Friday, July 29, 2016

Angels' Blood - Nalini Singh (Guild Hunter #1)

3819326Angels' Blood was the choice for July for the Unapologetic Romance Readers group on Goodreads.  Yes, we went paranormal!  There are a few paranormal nominations up for August, too, but nothing has been decided yet in that front.  The story here follows Elena, the best vampire hunter in the world.  (It seems to be a thing in books like this that, if a woman has a vocation, she has to be the absolute best at it.  Apparently us women who are not the best at what we do will never feel the elemental force of a love such as this.)  In Elena's world, vampires are common knowledge, and while most of them aren't a problem, sometimes one decides to go rogue and slip the leash of its master--an angel.  In this universe, angels not only control vampires, they create them, through a means that isn't common knowledge to the human part of the populace.  Elena is a human...but she's also a born vampire hunter, meaning that she can scent vampires and hunt them down, and return them to their masters.  Or kill them.  Whichever skill is demanded.  She works for a Guild, which is run by her best friend, Sara, and which handles all vampire-hunting contracts.  There is no rogue hunting here, or at least if there is, we don't see any mention of it in this book.

Elena's skills are truly put to the test when she's summoned by Raphael, the archangel of New York, and commissioned to hunt not a vampire, but another archangel.  She doesn't know why, and she doesn't know how, because she can't sniff out angels...or can she?  (She can, clearly, but it's a bit more complicated than that.)

This is supposed to be a paranormal romance, but I didn't see anything really romantic about it.  There is no romantic chemistry between Elena and Raphael.  Pure, animal lust?  Yes.  But no romance.  They're pretty much constantly pawing at each other, but without any real emotion other than rage involved, until they're about to sleep together, at which point Singh decides to have them catch feelings so it's not meaningless sex, which I guess is frowned upon in romance.  It felt weird, this sudden twitching of hearts and such, when there had been no build up to it before.  I mean, I love a good "kiss me/kill me" dynamic, but this just didn't have a romance dynamic at all so it was really weird that suddenly Raphael "loved" Elena enough for the end of the book to come about as it did.

There were two other things that bothered here.  First, that Elena clearly has a traumatic past, and yet it's never laid out.  Singh spends much of the novel dropping little hints about Elena's background, but even though Raphael asks (He doesn't just know?  What kind of an archangel is he?  Shouldn't he have done this research on her before hiring her?) Elena doesn't spill.  This felt really weird, like it was a component that was just missing from the book.  Another URR group member has read more of this series and says that it comes out in the second book, but I honestly think it would have fit properly in this one and would have made some of Elena's PTSD-like symptoms fit in a bit better context with the horrors she was witnessing.  Second, the ending just felt sloppy.  A few other people had issues with Singh's writing in general, but I found it pretty much in line with what I've come to expect with paranormal fantasy and romance, except for the end.  To me, the ending felt hackneyed and rushed, like Singh just got sick of writing and decided to just tie things up as quickly as possible.  And Elena actually have very little to do with the end of the book, both the conflict and what came after, considering that she was the main character.

Some things I did like about this: the world and the physical aspects of Raphael and Elena's relationship...up to the point until they start having sex.  I think the world was neat, with angels not being religious figures and instead just being a sort of supernatural species (I might not have found this as neat if I wasn't currently reading another paranormal fantasy in which angels are still religious figures) and their dynamic with vamps was one I haven't seen before.  The part that an angel could become a psychopathic serial killer was also one I haven't encountered before.  I liked how angels, vampires, and the guilds that work with and against them were integrated into society, with some of the complications they entail.  On the "relationship" aspect, I think while Elena and Raphael were still at odds but making out, there was some really hot writing going on.  But then, as soon as they catch feelings and go to have sex, Singh totally skimped out and just faded to black, which was very strange given the actions and language the two had been using beforehand.

Overall, I think I liked this, but not enough to continue the series.  I'm gonna give it 3 stars, but for the interesting angel/vampire/hunter dynamics and some of the making out rather than the actual plot and romance, or lack thereof.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Under Locke - Mariana Zapata

Under LockeSo, I have clearly been tearing through Mariana Zapata's books.  I really liked Kulti and The Wall of Winnipeg and Me, so I picked up Under Locke, too, as well as another title (review forthcoming).  As with the other books, UL is a slow-burn romance, though this one does come to fruition somewhat sooner than the others; I think it still has plenty of build to qualify as "slow-burn" though.  The story follows Iris as she moves back to her native city of Austin to crash with her half-brother following the loss of her job.  Her brother hooks her up with a job at Pins & Needles, a tattoo and piercing shop owned by Dex Locke.  Dex is also a member of the same motorcycle club, the Widowmakers, that Iris' brother belongs to.

Dex is...kind of an ass, really.  I liked him much less than Reiner Kulti and Aidan Graves in the other Zapata books I've read so far.  While Kulti and Graves were more reserved than anything else, Dex is outright mean at multiple points.  There was definitely some chemistry between Dex and Iris (and I did like how he called her Ritz, I thought it was a cute nickname) but the way he treated her at times just rubbed me the wrong way.  People with anger problems, to the point of throwing chairs against walls, are really not appealing to me as romantic leads, so that was a definite tick against this.

