Friday, March 31, 2017

Exit West - Moshin Hamid

Exit West"...when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind."

Exit West was my March Book of the Month selection.  Promising the story of two lovers forced into an early intimacy by a civil war sweeping their city and their attempts to escape, it seemed particularly fitting for current political situations around the globe.

The protagonists are Saeed and Nadia, two young adults (in their twenties, presumably) living in a city somewhere in the Middle East.  At first I thought it was supposed to be a city (though not necessarily a real one) in Syria, but the further I read the more I became convinced that the actual locale wasn't supposed to matter, because this was a city that could have been any city in that region, and that was the point.  Their city is increasingly torn apart by a civil war, and they are beset with bombs and loss of electricity and checkpoints, and eventually even the loss of Saeed's mother.  Ultimately, the two decide that they have no choice but to leave.

This is where the book gains a magical realism element.  It's actually evident earlier in the book, but it doesn't become apparent as to what's really going on until Saeed and Nadia decide they have to flee.  See, there are doors in this book.  Doors that don't take you where they're supposed to go--like out to your front yard or into your closet--but instead to different places altogether.  The chapters of the book are all studded with little stories about other people in other parts of the world who are stumbling across and using the doors, but that they're actually being transported across vast amounts of distance instantaneously isn't entirely evident until Saeed and Nadia flee through a door, ending up in the Greek islands.

This is the story of people on the move and of the rise and fall of a relationship.  Saeed and Nadia are initially taken with each other, and spend so much time in contact with each other, both physically and virtually.  But as they flee chaos time and time again, their relationship begins to sour and grate and they begin to drift apart, and each "exit west" takes them not only farther from their homes, but farther from each other, even though they don't separate until the very end.  It's a poignant story not only of how people come together and drift apart and stay together sometimes even when they shouldn't, but also of how nativism and xenophobia turns people against each other and presents a harsh face to people who are only looking for better lives.  This clearly isn't our world as it is exactly now, but it's almost our world, and sometimes the difference is only a black door apart.

The premise here is wonderful, and there are some poignant lines as well, such as the one I started this review with.  The ideas here are breathtaking and wonderful.  But I'm not sure the writing style is one that I really liked.  Well, yes, I am sure.  I didn't really like it.  There's very little dialogue and the book is mostly a straight relation of what characters did and where they went and what they felt; much tell and little show.  There are some wonderful passages sprinkled throughout, but overall Hamid covers as a vast amount of time and turmoil in very few pages--231 pages, actually, with large print and line spacing.  It means that there's not a lot of words to convey what needs to be said here, and while parity can be a blessing, I think a little less brevity here could have been a good thing.

Overall, though, this is an important book for our time, and I think it's one that many, many people could benefit from reading.  It offers a perspective that is, to so many of us, lacking, and a view, if people really understood, could help better the world.

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow

Alexander HamiltonHamilton fever has swept the nation, and I am not exempt.  I put off listening to the musical soundtrack for a long time mainly because I am not a rap/hip-hop type person, and that is, of course, what Hamilton's soundtrack is primarily comprised of.  But then PBS had an awesome documentary about the musical and the history behind it, and so I downloaded the soundtrack from Amazon and we listened to it on our way to New Jersey for Thanksgiving.  And on the way back.  And about 20 other times.  And when a friend on Facebook started singing the praises of the biography that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to write such a musical and said friend said he was looking for someone to discuss it with, I put in a request to the library.  Perks of working at a university: using the university inter-library system to request books so you don't have to wait for 30 people ahead of you to read the 700-page biography first.  Score!

Let me tell you this: Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton is heavy.  Definitely too heavy to carry around in my purse, which meant I had to pick away at it in smaller chunks than I would like.  And for those curious about how the real history differs from the musical, the answer is...a lot.  Mainly, Miranda played with the time line in huge ways, but he also drastically dramatized the relationship between Hamilton and Angelica Schuyler, and made Burr into a much more prominent and sympathetic character in Hamilton's story than he really was.

Now, for the book itself.  It spans Hamilton's entire life, but portions of it are necessarily clearer than others.  Hamilton was born in the Caribbean, making him one of the most prominent foreigners to feature in American history.  While the facts of Hamilton's childhood, such as the death of a succession of relatives that left him essentially, though not technically, orphaned is known, there are necessarily fewer documents that support Hamilton's own thoughts and development during this time.  Consequently, Chernow falls into a common pitfall of biographers of historical figures, who write hundreds of years after the fact.  Namely, he projects.  He goes into a lot of "It must have meant," and "Hamilton must have felt," and so on, a pattern that continues throughout the book in regards to how events of Hamilton's early life "must have" influenced his later life, though Chernow himself admits that Hamilton essentially severed himself from his childhood after his arrival in the United States, and particularly following the American Revolution.  Some of this projection also seems to apply to Aaron Burr and his background, though I can't say that I delved too deeply into Chernow's sited sources to see what he was drawing on for Burr's feelings on matters that weren't directly drawn from his own words.

My only other complaint about this book is in two parts.  First, Chernow sometimes has a tendency to go out of chronological order.  When he sees a connection between the events currently at hand and something that comes up later, he sometimes jumps to the later event to make sure that the connection is clear--and then ends up re-hashing the event, its precedents, and the connection.  This happens particularly in regards to elections.  As Chernow covers a variety of election levels at any one time, sometimes their orders and the impacts they have on each other get a bit jumbled together in the telling, and then when they come back later, it creates a sensation of, "Oh, wait, I thought we already covered this...?"

Other than that, I enjoyed this quite a bit.  I'm not typically very interested in American history, preferring European and Asian history, but Chernow does a great job of bringing Hamilton and his contemporaries to life.  Hamilton is definitely an under-studied figure in American history, overlooked in favor of the the other Founding Father such as Washington and Jefferson.  And while Chernow doesn't hesitate to point out how devious figures such as Madison and Jefferson could be, he also didn't shy away from pointing out Hamilton's own hypocrisy on various fronts and how he didn't always support the democratic republic form of government, instead favoring something akin to a monarchy (though not on the exact same lines as the British one).  He also doesn't go easy on Hamilton when getting into the Reynolds affair, pointing out how callous Hamilton was in arranging rendezvous with Maria Reynolds while trying to keep Eliza in Albany...though he does seem remarkably forgiving of the affair afterwards. 

Overall, I think this a great addition to the other volumes of biographies tied to figures of this period.  Hamilton has been very overlooked, and some of the other Founders much aggrandized in ways that, after reading this, don't seem entirely deserved.  Of course, reading biographies of those other figures might provide a different perspective; biographers do tend to be remarkably sympathetic toward their subjects, though understandably so given the amount of time they have to spend studying them.  Definitely worth a read, if you're interested in American history and have the time to devote.

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Boneshaker - Cherie Priest (Clockwork Century #1)

Boneshaker (The Clockwork Century, #1)Boneshaker is a book that I both bought a while ago and never had any real inclination to read.  I think I read it after a couple of drinks at the local bookstore/cafe/bar, and then shelved it and only looked at it with mild curiosity from time to time.  This is for one big reason.  While Boneshaker is, quite obviously from the cover, a steampunk novel, it is also about zombies.  And zombies are not really my thing.  They don't scare me, they don't thrill me, I don't find them really interesting at all.  There's something mildly distasteful about fiction that revels in chopping to pieces and blowing the heads off people who were once, you know, people.

But there as a steampunk category for my 2017 reading challenge, and Boneshaker was already sitting there, so off the shelf it came.

Boneshaker is different from most other zombie novels that are on my radar in that it isn't a modern zombie fiction.  Most zombie works are set in our modern world, or possibly in a near-future post-apocalyptic world.  The notable exception to this is probably Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but that's not quite the same as this because P&P&Z is a parody rather than a "serious" work.  Boneshaker is set in an alternate-universe 1880 in Seattle, Washington.  In this universe, airships and steam engines rule, the American Civil War has been going on for eighteen years, and an early Klondike gold rush spurred a contest to create a mining machine that could bore through ice and rock.  The creator of the marvelous machine, Leviticus Blue, built it in his basement...but when he fired it up, chaos reigned.  The machine destroyed much of downtown Seattle, including several banks that were subsequently robbed, and broke open a seam of mysterious gas called the Blight, which kills some and does more than kill others, bringing them back to life as "rotters" with an appetite for human flesh.  In an attempt to stop the Blight, Seattle was walled off and the survivors began living in an area built up around the wall, struggling to survive in an area which, while separated from the Blight, is still tainted by it.

