Friday, November 20, 2015

CBR 7 Review 4: The Secret Life of Violet Grant by Beatriz Williams

“I thought, how magical, the first glimpse of snow. By March I would be sick of it, but here in this November instant those tiny flakes swirled with the unspeakable purity of a divine gift.” 

It all began with a suitcase. Lovely and vivacious Vivian Schuyler gets a note for an unexpected package at her little Manhattan apartment in 1964. Retrieving it leads first to meeting Dr Paul, an incredibly beautiful doctor with whom Vivian shares instant chemistry, and more importantly, to her great aunt Violet Schuyler Grant, the woman to whom the suitcase belongs. Dr Paul turns into a rather complicated romantic entanglement. Violet leads to something else altogether - not just the stories and history her illustrious socialite family tried to bury, but a mystery that could help Vivian make her mark at the magazine job she took against her family's wishes.

Violet's interesting history starts in Berlin in 1914, but fills in some blanks preceding that period of time. A country on the brink of war, a woman on the bring of divorce, a meeting of brilliant scientific minds, and a murder.  All these things lie in the story that unfolds from Violet's POV as Vivian researches the past.

I already knew I enjoyed Beatriz Williams' prose, though I haven't reviewed the other book of hers I've read just yet (A Hundred Summers). This is no exception. Williams has a gift for language that is both timely to the period her characters occupy, and timeless in its accessibility. She's also very capable in mixing time periods and balancing the bounce between POVs that a lot of authors attempt and fail at these days. It never feels like she switches between Violet and Vivian just because she feels like she's supposed to; there's always reasonable story motivation. She also does a nice job in the vein of Dan Brown with ending a chapter in a way that inspires a reader to keep going "just one more" till hours have passed.

I vastly preferred Vivian to Violet, but that was bound to be true based on the limitations on women of their respective decades.Vivian is peppy and sharp and witty, written in the vein of a Sherman-Palladino or Whedon character. Violet's more reserved and a hell of a lot more naive, but the circumstances of her life justify it. It took me awhile to warm to Violet, whereas I loved Violet from the first moment she stumbled onto the page. 

The mystery of Violet's murdered husband is a more interesting one than I anticipated, as is the fallout from it. There are a lot of red herrings, but not delivered in a way that felt manipulative. It was set up so that there were plausible possibilities that the reader considered just like Vivian did. There was at least one twist I didn't predict, and that always thrills me.

All in all, definitely a book worth checking out, especially if you enjoy historical fiction!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

CBR 7 Review 3: Her by Harriet Lane

“I found the final plot twist unsatisfying, as plot twists often are: nothing like life, which - it seems to me - turns less on shocks or theatrics than on the small quiet moments, misunderstandings, or disappointments, the things that it's easy to overlook.” 

That quote was strategically chosen because I found the final plot twist of this DEEPLY unsatisfying. Remember how the last book I reviewed was all about apathy and no vitriol? I've saved that for this entry. It's been three months since I read this book and I can still feel the white hot fury finishing it inspired in me.

There's not a ton I can do by way of plot synopsis, both because of spoilers and the nature of how little actually happens. Nina and Emma, our primary characters and the two POVs our book's narrative bounces between, meet seemingly accidentally and seem to have little in common. It's fairly obvious from the get go that Nina knows who Emma is, while Emma has no memory of Nina.  An odd sort of friendship is manipulated into being by Nina and develops over the course of the story, leading to...well, a lot of spoilers and nothing.

In a non spoiler capacity, this book infuriated me. There are slow burns, and then there's absolutely glacial pacing. Things happen so slowly in this book that I would fall asleep during chapters. The only reason I kept reading at all was that I assumed there was going to be a wham-bang finish to justify how much everyone seemed to be losing their minds over its greatness. Boy howdy was I wrong. The end is such a complete pile of bullshit and questions that I actually threw my Kindle across my couch. The justification for Nina's behavior is practically non existant, and if you're building this story as "sociopath stalks woman" then fine, but that's not the story being told her. The history they tease constantly is nothing at all, and does nothing more than confirm that Nina is a terrible person, which is a thing we learn really fucking early.  And that ending?  Highlight for spoilers: What?? HOW? Who in their right mind thinks it's OK to threaten drowning a toddler and then NOT ACTUALLY TELL YOUR READERS IF IT HAPPENED OR NOT? That's not a cliffhanger, that's just rampant douchebaggery. It would be tragic enough if it ended with Nina succeeding in her mission to be a HORRIBLE SOCIOPATH WHO MURDERS CHILDREN BECAUSE HER DAD WAS A MANWHORE WHO FLIRTED ONCE WITH THEIR MOTHER but to not even tell us what happens??  WHAT THE EVER LOVING FUCK?

