The Proposal (CBR10 #26)

The Proposal (The Survivors' Club, #1)

I have finally taken my first trip to a Mary Balogh romance. I’m still surprised when I manage to miss an author completely, but it usually means that there’s a well-liked series with good reviews which is complete that I can dive right into. In the case of Mary Balogh that series is the Survivors’ Club which tells the story of seven people who survived great tragedy (whether physical or mental) during the Napoleonic Wars and formed a tight friendship while they healed for three years away from Society. The first book in the series, The Proposal, held my attention so well and Balogh’s writing pleased me so much that I went ahead and requested the next few books from the library for the coming months and plan to blow through the series during the rest of the year.

The Proposal begins with Gwendoline, Lady Muir, who has seen her share of tragedy. Content in a quiet life with friends and family, the young widow has no desire to marry again. Though, she isn’t the member of the Survivors’ Club: that would be Hugo, Lord Trentham, who scoops her up in his arms after a fall on the beach. He does not, however, view himself as a gentleman; he is a soldier whose bravery earned him his title. Born a merchant’s son who inherited his wealth he is happiest when working the land, but duty and title now demand that he finds a wife. In a very funny scene, a grumpy Hugh alerts his friends in the Survivors’ Club to his plan to find a wife to provide an heir and help with his sister. They tease he will obviously find one the next day down at the beach, and of course the very next day he is rescuing an injured Gwen and bringing her back to the house with him.

Embarrassed, Hugh doesn’t wish to court Lady Muir, nor have her interfere on the annual reunion of the Club. In a fine bit of plotting, this struggle where Hugo and Gwen are given time and space to get to know each other and become attracted but do not wish to be allows the reader to settle into the series. It is an infodump of sorts, but it worked well for me. In lesser hands the first half of the book would have been the end of the plot, but Balogh has more territory she wants to cover. Balogh builds a story around the mental wounds Gwen and Hugh both experienced, punching holes in the “happy” lives they have both created for themselves in the years since their respective tragedies, and analyzing the class differences of the social strata that Gwen and Hugh grew up and live in.

In the second half of the book their two vastly different worlds come together, both will be challenged in unforeseen ways. Mrs. Julien, one of my personal Romancelandia guides, is of the opinion the central theme of many Balogh historical romances is closed and broken people finding new lives and unexpected happiness. In The Proposal I would say that theme lines up exquisitely. Balogh creates a world and a story where over a respectable timeline; two mature adults in their thirties are given a second chance at happiness. And really, who better to be given these second chances than soldiers and those who have seemingly lost everything? I was warmed and won over by the sincere sweetness Balogh brought to her characters, and that while the characters have been through the proverbial wringer, the stories are not mawkish. Balogh shows a deft touch in how she layers and slowly reveals the sorrows of her characters without wallowing in them.

I feel Balogh earned a believable happily ever after for Hugh and Gwen. As they get to know each other, they recognize their first impressions were about expectations. Even at the books halfway point, when Hugh proposes to Gwen and she refuses, they are still functioning on expectations. But then Balogh builds out her narrative and Gwen invites Hugh to court her, if he wishes. I love that they continue to seek each other out, acknowledging they simply want to be with each other even if it is not a natural fit into either of their lives or worlds.  It is a novel that stays within its genre tropes, but nudges them with the ways in which the details and specific plot points are placed. The novel grows the universe of Balogh’s books, and I’m interested to see how that universe continues to grow and keep up with the characters we’ve met so far.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read – now in our tenth year! At Cannonball Read we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

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The Revolution Was Televised (CBR10 #25)

Image result for the revolution was televised

Sometimes I read a non-fiction book and wonder to myself, what would this book look like if the author had waited just a few more years before analyzing the available evidence? In The Revolution Was Televised Sepinwall takes a critic’s eye to the changing landscape of television drama in the past two decades. He was absolutely in the right place to make the necessary observations and do the needed interviews with the creatives behind the shows he analyzes – Sepinwall started his career as a television critic for my now local paper, The Star-Ledger, during the years in question (he left the paper in 2010 right after I moved to the area and joined the staff at Hitfix, and later UPROXX, and now Rolling Stone). But, Sepinwall published this book in 2012 and not 2015, and due to that misses the second wave of the revolution entirely: the advent of streaming service prestige television meant for binge-watching. Netflix unleased their original series on us the very next year and the television landscape looks very different again in the five years since the arrival of House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, let alone The Handmaid’s Tale, and Amazon Prime’s offerings.

