Saturday, May 31, 2014

Review: The Notorious Countess Confesses by Julie Anne Long

A Notorious Countess Confesses (Pennyroyal Green, #7)A Notorious Countess Confesses by Julie Anne Long
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been trying to find romance novels I didn't want to fling into a wall for the longest time. The beta male trope seems to avoid a lot of the issues I have, so I did a search on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books for the phrase. It turned up a few books, and this was among them.

Evie Duggan has been an actress, courtesan, wife of a count, and infamous widow. She goes to the small town of Pennyroyal Green trying to escape her reputation. But the townsfolk have heard the rumors, so she's snubbed. She enlists the vicar, Adam Sylvaine, in helping her to make friends. He sees right through her layers of pretense, and he's intrigued by what he sees, while she's off-balance and vulnerable. She finds she feels safe with him despite her vulnerability, and from there, the attraction grows.

This is a Regency-era romance, so the two are stymied by the manners and expectations. She's far too scandalous to be linked to the vicar, even if he is of a famously hot-blooded family. Their efforts to stay apart are entirely supported by the social structure of Pennyroyal Green, and the times. Their attraction is a long, slow burn. And Julie Ann Long puts that tension to good use. Dabbing ointment on a cut and putting on a necklace have never sounded so sexy.

The characters are strongly drawn. Adam values the truth, while Evie is layers upon layers of lies. That the lies are hiding a kinder, more sensitive, loving soul draws him in, and with good reason. Meanwhile, she's regularly knocked off-balance by his refusals to flirt and verbally spar. It's easy to feel her frustration, and his growing tenderness. I felt very invested, as the story went on, in her allowing herself to love, and his finding a way to be with her despite the villagers' disapproval.

This is part of a series about the people of Pennyroyal Green, and the book hints at a lot of events and people from other books. I'm unfamiliar with the other books, but I was still able to follow their stories within the context of this one. I don't know if all of the other characters were fleshed out so well because they'd already had their own books or would have them in the future, but nobody felt like background noise or like a two-dimensional prop. Everyone had motivations and lives and hopes and dreams and fears. And many of them are enriched by Evie's influence.

This is not what I've come to expect from romance novels. The characterizations were good, the conflicts felt real, and I was truly invested. Which was why, instead of stopping at the halfway mark last night like I meant to, I stayed up half the night to finish it. I don't think I could've slept, wondering about how they were going to overcome the various obstacles in their path.

I don't see myself going after other books in the series, though. I'm getting a strong alpha male vibe from the other male characters in Pennyroyal Green. No need to sully my opinion of this author by forcing myself through a book I'm primed to dislike. I'm going to quit while I'm ahead.

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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Review: Forbid the Sea (October Daye, #0.2) by Seanan McGuire

Forbid the Sea (October Daye, #0.2)Forbid the Sea by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I needed to scrub my brain after the last book I read. This seemed like a good bet. It's available for download free on Seanan McGuire's website.

"Forbid the Sea" takes place 10 years after the events of "Rat-Catcher." London's fae are only just returning to their homes. Everyone's favorite King of Cats, Tybalt, takes a boat ride down the Thames, where he meets a handsome young Selkie named Dylan. They become involved (yes, Tybalt, like many fae, is bisexual; you only don't notice in the present day because he's monogamous). Then Tybalt learns why Dylan's in London, and he has a choice to make between personal feelings and fae politics.

It's a fast read, though not because it's action-packed. It has the feel of a sweet summer romance throughout most of it, but there is that thread of menace running just under the surface. Tybalt is clearly lonely, and mourning the events that left his Court empty. This makes him overlook some aspects of Dylan he should've questioned. He's content to only dig into the first layer of secrets. And he shows Dylan (and therefore the reader) how much different he was when he was only Rand. There are hints of the Tybalt that appears to October Daye at sunrise in Rosemary and Rue, but he's changed through the centuries. By Chimes at Midnight, he's shown a lot more of the gentle tenderness we see in this story.

You don't need to have read "Rat-Catcher" to follow this story, though it does help with context. Even if you can't get your hands on the earlier story, I recommend reading this one if you're a fan of Tybalt. The download link is up at the top of the review, and it's author-hosted. So give it a read. It's chock full of insight into a fan-favorite character.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Review: Ghost Seer by Robin D. Owens

Ghost Seer (Ghost Seer, #1)Ghost Seer by Robin D. Owens
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

If I hadn't read this for a book club, I don't think I would've made it past the 25% mark. I had to force myself to finish it.

