"All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened
and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you
and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse,
and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was."
Ernest Hemingway

Friday, April 28, 2017

A Room of One's Own

A Room of One's Own
Virginia Woolf

The Summary
"In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf imagines that Shakespeare had a sister.  A sister equal to Shakespeare in talent, and equal in genius, but whose legacy is radically different.  This imaginary woman never writes a word and dies by her own hand, her genius unexpressed.  If only she had found the means to create, argues Woolf, she would have reached the same heights as her immortal sibling.  In this classic essay, Virginia Woolf takes on the establishment, using her gift of language to dissect the world around her and give voice to those who are without.  Her message is a simple one:  women must have some money and a room of their own in order to have the freedom to create."

The Good
After completely reading A Room of One's Own, I can see why it is essential reading for many literature courses.  Woolf's work is insightful, thoughtful and, more importantly, it makes a very good point about the history of women in the arts.  It's a call to action, a call for equality when women were not expected to be seen or heard or expected to do anything other than marry, bear children, and keep house.

It's inflammatory, grounded in examples from history and insight into the female mind.  It's beautiful, but sharp, filled with words that are meant to make a difference--that are meant to bring blood, to make a point.  And yet it is ultimately uplifting.

I think that perhaps my favorite lines come from the very end of Woolf's essay, when she tells her readers that women can become writers and poets and artists and creators.  It's possible, it's a promise:
"[Then] the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare's sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down.  Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born.  As for her coming without that preparation, without that effort on our part, without that determination that when she is born again she shall find it possible to live and write her poetry, that we cannot expect, for that would be impossible.  But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while."

I love that line.

The Bad
Personally, I struggled with A Room of One's Own.  This isn't an essay to be read in a day; rather, it's to be savored and consumed in small pieces, reread and examined with highlighter or pen in hand.  It's a wonderful book for discussion and, I found, better understood when examined with more than one mind.

The Ugly
Although Woolf fabricates the incident with Shakespeare's sister (he did have sisters, but as far as I have heard, none of them were artistically inclined), her example isn't very far off the mark.  Women who have wanted to create, who wanted to be authors or poets or playwrights or artists, have suffered or were condemned for their genius.

As Virginia Woolf points out, "The indifference of the world which Keats and Flaubert and other me of genius have found so hard to bear was in her case not indifference but hostility.  The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me.  The world said with a guffaw, Write?  What's the good of your writing?"

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Dinner Made Simple

Oxmoor House
Dinner Made Simple
Real Simple

The Summary
"Think you'll never win at weeknight cooking?  Think again.

"Organized from apples to zucchini, Dinner Made Simple is filled with 350 easy inventive dishes--many ready in 30 minutes or less--to help you get out of your recipe rut.  With 10 ideas for every ingredient, you'll never look at a box of spaghetti, a bunch of carrots, or a ball of pizza dough the same way again."

The Good
Okay, so I know you can't really "read" a cook book in the traditional sense; however, I can say with confidence that I looked at every single page in this book and I examined all the recipes and checked it from cover to cover and even tested out some of the recipes, and it has been "read."

And I loved it.

Now, let me tell you why:

One, I loved the pictures.  They were bright and really very lovely when you're looking at how a dish should have looked.  Granted, reality is never going to be as pretty as the picture (and I never get the portions right), but I think the book does a fine job of showing you what it will look like--and then helping you achieve those results.

Two, I adored the fact that the book has an index; in fact, it has two.  One is similar to a table of contents, which shows you the main ingredient of each recipe in alphabetical order, followed by an easy to read table that show you what's vegetarian, what's vegan, what's family friendly (read:  kid friendly), what's gluten free, and more.  Moreover, it goes on to tell you all the nutritional information and it helps you make healthy choices.

Three, I liked that it has good food that's easy to make within an hour or less.  Most of the recipes only take 30 minutes, and that's including prep time and baking, which I absolutely loved.  As the subtitle promises it has "easy recipes" that are loaded with simple, but wholesome ingredients, and easy-to-read recipes that make cooking so much less of a chore.

For instance, I liked that I could reach into my cupboard and cobble together a delicious meal in just an hour after work.  I tried the Shepherd's Pie (which was delicious), the garlic rolls (equally delicious, but I added some mozzarella cheese and I think it could have used some more butter and parsley), and the sausage and broccoli calzones (or, more accurately, I took the recipe and made it my own with Italian sausage, spinach, pepperoni, mozzarella cheese, and a little bit of Parmesan cheese).

All these recipes turned out delicious, and they were seriously some of the easiest meals I made throughout my week.  After working until 5 or 6 in the evening, I liked coming home, throwing together a Shepherd's Pie with the leftover hamburger in my refrigerator and pouring on a heaping helping of instant mashed potatoes and cheese.  It was pretty delicious, but I will probably be more careful about following the directions to the letter next time.

The Bad
No complaints.  I found the recipes I loved, and then if I didn't like the recipe I simply didn't make it.  There are more than 350 different recipes that range from gluten-free to Vegan with a spattering of other healthy choices in between decadent recipes like Salted Caramel Cupcakes and Hot Chocolate Cupcakes with Marshmallow Frosting, so there's bound to be something for everyone.

I'm still drooling over the marshmallow frosting.

