Urban Shaman by C.E. Murphy (Walker Papers #1)

6545916Joanne Walker has three days to learn to use her shamanic powers and save the world from the unleashed Wild Hunt.

No worries. No pressure. Never mind the lack of sleep, the perplexing new talent for healing herself from fatal wounds, or the cryptic, talking coyote who appears in her dreams.

And if all that’s not bad enough, in the three years Joanne’s been a cop, she’s never seen a dead body—but she’s just come across her second in three days.

It’s been a bitch of a week.

And it isn’t over yet.

Review:

I love urban fantasy but have gotten away from it, so I thought this book would be a great reintroduction. Sadly, not so much.

The good:

  • I like Joanne as a heroine. She’s a bit out of the ordinary – tall and imposing, a combination of Irish and Native American blood. She’s strong and has a point of view and doesn’t apologize for doing what she thinks is right.
  • The fantasy framework is a mix of Celtic and indigenous influences that I haven’t seen put together before.
  • Representation is good all around, with the first cross-dressing cop I’ve run across in fiction. Neat.

The not-so-good:

  • The secondary characters are underdeveloped and sometimes defy common sense. A random cabbie that gives her a ride from the airport quickly becomes her sidekick. Other people rotate in and out of the story so quickly you’re not sure if they’re important or plot enablers.
  • While our protagonist is a woman I had to sit here for several minutes before I could think of another woman who wasn’t a victim or dead. Eep.
  • The action goes off into dream land or spiritual space a lot. Nothing wrong with that in general, but it’s a space without apparent rules, rhyme, or reason. It’s hard to convince me of stakes or danger when a deus ex machina could literally pop out of the sky to save our heroine.
  • The writing isn’t the best and I found myself skimming more and more as the book went on.

So while my love for urban fantasy has been rekindled I don’t think I’ll be exploring it with this series.

Modern Mindfulness by Rohan Gunatillake

29939328In Modern Mindfulness, Rohan Gunatillake argues that to lead more mindful, calm and happy lives, switching off is the last thing we need to do. Instead he gives readers ideas, principles, and techniques to bring awareness, composure, and kindness whatever they are doing. Filled with over sixty practical exercises, the author’s mobile mindfulness approach gives the benefits of meditation to even the busiest of lives.

Review:

My job can be stressful so my friend recommended a meditation app, something I could do during stolen moments that would help me gain a little peace.  I sat down in the hospital coffee shop and… I tried.  I really did.  But I had to crank up the sound to drown out a crying baby, people were looking at me funny, and I kept opening one eye to make sure my purse was still there.  Still lots of stress, not so much peace.

Gunatillake outlines a method that doesn’t require quiet or closed eyes or even stillness.  There are exercises you can do while walking, commuting, and sitting at your computer.  Modern life feels hectic but there are many moments we can leverage to get back in touch with our body and mind.

There are six core techniques that start with simpler, easier to grasp topics (relaxation, focus, being present) and move through more complex ideas (coping, connection, going deeper).  Each has a guided meditation which, to be honest, I was skeptical of, but ended up liking them more than any audio meditations I’ve tried. Here’s part of one I read while commuting by train:

…there is no need to judge our posture as to whether it is slovenly or sublime, just pay attention to it as it is.

Pay attention in as simple and direct a way as possible right now.

Take as long as you need.

I was standing and that was okay.  I was slouching, and that was okay.  I could look out the window while taking stock of my body for as long as I needed without anyone mumbling in my ear about the next thing.  All okay, all relaxing and peaceful.

After each core meditation there are ten related mobile exercises and they are my favorite part of the book.  Many are linked with some kind of trigger that act as reminders throughout your day to check in and be mindful.  For example, now and then eat breakfast with no distractions, concentrating on the experience of eating.  When you pick up your phone note why you reached for it – boredom? loneliness? – and try sitting with that emotion instead of checking twitter. When you see someone on the street who’s happy let that feeling resonate with you and celebrate with them.

I now have ways to be mindful when I step out the door, when I have a minute between patients, and when my mind is racing on the bus ride home.  It’s exactly what I wanted and needed.

Some more of the good – Gunatillake keeps mindfulness and religion in separate boxes, which this agnostic appreciates. And he points out that some techniques won’t work, and that’s okay:

Sometimes we can look the difficult directly in the face and other times we need to play the relaxation card, moving our attention somewhere more tolerable.  This is not a failure; it is wisdom.

