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?