Take the Lead by Alexis Daria (Dance Off #1)

35832861Gina Morales wants to win. It’s her fifth season on The Dance Off, a TV celebrity dance competition, and she’s never even made it to the finals. Her latest partner is handsome, rippling with muscles, and stars on the popular reality show Living Wild. With his sexy physique and name recognition she thinks he’s her ticket to the finals—until she realizes they’re being set up.

Stone Nielson hates Los Angeles and the fact that he had to join The Dance Off due to family obligations… but he also can’t deny his growing attraction to his bubbly Puerto Rican dance partner. Neither of them are looking for romantic entanglements, but as they heat up the dance floor it’s only a matter of time until he feels an overwhelming urge to take the lead. When the tabloids catch on to their developing romance the spotlight threatens to ruin not just their relationship, but their careers and their shot at the trophy.

Review:

I’m not a reality television fan but it doesn’t matter, Take the Lead is a fun contemporary romance that charmed me from the beginning.

The good:

  • Own voices romance with a Puerto Rican heroine, huzzah!
  • The story sucked me in, which doesn’t always happen when I read contemporaries.  I like my romances to be a bit separated from normal life and this fits the bill, with two celebrities falling in love while on a competitive tv program.
  • Both Stone and Gina know that tv people are kind of evil so neither one is caught off guard when producers push them into a “showmance”.  I appreciate that one character doesn’t have to school the other on how Hollywood works, keeping the couple on an even footing.
  • I was there for all the dance scenes, despite not being all that into dance.
  • The writing is solid, and I wouldn’t have thought this is a debut.  Well done.

The not-so-good:

  • While I was having fun the show season feels a bit long to me.
  • The story trades in secrets and miscommunication, not my favorite tropes.

I really enjoyed this book despite it not being in my romance wheelhouse.  So if you like celebrity culture, family secrets, competition, and a tiny slice of (fun!) crazy, this is the perfect book for you.

Thanks to Swerve and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

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The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater (The Raven Cycle #1)

17675462Every year, Blue Sargent stands next to her clairvoyant mother as the soon-to-be dead walk past. Blue herself never sees them—not until this year, when a boy emerges from the dark and speaks directly to her.

His name is Gansey, and Blue soon discovers that he is a rich student at Aglionby, the local private school. Blue has a policy of staying away from Aglionby boys but she is drawn to Gansey in a way she can’t entirely explain. He is on a quest that has encompassed three other Raven Boys: Adam, the scholarship student who resents all the privilege around him; Ronan, the fierce soul who ranges from anger to despair; and Noah, the taciturn watcher of the four, who notices many things but says very little.

For as long as she can remember, Blue has been warned that she will cause her true love to die. She never thought this would be a problem. But now, as her life becomes caught up in the strange and sinister world of the Raven Boys, she’s not so sure anymore.

Review:

I am so glad I checked out what my Goodreads friends thought of this book before picking it up.  Among their four and five star reviews I found the line, “it is really slow to start”.  And it is. Very. slow. to. start.

The Raven Boys is character driven and Stiefvater takes her time setting them up.  The plot doesn’t kick into gear until page 100 or so, and even then it rarely does more than amble along.

What saves and makes the book is the characterization.  Each of the boys has a full back story that is only starting to unspool.  Characters have amazing insights about each other that are probably too deep and perceptive for high schoolers but they’re so wonderful you don’t care.  Relationships change and grow, and the multiple points of view let us see how peoples’ perceptions about each other shape their attitudes.  It’s extremely well done.

Do know going in that you’re signing up for a four book series.  While The Raven Boys ends after a significant event it only covers part of a much larger plot.  If I read this book when it first came out I’d be frustrated, but luckily the series is now finished so I can move on to the next one.

An easy recommendation for anyone into character driven urban fantasy… just bring some coffee and an open mind to those first one hundred pages.

