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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Shadow and Bone - Leigh Bardugo (Grisha #1)

Shadow and Bone (The Grisha, #1)Set in a Russian-inspired fantasy world, Shadow and Bone is the story of Alina, a young woman working as a cartographer in the army until, on a journey through the magically-dark-and-dangerous Fold (aka the Unsea) she shows off previously-unknown light powers and is swept off to be trained as a Sun Summoner and a savior of the people...falling into the grasp of the intriguing Darkling and leaving behind her best friend from childhood, Mal, in the process.  One of my friends loves this series, and Bardugo's associated duet that happens after these books (Six of Crows and its sequel) so I had this slated for one of my reading challenge categories for the year in order to finally get around to it.  Aaaaaand...?

Rage.  Ugh.  This started off with such promise.  "Who is the love interest here?" I demanded of said friend.  "I don't want to get my hopes up over nothing."  She refused to tell me.  "This book is going to crush me, isn't it?" I asked.  She liked my comment.  Because here's the thing...the Darkling is freakin' awesome and Mal is totally lame.

Yes.  I said it.  And coming off the high that was Uprooted just a little while ago, I was so looking forward to another magical-tutor-romance thing.  And for a while, it looked like I was going to get it!  I was intrigued.  The Darkling has, guess what, dark powers that compliment Alina's sun-summoning ones.  A light-mage/dark-mage pairing?  Okay, not the most original, but I thought there was promise there.  But as I read on, I started to get suspicious.  Mal wasn't responded to Alina's letters, for no apparent reason.  This clearly meant he wasn't getting them--they were being intercepted somewhere along the way.  And honestly, it just couldn't be that easy.  After all, there are three books in this series, and this is just the first.  I started to have a sneaking feeling that the Darkling was going to turn out to be a Big Bad and Mal was going to sweep back in and become the childhood-friend-turned-love-interest, which is a dynamic that I actually don't really like.  And if the Darkling became the Big Bad, it would mean that Bardugo was seemingly falling back on the tired, tired, tired trope of "light=good, dark=bad."  Which I really, really hoped wasn't going to happen, because I had such hopes here.

Overall, this was a book with a lot of potential.  It's a story with a lot of potential.  I have a bit of hope for it becoming fuller and more fleshed out in the next two books, which I definitely will read, but coming to the end of this one I find myself a tiny bit disappointed.  The writing is pretty clearly on the wall here, and I was feeling so miserable about it that I even went and read the jacket blurb of the third book.  I can already tell that I don't like where it's headed.  Sigh.  So much sadness here.

Another reviewer suggested that, if you liked where you thought this book was going but were disappointed in where it actually went, you should read Sarah J. Maas' A Court of Thorns and Roses and its sequels.  I'm inclined to agree; while maybe not having the awesome Russian-fantasy-dynamic that the Grisha has (which is very cool and I'm so happy to see that authors are branching out into areas other than generic-medieval-England fantasy settings) it has the feel that I was actually looking for here.  I'd also recommend Uprooted.

So, yes, I will keep reading these books...but I'm going in steeled for the worst.

3 stars out of 5.

Monday, June 19, 2017

I've Got My Duke to Keep Me Warm - Kelly Bowen (Lords of Worth #1)

I've Got My Duke to Keep Me Warm (The Lords of Worth, #1)One of my friends recently read this book and really liked it, so it became one of the next ones on my reading list!  Luckily the library had it available, so I was able to get to it quickly.  The story here follows Gisele, a woman who faked her own death to escape an abusive relationship and now works to spirit other women out of similar circumstances.  Deprived of one of her partners, she's on the hunt for a new one.  A man who can be a hero.  Gallant, who's up for helping a woman in distress, who can sweep her off her feet... When she finds Jaime Montcrief drunk in a tavern, he doesn't seem like the very picture of that, but after a quick test, she decides he suits.  And so off they go, to save the woman who's set to marry Gisele's former husband.

While this was a cute plot in some respects, the takedown of Gisele's former husband ultimately relies very very heavily on gaslighting him.  This is portrayed as being so clever; they're going to make him crazy so that he can't get married!  Ha!  Gisele also tries to justify it by saying he's already mad as a hatter, he just needs something to bring it out where other people can see.  But the thing is...Adam, said former husband, doesn't really come across as crazy.  Possessive as hell, yes.  Sadistic, yes.  Unsuitable for marriage, yes.  But actually mentally unstable?  No.  Gisele and Jaime actually set out to convince him he's crazy and to make him display it in public, and the entire time they were working on this, I couldn't help but think that if some roles had been reversed and they'd been gaslighting Jaime's former wife instead of Gisele's former husband, this wouldn't have slid by nearly as easily.  And when you flip the genders and you have an issue...well, that's an issue in and of itself.

What I did like here was the relationship between Jaime and Gisele.  Jaime doesn't pressure Gisele into anything even though he falls for her--and she for him--in pretty quick order, within the space of a few days.  He knows that she was abused, but he doesn't pressure her for the details.  He doesn't try to pressure her into kissing him or otherwise being intimate with him.  He doesn't try to "fix" her.  Instead, he lets her come to things on her own terms and supports her in her decisions.  Even when he disagrees with them, he hears her out and then makes suggestions for how to proceed safely, instead of taking what would be the route of some other popular romance heroes and locking her up or going off to solve things on his own without any communication.  Their dynamic was very good.

Another thing that I really liked here was the use of parallels.  There are so many instances in this book where Bowen brings back something mentioned earlier and makes a parallel scene out of it, tying together both visuals and themes to loop everything together.  This was very masterfully done, and I really appreciated it.

The writing was good and I liked the characters, and I'm definitely not writing off Bowen.  But I think the plot here needs to be looked at critically, because gaslighting anyone is not cool.  There had to have been other ways to resolve the problem here without making Adam question his own sanity.

Also, this looks like a Christmas romance, but it's not--I'm not even sure it actually takes place in winter--and has nothing to do with any dukes keeping anyone warm, so I'm not sure where the title and cover are supposed to play into this, at all.

3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Given to the Sea - Mindy McGinnis (Given Duet #1)

Given to the Sea (Given Duet, #1)Given to the Sea caught my eye as soon as I saw it on Goodreads.  It just has such a wonderful cover--like the girl is standing on one of those lighthouses that get hit by 50-foot waves all the time, where the keepers live in them totally isolated from the rest of the world.  And the girl herself...it's like she's a ghost.  And then there was the premise: of a girl who is supposed to be sacrificed to the sea in order to keep a killer wave at bay, but must have a child first to replace her, but who hates to be touched.  And the prince who wants to save his kingdom but doesn't want to be king, the twins who are the last survivors of their race.  It was all the makings of a great fantasy.

Ultimately, however, I didn't find this too intriguing.  The plot largely revolves around two pieces.  First, heroine Khosa needs to have a child before she can be sacrificed and everyone wants to get her pregnant.  (Why?  So their kid can die?  Totally weird.)  Second, Witt, the leader of the group called the Pietra, wants to invade Stille, the country that Khosa and the other characters call home, and basically kill all of its people.  Meanwhile it seems like the waters that surround their island(?) are rising even without a wave to threaten destruction.  But while all of this might have had promise, ultimately what it boils down to is a lot of angsting about Khosa not wanting to have sex while everyone wants to have sex with her, and Dara (one of the twins) angsting that everyone who she wants to like her is busy wanting to have sex with Khosa, and Witt planning an invasion.  The drama is very much of the teen variety without being at all intriguing, and I found myself continually waiting for something to happen.  The climax of the book ultimately has little to do with the actions of the main characters, of which there were too many--if there had been fewer, maybe McGinnis could have worked a bit more "happening" into the book.

Instead, I found myself wondering about a few worldbuilding things that aren't explained.  There's another group floating around in this book, the Feneen, which consists mostly of people with horrible deformities that were left out at birth and then adopted by other members of the group.  What is happening to the Pietra and the Stilleans that is causing them to have so many children with so many birth defects?  Meanwhile, the people of Stille who aren't deformed are living to be really old without apparently looking at it.  What's going on here?  And what's causing the waves?  Dara and Donil seem to have magic here but no one else really does, except maybe Khosa's dancing feet.  Why aren't the dancing feet a birth defect?  Uhm...there's just so much left unexplained, and it seems like things that mostly won't be explained in the second book, but instead are just supposed to be accepted.  Maybe I'm wrong there and they will be explained, but I'd at least like to see the things about the Feneen addressed here, because what?

I think the writing was okay, but it was nothing riveting.  The perspective flips between first and third person, which is something I've never liked because it just feels really, really inconsistent.  And the pacing is just so off.  I think there was an interesting premise lurking here but it wasn't really brought out well enough to shine on its own.

