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review 2016-07-15 17:40
"Steadfast" by Sarina Bowen
Steadfast (True North Book 2) - Sarina Bowen

I really enjoy Sarina Bowen's books, and I loved the first in this series, Bittersweet (True North #1). The books are set in rural Vermont, where I live, and they feel authentic and genuine (unlike most small town contemporaries, which depict a more Hollywood-esque perfection of imagined small town life). I was really looking forward to Steadfast because of the premise: the hero is a recovering heroin addict who has just gotten out of jail for killing his girlfriend's brother while driving while high. I mean, that's some pretty heavy conflict, right? And I love a good redemption story.


Sadly, while the writing was good and the main characters were compelling, and Bowen did a really good job in depicting Jude's addiction and his daily struggle in recovery, Steadfast was a disappointment. The supporting characters were not well developed -- the main characters' parents, siblings, and friends were very two-dimensional, which made plot lines involving these characters less compelling and often less believable. Also, in an effort (I think) to make the hero more heroic, the plot took shortcuts that really disappointed me. (SPOILER HERE:

we learn in the end that Jude wasn't actually driving in the accident that killed the heroine's brother, which struck me as a cop out -- the story would have better if Jude had been redeemed rather than exonerated

(spoiler show)



I was also distracted by some of the things Bowen got wrong about Vermont's criminal justice system, which likely wouldn't bother anyone who doesn't work in the field. The silver lining, though, is that the morning after I finished the book, I emailed Sarina Bowen (which is not something I ever do; generally I prefer not to directly interact with authors) and offered myself as a contact should she ever have research questions (I've been a prosecutor for 14 years) or need a beta reader, and she wrote back immediately and was thrilled by my offer. So, that was kind of exciting.

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review 2016-01-02 01:02
First Read of 2016 - And it was a good one
A Scandal to Remember - Elizabeth Essex

I really, really loved the first book in this series, Almost a Scandal, and then the next one or two were only meh, so I took a break from Elizabeth Essex. I'm glad to reconnect with her nautical historical romances, because I'm a sucker for tall ships, and this book was lovely. 


In the peace following the Napoleonic Wars, much of the British Navy has become redundant, including Lt. Charles Dance. He's relieved when an old shipmate pulls strings to get him assigned to the Tenacious, a ship with orders to take a group of naturalists to the South Pacific on a scientific expedition. Yet as soon as Dance comes aboard, he finds the Tenacious in sorry shape. The Captain is a drunkard who won't leave his cabin, the bosun is an untrustworthy bully, the purser deserts with the ship's accounts before they even set sail, the crew is lazy and untrained, and the ship itself is so badly maintained as to be barely seaworthy. And then the scientists show up, and one of them is a woman. Although Dance is attracted to Jane from the start, she is yet one more complication he doesn't need on this ill-fated voyage. Most of the crew is too superstitious to tolerate a woman's presence on board, and as things go wrong -- and there is a lot that goes wrong -- the crew's resentment focuses on Jane. When Dance acts as her defender, and without able leadership from the captain, the crew mutinies against Dance, who has all the responsibility of the voyage with none of the authority. 


Shipboard romances make up their own subsection of the romance genre, but this isn't the swashbuckler-themed wallpaper historical you may be expecting. Elizabeth Essex is a nautical historian by academic training, so she knows her stuff, and the difference is obvious and so satisfying: you get a real sense of the adventures and tensions and indignities and excitement of life at sea, not only technical details about sailing, but also the "office politics" of negotiating the relationships among men (and one woman) living in very, very close quarters. 


The romance between Jane and Dance was satisfying if a little slow-burning for my tastes, and there's plenty of intrigue and adventure to hold the interest of even the most jaded reader. 

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review 2015-11-23 19:56
An Uncomfortable Read
The Fifteenth Minute (The Ivy Years Book 5) - Sarina Bowen

I enjoyed this book (as I've enjoyed almost everything by Sarina Bowen), but I was uncomfortable with the premise. The hero, DJ, has been accused of sexual assault by another student at his school, and he's in limbo while the college figures out how to respond. He's not allowed in the residential halls or anywhere near his alleged victim, and he's going to classes knowing that at any time the school may expel him, but there's no criminal case pending and he knows very little about the allegations, except that as he remembers the encounter, it was very much consensual.


I'm a domestic and sexual violence prosecutor, and I was squicked out by the premise of this book because I know that, though in our rape-culture warped society, people think false allegations of rape are commonplace, but in reality, such claims are very, very rare. In fact, people are much, much more likely to be raped and NOT report than they are to report an assault that didn't happen.


Setting that major squick aside (which I was only able to do because I have a lot of faith in Sarina Bowen), I was interested in the story of DJ meeting a new girl and the difficulties of falling in love when he's got this major cloud (which he doesn't want to tell her about) hanging over his head. I also recognize that this book seeks to make a larger point about the flaws of allowing college administrations to handle sex assault investigations rather than law enforcement -- the results are inconsistent and unfair both to the accuser and the accused -- and that's a point worth making. When the truth came out about the incident that led to DJ's being accused, I was relieved that the accuser's "excuse" was sympathetic and that she was not just a crazy, lying bitch, but I still found this a very uncomfortable read.