American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse

32191677The arsons started on a cold November midnight and didn’t stop for months. Night after night, the people of Accomack County waited to see which building would burn down next, regarding each other at first with compassion, and later suspicion. The arsonist seemed to target abandoned buildings, but local police were stretched too thin to surveil them all. Accomack was desolate—there were hundreds of abandoned buildings. And by the dozen they were burning.

A mesmerizing and crucial panorama with nationwide implications, American Fire asks what happens when a community gets left behind. Hesse brings to life the Eastern Shore and its inhabitants, battling a punishing economy and increasingly terrified by a string of fires they could not explain. The result evokes the soul of rural America—a land half gutted before the fires even began.

Review:

I went into this book blind, knowing nothing about the Accomack fires, and Hesse is a surefooted and well-spoken guide.  She spent months living on the Eastern Shore and it shows in the way she paints the community and pulls us into the crime.  While the culprit is pointed out early on the whydunit aspects kept me reading – what would drive someone to do this?  What does it mean when you’ll do literally anything for someone?

The reporting and particulars of the case are handled exceptionally well, with the crimes, apprehension, interrogation, and court aspects carrying equal weight.  However, I was hoping that Hesse would spend more time digging into the social and economic trends that led to Ammomack’s fall in the first place.  Many factors are briefly touched on – the importance of the railroad, the rise of chicken farming – but it never gets to the point of an overarching theme.

Even though I was hoping for more thematic heft American Fire is a fascinating look at what happens when you find an arsonist in your midst.

Trade Me by Courtney Milan (Cyclone #1)

24600366Tina Chen just wants a degree and a job, so her parents never have to worry about making rent again. She has no time for Blake Reynolds, the sexy billionaire who stands to inherit Cyclone Systems. But when he makes an offhand comment about what it means to be poor, she loses her cool and tells him he couldn’t last a month living her life.

To her shock, Blake offers her a trade: She’ll get his income, his house, his car. In exchange, he’ll work her hours and send money home to her family. No expectations; no future obligations.

But before long, they’re trading not just lives, but secrets, kisses, and heated nights together. No expectations might break Tina’s heart…but Blake’s secrets could ruin her life.

Review:

I gotta be honest – I wasn’t exactly looking forward to reading this book.  Contemporary romance isn’t a wheelhouse for me so I’m picky about tropes, and rich buy/poor gal is pretty low down my list.

But I really want to read the second book in the series so I sucked it up and I’m glad I did.

The good:

  • The romance is both interracial and intercultural, and as someone in such a relationship myself I appreciate the representation.
  • Tina’s roommate is a trans woman and while she doesn’t play a huge role in this book she’s the heroine of the next.  Mixing LGBTQIA* couples with cis couples in a series is awesome and I cannot wait to start book two.
  • Blake is a good guy and he models good behavior in a heartwarming way.  When Tina says that she’s scared she’ll be come attached to him he respects that.  He doesn’t say “don’t be scared, baby” or “trust me,” but comes back with the ideal:

    Is there anything I can do to make you feel safe?

    People need to hear this to know it’s the right thing to say. So glad it’s here.

  • The rich/poor thing doesn’t get overly crazy or annoying.
  • I also liked the small flipped trope that I’m not going to go into because spoilers.
  • Tina’s mom is hilarious.

    Good thing he’s not your boyfriend, though, Tina.  He’s so skinny, I think a condom would pop right off.

The not-so-good:

  • There’s a part near the end where I could see exactly what was coming and the dread nearly did me in.
  • I started to lose interest when rich people problems came up, especially near the end.

A solid romance that overcomes some of the limitations of its tropes.  I may just have to start book two about… now.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

33917107An historian of fascism offers a guide for surviving and resisting America’s turn towards authoritarianism.

Timothy Snyder is one of the most celebrated historians of the Holocaust. With Twenty Lessons, Snyder draws from the darkest hours of the twentieth century to provide hope for the twenty-first. As he writes, “Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism and communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”

Twenty Lessons is a call to arms and a guide to resistance, with invaluable ideas for how we can preserve our freedoms in the uncertain years to come.

