Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Mini Reviews to End the Year!

Hello out there!  Greetings from the exotic land of Erie, Pennsylvania.  For a while, I was a bit leery that with all sorts of vacation activities, I wasn't going to be able to finish my Popsugar Reading Challenge, but I managed to squeak on through with the last three titles.  None of them struck me strongly enough to write a lot about, so in the interest of time and space I thought I'd do three mini-reviews instead of full-length ones for those final reads.  Let's go!

No ExitFor a play, I decided to forgo Shakespeare, which had been my original plan, and read No Exit instead.  No Exit is a play that a lot of people have heard of, but I'm not sure how many people know that they've heard of it; it's the origin of the line "Hell is other people."  The plot follows three people who get put together in a single room in Hell, so that they can annoy each other for all eternity.  There is, of course, a love triangle involved.  I found all of the people extremely annoying, just as bothersome to myself as to each other, and I couldn't wait to be parted with them...which doesn't bode very well for a play.  But then, plays are a weird thing, because they're not meant to be read.  They're meant to be watched and performed.  I've never seen No Exit performed, and it's quite likely that I'd have a different reaction to it if I did.  Like some of the other categories in the Popsugar Reading Challenge, this one seems weird to me, because you can't really get the full feel of a play by just reading it.  Based on my reading, though, I'm going to have to go with a 2-star rating.

Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New RepublicMy pick for "A book you should have read in school but didn't" was pretty much the only book that I could remember not reading for a class, Affairs of Honor.  This is a book about the Founding Fathers' generation politicking and how politics was tied up with personal honor, all of it building up to the election of 1800.  While the concept is interesting, and it did reveal a few things I didn't know about American history, I wasn't thrilled with it overall and can remember why I started but decided not to finish it for my class.  The thing is, it's boring.  This is not a popular history book.  It's decidedly academic, which means that it beats you over the head with its message--that honor played into politics--until you're pretty much ready to scream that yes, you get it, and you're ready to move on.  The moving on, however, never happens.  Blargh.  2 stars, because I learned a few things, but I was bored out of my mind while I did it.

The Carpet PeopleFinally, I had to fulfill the category of "A popular author's first book," for which I selected Terry Pratchett's The Carpet People.  Upon actually opening the book, I found a foreword that said that this version of The Carpet People isn't actually the original version, which kind of threw a wrench in my plans, but it was too late to select another title, so I just kept going.  The thing is, The Carpet People was Pratchett's first novel, but when he became famous, he decided to re-publish it with some changes that he made as a more developed writer.  It's my firm opinion that authors shouldn't get to re-tinker with books that have been previously published, because once it's out there, it's out there, but I guess when you're Terry Pratchett you're so beloved (and so missed; I picked this one because Pratchett had just passed away when I began this challenge) that you can do pretty much whatever the heck you want.  That said, The Carpet People was a cute fantasy story set in your very own living room carpet, wherein lives its own civilization of minute size.  The Munrungs, part of the Dumii empire, find their home destroyed by Fray (the vacuum?) and are then attacked by fierce creatures called mouls.  Driven from their home, they end up leading the charge to reclaim the empire from the mouls.  It's not a terribly complex story, but it's a very cute one and shows off the creativity that later blossomed into Pratchett's vibrant Discworld series.  3.5 stars.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Sharaz-De: Tales from the Arabian Nights - Sergio Toppi

Sharaz-De: Tales from the Arabian NightsLet me start by saying this: Scheherazade is one of my favorite fairytales.  For those of you who don't know (and many don't; this one isn't as popular as the likes of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty) Scheherazade is the teller of the 1,001 Arabian Nights.  The term "1,001 Arabian Nights" itself comes from her story.  Here is (briefly) how it goes: One upon a time, the king of a middle-eastern kingdom found out his wife had been unfaithful to him.  He had her killed, and then decided to marry a new virgin every day and have her beheaded the next morning.  He did this to 1,000 women before Scheherazade, his vizier's daughter, volunteers to be the next bride.  Now, Scheherazade was a bit of a bookworm and an excellent storyteller.  The night of her marriage, she asked the king to let her say goodbye to her sister.  He agreed, and Scheherazade went into the next room to say her farewells.  But instead of saying goodbye, she began to tell her sister a story.  She didn't finish the story, but instead stopped partway through as dawn approached, leaving a cliffhanger.  The king, who'd been listening in on this conversation, decided to let Scheherazade live another day so that she could finish the story the next night, and he could know the ending.  The next night, she finished the first story and began a second, which she also left unfinished, and the king repeated his delaying of Scheherazade's execution.  This went on for a total of 1,0001 nights and 1,001 stories, at the end of which the king had fallen so madly in love with Scheherazade that he decided not to have her beheaded at all, and she gets to live on as his queen.

Sharaz-de doesn't follow this story.  The title obviously refers to Scheherazade, but she's only a minor character in this and the other stories don't even bolster her own.  The backstory is the same: king finds out wife is cheating, kills her, decides to do the same to a bunch of other women.  But in this version, Sharaz-de is from another country entirely.  She tells a story at night, finishes it, and then tells a second one--and finishes that one, too.  The king lets her live because he wants to hear more stories, so she goes on.  And the book just ends this way.  She tells a bunch of stories, but the resolution of him falling in love with her and letting her live is never actually reached.  It just, apparently, goes on forever.  The stories themselves are beautifully depicted, and full of people who do bad things getting what's coming to them from supernatural sources, but ultimately I felt jipped out of the story I thought I was getting.  The Scheherazade structure doesn't work in this book because the story isn't actually there; I feel like Toppi would have done better to nix that storyline all together and just depict the stories themselves, without revealing Scheherazade/Sharaz-de as the narrator, and simply titling it "Tales from the Arabian Nights."  It is tales, but the larger narrative structure is missing, which leaves the book somewhat lacking.

