Friday, September 27, 2013

One Step Too Far by Tina Seskis

Title: One Step Too Far
Author: Tina Seskis
Publisher: Krik Parolles
Pages: Kindle ed
Rating: 3/5 Stars

It's always good to broaden ones horizons and One Step Too Far is definitely a departure from my normal choice of books. There's nothing supernatural or macabre about it and it's not YA, which is what I've been reading a lot of lately. One Step Too Far is one of those genre defying books that would be shelved in the fiction/literature section of the bookstore. At least, that's where I'd put it.

One Step Too Far presents itself as a mystery of sorts according to the description and in a way, that is accurate. Tina Seskis reveals the details of Emily's past, as well as the event that sent her existence into a tailspin and prompted her to leave her happy marriage/home, very slowly. In terms of keeping me interested and engaged, Seskis definitely succeeded. Although, I didn't relate to the characters' lives, I was fascinated by what could be so horrible that Emily felt she had to leave everything and start over.

I glanced at some other reviews to remind me of everything that happens in this book which is something I don't normally do. I like to write my reviews strictly from my own perspective, without any outside influence. That said, in this case, I was reminded of the moment when all of the drama crossed the line from "believable story of a woman's battles with a traumatic experience" and into "tv-movie of the week" territory.

Event #1: Caroline and her boyfriend being involved in an explosion. The night Caroline's life is finally about to come together after an entire lifetime of disappointment and struggle, she is at a restaurant with her boyfriend when an explosion out on the street literally ruins everything. She loses the baby she finally decides that she wants and her anger with her boyfriend for the way he doesn't pay all of his attention to her (and possibly the fact that I think he's gay) lead them to go their separate ways. She always miscarries her baby.

Event #2: Emily gets trashed/high at a club, goes home with a famous footballer who just happens to bear a strong resemblance to the husband that she still loves, gets high again, spends the night with him and wakes up next to his naked dead body. She proceeds to get arrested in connection to his death and because he's famous, her face is splashed all over the news, leading her husband to find her and bail her out of jail, thus reuniting them.

There's also the bizarre circumstances of Emily's new best friend Angel's life, but she's a side character and meant to be the antithesis of Emily's life 'before', so I didn't have as much of a problem with that.

The above events, however, didn't sit well with me. They just seemed so over the top and impossible to believe. Books create certain worlds, certain contexts and even though the story is up to the creative mind of the author, there are certain things that just feel wrong. The magic of Harry Potter, for example, would feel all kinds of wrong in if it was used to save the day in a John Grisham novel. The violence of the explosion as well as the sudden death of the footballer just felt wrong. Rather than simply being shocked and saddened by what happened, I was left shaking my head and thinking "no one's life is actually like this."

Seskis is a fine author. Her grasp of language and the elements of writing is good and there was nothing technical that took me out of the book - even when she would bounce between first and third person depending on whether the story was in the present or the past. Plot-wise, however, this book became a little too fantastical for me to really enjoy in terms of the story it presented. Caroline had been anorexic and/or an alcoholic for much of her life, she could have easily miscarried without the explosion outside of the restaurant. Emily was doing a LOT of drugs and not handling it well which could have very easily led to her arrest and subsequent discovery by her husband. I don't think that the death of a famous sports hero was necessary.

I did enjoy reading the book and I was satisfied with the explanation of why Emily ran as well as the actual ending of One Step Too Far, but I feel like Seskis either needs to work on balance or she needs to re-evaluate the type of story that she wants to tell to be truly successful.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Maid of the White Hands (Tristan and Isolde #2) by Rosalind Miles

Title: The Maid of the White Hands (Tristan and Isolde #2)
Author: Rosalind Miles
Publisher: Broadway Brooks
Pages: 352
Rating: 3/5 Stars

Oh, Tristan and Isolde. There's a reason your legend isn't as well known as Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot's.


I love Rosalind Miles. Love her. Her writing is evocative, lush, vivid...I could wax poetic with superlatives all day, but suffice it to say I'll read just about anything she writes even if the actual subject matter isn't engaging me as I'd like it to.

And Tristan and Isolde's love story is not engaging me.

The Maid of the White Hands picks up shortly after Isolde, Queen of the Western Isle ends. Isolde has married Mark, King of Cornwall, thus uniting Ireland and England. Tristan is her knight and the two of them are able to carry on their love affair in secret.

Well, sort of in secret.

All of the wrong people seem to know what's going on between the two of them and it puts their happiness as well as their very lives in danger.

When the Queen of Ireland dies, Isolde is called back to her home country and in order to keep up appearances, Tristan stays in England.

These two should never be separated. Seriously, the majority of their problems would go away if they'd just stick together.

A lot of drama unfolds. A lot of political intrigue, presumed betrayal, imprisonment, uprisings, lies and angst goes down in the plot of this book and Tristan and Isolde are apart for most of it. I won't go into a detailed description of the plot, but suffice it to say that Miles throws just about everything she can at these two lovers and it nearly works in destroying them both.