Clare Cermak inherited an absurd amount of money from her aunt. Also, the ability to see ghosts, and her labrador retriever, Enzo. Enzo is a ghost dog. She meets Zach Slade, no relation to the ghost of the notorious gunman she's tasked with helping pass to the other side.

I can't think of a single plot point in this book that felt natural. The entire thing felt contrived and forced. Nobody acted like a real person. They all acted like the cardboard cutouts the plot demanded of them. Clare goes back and forth on how she feels about her "gift," but the plot forces her to accept it because otherwise she'll die. Not that we're allowed to feel it nibbling at her soul little by little; no, we get accounts of how cold she is, and people fretting about her. Supposedly her gift is very strong, but I have no idea what that's supposed to mean. If it means things were supposed to be easy for her, why does she struggle with the basics for so long?

The plot, itself, is very slow-moving. A timeline is introduced, and Clare expresses dismay she has so short a time. Then she putters around working on other things, like moving into a whole new house that she buys after she learns about the time crunch. Even the down-to-the-wire finish drags on. For heaven's sake, one minute Zach is pondering using a helicopter to get them there on time, the next he's talking her into a two-hour nap.

The relationship between Clare and Zach made me roll my eyes. They go back and forth, for no reason other than that the plot demands they're in one another's lives for a scene, or separated for dramatic purposes. Their urgency to sleep together is laughable, after her reluctance to jump into anything too quickly. All sense of desire is communicated through Zach's erections, and the guy sounds like your average teenage boy, in that regard. Another guy complimenting Clare gets him hard, in one scene that made me snort aloud. Their big blow-up, throw-down fight is ridiculous, and his reasons for coming around are arbitrary.

Worst of all, this book uses "Gypsy" as a shortcut for exotic, mystical, and sensual. What makes Clare special, you see, is that she has "Gypsy" ancestry, and the conclusion of the book has Clare "Gypsy dancing" while Zach fantasizes about her in a belly dancer costume. I had to close my eyes until my nausea passed. So much about the depiction is wrong that I won't even correct the author on the right way to refer to the people whose culture she's pissing on.

I might've understood some of this book's flaws if this were a debut author. She's not. The writing is stilted, dialogue contrived, plot thin, characters one-dimensional. The author spends a chatty few pages telling us about all the research she did, leaving me with the distinct impression it was wasted. In short, I will be staying far, far away from this author, and I recommend you do the same.

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Saturday, May 24, 2014

Progress: Following the Path I've Set

I finished typing up the first draft of the second book in my urban fantasy trilogy. (I really need working titles for these, don't I?) As anticipated, I did some editing as I went. It's 83,064 words.

So that catches me up to . . . last November? I think? As in, I think I finished handwriting those pages in November 2013.

I didn't track my time to the minute, but I'd estimate I spent about 12 hours typing up the loose-leaf pages and one of my little notebooks. It was easier typing from the notebook, as I expected. But it does still take time.

I'm doing an editing pass for consistency on book one now, and then I'll edit book two for sending off to my crit partner(s). I was supposed to read something one of them sent a couple of months ago, and I really have no excuse about why I haven't. I can offer a few dozen transparent justifications, though.

I will get to it. I'll start tonight.

On a completely different note, yesterday I ran across someone offering writing advice. She suggested (rightly) that reading is important. But she said that audiobooks don't count as reading.

As you may know, I feel differently. I've been listening to audiobooks regularly for the last three years. In that time, I've seen a marked improvement in my flow and word choice. I don't think it's entirely explained by getting better with practice. I think audiobooks are training me to think about language differently.

It ties into the advice for reading aloud when you're editing. The auditory value of words on a page are important. I know I'm not the only reader who hears the words in her head as she's taking them in. Why, then, is it that much different if I hear them through my ears instead of my eyes?

I'm not going to go so far as to suggest every writer should listen to audiobooks. Some can't, and they get expensive if you don't have access to a good library system. But if you haven't tried it and your library has a digital collection, it might be worth trying some downloads. Audiobooks can make a lot of household chores less of a grind, and they certainly pass the time with all the driving I do for work. The worst that'll happen is that you'll find you can't concentrate on the book and something else. At best, you'll be able to read that many more books in the between times that take up so much of your day.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Review: Dust (Jacob's Ladder, #1) by Elizabeth Bear

Dust (Jacob's Ladder, #1)Dust by Elizabeth Bear
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Based on the book jacket description, this sounded like an epic fantasy. It's not. It's actually science fiction. Weird science fiction.