It was nearly impossible for me to separate my reactions to the work that Sepinwall did do from what it could have been. It was part of the reason I was a bit underwhelmed by the book, something that emmalita and I share. But I should perhaps back up a little first because Alan Sepinwall did tackle a large mountain of a topic that is going to be at the center of the discussion of what pop culture and television are and can be moving forward.

In The Revolution Was Televised Sepinwall looks at twelve shows that started the era we now call the Golden Age of Television, or Peak TV. Those dramas are The Sopranos, Oz, The Wire, Deadwood, The Shield, Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 24, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. Sepinwall’s main argument that these are twelve of the shows which were at the vanguard of taking what television drama had been up to that point and creating the space to take the medium more seriously, and use it more creatively, than ever before. Sepinwall tells the story of these twelve shows, and the shows they made room for, through his own recollections of reviewing them as they were released, and using interviews with their creators from then and in most cases new ones from when the book was being written.

I mention above that one of the drawbacks I found in the book was the timing of its publication, my other issue is perhaps a fairer one: the actual structure of the book. In some ways the twelve chapters function as twelve oral histories of the shows. We march through time from one show to the next in the order they were released (with one exception). It becomes, at times, repetitive and a bit redundant. On its surface there is nothing wrong with tracking the growth of the revolution over time, as the shows affected each other and the milieu in Hollywood where they were being green-lit. However, it doesn’t let Sepinwall dive deeper into the themes emerging in Peak TV, and instead focuses perhaps over heavily on the auteur theory.

Non-fiction is difficult to review. The meat of the argument or story being told and how well it is reasoned or argued cannot be ignored, but this is still writing. Sepinwall has an easy to read facility in his craft, honed one can only assume by the sheer size of the output he’s written in the course of his career so far. This was a three star book for me, but I don’t think I’m done reading Sepinwall, and look forward to eventually picking up his book with Matt Zoller Seitz, TV (The Book).

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society. 

Ghostly Echoes (CBR10 #24)

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Back during CBR7 I picked up Jackaby by William Ritter because it featured a bit of a paranormal mystery with a sassy female protagonist who doesn’t have a romance with the male protagonist. While I love a Romance novel, I don’t need romance in all my stories. As it turns out Jackaby was a strong book and over the years I’ve kept up with the series in a (mostly) timely manner.

Ghostly Echoes is the third full novel in the series (there’s one short story as well, The Map) and the character who is the driver of the story is the ghostly owner of 926 Augur Lane, the headquarters of Jackaby’s detective agency. There’s corruption and murder afoot in New Fiddleham and it all links back to how Jenny Cavanaugh was murdered a decade ago and the disappearance of her finance the night she died. As Abigail races to unravel the mystery of how and why people keep turning up missing or dead flinging herself more deeply into her friends’ grim histories, Jackaby leads a cast of familiar characters across the cobblestones of nineteenth-century New England and down to the mythical underworld  and back again, solving the case at hand and setting up the endgame in the next book.

The Jackaby series blends a bit of fantasy and folklore with a touch of mad science and its author, William Ritter, isn’t afraid to throw a touch of social commentary into his YA. This time we get a transgender character whom Jackaby speaks to and interacts with using all the care, class, and affirmation that one could hope for.

These books are fun, clever, and quick-witted and I remain enthusiastic for what I’m assuming is the closing chapter in the next book, The Dire King.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

Making Up (CBR10 #23)

Making Up (London Celebrities, #3)

CBR10 is my seventh year participating in Cannonball Read, and in that time I feel comfortable saying that I’ve made a space for myself as a reviewer of romance books. I review all the romance I read because I believe firmly that everyone should read what they want, read what they like, and have someone pointing the way for them. We have our lead dogs of this pack (#BlameMalin) and we have the “hobbyists” (me). One of the greatest gifts of Cannonball Read is finding new authors whom you love, and whose work you find consistently enjoyable. For me those are absolutely Rainbow Rowell, Courtney Milan, and Lucy Parker (which doesn’t even begin to cover the backlog of other authors that have been sent my way – my love for all things Tessa Dare only grows).

It is hard to believe that it was only two years ago that Lucy Parker blasted onto the Cannonball scene with Act Like It which was universally well received and then followed up the next year with Pretty Face which secured that the first book was not an anomaly, Lucy Parker can write. Having avoided the sophomore slump, I was still worried – could she maintain the high quality contemporary romances set in London’s theatre scene to complete the trilogy? Mostly yes is the good news here.

