wuthering Heights, and the housekeeper who was intimately involved with the families the book concerns) it's ultimately not the story of either of those people, but rather of Catherine and Heathcliff.  Catherine was the daughter of the Earnshaw family, whose father found Heathcliff and raised him as a sort of foster-son.  Following the father's death, Catherine's brother, who never liked Heathcliff, exiles him to servant status in a sort of reverse Cinderella-type situation.  Meanwhile, Catherine befriends the Lintons, the family who own the house that the aforementioned tenant ends up letting.  She ends up marrying the son of the Linton family and Heathcliff, in a fit of pique because of the marriage and something he heard Catherine say, though he didn't hear the context, decides to ruin Catherine's happiness and the happiness of everyone connected to her.  Because, you know, that's how you show you love someone.

Heathcliff is a complete sociopath.  He hurts animals.  He kidnaps people.  He has no sense of shame or moral compass, and is really a despicable human being all around.  That Catherine was attracted to him isn't the strange part here.  That seems to fall into the realm of "she thinks she can fix him" tropes, which unfortunately are very common in real-life as well.  What's strange is that, ultimately, Bronte seems to have made Heathcliff so despicable that she didn't know what to do with him.  Something had to happen, clearly, for the story to come to an emotionally satisfying conclusion, but Heathcliff was really so terrible that nothing but the most melodramatic of deaths wouldn't really have been suitable for him.  And while melodramatic might have been Heathcliff and Catherine's style, it doesn't actually seem to have been Bronte's.  And so the end has a weird feeling, like Bronte didn't know how else to end it, and so she just...did.  The contrast of the dark, dramatic days at Wuthering Heights and the sudden sweetness and light at the end felt very odd in contrast to the dark and brooding mood that pervaded the rest of the book.

And that mood--that's definitely something that Bronte knew how to do well.  I've never been to anywhere that had moors, but the cold and dark atmosphere of Wuthering Heights the book certainly suited the dark happenings of Wuthering Heights the house.  The one thing that Bronte included that I absolutely could not stand was the servant Joseph.  Bronte gave him this horrible accent that's written phonetically in the book, and I consequently couldn't understand anything he said, even when I attempted to sound it out.  As a result of that, I found myself skipping pretty much everything he said.  It must not have contributed to the book overly much, because I understood everything that went on perfectly without it...which also made me question the usefulness of his inclusion as a character in the first place.  And really, the characters as a whole, other than Heathcliff himself, had absolutely no agency in this book.  Heathcliff was the only one who was ultimately pulling the strings and making things happen, and none of the other characters had any hand in the story's ultimate outcome.  It's one of those things that, as I was reading it, I didn't notice, but now in retrospect I can't help but notice it.  It's kind of like how in the first Indiana Jones movie, the outcome of the plot would have been exactly the same even if Jones had never gotten involved.  It's a story in which the hero's "fatal flaw," rather than any outside force, brings about his ultimate demise.

Overall, there's a wonderful mood here and I can see why it was so popular in its time, and it's a story of revenge that I think ultimately appealed to me more than the other great "revenge" classic, The Count of Monte Cristo.  But there are definite flaws with it--not surprising, really, because it was Bronte's first (and only) novel.  But I think it was still an enjoyable read, and I'm glad I finally got around to reading it.

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Magic Strikes - Ilona Andrews (Kate Daniels #3)

Magic Strikes (Kate Daniels, #3)Magic Strikes brings in basically exactly what the Kate Daniels series needed: a magical tournament.  Step right up, get your tickets here, because Kate's about to give the throw down.

So.  Following Magic Burns, Kate is off working as usual when she gets a call from shapeshifter Saiman that he has her other shapeshifter/werewolf friend, Derek, locked up at his apartment.  Saiman caught Derek trying to steal all-access tickets to something called the Midnight Games, which werewolves--and the rest of the Pack--are explicitly prohibited from attending.  As part of the deal to bail Derek out, she agrees to attend the Games and evaluate a team called the Reapers for Saiman, and then covertly agrees to deliver a note for Derek.  While, things go to hell in a handbasket pretty quickly when Kate determines that the Reaper team is not human, but she can't tell how, and Derek is found almost dead...and then a bunch of shapeshifters try to kill Kate, too, because they think she's involved.  Ultimately, it ends up with Kate and werejaguar Jim, the head of the Pack's security, and a handful of other on the run from Curran as they attempt to solve the puzzle of getting revenge for Derek and finding out exactly what's going on with the Midnight Games.

The mythological flavor of the month here is...Indian!  As in southeast Asian Indian, not Native American, of course.  Along these lines, Andrews introduces a really awesome new character named Dali that I hope we see lots more of.  Dali is an Indian mythology expert, she writes calligraphy curses, and oh yeah, she turns into a white tiger but gets short-term amnesia and goes cross-eyed when she does so, to the point that she can't figure out why she has paws.  Dali is freaking awesome.  Julie, the cool kid from the previous book, is also brought back here to some use, though honestly she can't possibly be as cool as Dali is.  (Did I mention that Dali also has a thing for street racing, even though she's legally blind?)

We get a lot of neat stuff here, including info about what, exactly, Saiman is and some more information about Roland, Kate's biological father who definitely wants to kill her.  Some of his minions come out of the woodwork and we get to know about some of the crazy weaponry he's been cooking up, and some of the reasons that Kate is both terrified of him and determined to take him down.  The relationship between Curran and Kate also evolves, like, a lot, and Andrea, Kate's new bestie who first showed up in Book 2, gets to make a return here, too!  I was so happy to see Andrea as a continuing character.  These books really needed more girl-power, and Andrews has done a wonderful job of building it up in this volume.  Kate is no longer the only woman taking on all the magical men!  Whoo hoo!  OH and we get more Unicorn Lane here which is baller.

