Review: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

Review: Home by Nnedi OkoraforHome (Binti, #2) by Nnedi Okorafor
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction
Series: Binti #2
Pages: 176
Published by Tor.com on January 31st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The thrilling sequel to the Nebula and Hugo winning Binti.
It’s been a year since Binti and Okwu enrolled at Oomza University. A year since Binti was declared a hero for uniting two warring planets. A year since she left her family to pursue her dream.
And now she must return home to her people, with her friend Okwu by her side, to face her family and face her elders.
But Okwu will be the first of his race to set foot on Earth in over a hundred years, and the first ever to come in peace.
After generations of conflict can human and Meduse ever learn to truly live in harmony?
Praise for Nnedi Okorafor:
"Binti is a supreme read about a sexy, edgy Afropolitan in space! It's a wondrous combination of extra-terrestrial adventure and age-old African diplomacy. Unforgettable!" - Wanuri Kahiu, award winning Kenyan film director of Pumzi and From a Whisper
"A perfect dove-tailing of tribal and futuristic, of sentient space ships and ancient cultural traditions, Binti was a beautiful story to read.” – Little Red Reviewer
Binti is a wonderful and memorable coming of age story which, to paraphrase Lord of the Rings, shows that one girl can change the course of the galaxy.” – Geek Syndicate
Binti packs a punch because it is such a rich, complex tale of identity, both personal and cultural… and like all of Nnedi Okorafor’s works, this one is also highly, highly recommended.” – Kirkus Reviews
"There's more vivid imagination in a page of Nnedi Okorafor's work than in whole volumes of ordinary fantasy epics." -Ursula Le Guin
"Okorafor's impressive inventiveness never flags." - Gary K. Wolfe on Lagoon
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

My Review:

There are two literary traditions that revolve around the thought and place we call “home”. One is the Thomas Wolfe version. That’s the “you can’t go home again” version of home. The other is the Robert Frost version, the one that says that “home is the place that, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

After the events of last year’s award-winning Binti, and a year at the intergalactic Oomza Uni, Binti desperately needs home to be the Frost version. She feels that there is something wrong with her, and that she needs the healing that only her home place can provide.

But when she gets there, she discovers that it is the Wolfe version of home. She ran away, not because anything terrible happened or would happen, but because the safe, secure and traditional plans that her family and her village all had for her future were too confining for her intellect and her spirit.

She stood on the shoulders of her village and saw further than anyone had in a long time. And, the people she thought were her own wanted to chop her off at the knees for it.

No one is right and no one is wrong. Binti is just a bit different from everyone she thought she knew, and everyone who believed that she was theirs. And much too much has happened for her to go back and become the smaller person that they all wanted her to be.

But just as Binti’s own Himba village people are looked down upon by the cosmopolitan, city-dwelling Khoosh, Binti herself has absorbed the prejudices of her own Himba people towards the elusive Desert People. Binti’s self-perception, even her very identity, are threatened when she learns that the Desert People are much, much more than the savage wanderers they appear to be.

And that she is one of them.

Escape Rating B-: I found the first story in this series, Binti, to be utterly absorbing from the opening paragraphs. But Home was much less so. Just as Binti seems suddenly unsettled at Oomza Uni as this story opens, as a reader I also felt unsettled. Binti found her involvement with her environment problematic, and I found my involvement with her equally so.

Binti couldn’t focus and neither could I. This was a story where I finally finished on the third attempt. I’m glad that I did, but this just didn’t grab me the way that the original did.

Home is also a middle book. While the overarching story moves forward in Home, it does not end. Or it ends on a cliffhanger. But the ending felt unsatisfying. I was hoping for some kind of conclusion, even if an interim one. Binti, in spite of its relatively short length, told a complete story, beginning, middle AND end. Home feels like all middle. And muddle.

I hope that the next book in this series, The Night Masquerade, brings Binti’s story to an exciting and satisfying conclusion.

Review: Under Pressure by Lori Foster

Review: Under Pressure by Lori FosterUnder Pressure (Body Armor, #1) by Lori Foster
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: romantic suspense
Series: Body Armor #1
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on January 24th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

He can protect anything except his heart

Leese Phelps’s road hasn’t been an easy one, but it’s brought him to the perfect job — working for the elite Body Armor security agency. And what his newest assignment lacks in size, she makes up for in fire and backbone. But being drawn to Catalina Nicholson is a dangerous complication, especially since it could be the very man who hired Leese who’s threatening her.
What Catalina knows could get her killed. But who’d believe the sordid truth about her powerful stepfather? Beyond Leese’s ripped body and brooding gaze is a man of impeccable honour. He’s the last person she expects to trust — and the first who’s ever made her feel safe. And he’s the only one who can help her expose a deadly secret, if they can just stay alive long enough...

My Review:

As Lori Foster so often does, her new Body Armor series is a spinoff from her previous series, Ultimate. The character who ties the two series together is Leese Phelps, who began Ultimate as somewhat of a jerk of a side character, but ended the series as a solidly good guy who realized that while he might be a good MMA fighter, he was never going to be a champion.

We get enough of his background in Under Pressure that it isn’t necessary to read Ultimate to see where he’s coming from – but the series is a lot of fun if you like sports romance at all.

As Under Pressure begins, Leese is now the number one bodyguard at Sahara Silver’s Body Armor agency. Sahara, as the new owner of Body Armor, recruited Leese from the MMA because she has a plan. She plans to transform the image of bodyguards from suited thugs carrying ill-concealed guns to something charming, appealing, deadly and ripped. With the addition of Leese and his friend Justice, she’s off to an excellent start.

The body that Leese has been assigned to guard is that of Catalina Nicholson. The contract is a bit mysterious, as her wealthy stepfather has paid Body Armor upfront to protect Cat from anyone and everyone, including himself, who might come after her. Whatever is going on here, it is obviously way more than meets the eye.

