I just want to make things clear right off the bat.
This is not a traditional romance, and most people would probably say that this is not a romance at...moreI just want to make things clear right off the bat.
This is not a traditional romance, and most people would probably say that this is not a romance at all. There is so much in this book that just blows past my comfort zones. If I were grading this book based on how comfortable it made me feel, it would probably be right around zero stars. There's no way to talk about this without including spoilers, so I'm going to spoiler tag liberally.
I am recommending this book, but I should be very, very clear and let you all know that if you read this, expect pain. Lots of it.
The main female protagonist of this book has sex with a great many people during the course of the book, both male and female, including (view spoiler)[an underage boy, although she didn't know he was underage at the time--but she also didn't ask--and I am so not okay with anything about that scene and it makes me feel sick just thinking about it (hide spoiler)] and the main male protagonist is married (although he and his wife are separated, and his wife had an affair with another man). This is not a book for people who can't handle criticism of the Catholic church. It's also not a book for people who can't handle nuance about things that should not be nuanced. There are parts of this book that left me very uncomfortable--and which I am still very uncomfortable about. If you are looking for a comfort read, or something that's going to leave you with a happy glow at the end, this is not that book.
If you're looking for erotica for the pure sexual thrill, this book isn't it, either. At least, what I mean by this is: while there is a good amount of sex in the book, it's not that kind of sex--takes over the page and leaves no room for anything else. And I'm saying a lot about what this book isn't, and not a whole lot about what it is.
This is a book about notorious erotica writer, Nora Sutherlin, who is writing a book. She's pawned off on editor Zach Easton, who is notorious in his own right--as a no-holds barred editor who kicks his authors' asses there and back again. Zach--a lit fic editor--isn't pleased to be handed an author who writes "one-handed reads" and basically thinks that he'll intimidate her until she decides she can't work with him. And that plan lasts about two seconds after he meets her, and realizes that she can't be intimidated.
Zach is married. His wife, Grace, had an affair, and rather than trying to figure out what he could do to try to fix the relationship, he fled England (where they'd lived together) for New York. They haven't divorced, but he expects to see the paperwork any day. It's clear from the beginning that he's not over her, and doesn't know how to be over her: he's just numb, and going through the motions.
That brings us to Nora. Nora is an extremely complicated character. She was in a long-term submissive relationship with another man named Soren who was brutal--but they both loved it. She left him many years ago, but is still in love with him--in a complicated, painful way, such that she still visits him on their anniversary, and he considers their relationship not over, but temporarily on hold. This man also happens to be (view spoiler)[a catholic priest. Who fell in love with Nora when she was fifteen--although their relationship wasn't consummated until she was twenty. I am so not okay with that--even with the waiting until consummation--because they had a relationship of trust and he was not only her confessor, he was put in charge of her by the state for a while after she had a brush with the law. Have I mentioned how not okay I am with that? (hide spoiler)]
In any event, Nora is now separated from Soren, and she has, living in her house, an unpaid intern named Wesley. I'm also not okay with Wesley-the-unpaid-intern, or her laughing comment that sexual harassment is part of the job description: I am so not good with that. (view spoiler)[Especially since Nora met Wesley because she was teaching a class and he was a student--this hits every one of my HELL TO THE NO buttons. (hide spoiler)] Nora and Wesley have never had sex, but there is definitely tension between them.
And that's where the story starts. Add in more partners for Nora than I can count on one hand, and honestly, if you handed me a synopsis for this book to me, I would say that I would never, ever want to read anything like it. EVER.
This isn't the kind of erotica that gets you hot and bothered. (I mean, it might do that; I don't know.) It's the kind that punches you in the stomach and then kisses you on the cheek. The very fact that there is so much that I am not okay with in this book is part of the reason I enjoyed it. This book made me feel everything. It was beautifully written--not just the language, but the emotional arc.
It was impossible to feel sorry for Nora, who had once been submissive to a sadist, because she was so incandescently unbreakable. Conversely, it was impossible not to feel for Zach, who loved his wife desperately and had no idea what to do about the fact that he was losing her. And then there was Wesley. And Michael. And I don't know what to do with any of these extremely damaged characters but hold my breath and hope that they don't hurt themselves any more than they have to.