The book opens with Perceval Conn captured, her wings cut off. The girl taking care of her, Rien, turns out to be her half-sister, who helps her escape, and off they go to save the world. Except this world is just a really big spaceship called the Jacob's Ladder, and they're the results of a science expedition to send an evolved version of humanity out into the galaxy. Their ship is stalled, but still able to support life, and their AI is fragmented and insane.

Not that any of this is stated outright. The book never stops to explain. The characters live in and interact with this world, and the reader just has to catch up. There's no danger of infodumping in Dust. In its place is confusion aplenty. It does become clear as the story goes on, but the book requires some work on the reader's part.

The setting isn't the only unfamiliar part of the narrative. Sexuality is far different from today's standards, as is gender. Perceval is asexual, while Rien is a lesbian. There's a character referred to as "hir," and Rien corrects Perceval when she refers to the person as "her." Another character, Mallory, is never referred to by pronoun, and has characteristics of both sexes, though Mallory reads as female to Rien's same-sex attraction. There's also a lot of incest. Perceval's parents are brother and sister, and Rien's attachment to Perceval isn't sisterly. As they're only meeting for the first time when the book starts, the relationship manages to sidestep the creepiness usually inherent in incest narratives. Not that it didn't still unsettle me, how casually everyone slept with brothers and sisters.

There's also a theme of consumption. People absorb one another's memories and experiences by eating them. They recognize that the person being eaten is destroyed in the process, but then there's one character who comes to life again by being consumed after a period of dormancy.

Most of the conflict of the book revolves around the splintered AI. The strongest of them is Jacob Dust, hence the title, and he fixates on Perceval to helm the ship. To do that, he manipulates her through a symbiotic device that takes the form of a replacement for her removed wings.

The text makes it absolutely clear that Dust's tactics are gross and shouldn't be encouraged. It was not where I thought that plot point was going, so it was a relief.

This is a book not easily captured by a jacket blurb. I don't think I  described it very well. This book captured the feel of being in another world, amongst very different people. And yet, for all their differences, they all felt real and whole.

I will definitely be hunting down the next book in this series. This one wraps up its own conflict well, but there's clearly a lot more left to their story.

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Saturday, May 17, 2014

Review: The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other StoriesThe Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the fifth book in my 2014 TBR Pile Challenge. I've had it practically since it came out, so I thought now was a good time to get around to it.

This is a companion to Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but it's not necessary to have read the novel to appreciate these short stories. They're set in the same version of the world where magic is real and fairies walk among people. The stories read as if they were written in the same Victorian era.

The only story related to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is "The Ladies of Grace Adieu," which explains a minor point from that book. It focuses mostly on the titular ladies. Johnathan Strange puts in an appearance, but as an antagonist. It tells of the friendship of three women, and how they magically protect one another.

The second story, "On Lickerish Hill," is similar to the story of Rumpelstiltskin most of us are familiar with. It tells of a young woman whose mother, in a fit of pique, tells her suitor she's capable of spinning a whole skein a flax in a day. After he marries her, he asks her to prove it, but she can't spin at all. A little man shows up who'll do it for her, and she'll get out of payment if she can guess his name.

"Mrs. Mabb" is your classic tale of fairy enchantment and entrapment, like Tam Lin. A young woman's handsome fiancé goes to visit the mysterious Mrs. Mabb, and doesn't leave again. So she makes it her mission to go to the house. But, every time, she goes into some kind of trance where she wanders for a long while, and doesn't remember the next day. Everything and everyone conspires against her seeing her fiancé again, but she's determined.

"The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse" is set in Stardust's Wall, a border between fairy and human lands. The Duke of Wellington crosses the wall to go get his horse, and comes across a woman embroidering. As he watches, the things she's embroidering come true. The last scene is of a knight in chain mail coming along to kill him, then the woman leaves, and he has to think fast to save himself.

"Mr Simonelli or the Fairy Widower" tells a story through a letter and diary entries. A new parson comes to a poor village, where he meets an uncle he never knew he had. But that uncle is a fairy, and not a very nice one. He's kidnapped a young woman from the village to nurse his child. Mr. Simonelli frees her, and plots to stop his uncle from taking one of the pretty young ladies of the village for a wife.

The main characters in "Tom Brightwind" are a fairy who isn't quite so malicious and a Jewish man. They come across a sad little town, run by a man whose ambition is greater than his motivation. Tom agrees to build a bridge over the river dividing the town, and, being a fairy, has to do it extravagantly and dramatically.

