Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sheikh Romances - Sexy Sheikh Bundle

Oh, boy.  This is one of those things I can't believe I'm confessing to reading.  But one of the romance categories for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' 2017 Reading Challenge was a sheikh romance.  Sheikh romances are notoriously terrible and, it seems, notoriously short.  But I always feel like reading a novella instead of an actual novel is cheating, for some reason, so I got a bundle of three novellas out of the library with the thought that, together, I would have done my due diligence.  Enter the "Sexy Sheikh" bundle.  There are three books in this bundle, all of them put forth by the imprint of "Harlequin Presents."  Oh yes.  They're Harlequin.  All three are contemporary stories, each by a different author and characters--no overlapping or connections here.  Let's take a short look at each of them in order.

Exposed: The Sheikh's MistressThe first book is Exposed: The Sheikh's Mistress by Sharon Kendrick.  This is actually the reason I got this bundle, because another reader in the group read a Kendrick sheikh romance and said it actually wasn't terrible, which is high praise for something in this subgenre.  The story here follows Sienna, an event planner whose life is upturned upon the reappearance of Hashim, the guy (and sheikh) she was involved with years before until he found out she'd posed for topless photos in a calendar in order to pay her mother's medical bills.  Clearly, this made Sienna the worst sort of trash in his eyes, and so he dumped her, only to come back years later to torment her/have sex with her.  This will quickly become a theme in this bundle: it's totally okay to hire someone to work for you just because you want to have sex with them, and then sexually harass them until you get what you want.  Oi.  Anyway, Sienna eventually concedes to being Hashim's official mistress, but the scandal is revealed to the media!  Gasp!  I honestly didn't feel that these two had any chemistry, and Kendrick didn't do a very good job of developing plot or character here--another theme in this bundle.  It's totally possible to do a good job with both plot and character in a novella, but none of the authors seemed to feel like doing that here, which was disappointing.

The Sheikh's Innocent BrideNext up is The Sheikh's Innocent Bride by Lynne Graham.  Heroine Kirsten works at a castle as a servant in hopes of saving up enough money to escape her extremely restrictive and abusive father.  Her world is turned upside down when the castle's owner, Shahir, shows up and becomes interested in her, despite him being her employer.  Things quickly get out of control, Kirsten gets framed as a thief, and runs away to London.  The drama escalates from there.  This engaged in the "secret baby" trope, as well, which is not one of my favorites.  Of course, Shahir finds out and immediately decides that he must marry Kirsten so their child can inherit his country, which really seemed like the flimsiest logic of all time.  I mean, he thought Kirsten was a thief, and wasn't entirely convinced she wasn't a slut even though he knew she'd been a virgin when they got together, and really seemed inclined to think the worst of her in every way, and definitely wasn't in love with her, and yet he rushed off to marry her.  It seemed far more likely that he would have taken the age-old way out of giving her some money and then never speaking to her again.  Again, this book involved copious sexual harassment from a superior and emotional abuse by the hero, and really no development of characters to compensate for the flimsy plot.  They're not in love and then they are, happily ever after, the end.  Meh.  Probably my least favorite of the three.

Stolen by the Sheikh (Clemenger Sisters #2)And finally, there's Stolen by the Sheikh by Trish Morey, which actually appears to be the second in a series of novellas, though this bundle didn't include the first.  Heroine Sapphire is a rising star of a fashion designer in Italy, expected to marry her on-again, off-again lawyer boyfriend.  When Khaled shows up and commissions her to design a wedding gown for his bride, she reluctantly agrees on orders from her boss, and finds herself spirited off to Khaled's home country and palace--because he is, of course, a sheikh.  The plot, that Sapphire is actually the person Khaled intends to marry, is pretty transparent to us as readers, though I actually can't fault Sapphire for drawing the initial conclusions she does, weird as the situation is.  There's a revenge plot going on here as well, of course involving Sapphire's boyfriend.  Morey does throw in a bogus terrorism subplot as well, one that comes out of nowhere and then doesn't go anywhere, either, and mainly revolves on a lot of infodumping about a minor character who was completely unnecessary.  Still, I liked the romance here, flimsy as some of its trappings were, and thought that Khaled and Sapphire had a bit more character to them than the main characters in the other books in the bundle.  This was a tropey book, what with the minor Stockholm syndrome and all, but I think it was the strongest in the bundle and I liked it the best.

Overall, was this a good bundle?  No, of course not.  Was I expecting it to be?  No, not really.  But considering I went to it because I actually had to toss aside the other book I'd planned on reading for the category because it was such trash (the offensive kind, not the fun kind) I guess I got off easy.  I've actually read a few historicals in this genre that weren't absolutely horrible, as far as I can remember, but it seems like tastes for this trope have shifted to the modern, and the quality hasn't shifted with them.  Sigh.  2 stars for the lot--I can't even really justify 3 for Stolen, though it's probably a stronger 2 than the others.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

All Night Long - Jayne Ann Krentz

All Night LongAll Night Long was the romantic suspense read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers in August, but it took me a while to get it from the library and then get around to reading it, so I didn't finish it until early September.  The story seems to have a good premise from the summary: having fled her hometown years before after the murder of her parents, Irene is summoned back by the woman who was her best friend the summer of the murders, pulled by a code word that meant something urgent had happened.  But when Irene arrives, she finds that Pamela is dead, too, apparently of an overdose, though Irene suspects more foul play is involved.  And with a sexy ex-Marine innkeeper to help her, she is determined to get to the bottom of things.

There's definitely some suspense here, though the story goes a little sideways and eyebrow-raise-worthy towards the end of the book, complete with a scene of the villain info-dumping all of his motivations and actions to the heroine, which of course gives the hero time to swoop in and save the day.  And the the denouement seems to drag on a bit, as well.  But my main issues with this book were twofold: first, the hero is a total creepy stalker not at all worthy of making this a romance, and second that Irene has absolutely nothing to actually lead her to believe that all of the murders are connected (or are, in fact, murders at all) and instead just forges ahead like a crazy person on nothing more than her gut because--well, there really is no because.

So, first, Luke.  He is not a romantic person.  He is a crazy stalker.  Irene is staying at the hotel that Luke has recently acquired while she's in town, and he immediately begins following her around without her permission, and in fact directly in opposition to all of her wishes, for no reason at all.  Later, after they become involved, he basically shows up and says he's moving in with her.  Their total acquaintance?  A handful of days, at most.  Let me emphasize this for everyone: stalking is not sexy.  It is utterly terrifying, and should not be viewed at all as romantic.  Some books utilize otherwise nonromantic behaviors in a romantic way because the relationships are supposed to be twisted; however, that's not the case here, and Krentz seems to honestly put forth that Luke's behavior towards Irene is attractive and desirable.

And then there's Irene, who's supposed to be an intrepid reporter, but honestly is going on nothing.  The death of her parents was ruled a murder/suicide, which okay, she doesn't have to believe--that's her prerogative.  But there's absolutely no reason for her to believe that Pamela's death is anything but an accident or a suicide, and there's even less for her to go on from there.  Ultimately, of course, Irene is right--because otherwise there wouldn't be a book here--but there's no sense of logical progression in the crimes that form the backbone of this story.

The writing itself is fine, I guess, but Krentz relies on the sensational in order to sell the story and there isn't a lot to propel it along other than that.  The whole book just feels very "thin," from the characterizations of the hero, heroine, and antagonists, to the romance and the very plot itself.  There are some good scenes--a car chase along a winding road comes to mind, as does a confrontation with Luke's family, who were another annoying part of this book--but overall it was nothing to write home about and I don't intend to read any Krentz in the future.

2 stars out of 5.

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Wave - Susan Casey

9674788There is something utterly fascinating about the ocean and how little we know about it.  Fascinating, and completely terrifying, because have you ever witnessed an 1,800 foot high wave?  No?  Neither have I, and after this, I plan on avoiding the ocean for like, ever, because I don't want to! 

In this, Casey splits her attention in a few different directions to examine big waves in various contexts.  First, in a narrative she goes back to again and again, she follows surfers, particularly Laird Hamilton, as they attempt to surf bigger and bigger waves across the globe, with a lot of focus on Hawaii's "Jaws" surf spot.  Interwoven with the surfing, which is probably the easiest for the layperson to understand, she talks to scientists who study waves, salvagers who recover ships wrecked by huge waves, historians who look at
the big waves of the past--like the 1958 mega-tsunami in Alaska that I referenced in the first paragraph of this review--and other assorted "wave" personalities. 

What all of this underscores is that the ocean is really freaking scary, and it's likely to get even more so.  We actually know very, very little about how waves, particularly big waves, work--one of Casey's interview subjects points out that, after a certain size, waves kind of stop acting like water waves and start acting kind of like waves of light, which is totally weird.  We can't study them in their natural environment to any great degree because, as another interviewee pointed out, if you encounter a hundred-foot wave, you're probably trying to survive it, not measure it.  But we know that they occur much more often than we used to think they did, and that they're doing a lot of damage--like apparently sinking two shipping ships or tankers per week, and why is no one pointing that out???  I think Casey did a good job of pulling in all kinds of information that people don't really encounter about waves and the ocean, and by using the surfing as the core of the narrative, she focused a lot of the science into through a lens that a lot of us laypeople can understand.