The art is beautiful and complex, whether it's in black-and-white or in color, but I'm not a huge fan of graphic novels in general, so finding that the story I'd hoped for and been led to expect by the title and initial set-up was just abandoned was highly disappointing.  At least I got my Popsugar Reading Challenge category of "A graphic novel" out of the way.

2.5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Vellum - Hal Duncan (Book of All Hours #1)

Vellum (The Book of All Hours, #1)For a very long time, I thought I would never finish this book.  I've had it for close to a decade, I'd say, and never got much more than halfway through it.  It's a strange book, which is the main reason why, and looking at reviews I can see that a lot of other people have had a lot of frustration with it, too.  But I picked it back up recently to fulfill the Popsugar Reading Challenge category of "A book you started but never finished."  This certainly fulfilled that category for me, but it meant I had to finish Vellum this time around if it was going to count.  And I did.  And I liked it.

I think this is a book I really needed to come back to with a fresh pair of eyes.  Here's the thing: the book doesn't actually really make much sense.  There are a lot of timelines and a lot of characters, many of whom have the same names, but who don't always resemble each other a lot.  There are a lot of worlds and a lot of weird things in those worlds.  It all has to be looked at through the right lens in order to make sense, and I think I finally found that lens.  I call it the Cloud Atlas lens.  For those of you that haven't read Cloud Atlas, it's a bunch of different narrative styles that are patched together, one half of each and then the other halves in reverse order, that follow people who, as you eventually realize, are all the same people, throughout different lives in different times.  Vellum is like that, on a bigger scale.  Not only are these people the same people, through different times, but they're also different versions of the same people, in different worlds that are each a step different from our own, until they're getting weirder and weirder and farther and farther apart from our own reality.  All of these worlds are arrayed on a sort of meta-world called the Vellum, and characters escape to and travel across the Vellum for various reasons, looking for various things.  And these people can be changed by re-writing the coding of their own souls.  Phreedom/Anna/Imana is looking for her brother, Thomas.  Finnan is tied up in them because he made them unkin, immortal, able to do things like travel through the Vellum.  And then there's Metatron, one of the highest unkin, an "angel," who helps to lead the Covenant, which is sort of a banding together of unkin who want a certain type of order, against another bunch of unkin who want a different sort of order.  Metatron thinks Finnan and Thomas and Phreedom have something he wants, and so he and his lackeys are hunting them down--all while the end of the world swirls around them.

The farther into the book, the more things begin to come together, but I admit that it does take a long time for that to happen--and some things never come together as much as the others.  The prologue, for example, never really actually ties in with the rest.  Its events and narrator pop up throughout the "Errata" sections now and then, but they never link up with the Phreedom/Thomas/Finnan/Metatron story, which is really the main story.  Some story- and timelines are also more compelling than others.  I found the World War I story, for example, utterly boring, even though I get that it was important for Finnan's origins.  The part I probably found the most interesting was the bits about the archaeological expedition to find Kur and the source of the Cant, which is a sort of language that can change reality.  There are also some really weird stylistic choices with this book, and I have no idea what book stylist in his (or her) right mind agreed to set up a book with all of those stupid line breaks.  They're completely unnecessary and come across as someone trying to be more "arty" than the book actually calls for.  The different fonts I understood--they help distinguish the different lines when the sections sometimes appear intertwined with each other.  But the line breaks?  Completely stupid.  They appear what seems to be randomly, probably to make things seem more dramatic than they actually are.

I really enjoyed this.  I can see, however, why many people didn't, and also why I didn't in the past.  I think you really have to like stories about different versions of the same souls, different iterations of the same people, in order to like this, and you have to be willing to soldier on through a lot of weirdness in order to get to the parts that make sense.  I was willing to do that this time, and I think it paid off.  I'll definitely be reading the second part, Ink.  But this is definitely a love it or hate it type of book, and it's not for everyone.

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn

Gone GirlThis is another book that I'm like 3 years behind everyone else in reading.  I didn't see the movie, so I didn't know the whole plot, but this was such a big phenomenon that it's hard to not know what at least some of it is about.  Basically, I went into the book knowing two things: that everyone thinks Nick has killed his wife Amy, and that Amy is an unreliable narrator.  Oh, and there's a bit I knew about a champagne/wine bottle which I'm not going to get into here because WTF?

Those three letters basically sum up the entire book.  WTF?  I can totally see how people went so bonkers over this book when it hit the shelves.  It's a perfect storm of people being absolutely psycho, on pretty much all fronts.  When Amy goes missing on the morning of her five-year wedding anniversary with Nick, everyone immediately suspects that he killed her, because it's always the husband, right?  Nick insists he didn't kill Amy, but he's clearly lying about a ton of stuff, even to the reader--as he says, he's a big fan of lies by omission, though lies by omission and regular old lies start to get very tangled up very quickly here.  Interspersed with Nick reacting completely inappropriately and trying to prove his innocence are entries from Amy's diary, depicting how their relationship and marriage was perfect, and then how it slowly wasn't.  I knew that Amy was an unreliable narrator, I knew that these diary entries had to be big whoppers--and yet I still found myself getting sucked in.  Amy's character is a master manipulator of the people around her, even across time and distance, and even straight out of the book--how else could Flynn have gotten so many people worked up, except to have Amy manipulate the reader in addition to the characters?  That's exactly what she did, and she did it masterfully.  I found myself liking Amy and not liking Nick more and more as time went on, even though I knew she was totally psycho from the beginning.  This is one of those books that messes with your head, and does it masterfully.

