Friday, December 28, 2012

CBR V Review #1 - Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay

"But isn't it funny, that in some ways the price one pays for freedom of speech is ... a kind of indifference." 

I'm a big fan of learning about history via historical fiction.  I took more history classes in high school than anything else, mostly because of a brilliant teacher, and it left me with a desire to know more things about what preceded me.  However, I tend to sleep through drier, more accurate, non-fiction accounts of events, even of things that were incredibly interesting.  Give me some characters to care about, even if they never existed, and I'll absorb way more about the period than I would have otherwise.  As such, Russian Winter was a great way for me to learn more about Stalin's Russia.

The book centers around an upcoming jewelry auction.  Former prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet, Nina Revskaya has decided to auction off her collection, with the proceeds to go to the Boston Ballet.  She decides to do this as a way to finally close the door on her past for good, but in doing so, end ups opening it wider, as memories come flooding back.  Memories of her rise through the Bolshoi Ballet, her marriage to poet Viktor Elsin, her friendship with fellow ballerina Vera and composer Gersh, and the way Stalin's aggressive policies changed them all forever.  While the world at large knows of her defection, no one knows the details of Nina's past, and she's worked hard to keep it that way.  However, Drew, the young woman handling her auction, and a mysterious professor name Grigori, who may be connected to Nina's past, both dig deeper into her secrets and won't let her alone.

The book bounces between Nina's memories and the present very well.  As a huge fan of Kate Morton, I'm hyper critical of people who don't execute time jumping well - thankfully Kalotay manages just fine.  I was never lost for which time period I was in, or which narrator I was following (Nina, Drew and Grigori all narrate different segments of the story).  It weaves together well, with a nice build to the big secrets and even bigger truths that always will out at the end of a novel like this one.  Kalotay does a nice job with misdirects.  If you are like me, and you like trying to figure out the big reveal ahead of time to be clever, you'll spend the book questioning which of several possible outcomes is the correct one.  The ambiguity is consistent to the end, making the conclusion at once both plausible and surprising, and on all counts satisfying.

While I like Grigori and Drew well enough (with the exception of their shoehorned romance - it's not a spoiler to mention because it doesn't matter and doesn't really work), my favorite character to spend time with was Nina.  Her grumpy old lady taciturnity in the present, combined with her slowly growing warmer towards her nurse, contrasts wonderfully with the quiet but hopeful young woman in her memories.  It's fascinating to watch her grow, and adapt to the awful world around her.

As to that world, I feel that I learned a lot about Stalinist Russia.  The gatherings, the way that people disappeared, the paranoia of who might be listening and what they might tell someone higher up.  The concerns you had simply being Jewish, or artistic, or free thinking in any way.  And as an artist myself, presenting it through the eyes of a ballerina (and one who is married to a poet and friends with a composer) gave me a perspective I could relate to more readily.

Kalotay has created a really lovely read here, and one I'd recommend.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


WOO!  Another year means another Cannonball Read!  This year, for CBR V, I'm doing something I've yet to do - committing to a FULL cannon!  Let's be real, I read more than 52 books this year.  I only reviewed them up to the point that got me my half cannon, but I *did* read them.  It seems silly, knowing that, not to go for the full cannon this time, really challenge myself to write.  That's the hard part for me - the reviews.  I get paranoid about what people will think about what I say, or if what I'm writing is any good.  And that's missing the point.  The point is to read and to share.  I don't have to be a NY Times reviewer here, just post my thoughts on the things I read, so hopefully I can guide people towards or away from literature that I consume.  That is a great thing, and I'm going to do better at it this year.  So there.

Expect to see my first review up as soon as the group blog is ready to take it.  I just recently finished a book, and I've decided it will be my first entry into the CBR V, since I won't have time to put the review down on paper till after this is all started up.  Can't wait to see how much easier this is with the tracking I do on GoodReads, too!  Looking forward to another great year of sharing and reading!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

 “Children don’t require of their parents a past and they find something faintly unbelievable, almost embarrassing, in parental claims to a prior existence."

This is a hard book to review, since I can't really talk about the plot at all without spoiling it. But I'll try.

I adore Kate Morton. I've devoured each of her books in turn, and when I won a copy of The Secret Keeper, I was ecstatic. I couldn't wait to see what new mysteries and histories Morton had created for me to enjoy, and I was not at all disappointed. If anything, I was often more impressed than before, especially when it came to the discoveries I made as I went along.

The Secret Keeper is, like most of Morton's work, set in multiple time periods. The framework is the present (well, 2011, but close enough), where actress Laurel Nicolson is trying to unravel a mystery from her childhood during the last days of her mother, Dorothy's, life. At 16, Laurel witnessed something that she's never been able to forget, but she's never understood why it happened. The only way to find the answers she seeks is to delve into her mother's past, which we get to witness firsthand in pre-WWII through to the Blitz, through a variety of narrators, as Laurel tries to figure things out in the present.

There's not a lot more I can outline of the plot without ruining the journey. Morton has set up a novel filled with twists and red herrings, and while I thought I was a step ahead, I was totally wrong. And I LOVE that. She created a rich historically based world, and a series of characters that are well developed and interesting, from the wonderful Laurel, to the imaginative Dorothy "Dolly" Smitham, to the compassionate Jimmy Metcalfe, and finally the mysterious Vivien. I was equally excited to read as Laurel discovered things as I was to read what actually happened in jumps to the past.

The Secret Keeper is a rich, full story that fits right in with the rest of my Morton collection. A must read for Morton fans, and a fantastic read for anyone who enjoys a mystery, historical fiction, or just a really good book.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A follow up before next year's CBR kicks off

Apparently I read 24 books after completing my half cannon.  And I'm almost done with another.  And have a short one lined up for right after this.  So odds are, by the end of this CBR, I will have actually READ the required 52 books for a full Cannon.  Now, they don't all count, since I didn't review them, and that's the name of the game here.  Read AND review.  But still.  Looking over my Goodreads and thinking about what I've read or listened to on my commute, I'm pretty stoked to have consumed that much literature!  The only book I feel was a total waste of time was The Marriage Plot, which really isn't a bad ratio of success to failure.  I didn't LOVE everything else, but Marriage Plot is the only one I gave up after the qualifying halfway point, but before the end.  I got about 75% of the way through it and was interrupted by Hurricane Sandy...and stayed interrupted.  I just don't give a rat's ass how it ends.  So that's that.

I may go so far as to actually do the full cannon next year, looking at this.  Bonus is that I can re-read anything from my current list of 52 that I didn't review and have it count next go (like with the Kingkiller Chronicles, which I plan to re-read before the new volume comes out in March).  I really do love this whole endeavor.  It's done a lovely job of encouraging me to get back into the habit of reading regularly, and that pleases me greatly.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Post Cannon Commentary or Where I Muse on The Boys of Summer

So, remember how I said I'd keep up with the CBR after I met my goal?  Obviously I lied.  I've read a bunch of stuff, but haven't reviewed it (always the catch about this for me!).  However.  I was given a copy of a book by its author, through CBR, and it seems wrong not to write up that review immediately upon finishing the book, which I have.  So, while there are several other things that should have reviews before this, I want this to get written, and thusly, here it is.

