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?