Thursday, December 5, 2013

CBR V Review #53: Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward

“It's a sad reflection on society how many people are shocked by honesty... and how few by dishonesty.” 

I'm on a play reading kick lately, I think because my SPTs reminded me how very few things I've actually read/seen, especially of late.  This was not a first read for me - I've read plenty of Noel Coward, and this was one of them I had read in the past.  However, it's been a lot of years, and I remembered next to none of it.

Coward has a brilliant way with witty dialogue.  It never feels like he's trying too hard to be clever, but the repartee is always sharp.  This play is the story of an unfortunate, though comedic, series of events set off by a seance in the house of the Condomines.  Charles Condomine wants to research a character for a book, and hopes that watching Madame Arcati perform a seance will give him the right vocabulary for his protagonist.  What he doesn't account for, however, is that the seance not only succeeds in connecting him, his wife, and his guests with the spirit world, but manages to bring his first wife over to the side of the living - with Charles the only one who can see or hear her.  Events unfold amusingly from then on.

I'm not a huge fan of reading plays, actually, because they are almost never as good on paper as they are in action.  That's by design - plays are written to be staged, the words given life by performers.  Reading them is a colder experience, even for an actor.  However, I simply don't have the time and funds to see quality productions of everything, so reading them tends to be a lot more accessible.  This is a fun read, especially because Coward's wordplay is always so enjoyable.

CBR V Review #52: The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? by Edward Albee

I'm going to put this out there to start with - this play is most decidedly not for everyone.  The central issue at hand is the protagonists affair with a goat.  If that's a problem for you, just stop now.  If not, then enjoy the incredibly written play in all its complex awfulness.

Martin and Stevie have an incredibly happy marriage.  Neither has ever been tempted to cheat, something uncommon in their social circle.  They have a son, Billy, whose sexuality is an adjustment for the couple, but not something terrible.  Martin is at the top of his game as an architect.  But something is set to ruin everything.  After distractedly ruining and interview with his best friend, Ross, Martin confesses he's having an affair with a certain Sylvia, who, it turns out, is a goat.  He's in love with his wife, but he's also in love with Sylvia.  Ross writes to Stevie to tell her of Martin's infidelity, and the play is, in the main, a reaction to this news.

This play is so sharply written.  In such a short span, the relationship between Martin and Stevie is established as interesting, dynamic, and real, and it makes it all the more heartbreaking to see them fall apart in the aftermath.  I appreciate that Albee paints Martin in a sympathetic light.  Bestiality is not something we, as a culture, have any sort of sympathy or understanding for as a sexual choice (and I'm down with that, don't get me wrong).  But Martin isn't some degenerate pervert in this.  He's a man, in love, and confused by how and why that is.  Making Martin not a monster makes it an interesting story.  Albee makes him hard to hate the way you would expect to, and that's to his credit.

Stevie...Stevie is magnificent, and a character I am dying to play someday (I'm too young to have a 17 year old son, thank you very much).  The way she casually breaks objects while more pieces of the story come out is genius.  She has such fabulous snark about the way she handles her pain and her rage.  And she makes the point you have to wonder at as an audience - how can you possible prepare for something like this?  In the long list of things you can possibly imagine going wrong in a relationship - cheating, sexual identity issues, lying, alcoholism, screwing the babysitter, etc - who includes fucking a goat on that list?  I'm going to hazard a guess of very few people.

This play is brilliant and dark, like much of Albee's work.  I highly recommend it, if you can handle the subject matter.

CBR V Review #51: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

“How little we know, I thought, of the people we live amongst.” 

I picked this one up because I thoroughly enjoyed People of the Book, another of Ms. Brooks books.  This seemed a good subject matter for her - historical fiction, localized to one little English town.

Year of Wonders is about the plague, and the havoc it wreaked on one little village.  Based on true events in the village of Eyam, we follow Anna Frith through the death and decay of 1666.  An infected bolt of cloth brings the disease to the town, leaving all kinds of destruction in its wake.  It's a tale of survival, despair, catastrophe, and above all, hope.  

Anna is a wonderful character, trying to continue to cope and be useful as the world crumbles around her.  Helped by the assistance of the local reverend and his delightful wife, Anna tries to help the community survive the crisis.  It shows how low some people were brought, capitalizing off the misery of others, panicking in grief and laying blame at the wrong feet.  But it also shows how good can still shine through the darkness.

I feel like I should have more to say about this, but I really don't.  It's a beautifully written piece of historical fiction, sometimes incredibly hard to read, but always worth it.

CBR V Review #50: Just My Luck by Rosalind James

Yes, yes, *another* volume in the Escape to New Zealand series.  And the last, it would appear, as Ms. James has started publishing another series that I have no interest in.  Regardless, this is very much like its predecessors - All Black rugby player falls in love with ex pat.

In this case, the story is about Nate, new skipper for the ABs (you'll remember Drew from the first book was the previous skipper, and he retires in this volume).  His serious focus is tested by the beautiful and interesting Canadian, Allison.  Her interest in extreme sports, and Nate, keeps his mind occupied on something other than the game at hand.  They aren't the only romance in this one, though.  Ally's roommate (and Kate from the first book's sister) Kristen and another AB teammate, Liam, also have a blooming romance in this one.  Honestly, they have a relationship I liked more and I wish these were two separate books instead of meshed into one.

Ally and Nate's primary issue is his lack of ability to commit.  His focus on his career takes precedence over his feelings for her, and I'm glad when she gets sick of it and moves on (though of course he learns his lesson and makes it up to her, etc).  Liam and Kristen are more interesting.  She's a model gorgeous woman with a recent divorce who is incredibly gunshy about men.  This makes sense, since she's used to only being wanted for her looks.  Liam is a recovering alcoholic who has gone down a long, hard road to become the man he is now.  The way he warms her to him, and that they grow to love one another is lovely.  I wish I could have spent more time watching that unfold instead of Ally and Nate.  And Liam's proposal, and general courtship, is so beautiful.

Another great addition to a series I'm sorry to see the end of.  Hopefully she'll write more of them someday.  I love being transported to New Zealand and living with these characters.

CBR V Review #49: Dark Witch by Nora Roberts

“You can’t just hope for happy endings. You have to believe in them. Then do the work, take the risks.” 

My adoration of Nora Roberts should be well known around here by now.  I actually pre-ordered this book so I could have it the moment it was released.  She is my favorite romance novelist, hands down, and I love when she mixes fantasy into her usual romantic formula.  As an added bonus, we get Ireland in the mix, which makes it the perfect trifecta for my enjoyment.

The story, and the series (yup, another trilogy - LOVES IT!), is set up with an opener set in the past.  A powerful witch, Sorcha, and her children have their lives disrupted by a dark witch, Cabhan.  Sorcha sacrifices herself and passes her powers onto her three children, knowing that someday the circle will be complete and they'll be able to banish the evil man forever.

