Non-Fic Goodness: The Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson

  • symphonyTitle: Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad
  • Author:  M.T. Anderson
  • Published:  September 2015, Candlewick Press
  • Source: Library, Scribd
  • Format:  Print and audio (narrated by author)
  • Length: 456 pages (10:20 on audio)
  • Tropes: Music Nerdery, History Geekery, Russian Misery Porn
  • Quick blurb: Social, political and cultural history of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7
  • Quick review: All music and history lovers should read this book RIGHT NOW.
  • Grade: A

After reading The Bronze Horseman, I went on a Russian binge.  I wishlisted and bookmarked and downloaded anything and everything. I wound up glancing through most of it. Except this one.

I may or may not have GEEKED OUT when I saw it. I glommed the hardcover from the library, then immediately got the audio as well.

It’s a young adult title by the author of the Octavian Nothing series (which I didn’t realize until just now). It won boatloads of awards. It’s a magnificent mashup of social, cultural, military and political history, And biography. And musicology. And fantastically good story-telling.

I love it when people write books just for me.

Yes, it has all the Russian misery porn you’d expect from a history of Stalin’s terrors and the siege of Leningrad. But instead of a meandering melodrama, Anderson gives us context and empathy and humanity. The story builds through all the horrors and then we get the TOTAL DRAMA PERFORMANCE and we cry and feel all the weltschmerz lift away.

It’s art against evil. And art wins.

Dear god, this was sappy. Ignore all of that up there, Just read the damn book. No, wait — listen to Symphony No. 7 first, then read the book. Then read the book again while listening to the symphony.  Unless you’re a newbie to classical music, in which case you should read the book first. I am available via email or DMs for one-on-one suggestions/discussions.

The 2016 Holiday Romance Wrap-Up

It’s still the holidays.

The must-reads:

parker_duesouth anthology_wish anthology_sprinkling adams_edenmanor warfield_dangerousnativity

Due South by Tamsen Parker – I think this might be the best office romance I’ve ever read.

Wish Upon a Snowflake by Christine Merrill, Linda Skye and Elizabeth Rolls – loved all three stories, this is a fabulous anthology that will be a re-read every year.

A Sprinkling of Christmas Magic by Elizabeth Rolls, Bronwyn Scott and Margaret McPhee – another practically perfect anthology with three very different, very entertaining stories.

Christmas at Eden Manor by Noelle Adams – I kind of wish Adams wasn’t so prolific, because I want to read everything and I can’t keep up. This is a lovely, just-angsty-enough age gap romance.

A Dangerous Nativity by Caroline Warfield – a completely charming lord-in-the-cute-village novella that is FREE FREE FREE (hint hint hint). I immediately bought more by Warfield (see below).

anthology_holly allen_countess anthology_onceuponaregencychristmas anthology_countrychristmas anthology_silverbelles

An Open Heart by Caroline Warfield (in Holly and Hopeful Hearts: A Bluestocking Belles Collection)– a Jewish couple at a country house party. It starts out like Carola Dunn’s Miss Jacobson’s Journey, but it goes in a different direction and ends up with a soul-satisfying HEA. I haven’t read the rest in this anthology, but this one story is so worth the NINETY-NINE (99) CENTS (hint).

His Christmas Countess by Louise Allen – I found this on Scribd and was a little wary of the blurb, but holy cow, this was fantastic. Caz at AAR did a great review. READ THIS TRUST ME. I immediately bought the rest of the series, which led to the nearly-epic WTFery of the earl who assigns himself an undercover spy job as a hermit on the heroine’s father’s estate. But we’ll discuss that one later because it needs our full attention.

Once Upon a Regency Christmas by Louise Allen, Sophia James and Annie Burrows – another great anthology from Harlequin. I am a complete sucker for these and they give me the happysighs nearly every time.

A Country Christmas by Josi Kilpack, Carla Kelly and Jennifer Moore – OH LOOK A CARLA KELLY HOLIDAY NOVELLA HERE JUST TAKE ALL MY MONEY.  Do I care that it’s another half-pay retired naval officer and another penniless widow? NO I DO NOT.