And so is Cat. Leese finds her attempting to sneak into the bus terminal, dragging a busted suitcase in the snow, facing down the thug who clearly plans to grab her and rape her, just for starters. When Leese sends the bastard scurrying back to his lair, Cat decides to give Leese limited trust. She has to trust somebody – she’s been on the run for six weeks, and is worn down to her last frazzle.

But as much as Cat wants to trust Leese, she has some serious trust issues, and with good reason. The very first person on the list of people she is running from is that same stepfather who paid for her bodyguards. Unfortunately for Cat, Leese, and the entire crew at Body Armor, he is far from the most dangerous on that list.

And Cat is too scared, and a bit too selfless to give up that list of names. Because she is just sure that in a contest of reputations, she will always come out the loser. And that her best chance of saving everyone else is always going to be to give herself up to what she sees as her inevitable fate. She just doesn’t want to take anyone else with her.

Especially not after she makes the classic mistake of falling for her bodyguard. And Leese makes the equally irresponsible mistake of falling for not just the body he’s guarding, but also for the woman inside it.

Escape Rating B-: This is very much a mixed feelings review. There were a lot of things about Under Pressure that I liked, and one that turned me completely off. Unfortunately, the part that turned me off looks like a repeating pattern from Ultimate, and not one of the good ones.

As the first book in the series, there is a lot of set up in this story. While the gang from Ultimate does appear near the end, this is all about the new gang at Body Armor, and we, as well as Cat, get introduced to Sahara and the team she is building. Sahara has some big plans for her new agency, and readers will also end up hoping that Sahara gets resolution on her own issues, particularly the issues surrounding her missing and presumed dead brother. But hopefully that’s another book.

The story in Under Pressure is one of the classic tropes – the bodyguard and his protectee falling for each other in the intense atmosphere of danger and ongoing death threats. In the case of Leese and Cat, it does seem like insta-lust that morphs into love rather quickly. From the descriptions, the insta-lust is very easy to understand, but the story doesn’t quite sell the development of the emotional relationship, at least not to this reader.

But it’s Cat’s need for protection, and the reasons behind it, that drive the suspense part of this plot. Cat overheard her wealthy stepfather, an even wealthier and more influential U.S. Senator, and their two bodyguards plan to cover up a murder. In particular, the murder of a young woman who said “no” to the Senator’s more depraved tastes. Cat can’t sort out just how deeply her stepfather is involved in this shitshow, so she runs. And keeps running. They really are after her.

Cat’s understandable fear is that no one will believe her. The Senator is rich, influential and beloved. He has perfected a sterling reputation as a kindly, twinkly grandfather, albeit one who hides a sack of slime underneath his expensive suits. On that other hand, her stepfather has given their inner circle the impression that Cat is flighty and unstable, just because she’d rather be a teacher than live the life of a pampered society princess.

And of course the Senator has bought off more than a few police departments and probably government agencies. The murder cover up that she heard is far from the first. And she knows that hers is next.

So Cat’s unwillingness to trust is at least somewhat understandable. She knows that the rich can buy off anyone they want, she’s seen it happen. And she knows that the Senator’s reputation is above reproach. No one will WANT to believe what she heard.

But of course her lack of trust in Leese and Sahara puts more people in danger than her trust ever would. This becomes another story where the heroine looks foolish for not letting other people help her, even if she needs to give up some of her agency to get that done. However, this wasn’t the part that really made me grit my teeth.

Cat is in plenty of trouble. They really are out to get her, and they really will kill her if they catch her. Even more, they really will kill anyone and everyone around her to get to her, and she is the kind of person who will see those deaths as being all her fault. But there’s an added element here. One of the killers is the Senator’s bodyguard, who in addition to being a cold-blooded murderer, also has an extremely unhealthy interest in imprisoning Cat and breaking her to his will. The addition of the crazed sexual-stalker murdering arsehole felt over-the-top. It is not necessary for their to be a sick sexual component for a woman to be in extreme danger. And it’s an added element that I’m just plain tired of as well as completely creeped out by.

I hope that the creepy-stalker-sexual-predator thing is not a big part of the story in the next book in this series, Hard Justice. I really liked Justice’s character in Under Pressure, and I’m looking forward to him being the hero of the next story.

Review: The Forests of Dru by Jeffe Kennedy

Review: The Forests of Dru by Jeffe KennedyThe Forests Of Dru (Sorcerous Moons, #4) by Jeffe Kennedy
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: ebook
Genres: fantasy romance
Series: Sorcerous Moons #4
Pages: 180
Published by Brightlynx Publishing on January 24th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

An Enemy LandOnce Princess Oria spun wicked daydreams from the legends of sorceresses kidnapped by the barbarian Destrye. Now, though she’s come willingly, she finds herself in a mirror of the old tales: the king’s foreign trophy of war, starved of magic, surrounded by snowy forest and hostile strangers. But this place has secrets, too—and Oria must learn them quickly if she is to survive.
A Treacherous CourtInstead of the refuge he sought, King Lonen finds his homeland desperate and angry, simmering with distrust of his wife. With open challenge to his rule, he knows he and Oria—the warrior wounded and weak, the sorceress wrung dry of power—must somehow make a display of might. And despite the desire that threatens to undo them both, he still cannot so much as brush her skin.
A Fight for the Future With war looming and nowhere left to run, Lonen and Oria must use every intrigue and instinct they can devise: to plumb Dru’s mysteries, to protect their people—and to hold fast to each other. Because they know better than any what terrifying trial awaits…

My Review:

tides of bara by jeffe kennedyI love this series, but I’m not completely sold on this particular entry in it.

Let me explain…

This book picks up where The Tides of Bara leaves off, but it doesn’t really go anywhere until the very end. As the story begins, Lonen and Oria have finally reached Lonen’s kingdom, and all is not nearly as well as Lonen had hoped.