The Boys of Summer by Ciaran West will destroy you and make you tremedously uncomfortable, and I mean that as high praise.  It's rare that a book will get so under your skin that you think about it when it's not in front of you, and this one will do that.  Set in Limerick in the 80s, this is the story of 11 year old (nearly 12) Richie South and his friends, in a very...eventful...summer of their youth.  Tragedy strikes the neighborhood when a child is found raped and murdered - this isn't a spoiler, but rather a point upon which most of the novel revolves, even though it's often indirect.  Richie and his friends want to figure out who did it and bring them to justice, in a way many a small or teenaged boy has wanted in fiction for, well, pretty much ever.  If you are thinking of Stand By Me right now, don't, other than to appreciate the fact that both involve coming of age stories of boys during summers with some darkness surrounding them.

Richie is our narrator, and it's a wonderful challenge to read from his perspective.  The whole of the book is written in Limerick dialect, slang and all, but I found this a help rather than a hindrance.  It brought me more fully into the world of these boys when I could use their vocabulary, even if I had to look some of it up.  I will say that most of my discomfort came from seeing through his eyes and into his head - as an adult, and a woman at that, seeing into the mind of an 11 year old boy was...I don't know a good word for it. Unsettling?  There's a lot more adult in there mixed with all the kid stuff that I wasn't prepared for.  Reading about his first romance with the new neighbor girl, Marian, made me acutely uncomfortable, both because they were so young, and because I could remember BEING that young (and at his age, that was soo not where my mind was yet).

Richie is exactly as mixed up as you'd expect from a young boy on the verge of puberty, experiencing love, loss, and the complications of friendship for the first time.  This last is, perhaps, the best facet of the book for me.  I loved reading the dynamics of these boys, especially as I watched them see what any adult would about one of their friends.  There is a scene between Richie and his father near the end of the novel that is one of the most brilliant parent/child conversations I've ever read.  The parent/child relationships in this book are great overall.  Richie and his Mam are wonderful, and such a contrast to Marian and hers, or Joe and his Pa.  There's so much going on here, and it's explored with a light hand that lets you really see it the way the kids do, but be able to read beyond it with the eyes of an adult.

Really, this is a great novel and incredibly well written.  If you are weak stomached or don't like reading books that challenge your comfort level, you might want to leave off.  It is dark, and gets much darker than you expect as it goes along.  The end is, for me, incredibly unsatisfying, but I'm fairly certain that is the point - most real endings are.

Monday, June 25, 2012

CBR IV Review #26 - The Enraged Accompanist's Guide to the Perfect Audition by Andrew Gerle

This a review everyone who isn't a performer can probably skip.  I've studied theater and music most of my life, but every now and then, a guide to something in my profession will strike me as particularly useful or valuable to wherever I am in that moment.  This was one of those finds.  I was a few days out from an audition, and several months out from getting back into the NY scene, when I stumbled across this in the Drama Bookshop in NYC.  Gerle's clever, honest writing really captured me.  I'm not sure I can honestly say he says anything I haven't heard, but he approaches it all in a different way that made it new and interesting for me.

In addition to general advice on demeanor and dress, he gives you solid tips on how to address your accompanist, what kind of music to have in your book, and how to have it all laid out.  He also has suggestions for headshots and resumes, so he hits all the basics for auditioning regularly.  I just really enjoyed the way he approaches everything, and the examples he gives that make the advice more real and urgent than if it were just a list of items to remember.

A great read for anyone regularly auditioning for musicals.

THAT IS MY HALF CANNON, Y'ALL!  Here I was, certain to fail because of the wedding and the move, and I got it down with almost half the year left over.  That is magnificent.  Maybe next year I'll aim for the full cannon.  I'm going to keep posting reviews here beyond the 26 I required of myself, cause why not.  We'll see how far I get... ;-)

CBR IV Review #25 - Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

The three rules of the Librarians of Time and Space are: 1) Silence; 2) Books must be returned no later than the date last shown; and 3) Do not interfere with the nature of causality.

Guards! Guards! is one of the many novels in the series known as Discworld.  My husband recommended this one, as he was a fan.  Since I make him read things all the time (Game of Thrones and Hunger Games spring immediately to mind), I thought I would oblige him.

This volume of Discworld is set in Ankh-Morpork, and tells the story of a secret plot to overthrow the current ruler, the Patrician, and install a puppet king.  This is meant to be accomplished by the Elucidated Brethren of the Ebon Night, run by a Supreme Grand Master, who has the idea to use a dragon to terrify the populace and inspire change.  Not surprisingly, this does not go as planned.  One of the biggest hitches in this plan is a group called the Night's Watch (I am the sword in the wait, wrong book).  The Night's Watch is run by Captain Vimes, an alcoholic who starts to take his job and his life more seriously when a new volunteer, Carrot, joins the ranks.  Carrot was raised by dwarves, even though he is obviously not one, with his enormous stature and strength.  He enjoys following the exact letter of the law, which is troubling for the Watch since they stopped having laws in Ankh-Morpork long ago.  The arrival of the dragon spurs the men to reluctant action, with the assistance of a dragon expert, Lady Ramkin.  They are also aided by The Librarian, who happens to be an orangutan. 

The book is rather ridiculous, and mostly in the best ways.  It took a long time for me to get into it, and it doesn't really resolve a great deal by the end (series and all that jazz).  However, the characters are great fun.  It's not a book I expect to really stay with me, and not a series I'm sure I'm dying to pursue, but it was a fun way to spend some time.

Friday, June 15, 2012

CBR IV Review #24 - Let's Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir) by Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess)

“You should just accept who you are, flaws and all, because if you try to be someone you aren't, then eventually some turkey is going to shit all over your well-crafted facade, so you might as well save yourself the effort and enjoy your zombie books.” 

A disclaimer:

A picture of me and Jenny (and Copernicus)
I have met Jenny Lawson.  I had her sign not only my book, but a book for a friend (it was her birthday and she introduced me to the blog, so I made it her birthday gift - she said it may have been the best gift ever).  I love this woman's blog unabashedly, and when I found out she was doing a signing in my state, I dropped everything to go.  By myself.  Because I didn't care if I was alone - the tribe was there.  Jenny was there.  It was enough. As such, you can expect this to be a rave review.  There was really no other way to write it.

This memoir is a mostly factual account of Jenny's life, childhood to present.  There are some elaborations and exaggerations for the sake of the humor of her narratives, but all of it serves to enhance the book.  If you've read any of The Bloggess, you know you are in for some crazy, stream of consciousness writing about insane stories that are almost too ridiculous to be true.  The craziest part is that most of them ARE true.  And laughing at these situations makes you feel so much better about your own life.

One of the things I enjoyed most about reading this was how enlightening it was.  I've enjoyed Jenny's humor as well as her crusade towards awareness of mental illness (she suffers from anxiety and depression - both things I can relate to).  But I didn't know where she came from, really, and this filled in those blanks.  Her childhood stories with her taxidermist father, in their dirt poor life out in the Texas countryside, are interesting and informative.  Hers was a home where playing tag could end with you running INSIDE a deer; where Dad could wake you in the middle of the night to show you the Magic Squirrel, who is actually dead and being used like a macabre hand puppet.  Her adolescence was a time where being Goth kept people away from her and trying to fit in led to being stuck in a cow's vagina.  This woman has turned years of therapy inducing crazy into some of the funniest stories I have ever heard.

I also enjoyed reading about her relationship with Victor, her husband (who my own husband refused to believe was real until this book had pictures to prove it).  He is incredibly quirky himself, and learning about how they met and got together made their relationship make way more sense.  As much as he complains about the taxidermied, dressed up animals in the house, or phone calls about attacking vultures with machetes to protect the dead dog, or how Jenny tells incredibly inappropriate stories in social situations as a response to her anxiety - you can tell he wouldn't have it any other way.