That brings us to present, and Iona Sheehan uprooting her life to move to County Mayo and cousins she's never met, Branna and Connor O'Dwyer.  The siblings recognize Iona immediately for what she is - the last of the circle, the third of the original powers.  Each of them has gifts and animals associated with them, passed down from the original three siblings: Iona has a horse, Branna, a hound, and Connor, a hawk. The two start training Iona, knowing she'll have to up her magical abilities to be useful.  In the meantime, Iona gains employment at the stables of Ashford castle, working under her inevitable love interest, Boyle.  Also introduced are the love interests for the others in the circle, as that's how Nora always sets things up.

I enjoyed this book a lot, though the ending let me down a little.  You know there is no way they are defeating Cabhan in book one - he's the central conflict of the series.  So the rush to the battle at the end feels anti-climactic.  You know they aren't going to win, and also that they can't lose that badly because none of the main characters is going to die, especially not when most of their relationships have yet to develop.  So the drop off at the end was a bit much for me.  Still, a good read, with a solid set up for the rest.

I look forward to picking up the rest of the series as it is released.

CBR V Review #48: Allegiant by Veronica Roth

“I suppose a fire that burns that bright is not meant to last.” 

SPOILERS AHOY!  I'm putting that out here loud and clear.  This is the final installment of the Divergent series and I am going to talk about it with spoilers because...because I am, that's why.  I have feelings.  So once again, I say SPOILERS!SPOILERS!SPOILERS!


This kicks off where the last book ended, with Jeanine defeated, Four's mother in charge, and the factions a hot mess.  This is the only book told from dual perspectives - we shift between Four/Tobias and Tris, which I'll talk more about later.  Tris and Four venture outside the fence, as instructed by the video played at the end of the last book, and discover what I expected all along - the world outside exists, and their city was an experiment.  However, where I figured it was a purely social experiment, it turns out that it's a genetic one - there has been a war, and genetic modifications were at the heart of it.  Instead of racial tensions, or gender, or sexual - this is a world where genetic purity is key, and the infrastructure of society is based upon a class distinction dictated by what's been done to your genes.  Tris' divergence, it turns out, is a sign that her genes have corrected themselves through the generations and she is now pure.

Of course, this type of class tension is really no different from the faction tension Tris just escaped.  And a girl like that doesn't know how to avoid championing a cause, so she jumps right into the fray of this one.  Her involvement is supported later when the home she knew is threatened by the messed up society she's walked into.

I'm torn on how I feel about this book.  It's not as good as its predecessors for a variety of reasons.  Much like Collins did with Hunger Games, this trilogy moves from a set world into a larger one, and into larger issues, in the concluding volume.  I think both book suffer a bit from the widened scope.  I enjoyed the factions and how they interacted - this abandoned that almost entirely to focus on the gene war, and I had no investment in that.  The shifting narrative also occasionally left me cold.  I like being inside Four's head - he's a wonderful character - but the bouncing back and forth lost me every now and then.  I'd sometimes have to remind myself who I was with in a given chapter.

And the ending.  I'm sure the ending is the make or break point for most fans of the series.  On the one hand, I don't think it's necessarily the "wrong" choice for Tris to die a martyr.  What happens more or less makes sense, and it ups the stakes to have that kind of real sacrifice.  At the same time...after all the things she endures, and the things her divergence makes her able to overcome, it almost felt cheap to let her get shot to death.  More than that, after all Four has survived, having him try to live life without her seemed just a little too cruel.  I have a hard time with books that kill the protagonist, whether it makes narrative sense or not, and this is no exception.  So while it's not a *bad* ending, per se, it's not satisfying for me.

The movie is coming up, and I'm interested to see what changes from book to screen.  I'm slightly less excited now that there's an end, and it's this, but I'll still go see them. And I still recommend the trilogy to anyone, but with the caveat this last volume isn't necessarily going to please everyone.

CBR V Review #47: The Second Chance Cafe by Alison Kent

“Don't look to where you've come from. Look to where you're going.”

This is yet another book I picked up for a dollar, courtesy of the awesomeness of Amazon.  This, however, was a bit more successful than the others I read.  The writing was a little more refined overall, and the characters felt a little more real.

This book is about Kaylie Flynn and Tennessee Keller (seriously, these names only exist in the realms of romance books).  Kaylie returns to the house that was her foster home after years away, wanting to open a special cafe and make her deceased foster parents proud.  While baking brownies and setting up shop, she also hopes to find some answers about her past - how she ended up in the system, who her father was, and where both of her parents wound up.  Spicing up the mix is her sexy contractor, Ten Keller, a local boy with his own family drama.  Kaylie finds love and family in unexpected places as she builds herself a new life.

I don't have a lot to say about this one either, although I thoroughly enjoy the fact that in between chapters there are brownie recipes.  It adds a nice touch to include them; also, I love to bake and will probably try them out at some point because brownies are delicious.  Kaylie has a lot of baggage to work through, and there are times I wish that she were getting some kind of professional help.  I'm glad she finds a supportive partner in Ten, but still.

This is another book that's volume one in a series, but I might pick up more of these.  I'm fairly certain the next one will be about two of the secondary characters established in this one, and they might be interesting to read about.  I'd also like to check in and see how Kaylie and Ten are doing!

CBR V Review #46: Sandkings by George RR Martin

As an avid reader of Game of Thrones, I was excited to read something Martin wrote outside of the world of Westeros.  I was not disappointed.  This award winning novellette is totally fucked up in exactly the way you would expect from Martin, and it's delicious for that.

Simon Kress is a sadistic douchebag who likes to keep pets that are terrifying or evil in some way.  He comes back to his planet from an off world trip to find his piranhas have eaten each other and goes in search of a new pet to amuse him and his friends.  He finds a new shop, and a new pet - insect like Sandkings.  These are creatures that build communities with their own colored kind and can be made to war against each other.  They also have a complex form of religion, where their caretaker becomes a god to them.  This sounds ideal to Simon, who does not need the store owner's advice to make sure to take good care of them.  Simon denies them food and forces them to wage terrible wars against each other.  Eventually, he pays the price, Outer Limits style.

You know from the outset that Simon is going to pay for what he does in some terrible way, and Martin doesn't disappoint.  Far from it.  In his usual insane and barbaric way, he drags out Simon's fate in what is a suspenseful and terrifying little novellette.  It's a really solid story, and a must for people who enjoy Martin, sci-fi, and people getting what comes to them.

