Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Heart's Invisible FuriesAnyone who's thinking of reading this book might want to read up on the Bury Your Gays page on TV Tropes, but for those who don't want to or don't have the time, let me sum it up for you: it's quite the cliche in works of fiction that gay characters don't deserve happy endings, and that's basically this book summed up.

Following Cyril Avery from before his birth through to just a few months before his death in seven-year increments, the story is basically that of how a gay man born in 1945 Ireland just after the end of World War II is utterly undeserving of happiness.  Cyril is, of course, not actually undeserving of happiness, but Boyne seems to think he is, and rains down a lifetime of woes upon him.  While Ireland is a country that has traditionally been extremely conservative because of strong Catholic influences, not all of the book takes place there, and yet even in the parts that don't, Cyril is pursued by a cloud of ill fortune.  Just when you think things are starting to look up for Cyril, something else slams down, and usually a succession of somethings.  This is supposed to be spun as a story of the endurance of the human spirit, but really it comes off as another story of, "Oh, isn't it tragic to be gay and to never be able to find true love, or hold it if you do?"

Here's the thing: if this book had just been the first part, I totally would have been onboard with this, tropey as it is, because of the time and place.  1940s to 1960s Ireland was not a great place to be a gay person, particularly a gay man.  It's not that hard to see that.  And if the story had been about Cyril persevering through these conditions to find fulfillment in some way--it didn't necessarily have to be romantically--it would have been good.  But once the story moved on to later times and to places that were more accepting, such as Amsterdam and New York (albeit during the period when AIDs was terrifying the populace) the amount of punishment Boyne heaped on Cyril for being gay and then for accepting who he was seemed utterly excessive.

That said, there were pieces of this that I liked.  We can infer early on in the story that Cyril eventually finds out who his birth mother is, even though he's raised by adoptive parents and constantly told that he's "not a real Avery."  But seeing Cyril and his mother frequently and unwittingly cross paths was charming and a way to keep the narrative going, sometimes drawing in other past characters to reinforce the story's "web."  I liked the scope of the story in its journey through times and place, and the wide variety of characters that Boyne brought in.  But the overall tone of the story seriously struck a wrong note with me, and that's something that I can't really let slide, and honestly I'm disappointed that Book of the Month put this out as a selection.

2 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Heartburn - Nora Ephron

HeartburnThis book is essentially the epitome of chick-lit.  Dating back to the 80s, it's apparently semi-autobiographical; the main character, Rachel, is pregnant when she finds out that her second husband is having an affair, which evidently parallels some points of Ephron's own life.  I've never actually seen a Nora Ephron movie, at least not all the way through, and had no idea who she was before starting this, so this is my first real judgment of her.  And it wasn't pretty.

Heartburn reads not so much as a novel or a story as a long, rant-y journal entry that goes on and on and on about being Jewish, the lack of delicatessens in Washington, DC, hatred for Washington (the city, not the government) in general, and basically about how awesome Rachel is and how scummy her husband and his mistress are.  Rachel writes cookbooks, or books that involve recipes, for a living, and also appears on TV to demo said recipes.  Recipes are spattered throughout the book but the really good-sounding ones, like the bagels and lox and eggs, aren't given; instead she gives recipes for stuff like crispy potatoes.  But the main thing that dragged this book down for me was that I didn't like Rachel.  Yes, being pregnant and finding out that your spouse is cheating on you would suck.  But Rachel knew her husband was a cheater before she even married him; this wasn't the first time he'd had an, erm, indiscretion.  Cheaters gonna cheat, girl, and you should have known what you were getting into--especially because it was the second marriage this had happened to, though she wasn't pregnant in the first one.  And, though I allow that she's upset, she deals with her emotions like a passive-aggressive child rather than a functional adult.  For example, she notes that she and her husband keep their finances separate, all the time, and yet when he doesn't pay for her plane ticket, she gets pissed off at him.

Meryl Streep reads the audiobook edition of this and, while she is an excellent narrator, even she can't make Rachel truly likable.  I was glad that the book ended the way it did, because at least it showed some backbone, but honestly I just didn't like it overall.  Apparently it's also a movie that Meryl Streep stars in as Rachel, which is a good deal better than the book.  I should hope so; the book itself is vapid and eye-roll-worthy and isn't even really good as a trashy beach read, which is what it had been recommended to me as by the folks over at Buzzfeed.  Liars, Buzzfeed.  Liars.  Meryl Streep is too excellent to waste on a vapid movie, so I hope my fellow reviewers are right about the quality of the movie over the book.  It just feels like Ephron wanted to vent about this failing of her marriage--but that doesn't mean she had to put it out there for everyone to read.  Additionally, there's some incredibly racist stuff in here--she actually refers to a Latin American woman as a "refried taco," which is just--really?

2 stars out of 5, and that's mostly for the recipes that were included and how Ephron talks about food in general.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Queen Heir - Jaymin Eve and Leia Stone (NYC Mecca #1)

Queen Heir (NYC Mecca #1)Queen Heir was the monthly book pick for the Unapologetic Romance Readers on Goodreads, though it probably wasn't best-suited for the group because it's not really a romance; the romantic interest doesn't even show up on the page until almost halfway through the book.  It focuses on Arianna, one of the heirs of the wolf-shifter queen in New York, who finds herself fighting for the crown after the queen is murdered.

Arianna is pretty much insufferable.  She is, of course, gorgeous.  She has platinum blond hair and gorgeous eyes but oh, her dad might have been Polynesian so she has dark eyebrows and eyelashes even though otherwise she is pale, pale, pale!  She is the strongest of the heirs, has the best familiar (and the only one that is a wolf), is the best at fighting, the best at magic, the best the best the best.  And the only one who can solve the queen's murder!

The writing here is very clunky and the world building is scattered at best.  For example, the authors once use "ferreted" instead of "ferried," and the magic system was apparently created by the Tuatha De Danann, which makes no sense.  Why not, you ask?  Well, for starters, the Tuatha De Danann are a "race" of Irish/Celtic god-like beings, who the authors here instead label as fae.  But they're specifically linked to Ireland.  Here, the authors decide that New York conveniently has a magic system called "the mecca," which again, good job for either mis-appropriating religious aspects or not understanding what words really mean, which was created by the Tuatha De hundreds of years before humans were there and which conveniently aligns exactly with New York's buroughs.  And can be used for teleportation.  Oh, yes.  They also appear to be lumping together the Tuatha De Danann, who are traditionally considered "good," with the Fomoire, who are generally bad.  Either that or they can't tell the difference between these groups and the Sidhe, which are related to but not the same as the Tuatha De Danann, and are more along the lines of what people sometimes call the "Seelie and Unseelie" faeries.  All of this can be gleaned from a quick perusal of Wikipedia, so I'm not really sure there's an excuse for butchering things this badly.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love adaptations of mythology that are twisted up and made new, but most authors at least try to do it with some respect for and understanding of the sources they're pulling on, rather than just going, "Oh hey, that sounds cool, let's do it!" and diving in without any preliminary research or handling source material without any semblance of tact.  Combined with the annoying main character and the sub-par writing, which was also rife with info-dumping, this book was pretty blah.  The pretty cover lured me in, and I liked Kade quite a bit, but I don't think there were enough redeeming qualities in Kade to keep the rest of the series on the top of my interest list.  I think I'd probably be better of going back to the Kate Daniel books for a paranormal romance featuring a sexy shapeshifter.