The Ugly
There's really not anything here to complain about.  I mean, unless you just don't like food, in which case you wouldn't even pick it up in the first place, it's a nice little cook book that's good to give you an idea on busy weeknights.

Monday, April 24, 2017


Harper Collins
Jay Crownover

The Summary
"Sayer Cole and Zeb Fuller couldn't be more different.  She's country club and fine-dining, he's cell-block and sawdust.  Sayer spends her days in litigation, while Zeb spends his working with his hands.  But none of that has stopped Zeb from wanting the stunning blonde since the moment he laid eyes on her--even if the reserved lawyer seems determinedly oblivious to his interest.

"Sayer is certain the rough, hard, hot-as-hell Zeb could never want someone as closed off and restrained as she is, which is a shame because something tells her he might be the guy to finally melt her icy exterior.  When he shows up at Sayer's door needing her professional help, she's both disappointed and relieved that she won't get the chance to find out just how good he could be.

"But as they team up to right a wrong and save a family, the steam created when fire and ice collide cannot be ignored."

The Good
It's time for some honesty:  I picked this book solely for the cover.  I'm not even going to lie, because I simply couldn't help myself.  Admittedly, it probably helped when I read the cover synopsis and discovered Zeb was a "hot-as-hell" construction worker covered with tattoos.  Why that seemed so scintillating and swoon-worthy, I cannot say, but it was and it's the whole reason I decided to start on the Saints of Denver series.

Granted, I'm not sure if I'll continue with the series, but I will say I did enjoy it.  This book was a guilty pleasure.  I picked it purely for the cover, and I was mostly pleased with it.  I mean, Zeb and Sayer are forced to confront some pretty significant emotional conflicts and, personally, I think they do a fair job developing as characters as they surmount each challenge.

It isn't an immediate classic, but that's okay.  It's light, fun reading.  Of course, if you don't like steamy, explicit romance, I certainly wouldn't recommend it; however, if you aren't bothered by it, it's not a bad novel to read within a day or two for some down time.  Plus, it has the added bonus of the lovely fellow on the cover.

The Bad
Like I said, Built isn't a bad novel, but it's not absolutely, world-rocking fantastic.  I wasn't always captivated by having to switch between characters.  I've realized that I only like first-person point of view when I'm reading through one character's perspective; otherwise, I only like a limited third-person point of view if I'm dealing with multiple characters.  That's a personal choice, than any wrongdoing on the part of the book.

However, I will note I was a little disappointed with the language.  That is, I wasn't always enchanted with the flow of the story, the tone of the characters, the overall feeling of the novel.  It wasn't like the author butchered the language or anything, it just didn't feel spectacular.  It was easy to understand, a definite plus, but it was lacking some critical element that would keep me riveted.

It just wasn't quite right.

The Ugly
I said earlier that I really liked the cover and, as a character, I really liked Zeb.  He's a reliable fellow trying to make a living and trying to make a difference in the world.  He's big, he's strong, he's handsome, and he's always good to women; however, he does not deal well with rejection.  Not that Sayer's any better, considering she breaks his heart because, despite him proving that he's a good man time and again, she can't get over her own insecurities.

I know it's presumptuous for me to pass judgement on another couple's relationship--I mean, who am I to cast stones, right?--but I was just bothered by the way they could hurt each other.  Admittedly, it was really only one moment in the entire book that bothered me:  the moment when Sayer breaks things off with Zeb, because she doesn't know how to handle a relationship--and then things get ugly.

Zeb is not violent with her, let me say that first and foremost; however, this event changes the whole tenor of the intimacy between them.  It's painful, because, in some way, Zeb wants to hurt her like she has hurt him and Sayer believes that she should be hurt for her complicity in breaking his heart.  They have this strange, harmful--toxic, maybe?--dynamic going on and it's all just so....ugly.

It's pretty much the only scene in the entire book that really bothered me.  I mean, their relationship is really not that bad otherwise.  Granted, Sayer is coming to terms with her father's emotional abuse and she's grappling with her own inability to always express emotion, so I know they are struggling.

For the most part, Zeb is understanding.  He's willing to let her work things out; heck, even after things fall apart, he's still willing to let her work things out on her own and figure out her own worth.  They work well together, they seem to have a genuine affection for one another (and uninhibited lust, of course), but this one moment between them just makes me wince.  It's difficult to witness, and I was just really, really bothered by it.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Read Harder Challenge 2017: Part 3

I finally finished the next part of my Read Harder Challenge.  I finished:
  • Read a book about books.
  • Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location.
  • Read a collection of stories by a woman.

Simon & Schuster
Starting out, I finished reading The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer, which details events beginning in 2012 when more than 350,000 manuscripts--many of which had been painstakingly collected by Abdel Kader Haidara--were endangered by Al Qaeda militants seizing control of Mali.  In his book, Hammer details how Haidara and other manuscript collectors managed to find, preserve, and rescue hundreds of thousands of manuscripts, before smuggling them out of the country under the noses of Al Qaeda.

As the summary attests, it's indeed a "brazen heist worth of Ocean's Eleven."  Personally, I found it fascinating to learn how Haidara became involved in the manuscript preservation business and how he and other librarians managed to steal away more than 350,000 manuscripts from Timbuktu.  I mean, the number is simply mind boggling.