At this point in my reading and writing career, books that can pull me outside myself--that can make me stop criticizing and thinking and just grab hold of my heart--are so unlikely and valuable that I don't know what else to do with them. It was extremely, extremely painful to read.
As for the ending... (view spoiler)[Nora ends the book miserable, sacrificing her relationship with Wesley, the one pure thing she has, for his sake. Zach ends up back with his wife, which struck me as absolutely the right thing for me. Is this a happy ending? Well, both characters end in committed relationships, but not with each other. And as for Nora... I still don't know how I feel. Tiffany sent me the second book and we learn so much more about Soren in that one, all of which is even more spoilery than just a spoiler tag can cover. I still don't like him, even knowing more about him, and I'm extremely uncomfortable with the way that he's portrayed. I have serious issues with Soren, and I wish more people would read this book so I could talk about it. (hide spoiler)]
It hurt me so hard to read this book. I was completely not okay with...just about everything in it. And I still loved it.
There's a line that Miranda Darling uses about Smite in Unraveled: "He was all blade, no handle. If she held him close, she'd risk getting cut." That's kind of how I feel about this book: all blade, no handle. I wouldn't want to read a book like this every day, or even every week. But once in a while, I can handle the pain.
There's a line near the beginning of the book that goes like this: "Nora said nothing as he joined her, only turned her head and gazed out at the night. She seemed to be trying to stare down the city. He had a feeling the city would blink first."
That's kind of how I felt about this book--like it was trying to stare me down. And there's no question. I blinked.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
This was the first book I chose to read on my vacation, and I'm so glad it kicked things off well.
Falling Under reminded me of a sexy young adult vers...moreThis was the first book I chose to read on my vacation, and I'm so glad it kicked things off well.
Falling Under reminded me of a sexy young adult version of Neil Gaiman's Coraline--creepy and mysterious and magical, all at once. But what really set it apart for me was that Theia actually had friends--good friends--who behaved like friends do.
I just flat loved this book, and I did not go in expecting to do so.
For me, here were the warning signs:
* dystopian * love triangle * girl must choose!...moreI just flat loved this book, and I did not go in expecting to do so.
For me, here were the warning signs:
* dystopian * love triangle * girl must choose! which! boy! now!
All of which made me think that this was going to be Yet Another derivative book that was kind of like Twilight and kind of not. Not that there's anything wrong with Twilight; but Twilight wasn't my personal cuppa tea, and I've gotten kind of weary of books that feel like Twilight knock-offs. My expectations were not high going into this.
But. This was not a Twilight knock-off. Instead, it felt like... the anti-Twilight, in the best possible way. It brought me back to exactly what I felt like at 16.
One of the reasons Twilight never did it for me is that Bella's choice between Jacob and Edward is not about choosing which boy is better for her; for her, it was almost literally about who she was going to make herself over into being. She had to literally die as a human, essentially give up her entire family, in order to be subsumed into Edward as a part. And for me, that is just not how it felt to love as a teenager. I never wanted that.
I know some people have said they don't understand why Cassia picks Ky over Xander. But for me, what I loved about this book is that Cassia isn't trying to pick a mate. Ky and Xander aren't there as examples of the man she should marry--she's 16, fer cryin' out loud! Instead, what happens to Cassia is that she has to decide who she is. Is she the person who will decide to choose Xander, stable, willing to buck the Society a little bit, but generally following the rules? Or is she a rebel? Will she be like Ky, someone who creates when it's forbidden, who tells stories that have not been vetted, who writes, who remembers words about struggling against the inevitable?
Her choice isn't about how she will immolate herself on the alter of teen love, but about how teen love will be the vehicle she uses to preserve herself.
In that way, I think the Society was even more insidious than I'd imagined. Because what Cassia wanted more than anything else was to do something outside their control, and the Society did everything in their power to steal even her rebellion from her, to take from her the choice of what she'd decided to do, and to pretend that it was all part of the plan. It was both heart-breaking and evil.
