The Underground Girls of Kabul (CBR8 #58)

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I don’t remember exactly what caught my eye about this book, if it was the cover, the blurb, the title itself, janniethestrange’s review on Cannonball Read, or any other of the many things which could have done it. But I know that I probably plopped it on to my to read list simply because I know what I don’t know, and I don’t know much about Afghanistan, even though the American war there started as I was coming into my adulthood and had definite opinions about why we were there (don’t we all when we’re young?).

But this interesting non-fiction work is not about the war. It’s not even about any of the previous wars which have landed in this country. It is instead about the ways in which the residents of that country have worked around the very patriarchal system and the cultural expectations of having sons. In a deeply researched work, which quite clearly took years, Nordberg endeavors to tell the story of several bacha posh who have all been raised as boys, and some who continue to live that reality past puberty.

While I am overwhelmed with the weight of the work that Nordberg has done, I feel the first half of the book treads the same territory again and again, and was at times a slog of a read. The second half, and where she truly starts to bring in the big picture ideas of how societies create the need for the bacha posh, and how well-meaning foreign aid is often counterproductive, is where Nordberg’s ability shows.

I’m glad to have read this book, and have this look into a culture I am unfamiliar with otherwise.

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

The Hating Game (CBR8 #57)

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Earlier in the year the Cannonball Read Romance readers loved Act Like It by Lucy Parker. Parker is new on the Romance scene, and delivered a high wire act of a Contemporary. I rated it at 4.5 stars, and I might end up rounding it up to a 5 eventually, since I probably like it just as much as When a Scot Ties the Knot. When Malin, baxlala, and Beth Ellen sang the praises of The Hating Game by Sally Thorne and compared it favorably to Act Like It, it shot to the top of the ever growing to read list.

Much like Parker, Thorne delivers a Contemporary romance which features characters hovering around 30, with real weight and backstory to their characterization. It is also a similarly limited cast of characters, with the grand majority of the narrative taking place with just two characters: Lucy and Josh.

The book opens with Lucy telling us about her nemesis, Joshua Templeman, and the various ways they hate each other throughout their working lives.  Factor in the competition for a new position which would be Lucy’s dream job, a rough year of company mergers, lost friends, missing her parents, and zero social life, and Lucy is ready to rip Josh limb from limb to get this promotion. If only he hadn’t kissed her in the elevator and thrown her entire life into turmoil.

I’m really, really in like with this book. And once the cards were on the table, so to speak, I was very much team Josh. Thorne chooses to keep the narration from Lucy’s point of view, and every so often I’d want to yell at the book exasperated with how she didn’t see what we saw of Josh’s true nature. I had him pieced together pretty early on in the book, and was relieved that the big thing I saw coming wasn’t the real big thing that had to be dealt with (and boy, did Lucy deal with it).

Enemies to Lovers isn’t usually the trope that I like, but Thorne makes believable the backstory that she has in place for them, and I adored how she, through Josh, allowed the pair time to get settled into the idea of not playing all the verbal sparring and one-upmanship games which had previously populated all of their interactions. I am also an enormous fan of snuggling, and there is quite a bit of it in this book.

I recommend this book for nearly anyone reading this genre and happily endorse its comparison to Act Like It.

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

It Happened One Autumn (CBR8 #51)

After being less than won over by the first book in the Wallflowers series by Lisa Kleypas, I decided the thing to do was to keep going. I figured out later that my real issue was with the secondary plot line and have warmed to the style of Kleypas’ writing in the intervening weeks. In the Wallflowers series, Kleypas tracks the lives and loves of four women passed over by the eligible men of the ton and the friendship they develop along the way.

