Sunday, September 29, 2013

Happy Marriage?! Volume 1 by Maki Enjoji

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The premise of an arranged marriage between a company head and a clerk is a perfect fairytale, but Happy Marriage?! has a couple of surprising takes on the gooey-eyed girl and cold boss man. Chiwa, the blushing bride, is a typical 22-year-old. She can be flaky and silly, but also practical and determined. I enjoyed her backbone when she did what she thought was right and followed through with her ideas, even when they didn't turn out quite like she thought they would. There is definitely some gender roles that are way too old - the slob husband and the neat wife always picking up after him - but in general the hero and heroine play fewer gender games than the typical romance manga.

Chiwa's thoughtfulness gives this series more depth than expected. Her husband, Hokuto, is also more complex than the broody bad boy or tortured hero who usually lead these romantic storylines. Hokuto is all alpha, but kind and open to ideas, especially when it comes to Chiwa's naivete. He respects Chiwa's decisions, even when he disagrees and does his best not to get in her way, even as he tries to help on his own. They are totally lovely and future volumes are not to be missed!

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Saga, Volume 2 by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples

Sometimes coming into a story in progress can be a challenge. Brian K. Vaughn must be some master storyteller because I was hooked on the first page and filled in on the backstory beautifully through the six books in this volume. I felt so thoroughly caught up that I wondered what Volume 1 could possibly contain.

Saga is epic (haha). War has created a legacy of hate between two species with no end in sight. Political machinations churn beneath strange alliances. In the middle of all this, two enemies meet and find common ground in probably the awesomest way ever - a romance novel. Alana, a solider, reads while on boring guard duty and can't find anyone to share her enthusiasm for it, until she is assigned to watch Marko, a prisoner of war. The book has a not-terribly-subtle subversive message, of pacifism, an idea wholly verboten in their world. They fall in love over the book and eventually seek refuge with Marko's parents while two factions pursue them across the universe: Marko's people (headed up by his very angry ex-girlfriend) and Alana's military cronies (led by a diabolical prince).

Let's be honest here, just about no one is happy here, but the story is remarkably unflinching and real without being gritty or broody. It is at times hilarious, poignant, and thankfully unsentimental. It can also be gory, phantasmagorical, and crude. If the plot and the mood sound like a wide spectrum, the tropes also run the gamut. The impossible-to-please mother-in-law, the wiseass kid, the star-crossed lovers, the sad waif, the adorably smug pet, the scorned woman, but they don't feel like tropes. Every character is nuanced to give each depth and humanity. It's a wonder and everyone needs to experience Vaughn's virtuosity. My only caveat is that this isn't for kids. Some elements reminded me of Bleach, which is for teens because of violence, and this is a step up from that. Get kids to read Saga, by all means, but when it's appropriate.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

G.I. JOE: The Cobra Files, Volume 1 by Mike Costa and Antonio Fuso

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I grew up watching the afternoon G.I. Joe cartoons in the glorious 80s and imagining my Barbies pair much better with the Joe action figures (dolls!) than with Ken. I can't say I've been a dedicated fan since, but they claim a nostalgic spot in my heart.

The graphic novel here, which is a collection of #1-4, retains the macho patriotism I remember, but none of the humor or camaraderie. The good guys are still going strong, but there is a lot more psychological gamesmanship to the good-bad fight. It's a machiavellian world out there and the Joes reflect that. Greater good ho! I recently watched the latest Bond movie, Skyfall, and it struck me that Bond isn't really a hero. He's a dude doing a job and he's not there to prevent innocent lives being lost even if he can manage it. Collateral damage, here we come. The Joes aren't much different. Maybe this is because the bad guys seem to be much worse than I remember. Mostly they were stupid and/or incompetent. These villains are decidedly not. The evil end of the spectrum has expanded, so it seems the Joes have shifted over to maintain the status quo. A lot of food for thought in a comic book!

The art was a bit tough on my eyes. A lot of dark and ill-defined areas for a reader who likes details and realism. Did they fire the cleanup artist? Everyone looks the same! The art does mirror the mood and tension of the characters, though. Things are blurry and shadowy and definitely not smooth.

The plot is well-thought out and executed. Chameleon, a COBRA defector, is trying to prove her new loyalty to the Joes while remaining out of reach of her old cronies. COBRA is temporarily out of commission, but the faithful are far and wide. The Joes lay a trap for the wiliest bunch only to have it backfire and it's up to the backup crew (all women, curiously), including Chameleon, to salvage the mission. The Joes's existence depends on it.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Young Clementina by D. E. Stevenson

Links: Goodreads Amazon B&N Author

The Young Clementina is a beautifully written, classic story about the rightness of old-fashioned values. It was first published in 1938 and takes place from the 1910s to the early 1930s, so those values weren't so old-fashioned then. The main narrator is Charlotte Dean, a hearty English rose who loves to ride and hike about in nature. Her minister father has homeschooled her and tutored the young squire of the neighborhood manor. Charlotte and her playmate, Garth, are two halves of a coin and grow up the best of friends. They are falling in love when WWI begins and Garth leaves their idyllic village. Their implicit understanding to wait for each other goes awry when Garth returns bitter, angry, and cruel. He promptly marries Charlotte's sister and Charlotte moves to London to eke out a living as a bookstore manager. A number of unfortunate events occur that lands Charlotte in charge of the manor and her niece, the titular Clementina.