My only gripe: the blue pills. Those don't make any sense. In a society where people are punished for growing flowers that could be used as food, forcing dependence on the government, why on earth would the powers that be go around giving people pills that give them temporary independence from the government? The other two pills reinforce control. The blue pills erode control, and it feels like an authorial cop-out designed to give Cassia an escape later in the book. A cleverly done one, yes, but one that doesn't fit the world.(less)
Pull by B.A. Binns is one of the most powerful Y.A. books I’ve read all year.
David, the protagonist (you notice I don’t include his last name), is dea...morePull by B.A. Binns is one of the most powerful Y.A. books I’ve read all year.
David, the protagonist (you notice I don’t include his last name), is dealing with a lot for a kid in his senior year of high school. You see, a few months ago, his dad murdered his mother. His father’s in jail, and David himself, as the eldest in the family, has gotten the job of keeping his family together. Without the money he makes from an after school construction job, his sisters and he would have been split up around the globe, sent to distant relatives, many of whom don’t really seem to care about the family.
So David finds himself the man of his family, when he’s not even a man himself. And David does not know how to deal with what has happened to him. He changes his last name. In part, so that people at his new school (one that’s in a poor part of town, instead of the wealthier area where his parents used to live) don’t recognize either his skill at basketball or his father’s name. But in larger part, he doesn’t want to keep his father’s last name–just as he doesn’t want to visit his father in jail, doesn’t even call him “father” anymore.
But David’s suffering from post traumatic stress disorder as a result of the murder. And he’s struggling from a lot of things that feel absolutely real: He doesn’t want to go to college, doesn’t enjoy school, and does like girls–and as much as he likes them, he also blames them for the way they make him feel.
David is never a comfortable character, and he won’t make you feel comfortable (especially if you, like me, wince at the thought of someone not getting an education). And that, I think is what makes this book so raw and powerful. It is simply too easy to believe that David is real. To buy into what is a complex mix of teenage anger and angst and hope and self-hatred and arrogance all at once–and even though those things sound contradictory, when David lets you know how it is, in his short, terse, no-nonsense style, it’s real.
His character is so strong, so powerful, that even through (especially through) his terse denials, you can feel so much. I got more raw emotion from one of David’s curt “I don’t cares,” delivered at the right time than I do from most books.
And just to give you a taste of what he’s like, this from the first few pages of the book, after David has just had a traumatic flashback in the middle of gym class when the sound of the basketball hitting the court reminds him of a gunshot wound:
The gym teacher’s whistle sounds, the shriek knifing through my ears. He runs over from the sidelines where he’s been talking with another man while the inept group of students practiced passing the ball. His pale face holds wide, worried gray eyes. You’d think he’d never seen a guy downed by a basketball before. Probably hasn’t been teaching in the inner city very long. Probably still has ideals and intends to do some good or something.
Probably needs to get the hell out of my space.
And that’s David for you.
Like I said, this is not a comfortable book. But the day I got it, I was up until 1 AM reading, even though I had a 6 AM flight the next morning, and I got up half an hour early just so I could finish.
This book is seriously, utterly, powerfully compelling. And so I’m giving away a copy to one random commenter.
When I was growing up, I was absolutely mad for awesome coming-of-age stories. The kind that stayed with me–the ones that I still have not forgotten,...moreWhen I was growing up, I was absolutely mad for awesome coming-of-age stories. The kind that stayed with me–the ones that I still have not forgotten, even today–are adventure stories. You know the sort. There’s an ordinary girl who lives what is otherwise an ordinary life, up until the point when she is snatched away by (take your pick) a trio of old women/a man in a desert cloak/an apparition from a dream. Thereupon she proceeds to kick ass and save her little brother/her country/the entire world. I’m sure many of you were right there with me, reading those books. Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword comes to mind, as do Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time or Jane Yolen’s Dragon’s Blood. I grew up on those stories. I read them over and over and over and over, until the spines of the books cracked and entire pages fell out, not that it mattered, because I had those pages memorized anyway.