Book two, It Happened One Autumn features American dollar princess Lillian Bowman and the extremely eligible Marcus Marsden, Lord Westcliff. We met both characters in the first installment, Secrets of a Summer Night, Westcliff is best friend and business partner of the swoon worthy Simon Hunt. Westcliff’s protector personality and the adaptability of his character, while still being loyal to tradition, are made clear at the end of that book and I found myself quite taken with the character who is constrained by his title and position, and appears to be content with who he is, even if he knows he doesn’t always come up to the mark against his friends Simon and Sebastian (more on him later). Lillian comes from new money, and in the social landscape of the United States in the 1840s, it was at times difficult to marry off these women, as neither social strata wanted them. Using that, and adding some truly hideous previous behavior on Lillian’s part, Kleypas weaves in the recognizable history I appreciate in these, and gives us a clear picture of the characters we are dealing with, while simultaneously setting them up as diametrically opposed (although I really didn’t need to hear one more time how Marcus was the heir of the oldest noble line in all of England blah blah blah).

For the first half of the book, another house party at Westcliff’s estate, we the reader are supposed to be enamored of free-spirit Lillian’s take on life and how it keeps running at odds with Westcliff’s propriety and be won over by the chemistry they can’t seem to ignore, even though they can’t stand each other.

I was bored.

Boredom is a grave sin in nearly any genre, but it is particularly terrible in romantical fluff books. The set up was good… it was just reminiscent of the previous book in the series. Kleypas writes the hell out of her scenes and her characters, and as Mrs. Julien says “not-fantastic Kleypas is still very damn good”, but I definitely felt as though I was treading water. There were fantastic scenes in there… they just weren’t nearly close enough together to keep the tediousness at bay.

My other complaint is how evil our next hero was made.

Enter Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent. A new character introduced at the beginning of the book and set up as Marcus’ rival for Lillian’s affections. He is in need of the money she brings to the marriage mart, and infamous rake that he is, the proper families likely won’t have him. Lillian seems to fit the bill, and she’s available, until Marcus makes his move (and it’s a good move).  If Kleypas had left it here, with the rake as legitimate competition for our heroine’s hand, and then let that play out as it did and leave him without the money he needed I would have been fine. I would even have been on board with *SPOILERS* Marcus’ mother orchestrating Lillian’s kidnapping and attempting to loop Sebastian in, and Sebastian not doing anything to help Lillian escape. *END SPOILERS* But with the lengths the last quarter of the book goes to in order to villainize Sebastian, I have epic Romance Trope Concerns. I adore a reforming a rake storyline (although Wounded Hero is really more my cup of tea), but Sebastian was already established as a rake… I don’t know that I needed more, and it’s never a good sign when you are editing a book in your head as you read it.

The next book, with Evie and Sebastian is universally loved (I think) around the Cannonball – I remain cautiously optimistic, but the two drawbacks combined on It Happened One Autumn keep this at three stars.

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

Act Like It (CBR8 #15)

I have ellepkay to thank for bringing Act Like It to my attention at the beginning of the new year. I am somewhere near the seventh (maybe more?) person to review this book on Cannonball Read, and we’re all pretty universally in love with this debut author’s contemporary work. Nailing good contemporary romance is not easy. There are so many ways for it all to go wrong, to feel unnatural, or cliché, or any number of other possible problems.

What I find myself most struck with (because trying to write a fresh review with so many others rolling around is tough I’m going to structure this review like a conversation with the earlier reviews, just go with me here) is Parker’s authorial voice, and her ability to use tropes to her advantage.  As I mentioned over on emmalita’s review, I really like Parker’s tone. Her authorial voice is open and friendly, which is surprisingly not something all authors of any genre manage to achieve or even, I worry, understand most stories benefit from.

As part of Parker’s authorial voice, I agree wholeheartedly with alwaysanswerb’s opinion that Parker nails the balance in writing dialogue that demonstrated the characters’ intelligence while also remaining casual. Lainie and Richard (and to a lesser degree everyone they interact with) speak the way you expect them to if you ran into them on the street. They are obviously intelligent and worldly (Richard more so), but they aren’t beating each other, or us, over the head with it. These are also characters that Parker is comfortable making real through their interests (Doctor Who!) and regular need of caffeination.

