All He Ever Dreamed (CBR8 #6)

Over the past several years I’ve been slowly but surely making my way through the Kowalski Family books by Shannon Stacey. They cover the romantic lives of the Kowalski cousins in New England and the people in their lives. I started reading these because Ms. Stacey writes the kind of straightforward, serviceable romance novels that let the reader slow down, read about some characters who aren’t too far from yourself and people you know, but just far enough to be fiction, and have a little happily ever after and steamy times as well. Basically, she’s become my new Nora Roberts since Roberts has been slipping of late.

In All He Ever Dreamed Ms. Stacey aims to deliver a contemporary read with average 30-something characters. There’s also the bonus that neither of the leads are physically or mentally abusive and don’t cheat. But, it was just so-so for me. While All He Ever Dreamed was a cute, fun, light read, it was predictable. Ridiculously so. I have great affection for the friends to more storyline, but something didn’t work so much for me here, and that something was the characters’ emotions. When our protagonists get together it as perhaps the most emotion lacking, lifeless encounter I’ve read, possibly ever. It was definitely a disappointment from Ms. Stacey.

Besides the problems with emotion and a lack of steam, the depth–or lack thereof–of both Josh’s and Katie’s characters was frustrating. I wished we could’ve seen more of Josh besides his desire to leave (he got left holding the bag for his siblings in running their family’s lodge), his propensity to mope around, and then continuing to do nothing but thinking of leaving even after he made his initial choice to stay. In retrospect I also wish Katie had done more than sit around and wait for Josh to come back. I’ve read a lot of romances lately with female leads who display much more agency, and that left a bitter taste in my mouth with these two characters. I should have loved them, but they just didn’t DO anything to win my affection in this outing, which is a waste of the buildup in All He Ever Needed and All He Ever Desired.

Which brings me to perhaps my biggest complaint: there was really no story in the A plot. The B plot had a nice arc, but we’ll get there in a minute. The A plot is supposed to be Josh wanting to leave, getting to leave, and returning. Those things happen, but there’s nothing extra to it. Josh is 30, and it’s entirely typical for people in their twenties/early thirties to dream about going to a city, trying on a new career, learning new things, meeting new people, find out what they’re good at etc. In this book, when Josh gets a chance to get away, he does nothing like that. He goes on a six week road trip and wakes up to the reality that he did have what he wanted at home. But, how did he know? And Katie remained the same, which is part of her characterization as steadfast, but with his storyline being so one note, we really needed something more from Katie.

The B plot was better. Focused on Katie’s mom Rosie is the live-in housekeeper at the lodge. In previous books we’ve explored her role as mom to the Kowalski kids, her relationship with her deceased husband, and her coming around to forgive his best friend for actions 20 years ago and build a relationship with him. These characters had growth, development, and used their emotions. If only they were the A plot.

2.5 stars.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

When the Women Come Out to Dance (CBR8 #5)

I’m continuing down my Elmore Leonard path and was off in search of the next Raylan story. Fire in the Hole is the third story, and it’s contained within this collection. When the Women Come Out to Dance is a collection of Leonard’s short stories, and since Audible suggested it and I’ve loved listening to the other Raylan stories: Pronto and Riding the Rap. (This collection of Elmore Leonard’s short fiction’s title was changed to Fire in the Hole capitalize on its connection to FX’s Justified.)

Let’s get the bad out of the way – this was far from my favorite Elmore Leonard experience. There are nine stories in this collection, and I’ll be honest a few of them I don’t remember 24 hours after finishing the audiobook. That has definitely affected my decision to rate this book at only 2 stars. It was merely okay.

Of the ones I remember  there were several of them were good, and a couple were quite good, and one or two I know I’m just missing  bigger story arcs because these are characters related to other Leonard stories. “Sparks” and the titular “When the Women Come Out to Dance” are solid works. Each cover women taking different illegal methods to get beyond a problem and each are well paced if slightly predictable and generally forgettable. I doubt I’ll be remembering them at all in a few weeks.

“Fire in the Hole” and “Karen Makes Out” each highlight some of Leonard’s most well-known characters: Raylan Givens and Karen Sisco. In “Fire in the Hole” Raylan returns to Harlan County and runs afoul of Boyd Crowder. You know the story if you’ve seen season one of Justified. “Karen Makes Out” happens after the events of Out of Sight, with Karen remaining unlucky as far as finding suitable law abiding male companionship. Each was good, but mostly because I was familiar with the characters.