One of my other favorite things about this book is how much heart it has.  Yes, there is a lot to laugh at.  And yes, a lot of her life is ripe for comedy sketches.  But then there are the real things, the stuff that isn't funny.  The three miscarriages.  The way anxiety can sometimes overcome her and take over her life.  The loss of the family pet (ok, some of that was really funny).  Learning from a dog attack that you are, in fact, willing to put yourself in harm's way to protect your child.  She really exposes herself here, and knowing her battles with mental illness, that makes her strength to be able to do so that much more powerful.  Jenny let's you hurt with her and learn with her, as well as laugh with (and occasionally at) her.  And THAT is what a great memoir should be - something that really let's you feel like you know the person behind all those words.  I came away from this book feeling like I knew Jenny so much better, and being proud to be part of her tribe.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  There aren't any caveats to this recommendation, no "if you don't like x, then you won't like this" kind of addendums.  If you don't love this book, you may be critically broken inside.  And it may lead to you finding a giant metal chicken named Beyonce outside your door.  Knock, knock, motherfucker, indeed.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

CBR IV Review #23 - A Stir of Echoes by Richard Matheson

Another one that screws up the quoting format, since google keeps giving me movie quotes.  Bah.

A Stir of Echoes is one of many works of Richard Matheson that has been adapted for the screen.  I saw the movie, starring Kevin Bacon, many years ago.  I don't remember liking it, but there was a creepiness factor to it that made me want to see if the book was better.  As such, when I stumbled upon this in a collection my friend lent me, I decided to check it out.

A Stir of Echoes is about Tom Wallace, an ordinary guy till his brother-in-law, Phil, hypnotizes him at a party and awakens some troubling psychic abilities.  Tom and his pregnant wife, Anne, have to deal with the fact that Tom can now hear some of the thoughts of those around him, sense what people are feeling, and most importantly, that there is a very good chance someone is reaching out to him from beyond the grave.  This leads to a number of troubling revelations about his neighbors, strife within Tom's home, and a lot of issues overall.

The best thing I can say about this book is that it is a quick read.  If it sounds like an episode of the Outer Limits, it should - that's what it feels like.  None of the characters are developed enough for you to give a crap about them, and those reduced stakes ruin the tension.  Tom is annoying, and his reaction to his gift/curse is both repetitive and shallow.  You don't get lost in this, or worry for the characters, or really feel any tension at all.  A chapter ends in a gunshot and I didn't care about putting it down for awhile before continuing - that is a huge problem.  I suppose the big reveal at the end was supposed to be shocking, but I just didn't give a shit.

Skip this one.  There are much better psi thrillers out there.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

CBR IV Review #22 - Words Spoken True by Ann H. Gabhart

It would appear that these free books don't like to lend themselves to easily findable quotes online, which is screwing up my formatting on here.  Oh well. That's what I get for not marking the quote on my Kindle.  Although, to be honest, I don't remember there being many quotes that jumped out at me.

As I just indicated, Words Spoken True was a free eBook I came across that seemed interesting and had a fair number of positive reviews.  It wasn't a terrible read, or I wouldn't have finished it, but I'm not sure I can really recommend it either.  This book centers around the newspaper business in Louisville in 1855, when the Know Nothing party was coming to power and creating a lot of turmoil.  The protagonists are rival editors (ok, one is the daughter of the editor, but for the purpose of this review, that's semantics).  Blake Garrett has recently moved to the area to run The Herald, escaping a nasty personal history in New York.  Adriane Darcy helps her father, Wade, run the Tribune, which until Blake's arrival had been dominating the news scene.  The novel follows their relationship, the politics of the time, Adriane's engagement to the awful Stanley Jimson, and the attacks of a river slasher in the area.  If this all sounds like a lot, it is.  There was a distinct lack of focus that could have helped give this better narrative flow.  Each story isn't bad on it's own, but you KNOW they have to relate, and that makes figuring out the exact plot from the beginning entirely too easy.  I was able to map out everything that would happen from about two chapters in, and in detail, so it wasn't even that fun to see how it got there.

Another bonus that I didn't realize was that this is a Christian Romance Fiction novel.  As such, there is a lot of reference to prayer and the Bible.  This started out as a charming character trait of both Adriane and Beck - he helped her through her abused childhood by giving her greater faith and that's a great thing.  But holy crap do they drop scripture about light ALL THE TIME.  Also, if I had to read one more damned analogy comparing virtually ANYTHING in Adriane's life to her being locked in the closet by her step mother I was going to burst.  Find a new topic.

On the positive side, I did like the characters in the story.  Adriane, Blake, Duff and Beck, and tertiary characters Mrs. Wigginham and Grace Compton, all kept me reading to see what they would do, even though I was pretty sure I knew (I did).  Honestly, I would have preferred a novel about those two tertiary women - they had moxie and were really interesting.

Basically, while it was an ok way to spend time, I'd recommend finding something else. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

CBR IV Review #21 - Dunaway's Crossing by Nancy Brandon

This was a free book that I got through the Kindle store.  Mostly, the books I come across for free are terrible.  No offense intended to the authors - they are trying, bless them.  And it's fucking hard to write a book.  But some of them I can't even get far enough into to review (ie In Deep Shitake - do NOT pick that up, it is absolutely terrible).  This was the rare exception - a book I got for free that I would have paid for.

Dunaway's Crossing takes place in rural Georgia during the influenza outbreak of 1918-1919.  Bea Dot, escaping an abusive marriage for awhile, goes to stay with her pregnant cousin Netta.  However, before she can get there, the flu breaks out, provoking Netta's husband to send the women out of town.  Local man (and WWI vet) Will Dunaway takes the women to his home/store, the titular Dunaway's Crossing, to stay and wait out the outbreak in safety. Neither woman is really prepared for this style of living, especially not highborn lady Bea Dot, but they must learn to play the hand that life has dealt them.  Netta's due day approaches; Bea Dot knows her husband will be furious at her lack of return; and Will and Bea Dot start to find themselves feeling things that both know could lead to problems.  In the meantime, in town, people are dropping like flies and no one seems to know how to stop it.

This was a great little piece of historical fiction, which is a genre I have a weakness for when done well (I spent a year reading almost nothing but historical fiction based on Tudor England and LOVED it).  This novel does a lovely job of really transporting you back to that time and place and feeling the fear and exhaustion of everyone involved.  The descriptions of the ill are unpleasant, but not too disturbing, at least not for me.  I could feel the Georgia heat in the air when Bea Dot arrived in Pineview, and Netta's discomfort in her pregnancy.  It was really immersive for me.

I also loved the characters and their relationships.  I rooted for Bea Dot to succeed and get out of her hell hole of a marriage - I wanted her husband, Ben, dead from the start (he opens the book with violence towards her which spurs her trip to visit her cousin).  I loved that Bea Dot and Netta, who have some water under their bridge, managed to love each other and drive each other crazy at the same time.  It felt honest.  And Will and Bea Dot's relationship, especially given the extreme circumstances, felt real to me, too. 

I figured out Bea Dot's secret early on, but it was still sad to read about later.  And if you are a person who cannot abide stories that involve the abuse of women, this is one you might want to skip - poor Bea Dot has to endure a number of unspeakable things. 

