Wednesday, December 18, 2013

It's Shawl Weather Inside the Library

I spent a semester in college living in Bath, England. When spring break came around, my family visited and we spent the time driving around England and Wales. My mother had an itinerary a mile long and included innumerable historic sites--among them Haworth, home of the Brontës. This was before I spent hundreds of hours thinking about Emily Brontë's poetry for my senior thesis, but I was still very excited to visit the parsonage and walk on the moors where they lived.

While we were there, we also visited a mill where we bought some lovely yarn, which my mother subsequently crafted into the "Charlotte Brontë shawl" (not, as I understand it, something she actually wore but something she might have worn) pictured above. I use it at work when it's particularly cold in the library, and it feels like mom is giving me a nice warm hug.

Thanks, mom. You were so good to me.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Reading Roulette: Eighth Pick

I read a bunch of books last month that were connected to this project when I was working my way through National Book Reading Month. The way things are going, though, this may be the last pick of the year!

The Laughter of Dead Kings, Elizabeth Peters (2008)

Who stole the mummy of King Tut? The brazen crime bears the earmarks of one Sir John Smythe, the international art thief. In fact, John Tregarth is the longtime significant other of Vicky Bliss. Innocent, he vows to clear his name by hunting down the true criminal.

Vicky loses faith. But her boss, Munich Museum director Anton Z. Schmidt, "the finest swordsman in Europe," pays their luxurious way from London to Munich then Cairo, also to defend his own reputation. Once Schmidt deflects his new paramour Suzi, who only wants his body to spy on John, the entourage swells with the Egyptian officials responsible, cousins - wealthy Ashraf and poorer Feisel - plus mummy-expert mistress Saida.

The Arab security guard, then a female middleman, both turn up dead. Dead hands, from her and from Tut, separately accompany notes, his is a ransom demand for millions. Kidnappers, murderers, and danger dog their way.

This is the sixth (and final, presumably) book in the Vicky Bliss series, which was one that my mother and I read with the same enthusiasm. When this book came out a few years after my mom's death, I immediately purchased it, thinking of her. Since then I've found myself unable to sit down and read it, knowing that I can't really share it with her. But I think that maybe it's been long enough. Maybe I can read it for both of us. RIP Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Mertz.

The Last Policeman, Benjamin Winters (2012)

What’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die soon, anyway? Detective Hank Palace has faced this question ever since asteroid 2011GV1 hovered into view. There’s no chance left. No hope. Just six precious months until impact.

The Last Policeman presents a fascinating portrait of a pre-apocalyptic United States. The economy spirals downward while crops rot in the fields. Churches and synagogues are packed. People all over the world are walking off the job—but not Hank Palace. He’s investigating a death by hanging in a city that sees a dozen suicides every week—except this one feels suspicious, and Palace is the only cop who cares.

The first in a trilogy, The Last Policeman offers a mystery set on the brink of an apocalypse. As Palace’s investigation plays out under the shadow of 2011GV1, we’re confronted by hard questions way beyond “whodunit.” What basis does civilization rest upon? What is life worth? What would any of us do, what would we really do, if our days were numbered?

I'm pretty sure I came across this as part of my collection development work, and added it to my list. That happens quite a lot.

Old Man's War, John Scalzi (2005)

John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife's grave. Then he joined the army. The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce-- and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So: we fight. To defend Earth, and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding.

Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity's resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don't want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You'll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You'll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you'll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets. John Perry is taking that deal. He has only the vaguest idea what to expect. Because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagine--and what he will become is far stranger.

I've seen Scalzi speak at two conferences now, and follow his Twitter feed and blog, but haven't managed to read any of his books yet. That changes now!

Why am I doing this?

Monday, December 2, 2013

#NaBoReMo Recap

After the first week of the National Book Reading Month challenge, I revised my reading goal from 1,500 pages to 5,000 pages. I'm sure you're all wondering if I managed to reach that goal! Here's what I read during the month:

Reading Roulette challenge books:
Persuasion, Jane Austen
For Darkness Shows the Stars, Diana Peterfreund
A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge
Renegade Magic, Stephanie Burgis
Stolen Magic, Stephanie Burgis
The Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Orczy

Read for fun:
Cursties & Conspiracies, Gail Carriger (ARC)
Like Jazz, Heather Blackmore (e-ARC)
Love Overdue, Pamela Morsi
The Way of Kings, Brandon Sanderson (audiobook)
Oath of Honor, Radclyffe (ebook)
Finding Home, Georgia Beers
A Rogue by Any Other Name, Sarah MacLean
The Luckiest Lady in London, Sherry Thomas

Still in progress as of 12/1/13:
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (audiobook)
I am Malala, Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb (audiobook)
Across A Star-Swept Sea, Diana Peterfreund

As you can see, many of the books I read were not from my other reading challenge. I decided that in order to read 5,000 pages in thirty days, I was going to allow myself to read whatever I wanted. Unsurprisingly, it turned out that I wanted to read romance novels. This list doesn't include the array of fanfiction I read in November.

The average number of pages for the fourteen books I completed was 346 (thanks, Brandon Sanderson!). In the case of the unfinished audiobooks, I used paper copies to determine what page I had gotten to. After all this, the total number of pages was:

(drum roll)

(still rolling)

(drummer rolling eyes at me)


Deploy the self-cleaning confetti!

Friday, November 8, 2013

My NaBoReMo Update

This morning I figured out how many pages I've read since the beginning of the month for National Novel/Book Reading Month, and came up with 1,590. Given that my goal was to read 1,500 pages, I felt gratified, yet embarrassed. Apparently, I have no idea how fast I read--I don't think I've shifted my reading habits dramatically just to read more during the month of November. I am conscious of choosing reading here and there over paying full attention to the television, but still.

The books I've completed are:

Curtsies & Conspiracies, Gail Carriger (paper ARC)
Like Jazz, Heather Blackmore (e-ARC)
Persuasion, Jane Austen (as part of my other reading challenge)
Love Overdue, Pamela Morsi

I have been slowly working my way through the 36 audio CDs of Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings for the last several weeks, and I'm currently about halfway through Diana Peterfreund's For Darkness Shows the Stars. I haven't made a huge amount of progress, page-wise, with my audiobook since the beginning of the Month--less than two hundred pages. I'm going to need a long trip, or to sit down with the paper copy (which I also have) to finish that behemoth.

So here we are on November 8th, and I've already read past my goal number of pages. I think this calls for a more ambitious goal, so I'm going to revise it to 5,000 pages. Because I can.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Reading Challenge: NaNoReMo (aka NaBoReMo)

Yesterday, LibraryReads suggested that those of us not currently writing like fiends celebrate the month of November by "reading furiously"--or, for those of us who are already doing that in pursuit of weird challenges, reading EVEN MORE FURIOUSLY.

My friend Jenna (@auntie_jenn) and I have already taken to Twitter with our pledges to read at least 1500 pages this month, which seems pretty doable after I spent between 1:00 and 3:30 this morning reading a romance novel on my ipod. I'm going to track and share my page totals every day, using the hashtag #nanoremo (National Novel Reading Month)--several people pointed out the "bore" in the middle of #naboremo, and my reading is anything but boring.*

Here is my hastily assembled FAQ:

Only novels? That doesn't seem fair.
I suggest you read whatever the heck you want. I'm not going to count the picture books I read to my son because I am lazy, but if I were reading them to myself I sure would.

I only do audiobooks!
I suppose you could pledge to listen to a certain number of CDs, but you could also check the page count of the print version and use that number. If you're listening to an abridged version, give it your best guess. If you don't get all the way through your audiobook by the end of the month, do the same.

What about ebooks? The pagination is different.
I decided this morning at 3:30 that I would use the pages listed for the print edition. If I fail to get all the way through an ebook in November, I'm going to estimate the percentage and make a rough calculation.

What about magazines?
Whatever floats your boat.

Your record-keeping seems rather lax.
Those NaNoWriMo people are very in to their word counts, aren't they? But we, the supportive readers, should feel free to round up. Reading is reading.

As a former NaNoWriMo participant, I also want all current participants to know that I support them! I am looking forward to reading their efforts during future NaNoReMos. In the meantime, I will continue to work on my novels at a rate of one sentence per fortnight.

*Oh, fine, I'll bow to my friends at LibraryReads and use #NaBoReMo, since it's their baby. :)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Meditation on the Choice Not to Read

Yesterday on Tumblr I shared this image:
This :D
(via piratespook) adding the comment "or for not reading!" It seemed sensible to me, from my perspective as a public librarian, that not everyone wants to read. I got some pushback for this position, including a response that said if a person is proud of not reading, if they actively denigrate it, then "F them."