2 stars out of 5.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Dark Places - Gillian Flynn

9867582It took me like 8 weeks to get through this audiobook.  About halfway through my Couch to 5k program this spring I decided that I needed a book to listen to while running, and Gillian Flynn might actually be riveting enough to keep my interest while going in seemingly endless circles around a track.  And this book has several narrators, which promised a better experience than my first audiobook, Anna and the French Kiss, which only had one--which I felt was to its detriment.

The story here follows Libby Day, who survived the slaughter of her mother and two sisters when she was eight, and lost part of her hand and part of her foot in the process.  She testified that her brother was the killer, and he's consequently been in prison for more than two decades.  Now running out of money, Libby encounters a group called the Kill Club who are willing to pay her to investigate her own family's murder...and so she starts digging.

Now, the actual description of this book makes it sound like Libby ends up being chased by a killer again, someone who's eager to finish the job.  Maybe someone who's even linked with another recent disappearance in Libby's area.  That's not actually the case, so don't get your hopes up.  No one is hunting Libby.  No one actually wants her dead.  She literally wanders into a killer's living room and starts prodding them, and the killer gets antsy--no spoilers there, because Libby wanders into a lot of living rooms in this book.  There's also no big twist in this book, no unreliable narrator who's suddenly found out like in Flynn's more recent Gone Girl.  The three main point-of-view characters here (Libby in the present day and her brother and mother from the day of the murders) are all reliable to the best of their knowledge; there's no misleading, they all lay things out as they find them.  I kept waiting for one of them to turn out to be unreliable, adding a whole new dimension to the story, but it just never happened.

Overall, the writing and reading here was okay, though slightly nauseating at times--I almost puked while listening to a description of a character vomiting, not gonna lie.  The three main voice actors do a good job with the voices, distinguishing them enough that they sound relatively realistic.  But the story itself just ultimately wasn't as riveting as I wanted it to be, hence why I had to renew the book twice in order to get through it.  And while the details eventually come out and justice is served, it just didn't feel very satisfying, and the denouement was definitely too long.  Maybe audiobooks just aren't my thing, and this worked better in the printed work?

Sigh.  The search for good material to listen to while running continues.

3 stars out of 5.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Thief - Megan Whalen Turner (The Queen's Thief #1)

The Thief (The Queen's Thief, #1)I think I originally read The Thief way back when I was in fifth grade, so...in like 2003?  One of my teachers had it in her classroom library and I absolutely devoured it.  At the time, I don't believe it had any sequels, and I just learned that it had gained some in the past year--so of course I had to go back and read it first, being as it had been a decade and a half since I'd read it the first time! The thief in question in the book is Gen, who starts the story in prison for stealing the seal of the king and bragging about it in a wineshop.  He's taken out of prison by the king's magus, a sort of scholar, who believes he knows where a great treasure is--and needs Gen to steal it.

The world here is mostly based on ancient Greece, though for some reason there are also guns?  Kind of weird.  But for the most part, yes, Greece-based.  There are gods and goddesses lurking in the stories in the background, and two side characters that serve as the magus's apprentices and also as vessels for transmitting a lot of the background information that needs to be absorbed without it being downright info-dumping.  I thought this was very well-done.  What I actually didn't like here was Gen himself.

Here's the thing.  Gen is a brat.  He spends so much of his time acting downright obnoxious.  And yes, there's a reason for this, and it gets better, but for about two thirds of the book he's just as annoying as can be, and not only to the magus and his other travelling companions, but to me as the reader as well.  It was absolutely infuriating and I really sympathized with the other characters who wanted to strangle Gen...probably not an ideal situation for feelings towards a main character.  Despite having read this book before, I actually didn't remember much past the 70% mark, which is when Gen starts getting better, so I also had no memory of it improving, and found myself dreading dealing with him for the duration of the book.

While I liked the world-building, I also feel like it might have been a bit confusing for someone who didn't already have an understanding of ancient Greece.  There are a lot of things that are drawn from history here and not really explained in the book, so someone who hasn't actually taken a college-level course in ancient Greek history like I have might have been a little lost; I know I definitely understood more this time through, having taken such a course during my time as a history student in college, than I did when I read it in fifth grade.  Being as this is categorized as a children's book, I think a little more fleshing-out of the setting could have probably been useful.  I'm not sure how many fifth graders understand what an agora is or the various invading forces that went against Greece and how that played out, influences of which are floating about and are important in understanding the political climate on which the story spins.

Still, though, this was a fast and very enjoyable read.  The design of the temple in which the treasure is hidden was so cool--kind of Water-Temple-from-Ocarina-of-Time-esque.

Image result for water temple

Overall, I really liked this, and am looking forward to reading the sequels!

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Voyager - Diana Gabaldon (Outlander #3)

Voyager (Outlander, #3)Finally, finally, finally I have finished reading this book.  It feels like it's been an eternity.  This is one of those books that I'd pick up, put down, pick up again...walk away from... Honestly, I'm not 100% sure why I continue on with this series, except possibly because I bought them and now read them out of a sense of obligation?  But I only spent like $3 on the seven-book set so that doesn't really make sense.  But my boyfriend's mom likes them, so it gives me something to talk about with her, at least.

This is the third book in the Outlander series and is rather different from the first two in that, for a significant part of the book, Claire and Jaime are apart and so the book isn't entirely, or even mostly, from Claire's perspective.  Instead, a good chunk of it is in third-person perspective and focuses on Jaime, stuck in the 1700s after Culloden and the events after, and Roger, the young man assisting Claire and her (and Jaime's) daughter Brianna with researching what happened to Jaime since at the end of the second book they found out he hadn't died at Culloden after all.  Eventually, of course, they figure it out and Claire goes a-travelling again, and the book resumes is mostly first-person perspective (with one chapter still dedicated to Jaime).

Just like the first two books, this was slow, slow, slow.  I really feel like Gabaldon has a pacing problem that a couple of books hasn't seemed to fix.  There are short bursts of action here, but they're interspersed with these long, long periods of time in which we seem to see nothing but bubbling parritch and people going to and fro on boats.  Additionally, there's not a strong central plot here, which doesn't help matters.  Outlander was about Claire travelling through time and trying to get home and then eventually coming to terms with where she was and who she was with.  Dragonfly in Amber was about Claire and Jaime trying to change history.  Voyager is just about...them getting back together, I guess?  Other stuff happens, of course, but it's mainly a lot of going places by sea and it only really serves to prop up their ongoing reunion.  And also underlying all of this is the fact that Claire and Jaime have become one of those couples where all of their problems boil down to the fact that they don't talk to each other.

However, all of this doesn't mean that Gabaldon is a bad writer.  She has a wonderful sense of imagery and is really able to show the world that she's building, and all of the research that went into it as well as her own sense of supernatural whimsy that underlies much of the goings-on here.  She creates characters that seem whole, even the side characters--for example, we get to see grown-up Fergus in this book, and Jaime's band of smugglers also aren't bad at all.  She just seems to be a bit scattered in what's actually going on, heaving to and fro from one far-fetched scheme for her characters to be involved in to another.  In a more fantasy setting, this might be more forgivable.  However, in a historical setting, even one with a few magical elements interspersed (I mean, our main character is a time-traveler, guys) it reads more as her just making things up as she goes along rather than having a solid and persistent idea of what is actually supposed to be happening in the book.

And is Brianna ever going to become a main character?  She seems far too promising to waste by leaving her in the 1960s when it seems like the story isn't going back there, but every time I think she's going to take the stage, she never does.  Sigh.

2.5 to 3 stars out of 5.  I guess I liked it well enough, but again, there's nothing really compelling in it and I feel like I'm reading more out of some self-imposed duty than out of true enjoyment.  I liked the switch to the Caribbean setting, though, and wish it had been used a bit longer!

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's TaleThis book was utterly terrifying.

The Handmaid's Tale is the story of Offred, a Handmaid in a country called Gilead that has taken over at least part of the United States and, with heavy religious overtones, regulates all relations between men and women, as well as between women and women.  They justify it as saving the human race after some nuclear-type apocalypse hinted at in a few places caused birthrates to spiral downward and birth defects to shoot up.  Really, this isn't such a wild premise for a post-apocalyptic dystopian novel...except it shows that most terrifying of all things: the slide.

This book takes place with the Gilead regime in full swing, but Offred grew up and had a life, a husband, a child before it started.  So she remembers the slide from normalcy to what is the "new" normal, where fake news is used to control the populace, women are the property of  men, abortion is illegal, and Gilead is against the rest of the world.  And to me, that is the most terrifying thing of all: seeing how all these small steps can add up to such a huge difference, how each thing can be taken in stride, until the next generation won't remember what life was like before Gilead at all.  That next generation of girls will think life has always been the way it has.