I'd definitely recommend picking this one up (it's now listed at $0.99, or free for Prime members) and look forward to seeing what else Ms. Brandon comes up with in the future.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

CBR IV Review #20 - The Last Boyfriend by Nora Roberts

Last Nora Roberts review for a bit, I promise! Not that it matters - it's my cannon after all, but still.  I need to shake things up!

This is the second book in the Inn Boonsboro Trilogy, which, honestly, serves as a way to advertise the totally kickass inn that Nora Roberts owns, as well as the area surrounding it.  However, it's successful, as I enjoy the stories AND want to go stay there - so good work Roberts!

This volume focuses on the relationship between Owen and Avery.  Owen is the most organized of the Montgomery brothers - Type A to the bone.  Avery is less organized in her personal life, but has to be fairly detail oriented to balance everything she has going, which includes running Vesta, the killer pizza joint across the street from the Inn Boonsboro (which we get to see open in this one!).  Avery and Owen have a history, as they "dated" as kids, and both have harbored feelings for each other for years.  In addition to entering a new business partnership over the course of this book, they also pursue a romantic relationship, which is complicated by Avery's emotional baggage. 

Avery's story takes a leaf out of Vision in White with mommy issues.  Mac's mom may not have walked out on them, but she was slutty and emotionally destructive, and her damage hurts Mac's ability to truly give herself to a relationship.  Avery's mom walked out on her and her father when Avery was 12.  It's left her feeling she's likely to fail in romance like she did, and she's afraid of hurting Owen.  Not a shock that they overcome this.

Extra bonus material on this is the progression of Lizzy's story.  Lizzy is the ghost at the Inn, who saved Clare in the last volume by warning Beckett that she was in danger.  Owen manages to actually see Lizzy in this one, and Lizzy gives Clare something of hers near the end.  They start to establish who Lizzy is, who she is waiting for, and how she is connected to the people present.

I'm interested to see how everything wraps in the next story, which will be about Hope and Ryder.  That's due out in November, so expect to see a review of that before the cannon wraps!

Friday, May 11, 2012

CBR IV Review #17,18,19 - The Key Trilogy by Nora Roberts

“Do you know what happens when you always look before you leap?" She reached out and touched his hand before hurrying toward the door. "You hardly ever make the jump.”- Key of Light

Yes, I know.  Another Nora Roberts' trilogy. Deal.  My life has been filled with busy, occupying things, good and bad, and reading her books is like curling up on the couch under a warm blanket with some tea - it's comforting, easy and relaxing.  And there's only one more Roberts' review (of the newest volume in a trilogy she's yet to finish) coming up on my slate.  I read it after this series, and then moved on to other things.  So there.  :-)

The Key Trilogy is the story of three women in rural PA who are ask to complete a quest.  Malory, Dana and Zoe, who have never met, find themselves the guests of a mysterious couple who live up on Warrior's Peak.  Rowena and Pitte, two gods thrown down to our world as punishment, task the women with finding three keys to unlock a box containing the souls of three sister demigoddesses who were imprisoned there by an evil sorcerer god named Kane.  There is monetary incentive, which is important, since all three women find themselves in a state of personal disaster - each is on the brink of losing their jobs, or have just lost one.  So the excitement and the money spur all three to sign up, despite the consequences - should they fail, they will each lose a year of their lives.  In the process, the three women not only bond with each other, but become business partners, creating a triple threat business called Indulgence, which is part art gallery (for Malory), part book shop (for Dana), and part salon/spa (for Zoe).

First up, in Key of Light, is Malory, the artist.  Each book chronicles each woman's search for the key, their bond with a goddess (one of art, one of knowledge, one of courage - and who resemble the women, as indicated by paintings that become significant to plot), and, of course, their romantic entanglements.  It's not Roberts if there isn't romance, and the pairings are set up in this volume.  There are the three women tasked with the challenge, and three men who are best friends and connected to two of the three girls before the events of the books take place.  Malory works in a Gallery, since she never had the talent to create art herself, but certainly knows how to value it.  She falls for Dana's step brother, Flynn, and their relationship is essential to locating and acquiring her key.

Key of Knowledge is all about Dana, and mostly about her troubled past with author Jordan Hawke.  He left her without hardly a word after his mother died, and she still holds a grudge.  But like with Malory, addressing her feelings for Jordan (and vice versa) is essential to her journey for the key.

The final volume, Key of Valor, is about Zoe, the single mom.  She has a LOT more going on in terms of depth of story.  Zoe comes from a trailer park in West Virginia, and is a young single mother who made her own way in the world when the baby's father refused to be involved.  She's a powerful character, accustomed to doing everything herself, and as such, getting regular help from Brad, the third of the men, is hard for her.  She has to overcome a great deal to get to her key, and ends up being the most active in destroying Kane for good before they release the demigoddess's souls.

I enjoyed all of these, but Zoe's story was by far my favorite.  Her relationship with her son, Simon, is beautiful.  And her character is so dense and interesting.  Her obstacles when it came to both the key and to accepting Brad's advances (and help in general) were complicated and real.  She felt the most fleshed out of all three women, though obviously she benefited by being the last - I had two other books to get a basic knowledge of her and the world they lived in before delving into her story.

I also loved the relationships between everyone.  It was such a happy group of friends, who really created their own family.  I think it's very true that as adults, we have different family than who we are born into.  The older you get, the more you start making your own family out of the important people in your life, and that's especially true here.  Does it all happen a little faster in the books than in reality?  Sure, but it's fiction.  That doesn't diminish the sincerity of the feeling between everyone.  And the dialogue is written in such a way that I had no trouble believing the men had always been friends, while the women were still finding their footing.

Overall, another great read!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

CBR IV Review #14,15,16 - The Circle Trilogy by Nora Roberts

“Know what you want, work to get it, then value it once you have it.” - Morrigan's Cross
“We make destiny with every turn, every choice.”- Valley of Silence

Well, this was a fantastic follow up to the mediocre Irish Hearts series, as this series was FANTASTIC.  I had no idea that Roberts wrote any fantasy until I stumbled across this trilogy.  I was hesitant - could she actually write in that genre, keep her romance roots, and have it all work?  I have to tell you, resoundingly, yes.  I loved this series, and I'm not ashamed to say so.

The first book, Morrigan's Cross begins our journey.  Starting in the 12th century, Roberts introduces the first member of our circle - Hoyt the Sorcerer.  The books follow the battle between the Circle of Six - the sorcerer, the witch, the one who is lost, the warrior, the scholar and the one of many forms - and the vampire Lilith, who is determined to eliminate the human race and end all worlds.  The book opens with a confrontation between Hoyt and Lilith, who had turned his twin brother Cian (pronounced Key-Ahn) into a vampire.  After marking Lilith and tossing his vampire twin off of a cliff in a fight, Hoyt is approached by the Goddess Morrigan (who is a figure in Celtic lore) and set on a mission to gather the Circle together and prepare to do battle with Lilith and her army.  Hoyt is sent through the Dance of the Gods (a real thing as well - Stonehenge is set up the same way as dances in Ireland are) to the future.  There he begins to gather his circle together, starting with his lost brother, who has spent the past thousand years becoming successful and emotionally shut off.  They meet up with Glenna, the witch, and travel together with Cian's friend, King, to Ireland to begin their training.  Cian had purchased the estate where the men grew up, and that is their base of operations for this, and half of the next, book.  It is based in Ireland where they meet the rest of their circle.  Blair, the warrior, is clearly based on Buffy and has been a demon hunter all her life.  She also happens to be a descendent of Hoyt and Cian's sister, Nola.  Larkin, the one of many forms, and Moira, the scholar, are both from another world called Geall, which is based on Ireland and is the site of the final battle against Lilith.