Moreover, I was consistently fascinated by the history and culture of Timbuktu and Mali as a whole.  Hammer offers a rich variety of details, discussing the medical, cultural, historical, scholastic and artistic impact of Timbuktu.  Although his work can grow a little dry, every chapter offers fascinating insight into the history of Timbuktu and, more importantly, provides readers with an eye-opening portrait of the conditions faced by Mali's residents when Al Qaeda invaded.

Beauty and the Mustache
Next, I checked out Beauty and the Mustache by Penny Reid.  Set in Tennessee, Beauty and the Mustache is a short, sweet little romance--which kicks off the Winston Brothers series and continues the Knitting in the City series, both by Penny Reid--that brings together Ashley Winston and Drew Runous.  After spending more than 8 years away from home, Ashley is forced to return to Tennessee to help take care of her ailing mother.  Expecting the same rough treatment from her brothers as from years before, she's surprised to learn they've changed.  She's even more surprised to meet their friend Drew, especially when she realizes he's exactly her type.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading Beauty and the Mustache.  Like I noted above, it's a short, sweet little romance and it's absolutely adorable.  It's sometimes bittersweet, sometimes tragic, but I immensely enjoyed reading Penny Reid's novel.  I found I connected to Ashley, our main character and narrator, on a personal level and I admired her sharp, sarcastic sense of humor, her intelligence, and her ability to go toe-to-toe with Drew's philosophical meanderings.

However, I will note I was bothered by one thing:  I did not like the setting.  I love the Smoky Mountains, don't get me wrong; however, I simply didn't like the narrator's inability to describe her surroundings.  I was incredibly disappointed by the setting descriptions, which were seriously lacking.  I wanted to hear more about the winding roads, the multitude of trees, the softly sloping mountains in the distance, or the way the hills fade against the horizon, deepening to a slate blue before disappearing altogether.

I wanted to hear about places I've known or seen, but, sadly, I didn't get that chance.  It was slightly disappointing.

Last, I read Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood.  I think I might have fudged the challenge parameters with this one, since it's really just a single novel; however, as it's labeled with "Other Stories," I assumed it would do the trick.  It centers around one woman--Nell--but it's a compilation of many short stories from different points in her life.

It begins with "Bad News," toward the tail end of Nell's life, but it jumps through time with each story and catapults Nell into the past, showing readers glimpses of her childhood and her adolescence and, finally, her transition into adulthood.

Truthfully, I didn't enjoy reading Moral Disorder that much.  Atwood is a fantastic writer and her prose packs a punch when she wants it, but, personally, I found I couldn't always connect with the stories in Moral Disorder, I couldn't always connect to Tig and Nell.  Granted, when I did connect with one of these stories, it moved me deeply and I worried for Nell, like I'd worry for a friend; however, I found it was a rather unremarkable journey for me overall.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts

Simon & Schuster
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu:  And Their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts
Joshua Hammer

The Summary
"To save precious centuries-old Arabic texts from Al Qaeda, a band of librarians in Timbuktu pulls off a brazen heist worthy of Ocean's Eleven.

"In the 1980s, a young adventurer and collector for a government library, Abdel Kader Haidara, journeyed across the Sahara and along the Niger River, tracking down and salvaging tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts that were crumbling in the trunks of desert farmers.  His goal was to preserve this crucial part of the world's patrimony in a gorgeous library.  But then Al Qaeda showed up at the door.

"The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells the incredible story of how Haidara, a mild mannered activist and historian from the legendary city of Timbuktu, became one of the world's greatest and most brazen smugglers by saving the texts from destruction.  With bravery and patience, he organized a dangerous operation to sneak all 350,000 volumes out of the city to the safety of southern Mali.  This real-life thriller is a reminder that ordinary citizens often do the most to protect the beauty and imagination of their culture.  It is also the story of a man who, through extreme circumstances, discovered his higher calling and was changed forever by it."

The Good
I enjoyed reading The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu.  First and foremost, I had the chance to learn about some amazing librarians who did extraordinary things (I always like learning about librarians); second, I learned so much about Timbuktu and Mali, which I enjoyed.  I love learning about different regions and locales, and I was positively enchanted by Mali and the beautiful manuscripts Abdel Kader Haidara uncovers.

I love books.  I especially love old books.  They're beautiful and precious, and I was enthralled by the simple history and content of the hundreds of manuscripts that Haidara saved.  Joshua Hammer had a way of describing the manuscripts that made me want to reach out and hold them, to run my fingers over the pages and see the full-colored details painstakingly drawn upon their pages.

I was dying to view one for myself and feel the weight of history in my hands.

It's a consistent feeling throughout the book.  Hammer gives these manuscripts--and the men and women who saved them--a great significance.  They feel important, crucial to the preservation of history and culture and memory.

You get the feeling that Hammer is passionate about this story.  He wants to tell readers about the incredible librarians who preserved history against all odds, about the city and country that suffered under Al Qaeda, about the small community that banded together to survive unspeakable tragedy.  Truly, it's awe-inspiring to read.

The Bad
No complaints.

It's a bit slow on the build up, but it's a fascinating and thoughtful inspection on a region of the world with which I'm unfamiliar.  I was excited to learn more about Mali's wonderful and colorful history, to hear more about Haidara's unprecedented rescue mission of more than 350,000 books and manuscripts.