2 stars out of 5.

Monday, August 28, 2017

In the Heart of the Sea - Nathaniel Philbrick

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship EssexThe story that inspired Moby Dick (which no, I have not read), the sinking of the Essex, a whaleship out of Nantucket, seems like something that could only have been made up.  A whale sinks a ship designed to hunt it and the crew are left as castaways in a trio of boats for three months, sailing around the Pacific with dwindling rations and deteriorating vessels, succumbing to despair, dehydration, starvation, and eventually resorting to cannibalism so that some of the crew may survive.

Nathaniel Philbrick uses two main narratives written by survivors, first mate Owen Chase and cabin bow Thomas Nickerson, to construct the main story here, though he also relies on other resources, such accounts of the story told by Captain George Pollard, letters that were written, and other documents from the time.  He provides context of what life was like in Nantucket at the time, some history of the Essex--which was known as an unusually lucky ship, prior to its ill-fated prior journey which seemed plagued by bad luck from the start--as well as information on what happened after the survivors of the wreck were rescued.  At first, I thought that the narrative was ending remarkably early, but all of that information on what came after was so important to showing the slide of affairs in the whaling industry and to, ultimately, make the tale more believable.  For example, no ship had ever been sunk by a sperm whale prior to the Essex, at least not that anyone knew of--but Philbrick includes information on how, in the decades after the Essex sank, whalers reported that whales were becoming scarier, and several other ships were sunk or heavily damaged by whales.

Apparently I'm super into survival stories recently, since this is the second one in a row I've tackled, after Unbroken (yes, the reviews sometimes show up out of order based on how I schedule them!) and I have Robinson Crusoe lined up for the near future, as well--though that one is fiction.  But it's interesting to see the differences between them; for example, while both this and Unbroken are stories of survival and both feature exiles at sea, In the Heart of the Sea seems to come across as more realistic than Unbroken, even though the circumstances are so much more extraordinary.  It definitely has something to do with the writing; Philbrick's seems so much more matter-of-fact than Hillenbrand's, which felt more sensational.  I do think this one was actually referenced in Unbroken, which might have been what put it in my head to begin with.  Additionally, I did this one as an audiobook; the narrator was excellent for this and I think really contributed to the overall feel of the story.  And it was a piece of history that I hadn't been familiar with, though I had heard of it before, so learning about it was great!  The denouement was a bit long-winded, even including all of the excellent extra information, but I think that was probably the book's only big detractor.

Overall, I really liked this one; I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in history, nonfiction, survival stories, any of that!

4 stars out of 5.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Unbroken - Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and RedemptionUnbroken was my latest audiobook, following Missoula as a selection to listen to while walking to and from work some days and while running.  It had been on my to-read list for a while, but wasn't high-priority, so it seemed like a good audiobook choice.  It's the story of Louis Zamperini, an American bombardier in World War II who competed in the 1936 Olympics as a runner, was expected to be the first person to break the four-minute mile, and who ultimately survived the crash of his plane, an extended time in a life raft, sharks, and a series of prison camps in Japan and its territories, including under the reign of a nightmare of a man known to the prisoners as The Bird.  There's also a little nod to Hillenbrand's other book, Seabiscuit--namely that, upon seeing Louis run, someone said that Seabiscuit was the only one that could beat him.

It's an incredible story; Louis had a bit of a misspent youth, and his brother (who was sometimes his co-conspirator, though Louis seemed to be the only one to ever get caught) helped straighten him out by turning him into a runner.  Louis ended up competing in the 5,000 meter event in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, running in an event that he'd only practiced a few times before his arrival in Germany.  Though he didn't medal, he seemed to be set for the next Olympics as a competitor for the mile--until the US was pulled into World War II and Louis was drafter into the Army Air Force, where he'd briefly enlisted before.  When his plane crashed during a search and rescue mission, Louis and two crewmates survived and found themselves stranded in a life raft that was abysmally poorly provisioned; the three men only had two bars of chocolate and a few cans of fresh water.  Eventually, two of them survived to be picked a Japanese ship, and they promptly became prisoners of war, except without any of the rights accorded to prisoners of war by the Geneva Convention.  Spending time in three different prison camps and never registered with the Red Cross, Louis was lost; his family thought he was dead, and at times, he probably wished he was.

This is a truly amazing story, but I'm ultimately not sure that "Unbroken" is a good title for it.  Louis survived his imprisonment, yes, but he was very, very broken after it.  With a nasty case of PTSD that led him into alcoholism, an obsession with finding and killing The Bird, and nightmares that once had him waking up strangling his wife, Louis certainly didn't walk away from his imprisonment in Japan "unbroken."  Additionally, while it's certainly a story of survival and resilience, I'm not entirely sure where "redemption" plays into it, unless you're counting it as in "The Redeemed Captive" sense, where it means being brought back.  Louis didn't really have anything to be redeemed from; is Hillenbrand trying to get at his religious conversion and eventual comeback from his PTSD, at least to some extent?  Because that's not something that he really needed to be "redeemed" from.  So, yes, probably not the best titling there.

It's an intriguing book and story of survival, but it does drag on a bit.  Every single detail that Hillenbrand seems to have been able to unearth is listed here; every beating, every beating that other prisoners suffered, multiple accounts of how Louis' family was pining away in America for him, though nothing ever changed between these sidebars until it was discovered Louis was, in fact, alive.  Additionally, the final part of the book that detailed Louis' life after the war seemed to drag on.  It really hammers home that PTSD is not a "new" thing, as some people make it out to be, but it also goes into sometimes agonizing detail about what The Bird was up to and how he didn't feel responsible for his actions or that said actions were really bad to begin with.  I understand wanting to have the story be "complete," but it seemed so much slower and dragged on so much more than the earlier parts of the book.  This clearly isn't the "main" story and I feel like it could have been wrapped up in a much shorter section than it was truly given.  It was probably meant to hammer on the "redemption" theme that Hillenbrand was apparently going for, but I really wasn't feeling it.

Overall, this was a good book, but it's nothing I'd be reaching for again.  The pacing was strange and it sometimes seemed over-sensationalized; it was an amazing story on its own, so it didn't really need all of the "look at how amazing this is!" hammering that Hillenbrand laid on it.  It's also not a story of someone remaining unbroken; everyone has a breaking point, everyone, and Louis definitely hit his during his captivity.  His survival was remarkable, but I think Hillenbrand actually blew it up and made it too "larger than life" for it to come off as sincere here.