As to the tropes, Parker is giving us a modern take on the “marriage of convenience”. Following a breakup with her onstage boyfriend, rising star and current darling of London’s West End, Elaine “Lainie” Graham has pretty much sworn off men for now. So, she is less than enthused when the theatre management and publicists call her into a meeting with her other cast mate, Richard Troy, and announce the plan for these two to have a fake relationship in order to give Richard a serious image makeover. You see, after a few too many negative stories, Richard’s publicity team and the theatre’s manager feel that the audiences and media might look more kindly upon him if they believed he was in love with Lainie. Lainie reluctantly agrees as added publicity will only help her career (she hopes), but mostly because she’s strong armed the management into making a very generous donation to her favorite charity. With this basic set up Parker gave herself the underlying structure to have these two characters interact authentically, which is only for the good.

The other trope that Parker is working with is the relatively recently renamed Alphahole trope. Ilona Andrews just released a great article on the subject (h/t Malin) which I suggest you read posthaste if you haven’t yet, but let’s look at how Richard is nearly the epitome of the Alphahole:

  • Richard is independently wealthy and became an actor mainly to piss off his father. Any personal motivations that are almost entirely to piss someone else off? Alphahole territory.
  • There is no denying his great talent, by anyone, throughout the book. They all sing his praises, and the one time Lainie gives him a bad time about a bad performance, she’s really digging into what happened because a poor performance (while still award nominated) is so out of character for him that it must be addressed. There’s the alpha portion taken care of.
  • He’s also condescending, superior snob. (see also: Asshole.)
  • He has a well-publicized temper and while many of the stories in the press have been exaggerated, he’s really not a very pleasant man. Lainie comments on it, and while he warms up to her, she (and we) are very aware of his prickly personality.

As Mrs. Julien notes there are many ways to “reform an asshat, but a partner who gives as good as he/she gets is the most fun”. Yes, and Lainie is just the right character to give as good as she gets.  I will admit I didn’t necessarily see coming in the first fifth of the book.  This dynamic reminds me of the scene in the latest Downton Abbey* when Mrs. Hughes tells Mr. Carson that it makes all the difference that he is her curmudgeon. This is the dynamic that builds between Lainie and Richard. Richard becomes Lainie’s asshat. (*We have already established I watch Downton.)

Detractions? There are a few. I agree with Scootsa1000 about Will (the jerk who broke up with Lainie at the beginning of the book). Yes, Richard needed an adversary (I suppose, wasn’t his personality enough of a foil?), but Will was just too dogged in his pursuit of someone he basically threw away mere weeks before for me to feel comfortable buying into his character motivation, beyond dick. Also, and this is super nitpicky, the stakes get SUPER high right near the end, and they probably didn’t need to in both ways they do. Also, each chapter begins with a celebrity news agency tweet which will likely become dated soon. But I don’t really care, you should read this book if you are in the mood for this kind of fluff.

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

The Map (CBR8 #9)

Last year I was delighted with Jackaby by William Ritter. It had just the right mix of historical fiction, fantasy, and whodunit to be right up my alley. It’s got a bit of Sherlock mixed with a little Doctor Eleven for a male protagonist and a female protagonist who is smart, wily, and sarcastic in equal measure – and a great example of female agency in print. I immediately added the second book, Beastly Bones, on my to read list for 2016 as well as this fun little novella The Map.

The action of The Map is centered on one day – Abigail Rook’s birthday. She dares to hope that her employer Jackaby, detective of the supernatural, won’t make a fuss. She is let down. The pair are off for parts unknown using magical party crackers to teleport in time and space (I told you, a smidge timey wimey) using a cryptic map that may lead to a forgotten treasure.  Jackaby is going to give Abigail the present of adventure, just as soon as she comes around to it.

In some ways this short story felt much more akin to a television script than it did a novella, and that isn’t really a detraction. You probably need to have read the first book in order to appreciate this one, for while certain characters don’t appear on page, they are referenced. The same goes for some of the action. This one also doesn’t give us any new character development, and may not be the best place to meet these characters as this is VERY plot driven, but if you are already into the world of Jackaby it is currently FREE on both Amazon and Barnes and Noble for download.

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

Nimona (CBR7 #98)

I really WANTED to fall in love with Nimona. It seemed like such an obvious pairing: Nimona the impulsive young shapeshifter with a knack for villainy and Lord Ballister Blackheart, a villain with a vendetta. These two setting off to prove the heroes aren’t always heroic? Done. But… I only liked this one and caught myself more than once skipping ahead to “get on with the story”. What were my problems?