And the ending!!!!!

Ultimately, though, this is a book about a marriage more than anything else.  A messed-up, twisted, horrible marriage that probably never should have happened, but Amy is completely psychotic and so it did, for a variety of her own psycho reasons.  It's a book that looks into how there are two sides to every relationship, and every story, and maybe if your significant other comes with a lot of baggage about a string of stalkers and crazy happenings...well, perhaps you should look at them a little closer, not just the crazies following them.  Very creepy, very twisted, with an ending that wasn't at all what I expected.  I wasn't quite satisfied with it--but then, I suppose that was the point.

5 stars out of 5.

Friday, December 11, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeOne of the categories for Popsugar's Reading Challenge for 2015 was "A Pulitzer Prize-winning book," which of course led me to All the LIght We Cannot See.  I did scroll through the list of Prize winners for other options, but out of all of them, this one seemed the most interesting to me, and it got great reviews from regular readers in addition to the Prize-givers, so it seemed like a solid option.

And it was beautiful.  The book takes place during World War II, with short periods and a slightly longer denouement taking place before and after the war, respectively.  There are two main characters.  Werner is a German boy/teenager who gets into a prestigious school for his engineering abilities.  He can fix pretty much any radio, and is soon designing his own, which the Germans use to hunt down resistance fighters in eastern Europe and in France.  The other main character is Marie-Laure, a French girl/teenager who lost her eyesight at a young age and whose father is trusted with taking a copy (or potentially the original) of an infamous diamond with him when he and Marie-Laure flee Paris.  Marie-Laure's father is eventually arrested as a spy, and Marie-Laure unwittingly becomes the guardian of the diamond in his absence.

The diamond itself is the axis on which the story spins.  It lends a fantasy, or maybe a magical-realism, element to the story--is the diamond magic, or not?  Is it a curse, or luck?  Doerr never comes out on one side or the other, making it a real either-or that tantalizes at various parts of the story, sometimes seeming one way, sometimes seeming the other, and we're ultimately left having to make our own decisions on the matter.  The war-time setting lends atmosphere more than anything else, and is cause for some poignant moments that would not have otherwise happened, but most of the plot could easily take place in another point in time, when a group of people is hiding a diamond from someone else who wants it.  That, to me, was good, because it made the story easier to slip into, and while there are some heavy events in this book, Doerr doesn't focus on the aspects of the war that many do: concentration camps, shootings, fighting a resistance.  His focus on a teenager who is in the German army, but tries to distance himself from its doings, and on a French civilian--who ends up helping the resistance, but only in the barest of possible ways--makes the story seem more every-day, makes the characters more real.  Most of us probably can't imagine what it would be like to find a downed pilot, rescue him from a tree, nurse him back to health, and then smuggle him across the border to safety.  However, most of us probably can imagine asking for a loaf of bread and passing off a piece of paper.  Small, simple things, but they make such a difference in this story.

The writing here is absolutely beautiful.  Doerr's descriptions of Marie-Laure's world are wonderful, and Saint-Malo was clear to me even though Marie-Laure couldn't see it to actually describe it.  Werner's parts were lovely, too, though in a more painful way.  His attempts to distance himself from his own actions, a blatant dissociation in order to preserve his sense of righteousness as much as possible when he knows that what he is doing hurts people, was painful at times, especially in regards to his friend Frederick and in his estrangement from his sister Jutta.  At the same time, though, it's easy to see how boys like Werner would have ended up rabid Nazis.  Werner was picked up from an orphanage in a nothing town, saved from a life of mining coal and probably dying young, and instead put into a school where he was treated like he was special, like his knowledge and skills were valued.  That's quite a lure, and it's easy to see how he wanted to vanish into that world--though the niggling conscience instilled by his own morals and his sister never quite left him.

 The only real complaint I have about this book is that the denouement was too long.  This is one of the instances in which I felt there was too much resolution; I would have liked a little more to be left up to our imaginations, instead of multiple time-jumps taking us decades into the future to see where various characters ended up.  A little more mystique in regards to the characters would have matched the mystery tied to the diamond, and tied in a little more meaningfully to me.  Still, though, a beautiful book, and one I would heartily recommend to pretty much anyone.

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Devil in the White City - Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed AmericaNot too long ago I read Erik Larson's Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, and I really loved it.  It's a great example of a narrative history and how history can be absolutely enthralling.  I'd had Devil in the White City on my list for a while, even before reading Dead Wake, and while out to dinner with a friend it was brought up--so I bumped it up on my list.  The book chronicles the building and running of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, which became known as the White City due to the color of the huge, majestic buildings built for the fair.

I almost started by saying that they just don't do World's Fairs anymore...which would have been very stupid of me because another friend actually just spent the entire summer in Milan for Expo Milano, this year's World's Fair/Universal Exposition in Milan.  Maybe the thought I'm trying to grasp is that they just don't do World's Fairs like they used to anymore--there are no more Eiffel Towers and giant Ferris wheels to dazzle us.  While I'm sure the Expo was awesome, there's just something magical about reading descriptions of what the architects of the White City achieved.  And there's something very creepy about the other story that's twined through the story of the White City--the story of the devil, H. H. Holmes.

Now, did these stories go together?  Yeah, I guess.  I mean, Holmes built his murder hotel specially to lure women arriving in Chicago to see the White City--but he'd begun his killings before that, and other than taking a love interest and her sister to the White City, he didn't have much to do about it.  I think Larson mainly put these two narratives together to play off the whole darkness/light duality, which he does quite well.  Sometimes, however, I felt like he was just using Holmes to add menace to the story he really wanted to tell, which was about the fair.  I thought this because the bulk of the book is about the fair--those chapters are much longer than the Holmes chapters in general, with the exception of the chapters regarding the eventual investigation into Holmes' devious doings.  For the most part, Larson's attention is on the building and running of the fair--which makes the title a little disingenuous, though titles are generally the publisher's decision and not the author's.