Following the main narrative here, there's a section of "historical notes" which I originally intended to skip over, but I'm glad that I didn't.  It's actually a part of the larger story, giving some context and some closure to a few of the "holes" in the main narrative.  Atwood left a few things up to the imagination, such as what ultimately happens to Offred, but also gives some insight into the larger events that that surrounded her in Gilead.  It also hammers home the terrifying aspects as well, because it shows how the rest of the world wasn't really affected by the events in Gilead, and just turned their backs on the plights of the people there.  This is pretty much the case in most dystopian novels: one region goes crazy, and the rest of the world just backs away.  But for some reason it just feels so much more real in this book than in others.

This book is, of course, airing as a television adaptation on Hulu now, but it's really more striking than that because of the political times we live in.  It's a truly horrifying read because this book makes it so easy to see how things could go so wrong.

5 stars out of 5; an important book, I think, especially now.

Friday, June 2, 2017

A Court of Wings and Ruin - Sarah J. Maas (A Court of Thorns and Roses #3)

A Court of Wings and Ruin (A Court of Thorns and Roses, #3)Well, the time has finally come: the conclusion of Sarah J. Maas' A Court of Thorns and Roses trilogy.  This one picks up pretty much just where the last one left off: with heroine Feyre acting as a spy in the fae Spring Court, home of her former lover and almost-husband and hero of the first book in the series, Tamlin, who has sold out all of the island of Prythian and the human lands beyond it in order to retrieve Feyre from her new love and fated mate, the High Lord of the Night Court, Rhysand.  Are we all caught up?  Good.

Then let me just say that a lot happens in this book, despite it being off to a slow start.  Much like the second book, I was skeptical going in.  It just starts so slowly.  Feyre is going around the Spring Court acting so meek and broken while secretly sowing chaos, but honestly, we know there are bigger things afoot, and I wanted them to get on with afooting!  Luckily, the first part of the book isn't that long, and things pick up in the second and third parts, as Feyre and her family and allies prepare for war and then eventually go to it.

We have a large cast of supporting characters by this point, but Maas still manages to keep them all separate, distinct, and important, even with the addition of Feyre's sisters as newly-fae residents of the Night Court, and the re-appearance of Lucien as a bigger player, despite him having been absent for most of book two.  (At one point, Lucien vanishes for a long time and doesn't appear to have done much while he was gone; Maas has already said that she plans on writing more books about this world, so I'm betting the focus of one of them will be him, another possibly on Tamlin, and one definitely on the Swan Lake-like setup involving another side character.)  Two new relationships were kind of promised in this book, and they don't really develop much, which was a bit disappointing.  Also disappointing was the amount of info Maas revealed and then didn't expound upon--granted, she's said she'll write more about this world, as I mentioned before, but still.  This was the last book in the trilogy so it seemed like maybe not the best place to be leaving loose ends.  None of them were major...but still.

She also brings back old characters that I thought we probably wouldn't see again, such as the Bone Carver and the Weaver, and weaves (haha) them more fully into the narrative, which seemed well done.  Some big reveals were also reserved for this book--such as what the heck, really, is Amren?  Well, we finally find out.  Sort of.  Enough.  Also added in are several characters who are gay or bisexual, which was nice, because one wouldn't necessarily think of fae as being confined to binary sexualities, especially if we measly humans aren't.  However, this reveal might throw a wrench in her "mating bonds" trope--do they still have mating bonds if they're not heterosexual, and so won't be producing children?  It's said that bonds aren't always about love or even emotional compatibility but sometimes are just more about pairs that would create good offspring.  And if that's the case and these characters do find themselves permanently bound to people that they otherwise can't find attractive...well, that kind of sucks.

It's hard to say much about this book without spoilers, and it also doesn't have anything either rant-worthy or rave-worthy in it, at least not to my eye.  So, instead of prattling on, I'll just wrap it up and say that I liked this one, but I didn't love it.  It didn't pull me in as much as A Court of Mists and Fury did.  But it was still enjoyable, and has the added bonus of, I think, giving us a glimpse of what's probably coming up, to some degree, in Maas' other series, the Throne of Glass series, because she paralleled elements of the two very closely.  Which probably isn't very masterful writing but definitely makes the wait for the last Throne of Glass novel--not out until 2018!--easier, because this is basically a preview of how it will all be written and wrap up.

4 stars out of 5.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Uprooted - Naomi Novik

UprootedUprooted was the Deliberate Reader book club title for June, and out of all the ones slated for the year, it was the one I was most looking forward to reading.  It had such good reviews and had been on me to-read list for a while, plus I always love a good fantasy.  And let me tell you:

This book was absolutely stunning.

Based in a fantasy that's grounded in Eastern rather than Western Europe, with a heroine named Agnieszka and mentions of Baba Yaga (Baba Jaga), it's a beautiful story about a valley and the girl who saves it.  Agnieszka expects her best friend, Kaisa, to be taken by the Dragon, the magician who is lord over her home valley and who takes a girl every ten years for purposes unknown.  The girls return unharmed but are obviously ruined and end up leaving the valley, always.  But when the time for the choosing comes, the Dragon takes Agnieszka instead, based on what appears to be a budding ability for magic...magic that is desperately needed to keep the Wood, the dark forest that corrupts all it touches and that slowly encroaches on their realm, at bay.

Some reviewers have called Agnieszka a special snowflake.  Well, she kind of is.  She has magic, magic that she has an intuition for as soon as she realizes what it really is that no one seems to have ever seen before.  However, Novik makes it clear through her writing that just because Agnieszka's magic isn't the kind that's in use among the magicians of the realm currently, that doesn't mean it hasn't been seen before, and that it's her connection to the valley that helps to make it so strong.  And Agnieszka is such a likeable character, too.  She's not all sunshine and rainbows; she acknowledges a deep jealousy of Kaisa despite her love of her friend, and she struggles with finding things out even though she sometimes has an intuition for them.  Less imminently likeable is the Dragon.  He's stubborn and mean and seems to be keeping his distance for no apparent reason, except that he is, because if he gets too close to the valley and its inhabitants it's possible the Wood could draw him in, and that would be something terrible indeed.  Woven into both of their characters is, of course, the magic system of the book as well.  In one respect, it revolves around foreign-sounding spellwords, which isn't something terribly innovative, but there are other dimensions, too, which means that it doesn't work the same for every person and each magician featured has their own talents; it seems like any other magician here would have just as easily been deemed a "special snowflake" as Agnieszka, in their own way.

There's a very, very minor romance subplot here that was absolutely delicious, mainly because the sorcerer/apprentice dynamic is one of my favorites (but notably does not extend to other teacher/student relationships, which I find downright creepy).  It's woven so well into the story as a whole, though it did mean that when Agnieszka went away from the valley for a while it read as being a lot slower because there wasn't that developing relationship, even though a lot of interesting and important things actually happened while she was in the city.  And outside the realm of romantic and teaching relationships, Kaisa remains a prominent characters throughout the book, which I didn't expect but really liked.  She becomes such an important person to show the potential and terror of magic and the Wood, and though she and Agnieszka and and Kaisa don't always get along and have their envies of each other, their friendship is deep and true and the book wouldn't have shone nearly as much without it.

The writing is beautiful, the story has good pacing and unfurls in a way that the odds seem insurmountable--I was honestly skeptical that Novik would be able to wrap this up in one book!  The end of the action did seem a bit rushed to me, but there was a wonderful denouement afterwards that wrapped up the characters' paths and left such potential for more.

Someone please point me to the fanfiction archive for this book, because I need more, and I need it now.

5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Since We Fell - Dennis Lehane

Since We FellSince We Fell was my May 2017 Book of the Month pick.  Its premise was just too good to ignore--that of a once-well-known reporter, at least in her market, who had a breakdown on the air and became a virtual shut-in, until she runs into someone on a rainy day that sucks her into a conspiracy filled with action and angsty and possibly a little madness, too.  I haven't read either of Lehane's other books, but I'm familiar with the premise of Shutter Island (though I also haven't seen the movie) and thought there was going to be some big twist in here that would make the entire book so riveting.

Unfortunately, there wasn't a big twist, and overall the book disappointed.  I really, really enjoyed the first half of it.  That half follows Rachel through her life, from a girl who doesn't know who her father is to one who finds a stand-in father, to a successful reporter in the Boston market who covers the horrors following the big earthquake in Haiti, and who subsequently breaks down and loses pretty much everything, but then begins to rebuild herself through a relationship with Brian, a man who keeps crossing paths with her throughout the first half.  The second half is the "conspiracy" half, and honestly, it just fell flat.  Probably because it's not a conspiracy at all, it's a con, and that wasn't nearly as interesting.

