Sunday, April 30, 2017

Killers of the Flower Moon - David Grann

Killers of the Flower MoonThis was my choice for my April Book of the Month.  As soon as I read the description--about how, in the 1920s, the Osage Native American tribe was the richest per capital group in the world, and its members suddenly began dying under mysterious circumstances, and how the FBI became involved, trying to make a name for itself after a restructure--I knew it had to be my selection.  Nonfiction of this variety is fairly rare in Book of the Month; most of the nonfiction they feature is contemporary memoirs and collections rather than actual investigations like this, so I snatched it up while I could.  It sounded fascinating.  Terrible, but fascinating.

And that's exactly what it was.  A string of mysterious murders plagued the Osage, particularly the family of Mollie Burkhart, who lost essentially her entire family in a short span of time.  Eventually, with more than twenty-four murders looming over the Osage, with the tribe members afraid to go out at night, the FBI under the newly-appointed J. Edgar Hoover was told to do something about it.  The FBI had existed before this, so in that sense it's really not a story about the birth of the FBI.  But it is a story about the rebirth of the FBI, which prior to its restructure had been plagued with corruption and inefficiency.  Granted, most people know that the FBI under Hoover wasn't exactly squeaky clean, but he certainly wanted his new bureau to look good when it came under his control, and that led to a lot of pressure for Agent White, the man put in charge of the case, to solve the murders.

This is a complicated story involving a ton of twists and turns and strings of murders that point to multiple serial killers involved in the Osage murders.  While the case was eventually "solved" and closed, Grann found while writing the book that there were holes in the case and that, while the person who was convicted was definitely involved, there was more going on.  He conducted interviews, combed through archives, and eventually managed to piece together more of the story, uncovering a whole string of serial killers targeting the Osage in an attempt to gain control of the headrights that granted them money from the oil companies drilling on land the Osage owned the mineral rights for.  That this happened with one serial killer is imaginable, though of course terrible; that multiple people thought that this was acceptable, and either got away with it or got off lightly, is a travesty of justice.  That people beyond the Osage have completely forgotten about this or never known about it shows how little the Osage's lives were valued by those outside their community, and that is a tragedy.

This is a well-researched book; you can definitely see the legwork that Grann put into writing it.  He has extensive end notes including interviews and archival sources that aren't in publication, and read the case files from the FBI regarding the case.  That he not only reported on the original case but went beyond it and seems to have solved several more and established that the Osage's "Reign of Terror" actually extended much further and longer than most people had previously thought is remarkable and admirable.  The writing was also eminently readable.  It really reads like a narrative about Mollie and her family, and then about Agent White when he comes in to solve the case with his band of miscreants.  It was a real page-turner that had me trying to carve more time out of my day to finish reading.  And when I found myself wondering how Grann could possibly fill up another third of the book when I neared the end of part two, that's when he dropped the revelation that there was so much more than White and his fellows had ever thought.

This is an Old West story with cowboys and "Indians" and oilmen and people being thrown off trains to hide the dirty deeds of other.  It has cattle rustlers and undercover agents and all of the elements of a good Western story, except it is tragically and almost unbelievably true.  Grann has done a marvelous job with this, creating a book that had me raring to talk about it with others the moment I finished it.  I definitely recommend!

5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Silver Storm - Cynthia Wright (Rakes & Rebels #1)

Silver Storm (Raveneau, #1)Silver Storm was the Unapologetic Romance Readers' theme read for "A pirate romance," which we took on for the month of April.  We've been doing theme reads every month to try to cover some of the categories in our romance reading challenge.  Silver Storm had the benefit of being free on Amazon, which is a big draw in the group.  It's apparently the first in two combined series, which together are known as "Rakes & Rebels" though I guess the Raveneaus were the original series, named for the hero in this book.

And what a terrible book this is.  But, looking at the original date of publication--1979--that's not entirely surprising.  Romance was a completely different genre almost 40 years ago!  But while some books have withstood the test of time, Silver Storm has not.  Set during the American Revolution, it follows Devon Lindsay who ends up aboard the privateering ship of Andre Raveneau after her home in New London is destroyed by the British.  It's a typical bodice ripper which of course means that the first sexual encounter between the hero and heroine is of dubious consent at the best, the hero walks all over the heroine's feelings, everyone wants to screw the heroine, and the heroine, of course, possesses a magical vagina that convinces the hero that she's all he ever wanted despite all evidence to the contrary.  Oh, and that the characters have no depth at all.  And the writing is generally terrible.

Silver Storm checks off all of these boxes.  While I originally had some hope for the story based mainly on the setting--the American Revolution isn't a time, and revolutionary America isn't a place, that is typically utilized in romance novels.  But the writing put me off right away, when the book opens with Devon and her mother sighing about their lives.  I thought I might adapt--the writing style of a book is something that I typically get used to and can look past.  But that wasn't the case here.  The writing is just stiff and stilted, and it has no depth at all.  What this means is that no parts of the book have any depth.  The characters are two-dimensional.  There's absolutely no chemistry between Devon and Raveneau.  None.  At all.  I didn't find their interactions any more intriguing than those between Devon and Morgan, Devon's childhood friend and eventual fiance who wants to have sex with Devon (of course) but whose sexual advances Devon finds herself appalled by.

The story travels a lot, as bodice rippers are wont to do, and invents several nonsensical subplots to bulk up all of the arguing, foot-stamping, and hair-tossing that comprises the main story.  There's even a castle on an island and a former mistress who shows up with a child of questionable parentage and a secret pregnancy to contend with.  The drama is eye-roll-worthy, not of the delicious and intriguing type.  A few side characters offered promise but ultimately nothing came of it, because why would any character in this book be allowed to have actual dimension or strength here?  Sigh.

