Saturday, November 22, 2014

2014 book 280

Juliet Marillier's Dreamer's Pool
YAY it's the first book in a new adult fantasy series from Marillier! And right away you can tell it's gonna be a bit dark, as it starts in a horrible prison where a woman is finally about to have her say in court--only then the guard tells her she's actually going to be straight up killed in the morning. But then one of the Fey comes and promises to set her free, if she'll wait seven years for justice and go up north to be the healer of a small town and help anyone who asks. Which she does, accompanied by one of her her fellow prisoners. (These two are Blackthorn and Grim, which is the name of the series, and they're both broken and flawed and wonderful.) Meanwhile, the prince of said small town is finally about to meet his betrothed, and he is super excited, because they've been writing letters all about poetry and walks in the woods and her adorable dog--but when she arrives, she's . . . not what he expected. And her dog HATES her. Gee, could something be up? Can Blackthorn and Grim figure it out in time? Yes, it's a fairy tale mystery, and it's GREAT. Plus, there's no romance between the main characters, just a really nice friendship. It's all I've ever wanted from a fantasy book. A.

Friday, November 21, 2014

2014 book 279

Tessa Dare's A Night to Surrender
I didn't love that other Tessa Dare book I read, but she was so highly recommended that I decided to try one of her Spindle Cove books, about a community of mostly women (nascent feminism, yay!). In this first one, the community of women (which I really wish we'd seen more of) is invaded by some military men, leading to INSTANT romance/lust for the leaders of both parties. I think this is why I have generally not liked romance novels when I like novels with romance in them--there's not enough of a build. It's like, I met you and now all I can think is lustful thoughts about you, let's immediately make out and eventually get married. The two characters are actually really interesting--he's building a militia and dealing with a bad leg, she's, I dunno, helping ladies and leading the town. I did like how, while occasionally giving into their lust, they grow to like/respect each other, plus there are some really nice friendships and some very hilarious moments. I could have done with less of the "romantic brute" stuff, but in general, this was super frothy and super satisfying. B+.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

2014 book 278

Jacqueline Winspear's The Care and Management of Lies
Winspear--author of the Maisie Dobbs mystery series--has written a standalone novel, published to coincide with the centennial of WWI. I admit to not realizing this was a /novel/ for a large chunk of it, and kept waiting for one of the three main characters to get murdered. Haha! Anyway, the three main characters are a young bride, formerly a schoolteacher; her husband, a farmer; and her best friend (also her husband's sister), a strident political activist/suffragette.There's also a neighbor who becomes somewhat obsessed w/ the bride after talking to her for less than five minutes and then reading all her letters to her husband (I think we are supposed to feel for his loneliness, but I found this off-putting). I don't say this often, but I actually think this could have been a little longer--things felt a little abrupt. The end was also mildly perplexing. Still, it was fine, no major complaints. B/B+.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

2014 book 277

Tessa Dare's Romancing the Duke
Since I enjoyed those Courtney Milan books so much, a few people have suggested I might like Tessa Dare's stuff as well. This one was lighter on the social issues, but higher in hilarity/cuteness. It involves a 26-year-old "spinster" (sigh), famous from her recently deceased father's series of fairy tales, but sorely lacking in funds, who inherits a castle from her godfather. But . . . the castle is inhabited by a surly-but-handsome duke who certainly never sold the place. Adorable feuding and romance takes place. There's not much to the plot here, but the characters are likable, everything about the father's stories is great, and there's plenty of enthusiastically consensual sex (if you're into that sort of thing). I think I like my romances to have /slightly/ more to the story, but the writing here is strong and I'd definitely read more by the author. B+.

2014 book 276

Kimberley McCreight's Reconstructing Amelia
I've been meaning to read this one for a while--I think Arianne recommended it to me--so was pleased when the public library got it as an e-book. It's about a woman whose teenage daughter apparently killed herself by jumping off of the roof of her fancy school--only a month later, the woman receives a text saying her daughter /didn't/ jump, and starts investigating. Now, a fair bit of the plot involves technology only discovering things at the CRAZIEST times--there would be no story at all if the cops could, say, immediately trace an anonymous text message. But on the whole, this was well done--tons of insane private school drama--and private life drama as well. I admit to thinking things would go deeper than they did (is it a spoiler to say that the cop was just a cop, when I was sure he'd turn out to have a vendetta of his own and maybe not even really be a cop), but it was satisfying enough on its own. I mean, it was CRAZY. But satisfying. B/B+.

