Saturday, June 23, 2012

REVIEW: City of Lost Souls by Cassandra Clare

Rating: 4.5/5 Stars
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Audience: Teen/Young Adult
Series: Mortal Instruments #5
Format: Audiobook

Summary: Two weeks after the cliffhanger ending of City of Fallen Angels, Jace and Sebastian are still missing. The Clave is determined to locate and kill Sebastian, and Jace's disappearance is of little consequence to them. Not so for Clary and the rest of the gang. She, Simon, Izzie, Alec, and Magnus are determined to get him back safely, but when they discover that Jace and Sebastian are bonded—harm one, harm the other; kill one, kill the other—their task becomes infinitely more difficult. While the rest of the gang searches for a way to sever the bond without destroying Jace, Clary undertakes a dangerous mission of her own. Because while Jace seems to have forgotten his hatred for Sebastian and is actually cooperating with him, one thing hasn't changed. He still loves Clary, and now he wants her to join him to carry out Sebastian's secret plan.  

First Line: "Simon stood and stared numbly at the front door of his house."

Tracy's Thoughts:
I have listened to this entire series on audiobook, and I must say that this latest addition is easily the most polished production so far. I almost didn't even finish the last audiobook, which was alternately read by Ed Westwick and Molly Quinn. (Ed Westwick? Really??? I love his voice, but posh and British don't really scream Simon or Jace to me.) But Molly Quinn on her own? Totally rocks. She does a fabulous job in CoLS, inhabiting each of the characters and embodying all the emotion, tension, and confusion that they experience through the course of the book.

While I found book four to be a bit of a disappointment, I have absolutely no real complaints about City of Lost Souls (well... I might have liked a bit more angst from the Maia/Kyle storyline). Love, betrayal, internal conflict, violence, sacrifice, heartbreak; it's all there. Cassandra Clare keeps the excitement level sky high while still allowing each major character time to have their own troubles outside of the main plotline. The characters and their relationships are so well established, and yet Clare is still capable of surprising us. Even Sebastian—a villain perhaps even more dangerous than Valentine—had me teetering between (short-lived) sympathy and loathing. This is a dark book in many ways, but that darkness is balanced with a sharp, snarky humor and glimmers of hope. In fact, this one even has a happy ending—or at least a positive resolution—while leaving plenty of material for the next in the series. In my opinion, City of Lost Souls is the best book yet of this beloved series, and I am eagerly anticipating the (reportedly) final installment. Unfortunately, we will all have to wait until March 2014 (!!!!!!!) until City of Heavenly Fire will be released.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

GUEST REVIEW: The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian

We have a new guest reviewer! Mary W. is a BCPL employee and an avid fan of  "weird" books, or so she once told me. For her first review, she is taking on the latest novel by Chris Bohjalian, who is probably best known for Midwives (a former Oprah Book Club pick). Another of his novels, Double Bind, had a Great Gatsby connection, and this one seems to be somewhat influenced by The Turn of the Screw. I've been meaning to try Bohjalian for ages, and I actually gave The Night Strangers a try (in audio format), but I had to give up because I found the reader's delivery to be wooden and unlistenable. But based on Mary's reaction and other reviews I've read—from Justin Cronin, author of The Passage: "The first chapter of Chris Bohjalian’s The Night Strangers is so riveting, I dropped the book in the tub."—I definitely need to seek out a print copy ASAP.   —Tracy

Mary's Rating: 4/5 Stars
Genres: Psychological Suspense/Horror
Audience: Adult

 First Line: "The door was presumed to have been the entry to a coal chute, a perfectly reasonable assumption since a small hillock of damp coal sat moldering before it."

Mary's Guest Review & Summary:
The book starts with a small jet taking off from an airport and running into a flock of birds, which destroy the engines, and the pilot must land in a lake. He hopes to make a safe landing but instead the plan flips end-over-end and 39 passengers are killed. As a result of this, he can't fly anymore and his family decide to move to a small community in hopes he will heal from his nightmares. They move into a house with a door in the basement that has 39 large screws placed around it so it cannot be opened. He decides to open it anyway.