3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Grin and Beard It - Penny Reid (Winston Brothers #1)

Grin and Beard It (Winston Brothers, #2)I confess: I only read this book because I wanted to read the one after it.  The second book in the Winston Brothers series, the hero in this one is Jethro, the oldest of the brothers and the one who, despite his checkered past, interested me the least.  While the heroine, Sienna, seemed promising, I really really wanted to read more about Cletus!  But he's the subject of the third book, and so I had to get through this one first.

Sienna is a plus-sized actress and script writer who is in Tennessee filming her latest movie, which she both wrote and is starring in.  Unfortunately, Sienna has a terrible sense of direction and ends up stranded on a mountain road, only to be rescued by Jethro.  The two are immediately attracted to each other, though Jethro has no idea who Sienna is, and even ends up under the impression that her name is Sarah.  But having someone interested in for her for reasons other than her fame is one of the things that makes Jethro attractive to Sienna.  The mistaken identity thing does get sorted out fairly quickly, but it also puts a wedge between them, as does the morass of people surrounding them and thinking their relationship is/would be a bad idea--mostly on Sienna's side.

They of course have chemistry, Reid's couples always do, and I appreciated a character with Sienna's background--she's Latina and a female comedian and plus-sized to boot, and while she appreciates that she's blazing a trail, she also just kind of wants to be left alone, as her life is running her ragged.  She's an atypical heroine, and that was nice to see.  But I honestly just didn't find her and Jethro to be that interesting.  I think too much about Jethro was already hammered out in other books, whether it be Truth or Beard or Beauty and the Mustache, and so there wasn't a ton of interesting stuff left to learn about him.  Sure, we found out he likes to do woodworking, but that was pretty much it.  His lasting guilt and Dark Past had already been established and we'd already seen his path to redemption, so that didn't really add anything to this story.  Sienna brought light and sparkle, but there wasn't a lot else going on and that meant she had a lot of lifting to do essentially on her own, and I'm not convinced she entirely pulled it off.

For me, this was a book to conquer to get on to another one, but I still had hopes for it.  Unfortunately, it also felt like a book that had to be gotten through in order to move on to bigger and better things.  Did I like it?  Yeah.  But it's not one I'd be going back to, and I think I can breathe easy knowing Jethro will now be relegated to side-character status once again.

3 stars out of 5.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Ash and Quill - Rachel Caine (The Great Library #3)

Ash and Quill (The Great Library #3)
No one with a book is ever alone, even in the darkest moments.

Oh dear.  Oh dear oh dear oh dear.  You know that point where a series starts to go downhill?  A series that you absolutely love?  That you want to succeed more than anything in the world?  I think this might be that point in this series.  Here's the thing.  Ink and Bone was amazing.  Paper and Fire was great.  But Ash and Quill?  It was...good.  And that's all.

This picks up right where the second book left off, with Jess and his band of misfits appearing in Philadelphia, the main Burner stronghold in the American Colonies, after fleeing the Library in Europe.  This change of setting had great promise, but unfortunately the book didn't really deliver.  Jess and his friends spend probably half the book imprisoned in Philadelphia, plotting their escape, and the other half of the book fleeing Philadelphia and trapped in a second location, which they also must plot to escape.  Their plan to fight against the Great Library does not really go anywhere.  Thomas and Jess build not one, but two printing presses.  They build a weapon.  They survive Greek fire attacks on Philadelphia by the High Garda.  There's a sense of pieces moving in the larger world beyond the characters, such as the revolt of several countries, but the main characters don't actually accomplish much, and that leaves this book feeling very much like filler--a third book suffering from second book syndrome, if you will.

The sense of world here is still wonderful, but our characters, with one exception, seem to have stagnated.  Jess and most of his band have failed to evolve in the face of their new circumstances.  They are not allied with the Library or the Burners, but want a middle path, and so find themselves surrounded by enemies.  But Morgan, Jess' love interest and the one possessing magical powers in the group, is the only one who seems ready to rise and twist and change to suit the things that arise in their paths.  Additionally, while the world itself is still interesting Philadelphia is not as riveting a location as Alexandria, Rome, London, etc. have been in the series.  It's pretty much stuck in colonial times, with a few exceptions, and without many of the library technologies seen throughout the rest of the world.  It's a city under siege, but this is never really examined and the city seems to lack the depth of the other locales.  And I'm a bit concerned about the end; it seems very likely the group is going to split up and the next book will need to include multiple perspectives rather than sticking with just Jess, and that seems like it could get messy quickly.

I liked this book, but I didn't love it.  It didn't keep me turning pages or gasping for the next one at the end--a good thing, I guess, since the next one probably won't be out until around this time next year, but a bit disappointing at the same time because it just didn't have the same sparkle as the other volumes did.  The diverse cast remains a draw, but I wish they'd grow a bit more as characters instead of remaining essentially the same people we met in the first book.  Some changes came about in the second book, but in this one... None.  This one wasn't bad, but I do still hope that the next one will be better.

3 stars out of 5.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

American Lightning - Howard Blum

American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood & the Crime of the CenturyOkay, I'm going to come out and say it: this book was kind of a drag.  Especially for a book that promises to be about "Terror, Mystery, the Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century."  Ostensibly, it's about the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building, the bombings that came before and after it, the hunt for the criminals, the trial...and a guy who makes movies?  What?  Where the connection?  Well, here's the answer: there isn't one.

Now, that's not 100% true.  The private detective who worked on the bombings knew the guy who made the movies.  But still.  The movies weren't actually about the bombings, they were just about social events that occurred around the same time, and in a very vague sort of way--putting the two directly together is a very tenuous connection at best, and trying to tie it together with "But they saw each other in a hotel at the end of it!!!" doesn't really lend the connection any credence.  And with the book relying on such a tenuous connection, it was on shaky ground to start with.

Blum focuses on three main figures in this book: Billy Burns, a private inspector; Clarence Darrow, a lawyer; and D. W. Griffith, the filmmaker.  But for most of the book, only Burns is actually relevant, as he and other inspectors from his company attempt to find out who are behind the bombings that are sweeping the nation.  A startling string of domestic terrorist attacks, the bombings sprung from the ongoing battle of union workers vs. businesses, but initially no one was sure which side was actually doing the bombing.  Was it the unions, trying to get back at businesses who were against unions?  Or was it the businesses themselves, trying to frame the unions?  Meanwhile, Blum intersperses chapters about Darrow and Griffith just...being themselves.  Lawyering.  Having affairs.  Making movies.  It's incredibly boring and served no purpose.  Griffith's line isn't necessary at all and certainly doesn't play into "the birth of Hollywood" as his movies were made in New York and he wasn't even the first person to film a big movie.  Darrow becomes necessary to the story, but not until the very end, and even then it seems like Blum greatly inflated his role in the story, especially given the way the investigation and trial ended.