I listened to this an audiobook, and the narrator, Kirsten Potter, was excellent.  She has a very conversational way of reading the book and, while some of her "surfer guy" impressions came off as very stereotypical and maybe even mildly offensive, she really made the book engaging.  I think this is one that would have been good in actual book form as well, but it was a good choice for audiobook!

Overall, I really enjoyed this.  It's a great science book about a topic that I don't think is really frequently covered in the "popular science" category.  Apparently Casey has written some other books that have serious ethical questions involved regarding her behavior in researching and writing them, but I really liked this one, didn't see any issues like that, and would recommend it to others.

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Stone Sky - N. K. Jemisin (The Broken Earth #3)

The Stone Sky (The Broken Earth, #3)N. K. Jemisin has come to the conclusion of her latest series with The Stone Sky, wrapping up her Broken Earth trilogy, which began with the Hugo-winning The Fifth Season.  While I absolutely loved The Fifth Season, I thought that the second book, The Obelisk Gate, fell victim to a serious case of second book syndrome with nothing really happening.  But by the end of the second book, things were shaping up in a mildly more-interesting direction, with main-character Essun's daughter, Nassun, entering the picture as a serious character in and of herself.

The pacing of this book is rather slow; a lot of it is the process of Essun and her new comm moving on from their now-unusable home and to another abandoned settlement.  Meanwhile, Nassun decides that she's going to destroy the world and sets about figuring out how to do it.  All of this takes a startling amount of the book, and a lot of the rest of it is padded out with a series of chapters that are, essentially, info-dumping on Hoa's past and how the world got to be the way it is.  This seems to have been a trope I've encountered in a few series lately--wait until the last book and then just infodump all of the background that wasn't really worked in elsewhere.  But the background focusing on Hoa means the first-person segments are expanded, so the book is pretty evenly divided between first-, second-, and third-person chunks, focusing on Hoa, Essun, and Nassun respectively.

Ultimately, this was not as good a book as the first one in the series was.  In the end, I felt like Jemisin had come full-circle back to her first book, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.  The way the narrative is structured is very similar, as are significant parts of the plot, even if the world-building and overall story are very different.  There is some really good characterization; Jemisin notes in her acknowledgements that she really struggled with the idea of motherhood in this series and this book in particular, and it shows in Essun's internal struggle regarding Nassun and her other children.  Hoa is given added dimension with his background, but I'm not entirely sure that it's worth the info-dumping, and a few other characters are characterized excellently but summarily written off, which had a very strange feel to it.

Overall, a book I enjoyed, definitely stronger than the second, but without the snap and sizzle of Jemisin's other series.

3 stars out of 5.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The King of Attolia - Megan Whalen Turner (The Queen's Thief #3)

The King of Attolia (The Queen's Thief, #3)The third book of The Queen's Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner, The King of Attolia continues in the third-person vein that the series switched to after the first book.  Additionally, it introduces a new protagonist, Costis; indeed, Eugenides, now the King of Attolia (and sometimes going by the "official" name of Attolis) only has a few, very brief sections that focus on him as the main character.  Instead, this has become Gen's story through Costis' eyes, as he seems to struggle to come to terms with his new role.  After all, if we can recall, Gen only took the role of king because he wanted to marry the queen, not because he actually wanted to rule.

I'm not sure if I'm a huge fan of this perspective shift.  The thing is, by now readers should know that Gen is a tricky character.  This means that, instead of seeing him as a bumbling fool for much of the book, as Costis does, I spent the duration squinting suspiciously and going, "What is he up to now...?"  And, of course, Gen is up to something.  Costis is an interesting point of view character because he resents Gen, just as much of Attolia does, but because we know Gen is up to something, he's not entirely convincing in his depiction of Gen as a bumbling fool.  Seeing Costis coming around is something of a paradigm shift, for the character rather than for the reader in this case, but honestly it just makes him, and the rest of Attolia, seem easily manipulated, rather than showing anything of Gen growing as a character.  And ultimately, this is still Gen's story--it is a series called The Queen's Thief, after all.

However, I think I did like this better than the second volume.  The relationship between Gen and Attolia/Irene is more believable here, and while the story is still very political in nature--with Gen apparently failing as a king--it was on a much smaller scale.  This is a story of intrigue and assassins rather than the movements of armies and navies, and I think it's a scale that was done much better than the preceding book.  If only the dynamic of Gen being incompetent could have been kept up, I think it would have been good...but two books of that was more than enough for readers to catch on that it's just a trick and to wise up to the ongoing deception.  With that in mind, I'm not sure how much longer this series will continue to be convincing.  The setting remains interesting, and there's clearly a rising of forces on the horizon, but without a compelling central character, it can't help but fall flat, and I'm not sure how much longer Gen can be compelling unless the dynamics are seriously switched up.

3 stars out of 5.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Cinder - Marissa Meyer (Lunar Chronicles #1)

11235712It feels a bit weird reviewing this book so long after I put out my first review on this series, for Cress.  I had read Cinder before, but I wasn't writing reviews at the time, and so this comes to anyone following along a bit out of order.  Cinder was the Unapologetic Romance Readers' theme read of "A sci-fi romance" for September 2017, and I was delighted to have an excuse to re-read it, especially as I'd been in a bit of a reading slump and going back to books I've previously enjoyed always helps with that.

Cinder is, as you can guess from the title and cover, a Cinderella story.  Except this Cinderella is a cyborg.  Injured in an accident she can't remember, Cinder has been left with a mechanical arm and lower leg/foot, with wires in her brain and nervous system and an interface that flashes information over her eyes.  She's also one of the best mechanics in New Beijing, and her business is her step-family's main (only?) source of income.  Oh, and New Beijing, and the rest of the world, are currently being ravaged by a plague with an unknown cause and no cure.  But one day, when Prince Kai stops by Cinder's stall to get an android repaired, Cinder is pulled into a web that she never imagined and that will destroy--or rebuild--her entire life.

I love this story so much.  It follows a very traditional Cinderella structure, but with little flourishes and garnishes that make it seem new.  The pumpkin coach is a decrepit car, the glass slipper is a cyborg foot.  The characters are also wonderful; while Meyer makes Cinder's stepmother absolutely loathsome, the daughters aren't entirely without redemption, particularly Peony, who Cinder actually likes.  And then, of course, there's Iko, Cinder's android sidekick who has a quirky, perky personality all her own.  Adding the plague and the brewing conflict between Earth and Luna adds dramatic tension to a story that traditionally lacks it, and having Prince Kai and Cinder meet and grow closer multiple times before the ball is absolutely necessary--the "love on first site" aspect of Cinderella has never sat well with me, so I appreciate this added relationship building.

That said, this isn't a perfect story.  It has a bit of a cliffhanger ending, which I didn't remember.  Given the narrative arc of the series as a whole, I can see why Meyer had to break it where she did, but it definitely doesn't lead to a satisfying conclusion for this volume.  And while the Cinderella element helps to tie together a story and genre that could otherwise alienate some readers--I probably wouldn't have normally picked up a story about a cyborg--it also means that, despite the flourishes, the plot itself can be quite predictable.  Of course, the story as a whole goes past the Cinderella story, but that doesn't mean that parts of it can't be called from a mile away.

Still, I really enjoyed rereading this.  It's not my favorite book in the series--that goes to Scarlet--nor does it feature my favorite main characters--that would be Cress--but I still think it was a solid intro volume, and would definitely recommend it to others.

4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Wild - Cheryl Strayed

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest TrailAnother audiobook down.  These are great for listening to while working on spreadsheets, guys!  This one drew me because it was on several recommendation lists; one for adventure-lovers, one for memoirs, and I think it was on a list of recommendations from the cast of something that I watched recently, but I'm not 100% sure on that last one.  The idea of a woman whose life is in shambles going on a twelve hundred mile hike and finding herself along the way appealed to me, and so off I went.

The narrator for this was good, and so is the book structure.  Strayed intersperses the parts about her journey on the trail with more biographical sections about her life before the hike.  Breaking it up like that is a wise decision, so that neither part seems like too much of a slog.  However, I felt like there was more pre-trail biographical material in here than was really needed.  She spent a lot of time re-hashing things that she had already gone over--yes, yes, she loved her mother and was devastated in the wake of her death.  This was a wrenching story the first time around, less the fifth or sixth time.  With all of this going over and over again, it really felt like the book ended up being the story of her pre-trail life interspersed with her trail life--that is, that the pre-trail life was the bulk of the book, and the hiking actually took up less of the book than one would think, given the title and cover of the book and how it begins, with a scene of Strayed losing one of her hiking boots over the edge of a cliff.

And here's something to keep in mind if you're planning on reading this book: Cheryl Strayed, at the time that she embarked on her adventure, was not necessarily a good person.  Her marriage had dissolved after she confessed to sleeping with a ton of people who were not her husband while they were married; she had substance abuse problems, including heroin.  Sometimes she acknowledges that she was not really a good person, nor was she in a good place before the hike; at other times, however, she tries to spin it off with a sort of "Hee hee!  Look how messed up and quirky I was!  Tee hee!" sort of tone, which annoyed me vastly.  Because that's the thing: if you're going to put your whole life out there for everyone to read, everyone gets to judge you for it.