Ultimately, this was pretty terrible.  It wasn't the worst thing I've ever read and didn't outright offend my sensibilities--though it came close at a few points, such as when Raveneau tells Devon he won't be held responsible for taking her virginity even though she's drunk and clearly not in a good place to be seducing someone.  It was just, for the most part, lacking.  So, as I am in a generous mood, I am going to bestow upon this book...

2 stars out of 5.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Gumbo Tales - Sara Roahen

Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans TableI have never been to New Orleans.  The boyfriend has, and he dubbed it the worst place he's ever been.  That said, it's hard to believe after reading Sara Roahen's delightful Gumbo Tales.  Focused on New Orleans food and the struggle to fit in as a transplant to the city, Roahen divides her book into chapters that each focus on a dish or beverage and a theme that goes along with it.  For example, the chapter about Sazeracs focuses on parallels between New Orleans and Roahen's native Wisconsin as well as the evolution of the cocktail.  The history of all the dishes are dug into, though for most of them there's a lot of ambiguity about how the food really came to be, such New Orleans hosts such a mish-mash of peoples and always has.

Roahen clearly started writing this book pre-Katrina, which leads to an odd and heartbreaking duality.  She has a lot of nostalgia for the city "before the storm" and a lot of heartbreak for how it's suffered "after the storm," as the history of New Orleans has become divided, but there's also a lot of hope there, too.  She notes which restaurants and stands have closed their doors, seemingly never to return, but also the ones that have opened again stronger than ever, or the ones that aren't open yet but show signs of life, slowly stirring.  Even the rebuilding of the city's Vietnamese community is touched upon, with the revival of the street market and the Tet festival.  Carnival is described, both pre- and post-Katrina, in a way that most who are not native to New Orleans could possibly imagine.

But of course, this is primarily a book about food, and Roahen's descriptions are tantalizing.  She manages to make foods that I would likely never try, like tripe and turkey necks, sound delicious.  The only dish that even she couldn't make me crave was fertilized eggs--yes, eggs that actually have chicks in them.  That one brought up a shudder, but aside from that, I think every single thing she mentioned sounded delicious.  And it was educational, too!  She clearly did a lot of research here, citing various books from various time periods as part of her research into the evolution of New Orleans cuisines (including Cajun, Creole, Vietnamese, and all sort of hybrids and others that pop up here and there) and some of them seem like they could be great reading on their own.  Additionally, she provides a lot of insight into how some of the dishes are actually prepared, in their many preparations--something that she learned as someone trying to cook New Orleans style.  For example, I'd never known that the color of a roux affected a gumbo so much!  Or that so many different types of meat were supposed to go into red beans and rice!  This book has definitely inspired me to try some more New Orleans-style recipes, though I can't by any stretch call myself a New Orleansian.

Overall, this is another great addition to my trove of food books.  I don't think it's something I'd go back and read again and again, but I definitely made some mental notes about things to look into further, and it was certainly an enjoyable read.

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Anna and the French Kiss - Stephanie Perkins (Anna and the French Kiss #1)

Anna and the French Kiss (Anna and the French Kiss, #1)
So, one of the categories for the Popsugar Reading Challenge for 2017 is to listen to an audiobook.  Originally I'd slated The Nightingale for this, since it's supposed to be a great audiobook.  But then I figured that, given my attention span with listening to things, I'd better pick out something I'd actually read, so that when I inevitably tuned out, I could catch up without constantly having to rewind.  So, because of that and library availability, I got Anna and the French Kiss on audiobook.

I liked Anna a lot less on audio than I did when I read it.  Part of this is the narrator.  I don't think it's really the narrator's fault, but she reads in this high, breathy voice that kind of made me want to punch Anna (not the narrator herself, let's be clear) in the face because she came off so much more brainless and immature and downright bitchy than she did in the actual book.  I didn't agree with the inflections she used and felt that it gave a completely different feel to the entire story; if I'd listened to this originally, never in a million years would I have picked up the two companion books, Lola and the Boy Next Door and Isla and the Happily Ever After.

But hearing the book did bring to light a few things that I think I glossed over the times that I read it.  Like how there's a surprising amount of slut-shaming and homophobia in this book, and not all of it is from the antagonists; there's actually a good deal from Anna herself, which makes me flinch away from the book as a whole.  There's an incident in which the stereotypical "bitchy" girl calls one of Anna's friends a dyke, and Anna gets into a fight with her.  Anna is so offended that this term was used, not because it's a derogatory term, but because the friend isn't a lesbian, so how dare someone imply that she is?  Later she backtracks some and tries to say that the insult doesn't make any sense, but her knee-jerk reaction is that, somehow, being a lesbian was the insult here, not the way in which it was referred to.  She doesn't show this attitude toward a man who's implied to be gay at another point in the book; rather, this seems to be confined to lesbianism, which makes the whole thing so icky.

And then there's the slut-shaming.  This is rampant from all directions.  Someone spreads a rumor that Anna slept with the guy she was dating, which of course automatically makes her a slut.  Anna views girls who date boys she likes as sluts, even if she never uses the term in relation to them--the implication is definitely there.  Anna's friends say they don't believe that she slept with the guy, but it's also implied that if she had, they wouldn't be friends anymore.  Because sleeping with your boyfriend obviously means you're a total slut.  Yes, this is a book about high school students, but one would expect better behavior from our protagonists--both Anna and her friends.

There's also an uncomfortable amount of "friendzone" mentality in this, in which Anna thinks that, because she's close friends with St. Claire when he's having a hard time, he should totally break up with his girlfriend and be with her, even though she actually has no idea what his relationship with his girlfriend is right.  Ultimately, of course, St. Claire is attracted to Anna in return, but that isn't my point.  My point this that, just as girls are not machines you put friendship coins into until sex comes out, neither are boys, and this mentality isn't any healthier on a female main character than it would have been on a male one, though I think this book would be getting a lot more flack if it was St. Claire who had displayed this attitude and not Anna.

