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Sunday, November 19, 2017

An Extraordinary Union - Alyssa Cole (The Loyal League #1)

An Extraordinary Union (The Loyal League #1)Rushing to finish my reading challenges by the end of the year means more weekend book reviews!  Oh boy.  After several attempts at fulfilling the category for a Civil War or Reconstruction romance for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' challenge, I stumbled upon An Extraordinary Union, which had high reviews, the right setting, and an interracial romance.  I don't end up reading a lot of interracial romances because I heavily favor historical romances, primarily Regency-era ones set in London society, which was not exactly brimming with interracial couples, but I'm not at all opposed to them as a concept, so this was a pleasant discovery.  (I do have to read an interracial romance for another category and have a different book picked out for it; I just had too much trouble finding a good Civil War romance to slot this one into another category.)

The story here follows Elle(n) Burns, a free woman of color who was born a slave before being freed with her family as a child.  Now, Elle has returned to the South to spy for the Loyalty League, a group of blacks working for the North, the Union, and Lincoln.  Her disguise necessitates her posing as a mute slavery and subjecting her to humiliations that she'd thought she'd escaped.  It also puts her in the path of Malcolm McCall, a Pinkerton detective who is also spying on the South, though he has the privilege of being a man and white and so gets to pose as a soldier instead of a slave.  Upon their first encounter, Elle and Malcolm are both attracted to each other--at least after they establish that Malcolm hasn't shown up to rape Elle.  But despite their attraction, Elle is leery of Malcolm for very good reasons.  You know, like the fact that she's black and he's white and there can never be an equal power dynamic between them, society will never accept them, and she's not really sure if he really likes her or if he just wants a taste of something taboo.  So there are a few obstacles in the way of their romance.

Cole does such a great job bringing Elle and Malcolm together.  There's a keen awareness of unequal power dynamics in the very nature of their relationship and Cole (and Malcolm, by extension) does everything possible to even the playing field, making sure that Elle's consent is highly visible at every step of the way and that Malcolm backs off every time she seems like she's about to say no.  After he saves her twice, she makes a request that she save him the next time--and then she does, in spectacular fashion.  And of course, Elle is the one who puts together the pieces to figure out what is going on with a ship that could threaten the the outcome of the blockade and the war itself.  Elle is a strong, remarkable woman even when she's being humiliated and put down, in direct contrast to her "mistress" who is a downright bitch and petty and vindictive even when she already has everything she could ever want.

The writing here is excellent, the pacing is on-spot, and the chemistry between Elle and Malcolm absolutely sizzles.  However, I do have two issues.  My first complaint is that not a lot is done to show Elle and Malcolm's backgrounds; a few things are stated, like the reason for Malcolm's family's immigration to the United States and how Elle came to be free and lost her best friend and former lover, but there's not a lot of insight into how that made them the people that they are.  And second, while I think the individual plots of the spy mission and romance are done well, they're not necessarily woven together well.  I liked how Elle and Malcolm teamed up to pool information and find out about the ship, but the spying aspects and romance aspects seemed to seesaw from one extreme to the other without much in-between.  Still, this was highly enjoyable and I'm definitely interested in reading more books in this series and by this author.

4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

In Flight - R. K. Lilley (Up In the Air #1)

In Flight (Up in the Air, #1)So, there are a few categories in the Unapologetic Romance Readers' 2017 challenge that I wasn't super-psyched about.  A BDSM romance was one of those categories.  It is sooo not up my alley and I was also leery of falling into the "Fifty Shades" trap where it's actually not a BDSM romance but a story about a horribly abusive relationship.  So I basically had a few requirements for this category.  One, it needed to be an actual book, not a short that consisted entirely of sex--which was a requirement for all of the categories for me.  (I did cheat on the holiday romance one for this, but read 3 novellas to make up for it.)  Two, it couldn't be a Fifty Shades book.  Three, I didn't want it to be downright awful in writing or content.  So of course I headed off to the Goodreads lists.  This was something I knew I was going to have to buy, because the library wouldn't have it and I was skeptical of anything in this category that was for free, and after some perusal I purchased In Flight, which appeared to be both an actual romance novel with BDSM aspects instead of just straight sex and had a very strong reading (4.1/5) on Goodreads.

The book is written in first-person from the perspective of the heroine, Bianca, who works as a first-class flight attendant on an unnamed airline and encounters a hot young billionaire with a taste for BDSM.  (Okay, so maybe there are a few Fifty Shades similarities here, but I'm willing to let that go.)  She and James, said billionaire, are immediately attracted to each other and James outwardly states his intentions to get Bianca so sleep with him, though he doesn't want the relationship to be public.  Though she initially is reluctant, she finally caves, because she's young and hot and is still, of course, a virgin--though James didn't know that initially so at least he's not coveting her for it, though he admits it's a perk.  Bianca is also the least-connected woman on the face of the planet--no TV, no internet, no social media... Basically all she does is work and paint.  That said, none of this actually hit me until later in the book, when I started to go, "Wait a minute..."

There's definitely some wonky language in here that was funny more than sexy, and could put an instant damper on the mood.  The writing was average--not good, not bad.  There's some annoying slut-shaming, because clearly every other girl who has ever been interested in James is a dirty whore where Bianca is pure as the driven snow, though she has a Dark Past and can orgasm on command.  *eyeroll*  But what I will give this book credit for is that, as far as I can tell, it's an okay portrayal of a BDSM relationship that isn't actually abusive, which is how these things apparently tend to go in books--not that I am an experienced enough reader in this subgenre to make a firm call of my own.  They discuss a safe word, James provides aftercare and time for Bianca to rest even when neither of them particularly wants to take a break.  But he seems to flipflop between personalities and not just when they're getting freaky, and that put me off a bit from him--he's warm and welcoming and cuddly one minute, and absolutely frigid the next for little to no reason.

I think this was a decent book for what it is, and the writing is certainly better than Fifty Shades (no "inner goddess"es here).  The actual BDSM is pretty light (good for me!) though it seems like it might head into slightly heavier territory in future books.  Also, as this is a proper series and not a string of connected books with different main characters like most romance series are, there is no Happily Ever After ending here--that's left for the future.  But still decent, and I didn't hate every second of it like I expected to for this category, though I'm not sure if I'll take on the other two books or not.

3 stars out of 5.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Beard Science - Penny Reid (Winston Brothers #3)

Beard Science (Winston Brothers, #3)In the midst of scrambling to finish my two reading challenges for the year, I needed something else.  So I reached for Beard Science, which I'd been hanging onto for a rainy day, because I wanted to read Cletus' story!  While one of my reading challenges is a romance one, this book doesn't fit any of my remaining categories in it, and so it was still a separate treat from scrambling to finish the challenge books.

This was the book I was most looking forward to in the Winston Brothers series (though, to be fair, the series hasn't been completed yet).  Cletus was clearly the oddball in the first few books (including Beauty and the Mustache) and I thought he would be a very intriguing hero.  Additionally, I was looking for the hidden depths that there must be to Jennifer, the heroine, aka the Banana Cake Queen.  Ultimately, I got what I wanted on one front but not on the other.

The plot kicks off when Jennifer's parents, who dominate her entire life despite her being a grown woman, inform her that they have people coming down to talk to her about a cooking show and promotion opportunities with Chiquita, which Jennifer definitely doesn't want.  She's been forced into a mold her entire life because she doesn't want to displease her mother, but what she really wants is to be her own person.  So when she accidentally catches Cletus on film in the act of stealing evidence from the police department, she decides to blackmail him into helping her find a guy to marry so she can have an easy way to leave her parents.  Why does she pick Cletus for this?  Because Jennifer is an observant person, partially because people don't think she has a single brain cell and say things in front of her they probably wouldn't in front of other people, and she knows that Cletus gets up to all kinds of mischief.  Why this makes a good husband hunter, I'm not sure I know, but hey, it's the plot.  Of course, over the course of the hunt, the two grow closer...

Jennifer did end up having hidden depths, and a backbone that she just didn't know how to show before.  I liked her; she proceeded with things in a logical manner, didn't get into trouble trying to do things the hard way, and was open about what she wanted.  Cletus, on the other hand, was somewhat of a disappointment.  Being inside his head wasn't nearly as interesting as I thought it would be; it seems like, when Reid elevated Cletus from supporting character to hero, he lost a lot of the zaniness that made him special in the process.  We can still see that he has some schemes, but none of them seem as kooky or complicated as they did when viewed by the characters in previous books; some are just downright pranks instead of any sort of actual scheming like we've been told again and again Cletus is prone to.  Seeing more of Billy, a character who hasn't been on the page much in the past few books, was also nice, setting him up for his own book in the near future.  (Though we have to get through Duane first.)

The writing overall was pretty good; I think Reid writes really good chemistry, and that wasn't any different here.  But she does tend to lose track of minor threads and details throughout the course of the book; for example, one of the guys visiting from New York to check out Jennifer for a cooking show has his name changed from Allen to Alan and back again, twice, within the span of three pages.  The plot with the Iron Wraiths is also starting to get pretty far-fetched and overdrawn, and I wish Reid had wrapped it up already; I don't see how she can possibly drag this on for three more books!