I find it hard to imagine myself being in a situation where someone I'm interacting with is trumpeting their hatred of reading. However, let me stretch my imagination a bit. I'm going to confine my scenario to the adult patrons I help at my job. If I had a patron who volunteered how much he or she hated reading, I would not tell them to fuck off. I would assume that they have good reasons to feel that way, most likely because people in positions of authority like mine have been telling them for most of their lives that they need to read or have to read or that they should be reading something "good" for them.

Some people have learning disabilities that makes it very difficult for them to read. Some people have been systematically taught that reading is a chore that must be completed. Some people just don't like reading AND THAT IS OKAY. I have many, many adult patrons who do not use the library for books. But if I wanted information about the interesting movies that are going to be coming out soon, I know just who I would ask. If I wanted to know one patron's opinion of the best one-hit wonders of the 60s and 70s, he would tell me in a heartbeat. I may read more than 100 books a year, but they know a hell of a lot more than I do about the media they consume.

Modern libraries are about more than books,* they are about providing access to stories--both the stories people want or need to consume, and those they create using the tools we provide them (with their tax dollars). If we limit ourselves to a rigid definition of "read or get the fuck out," we are doing ourselves, and our patrons, a great disservice. Let's not presume to judge any other person's reading, watching, listening, or internet browsing choices.**

The only choices that I am qualified to judge are my own.

There is nothing shameful about choosing not to read.

Meditation Index

*Note: I am not saying that libraries don't need books.
**And while we're at it, let's dispense with the concept of "guilty pleasures"--everyone is entitled to like what they like.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Book Review: The Dark Garden [2007]

A cover of the re-released The Dark Garden promises "If you loved Fifty Shades of Grey, then you'll love this." While this may be true, it won't be because they are similar books. Eden Bradley's 2007 book is yet another caught up in the rebranding craze inspired by 50 Shades. However, it is true that 10% of the sources I consulted for this project considered The Dark Garden a good fit--both male protagonists are named Christian, after all...

Rowan Cassidy is a Mistress at an exclusive BDSM club in Los Angeles. After an abusive experience as a submissive during her college years, Rowan is determined never to let anything out of her control again--yet she's been secretly writing about submissive experiences. When dominant newcomer Christian Thorne catches her eye, she's ready for a change. Christian sees a deep need in Rowan that he wants to explore in a safe space, and he proposes an agreement wherein they will delve into her submissive side over a thirty-day period. Despite her misgivings, Rowan accepts the challenge.

As he patiently guides Rowan toward self-discovery, both Christian and Rowan struggle to avoid developing deeper feelings that might complicate their therapeutic relationship. Christian doesn't want to take advantage of Rowan when they've agreed not to have sex; Rowan keeps getting close to understanding more about herself, but her automatic response is to run. The subplot, which is more overtly concerned with BDSM and is actually rather sweet, involves April--new to the scene--and Decker, who is notorious for his unwillingness to settle with one partner. Their romance provides some much-needed relief from the emotion and angst of Christian and Rowan.

Grade: B-

Despite the fact that the male lead is named Christian and the story explores some aspects of BDSM, The Dark Garden is not much like Fifty Shades of Grey. Rowan's strength and experience masks her uncertainty, and Christian doesn't demonstrate a need to be dominant in all aspects of her life. The thirty-day bet is similar to the conceit of Beautiful Disaster, however, as is the characters' determination not to get together when they clearly want to be together romantically. There are some "posh" elements--Christian and Rowan aren't hurting for money--but there isn't a lot of label name-dropping. In terms of "bondage as a road to healing," I found it similar to (although not as explicit) another book I read for this project, Joey W. Hill's Holding the Cards.

The Dark Garden was a bit of a struggle for me to finish. I got it as a library ebook, though, and had to finish it within fourteen days before it disappeared. I'm not sure I would have made it through if not for April and Decker.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Reading Roulette: Seventh Pick

I feel like I am making some progress! It's probably an illusion, I realize.

The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch (2006)

The Thorn of Camorr is said to be an unbeatable swordsman, a master thief, a ghost that walks through walls. Half the city believes him to be a legendary champion of the poor. The other half believe him to be a foolish myth. Nobody has it quite right. Slightly built, unlucky in love, and barely competent with a sword, Locke Lamora is, much to his annoyance, the fabled Thorn. He certainly didn't invite the rumors that swirl around his exploits, which are actually confidence games of the most intricate sort. And while Locke does indeed steal from the rich (who else, pray tell, would be worth stealing from?), the poor never see a penny of it. All of Locke's gains are strictly for himself and his tight-knit band of thieves, the Gentlemen Bastards.

Locke and company are con artists in an age where con artistry, as we understand it, is a new and unknown style of crime. The less attention anyone pays to them, the better! But a deadly mystery has begun to haunt the ancient city of Camorr, and a clandestine war is threatening to tear the city's underworld, the only home the Gentlemen Bastards have ever known, to bloody shreds. Caught up in a murderous game, Locke and his friends will find both their loyalty and their ingenuity tested to the breaking point as they struggle to stay alive...

First in a series that has been recommended in several locations. The audiobook is on its way to me right now, thanks to the magic of interlibrary loan.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon (2000)

Joe Kavalier, a young Jewish artist who has also been trained in the art of Houdini-esque escape, has just smuggled himself out of Nazi-invaded Prague and landed in New York City. His Brooklyn cousin Sammy Clay is looking for a partner to create heroes, stories, and art for the latest novelty to hit America - the comic book. Drawing on their own fears and dreams, Kavalier and Clay create the Escapist, the Monitor, and Luna Moth, inspired by the beautiful Rosa Saks, who will become linked by powerful ties to both men. With exhilarating style and grace, Michael Chabon tells an unforgettable story about American romance and possibility.

Various people have recommended this to me, and now I'll finally get around to reading it.

For Darkness Shows the Stars, Diana Peterfreund (2012) 

It's been several generations since a genetic experiment gone wrong caused the Reduction, decimating humanity and giving rise to a Luddite nobility who outlawed most technology. Elliot North has always known her place in this world. Four years ago Elliot refused to run away with her childhood sweetheart, the servant Kai, choosing duty to her family's estate over love. Since then the world has changed: a new class of Post-Reductionists is jumpstarting the wheel of progress, and Elliot's estate is foundering, forcing her to rent land to the mysterious Cloud Fleet, a group of shipbuilders that includes renowned explorer Captain Malakai Wentforth--an almost unrecognizable Kai. And while Elliot wonders if this could be their second chance, Kai seems determined to show Elliot exactly what she gave up when she let him go.

But Elliot soon discovers her old friend carries a secret--one that could change their society . . . or bring it to its knees. And again, she's faced with a choice: cling to what she's been raised to believe, or cast her lot with the only boy she's ever loved, even if she's lost him forever. Inspired by Jane Austen's Persuasion, For Darkness Shows the Stars is a breathtaking romance about opening your mind to the future and your heart to the one person you know can break it.

I pre-ordered a copy of this from my local bookstore when it came out, and it's been waiting patiently on my shelf ever since. I may also have to throw in a re-read of Persuasion as well.

Why am I doing this?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Reading Roulette: Sixth Pick

I have been sidetracking myself with this project by reading entire series when one book was recommended (more on that in another post), but that didn't stop me from finishing everything from my last pick and spinning the wheel again!

A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge (1993)

Thousands of years hence, many races inhabit a universe where a mind's potential is determined by its location in space, from superintelligent entities in the Transcend, to the limited minds of the Unthinking Depths, where only simple creatures and technology can function. Nobody knows what strange force partitioned space into these "regions of thought," but when the warring Straumli realm use an ancient Transcendent artifact as a weapon, they unwittingly unleash an awesome power that destroys thousands of worlds and enslaves all natural and artificial intelligence.

Fleeing the threat, a family of scientists, including two children, are taken captive by the Tines, an alien race with a harsh medieval culture, and used as pawns in a ruthless power struggle. A rescue mission, not entirely composed of humans, must rescue the children-and a secret that may save the rest of interstellar civilization.

Classic science fiction, here I come!

Hark! A Vagrant, Kate Beaton (2011)

Hark! A Vagrant is an uproarious romp through history and literature seen through the sharp, contemporary lens of New Yorker cartoonist and comics-sensation Kate Beaton. No era or tome emerges unscathed as Beaton rightly skewers the Western world's revolutionaries, leaders, sycophants, and suffragists while equally honing her wit on the hapless heroes, heroines, and villains of the best-loved fiction.