The Ugly
The violence this region endured is staggering.

Mali, particularly Timbuktu, was a thriving haven for artists, musicians, tourists, religious leaders, educators, and historians.  Regular festivals were held in honor of local music and musicians, and museums sprang up to celebrate the social, scholarly, medical, and cultural history of Mali.  And yet almost over night everything changed with the arrival of Al Qaeda.

Strict religious and social laws, appalling punishments, brutal behavior, cruelty, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.  They killed and maimed those they believed broke their laws; they restricted local businesses and workers, imposing harsh strictures, and all but killed Mali's economy; they defaced monuments and burned books, art, and more, destroying anything they saw as challenging their leadership.  They effectively tried to erase Mali's history and impose their own.

It's horrifying to witness these things.  I mean, I found it heartbreaking to see Timbuktu have its entire culture and history reworked through a lens of bigotry and hate, to witness innocent people lose their homes, their businesses, their limbs and their very lives for a philosophy of violence.  It's painful, and it's what makes The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu such a hard book to read and discuss.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Beauty and the Mustache: A Philosophical Romance

Beauty and the Mustache: A Philosophical Romance (Knitting in the City Book 4) by [Reid, Penny]
Beauty and the Mustache:  A Philosophical Romance
Penny Reid

The Summary
"There are 3 things you need to know about Ashley Winston:  1) She has six brothers and they all have beards, 2) She is a reader, and 3) She knows how to knit.

"Former beauty queen, Ashley Winston's preferred coping strategy is escapism.  She escaped her Tennessee small town, loathsome father, and six brothers eight years ago.  Now she escapes life daily via her Amazon kindle one-click addiction.  However, when a family tragedy forces her to return home, Ashley can't escape the notice of Drew Runous--local Game Warden, reclusive mountain man, bear wrestler, philosopher, ad everyone's favorite guy.  Drew's irksome philosophizing in particular makes Ashley want to run for the skyscrapers, especially since he can't seem to keep his exasperating opinions--or his soulful poetry, steadfast support, and delightful hands--to himself.  Pretty soon the girl who wanted nothing more than the escape of the big city finds she's lost her heart in small town Tennessee."

The Good
I enjoyed this novel immensely.  Ashley was a quirky character with a foul mouth and an unexpectedly sharp, shining wit.  She's intelligent, she's sassy, funny and self-deprecating, and she's very relatable.  She was also clumsy and awkward, but she was willing to take charge of her mistakes--like nipple twisting Drew by mistake within the first two pages (how embarrassing)--and recovers quite well.

Moreover, she's so incredibly familiar.  I related to her on an emotional level, because I have often felt the emotions she's felt, good and bad:  overwhelmed by obligation, fraught with uncertainty and doubt, love for a parent, affection for siblings as I learn new things about them and, suddenly, become best friends, excitement and relief to find a new book.  It sparked an instant, personal connection that I appreciated.

Overall, it was a fun, emotional but unexpectedly feel good book.  I really enjoyed reading about Ashley and the various antics her brothers would get into, and I loved that there was a gradual strengthening in her family as she takes care of her mother and gets to know her brothers again.  It's bittersweet and, occasionally, tragic, but it's incredibly heartwarming.

The Bad
As I've lived in the area Ashley often describes, I was a little disappointed by the setting.  That is, I think much of the imagery I envisioned came less from the author and narrator, and more from my own memories.

Take her descriptions of the Smoky Mountains, for instance.  They were seriously lacking.  Where were the descriptions of the winding roads, the trees, the softly sloping mountains in the distance as the landscape slowly marched into a deepening blue, the haze on a cloudy day or the startling clarity of the sky when the sun shines?  I've seen some beautiful places in this area, so I really think the author missed out with her narrator.  She could have told us so much more about her hometown.

Also, I was really bothered by the country slang Ashley used.  For example, I have literally never heard anyone in Appalachia say "butter my biscuits" or "that's melting the butter on my biscuits" or anything of the sort.  I've known a restaurant called "Butter My Biscuit," but I have literally never heard anyone say it in earnest.  It was pretty laughable.

Some of the folksy, country-fried sayings Ashley pulled out were just a little too much for my tastes.

The Ugly

Grab your Kleenex folks.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Moral Disorder

Moral Disorder
Margaret Atwood

The Summary
"Margaret Atwood is acknowledged as one of the foremost writers of our time.  In Moral Disorder she has created a series of interconnected stories that trace the course of a life and also the lives intertwined with it--those of parents, of siblings, of children, of friends, of enemies, of teachers, and even of animals.  As in a photograph album, time is measured in sharp, clearly observed moments.  The '30s, the '40s, the '50s, the '60s, the '70s, the '80s, the '90s, and the present--all are here.  The settings vary:  large cities, suburbs, farms, northern forests.

"By turns funny, lyrical, incisive, tragic, earthy, shocking, and deeply personal, Moral Disorder displays Atwood's celebrated storytelling gifts and unmistakable style to their best advantage.  As the New York Times has noted:  'The reader has the sense that Atwood has complete access to her people's emotional histories, complete understanding of their hearts and imaginations.'

