Book Review:

Once Upon A Nightmare: A Novella of the Nightmare City seriesOnce Upon A Nightmare: A Novella of the Nightmare City series by P.S. Newman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Once Upon A Nightmare is a fantastically-paced novella set in a fascinating future LA where dreams (and nightmares) can manifest. The twist of having a main character who discovers she isn’t “real” is an ironically humanizing one and an excellent origin story for a fish-out-of-water superheroine.

I enjoyed the writing and appreciated the lack of distracting typos–a pet peeve of mine that happens more frequently when reading indie books. Newman’s work allowed me to create clear images in my head of a world that has reacted to a supernatural incursion within a lifetime. The factions that spring up around the “shades,” as the manifestations are called, are realistic, and the action sequences are exciting and well-crafted.

The story itself has twists and turns, secrets and hints, allowing the reader the joy of guessing about what will happen next. The ending is very satisfying, and yet a perfect launch point for the full series. This is an urban fantasy world that does not read as dysptopian. Good outcomes are possible, but as in all great stories, the characters are going to have to work to get them.

Full Disclosure: I’ve met the author and she’s a lot of fun.

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Book Reviews: Science Fiction Mystery Romp

Murder on the Orion ExpressMurder on the Orion Express by Nate Streeper
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Murder on the Orion Express is a fun book full of humor and great action sequences, but I had enough trouble with some aspects of it that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to. The story was sound, the laughs are outstanding, the writing brilliant at times…but inconsistent at others. I enjoyed the main character’s arc and the ending.

I had a hard time following the “sleuthing” of private detective Alan Blades. Pacing was something of a problem for me, with elements of the story moving so “fast,” without enough description, that I got lost and had to re-read.

This book is inspired by, and an homage to, the Agatha Christie book with a similar title, but Streeper fails at the one thing Christie has mastered: Every character, each suspect, is clearly portrayed and easy to keep track of. That was Orion’s biggest failure in my mind: At some point, I had to work REALLY hard to just remember who the suspect characters were. They had names and front-stories; they had actual names and backstories, people I didn’t care about were being killed off right and left, all in a very different world setting, with weapons, machines, and tech unlike our own.

It was hard to keep track of, and as a result, the book wasn’t a smooth, easy read.

Full Disclosure: I know the author and he’s a fantastic guy. I’m listed in the acknowledgments (but I didn’t do a thing).

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Non-Fic Fridays: What Regency Women Did For Us

Non-Fic Fridays: What Regency Women Did For Us

I loved my Finnemore Fridays, and soon I will find a legit way to bring them back, continuing my quest to spread the brilliance of John Finnemore far and wide (without bending any copyright laws).

Until then, let’s talk non-fiction!

There was a major swath of years between 25-35 where I don’t recall reading any non-fiction that wasn’t work-related. But I got married, and my husband’s brain is SO BIG, and so filled with useful stuff, that I decided to be more like him.

About ten years ago, I made a point of reading more widely. including biographies, science, business, and politics. I’ve learned how to tell quickly whether a book will hold my interest: Does it have humor? Does it have a good tone? Does it balance good writing and density of information?

Following this criteria, my favorite non-fic books from the past several years are The Emperor of Scent, by Chandler Burr and A Crack in the Edge of the World by Simon Winchester. Favorite non-fiction audiobooks are The Girl With the Lower Back Tatoo, by Amy Schumer, and The Princess Diarist, by Carrie Fischer.

This weekend I am supposed to attend the Jane Austen Book Club meeting in nearby Ventura, but the freeway will still be closed due to the Montecito mudslides. As a result, you, Dear Readers, gain from my book club’s loss.

Here are the Questions posed, and my answers about What Regency Women Did For Us.

TL;DR

This is a nice reference book, not an engaging read. The author has summarized a lot of research without telling any stories about Regency women that made me really enjoy reading about them.