I have two real issues with this book.  First, the Indian mythology is cool as heck but difficult for me to grasp just because I haven't had a lot of exposure to it...and I keep getting this feeling that Andrews is actually probably being really offensive in some regard with it.  This might just be me.  Second, the big gem that everyone is fighting after... It's pretty much established that it's not the same stone as in the myths (the size, etc. doesn't match) and yet it works the same way?  What was the deal with this?  I'm confused.  It seems like something that wasn't thought through all the way, or if it was, those thoughts didn't necessarily make it onto the page.  Because the stone actually ends up playing a very important part of the plot, even though it doesn't get a lot of page time, this is something I would have liked to see handled with a bit more finesse.

Again, this was a really fun read.  Was it one that I'll go back to over and over again?  Probably not.  But it was a solid installment and it sets up a lot of promise in the Kate/Curran department for Book 4 that I think was done really well, and it gets a good rating for that, and all of the awesomeness I've discussed above.

4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie

Midnight's ChildrenI read Midnight's Children because I needed a book for a category in my reading challenge, "A book recommended by your librarian or bookseller."  Well, I have no idea why anyone would think I actually want to talk to someone, but luckily for me Kramerbooks (a local bookstore here in DC) provides bookmarks whenever you buy a book there, and one of them had a list of books recommended by their booksellers of the past!  Hah!  Midnight's Children was one of these, and I picked it from among the rest for two reasons: the library had it available for Kindle without a huge waiting list, and the elements of magic that the description promised sounded intriguing.

The story is about Saleem Sinai, who is born at the exact moment of India's independence from Britain, and how his fate is tied to that of the country and the other "Midnight's Children," all born within that first hour of independence and who all possess magical abilities.  Saleem is recording the story decades after it begins, with his grandfather, and is doing so because he is starting to actually crack and fall apart, and he wants to record what happened to him and his.

This was an interesting premise and I'm told it's an important book, but it didn't rub me the right way.  I found myself incredibly bored reading this.  Part of this is Rushdie's writing style, which meanders here and there and has many deviations from what I would consider to be "the point."  This fits in with the structure of the book, kind's kind of like when your grandparents tell a story and keep getting distracted.  But Saleem is only 30 years old when this takes place, so it also doesn't make sense.  And then the other part was that it just takes forever to get to the actual "story" part of this, with the events building up to the destruction of Midnight's Children.  The book is divided into three parts, and the third starts 75% through the book, and it was infinitely more interesting than the entanglements of his family.  Part of this is probably because I actually don't know a lot about Indian history.  Saleem's personal history is supposed to be tied closely to, and mirror, that of India as a country, but I only saw the most obvious of those parallels when Rushdie specifically pointed them out.  If my history in this area was more up to snuff, maybe I would have enjoyed it more because I could have followed the more subtle strings that were, as it was, lost to me.

And finally, Rushdie's version of Saleem's life didn't seem to play by its own rules.  The Midnight's Children are supposedly all born with powers--and yet Saleem needs an accident to get his working.  He has another ability connected to his nose, which lets him smell things that most people can't.  For most of the book these are regular scents, but then at the end, when Saleem actually gets around to writing the story, he can apparently smell history to the point that he can relate what happened in his family going back decades before he was born--and yet this isn't connected to his magical "midnight" ability.  He also plays with time, trying to make a point that it's fluid by pinning certain events to drastically wrong dates, but to me this just seems sloppy and makes Saleem into an unreliable narrator, whose whole story can't be trusted.

There were good parts of this.  While Rushdie tends to ramble, some of his prose is absolutely beautiful.  I also loved how, in the third part of the book, he manages to do a really cool duality thing, showing how history has two halves to it.  The concept of the Midnight's Children was also very cool, and I would have loved to see India tied more closely to all of them, rather than just Saleem who actually rather sounded like the most boring of the bunch--especially with the question of whether he really was supposed to be some sort of "chosen one," which seemed unlikely to me, or if he was just full of himself, which seemed rather more likely.  I think this is a book that could also potentially interest people in Indian history, but it was too rambling for me to have that effect.  I believe what other people have said, that this is an iconic book for its time, place, genre, etc., but as a book to just read, it didn't agree with me.

2 stars out of 5.

Friday, November 18, 2016

One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude
This was an exhausting book to read.  I picked it up a while ago at Kramer's Books here in DC, and it sat on the shelf waiting for me to get to it, as many books do.  I'm one of those people who buys books and puts them aside and then never reads them because I'm too busy reading other things.  But I finally decided to go for it for my "A classic from the 20th century" category for my reading challenge, and so out it came.

One Hundred Years of Solitude is the chronicle of the Buendia family over a period of about a hundred years, in the town of Macondo which was founded by one of the family members.  There's a family tree in the beginning of my edition, which was very helpful because the Buendias follow the tradition of using family names, so everyone seems to be called some variation of Arcadio or Aureliano, and I had to keep flipping back to the tree to check who was who and how they fit into the web.  Marquez does make light of this at several points, and the naming convention does fit into the plot, so this didn't annoy me as much as it would have otherwise.

There are two things that really stood out to me in the course of reading the book.  The first is all the magical realism--you know, magical acts that are just treated as matter-of-fact but in a book that doesn't really count as a true fantasy.  From flying carpets to girls ascending into the heavens to the mysterious fertility of the family livestock at one point, and with a dozen other strange things thrown in, there's a ton of it here.  Every time it seemed like things were going to settle down, something else strange would happen just as casually as if it had been someone selling bananas.  The second thing that stood out was the amount of incest in this book.  Dear lord, it's a lot.  It's rather the point of the book, of course--a family that's pretty much in love with itself and whose members keep getting caught up in various romantic entanglements--but it was a bit much for me at some times nevertheless.  I kept having moments of, "But she's your aunt!" and other such mental statements that made me shy away from it a bit.

But what is truly exhausting about this book is the writing style.  While Marquez can write absolutely beautifully, and has a real knack for imagery, what he apparently doesn't like is paragraph breaks.  The paragraphs in this book frequently last for pages, and so there's no sort of mental break as you change gears into the next paragraph.  It was very tiring, and it meant that I had to put the book down more frequently than I probably would have if those long paragraphs had just been broken up a bit more.  There were plenty of places to do it, so it seems like a stylistic choice not to have done so.