The "plot" here involves Iris' deadbeat dad, who apparently owes money to a ton of people, which causes problems for Iris and her half-brother because they're viewed as collateral, even though Iris knows that they don't really mean much to him.  While her brother goes off to find their dad and make him pay up, Iris ends up staying with Dex, which is of course where their relationship really starts to build despite their constant sniping at each other.  Does Dex have his sweet moments?  Yes, he does, but his overall emotional instability was grating throughout the book.  And then there's the problem prevalent throughout Zapata's books, where the heroine despises all women except the Token Female Friend.  In this case, the Friend doesn't even appear in the book though she is mentioned.  Instead, there is the Token Female Coworker who has maybe a dozen lines throughout the book and is, much like the TFF, a nonentity at best.  While Iris had some background that was interesting (I think this is a strength of Zapata's) and the plot was decidedly different from the other books, the "hero" such as he is just didn't do it for me.

2.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Girl from Everywhere - Heidi Heilig (The Girl from Everywhere #1)

The Girl from Everywhere (The Girl from Everywhere, #1)The Girl from Everywhere is a book that combines a ton of premises that I like with a lovely cover (though I just realized there are eyes in the water, which is kind of creeping me out, and I almost feel like it's channeling some Gone Girl in design) but, for some reason, it didn't actually thrill me as a whole.  The parts were amazing, but when I look back at the sum of them, I'm kind of like, "meh."

So, what are the parts that this has going for it?  Pirate ships.  Girls who sail on pirate ships.  Pirate ships that travel through time using maps, but can only use each map once.  But those maps aren't just tied to real locations, oh no!  They can be used to travel to fantasy and fairy tale locations, too!  And there's a sea dragon that eats pearls!  And the bulk of the book takes place in Hawaii, complete with some cool mythology!  And there are cute guys, who are interested in the heroine, but it doesn't rely on a love triangle to propel the plot!  And there's a solid ending!  And things that tie back into each other!  These are all things that I absolutely love in books.

What I didn't love so much was Nix herself.  For some reason, I just didn't think that she was a strong character.  Not a strong female character--Nix has opinions and isn't afraid to do things herself, and wants to strike out on her own.  But I didn't think she was a strong character in general, and found the other characters in the book to be more compelling and interesting than her.  The basic premise is that Nix has lived her entire life on her father's time-travelling pirate ship, but she's getting worried about this time-travelling for one reason: her father himself.  See, he wasn't there when Nix was born; when she was born in Hawaii in the nineteenth century, he was out travelling through time.  By the time he returned, Nix had been born and her mother had died.  Now, her father (called Slate) wants nothing more to go back to the time between when he left and when he returned so that he can save Nix's mother's life.  Nix has some worries about this, because if he goes back and saves her mother and things change, what happens to Nix?  Nix is helping her father obtain the map that he thinks will bring him back to that critical moment, which...did not agree with me, and really made her feel weak as a character overall.

Here's the thing.  There's this awesome concept floating about in the background here that maybe each map is its own timeline, and idea that I really like; it's debatable whether this is true or not in the mythology of the story because of some things going on with maps failing based on certain factors, but it's a cool idea.  If the idea is true, Nix doesn't have anything to worry about, because the Hawaii that they'd go back to wouldn't actually be the same for her, and there would be an alternate Nix (or lack of one).  But, she's not sure if this is true or not, and she doesn't really want to hedge her bets on it.  Fair enough.  I wouldn't want to hedge my bets on something so unsure, either.  But even with, as far as she can tell, her entire existence hinging on whether or not her father can go back...she helps him.  I don't think the "she loves her father and wants him to be happy" argument is really valid here, because, uhm, they don't really act that affectionate toward each other.  Her father is extremely neglectful and doesn't appear to care that his desire might unwind Nix's very being.  That's really no the hallmark of a good parent.  And he's got some drug problems going on, too, that he prioritizes above her.  Honestly, the rest of her shipmates are more of a functional family to her than her father is.  He also won't teach Nix to Navigate, which is the only thing she really wants, because he knows she'll run away if she knows how to if she doesn't have good reason to.  This whole thing really frustrated me, along with how hunky-dory it all worked out in the end.  I just didn't find it believable that everything would suddenly resolve itself.

That said, I liked a few other things here.  I adored the mixing of mythologies and thought that Heilig did it in a way that really, really worked, which is hard to do.  And the other crewmembers on the Temptation are amazing.  They all have their own backgrounds and personalities and I loved the way they support Nix, really acting as a surrogate family for her since her father is so ridiculous.  Kash is dashing, of course, and the way that he was interested in Nix but never really pressured her was enjoyable.  Blake, while not a crewmember, was also enjoyable.  He had such strong morals and was very consistent with them, and I thought his stance, background, and devotion were very refreshing for a young man in YA fiction--in addition to the fact that even though he, too, liked Nix and would have enjoyed her staying in Hawaii, he didn't press her into anything she didn't want or wasn't ready for.  The setting itself was wonderful; I haven't read enough books set in Hawaii, especially during the time it was still an independent nation, and the inclusion of things such as its opium problem and the nightmarchers were intriguing.

Again, there were so many things about this book that I liked, but overall I didn't like the core story.  At its heart, it was a story about a conflict between a father and daughter, and because I didn't feel the real basis of emotional connection there, I just couldn't get on board with it.  I think the end came across as kind of unbelievable in that dynamic, though I liked how everything wrapped back up around and tied together.  In fact, other than the hokey emotional dynamic between Nix and Slate, I liked the rest of the ending.  Nix and Kash, Nix's newfound abilities, the potential to go sailing off into more amazing times and places--that was all awesome.  It just has such potential that allows the reader to write their own mental stories.  In fact, I was a bit disappointed that this book has a sequel, because I think it's just going to ruin the end of this.