His people believe that Oria is an evil Baran sorceress who is controlling him with her magic. And while she certainly has bewitched Lonen, it isn’t with any nefarious power or sorcery. Against all odds, they have fallen in love with each other. And while love is certainly a kind of magic, if in this particular case it’s a snare, it’s a snare that has trapped them both.

lonens war by jeffe kennedyBut his people don’t see that. Particularly his older brother Nolan. Nolan should have been king, but when he and his troop fell into a mighty crevasse during the battle for Bara, all the way back in Lonen’s War, everyone quite reasonably assumed he was dead. Considering that it took him two years to find his way back from under the earth, it wasn’t a totally ridiculous idea.

Especially since the Destrye needed a king right that very minute, and Lonen was the only prince available. Now they all have to live with the consequences of that moment. One of those consequences is that Lonen has brought Oria back from Bara to be his queen, whether his people like it or not.

And they mostly don’t.

Oria doesn’t believe that this is a long term problem. She is not the first of her people to be brought to Destrye, even if she is more willing than has usually been the case. She has nothing to go back to in Bara, not after the events of Oria’s Gambit. She is a fugitive and an exile.

But Baran sorceresses simply do not live long away from the magic that wells up under Bara. She believes that she will die of starvation, and relatively soon, unless she can find a way to reach the magic that exists within the forests of Dru, no matter how different that magic is from her own.

There might be a way, but not with all the forces of Destrye and Bara stacked against them. Unless they manage to outrun their fate yet again.

orias gambit by jeffe kennedyEscape Rating B-: The problem that I have with this entry in the series is that it feels like a chapter in a waiting game. Until the very end, it doesn’t move the action forward very much. For most of the book, Lonen and Oria are effectively held captive by their own need to recover, by the Destrye court, and by Lonen’s duties to his family and his doubts about his kingship. It takes most of the novella for them to get out from under all the burdens and back on the road again.

The individual entries in the Sorcerous Moons series are relatively short – less than 200 pages each. When there is a lot of action, as there was in the first two books, those pages really fly by. But now that the story has hit what feels like the equivalent of the “middle book”, those short pages continue the trough and don’t have enough time to get back to the action.

I still like Lonen and Oria quite a lot. They are still negotiating a difficult marriage, and it appropriately goes in fits and starts. They love each other, they need each other, but they began with no understanding of each other whatsoever, so reaching a place where they work together smoothly is a trial for them. As it should be.

Oria spends much of this book, and the last one, losing strength and heading towards her demise. Seeing her finally rally towards the end of this book made for an excellent scene, even if the result did cause even more problems.

The most interesting character in this whole story is Oria’s familiar, the derkesthai Chuffta. Chuffta is a small dragon with all the snark a reader could ever ask for in a long-term companion. He has been with Oria all her life, and not only knows all her weak spots, but also knows just when to tweak them. And he LOVES to start fires.

But it feels as if his fate as well as the humans, is peering over the edge of a dark precipice. Nothing will be the same after the battle to come. I just wish it would get here already!

Review: Beauty and Attention by Liz Rosenberg + Giveaway

Review: Beauty and Attention by Liz Rosenberg + GiveawayBeauty and Attention: A Novel by Liz Rosenberg
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, literary fiction
Pages: 211
Published by Lake Union Publishing on October 25th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
Goodreads

The riveting story of one brave young woman’s struggle to free herself from a web of deceit.
For misfit Libby Archer, social expectations for young women in Rochester, New York, in the mid-1950s don’t work. Her father has died, leaving her without parents, and her well-meaning friends are pressuring her to do what any sensible single girl must do: marry a passionate, persistent hometown suitor with a promising future. Yet Libby boldly defies conventional wisdom and plans to delay marriage—to anyone—by departing for her uncle’s Belfast estate. In Ireland, Libby seeks not only the comfort of family but also greater opportunities than seem possible during the stifling McCarthy era at home.
Across the Atlantic, Libby finds common ground with her brilliant, invalid cousin, Lazarus, then puts her trust in a sophisticated older woman who seems to be everything she hopes to become. Fraught with betrayal and long-kept secrets, as well as sudden wealth and unexpected love, Libby’s journey toward independence takes turns she never could have predicted—and calls on courage and strength she never knew she had.

My Review:

This is a difficult book to review. I finished it last night, and now that I’m done, I’m not exactly sure what happened. And that feels weird.

The story takes place in the mid-1950s, at a time when women were supposed to marry young and become model wives and mothers. While a tiny number of careers were open to women – teacher, nurse and secretary – the ambition was to become a stay-at-home wife and mother.

I’m so glad I wasn’t an adult then, because, well, that is so not anything I would have wanted.

And it isn’t what Libby Archer wants, either. Not that she is actually sure what she does want in her early 20s, but that just makes her normal in our 21st century eyes. It does give her contemporaries a great deal of pause, however.

The man who loves her is just certain that she should marry him, right now. And he places way too much pressure on someone who finally has a chance to spread her wings, so she runs.

Libby’s alcoholic father has just died. And after years of tip-toeing around his cold withdrawals and drunken rages, after years of suppressing her every desire and ambition to care for him in his decline (as good daughters were supposed to do) she wants to discover who she really is before she becomes a part of somebody else.

So she goes to Ireland to visit her aunt and uncle and cousin. These are people that she remembers fondly from her childhood, before her mother died and her father started drinking himself to death. Uncle Sacks is her mother’s brother, and it was easy for her dad to drop the connection.

Libby picks it back up again. She finds a second home with her aunt and uncle, and a fast friend in her dying cousin, ironically named Lazarus. Whatever is killing Lazarus, which is real but ill-defined, he will not be rising from the dead.

