Friday, November 25, 2016

The Chemist by Stephenie Meyer

I have a love-hate relationship with Stephenie Meyer's work, and I think a lot of other people feel that way, too (even if they won't admit it). I'll start by saying that, yes, I do like TWILIGHT. The book, that is. Not the movie. I read it almost ten years ago, and I was at the perfect point in my life where it actually made a lot of sense to me. Because of that, I will always have fond feelings for Bella and Edward's admittedly self-absorbed world.

Now, I love THE HOST. It's morally complex and features these creepy aliens straight out of the Animorphs series. (In fact, I've always said that the Souls are an awful lot like the Yeerks.) I've read it several times, and I'll be the first to admit that while the story has its problems, the writing and world-building make up for it. I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that we're still desperately waiting on those two sequels. I mean she wrote four unnecessary follow-ups to TWILIGHT, as well as a gender-swapped retelling and part of Edward's POV. Come on!

When I found out that Stephenie Meyer was writing something new, my first feeling was disappointment. Like, "Oh, so you're too busy to work on my precious HOST sequels, but not too busy to publish a 500-page tome, I see." But my second feeling was excitement. This is the first completely new thing that Meyer has put out in years. Of course I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. I counted down the days to its release date feeling giddy.

The premise of THE CHEMIST is interesting, and completely different from Meyer's usual work. She abandons her trademark first-person narrative style for a removed third-person retelling, featuring a retired female assassin who tortures and kills people with various poisons and chemicals (hence her eponymous nom de guerre, The Chemist). One day, she ends up getting roped back into her old career. Her assignment? To stop a potential terrorist from spreading a man-made plague.

This plot should be the bomb-dot-com. Female assassins? Political intrigue? Deadly missions? Yes, yes, and yes. Unfortunately, it was not bomb-dot-com. More like lame-dot-org.

Despite a compelling opening, the plot of the chemist sinks hard and fast. It's boring. There's a marked lack of conflict. When the heroine encounters the love interest, she pretty much falls for him instnatly, even though she's not supposed to (surprise). Despite the fact that they meet under less than ideal circumstances, they have no misunderstandings or lack of empathy. This sounds like a good thing - in fact, I'm sure you're shaking your head at me, thinking, "You're actually complaining about a relationship that doesn't have any misunderstandings or lack of empathy?" - but it is not. The heroine tortures the hero, and he doesn't even care. Doesn't blame her, doesn't hold a grudge about it.


Second, despite having a plot revolving around assassinations and bio-terrorism, there's pretty much no drama. The heroine and the hero make out. A lot. They talk about dogs and food. A lot. At one point, the heroine gets a makeover and becomes best-fray-frays with Alice's psychotic, non-vampiric twin. Then there's these long periods where pretty much NOTHING happens. All those scenes that the reader takes for granted and shouldn't have to be written into the story? Meyer writes about them.

A lot.

There are some unintentionally hilarious lines in this book, though. Like this one:

"Um, is this some kind of fetish fantasy thing? ...I don't really know the rules for that stuff..." (14%)

^Is Meyer kind of throwing shade at FSoG here? I wonder.

She snagged the warm, bloody finger off the floor and backed to the bathroom, keeping her eyes on him as he writhed in his bonds; even the best zip ties weren't foolproof. She made sure he was watching as she dropped the finger into the toilet and flushed (46%)

^I literally have no words.

"I don't need any satanic help to do what I do....And virgins aren't useful for anything" (64%)

^No. Words.

Don't ask me how it ended. I started skimming at the 75% mark. Honestly, I would have DNF'd probably, except for the fact that so many people were asking about this book, wanting to know how it was and whether I liked it. I'm genuinely sorry to say that, no, I didn't. I was hugely disappointed by THE CHEMIST because everything about it, from the romance to the plot, was utterly devoid of substance. There would be flashes of good writing or clever dialogue, and I would sit up a little, hopeful, only to be disappointed again and again. If THE CHEMIST has any redeeming features, it's that it made me want to reread TWILIGHT and THE HOST, to see Meyer at her best.

Hopefully her next work will be better. If you're new to her work, don't start with this one, please.

1 out of 5 stars. :(

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I was really curious about Edna St. Vincent Millay because she's mentioned in this book I have: BOBBED HAIR AND BATHTUB GIN. A friend and contemporary of Dorothy Parker (the OG 'bad b*tch'), she's portrayed as fiercely and fearlessly intellectual in the book, with a tongue as sharp as an adamantium blade.

