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review 2014-08-14 13:42
Very Satisfying Second Chance Romance (but beware of triggers!)
Beyond Addiction - Kit Rocha

I'm a little bit torn as to how to rate this fifth full-length novel in Kit Rocha's Beyond series, honestly. As I've said before, I love this series beyond all reason, especially since this sort of thing (a polyamorous, liquor-smuggling, cage-fighting, pole-dancing motorcycle gang living in a violent, post-apocalyptic dystopia) is not usually my cuppa. Beyond Addiction is a strong entry in an already strong series, and parts of it I loved, but I do have a few complaints.

 

But let's focus on the good stuff, first, hmmm?

 

Beyond Addiction is a second-chance romance between Finn and Trix. Both were originally from Sector 5 -- (This plot summary will assume some general familiarity with the Beyond universe. If you're not familiar, start with the first book, Beyond Shame, which just happens to be free at most e-book retailers right now.) -- whose main industry is making drugs for medical use in the city of Eden and more recreational (and addictive) use in the Sectors. As an enforcer for sector leader Mac Fleming, Finn spent a lot of years doing other people's dirty work. 

 

Years ago, Trix was a junkie dependent upon Finn for her next fix, and though they had a real emotional connection and plenty of sexual chemistry, neither could be sure what she needed from him most: his love or his ready access to dope. Desperate to get clean, Trix double-crossed Mac (and by extension, Finn) and escaped to Sector 4, where she got healthy and found a home and family with the O'Kanes.

 

At the start of Beyond Addiction, Mac Fleming's henchmen have kidnapped Trix, and Finn burns his bridges with Sector 5 in order to get her safely back to the people she loves, though he doesn't believe, with their history, that he'll ever be worthy to be counted as one of those people.

 

The Good Stuff:

The real "second chance" in this story is not Finn's relationship with Trix, but his relationship with the rest of the O'Kane clan. As a long-time enforcer for a rival sector leader, Finn has a lot to answer for with the O'Kanes, including his direct role in getting Trix and Jade (and probably others) hooked on drugs. Trix is more than willing to forgive his sins, but the other O'Kanes aren't as easily won over. Watching Finn own his past, make amends, and ultimately earn himself a place in the tight-knit O'Kane family was enormously satisfying. As I posted in a status update yesterday, previous Beyond books have talked about the sisterhood among the O'Kane women, but this book gave a new and very welcome insight into the brotherhood of O'Kane men.

 

This book is the fifth in a planned seven book series (not including the novellas that come out between novel releases), and we're far enough along now that the reader (me) has a better understanding of the complicated labyrinth of Sector politics and loyalties, and a better sense of the ultimate confrontation that the whole series is building toward. As a reader, it's as if I've been working for a long time on a huge, complicated jigsaw puzzle, and I've made enough progress now that the big picture is starting to come together... and there's a huge sense of satisfaction in that. 

 

My Complaints:

I know a lot of Beyond readers will disagree with me for saying so, since the sex is such a defining part of this series, but I've gotta say that, for me, the smexy parts are losing their charm. I skimmed past most of the sex in this book. It's just too similar to all the sex in all of the previous books, and in my opinion, it detracts from the individual couples' stories. Each book focuses on a couple (and in the case of Beyond Jealousy, a triad), and each relationship has its own unique history and conflict and resolution -- and yet, as different as each couple/relationship is, we're supposed to believe that sexually, everyone in Sector 4 has the exact same kinks? Mmm, not so much. Don't get me wrong: reading about Lex and Dallas sexing up Noelle in Beyond Shame was hot, but now that we've read about them sexing up Rachel, Trix, and God knows who all else, it's starting to feel Beyond Same, and that's not cool.

 

The other thing that really, really bothered me about this book was that it had not one but two child-in-peril subplots. I hate when authors do horrible things to kids just to move a plot along or twist a reader's sympathies, and this book did it twice.

First, Flash and Amira's baby, Hana, gets sick and Finn has to make a dangerous run to Sector 5 (where he is a wanted man) to steal the drugs that will save her life. Second, the new leader of Sector 5 brutally murders the old leader's wife and children, including babies, for no good reason (except to get the lone survivor to Sector 4 as sequel-bait).

(spoiler show)

Neither incident was integral to the plot, which was good in the sense that, as a mother and thus a reader particularly bothered by child-in-peril stories, I didn't have to linger on the horror -- but then again, since neither incident was integral to the plot, why the hell include those horrors at all?!

 

In conclusion, Beyond Addiction has a lot to recommend it, and fans of the series won't be disappointed -- but it also has a lot of triggers (violence, rape, child-in-peril) to trip up unwary readers, so buyer beware.

