Sunday, December 31, 2017

The City of Brass - S. A. Chakraborty (The Daevabad Trilogy #1)

The City of Brass (The Daevabad Trilogy, #1)When City of Brass popped up as a Book of the Month selection for December, I was super excited.  While magical realism books have popped up a few times recently in their selections, it's been a while since I've seen an actual, traditional fantasy novel available.  And The City of Brass is not just a great traditional fantasy novel--it features main characters of whom none are white.

The story follows two main characters: Nahri, a young woman with mysterious healing powers who makes a living as a thief and con artist in Cairo, during the time that the city was besieged by Napoleon and who accidentally summons a djinn; and Ali, a djinn prince who is training to be the Qaid (essentially the head of the guards) for the djinn city of Daevabad and who is secretly funding a rebellion by the shafit, or those of mixed djinn and human blood.  When Dara, the djinn Nahri summoned, whisks her off to Daevabad in pursuit of her mysterious heritage, she and Ali are set on a collision course.

I was excited to see a fantasy set in Egypt in this era, but unfortunately it moved away from Cairo pretty quickly.  However, the city of Daevabad was wonderful.  The book is full of lush imagery, from the brass walls surrounding the city to the different djinn districts, garb, and rituals.  The divisions, racism, and bigotry between and amongst the groups felt very real.  Chakraborty has managed to create a world that feels real, incorporating just enough "human" elements to not completely alienate readers--many of the djinn practice a form of Islam, though she doesn't really dig into it--but still having it feel foreign and disorientating and magical.  The conflict between Nahri's ancestors and Ali provides the crux of the book, as does the djinn king's machinations for what's happening in his city regarding both Nahri and the shafit.  There is a minor element of romance between Dara and Nahri, which I liked, but I suspect it won't last--and probably shouldn't; I wouldn't blame Nahri for not forgiving Dara for some of his actions--and I hope the love interest doesn't swivel to Ali instead, though I suspect it would.  I liked the friendship that Nahri and Ali had, sincere despite both of them knowing that each had ulterior motives.  There are also layers of history here, though I felt like I didn't understand all of them; I would have liked some more information about the peri and the marid, for example.

This is a very promising first book for a fantasy series; the world, the characters, the magic all seem to have a lot of possibilities set up for future books.  I'm just disappointed that I'll have to wait for the next one!

4.5 stars out of 5.

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Shivering Sands - Victoria Holt

The Shivering SandsA Gothic romance was my last category to read for my 2017 romance challenge with the Unapologetic Romance Readers group.  I'd had The Shivering Sands picked out for quite a while, and saved it for the end of the challenge so I'd at least have one good category to look forward to after drudging through a bunch that I really didn't like.  Someone once told me that Victoria Holt was the queen of Gothic romances, and so it seemed like a good choice--especially because I've already read the most iconic of Gothic romances, Daphne DeMaurier's Rebecca, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, and Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.

In the wake of the disappearance of her archaeologist sister Roma, Caroline takes on the position of music teacher for the manor in the town in which Roma disappeared.  Going incognito, she hopes to make a living, distance herself from the death of her famous pianist husband, and possibly solve her sister's disappearance, as well.  At Lovat Stacy, she becomes entwined with the three young women who live there, the returned prodigal son Napier who was responsible for his older brother's death, and the other strange and curious residents of both the manor and the surrounding area.  When a second disappearance occurs and Caroline continues to investigate, she finds that she might be the next on the list of those to disappear.  The title refers to the quicksands that lurk off the coast of Lovat Stacy, which have devoured ships whole, leaving only their masts to haunt the inhabits of the manor and town on the shore.

This was definitely a Gothic.  It has a mystery, it has a gloomy atmosphere--the manor by the cold and stormy sea, the burned-out chapel in the copse.  It has the characters who may or may not be guilty of terrible things on pretty much every front.  It has a mad relative lurking in the wings to shake things up and make strangely insightful statements.  It has a heroine with a boring and yet tragic past who pokes her nose into something larger than she, and who ends up deeper than she ever intended to be.  Gothics are not fast-paced action novels and they don't tend to be steamy romances, either.  Consequently, the pacing can be a bit slow, the heroines more introspective than in some other genres.  That was certainly the case here.  The romance is mild, with two love interests representing polar opposite futures vying for Caroline's hand--but it's clear that her mind is made up from the start, even as she fights against it in the name of logic.  There's not a lot of wooing, or embraces, or anything like that.  Instead, the romance is more the "drawn to you and I don't know why" type, but I think it works because it suits the atmosphere of the book.  Caroline is, after all, drawn to Lovat Stacy and its inhabitants and she doesn't quite know why, being as she has already accepted that her sister is dead before she arrives.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book.  It's slower, quieter, but the atmosphere was spot-on, the air of menace lurked over the whole thing, and I didn't manage to figure out who the individual behind the disappearances was.  Of course I knew that quicksand was going to have to be involved in at least one case--the title of the book points that out on its own--but I didn't guess in what way, and the way Holt wrapped it all up was beautifully done as well.  I would definitely read more by this author.

5 stars out of 5.

Cocoa Beach - Beatriz Williams

Cocoa BeachDon't be fooled by the pretty colors and frothy cover--Cocoa Beach is not a book about a vacation on a tropical beach.  Rather, it's a historical novel set during World War I and during the interwar years, with a quiet menace lurking in the background and a whole posse of unreliable characters.  This book could have easily been titled Liars and the Lies They Tell but it probably wouldn't have given off the same vibe.

The book is entirely from the perspective of Virginia Fortescue, a young mother whose family has a dark secret that's just come to light and who spent World War I driving ambulances in Europe, where she met her husband, British doctor Simon.  The time period alternates between Virginia's time meeting and falling in love with Simon during the war and several years later, when they've been separated, Simon is dead, and Virginia has gone to Florida with their daughter to handle the estate of the man she hasn't seen in three years.  But Virginia doesn't quite believe that Simon is actually dead, and a whole heap of things suggest she might be right--and even if she's not, there was definitely more going on with his death than just an accidental house fire.

I really enjoyed this book.  Trying to figure out which characters were telling the truth and which ones were lying was an interesting endeavor.  I guessed some of the plot points here ahead of time, but not all of them, and there was one doozy near the end that really came out of nowhere to smack me upside the head--but still made sense in the context of the book.  The writing was very good--not excellent, but very good.  The atmosphere that Williams creates in war-torn France, in dreary Cornwall, and of course in Cocoa Beach is wonderful.  There are even some Gothic tones, particularly in the long segment at Maitland, the citrus plantation that features.  She also does a good job of making you doubt pretty much everyone; in the afterword, she mentioned that for much of the book she herself hadn't been sure of whether Simon was a good guy or a bad guy, and I could really feel that come through in Virginia's search for what happened.  That said, there were a few issues.  The "dark family secret" turns out to be nothing such; that should have been left alone, there was no need for it to be undone like that.  And then there are some weird turns of phrase here and there--the phrase "omnivorous eyes" comes instantly to mind.

Still, I really liked this.  It's a good historical mystery, but one that's not about a detective or officer, just a normal woman trying to find out what has happened to her life.  The settings and atmosphere suited it perfectly, and the juxtaposition between Virginia's near-bliss in war-torn Europe and her misery in the paradise of Cocoa Beach was very well done.  I would definitely recommend it and would even consider reading it again!

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Deep Down Dark - Hector Tobar

Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them FreeA recommendation from the DC library, I picked up the audiobook of Deep Down Dark to listen to while processing spreadsheets at work.  This is the book about the Chilean mine disaster that trapped thirty-three miners underground in 2010; during their ordeal, the miners made a bargain to sell their story collectively, something they mostly held to, and Hector Tobar ended up being the one to write it.  As the only person who had the full, authorized version, much of the book comes from exclusive interviews conducted with the men involved.

The book starts the morning of the disaster with the men going to work, and goes all the way up until Tobar is actually writing the book.  While thirty-three men were trapped, Tobar focuses on a few "main characters" in order to tell the story, the ones who were the most prominent in one way or another.  Additionally, he pulls in people from the surface who weren't as focused on, such as the sister of one of the miners who was known as the "mayor" of the camp town that sprang up outside the mine during the men's imprisonment and rescue efforts.  He goes over the different plans to reach and rescue the men, which involved personnel and equipment from an unbelievable number of countries.  This was kind of like a real-life The Martian but set underground instead of on Mars--and with more people.  But the basics are the same; there's a disaster, someone (or many someones) are trapped seemingly beyond reach and hope, and the world comes together to get them back.  Tobar also goes into the politics of the rescue and its aftermath; how different parties used it as leverage in campaigns, the backlash against the men when they didn't react like the media wanted them to, etc.  They've never been compensated by the company or the government for their ordeal, which is truly criminal; Oakley sunglasses and trips to countries provided by those countries don't exactly make up for the trauma of being trapped in a mine for months.