She finds strength as part of their rather eclectic household, but she is still drifting inside herself. When her uncle dies, the household scatters to the winds, and Libby finds herself drifting again, but this time, drifting into all the bad decisions that her friends back home warned her about.

It is only at the side of her cousin’s deathbed that she begins to pick up the reins of her own life. Where those reins lead her is left to the reader’s imagination at the end of the book.

Escape Rating B-: I liked the first part of the story very much. Libby is a bit lost and uncertain, and so she should be. She’s free of her father’s domination, and feels both exhilarated and guilty at the same time. After years of being forced to deal with her father’s “illness” she wants the freedom to explore herself, and everyone else’s very forceful good intentions just feel like an attempt to put her in a different cage.

Only because they are.

Libby’s life in her uncle’s house, and the story of her deep friendship with Lazarus, are bittersweet. It is a safe harbor that is doomed to end, but still surprises Libby when that end comes.

One of the fascinating things about Libby is that she is so much of a blank slate. She is bright, naive and innocent and has a desperate need to please. Several men fall in love with her, not necessarily for who she actually is, but what they think they can make of her.

And she is easily manipulated and led. Which is what happens. Someone she thinks is a friend seems to maneuver her into the terrible marriage that everyone back home feared for her. But one of the faults of the book as that we don’t see it happen. One page, she’s just meeting the future Mr. Awful for the first time. The next page, she’s married and obviously miserable. That missing link took the heart out of the story for this reader.

In the end, the reader is left with the impression that Libby has finally seized her life in her own hands, but there are fits and starts even to that. Her independence is not assured, merely seems to be in the offing. And the equivocation of the ending left this reader a bit bereft.

I hope that Libby finally rescued herself. But I wish I knew.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I am giving away a copy of Beauty and Attention to one lucky US/Canada commenter.

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Review: A Truck Full of Money by Tracy Kidder

Review: A Truck Full of Money by Tracy KidderA Truck Full of Money by Tracy Kidder
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: biography, internet, nonfiction
Pages: 320
Published by Random House on September 6th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Fortune, mania, genius, philanthropy the bestselling author of Mountains Beyond Mountains gives us the inspiring story of Paul English, the founder of Kayak.com and Lola. Tracy Kidder, the master of the nonfiction narrative (The Baltimore Sun) and author of the bestselling classic The Soul of a New Machine, now tells the story of Paul English, a kinetic and unconventional inventor and entrepreneur, who as a boy rebelled against authority. Growing up in working-class Boston, English discovers a medium for his talents the first time he sees a computer. As a young man, despite suffering from what would eventually be diagnosed as bipolar disorder, he begins his pilgrim s journey through the ups and downs in the brave new world of computers. Relating to the Internet as if it s an extension of his own mind, he discovers that he has a talent for conceiving innovative enterprises and building teams that can develop them, becoming a Pied Piper of geeks. His innovative management style, success, and innate sense of fair play inspire intense loyalty. Early on, one colleague observes: Someday this boy s going to get hit by a truck full of money, and I m going to be standing beside him. Yet when English does indeed make a fortune, when the travel website Kayak is sold for almost two billion dollars the first thing he thinks about is how to give the money away: What else would you do with it? The second thing he thinks is, What s next? With the power of a consummate storyteller, Tracy Kidder casts a fresh, critical, and often humorous eye on the way new ideas and new money are reshaping our culture and the world. A Truck Full of Money is a mesmerizing portrait of an irresistibly endearing man who is indefatigable, original, and as unpredictable as America itself.

My Review:

soul of a new machine by tracy kidderThe first book of Tracy Kidder’s that I ever read was The Soul of a New Machine, an inside look at the development of a new 32-bit minicomputer at Data General in the late 1970s. In internet years, that feels like several centuries ago.

The universe of computing, and the universe of the ways in which our lives are impacted by computers and related technology, has changed immeasurably since that “soul” was put into that “new machine”. But those giants at Data General are to a significant extent the ones whose shoulders the subject of this new book stand. As is Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web in 1989.

Without the evolution in computer technology that took us from computers that filled rooms to what were then called minicomputers because they were considerably smaller than that to the PC revolution to the Internet, our world would be immeasurably different. So, just as The Soul of a New Machine was the story of a group of people who helped build the revolution, A Truck Full of Money is about the soul of the new tech economy, as seen through the eyes of a man who is one of its avatars, and one of its success stories.

The story follows the career of Paul M. English, the creator of numerous companies throughout the internet age, including Boston Light, the very successful Kayak.com and his current company, Lola Travel. English has a knack for not just having a great idea for a company, but building a team that can carry it through to success, and subsequent sale for “a truck full of money” to someone else. And then he starts all over again.

Not every one of his ideas succeeds. But the ones that do, really, really do. Like Kayak.com.

The author uses English’s biography to tell his story, making it both a look into the tech economy of start-ups, venture capital and failing frequently, often and hopefully upwards as well as the biography of one individual who has been mostly successful in that environment.

English himself is a fascinating character to watch, from his beginnings in working-class Boston in the 1970s to his hyper success in nearly every decade afterwards – interspersed not just with a series of failures but also with his coping with, and sometimes failing to cope with, a bipolar disorder that causes episodes of hypomania. Sometimes the black dog of depression bites hard, but more often the demons of hypomania gave English incredible amounts of energy and very little ability to process the rapid firing of his brain or the people that he needed to carry out any of his visions.

And in the middle of all of his success, his desire to help people. Not just on the intimate scale of taking care of the people who are close to him, but in the broader humanitarian goal of helping with several crises around the world, particularly in Haiti and in his Boston hometown.

Escape Rating B-: A Truck Full of Money is an interesting book, but it didn’t grab me as much as I remember The Soul of a New Machine did when I listened to it sometime in the 1990s. Admittedly, a long time ago.