I knew about the Lusitania before I read Dead Wake; I didn't know about the White City and H. H. Holmes before I read this book, so it was educational.  This is a great book for people who like history but don't live heavily-academic works; I would totally ask for this, or give it, as a Christmas present for someone like that.  It's a great, fast read (despite being almost 400 pages; they go quickly) and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 - Francine Prose

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932This book has been on my to-read list for quite a while, but the university library system in DC didn't have it.  However, when I was scanning the popular reads section a few weeks ago, it was there!  So of course I picked it up.

The book is historical fiction written in the style of a collection of memoirs, letters, biographies, and even some chapters that are written in a typical third-person narrative style.  Each character has his or her own style that's maintained throughout the book; Lionel writes books that aren't specifically memoirs, but are definitely first-person, while Lily and Suzanne write memoirs, Gabor writes letters to his parents, and Lou's story is told through a biography written in 2010.  The mix of styles means that each character has a distinctive voice, and their overlapping opinions and version of events give a nuanced feeling to the story.  What's most interesting about this book, though, is that it's a fictionalized version of historical events--obviously, because it's historical fiction, but even more closely than most historical fiction is.  All of the characters are re-named real people, so that Prose could draw heavily on their real lives and doings but still have some creative license.  The title is taken from the title of Gabor's book-within-a-book, which is in turn named for a photo he took.  While the photo described in the book is its own, it's easy to see that it's drawn heavily from this photo:

"Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932" by Brassai, Cleveland Museum of Art 

This makes Gabor, Brassai, a real-life Hungarian photographer, and Lou Villars is really Violette Morris, a female athlete turned Nazi sympathizer.  The book is clearly built off Prose's fascination with Morris/Villars, and how such a young woman could slide into what could, arguably, be called evil amongt the larger narrative of Europe's slide into World War II.  The other characters' stories all really revolve around Lou's, even though they have their own events happening beyond her scope.  Possibly this was meant to be a real biography that Prose reworked into a fictionalized version, possibly not; but it was a delightful read nonetheless.  I didn't know anything about Morris, Brassai, or the other real-life people who inspired the characters before I read this, but the book made me want to read and learn more about them, and that's a good book indeed.  It does have the result, however, of having to keep in mind that the book is fiction, and carefully balancing out the real-life aspects with the fictionalized aspects in one's head.

Out of all the sections, Gabor's were my least favorite.  I dislike narratives written in letter form, and I was glad that Gabor's letters shortened and became more scarce as the book went on, to be replaced by chapters of the memoirs and the pseduo-biography instead.  And then, from nowhere--gasp!--we get an unreliable narrator!  Ugh, that bothers me so much, but at the same time it gives a ton more dimension to what could have been a good, but somewhat flat, book, because it raises the question...who is telling the truth?  And for the unreliable narrator, what was that person's motive in telling the story as he or she did?  These are questions that are never actually resolved in the book, though another character speculates on them in the end, and it left me with some food for thought, something to chew over while starting on my next book.  I started reading All the Light We Cannot See while I was reading Lovers, which is another World War II historical-fiction book, and the two paired together have made an excellent read so far.

Overall, I really liked this is a historical fiction, but some of the characters--like Lionel, and Arlette--annoyed me enough that I'm not quite willing to give it a full 4 stars.  There's no preface or prologue explaining the pseudo-historical aspects of it, either, which I don't like; when something treads this close to the truth/fiction boundary, I feel like the author should at least have the decency to own up to it and put the facts straight in an afterword.  I'm not sure if I'd read this again, but I liked it this time around.

3.5 stars.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Mishap Mansion - Allison Beckert and Jennifer Bigelow

Mishap MansionSo, I read this book for two reasons: I needed a book to read that was written by someone under 30, and I really didn't want to read Divergent.  So I went to the NaNoWriMo Facebook group and asked if anyone there had written anything that would qualify, and this one got tossed out as a possibility--I honestly don't remember which of the listed authors mentioned it, and I'm not going to go back and look.  I was really hoping for good things from this.  The premise, that a group of friends moves into a mansion in Hawaii and has romantically-inclined adventures, sounded cute.  But in execution, I was severely disappointed, and I don't really think that I could recommend it.

I took a ton of notes while I was reading this because so many things bugged me, something that I rarely do when reading because I don't have that many issues with a book.  But here, they just kept piling up until I had to take notes or risk losing the whole train of thought.  Let me touch on the most minor one first: editing.  I normally have a lot of issues with indie books and line edits, use of grammar, etc, and I have to say that wasn't the case here, except for a few minor cases.  The dialogue isn't written correctly when the characters cut each other off, with the dashes left outside the quotation marks instead of inside of them, and there are several instances of the authors using a homophone for the word they meant--the one I noted down was using "feinting," as in faking, instead of "fainting," as in passing out, but I remember seeing a few more before that.  For the most part, however, there's a solid grasp of spelling and grammar here, which is often missing in independently-published works.  They could, however, use a proper book formatter.  This book is written like a blog, with line breaks between all of the paragraphs instead of tabbing, and no working table of contents, things that don't take that much effort to include but can make a big difference in streamlining the reading experience.