Overall, a good read, and one that I would definitely read again, as with most of Reid's books.  However, it wasn't what I was hoping for, falling more in line with the previous books instead of blowing them out of the water.

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Mutiny on the Bounty - Charles Nordhoff & James Norman Hall (Bounty Trilogy #1)

Mutiny on the Bounty (The Bounty Trilogy, #1)Continuing on with my reading challenge (I'm nearing the end!) I chose Mutiny on the Bounty for the category of a "A book with multiple authors."  It also had the added benefit of allowing me to cross off a book from the list I have pinned up by my desk of every book Rory Gilmore reads, mentions, etc. during the duration of Gilmore Girls

What's important to remember about Mutiny on the Bounty is that is a fictionalized account of the (in)famous mutiny; my edition has a foreword from the authors that goes into their sources, some of the changes they made, etc., but I think it would be easy to think that this was actually a personal account because of the way in which it is written.

In the book, Nordhoff and Norman Hall remove one of the midshipmen from the Bounty and replace him with their narrator, Roger Byam, basing him upon the original sailor but deviating in some respects.  Byam tells the story of how he was invited to join the Bounty's crew for a bit of adventure by its captain, William Bligh, on a journey to Tahiti to gather breadfruit trees for transportation to the Indies, during which he will compile a dictionary and grammar of the Tahitian language for use by others journeying there.  After a paradisaical stay in Tahiti, while en route to the Indies, Bligh's temper seems to get worse and worse and feuds he started with the crew before Tahiti are refueled and exacerbated, culminating in the mutiny, led by the first mate, Fletcher Christian.  Byam is not involved in the mutiny, but is forced to stay aboard the Bounty because there's not enough room for all those loyal to Bligh in the launch he and some of his supporters are forced into.  The rest of the book deals with the aftermath of the mutiny for Byam, and includes two "splits" that break off into the other two books in the trilogy--one book deals with Bligh and the men in the launch, and the other with Christian and some of the mutineers going to the Pitcairn Islands.

This is a classic seafaring story.  Byam is the perfect choice for a narrator because his position allows us to sympathize both with Bligh and the loyalists as well as with the mutineers.  It is, however, a story that is definitely not plot-driven as there is no plot, rather just a tale of how the mutiny came to be and what happened to Byam and the others after.  Not everyone lives; a good number of the crew meet their demise in various ways.  The story seems to proceed in spurts, with Byam sometimes relating every day, sometimes skipping over weeks or months at a time.  He's also not the greatest, abandoning his wife and child in Tahiti in favor of the hope of naval glory back in England--something that was probably a common thought process and motivation for his time and place, but a shitty action nonetheless.  And because the story is based in fact though not entirely factual, the "villain" of the piece, Bligh, never gets his comeuppance.  And because this is a "classic," aka it was written in an earlier time (originally published in 1932) it has that old-timey feeling to it, and the writing can sometimes be dry and seem rambling.  Still, this was an overall enjoyable read and one of the foundation books of its genre.

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyThis was a charming book.  I read it for the Popsugar 2017 Reading Challenge, for the category of "A book of letters."  I originally meant to read The Color Purple for this category, but couldn't quite figure out if it was mostly letters or included other items in an epistolary style, such as news articles, and I wanted something that really stuck to the category.  I do still plan to read TCP, just not for this!

Taking place just after World War II, the story that of Juliet, an author who wrote comedic articles during the war that have just been released as a book.  While she's on a book tour, she receives a letter from Dawsey, a man who lives on Guernsey in the Channel Isles, asking about a used book of hers which has come into his possession.  The article sparks a stream of correspondence between Juliet, Dawsey, and many of the other inhabitants of Guernsey, as well as Juliet's friend/editor and the friend/editor's sister, also her friend, and her touring agent.

While Juliet is charming in her own writing, the strength here is really in the setting of Guernsey.  I'd never even heard of the Channel Islands before reading this--I have an American education to thank for that--or known that this British territory had been occupied by Germany during World War II.  As Juliet decides to make Guernsey and the titular Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society the focus of her next book, more and more information about the Isles during that time comes to light, as do stories about the characters directly involved in the story.  It's a war story, but one that has plenty of levity along with sobriety, and a little bit of a romance running along underneath the surface--though definitely not a significant part of the main plot.

Now, some of the letters aren't exactly the most sensible, relating information that the recipient should already know as if it is brand-new.  I actually didn't even realize this until another reviewer pointed it out--the information was new to me, after all, and its importance to the reader is clearly why it's included, but it is a bit of a hole in the actual construction of the novel.  Also, Juliet, while charming, can sometimes be so to the point that I found myself grinding my teeth at her, because even when she's angry or frustrated or not at her best, she still manages to be irritatingly perfect, if that makes sense.  Everyone loves her on sight, or on receipt of a letter, or on reading her works, and that was just...ugh.  No one is that likable! 

Still, this was a fun, short book.  For some reason I thought there were two timelines here, a post-WWII one and a modern one, but that's not the case--it's all post-WWII, which is a time that I think is somewhat underutilized, so I was glad to see it, even if it dips back into the war itself in the characters' recollections.  It's somewhat lacking in depth, but the fun characters and charming setting helped to make up for that, and I enjoyed reading it.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Artemis - Andy Weir

ArtemisAnother hotly-anticipated book this season, Artemis is Andy Weir's follow-up (though not a sequel, not even related) to his smash hit The Martian.  This is still a sci-fi, with the setting being the town of Artemis on the moon, made up of a series of domes and some subterranean levels.  The main character is Jazz, a woman who was born in Saudi Arabia but emigrated to Artemis with her father when she was six and so considers herself a true Artemisian, especially because people can't actually have children on Artemis and have to go to earth to do it because of how the lunar gravity can affect gestation.  Jazz works as a porter, delivering packages, and also as a smuggler--also delivering packages.  And when one of her clients offers her a million dollars (essentially; that's not the currency used, but it's the gist) to destroy some machinery used by a smelting company, Jazz sees her chance to claw her way up out of poverty and into the good life.  Unfortunately, it goes wrong, and she quickly finds herself running for her life and entangled in a plot that could lead to Artemis' downfall.

I don't think this was as strong a book as The Martian was.  First, I'm not convinced that Weir can write a female main character, at least not from a first-person perspective.  Have you ever read or watched something and had a definitive moment where you went, "This was written by a man?"  I had one of those moments here, just a few pages in, when Jazz/Weir describes Artemis as looking not like a group of domes, but a group of boobs.  This is not the type of thing that I have ever encountered in a woman's writing, though it seems to abound in men's writing for some reason.  In fact, with the fact that Jazz does not have a scientific background and Mark Watney of The Martian does, they are essentially the same person.  Their speech is the same, their humor is the same, I basically could not tell the difference between them.  Weir also seems to use Jazz's non-scientific background as an excuse to skimp on some logic in the book; there's still a demonstration of research into various things like welding, smelting, chemical reactions, etc. but he breezes right by some of the things that really would have been built into an enclosed community literally connected to a smelting facility via air tubes.  Let me put it this way: when you have a character spout off all the things that should have been included at the end of the book to foil your big plot, then you probably should have thought the plot out a bit more carefully.

Artemis was a promising setting for a story like this, and I was also psyched to meet Jazz's Kenyan pen pal, Kelvin, who is featured in letters from Jazz's childhood up through the present that appear between some chapters of the book.  But we never actually meet Kelvin, Jazz continues to be annoying, and all of the supporting characters are completely one-dimensional.  There's a romance that's absolutely forced in between Jazz and a supporting character, but while I think we're supposed to get the vibe that "OMG I've loved him all along and I've just realized it!!!" it really just feels like she decides to hook up with this guy because he has a nice bed and a shower and she wants that life.

Overall, super disappointed in this.  1.5 stars out of 5, a huge comedown from The Martian.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Phantom of the Opera - Gaston Leroux

The Phantom of the OperaTrying to scramble through the remains of my reading challenges, I needed a horror romance, and thought the classic The Phantom of the Opera would suit it perfectly.  It's not gory horror; instead, it's very Gothic in feel, with an unseen menace lurking in the shadows and a twisted love propelling a plot that keeps apart two more suitable protagonists.

Written as a relating of the tale behind "true" events (and apparently inspired by some actual true events, though I couldn't find to what degree) the story follows several people in a Paris opera house haunted by a "ghost."  Two new managers have recently taken over the opera and think they're being pranked by their predecessors, while overlooked singer Christine sees the ghost as the Angel of Music who brings her talent to new heights, and the young viscount Raoul views the ghost as a sort of demon leeching away Christine's life and keeping she and Raoul apart.  There are really two love stories here: the one between Raoul and Christine, which started when they were children and is now foundering in the face of the ghost's obsession with Christine; and that between Christine and the ghost, aka Eric, which is sort of love and sort of obsession and sort of sick fascination, all rolled into one.