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review 2014-07-29 16:24
Let's be real: the All Souls trilogy is Twilight-spawn.
The Book of Life - Deborah Harkness

Slightly pretentious Twilight-spawn, actually, as if all of this highbrow attention to history and science and art could obscure the fact that we're still talking about two stories where an obscenely wealthy and dangerous old vamp falls in love with a mousy, not-very interesting human and their love is obsessive and forbidden, and over the course of the series Mousy Girl gets her groove back and becomes Queen of the Mary Sues, and when the couples breed the Powers That Be are disgusted and afraid of the unknown dangers that these rare forbidden vampire-hybrid babies represent, and vow to wipe out the whole Cullen/de Clermont clan.

 

That said, there's a reason Twilight made Stephanie Meyer rich, and there's a reason all of these books are bestsellers. Mock all you want, with good reason (and even Harkness mocks, when her vampires haughtily insist they don't sparkle), but the fact is, these books are entertaining. Twilight lets you shut off your brain and get carried away in the fantasy of forbidden attraction; All Souls takes you on the same journey without shutting off your brain.

 

I read A Discovery of Witches in February 2011, with no idea it was the start of a trilogy, and when I got to the cliffhanger ending, I was so gobsmacked it took me several days before I could sleep again. When Shadow of Night came out in 2012, I got an ARC copy and took a week's vacation so I could savor it properly. But since then, I've moved house, had a second baby, weathered a lot of changes at work, and I'm generally a lot busier, and so when the long-awaited final book in the All Souls Trilogy showed up on my Kindle, while I was excited to see it, I didn't have time to drop everything and devour it. Moreover, I didn't have time to re-read the first two books to refresh my memory, which in retrospect would have been very helpful. Consequently, I spent the first quarter of The Book of Life catching up on vaguely remembered details from the complicated world Harkness developed in the previous books.

 

The Book of Life picks up more or less where Shadow of Night leaves off: time-traveling supernatural power couple Diana Bishop (a witch) and Matthew Clairmont (a vampire) have returned to the present day from 1590, where Diana was learning how to use her rare spell-weaving powers from the more powerful witches of that age. (One of the overarching plot issues is that the magical world is weakening in the modern age: witches cast less effective spells, vampires are less able to make new vampires, and daemons are more prone to insanity than genius.) Diana is pregnant with twins, a secret which will get them in very hot water with the Congregation (the governing council of the magical creatures), because witches, daemons, and vampires aren't allowed to marry outside their own kind, much less reproduce.

 

Book of Life ties up the convoluted strands of the series-wide plot: the search for the ancient manuscript, Ashmole 782, that all of the creatures believe holds the key to their survival; the long-anticipated confrontation with the Congregation over Diana and Matthew's forbidden relationship; the explanation (and solution) to the problem of weakening magic. In reaching these conclusions, the book delves deeply into a lot of less central subplots: there is a lot of time devoted to the gordian knot of political and familial loyalties and obligations in the de Clermont vampire clan, a lot of time devoted to the analysis of genetic material in the pages from Ashmole 782 and DNA-testing of various magical creatures, and a lot of time devoted to traveling and describing the many settings of this book, including various locations in France, upstate New York, New Haven, London, New Orleans, Oxford, Venice, and Chelm, Poland.

 

The entire series has been plagued by pacing problems. Deborah Harkness's attention to detail is at once the series' greatest strength and also its greatest weakness. The extensive descriptions of places, people, history, furniture, art, and so on make the reader feel like s/he is right there in the story, but sometimes Harkness gives us more detail than we could possibly need. In A Discovery of Witches, the never-ending descriptions of Diana's clothes and meals made me crazy. In Shadow of Night, Harkness told us more about arcane alchemical processes than any reader (except perhaps a Ph.D. candidate) could possibly care to know. -And here in Book of Life, perhaps more than ever, the details get in the way of the story.

 

Let me explain: As the capstone of the trilogy, Book of Life is the climax the whole series (all 1800 pages of it) has been building to. The reader therefore has a sense of urgency in seeing how certain plots resolve that the detailed narrative often frustrates. Some examples: Matthew's mother, Ysabeau, gets held prisoner early on by the Congregation. Despite expressing some concern about it (and after learning why imprisonment might be especially traumatic to Ysabeau given her history), Matthew and Diana hie off to the States and spend several months gardening and cleaning the Bishop homestead in New York rather than working on a plan to free her. Later, they learn that the Book of Life's main villain is holding a witch hostage and repeatedly raping her, trying to breed with her. Matthew and Diana express horror and outrage... and then go to Yale and spend several more weeks futzing around in labs and libraries. Then, Diana has a pregnancy complication and gets put on bed rest while she and Matthew are on separate continents. Rather than rushing to her side, Matthew spends a week carving infant cradles. Later still, Matthew himself is a hostage of the Big Baddie, and Diana hurries to France... to feed her babies. Now, as a relatively new mom myself, I get that babies need to be fed, but surely not even the most hard-core breastfeeding enthusiasts would object to the sitter offering a little bit of formula so that Mom can go save Daddy from Mortal Peril.