Lehane can write very well, and I thought he did a female protagonist really well, too.  For some reason it seems like men struggle with writing grown women as characters (flashback to when I read Palace of Treason and the author was constantly talking about the female protagonist's breasts for no relevant reason) but Lehane didn't have any issues along these lines at all.  Rachel comes across as a fully fleshed-out person, and one who isn't dependent on a man either (another common pitfall).  Yes, she relies on Brian and he helps to bring her out of her shut-in status, but when it comes down to it, she's willing to ditch him if she has to in order to survive.  She recognizes it'll hurt, that she'll backslide, and have all sorts of other consequences...but she's willing to do it if that's what needs to be done, and that steel backbone really made me like Rachel.  And Brian, despite what he claims, didn't do it; if Rachel really wanted to be a shut-in, I have every faith that she would have remained one.  Ultimately she changed because she wanted to and felt she needed to.  Brian helped her, but he didn't do it for her, despite how he lays it out.

But despite Lehane's writing and a great central character, I found the ultimate premise of this book to be too hokey.  In the space of a few chapters Rachel suddenly finds herself implicated in two murders even though she's not really responsible for anything, and instead of having a reasonable reaction and going to the police and telling them what's going on, she decides that "Well, this is it, my life is over, better just really go rogue now."  This seemed like such a jump and such a disconnect from her formerly-logical state into some realm of crazy.  And despite the book's description, Rachel isn't crazy.  Events in her life in the first half the book lead to her being agoraphobic and having panic attacks, but she's not actually mentally unstable.  She doesn't hear voices or see things or have crazy impulses, so her being "mentally unstable" doesn't work as a justification for her completely wacky responses in the second half of the book; nor does being in shock, because honestly, being in shock only gets you so far.  Again, it's not like she ended up in some sort of dissociative fugue.

The first half of this book was so strong, and I really enjoyed watching Rachel grow and change, even when it wasn't always good for her, and I liked seeing how Brian's path kept crossing hers and weaving more closely into her life.  Once this whole conspiracy/con thing hit though, that went down the drain.  The suspension of disbelief it asked for was just too great for me to finish the book with any sense of really enjoying it.

2 stars out of 5.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Slammed - Colleen Hoover (Slammed #1)

Slammed (Slammed, #1)Slammed was my pick for a new adult romance for my 2017 romance challenge with the Unapologetic Romance Readers on Goodreads.  Like many of my other selections, it appeared on many lists as a good one for its category, and it was available from the library.  Like many of my other selections, I found myself skeptical upon starting it--because the heroine is still in high school.  Most new adult books focus on characters who are college-aged or a little older, whether they're in college or not.  However, after reading it, I agree: this is definitely new adult, not because of the age of the main character, but because of the themes it tackles.

The main character is Layken, aka Lake, who moves to Michigan with her mother and younger brother following the death of her father.  She immediately finds herself attracted to the guy across the street, who takes her out on a date to a slam poetry session at a local club.  It's insta-love, for sure.  And then disaster strikes the next week when she goes to school and finds out he's her teacher--and he finds out she's not in college, like he thought she was.  Gasp!  The drama!

But beyond this "we can't be together!!!" drama there's another story.  Will, the hero, has rushed through college and into teaching in order to care for his younger brother, who came into his full custody following the deaths of both his parents in a car accident.  And Lake, dealing with her father's death, her family's move, and soon more lurking troubles in addition to her floundering relationship status, is being forced to grow up and act beyond her years as well.  It's these aspects that make this book belong in the "new adult" category.  Will and Lake lean on each other through their troubles, trying to be friends and supportive, and sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing.  There are some very sweet moments in here, and Will is definitely not an alpha character--except at one particular instance, but it's not directed at Lake--which is unusual these days and rather refreshing.

And of course, the title and structure of the book itself are unusual.  Slammed does not, in fact, refer to sex--gasp!--but to slam poetry, a theme I don't believe I've seen in any books before.  I'm sure it has been used, but it's not common by any means.  But while this is another refreshing aspect, I think it's also one of the book's weaknesses...because slam poetry, as Will points out, isn't meant to be read.  It's meant to be performed.  And when you're reading the book, no amount of mental picturing can really capture the performance of a real poetry slam.  While this might intrigue some readers to go look up performances on platforms such as YouTube, some of the strength of the characters' experiences is necessarily lost through the switch of medium, from spoken word and live performance to words on a page, despite the lengths Hoover goes to in order to try to portray how the poems are given, with bold fonts and italics and line breaks.

Other great aspects of this book include the side characters, particularly Eddie, a foster kid who immediately sets herself up to become Lake's best friend and confidant, and Eddie's boyfriend Gavin.  Even Lake and Will's younger siblings, Kel and Caulder, are good.  It's hard to do child characters well and to properly integrate them into a plot so they're not just superfluous annoyances, and I think Hoover handled it well and managed to make them into meaningful characters in their own rights.

Overall, the romance here isn't super strong, but it's definitely prevalent, along with the other struggles the characters face.  Is this a book that I'll go back to again and again?  No, probably not.  But it was well-written with good characters and a strong premise, one that I actually think Hoover handled pretty well despite some skepticism on my part about the ages involved here--Will's already becoming a contracted teacher at 21?  Really?  But still, I enjoyed it, and overall think it was a solid pick for this category.

4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Redeeming Love - Francine Rivers

Redeeming LoveRedeeming Love was the Unapologetic Romance Readers' theme read for May 2017, to fill our reading challenge category of "An inspirational romance."  I was kind of dreading this category, because I immediately key "inspiration" with "preachy" when it comes to romances, and preachy is definitely not something that I'm looking for.  So, while I was compiling my list of books to read for the challenge, Redeeming Love was on it because other readers had noted it was inspirational without being preachy.  So, being as I already had it on my list, I was pretty happy when it was our theme read pick!

The main character here is Angel/Sara/Amanda/Mara/half a dozen other names.  Born Sara, she's mostly known as Angel for most of the book after her mother dies and her drunken uncle inadvertently sells her into prostitution, thinking that he's actually letting a wealthy man adopt her.  Years later, Angel has escaped to Pair-a-Dice, a gold-mining settlement in California, but she's still a prostitute, having fallen back into the profession after losing all the money she'd saved up to start a new life.  Enter Michael, a farmer who sells supplies to Pair-a-Dice and, when he sees Angel out for a walk, realizes that God means for him to marry her.  Except Angel doesn't want to marry Michael.

This book is apparently based on a Biblical story, but I'm not religious so I have no familiarity with it.  But the story is the Book of Hosea, which also serves as Michael's last name during the story.  In rescuing Angel from prostitution, Michael actually relates the story, which basically relates how most of the book will play out: with Angel running away from him, both physically and emotionally.  While this got a bit repetitive and sometimes a little annoying, it made complete sense in regards to Angel's character.  She really believes that she's worthless and can't be happy, and that she doesn't deserve Michael and that he's essentially crazy for taking her.  There's frustration and back-sliding and a lot of emotional turmoil over the things that she feels that she can't really offer him, despite his desperation to show her the way and get her to love life, him, and God.

While I was a bit leery of this book initially, following the discovery that it was actually re-released several years after its initial release in a more "Christianized" version, which is the version I got, I was relieved to find that it really wasn't that preachy.  God's voice comes through to Michael and eventually Angel very much like a conscience would, and there aren't any blatant miracles.  It's not a book that aimed at converting anyone, it doesn't seem, which is good, because that was the last thing I was looking for.  Its nature means that there aren't a lot of steamy scenes--everything is very fade-to-black in the physical intimacy category--and there isn't a lot of swearing, either, but neither of those things are necessary for a good book, so it didn't bother me at all.

That said, there were a couple of things that did bother me about this book.  The first thing was Paul.  Paul is Michael's brother-in-law, whose wife died on the journey west.  Paul hates Angel and is downright horrible to her and anyone who supports her throughout the entire book, and yet he gets a happy ending and everyone is suddenly hunky-dory with him at the conclusion of the book.  Not cool.  I suppose this is supposed to tie into forgiving those who trespass against you or whatever the saying is, but I wanted more of a sense of justice in this case.  Second, there's a part of the book where Angel is supposedly driven away by God because she's started to "worship" Michael instead of God.  What?  So she's not supposed to be thankful that Michael helped her and is supposed to just jump straight to God?  There's supposed to be some level here that God gives things as a gift and doesn't punish minor transgressions, but Angel is punished in this way for just being the way she is.  And finally...I'm not sure that I actually liked Angel and Michael getting together in the end.  It seemed like Angel had really grown from her relationship with Michael, but she ultimately left and found her new sense of purpose.  Her running away from this to make sure that she and Michael can be together felt hollow, and it seemed like a bittersweet ending might have actually liked better here.