"'The Bad News' is set in the present, as a couple no longer young situate themselves in a larger world no longer safe.  The narrative then switches time as the central character moves through childhood and adolescence in 'The Art of Cooking and Serving,' 'The Headless Horseman,' and 'My Last Duchess.'  We follow her into young adulthood in 'The Other Place' and then through a complex relationship, traced in four of the stories:  'Monopoly,' 'Moral Disorder,' 'White Horse,' and 'The Entities.'  The last two stories, 'The Labrador Fiasco' and 'The Boys at the Lab,' deal with the heartbreaking old age of parents but circle back again to childhood, to complete the cycle.

"Moral Disorder is fiction, not autobiography; it prefers emotional truths to chronological facts.  Nevertheless, not since Cat's Eye has Margaret Atwood come so close to giving us a glimpse into her own life."

The Good
Although I won't call Moral Disorder a favorite, I have to admit that Margaret Atwood made me feel things that I didn't expect.  I couldn't always connect with the stories in Moral Disorder, I couldn't always connect to Tig and Nell; however, when I did connect with one of these stories, I felt it--deeply.

Like when Nell fretted over her mother and sister.  Or when Nell struggled to find her place in the world.  Or when Nell couldn't figure out what to do next with her various jobs.  Or when she suffered for Tig's indecision, his inability to commit and his inexplicable thoughtlessness.  Or when she tried to accept her mother's decline and her father's death.

There are moments--a few, sparse moments--in this book which struck me with all the delicacy of an anvil.  Like I said, I didn't always feel connected to these stories, but when I did, it made an imprint.  It made me feel with the same breadth and depth, as if it had happened to me, which made me appreciate Atwood's skills as a writer even more.

The Bad
I hate to say this, but I was so relieved to finally finish reading Moral Disorder.  I respect Atwood for her work, and I think she is a wonderful writer; however, I just couldn't always connect with this story collection.

Maybe, I felt a disconnect, since it's a time with which I am unfamiliar; maybe, I just haven't hit that point in my life in which these moments in time--these milestones of adulthood and life in general--really strike a chord with me; maybe, I just couldn't connect with Nell, our narrator; or, maybe, I just didn't "get" it.  I don't know.  I just know I was sometimes bored and, more often than not, I didn't like it.

I especially disliked the stories detailing how Tig and Nell met, but I think that was a personal feeling rather than any condemnation of the story or characters or pace.  Stylistically speak, Atwood is wonderful.  It was so easy to follow the story, to trace how Tig and Nell eventually fell in love--did they fall in love?--and to capture the individual grains of their tale, collecting them into cohesive whole.

My problem came as it slowly dawned on me that Tig and Nell were not married; in fact, Tig remained married to another woman for weeks, months--years, actually--while actively living with Nell.  I know I'm going to sound old fashioned when I say I disagreed with this arrangement; however, my reasons aren't prudish.  I couldn't care less if Tig and Nell lived together, married or not, rather I was bothered (perturbed might be a better word) by how Tig refused to divorce Oona, his first wife whom the law recognized as his only wife.

It's weird to say this, but I didn't care that Nell and Tig lived together without being married.  I didn't even care that the relationship Nell and Tig created was essentially built on adultery--which is, as I learned from Nell, an obsolete word that no one really uses anymore and "to pronounce it [is] a social gaffe."  However, I was bothered by how Tig seemed unable to distance himself from his marriage, how he seemed unable to push to have his divorce finalized.

Why couldn't Tig convince his wife--who was, for all intents and purposes, his ex-wife--to have the divorce finalized?  Did he still care too much for his ex-wife to push for divorce, or did he simply not care enough for Nell to get a divorce and marry her?  Or was he too lazy...and, possibly, spineless?  I don't know, I couldn't tell, but I do know that I was not a fan of this situation.

On a personal level, it strikes me as unutterably cruel and incredibly thoughtless of Tig.  I mean, it obviously hurts Nell to be put second next to his ex-wife in their relationship.  She lashes out, she feels an uncertainty and gloom even at the best times; she's trapped, because he refuses to move forward--he refuses to make a change, like he has promised innumerable times--and she's suffocating, she's wavering on a precipice that leaves her wondering if it's worth staying at all.

Admittedly, it hurt my heart to see things playing out between them.  It made me angry, and it made me sad, and it made me sympathize with Nell much more than I expected.

The Ugly
Life is not pretty.  It can't be shuffled into a nice neat pile; it can't be controlled or even managed; it can't even be made to fit, like a square peg trying to fit a round hole.  Life is a mess and, as becomes apparent, Nell's life especially seems messy, which, I admit, sometimes made it difficult to read.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Winter Fire

Winter Fire
Elizabeth Lowell

The Summary
"Orphaned at thirteen, a mail-order bride at fourteen, widowed at sixteen, Sarah Kennedy has learned to depend upon no one but herself--reserving all her love for her younger brother Connor, and for the wounded hawks she heals and returns to the air.

"Personal tragedy has taught Case Maxwell to love nothing that can die, and that justice is blind.  But when a confrontation with his sworn enemies, the Culpepper clan, leaves the hardened Civil War veteran near death, Case finds himself under the tender, unwanted care of Sarah Kennedy.

"Destiny has brought the healer and the warrior together--two souls haunted by the bitter ghosts of the past--to brave chilling risks and dangerous truths...as they seek the courage to face the greatest risk of all:  love."

