Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Synopsis:

12611253Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she’s a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she’s a disgrace; to design mavens, she’s a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.

Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette’s intensifying allergy to Seattle—and people in general—has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.

To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence—creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter’s role in an absurd world.

Review:

Epistolary novels are my weakness and this one is exceptionally good. The range of mediums, as well as writers and recipients, gives us a deep look into people’s heads. And what interesting heads! Semple does a great job giving each character a distinct voice and making the whole thing funny to boot.

Starting feels a little bit like wading into the weeds but things come together quickly. Even after the narrative settled down Semple kept me on my toes by bringing up something I didn’t know and letting it hang. It gnawed quietly on a corner of my brain for 10, 20, or 50 pages before a subtle explanation was dropped. More than once I found myself smiling and nodding in recognition, “ohhh, that thing!” Now and then there was a reference I did get, letting me feel smart for a second.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette lives and breathes the axiom “show, don’t tell”. I don’t want to spoil you, so let’s just say that a powerpoint presentation is given in front of a large crowd. The speaker’s clicker breaks two slides in, though, and he has to resort to explaining everything. It’s perfect because it allows the transcript to be a full record while also showing the character’s poise under pressure. Add in a live blogger’s comments and it’s masterful.

The only fault I can find in the entire novel is a slightly slow part near the end, but it’s so minor it’s barely worth mentioning. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a fun, engaging read just about anyone can enjoy.

Untamed by Elizabeth Lowell (Medieval #1)

Synopsis:

10252717Returning home triumphant from the Crusades, Dominic le Sabre is determined to claim the bride promised to him by the king, but the high-born Celtic beauty is equally determined to resist him.

Review:

Many parts of this book made me cringe, but it was more for tropes I hate than anything else. In fact, the solid writing and (slightly plodding) story kept me from abandoning the book all together.

The good:

  • learning medieval tidbits about castles and falconry
  • how thoughtfully (and sexily) the hero seduced the heroine
  • Meg’s inner strength and belief in her convictions. She doesn’t let a stupid alpha male keep her from what she has to do.

The not-so-good:

  • heroine being held captive (sorta) for a good chunk of the book
  • all this talk of “I must have sons!” without any regard to whether Meg would, you know, actually want sons. Or kids in general.
  • Dominic never ever trusts Meg, even after she proves herself several times
  • the spy was mad easy to spot
  • the battle scenes seemed short for how important they are. But maybe that’s my urban fantasy roots showing

While this book wasn’t for me I would recommend it to someone whose taste in tropes run opposite to mine.

Moonstruck by Lauren Dane (Diablo Lake #1)

25771199Katie Grady left Diablo Lake to get over a humiliating breakup; but her family needs her help, so she’s back, in a sublet right across the hall from the guy she’s lusted after for years. Jace Dooley is hotter than ever, and their friendship picks up along with massive doses of grown-up chemistry.

The very scent of Katie sharpens Jace’s canines, makes the wolf within him stir. There’s nothing more alluring to a Pack Alpha than a sexy female who is so very in charge. She won’t be coddled, but if he plays his hand just right she might be convinced to become his.

Katie presents a challenge to Jace’s wolf nature, whose chief instinct is to protect. Especially now that she’s coming into the magic that is her birthright – and suddenly Jace isn’t the only one who’s interested in Katie, or the raw power she’s just learning to use.

Review:

I like some of Dane’s other work so I had high hopes for Moonstruck but it’s not quite my thing.

The good:

  • Dane is a solid writer and the story basics are well in hand.
  • The town dynamics are interesting with two werewolf packs and witches in the middle, acting as a moderating force.

The not-so-good:

  • The heroine says weird stuff simply for the sake of being weird. It’s… weird, and not in a good way.
  • In the same vein, the relationship between Katie and her best friend feels forced and their conversation is cringe inducing. I nearly DNFed in the first chapter, it bothered me so much.
  • You could take the paranormal aspects out and you’d end up with the same story – a small town “the one that got away” romance with feuding families and ailing relatives. I like it when the magical stuff is more central to the story.