As I mentioned before, the writing is wonderful in this.  I could completely picture Macondo as it went through its various stages, from utopia to utter decay, and the people who came and went through it.  And what a start is has!  "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."  It's a very powerful beginning, hinting at both the wonder of things that happen in Macondo, and the tribulations of things to come.  It's an immediate indicator of what an amazing writer Marquez is.  His works have been overall hit or miss with me, but I did enjoy this overall despite the mental fatigue of reading it and the icki-ness of all the incest.  I see what the purpose was for it; Marquez wasn't trying to titillate (at least I don't think so) but show how these relationships led into the downward spiral of a prosperous, powerful family's ruin, and that I think he did wonderfully.

4 stars out of 5.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Fantastic Creatures - H. L. Burke

Fantastic CreaturesFantastic Creatures is an anthology of stories all featuring some (you guessed it) fantasy creature, from mermaids to werewolves to tree octopuses to hum fairies.  As an anthology, it has many, many authors, but I'm putting H. L. Burke as the primary because, from what I can see, she appears to be the one who organized it, did the outreach, etc.  (If someone knows differently, please let me know and I'll correct this.)  I'll include the author of each individual story with my description below.  Because of the nature of this book, I've done a short description or comment of each story with an individual rating for each, and the overall rating is an average of those.

But before I dive into the individual stories, a few overall comments about the book.  This an anthology by indie authors, and it shows.  While some stories are amazing, others need some work with plot structuring or even some light line editing.  The reading level also varies; while I would say most of these stories are perfectly enjoyable for an adult audience, there were a couple that I felt were meant for eight-to-ten-year-olds instead, giving the collection an uneven feel in regards to reading level.  "Three Steaks and a Box of Chocolates," "Seekers," "Skin Deep," "Priscilla the Magnificent, Flying Giant Squid," "Mother's Night Out," and "Absolutely True Facts about the Pacific Tree Octopus" were definitely the strongest stories in this volume, while "The Golden City Captives," "The Last Chronicle of Pete Mersill," and "Talori and the Shark" were probably the weakest, for various reasons.  Still, with a few exceptions I really liked this overall.  Now, for the individual ratings!

"Three Steaks and a Box of Chocolates" by A. R. Silverberry - A very good start to the collection featuring a Loch Ness Monster-type creature in a dying town.  The writing here reminded me of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, a gorgeous short story collection by Lauren van den Berg that all feature subtle elements of the supernatural.  This one was actually a bit short for my tastes; I would have loved to have seen this fleshed out a little bit more!  4 stars out of 5.

"Snapdragon" by Lea Doue - This was okay.  It's a pretty basic Princess and the Frog story, except the frog is a miniature dragon.  It had some nice fantasy elements--girls with a poison touch or thorns growing from their skins--but those felt more like changing the wallpaper on the story rather than doing anything really innovative.  3 stars.

"The Golden City Captives" by Julie C. Gilbert - Not a huge fan of this.  The reading level was much lower than that of the rest of the book and the story itself seemed to be missing a lot of background logic that could have made even a lower-reading-level story feel more appropriate for this collection.  2 stars.

"Seekers" by Intisar Khanani - This was the reason I requested an ARC of this book!  I love Khanani.  This is a lovely short story about a little girl and her mother who play at finding things, until one day the mother finds something that takes her away.  It has a beautiful sense of place and fantasy without ever explicitly saying anything, which I loved.  5 stars.

"Mystery of Asgina Lake" by Caren Rich - This was a solid story regarding plot and structure and characters but it needed some work regarding grammar, particularly comma usage.  3 stars.

"Skin Deep" by Morgan Smith - This was my favorite story in the collection.  It was beautifully, classically written, and while I'm not sure of how far the adaptation strayed from the original, the source story is apparently a Scandinavian story, which I think was a great addition to the collection as a whole.  5 stars.

"The Last Chronicle of Pete Mersill" by Cave Yates - This is a semi-post-apocalyptic story which stood out for that reason.  The writing style actually somewhat reminded me of that of the middle portion of Cloud Atlas, but without the confusing linguistic shift, and I was really enjoying it until the villains started monologue-ing, which dragged it down immensely for me.  3 stars.

"Priscilla the Magnificent, Flying Giant Squid" by L. Palmer - Another great story!  This is the only steampunk-inspired story in the collection which made it stand out.  It also has a sentient giant squid who learned Morse code from mermaids and wants to fly.  Absolutely charming.  4 stars.

"An Adventurer's Heart" by Nicole Zoltack - This was another one that didn't sit right for me.  I thought, at points, that this might end up being a story with a moral, like that revenge doesn't really work out and that people always have reasons for doing what they do, even if we at first can't see them.  Instead it was ultimately just a story about a girl who wants revenge on a creature going around and cutting other creatures' heads off in preparation.  2 stars.

"Destiny's Flight" by Frank B. Luke - This was a pretty typical fantasy story that had a religious bend.  That's not bad on its own, and I did like how it featured a more diverse cast of characters, at least culturally, but it got a bit preachy at the end. 2.5 stars.

"The Kappa" by Lelia Rose Foreman - This story was a great example of how a child can be a main character without the story actually being juvenile.  The setting and feel were again unique, which I appreciated, but I was left a little confused at the end, about who/what the cat was and why he had authority.  3 stars.

"Celebration" by Arthur Daigle - A story with humorous elements in which a bunch of goblins give a king a proper send-off.  At the beginning of this story, I thought it was going somewhere maybe a tad gruesome, but this was ultimately a very touching story that I enjoyed.  4 stars.

"The Nether Lands" by Cave Yates - This is Yates' second story in the collection and I think it was stronger than the first.  It features a demon hunter on a mission in the Netherlands who ends up partnered with a demon, and their attempts to avoid the "nether lands" where demons can trap people.  This was one of the more adult stories in the collection, with some definite violence and sexual tension going on. 4 stars.

"Talori and the Shark" by Jessica L. Elliot - One of the weaker stories here.  It's like Beauty and the Beast, but with mermaids, and it was a story in which I found internal logic really missing.  That's one of my biggest pet peeves, and it drove me absolutely crazy here.  Elliot tries to explain this away by saying "oh, it's magic, and magic doesn't work on logic," but it does, it just works on its own logic that the author determines, and not doing that here made this seem like a lazy story.  The writing also didn't appeal to me.  1.5 stars out of 5.

