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Monday, July 24, 2017

The Ghost Map - Steven Johnson

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic - and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern WorldI love me some good nonfiction, and the story at the heart of The Ghost Map is one I'd encountered before but was interested in learning more about, so when it showed up at the library, I snatched it up.

The Ghost Map is the story of an outbreak of cholera in London in 1854 that ripped through a neighborhood like wildfire, far faster than any other cholera epidemic and with no visible source.  While most of the city fretted about the poisonous "miasma" that they thought caused disease and every inhabitant who was still mobile fled the area, two men--Dr. John Snow and the clergyman Henry Whitehead--ultimately narrowed down the source of the outbreak to the Broad Street water pump (Snow) and the "patient zero" whose illness had contaminated the water therein (Whitehead).  In doing so, they actually challenged the prevailing "germ theory" of the day, even though "germ theory" as it is today didn't exist then.  Though their efforts didn't immediately revolutionize the world of public health, the case was still an important one in changing urban design, public health, and the future of cities in general.

This is a pretty short book.  Most of it covers the "solving" of the cholera outbreak, along with the counterproductive efforts that were being undertaken by the "miasma" believers who thought that the disease must have been spread by London's poor air quality.  But Johnson also dips into how cities were on the verge of collapse due to things such as epidemics and eventually into how this case of cholera set up a chain of events that ended with the revolutionizing of London's sewer system, water quality control, and overall approach to public health.  In the wrap-up, Johnson moves to the big "but what does this mean to me?" question, in how the cities of today are still expanding.  He goes into how cities are actually greener to live in than the countryside is due to economies to scale, how bioengineering can be used to essentially take out a bacterium or virus before it can even get started, how eighty percent of the world will probably eventually live in urban areas, how waste and clean water are interconnected.

The narrative parts of this book are excellent--you know, the parts that are really "solving the mystery."  Snow went through a process that no one else had, not only mapping the deaths of the cholera victims geographically but also figuring out their connections to the Broad Street pump in order to determine that it was the source of the outbreak.  Whitehead used his local knowledge and "ins" with the people of Soho in order to find the "patient zero" that caused the contamination in the first place.  What was less fascinating was how Johnson kept hammering on the "BUT EVERYONE THOUGHT IT WAS MIASMA!!!!" angle.  That was pretty apparent very quickly, but Johnson kept coming back to it, again and again and again, and just hammering on it.  Additionally, while I think he raised some good points in the epilogue, it came across as scattered and unfocused, jumping from one type of threat to another--viruses, terrorists, nuclear holocausts...  And by the time that he got there, I think he'd made his point thoroughly enough that I was ready to just be done with the book.

Overall, this is a book about a fascinating case that I'm not sure really does it justice.  The thing is, there's not that much to be said about the case; I'm pretty sure there's an episode of a show on maps on Netflix that covers all of this pretty thoroughly in about half an hour.  There's just so much added stuff in here that wasn't particularly intriguing or relevant that seemed to be added simply to bulk out the book and I think that did drag it down somewhat.

3 stars out of 5.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Crimson Bound - Rosamund Hodge

Crimson BoundRed like roses fills my dreams and brings me to the place you rest...

If there's one thing that sums up the tone of this book, it's the original "Red" trailer for Rooster Teeth's webseries RWBY.  There is, in fact, very little in common between the plot of RWBY and that of Crimson Bound; the similarities can basically be boiled down to "young woman in red coat kills monsters," though Ruby uses a scythe/shotgun and Rachelle uses a sword.  But there's such atmosphere in that trailer, and it is that which is evoked in the pages of Crimson Bound.

 I read Rosamund Hodge's other fairy tale book, Cruel Beauty, earlier this year and while it felt magical, I didn't really like the ending, feeling it was messy.  Crimson Bound does not have that issue, and was beautiful all throughout.  The story is a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, a rarely-used retelling unless someone's going with the "Red and the werewolf fall in love" angle, which has its perks, but this didn't go that way and it was refreshing.  The main character in this France-inspired fantasy realm is Rachelle, who was supposed to serve as a woodwife following in her aunt's footsteps, guarding her village against misfortune and the evils of the Great Forest, a mystical wood on a separate plane that overlies Rachelle's world and encroaches upon it.  However, Rachelle is claimed by a forestborn, marked with a black star that means she must kill within three days or die herself.  She kills her aunt and flees her village, ending up as a bloodbound in the service the king, hunting down the creatures that appear from the Great Forest to hunt humans.  All the while, she dreads the return of the Devourer, a being that kept the world in darkness until a human woman stole the sun and moon from his belly and bound him with a mysterious sword that has since been lost.  Wanting to save the world as a sort of redemption, Rachelle dreams of finding one of the two swords that could defeat the Devourer again.

I think fans of Uprooted or Hunted would really like this; they all have a similar feel to them, especially with the whole "magical and menacing forest" dynamic.  The love interest here was unusual, and not who I thought it would end up being; I originally thought Hodge would try to pair Rachelle off with Erec, the captain of the king's bloodbound who Rachelle calls her best friend.  Ultimately, this did not happen, and that's a good thing.  Rachelle is a fascinating character.  She has both an urge to die and a will to live; she plans on going to Hell even as she dreams of saving the world; she wants to be beautiful and in love despite being afraid of what lurks inside her and the monster she might become.  There's a definite religious aspect here, but it wasn't preachy; it was more in the search of redemption and balance, though there was definitely an aspect of denial of reality here as well.  It played wonderfully with the rest of the book.  The supporting characters were wonderful, the playing out of the plot in parallel with the Red Riding Hood story and the myth of the Devourer was spot-on, and the slow building of dark menace overlaying the decadent setting of a Versailles-inspired court was beautiful.

Ultimately, the climax was here was wonderful, with all of the right elements being pulled together and unspooling in just the right way.  Rachelle chooses the path of needles, not the path of pins, and it shows--she struggles, and she fails, and she backslides, and she does petty things, but she perseveres and ultimately comes out better for it in the end, as does the world.  It's a striking story, in characters, world, and plot, and I am so glad to have read it.

5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Master of Crows - Grace Draven

Master of Crows (Master of Crows, #1)The theme read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers for July was a fantasy romance, so I put forward Master of Crows primarily because it was recommended for people who liked Uprooted.  I loved that book, so this was an easy nomination for me.  I didn't actually realize it was by Grace Draven, one of whose books (Radiance) we read before, until someone pointed it out.  But it still got a pretty good number of votes, and so off we went.

