All Played Out by Cara Carmack (Rusk University #3)

Synopsis:

22249707With just a few weeks until she graduates, Antonella DeLuca’s beginning to worry that maybe she hasn’t had the full college experience. (Okay… Scratch that. She knows she hasn’t had the full college experience).

So Nell does what a smart, dedicated girl like herself does best. She makes a “to do” list of normal college activities.

Item #1? Hook up with a jock.

Rusk University wide receiver Mateo Torres practically wrote the playbook for normal college living. When he’s not on the field, he excels at partying, girls, and more partying. As long as he keeps things light and easy, it’s impossible to get hurt… again. But something about the quiet, shy, sexy-as-hell Nell gets under his skin, and when he learns about her list, he makes it his mission to help her complete it.

Torres is the definition of confident (And sexy. And wild), and he opens up a side of Nell that she’s never known. But as they begin to check off each crazy, exciting, normal item, Nell finds that her frivolous list leads to something more serious than she bargained for. And while Torres is used to taking risks on the field, he has to decide if he’s willing to take the chance when it’s more than just a game.

Together they will have to decide if what they have is just part of the experiment or a chance at something real.

Review:

If all New Adult were like this I would gobble it up! I’m a sucker for a heroine that figures out what she wants, makes a list, and goes for it – Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake, anyone?

The good:

  • The only sexual trauma is a possible previous rape of a secondary character. This is a breath of fresh air in an NA landscape littered with abused protagonists. Nothing wrong with people getting over trauma, but it’s not my bag.
  • I didn’t read books one or two but other than a few references to obviously HEA couples I didn’t notice.
  • Sex positivity! Nell never feels guilty about enjoying sexual pleasure. She doesn’t let the hero go farther than she’s comfortable with, he respects that, and when she decides she wants something she goes after it. You go, girl.
  • The turnaround at the end was touching and believable.
  • The book alternates between Nell and Mateo’s view and they were easily recognizable and equally interesting.
  • No big misunderstanding that could have been solved by simply talking. I bought the conflict.

The not-so-good:

  • Wise words from the mouths of babes. When Nell calls up her mother for advice that kind of talk is expected, but check out these life teachings from her undergrad roommate:

We both have a tendency to focus on achievements, on checking items and goals off a list. And what I’m realizing is that living isn’t about what you achieve, but how you achieve it. We’ve both moved full speed ahead toward the things we want, but I know I hadn’t lived enough to really know what I wanted. In fact, I was spectacularly wrong about most of it.

In chapter one, no less. It’s my single major quibble, though. The only reason this isn’t four stars is that I suspect the book won’t stick in my brain but I’m ready to be proven wrong. Recommended for those who want to try New Adult but have been put off by the angst – this enjoyable read is for you.

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Love at First Flight by Tess Woods

Synopsis:

25058078Looking back on it now, I can see it was instant. The second we locked eyes. Boom. Just like that. The me I had spent a lifetime perfecting began its disintegration from that moment. And despite the carnage it brought to all our lives, I still don’t regret it.

What would you risk to be with the love of your life? And what if your soul mate is the one who will destroy you?

Mel is living the dream. She’s a successful GP, married to a charming anesthetist and raising a beautiful family in their plush home in Perth. But when she boards a flight to Melbourne, she meets Matt and her picture perfect Stepford life unravels as she falls in love for the first time ever.

What begins as a flirty conversation between strangers quickly develops into a hot and obsessive affair with disastrous consequences neither Mel nor Matt could have ever seen coming. Mel’s dream life turns into her worst nightmare.

Love at First Flight will take everything you believe about what true love is and spin it on its head.

Review:

I entered a giveaway for this book knowing it would be a stretch for me. Adultery, after all, is one of the “third rails” of romance – an issue so decisive that no one dares touch it. But Woods does more than touch, she grabs the electrified wire and doesn’t let go. The result is an unflinching look at the havoc an affair has on everyone involved.

Mel is a family doctor, married to anesthetist Adam and with two kids in tow. When she meets Matt on a flight across the country sparks fly, etc. The perspective alternates between Matt and Mel and the different voices are well done with the switches strategically placed.

