alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 55: Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Goodreads summary: “1987. There’s only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and that’s her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can only be herself in Finn’s company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June’s world is turned upside down. But Finn’s death brings a surprise acquaintance into June’s life—someone who will help her to heal, and to question what she thinks she knows about Finn, her family, and even her own heart.

At Finn’s funeral, June notices a strange man lingering just beyond the crowd. A few days later, she receives a package in the mail. Inside is a beautiful teapot she recognizes from Finn’s apartment, and a note from Toby, the stranger, asking for an opportunity to meet. As the two begin to spend time together, June realizes she’s not the only one who misses Finn, and if she can bring herself to trust this unexpected friend, he just might be the one she needs the most.”

I am so grossly behind on reviews that it hurts. Ah, post-Cannonball lethargy! Anyway, this was a very good story: bittersweet with poignant glimpses into close family relationships strained by death, jealousy, prejudice, and alienation. June, the protagonist, feels lost in the world following the death of her uncle. She’s born very much from the Loner Girl mold, an introvert who sees herself as irredeemably weird but who nonetheless manages to get along with people around her (and even attract attention from boys) when she puts the effort in. The relationship between her and her older sister — two girls feeling a chasm between them, trying to bridge it but not trying too hard for fear of getting hurt — was heartbreaking and felt all too real. This and other fragmented relationships in the novel were just a few of several reasons why this book felt very painful to read at times.

I was alive but not really cognizant of the emergence of HIV/AIDS (the epidemic central to the foundation of the novel,) but I have long been curious about both the pathology of the virus and about the curious intersection of paranoia and bigotry that made AIDS such a controversial, willfully misunderstood disease. Reading Tell the Wolves I’m Home didn’t, therefore, stir up any painful memories for me, but it did offer a really powerful and unflinching look at how those living with AIDS, and even those who died of the disease, like Finn, were demonized rather than comforted and loved.

Anyway, I read this over a month ago, so I have forgotten a lot of the details I might otherwise mention in a review, but I can say for certain that I really liked the book and would definitely recommend it.

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 54: Warrior by Zoe Archer

Goodreads: “To most people, the realm of magic is the stuff of nursery rhymes and dusty libraries. But for Capt. Gabriel Huntley, it’s become quite real and quite dangerous…

The vicious attack Capt. Gabriel Huntley witnesses in a dark alley sparks a chain of events that will take him to the ends of the Earth and beyond—where what is real and what is imagined become terribly confused. And frankly, Huntley couldn’t be more pleased. Intrigue, danger, and a beautiful woman in distress—just what he needs.

Raised thousands of miles from England, Thalia Burgess is no typical Victorian lady. A good thing, because a proper lady would have no hope of recovering the priceless magical artifact Thalia is after. Huntley’s assistance might come in handy, though she has to keep him in the dark. But this distractingly handsome soldier isn’t easy to deceive…”

This was a fun book. It could be that I don’t delve into steampunk much, so I’m not fatigued by it, but Warrior rose above a lot of the other romance I’ve read recently. The characters themselves weren’t especially unique to historical romance; Huntley is a fairly standard Protector and Thalia is the woman who never learned her place, which of course dazzles Huntley because a docile lady is never an interesting one. They’re both also White Saviors, but that’s another story.

Something I think Archer did nicely here was that she had a good instinct for detail: she included enough to make the world in Warrior vivid and engaging, but not so much as to overwhelm the reader. I also thought she built great romantic tension between the two leads and paced their “union” really well. Theirs was a partnership that benefited both of them and made them better together than either of them would have been on their own, which speaks to a human companionship that doesn’t always leap out of a lot of PNR. (As an aside — since I’ve called it both in this review, is magic/steampunk romance “historical” romance or “paranormal” romance?) In any case, this one is recommended.

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 53: Wool by Hugh Howey

Goodreads: In a ruined and toxic landscape, a community exists in a giant silo underground, hundreds of stories deep. There, men and women live in a society full of regulations they believe are meant to protect them. Sheriff Holston, who has unwaveringly upheld the silo’s rules for years, unexpectedly breaks the greatest taboo of all: He asks to go outside.

His fateful decision unleashes a drastic series of events. An unlikely candidate is appointed to replace him: Juliette, a mechanic with no training in law, whose special knack is fixing machines. Now Juliette is about to be entrusted with fixing her silo, and she will soon learn just how badly her world is broken. The silo is about to confront what its history has only hinted about and its inhabitants have never dared to whisper. Uprising.

I got into the game very late with this one, but in the case of this book, better late than never — this was a fantastic novel that I really enjoyed and can’t wait to keep going with the series. I love the story behind the publication of Wool, as well: that a truly talented author saw success based on the merit of his once little-known story.