Review:

I came across Snyder’s 20 Lessons Facebook post soon after the election of Donald Trump and immediately saved it.  The lessons are simple – believe in truth, be wary of paramilitaries, take responsibility for the face of the world – but we need to hear and be reminded of them.  Totalitarianism has a way of sneaking up on you and Snyder is determined not to let that happen.

This book is those twenty lessons, fleshed out.  Sorta.  Historical examples are added and context is hinted at, but I would like a more detailed explanation of what has gone before. While the book clocks in at 120 pages it’s thanks to the formatting more than anything.  I would have finished it in one sitting if not interrupted (silly work).

If you haven’t seen the viral post On Tyranny is a great introduction to how power is taken away from the people.  If you’re looking for a deeper explanation you may want to tackle Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism instead.

Blame It on the Duke by Lenora Bell (The Disgraceful Dukes #3)

23434074Nicolas, Lord Hatherly, never intended to marry—nor add to the “mad” Hatherly line—but now he must honor his father’s debt to a social-climbing merchant or lose the family estate.

A notoriously wild marquess, won by her father at a game of cards, is the very last thing Miss Alice Tombs wants. She’s spent the last three seasons repelling suitors in spectacular fashion so she’d be at liberty to explore the world. She’ll just have to drive this one away as well.

Until Nick proposes an utterly tempting arrangement: one summer together to prove the legitimacy of their union, then Alice is free to travel while Nick revels in the time he has left before the Hatherly Madness takes hold.

It will be easy to walk away after a few months of make-believe wedded bliss—won’t it? Alice and Nick are about to find out…one sultry night at a time.

Review:

I discovered Bell shortly after her first book, How the Duke Was Won, and I’m so glad I did.  Her romances are low angst and solidly written, and while the historical detail can be iffy in places I have too much fun to care.  Each book feels like an improvement on the last, and while I’m not ready to award four stars yet I know she’s headed in that direction.

With that in mind, let’s get to the bullet points!

The good:

  • Alice’s reason to travel makes sense.  I love that she doesn’t give up her dream, even when her gender and, in a way, the romance, work against her.
  • The characters are well-drawn with realistic motivations and backgrounds, from the hero and heroine on down.  When a surly, rude butler was introduced I thought, oh no, there’s no explaining this.  But there is a reason and it works.
  • Nick doesn’t want children and Alice does a gut check and realizes that she doesn’t either, and that decision is respected and not used as a plot pawn.  There isn’t a pregnancy scare or an “oops, I’m pregnant and I’m so happy” epilogue.  This is so rare in romance, especially historical, and I really appreciate it.
  • We see how mental illness was handled during the Regency in a way that respects the the view of the times while also trying to make it better.
  • I can’t wait to see Lear get his own book.  A pirate hero with a heart, woo!  The doctor would make an interesting (and POC!) hero, too.

The not-so-good:

  • The historical detail feels off in places, and I had a lot of questions about the manuscript Alice is enamored with.
  • While the first two thirds of the book went fine I was not a fan of the big “fight” in the last third.  I found myself skimming just to get to the end.
  • And there at the end Nick says some stuff that could have gone very, very wrong.  I’m glad it all worked out but if I were Alice I would be so, so mad.

All in all a light, fun, slightly wallpaper-y Regency romance.

The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz

Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette

30186905In a surreal, but familiar, vision of modern day Egypt, a centralized authority known as ‘the Gate’ has risen to power in the aftermath of the ‘Disgraceful Events,’ a failed popular uprising. Citizens are required to obtain permission from the Gate in order to take care of even the most basic of their daily affairs, yet the Gate never opens, and the queue in front of it grows longer.