The Good
I mostly enjoyed Winter Fire.  It's a quick, little romance, which quickly endeared itself to me with its quintessential Western qualities:  gun fights, bandits, Spanish gold, stoic heroes, sassy heroines, wild Mustangs, panoramic views of untouched canyons--and that's just the first chapter.  I mean, I found it to be just plain fun (when I wasn't lambasting the main characters for being foolish and/or stupid).

The Bad
Although I enjoyed Winter Fire overall, I found that the story had rather poor character development, unrealistic romantic entanglements, and a not-completely-satisfying conclusion.  I say poor character development, because it seemed like Case and Sarah don't change, not really.  Sarah more so than Case, but even that seems negligible, unless the author purposefully points out that, oh, yes, Sarah actually has been impacted by Case's appearance on her ranch.

Likewise, I wasn't a fan of their evolving relationship.  I mean, I understand that they share an unexpected attraction, but I can't help feeling that it's silly the sudden lack of control they have, especially when Sarah still flinches when a man touches her--remember, she was married to an abusive drunk--and Case is hunting down a band of notorious marauders.  The Culpepper gang is literally next door to Sarah's ranch....and yet you're having sex out in the desert?  Really?

I think there are more important things, like, I don't know, keeping yourself alive.

Moreover, I wasn't a fan of the ending.  It just kind of happened all at once or, maybe, I just didn't see the subtle signs, until the author whacked me over the head with them.  Either way, I wasn't a fan of the ending.  It all just seemed to happen at once and, personally, I found it odd that the heroine was such a deep sleeper.  If I was living out in the desert alone, after spending years under the thumb of an abusive drunk/husband, I would probably be a much lighter sleeper.

Last, I want to point out something that annoyed me throughout the entire novel:  character thoughts.  Normally, I don't mind peeping into a particular character's thoughts to get a more intimate view of what they think, what they feel, what they have experienced; however, I think Winter Fire overused these "thought bubbles."  I dreaded seeing italicized text, because I knew that I was about to get another intimate glance at either Sarah's or Case's most intimate thoughts.

And, as they were basically the same thoughts over and over with different wording, I was sick and tired of reading about them.  I didn't need to hear Case recite 44 different times how wrong it was for him to be attracted to Sarah, how he didn't want to care about her, how all the love had been burned out of him long ago.  It just became repetitive and annoying--and so I just started skipping italicized sections altogether.

The Ugly
Sarah and Case both have, shall we say, rough history.

Sarah was a mail-order bride at fourteen-years-old after her whole family was killed by a hurricane; she married a man who regularly assaulted her and abused her brother; then, when she was widowed, she was forced to care for her twelve-year-old brother, out in the desert, all on her own.  I couldn't have done it.

And Case spent a number of years fighting in the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, only to return home and find his home and his brother's family--his beloved niece and nephew--butchered by the Culpepper Gang.  He subsequently spends the next several years hunting down the Culpeppers, enduring more tragedy and more agony than most men can bare.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Master of Crows

Grace Draven
Master of Crows
Grace Draven

The Summary
"What would you do to win your freedom?

"This is the question that sets bondwoman, Martise of Asher, on a dangerous path.  In exchange for her freedom, she bargains with her masters, the mage-priests of the Conclave, to spy on the renegade sorcerer, Silhara of Neith.  The priests want Martise to expose the sorcerer's treachery and turn him over to Conclave justice.  A risky endeavor, but one she accepts without hesitation--until she falls in love with her intended target.

"Silhara of Neith, Master of Crows, is a desperate man.  The god called Coruption invades his mind, seducing him with promises of limitless power if he will help it gain dominion over the world.  Silhara struggles against Corruption's influence and searches for ways to destroy the god.  When Conclave sends Martise as an apprentice to help him, he knows she's a spy.  Now he fights a war on two fronts--against the god who would possess him and the apprentice who would betray him.

"Mage and spy search together for a ritual that will annihilate Corruption, but in doing so, they discover secrets about each other that may damn them both.  Silhara must decide if his fate, and the fat of nations, is worth the soul of the woman he has come to love, and Martise must choose continued enslavement or freedom at the cost of a man's life.  And love."

The Good
When I first looked at Master of Crows, I wasn't sure I would like it.  It's a little rough around the edges and it seemed a tad different from my usual fare; however, as I set off on a journey through Martise and Silhara's world, I found myself enjoying Grace Draven's novel.  I was immediately captured by the fantasy elements, the magic, the invented cultures and imagined religions.

Personally, I thought Draven did a wonderful job of building her world.  It's full of unique cultural and social groups, each carrying their own distinctive religion, myths and legends, language and more, and it has intricate political undertones.  While defeating Corruption is the ultimate goal, it's fascinating to see how Silhara interacts with the Conclave and vice versa.  There's a thick animosity between them, but it's also a very complicated relationship (like more than I care to get into, right now).

Overall, it's a very interesting novel.  I liked the imagery, and I loved the threads of fantasy spun into each page.  Magic is a curious creature in Master of Crows.  There are rules, of course.  All magic requires a spoken spell; however, it's so intrinsically linked to the individual that emotions and limitations affect the potential of the spell.  Moreover, not all people have Gifts; in fact, a Gift may go undiscovered for years, until called to the surface (usually life-and-death situations).