The story follows Martise, an apprentice magician who can't actually use magic and who is enslaved to one of the highest magicians in the land.  She's placed with Silhara, a dark magician known as the titular Master of Crows, when he requests help finding a way to kill a god.  Martise is valuable because of her ability to read ancient languages, but she's also supposed to spy on Silhara, who's an enemy of the Conclave, and find proof of heresy so that the Conclave can, uhm, dispose of him.  Silhara, in the meantime, has requested assistance even though he knows said assistant will be a spy because he's plagued by the god Corruption, who wants to possess him and enslave the world.

So.  I wanted to read this book because of how it was recommended for those who liked Uprooted.  How did it stand up?  Hm... Well, I didn't like it quite as much as Uprooted.  That book has an enchanting, fairy tale-like quality to it, despite some of its contents being quite terrible.  Master of Crows didn't have that same vibe, though.  It was darker and not as whimsical-feeling, maybe because the "enemy" was more concrete than the Wood was.  It's also much slower than Uprooted is.  Still, I quite liked the central romance here.  Silhara can be a real jerk at times but I think he did redeem himself, and the Dragon of Uprooted was a real bastard in his own ways, too.  The romance itself is a slow burn, with a bit of instant attraction but a real relationship blooming over the course of time and both parties reluctant to relate their feelings because of their respective positions.  The romance is definitely more prominent here than it was in Uprooted, as well, which is something I liked and really what had me picking this up--you say it's like Uprooted but with more romance?  Yes, please, I say!  I also liked the world that Draven built up; the religious aspect of magic, the idea of killing gods, and the different cultures that she incorporated all struck good notes with  me.

What I didn't like was how this set up some promises that weren't really followed through.  For example, Silhara was supposed to a mysterious, dark magician, one of the most dangerous ever--and while yes, he's very powerful, he's really not dark and spends most of his time tending his orange orchard.  If you're going to have a dark hero, I feel like you need to fully commit to him, rather than just brushing all of it off as just rumors.  Also, I'd hoped to see a bit more emotional turmoil on Martise's part.  She decides in pretty quick order that she can't betray Silhara, because she loves him, and there's really no waffling on this issue.  Considering that the nature of her enslavement is that a member of the Conclave owns a piece of her soul, I think this would have been a bit harder of a decision to make, love or no love.

Still, I did quite like this book.  I didn't like it as much as Uprooted, which was one of the most magical books I've read recently, but I liked it significantly more than Radiance, the other Draven book I'd read.  I was excited to see this had sequels, and disappointed when I figured out they weren't true sequels but instead short stories, which just don't appeal to me in the same way.  Sigh.  Maybe some day.

4 stars out of 5.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Princesses Behaving Badly - Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History—without the Fairy-Tale EndingsI am twenty-five years old and I still adore princesses.  Most particularly, I adore the spunky, kick-butt princesses who Go Out and Do Things.  Who do I like?  I like Addie of Bamarre and Cinder/Selene, Celaena Sardothien and Queen Bitterblue, Elisa with her Godstone and Raisa with her Grey Wolf Throne, Moana sailing into the unknown and Rapunzel shaking off her lifelong abuser.  I can't get enough of them.  But these are fictional women, and there have been plenty of bad-ass women in history who haven't gotten a lot of attention, so I was super excited to read Princesses Behaving Badly and get an insight into some of them.

The book is divided into seven sections and each focuses on a different "type" of princess: Warriors, Usurpers, Schemers, Survivors, Partiers, Floozies, and Madwomen.  Obviously there is some crossover between these categories, and several of them are pretty derogatory terms, which made me raise an eyebrow when I encountered them.  Yes, the women in this book were flaunting convention for their places and times--otherwise they wouldn't have been behaving badly.  But to term them "floozies" and "madwomen" seemed a bit harsh.  Each part of the book then features several mini-biographies of princesses who the author has deemed to fit that category, each of which took about five to ten minutes to read, and also a few shorter sections that could skim over a topic, like so-called American "dollar princesses" who married European nobility on the basis of their money, with a paragraph or so devoted to each woman in that short section.  Real, born princesses are covered but also women who pretended to be princesses, possessed positions similar to that of princesses in societies that didn't have princess roles, and women who married up to become princesses.

What struck me most about this book, however, were two things.  First, it's so surface level.  I think I would have preferred fewer but more in-depth sections about a selection of the women here; I didn't expect the book to be comprehensive, there's just too much to cover, but it seems like even so it really did a disservice to some of these women by skimming over their lives at such a high level, doing very little to cover their motivations, circumstances, desires, etc.  And second, the book kind of had a derogatory tone in general to it.  While I've already pointed out some of the questionable words selected, many of the stories about women who didn't really do anything wrong had this overarching tone of, "Well, she got what was coming to her."  Which...what?  Yes, maybe Elizabeth of Bathory deserved to be bricked up in a tower--she might have killed up to 650 people, after all--but Lakshmibai, covered in the "Warriors" chapter?  She got forced into a terrible situation, dealt with it the best she could, and then got killed in battle.  And yet there's no sympathy at all in this tale, just a, "Well, that's what happens when you do that stuff" sort of feeling.  Yes, this was a book that explicitly said "without the happy endings" in the subtitle, but the tone in which these were covered rubbed me the wrong way.

Overall, a very surface-level book that I think serves mainly to direct one to the Wikipedia articles about some of these women; Wiki probably covers many of them in much more depth than the book does.  Wiki probably has better sources cited than this one, too.  It brings to light some remarkable women throughout history but is baffling irreverent towards their struggles and accomplishments instead opting for snark and disparaging terms and a tone of "well she must have deserved it" for the not-so-happy endings.

3 stars out of 5, and mainly just for bringing some light to these princesses.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A Good Debutante's Guide to Ruin - Sophie Jordan (Debutante Files #1)

A Good Debutante's Guide to Ruin (The Debutante Files, #1)Much to my surprise while looking at what other series Sophie Jordan had on offer, I have read one of her books before--Firelight, a young adult fantasy about shapeshifter dragons and dragon hunters that's pretty much like Twilight but possibly even worse.  I'm actually very glad I saw that after I read this book, because it probably really would have colored my impressions of this one otherwise.  Also worthy of note is that this isn't actually the book I wanted to read.  I wanted to read While the Duke Was Sleeping, which is the first book in her Rogue Files series, but there was a hefty library waitlist for that, so I settled for this one instead.

Let me put this out there to begin with: while I think Declan and Rosalie ultimately made a good couple, the setup here is kind of...uhm...weird to me.  Because they're step-siblings.  And they did live together, though apparently not for the past ten years.  But still.  Step-siblings.  And not only that but they start hooking up while Rosalie is in disguise at a house of sin, where people go to have orgies, watch other people have orgies, etc...  And their whole relationship basically is based on a lie...