Citizens from all walks of life mix and wait in the sun. Among them is Yehia, a man who was shot during the Events and is waiting for permission from the Gate to remove a bullet that remains lodged in his pelvis. Yehia’s health steadily declines, yet at every turn, officials refuse to assist him, actively denying the very existence of the bullet.

Ultimately it is Tarek, the principled doctor tending to Yehia’s case, who must decide whether to follow protocol as he has always done, or to disobey the law and risk his career to operate on Yehia and save his life.

Review:

Authoritarianism has been on my mind lately and The Queue is a fascinating way to approach it in fiction.  What struck me the most is how people can and do adapt to almost anything.  Need an eye exam?  Wait in this line so you can get a document allowing it.  No, the line is not moving – it will when the Gate opens.  Please wait.

So they do.

It’s a reminder that human resilience is a double edged sword – while it allows us to get through horrific things, we can also put up with far more than we should.

I will admit that I had a hard time getting into the story, probably because I was reading in short bursts.  With longer reading sessions I became more interested, wondering what the heck is going on and how it all will end.

While the setting and circumstances are a far cry from the current situation in the US every now and then a passage startled me, hitting too close to home.

He wrote a hard-hitting and well-researched article about the [boycott] campaign – its grounds and implications, and how many people joined each week – but the newspaper didn’t print it.  Instead, they gave him a stern warning about “fabricating the news.”

I would recommend The Queue if you like literature in translation, dystopia, and don’t mind a healthy dose of uncertainty.  It’s not a breezy read but it has given me a lot to think about.

The Education of a Coroner: Lessons in Investigating Death by John Bateson

32920307Marin County, California is a study in contradictions. Its natural beauty attracts thousands of visitors every year, yet the county also is home to San Quentin Prison, one of the oldest and largest penitentiaries in the country. Marin ranks in the top one percent of counties nationwide in terms of affluence and overall health, yet it is far above the norm in drug overdoses and alcoholism, and comprises a large percentage of suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge.

Ken Holmes worked in the Marin County Coroner’s Office for thirty-six years, starting as a death investigator and ending as the three-term, elected coroner. As he grew into the job—which is different from what is depicted on television—Holmes learned a variety of skills, from finding hidden clues at death scenes, interviewing witnesses effectively, managing bystanders and reporters, preparing testimony for court to notifying families of a death with sensitivity and compassion.

Complete with poignant anecdotes, The Education of a Coroner provides a firsthand and fascinating glimpse into the daily life of a public servant whose work is dark and mysterious yet necessary for society to function.

Review:

As a lover of medical and medically-adjacent nonfiction I happily dug into Education of a Coroner.  CSI without all the fake glamour? I’m there!

The jacket copy makes it sound like the book is from Holmes’ point of view but we’re actually following the author, a professional acquaintance.  Bateson goes through Holmes’ records and conducts a series of interviews that form the backbone of the book.  I found myself wishing he had done more synthesis of the material and gotten into Holmes’ head instead of quoting him verbatum.  There’s a big difference between “Holmes thought” and “When I asked Holmes about it he said, ‘Well, I thought…'”

Luckily this distance only occurs in the sections dealing with Holmes’ career.  A large portion book is chock-a-block with fascinating cases from his 36 years on the job – suicides that may not have been suicides, genius (and not so genius) murder methods, clues that make or break an investigation.

As a medical interpreter I found the chapter on death notifications the most interesting.  If Holmes tried to couch the news in niceties it wouldn’t be conveyed at all.

He also learned to avoid saying something like “she succumbed” or “she didn’t survive” or “it was fatal”.  he had to say the word dead or killed.  If he didn’t, if he said something like, “Unfortunately, she didn’t make it,” the next questions were “How bad was it?” “Where is she?” “Can I go talk to her?” because the person didn’t hear. It was way too much information coming from a total stranger without any context or preamble.

All in all Education of a Coroner is a fun read for those who want to know what the job involves in real life.  While I found the beginning and end slow the amazing cases in the middle make up for it.

Thanks to Scribner and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

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.

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.