"Antickes and Frets" is a fairy tale about Mary, Queen of Scots, and her attempts to use a friend's power with embroidery to undo the Queen who exiled her. But Mary isn't a very good friend, so her attempts backfire spectacularly.

"John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner" is about the Raven King often mentioned Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. This doesn't showcase his power and might, though. It shows the dangers of hubris, and how no one can consider himself above reproach. While out hunting, Uskglass disturbs the camp of a charcoal burner, and changes his pig into a salmon. So the charcoal burner appeals to a succession of religious saints to teach Uskglass a lesson.

This is, overall, a creative collection, hinting at a deeper world in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Most of the stories are retellings of various fairy tales. Instead of a modern setting, though, it's in an alternate Victorian England. It can be enjoyed without having read that brick of a novel, but it did make me want to reread the book. The print edition of this book is illustrated by Charles Vess, which is always a treat.

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Friday, May 16, 2014

Review: Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

Julius CaesarJulius Caesar by William Shakespeare
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Somehow, I got through high school and two college Shakespeare courses without ever reading Julius Caesar. I'm only just correcting this oversight now.

This is one of Shakespeare's histories. It tells of the assassination of Julius Caesar in ancient Rome. Though Caesar is the title character, we get a lot more lines from Brutus, Caesar's good friend, and Cassius, Brutus's brother. Cassius is the main instigator, and seems driven by jealousy to get everyone in on killing Caesar. He appeals to Brutus's loyalty to Rome, itself, convincing him that Caesar is motivated by power.

The death of Caesar happens early in the narrative. The first half is a lot of omens and conspiring. The second half is the funeral, then the political fallout. Brutus manages to convince the populace the senators were right to kill Caesar, but then Caesar's best friend, Antony, speaks, and turns public sentiment against the conspirators. The Roman citizenry rages about, burning the homes of the conspirators and killing the ones involved who didn't escape in time, The ones who get away muster their armies. In the end, the people who killed Caesar wind up dead, killed at their own hands rather than fall prisoner to their political rivals.

There are similarities to Macbeth, in the ominous signs and the political machinations. Brutus's guilt has some echo in Macbeth's. Julius Caesar came first, so apparently Shakespeare was warming up to the "greed as the worst reason to kill a ruler" theme.

I'll want to revisit this play at some point in the near future. This run-through was a surface reading, and I didn't capture a fraction of the themes or imagery.

I listened to this play as an audio performance, which is the next best thing to watching it performed. I'm convinced that Shakespeare's plays can only be fully captured through performance. Reading them on a page sucks the life out of them. It was a good performance, though it was hard to keep track of the characters.

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Review: The Fairy-Tale Detectives (The Sisters Grimm, #1) by Michael Buckley

The Fairy-Tale Detectives (The Sisters Grimm, #1)The Fairy-Tale Detectives by Michael Buckley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoy fairy tale retellings. Some are better than others, but this one sounded worth a try.

Sabrina and Daphne Grimm's parents have vanished. Ever since, they've been stuck in the foster care system, shuttled from one terrible house to the next, accepted nowhere. Then a woman comes forward claiming to be their grandmother. The problem is, their father told them their grandmother was dead.

It turns out the grandmother is the guardian of a secret in her hometown of Ferryport Landing in upstate New York. The town is populated with the fairy tale characters (Ever Afters) who came to the US to escape European persecution. They need to be kept secret, for their own protection. But they don't always make that easy.

They're not all from fairy tales. Prince Charming, Jack of giant-killing fame, the three little pigs and big bad wolf, the magic mirror from Snow White, and several others make an appearance. So does Puck, the trickster fairy from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Of course that's above the girls' heads, so they initially take him for Peter Pan. He never quite forgives them for not recognizing him.

Many of the Ever Afters play against type. Prince Charming is arrogant and greedy, and the big bad wolf isn't so bad. Puck's insistence that he's a bad guy is hard to swallow, considering how often he helps Sabrina and Daphne, and Mrs. Grimm's affection for him. She treats him like a third grandchild, and he never argues, despite the fact he's older than her by centuries.

The mystery revolves around a farmer's house being crushed. All signs point to a giant, who's easily located. When the giant takes Mrs. Grimm, it's up to the girls to find a way to beat the giant.

The story is told in a very kid-friendly way. Most violence happens where the girls (and the audience) don't see. Death is shied away from. The scariest thing in the story is bitey pixies. These are the sanitized versions of fairy tales the girls are interacting with.

But the book is told in that patronizing, talking-down-to-its-audience way. Things are spelled out and simplified in a way I doubted its younger readers would need. Characters pout far more often than is warranted. Whenever a big word comes up, the characters explain through dialogue what it means.