"Reviving the Sword" by Kandi J. Wyatt - A centaur with a would-be-magic sword travels with an elf and a gryphon.  There was some promising language here and the assortment of creatures in the band was interesting, but the story itself was overall unremarkable.  2.5 stars.

"Mother's Night Out" by D. G. Driver - Okay, this should really be "Mothers' Night Out" to be grammatically correct.  Now that that's off my chest, I can say that this was a strong story!  It was another of the more violent ones, and it has this sense of menace to it the whole time even though the main characters are in a nursery dealing with babies.  4 stars.

"The Mage and the Spotted Wyvern" by Craig J. Price, Jr. - A pretty typical, rather unremarkable sword-and-sorcery story about a young mage trying to learn magic.  But Freckles the frog was cool.  3 stars.

"The Very Last Dragon" by Katy Huth Jones - This was another story with some humorous elements, and the language here had a very bedtime-story feel without feeling like it was for eight-year-olds to read, if that makes sense.  But honestly, Golda Drake?  Our hero didn't see that coming?  Please.  3.5 stars.

"The Adventures of Zero: The Quest for Wormsroot" by Vincent Trigili - This is basically what "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" would be like if it was about a teenager in a fantasy setting.  A boy who daydreams of adventures actually ends up going on one.  It was fine.  3 stars.

"Ishka's Garden" by Bokerah Brumley - This was another story that seemed to be missing some background information.  I found everything that was hinted at here so much more intriguing than the story itself.  3 stars out of 5.

"Absolutely True Facts about the Pacific Tree Octopus" by H. L. Burke - This was another story that screamed "charming" to me, and another good one about a child that isn't actually juvenile.  It also had a good lesson attached and was a strong note to end the collection on.  4 stars.

So, when all of that is accounted for, it gives the collection as a whole a rating of 3.14 stars.  There are definitely some very strong stories here, and I think the collection as a whole was worth it, but there were a few weak ones that really dragged the stronger ones down, which is unfortunate.  Dropping the lowest-rated one here bumps the collection up to a 3.6, and I think that's more in line with the true value here.

I received a free advanced copy of this book; all opinions are my own.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Blood, Bones & Butter - Gabrielle Hamilton

Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant ChefThis book was on sale recently, so I picked it up and decided to use it as a sort of twist on a category for my reading challenge for 2016.  The challenge category was "a book with a protagonist who has your occupation," but, as a mid-level university bureaucrat (essentially) main characters with my occupation aren't exactly easy to come by.  So I decided to read a book with a protagonist (in this case, the author, as this is a memoir) who has an occupation I would like to have.  Gabrielle Hamilton is a chef and the owner of the restaurant Prune in New York City.  She is also, as I established from reading this memoir, a very confusing and not very nice person.  Well, at least as she portrays herself here.  But then that's the risk of putting out the story of your life for anyone to pick up, isn't it?  Total randos like me, who've never met you, can totally judge you.  And judge I did.

This book is divided into three different parts, following the title: Blood, Bones, and Butter.  Blood follows Hamilton's childhood, the first chapter of which seems to be happy, and the rest of which is about her rather misspent use doing drugs and wandering Europe.  Are there wonderful, heartwarming moments scattered throughout?  Yes, there are.  Her time spent in France sounds lovely, as does her time in Greece.  But then you balance that about the coke-snorting waitress who maintains she earned $90,000 in a year and spent it all on drugs, and you have to wonder a little bit, now don't you?  But still.  She was young.  Life moves on.  She apparently got over her drug problems, decided to further her education in a more traditional sense.  We move on to Bones.

Bones follows her as she goes to Michigan to get her master's degree and also through several different stages of her professional career, from working as the cook at a summer camp to being a high-energy catering champ to opening and running Prune.  This is probably the most diverse portion of the book, and it's also where I started really raising my eyebrows.  The affair, with a man who she apparently finds relatively attractive given that she references making out with him, having sex with him one every available surface, etc. despite her professions that she's a lesbian.  The fact that she married a man, and stayed married to him for ten years (they are now divorced, FYI; thank you, Wikipedia) looking for a deep and meaningful relationship when she apparently knew from the beginning it wouldn't be that way and that the marriage was really for a green card; the way that she portrayed her mother so flatteringly and then as such a raving bitch and then as a wonderful person once again; the way that she acts so superior to everyone else, says that she got over that, and then continues on with it... All of this made me not like Hamilton very much at all.  Here's the thing: I felt like I couldn't trust her.

I know, I know.  People are complicated creatures.  We have many facets.  This also applies to both Hamilton and all of the people she portrays.  But at the same time, when you write a memoir, you're really going through a reflection process and, one would think, clarifying some things not only for yourself but for others.  The things that come out in memoirs tend to be a bit more focused than thoughts running around our heads every day of our lives because of the time and process of writing and focusing them.  That doesn't seem to have been the case here, and also makes me side-eye the memoir as a whole.

Then there's the third part, Butter, which deals mostly with her in-laws and children and the time that she spent with them (and her husband) in Italy, where her husband is from.  This was a lovely part, overall, other than the continuing issues Hamilton as a person that I just couldn't bring myself to get over.  She has a terrible relationship with her husband, and go figure; they live apart, they don't communicate, and yet she seems completely baffled that this marriage, which was formulated on very flimsy pretexts to begin with, isn't a fairy tale.  And she seems to think that all of this is her husband's fault.  I can't even go into this any further, because the amount of justifications that she offers for as to why none of her terrible relationships are her fault, but rather entirely due to other people, are just so mind-boggling that I really can't even.