One issue is that A Truck Full of Money isn’t told in a linear fashion. Each of the vignettes is interesting, but the coherent whole doesn’t emerge. Thinking about it, the non-linearity probably reflects the subject, who, when he is on, sparks ideas in multiple directions simultaneously.

We also don’t see much of the subject’s relationships with colleagues and family, except on a superficial level. The characters in this biography seem to brought on to show their function in the work rather than their place in the life. This may be a reflection of what these relationships actually are, but it feels a bit hollow.

We see a lot more of the what than the why.

While this isn’t a book about bipolar disorder, there is more depth in dealing with this part of the subject’s life than anything else that hits close to the bone.

One of the most interesting parts is seeing the way that this economy, which has powered so much of the development of the technology sector, really works. The way that venture capitalists deal with fledgling businesses, and the how and why of where their funding comes from and how they decide what to do with it, explains a lot about the way things work now.

If you’ve ever worked for a company that was bought by venture capital firms, or in an industry that is dominated by such firms, that part is fascinating.

All in all, A Truck Full of Money makes an interesting and readable bookend to The Soul of a New Machine. In a strange way, that feels like the beginning of a story, and this one feels like, not the end, but maybe the end of its middle.

Review: Last Kiss of Summer by Marina Adair + Giveaway

Review: Last Kiss of Summer by Marina Adair + GiveawayLast Kiss of Summer (Destiny Bay, #1) by Marina Adair
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Series: Destiny Bay #1
Pages: 336
Published by Forever on August 30th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

He's one bad apple she just can't resist . . .
Kennedy Sinclair never dreamed she'd own a pie shop and an orchard in a small town like Destiny Bay. But nestled between the mountains and the Pacific Ocean, it's the perfect place to cross something off her "Life's short so eat the icing first" list and start her life over from scratch. Her shop, Sweetie Pies, is famous for its hot, flaky apple turnovers and sinfully delicious deep dish pie. For Kennedy though, nothing is more enticing than the tall, strapping slice of temptation who keeps coming back for more.
Luke Callahan is determined to make his hard cider business a success. With his beloved father's cider recipe and the opportunity of a lifetime in his grasp, he'll stop at nothing to get this deal done. There's just one catch: he needs Kennedy's apples. At first, he thinks it'll be as easy as pie to charm those apples right off her trees. But Kennedy isn't falling for his tender charms or his wicked ways. When the negotiations start heating up, so do the feelings they have for each other. And it takes just one kiss to seal the deal . . .

My Review:

What could be a more appropriate book for the last days before the unofficial end of summer than one with a title that perfectly captures the feeling, that Last Kiss of Summer before the fall sets in?

Our story begins in a way that is not atypical for contemporary romance. Our heroine discovers her about-to-be-ex-fiancee in flagrante delicto with someone other than herself. In the midst of his “it’s not me, it’s you” speech, the heroine takes her life into her own hands.

Unfortunately that means leaving behind the life she currently has. She works at the same place as Mr. Ex., they live together, and they share a circle of friends. It’s all gone, and Kennedy returns home to her grandmother. Grandma Edna has always taken her girls back in, whether it’s Kennedy’s flighty mother who abandoned Kennedy when she was 12, or Kennedy herself, now that she has to start over again.

Unlike so many times when this happens, Kennedy doesn’t stay with her family. Instead, Grandma pushes her out of the nest, and into the life that Kennedy has always dreamed of, if she can just manage to hang onto it. And remember to “eat the icing first”, because life is way too short to abandon your dreams.

Kennedy has always wanted to own a bakery shop. Edna’s best friends are ready to sell theirs – all the way across the country. All Kennedy has to do is put all of her hard earned savings into Sweetie’s Pies, trek alone from Atlanta to the Oregon coast, and begin her life again.

The deal on Sweetie Pies is a bit too good to be true, but it takes Kennedy a while to figure out what the catch is. The catch, both literally and figuratively, is Luke Callahan. His mother and his aunt are the now-former owners of Sweetie’s Pies. And as part of the deal on the shop, his mother gave Kennedy three acres of prime heirloom apples at cost in perpetuity.

Kennedy needs those apples to make the shop’s award winning pie recipes. But Luke needs those apples too – to use in his signature hard cider and take it to the next level of distribution all over the west coast.

Luke will do anything to get his hands on those apples. Only to discover that the only apples he really needs are Kennedy’s. But after everything he’s done, she may never let him touch those apples again.

Escape Rating B-: I enjoyed my first trip to Destiny Bay. It’s a friendly place, and the people are pretty nice. I liked our heroine, Kennedy Sinclair, quite a bit. She has a lot of grit and determination, and she’s stubborn in the right kind of way. But our hero, Luke Callahan, not so much.

There’s a point about halfway through the story where the hero’s mother calls him a horse’s ass. I would say that she was right, but that’s an insult to the horse.

Kennedy, unfortunately, is used to being abandoned. After all, it’s what her mother did, and Kennedy has never gotten over that feeling that she isn’t good enough for someone to want to hang onto for the long term. She also has the feeling that she will never make a home for herself or really put down roots. So when she comes to Destiny Bay and discovers a place that might take her in, she jumps in with both feet and fights every step of the way to realize her dream.

Luke is all too used to being the golden boy. Obstacles have always fallen before his charm. And he comes off as extremely smug and smarmy about it. He’s just sure he can find a lever to pry Kennedy away from “his” apples, and he never denies that he’ll use any underhanded means he can find to get them.

Which he eventually does.

There are two misunderstandammits in this story. One is understandable and somewhat forgivable, while the other is ALL on Luke. The previous owners of Sweetie Pies got all their apples for free, and those free supplies are what made the place profitable. Kennedy didn’t ask and Paula and Fi forgot to tell. When Paula figures out the problem, she does her best to straighten things out, only her son Luke is the biggest roadblock.