Another unfortunate aspect of the book is that, for all their bravery and resourcefulness, Sabrina and Daphne function mostly as witnesses to the story's conclusion. They get to contribute, and it wouldn't have been a happy ending without them, but it's disappointing to watch them stand around while the grownups handle things for the last few pages.

This book is excellent for middle grade readers who've run out of fairy tales to read. It's not as enjoyable for adults, but it is cute.

I listened to this book on audio, narrated by L.J. Ganser. The gritty narration seemed like an odd choice for a kids' book told in the perspective of two girls, but it worked. The narrator spoke clearly, and distinguished the different characters' dialogue nicely. The narrator was no Jim Dale, but he was a good choice for this book.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Review: Bait and Switch by Barbara Ehrenreich

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in AmericaNickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been meaning to read this book for years. My book club is reading it this month, which is as good an excuse as any.

Barbara Ehrenreich is fairly well-known in liberal circles for this book. I'd already read her
  Bait and Switch

, about the job hunt in today's market, and I found it an eye-opening look at the exploitative industry around getting one's foot in the door. I think that one may have been more informative. Or maybe it's because this book's main talking points have become such a part of the cultural knowledge. I didn't learn anything new, because I'd already heard most of the useful information from other sources who'd filtered it through their biases.

You don't have to move to a strange new city with two thousand dollars and the drive to find a minimum wage job to know that there's something off about people forced to work two or three jobs just to meet the basic cost of living. Reports like this one highlight the extreme discrepancy between minimum wage and rent, a gap that widens every time rent prices go up. Meanwhile, Seattle is gradually lifting its minimum wage to $15/hour, while Massachusetts settles on $10.50 or $11. These changes aren't a direct result of this book, but it did give a voice to those too exhausted from working absurd hours. The book illustrates a system of people too ground down to fight the common refrain that they're too lazy to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

The book isn't perfect. Ehrenreich starts off with little empathy for those living on minimum wage, and often holds herself above them. She never acknowledges the opportunities and luck that allowed her to get an education and a job that paid well. She skims over the advantages in the color of her skin, but doesn't examine in any depth how much harder the struggle might be if she were a different race. The book is best viewed as the start of a conversation, not the entire answer.

The book's greatest strength is in asking for empathy for waitstaff, retail workers, and cleaners. Ehrenreich is consistently amazed at how her co-workers soldier on, despite worse living conditions than what she'll accept and awful nutrition. It never quite sinks in, for her, that this is their lives. They don't get to walk away from their jobs after a month of misery. They have to accept their lot, because they can't afford a few weeks of no income while they scrabble for something closer to home or that pays a little more.

Hopefully those points sink in with the reader. Anything that opens people's eyes to the reality they're asking their service industry workers to live with is a positive, in my view.

But then, when I lived this reality, it wasn't an experiment. I may have a job that uses my degree now, but I haven't forgotten how dehumanizing it was to work retail.

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Review: Bloom County Loose Tails by Berkeley Breathed

Bloom County Loose TailsBloom County Loose Tails by Berkeley Breathed
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I ran across a whole pile of Bloom County books at my library book sale. They were too much to resist.

This is the first Bloom County compendium, so the art is rough and the characters fairly superficial. They're consistently depicted, though they seem to be trying on several roles and settings.

The strips hold up surprisingly well. They're a product of their time, with very dated references most readers would have to look up on Wikipedia. The only reason I didn't was because I (vaguely) remember  reading these strips when they were first published in syndication.

For all its young protagonists and talking animals, it's clear this strip was not written for young me. The majority of the humor is based on a nuanced understanding of politics, ideology, and the media. The biting satire is lost with no context.

What struck me most, reading through this collection, was how little has changed since the 1980's. The faces are all different, but the media was just as reactionary, politics just as divisive and focused on wedge issues, and the closed-minded had their forums to spread hate. It's a good reminder that, though I remember my childhood as a simpler time, that was only because I didn't understand enough of what was going on around me. We've taken steps forward since then, but the attitudes remain much the same.

Revisiting this collection 30 years after its publication was an eye-opening experience. I'm looking forward to what else I might find out, revisiting the other collections I picked up.

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Review: Joyland by Stephen King

Joyland (Hard Case Crime #112)Joyland by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'd been meaning to pick up this book for a while. Then I saw it at my local library, and I pounced on it.