 

1. Out of the 12 women described in this book, who was your favorite person, and why? (you can’t say Jane Austen)

Thanks to Knowles, the women were reduced to nearly identical, narrow descriptions. Childhood, struggles, education, pursuits…I found it hard to tell them apart, and I believe they all felt “the same” because the author didn’t have an attitude, or make an emotional distinction between them.

I found myself wondering if she had put them into the book in a particular order for any reason, and yes, they are ordered according to their date of birth. Very fair. Knowles presented some brilliant women to rectify history. A worthy goal, except her work leaves out sufficient details or narrative threads to interest me. What was presented frustrated me as a reader. If she was trying to make me want to toss her book in the garbage and go do my own research, in that, Knowles has succeeded.

This is teaching history at it’s worst: merely sketching important characters, including their birth, death, and contributions without engaging the learner unduly. I can’t say I truly “liked” any of the subjects. I don’t feel I know who they really were. (She even made me feel momentarily ambivalent about JA! (A feat of amazingly blasé writing.)

2. Who was your least favorite?

Ditto rant above.

3. Was there any person in this book you had never heard of that particularly impressed you?

Jane Marcet’s ability to present complicated information in a format that increases widespread comprehension is a skill I am particularly impressed by.

4. Did you feel that there were women in the book who should not have been included? Any you know of that should have been?

No, all the women in the book met the criteria set by the author: They left an admirable legacy behind. I don’t know of anyone missing, but then, I am not a student of British women’s history.

5. Which of these 12 women do you feel had the greatest impact on Regency England or to life in the Regency era?

I have to point to Jane Marcet again, as her manuals for disseminating learning are likely to have touched the most individuals.

6. How did marriage, or a lack of marriage, influence these women’s lives?

In the same way marriages influence women today: Good ones allow partners to become the best people they can be; bad ones distract, disrupt, and deprive the world of talent.

7. Did you feel that there were any instances when being a woman actually was an advantage in any of these 12 cases?

Being a beautiful woman has always been an advantage – a source of power – when used wisely. This is especially true in the stories of Sarah Siddons and Harriott Mellon, who needed to be seen and admired on the stage.

8. Do you feel that there are any commonalities between the lives of these 12 women?

They are all presented as being born street-smart, clever, or perceptive…whatever your word is for an innate intelligence. Though their education, circumstances, and encouragement all differed, each one had not only an intrinsic drive, but the power to discern a plan for making a good life and follow the plan.

9. What do you think about the title of the book?

As a play on the question, “What have Regency Women ever done for me?” it is fairly clever. The “Us” in the book feels predominantly British and scientific, which is a bit distancing, as I am neither British nor a scientist.

10. What do you think of the writer’s style?

Very academic.
Except when it is exclamatory!
But seriously, Knowles should absolutely write for Wikipedia. This book feels like a JASNA presentation or paper that was expanded…these women are represented at a superficial level.

True to its title, the book focuses on the outcomes of the women’s lives too much to make it a “good read.” It almost discounts the women themselves, in favor of their accomplishments. I think the book tries, but it does not succeed in going deep enough to make the reader see these women as the heroines of important stories that should be told. This is a failure (or perhaps it was exactly the intent) of the distant writing tone, the segmented structure, and the academician’s refusal to let the most interesting bits of the women’s lives be the central story.

Lest I seem harsh, I praise Knowles for creating an excellent piece of reference material. The book is a good starting point for a young person curious about the era, about women’s roles in history, or how to go about finding additional works for researching any of these women (Bibliographies! May they live forever!).

 

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Book Review: The Binge Continues

Book Review: The Binge Continues

My historical romance binge continues with a three-book series called The Extraordinaries, by author Melissa McShane. Let’s be honest: I read these books because of the GORGEOUS covers. It happens.

You will probably enjoy this series if you are a fan of naval war books like the Horatio Hornblower novels but with a fantasy twist, like the Glamourist Histories.