Anna was my second-favorite book in this trilogy, and despite the new flaws that I've seen it I think it retains that spot.  It has inherent flaws, yes.  But I am willing to give it some slack, because the story is so charming and the slow-building romance is so delicious, and it's a first book.  Lola is my least favorite and Isla takes the top spot, though now I might have to re-read and re-evaluate those with a more studied eye, as well.

Originally I had rated this 5 stars; at this point, I'm knocking it down to somewhere between 3.5 and 4 stars, marking at 4 for Goodreads purposes.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Wallbanger - Alice Clayton (Cocktail #1)

Wallbanger (Cocktail, #1)Wallbanger is a book that was much-talked-about in the Unapologetic Romance Readers group on Goodreads, was featured quite highly on many "enemies to lovers" lists (a category I needed to fill for my romance reading challenge) and also had a hefty waiting list for the library, which is usually a good indicator.  So I went for it!

Well, this is an enemies-to-lovers story, yes, but but it's really an enemies-to-friends-to-lovers story, and the enemies portion is very short.  Essentially, the story is about Carolina, who's newly moved into a gorgeous apartment in San Francisco that her boss at an interior design company is letting her sublet, when she discovers that she has a very noisy neighbor.  Mainly, a guy who's having sex with three women--not at the same time--which Carolina dubs Spanx, Purina, and the Giggler due to their, erm, sexual proclivities.  There's an embarrassing incident in which Carolina confronts the neighbor while wearing a sexy pink nightie, and then at a housewarming party, they officially meet and find that their friends are very attracted to each other but apparently the couples are mixed up.  Carolina and Simon, as the neighbor is called, set out to fix this and begin a long, slow burn of verbal foreplay.  Their banter is witty and sexy, and you can definitely feel the chemistry there...until they actually begin to have sex, which is not nearly as sexy as all of the lead-up led me to believe it would be, given that Carolina is preoccupied with trying to be witty regarding her "lost" orgasm, which she talks about for a lot of the book.

The real strength here is the characters.  Carolina and Simon are both fully fleshed-out characters and their friends are pretty great, too.  It was refreshing to actually see Carolina having positive relationships with other women, because that's so rare in romance novels, where most women are just presented as competition at best.  But these girls had regular brunches, still got together to get ready for parties together, meddled relentlessly but helpfully in each others' love lives... It was nice.  Simon's friends aren't as present because the book is entirely from Carolina's point of view, but Simon himself has a backstory that, while tragic, is also believable.  He has a career and a life and passions other than just sticking his dick in whatever comes by, and even his three sexual relationships early in the book stem from a believable place, and he's also a very respectful guy.  Carolina was also good; her obsession with not being able to have an orgasm for most of the book got old pretty fast, since the maximum amount of time she goes without talking about it is about about two pages, and she tries to be funnier than I think Clayton is really capable of, but she had ambitions and dreams and was overall a good character.

Oh, and Clayton does have a knack for writing descriptions of food and places.  From the Sausalito house to the lodge in Tahoe to the coast of Spain, the locations and all of the foods and drinks that come with them were top-notch.  You could pretty much read this book for food porn in addition to, you know, real porn.

But while the characters and lead-up were enjoyable for this book, it's missing a pivotal conflict.  The "conflict," as it is, consists entirely of Carolina going "Well I like him but I haven't had an orgasm in a while and besides he's having sex with three girls despite the fact that I know very well he hasn't been having sex with three girls since we officially met."  There's a bit of a snafu involving a hot tub in Tahoe, about halfway through the book, but it's relatively minor and once the awkwardness is dealt with, it's just a slide to them having sex for the remainder of the book.

This is the first in a series of four books, with the second also focusing on Carolina and Simon and the other two focusing on different couples.  I'm not really interested more Carolina and Simon, but I might look into the other two books.  I do hope that they have a stronger central conflict other than "I wants the sex but noooooooo!" though.

3 stars out of 5.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Kitchen Confidential - Anthony Bourdain

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary UnderbellyI originally had Bourdain's book No Reservations slated for my reading challenge this year, but absolutely nowhere had it available.  So I picked another book for that category and got this one from the library instead.  It's probably better that way, since this was Bourdain's first book and laid the groundwork for a lot of his career, which is of course what I've been watching on Netflix.

This is the updated edition, which has a bit of a foreword and an afterword that serves as a kind of "where are they now" catch-up section, and a PS section that has discussion, an interview, etc.  I didn't care about the PS stuff but the added foreword and afterword were a nice touch.

Here's the thing.  Having watched collections of "No Reservations" (the show, not the book) and "The Layover" on Netflix, I could totally hear Bourdain's voice.  He lays out what he sees as the fundamentals of the restaurant world and the path of his own career.  But then he goes back later on and turns it all on its head, showing that not all cooking crews are the sort that he experienced and seems to seek out.  He doesn't really go into how his life of booze and drugs affected his career at various points, but he also doesn't hide that away, and finally mentions that he hit a point where he knew if he didn't stop, he probably wasn't going to.

And here's the other thing... Bourdain is an ass.  Anyone who's seen him on any of his shows can tell that pretty easily.  But he's so up front about it, without really making himself seem better than others, and I found that I could move past it pretty easily.  There are, of course, moments, when I step back and go, "Wow, Anthony, you're an asshole."  But for the most part, I felt like I could step away from that terribly abrasive part of his personality and still enjoy his writing and his tales of "the culinary underbelly," as the book refers to it.  Bourdain seems to prefer what he calls "pirate crews" which are basically a bunch of former (and sometimes current) criminals and drug addicts and overall people who are just as unsavory as he can be.  But at the same time, as I mentioned before, he brings up kitchens that run as smoothly as a well-oiled clock or a well-choreographed and rehearsed dance.  While he greatly speaks from his own experience, he doesn't pretend that his way is the only way, and I can respect that.

Overall, I found this book a very enjoyable read.  Though I can't say that I look up to him as a person or would ever want to work with him.  But that doesn't meant his stories aren't good or shocking or that this book wasn't good (though sometimes shocking) because it was.