So, yeah.  Let me back up a bit.  The story follows Rosalie, who has spent the past ten years of her life at a finishing school, including two years after she actually graduated because her mother never bothered to collect her.  The headmistress decides she can't keep Rosalie forever, even though she likes her, and so delivers her to Declan, the Duke of Danbury and Rosalie's stepbrother, as he's her only other family.  Declan hates Rosalie on sight because of her connection to her mother, and vows to get rid of her as quickly as possible--his aunt and cousin convince him the best way to do this is to give Rosalie a huge dowry and marry her off.  And so the husband hunt begins.  But Rosalie is in love with Declan, and always has been, and while she accepts she'll have to marry someone else, she's not about to let Declan decide on exactly who that will be for her.

What I think ultimately rubs me the wrong way about this book is that it was specifically written to titillate.  There's absolutely no reason that Rosalie had to be set up as Declan's step-sister and didn't enter his sphere in some other way, maybe by ending up in Peregrine and Aurelia's care.  There was absolutely no need for the whole Sodom (the house of sin) plot line.  There are plenty of other tropes that could have been used to fulfill these same plot lines, and yet Jordan chose these, apparently just to shock and titillate the reader.  But she uses them without fully committing to them.  There are some pretty serious kinks that come up in this book in various ways, but Jordan clearly can't decide if she wants to commit to them and have a full-fledged historical erotica, or if she wants to have a more sedate, "traditional" historical romance.  So she bounces back and forth between the two and doesn't really land in either, and it's an attempted balancing act that doesn't ever really work out.  Consequently, I don't think this will really please readers of either camp.  There's also some really twisted stuff involving rape going on in the background here that's never truly addressed, particularly the impact it must have on the character in question and how it shaped everything leading up to the book.

So, am I still interested in Jordan's other historical romances?  Yes.  Aurelia in this one seemed like a girl who definitely would not have actually existed or at least acted the way she did in reality, but has promise as a romance heroine.  And I still want to read the Rogue Files books when I can get the first one from the library.  But as for this one... Eh.

2 stars out of 5.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Beauty and the Mustache - Penny Reid (Knitting In the City #4)

Beauty and the Mustache (Knitting in the City, #4)Reading Truth or Beard not too long ago reminded me of just how much I like Penny Reid's books, so I immediately stocked up on a few more--the next two in the Winston Brothers series but also the fourth book in the Knitting in the City series, which happens to be Beauty and the Mustache...and is also a tie-in to the Winston Brothers.  How convenient.

The heroine here is Ashley Winston, who has six older brothers and who has returned home to Green Valley, Tennessee from her life in Chicago because her mother is in the hospital and refuses to see any of Ashley's brothers.  Upon her arrival, she finds an interloper in her family: Drew Runous, a game warden for the Great Smoky Mountains that surround Ashley's home.  He's heard about her from her mother, but is surprised to see that "Ash" is, in fact, a woman, and not another of the Winston brothers.  And he seems to hate her.  Or adore her.  One or the other, and it seems to swing between them.

As always, Reid's romances are charming.  I really liked Ashley as a main character.  She left Tennessee because pretty much everyone except her mother treated her awfully, and never looked back.  Now, when she's forced to, she has to acknowledge how everyone else she knew has grown and changed, just as she has.  And while she's had an independent life in Chicago, she also has to re-learn (or maybe learn in the first place) how to rely on others in the course of caring for her mother.  Drew is charming but reserved, more so than Reid's other heroes that I can recall, and that was frustrating to both me and Ashley; I wasn't really sure what to make of him, and while I ultimately liked him alright, his propensities for doing what he sees as doing "the right thing" without consulting anyone else involved int he matter were a little crazy-making; I definitely empathized with Ashley on that front!  And of course, there's a pretty extensive supporting cast made up of Ashley's brothers (man, I really should have read this one before Truth or Beard) and also her knitter friends from Chicago, who brought some levity to what could have otherwise been a very heavy story, romance or no romance.

Is this really "A Philosophical Romance," as its tagline brands it?  Well...not really.  There's some quoting of Nietzche and poetry and some dropping of random wisdom bombs by Ashley's mother, but I wouldn't use those to label it as "philosophical."  It's not like anyone here does any deep pondering on the meaning of life, and Ashley herself prefers reading romances to pondering anything in the real world.  But still, this was light, despite my initial concerns that the plot with Ashley's mother would not make for a good romantic background.  I did enjoy it, as I enjoy all of Reid's books, and look forward to reading the other ones in both the Knitting and Winston Brothers series.

But what the heck was up with the ketamine, anyway?

4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Slightly Married - Mary Balogh (Bedwyn Saga #1)

Slightly Married (Bedwyn Saga, #1)Ah, historical romance!  This was the monthly read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers for July 2017--historical romance is a perpetual favorite in that group since it seems to strike more positive notes for more people, at least if our discussions are any indication.  I was a bit disappointed because this wasn't my nomination and I actually didn't have high hopes for it, but I was pleasantly surprised.

The story is about Eve Morris, whose brother dies in the war against Napoleon.  The brother's commanding officer, Aidan Bedwyn, promised Percy before he died that he would care for Eve and protect her no matter what, though he didn't fully grasp what he was promising when he made said promise.  Eve doesn't want Aidan's protection, though she desperately wants to find a way out of her predicament.  The predicament in question?  Due to a quirk in her father's will, because Eve is unmarried and her brother died less than a year after their father, her estate is set to go to her nasty cousin, leaving Eve and her contingent of "lame ducks," such as former criminals, a fallen woman, and an amputee, completely homeless.  Aidan convinces Eve to marry him as a matter of convenience so she can keep the estate, and away we go.

I didn't feel like Aidan and Eve had a ton of chemistry here, but this was a good story of learning to love the one you're with.  They slowly grow closer to each other over the two months of Aidan's leave, first on a brief trip to London to marry, and then when Eve is dragged back to London by Aidan's overbearing brother.  Like many first books in historical romance series, however, this seems to serve mainly as a launch pad for introducing the other characters in the Bedwyn family, who are obviously the protagonists of their own string of books.  I liked that Balogh didn't start with the most prominent member of the family, which would be the oldest brother, Wulf, who is a duke, and that she instead started with the second brother, Aidan.  And I liked Eve as a character, as well.  The two of the didn't communicate, a constant problem in romances, but I could somewhat understand it given their backgrounds and the nature of how their relationship began.  Neither of them wanted to become emotionally entangled in a relationship that was never meant to last, and which they both believed the other didn't want to last.  Counterproductive?  Yes.  Effective for romantic drama?  Also yes.

Was this the best historical romance I've ever read?  No.  It didn't snap and pop like some others, didn't have me devouring page after page.  The chemistry wasn't super apparent to me, either, and while I don't demand love at first sight (which can be downright sickening) I do like to see some good chemistry.  But I think this was a solid base for a series and am looking forward to reading the others.