But Luke charms his way into bed with Kennedy on the one hand, and does his best to undermine her on the other. So much of the conflict in the story comes from him not being upfront about exactly why he needs the apples and working out a way that he and Kennedy can both get what their businesses need. He begins their relationship by trying to charm and smarm a woman who has been burned too many times, and he never stops trying.

So while I liked the town and loved the heroine, I didn’t buy their romance. Luke always seemed so fake that I didn’t buy their chemistry. But I did love the way that the whole town took Kennedy into their hearts. That relationship is a winner.

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Guest Review: The Heart of Aces

Guest Review: The Heart of AcesThe Heart of Aces by Sarah Sinnaeve, Esther Day, Stephanie Charvat, Flavia Napoleoni, Rai Scodras, Mursheda Ahad, Chelsey Brinson, Madeline Bridgen, Andrea R. Blackwell, A.J. Hall, Kari Woodrow
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: contemporary romance
Pages: 206
Published by Good Mourning Publishing on July 14th 2012
Publisher's WebsiteAmazon
Goodreads

The heart of aces is where an anomaly lives, where love’s definition takes a deviation from the common rules.
These eleven stories dive into asexual relationships, where couples embrace differences, defy society’s expectations, and find romantic love. In this collection is a full spectrum of asexuality in all its classifications. From contemporary fiction to fantasy, from heteroromantic to homoromantic, join these unique characters on their journey to finding the person that speaks to their hearts.

Guest Review by Amy:

The Heart of Aces is a collection of short stories around the theme of asexual romance. This comes as a surprise to some, but there are people who are perfectly happy with romance who get little to nothing out of actual sexual intercourse. If you think it over for a bit, you’ll imagine–correctly–that there’s quite a variety of experiences to be had in there, and this collection gives us a sampling of some of those.

Considering the collection as a whole, I was pretty impressed; there are eleven stories here, showing a good variety of asexual experience, characters from different walks of life, both new and established relationships, relationships both gay and straight, and including a couple of transgender people. I would liked to have seen more straight romances–there were several same-sex relationships depicted, and it felt slightly off-balance. The thing I found refreshing about this collection is that the relationships weren’t depicted as “weird” or “other-than”. In every case, the relationship was a positive move for the participants. As I expected, many of the asexuals struggle with their identity, or are afraid to start relationships, out of fear of rejection–that, for me, was one of the strongest resonances of these tales.

Some of the individual tales bear mentioning as especially high-quality, to this reviewer.  A. J. Hall’s “Out of the Dead Land”, which starts the book, is a very well-crafted story of a first meeting between two older men. Philip is a same-sex-attracted “ace,” and he meets Kevin at an old movie showing. The tension is high, as Philip has been burned many times. Out of fear, just as things get interesting, he flees rather than reveal his sexuality to Kevin–but his new friend isn’t done. The ending is as affirming and sweet as anyone could want. “Aphrodite Hour”, by Sarah Sinnaeve, introduces us to a radio love-advice talk show host who, ironically perhaps, is an asexual. She meets a fan, who isn’t at all taken aback, after shaking off the advances of a strange man in a bar. Another favorite of mine was Chelsey Brinson’s “Shades of Grey (A)”, wherein we meet a man who–in his coming-out to his best friend–says that he’s “only ever really been attracted to one person:” his best friend, of course, who doesn’t realize that he is the target of his demisexual friend’s affection until the very end of the story.  The end of the book brings us “Good PR”, by Esther Day, and a young man who’s been living the party-it-up lifestyle as a cover for his own suppressed strangeness. When his corporate-bigwig mother insists that he must marry, things get dicey for him, especially when his mother sets it up with his best friend, a gay doctor. He must come to grips with his own identity, and his feelings for his friend, and that is predictably difficult; the ending shows us a really cute couple, two people deeply in love with each other, and left me, at least, wanting another page or two to enjoy.

Overall Rating: B-. Some of the stories, as I’ve noted, were quite good, and I identified with characters and enjoyed the settings and plots. Short stories are tricky, because you don’t have pages and pages to set scenes; you have to cast them in a place where the reader can fill in the gaps for themselves satisfactorily, and the stories I named here–and a couple of the others–do that very well. A few of the stories really left me scratching my head, though, and it was a serious downer for the collection, for this reader at least. If you’re interested in learning more about the experiences and struggles of asexuality, I do recommend this book, as you’ll learn a fair bit from the better stories in the group. If you’re an asexual looking for a good collection of romances to enjoy, then some of these will fit the bill, certainly–but others just will leave you high and dry.  I was very encouraged seeing this collection in my to-read pile, but I would have liked a more solid set of stories.  The Heart of Aces is a mixed bag, so buyer beware.

Review: Fire Brand by Diana Palmer + Giveaway

Review: Fire Brand by Diana Palmer + GiveawayFire Brand by Susan Kyle, Diana Palmer
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: contemporary romance
Pages: 384
Published by HQN Books on August 30th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

He'll risk his whole heart to save her from the past 
Gaby Cane was always a bit afraid of her attraction to Bowie McCayde. Even when she was fifteen and Bowie's family took her in, she had sensed his simmering resentment. Now ten years later, she's an aspiring journalist who can hold her own with any man professionally, the dark shadows of years gone by far behind her. Then Bowie strides back into her life—only this time, he needs her, and the pull of loyalty to his family is too strong to ignore.  
When Bowie asked Gaby to help save his family's Arizona ranch, he never expected the girl he once knew to return transformed into a stunning, successful woman. As they work together, Bowie is shocked to find that her innocence and beauty stir a hunger he can't deny. But the rogue rancher can sense something holding her back, and he's determined to uncover the terrible secret Gaby is fighting to keep hidden…

My Review:

I think we need a genre term for books that were contemporary when they were originally published, but are not set in a defined historical era, and are republished without updating. Because Fire Brand definitely fits into that class.