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Tender Is the Night - F. Scott Fitzgerald

Tender Is the NightSo, I was having a case of a book hangover after reading Meagan Spooner's new book Hunted, a Beauty and the Beast retelling that I really enjoyed.  (I could seriously go read it again right now, even though I just read it not even a week ago; timelines with reviews are a bit off on the blog due to advance scheduling.)  The cure for a book hangover is, for me, to typically go somewhere completely different so I'm not comparing what I'm reading now with what I was reading then, at least not to such a degree.  So I checked out Krakatoa, and then I picked up Tender is the Night, which I've had on my bookshelf for a while and hadn't gotten to yet.

Before this, the only Fitzgerald book I'd read was The Great Gatsby.  I didn't really like that the first time I read it through, but then I read a nonfiction book about the Fitzgeralds called Careless People and found it really enhanced the reading experience--and I think that having previously read Careless People helped with the experience here, as well, because it's so easy to see where Fitzgerald drew in his and his wife Zelda's own lives to flavor the book.  The vacations on the Riviera, the small and exclusive groups of people being "made over" by the main people in the group, the travelling, the partying, and the angst underlying it all... It's all so evident both in the fiction and in the reality that underlies it.

The story here initially seems to follow Rosemary, a young woman who's made her break as an actress and is taking a vacation on the Riviera with her mother when she meets Dick and Nicole Diver.  She promptly falls in love, or at least states that she does, with Dick, and spends the rest of her vacation going after him.  He eventually gives in, somewhat--and then Rosemary vanishes from the picture and it becomes evident that Dick is actually the main character, not Nicole.  The book goes into his backstory, catches back up with the present, and then proceeds, all along showing that Dick is a terrible person.  He marries Nicole, who was a patient in a mental hospital where he was working, and then proceeds to continue fooling around to various degrees with every pretty young woman who comes his way, most of whom are also his patients in some way or another.  This is both extremely unethical and extremely immoral because not only are they his patients but he is already married.  And while Rosemary should have known better than to go after a married man when she was eighteen, and definitely should have known better by the time she was twenty-two, there's absolutely no excuse for Dick, who was a full adult in control of his full mental capacities for the duration of the story.

But then, Fitzgerald likes writing about terrible people.  The Buchanans in Gatsby, for example; it all seems to come back to some circle of how wealth just leads to decadence and its accompanying decay, possibly in another parallel to the Fitzgeralds' own lives.  Watching these people spiral together and then apart is almost wince-worthy, because you can just see the disaster coming.  All of the drama is also exhausting.  But Fitzgerald is a modern classic for a reason, and it shows through.  He has a clean and simple style of writing, one that I think contributed to my dislike of Gatsby when I read it in school because I simply wasn't old enough or wide-read enough to really appreciate the style.  But now I am, and I can definitely see the merit here.  While I didn't like the characters here, the book was still written in such a way that not liking them was the point and was enjoyable.  I think some other books aim to accomplish this, but don't.  Fitzgerald, on the other hand, managed it perfectly, and that's something that's something to be remarked upon.

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Krakatoa - Simon Winchester

25017Natural disasters hold a fascination for me, just as they do for many others.  They're terrible in the destruction they wreak, sometimes on a global scale, and yet it's hard to look away.  And of course the underlying forces behind the disasters are fascinating in their own right.  Volcanoes are one of the biggest cases of natural disasters, and among them the name "Krakatoa" has its own sort of mystique.
Like many others, I first encountered Krakatoa in the children's book The Twenty-One Balloons.  I don't remember a lot about the story, except that it involed a group of Europeans who lived on a volcanic island in the Pacific (the island was misplaced in the book; Krakatoa was actually located in the Indian Ocean in the Sunda Straight) who had crazy houses, and had to flee on a big balloon platform and parachute down to the new places they wanted to live when the volcano that loomed over the island exploded.  All these years later, when I wanted a nonfiction palate cleanser from a particular book hangover I was suffering (thank you, Hunted), I decided that the real story of Krakatoa would be a good candidate.
But the thing is, not a heck of a lot is actually known about Krakatoa.  Not many people within distance of actually witnessing its explosion survived; instead, all but a handful were killed by the massive tsunamis (up to a hundred feet high) that pummeled the coasts of both Java and Sumatra and killed probably thirty-five thousand people--only about a thousand died from the usual volcanic killers, such as pyroclastic flows.  But these figures, again, mean that there aren't a lot of witnesses.  Instead, witnesses were limited to a handful of survivors who outran tsunamis (very impressive) and were on ships large enough to ride out the perilous seas in the wake of the eruption.  In addition, not enough was known about volcanology in the late nineteenth century to really document the causes of the eruption.  And, unfortunately, Krakatoa was almost entirely destroyed in the eruption, leaving behind only half of one of its three peaks.  So, while another island has begun to emerge (called the Son of Krakatoa) there's not enough of the original left for modern geologists to examine it for potential insights about the famed eruption.
Because of these informational deficits, Winchester bulks out his volume with some of the history of Indonesia, though only its colonial parts.  The focus here is very much on the Dutch colonizers, barely touching on the native population at all except to mention local superstitions about volcanoes and one chapter about the growing resistance that spread in the wake of Krakatoa's eruption, which probably contributed to the resistance (though saying that the eruption caused the resistance, as Winchester muses at one point, is probably a stretch).  He also explains the history of botany in the region and a larger chunk of the book is contributed to a history and explanation of the theory (in this use, theory being fact, as it is used in science) of plate tectonics.  Some of this was interesting, and I think it probably is needed in some form for a book of this nature, but the sheer amount of page time devoted to it seemed a bit excessive when a simpler explanation could have accomplished the same understanding.
Then there's the writing.  Some of it is vivid and engaging.  Some of it is dry as dirt and I found myself skimming paragraph after paragraph.  There doesn't actually appear to be much rhyme or reason to when the writing is good and when it's a bit rough, either.  The good and bad parts both appear in all parts of the book, in all topics.  The drier bits do seem to have some issues with structure, which seems to be an editing problem or at least a problem that should have been weeded out during editing; they're frequently confusing in how they're written and there are a lot of weird paragraph breaks that didn't seem to really be necessary.  And one big thing did bother me: I had no idea where Krakatoa actually was.  This book has a wealth of illustrations, photographs, diagrams, and maps, but despite all of that I found myself pulling up Google Maps to figure out where all of this was actually taking place--Krakatoa not being labelled on any of the wider maps of the region, and not enough specificity being given for me to envision it without a proper map.
Still, the story of this remarkable mountain was intriguing, enough to have me neglecting another book to read it.  That said, you have to go into it with the awareness that the portion about the eruption itself and its direct consequences is not very long at all.  I'm pretty used to this from history books, which never seem to focus as much on their titular subjects as one would think, but I can definitely see it bothering others, so reader beware in that respect.
4 stars out of 5.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Starfall - Melissa Landers (Starflight #2)