Overall, the writing was good; the characterization was certainly excellent, and there was also a few really good female friendships here, which are rare to see in books and especially in romance novels.  I did feel a bit "distanced" from the characters, but as another Unapologetic Romance Reader suggested, this might have been because this was supposed to be a parable and so it wasn't supposed to have the same immediate connection as some more "immersive" books.  I liked it in general, though, and felt it was a strong pick for this category.

3 stars out of 5.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Lord of Scoundrels - Loretta Chase (Scoundrels #3)

Lord of Scoundrels (Scoundrels, #3)Lord of Scoundrels was one of two picks for our monthly read over at Unapologetic Romance Readers on Goodreads.  As you can tell by the lovely cover, it's somewhat of an older one, originally published in 1995--aka, when the covers were still trending toward the 80s but when the stories and characters had begun to shift away from "creepy rapey guy ignores the heroine's repeated statements of 'no'" and into what we would recognize as a more "modern" historical romance.

The story here is pretty simple.  The Marquess of Dain, Sebastian Ballister (known as Dain, of course) left England after being abominably treated by his father and abandoned by his mother, vowing to never set foot in his own country again.  Instead, he lives a dissolute life in Paris, where he's known as the devil himself.  Jessica Trent, the older sister of a the young Lord Trent, goes to Paris with her grandmother for a trip, ostensibly as a gift for said grandmother's birthday, but really to try to disentangle her younger brother from Dain's evil clutches, where he's been withering away and spending the family fortune.  Jess herself is rather good at making money and wants to go into business for herself, but she's still not happy about her brother's dissolution under Dain's tutelage.  She and Dain first encounter each other in an antiques shop similar to the one that Jess wants to open, where she purchases a rather naughty watch, scoops a rather valuable painting from under Dain's nose for a mere pittance, and immediately sets off a disagreement between the two of them that will fuel their chemistry and disagreements through the first half of the book.

This book is divided basically in two.  The first half is devoted to the characters getting together, doing the usual banter and furious kissing and driving each other to the brink of insanity.  The second half is when they're already together and are dealing with the new dimensions of married life as well as a part of Dain's past that comes back with a vengeance, and a sub-plot involving the painting from the first half that's a little half-baked and just thrown in for additional drama.  The main drama in both halves is fueled by that great standard of historical romances: miscommunication.  In this case, the characters talk to each other rather candidly but because of their respective backgrounds and how their relationship develops they're constantly misconstruing each other's words and underlying meanings and seeking revenge on each other, or believing that the other is seeking revenge on them.  There's also an aspect to it that's just pure Dain being frustrating and refusing to acknowledge the affect that his past has had on him and how he sees the world and his relationships with those around him.  These aspects of conflict actually work a lot better than the usual just plain "we don't talk to each other" miscommunication conflict of historical romances, because they're definitely more believable and work for a better sustained conflict.

The banter here is strong and there's definitely chemistry between the two characters.  However, the second half of the book is significantly slower than the first half.  While it has some high points--a great interaction between the main characters while attending a wrestling match comes immediately to mind--the pacing is definitely not as on-spot as in the first half.  I do think the underlying plot in the second half is important; Chase did start setting it up in the first half, so it doesn't come out of nowhere, and I think it was important to Dain's development as a character and ultimately a functional human being.  He and Jess had plenty of chemistry but he was so stubborn and unyielding that I can't believe life with him would have been anything but infuriating.  And while people don't necessarily change, they do learn, and this whole plot was important to Dain learning and growing.  But it doesn't feel entirely cohesive with the first part, despite the setup that Chase did so that it would connect.  The differences in setting, pacing, and characters just lead to a disconnect even though the mains remain the same...and the way that the painting subplot unfolds is just plain hokey.

Still, this was quite enjoyable for me!  I don't think I've read any Loretta Chase before, despite having a few different books of hers on my to-read list, and I think this was actually a very strong introduction to her.  I haven't read the other books in this series for sure, but I didn't need to, and that's great as well.  Overall, a great pick for our monthly read!

4 stars out of 5.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Reading Challenge Updates

Whew!  The time just flies, doesn't it?  I'm at 86 completed books for the year, and I think I'm well on track to have 100 done by the end of June...which would put me on track to do 200 by the end of the year!  Is it possible?  Maybe.  We'll see.  But in the meantime, I've managed to cross a few more categories off my reading challenge list, and I have a few more that came into the library this week, so I'm going through them at a pretty good rate!

Completed
-A book that is a story within a story.  I originally picked out Scott Westerfeld's Afterworlds for this category, but had been putting off reading it and was actually looking for an alternative because the library removed it from their system at some point.  BUT!  Fortune struck, and Riveted (Simon & Schuster's young adult website) had it as one of their free reads for part of April.  I liked both components of this book separately but felt like combining them into one work meant that neither of them got as fully fleshed-out as they might have, though pondering about how much Westerfeld was incorporating tossed-away ideas and quirks from fellow writers into the book was an interesting exercise in and of itself.

-A book written by someone you admire.  As planned for this, I read A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas, who is known for both the trilogy this book wraps up and her longer series, the Throne of Glass books.  I originally picked up on Maas when she was writing on Fictionpress--the story that became the Throne of Glass series, actually.  She managed to leverage that behemoth of a story into an extremely successful publishing career.  While not everything she's written has been a huge hit with me, I can only dream of doing so well for myself!

-A book that's more than 800 pages.  I always intended to read Voyager by Diana Gabaldon, the third book in her Outlander series for this, and I did.  God, it seemed utterly endless.  I feel like the story could be really strong here but she wastes some good characters and there is just soooo much bloat, which of course is what propels this over the 800-page mark.  The entire book read like filler, but some parts were more filler-like than others.  For example, the pages and pages scattered throughout the book about how the Scots like parritch and how it bubbles.

-A book involving travel.   I originally wanted to read SEAsoned, a memoir about traveling on a boat and cooking, for this category, but none of the library systems I have access to ultimately had it.  Serendipitously, I happened to read Alexandra Bracken's Passenger and it fit in here perfectly.  Passenger involves traveling not only between places but between times, featuring settings so rarely seen in a young adult book and a central interracial romance which was so refreshing to see.  A great read all around, and I really enjoyed the sequel, Wayfarer, as well.

-A book about food.  For this, I ended up swapping out my original pick with Gumbo Tales by Sara Roahen, about the food scene in New Orleans both pre- and post-Katrina and trying to fit into it as someone not native to the city.  There were so many absolutely delicious-sounding dishes in here...and imagine my amazement when I walked into a local sandwich shop here in DC and found that they were selling muffaletta sandwiches a few days after reading about them in this book!  I was so excited I ditched my other lunch plans and bought one.  It was delicious.

-A book that's published in 2017.  I picked out Given to the Sea, Mindy McGinnis' debut novel, pretty early for this one based on its striking cover.  Unfortunately, I think the story fell somewhat short.  There were too many main characters, not a lot actually happening, and what seemed like a lack of sense in the worldbuilding.  Some questions I think might be answered in the second book in the duet, but others felt like they were just left hanging without McGinnis actually having an answer in mind, which was a bit disappointing.  The constantly-shifting perspectives were also a turn-off for me.


Still to Come
-A book of letters.  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

-The first book in a series you haven't read before.  Shadow and Bone, Leigh Bardugo

-A book that takes place over a character's life span.  The Kitchen God's Wife, Amy Tan

-A book with a month or day of the week in the title.  A June of Ordinary Murders, Conor Brady

-A book with a family-member term in the title.  Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Laini Taylor

-A book that's becoming a movie in 2017Beauty and the Beast, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont

-A book by a person of color.  The Stone Sky, N. K. Jemisin

-A book with multiple authors.  Mutiny on the Bounty, Charles Nordhoff and James Hall

-A bestseller from a genre you don't normally read.  Carrie, Steven King

-A book by or about a person who has a disability.  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon

-A book involving a mythical creature.  Nice Dragons Finish Last, Rachel Aaron

-A book set in the wilderness.  Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe

-A book by an author from a country you've never visited.  Mornings in Jenin, Susan Abulhawa (Palestine)

-A book with an unreliable narrator.  The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer, Michelle Hodkin

-A book where the main character is a different ethnicity than you.  A Disobedient Girl, Ru Freeman

-A book set around a holiday other than Christmas.  The Thanksgiving Target, Laura Scott

-A book recommended by an author you love.  The Lace Reader, Brunonia Barry (rec'd by Tamora Pierce)

-A bestseller from 2016.  Magic, Danielle Steel

-A book from a genre/subgenre you've never heard of.  The Six-Gun Tarot, R. S. Belcher (Weird West)

-A book about a difficult topic.  Rape is Rape, Jody Raphael

-A book based on mythology.  Olympos, Dan Simmons

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

I Am America (And So Can You!) - Stephen Colbert

I Am America (And So Can You!)I Am America (And So Can You!) is my second foray into the audiobook world and I have to say, I liked it a lot better than my first.  The reason why is simple: it's actually read by Stephen Colbert.  Now, Colbert didn't write the book on his own, any more than he wrote his signature show The Colbert Report on his own.  But that he reads it means that the entire things is read in the "Stephen Colbert" character that made him so famous.  (Ah, those were the days.  He's much lamer on his new show.)

