Thursday, January 25, 2018

#4 [2017/CBR10] "The Thing About Love" by Julie James

I've read a number of books by Julie James, so when I saw The Thing About Love on NPR's Best Books of 2017 list, I picked it up immediately. It turns out that I really liked this one. There may not be as much excitement as I had been expecting, especially considering that it involves two FBI agents and their related cases. However, the characters have good chemistry, and this book felt more realistic than others I've read by James.

John Shepherd and Jessica Harlow were in the same FBI academy six years ago, and they did not like each other. Having just moved back to the Chicago office after her divorce, Jessica is partnered with John on an undercover assignment in Jacksonville, Florida. They are going after the charismatic mayor who has been accepting bribes to influence the Land Zoning Commission. They will be private investors from Chicago, looking to invest in a new restaurant in the city. The goal is to bolster the FBI's case against the mayor.

The two are professionals, even though they still rub each other the wrong way. Fortunately, the more time they spend together, the more they grow to like each other. As the case moves on, they work out what happened in the Academy, really start to trust each other, and really start to like each other. The main hiccup in their fated romance is that John only has a couple of weeks before he moves to Quantico to join the elite anti-terrorist task force.

I wasn't sure if James would make the hate-to-love story work. These are two ridiculously good-looking, smart, nice people. Why would they not get along? But James made their initial animosity work for me with an understandable combination of competitiveness, misunderstandings, and insecurities. Jessica was very aware that as one of only two women out of the class of forty that she was under a lot of pressure to perform, and she did not want to be seen flirting with the "hottest guy in the class." She was frustrated with her physical weakness and lack of experience with firearms. On the other hand, John, the former Army Ranger, sometimes felt like the dumb brute in the class compared with his many classmates with their advanced degrees.

I feel like I need to start giving a "feminist" rating to the romance novels I read. Using my own subjective standards, I'll rate a book on how good it made me feel about the state of women in the novel. The standards will include whether the main female character is independent and active in her own life; how other women are portrayed; and whether the love interest is some kind of alpha male asshole that the heroine just accepts because he will possibly be nice to her later. The Thing About Love gets high ratings from me. Jessica Harlow is strong and independent in a male-dominated field. She and John share driving duties, and they are equal partners on cases. John Shepherd is a strong, alpha male who also manages to appreciate and trust that Jessica can do her job and do it well. He is protective without being overbearing; he allows Jessica to do her job without butting in, and there is a refreshing sense of equality to their relationship.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

#3 [2018/CBR19] "The Duchess Deal" by Tessa Dare

I'd seen The Duchess Deal (2017) by Tessa Dare on some Cannonball reviews, and it looked interesting. I'd learned that Dare changed details about her love interest after Trump's election because her alpha hero was rubbing her the wrong way. I appreciated the small nods to progressive feminist ideals throughout the book, the often funny banter between the leads, and the way she played with typical romantic tropes with her story. I also liked how the Duke and Emma slowly began to trust each other, but the story as a whole never quite worked for me.

Emma Gladstone was only sixteen when her vicar father kicked her out of her home for wearing a red dress that made her look like a harlot (according to her horrible father) and sleeping with the local lad whom she thought she loved. Emma made it to London and survived by becoming a seamstress.

The Duke of Ashbury has recently returned from war where he suffered terrible injuries that burned half his face and torso. He cannot stand how he looks, and with his betrothed's recent abandonment, he is alone. But he has many important responsibilities as a Duke, including siring an heir to continue the family line. When Emma Gladstone arrives at his London home in his ex-betrothed's wedding dress, demanding payment, he decides she would be as good as anyone.

The Duke is willing to simply use Emma only for the procreation of children, but Emma pushes for more, wanting human interaction. The two had been immediately attracted to each other, but they slowly began to like and trust the other the more time they spent together.

I was willing to simply accept that a duke would marry a seamstress without any real repercussion, but I just could not buy into the rest of the book. It felt like Dare did not quite have the time to lay all the necessary groundwork--both for the motivations of the main characters as well as making the secondary characters feel real. I had a hard time buying that the Duke felt so poorly about himself when he was such an arrogant man otherwise. If his entire face had been burned, it would have made more sense, but then he might have been too broken for a romantic hero. Thus, many of the scenes related to the Duke's injury, his actions towards Emma regarding his injury, and his ex-betrothed didn't make sense to me.