Charlotte is the quintessential stalwart British woman. She silently puts aside her pain and strives daily to do her duty. Her moments of pain and anger are bleakly solitary and comfortless. She achieves a kind of equilibrium with her life in London when the past intrudes. When Garth twists the knife, asking her to be temporary mistress of the home that should have been hers and to raise the child that could have been hers, it reopens old wounds. But Charlotte agrees, her heart belongs in the country and her niece needs a mother figure. During her tenure, Charlotte manages to right the wrongs that have haunted the home and family, from their social outcast status to recalcitrant servants to the traumatized Clem. Charlotte goes from timid spinster to doyenne of the manor. Her confidence and revitalization are wonderfully heartwarming to witness.

The story is told in multiple parts, narrated by Charlotte, who is writing to a friend she calls Clara. Clara doesn't exist and this strange set up was disconcerting for the first few chapters. Charlotte mostly writes the story as a history, which is our info dump, and as a way for her to trace the sources of the present day events (Garth's proposition) so she can decide whether to accept. I could recognize that the writing was superior in a non-modern way, but was bored to tears. However, as the history part passed and the pivotal plot got going, the book was impossible put down even as its predictability deeply irritated. The trope of the excruciatingly dutiful older (dark-haired) sister and the pretty flighty social-climbing younger (blonde) sister? Check. A suddenly cold suitor turning to the first woman in sight, the sister of the former love to really make a point? Check! The shallow wife being a horrible match for the principled, scholarly husband? CHECK. There are more, but they would be spoilers. The story is very well-constructed, well-told, and true to feeling. Charlotte's sufferings are heart-wrenching and her triumphs are equally sweet. I wouldn't say she is a compelling or exotic character, but if honor and truthfulness, even in the face of sacrifice, mean something to you, she is eminently captivating.

As as I mentioned, The Young Clementina is originally from the 1930s. I didn't find this out until I read the author's bio at the end and this knowledge put all my dislikes into context. The very formal language, long predictable scenarios, and hackneyed tropes probably weren't so back then, and for all we know, D.E. Stevenson may have introduced them to a scandalized readership. I like to think so and hope she enjoyed creating a powerfully fun story.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Mice of Bistrot des Sept Frères by Marie LeTourneau

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A charming book perfect for introducing French sounds and culinary traditions to young folk. There are a family of restauranteur mice headed by a chef dad and joined in the business by his seven sons and lone daughter. The sons staff the establishment and the various roles in running a French restaurant are described. I definitely didn't know these things as a child, but are good things to know someday. This book would pair nicely with a meal at a French restaurant or bistro.

At this bistro, the chef is famous for his cheese soup and wins a yearly award. This time, on the very day of the annual judging, catastrophe strikes. Fortunately, the family pulls together, but it is the ever cheerful daughter who brings surprises and imagination for the big moment.

Adults may recognize the daughter as the ubiquitous manic pixie dream girl persona, but it  makes sense when the girl is an actual little girl. She is completely delightful. Her personality contrasts with her brothers' and make for another solid topic for conversation.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Big Girl Panties by Stephanie Evanovich

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I'm generally skeptical of "makeover" books. They feel too simplistic in that the be all and end all is to get in shape to get the making over man. I'm not even sure how this trope came about because it is so unrealistic as to be imbecilic. So thank the stars, Stephanie Evanovich is a better writer and smarter person than that crew. Her characterization and thoroughness really took me by surprise. Most romantic fiction steers clear of ugly, if human, thoughts - the sort of nasty impulsive thoughts we all have in moments of cynicism, stress or being wronged. Holly Brennan is so remarkably real, a plain Jane who thinks the snarky thoughts but has an actual (working!) filter of politeness and decency. Is it tragic that her socially functional personality is so refreshing to encounter?

Holly provides the heart and humor of this book, but in a soft way. Big Girl Panties in general is almost a gentle comedy (albeit with a surprising lot of sexual activity). Evanovich doesn't trying to pistol whip her readers with forced or excessive wit. It's nice not to have an author impress superiority on readers with obnoxious characters and contrived relationships to advance a plot. People's actions make sense through the (nerd alert: third person omniscient) narration and creates a bond that endears them to you. Holly's transformation takes place painfully and gradually, giving hope to every woman who has despaired of turning a body or a life around. Real life changes suck on many levels and we're along for Holly's bumpy (but mercifully angst-free) ride. Things don't work out easily or perfectly and I really loved Holly for it. The girl's got agency and uses that power to make choices about her future, make over her self-esteem, and make good friends.

There are a couple romance plots running through the story and these other characters are surprisingly nuanced. I enjoyed even the unnamed regular people that the main characters interacted with. It's an achievement to make everyone pertinent, interesting, memorable. I'm definitely looking forward to more from this author.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

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Sensitive readers will want to skip this debut novel. The Panopticon isn't a horror or suspense story but the there is a constant low-level feeling of anxiety that something awful will happen and then it does. Repeatedly in various ways. Also avoid this book if drug use, mental illness, violence of all types, and profanity bother you since every page is rife with just about all of the above.