Starfall (Starflight, #2)I read the first novel in this duology, Starflight, a few months ago and absolutely loved it.  Did I have some misgivings about the beginning and how the characters got into each others' presence?  Yes.  Yes I did.  And I brought them up in my review.  But overall, I thought Starflight was a lovely young adult sci-fi romance with a slow burn and a feel that would appeal to those who liked Firefly and Serenity, though Landers' book didn't purport itself to be a substitute for either.  So I had high hopes for Starfall.

Unfortunately, it didn't live up to them.  While there aren't any big, glaring flaws in Starfall, it lacks the magic and pop and sparkle of its predecessor.

The main characters here are Cassia and Kane, two of the shipmates whom we met in Starflight.  Cassia is, of course, a secret princess--as is the way things go.  She fled an arranged marriage on her home world and seems to have started a war into the bargain, and she's been fleeing from bounty hunters called the Daeva ever since--as has Kane, because he helped her escape.  Cassia and Kane are very close, sort of friends-with-benefits sometimes but without the full array of benefits (Landers makes a point of saying that they've never "gone all the way" several times) but their relationship is also fraught with friction because Cassia doesn't really know what she wants.  But when the Daeva get Cassia and haul her back to her home world, she's thrown into the position of becoming a monarch, stopping a war, and putting down a rebellion, all at once, and even when Kane shows up to rescue her--though rescue doesn't end up being needed--it seems like she doesn't have time to pursue any sort of relationship anymore.  And then a mysterious illness starts taking down her people, and she can't figure out how to stop it...

The problem with this book is, I think, that it ultimately got too big for itself.  Starflight had a relatively small and narrow plot, though there was a sideplot that was a bit more expansive.  In Starfall, the big plot--Cassia's political situation and attempts to help her people--are center stage, and the developing and re-developing relationship with Kane is secondary.  The other characters from the cargo ship Banshee also feature much less here than they did in the first book, which was disappointing because the crew was such an integral part of the story, and how their personalities and experiences meshed really contributed to the excellent feel the first book had.  That's largely lacking here, and while the crew does appear, they're supplemented by a variety of other side characters that aren't given much time to develop and so only have superficial personalities, backgrounds, and motivations.  The book also doesn't really feel like a romance at all, even though Cassia and Kane's re-connection is supposed to be such a big part.  Instead, the story mainly consists of them running from place to place trying to solve the mystery of who is wreaking havoc on their home world, and then there's some half-concocted thing about gladiator battles at the end.  Yes.  Seriously.  All of this also contributes to a very weird sort of pacing that was inconsistent and didn't add to the book in any way.

Overall, I didn't feel like this added to the Starflight experience at all.  Starflight was shiny and brilliant and developed a rich universe with potential just waiting to be discovered.  Starfall didn't do any of that, and instead threw much of what made the first book brilliant to the side in favor of a big political plot that dragged.  Continuing with this exact plot but keeping Solara and Doran was the main characters actually probably would have worked better than elevating Kane and Cassia to the starring positions; just that change of perspective would have done worlds for improving this book.  As it is, it's okay, but I can't say it's any better than that.

2 stars out of 5.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Reading Challenge Updates

-A novel set during wartime.  I used Atonement by Ian McEwan for this one.  It had been on my to-read list for a while, and I'm glad that I finally got to it, but I honestly can't really see what all the fuss is about.  It's a very meta book, but it's incredibly slow for the first 50% and almost had me walking away from it multiple times.  The latter half of the book was good, but the first part was so meh that I can't really bring myself to like it as a whole...even though I know the importance of that first part to the overall setup of the story.

-A book from a nonhuman perspective.  This was a really hard category to find a title for, but I finally went with The Tale of Despereaux.  It's a middle-grade story but simply and beautifully elegant, with a lovely central message and well-developed characters who prove sympathetic, even the bad guys.  There's some very poignant writing here, which surprised me, and I really enjoyed this, far more than I thought I would.

-An audiobook.  I ultimately went with Anna and the French Kiss for this, for various reasons.  I didn't like it.  This is a book that I loved in book form but it did not agree with me in audiobook format.  On the other hand, listening to it did bring to light several flaws and some questionable content that I hadn't noticed when I last read it, so I guess it was a learning experience!  I still like the book as a whole, but basically everything that I thought I wouldn't like about audiobooks--someone doing all the voices instead of having a cast, the weird pauses and inflections, etc.--were exactly true here.

-A book with pictures.  I originally intended to read Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations for this category because some reviewers said it had amazing pictures.  But I couldn't get my hands on it from any of the library systems around me (I'm trying to cut down on buying books that I haven't read and liked, and trying to use the library more) so I decided to use Krakatoa for this one--though I did read another of Bourdain's books!  Krakatoa has a lot of illustrations, photographs, and maps, though some are more interesting and informative than others.