That said, sometimes the narrative seemed to stall, and not because forward movement in the search and rescue had stalled.  More, it would be because Tobar started repeating things or repeating the same thing but in the words of different people.  While I can see the value of multiple perspectives, at some point it really seemed to not be necessary and to just be taking up space.  Additionally, though Tobar focuses on a smaller cast of characters than was actually involved, the cast is still large enough that it's hard to keep track of who is who at times--particularly for someone unfamiliar with Latin American names like myself; had I seen them on a page I think I would have pinned them by sight, but listening they sometimes blended together especially as they were frequently known by nickname and relationships in addition to given names.  He does reveal a lot of the bickering and conflict that took place surrounding the rescue, which I liked--because not everyone gets to be a sparkling white hero.  In fact, no one does; everyone has flaws, and he shows them, which I think was necessary in order for this book to be sincere.

Overall, a very good listen.  It's long, but worth it if you have the time and the interest.

4 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Flame and the Flower - Kathleen E. Woodiwiss (Birmingham #1)

The Flame and the Flower (Birmingham)The second-to-last category of my 2017 romance reading challenge is done, and it was the last category I was dreading, since I saved one I was looking forward to for my final book.  What was the category, you ask?  The bodice ripper.  And when you look up bodice rippers, the name of Woodiwiss abounds, so one of hers seemed like the logical choice to fill this category.  Of course, bodice rippers are known for an abundance of rape and creepy men and unlikable heroines, so I pretty much knew what I was in for going into it.

The story is about Heather, living a life of drudgery with her aunt and uncle until her aunt's brother offers to bring her to London to get her a position teaching at a school--though when they arrive, he promptly attempts to rape her, ending in a struggle in which he's stabbed and Heather flees.  Her flight ends rather abruptly when two sailors get hold of her and take her onto a ship where she meets Brandon Birmingham, the captain, who thinks she's a prostitute and does proceed to rape her, several times, despite her repeatedly telling him no and declaring she's not a prostitute.  So, nice guy.  Heather manages to flee again, back to her aunt and uncle, until it's discovered she's pregnant and they all return to London to force Brandon to marry her, with the help of a family friend.  And then Heather is whisked away to America, where Brandon lives and plans to stay after retiring from his life at sea.

So, this is basically the story of an eighteen-year-old girl falling in love with her rapist, who is nearly twice her age.  Brandon declares that he hates Heather for trapping him into marriage, and that she'll be nothing but a servant to him, but he never treats her as such.  Though he does eventually threaten to rape her again if she doesn't come to him willingly.  So there's that.  Overall, he's not as rapey and creepy as most bodice ripper heroes, but I definitely still would not put in him the categories of "good guy" or "desirable romantic interest" because of the way he basically disregards Heather's feelings while simultaneously panting after her for the entire book.  And, you know, how he says that he raped her eight months ago and she should be over it by now.  Of course, to balance out Brandon's rather mild status are a bunch of other bodice ripper tropes--all other women hating Heather because she has Brandon and they don't and is prettier than them, all the other men wanting to rape Heather because she's pretty and innocent and naive, and a few murders thrown in for good measure.

The writing here is measurably better than the last bodice ripper I read, Savage Ecstasy, which was quite a relief.  I wouldn't go so far as to say I enjoyed this book, but reading it wasn't the form of torture that SE was.  It's all rather purple and melodramatic but again, that's something that I expected of a book in this genre in general.  Heather's feelings for Brandon were completely unrealistic--she's afraid of him for a bit and then gaga over him in quick succession and laughs off her extremely traumatic rape within less than a year.  But that's probably to be expected because Heather doesn't really seem to have much agency at all.  Every now and then she gets mad and stamps her foot or breaks something, but these rages never lead to actual action and she just goes back to doing whatever Brandon wants--or whatever she thinks he wants--the next time he appears on the page.  And then there's the portrayal of people of color--Brandon's housekeeper is black woman who is basically the embodiment of the Mammy stereotype (a la Gone with the Wind; it's a thing in books that take place during the era preceding the Civil War that black women are either portrayed as "the Mammy" or "the Jezebel" with little else to distinguish them) and it's questionable whether or not the "servants" were actually slaves.  They're called servants, but everyone else in the Charleston area has slaves, sooooo...

Obviously, this is a very problematic book.  The portrayal of "romantic rape," the women who are clearly sluts because they want sex but are not Heather, the "all ugly people are bad," the stereotyping of people of color, and all the other things I mentioned above all add up to it.  However, as it wasn't as terrible--in writing, in brutality, in pretty much anything, as the last one I read, sooo...

1.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, December 25, 2017

A Pirate for Christmas - Anna Campbell

A Pirate for ChristmasA Pirate for Christmas was the holiday romance selection for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' group.  Like most Christmas-themed historical romances, it's a novella rather than a full-length novel.  Also like most Christmas-themed historical romances (and Christmas romances in general, regardless of time period) it relies on love at first sight to get everything going--probably because the short length doesn't leave as much room for relationship and character development.

The two main characters here are Bess, the daughter of the vicar of her rural village, and Rory, who has just taken over the title of Earl after his older brother's death.  There's a rumor rampant in town that Rory is a dastardly pirate, but we know from the book's description that he was actually in the Royal Navy.  When Bess visits the manor to obtain the donkey that always takes part in the Christmas play (Daisy--Daisy was probably the best part of the book) she encounters Rory, the two fall in love at first sight but are of course unable to express their feelings for each other, and go edging around each other as Bess starts reorganizing Rory's house and gets him to give her Daisy and his own participation in the Christmas play...all for the price of a kiss, of course.

As I mentioned before, there's not a lot of room for plot or character development here.  Bess and Rory spend most of the time mooning at each other from afar with all of the village folk trying to push them together, and then there's an extended scene where they conveniently get stuck in a cabin in the woods during a snowstorm together.  Rory wants Bess and Bess wants Rory and and Rory spends a lot of time pursuing Bess but not really wanting to do anything about it because he wants to marry her first (because that's what she deserves) but also not really doing anything to move in a marriage direction.  But of course that's where it all ends up, and then there's a weird time-jump to the honeymoon where the ~sexy times~ start.  Honestly things probably would have been a bit more interesting of Rory really had been a dastardly pirate instead of a misunderstood navy captain, but meh.

Christmas romances in book form are, essentially, the same as those cheesy holiday movies that you see on TV all the time at this time of year.  They  might be cute, for what they are, but they're not particularly good.  This book follows that trope exactly.

2 stars out of 5.

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes - Dan Egan

The Death and Life of the Great LakesRecently my boyfriend decided that we should read more books together so that we can discuss them, and since more books is always okay with me, off we went.  He picked the first book, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, which was also hugely interesting to me because I grew up on the Great Lakes, specifically Lake Erie but with visits to Lake Michigan and also the Niagara River in the Niagara Falls area.  I'm familiar with zebra mussels and sea weed and algae slicks and dead fish on the beach.  I knew that the Cuyahoga River used to catch fire with some regularity, and that Erie, PA was the largest freshwater fishing port in the world, and that the lake just didn't freeze over like it used to, and that Lake Erie was, quite frankly, pretty polluted and gross.  But I didn't know how bad things actually were.

Egan divides his book into three parts: the front door, the back door, and the future.  The "front door" to the Great Lakes is the Saint Lawrence Seaway, over which foreign ships bring cargo and also ballast water laden with invasive species, which they then proceed to dump in the Great Lakes.  Enter the zebra mussel and the quagga mussel, plagues upon fresh water systems everywhere.  This part also deals with the sea lamprey (mostly dealt with now due to a massive ongoing poisoning campaign--pleasant, right?), the alewife, and the chinook and coho salmon, planted in the lakes by a misguided campaign by one person to make the lakes into some sort of sport fishing paradise.  All of this, of course, ravaged the lakes' natural ecosystem, to the point that they will never truly recover.  The "back door" is the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which connects the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River Basin.  Not only has it provided a route for the quagga and zebra mussels to spread to much of the country beyond the lakes, but it's providing a route for extremely invasive species of Asian Carp to get into the lakes, which would make all the devastation the mussels have wreaked look like nothing.  This part also talks about runoff that has led to toxic algae blooms on Lake Erie that threaten clean water supplies.  And finally, the third part talks about threats to the lakes from climate change, cities wanting to funnel away the water for various reasons, and finally a drop of hope in the bucket of despair in regards to how the lakes are, in some small way, adapting and people are working to "fix" them.

This is a bleak book.  Despite Egan's attempts to show that, if we really try, we can stop the damage and start to repair it, it's pretty clear that the lakes will never be what they once were again.  The invasive species can't be gotten rid of.  There's some hope with genetic manipulation of them, but that can be a Pandora's box all on its own.  And then there's an absolute reluctance for people to actually do anything to begin with.  Farmers don't want to change their fertilizing practices, saying that the agricultural runoff isn't really due to them, even though there's overwhelming evidence to show that it is.  Agreements to funnel water away from the lakes keep going through.  There's no real teeth in an order that ships coming from overseas implement better methods of cleansing their ballast tanks of invasive species before dumping in the lakes.  And everyone fights tooth and nail against suggestions to cut the Chicago canal off from the lakes to stop the march of Asian carp.  All of this despite the fact that all of this going on is costing money and stopping it would not really affect trade or the economy at all.  It's infuriating.  Rage-inducing.  And pretty darn hopeless.