Silver Belles: An Over-40 Holiday Anthology by Sarah M. Anderson, Ros Clarke, Laura K. Curtis, Yasmine Galenorn and Suleikha Synder – I love it when authors write stories JUST FOR ME *hearteyes*.

quinlan_singlegirl robinson_unwrappingrancher kirst_sheriffschristmastwins

The Last Single Girl by Bria Quinlan – this a New Year’s Eve story and it’s adorable and you should read it right now trust me.

Unwrapping the Rancher’s Secret by Lauri Robinson – reunited by a blizzard? OKAY. And, oh look, he’s shirtless (see above).

The Sheriff’s Christmas Twins by Karen Kirst – ignore the dopey cover and see Miss Bates’ “real comfort” review.

The good:

  • Vicar’s Daughter by Betty Neels – DO NOT ASK how many Neels I bought after I read this.
  • Holiday with a Twist by Shannon Stacey
  • My Scandalous Duke by Theresa Romain
  • His Housekeeper’s Christmas Wish  by Louise Allen
  • A Midwinter’s Scandal by Erin Knightley
  • A Match Made in Mistletoe by Anna Campbell
  • We Need a Little Christmas by Sierra Donovan
  • A Regency Christmas Carol by Christine Merrill
  • Greetings of the Season  by Barbara Metzger
  • Father Christmas by Barbara Metzger

The take-them-or-leave-them:

  • The Cowbear’s Christmas Shotgun Wedding by Liv Brywood – not nearly the WTF factor I was hoping for.
  • A Christmas Dance by Alissa Johnson
  • A Countess for Christmas by Christy McKellen
  • Christmas at the Castle by Melissa McClone
  • A Convenient Christmas Wedding by Regina Scott
  • The Billionaire’s Christmas Proposal by Victoria James
  • Miss Mistletoe by Erin Knightley

The duds:

I DNF’d all of these. What the hell what I thinking with all these “princess” titles???

  • Let it Snow by Jeannette Grey
  • His Jingle Bell Princess by Barbara Dunlop
  • A Royal Christmas Princess by Scarlet Wilson
  • Once Upon a Royal Christmas – Robin Bielman
  • Lord Lansbury’s Christmas Wedding by Helen Dickson – I’m giving up on Dickson. Her stuff is dry.as.dust.

The as-yet-unfinished:

  • Christmas in America: Historical Romance Anthology by Holly Bush, Piper Huguley, Joanna Shupe and Donna Thorland – I’m savoring this slowly.

The I’ll-try-again-next-year:

  • Miracle on 5th Avenue by Sarah Morgan – I know, I know. I just wasn’t in the mood for a perky heroine when I tried it.

TBR Challenge: The Vicar’s Daughter by Betty Neels

  • neels_vicarsdaughterTitle:  The Vicar’s Daughter
  • Author: Betty Neels
  • Published: June 1997
  • Source: Purchased
  • Format: Ebook
  • Length: 218 pages
  • Tropes: Plain Jane, Enigmatic Doctor, Marriage of Convenience, Big Misunderstanding
  • Quick blurb: Plain-Jane vicar’s daughter and jet-set Dutch surgeon and that’s pretty much all you need to know.
  • Quick review: It was nice. Victoria Holt without the gothic weirdness. Like Xanax in a book.
  • Grade: B

“…I told George I didn’t want to marry him. He hadn’t exactly asked me, but I thought I’d tell him first and save him the trouble.”

He turned a laugh into a cough. “How very sensible of you. I must admit that I find it hard to imagine you as a farmer’s wife.”

“Well, I dare say you do. I expect you think of me as a vicar’s daughter.”

Margo is a plain-Jane small-town vicar’s daughter.  Gijs is a Dutch pediatric surgeon/professor. They meet-cute over a roadside childbirth (not hers, obvs) and then she saves a toddler from drowning and then her parents die and he offers a marriage of convenience and she goes shopping and tries to do a Big Makeover and there’s a Big Misunderstanding and she cries and he cries and then everyone is happy.