In the midst of this we find our heroine, thirty-five-year-old Briar Wilkes.  The widow of Leviticus Blue and the daughter of Maynard Wilkes, who's either a criminal or a folk hero depending on who you ask, Briar spends most of her time avoiding her past while doing her best to bring up her fifteen-year-old son, Zeke.  She's never told Zeke much about his father and grandfather, and so he gets it into his head that his father was innocent in the downfall of Seattle...and so he sets off to go into the walled city and find proof.  Briar of course goes after him, and they're separately plunged into a city inhabited by zombies and those too crazy or stubborn to leave, who've started new lives in pockets of clean air cut out underground, and ruled by a mysterious man in a gas mask who bears a striking resemblance in knowledge and mannerisms to Levi Blue, who some suspect may not be as dead as they would hope.

Surprisingly, zombies don't actually play that much of a role in this book, which is something I rather liked.  They're more of an atmospheric threat, and aside from a few scenes of the protagonists fleeing from zombie grasps, they're present more through moans and gasps and the sound of running feet than as creatures that actually get a lot of page time.  Most of the book is actually spent in the underground spaces of Seattle, showing how the inhabitants there survive and building up a sort of historical post-apocalyptic culture in a time when other parts of the world are just fine.  There are apparently some historical inaccuracies that Priest addresses in a brief afterword, regarding the structure of the city itself, but these didn't bother me at all because I really do view this as an alternative universe, in which things can run at a different speed than in our own history--which is basically just as Priest intended.  But maybe if I'd lived in Seattle and was more familiar with its landmarks and their histories, these inconsistencies would have bothered me more.

I liked pretty much all of the characters in this book.  They all inhabit some morally gray areas, necessitated by the time and place in which they live, but the heroes still have moral compasses and it's easy to see how the "villains" got to where they are, without them becoming caricatures of villains.  Zeke is a frustrating teenager without being a total idiot, something that was refreshing to read.  And while Briar hasn't always mad the best decisions in raising him, she definitely did the best she could and what she thought was right at the time.  She doesn't berate Zeke for his decisions, instead focusing on what needs to be done to get them both out while putting his doubts to rest so that he doesn't make the same mistakes in the future.  I had my suspicions about Levi Blue from the beginning, which ended up being spot-on, but Priest had me me second-guessing and doubting myself, which is a real skill.  So the ending didn't shock me, but I liked how it came out nonetheless. 

What I didn't like was that the end was startling lacking in, well, ending.  It's possible it's because this is the first book in a series, but I've looked at the descriptions of the next few, and they feature different main characters and plot lines.  Which is fine--I actually prefer series like that--but it means that there's no resolution to the Blight threat, no plan for what to do about Seattle, etc.  Maybe it comes back later?  I don't know, but even if it does, it seems like a big thing to just apparently drop for several books with no hint of how it's going to be resolved.  There's also no hint of how the zombies become zombies in the first place.  Yes, it's the Blight, which is caused by a gas that comes up from the ground, and it may or may not be caused by buildup from Mount Rainier... But how does it work?

Still, overall I really liked this.  It was different, and while zombies aren't my typical genre, I think they were well-incorporated here...though I'm curious to see what type of logic is going to employed in regards to the actual zombie formation in the first place, if it ever comes back.  The next couple of books have different main characters in different locations with apparently unconnected plots in the same universe, but I'm looking forward to them nonetheless.

4 stars out of 5.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Dealing with Dragons - Patricia C. Wrede (The Enchanted Forest Chronicles #1)

Dealing with Dragons (Enchanted Forest Chronicles, #1)Dealing with Dragons is an absolutely charming book. (By the way, if anyone knows where I can get a copy of this cover edition, let me know!  I lost mine a while back and they're now on a new edition, so the first book doesn't match the rest of the set.)  I read it for one of my reading challenge categories, "A book you've read before that never fails to make you smile."  This is a middle-grade book that I originally read when I was its intended target, but even as an adult I liked going back to it for a fast, light read that might not be "laugh out loud" funny but is definitely "crack a smile to yourself" charming.

The story is about Princess Cimorene, who is a most improper princess.  She wants to learn how to fence and cast magic and is absolutely bored by embroidery and etiquette.  Of course, this is a very typical character type for books, but it's not a typical princess type for Cimorene's kingdom.  When Cimorene finds out her parents are planning to marry her off to a most boring prince in an attempt to settle her down, she runs away and becomes the servant of a dragon--which is considered a very proper thing for a princess to do, though it's usually because said princess has been kidnapped, not because she's done it by choice.  Cimorene's governing dragon is Kazul, who takes Cimorene on (instead of eating her) to categorize her library (which is largely in Latin) and cook her cherries jubilee.  Cimorene settles into her new position right away, facing even the most boggling of dilemmas with a calm, cool, practical attitude that is absolutely refreshing.  She's not one to make stupid or emotional decisions, as so many teenaged protagonists are likely to do, and seems to have a steadying effect on all those around her.  And when a problem with wizards pops up, Cimorene is eager to help.

The world of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles is one that could be traversed easily with assistance from Diana Wynne Jones' Tough Guide to Fantasyland.  It's a land of self-aware cliches and tropes, which makes fun of both them and itself in equal measure.  And though Cimorene's character archetype is a trope in and of itself, it's so different from the world around her that it absolutely works.  Bits of different stories can be seen here and there, inhabiting the world around her; another princess has been almost forced into every fairy tale trope in the book, to no avail, until her family finally managed to get her kidnapped by a dragon.  None of the characters are necessarily deep, but they're all quaint and charming and serve their purposes just fine.  It also offers a few startling inversions of tropes, one of which is tied directly to the climax of the book.

This is the first in a series, but it can very easily be read by itself.  It's a fast read, about two hundred pages of large print, and the writing style (because it's really a middle-grade book) is of course easy to get through as well.  Wrede has a matter-of-fact writing style that manages to be engaging and to the point without sacrificing the immersive reading experience or challenging suspension of disbelief.  Could things be a little more developed?  Of course.  But there's three more books for that.

Overall, this is such a fun read, and I had a great time re-reading it as an adult even though I'm no longer its target audience.  If you have younger readers, this is a great book for them that I think is enjoyable for anyone reading along.

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Wintersong - S. Jae-Jones

WintersongThis book enchanted me from the moment I read the description, about how a girl has heard stories of the Goblin King her entire life, and has savored them, but only half-believed until her sister is stolen away to be his bride.  Elisabeth, who has always dreamed of being a composer while her younger brother shines as a gifted violinist, is ready to sacrifice everything to save her sister: her music, her life, her freedom.  But maybe it's not such a sacrifice after all, because for once in her life, she feels wanted, desired, something that hasn't happened before.

Obviously, there are some parallels here to the cult film Labyrinth, starring the one, the only David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King.  The stealing of the sibling, the promise that the heroine and the sibling can be free if they can escape, the goblin ball, the peach.  There's clearly a lot of inspiration from the film here.  That said, this doesn't attempt to be a novelization of the film--though there is one of those, if you're interested.  Rather, Jae-Jones takes some of the most hypnotic elements from the movie and twists them and builds them into something completely different that is definitely an "inspired by" rather than an "adapted from."  And people draw inspiration from everywhere, so I have absolutely no problems with that.  There's also a pseudo-Persephone story here that was an element I really liked.  And the sacrificing of the Goblin King's name...that's a very nice trope, one I definitely favor, that made me want to love this book so badly.

Unfortunately, the romance here just didn't click for me.  One of the reasons that Elisabeth agrees to become the Goblin King's bride, in addition to saving her sister and presumably the world, is that he wants her.  And while that might have been true--the way he wants her but still tries to protect her seems to indicate that, certainly--I never really felt that Elisabeth truly wanted him.  She was attracted to him, yes, but I'm not sure she wanted him "entire," as they said so frequently.  What Elisabeth really wanted was to be wanted, and that was the main draw.  She wanted to be wanted in a distinctly sexual manner, because Elisabeth isn't pretty.  She's downright plain, something that's emphasized again and again, along with that her real beauty is on the inside.  But still, being physically desired is something new for her, and I think that was what she wanted, more than anything else.  And once she got it, once it was hers...she wanted to leave.  Which doesn't exactly ring as a fairy tale love for all time to me.

