Failing and winning

I am going to fail my Goodreads 2015 Reading Challenge.

This upsets me.

Maybe I set the bar too high (75 books) but that’s only one more than I read last year. So maybe not.

Failure sucks. Especially when it seems ever more likely that said failure was one’s own fault.

On the other hand, maybe I’m winning.

Maybe I spent 2015 reading different sorts of books. Ones that I can get lost in for weeks at a time rather than rushing through more than a book a week. Or maybe 2015 was a more distracted year for reading. Or maybe I read Cassandra Clare too much in 2015.

Either way, I’m going to fail and I’m going to win.

But now I have to decide if I do the Reading Challenge in 2016 and risk failure, if I lower my total to a more manageable 52 books, or if I just read whatever the hell I want to read whenever the hell I want to read it.

Reviewed: “Rooms” by Lauren Oliver

42Perhaps the best way to start my review of Lauren Oliver’s ROOMS is to say that I have read stranger books. And this book is the good sort of strange.

The “rooms” of the house are perhaps best described as the ghosts who inhabit the house. These ghosts aren’t your average shiny, see-through, wearing what they wore when they died sort of ghosts. There’s no real visible manifestation here. Alice and Sandy, the ghosts, can slam doors and making light bulbs explode so they are classic in that sense.

And they are the best part of the book because of the way they bicker like two touchy ladies stuck together in the same place. Which they are. They could not exist without each other even as they bother each other. I think it is clear that they know this.

The story that weaves things together are the living people who once lived in the house and return after a death. Minna, Trenton, Amy… they all have their own dark secrets, their own walled off areas inside their souls. And everything comes to a head when they enter the “haunted” house.

There is a simplistic air to the story that is deceiving. You think you know the truth about the dysfunction that is the living family and that is the women in the walls. You do not. Even with the sometimes abrupt flashbacks to Alice and Sandy’s pasts, the threads are all tied together neatly at the end for the most satisfying of conclusions.

(I received a copy of ROOMS through the Goodreads First Reads program in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

Reviewed: “The Steady Running of the Hour” by Justin Go

The Steady Running of the HourNovels that set out to tell the story of two people, or rather two pairs of people, living decades apart don’t always succeed in telling a succinct and interesting story. The problems of tying to stories together and creating something that makes the reader want to read two more chapters again and again just to make sure she finds out everything she can about both people is a daunting task. For Justin Go, it doesn’t seem so hard.

There has been hype about THE STEADY RUNNING OF THE HOUR and Go lives up to the hype with his twin tale of Ashley Walsingham and Tristan Campbell.

Walsingham’s story is the more compelling of the two and Campbell is more of the vehicle by which the reader gets to see Walsingham. It changes the tone by making it seem as though the reader isn’t just watching Walsingham fight in the World War I trenches in France and climb Mount Everest but that the reader is helping Campbell search for evidence of Walsingham and the woman he loved while he did both those things. It makes the story more personal.

That the novel is based on the idea of an eighty year unclaimed trust, with what can best be described as just a few too many legalistic descriptions about it, possibly belonging to Tristan Campbell – as the maybe heir to Walsingham’s estate – is a little bit shaky. It might have worked just as well to have Campbell be a historian who stumbled onto family letters and just wanted to find out the truth. Then again, seeing the modern man weigh the value of knowing the family he never really knew in life with the value of a priceless estate is a good way of moving things from one place to the next.

It’s because of the parallels between Ashley in the first two decades of the 20th century and Tristan in the first two decades of the 21st that the story works. Both men are in their early twenties and both men dive headfirst into the thing which their society suggests they don’t. Neither cares for rules and neither particularly wants to follow them if it can be avoided. They know they are other things that are much more important, even if they can’t quite say why.