I'm going to give it 3 stars out of 5, because I liked so many of the aspects and how they worked together.  I just couldn't get on board with Nix and Slate as family, and that proved a big problem for the propulsion of the plot in my eyes, meaning I couldn't really enjoy it as I wanted to.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Say Yes to the Marquess - Tessa Dare (Castles Ever After #2)

Say Yes to the Marquess (Castles Ever After, #2)Say Yes to the Marquess is a book that persistently kicked up on my radar over the past couple months, but as with Romancing the Duke, I didn't really look at it until another Unapologetic Romance Reader brought up the series.  After devouring Romancing the Duke, I turned my attention to this one, which I think ended up being my least favorite of the three current Castles Ever After books.

Our heroine here is Clio, who has been engaged to the new Marquess of Granville, Piers Brandon, for the past eight years--ever since she was sixteen.  She's done with waiting.  She doesn't think Piers will ever actually marry her, and any sentiment that might have once been there has withered away from neglect.  Besides, the marriage was always more for their families, anyway.  But she can't just get out of the marriage, because this the Regency era, and engagements are like contracts.  So she goes to the man who has Piers' power of attorney while he's gone: his brother, Rafe.  Who, unbeknownst to Clio, has been in love with her for, well, forever.  Clio asks Rafe to sign papers to dissolve the engagement, and when that doesn't work, tells him she'll be off at her newly-inherited castle if he changes his mind.

Rafe changes his mind, but not in the way that Clio wanted.  Instead of staying in London to train for his next boxing match, Rafe heads to Clio's new home to press a full-out assault to get her to go through with the wedding.  Yes, indeed, he wants her to say "yes" to the marquess, even though the marquess in question isn't him.  With Rafe comes his trainer, Bruiser, who immediately makes up a flamboyant aristocratic persona to hide behind, and Piers' elderly bulldog, Ellingsworth (I think) who was, of course, awesome, as all bulldogs are.  Also taking up residence with Clio are her two sisters, what's-her-face (the bitchy one) and Phoebe (the eccentric, sweet one) and what's-her-face's husband.  All of them are very intent on getting this marriage off the ground.  But of course, Clio discovers an attraction to Rafe as things go on...

Here's the thing with this.  As others have mentioned, this book could have actually used a love triangle.  Having Piers come back earlier and really try to win Clio's affections (and to be, at least to some degree, successful) would have been a nice, spicy element that could have perked this up.  Either that, or Piers should have been killed off while abroad, leaving Rafe to sweep Clio up without consequences.  While Rafe has this "bad boxer gone good" thing going on, with his lavish gifts of wedding dresses and entire halls of cake, the entire dynamic between he and Clio came off as a bit hypocritical and overall more than a little distasteful to me.  I mean, come on, Clio: just man up and break up with Piers before carrying on with someone else.  I don't really care if you don't have feelings for him, but you did say you'd marry him, and he deserved better than to come back home to find out you've been dallying with his brother while planning your wedding to him.  Ugh.  And the worst part is, I really liked Piers.  I didn't feel like Clio was being "rescued" from him or anything, which might have helped.  Instead, I kind of wish we'd been reading about him finding his own love interest after Clio had broken up with him, rather than reading the whole story that led up to that point.

Again, there were some colorful side characters here and a heroine with an interesting vocation (Clio wants to open a brewery) but I don't think those could really bulk up the "meh" story.  Was there some nice kissing and such?  Yes, of course.  But this was a book that I did find myself able to put down, and I kept hoping to move past it to When a Scot Ties the Knot.  This one was rather lackluster overall.

2.5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Paper and Fire - Rachel Caine (Great Library #2)

25890355I can't believe I missed the release date for this book!  I'd been hotly anticipating it since reading Ink and Bone earlier this year.  And yet I didn't realize it was released until more than a week after the fact!  Yikes.  Well, I got my little paws on a copy and read it as quickly as humanly possible, and here's the verdict:

It was great.

I don't think it was quite as great as Ink and Bone, but I also don't think it suffered "second book syndrome" which can be a problem with series.  The amazing world continues here, but I don't think it's quite as breathtaking was it was in the first book because it's already fairly well-established.  There also isn't the same sense of awe from the characters due to their new circumstances and surroundings, which means that doesn't transfer to the reader as well.  But the strange quirks of this world ruled by the Library of Alexandria--such as a Paris that is completely populated by Library personnel and French citizens who are forced to take part in historical reenactments of an uprising against the Library--are still dropped here and there, just enough to be a little disorienting and make it clear that no, this is not the world we know.

The plot of this book follows Jess and his friends, who are now employed in different positions throughout the Library in Alexandria, as they try to get information about Thomas and rescue him.  Jess and Glain are recruits in the High Garda, and Dario and Khalila both work in scholarly roles.  Morgan is trapped in the Iron Tower, slaving away as an Obscurist and struggling with the ever-present threat of forced impregnation, but she, too is determined to escape.  (The "threat of forced impregnation" bit is very trope-y, but I think Caine actually handled it well, with many of the Tower's inhabitants, male and female, being against the "program" and others being for it for both logistical reasons like more Obscurists and for more cult-like reasons.  I was so pleased when Caine (briefly) brought in the guy in this scenario, who was clearly just as agonized over it as Morgan was, rather than depicting this as some male-wet-dream-type thing.  Forced sex is not cool for either gender.)  Our group also gets on the move once again here, eventually traveling from Alexandria to Rome and beyond in their quest and its aftermath.  The settings remain breathtaking, with the Iron Tower offering a tantalizing glimpse at what the Library has been hiding for all these millennia, with Rome still showing its pagan roots and using them to hide the Library's nefarious actions, and of course with all the trappings that come with these settings, like the automata, which gain an even more prominent (and, yes, awesome) role in this book than they did in the first.