The end here was also a disappointment to me.  While some might feel that it suited the book, which was dark and dreary and I don't think really a "young adult" book at all, despite the heroine's age, I felt like there was a way to make this a true romance with a traditional "happily ever after" ending, but without going beyond the bounds of being realistic for the established universe.  There was a pattern of Goblin Kings being replaced, and a precedent of at least one leaving with his bride--so why couldn't it have come full circle?  It didn't have to perpetually solve the problem of the sacrifice to end winter, but for this particular pair it could have worked.  It sort of makes me wonder if Jae-Jones is planning a second book to possibly resolve some of this, though it doesn't look as if this has been announced as part of a duology or longer series.  Of course, it just came out a few weeks ago, so there's still time.

So, yes, there were enchanting elements to this book.  The premise, the music, the promise of romance, the looming threat of eternal winter...they all had so potential.  Unfortunately, I feel like the romance didn't fully develop on both sides and that the ending didn't suit the established book.  I'm all for bittersweet endings, as long as they fit--but this one didn't, and it marred the experience for me.

3 stars out of 5.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Red Queen - Victoria Aveyard (Red Queen #1)

Red Queen (Red Queen, #1)Red Queen is one of those books that I really didn't have any intention of reading, except everyone was raving about it, so I shrugged and added myself to the library wait list.  Of course the loan came through at the worst time, at the beginning of a month when I started working on various other book club reads, but alas, the timing was it was, so I dug in.

Mare Barrows is a red-blooded commoner in a world ruled by silver-blooded elites who also possess strange powers, like the ability to manipulate water, or fire, or heal people, or shut down others' powers.  Mare's country of Norta is engaged in an ongoing war against the Lakelanders, and every Red who isn't employed when they turn eighteen is conscripted into the army.  Mare's three older brothers are in the war and Mare is resigned to being conscripted, too, though her younger sister has a job as a seamstress.  But when Mare's best friend loses his job when his boss dies, she becomes determined to steal enough money for the two of them to steal act that only results in her younger sister's sewing hand being irreparably broken.  Desperate to repair the damage she's done to her family, Mare tries to steal as much as she can, but inadvertently steals from Norta's crown prince, who instead of punishing her gets her a job at the castle.  But when Mare accidentally falls into the middle of the Queenstrial, when eligible girls from Silver families show off their abilities in hope of winning the hand of one of the princes, it's revealed that she's not just a Red, though she bleeds like one--she has the never-before seen ability to create and manipulate lightning.

Mare ends up posing as a Silver princess, trying to balance her sense of self-preservation with a desire to help her people.  She joins a Red resistance with a hope for changing the status quo and tries to avoid the crown prince's bride, Evangeline, while dealing with her attraction to both the crown prince, Cal, and his younger brother and her supposed fiance, Maven.

I didn't really like this book.  It gets off to a very slow start, the world building is confused, and Mare is not a great heroine.  Much of the book is just Mare going from lesson to lesson and fretting about how everyone will find out she's a lie, and trying to hide her activities by turning of the security cameras that abound in the palace, like everyone else is completely stupid and won't figure out that all the cameras just happen to turn off whenever the girl who can control electricity is up to something.  For the world, it has a mix of magic and technology that could be intriguing, but doesn't really end up working.  Mare remarks a few times that they Silvers don't actually have amazing technology, that it's all manipulated by their abilities--but they have cars, and motorcycles, and apparently nuclear technology?  That doesn't seem like stuff that can be made with magic.  And what makes Silver blood silver, if the thing that causes their abilities isn't what does it?  Because Mare clearly has abilities, too, and her blood is very red.

The "commoner masquerading as a princess" trope is one that I would normally love, but I just couldn't like Mare.  While her loyalty to her family is admirable, she's told repeatedly of exactly what to watch out for, but she refuses to listen to anyone and so is completely blindsided when things don't turn out the way she expected.  And I really didn't like Kilorn, Mare's best friend, as a character, either.  He was just kind of a jerk.  And the supposed romance wasn't really here, either.  Despite Mare repeatedly saying how attracted she is to Cal or how much she cares for Maven, there doesn't appear to actually be anything there.  Maybe there's a tiny bit of something at the end, but it's clearly bound for another love triangle in the next book, and I'm not really sure I have the patience for that.

Overall, I'm not so sure what has people raving about this book.  Some of the supporting characters are interesting--Julian, for example--but while the end fight was cool and made me want to root for Mare, I don't think she's a strong enough central character to carry the series, not with her inability to see exactly what's in front of her face, and the promising world is just a flimsy skin over a logic-less void.  I can't really see myself picking up the other books in the near future, not with another 1600 more interesting books on my to-read list.

2 stars out of 5.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Hunted - Meagan Spooner

HuntedI read the books Meagan Spooner wrote with Amie Kaufman, the These Broken Stars books, which I loved, and when I saw that she had a Beauty and the Beast retelling coming out, I was super excited.  I couldn't wait to see what Spooner would do on her own, and her Beauty sounded awesome: she's a huntress!  How cool.  So I snatched this up the day it came out.  Luckily I had the day off work, because I absolutely devoured this book.

The story follows Yeva, the youngest daughter of a wealthy merchant in medieval Russia.  When Yeva's father loses everything in a caravan that's attacked by the Mongols, he moves the family to his old hunting cabin.  Once a great hunter, he takes to the woods once again...but something is hunting him in return, and it begins to drive him crazy.  When he vanishes, Yeva, who used to hunt with her father, sets out in pursuit of him.

The family dynamics here are so wonderful.  Yeva has such a loving, supportive family.  They all care for each other and lift each other up, even when one person's interests might go directly against another's.  Positive relationships are so rare in fairy tales and young adult books, so seeing one here was a real treat.  But what was an even bigger treat is the main story itself.

It does take a while to get going; this isn't a fast book.  But the writing was beautiful, slowly drawing us into the Russian fantasy world that Yeva inhabits.  Yeva is called Beauty, just as her sisters were named for Grace and Light (though they all have given names as well) but she doesn't get everything she wants just because she's beautiful.  She wants more than her life in their town, desperately, and is actually relieved when they move to her father's hunting cabin, because she thinks she'll be happy if she can just return to hunting in the forest with him like she did when she was younger.  What she really wants is to find the mythic Firebird that her father told her stories of, but she'll settle for hunting.  But as she begins to hunt, working hard to regain skills she's lost, she stumbles into the problem of her father's vanishing--and then his evident death.  Catching and killing the Beast responsible for his death becomes the next thing Yeva wants, and the driving force in the story.  Even when she's the Beast's captive, her motivation is to stay long enough to find his weak spot and kill him, no matter what kindnesses are shown to her.

Minor spoilers here regarding the nature of the curse and the flaw at the center of the story.  There is one big central flaw in this story that I could find, and it has to do with the nature of the Beast's curse.  The Beast has been cursed by the Firebird and the curse can only be broken if the Firebird returns to him on its own.  There's a little twist here, of course, which I won't reveal, but if it's believed that the way to break the curse is to get the Firebird to come back voluntarily...then why would the Beast be trying to kill it?  *scratches head*  I don't think killing it really counts as it coming back voluntarily.

So, yes, there's a central flaw in the logic of the story.  Spooner kind of accommodates for this at the end of the book, where of course breaking the curse isn't what they thought it would be, but it definitely did mar the reading experience for me.  However, I still loved this book.  The slow build (though not a slow burn) and the way that Spooner parallels Yeva's and the Beast's stories was wonderful.  There's a very, very slight love triangle but it's not used in a typical sense, and there is no Disney Gaston here to serve as a central villain.  Really, there is no villain in this book, which I think actually is one of its strengths, because it means the characters are pitted against nature and against their own inner selves, which is a strong conflict to go with.  The overlaying of the fantasy world with the normal world also really worked here, as did Yeva's growing awareness of it.

So, this is not a perfect book.  But I loved it nonetheless, and I can definitely see myself reading it again in the future.  If you like fairy tale retellings, I would definitely recommend this one.

4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Dark Lover - J. R. Ward (Black Dagger Brotherhood #1)

Dark Lover (Black Dagger Brotherhood, #1)Vampires are not my thing.  They never have been.  But there's a category for a vampire romance in the Unapologetic Romance Readers' 2017 reading challenge, so I perused the lists of vampire romances that people love, and Dark Lover basically topped them all.  And so off to the library I went.