The writing is bland and it's hard to determine what's actually pulled from research and what's conjecture, especially in the realm of conversations that occurred.  There always seemed like suddenly there was going to be a turning point, a new sight of depths...but then that point never actually developed.  There were some interesting parts, mainly when Blum actually focused on the investigations, but for the most part this was a very "meh" book.  For a good read about an investigation surrounding a crime closely linked to social issues, I would recommend American Fire or Killers of the Flower Moon--the first is set in the 2010s, the second in the 1920s.  They are both excellent and far outshone this one.

2 stars out of 5.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Slightly Scandalous - Mary Balogh (Bedwyn Saga #3)

Slightly Scandalous (Bedwyn Saga, #3)I'm starting to think that Mary Balogh isn't for me, or at least this series isn't.  Someone sang its praises to me, particularly about Wulfric's book--and so I've been soldiering ahead in hopes that the series would get better than the first two books, which were just bland.  Well, this one wasn't bland.  It was annoying.

The plot here revolves around Freyja "Free" Bedwyn, the older of the two Bedwyn sisters, who goes to Bath with a friend and her mother in order to avoid the birth of the child of Freyja's former love who married someone else, Kit.  (Wow, what a sentence.)  While there, she runs into a man who burst into her room on the road, Joshua, who is trying to avoid becoming betrothed to his cousin (who is also eager to avoid a betrothal) at the whim of his aunt, who is eager to avoid being ousted from Joshua's house, even though Joshua has no intentions to throw her out, or even return.  So Freyja agrees to pretend to be betrothed to him instead.

The problem here is that there wasn't an un-irritating character among the main cast here.  Freyja is petty and refuses to acknowledge her feelings.  Not acknowledging feelings is par for the course with romance novels, but Free does it out of some sense of emotional self-flagellation or something which irked me more than denial of emotions normally does.  Meanwhile, Joshua acts like he's incapable of taking anything seriously, even when he clearly does, which was annoying in its own way.  At one point, Free accuses Joshua of wearing a mask with nothing underneath it--and honestly, that seemed to be the truth for both of the main characters here.  Meanwhile, Joshua's aunt couldn't seem to manage being outright devious, and so she was just annoying as well.  While the other Bedwyns lent a variety of color here, as usual, they weren't enough to salvage a bunch of annoying main characters and a subplot that even Balogh admits ends in an anticlimax.

Here's the thing: ultimately, there are only two books in this series I really want to read, and those are Morgan and Wulfric's.  I already have Morgan's book out from the library, but there's another volume--Alleyne's--between hers and Wulfric's, so I guess we'll see how Morgan's goes before I decide if I should just skip the fifth book or not.

2 stars out of 5.

Motorcycle Man - Kristen Ashley (Dream Man #4)

Motorcycle Man (Dream Man, #4)So, for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' 2017 Reading Challenge (more info here) one of the categories was a motorcycle or MC (motorcycle club) romance.  This is definitely not my category.  I pulled up one of Kristen Ashley's other books and started it, but that didn't work for me.  However, Motorcycle Man and its predecessors in the "Dream Man" series were on the list of top romance novels (voted by readers) that NPR compiled, so I figured it was probably a good bet for this category.  And then it turned out that this actually precedes the other Ashley book I had tried to read, so that worked out as well.

So, here's the thing.  This is a book that I liked and hated in equal parts.  This is entirely because of the genre of book: the motorcycle romance itself.  There's this weird thing with these in that they absolutely worship abuse relationships and misogyny in a way that few other genres seem to do.  The hero here, who goes by the nickname of Tack, blatantly tells heroine Tyra that her opinion doesn't matter, that if she wants to leave he's just going to force her to come back, that if he sexually harasses her no one will believe her, so she'd better just put up with it.  I mean...what?  Whatwhatwhat?

But Ashley must be a good writer, because despite her hero being a downright scary guy (backing your "woman" up against the wall by her throat against her express wishes is not okay and I don't care what your motivation for it is) she also manages to make him incredibly sweet, and those sweet moments made me really want to like Tack.  I couldn't bring myself to fully commit, because there are just so many issues with the relationship dynamic here, but I wanted to like him.  And this expression of his sweet side made me hopeful that, maybe in some of Ashley's other books where bikers aren't the center of the story, the romance can be a little more, oh, I dunno, wholesome.  Not that I mean it can't be hot; there's a lot of sex in this one (again, half good and half scary) and I anticipate a lot of sex in the other ones, too.

As for the plot of this book, it's mostly romance with a Russian mob subplot thrown in, which seemed a bit odd and was clearly meant to tie up things that were established in the first three books of the series (which I haven't read; you didn't need to, I feel, but it might have helped) and to bring in already-established couples.  While I didn't feel that the subplot was too crazy, it did mean there was a very weird dynamic shift about 80% of the way through the book.  With the first 80% being from Tyra's first person perspective, the remainder of the book spends its time jumping between various other people in third person perspectives.  It's very strange and felt very different from the rest of the book, and I didn't feel like it really fit.

Overall, I'm not sure what to feel about this book.  I liked it, but the thing is, I really can't feel like I can endorse the toxic relationship portrayed within; it felt like Tyra really gave up a lot of herself in order to fit in to Tack's world, and I hate it when that happens, particularly in contemporary romances--it's more understandable in historicals, I think.  With all that in mind...

2 stars out of 5, but with high hopes for some of Ashley's other books.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Wait For It - Mariana Zapata

Wait for ItMariana Zapata might just be the queen of the slow-burn romance, that part of the romance genre where characters go from hate to uneasy truce to friends to lovers, the last usually occurring in approximately the last ten pages of the book, at least in Zapata's works.  I really enjoyed several of her other romances, Kulti and The Wall of Winnipeg and Me being the best, so I was excited to finally get around to this one.

Ultimately, though, I don't think this is one of her best.  Wait for It follows a minor character from The Wall of Winnipeg and Me, Diana, who was the best friend of that book's heroine.  She's also the cousin of the heroine of Kulti.  And her love interest, Dallas, is related to a member of the motorcycle club featured in Under Locke, another Zapata novel.  Consequently, this book very much felt like it was mainly supposed to be fan service for readers who wanted cameos of the characters from those books, rather than a romance in and of itself.  I read lots of interconnected romance books, which don't usually feel like this, and I think I can ultimately pin down why this one felt superfluous to one thing: Dallas and Diana don't have the same intense chemistry as the couples in other books.

All of Zapata's books are slow burns, but this one is slower than most, to the point that you have to squint to see the sparks starting to ignite, let alone fly.  Diana's life revolves around taking care of her two nephews, of whom she has custody following her brother's death two years prior to the start of the book.  Consequently, she doesn't have a lot of room for a relationship.  And Dallas, who lives across the street, is going through a divorce, and neither character wants to get involved when one party is still married, so that puts a real damper on things, too.  They don't get along at first, because Dallas thinks Diana is hitting on him, but when it's established she's not, they manage to be friends.  For like 80% of the book.  The build from friends to lovers here didn't feel slow so much as nonexistent, and there's not a lot else going on in the background, either.  It doesn't feel so much like a slow burn as a slow story, and they definitely do not have the same appeal.