This is a wonderfully written book--Hamilton has a way of describing food, and places, and even people in a way that makes them seem to live and breathe.  Her way of writing food is mouth-watering and made me crave foods that I have, actually, tried, and didn't like, which is a real talent.  And I could practically see the places she went and the things she did.  The writing at various places is absolutely beautiful.  But there's also the part where this book is apparently about "The inadvertent education of a reluctant chef," and it's debatable whether that's really the case.  There are episodes that contribute to this, of course.  Her time working in Michigan definitely falls into this category, as do her travels.  I think this all really comes out when she's looking at opening Prune.  But beyond that, this seems like an angry dump about, again, all of those terrible relationships that aren't even a little bit due to her participation in them.

This was such a mixed bag of a book for me.  The parts about food and growing professionally were wonderful.  The few parts where she seemed to look honestly at her relationships were good.  But then she would backtrack and start angrily building up a case for why all of her relationships are all crap and it's not her fault that they are, because everyone else is terrible and she's not.  I just don't buy it, and it really tarnished the book as a whole for me, because these parts took up so much room that I think could have been put to better purpose.  Overall, as far as memoirs, and particularly "food" marketed memoirs, go, I think that there are better ones than this.

2 stars out of 5.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Like A River Glorious - Rae Carson (Gold Seer Trilogy #2)

18054071Like a River Glorious is the second book in Rae Carson's Gold Seer trilogy.  I loved her first trilogy, which started with Girl of Fire and Thorns, and I read the first book in this series, Walk on Earth a Stranger, back in February.  It was awesome.  It was about a girl who can sense gold taking the Oregon Trail west to California for the 1849 gold rush. So unusual!  So cool!

Like a River Glorious picks up shortly after where the first book ended.  Lee and her travelling companions have made it to California and are looking for a place to stake their claims.  Lee gets around to revealing her secret pretty quickly in this book and things go well, until they don't, because her uncle and his henchmen start causing trouble.  Most of the book actually takes place away from the group, as Lee falls into her uncle's clutches at his mine and works to escape along with some of her friends and the workers who are essentially slaves at the mine.

I didn't like this volume quite as much as I liked Walk on Earth a Stranger.  WoEaS was so different but this one, for the most part, didn't do anything new from what had already been established.  I'm starting to wonder why Lee is apparently the only person in this world who seems to possess a supernatural ability.  I mean, I wasn't rooting for people to start growing wings and shooting fire out of their eyes, but it does seem strange that Lee's the only one who has any sort of ability beyond the norm.  I was really hoping we'd get to see at least one other person who had some sort of subtle ability, something to just point out that Lee's not alone in that regard.

Carson also gets very political in this book.  I can see why; some of the things that happened in the era she's writing about were horrible, and shouldn't be ignored.  You know, stuff like abuses towards Native Americans.  But at the same time, I felt like, at parts of the book, I was being preached at.  It's definitely possible to teach a lesson and shed light on historical atrocities without being preachy, but I don't think that happened here.

And finally, I just don't think this book was as interesting as WoEaS.  That one covered a lot more time and distance, whereas this one takes place over a much smaller amount of time (less than a month, probably) and is mostly in one place, with a much-reduced cast of characters.  WoEaS also had such a large cast of characters, with so many of them dying or going their separate ways (perfectly appropriate for a book about the Oregon Trail) that I had a lot of difficulty reading this one and remembering who each member of the party was.  I think a refresher on that one definitely could have helped.  And Lee was much more useless in this than she was in the first one.  Ultimately, yes, she's the one to save the day, but up until that point she spends most of the time being dragged hither and yon, getting her friends in trouble, and getting people killed without actually doing much.  It was a bit disappointing, given how strong of a character Lee had become in WoEaS in spite of her sex.  I felt like we really took some steps back here.

There are some nice parts here.  Carson has style of writing that feels very authentic, with a particular knack for scenic imagery, and I am glad that she chose to pull in historical atrocities even though I didn't like how preachy they felt.  The ongoing development of Lee's powers was also good to see--it's nice to know that she's not just stagnant in them, though it's hard to imagine where she'll go from here.  It was great to see how Glory grew, and there's a mild bit of romance here, too.  And I really liked Wilhelm and wish we knew more about him!  I would totally shove Jeff off to the side and replace him with Wilhelm as a romantic interest for Lee because, though we don't know much about him, I feel like he might have more depth.  I think it's a book worth reading, and the touch of the paranormal/supernatural might be enough to draw in readers who normally wouldn't pick up a historical fiction if their lives depended on it, but I think WoEaS was stronger and that this suffers from some Second Book Syndrome.  Hopefully the third book is stronger and a worthy conclusion to the trilogy.

3 stars out of 5.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

I Was the Jukebox - Sandra Beasley

I Was the Jukebox: PoemsI'm not a huge poetry person, so when "A book of poetry" was included on a reading challenge list, I was not thrilled.  Because I am very ambivalent, at best, towards poetry, I decided to do something I don't usually do for reading challenges and re-read a book I'd consumed in the past.  I originally read I Was the Jukebox for a literature course at my university, and I hung onto it (unlike most of my textbooks) because there was one poem in it that really blew me a way.  Also, at under 100 pages, it was a quick read for an evening--I don't have the patience to break up and savor poems though that is, apparently, how you are supposed to mindfully consume them.

This book is roughly divided into three parts, though I quite honestly am not sure what the divisions are supposed to signify.  But there are a few running "themes" throughout the book, scattered across the parts.  There a number of sestinas, which I distinctly remember Beasley describing as poetry acrobatics (she came to speak in my class) because they use very precise alterations of word order in the ends of lines to create an ongoing flow.  There are a series of "_____ Speaks" poems, in which the peom is written from the perspective of the item or being in the title, such as Osiris, orchids, sand, the world war, and the minotaur.  Another series is "Love Poem for _____" which includes things like oxidation and Wednesday.  And then there's the "Another Failed Poem About _____" series, which features things like music, starlings, or the Greeks.

While I feel that there was probably something lurking in most of the poems that I didn't "get," I might just be looking into it too much and deciding that I'm missing something when there's really nothing there to miss.  Despite that, though, there were a few poems that really stand out in this collection, even to someone who's generally anti-poetry like myself.  The main one of these is called "Cast of Thousands."  It's a poem about a war, and how it affects people, and how the pain and suffering of war has been commercialized for entertainment and used to sell things--gyros are specifically mentioned.  There's an incredible set of lines here: "They burned my village a house at a time / unable to sort a body holding from a body held / and in minute ninety-six you can see me raise / my arms as if to keep the sky from falling."  But the whole poem is written as if it's about a movie being made, which creates this great surreal duality that I really enjoyed and found striking.

