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Monday, May 22, 2017

Ransom Canyon - Jodi Thomas (Ransom Canyon #1)

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 19, 2017

Wayfarer - Alexandra Bracken (Passenger #2)

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

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

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

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

3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Afterworlds - Scott Westerfeld

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

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

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

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

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

3.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Phantom of Fifth Avenue - Meryl Gordon

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

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

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

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

2 stars out of 5.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Rainshadow Road - Lisa Kleypas (Friday Harbor #2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Tale of Despereaux - Kate DiCamillo

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

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

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

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

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

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, May 8, 2017

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

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

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

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Punk 57 - Penelope Douglas

Punk 57Punk 57 was the April read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers on Goodreads, and while I finished it a bit ago, I just got around to writing the review today!

This is, I think, supposed to be some sort of young-adult erotica, which was kind of, uhm, strange to read.  The story follows Misha and Ryen, who became pen pals through school when they were in fifth grade and kept it up.  In their senior year, they meet at a party, but only Misha realizes it.  Then, following a family tragedy, he vanishes from their correspondence...and turns up at Ryen's school months later, for reasons that are actually unrelated to Ryen.  But in the course of being there, he discovers that Ryen isn't who he thought she was.  He thoughts she was some quiet nerd, but really she's a popular cheerleader who's going to prom with one of the most popular guys in school.  And so he decides to punish her for not living up to his fantasies and proceeds to bully her mercilessly.  Though Ryen isn't completely innocent and bullies other people, too.  But for some reason, she doesn't find Misha's bullying to be terrible, which bullying is.  She finds it hot.  But she still doesn't like him, until she suddenly loves him, and the two spend half the book hate-fucking.  Which is not not not healthy.

But there's the thing: Penelope Douglas is a good writer.  The underlying premise here is an extremely abusive relationship (until, again, it isn't, the odds of which are nil) but Douglas manages to weave her writing in such a way that it merely seems contentious, and the quiet periods come across as downright sweet.  I had to keep checking myself here, reminding myself that, as cute as snuggling was and as hot as the kissing at the car wash was, this was not a healthy relationship.  It was founded entirely on lies, both the in-person one and, to a large degree, the one in correspondence--which both characters held up as being some paragon of truth and realness.  The very fact that they hated each other and were still having sex is not healthy; it links sex in the mind to negative feelings rather than positive ones, completely undermining the point.  And their sexual relationship was very porn-y from the very beginning.  Ryen, for example, has had sex once before she meets Misha, a few years before...and yet as soon as they get together she dives straight into some stuff that I think many grown women would shy away from.  I mean...ouch.  And yet, again, Douglas' writing has it seeming like this is all cool and normal and healthy...which, it might be--girl has a right to pick her sex acts, after all--except it's again mixed with all the hate and bullying and awfulness.  It kind of feels like Douglas wrote this when everyone was YOLO-crazy and using it as an excuse to do things and pressure each other into doing things that they normally wouldn't.

Overall, I have mixed feelings about this book.  Like I said, the writing was good, and I like the basic premise of the pen pals meeting in person, and the bringing down of the high school bad guy.  But.  There's just such a toxicity underlying the whole story here that it kind of left me feeling slimy all over.  It portrays an abusive relationship as normal and healthy and happily ever after, and that is definitely not cool.  So, in good faith, I don't think I can really give this more than...

2 stars out of 5, and I'm a little uneasy about even that given the setup here.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Passenger - Alexandra Bracken (Passenger #1)

Passenger (Passenger, #1)For some reason I thought this book involved a violin player on a sea voyage from New York to India.  No, I have no idea where I got this idea, though apparently I did actually read the book description at some point because I don't know where else I would have gotten the violin player part from.

Years ago, I read an absolutely lovely book by Bracken called Brightly Woven.  I read it at Borders and liked it so much I went back and read it again.  People like me are why Borders went out of business, I imagine--I've become much better about purchasing the books since that time (though having a grown-up job certainly helps in that respect as well).  I haven't read Bracken's first series that followed up on Brightly Woven (which has since gone out of print; I've had to order a used copy to finally add it to my collection); that series tended towards dystopian, which I just haven't been feeling.  But Passenger... Look at the cover!  It's gorgeous.  The city in the bottle, the reflection of the ship beneath, the promise of travel and whimsy and magic.  And the book involves time travel that actually seems to be well-thought-out, a true rarity in the genre!  It was just too intriguing to pass up, especially as the second book has just come out.