Overall, yeah, I'm disappointed.  This just doesn't compare to her other books and was just kind of "blah" overall, seeming mainly to give little glimpses at characters from other books instead of carrying its own weight.  I felt like I never got the "it" that I was apparently supposed to be waiting for!

2 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Empress of a Thousand Skies - Rhoda Belleza (Empress of a Thousand Skies #1)

Empress of a Thousand Skies (Empress of a Thousand Skies, #1)Empress of a Thousand Skies belongs to that genre which is recently coming to popularity in the young adult fiction world: the space opera.  Other examples: These Broken Stars and Starflight.  All of these tend to be lifestyles of the rich and famous meets the poor and suppressed and the world is changed--in space!  In this case, the two main characters are Rhiannon, the heir apparent to a galactic empire who is due to be crowned any day, and Alyosha, a young man in the military and the star of a reality TV show along with his co-pilot.  Rhee lost her entire family when their ship exploded when she was younger; she survived because she'd sneaked off to get a lucky token.  Aly lost his family and home in the war that destroyed his home planet.  After Rhee escapes an assassination attempt, she finds herself on the run--and Aly finds himself framed for the attempt on her life, putting him on the run, as well.

I kept expecting the stories of these two characters to merge into one, but they never did.  Each of them is keenly aware of the other's predicament--Rhee knows that Aly isn't the one who tried to kill her, and Aly knows that Rhee is actually alive--but even when they cross paths, they never actually meet and become a pair, taking separate routes on their respective exiles.  I thought the plot itself, including both the big "twists," was pretty transparent, but the characters and their paths through the universe were interesting.  Belleza includes a variety of species and I don't think any of the main characters are actually what we would consider "white," which was cool.  Aly definitely isn't, and Rhee, though human, might possibly be of Native American descent, given that her dynasty is called the Ta'an, but I'm not 100% sure on that one.  Rhee herself has a strong sense of duty, but it's overlaid by a deep desire for revenge against the man who assassinated her family.  Consequently, she doesn't always make the most logical decisions, and this is compounded by the fact that she's only fifteen for much of the book--not exactly a prime decision-making age, even if you've been raised to be empress.  This isn't always the most flattering characterization, but it seemed likely to me.

Aly, on the other hand, just wants to be liked.  His race is blamed for the war that tore apart much of the galaxy, and he sees his role on the Revolutionary Boys show as a way to be a sort of ambassador to the other races of the galaxy, even though he actually hates being on the show itself.  What he wants more than anything is to clear his name and show people that the Wraetans aren't all bad.  His life is understandably thrown into chaos when Rhee's supposed assassination is blamed on him, and he's desperate to prove himself innocent--but he's not willing to do so at any cost.  He also has a keen sense of what's going on in the universe around him, as terrible as it might be, even when he doesn't want to believe it, and tries to navigate his new circumstances accordingly.

Lurking behind all this is a narrative about the potential horrors of everyone being connected all the time, about the grips of reality TV on our lives (Hunger Games, anyone?), and about finding your place in the universe.  The plot itself isn't revolutionary, it's true, but I think the characters, the galaxy, and the themes are strong enough to support the weaker plot here.  Am I chomping at the bit to read the next one?  No, which is good, because it's not out until 2018.  But I am looking forward to it when it eventually becomes available.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Days of Blood & Starlight - Laini Taylor (Daughter of Smoke & Bone #2)

12812550I was so excited to read this sequel to Daughter of Smoke and Bone after devouring that first book.  Taylor had built up such a wonderous world and conflict, and I loved the reincarnation premise that the romance revolved around.  It was all right up my alley.  But with so much deliciousness in the first book, I was apprehensive that the second volume would fall victim to the dreaded "second book syndrome."  Did it?

Well...kind of.  This is a book in which not a heck of a lot actually happens, at least on one half the book.  Karou has found a place for the surviving chimera to live, a kasbah in Morocco, and has taken up Brimstone's mantel as a resurrectionist in hopes of reviving her shattered people.  On the other side, Akiva has returned to Eretz and the other seraphim, convinced that Karou is dead after finding a thurible with her name on it in his search for her.  Meanwhile, Karou's friend Zuzana and her boyfriend Mik are in search of Karou themselves, following what they think is a string of clues Karou left in a single email she sent letting them know she was still alive.

There's not a lot of forward motion in this book.  Karou never really leaves the kasbah, and Akiva spends a lot of time pining and talking about revolution before he decides to actually do anything.  The thing is, that didn't seem to actually matter in this book.  Taylor's writing remains so lush and riveting that even though the forward motion was minimal, I kept reading because I wanted to know more about these characters.  And their inner struggles also progressed here; for Karou, she wants to help bring her people back and turn the tide against the seraphim, but becomes increasingly aware of the price that might bear.  For Akiva, it's pretty much the same thing--and so, once again, Karou and Akiva are facing exile from their peoples.  It's a tale as old as time, Romeo and Juliet on steroids, except...well, Karou gets into that "except" herself.  And while this book was a bit slow in overall pace, it was still evenly paced, unlike the first book which had a good first two-thirds and then a lopsided and slow final third.  I was glad to see that more even pacing throughout, and felt that, even though this wasn't a "fast" book, it didn't fall prey to the typical symptoms of second book syndrome.  Of course, everything is still ultimately set up for the third book, which is the fate of all second books in trilogies, and at the end everything has truly gone to hell in a handbasket--but that's for the next installment to deal with.

Overall, absolutely lovely still.  Not quite as vibrant as the first, but with better pacing and still a very solid story, and with a great setup for the third book.

4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Dreams of Gods & Monsters - Laini Taylor (Daughter of Smoke & Bone #3)

Dreams of Gods & Monsters (Daughter of Smoke & Bone, #3)I was so excited to dive in to the last book of this trilogy, but also apprehensive, because the second book was not as magical as the first, and I was concerned about the third following in that path.  And there's the rub: I was right to be apprehensive.

With seraphim invading the human world, our heroine Karou and hero Akiva find themselves trying to force the remaining Misbegotten seraphim and a paltry bunch of chimaera to get along long enough to save both Earth and Eretz.  But here's the thing...Taylor can't seem to be satisfied with that as a plot.  Instead, she starts throwing in new ones, like a looming cataclysm and a backstory that hasn't been mentioned until now and worlds-threatening monsters that don't ever actually end up getting resolved.  And while some of this is cushioned by another burgeoning romance between Liraz and Ziri (THANK GOD, because I couldn't put up with any more of his pining) and of course Karou and Akiva trying to come together once again, it just felt like too much, especially because the story didn't really just end, it just kind of trailed off.

