Monday, February 29, 2016

Little Beach Street Bakery - Jenny Colgan (Little Beach Street Bakery #1)

Little Beach Street Bakery (Little Beach Street Bakery, #1)This is a book that undeniably falls into the category of "chick lit."  That is, a category of light, fluffy reads that might have like, two serious moments in them, but feature heroines that charm everybody who meets them and are unfairly trodden upon, but win upon the masses with their spunk and good looks, get the guy, and turn their lives (which typically start in some sort of dead end) into ones that anyone would be jealous of living.  In this case, that heroine is Polly.  She and her boyfriend Chris ran a graphic design company that failed, leaving them bankrupt.  When the bank seizes their assets, including their flat, Polly is left looking for somewhere else to live.  The only place that she can find that's in her price range and isn't absolutely terrible (only a little bit terrible) is in the town of Polbearne, which sits on a quasi-island that's connected to the shore by a causeway at some times and is cut off by the tides at others.  Due to this quirky feature, Polbearne is pretty much deserted.  Polly moves there anyway, hoping for inspiration to make a change in her life, and begins spending all of her time baking breads, which turn out to be illicit because the proprietor of Polbearne's only bakery is also Polly's landlady and isn't very nice about Polly threatening her business.

There are romance plots here, two of them, which Colgan handles by just writing one of them out of the story altogether in what seemed like something a little too convenient and a little too overwrought, something clearly designed to yank at a reader's heartstrings.  The other one isn't really every developed; it's just suddenly there, and then gone, and then there again, and then gone again, and then there again.  All the see-sawing got a little annoying after a while; I didn't see any real point to Polly's stint in America and think the plot would have been better served by eliminating that entirely.  As it was, I was left wishing the characters would just make up their minds already so we could get on with everything else.  The supporting characters in this were charming, though Polly was, in the manner of chick lit heroines, a bit too annoyingly perfect.  All of the problems that came her way were someone else's fault; her bankruptcy was the fault of her boyfriend, her persecution the fault of a bitter old woman (Colgan pretends that other people on in Polbearne treat Polly like an outsider, but they really don't), her second failed relationship the fault of the other party, and so on.  Polly never actually has to take responsibility for her own decisions--but then again, she never makes a bad one!  This is the kind of fluffiness I'm talking about when it comes to chick lit; the few darker moments are just thrown in by outside forces and have minimal lasting effect on the heroine.

As an American, I also can't help but be a little affronted at how Colgan portrayed the American characters in the novel.  Is that what she thinks Americans actually act like?  Is that what she thinks we talk like?  Polly makes light of this at a few moments, but the joke is ultimately beaten to the point of a dead horse, and while the other supporting characters at least have a couple of dimensions to them, the American ones are pretty much cardboard cutouts of stereotypes, which seems a bit unfair to me.

Honestly, the most interesting part of this book was Polly's struggle to do her own thing regarding her bread and then, ultimately, the bakery itself.  This part came across as more realistic than the relationship aspects, and it was absolutely mouth-watering at times, making me want to go off in search of some focaccia myself.  I ultimately had to settle for a rosemary boule and some whipped garlic butter from Whole Foods, but still--I love books with a food aspect, and Polly's breads, while simple, sounded utterly delightful.  Added into the quaint atmosphere of Polbearne, I think this could have been a really strong book without the love triangle pieces--in fact, probably stronger than it was with them.  This book had its charming points, but ultimately I don't think it had a compelling enough story or characters to make me really want to seek out the sequel.

3 stars out of 5.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Atlantia - Ally Condie

AtlantiaAll her life, Rio has lived in Atlantia, the city Below, with her twin sister Bay.  She has always dreamed of going Above, a chance that comes once in a lifetime--but in the wake of their mother's death, Rio promises Bay she'll turn down the opportunity to go above so that they can stay together, and is shattered when Bay betrays her and chooses to go Above herself, leaving Rio alone in Atlantia.  Immediately, Rio becomes consumed with finding a way to escape Atlantia, because she can't take back her choice to stay, and also has to manoeuvre around her aunt Maire, a siren of immense power who might have had something to do with Rio's mother's death.

Stories about Atlantis always seem so cool when you read about them.  Sometimes they're super cool in execution, too; I haven't read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea yet (which I think has a part about Atlantis in it?) but one of my favorite animated movies is Atlantis: The Lost Empire, which is supposed to be based roughly on Leagues.  So I was hoping for something really awesome in Atlantia.  I didn't find it.  The world is based on an extremely weak concept, which makes everything else hang off of it and also be weak.  Basically, the idea is that the air on the planet became so bad that people decided it was easier to build a city underwater for some people to live in; everyone who had to stay on the surface had someone who went to safety Below, to ensure their good behavior.  Why building a city underwater instead of just building a bubbled-in city on land with filtered air makes sense, I don't know.  How the people of Atlantia got their air, because there are no plants or anything that actually produces oxygen Below, I don't know.  Why the people of Above decided that they were going to spend all of their lives enslaved to providing all of Atlantia's resources, because it cannot provide anything for itself, I don't know; sure, at first it might have been the "we have your children" thing, but this set-up lasted generations, and at some point you don't have anyone you know on the other side, so what's the point?  It involves all of the people having really stupid names, like Oceana and Rio and Bay (which I kept reading as Bae; hey, bae) and oh my god, True.  Because living underwater means that all typical naming conventions go out the window and everyone suddenly has to have super weird names.  It involves Rio (who is a siren, by the way; I might have forgotten to mention that) successfully hiding a pretty much impossible to hide gift her entire life, and then using it in a few basic commands to different people and things, and then her aunt saying that she can save them all because she has a pure, unused voice, except she doesn't because she has used, even if it was in small ways.  It involves Bay actually not telling her sister why she went Above and left Rio below, except in a note that wasn't supposed to be delivered until after Rio tried to go Above, an attempt which, by the way, should have killed her, so what's with the note, anyway?  And sirens can't live Above?  Why?  I thought they were human; Rio blatantly says so at the beginning.  This book made no sense.

Oh, and Rio is so stupid.  She does not see a single thing coming her way.  At all.  Not even when it's super obvious.  She goes off alone, multiple times, with people she suspects might have had a hand in murdering her mother.  She decides she's going to swim to the surface even though she knows she's deep enough that her lungs will burst from the pressure if she attempts it.  And she actually believes that people cannot have meaningful relationships outside of their families, because only blood matters--you know, like the blood that ties her to her aunt who she thinks murdered her mother.  Because that is such a good relationship (it is ultimately more complex than that, of course, but why even go down that road if that's what you think? why?) to pursue, but you can't bother making a single friend who isn't your sister because there's no blood tie there.  Stupid.  Stupid stupid stupid.

This was an extremely weak book.  I think it had a cool concept that could have gone awesome places, but Condie just turned it into another walk in the park dystopian story, with no real unique dimensions or strong, interesting characters to distinguish it.  She could have done so much with this setting, but she didn't.  Super disappointing.

1.5 stars out of 5.

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Cuckoo's Calling - Robert Galbraith (Cormoran Strike #1)

The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike, #1)When supermodel Lula Landray (known affectionately to some as Cuckoo) falls to her death from the balcony of her London flat, most of the world is convinced it was a suicide.  But three months later, Lula's adoptive brother turns up at the office of Cormoran Strike, private detective, and asks him to investigate whether the apparent suicide was really a murder.  Strike is skeptical, but accepts because Lula's brother offers to pay a truly exorbitant fee that will help him clear up some debts and stay in business.  His business is his home, due to a recent break-up with his fiancee, so he's really keen on keeping it.  Add into this mix Robin, a temporary secretary who decides to stay on a bit longer than planned, and about a dozen other colorful supporting characters, and you've got this book.