Inconsistent backstory and inconsistent characterizations.

From the beginning we learn that while students at the institute, Ballister and his now nemesis Goldenloin jousts. Ballister knocks Goldenloin off his horse, and then Goldenloin uses his modified lance to shoot Ballister, taking his arm off. This sets up their being on opposite sides of any and all battles, as per the Institute, with Goldenloin and his good looks taking the role of “hero” and mutilated Ballister taking on the role of “villain”. Moving forward Ballister is onto the machinations of the Institute. Sometimes he’s out to get them, sometimes he’s trying to expose them, sometimes he hates Goldenloin, and sometimes he is in league with him. There was a vibe that Stevenson was going for; I’m just not sure she hit it all the time.

Also… Nimona’s backstory. It just… didn’t come together for me.

What works? The way Stevenson wrapped up her story in this world, the world itself which has magic and science coexisting beautifully, and the art itself. All of these things were great. I just wish that the story as a whole worked better for me, but I’m in the minority.

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

How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky (CBR6 #35)

I was granted an ARC of this book via NetGalley in return for a fair and honest review. This book is currently available at your local bookseller.

It took me a long time to get through How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky. Way too long. My ARC copy actually expired before I was able to finish. I never really sunk into this novel. I like it, but I don’t love it. There were just too many things which didn’t align for me to fall in love, like I fell in love with Shine Shine Shine. Let’s see if I can’t figure out why.

As I progressed through the novel I used the status updates on Goodreads to keep track of what I was feeling as I went. About 70 pages in the group of characters finally started to come together and stopped being disparate things. My thought at the time: “I’m wondering how Netzer will bring all the pieces together.” And the problem was that the way they were brought together wasn’t captivating. Ms. Netzer’s approach to novels is to take a familiar trope (boy meets girl) and inject it with a smidge of the fantastical (a turf war between astronomy and astrology and parents engineering soul mates). But the pieces never truly reconciled.

That didn’t stop me from appreciating the characters. By the time I reach page 263 my notes tell me: “now I’m loving these characters and angry at the wasted 50 pages”. The wasted 50 pages I’m think I’m referring to are pages 15-65 or so. In those pages our two protagonists, George and Irene have yet to meet. They are each living independent lives, but most importantly they are living with great big crazy circumstances. And it felt at the time like the novel did just spinning its wheels, attempting to set up the not-real Toledo of the title and the characters inhabit it instead of just progressing with the story. At times throughout the book the reading felt like walking through wet cement. There were demi gods, lucid dreams, crystal balls and black holes. At a certain point it just got to be too much, and robbed the narrative of necessary time.

I had concerns on page 308 (about 90% through the book): “I’m now worried about Netzer landing this one… it’s in too many different types…” This book is many types of books tightly wrapped in less than 350 pages. Each of the genres gets shortchanged. And it’s a shame, because this book could have been 4 or 5 stars. It’s got the bones of one of the most original stories I have read in quite some time. Since the love that George and Irene share was designed and engineered by their mothers even before they were born, as the story unfolds philosophical questions come up. Such as, is it possible to influence people’s actions before they even take them by putting certain things in place before hand? In the case of George and Irene their mothers seem to have taken great pains to encourage them to like the same things, do the same activities all while ensuring they grow up apart, while at the same time hoping that one day they meet and fall in love. This is certainly the basis for a very interesting book, but somehow it How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky just never lived up to its potential.

But that isn’t to say that Lydia Netzer’s writing style is anything less than beautiful. For example:

“It’s more like every electron in every atom in the universe paused, breathed in deeply, assessed the situation, and then reversed its course, spinning backward, or the other way, which was the right way all along. And afterward, the universe was exactly the same, but infinitely more right.”

Ms. Netzer has also shared with us one of the best quotes I have ever read about the writing and revising process. Her friend Susannah Breslin told her (and Ms. Netzer shared with us in her Author’s note) “If one of your kids had pooped all over the floor, would you stand there complaining about it? No, you would roll up your sleeves and clean it up. So clean it up.” I wish that in cleaning up the drafts of this novel that it had been fleshed out more and that Netzer had chosen a different/better wrap up for George and the demi-gods. And that secondary characters hadn’t fallen off the page in the final 100 pages. I so wanted it to be a 4 or 5 star novel.