OK, so that's that. If you are a person that loved this book, that made it pop up on all my must read lists this summer, that got it on the bestseller list - feel free to leave comments and explain to me why. Because I just don't get it.

CBR7 Review 2: Hidden by Megg Jensen

First review back, and it's not going to overwhelm you folks, since this book left me feeling so incredibly meh that I can't even work up vitriol about it.

Hidden is Book 1 of the Dragonlands series, which hardly matters since I cannot come up with a single compelling reason to continue the franchise. Since it's the first book, like first installments before it, this book is required to do a lot of the heavy lifting of world building and character creation.  Unfortunately, it does neither in a way that matters, though you can tell Jensen is trying. The book opens with a historical chapter, setting up the world in which our protagonists live. The children awaken to the town of Hutton's Bridge with no adults, surrounded by a fog that claims lives.  Our main story begins decades later, when the girl from our prologue, Sofia, is an old woman and great grandmother to our female protagonist, Tressa. The town has remained isolated all this time, and as such its residents have adapted life to being completely shut off from the rest of the world. Youths are paired off by ribbon drawing, designed to prevent inbreeding. If the union produces a pregnancy in 3 months, they are mated - if not, they draw again. Tressa appears to be infertile, making her a social outcast (more on this later), and also unable to be partnered with man she loves, Bastian, who happens to love her back. Every year, 3 people are selected supposedly at random to go into the fog and try to find a way out for their people - no one has ever returned.  On the eve of Tressa's departure into the fog, Sofia dies, leaving the community without their eldest resident, and the only person who was alive when the fog first descended. The following day, plague hits the village, a dead dragon drops from the sky, and Tressa, Bastian, and their friend Connor (who is barely developed at all before events change him) head into the fog.  It's not a spoiler to say that there is a wider world, and the youths discover it.  It's a much more terrifying and evil place than they had anticipated, however, and Bastian and Tressa reunite only to be split apart for their stories to continue.  And really, that's the only reason their stories split - narrative necessity.

That's all I can say without getting into spoiler territory, though spoiling this story really doesn't amount to much. The thing that rankled with me as opposed to merely causing excessive apathy was the treatment of Tressa in the village. I get that in a society where numbers are limited to your own tiny population, the ability to create more humans is an important thing.  That said, bodies aren't the only thing that makes a society work - you also need skilled tradesmen.  Tressa has skills of weaving that she uses to help the village, and she's also one of the only people capable of reading and writing. She's great granddaughter to the only person living (well, temporarily) that was there when the fog fell. She proves time again that she's resourceful, brave, and capable. And yet she's a complete pariah because she's barren?  Fuck that noise. Hell, we're talking about a society where women die in childbirth all the time, and 3 people get murdered by fog every year - let barren women like Tressa help take care of the orphans, which Tressa herself was (mom died in childbirth, dad lost to fog). It just seems like such a stupid waste, and a manipulatively anti-feminist way to create some three dimensionality to a character who doesn't get a lot to work with.

And that, friends, is the apathy motivator for this book - there just isn't a lot of there there. The prose is weak, the character development is competely informed rather than organic, the danger not all that compelling, the world building missing a lot of pieces.  Bastian and Tressa's relationship matters because we're told it does - we're not given enough time with them to see it develop or mean anything. It's also a cheap shot to make Vinya, Bastian's wife, into such a shrew. Setting up romantic roadblocks is fine, and can be interesting fiction, but don't take the lazy way out. She can be flawed and wrong for Bastian without being the personification of every horrible wife stereotype we've ever seen.  Hell, you could even leave the terrible wife things and at least make her a capable and loving mother - there's no reason at all to make her irredeemable.

The only character I really grew attached to is Leo, who we will not be seeing later in this series (not that it would inspire me to pick up another volume) because at least he was charming. Because he's supposed to be mysterious, we also don't have a lot of forced character development for him either, which worked far more effectively than what is done with the rest of the cast of characters.

End result? Skip it. It's not terrible, I'm not mad at it, I didn't throw it at a wall after finishing it because the ending made me mad (I'm looking at you Gone Girl and Her) - I just have no idea why I even finished reading it in the first place.

CBR 7 : Apologies and Amends

As I'm sure the 3 of you who follow this have noticed, I have utterly failed at both my attempt to do video reviews of books for Cannonball Read, and, hey, at doing them at all.  According to Goodreads, I've read 43 books this year, which is much more than the half cannon I committed to.  That said, they don't count if I don't review them, which was my problem last year as well.  At least this time I'm reacting to it before December?

So here's why I'm making this post. I'm going to attempt to get as many of those books reviewed as I can before the end of the year.  I don't recall if that's the actual deadline for CBR, officially speaking, but that's my goal for me. Also, for now, they are just going on here and not the official CBR blog because I can't for the life of me remember anything about how to do those posts there, including my login info.  I'm also just sticking to writing them - doing that one short video took me ages, and I have neither the time nor the desire to get crazy with webcams and makeup and whatnot. So for the moment, my only goal is to review a bunch of books here, in print, by year's end.