I'll be honest: a big part of this book hinges on Jess' love for Morgan and his desire to help her, which I totally didn't buy.  I mean, I bought the wanting to help her part, but their relationship honestly doesn't have any chemistry to it, and they feel more like friends, like Jess and Thomas, than potential lovers.  I found the bonds of friends and mentors here much more believable than the romantic ones, though Dario and Khalila and Wolfe and Santi did feel much more natural and complete than Jess and Morgan did.  And again, I think this was an incredibly diverse and awesome cast that were not diverse for the sake of it, but who also weren't painted in as being stereotypes or representations of whole groups.  They're all people, and I think that really works.

Caine's writing in this remained very engaging, but really, it's the world and the thoughts behind it that intrigue me here.  The ongoing discussion about censorship and the power of free thought and speech and press, and how a loss of that can change things, is absolutely fascinating, and it's thrilling to see this discussion being played out in a young-adult-genre novel.  It makes you think.  Who is our Library, what are they really doing?  (I'm not a conspiracy theory fan, I swear, but I think this book is very thought-provoking in this area.)  And, of course, I'm super psyched about where this is headed, because while we have, so far, seen cities in several countries across Europe and Egypt, we haven't yet seen America, which has historically had a basis of the freedoms I've mentioned above, or at least we think that we do, so I'm fascinated with how Caine is going to tackle a Library-influenced America in the upcoming volumes.

This was another great book.  I don't think it was quite as twisty and breathtaking as the first, because it doesn't have quite the same newness, and there were some weirdnesses in logic here (especially with Dario and the High Garda and the Iron Tower; the whole thing just didn't seem to "fit" to me) but I still devoured this and eagerly await the next volume.

4 stars out of 5.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Angel in Training - C. L. Coffey (Louisiangel #1)

Angel in Training (Louisiangel, #1)Angel in Training is the first book in the Lousiangel paranormal fantasy stories.  I'm not sure how to classify it, other than as just "paranormal."  It's not paranormal romance, which is where the paranormal genre tends to go.  It involves angels who roam the streets of New Orleans, delivering messages (mostly) or protecting charges (in a few cases) and converting "potentials" into angels (sometimes).  Our main character here is actually named Angelina, aka (you guessed it) Angel.  This is the subject of some joking in the book, but honestly it just made me grind my teeth because I hated it.  Luckily, the book is written in first person.  I'm usually not a huge first-person fan, but in this case it kept me from having to read "Angel the angel" or something every few lines.

Angel is stabbed during a night out with her friends, and when a shadowy figure asks if she'd like eternal life or eternal happiness, she says that she doesn't want to die, without quite reading the fine print.  She wakes up six months later as an angel in training, sort of "possessing" her old body, which was never found.  She's essentially been missing ever since that night.  Now, as an angel in training, she should have enhanced strength and speed, but keeps being told she's too hung up on still being mortal to actually use them.  Her new boss is the archangel Michael, and there's another archangel in residence at the convent where she now lives, too: Cupid.  Yes, that Cupid.  Angel also happens to be the only female non-cherubim (who are apparently like angsty teenagers who do housework, but heavenly) in the place.  There's really no good reason given for this.  She's also the only angel in training, and the only person who might be on track to some day become an archangel.  She is, indeed, a #specialsnowflake.

Now, I know, I'm complaining.  But honestly, I think it's warranted.  I almost dropped this book because the whole setup was just so hokey.  Once the plot actually gets going, it does improve somewhat, but I'm not sure it ever recovered from the eye-rolling at the beginning.  Angel has a sassy personality, which is cool but not necessarily atypical for female characters in books like this.  And her side job, aside from training, is where I think the strengths of the book are.  Her side job?  Protecting a detective in training, Joshua, who is investigating a murder that looks strangely like Angel's own.  Of course, Joshua doesn't believe Angel is an angel.  (Do you see why this got annoying quickly?)  In order to win his trust, she decides to help him investigate the murder, which ends up being not one murder, but a string, all of them different on the surface but with an underlying commonality.  As Angel and Joshua follow the leads, Joshua continues to hit on Angel, which she both likes, because he's super hot, and doesn't like, because she's not allowed to get involved with anyone, let alone her own charge.

There's also something floating around the background here about different types of supernatural beings derived from angels, like the Fallen and the Nephilim, but that's another thing that's not fully developed, and I don't feel like the good main plot ever reached a really good conclusion again--the tie-up felt a little half-baked.  And then there's the Angel/Michael thing... I'm not sure why it was included, because there's no indication that it's actually going to develop into something.  Very strange.  I'm also struggling with why they use swords and bows in a modern, urban context...even though bows made of wood from trees in the Garden of Eden is a cool concept.  And why the heck didn't Angel have a cell phone?  This seems like a terrible oversight on everyone's part that was just to contrive the plot.

Overall, I think this book, and this series, have potential.  Maybe the future books, once Angel is out of training, will be a little stronger in plot and a little lighter in running on treadmills.  I liked Angel as a character, though she had her whiny moments and I do hate her name.  Joshua was cool, and I really actually like Michael; I would love to see him play a more prominent role.  But I'm not convinced that this book, on its own, was great.  With the contrivances and some really awkward sentence structures throughout, I think it could have used another re-think and polish before going out.  Still, I have hopes for the future books and haven't written this series, or this author, off.

3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Reading Challenge Updates

Last time I had posted an update, it had been more than a month between them.  Now it's been more than two.  Oh, dear.  I have made some progress here, including swapping out a couple of titles I'd had penciled in for ones that came across my "desk" and fit categories, but yikes, I've got a lot to go!  I have The Shipping News on reserve at the library, and I guess I'd better get requesting some other ones if I'm going to plow through the remainder of the list!  I've been doing a lot of other "self assigned" reading, such as the monthly selections for the Unapologetic Romance Readers group and my Book of the Month choices, and I've been trying to do some more NaNoWriMo authors, as well, though I've been bad about that the last couple of weeks (oops...but I'll have one this Friday!) so that has really cut into my progress here, something I'll have to reorder if I'm going to finish.