The two supporting characters in the story are the women in the lives of the men. Mireille, the modern woman, is the lesser character but by far the better one. She shares an uncertainty with Imogen, the woman Ashley loves, but she doesn’t lash out against her insecurities as Imogen does. Instead, she lets Tristan do what he needs to do and hopes against hope that he’ll come back to her. Imogen throws away her world and everything in it because she can’t change the world to her liking. She’s selfish and she does suffer for it but it’s a part of the reason the reader may feel compassion for Ashley – he’s horribly treated by her and he loves her just the same.

One story ends in a tragedy of sorts that will leave the reader feeling a little empty. One story ends in a hopefulness of sorts that will leave the reader feeling a little full.

It’s an excellent balance to a very good story.

(I received a copy of THE STEADY RUNNING OF THE HOUR through a FirstReads giveaway. This review will be cross-posted on my blog and my Goodreads account.)

Reviewed: “Divergent” by Veronica Roth

DivergentI was wary about another dystopian YA series. Maybe it was because of how much I love Suzanne Collins’ THE HUNGER GAMES and maybe I didn’t think anything could live up to what she did. But the endless previews, ads, and other press coverage of the recently released Divergent film made me curious enough to give Veronica Roth’s DIVERGENT a chance.

I don’t think it’s quite as good as THE HUNGER GAMES, in the grand scheme of things, but it is absolutely amazing in its own way.

I should say before I go any further that this review is only of the first book in the trilogy, DIVERGENT.

I’d bet that unless you live off the grid or under a rock, you’ve probably seen some promotional things for the book and for the movie. You probably have a general idea of what the plot is and who the main characters are. I’ll save us both time and work any plot summary into an accounting of what I liked and what I didn’t like about the book.

I liked the characters, and I’m focusing Tris and Four, very much. Tris comes across as someone who doesn’t want to be a wallflower and manages, by switching to another faction, to find out that she is not, in fact, a wallflower. She’s a strong, powerful young woman who can embody the quiet, selflessness of her old faction at the same time as she can be the firmer, still as selfless leader of her new faction. She’s still a young girl, too, who falls for the “bad boy” and doesn’t quite trust herself to love. Four is the “bad boy” but it quickly becomes apparent that’s mostly a front, set up to protect himself. In that way, he’s more… real, I suppose, than any of the lead male characters in the recent YA series that have spawned movie franchises. Four is, for lack of a better word, vulnerable.

There’s a thing in the story called the “fear landscape” and I absolutely love that plot device. I never, ever want to go through a “fear landscape” but seeing Tris and Four face their fears, by force and by choice, gives me as the reader a chance to see a part of the character that I wouldn’t otherwise get to see. It’s very personal, more personal than I’ve read in a long time.

That being said, one of the best ways Roth uses the “fear landscape” is to let the reader be a part of the character. The book is entirely from Tris’ perspective but when she gets to see Four’s fears, something only he and the higher powers in the Dauntless faction have ever seen, it gives a window into him that greatly enhances the story.

A week part of the story would be that Tris’ perspective is a little too  narrow to get the largest picture possible of the city and how it got to be the wasteland that it is. She has interactions with all five of the factions and their purpose in society is explained through that but, to be honest, I’m pretty sure I’d read novellas or some short accounting about all the factions – maybe focusing on one person who lived through the same things as Tris does as a Dauntless initiate.

After I finished the book, I scanned reviews on Goodreads and Amazon and saw that some people claim the scope is too limited and there aren’t enough details. Maybe that’s true, maybe the scope could be bigger and there could be a few more details in places. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a great book, not to me.

After all, I finished it in four days.

Now to go see the movie before it leaves theaters…

(this review is cross-posted on my Goodreads account)

Reviewed: “The Hotel on Place Vendome: Life, Death, and Betrayal at the Hotel Ritz in Paris” by Tilar J. Mazzeo

The Hotel on the Place VendomeThere were things I loved about The Hotel on Place Vendome: Life, Death, and Betrayal at the Hotel Ritz in Paris and there were things I didn’t love so much at all.

Let’s start with what I loved.