Now, as most of the world knows, Robert Galbraith is actually J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame.  This was her attempt at writing crime fiction, an attempt that I personally think had rather mixed results.  The book shot to the tops of bestseller lists, but only after it was revealed that Rowling was behind the Galbraith name.  As such, it fits my "A New York Times beststeller" category for the Popsugar Reading Challenge, but indicates that the book might not be as extraordinary as some would suggest.  I think that's accurate.

Here's the thing.  There's an intricate plot, with a lot of twisted little bits all twisted up that you can untangle in retrospect, but I don't think you really can in the moment.  That's good.  Rowling also has an amazing grasp of making distinguishable, believable, awesome characters; there was not a single character in this book that I felt was superfluous or underdeveloped.  I could totally see them all going on and living their own lives outside the scope of the main story.  This is definitely one of Rowling's talents; she showed it in the Harry Potter series, and she brought it back out to trot here.  But what she didn't do was make this a page-turner.  Every chapter serves its purpose, sure, but they didn't have me staying up later, needing to know what was next.  Most mystery/thrillers have me tearing through pages to finish as quickly as possible.  I read this one over the course of a week, which is an incredibly long time for a mystery.  It was just slow.  Strike was building things up in his mind the entire them, but we couldn't really see them, and so it seemed like not much was going on at all.  That meant that this was really, really slow.  It was good, but I don't think it's a thriller, just a normal mystery, and one that can really be picked at rather than devoured without losing too much along the way.  It's not a compulsive read, and being that I knew it was coming from Rowling's pen, I was a bit disappointed that this wasn't all-consuming.

Still, I think this was a solid book, and I'm going to continue reading them.  I really like Robin, though I'm one of those ridiculous people who hopes that she will dump her fiance and she and Strike will get together.  I know the odds of this are slim to none, but I want it to happen anyway; Robin was way too awesome of a character not to get a more prominent storyline, and this is totally how I want it to go.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

For Darkness Shows the Stars - Diana Peterfreund (For Darkness Shows the Stars #1)

For Darkness Shows the Stars (For Darkness Shows the Stars, #1)Look at this cover.  Pretty girl in a pretty dress on a field of stars.  A review snipped that says it's a "beautiful, epic love story."  The promise of a society that dwells in faux-historical times but with a science fiction edge.  Can you see what I was looking for here?  I was looking for another These Broken Stars.  I didn't find it, and while I think this book had some strong points, overall I was very disappointed.

Disappointments first, so I can finish up with strong points and end on a positive note, okay?  First off, this is not a "beautiful, epic love story" like that quote says.  It hardly qualifies as a love story at all.  Supposedly, this book is based on Jane Austen's Persuasion, and while I can see the bones there based on Persuasion's description (I haven't read it) I think that Peterfreund could have adapted this so much better than she actually did.  Let me put forth my main problem with showing this book off as a Jane Austen/sci-fi love story: it's not a love story, or at least not one involving two worthy parties.  Kai is a complete ass for like 90% of the book, and all his sweet-talking and letter-writing in the end can't make up for how utterly abominably he treated Elliot throughout.  It seems like, in Persuasion, the heroine ditches the hero because her sister convinces her that he's not good enough for her to marry.  I can see someone being a bastard about that latter.  It's a pretty lame reason to call off an engagement.  But to be so utterly vicious in every way toward a former friend, whom you were never actually romantically involved with, even if the possibility was there, when she refused to run away with you into stars-only-know what sort of trouble when the two of you were fourteen, and instead decided to stay home, do her duty and help all of the people who, in one way or another, depended on her?  And to turn everyone you meet against her, too?  No.  Absolutely inexcusable.  I spent this entire book just praying that Elliot would realize how much better off she would be if without Kai, and get over him and move on, and I am so disappointed that Kai was actually presented as a realistic love interest here.  Not that there's much of a love story at all, because like I mentioned, the two were never actually romantically involved.  It was suggested that they might have been, if things had gone differently, but since things didn't go differently, they weren't.  And so it makes the constant angst and the sudden lovey-doveyness of the end just seem very out of place.

On more minor notes, the early worldbuilding in this drove me crazy, because exactly what all of these strange terms mean and how they came about is not made clear for quite some time, and it left me floundering.  Also, I could not for the life of me figure out where the heck this story was supposed to take place on our own world, geographically, and it drove me crazy.  Does anyone know where these mysterious two islands that survived the apocalypse are?  Anybody?  Bueller?

I think that the apocalypse scenario itself was strong, and that the moral implications of the characters' actions in relation to it, which are brought up time and time again, could very easily be the topic of an intense ethical debate all on their own.  What really is right in this scenario?  (Hint: it's not being emotionally abusive to someone you considered your best friend.  Yes, I am bitter over this.)  And I liked Elliot herself, and her grandfather, and the whole mystique of the Boatwright name and legacy, and the promise of what might be beyond the shores of the two islands.  Honestly, I think this world, and Elliot, had enormous potential in general, and that Peterfreund just went and absolutely slaughtered it with Kai.  He could have been changed in so many minor ways to make him palatable, and a hero worth rooting for, but honestly he really ruined the entire book for me.  I'm willing to put up with a lot of bastardly behavior from a hero if the romance is good and there's at least some logic, no matter how misplaced it is, behind his actions, but that was not the case here.  No delicious romance.  Not a single kiss!  If you're going to write a romance about two eighteen-year-olds, they are allowed to at least kiss at some point, especially after they throw off all the societal restraints confining them in every aspect of life.  One would think any taboos against kissing would go out right with them.  And certainly no logic.  Another possible way this could have been remedied: by having some chapters with Kai as a point-of-view character, instead of Elliot, so that we could see what was actually going on in his head.  This might have made misunderstandings more apparent and Kai more tolerable in general.  But that didn't happen, and so we only have Elliot's POV, and Kai was a total jerk to her all along the way.  There is no redemption here for this.

I plan on reading Across a Star-Swept Sea, Peterfreund's other book in this duology, because I do think there's so much potential here, but I sincerely hope that it offers a better hero, and hopefully more of a love story, than this book did.

2 stars out of 5.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Lunch in Paris - Elizabeth Bard (Lunch in Paris #1)

Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with RecipesI came to this book a bit out of order; it's Bard's first book, taking the form of a memoir about her life and romance in Paris, but I read her second book, Picnic in Provence (which continues on in the same format, but about her move to Provence) first.  While Picnic was nice, dealing with Bard's move to the country, her husband's struggles with his job, the birth and raising of her child, and so on, it was a bit domestic for me.  Not that I don't like domestic; I'm a pretty domestic person myself.  But generally, when I read a book, I want to read about someone different than me.  So when I realized that Bard had written another book that dealt with her life before she settled down into motherhood and such, I was intrigued.  There's something just so romantic about love stories in Paris, don't you think?  I certainly do.  So when I saw that the library had this one available for Kindle loan, I snapped it up!

The book is formatted like a memoir, with each chapter focusing on a theme or event and ended with a handful (generally 2-4) recipes that tie in with the chapter.  Holidays, outings, changes in life...all of these things are included.  The "story" itself, as it is, is fairly chronological.  Bard is in Paris, has a date, sleeps with the guy (which does not normally do, she is sure to emphasize) and, in relatively short order, finds herself in a committed relationship and moving to Paris, to her boyfriend's tiny studio apartment that doesn't even have built-in heat.  Seriously.  They have to use a space heater for everything.  That does sound...not so romantic...but the rest of it, the food, the markets, the sights, all have this mist of glamour over it that I think most people who haven't ever been to Paris see in their heads when they imagine the City of Lights.  I certainly get it in my head.  Bard has a light sense of humor, nothing too sharp or too deep, and this is a light read.  There are a few heavier events, such as death or the deep, deep loneliness that can come with being immersed in a culture that is not your own, with no one else who belongs to your native culture, but it's not a very thought-provoking book.