-A book that takes place during summer.  I switched out my planned Atonement here for Karen White's The Sound of Glass, because I happened to be reading that anyway.  But I still want to read Atonement!

-A book and its prequel.  This was a twofer, and I read Hugh Howey's Wool and Shift, the first two parts of his Silo trilogy, for it.  I liked both, but thought that the third part, Dust (review forthcoming) was a bit lackluster.

-A book that takes place on an island.  This was another one I ended up swapping out because I happened to read something else that fit the bill.  Instead of reading And Then There Were None as I had planned, I read Allison Amend's Enchanted Islands, where a chunk of the book and the main plot of it takes place on the Galapagos Islands.

-A book you've been meaning to read.  I finally did get around to Street Fair for this, as planned!  I think this is a good middle-grade series that might trend a little more young-adult in the remaining two books.  I do plan to read them eventually, so we shall see.

-A book you own but have never read.  I did read The Mapmakers for this, as intended.  It took me more than a month because it was boring.  But then, that has nothing on Dragonfly in Amber, which I've been picking away at since last October...

Still to Come

-A science-fiction novel.  Once again, I'm looking for a new title for this category.  I have a few books in my possession that would fit this, so we'll see which one I'll get to first...  It's likely to be The Three Body Problem or The Windup Girl.

-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 know that the last time I read Peter Dickinson's The Ropemaker was in high school, because I then lent it to someone who never returned it.  So I'll read that for this category.

-A book set in your home state.  For this I'm thinking I'll try to read American Rust by Philipp Meyer, which is set in a Pennsylvania steel town.

-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 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 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.  Now, politics really annoy me in general, so this category was not very exciting.  However, after some deliberation, I've decided to read Malala Yousafzai's memoir, I Am Malala.  While Malala isn't a politician who goes about campaigning for office, she is definitely a political figure due to the causes she represents and the consequences she has faced because of them.

-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 book recommended by a family member.

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

-A book with a protagonist who has your occupation.

-A book of poetry.

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

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

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

-A satirical book.  I've partially changed my mind on this one; instead of Thing Explainer, I want to read What If? which uses science to answer absurd hypothetical questions and makes fun of how things work in general in the process.

-A book recommended by your local librarian or bookseller.

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

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

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

-A book 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 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.

The Mapmakers - John Noble Wilford

The MapmakersI picked The Mapmakers up probably a year and a half ago while perusing the gift shop at the Smithsonian Air and Space museum; I'm pretty sure I was there to watch Interstellar on the IMAX screen.  I'm not a big Air and Space fan (I favor the American and Natural History museums) but this book and a seemingly-related one in topic, A History of the World in 12 Maps, caught my eye, so I picked them up while I was there.  And they have languished on my shelf ever since.  I finally pegged The Mapmakers as a book to fulfill a reading challenge category for 2016, but it took me more than a month to get through it because, honestly, this book wasn't that interesting.

The Mapmakers purports to be about the people who make maps and who have shaped the history and processes of that making, but honestly, it's not.  There might be snippets about one person or another, like the guy who invented the chronograph and made finding one's position at sea much easier, but these never last more than a page or two.  The author's focus is much more on the evolving technologies of cartography than the people who actually employed them.

The book also feels woefully dated.  This is purportedly an updated version--but the updates only carry through to the end of the 20th century, when GPS systems were just starting to become affordable and having them installed in cars was something shiny and new.  The book is divided into four parts, the first two of which focus on the more ancient mapping aspects and the latter two of which are more "modern."  And by modern, I mean that there's no mention of the Sojourner rover when mentioning mapping Mars, and no concept of where maps have actually gone.  When this book was published, the author clearly had no idea (and really, not many people did, so I can't blame him) that people would be carrying around maps accurate to yards and feet in the palms of their hands via their iPhones, or that they would be using said maps on phones to follow around Pokemon conveniently hidden throughout their towns.  But the fact of the matter is, mapping technology has advanced so far since this book was published that I couldn't help but have this sort of condescending, "Oh, that's so cute" attitude toward so many of the technologies that the author toted as groundbreaking.  And yes, at the time, they were--but the book is frozen in time, as all books are, and it just seems out of touch as a consequence.

Overall, the book was dated, the writing was boring, and the book didn't have the human element that I was hoping to find.  The illustrations were not the beautiful maps that the author toted so often, but instead boring ones.  It'd be hard to keep a book like this up-to-date especially in these days when advances are made so quickly, but this still wasn't the engaging read I had been hoping for.

2 stars out of 5.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Friends Without Benefits - Penny Reid (Knitting In The City #2)

Friends Without Benefits (Knitting in the City, #2)Friends Without Benefits is the second Knitting in the City book, following Neanderthal Seeks Human.  This series follows the women of a knitting club in their romantic exploits, though all of the books can be read as stand-alone books.  The first book was a cute romance, but it wasn't really the slow burn that I was hoping it would be.  Still, I liked it enough to move on to the second book (and honestly, I might have liked it even more if I hadn't been craving something specific) and man, am I glad I did!