In the introduction he says that formal practice (sitting and concentrating on the breath) is secondary to the mobile exercises.  This made me very happy… until chapter eight or so, when the story changes to ‘but really, formal practice is important and the base of mindfulness, so make sure you do it’.  I may have been more receptive to this switch if I were working through the books and techniques slowly, but it was a frustrating change when reading the book in one go.

My other critique is that Gunatillake’s scope is narrow, with meditations centered on experiences of white collar workers commuting via public transportation.  He assumes that everyone works at an office and is surrounded by concrete which is distancing if, like me, you don’t.  “I don’t know if you’ve noticed yet but meetings at work are really boring,” he says, so clearly he’s never met with a bunch of interpreters!  (Seriously, it’s our job to a) talk, b) care, and c) do what needs doing. It makes for great meetings.)

Anywho… people who live in the country will laugh at the idea of “spend[ing] a short time experiencing a park or a green space”, and there’s a lack of techniques tailored to service jobs or manual labor or even driving.  It doesn’t take away from the exercises but it feels like a missed opportunity.

That being said I really like Modern Mindfulness.  I’m looking forward to going back through it slowly and spending a week or two on each core technique while building up my mindfulness muscle.  If you’ve been meditating for a while you may not squeeze as much out of the pages but it was just what this neophyte needed.

Thanks to St. Martin’s Griffin and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Wicked Beat by Olivia Cunning (Sinners on Tour #4)

Synopsis:

12710096From the moment he lays eyes on Sinners’ new front of house soundboard operator, drummer Eric Sticks knows he has to make Rebekah his. Unfortunately, she’s too busy trying to seduce guitarist Trey Mills to pay him much attention.

Rebekah never planned to fall for the tall, goofy drummer with the weird sense of humor and a heart the size of the galaxy. But Eric makes her laugh and his constant attention makes her feel sexy and irresistible–exactly what she needs after the things her last lover said to her.

A woman who gives as much as she takes, Rebekah makes Eric feel like a total stud–exactly what he needs after surviving a decade of watching the incredibly talented members of Sinners from the wings.

Review:

Opening this book I knew what I was getting into – lots of sex with some plot to hold things together. So that instalove in the beginning? Mostly forgiven. The predictable monkey business? Overlooked.

Like in the other book in this series I’ve read a woman finds a way to get close to the band via a tour-related gig, she drools, he’s cool, and they get it on.  Okay.  Eric has an… issue… that they need to get over as a couple that adds some interest and conflict.

But in the middle there’s heaps of angst, piled on in layers. Someone’s in the closet, someone else is dealing with mental illness, somebody else has family issues, yet someone else is recovering from nearly dying… hmmm, I feel like I’m forgetting something. Oh, the arranged marriage neither party wants! It was way too much for me, and almost convenient in its utter wrongness.  That situation that looks like it’s going to go badly?  It’s even worse than you feared. Grah.

Recurring characters have several books’ worth of characterization behind them but the secondary characters were unsatisfying and poorly developed, almost caricatures of archetypes – the kind dad, the coworker looking for revenge, the overbearing mother.  There’s a description of a medical condition that I’m not happy with but don’t know enough about to rail at properly. Grah.

There is also a hint of a menage that never really happens. It looks like it got put in book five instead so I’ll give that one a go, but Wicked Beat was too ARGH to be enjoyable.

Lotus by Lijia Zhang

31204038Surviving by her wits alone, Lotus charges headlong into the neon lights of Shenzhen, determined to pull herself out of the gutter and decide her own path. She’s different than the other streetwalkers—reserved, even defiant, Lotus holds her secrets behind her red smile.

The new millennium should’ve brought her better luck, but for now she leads a double life, wiring the money home to her family and claiming she earns her wages waiting tables. Her striking eyes catch the attention of many, but Lotus weighs her options between becoming the concubine of a savvy migrant worker or a professional girlfriend to a rich and powerful playboy. Or she may choose the kind and decent Hu Binbing, a photojournalist reporting on China’s underground sex trade—who has a hidden past of his own. She knows that fortunes can shift with the toss of a coin and, in the end, she may make a choice that leads her on a different journey entirely.

Review:

I enjoyed Lotus but it wasn’t love at first sight.  I had a hard time getting into the prose – Zhang’s writing style isn’t experimental or dramatic, but it took a while to align the way my mind moves with her words.  Once I did I found myself drawn into the story of Lotus, a prostitute inspired by the secret life of the author’s grandmother, and photojournalist Bing.