CBR V Review #45: Ex on the Beach by Kim Law

One of the side effects of me waiting so damned long to catch up on my reviews is that I cannot remember everything I wanted to say about what I read.  This is troubling in this case because I gave this book 2 stars on GoodReads and can't for the life of me remember what I didn't like about it.  It's pretty average romance novel fare.  Andie runs a wedding business, ironic since she starts it after she's left at the alter by Mark.  The big socialite wedding Andie needs to be a success to pay the bills features her ex as a groomsman.  Hijinks ensue, with make up sex, mixed up feelings, and repaired bonds of many kinds.

Honestly, I wish they had spend more time on Andie's family than on her and Mark.  She has a terribly fractured relationship with her workaholic mother, and there's a rift between mom and the aunt Andie adores.  This figures into the story, but I found those relationships more interesting than the one at the center of this narrative.  I like family dynamics, and a lot of this was explained away quickly.  I would have enjoyed a book centered on their relationships.

It was a fairly forgettable book, obviously, but not a bad one.  I don't think I'll venture to find the more in the series (this is listed as Book 1). I only paid a dollar for it, and I got my money's worth.

CBR V Review #44: Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. And that was all his patrimony.” 

Scaramouche is an old, fabulous text. It tells the story of Andre-Louis Moreau, a lawyer raised in nobility who ends up influencing the French Revolution.  After the murder of his friend in an incredibly one sided duel, Andre finds new purpose in life, taking up his friend's political mantel.  Andre finds himself shifting personas to accommodate his new influence, but he is forever driven by fury at the noble who murdered his friend, and the inequality of the system.

I picked this book up for one reason only - the fights.  I'm big on stage combat, and studying combat in general, and this was highly recommended to me by my fight family.  Andre, later in his story, becomes an incredible fencing master.  As such, it's an interesting text to read from the perspective of someone who studies swordplay. Sabatini knows his stuff, including the rules of the duel.

The book itself drags a bit at times, but much of that has to do with the style of writing, which is a product of the period.  However, the story is a good one, with an interesting narrative and a cast of solid characters.  The twist at the end is not entirely a surprise, at least parts of it are not, but it makes sense to go where it does.  There's a *lot* of political discussion here, as is necessary when your book is set in a revolution.  Some of it was lost on me, but that doesn't mean it wouldn't interest someone else.

This is a hard one to recommend because it's not something everyone will be into.  But I enjoyed it.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

CBR V Review #43: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

“In the shop we buy and sell them, but in truth books have no owner. Every book you see here has been somebody’s best friend.” 

The Shadow of the Wind is both the title of this book, and the title of a significant book within the story being told.  Set in Barcelona just after the Spanish Civil War, this book tells two stories: the story of Daniel, a young man obsessed with the life of a mysterious author, and the story of Julian Carax, aforementioned enigmatic author.  Daniel comes across Carax's book in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a place he is brought to as a right of passage by his father, a bookshop owner.  Daniel adores the book and wants nothing more than to find out more about the author, and to read his other works.  However, much to his dismay, he discovers that someone has been systematically removing and burning every copy of Carax's works over the years.  Even more distressing to Daniel is that the facts of Carax's life are shrouded in mystery - a mystery he intends to solve, despite the dire consequences.

The mystery behind Carax is something that is perhaps better left undiscovered, as the stakes get higher and danger increases.  Daniel discovers plenty about himself as he looks for the truth about Carax, and his development is even more interesting than the unraveling of secrets in Carax's story.  The search for truth connects Daniel to a cast of great characters who help him along the way.  I'll leave plot summary there, since mysteries are much better left to discovery of the reader, despite the lessons Daniel learns to the contrary.

I love the characters in this.  Fermin, a friend of Daniel's who works in the bookshop with him and his father, in particular is a favorite.  He is so full of life despite what the world has done to him.  He brings most of the levity to the story, which is much needed around the heaviness of Carax's past horrors and Daniel's present danger.  Any time I knew he was involved in a scene, I expected to enjoy it, and was never really let down in that regard.  I love Daniel as well, which is great since he's our protagonist.  He grows up a lot over the course of the novel and in ways I mostly felt were very natural.

My three complaints are structural.  First, after introducing Daniel to the book, there's a bit of a side story about a friend who is a book seller with an attractive blind daughter, and shortly after a huge time jump.  This leap around makes it hard to care about anything going on until later, when the story seems to catch up to the point it wants to tell and plows steadily forward.  I don't personally see Clara (the blind daughter) as important - it feels like she's wedged in there to give contrast to Bea when she appears later.

My second objection is the shoehorning in of the bulk of truth about Carax.  After all these pieces keep coming up, almost the entire story of what really happened is spelled out in a letter from a secondary character.  This letter, I kid you not, is whole chapters of the book.  It goes on for dozens of pages, for so long that you forget you are reading a letter.  I don't like that kind of telling versus showing - it felt cheap.  My third complaint rolls into this second, as the letter is the most prominent example of another device I dislike - the shifting narrator.  For example, as this one character is outlining what happened to another character, the second character's POV takes over in a way that makes absolutely no sense.  There's no way for the character writing the letter to know it, and having it feature in the letter like that is illogical, even if the psychology is interesting.

Overall, a solid book with a good story and great characters, written in a way that needs more polish.

Monday, November 4, 2013

CBR V Review #42: Fire Dance by Delle Jacobs

In case you couldn't tell from that magnificent cover image, this is a romance novel.  Amazon recently offered me the chance to purchase anything from a selected list for only a dollar each.  All of them were romance, as the offer was based off of what I had purchased previously (in this case, my preorder of Dark Witch by Nora Roberts, which I'll review shortly).  It was an incredibly hit or miss collection, with most of them not even being worth picking up to read the first chapter. Two of them were abandoned as lost causes less than 30 pages in.  But this and two others (which have reviews coming up) satisfied me well enough to actually finish them, flaws and all.  Of the three, this is probably the weakest entry.

Fire Dance is a historical romance that tells the story of Melisande (whose name I kept changing to Melissandre in my head thanks to GoT) and the knight Alain de Crency.  Mellie (no one calls her that - I am because I don't feel like typing Melisande more than once) has lived under the thumb of an incredible sadist of a father.  She wants freedom for herself, and moreso for her people, and the death of her father seems to promise that.  The problem is that upon his demise, a Norman knight, AdC (yup, I'm abbreviating that, too) shows up to take over her land under orders from the king.  Mellie has made sure her people surrender quietly so no one can be hurt, but there is a part of the bargain she will not agree to - handing over herself as a bride.  Mellie's got some serious baggage, and she doesn't think she can have AdC, even when, while in disguise, she starts to fall for him. He sees through her disguise and takes her to wife anyway, learning her secrets as he goes, and more besides.

There's nothing particularly revelatory about this book.  Mellie is a fairly strong character, both because of what she's willing to do for her people, and what she's endured in the past (which is both terrible and predictable).  I don't know that the relationship between the two leads is developed enough for me to really buy it, and the king being a teddy bear seemed a little pathetic to me. But it was put together well enough for me to see it end.