Time to change subjects. He is married to a nice lady and has twins who are not quite teens yet. The teens don't care for the new place and one is hearing voices in the night. The people who are their neighbors are herbalists and have lots of greenhouses everywhere. Sort of like a cult.

This book has a lot of twists and turns and sometimes I got lost at first but it gets more and more interesting as it goes on. If you like books about ghosts, witches, and weirdo people, this book will be a good read for you. I can only say one word about the ending of the book! ASTONISHING! I didn't see the ending coming. The epilogue stood me on my head!! This book is not for the faint of heart.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

REVIEW: Before Ever After by Samantha Sotto

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
Genres: Romance, Mystery, Historical Fiction, Magical Realism
Audience: Adult

Summary: Shelley is just beginning to heal from her husband's death three years earlier when a man appears on her doorstep with a set of photos—a man who looks almost exactly like her husband Max. His name is Paulo, and he claims that the bearded man in the photos is his grandfather—and also Shelley's husband Max, who would only be in his thirties now. It's impossible, but Shelley has to admit that the similarities between Paulo's "Nonno" and her Max are too profound to be explained by coincidence. Even stranger, Paulo claims that Max is still alive and living on a secluded boat in the Philippines.

First Lines: "Jasmine. It was not Max Gallus's top choice for his last thought, but it would have to do."

Tracy's Thoughts:
This book instantly reminded me of both Audrey Niffeneger's The Time Traveler's Wife and Cecelia Ahern's P.S. I Love You. At moments, it even evoked The Gargoyle, one of my absolute favorite books in recent years. Yet Samantha Sotto's story is unique. Offbeat and romantic, Before Ever After moves easily from moments of bittersweet sadness to zany humor. And Sotto's writing style is fresh and engaging, although I did find her constant use of metaphors distracting at times.

Much of the story is told in flashbacks, and each bit reveals a new aspect of the mystery that is Max. On a plane to the Philippines, Paulo and Shelley share what they know of Max. As she relates her love story with Max—who she first met after impulsively joining a back-roads history tour across Europe where Max was the tour guide —Shelley also reveals the folkloric tales he shared with the tour group at each stop, tales she now realizes to be clues into Max's past. Each vignette features the struggles and loves of ordinary people during extraordinary times—from the 1871 slaughter of the French Communards to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius—and is interwoven with a stop in Max's tour. The constant movement from present to past to the even more distant past may prove confusing for some readers, but for me it worked.

Also thrown into the mix are Max and Shelley's eccentric mix of traveling companions—whose stories offer intriguing parallels to Max and Shelley's—and an ongoing motif of chickens and eggs. I would love to go on a real 'Slight Detour' tour through Europe, especially if there was a Max to entertain us with tales and prepare legend-worthy breakfasts. (I really want to try his baked eggs and cheese recipe and wish it had been included in the book. I'll have to check for a recipe online...Maybe there's a low fat version?) Anyway, as I'm a total sucker for road trip books and love genre-bending fiction, this book was right up my alley. And although the premise was not as well executed as I had hoped, I still enjoyed it thoroughly. All in all, Before Ever After is a charming read that will particularly appeal to casual history buffs, romantics, and fellow "armchair travelers".

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

2-for-1 REVIEW: Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed by E.L. James

No dual review this time. Lucinda quit the series before finishing the first book. I almost did the same thing, and after starting the second book, I really did quit. In fact, I read the first and last chapters of Fifty Shades Darker, rolled my eyes (a lot), and decided that I was done with the series for good. Only I have this annoying compulsion to finish what I start (several family members frequently make joking references to my OCD), so I picked it up again a week later. And I enjoyed the last two books, despite my many reservations. I've already said most of what I have to say about this series in my review of the first book, but I thought the final two books in the series deserve a few comments as well.

Tracy's Rating: 2.5/5 Stars
Erotic Fiction
Adult (Mature)
Series: Fifty Shades of Grey #2

First Lines: "He's come back. Mommy's asleep or she's sick again."

Tracy's Rating: 2.5/5 Stars
Erotic Fiction
Adult (Mature)
Series: Fifty Shades of Grey #3

First Lines: "Mommy! Mommy! Mommy is asleep on the floor. She has been asleep for a long time."