The second and third books outline more training, more bonding, and the big conflict between the sides of good and evil. And naturally, all three books feature a love story.  If you didn't see there was a circle of six and immediately assume that they'd pair off in two's, you haven't read enough Roberts' books yet.  The pairings are logical enough, and I won't spoil it for you by explaining how successful or not they are.  They are well developed - I felt like none of their relationships came out of the blue, and everyone brought their own baggage to the table.  In addition, I enjoyed the way the impending death and doom loomed over them.  Many people find the big good in situations like that, and I loved that they kept remembering to enjoy the simple, happy things, because otherwise what were they fighting to save?  I'm not sure I ever really felt panicked about them making it through - Roberts isn't George RR Martin, after all - but it didn't make their battles and less fraught with tension.

I am in love with all of these characters, even the bad guys.  Every member of the circle of six felt well developed, and I felt such empathy with them.  I saw myself a little in each of the women, and I got what compelled each of them about their men and about their challenges.  I also enjoyed interspersing the viewpoint of the villains of the piece.  We got some insight into Lilith, her lover Lora, and her "son" Davey.  I liked having three dimensional villains that, while I still despised, I was able to understand a little.  They react to each other in ways I could connect with, and that made it more compelling to watch them battle.  I still wanted them to lose, and get their asses soundly kicked, but it's more satisfying to have that happen with characters I get rather than just a caricature of a bad guy.

I don't want to spoil how things develop in the series, because it's truly lovely.  Is it the best vampire fiction out there?  No.  But it's a damn fun ride, with characters you will love.  Definitely recommended reading!

CBR IV Review #11,12,13 - Irish Hearts Trilogy by Nora Roberts

Normally I start off with quotes, but I had a hard time locating them, and I read this series over a month ago, so I'll be damned if I remember any.  So tough.  Life is hard.  ;-)  And yes, this is yet another Nora Roberts series.  The next review?  Also of a Nora Roberts series.  The one after that?  Will probably also be a Nora Roberts series. I've had a lot going on lately (bed bugs, getting married, honeymoon, finding a new place to live) and as such, I've needed some really easy reading.  It doesn't get easier than this.  The thing I like most about Roberts it that I can read these without having to work too hard, but at the same time, there's enough there for me to not get bored.  She's great at writing characters I find myself committed to, and that's what really hooks me into a book.

That being's important to note that this series starts with the first book of Roberts' career, and it shows.  The writing is stiff, there is only one sex scene to each (which anyone who reads her regularly will find surprising) and the story moves at an odd pace.  Everything seems to rush together at the end, and that wasn't really satisfying for me.  Roberts also seems to have a penchant, in this series anyway, for putting each of her female leads through something traumatic.  Adelia faces attempted rape, Erin is kidnapped and held hostage, Keeley is beaten.  Cut these women a break!  Also, being Irish does not make them simple.  I get that Erin and Adelia, coming from small town farm country in Ireland (and in the 80s at that) would have had less access to modern conveniences, but Jesus Mary and Joseph do they sound like retards when they are wandering about the US seeing all our crazy tech.  Like cars.  It was frustrating.

You'll notice I'm lumping all three reviews together here, and not really outlining the plots of any - that's because I don't feel like wasting the time.  Roberts has written more than 209 novels (so sayeth Wikipedia, so grain of salt), so it seems silly to waste time elaborating on my feelings on the only trilogy of hers that I have no feelings on.  I can't say I hated them, but they didn't inspire me to give a shit about them either.  Easily skippable - move on to some of her other, better works (of which there are many reviews on this blog - she's my go-to for fluff writing).

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

CBR IV Review #10 - Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James

“This is a man in need. His fear is naked and obvious, but he's lost. . . Somewhere in his darkness.
His eyes wide and bleak and tortured. I can soothe him. Join him briefly in the darkness and bring him into the light.”

A DISCLAIMER: This review is of a piece of erotic fiction.  As such, discussion of the sex is relevant and necessary to the review.  If this makes you uncomfortable, skip this one.

Fifty Shades of Grey is, technically, a fan fiction inspired erotic novel.  It horrified me to find out, halfway through this book (which is when the rest of the popular book scene caught up with me) that this book was started as Twilight fanfiction.  I hate Twilight.  A lot.  However, the resemblance to those books is practically non-existent.  I know many people compared the two lead characters to Bella and Edward, but I think that is so far beyond a stretch that it borders on the absurd.  Regardless.

This book is the story of virginal, innocent, recent college grad (she graduates in the course of the book) Anastasia Steele, and multi-billionaire Christian Grey.  The two cross paths when Ana interviews Christian on behalf of her sick roommate, Kate, and their sexual chemistry is evident from the start.  Christian makes a point of putting himself into Ana's life, and eventually the two start an incredibly complicated relationship.  The reason for this complication is Christian's sexual appetite.  He's a Dom, in the most classic sense of the term, and he likes to contract his submissives.  Ana, however, is not exactly great at being submissive, and sex is new to her in the first place.  The two develop something much more significant than a sexual relationship, even though the progression terrifies Ana.

A lot of people objected to this book because of the nature of their sexual relationship.  It's so very easy to cry "abusive asshole" about a Dom if you don't understand the lifestyle (and this book does a very good job of explaining things well, so I don't know how you come away with that impression, but whatever).  The submissive is the one with the real power in a BDSM relationship - they have the power to set parameters, to call a safeword and stop things at any given moment.  The Dom has all the apparent power in the moment, but there has to be a real trust and understanding between both participants for this kind of relationship to function.  Christian works very hard to make sure that Ana has this, even when she gets in her own way and doesn't tell him things.

The sex itself is reasonably well written.  The author seems to have an issue with using genital terminology, which got old fast, but the activities were well enough described.  I find it interesting that Ana never had any marks on her wrist from the times she was bound - or at least not ones that lasted long enough for anyone to notice.  Maybe she has stronger skin.  I HATED every damned reference to her inner goddess, as well as the incredible overuse of the phrase "Oh my."  They are lazy writing tools, employed every time the author couldn't think of something more compelling to say.  I don't need an "inner goddess" in Ana's head to understand her confusion in being turned on by things that a lot of society thinks are "wrong" or "dirty."  Discovering you are kinky is sometimes hard to come to terms with, and I like that it was a struggle for her.

Two other big complaints before I get to another compliment.  First, there is NO FUCKING WAY anyone is as clueless in the world as Ana.  Not having a computer (since she can use her roommate's) I can maybe accept.  Not having an EMAIL ADDRESS?  As a college student?  Impossible.  Every single student of every single college is given one of those these days.  I HATE when books do well on some details and totally blow it on the simple things like this.  I also have some trouble believing, at 22, that she's never been drunk or been kissed (mostly the combination of the two, for someone who doesn't have religious or cultural reasons to avoid it).  But that email address thing killed me.

Other complaint - that ending is THE WORST.  I hate hate hate when the first volume of a trilogy cannot stand on its own, and this has an ending where nothing actually resolves.  You're left with miserable main characters and no resolution - it feels like you go back to square one and then it just ends.  I don't know if I want to read the next book, and making it so I HAVE to makes me want to even less.  End volume 2 on a cliff-hanger - by then you usually have a committed audience.  But let volume one stand on its own two feet.  That ending was a cheap shot.