Fire Brand was originally published in 1989, and presumably wasn’t written much before that date. While there are no references to specific events that would make things obvious, for example, the name of the then-current U.S. president, there are plenty of clues that tip the reader that this is no longer the world we know.

There are some obvious things. No one has a cell phone. Personal computers exist, but are relatively few and far between. No laptops.

But there are some real dead giveaways. The first one that got me was the way that Vietnam was referred to. In 1989, it was still a relatively young man’s war. Our hero is a Vietnam vet in his mid-30s. The U.S. pulled out in 1973, so this was just barely possible.

One of the more subtle cues is the ubiquity of people smoking, and the lack of reaction to it. Anti-smoking bans didn’t really get off the ground until the late 1980s, and the wide open spaces of the formerly Wild West were some of the last places to implement widespread smoking bans in the U.S.

The suspense element of the story comes from an attempt by a big agricultural firm to buy a lot of land in the somewhat depressed town of Lassiter. The opposition to the initiative comes from a very fledgling environmental movement. Environmental protection wasn’t nearly as well developed a science, nor was it as entrenched in the public consciousness, as it is today.

And the story is broken by a local, small-town, weekly newspaper that seems to still be thriving on classified advertising revenue. The late 1980s were probably the last Golden Age of newspapers in the U.S. The heroine’s world of newspaper reporting, newspaper publishing, and easily switching jobs from one paper to another has vanished.

So the background is a bit dated. What about the story?

The romance is fairly self-contained, so the external factors don’t matter as much. Gaby Cane was taken in by the wealthy McCayde family when she was a 15-year-old runaway. She is obviously hiding a secret, but 9 years later no one seems to be looking for that secret even though it changed her whole life.

Bowie McCayde has always resented Gaby’s intrusion into his family’s life. She instantly became the daughter his parents never had, and he was pushed a bit further out into the emotional cold. But he was already an adult when Gaby intruded into their lives, and a good chunk of that coldness had been frozen long before her arrival.

Fire Brand turns out to be two love stories. One is between Gaby and Bowie, and the other belongs to Bowie’s widowed mother Aggie and the man she brings home from her Caribbean cruise. A man whose motives Bowie questions. Bowie wants Gaby’s help in keeping his mother and her mystery man apart while he digs into the man’s background. What he makes is a mess.

Gaby and Bowie hesitantly draw closer, as Bowie finds more and more wedges to stick into his mother’s affairs. Or rather, affair. Of course he’s all wrong about his mother’s suitor, and all too frequently off-base when it comes to his relationship with Gaby.

He has to nearly destroy everything to figure out just how precious true love is, and how easy it is to break it.

Escape Rating B-: I enjoyed this, in spite of the dated background. This is a time that I remember, so it was easy to slide back into this groove.

However, there were other ways that this story was a throwback that made it bit more difficult to swallow. It reminded me of some of the Harlequins that I read back in the day, when I saw reading romance as a guilty and secretive pleasure rather than something to be up front about reading.

Back in the day, all heroines were always virgins, no matter how many plot twists the author had to go through to make that plausible. It provided a way for the experienced hero to seduce our secretly passionate virgin into her first sexual encounter. It also allows the hero to make possessiveness and his loss of control during her loss of innocence seem romantic, no matter what the circumstances.

I’m also not sure that the trauma that created Gaby’s hiding of her sexuality was rendered realistically. Or it went a bit far. As a reader, I can accept that her trauma kept her from wanting to experience sex, but she seemed less knowledgeable about the way things work than feels possible for the era. The late 1980s were not the Victorian era.

However, while Gaby was sometimes naive, she was a genuinely likable person. She just needs to grow up a bit. On that other hand, Bowie is frequently a bit of an arsehole, and tends to treat both Gaby and his mother like they can’t possibly manage without his guidance. He’s very traditionally alpha, and is a hero of the type where love is supposed to redeem previous bad behavior.

The underlying story about the big development was interesting, as was the way that Gaby did good investigative journalism to figure out what was really going on. She looks for the facts of the case, and tries to keep her bias out of it. A tenet of journalistic ethics that seems to have gone by the wayside in the decades since this story was written.

All in all, a mixed bag of story. A good one for escaping back into the not-so-distant past.

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Review: The Woman in the Photo by Mary Hogan + Giveaway

Review: The Woman in the Photo by Mary Hogan + GiveawayThe Woman in the Photo: A Novel by Mary Hogan
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, library binding, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, women's fiction
Pages: 432
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on June 14th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In this compulsively readable historical novel, from the author of the critically-acclaimed Two Sisters, comes the story of two young women—one in America’s Gilded Age, one in scrappy modern-day California—whose lives are linked by a single tragic afternoon in history.
1888: Elizabeth Haberlin, of the Pittsburgh Haberlins, spends every summer with her family on a beautiful lake in an exclusive club. Nestled in the Allegheny Mountains above the working class community of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the private retreat is patronized by society’s elite. Elizabeth summers with Carnegies, Mellons, and Fricks, following the rigid etiquette of her class. But Elizabeth is blessed (cursed) with a mind of her own. Case in point: her friendship with Eugene Eggar, a Johnstown steel mill worker. And when Elizabeth discovers that the club’s poorly maintained dam is about to burst and send 20 million tons of water careening down the mountain, she risks all to warn Eugene and the townspeople in the lake’s deadly shadow.
Present day: On her 18th birthday, genetic information from Lee Parker’s closed adoption is unlocked. She also sees an old photograph of a genetic relative—a 19th century woman with hair and eyes likes hers—standing in a pile of rubble from an ecological disaster next to none other than Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross. Determined to identify the woman in the photo and unearth the mystery of that captured moment, Lee digs into history. Her journey takes her from California to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, from her present financial woes to her past of privilege, from the daily grind to an epic disaster. Once Lee’s heroic DNA is revealed, will she decide to forge a new fate?