I didn't dislike this book even though it is distressing, a little unstructured, and a whole lot darker than I was expecting. That aside, it also has a brilliant emotional build-up that mirrors Anais's mindset. Her narration begins much as she is: defiant, hard, and resistant. As she adjusts to her latest group home, the titular Panopticon, full of battered unexpected angels, her scarred spirit uncurls and her voice warms. This is how the book began to engage me. When I started the book each chapter felt like reviewer purgatory and I was waiting to hit my 75-100-page "giving up" limit, but as Anais started to care, incrementally, so did I, until I was reading compulsively as long as I could. How Fagan executes this is pure virtuoso.

Anais's upbringing is a nightmare of institutional incompetence, but governments were never meant to be parents or raise sentient beings. Given the what she is a product of...or a lack thereof, her beauty as a person is a construct of her own design, much like her fashion sense. She is as feral a child can be in a modern society, but has a real, honestly developed code of honor and values, something admirable over those that are followed merely by doctrine or habit, and whose believers would no doubt judge Anais as an amoral degenerate thug.

Of course the danger of caring is vulnerability and we and Anais are not exempt from this cosmic law. Her past is tragic but what is it about what doesn't kill you making you stronger? Since she has survived, we get to experience the latest with her. In some instances that aforementioned tense vibe prepared me for something worse than what happened, or I predicted an outcome that disappointed by obliging. Still there are plenty of surprises, both pleasant and not, in the chorus of residents and staff at the Panopticon, and they are the author's greatest strength.

Jenni Fagan is a poet and the language of The Panopticon has a peculiar musicality that confounds then soothes you, a profane lullaby. The lexicon of this grim social stratus takes some interpreting, literally, and at least an American audience would benefit from a glossary.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Caged Warrior by Lindsey Piper

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I read this concurrently with Avery. Given the similarities in violence and depravity and my general unlikelihood of reading such themes, it is a strange coincidence. While it might have been tempting or even involuntary to contrast them, each book stood quite independent and enjoyable in its own right.

While the gladiator-like violence and harsh slave culture won't be for every reader, Lindsey Piper creates something beautiful in the midst of darkness. She renders relationships and characters organically - the changes are slow, real, understandable. While the action propels the characters toward a goal, it's really about Nynn and Leto.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Deepest Night by Shana Abe

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I read The Sweetest Dark in order to read this book, which was helpful factually but not emotionally. I despised a primary character in the TSD and if I hadn't known that person, this book would have been even more enjoyable. Even forgetting the tinge from TSD, I found TDN's plot a bit hard to follow. It's an epic adventure compressed in too short a time frame, I think. A sprawling tome wouldn't have been too much in this case. Despite the rushed quest, TDN's strength is in the more complex feelings Lora develops as she comes more strongly into her powers. Without the distraction of novelty, she seems to consider more aspects of a given situation than she did in TSD. She is also more in control of her actions, although there is still an overarching lack of choice since something from Book One is still dictating from afar. Lora was a great character in the first book with lots of spirit and smarts, and Abe builds ably on that strong foundation. She gains more dimension and depth, as does Armand, Lora's ally, who is well-fleshed out in an appealing, realistic way. The other relationships established in the first book also take on nuance, mostly through Lora's wiser perspective. Her main female friendship particularly tickled me with its bite and sweetness.

It saddens me that I kept thinking that the two books of this set could have been something brilliant without said hated character. Lora is her weakest and most passive with that person as her actions (without that noxious influence) in this book attest. She truly comes into her own here in a way that wasn't fully hers in TSD. She bears the triumphs and the burdens of her choices and they make your heart ache in that involuntary way with characters who earn your affection. So while the plot isn't perfect, the characters make this well worth a read...just skip TSD. You'll never miss it.

The Sweetest Dark by Shana Abe

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Given the number of YA books I've read this year, it's takes a lot to stand out from the paranormal/love triangle/angsty crowd. TSD has the distinction of its setting - WWI England - that gives the formula a little more interest. Unfortunately, Abe doesn't really do much with it other than the faintly Victorian attitudes about social interaction and the uneven availability of electricity. Otherwise, the characters and plot follow the trend of a plucky heroine, Lora, whose latent powers are summoned through the tug-of-war between two beautiful boys, one blond and one brunet. As any YA reader worth her salt knows, the guy with the opposite hair color as the girl will prevail.

Predictable is forgivable. YA is a guilty pleasure for me so I'm not looking for surprises. Still, would it kill an author to write a thoughtful, plucky girl? Is that oxymoronic? Teens are emotional, okay, but something between the ears can help make actual sense of the drama once in a while. I would like to see a girl function with a normal amount of faculties without merely being tossed from one emotional, impulsive wave to the next. Usually by a questionable male, no less. SMFeministH.

My other problem, and with this book in particular, is Lora's total lack of agency. From the moment of her birth, her destiny has been written. Okay, it's a magical world, such shit happens. But it's Jesse who sets the immediate action in motion via WORLD WAR. That's sick, fiction license or not. Lora is briefly aghast at the means by which he has called her, but if she has any kind of soul, I see years of psychotherapy in her future. That's a horrible burden to leave her with. Although Jesse is meant to be a benevolent character, the level of manipulation and the imbalance of power/information triggered low-level nausea whenever he appeared, which is most of the time. In the book he's 17, but in my mind his character felt like a much older and inappropriate age for Lora.