This book is...interesting.  On one hand, the romance is mostly okay, so that's a plus.  On the other hand, everything else is so harebrained and way-out-there crazy that I couldn't help but giggle to myself the entire time I was reading this.  It starts on the very first page when the heroine's father, Darius, is trying to get one of his buddies to agree to help Beth (the heroine) through her upcoming change into a vampire, as she is unaware that she's half-vamp.  The buddy's name?  Wrath.  And there are more of them!  Tohrment.  Rhage.  Vishous.  Zsadist. These are really their names.  And of course they all dress in black leather and carry around an entire armory with them.  And they can teleport!  Yes.  It's true.  And they inhabit some vampire society in which females are kept out of sight, which is totally weird and very medieval.  Not cool.  And apparently vamps can only actually feed on each other for real nourishment, not humans?  But that doesn't make any sense.  (Yes, I'm talking about vampires making sense.)  Because then it's just kind of an endless circle of sucking on each others' wrists/necks/whatever, without any new nutrients actually entering the system?  How does that work?  So confusing.  So weird.  And Wrath is apparently blind but he never actually has any trouble seeing things except to cut up his meat at dinner(because vampires eat normal dinners, too).

But, as I mentioned, the romance is okay.  It's not great.  There are definitely still issues with it.  Like how Wrath is supposed to be the biggest, baddest vampire, but turns into a cuddly puppy as soon as Beth enters the picture.  And how Beth and Wrath fall in love pretty much the instant they lay eyes on each other, and instantly do the sexing.  Okay, I take it back, the romance wasn't really that good.  It had its moments, when the two of them were acting relatively normal, but the premise that their relationship is based on is just so weird that, the more that I think about it, the worse it seems in retrospect.  Like, Wrath was her dad's friend.  And he's like four hundred years old!  Why is it that beings that are centuries old are constantly falling in love with twenty-somethings?  That's just weird, y'all.  Talk about an age gap.  And Wrath acts like he's twenty-something, too, down to the way he dresses and talks, despite the fact that he's literally seen centuries go by.

Oh, and there's a subplot that revolves around a bunch of soulless and undead humans who study martial arts (yes, seriously) trying to kill all the vamps.  (Again--seriously.)

So, yeah. This book was hokey.  I enjoyed parts of it while actually reading it, but looking back on it, those parts are fading away fast, because the more I think about it the more outlandish and bizarre it all was, and I can't really say that it was good.  Overall, this reads like something a teenage goth would have written on Quizilla in the early 2000s, though this admittedly probably has better spelling and grammar and isn't written in the second person.  (Thank the stars for that.)

2 stars out of 5, and I feel like that might be me being generous.

A Kiss for Midwinter - Courtney Milan (Brothers Sinister #1.5)

A Kiss For Midwinter (Brothers Sinister, #1.5)Hallelujah, I have finished the category!  After having such a hard time finding a book that actually fit the "A Christmas romance" category for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' 2017 reading challenge (info here), I finally just went for this little novella by Courtney Milan.  I normally wouldn't use a novella to fulfill a category--full-length novels are much more my thing--but I was fed up of grabbing supposed Christmas romances and finding that they really were no such thing.  I figured I had done my due diligence in the novel department, and I really wanted to just move on.  That said, I knew I liked Courtney Milan, and I've heard from several people that her novellas are fire, so I figured it was a pretty safe bet.  And the description featured Christmas.  Heavily.

Which brings us to the story itself.  It starts with the hero, Jonas Grantham, silently watching as his elderly mentor examine a young woman who has been ruined and is now pregnant.  Jonas has doubts about the man's medical abilities, but has promised to stay silent--what he's really hoping to gain is the man's medical practice after he retires.  But he rather suspects that a concoction the man has prescribed for nausea is more likely a poison.  Between his doubts and his promise, though, he doesn't say anything, and leaves.

Fast forward ten years.  Jonas is now a doctor in his own right, and he's looking to marry someone, mainly so he can have a constant source of sex without risking disease.  To further his goals, he has compiled a list of the ten prettiest girls in town, hoping that one of them will agree to marry him.  But then there's Lydia Charingford, who would be number eleven on the list, and who also seems to--strangely--hate him.  Until he realizes that she's the girl he saw five years before, the one who was ruined, and she seems to think he's been judging her, making fun of her, and overall disliking her the entire time.  But Jonas doesn't dislike Lydia.  He likes her very much.  So he makes her a bet.  She'll go on three house calls to see patients with him, and if Lydia can't find a bright side to one of the situations, she'll have to kiss him.  If she can find the bright side--a specialty of hers--to all of them, then Jonas will have to never speak to her again.

This is a quick romance, being so closely focused around the Christmas season, but it's not an instant romance, which I liked.  Jonas' blunt honestly astonishes Lydia, but she's drawn to it, too, and appreciates that he gives her the truth.  And Jonas is in turn drawn not only to Lydia's looks, but also to her spirit, and he doesn't consider her to be "ruined" at all.  He's quite the burgeoning feminist, really, advocating (albeit on a small scale) for the sexual liberation of women.  And men.  Everyone.  Equality!  Huzzah.  It's a great little romance, and intertwined with it is Jonas' struggle with his father, who has failing health, some degree of dementia, and has also become something of a hoarder.  It's heartbreaking, but seeing Jonas' struggle and why he does it is so moving, and I think it added a nice dimension to this other than the main romance.

Overall, I was very happy with this.  I think it definitely could have been longer--seeing the romance drawn out more, and building up the subplots would have been nice--but it was a quick, enjoyable read.  One thing with short form in general is that the characters don't tend to develop much in and of themselves, though their relationships might, and I think that was a ding against it, but that was the only big thing.

4 stars out of 5.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Managed - Kristen Callihan (VIP #2)

Managed (VIP, #2)Now let me tell you, this is a properly-done slow burn romance!  I thought Mariana Zapata was queen of the slow burn, and she is excellent, but this blew Kulti and The Wall of Winnipeg and Me out of the water.  Absolutely awesome.

So, Managed is the second book in the VIP series, but it's one of those series where you don't really have to read the other books--they give you some context, but you don't really need them.  That said, I did like the first book, Idol so I'd say give it a shot.  In this second volume, our hero is the manager of the hit band Kill John, Gabriel Scott.  And our heroine is Sophie Darling, a social media specialist headed to London for a job interview.  Sophie ends up in first class, much to her surprise, and next to Gabriel--who's very not happy about it and very surly and very afraid of flying.  Sophie distracts him throughout the flight through blowjob jokes and forced snuggling, thinking that they'll never see each other again...except, of course, it turns out she's interviewing for a position with Kill John.  And she's the one behind some rather nasty pictures of the band's lead, Jax, getting out a few years ago.  It's awkward.

Sophie and Gabriel are attracted to each other right away, but Gabriel doesn't get involved with people in the band, and Sophie is also determined to remain just friends.  Except a mean case of jet lag ends up in them not being able to sleep without each other.  So she moves into Gabriel's bus.  And they sleep.  And the limits start getting pushed, and jealousies rise up, and it's all just so delicious.  Just like with Idol, I found the conflicts realistic (for the most part) and the characters both believable and empathetic.  And Gabriel is British which of course is awesome.  There did seem to be some conflicts with the first book, though, particularly regarding the backstory of the band and how they got together--the story here seems distinctly different from the one Killian presented in Idol.

Still, I absolutely loved this book.  I devoured it in one sitting and can't wait for the others--and there should be at least three more!  Yaaaas.

5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Christmas Eve at Friday Harbor - Lisa Kleypas (Friday Harbor #1)

Christmas Eve at Friday Harbor (Friday Harbor, #1)I picked this up in another attempt to fulfill the "Christmas romance" category for a reading challenge I'm doing.  It didn't work.  This was a much better book than my first attempt for that category, Debbie Macomber's Starry Night, but that didn't come as a surprise; I knew going into it that Lisa Kleypas was guaranteed to have a better offering.  However, there were only about 500 words in this book that actually contributed to the Christmas season at all, with the rest of the book taking place from around March through Thanksgiving.

The story follows Mark Nolan, who gains custody of his six-year-old niece Holly when her mother dies in a car accident.  Mark and his brother do their best with Holly but she refuses to speak, until one day when Maggie, the owner of a new toy store in town, coaxes words out of her once again.  Maggie and Mark are immediately attracted to each other, but hold back from entering into anything more than a tentative friendship.  Mark is also involved in a relationship with a girlfriend who lives in Seattle (I think), which is one of the reasons they hold back.  Good for them; cheaters are terrible.