Friends Without Benefits follows Elizabeth, the roommate of the heroine of the first book.  Janie, said roommate, has been largely absent from Elizabeth's life since she got engaged, and while Liz misses her some, she's mostly too busy to notice.  She's finishing up her medical residency, and is just about to end a research rotation when she finds herself in the room with Nico--the guy she lost her virginity to in the wake of her boyfriend, and his best friend's, death, and then never spoke to again.  So, yeah, it's kind of awkward, especially because Nico is smokin' hot and a comedy star with his own TV show.  Unfortunately, his niece is sick, and when Nico and his grandmother realize that Liz is now a doctor, they decide they want Liz to treat the girl.  Which, of course, means that Liz can't get away from Nico--not in Chicago, and definitely not at her high school reunion, where an attempt to get him out of a bad situation ends up with rumors flying that she had his child, and brings up some old feelings that Liz was never really aware of.

I really liked the dynamic between Liz and Nico here.  Nico has been in love with Liz for, like forever, but had a really crappy way of showing it--so crappy that Liz had no idea of how he felt, and was convinced that he absolutely hated her.  And given her actions before their last meeting, she's got a lot of guilt and other complicated feelings swirling around.  Yes, she finds Nico incredibly attractive, but she still remembers how he treated her, and she treated him, and how the boyfriend/best friend played into it all.  That last bit has another complication: that Liz doesn't have relationships.  She finds guys she wants to hook up with, hooks up with them for a few months, and then dumps them.  (One of her friends says this is pursuing relationships, but I'm not so sure about that.)  She doesn't even want friendship from them, just the benefits.  But with Nico, she first proposes to put the past behind them and be friends.  Just friends.  No benefits.  Which, of course, is not what Nico wants at all.  It's very dramatic, of course.  (Romance novels usually are.)

Because of Elizabeth's reservations, this ends up being a slower burn despite Nico's readiness to jump whole-heartedly into the relationship.  I love this.  Elizabeth was pretty stubborn about her feelings, but I think she had reasons for that, while Nico had his own reasons to push her--and to be disappointed when she put up so much resistance even once all the details were out on the table.  It's a complex set of emotions, and I think that Reid did a good job of playing them.  In fact, I think that the romantic plot overall was a lot stronger in general because of the slow build.  In the first book, Reid used a hokey subplot to prop up the romance, because the romantic plot was basically all over and done with so early.  In this, the plot was much more complex in regards to the characters' motives and feelings, so there wasn't a need for something hokey to pull it along.

One thing I do want to comment on: the sex scenes.  They're good.  Steamy.  But Reid does this weird thing where she includes two versions, a steamy one and a non-steamy one, and there's a note at the beginning of the chapters about why she did this and what exactly she did.  This really, really broke up the flow of the book.  I feel like you either have to commit to the scene or glaze over it; both are perfectly acceptable routes, and even if you decide to glaze over the sex, you can have some really hot kissing scenes that will basically propel the physical aspect of the story and give it that "mmm" factor.  Trying to do both is kind of a cop-out, and also broke the flow.  I wish she hadn't done this and had just decided to take one route or the other.  It doesn't even have to be the same route in every book in the series.  For example, Janie was a much sweeter heroine than Elizabeth, and therefore I think the glazing-over worked better for Janie whereas the explicit scenes worked better for Elizabeth.

Still, this was a great book.  I liked it much more than NSH, though I'm not normally a fan of the whole "unrequited love" thing.  I thought the romance was strong, without the need for anything crazy to prop it up, and it was a solid story overall.

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Enchanted Islands - Allison Amend

Enchanted IslandsEnchanted Islands was my selection for June from Book of the Month, but it took me a while to actually start reading it.  The story follows Frances Frank(owski) from her childhood through her old age, in the form of her writing down a memoir of sorts in order to record the rather extraordinary events of her life.  The book starts with Frances in an old folk' home with her long-time friend Rosalie.  Rosalie is receiving an award from a Jewish society for the work she did during the war, which mostly consisted of fund-raising.  Frances is a bit jealous, because she was doing other work during the war that she can't talk about--which launches her into her recollections.  Frances is from Duluth, Minnesota, and has a plethora of siblings and parents who haven't adjusted well to life as immigrants from Poland.  While at the library one day, she meets Rosalie, and the two become fast friends.  Following the revelation of some rather horrid things that happened to Rosalie, the two run away to Chicago, and after some time there and Rosalie being a really crappy friend, Frances runs away again, and eventually ends up in California.  The real part of the story that Frances wants to talk about doesn't start until she's in her fifties, when she's working as a secretary for the intelligence portion of the navy and agrees to marry a man, Ainslie, who is eleven years her junior, so that they can go be spies in the Galapagos Islands.

Frances and Ainslie's relationship is off from the very beginning, and while I think most readers can easily determine why, it takes Frances quite a while to pin it down--understandably, given her background and knowledge.  But it's sad to watch Frances pine for Ainslie's love when it's apparent that it's not really ever going to go anywhere, at least not in the way that she wants.  The Galapagos Islands themselves are a beautiful backdrop to this drama as it plays out, though this isn't really a "spy story," as I thought it would be, except for one or two chapters.  Beyond that, Frances is just a cover, and doesn't have much to do with the work that Ainslie is presumably off doing.  Becuase this is a first-person story, it means it's mostly about her just living in the islands.  But she loves them, loves how living there means that everything is focused on survival and has a visible impact, and also finds comfort in knowing that nothing they do will ultimately affect the state of the universe--though it might, just might, impact the world.