As for the hiking portions of the book, not a lot actually goes on.  It becomes very quickly evident that Strayed was not prepared for the hike, which she freely admits.  There's a lot of suffering, toenails falling off, boots plaguing her, burning the pages of books as she reads them to lighten her pack, dubbed "Monster" for its size.  She sees a bull, bears, and rattlesnakes, but no mountain lions.  But mostly it's pretty much exactly what you can expect: a lot of walking.  The people she meets along the way are enjoyable, but for the most part this was a solitary journey for her, and that shoes.  It was definitely an adventure for her to live, but it perhaps doesn't shine quite as well when you're reading (or hearing) about it, especially years later.  Parts of it did make me want to go off and have a hiking adventure of my own--but other parts made me never want to leave the city again, though in an age of cell phones (and solar chargers) and GPS technology, it would no doubt be a very different experience from the one Strayed lived in 1995.

Overall, an amusing listen, but certainly not what I thought I was getting myself into (much like Strayed herself) and probably not something I would go back to, with the balance issues it has.

3 stars out of 5.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Slightly Tempted - Mary Balogh (Bedwyn Saga #4)

Slightly Tempted (Bedwyn Saga, #4)Finally, I found the book I was waiting for in this series.  After three disappointing volumes, fully half the series, I was almost ready to give up, but I wanted to read the book focusing on Morgan Bedwyn, because she had seemed like such an interesting character, different from the rest of Bedwyns.  I'm glad I stuck it out, because I really enjoyed this one.  Just like Morgan, this was different.

The beginning of the book finds Morgan in Brussels with the family of a friend, swept up in the social scene surrounding the buildup of armies in the wake of Napoleon's escape from Elba and return for the Hundred Days.  She's being courted by her friend's brother, something she inadvertently encouraged but wants to get out of.  She catches the attention of the Earl of Rosthorn, Gervase, both because of her looks and youth and because she's the Duke of Bewcastle's youngest sister--and Rosthorn and Bewcastle have beef that goes back nine years.  Wanting to start a scandal (really, this should have been titled Slightly Scandalous instead of Freyja's volume) to hurt Bewcastle, Rosthorn starts to court Morgan with the intention of dropping her like a hot potato after gossip starts circulating, but the encroaching war gets in the way and the two find themselves suddenly and truly close.

This is an age-gap romance (Rosthorn is twelve years older than Morgan) which is a bit strange, because Balogh really hammers that gap home, but I'm a bit more forgiving of that in the historical romance context, and I think the book makes up for it in so many ways.  The setting of Brussels in the shadow of the looming and then present war lent the first half of the book an atmosphere that the other books had so far lacked and gave the blooming relationship between Morgan and Rosthorn a snap and sizzle that was absent with the other couples.  And when the deception at the heart of the relationship is revealed, Morgan doesn't just crumple or throw a fit--she vows to get her own form of revenge, and despite her doubts forges ahead and ultimately manages to redeem the relationship.  The one thing that I didn't like here was how Rosthorn uses humor as a shield; while this is totally a thing, I felt like it's already been overused in this series, and therefore didn't do a good job distinguishing Rosthorn from the previous hero, Joshua.

Ultimately, this was such a great book in contrast to the preceding ones, and it's encouraged me to continue on with the series; there's only one more book before the other one I was looking forward to, Bewcastle's, and I'm interesting in seeing how they're going to deal with Alleyne coming "back from the dead," which is totally not a spoiler because clearly Alleyne is alive, he's the next book!

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Sing My Name - Ellen O'Connell

Sing My NameContinuing the 2017 Unapologetic Romance Readers' Reading Challenge, I picked up Sing My Name in hopes of fulling the category of a romance taking place in the antebellum, Civil War, or Reconstruction periods.  However, after reading it, I shifted it to another category I hadn't filled yet: the secret baby category.

The story here revolves around Sarah, a young woman travelling west to marry her fiance who is in the army, and Matt Slade, a man who was arrested for a murder he didn't commit.  When most of their travelling party is murdered by Comanches on the trail, Matt and Sarah escape and find themselves trying to survive in the wilds, and falling in love.  But when they finally make it back to civilization, it seems like their troubles have only just begun.

I've read another of O'Connell's books before, Eyes of Silver, Eyes of Gold, and I have to say I liked that better for one main reason: in Sing My Name, all of the romance happens in about the first quarter of the book.  After that, Matt and Sarah are separated for a good deal of the book, pining separately and going through separate travails, until they finally reunite but are still held apart by Matt's conviction that he's not good enough for Sarah.  Sigh.  That is my least favorite romance trope: the "I"m not good enough for you!" trope keeping the protagonists apart, rather than anything in their actual lives or environments.  O'Connell tries to throw in a few disapproving allies and townsfolk, but it's pretty clear what's keeping Matt and Sarah apart is ultimately Matt himself.  Additionally, there's Sarah's use of her child as an attempt to manipulate Matt into coming back to her.  While Sarah clearly loves her daughter and values her, she also uses her as a tool rather than as a person, leaving her raising mostly to other people except when Matt shows back up and Sarah decides to prove a point.  This is so underhanded and underlines another reason I don't really like child characters in novels.

Overall, this was an okay book.  The pacing was incredibly slow; while the beginning was good, when Sarah pretty much immediately decided she loved Matt, I knew that the remaining 75% of the book probably had unpleasantness in store, and it did indeed.  This definitely wasn't as good of a book as Eyes of Silver, Eyes of Gold, and if it had been the first of O'Connell's I'd read, I probably wouldn't bother with any other ones.  Sigh.

2 stars out of 5.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Voracious - Cara Nicoletti

Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way through Great BooksWhen I first saw Voracious' description, I thought it would be love at first read.  "A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way Through Great Books."  What more could a hungry reader who reads her way through great books want?  Well, the answer is apparently something other than Voracious, because while this book had nice parts, it wasn't really what I wanted.

Cara Nicoletti is a woman with a career in the food industry and a love of books.  Our love of books doesn't always overlap--I've only read a few of the books she covers in Voracious--but that didn't really matter to me.  What mattered to me was that she is also the author of the blog Yummy Books (last updated in 2015) and a blog is exactly what this book reads like.  This was my issue with What If? as well; it didn't read like new material, but like material that was just recycled into book form from the blog.  And here's the other thing: I like blogs, I like food, but I generally don't like food blogs.

Yes.  I said it.  Here's the thing.  For some reason, food blogs seem to have this thing about them that no other type of blog I've encountered has, and that's that food bloggers seem to feel the need to put deep and personal stories in front of all of their posts, when what I really want is just the recipe.  My favorite food blog, Budget Bytes, falls into this pitfall as well, though maybe not to the same degree as other ones.  As you've probably gathered from the preceding sentence, I don't particularly care about these personal stories.  And that was exactly the case here.  I really liked the parts of this book where Nicoletti dug into the books she talked about, showed how food played into them and how the characters in the books used food in their lives, or abhorred it.  But I didn't particularly like the stories about Nicoletti's life.  While her life in the food industry and in New York in general was no doubt interesting in its own way, it was the very last thing I was looking for in a book about food and other books, and consequently it did not hit the right note here.  I think this book might actually be aimed at people who already read and liked Nicoletti's blog, and were just looking for some new material in the book, other than an entirely new audience.

Overall, I'm just not convinced that blogs made into books are a good market.  They just seem to lack something that books actually conceived as books seem to have, and I haven't yet found one that's really worked.  So, while I liked the actually bookish parts of this and some of the recipes definitely seemed intriguing, the book as a whole didn't really agree with me.

2 stars out of 5.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Mornings in Jenin - Susan Abulhawa

Mornings in JeninHm...  After finishing Mornings in Jenin, I'm not entirely sure what to think.  I'm conflicted about it, which seems suitable, because it is a book of conflict.  Centering largely around Amal, a Palestinian refugee, over the course of her life between the refugee camp of Jenin, an orphanage in Jerusalem, Philadelphia, Lebanon, and then some more of the same.  Amal always seems to find herself in the center of whatever conflict is brewing between Israelis and Palestinians, and I keep coming back to this in reflecting on the book, because I ultimately had one big problem with it: it's very heavy handed.

The Israel/Palestine conflict is one that I don't want to get into, because quite frankly I don't want to start a fire.  However, Abulhawa mentions in her afterword that someone said to her once that Palestinian literature is greatly lacking in presence in the Western world, which is one of the reasons she wrote Mornings in Jenin.  I certainly agree with that, but in trying to right that, I think Abulhawa might have tried a bit too hard and shoved too much into one book.  I felt for Amal, but towards the end of the book I found a thought crossing my mind: What a lovely piece of propaganda. It's not actually propaganda, of course, but Abulhawa spends much of the book beating readers over the head with one message: Israel and Israelis are evil.  There are only two exceptions to this, but they're also not really exceptions.  Ismael/David isn't evil, but he's really Palestinian.  And Ari isn't evil, but he is what Abulhawa describes as a "self-hating Jew," and so is on the outside of Israeli civilization anyway.  Meanwhile, the Palestinian characters are all, all, pretty much flawless.  Even the characters who initially seem flawed, such as being cold or distant, are later excused as just loving too much.