The style is simple and belies the well-laid out plot and deep characterization at work.  We meet characters as whole people and learn more about their back story and motivations as the chapters go by.  Later information never invalidates a previous action but adds depth and nuance. Over time the characters, including minors ones, become even more real. They change and grow due to later events, pulling us through without the need for a gripping A through B to C plot.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a plot.  We watch as Lotus makes her way in the world, trying to find the best path among many lousy options.  How can she find herself, then be true that person?  Who is her ally, and who is better left behind?  Bing has choices of his own tied up with money and love, as well as a past that won’t let him go.

I was worried that the ending would be overly sad or maudlin but Zhang crafts a satisfying conclusion that took me by surprise while being true to all the characterization that leads up to it.  Lotus is interesting for its craft and story and is great for those looking for something grounded yet out of the ordinary.

Thanks to Henry Holt & Company and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Foundations of Clinical Psychiatry edited by Sidney Bloch et al.

preview_bloch-final-cover_fcFoundations of Clinical Psychiatry is the trusted introductory text for students of medicine and other health professions, including psychiatric nursing, psychology, social work and occupational therapy. It has also been the essential reference for family doctors for over quarter of a century.

The four-part structure—an introduction to clinical psychiatry; conditions encountered; specific patient groups and clinical settings; and principles and details of typical clinical services, and of biological and psychological treatments—provides a clear overview of clinical practice. It also explores the causes of mental illness and the ethical aspects of its treatment, and covers the full range of psychiatric disorders encountered by health practitioners.

Review:

Yes, this is a medical textbook.  But don’t run away just yet!  If you work in any kind of health profession or have contact with people with mental illness you will find it invaluable.

For background I’m a medical interpreter. If you speak English and walk into a Japanese hospital while I’m on shift I’ll help you communicate with doctors and staff across languages to make sure you receive the best care.  I love my job – I never know what kind of patients I’ll meet on a particular day.  I’ve seen everything from heart attacks to common colds but being called to psychiatry always gives me pause.  Does someone need their medication adjusted?  Will I be interpreting a psychotic delusion?  Or is the patient thinking of killing themselves and in need of immediate help?

After reading this book I feel much more prepared for whatever may come my way.  The book is split into four parts – An Approach to Clinical Practice covers the history, classification, and ethics of psychiatry. The Range of Psychiatric Disorders covers each disorder in detail while the next section, Special Clinical Areas, highlights areas like forensic psychiatry and women’s mental health.  Last is a detailed section on the different treatment options available.  It’s a thorough approach that’s aimed squarely at people with medical know-how who aren’t necessarily doctors themselves.

I highlighted so. many. passages!  I plowed straight through but the chapters stand alone so you can read what interests or affects you.  If you work in a nursing home you’ll gravitate towards psychiatry of old age and neuropsychiatric disorders (like dementia and Alzheimer’s), and if you’re an interpreter like me the chapter on psychiatric interviews will be pure gold.

Foundations is from an Australian publisher but they use both American (DSM-5) and international (ICD-10) classifications.  I now have a deeper, better understanding of all the little corners of psychiatry and have some insight into what the doctor is thinking or aiming for during a particular consultation.

Will everyone be excited to read about mental illness?  I’m going to guess not.  ;)  But if you work in a medical environment or with people affected by psychiatric disorders you’ll learn a ton and be more prepared for whomever may walk through the door. So consider this a hearty, if narrow, recommend.

Thanks to Melbourne University Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

The Viscount and the Vixen by Lorraine Heath (The Hellions of Havisham #3)

28523597Love begets madness. Viscount Locksley watched it happen to his father after his cherished wife’s death. But when his sire arranges to marry flame-haired fortune hunter Portia Gadstone, Locke is compelled to take drastic measures to stop the stunning beauty from taking advantage of the marquess. A marriage of mutual pleasure could be convenient, indeed… as long as inconvenient feelings don’t interfere.

Now the sedate—and, more importantly, secure—union Portia planned has been tossed in favor of one simmering with wicked temptation and potential heartbreak. Because as she begins to fall for her devilishly seductive husband, her dark secrets surface and threaten to ruin them both—unless Locke is willing to risk all and open his heart to love.