Though this is a short book, it's also a slow burn because of the long span of time the story takes place over.  As with her historical romances, Kleypas does a wonderful job of building the relationship between the two characters.  Their every meeting has a spark that just builds and builds, and it's delicious to watch.  Friday Harbor is also a wonderful setting, and Kleypas does an amazing job of bringing the Pacific Northwest to life to someone like myself who has never been there.  Friday Harbor is a small town on a small island, where everyone knows everyone, and Kleypas shows both the downfalls to this--like how everyone knows everyone else's business--and the up sides--like how supportive the people can be of each other.

Overall, this is a short book, but it was really well-done; I just wish it had been a bit more on point with the whole "Christmas Eve" thing it promised.  If you've read Kleypas' historical romances before but haven't ventured into her contemporary offerings, I think this would a good place to start because of its length--long enough to develop, but not too long of a commitment if it doesn't work out.

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Starry Night - Debbie Macomber

Starry NightUgh.  Let's get it out of the way right now: I did not like this book.  I picked it up for a romance reading challenge I'm doing, to fulfill the category of "A Christmas romance," but it didn't really end up fitting that, and I disliked it so much that I don't think I could bring myself to count it anyway.  But here's the thing: I wasn't excited about that category to begin with, because Christmas romances are pretty terrible as a general rule.  Why?  Because authors use "the magic of the holidays" as an excuse to have people fall in love instantaneously.  In this regard, Starry Night was no exception.

Heroine Carrie is a society page writer for a newspaper in Chicago, but she hates writing the society page.  She finally decides to quit, but her editor tells her that if she can get an interview with the reclusive writer Finn Dalton, she can have any writing assignment she wants.  She agrees and sets out to find him, accomplishing the task in about two days even though no one else has been able to find out anything about him.  So she whisks herself off to Alaska and she and Finn get stuck together in his cabin for about 36 hours, during which they share about 20 minutes of conversation and, of course, fall in love.  Blargh.

The writing in this is not good.  It's all tell and no show.  Despite it constantly being said how smart Carrie is, she decides that heeled boots (but it's a low heel!) and her pea coat are suitable wear for winter in Alaska.  And the Northern Lights made her fall in love!  And she spends half the book sighing, "Oh, Finn," or "Oh, Mom," or "Oh, Daddy," depending on who she's talking to.  Finn loves Carrie one second and then decides to drive her away the next.  Sophie is a great, though pushy, friend one minute, and then she's basically breaking up Finn and Carrie the next.  And the whole thing is just so sickly sweet that I spent most of my time rolling my eyes and nursing a sugar-induced toothache.  It's just...uuuuugh.

I would definitely not pick up something by this author again.  I'm going to give it 2 stars out of 5, but that's only because at least it didn't turn outright preachy (another favorite trope of Christmas romances; hello, non-religious people can enjoy the Christmas season, too) and it was, thankfully, short.  Oh, and as another reviewer said, I did like the dog.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Devil in Spring - Lisa Kleypas (Ravenels #3)

Devil in Spring (The Ravenels, #3)Devil in Spring was an easy pick for us Unapologetic Romance Readers to take on for our March group read.  (We'll also be reading These Broken Stars for our theme read, a sci-fi romance.)  Despite it being a series, many of us have read the preceding two, and for those of us who hadn't, historical romance series typically don't require that you read all the books to get the gist of what's going on.

Continuing on with the saga of the Ravenel family, Devil in Winter finally turns to the twin, namely Pandora.  And for the hero, we have Gabriel, who is the son of the main couple from Kleypas' earlier work Devil in Winter (hence the title).  Though Gabriel isn't much of a devil at all.  In fact, he's not much of anything at all, except boring as a brick and very occasionally controlling, which goes away in about five pages.

Gabriel and Pandora are thrown together when Pandora gets stuck in a settee in a secluded guest house at a ball, during an attempt to retrieve an earring a friend lost during a rendezvous.  Gabriel helps her get out of the settee's evil scrolls, but they're found together and Pandora is, of course, instantly compromised.  She doesn't want to marry him, though, because she wants to remain single so that she can retain full control of her burgeoning board game company, which she hopes to get going in the very near future.  Though her family says they'll support her in whatever decision she makes, they also encourage her to consider Gabriel's offer, and to that end the whole family decamps to the Challon (what a terrible last name!) family residence on the ocean, where our former couple Sebastian and Evie are also in residence.

Sebastian and Evie remain far more interesting than Pandora and Gabriel were.  Pandora was okay on her own, but Gabriel was bland, bland, bland.  There's a dance scene in which "love magic" may or may not have magically solved some balance problems Pandora has--I'm not entirely convinced it did, because Pandora seems to be able to largely compensate for her inner ear issues with sight (hence why they bother her most at night, when she can't see clearly) but some group members insist it was love magic, and it might have been; it's a bit ambiguous but either way it was pretty eye-roll worthy.  Of course one dance instantly persuades Pandora that yes, she can get married, even if it means losing her legal rights (which she would!) and so off she goes to the altar.  The plot then devolves into sex (elevated from making out) and a harebrained plot involving Pandora being targeted for assassination by a branch of the Fenian Brotherhood.  Yes.  That really happens.

Overall, this series isn't doing it for me.  I usually love Kleypas, but the first two books here were lackluster at best and boring at worst, and while I was hoping for improvement with one of the twins as a main character, that just didn't happen.  Luckily there's only one more book in this series until Kleypas can hopefully move on to something that will recapture her old magic from the Wallflowers days.

2 stars out of 5.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore (Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, #1)There was something charming about this title that made buy it.  It also might have had something to do with the fact that there's this tumblr post that makes the rounds of the Nano Participants (formerly known as NaNoWriMo) group on Facebook that complains that such a thing as a 24-hour bookstore doesn't exist.  (To which my response is, it does.  It's called the Kindle store/iBooks/etc.)  But it sat on my shelf for a while, quietly glowing (yes, glowing; those books on the cover glow in the dark) until I found myself in need a book to fit my reading challenge category of "A book with an eccentric character."  It worked out perfectly, because pretty much all of the characters in this book are eccentric!

The main character is Clay, who ends up working at the eponymous bookstore after stumbling across it during a walk.  Clay doesn't actually aspire to work at a bookstore, but he's been unemployed for a while after the bagel shop for which he was a graphic designer/web designer/social media marketer/etc. shut down.  In the bookstore, he finds himself selling a few books every now and then to random incomers, but more often loaning out books to strange repeat customers who have membership cards, and the books that go out on loan seem to be full of gibberish or code.  With a few strange friends, like Neel the guy who sells software to animate boobs better, or Matt the prop designer who's building a city in their living room, or Kat the Google employee who dreams of finding a way to live forever, Clay sets out to figure out what's going on, leading to a bigger mystery than he intended to find.

This book is a love letter to both books and technology.  This was so refreshing.  Another meme that goes around the Facebook group periodically is how people who read on Kindles or other e-readers aren't "real" readers.  (Also popular is one about how people who dogear book pages to mark their place are monsters.  I dogear each page with relish now.)  But the characters in this book don't see it that way.  They have a bookstore, but they have e-readers.  They have books of code and are reverent toward "old knowledge" but savor the computing possibilities of Google, Hadoop, and so on.  I loved this.  Believe it or not, books and technology can live in harmony!  Gasp!  They're not actually hunting each other to extinction!  Amazing!  Even the book-worshipping members of the Unbroken Spine realize this with relatively little influencing.

The mystery is also a great sort of mystery.  The hunt proclaims to be around the search for the secret to immortality, but there's little belief on Clay's behalf that immortality is something that can be attained in the literal sense.  I liked this, because it means that the story didn't go off the rails.  There was a mystery, but the sleuthing involved a middle-grade trilogy about singing dragons and an examination of technologies that most of us wouldn't have dreamed of, and a mysterious internet pirate who inserted himself into pirated copies of the Harry Potter books.  It's all very charming and, yes, very eccentric, but it works.  There are discussions of museum archives and of typefaces and it's so much quirkiness that it all just works together.  I think if Sloan had gone just a little bit farther in any direction, it would have been too much, but he held back to just the right degree to make this an enjoyable read.

Is it a bit farfetched at times?  Yes.  It is.  And I found myself a little bit unsure of how seriously to take some of it.  Does Google actually run this way?  I don't know, it just seems so weird, and yet, it is Google... But I still enjoyed it, and I think Sloan held the back from going too far in the immortality direction, instead choosing to make things figurative.  A very enjoyable read, and I'm glad I finally got to it.