My favorites in this collection were “Tenkiller” and “The Tonto Woman”. “Tenkiller” tells the story of Ben Webster (grandson of Carl Webster from The Hot Kid if you’re familiar – I was not) on his return to Oklahoma following the death of his fiancée. He runs across a family of criminals squatting on his family’s pecan farm and goes about getting back together with the first girl he loved and getting rid of the nuisance on the farm. Too long and meandering (like this review!) but still quite good. My favorite, a four star story on its own was “The Tonto Woman”. This had the crispest pacing and left the reader satisfied but looking for more. That’s my favorite balance in a short story. “The Tonto Woman” is a day in the life type story of a woman returned from twelve years of captivity and resettling amongst life as a literally marked woman. Or is she going to take up with a cattle rustler?

Amazon describes this collection as a series of short sketches that feature strong female characters in trouble. I don’t completely buy it. Most explicitly because there are no women focused on in at least one or two of the stories. Also, we aren’t given enough time with several of the women to really identify if they are strong or merely opportunistic. I know from my viewing of the Justified television series that I feel the Ava character in “Fire in the Hole” is strong, but I don’t know that I can feel that way simply from what we see on the page. Although, I am glad that the producers decided to keep Boyd around and that he was portrayed by the delightful Walton Goggins. I have the same lack of certainty with some of the others, including “Sparks”.

Read at your own choosing, you’ll be better able to tell your own interest level.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. 

Golden Son (CBR8 #4)

I started my adventure with the Red Rising books last year because both Red Rising and Golden Son had received enthusiastic reviews from Alexis, scootsa1000, and narfna. Red Rising also checked off a box for me in the 2015 Read Harder challenge, as Brown wrote the book before he was 25. With the third and final book in the series being published next month, I figured it was time to get my act together and read Golden Son in order to be ready.

I have A LOT of thoughts about the second half of this book (as Ale and crystalclear can attest to since I’ve been yammering at them over the past few days. But, in order to talk about that stuff, let’s get some boilerplate out of the way. Here’s a synopsis from Goodreads (which leaves plenty vague for those of you who have yet to read either book):

Debut author Pierce Brown’s genre-defying epic Red Rising hit the ground running and wasted no time becoming a sensation. Golden Son continues the stunning saga of Darrow, a rebel forged by tragedy, battling to lead his oppressed people to freedom from the overlords of a brutal elitist future built on lies. Now fully embedded among the Gold ruling class, Darrow continues his work to bring down Society from within. A life-or-death tale of vengeance with an unforgettable hero at its heart.”

Now that we have that out of the way, the front half of Golden Son is setting up what occurred in the two years between the end of Red Rising and the beginning of this book. Darrow and the rest of those we met in the first book, and who survived it, are now part of the larger society of the Golds and are the Peerless Scarred (because of the literal scars on their bodies following the Institute). We find Darrow at low ebb of his social climb and goal of infiltrating the Golds on the orders of Ares, a terrorist of sorts hell bent on bringing down the brutal rule of the Golds and making all classes (or more accurately, colors) equal after hundreds of years of striation.

The plot advances along at a normal pace, and then about halfway through literally all hell breaks loose and Brown just pushes more plot into 250 pages than I remember seeing in QUITE a long time (and I just read Outlander. And it’s good. But it’s also a bit of a slog. More people are brought into Darrow’s inner circle, more friends are sacrificed in any number of battles (Brown is up there with GRRM in the killing of your darlings) that rage as Darrow orchestrates ever increasing battles and wars with the goal of ultimate civil war, and we watch a character struggle with the fact that he must become what he wishes to break down if he is going to succeed at all.

But this is also the book where I was able to pinpoint why I had not gotten into sci-fi in the past. Its not the science, I love the science. I also love the speculation based on history (which Brown excels at). It’s the battle minutia which seems to be an ever present part of many series. I really, honestly and truly, don’t care about what type of gun/ship/weapon/what have you is going to be deployed against your enemy du jour and I certainly don’t need 5 pages describing to me in detail the ship/pod/doohickey that you are going to be using. In his Acknowledgements Brown alludes to his inspiration – Tolkien. Yes, I see it. And once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it. I have always felt that Tolkien overwrote his books, and Brown is guilty of the same. I can see his working of craft in the writing. It’s plain as day, and I wish it were a little more nuanced, a little less IN MY FACE.