So let’s give this one a big ol’ ENH.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Synopsis:

10112885Everybody has a Cordova story. Cult horror director Stanislas Cordova hasn’t been seen in public since 1977. To his fans he is an engima. To journalist Scott McGrath he is the enemy. To Ashley he was a father.

On a damp October night the body of young, beautiful Ashley Cordova is found in an abandoned warehouse in lower Manhattan. Her suicide appears to be the latest tragedy to hit a severely cursed dynasty.

For McGrath, another death connected to the legendary director seems more than a coincidence. Driven by revenge, curiosity and a need for the truth, he finds himself pulled into a hypnotic, disorientating world, where almost everyone seems afraid.

The last time McGrath got close to exposing Cordova, he lost his marriage and his career. This time he could lose his grip on reality.

ONCE WE FACE OUR DEEPEST FEARS, WHAT LIES ON THE OTHER SIDE?

Review:

The last thing I want to do is spoil anyone so please excuse any vagueness or odd hand waving. Hopefully those who have read the book will know what I’m getting at.

Like any good mystery we start off with a bunch of intriguing questions – was Ashley’s death really a suicide? Who is this reclusive Cordova guy, anyway? And what kind of guy would make such twisted films?

The (non-spoilery) good stuff:

  • The backstory. Pessl obviously put a ton of work into Cordova’s filmography and it shows. I was worried that with a dozen or so film titles being thrown around I would get confused but there was always ample context.
  • How the arc of the book as a whole mirrors… something else. While some might be annoyed with the end I thought it was fitting, especially how it related to… that something else. ~shakes a fist at the spoiler-free sky~
  • Cordova’s philosophy. I can’t say I agree with it, but it’s intriguing and made me think about how I’m living my own life. Not to mention that I need to read a certain poem now.
  • Most of the characters are on the “unlikeable” side of the scale but they didn’t make me want to throw the book across the room. All have their own motivations (however twisted) and it works.

The (zero spoiler) not-so-good stuff:

  • In the first half of the book question after question is raised but precious few are answered, and around the 50% mark I started to lose interest. Why should I keep reading if it just digs me deeper into a hole? Near the end things picked up and gave me some stuff to think about but it was a struggle to get there.
  • The extras available through the “decoder” app. A couple were neat (a filmography, primary documents) but some were maddening. An interview with a murderer was especially bad, because…
  • …the interview is poorly written. The questions sound like they’re being read in order, no matter what the subject says. The murderer in particular leaves all these juicy tidbits hanging in the air, begging for follow up, but the interviewer just goes to the next question on her list. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by Terry Gross but it was beyond annoying.
  • The voice acting in the app left much to be desired. It sounded like reading, not acting out a part.

Overall it was an interesting read that left me thinking but sadly it didn’t live up to the hype.

Women in Translation Month 2017: Suggestions and Reading List

As you may know this is the Women in Translation Month, started by Meytal Radzinski at Biblibio. Only a quarter or so of books translated into English arwit1e by women so this is a time to draw attention to the awesomeness that’s out there and celebrate it.  And because it’s a look at marginalized voices transgender and nonbinary authors are included in the mix, huzzah!

This is the fourth #WiTMonth and it’s been growing up nicely.  As Radzinski put in a recent post,

This is how I think it should be. Not every reader necessarily devoting all their time to reading women in translation all of August, but enough different readers and reviewers and bloggers and translators and publishers talking about the subject. People learning about the publishing imbalance in translation between men and women. People seeking out new and diverse literature by women writers from around the world. And people doing it not out of any sense of obligation or guilt, but because there are so many good books that this just becomes a month that focuses their reading. This becomes a month with a greater density of recommendations, with more posts, with more attention. Women in translation must exist yearlong, but in August we get to give them that extra platform that they might not always have.

This.  All the this.

In that spirit I won’t be devoting my entire August to women in translation but I do have some interesting titles lined up and ready to go.  Looking for a place to start?  Here are some of my recent favorites:

25330335Seeing Red by Lina Meruane, translated by Megan McDowell

This book clawed into my brain. The prose is relentless, the story is haunting, and the fact that it’s an autobiographical novel makes the main character’s anguish all the more real.