The book also has a weird quirk where it lurches between tenses and perspectives; Amal is followed in both first and third person, as is her brother Yousef, and the transitions between the sections aren't always or even often smooth.  Meanwhile, parts of the narrative jump between present and past tense, which helps to compound the confusion, as does the jumping between past and present in the narrative itself.

That's not to say that I didn't enjoy the book.  As I said before, I felt for Amal, for her constant adrift-ness in the world and for the tragedies she kept facing.  I cried at the end of the book--I am a sucker for a good death scene, though in this case it was more the funeral that got to me.  But I admit I was still a little judgey towards Amal at this point, thinking, You knew what it was like, what could happen--how could you in good conscience take your daughter there?  I liked the eventual re-entry of David/Ismael into the picture, but found how easy it was somewhat questionable.  And the final bit of the book...hmmmm.  It kind of seemed like acrobatics to make the narrative fit the facts of history.

Overall, this was a book that I think has an important place in its genre and in literature in general.  However, it was heavy-handed and had problems with the narrative structure.  The emotion is there and there's a sincerity to the whole story that resonates throughout the entire book, but I'm not sure that it overcame the other problems and I just couldn't bring myself to enjoy this as a story, even as a tragic one (which is, of course, its own sort of melancholy enjoyment).

2 stars out of 5.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Rabid - Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical VirusRabies is a terrifying but absolutely fascinating disease.  Pretty much the only disease guaranteed to kill you--more people have survived Ebola than rabies--it's been around for as long as civilization has and has also lurked close to humanity because one of one of its main carries, dogs.  In Rabid, Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy go not into the science of rabies, though they touch on it, but into the cultural history of rabies, including how it's inspired works of fiction in genres of literature and horror.

The book starts with a quick overview of rabies as it exists in our culture today--a looming threat of twenty shots in the stomach that's not true of all--touches on Louis Pasteur and his team's work to create a vaccine, and then dives into the first chapter, taking us all the way back to ancient times and touching on lyssa, a sort of rabid rage that pops up in The Iliad.  Wasik and Murphy aren't arguing that Paris, who lyssa refers to in the original Greek, is actually rabid, but more that the sort of rage that consumed him was the type that was seen in rabid animals, drawing evidence that rabies existed even back then.  A Sumerian joke adds to the argument.  From there, they work their way forward in time, through dog cullings, the evolution of vampire and werewolf myths and werewolf trials, how it's affected zombies (fast zombies, distinct from slow zombies that are more true to their origins in voodoo), and so on.  While parts of this were fascinating, I found myself wondering if it was quite so necessary to spend so long on the pop culture when there's really a lot more to "culture" in general than werewolfs, vampires, and zombies.  The final chapter, about a recent rabies epidemic in dogs in Bali, was more intriguing to me, because it dug into not only how rabies spread, but how it was maintained in Bali because of the relationship people had with their animals.  In the conclusion, they go into the potential that rabies has to be a tool of use instead of evil.  They also touch on the treatments for rabies, which, if you miss the vaccine, is pretty much only one and has only been "successful" six times, if you count "successful" as "didn't die from rabies, but died of other complications, remained in a vegetative state, or had serious other impairments," with only two people actually recovering.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and the narration was good, but having it in audio form really hammered home how much time the authors spend recounting various vampire and werewolf encounters, relating the plots of zombie movies, and things like that.  It seemed like, for much of history, they didn't really have a lot of "cultural history" of rabies to pull on, so they used up pages by relating every detail they could dig up for the instances they did have.  Consequently, if you're not interested in vampires, werewolves, or "fast" zombies, it can be a bit of a drag.  Rabies influenced these genres?  Interesting.  An hour of records of every supposed vampire or werewolf encounter?  Not as interesting.  I guess I was looking for something that did have a little more science behind it; we still don't know a ton about rabies, but that's been the case for much of history with supposed "cures" ranging from the ridiculous to the downright dangerous, and I think I was looking for some idea of how culture had lent itself to these, more than just myths and legends.  The actual science parts of this book were so much more interesting than the recitations of myths and extended quotes of records and the science didn't feel like filler, unlike the numerous examples for the "cultural" bits.  I think the culture was interesting, but there was a bit of "beating the dead horse" here, and that was frustrating.

Overall, a decent book, and I liked it, but I was hoping it would have a bit more substance than it actually did.

3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Waking Land - Callie Bates

The Waking LandSigh.  What a disappointment this one was.  Recommended for people who liked Uprooted, which I loved, I found that it ultimately fell flat and felt more like the conclusion to a series, or at least a middle book, than it did a first book.

The story follows Elanna Valtai, who is taken hostage by the king of her country in exchange for her parents' good behavior after the foiling of a rebellion they were attempting to foment.  Raised by the king like his second daughter, Elanna has become fiercely loyal to king and country and scores her home province, her family that never came for her, etc.  Until the king dies under mysterious circumstances, Elanna is framed for the murder, and she throws everything she's ever loved out the window not to clear her name, but instead to support the very rebellion she scorned for so long and to embrace the magic she's always hated.

There is absolutely no consistency in Elanna's character.  Yes, she is nineteen and some allowances can be made; but she flipflops between causes and decisions and abandons things she's loved and believed in her entire life so easily.  She has no constancy in her character and it made me really dislike her as a heroine.  I loved the idea of her magic, of her waking the land to go win it back for her people, but the way it was done just felt rushed.  There are so many different possibilities Bates jumps between here, but she abandons them without developing them and left me wondering why they were introduced in the first place.  This also affected the pacing, making it seem like a sprint for the finish instead of a slow building and developing of characters and world.  There is so much potential here, but the jumpiness of the story meant that much of it was left undeveloped and underutilized.  And the side characters!  While Elanna's countrymen are wonderful, for some reason Elanna is one of those characters that everyone falls in love with, even though she's absolutely horrible.

This was such a frustrating book to read because I just kept wanting it to be more.  More developed, more thought out, with more consistent characters--all of it.  There was so much cool stuff in here, but it was never really brought out and used in the ways that would have best highlighted it, and it felt like Bates was trying to stuff three books' worth of plot into one, which didn't work out.

2 stars out of 5.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Slightly Wicked - Mary Balogh (Bedwyn Saga #2)

Slightly Wicked (Bedwyn Saga, #2)After the Unapologetic Romance Readers group read Slightly Married for one of our July reads, I thought I might as well continue on with the series, as some of the other side characters seemed interesting.  Unfortunately, the hero of this book, Rannulf, wasn't one of them.  He wasn't nearly as prominent in the first book as some of the other Bedwyn siblings, so I was a bit disappointed to see the second book was about him; I might have liked him more if there'd been more of an intro to him in the first book.

The plot here follows Rannulf, of course, and our heroine is Judith Law.  Judith has been exiled from her family home to go serve as a poor relation to her aunt, because Judith's brother has run up bills that are driving her father into poverty.  On the way to her aunt's, the stagecoach Judith is traveling in overturns and the passengers are stranded.  Rannulf comes along and offers to fetch help, and to take Judith with him to another town; she agrees, wanting a bit of adventure, and immediately makes up an alternate identity--as does Rannulf.  The two have a brief, steamy affair, and then part ways...only to find out that they're to be neighbors, which also leads to them discovering each others' true identities.  Oh, and Judith's aunt is trying to marry Judith's cousin off to Rannulf, a plan that his ailing grandmother supports.  Drama ensues.

Ultimately, the problem with this book is that neither Rannulf nor Judith is that interesting of a person.  Judith is a long-suffering young woman resigned to being a spinster and suffering for her family, who tell her that she's ugly and that men leering at her is because she's doing something wrong, though clearly it's only because she's gorgeous.  And Rannulf is a long-suffering young man who wants to party but has decided to settle down and make his grandmother happy.  His family, who are full of colorful characters, also isn't very present here.  The side characters, instead of running the whole gamut from amusing to annoying like they did in the first book, are instead just insufferable.  Judith's entire family deserved a good punch to the face with the exception of her grandmother, who instead just deserved a slap.  Rannulf's grandmother was equally tedious.  There's a sub-plot here involving Judith's brothers debts and a lecherous step-cousin, but it's not enough to salvage a story full of boring characters.  And because Judith and Rannulf hook up so early in the story, there's no real tension there to pull the story forward, either.

Ultimately, this was a boring second book, and it manages to suffer from second book syndrome in a series that doesn't even have a continuous plot.  It's not terrible, but there's nothing there to make it really sparkle.  The first book was good, but clearly served a launch for the rest of the family characters, and this one is boring.  Hopefully the third book will be better or this might be a series that I'll be abandoning.