Another good one was "Antiquity," which is about how the people of the future will look back at our time and study us.  There are also a few poems that have good comedic elements, such as one about a platypus and "Another Failed Poem About the Greeks," which starts out seeming like it's going to be some sort of epic, and then actually transforms into the story of a very strange date with Heracles.  And finally, the last poem in the book is called "Proposal" and ends with this line, which just struck me: "Promise you're worth my weight in burning."

It's an eclectic collection, with most of the poems being short--less than a page, for the most part.   I think they vary in how powerful they are, greatly, but I think that it's a solid collection if for nothing more than "Cast of Thousands," because it's just such an important message and it's beautifully, achingly, powerfully done.

3 stars out of 5--it's a good collection, I guess, with some particularly poignant parts, but it's just for me overall.

Friday, November 11, 2016

A Darker Shade of Magic - V. E. Schwab (Shades of Magic #1)

A Darker Shade of Magic (Shades of Magic, #1)Wow!  What a story!  I put off reading A Darker Shade of Magic for what feels like forever because people were going so gaga over it.  The last fantasy book that I read that people went so crazy over was The Name of the Wind, which left me less than impressed.  I'd been burned; I didn't want to be so again with this.  But the library had it available for Kindle, so I finally though, "Why not?"  And man, all those people who I doubted so much?

They were right.

A Darker Shade of Magic is the story of Kell and Lila.  Kell is Antari, a user of blood-magic who can travel between three different worlds, all of which happen to have a city called London, though the city itself is very different in each.  Kell hails from Red London, a land of magic (obviously) that apparently smells like flowers, where the Isle (aka the Thames) is a source of power, and people in general can use elemental magics.  He also has a very neat coat that is actually a bunch of coats and must have some sort of inter-dimensionality charm attached to it for it to function as it does.  As one of only two living Antari, Kell works as a messenger passing letters between the monarchs of the three Londons.  Oh, and he also smuggles items between the worlds, something that is strictly forbidden, because he has a bit of a fascination for items from the other Londons.  He's basically a male, land-based, world-traveling version of Ariel.  He's got gadgets and gizmos aplenty, he's got whosits and whatsits galore.  You want thingamabobs?  He's got twenty.  But who cares?  No big deal...

And then there's Lila.  Lila is from Grey London, our own London.  She's a thief who wants nothing more than to be a pirate.  Basically, Lila is awesome.  She has her own code of honor and she dreams of getting away, doing more.  Basically, if Kell is Ariel, Lila is Belle.

She wants it more than she can tell.  And for once it might be grand to have someone understand she wants so much more than they've got planned.

When Kell winds up in Grey London with a mysterious artifact from the fallen Black London, he ends up on a collision course with Lila--literally.  And when he decides that he has to take the item back to Black London and seal it away, even it means that he won't be able to make it back, he finds out that he's not going to be able to go without Lila tagging along.  Of course nothing goes smoothly, everything gets messed up, and now it's up to these two to save the world(s).

I loved this.  Schwab has a great writing style, not too ornate or too simplistic, just enough to draw you in without drowning you in unnecessary details and without trying to hide things away for the sake of being clever.  The world building here was awesome.  It has strong elements of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, with the way that worlds can overlay each other and what's in one place might be in another, but be different, but Schwab makes this concept (which is certainly in use in other places, as well) her own.  Red London was absolutely breathtaking and I want to live there.  White London was coldly terrifying, just alien enough to put you on edge.  And Black London...  Well, call me crazy, but I would love to see Black London.  The way the mythology is set up here makes Black London seem like a place that could be beautiful or terrible, or both at once, and those are the sorts of settings I love the most.  I hope that we get to actually see it in future books.  And while I usually immediately start shipping people in this book, I liked that Lila and Kell remained somewhat friendly, somewhat exasperate partners for this.  Might that evolve into something more in the future?  Maybe.  I can't really tell from this, though there are a couple of instances that hint it might.  I could go either way on this part; I think they could be good together, but I'm just as content to see them remain friends, which is honestly pretty rare in books, and even more rarely done well.

This was, overall, a beautiful, riveting fantasy.  I absolutely loved it, and I'm already thinking of how I can get it into the hands of some other people I know would really enjoy it.

5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Magic Burns - Ilona Andrews (Kate Daniels #2)

Magic Burns (Kate Daniels, #2)Guys, let me tell you, I am tearing through this series.  I read 3 of them in one weekend!  No joke!  I'm not sure what exactly it is about them that has me reading them so quickly, because while they're enjoyable, they're definitely not on a list of "best books I've ever read."  Kate is an okay main character, but she's not super, and there's definitely not enough Curran to keep my occupied on that note.  Maybe it's something about the way that Andrews keeps bringing in new mythologies and building up her magic-assaulted world.  Maybe it's just that they're written in a very readable style.  I don't know.  But I'm going through them pretty quickly.  (Though now that I'v reached the point that Kate and Curran finally got together, I might slow down some!)

Magic Burns starts not long after Magic Bites ended.  The magic waves are still hitting Atlanta, and they're getting stronger and closer together, leading up to a flare.  And things really get messed up when Kate finds herself as the guardian of a thirteen-year-old girl named Julie whose mother has gone missing in the magical mayhem.  Oh and there are some undead mermaids tormenting her, too.  And a guy who keeps appearing, stealing a bunch of maps from the Pack, and then disappearing--literally.  He can teleport.  This all starts to add up to something very bad, and Kate is, of course, stuck smack dab in the middle of it.