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

The Rosie Project (CBR6 #25)

The problem with reading books quickly is that I am often left with little to say when review time comes around, because I haven’t spent days or in the cases of some books – weeks, thinking about my feelings and reactions to the work. Instead, I’m going to make arguments against the detractions I’ve read about The Rosie Project which will hopefully help illuminate for you why it is a four star book for me.

As this book is pretty well reviewed  If you’re not familiar with the basic plot, here’s the two sentence summary: Thirty-nine year old Australian geneticist Don Tillman, and likely someone who would’ve been diagnosed with Asperger’s if he was coming of age now, decides to attack the problem of finding a life partner in the same manner he would attack solving a science problem. Until a completely incompatible but irresistible woman enters his life with a problem.

It doesn’t necessarily sound like it should be the kind of book to pull you in for marathon reading sessions, but it absolutely is, and that all lines up with wanting to spend time with the protagonist. I’m on the record as saying that not all well written characters are also good protagonists, but in this case I found Don Tillman to be both a well written and good protagonist. I was interested in seeing the world through Don’s eyes, learning about how he coped with the world around him, and hearing him explain his motivations for deviating from his normal schedule, which was at the very core of how he coped with the world around him.

And Rosie ain’t half bad herself.

Some of the detractions I’ve seen in other reviews of this book (not here at CBR HQ) is that the book was written “quickly” and that Mr. Simsion chose to make it a comedy. First, the “quickly” problem: in his acknowledgements Mr. Simsion refers to having written what became The Rosie Project fairly quickly, but notes that it was still 6-7 years from beginning to publication. This is not actually quick. And the basic idea coming together quickly versus the work it takes to get the idea into both a workable novel and in the case of The Rosie Project a screenplay are highly different things. The second issue people have mentioned is wishing that Mr. Simsion chose to make this novel a comedy, and horror of all horrors, something that might be considered a romantic comedy. How dare he! How dare he choose to write something that is genuine and heartfelt and a statement and also funny! We should hang him from the rafters for that!

But to be perfectly serious for just a second this was, to me, a stroke of absolute genius. In the character of Don Tillman we have someone who knows that the way he processes the world around him is different and this difference often causes those around him, the normal folk, to find humor in his actions. So, as the coping mechanism of a highly intelligent person Don latches onto this and in his teens decides to act the clown, to choose the action most likely to cause a laugh, so that the laughter he is causing is his choice. By having the protagonist make this choice, and still be humorous to the reader outside of this coping mechanism ,Mr. Simsion has crafted a piece of work that is both accessible to the reader and makes a statement about what we ask others to do by assuming that we’re the norm. Mr. Simsion didn’t have to write a “serious” book to make this serious point.

All that said to say – read this book. It’s a lovely, funny, thoughtful look at what love is and what love does from an angle you may not have previously looked at it from

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

The Night Circus (CBR6 #22)

Thank goodness for the Cannonball Book Exchange! I received this wondrous book from the lovely Allibaba77 who not only sent me books, but chocolate as well.

This book has been on my radar for years. I added it to my To-Read list way back in the spring of 2012. I kept looking for it at my library, but the wait list was simply insane. At my library if there is a wait list you can be assured the book is worth your time, and my oh my, is this book worth your time. It is simply a stunning work. Layers of time, narrative, perspectives, magic, love… It’s all here.

The basic plot is rather unassuming, given what the reader will uncover as they go. There are two magicians who have been competing with each other for longer than either care to remember. They do not compete head to head; instead they train young magicians to compete against each other. The young magicians are bound to the competition, and unbeknownst to them, only one can survive. The Night Circus chronicles the competition between Celia and Marco as they create an ever more elaborate and intricate circus, Le Cirque des Rêves.