 

The baby plot was almost as ridiculous and cringeworthy in Book of Life as it was in Breaking Dawn. The birthing scene was less horrifying, thank God, and the Bishop-de Clermont babies have reasonably normal names and growth patterns, but they still prefer blood to milk, and there's a ridiculous scene in which Diana tells her husband that their daughter is "not a vampire. She's a vampitch. Or a wimpire." (p. 424). Seriously?!

 

Book of Life has a point of view problem (as does Breaking Dawn, now that I think of it). Some of the book is written in first-person POV, as narrated by Diana. Some of the book is in third-person POV, usually limited to Matthew or other characters, but sometimes almost omniscient. Whatever rhyme or reason there may have been to the POV changes, I found them jarring and unnecessary.

 

One plot I wish the series had developed more fully (and I say that with some hesitation, when there were so many plots that could and maybe should have been pared down), is the issue of Diana's mortality. Unlike Twilight's Bella, Harkness's protagonist has no intention of becoming a vampire. That means this is a story of a timeless, all-consuming love between a woman who will live a mere handful of decades and a man who has already survived millennia. Perhaps the most empowering aspect of this love affair (especially contrasted with Twilight) is that both Diana and Matthew are happy with Diana the way she is, and don't wish to change her... but I still think they need to confront the issues raised by her mortality in a more meaningful way. At one point, Matthew tells Diana that his greatest wish is to grow old with her, which of course can't happen -- Diana's response is to conjure him a few grey hairs for Christmas, a wholly unsatisfactory answer to a real and pressing problem.

 

Reading over my review, it all sounds more negative than my actual reading experience reflects. I have a lot of nitpicky complaints, but overall, this book, and this series, is great entertainment. It's long and complicated and full of delicious (and sometimes maddening) detail, and the romance is compelling and the stakes are sky-high, and for a lot of people (including me) the All Souls trilogy is total reading catnip. I envy newcomers to the series who have the time to dive into all three books and read them in one epic 1,800 page binge, all at once, because I bet the story would be all the more transporting and satisfying that way, rather than interrupted by the long wait between book releases.

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review 2014-06-15 16:15
Great Book. Sucky Ending.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Stephen Chbosky

Back when this movie came out, I heard good things about it, but we had a baby and no free time, so never got around to seeing it. Then I heard it was based on a book, and I thought, well, at least I have time to read... but as I was reading blurbs and reviews of the book in preparation to buy, I kept seeing it compared to The Catcher in the Rye.

 

I hate The Catcher in the Rye. More than any other book I can think of, I loathe that book, I loathe Holden Caulfield, and it is at the very top of my list of Books-I-HATE-that-Everyone-Else-Loves (followed closely by The Great Gatsby). And of course the fact that everyone else loves Catcher in the Rye makes me loathe it even more. So, based on all those CitR comparisons, I took a pass on The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

 

Yet I kept hearing good things about Perks, and eventually I broke down. The good news is, the comparisons to CitR are undeserved (though I get why people make them): Holden Caulfield is a spoiled, entitled, jaded, self-indulgent, self-centered, whiny little prick; Charlie is (blessedly) not. Charlie is observant, sensitive, generally considerate, and focused on others much more so than on himself (to his peril, as we learn). However, he's far from a perfect narrator: despite his prodigious intelligence, Charlie is painfully (sometimes unbelievably, as in the scene where he "discovers" masturbation) naive and clueless in social situations. He's also mentally ill. His diagnoses are never made explicit, and I'm not a doctor, but I'd say he's suffering from depression and PTSD stemming from several childhood traumas, including the suicide of one of his only friends, the death of a beloved aunt, and another, deeper trauma (so deep Charlie himself has shut out the memory) that is not revealed until the last pages of the book.

 

Despite Charlie's imperfections as a narrator, I connected deeply with his story. This book is set in 1991-1992, Charlie's first year of high school. That puts him one year behind me (and since he stayed back a year, we are the same age). Like Charlie, I too found my niche in high school among the semi-geeky, semi-awesome (depending on one's perspective) drama and music kids (we were called "art fags" at my school). Like Charlie, I too spent countless hours with my friends listening to Nirvana and the Smiths and watching Harold and Maude and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Like Charlie, my friends and I wrestled with issues like unrequited first love, teen dating violence, substance use, sexual orientation and identity, suicide, abortion, and childhood sexual abuse.