The story here follows Etta, who is a teenage violinist on the verge of her big debut when there's a disaster on stage and she finds herself suddenly swept off to another time, with her mentor dead and her mother kidnapped into the bargain.  Waking up on a ship during the American Revolution, Etta's world is turned upside-down when she finds out she's a traveler, able to pass between times, and that she has to decipher a series of clues her mother left her about the location of a mysterious astrolabe that can actually create new passages through time--and if she doesn't find it on a certain timeline, her mother's life will be in danger.  She also finds herself partnered with Nicholas, a reluctant member of the notorious time-traveling Ironwood family and a freed slave.  There's immediate chemistry between them, but both of them have additional motives they're hiding from the other.

This was a delightful book.  It's so hard to do time travel well, and I think that Bracken managed it.  She put a set of rules in place and, so far, they've held.  Her time-travelers can't run into themselves; the passages won't allow someone into a time that they already occupy, so travelers keep journals of times they've already been to in order to enable future travel.  This also plays into why Etta has to retrieve the astrolabe; she's a "blank slate" who's never left her own time, meaning that she can take pretty much any passage and be okay.  There's not a lot of explanation as to how the passages actually work, but maybe we'll get some of that in the second book?  Additionally, it's pretty much impossible to create time paradoxes in this.  There's a bit of the characters thinking through how one might go, which shows that Bracken is aware of the paradox peril, but she mostly avoids it by introducing another mechanic: the shifting of timelines.  Travelers are able to change the past, but it shifts the entire timeline going forward.  They can't erase themselves or other travelers, though there's no word on if they can essentially "erase" other, non-time-traveling folk.  Rather, a traveler whose path is disrupted a by a timeline shift in the past is thrown to the last common year between the old line and the new, and has to figure out where to go from there--a mechanic that introduces a second antagonist group, the Thorns, who have been disconnected from the times in which they rightfully belong by repeated timeline shifts instigated by the Ironwoods.

Additionally, I really liked Nicholas and Etta as a couple.  Their love isn't instant, but it is quite fast, which I didn't adore; I think Bracken could have let their attraction develop over a longer period of time.  But I still think they worked well together.  They did see each other as partners, even when they were secretly working at cross-purposes, and when they found out those purposes, each managed to keep their emotions in check because they recognized that they both had been hiding things.  And then there's the bonus: they're an interracial couple.  This is so rare in fiction in general, both on the page and on the screen, for no apparent reason.  And Nicholas is of mixed-race, which is also rare.  And his racial background is important to his character and background, particularly given his native time, but it doesn't completely define him and he's definitely much more than a token character.  I'm looking forward to seeing more of him, and him with Etta, in the second book, and am curious about how their ultimate fates, together or apart, will play out.

One thing I didn't like here was the riddles.  The riddles themselves were fine, and took Nicholas, Etta, and their pursuers to a wide variety of places and times that aren't frequently explored in young adult fiction, which I liked.  The reason that Etta could solve them and others couldn't also made sense, and I liked how Bracken worked in the setup for that.  But then, Etta and Nicholas turn out to be extraordinarily good riddle solvers.  They flit from one to the other and even when they make a mistake, they figure it out right away and are immediately on to the correct solution.  This seemed a little unrealistic to me--and yes, I am discussing realism in a book that involves a time-traveling violinist.  The way that Etta could immediately fix on what her mother meant, out of all the things her mother must have told her over the course of her life, just stretched my suspension of disbelief a bit too much.

But, ultimately, I liked the book.  It comes to a stunning ending, one that's really setting Etta up for a challenge in the second book--she's going to have to completely rearrange her worldview to prevail over the forces aligned against her.  There also seems to be a redemption arc coming up for an antagonist, which is always promising; I love a good redemption arc.  This was a strong first book that stands on its own but also sets up the second one well, which is absolutely ideal.  And it's a time travel book that works which is so unusual!  There are a few weaknesses, but overall a very good book indeed.

4.5 stars out of 5!

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress - Dai Sijie

Balzac and the Little Chinese SeamstressBalzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress is a book that I first encountered in the pages of another, Anna and the French Kiss (where Anna and her classmates read it as part of their literature class' study of works in translation), which made it a perfect candidate for my 2017 reading challenge, which has a category for a book mentioned in another book.  Even better, I already had a copy that I'd picked up a used book store in New Jersey out of some form of Anna-related nostalgia.