There's much better historical romance out there, so I'd skip this one, but I don't regret the whopping dollar I paid to read it.

CBR V Review #39 - 41: Mistborn Series: The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension & The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson

“There's always another secret."

I'm reviewing this series as a whole as it seemed to make the most sense.  If you love fantasy, you should check out this series.

This series takes place in a world ruled by a tyrannical God-King, known as the Lord Ruler.  Class oppression is the status quo, with their lowest class (also known as the skaa) serving as slaves for the aristocracy.  There is a very elaborate system of government, with the day to day governing handled by fierce officials called Obligators, and where the laws are enforced by terrifying figures known as Steel Inquisitors.  Not surprisingly, not everyone is satisfied with the world as it is, filled with so much oppression and such class division.

Perhaps the most important element in this world is how metals figure in.  There are supernatural powers involved, called Allomancy and Feruchemy (and, in the third volume, we're introduced to Hemalurgy).  Allomancy is the most significant power, the ability to ingest and burn certain metals in order to gain abilities.  Of the small portion of the population bearing this gift, most can only utilize one metal, or one ability (there's a full chart of which metal does what that I am not going to reiterate here).  An example would be someone who burns pewter becomes incredibly strong.  However, a very tiny portion of people are what are called Mistborn, and these people can use all the metals and all of their powers together.  It makes them incredibly powerful, a skill the the nobility frequently uses for defense and assassination.  Skaa are not supposed to be able to be Mistborn - the use of metals comes from the noble lines, as the powers originally were a gift from the Lord Ruler to those loyal to him.  Nobles, however, are not notorious for keeping it in their pants, and sometime neglect to murder the women they force themselves on; when this happens, sometimes skaa Mistborn are the result.

Our main character is a feisty young woman named Vin.  Abused and skittish at the beginning, Vin learns of her Mistborn abilities and is trained in Allomancy by Kelsier, the Survivor of Hathsin - but more importantly, she learns how to trust from the entire gang that Kelsier leads.  Kelsier's gang, at least in the first volume, gives a very Ocean's 11 feel to the book.  They come up with an incredibly elaborate plan to overthrow the Lord Ruler, and work to see it through.  In the subsequent books, they work together to try to create a better world, and to deal with the consequences of the world going rapidly to shit due to the rising stakes of an ongoing war between two actual gods (The Lord Ruler not actually being a god, but merely exhibiting godlike qualities).

The first book focuses on the mission to overthrow the Lord Ruler.  The second is about reclaiming the power from the Well of Ascension, where the Lord Ruler originally gained his godlike powers 1000 years before the start of our story.  The third is about the fallout from what was actually in the Well, and the battle to save the world our characters are now left with.  The books have a wonderful build to each climax, and while Sanderson may not be George RR Martin, he isn't afraid to let you know that the characters you love are not necessarily safe.  The stakes are high and grow progressively higher, but there is almost always a sense of levity to much of the proceedings.  Kelsier's Crew is filled with fantastic characters that you can't help but love, even when they are doing less than reputable things. There is less humor to the final volume of the trilogy, but that's to be expected when you move to a war between gods.

Book 1 is unquestionably my favorite, and a story I wish I could have stayed in longer before its conclusion.  There's such delicious, playful energy about it, even as terrible things are happening.  Kelsier's absence is keenly felt in the second two books, as his sense of lightness about everything really makes you fall a little bit in love with him.  His easy laughter is a lot of what keeps the first book lighter in tone, and the crew aren't the only ones to miss him when he's gone.

Definitely a series worth exploring, and one I'm glad I took the time to enjoy.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

CBR V Review #38: A Discovery of Witches (All Souls Trilogy 1) by Deborah Harkness

I'd been waiting to read this book FOREVER (cue The Sandlot references).  I've had friends recommending this book to me since it came out, and I sat on my waiting list at the library for months and months before finally getting to read it.  I'm glad that I did, although I don't know that it ranks with my top fantasy series just yet - we'll see how the sequels pull things together.

This book tells the story of a witch named Diana Bishop and her involvement with...a book.  Betcha thought I was going to say with a man, right? Well, that's a factor, too, especially as that man is a vampire.  However, the most important relationship in this book (and possibly this series - time will tell) is between Diana and an alchemical text she summons from Oxford's Bodleian Library, despite its having been hidden for generations.  Her ability to access the book summons all sorts of unwanted mystical attention - you see, Diana may *be* a witch, but she certainly tries not to live like one.  Ever since the deaths of her parents in her childhood, she's been fighting against her natural inclinations towards magic, trying to deny that part of her.  Our true natures always will out, though, and hers is helped along by an unlikely alliance with Matthew Clairmont, and very interesting and unique vampire.

If the phrase "witch in love with a vampire" turned you off, guess what?  I hated Twilight, too, and this is nothing like that. For one, Harkness has a beautiful command of the English language.  For another, these are very three dimensional characters.  There are moments that irk - sometimes Matthew's aggressive alpha male-ness gets old, and there are times where Diana embodies what's wrong with Aaron Sorkin's female characters on The Newsroom.  However, there's enough alongside that to compensate.  I will say that this book drags a little in the middle.  I hit a point somewhere that I thought was an ending, only to glance down and realize I was barely halfway through the book.  There is a LOT of material here, and the pacing doesn't pick up till much later in the game. However, when it does, it *really* does.  I think my favorite element of the book was the mixing of the three magical races - witches, vampires and daemons (here, not represented in a traditional, evil, Buffy will battle them way, but as really scattered, incredibly brilliant, often intensely creative people).  There are so many prejudices between the groups, which mirror our traditional stories about them, and they must be overcome in order for there to be unity.

I'm definitely looking forward to picking up the next volume, especially because there is a change of setting that I am just crazy about (won't spoil it here).  Well worth the read for all you fantasy enthusiasts out there!

CBR V Review #36: Acting In Film: An Actor's Take On Movie Making by Michael Caine

“Actually, I'm really quite vain about the whole problem because I figure there is no competition - I am what I am, and either I am needed as that or I'm not suitable anyway.” 

This book was recommended to me by a friend in an acting class for Film and TV.  One of my shortcomings as an on camera performer is my tendency to go bigger than fits the frame - the fault of years upon years of theatrical training.  While working on this in class, my friend suggested I check out this book - that Michael Caine had some really great ways of look at acting in film, and the industry in general.  So I went home and ordered it.  I'm glad I did.

He's such a natural person that you feel like this book is a conversation that you are having over a pint or two in the pub.  He puts together advice with such wonderful stories of his own experience.  There are things that he learned that, even reading them, you'll still need to experience for yourself to really get.  Still, it doesn't lessen the truth of what he's telling you.  For people not in the biz, it's just a really fun read.  His stories are awesome, and it gives you some insight into how things really work behind the scenes.