This was my first Betty Neels, part of last year’s Black Friday Harlequin Binge. I read it in one sitting, and then I said, “Well. That was…nice.”

That sounds snarky, but it’s really not. I swear.

While I was reading, I kept waiting for something to happen. And then I realized that stuff was happening. But it was so understated that I didn’t see that all those seemingly throw-away plot bits were actually really good character- and relationship-building.

So that “that was…nice” reaction was completely sincere. As someone said on Twitter, Neels Nice is like oatmeal. Warm and comforting with just a tiny dash of cinnamon or something, but goes down easy in the best way.

ALSO: One other thing that struck me was the timelessness of the setting – it obviously wasn’t modern, but it could have been anywhere from 1920s to 1980s. Add a bit of suspense — the hero might be already married! he might be doing experimental surgeries on babies without permission! he might have syphilis! — and you’d have a Victoria Holt gothic.

ALSO ALSO: There was a big ol’ bloodhound name Punch (see cheesy cover) and he saved the heroine from falling into a canal during a blizzard. I like dogs.

I will probably read more Betty Neels. They will probably be nearly the same as this one. I probably won’t care.

TBR Challenge: Guilty Pleasures by Laura Lee Guhrke

The November Challenge was historical romance. Well, if you insist…

  • Guilty Pleasures by Laura Lee GuhrkeTitle: Guilty Pleasures
  • Series: Guilty, Book 1
  • Author: Laura Lee Guhrke
  • Published: January 2004
  • Source: Purchased
  • Format: Ebook
  • Length: 388 pages
  • Tropes: Plain Jane, Bespectacled Bluestocking, Stuffy Duke, Deep Dark Secrets, Secret Longings
  • Quick blurb: Plain-Jane bluestocking finds her voice and stuffy duke loses his shit.
  • Quick review: Kelly’s Book Crack
  • Grade: A

Amazon informs me I purchased this on July 5, 2012. I waited four and a half years to read this book, and I could have been reading it EVERY MONTH for FIFTY-ONE AND A HALF MONTHS. Why do I do this to myself?

On the other hand, I bought High Energy by Dara Joy at the same time, and I have no regrets about leaving that unread.

I loved Daphne and Her Duke. And I say this as a cynical side-eyer of Dukes-A-Million historicals. Nearly everything about this book was perfect. I’m sure there was something iffy about it somewhere, but I’m too enamored right now to really care.

Daphne is our orphaned, plain-Jane, bespectacled bluestocking heroine. She’s working as an antiquities curator for a scholarly duke who’s excavating Roman ruins on one of his estates.

Anthony is our stuffy dukish hero who became dukish way too young and expects everyone to fall at his feet.

She’s had a secret crush on His Noble Shirtlessness (he lifts things, you know, with his muscles) and can do no more than stammer in his presence. But then she overhears him describing her as a stick insect, and her self-esteem mechanism finally kicks in. She cries it out, and then she gets mad.

You can hear the Kelly’s Book Crack Radar pinging from all the way over here, can’t you? IT JUST KEPT GETTING BETTER.

She decides to quit, he orders her to stay. She mouths off, he negotiates an extension. And he keeps negotiating. He starts paying attention to her to determine how he can get more work out of her.

“I am toying with you because this is a game. I will not let you win, but I can teach you how to play.”

Something in those words made her shiver with excitement. “I really do not know what you are talking about.”

“The real question is, what do you want? Do you want to be a proper young lady, or do you want to be Cleopatra?”

“Both.”

“Ah. That is an interesting answer, and brings with it an even more interesting question. Can a young lady be captivating and alluring, and still be proper, do you think?”

“Why not?”

“Why not, indeed.” His lashes lowered until his eyes were half-closed. “If I do give you back your spectacles, what do I receive in return?”

“The satisfaction of doing the right thing?”

He laughed low in his throat. “Not good enough.”

“What, then?” she asked. “What do you want?”