The writing here is definitely in a "classic" style, which means that it can seem a bit distant and clinical at first, but it gets very engaging as you get used to the style and become immersed in the world of the opera.  And the opera itself is almost a character in and of herself; the opera house is huge, fantastical in ways that I doubt a real opera house could be.  With a lake built under it, floors beyond imagining, and a cast of minor characters that seem as much a part of the building as a limb does part of a body.  Even Eric and the Persian seem like their true purposes are more to be entities of the opera house than to be their own people--their backgrounds never being as fully or satisfactorily explained as Raoul or Christine's own backstories.  It's a very atmospheric feel, with almost the entirety of the story taking place in the opera house and the characters as extensions of it.

One thing to note is that I feel like Leroux read Dracula and was really pulling in inspiration from it at parts--like, you know, Eric sleeping in a coffin, or not being able to go into daylight (except he can???) and so on.  A lot of it had a very vampire-like feel to it, though I never got the sense that Eric was actually supposed to be a vampire.  Just a crazy guy who stalked a woman to the point of no return.  Cool.  Remind me why people root for Christine to end up with this psychopath, by the way?  He's a genius in his own way, to be sure...but you know, a murderer, torturer, and all around madman.  So, not exactly prime romantic material.

Anyway, this was a suitably creepy read to be going through around Halloween, and a good choice for my horror romance category.  I enjoyed it even though some parts weren't as thought-out or fleshed-out as they probably could have been.

4 stars out of 5.

Norse Mythology - Neil Gaiman

Norse MythologyNorse Mythology is what I ended up reading for my reading challenge category of "A book based on mythology," after switching out Olympos.  Olympos is the sequel to Illium, and while I still want to read it, I read Illium so long ago that I think I need to re-read it before taking on Olympos.

I think it's important to note that this is not, actually, a book of Norse mythology.  Rather, it is a book of Gaiman's own retellings of various Norse myths, blending parts of other versions together and only really including his favorite stories.  It's not comprehensive, and it's not a textbook.  It also forms somewhat of an overall story arc, which actual "nonfiction" mythology books typically don't.  While Gaiman uses a writing style that is austere and fits with a classical myth-telling style, you can see his touches in different parts of characterization--Thor is basically a dumb jock, and Loki is one of those people who is both clever but also pitiful, the geeky kid who's picked on by the others and uses his intelligence to get back at them.  Did they deserve it?  Yes.  But did he also deserve their retaliation most of the time?  Yes.  Also, the dialogue shows Gaiman's wry style at different points--for example, I can't imagine an "original" telling of a myth blatantly featuring the words, "Thor, shut up."

The book is overall a story of Odin, Thor, and Loki, though plenty of other characters also feature.  The arc that Gaiman has embedded--possibly unintentionally, given his remarks in the foreword--features the back-and-forth between Loki and the other gods, leading up to Loki's imprisonment, freedom, and ultimately Ragnarok and what comes beyond.  Ragnarok and the death of the gods is a fascinating concept, and I think Gaiman does it justice.  The stories are in turns funny, gross, and eye-roll-worthy, and also have the features of classic myths such as explanations for natural phenomena, such as Thor causing tides by drinking from a horn connected to the deepest part of the ocean.

This is a quick read, and also one that is easy to pick up and put down; even though the book forms an overall narrative, each chapter or story also stands on its own.  You can read this in one sitting, or you can read a story at a time before putting it aside and coming back to it later.  Doing the latter might mean that the arc is less apparent, because I think some of the connections between the stories are more evident if you read them in quick succession, but it's still completely doable.

So, how does it compare to Gaiman's other works?  Well... I haven't read everything he's written, but I don't like this as much as I like his traditional novels.  Neverwhere, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, American Gods, and so on are works of art.  His original short stories are also excellent.  I would rank Norse Mythology somewhere between his short stories and his poetry, which I'm really not much of a fan of.  I hope we see Gaiman make a return to traditional novels soon, because he's been working on other projects for a while, and I miss those beautiful jewels of books showing up on the shelves.  This is good, but it's just not as enveloping, breathtaking, or wonderful as those others are.

3 stars out of 5.

Friday, November 10, 2017

In Bed with a Highlander - Maya Banks (McCabe Trilogy #1)

In Bed with a Highlander (McCabe Trilogy, #1)I'm not a huge "highlander" romance fan, but I've read a few of them this year in hopes of fulfilling this category for the Unapologetic Romance Readers 2017 Reading Challenge.  Unfortunately for me, every time I read one, it seemed to fit another category better, and so I had to keep searching.  I'm finally calling it off with this one!

The story is about Mairin Stuart, who is apparently a bastard princess whose heir will inherit huge, wealthy holdings in Scotland.  Consequently, everyone wants to marry her.  She's been hiding out in a convent for ten years, but the book starts with her being discovered by the men of one Duncan Cameron, who intends to force her to marry him.  When she refuses, she's badly beaten, but manages to escape his clutches with the help of a maid and a boy she saves from being killed by Cameron's men. The boy, of course, ends up being the heir of another clan, who gets his father to promise to protect Mairin--and then promptly marries her.  The two scream and fight and Mairin tries to run away before they get married, but as soon as the vows are said, they're pretty much gaga over each other and spend most of the book having sex while Mairin makes charming mistakes in being the lady of a highland clan.  There's a flimsy subplot going on here with Duncan Cameron trying to get Mairin back, and someone trying to kill one of the couple, but it's mostly shoe-horned into the end of the book.  There's also a lot of Scottish history (I think) that's required to understand it, so if you're not familiar with Scottish royal genealogy in the early twelfth century, it's all a bit murky.

I honestly wasn't a fan of the writing, either; there's a lot of "aye"-ing being done, and I didn't feel that Mairin and Ewan had any chemistry at all.  Honestly, his brothers were more interesting characters, but I didn't like this book enough to pursue the other two with them as heroes, because the writing is just...flat.  The sex scenes aren't sexy, the bickering doesn't have any tension in it, and then there's the lackluster plot that's supposedly propping the whole book up.  Overall, it's just "meh," and I don't see myself reaching for this author again in the future.

2 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Tea Rose - Jennifer Donnelly (The Tea Rose #1)

The Tea Rose (The Tea Rose, #1)This book came to me by way of a Little Free Library in our neighborhood; I will be keeping it, so I returned on a later day and put a couple of other good books in it in return!  Two main components attracted me to the book: first, its sheer length, and second its theme of a strong female character fleeing a killer and rising to the top of her field in the process.

Heroine Fiona Finnegan grew up in Whitechapel, her father working in the docks and Fiona packing tea in a factory, her younger teenaged brother also picking up work and her mother doing laundry.  They work hard and they are not rich, but they are relatively secure and happy as long as they can keep on keepin' on.  Fiona and her sweetheart, Joe, hope to save up enough money to open a shop one day, and everything actually seems pretty hunky-dory.  Except Jack the Ripper is killing women in Whitechapel, the unionizing dockworkers are headed for ruin at the hands of the head of Burton's Tea Company, and another girl has her eye on Joe and is willing to use his own ambition to get him.  After Fiona loses absolutely everything in quick succession, she's forced to flee to her uncle in New York, where she vows to start again and reestablish herself as a strong independent woman who don't need no man and who can be her very own business woman and tea mogul.  And of course, the story also wends its way to Joe and Fiona eventually, 500-and-some pages later, getting their happy ending.

This is one of those historic family saga novels, and luckily for me, it was much better than the other one I was reading at the time, Crescent City.  The writing was much more engaging and Fiona was a main character who actually did things instead of just sitting around and sighing at her lot in life.  Fiona has ambition, and she has wits.  Of course, Donnelly takes this too far a few times--Fiona pretty much single-handedly invents the assembly line, the tea bag, the advertising campaign...you know, the whole shebang.  Honestly, Fiona's character was strong enough to stand up without these things, but fiction often has this weird thing where a female character has to be the absolute best at everything she does or she's not considered strong, which is ridiculous but apparently unavoidable in books, because this is definitely not the only place this is true.

Integrating the mystery of Jack the Ripper here was an interesting aspect--we always know who's behind the murders, but the characters do not, which helps to build tension at the points that the subplot gets woven in.  There is, of course, also a subplot involving Joe, but I didn't like that one as much, nor did I like that Donnelly was so obviously pushing Fiona and Joe back together.  Fiona forgave Joe for his actions earlier in the book, but I never did and that kind of put a bit of a damper on their "happily ever after."  I really thought Fiona would have been better off with Will, but apparently I don't get to make those sorts of demands.  Sigh.  Nick, on the other hand, was a lovely supporting character; Donnelly somewhat fell into the "bury your gays" trope here, but not as badly as some other books I've read recently and Nick did get somewhat of a reprieve.

There was also a weird time jump; the first two parts of the book continue on in an orderly fashion, but when the third starts we're given a "ten years later" treatment, which was a break in the pacing and lent a strange feel to the final third.  We didn't get to see the characters grow or evolve during those ten years, and I'm not entirely sure why Donnelly went with this instead of maybe just doing a few smaller ones spread throughout the final part, which could have really accomplished the same thing but structured it differently.

