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.