Despite these abysmal and all-too-common flaws, Abe does create a decent plot and smooth reading. I pretty much read it in one sitting. Lora is an orphan who begins at an exclusive school as a scholarship student. She uses her street smarts, sharp tongue, and stiff spine to fight off undermining fellow students. Lora is a lovely mix of humble and proud, gracefully handling those that believe someone of her status doesn't deserve dignity. Other than her semi-idiotic trust of Jesse, she is an exceptional girl-woman character. The other female characters were all well-constructed and unique. Maybe Abe is awkward writing men. I also didn't quite buy the world Abe built, but that just may be a personal bias - twists on old mythology are harder to swallow than the paranormal worlds of late. I have a few of her adult books set in the same world that I'm about to begin reading, so I reserve judgment there.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Dance of the Red Death by Bethany Griffin

Synopsis: Goodreads Amazon B&N

Dance of the Red Death is the conclusion to Masque of the Red Death, which re-imagined Edgar Allan Poe's story of the same name. At the end of Dance, I looked up when to expect the next book and was surprised to see that this is it. The story does reach an endpoint of a kind, but I was definitely left wondering how at least three important characters' fates were going to be resolved. 

This is not one of those books that can be read without reading the first one. Dance picks up immediately after Masque. Do not even check out excerpts. I started Dance without reading Masque as it was an ARC and I wanted to review close to its publication date. The first line totally reels you in, but there is too much backstory and entanglements in Masque to try to proceed without it. This turned out to be no chore at all and is an excellent investment of your time if gothic angst and adventurous comings-of-age are your thing.

I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined) by Chuck Klosterman

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Chuck Klosterman writes for The New York Times as "The Ethicist" and is an all-around pop culture guru. Given these two facts about him, it's no surprise that Black Hat is thoughtful, irreverent, and a little subversive. The book is a series of essays dissecting the magnetism of villains. His running mantra is that the villain is almost always the person who "knows the most and cares the least." It's a sticky and pithy phrase that the book tries to prove by examining an assortment of famous and marginally-famous people who are revered by some as villain-hero. On some levels, Klosterman really hits his marks. His self-analysis of his semi-irrational hatred of Rick Helling makes himself the villain, but also the most likeable reflection of him in Black Hat. His strongest arguments for the paradox of villain-worship draw parallels of ideas we are repulsed by, like the 9/11 hijackers, with situations that we can admire on some level, like D. B. Cooper's strange coup. Overall, Klosterman gives his readers some ideas to chew on, certainly on the complications of embracing the evil, which very well might be within. His ideas that appeal to the universal in human nature strike the right notes, but the latter essays veer a bit off the path he meticulously set out in the beginning. At the very least, that phrase is something that will probably pop into my mind whenever I consider the bad guy.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Avery by Charlotte McConaghy

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Avery is about what love hath wrought, for good and ill. The people of Kaya are love-matched in pairs and when one soulmate dies, the other also does. Ava, a young woman, loses her mate, Avery, but somehow eludes death. Feared and rejected by her people as a freak, she devotes herself to avenging Avery's murder by the bloodthirsty Queen of Pirenti. Kaya and Pirenti have been at war for years with no end in sight. The Pirentis are a warrior people in a harsh, hateful society and the Kayans are in every way opposite to them. When Ava is captured by a Pirenti prince, she is sentenced to a island gulag known for its prisoners' drastically shortened life expectancies. En route, the ship sinks and Ava and one of her captors, Ambrose, wash up on the island. Annnnnd cue the boy hates girl, girl hates boy storyline.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Masque of the Red Death by Bethany Griffin

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Edgar Allan Poe would be pleased by Bethany Griffin's wonderfully gothic riff on his classic tale of madness and immortality. Griffin sets Masque of the Red Death in a vaguely Victorian age. A plague called the Weeping Sickness has ravaged the population with the poorer lower city hit hardest. The ruler, Prince Prospero, has fled with other aristocrats to a nearby fortress where they party while unrest festers in the city. Araby Worth lives with her parents in a luxury high-rise in the relatively safer upper city. Araby's father is the scientist who created the face masks that filter the plague for the uninfected. His status has made him a saint in the eyes of the people. Araby's life would seem blessed but for the death of her twin brother, Finn. Araby's survivor guilt has crippled her life and her relationship with her mother, who wasn't living with the family when Finn died. Araby's coping mechanism is to shun her parents and get high at the exclusive Debauchery Club with her best friend and neighbor, April.

The Girl Who Loved Camellias by Julie Kavanagh

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Marie Duplessis lived for 23 years in the early-1800's (the timeframe of Les Misérables). She grew up abandoned, hungry, exploited, uneducated, amoral. She could do an honest day's work but would do anything for anything in the streets if it paid better. Not exactly a shining heroine from history, her sad story might be a shrill fable for the young and female to adhere to social norms. How wonderful it is, then, that Julie Kavanagh has uncovered so much more about Duplessis than the stark tragedy of a young woman who shouldn't have had a chance but became immortal through art.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Lady Vivian Defies a Duke by Samantha Grace

Synposis: Goodreads Amazon

Vivian Worth is in danger of being unmarriageable unless she can get a man she's never met to agree to the contract drawn up by their families. Luke, Duke of Foxhaven, is wary of the secret agreement his father made shortly before his death, but he travels to see the lady in question. He has no idea what to expect. What you can expect is a breezy, feel-good romance that disappears like movie popcorn - in other words, before you know it. It's a historical, so there is a meet-cute and a country house party, complete with rakes and spinsters.