Making Up is two parts second chance romance and one part enemies to lovers. As in her previous books Lucy Parker handles the circumstance with a deft touch, tweaking the tropes to suit a relatable and believable history (even if it’s a bit of a retcon from what we saw in Pretty Face). Our main couple of Trix and Leo are adults and are (blessedly) capable of having adult conversations of substance with one another even in the early part of the book where they are still in the enemies phase. Parker wisely sets Trix and Leo’s Great Misunderstanding with their teenaged selves, a decade in their past, where it feels appropriate. The pair overcomes the misunderstanding between them fairly early in the novel which leads to a lot of funky baseline, but also a good deal of time for the characters to unpack the actual emotional baggage still on the table. Trix is still dealing with the fallout from her emotionally abusive ex, and is experiencing anxiety attacks  about everything, but especially a new, intense relationship. While Trix is the main thrust, Leo is also dealing with putting his relationship with his sister back on an even footing and repairing his professional standing, which is how he ends up working on Trix’s show in the first place.

Parker uses her setting, the West End theater scene, to provide her a fruitful backdrop for her romances – theatre is geared up to offer drama in many forms. One of the best features of each of her books so far is the banter between the leads; Parker’s distinct skill in this arena seems to be that she knows the line for each character that cannot be crossed for the relationship she is portraying but also for her reader’s compassion for those characters. Parker is shedding light on various aspects of her characters, which layers our understanding of them, as well as the character’s understandings of each other.  Making Up has all of Parker’s trademark wit, plus empathy and incisiveness, so it automatically has a lot going for it.

Thematically Parker is working in the arena of abusive relationships. Trix is healing from an emotionally abusive relationship tht stripped her down and made her less sure of herself and less likely to pursue her dreams. The other component of the theme resides in the B plot with Leo’s sister who is a complete Pain in the Ass, to the point that I hope not to see her again in future Parker novels. It would be easy to say the book would be better without her, because the drama she brings isn’t necessary. That would be wrong.  Cat is another facet of Parker’s theme, that people can fuck up, be damaged by their relationships and their choices, not be healed, and still be worthy of love and happiness.

Once more for the people in the back: even with mistakes, even after we survive abuse, even while we struggle with our mental illnesses, or our terrible choices we are worthy and deserving of happiness, but it may not come easily and that is okay. That is what Parker is working with in this novel. She doesn’t always completely hit the nail on the head, and this book isn’t as spectacularly excellent as its predecessors, but it is quietly very, very good.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

Ghostland (CBR10 #22)

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places

One of the ways books find their way to me is via podcast. I listen to a few pop culture and history podcasts and usually the lovely hosts have book recommendations. This particular one comes via Dave Gonzales of Storm of Spoilers and Fighting in the War Room. His description of the book both sold me and really is a fantastic encapsulation of what the book does; “GHOSTLAND … tracks other American ‘hauntings’ and reveals how those stories are the product of racism and sexism a good 80% of the time” caught my interest immediately and went directly onto my to read list for the year.

Ghostland hovers around several interest areas of mine, and for a few years I was an active part of the dark tourism that he covers in this book (ghost tours and paranormal programming at historic sites and buildings). So, why not unpack the culture that leads to these things in the first place now that I’m safely on the other side (I had many reservations about doing these programs). There is a social undercurrent that feeds the stories we tell, and choose not to tell, and it extends as far as our ghost stories.

This book tells the story of the dead by focusing on the problems of the living; how do we deal with stories about ghosts and how do we inhabit and move through spaces that have been deemed to be haunted? Colin Dickey pays attention to what can be known about the stories of a haunting story, but then also tracks the ways in which changes to the story, and sometimes even the “facts” themselves are changed. Dickey uses his personal experiences and research to tell a version of American history you may not be familiar with. Or, you might actually be familiar with it as the major weakness of Dickey’s work is that he is often telling his reader the story of some of the most famous hauntings around the states (Winchester Mystery House, anyone?), which can make for an occasional slog of a read. But, for me, it was all made worth it by Dickey unpacking the inherent racism and misogyny of the ghost stories that populate our collective conscious.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

#stickingittocancer #onebookatatime

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Vol. 1: Commencement (CBR10 #21)

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Vol. 1: Commencement (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, #1)

This book is another Read Harder Challenge twofer. I don’t read a lot of comics; it’s a style of book that isn’t as natural for me as it so obviously is for others. While I was reading through this year’s tasks I saw there were two that related to comics and I knew that I would have to step out of my comfort zone (which is the entire point) to get them done.