-A book that's been mentioned in another book.  While I originally intended to read Gulliver's Travels for this, as it was mentioned in Heartless as Gullible's Travels, when I was listening to Anna and the French Kiss, they talk a lot about books in translation.  One of those was Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, which I already had on my shelf.  This was a simple story filled with a sense of nostalgia for the re-education period in China under Mao, which was a bit strange, but it was lovely.  I really enjoyed it, except for a trio of chapters that I felt didn't fit the book at all and really only muddled things up.

-A book by an author who uses a pseudonym.  For this, as planned, I read Seven Minutes in Heaven by Eloisa James, why is a pseudonym used by Mary Bly for her romance novels.  As with all of James' books, this one was delightful.  Despite a weak central miscommunication, I think James built the story well, even down to the use of child characters, who so often fall flat in books--which are, obviously, written by adults who most often don't remember what it's like to be a child by the time they get around to writing books including one.  This was so much better than Devil in Spring despite a central trope the two share: the woman with a career who doesn't want it ruined by marriage.  Seven Minutes in Heaven really was strong in all the places that Devil in Spring was weak.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-A book based on mythology.  Olympos, Dan Simmons

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Atonement - Ian McEwan

AtonementAtonement has been on my to-read list for a while, but I finally got around to it because I fit it into both my normal reading challenge and my romance reading challenge for 2016.  For my regular reading challenge, it fit the category of "A book set during wartime."  For the romance challenge, I slotted it in for "A literary romance."

Atonement is a weird sort of book.  It has a meta storyline, fitting the events of the book into their own book story.  The plot follows two sisters of the wealthy Tallis family, Cecilia and Briony, and the son of the family's charwoman, Robbie.  One day in 1935, there's a house party at the Tallis home for Cecilia and Briony's visiting brother and his friend.  Briony, an aspiring author and possibly playwright, sees a confrontation between Cecilia and Robbie, who both attended the same school and have spent the past few years in a sort of dance around each other, drawn to each other but unable to put a pin in their feelings.  Briony, ten years younger than Cecilia and Robbie and not within hearing distance, thinks Robbie is coercing Cecilia into some perverse act that involves taking her clothes off and getting into a fountain.  Later, when Robbie puts his feelings to paper in an apology to Cecilia, he gives Briony the note to deliver and she reads it--but Robbie has actually given her a draft that includes some passionate but rather vulgar phrasing, and it helps to cement in Briony's mind that Robbie is a dangerous deviant.  All of this sets off a chain of events that ends with Robbie being falsely accused of rape and imprisoned, and then joining the infantry just before the start of World War II to lessen his prison sentence.  All the while, he and Cecilia maintain a relationship via letters, and Cecilia severs her relationship with her family due to how easily they turned on Robbie.

The romance in here is definitely a secondary story, with the main story revolving around the devastation the rape allegations wreak on Robbie's life and, to a lesser degree, Cecilia's, and how Briony comes to the realization that she was wrong as she grows older and tries to atone for her actions, even though there's no way she can completely right the wrong she committed.  This is an interesting concept, and once the book moved into the second and third parts, it moved quickly and was pretty enjoyable.  However, the first part, which takes up the first half of the book, is very slow, and it almost had me quitting reading a couple of times.  The problem is that, despite the part taking place over only a day, it just drags.  Pretty much every scene has to be rehashed from at least two different viewpoints, and while I understand that the perspectives were necessary to introduce both the truth of the events and how Briony interprets them, but I can't help but wonder if there would have been a more streamlined way to do this that wouldn't have resulted in the beginning of the book being so incredibly slow and clunky.

Later in the book, Briony receives a rejection letter from a literary magazine to who she'd submitted a piece of writing based on the pivotal events of the book.  The letter contains a bunch of advice for Briony about the weak points of her work--and I couldn't help but feel like those weak points were still evident in the book itself, which is ultimately supposed to be Briony's final draft of the events, one that she's worked over again and again for decades.  But I found the same weaknesses and tedium in it that were pointed out in this fictional rejection letter, and it just highlighted to me that the beginning of the book was...not that good.

Overall, I can see why people like this--it's very meta, and the later parts of the book are enjoyable.  But the slow beginning and rehashing of any and every event in the first half of the book really impacted my enjoyment of it.

3 stars out of 5.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Stars Above - Marissa Meyer (Lunar Chronicles #4.5)

Stars Above (The Lunar Chronicles, #4.5)It's become popular in recent years to YA authors to write a slew of short stories that accompany their full-length works.  Marissa Meyer is no different in that, around the time she released Winter, she also released this volume, Stars Above, comprised of short stories set in the Lunar Chronicles universe.  Most of them deal directly with the main characters from the series.

I'm a firm believer that authors don't "owe" short stories like this to their readers, and that when they're written, they typically don't really add much to the series.  That's definitely the case here.  There are nine stories of varying lengths in this book, and eight of them, while enjoyable, are just fine.  They don't really add anything to the Lunar Chronicles experience that wasn't laid out in the main works.  Yes, the stories expound a bit more upon things that were just mentioned in the main works, but they don't resolve any plot holes or offer any big revelations.

The big exception to this, as other reviewers have noted, is a wonderful gem of a story called "The Little Android."  It deals with none of the characters from the main books, though just as each main heroine's story was patterned after a fairy tale, so is this.  The story here is, of course, "The Little Mermaid," except the mermaid is an android who'd developing a personality and emotions of her own.  It's a beautiful, heart-wrenching story that fits into the world and helps expand on it without feeling the need to pander to fans.  If the stories in the collection had all been like this, I think I would have had a much higher opinion of the book as a whole than I actually ended up with.

The other stories are just okay.  There's one about Michelle Benoit getting Cinder and Scarlet, one about Cinder going to live with the Linh family, one about Wolf becoming a recruit in the Lunar army, one about Thorne while he was in school, one about Cress going to live in the satellite, another with background on Winter and Jacin, Cinder and Kai's meeting from Kai's perspective, and finally one that takes place after the end of the main Lunar Chronicles which details Scarlet and Wolf's wedding.  That was a cute one, but again, nothing that I absolutely couldn't live without and that I hadn't figured would happen anyway.