Joyland is about 21-year-old Devin Jones in the summer of 1973. He's telling the story from the present day, so it's tinged in nostalgia. He often pauses the narrative to tell the reader what's happened to various characters since 1973. That summer, he takes a job working at an amusement park on the North Carolina coast, his longtime girlfriend dumps him, and he investigates a serial murderer to put a ghost to rest.

A literal ghost. This is Stephen King, after all. There's also a fortune teller with a touch of real foresight (Devin sometimes calls her a gypsy, which he doesn't seem to have learned by present day is a racial slur), and a precocious boy. Besides the familiar elements, there's the Stephen King style, like you sat down for story time with your favorite uncle at dusk and didn't remember until after dark your uncle's stories scare the crap out of you. This isn't the scariest of King's stories, but the horror elements sneak up on you. They're all the more chilling for feeling as real as the oppressive North Carolina heat.

Like all good speculative fiction, this isn't just a ghost story, or a murder mystery. It has some things to say about life and death, keeping things in perspective, human nature, and what we've trampled over in our march toward progress. Joyland has its rough edges, but the world is less colorful without it. And, though Devin's experience is hardly typical, the book takes the view that later generations are missing out by being denied a summer laboring away under the hot sun in the pursuit of giving families a fun day. This book is set before I was born, and I still felt nostalgia for its time.

This is an enjoyable, if chilling, tale about ghosts, murders, and growing up. It's quintessentially Stephen King, so, if you like his stuff, you'll probably like this. And, if you don't, you might give it a chance, anyway. It could surprise you.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Review: Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady by Kate Summerscale

Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian LadyMrs. Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady by Kate Summerscale
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I came across this book when I was looking with my book group for possible future books. I'm interested in the Victorian period, and in particular women's roles in it, so I decided to read this on my own to screen it for the group. While I don't think it has appeal for my book group, I did enjoy reading it.

Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace tells the story of a woman whose husband brought her to divorce court when such an institution was still new and the laws around it were being established. He'd found evidence in her diary that she'd had an affair with a close family friend and physician. It's a true story, and the book includes a lot of historical details to give context to the tale.

The legalities come down to how much of Mrs. Robinson's diary is true. The defense for Mrs. Robinson and her alleged lover argue that her diary is fantasy, for her later entertainment. The men deciding the case, meanwhile, have to read the whole thing. The author points out that this gives Mrs. Robinson a voice in her trial, possibly backfiring on her husband. He's not painted in a sympathetic light within the pages of the diary.

Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace never comes down on one side or another in the truth of Mrs. Robinson's diary. It presents the bare facts, and only the ones that can be substantiated by a reliable source. It takes great care to point out bias in anyone whose perspective it uses.

I found the book's greatest strength in its depiction of everyday Victorian life, especially aspects we don't normally get much exposure to. This depicts the roles of wives, the media, the rise of journals and diaries, the power imbalance between husband and wife, phrenology, the social lives of your average upper-middle-class family, property rights, and legal minutiae. The last is the least interesting, though the precedents set by this particular case might hold one's interest. The book falls flat where it tries to introduce the men hearing the case as characters in their own right, without all of the back story given all of the other people involved in the case. We get glimpses into personal lives or legal careers, and then the narrative talks about them like we're well acquainted.

The book also talks about phrenology like it's a valid science, and not a pseudoscience steeped in racism. It may have been a precursor to psychology, but it was specifically engineered to reinforce the notion of white male superiority. Features associated with white maleness were given positive traits, while those of other races were deemed inferior, and those of women named weak. The book completely ignores that phrenology is not only debunked, it's racist. It continually describes Mrs. Robinson in terms related to her phrenology reading like it's a valid character analysis.

For me, the most interesting thing was what the Victorian public considers salacious. There are details withheld from newspapers that none of us would even blink at. No, not even the sexually repressed among us. Even in the pages of her personal diary, Mrs. Robinson only implies a physical relationship.

I enjoyed this book. It gave me a lot of insight into the Victorian mind, and everyday details. I finished this book greatly relieved how much times have changed, and furious for the women who had to live through that repressive culture.

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Monday, May 12, 2014

Review: Beautiful Stranger (Beautiful Bastard #2) by Christina Lauren

Beautiful Stranger (Beautiful Bastard, #2)Beautiful Stranger by Christina Lauren
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't read a lot of romance. I tend to get prickly about established tropes, and then my reviews upset my romance-loving friends. But I read enough reviews of this book that made me think I might be able to overlook the usual tropes. I wasn't disappointed.