The thing with an affair is you know it’s not going to go well. She’s married with kids, he has a fiancee… there is no simple happily ever after at the end of this. The most cringe-worthy parts aren’t skipped (so the narrative feels whole) but they are short enough to keep the actual cringing bearable (I don’t want to know what kind of faces I pulled while reading, though).

One of the largest themes for me is the thought that the easy way is rarely the best way. The affair that presents itself as an answer to your humdrum existence will not heal you. Ignoring problems by falling into a beer bottle does not make them go away. Doing something you know in your heart is wrong will likely end up badly. Not having tough, deep conversations with the people you love means you’ll only skim through life with them. Life is messy, even without cheating on spouses, and that mess is a thing to be embraced.

This book is solidly written, well characterized, and throws some nice curve balls into the plot. So while this “stretch” book landed outside of my sweet spot I’m sure there are many people that will enjoy it.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book in a giveaway in exchange for an honest review.

Hammer Head by Nina MacLaughlin

Synopsis:

22253729Nina MacLaughlin spent her twenties working at a Boston newspaper, sitting behind a desk and staring at a screen. Yearning for more tangible work, she applied for a job she saw on Craigslist—Carpenter’s Assistant: Women strongly encouraged to apply—despite being a Classics major who couldn’t tell a Phillips from a flathead screwdriver. She got the job, and in Hammer Head she tells the rich and entertaining story of becoming a carpenter.

Writing with infectious curiosity, MacLaughlin describes the joys and frustrations of making things by hand, reveals the challenges of working as a woman in an occupation that is 99 percent male, and explains how manual labor changed the way she sees the world. We meet her unflappable mentor, Mary, a petite but tough carpenter-sage (“Be smarter than the tools!”), as well as wild demo dudes, foul-mouthed plumbers, grizzled hardware store clerks, and the colorful clients whose homes she and Mary work in.

Hammer Head is a passionate book full of sweat, swearing, bashed thumbs, and a deep sense of finding real meaning in work and life.

Review:

Many people talk about making a big change but few actually do it. I don’t mean something as lofty as following your dreams, but something like quitting the job that is stealing your soul one day at a time. Think of all the people that stay where they are, mired in fear or doubt or worse.

MacLaughlin is not one of them. She made the leap, quitting her journalism job to do something better. She wasn’t sure what. When she saw an ad on Craig’s List for a carpenter’s assistant she jumped and never looked back.

I enjoyed watching the author learn the job – the broad strokes come quickly, like in so many things, but the details take years master. “So much of carpentry is figuring out how to deal with mistakes,” she’s told, and I can’t help but think life is the same way.

While Hammerhead follows MacLaughlin’s journey in loving detail it’s also about the meaning of work. What does our profession say about us? How do we change when our job changes? People view her differently, both as a person and a woman, and her insights are interesting and telling.

The writing is solid and beautiful. After explaining how carpenters use levels she writes,

I sometimes wish a tool existed that could measure the plumbness of our spirits, a tool that would help us decide what’s right for our own lives. How helpful to have an instrument that signaled, with the silent fluid shift of a bubble, that we should shift our spirit a little to the left – just a skosh – and all would be balanced and right.

One of my requirements for a five star read is that after I put the book down I think, “I can’t wait to reread that”. This book passes with flying colors.

Love and Other Scandals by Caroline Linden (Scandalous #1)

Synopsis:

16065684Joan Bennet is tired of being a wallflower. Thanks to some deliciously scandalous—and infamous—stories, she has a pretty good idea of what she’s missing as a spinster. Is even a short flirtation too much to ask for?

Tristan, Lord Burke, recognizes Joan at once for what she is: trouble. Not only is she his best friend’s sister, she always seems to catch him at a disadvantage. The only way he can win an argument is by kissing her senseless. He’d give anything to get her out of her unflattering gowns. But either one of those could cost him his bachelor status, which would be dreadful—wouldn’t it?

Review:

Feel beset by the tragedy in your latest read? Sick of disaster/dystopia/dying/dread? Have a hankering for some happily ever after? A literary rainy day of any sort would be a perfect time to read this romance.