The one thing that drove me absolutely crazy here was the same thing as in Picnic: sometimes Bard writes in present-tense, and sometimes she writes in past-tense.  The tenses even change within the same chapter.  It's a memoir; pretty much everything in it is going to be past-tense, and the lack of standardization here is mind-boggling.  Even if Bard wrote it in a mix--which I understand, because when you play around with styles or write at different times, things sometimes come out differently--her editor should have made sure the tenses were standardized before the book went into production.

Bard's struggles to find employment and a sense of purpose while in France are much more apparent in this book than in the second one, probably because by the second one, she had it mostly figured out.  It doesn't have the quirky aspect of starting a business, but it has more of a self-exploratory tone, and definitely a tone of exploring Paris.  But at the same time, Bard sometimes makes herself feel more like a side character than a main character in the book, because while other people are doing interesting things--when Gwendal is digitizing European cinema, his father is making wonderful art, and so on--Bard just goes to the market and cooks, over and over again.  Now, I get that this was reality--but it's also a book, and sometimes things need to be weighted a little more evenly.  This gets tied together some as Bard reaches a sort of identity crisis--why can't she spend all her life food shopping and cooking?--but the repeated episodes can tend to drag a bit.  They're thankfully broken up by other things, but the monotony is there in the background, dragging on an don.

Overall, I don't think I liked this better or worse than Picnic.  It was a cute memoir, with the same style as Picnic; I can't really say that I think Bard evolved much as a writer between the two.  Paris is, I think, generally a more intriguing setting than the town of Cereste, but most of things Bard did weren't as interesting.  It's a delicate balance, and I don't think she's quite hit it yet--but then again, it's probably hard to strike that balance precisely in life, too.

Just like Picnic, I give it 3.5 stars out of 5.

This book also fulfilled my Popsugar Reading Challenge 2016 category of "A book set in Europe."  Paris is, of course, just about as European as it gets.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Second Chance Boyfriend - Monica Murphy (One Week Girlfriend #2)

Second Chance Boyfriend (One Week Girlfriend, #2)Sometimes a book just doesn't live up to its predecessor.  It's unfortunate, but true.  Sometimes the first book in a series just has something, some sort of oomph, that its younger sibling just lacks.  That's exactly what the case was here.

I read One Week Girlfriend back in January, and really liked it.  It was a new-adult romance in which a guy hires a girl to pretend to be his girlfriend over Thanksgiving break in order to keep his family, with whom he has unhappy relations for several reasons, at arm's length.  Of course, they have instant chemistry and a relationship of sorts ensues.  All the while Fable (the female protagonist) tried to untangle what exactly what was going on with Drew (the male protagonist) tries to avoid the issue and get the hell back to school as soon as humanly possible.  I liked how Drew's issues were handled, the relationship between them...most of the aspects, other than the concept that Fable could "fix" Drew.  When the book ended with them splitting up, I wanted to read the next one to see about the reconciliation.

That said, I found this book sadly lacking in the plot that made the first one strong.  The first book had this mystery lurking in the background, something you could probably guess at but that had threads that were continually teased out over the course of the book and helped support the relationship plot.  This book didn't really have a secondary plot going on; there were a few things happening in the background, but nothing big or overarching that kept me reading to know what exactly was going on.  Everything was very explicit here; nothing to be poked or prodded at, nothing to be figured out.  The story is basically about Fable and Drew getting back together and Drew trying to move past what happened with his family when he was younger.  Drew also has a new therapist and Fable has a new job.  They're not together in the very beginning of the book, but they get back together pretty quickly and then there's not a lot of conflict to propel the plot along, just random side things that happen every now and then.  Originally it seemed like there was going to be some plot revolving around Fable's new gig, but that was dropped pretty quickly and in such a weird way.  Murphy clearly set up to use Fable's boss, Colin, for a third book, but it meant that his total weirdness in this one was just left hanging.  And then, at the end, a bunch of stuff happens and BOOM.  Done.  Happily ever after.

So, what did I like?  I liked that, in this one, Drew was seeking actual help for coping with his problems.  His therapist helped him tease out the things that were bothering him so he could face them and not get over them, but move past them to a functional life and relationship.  Drew and Fable's relationship was also depicted as more supportive than as a "fixing" relationship, which was a nice change from the first book.  But Fable needed Drew to do something completely dramatic in order to trust him again, instead of just realizing he'd had a freakout, and that seemed completely unnecessary and I mean, I wouldn't want to be with her if I knew that was what it would take to get her to trust me...

This has some cute scenes, some steamy kisses, but overall it just didn't have the strength of the first book.  I'll probably read the other two books in the series, which have different main characters, but I hope that Murphy recovers the charm that One Week Girlfriend had in them, or they'll probably be a bit disappointing.

2 stars out of 5.

The Sorcerer Heir - Cinda Williams Chima (Heir Chronicles #5)

18469705The Sorcerer Heir is supposedly the last book in Cinda Williams Chima's Heir Chronicles.  I say supposedly because The Dragon Heir was supposed to be the last book, but then she went on and wrote two more, so I don't think we can really say that she's done with this series completely and certainly.  She could always come back with a new one years down the road--after all, she hasn't really touched on the seer guild yet, and The Seer Heir has such a ring to it, don't you think?

The Sorcerer Heir is also the most direct sequel in the series.  The other books all had related storylines, but with new main characters in each.  The Sorcerer Heir, in comparison, picks up with the same story and same characters as The Enchanter Heir, the book before it.  It continues to follow Jonah Kinlock, the boy with the deadly touch, and Emma Lee Greenwood, the girl with the gift of music, in the wake of the events that ended The Enchanter Heir.  Shades and murder continue to plague the Weir community, and it's completely unclear who is behind it all.  Williams Chima does a good job keeping us chasing our own tails as the characters run hither and yon, all blaming each other for what happened, but I think the "twist" is pretty apparent to a savvy reader if you just poke at it enough.  That said, it wasn't so blatantly obvious that I thought the characters were morons for not figuring it out; they didn't have the same information available to them, after all, or at least not individually, and they didn't know enough to ask the right questions of each other for the vast majority of the book.

Williams Chima also re-integrates Leesha as a semi-main character here.  She gets a number of chapters to herself, which seem superfluous at the beginning but build interest and importance as the story goes on.  I don't remember Leesha enough from the earlier books to say if this is something I would have wanted, but I did like it, at least towards the middle and end.  Leesha's story is really one of redemption, probably more than any other character, and it was neat to see her finally get some resolution in that respect, especially because so few of the other characters got any real sense of resolution.  The end of the book in general is very open, which is one of the things that makes me think that we might see a sixth Heir book sometime in the future.  A lot of things are left up in the air, with the attitude of "Well, if they become problems, then we'll deal with them then," which seems both like not a good attitude to take toward the undead roaming your city who potentially want to kill you, and also like a cop-out so that the storyline can be continued in a future book if reader demand is great enough.

That said, with author ploys aside, I did like this.  It certainly gets going faster than The Enchanter Heir did, probably because Enchanter did all of the set-up for it.  There is action, conflict, and tension pretty much from the beginning.  I wish that there had been a bit more interaction between our two main characters; there's such tension between Emma and Jonah that I thought it had to be going somewhere every time they were in the same room, and yet it never really did.  They had such build-up in the first book, but it never really matured into anything in this one.  Again, I suspect this is because Williams Chima is leaving herself open for another volume.  After all, Seph and Madison, Jack and Ellen, Leesha and Fitch...all of their romantic plots (which Jonah and Emma were certainly made out to have) resolved themselves fully in books following the ones in which they originally appeared.  I wouldn't be surprised to see something similar happen here.