Burning Bright introduces us to a Regency world where children, usually in upper-class families, develop “extraordinary” genetic traits. The powers are an expansion of paranormal concepts like telekinesis, telepathy, and pyrokinesis, and the magic system is well designed and believable.

The novel is a nicely executed read about a woman choosing neither forced marriage nor spinsterhood, but the “third path,” of serving in the British Navy. My initial headlong dive into the book washed up plenty of surprising plot twists and a very satisfying ending. A second-read revealed a few minor issues I glazed over due to enjoyment, but on the whole, it is solid.

Wondering Sight is a middle novel, and for me, the least enjoyable of the trilogy. The pacing bogged down and so did the main character’s arc, both suffering from the same problem: Backstory Baggage. The result is a book that offers a reader unclear expectations and conflicting foreshadowing about the hero/villain, romance element, and the mechanics of the heroine’s Seer powers.

Frankly, a story about a woman who lays on her bed and Dreams or has Visions a lot was going to be problematic. The book’s flow was regularly interrupted by confusing secondary characters, info-dumping and almost entirely unsuitable, unromantic love interest. I finished for the sake of the series, but I wasn’t surprised by anything, and I didn’t really care about the characters by the end of the book.

Abounding Might has the most enjoyable main character of the three books. From a writerly perspective, it may be the strongest, but I like boat stories better than intrigue tales, so #1 is my favorite.

It begins in the way “they” say you’re supposed to start a book: In the middle of the action. I would submit that, while technically “correct,” beginning on a battlefield, with a dead man covered in blood, is an awfully rough place to start a romance.

I appreciated that the heroine of the book pushed boundaries, took huge risks, and suffered consequences for them. A true romance, it was the relationship between the heroine and her hero that made this book a good read.

It did not suffer from the info dump lulls or confusing character substitutions in Book 2, but some heavy-handed foreshadowing of a few plot lines made it a little predictable in the second act. Not so much that there weren’t surprises and misdirections to enjoy at the climax and in the denouement.

Taken as a whole, the series has enjoyable settings, great main characters, a thoughtful magic system, interesting ideas, and is well plotted. Plenty there for a good solid historical, romance, fantasy, Regency binge, if you’re on the lookout for exactly that sort of thing.

 

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Reading for Escape

Permission (from me) to immerse myself in books is my favorite thing about the winter holiday. Curling up, warm and cozy, with nothing to do but sleep in, read, and eat holiday foods is one flavor of paradise.

Over the past few years, holiday reading is also about trying to catch up to my annual reading goal. I work on finishing books I started and put down, or pick short, fun reads to allow me to catch up quickly. It has inadvertently become an annual ritual. Last year it was the Brother Cadfael mysteries, and this year I’ve picked the historical romances of Suzanne G. Rogers.

Why historical romance? And why self-published historical romance at that? In addition to my usual decadent span of permissiveness where reading is concerned, I’ve been on an escapism binge. I’m a little depressed. This time of year is hard for a lot of people, and I feel grief more than anything else at holiday time. I’m also very tired of dealing with contractors. I’m also trying to learn more about the self-pub business. I didn’t want to read anything I had to work at.

My binge started on accident when I read Ruse & Romance (The Beaucroft Girls #1). I subscribe to online free/cheap book clearing houses which my self-published friends use to find new readers. Someday, *I* might want to use them, so I’ve signed up for a daily email, filled with books in various genres. I don’t know if I picked this book via Book Bub or eBook Discovery but I glance through each service a couple of times a week.

So far I’ve read eight titles by Rogers and here’s what I notice:

The books appear tightly plotted and the plots are GREAT. The books are paced to perfection. In particular, I enjoy the fact that Rogers’ M.O. is to start off with a trite, “expected” setup, and then twist. And twist. And turn before the next twist. Each time you can see what’s going to happen, like the top of a mountain while on a nice hike, there will be several switchbacks to go through before you’ll reach it. This structure makes the endings deeply satisfying.