No, what bothered me here was the structure and plot of the book which I mean that there wasn't any.  The plot is supposed to be that the main character, Whisper, finds out that she inherits her aunt's mansion and fortune in Hawaii, on the condition that she and the guest list from her last birthday party move in immediately, leaving behind their jobs and lives in the process, of course.  Because all of these people would totally be willing to jump at the strings of a dead lady they've never met...  For what purpose?  No one knows.  I certainly never found out, like I never found out why the party guests, despite having attended said party together, had never met when they moved in.  This read as a meandering "slice of life" role play rather than as a book with a plot (even a character-driven one) and solid structure.  Whenever anything starts to lag, which things do quite often, the authors just toss in another character for no apparent reason than to get things going again.  Nothing ties in to a larger plot.  And can we talk about names?  What kind of names are "Whisper" and "QT" (As in Cutie?  Really?) when the rest of the people have normal names?  Whisper's appears to have no purpose other than to designate her as a "special snowflake."  QT's bothered me, too, but luckily she wasn't mentioned that much, despite being mentioned in the first few pages.  She hardly showed up at all after that, until the authors apparently decided they needed a wedding to liven things up--again, for no apparent reason other than things had stopped moving.

I hated Sasha, and found no redeeming qualities in her.  Sasha is a supreme bitch and doesn't really get over it--until she does for (again) no apparent reason.  All the characters here run around protesting that they don't like each other until, suddenly, they confess their love for each other.  They have no depth, flip-flopping between nice to mean and happy to angry with no in-betweens.  Sasha and Daniel are the worst examples of this (David aside, who was clearly meant to be a bastard, and was overwrought in being one...) and I absolutely could not designate them as likable or believable love interests for other characters after the way they behaved.  Sasha is the sort of girl who hates on other girls because they're pretty, and yells at another character for having "vain little habits" when the character in question (Molly, another character apparently without any purpose...) wants to get her brush out of the bathroom while Sasha is brushing her teeth.  Apparently wanting to brush your hair before breakfast is the height of vanity.  One could attempt to argue that Sasha is so insufferable at the beginning in order to show her growth as the story goes on--but there's not growth so much as there is a sudden change without any real motivation behind it other than falling in love.  Because love clearly actually changes people.  (It doesn't.)  The characters don't have believable motivations on any front, and act like cardboard cutouts rather than real people.  I couldn't really believe or like any of them because they were written without any dimension and were apparently supposed to be adults but ran around acting like hormonal middle school students instead.  And let's not even talk about the supposed historical society sub-plot, if you can call it that, which has SO many things wrong with it...

Actually, let's talk about it.  Let's talk about how the historical society apparently expects a crumbling mansion to be renovated at any moment, or they won't give it their endorsement as a historical landmark, how they can apparently evict the inhabitants from the premises even though the property is privately owned, how the head of the historical society can apparently be outranked by some random kid who just moves in but is a Secret Agent of the society the entire time, how they hate the mansion but want it as their headquarters the entire time...


In addition to all of that, the writing managed to be too simplistic and too overwrought at the same time.  The characters emotions and motivations were told, rather than shown, but the authors must have felt the need to describe the characters and Hawaii in such great detail that adjectives end up appended to every other word, and you end up like sentences like this: "Through the window was a long swatch of green, interrupted with palms and various island jewels that swept from the house to the beach, which was dimly glimpsed in its liquid beauty," and "She had lustrous, innocent eyes, and an endearing smile.  Sasha didn't have to guess that everyone loved her the moment they met her; it was written all over the young lady."  Ugh.

Finally, let's touch on how this book as categorized.  All of the categories on Amazon trickle down to "inspirational," "Christian," and "romance."  I guess there's a minor romantic aspect to this book, but again, it seems like kids in middle school rather than functioning adults.  I'm guessing that's what contributes to the "Christian," aspect, because there's nothing religious about this at all.  So it has to be that the characters aren't running around having raunchy sex.  Which is fine, but...the romance was still really wimpy.  You can write a good romance without including raunchy sex, and there are tons of them out there that are far more engrossing and enjoyable than this one.  As for the "inspirational" aspect... I'm not sure where that comes in at all.

I don't recommend this book.  I think the authors have a knack for cute ideas, but as of this point they don't seem to have the finesse to execute those ideas well, and this needs a lot more polishing before it becomes good.

1.5 to 2 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina I read War and Peace in school a few years ago, in a great course called "Napoleon vs. Tolstoy," and really enjoyed most of it.  I felt like Tolstoy's characters were great, and that he had a very interesting way of taking on the Napoleonic Wars from Russia's perspective.  Of course, Tolstoy only focuses on upper-class characters, the aristocracy of Moscow and St. Petersburg, and so I was interested in reading more of his works.  Of course, the fact that Anna Karenina was in the process of being adapted into a movie staring Kiera Knightly, who is absolutely lovely, didn't hurt either.  A few years later, I still haven't seen the movie, but I now have read the book, with the intent of using it for the Popsugar Reading Challenge category of "A classic romance."  Now, when I read "A class romance," my mind immediately goes where most people's probably does: Pride and Prejudice.  But I wanted to read something else (though I do love P&P, I didn't want any Jane Austen this time around) and so I picked Anna Karenina, which is really two classic romances in one, and which is different than Austen in a very real way.

See, Anna Karenina doesn't end happily for everyone.  If that's a spoiler... Well, it's not, because the book's been out for ages and at this point I don't think anything can really be a spoiler for it.  But there are two romances involved: Anna's with Count Vronsky, and Levin's with Kitty.  These two couples are intrinsically opposed, and most of the book that focuses on them is composed of parallel scenes: similar setups that show exactly how different the same situations can end up, based on the people who are interacting.  Of course, Tolstoy's female characters tend toward the wildly dramatic and his men towards either extremely glib or extremely grim.  Tolstoy doesn't really seem to do "middle ground" that much; this was the case in War and Peace, too, as I remember.  And Tolstoy is also not only an author, but a philosopher, which means that the book isn't just a story, it's a philosophical treatise.  Now, in War and Peace the philosophy was about Tolstoy's theory of history.  In Anna Karenina, it seems to be something about people's connection to the land, something about the will of the people, and something about the meaning of life, or maybe all three just mixed together.  Philosophy isn't exactly my strong suit, and Levin bonking me over the head with it over and over again didn't sit well with me.