Grace really shines with the main characters' motivations and desires. Vivian wants marriage and security, but she also wants to be true to herself. Unfortunately, an event from her past has tarnished her chances of a public courting and engagement. A lesser woman might fight unrealistically and by some lucky stroke all society accepts her as she is, like so many novels try to have us believe. Vivian knows that she has to pay a price for the indiscretion so she tries hard to be the kind of wife a man of her class would want even if she will live not as the lively adventurous girl she is. Vivian is a charming character who is easy to like, but her understanding of the strict world she lives in and her grasp of the concept of consequences raise her somewhere above the common romance heroine.

Her counterpart's complexity comes from a physical injury that has taken a psychological toll. Luke is not your typical useless aristocrat. The fresh weight of his family responsibilities chafes - Luke also has dreams and thought he had time to pursue them. In a way, he is just as confined to a narrow life as Vivian. How he deals with it and why are what make him a better man. What I liked about getting to know these lovely lusty people and how they get together is the light touch Grace has in telling what could be a Serious Angsty Drama. That would also be a good version in its own way, but Grace's style makes this a thoroughly enjoyable read. Some side characters are painted a bit broadly and loose ends are wrapped up a bit suddenly and predictably, but she gets it right where it counts.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Tainted Angel by Anne Cleeland

Synopsis: Goodreads Amazon

Recommended for: people who like romantic spy adventures, Regency/Georgian/Napoleonic period

When starting a new book, context plays a big part of getting into and staying into a story. So without detracting from the importance of a killer opening paragraph, it probably doesn't bode well that I kept wondering if I was reading a sequel of a series where a lot has already happened. Let me make this easier on ya'll who are looking at this fresh: this is a stand-alone where the characters have a lot of common backstory that you won't ever really know in full. Armed with this knowledge, the many references to the Flemish mission can be just so much chatter in the background. In addition to not being a sequel, Tainted Angel doesn't appear to be a beginning of a series either, so you can sink into the plot knowing the resolution is within reach. It's a refreshing change from all the trilogies and endless series that every new author seems obliged to put out.

Vidia Swanson is very, very good at her job as an "angel". Angels are covert agents, usually female, whose purpose is to inveigle secrets via pillow talk and the like. (Others in the spy genre call them valentines, honeytrappers or femme fatale.) Her assignments for the British Crown make the most of her insanely good looks so all business she conducts is high-profile. Her current target is a financier who is playing a double cross game with the help of Vidia. Another agent, Carstairs, seems to be caught in the crosshairs and Vidia feels a net closing in - a net she can't bring herself to resist. The plot pretty much revolves around whether, how, and why Vidia is playing that double or triple or quadruple cross. Her spymaster believes she has been compromised, or "tainted", and someone is either right behind her to arrest her for treason or is a step ahead of her anticipating the next move that might show her hand. Stakes are high when the mere appearance of guilt means the gallows.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

When in Paris... by Beverley Kendall

Synopsis: Goodreads Amazon

The payoff of finding authors that make you want to read everything they write makes slogging through some pretty bad ARCs worth it (even, *gag, shudder*, Stealing Harper). Beverley Kendall, whose wonderful companion novella I reviewed days ago, is one such a find. Everything I loved about Those Nights in Montreal (TNM) is found here, but she does it one better because this is a full-length, 283-pager! I thought TNM's length was so expertly pared that I was afraid this was just going to be a filler-filled longer version. I was totally wrong and happy to be so. Seriously, it's hard to find novels, particularly romances, that have good pacing, good characters, and a good plot. When in Paris... has got it all and does it among the best I've seen so far.

I was familiar with the couple in When in Paris... from TNM. Olivia's and Zach's personalities don't feature much in Becca and Scott's story, so I didn't know what to expect. Fortunately, Olivia and Zach and the rest of their group of friends are all solid, distinctive characters that are exposed gradually and naturally. Reading really does feel like getting to know each person, especially since the narration alternates between the two protagonists, and is in keeping with meeting new people during a freshman fall. Zach and Olivia have realistic and individual voices that really make an impression. They may be a bit more articulate and self-aware than the average college kid, but the expressions flow so well that once you start reading, it's a little shocking how quickly time goes. I hardly noticed my hour-long commutes on the train every day.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Gameboard of the Gods by Richelle Mead

I have a strong aversion to starting series that are not completed because waiting for the next book will put me in an mental-emotional tailspin for about a week. This a wee problem when reading ARCs of a series unless it is that final installment. This book is coming out this week, so this makes waiting for the second book even more excruciating. It's probably not even mostly written yet! All the same, I couldn't resist the scifi/fantasy/mystery premise of this one and if you like your scifi lighter on the science, this will be a treat.