This is an excellent read, though.  Egan's writing is engaging and informative at the same time, and he writes in a narrative style while still conveying so much about the state and future of the lakes.  Sprinkled with interviews and anecdotes, I could definitely see the years of reporting that went into what ultimately became this book.  It's also an important read, and I think that it should be pushed on pretty much everyone possible.  The Great Lakes aren't just the problem of the people who live on them; they are twenty percent of the world's available surface freshwater.  That said, there is something that I think was missing here, and that is that the book is written almost entirely from an American perspective.  Egan's an American who did this research for American papers, so that's understandable.  However, Canada also touches the Great Lakes and has a ton of influence on what happens to them!  I would have loved to see something from the other side of the border--a part, a chapter, something other than a few lines about Canadian initiatives that match American ones.

Overall, an excellent read albeit a depressing one.  Read it anyway.  Educate yourself.  Water is everyone's problem.

4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Lace Reader - Brunonia Barry

The Lace Reader (The Lace Reader, #1)The Lace Reader was my final book for my 2017 Popsugar Reading Challenge.  The category was "A book recommended by an author you love."  An author I love is definitely Tamora Pierce, and luckily for me, she has a list of recommended books up on her website--and I already had The Lace Reader on my Kindle, so it was an easy pick.

The main character is narrator Towner, a self-proclaimed unreliable narrator.  On the very first page of the book, Towner (whose real name is not even Towner) proclaims that she always lies, which about sets the tone for the rest of the book.  However, it's pretty clearly not Towner's fault that she lies; she has gaps in her memory and some apparent delusions, all centered around a traumatic past involving the death of her twin sister and a family member who heads an extremely conservative cult, the kind that believes in burning witches, and who happens to believe that Towner and several of her female family members are witches.  You can imagine how well this family functions.

The story takes place when Towner returns to Salem (as in the Salem Witch Trials) after years of being away in the wake of the death of her aunt, to whom she was very close.  Towner thinks there's something suspicious about Eva's death, as does a local cop who liked Eva and becomes close with Towner.  But returning dredges up all kinds of stuff that was probably better buried, puts Towner back in the path of her crazy, cult-leading uncle, and also entwines her in a missing persons case for a young woman who belonged to the uncle's cult.

The book is divided up into a few different formats.  There are first-person chunks from Towner's perspective, third-person chunks that focus on Detective Rafferty, and also some documents, including snippets from "The Lace Reader's Guide," a sort of journal that Eva kept, and a journal that Towner herself kept while she was staying in a psychiatric hospital following the death of her twin.  I think all of these worked well together, for the most part, and I did like her general writing style.  I think the writing felt fluid and she did a great job building a sense of Salem as a place.  The supporting characters were well done, and for most of the book I liked trying to figure out what was true and what wasn't based on what Towner and the other characters told us.

However.  Ultimately, some of the execution here fell flat.  There were just too many holes left at the end, too many things that seemed to contradict what we'd been told for the rest of the book.  If the things that we find out at the end are true, then a lot of townspeople were just going along with Towner's delusions, which didn't feel like it was the case throughout most of the book.  Yes, people said that Towner was crazy--which she kind of was--but no one seemed to indicate anything that directly contradicted anything that she, as a narrator, presented to us.  And they probably should have.  Even if people weren't willing to say something to Towner's face, she--like the other women in her family--was psychic and could pick up on people's thoughts, which certainly seems like it should have brought something to the surface that wasn't there.  And when things do start coming out in the epilogue of the book, it's kind of a jumble and too many things are left unexplained, and though Towner herself seems to know what's what at the end, we as readers do not, which is strange considering she was narrating.

Overall, I think this is a book that needs more than one read-through; I'd need to go back through it knowing what I did know at the end to try to tease some of the loose pieces out of the earlier portions of the book.  However, I don't think this should be a necessary storytelling device.  I enjoyed this, but think that the structure overall had some issues in the unreliability category.  Still, the writing was good and I'd definitely be open to reading more by Barry.

3 stars out of 5.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express - Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot #10)

Murder on the Orient Express (Hercule Poirot, #10)One of the categories that I agonized over in my 2017 reading challenge was the one for a book becoming a movie this year--mainly because there weren't really any books becoming movies that a) I hadn't already read and b) I wanted to read.  I finally settled on the classic mystery Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie.  This is the tenth Hercule Poirot mystery, but you definitely don't have to have read the other ones in order to read it--I hadn't.  Hercule Poirot is basically an "any detective" of the Sherlock Holmes persuasion, solving crimes mostly by thinking about them and observing things rather than pounding the pavement, examining forensic evidence, etc.

Somehow, despite knowing what happens in all the Star Wars movies that have come out recently without having seen them, or knowing what happens in Game of Thrones without having read the books or seen the show, I've never known who the murderer is on the Orient Express, which now strikes me as somewhat strange.  But I knew it was a closed-circle mystery, which is a mystery in which the setting means that the detectives, suspects, witnesses, etc. are a limited pool that no one can join or leave because they are isolated by something--in this case, they are stuck on a train that is stranded in the mountains of Yugoslavia because it ran into a snow drift.  When a murder is discovered to have been committed, it's up to Hercule Poirot, who hopped the train to answer a summons in London, to find who the guilty party is.

This is a pretty quick read and the chapters are short, making it easy to pick up and put down.  I also think it's a good mystery because, while there is a twist, Christie puts in enough clues that you can figure it out, if you're paying attention and can maybe stretch your imagination a little.  In fact, this is one of the first mysteries where I started to think, "Wait a minute..." and while I didn't get everything exactly right, I was pretty darn close!  Considering how terrible I am at figuring out most mysteries, that made me pretty proud of myself, and I think it's also a testament to how good Christie was--after all, she wasn't the "Queen of Mystery" for no reason.  No matter how far-fetched the scenario got (and it gets very, very far-fetched) she seemed to make it work in a way that less-far-fetched plot twists in contemporary mysteries and thrillers don't seem to, purely because these more recent ones always have me going, "How did they figure that out?" whereas this made perfect sense.

Overall, very fun.  I can see why people enjoy Agatha Christie so much.  However, I'm not sure how this can be made into an interesting movie, being as it's mostly people sitting around and talking.  Maybe something a la 12 Angry Men?

4 stars out of 5.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Savage Ecstasy - Janelle Taylor (Gray Eagle #1)

Savage Ecstasy (Gray Eagle, #1)Slogging through the remainder of my romance reading challenge categories before the end of the year, I came to this: Savage Ecstasy.  This fit into the category of "A Native American romance."  This is a particularly bad category for a couple of reasons.  First, despite asking around in the romance group, I could not find any #OwnVoices Native American romances.  If you know of one, please direct me to it.  But what this ultimately meant was that all of the ones I was finding were written by white women.  Not ideal.  Second, there aren't a lot of ones I could find that were written within the past few decades, which mean that they were pretty much all coming from the era of bodice rippers.  I mean, the title should probably tell you all you need to know about this book, and the rest that I saw were very much like it.  But I already had this one, because it was a bodice ripper buddy read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers last year that I never got around to actually completing.  And so, since I couldn't find anything that looked better, off I went.

This book is just as offensive and downright terrible as the title would suggest.  The story follows Alisha, who has moved to the western territories of the American colonies with her uncle following the death of her parents.  One day some men living in her settlement capture an Oglala warrior, Gray Eagle, and plan to torture and kill him for kicks, but Alisha intervenes and eventually he's just put into isolation instead--from which he escapes and quickly extracts his revenge, returning with his buddies to kill basically everyone at the fort with the exception of Alisha and a few others--one other woman, who's turned into a whore, and a few men that are tortured and killed at the Oglala camp.  He claims Alisha for his own and so begins a brutal tale of repeated rape and abuse on literally every level that's peddled as a romance in which, by the end of the book, the two main characters have never held a conversation.  Seriously.  Gray Eagle speaks English but he doesn't let Alisha know this and so they just snipe at each other in their respective languages with nothing actually being communicated, and Gray Eagle periodically raping Alisha because apparently this will make her love him and be loyal to him.  And Alisha obviously does love him because clearly you fall in love with someone in the thirty seconds it takes you to lay eyes on them, and them killing literally everyone you know, raping you, beating you, torturing you, etc. does nothing to challenge those emotions.

Not only does this book have an awful plot, but it's full of terrible writing and terrible tropes.  Yes, there are some editing issues here, but I think in this case that's actually caused by an older book being converted to a Kindle format.  But the writing itself is still terrible.  It's stilted, jumps between past and present tense, and was so boring that I actually found myself falling asleep while reading it.  Why?  Because there is no depth. It's all surface level, all tell and no show.  And for the terrible tropes?  Well, beyond the love at first sight and the rapey-ness of this, all the men want to bang Alisha because she is beautiful and pure!  And all of the women who are not Alisha hate her because all of the men want to bang her.  Obviously.  Additionally, Alisha is repeatedly described as looking like a little girl, which adds a whole new level of creepiness and ickiness to this which was completely unnecessary.

