Tuesday, March 13, 2018

#7 [2018/CBR10] "Take the Lead" by Alexis Daria

Dancing With the Stars has often been a guilty pleasure of mine. I haven't seen it in a while, but there have been seasons where I painstakingly found all the dances on Youtube (I don't have cable) to follow what was happening. So when I heard there was a romance novel that was based on the show, I was ready to give it a try. I must have seen a Cannonball review of Take the Lead (2017) by Alexis Daria, although I can't remember for sure now. Initially I would have preferred for the non-dancer to be a woman and the professional dancer to be male, just for my own wish fulfillment purposes, but I enjoyed what Daria did with this story.

Gina Morales is a professional dancer on her fifth season of The Dance Off (Dancing With the Stars). She desperately wants to win, and is put under even more pressure when her producer tells her that she is off the show if she doesn't make the finals. Gina's celebrity dance partner is Stone Nielson. Stone is a reluctant participant on his family's reality show "Living Wild." The Nielson family make a living off the land in Alaska. He agrees to do the show in order to pay for his mother's recent hip surgery, but he has little interest in Los Angeles or the show and is eager to get back to Alaska.

Gina and Stone are instantly attracted to each other, but neither one is looking for a relationship. Fortunately for them, being dance partners requires a lot of time and contact, and their relationship grows. I liked Stone as a romantic hero. He was very sexy and very nice, and I appreciated him. I also enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look at the often fake reality shows. It was both interesting and funny.

However, I didn't always buy all the drama keeping the two main characters apart. Gina wanted to be known for her dancing and not being the stereotypical "sexy Latina," so she didn't want to exploit any relationship between her and Stone. That's fair, but that show is all about selling sex. It's kind of odd to draw the line right there. Then Stone saw a camera taking a picture of them kissing, and, oh, the drama, and it got a little old. Gina was all over the place. At one point she's grabbing Stone's ass on camera and the next second she won't even look at him. I think I would have preferred a more straightforward slow burn. Despite these minor issues, I enjoyed the book and will definitely be looking for more in this series.

#6 [2018/CBR10] "Daring to Drive" by Manal al-Sharif

I can't remember where I first saw Daring to Drive (2017) by Manal al-Sharif, but I knew women had just been allowed the basic right to drive in Saudi Arabia. I was both horrified and fascinated that women wouldn't be allowed to drive in this day and age, and I wanted to know more.

Al-Sharif was jailed for eleven days in 2011 for daring to drive her brother's car in opposition to the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia. However, this story is much more than that. I'd say only about one quarter of the story is about driving. The rest is about al-Sharif's life growing up in Saudi Arabia, how she became a religious extremist, and how her views eventually changed.

Al-Sharif grew up after the Saudi Sahwa movement in 1979 that involved religious extremism and contributed to making Saudi Arabia one of the most conservative countries in the world. Taught these beliefs in school, al-Sharif found herself being more conservative than her parents. (Although her parents did subject her to genital mutilation when she was eight years old). She would police her family for religious infractions, destroying her brother's forbidden musical tapes and preaching at them.

But she wanted education, and her zealous views became more moderate as she attended college and met others who did not adhere so strongly to such a strict interpretation of her religion. Her views widened even more when she lived in the United States for her job, a place where she obtained a driver's license and drove freely.

Al-Sharif describes the difficulties of living in Saudi Arabia as a woman. Women always need to be with a guardian (a male relative), and they need permission from their guardian to do anything. In order to get anywhere, they need a driver, who costs a lot and can end up harassing them. One night, al-Sharif was unable to get a driver. Although she had her own car, she could not use it and ended up walking on the street, where she was harassed. She was humiliated and angry that she was not allowed to driver herself, which would have saved her from all that fear and danger.

As far as the argument against driving, it is solely based on controlling and demeaning women. There seems to be an obsession with virgins. "If women were allowed to drive, within ten years there would be no more virgins." (270)

This was an interesting look into a country and culture that I know very little about. It is hard to believe that this was still happening less than a year ago, and that women still have to live with so little power and freedom today. I was impressed by al-Sharif's courage in telling her story and standing up for her rights. The amount of shame and denigration she endured to push for the simple right of driving was incredible. I thought her inside look into her own religious zeal and how it changed was also very interesting. Although I sometimes craved more details about her life, her thoughts, and her feelings, this was definitely worth the read.

#5 [2017/CBR10] "The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch (2013) by Donna Tartt is one I'd heard a lot of but wasn't sure I wanted to read. It won the Pulitzer and was on a bunch of lists, but it was long and felt like a big commitment. I also didn't have a very good idea of what it was about. But when it showed up on two of my book lists and my book club decided to read it, I figured it was inevitable. I found The Goldfinch to be well-written with realistic, interesting characters and plot twists that kept me attached to the book. I also found it to be rather long and depressing. It was definitely worth reading, but in the end it wasn't one of my favorites.

Theo Decker is thirteen years old when the course of his life is changed forever when he survives the accident that kills his mother. Initially he goes to live with the family of a friend from school as he slowly processes his grief. His last connection with his mother is a priceless work of art called "The Goldfinch." A real painting, it is simply the small bird on a perch with a small gold chain connected to its ankle, keeping it from flying too far away.

The rest of the book is Theo struggling to live his life. Tartt expresses the idea that your life is already fated. "What if all your actions and choices, good or bad, make no difference to God? What if the pattern is pre-set?" (745) Some people get a shitty deal, and they have to live with it the best they can. Theo is definitely in this group. However, she raises some fascinating questions. Would Theo have ended up as he did if his mother didn't die? Would his father still have influenced his life so significantly?

I was impressed with how Tartt wrote her characters. They were interesting and felt real. I was also impressed by how Tartt described Theo's grief at the death of his mother. She conveyed his deep loss and confusion without making it melodramatic.

However, this book was a very anxious read for me. From the very beginning of the novel, Theo was always in trouble or doing something that made me uncomfortable. Tartt seemed to deliberately jump over anything that was positive in his life and always focused on the bad. It made for some heavy reading. It was the slow, painful reveal of a life unraveling. Again, there were many interesting parts, and Tartt kept the narrative going with some dramatic turns of events. I will leave you with some "uplifting" quotes.

"Only occasionally did I notice the chain on the finch's ankle, or think what a cruel life for a little living creature--fluttering briefly, forced always to land in the same hopeless place." (306)

"Most people seemed satisfied with the thin decorative glaze and the artful stage lighting that, sometimes, made the bedrock atrocity of the human predicament look somewhat more mysterious or less abhorrent." (476)

"...better never born, than born into this cesspool. Sinkhole of hospital beds, coffins, and broken hearts." (767)

"and yet to know as well, despite all this, as cruelly as the game is stacked, that it's possible to play it with a kind of joy?" (768)

"We can't choose what we want and don't want and that's the hard lonely truth." (770)

Thursday, January 25, 2018

#4 [2018/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.