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review 2014-04-30 17:55
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane - Katherine Howell

I was frustrated by the narrator, who despite being a graduate scholar at Harvard, is remarkably dense. I think that Katherine Howe gravely underestimates the intelligence of her readers, because she foreshadowed all of the plot twists with so little subtlety that I (reader) always knew just where we were going long before we ended up there, and the fact that Connie (narrator) never seemed to see anything coming just made me impatient through the whole book. Still, the flashbacks to colonial Salem were interesting and well-done, I thought: though I was far more interested in the characters and story told via flashback than in the modern-day humdrum of the main narrative.


*** Originally posted at GR April 2011.***

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review 2014-01-16 03:15
Wow. Just.... Wow. UPDATED
Outlander - Diana Gabaldon

On her website, Diana Gabaldon says:



The OUTLANDER series started by accident, when I decided to write a novel for practice, in order to:

  1. Learn what it took to write a novel, and
  2. To decide whether I really wanted to do that for real.


I don't know if I've ever read a sentence that made me burn quite so hot with jealousy. I've been "writing novels for practice" for some twenty years, and yet... well, I'm not Diana Gabaldon, obviously.


This book blew me away. (W is for Wind in Sock Poppet's A to Z Reading Challenge). I'm an Outlander Noob, and I admit I approached this first book with skeptical trepidation, for three reasons: 1) People love this series, and too many times I have been lured in by hype only to be underwhelmed by my reading experience; 2) I knew these books involve time travel, and prior to this I'd never met a time travel book I actually enjoyed; and 3) these books are huge, and there are so many of them, and so I knew that even if I like the series, I'd be making an enormous reading time commitment (to say nothing of the expense!). Needless to say, I approached with caution. 


Well, now I'm throwing caution to the wind. Outlander is awesome... but phew, how exhausting! (And not just because I've stayed up way too late reading for five nights running, either.) At the end of the book, Claire mentions that Job is Jamie's favorite book of the Bible. No wonder! In the course of their travels in less than a year, Claire and Jamie endure calamities and tribulations that rival even Job's epic suffering, and as a reader, I was often white-knuckled and tense with vicarious trauma.


Now I'm in a terrible bind: I really, really want to know what happens next, but there are seven more books, all equally enormous, to say nothing of the spinoffs, and I'm just not sure that helping myself to such a giant helping of vicarious reading trauma would be wise. Those lucky readers who came earlier to the Outlander party have had twenty-three years to spread out the emotional torment, Outlander having first been published in 1991 (about the time I first sat down to try to "write a novel for practice" -- Curse you, Diana Gabaldon!), and so you had to take it in small doses. Here's me, with the whole massive, sleep-depriving, ulcer-inducing, blood-pressure-elevating series at my finger tips with a few clicks of my mouse, and like an addict, I'm not sure I have the will power to resist a lethal hit. 


UPDATE: I do have a couple of quibbles, though. I didn't include them earlier, because I don't think they impact my overall rating of the book, but now that I've stewed on things a bit I feel like I have to mention these points, because they really did bother me. A lot. 


First: Shortly after their marriage, Jamie takes a strap to Claire because she disobeyed an order. He explains that he has to beat her in order to restore her standing in the Clan (because her disobedience was so public), and while it's true that the other men stop shunning her after her punishment has been served, and while I understand that it's probably a very historically accurate scene (wives having roughly the same legal standing as children in that era, and thus in need of their husband's discipline), I was troubled by the plot's implications that the beating brought Jamie and Claire closer. The resolution of conflict in a relationship brings people closer; not violence. Historically accurate or not, Diana Gabaldon is writing for a modern audience, and I can't help but filter what I read through my own (strongly anti-domestic-violence) lens. I also know that 1991 (when Outlander was first published) was very much on the cusp of the rapetastic bodice-ripper "Old Skool" of the romance genre just beginning to give way to the trend of kinder, gentler heroes and smarter, more independent and self-actualized heroines. In 1991, alph-hole heroes who beat on and raped their lovers were a venerable tradition in romance, and I wonder if Outlander were written today, instead of twenty years ago, if Gabaldon and her editors might not have had second thoughts about the necessity of that scene. 


Next: There is another scene, not too long after, where Jamie tells Claire he wants sex and it doesn't matter whether or not she consents; he wants her, and he will have her, and her opinion on the matter is neither invited nor welcome. (Luckily, she's on board, but it's clear that it wouldn't have mattered if she hadn't been.) That is one of the most fully described sex scenes in the book (usually the sexy times, though numerous, are recounted in glancing detail), and I didn't find it appealing at all. 


Finally: Why must the bad guys always be gay?! Actually, I think this is another hold-over from the conventions of Old Skool romance. From the 1970s through the early 1990s, almost without exception, if a character in romantic fiction was revealed to be gay or bisexual, you could take it to the bank that they'd turn out to be a villain in the end. As a bisexual woman in a committed lesbian relationship, I'm so, so glad that this trope is far less common now.


All three of these "quibbles" -- physical abuse, sexual non consent, and homophobia -- are the sort of major pet peeves that usually make me rage quit a book, and the fact that I was willing to tolerate them here (though they made my eyelids twitch) and still enjoy the book as much as I did says a lot. 


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