This was a terrible book.  I will definitely not be reading the others--yes, this is a series, if you can believe it--and cannot fathom reading anything else by this author in general.  There was literally nothing good about this.  I hated it.

1 star out of 5.

The Raven Prince - Elizabeth Hoyt (Princes #1)

The Raven Prince (Princes Trilogy, #1)This was the main buddy read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers group for December 2017.  I'm still waiting on the November title from the library, but the library didn't have this one at all, so I went ahead and bought it and read it during those dark morning hours that you have to suffer through when you travel time zones and consequently wake up two to three hours before everyone else--and the sun.  Good thing for Kindle Paperwhite, eh?

The story here follows Anna, a widow living with her mother-in-law and one servant and whose household is going through some financial difficulties.  She decides to get herself a job to help, and finds a position serving as secretary for the local earl, who has just moved back to the area and who no one has seen yet.  Of course, Anna finds out quickly that she has seen the earl--he nearly ran her over with his horse a few days before, leading to a rather awkward encounter.  And of course the two are attracted to each other, but there are Problems.  Like Anna being barren (which, come on, she clearly isn't) and Edward wanting a family to continue his line, and him being engaged to another woman in order to pursue that.  You know.  Stuff like that.  There's also a very minor blackmail subplot, but most of the book involves Anna trying to seduce Edward, even going so far as to get herself into a brothel so she can have sex with him without him knowing it's here.

This has a good premise and good writing, and I felt the characters had great chemistry, but looking more closely at it, there are definitely some problems.  Edward has a violent temper, doing things like throwing objects at his steward's head, and it seems like maybe that's not a great person to get involved with.  Anna is confident enough to go to London to seduce Edward, but not if he knows it's her--and then gets miffy when he doesn't realize afterward.  Uhm...what?  And when she tells Edward she doesn't want to marry him, he won't take no for an answer.  I know, I know, it's a romance and they need to end up together, so clearly he's going to have to ask her again--but he outright harasses her way past the point that was acceptable.  And he continues to sleep with her before breaking off his engagement to his fiancee, which is pretty slimy in and of itself.  The whole "woman sneaks into a brothel to have sex with the man she desires" trope is also one I've encountered before and not one I'm fond of.

That said...I didn't dislike this.  I think Hoyt's writing is really good, as I mentioned before, and I think it carried the book through its rather questionable character and plot points.  She can write good tension and good banter and a good sex scene, and there is also a minor side romance that was quaint; it's always nice when love isn't exclusively reserved for the main characters.  Also, I liked how the blackmail plot was resolved.  Anna makes a questionable (again) choice regarding it at first, but then realizes what she's doing and works to rectify it.  Of course things still go downhill, but that was more Edward's fault than Anna's.  The main story is also framed by a fairy tale book also called The Raven Prince, which follows the structure of "East of the Sun and West of the Moon" but with a little less work needing to be done on the heroine's end to get her man back.  But while I liked this device, I'm not entirely sure what purpose it served since the two stories don't really parallel each other at all.

This was my first Elizabeth Hoyt book, though I have a bunch of hers on my to-read list.  Based on it, I would read more; some of my other favorite historical romance authors have made some questionable choices in their back catalogues as well, and I've loved other works of theirs.  (Lisa Kleypas comes immediately to mind.)  Hoyt's writing was strong enough for me to not just toss her to the wayside, and I'm interested in seeing what she might have to offer in other plots, preferably ones with less issues involved.

2.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Final Girls - Riley Sager

Final GirlsI wanted to read a Stephen King novel for my Popsugar Reading Challenge.  I really did.  I was aiming for the "horror" genre for the category of "A bestseller from a genre you don't usually read," and Stephen King was the clear fit.  But there was a problem, and the problem was It.  Because of the new screen adaptation of It that came out recently, every single Stephen King novel at the library had a substantial waitlist that I knew I would never make it to the top of by the end of the year.  And so I started looking for alternatives.  And then came Final Girls, which is up for a Goodreads Choice award in the horror category and which Amazon is touting as an international bestseller, and which I already had in my apartment courtesy of Book of the Month.  And so off I went.

When she was nineteen, Quincy Carpenter survived a massacre that left five of her friends dead, and has suffered from amnesia regarding the events of that night ever since.  She switched schools, graduated, and moved to New York, where she runs a successful baking blog.  She eschews her status as a "Final Girl," aka the last girl standing at the end of a horror movie, and avoids contact with her two compatriots from other massacres, Lisa and Sam--and Sam has been off the grid for the past few years, anyway.  But that changes when Cooper, the cop who found Sam and killed the guy responsible for the deaths of her friends, contacts her to let her know that Lisa killed herself, and Sam shows up on her doorstep.  And when questions about Lisa's death start to come up, and Sam continues to press Quincy for details and pushes her towards the end, nothing is certain.

I did quite like this.  Quincy is just unstable enough to make you wonder if she really did kill everyone in the cabin, though there are several possible suspects floating around besides the one who actually did the killing.  I didn't catch on to any of the twists, and while I am naturally suspicious of every single person in a horror or thriller novel (the two genres seem to have converged somewhat in recent years) I didn't peg down what was happening here.  I even nursed a suspicion that Quincy's boyfriend was the person who had killed everyone and that he'd then sought her out for a relationship because he hadn't succeeded in killing her, mainly because this was the plot of an episode of Criminal Minds that I thought could fit the circumstances here.

Quincy is an interesting main character.  She is not a good person, and whether or not that is because of the trauma of Pine Cottage is up for debate.  She seems to have had issues, potentially dangerous ones, even before that, and they come raging to the surface once Sam enters her life.  I honestly found myself upset that Quincy didn't get her comeuppance at the end; though I liked her in the beginning of the book, she did some truly awful things in the middle that I felt her trauma could not excuse, and there was a disturbing lack of consequences in regards to them.

There was a disproportionate amount of baking here for a horror novel and I felt that the actual "horror" scenes were pretty far between--the entire cabin sequence, past and present, is of course the main source of horror here, in the traditional fashion and kind of Cabin in the Woods-esque but without the larger overarching meta-story--and the pacing sometimes felt slow and more like a traditional mystery.  I frequently found myself paging ahead to the next "Pine Cottage" chapter to see how long I would have to wait to get back to what was the real exciting sequence.

Overall, this was a good book, but the pacing was somewhat uneven and I'm not really sure if it was a true "horror" novel or more of a thriller; there seemed to be some crossover at parts, though, and Goodreads says it's horror, so I'm going to count it for the challenge.  Maybe I've been thinking horror is something other than what it actually is for a while now.

3 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Reading Challenge Updates

Well this is it: the final summary post for my 2017 Popsugar Reading Challenge!  I made it through this with a little bit of time to spare, and I'm already looking at my challenge for next year.  I'll do a final wrap-up post with the complete challenge closer to the end of the month, as well as the planning post for 2018.

-A book of letters.  I tackled The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society as planned for this, and it was lovely.  Lighthearted while dealing with a few serious subjects, and a charming main character and setting to boot.  I'd say about half the book is letters from the main character, Juliet, and the other half comprises letters from the other characters to Juliet and to each other.  I'm not big on books written in this style, and this was a pleasant surprise in a category I had been putting off.

-A book that's becoming a movie in 2017. I picked Murder on the Orient Express for this.  I wasn't planning on seeing the movie (and haven't) but I'd somehow avoided knowing who was the murderer up until this point in my life, and this is a classic mystery, so it seemed like a logical choice.  Was this story vastly improbable?  Yes.  Definitely.  Still, it was fun, and it's one of those mysteries that, improbable as it is, you can still piece together from the clues the author sprinkles throughout, which I think is fun.

-A book set in the wilderness.  As a kid, I read the Illustrated Classics version of Robinson Crusoe, which was evidently significantly different from the original.  It made reading the original a really logical choice for this category.  It comes from a time when "plot" wasn't really so much a thing as "characters wandering from place to place and doing things" and so the pacing feels very slow, and the ending abrupt because this is apparently actually a series, which I didn't know.  But I was still happy to get another classic under my belt!

-A book with multiple authors.  I picked Mutiny on the Bounty for this one.  It's a great seafaring tale, but because of the time and narrative style in which it was written, it can sometimes seem a bit slow.  It's one-third of the authors' fictionalized account of the Bounty mutiny and its aftermath, and I do plan on reading the other parts and hopefully finding a good nonfiction book that covers these events as well in order to gain scope and perspective regarding them.

-A bestseller from a genre you don't normally read.  I really wanted to read a Stephen King book for this, because horror is a genre I don't read a lot of (though I do read some; there isn't really a genre that I straight-up don't read) and King is the, well, king of modern horror.  But ultimately, when I wanted to get this done, I just couldn't get one of his books from the library.  So I swapped in Final Girls, which is up for a Goodreads award in the horror category, is apparently "an international bestseller," and which I already had in my apartment courtesy of Book of the Month.  I enjoyed this, but the pacing for much of it was somewhat slow and the main character, who is really not a good person, didn't ultimately get the comeuppance she deserved, which disappointed me.