Tracy's Thoughts:
In the final books of the series, a slight suspense plot is added to the mix, and the playfulness that characterized Christian and Ana's e-mail correspondence seeps into their face-to-face interactions. As a result, both characters begin to feel more real. Ana, especially, becomes less of a cipher. They also cope more directly with their fundamental differences and learn to communicate in a more adult manner, though neither character changes extremely. I enjoyed the way they are able to acknowledge their own flaws and even joke about them. In one particularly notable moment, Christian gifts Ana with yet another expensive bit of technology, complete with a themed playlist. Among the included songs is "Every Breath You Take," which they mutually agree is the stalker anthem and highly appropriate to Christian's personality. While Christian's stalker tendencies bothered me in the first book, they are less objectionable in those that follow, probably because they have at least been acknowledged. (One of my primary issues with the Twilight series—and there were many—was the fact that Bella never called Edward on his creepy stalking habits and didn't even seem bothered by the fact that he invaded her space while she was sleeping and they were still practically strangers. But I digress...)

Anyway, I have to make an admission: E.L. James is a smart writer. She doesn't take her characters too seriously, and at times seems to poke a bit of fun at romance conventions and expectations. She's not a skilled wordsmith or a brilliant storyteller. And don't even get me started again on her use of the "subconscious" to highlight Ana's inner thoughts. But the writing does seem to get better as the books progress, or perhaps I just grew accustomed to it. Regardless, what E.L. James does do—and very well—is tap into familiar plot elements from bestselling mainstream fiction, using them to make her somewhat taboo story (on the surface at least) more familiar and comfortable for the general reader.

I've been thinking a lot about why this series has enjoyed so much mainstream success, where other erotic fiction is practically shunned by the general reading public. There is even a certain stigma about reading mainstream romance, let alone erotic romance or "romantica." Certainly the media attention hasn't hurt—but a certain level of interest had to have preceded the media coverage. One thing that I think helps is that the covers are less "embarrassing" that many romance novels, erotic or not. The Fifty Shades covers are somewhat stark and do not immediately identify the books as members of the romance genre. There are no half-naked clinches or waxed pectorals (often referred to on romance reader blogs as "mantitty covers") to identify the genre to curious passersby.

But, as I commented earlier, there are parallels to certain mainstream novels that I believe are key to the series's success. In fact, this "shocking" story is rather formulaic, using clich├ęs from the romance genre and mixing in elements culled from other popular fiction. Here's my theory about the formula for the Fifty Shades trilogy:

I have already outlined many of the Twilight parallels in my previous post, but you may be thinking I'm a bit crazy for comparing the other two. But just hear me out.

Even if you haven't read any of Jeff Lindsay's Dexter books, many of you are familiar with the series on Showtime about a blood splatter analyst/serial killer. As a child, Dexter witnessed a traumatic incident involving his mother, which resulted in violent impulses as he grew older. Then, in his formative teenage years, an adult he trusted introduced him to a set of strict rules through which he was free to indulge in his abnormal impulses. Now think of Christian. He too has a "deviant" secret life, and claims that his sadist tendencies stem from his troubled childhood. And then "Mrs. Robinson" introduced him to the world of BDSM, where he finds an outlet for his violent impulses, but only guided strictly by a set of previously agreed upon rules. As such, this allows him to maintain strict control of his impulses in the other areas of his life. I am not saying that Dexter and Christian's methods are comparable (after all, one kills and the other indulges in consensual bondage and discipline games), but I couldn't help thinking of Dexter as I read about Christian's past.

As for the parallels with Room—that doesn't really kick in until book two, which begins with a peek into Christian's past and is narrated by his 4-year-old self. This perspective, which appears again in the prologue to Fifty Shades Freed, is clearly reminiscent of Emma Donoghue's Room, which is narrated entirely from the point-of-view of 5-year-old Jack, who has grown up in a room where his mother is physically and sexually abused.  Again, I am not saying that the books themselves are similar, but I think that the influences on E.L. James's trilogy are real and, perhaps, a key element to their continued popularity. The Fifty Shades books offer up a titillating subject, but they're presented in a familiar way that makes them more digestible for the general reading public than typical erotic fiction.

So what do you think of my little theory? Am I crazy?
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