My Review:

In The Woman in the Photo there are two stories. One is the story of Elizabeth Haberlin in the May of 1888 and the critical May of 1889. She’s the wealthy daughter of a doctor. Most important for this story, she’s the daughter of the private physician to all of the rich “bosses” who have their second homes at the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club on Lake Conemaugh. The dam and the lake are perched ominously, and eventually disastrously, above the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

Until the fateful day, May 31, 1889, Elizabeth Haberlin led a privileged, if restricted, life. She chafed at those restrictions but didn’t often challenge them, at least not until the flood, when she took a horse and attempted to warn the citizens of Johnstown before the dam gave way. In the face of the disaster wrought by the sheer selfishness and greed of her peers, Elizabeth chose to take up a life of purpose, assisting Clara Barton and her newly established Red Cross in their disaster relief efforts.

Her family never took her back. And she never forgave them for their callous self-centeredness.

In the 21st century, Elizabeth Parker, called Lee by her adopted mother, sees a picture of Clara Barton and an unknown woman who looks like her when her closed adoption file is pried open to give her limited genetic information.

Lee begins a quest through libraries, databases and finally back to the scene of that long ago tragedy, in her attempt to find out who she is and where she came from. Only to discover that while her family history is interesting, she is who she has always been, the daughter of the woman who loved and adopted her.

Escape Rating B-: I don’t believe that I have ever read a story that buried the lede as deeply as the author has in this book.

To “bury the lede” in journalistic parlance is to begin a story with details of secondary importance to the reader while postponing more essential points or facts.

Throughout most of the story in the past, Elizabeth Haberlin is a self-absorbed and vain young woman who has nothing better to do than choose which dress to wear and how to escape her mother’s suffocating expectations for her.

And we get to read a whole lot of that, to the point where it drags, in order to get to the incredibly fascinating parts of her life. After the terrible tragedy, Elizabeth becomes an entirely new person, finding joy in purpose and throwing off the expectations of her family. That’s the person I wanted to read about and follow along with, and it is that part of this story that gets the fewest number of pages and the least amount of time. I wanted to see who she became, and how she felt about it. Her life as a debutante was so pointless and boring that it bored even her.

I loved the parts about Elizabeth Haberlin after she chose to become her own person, and that’s what I got the least of in this story.

The 21st century parts also suffered from too much setup and not enough payoff. We get a lot of exposure to Lee’s current circumstances, which pretty much suck. The fascinating part of Lee’s story is her search and eventual discovery of her blood relations, and that is the shortest part of her story with the least emphasis.

I want the book I didn’t get – the story of Elizabeth Haberlin’s life after the Flood. I want to know so much more about the person she became, the life she led, and how she felt about turning her back on her old life and its old expectations. That’s not the book I got. Damn it.

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Review: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Review: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth StroutMy Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Format: hardcover
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: literary fiction
Pages: 193
Published by Random House on January 12th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A new book by Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout is cause for celebration. Her bestselling novels, including Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys, have illuminated our most tender relationships. Now, in My Name Is Lucy Barton, this extraordinary writer shows how a simple hospital visit becomes a portal to the most tender relationship of all—the one between mother and daughter.   Lucy Barton is recovering slowly from what should have been a simple operation. Her mother, to whom she hasn’t spoken for many years, comes to see her. Gentle gossip about people from Lucy’s childhood in Amgash, Illinois, seems to reconnect them, but just below the surface lie the tension and longing that have informed every aspect of Lucy’s life: her escape from her troubled family, her desire to become a writer, her marriage, her love for her two daughters. Knitting this powerful narrative together is the brilliant storytelling voice of Lucy herself: keenly observant, deeply human, and truly unforgettable.

My Review:

My Name is Lucy Barton is literary fiction. Which means that not much happens. So fair warning, this is going to be one of those reviews where I end up talking a lot about how the book made me feel, rather than what the book was about.

Because I’m not quite sure what this book was about, at least in the sense of what the plot might have been. Or even if there is one.

Instead, this is a novel about relationships. And it is also very much a story about secrets, especially the ones where the need for secrecy becomes so ingrained, that we no longer even tell them to ourselves.

The ostensible story is about Lucy’s unexpected extended hospital stay, but it is clearly told from a point much later in her life. And as her thoughts roam over the whole of her life, she hints at memories from her childhood and adolescence.

It’s clear that there was a lot wrong in the Barton household while Lucy was growing up. The family was poverty-stricken, but that wasn’t either the real or the whole of the problem. Sparked by an extremely unexpected visit from the mother she hasn’t seen for years, in the quiet of her own mind Lucy hints at the things that went wrong. But she never speaks of them, not even to herself, at least not in detail.

There’s a monster lurking somewhere in that dim past, but the habit of never revealing that truth, whatever it was, is so ingrained that Lucy doesn’t even let herself think it. Consequently, the reader never does know precisely what happened.

What we do know is that those long ago troubles shaped Lucy’s life, and that her mother’s inability to even touch on those difficulties is part of their estrangement. At the same time, Lucy longs for real connection with her mother. And even though she is terribly grateful that her mother is there for those long, uncertain days in the hospital, Lucy still doesn’t get what she needs.

Escape Rating B-: I finished this, I found it interesting enough to keep turning back to over and over throughout the day, but in the end, it didn’t move me. There was no catharsis, no true ending.

Throughout the story, Lucy hints at terrible secrets, but she never reveals them, even to herself. As a reader, I felt let down at the end. I expected a resolution, or at least a reveal, that never came.

At the same time, part of what kept me coming back was the tenuous relationship between Lucy and her mother, which had some uncomfortable parallels to my own relationship with my mother. And maybe that was the point of the whole story. Not that Lucy tells us what happened to her, but that it makes the reader reach for the resonances in their own story. It’s not what the story gives us, but what we bring to it.

And that’s an uncomfortable thought.