I'm not really sure there's that much more to say about this.  There were some excellent moments in here--the confrontation in the Vatican comes to mind, Eliza's return to her true self, Mik and Zuze and the stormhunters as well--but overall I'm not sure they could really redeem a book that felt kind of scattered.  It definitely didn't have the magic of the first book, the snap and sizzle and all of the tropes made over and new again; instead, it felt much more like a generic fantasy story, and one that didn't come to a soaring or even a crashing conclusion, but instead just sort of petered out.  While Karou and Akiva were wonderful and even Liraz got some redemption (but what the heck was up with Haxaya?  Something else that was never explained) there were just too many holes and dropped strings here to make me really like it as a book.  Ultimately, the first book was the best of this series, and it was a bit of a downhill slide from there.  I'm interested in Taylor's more recent book, but this series ultimately didn't deliver what I had really hoped it would.  It read a lot like the upwards-of-a-million-word-long RP a friend and I have had going off and on for years--and while it might be fun to write your own melodrama and jump from plot to plot and have things dropped, there's the potential of it all coming back together again later.  I kept hoping things would come together here, but they never did, and that was a disappointment.

2 stars out of 5.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Queen of Attolia - Megan Whalen Turner (The Queen's Thief #2)

The Queen of Attolia (The Queen's Thief, #2)This is the second book in Megan Whalen Turner's The Queen's Thief series, aka the series of sequels to The Thief that I didn't know existed until very recently.  It seems to take place not too long after the thief, and spans a couple of years, but the feel is very different from the original book.

First, this book switches to a third-person point of view, instead of the first-person one used in The Thief.  The new point of view is necessary so that the plot can feature periods focused on the titular Queen of Attolia, the Queen of Eddis, and sometimes a few other characters when they're not in the direct presence of Eugenides.  This has the side-effect of not everything being from Eugenides smug perspective; one my least favorite parts of The Thief was how bratty Gen was and how much I wanted to smack him across the face because of it.  That's also greatly lessened here because the book starts with some events that give Gen a serious case of PTSD for the duration of the book, though of course the characters don't know what PTSD is.

The other way in which the book is vastly different from the first is the theme.  The first book, while it involved political wheeling and dealing and deceptions, but it was first and foremost and adventure story.  That's not the case here.  This is definitely a political story rather than an adventure one.  There are still adventurous parts carried out by Gen, but they mostly take a back seat and definitely aren't described in the same level of detail as his theft of Hamiathes' Gift in the first book.  Instead, the focus is on the brewing three-way or even possibly four-way war on the continent int he story, and how the Queen of Attolia is getting her country further and further entangled while trying to keep her head above the water.  While this is interesting, combined with the more violent content it means that this is aimed at a decidedly older audience than The Thief was.  It's a strange disconnect and I think it could be very off-putting to someone expecting something similar to the first book in coming to this second one.

I think those two big differences were either beneficial to (the first) or neutral to (the second) the overall "worth" of the book.  However, there was one thing about the book that I didn't like.  Ultimately, what's at the heart of the book is supposed to be a love story.  However, I didn't buy this for one second.  It's no more a romance than Love In A Time of Cholera is a romance.  It's more a story of obsession than one of love and feelings, and it leads to a very strange-feeling ending.  There's an attempt to back-fill the gaps here by saying it's been going on for longer than this book, but it's not a very convincing one, not in the least because it still only fills in one side of the story.  And then there's another attempt at, "I didn't know I loved you until..."  But there's really no reason or opportunity for these two characters to fall in love, particularly after what they've done to each other.  Ultimately, this felt like an attempt to add another dimension to appear to older audiences, but I don't think there was enough of a foundation there to build this aspect on.

Overall, I liked this book, and it seems like the third book is going to narrow back down from this large, three-kingdom scope to a narrower one again, focusing more singularly on Eugenides.  I'm looking forward to reading it--so this book kind of feels just like a stepping stone to that one.  But still decent!

3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Because of Low - Abbi Glines (Sea Breeze #2)

Because of Low (Sea Breeze, #2)OMG, what a cheesy cover.  XD  The expression that guy's face just makes me want to cackle with laughter.  Okay, moving on now.

Because of Low was my pick for the "A college romance" category of the Unapologetic Romance Readers 2017 Reading Challenge.  It's the second in the Sea Breeze series, and the main character, Marcus Hardy, was apparently a side character in the first book.  However, you definitely don't need to have read that first book in order to read this one.  While the couple from the first book appear here, there's nothing you can't really intuit about what happened.  The plot of this one is about Marcus and Willow, aka Low.  Marcus has moved back to Sea Breeze from Tuscaloosa to deal with family troubles, mainly that his father has been having an affair with devastating effects on Marcus' mother and sister.  He moves in with the friend of a friend, Cage, who happens to be the best friend of Willow, who basically lives with Cage, even sleeping in his bed, because she doesn't have a home of her own since her sister kicked her out.  Cage swears he's going to marry Willow, even though there's no romantic relationship between them, and Marcus is immediately attracted to her as well.

The "big reveal" of this book isn't really as such, because its' pretty apparent from the beginning what's going on, and when you factor in that the very first page of the book has Marcus saying he has to choose between his family and Willow...well, there's only one reason for that, now isn't there?  But overall, this was a light and cute romance.  The timeline seems a little funky, sometimes seeming like it's taking place over a few days and sometimes over the course of weeks.  Additionally, while both the characters are in college and are taking classes (Willow at a community college, Marcus online) there's not really a "college" vibe here, but I guess it technically counts.  However, I honestly found Willow and Marcus to be very bland characters.  You can see the protagonists of future books lining up on the sidelines here, and honestly I feel like they had more potential than these main characters.  While Marucs and Willow are both very good people who care for each other, their friends, their families...they kind of have the type of lives you'd want to live (family drama excepted, but that's not them, that's their families) not the ones you really want to read about.

So, yeah. This was good, and light, and fast; a decent summer read, even though it doesn't take place in summer.  But it wasn't anything electric or riveting.  I might check out the other books in the series since I do think this was a character thing rather than something to do with the writing or plotting, but they won't be immediately at the top of my priority list.

3 stars out of 5.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Hundredth Queen - Emily R. King (The Hundredth Queen #1)

The Hundredth Queen (The Hundredth Queen, #1)The Hundredth Queen was one of the options for Kindle First a few months ago, a program where Amazon Prime members can get a free copy of a book each month.  Fantasy books are pretty rare in the First selections, so I jumped at the chance to get this one.  Plus, just look at that cover--so gorgeous.  And the premise, about a young woman torn from her convent home in order to become the hundredth wife of the rajah of her country, and who hides a secret power, was just too good to pass up.

The thing is, the book doesn't really deliver on its premise.  Our main character, Kalinda, doesn't learn about her abilities until relatively late in the book, though clearly the reader is clued in much earlier than that.  Additionally, the idea that Kalinda is going to have to fight for her throne and her place among the rajah's other ninety-nine wives and his many courtesans isn't really played out in the way that seems promised, either.  And finally, I wasn't convinced about the world building.  We learn partway through the book that many of the things we think are true are not, and have actually only come to be the way they are in the past two decades because of actions of the rajah.  I can totally buy Kalinda not knowing this--she was raised in a very secluded place, taught certain things by a select group of people who were forced into that way by benefactors who would have otherwise withdrawn their support.  However.  The entire country seems to have suddenly forgotten the way things used to be, and don't even whisper about it.  The only group of people who seem to remember are blatant rebels.  There are apparently only two camps here: totally fine with things or in outright rebellion, which seems quite unlikely to me.