I definitely recommend this, in general, and especially for actors.  It's an incredibly short book, so you'll finish it in no time at all.

CBR V Review #35: The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan

“When she was pregnant with Teddy, she feared that she’d give birth to a child who disliked reading. It would be like giving birth to a foreign species.” 

I'm not going to lie to you here, kids - if you are coming here for a glowing review of that book a bunch of people recommended, you're gonna want to look elsewhere.

This is a bunch of stories that all center, somehow, around diamonds.  The framework tale is of the woman who created the tagline "A diamond is forever" for De Beers, aka those people who own the monopoly on the diamond industry.  For the few people out there who don't know about it, the diamond as a status symbol and engagement requirement was created by marketing companies and the De Beers corporation in the 1940s.  Before that, the gemstone was irrelevant, and most engagement rings or jeweled rings in general were handed down through the generations rather than bought anew.  The diamond engagement ring standard was created to make De Beers more money.  It's truly fascinating stuff, and a history well worth reading.  It also makes up the only part of the book I was consistently glad to read.  Mary Frances Gerety is awesome, and I loved when a chapter was part of her story.  Added bonus that her story took place over 40 years, and it's lovely.  She's also the only non-fictional character, although obviously her chapters are fictionalized versions of her actual history.

As to the others, mileage varies.  Kate, the most contemporary story, I could not stand even a little - she's every self righteous hippie douche I've ever come across in one completely obnoxious package.  If you want to live your life a different way than other people, good on ya, but for Christ's sake keep your mouth shut about it.  HATE HER.  James, set in the late 1980s, was...fine.  I think my issue with James' story was that it was so bleak.  It made me dread getting to his chapters.  Delphine, the only non American, set in 2003, yo-yo'd a bit for me.  There were times I was all about her and her anger, and then times where I couldn't believe how selfish she was.  Evelyn, from 1972, was second to Ms. Gerety in my enjoyment, though mostly because I loved her chapters where she reflected on her youth.

The seemingly unconnected stories naturally do connect, and that is honestly the only reason I finished reading it.  I mean, the prose is wonderful - Sullivan knows her way around the English language.  But pretty prose isn't enough for me.  Parts of the connection were fun and interesting, and it is fairly difficult to figure all the parts of it out ahead of time.

I can't exactly recommend the book, since I had trouble convincing myself to pick it up to read more.  But it is beautifully written, and many people who aren't me loved it a lot.  So I encourage you to try a bit of it for yourself and see how you fare!

CBR V Review #37: Just for Fun by Rosalind James

Yet another entry to the Escape to New Zealand books (don't worry, there's a break coming from them for awhile, and only I think one more in the series).  This one's rugby player is Nic Wilkinson, who spent a perfect week on holiday with Emma Martens 6 years ago.  She had been filled with heartbreak when she fell into his lap on the way to a tropical paradise, and their time together was perfect, but they didn't speak again.  Till now, when Emma's son, Zack, meets Nic at a rugby camp and suddenly Nic is confronted with a miniature version of himself, and the memory of a lot of feelings he didn't realize he still had.  Emma is confronted with the man she loved who gave all appearances of wanting nothing to do with their son.  But sometimes things are more complicated than they seem, and old feelings die hard.

I enjoyed this one, like the rest, but I can't say it stayed in my brain overmuch.  It's been...maybe a month or a little more since I finished it and I needed to consult GoodReads to remember what the story was here.  Even at that, I can't remember much of the conflicts that go on, other than the fact that Nic has a fiance when he runs into Emma and meets Zack, and that creates all the problems you'd expect.

Fun fluffly romance read - if you like the rest in the series, you'll like this one.  And once again, James brings in the previous installments characters in natural, subtle ways that have you going "awww" about their new families and lives.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

CBR V Review #33-34: Daughter of Smoke & Bone and Days of Blood & Starlight by Laini Taylor

“Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. 
It did not end well.”

This was a much darker series than I anticipated.  I don't know why I expected anything different with titles like those, but somehow it just gets more relentlessly bleak as it goes on.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I will try to avoid spoilers, but since I'm discussing BOTH books here at once, I can't promise anything.  Actually, let's just assume spoilers ahead of time.  SPOILERS.  SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS.  That's way easier.

These books, in the unfinished series by Laini Taylor, are ostensibly about two things: the relationship between a seraphim and a chimaera, and the war between their people.  Everything else revolves around these two things, although we don't know that until almost the end of the first book.

DoS&B is primarily about Karou, a lonely artist with palm tattoos living in Prague who has a very strange side job.  She works for chimaera, creatures of mixed aspect (ie torso and head of a woman, snake from the waist down).  Her job, when she is sent for, is to fetch teeth from clients of the beast that raised her, a chimaera named Brimstone.  Karou knows nothing of her roots - as far as she can remember, she was raised in Brimstone's shop by him and several other chimaera.  She knows nothing of parents or her history which leaves her feeling pretty rootless.  When she's not travelling through portals around the world, using wishes (which in this story come as incrementally as money in our world), she's attending school or hanging out with her friend Zusanna, who is maybe my favorite character of the series.  Zus knows nothing of Karou's other life till much later in the game.

Things get complicated when burned hand prints start showing up on doors to Brimstone's portals, and then Karou wanders somewhere she shouldn't and stumbles on bigger things than she can realize.  Also, an incredibly beautiful seraphim named Akiva, who is connected to Karou, but can't figure out why right away.

When it comes to light that Karou is, in fact, a reincarnated chimaera, everything changes.  She used to be Madrigal, and Akiva had been her very forbidden lover till they were betrayed, and she was beheaded.  Karou then has to live with the blending of these parts of her.  Worse still, Akiva, warped with grief over Madrigal, has done something he cannot undo by successfully destroying the chimaera, who had been at war with the seraphim for generations (which is reasonable, since seraphim used to keep them as slaves).

The second book gets dark in ways I found myself disliking, an oddity coming from a fan of the Song of Ice and Fire series.  I think the problem for me was that the first book was so filled with hope (which is a word I use intentionally - Karou means hope in chimaera language and they bring up the concept every thirty seconds in the books).  The second is just so completely, relentlessly bleak, filled with murder and torture and sadness for everyone.  Zusanna and her boyfriend, violinist Mik, were really the only bright spots of the whole thing, and they figure into it in fairly small ways.  I'm concerned about where this is going based on the ending of the second book, where the angels have invaded the human world, and a hated character's body contains the soul of a beloved one.  It's all kind of a mess.

I want to see where this goes, mostly because I want it to end more happily than I've left it at this point.  It's well written, but I can see where it might not resonate with everyone.