3 stars out of 5.

Friday, July 14, 2017

A Disobedient Girl - Ru Freeman

A Disobedient GirlA Disobedient Girl has been on my reading list for a while--I think it came up as a recommendation while I was reading other books taking place in Sri Lanka.  However, the university library didn't have it and it also wasn't available through the public library's Overdrive system.  But I needed a few other books from the brick-and-mortar public library, so I put in a request for this one as well.

The story here follows two main characters, Latha and Biso.  Latha's story starts when she's a young girl and the servant of a well-to-do family, mainly the family's daughter Thara, who is the same age as Latha.  But Latha has never felt like she should be a servant, and as she and Thara grow, so does that feeling, leading to acts of rebellion and disobedience.  Biso is a grown woman with three children fleeing an abusive marriage at the beginning of her story, and her entire narrative takes place over the course of that flight from her husband to the mountains where her family lives.  At first, I couldn't really see the connection between those two narratives, until I hit upon that they're not taking place at the same time.  Once I realized that, it all made a lot more sense.

Latha is not an imminently likable character.  She's bratty and passive-aggressive and sometimes downright nasty.  However, she is an extremely sympathetic character.  Balancing those two halves can be very tricky and not many authors can do it well; Freeman does it wonderfully.  Biso was less "connective" to me, especially at the end of the book.  Her religion and philosophy didn't mesh well with my own thoughts and beliefs, and I found myself disliking her more with every chapter towards the end.  I found Biso's half of the book (the chapters between the main characters alternate) to be more atmospheric than Latha's half, and definitely not as forward-driven as Latha's half, either.  But the sense of atmosphere was wonderful, and Biso's story, simple as it is, is what really starts all of it.  With this in mind, the structure of the book is largely circular.  Latha is stuck in the same circle that Biso enters on her journey...until the end, where she seems to find an "exit" from the loop that promises a brighter future.

Overall, this was a lovely book.  It was slow in some spots and every now and then the characters grated on my nerves, but I still really enjoyed it.  I think it definitely helped that I'd read some other books taking place in Sri Lanka in similar time periods, because it meant that I had some background that wasn't present in the book and lent me an understanding of things that I wouldn't have otherwise had.  However, I think you could have done without that; you might have wondered a bit about some of the political things discussed, but those didn't have an imminent bearing on much of the plot and it was a strong book either way.

4 stars out of 5.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Act Like It - Lucy Parker (London Celebrities #1)

Act Like It (London Celebrities, #1)Act Like It was one of the book choices for May in the Unapologetic Romance Readers group, but I got stuck at the bottom of a long wait list for it at the library and didn't get my hands on it until now!  I'll pop back into the old discussion, but I'm a bit sad that I missed out on it when it was happening because I really did enjoy this.

The main character is Lainie, a West End actress who's one of four main actors, one of them being her ex-boyfriend, who she has to passionately kiss onstage six nights a week, plus rehearsals.  But Lainie loves acting, loves her theater--just doesn't quite love the awkward social dynamics that can arise.  One of the other main actors, Richard Troy, is known about town as something of a bad boy, yelling at chefs and generally causing scenes--not exactly great for his image.  So his publicist and the theater's publicist, afraid that his bad image is hurting ticket sales, convince Lainie to put out the idea that she and Richard are together to help publicity and give the impression that she's rehabilitating him into a normal human being--in exchange for the profits of two Saturday night shows going to the charity Lainie works with.  She doesn't love the idea, but for the donations, she agrees.

Of course, Lainie and Richard are prickly with each other in all the right ways.  They snipe back and forth, jab at each other, but mostly do it in relatively good humor, and of course they grow on each other, a little bit at a time, and then all at once.  Richard can be a proper jackass, but Lainie gives as good as she gets, doesn't let him really get to her, and doesn't let him walk all over her, so their relationship is actually very equal.  She also starts to put the reins on letting him act like an ass to other people, though of course some things can never entirely change.  The "fake relationship that becomes a real one" is a favorite trope of mine, but just like any trope, it has to be carried off well, and I think that Parker accomplished that.

The characters are both actors by trade, so clearly they at least somewhat live for drama.  So are parts of this book unnecessarily dramatic?  Yes.  But I do think it fits the story and the characters, melodrama included; Lainie muses at one point how when she leaves the stage, she doesn't always feel like herself, but rather like she's playing the role of Lainie in another production; I think that was a particularly good musing to include because it helps to add context to the drama.  They don't necessarily seek it or crave it, but they do at the same time, because that's their natures.  (There's also some melodrama that's situational rather than caused by the characters, which was a bit ridiculous, but ah well.)  Still, in the end they of course come together and manage to communicate and work out their differences--and it doesn't hurt that this isn't a book based on a miscommunication to begin with, and that the characters have been open and honest with each other throughout.

Overall, I really enjoyed this one and look forward to reading more from Parker.

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Eight Hundred Grapes - Laura Dave

Eight Hundred GrapesAh, another foray into the world of audiobooks.  My audiobook selections tend to revolve mainly around what the library has available for download at the exact moment I'm looking; Eight Hundred Grapes fit that description when I finished Dark Places and was looking for something else to listen to while walking to/from work and doing my running.  The book had caught my eye before, from Book of the Month and then on a few lists of good books from 2016, so I decided it was worth a shot.  The results?

Pretty good!  The narrator here is good for the book's main character, Georgia, who narrates the story in first-person.  Georgia flees to her family's vineyard in Sonoma County, California, seeking refuge after seeing her fiance out on the street with another woman and a child she never knew about while she was at the final fitting for her wedding dress.  Upon her arrival, she discovers her mother has another man in the house, her father is sleeping in the winemaker's cottage, the family vineyard has been sold to a Big Bad Corporation, and one of her brothers might just be in love with the other's wife.  Yikes.  So the story is Georgia attempting to navigate all of this family drama, all the while trying to decide whether or not she should forgive her fiance for keeping his daughter a secret and marry him anyway.

This is a story of family drama, clearly, which I really enjoy.  I liked how Georgia's first-person chapters were interspersed with other chapters set in the past that focused more on her parents.  Those third-person chapters helped to flesh out how they ended up where they were in a good, characterizing fashion, rather than her mother and father just info-dumping everything on Georgia in her chapters.  Though, now that I think of it, I wonder if there was a bit of omniscience from Georgia here, her picking up on things from those third-person chapters that she's never actually told in the first-person ones... Hm. 