Review:

I love Lorraine Heath.  She is masterful at capturing period detail and keeping things historically accurate.  Her heroes and heroines fall in love on the page and follow believable emotional journeys.  While Heath’s last book, The Earl Takes All, had a daring plot device The Viscount and the Vixen sticks closer to Regency orthodoxy.

Huzzah marriages of convenience!  In real life it would suck but this is a romance.  Of course it works out.  The compatibility of our couple is obvious from the start – they have a magnets-attract-I-must-kiss-you-now thing going on.  Instalust isn’t my jam, but their love grows slowly and naturally over time so I can almost forgive it.

Heath is masterful at keeping your mind in the period.  Check out this scene where Locke takes out Portia’s wedding ring and she freezes up:

Locksley squeezed her hand. “Unfurl your fingers.”
“You can’t want to do this.”
“Neither did I wish to get married today, yet here I am.  Open your hand and let’s get this done.”
Reluctantly she did as he bade…

“Unfurl”, “bade” – no modern narration clunking around here!

Portia is strong and goes after the things she needs, the most important of which is security.  The reason she’s concerned about her welfare is…. a secret!  Grah.  We’re kept in the dark for a while, which is nice, but it’s still a secret.  The hero finds out, he storms like a normal person would, and they figure out a solution.  Ta-da!  Wrap it up with a nice epilogue (so rare) and we’re done.

All in all The Viscount and the Vixen is a solid and enjoyable read. Recommended for those who like strong heroes and heroines, a healthy dose of not-ballroom scenes, and have have a stronger stomach for secrets than me. ;)

The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers

Synopsis:

28110868When Major Gryffth Hockaday is called to the front lines of the Civil War, his new bride is left to care for her husband’s three-hundred-acre farm and infant son. Placidia, a mere teenager herself living far from her family and completely unprepared to run a farm or raise a child, must endure the darkest days of the war on her own. By the time Major Hockaday returns two years later, Placidia is bound for jail, accused of having borne a child in his absence and murdering it. What really transpired in the two years he was away? To what extremes can war and violence push a woman who is left to fend for herself?

Told through letters, court inquests, and journal entries, this saga, inspired by a true incident, unfolds with gripping intensity, conjuring the era with uncanny immediacy. Amid the desperation of wartime, Placidia sees the social order of her Southern homeland unravel. As she comes to understand how her own history is linked to one runaway slave, her perspective on race and family are upended. A love story, a story of racial divide, and a story of the South as it fell in the war, The Second Mrs. Hockaday reveals how this generation—and the next—began to see their world anew.

Review:

I haven’t read much Civil War fiction, not even Gone with the Wind (don’t judge!) but this book is an epistolary novel.  My ultimate catnip!  You could set one in a period I know little about (Civil War) or a time and place I usually try to avoid (World War II Europe) and I will still come running.  Letters!  Inquiries!  Diary entries, oh my!  It’s a voyeuristic look at history and I love it.

Rivers handles the epistolary element wonderfully, giving the letter writers different voices that fit their personalities, situations, and the era.  She did a massive amount of research and it shows.

From the beginning there’s an unreliable narrator – Placidia is tight lipped about the child she’s accused of bearing then burying, but rumors abound and neighbors swore they saw something odd.  What really happened?  Just when you think you have an idea the letters jump 30 years ahead in time – the South is very different now, and these letter writers are as curious as the reader about what transpired.  While the shift was jarring it was in a “ooo, who’s this!” way, not a “waitwaitwait what the heck happened” way.

It’s hard to talk about the rest of the story without giving things away but the second part of the book sucked me in more than the first.  More than the new characters the promise of an answer to the mystery kept me reading.  The ending brought closure to the main storyline and hints at the futures of many of the letter writers, but not all.  It didn’t bother me, as now I can think about those characters and where life may have taken the.

The language and attitudes fit the times so if you’re sensitive about how slaves were (mis)treated you may want to skip this book.  When I read about the South it’s usually scholarly works about the black experience so the jump into plantation owners’ heads rattled me.  The book isn’t “yay slavery!” by any means, but it’s a dose of a reality I don’t spend much time in.

The Second Mrs. Hockaday is a bit out of my wheelhouse but I still enjoyed the writing and where the story took me.  I also like knowing that the fiction is rooted in fact, right down to the timing of battles.  I can’t enthusiastically recommend it to everyone, but if you like reading epistolary novels or about the Civil War you’ll probably fall in head over heels.