Overall, this is a cute addition to the series and it looks nice on the shelf, but there's only one real gem here.  Writing short stories is an art that requires a completely different set of skills than writing full-length novels, and if it hadn't been for "The Little Android," I would think that Meyer hadn't quite honed those skills yet.  "The Little Android" absolutely glowed, though, and I wish Meyer had taken the time to expand her universe rather than just her already-established stories, because that universe expansion is definitely what worked best here.

3 stars out of 5 for the whole.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Envy - Anna Godbersen (The Luxe #3)

Envy (Luxe, #3)I read the first two books in this series, The Luxe and Rumors, about a year ago, and intended to read this one (and the last one!) but they just got it into the digital collections for the library recently.  It's a long gap to follow up on a book that consists primarily of costume porn and petty drama, but I dove right back in anyway.

This series continues to be teenage drama trash, and I continue to love it anyway.  Penelope Hayes, the young socialite queen of New York City, has recently married the guy she always wanted, Henry Schoonmaker.  She doesn't love Henry, but rather wants to possess him like some expensive bauble or trinket, and in that she is successful.  Of course, this comes at the expense of Diana Holland, the younger sister of Henry's former fiancee, Elizabeth; Henry and Diana were romantically involved in the second book, and Diana doesn't know why Henry abandoned her to marry Penelope, because she keeps burning all the letters that Henry sent trying to explain things--namely, that Penelope knows about Henry and Diana and threatened to ruin Diana if Henry didn't marry her.

Pause.  Why would that be such a bad thing, to have Diana "ruined" by Henry?  Because there would be a scandal?  Everything these kids does causes a scandal, and if Henry had ruined Diana, the honorable thing for him to do would be to marry her, which is what everyone except Penelope wanted anyway, so I'm not sure why things proceeded in this manner.

Penelope is of course a prime bitch, but she's kind of an evil genius in her petty, mean-girl way.  She goes after what she wants, ruthlessly, while all the other characters kind of just flit about letting her do whatever she desires to them.  You gotta give it to her, she knows how to trample over people, and they just make it so easy.  I don't want to admire Penelope, or like her, but everyone else is basically spineless, even Diana, who used to possess a bit more attitude and a backbone, so I guess I can't really blame Penelope, even though she's, you know, terrible.

But the truly despicable character in this book is Lina.  Still masquerading as an heiress, she goes about on the arm of her wealthy benefactor, then abandons him when he's clearly dying and only want her completely innocent company so that she can instead go to Florida and strut about in palm trees.  And then she acts all affronted when he dies and the people managing his estate try to push her out--the people who saw her taking advantage of him the entire time!  Granted, Lina has an ax to grind with the Holland family, for whom she was a maid--though they never actually appear to have treated her badly--but the way she tosses aside people when they no longer suit her needs is awful.  How is this different than Penelope, you ask?  It's simple.  Penelope only wants one thing: Henry.  If she can have Henry, she will be perfectly content.  But Lina?  What Lina wants is more.  Always more.  She will never be satisfied, and will just continue on forever.  Out of all the people in these books, Lina is the one who I most hope gets her just deserts.

The logic in this book is lacking, the drama is over the top, and much of the story is devoted to lavish descriptions of the wealth surrounding the characters, as if there's no life that isn't upper class in New York in 1901, but it's all strangely intriguing.  I don't think the library has the fourth book in its digital collections yet, but I'll still read it when they get it.  It's kind of like a train wreck--it's absolutely terrible, and I know that, but I can't seem to bring myself to look away.

3 stars out of 5, because it's awful but I still like it.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Stealing Buddha's Dinner - Bich Minh Nguyen

Stealing Buddha's DinnerStealing Buddha's Dinner has been on my "to read" list for a while, and when I needed a book written by or about an immigrant for my 2017 reading challenge, it seemed like the perfect time to finally get to it.

Nguyen, her father, sister, grandmother, two uncles, and an uncle's friend all fled Vietnam when she was eight months old in 1975, when the American were clearing out their embassy and Saigon was being bombed.  Arriving as refugees in the United States, they settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Nugyen grew up as essentially American, not really being able to speak Vietnamese and wanting more than anything to be one of the "real" people she saw in commercials and TV shows and in books.  But as one of few Vietnamese or other minority people in "a sea of blond," things weren't as easy as she wanted them to be.  Nguyen wanted to assimilate, deeply, but still cherished the Vietnamese parts of her life.  Sitting with her grandmother in meditation, having fruit from the shrine in her house, the foods that her grandmother would make--Nguyen might have craved Tollhouse cookies and Otter Pops and 7UP and all manner of other "American" foods, but there was still a big Vietnamese part of her life, and she struggled with balancing it with her desperate need to fit in.

Nguyen has a way of making the most junky of all junk foods sound absolutely tantalizing, and she's easy to empathize with.  I didn't grow up an immigrant, but Nguyen manages to draw on the ostracism that most kids face at some point or another.  I was also the kid with glasses who wanted to read more than anything else, who didn't really have a lot of friends and felt like the parents of the friends I did have were always looking down on me.  By drawing on these experiences, Nguyen manages to build a bridge so that even those of us who don't share her exact background can understand her isolation and longing to belong.