Sure, yes, okay, it is romance. Everyone ends up with the right person in the end, the good guys get good outcomes, the bad guys get come uppance…but instead of reading about STUPID characters and screaming at the books, “JUST GO TALK TO HIM!!!” there’s a surprising amount of communication.

Within reason (because they are 19th century characters after all) the protagonists don’t hold back from talking to each other. They have useful confidantes. Rogers writes effectively from many points of view in each book, which is incredibly effective at both endearing the characters to the reader and making the communication realistic. Some plots rely on misunderstandings, but most are based on circumstances that are believable because the worst possible outcome is just as likely as all out success.

When I’m reading any book, I rate it assuming like-is-compared-to-like. What I consider “trashy” or “beach reading” doesn’t compare to “great literature” so I don’t even try. Not all of Rogers’ books earn five stars from me, primarily because some are copy edited better than others and some leave gaping plot holes. Here are some of my reading criteria, I’d love to hear if it matches yours:

  • How do I feel when I finish the book?
  • Did the story answer all the questions it raised?
  • Was I annoyed by typos?
  • Did the pacing give me a disjointed reading experience?
  • Was the book consistent?
  • Am I sad to see the characters go?

I am not going to post the images for these books because I find them off-putting and AWFUL. Historical fiction with modern-sensibility photographic covers irritate me. Still, with these criteria in mind, if you’ve ever been curious about historical romance, please try out one of the books with 5 stars below. I would love to talk with you afterward, hear what you thought of it, and debate the merits:

Larken (Graceling Hall #1)5 stars – The story of a “Miracle Orphan” who loses her well-off parents in a train wreck and is subsequently made penniless by her adopted parents. She retains her whimsical nature and imagination despite all odds, and unexpectedly finds love in an arranged marriage.

Grace Unmasked (The Mannequin #2) – 3 stars – Poor Grace, a low born girl who has to escape to London after she disfigures a lord while defending herself, was plagued by typos, plot holes, and some pacing problems. There were some inconsistencies, but I LOVED the ending!

The Mannequin (The Mannequin #1) – 5 stars – Rosamund = Cinderella + Beauty and the Beast + Princess Diaries + all the good nurse falls in love with her patient stories ever written. It sounds like too much, but again, Rogers does this amazing thing of setting up the tropes and linking them like a mobius strip: You know full well where they’re going, but you just can’t figure out how the story is going to get there.

Spinster – 5 stars – I think this is my favorite of the books. Another thing Rogers is good at is starting her stories on the “day after.” What happens if a plain girl gets jilted and doesn’t find a husband? What are her options? It is a great premise for a strong main character, and I like the way the characters do very human, stupid things. This book is quite lovely, through and through.

The Ice Captain’s Daughter – 4 stars – This book gets only 4 stars because the author set up a devastatingly handsome father, the Ice Captain, and then never utilized him. Poor man. Maybe this was an earlier-career attempt? Instead there were some abominably flat relations who were inexplicably neglectful. Again, GREAT ending, which makes up for a lot.

Duke of a Gilded Age – 5 stars – Rogers’ stand alone novels seem to suit me a bit better than multiple books telling related stories. In this novel, she does a good job of writing a male protagonist who benefits from unusual circumstances. I also like the “younger” feel to the novel (almost historical YA) and the portrayal of young men who should be at odds but end up working together.

Rake & Romance (The Beaucroft Girls #2) – 5 stars – There’s quite a bit of suspension of disbelief required when the wealthy Texans take London by storm in the sequel to Ruse and Romance. Still, assuming anything is possible and good will win out over bad is a prerequisite to enjoying the romance novel. I was especially pleased that this novel caught up all the loose ends from book 1, even redeeming the worst characters from the first book.