And because the book is written for the Colbert character, it's both ridiculous and terrifying at the same time.  Ridiculous because it's such a funny satire about the world and how some people think about it, pointing out fallacies in logic while earnestly sounding like Colbert really means what he's saying.  It's terrifying because some people actually think like this.  Among the things Colbert brings up are building a wall along the border (high enough that, to bake on top of it, you'd have to use the high-altitude instructions) or possibly a long front porch staffed by every old person in America, who can yell at illegal immigrants to get off their yards, because Social Security shouldn't be a thing and old people should have to work until they die.  He says that any religious movement whose leader's name isn't recognized by Microsoft Word can't be a threat to the only good religion, Catholicism.  He talks about the sin of homosexuality and how black people should just learn to be white in order to solve racism.

Colbert, again, doesn't actually mean any of this, because it's satire.  But some people actually do mean the things they say that fall into these categories, and more.  This book came out in 2007, but I think it's probably clear that, ten years later, all of this is just as relevant, and possibly even more relevant than it was during the Obama presidency.  But in the way of all excellent satires, Colbert can sound completely earnest while, with just the right emphasis and placement of words, pointing out how bat-shit crazy this all actually is.  It's also extremely easy to listen to.  Colbert is a great narrator, something that was evident on his show.  He always had such great monologues there, and while there were visuals and graphics to enhance that experience, I think the book packs just as much of a punch without them.  (The print version might have had pictures, but as I listened to the audiobook version, I can't say for sue.)

This was a great book to listen to while running, funny but one that I could tune out when necessary without missing too much.  Also, it's not just Colbert reading; each chapter ends with a segment called "Stephen Speaks for Me" which is put forth by another character such as a cow, a little kid, your neighbor at a sports stadium, or your soulmate.  Each of these characters is narrated by a different voice actor, which gives some more dimension to the book as well, while managing to be just as pointedly satirical as the main body of the book.

Overall, and excellent listen!  I'd definitely reach for more in this category in the future.

5 stars out of 5.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Ransom Canyon - Jodi Thomas (Ransom Canyon #1)

Ransom Canyon (Ransom Canyon, #1)Ransom Canyon was my pick for a cowboy/western romance for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' 2017 reading challenge.  It was on some lists of best western romances; lists have been the source of many of my picks for this challenge since I'm not knowledgeable about many of the categories.  This was also a different pick for me because I favor historical romance, even in other categories, and this was a contemporary western read.

This is categorized as a romance--it says it right on the cover--but honestly, it doesn't read as one.  There are several romantic relationships blossoming throughout the course of the book.  There's cowboy/ranch owner Staten, who's been sleeping with his dead wife's best friend for a few years and is now growing closer to her, while Quinn has loved him the whole time.  There's Lucas and Laura, two high school students from very different backgrounds.  And then there's Yancy, an ex-con who arrived in Ransom Canyon with the goal of stealing but found himself quickly adjusting to life as a handyman, and attracted to nurse Ellie.  But here's the thing: despite all this love in the air, none of the characters have any chemistry with each other.  This book doesn't steam.  It doesn't sizzle.  It doesn't even make you go, "Aw, how sweet."  It just...is.  At least in the romance department.

Where this book does excel is in establishing a sense of place.  Thomas builds up the town of Crossroads, which is near Ransom Canyon, which I guess has more of a ring to it than Crossroads does.  But with the establishment of the quirky retirement community full of ex-teachers, the quaint little diner, and even the varying ranches with their different dynamics, and the creepy so-called Gypsy House...well, it all comes together to create a great atmosphere, a feeling of a small town with its small town troubles but also small town sense of community that's missing in so many books.  The last book I read featuring a small town was Hannah Coulter and it was downright boring; I think Thomas does a much better job here.  Just because a place is small and relies on a traditional economy--in HC, farming, and in RC, ranching--doesn't mean that it has to be snooze-worthy.  In fact, RC manages to excel in a lot of areas that HC failed in, which made it a somewhat refreshing read following so closely on the more boring book's heels.

Ultimately, I did like this book, but it's not a good romance.  I think the sense of place and the drama were good, and the retirees were so funny...but if it's being billed as a romance, I expect to feel a little attraction between the members of at least one of the romantic couples in the book, and here there were three couples and not an ounce of chemistry to be found.

With those things in balance, I think this will be 2.5 stars out of 5.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Wayfarer - Alexandra Bracken (Passenger #2)

Wayfarer (Passenger, #2)Wayfarer is the second book of Alexandra Bracken's Passenger duology, and it picks up right where Passenger itself left off: with Nicholas and Sophia searching for the astrolabe and Etta, and Etta herself being "orphaned" to a timeline that's no longer her own due to changes that have been made in the past.

In this second volume, Bracken continues the wonderful trend she began in the first one with utilizing places and times that are rarely, if ever, seen in young adult fiction.  From Carthage during the time of the third Punic War to the Vatican in 1499, before it was filled with the art that makes it so known today, Bracken shuttles her characters about into wonderful times and places.  And now she's actually begun messing with the timeline itself, too, showing alternative possibilities--a version of Russia in which Nicholas II wasn't killed (until he was) and a New York ravaged by nuclear warfare before the United States was able to enter into World War II.  The possibilities are both dazzling and terrifying at the same time, showing the rippling effects that changing a small event can have on the timeline as a whole.  She also continues to have interesting characters, bringing in Li Min as a new addition--a Chinese girl who has served as a pirate, assassin, thief, etc. and has an intriguing past.

But overall, this book isn't as strong as the first.  Though Nicholas and Etta's relationship moved quickly in the first book, it was still a compelling part of the plot, and that's largely missing here as the two remain separated until the climactic events.  Without their attraction and bond to propel the plot, Bracken throws in a side romance that only kind of develops, between Li Min and Sophia (lending a LGBT dynamic to the book as well, though it's very minor) as well as what I think was meant to be a web of intrigues, which also only kind of develops.  Henry Hemlock is introduced in this book (which was kind of strange because for some reason I thought he was dead) as Etta's father and I kept waiting for some grand scheme to center around him and his "I just want a relationship with you" act, but it wasn't an act and there actually wasn't any further depths to that part of the story.  Bracken tries to explain the origins of time travel and add in another enemy to face, but that only kind of develops to and just floats around in the background as a side bit.  And then Nicholas, in his search for Etta, ends up poisoned as some sort of incentive for him to kill Cyrus Ironwood, which doesn't make any sense at all...because why would you poison someone in a way that impedes them from actually doing what you want?

While the traveling remained breathtaking and the characters were good, this one didn't feel as well-thought-out as Passenger did.  It rather suffered from second book syndrome, feeling incomplete, and it's especially problematic as it's the final book as well, with no third volume to redeem it.

3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Afterworlds - Scott Westerfeld

Afterworlds (Afterworlds #1)Scott Westerfeld has some great books.  I loved his Uglies series, particularly the fourth book, Extras, which was an interesting alternative perspective on the world--the main character's story but through the eyes of someone who would typically be considered a minor character.  And so when I was looking for a book to fulfill a reading challenge category for "a story within a story," Afterworlds seemed to be an obvious selection.  Half of the book is about Darcy Patel, a teenager who's just scored a huge publishing contract for a book she wrote during National Novel Writing Month (though the event itself is never referred to by name)--and I mean a huge publishing contract.  Three hundred thousand dollars of a publishing contract for the book and its sequel.  The other half of the book is Afterworlds, Darcy's book, itself, about a girl named Lizzie who survives a terrorist attack by thinking herself dead, and then finds out she's been transformed into a psychopomp/valkyrie/grim reaper type of being along the way.

Both halves of this book are intriguing in and of themselves, but I'm not sure they work as a coherent whole.  On one hand, Darcy is going through a rewriting process for much of the book, so we get to hear what the inner story was like before it becomes the version we read, which is an interesting dynamic.  But on the other hand, fitting both stories into a normal-length book means that neither really feels like it's getting fleshed out or is as interesting as it could potentially be.  For example, there's not much that actually happens in Darcy's own story.  She moves to New York, eats, writes or avoids writing, and begins a relationship with another Young Adult author, Imogen Gray (more on this later).  But that's pretty much it.  Darcy doesn't actually do a ton of growing throughout the book, and her part actually felt like it was giving aspiring young authors extremely unrealistic expectations of how writing and selling a book works.  A first-time author getting a six-figure advance for a book?  Hm...seems unlikely.  As did everything that followed.  The parts that felt the realest were Darcy's travails, but they're frequently overshadowed by her new and glamorous New York Life which...doesn't really seem like it's how it would work...