I've never read anything by Richelle Mead before so zero preconceptions here. It's hard to find credible science fiction. This is not Asimov, which is good because it would be so much blah blah between the armed fights, arguing, drinking, sex, traveling, parenting, and sarcasm in this book. While low on science - it's futuristic but not so far as to be alien to us - Gameboard of the Gods (GOTG) is an ambitious novel with intriguing ideas about the myriad tradeoffs of religion, technology, freedom, wealth and class, and loyalty to country, family, faith. How much autonomy are people willing to give up for superior safety, health or education? How loyal must people be to sign away part of their lives to protect their country? What would you expect to give (up?) in return for superhuman powers? How far would you go to protect your heritage or question authority? For anyone who likes to ponder existential questions, these Orwellian thoughts come fast and frequent throughout GOTG.

Those Nights in Montreal by Beverley Kendall

I think I'm pretty clear about how I feel about the New Adult/College Romance/Mature YA genre as it seems to be trending. Fortunately, Those Nights in Montreal is definitely not one of those. I think it must help that Beverley Kendall is an established writer who actually knows how to construct a story and bring characters to life in form recognizable to the average non-dysfunctional reader. This is a novella that has more life in it than a lot of the full-length novels that can't hold a plotline or develop rounded characters. I was pleasantly surprised how much the author incorporated into the story with detracting from the romance. Even the length of the story was just right.

Becca and Scott are exes who haven't quite gotten closure. They broke up a year ago and Scott begins working to win her back. They air their grievances and try to work things out. Becca thinks that sex has allowed them to avoid confronting their issues in the past (smart girl), so she puts a moratorium on that activity (hmm, good luck with that). Spring break rolls around and the couple joins two other couples at a vacation home in Montreal where their resolve and the status of their relationship is put to the test.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood

Synopsis: Oscar meets Iris and Eden, her brother, after listening to him play the organ at a church service. Oscar works at a nursing home and feels lost about his prospects. He is adopted into the siblings' circle where Eden dominance is challenged by Oscar's arrival.

Very occasionally, I come across a book that unexpectedly tears my heart out, rearranges its contents, and gives it to me back bruised but recharged. A little bit of spiritual resuscitation that knocks the clutter about and awakens a different perspective. This is such an exquisite thing - and one of the primary reasons I read. The Bellwether Revivals probably isn't going to be transformative in my life in a lasting way, but this temporary ground-shift is a literary high. It keeps me coming back for more even as I regroup from being laid flat.

The story revolves around a group of friends attending Cambridge. Of the group, two are siblings, Iris and Eden Bellwether. The two meet Oscar, a high school grad who works a menial job at a nearby nursing home. They are worlds apart, but Oscar joins their little "flock."

Friday, May 31, 2013

Switched by Amanda Hocking

Book 1 of The Trylle Trilogy
Synopsis: Wendy has moved to a new town, but there are already people who are far too interested in her. After she meets another new student, Finn, her life takes a turn into another world. There she finds she has another (non-human) family with some high expectations of her.

Like a lot of avid readers, I have a To Read list and I make an actual effort to get to those books. I also have a passel of web bookmarks that are essentially a To Read If I Live Long Enough to Get to These list. I had heard about Amanda Hocking, the e-publishing darling, and put her on the latter list. Honestly, I misremembered her name as Jennifer something so it's really just dumb luck that I saw the final book of this trilogy on the shelf and went in search of the other two. After reading some other similar trilogies set in a supernatural world with teen heroine and two hot alpha males pursuing her, I was thinking I was done with this formula for the foreseeable future. The writing tends to be mushy (as in soft, like fan fiction) and the characters are underdeveloped and overdrawn to the point of caricature. Although I wish I could say Trylle is a huge exception and my faith in YA fantasy is restored, I can say that I hope this is the beginning of an upward trajectory in quality.

Switched leads off with a difficult teenager who can't seem to stay in school or in any one town for long. Wendy Everly and trouble are joined like a chain gang. She's not a bad kid, but her unlucky streak is taking a toll on her and her family, which consists of her older brother Matt and aunt Maggie since her mentally unstable mother tried to kill her as a child. See, unlucky.

Stealing Harper by Molly McAdams

Synopsis: Bad boy meets good girl and acts like a lunatic. Good girl wisely dates bad boy's best friend. DRAMA all over the place. Seriously, people die and stuff.

Sometimes you wish you had never met a book. Like unseeing something horrible that is now seared on the backs of your eyelids so that you see it even with your eyes closed. This review is helping me exorcise this book from my mind, though, and I am so done with this sadistic author. I was by turns, engrossed, repelled, aghast, infuriated, and just boggled. That's a lot to go through for a novella of around 150 pages. I didn't realize this is a companion story to Molly McAdams' previous novel, Taking Chances, which tells this story from Harper's point of view (an excerpt was included in my copy). There were allusions to people and happenings that I believe are more fleshed out in that first book and made reading Stealing Harper feel like I started watching a movie from the middle. Anyway, it's not rocket science and I caught on. Who couldn't since this is hardly Romeo and Juliet. These kids make Romeo and Juliet, amazingly stupid impulsive teenagers, look like wise, dignified Nobel Peace Prize winners. I can only pray that people this neanderthalic exist only in McAdams's imagination.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Last Word by Lisa Lutz

Synopsis: Isabel Spellman is now owner of her family's private investigation firm, which her parents intended for her...someday...and not in a hostile takeover. This means war and the Spellmans do that in their own special way.

Is this "The End"?

I am confused.