Ruse & Romance (The Beaucroft Girls #1) – 5 stars – This is the Rogers book that started my binge. I added it to my list in August, and got around to reading it in December. In this book, poor, beautiful Kitty, with her romantic and intelligent sensibilities, isn’t willing to marry just anyone. Unfortunately, she gets so many proposals that she begins to be labeled a flirt. What I liked about this story is the way that (just like in real life) a lie to fix one problem results in another, often a bigger problem down the line. The solution is a whole lot of happily ever afters, the true reason the romance genre is so beloved by fans.

 

 

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Arabella of Mars Book Review

Arabella of Mars Book Review

When I can hear the swell of theme music from words on a page, and happy tears jump to my eyes because the heroine is triumphant in both her quest and her wholly requited romantic inclinations, that means I’ve read a damn fine Steampunk Adventure Regency Romance Novel. Of which I think only this one may exist (along with its successors) written by David D. Levine.

The order of description I gave is no accident. Arabella of Mars has more in common with Horatio Hornblower novels and Treasure Island than Persuasion or anything Georgette Heyer. What sucked me in were the excellently researched portraits of “naval” life, allowing me to learn alongside Arabella about the imaginative addition of airships and hot air balloon sailing between planets. The book is fantasy, it requires suspension of disbelief, but the part of the tale that touches on the impossible is easy to accept as young “Ashby” learns his trade and becomes a member of the crew.

But as a lover of romances, it is the relationships Arabella has with her shipmates, her captain, and her Martian caretaker that give the book a rousing finish.

 

[SPOILERS BELOW – READ ON AT YOUR PERIL!]

I gave the novel only four stars on Goodreads for two reasons: The main one was that the prologue, which gave me a glimpse into Arabella’s formative past, did not instill within me a strong affinity for the characters that explicitly motivate and drive the story. Arabella’s father does not fight for her, console her, or evidence the intelligence and affinity that Arabella ascribes to their relationship. That his loss affects poor Arabella deeply didn’t resonate with me.

Similarly, the brief interactions I saw between the heroine and her soft-hearted, beloved brother were so mild that I found myself rolling my eyes when Arabella waxed on about his merits. Her desperate adventure with the sole intent of saving him from a known threat fell hollow and made the first few chapters of the book hard for me to get into.

Once I was in, however, there were plenty of extremely well-written trials, fights, and perilous privateers to hold my interest and deepen my sympathy with Arabella. The pace and the plot of the second act were incredibly enjoyable.

The last part of the book, after Arabella is discovered to be a girl, was again, more difficult for me to enjoy.  Her treatment by the captain and crew was so abrupt that I fell out of the story for awhile, tempted to skim. Similarly, Arabella’s strangely generous nature with the villain rankled, though it was *so very Regency.* In that perhaps Levine accomplished what he set out to do perfectly.

The surprises and emotional resolutions in the last section aptly guided the book into the final resolution, underscoring themes about colonialism, family, culture, and above all else, honorable personal behavior in the face of anger and difficult circumstances.

I recommend this book to everyone interested in any of the genres above, whether romance is your thing, alternate history, pure adventure, or steampunk-ish fantasy. It is fun and has lots for a diverse array of readers to love.

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The Venom in the Valentine

The Venom in the Valentine

In the spirit of full disclosure, I provided developmental editing for this installment of the Viola Roberts Cozy Mysteries. Even seeing it in its raw form, this is my favorite read so far in the series.

Shea MacLeod has climbed to new writing heights with her unique way of mixing of the hilarious with the sinister. Every reader will be able to relate to what happens when average people fall prey to their base prejudices, but Viola’s unique perspective as a writer and amateur sleuth means that readers can again expect many unexpected plot twists!

With her friends, Viola just can’t catch a break, not even on a weekend getaway. MacLeod combines the accurate pitfalls of Valentine’s Day Expectations with the terror of having quaint, old-fashioned love notes become a weapon sharp enough to cut a reputation to the quick…or even to the kill.