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Frozen in Time - Mitchell Zuckoff

Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War III've read another of Zuckoff's books, Lost in Shangri-La, which is about a rescue of a group of Americans who were in a plane crash in a remote area of New Guinea during World War II and ended up in a village that had very little outside contact prior to the crash and the Americans' arrival.  With Frozen in Time, Zuckoff moved on to another island rescue mission, but instead of the tropics, this one goes to the Arctic, to the glaciers of Greenland.

There are two stories here: the historical, World War II crash-and-rescue story, and the modern story about the attempts to get a recovery mission up and running.  In 1942, a plane crash in New Zealand leaves five men stranded, and the rescue attempts strand nine more in a different location.  And the rescue attempts for the combined crews start stranding and claiming the lives of even more men.  On top of everything, it's not expected that men can live more than a month on the glaciers of Greenland, and winter is bearing down.

I did find this book a little misleading.  I knew several crashes were going to happen in this book, but when the modern chapters started, I got the distinct impression from Zuckoff's narrative that a lot more people died than actually did.  Don't get me wrong, people die in this book--too many.  But Zuckoff gives the impression early in the book that all of the stranded men died, and that the recovery mission was for all of them.  Consequently, I spent much of the book going, "But how do they know this happened this way?"  Well, they know because most the men from the B-17 plane that went down in search of the first plane made it out alive.  The other parts of the story are left more in fog, because those people didn't make it out.

The modern part of the story is mostly comprised of negotiating for funding to get a recovery mission going.  This guy named Lou wants to find the Duck, one of the rescue planes that went out, but he doesn't have the money to do it so he spends his time trying to get the funds from the US military, particularly the Coast Guard (who the Duck belonged to ).  Zuckoff himself ends up pitching in a significant amount of money, at one point even agreeing to use his house as collateral for a loan--though the loan never actually goes through.  This all made me raise an eyebrow at Zuckoff's judgment; while he's perfectly within his rights to spend his money however he wants, I definitely started to wonder how colored this narrative was by his desire to see it through, and I'm not sure that it's the role of the author (Zuckoff was already writing the book when he chipped in the money) to be so financially invested.  Maybe that's weird of me, but I can't quite shake that feeling.

The rescue  mission story is overall interesting, but the modern one is not.  After the fundraising, there's a lot of shifting equipment around on ice, and the end of this is pretty apparent.  Basically, it can only go two ways--they find the plane or they don't, and either way the book isn't long enough to include any sort of cover on the actual recovery mission, rather than the "let's find out where it is" mission.  As a result, I felt kind of bummed and a bit deceived by the end of this, and it's made me a little leery of Zuckoff's other works, though I would still recommend Lost in Shangri-La.

I read this book for the 2017 Popsugar Reading Challenge for the category of "A book with a subtitle," the subtitle being "An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest For Lost Heroes of World War II."

3 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Reading Challenge Updates

Whew!  Progress!  What a ride it's been.  I'm working on a few more titles for this challenge, too, but I'm making pretty solid progress here.  Have you read anything good recently?

-A book you've read before that never fails to make you smile.  I was originally going to read Cress by Marissa Meyer for this one, because I really enjoyed it when I first read it through, but then I spotted a book on my shelves that fit this category even better: Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede.  This is a middle-grade book, but re-reading it as adult I found it just as charming as when I actually fit the target audience, though it certainly seemed a lot shorter this time around!

-A steampunk novel.  I've had Boneshaker on my shelf for a while, but never read it because while it was steampunk, something I like, it also had zombies, something I'm not big on.  Things like The Walking Dead have never really intrigued me.  But I read it as planned for this category, and I actually really enjoyed it!  I think the end left something to be desired, as it's not tied up and the next several books in the series don't appear to address the issues at all, but Cherie Priest's alternate universe, set in an extended Civil War-era, was a great direction to go with this.  It actually kind of reminded me of Walk On Earth a Stranger and Like a River Glorious, a bit, though those are YA-western-fantasy and this was adult-steampunk-zombie.  Still, they had some of the same historical flavor to them, and it worked.

-A book you got from a used book sale.  There's this bookstore in Sussex, New Jersey called Broad Street Books and which is owned by a family eerily similar to my boyfriend's.  We make a point of going whenever we're up in the area.  This time, one of the books I picked up was a collected works of Jane Austen.  I was originally going to read Sense and Sensibility from it for this category, but then The Deliberate Reader book club had Emma assigned for March, so I read that instead.  While Austen has a way of creating characters, I couldn't stand Emma herself here, and it really tainted the book for me.

-A book with career advice.  This seemed like it was going to be a terrible category, but then I realized it's actually very loosely-phrased.  First, it's a book with career advice, not a book of career advice--so the advice doesn't have to comprise the entirely of the book.  Also, it doesn't specify that the book has to have advice about my career, which would be terribly boring.  Semantics?  Yes, but useful ones, and it meant that this category didn't end up being a complete drag.  To fill it, I read Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl, a former restaurant critic for the New York Times and editor of the now-defunct Gourmet magazine, among other prestigious positions in the eating world.  I enjoyed the book, and the antics Reichl performed in an attempt to fool New York restaurants into thinking she wasn't herself, but kind of thought that her disguises were just an excuse for bad behavior that she ultimately recognized but never really owned up to.

-A book about an immigrant or refugee.  Stealing Buddha's Dinner, written by Bich Minh Nguyen who came to the United States as a Vietnamese refugee at the age of eight months old, has been on my to-read list for a while, and this was the perfect chance to get to it.  Nguyen manages to draw out the feelings of loneliness and otherness so well that even those who haven't been refugees or minorities can empathize with her situation, all while building up a very nostalgic and food-centered view of the late seventies and the eighties, and created a picture of a childhood that I saw paralleled my own in a lot of ways, making that connection and making seeing her own situation easier even though, in many ways, we are nothing alike.

-A book you loved as a child.  I was planning on finishing this category later, but I got really sick for a few days and so felt it was a good time to read something light and nostalgic--something just like Tamora Pierce's Squire.  Pierce writes such awesome heroines and while the book doesn't quite have the polish of her newer works, Keladry of Mindelan is an excellent role model and I pretty much still want to be her when I grow up, even all these years after first reading the book.

-A book with one of the four seasons in the title. As planned, I read Devil in Spring by Lisa Kleypas for this.  Unfortunately, like its predecessors in the same arc, this one just didn't do it for me.  That good ol' Kleypas magic isn't there, the hero is boring, and the plot is pretty much completely hokey.  Ah, well.  Hopefully after the final book in this series she'll move on to something that can recapture her former glow.

Still to Come
-A novel set during wartime.  Atonement, Ian McEwan

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

-An audiobook.  Anna and the French Kiss, Stephanie Perkins

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

-A book that is a story within a story.  Afterworlds, Scott Westerfeld

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

-A book by an author who uses a pseudonym.  Seven Minutes in Heaven, Eloisa James (Mary Bly)

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

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

-A book involving travel.  SEAsoned, Victoria Allman

-A book that's published in 2017.  Given to the Sea, Mindy McGinnis

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

-A book about food.  In the Devil's Garden, Stewart Lee Allen

-A book from a nonhuman perspective.  The Tale of Despereaux, Kate DiCamillo

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

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

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

-A book with pictures.  No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain

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

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

-A book written by someone you admire.  A Court of Wings and Ruin, S. J. Maas

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

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

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

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

-A bestseller from 2016.  Magic, Danielle Steel

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

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

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

-A book that's more than 800 pages.  Voyager, Diana Galbadon

-A book that's been mentioned in another book.  Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift (mentioned as Gullible's Travels in Marissa Meyer's Heartless)

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

-A book based on mythology.  Olympos, Dan Simmons

Monday, March 6, 2017

Notorious RBG - Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader GinsburgOne of the categories for my 2017 Popsugar Reading Challenge is "A book about an interesting woman."  The clear choice for this, for me, was RBG--Ruth Bader Ginsberg, one of the Supreme Court Justices and the most senior of the liberal side of the court.  I took a few law classes in school and we read many of her opinions--both majority and dissents--during those classes.  Her opinions sizzle.  One of them absolutely slams Congress, essentially saying that the Court shouldn't really be ruling on the issue at hand, but something has to be done about it, and Congress is refusing to do their jobs, so the Court is going to do it.  Wow.  Love it.  But there was a lot about RBG herself that I really didn't know, so this was a great opportunity to fit the book into my reading queue.