 

I've read several other reviews that criticize Perks for raising all of these issues in only a glancing way, without thoroughly dealing with any of them. I see what these reviewers are saying, but I think that critique is grossly unfair. Charlie's perspective is very similar to my recollection of my own high school experience. All of these huge, weighty, adult issues kept popping up unexpectedly, and you just had to figure out how to think about them, talk about them, what to do about them in the moment so that you could get back to the day-to-day business of finishing your homework, preparing for exams, going to this weekend's party -- but no, you never actually solved these problems. You didn't figure them out. You dealt with them as they came up, and then you spent years reflecting on those experiences, learning from them in the hope that you will deal better the next time you find yourself in the same boat.

 

Why only 3.5 stars, then, if I found Charlie so authentic? The ending. So disappointing. I don't want to spoil it for anyone (and the book is totally worth reading, even with the bummer ending), but I will say that Charlie has a very late-in-coming revelation of a major childhood trauma that sends him around the bend. He gets hospitalized for two months, and upon his release, suddenly he has a new shiny happy outlook on life that, frankly, he didn't earn, and I don't buy. I don't mind the relatively superficial treatment of all of the other weighty issues of the book, but Charlie is this book, he is the narrator, and if we can't trust him, we can't trust anything about the story. I'd have been happier with an ending that left him damaged but honest.

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review 2014-06-02 17:07
The Romance Equivalent of an Action Adventure Movie
Beauty and the Bounty Hunter - Lori Austin

You ever watch an action adventure movie where things just keep coming at you -- car chases, explosions, daring escapes, near misses -- and you spend the whole movie on the edge of your seat, afraid to go to the restroom even though you badly need to pee (partly because the movie has your adrenaline pumping, partly because of that zillion-ounce soda you guzzled) because you don't want to miss anything? This book was like that, except I could put it down for potty breaks.

 

Set in and around Kansas in 1870, the story focuses on Cat O'Banyon, a legendary female bounty hunter who travels the west bringing outlaws to justice and seeking the villain who killed her husband

and raped her

(spoiler show)

. Cat learned most of what she knows about disguise from Alexi Romanov, an itinerant confidence man and playboy who was her lover in the dark days after her husband's murder. Alexi saved her sanity, but when she was strong enough, she left him because 1) he's a manwhore, and 2) she's a woman on a mission.

 

Cat's and Alexi's paths cross again when someone puts a bounty on Cat's head, and suddenly instead of hunting outlaws, Cat's on the run because every outlaw on the frontier is suddenly hunting her. This book is jam-packed with action--shoot-outs, narrow escapes, near-death experiences--and interspersed with flashbacks to the formative events that shaped both Cat's and Alexi's characters. (For Cat, this is her husband's murder, for Alexi, it is his time as a sniper in the Union Army and subsequent torment as a prisoner of war held in the Confederacy's most notorious prison.)

 

The romance element in this story is honestly a bit thin (I had a hard time believing Alexi reformed his manwhoring ways, or that Cat really cares that much if he does), but the plot is so exciting, who cares?

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review 2014-05-05 13:12
Hero with Self Esteem Issues
Beauty and the Beast - Hannah Howell

This book might have the beta-est beta hero ever, notwithstanding the fact that he's a fierce medieval knight who wields a broadsword, leads a band of loyal men, and is undefeated on the battlefield: despite all that, he's got serious self-esteem issues. Thayer has lots of battle scars, plus he's a freckled ginger, all of which combine to make him--in his own mind at least--the "Beast" of this book's title. I've never encountered a romance hero so obsessed with, and so insecure about, his own appearance... and it did not go over well.

 

Thayer returns home from battles in France to attend the wedding of his cousin, the heir to Seitun Manor, only tor learn that his cousin is dead and according to the terms of the marriage contract, Thayer himself is now heir to the Manor and to the late cousin's bride-to-be, the prodigiously beautiful Gytha. Rather than greeting this arranged marriage with joy, Thayer gets butthurt because Gytha's beauty means he'll spend his whole life chasing lovesick swains out of his wife's bed... because all pretty girls are cheaters, of course. 

 

After some sexy times and near misses on the battlefield, Thayer and Gytha fall in love, but neither wants to tell the other because ... reasons. Plus, Thayer still doesn't trust Gytha's chastity, never mind that she's never given him any reason to doubt her, and his inability to believe that a beautiful woman would hitch her wagon to his star nearly unravels their marital felicity... that, and Thayer's uncle keeps trying to kill him, which also puts a damper on things.

 

Time passes, Gytha almost gets raped, gets kidnapped, almost gets raped again, Thayer rescues her and defeats the dastardly uncle... and then, just when you think the story is wrapping up, there's a surprise plot twist that makes it all too clear that Thayer still doesn't know what the fuck he's doing when it comes to women.

 

There's enough catnip in this story--arranged marriage trope (a weakness of mine), medieval setting, spunky heroine, amusing dialogue--that I stuck with it even though Thayer's awkwardness with women was not so much endearing as insulting and infuriating, but in the end, this book is simply "meh."

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