Warrior by Zoe Archer
And so if you want to understand why everyone seems to be buzzing about Zoe Archer’s upcoming Blades of the Rose series, it is because the books capture that same sense of magic and discovery in the books I adored as a young adult–except this time around, they’re for adults. They’re not coming of age stories, of course; they’re much deeper, with emotions that resonate with the person that I am now, instead of the thirteen-year-old I once was. But there’s still that same sense of magical discovery inherent in them, that feeling that at any time in my normal life, I might meet someone who will slip me a compass, and the next thing I know, I might be the person who runs off on a voyage of discovery.
So let me tell you about Warrior, which is the first book in the back-to-back-to-back-to-back series filled with awesomeness. It starts when Captain Gabriel Huntley, newly returned from Crimea, happens upon a group of men beating up another man in Southampton, England. Huntley isn’t sure what is going on or why–all he knows is that the odds don’t look good for the loner. And besides, he’s not ready to settle down on English soil, not after all those years of adventure.
So he intervenes, and gets more than he bargained for. Over the course of the fight, he sees things that aren’t possible. And at the end, when the person he has helped has no other choice, he’s given a mission: to deliver a message and a stylized compass to Mongolia.
No, not even inner Mongolia; that would be too easy. Outer Mongolia. And Gabriel, who is deeply restless and unready to simply marry a fine English woman and spend the rest of his life getting fat over pints of beer, decides to go. And that is where the story, so far mostly familiar, begins to weave its threads of adventure.
The magic of this story is that it takes you to the windswept steppes of Outer Mongolia, delivers on that same sense of breathless discovery that I remember and love, while still rendering everything accessible. I thought about this for a long time, trying to decipher what it was that made the story seem so different, and yet so instantly recognizable all at the same time. And what I decided was that while the setting is rare and the world that Zoe Archer builds is unique, there’s a real sense of universality to the story. When Gabriel meets Thalia, she’s used to wearing a native dress called a del–but because Gabriel is English, she dons a regular English costume…to hilarious effect. And most of all, it is her emotions that are achingly familiar.
For instance, when she first encounters him, she’s wearing an ill-fitting, ugly gown. When her father sees her, dressed as an Englishwoman for the first time in years, they have the following exchange:
“Hilarious,” Thalia supplied.
“Well, yes,” her father agreed. “But I was also going to say: lovely.”
And in that instant, it doesn’t matter that Thalia is something of an assistant Blade of the Rose living in Outer Mongolia, that her father knows secrets about magical things called Sources. Instantly, I understand the love and affection between them. Thalia’s the tomboy forced to play at dress-up. Without being told, I know that she’s going to ride fast, fight fiercely, and love with intensity. You know that she will lead you into adventure. It’s that same thread of human emotion that we recognize again and again in Thalia and Gabriel. Even though the book proceeds at breakneck speed across scenery that is larger than life, chasing prophecies, fighting off bands of mercenaries, running from with the villainous Heirs casting magic about that threatens their lives–throughout it all, Thalia and Gabriel remain people who we can identify with.
Near the end of the book, there’s a moment when Gabriel refuses to kiss Thalia. The scenery is new, but I still found myself getting just a little choked up right then.
Ultimately, that’s what makes this book so memorable. It’s not just that the scope of the story is sweeping. At the same time that Warrior takes you past monasteries and through magical outpourings of bright red flowers, it also tiptoes through territory that is both human and accessible. It precisely captures that feeling of magic that I remember so vividly from my childhood reading. And yet at the same time, it makes me feel so comfortable in Outer Mongolia that when the book ends, I’m surprised to lift my head up and discover that I’m still in my house, in the United States. For the space of a book, Zoe Archer makes Outer Mongolia feel as if it is truly my home. And that is dark magic indeed.(less)
**spoiler alert** The second half of this review contains spoilers for the book. I'll post a warning before we get into them. (Note: this is an actual...more**spoiler alert** The second half of this review contains spoilers for the book. I'll post a warning before we get into them. (Note: this is an actual review for the book--which normally I don't post, as the community norm in romance is that authors don't review books. So don't assume I liked this book less than other books, simply because I say bad things about it. Which is fine--but this is not a romance, and scifi the norms are different. So this is an actual a review.)