I had gotten this before and somehow never got around to reading it (although I've read individual strips online). I put it on my list to remind me to give myself a treat.

The Cardinal's Blades, Pierre Pevel (2007/2009) 

Welcome to seventeenth-century Paris, where intrigue, duels, and spies are rife and Cardinal Richelieu's agents may be prevailed upon to risk life and limb in the name of France at a moment's notice. And with war on the horizon, the defense of the nation has never been more pressing.

Danger is rising from the south—an insidious plot that could end with a huge dragon-shaped shadow falling over France, a shadow cast by dragons quite unlike the pet dragonets that roam the cities like stray cats, or the tame wyverns men ride like horses, high over the Parisian rooftops. These dragons and their descendants are ancient, terrible, and powerful ... and their plans contain little room for the lives or freedom of puny humans.

Cardinal Richelieu has nowhere else to turn; Captain La Fargue and his elite group of agents, the Cardinal's Blades, must turn the tide. They must hold the deadly Black Claw cult at bay, root out traitors to the crown, rescue prisoners, and fulfill their mission for the Cardinal, for their country, but above all for themselves.

It's death or victory. And the victory has never been less certain. (Translated from French by Tom Clegg.)

This one can be attributed to my childhood obsession with The Three Musketeers.

Why am I doing this?

Monday, August 26, 2013

Book Review: The Siren [2012]

Author Tiffany Reisz subscribes to "the erotica writer's creed: It's not erotica until someone gets hurt." While I disagree with her blanket generalization, she definitely put her principles into action in The Siren, the first book of her Original Sinners series. The book was recommended by six of the fifty sources I consulted as a Fifty Shades of Grey readalike, and in this case I ended up disagreeing. Mild spoilers follow.

Nora Sutherlin is a popular erotica author and professional dominatrix trying to break into the literary fiction market. Zachary Easton is an exacting editor who has left a fraught marriage behind in the UK to work at a publishing house in New York City. When Zach is assigned Nora's new book, he first refuses on the grounds that she's a trashy writer, then grudgingly accepts after meeting her in person. Nora lives with her teenage (but legal!) assistant Wesley, a virgin who is in love with and very supportive of Nora but doesn't approve of her continued ties to the world of BDSM and her former master Søren.

Nora still makes a significant amount of money from her A-list customers, a fact she continues to hide from Zach even as they grow more intimate. She wants to establish herself as a legitimate author so she can get out of the game, but there are still many things tying her to that community. Foremost among them is her complicated past with Søren, which she is mining for the new book. Along for the ride and attracted despite himself, Zach gets an education in the darker aspects of sexuality. While Zach struggles with his attraction to Nora and his lingering feelings for his wife, Nora tries to balance her feelings for Wes, Zach, and Søren, as well as finish her book by the deadline.

Grade: C

One of the reasons that The Siren is not a good readalike for Fifty Shades of Grey is because of the proliferation of love interests--Nora and Zach do spend some time paired together, but their relationship does not end in the happily ever after that I believe a 50 Shades fan would expect. A repeated theme in the book is that of lovers who are meant for each other but incompatible in some fundamental way and can't truly be together. The series continues through quite a few books, venturing off in different directions and focusing on previously minor characters in a way that does not suggest straightforward romance along the lines of what a typical 50 Shades fan would want. The narration is also not first-person, and shifts between Zach's perspective and Nora's.

Nora is a far cry from the virginal and innocent Anastasia Steele. In addition, the dominant male character in The Siren--Søren--is mostly a sinister offstage presence, and it is Nora that takes center stage. With all of Nora's manic, seductive, tormented, clever aspects (she is very clearly the titular "siren"), Reisz offers a more deeply realized female character than is often found in typical erotic romances. However, the characterization is such that it's hard not to wonder if Nora represents a rather extreme version of the author herself.

I don't think I'll be reading any farther, but I might recommend The Siren to a patron who is looking for erotic romance of a different flavor, especially one featuring a more experienced female lead. With a warning about the seduction of minors and the relatively heavy BDSM elements that Reisz explores.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Reading Roulette: Fifth Pick

I am starting to pick up the pace on this project, especially now that I'm not reading quite so many erotic romances for my other project. Having a week-long vacation didn't hurt, either. However, no matter how many books I read, I seem to add three to take their place. When this project started, my TBR list was at 355 books. It is now at a hopeless 459, despite my earnest attempts to reduce it. I've created a Book Hydra.

My next three picks are:

Noble Falling, Sara Gaines

Duchess Aleana Melora of Eniva, future queen of Halvaria, is resigned to the gilded cage of her life, facing a loveless marriage to Tallak, the prospective king, and struggling under the pressure to carry on the family name despite her wish to find a woman to love.

When her convoy is attacked on the journey to Tallak's palace, Aleana is saved by her guard, Ori, only to discover her people have turned against her and joined forces with the kingdom of Dakmor, Halvaria's greatest enemy. Her only hope is to reach Tallak, but she and Ori don’t make it far before another attack and an unlikely rescue by Kahira, a Dakmoran woman banished from her kingdom for reasons she is hesitant to share.

Though Kahira is marked as a criminal, Aleana’s heart makes itself known. Aleana is facing danger and betrayal at every turn, and she fears giving in to her desires will mean she will enter her marriage knowing exactly the kind of passion she will never have as the Halvarian Queen—if she survives long enough to be crowned.

I'm pretty sure this ended up on my list because of Danika's Lesbrary review. It wasn't available through any of my usual library sources, so I spent the $6.99 on the ebook, buying it directly from the publisher, who has it listed as a YA book.

A Broken Vessel, Kate Ross

No detection team was ever more mismatched: Julian Kestrel, the debonair and elegant Regency dandy, and Sally Stokes, a bold and bewitching Cockney prostitute and thief. But one night Fate throws them together, giving them the only clue that can unmask a diabolical killer. It all starts in London's notorious Haymarket district, where Sally picks up three men one after the other and nicknames them Bristles, Blue Eyes, and Blinkers. From each of them Sally steals a handkerchief - and from one she mistakenly steals a letter that contains an urgent appeal for help as well. But which man did she get the letter from? Who is the distraught young woman who wrote it? And where is she being held against her will? These questions take on a new urgency when Sally finds the writer of the letter - dead. Luckily, Sally's brother is none other than Dipper, reformed pickpocket and now valet to gifted amateur sleuth Julian Kestrel. The authorities dismiss the girl's death as suicide, but to Kestrel it looks more like murder. To prove it, he must track down Bristles, Blue Eyes, and Blinkers, and find out which of them had the dead girl's letter. Sally uses all her ingenuity and daring to help Kestrel solve this case. But she is out to solve another mystery as well: Is there a man of flesh and blood under Kestrel's impeccable clothes?

This is the second in Ross's series, added to my TBR this year after I finished Cut to the Quick for this project on the recommendation of my friend Margaret. The wonder of random selection!

Revealed, Kate Noble

Phillippa Benning is the unrivaled beauty of the Season. But when another lady challenges her for a marquis's attentions, Phillippa entices him to a secret rendezvous - only to stumble upon The Blue Raven, England's most famous spy, lurking at the site of her planned tryst.

The Blue Raven has uncovered an enemy plot directed at upcoming society functions, but he's unable to infiltrate London society. Phillippa makes an offer: in exchange for entrée among the ton, he agrees to have his true identity revealed at the Benning Ball - guaranteeing her unrivaled notoriety. As the danger draws closer, the mysterious spy and Phillippa give in to mutual desire. But when the game turns deadly, betrayal waits around the corner, and Phillippa must decide once and for all - is it the myth that captured her heart, or the man?

The random pick was actually the third book in this series, Follow My Lead, but I loathe reading series out of order, so I am going to read the first book instead. No doubt this attitude is part of the reason my TBR list keeps ballooning. I think this might be Margaret's recommendation as well. There is only one paper copy in my library system, but it's also available in ebook format--score!

Why am I doing this?

Monday, July 22, 2013

Book Reviews: Series Books and Readalikes

Consider this a corollary to my general series on 50 Shades readalikes, as most of these books were read in the course of that project. Some spoilers below.