Since Wool has already been pretty acclaimed amongst Cannonballers, I won’t really go on at length about it. I do want to, in particular, praise the characterization and that Howey’s gradual introductions of new character POVs didn’t ever feel overwhelming or excessive. Each added POV rounded out the developing story by providing insight into the different factions within the silo. Regarding his stories, Howey has said: “A theme in my books is the celebration of overcoming odds and of not allowing the cruelty of the universe to change who you are in the process.” Indeed, his characters are imbued with different backgrounds and motivations that inform their actions, but even within the context of uprising, class warfare, and “choosing sides,” the main players have an individual light that makes them more compelling and human than simply a rote war drone or even the stock iconoclast rebel.

Looking forward to Shift and eventually Dust.

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 52: What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire by Daniel Bergner

Goodreads summary: “When it comes to sex, common wisdom holds that men roam while women crave closeness and commitment. But in this provocative, headline-making book, Daniel Bergner turns everything we thought we knew about women’s arousal and desire inside out. Drawing on extensive research and interviews with renowned behavioral scientists, sexologists, psychologists, and everyday women, he forces us to reconsider long-held notions about female sexuality.

This bold and captivating journey into the world of female desire explores answers to such thought-provoking questions as: Are women perhaps the less monogamous sex? What effect do intimacy and emotional connection really have on lust? What is the role of narcissism—the desire to be desired—in female sexuality? Are political gains for women (“No means no”) detrimental in the bedroom? And is the hunt for a “female Viagra” anything but a search for the cure for monogamy?

Bergner goes behind the scenes of some of the most groundbreaking experiments on sexuality today and confronts us with controversial, sometimes uncomfortable findings. Incendiary, profoundly insightful, and brilliantly illuminating, What Do Women Want? will change the conversation about women and sex, and is sure to spark dynamic discussion for years to come.”

This book blew my mind. When it was first published, it got some buzz in the feminist blogosphere (and on Pajiba, if I’m not mistaken.) The reason being: as the synopsis above alludes to, much of the evidence that Bergner collects from researchers in the field completely upends society’s traditional narrative about female sexuality. At the initial time of publication, the articles writing up What Do Women Want? mentioned this, so I wanted to pick up the book and read the interviews with scientists for myself, as well as take notes on their publications so I could go to the primary sources. I haven’t read through the complete collection of literature yet that I had intended to tackle, but so far Bergner’s conclusions, informed through the work of scientists studying sexual behavior in human and animal females, seem pretty sound to me.

I don’t want to necessarily “give away” more than what is hinted at in the synopsis and already covered in the articles online, but one of the things overall that really struck me is how sexual puritanism disadvantages women on two fronts. In the first place, on the sociological and psychological level, general sexist double standards (that we are all pretty aware of) restrict our sexual knowledge and activities both through social pressure and internalized misogyny. Secondly, it’s shocking how much resistance has been thrown at genuine biological exploration of female anatomy and arousal. It’s only been in the last 20 years that we’ve even learned of the full internal structure of the clitoris, and yet, it’s still not common knowledge; even some of the sex researchers Bergner interviewed weren’t aware of the internal modeling. (Also, Begner doesn’t discuss this at all, but people still think the hymen is a thing that has anything to do with virginity. Protip: it doesn’t.) Anyway, with the stigma against biological/evidence-based research into female sexuality, it has allowed our society to rely on, and indeed, default to, untestable theories about women and sex from the field of evolutionary psychology, which is rather famously patriarchal.

In summation: I, frankly, think this is a book that everyone, but especially women, could benefit from reading. Though Bergner’s narrative suggests, in many places, that the opposite of what we think we know about female sexuality may in fact be true, the book doesn’t come across as pushy. Given that such a narrow range of sexual behavior and preferences have been traditionally ascribed to women, What Do Women Want? is less about trying to change that narrow definition to another narrow definition than it is about broadening the scope of what is considered “normal” sexual behavior for women.

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 51: Assassins in Love by Kris DeLake

Goodreads summary:

Agent: Misha
Profile: Highly trained in every method the assassins guild has to offer. Always goes by the book.
Agent: Rikki
Profile: Rogue assassin who kills only to rid the world of hardened criminals. Hates organizations. Always does it her way.

Misha’s mission is to get Rikki to join the guild or give up her guns. He completely undere

stimated the effect she would have on him…and what heat and chaos they could bring to each other…

You guys, I just can’t with that cover and title. I CAN. NOT. The book was pretty bad too: what you see is what you get. I finished it a week or two ago and can barely remember enough of it to compose a thoughtful review; I only remember that I thought it was pretty banal and followed a pretty typical pattern of instant lust somehow becomes love even though they barely know or trust each other, because in the world of romance, pants feelings conquer all. In some cases, “love” is measured here by the two having growing respect for each others’ skill at their jobs, but this is pretty rich because we never see Misha complete a job in the book and Rikki doesn’t come across as a superstar in the one job she does on her own at the beginning either.