I'm very particular about what kinds of poetry I like and do not like. Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and John Donne are my three favorites, and I hold everything I read up to them.

Edna St. Vincent Millay's poems are emotionally wrenching, with beautiful writing and interesting syntax, that manage to convey ideas within the parameters of her chosen meters without coming across as too twee or contrived. Her motifs of choice seem to be nature and lost love, and her use of evocative imagery to drive her points home really are brilliant.

Her famous poem is probably "The Harp Weaver", but I liked “Never May the Fruit Be Plucked” and "The Spring and the Fall" best. One is about love being this elusive thing, comparing being heart-sick to having a dearth of love when the rest of the world is oversaturated with it. The other compares the beginning and the end of a relationship to the seasons of spring and fall. Her sonnets are also good, but I like sonnets and not everyone does.

I will say that her poems do feel a tad more "amateur" than most published poets, in the sense that her ideas do not always feel "polished" and that she sometimes subscribes to more Hallmarkian sentiments. But in a way, this works in her favor - it makes her poems more accessible. Young people - especially young women - will get a lot out of her work, I think. She captures those adolescent pangs of despair and angst and loneliness quite well.

A hip-hip-hooray for St. Vincent Millay!

3 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Rangoon by Christine Monson

Christine Monson is pretty well known in the bodice-ripper genre, primarily for her first book, STORMFIRE. But that book is hard to find and expensive to buy, so I had to settle for one of her later titles. I picked RANGOON, because of that gorgeous cover. I'm a shallow, shallow betch, I know, but look at that sunset palette, the utterly romantic posing of the h and the H, and the minarets in the distance.

I needed it.

RANGOON offers another plus: it's set in Victorian-era Burma (or Myanmar). The heroine, Lysistrata, is named after the Greek play by the same name. Incidentally, LYSISTRATA is my favorite Greek play because it's so damn funny; Aristophanes trumps Sophocles any day of the week - I'd much rather read about a bunch of women protesting a war by refusing sex with their menfolk than about an incestuous psychodrama). She lives up to her namesake, too. She's plain and headstrong and doesn't have time for your games.

Her father is a doctor who is serving at the Rangoon hospital. Lysistrata ends up helping him out, and comes into her own beauty with the help of a catty old lady who decides to take her under her wing. The result is a flood of suitors, but the only one that really holds her interest is Richard Harley/Ram Kachwaha, who is half-Burmese, half-English. He's also a total rogue and might or might'nt be involed in some shady dealings.

I wanted to like Richard/Ram (Ramchard?) because for a while, he reminded me of a morally gray hero a la Anne Stuart. You don't see a lot of decent Gamma heroes, so I was pleased to see him skate the line between dangerous and charming, and how it set Lysistrata off guard. I liked Lysistrata in the beginning, too. She was independent, and cunning and witty, and she was considerate and kind.

The problem is that their characters are hugely inconsistent. They behave very differently at different points of the book, with personality shifts that don't really make any sense. Also, Lysistrata succumbs to the temptation of all heroines to act helpless and cry and make protests about traitorous bodies. She wasn't as bad as most, but it was a complete 180 from what the story was building her up to be, and I was very disappointed. Toward the end, there's yet another shift as both characters become fatalistic, and often start talking about death in romanticized, disturbing terms. It's very strange.

The best part of this book is probably the writing and the details. There were some beautiful turns of phrase in here, and times it could be very passionate. Her descriptions of the jungles of Burma were exquisite, and I love how she captured the hypocrisy of the white, foreign expatriates living in Rangoon. Monson had a quick wit, and it showed in the dialogue. She's also really good at fight and action scenes, and isn't afraid to show gore. After the opening, the portions about Khandahoor were probably my favorite, although parts of the trial in the third act were pretty hilarious, too.

RANGOON's biggest failing is that its tone is inconsistent, and so is the characterization. I feel like this book is unsure as to whether it wants to be a true bodice ripper or an epic, doomed love story. It's also not particularly memorable. Nothing particularly WTF-ish or OTT except for a bizarre masturbation scene in the middle of the ocean in which the heroine enjoys the sensation of the sand on her hand getting in there (everybody cringe on three) and the hero licking the heroine's armpits.

3 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Only Daughter by Anna Snoekstra

You know how some people like to politely warn you before they tell you something incredibly disturbing? They'll try to act all coy, like, "Are you sure you want to know? Once I tell you, I can't untell you." And of course, that only makes you want to know more, because curiosity is the devil, and you tell yourself that it couldn't possibly worse than what you're imagining - but then they tell you and it is so much worse, and they're like, "Told you!" ONLY DAUGHTER is book form.