This a good overview, I think.  There aren't a ton of books about RBG, which I totally understand because, well, she's still alive.  It's hard to write a comprehensive biography of someone who isn't done with her life and venerable career.  But it gives some background and some insight as to where RBG comes from in the development of her ideals and what she'll do for them.  And it's not just her judicial background and time as a lawyer before that, but her life, too, and there were so many little anecdotes that you would never guess from just seeing RBG or reading her work.  Like her long, loving relationship with her husband, Marty, who cooked all the meals and who RBG once chased around her office with scissors, and who baked cakes for the clerks' birthdays at the Court.

I was surprised to learn a lot of the stuff behind RBG's professional life.  She's actually considered to be a very moderate justice, though she has a firm stance on equality, and is known to be one of the most thoughtful justices.  And then there's how she actually isn't a huge fan of Roe v. Wade; while she supports a woman's right to have an abortion, she felt that Roe didn't come in a great way, that it focuses on privacy rather than equality, and that sweeping decisions like Roe can ultimately be more easily disregarded later on--something that I think we've definitely seen in the recent spate of abortion regulations popping up across the countries which seemingly have nothing to do with actual health regulations.

However, I did have a few issues with this book.  First, it's very short, and consequently very surface-level.  While there are excerpts of some of her opinions that the authors dig into a bit, but I would have liked to see more analysis in general.  It also jumps around in time.  Just when I thought we were firmly into her life as a justice, there'd be a jump that would go back to when she was a lawyer and professor, and it was a bit confusing.  Those transitions also weren't very smooth.  And this is not a book meant to be read on Kindle--the formatting for it is absolutely terrible.

I really did enjoy this book, but I wish it had been a bit less superficial and that it just been organized a bit better.  Still, this offered a lot of snaps of RBG that I don't think most people know about, and they definitely made her more human rather than just the imposing (though tiny) justice who rules from the bench.

4 stars out of 5.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Squire - Tamora Pierce (Protector of the Small #3)

Squire (Protector of the Small, #3)Tamora Pierce was one of my favorite authors growing up.  The first book of hers was actually the second one of this particular series, Page, which I got in a stack of books one of my mother's coworkers gave to me, because someone had given them to her niece, who wasn't a reader.  I didn't even realize it was a series until a couple of years later, when I found this one at a book store!  Pierce has written a lot of books, most of them middle-grade but some of them trending into the young adult category, and all of them about awesome girls and women doing awesome things.  She has a few male main characters, but overall she is very much a girl power author.  This particular book is one of my favorites of hers, and I'd decided to read it for the "A book you loved as a child" category of my 2017 reading challenge.  And since I've been horribly sick the past few days, and being sick always makes me nostalgic for things from when I was sick when I was little (Campbell's chicken noodle soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, anyone?) this seemed like a great time to read it.

The main character in the Protector of the Small series is Keladry of Mindelan, a young woman training to be the second female knight in over a century, and the first to actually train openly as female.  In this third book, Kel has passed out of her time as a page and into the status of a squire, needing to train directly under a knight, though she suspects that no one will choose her because she's "The Girl."  Luckily for her, someone does pick her--Raoul of Goldenlake and Malorie's Peak, the commander of the King's Own (kind of like a mini-army/National Guard sort of thing) and a legend in his own right.  Though Kel dreamed of being the squire of Alanna the Lioness, she knows it's not possible and is thrilled to be Raoul's squire, travelling with the Own and helping those across Tortall.  Along the way, she fights a centaur, rescues a baby griffin that she ends up stuck with, and encounters many characters that appeared in the series preceding this one, such as Alanna herself, Raoul himself, Daine the Wildmage, Numair Salmalin, and so on.  Those slightly-more-than-cameos are one of the reasons I find this particular book to be so enjoyable.  Raoul is an amazing character, a knight who respects Kel for her own worth but doesn't force it upon others and instead helps her to earn respect, though it's often hard-won.

In this series, Kel faces the many challenges of being a girl in what is essentially a man's world.  When Alanna won her shield, she did it disguised as a boy.  Kel, being openly female, faces harassment, gossip, destruction of her property, even the kidnapping of one of her servants in an attempt to make her quit her training.  Kel faces all of this with a cool exterior, even when it enrages her on the inside.  She fights for respect both for herself and for those who are unable to fight for it themselves--hence the "Protector of the Small" name of the series.  Kel is such a great character, being an outsider in so many ways but being unwilling to give up on her dreams or her duties.  When I was little, I wanted to be Kel.  She fights with a glaive, which inspired me to give one of my own main characters a glaive as a weapon.  She knows how to fight with a normal staff as well; I distinctly remember swinging around a broom handle in the front yard, many times, practicing what I imagined to be Kel's staff fighting.  I desperately wanted to be as awesome as Kel is.  I still do, and the very battered, much-read condition of the book shows it.

That said, I haven't read this is in years, and it's definitely a little rougher than I remember.  It was Pierce's third series, and one thing that's cool about her writing is that you can see how she grows as a writer over the course of them.  This book is a little less than four hundred pages long, and it covers four years of Kel's life and her entire time as a squire--that's a lot of ground to cover in a small amount of pages.  As such, she has to do a good amount of exposition and skipping over things, and that isn't always done in the smoothest manner.  She also does a lot of re-hashing of things that happened in the previous books, which I don't really think is necessary in a series.  Additionally, this isn't a book that has a strong central plot.  It's about Kel's time as a squire, but there's not really a single compelling motive here beyond that.  That's something that's pretty prevalent throughout this particular series, thought the fourth book does have a central plot revolving around more than just Kel's general struggles.  This one does set up well for the fourth book, though, with the escalation of hostilities with Scanra and the introduction of the enchanted metal killing machines.

This was such a fast, nostalgic read, and I really enjoyed it once again.  As much as when I was younger?  Maybe not quite that much, but I still think it's an excellent book and compensates well for its weaknesses, and is such a great book for girls in need of a role model who does something other than think about boys.  (Kel does think about boys, but her life far from revolves around them.  Pierce's attitudes towards her heroines and sex, that they engage in it but do so of their own free will and while taking proper precautions, is something that I think is very important to include in books for this age group.)

4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Garlic and Sapphires - Ruth Reichl

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in DisguiseI read Ruth Reichl's novel, Delicous! a couple of years ago, and really enjoyed it.  Following a young woman who takes a job at a food magazine, only to find it shut down and that she's been left on as the only employee to uphold its "Delicious Guarantee," it's filled with the wonderful food scene of New York City to a woman who hasn't lived there her entire life.  Now, reading Reichl's nonfiction Garlic and Sapphire, I can see where so much of that book came from.

Garlic and Sapphires follows Reichl through her time as the food critic for the New York Times.  Coming from the Los Angeles Times, Reichl is stunned to realize that the restaurateurs of New York are prepared for her arrival, and decides that the only way she'll get a genuine eating experience is to don disguises.  And so begins a string of alter-egos that Reichl draws up, from the happy and flamboyant Brenda to the downright mean Emily to the semblance of her own mother, and more.  Of course, she doesn't do all of her dining anonymously, and the differences in treatment as her very own self and her alternate personas becomes evident pretty much immediately.  When she dines as herself, she's showered with good service, the raspberries on her tarts get bigger, she's showered with a wealth of deserts and tasting dishes.  When she dines anonymously, she gets the experience that pretty much any other diner would get, which varies wildly from place to place.

What I disliked about this book is that, while Reichl revels in her alternate identities, they seem to become an excuse for engaging in bad behavior more often than not.  She sends every dish in a meal back to the kitchen because it's what her mother would have done.  She's unnecessarily cruel to a young couple sitting at the next table over.  She does realize this, in the end, but only because a friend points it out, and she never really takes responsibility for the things that she does while in disguise.  She acts like, when she puts on a wig, fake makeup, and clothes from the thrift store, she actually becomes another person, with no control over her own actions, when in fact that isn't the case.  She never really owns up to this, just decides to put the whole thing behind her, and it made me really not like Reichl as much as a person.  Yes, the anecdotes she relates are entertaining, but underlying most of them is this subtle menace of bad behavior that will never be acknowledged or apologized for.