So, that's basically it: I liked this book, I think it had much better pacing than the one preceding it, but I'm not buying that it's the final book in the series.  There was too much left open for me to really believe that it's the final end.  I think even The Dragon Heir had a more concrete ending than this, and that was supposed to be the end, too, so I would not be one bit surprised if another book--like, as I said, The Seer Heir--hit the shelves within a few years.  That said, I'm still eager to read Williams Chima's other series, The Seven Realms, and will probably move onto that in the near future.

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) - Mindy Kaling

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)Mindy Kaling is one of those people that, in an abstract way, I kind of think I would want to be best friends with...but then I kind of second-guess that, because it's the reaction pretty much everyone has had to this book, and that makes me really think that that's the reaction everyone is supposed to have to this book, and maybe she's not as adorable as she seems?  Am I reading too much into this?  Maybe, maybe not.  Anyway, I'll probably never meet Mindy Kaling, let alone have the opportunity to become best friends with her, so this is a dilemma I will never have to face--along with the dilemma of having my clothes stolen out of my closet, because that is part of Mindy's Best Friend Code of Conduct: "All of your clothes also belong to me."

I've seen very, very few episodes of The Office, the show that made Mindy famous, and the few that I've seen I didn't really find funny.  This might be because they were all first-season episodes, and Mindy makes pretty clear in the book that a lot of people didn't like the first season.  That said, I do think she's a funny person overall.  This book had a lot of quirky, funny parts, and a lot of good points, and a few eye-roll-worthy ones.  One of the latter was when she wonders why people always ask her what the other actors on The Office are like in real life, but they never ask her what she's like, which she just presumes to mean that everyone thinks she's exactly like her character, Kelly Kapoor.  Or maybe--just maybe, stay with me here--they don't ask her what she's like because a) that's kind of a loaded question; I mean, how can she really answer that, and b) maybe they feel they don't need to ask because they already talking to her and forming that opinion themselves, which they haven't had the opportunity to do with the other actors, hence the questions.  But she also includes a lot of funny anecdotes, like the stories behind the stream of narcissistic pictures in her Blackberry (yes, celebrities also pop pimples and try to cover it up before important occasions) and the story of her rise to The Office through a production of a play she did about Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (which I had never heard of before) and some heartfelt stories, like how unfair it was that People magazine invited her for a photo shoot and only showed up with one thing in her size, which was obviously way less fun and pretty than all of the other things they showed up with in a size 0.

Overall, Mindy is a really funny person, even if sometimes her humor can be a bit, uhm, off?  There are some racist remarks in here, that she seems perfectly cognizant of and seems to have left in despite some advice about not appearing racist in your books.  But her totally dorky moments, like how much she loves Conan O'Brien (a lot) and dieting (possibly even more) and how she can only work out when she's concocting elaborate revenge fantasies in her head (she saves The Voice from terrorists in one) are quirky and snarky and made for a fast, light read.  This fulfilled my "A book written by a comedian" category for Popsugar's 2016 Reading Challenge, and I am glad I picked this one for it.  I want to read Tina Fey's Bossypants at some point, but Mindy was so cute and likable in this book, despite talking about how vain and shallow she is, that you really can't help but like her, even when she does really shitty things like leave her coat behind at parties so people think she's coming back when she really intends to ditch them.  I mean, I understand the urge to want to a leave a party, pronto, but it is polite to at least let people know you're leaving--and if you don't do that, to at least not lie about it when they call you out on your just slipping away.  These are some of the moments that make me suspect that Mindy isn't really as likable as she makes herself out to be...but I liked the book anyway, since our paths will never cross, it's not a concern.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Crown of Midnight - Sarah J. Maas (Throne of Glass #2)

Crown of Midnight (Throne of Glass, #2)I am so torn on this series.  Granted, I'm two books behind everyone else--book five should be coming out in September--but I have a pretty good memory of the original Fictionpress draft, and the similarities and differences continue to confound me.  But even without that, there are things I absolutely love about this book--which I do consider to be better than Throne of Glass--and things which frustrated me to nearly no end.

In Crown of Midnight, we pick up with Celaena in the months after she won the competition to become the King's Champion, which basically means his pet assassin.  Celaena isn't really thrilled at being his pet assassin, but it's better than being a slave, sooooo...  The King has her chasing to and fro all over the country, killing off people he considers to be his enemies.  Except, we quickly learn, she's not actually killing them off, but faking their deaths and allowing them to escape under assumed identities.  And then there's the mystical, dead queen who wants her to figure out the king's source of power and put it to right, and her complicated relationships with Chaol and Dorian, and... Yeah.

So, I'm going to cut to the chase her and throw out my two main frustrations with this series so far, which are both Celaena.  One of them is about her personality--the other is about her in a more abstract sense.  So, first.  Celaena is so stupid.  I can't get over this.  She's made out to be so clever, such an expert at everything she does, but despite all her knowledge, all her training, all her experience, and everything lurking in the past and in the present around her that she is aware of, she continues to make stupid decisions to trust people who are obviously wrong, to ignore things that are right in front of her, and to blunder right into dangerous situations with little to no preparation.  Granted, there are a few situations, such as a rescue, that she went into with the right mindset...but she wouldn't have had to if she'd used her brain a little more in the first place, and she continues to make the stupid decisions going out of it.  Celaena's purported knowledge and expertise and her actual behaviors in the book are completely at odds with each other, which is immensely frustrating.  Oh, and Celaena still hates on all women who aren't herself and Nehemia, which is also very annoying.  Because how dare other women admire the hot, eligible captain of the guard, right?

Second is the concept of Celaena as a larger character.  Here's the problem: she's supposed to be the world's most famous assassin, but she doesn't actually assassinate people.  She does kill a couple of people, but they are people who are completely, indisputably bad.  This means that, for all Celaena is supposed to be a morally ambiguous character, she really isn't.  There is, of course, a larger writing dilemma here: how do you write a character who is a functional assassin, who kills the people she is contracted to kill even if they're good and don't deserve to die, but still have a likable character?  Can you?  I think so.  I think it would be a challenge, but I think it's possible, and that such a character would be compelling in a way that Celaena just isn't.  All of her machinations to preserve people's lives are admirable, but they weaken her claim to being a great assassin because it means that it's all just hype, not fact.  When we can see this, it lessens her claim to greatness and makes her just a phony.

That said, I do admire how much Maas is willing to put Celaena through.  An event that I remembered from the original draft happened in this book, and I am so glad it did, because it really darkened the tone of the series overall.  Watching Celaena being hit by event after event after event is interesting, even if she doesn't ever really learn from them.  I think there's an interesting world lurking here, too, and that there are some good elements Maas can draw on.  The Ironteeth witches are intriguing, in particular, and I hope to see more of them (and maybe the other witch clans) in the later books.  Celaena's romances (while frustrating because everyone loves her) are well-written in the sense that they're absolutely delicious, and Maas isn't afraid to have her go through more than one relationship; there's not (so far) a "one true love" component here, which is the case in so many young adult books.  Celaena was with Dorian in the first book, and broke it off at the end; in this book, Maas builds up her relationship with Chaol.  Dorian is still interested, but it isn't an active love triangle because Dorian takes one for the team and steps aside, so there's no actual competition.  The way the relationships between these three evolve is great, and I really liked seeing how the dynamics changed throughout the book.