Still, I quite liked this book, and already picked up the two sequels which deal with other characters introduced here, The Winter Rose and The Wild Rose. 

3.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Crescent City - Belva Plain

Crescent CityI picked up this book in hopes that it would fulfill the "Civil War romance" category in the Unapologetic Romance Readers 2017 challenge.  When it quickly became evident that it would not, I should have just let it go.  But I didn't.  I was also reading another of those family-centered sagas, The Tea Rose, and quite enjoying it, so I kept hoping I'd hit a point in Crescent City where it would have the same impact.  Unfortunately, it never did, and it became a slog just to get through it.

Basically, this book wants to be Gone With the Wind.  Not in location or characters or even plot (well, somewhat plot) but in structure and feel.  Ultimately, however, it doesn't capture the sweeping scope or any of the emotion that GWTW, problematic as it is at points, displays with such beauty.

The main character here is Miriam, whose Jewish family hails from Germany.  Her father left Miriam and her older brother with their maternal grandfather after the death of their mother, and the book begins with him returning to take them to New Orleans, where he's built a new prosperous life.  Some of the book attempts to deal with faith and maintaining it in times of hardship and in the face of adversity, and some of it tries to deal with matters like the immorality of slavery but also wanting to support your family who support slavery--but none of this is handled very well, and the main character who actually has these struggles, Miriam's brother, is kind of written off in the end as a "social justice warrior" of the 1800s, with an attitude of "Oh, he picks up whatever cause comes his way, none of them are really meant or important," which really irked me.

Most of the book is really about Miriam's life in an unhappy marriage, one she's basically forced into before she's ready to a man she despises.  With twin children and a large extended family to care for, Miriam struggles with keeping her life together during the Civil War, including engaging in an illicit romance outside of her marriage and another interested party who she loves but in a brotherly way--awkward.  While all of this seems like it would be ripe for a story full of emotion, Plain's writing manages to be flat and boring, making every chapter seem interminable and the entire book feel like a slog towards some unknown goal that never truly felt reached.  The setting in both place and time held so much promise, but aside from a few atmospheric happenings, they weren't leveraged to the story's benefit.  Having a Jewish main character in this time and place was interesting, but it only occasionally played into the story and didn't really lead to much conflict other than a few spats between Miriam and one of her stepsisters (I think; the relations here were a bit complicated).  At a few points, Plain also falls into the bad habit of using lengthy journal or letter entries to convey the characters' emotions, because she's not really adept at working them into the narrative itself.

Also, the Kindle edition of this book is very poorly converted from the text version, so readers beware on that.

Ultimately, a cold and boring book that didn't deliver on the promise it held.  If you're looking for something Gone With the Wind-like in scope and feel, read The Thorn Birds or maybe The Tea Rose; Crescent City just can't compare.

1.5 stars out of 5.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Untouched - Anna Campbell

UntouchedOkay, the romance reading challenge strikes again!  This time, we're examining the "virgin hero" category.  I read a couple of books trying to fulfill this, finding that I had been misled, the issue of the hero's virginity doesn't come up, etc.  So I went to a list!  Unfortunately, most of the books that I was interested in, I had already read, and I really try to read new titles for my reading challenges.  But Untouched was on the list, and the library had it, so it became my choice.

This is an interesting historical romance because it doesn't take place among ton society, or a country manor, or any of the usual settings.  Instead, it takes place in a walled compound with some grounds, a garden, and a small cottage, and remains there for most of the book--there are only a few segments that take place beyond it.  Why is this?  Because the book starts with the heroine, Grace, being kidnapped and delivered to the "mad" Matthew, Lord Sheene, to "entertain" him on orders from his uncle.  But Matthew doesn't want to be "entertained" even though he's been locked up since the age of fourteen, when he was the victim of a bad illness that gave his uncle, Matthew's guardian since the death of his parents, the room needed to make a grab at the family fortune and influence.

It's established pretty quickly that Matthew isn't actually mad, though he's understandably pretty ornery and doesn't want to let his uncle "win" by sleeping with a woman said uncle's goons provided.  Why this would be letting him win, I don't know; you can have sex with someone you're locked up with (as long as they want to have sex with you!) and still want to escape, the two conditions are not mutually exclusive unless, apparently, you're Matthew.  As far as heroes go, Matthew wasn't exactly my favorite.  He's an outright bastard to Grace, flip-flopping between believing her about her origins (or what she shares of them) and accusing her of being the worst sort of whore (which is problematic for other reasons, but now is not the time).  He's nasty and has none of the charm of most historical romance heroes, until they sleep together, at which point he quickly becomes an amazing lover and a very charming individual.  Because Sex Magic, I guess?  And he swears that he loved Grace at the first instant he saw her...despite being downright awful to her for so long, which, really, does not seem to indicate instant love.  He does demonstrate instant lust, but definitely not love.  However, the two seem to be hopelessly confused in this book, which even Grace admits at one point.

As for Grace...she was kind of vanilla.  She had a bit of an interesting background leading up to her kidnapping, but her own actions mostly include being victimized by people, wearing scanty clothing, and pining over a guy she's convinced she can't have even though he only wants to be with her.  She doesn't even want to escape from her confinement unless Matthew comes with her.  I didn't actively dislike Grace, but there was nothing that made me want to really root for her except a general distaste for Matthew's slimy uncle and his goons.

Matthew and Grace undeniably had physical chemistry, but beyond that, there wasn't a lot of development of their relationship; as I mentioned before, Campbell tries to later justify this with a "love at first sight" explanation, but that is not how it reads.  I would have liked to see a little bit more of the "getting to know you" phase of the relationship, some banter, something between them other than lust disguised as love.

Overall, this was an okay book.  It didn't have the same feel to it as most historical romance books, which was interesting--different is always interesting--and I commend Campbell for that, but it also lacked some of the spark that I look for in historical romances.  Would I read Campbell again?  Eh, maybe.  Still undecided on that front!

2 stars out of 5.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Nice Dragons Finish Last - Rachel Aaron (Heartstrikers #1)

Nice Dragons Finish Last (Heartstrikers, #1)I've had this book on my Kindle for ages (and I think I actually have The Legend of Eli Monpress by the same author, as well) and never really reached for it.  I'm not entirely sure why; I got it on a deal, I'm sure, but I have a bad habit of picking up sale books and then never reading them.  However, when I needed a book for my reading challenge that involved a mythical creature, this seemed like an easy one to slot in.

And it was so good!

The story is about Julius, the youngest dragon in the Heartstriker clan, whose territory covers much of the southwestern United States after magic returns to the world.  Julius is kicked out of his home by his mother, the matriarch of the plan, for not being a good dragon--not cruel enough, ambitious enough, etc.  He ends up in the Detroit Free Zone, where dragons are strictly not allowed, with a month to impress his mother before she eats him.  Yikes.  When his brother gives him a job to complete, Julius falls in with Marci, a human mage trying to make her own way after fleeing Las Vegas in the wake of her father's murder, only to find that the murderers have followed her.

I'm not totally sold on the world building here, as I didn't see any explanation of where magic went for thousands of years or why a comet smashing into Canada was what brought it back; this might have been a more convincing world if it had been presented as an alternative universe in which magic had always been there to begin with.  But the Detroit Free Zone was a great setting--one ruled by a vengeful spirit who (for some reason; again, not clear) hates dragons.  This adds an element that was really needed, because otherwise Julius would have had too easy a time of things.  Magical creatures abound, and while we never get to see Julius in full-on dragon form, we do get to see his brother at one point.  Marci, the secondary lead, is great as well.  She's a thaumaturge, a type of mage who uses spell circles for casting--and carries some of them with her in the form of plastic bracelets on her wrists, which I thought was awesome.  She also has a cat death spirit named Ghost.  Other supporting characters present themselves in the form of dragons from a rival clan and some of Julius' siblings, including Jason--who kind of falls into the "dumb jock" archetype--and Chelsie, the family's badass enforcer who I absolutely loved.

The writing is fun and engaging, though the pacing is sometimes a bit uneven.  For example, it felt like the book was going to lead to a climax several times before it actually did, and while rising action is important, this just didn't feel like it fit into a proper story pyramid; rather, it felt more like a serial that had been put together into a book form, with each segment having its own climax and denouement.  But the real climax and conclusion have a suitable impact and also set up future books in the series without leaving readers with a cliffhanger--something that I consider so important when putting out books that belong in a series.

Overall, this was a really fun read.  I already bought the second book, though I had a bunch of other library and challenge books that I need to get through before I can pick it up.  Still, I'm looking forward to continuing with this series.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance - Ruth Emmie Lang

Beasts of Extraordinary CircumstanceWhen I saw the Book of the Month selections for October, I'm going to admit, I wasn't entirely thrilled.  There was nothing that really spoke to me, but I needed to get a book from this month so I could get my extras from previous months, so I finally picked Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance because it seemed to have a magical realism element to it that might be interesting.

I loved it.