Joan Bennet is living her life. Her mom is a little controlling, her brother could use a little more sense, and her marriage prospects could take a boost but all in all her life isn’t all that bad. Tristan Burke is a lord and a bit of a rake but his hobbies keep him occupied. So… they’re normal people, if titled and wealthy can ever equal normal. But you know what I mean – no pirates, no orphans, no murders.

Our pair meets, sparks fly to differing degrees, and they fall in love just like in any other romance. But, and this is a big difference, there isn’t any angst. At all. No misunderstanding, no crazy plot device to keep our couple together (or apart), no mystery to solve. Relatives add some conflict but the main of the book is spent watching these two people banter and grow into themselves as they grow to like each other.

Linden deliberately fakes out the reader at times by heading straight at a trope (“Here comes the Big Mis, oh no!”) before the characters resolve it like real people would (“Oh, she asked him about it. Problem solved!”). It’s refreshing. However if you’re into high-stakes, oh-no-is-he-gonna-die story lines you may be left yawning.

Take Love and Other Scandals for what it is – a romantic story that will soothe any wounds on your literary soul.

Undertow by Michael Buckley (Undertow #1)

Synopsis:

22749788Sixteen-year-old Lyric Walker’s life is forever changed when she witnesses the arrival of 30,000 Alpha, a five-nation race of ocean-dwelling warriors, on her beach in Coney Island. The world’s initial wonder and awe over the Alpha quickly turns ugly and paranoid and violent, and Lyric’s small town transforms into a military zone with humans on one side and Alpha on the other. When Lyric is recruited to help the crown prince, a boy named Fathom, assimilate, she begins to fall for him. But their love is a dangerous one, and there are forces on both sides working to keep them apart. Only, what if the Alpha are not actually the enemy? What if they are in fact humanity’s only hope of survival? Because the real enemy is coming. And it’s more terrifying than anything the world has ever seen.

Review:

Have you ever started a book and gotten that sinking feeling that it’s not going to turn out well? For me that moment came on page two, when the main character is talking about her migraines.

Somewhere along the line we started categorizing their shapes and sizes like hurricanes. F1 is the ever-present storm in my gray matter. An F5 is a motherf’r, on-the-floor, curled-up-in-a-ball, puking, sobbing, wanting-to-throw-rocks-at God state of emergency.

As a migraineur myself I can tell you it’s an accurate description but the Fujita scale is for tornadoes, not hurricanes. I know it feels like a nitpick, but I think the whole novel would have been more successful if the author and editor nitpicked more.

Parts of this story recall history in a compelling way – the arrival of the Alpha, humanoid-esque ocean creatures, on Coney Island’s shores reminded me of the (sadly) many refugee crises in the world. The angry mobs that gather when said Alpha are allowed to attend school mirrors the New Orleans School Crisis of 1960, with catfish being flung at students instead of tomatoes. A threatening next door neighbor calls to mind “grudge informants” in less-than-upstanding governments. All are deep and engaging themes to tackle in a YA novel and I’m glad they’re here.

But the execution leaves much to be desired. Whenever the protagonist Lyric goes to school her father, a police officer, has to escort her past the crowd. But when she gets inside all the other kids are already there. I guess they used sooper sekret back door.

Instead of parents refusing to send their children to the same school as the Alpha (what happened in 1960) the kids go anyway because… they like to cause mayhem? A police state appeals to them? I’m not sure.

Then there’s the Alpha’s “claustrophobia”. They abhor having something over their head and would rather have a clear view of the sky. Only one of the Alpha in the school seems to be bothered by ceilings and papered up windows, but whatever. When a battle looms and shelters are dug into the sand no one complains about the enclosed, covered space. And while I remember the tent city being described as only walls the cover artist had a different idea. Nitpicking would have saved me from head scratching.

The plot drives forward but doesn’t feel assured in its direction beyond “things must get worse”. Conditions deteriorate and people die with ever more smashing and crashing. Three chapters from the end we’re introduced to an entirely new culture, leaving no chance to appreciate or grok what is happening.

In sum Undertow is like a cut-rate roller coaster – fast and fun at times, but it leaves you motion sick once you step off.