The honed in view of one of the most famous hotels in the world during such an important time in history was an excellent idea for a book. The period in Europe from the Dreyfus Affair through the post-World War II years is fascinating. It’s more so when you’ve got a select place and a select group of people to focus on.

Tilar J. Mazzeo focused mainly on Coco Chanel (who I learned – to my general shock, dismay, and awkward delight – was a very much anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi when need be, pro-Allies when need be, self-preserving woman … exactly what one might expect, I suppose) and Ernest Hemingway (who I learned – to very little surprise – was exactly what I expected; a pompous, self-important, womanizer).

It’s the few lesser known people Mazzeo chronicles; Blanche Auzello and Laura Mae Corrigan primarily, that make the book worth reading. They and a few others like them are the definition of what the book’s title promises and it’s a shame more pages weren’t dedicated to them. But then, I suppose Chanel and Hemingway make better marketing strategies. I won’t say more about Auzello and Corrigan here because their stories are worth reading and I think there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy reading them if this is your sort of book.

And now for what I didn’t love so much.

Mazzeo said in her introduction that the widow of a man who fought with the French Resistance, a very well to-do man, warned her not to write the book. The woman told the author that it was too easy to claim one had been part of the Resistance just because it was the popular thing to do. That declaration set up my expectations for an exciting tale of life, death, and betrayal – as the title promised. I was sorely disappointed on that front.

Yes, people lived in the Hotel Ritz during World War II and the decades preceding it. Yes, the rich who could afford to live there betrayed each other whenever they could, but they rarely seem to have betrayed their country – especially given that many of them were either Americans like Hemingway or Germans like Goerring. And I’m sure people died there, but none of the people Mazzeo focused on. Not a one.

It seems like a silly thing to complain about, but it’s true.

I don’t regret spending the time and energy to read this book. I learned a lot from it. The trouble came when I was getting from one thing I learned to another. It wasn’t always easy. I’m keeping the book, though, and I’m telling you that you ought to consider reading it. That being said, I don’t know when I’d be inclined to re-read it.

(I received a copy of The Hotel on Place Vendome as part of the Goodreads First Reads giveaway program.)

(This review will be cross-posted on my blog and on my Goodreads account.)

Reviewed: “Parlor Games” by Maryka Biaggio

Parlor GamesI’m not generally a fan of historical fiction based on real, non-fiction people as the main character. It feels as though far too many liberties can be taken and, as a lover of all things historical and non-fiction, that’s a fine line for me. That being said, when I saw the cover for Maryka Biaggio’s Parlor Games listed on Goodreads, I was hooked enough to at least enter the giveaway for a copy. I won, obviously. It worked out too, because the story is about May Dugas who, while real, is not at all well known so, in fact, may as well be a fictional creation.

I had very high hopes for the book. After all, the back cover promises the story of a dangerous con-man, in this case woman, who is chased from Chicago to San Francisco and on to Shanghai, Tokyo, New York and back again by a diligent Pinkerton detective. Dangerous con-women who occasionally work in brothels, Pinkertons, world travel in a pre-World War I era… where could it go wrong?

Unfortunately, in a number of places.

The reader is promised a woman who works in Chicago’s most famous brothel. I’m not saying that I was looking for descriptive brothel scenes, but May spent about six pages in the brothel and probably two of them involved a man. May isn’t dangerous either, not in the least. The characters who die in this book? They could have died just as easily and in the same fashion if they’d never known her. And the Pinkerton detective randomly appears, all too conveniently, in every city May visits. He never stays long enough for the reader to form any firm opinions about him other than that he is a man who really knows how to get around and that he’s a pro at bothering poor May.

Not that May is poor.

Even in the short time she spends in the brothel, she becomes a rich woman. The rest of the book is about her using all the skills that made her successful in the brothel to stay rich. It’s not always easy. She even falls in love along the way, making things all the more difficult for her. She goes through phases of being a girlfriend, a prostitute, a fiancee, a wife, a mistress, and a kept woman. The richer the man, the better.