In this book, Andrews starts to bring in some Irish mythology and also touches on a couple of other points.  She also introduces the concept that location-related mythological things seem to happen in bunches--aka, if one Greek thing shows up, a bunch more are likely to.  This is a neat sort of internal logic that allows her to "theme" her books with each along a different mythological line, without it seeming too scattered.  The idea here is that anything than occur but belief makes things stronger, and that the magic really means that anything can be brought into existence given the right circumstances.  That is definitely the case in this book, and while I kind of think it's just a matter of convenience, I also find it a good way to structure the world to give Andrews the type of freedom of mythology she clearly desires.  My one worry here, though, is that, while Kate appears to do her research, that Andrews is really going to butcher something one of these days.  There's just really no way to be an expert on so many different mythologies and I think some day that's going to come around to bite her.

I also really liked the introduction of Julie as a character, though Kate seems to start referring to her as "my kid" pretty darn quickly.  Let me tell you, I am the same age as Kate, and I would not immediately assume that I was going to be the long-term guardian of a thirteen-year-old I found wandering around.  No way, no how.  Julie's abilities are interesting, and definitely useful for Kate.  I do hope that Andrews continues to integrate Julie in a meaningful way into the future books, because it's super annoying to introduce an interesting kid as a character and then just ship them off somewhere because it becomes inconvenient to the plot to have a kid hanging around.

One thing I find curious about this series is that, despite Kate apparently being a go-between for the Order and the Guild (aka the knights and the mercenaries) she doesn't actually appear to work in that function and instead seems to do whatever it is she wants at the moment.  While this is a job that I think all of us would like to have, I don't think it's one that's particularly well thought-out, not even for a world that's ravaged by magical waves.

Overall, this is a fun read.  I think Andrews does some interesting things here but it's nothing that I'm dying to see.  What keeps me reading is the evolving relationship between Kate and Curran--which was a bit lacking in this book, honestly, but hey, I've read up to the point that it happens now, so I'm over it.  Not a series that's really going to make you think, but definitely a good weekend book!

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, November 7, 2016

The White Rose - Amy Ewing (Lone City #2)

The White Rose (The Lone City, #2)The White Rose is the second book in Amy Ewing's Lone City trilogy, and it picks up directly where The Jewel left off: with Garnet promising to get Violet out of The Jewel.  In quick succession, a character gets killed, to show how Serious things are, and then the escape attempt is made, with a rescue and meeting or two along the way.  Over the course of the book, Violet learns why she is so important to Lucien's plot, what the Auguries really are--or are supposed to be--and about a rebellion brewing within the walls of the Lone City.

This book did not thrill me, and I don't think I'll be picking up the third one.  First, Ash continues to be a prominent character, and I was so, so hoping he was going to get killed off.  Meanwhile, the characters who seem to offer the most promise--aka Garnet and Raven--are sidelined, and are made out to be some "aw, how cute" side romance (though nothing really develops between them in this book).  I would much rather read about Garnet and Raven than Violet and Ash, who are both incredibly boring.  The magic system is ultimately nothing new, and isn't even really presented in an interesting way.  I love elemental magic, but this feels like Ewing just got sick of the Auguries (which were interesting) and decided to replace them with something else, so she just stuck in elemental magic for kicks.  Violet also reads some documents explicitly stating that the Lone City has not always been there, and that there are other lands, and yet...this doesn't seem to pique her interest at all.  This is so confusing, because certainly if things are so bad, it might just be better to leave?

There's also a "plot twist" at the end that really didn't seem very twisty at all to me.  It's become such a trope in these YA dystopian novels that the siblings become used as tools against each other, and honestly, I'm so over it that I was completely emotionally unaffected by this turn of events at the end of the book.  It just feels like a story that had a lot of promise, and then immediately ditched all of that promise to become a run-of-the-mill dystopian.  It's pretty easy to see where the third book is going to go from here, and consequently I don't really see a need to read it.

2 stars out of 5.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Reading Challenge Updates

-A book at least 100 years older than you.  I did read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for this one, as planned, and actually found myself rather disappointed.  While I can see where the appeal for this came from in its time, I think certain aspects of it have not aged well, and the endless listing of types of fish really wore on me.

-A book recommended by a family member.  My family aren't big readers (my father, a huge Jimmy Buffet fan, has been reading A Salty Piece of Land for, like, 10 years, no joke, and still hasn't finished it) and my mother, the only one who does read, refused to actually recommend a title.  But she did say she was interested in reading The Killing Floor, the first book in the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child, so I read that.  I didn't really enjoy it, though I have read other books from my mother's shelves (The Help and The Thornbirds immediately come to mind) that I've enjoyed quite a bit.  This one just missed for me, and since she hasn't read it either, I have to think she probably wouldn't have recommended it if she had.

-An autobiography.  This ended up being a strange one.  As intended, I read Papillon by Henri Charriere, but it ended up being this weird book that Charriere put forth as an autobiography, and seems to be partly autobiographical, but also has a strange mash of all kinds of other stuff in it.  It also doesn't go into his life before he was accused of the crime at all, which seems very strange.

-A book about a culture you're unfamiliar with.  This is another one that went as planned!  I did I'm leaning towards Shutting Out the Sun for this category, which is about Japan.  I liked the first part of the book, which was generally about hikikomori, a group of people who literally shut themselves up for years (but are not agoraphobic) and a neat chapter about women, as well, but I had some serious reservations about the second half of the book that really dragged it down for me.

-A book published before you were born.  I picked out Wuthering Heights a while ago for this and stuck with it.  I enjoyed it overall, despite having some complaints about one of the characters and how the end was a bit strange.  It's probably a better story of obsession revenge than The Count of Monte Cristo, though.

-A classic from the 20th century.  I switched from Lolita to  One Hundred Years of Solitude for this one.  I enjoyed it, despite some really weird incest dynamics (but they served a point other than to titillate) because Marquez has a beautiful writing style and the magical realism of the book was so on-point.  It was an exhausting read due to some stylistic choices, though.

-A book with a protagonist who has your occupation.  I absolutely could not find a book that fit this category, so I twisted it a bit to a book with a protagonist who has an occupation I would like to have.  I ended up reading Blood, Bones, and Butter because it's the memoir of a chef.  While Gabrielle Hamilton, the author, has a wonderful way of writing about food, I found that I really couldn't stand her as a person and consequently didn't enjoy the book as a whole.