-A book recommended by an author you love.  Tamora Pierce has reading lists for different age ranges on her website, and The Lace Reader was one of the titles on the adult list.  I already had it on my Kindle, which was a bonus.  I liked the writing style and trying to untangle the truth and lies of self-professed unreliable narrator Towner, but at the end was left feeling befuddled as to why some things appeared the way they did, why people went along with some of these lies, etc.  I think I'd need to re-read it with the ending already known to me in order to truly dig into this one.

-A book based on mythology.  I ended up switching Olympos out for this, because Olympos is a sequel, and I really need to re-read the first book before I take it on.  Norse Mythology is Neil Gaiman's take on Norse myths, blending different tellings of them and forming them into a loose story arc.  I liked it, but it wasn't as breathtaking as his novels or short stories; I hope to see him return to his more traditional works soon.

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Queen's Consorts - Kele Moon

The Queen's ConsortsThere are some books you just don't want to cop to reading, and I admit, a "menage a trois" romance for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' 2017 challenge was going to be one of them for me, no matter what the specific book ended up being.  And yet here I am, admitting it to the internet at large.

I have to admit, finding a book for this category was a struggle.  Why?  Because most books involving a menage are not going to be romances, they're going to be kink erotica and probably not all three parties are equally invested in the relationship; hence were my findings as I trawled through Goodreads lists.  Why did I end on The Queen's Consorts?  Well, it was an actual novel, which meant there would likely be some semblance of plot beyond just sex, since shorter pieces in erotica subgenres tend to be "characters meet, characters fuck, end scene."  Also, it was a fantasy/sci-fi book, which made it more reader-friendly to me and I actually think helped integrate a three-member relationship better into the story.

Heroine Sari is a young woman living on the streets after escaping years of sexual slavery in which she managed to never actually have sex--because of course, the heroine's virginity is tantamount to her goodness.  *eyeroll*  While helping a little girl who's also on the streets, Sari is attacked and almost killed before being rescued by a royal guard, who recognizes that she's of higher birth because of the streaks in her hair.  (Basically, society here is the upper class, which all have streaks, and the lower class, which doesn't, and it's all very weird and kind of racist in its own way.)  He also recognizes a pendant that she has, that no one else has recognized in all her years even though it means she's the queen who went missing when she was a child!  Gasp!  Who would have thought!  So he brings her into the palace and turns her over to "the queen's consorts" so they can take care of her while the guard puts things to rights.  You can imagine how well this goes.  Of course there is scheming and a coup and lots of sex in a magical bath along the way.

Let's start with things that I think worked for this book.  As someone who is not big into "kink" erotica, I liked that Moon set up her world where it is the norm for people to be in triad relationships composed of two males and one female, though it does make one wonder where all the lesbians are.  This norm made it easier for me to slip into the story and also did away with a threesome being something that Sari herself had to get over.  There's also some interesting mixing of sci-fi and fantasy; magic abounds, from how Sari's emotions control the weather to how there are magical healing baths, but there are also "bolter" weapons that seem more like something out of a space opera.  And finally, there were some good supporting characters beyond Sari and consorts Calder and Taryen; Macro comes immediately to mind, as does a "sister" that Sari encounters in the palace.  The writing was okay overall, and I will say that Moon can write a pretty good sex scene.

And as for what didn't work?  Well...I mean, Taryen and Calder's entire purpose in life is basically to give Sari orgasms so it will be sunny, which really seems to diminish Sari's purpose.  The planet seems to have run completely fine without her except for the weather, and having role of "orgasm to bring the sun" kind of reduces her to a sex object more than I'd like.  Also, all of the "sisters," aka others of the streaked-hair upper class, are basically evil, with the exception of one.  There is rampant sexual abuse of Calder and Taryen throughout at the hands of the sisters, which was hard to read.  And, while the world has some cool elements to it, it never really felt complete because Moon speeds through the book from sex scene to action scene to sex scene again, back and forth with little space to actually develop any of the world or characters--as they come to us is basically as they leave us at the end of the book.  And, am I really supposed to believe that Sari managed to not be found for years and escaped sexual slavery without having sex?  Because I don't.

Overall, I think this was kind of trying to be a Luna book (a publishing imprint that focuses on romantic fantasy novels!) but it kind of missed the mark because it just wasn't fleshed-out enough to shine.  There were some strong elements to it, but they weren't really tied together and kind of fell apart when Moon moved from one to another.  Unfortunately for me, this is a category in next year's reading challenge for the Unapologetic Romance Readers, too, so maybe I'll pick up another of her books if they fit and see if they're any more polished.

2 stars out of 5.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Robinson Crusoe - Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe #1)

Robinson CrusoeOkay, first off--who the heck knew that Robinson Crusoe actually kicked off a three book series?  I did not know this.  I was not aware of this at all.  Imagine my surprise when, getting to the end of the book, I found that this is continued in not one but two more books.  Oy.

When I needed a pick for a book set in the wilderness for the Popsugar 2017 Reading Challenge, I thought Robinson Crusoe was the natural pick.  It's a classic, and I want to read more of those, and I also had a foggy memory of reading the Great Illustrated Classics version when I was little.  Of course, I didn't realize then that those versions are pared-down significantly and in fact only found this out in the past coupe of years.  Oops.  Anyway, it meant reading the original long-form was a pretty easy decision.

This is a book typical of its genre--the early seafaring or adventuring tale, in which there isn't a strong central plot per se but is more just a character relating his adventures from a point later on in his life.  For our purposes, the character is the eponymous Robinson Crusoe, who tells of his misbegotten youth and many years shipwrecked on a deserted island in the Caribbean.  I suppose you could say the "plot" is that he gets shipwrecked and spends the rest of the book looking for a way to escape, but that's generous at best as most of the book is telling us how he survived on the island, combated fears and threats of native cannibals, etc.  There is a weird segment at the end after he does escape the island and is back in Europe, but that's clearly meant to segue readers into Defoe's second volume and, honestly, can probably be mostly ignored.  It really didn't fit the pacing or themes of the rest of the book at all, and felt very disjointed tacked onto the end as it was.

Because this isn't a book with a strong central plot or a lot of characters to carry the story without a plot, it means it really can be dry and boring.  For much of the book, Crusoe is the only character on the page, and when other characters enter at the beginning and end they are much simplified.  Much of the book is Crusoe telling us of his daily tasks and, to an annoying degree, the religious awakening he underwent while on the island.  Yes, this is a preachy book, which I was not expecting.  And yes, the recitation of the daily facts of life, which are mostly the same from day to day, got really old really fast.  I was kind of hoping Crusoe would make a break for it on the open sea, but alas, that never came about.  Because there are few big, story- or life-shifting events, the book is slow and dry for long expanses at a time.  Also, Defoe kept repeating things, like how Crusoe referred to a part of the island as his castle and another part as his bower--I got it after the first five times, thank you very much.  Maybe he was paid by the word.

Overall, it was fun revisiting this and seeing how much it differed from my childhood version (a lot!) but it wasn't really a riveting read, and I don't think I'm up for two more books of it.

2 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Temptation - Karen Ann Hopkins (Temptation #1)

Temptation (Temptation, #1)Things I did not know before taking on the Unapologetic Romance Readers challenge for 2017:

1) Christmas/holiday romances are pretty much all shorter than the typical romance novel.
2) Motorcycle romances basically all involve treating women terribly.
3) Amish romances are a thing!

Temptation was recommended for this category by a group member because it was cheap on Kindle.  And while price doesn't necessarily tell quality in Kindle books, sometimes it does...

The story here is about Rose, a non-Amish aka "English" girl who moves to a rural area with her father and brothers after her mother dies from cancer.  They are welcomed by the neighboring Amish family, and Rose instantly falls in love with their son Noah and he with her.  Oh, instalove.  But of course, their lifestyles are in the way of their twue whuv!  #drama  That is literally the entire plot to this book.

Noah has a Madonna/whore complex about Rose that really rubbed me the wrong way here.  He likes her because she is vibrant and different and nothing like the girls of his acquaintance--but also resents when she wears pants or makeup or talks to boys that aren't him, which are perfectly normal things for a sixteen-year-old girl to do, and Noah knows that it's normal for her and resents her for it anyway.  This is not the foundation of a healthy relationship.  Neither is Noah expecting Rose to drop her entire lifestyle and walk away from her family when he is not willing to make any concessions for her, because it's "just better" if they stay in the Amish community.  And Rose's willingness to go along with this really made me want to slap her upside the head.  You know how in The Little Mermaid movie, Ariel protests that she's fifteen and can do what she wants because she is an #adult, and you kind of want to smack her because No you are not you are fifteen!  Yeah, that's exactly what this was like for me.

This is a series, and I cannot possibly imagine how I could put up with this drama for two more books plus another that focuses on a different main character.  Yikes.  I mean, given the "climactic" events for this book, I'm very wary of Hopkins jumping the shark even moreso in the other books.  Additionally, the writing is just average and Hopkins very much does not have a good editor or clear grasp of grammar as it relates to dialogue, at all, which sometimes made it difficult to tell who was talking, when conversations began and ended, etc.  Additionally, as I mentioned before, there's no complexity at all to the characters or the plot, which actually made this a pretty bland read.