There's not much really to be said about Anna Karenina beyond that, to me.  After all, it's a classic, and most things that are to be said about classics have already been said.  Overall, though, I did enjoy the book, especially the climactic scene at the train station.  The 50 pages of philosophy that followed?  Not so much.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Second Position - Katherine Locke (District Ballet Company #1)

Second Position (District Ballet Company #1)Whew!  It's been a while.  Sorry about that, but things have been busy at work, and then I traveled with the boyfriend to visit his family for Thanksgiving, and the internet in northern New Jersey is about as fast as 1990's dial-up.  On top of that, I started reading a few slow-going books at the same time.  I finally needed something a little faster, so I picked up Second Position.  (I was originally tempted to write "something a little lighter, but this book was anything but, so that didn't really fit.)  I needed to read a book that took place in Washington, DC for the Popsugar Reading Challenge's category, "A book that takes place in your hometown."  Really, this seemed to me like a poor choice of category because many, many people live in towns that do not feature as the settings in books.  My hometowm of Erie, Pennsylvania happens to be one of them.  I did some Googling, but nothing came up and no one I talked to had any ideas, either.  So I switched tactics and began looking at my second hometown, Washington.  The Seamstress hadn't worked out for this, but one of my friends had added Second Position to her list, and an author I quite like (Sherwood Smith) gave it a favorable review, so I figured it was time to get reading.

Second Position is a beautiful book that tackles an extraordinarily complicated relationship.  Aly and Zed danced ballet in Philadelphia, and their close friendship morphed into something more--until they got in a car accident and everything changed.  Zed lost his leg.  Aly lost their baby.  In the wake of the accident, the pair were separated and didn't see each other for years, until Aly walks into Zed's favorite cafe in Washington.  She's on leave from the Philadelphia Ballet Company after having a mental breakdown, hitting another dancer, and seeking treatment for an eating disorder.  Zed now lives in DC, where he teaches theater.  The chance encounter in the cafe sets them on another collision course, this time with each other and a discussion of all the things they could gain or lose.

Because of the characters' backstories, the book takes on a lot of big, complicated issues that most romance authors don't choose to include in their stories.  Depression, anxiety, amputations, eating disorders, miscarriages--it's a lot of issues to cram into one book.  But Locke handles them well, with finesse and respect.  Aly's eating disorder is not disparaged or glorified, but treated with a gentle respect and consideration for how it affects all areas of her life, and how she works to overcome it.  Oh, and did I mention that Zed is a recovering alcoholic?  His issues aren't touched on as deeply as Aly's, an interesting decision but one I suppose makes sense.  Having both parties as messed up as Aly, at the same time, would have been a disaster waiting to happen, and probably an not a salvageable one.

This is not, in any way, a happy book.  There is not witty banter, no tete a tetes, no side characters lending a little levity to the situation.  There are supporting characters, but they're very minor.  It's all Aly and Zed, all the time, and they're so incredible intense that I sometimes needed a break.  They were, at times, overwhelming.  This definitely isn't a book to read for a light afternoon, but the writing and tragic reality of it, and how healthy Zed and Aly's relationship ultimately is, made it a beautiful story nonetheless.  I would have liked to see more of Zed's struggle, at least in hindsight, because how he was so together in comparison to Aly almost made his problems seem less than hers, though they definitely were equal.  Hopefully this will be touched on more in the second book, Finding Center, which I will definitely be picking up.

4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens' London - Judith Flanders

The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens' LondonI've read Flanders' other book, The Invention of Murder, and liked it but didn't love it.  I was glad that I checked it out from the library instead of buying it, because it wasn't the sort of book I'd go back to.  Still, the Victorian and Regency periods are my favorite historical fiction settings--specifically, my favorite settings for historical romances and the inspiration for historical fantasies.  So when I saw Victorian City on the library shelf, I checked it out.  I paid little attention to the part about Dickens' London, figuring it was just a way to characterize the time period for people rather than an actual focus of the book.  In that, I was partially right, but because of the partially wrong part... Well, let me put it this way.  I hate Dickens.  I date it to the horrible experience of reading A Tale of Two Cities in the tenth grade, when my teacher tried to merge an obsession with Star Wars into an obsession with Dickens to the detriment of us all.  It's one of those things that you can't quite get over, and shapes your reading tastes forever more.

That said, I did find this book informative.  The thing is, it's supposed to be about "everyday life," but it's not really.  It focuses mostly on the lower-middle class, with brief asides about the utterly poor and the upper-middle class.  Flanders doesn't cover any class thoroughly across all the topics she touches on, including transportation, food, and entertainment.  Really, those are the only areas she touches on.  She doesn't really deal with work or family, which seem to me pretty big areas of everyday life.  To my relief, Dickens' works are used more to illustrate Flanders' points than to create them or build an overarching narrative.  That said, this book might have been better with an overarching narrative.  The closest Flanders comes to using a consistent source is Sophia Beale, an eight-year-old who apparently kept a diary of her doings, but even she isn't a common appearance in the pages.  Using a handful of repeating "characters" to tie together the different points of life might have led to something a little more interesting.

