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.

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson

33395053As the country grapples with racist division at a level not seen since the 1960s, one man’s voice soars above the rest with conviction and compassion. In his 2016 New York Times op-ed piece “Death in Black and White,” Michael Eric Dyson moved a nation. Now he continues to speak out in Tears We Cannot Stop—a provocative and deeply personal call for change. Dyson argues that if we are to make real racial progress we must face difficult truths, including being honest about how black grievance has been ignored, dismissed, or discounted.

“The time is at hand for reckoning with the past, recognizing the truth of the present, and moving together to redeem the nation for our future. If we don’t act now, if you don’t address race immediately, there very well may be no future.”

Review:

A must-read primer to race in America, especially for people who are new to racial justice.  Aimed specifically at white people but readable by anyone, Dyson explains why history, police brutality, and white fragility matter.

Don’t be put off by the fact that the author is a minister – he’s not pushing a god on anyone, much appreciated by this agnostic.  Using the framework of a sermon Dyson goes through the stages of white guilt, the construction of whiteness, the specter of slavery, and more.  As a primer he avoids going overly deep, which is perfect for what he’s doing.  Other authors have covered the specifics elsewhere and he lists dozens of them if you’d like to read more.

What gets to me is that the people who need to read this most – whites with no grounding in racial justice – are the least likely to pick it up.  So read it yourself and put it in other people’s hands.  We need to get the message out.

A Fare to Remember by Opal Carew

29939400Stevie has given up on love and just wants a simple life driving her taxi. But her plans are turned upside down when gorgeous billionaire Reid Jacobs steps into the back of her cab. Commanding and mysterious, he’s a temptation she can’t resist—and soon their torrid one night stand leads to an intoxicating affair.

In Reid’s strong arms, Stevie finds herself falling harder than she ever imagined. But is she ready to trust again? And when his business partner falls for Stevie, will it change everything? One thing is clear: she’s about to take the ride of her life….

Review:

There are so many problems here but first,

The good-ish:

  • The rich/poor trope gets circumvented, releasing some oh-no-this-can’t-work tension.
  • The writing holds its own.

The not-so-good:

  • Cab driver picks up a hot fare, drives to a deserted alley, and has unprotected sex with him.  In the entirety of the book there isn’t a single mention of condoms, birth control, or health status, even when a third is brought into the relationship.  When a book is set in the modern day real world completely ignoring STDs and pregnancy is at best unreasonable, and at worst irresponsible.  I’m not asking for a lot – a mention of a clean test, a wrapper crinkle – but give me something.
  • Amazing sex equals instant love.  Never mind that getting to know you stuff or talking about your childhood – love is transmitted from the penis to the vagina, apparently.
  • …and not from penis to penis.  A second man is brought in and is sexual with both Stevie and Reid, but his feelings are never considered.  He’s treated like a human sex toy – nice to have around, but not a member of the relationship.  Not cool.
  • BDSM elements are brought in carelessly, without a warning or a safe word.  And not just light bondage – a ball gag, people. No.  No no.
  • While the sex is hot some of it defies physics.  At one point I thought, “no way is all of that fitting in there that easily.”
  • The Big Misunderstanding is a product of the heroine being idiotic.

All in all – grah.

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey #2)

192888Rustic old Riddlesdale Lodge was a Wimsey family retreat filled with country pleasures and the thrill of the hunt – until the game turned up human and quite dead. He lay among the chrysanthemums, wore slippers and a dinner jacket and was Lord Peter’s brother-in-law-to-be. His accused murderer was Wimsey’s own brother, and if murder set all in the family wasn’t enough to boggle the unflappable Lord Wimsey, perhaps a few twists of fate would be – a mysterious vanishing midnight letter from Egypt … a grieving fiancée with suitcase in hand … and a bullet destined for one very special Wimsey.

Review:

I loved the first Peter Wimsey book, Whose Body?, and have been doing my best not to blast through the entire series.  I’m saving them for when I need a fun, thinking, comfort read and Clouds of Witness delivers.

This time I went with the audiobook and I have a much better grasp of the characters now that I’ve heard them.  It must be hard to do British narration, having to take into account geographical accents as well as those of class, and Ian Carmichael does a great job.   The scene with a drunk Wimsey is pure gold that left me giggling.

The mystery itself kept me interested and guessing… the latter isn’t a high bar considering this is me, but hey.  I enjoyed the twists as well as the meta comments Sayers puts in here and there.

Here’s the thing, though – I don’t know if I want to continue the series in print, which shows off the writing, or on audiobook, where the characters come to life.  Have you read the Peter Wimsey series?  Do you prefer audio or print?

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.

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

23384972Although it had been mostly deserted since the Voodoo Wars, there hadn’t been any trouble out at the lake for years. Rae Seddon, nicknamed Sunshine, head baker at her family’s busy and popular café in downtown New Arcadia, needed a place to get away from all the noise and confusion—of the clientele and her family. Just for a few hours. Just to be able to hear herself think.

She knew about the Others, of course. Everyone did. And several of her family’s best regular customers were from SOF—Special Other Forces—which had been created to deal with the threat and the danger of the Others.

She drove out to her family’s old lakeside cabin and sat on the porch, swinging her feet and enjoying the silence and the silver moonlight on the water.

She never heard them coming. Of course, you don’t when they’re vampires.

Review:

I love this book so. much.

The good:

  • As much as I love vampires they have been done (and overdone) poorly in the years since Twilight. McKinley builds a believable, gritty world that includes them.  They don’t sparkle or do anything weird.  In fact humans don’t know too much about them because anyone who interacts with a vampire ends up dead.
  • The first person perspective is used to perfection.  Our narrator Sunshine has a defined voice that rambles, but is exact in that rambleyness. She makes me smile and she fleshes out the story in a way that should feel like an info dump but is anything but.

    There are always cats around Charlie’s, but they are usually refugees seeking asylum from the local rat population, and rather desperately friendly.

  • Sunshine goes through a lot of traumatic experiences and her psychological experience feels right on.  I never questioned or doubted her inner life.

    It was easier, saying I didn’t remember.  I walled it all out, including everybody’s insistent, well-meaning concern.  And it turned out to be easy – a little too easy – to burst into tears if anyone tried to go on asking me questions.  Some people are mean drunks: I’m a mean weeper.

  • The plot kept me riveted and pages flew by.  Instead of many small chapters the book is split into only four parts… so I devoured it in four gulps. Yum.
  • Sunshine has a healthy sex life and a grounded view of what she wants from relationships.  There’s no guilt tied up with sex, no apologizing for banging people in college, none of it.  Hey world – more of this, please!
  • The ending is slightly ambiguous, and the lack of a neat-as-a-bow resolution means I can think about Sunshine and Con like they’re still “alive”. What will they do now that this part of their story is over?  What does the future hold for them?  I like thinking about the possibilities.

The not-so-good:

  • In one or two places the awesome rambleyness becomes only so-so rambleyness.
  • That’s pretty much it.

One of my requirements for a five star read is thinking “I can’t wait to reread that” as soon as I close the book.  Sunshine barely misses on that point so I’m giving it an enthusiastic four stars.  Vampire and urban fantasy fans, you’ve found a home.

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.