But there is also so much that Brown gets right in these books.  His focus on the machinations of politics and society, the true meanings and cost of love, loyalty, and friendship all build to a crescendo and then if this were a piece of music the final chapter would have a loud crash cymbal and then silence. Because those final pages are where Brown won me back, and this book went from being a very good 3.5 to a solid 4 star book. While there was A LOT of foreshadowing that left very few surprises in a chapter which resets EVERYTHING, Brown placed the reader in a place of not knowing what the next book could possibly bring. There are some things which are laid out, but we do not know how the chips will fall, at least not completely.

TEAM SEVRO FOREVER.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The Silkworm (CBR8 #3)

This one is a boon for me, a book I was intending to read anyway fulfills a Read Harder challenge as well. Task 9 was to listen to an audiobook which has won an Audie Award. The Silkworm won the 2015 Audie for Mystery. I believe Robert Glenister absolutely earned his prize, but he was aided by the literary prowess of Rowling as Galbraith.

The Silkworm is the second book in the Cormoran Strike series. Cormoran, a hero and disabled veteran in Afghanistan who was once in the Special Investigative Division and is now a Private Investigator of some repute following the events of the first book in the series, The Cuckoo’s Calling,  takes on the case of the missing author Owen Quine. But things quickly escalate as at first, Mrs. Quine just thinks her husband has gone off by himself for a few days, which is not out of character. But as Strike investigates, he discovers that there is more to Quine’s disappearance. Quine had just turned in a manuscript featuring toxic pen-portraits of almost everyone he knows and if the novel were to be published, it would ruin lives. When Quine is found brutally murdered under bizarre circumstances, Cormoran and his partner Robin must race against time to understand the motivation of a ruthless killer, and free an innocent person from jail.

The thought that kept occurring to me while listening to this story is that I’m continually surprised with how much story Rowling has to tell. Most authors would have wrapped things up in their narrative much earlier in the plotting. And, I wouldn’t be made at them for doing so. But much like her other works Rowling builds a world and then only slowly unpacks the details. There are layers upon layers of detail both of our two main characters and their personal lives, but also in the various characters who make up the cast of characters in this murder mystery. There are easily three stories taking place at the same time (which helps explain the 17 and a half hour listening time) but Rowling has them balanced near perfectly.

So, why only four stars? I don’t know. While this book was certainly mastercrafted, and I am even more invested than I was with The Cuckoo’s Calling, I just don’t feel it was perfect. Maybe Career of Evil will be the book to earn five stars from me in this series, The Silkworm earned a full star higher than its predecessor.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

Outlander (CBR8 #2)

It’s hard to exist in a reader world and not be at least obliquely aware of Outlander, Diana Gabaldon’s epic series – currently 8 books and counting not including the companion novels and novellas. Best I can recollect, I gave serious consideration to embarking on this series around the time of fellow Cannonballers embarking on rereads in preparation for the publication of book 8, and the release of the show based on the books on Starz last spring. I made the decision once I asked for the first book in the series as part of the Cannonball Book Exchange in December of 2014. Thanks to our Junior Cannonballers Bunnybean and Joemyjoe I received Outlander and then promptly forgot to read it (along with Daughter of Smoke and Bone I promise it’s on the to read list for this year!). When I went about setting up the Book Exchange for 2015 I realized that I had the book was still waiting for me, and I packed it with me for my Christmas travels.

The basic plot of Outlander is actually quite difficult to wrap one’s head around. It should be simple: Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, is just back from the Second World War and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon. She is pulled through a standing stone in one of the ancient circles that dot the British Isles. When she comes to she has travelled back over 200 years, to 1743. Discovered amongst a skirmish between redcoat soldiers and highlanders, Claire is pulled into the intrigues of lairds and spies.

But perhaps unbelievably that is not where the story ends. Because that recap is only the first fifth of the book, over the course of the next 600 pages Claire will be held captive, arrested, attacked at the hands of the ancestor of her husband, must choose a marriage for her safety,  is accused of witchcraft, and chooses to live a life on the run with her new husband. All of this while grappling with the choice between trying to get back to her previous life and husband or embracing her current life and marriage.

Gabaldon doesn’t write like your average author. Her books meander through several genres, and her characters don’t behave in predictable ways based on tropes. I had the benefit of having watched the full season of the television series adaptation, so while reading the book I knew what was coming, but during the show I was often surprised by the nooks and crannies of the story as Gabaldon (and the show producers and writers who stayed very loyal to the book) unfolded it.