On the other hand, I liked the feminist bits throughout The Duchess Deal. Emma's father justified his heartless behavior towards his daughter, saying, "She was warned. Given every explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted in her sinful behavior, and she would not repent of it." (200) It made me smile. I also thought it was funny that the Duke just assumed that Emma was a virgin, but was not in the least bothered when he found out she wasn't. In fact, the first time Emma and the Duke try to have sex was also pretty amusing and went against type. It was hard to believe that the Duke could be so autocratic and unfeeling and then change completely as soon as he got into bed with Emma, but he would have been a horrible character if he didn't, so I guess that was necessary.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

#2 [2018/CBR10] "The Likeness" by Tana French

The Likeness (2008) is the second in Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad Series. I read the first book, In the Woods back in 2015. So far I've found these books both impressive and disturbing. They are relatively long and complex murder mysteries that dig deep into the psychological toll that these cases take on the detectives.

Cassie Maddox is back from In the Woods. After the disastrous ending to her last murder investigation, she transferred to Domestic Violence, never spoke to her old partner again, and began to date Sam (another investigator from the Dublin Murder Squad). The Likeness begins when Sam unexpectedly calls her to a new murder scene. He sounds agitated and Cassie discovers why when she arrives in the small, traditional town on the outskirts of Dublin. The victim has been stabbed in the chest and died in a run-down cottage in the fields outside a grand manor falling to ruins. Her name is Lexi Madison, an alias that Cassie used when she worked undercover. Even more disturbing is that she looks exactly like Cassie. When Sam first saw the body, he thought he was looking at the dead body of his girlfriend.

Lexi appeared to live a relatively simple life. She was earning a Ph.D. in English at the nearby University. She lived with four good friends from school in a nearby house. Besides school and friends, she didn't interact with many other people. Frank, the head of undercover, decides that they can use these extraordinary events to create an extraordinary undercover assignment. He wants to tell everyone that Lexi was only wounded by the stabbing, then send Cassie in as Lexi to discover more about her life and uncover a suspect.

Daniel inherited the grand manor from his uncle in great disrepair. He invited his friends to live there with them, and they have become quite the clique--more like family than friends. The other housemates are Abby, Justin, and Rafe. Cassie ends up entering this house as Lexi, knowing only what the detectives could uncover with their questioning. She doesn't know if one of them is the killer, or what her relationship to them might be.

Because of the shared name and looks, Cassie is already personally interested in Lexi. As she spends more time in the house and gets more comfortable, she has a harder time staying objective. In some ways, she wishes she was Lexi. As the book progresses, Cassie learns more about the relationships between the five friends as well as other possible suspects.

I liked that this was a fascinating and original premise. Cassie had a chance to solve a murder in a way that probably had never been done before. It brings up questions of ethics, danger, and the psychological toll on both Cassie and Lexi's friends from the house. When Cassie is in the house, she is always in danger of a potential killer, or at the very least being found out, which keeps tension in the book consistently high. Yet she flourishes in these circumstances, even as her relationship with Sam is tested.

On the other hand, this plot didn't always work for me, and I got distracted when I had problems believing what was happening. I couldn't imagine messing with someone's grief by pretending to be their recently murdered friend. In addition, I couldn't believe that Cassie could pass as Lexi, no matter how much they look alike. These are friends who've lived together for a long time. How does Cassie even know where to put things away in the kitchen? How does Cassie teach a class as Lexi at school? There were too many details and unknowns for it to work. I also didn't understand why Cassie was always hiding so much from Frank. I know she didn't wholly trust him, but even right at the beginning, she was keeping things to herself and lying to him.

Even with these issues, this book was original, memorable, and disturbing. It kept me reading and thinking throughout. I need a little break, but I'll be moving on to the rest of the series eventually.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

#1 [2018/CBR10] "Bloodlines" by Richelle Mead

Last year got a little hairy when I had to write almost all my reviews for the year in the last three weeks of December. It wasn't much fun, so I promised myself that this year I would get back on track. Unless I'm traveling, I will not finish my next book until I've reviewed the previous one. That way, I should only ever have one review to catch up on. I hope.