This is the story of Weylyn Grey, but Weylyn himself isn't a perspective character until the second-to-last chapter.  Instead, his story is told through the perspectives of other people.  First is Mary Penlore, the girl who first encounters him living in the woods with a wolf pack and buying out every butcher in the area for enough meat for them to survive.  Mary is a recurring character throughout the book, drawn to Weylyn after their first encounters even across years.  Also included are Weylyn's foster sister and her son, his teacher and eventual foster mother, the mayor of a small Mississippi town, one of his coworkers, and a young boy who encounters Weylyn living in the woods years later.  This wide range of perspectives gives insight into Weylyn even though we don't ever hear from him in a first-person perspective--even his dedicated chapter is written in third person, rather than first-person like all of the other chapters.

Mary and Weylyn's relationship, fraught by Weylyn's strange abilities to control (or not control) the weather, is what's really at the heart of this book.  At some points, it seemed like a sweet relationship, like when Weylyn decides to do something for Mary's birthday.  However, I'm ultimately not convinced that it's a healthy one.  Weylyn is fascinated by Mary because she is normal, and he is not.  Mary is fascinated by Weylyn because he is not normal, and she is.  Ultimately, there's not much more to their relationship than that, which is kind of sad, because I wanted them to connect in spite of their differences, rather than because of them.  It just doesn't seem like enough to build a lasting relationship on, or else it would have happened sooner than it did.

There is some beautiful imagery in here; the magical realism certainly helps with that.  Taking fantastical elements in such a normal way means that things like fireflies that make honey that becomes light that becomes an energy source can be mentioned, and incorporated with breathtaking detail.  The wolves are wonderful, Weylyn's house is creepy, and Merlin the pig is adorable.  All of this seems to come to the page effortlessly, making it seem both real and strange at the same time.  Ultimately, this was a wonderful story for the magical realism, for the story, for the characters--but I wish there had been a bit more to the relationship at the heart of it.

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Ruin and Rising - Leigh Bardugo (Grisha #3)

Ruin and Rising (Shadow and Bone, #3)For the final volume of this series, I was hoping for something dazzling.  I found the series had gotten off to a lackluster start, and while the second book was stronger, it still wasn't what I'd been hoping for.  However, it left off in a promising place, and this book picks up shortly after.

Alina and the other survivors of the Darkling's attack on the Little Palace are sheltering in the underground White Cathedral with the Apparat, but they're more like prisoners than anything else.  Alina is wilting without access to the sun and her light powers, and she seems to have picked up a little bit of shadow power, as well, from her near-death encounter with the Darkling.  They need to escape, find the firebird that is the third amplifier Alina hopes will help defeat the Darkling, and then actually defeat him.

Again, this book is very surface-level with few characters or components with any depth.  Light is good.  Dark is evil.  Alina admits, eventually, that the Darkling loved Ravka and did what he thought was best for it, even if it sometimes had terrible consequences, but that's about as close as Bardugo gets to layering in complexity in this book.  She tries to integrate a quirk involving the firebird as the third amplifier, but I found that scattered and not entirely convincing, as if Bardugo had a different plan for this book and then, in the middle of writing it, decided to go in a different direction--but didn't make the rest of the book or the series match up to that new direction.  It also felt like a ploy to pull on the hearstrings of readers, but honestly, I couldn't bring myself to really care that much about it.  That's because Mal is involved (of course) and I've always found him to be an utterly bland character.

The most interesting parts of this book were 1) Baghra and the revelations regarding her, the Darkling, and the amplifiers, and 2) Nikolai.  Nikolai was awesome.  Bardugo clearly had to sideline him for so much of the book because he was too busy stealing the scenes from everyone else he interacted with, being so superior to every other character in every way.  The Spinning Wheel was also an awesome location, but that was tied up with Nikolai's character, so I count it in with him.

Ultimately, this was an okay book, but it just didn't have heart.  The ending was predictable and nonsensical at the same time--no one ever realizes who Alina is?  Really?  I find that unlikely.  Characters who were less than engaging took up most of the book, and there was a lack of depth on any facet that left me wanting more.  This was Bardugo's first trilogy, and she has another duology set in this world that I'm still willing to try in hopes that it shows some evolution in her work, but I'm going to have my hopes set lower from the beginning based on my experiences with this trilogy.

2 stars out of 5.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Turtles All the Way Down - John Green

Turtles All the Way Down"But you don't understand, sir.  It's turtles all the way down."

Turtles All the Way Down has probably been one of the most hotly-anticipated books of the season, because it answers the question, "What on earth has John Green been writing since The Fault In Our Stars came out five years ago?"  I didn't read TFIOS, because I refuse to read a book that's set up primarily to pull at readers' heartstrings.  But a few early reviews for Turtles came out from friends saying that it was different, so I gave it a go.

John Green specializes in teenaged narrators who are much "deeper" than most teenagers typically are.  #notallteenagers  In this case, the narrator is Aza, who has an anxiety disorder that's paired with compulsions--I wouldn't go so far as to say she has OCD, but she definitely has some compulsions that are centered around germs, particularly gut bacteria.  She suffers from invasive thoughts that she can't control and can't get away from, and gets stuck in what she calls "thought spirals" where the thoughts just chase each other around inescapably and completely take over her existence when they occur.  I think this happens to everyone occasionally, particularly when something is going wrong in life, but Aza suffers from it on pretty much a daily basis.  She has medication that she takes intermittently, because she wants to escape her mental illness, but also is weirded out by the idea that she needs to take medication in order to be herself.  It raises questions of who your "self" really is, and I think that digging into a character with a mental illness was an interesting take and one he hasn't really done before.  And also importantly, Aza doesn't have an experience in which she falls and love and is magically cured by some guy's awesomeness, which is kind of common for characters with mental illness in novels that feature a romantic interest.

The main plot here involves a missing billionaire, the father of a friend Aza had when she was younger.  Her best friend, Daisy, insists that Aza re-insinuate herself in Davis' life in hopes of finding something that will qualify them to win a hundred thousand dollar reward for information leading to his father being found--Davis Sr. having absconded in an attempt to avoid criminal charges involving a lot of money.  There isn't really a "search" that Aza gets involved with, though she picks away at a few weird things that Davis' younger brother brings up.  However, most of the story really revolves around Aza and her mental illness, which doesn't really seem to be mentioned in the book description.  I feel like some people might be disappointed by what they find in this book, but I think that the way it was structured and the way it ends perfectly suited a character like Aza.  The ending is one that might not be considered "happy," because Aza isn't magically cured of her illness, but it is a fitting one.

Writing about characters with mental illnesses is tricky, because you're just asking to be jumped on by a ton of people with similar mental illnesses who haven't had the same experience.  But I think Green did a good job here, and this was a very enjoyable read.  My only complaint is actually about Daisy.  Daisy is made out to be this great friend to Aza, except for one thing involving the Star Wars fanfiction she writes, with the point being made that Aza hasn't really been a great friend because she's so stuck in her own head.  But Daisy is kind of a terrible person.  She knows that Aza has a mental illness, but doesn't care.  She lashes out and ditches Aza and and doesn't give Aza credit for anything that she does, insinuating that Aza doesn't deserve credit for anything because she is more privileged than Daisy.  But we can see that Aza does know things about Daisy, that Daisy accuses her of not knowing because she doesn't pay attention.  Does it seem like, in Aza's more stable periods, she could have made more of an effort?  Yes.  But Daisy is utterly terrible to Aza when she's spiraling down into a pit, and Aza just lets her off the hook for it, which I can't quite forgive on either front.

Overall, though, a good read.

4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Fires of Winter - Johanna Lindsey (Haadrad Viking Family #1)

Fires of Winter (Haardrad Viking Family, #1)I recently looked at my 2017 reading challenge in the Unapologetic Romance Readers group on Goodreads and realized that if I didn't get moving, I was going to be in very, very big trouble.  Here's the thing: I was tearing through that challenge at the beginning of the year.  But in doing so, I kind of...read all of the categories I was looking forward to.   Which left me with the "dregs" of categories I don't have much interest in or have downright been dreading reading for the end of the year.  Sigh.  Nevertheless, I had to get to it, so I decided to go for the "Viking romance" category I still had pending.

Much like sheikh romance books, Viking romance books seem to have a theme of being very rapey.  This is somewhat because this is what Vikings did.  They pillaged and plundered and raped and ravaged.  Not amongst their own people, where rape was a very, very serious crime, but Viking romances typically involve a young woman from the British Isles being swept away by a marauder and then falling desperately in love with him after her "traitorous body" responds to his ravishments.

Ich.

But there didn't appear to be any escaping it, and so I took on Fires of Winter.  The heroine here is a Celtic woman named Brenna, who was basically allowed to act like a boy for much of her young life and goes around in boys' clothes and carrying a sword.  You would think Brenna would be all about the #gurlpower, but the book starts with her discovering a man raping a woman and deciding it's okay as long as the rapist marries his victim.  This pretty astutely sums up Brenna's outlook for the book.  She's supposed to be married to a Viking in order to cement some sort of peace treaty, but the Viking's father, Anselem--with whom the deal was struck--reneges and raids her home as a form of vengeance; the prospective groom, unaware that he even was a prospective groom, doesn't show up until later, when Brenna is already ensconced in his house as a slave gift from the aforementioned raiding father.  Brenna, unlike all of the other women in her town, manages to escaped being raped in the journey to Norway, because of course her virginity must be preserved so "hero" Garrick can divest her of it.