But there were things I liked about this.  I found the culture interesting; the religion is apparently loosely based on that of ancient Sumeria, and I found the concept of the wives, the rank tournaments, all of that so intriguing.  A fantasy that's not based around a traditional medieval European setting, while becoming more common, is still very refreshing to me.  Additionally, there (presumably) aren't any white characters in this!  Yay for diversity!  And finally, even though the premise of the book revolves around women fighting each other for their places at the whims of men, there are still strong female friendships here.  Kalinda has a best friend present throughout the book, and even though a few rivals emerge once she's in the palace, other women present themselves as friendly and some who are are initially enemies ultimately come to her side.  It was so nice to not see women constantly clawing each others' hair out over a guy...even if there was a snake in Kalinda's bed at one point.  Ah, well, I guess you can't win them all.

Overall, I think this had an interesting premise, but King got too invested in a side romance than in what could have been Kalinda's growth and fight for her place in an unfamiliar world.  The writing is okay, but there are gaps in the world that shouldn't have been there and overall this just wasn't as robust as it could have been.  Not sure I'm intrigued enough to read the others in the series.

2 stars out of 5.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Crazy Rich Asians - Kevin Kwan (Crazy Rich Asians #1)

Crazy Rich AsiansMy first impression after finishing this book is that there should be a comma in the title.  Or maybe not.  Indeed, these Asians are crazy rich, with crazy being used as an adverb modifying "rich" to show the degree of their wealth.  But they're also crazy as in crazy, meddling and pushing and driving people away.  Wow.

This book is the story of several intertwined Singapore Chinese families and one normal Americanized Chinese girl who inadvertently stumbles into the middle of them.  Rachel Chu is thrilled when her boyfriend Nick invites her to go to Asia for the summer--apprehensive, because she's never met his family before, but also excited, because she suspects this might be leading up to a proposal.  But what she didn't expect was that everyone knew who she was before she even arrived, and they're ready to drive her out in order to preserve Nick for someone they consider one of their own.  Rachel has few friends in Singapore, and though she tries to maintain firm, the forces against her sometimes seem insurmountable.

This was a very good book.  It is, at its core, a family drama, but it's funny.  It's kind of like Gossip Girl or something similar, but the characters are adults instead of teenagers.  The drama is over the top, yes, and is in no way supposed to be representative of all Chinese society or Singaporean society or Asian society in general.  But even when the characters are at their most back-stabbing and undermining, the drama still manages to be amusing, mainly because everything is so over the top.  For a while, I was concerned that Kwan was really going to bring down the book with a realistic-but-unhappy ending; fortunately, that wasn't the case.  Everything else was so crazy here, it didn't make sense to have a downer ending that suddenly fit the facts, so I'm glad that Kwan went the way he did.  The writing is extremely readable, and there are lots of terms that are thrown in and foot-noted so that you know what they are.  There's educational aspects about food, drink, and customs among the insanely rich in Singapore.  Rachel, meanwhile, serves as our bridge character--the one who helps bring us into this ridiculous world while maintaining a sense of stability and normalcy.  A character like this was definitely needed, or else all of the crazy might have just been too much.

It does verge on being too much at some points, and I had some doubts about some of the characters, like Araminta, so I'm not sure all of their intentions were clearly marked in the end.  Close to the end, there's also a giant infodump to clear up a little plot involving Rachel's background and Nick's family's attempts to get rid of here.  That really dragged down the pacing at a point that really needed it the least, the climax--the last thing you want to do at the climax of your story is dump in a bunch of background information that disrupts the flow, and that's exactly what happened here.  Still, considering this was a debut novel, it was remarkably good!  Such a funny story and family drama, with good central characters who help anchor all of the crazy ones and lend a sense of "down to earth" that was really needed to balance the plot.  I am definitely looking forward to reading more from Kevin Kwan!

4 stars out of 5.

Good Morning, Midnight - Lily Brooks-Dalton

Good Morning, MidnightWow, what a lovely book!  With both a cover and a plot evocative of the equally-lovely Station Eleven from a few years ago, Good Morning, Midnight looks at a few individuals left alive, for various reasons, after the mysterious end of human civilization in the rest of the world.  In fact, the writing styles and feel are so similar that it's easy to imagine that this book takes place in the same world as Station Eleven, just in different physical locations on it.

There are two halves to this book that are told in alternating chapters.  First, astronomer Augie has been left alone--or almost alone--at an observatory in the Arctic Circle after he refused to evacuate with the rest of the staff.  He planned to live out his last days in solitude, until he discovers a young girl, maybe nine or ten years old, named Iris and who appears to have been forgotten during the evacuation.  Augie and Iris try to make a life in the observatory in the silence that the rest of the world has left behind.  Meanwhile, Sully is a communications specialist aboard the Aether, a ship completing the first manned mission to Jupiter and its moons and which is now on its way back to Earth--but they know something is wrong, because Earth has gone silent.  Told over the course of a year, the book is very much a tale of people searching for purpose when the lives that they have known are suddenly, completely, and irrevocably changed.

There are no zombies to fight here, no nuclear hazard zones, no diseases to outrun.  The apocalypse, whatever it was, happened and then was done.  We don't know what caused it.  We just know that something happened, and now the world is silent.  Augie appears to be the last man on Earth, though it's hard to imagine he actually is; certainly other isolated spots would have survived, like maybe in the Antarctic research stations, out in Siberia, high in the mountains--something.  Maybe Augie is just the last man on earth who knows how to use a ham radio.  The writing is simple and beautiful, relying on two extraordinary settings to showcase a story of survival and belonging.  There's some funny business going on in the background that I started to suss out fairly early, but I wasn't quite on track with exactly what it was until close the end, which was nice.  There is a very ambiguous ending--it clears up one part, which is the part that I'd been poking about, but what ultimately happens to some of the characters is left up to the reader to decide, something that I think probably has to be done in a book of this nature and with this particular plot.

It's not a long book, but it was an absolute joy to read.  The characters have depth and dimension and are so perfectly suited for their roles; the settings are evoked with beautiful prose; and the whole thing has such a lovely feel to it that I didn't want it to end.  Is some of the science squishy?  Yes, very.  But this isn't meant to be the next of kin to Andy Weir's The Martian.  It has an entirely different focus and purpose, and with that in mind is set at some point in the future where science has advanced somewhat, making a trip to Jupiter possible in a year and having Voyager I go offline, along with its successors including the fictional Voyager III.  It's not supposed to be a "hard" science book though it definitely falls into the sci-fi genre.  With that in mind, I think it can be forgiven for its squishy science, because the rest of the book more than makes up for that.

I absolutely loved this, and after a string of books recently that were only "okay," it was a pleasure to read.