Georgia is a likeable character, and the supporting characters were likable, too--even the transgressing Ben.  The narrator's voice sounds a little silly when she tries to do the dialogue for the men in the book, but until my dream of having every audiobook read by a full cast is realized, I guess that's something I'm just stuck with.  But story-wise, the things that I didn't like here were two-fold.  First, not enough Jacob.  For how the book ends, I think there needed to be more Jacob.  Second, that epilogue!  This, even though it's still about Georgia, abruptly switches from first-person to third-person, and it comes across as really cheesy and just...ugh.  Did not like.  I think that the book easily could have ended with the last chapter from Georgia's perspective and been just fine.  Maybe even better.  Just like how the movie Lincoln would have been better if it had ended with that shot of him going down the stairs to leave for Ford's Theater instead of going through the entire assassination sequence, because hey, we all know how it ends, right?

This was a shorter book, but it had a great sense of atmosphere, good pacing, and good characters. The narrator mostly suited it, and overall I found it a very enjoyable reading/listening experience.

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Rich and Pretty - Rumaan Alam

Rich and PrettyRich and Pretty is one of the backlog of Book of the Month books that I had on my back list and finally got around to reading.  It has a pretty dismal rating, a 2.77 on Goodreads as of the time of this writing, and honestly, I think it's pretty well deserved.  Goodreads considers 2 stars an "okay" book and 3 stars a book you "liked," so the majority of people who've read and rated this on Goodreads didn't really enjoy it that much.  And it's a pretty bland book, so that sounds about right.

The story is about two women, Sarah and Lauren, as they move into new phases of their lives.  They've been friends since age eleven, and now in their early thirties Sarah works at a charity shop and is getting married, and Lauren is trying to get a promotion from her job as assistant editor.  They don't see each other much anymore, but when they do they easily fall back into the patterns of their earlier friendship.  But at various points, the differences between them are painfully obvious, such as how Sarah is ready to marry after only having like four boyfriends; Lauren isn't looking for anything serious, and it grates on her nerves when Sarah frowns upon her casual sex.  The title refers explicitly to Sarah and Lauren; Sarah has always been the rich one, while Lauren has always been the pretty one.

The writing is just okay.  While it's a male author writing female main characters, it's not terrible, and terrible is something that I've gotten used to when reading books such as this.  However, Sarah and Lauren are apparently always focusing on their "tits," which is not something I've ever encountered in an actual, living, breathing woman--a fascination with breasts is something I've also come to expect of male authors writing female characters, and that's not any different here.  Sigh.  Sarah, Lauren, and their supporting characters are also just bland.  They're not interesting in any way.  While each of them could have been fascinating, they're all flat and one-dimensional.  Additionally, there's something about the way that Alam writes that just makes me a little nauseous, almost like being seasick; this is something that I also encountered while reading The God of Small Things, and it's not a very pleasant experience.  The sentences can be rambling and hard to follow and sometimes have strange constructions, and just have this "wavy" feeling that was...ugh.  It makes me feel sick just thinking about it.

So, was it a good book?  Not really.  With flat characters and no real plot to speak of, it just didn't intrigue.  I do like character-driven books, and the characters don't even have to be nice or good--but they do have to be interesting.  None of the people here were that, which is unfortunate, and makes it a flop as a character-driven book.

1.5 stars out of 5.

Of Fire and Stars - Audrey Coulthurst

Of Fire and StarsI think this book might have been one of my most-anticipated YA reads of 2017.  Maybe even one of my most-anticipated fantasy reads.  Here's why: it has a LGBT aspect to it.  While this isn't something that I actively seek out in books, I'm very aware that LGBT romances are rather lacking in markets other than their own niche romance pool, and while there are increasing numbers of them in the YA market, I don't believe I've encountered a single book in which the main couple was anything other than straight.  Tamora Pierce has a couple of gay couples in her books, but they're not the focus.  And so I was intrigued.

When Princess Dennaleia moves to Mynaria to marry its prince and one day become queen, she only wants to serve her people, old and new, as well as she can, and to hide her fire Affinity, a sort of magic--magic being feared in both her home country and Mynaria and another country of Sonnenborne, and only being welcomed in a third country (Zumorda?  Zumora?  Zumordra?) that is feared by the other three precisely because of magic.  Unfortunately for Denna, she immediately finds herself drawn to the prince's sister, Mare (short for Amaranthine) first as a potential ally and then in other, stronger ways, and she also realizes that her Affinity is becoming harder to control, and seems to be expanding to elements other than fire.

Unfortunately, other than the promise of the lesbian romance, there's not really much else to highlight this book.  Denna and Mare inhabit a world in which gay romances aren't reviled or scrutinized--it's made apparent at various points throughout the book that same-sex relationships are perfectly normal, and that in different circumstances a marriage between Denna and Mare would have been a real possibility.  However, beyond that little tidbit, the world building is minimal and the characterizations sparse.  Mynaria is a country defined by a horse culture, but why?  Why do people hate and fear magic, except in that Z-country whose name I can't remember?  What's going on there?  Why is every adult in this book vastly incompetent?  Yes, YA books are all about, well, young adults solving problems, but at least in most of them the adults seem to be absent rather than purely stupid.  Thandi, Denna's actual fiance, could have been an intriguing character but instead just turned out to be someone who brushed off Denna even though he had such promise.  The plot itself is thin, with the villain being pretty obvious from the main fact of being the only person not to be seriously examined, and the intricacies that set up so many of the intrigues never really being examined.  There's not a lot of action, just a lot of riding horses and people having political discussions while ignoring Mare, Denna, or both--a setup that might have worked had these discussions set up a more robust world or given our heroines more to do while not in the discussions, but other than about five minutes of sleuthing, no such luck.  Meanwhile, the book is left very open-ended, with a ton of loose ends and no sequel in sight even though several other upcoming books are listed on Coulthurst's website.

Overall, this book promised more than it delivered.  Very disappointing.

2 stars out of 5.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Missoula - Jon Krakauer

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College TownOh, boy.  What a hard book this was to listen to.  It was available through the DC library, so I grabbed it because the topic was riveting, but I knew it would be hard from the get-go, and it was.

Somewhere between twenty and twenty-five percent of women in college will be sexually assaulted.  Jon Krakauer examines this situation specifically in Missoula, Montana, which was the scene of a rape scandal in 2012 when it came to light that a slew of sexual assaults and rapes had occurred at the University of Montana.  Krakauer focuses his narrative around a few of the cases that came to light, and focuses mainly on a young woman named Allison.  Allison's case is central to the book because she's connected to so many other people who played parts in the other cases that Krakauer brings up.