2 stars out of 5.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Heads in Beds - Jacob Tomsky

Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called HospitalityHeads in Beds was my latest foray into the audiobook world, because it seemed to fit what I needed perfectly--something not too heavy, easy to tune in and out of without losing a major thread, and with a good narrator, who in this case was the author himself.  Tomsky has worked in hotels for years and, as he states in the beginning of the book, has disassembled them all and re-assembled them into two hotels for the purpose of the narrative.  One hotel is in New Orleans, and the other in New York City.  He's also changed names, including his own, and conglomerated some people, made up a few scenarios in order to demonstrate general rules of working in hotels that he might not have remembered a distinct incident to illustrate the point for.

Overall, this is pretty amusing.  Tomsky has worked in a few different areas of hotels, and in this book he talks about his time as valet, front desk worker, and a lower-level manager in housekeeping.  He suffers burn out, just like we all do, and it becomes clear in the end of the book that he pretty much wrote the book on a three-week bender in a fury after being fired from one position.  However, that doesn't eliminate the appeal of the rest of the book, which for the most part is written in a lighthearted long as you can be pretty sure that you're not one of the people he's talking about in the book, in specifics or in stereotype.  Having never actually checked myself into a hotel--geeze, I can't remember the last time I stayed in a hotel--I was pretty safe on that front, though now I have a handy arsenal of tricks filed away in my head for the next time I do have to stay in a place that's not mine or my family's or an Airbnb.  Hint: it involves carrying plenty of cash and being willing to give it out freely.  Allotting an extra $100 probably wouldn't go astray, in various denominations for doormen, bellhops, front desk attendants, etc.

Of course, many of the things that people suspect go on in hotels are confirmed--employees slurping from the minibars, discriminating against you because you booked via Expedia instead of direct, etc.  But he firmly maintains that some of the things that people claim happen really don't, such as housekeepers stealing from guests, and honestly, why would they?  His pictures of entitled guests and stuck-up management are spot-on, as someone who has worked in an extremely unpopular arm of service, aka the front desk person in a parking enforcement office. (Ask me about the time we honestly thought a guy was going to leave and come back to shoot up the place.  Go on.)  So no, you definitely don't have to have worked in hotels to empathize with this memoir; you really just have to have worked in any job where a portion of the population you work with feels entitled to treat you like garbage, which is pretty much every job.

Overall, an enjoyable listen.  Sometimes Tomsky does come across as an asshole, and I strongly suspect that he's casting aspersions on people who really didn't mean anything bad some of the time.  After all, not everyone is aware of "the rules" of staying in hotels, especially because those rules don't seem to have changed even while many of our other social contracts have.  I would not doubt at all that millennials are particularly egregious at this hotel stuff, because that's just not how we work.  But there are some good stories, some good lessons, and some good wince-worthy moments (yes, that's a thing) that shine, and this was definitely worth the time.

4 stars out of 5.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Plainsong - Kent Haruf (Plainsong #1)

Plainsong (Plainsong, #1)Plainsong was the September book for discussion in the Deliberate Reader Book Club.  After the train wreck that August's book, The Diamond Age: or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer was, I was glad to see that something was going to be a bit more, ah, tuned down.  The story of a small town in Colorado seemed like that would fit the bill.

This is definitely a character-driven book focusing on a handful of people in the town of Holt, Colorado.  The book also tries to be artsy, by doing one of those things where the author is apparently too good for dialogue punctuation marks.  I find that extremely irritating, and it almost made me put down the book; I only continued reading it because I wanted to be able to take part in the discussion in case anything interesting came up.

The main characters in Holt are Guthrie, his sons Ike and Bobby, and teenager Victoria.  Other characters are the McPheron brothers and Maggie, and occasionally Gutrhie's wife Ella.  Guthrie is a teacher and Ella is depressed and their marriage is falling apart, which clearly impacts their children.  Guthrie is also dealing with a troublesome student in his school.  Victoria, on the other hand, is pregnant from a boy she was seeing over the summer and who has since ditched her, and her mother throws her out of the house and casts her adrift on the town's mercies.

I greatly preferred Victoria's part of the book to any of the other characters.  Watching her adjust to her new life and slowly building a relationship with the McPheron brothers was a real example of character growth, as opposed to Guthrie who seemed to be just running in place.  Ike and Bobby didn't interest me much and their parts mostly seemed like filler, just to show that there were children involved to begin with.  I actually did like Ella; though she's not very present and doesn't seem like a good mother, I could empathize with what was her struggle with depression.  It wasn't that she didn't want to be a good wife or mother or functional human being in her own right, because she clearly did, but she just couldn't.  And she knew that remaining in Holt wasn't going to help her, so she had to leave.  I liked that Haruf didn't seem to shame her for this, but just portrayed it as it was.

One thing to keep in mind is that there's not much of a plot here to follow; this is evidently a series, though it's a strange book to be a series, and there might be some sort of large, overarching plot involved across the multiple books, but there's nothing really driving the story forward as an episodic story in this single volume.  This means that, while some of the people were enjoyable to read about, the book wasn't riveting.  I could put it down easily and sometimes found myself paging ahead to find out when Victoria's next section would begin.  And honestly, the cover here seems perfect for the book: dim and gray, much like Holt and the book itself, with Victoria's red purse and the McPherons' red cow being the only splashes of color in the whole book.

Overall, this was an enjoyable book for what it was, but I didn't find it to be anything extraordinary.  The lack of dialogue punctuation drove me to frustration--there's really no need for that.  I don't think I'll continue with the series, but it was fine for a book club book, and a welcome slowdown from last month's Book of Crazy.

3 stars out of 5.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Heart's Invisible FuriesAnyone who's thinking of reading this book might want to read up on the Bury Your Gays page on TV Tropes, but for those who don't want to or don't have the time, let me sum it up for you: it's quite the cliche in works of fiction that gay characters don't deserve happy endings, and that's basically this book summed up.

Following Cyril Avery from before his birth through to just a few months before his death in seven-year increments, the story is basically that of how a gay man born in 1945 Ireland just after the end of World War II is utterly undeserving of happiness.  Cyril is, of course, not actually undeserving of happiness, but Boyne seems to think he is, and rains down a lifetime of woes upon him.  While Ireland is a country that has traditionally been extremely conservative because of strong Catholic influences, not all of the book takes place there, and yet even in the parts that don't, Cyril is pursued by a cloud of ill fortune.  Just when you think things are starting to look up for Cyril, something else slams down, and usually a succession of somethings.  This is supposed to be spun as a story of the endurance of the human spirit, but really it comes off as another story of, "Oh, isn't it tragic to be gay and to never be able to find true love, or hold it if you do?"

Here's the thing: if this book had just been the first part, I totally would have been onboard with this, tropey as it is, because of the time and place.  1940s to 1960s Ireland was not a great place to be a gay person, particularly a gay man.  It's not that hard to see that.  And if the story had been about Cyril persevering through these conditions to find fulfillment in some way--it didn't necessarily have to be romantically--it would have been good.  But once the story moved on to later times and to places that were more accepting, such as Amsterdam and New York (albeit during the period when AIDs was terrifying the populace) the amount of punishment Boyne heaped on Cyril for being gay and then for accepting who he was seemed utterly excessive.

That said, there were pieces of this that I liked.  We can infer early on in the story that Cyril eventually finds out who his birth mother is, even though he's raised by adoptive parents and constantly told that he's "not a real Avery."  But seeing Cyril and his mother frequently and unwittingly cross paths was charming and a way to keep the narrative going, sometimes drawing in other past characters to reinforce the story's "web."  I liked the scope of the story in its journey through times and place, and the wide variety of characters that Boyne brought in.  But the overall tone of the story seriously struck a wrong note with me, and that's something that I can't really let slide, and honestly I'm disappointed that Book of the Month put this out as a selection.

2 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Heartburn - Nora Ephron

HeartburnThis book is essentially the epitome of chick-lit.  Dating back to the 80s, it's apparently semi-autobiographical; the main character, Rachel, is pregnant when she finds out that her second husband is having an affair, which evidently parallels some points of Ephron's own life.  I've never actually seen a Nora Ephron movie, at least not all the way through, and had no idea who she was before starting this, so this is my first real judgment of her.  And it wasn't pretty.

Heartburn reads not so much as a novel or a story as a long, rant-y journal entry that goes on and on and on about being Jewish, the lack of delicatessens in Washington, DC, hatred for Washington (the city, not the government) in general, and basically about how awesome Rachel is and how scummy her husband and his mistress are.  Rachel writes cookbooks, or books that involve recipes, for a living, and also appears on TV to demo said recipes.  Recipes are spattered throughout the book but the really good-sounding ones, like the bagels and lox and eggs, aren't given; instead she gives recipes for stuff like crispy potatoes.  But the main thing that dragged this book down for me was that I didn't like Rachel.  Yes, being pregnant and finding out that your spouse is cheating on you would suck.  But Rachel knew her husband was a cheater before she even married him; this wasn't the first time he'd had an, erm, indiscretion.  Cheaters gonna cheat, girl, and you should have known what you were getting into--especially because it was the second marriage this had happened to, though she wasn't pregnant in the first one.  And, though I allow that she's upset, she deals with her emotions like a passive-aggressive child rather than a functional adult.  For example, she notes that she and her husband keep their finances separate, all the time, and yet when he doesn't pay for her plane ticket, she gets pissed off at him.