As far as publishers go, Mira doesn't tend to be that brutal. I've read several thrillers published by this imprint and most of them were light. Good - but inoffensive and forgettable. ONLY DAUGHTER is different. It's got a plot that's akin to something Gillian Flynn or Mary Kubica might think up.

ONLY DAUGHTER is about a young woman who looks very similar to a girl who's been missing for ten years - Rebecca Winter. When she's about to be arrested for shoplifting, she decides to capitalize on this uncanny resemblance, claiming to be the missing girl. Instead of being arrested, she's delivered into the arms of her 'parents,' and reimersed into the lives of the missing girl's friends and family.

What started out as an impulse quickly becomes a tangled nest of thorny lies, as the imposter attempts to trick everyone around her into believing that she is Rebecca, avoiding any missteps, blood tests, and exams that could reveal the lie. But the more she pretends, the more she begins to realize that someone might have had a good reason for making Rebecca disappear. And she might be next.

Wooo, I just gave myself the shivers.

Honestly, this is a tricky book to rate. The premise was difficult to buy, because I couldn't imagine someone just impulsively deciding to pretend to be a missing person just to avoid shoplifting charges. The premise hinges on us willing to buy that, because that's how it all goes down like a house of cards, and I was very skeptical. Once we get over that hump-a-dump, though, the story becomes pretty addicting. I wanted to find out what happened to Rebecca and what would happen to the impostor, and what she was running from (not all that much as it turned out).

Rebecca's story, though - man...that was, well. I have no words. Sickening? Disturbing? WTF? To be honest, I'm still not 100% sure what happened because the story started to get a little vague around the 200-page mark. Also, I should point out that there is a brutal, sadistic animal death in here that made me so upset. It was very difficult to read. Not to sound like a weenie, but I got choked up. Next time I go out to see my kitties, I'm going to have to hug them both extra tight. :(

I liked this book, in spite of its flaws. It was interesting, and heaps better than GIRL ON THE TRAIN. This was much more in tune with Gillian Flynn's style - although nobody can do Flynn like Flynn. Still, for what it was, it was more than decent and surprising in more ways than one. If you don't mind opening up a six-pack of the creepies, and like your thrillers with a heavy splash of WTF, you'll probably enjoy ONLY DAUGHTER. Just remember: once you read it, you can't unread it.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the ARC!

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Queen of Katwe: One Girl's Triumphant Path to Becoming a Chess Champion by Tim Crothers

Chess is a lot like a language: the pieces are the phonemes, and their movements are morphemes. The positions they make together on the board are like sentences and phrases, and a talented enough chess player can really make a statement.When you think about it, chess is downright magical. A universal language that transcends geographical and cultural boundaries. A language so universal that even villagers in rural Uganda can speak it.

Most of the nonfiction I read tends to run along the "girl power" route, so obviously I was thrilled when I found a girl power book that was not just about one of my favorite activities but also about a woman of color competing in a game that is dominated by men. It's been turned into a movie, too. A movie I desperately want to see, which stars Lupita Nyong'o. How could this not be good?

Well...I noticed a lot of the reviews for this book were not so great. That surprised me, because books like these usually have great reviews because people find them so inspiring or interesting. As I began to read the book, I began to understand why so many people had reservations about QUEEN OF KATWE. I'll list the reasons out as I go and talk about them, because the reviewers really hit the nail on the head in this case.

1. Phiona Mutesi is not actually a grandmaster. There's an alternate title of the book, "The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl's Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster." It never explicitly states that she is a grandmaster, but it could be perceived as misleading. Maybe that's why it changed. The other title is more attention-getting, but I like this one better. It really captures her journey and ambitions in a sentence. And her rookie-status actually didn't bother me that much, because I'm a rookie player too, and I don't think it's a stretch to call her a "champion" since she really is the best chess player in Uganda...even if that's setting the bar low.

2. This book is not just Phiona Mutesi's story: This is true. Most of the book is about Phiona but there are a lot of lengthy digressions. We learn about the history of Phiona's teacher and the leader of the Sports Outreach program that allowed chess to be possible for Phiona and her friends, Robert Katende. We also learn about the white people who funded the charity and the white people who created the scholarship that allowed Phiona to go to school. These parts were interesting, especially Katende's, but they weren't Phiona's story. I could see why people were annoyed.