This isn’t really worth reading, but I am generously rounding up to 2 stars from 1.5 because the author did some competent world-building to flesh out the sci-fi universe, and there were details there that I appreciated outside of the hum-drum romance.

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 50: Try the Morgue by Eva Maria Staal

Goodreads: “Ten years ago, “Eva Maria Staal” kept a gun in her purse. It was a present from her boss, Jimmy Liu, the international arms dealer extraordinaire with a taste for high-class male escorts. Together, Jimmy and his devoted assistant traveled the world’s most dangerous hotspots, closing deals with ruthless warlords and corrupt generals, and trading Stinger missiles in Karachi, AK-47s in Chechnya, and hollow-point bullets in Islamabad. But burdened by her conscience, Eva Maria finally got out, married an optometrist, and had a baby. Now, assailed with memories of her secret life, she must reconcile her suburban present with a repressed but ineradicable past, one that blasts a hole so deep she doesn’t know how to love her own daughter. Writing with a knowing intelligence only an insider could provide, this pseudonymous author has created a debut with remarkable intensity that examines the razor-thin line separating those who are drowned from those who are saved.”

This was a gripping, intense book that I am not sure how to classify. It’s probably fict-ish, a mostly-memoir with creative license. The shocking, blase nature of the global underground arms trade is laid bare, and it’s horrifying and mesmerizing.

I can’t really critique the story (not that I would, because I enjoyed it) since it seems so based in truth and experience. I do wish, though, that I had a little more insight into the author/narrator’s motives. The novel starts in media res and outside of what seems like a loyalty (or just obligation?) to her boss, I never got a great idea of how Staal found herself in the arms trade or what was really keeping her there. Staal must have expected a curiosity, not only about the trade, but also about the people in it, so the dispassionate way she wrote can be a bit unsatisfying — we want to know what drives someone like her to such amoral, destructive work.

The only other criticism I have is regarding the linearity — I have no preference for a linear timeline at all, but if one is going to jump about, it should be pretty clear where in the narrative we are at any given point. In this book, there were definitely chapter openings where I wasn’t certain when the conversation was taking place or who she was referencing. When this happened it does eventually become clear, but I was caught flipping pages a bit to try to catch on. Overall, this was a very quick and fascinating read on a topic I know very little about. I’d love to know more about the author’s story and in a way wish this book were longer, but it seems she shared about as much as she was willing to so I have to accept what I got.

alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 48: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Goodreads summary: “On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. Sadly, she dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in any number of ways. Clearly history (and Kate Atkinson) have plans for her: In Ursula rests nothing less than the fate of civilization.”

Life After Life is a fascinating conceptual novel, the potential of which I am not sure was ever fully realized. In many ways, it comes across as a refurbished and more bombastic “Groundhog Day”: more historically captivating (WWII setting) and with the chance to observe Ursula Todd throughout her life as opposed to on just one day, we feel like there is more at stake, but the same basic conceit of being able to re-do your life until you get it right applies.

Ursula, here, doesn’t exactly know that she is re-living her life. She does have premonitions and sometimes strong feelings that she needs to take some kind of decisive action in order to prevent something that feels instinctively bad, which is a clever choice by the author because it keeps the novel grounded in reality despite the somewhat fantastical premise. By connecting Ursula’s “multiple lives” to her intuition and a sense of deja vu, rather than an exact knowledge that she has lived that life before, Atkinson plays on the reader’s questions about life and existence — what does it mean when we get deja vu or that intangible, yet powerful, feeling that something is amiss?

There are some parts of this novel that are extremely difficult to read. I don’t want to get into specifics as they will probably constitute spoilers, but some versions of Ursula’s life are depressing, and others are deeply uncomfortable in different ways. There is one specific version that I found to be incredibly problematic, but again, I can’t really discuss it without giving away a major event. What I will try to say, as cryptically as possible, is that in a story like this, there is the implication that Urusla, or whatever protagonist, is responsible for the outcome by the choices they make. There are some outcomes here that Ursula had absolutely zero control over, but the way the narrative develops suggests that she did, and I found those particular threads to be kind of presumptuous at best and offensive at worst.

Otherwise, the overall story was very engaging and the prose lyrical and tight. It was sometimes hard to tell when one life was ending and a new one beginning, but there is a pattern to the chapters to help make it more clear. At the end, despite being harrowing at times and problematic at others, I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it. I have seen some reviews with proclamations that this book may be some kind of manual or have a moral message; I wouldn’t go that far. When you look at the choices that led Ursula to her happiest life, they weren’t necessarily the most enlightened or selfless, but they did make the most sense. Maybe that’s what the message is, then: have some common sense.