Meryl Streep reads the audiobook edition of this and, while she is an excellent narrator, even she can't make Rachel truly likable.  I was glad that the book ended the way it did, because at least it showed some backbone, but honestly I just didn't like it overall.  Apparently it's also a movie that Meryl Streep stars in as Rachel, which is a good deal better than the book.  I should hope so; the book itself is vapid and eye-roll-worthy and isn't even really good as a trashy beach read, which is what it had been recommended to me as by the folks over at Buzzfeed.  Liars, Buzzfeed.  Liars.  Meryl Streep is too excellent to waste on a vapid movie, so I hope my fellow reviewers are right about the quality of the movie over the book.  It just feels like Ephron wanted to vent about this failing of her marriage--but that doesn't mean she had to put it out there for everyone to read.  Additionally, there's some incredibly racist stuff in here--she actually refers to a Latin American woman as a "refried taco," which is just--really?

2 stars out of 5, and that's mostly for the recipes that were included and how Ephron talks about food in general.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Queen Heir - Jaymin Eve and Leia Stone (NYC Mecca #1)

Queen Heir (NYC Mecca #1)Queen Heir was the monthly book pick for the Unapologetic Romance Readers on Goodreads, though it probably wasn't best-suited for the group because it's not really a romance; the romantic interest doesn't even show up on the page until almost halfway through the book.  It focuses on Arianna, one of the heirs of the wolf-shifter queen in New York, who finds herself fighting for the crown after the queen is murdered.

Arianna is pretty much insufferable.  She is, of course, gorgeous.  She has platinum blond hair and gorgeous eyes but oh, her dad might have been Polynesian so she has dark eyebrows and eyelashes even though otherwise she is pale, pale, pale!  She is the strongest of the heirs, has the best familiar (and the only one that is a wolf), is the best at fighting, the best at magic, the best the best the best.  And the only one who can solve the queen's murder!

The writing here is very clunky and the world building is scattered at best.  For example, the authors once use "ferreted" instead of "ferried," and the magic system was apparently created by the Tuatha De Danann, which makes no sense.  Why not, you ask?  Well, for starters, the Tuatha De Danann are a "race" of Irish/Celtic god-like beings, who the authors here instead label as fae.  But they're specifically linked to Ireland.  Here, the authors decide that New York conveniently has a magic system called "the mecca," which again, good job for either mis-appropriating religious aspects or not understanding what words really mean, which was created by the Tuatha De hundreds of years before humans were there and which conveniently aligns exactly with New York's buroughs.  And can be used for teleportation.  Oh, yes.  They also appear to be lumping together the Tuatha De Danann, who are traditionally considered "good," with the Fomoire, who are generally bad.  Either that or they can't tell the difference between these groups and the Sidhe, which are related to but not the same as the Tuatha De Danann, and are more along the lines of what people sometimes call the "Seelie and Unseelie" faeries.  All of this can be gleaned from a quick perusal of Wikipedia, so I'm not really sure there's an excuse for butchering things this badly.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love adaptations of mythology that are twisted up and made new, but most authors at least try to do it with some respect for and understanding of the sources they're pulling on, rather than just going, "Oh hey, that sounds cool, let's do it!" and diving in without any preliminary research or handling source material without any semblance of tact.  Combined with the annoying main character and the sub-par writing, which was also rife with info-dumping, this book was pretty blah.  The pretty cover lured me in, and I liked Kade quite a bit, but I don't think there were enough redeeming qualities in Kade to keep the rest of the series on the top of my interest list.  I think I'd probably be better of going back to the Kate Daniel books for a paranormal romance featuring a sexy shapeshifter.

2 stars out of 5.

Monday, August 28, 2017

In the Heart of the Sea - Nathaniel Philbrick

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship EssexThe story that inspired Moby Dick (which no, I have not read), the sinking of the Essex, a whaleship out of Nantucket, seems like something that could only have been made up.  A whale sinks a ship designed to hunt it and the crew are left as castaways in a trio of boats for three months, sailing around the Pacific with dwindling rations and deteriorating vessels, succumbing to despair, dehydration, starvation, and eventually resorting to cannibalism so that some of the crew may survive.

Nathaniel Philbrick uses two main narratives written by survivors, first mate Owen Chase and cabin bow Thomas Nickerson, to construct the main story here, though he also relies on other resources, such accounts of the story told by Captain George Pollard, letters that were written, and other documents from the time.  He provides context of what life was like in Nantucket at the time, some history of the Essex--which was known as an unusually lucky ship, prior to its ill-fated prior journey which seemed plagued by bad luck from the start--as well as information on what happened after the survivors of the wreck were rescued.  At first, I thought that the narrative was ending remarkably early, but all of that information on what came after was so important to showing the slide of affairs in the whaling industry and to, ultimately, make the tale more believable.  For example, no ship had ever been sunk by a sperm whale prior to the Essex, at least not that anyone knew of--but Philbrick includes information on how, in the decades after the Essex sank, whalers reported that whales were becoming scarier, and several other ships were sunk or heavily damaged by whales.

Apparently I'm super into survival stories recently, since this is the second one in a row I've tackled, after Unbroken (yes, the reviews sometimes show up out of order based on how I schedule them!) and I have Robinson Crusoe lined up for the near future, as well--though that one is fiction.  But it's interesting to see the differences between them; for example, while both this and Unbroken are stories of survival and both feature exiles at sea, In the Heart of the Sea seems to come across as more realistic than Unbroken, even though the circumstances are so much more extraordinary.  It definitely has something to do with the writing; Philbrick's seems so much more matter-of-fact than Hillenbrand's, which felt more sensational.  I do think this one was actually referenced in Unbroken, which might have been what put it in my head to begin with.  Additionally, I did this one as an audiobook; the narrator was excellent for this and I think really contributed to the overall feel of the story.  And it was a piece of history that I hadn't been familiar with, though I had heard of it before, so learning about it was great!  The denouement was a bit long-winded, even including all of the excellent extra information, but I think that was probably the book's only big detractor.

Overall, I really liked this one; I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in history, nonfiction, survival stories, any of that!

4 stars out of 5.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Unbroken - Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and RedemptionUnbroken was my latest audiobook, following Missoula as a selection to listen to while walking to and from work some days and while running.  It had been on my to-read list for a while, but wasn't high-priority, so it seemed like a good audiobook choice.  It's the story of Louis Zamperini, an American bombardier in World War II who competed in the 1936 Olympics as a runner, was expected to be the first person to break the four-minute mile, and who ultimately survived the crash of his plane, an extended time in a life raft, sharks, and a series of prison camps in Japan and its territories, including under the reign of a nightmare of a man known to the prisoners as The Bird.  There's also a little nod to Hillenbrand's other book, Seabiscuit--namely that, upon seeing Louis run, someone said that Seabiscuit was the only one that could beat him.

It's an incredible story; Louis had a bit of a misspent youth, and his brother (who was sometimes his co-conspirator, though Louis seemed to be the only one to ever get caught) helped straighten him out by turning him into a runner.  Louis ended up competing in the 5,000 meter event in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, running in an event that he'd only practiced a few times before his arrival in Germany.  Though he didn't medal, he seemed to be set for the next Olympics as a competitor for the mile--until the US was pulled into World War II and Louis was drafter into the Army Air Force, where he'd briefly enlisted before.  When his plane crashed during a search and rescue mission, Louis and two crewmates survived and found themselves stranded in a life raft that was abysmally poorly provisioned; the three men only had two bars of chocolate and a few cans of fresh water.  Eventually, two of them survived to be picked a Japanese ship, and they promptly became prisoners of war, except without any of the rights accorded to prisoners of war by the Geneva Convention.  Spending time in three different prison camps and never registered with the Red Cross, Louis was lost; his family thought he was dead, and at times, he probably wished he was.

This is a truly amazing story, but I'm ultimately not sure that "Unbroken" is a good title for it.  Louis survived his imprisonment, yes, but he was very, very broken after it.  With a nasty case of PTSD that led him into alcoholism, an obsession with finding and killing The Bird, and nightmares that once had him waking up strangling his wife, Louis certainly didn't walk away from his imprisonment in Japan "unbroken."  Additionally, while it's certainly a story of survival and resilience, I'm not entirely sure where "redemption" plays into it, unless you're counting it as in "The Redeemed Captive" sense, where it means being brought back.  Louis didn't really have anything to be redeemed from; is Hillenbrand trying to get at his religious conversion and eventual comeback from his PTSD, at least to some extent?  Because that's not something that he really needed to be "redeemed" from.  So, yes, probably not the best titling there.