He addresses false rape allegations, which are exceptionally rare, and how people still believe that "crying rape" is something that women do because they regret decisions or want attention--because clearly every woman wants to be dragged in front of a court and denigrated as a slut in front of everyone she's ever known, right?  Turns out that the false statistic that 50% of rape allegations are false comes from two small studies, both of which have been thoroughly debunked but people still cling to, much like people still cling to that one thoroughly debunked study that claimed vaccines cause autism.  And with that put aside, he dives into how cases are prosecuted (or not prosecuted) and how they're dealt with at the university level.

The results of all this are devastating.  They reinforce that men feel entitled to women's bodies, to drugging them or plying them with alcohol and then ignoring the word "no."  That those who are responsible for prosecuting rape cases frequently choose not to do so because it would be too hard, and that women are discouraged from pressing the matter or reporting their rapes because if they do, they will be paraded as sluts in front of a course of family, friends, acquaintances, officials, media, etc.  That "no" means "yes" and moaning can only be done in pleasure, not pain or fear, and clearly means that you liked it, so obviously it was consensual.  That, even if a man is convicted of rape, people are so often concerned about the impact of prison time on his life rather than the impact the rape has had on his victim.  That people can be elected to high positions in the legal system after slandering rape victims in court.  That if you play football, you really can get away with anything.

Men are, of course, raped as well--but this is a crime that is perpetrated largely against women by men, and so that's what Krakauer focuses on.  His narrative includes interviews, transcripts trials, and reviews of documents, and it's overall a very thoroughly researched book.  It's devastating, of course, and rage-inducing, but overall an excellent example of literary journalism.  And he nails it home with one poignant fact: that, despite the fact that he's focused on this string of rapes in Missoula, Missoula actually had a rape average below the national one, and that is the real scandal.

Highly recommended.

5 stars out of 5.

Six of Hearts - L. H. Cosway (Hearts #1)

Six of Hearts (Hearts, #1)This was the June read for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' group.  I put off reading it a bit, because I just had so many books I was more interested in reading, but I never skip a read, so I finally got to it in the last week of the month.

The plot revolves around Jason/Jay, whose family dies in a fire when he's a little kid and who ends up being sent away to live with his uncle.  Jay swears revenge on the people who set the fire and killed his family.  After the prologue, the viewpoint switches to Matilda, who was Jay's childhood neighbor but who barely remembers him.  Matilda's mother was killed in a home invasion and she has a bad scar from it on her face/neck.  She still lives with her father and supports him as secretary at his legal practice, and supplements her income by sewing vintage-style dresses that she sells online.  When Jay shows up seeking help from her father in a legal case involving defamation, neither Matilda nor her father recognize him.  Matilda's father refuses to take on his case, but does rent out a room in their house to him...and therefore the scene for romance is set.

I'm gonna be honest: I didn't like this book, and Jay is the reason.  He's a magician by trade, which I find kind of creepy (I was evidently not the only person in the group that felt this way) but if he'd been a decent person, I could have forgiven that.  However, he's really not.  He swears he loves Matilda, but he lied to her for the duration of their relationship.  He's violent, punching out guys who so much as look at Matilda even when he says he doesn't want a relationship with her and scaring off perfectly nice guys she's interested in.  He leaves bruises on her neck after pressuring her into having sex with him when she specifically said no.  Jay just left me feeling slimy, and I can't really excuse his behavior throughout the book.

The "revenge" plot of course circles around the court case, and that's when all of the big "reveals" come out, though they were pretty easy to guess beforehand with one minor exception.  But what I found so unlikely here is that, even with such a clear-cut case, Jay and Matilda's father would have won.  Because they went up against a big newspaper with a ton of money; their opponents would have buried them in paperwork and driven them beyond what they could do.  Of course it's more poetic to have it come out the way it did in the end...but it wouldn't have actually worked and really challenged my suspension of disbelief.

So, no, I did not like this book.  The writing was decent and Matilda was an okay main character--sweet and smart, with the exception of Jay--and the secondary characters were good, too.  But Jay himself was just so awful that I couldn't get over it.

2 stars out of 5.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Daring Greatly - Brene Brown

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and LeadI read this book for a work event back at the end of May.  Our dean had seen Brene Brown speak at an AACSB conference that my direct supervisor also attended, and suggested that everyone going to this event read portions of the book.  So of course I read the entire thing.

The title comes from a speech by Theodore Roosevelt--the "man in the arena" speech, and the portion reference basically boils down to trying no matter what critics say and being satisfied with yourself.  Brown's research, which centers around shame and vulnerability, basically also boils down to this central premise.  In the book, she goes through the research of people who she considers to be "Wholehearted" and how dealing with shame and vulnerability can shape basically every aspect of your being.  It's not a self-help book; there's no twelve-step plan to fixing anything here.  But there is a lot to keep in mind, and so many things that I could point to, either in myself or others, and go "Yup," in both positive and negative ways.

There are chapters about leading and education, about parenting, about the things we use to shield ourselves from vulnerability and how to overcome them in order to live more fully.  One thing that stuck out to me in that latter chapter?  Disaster planning.  Not "fill up the basement with canned goods" disaster planning, but the sort that you kind of mentally do when you're going down the road with family or friends, having a good time, and then think, seemingly out of the blue, "What do I do if the car crashes and everyone but me dies?  Or if I die?"  And then you start working through it just in case because surely being happy and having a good time has to come with some karmic balance, right?  There's also a lot of good thinking material on how shame and guilt are not the same thing, and how using shame to "motivate" people actually causes them to eventually disengage, whereas guilt and be a real motivator because it speaks to what you did, not who you are, and you can always change what you do.

Is it something I would pick up and read on my own?  No, probably not.  I like things that tend to have a stronger central narrative, even in nonfiction.  But there's a lot of food for thought in here, things to put aside and mull over, to give yourself a mental reminder to consider A when you encounter B, to be a bit more mindful of things that happen in our lives.  I wish there had been a bit more about her actual research in the main body of the book, rather than a few smatterings here and there that she really used to bulk out her philosophy, but I liked it nonetheless.  I did find it a bit hard to finish because the final chapter in the book is about parenting, which doesn't apply to me and I hope never applies to me, but even that gave me something to think about in looking at other people and how they interact with and raise their children.

Overall, I think this was a pretty useful read.  It's not too long, either, so it won't be a huge drain on time if you decide it's not for you.

4 stars out of 5.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Reading Challenge Updates

Completed
-The first book in a series you haven't read before.  I've had Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo for a while, and one of my friends loves the series, so it seemed like a good time to read it.  Ultimately, I think this one I will have to re-read.  I was coming off the high of Uprooted from the weekend before, and was really, really hoping that this was going to take a similar path.  It didn't.  I was not pleased.  I think there's some potential here (hence the need to re-read at some point) but I also think Bardugo fell back on some tired tropes (such as light=good, dark=bad) and I was hoping for a bit more than I actually got.