26894137The First Wife by Paulina Chiziane, translated by David Brookshaw

Mozambique’s first published female novelist drops us into her country and tells the story of Rami, a first wife that just found out that her husband actually has five.  The prose has a delightful rhythm to it and I cheered for and commiserated with Rami every step of the way.

A Simple Story: The Last Malambo by Leila Guerriero, translated by Frances Riddle30347690

The rarest of the rare – non-fiction in translation.  The Malambo quickly became my favorite dance that I never knew about as Guerriero follows the dancers that put everything into their craft… for the honor of never being able to dance it again.  Powerful and sure to be one of my favorite reads of 2017.

And now for a reading list!  I picked up The Weaver by Emmi Itäranta thinking it was a translation, but it looks like she rewrote it in English so I’m not sure it counts.  That’s okay, though, as there’s so much to pick from!  Right now I’m looking at:

  • The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette
  • Eve Out of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi, translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman
  • Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel, translated by Ros Schwartz (to be published November 2017) – perhaps the most fitting book ever ;)

I’d love to hear your recommendations, especially if you know of any non-fiction by women in translation!

The Red by Tiffany Reisz

30755704Mona Lisa St. James made a deathbed promise that she would do anything to save her mother’s art gallery. Unfortunately, not only is The Red painted red, but it’s in the red. She soon realizes she has no choice but to sell it.

Just as she realizes she has no choice but to sell it, a mysterious man comes in after closing time and makes her an offer: He will save The Red if she agrees to submit to him for the period of one year.

The man is handsome, English, and terribly tempting…but surely her mother didn’t mean for Mona to sell herself to a stranger. Then again, she did promise to do anything to save The Red…

Review:

Reisz has been in mainstream mode lately (The Night Mark, Her Halloween Treat) so I’m thrilled to see she’s come back to hot, kinky erotica.  Huzzah!

The good:

  • This is porn with a plot.  Mona agrees to have sex with a mysterious man over the course of a year in order to save her art gallery.  Each encounter is based on a painting and could easily become episodic but the thread of the story carries through wonderfully.
  • Ooo boy, the sex is hot.  The kink is thick and there’s guaranteed to be something that challenges you… which is just way I like it.
  • There’s a twist at the end that I didn’t see that brings everything full circle.  Well done.

The not-so-good:

  • The ending is a bit rushed, and while it didn’t bother me too much it could have used a little more development.
  • The characters are rounded but lack some depth.

All in all I’m sooo happy to see Reisz stretch her kinky wings again.  On Twitter she teased an upcoming title, calling it a “sexy sex cult”… so it looks like I have more to look forward to!

Thanks to 8th Circle Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

37781Things Fall Apart tells two overlapping, intertwining stories, both of which center around Okonkwo, a “strong man” of an Ibo village in Nigeria. The first of these stories traces Okonkwo’s fall from grace with the tribal world in which he lives, and in its classical purity of line and economical beauty it provides us with a powerful fable about the immemorial conflict between the individual and society.

The second story, which is as modern as the first is ancient, and which elevates the book to a tragic plane, concerns the clash of cultures and the destruction of Okonkwo’s world through the arrival of aggressive, proselytizing European missionaries. These twin dramas are perfectly harmonized, and they are modulated by an awareness capable of encompassing at once the life of nature, human history, and the mysterious compulsions of the soul. Things Fall Apart is the most illuminating and permanent monument we have to the modern African experience as seen from within.

Review:

Things Fall Apart has been on my gotta-someday list, and recently someone pushed me to read it.  I’m glad he did –  this book a classic for a reason and makes for great discussion.

The story isn’t happy but it’s beautifully told.  In short: Okonkwo is a strong man with a nasty streak fueled by fear.  He’s become a powerful figure in his own village but a series of events, both of his own doing and not, lead to…. things falling apart.  (I couldn’t resist.)