The basic story here is two young men, still in their teenage years, who are exiled from their city homes and parents in Chengdu, China, to be re-educated in the country, in a town on a mountain called the Phoenix of the Sky.  While there, they encounter two subjects of note: the Little Seamstress, the daughter of the mountain's renowned tailor who the protagonist's friend Luo immediately falls in love with and dreams of educating; and a secret stash of Western literature in Chinese translation owned by a fellow subject of re-education, which become an instant intrigue to our protagonists.

This is a short book and the story itself is rather simple, and a bit nostalgic.  I don't know much about Dai Sijie--my edition is even devoid of the typical "about the author" section--but a quick glance through the Wikipedia article about him shows that a lot of this book was taken from his own life experience.  It definitely shows.  Sijie himself was sent for re-education, something he did voluntarily since he could have been excused from it (according to Wiki) which might explain the nostalgic tone that permeates the book.  Despite the grueling labor that the protagonists engage in, the narrator seems to overall enjoy his time on the Phoenix mountain, controlling time through the little rooster clock the two brought with them, working in the fields, traveling to the main town in the area to see films in order to relate them to the village--really, everything except the coal mines.  And of course, the connection with the Little Seamstress brings light into the whole place, as well.

The end of the book was rather unexpected to me, as well.  While Luo's relationship with the Seamstress (who never gets a name--really?) immediately raised my eyebrow and my suspicions, I still didn't expect Dai to go down that road, though it definitely added a somber note to what was overall a lighthearted book.  And I appreciated the way that he took the Seamstress' development.  While Luo had always been in the city and simply saw the books as a way of reconnecting, and the Seamstress as a sort of pet project and not a person in and of herself, the Seamstress saw the books as a way of escape and an indication of what might lay beyond the mountain.  While I was a bit surprised by the ending, it was a pleasant sort of surprise, because I thought that it fit.

One thing that I didn't like was the three little chapters about two-thirds of the way through the book.  While most of the book is from the point of view of one narrator (who I don't believe was ever named), there are three chapters that abruptly switch viewpoints to "the miller," Luo, and the Little Seamstress.  They interrupt the flow of the story and aren't strictly necessary; I feel like the information here was either conveyed elsewhere, could have been inferred, or could have been worked in within the main narrative without disrupting the flow or giving the narrator more knowledge than he should have rightly possessed.  While there was some lovely description and probably some symbolism that went over my head in these chapters (the key chain? the snake? I'm sure these were symbolic but I don't know quite what of) they just didn't fit the flow of the story as a whole, and I was left rather wondering at their purpose as I proceeded on to the end.

Overall, I liked this, more than I thought I would considering that I had misconceptions about what the story was about when I started--I definitely just made up some story in my head, there's no sense as to where I got this alternative plot from--but those chapters just didn't make sense to me.

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Hannah Coulter - Wendell Berry

Hannah CoulterHannah Coulter is possibly one of the most boring books I've read in a while, which is unfortunate because it doesn't bode well for the discussion on Facebook for the Deliberate Reader digital book club, which is what I read this for.

The premise is simple.  Hannah Coulter is an old woman looking back over her life in Port William, Kentucky, including her time as a girl during the Great Depression and her young womanhood during World War II, as well as her later married life.  But here's the thing: Hannah Coulter's life is boring.  She farms.  She has children.  She talks about the characters of these children, and of some of the people connected to her and her family in various ways.  But that's pretty much it.  There's not a plot, just a lot of "late in life" musing about what being a farmer and a mother has meant to her.  But honestly, I didn't feel like there was anything here that I haven't gotten out of countless other books, and those books had more to offer than this one did.

I guess it's well-written enough for literary fiction, but there's nothing intriguing that really kept me wanting to read.  I only finished it because it was a book club book and some perverse desire I have to finish every book I start even when I don't really like it.  It's just a "meh" book and doesn't drive me to pick up anything else of Berry's...like, ever.  There's not a conflict, not even a character-driven one, and while many reviewers seem to be praising how introspective it was, and how it highlights small-town life, but quite frankly I think that idolizing the small-town farming life has just as many dangers in it as idolizing big-city life.  I've lived both, and Berry makes small towns seem far more idyllic than it really is, even if he and I grew up in different times.  As the "story," such as it is, goes on, Hannah turns her attention more to other people than herself, which eliminates some of the promise the book held early on, when she talked about her own thoughts and her own struggles.  Instead, she spends much of the later part of the book just talking about others and what they did and how they did it and so on.

Apparently, this is actually part of a series of interconnected books about this fictitious town and the same people...but I struggle to see how reading them all could have appeal when so much of it seems to have been just laid out here.

Ah, well.  At least it was short.

2 stars out of 5.