Sous Chef by Michael Gibney

Synopsis:

18142414The back must slave to feed the belly. . . . In this urgent and unique book, chef Michael Gibney uses twenty-four hours to animate the intricate camaraderie and culinary choreography in an upscale New York restaurant kitchen. Here readers will find all the details, in rapid-fire succession, of what it takes to deliver an exceptional plate of food—the journey to excellence by way of exhaustion.

Told in second-person narrative, Sous Chef is an immersive, adrenaline-fueled run that offers a fly-on-the-wall perspective on the food service industry, allowing readers to briefly inhabit the hidden world behind the kitchen doors, in real time. This exhilarating account provides regular diners and food enthusiasts alike a detailed insider’s perspective, while offering fledgling professional cooks an honest picture of what the future holds, ultimately giving voice to the hard work and dedication around which chefs have built their careers.

Review:

An engrossing look at what life is like for a sous chef at a three star restaurant and a must read for any foodie. Throw out any preconceptions you have of a second person narrative, as it works great here. The pacing is tight and I took an extra long bath just to read through service – “I’m in the weeds! The fluke is ruined! How will I get out of this one?!” I may have also watched a random ep of Hell’s Kitchen to help me get in the mood, bwahaha.

And oh, the food porn. Watch Chef plate a dish:

Finally there is the monkfish – a stupendous picture. It starts with a gob of carrot puree, dragged across the plate with the bottom side of a small offset spatula. The result is a cadmium orange swatch that looks more like oil paint than food. After that come the lentils, which he arranges in patches like shiny black moss on a forest floor. Then, with a pair of forceps, the endive goes down, its sharp cowlick of leaves saluting the sky. And then, finally, comes the fish. He cuts the shaft into four identical coins and shingles them down the center of the plate. As he does this, you notice that inside the roulade the foie gras has gone molten, which means you’ve cooked it perfectly.

~drool~

I liked that Gibney explains a lot but not everything; there’s a glossary of cooking terms in the back for that. Some reviewers don’t like the untranslated Spanish, but this is a kitchen in New York City. Of course there’s Spanish. The context tells you what’s going on anyway, and sometimes you get an ad hoc translation in the next paragraph. My view is probably skewed because I live in my second language and am used to sussing things out but really, suck it up.

An entertaining read that I can see myself picking up again when I want to head back to the kitchen.

The Clockwork Dagger by Beth Cato (Clockwork Dagger #1)

Synopsis:

20359709Orphaned as a child, Octavia Leander was doomed to grow up on the streets until Miss Percival saved her and taught her to become a medician. Gifted with incredible powers, the young healer is about to embark on her first mission, visiting suffering cities in the far reaches of the war-scarred realm. But the airship on which she is traveling is plagued by a series of strange and disturbing occurrences, including murder, and Octavia herself is threatened.

Suddenly, she is caught up in a flurry of intrigue: the dashingly attractive steward may be one of the infamous Clockwork Daggers—the Queen’s spies and assassins—and her cabin-mate harbors disturbing secrets. But the danger is only beginning, for Octavia discovers that the deadly conspiracy aboard the airship may reach the crown itself.

Review:

While I love urban fantasy I hadn’t taken the plunge into steampunk. When this book popped onto my radar I was intrigued – “strange and mysterious occurrences”! A person of color on the cover! The promise of romance! Don’t mind if I do.

The world is easy to fall into, well-drawn and immersive. Cato doesn’t make the mistake of trying to explain everything at once, instead letting details spool out with each new scene and character. The magic system is based on nature but meshes with the mechanical elements in interesting ways. After a short introduction of sorts the story is off and running but never feels rushed. The characters, and by extension the reader, are given some breathing room to absorb and process the events that are going on around them.

That being said, characterization itself is splotchy at best. Octavia and Alonzo are fully formed and nuanced but secondary characters are flat and stereotyped. The pushy salesman with a thin mustache? Yeah, maybe you shouldn’t trust him. And the captain who seems to know what he’s doing? He does. Go fig.

The book was done a disservice by having the male character on the cover. He’s introduced as someone you may or may not want to be associated with… but he’s on the cover! Of course he’s a good guy! That’s another mystery instantly solved.