For the Afterworlds story, it's really only half a story, which is part of the problem.  Part of Darcy's task is to write a sequel to Afterworlds, but Westerfeld himself actually hasn't and doesn't appear to have plans to do so, which means that Lizzie's story just kind of stops with a lot of threads unresolved.  Additionally, there's a relatively dark story line at the center of Lizzie's story about her seeking justice for the ghost of a little girl, which results in terrible actions on Lizzie's part, but the seriousness of these are never really addressed, she gets off without any big consequences, and there doesn't even seem to really be a permanent affect on her character, which was rather disappointing.  And while the version of Afterworlds that we read is supposed to be Darcy's finished product, after her edits and re-writes, some of the issues that her editor mentions linger on, almost making it seem like a caricature of itself at some point.  I think a full-length Afterworlds would have been fascinating and probably a best seller in and of itself, but mixed in with real-world Darcy's story, it just doesn't mesh well enough.

That said, there are some high points here.  There's some really good advice for aspiring writers woven throughout, especially regarding story structure, that's likely to make anyone working on a first draft re-think about how things should be set up.  And then there's Darcy and Imogen themselves.  They have a wonderfully sweet and supportive relationship, even when they have rough patches.  Darcy's family is also ultimately so supportive of her relationship--not knowing that Darcy liked girls before she moved to New York, since even Darcy herself hadn't been sure.  But Westerfeld doesn't try to turn this into a book about "discovering one's sexuality" and doesn't turn to the trope that so many authors do that a gay relationship automatically fails to add #drama.  I think it was well-done and it's balanced by Lizzie's straight relationship with Yama in Afterworlds in a sort of contrast...especially because Lizzie and Yama's relationship is the one with dark tones to it.  It was also fun wondering what parts of characters Westerfeld might have incorporated from other authors of his acquaintance, and what titles and story ideas that have been discarded over time made appearances in the book as other authors' stories.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read but I don't think it was an excellent one.  Neither part of the book was really enough on its own, and it kind of felt like Westerfeld had two half-done ideas so he decided to combine them rather than digging into expand either one into a full-length work of its own.  But I got to read it for free on Riveted, where it was featured for part of April, so I still think it was a worthy use of time.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Phantom of Fifth Avenue - Meryl Gordon

The Phantom of Fifth Avenue: The Mysterious Life and Scandalous Death of Heiress Huguette ClarkThere's something about high-society scandal that's just so intriguing.  It's why I like the Luxe series even though it's actually pretty much terrible.  It's why shows like Gossip Girl have so many fans, why the Kardashians are so popular.  And The Phantom of Fifth Avenue promised to be that, but true: the biography of an heiress who vanished from the public eye and then died in the midst of a scandal.  Well, it was really only one of those things, and scandal wasn't really involved.

The heiress in question was Huguette Clark, the daughter of a copper baron and his second, much-younger wife.  William Andrews Clark might have been the subject of some scandal in his attempts to earn money and social climb--there were certainly fishy happenings involved in his race for the Senate at one point--but the most scandal Huguette was involved in was probably being born to Anna Clark, who was a much-younger "ward" of sorts of Williams Andrew Clark years after the death of his first wife.  Huguette really lived a quiet life, traveling with her mother and sister, practicing violin, painting, and collecting dolls.  She got married and divorced once; I guess that could be a scandal, in those times, but it's nothing to write home about for a modern audience.  But what did happen with her is that, decades after she disappeared from the public eye and her relatives last heard from her--her relatives being the children and sometimes grandchildren of her half-siblings from her father's first marriage, the half-siblings who always looked down on Huguette and her mother and who, consequently, Huguette didn't want much to do with--those same relatives decided that Huguette was clearly being manipulated and abused, despite not having heard from her, and decided to see what happened to her.  That she was over a hundred years old and worth $300 million dollars with a questionably legal will of course had nothing to do with the matter.

Gordon definitely did research for this, quoting newspapers, letters, and even conducting interviews with those involved in the story who had known Huguette, or known the people who knew her.  She even got to tell one of the people that they had inherited a decent sum of money from Huguette's estate, having clearly been following the story even more closely than some of those directly involved.  But ultimately, Gordon does the same thing that many of the papers did and tries to make a mountain out of a molehill.  Most of the book is basically Huguette's biography, which is mildly interesting at best, though slightly envy-inspiring.  Seeing her evolving psychology from socialite to recluse was interesting, and I think Gordon did a good job in her analysis on that aspect, but as for the rest... Meh.  Huguette didn't die under mysterious circumstances and the only "scandalous" aspect of her death was that she left a significant portion of her $300 million estate to her longtime nurse.  A lot of people had a problem with this and threw a fit and the whole thing got dragged into court, as is wont to happen when large amounts of money are up for grabs.  Did Huguette's family really want the money for themselves?  Maybe  they were already individually wealthy, but that's not to say they didn't want more.  There certainly seems to be less at the end of the book to indicate that Huguette was being manipulated or abused than Gordon made there out to be at the beginning.

The writing here was fine, but not particularly engaging.  After a while of reading, I began to wonder what the point of my reading really was since most of the book was very repetitive.  Huguette travels.  She paints.  She flirts a bit.  As she gets older she gives away money in increasingly-large denominations.  But honestly I didn't find any of this particularly suspicious or even unbelievable.  It doesn't seem worth a 300+ page book, certainly.  Overall, this was a book that promised more than it delivered, and wasn't what it promised at all.

2 stars out of 5.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Rainshadow Road - Lisa Kleypas (Friday Harbor #2)

Rainshadow Road (Friday Harbor, #2)What a baffling book.  Lisa Kleypas does this, all the time, where she takes a perfectly good story and then just adds in some element that doesn't fit and turns a cohesive whole into something that's just a little...off.  She did it in her most recent release, Devil in Spring, by turning a historical romance into something involving a half-baked plot involving Fenian assassins in the last few chapters.  In her Hathaways series, some weird spirit popped up at least a couple of times--and I'm told the ghost trope makes a reappearance (though with a different ghost) in the third book of this series, Dream Lake.  In Rainshadow Road, she takes what looked like it was going to be a good contemporary romance series and randomly--yes, randomly, because the first book in this series didn't hint at this happening at all--decided to add magic.

Lucy was seven when she discovered that she had magic that could turn glass into living creatures.  Though apparently only flying living creatures--fireflies, butterflies, hummingbirds, bats.  Plagued by a younger sister who was relentlessly spoiled after nearly dying of meningitis, Lucy has always loved her glass and the vitality she feels within it.  As an adult in Friday Harbor, she owns a glass studio and is in a relationship with a good guy...until he breaks up with her for none other than that same spoiled younger sister.  Who's now moving in with him, meaning that Lucy has to move out.  Baffled and broken-hearted, she packs up and moves in with two friends who run a bed and breakfast.  And she also happens to run into Sam Nolan along the way, the middle Nolan brother who owns a Victorian house and accompanying vineyard on Rainshadow Road.  The two have an immediate connection but Lucy doesn't want to date anyone and Sam is completely against commitment--but he's open to a friends-with-benefits relationship, if Lucy decides she's interested.  And when he ends up taking care of her after she's in a bicycle accident, their connection and attraction begins to grow...

One thing that I did like here was that Kleypas avoided a conflict that revolved entirely around a simple miscommunication or silly secret; when Lucy's ex tries to get Sam to take her out to benefit himself, Sam immediately tells Lucy that he was asked to do it, and they move past it.  I also liked Holly's continuing inclusion in this book.  She seemed like a normal, silly kid and, while she wasn't exactly necessary to the story, I didn't feel she dragged it down unnecessarily, either.  Friday Harbor itself continues to have a great atmosphere that makes me want to go on vacation there.  And of course, as in all Kleypas books, the banter between the characters is good, the side characters are clearly set up to become main characters in future (or past!) books and are therefore a bit more three-dimensional than side characters tend to be, and the kissing and sex scenes were deliciously steamy.

But the magic elements... Why?  I just don't understand.  They're just not necessary, and they were entirely absent in the first book of the series, so I'm not sure why Kleypas decided to integrate them now with a clear path for more to show up in the rest of the books.  I think she was trying to add in a bit of magical realism, but it didn't work in that sense.  Additionally, Lucy insists throughout the book that she doesn't really know how to control her ability, that things just happen when she gets emotional, and yet at the end she just suddenly knows how to exactly control it.  And somehow her glass magic suddenly manages to change Sam's house and vineyard?  What?  Where did that come from?