Entwined with You, Sylvia Day (2013)

This book is the third (but NOT LAST) in the Crossfire series. As I got farther and farther in to the book, I kept thinking about how many loose ends Day seemed to be leaving and wondering how on earth she was going to bring them all to a satisfactory conclusion within the bounds of the supposed trilogy. It turns out she's not even going to try--the series will be a quintet. And I am fine with that! I enjoyed the book quite a lot, and still believe that Crossfire should be the first stop for most readers who are looking for 50 Shades readalikes.

Grade: A-

Entwined with You brings Eva and Gideon closer together, even as it increases the number of strains on their relationship, including but not limited to: exes, nosy detectives, tabloids, suggestive music videos, parental affairs of the heart, and of course FEELINGS.

Beautiful Stranger, Christina Lauren (2013)

This is a follow-up to Beautiful Bastard and has appearances by Bennett and Chloe, but the focus is on Chloe's friend Sara Dillon and the notorious British womanizer Max Stella, with whom she enjoys an heated (but anonymous) encounter at a club. Max is left with a sexy video of Sara dancing to obsess over, and only pure luck enables him to find out who she is and pursue her. Sara has recently left a cheating ex to start a new life in New York City, and forming an attachment to anyone, no matter how charming and sexy, is not on her agenda. For his part, Max is extremely gratified--at the beginning--to have found a woman who wants nothing more than to meet with him once a week and have sex in near-public locations. They also make a habit of recording their encounters with a camera. Although their original agreement might have been no-strings-attached, both Sara (determined not to be vulnerable) and Max (feeling like he wants to pursue a real relationship for the first time in a long time) know that there's something more between them than lust. But when some of their revealing photos are stolen and released to the tabloids, Sara must decide whether she can truly trust Max's intentions.

Grade: A-

This series totally has my number. Give me more! It's not a true readalike for 50 Shades, but it is a lot of fun and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it.

The Red Diary, Toni Blake (2004)

As you can probably tell by the cover redesign, this book was reissued in January 2013 with an eye toward the Fifty Shades of Grey market. Unfortunately, although it's a fine romance with more strongly drawn minor characters than usual, it's not a great readalike for the EL James series. The Red Diary is the story of Lauren Ash, a wealthy accountant who will someday inherit the lucrative family business. Nick is a working-class painter whose father once owned half of the Ash company. Nick blames Lauren and her family for all the pain and heartache his family has gone through since his mother's death, including his father's alcoholism and its tragic consequences. When he stumbles upon a journal of her private sexual fantasies during a job painting her house, Nick thinks he's found the perfect way to take revenge. But Nick finds that being intimate with Lauren leads to pesky FEELINGS about Lauren as well as dimming his desire for revenge. Soon he has to decide whether to come clean about violating her privacy and risk their fledgling relationship. For her part, Lauren believes that she and Nick have a spiritual connection that allows him to bring her fantasies to life, and she tries to draw him out about his life and experiences. Can she recover when it turns out that he's not really the man she thought she fell in love with?

Grade: B-

There's some wealth and there's a lot of sex, a little of it kinky, and the hero does have a tragic past, but to me it just didn't feel like a 50 Shades readalike. Perhaps because the social positions are reversed and she is the wealthy and powerful one?

The Revenge of Lord Eberlin, Julia London

This is the follow up to The Year of Living Scandalously, which so aggravated me by not resolving the mystery that it set out in its first pages. Guess what? The Revenge of Lord Eberlin doesn't solve the mystery of the missing Ashwood jewels either, although it does advance the solution somewhat. Lord Eberlin, AKA Tobin Scott, returns to Hadley Green to get revenge on Lily Boudine, who is now the Countess at Ashwood. Tobin believes that Lily, who was eight at the time of the jewels' theft, is responsible for his innocent father's death--and he's determined to take the entire Ashwood estate down with the wealth and power that he's gained as a weapons dealer. As in The Red Diary, Tobin and Lily fall in love and she must decide whether it's worth being shunned by Society to be with a man who purchased a Danish title (*gasp*). London portrays Lily as primly self-conscious of Society at some times, and blithely uncaring at others, such as when she--an unmarried woman of quality--goes to dine with Tobin alone at his house. Inconsistencies like these, in addition to all the mentions of the "mud" inside Tobin's soul, AND THE FACT THAT THE DAMN MYSTERY IS STILL UNSOLVED, left me unsatisfied.

Grade: C+

I didn't realize before I put them next to each other that The Red Diary and The Revenge of Lord Eberlin were so similar, despite their settings. WEIRD. So let's call them readalikes.

It remains to be seen whether I'll be reading the next book. Someone please read it first and tell me if the missing jewels mystery is finally solved.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Book Review: Club Shadowlands [2009]

Cherise Sinclair's Club Shadowlands is the first in her Masters of the Shadowlands series about a BDSM club. The series was mentioned in nine different online sources that I consulted for 50 Shades readalikes, putting it just out of the top ten. One commenter noted that it "seems to be the fav of the BDSM club scene books for vanilla readers." The book was not available through my library system (although some of Sinclair's books are available through public libraries such as the NYPL), so I chose to purchase an electronic copy, which I think was $3.99. The things I do for this project!

This book starts with a bang with acknowledgments and warnings, such as "Please do not try any new sexual practice, without the guidance of an experienced practitioner. Neither the publisher nor the author will be responsible for any loss, harm, injury, or death resulting from use of the information contained in this book." It continues with a plea from Sinclair to keep sex "safe, sane, and consensual." After that somewhat daunting beginning, Club Shadowlands settles down into a somewhat clichéd narrative opening: Jessica Randall has run her car off the road in a storm, and the nearest place to take refuge happens to be a mysterious private club in a mansion. Given the chance between waiting in the cold lobby in soaking wet clothes and reading and consenting to the club rules and gaining entry, she chooses the latter. Unfortunately, as she's wet and cold, she signs without really reading the document she's given. The Shadowlands owner, Master Z, takes charge, efficiently strips Jessica, and puts her in the shower to warm up and recover from the shock of her accident. He then offers her dry clothes, but no underwear.

After entering the club proper, Jessica is very surprised to find that it's "bondage night," and Zachary (Master Z) ends up taking her under his wing. We begin the second chapter from Zachary's point of view and discover that he can read people's emotions, but that seems to be the only paranormal aspect to the story, and it's something that Jessica takes in stride when she discovers it. Zachary, a child psychologist when he's not running the club, is quite taken with Jessica from the moment she arrives and decides quickly that he will take her to bed if she's amenable. However, it's not clear at the outset whether she really will be submissive. Zachary sets himself to watch and wait. He uses his powers to keep order in the club, primarily to determine if people are truly consenting participants, and he wants the same to be true of Jessica as well: "All the choices needed to be hers, right up until she handed the right to him." He can't help kissing her a few times, however.

Jessica--a conservative accountant who is always in control of herself--is in her mid-to late-twenties. She describes herself as pudgy and feels unattractive, and has the opinion that sex is pretty overrated. Once she gets over her surprise about the nature of the club, she observes and becomes intrigued by the action around her, although she has some trouble resisting championing those that she (wrongly) believes are being injured, earning a punishment per the rules she's unwittingly agreed to. As she slowly comes to understand the dynamics of a dominant/submissive relationship and faces her growing attraction to Master Z, she has to decide whether she's willing to yield to passion and risk involving her heart as well.

Grade: B

This was quite a sweet and good-natured book, given its setting. Jessica and Zachary aren't actively struggling with Shadowed Pasts, and portions of the narrative are almost humorous. The characters are engaging and interesting, and it doesn't venture into truly hardcore territory. Despite not being a virgin, Jessica's naïveté is on par with that of Ana of Fifty Shades of Grey and Regina from The Librarian, which is to say almost unbelievable. Another similarity is, of course, the happy ending--this is an erotic romance through and through. Jessica and Zachary's romance takes place over the course of two nights separated by a week, which may be par for the romance course but always makes me feel skeptical. However, I was able to put that aside and enjoy the book.

I would recommend Club Shadowlands to a patron who was genuinely curious about the dom/sub aspect of relationships that Fifty Shades of Grey only flirts with, as here it is embraced wholeheartedly.

Note: What is this thing that these authors have with heroes with long-ish hair? If I see one more description of a man with hair that the hero can tie back or that "just touches his collar" I am going to wonder if there is some sort of conspiracy. I am putting this character trait alongside my pet name irritation in the growing list of tropes for this genre. Master Z's pet name for Jessica is, appropriately, "pet." And also "little one." And "kitten." SIGH.

However, I am giving Sinclair points for having Zachary describe Jessica as smelling like "vanilla and woman"--finally some equal time after all those heroes who smell like "man."