Overall, not something I think I'll be continuing.

1.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Hunger - Roxane Gay

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) BodyHunger is up for a Goodreads award, I had it from Book of the Month, and a coworker had read it it and recommended it, and so this confluence of events led me to read it.  Gay's memoir is, essentially, about being fat.  At her heaviest, she weighed close to six hundred pounds, and while she's significantly below that now, she's still considered super morbidly obese.  Her weight problem stems from childhood trauma--after being gang raped at the age of twelve, she began eating in an attempt to make herself overweight and repulsive to men because she didn't want to be hurt again.  Now and adult, she doesn't want to be overweight, but essentially a lifetime of bad habits have made it hard to lose the extra pounds--and then, when she does start to lose weight, the old fears rear their ugly heads again and send her back into bad habits.

Gay's memoir is painful to read because of how real it is.  I am not overweight.  I am one of those skinny girls who sees a little padding on her hips (because you suddenly develop hips in your midtwenties--who knew?) and starts to agonize over it.  I chew my nails over inconsistent sizing at Old Navy because I wear different sizes in different styles of pants, and even though I intellectually know that sizing is bullshit, I still don't want to wear a 6 in one size when I wear a 4 or even a 2 in another.  And why is that?  Because I know the thing that Gay hammers home so hard--that our society treats fat people like shit, and I don't want to come even close to falling into that category.  In that way, Gay's memoir is easy to empathize with even for someone who isn't overweight, because many of us can tap into the fears of being so--we want to be young and pretty and skinny and fit, but life doesn't always work out that way.  I mean, I might want to weigh ten pounds less, even though my weight is perfectly healthy, but I'd also much rather spend my time reading books than going to the gym.

The other way that Gay's memoir connected with me was giving me a terrible feeling of guilt because, like a lot of society, I have a knee-jerk reaction when I see someone who is very overweight.  I do make snap judgments about their character.  I've become much better at recognizing these reactions, walking them back, and using logic to guide my thoughts and actions instead, but it's hard to buck what is essentially a lifetime of conditioning that fat equals bad.  At the same time, though, I can't bring myself to wholeheartedly jump onto the body positivity train, because at some point being overweight does lead to health problems, and I don't think "healthy at any size" is really a thing when someone can't walk a mile with their friends without having to worry about breathing problems or a heart attack.  Yes, this is judgey of me, and I am coming out and admitting it, because Gay admits so much in her memoir that I feel like the least I can do in a review is come out with the same honesty.

But Gay's story isn't just about a physical hunger for food; it's about hungering for so many more things, like company and love and security.  These are all other aspects on which I think anyone can empathize, because it's a rare person who is completely fulfilled and can't connect with some aspect of hungering for something they don't have.  This also isn't a book of wallowing, despite how intense and painful it can be.  Instead, it is an explanation and an attempt to make readers see how peoples' actions affect each other on many levels throughout life, and to make them re-evaluate how they see different people and situations.  In this, I think she is extremely successful.

This is a powerful story that I think can resonate with many audiences.  I only had two real issues with it, neither of which was content-related and instead were writing-related.  First, and this is the more minor issue, I don't get what's up with the constant parentheses around (my) body in the early part of the book, especially when they vanish later on.  Can someone explain this?  Second, the writing here isn't a solid narrative and is very scattered.  It jumps to and fro in time in a series of chapters which rarely surpass five pages and often don't go past two or three.  This jumping means that she often re-hashes things that have been covered before, sometimes two or three times, and it can sometimes be hard to follow the thread of thought.  At times, I thought that the chapters were being grouped by theme, particularly when there were a few close together which talked about Gay's relationship with food through cooking...but then that fell apart and went back to roaming to and fro, and I was left a bit perplexed again.

Overall, I think this is a book that serves its purpose very well, and can resonate with readers across a wide spectrum of ages, body types, ethnicities, etc.  But it probably could have done its job a bit better if it had been a bit more structured.

4 stars out of 5.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Crimson Kiss - Trisha Baker (Crimson #1)

Crimson Kiss (Crimson, #1)Vampires.  Oh vampires.  They have completely taken over pop culture ever since Twilight, and every time I think they're about to go away, they come back again.  Of course, those are new school vampires.  They can go out in sun, they sometimes sparkle, they're universally beautiful and love-worthy, etc.  Crimson Kiss isn't like that.  It predates Twilight.  The vampires here don't abide by all the vampire "laws" of old--they're bothered by garlic because of super senses, not because it repulses them for magical reasons, and they can touch crosses--but they still suck blood and kill people (some of them) and some of them are downright hideous.  And they can't go out into the sun.

This was my read for the "dark romance" category in the Unapologetic Romance Readers' challenge for 2017, and it delivered.  It starts with heroine Meghann learning that the vampire who made her into one, Simon, is alive when she thought he was dead--and he's still one sadistic bastard, and he's coming after her.  From there, the story jumps back in time to how Meghann met Simon, became a vampire, and escaped his hold.

The writing here isn't much to marvel at, really lacking emotion and finesse.  But the depravity present in this book isn't to be sneered at.  I was supposed to read a dark romance, and I got one.  This is the first part of a trilogy, and so maybe it will wrap up happily with someone who is not Simon--but this one is all about Meghann and Simon, until the very end.  Even when Meghann thinks Simon is dead, she's still wrapped up in him even though she doesn't want to be.  She can't commit to another, more positive relationship because her bond with Simon is still there, in her head even if it's not in her heart.  Baker does make an effort to show that Meghann isn't really in love with Simon--that it's magic and the bond and lust talking, and not actual emotions.  But Meghann heself stubbornly insists she loves Simon, and that bothered me so much.  I know she was in an abusive relationship, but she didn't act like one in personality.  She didn't blame herself, she knew she had to get out, she just didn't know how, because Simon was a powerful vampire.  And it seemed like, with that in mind, she should have known that she wasn't in love with him.  There was just some disconnect in the logic there.

I also didn't really like any of the characters in this book.  Some of them, like Simon, weren't meant to be likable--but I will say that Simon was interesting, whereas I didn't think everyone was.  I thought Meghann was actually pretty boring.  She had such promise--vampire psychologist who can only see patients after dark!--but the book never really dug into any of that instead just went into a Simon-spiral.  Alcuin had the promise of being sort of the Dumbledore of vampires, but that went down the drain pretty quickly once Simon showed up.  Jimmy was a pretty shitty love interest; he had his own issues, to be sure, which were also vampire-related and could have been interesting, but he went from "You're a vampire!  I hate you!" to "I love you and want to be with you!" in literally the space of a few sentences, so that was a dud for me.  And then he was pretty darn stupid when dealing with the Simon situation even though he really should have known better.

Overall, if you want a darker vampire book, I would say this is for you.  And I do mean darker.  There's repeated rape and torture in this book; it truly abounds.  But if you want a romance, it's probably not the best choice, and the writing isn't anything special.

2.5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Take the Lead - Alexis Daria (Dance Off #1)

Take the Lead (Dance Off, #1)Take the Lead was listed as one of the best romance books of 2017 by Sarah MacLean in The Washington Post, and Nenia over at Readasaurus Reviews gave it a thumbs-up, which is fairly rare for her, and it's about a dance competition, so yeah, it jumped onto my to-read list pretty quickly!  I have a weak spot for figuring skating romances and Dancing with the Stars, which I never watch on-air but binge clips of on Youtube, and this book could also fill in a category I hadn't yet gotten to for my romance reading challenge: the interracial romance.  I'd planned to read The Far Pavilions for it, but when that showed up on my Kindle with a read time of 25 hours, I backed away from that, bumped it to next year's list, and put this in instead; Alexis Daria is an #OwnVoices author, and her heroine Gina Morales is a Hispanic Puerto Rican while her hero Stone is a white guy with distant Scandinavian ancestry.

SO.  The book itself.  Gina is a professional dancer on the The Dance Off, which is basically Dancing with the Stars.  For her fourth season, she fins herself partnered with Stone, whose family is the subject of a reality TV series where they live "off the grid" in the remote expanse of Alaska.  And as soon as they meet, Gina knows what the show has in mind--a showmance between them, something she refuses to do as she tries to buck the stereotype of the promiscuous Latina and put forth a more true and positive image of herself.  Problem: she and Stone actually are attracted to each other.  And when they find out that Gina's job is on the line if she doesn't win The Dance Off this year, Stone doubles down and decides to take them all the way.  There are costumes and contrivances and glitter and of course awesome dances, though we rarely see Gina and Stone on stage; most of the action actually takes place in their rehearsals and other parts of their lives.  There's a positive female relationship between Gina and her roommate Natasha (set up to be the heroine of the second book) and just all-around awesomeness.  But that doesn't meant that Daria slacks on the drama.  Oh, no.  It's a constant stream of "We can't be together because I want to live in the city and you want to live in the wilderness!" and vice versa, and a Big Miscommunication to which, I will say, Gina totally overreacts (and everyone tells her so, thankfully).