One thing I didn't like was Rosalie, and how Frances kept going back to her.  I really hated Rosalie.  I didn't mind her at the beginning--and she had some really terrible things happen to her when she was young.  You could make the argument, and it would be a good one, that these events are what shaped Rosalie and her actions for the rest of her life.  I even believe that.  But Rosalie was still a really shitty friend at multiple points, and was an extremely selfish person, and I hated how Frances just let Rosalie walk all over her and forgave her for everything she did.  You can have terrible things happen to you and not be a selfish, terrible person; Rosalie chose to take that path anyway, and then she had the audacity to try to tear down Frances at multiple points.  I couldn't bring myself to like her, not even a little bit, and I think that tainted the book as a whole for me because I knew Rosalie was there and never really got what I consider her "just deserts."  Sure, that doesn't always happen in real life, but I still wanted it to.

Overall, the part of this book that actually took place on the islands was the best.  There were some beautiful descriptions and I think Frances really came into her own there--something she herself acknowledged at multiple points.  But this is only a portion of the book, and the rest of it didn't have a ton of appeal to me.  I wish there were more books with settings like this; it did make me want to read some things like Swiss Family Robinson, which I've never read before.  But I don't think this is something I'll return to again and again.

3 stars out of 5.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Wall of Winnipeg and Me - Mariana Zapata

The Wall of Winnipeg and MeAfter I absolutely devoured Kulti, I was craving more slow burn romances, so I dove into Mariana Zapata's back catalogue.  There were a couple that I wasn't interested in, but more that I was--and someone in my reading group had mentioned liking The Wall of Winnipeg and Me, so I decided to start there.  The story is about football star Aiden Graves and Vanessa Mazur, his assistant.  The book starts with Vanessa trying to build up the confidence to quit her job; she's finally saved up enough money to have a cushion while she works on building out her graphic design business, which is her true passion.  When Aiden's manager talks trash about her where she can hear, and Aiden doesn't defend her, that's the last straw; she quits on the spot.  But Aiden starts showing up at her apartment, asking her to come back and work for him again, and then he drops the real bombshell: his visa is expiring, and his contract will be up, and he's unsure of his future and doesn't want to have to go back to Canada.  So he wants Vanessa to marry him and help him get his citizenship...and in return, he will pay off the massive amount of student loans she accrued in pursuit of her degree.  It's tempting, very tempting--and Vanessa, though she has qualms about the illegality of all, eventually agrees.

They're not a real couple, of course; this is, after all, a slow burn.  (Yum.)  They don't sleep in the same room, they don't do a heck of a lot together.  But as the book goes on, they grow closer and closer, spurred on by a few key events.  There's obviously chemistry there, but Vanessa is slow to realize it.  When it finally really surfaces, there are a couple of yummy scenes, and it's pretty great overall.  Vanessa is also friends with Zac, another football player who is Aiden's housemate, and their friendship was a really appealing part of the book.  It's a great example of how men and women really can be friends without spiraling down into romance.  Zac was a real sweetheart, too, and I would actually love to see a spin-off in which he finds a love interest of his own.  (I totally love spin-off stories like that.)

There were a few things in the background that bothered me, though, things that appear and then are just never mentioned again.  For example, Aiden never appears to get a new assistant after Vanessa's departure; she eventually starts cooking some again once they're living together, but other things are being accomplished and there's no assistant in sight.  Vanessa wonders where Vanessa 2.0 is; she figures out that he's hired someone in Washington to answer emails and do social media for him, but that's it.  It seemed like the Vanessa 2.0 thing was going to be built up to be more than it actually was, which was kind of weird.  And then there's another thing, a thing that bothered me in Kulti too, but now that I saw it here, seems like it might be more prevalent through Zapata's works...  Here's the thing: Vanessa doesn't get along with other women.  That's fine.  Some women don't.  But Sal, the heroine of Kulti, didn't get along with other women, either.  In both cases, there were people that I'm going to deem "token female friends" who really felt like they were planted in the narrative to make it seem like the heroines got along with women, but they really didn't.  For example, in TWOWAM, Diana is Vanessa's supposed best friend, but she basically disappears from the narrative and they're always bickering with each other.  Zapata throws in an "abusive significant other" storyline for Diana in order to beef up this apparently great relationship that Vanessa and Diana have, so that Vanessa can rush to the rescue.  But given Diana's real lack of presence in the book, it's just kind  I'm curious to see if this will continue in Zapat's other books, because if it does, I think that really says something about the author...and honestly, it gets kind of old reading about how all women except the heroine and her token friends are slutty bitches.

I like the romance in Zapata's books so far; I like the slow burn of it, the way that the characters gradually grow closer and strengthen their chemistry and their bonds.  And I generally like the male characters, and the heroines, for the most part... But sometimes things appear and disappear without explanation, and I really do wish that the "all women but me are slutty bitches" thing would stop.  I'm still interested in reading more, because I think the romance itself is strong and that's what I came for, but seeing Zapata pay a little more attention to the background messages she's sending would be nice.

 4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Sound of Glass - Karen White

The Sound of GlassSo, a while ago I had a ton of Karen White books on my to-read list.  A ton of them.  There's just something about her covers that appeals to me.  They're so beachy and summery and they just look inviting.  But then, I went through and cleared them all out after I read a non-Karen-White book, The Last Original Wife.  The cover had some of the same feel as the Karen White books, and I hated the book.  It made me feel like the Karen White books were going to be the same.  And then, just within the past week or so, the Bookalicious Babe blog had a review of Karen White's Flight Patterns up.  It was a really good review, starting off by stating that "Karen White is one of my go to Southern writers."  Well, that's pretty high praise.  So when I wandered into the library and saw The Sound of Glass on the Popular Reads shelf, I decided to give it a go.