3. They took religion out of the movie version/this book is very preachy: Religion plays a fairly big role in this story because the Sports Outreach program was a Christian charity funded and founded by Christians. Robert Katende gives sermons targeted for young people that wouldn't be out of place in a Veggie Tales cartoon. I didn't mind this. Religion can cause people do want to do great things; in the right hands, it's a tool that lets people plunge the depths of spiritual goodness. I admire the faith and devotion of those who use their belief in God for good. That said, I can also understand why religion was left out of the movie. As controversial as it is, I think the message is that you don't have to have religion to have a moral compass that points you to better the world. Being secular makes the story more universally accessible.

4. The writing was not good: I sort of half-agree on this one. The writing was not high-brow or particularly polished, but the author got the story across in a way that was readable and interesting. Could it have been organized better? Probably. Honestly, though, it wasn't bad. Phiona is such an interesting subject and I liked how the author kind of got swept up in chess, too. He makes it sound interesting, which is hard to do in books about chess (reading about it just isn't that interesting).

So yeah, the book has some flaws, and Phiona was built up to be a little greater than she actually is (at least at the moment), but I liked THE QUEEN OF KATWE. It's got girl power and chess, and it's basically a biography of a girl's hopes and dreams as they're in the process of being fulfilled. We don't know if she'll make it and neither does she, but she's working as hard as she can, against all of the odds, to make it happen. If that's not inspiring, I don't know what is.

3 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre by Tracy Chevalier

Like most of the people picking up this title, Jane Eyre is one of my favorite classic works of literature. It seems a bit coincidental, until you really take the time to think about it. What bookish girl or boy wouldn't want to read a story about an intelligent, plain, and stubborn heroine who ends up getting her own grand, epic love story (even if it is a bit of a downer)? Jane is the Everygeek.

READER, I MARRIED HIM is an anthology of stories from many different authors, some of them big name, all claiming to be "inspired by" JANE EYRE. Oh, and the editor? Tracy Chevalier? Yeah, she wrote a book too, one you may have heard of. A little thing called GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING. Good stuff.

Well, no, not really. READER, I MARRIED HIM is actually a huge disappointment. You'll probably notice that the average rating is pretty low (3.26/5 as of the time of my writing this). That didn't really scare me away because it's pretty common for retellings and reimaginings to be slammed by the purists. We don't like it when people mess with our favorite works of fiction. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" seems to be the rallying cry there.

The problem here isn't that the authors looked at the story in an unwelcome or uninspired way. It's that many of the stories here have nothing to do with JANE EYRE at all.

The first two stories, My Mother's Wedding by Tessa Hadley and Luxury Hour by Sarah Hallare nebulous and blend into each other because the narrative style is so similar. I barely remember what happened in them, only that they had nothing to do with Jane Eyre.

Grace Pool Her Testimony (I itch to put a comma in there, seriously) by Helen Dunmore was the first story that I liked. It's a reimagining of JANE EYRE from the point of view of the servant, Grace Poole, who sees Jane as an interloper. It doesn't portray Jane or Rochester in the best light, but it keeps to the gothic theme of the original.

Dangerous Dog by Kirsty Gunn is about a jogger/lit student who saves a pitbull from being abused by talking about JANE EYRE to some wannabe-thugs. She uses the red room that Jane's aunt put her in after her uncle had died to relate to them. It was cheesy, and only tangentially related to the original story, but it's hard to be mad at a story where the heroine nips animal cruelty in the bud.

To Hold by Joanna Briscoe is a story about a woman who keeps putting off the marriage proposals of a local lord, instead marrying other men whom she cares nothing about while having clandestine relationships with a woman. I felt like it was trying too hard to be edgy & didn't have anything to do with the original story of JANE EYRE, so I didn't really care for this one much at all.

It's a Man's Life, Ladies by Jane Gardam is about a woman and her grandmother, who reminisces a bit on her late husband. Also didn't really have anything to do with JANE EYRE.

Not Since First I Saw Your Face by Emma Donoghue was a story that I got excited about, because Donoghue's been all over the place and her last two novels were very highly spoken of by critics and readers alike. This story is apparently about two real-life historical figures - Mary "Minnie" Sidgwick Benson and Ellen/Elizabeth Hall - and the clandestine affair they had while Minnie was recuperating in Wiesbaden. It wasn't a bad story, but it had nothing to do with Jane Eyre, except for the fact that the man Minnie was married to was named Edward. That's a tenuous connection, at best. I also think it would have been more effective if it hadn't been so close to another very similar story, To Hold.