I liked this portrayal of magic, and I liked how it could be used to influence the world.  Granted, it made individuals, like Silhara, seem very nearly all-powerful, but magic gave the world a greater depth and, in some cases, added layers to characters (i.e. Silhara and Martise) because it helps define them and shape them.

The Bad
Okay, so I both liked and disliked Silhara.  He has his moments when he's sweet, self-sacrificing, honorable, noble and courageous (you know, the qualities that make ladies swoon); however, for much of the novel, he's also a colossal jerk.  (I have other names, but I'll be polite and keep them to myself.)

I say this because he was a complete and utter beast to Martise.  I mean, he basically calls her ugly to her face (in the nicest way possible, of course); he treats her like an extra servant, rather than the apprentice he requested from the Conclave; he gives her back-handed compliments that would sting any woman who felt plain; he frightens her when trying to uncover her Gift, and she subsequently has nightmares about her ordeal; he actually hires a prostitute when frustrated by his attraction to Martise.

I mean, seriously, the man is horrible to her.  Even when he does fall in love with Martise, I can't help but wonder if his attraction is based on the unusual qualities of her Gift.  I don't want to spoil any plot points, so I won't go into detail, but I thought it seemed rather convenient that he began to appreciate her talents for scholarship and her incredible wealth of knowledge and her ability to help maintain his crumbling estate after they discovered her Gift.

It just struck me as something akin to the Florence Nightengale effect, where a patient falls in love with their caretaker and/or savior.  Martise saves his life, and he subsequently begins the long--and, he might argue, arduous--task of falling in love with her.  It just doesn't quite sit well with me, you know?

I mean, no relationship is perfect and, yes, I suppose the outcome is really all the matters.  But I just felt like Martise gave so much of herself, sacrificed so much for Silhara...and it just wasn't quite reciprocated.  It was rather frustrating.

The Ugly
Corruption vs. Conclave politics.

It's a toss up.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Kiss of Steel

Title details for Kiss of Steel by Bec McMaster - Available
Sourcebooks Casablanca
Kiss of Steel
Bec McMaster

The Summary
"When nowhere is safe….

"Most people avoid the dreaded Whitechapel district.  For Honoria Todd, it’s the last safe haven.  But at what price?

"Blade is known as the master of the rookeries--no one dares cross him.  It’s been said he faced down the Echelon’s army single-handedly, that ever since being infected by the blood-craving he’s been quicker, stronger, almost immortal.

"When Honoria shows up at his door, his tenuous control comes close to snapping.  She’s so…innocent.  He doesn’t see her backbone of steel--or that she could be the very salvation he’s been seeking."

The Good
I was intrigued by this novel and, starting out, I fell in love with the unusual, complex world of verwulfen, blue bloods, vampires, and mechanical creatures.  There’s an unexpected depth to this story.  You have the blue bloods--not quite vampires, not quite human--who basically run society from their Ivory Tower, trailed by human consorts and blood thralls; and then you have verwulfen (werewolves), humans, and others who live outside the blue blood’s pristine city, living on the very fringes of "respectable" society.

Except it's not that clear cut.

Blade rules the rookeries of Whitechapel, and even the Dukes of the Ivory Tower are hesitant to cross him.  Honoria is one of the many humans caught in between, but she's also the daughter of an Institute scientist and a chemist in her own right.  Humans, blue bloods, verwulfen, and more living together in one city, but it’s a tenuous relationship at best.  A variety of variables come into play:  blood taxes, drainers, humanity first insurgents, house rivalries, Slasher gangs and turf wars, and Queen Alexandra, thrall of the Prince Consort.  It all hinges on how far one wants to push the boundaries, because anything could tip the balance and bring London--and Britain--crashing to its knees.

I found all the detail fascinating and, honestly, I wish I could have had more.  Like I was curious to hear about France, which endured a different Reign of Terror in which the blue blood aristocracy was put the guillotine; Spain suffered another Inquisition, in which blue bloods were hunted rather than witches or religious dissidents; Germany didn’t have so much a blue blood ruling class as a massive verwulfen population; China saw the initial outbreak of the craving disease, the first symptoms of vampirism; and America is still a colony to the British Empire.

It's a curious reworking of historical events that I found fascinating.  And that's not even including a close look at the precarious situation of the Fade and the course of the craving disease.  Blue bloods are vampires, as we traditionally view them; however, it's different in Kiss of Steel.  Blue bloods are in control of their hunger (for the most part), but as they age they come closer and closer to the Fade, in which they slowly lose all human aspects and slip closer to an unstoppable, insatiable hunger for blood.  They essentially begin to rot, losing all traces of the person they were previously and they become monsters--they become vampires.

I found it a fascinating concept.

Overall, I enjoyed reading Kiss of Steel.  It's a blending of science fiction, paranormal, steampunk, horror, and fantasy, and it develops an intriguing story--an intriguing world--that kept me captivated.  Once I was hooked, I found there was no going back.  I had to find out what happened with Honoria and Blade--would she be captured by Vickers, Duke of Lannister, and killed?  Would she find a cure that her father had so desperately sought?  Would Blade, who lurked on the fringes of the Fade, finally succumb?