But yeah.  This book was a riot.  It wasn't perfect, but it was very, very fun, and well-written.  Stone and Gina were both great main characters (Stone of course has a Secret that he is protecting for his family), the drama is on-point, and the "behind the scenes" dynamic of the dancing show is one I haven't seen before, showing just how much of it is contrived for the audience's amusement and consumption.  I'm definitely looking forward to reading the second book!

4 stars out of 5.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Hooker and the Hermit - L. H. Cosway and Penny Reid

The Hooker and the Hermit (Rugby, #1)While trawling Penny Reid's titles on Amazon (I was hoping for an omnibus of her Chemistry books for Kindle, but no such luck at this point in time) I came across a series she'd co-written with L. H. Cosway in which the heroes all appear to be rugby players.  Intriguing.  So of course I bought the first book and went off.  The story here follows Ronan Fitzpatrick, a rugby player who is spending time in New York after being suspended from his team for beating up a teammate, who happened to sleep with Ronan's girlfriend and brag about it.  And then there's the heroine, Annie, who is almost a recluse.  She runs a blog about poorly-dressed celebrities under the moniker of "the Socialmedialite" while also working as a reputation fixer at a New York firm where she avoids going into the office as much as possible.  And then Annie's boss assigns her to work on cleaning up Ronan's reputation, because Ronan pretty much demands it after he lays eyes on her--not knowing that she's the one that tore him apart in a post on her blog earlier in the week and consequently received a very nasty email response from him.  Oops.

Ronan proceeds to begin sexually harassing Annie immediately despite her repeatedly indicating she doesn't want anything to do with it.  This immediately struck me as strange because that is so not up Penny Reid's alley.  And then I looked at what else L. H. Cosway had written and saw Six of HeartsAnd things suddenly made much more sense.  But I forged on ahead!  Soon, Annie and Ronan's attraction (because Annie is attracted to Ronan, even though she is distinctly not looking for a relationship of any type with anyone, at least not in the physical world) lands them with pictures of them kissing in the press and paparazzi following them everywhere...even though apparently no one in the US knew who Ronan was until this exact moment and now they are all crazy about him. (?) And then Annie is congratulated on her plan to make Ronan's image better by making it look like they're dating, and they're off!  Oh dear.

This was not as good of a collaboration as I would have hoped.  The continuity is a bit scattered and the main conflict of the book--Annie trying to hide her Socialmedialite identity while Ronan pretends he doesn't know about it--is pretty flimsy at best.  Considering that Annie's boss basically lays it all out in a few sentences at the end of the book, it's pretty evident that both characters were reacting immaturely.  The plot is jazzed up with the conflict with the paparazzi, which again didn't really make sense as long as they were in the US--I can understand it when they were in Ireland, but I don't think I could name a single European sports star other than David Beckham, and he's not even current anymore, so him being stalked as famous in the US was not really something I bought into.  They try to throw in some light BDSM to spice things up and have something that can make Ronan look like a monster, but that doesn't really work out either--though I wish I'd known about this book when I'd been trying to fulfill the BDSM category for my romance reading challenge!

Ronan and Annie definitely get cuter as the book goes on, but they suck at using their words and miscommunication is the central conflict in their relationship, which is a trope that I pretty much hate.  They sometimes act more like children than adults, completely shutting down not because they are incapable of conveying their feelings, but because they just don't want to.  A few lines of dialogue could have solved this at pretty much any point in the book, but of course that would have made everything be over too quickly.

Overall, I liked this, but not as much as I wanted to.  I think this is an interesting start to a series but the way Ronan dives into Annie by totally harassing her rubs me the wrong way.  I think this is Cosway's hand in the book rather than Reid's...though there was that start to the Knitting in the City series... Hm.  Anyway, I'm willing to give the second one a chance, but maybe this is a collaboration that was better off not happening.

2.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea - Dina Nayeri

A Teaspoon of Earth and SeaThis book has been on my to-read list for ages, and I'm not entirely sure why I added it.  It probably had something to do with the cover; I love a good silhouette cover and a lyrical title.  It might have also had something to do with the description--Iranian girl (and eventually young woman) uses her love for America to escape.  But honestly, I can't remember on that part now.

The story follows Saba, who loses her mother and her sister on the same day in the years following the Iranian revolution.  She's convinced they flew off to America, leaving Saba and her father behind.  Others insist that her mother is gone and her sister is dead, but Saba's belief that they are alive is so all-encompassing that she had me half-convinced that she was right--and there really was no telling what happened to her mother... Wrapped up in her beliefs, Saba embraces forbidden American culture through books, movies, and TV shows, and tells stories of her sister Mahtab's new life in America.  As Saba grows up and goes through love and marriage and abuse and heartbreak on many fronts, she dreams of making it to America herself, even refusing to go to college in Iran because she is saving herself for an American education.

This was somewhat of a slow book, and it took me a while to get through it even though it wasn't that long in pages.  The plot is entirely Saba's longing to escape and everything that gets in her way.  While there are definitely bad parts of her story--something that her husband does to preserve his honor and her inheritance, the laws that mean she won't get the inheritance anyway even though she has a marriage contract to preserve it, the way her friend is beaten for being "immodest" but really for being beautiful and saying "no," and various other cultural aspects that come in the wake of the revolution--are certainly reprehensible.  But there's a certain idolization of American culture that didn't seem healthy, either.  And when Saba finally does escape, we're led to believe that her life, with few exceptions, really is as hunky-dory as she had imagined it to be.  The book finishes up just after 9/11, and while Saba admits that it will make it harder for her to visit her family still in Iran or for them to visit her in America, that's really the only consequence of her life, as she's spent so long making herself American from afar that she's not really Iranian anymore.  This was a weird dynamic to me, and one that I don't feel great about looking back; it just rubs me the wrong way for some reason.  It felt like Saba was willing to just write off all of the good things--and there certainly were good things, she listed them numerous times--in exchange for books and TV and music, which seemed very shallow of her, just like one of the old woman of her town was always accusing her of being.

I wanted to like Saba as a character, but I just couldn't quite bring myself to do it.  Really, none of the characters here were very likable--I felt like they were all very self-absorbed and greedy.  The exception was probably Ponneh, but then she jumped too far into a resistance and dragged her friends into danger with her when they didn't want anything to do with it, so I kind of lost my sympathy there as well.  I think Nayeri did a wonderful job with the setting of the book, but the actual characters left a lot to be desired for me, and the slow pacing didn't help either.

2 stars out of 5.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Tatiana and Alexander - Paullina Simons (The Bronze Horseman #2)

Tatiana and Alexander (The Bronze Horseman, #2)Guys, we have a problem.  My library had The Bronze Horseman, the first book in this trilogy, and it had this one, the second.  You know what it doesn't have in any format?  The third book.  What am I supposed to do?  Honestly, I could probably stop reading here since this book has a pretty firm ending, but it would feel weird to just leave out the third book, you know what I mean?  But though I'm eager to read the third book, that doesn't meant that this book isn't without its flaws.

The book doesn't pick up where the first one left off so much as jump backwards--the parts with both Tatiana and Alexander overlap with the happenings at the very end of the first book, with Tatiana fleeing to America and Alexander being arrested by the NKVD.  The chapters early in the book are also interspersed with short bits about Alexander in his life prior to his first appearance in The Bronze Horseman.  For much of the book, Tatiana and Alexander are separated, neither truly knowing whether or not the other is alive.  Because two characters who don't even know the "living or dead" status of their significant others don't really bode well for romance, the first half to two-thirds of the book heavily involves a lot of re-treading of the ground covered in the first book, particularly the time that the two spent in Lazarevo--which was, unfortunately, the weakest part of the first book.  And while the "present" parts of the book--aka, the parts that are actually happening on this book's timeline, after Tatiana and Alexander's separation, rather than during the "past" part before it--have some interesting happenings, they're pretty much all on Alexander's part.  See, Alexander is busy being arrested and interrogated by the NKVD and then going through other sorts of hell in Russia afterwards, while Tatiana spends her time bopping around New York with their child Anthony.  While she's not disrespectful toward Alexander or anything, and in fact does what she came to find him from thousands of hours away, her parts just aren't as interesting.

Where this book regained its strength was in the final part, when Tatiana returns to Europe in search of Alexander, once again in her disguise as a Red Cross nurse, though I guess it's not exactly a ruse anymore.  This returns her to action, and shows the strength and goodness of her character that just wasn't present while she was drifting around New York and protesting that she could never love again.  Tatiana does have a good character, but Simons didn't display it to its fullest here, though Alexander was done wonderfully.  In fact, he was probably better in this book than in the first one, precisely because he and Tatiana were separated for most of the book.  Once they're reunited, Alexander actually gets worse again.  Why?  Because their separation allowed his controlling tendencies to fade to the wayside, and when they're reunited, all of those terrible character traits come surging to the surface again.

Overall, I don't think this was as strong of a book as the first one.  The setting of wartime Leningrad really carried the first book, and without that here, the characters separately weren't enough to make up for it.  Alexander's parts were good until Tatiana showed up, whereas Tatiana was better once she returned to Europe, which basically sums up the unevenness of the book.  I'm still interested in seeing the end of these characters' story as the timeline moves away from World War II and into the Cold War, but I'm a little leery of how Simons will pull it off after this offering.