It's an intriguing book and story of survival, but it does drag on a bit.  Every single detail that Hillenbrand seems to have been able to unearth is listed here; every beating, every beating that other prisoners suffered, multiple accounts of how Louis' family was pining away in America for him, though nothing ever changed between these sidebars until it was discovered Louis was, in fact, alive.  Additionally, the final part of the book that detailed Louis' life after the war seemed to drag on.  It really hammers home that PTSD is not a "new" thing, as some people make it out to be, but it also goes into sometimes agonizing detail about what The Bird was up to and how he didn't feel responsible for his actions or that said actions were really bad to begin with.  I understand wanting to have the story be "complete," but it seemed so much slower and dragged on so much more than the earlier parts of the book.  This clearly isn't the "main" story and I feel like it could have been wrapped up in a much shorter section than it was truly given.  It was probably meant to hammer on the "redemption" theme that Hillenbrand was apparently going for, but I really wasn't feeling it.

Overall, this was a good book, but it's nothing I'd be reaching for again.  The pacing was strange and it sometimes seemed over-sensationalized; it was an amazing story on its own, so it didn't really need all of the "look at how amazing this is!" hammering that Hillenbrand laid on it.  It's also not a story of someone remaining unbroken; everyone has a breaking point, everyone, and Louis definitely hit his during his captivity.  His survival was remarkable, but I think Hillenbrand actually blew it up and made it too "larger than life" for it to come off as sincere here.

3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Grin and Beard It - Penny Reid (Winston Brothers #1)

Grin and Beard It (Winston Brothers, #2)I confess: I only read this book because I wanted to read the one after it.  The second book in the Winston Brothers series, the hero in this one is Jethro, the oldest of the brothers and the one who, despite his checkered past, interested me the least.  While the heroine, Sienna, seemed promising, I really really wanted to read more about Cletus!  But he's the subject of the third book, and so I had to get through this one first.

Sienna is a plus-sized actress and script writer who is in Tennessee filming her latest movie, which she both wrote and is starring in.  Unfortunately, Sienna has a terrible sense of direction and ends up stranded on a mountain road, only to be rescued by Jethro.  The two are immediately attracted to each other, though Jethro has no idea who Sienna is, and even ends up under the impression that her name is Sarah.  But having someone interested in for her for reasons other than her fame is one of the things that makes Jethro attractive to Sienna.  The mistaken identity thing does get sorted out fairly quickly, but it also puts a wedge between them, as does the morass of people surrounding them and thinking their relationship is/would be a bad idea--mostly on Sienna's side.

They of course have chemistry, Reid's couples always do, and I appreciated a character with Sienna's background--she's Latina and a female comedian and plus-sized to boot, and while she appreciates that she's blazing a trail, she also just kind of wants to be left alone, as her life is running her ragged.  She's an atypical heroine, and that was nice to see.  But I honestly just didn't find her and Jethro to be that interesting.  I think too much about Jethro was already hammered out in other books, whether it be Truth or Beard or Beauty and the Mustache, and so there wasn't a ton of interesting stuff left to learn about him.  Sure, we found out he likes to do woodworking, but that was pretty much it.  His lasting guilt and Dark Past had already been established and we'd already seen his path to redemption, so that didn't really add anything to this story.  Sienna brought light and sparkle, but there wasn't a lot else going on and that meant she had a lot of lifting to do essentially on her own, and I'm not convinced she entirely pulled it off.

For me, this was a book to conquer to get on to another one, but I still had hopes for it.  Unfortunately, it also felt like a book that had to be gotten through in order to move on to bigger and better things.  Did I like it?  Yeah.  But it's not one I'd be going back to, and I think I can breathe easy knowing Jethro will now be relegated to side-character status once again.

3 stars out of 5.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Ash and Quill - Rachel Caine (The Great Library #3)

Ash and Quill (The Great Library #3)
No one with a book is ever alone, even in the darkest moments.

Oh dear.  Oh dear oh dear oh dear.  You know that point where a series starts to go downhill?  A series that you absolutely love?  That you want to succeed more than anything in the world?  I think this might be that point in this series.  Here's the thing.  Ink and Bone was amazing.  Paper and Fire was great.  But Ash and Quill?  It was...good.  And that's all.

This picks up right where the second book left off, with Jess and his band of misfits appearing in Philadelphia, the main Burner stronghold in the American Colonies, after fleeing the Library in Europe.  This change of setting had great promise, but unfortunately the book didn't really deliver.  Jess and his friends spend probably half the book imprisoned in Philadelphia, plotting their escape, and the other half of the book fleeing Philadelphia and trapped in a second location, which they also must plot to escape.  Their plan to fight against the Great Library does not really go anywhere.  Thomas and Jess build not one, but two printing presses.  They build a weapon.  They survive Greek fire attacks on Philadelphia by the High Garda.  There's a sense of pieces moving in the larger world beyond the characters, such as the revolt of several countries, but the main characters don't actually accomplish much, and that leaves this book feeling very much like filler--a third book suffering from second book syndrome, if you will.

The sense of world here is still wonderful, but our characters, with one exception, seem to have stagnated.  Jess and most of his band have failed to evolve in the face of their new circumstances.  They are not allied with the Library or the Burners, but want a middle path, and so find themselves surrounded by enemies.  But Morgan, Jess' love interest and the one possessing magical powers in the group, is the only one who seems ready to rise and twist and change to suit the things that arise in their paths.  Additionally, while the world itself is still interesting Philadelphia is not as riveting a location as Alexandria, Rome, London, etc. have been in the series.  It's pretty much stuck in colonial times, with a few exceptions, and without many of the library technologies seen throughout the rest of the world.  It's a city under siege, but this is never really examined and the city seems to lack the depth of the other locales.  And I'm a bit concerned about the end; it seems very likely the group is going to split up and the next book will need to include multiple perspectives rather than sticking with just Jess, and that seems like it could get messy quickly.

I liked this book, but I didn't love it.  It didn't keep me turning pages or gasping for the next one at the end--a good thing, I guess, since the next one probably won't be out until around this time next year, but a bit disappointing at the same time because it just didn't have the same sparkle as the other volumes did.  The diverse cast remains a draw, but I wish they'd grow a bit more as characters instead of remaining essentially the same people we met in the first book.  Some changes came about in the second book, but in this one... None.  This one wasn't bad, but I do still hope that the next one will be better.

3 stars out of 5.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

American Lightning - Howard Blum

American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood & the Crime of the CenturyOkay, I'm going to come out and say it: this book was kind of a drag.  Especially for a book that promises to be about "Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century."  Ostensibly, it's about the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building, the bombings that came before and after it, the hunt for the criminals, the trial...and a guy who makes movies?  What?  Where the connection?  Well, here's the answer: there isn't one.

Now, that's not 100% true.  The private detective who worked on the bombings knew the guy who made the movies.  But still.  The movies weren't actually about the bombings, they were just about social events that occurred around the same time, and in a very vague sort of way--putting the two directly together is a very tenuous connection at best, and trying to tie it together with "But they saw each other in a hotel at the end of it!!!" doesn't really lend the connection any credence.  And with the book relying on such a tenuous connection, it was on shaky ground to start with.

Blum focuses on three main figures in this book: Billy Burns, a private inspector; Clarence Darrow, a lawyer; and D. W. Griffith, the filmmaker.  But for most of the book, only Burns is actually relevant, as he and other inspectors from his company attempt to find out who are behind the bombings that are sweeping the nation.  A startling string of domestic terrorist attacks, the bombings sprung from the ongoing battle of union workers vs. businesses, but initially no one was sure which side was actually doing the bombing.  Was it the unions, trying to get back at businesses who were against unions?  Or was it the businesses themselves, trying to frame the unions?  Meanwhile, Blum intersperses chapters about Darrow and Griffith just...being themselves.  Lawyering.  Having affairs.  Making movies.  It's incredibly boring and served no purpose.  Griffith's line isn't necessary at all and certainly doesn't play into "the birth of Hollywood" as his movies were made in New York and he wasn't even the first person to film a big movie.  Darrow becomes necessary to the story, but not until the very end, and even then it seems like Blum greatly inflated his role in the story, especially given the way the investigation and trial ended.

The writing is bland and it's hard to determine what's actually pulled from research and what's conjecture, especially in the realm of conversations that occurred.  There always seemed like suddenly there was going to be a turning point, a new sight of depths...but then that point never actually developed.  There were some interesting parts, mainly when Blum actually focused on the investigations, but for the most part this was a very "meh" book.  For a good read about an investigation surrounding a crime closely linked to social issues, I would recommend American Fire or Killers of the Flower Moon--the first is set in the 2010s, the second in the 1920s.  They are both excellent and far outshone this one.

2 stars out of 5.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Slightly Scandalous - Mary Balogh (Bedwyn Saga #3)

Slightly Scandalous (Bedwyn Saga, #3)I'm starting to think that Mary Balogh isn't for me, or at least this series isn't.  Someone sang its praises to me, particularly about Wulfric's book--and so I've been soldiering ahead in hopes that the series would get better than the first two books, which were just bland.  Well, this one wasn't bland.  It was annoying.

The plot here revolves around Freyja "Free" Bedwyn, the older of the two Bedwyn sisters, who goes to Bath with a friend and her mother in order to avoid the birth of the child of Freyja's former love who married someone else, Kit.  (Wow, what a sentence.)  While there, she runs into a man who burst into her room on the road, Joshua, who is trying to avoid becoming betrothed to his cousin (who is also eager to avoid a betrothal) at the whim of his aunt, who is eager to avoid being ousted from Joshua's house, even though Joshua has no intentions to throw her out, or even return.  So Freyja agrees to pretend to be betrothed to him instead.