While I enjoyed being led through this story nothing is particularly pushing me to read the next installment. It’s not because everything’s tidy, on the contrary there are a bunch of loose ends to be followed up. Cato could bring another amazing plot, I’m sure, but the characters feel like they’ve been wrung dry. So for now I’ll pass.

The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

Synopsis:

20910034A working father whose life no longer feels like his own discovers the transforming powers of great (and downright terrible) literature in this laugh-out-loud memoir.

Andy Miller had a job he quite liked, a family he loved, and no time at all for reading. Or so he kept telling himself. But, no matter how busy or tired he was, something kept niggling at him. Books. Books he’d always wanted to read. Books he’d said he’d read that he actually hadn’t. Books that whispered the promise of escape from the daily grind. And so, with the turn of a page, Andy began a year of reading that was to transform his life completely.

This book is Andy’s inspirational and very funny account of his expedition through literature: classic, cult, and everything in between. Beginning with a copy of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita that he happens to find one day in a bookstore, he embarks on a literary odyssey. From Middlemarch to Anna Karenina to A Confederacy of Dunces, this is a heartfelt, humorous, and honest examination of what it means to be a reader, and a witty and insightful journey of discovery and soul-searching that celebrates the abiding miracle of the book and the power of reading.

Review:

From the title and cover copy you’d think Andy Miller was a man in crisis that was saved from the brink by great literature, or maybe a former reader that found himself enlightened and his life enriched by a year with the classics.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Miller is a man of letters through and through, a reader born into a family of readers. He went to college for literature, worked for years at a bookshop, and eventually became an editor for a London publishing house. Books are, and have always have been, his life and his livelihood.

But then something happened – he had a kid and moved to the suburbs. This, apparently, is what his life needs saving from. You see with a young child in the house he had trouble finding time to read. Oh dear. I guess that no one told him kids are time consuming?

His solution is to make a list of 50 books that he’s lied about reading and actually finish them. He manages this easily by cutting out the sudoku on his commute and disappearing for hours at a time on the weekend to get the 50 pages in.

The list gets read without much hardship. Miller does a great job discussing some titles, making weighty tomes approachable and interesting. He has me considering reading Anna Karenina and War and Peace, books that until this point I thought would require two weeks of solitude to even attempt. Most other books, though, are a springboard into memories from his childhood. I’m glad that this or that book means a lot to him and that it connects deeply with his past… but I’d like to hear more about the actual book, you know?

This is the main problem I have with Reading Dangerously. Instead of examining books through the lens of his life he plops his life front and center, dressing it up with classics and cult novels. (But never, ever genre. The horror.) Every once in a while Miller manages to hit something more universal, more human, but it happens so rarely I think it must be a fluke.

Other problems abound. Miller harangues Dan Brown for filling his writing with the odd “clunking… expository dialogue or pseudo-scholarly statistic or shockingly ugly sentence.” Then he writes this in a chapter that he admits if it were up to him (wasn’t it?) would have been cut out entirely:

I am writing to you from the lobby of the British Library in London. The St Pancras facility, which consists of reading rooms, galleries, cafes and a shop, was designed by the architect Colin St. John Wilson and opened to the public in 1997. It is the largest public building constructed in the United Kingdom in the twentieth century, requiring approximately ten million bricks and 180,000 tonnes of concrete….

Pot, meet kettle.

Much of the second half of the book feels like vamping for the sake of meeting a page quota. We have detailed descriptions of his four(-ish) encounters with Douglas Adams, a “fan letter” to an author, and three appendices – the original list of 50 books, 100 books that influenced him, and books “I still intend to read”.

To top it all off there is stuffy disdain for books with a plot, the “feminization” of reading, and all those people on the internet that are diluting the opinion of professional critics. “The Internet is the greatest library in the universe,” he writes. “Unfortunately someone has removed all the ‘no talking’ signs.”

So yeah. Way to piss me off.

While I made a fair share of notes throughout the book the overwhelming majority are quotes by other people. I was hoping Reading Dangerously would open my eyes to new books and new ways of looking at old favorites, but instead I was saddled with a navel-gazing working father that spouts all sorts of things that don’t add up to very much.