3 stars out of 5, and most of that is from the end of the book which at least had good pacing even if Alexander became a bastard again.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Swear on This Life - Renee Carlino

Swear on This LifeSwear on This Life was the Deliberate Reader book club pick for December 2017, which made Thanksgiving weekend a perfect time to read it.  The book has pretty stellar reviews on Goodreads and a promising premise, so I can see why it was selected.  The story follows Emiline, who discovers that her childhood best friend and first love wrote a book about their experiences, and her supposed life after them, from her perspective, and it is a huge bestseller.  Emiline, who hasn't heard from Jase in more than twelve years, is furious, because he's profiting off her pain and suffering and he's not even getting it right.  But what to do?

So, this had the potential to be good.  But it really wasn't.  The problem is not the plot, or really the characters, but the writing itself.  The entire book, which is composed both of first-person snippets from Emi and of excerpts from the book Jase wrote, All the Roads Between, is flat and lifeless.  It's all telling and no showing.  "I couldn't believe he lied."  "I was so mad."  And so on.  There's a great lack of emotion here, which is somewhat astounding for a story that should have been absolutely bursting with it.  Emi and Jase's story is a hard one to read...except it's not, because there's no feeling embedded in all of the terrible things they went through.  Instead, this book reads like a dry recitation of the facts, instead of a tale that pulls heartstrings and evokes tears and rage and passion.

The nesting of the stories in a sort of Russian doll fashion was interesting, but it wasn't enough to carry a book that lacked any dimension.  I could understand Emi's pain and anger and longing, but it wasn't conveyed very well and I had to do a lot of pulling on my own emotions in order to make it all "click," something that a well-written book should do for me.  And while I think both Emi and Jase were promising characters and could have shone with a little more polish, the supporting characters were all pretty bland and flat, lacking any and all sense of dimension.  I absolutely could not believe that this was a book about a bestselling book because it was so poorly done.  And you know what?  Carlino is aware of this.  You know how we can tell that?  Because at one point Emi points out that Jase's book isn't well written and is just being lauded because it's a story about two kids in bad circumstances.  And that's exactly what the book as a whole is!  Are people really okay with that, or are the majority of readers seriously not catching on?

Overall, bland, not worth the hype, and dear lord I actually spent Thanksgiving weekend reading this.

2 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

When Dimple Met Rishi - Sandhya Menon

When Dimple Met RishiWhen Dimple Met Rishi was one of my most-anticipated reads for Fall 2017.  It seemed like it had so many things going for it: main characters who aren't white (diversity matters), a young woman in a STEM field (Dimple has a passion for coding), and a romance plot with an arranged marriage--or rather, a hopefully arranged engagement, since Dimple isn't actually aware of the fact that her parents are trying to hook her up with an Ideal Indian Husband, though she knows her mother wants her to get married.  Unfortunately, I felt like this book ultimately fell short of my expectations.

The story follows the two title characters as they attend Insomnia Con, a six-week app-coding bootcamp, the summer before they enter their freshman years of college.  Dimple dreams of being a coder.  It is her passion, and attending Insomnia Con and winning the app-coding competition for a chance to work with her idol seems like a coup that she won from her reserved parents, especially considering the thousand-dollar fee that she knows is a stretch for her family to afford.  Rishi, on the other hand, is resigned to being an engineer like his CEO father, though his true passion is drawing comic art.  He attends Insomnia Con mainly to get to know Dimple, as his parents and Dimple's parents know each other and think the two would be an ideal match.  Unfortunately, Dimple has not been made aware of this, and their first encounter ends with her throwing an iced coffee at him and fleeing the crazy guy who apparently thinks she's going to marry him.

Unfortunately, this didn't end up being a story of "getting know you while building world-changing app."  Despite their rocky first encounter and Dimple's determination to not get attached to anyone, Dimple and Rishi fall in love with each other pretty much right away, and only the barest minimums of the actual Insomnia Con competition are mentioned.  Instead of working on their app, Dimple and Rishi appear to spend most of their time swanning about San Francisco, eating out (can't blame them on that one) and practicing for a bizarrely-inserted talent show in which they perform a Bollywood dance.  No wonder the competition comes to the end it does--though of course, we're supposed to see that clearly they are the rightful winners!  (Why?)  The two have chemistry, but it was disappointing to have the conception that Dimple basically just ditched her app programming.  I don't think we're supposed to think this, but there's about three sentences of Dimple working on it in the book, so it really doesn't feel like she's as focused as we're supposed to believe she is.  And Rishi doesn't seem to know anything about coding, so it's hard to see how he got into Insomnia Con at all!

Watching the characters struggle against the expectations and preconceptions of their families was interesting, I'm not convinced that it was enough to propel the entirety of the story because ultimately, it doesn't end up being much of a struggle.  The parents cave pretty easily into wanting their children to be happy as soon as the children actually, explicitly push back.  So not much drama there, despite the "big deal" the characters make it out to be.  It ended up being a story that overall lacked dimension, with things seeming to come to the characters very easily on all fronts with only about five minutes of suspense in wondering if things will work out happily.  I think there were a lot of good concepts and themes in here, but none of them were worked to the degree they could have been, and should have been if this was to be a truly great book.

3 stars out of 5; I enjoyed reading it, but I'm not sure I would go for it again.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Under the Banner of Heaven - Jon Krakauer

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent FaithOkay, so, I'm gonna confess that I thought this book was about climbing a mountain, primarily because the edition I read had a mountain, or very large mountain-like rock, on the cover, and I interpreted the "heaven" in the title as "the sky."  You know, like the heavens?  No, I was not confusing it with Krakauer's Into Thin Air, which actually is about climbing a mountain, namely Mount Everest.  I've read Into Thin Air, and my enjoyment of it (as well as of Missoula) was why I picked this up in the audiobook format.  Imagine my surprise when it started out by talking about a murder!  Well, that was okay, too, because I love true crime; it's awful, but fascinating at the same time.

Krakauer starts the book by discussing a gristly double murder committed by two brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, with the victims being their sister-in-law Brenda and her daughter Erica.  Though Ron committed suicide in prison after being convicted, Dan maintained that, while he committed the murders, he shouldn't be considered "guilty" of them because he killed his sister-in-law and her daughter under orders from God.  Hm...  Then Krakauer goes into the body of the book, which alternates chunks about the events leading up to the murder, the murder, and what followed it, with historical pieces about the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, aka the Mormon church.  Why is the Mormon piece so important?  Because the Lafferty brothers belonged to a fundamentalist splinter group of it which subscribed to tenants that the main Mormon church has pushed to the wayside, such as plural marriage, and one of the reasons they wanted to kill Brenda was because they thought she convinced Ron's wife to leave him after he wanted to take a second wife.  Ah, yes, polygamy--this book has it.

Krakauer blantantly says towards the beginning of the book that the main, modern Mormon church is not a problem, but that the problems he examines stem from fundamentalist groups that stem from it--just as all religions have problematic fundamentalists.  (Yes, all.)  The only times he talks about the main church is in a historical context, when he goes into its foundation, which seems pretty kooky but problems seems so because, as Krakauer points out, it was just founded much more recently than most religions.  And then he goes into the integration of polygamy into the church's practices, which really seems like it happened because the founder, Joseph Smith, wanted to bang a lot of women who weren't his wife and wanted his wife to just shut up and accept it, and a bunch of other guys high up in the church decided they wanted to do that, too.  This was a problem.  Is polyamory a problem?  No, as long as all members are consenting.  But Krakauer digs into how a solid policy of it led to rampant sexual abuse, rape, and incest, which women literally couldn't say no to because the men in charge told them all it was God's will, and they could be excommunicated, losing their families and entire lives, if they refused to go along.  It's this policy and these awful practices which still abound in the splinter fundamentalist groups that Krakauer discusses in the contemporary part of the book.

This is a riveting story on all fronts, and Krakauer is an excellent nonfiction writer to record it.  There is a bit of a structure issue with it, however, because he goes and tells a lot about the murders of Brenda and Erica right in the prologue, which means that for much of the contemporary chunks of the book, I was just waiting for something to happen that I already knew was going to happen.  I think this might have been a bit better if Krakauer had let us know that something had happened, but left the "reveal" for where it fit in the body of the main book, rather than in the prologue.  That would have let us know that it was building up for a purpose, not just rambling, but still had something to "surprise" us with.  He also tries to go into all sorts of terrorism comparisons in the end, which seemed like reaching far.  Does it tie into the topic?  Yes.  However, I don't think it was the right place in this particular story, especially because there's no good answer for the question that Krakauer wants to examine by bringing a terrorism component into play--namely, if someone has religious convictions, can we count them as delusional, and in any case, if they commit a crime based on those convictions, can we hold them guilty?

Still, the body of the book, before it dives into trial transcripts and metaphysical ponderings at the end, was excellent.  I really like Krakauer and hope to read his other books as well.

4 stars out of 5.