The problem here is that there wasn't an un-irritating character among the main cast here.  Freyja is petty and refuses to acknowledge her feelings.  Not acknowledging feelings is par for the course with romance novels, but Free does it out of some sense of emotional self-flagellation or something which irked me more than denial of emotions normally does.  Meanwhile, Joshua acts like he's incapable of taking anything seriously, even when he clearly does, which was annoying in its own way.  At one point, Free accuses Joshua of wearing a mask with nothing underneath it--and honestly, that seemed to be the truth for both of the main characters here.  Meanwhile, Joshua's aunt couldn't seem to manage being outright devious, and so she was just annoying as well.  While the other Bedwyns lent a variety of color here, as usual, they weren't enough to salvage a bunch of annoying main characters and a subplot that even Balogh admits ends in an anticlimax.

Here's the thing: ultimately, there are only two books in this series I really want to read, and those are Morgan and Wulfric's.  I already have Morgan's book out from the library, but there's another volume--Alleyne's--between hers and Wulfric's, so I guess we'll see how Morgan's goes before I decide if I should just skip the fifth book or not.

2 stars out of 5.

Motorcycle Man - Kristen Ashley (Dream Man #4)

Motorcycle Man (Dream Man, #4)So, for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' 2017 Reading Challenge (more info here) one of the categories was a motorcycle or MC (motorcycle club) romance.  This is definitely not my category.  I pulled up one of Kristen Ashley's other books and started it, but that didn't work for me.  However, Motorcycle Man and its predecessors in the "Dream Man" series were on the list of top romance novels (voted by readers) that NPR compiled, so I figured it was probably a good bet for this category.  And then it turned out that this actually precedes the other Ashley book I had tried to read, so that worked out as well.

So, here's the thing.  This is a book that I liked and hated in equal parts.  This is entirely because of the genre of book: the motorcycle romance itself.  There's this weird thing with these in that they absolutely worship abuse relationships and misogyny in a way that few other genres seem to do.  The hero here, who goes by the nickname of Tack, blatantly tells heroine Tyra that her opinion doesn't matter, that if she wants to leave he's just going to force her to come back, that if he sexually harasses her no one will believe her, so she'd better just put up with it.  I mean...what?  Whatwhatwhat?

But Ashley must be a good writer, because despite her hero being a downright scary guy (backing your "woman" up against the wall by her throat against her express wishes is not okay and I don't care what your motivation for it is) she also manages to make him incredibly sweet, and those sweet moments made me really want to like Tack.  I couldn't bring myself to fully commit, because there are just so many issues with the relationship dynamic here, but I wanted to like him.  And this expression of his sweet side made me hopeful that, maybe in some of Ashley's other books where bikers aren't the center of the story, the romance can be a little more, oh, I dunno, wholesome.  Not that I mean it can't be hot; there's a lot of sex in this one (again, half good and half scary) and I anticipate a lot of sex in the other ones, too.

As for the plot of this book, it's mostly romance with a Russian mob subplot thrown in, which seemed a bit odd and was clearly meant to tie up things that were established in the first three books of the series (which I haven't read; you didn't need to, I feel, but it might have helped) and to bring in already-established couples.  While I didn't feel that the subplot was too crazy, it did mean there was a very weird dynamic shift about 80% of the way through the book.  With the first 80% being from Tyra's first person perspective, the remainder of the book spends its time jumping between various other people in third person perspectives.  It's very strange and felt very different from the rest of the book, and I didn't feel like it really fit.

Overall, I'm not sure what to feel about this book.  I liked it, but the thing is, I really can't feel like I can endorse the toxic relationship portrayed within; it felt like Tyra really gave up a lot of herself in order to fit in to Tack's world, and I hate it when that happens, particularly in contemporary romances--it's more understandable in historicals, I think.  With all that in mind...

2 stars out of 5, but with high hopes for some of Ashley's other books.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Wait For It - Mariana Zapata

Wait for ItMariana Zapata might just be the queen of the slow-burn romance, that part of the romance genre where characters go from hate to uneasy truce to friends to lovers, the last usually occurring in approximately the last ten pages of the book, at least in Zapata's works.  I really enjoyed several of her other romances, Kulti and The Wall of Winnipeg and Me being the best, so I was excited to finally get around to this one.

Ultimately, though, I don't think this is one of her best.  Wait for It follows a minor character from The Wall of Winnipeg and Me, Diana, who was the best friend of that book's heroine.  She's also the cousin of the heroine of Kulti.  And her love interest, Dallas, is related to a member of the motorcycle club featured in Under Locke, another Zapata novel.  Consequently, this book very much felt like it was mainly supposed to be fan service for readers who wanted cameos of the characters from those books, rather than a romance in and of itself.  I read lots of interconnected romance books, which don't usually feel like this, and I think I can ultimately pin down why this one felt superfluous to one thing: Dallas and Diana don't have the same intense chemistry as the couples in other books.

All of Zapata's books are slow burns, but this one is slower than most, to the point that you have to squint to see the sparks starting to ignite, let alone fly.  Diana's life revolves around taking care of her two nephews, of whom she has custody following her brother's death two years prior to the start of the book.  Consequently, she doesn't have a lot of room for a relationship.  And Dallas, who lives across the street, is going through a divorce, and neither character wants to get involved when one party is still married, so that puts a real damper on things, too.  They don't get along at first, because Dallas thinks Diana is hitting on him, but when it's established she's not, they manage to be friends.  For like 80% of the book.  The build from friends to lovers here didn't feel slow so much as nonexistent, and there's not a lot else going on in the background, either.  It doesn't feel so much like a slow burn as a slow story, and they definitely do not have the same appeal.

Overall, yeah, I'm disappointed.  This just doesn't compare to her other books and was just kind of "blah" overall, seeming mainly to give little glimpses at characters from other books instead of carrying its own weight.  I felt like I never got the "it" that I was apparently supposed to be waiting for!

2 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Empress of a Thousand Skies - Rhoda Belleza (Empress of a Thousand Skies #1)

Empress of a Thousand Skies (Empress of a Thousand Skies, #1)Empress of a Thousand Skies belongs to that genre which is recently coming to popularity in the young adult fiction world: the space opera.  Other examples: These Broken Stars and Starflight.  All of these tend to be lifestyles of the rich and famous meets the poor and suppressed and the world is changed--in space!  In this case, the two main characters are Rhiannon, the heir apparent to a galactic empire who is due to be crowned any day, and Alyosha, a young man in the military and the star of a reality TV show along with his co-pilot.  Rhee lost her entire family when their ship exploded when she was younger; she survived because she'd sneaked off to get a lucky token.  Aly lost his family and home in the war that destroyed his home planet.  After Rhee escapes an assassination attempt, she finds herself on the run--and Aly finds himself framed for the attempt on her life, putting him on the run, as well.

I kept expecting the stories of these two characters to merge into one, but they never did.  Each of them is keenly aware of the other's predicament--Rhee knows that Aly isn't the one who tried to kill her, and Aly knows that Rhee is actually alive--but even when they cross paths, they never actually meet and become a pair, taking separate routes on their respective exiles.  I thought the plot itself, including both the big "twists," was pretty transparent, but the characters and their paths through the universe were interesting.  Belleza includes a variety of species and I don't think any of the main characters are actually what we would consider "white," which was cool.  Aly definitely isn't, and Rhee, though human, might possibly be of Native American descent, given that her dynasty is called the Ta'an, but I'm not 100% sure on that one.  Rhee herself has a strong sense of duty, but it's overlaid by a deep desire for revenge against the man who assassinated her family.  Consequently, she doesn't always make the most logical decisions, and this is compounded by the fact that she's only fifteen for much of the book--not exactly a prime decision-making age, even if you've been raised to be empress.  This isn't always the most flattering characterization, but it seemed likely to me.

Aly, on the other hand, just wants to be liked.  His race is blamed for the war that tore apart much of the galaxy, and he sees his role on the Revolutionary Boys show as a way to be a sort of ambassador to the other races of the galaxy, even though he actually hates being on the show itself.  What he wants more than anything is to clear his name and show people that the Wraetans aren't all bad.  His life is understandably thrown into chaos when Rhee's supposed assassination is blamed on him, and he's desperate to prove himself innocent--but he's not willing to do so at any cost.  He also has a keen sense of what's going on in the universe around him, as terrible as it might be, even when he doesn't want to believe it, and tries to navigate his new circumstances accordingly.

Lurking behind all this is a narrative about the potential horrors of everyone being connected all the time, about the grips of reality TV on our lives (Hunger Games, anyone?), and about finding your place in the universe.  The plot itself isn't revolutionary, it's true, but I think the characters, the galaxy, and the themes are strong enough to support the weaker plot here.  Am I chomping at the bit to read the next one?  No, which is good, because it's not out until 2018.  But I am looking forward to it when it eventually becomes available.

3.5 stars out of 5.