The writing here also isn't Kleypas' best.  While she excels at building atmosphere and background in her historicals, it seems like in her contemporaries she tends to tell rather than show and info-dump in an attempt to get allllll the info out there when it seems like most of it could have just been integrated a bit more gracefully throughout the book.  And her hero, Sam, is mostly good, but had some controlling tendencies.  Lucy did some glass work for a biker church, and the bikers are eager to help her throughout the book--they take her car to get it fixed after it breaks down, seem inclined to give her rides, help her out in a bar, etc., and yet Sam is adamant that he doesn't want her involved with them.  And instead of insisting that her friends are her friends, Lucy just goes along with it, which was somewhat disappointing.  The bikers seemed like decent guys, and even if they weren't, Lucy was a grown woman who could make her own decisions.

And then there are Lucy's parents, the king and queen of flip-flopping.  After apparently putting Lucy down for most of her life in order to give her sister Alice whatever she wanted, they abruptly jump ship to Lucy's side when Alice steals Lucy's boyfriend.  They make it seem like it was the last straw for them, but honestly I found that unrealistic; it seemed more to me like they would have just gone along with it, since this didn't seem that much more extreme than some of the other things Alice had done.  Alice herself also had no appeal to me; Kleypas tries to include some redeeming sister time near the end, but honestly I don't think that Alice could really change.  Lucy spent so much time saying how you shouldn't date someone with the expectation that you could or would change them, but then suddenly Alice was able to be changed?  I doubt it.

Overall, this is not as good as Kleypas' historicals, for the most part.  But...it's still weirdly appealing.  The characters and atmosphere are charming and the romance still sizzles, and that seems to override some of the many other weaknesses.  And they're quick reads, as well, so I guess I don't mind too much.

3 stars out of 5, but I'm not really expecting the future books to improve--though I'll likely still read them!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Tale of Despereaux - Kate DiCamillo

The Tale of DespereauxThe Tale of Despereaux was my pick for a category for my 2017 reading challenge for "A book from a non-human perspective."  This was a really hard category to find a book for; the obvious books, like Black Beauty, I had already read or, like The Art of Racing in the Rain, refused to read because I don't like to read books where the dog dies.  A list of books with non-human main characters suggested The Tale of Despereaux.  It's kind of a loose fit for the category, but half of our point-of-view characters are non-human, so I'm going to go with it since I'm having such hard time finding a title for this category.

The tale is a whimsical, middle-grade level story about a very small mouse who falls in love with a princess and is condemned to death for treading into the human world, but escapes his fate and embarks on a quest to save said princess from a rat named Chiaroscuro.  Also involved is a simple serving girl named Mig.  There's an omniscient narrator who tells the story, but each character has a background portion of the book and then they all come together later on.

The writing here is very fairy tale-like, which was probably the point.  There's some very poignant prose as well, which surprised me for a middle-grade book, but then I guess that's why this won a Newbery Medal.  Take this line from near the end of the book, for example: "But, alas, he never really belonged in either place, the sad fate, I am afraid, of those whose hearts break and then mend in crooked ways."  This is such a simple yet powerful statement that I kind of had to take a step back and examine how it fits not just this story, but so many other ones, and so many people in the real world.  Even when it's not explicitly stated about a character, it's easy to see in hindsight how this suits so many people both real and fictional, and it's a very insightful line and good lesson for a book of this level.

The characters here are all sympathetic, even the "bad" ones.  You can see how they came to where they are and how they've grown, and continue to grow as the story progresses.  The simple narrative style actually lends itself to this because the circumstances are laid out in such a matter of fact manner that everything is very clear, without DiCamillo trying to twist things around and add so many layers that you can't really see to the truth of the thing.  It's also a quick read, which makes it even more impressive that it packs so much emotion and dimension into a relatively small page count, and an even smaller one once you factor in the illustrations that take up a significant portion of space.  The illustrations were actually the one thing I didn't really like about the book; I don't feel like they added to the story, and illustrations actually take away some of the ability of the reader to visualize things as they wish, so I'm pretty much always against them for all but the most junior-reading-level books.

Overall, though, a wonderful, simple story with a good heart that I think even older readers such as myself can enjoy.

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Seven Minutes in Heaven - Eloisa James (Desperate Duchesses #9, Desperate Duchesses by the Numbers #3)

25256835Oh, Eloisa James.  You never fail me.  Not really.  Unlike the last historical romance I read, Lisa Kleypas' Devil in Spring, James' latest, Seven Minutes in Heaven, was an utter delight, even if trying to keep the relations of all the characters straight made my head ache.
 
Seven Minutes is the third in the Desperate Duchesses by the Numbers series, which is a continuation of the Desperate Duchesses series, but with the "next generation" of couples finding love.  The hero, Ward Reeve, is the illegitimate son of the hero of the first Desperate Duchesses book, the Earl of Gryffyn.  The heroine, Eugenia Snowe, is the widowed daughter of the hero of Duchess by Night, which I think was DD #3.  But pretty much all of the couples make an appearance here in one way or another, and the way they're all connected--having read the original books several years ago and even the most recent one around a year ago--gave me a bit of a headache as I tried to keep everyone straight.
 
The plot is simple.  Since her widowing, Eugenia has operated a registry for governesses, sending out the best child-rearers in the country to families in need.  Ward is definitely in need.  He's recently found himself the guardian of his two younger half-siblings, who are eight and nine years old and have to this point been raised under rather unusual circumstances.  Unusual enough that they're little hellions and have driven away not one but two of Eugenia's best governesses in short order.  So he decides he wants Eugenia--and it doesn't hurt that he's attracted to her, and that she's decided that maybe moving on from her dead husband to have a little fun would be in her best interests...
 
As with all of James' books, this is charming.  There's a simple misunderstanding at the heart of the book, albeit one that, for most of the time, the two main characters don't really know exists.  Yes, a little more communication could have been useful and derailed most of it, but the two protagonists were so concerned with being proper even within the bounds of a rather improper relationship that I can kind of see why they were being so circumspect with each other.  Their banter was delightful and witty, as James' banter always is.  And while Eugenia is willing to compromise on many things, one thing she is not willing to compromise on is that the man she ends up with must respect her--and while she thinks Ward might love her, she's not sure he respects her, and she's willing to walk away without that respect.  For a long time, I was worried that James wasn't going to resolve this, and that Eugenia would compromise on that demand for respect--but she didn't! James resolved it wonderfully, just as she always does.
 
And another high point here was the children.  I don't typically like child characters in books, but James has actually used them to her advantage quite a bit.  I don't remember Eugenia and Ward as children from the original DD books, though now I'm tempted to go back and read particularly for them, but Lizzie and Otis, Ward's younger half-siblings here, are wonderful.  They add such color to the story, but they're not weird for the sake of being weird.  Rather, they're weird because of the way they were brought up prior to their arrival on Ward's doorstep, and they have additional depths that come out as the story unfolds--such as why Lizzie really wears that veil.  They're integral to the plot and they're well-rounded characters, which is so rare for children that seeing them done so well was refreshing.
 
One thing, though: James brought a character back from the dead here!  The Dowager Duchess of Gilner was apparently killed off in one of the original DD books.  I don't remember that, but I believe that it happened--James has even owned up to it publicly on Goodreads, professing how embarrassed she was that she didn't realize it until a reviewer pointed it out and it was too late to fix, presumably by subbing in another distant relative to serve as an antagonist here.  I believe this was a mistake and not, as some readers have clamored, James taking advantage of her readers and presuming they're too stupid to notice what she did.  I mean, even James' editors have to be having issues keeping up with all her entangled families and characters by now, but I feel like James herself should have been a bit more on top of who was dead and who was still alive.
 
Overall, this was a great read, particularly in juxtaposition to Devil In Spring.  Like DIS, SMIH has a woman with her own business who also wants love but doesn't want to give up her dreams--though Eugenia's dreams, at least in a professional capacity, have already been fulfilled, where Pandora's had just begun.  But where Pandora throws out her dreams in the space of a few chapters once she experiences sex, Eugenia knows better.  She's older and wiser, yes, but overall she's just a better character.  If you read DIS and were disappointed, I'd definitely recommend this one instead--or, really, any of the Desperate Duchesses by the Numbers books, which all feature women who have their own professions despite the times in which they live.
 
4 stars out of 5.

This also fulfills my 2017 Popsugar Reading Challenge category for "A book by an author who uses a pseudonym."  Eloisa James is the pseudonym used by Mary Bly for her romance novels.