Monday, November 17, 2014

2014 book 275

Candace Fleming's The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia
It's this year's pick for Thanksgiving Sister Book Club! (We're doing a theme: after we talk about it, we're going to watch the cartoon Anastasia). I'm a big history nerd, but figured a YA history book wouldn't be too onerous for the less nerdy, and this has gotten great reviews. I will say that this  almost reads like a textbook, with sidebars and everything. (That's not an insult! It would be a very engaging and informative textbook.) That is, aside from the overuse of exclamation points (and I say that as a heavy user of exclamation points), which I felt were kind of out of place: They were invited to a ball! Workers earned 70 cents a month! The entire family had been placed under house arrest! etc.  Fleming does a great job showing the VERY great contract between the ridiculous lives of the royalty and the terrible lives of the working class, and everything else that led up to the Revolution. I mean, no matter how many books I read about it, I am constantly amazed at what a clueless ruler Nicholas was. I also appreciated the look at anti-Semitism and the pogroms that resulted--encouraged by Nicholas! Fleming doesn't romanticize him a bit in this book, which is a nice change. I did wish for more on the Grand Duchesses, but there's always The Romanov Sisters for a follow-up. And there's not really enough on how Lenin became a leader (there are a few short Lenin interludes, but I felt like the gaps were too large). She does do a great job of contextualizing the murder of the family, including the children (well, young adults/teenagers) and the family servants. Solid bibliography/endnotes too. But I do kind of feel like I accidentally read a textbook. A-/B+.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

2014 book 274

Kate Riordan's Fiercombe Manor
The message I often take away from historical fiction is: man, it sucked to be a woman in the past. This book does nothing to belie that: it centers on two women--one, in 1933, pregnant out of wedlock, sent to secretly have her baby with an old friend of her mother's, a housekeeper at a pretty empty manor house; and the other, the lady of the manor in the 1890s, also pregnant. Both stories are fairly compelling, and I think they balance each other out nicely. The hint of a mystery--waiting to find out what happened to the woman in the 1890s both through her POV sections and the other woman's investigations--works too. Solid writing and a really engaging story. A-.

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released in February.

2014 book 273

Kate Milford's Greenglass House
Milford's latest is a HUGE step forward over her perfectly serviceable The Boneshaker. Seriously, I straight up cried more than once. It centers on Milo, whose parents run an inn in a home formerly owned by a super famous smuggler--and smugglers still stay there to this day. They're expecting their usual quiet Christmas break (I guess Christmas is the slow season for smugglers), when all of a sudden a bunch of unusual guests turn up. The cook's daughter convinces Milo they should investigate all these strangers and what they're up to (not to mention a mysterious map) under the guise of/while playing a role-playing game. Secrets are revealed at a good pace, and I loved all the visitors (the three women were particular faves and honestly made me want to watch a movie version). Milford plants enough clues for the ending to land but still make you feel like "OMGGGG." And I thought the discussions of transracial adoption were pretty thoughtful (and timely for me, having just read this Toast essay just this week). Just all around a great story (and great stories-within-stories!) and super satisfying. A.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

2014 book 272

Sydney Taylor's Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family
Thanks to the intro of the Lizzie Skurnick edition, I now know that the final book in the series wasn't supposed to be the final book--Taylor had planned books focused on each of the girls, but died after completing this one. Sadface. Anyway, this one finds oldest sister Ella trying to decide between a singing career (on vaudeville--not quite her dream) or giving it up for the guy she's been dating since book two. This is actually handled with a lot of sensitivity--presumably because it's more than a little autobiographical (though Taylor left her dancing career to have a baby, she went back to music/writing when her daughter was a little older). There's also some sweet suffragette action here. Love this series and am sad to think of the ones that could have been.