His gaze moved to her mouth, lingered there. “What are you offering?”

Daphne licked her lips, and she heard his sharp in-take of breath. “Three days,” she whispered. “You may have three more days.”

<swoon> *thud*

And OF COURSE they wind up having sex on the workroom table and breaking a priceless ancient vase and he insists they marry and she slams the door in his face and he woos her with flowers in front of all of London and then there’s this ending that’s all like OH DEAR GOD <swoon> *thud*.

I adored every minute of this book, and it took me hours to write this half-assed squeeing review because I had to sneak-read the whole damn thing again at the dayjob.

You should read this book. Trust me.

TBR Challenge AND Big Fat Book: The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons

  • The Bronze Horseman by Paullina SimonsTitle:  The Bronze Horseman
  • Series: The Bronze Horseman, #1
  • Author: Paullina Simons
  • Published:  2001
  • Source: Purchased
  • Format: Ebook and audio (narrated by James Langton)
  • Length: ELEVENTY HUNDRED THOUSAND PAGES (or, possibly, 811, or 912, or 696, depending on edition); FOUR HUNDRED HOURS AND SEVENTEEN MINUTES in audio (or, possibly, 30:43)
  • Tropes: Angst. Angst. More angst. Angst-o-rama. Did I mention the angst?
  • Quick blurb: Russian WWII misery porn, in the picturesque setting of the Siege of Leningrad
  • Quick review: If you like great historical world-building overshadowed by angsty navel-gazing, interspersed with lengthy periods of passive-aggressive arguments and intermittent moments of wanting to punch people, you will love this book.
  • Grade: C-

Considering that I used the word “angst” at least 15 times up there (I like hyperbole), I looked up synonyms to keep you from mentally throwing things at me. I found a really good one. Are you ready for this? It’s German, which for the purposes of this review, is close enough to Russian.

weltschmerz [velt-shmerts]

noun, German

1.  sorrow that one feels and accepts as one’s necessary portion in life; sentimental pessimism.

Origin: literally, world-pain

bugs_dead

Yes, I know What’s Opera, Doc? is based on Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Wagner was German and not Russian, but it’s still funny.

After finally finishing this book, I felt ALL THE WELTSCHMERZ EVER on my shoulders. And it wasn’t even from holding a 1,358-page hardcover.

The ebook is on sale for $1.99, which is a total bargain at 0.218¢ per page. I bought it at that price in 2012. It glowered at me from the bottom of my TBR, where I kept it to prevent it squashing all the joie de vivre (I’m getting fancy here, eh?) from Minerva (my Kindle).

A few months ago, I started reading it. I made it through Book One, Part Two, Chapter Five. If you haven’t read this, you’ll think I’m exaggerating, but I am totally not (this time). The table of contents is three pages long. Two “books.” Four “parts.” Chapter titles include “Impaled in Space” and “Beset and Besieged” and “Desolate Waves” and “Worn Out with Terror and Misgiving” and “In the Moonlight’s Pallid Glamour.”

But it wasn’t the Wagnerian Gloom and Doom that did me in. I had to put it on hiatus due to the overwhelming urge to punch the so-called “hero” in the nads and push the so-called “heroine” down a well.

A brief recap of the first third of the book:

  • They meet-cute over an ice cream cone. Total insta-lust.
  • She invites him home and finds out he’s boinking her sister.
  • She weeps a lot.
  • He stalks her all over town while continuing to boink her sister.
  • She runs away to find her missing brother and and he gets several men under his command killed trying to find her.
  • He’s still boinking her sister.

Alexander is boinking Tatiana’s sister for a Noble Cause. By “noble” I mean “selfish and cowardly.” It’s the entire premise of the book.

(Now would be a good time to note the subtitle of this novel is “A Love Story.” This is not a romance.)

After a few months letting it fester in my brain, I saw it on Audible, so I sacrificed a credit. And thereby, sacrificed my sappy HEA-loving soul.

*moment of silence*

Sorry, just getting into the spirit of melodrama here.