The trouble really only occurs for her when she uses the same charms of seduction of a female lawyer named, of all things, Frank Shaver. Frank toes all the right lines but confesses to May what it is she really wants. May doesn’t feel the same. So Frank sues her. That’s where the story starts and where it ends. All the rest is the tale of how May got to that particular point in her life.

I will give credit where it’s due. Biaggio picked the absolute perfect person to tell the story – May. May Dugas is the only one who could tell her tale and do it justice so having her ask the reader to be the one to sit in judgment of her guilt or innocence was a stroke of genius. That’s what made me keep reading even when I wanted to give up because it seemed like the event had already happened, a time or two. I wanted to hear May tell it, and she did.

Fantastically, just as you would expect her to do.

(Disclaimer: I won a copy of Parlor Games in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway. This review will be cross-posted there.)

Reviewed: “The Lost Sisterhood” by Anne Fortier

The Lost SisterhoodYou’ve heard of the Amazons, haven’t you?

All the lore about the all-female warrior society where the women cut off one breast so that they could better sling their arrows is everywhere in popular culture.

I don’t know about you, but I always thought there had to be more to the story. And I do realize that we will probably never know the whole story of the Amazons. That being said, I’m more than happy to make do with the story Anne Fortier crafted for them in The Lost Sisterhood.

The novel is the parallel stories of Diana Morgan, an Oxford lecturer in the present day, and Myrina, the ancient first queen of the Amazons. Books that do the alternating chapters, parallel stories thing generally tread a fine line between an utterly engrossing and well-balanced story and a serious missed opportunity to tell two amazing stories at once. Fortier has definitely accomplished more of the former.

I’m neither a philologist, an archaeologist, nor an Amazon. I’m not sure I’d want to be an Amazon, at least in terms of the most widely accepted definitions of them, but I’d definitely like to be the first too. This book made me want it all more.

I want to be Diana Morgan.

I want to crawl into Algerian temples buried under centuries of sand, I want to fall in love with a dark and mysterious man of many passports who can randomly count out $10,000 in cash for me, I want to chase down ancient clay tablets to decipher the messages on them, I want to be chased across Europe by unknown people as I try to make history reality.

That, maybe more than anything, is truly the sign of an amazing book.

Even more than getting carried away by the romanticism of it all, which is fun and incredibly easy, there’s a message in this book. It is the message of the Amazons, a message that comes through in the fanciful world Hollywood has created and in the subtler, more nuanced portrayal Fortier gives them. The message is this:

Every woman is capable of being an Amazon. We can hunt and kill to protect the ones we love. We can be as strong as any man, stronger even. We can survive because without women, no one survives.

(I received an advance copy of the book through the Goodreads First Reads program.)

The Great Book Dilemma

I’m having a problem. This is probably not news, but about this specific topic it is. Or, at the very least, it’s something I’d like to complain and whine publicly about.

You will pardon me, won’t you?

Here’s the problem. I won a copy of A True Novel by Minae Mizumura in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway. The books (it’s a set of two) are so beautiful. Thick, richly detailed covers with thick, shiny white paper. So I immediately dove in.

The first part of the book is autobiographical, which I suppose ties in with Mizumura’s later description of the Japenese I-novel in which the author must play a role. The first part of the book is really very interesting; life as a Japanese girl in the 1960s and 1970s in America and a burgeoning, awkward friendship of sorts with a one-time private chauffeur who goes on to be a very wealthy man.

But then Mizumura gets to the end of her own personal story, and ends it with how she came to know the real story behind the one-time chauffeur, Taro Azuma. This is a story Mizumura has nothing to do with personally, other than writing it. In writing it, she calls it a “true novel” because it’s based on the true story of Taro Azuma, she even keeps his real name, but she’s fictionalized it to be a sort of Japanese version of Wuthering Heights.