So, this book. I have been arguing with myself as to whether this is a four or a five star book, not because I waffle as to how good the book actually is, but because I am not sure which grading scale to use.
I had some worries going into this book. My biggest worry was this: About 10 years ago, I was one of Bujold's natural readers. By this, I mean that the books she was writing were the perfect emotional fit for the books I wanted--no, needed--to read. I've read some of her books literally dozens and dozens of time (Memory, I'm looking at you). But over the last decade that has shifted. I've changed. She's changed. I still enjoy her books, but the last handful haven't caught flame in my heart the way the middle-Miles books did.
So. This book. It's a fast-pace, tightly-plotted Milesian adventure, along the lines of Cetaganda. There's a mystery. There's a pile of cryogenically frozen bodies. And the stakes escalate as the book goes on, from mystery to curiosity to planetary warfare. There's her trademark sense of humor. There's a creepy threat to the Imperium. I enjoyed it.
But this book has a problem, and his name is Jin. Don't get me wrong--I have no problem with kids in fiction. The problem with Jin is that he didn't feel like a child. Or, rather, he didn't feel like a consistently rendered child. (Nikki, on the other hand, always did.) Jin felt like an inconsistently rendered plot device--deeply ignorant, when he needed to ask a question for clarification; and yet profoundly savvy when not.
As an example, Jin (who is twelve) hears that Miles is an Auditor, and assumes that he's an insurance fraud investigator, with Gregor as his boss. Let me point out the ways that this doesn't make sense: At this point, Jin has seen that the Barrayaran consul jumps at Miles's command, that they follow his words as if he were in charge. Jin has seen Miles in action. He's seen the paths that he follows. It simply does not make sense, in light of everything that Jin has seen, that he would persist in the belief that Miles is a glorified insurance salesman, until the very end of the book. Jin is not a stupid twelve years old. He's not a foolish twelve years old. In fact, in my experience, kids--and especially smart kids--are so much less likely to be confused by labels, because they have so many fewer boxes to put things in.
If Jin was too age-stupid in some parts, his emotional concerns felt astonishingly adult-like in others. The way he evaluates Miles-as-father really felt critical in a way that adults are of other adults. In some ways, I felt like Bujold wrote a twelve-year-old child by writing someone like an adult, but with more misconceptions.
This is not to say that Jin ruined the book, but I had a hard time believing he was the narrator when we were in his point of view.
Gripe #2: Ekaterin. I loved A Civil Campaign, but this book just...argh. She's presented as so freaking domestic--and she always was domestic, but--she's so traditional. And that's not out of character for her, but...like I said, argh.
Hence, the four-star review: As a standalone effort, this is a very good book, but one that contained a significant enough flaw that my brain would not turn off in its entirety.
Now we get to the other half of the review. Because there is one way in which this book is unquestionably, undoubtedly, a five-star book.
Here there be Major Spoilers for the last five hundred and three words of the book, so please don't read any farther unless you want to be spoiled.
No. Really. I mean it. DON'T READ ANY FARTHER.
Okay, are you serious about this? Because if you haven't read the book, I don't want to rob it of the emotional impact for you. And you might think you want to be spoiled, but really... you don't.
One of the things I...regret is not the right word. One of the things that makes me wistful about writing romance is the notion that you cannot screw with the Happily Ever After. You don't kill off the spouse of the first couple in the sequel. In fact, in most instances, you show the couple of the prior books off only in order to show their increasing, sickeningly sweet happiness, and their extraordinary fecundity (without, of course, the corresponding sagging body parts).
In some ways, I feel like the extraordinarily rosy future in some ways cheapens the Happily Ever After--as if all the hard work has been done, and so now they may rest on their laurels, content with well-behaved children, estates that produce everything they could want, and milk and honey in every cup forever and ever, and no problems ever threaten the couple.
I don't believe it has to be that way. And this makes me think of what Jo Beverley said at a keynote speech that I heard--that what we should be striving for is not the saccharine happy ending, but a triumphant ending.