I started the audiobook from the beginning. Narrator James Langton is brilliant. I was able to push past the New Adult Whinginess (totally a word) and focus on the author’s historical world-building and backstory-building and scene-setting. The opening scenes in Tatiana’s family’s cramped, dreary flat in the middle of Leningrad are amazing. It’s damp and claustrophobic and mundane. In just a few short pages, we’re introduced to all the characters and family history that turned Tatiana in a Mary Sue.

Alexander, on the other hand, is mysterious and enigmatic. We only gradually learn his backstory in bits and pieces that keep adding to the “he can’t really be that much of an asshole, can he?” wishful thinking. His off-screen history is completely intriguing and believable, and it leads him to making a gut-wrenching choice that sets up the major conflict in the book.

The main characters as individuals are compelling. Alexander is physically brave, earning numerous medals and promotions, but he’s morally (ethically? ) a coward. He has his reasons, but it takes a looooong time for all those little reveals to accumulate into sympathy for him.

I don’t want to feel sympathy for a hero. I want him to be heroic.

Tatiana is a Mary Sue, but she’s been conditioned for it from birth. She’s a Martyr with a Capital M. The word “no” never ever crosses her lips. And yet she’s physically courageous in a very TSTL kind of way that endangers everyone around her – which makes her both selfless and self-centered.

I love strong and vulnerable heroines. Tatiana’s strengths and vulnerabilities were the exact opposite of what I wanted to root for.

Separately, they’re fascinating. Together, they’re painful. As in stomach-cramping, fist-clenching “OH FOR FUCK SAKE” unpleasant.

As the book progressed, my frustration grew exponentially. The world-building was completely lost in the grim and plodding pacing. Fragments of drama and action were buried amongst endless repetitive pages of mental lusting and self-doubt and over-thinking and obliviousness.

The middle third of the book is awful. Tatiana has survived and escaped to a rural village. Alexander has tracked her down and married her. This should be the good bits, right? The life-affirming stuff? Nope. When they’re not fucking on every available surface, they’re having lengthy, extended, interminable, overlong, tiresome, needlessly drawn-out passive-aggressive arguments. Did I mention that the arguments are laborious and tedious? And that they’re both still wildly immature and annoying?

I should probably bump up the grade. I obviously have Very Feely Feelings about this book.

I stuck it out and finished the damn thing. And holy hell, when Simons decides to pick up the pace, she doesn’t fool around. The real drama and action I was craving erupted in the last quarter. At one point I literally said “HOLY FUCK!” out loud and scared my dog. (If you’ve read it, it’s the scene with Alexander and Dmitri in the hospital and you know exactly which one I mean.)

bugs_dead_elmer

This is Tatiana [NO SPOILERS] Alexander from the [NO SPOILERS] and begging that one really interesting character who should have his own book to [NO SPOILERS].

This is so weird to say, but when the war engulfs their lives, Tatiana and Alexander are much better characters and much better people. When they’re fighting external forces separately instead of their own ridiculous obsessive love, the story — and the romance — comes alive.

So. In conclusion, I’m not sorry I read it. I keep thinking about it, and my memories are vivid and visceral. I’m wondering if my frustrations would have been minimized if I had stuck with the ebook and skimmed through the drama-llama dreck. I have the second book on hold at the library (because of that utterly crushing cliffhanger) — in paper, so I can fast-forward.

DNF: Playing It Cool by Amy Andrews

Playing It Cool by Amy Andrews

  • Title: Playing It Cool
  • Author: Amy Andrews
  • Published:  September 2016
  • Source: NetGalley
  • Length: 163 pages
  • Tropes: Frat-Boy Alpha-Holes
  • Quick blurb: Rugby player gets the hots for a jiggly chick.
  • Quick review: NO THANK YOU and please pass me a moist towelette.
  • Grade: DNF with extreme prejudice

I’ve enjoyed several of Andrews’ other books, but it’ll be a while before I try another one.  This one was a big ol’ NO GO from the get-go. I barely made it through the first scene.