So, here's what I'm thinking: I'm going to continue to read the series, but I'm going to cut my losses and presume that Celaena will never be a really compelling main character.  The supporting characters and world are far more interesting than Celaena herself.  Her story is crystal-clear from the beginning, unlike everything else, and it's for those other, unknown elements that I'll keep reading.  Celaena doesn't have the ability to carry a series on her own, but she has a lot of other things going to bolster the books and keep me interested, so I'll continue to read...and ultimately, I guess that's what the author (and the publisher) really care about.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Walk on Earth a Stranger - Rae Carson (Gold Seer Trilogy #1)

Walk on Earth a Stranger  (The Gold Seer Trilogy, #1)Let me begin by saying this: if you're coming to Walk On Earth a Stranger hot off Carson's other series, Girl of Fire and Thorns, and you're hoping for another sweeping fantasy-romance, you've come to the wrong place.  Walk on Earth is a wonderful book in its own right, and I'll go into that in more detail, but it is not Girl of Fire and Thorns, Crown of Embers, or The Bitter Kingdom.  Carson really showed her fantasy talent in that series, and I admit it: I was hoping for more of the same, but in a more realistic environment, after reading the description of the book.  It talks about Leah, a girl with the magical ability to sense gold wherever it may be found, who is forced to leave home and head west disguised as a boy to escape a tragedy at home.  Based on that, and on Carson's previous works, I expected a significant fantasy thread to be wound through the story.  It wasn't.  Leah's ability is important to getting the plot going, but plays a very minimal role from then on, and the role it does play is more for "seasoning" than for actual plot advancement--which seems a bit silly, considering that it's supposed to be one of her integral characteristics.

No, what makes this book shine (like gold!) is not the fantasy element it totes in the description.  Instead, it's Caron's use of another strong heroine and her decision to place Leah in a rather underutilized time and place.  Carson sets Leah's story at the beginning of the California Gold Rush in 1849 and 1850, beginning in Georgia in a town that''s dying after a former gold rush and winding across the continent to the edge of California.  This is a time and journey that I haven't seen at all in young adult fiction.  It might be present in an American Girl book or two, but in mainstream young adult fiction, the kind that's been so popular in recent years?  No.  Not at all.  Historical fiction as a whole isn't very strong in young adult right now, in comparison to the surges of paranormal, contemporary romance, fairytale adaptations, and traditional fantasy that have swamped shelves lately, which makes seeing a book like this--with a light fantasy touch but a strong historical fiction background and plot--is really neat.

This book's particular setting also resonated with me (and probably a large chunk of the readership) because of a very specific demographic: kids who played Oregon Trail, whether it be in school or out.  There were pretty much a million iterations of Oregon Trail, including a knockoff which was quite popular on Facebook a few years ago.  Reading about Leah's journey across the United States, particularly after she hooks up with the wagon train, is completely reminiscent of Oregon Trail.  Cholera, bison hunts, the peril of running low on supplies or the absolute tragedy of facing a broken axle: it all brings back those strings of tragedies on the screen, leaving behind graves and knowing that your party was, in fact, not going to make it to Oregon.  Leah and her party are bound for California, not Oregon, but the journey is the same for much of the trip and the troubles definitely parallel each other.

Partnered with those perils are the very real issues of the time, some of which carry on into modern society, and Carson handles them with a deft hand.  Racism against African Americans and Native Americans (referred to with the polite period vocabulary of "Negroes" and "Indians," which I applaud because I don't think words should be censored from historical or historical-based works, they just have to be dealt with properly) shows up in various forms and with various attitudes toward it; tiny acts of kindness, like the offer of a blanket to someone in need, or acts of cruelty, like scorning someone who's been so helpful and reliable to you, can add up and make or break someone.  Sometimes we have to leave behind the things we would rather take with us if we want to survive--sometimes those "things" are people.  And sometimes we have to realize that there might not be much good waiting for us at the journey's end, but we have to keep going anyway.  Carson wraps all of these things into the story and into Leah's character, and I think it makes the reality of her situation real, and her character more believable.  She's not perfect; she lies, she keeps secrets, she gets jealous and petty and can be wasteful, but she's still a good person at heart, and that shines through everything else.  No matter what the hardships she faces, I couldn't help but root for her.

One big thing about this book: it's basically a big road trip, and the end goal is just a vague notion.  Leah wants to reach California to escape her uncle (even though she knows he's headed that way, too, which doesn't make a ton of sense) because she can really put her gold sense to use there.  But by the end of the book, Leah and her party members have just reached California, and there isn't really any time for events there to unfold.  The majority of the book is the journey and the difficulties along the way, which serve to allow Leah to build up a network of people to draw on once California has been reached.  It means it's a very character-driven book, which might not rub along well with some young adult readers.  Most young adult books tend to be more plot driven, even when the plot is dragging the characters along kicking and screaming, and this book is definitely not like this which may come as an unpleasant surprise to some.  It definitely reads as set-up for the next book, which I think has the potential to have a heavier reliance on Leah's abilities and a more central and driving plot.  That said, I think this was a stunning, unique example of young adult fiction, and I can see why people have lauded it so much.  I definitely recommend this to anyone looking for something different in YA, as long as you're willing to take all the different as it comes.

4 stars out of 5.

This book also fulfills my Popsugar Reading Challenge category for "A book with a road trip."  This wasn't a conventional road trip, but it was a road trip nonetheless, and I think a more interesting one for that.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Enchanter Heir - Cinda Wiliams Chima (Heir Chronicles #4)

The Enchanter Heir (The Heir Chronicles, #4)When Jonah was little, he lost his parents and his little sister in the Thorn Hill Massacre--a disaster that wiped out thousands of non-wizard weir and left the survivors, all children, with a wide array of disabilities and disfigurations of every magical variety.  Now, Jonah lives at the Anchorage, a boarding school and training ground in Cleveland for Thorn Hill's survivors, and he spends his free time hunting down shades, the unhappy ghosts of those who died in the massacre and from its aftereffects.  But for the first time, the shades are really fighting back--they're killing weir and wizards in particular, and they're setting it up so that it looks like Jonah and his compatriots are behind it.

Meanwhile, Emma Lee Greenwood is thrown into a world she never knew existed following the death of her famous blues-playing, guitar-building grandfather.  Relocated from Memphis to Cleveland, she thinks she'll be able to tread the edges of the magical world without much to worry about, just like her until-now-unknown father has for years...until, of course, disaster strikes and she's thrown into the thick of things just like everyone else.

This is the fourth book in Cinda Williams Chima's Heir Chronicles, a series that started as a trilogy with separate main characters and stories in each book, but with an overarching story that combined them and brought the characters all together.  This book came out quite a bit after the first three books; I read all of those when I was in high school, and this book came out during my junior year of college.  That makes it a really good idea for the author to have placed this book a bit after the first three, and to bring in totally new characters, with the old mains playing only minor supporting roles.  Still, they show up often enough that it's annoying to know that you're supposed to know who these people are, but not knowing who they are because it's been so long since the first three books came out.  Some of it eventually gets pieced back together, but nothing is ever really explained fully, so if you haven't read the first three books in a while and don't have a good memory for them, you're going to be left grasping at straws a bit about the background information that this book doesn't provide.  On the other hand, there's some info-dumping about the new main characters.  These two should have been reversed; the info-dumping, if necessary, should have filled in the background information, particularly for Emma, who was new to the whole weir world.  The characters should have been built a bit more organically, rather than saying "This is Jonah.  He is good with a swords.  He is an assassin."  Okay, I'm paraphrasing a bit, but not by much.  This trend does diminish as the book goes on, because less information has to be put out front, but it did make the first part of the book a little unwieldy and lent it a more juvenile feel than I think the story itself merited.