-A bestseller from 2016.  I went with Magic by Danielle Steel for this--she's apparently one of the best-selling authors of all time, and I found myself utterly baffled by that because she appears to be a terrible writer.  The writing itself was awful in this book, with redundant sentences, abundant comma splices, and no depth whatsoever.  Why do people like this so much?  Books can be fun and light and still be good, but this book...wasn't.

-A book where the main character is a different ethnicity than you.  As planned, I picked up A Disobedient Girl for this category.  The main characters are Sri Lankan Sinhalese--something I kind of inferred because of how various characters speak in derogatory ways about the Tamils, the second-biggest ethnic group in Sri Lanka and one that has historically been in conflict with the Sinhalese.  This is a book with a main character who's not really that likable but who is still sympathetic, and a story line that neatly ties back in a circular manner but with a hint that a cycle is about to be broken.

-A book with a family-member term in the title.  I've had Daughter of Smoke & Bone on my Kindle for a while, so it was an obvious pick for this category.  And...I loved it!  It had so many tropes and cliches that could have made for an awful read, but Laini Taylor had a beautiful, lush way of writing that drew me in.  And it didn't hurt that the tropes were some of my favorites, either.  ;)  The last third had some weird pacing, but it was still a lovely book overall, and I immediately rushed out and bought the entire trilogy in paperback to devour.

-A book from a genre/subgenre you've never heard of.  The genre I picked for this was "weird west," which it turned out I'd actually read a book from before, I just didn't realize it was a whole genre of its own!  The book I'd read before was Welcome to Nightvale; the book I read for the challenge was The Six-Gun Tarot by R. S. Belcher.  I actually really liked it; it's basically a historical paranormal fantasy set in the western US in the years after the Civil War, with an ensemble cast in a really weird town.  Some of the side characters got a little too much page time for my liking but I enjoyed the book as a whole.

-A book by or about a person who has a disability.  I originally meant to read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time for this--the main character has autism, and it's the first book that comes up on a lot of lists I looked at for the category.  However, I inadvertently also stumbled on a bunch of arguments on whether or not autism is a disability, and I really didn't want to get involved with that, so I switched.  I happened to read Spindle Fire instead, which has two disabled heroines (one blind and one who is mute and has no sense of touch) but only one of which has it seriously impact her for the duration of the story.  While I liked how Isabelle was blind and yet still "saw" the world through her other senses, I found the story itself to be rather lackluster.

-A book about a difficult topic.  I changed book choices for this twice.  First I planned on reading Rape is Rape, and then Exit, Pursued By A Bear.  However, when I was browsing audiobooks, I saw Missoula, and I immediately knew that was the one.  I do still intend to read the other two books, which share the theme of rape with Missoula, but Missoula itself was so important and so devastating at the same time.  About rape and the justice system in Missoula, Montana, in conjunction with the University of Montana, I was actually crying as I listened to this.  I do think it was probably better as an audiobook; there's a lot of testimony included in the later part of the book, and I think it was much more riveting to listen to than it would have been to read, much like listening to the second half of a Law & Order episode or something.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-A book based on mythology.  Olympos, Dan Simmons

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Girl With the Make-Believe Husband - Julia Quinn (Rokesbys #2)

The Girl with the Make-Believe Husband (Rokesbys, #2)Ah, Julia Quinn.  You and your protagonists that don't talk to each other...  What an ongoing trope you have there.  This book is no exception.

So, this book is the story of Edward Rokesby, who we never saw in the first book in this series (Because of Miss Bridgerton) because he was off fighting in the American Revolution for the British...until we learned that he was missing.  Our heroine is Cecilia Harcourt, who goes to America looking for her injured brother, who was friends with Edward.  When she finds out Edward is back, and injured, and Thomas is missing, Cecilia claims to be Edward's wife so she can help care for him.  And when he wakes up with amnesia, she lets him believe that they're married, too...

I want to like this but it kind of rubs me the wrong way at the same time.  I can see why, the further she got into the lie, the more reluctant Cecilia was to own up to the truth.  It can be really hard to pivot and tell someone you care for that you've been lying the entire time, and the longer it goes on, the harder it is to tell them.  But at the same time...isn't she kind of gaslighting Edward by letting him believe they're married?  She's not making him believe he's crazy, but at the same time she's telling him things that drastically alter how he behaves and goes about his business, as he wouldn't act that way if he didn't believe they were married.  She doesn't do it maliciously--she really wants to help him, and then later on realizes that being his "wife" is the fastest way to get information about her brother because people are far more willing to help her as the daughter-in-law of a viscount than as her untitled self--but she still does it.  And so I was glad at how angry Edward was when he found out, but how he still acted honorably in pretty much every aspect.

But here's the thing.  Despite my reservations about how the relationship is played out here, with all of the misleading, this book was charming.  Taking place earlier than Quinn's Bridgerton series, it's not a time period used in a lot of historical romance, and especially because one of the main characters is on the British side.  I'm not sure I've ever actually seen that before.  Most novels in this period that I've encountered feature the scrappy American rebels going up against the Big Bad British, and so seeing things from the British side (even to a relatively low degree; there's no actual fighting taking place in this book, it's all set in occupied New York City) was different.  Cecilia and Edward are also so sweet, both together and apart, having started to know each other through the correspondence that Cecilia kept up with Thomas.

Like most of Quinn's books, this was a quick read.  I am looking forward to reading the next book in the series, which will be about Edward's other brother (the elder one having been the focus of the first book) though I think I'll probably forget most of the connections by the time it comes around, just as I forgot most of who was who in the first book by the time I got to this one...

Overall, 3.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Spindle Fire - Lexa Hillyer (Spindle Fire #1)

Spindle Fire (Spindle Fire #1)Fairy tale retellings always intrigue me, and when I was looking for another book to add to an Amazon order so I could get free same-day shipping, I settled on Spindle Fire because it promised to be an intriguing retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story.  Featuring not one princess but two, and one of them a bastard trying to save her enchanted sister, with a wicked faerie lurking the background... Well, it had potential.

The story follows Isabelle, the bastard princess, and her younger, legitimate sister Aurora.  Isabelle is blind and Aurora is mute and has no sense of touch, those senses being taken from the girls by faeries when they were small.  When Aurora's fiance, the prince of the neighboring kingdom, is killed on his way to marry her, the kingdom is threatened with chaos and Isabelle is to be sent away.  So she runs away instead, and Aurora follows her, and in the process stumbles across a golden spinning wheel, where she pricks her finger and ends up in a dream world called Sommeil and apparently haunted by the long-thought-dead faerie Belcoeur.  Meanwhile, the faerie Malfleur, said to have killed her sister Belcoeur, raises troops to march against the kingdom.