Reader, I Married Him by Susan Hill was another story I was excited to read because Susan Hill is a well known gothic/horror writer (author of THE WOMAN IN BLACK). If anyone could stay in keeping to the gothic feel of JANE EYRE, I thought surely it would be she. Nope. Instead, she presents us with this story about a woman's doomed relationship with a king. It wasn't King Edward, either, which I feel was a lost opportunity.

The Mirror by Francine Prose was easily one of my favorites in this collection, probably because it was more in keeping with what I expected. It's an unsettling epilogue to JANE EYRE, in which history repeats itself and Jane wonders if she is going as mad as his first wife. I've read Prose's other work and really like her style, and she adapted it well to this macabre retelling.

A Migrating Bird by Elif Shafak is about a relationship between a Turkish Muslim girl with strict parents and a Dutch exchange student. This one was really well written but also sad. Once more, there's no connection to JANE EYRE.

Behind the Mountain by Evie Wyld is totally bizarre. It's about this woman who is fascinated by this other woman who has been scalped by a bear. Stop laughing, I'm being completely serious.

The China from Buenos Aires Park by Patricia Park is about this Argentinian woman of Korean ancestry. She feels out of place in Argentina, because she doesn't look like everyone else. She feels out of place with Koreans, because she doesn't speak Korean. When she comes to the U.S. she feels out of place there, too, because she doesn't speak English. Then she gets in a sort-of relationship with this guy whose ethnic background is similar to hers, but it all gets blown up in the air when she is forced to honor her duty to her family. I can sort of understand the connection here (duty vs. love) but I felt emotionally distanced from the story because it felt so rushed.

Reader, She Married Me by Salley Vickers was another of the few stories with a direct JANE EYRE connection. This short story is narrated by Rochester (and actually uses the flowery Victorian dialogue fairly well). I feel like this work was very much influenced by Jean Rhys's WIDE SARGASSO SEA.

Dorset Gap by Tracy Chevalier was another one of the "okays". It's a story about a pretentious girl (I honestly wanted to slap her) and the doofy boy who is in love with her. They sign a book in a sort of makeshift time capsule with two quotes from JANE EYRE.

Party Girl by Nadifa Mohamed was a really interesting story about a Muslim girl's coming of age. Which is great, because we need more diversity in fiction, but it wasn't really Eyre-related.

I'm getting a little bored, so I'm just going to sum up the last stories quickly. In Transference by Esther Freud, woman sort-of-maybe falls in love with therapist while also seeking to better her relationship with her husband. The Mash Up by Linda Grant is about a Jewish/Persian wedding that ends badly. The Self-Seeding Sycamore by Lionel Shriver was super cute. I think it's my favorite in this collection: a modern day retelling of JANE EYRE between an army medic and a widow. The Orphan Exchange by Audrey Niffenegger was also decent, about a lesbian love story between two European orphans and how they overcome a terrible tragedy. Don't ask me to describe Double Men by Namwali Serpell and Robin Crusoe at the Waterpark by Elizabeth McCracken because I'm still not sure what was happening in those stories. Only that they weren't JANE EYRE-related.

I know I've said it 100 times over the course of this review, but if you're going to have an anthology of stories "inspired by" JANE EYRE, then they should be inspired by JANE EYRE - and in such a way that the audience can actually make the connection themselves, so they don't feel cheated like I did. Granted, it's been a while since I've read my beloved JANE, so I'm willing to concede that some of the allusions may have been so subtle that I missed them once or twice. But since this happened with every other story in this anthology, I'm fairly sure that the fault did not lie just with me.

There are some great stories in here, but they can't carry the entire collection. It's unreasonable to expect them to.

2 out of 5 stars.

The Only Pirate at the Party by Lindsey Stirling

If you've been following me for a while, you know that I've tried several memoirs by YouTube celebrities and did not like any of them. If you haven't been following me for a while, you're probably rolling your eyes a little and thinking, "Then why are you reading this, huh? Didn't you learn your lesson the last three times?" In response to this question: 1) No. And 2) What's a lesson?

I've actually been listening to Lindsey's music for only about a year (late in the game, I know). I wish I could say that it was an independent discovery, but I don't even have that claim to fame. Someone I know likes her music a lot, so I got them her two CDs as a gift. Curious, I played a few of her songs on YouTube and was blown away - by the music, the crossing of genres, the talent, the dancing, the energy, the outfits.

My favorite songs by her are probably Senbonzakura, which is a cover of a Vocaloid song; Master of Tides, which is an incredible live performance with a nautical theme; and Minimal Beat, which is pretty much what it sounds like, paired with a montage of Lindsey on tour, greeting her fans in a multitude of countries in a multitude of outfits. If it sounds like I'm hung up on the outfits, that's because I am. Her fashion sense = life goals.