Book Review Index

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Book Review: Matched Trilogy

Ally Condie's Matched Trilogy consists of Matched, Crossed, and Reached. It's a dystopian YA series in the vein of The Hunger Games and Uglies. I listened to the majority of the books in the car and on my ipod, but also forged ahead with the books at times when I was too impatient to wait for another car trip.
This series is a textbook case for the pitfalls and frequently shifting landscape in the relationship between ebooks and libraries. I downloaded Matched from OverDrive in Mac-compatible MP3 format on a whim (it was on my list but had not come up on my Roulette list), then went back for Crossed. It was only available as a WMA file. Reached wasn't available at all, so I had to get those books on CD. Why? The series is published by Penguin, which doesn't play with OverDrive anymore. THANKS, PENGUIN!

All right, on to the review. Spoilers ahoy.

In the world of the Society, everything is predetermined: what you eat, where you go and the activities you do, even who you are supposed to love. The Officials who run the Society do their best to assign a probability to every possible event. As Matched begins, we follow seventeen-year old Cassia to her Match Banquet, at which she will be paired with her Society-selected perfect mate. There is a brief mention of people who decide not to participate in this process, but by and large, people in the Society choose to be matched. At the banquet, Cassia is surprised and pleased to find herself matched with her best friend and neighbor, Xander. It isn't until she's alone later that another picture flashes in Xander's place, that of the aloof Ky her real match? How could the Society possibly make a mistake?

The first book focuses not only on Cassia's struggle to choose between the clever, patient Xander and the quiet, mysterious Ky (both of whom seem well-matched to her) but also on the details of the restrictive life of the Society. Although the Society has eliminated most diseases and optimized life for all its members, we learn through Cassia's interaction with her grandfather that all citizens are poisoned on their 80th birthday if they do not die of natural causes before then. Citizens do not know how to write, and all cultural artifacts--songs, paintings, poems, stories--have been reduced to a "top 100" of each category. There is a lively black market trade for items from before the Society was in power, known as artifacts. Before his death, Cassia's grandfather gives her two contraband poems (one by Dylan Thomas and one by Tennyson), putting her in the awkward position of having precious but illegal material. Knowledge of these words becomes one of the things that bind Cassia and Ky together, despite her ties with Xander. While there are some signs of societal strain in Matched, it isn't until Crossed that Cassia, Ky, and Xander become fully aware of and involved in any rebellion.

Condie uses first-person narration in each book, adding characters each volume--Matched is told solely from Cassia's point of view, Crossed incorporates Ky's story, and Reached features Xander as well. This slow expansion of the reader's knowledge about the characters mirrors their growth and understanding of the Society and their roles in its potential downfall. The love triangle aspect is essentially decided by the end of Matched, although it pops up from time to time in the subsequent books. I appreciated the fact that Xander was portrayed as a strong and sympathetic character with his own voice, despite being the odd man out. Through crisis, each of the three finds a role that they are suited to play, and the trilogy comes to a satisfactory conclusion--after an interesting veer into thriller territory, as they race against time to develop a successful vaccine. Condie's worldbuilding is excellent, and I would definitely recommend the trilogy to fans of dystopian YA.


I was consistently bothered by the lack of LGBTQ characters in this series. The premise of the first book rests heavily on matching, and there is little to no explanation of what happens when citizens are not heterosexual. Are they the mysterious "singles" that are so briefly alluded to? Are they among the people that the Society has labeled aberrations and anomalies? Has the Society "fixed" the "problem" of homosexuality? How much stronger would the story have been if Condie had incorporated any queer characters, giving the already creepy prospect of matching yet another dimension? If you're writing a story set in a world that is obviously our own, there is absolutely no good reason for leaving out these kinds of characters, or for not addressing of the questions I posed above. As I recently wrote in a post for Gay YA, the ability of LGBTQ teens to find characters like themselves in fiction is incredibly important, and I know this trilogy is popular. It's been optioned by Disney for movie production. It's very disappointing that Condie chose not to tackle this subject when it only could have enriched her work.

Just as I'm totally over reading contemporary YA fiction without gay characters, I am so totally over reading YA in my favorite genres (SF and Fantasy) that doesn't include them.

Grade: B+

For posts on LGBTQ characters in YA dystopia, see Kirkus (Paolo Bacigalupi) and YALSA. The Outer Alliance purportedly has a list of gay YA dystopias, but their site seems to be down at the moment.

Book Review Index

Monday, July 8, 2013

In Search of Anna Mickelsen

One of my objectives for driving the 900 miles to Chicago for the ALA conference (aside from proving my insanity) was to have a car for my own nefarious purposes. I have several relatives from earlier generations buried in Chicago cemeteries. To me, the most intriguing is my great-grandmother and namesake, Anna Kristensen Mickelsen, who died in the flu pandemic of 1918. After the conference was over, I dragged Kristi with me to Mt. Olive Cemetery on the north side of Chicago before we started our long drive back east.

The first thing I had to do after we got there was find out where in the cemetery her stone was located. I had previously visited her grave site at some point in the late 90s with the rest of my family, which resulted in zero useful recollections. My father told me that she died October 22, 1918, and that and her name was the only information I had to give to the cemetery office. The person helping me had some difficulty finding the information, bringing me a few possibilities on 4x6 notecards: an Anna Mickelsen (d. 1929) and an Anna Mickelson. After I politely rejected these, he brought out the big guns, a huge book with a label that read something like "Internments 1911-1921."

Who says print is dead?

After some confusion about October vs. December, we found the right page and the right name (pardon the photographer's shadow):

The listing had precise coordinates for her grave site, which he then tried to show me on a map of both the cemetery and the specific section (20). Unfortunately, looking at a map and knowing the general location did not prepare us for the search that followed. There was a good deal of wandering about and peering at tombstones:

Kristi proves her devotion to me.
There were a lot of Annas in this part of the cemetery, and a lot of people with variations of the Mickelsen (Mickelson, Michaelsen, Mikkelsen) surname. After fifteen minutes of fruitless searching as it threatened rain, I began to identify strongly with the inhabitants:

Then, just as I was about to give up hope, Kristi spotted it!

Located within twenty feet of the place where we parked the car.
The stone was under a tree, which I had sort-of-not-really remembered from my last visit. It's a peaceful spot:

Seeing the physical stone brought me a sense of accomplishment as well as a wistful sort of feeling about how much I don't know in terms of family history. I have lost three grandparents and my mother since college, and neither my father's mother nor mine have a concrete place they are buried. Approximately half of my mother's ashes are in a tupperware container on my bookshelves, which works fine for me because I knew her. But what about my grandchildren? Is it better for them to have a bunch of dust or a few square feet of stone? I guess that the loved ones we are missing exist in neither place, but it was still nice to make this pilgrimage to find Anna Mickelsen.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Reading Roulette: Fourth Pick

The latest group of books to come up in my random selection of books to read includes a wide selection:

Coronets and Steel, Sherwood Smith

Aurelia Kim Murray is a California girl who wishes there were more to life. And there is. For Kim is part of a royal family from a tiny eastern European country, and soon finds herself swept up in the romance and mystery she always wanted-and more, because there's something very different about her bloodline and the magical nature of her ancestral country.

I am sure this got on to my list because of Crown Duel.

Kat, Incorrigible, Stephanie Burgis

Twelve-year-old Katherine Ann Stephenson has just discovered that she’s inherited her late mother’s magical talents, and despite Stepmama’s stern objections, she’s determined to learn how to use them. But with her eldest sister Elissa’s intended fiancé, the sinister Sir Neville, showing a dangerous interest in Kat’s magical potential; her other sister, Angeline, wreaking romantic havoc with her own witchcraft; and a highwayman lurking in the forest, Kat’s reckless heroism will be tested to the utmost. If she can learn to control her new powers, will Kat be able to rescue her family and win her sisters their true loves?

In this charming blend of Jane Austen–era culture, magical whimsy, and rollicking adventure, readers will find a true friend in the refreshingly unladylike Kat Stephenson.

Stephanie is an online friend and I have had this series in my sights for a while. Now I have the kick in the ass I needed to actually read the first one! I confess, I read the first 100 pages already while I was on vacation. It was the perfect choice.