Some of the chapters in this book are also very repetitive.  For example, the first three chapters focus entirely on transportation, whether it be on foot, by boat, by train, by carriage...all matter of transportation.  But of course, people often use more than one, so there's some overlap there, and it was something I felt could be reduced to one chapter rather than three.  Also, transportation probably isn't the most thrilling place to start the book.  Entertainment, violence, or food all probably would have been better places to start than transport, which isn't exactly a thrilling apsect of life.

There were some really interesting aspects of this book, which I didn't know about before--like how most parks were private, how "illuminations" were a big source of entertainment, and the many eating options available to the middle classes--but overall I didn't feel particularly enlightened by this.  At least The Invention of Murder was about something dark and twisted.  But Victorian City is just about life, and it seems like just as good a picture could have been had by reading books (like, unfortunately, Dickens') set in the period.

2.5 to 3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Winter - Marissa Meyer (Lunar Chronicles #4)

Winter (The Lunar Chronicles, #4)Last month I read Cress because I thought Winter was coming out like three days later, only it wasn't.  So I had to have the agonizing one-month wait until it actually did come out, which was yesterday, November 10th.  So, obviously, I took the day off work to read it in one go.  Was it a good decision?  Does Winter stand up to its predecessors?  Well...

It was an okay decision, and while Winter was good, I don't think it was excellent.  I really enjoyed it, but it suffered a lot of the same problems as Cress did, but on a larger scale.

Winter is the conclusion to the Lunar Chronicles, which follow Cinder, a cyborg, as she discovers that she's actually a moon princess with mind-control abilities who has to wrest the throne back from her evil aunt Levana.  Along the way, she falls in love with a prince, picks up a bunch of sidekicks, and pretty much has to save the world.  Each book in the series adds a pair of main characters as a new fairytale-inspired couple: Wolf and Scarlet, Cress and Thorne (though Thorne first showed up in Scarlet) and Jacin and Winter (again, Jacin and Winter showed up before, but weren't main characters).  Winter rises to MC status in her titular book, but I don't think it was as well-done as Cinder and Scarlet's stories were.  Which comes back to the biggest issue I have with the series...

There's a lot going on.  It's not hard to follow, necessarily, but with 8+ main characters running around at the same time, it means that no one really gets the page time they should.  Winter probably gets the second-most page time in the book, after Cinder (who is really THE main character, let's be honest) but considering this book had her name on the title, I didn't think that Winter had a very prominent roll.  She's supposed to be Cinder's crazy princess cousin, who can't ever actually rule because she doesn't have any royal blood, and who has gone insane because she refused to use her gift for glamour.  There's some good background there, but because there's so much going on, Winter just doesn't get the same degree of development as the other characters because she came to the game so late--even her Snow White plot kind of gets lost in the fray.

While Cinder and Winter got a good amount of page-time, and Cress and Thorne probably got the second-most, Scarlet and Wolf once again got shoved to the side.  Scarlet's not even present for a large chunk of the book as she's still locked up in the menagerie as Winter's "pet."  Once she gets free, she and Wolf are reunited for a brief period--and then he gets taken prisoner and is completely absent for a long time.  Meanwhile, Scarlet gets sidelined by Winter, meaning that even after she re-enters the fray she's not really doing all she could be doing, except posing as Winter's sidekick.  This is disappointing, because Scarlet was such an awesome character in her own book only to be shoved to the side in the two volumes following it.

I have one other main complaint about this book, and that's its false climax.  Halfway through, there's a scene that really seems like it could end it all--except you know that it can't, because half the characters aren't there and there's still like 400 pages to go.  The "false climax" isn't in and of itself bad, because, hey, you've got 800 pages, and you've gotta keep the action going for all of them.  What is bad is that, after this big scene, it takes a long time for the action to get up and moving again.  It meant that, while I took the day off work to read this because I thought I was going to devour it like I did the first three, I didn't really need to; there are plenty of points like this, when the action just falls off and takes a long time to get going again, that would have made it very easy to put down this book and walk away.  I think this could have been fixed by some more alternating of the chapters, instead of having a big chunk of Cinder and then a big chunk of Winter at this point, which would have kept more suspense as we flipped from one character to another.

Finally, there was a plot thread that seemed like it was going to become prominent, but didn't.  It involved Adri giving up legal rights to Cinder, which made it seem like something all plot-y was going on, but...that never really came to fruition.  It just kind of dropped off.  That's a pretty minor thing in the grand web of plots that was going on, but it did stick out because everything else tied together pretty nicely.

Oh, and Luna really started to resemble Panem from The Hunger Games at some points, with a capital full of happy citizens who thrived off the labor of other, repressed sectors that all specialized on one specific type of industry.  Like, the rock miners (District 12) start the rebellion, and the lumber people (District...7?) join in, but the technology people stay mostly loyal to the Capital Artemisia.  I would have liked to see this avoided.

All of this complaining makes it seem like I didn't like the book.  I did.  I really did like it.  I thought it was a good, solid ending to the series, with enough rough and tumble-ness that it made it serious but without characters being killed off all willy-nilly, and with everything being tied up pretty nicely.  I don't think any huge loose ends were left hanging.  Meyer seems to have done a good job keeping track of all of them.  The writing was, as always, excellent, the characters were great.  I just feel like it got too big, and maybe some of the plots would have been better off if they'd wound up a tad earlier than they actually did.  Wolf and Scarlet, for example, got pushed aside because they were so very unnecessary for most of the book, and it might have made sense to just end their plotline a bit earlier.  Still, I did like this, and I can see myself reading it again in the future.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Popsugar Reading Challenge Update!

Hello fellow readers!  I've made quite a bit of progress on my reading challenge since I last updated it, and thought I should get around to that!  I only have a handful of books left to read for this, two of which should be quite short (the graphic novel and the play) so I think I'm in good shape for finishing this before the end of the year!