Garrick is awful.  He's known as the "Hardhearted" because he doesn't like women after a former lover scorned him, but we're supposed to see through his tough exterior to a warm and cushy center.  Not so much.  Repeatedly raping the heroine doesn't really get very far, and Lindsey doesn't even attempt to mitigate the act with any "traitorous body" nonsense (which is the traditional out in this type of book, the 1980s bodice-ripper--"she liked it and so it's okay in the end") until pretty far into the book.  And even then, Brenna returns to her philosophy of that it's not wrong that Garrick is raping her, it's wrong that he's raping her and refusing to marry her after.  Why does he refuse to marry her?  Because she's a slave, but he can't free her, because then he wouldn't be able to rape her!  Obviously.

BUT!  Here is the thing.  Horrible people doing horrible things does not necessarily a bad book make, as my recent reading experience of The Bronze Horseman goes to show.  What actually made this a bad book was the writing.  Brenna was not a heroine I could root for; her actions in the beginning of the book, excusing a rapist even though she protests to hate rape, set me against her from the start, and it wasn't an upward path from there.  Despite saying she will never be dominated by a Viking, she finds herself basting the hindquarters of animals pretty quickly and cleaning up a room she trashes because Garrick says he won't feed her until she does.  She is of the foot-stamping, hair-tossing variety of woman who everyone happens to love, or at least want, at first sight and who, despite being "the best" warrior, manages to get her ass handed to her at every turning point.  She screeches and flails and is just generally so annoying that I wouldn't have minded if she fell into a fjord and drowned.  Garrick, though a terrible person, actually fit the book better, because his actions were essentially what I expected of this variety of character in this time and place.  I actually kind of appreciated that Lindsey didn't make him the raider who had stolen Brenna away, because that was actually something a little different.  But despite having an intellectual acknowledgement of Garrick and his motivations, I still couldn't feel strongly for him in any direction because Lindsey's writing is just flat.  No emotion, no spark, no fury, no passion.  Nada.

Looking at other reviews of the book now, I see I probably could have spared myself the time if I had realized Nenia from Readasaurus Reviews (and also admin of the Unapologetic Romance Readers group) had already read and reviewed this.  But still, the library didn't have anything available on Kindle and this was relatively inexpensive, and I don't think most other Viking romances would have any better, so I'm just going to move on.

1.5 stars out of 5.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Pretty Face - Lucy Parker (London Celebrities #2)

Pretty Face (London Celebrities, #2)While I'm picking my way through a few family-saga-romance-type books, kind of in the vein of The Thorn Birds, I found myself wanting to read something a bit faster, more contemporary, and with a more prominent and delicious romantic factor.  After reading Act Like It earlier this year, it seemed like Pretty Face was an obvious contender.

Set in the same theater-universe as Act Like It, this book follows theater director Luc Savage as he attempts to stage a production of a new play about Lady Jane Grey, Mary I, and Elizabeth I.  He ends up reluctantly casting TV actress Lily Lamprey in the role of Elizabeth--reluctantly because, after seeing Lily's TV performances, he's convinced that she can't act and is probably as vapid as can be.  Oh, and she has the voice of a porn star.

Lily and Luc do not have instant chemistry--they pretty much hate each other at their first meeting.  However, their attraction grows quickly, partially on a physical basis and partially on an emotional one.  However, both are leery of entering any sort of relationship because of Luc's role as Lily's director.  Lily knows that having a relationship with her first stage director could tank her stage career, particularly because she's viewed a brainless slut by the media--a result of her TV role and a bad case of typecasting.  And Luc doesn't sleep with people who work for him.  Still, as the play gets closer and closer to opening night, they get closer and closer, drawn by all sorts of circumstances involving both of their families, and romance blossoms.

The writing here is just as good as in Act Like It.  The chemistry between the characters is palpable.  Is it a little dramatic?  Yes.  But I didn't find the ultimate conflict to be as overdone as the one in Act Like It was.  It was also nice to see Richard and Lainie in brief, though they certainly did not appear often or long enough to steal the book from Lucy and Luc.  The burn is slow, and that does make the book seem a little longer than it really is--it clocks in at only 222 pages according to Goodreads, but it seemed to take a disproportionately long time for me to read something of that length.  That said, it was a very enjoyable read nonetheless, and a great way to spend my Sunday afternoon

4.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Scarlet - Marissa Meyer (Lunar Chronicles #2)

Scarlet (The Lunar Chronicles, #2)Scarlet is the second book in the Lunar Chronicles series and is the last book of the series I need to review' life's funny like that, innit?

This book both continues Cinder's story as rogue moon princess and introduces a new character, Scarlet.  The main setting here also shifts to France, where Scarlet lives and is looking for her recently-disappeared grandmother, who was also involved with Cinder's relocation from Luna to Earth, though Scarlet doesn't know it.  The new romantic interest for Scarlet, Wolf, also takes the scene, as does Carson Thorne, an American deserter with a stolen spaceship who falls into Cinder's company.  Kai is also still involved, dealing with the drama of Cinder's escape and rising tensions with Luna from the palace in New Beijing.

Cinder starts coming into her own as a moon-princess-badass here, and Scarlet quickly sets herself up as someone who is not to be messed with.  Scarlet is a typical "fiery redhead" character, which is a bit lacking in originality, but at least her hair is only mentioned twice instead of being harped on for the whole book.  Her "Little Red Riding Hood" story is queued up with her signature red hoodie and, of course, Wolf, as well as a brief encounter between Wolf and a street fighter named Hunter.  There's a bit of a twist in this book, one that I don't think was as evident as the "twist" in Cinder, but reading it through a second time it's pretty obvious where the story was going.  Still, I found the story to be enjoyable.  This is also more of a romance than Cinder was, with a strong bond between Scarlet and Wolf from the beginning, even though both admit that it doesn't make sense.

This isn't a very complex story, and I think that Scarlet's part of it actually moves more slowly than Cinder's story initially did.  Meanwhile, Cinder's story picks up pace as she and Thorne flee New Beijing and try to determine their next steps.  Thorne is a delightful character, someone who thinks that he's much more charming than he actually is and with a checkered past that he tries to spin in the best light possible.  This all sets him up wonderfully as a true hero in the next book, when he see him through a different pair of eyes.  Iko also makes a return to the page here, and she is just as wonderful as ever.  Cinder herself is also a stronger character than she was before, gaining a true determination and sense of self that she lacked in the first book.

Overall, this is a great book, a strong continuation of the series and, I think, better than Cinder itself was.  On the re-read, I'm not quite as dazzled with it as I was the first time I read it.  When I do my re-read of Cress, we'll have to see if Scarlet can retain its place as my favorite book in the series or if it will be overturned.

4.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Fierce Kingdom - Gin Phillips

Fierce KingdomThere is a lesson to be learned in this book: don't have children, or they're likely to get you killed in a mass shooting because they don't know when to shut up and behave themselves.

Yup, I said it.

With that out of the way, let's get into it.  Fierce Kingdom is the story of Joan, who takes her son Lincoln to the zoo one day and, as they're leaving, realizes that the zoo is now the site of a mass shooting.  With at least one shooter between her and the exit, she takes her four-year-old and flees back into the zoo, looking for a place to hide.  But of course, running and hiding with a four-year-old isn't exactly the easiest task in the world, and Joan is (understandably) not willing to let her son go, and so the chase is on.

What's cool about this is that it's essentially the 24 of books.  If you're a moderately fast reader, you can probably finish this book in between three and four hours, which is about the timespan in which the entire story takes place.  You could definitely do it if you cut out the chapters about the other characters in the zoo, but I guess those were at least somewhat necessary.  But with that said, the pacing here is somewhat off.  There's a wonderful build of suspense in the beginning, because everything seems so happy and idyllic and yet we, as readers, know that something is about to go horribly wrong.  But beyond that, other than a few bursts of Joan hauling Lincoln from one hiding spot to another--just two of them, really--there's a lot of sitting and hoping that they won't be found, and that does not exactly make for riveting reading.  Phillips jazzes up those periods by throwing in a couple of instances of near-discovery, but it's not enough to fix the lagging pace, or to prevent me from wanting to whallop Joan alongside the head.