But it sucks learning the dirt on your favorite celebrities because sometimes when you peek into their closets you find not just skeletons but meanness. Nothing is worse than finding out a celebrity you love and adore is actually not a nice person. So that was a definite fear of mine when I was debating on reading THE ONLY PIRATE AT THE PARTY. But then her memoir got nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award, so I bit the bullet and checked it out from the library.

I really shouldn't have doubted.

Not because this memoir sucked, but because it was so awesome. Shame on me for thinking that somebody with so much talent, passion, energy, and intelligence wouldn't be able to string to words together. I finished THE ONLY PIRATE AT THE PARTY in a day, basically. Lindsey talks about her unconventional childhood, her Mormon faith (which actually causes some pretty sticky restraints on her wardrobe - that poor stylist, haha), her road to stardom, and her struggle with anxiety and eating disorders. She was charming and real, and just awkward enough to make you feel like you were actually reading somebody's private journal, and hearing their inner-most thoughts.

It really made me appreciate how difficult it is to achieve fame when you're starting out from nothing. I know most celebrity memoirs make that claim, but Lindsey shared some of her humiliations, like being shunned by a famous singer and his orchestra at a concert they were performing at together, and her rejection from the judges of America's Got Talent. I found it inspiring how she always tried to look for the silver lining in even the worst situations, and kept looking for new opportunities.

Honestly, I haven't been this psyched about a memoir since Mara Wilson's and Felicia Day's.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Mating of Hawks by Jeanne Williams

I'm that weirdo who doesn't hide her racy romance novels behind the safe, bland screen of a Kindle - I read them in public, even if they've got heaving bosoms on the cover. (The only exception are books with covers that are straight-up pornographic, because I will not be held responsible for traumatizing maiden aunts riding on the bus.) When I saw A MATING OF HAWKS on the freebie table at the library, I snatched that sucker up faster than you can say, "Hot damn!"

Jeanne Williams has written a lot of books but has mostly gone under the radar. I'd had my eye on several of her historical fiction works that have been rereleased for Kindle, but the price - $6.15 - gave me pause. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to give this author a whirl and see if her writing style jibed with my reading tastes.

First, a caveat: I'm not sure if this is representative of her historical fiction works, because it's not historical fiction. It's a contemporary Western romance set on a ranch in "modern day" Arizona.

Second, another caveat: spoilers - there will be many spoilers! Why? Because this is a rather esoteric little book, and bodice-rippers and vintage roms are the (main) exception to my attempts at spoiler-free reviews. Part of what makes books like these so fun/awful are the dirty deets.

And yet one more caveat: there are triggers in this book - animal deaths and sexual assault/rape.

A MATING OF HAWKS is set on a ranch in Arizona, in the 80s (or possibly the late 70s). Tracy Benoit is a journalist who is attempting to overcome a recent attempted rape. The last thing she needs is more psychological trauma, so what better time for her to get...more psychological trauma. Her foster father/distant uncle, Patrick, is blind, paralyzed, and dying, and wants her there in his final days.

Also at Rancho del Socorro are her two distant cousins, half-brothers Shea and Judd. Shea hates women because he's been hurt. Judd "loves" women to the point where he won't take no for an answer. Both are misogynistic d-bags, so of course, both are love interests. I really did not like these love interests. When Shea sleeps with her, he makes a point of drilling in the fact that he isn't looking for a relationship or commitment, even though she's in a fragile emotional state, recovering from her recent trauma and the slow death of the only father figure she has.

Judd is a different, smelly kettle of fish. He's always forcing kisses and unwanted physical contact on her. He randomly sneaks into her house in the night (Shea does this too actually). He's carrying on an affair with Patrick's (younger) wife, Vashti, whom he insults freely. We find out that he also had an affair with Cele, Shea's ex-wife. Oh, and toward the end of the book, he rapes Tracy. Several times. Even though Tracy made a point of confiding in him about it early on. No words.

The best part of this book is actually something that I felt was skated over toward the end to make room for the "romance": the rivalry for the brothers and the workings of the ranch. Arizona is in the middle of a massive drought and Shea knows that the groundwater won't last. He sees it as his responsibility to make sure the ranch flourishes so that one day, his grandchildren will still have a living, sustainable farm. Judd, on the other hand, is greedy for profit and has more cattle than his portion of the ranch can comfortably hold. He's allowed them to overgraze, and in the dry soil, the cattle are pulling up the grass by the roots. Shea, on the other hand, is allowing the grass on his portion to grow back, giving the earth time to recover. Judd wants to use his lease, but Shea refuses unless Judd sells some of his herd. Which he refuses to do, instead entering into legal purgatory, trying to get Shea's lease overturned. Pettiness and underhanded schemes ensue.