Sara Dillon leaves her cheating ex and her entire life in Chicago for a new job in New York City. On her first night out, she flirts with a man at the bar, and finds herself incredibly turned on by the notion of him watching her dance. When she encounters him on her way back from the bathroom, she deflects his attempts to take her home or to his car, but that doesn't mean they can't have sex. She had no idea she had an exhibitionism fetish, but she's more than willing to explore it when she runs into the guy again.

The book starts off with a lot more sex than I usually expect in romance novels. Somehow, the scenes never feel repetitive; there's something different in each of them, and each advance the relationship or characterizations in an important way. Despite the sheer number of sex scenes, they never feel gratuitous.

For the first half of the book, it's unclear that Max Stella, the titular stranger, is only responding to what turns Sara on, rather than shaping her desires. That becomes a lot more obvious as the story goes on, but initially, it made me mistrust him, and turned some of his remarks far creepier than intended. Every time Sara told him how "nice" he was, I cringed, thinking it was a case of an author trying to make up for bad characterization with contradictory dialogue.

But, no. The initial impression of Max as just another arrogant alpha is a mistaken one. It certainly matches Sara's preconceptions, but I don't think the story would've suffered for showing Max's squishy center from the beginning.

I'm glad I skipped the first book in this series. What I see of the relationship between Chloe, Sara's best friend, and Bennett, makes me want to hand Chloe a list of domestic violence warning signs. Granted, I'm only seeing their relationship filtered through Sara and Max's impressions, but I don't want to see it any closer than that. The series seems to have used up all of its alphahole on Bennett, thank goodness.

Overall, this book played with my expectations, and got me invested in these two characters. I didn't expect to like this book nearly as much as I did.

I listened to Beautiful Stranger on audio, narrated by Grace Grant for Sara's sections, and Jonathan R. Cole for Max's. If you have a thing for British accents, the audio is worth a listen. Though, a warning: I listened to this driving around for work, and often arrived at work sites blushing madly. Did I mention there's a lot of sex in this book? On the audio, it amounts to a scene every half an hour. Guess how long it takes me to drive between work sites?

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Review: Sea Queens: Women Pirates Around the World by Jane Yolen

Sea Queens: Women Pirates Around the WorldSea Queens: Women Pirates Around the World by Jane Yolen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I came across this book in the midst of my "where the heck are women in history?" kick. This came up as a recommended resource on lady pirates, so I picked it up from my library.

The book is, indeed, full of information, much of which I didn't know or that I found out from someone who'd read it in this book. It discusses several women pirates, starting well before the time period we normally associate with piracy. Women escaped arranged marriages or lives of prostitution by taking to the sea, and they didn't all have to hide their genders.

The book covers a decent range of time periods and places, but it lacks depth. It's an introductory book for younger readers, not a primary reference. It definitely gets the point across that pirates weren't all male, nor did women pirates have to be a particular type of woman. But this book is a jumping-off point, not where your research should end.

I've always found Jane Yolen's style engaging and easy to follow without talking down to her younger readers. This book is no exception. Once I got past the large print and vivid illustrations, I lost my embarrassment at reading a "kid's book". It's written to be understood by an eight-year-old, and it softens some of the rougher realities of piracy for its younger intended audience. But it's not so childish that parents wanting to screen it for their younger readers would grow impatient with it.

I recommend this to any young readers interested in pirates, and who want to hear more of the story than what's commonly depicted.

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Sunday, May 11, 2014

Review: His Lordship Possessed (Disenchanted & Co., Book 1, Part #2) by Lynn Viehl

His Lordship Possessed (Disenchanted & Co., Book 1, Part #2)His Lordship Possessed by Lynn Viehl
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As I mentioned in my review of part one, I read this for a book club. I was startled to find the last book was only the first half, and so I read on, despite my dislike of the love interest.

This half has Charmian (Kit) Kittredge stumbling across a plot to take over the city of Rumsen, all traced to the husband of the woman who hired her. When her love interest, Lucien Dredmore, gets possessed by an evil spirit, her only option is to kill him before it can succeed.

Sadly, the second half takes everything that I liked about the first half, and throws it down the toilet. Kit spends the book running for her life or mooning about the odious Lord Dredmore. It has her hiding out in a brothel, just to give Dredmore an excuse to paw at her where other people can see. It also gives us the appearance of Harry Houdini a century earlier, just for some plot flavor.

And the worldbuilding I thought was so nicely handled in the first half suddenly takes on a kitchen sink approach, with conspiracies dating back generations, plots to take over the world, needless complications, and the creepiest declaration of love I've ever seen in written form.