On that count, this book delivers. In spades. There is one way that this book is absolutely, without question, a five star review, and that is as an ode for Aral Vorkosigan. This book is a justification for death of the non-cheating variety, as a necessary component of rebirth. And even though she makes you doubt the event in question will happen, during the course of the book, she tells you the truth from the very first line of the book: "Angels were falling all over the place."
If you, like me, have read the earlier Vorkosigan books a billion times, you'll feel the echoes and reverberations throughout.
“They’ve a right,” Miles repeated, wondering why those words seemed to resonate in his mind. He ought to know, but these days he couldn’t blame every memory lapse on his own ten-year-old cryorevival.
I remember. It's an echo of what Harra Csurik says to Miles in the Mountains of Mourning, when she comes to Vorkosigan Surleau, seeking justice for her murdered child. And it is Aral Vorkosigan who listens to her, and who tasks Miles with the meting out of justice. But here, instead of it being justice for the parent to the child, it's an inversion, that of justice for the child.
Throughout the book, we are consistently told that Aral Vorkosigan is aging to the point where perhaps emergency treatment, via untested lab results, is indicated. And, with Lord Mark's business interests, Bujold makes us believe, perhaps hope, even that perhaps she's going to cop out on the promise she made once--that the next book in the Vorkosigan series would be about Aral's death. But that hope is Miles's and Mark's--the belief that really, their father cannot die.
And that hope is just a fairy tale.
This book, even if it is ostensibly about planetary politics that are far removed from Barrayar, is about Aral's legacy. There's a weird symmetry to the plot: Miles saves Komarr from off-world invasion of the weirdest and creepiest variety (and think about what that means for Aral's legacy). More than that: it's about an elderly Komarran lady who, instead of being gunned down, turns to the Imperium and thus saves them all.
There are a thousand other cross-weavings.
At the very end, we have an... epilogue, of sorts, entitled "Aftermaths." Not having all my Vorkosigan books easily to hand, I can't check. But I don't believe that any book had an epilogue entitled "Aftermaths." Any book, of course, except Shards of Honor.
And so I embark on the epilogue with that first Aftermaths firmly in mind:
"Don't be afraid," she said. "The dead cannot hurt you. They give you no pain, except that of seeing your own death in their faces. And one can face that, I find." Yes, he thought, the good face pain. But the great—they embrace it.
I know my name is technically on this, but this is the Very First Thing I ever wrote--and I didn't write most of it, as it is a Round Robin book--and...moreI know my name is technically on this, but this is the Very First Thing I ever wrote--and I didn't write most of it, as it is a Round Robin book--and the winners were chosen by voting, and the voting was skewed in that everyone knew they would have to write another chapter based on the winning chapter, so you were more likely to win if you wrote something that didn't fit well with the previous chapter (because then everyone gets to write about something new).
Please don't buy this and then shake your fist at Courtney Milan because it sucks. In fact, don't buy it at all.
(There are other published authors on this collaboration--but they are all writing under different pen names now.)(less)
I picked up a copy of Alex Beecroft’s False Colors last night at my local Barnes and Noble, just so I could buy it in that crucial first week–even tho...moreI picked up a copy of Alex Beecroft’s False Colors last night at my local Barnes and Noble, just so I could buy it in that crucial first week–even though I didn’t plan to read it until I had a little more time on my hands. This book got a straight A from Dear Author (and if you read them, you know how stingy they are with the A grades).
I glanced at the first page. . . . Gosh. And then the second, and the third. Before I knew it, I had stayed up to finish the whole thing. It was that good. It was truly brilliant.
This is a book set in the Age of Sail. The writing is exquisite; the romance is lovely; the research is meticulous; and the action is nonstop. It breaks your heart and then keeps going on. This book does not shy from any of the harsh realities of life at sea in 1762–nor does it dance around the heart of the problem that the protagonists have: In 1762, their love is forbidden, because both characters are male.
I have not read much m/m romance (and this is romance, not erotica or even erotic romance, and can I say how much I hate that "gay" gets conflated with "erotica"?–the sex scenes are tasteful and far less explicit than you’d find in a corresponding historical, including mine), but it turns out, I really do read romances just to see characters fall in love. I absolutely adored this book. This is one of the best books that I read in 2009.(less)