If you've read any of the Spellman books, that last sentence will be very familiar. I feel very one with Isabel right now. When I heard the next Spellman book was called The Last Word, I had a sense of foreboding. Was it going to be the last word about the Spellmans forever? After reading blurbs and Lutz's website, I felt better. It is only the "latest" installment. But then I actually read the book and it sounds like it is The End. Clearly, I was psychic and should have had faith in the cosmos. I can appreciate going out while you're still at the top of your game, but I'm going to miss the crazy folks of this series.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Thorn Abbey by Nancy Ohlin

Tess starts at a new school, an exclusive boarding school, Thorn Abbey. She's a smart but poor kid who looks like she is never going to fit in with the scions of the elite. Then she connects with her new alpha-girl roommate and a tragic golden boy. These two were closely linked to a recently dead student named Becca. Strange things start happening to Tess and she begins to wonder if she is losing her mind.

I have to stop having high expectations of books based on their summaries. I may have squee'd like a fangirl when I saw that this was based on Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I had such hopes for this. Those are now crushed like so much dust. I admit Rebecca is a tough act to rework successfully. It's a novel about dark obsession and it is so atmospheric. Nancy Ohlin adapted the bones and guts of the original fairly well, but the spirit is disappointingly not there. The characters are decent, but they're not deep enough to sustain the creepiness and the am-I-going-crazy aspects. Tess is sweet and naive, as she should be, but her infatuation with Max is a little...childish. As in, Tess sees Max for the first time in class, and thinks:

"OMG, He's hot. He's looking out the window and brooding. He must be deep."

And then at the end of class,
"OMG, he looked at me for two seconds, he might like me! I'm in love!"

At which point she runs up to him and starts saying random things. So random that he outright tells her she is strange. This is rude but makes more sense than she does.

To say this is idiotic behavior for a freshman in high school is an understatement. Tess is almost backward in her boy-craziness. I might get this, barely, if she were in, say, middle school. It's lazy characterization and plotting, and it is not in keeping with the rest of her personality. Tess is at Thorn Abbey because she's academically gifted. I like how intelligent and articulate she can be and I love that that is why the nice guys are attracted to her. In fact, her awkward social interactions are more a result of the collective drone thinking than her ineptitude. Fortunately, her backbone solidifies and her brain switches on, at least when it comes to interacting with other people.

I wish I could say the same for Ohlin's take on the main thread of the story: dead Rebecca's grasp on the living. Where Ohlin was taking the action was apparent from a football field away. I get that teen readers aren't into subtlety, but the twists and turns are so obvious that letting the characters catch up is painfully tedious. If even the atmosphere of the original was there, it would have made up for the slooooooow characters here, but there is zero creepiness. Instead, Ohlin takes this all paranormal, which is an easy out in explaining what has been going on. The end really wraps things up too tidily and forces a happily-ever-after that won't really work in the long run. The resolution makes a mockery of trauma and grief just as the plot did with obsession and malevolence. Take those away and the story is a shell with no heart. Even if you don't relate Thorn Abbey to Rebecca, everything is just kind of flat and lifeless, perhaps with the exception of the romance. That part was actually quite lovely. It makes me think that if Ohlin hadn't bound herself to the plot of Rebecca, she could have created an appealing story that could breathe with a life of it own instead of being a shadow of a far better work.

Erasmus Hobart and the Golden Arrow by Andrew Fish

Middle school teacher, Erasmus Hobart, creates a successful time machine. He travels to medieval times to meet Robin Hood and see if he really existed. Erasmus bungles his arrival and unwittingly upsets the legend-in-progress, dangerously changing history if he can't put things right. Swashbuckling, thieving, and a lot of running ensues.

Andrew Fish's literary hero is Douglas Adams. That is either a cause for concern or celebration because it either boils down to utter pain or mild joy for the reader. I am so pleased to say that Fish mostly succeeds in his goal and I hope he continues to mine that vein for some time.

If you are expecting similar subject matter to the Hitchhiker books, you're out of luck. However, if you have an open mind about what can be done with the flippant, yet laser-like insight of Adams, you're in for a good time. Fish's hero, Erasmus Hobart, is a middle school history and physics (little mind-boggly there) teacher at an all-boys school in present-day England. He's a product of the system and has a weary affection for the antics of his prepubescent students. As a former bullied child, he takes smug pleasure in thwarting the swaggering sandwich-smashing upstarts, sometimes with a well-aimed board eraser, while also trying to teach the hapless victims not to further their miseries with kick-worthy comments. I took a lot more glee in these bits than I probably should have - in America this screams litigation - and the book is full of these kinds of small incisive details that creates instant empathy with the characters.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Legacy by Cayla Kluver - Book 1 of The Legacy Trilogy

Alera, heir to the patriarchal kingdom of Hytanica, is coming of age to marry and be crowned queen. Her father has chosen his successor, Steldor, and will abdicate as soon as Alera weds. Being a traditionally-raised girl, Alera tries to comply with her parents' wishes, but her instincts keep getting in the way of her good intentions. At the same time, a nearly twenty-year stalemate with the belligerent, matriarchal Cokryi nation is falling apart as an ancient prophecy's reckoning draws near.