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

-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 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.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Claimed - Jennifer Chance (Crowns & Gowns #3)

Claimed (Gowns & Crowns, Book 3)Claimed follows up on Captured, and is the third book in Jennifer Chance's Crowns & Gowns series.  The main character int his one is Nicki Clark, the windsurfing, rock climbing, trouble making member of the quartet.  And then there's her love interest, Stefan, who is repeatedly called an ambassador but evidently isn't, and is instead some random bureaucrat related to the royal family.  He certainly never serves as an ambassador, and there's no mention of him doing so in the past or future, that's for sure.  Stefan and Nicki are already attracted to each other at the beginning of the book, having been playing with each other for the few weeks that Nicki and her friends have been in Garronia already, but things get amped up when Nicki volunteers to serve as a cover story so Stefan and some other officials can go to Turkey, which is on bad terms with Garronia, and look for the Crown Prince, Ari, who disappeared in a plane crash a year ago.  The area where they think Ari is happens to be hosting a windsurfing competition that Nicki covered before, so her presence there as a travel writer supposedly makes sense.  I don't totally buy this thinking; involving not only a civilian, but a foreign civilian, and the best friend of the girl who's slated to marry the heir to the throne, doesn't really seem like a sound strategy, even if she does have a (tenuous) connection to the area you're going to.

This book is, again, much plot-heavier than the first in the series.  It's also not as well-edited as its predecessors.  There's the issue of Stefan being called an ambassador when he's not; that Nicki thinks Lauren has told Em and Fran about Nicki's heart condition, when it was stated in the second book that Em already knew because she and Nicki had been college roommates; that Henry Smithson was Lauren's ex, when they were never actually together... You get the idea.  Chance started contradicting numerous things that she had already established, and it started grating on me.  They were all small things, but they all added up and basically told me that she wasn't keeping track of what she was actually writing down.  And then there are numerous editorial errors, too--typos, missing punctuation marks (particularly quotation marks), and mis-used words.  It's rather disappointing, because the first two books were well-edited and I don't see why that should have suddenly changed here.

The plot is fun, with Nicki trying to be all "secret agent" while basically having a fling with Stefan, but again, I couldn't really take it too seriously and it made the whole thing a little hard to refrain from rolling my eyes at.  There were a few things that seemed like they would develop into something, but didn't--when Nicki's windsurfing board malfunctions, for example, I was all primed to find out it was an act of sabotage from someone who'd guessed what she and Stefan were up to, but it never amounted to anything and just faded into the background.  And the ease with which Nicki and Stefan ultimately accomplished their mission was somewhat of a joke, too, and only served for the "big reveal" about Nicki's condition, which she stupidly kept secret the entire time because hey, you're so gung-ho about this mission, why not risk jeopardizing it?  (And seriously, what's the deal with all this fainting and near-fainting and heart-racing business if it's ultimately nothing?  It seems like, even if Nicki never actually got checked out, she'd be aware of her body's needs with hydration, etc. to keep it somewhat under control after hiding it for so long.)

Stefan and Nicki's relationship was lighthearted and serious at the same time, but the plot in this was so unbalanced.  They were essentially already together, so it couldn't really count as a full-blown romance, and yet the spy/rescue mission plot wasn't really well-developed enough for it to serve as a novel in that genre, either.  Overall, it felt a bit uneven and not sure of what it wanted to be.  I'm still looking forward to Fran's book, but this one was disappointing in relation to the great improvement that occurred in Captured.

3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Black Count - Tom Reiss

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte CristoThe Black Count was another book I was reading as catch-up for the online book club over at The Deliberate Reader, but I was also planning on doing a "Read This, Then That" with it and The Count of Monte Cristo (also read for book club catch-up) because, uhm, the subtitle of The Black Count is "Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo."  Unfortunately, that didn't work out so hot, for a couple of reasons.

The Black Count is supposed to be a biography of Alex Dumas, father of the novelist Alexandre Dumas, who served in the army during the French Revolutionary era.  Reiss tries to make the argument that it was Alex Dumas' experiences that inspired The Count of Monte Cristo, but honestly, after read the whole book, I can only see a few tenuous connections; the strongest points of influence don't even have to do with a Dumas/Edmond Dantes connection, but rather in general constructions and side characters.  The only connection between the two directly is that Alex Dumas was imprisoned for two years.  Edmond Dantes was imprisoned for fourteen.  But whereas Dantes was thrown into prison because he'd been framed, Dumas was imprisoned because he was an actual prisoner of war and had made the mistake of winding up in a territory that was at war with the revolutionary French Republic that he served.  So honestly, I don't think that "Alex Dumas inspired Edmond Dantes!" is an argument that holds water; Reiss even quotes Alexandre Dumas in the prologue of the book, from when the novelist said that he was inspired by a news article about a serial killer and added a revenge plot to bulk it up when he wrote the book.  But that doesn't mean that this book was bad... just wasn't, predominantly, about Alex Dumas.  The first several chapters build up the Dumas family history, it's true, but after that the focus of the book turns largely to the French Revolution as a whole, and with a particular focus on the time when Napoleon was rising to power.  Reiss' main goal actually seems to be to illustrate what a jerk Napoleon was, and he uses Dumas to illustrate that point rather than to actually tell Dumas' story in and of itself.  I think it was an interesting book--I wrote my senior thesis for university on the French Revolution, and particularly on the noyades de Nantes, the mass mass drownings that Reiss mentions briefly here, but I actually hadn't known about a lot of the Napoleonic parts that Reiss goes into.  This is probably because no one really knows whether to properly include Napoleon in the main Revolution or not, and so it gets a bit jumbled up when it's taught.  I learned a lot on those aspects, and about things that happened outside of Paris, which, again, classes don't typically go into.  But once the revolution actually gets underway, Dumas himself really falls into the background as Reiss lets us know about everything else going on, so I think putting this forth as a book that's really about Dumas is a bit of a stretch.

So, overall, an interesting history book...but a biography, or something about the "real" Count of Monte Cristo?  I think not.

3.5 stars out of 5.