Yes, let's talk about Joan for a minute.  Lincoln I am willing to let go, because children are notoriously horrible characters.  But Joan.  I understand her not wanting to leave Lincoln, not being willing to do it--I understand that 100% and do not fault her for it.  But she acts so stupidly in other respects.  She hides them in a deserted exhibit behind some rocks; the entire time they were going there, I was mentally screaming, "THE OTTERS!  GO TO THE OTTERS!" because Phillips had blatantly painted the otter exhibit as a wonderful place to hide, with concealing waterfalls and ledges and caves, and then never utilized it.  And they're otters; what are they going to do, frolic you to death?  And then there's Joan and her phone.  She has her phone, but instead of trying to reach out to police and give them some information about what's happening inside the zoo, some clue as to her location so help can be sent in (I don't know, through the back, maybe?), or doing anything else useful with it, she just texts her husband, looks at news headlines, and then throws it at the shooters.  And while I respect her love for Lincoln, let me tell you, if my child (*shudder*) had been about to get us killed because he couldn't keep his mouth shut over a dearth of crackers in the middle of an active shooter situation, that kid would have been gagged so fast his head would have spun around.  Kailynn also deserved a good slap, but Joan was the main character, and so my frustrations are mainly confined to her.

I know, I know--people act strangely in situations like this.  But here's the thing: fiction still needs to make sense, and Joan acted like a complete idiot.  And she sat and thought about each move so much, and then still proceeded to do things in exact opposition of what was clearly the best course of action.  So no, she doesn't get a pass because she suddenly found herself in a terrible situation with no clear way out of it.

What is done very well here is that the length of the book matches its timeline, as I mentioned before, and Phillips really does manage to capture the atmosphere.  The setting of a zoo going into the Halloween season was wonderfully done, and while this is no zoo in particular, that also means it can be anyone's zoo.  I definitely found myself hunting through my childhood zoo in my head, looking for a good place to hide, and then moved on to the National Zoo, which I don't know as well--yikes!  Whatever will I do???  Constance vigilance next time I'm there, apparently.

Overall, I enjoyed this, but it's a book in which atmosphere perseveres over plot and logic.  The suspense ebbs and wanes and not always exactly where it should, but I would still be open to reading more from Phillips based on this offering.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett- Chelsea Sedoti

The Hundred Lies of Lizzie LovettThis was the Big Library Read for October 12-26.  The Big Library Read is a initiative where they work with libraries using Overdrive to make a book available (via ebook or audiobook) to everyone who wants to read it without any holds or waitlisting.  The DC Public Library was featuring it pretty heavily on their site, so I picked it up.

My firs thought regarding this book is that it's terribly misnamed.  Lizzie Lovett doesn't tell any lies in this book.  In fact, she only has about three lines of dialogue at all.  I'm guessing that her "lies" were that she acted different ways in different situations and sometimes appeared to be contrary, but guess what?  People are allowed to be contrary and to act differently in different situations!  They're allowed to change over time!  Figuring that out takes the main character a ridiculous amount of time, which was a bit sad.

So, the story here is about narrator Hawthorn, a seventeen-year-old girl who is a bit of an outcast at her high school, and whose world is turned upside down by the disappearance of the titular Lizzie Lovett, who Hawthorn adored upon meeting and then later despised for most of the one year they were at the same school--Lizzie as a senior and Hawthorn as a freshman.  Now Hawthorn is a senior, and she only has one friend.  The book description says that Hawthorn inserts herself into a missing persons case, but that's not entirely accurate either, because she never gets involved with the investigation itself--just with Lizzie's boyfriend, rambling around in the woods looking for Lizzie, who Hawthorn actually believes is a werewolf.  Now you might get some idea as to why Hawthorn doesn't have many friends and is considered weird.

This had a lot of potential, but ultimately it lacked depth and nuance and character growth.  Hawthorn does get some leeway for her hard-headedness and self-absorption, because she is a teenager, and that's what teenagers are.  But in some ways, she acts much younger; her dream is to go out on an adventure and discover that werewolves are real and be able to tell everyone, "I told you so," which seemed like something more suited to a middle- or elementary school student than a high school student who, while still being able to enjoy fantasy, make up stories, etc., should still have a better sense of fiction and reality.  She wants to make her point so much that she involves herself with Lizzie's boyfriend, who might have killed Lizzie.  What?  How is this mental stability?  Yes, innocent until proven guilty--but still, exercise a little caution, Hawthorn!  Her instability (yes, I'm calling it instability) is depicted as something cute and quirky and even romantic, but I just couldn't find it to be so because of the utterly stupid things it drove her to do.

Hawthorn's main "nemesis" in this book is Mychelle, a stereotypical popular bitchy girl who bullies Hawthorn.  There's never anything that's gone into with her own motivations, insecurities, etc.  Hawthorn's family, her best friend, and all the other supporting characters, including Lizzie's boyfriend who Hawthorn becomes involved with over the course of her "investigation," are all equally flat and undeveloped.  The one person I thought showed promise was Connor, but ultimately he never got enough page time to develop into the true, warm character I thought he could become.

One thing that I do think this book really had going for it: the setting.  The story takes place in the fictional (I believe) town of Griffin Mills, Ohio, which is a slowly-dying steel town.  I could perfectly picture the atmosphere in the town, which Sedoti captures in a one-page essay that Hawthorn turns in after forgetting to do the real assignment.  It was the perfect atmosphere for a story like this, and I could see why Hawthorn used fantasy to escape her mundane life--but I was still concerned for how deeply she seemed to believe the things she made up.

This was a quick read, and it was mildly entertaining, but Hawthorn's delusions left me side-eyeing her.  She showed a bit of growth by the end, but I'm still concerned for her mental status, and the rest of the book left something to be desired.

2.5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Bronze Horseman - Paullina Simons (The Bronze Simons #1)

The Bronze Horseman (The Bronze Horseman, #1)The Bronze Horseman was a group read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers group in September, but I just got around to it this month.  I'm also slotting it in for the "military romance" category in the group's 2017 reading challenge.  Let me tell you, this book is a whopper of a romance--over 800 pages, and it looks like the two sequels are even longer!

What I have to give Simons credit for in this is her sense of time and place.  Set during the time leading up to and during the siege of Leningrad in World War II, the main characters are swept up in all of the hardship that the siege entails.  Starvation, freezing, bombings, deaths en masse--they suffer through it all.

But then, they're also infuriating people.  So not so much credit there.

The main characters are Tatiana Metanova and Alexander Belov.  They spy each other across the street one day during the white nights in a Leningrad summer, just as the war really moves into Russia, and fall in love immediately.  Problem: Alexander is dating Tatiana's older sister, Dasha.  This is the conflict that will fuel the first half of the book, as Tatiana is so scared to lose her sister's love and affection that she insists that Alexander keep dating her despite all of the trouble it causes everyone involved.  Tatiana's love for Dasha also apparently doesn't seem to go both ways, as Dasha uses Tatiana mercilessly and is fine with writing her off at the first available opportunity.  Of course, there's only one way a conflict like this can end, and the book then moves onto what's an incredibly slow start to a second half, where Tatiana and Alexander are reunited and proceed to have sex for about a hundred straight pages before diving back into the war and the siege.

The story is definitely much weaker in the time that Simons moved it away from Leningrad.  The siege provided such structure to the story, a time and place that people might not act as they otherwise would.  In Leningrad, Alexander's controlling behavior comes across as protective, especially because Tatiana is not only naive but possesses feathers for brains for much of the book--yes, she's seventeen, but in a time when "adolescence" wasn't really a thing (I mean, this is Soviet Russia, for crying out loud) she doesn't really have an excuse to continue being as dumb as she is for as long as she is, and miraculously still alive.  In other circumstances, though, Alexander's behavior strikes me as downright abusive, and doesn't bode well for the future.  He's also ruthless with using Tatiana for his own gains, especially because he knows what's likely to happen to her down the road because of his own background.  And then there's Alexander's "best friend" Dimitri, who is vile in his own special way.  Tatiana doesn't mean to be vile--in fact, I firmly believe she has a good heart, and that's the only thing that saves her character from being absolutely death-worthy--but ultimately, this is a book about terrible people doing terrible things to each other, and basically getting away with it because of the war pressing in on them from literally all sides.

There are two more books to this series, and geeze, I have no idea how much more wringing Simons can put these people through, especially given how the book ended.  It's like a train wreck--absolutely terrible, not in writing but in happenings, and yet it's so impossible to look away.  I do intend to continue reading this series, but oh man, I just don't know where it's gonna go.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Emma In the Night - Wendy Walker

Emma in the NightEmma In the Night was another Book of the Month selection this month, and looking at it, I was definitely intrigued.  The story is about Cassandra, who vanished with her older sister, Emma, three years ago, and has just reappeared--but without Emma.  As an FBI forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Abby Winter, becomes involved, it becomes increasingly apparent that something is deeply wrong in Cass' family.  Cass is clearly orchestrating something, but what?  And where is Emma?

I pegged a lot of the general twists in this book pretty early on.  It's relatively easy to figure out where the holes in Cass' story are, if you're paying even a semblance of attention.  She pretty much admits in the first chapter that she is an unreliable narrator, telling a story that she has rehearsed, and therefore you can't believe anything she says--so when the "big reveals" come along later in the story, they're not really as shocking, because we as readers know that something was off the entire time.  The way that Cass talks about certain things also lays out a lot of what's happened far before she comes out and says what she wants to say outright; the foreshadowing is pretty clumsy in that regard.