There are all kinds of themes that can be examined endlessly but here are some that resonated with me:

  • the friction between African and Western cultures meeting, not only in the story but in the form of the novel.  For example, the title is taken from a Yeats poem, and Igbo proverbs and storytelling feature throughout.
  • sons who are determined not to become their father and take it too far
  • how women are treated and viewed in society
  • justice – how it is meted out and by whom

Just as good as I hoped it would be, with lots to think about.

The Heist by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg (Fox and O’Hare #1)

Synopsis:

16169737FBI Special Agent Kate O’Hare is known for her fierce dedication and discipline on the job, chasing down the world’s most wanted criminals and putting them behind bars. And while Kate has made quite a name for herself for the past five years, the only name she’s cared about is Nicolas Fox—an international crook she wants in more ways than one.

Audacious, handsome, and dangerously charming, Nicolas Fox is a natural con man, notorious for running elaborate scams on very high-profile people. At first he did it for the money. Now he does it for the thrill. He knows that the FBI has been hot on his trail—particularly Kate O’Hare, who has been watching his every move. For Nick, there’s no greater rush than being pursued by a beautiful woman . . . even one who aims to lock him up. But just when it seems that Nicolas Fox has been captured for good, he pulls off his greatest con of all: he convinces the FBI to offer him a job, working side by side with Special Agent Kate O’Hare.

Review:

What we have here is a typical heist novel set out in the way you would expect. We meet the characters, see a previous con to see what the baddie can do, set up the Big One, put together a crew, then pull off the whole shebang in spite of complications. While the tried and true formula is a little worn in spots Evanovich and Goldberg handle it well enough.

Early on I got the feeling that they’re building a world for a long series. Kate and Nick can do all kinds of different heists, characters’ back stories can be explored, new crew members can be brought in… in other words, infinite combinations of the same thing. And isn’t that what a mystery series is about? All the setting up left some characters a little flat (a moment here for poor movie effect/blood splatter dude) but I’m sure they’ll get their due in upcoming books.

I love witty banter and Evanovich and Goldberg deliver. Some bits made me laugh out loud, like when Kate’s sister Megan asks what her dream is. Kate replies,

“Daniel Craig, a tropical island, a quart of Oreo cookie ice cream, and a pair of handcuffs.”
“Who’s wearing the cuffs?” Megan asked.

Gender is handled well throughout, which makes sense as the novel was written by a male/female team. Kate, an ex-Navy SEAL, is more likely to come up with ideas using brute force while Nick, the con man, is more likely to come up with a sneaky plan. Both use sex and charm to get their marks. Willie, who can drive anything with a motor, is female. Good signs all.

A couple things did bother me, though. Kate is described early on as someone whose stomach is “flat and toned despite her terrible eating habits”. A girl who has her cake and eats it too, grah!

The cast also contains two potential deus ex machina – Nick, with his smarts and incredible list of contacts, and Kate’s father, with a somewhat different set of smarts and an even more incredible list of contacts. I can forgive one know-it-all but two is a bit much. As a result I didn’t feel much stress as the big heist goes awry at the end of the book – someone was sure to fix everything somehow.

The Heist was a fun escapist read but if you like real thinking mysteries you’ll have to go elsewhere.

Devil in Spring by Lisa Kleypas (The Ravenels #3)

30179647Most debutantes dream of finding a husband. Lady Pandora Ravenel has different plans. The ambitious young beauty would much rather stay at home and plot out her new board game business than take part in the London Season. But one night at a glittering society ball, she’s ensnared in a scandal with a wickedly handsome stranger.

After years of evading marital traps with ease, Gabriel, Lord St. Vincent, has finally been caught-by a rebellious girl who couldn’t be less suitable. In fact, she wants nothing to do with him. But Gabriel finds the high-spirited Pandora irresistible. He’ll do whatever it takes to possess her, even if their marriage of convenience turns out to be the devil’s own bargain.

Review:

This book got a lot of buzz when it was announced because Gabriel is the son of Evie and Sebastian, the couple from Kleypas’ amazing Devil in Winter.  Is this one on the same level?  Not quite, but I still think it’s the best Ravenel book so far.