CBR V Review #32: Just for Now by Rosalind James

The third book in the Escape to New Zealand series, and another fun read.

Like its predecessors, Just for Now focuses on the relationship between an ex-pat from the US and an All Black rugby player.  This one is a little different, tonally, as the relationship involves two children.  Finn is a widower, and Jenna comes into his life to be the nanny.  He has two children, Sofia and Harry.  Jenna has her own baggage in a failed marriage, which ended when she found her husband cheating on her (not to mention her family drama of a bitchy, trailer trash mom who valued her boyfriends over her daughter).  Jenna loves the kids, and naturally, ends up loving Finn, too.

I liked the added new element of the kids to this one, although it removed it from my own frame of reference a bit (my friends are only just starting to make babies, and my husband and I have no immediate plans for any of our own).  It does make for an interesting obstacle.  Many romance novels go for the standards - the ex, the player rep, the parent drama - so having the kids be a reason to stay away from each other, and take it slow really worked.

I love the casual way the characters from previous books pop up.  It's lovely to read and go "ooh, Kate and Koti's wedding is being planned" or "aw, Hannah and the baby" and the like.  They don't pull focus; there's no wink wink, nudge nudge about their appearances.  It's just nice to see them again.

Once I finish this series, I think I'm going to be really sad there aren't more.  Till then, expect more reviews of them.  They make wonderful summer reading.

CBR V Review #31: Someday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham

“Once again, I've been thwarted by the massive difference between my vision of the successful me and the me I'm currently stuck with.” 

The appeal of this book for me was instant.  Lauren Graham, my beloved Lorelai Gilmore, wrote a book??  About a struggling New York actress??  Done.  I was ready to be absolutely in love.  I wouldn't say it left me with as many warm fuzzies as I had about the idea, but I did enjoy it.

This book is the story of Franny Banks, aspiring actress and hot mess.  She has given herself a deadline to make real progress in her career, and if she doesn't, the idea is that she'll move out of NYC, marry her college sweetie, and take a job that is more stable.  In addition to her professional woes, she's got romantic ones as well.  While she has that other guy on hold (in a My Best Friend's Wedding kind of way), they are both allowed to see other people, and this creates some bonus drama to Franny's life.

Honestly, the romance subplot I could have done without, at least as far as the one element goes.  Without being spoilerific, there's more than one guy interested in Franny (this will not be a surprise to anyone reading this book) and there's only one of them I was interested in hearing more about.

As to Franny's professional life, that hit a little closer to home than I'd care to admit.  I'm currently taking a year to try and make it work as an actress, an incredibly daunting prospect if you know anything about how random and slow it can be to break in at all.  Her naivete about a lot of the industry frustrated me, but she's younger than I am, didn't grow up watching her mother do it, and it's set in a time when it was much harder to know things.  Nowadays, I can look up contracts on my union's webpage, ask about on set protocol on message boards, etc.  She didn't have those resources.  Still, there are moments where, as a pro, I shuddered to see her do things that were just so profoundly stupid.  

Still, this is a good read, and one I'd be more inclined to suggest for slightly younger readers.  There's some sex in it, but none of it is actually described, just sort of referred to.  And reading the struggles of a performer in NY may actually be great for aspiring actors.  As they say, if you can see yourself doing *anything* else, you should do that thing instead.  Because this business we call show is NOT for the weak.  It's for the crazy.

CBR V Review #27-30: The MacKade Brothers Series by Nora Roberts

I love how reliable Nora Roberts is.  I've read dozens of her romance novels over the years (no interest in the JD Robb In Death series at all) and they are pretty consistent in delivering what I want from them.  In this case, it's perfect beach reading.  I grabbed up this series for my week down the shore and burned through all four while I was there.

The McKade brothers are known for being trouble, which naturally means they need to settle down with awesome women by the end of each book.  The set up is the same as in any of them - you start a book with one brother and one girl who is obviously the love interest, and they end up married or engaged by the end of it.  

A difference between this and many of Roberts' other series is that these are not all set up in the first book.  Often, you'll get the entire cast up front and be reasonably sure of the pairings before the final chapter of that first volume is completed.  This one didn't work that way.  Only Rafe and Devin's pairings are set up from the get go.  Shane and Jared both meet their respective women at the openings of each of their own books.  Made for less time with each couple, but kept me from waiting through the other stories to see each play out.

Standard romance fare applies.  Resistance to a relationship, something passionate happens to change it, big conflict of some kind, grand gesture leading to happily ever after.  Added bonus to this one is the connection to the Battle of Antietam.  The series is set in Antietam, and the land is laden with history.  The boys and their women (and yes, I word it that way intentionally) are very connected to the ghosts of the past, in particular relating to a story of two young soldiers who meet in the wood, fatally injure one another, and crawl off to two properties, each housing supporters of the other side.  How that plays out historically is relevant to the plot, so I'll leave it at that. But it's a neat thru line.

If you like Roberts, you'll love this series like her others.

Monday, July 1, 2013

CBR V Review #25-26: Just This Once & Just Good Friends by Rosalind James

I started reading the Escape to New Zealand series on a whim.  I finished my previous book and wanted something free from the Kindle lending library, something preferably silly and easy.  Romance novels set in New Zealand?  That was just what the doctor ordered!  I didn't even realize this was a series when I started the first one, but I can promise you I'll be reading the other two volumes before long.

The series revolves around the All Blacks, an institution in the world of rugby.  Each volume involves the life and romance of a player on the team, and I have no problem at all picturing each one of these very attractive gentlemen.  Just This Once is about Hannah and Drew.  Hannah is an overworked employee at a women's sportwear company.  She finally takes a much needed vacation - three weeks in New Zealand.  It's here that she meets Drew Callahan, rugby captain and superstar.  She has no idea who he is till much later, but she's smitten much sooner than she cares to admit.  Drew sees they have a good thing, and fights to keep her at his side.  Once Hannah heads home to her life, she has to decide if it's really worth living if all she has to come home to is more work.

Just Good Friends has a darker edge to it, telling the story of Kate and Koti.  Kate escapes to New Zealand with the help of Hannah to hide from her abusive stalker ex-boyfriend.  Gunshy about men in general, she doesn't know what to do about Koti, the playboy of the rugby team who has taken an interest in her.  The two spat every time they are together, but that kind of fire fuels them rather than detracts from their attraction.  Kate doesn't believe Koti can possibly be friends with a woman, and thus a bet is born - if Koti can be Kate's friend for six weeks without making a move on her, she owes him a big kiss in front of the rugby team's staff (Kate works in their accounting department); if Kate wins, Koti has to trade in his usual black wardrobe and wear a bright pink sweatshirt into the same office.  Both Kate and Koti have trouble keeping this bet as they grow closer.