Hytanica, the setting for this series, is a medieval-ish city-state. According to legend, the country is protected by a magical sacrifice performed by the first king. There doesn't appear to be any magic in Hytanica other than that legend, though. The country has a chauvinistic philosophy (women defer in everything to the men including submitting to beatings, men are protectors, all women should aspire to be devoted housewives, blah, blah, ugh), conservative social mores (modesty in dress, strict adherence to manners, knowing your place), an agrarian economy, a reluctance to change, and a state religion (thinly veiled Catholicism). A recurring theme is chastity, which I thought was brave and unusual in a mainstream YA novel because it actually plays a key role in the plot and it's not preachy in the least. Of course, chastity is in keeping with temporal setting, but it's handled logically and not judgmentally. Kluver's ability in peeling back the layers that make up teenage thinking and feeling is uncanny. Her insight into her characters' behaviors rings so very true to their established personalities and how people that age feel.

Alera, as the Hytanican heroine is interesting because she is in keeping with her times for the most part. She's not assertive or particularly sharp - her foresight is pretty pitiful on a couple of occasions. Thankfully, the first-person voice narration saves her. She may not act like the gung-ho girl heroes (but neither is she a snively clumsy damsel-in-distress) I've come to expect in this genre, but her thoughts tend to be independent, wanting to reach her own conclusions and get at the truth whenever she can. I respect her thinking and motivations and that's the way she earns her way into your heart. Alone, her personality isn't that appealing. Her main redeeming qualities are wanting to do right and learning from her mistakes. As far as I can tell she has no hobbies, no real friends besides her younger sister, no great skills at anything. In retrospect, that's not that strange, right? We're supposed to identify with her and if she's too specific, it's harder to get there. She even appears sort of nondescript with brown eyes, brown hair, not small, not big, not sweet, not mean.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Scrap by Emory Sharplin

Synopsis: Tucker, leader of a troupe of orphans in a small town, meets an unexpected benefactor at the bakery where she works and steals. The benefactor is a mysterious girl her own age who belongs to the court of the cruel ruler, Ibis. Ibis is enchanted and practically immortal, but he has a lost daughter that he has been trying to find for thirteen years.

Orphans and stealing. Tyrant and magic. Gypsies and royalty. It's a grand world Emory Sharplin has imagined. The beginning grabs you and unfolds the story beautifully. The initial world-building (in some indeterminate time with tunics and horses and beheadings) is decent with just one element of magic - a charmed bracelet - that gives a hint of things to come. There were a couple instances of vocabulary use that didn't mean what the author was intending. It gave me a hint that the author was fairly young and a little digging revealed that she is all of seventeen. In retrospect, this bit of extra information didn't help me enjoy this book. I was more impressed with the writing and fairly controlled structure. The pace was okay and the story was logically progressing. Then some things started jumping out at me: the dialogue, the characterization, the utter lack of internal conflict/inspection. All of these pointed to pretty untried life experience. The characters are mostly in their early teens, so maybe that is all well and good. Accurate even. But then there is no sense that anything that the kids do is a product of their thinking or ability. They're just crazy lucky. And that's when what promise the book had withered.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Sworn to Raise by Terah Edun

Synopsis: Ciardis is a dirt-poor, half-gypsy laundress. She meets a glamorous geisha (called Companions) and is offered training to become one herself. Companions are usually magical and otherwise trained to be an asset to a powerful/rich Patron. As she begins her education, Ciardis finds her roots and claims her magical gifts on her way to securing a Patron.

Sworn to Raise starts out with potential for an unusual (amazing!) Cinderella story. The world-building and characters pulled me in immediately. The foundation is well-laid and the writing is tight. No rambly paragraphs with stupid descriptions. Terah Edun has created a good world and expects you to keep up. It's refreshing and brilliant that a writer actually has economy and respect for a reader's intelligence these days.

Unfortunately, she doesn't maintain that discipline through the entire story. In fact, there is too much economy by the final chapters where everything happens too fast with not enough connecting the scenes. The characters also seem to lose their shape a bit, although it's not a deal-breaker. I felt like the author either had something more important to write and banged out the ending in a mad dash to the finish or a kid sister saw the unfinished novel on her computer and decided to finish it for her, in sticky-fingered glee. The scenes, which are vividly imagined and action-packed, have too little background and motivation to ring true to what's already been established. I couldn't figure out to what end all the hullabaloo was for. The disjointedness wrecked a perfectly enjoyable book. This is doubly a shame because it's not like the book was overlong and Edun need to cram in her planned outline of the story. On my e-reader it was 178 pages, which is pretty short for a novel. I have faith in her ability to create and write an exciting, fun read, but until a whole story can be told that way, there is no point in starting one of her books.

Rating: 2

Thursday, April 25, 2013


To review or not to review... I still read a lot these days - back to commuting - but while I enjoy the books I read, I'm not that often motivated to gush about it. Sometimes I just feel too raw after an emotional end or sadly more often, I just don't feel that much about it. Thoughtful usually, but not moved. There are a few though that have moved me recently.

Unbroken by Lauren Hillebrand
The Assassin's Curse by Cassandra Clarke
The Seven Realms series by Cinda Williams Chima

A little random - a WWII POW story and then two very different YA fantasies.

I wrote a bit about the second one on Goodreads, which I'll link. I'll take a crack at the other two this weekend - they're well worth another thought and another read!

The Assassin's Curse on Goodreads