My last comment will be a compliment because I like to end on a high note if I can.  Christian and Ana, and even Kate, are characters I got attached to, and that surprised me.  A lot of erotic fiction barely fleshes out the characters, so you are reading strictly for the enjoyment of the sexual content.  This had a relationship I was invested in.  I wanted Ana to be honest with Christian, and vice versa.  I wanted them to explore their emotional needs as well as the carnal, and really get somewhere.  I kept picking the book back up to see how they developed, and that is always a good thing.

Like I said, I don't know if I'll pick up the next two volumes of this trilogy, but this is a pretty good read if you're into erotica, or want a little voyeuristic view into a BDSM relationship.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

CBR IV Review #9 - Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta

“I just want it to go back to the way it was."
"It'll never go back to the way it was, Frankie. But you have to make sure it goes forward.”

This book came to my from my BFF, who is a school librarian.  She reads a lot of YA lit for her job and passes some of the better stuff off to me.  For example, she introduced me to the greatness that is The Hunger Games (I reviewed them last year, for those new to this blog that I think no one is reading anyway!).  So when I saw this in the stack of books she was trying to find a new home for, I grabbed it up.  I'm glad that I did.

Saving Francesca is the story of a teenage girl in Australia.  It takes place during two terms of her Year 11, which includes attending a new school and dealing with her mother's depression (this is not a spoiler - it's on the back cover summary).  Frankie's new school is only recently integrated, and they haven't done a great job of making the girls feel welcome.  In addition, Frankie's group of friends from her old school all moved on to a different school, so she's left with some girls that she doesn't really know and trying to find her way and mostly keep her head down.

One of the most important people in Frankie's life is her mother, Mia, a whirlwind of energy and of being your own person.  Frankie has seen this as overbearing in the past, wanting to blend in rather than stand out.  But over the course of the book she starts to see the wisdom in the things Mia always told her.  Part of this is due to the sudden lack of Mia in her life.  One morning she simply does not get out of bed, and she stays that way for quite some time.  As Frankie and her family deal with her mother's problem (or, for much of the book, DON'T deal with it), Frankie starts letting herself become the woman she's meant to be.  She makes friends she didn't expect, find a crush she doesn't want, and starts to really find herself as a person, not just part of a crowd.

This is a really wonderful book on a lot of levels.  First, I love the message it sends to young women.  Frankie is an incredibly normal girl - she wants to blend in, she defines herself by what her friends say, she fights with her mom, she thinks the boys in her school are ridiculous.  But circumstances force her to really develop her own personality independent of those things, and to find the people who let her be who she really is.  Her journey felt very real.  By the end of the book you get the idea that, while there will still be times that she backslides, she's really trying to blazer her own trail.

I also liked the honesty with which they handled Mia's illness.  Depression is something I'm intimately familiar with, and I spent a lot of the book wondering what her catalyst was, and what warning signs the family had missed.  And they address both, in their own good time.  It takes awhile to find out those things, so while I wanted to know immediately, it made sense to not reveal it until Frankie figured it out.  And I love that while Mia makes progress, she doesn't end the book healed.  That kind of depression doesn't go away, but becomes something you learn to live with (some days better than others).  If suddenly it had been a "hey, she's all better now, yay!" ending, I would have been disappointed.  There's hope there, but it's obvious that it won't be an easy road.

This book is peppered with delightful characters, and even though you don't get to know them well (the narrator is Frankie, so we're limited to her perspective) you get a real sense of who they are and what they're like.  I wanted to hang out with Frankie and her friends, and I love being able to connect that way with characters.

Definitely a book I'd recommend, especially if you love YA lit!

Friday, March 9, 2012

CBR IV Review #8 - The Miracle Worker by William Gibson

James Keller: Sooner or later, we all give up, don't we?
Annie Sullivan
: Maybe you all do, but it's my idea of the original sin. 

I only picked up this play for a re-read because a friend of mine is directing it next year, and another friend (who wants to play Kate) recommended that I audition for Annie.  Since it had been a number of years since I read it (I auditioned for Helen in my youth), I felt the need to reacquaint myself with the material before deciding if I was right for it.

The Miracle Worker, for the random person out there who doesn't know this, is the story of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan.  Everyone knows who Helen is, and Annie is the one who taught her.  The play opens with Kate and Captain Keller discovering their child's illness has left her deaf and blind.  The rest of the play centers on young Annie coming to try to teach Helen how to communicate, and how to function, as she has been left to run wild in the house.  Annie's mission is to get Helen first to be civilized and therefore teachable, and then to get her to understand that the letters she is spelling into her hands mean things.  One word will open up the door to what's locked inside.  As you all know, by the end of the play she succeeds in getting Helen to understand the word "water" and as such gives her the gift of communication.

This is a really solidly written play, but it's hard to read, as so much of it is stage direction.  Unfortunately, when you are working on the premise of a main character not understanding speech, it leaves a lot to be translated through physicality.  While the directions are clear, it's still a play that is better seen than read (although I would argue this is true of pretty much every play ever written).  The characters see such lovely growth throughout, and when played by the right people, it's a formidable work.

CBR IV Review #7 - Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

"Keeping one's hands clean – maintaining one's innocence. Is that not the human way?”

Princess of the Midnight Ball, as you know if you read my last review, precedes the events of Princess of Glass by several years (in story time, not sure in real time and don't feel like looking it up!).  This book is based on the story of the Twelve Princesses, which I will admit I am not at all familiar with.  I studied the Grimm brothers many moons ago for a project, but this tale is not one that I recall.  However, since I had already read Princess of Glass, I knew how the story's basics would unfold.  This didn't really detract from the reading, however, as Day George has such lovely style and creates such interesting characters.

The story, for those who aren't familiar with it, is about 12 princesses (did you guess that part?) who wear out their dancing shoes every night.  The King is mystified as to how they are burning through footwear, as no one has seen the girls leave, and none of them will tell him what is going on.  So he creates a challenge - any visiting prince can marry one of his daughters and become heir to the throne if he can solve the mystery. 

In this telling of the story, the kingdom of Westfalin has just won a rather unpleasant and incredibly long war.  Galen, a young soldier, shows up to the capital to stay with his aunt and uncle, as both his parents perished while on the front.  His uncle, a hard man named Reiner, works as the senior gardener for the King, and Galen starts work beneath him.  This leads him into contact with the young princesses, in particular the eldest daughter, Rose.  Their chemistry is obviously fairly immediately. The story proceeds as it should, with the girls disappearing to their midnight balls without anyone knowing why.  But then the visiting princes start dying as they leave the kingdom, and suspicions arise that the girls are the cause.  The church gets involved (from Roma - again, the kingdoms are based on European countries) and the girls, and Westfalin itself, are in jeopardy unless someone can help them.  It's up to the mysterious young under-gardener to step up and save them all.

I didn't love this as much as Princess of Glass, but I think a lot of that was due to my connection with the characters.  Whereas I LOVED Poppy (and do in this book as well, although she's such a small part of it), Galen and Rose don't inspire the same kind of loyalty in me.  I rooted for Galen, and he was the most interesting character for me, but the dynamic was so different. Rose.  I feel like there was more that could have been done with her character.  She was a little bland for me, and it made it hard to get as invested in her story.  The writing, however, is just as solid and interesting as in the companion novel, and I tore through this book just as quickly.

Something I forgot to mention for anyone interested is that both of these books involve knitting as plot points.  The things that are knit are for protection or other magical uses, and as a nice touch, Day George gives instructions on how to make these projects yourself.  Now, I used to knit once upon a time, but now am only into cross stitching, so I have no idea how easy or not these things are to follow, but I thought it was a nice touch.