Herein lies my Great Book Dilemma.

Having read the process of how Mizumura got to the point where she became a writer and wrote about Azuma, and thoroughly enjoyed it, I’m not finding myself all that interested in Azuma’s story.

Tough one, right?

So what should I do? Plough onward and, hopefully, upward into the “true novel” come hell or high water? Set it aside for a while and come back later to start with the “true novel” in a possibly vain attempt to make it a separate thing entirely? Declare the whole thing very pretty to look at with a very good first part and be done with it all?


Any and all suggestions are very welcome!

Reviewed: “Grounded” by Neta and Dave Jackson

GroundedI won this in a FreeReads giveaway here on Goodreads. It sounded like a good story, so I entered. The story is good. A singer on the cusp of making it big on the Christian music scene but realizing she needs more in her life than just her music is an interesting enough premise for the story. It made me keep reading. That and I wanted to make sure she didn’t end up going back to the idiot fiance who dumped her and tried to get her back. If she had, I was throwing the book away.

The reason a good, interesting enough story doesn’t get more than two stars from me is this…

Grace, the main character, is white and Christian. That much is clear, even if her race is only mentioned once. As a reader, though, I felt beat over the head with the races and nationalities of everyone else in the book. The Bentleys, the Jaspers, Sam… never were they mentioned without having “brown skin,” “brown eyes,” “kinky hair”, of just plain “African-American.” It’s not offensive as much as it is annoying that I was constantly told that they were a minority, that a Muslim family lived across the street (although Grace never talks to them), or when Jeff described a man as Jewish by twirling his finger at his temple because he apparently didn’t know the term for side curls.

That all goes with one of the underlying themes of the book (the biggest being “I’m worth the wait” and abstinence) wherein Grace seems to be on a quest to broaden her horizons and decides that collecting friends of different races and, almost but not quite, religions.

It’s… superficial and it could have been so much more.

This book isn’t for me, I don’t think. I’m not the target audience. I’m an agnostic if I have to define myself, and I’d rather not, and I don’t care who has sex with who or when they do it. I’m sure this book is perfect for the target audience, it’s just not for me.

(this is the review I posted on Goodreads)

Reviewed: “East of Denver” by Gregory Hill

East of Denver

East of Denver came with the description that it is “a poignant, darkly comic debut novel about a father and son finding their way together as their livelihood inexorably disappears” and I wasn’t at all sure what that meant. I don’t read a lot of darkly comic novels and books about fathers and sons are unheard of on my bookshelf. But a free book is a free book and I really do want to expand my reading horizons so I dove in to the story of Stacey and Emmett Williams without a second thought.

Stacey is the son in the story. He’s sort of lost. There’s not a lot of back story for him, but I’m not totally sure he was ever not lost. How could you be in a tiny town with slim pickings for friends and amusement, right? But Stacey struck out on his own, until a stray cat he was feeding died.

Something drove him to take the cat home, to his childhood home, and bury it in the pet cemetery that I’m pretty sure all old-timey farms have.

That’s when things really go downhill for one Stacey “Shakespeare” Williams.

His widowed father is senile, the caretaker woman has gone missing in the worst possible way, the senile father sold the airplane to a slimey banker for $20, and the farm no longer gets any government subsidies.

Drugs are taken, bank robbery plots are hatched, bonfires are built, questionable canned vegetables and frozen meats are eaten, snakes bite, the oddest pairings engage in sex, and father and son go out with the most literal of bangs.

East of Denver lives up to what it claims on the back of the book. It’s poignant, darkly comic, and life and livelihood do disappear. It’s a short read and it goes by quickly, but it’s not always easy to read how these people, characters very complex for the brief time the reader knows them, have their worlds crash down around them. There’s no fantasy escapism here. It’s real life. And real life is darkly comic.

(I was fortunate to win a copy of East of Denver by Gregory Hill through a Goodreads giveaway run by Plume Books.)