I like the writing style here, I really do.  The plot follows Merritt moving to a South Carolina town after she inherits a house from her deceased husband's family, and finds herself entangled with her stepmother and ten-year-old half-brother who show up unexpectedly on her porch, and with her brother-in-law who's trying to figure out what drew his brother to Merritt.  Meanwhile, there are chapters that go back in time to Merritt's great-grandmother-in-law, who knows something about an airplane crash that happened in the 1950s and who has left a rather creepy mark on Merritt's inherited house.  All of this takes place along the South Carolina coast, with some boat trips along rivers and marshes, talk of crocodiles, plenty of sweet tea, and a kitchen that comes straight out of the mid-1900s.  All of this lent such a sense of atmosphere to this story that I couldn't get enough of it.

What I could get enough of was the mystery in the background here, and the spousal and child abuse that was rampant throughout this book.  None of the main characters are abusers--but the number of people who are, floating about in the backstory, is truly astounding.  It's mainly the members of Merritt's husband's family, with the exception of her brother-in-law.  And the whole plot about the airplane crash and what actually caused it, and how Merritt ended up tied into the very family that holds the secret to the cause, even if they don't know it... It really did stretch my incredulity.  I like when things are tightly knit, with all the ends tied together, but in this case the whole situation just seemed a little more far-fetched than my suspension of disbelief was willing to allow.  The idea that someone would track down Merritt and get involved with her because her grandmother, who was already dead, Knew Something that Merritt clearly didn't know was just...crazy.

The building of relationships, though, is the true driving point of this novel, and I thought that was well-done.  Merritt has problems connecting with people and a lingering resentment of her father and stepmother, so when her stepmother and half-brother show up it's a struggle for her to let them in--an ditto for her brother-in-law who seems to both dislike her, and who reminds her so much of her husband even though she quickly finds they're really not that alike.  Merritt moving on from her past, in multiple ways, and learning to reconnect with people is the core of this, and I thought it was well done.  Loralee, the stepmother, seemed like a character who would drive me crazy at first, but she really did grow on me, coming across with a hefty dose of Southern charm and some good--though often trite--advice.  Owen was that rare creature in novels: a kid who isn't annoying beyond all belief.  And Gibbes, the brother-in-law... Mmmm.  What a nice addition.

So, despite the overly-contrived mystery here, I did really like this book as a whole, and I can definitely see myself reading more Karen White novels, especially in this summer season!

4 stars out of 5.

This book also (inadvertently) ended up fulfilling my reading challenge category of "A book that takes place during summer."

Monday, July 4, 2016

The Crimson Crown - Cinda William Chima (Seven Realms #4)

The Crimson Crown (Seven Realms, #4)The Crimson Crown is the final book in Cinda Williams Chima's Seven Realms quartet, following Princess Raisa of the Fells and Han Alister, a street-born wizard, as they try to secure Raisa's throne and Han's own future while keeping the Fells out of the grips of the "flatlanders" of another realm at war.

This was a stronger book than its predecessor, The Gray Wolf Throne.  While not much happened in GWT, a lot happens in Crimson Crown.  It has the political intrigue of GWT but also some things actually going on.  Han is trying to claw his way up into the upper echelons of the wizarding world, in hopes that he'll be able to secure a place high enough to be a good match for Raisa--Naeming be damned.  Raisa is trying to juggle her attraction to Han with a dozen other suitors who would make good political matches.  And then there's the threat of an invading army, and a slew of wizards being murdered in the lower districts of Fellsmarch, and all the signs pointing to Han as the murderer.

Again, this book did feel like several things were just dropped.  Amon, such a prominent character in the first two books, has basically been kicked to the wayside and has become a very, very minor character.  The romance between Han and Raisa is there but not really prominent like it was in the second book.  And the whole plot with the wizards being killed in the city--at first it seemed like it might be an intriguing subplot, but then it got pushed to the side in favor of other things, like fires and secret tunnels and hotsprings, and when it finally came back at the end of the book, it felt like something that had been very cobbled together.  Considering that the former Gray Wolf Queens had warned of a betrayal (either earlier in this book or in the end of GWT; I read them back-to-back so I can't remember which one this tiny little thing happened in) I thought that the betrayer would be someone a little less obvious--I was really gunning for Speaker Jemson or even Magret for it, because GASP!  That would have been so dramatic!  As it was, this tie-up actually felt very anti-climactic and tacked-on after the actual climax of the story.  It was kind of disappointing.  Also strange was Mellony's involvement--she had been such a non-entity until now, and suddenly she was much more prominent.  Considering how little of a relationship she and Raisa had, and how little Mellony had actually cared until this point, it was a little out of place.

That said, Raisa grew a lot as a character here, struggling with her own young age and relative immaturity while also trying to be a good queen of the Fells, to keep her country out of war, and to balance out against all of the forces arranged in opposition to her.  Han also had some good growth from here, turning away from bitterness and hardening his resolve to get what he wants, but then vowing to let it go if that's what seems best for everyone.  All of the story here focuses around Han and Raisa, even though they don't spend much time together.  While I missed the romance and connection between them, other than  few short encounters, I can appreciate that their separation allowed them to grow and mature separately and become their own people.  That makes a lot of sense in the character development area, even though agggggh I wanted more romance!!!!

The world-building that I felt was absence in GWT also made a comeback in CC, mainly in the area of "what is going on with Hanalea and Gray Lady and the other mountains."  The secret tunnels, and what was in there, and how it all came to be... I thought this all added a lot of dimension to the background of the world, and I liked how it came back.  Dancer's growth as a magic user fit into this category, too; his merging of magics showed what was really possible in the old days before the Breaking, and what might be possible again.

This was a stronger book than GWT above all, but I still didn't like it as much as I did the first two books in the series.  I think it's a pretty strong young adult fantasy series, though, and I might come back to it in the future.

3 stars out of 5.