The Rise of Rome: The Making of the World's Greatest Empire, Anthony Everitt

Emerging as a market town from a cluster of hill villages in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C., Rome grew to become the ancient world’s preeminent power. Everitt fashions the story of Rome’s rise to glory into an erudite page-turner filled with lasting lessons for our time. He chronicles the clash between patricians and plebeians that defined the politics of the Republic. He shows how Rome’s shrewd strategy of offering citizenship to her defeated subjects was instrumental in expanding the reach of her burgeoning empire. And he outlines the corrosion of constitutional norms that accompanied Rome’s imperial expansion, as old habits of political compromise gave way, leading to violence and civil war. In the end, unimaginable wealth and power corrupted the traditional virtues of the Republic, and Rome was left triumphant everywhere except within its own borders.

Everitt paints indelible portraits of the great Romans—and non-Romans—who left their mark on the world out of which the mighty empire grew: Cincinnatus, Rome’s George Washington, the very model of the patrician warrior/aristocrat; the brilliant general Scipio Africanus, who turned back a challenge from the Carthaginian legend Hannibal; and Alexander the Great, the invincible Macedonian conqueror who became a role model for generations of would-be Roman rulers. Here also are the intellectual and philosophical leaders whose observations on the art of government and “the good life” have inspired every Western power from antiquity to the present: Cato the Elder, the famously incorruptible statesman who spoke out against the decadence of his times, and Cicero, the consummate orator whose championing of republican institutions put him on a collision course with Julius Caesar and whose writings on justice and liberty continue to inform our political discourse today.

Rome’s decline and fall have long fascinated historians, but the story of how the empire was won is every bit as compelling. With The Rise of Rome, one of our most revered chroniclers of the ancient world tells that tale in a way that will galvanize, inform, and enlighten modern readers.

This one I requested on audio CD and will be going with me in the car to Chicago, since I have at least a fourteen-hour drive ahead of me. I very much enjoyed Everitt's biography of Hadrian.

Why am I doing this?

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Reading Roulette: Update and Putting Books Down

At this point in my Reading Roulette challenge, I have randomly selected twelve books and given myself permission to put down two of them without finishing. The first was The Passage. The second was Thief's Covenant, from the third selection round. I made it through more than 100 pages before I admitted to myself that it just wasn't working for me and moved on. I have too many books I desperately want to read to spend valuable time slogging through one that isn't holding my attention.

Thief's Covenant had some elements I liked--a young female thief as the main character being the primary draw--but I was more than a third of the way through the book and still wondering what was going on (there were flashbacks with confusing timing) and when the plot was going to move significantly forward. Marmell also had some writing tics that reminded me of some of my own writing that I've done which, upon re-reading, made me want to change everything. The use of the word "vaguely," for example. I don't have bones to pick with Thief's Covenant, it just wasn't the book for me.

As I continue this project (and am gradually relieved of my self-imposed obligation to read erotic romances), I am happy about the way it's turning out. I have been reading a variety of books, some recent and some published more than twenty years ago. I've read in several different genres. I am enjoying the variety and the excitement that random selection is giving me. And I feel like I'm getting better at putting books down. Life is too short, and this isn't assigned reading.

I also thought when I gave myself the option of picking three books at a time that I would choose one of the three and then pick again, but every time I do a draw it's full of books I actually want to read. I'm still going to keep selecting three at a time, because the vagaries of my mood and interlibrary loan mean that I'm usually reading multiple books at once in different formats. I am not a book monogamist.

Book Review: Rusalka [1989]

C.J. Cherryh's folktale-influenced historical fantasy Rusalka came up in my second Reading Roulette draw and was recommended by my friend Jessica. I've read and enjoyed some of Cherryh's science fiction, and had this series (known as "The Russian Stories") on my bookshelf forever. But I never read them! So thanks to Jessica and this project for giving me the push I needed.

In the world of Rusalka, magic is a matter of intent or "wishing." Sasha is an orphaned teen who has long kept his wishing abilities as tightly leashed as possible, living as he does on the mercy of his aunt and uncle. But when the town's layabout jokester lands himself in trouble and unwittingly involves Sasha, they must flee together. The wounded Pyetr Kochevikov, who once frolicked with the children of the nobility, finds in Sasha a true and unstinting friend. Although their theoretical destination is Kiev, the two refugees find themselves wandering through a blighted forest and eventually end up at the mercy of the cranky and elderly wizard Uulamets. 

Uulamets agrees to heal Pyetr and teach Sasha in return for an undefined payment, which repeatedly leads the young men into peril. The old wizard's daughter Eveshka is a rusalka, a spirit that devours all living energy around it; Uulamets wants to bring her back to life, and Sasha and Pyetr become caught up in his magical workings. An emotional sympathy arises between Pyetr and Eveshka, despite the fact that her mere presence drains him of life without outside intervention. Budding wizard Sasha learns to negotiate the world with his awakening powers as the skeptical Pyetr comes to grips with the knowledge that much of what he's long scoffed at is not only real, but much more powerful than he can comprehend. This motley band must seek out the wizard who holds Eveshka's heart trapped, or they will all meet an untimely end.

Grade: B-

The setting and magic system employed by Cherryh were a refreshing change from the erotic romances I've been reading for my 50 Shades readalikes project, but there were moments when it seemed as if they were never going to get out of the forest. The characters seemed trapped in an infinite loop--fruitless searching, repeated conversations, and a depressing gradual loss of life and energy. Despite that, I did ultimately power through and enjoyed the book's climactic scenes.

The book was nominated for a Locus award, and Cherryh "extensively rewritten" the series--known collectively as the Russian Stories--and reissued them in ebook format. There were enough issues with pacing that I would be curious to read the updated version to see what she's done with the text, and if I go on to read Chernevog and Yvgenie, I will be buying the ebooks for sure.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Book Review: The Librarian [2012]

The title of this book by Logan Belle (aka Jamie Brenner) is properly Bettie Page Presents: The Librarian, but I'm going to use the shorthand because the other seems a bit too Tyler Perry and Page has been dead since 2008. The Librarian was not mentioned in my survey of potential 50 Shades readalikes, which is a shame, because it turned out to be one of the best readalikes I read for this project. I like to think that my natural interest in romance novels starring librarians would have led me to this book anyway. I purchased it in ebook format and don't know if it will ever be available in any other format, which may present a problem for some libraries interested in purchasing or recommending the book. Some spoilers below.

Regina Finch is a newly-minted MLIS-holder who has landed a job at the NYPL's Fifth Avenue location. Her new boss, Sloan, is an icy socialite who has Regina begin working at the Delivery Desk, despite her training in archives and preservation. Although Regina has her "dream job" and forms a tentative friendship with Margaret (the actual archivist on staff, who has worked there for fifty years), she still feels out of place and unfashionable in New York City. The naïve and virginal Regina has been raised without the influence of pop culture and made it through college and grad school without leaving home and her overly cautious mother. She is told by her new co-worker that she resembles Bettie Page, to which she responds "What's a Bettie Page?" To drive her point home, Belle also makes a point of letting the reader know that Regina's nightgown is from (gasp) Old Navy. In contrast, her roommate Carly is a Parsons student concerned only with men and fashion; her parents require her to have a roommate for "safety reasons," and she has a seemingly unlimited supply of cash.

A chance encounter with an attractive man leaves Regina feeling flustered on her first day--and she's thrown even more off-balance after she stumbles up him having sex in one of the library's private reading rooms. She soon discovers he is Sebastian Barnes, photographer and wealthy library benefactor. He wastes little time pursuing Regina, drafting her as a reader for a fiction award and inviting her to dinner. His first gift is a book: Bettie Page: A Photographic History. Soon, Sebastian begins giving Regina directives, including changing into clothes he's provided for dinner (four-inch heels, naturally, as well as undergarments that AMAZINGLY are just her size). Instead of resisting Sebastian's authoritarian approach, Regina takes the challenge each time, tired of being the odd girl out in the big city.

Regina: "Do you mind if I take these shoes off?"
Sebastian: "Yes, I do. And I never want to see you in flats again."

Sebastian wants to photograph Regina, but she resists, falling instead into a sexual relationship with him after he takes her to his apartment to view his collection of erotic photographs. He explains to her that he wants a physical relationship in which he plays the role of dominant, and she accedes. But their relationship begins to interfere with work and making her question everything she thought she wanted, and Regina is sure that she's fallen in love with Sebastian. It's difficult to be with a man who knows so much about her and refuses to talk about his own shadowed past, and Regina doubts whether what they have together is what she really wants. Is she just another one of Sebastian's muses, destined to be discarded?

Grade: C+

I would say that Sebastian more thoroughly dominates Regina in everyday aspects of their relationship than Christian does Ana, but there are still several parallels between The Librarian and Fifty Shades of Grey. Regina and Ana are both unworldly and virginal, although Regina's character takes it much farther. Sebastian's difficult past echoes that of Christian, Gideon, and Gabriel. The extravagant gifts, Sebastian's wealth, and the city setting all recall 50 Shades as well. And of course there's the requisite happy ending.