I love these books.  James wrote them after travelling to New Zealand, and her research into the culture is obvious.  In addition to the appendixes at the back with all sorts of local terms and the like, the book is written so well in dialect that I could hear the New Zealand accents throughout.  I've always wanted to visit En Zed, so this was like taking a trip out there without the expense.  I definitely plan to read the other two, and any more she comes up with.

A must read for people who love romance novels and/or New Zealand!

CBR V Review #24: Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon

“You are my courage, as I am your conscience," he whispered. "You are my heart---and I your compassion. We are neither of us whole, alone. Do ye not know that, Sassenach?” 

I continue to love this series, even if we've left the beauty of Scotland mostly behind.  This is the fourth book in the Outlander series, and if you've read the rest, you know what you are in for here.

Diana really understands her characters, inside and out, and I appreciate that she keeps them consistent.  Jamie and Claire grow in a way I feel is completely natural, and their devotion to each other always feels hard won and worked at.  We spend time with J&C this time around setting up a new home in colonial America.  It's a subject more familiar to Gabaldon's American readers than the previous installments (or it is if you took a whole lot of US History, like I did) and she keeps her portrayal as accurate as I think she can.

This particular volume spends a lot of time with another generation - Jamie and Claire's daughter, Brianna, and her "friend" Roger (who himself is a descendant of characters from previous books).  Brianna and Roger discover something about Jamie and Claire that makes them risk a trip through the stones to reach them.  Suffice it to say that the younger generation is less prepared to handle the hardships of the time they jump back to.

Mostly, this book focuses on family, and what it means to be one, whether blood ties you together or not. I loved it, much like I loved the previous installments.  I'm interested to see how things develop as the Revolutionary War approaches, and to see how Jamie and Claire end up involved in it all.

If you loved the first three, you'll continue your love with this one.

CBR V Review #23: The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck

“Now, five years is nothing in a man's life except when he is very young and very old...

Ugh, I don't even want to write this review, which explains why it's taken me more than two months after finishing the book to put this together.  It's hard for me because I ADORED the last Pearl S Buck book I read.  Imperial Woman was absolutely fantastic.  Hell, I went around China quoting facts from it when I was privileged enough to go.  But this just left me so...well...bored.

This audio book (which was narrated well enough by Anthony Heald) bored the crap out of me. The Good Earth follows the life journey of Wang Lung,  a young man living in rural, pre-revolutionary China.  It maps the whole of his life from his wedding day to his death.  And I'm not gonna lie to you, I hated most of it.  The book is very much intended to be a study of the life of this time period and place, and usually I'm down with that.  But I just couldn't make myself care about anyone in this, and I'm a character driven reader.  Wang irritated the crap out of me, despite the fact that he behaved appropriately for the setting.  The only character I liked, Wang's first wife, gets so roundly mistreated that I was constantly yelling in my car.  And Wang's children are awful.

I love Chinese culture, and learning new facets to it tends to really fascinate me.  There was just very little about this book that grabbed my interest and held it, and I think that's sad.

If you want to read a really accurate study of a man's life in China during this time period, go for it.  But it is a slog.  A very, VERY long slog.

Friday, May 24, 2013

CBR V Review #22: Insurgent by Veronica Roth

“Like a wild animal, the truth is too powerful to remain caged.” 

Man, it kills me that I didn't write my reviews of this and it's prequel right after reading them, because now I remember so little.  And I adored them both, so that blows.

Insurgent continues the tale of Tris and the others as the world around them starts to shift dramatically.  It's really hard to talk about the plot of this one without getting super spoilery (especially because to talk about it requires spoiling the first book).  Still, suffice it to say that this book continues the story and builds on Divergent's foundation very well.

It's fascinating to see how the relationships in this one shift, as they must.  There are some pretty serious side switchers in Tris' life, and it leaves you questioning everyone.  The relationship between Tris and Four gets still more interesting, and I do really adore the two of them, both as a unit and independently.  I think one of the things I value most about Four is that he's this incredibly strong male figure, but he is so completely, irreparably broken at the same time.  He has some pretty significant weaknesses, and I like that Roth doesn't shy away from that or try to compensate for them.  They just make up who Four is, and the flaws are as important as his more positive and strong attributes.

I love how each of these turns into me loving Four instead of talking about Tris.  I'm sure lots of other reviewers have dedicated thousands of words to Tris Prior, but I find Four to be the more interesting and compelling of the two.

I'm looking very much forward to reading the last installment in the series when it gets released!

Friday, May 17, 2013

CBR V Review #21: Divergent by Veronica Roth

“We believe in ordinary acts of bravery, in the courage that drives one person to stand up for another.” 

Divergent, yet another in the trend of post-apocalyptic YA fiction, is set in a world where we mankind exists in five factions, Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent).  We are immersed in the world alongside Beatrice "Tris" Prior, an Erudite who is approaching the annual selection day, where every 16 year old is tasked with selecting which faction they will belong to for the rest of their lives.  Each faction has an initiation period that follows, and Tris's poses a number of challenges to her.  As she moves along the path to her chosen faction, secrets start coming out that could shake the foundation of all she holds dear.

Speaking on this book too much would spoil things, so I'm going to steer clear of most of the plot.  Tris is a great character, leading a book filled with other very interesting characters.  Even the ones that just pass through you get a reasonably good sense of as three dimensional people, not just filler, which is nice.    But my favorite character isn't Tris, it's Four.  Four is a fascinating character with so very much going on inside of him.  I love his relationship with Tris and with all of the other initiates.  He's awesome.

I burned through this book and then tore through the sequel (review to come) and now am waiting with everyone else for the third book, which comes out later this year.  I have a lot of reservations about the upcoming film adaptation due to casting, but I'm still interested in seeing where it goes.  A must read for fans of the genre.

CBR V Review #20: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

“When a monster stopped behaving like a monster, did it stop being a monster? Did it become something else?” 

Graceling is set in a world where sometimes people are given specific gifts, called graces.  Some of these gifts are easy to benefit from (Grace of Cooking, for example, I would find pretty handy).  Katsa, our protagonist, is graced with killing.  Manipulated by her uncle, King Randa of the Middluns, Katsa has grown to despise her grace and the things she is forced to do for him.  Her only solace is a special group she runs behind the scenes, one that tries to combat the evils of the kingdom and offset Katsa's conscience for the things Randa makes her do.  On one mission for this group, she comes across Prince Po, graced in combat arts.  The two of them make quite a pair, investigating something big going on in the kingdoms.  Their world is full of secrets, which threaten to tear some things apart while bringing Po and Katsa closer together.