But this was still an interesting story; even though I figured out most of what had happened, I still wanted to know why, and that's something that's not as clear throughout most of the book.  It was definitely what kept me reading.  I also wanted to read more from Dr. Winter, because I love forensic psychology-type stuff.  However, Dr. Winter ultimately disappointed me; the daughter of a narcissist, she specializes in narcissistic personality disorder and quickly pegs Cass' mother as someone else with the disorder, leading her to want more deeply into the family to figure out what happened and why it did.  Seeing all of this unravel from Cass' perspective is interesting; from Winter's, less so.  Dr. Winter also puts forth that people are essentially formed by the time that they're three, and she has research into whether or not daughters of mothers with narcissistic personality disorder can break free of the cycle.  Ultimately, she concludes that Cass has--but it's pretty clear that Cass hasn't.  She might not be a narcissist, but there are still things deeply wrong with Cassandra Tanner.  She ruthlessly manipulated everyone around her, ruined the lives of several people to various degrees, led the FBI on what was, essentially, a wild goose chase, and contributed strongly to the tearing apart of her family--all because she wanted to feel powerful.  That doesn't really seem like someone who's mentally healthy to me.  She also blatantly manipulates a psychological evaluation, which should be a red flag in and of itself, and is something that Dr. Winter notices--but dismisses.

So, while the story itself was interesting here, I felt like Walker kind of fell down on the psychological aspects of it.  There is no happy ending here, only something looming in the distance as I worry about what Cass will do next, because she is clearly not as well as we are supposed to believe.  An interesting unraveling, but one that, in the end, wasn't done as well as it was made out to be.

3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris - Jenny Colgan

The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in ParisWhat a quaint book.  With a simple plot and colorful characters, it was a nice and light weekend read.  The story is about Anna, a chocolate taster at a factory in England, who loses two of her toes when a chocolate vat falls on top of her.  While she's recovering, she shares a hospital room with Claire, her former French teacher who once again endeavors to teach her the language.  Claire hooks Anna up with a past acquaintance--or more--of hers who owns a chocolate shop in Paris, and off Anna goes (once she recovers) on a new adventure.

Anna's adventure in Paris working in the chocolate shop of Thierry Girard, which is nothing like the industrial chocolate operation she interacted with in England, is charming.  She repeatedly crosses paths with Thierry's estranged son, Laurent, who is also in the chocolate business.  She deals with her over-the-top coworkers and Thierry's nasty wife.  And interspersed with this story is Claire's story, of going to France for a summer as an au pair when she was a teenager to have some freedom from her overbearing father and meeting Thierry herself.  Claire's story also has a contemporary component, as she fights cancer and ponders returning to Paris one last time before she dies.

The story was quaint and will, of course, make you want to eat chocolates.  However, it is very surface-level.  The cover sports a Sophie Kinsella quote, and this is definitely similar to Kinsella books.  Anna has a newly-deformed foot but, despite admitting that she knows nothing about actually making chocolate--machines did all of that at her previous workplace--she comes to the rescue of the chocolate shop and, while she's not a master, surpasses her two more experienced coworkers very quickly.  She has a romance with Laurent that doesn't seem like it is insta-love, but then at the end it apparently was, even though it wasn't?  Either way, it's still only based on a handful of encounters, only one of which has any real emotion tied to it.  Claire and Thierry seem to have a sizzling romance, but nothing ultimately comes of it and, in the end, it's a bit disappointing.  And of course, Claire's terminal illness means that this book isn't quite as fluffy as one would think from the cover of the book.

There are a handful of recipes included in the back of the book, mostly for different kinds of chocolate cake; I didn't try any of them, but they seemed fine at a quick glance.

Overall, Paris is lovely, the story is quaint, but it's very surface-level and lacks any sort of deep emotion or resonance.  I liked it, but it was nothing extraordinary and won't have me rushing out to buy Colgan's other books.

3 stars out of 5.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Trickster's Queen - Tamora Pierce (Daughter of the Lioness #2)

Trickster's Queen (Daughter of the Lioness, #2)I wasn't actually planning on reading Trickster's Queen so soon after reading Trickster's Choice, but after a few books that were just "meh," I found myself in a bit of a reading slump.  And when I'm in a reading slump, I like to go back to books that I know I enjoy to get me out of it.

What struck me immediately upon re-reading Trickster's Queen is its great disconnect from the first book.  It picks up several months and much character development after Choice, which Pierce tries to bridge with a couple pages of prologue that is essentially all info-dump about what the characters have been doing in the interim.  However, the effect of this is that it feels like this is the third book in a trilogy in which the second book is missing.  Most of the development of Aly's relationship with Nawat, which was so sweet and charming in the first book, is just skipped over; so is Aly's building of her position as spymaster for the growing rebellion.

On the whole, however, this book has less infodumping than the first one.  The prologue is the vast majority of it, and the narrative itself is less interrupted with intermittent infodumps than Choice was.  Additionally, I think this one does a better job of building the environment, culture, and overall feel of the Copper Isles.  Aly also really has room to come into her own and show off her skills in this book, rather than scampering to use them while also hiding them as she had to in the first book.  Tensions come to a head regarding Sarai, and the twist that's hinted at all along finally actually happens.  Dove continues to be an excellent character, far wiser than her years, and the integration of many of the side characters is done very well.  The other minor flaw that comes to mind is that the end does feel a bit rushed; Pierce lists off a list of casualties, one of which was a major-minor character (if that makes sense) in the first book and then was just brushed aside in the second and then written off as a sacrifice of the rebellion.  With all of the build-up to the rebellion, it just seems to be over in remarkably few pages, and then the epilogue just feels a bit off as well, though I can't quite put my finger on why.

Overall, this is a good book; I definitely enjoyed re-reading it.  However, I don't think that it's as good as the first book in the duology.  It feels disconnected from the first part of the story, and the ending also feels rushed and off-kilter with the rest of the book.  The body has a good feel and good characters and a good plot, but without a strong beginning or end, I don't think it can be stronger than the first book.

4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

V for Vendetta - Alan Moore

V for VendettaI slotted in V for Vendetta as my "book set around a holiday other than Christmas" for the 2017 Popsugar Reading Challenge, with the holiday here being Guy Fawkes Day aka Bonfire Night aka the 5th of November.  Most of the book does not take place on November 5th; however, the pivotal parts of the story do, and the characters' actions draw their influence and strength from that day.

I'm not a big graphic novel person, finding that they lack some of the depth and substance of prose books; a picture is not, necessarily, worth a thousand words.  And, following in this vein, I was not a huge fan of V.  Not necessarily because it was a graphic novel, though I wasn't terribly impressed by its art or flow in that respect, but because V is a pivotal character who just doesn't make sense.

The story is about Britain, following a war, which has become a totalitarian state under the control of a far-right party whose policies have included killing homosexuals, non-whites, and other groups that don't match their perfect idea.  There's an early panel which contains the words "Make Britain Great Again."  Hm...  In this world, Evey is a teenage girl who, desperately in need of money, tries to turn to prostitution, only to find herself caught by a sting targeted at sex workers.  On the verge of being raped and killed, she's rescued by the mysterious, masked, preternaturally strong and fast caped crusader, V, who takes her back to his home in "the Shadow Gallery" and begins to tell her of his plans to free Britain, and eventually to integrate her into them.

But V as a character never made sense to me.  He is an anarchist, wanting people to be able to live in "the land of do-as-you-please," but with an order instilled by the masses.  He evidently became this person after being the subject of a medical experiment in a "resettlement," aka concentration, camp, where he received an injection that damaged his mind.  This part was one that made me go, "What?"  Because the injection apparently killed everyone else who received it in horrible ways, and yet it just makes V into an anarchist with superhuman strength and computer skills...?  What?  And apparently a criminal mastermind to boot.  I think Moore was going for some sort of superhero origin story here (and V's mysterious identity contributes to this, too, and that worked) but I'm not convinced he truly pulled it off.  He's also a brutal, unnecessarily cruel character; what he did to Evey is absolutely unforgivable, unconscionable, and it was certainly not the only way to persuade Evey to his way of thinking.  She was halfway there already.  Yes, V is supposed to be an anti-hero instead of your typical mainstream hero...but I was never convinced of his heroism in any regard.

As for the art, I found it very bland, very washed out--which I at first thought might be an artistic choice, maybe saving splashes of color for particular points that would need emphasizing, but not--and with some of the characters being very hard to distinguish from each other.  There's also a shift in it at one point, probably because the original serialization of V was paused, and then resumed for the compilation later, but it means that some of the characters look quite different in later parts of the book than they did in the earlier parts, despite only about a year passing in the course of the book.

The end of the story is striking, and I commend Moore for going the way he did with it--however, Evey is not V, and I remain skeptical that she could pull off many of the things that V wanted her to, considering she didn't have any of the "abilities" that his background apparently gave him.  The strength of this book is clearly in its nature as a cautionary tale, and that is more important now than ever; its clear demonstration of the "slippery slope" is particularly noteworthy.  But I'm not sure that its message and ending can carry a story that was, ultimately, only so-so.  Overall, an okay read, but nothing I would go back to in the future.

2 stars out of 5.