5 stars out of 5.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Eleanor & Park - Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & ParkBut what were the three words?  That is the question plaguing me after this one.  There's an obvious guess, but with Rainbow Rowell, can we ever really know?  (She actually has an answer to this up on her FAQ but is it real or not?)

Anyway.  This is a young adult romance novel about the two titular characters, Eleanor and Park.  I don't remember either of their last names, if they were ever mentioned.  Eleanor is on the heavy side, and big in general.  She's just starting a new school after her mother retrieves her from the family friends she's been living with for the past year, ever since her abusive stepfather threw her out.  Her mother and stepfather are still together, though, and Eleanor shares a small bedroom with her five siblings, has no privacy, is bullied at school, and is generally miserable.  Park is half-Korean, an oddity in their town, and is into comic books and music.  When Eleanor sits next to him on the bus, they form a wary truce, then a strange friendship, and eventually a romance.

Both characters are sixteen, sophomores in high school, and, as the book blurb says, "smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts."  There's a sense of inevitability about their relationship because of that, and one that seems to play out at several parts of the book.  And it's kind of heartbreaking, in more than one sense.  Eleanor's home life is absolutely terrible.  Her stepfather isn't physically abusive towards her, as it's suggested he is towards her mother, but he's definitely emotionally and mentally abusive towards the whole family, has rage and alcohol issues, and generally makes life hell for Eleanor and her siblings.  Pair that with the bullying Eleanor gets at school, for being big and redheaded, and life is pretty awful for her in general.  Park is a light in her life.  And while Park genuinely does care about Eleanor, he's just not as interesting of a character.  His race isn't really an issue in the book--not that it has to be, but it would be the obviously bullying point of Rowell had chosen to go in that direction, which she didn't--his family is pretty nice in general, and his biggest worry other than Eleanor seems to be learning to drive a stick shift so that he can get his license.  Now, I don't think both main characters needed to have bad lives; that would have made for a very dark and downer book, and probably not one for the audience Rowell was aiming for.  But I just didn't care as much about Park, because I didn't need to.  He was fine, so I could focus my emotional efforts on Eleanor, and I think Park as a character suffered because of that.

I listened to this as an audiobook.  I think the narrators fit the characters pretty well, which was nice.  Eleanor's narrator is the same woman who narrated Dark Places, which was kind of a weird mental disconnect for most of the book because DP and E&P differ so much in content, but that kind of came full circle toward the end of the book.  Some of the voices they do for different characters are goofy, and I continue to lament that not all audiobooks are done with an ensemble cast for every character who speaks.  Sigh.

But yes, an enjoyable young adult romance.  I think people who like comics and the types of music that the characters listen to would like this, too, because it's kind of unusual in books.

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Couple Next Door - Shari Lapena

The Couple Next DoorAh, the "trouble woman thriller."  This seems to be a bigger genre than ever these days, and I totally blame Gone Girl.  And yes, I liked Gone Girl.  But much as Twilight (which I did not like) seemed to spawn a mess of vampire-teen-romances, so had Gone Girl spawned so many others that dream of following in its footsteps.  The Couple Next Door doesn't follow Gone Girl's plot, but it does aim for its feel and twists and such, but it doesn't really succeed.

The main characters here, Marco and Anne, leave their infant daughter alone in her crib while they attend a dinner party next door, taking their baby monitor with them and checking on the infant every half hour.  But when they return home, the baby is gone.  What follows is an investigation into the kidnapping in which suspicion immediately falls on the parents, for various reasons, and the couple's secrets start to come out a little bit at a time.

While the central story here is fine, I guess, I found the writing flat and a few characterizations that really, really bothered me.  First, those characterizations.  Within the first few pages, Anne is casting dispersions upon her neighbors, particularly the wife, because "they are childless by choice."  Clearly, this means they must be terrible, right?  Yes, the couple next door are up to some shady stuff and they're not great people...but Lapena sets all of this up by implying that not having or not wanting children somehow makes you a bad person.  What?  Since when is that true?  And then, of course, another female character has to be mentally unstable, because women who are mentally stable don't have problems, right?  Obviously.  So frustrating.  Meanwhile, the detective investigating the case is almost entirely useless, even though he is a man, because why would you ever feature a competent law officer in a book where he isn't the main character?  Sigh.

This one of the extra books I picked up from Book of the Month a while ago, in addition to my normal monthly selection, and I didn't get to it until now.  Now I see why.  Overall?  Very disappointing.

2 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Diamond Age: or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer - Neal Stephenson

The Diamond Age: or, A Young Lady's Illustrated PrimerWhat on earth did I just read?  It was a sci-fi book for sure, but beyond that...what?  Okay, okay, I'll give it to you: I'm not the world's biggest sci-fi fan.  I don't typically seek out sci-fi books.  But I've read quite a few from various places along the spectrum that I quite liked.  Unfortunately, I'm not sure I can say that The Diamond Age was one of them.  Because here's the thing: there's not really a plot in this book until the last 20% and by that time I was so uninvested in the characters and world, having been boredly trucking along for the past 400 pages, that I didn't really care about what happened to them when the plot finally emerged.

The book starts with a character called Bud, who isn't at all important, so don't worry about him.  Ultimately the people you have to worry about are Hackworth, a nanotechnology guru, and Nell, a young girl who inadvertently ends up with one of Hackworth's creations, an intelligent "book" called The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer that adjusts to her and teaches her everything from reading to self-defense.  This could be some sort of bildungsroman, featuring Nell as the character coming of age, but it was really too scattered to be that in a convincing way, and then Stephenson tried to shoehorn in a plot about Feeds and Seeds and a revolution in what we know as China that just felt strange.

Ultimately, what this book felt like was that Stephenson wanted to build a cool world, but then he didn't know what to do about it.  Why are white people suddenly grouped together in a "phyle" named for Atlantis when everyone else gets their own group based on their old ethnicity or nationality?  What's up with all the body mods?  Why on earth did those nanites or whatever they're called have to be transmitted through bodily fluids?  Clearly they didn't have to be, we certainly saw enough that weren't, and Stephenson was apparently just figuring out a way to put some orgies and spontaneous combustion into his book.  (No, I am not kidding.)  Miranda was cool, and admirable, but what the heck was up with the Drummers?  That didn't make any sense at all.  This book read like some sort of bizarre fever dream, and one that probably would have been better off left in the world of sleep.  Like a dream, there were so many parts that could have been very intriguing, but it jumped from place to place on the most tenuous connection and just ended up feeling scattered and like Stephenson just made stuff up as he went along instead of thinking how it could all ultimately be connected--and then, when he needed a way to connect it, threw in a revolution, because hey, why not?

This was the August book for The Deliberate Reader's book club, and seems to have baffled many of the readers teeing it up, including the book club founder herself.  Indeed, the book does have remarkably high reviews given how absolutely schizoid it is; apparently a lot of people found the end worth the read, but there was nothing there that surprised me or made me think that the final events redeemed the rest of the book.

1.5 to 2 stars out of 5, for its potential and the actual stories about Princess Nell in the primer.  The main book was junk.