Looking forward to more Day George books in the future!  She's definitely made my must-read authors list.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

CBR IV Review #6 - Princess of Glass by Jessica Day George

“I have to keep knitting,” she said in a low voice. “Because I’m the strong one.” 

Princess of Glass is Day George's re-imagining of the Cinderella tale, and it is an excellent one.  The story follows two girls, Princess Poppy and Eleanora/Ellen/Lady Ella, as well as the prince of Danelaw, Christian.  Princess Poppy is visiting Breton (and obviously English based country) to help international relations, which happens to be why Christian is there as well.  Princess Poppy has a somewhat murky history with magic, as she and her sisters were cursed to dance at Midnight Balls for King Under Stone.  That part of the story is documented in another Day George fairy tale story, Princess of the Midnight Ball, which I'm reading presently.  Poppy fills the reader in on the general details as the story progresses, keeping the truth of why she refuses to dance a secret from the others in the story.  She is wary of magic, as she should be, and knows several powerful charms to keep her safe from it, which prove useful later.

Eleanora has fallen on hard times.  Her family, once amongst the nobility, lost their fortune, and then both of Eleanora's parents died.  As such, she was left with no option but to go into the service and work as a maid named Ellen, which she is terrible at.  Her misfortune, however, leaves her vulnerable to the powers of a godmother known as "the Corley" - but things are never what they seem.  While her new benefactress claims to want to help Ellen go to the ball, woo the prince and live happily ever after, nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

Christian ends up a pawn in the game, torn between Princess Poppy, who he has developed feelings for that he doesn't quite understand, and this mysterious Lady Ella who appears at the King's balls with such dramatic flair that every man desires her and every woman envies her - but no one knows who she is.

The story is an old one, but told in such a lovely new way that it feels fresh.  You know the glass slippers will play a part, but how they do is both unique and a little terrifying.  The Corley, also, puts a whole new spin on the Fairy Godmother character.  I also think that Ellen is perhaps the most honest representation of the Cinderella character.  She's a little whiny and put upon, and her desperation to return to her "proper" place in the world leads her to make some ugly choices.  That's far more realistic to me than singing happily with birds while you are ignored by a society who has chosen to forget who you once were.

But most interesting to me of all is Poppy.  THIS is a heroine young girls should look up to.  While she had to suffer great trials in her life, she chooses to grow from the experience and by the end of this book, also decides not to be defined by the horrors of her past.  She's the person who leads the charge against the bad magic, and the first one to recognize something is wrong at all.  She refuses to compromise who she is as a person, even if her personality is a little unorthodox for Breton's high society.  She is brave, funny, intelligent, and powerful in her own way and I adored her.

This was a great book, one that was incredibly hard to put down.  I've moved immediately to Princess of the Midnight Ball so I could read more.  I didn't realize until too late that I should have read the two books in the opposite order, but it hardly matters.  While I know how the new one will resolve thanks to reading this one, having Poppy's perspective made me want to know the whole story.  Definitely recommend this book, especially if you love a good fairy tale!

Friday, March 2, 2012

CBR IV Review #5 - Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

“History, in the end, is only another kind of story, and stories are different from the truth. The truth is messy and chaotic and all over the place. Often it just doesn’t make sense. Stories make things make sense, but the way they do that is to leave out anything that doesn’t fit. And often that is quite a lot.” 

This book is a wonderful read, albeit a depressing one.  Set in a private Catholic boys' school in Dublin in 2003, Skippy Dies follows a number of characters through a span of the several months surrounding the titular death of Skippy.  The first scene of the book is Skippy's death (whose real name is Daniel Juster).  From there, we jump back a bit, build to the opener, and then move beyond it to its aftermath.

There are a number of narrator's here, and much like with George RR Martin's books, none of them are really that reliable.  I'm a big fan of unreliable narrators in situations like this, as it heightens the realism.  These felt like very real characters, people that Murray knew well and understood.  Having never attended Catholic school, let alone one for boys, I'm certainly no expert on what that reality is like.  However, it felt real and natural to me.  I'm sure all the adolescent actions of the main characters may grate on some, but so far as I'm aware, that's pretty much how teen boys behave.  The relationships between the group of Skippy's friends, in particular, resonated with me, particularly in the way the dynamic shifts after his death.  

There is one literary device used in this book that I absolutely loathe, and that is run on sentences to simulate free form thought of a character (or in this case, several - Lori, Skippy and Carl are all prone to this).  I HATE run on sentences, and some of these can be as long as a paragraph.  However, unlike in books like Foxfire, which I threw across the room since its entirety was written in that style, Skippy Dies uses it sparingly.  It's like an unpleasant seasoning on a good dish - I'll push through the few bites that are unappealing because the rest is good enough to merit it.

I really only have two large complaints with the book.  One is the use of our sole adult perspective, Howard "The Coward" Fallon.  Much of his story felt superfluous.  I never cared about his relationship with Halley or his crush on Aurelie and I don't feel that any of the time spent on that was worthwhile.  The rest of Howard's story was relevant to both understand him as a character, and understanding a number of important plot points (even if I think it's absolute bullshit that decades later people are calling him "coward" for not doing something incredibly idiotic and blaming him for the fact that someone else got hurt for doing it instead - blame the person who did it and the person who created the situation, not Howard...but I digress).  They could have cut his romantic subplots and it still would have worked (although the Hallowe'en Hop would need a new distraction).

Second objection was the overuse of scientific terminology.  There is a subplot regarding Ruprecht's scientific theories (Ruprecht being Skippy's roommate) and while it is relevant to the story, they delve WAY too far into the language of the theories involved for my taste.  This is not a sci-fi novel and I didn't require intimate knowledge of string theory to get what they were attempting to accomplish.  It was in these sections when I was most likely to put the book down or let my mind wander.

Overall, I'd definitely recommend this.  There is some heavy, HEAVY stuff going on, and if you are sensitive to the darker stuff in here, it might be one to skip.  I can't divulge what kind of things are involved without giving too much away, but you'll realize it long before the story confirms them, so if you are bothered by what you think is happening, just stop reading.  If you can handle it, though, this is a really dynamic read, and very different from the majority of contemporary literature in both themes and style.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

CBR IV Review #4 - Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

“The more distressing the memory, the more persistent it's presence. ” 

I don't have a lot to say about this one.  I saw the movie when it came out last year and enjoyed it.  Didn't blow my mind, but I liked it enough to want to read the source material.  The book is always better, right?  So if I enjoyed the movie, I should LOVE the book?  Well, in this case, it was a pretty faithful adaptation.  As such, I felt just as lukewarm about the book as the movie - a pleasant way to spend time, but not something I feel passionately about one way or the other.  Except for what happens to August.  But I'm jumping ahead.
This meh-fest is about a young man named Jacob who joins the circus after his parents are suddenly and tragically killed, ending his future as a vet.  He stumbles upon the train for the Benzini Brothers (an outfit constantly living in the shadow of Ringling) and his skills with animals get him a job on the show.  He falls for the married horse performer, Marlena, which is problematic as her husband, the animal trainer August, has some serious mental problems to contend with.  The story builds on their relationship as a triangle, throwing in some other characters like Big Al (the man who runs the show), a crippled old man and a dwarf with a dog, although the people who really MATTER are our three points of the triangle and an elephant named Rosie.  Rosie is really the key to how everything progresses, as what happens to and with her moves everything along.  And she is easily my favorite character.