As for the story, I liked it overall.  I wish that Jonah and Emma had met up a bit earlier; while they have one relatively early encounter, their stories stay separate for the majority of the book, and I would have liked to see more development with Emma being pulled into the weir world.  Her story, for a good chunk of the book, consists of her making guitars, learning about her long-last dad, going to a new school, and heading to a concert.  While there were a few interesting interactions there, she became much more interesting in the later part of the book, when she got slammed into the weir world head-first.  Her interactions and would-be-relationship with Jonah were well-written; you can see the chemistry between them, but there's certainly that star-crossed lovers dynamic that the author incorporated into the first three books in the series as well.  I'm glad that these two are going to be the focus of the fifth book, as well, because their story certainly wasn't resolved here...probably because it took so long to actually get started.  I think the later part of the book was worth muddling through the first part for, but I think it was a rough start for the return to the series, and I hope the fifth book has an overall smoother feel, and definitely a quicker start.  I can't really remember the first three well enough to compare this one to them, style-wise, so I'll just have to go with my gut on it.

3 stars out of 5, but I still have high hopes for the fifth one!

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Reading Challenge Update!

So, it's a bit more than a month into 2016, and I wanted to do a quick update on the books I've read for my reading challenge.  This includes both the Popsugar Reading Challenge categories for 2016, and a few more categories I pulled from another challenge.  Here are the updates, and if I do do say myself, I don't think I've done too bad, considering that we're only halfway through February so far!  I have a few more titles checked out from the library, too, so I should be making some more progress soon.


-A YA bestseller.  Cassandra Clare's Clockwork Angel filled in this category.  I liked it overall, but felt like the time and place could have been much better utilized than they actually were; it didn't really differ too much from its companion books, which were set a century and a half later, and that's a shame.

-A romance set in the future.  I used Their Fractured Light by Annie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner for this.  It's the final book of their Starbound trilogy, and it definitely recovered from the "second book slump" that its predecessor fell victim to.  I loved this, and I would like to see more of these sci-fi young adult romances from this pair in the future!  (Haha, in the future.  Get it?)

-A book that's becoming a movie this year.  I just happened to have The Girl on the Train out from the library when I started this challenge, so I went with that for this category!  The film adaptation is coming out later this year and stars Emily Blunt, who I quite like.  I still intend to read The Taliban Shuffle at some point this year (hopefully before seeing the Tina Fey movie it's becoming), but I think The Girl on the Train was an admirable title for this.  It was an intriguing mystery, one that could be figured out if you picked at it enough, but also disorienting enough to keep me guessing.

-A book you can finish in a day.  I didn't pre-select a title for this category because I knew it was one I would just happen to fulfill at some point.  I did so with Eloisa James' lovely My American Duchess, which was a great standalone book from an author who puts out equally great series in the historical romance category.

-A book that's more than 600 pages.  I'd planned on reading Voyager from the Outlander series for this, but I'm not sure when I'm going to get around to it.  I'm still picking away at Dragonfly in Amber, a chapter here and there, but it's going to take a while.  However, in the meantime, I did devour The Goldfinch recently, which definitely suits this category at nearly 800 pages.

-A dystopian novel. I'm going to shuffle titles around a bit for this one--I'd originally intended to read Wool, but realized that The Children of Darkness by David Litwack fit the category much better.  I'll be using Wool for another category instead.  Children of Darkness was good, but a bit slow and simplistic for my tastes.  I'm more interested in Litwack's other work than continuing that series.

-A book from the library.  I recently got my DC Public Library card (I've only lived here for almost six years; it was long past time) and one of the books I checked out was N. K. Jemisin's The Shadowed Sun, the second book in her Dreamblood duo.  I liked the first Dreamblood book, but I loved this--I felt it had much the feel of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, her first book that I absolutely adored, and I can't wait to read her newest novel!

Still To Come

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

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

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

-A book set in your home state.

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

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

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

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

-A book recommended by someone you just met.

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

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

-A political memoir.

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

-A book from Oprah's Book Club.  After much perusal of the complete list (found here) I've settled on Malika Oufkir's memoir Stolen Lives, because the categories this year are sorely lacking in nonfiction and this seems like one of the better titles on the list in general--at least among those that I haven't read yet.

-A science-fiction novel.  This is where I'm going to use Wool by Hugh Howey.  I think it tends more toward straight sci-fi than dystopian, anyway, and I'm excited to read it.

-A book recommended by a family member.

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

-A book that is published in 2016.  After reading The Orphan Queen, I want to finish up the duo with
The Mirror King, which is due out on April 5th.

-A book with a protagonist who has your occupation.

-A book that takes place during summer.

-A book and its prequel.

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

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

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

-A book of poetry.

-The first book you see in a bookstore.

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

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

-A book about a road trip.  I'm currently reading Rae Carson's Walk on Earth a Stranger, which involves a road trip of the more vintage variety: a trip by horse, foot, boat, and wagon train from Georgia to California in search of gold.  This is also a much more interesting type of road trip than the more contemporary type, so I'm happy to use it for this category.

-A book about a culture you're unfamiliar with.  I'm thinking...something about Japan?  I'm not familiar with Japanese culture, but it does really fascinate me (especially about the food) so I'm hoping to find something good!

-A satirical book.  Randall Munroe, the author of the popular webcomic XKCD, recently put out a book called Thing Explainer, which is a book of diagrams that explain how complicate things work using only the "ten hundred" most common words in the English language.  It's definitely  meant to be satirical, and would likely be a fast read, so I'm thinking that will be my choice in this cateory.

-A book that takes place on an island.

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

-A book you've been meaning to read.  I've had Street Fair on my Kindle for a while now, but keep prioritizing library books over it because they have due dates and it doesn't.  I'll have to make sure I get to it for this category!

-A book recommended by your local librarian or bookseller.

-A book you should have read in school.

-A book chosen for you by your spouse, partner, sibling, child, or BFF.

-A book published before you were born.

-A book that was banned at some point.  Maybe now that I have a public library card I can finally get my hands on Perks of Being a Wallflower.  I meant to use Perks for the banned book category last year, but could never get it from the library, so hopefully this is my year!

-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.

-A book you own but have never read.  I picked up The Mapmakers at the Smithsonian nearly a year ago, but haven't read it yet.  It...or the 400 other books on my Kindle...but I'll use The Mapmakers for this one.

-A book that intimidates you.  I admit it, I don't understand this category.  Beyond books full of advanced theoretical physics, I don't think there are many books that are downright intimidating, so I'm not sure what to make of this category.

-A book that you've already read at least once.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Orphan Queen - Jodi Meadows (Orphan Queen #1)

The Orphan Queen (The Orphan Queen, #1)Ten years ago, Princess Wilhelmina Korte lost everything when the army of Indigo invaded her home realm of Aecor and killed her family, every other adult living in the palace, and took Aecor for Indigo.  She's spent the years since as a member of a ragged band of orphans, all survivors of the massacre, building up their chance to win their country back.  Now, that chance has seemingly arrived.  They have a plan--a plan that involves Wil impersonating a dead duchess from the kingdom of Liadia, which has been lost to the magical force called wraith, and that is a problem in and of itself.  And then there's also the problem that Wil is an animator, a magic-user who can bring objects a semblance of life, in a world where magic is strictly forbidden.  And the problem of Black Knife, a vigilante in Indigo's capital who seems to know what Wil and her band are up to.  And the problem that her impersonation involves interacting with Prince Tobiah of Liadia, the only other person who really knows what happened that fateful night in Aecor, and the reason for the massacre.  It's a mess, but Wil is determined to unravel the strands, win back her kingdom, stop the wraith, and become the queen her people deserve after so many years of hardship.