The finest, most lovely part of this novel is the characters. They are simply a fascinating lot to spend time with and the structure of the book, moving between groups of characters all while building a world where magic is both possible and historic. And the magic is handled so deftly that as a reader I was swept up in it, I was told enough that it all felt plausible, but not so much as to limit my own imagination. This novel is also littered with some of the most sumptuous but simultaneously accessible language I have read in some time.  This book is simply stunning.

And with all that said, what really won me over and kept me up at night reading, was the layering of the story. In much of the beginning third of the book the action takes place in linear fashion, bringing the reader through the early training of Celia and Marco and the eventual creation of Le Cirque des Rêves. After these basic plot points are established, Ms. Morgenstern begins to play with both the timeline, moving fluidly from 1902 to 1896 and everywhere in between, and layers in additional characters that initially seem destined to remain on the periphery, become integral to the story of Celia and Marco’s competition, but also their love. But even in the early stages of the book there are interspersed descriptions of the various attributes of the circus itself – its color scheme, its acts – and the observations of one of my favorite characters, Herr Thiessen. By providing access points to the overall narrative from so many different vantage points Ms. Morgenstern created a novel that almost anyone can fall in love with it. Which seems to have worked well as it is a New York Times Bestseller.

If you have not read this book yet I say run to your nearest book peddler and read, read, read!

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

Burial Rites (CBR6 #18)

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I have had a bit of luck with first time authors of late, and Hannah Kent is no exception. Her debut work, Burial Rites, is a gripping novel- all mood and emotion. It’s a story gaining speed like a stone rolling downhill, for there is only one way to go.

Ms. Kent writes in Burial Rites about the last instance of capital punishment in Iceland. Its 1829, moving quickly into 1830, and everyone is waiting for word from Denmark allowing the beheading of Agnes Magnusdottir for her role in the murder of two men, one of whom was her employer. This is not a spoiler, as the entire book is built around Agnes’ death sentence, and her life between her trial and her execution. But I don’t really want to talk about plot in this review; I want to talk about language and intent.

In her Acknowledgements Ms. Kent describes this work as her “dark love letter to Iceland”. She became acquainted with the story of Agnes Magnusdottir on a Rotary exchange trip to Iceland from her home in Australia, and researched the murders at Illugastadir to a magnificent depth, mining archival sources and academic writings to deliver a story based on the historical record. In fact, each chapter of Burial Rites begins with a primary source related to Agnes’ case, in a similar way to how Lyndsay Faye begins each of her Timothy Wilde books. What the reader receives is a story that is based in fact and embellished with fictional likelihoods which delivers, as Ms. Kent intends, a more ambiguous portrayal of Agnes and the people who interacted with her in the last few months of her life. The reader also discovers what life in northern Iceland was like nearly two hundred years ago through Ms. Kent’s evocative use of language.

The language is the star of the show in Burial Rites. While one of my very few complaints about the book is that sometimes the characters’ voices blended together Ms. Kent’s word choice and craftsmanship are simply stunning. The bleak landscape, the harsh weather are felt in each sparse and multifaceted sentence. “Up in the highlands blizzards howl like the widows of fishermen and the wind blisters the skin off your face. Winter comes like a punch in the dark. The uninhabited places are as cruel as any executioner.” But it isn’t just Iceland that we come to know through Ms. Kent’s language, it’s her characters. And none so intimately as Agnes. Through her conversation with her young priest Toti and the farmer’s wife Margret, Agnes’ life and crimes are seen in the light. But Agnes is no ordinary woman of her class, she found herself in learning and is therefore a well-spoken and well-read reporter of her life. She is also highly aware of her future, and what now lies ahead of her, and her voice is the clearest, and the most haunting. In reflecting on what good Toti may be able to do for her, Agnes has this to say, “though prayer could simply pluck sin out. But any woman knows that a thread, once woven, is fixed in place; the only way to smooth a mistake is to let it all unravel.”

It is hard to believe that Ms. Kent is only 28 and this is her first novel. I am excited to see what else this author might bring to us moving forward.

“To know what a person has done, and to know who a person is, are very different things.”

While I can’t seem to pinpoint where I heard about Burial Rites based on when I added it to my to-read list other reviews of Burial Rites include ElCicco’s from CBR6 and Miss Kate’s from CBR5.

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