The story is told in a dual timeline fashion - we start out at the event that the whole book builds to explain, which is the animals of the circus being set loose on a crowded house, and the death of August.  It jumps from this to an eldery Jacob, living in a nursing home and slowly giving way to the terrors of old age.  The circus comes to town, setting off Jacob's memories, which we then get to jump into.  On the whole, the transitions between these two times is clear and easy to follow, which I appreciate a great deal.  And the amount of research that went into this book seems fairly clear - you need a LOT of knowledge about the circuses post depression to be able to write this as thoroughly as Ms. Gruen does.  However, like I said, while it's enjoyable, it didn't blow my mind.  So it's worth wiling away some hours, but not something I'd run out to get a copy of.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

CBR IV Review #3 - The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

“You think, as you walk away from Le Cirque des Reves and into the creeping dawn, that you felt more awake within the confines of the circus.
You are no longer quite certain which side of the fence is the dream.” 

I've had this book recommended to me so many times now, I've lost count.  And every last one of them was right.  
The Night Circus is the story of two battling magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been bound to each other and to their battle since they were children by their instructors, a Mr. A H--- and Hector Bowen, Celia's father.  The two create a magnificent, unique circus, Le Cirque des Rêves as their playing field.  The book tells not only of their battle, but of the effects this competition has on those caught in the middle, both as participants and spectators.  To elaborate too thoroughly on the plot (as many of the descriptions I've read do) is a disservice - it's so much better to experience it.

Part of what finally drew me to selecting this title versus the dozens of others I have on my ever growing To Read list was a point of inspiration for the author.  Morgenstern thanks a company called Punchdrunk, who put together a show she saw in Boston.  The show she's referring to, Sleep No More, is currently playing in New York, and I've seen it twice with plans to go again ad infinitum till it closes.  It's a completely unique, immersive theatrical experience, much like the circus in this book.  It's very easy to see the parallels between the two works as you read.  Friedrick Thiessen, a character of the book who is both a clockmaker and a pioneering fan of the circus, helps connect the two threads the best.  In the book, there is a community of devoted followers of the circus called reveurs; Sleep No More has the same, but we have no name as a group.  Still, in both cases, people follow the show, gathering together to discuss it whether they know each other or not, bound by a mutual love for a show that is never the same and that you can never truly see all of.  This really helped me to connect to the book in a deeper way - I know exactly what it feels like to be somewhere like Le Cirque des Rêves and that makes the atmosphere so much more electric for me as a reader.

Not that this suggests that you can't enjoy the book without having this connection - it's simply a well written piece of fantasy with some really brilliant characters and an interesting narrative.  Celia and Marco make excellent protagonists, and their story is one that I think develops very nicely over the course of the book.  All of the characters feel very real and they are all relevant, which I think is important, as it reflects part of the goal of the competition - dealing with outside elements and the consequences your decisions have on them.  And the ending was absolutely beautiful and completely satisfying - there were a lot of ways for this to end, and it reaches the right blend of them all.

Definitely check out this book.  You'll lose yourself to the circus and wish you didn't have to come back.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

CBR IV Review #2 - The Bards of Bone Plain by Patricia McKillip

We may be seeing only the remnants of something long gone from this world. Maybe you and I were just born with primitive eyes. Or hearts. Born with a gift for something that doesn’t exist anywhere any longer, and the recognition, the longing for it is all we’ll ever know.” 

LOVED this book.  McKillip has been a favorite author of mine for...goodness, I don't even know how long!  And this did not disappoint.
Based in the town of Caerau, The Bards of Bone Plain tells two stories: one is of the "present", where young Phelan Cle is trying to write his final paper for the Bardic College and finds more than he bargained for, and the other the tale of Nairn the Bard, the subject of his paper.  The chapters set in the past are all begun with excerpts from Phelan's paper, which makes a really nice narrative framework, and eases the reader between time periods with grace.  The story of Nairn's search for power and music (and power IN music) is just as interesting as the struggles of Princess Beatrice, Phelan, Jonah Cle (Phelan's oft drunk, mysterious father), and Zoe (the magic voiced bard and friend of Phelan) in the present.  Phelan's search for the mysteries of the Bone Plain, written about in poetry, but never conclusively identified in history, leads him on a journey he doesn't expect.

As usual, McKillip has a way with descriptive language, as applies to both location and character.  I never had a problem visualizing what was going on; more importantly, I never had a problem sympathizing with the characters either, even when I didn't understand why.  This book had a special charm for me, as all the magic and the story are linked to music.  As a musician myself, watching her manipulate a medium I understand so well was truly lovely.  

I burned through this book like wild fire.  It's definitely one I'll read again, though perhaps not with the frequency of Winter Rose (nothing will replace that book in my heart).  If you love fantasy, especially if you love McKillip's style of fantasy, this is a must read.

CBR IV Review #1 - The Next Always by Nora Roberts

“You're the woman in my life," he said. "Another thing about me and my brothers? We look after the women in our lives. We don't know any other way.” 

Yes, I'm kicking off the new Cannon with yet another Nora Roberts book.  I can't help it - the woman writes such delicious fluff!  This is the first book in her new series, The Inn Boonsboro Trilogy.  Interesting trivia for you at the end of this review!
Y'know how moments ago I said Nora writes delicious fluff?  It's true.  But I'm not sure it fully applies to this book.  Tense and unsettling are words I almost never apply to Roberts' work, even when she's writing romantic thrillers like Carnal Innocence (oh yes, I not only read that, I watched the horrible Lifetime movie).  However, this book really got to me.  I'm not sure if it's just that I didn't realize I had a button there to push, or it was just really well written, or some combination.  But this is the first time in a long time I had violent, horrible nightmares from a book - more particularly, ones where I lose.  I never lose in my dreams, and yet I lost in these.  Anyway.  I digress.

This first book sets up a little town called Boonsboro in North Carolina, home to the Montgomery brothers and a cast of lovely local characters.  The Montgomery brothers, Beckett, Owen and Ryder, own an architectural and construction company.  Their project at the opening is rebuilding the historic Inn in the town, which boasts its own very interesting ghost.  The three brothers are different enough to tell apart, and their love interests are pretty apparent from the start, as is typical in a Roberts' series.  This book focuses on architect brother Beckett and his decades old crush on Clare Brewster, mother of three and widow of a soldier.  Clare runs the bookstore across the street from the Inn and lives alone with her three boys, who are absolutely adorable, especially in their bonding scenes with Beckett.

In addition to the predictable hurdles of dating a woman who is a widow with three children, there is a huge obstacle in the form of a local creeper, who I won't say too much about in case you are as naive as Clare and simply don't see what's going on from the beginning.  I will tell you that I knew right off the bat exactly what was wrong with this guy and his part of this story is what haunted me.  ::shivers:: Not ok.  

I promised you trivia, and I'm going to deliver.  This series is based on an actual location, and all the businesses in it, including the titular Inn are real.  Better yet, the Inn itself is owned by the author, Nora Roberts.  I had gone through the book admiring the research it must have taken to get all these details of construction correct, but knowing this was something she actually built changed that dynamic instantly.  Also?  It is immensely cool to go to the website and see that the images in my head are real and fully realized.  I'm dying to go stay down there in one of those beautiful theme rooms.

Overall?  Very good read, and one that I couldn't put down near the end.  I look forward to seeing the inevitable Avery/Owen and Hope/Ryder romances play out over the next two books!