I had to have an answer and, more or less, I was satisfied with the conclusion.  Granted, it's only the first of a series--book one of five (Heart of Iron, follows next, and then My Lady Quicksilver, Forged by Desire, and Of Silk and Steam)--so I have quite a bit more to read if I want to shore up the story and delve a little deeper into this steam-powered world of dangerous creatures.

The Bad
Okay, let me start off by saying, I really enjoyed this book.  The world building was absolutely fantastic, and I loved the political and social complexity that quivered just beneath the immediate surface--beneath Blade and Honoria’s story.

However--and saying this pains me a little--it could have been better.  Like so much better.

I love a little romance mixed in with my adventure stories, but I like to have more of a balance.  That is, I don't like romantic entanglements to overshadow the rest of the novel.  I've slowly become a romance novel fiend over the last year (if that's not already apparent), but I do like my stories to have a little more to them than sultry, steamy moments and gratuitous amounts of sex.

Like with Blade and Honoria.

Sure, yeah, I understand that it's bound to happen considering how desperately they crave each other.  Their relationship is practically incendiary.  However--you're probably going to get tired of me saying this--I would have liked to learn a little more about Honoria's father, her time among the blue bloods, and their shared experiments.  Honoria is a smart girl; in fact, she's frighteningly smart in some respects--and I would have loved seeing her flaunt that intelligence a little more.  I would have enjoyed seeing her continue her father's research, seeing her find, if not a cure, a way to stop the progression of the craving disease.

Don't get me wrong, she's a pretty great character.  She's smart, she's determined, she's handy with a pistol, plus--and this is a big one--she's not some shrinking violet, damsel-in-distress type when faced with danger.  I mean, before the end of the story, she'll face down a vampire not once, not twice, not even three--but four times.  She may not be as swift and skilled as Blade, and she may not be as strong as his verwulfen companion, Will, but that's not to say she’s not powerful in her own right.

I just had this little, lingering wish that she could have done more.  I know that sounds funny, considering she does quite a lot in regards to protecting her brother and sister, and she even saves Blade’s life on a couple of occasions.  I just wish she could have been featured more prominently in the search for a cure or, at least, a treatment; I wish I could have learned more about it and a little more about her.

Maybe, just maybe, the next book will expound upon her discoveries--or potential discoveries.

The Ugly
People get torn apart.


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Wonder Woman: Blood (Volume 1)

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DC Comics
Wonder Woman:  Blood (Volume 1)
Brian Azzarello
Cliff Chiang
Tony Akins

The Summary
"Wonder Woman is a woman apart.  Raised as a daughter by the Queen of the Amazons, the warrior princess Diana is different from her countrywomen.  They've all heard the legend of how she was formed from clay to give the childless Queen the daughter she dreamed of--and they treat her like an outsider and outcast because of it, no matter how hard she fights for justice as a super hero in the outside world.

"But far from the Amazons' Paradise Island, the gods of Olympus are playing their own dark games.  The prodigal sun Apollo is making his move for Father Zeus' vacant throne, and both vengeful gods and innocent humans are caught in the crossfire.

"And at the beating, bloody heart of the conflict?  Wonder Woman, and a secret that will shatter everything she thought she knew.  Wonder Woman is about to learn the truth about her origin.  And when she does, blood will run..."

The Good
Wonder Woman.

What more is there to say?

The Bad
I struggled with Wonder Woman:  Blood (volume 1).

I like Wonder Woman--I mean, c'mon, she's amazing.  How could I not like her?--and I like Greek mythology, so the narrative threads were fascinating as all the pieces and relationships of the Greek gods started to come together; however, I wasn't enchanted by this first volume of Wonder Woman.  It just wasn't my cup of tea.

I was honestly a little disappointed, especially since I came into this comic with such high expectations.  I'm a fan of powerful, self-sufficient women (if that's not apparent from my infatuation with Rejected Princesses), and I love the idea of Wonder Woman, who is a warrior first and foremost, a protector and provider and a guardian for women everywhere; however, I'm not so sure how much I like her character in practice.

It's difficult to describe, but let me put it this way: I like Batman, because he's human and he's deeply flawed.  I like Superman, because he's an alien who grew up in Kansas and he's good to the best of his ability.  Likewise, I like Aquaman, because he's half-human/half-Atlantean and he struggles daily with his dueling identity.  And all these characters have one thing in common:  they were raised, in my opinion, in a recognizable place and fashion.

I mean, think about it.  Bruce Wayne had a semi-traditional upbringing, as traditional an upbringing a multi-billionaire can have; likewise, Superman grew up in Kansas and experienced a completely normal childhood.  And, while I'm a little fuzzy on Aquaman's adolescence, I know he had a human father and he grew up with pretty normal, human experiences.

Diana, on the other hand, was trained as a warrior from birth, learned to worship the Greek gods.  She was raised on Paradise Island with a different set of beliefs and a completely different set of rules, which makes it difficult to relate to her on a personal level.  She's amazing, but she's evokes a distant kind of admiration.  Like how you might admire a lioness:  she's beautiful and deadly and you're glad she's in the world, but she's best appreciated from afar.  (A strange analogy, I know, but it just felt right.)

The Ugly
Read the subtitle:  blood.

This is a book that hinges on violence.  Trust me when I say there's plenty of gore to go around.