The biggest challenge at this point isn't the dedication of time require to review the 42 remaining books (I do have *one* video review up). No, no, my hardest obstacle is going to be remember what the hell I thought about each of these books. Some were not particularly noteworthy at the time I finished them, let alone months after the fact.  You can also expect each of the series that I've read to fill one very long post each.  It seems silly to me to attempt to differentiate between each volume when instead I can do a longer post really delving into the entirety of something like the Codex Alera.

So that's the plan folks!  Tune in over the next month and a half and see how well I do!

Friday, January 23, 2015

CBR7 Review 1: Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce

Check out my first video review! We'll see if I need to transcribe it or not. For now, I'm just posting this.

CBR 7 - An intro

What's up!  It's almost February, which means I'm finally going to start posting reviews of the books I read in January.  Trying to keep up this year, instead of getting so far behind that I never catch up.  This year I'm dedicated to a half cannon (I think? I should probably look that up). But this year, I'm going to try something different.

Video Reviews.

For those of you that don't know, I'm an actor by trade. So it appeals to me to film my responses to these books. I don't, however, know how well this is going to work yet. As I sit here, I'm trying to get my stupid webcam software to update so that I can take a crack at the first review.  I'm going to give it a go, and see how we fare. The plan is to post to my YouTube account, and link that video here. If needed, I'll post transcripts along with the video link here, that way y'all have the option to not watch.

So we'll see if this works at all.  It's possible it will be an epic fail, and I'll return to the traditional format I've used for the last several years of CBR. Or this could be awesome. Either way, I plan to actually post my reviews this year, instead of managing two of them once December hits!

Ciao for now.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

CBR VI Review #2: Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

“This was truly advanced WASP: how to comfort a wronged wife and mother without acknowledging any misdeeds done or embarrassment caused by loved ones.” 

Man alive did I dislike this book. Sometimes some distance from reading a piece will dull my initial impressions, good or ill, but I still stand by exactly how much I disliked this one.

Seating Arrangements tells the story of some truly terrible people over three days at a New England island estate, preparing for a wedding.  Our principle protagonist is Winn Van Meter, one of the least sympathetic characters I've come across in recent years.  His eldest daughter, Daphne, is getting married to another well to do socialite, named Greyson (really? Greyson?).  While everything has been well planned by the bride's mother, Biddy, things still go awry, as wedding plans often do, even when the people involved aren't terrible.  

Among the sad plots going on in this, Daphne's sister, Livia, is mourning a breakup from the son of her father's greatest (and least deserving) rival; a ridiculous crush that Winn has on one of his daughter's bridesmaids; and God I don't even care enough to say more about these things in summary without ranting about them.

Some spoilers ahead, but if you actually find them shocking, or find that the book is good enough to warrant you caring about knowing what will happen, then maybe just stop here - this review is not for you.

Winn is terrible.  His feud with Mr Fenn (who's first name I cannot be bothered to look up) never actually turns into anything of substance.  The jumps into his past that I suspect were put there to make us care about him only made me hate him more.  He's disrespectful to his entire family.  And God, the sort of tryst with HIS DAUGHTER'S BRIDESMAID.  I cannot get over that, on either side of the relationship.  Agatha is a whore, start to finish, with nothing else going on, and it grosses me out so much to have them be a thing.  It never feels justified, not even enough for me to go "How can you do that to your wife.  I didn't want Biddy to get angry and throw things - I just wanted her to walk out for literally anything else in her life.  Winn is terrifically self involved, a first class narcissist with the self assurance of the nerdy looking but incredibly dumb kid who gets beat up at school every day.  He has everything and values nothing and I just wanted him to die when he fell of that damned roof.  He faces practically no consequences for his consistently bad behavior.

Livia, the other character we're supposed to give a damn about, isn't a great improvement.  She's fairly insufferable about her ideals, completely whiny and unaccepting of her breakup, and naive to a degree that I didn't think was possible.  She grows a bit by the end, which is why she does stand as an improvement, but I didn't really care more for her - just didn't actively hate her.

The only character with POV that I actually cared about was not part of the Van Meter family.  Dominique I found rounded, interesting, compassionate, and realistic.  Whenever we shifted to her I was pleased.  I would have happily boarded a plane with her back to Belgium and followed her story instead of this one.

I don't remember how this book ended up on my To Read list, probably Entertainment Weekly.  It's definitely worth skipping.  The prose is good - this is a writer who understands how to write well.  She just didn't have a story to tell that I cared about, nor characters to hold my interest.