This book has forgery, girls dressed as boys, princesses disguised as duchesses, monsters, magic, people sneaking around in black masks, mistaken identities, and a really good kissing scene, not to mention good writing.  It's first-person, which isn't always up my alley, but Wil is a great narrator.  She's not selfish and stupid like so many teenaged narrators often are; she doesn't know everything that's going on, but she uses what knowledge she has to the best of her ability, and she isn't afraid to ask questions or go snooping for info on her own if the answers seem to be misconstrued.  The mystery of Black Knife isn't very hard to solve, and I did find myself wondering why Wil didn't see it sooner, but that was my only real point of contention with her.  Beyond that, I think her reasoning was sound and her actions sensible for the position she was in.

I don't want to say a ton about this book because I think it can really speak for itself, but I do have one main issue with it, and that is the end.  Something happens at the end which, while it might serve to propel the plot of the second book (which is yet to be seen, as the second book isn't out yet) was placed at the end of this volume simply for shock value and to pull at readers' heartstrings.  This is a cheap trick to use, and I frown upon it.  I think the event still could have occurred--because it does have potential--but that it would have been better suited for the start of the second book than the end of the first.  It would be a way to dive straight into the action in King of Mirrors without having to re-hash the dramatic ending of Orphan Queen, which is exactly what's going to happen now.  That said, this was still a really strong book overall, and I'm looking forward to reading the next one when it comes out sometime this spring.

4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Persephone - Kaitlin Bevis (Daughters of Zeus #1)

Persephone (Daughters of Zeus #1)Let's start with this: I did not enjoy this book.  It intrigued me, because I love stories based off myths and fairytales, and the story of Persephone and Hades is one my favorites.  I read and devoured Meg Cabot's Abandon series a year or two back, which was based on the Persephone story and was absolutely delicious.  I was hoping that Kaitlin Bevis' adaption would be more along those lines.  It wasn't.

The story is about Persephone, who is in high school when she abruptly finds out that she's a goddess, that the god of winter is after her, and that the guy who rescued her from her is now her husband.  Suddenly living in the underworld, does Persephone fret her pretty little head off about her mother and friends on earth?  No.  What does she do instead?  She shops.  She drinks coffee.  She designs dresses and re-decorates her room.  Apparently the underworld is like suburbia.  Eventually, of course, she gets her butt in motion and actually does something, but only after pages and pages and pages of her fretting about like a regular sixteen-year-old, not one who should have larger concerns than the view outside her bedroom windows.  Other annoying things about her: men fall in love with her at first sight (multiple times, and not just Hades; Hades gets a pass because that's how the myth goes).

The supporting characters annoyed me just as much.  The gods are supposed to thousands of years old, and yet they all act like a bunch of teenagers.  Hades, Thanatos, Demeter...all of them seem to not possess an ounce of sense in their god-like heads, as did their lackeys the Reapers, Charon, and even Persephone's friend Melissa (who was, to be fair, an actual teenager).  Boreas, as a villain, was completely lacking from the picture.  Cassandra, who should have been awesome, was merely annoying instead.  Bevis decided to do away with the part of Cassandra's curse that dictated that no one would believe her visions, instead deciding to go with the curse ended when she died, which basically means Cassandra knows everything that's coming and tells Hades about it in advance so he can deal with it, and Persephone never needs to.  Cassandra could have been an incredibly compelling character, but was instead relegated to cheesy, annoying sidekick.

The settings were also cringe-worthy; the underworld is apparently just like suburbia, very Stepford Wives-ish but without the menace lurking underneath.  Tartarus could have provided an interesting component but was, again, pushed off to the side so that Bevis could talk more about Persephone's flowershop in the suburbs of the underworld.

And the romance?  Pretty much non-existent.  Hades falls in love with Persephone at first sight, as per the myth, and that's about it.  There's no real development of their relationship on either side.  Oh, and the winter that descends upon the world is from Boreas, not from Demeter missing and searching for her daughter.  No, Demeter is totally okay with her daughter going off to the underworld and marrying a guy thousands of years older than her.  What?  What what what?

And the writing!  Bevis skips from one incident to another with no smooth transitions, to the point that at the beginning of the book I found myself wondering what the heck was going on at some points.  "Where did this come from?" I wondered, for a long time before realizing it was a completely different scene and time, there just hadn't been any transition to it.  Unnecessary adverbs abound, Hades sighs about every two seconds... I could go on, but I won't.

If you're looking for a young adult adaptation of the Persephone story, try Meg Cabot's Abandon instead; I reviewed the trilogy here, and while I certainly had some issues with it, it left a much better impression overall than Bevis' adaptation did.  If you want a young adult story of a girl coming into crazy nature powers and falling in love with a death god, try Kresley Cole's Aracana series.  Both, I think, would be far better options than this book.

1.5 stars out of 5.

Friday, February 5, 2016

The Shadowed Sun - N. K. Jemisin (Dreamblood #2)

The Shadowed Sun (Dreamblood, #2)N. K. Jemisin is an amazing fantasy author, and anyone who hasn't read her definitely should at the next available opportunity.  She has a way of creating lush worlds, complex characters, and having an actual diverse cast in her books, which is pretty outstanding for fantasy novels.  Main characters who aren't always straight and white?  Who actually (that I can remember) have never been both straight and white?  Shocking!  In such a good way!  Her Hundred Thousand Kingdoms trilogy was outstanding, with the titular first book being one of my favorite fantasy books of all time.  The Dreamblood duo was her second series put out.  I read the first book in the duo, The Killing Moon, early last year, and it took me forever to finally get around to this one.  At first I was a bit disoriented, because some of the characters in the second book follow through from the first (though the main characters are new) and the events are strongly linked, though there was a time skip between the two volumes.  However, I pushed on, and either remembered enough or gathered from what was written.  I'd say that reading the two books close together would definitely be helpful, but it isn't strictly necessary.

This story picks up several years after the events of The Killing Moon.  The city of Gujaareh is now occupied by the Kisuati Protectorate.  The Hetawa, the temple in charge of the dream magic that fuels Gujaareh's existence, has taken in its first female Sharer, Hanani.  She's trying to rise above her apprenticeship and become a full-fledged healer when tragedy strikes: a dream plague that kills all it touches, and spreads from sleeper to sleeper.  At first, Hanani is blamed for the deaths, but when it becomes clear that the plague is beyond her, the Gatherer Nijiri bestows a new trial upon her: free Gujaareh.  To complete this task, he sends her into the desert to Wanahomen, Gujaareh's exiled prince and heir to the throne who is scheming to retake his kingdom and his crown.

At first, I loved Hanani's chapters and hated Wanahomen's.  He was a jerk.  I did not like him, and found myself paging ahead, looking for the next place Hanani would come in.  Once their paths converged, however, I think Jemisin did a very good job weaving the two together.  Hanani ended up bringing out different sides to Wanahomen, ones that were much more flattering, despite their constant butting of heads.  Hanani's struggles to understand a foreign culture seemed genuine, but despite her pain and frustration she longed to do well, and that complex mix of emotions and motivations lead her down a complicated road.  The story also picked up a good bit once the two met up in the desert, which redeemed the book from what was an interesting, but sometimes slow beginning.

This book has more of a romance plot than the first did; the first featured a very intense relationship, but I'm not sure I would call it a romance.  I wasn't sure I would call this one a romance at first, either, but it grew in an interesting way and definitely ended as one.  However, I think that positive, consensual relationship, complicated as it could be, was desperately needed in order to balance out some of the less savory aspects of the book.  Jemisin doesn't pull punches when it comes to including unpleasant truths in her books, and in this one rape, abuse, and incest feature prominently--though not amongst the protagonists.  Which is good, because it's very hard to make a raping, incestuous person a protagonist.