Seriously, am I the only reader thoroughly creeped out by Dredmore's love being based on his ability to control her? Someone else in my group said she saw an unspoken, "But I'm not going to use it" in there, but that was the opposite of the impression I got.

Like it wasn't bad enough I had to stop to roll my eyes every time she was desperate to get him back after that, the ending is pure deus ex machina. The plot device that lets her fix everything came out of nowhere. It reads like the author wrote herself into a corner and couldn't figure out a better way to write herself back out. There were several better ways she could've handled it, including letting the alphahole stay dead.

The way the next book is set up, it sounds like a rehash of this one, without Kit having to be convinced magic is real. No, thank you.

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Review: Her Ladyship's Curse (Disenchanted & Co., Book 1, Part #1) by Lynn Viehl

Her Ladyship's Curse (Disenchanted & Co., Book 1, Part #1)Her Ladyship's Curse by Lynn Viehl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this as part of a contemporary fantasy book club. It's not something I'd normally have picked up. The description pings my "alpha male" radar.

There is, indeed, an alpha male. There's also steampunk, alternate history, magic, and a willful lady protagonist. So, it balances out. This is only the first half of Disenchanted & Co.

Charmian (Kit) Kittredge makes her living ending what her customers call curses, and she calls events perfectly explained through mundane investigations. Kit doesn't believe in magic, though everyone around her does, to one extent or another. She does believe in ghosts, because she's seen them. Then, while she's investigating for a woman in the nice end of town, she meets her grandfather, a ghost who can only show up when she removes the locket her mother gave her.

I thought this book had a good approach to worldbuilding. The elements that are different are pretty easy to follow in context, though Kit's interest in the failed American Revolution seems disproportionate. Allowing for a Victorian Old West certainly lends itself to the tone the author is going for here.

The parts I didn't like as much come in with the love interest, a magician Kit starts off determined to reveal as a fraud. Their rivalry makes sense, but not how quickly it turns to romance. Her resolve melts all too quickly. I realize it's a romance trope, but it still felt forced.

I didn't realize when I picked this up that it was only the first half of a longer book. I have no idea why the publisher would split the book like that, but it made for an abrupt ending. It didn't even seem like a logical place to split the book. Nothing is resolved by that point, and a new conflict is introduced.

Still, I read on with cautious optimism.

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Review: The Guns of Avalon (Amber Chronicles #2) by Roger Zelazny

The Guns of Avalon (Amber Chronicles, #2)The Guns of Avalon by Roger Zelazny
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second book in the Chronicles of Amber, a classic series I'd never gotten around to reading. After the first book, I thought I might not be missing out on much. This book, though, goes a long way toward explaining the series' endurance.

The first book mostly set up the world of Amber and introduced us to it. This one has Corwin moving around in it of his own volition in ways I could understand. He's determined to bring down his brother, Eric, who's crowned himself king of Amber in their father's absence. He goes to Avalon, a domain he once ruled over, sort of, seeking a substance that'll work as gunpowder in Amber. His brother Benedict is there, and Corwin decides not to enlist him as an ally, as there are signs he's working with at least three of his other brothers, two of whom are no friends of Corwin's.

All the realms, meanwhile, are marred by a touch of Chaos because of a curse Corwin threw at Eric. He confronts it in one realm, then it goes after Amber, itself, while Corwin is mustering his forces against Eric. His brothers ask him to hold back from attacking, because Amber's already in rough shape, but Corwin sees it as the perfect opportunity.

There are places where the narrative is hard to follow, and that may be on purpose. Crossing through Shadow, which is what Corwin and his brothers call the realms that aren't as "real" as Amber, is a jumble of sensations and sights. Perhaps the reader is supposed to feel lost. In which case, good job, Zelazny.

The narrative has very little room for diversity. The female characters who get any attention are prospective partners for Corwin, and the book taps into non-human races before it describes anyone dark-skinned. One would think that, if grass can be purple, an Arthurian legend-type setting might have nonwhite people.

Overall, though, I did enjoy this book a lot more than the previous one. It did not end the way I expected at all. I expected the brothers' rivalry to fill at least the rest of the Corwin Cycle, as I understand the first five books are called. This made me want to keep reading. It did a much better job integrating the idea of parallel realities, where all fantastical stories really can be true.

I listened to this book on audio, narrated by Alessandro Juliani. The narrator has a deep, "man's man" sort of voice, which fits with how Corwin tells his tale. He speaks clearly and distinctly, and makes the characters sound different enough to distinguish them. Some of the accents are a curious choice, but they make sense within the narrative.

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