But… it was much easier than anticipated. Either my tastes are broader than I give myself credit for or my sleuthing skills have improved over the years. I’m leaning towards the second of those. Task 18 was to read a book published by a house other than Marvel, DC, or Image. I used to listen to Thought Bubble, I know about Dark Horse, AND that they publish Star Wars books. One problem solved. Next, Task 8 was all about diversity (because really and truly #weneeddiversebooks) I needed to find a book written or illustrated by a person of color. A quick skim of the Star Wars offerings from Dark Horse Comics and a cross check of my library’s holdings, and voila I was off on my first visit to the Old Republic .

Here’s the thing I learned about myself and my Star Wars fandom while reading this: I really and truly do love the world of Star Wars, not just the characters of the original trilogy. Could this book have been improved by adding a Wookie? Of course, Chewbacca is the literal best (but he wasn’t alive yet). What I got here though, was a story of a padawan (or apprentice as his favorite antagonizer is so fond of misremembering) who was betrayed by people who were trying to take too much control of what the visions of the future might have shown them, and he must run to save his life, or perhaps stay and fight for what is right. I am always on the lookout for those who stay and fight for what is right.

The art was a bit dark for me, but it reminded me in all the best ways of the animation on Star Wars Rebels. I wish I had more substantive thoughts on this book, but perhaps the highest praise I can give it is that I am thinking about putting the next book in the series onto my stupid long to read list even though my library doesn’t have it in its holdings. Pretty high praise from me, if we’re being honest.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money in the name of a fallen friend for the American Cancer Society.

Kindred (CBR10 #20)

Kindred

I’ve finally made my way to reviewing the #CannonBookClub selection, Kindred.  I was ecstatic that this was the one we chose. Not that I wouldn’t have happily read any of our options for this first of two anniversary reads, but Kindred has been lurking on my to read list a long time and it fulfills two of this year’s Read Harder Challenge tasks (read a genre fiction classic, read a sci-fi novel with a female protagonist by a female author).

My review is probably going to be a bit disjointed, as I wander through my thoughts and our book club discussion questions.  As I mention above, the fact that this book is categorized as science fiction works in my favor, but it never *felt* like science fiction to me. Sometimes I wonder if I have a firm grasp on the definition of the genre itself, or if Octavia Butler’s very obvious care at historical accuracy kept the science fiction of it all out of my main view. But I do know that I am not alone, Kindred gets name dropped in a Tor.com article from last year discussing whether or not time travel stories are science fiction or fantasy.

I was won over by this novel almost immediately. Dana had such a unique voice, that even before the time travelling really got underway I was invested in her. Butler also does great things with emotions in the book. Dana and Rufus’s connection, Kevin being trapped in the past without Dana created dread that pushed my reading along. I read the book in two sittings. But perhaps the most important emotional cores of the book is Alice and Dana’s tumultuous, intertwined relationship but the simplicity and clarity of the understanding that Carrie brought to her world and her relationships pulled at me the most. Carrie’s appraisal of those around her, and her ability to communicate it (especially with Nigel) brought the later chapters of the novel home for me in a way I don’t know that I can describe. So much is happening so quickly, Alice is suffering so greatly, and Carrie has become in her own way the center of the storm.

But if Carrie is the calm center, then Alice is the raging storm front. I always took it on face value that because Dana’s time travel was sparked by grave danger (her own or Rufus’s) that she was being yanked through time to maintain a timeline, as she saw it to make sure her ancestor was born. What we witness is the destruction of one soul, in order to birth another, to preserve a third. Every single choice, experience, and sacrifice carries the weight of each of them. It is heady, and causes the reader to have to side with what we know will be the destruction of Alice at Rufus’s hands. We know, implicitly, that there is no happy ending for her, but we don’t necessarily know just what her end will be, or for that matter, Rufus’s own. Butler asks her reader to consider: was it worth it? Was their suffering worth Dana’s life? Or is it simply what was?

I still don’t know, 10 days after our book club, the answers to my own queries about Octavia Butler’s work. But I do know that it’s the sign of a five star book for me when I am continuing to chew on the book days and weeks later.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read, where we read what we want, review it how we see fit (within a few guidelines), and raise money for the American Cancer Society in the name of a fallen friend.