Also, part of this book made me tear up because there's a side story where Tracy and one of the Native American farmhands go to rescue a wounded eagle and find out that it's being used to fight against cats. This little Mexican girl finds out that her brother entered her pet kitty in the fight and rushes into the arena, heartbroken, to see its guts dashed out all over the ground. She cries. I cried, too.

The details into ranch life are fascinating and I loved the mixed ancestry of the family - Mexican, Native American, and Irish/European - and how it's affected their culture, traditions, and way of life. I do think there was a decent story in here, but the love interests and romance sort of killed it. I'm definitely curious to see what her historical fiction is like, because their covers are beautiful retro bodice ripper covers at their finest, but I think I'll wait for them to go on sale before diving in.

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

When my book club voted for WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE as our next read, I was apprehensive. This was a book I had already written off as having no intention to read. Suddenly - a dilemma! I bought the book at a brick-and-mortar in a small, college town, and told myself to try and at least find something worth remarking on that wasn't negative that also wasn't my fallback "the cover is pretty!" (even though it is - pretty)

To my surprise, I actually found myself getting caught up in the story. Oh, don't get me wrong. I didn't find the characters quirky or charming in the slightest and their (many) foibles did not endear them to me in the slightest. But their pettiness was amusing, in the same way that Jerry Springer can be amusing, or viral videos of shouting, angry people can be amusing. "What the hell is wrong with these people?" I asked myself. "Who does this?"

The titular Bernadette is a failed architect living with her Microsoft husband and precocious young daughter. They reside in a Stepfordian Seattle suburb, where the parents make a habit of getting involved in their children's lives, prepping them for Ivies even though they're scarcely out of grade school. Everyone except Bernadette, however, who's pretty much checked out and seems to be borderline agoraphobic, as she has a $.75/hr virtual assistant in India to handle even the most menial of tasks, whether it's buying the groceries or booking a plane.

Bernadette's arch-nemesis is a nosy neighbor and fellow mom named Audrey. Bernadette calls Audrey and her friends "the gnats." Audrey can't stand Bernadette, and thinks she's a total weirdo-freak. The two of them spend most of the first half fighting and passively-aggressively getting revenge on one another, which is entertaining, because it's like they're in a contest to see who can be the biggest witch. I even devised a mental score system, and would award points for particularly inspired acts of bitchery.

The story gets a little weird when Bee calls her parents up on a promise to take her to Antarctica if she gets all A's. Bernadette undergoes what appears to be a mental breakdown, and shortly after everything hits the fan, she pulls a disappearing act.

I thought Bernadette's backstory was interesting, but this is another instance when a work of fiction doesn't really treat mental health with the proper realism. Instead of being treated as a serious issue, the old fall backs remain the status quo: her craziness is often the butt of jokes, treated as being comedic instead of grave, and despite behaviors that ought to be raising multiple red flags, people are quicker to look the other way or indulge her dangerous whims because she's an "artist" who just needs to "create."

For a book whose plot involves repeatedly jumping the shark, I felt like the last third of the book really tested my suspension of disbelief. Nor did I get the closure I wanted regarding Bernadette's issues or some of the things her husband did. Audrey's redemption arc was surprising and welcome, but the confirmation of Audrey's villainy did not redeem Bernadette's or Elgie's.

Overall, though, I really enjoyed WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE. It's not something I ever would have picked out for myself, but that's the beauty of book clubs. Sometimes you're pleasantly surprised. This is one of those instances.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars.

The Big Bento Box of Unuseless Japanese Inventions by Kenji Kawakami,

The last thing we need is another word for "useless junk", right? Japan doesn't think so! In Kenji Kawakami's hilarious picture book, he talks about chindogu - items that were invented to solve a problem, that look like a great idea...until you stop for a moment, really think about it, & realize, no, it's not a great idea.

Cases in point: mop booties for your cat; alarm clock headphones; portable bus/train seats; full body umbrellas; tongue covers to protect your mouth from hot food; and bathtub sake warmers, to name a few. Chindogu look like things you might expect to see in daytime TV infomercials or on the Home Shopping Network, but one of the chief tenets of chindogu is that they cannot be sold. Bad news for the selfie stick, because its precursor is in here!