Friday, November 14, 2014

2014 book 271

Courtney Milan's The Countess Conspiracy
The third book in the Brothers Sinister series brings to the forefront a couple of things that were brewing in books 1 and 2--namely, that rakish scientist Sebastian, an expert in the scandalous field of plant reproduction, is actually presenting the work of his good friend/love interest Violet. Yes, this book is all about SECRET LADY SCIENTISTS because obviously ladies weren't allowed to go to college and learn things and be scientists back in 1867. There's also a whole thing about Violet's horrible first marriage (she's a widow) getting in the way of their love, and Sebastian's problems with his older brother (not very interesting), but whatever, who cares about emotional issues when SECRET LADY SCIENTISTS are getting stuff done. There's even a really great mother-daughter moment (both previous heroines had deceased mothers). But mainly it's SECRET LADY SCIENTISTS. A-.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

2014 book 270

Courtney Milan's The Heiress Effect
So it turns out I like romance novels! Or at least, well-written historical romance novels that touch on the class system and political inequality, which this one is and does. In this second book in the Brothers Sinister series (after The Duchess War), our protagonists are the half-brother of the dude from the first book, trying to start up a career in Parliament, and a VERY wealthy young woman determined to fend off suitors until her sister comes of age (and they can then escape their well-meaning but horrible uncle together) by being purposefully (and hilariously) socially inept. Meanwhile her sister is secretly meeting and flirting with an Indian guy, and his is an outspoken suffragette. I really appreciate Milan throwing all these social issues into her novels--they really add a nice layer of depth/reality to the proceedings (not to slight the actual romance, which was very enjoyable). A-.

2014 book 269

Rae Carson's The Bitter Kingdom
One of the reasons I like the final chapter of this trilogy so much is that it leans so much more on diplomacy than on the boring and cliched battle scenes in basically every other high fantasy series (though there's also plenty of great action scenes). It's great to see a heroine who trusts herself and relies on her intelligence and skills as well as on her friends. And I do find the religion in this world so fascinating. Just a really well-done series, and I hope Carson has a new book come out soon.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

2014 book 268

Rae Carson's The Crown of Embers
The second book in Carson's Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy is a solid middle chapter--lots of action/romance/religion etc, and also lots of moving things forward and setting them up for the finale. On rereading, there are a couple of things I wish the protagonist had figured out sooner (The Power Was in Her All Along! and so on, both politically and literally, not to mention the big romantic realization at the end, like, get your crap together girl, you've been raised studying political alliances and whatnot, how do you only figure this out as a cliffhanger when you were handed the relevant information halfway through?). Still a fun read though.

Monday, November 10, 2014

2014 book 267

Rae Carson's The Girl of Fire and Thorns
I've been a little under the weather the past couple of days, which means it's time for comfort reading! Why a book about a girl with massive political and religious responsibility dealing with a major war = comfort reading, I don't really know, but I do enjoy this book a lot (despite all the emphasis on the protagonist's weight loss). And I am still grateful that the protagonist has a realistic lovelife, as opposed to YA books where teenage characters are instant 4-eva soulmates. I think I'm going to reread this whole trilogy and see how it hangs together.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

2014 book 266

Jo Walton's The Just City
I was super excited to see a Jo Walton novel come out so soon after her last one, and this one had a concept that really appealed to me. It's about Athena deciding to create Plato's Just City (from his Republic) as an experiment, and after trying to understand why Daphne has turned herself into a tree, Apollo decides he can do with some time as a mortal and enlists as one of the children (the others are slaves purchased for this purpose). The POV characters are Apollo (as a mortal boy), a brilliant girl (one of the slave children), and one of the "masters"--a woman from the early 1800s who longed for a place where she could be an equal/intellectual. And it's all fascinating, and really well done, and Socrates comes into it (I always picture him as the guy from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure)-, and I LOVED it-and then right at the end there is a LENGTHY philosophical debate (I was not enough of a philosophy nerd to really enjoy this) and it just ENDS. Apollo is all, "well, a bunch of other stuff happened too, see ya, but let me end on a philosophical note." So, like, as a WORK of philosophy, or as a thought experiment, it's interesting, but as a novel, that ending was less than satisfying. And I prefer to read a novel. (I take back all complaints if a sequel is forthcoming.)*

*Thanks to author Jo Walton for letting me know a sequel IS forthcoming. :) All my complaints are rescinded and my grade is now A-/B+.