Sunandi, Nijiri, and Nijiri's surviving Gatherer brothers all carry over from the first book.  While some chapters feature them, they are not prominent characters, and are more used to keep us filled in with what is happening in Gujaareh after Hanani leaves for the desert.  Their characterizations were consistent with the first book of the duo, but again, can stand on their own for readers who didn't read (or forgot) The Killing Moon.  Some of the intricacies of narcomancy and the Hetawa would be lost on a newcomer, but this story isn't really about that; it's about an unlikely love story, the pain of lost relationships on all sides, and the struggle to retake a city that thrives on peace, but is on the brink of war.  It's a complex set of threads, and again, Jemisin is absolutely masterful in weaving them together.  While I didn't love this as much as I loved The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I think it comes in as my second-favorite Jemisin book, and I can't wait to read her newest offering, The Fifth Season.

A solid four stars out of five.

This book also fulfilled my Popsguar 2016 Reading Challenge category for "A book from the library."

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Clockwork Angel - Cassandra Clare (Infernal Devices #1)

Clockwork Angel (The Infernal Devices, #1)I have mixed feelings about the origins of Cassandra Clare's Shadowhunter books.  As many know, the stories originated as some rather popular and often controversial Harry Potter fanfiction that abounded with plagiarism, including from Pamela Dean's The Hidden Land, which is one of my favorite fantasy novels.  That said, I think that when Clare prepped the fanfic for publication, turning it into what is now known as City of Bones, she did a good job of re-working her original fanfiction ideas into something original, and the world of the Shadowhunters is a great backdrop for this young adult fantasy series--real, but littered with dangerous fantasy elements that can be more than a little dark at times, but in a way that tantalizes and intrigues.  Tie-ins with other fantasy works, such as Holly Black's Tithe series, can make this even more of a treat for fans who have read the other works involved.

In Clockwork Angel, Clare moves her Shadowhunter stories to the Victorian era.  Producing a new set of characters, she does some set-up for what happens in the original trilogy and the three other books that followed.  That said, while a familiarity with the general mythology helps in reading this book, you don't necessarily need it.  This is due to Tessa Gray, the main character.  Tessa moves to London at the invitation of her brother, following the death of her aunt.  Upon her arrival, she is promptly kidnapped by a pair of nefarious women known as the Dark Sisters, who hold her captive for six weeks while forcing her to use a power she never knew she had: the ability to take the form, including the memories and thoughts, of other people.  The whole thing is pretty traumatizing to Tess, who is kept in line out of the fear that her brother will be harmed if she misbehaves.  When she abruptly rescued by the young Shadowhunter Will, she's thrown full-tilt in the world of Shadowhunters, warlocks, vampires, and all sorts of other "Downworlders," and readers new to the Shadowhunter world can learn about it right along with her.

I enjoyed the overall plot of this book.  There are a few minor twists--nothing that discerning reader wouldn't be able to figure out, if determined, but enough to keep someone just reading along guessing from plot point to plot point.  There is, of course, the beginnings of a love triangle; I was hoping this wouldn't be the case, but evidently Clare found it successful enough in her original books to continue the trope on here.  (Though honestly, I ship Jem/Will.  This is unusual for me, but still the truth.)  That said, I was a bit disappointed with Clare's use of the Victorian time period.  Sure, there are references to candles and carriages, and there aren't exactly any cell phones, but I found the atmosphere of most period fictions to be largely lacking.  Victorian society cared very strongly about manners and propriety, sensibilities that the Shadowhunters seem to have completely discarded, rendering their culture--despite being an ocean and more than a century away from the original books--to be almost identical.  I was hoping Clare could really weave the time into her fantasy, much like Charlie N. Holmberg did in her Paper Magician series, or like Mary Robinette Kowal did in her Glamourist Histories, but I didn't find that to be the case.  Honestly, other than a few mentions of crinolines and parasols for the ladies, the time is hardly discernible from our own.  While the characters were likable--except Jessamine, who isn't really meant to be--I wanted something more setting-wise out of this; otherwise, what was the point of changing time periods?  Locales would have worked just as well.

Also, I now want to read about Shadowhunters in Asia.  Jem's background is absolutely fascinating and I would love to see future stories set in China during this time period.  I think there's great potential there, but unfortunately I think it's potential Clare is unlikely to ever capitalize on.

Overall, though, this is a solid young adult fantasy, with a magical real-world setting that I think will appeal to most fans of the fantastic genre, and definitely to fans of Clare's other books.  It's not hard to slip into and keep going, and I'll definitely be reading the other two books in this series, Clockwork Prince and Clockwork Princess.  The setting could have been better utilized, but I think this was a strong book nonetheless.

4 stars out of 5.

Oh, and this book also fulfilled my "A Young Adult bestseller" category for the Popsugar 2016 Reading Challenge.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Children of Darkness - David Litwack (Seekers #1)

The Children of Darkness (Seekers #1)I admit it: I liked this book more than I thought I would for a good while.  It's a dystopian book, but that takes a while to come out, and it begins like a humdrum fantasy, which put me off a bit at the beginning.  The story starts with a festival in the town of Little Pond, and one of a handful of annual visits by a vicar from Temple City to bestow a blessing of light, deal out medicines, and--unfortunately--take away one of the main characters, Thomas, for a "teaching."  Thomas leaves behind his friends Orah, who has prophetic dreams, and Nathaniel, who believes he is destined for greatness.  In Temple City, Thomas receives his teaching, showing the horrors of the past age called "the darkness," a time when people used weapons like suns they dropped from the sky against each other.  He comes back changed, and shortly after Orah is taken for a teaching of her own--but Nathaniel, determined not to let another of his friends suffer, goes after her, and he, Orah, and Thomas end up on a quest to discover the truth about the darkness and whether the vicars of Temple City have been lying to them their entire lives.

Not-so-spoiler: they have.  This is pretty much a given in a dystopian book.  What makes this interesting in comparison to most modern dystopians, I feel, is that the government in control of the land is a theocracy.  In most dystopians published these days, religion has been eliminated or at least pushed to the fringes.  In The Children of Darkness, religion--granted, a conglomeration religion and not one of the ones that's currently practiced on Earth--is front and center.  I liked this, because it shows how government and religion can be so strongly linked that they can become the same thing, even in places where one isn't actually portrayed as the other.  It also makes it harder for the heroes to invoke change, because they're fighting against a doubly-strong force; trying to turn people away from a political structure of life and a religious one is, in theory, twice as hard as trying to turn people from just one of them.

That said, this book can be a bit slow.  The quest of looking for the truth about the darkness doesn't progress very quickly; there's not a lot of action.  You're not going to find any girls on fire in this book, no teenagers quite literally fighting the power.  There's a lot of walking from place to place, admiring of the scenery and creations left over from the previous age, and then a lot of sitting around and learning.  This was necessary for the characters, because the main thing they're trying to do is find out the truth; they're not dead-set on overthrowing the system, they just want to know what's really going on.  When they do decide to act, they do it with words rather than weapons.  I'm skeptical of how successful this would have realistically been, since they never actually emerge into the light and kind of end up with a leaderless movement, but eh.  Whatever.  However, this non-action might mean that this isn't the book for people looking for something a little more like The Hunger Games.  It's a slower, lower dystopian, and it also kind of ends up feeling more like backstory for whatever comes next.

There are supposedly two more books in this trilogy, one of which is currently out.  I think I'll read the next one, at least--it involves crossing the ocean, which is a much more intriguing proposition to me than finding the keep was--but I'm also interested in reading another Litwack book I already happen to have, Daughter of the Sea and Sky.  I think his writing and world-building skills are strong enough to give another look, even if this one wasn't quite as fast and action-y as I would have thought, and might have liked.

3.5 stars out of 5.

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