But that doesn’t mean the story is without flaws. Perhaps they were more apparent to me because I had seen the show first, but there are many asides which help develop the world of Outlander which does nothing to forward the plot. I also have concerns about the only gay characters in the book being the villains, or guilty of villainy. I’m concerned about this typecasting in Gabaldon’s world, and interested to see if she introduces a character who is both gay and good. In the culture of a very Catholic 1743 Scotland the idea that the general populace would assume wickedness of someone who is gay reads, but Gabaldon does nothing to balance out that worldview. It was disappointing, and I remain hopeful based on what I’ve heard of the Lord John Grey books that she does in fact introduce the character that I’m looking for.

My other petty concern is perhaps a bit nitpicky, but here we are. We as the reader are seeing the world through Claire’s eyes, which makes sense in the idea that she is the outsider, the Sassenach, and the eyes most like our own upon encountering 1743. But when I was explaining the series to my friend Ale, I found myself saying that we are following Jamie’s story and the story of Scotland in the years of rebellion. To a lesser degree the story is about Claire’s battle with what time travelling means and making sense of her life once we get past a certain point in the narrative. Gabaldon does cover this ground, but I feel the show is able to handle it more deftly by giving us visual flashbacks to her husband Frank instead of Claire reciting her mental gymnastics on the subject. This in some ways makes the television show a better vessel for the story, in addition to the (hated by some) voiceovers changing to Jamie for the second half of the season. The book doesn’t do that, but once the characters are married Claire’s life is now bound forever to Jamie’s past and future, as is the story. While the book and show share a level of graphicness, and the large quantity of sex, there still felt to be something missing.

What I feel we must discuss is the character of James Fraser. This might be Gabaldon’s biggest achievement in writing – a universally loved male lead who shouldn’t necessarily make us all swoon (but we do, because of the depth of his love and devotion to Claire and the suffering he has endured in his short life). Gabaldon nails his characterization from the moment go. There is no other character in the book like Jamie, and while he may not always behave the way we might want a more modern lead to behave, the fact that Claire falls so irrevocably in love with him is a natural progression of the story, and we the reader do the same.

Ok, now that I’m done rambling, (and I know I’m rambling) I can heartily suggest this book and series to you and I’m SUPER excited that between Christmas gifts and my mom, I already own the series through book five. Prepare yourselves for more Outlander this year.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read and the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016.

A Kiss for Midwinter Reread (CBR8 #1)

A new year, an old friend of a book.

I had promised myself a reread of A Kiss for Midwinter this Christmas. It is Mrs. Julien’s favorite novella, possibly of all time, and one that I really enjoyed, but always felt like I was missing something. I think I’m still missing something, but this is definitely a 4.5 star book for me, and proves that Milan is fantastic at novellas (not that I didn’t already know that).

Quickly, A Kiss for Midwinter is the story of Dr. Jonas Grantham and Miss Lydia Charingford. Jonas has decided to get married (for safe access to intercourse, I kid you not) and has fallen for the eleventh most beautiful woman in Leicester (his ranking). Unfortunately for Jonas, Lydia’s foremost thought of him is that he was present for her greatest shame, and she cannot see him without remembering that terrible Christmas.

For those that have read the Brothers Sinister series (and seriously, everyone should) we meet Lydia as the best friend of Minnie in The Duchess War and this story takes place in the months following the end of that book. When I first reviewed this book I was struck by Milan’s ability to give her characters incredible depth in a few short pages, and I was struck by that again. We are plunged into Lydia’s backstory of her being taken advantage of by an older man and left with pregnant and unmarried. We are also brought into her inner workings, as she battles with truly making peace with what happened to her. We are also introduced to Jonas and his particular set of constraints and practicalities. He is a doctor on the forward edge of science (he won’t wear gloves because they could be germ factories) but his default practical nature often catches others completely off guard. That in combination with his dark sense of humor makes most people, including Lydia; write him off as making fun of them when in fact he is almost always telling them the truth he cannot let go unsaid.

This novella is at its top quality in the quiet moments between Jonas and Lydia. The scenes at the Christmas Tree and the Churchyard will make your heart swoon. They certainly do mine.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. REGISTRATION IS OPEN THROUGH JANUARY 15.