I'm starting this year off with Richelle Mead's Bloodlines (2011). It's the first book in a six book series. Not only that, but there is a related series of six books (The Vampire Academy Series) that I've already read. It's ridiculous how many of these books I've read, and will read. A part of me is disappointed that I even started this next series, but they're like crack. I can't put them down.

Richelle Mead has set up a world very much like ours today except for the vampires. In fact, there are three different types: Strigoi are nasty, immortal killers who drink blood and only come out at night. The Moroi are thin and beautiful; they rule the vampire kingdom. Moroi drink blood from willing humans, but they do not kill. Finally, there are Dhampirs. These are half-Moroi and half-human. They are fast and athletic but do not have other powers. They are often used as bodyguards for the Moroi.

The only humans really aware of what's going on in this world of vampires are known as the Alchemists. Alchemists have long been disgusted by the vampire lifestyle, but they assist in keeping the vampire politics stable and their lives quiet, so the rest of the world doesn't find out about them. Alchemists have no special powers, although they are all given a golden tattoo on their cheek infused with vampire blood. This keeps them healthier and forces them to stay quiet about what they know.

The Vampire Academy series was all about a Dhampir called Rose, her love interest Dmitri, another Dhampir, and her classmate Lissa, a Moroi. An incredible amount of stuff happens in those six books, and at some point the reader is introduced to Sydney, an Alchemist. This next series of books begins right after the end of The Vampire Academy Series, but it's all about Sydney.

Sydney is sent to Palm Springs with Lissa's younger sister, Jill Mastrano. Jill's been attacked because Lissa has become queen, and Jill is integral to Lissa keeping the throne. They are trying to hide her in plain sight in a boarding high school. Sydney is going undercover and will be Jill's roommate in order to keep an eye on her. They are joined by the Dhampir Eddie Castile as a bodyguard, and Adrian, another Moroi. They pretend they're all brothers and sisters for the school.

I had a little trouble getting into this book compared to the Vampire Academy. Rose is a very fun character. She's intuitive and aggressive and often reacts without thinking. I also loved the relationship between Rose and Dmitri (even though I was still a little disturbed at the age difference and student/teacher dynamic). On the other hand, Sydney is bookish and repressed. She has to deal with an overbearing asshole of a father as well as a horrible Alchemist leader in the Palm Springs area, but she just isn't as kick-ass. For the first part of the book, I felt like I was just reading a play by play on high school classes. Why do I care what classes Sydney goes to when she's just going to high school for show?

There were also a number of questions I had as I read things that didn't quite make sense. Why was Sydney drawing so much attention to herself at school? In fact, why would you put a tattoo of a secret society on your cheek? There are so many more discrete places for a tattoo. Why would Sydney be Jill's roommate in the first place? Sydney can't fight, and Eddie is halfway across campus most of the time--not the ideal situation for a bodyguard.

I think this first book was really setting up the rest of the series. There was some life and death excitement at the end, but not too much happened. Sydney uncovers a plot involving vampire blood, and they stop a killer--both of which are unrelated to their original mission of keeping Jill safe. Even though these books are far from perfect, I'm pretty sure I'll finish out this series. I am curious where the next books will go.

Monday, January 1, 2018

2017 Year in Review

I always like to take a look back at the books I've been reading throughout the year. It gives me some closure and an idea of what I should read next year.

Total: 52 books

Fiction: 35
Non-Fiction: 17
Poetry: 0

Books written by men: 8
Books written by women: 40
Books co-authored by men and women: 4

Romance novels: 20
Non-romance novels: 32
Non-romance books written by women: 23

I think Ilona Andrews was my most-read author this year, since I read all three books in The Hidden Legacy Series.

Favorite books:
Crosstalk by Connie Willis
The Hidden Legacy Series by Ilona Andrews
Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
Breaking Night by Liz Murray
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Saturday, December 30, 2017

#52 [2017/CBR9] "We're Going to Need More Wine" by Gabrielle Union

"You can love what you see in the mirror, but you can't self-esteem your way out of the way the world treats you."

I'd seen Gabrielle Union in Bring It On, and I'd heard that she had a new book coming out. I knew almost nothing about her, but I'd heard she was a rape survivor and an advocate for women, which was nice to hear (the advocate-for-women part). When I saw her new book, We're Going to Need More Wine (2017) at the library, I figured it was as good a time as any to read it.