This book was a lot of fun to read, though it had an uneven tone to it on occasion.  Katsa is a very interesting character, one whom I grew to love a lot more as she learned to love herself (despite that sentence reeking of Dr. Phil, it happens to be true).  Po is a fantastic character, and the interplay between the two is wonderful.  I'd love to read more books that are The Po & Katsa Adventures, but the sequels in the series don't seem to revolve around them.

As a woman with a love of combat, I enjoyed seeing a female character who kicked a whole lot of ass.  I especially enjoyed that she started out much harder and softened as she learned more about her grace.

I'd recommend this for people who enjoy good YA Fantasy.

Friday, March 29, 2013

CBR V Review #19: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

“I think so, too. I know I felt that way. For years. It was as if I was a character in a movie and the real action was about to start at any minute. But I think some people wait forever, and only at the end of their lives do they realize that their life has happened while they were waiting for it to start.” 

Beautiful Ruins is a wonderful book, especially if you love old Hollywood, new Hollywood, or Italy.  So really, most people.  It bounces cleanly between timelines, of which there are many, and I never found myself lost.  It's a hard story to sum up, involving the lives of a number of people over a number of years.  From World War II, to the set of Cleopatra, and throughout a number years leading to the present, this book never disappoints.

This is a novel that I loved, most of all, for the lush and delightful prose.  Walter has a beautiful style of writing, such that regardless of plot turnings, I was interested in the next passage just to see how she chose to say whatever it was she wanted me to hear.  A lot of my reading enjoyment is character based (I'll get to that as regards this book in a moment), but it's nice every now and then to let that take a back seat to the writing itself.  That may sound hopelessly pretentious of me, but that doesn't make it any less true.

Walter's book is populated by characters, real and fictional, that you care about.  I think she occasionally labors a little hard to give us the most full picture of each person that she can - some of the information on backgrounds feels a little forced, regardless of how interesting it may be.  However, the characters are still interesting and sympathetic, most especially Dee and Pasquale.  Their time together in the sleepy Italian town was easily my favorite bit of the book, and made me long to see the Italian shores again.

This is a book I would definitely recommend.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

CBR V Review #18: Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

“You get attached to places, you know. Like people, I suppose.”  

This is going to be a bi-polar review because I started out on board and enjoying the book, and then sometime after the halfway point stopped liking ANYONE and wondering how the book hadn't ended yet.  In honor of that duality, I'm going to start the review for the first half, and then transition to the second half. Make of it what you will (what *I* would will is for you not to pick up this book).  Oh, and this is an audiobook, for point of reference.  I really need to take more time to screen the offerings of my library where audiobooks are concerned.

Story opens with juxtaposed timelines - my favorite!  We follow Girl and her family in 1942.  Um, we know her name is Sarah.  It's in the title.  Is there really a reason we can't identify her or her family members by name?  No?  Not gonna do that till much later?  Ok, fine.  Anyway, Girl/Sarah and her fam are rounded up by French police as part of the historical Vel' d'Hiv' roundup, with Girl/Sarah locking her brother in a hidden cupboard, thinking she'll be back to get him and he'll be safe.  You know this is going to end tragically, but her desperate hope and naivete still hurts.  In present day, we're following Julia Jarmond, an American living in Paris in 2002 with her precocious daughter Zoe and her obnoxious French stereotype husband, who's name I can't spell.  Bertrand I think.  That's the bitch of audiobooks, folks - spelling.  Anyway, she's researching the Vel' d'Hiv' roundup for her magazine, as it's the 60th anniversary.  Ok, cool, so they are tied together by that.  

As the story progresses in 1942 with the huddled, starving masses of Jews as they are held and then moved to internment camps before eventually being sent to Auschwitz, we learn in the present that Bertrand's grandmother's apartment is going to be the new home of Julia and family...and used to be the home of Sarah and hers.  Dun dun DUUUNNNN!  Seriously, though, this is telegraphed early.  Regardless, Julia's journey to discovering this is entertaining, and provides some interesting historical information on the roundup.  In the meantime, Sarah's story moves along with all the sadness and horror you would expect, until it meshes with some history of Julia's in-laws (no spoilers, though you will see this coming from MILES away)...and then Sarah disappears from our narrative.

Y'all, this is where this train goes off the rails.  Now all my focus is on Julia, and the more time I spend with Julia, the more I want to punch her in her selfish face.  See, Julia is captain of the subplot brigade.  She NEEDS TO KNOW what happened to Sarah. It's not enough to dig through her in-law's trauma and know that Sarah and her family lived there and then suffered like so many countless Jews did at the time.  She must TRACK. HER. DOWN.  Y'know, because a woman who managed to live beyond the Holocaust desperately wants to hear your generations removed guilt about what she had to live through in the first place.  This involves invading a bunch of people's lives, upsetting her own family, and multiple trips to other countries.  

Added bonus?  OH HEY!  There's a pregnancy subplot that DOESN'T MATTER AT ALL.  Which tied loosely to an adultery subplot that ALSO didn't matter.  The beauty of the pregnancy subplot is how completely I hate everyone who discusses it.  This is a woman who has had repeated miscarriages and is in her late forties.  But the reaction to her pregnancy is for her husband to say he's "too old to be a father" and the few other people she tells to say "OMG HAVE BABY!!" one, not once, pauses to say "Um, do you think this might be dangerous for you and the fetus growing inside you?"  Never.  The abortion debate is on in full (and A COMPLETE WASTE OF TIME) but not a single person addresses the very real risk situation that Julia is in by being pregnant at all with her previous issues and current age.  THIS MADE ME SO MAD.  Flames...on the side of my face...

Also, I hate Julia.  She never stops to think of a single person other than herself and her own misguided guilt.  She tracks down people who don't know things and forces her knowledge on them, for THEIR OWN GOOD.  And it never occurs to her that, oh hey, maybe they didn't know all of these things, and maybe they don't want to know them.  YOU DUMB T**T.  The cherry on this fucked sundae is a last act shoehorned romance that feels about as natural as a salt water enema.  Oh, and spoiler alert?  The baby she doesn't abort?  SHE NAMES HER SARAH.  That's total normal, to name your baby after a Holocaust survivor you never met who found her dead baby brother in a cupboard in your in-law's apartment.  YOUR OBSESSION ISN'T WORTHY OF ALL THE THERAPY OR ANYTHING.

I feel like reading the end of this book was like watching Smash.  Is there a term for hatewatching that applies to reading?  Hatereading?  Or, wait, this was audio.  Is it hatelistening?  I don't know.  But people passing me on the highway must have thought I was having an episode from all the screaming I did at this book in my car.

There are about a billion better books out there to read if you want good historical fiction based in and around the Holocaust.  I have no idea if there are other good pieces about the Vel' d'Hiv' roundup, but unless you are completely obsessed with that specifically (in which case you and Julia can be besties!!  ...somewhere far the fuck from me) then you are better off reading something else.