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Angel’s Devil (Jake Brand, PI #1)

Angel’s Devil (Jake Brand, PI #1)
Angel's Devil (Jake Brand, PI #1) by M. Louis
Angel’s Devil (Jake Brand, PI #1)
by M. Louis

I listened to the audiobook on a long drive. I’m not usually a fan of crime thrillers, but this had enough of a mix between Jake, the main character’s, inner world and the outer world to hold my interest.

I suspect I would not have finished this book if I’d been reading. It has a pretty big cast of flat characters and a lot of wallowing. The inner dialog between the angel and devil are well intentioned as comic relief, and they work sometimes, but not often enough.

The Angel is not very angelic. Both characters berate Jake, so there’s a lot of self-harm and self-loathing on display here; not my bag. The best bits are the actual trying-to-figure-out-what’s-going-on and I enjoyed the little surprise ending very, very much.

I didn’t care about what happened to the characters, but the narrator’s amazing voice and skill in distinguishing between characters, made the book come alive.

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The Time Traveling Fashionista Series

The Time Traveling Fashionista Series

Full disclosure: this series was recommended to me by my 11yr old niece. I’m reading it specifically to discuss with her, and I am not a regular YA reader or audience. That said, this series of three (so far) books are quick, fun, reads that are fresh in their optimism. The series is entertaining without dystopia, dripping drama, or dragging descriptions of self-loathing. For that alone, I applaud the author!

What the author accomplishes well is consistency of a pre-teen voice, capturing a juvenile’s attitude towards the world, and a YA plot with appropriate danger and character growth.

What is really disappointing about the books is a lack of story that portrays the main character, Louise, as the thing that theoretically makes her special: a knowledge–nay, passion–for fashion clothing. There’s a lot of name-dropping and a distinct lack of actual knowledge. Which, come to think of it, is quintessentially YA, isn’t it?

In particular, I was disappointed by the way the book alludes to Louise and her mother’s love for old movies. I know from my own childhood experience, if that was true, she would know the difference between a hoop skirt and panniers. If Louise was actually looking things up, as she so often says she is, in her ‘Vintage Fashion’ book, I expect she would understand a lot more about history, dressing, and culture, if not from the book, from watching old movies themselves. You CANNOT have a character, ostensibly obsessed with fashion, who has seen GWTW, not know how underpinnings such as corsetry and bum rolls work.

So the book rankles because I want the heroine to be smarter and better than she is. If that is the author’s intention, she is doing it perfectly, but as a reader (and to be very fair, NOT the target audience), I want more examples of Louise’s knowledge from her professed obsession.

I give the books a first star because I love the idea; I was a costume-obsessed youngling and I am glad there is now a series out there for people like me. The second star is because of the subtly subversive way the book introduces learning history via fashion instead of by rote–Pretty Well Done! And the third star is because if my niece can read it and love it, the book MUST be doing its job reaching the target market in tone, voice, and content (though I can’t wholly vouch for that).

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The Danish Girl

The Danish Girl
The Danish Girl, by David Ebershoff
The Danish Girl, by David Ebershoff

This is a beautifully written novel, my criteria being that never once was I ejected from the prose by what felt like an out of place word. I enjoyed the portrayal of deeply interesting characters with unique life experiences, and took it at its word that it was not trying to portray a real historical event, merely taking inspiration from one.

There were things I found completely satisfying: the artists at work, the rich locations, the identity confusion we all face–to greater or lesser extent–as we come of age and our physical bodies mature. What I see as the true strength of the book is the way it illuminates the shining acceptance and flexibility of good people, acting from a place of love.

There were also things in the book that disturbed me: I wanted just a little more medical details (not graphic) in order to understand the mechanics of what was physically happening. Not enough to want to look them up, but if the book let me down in some way it was in denying my modern understanding of medicine with hints instead of descriptions. Certain interactions that I longed for between characters were also left out. I think this portrays the reality of life, it doesn’t get tied up in a neat little bow, but I was sad as a reader not to be gifted by the author with certain scenes between characters.

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