Gabrielle Union talks about her life in an honest, open, and often funny way. She grew up in the affluent, mostly-white town of Pleasanton, near San Francisco. She was one of only a very few black kids in school, and she is pretty clear about the pressures she felt to fit in. One day, she chimed in with other mean girls about the other black girl in her class because she didn't want to be associated with her and be "even more black." In the summer, she would visit her grandmother in Omaha, Nebraska, in a black neighborhood that eventually was taken over by crack and gangs.

Union goes on to discuss some of her acting jobs, and the lack of hairdressers who know how to do black hair. She mentions Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles from 10 Things I Hate About You and Kirsten Dunst in Bring It On. She touches on the racial issues of natural hair versus weaves and relaxing: the pressure she feels to go natural, and the assumptions made about her if she does or does not. It seems like a no-win situation. She also talks about colorism, the straight preference for lighter skin. Union even said that she needed someone to point out to her that she always dated men with lighter skin than her before she realized she was doing it herself.

When Union was nineteen and working at Payless, an armed man came in and robbed the place, eventually raping her in the back of the store. It was horrifying and terrifying, and Union was very honest with how it affected her and how helpful the UCLA rape survivor group therapy was.

Union's first marriage was something of a disaster, but her second marriage to basketball star Dwyane Wade seems to be going well. With that marriage comes the raising of three boys. Union talks openly and candidly how she fears they will get shot, now that they are teenagers and tall enough to be seen as dangerous by society. She's trained them to tell police that they are Dwyane Wade's sons because money and fame never hurts.

Even though the writing was sometimes a little awkward, I was enjoying Union's stories and perspective. However, later in the book, I started getting a little turned off. There was a lot of name dropping and talk about how many houses she owned. I thought her point was getting a little lost, and I felt less and less in touch with her. She assumed that the reader knew a lot about her life, and I just did not. It took my quite a long time to figure out who Dwyane was and why he was famous. On the whole, I admire Union's bravery in talking about her life and experiences so honestly, even though this was not a perfect book.

#51 [2017/CBR9] "Nutshell" by Ian McEwan

I am a huge fan of Ian McEwan, and I've read a number of books by him. So when I saw that he had another one out, I went and picked it up. I'm not sure what to say about Nutshell (2016). It held my attention, but I couldn't buy into the entire conceit, so I was left with the feeling that it was odd.

The protagonist of this story is a fetus in its mother's womb (I assumed it was a boy because it sounded like the author's voice, but we don't actually find this out). This fetus supposedly knows about the world from overhearing conversations and listening to the podcasts his mother turns on to fall asleep. You just have to accept that this unborn baby understands the world, how it works, and what's going on to a ridiculous degree.

I'm not sure why McEwan uses the fetus as the storyteller. Is McEwan looking for a quasi-omniscient overseer of the criminal actions of the story? Is it a way to bring guilt and shame to people who do not feel it themselves? Is he a very intelligent stand-in for the reader? A way to play with perceptions? I'm not sure. It was an odd and original choice.

So, the fetus's mother, Trudy, has betrayed her husband John, and hooked up with John's brother, Claude. Trudy has kicked John out of his very dilapidated but expensive London townhouse and is now plotting with Claude to do away with him entirely, sell the house, and live happily ever after. Claude is boring and tedious, and it's hard to understand why Trudy fell for him. John is a romantic poet, bad with money, and hoping for a reconciliation.

I found the plotting of Trudy and Claude and the gradual discovery of the character of John very interesting. They're all pretty horrible people, and to see them interact was something of a car crash that you couldn't look away from. That being said, every time I was reminded that I was being told what was happening by a fetus, it took me out of the story. He describes what's going on in the scene as if he can see it, and then he says he's imagining his mother's hair, guessing how Claude looks, and figuring out his mother's movements by the way he moves inside her. The fetus also goes off on tangents about the world that had to come straight from McEwan's mouth. There aren't enough podcasts in the world for a fetus to get this kind of knowledge in nine months of living in a dark, colorless womb--even assuming fetuses have that mental capacity. I'm not going to listen to an unborn fetus tell me how the world should be.

McEwan is a ridiculously talented writer. I cannot even imagine another writer even trying this smart-fetus-as-protagonist thing and making it work. However, I think I've preferred some of his other novels more.