This is a re-read, but THE BIG BENTO BOX OF USELESS JAPANESE INVENTIONS is such a funny and unique book that it's one of the rare books that I actually kept instead of donating it like the rest. The photographs are high quality and have a slightly retro look to them that makes it feel like they were taken in the 90s.

Speaking of photographs, I have to wonder if the Konica camera was a sponsor of this book, because the Konica mini appeared in these pages every time there was a camera chindogu device (and there were a lot - also shoes). Either way, I'm sure they appreciated the publicity.

4 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

THE BONE SEASON is probably the best example of why it is such a bad idea to brand books as "the next (insert popular title or author here)": expectations. When you compare a debut novel or author to an established work, it really isn't fair. That established work already has already proved its worth to its fans; they've read and liked the story, and developed an emotional connection to it. Making comparisons like "the next J.K. Rowling" is basically asking Potter fans, many of whom have grown up with the series from childhood, to embrace this new author with the same fervor before she's even really had a chance to prove her worth. Shannon actually had a great response to this comparison: "we don't need a 'new J.K.' because she is still writing and still amazing." Even she seems to realize that the comparison isn't really adequate or fair.

That said, THE BONE SEASON - when it's allowed to stand on its own merit, in its own category - is actually a pretty decent book. I'm not going to lie, seeing many of my trusted reviewers slam this weighty tome made it a sight less appealing, but I like to experience things myself before making up my mind, so I decided to give the book a try anyway. The premise is confusing. It's set in future dystopian London. Alternate universe future dystopian London, because in this world, there are psychics (called "Voyants" or "Unnaturals") and an evil government called Scion. Basically, Voyants are hunted down and executed by Scions, unless they're employed by the government and then they're kept on for thirty years, whereupon they "retire" upon completing their contract (a.k.a. murdered). Our protagonist, Paige Mahoney, is a refugee from Ireland and is the most powerful class of psychic: a dreamwalker, or someone who can supposedly invade and possess people's minds.

One day, Paige is captured and she finds out the truth of who - or what - is really behind the inception of their oppressive Scion government. A powerful and immortal race of (alien?) beings called the Rephaim. They come from the same place where psychics draw their powers from: the aether (which I kind of imagined as looking like the Lifestream from Final Fantasy VII). Paige is kept in one of their prisons, along with a bunch of other psychics, where they are tried and trained Hunger Games/Vampire Academy style, and their achievements place them on a hierarchy. They are being trained to fight flesh-eating (zombie?) monsters called Emim (or "Buzzers"). Paige's trainer/master is a Rephaim called Arcturus (or "the Warden" or "Blood-consort"), the fiance of the Rephaim's evil queen, Nashira Sargas. He's quiet and mysterious and seems slightly less evil than the other Rephaim, but he's still obviously hiding something and isn't above reminding Paige of their relationship.

I'm going to interject here, and say that one of the biggest deterrents to this book is the world-building. It's original, and once it gets rolling, I was able to appreciate all the effort that went into the story, but the first couple chapters are literally non-stop info-dumps and expositional scenes and dialogue. Everything in here has a name (sometimes multiple names for the same thing), which is possibly what drew the Rowling comparisons, but in Rowling's book, the reader is gradually introduced into the Wizarding World, whereas in THE BONE SEASON, we're not introduced so much as thrown into it headlong without so much as a life preserver to keep us afloat. It really takes a lot of leg work to keep everything straight and many readers don't want to work to enjoy a story.

I did love the writing, though. I was really impressed by the quality of the prose; when it wasn't bogged down by clunky expositions, the writing was beautiful. Once I got to about page 150, I couldn't put the book down. There are elements of many different books in here, which I think has a lot of potential for cross-over appeal. Parts of the book reminded me of Stephenie Meyer's HOST (aliens taking over humanity for their own purposes, a romance between a sympathetic alien and a human); parts of the book reminded me of R. Lee Smith's SCHOLOMANCE (an evil school for developing magic with morally ambiguous teachers and students); parts of the book reminded me of Veronica Roth's DIVERGENT (an alternate universe dystopian set in just one city, leaving you to wonder what happened to the rest of the world); and parts of the book reminded me of THE HUNGER GAMES (cruel and unusual competitions for the benefit of a sinister government). Any of these books would have been far better comparisons, although none of them quite hit the mark, either. It's far better to let a book speak for itself, and quietly achieve success on its own merit. You're less likely to be disappointed that way. Reading this with no expectations certainly heightened my experience.

Also, there's a slow-burn romance for those of you who like that sort of thing. ;)

4 out of 5 stars.