Thanks to Algonquin Books and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Her Halloween Treat by Tiffany Reisz (Men at Work #1)

29095423It was a devastating dirty trick—Joey Silvia just found out her boyfriend of two years is married. What. A. Dick. Joey knows her best chance to get over one guy is to get under another. Of course, heading home to her family’s remote cabin in Oregon poses some challenges in the “available men” department…until she discovers this cabin comes with its own hot handyman!

Holy crap, Chris Steffensen. When did her brother’s best friend turn into a hard-bodied pile of blond-bearded hotness? He’s the perfect Halloween treat—and a surprisingly dirty rebound guy. For a couple of weeks, anyway. Except that Chris has other ideas…like proving to Joey that this blast from the past is a whole lot more than a naughty Halloween hookup.

Review:

Reisz is one of my go-to authors and she delivers again with this category romance. Categories are shorter romances that are part of a line, a niche that is dominated by Harlequin.  They tend to be shorter, rarely topping 250 pages, and the lack of real estate means the story is concentrated on the couple and their developing love story.  Wendy the Super Librarian does a great job explaining the appeal over at Heroes and Heartbreakers.  Personally I like that they’re conveniently packaged, perfect for when my brain has scattered to the winds. (2016 – good riddance.)

Shorter books are a natural fit for Reisz, who has a habit of breaking up anything over 300 pages into smaller chunks.  The plot is tight, the characters are fully realized, and the sex is oh-so-hot.  I love that there are LGBT characters whose past struggles and current joys ring true.  Sometimes categories give me emotional whiplash when a character’s development is cut short but Reisz has all the beats covered.  Joey acts more rashly than I would at times, but given her circumstances it’s completely understandable.

I also like that Joey’s best friend is real-world wise, not parent-y or moral authority-y wise.  Here’s Kira when Joey laments that the last two years of her life have gone “down the toilet”.

“Look, I know breakups are hard.  And they’re ten times harder when somebody lies or cheats.  I know.  I’ve been there.  But Ben was not your whole life. You have a job you love that you kick ass at… You have friends – me, for example – and what more do you need than me?  And you live in fucking Honolulu, Hawaii, so close to the beach you can see actual whales from your apartment window.  Can you really tell me that’s all down the toilet?  Really?  Go look.  Go look in the toilet and tell me if you see any whales in it.”

“Kira…”

“Go. Look. For. Whales. In. Your. Toilet. Right. Now.”

All in all a hot, satisfying, quick hit of romance from the incomparable Reisz.

The Reading Year Ahead – 2017

Happy New Year!  I love clean slates – perfect for ambition and all kinds of plans.  But before I get into that let’s see how I did with last year’s goals:

  • Have at least 20% of my reading be by an author who is a person of color of otherwise diverse
  • Read from more library categories than last year
  • Add at least ten titles to my ongoing Dewey decimal list

These were all successes.  I ended up around 30% diverse, with one more library category than last year and 15 titles added to Dewey. Woot.

  • Add at least five titles to my ongoing 20th Century list
  • Read at least one more book than last year.

Two fails.  I added four titles to the 20th Century (the pull of the frontlist is strong) and I just barely matched the number of books read.

Mid-year I set a goal to read all of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize nominees… which also didn’t happen.  To be fair, though, a couple of the books haven’t been released in the US yet while library holds doomed me on another.  I do hope to read a couple more in the future and plan to tackle the nominees again in 2017.  So many good books….

Overall I’m happy with what I accomplished. The goal that was the most stressful was number of books – counting feels silly when some books are 100 pages and others are 1000 pages.  So guess what I’m doing this year, bwahahahahahaha.

2017 Reading Goals

  • Read 36,000 pages

The last couple of years I’ve been avoiding chunksters to avoid falling behind on my Goodreads challenge, which is just silly.  Counting pages solves that problem and lets me get to all the delicious tomes that are sitting in heavy piles on my shelf.

So that’s how much I hope to read.  The rest of the goals help me broaden my reading life:

  • Have 30%+ of my reading be by authors who are people of color or otherwise diverse
  • Add at least five titles to my ongoing 20th Century list
  • Add at least five titles to my ongoing Dewey list (hopefully 10+)

Do you count books or pages?  This will be my first year doing pages and I’m still not sure it’ll be the best plan for me, so I’d love to hear what you do.

Here’s to a happy and book-filled 2017!