I enjoyed the library setting and the idea of Regina as a new librarian. In the credits, Belle thanks @SuperWendy for her help answering questions about the day-to-day work of librarians, so at least we know she did research. There is also a neat twist in which Regina gets to assume the dominant role for a brief time. However, I ended up feeling uncomfortable after finishing The Librarian, perhaps because despite its seeming reverence for the NYPL and libraries in general, Regina's behavior became downright erratic and uncaring when it came to work. I also did not like the way that Sebastian took Regina to a club without making sure she was comfortable and ready first. It seemed as if she was constantly breaking rules that he never explained to her.

Regina's innocence did not always match the name-dropping tendencies of the narration, which was scattered with information like "he was a walking ad for Polo by Ralph Lauren." Belle had already gone to the trouble of assuring us that Regina knew nothing about such things, so it struck an odd chord. Bettie Page's presence in the narrative is consistent, leading me to wonder how this book came about. I suppose I understand the urge to incorporate Bettie into a sexual awakening narrative, but there were times that it felt almost like product placement. Still, I would recommend this book specifically to librarians who want to get the flavor of 50 Shades but don't want to read the EL James trilogy.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Book Review: The Year of Living Scandalously [2010]

Julia London's (real name Dinah Dinwiddie) The Year of Living Scandalously is the first book in her Secrets of Hadley Green series. It came up in my third Reading Roulette selection, and I read it with blazing speed. Warning: spoilers abound in this review.

The primary mystery of Hadley Green is the disappearance of the Ashwood jewels, for which a talented carpenter named Mr. Scott was tried and executed in 1793. Miss Lily Boudine, upon whose testimony the conviction largely rested, has felt troubled ever since, although she left Ashwood and England soon after to be raised by her Irish relations. The jewels were never recovered.

Now, the year is 1808. Lily has inherited Ashwood and its mysteries, but is unwilling to disrupt her Continental travel plans to assume her responsibilities, sending her cousin Keira in her stead to look after things. Lily and Keira look enough alike to be mistaken for one another, which is just what the Ashwood servants do upon her arrival. An impulsive Keira allows the misapprehension to continue in order to make herself useful around the estate, which is close to financial ruin and requires an active manager. In the process of auctioning off some of the estate's horseflesh, she encounters Declan O'Connor, Earl of Donnelly. Keira and Declan have their own history of attraction and heartache in Ireland; while he trusts Keira's judgment not at all, Declan also does not reveal her charade.

After some persuasion, Keira actively enlists Declan's help in solving the mystery of the missing jewels and clearing Mr. Scott's name, as she has uncovered evidence that he was the former Lady Ashwood's lover. At the same time, Keira finds herself weighed down more and more by her deception as she grows close to the people of Hadley Green and works with them to plan a gala event for the benefit of the orphanage. Questions abound: When will Lily return and bring everything crashing down on Keira's head? Who is the mysterious and threatening Lord Eberlin who seems bent on destroying the estate? Will Keira and Declan's growing intimacy overwhelm their good sense and plunge them into a sexual relationship? (Yes.) What happened to the missing jewels?

Grade: B-

What The Year of Living Scandalously suffers from is a surfeit of everything. Not only is there a central mystery that is unresolved by the end of the book, but Keira and Declan have their own past to resolve and her current difficulties to untangle as best as possible. Since it's the first book of a romance series, characters are introduced who will clearly be featured in subsequent books, but in this one they don't have all that much to do. Scenes of Keira and Declan methodically investigating the mystery outweighed those with them giving in to desire, which was refreshing on one hand--but on the other, confusing. The payoff didn't seem to reward the investment.

Let's say that you're given a book which promises a mystery. The characters are all invested in solving that mystery, and it's the reason given by the heroine for involving the hero and for continuing to impersonate her cousin. All your energy as a reader is directed at two things: getting the hero and heroine together, and solving the mystery. But London leaves readers with a huge cliffhanger when she ends the book with Lily under threat from Lord Eberlin and the jewels still missing. While this made me request The Revenge of Lord Eberlin because I WANT TO KNOW what happened, it also left me grumpy.

Book Review Index

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Book Review: Release [2010]

Despite not having an individual book or series that cracked the top 30 (books that were mentioned six times or more) in my online examination of 50 Shades readalikes, Beth Kery's name came up a combined ten times. The most popular readalike mentioned was Wicked Burn, but my library happened to have a mass market copy of Release on the shelf--ordered by me--so I checked it out and read it in one afternoon. A variety of spoilers below.

Genevieve's husband Max, a security firm honcho and professional secret-keeper, was murdered over three years ago. Now someone seems to think that Genevieve has something to hide--her house has burned down, her business has been burgled, her storage unit ransacked--and her life may be in danger. Genevieve seeks refuge in the penthouse apartment attached the the firm and finds it unexpectedly occupied by Sean Kennedy. Although her marriage to Max was functional, Sean was the man who attracted her, and it was with him (at Max's instigation, and with his participation) that she spent a night of breathtaking pleasure . . . shortly before her husband's death. Seeing Sean again stirs up all sorts of feelings in Genevieve, especially desire. The trouble is, she's always assumed that Sean was the one who killed Max.

Sean still has feelings for Genevieve, even though they haven't spoken for years. When she arrives at the penthouse in the midst of a Chicago blizzard, he's determined not to let her go until they work through the past and make a fresh start together. The trouble is, he's pretty sure that Genny killed her husband. I'm not a fan of romance novels in which a fundamental misunderstanding persists between the protagonists, particularly when it could be resolved by a simple conversation, and this one lingers until page 268 of a 312 page book. By the time I hit that page, I was actively rooting for one of them to have committed the murder and turn out to be a psychopath, but I suppose that might have interfered with the Happily Ever After. Despite the obfuscation around the circumstances of Max's death, the identity of his killer--suspected by Sean from the beginning of the novel--is a complete non-surprise. Kery does throw in a last-minute twist, but the "tension" is so drawn out that it falls flat when everything is finally revealed.

So, you've got a woman who thinks her husband was killed by a man she was in love with at the time. She interrupts him with a bound and naked woman in the midst of a sexual scene, and he promptly escorts the woman out and locks Genny in the penthouse with him. Rather than call him out on any of his behavior or question him about Max's death, she consistently says she doesn't want to talk about it and quickly becomes intimate with him instead. While I understand that this behavior might be an indication that she doesn't want to hear Sean confirm he committed murder for her, it's not as if he's taken any real steps in the past three years to connect with her, or that she has used her position of power as co-owner of the firm to do anything at all, such as have him fired or sent elsewhere. Rather than address any of this, they have sex. Lots of sex. And she refuses to believe that she might be in danger, despite the fact that all signs point that direction.

Why was this book set three-plus years after Max's death if none of the characters have done anything to advance their lives in the intervening time? Genevieve has a boyfriend who is addressed so little by the text that she constantly forgets about him, until Sean forces their breakup by bringing her to orgasm on speakerphone. Super classy, right? As with many of these erotic romances that try to incorporate suspenseful elements, the plot always seems secondary to the sex, and neither of them make a ton of sense when examined in the light of day.

Grade: D+

It's probably very clear by now that I was not a fan of the book, despite the fact that it edged into "so bad it's good" territory--the "toast porn" scene being the most salient example of this. It has less in common with the EL James trilogy than it does with books like Forbidden Pleasure and, especially, Mine to Hold, which has a similar husband-initiated threesome and adheres to the concept that it's perfectly fine for men to force women into admitting their feelings through sexual intercourse/withholding. Plus, Sean is from New Orleans and spends a lot of the book calling her "girl." The annoying nickname at least is in line with 50 Shades, and many of the other books I've read for this project.

I wouldn't class it as a good readalike for 50 Shades, and not only because both Christian and Ana have a great deal more sense than Sean and Genevieve. I know that I can't judge Kery's oeuvre based on this example, but--despite the sexual content--the book just doesn't work very well and doesn't have the same appeal factors. However, it does seem like Kery might be a great fit for fans of Lora Leigh and Shayla Black.

Book Review Index

Monday, June 3, 2013

Reading Roulette: Third Pick

I am almost finished with Rusalka, so it's time to roll the dice again and discover what my next books will be! I spent much of the past several months reading 50 Shades readalikes, most of which were not on my TBR list, and in the interim my list has swollen from 373 to 448. That's my life.