The book is written in a non-linear style, which I don't mind, but it does seem a bit scattered in the beginning.  After the first few chapters, the parts of the book become more thematic, but the first few seem to flit from topic to topic with little cohesion.  Things come up and are dropped, never to be seen again or only to be seen at the very end of the book--a mention that her stepmother (who she really does view as her mother, not remembering her mother from Vietnam and not meeting her until she's in college) drew away and left the family, when in fact she didn't, and then the mention of her biological mother being left in Vietnam, which only comes up again much, much later.  It feels like these things were brought up for no reason at the time they were first mentioned, and could easily have been better woven in later, near where the actual exposition regarding them ended up.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable and poignant memoir about wanting to belong and not quite managing to do so.  Despite being born a quarter of a century after Nugyen, I could see a lot of parallels in our childhoods, and that really helped draw me into the narrative.  I've never had to balance two halves of myself like she did, but by evoking those parallels, she made the understanding easier, and that is a real accomplishment.

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, April 3, 2017

A Conjuring of Light - V. E. Schwab (Shades of Magic #3)

A Conjuring of Light (Shades of Magic, #3)The final Shades of Magic book arrived on my doorstep two days early, courtesy of Amazon.  If you have Prime shipping, the book has release-day delivery, and you live in the right area--namely, near a distribution center--that happens sometimes.  Unfortunately, I didn't get to it right away.  But upon reading A Conjuring of Light, I didn't find myself wishing I'd read it sooner.

As an offering, ACoL falls somewhere between A Darker Shade of Magic (book one) and A Gathering of Shadows (book two).  The plot deals with the descent of the "shadow king" Osaron upon Red London and the plight of that London's inhabitants, plus White London Antari Holland and Grey London Antari Lila, as they try to oust Osaron from his new position of power.  The central plot is solid, and involves several "tried and failed" schemes to defeat Osaron, from trapping him in a body and then killing the body to hacking him apart with weapons spelled to dispel magic.  It even involves a sea journey to what was a very cool floating marketplace full of magical artifacts.  Holland plays a larger role in this book, as do Prince Rhy and Alucard Emery.  We even get some of Holland's back story, which has largely been missing until this point.  But despite all that, I found myself wanting more.

A Darker Shade of Magic had magic (duh) and wonder and the wide-eyed amazement of these three or four Londons stacked atop each other, and the movements between them.  That went away in the second book, and it was largely lacking here, too.  Ninety-five percent of this book takes place in Red London, and Osaron turns out to be a uniquely Red London problem.  Ultimately, the interplay of the various Londons isn't really brought onto the stage, nor is it acknowledged that, despite Osaron's defeat, Black London appears to still be infringing on White, and when White falls, isn't Red next?  And what of Grey after that?  I would have loved to see the worlds tied more closely together once again, especially since we officially had an Antari from each world on the stage.  And while Osaraon is eventually defeated (obviously) it doesn't seem like a permanent solution to me, and rather more seems like something Schwab might potentially be setting up for future books.  Something like "Osaron is released once again and Lila must make good on her promise of favor to Maris," which is another plot line that was never truly wrapped up.

The relationships here were satisfying, building up without taking away too much central plot time.  And while I was initially frustrated by so many chapters from so many different characters who had, until this point, been on the fringes at best--like the king and queen--I think their involvement ultimately paid off.  I would have liked to see more from Mr. Edward Tuttle, the wannabe magician of Grey London, but again, it seems like that might be something that Schwab is setting up for the future.  Possibly.  It's hard to say distinctively, but this book lacks a solid ending.  It feels like she's done with it, but also like she might want to come back later, and so she didn't wrap things up.  Which is fine if she does come back to it, but with no announced plans to do so, it comes across as sloppy.

Overall, I liked this book, but it didn't totally engross me.  A Darker Shade of Magic was breathtaking, A Gathering of Shadows was just okay and suffered from Second Book Syndrome, and this one was good, but nothing that absolutely blew me away or left me reeling and eager to read it again.  Consequently, I'll score it right between the first two.

4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Dark Matter - Blake Crouch

Dark MatterI'm not a huge sci-fi person, but Blake Crouch's Dark Matter caused quite a stir last year, being nominated for a Goodreads Choice award, selected as a book for Book of the Month (where I obtained it) and also being the April selection for The Deliberate Reader's virtual book club!  It's a book that's pretty impossible to talk about without spoilers, so beware.

The general story follows Jason, a physics professor in Chicago who's kidnapped one night on his way home and wakes up to find himself in a life where people know him, but isn't the life he's led, in a world that's his own, but not.  This is the premise the entire book revolves around: the alternate worlds theory, in which every choice a person makes splits off another, new reality parallel to our own but unreachable in which that person made a different choice at the same point.  The realities are, of course, infinite, because they continue branching off of each other to no end.  Jason's familiar with the theory, having worked on it before he quit research to have a family, and wants to return home to his own reality via the device that an alternate version of himself created, because he wants to get back to that family, particularly his wife Daniela.  On the way, he wanders though various other realities, inhabited by other Danielas, and ultimately inadvertently creates other versions of himself by his choices...all of whom also want to get back to "his" Daniela.

This is a really intriguing premise and overall the book was good, but I didn't find it to be great.  The writing is a little stilted and shaky, mostly consisting of a lot of one-line paragraphs.  And while the proliferation of Jasons and worlds and the possibilities of how different a reality only a few steps away from own could be were fascinating, I felt like, in the end, there were just too many questions left unanswered.  Is our Jason the real Jason, or does he just think he is?  What's going to happen in the new world?  What happens to all the Jasons left behind?  Why aren't the other Danielas good enough for the other Jasons, even though at least one of them was good enough for our Jason?  Crouch doesn't go into any of this, and while I can accept that some of it is probably meant to be left vague as "food for thought" upon the conclusion of the book, I think that there was just too much left up in the air.  It felt like Crouch knew there was too much he couldn't wrap up, so he left it all vague to add to the "mystique" of the book and hoped no one would really notice.

But I did like some of the stuff here.  The idea of the world-hopping was great, as was how the box was ultimately "steered."  I wish more books dealt with alternate-worlds theory; it's so intriguing, and I think it really can be handled well, though it would be difficult to do so.  And I have to say, while I think some of the loose ends don't really have logical conclusions, they do make for great book club discussion material!

3 stars out of 5.