The good:

  • The first half of the story, our couple’s meet cute and courtship, is awesome.  I was getting ready to give the book four stars, I love it so much.
  • The whole ‘thou shalt have kids because we need an heir/it’s the thing to do/you’re a woman’ thing doesn’t even come up. Heck, Pandora doesn’t even want to get married, to start.

    She didn’t want to belong to anyone, and she especially didn’t want anyone to belong to her… she knew she would never be happy in a conventional life.

    Unconventional women for the win.

  • Prior characters are woven into the story in a way that doesn’t distract or detract from the main storyline.  Evie and Sebastian are as wonderful as I remembered, and having a department story magnate in the family proves as helpful as one would imagine.
  • Related – some minor characters reappeared, and it looks like one may get her happily ever after in the next book.  Oo.
  • Overall the book is a fast, fun read, busting me out of a reading slump.  Woot.

The neither-here-nor-there:

  • Pandora is an ‘artsy’ imaginative type, not well suited to strict rules or remembering where she left things.  She strikes me as a (loose) Anne of Green Gables type – prone to flights of fancy with strong underpinnings of smarts.  It doesn’t bother me but if you don’t like that sort of thing you’re warned.
  • Hmmm, now to think of it Gabriel is kind of a Gilbert type in a roundabout way… time to reread Anne of Green Gables!

The not-so-good:

  • Kleypas does this thing in a lot of her books where the couple gets married or is otherwise together before the 70% mark of the book, so she puts one or the other in mortal danger.  Railway accidents, attacks, it could be anything, but someone is going to have a brush with death before the end.  I have to admit, after half a dozen books I’m sick of it.  Sometimes it’s worked into the story well but here it’s more random and annoying.  Gah.
  • The cameos and throwbacks mean that characterization is a bit thin for minor characters, and I’m not sure how the book would read as a stand-alone.
  • Drago(n), who I think is a new character for this book?, is grossly underdeveloped.  His relationship with Pandora could be amazingly nuanced and deep, but instead we watch his opinion of her change after a conversation and a half.  I wanted more.

After being somewhat disappointed with the first two books in this series Devil in Spring is a nice pick me up, and I’m looking forward to the next installment.

Kitty Goes to Washington by Carrie Vaughn (Kitty Norville #3)

7084361Celebrity werewolf and late-night radio host Kitty Norville prefers to be heard and not seen. So when she’s invited to testify at a Senate hearing on behalf of supernaturals, and her face gets plastered on national TV, she inherits a new set of friends, and enemies, including the vampire mistress of the city; an über-hot Brazilian were-jaguar; and a Bible-thumping senator who wants to expose Kitty as a monster. Kitty quickly learns that in this city of dirty politicians and backstabbing pundits, everyone’s itching for a fight.

Review:

A nice continuation of the unconventional urban fantasy started in Kitty and the Midnight Hour. A non-dominant werewolf without a pack, Kitty gets called to testify in Congressional hearings regarding the recently outed supernatural community.

The good:

  • Kitty’s one-on-one conversations with anyone. Vaughn does an amazing job writing exchanges that are believable and thought provoking and oh-so-real. From weirdos that call into to her radio show to Congressional testimony, I loved every dialog.
  • Sex-positivity. Kitty has a lover in this book, someone who she’ll keep as a fond memory but won’t become a regular in the series. There’s no angst about having sex with an incredibly hot guy, no hard feelings about the fling, and most importantly zero guilt about the entire situation. This is normal for guys in urban fantasy but far few women get the same chance. You go, girl!
  • Everyone is well characterized and interesting. I look forward to meeting even the most minor characters in future books.
  • I’ve watched more Congressional hearings than I would care to recently, so it’s obvious to see that Vaughn has done her research. She even touched on a nitpicky point I thought would get trampled. Nice.

The not-so-good:

  • As good as Vaughn is at characterization and dialog, “big bad” fight scenes are thin and short.

A solid series that I’m looking forward to continuing… but my library doesn’t have book three! Noooooo……