The most intriguing thing here was that Isabelle is a blind heroine.  Aurora's muteness and lack of touch are interesting, but ultimately not used much because in Sommeil her tithes seem to be waived and her voice and sense of touch come back to her.  Since she spends most of the book in Sommeil, she doesn't really come across as "challenged" as she actually is in the real world.  Isabelle, on the other hand, spends the entire time in the real world, where her lack of sight is a huge disability.  She manages, but once she leaves the places that she already knows, it becomes infinitely harder.  And yet Hillyer manages to have a great sense of imagery, showing how Isabelle pictures the world through touch and smell and sound even without her sight.

Other than that, the book wasn't as intriguing as I thought it would be.  Some of the plotting and world-building definitely seems confused; like, is this supposed to be our world, or not?  There were indications in both directions.  And what's up with Malfleur and Belcoeur?  Because some people say that Mafleur is evil but she says that she saved everyone from Belcoeur who didn't really seem to be doing anything...?  There's a big info-dump chapter near the end of the book that I thought would straighten this out, but ultimately it didn't.  And as for breaking the curse...what a cop-out that actually was, and I feel like it actually removes a lot of the promise of the second book because now all that's left is dealing with Malfleur, and military conflicts are typically less interesting than twisty curses.

Overall, this was an okay book.  It's marketed as young adult but I feel like it's more middle-grade in reading level; there are a few parts that trend more YA, but as a whole it doesn't have a YA feel to it.  With that and the other confused aspects of it, I'm not really sure I'm intrigued to read the second book when it comes out.

2 stars out of 5.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Tender at the Bone - Ruth Reichl

Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table
I live in a magic neighborhood where people leave books out on their yard walls for passerby to take.  While heading to the convenience store for a sugar fix this weekend, I stumbled across a house that had so many books out!  Among them were a bunch of food memoirs, including this one.  I love books, I love food, I love books about food, so of course it found its way into my bag, along with about fifteen other ones.  How lucky that I took the bag with me!

I've come to the decision that I really like Ruth Reichl.  While her memoir about her time as a food critic at the New York Times, Garlic and Sapphires, wasn't a home run, it was still good, and her novel Delicious! was, in fact, delicious.  Now, I've moved on to Tender at the Bone, which is basically a memoir (albeit an embroidered one) about how Reichl grew up to love food and managed her crazy family.  Born in New York City, Reichl's mother suffered from bipolar disorder (though they didn't know this when Reichl was young) and went through manic stages that turned Reichl's life upside down.  Her mother was also a terrible cook.  However, Reichl loved food and found good food in plenty of other places, and came to learn to cook first as a necessity and then as a passion.  Watching this journey as she grows was fascinating, and I would have never thought that Reichl had such a tumultuous past!  From being shipped off to a boarding school in Montreal because of a passing comment about how she wished she spoke French to essentially living on her own when she was in high school to living in what was basically a hippie commune, it was all fascinating.

Was it all true?  Well... Reichl states in the preface to the book that embroidering, reordering, and sometimes just making up stories is a family tradition, and that she's done some altering to this memoir in order to make it flow better as a solid narrative.  I do appreciate that this one was in chronological order; if I recall correctly, Garlic and Sapphires jumped around a bit, which was disorientating.  But embroidered or not, I think this is a good memoir that makes the author more of a real person.  She suffered from imposter syndrome at various points, feeling like she was a fake, which is something I think we all struggle with sometimes.  And while I appreciated that her mother had a mental illness, I could also empathize with Reichl's yearning to sometimes just slap her mother upside the head and tell her to get over it; no matter how much you tell yourself it's not their fault, sometimes it just grates on your nerves.  The memoir is also interspersed with recipes that Reichl encountered for developed throughout her life.  These are at the beginnings of chapters, which is a little weird and led to some whacky formatting in the book, but I still appreciated them.  I might even try my hand at a lemon souffle someday.

Overall, this was a poignant and mouth-watering memoir, even embroidered as it is--and honestly, I don't mind a little embroidering as long as the author owns up to it, which Reichl did before she even got started.  I can't wait to read her other memoir, Comfort Me With Apples.

4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

True Grit - Charles Portis

True GritWesterns aren't really my thing.  The exception to this is, possibly, the "weird western" genre I've recently discovered, but I haven't read enough of those to make a solid determination.  However, I can see why westerns do appeal to so many people.  They are, essentially, fantasy without the fantasy.  Instead of wands and shooting spells or slaying dragons or hunting down evil wizards, you've got six guns, pistols fired at ten paces, stopping train robberies, and hunting down the bad guys in the Wild, Wild West.  Maybe with a few saloon girls thrown in for good measure.  True Grit does not contain saloon girls but it does include a quest for revenge, some pistols, outlaws, and even mention of a train robbery, though the robbery itself isn't on the page.

This book, which follows Mattie Ross on a quest to avenge her father by capturing his killer and seeing him hang, was The Deliberate Reader digital book club selection for July, and it certainly did force me to read outside my genre.  That said, the book just didn't agree with me, which is unfortunate, because I can see why so man people like the book, just like I can see why so many people like the genre.  I just didn't.

This has all the makings of a good story, and one that I should like.  A fourteen-year-old's father is killed and she essentially runs away from home to avenge him, recruiting the most hardened federal marshal she can to help her and taking off on a pony called Little Blackie, and then forging ahead on her own when the marshal and a Texas Ranger take off without her, until she can prove that she's going to keep going with them, no matter what.  This is spunk.  This is, I might dare say, "true grit," even though the title itself doesn't refer to Mattie (or does it????) but to the marshal Rooster Cogburn instead.  But there was one thing that really held me back from liking this book, and it held me back in a big way.  What was the thing?  Well...it was the writing.

The story is told as an account given by Mattie long after the events she's chronicling, after most of the cast of characters has passed away.  But having the story told in such a way, so removed from the events it actually relates, has the effect of removing the emotion from the writing.  Scanning the reviews for this book, it looks like I might be in the minority here in a big way, but I found this book extremely flat and emotionless.  The style fit the time period in which the story took place very well, being both succinct and purple in turns, and with a sense that Mattie has a bit of a wry and sometimes black sense of humor looking back at her tale.  But still, it overall came across as flat and unemotional; the few bits of humor couldn't make up for the fact that a scene with a character being trapped in a pit full of rattlesnakes, inches away from plummeting to their death, didn't manage to raise my heart rate even a little bit or make me wonder if said character would survive.  And if the emotion is lacking to the point where caring about the characters is difficult...well, then you've lost me.

Oh well.  Maybe next time.

2 stars out of 5.