Dexter Blake liked a woman with some junk in her trunk. And the tall, curvy chick on the sidelines was packing a whole lot of booty. She had one of those itty-bitty waists, too. And her cups floweth’d over.

Staring at her chest was practically a religious experience.

That’s how the book opens. With a sideline full of sweaty manwhores slobbering over Jessica Rabbit. It got worse, quickly.

The Alpha Male Testosterone Levels were so high I could barely breathe — the jock talk about the heroine, both internal and dialogue, was repulsive douche-bro dickbaggery. I felt just plain icky as I read the first few paragraphs.

And uff da, the trope cliches….

And, sadly, as much as sideline-chick ticked every box, her ass was off-limits. One look at her told him she was the kind of girl a guy loved. Got into a relationship with. The kind he married. Made babies with.

She was the commitment type.

Over a decade of avoiding romantic entanglements had alerted Dex to the signs, and this woman had I don’t do casual written all over her.

And he didn’t do commitment.

The “hero” takes ONE LEERING, DROOLING LOOK at the heroine’s ass and immediately knows she’s husband-hunting. On page one. I’m not making this up. Maybe the author could just drop an anvil on our heads to make sure we catch the “But He Has Trust Issues” subtext.

el_coyote_y_el_correcaminos_2_by_winter_freak

[ETA: The heroine doesn’t wear obvious makeup, just a touch of sparkly lip gloss, so she’s definitely not a slut. That would just be wrong.]

I’m assuming (hoping) Andrews eventually dials down on the “I only like women as sex robots hur-hur pass me a beer” frat-boy mentality, but I wasn’t willing to invest my time in finding out. Gross.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Another ETA: If you want good rugby romance, read Kat Latham. She has the BEST heroines (I want them all as BFFs) who would have put the smackdown on these fuckwits right quick.

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne – aka Fat-Shaming for Fun and Profit

The Hating Game by Sally ThorneHi! It’s me, calling out some problematic shit in the latest squeed-over bestseller!

  • Title: The Hating Game
  • Author: Sally Thorne
  • Published:  August 2016
  • Source: Library
  • Length: 384 pages
  • Tropes: Enemies to Lovers, Lust in the Workplace, Fat-Shaming
  • Quick blurb: Office rivals compete for the same job while flirting and otherwise generally engaging in an HR nightmare of inappropriate workplace behavior.
  • Quick review: If only….(see below)
  • Grade: D

I had this on hold at the library for weeks, and did a little chair-dance at my desk when I got the notification it was waiting for me. I picked it up on my way home yesterday and read the whole thing last night.

It did live up the the hype for truly funny banter and bone-melting romance, so I in no way fault anyone for liking it.

However.

HOWEVER.

*~*sigh*~*

1) Towards the end, the hero describes himself as “socially retarded.”

These are supposedly smart characters. Putting words like “retarded” in their mouths is lazy writing and it’s offensive to many readers.

It’s 2016 for god sake. FIND BETTER WORDS.

ALSO.

This is where I get really cranky.

2) The heroine’s boss – a chain-smoking anorexic – brings in doughnuts or cookies or something and jokes about “bringing on diabetes” in her short, fat colleague.

“Ha ha ha let’s make the pervy boss fat and sweaty and tempt him with cookies so he gets diabetes.”

And it’s even funnier because the hero is ripped and the heroine is a teeny-tiny!

HAHAHAHA NO.

FUCK OFF. Not funny. In any way. Ever.

I mistakenly assumed the offensiveness of this cringe-inducing bullshit was common knowledge as well, but apparently not, so let’s review, shall we?

A) Fat-shaming is not, never has been, and never will be funny.

B) Diabetes is not, never has been, and never will be funny.

C) Openly mocking a character by assigning these traits is GROSS and INSULTING and even lazier writing.

This book might have been one of my favorite reads of the year. But nope. I lost all trust in the author and will probably never read her again.

I sincerely hope she gets a better editor and better beta readers who have the compassion to actually notice this bullshit and the balls to call it out.