I'm determined to finish this series, but unlike the Guinevere trilogy that I want to read again someday, I won't feel the need to revisit Tristan and Isolde. I just don't like them that much. Isolde is awesome. I do love her. She's strong and fights her own battles. She understands the price that she has to pay for being queen, the things that she has to give up to serve the people that she's sworn to lead.

Tristan, on the other hand, drives me nuts. I understand that nobility and honoring one's promises/word was basically all that these knights had to call their own, but could Tristan be a little less whiny about it? I should take into account that the man is injured or sick through about 80% of this book, and therefore prone to dramatics, I suppose, but still. I don't think it's a good idea for the hero of a sweeping and epic love story to come across as a whiny, weepy, lovesick puppy. Either honor your vows as a knight or honor your vows to Isolde. Pick one and quit all of this quibbling.

I'm going to try to read the third and final book soon because I know that I waited far too long between the first and second.  I will never not recommend Rosalind Miles to people who enjoy excellent writing and epic storytelling, but I doubt that this trilogy will be the one I tell them to try.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Tangle of Need by Nalini Singh

Title: Tangle of Need
Author: Nalini Singh
Publisher: Berkley
Pages: 422
Rating: 4/5

This is the eleventh book in Nalini Singh's Psy-Changeling series and now that Hawke and Sienna are together, I'm reading them for the overall plot, rather than the central couple. Thankfully, Singh seems to be aware of this as Tangle of Need focuses as much on Hawke and Sienna as a newly mated pair as she does the burgeoning romance of Adria and Riaz.

There's nothing wrong with Adria and Riaz - both are enjoyable characters and the drama that keeps them apart is very realistic for their circumstances. With Hawke, Sienna had the knowledge that the girl who would have grown up to be his mate had died. Adria doesn't have that luxury as Riaz's mate is alive and well - even if she is happily married to someone else. Adria's not my favorite heroine and Riaz isn't my favorite hero, but I don't dislike them like I do Clay and Talia or Dev and Katya.

The resolution of Adria and Riaz's romance feels incomplete, but at the same time I have to commend Singh for doing something different with them. I remember that in book four of this series - Hostage to Pleasure - I was annoyed by the trite way that the mating bond fixed Dorian so that he was able to shift. It was such a predictable move that it soured me on that book and that couple, which was a shame because as a Changeling that couldn't shift, Dorian stood out. So, in order to refrain from being a total hypocrite, I'll leave it at that.

The real draw of Tangle of Need for me was the exposure to the Snow Dancer pack and all that it entails. I love the world that Singh has created and each book allows her to continue to focus on another aspect of it. In addition to the Snow Dancers and Dark River, we meet more of the Human Alliance and for the first time get to see what they're doing to combat the Psy mental invasion. I applaud Singh for finally highlighting something that I've thought all along - that it would suck to be a human in this Psy-Changeling world. Humans are basically at the mercy of these two powerful races, subject to their whims and their wars and yet completely ignored for the most part.

I love that Singh continued Hawke and Sienna's story, letting us experience their mating celebration as a way of furthering their romance as well as developing Adria and Riaz's involvement.

And Drew and Judd. I love any time Drew and Judd make appearances.

And last, but certainly not least, Kaleb. I have enjoyed him from the very first time he showed up and I'm getting excited for his book in the same way I was excited for Drew and Hawke's books.

Tangle of Need isn't one of my favorite Psy-Changeling books, but it was by no means a disappointment. Any fan of the series will enjoy this book for the continued exposure to the Psy-Changeling world and the continuation of the plot that Singh's been spinning since book one. I'm looking forward to reading the next one.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Iron Lake by William Kent Krueger

Title: Iron Lake
Author: William Kent Krueger
Publisher: Atria Books
Pages: 352 pages
Rating: 4/5 Stars

Being a Minnesotan, it was only a matter of time before I read one of William Kent Krueger's books. After I moved into an apartment just down the street from the St. Clair Broiler where Krueger actually wrote most of his novels until moving to a different part of town just a few years ago, it became even more of an inevitability. Starting with the first of the Cork O'Connor series seemed appropriate.

Two things stuck out and have stayed with me since I finished this book. One is that Krueger is definitely a Minnesotan. The way he writes about the cold, while wildly romanticized in my humble and winter-hating opinion, really got across the idea of how the cold temperatures and snow take on a life of their own and become something of a character unto themselves. There is something beautiful about the vast expanse of a frozen, snow-covered long as I'm looking at it from a warm spot indoors.

I enjoyed the small town atmosphere of Aurora. As someone who grew up in a town roughly Aurora's size, it's always fun for me to read a book where the author really understands what a small town is. I've read so many books where the authors think small equals less than 100,000 and that doesn't even come close.

The second thing that struck me was Krueger's knowledge of the Anishinaabe people. The culture of the people is woven into the fabric of his plot and several times the reader is treated to a story about their traditions.

I've said in other reviews that there's something about debut and self-published authors that sets their books apart - and not always in a good way - from more established talents. Iron Lake is Krueger's debut and to me that was apparent. I didn't pick up on stereotypes like some other reviewers dwelled on at the expense of any other type of criticism, but then again, I rarely do. I tend to take each story as it is, an entity unto itself. I do have to agree, however, that there was some cliched prose and dialogue, some corny turns of phrase that I'm guessing - given how many more books there are in the series and the fact that Krueger is still writing - work themselves out in the books to come.