But one thing is certainly true: Reichl can write about food.  This shouldn't come as a surprise, given her stints as restaurant credit and editor of Gourmet magazine (now defunct), but the descriptions of food absolutely shine in this book.  She can make any meal seem appealing, even, strangely, the ones that she didn't actually enjoy.  It's the specter of good food, maybe, more than the actuality of it that does the trick.  It all comes back to something Reichl says early in the book: that restaurant reviews aren't written for the people that will eat at the restaurants, but for those who never will.  As someone who will definitely never eat at any of the restaurants Reichl describes (if they're still even open; she was the NYT critic in the early 90s) I can appreciate the luscious descriptions she puts down on the page, drawing out every experience as if I were actually there.

There was one more downfall to this book: it's repetitive.  Reichl follows her narrative experiences of restaurants with actual reviews of some of them, which usually tend to rehash a lot of the same stuff she just related.  She does intersperse the reviews and narratives with recipes, her own takes on some of the things that she ate, which helps to break this up, but not enough to completely save the book from its repetitive feel.

Overall, an enjoyable reading experience, but I have some reservations about the repetitiveness and the way that Reichl never really seems to own up to her bad behavior.  I'm interested in reading her other works--Delicious! was just so good--but while I liked this, I couldn't bring myself to love it.

3 stars out of 5.

Friday, March 3, 2017

The Cowgirl Ropes a Billionaire - Cora Seton (Cowboys of Chance Creek #4)

The Cowgirl Ropes a Billionaire (The Cowboys of Chance Creek, #4)
This was one of my choices for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' 2017 Reading Challenge, specifically for the category of "A millionaire/billionaire romance."  I decided on this one because I got it for free on my Kindle at some point and it had been languishing ever since.  I have not read the previous 3 books in this series.

Okay, guys, let me get it out of the way up front: It's not as bad as it looks.  In fact, it was quite good.  But it doesn't really involve a cowgirl.  It involves a veterinarian.  Though there is a billionaire involved.  But the non-cowgirl doesn't particularly want to marry him.  Oi.  Let me start from the beginning.

Bella is a veterinarian living in Chance Creek, Montana.  She owns both a vet clinic and an animal shelter where she takes care of the areas neglected, abandoned, and generally unwanted pets.  Her older brother is the area's livestock vet, and Bella has a bit of an inferiority complex about this, as well as tense relations with her family in general because she blames herself for the loss of half the family farm, and it seems like her brother and father blame her, too, while her mother is torn between the two halves.  But Bella's big heart where needy animals are concerned does not go well with the expenses that are coupled with running a shelter, and she's broke.  In fact, she's about to go out of her assistant/secretary/coworker Hannah signs Bella up to participate on a show called Can You Beat a Billionaire?  The show's premise is that billionaire and a poor person compete against each other; if the billionaire wins, he or she gets to impose some condition on the loser.  If the poor person wins, he or she gets five million dollars.

The billionaire in the scenario is Evan Mortimer, who owns a company that does a lot of stuff but he really wants to get into changing the world through green technology.  His problem is that, unless he gets married within the month, he'll lose his controlling shares and they'll go to his brother, based on an arcane condition in his great-grandfather something-or-another's will (I think) that states the head of the company has to be married.  Yes, it's that trope.  But Evan both acknowledges this is ridiculous and that he wouldn't mind being married to Bella/would like to have a year (the amount of time he has to stay married) to get her to like him, too.  And he's not completely obnoxious, there's some stuff going on behind his issues, so that wasn't so bad.

So, rather than pastures and horses and untied ties, as the cover of the book indicates, the story is actually comprised of Bella and Chase competing against each other reality-show style in Jasper Park in Canada.  They hike, they compete challenges, they are filmed all the time.  This was, in fact, extremely better (to me) than what the cover had indicated.  Too bad I'll have to read that category for the challenge eventually... Sigh.  Anyway, Evan and Bella end up spending quite a bit of time together and grow closer, though each of them still wants to win.  There's no colluding here.  The challenges are the sort of thing that you'd see on something that's a combination of Survivor and, I don't know, something...not Survivor-like.  There's also this behind-the-scenes view that the show isn't as "rough" as they make it out to be, which I liked, because I'm always so skeptical of those shows.  Despite them hiking and kayaking and digging through the woods, they have their meals prepped for them, they have a makeup artist, there's a possibility to win a hot shower...stuff like that.

The writing here was actually decent, too.  Though the book took place over a relatively short period of time, Bella and Evan's attraction seems to grow naturally.  The conflict also seems natural, because the two of them can't communicate in a meaningful way because they're being filmed all the time and any time something goes away from how the show's producer wants, she interrupts and reminds them of contracts, what they might lose, etc.  And as soon as the show is over, they're whisked off and don't really get a chance to wrap things up.  This all made sense in the context.

Some other reviews mentioned a lack of consistency, but if that was an issue with this book, I think it's been resolved by now, because I went into the book with an eye out for those issues but didn't find anything glaring.

Overall, this was cute, and with a romance that seemed natural and a plot that was not as painful or cliched as I thought it would be.  This was a huge relief.  While some of the other books in the series got a raised eyebrow from me (the one after this appears to have a heroine who's escaping Middle Eastern terrorists?) this was just fine.  I don't think I'd go back to it, it was a fine choice for this category.

3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Must Love Otters - Eliza Gordon

Must Love OttersI've had this book for a while, but finally got around to reading it as part of the Unapologetic Romance Readers' 2017 Reading Challenge.  I slotted it into the category of "A contemporary romance."

Our main character, Hollie Porter, is kind of a train wreck.  She has a job she hates, a boyfriend she doesn't really like, etc. etc.  Much of this is her own fault.  Hollie is incapable of saying "no" to anyone, so she ends up buying groceries for the strange woman downstairs, ended up in her 911 dispatcher job because her father wanted her to get a good union job and she doesn't like blood so she couldn't be a nurse like he is, and dating the lackluster guy because he asked.  After a particularly bad day at work, she ditches the boyfriend, calls out of work, and heads off to a couple's vacation her father bought her as a gift--alone.  And decides to start solving all of her problems by drinking.

There were parts of this book I liked--the description of the scenery, the later portion of the book on the boat--but most of it I found just "eh," and not in a Canadian way.  The thing is, I didn't find Hollie a sympathetic character.  She continually made poor choices and had such derision for everyone around her.  She hates her boss for how much she weighs and how she dresses, her coworker for her collection of troll dolls, her stepsister because she bakes vegan organic cupcakes and is successful...can you see where this is going?  She mocks people (internally) for their weight, for their interests, for pretty much everything that isn't on the exact same wavelength she is on.  When everyone at Revelation Cove warns her away from a guy who pretty clearly isn't what he's presenting himself as, she disregards all of them because she isn't going to let them make her decisions for her--and then is terribly upset when things don't turn out the way she wanted.  Though no one was actually trying to make her decisions and instead was just trying to clue her in on what was actually going on.  And despite being a self-proclaimed animal lover who watches all kinds of nature documentaries, she knows surprisingly little about any animal other than otters (for example, she doesn't know that orcas don't eat people) and seems to hate the animals she encounters in her everyday the point that she considers giving her stepmother's goat (who's not nice, but still) enough drugs to kill him so she doesn't have to deal with him harassing her on her way in and out of her father's house.  Hollie is a real downer for me in this book because she's just so...ugh.

In the last third of the book, Hollie ends up rescued from another stupid situation of her own making (seriously, the girl does not possess a brain most of the time) and falls headfirst into a romantic getaway with a different guy--Ryan, the hot concierge/ex-NHL star.  This part of the book was quite enjoyable.  Hollie seems to put aside her pettiness and embrace her new situation, bantering with Ryan, showing an ounce of gratefulness for once in her life.  Now, was Ryan deserving of this?  Hm... Yes, he does rescue her.  Yes, he is nice to her.  But he also purposefully ambushed her date with the other guy (with some reason, but that doesn't mean it would have been welcomed) and gave her a hand towel to cover up with, rather than a bath towel or robe or something, when she got locked out of her room naked.  And then proceeded to make fun of her for it.  For the duration of her stay.  That's not funny, that's cruel.  But he's like a different person in the later part of the book; it's a strange disconnect, and read like two completely different stories.

And the overly-dramatic climax!  Ah... Yeah, I can't even talk about that.  It was too much.

Overall, I think this could have been a cute concept, but I couldn't stand Hollie for much of the book and have questions about Ryan's worth as a love interest, too.  The part on the boat was enjoyable but for the rest...oi.

2 stars out of 5.