52. The Year of Living Scandalously, Julia London (Secrets of Hadley Green #1)

In 1792, the village of Hadley Green executed a man for stealing the Countess of Ashwood’s historic jewels. Fifteen years later, questions still linger. Was it a crime of greed—or of passion?

When Declan O’Connor, Earl of Donnelly, arrives at Hadley Green to meet with Lily Boudine, the new countess of Ashwood, he knows instantly that the lovely woman who welcomes him is not who she pretends to be. In an attempt to avoid an unwanted marriage, Keira Hannigan has assumed her cousin’s identity and is staying at the estate while Lily is abroad. When Declan threatens to expose her, Keira convinces him to guard her secret, then enlists him in her investigation of the missing jewels, for she now believes an innocent man was hanged.

Unable to deny the beautiful, exasperating Keira—or their simmering passion—Declan reluctantly agrees. But neither is prepared for the dangerous stranger who threatens to reveal Keira’s lies . . . and Declan knows he must protect Keira at all costs, for she is the woman who now owns his heart.

I feel like I started this book and put it down for some reason.

172. Thief's Covenant, Ari Marmell (Widdershins Adventures #1)

Once she was Adrienne Satti. An orphan of Davillon, she had somehow escaped destitution and climbed to the ranks of the city's aristocracy in a rags-to-riches story straight from an ancient fairy tale. Until one horrid night, when a conspiracy of forces-human and other-stole it all away in a flurry of blood and murder. Today she is Widdershins, a thief making her way through Davillon's underbelly with a sharp blade, a sharper wit, and the mystical aid of Olgun, a foreign god with no other worshippers but Widdershins herself. It's not a great life, certainly nothing compared to the one she once had, but it's hers. But now, in the midst of Davillon's political turmoil, an array of hands are once again rising up against her, prepared to tear down all that she's built. The City Guard wants her in prison. Members of her own Guild want her dead. And something horrid, something dark, something ancient is reaching out for her, a past that refuses to let her go. Widdershins and Olgun are going to find answers, and justice, for what happened to her-but only if those who almost destroyed her in those years gone by don't finish the job first.

Anything that uses the word "widdershins" has an immediate advantage over other books.

298. All Clear, Connie Willis. 

Since this is the second part of a duology that is meant to be read as one book, I am going to read Blackout first. Since Willis is my favorite author, this will not be a chore, although I did stall out on reading it the first time around (before All Clear was even available). I know that it's available in audio format, but all the copies in Massachusetts seem to be checked out. I may have to ILL it from out of state.

What is the Reading Roulette project?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Book Review: Beautiful Disaster [2011]

Jamie McGuire's Beautiful Disaster was mentioned twenty percent of the time in the sources I consulted about readalikes for the 50 Shades trilogy. It was one of the few books that I was actually able to find on the shelf at my library. Some spoilers follow.

The book told from the perspective of Abby Abernathy, a college freshman who is trying to make a fresh start and leave her troubled past behind. Through her best friend America, she meets the heavily tattooed Travis Maddox. A serial womanizer, fight club champion, and heavy drinker,Travis is everything that Abby is trying to escape from, yet she finds herself drawn to him. Abby is the only girl who has ever encountered Travis and not immediately succumbed to his charms. Although she's attracted, she manages to do an excellent job of avoiding falling into a romantic relationship with him.

After they become friends, Abby and Travis make a bet that results in her moving in to his apartment for a month and drastically increasing the intimacy between them, despite the fact that she begins to date someone else. Despite his protestations of disinterest, Travis has great difficulty seeing her with anyone else, and eventually the simmering attraction between them is addressed.

I don't want to say too much about what happens and spoil the rest of the book. If she had stopped with Abby and Travis getting together, McGuire would have had herself a garden-variety romance. However, the plot continues through revelations about Abby's past, a breakup, a trip to Vegas, and a fight club disaster before it reaches its conclusion.

Grade: B-

Beautiful Disaster was one of the least sexually explicit books I've reviewed for this project. However, it has such an emotional roller coaster ride in the relationship depicted that it still qualifies, in my opinion, as a very good readalike for 50 Shades of Grey. It's told from Abby's first-person perspective, and her emotions and reactions are always in the foreground. Like Ana, she's a virgin, although she is far from naive. Travis is troubled, violent, aggressive, and absolutely obsessive about Abby, in the grand tradition of Christian Grey and countless other alpha males. McGuire does a good job of establishing Abby and Travis as believable friends before they become lovers. Once they're together, their level of obsessive need for one another feels similar to that described in 50 Shades and the Crossfire books.

The focus on eighteen and nineteen-year old characters in their first years of college, however, suggests that this title might be best described as (deep breath) New Adult. Given that, I wouldn't hesitate to give this book to teens who might be interested in the emotional content of a contemporary romance but not quite ready for an onslaught of sexual description. In that way, it might best be described as a more mature (and not at all paranormal) Twilight.

All that said, I had some issues with the plot. For example, Abby's father precipitates a particular plot twist, and then disappears for the rest of the book. The "will they-won't they" dragged on too long for my taste. There are probably those that feel a violently possessive friend/boyfriend is an attractive character, but that's just not my cup of tea. I also wish that characters in these books would stop calling each other by stupid nicknames; Travis calls Abby "Pigeon" or "Pidge" about a hundred times, and it made me want to scream by the time I was done.

McGuire just published Walking Disaster, which apparently tells the same story from Travis's perspective. This recalls Stephenie Meyer's abortive Midnight Sun, which re-told Twilight from Edward's point of view. The story at the time was that it had been so soundly mocked online that Meyer vowed never to finish it, but it seems it was the movies that interfered with her creative vision. But for those that want to experience the story again from a new perspective, Walking Disaster seems like a good bet.

Book Review Index

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Book Review: Freedom & Necessity [1997]

Several years ago, my sister gave me a copy of Freedom & Necessity, which came up in my second Reading Roulette* draw, enabling it to come off the bench and into the game at last. The book is an epistolary novel from science fiction fantasy heavyweights Steven Brust and Emma Bull that takes place, for the most part, in 1848 England.

As the novel opens, James Cobham--presumed dead, but in reality having recently escaped from captivity--writes his cousin Richard to enlist his assistance in uncovering the mystery of his "death." Their investigation evolves to include their cousins Kitty (romantically involved with Richard) and Susan. The story is told through letters between the four principal characters and their journal entries, with a few scattered newspaper clippings and book excerpts for good measure. Once the plot really gets going, it's rare to find any of the four in the same place at the same time, which makes the format choice logical, along with the fact that it was written by two authors.

The four relatives are all members of England's upper class, but it's revealed early on that James has long been living a double life as a radical and Chartist sympathizer. The identity of his pursuers, and whether they would prefer his death or recapture, is in doubt for most of the book and could be one of several groups. As questions continue to increase in number, with few answers forthcoming, the four work disparately and together to gather clues and put together information from their family's past to unravel the events of the present before it's too late.

It's difficult to describe the plot except to say that it involves revolutionaries and political intrigue, cross-country chases, family history, romance, and a group of people practicing a druidical magic. There is a great deal of discussion of Hegel, much of which went right over my head. The epistolary format sometimes lends itself to rambling and reflective passages that would definitely frustrate a reader looking for continuous action. However, the conclusion was well-plotted and satisfactory.

Grade: B+

While not precisely fantasy, the book does play with some fantastical elements, especially where the character of Kitty is concerned. If forced to put it in a genre, I'd call it historical fiction. Susan's character in particular was a delight to read, as she uses the mysterious events as a launching point to exercise a range of talents that she was never able to access in her role as a lady:
I'm doing this mostly because it's opened wide a door to a room inside me that before I could only guess at by the light along the sill and through the keyhole. It's a room in which all those things in me that, living the normal life of a well-bred woman, I could never use--strength and speed and hardiness; command over my mind and body; respect for the language of my senses; a certain ferocity of the spirit--are not only useful but essential (146).
This book is definitely not for everyone. If you're not down with having Friedrich Engels as a supporting character, don't even bother. But if you're interested in mid-19th century English history, if you like complex characters with flawed relationships, if you don't mind the occasional philosophical ramble . . . this book is definitely a good choice.

Book Review Index

*Which project has been sadly neglected in my attempt to read as many 50 Shades of Grey readalikes as possible, but which is now back on track as if those three months never happened. In my attempt to get this book (begun in February of this year) actually read, I resorted to keeping one copy at work, one at home, and one in my car.