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released in January.

2014 book 265

Alethea Kontis' Dearest
The third book in Kontis' Woodcutters series (after Enchanted and Hero) focuses on empath Friday, the gifted seamstress sister--which comes in handy when she encounters the swan princes and their sister (Odette the Swan Princess and the Darling children from Peter Pan also feature in the story). The romance here was a little bit over-the-top for my personal taste, but the family stuff and the action/adventure stuff was well-done. Solidly entertaining read. B/B+.

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released in February.

Friday, November 07, 2014

2014 book 264

Courtney Milan's The Duchess War
Look at me, expanding my horizons and reading something that can only be classified as a romance thanks to no-spend November and public library e-books. I actually quite liked this--it's historical (it reads like a Regency but there's mention of Queen Victoria, so let's just say it's set in the PAST), about a woman with a secret past who acts all shy and mousy to get a husband and settle into a safe, boring, normal life--when she meets a hot Duke who finds her intriguing (he also has a fair amount of interesting stuff in his past). I mean, it's obvious (more or less) how things will turn out, but there are some good twists--and radical politics!--along the way. Plus some nice female friendship (and what seems to be a pair of elderly lesbians). And the writing is actually pretty strong, aside from a little bit of (I thought) unnecessary overemphasis on feelings and whatnot. I mean, I get what they feel, you don't need to keep explaining it to me. Still, I really enjoyed this. I especially liked the little nod to Austen. Apparently there are four books in this series and I already have the next one on hold at the library. :) A-.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

2014 book 263

Elizabeth Haynes' Under a Silent Moon
Haynes latest (after Into the Darkest Corner and others) is the first book in a new series, about DCI Louisa Smith, investigating the murder of a pretty and highly sexual young woman, as well as an apparent suicide that might be related. It's not toooo hard to figure out what's behind it all, but I appreciate Haynes' attention to detail on the police work aspect of things (she apparently used to work as a police analyst, which maybe explains why the love interest here is a highly capable police analyst). I will say that I was mildly frustrated at how unbelievably stupid and horrible one of the other detectives (and former love interest of Louisa's) was, but there were some other interesting side characters that I look forward to seeing in the next volume. Things end weirdly abruptly, but otherwise this was a satisfying mystery. B+.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

2014 book 262

Sydney Taylor's All-of-a-Kind Family Uptown
In the 4th All-of-a-Kind Family book, the family befriends some Irish neighbors (a handy reason to explain various Jewish holidays and customs to the readers), Sarah (the author's alter ego) tries for the history prize, and Ella's boyfriend goes off to fight in WWI. Because this is a kid's book, the war is moooostly glossed over, aside from war efforts at home, but that's still fairly fascinating. Every time I reread one of these, I'm just so grateful to Lizie Skurnick for also loving them and for having the power and ability to reissue them.

2014 book 261

Mallory Ortberg's Texts from Jane Eyre
Look, I'm a huge Mallory Ortberg/The Toast fangirl, and I loved Ortberg's pieces from this series on the Hairpin, so I was all over this book. (I like when she "clowns on the Western canon," ok?). And it's not just classics, there's a whole section of stuff like the American Girl books and Fight Club and other modern stuff (the Harry Potter one basically killed me). Obviously the ones inspired by books you've actually read work better (the Moby Dick and Cormac McCarthy sections pretty much lost me), but this is just really well-done and hilarious. So hilarious.

2014 book 260

Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk about Kevin
This is one of those books I've been meaning to read for years (it came out like ten years ago), but wasn't entirely sure I could handle the subject matter (it's narrated by a woman in letters to her husband, about their son, a school shooter). And I was spoiled about the ending a long time ago. But hey, when you're doing no-spend November, you read whatever library e-books look interesting.  And it was very well done, if entirely chilling. I should have read this on Halloween, it's thematically similar to movies like The Omen (I mean, in a really loose sense). I really kind of want to discuss this with someone--the reliability of the narrator would be a hot topic for sure. And the terrifying-ness of Kevin. And the role of the Other in American society. I would, however, advise my parent friends maybe not to read it. Now I wonder if I'm brave enough to see the movie. A-.