I can't say that I was surprised by the ultimate bad guy - I'd figured it to be him early on, but part of that was just me hoping that I'd be right - but I did enjoy peeling back the layers of the mystery as Cork struggled to unfold it. So many people lament that they were able to pick out the guilty party from page one, and in some cases that may be true, but can you tell me why? Sometimes whodunit isn't as nearly as interesting as whytheydunit.

As far as characters are concerned, Cork has a ways to go before he completely wins me over. I liked him fine, but when I pick up the next book in the series it will be for another glimpse back into the world of Aurora, not so much to find out what Cork has been up to. Unfortunately, the character I enjoyed the most didn't make it to the end of the book, so that's too bad. Given how much I disliked Jo and considering what happens to her in the course of the story, I'm very interested to see how things go for her in the next book as well.

Speaking of Cork's ex-wife, I found it interesting how completely other reviewers missed the point when it came to the Jo and Cork's affairs. Some labeled it a double standard, that Jo was vilified for having an affair, while Cork was not. Aside from the obvious fact that Cork is the main character and we're always going to see the story through Cork-colored glasses, that's actually not what happened. Cork wasn't upset with Jo for having the affair, he was upset with her for keeping it a secret, for letting him go for nearly a year thinking that the dissolution of his marriage and family was completely his fault. Cork viewed the situation with his family as something he alone could fix when in reality, both he and Jo had made choices that might have made reconciliation impossible. Jo just didn't see fit to mention that to him and for a guy as depressed as Cork was that little nugget of information would have gone a long way toward healing.

That's how I saw it, at least.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

September Secret Reader Review: Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi

Title: Shatter Me
Author: Tahereh Mafi
Publisher: Harper
Pages: Kindle edition
Rating: 4/5 Stars

Tahereh Mafi should be commended for writing the most first person of first person books that I've read. Mafi puts her readers inside of Juliette's head so completely that some sentences and paragraphs are little more than run on stream of conscious thoughts - that are occasionally crossed out in the same way all of us have tried to cross out or brush aside an errant thought that we don't want to be having. Shatter Me feels like a brilliantly poetic journal, containing some of the most beautiful descriptions, similes and metaphors that I've ever had the pleasure of reading.

Juliette will remind some readers of Rogue from X-men, in that she can kill people with her touch. It's that deadly power that, after years of torment and neglect in a rapidly decaying, dystopian society, catches the attention of the government. The Reestablishment seizes Juliette and holds her prisoner for three years, a year of which is spent in isolation in an insane asylum.

Until one day, Juliette isn't so alone anymore.

A boy joins her in her cell and she's beautifully aware of him in all of the ways that a seventeen year old girl would be aware of a super hot seventeen year old boy.

The plot of Shatter Me is a standard one as far as dystopian novels go - Juliette is special, she has something that the Reestablishment wants and they intend to get it at all costs. She's tempted with promises of luxury and power, but her heart is pure and she rejects it along with Adam - the one boy who can touch her and has always loved her and oh so conveniently gets thrown into a cell with her in the insane asylum.

The plush apartment that is her cell also doesn't have surveillance equipment in the bathroom. Also convenient.

I don't point these things out to mock or detract from Shatter Me, but to highlight what this story is really about and that is Juliette coming into her own after a lifetime of trying to be invisible. Mafi, while inventive with her futuristic dystopia, isn't reinventing the wheel here and she knows it. She makes the wise choice to stay entrenched in Juliette's experience, dolling out details of her world when it matters, rather than in long-winded exposition at the beginning of the book.

To me, the real story picked up about half way through when Juliette and Adam break out of the evil Warner's clutches and escape the Reestablishment's army. They find Adam's brother James and make plans to run off together - until a former soldier, Kenji, shows up on Adam's supposedly top secret door step suffering from a beating and bullet wounds. The timetable on their plans is shortened significantly and they barely get out of the apartment in one piece.

During the chase that follows, Juliette is forced to get over herself, basically, if she wants to survive and by the end, she realizes she wants to do more than survive - for the first time she wants to live.

A downside to Mafi's style is that our view of the world is limited to only what Juliette thinks, sees, hears and feels - even more so than other first person narratives. As a reader, I was thrust into this story without a hint as to what was happening and while I wouldn't call that a bad thing necessarily, in the case of Shatter Me I was left feeling that if you scraped away the fancy prose, the actual story was rather shallow. Typical, I guess, of so many other YA novels where the quiet, overlooked girl with the tortured past grows up and comes into her own.

I don't want to sound like I'm knocking it, because that's not what I'm trying to do. I'm stoked to continue the series and see what happens. Mafi totally surprised me with where our characters ended up and as such I'm not so sure that I know exactly what kind of story she's preparing to tell. That's a very good thing.

I do have to wonder how much more compelling Shatter Me could have been if Mafi had taken a little of the creativity she used in composing her beautiful prose and put it into the plot of her story.