-A book that became a movie.  I read Monuments Men for this one, and really liked it.  I thought it was going to closely overlap with The Rape of Europa, which I read in school, but it didn't.  It's much more of a narrative history, and includes tons of stuff that Europa didn't even touch on in regards to the Monuments Men and their efforts to protect Europe's treasures during the Allied advance.

-A book more than 100 years old.  I'd originally planned to use 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for this, but I really wasn't feeling that, so I read A Little Princess instead.  Published in 1905, it fit the category, and I liked the story.  I remember having a movie when I was little that had a preview for A Little Princess' film adaptation attached, but I never actually saw the adaptation.  Now I think I can see where some of the preview imagery was coming from!

-A book that came out the year you were born.  I read Outlander for this category, and had mixed feelings about it.  That said, I'm reading on in the series, and have started Dragonfly in Amber.  I basically want to get to the books where Brianna becomes more of a character.  It seems like she does from the descriptions, and I hope that's true, because I think I'll like her more than I like Claire.

-A book from an author you love but haven't read yet.  I read Tamora Pierce's Battle Magic for this, and was quite disappointed.  I feel like a lot of the problems I had with it came from its nature of being an mid-quel--a book written after two other books, but taking place between them.  It felt like Pierce was more locked into the plot than in others, and that she couldn't really develop things as she normally would have, which meant the magic I so frequently find in her books was lacking.

-A book at the bottom of your to-read list.  I used Seabiscuit for this.  It wasn't numerically at the bottom of my to-read list, but my list isn't actually sorted by "want" as much as "when added," so it doesn't correspond much.  After checking Seabiscuit out, I realized I had the wrong horse story in mind and pretty much lost my interest in reading it--at which point I realized I could use it for this category.  And when I started reading it, I liked it quite a bit!  What a pleasant surprise.

-A book from your childhood.  I asked for the wonderful anniversary edition of the Harry Potter box set for my birthday last month, and quickly read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone for this.  I read the book initially when I was pretty young (probably 9 or 10, I'd say) but it was definitely just as magical today as it was then.

-A book that scares you.  This was another category I ended up inadvertently filling, with The Glittering World.  It was definitely very creepy and made me sort of nauseous, in a weird way.  Books never scare me in a "keeps you up at night" sort of way (TV shows do, though!) so I think this was as close as I'm going to get for this category.

-A book with a love triangle.  I read Endless Knight for this, along with its sequel Dead of Winter.  The love triangle starts in Endless but doesn't really get going until Dead, so I think they're best paired together for this category.

-A book set in high school.  When I couldn't get my hands on Perks of Being a Wallflower, I read The Unraveling of Mercy Louis instead.  While I found the writing beautiful and the story compelling, I was frustrated by the ambiguity of the ending.

-A banned book.  As planned, I read The Kite Runner for this.  I can see why people banned it in certain schools and areas, though I heartily disagree with their ideas for doing so, and feel that the beauty of the book and the compelling plot line more than outweigh any cursing or "dangerous" depictions of homosexuality that people object to.

Still to Go
-A classic romance.  I picked up Anna Karenina at a used bookstore a while back, so I'm going to use that one.

-A book written by someone under 30.  I really didn't want to read Divergent for this, so I went to the NaNoWriMo Facebook group and asked for suggestions.  Allison Beckert volunteered her book Mishap Mansion as fitting this category, due to her age, so I bought it.  Now I just have to get around to reading it!

-A popular author's first book.  I wanted to go with a big author for this one, and because Terry Pratchett died recently, I've settled on The Carpet People.

-A Pulitzer Prize-winning book.  Like pretty much everyone else out there, I'm going to knock this one out with All the Light We Cannot See.

-A book you were supposed to read in school but didn't.  I was a good student and read the books I was assigned, and I could only think of one exception that wasn't an actual textbook: Affairs of Honor.  It's apparently about early congressmen, senators, etc. being bitchy to each other, so it shouldn't be too bad of a read.

-A graphic novel.  Sharaz-de is a graphic novel inspired by 1001 Arabian Nights, and I've been eyeing it up for a while now.  Plus, Scheherazade is pretty much my favorite fairy tale ever.

-A book that takes place in your hometown.  After finding that The Dressmaker didn't really work for this one, I've re-directed myself toward Second Position by Katherine Locke.  This takes place in DC.

-A play.  I haven't decided on this yet, though I'll probably keep it basic and do Shakespeare.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

This Shattered World - Annie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner (Starbound #2)

This Shattered World (Starbound, #2)
I'd been eking out the moments until I read This Shattered World, even though I wanted to devour it in the wake of These Broken Stars, which I read in March.  Coming off These Broken Stars, I was absolutely in love with Tarver and Lilac and their universe--because world is too small a world when it comes to settings like these--and TBS was just so good that I had to force myself to wait to read the next one.  See, when a series isn't completely published yet (and the conclusion to this one won't be out until December) I try to space out the extant books so that I can get a hit every now and then, instead of bingeing and then suffering until the next one comes out.  But with Their Fractured Light looming on the horizon, I decided it was time to read This Shattered World.
And I was disappointed.  Kaufman and Spooner wrote such a vivid world and such a breathtaking, heart-wrenching romance in These Broken Stars that I came to This Shattered World eager for the same.  I didn't get it.  I understand, in a way; I mean, not all of your stories can be the same, or else you're just writing the same thing over and over again.  But even if the plot was different and the characters were different, coming from different directions with different motivations, I still expected there to be that spark, that connection that drew Tarver and Lilac together and made them so fascinating to follow even when they seemingly couldn't stand each others' guts.  Instead, I got Jubilee the soldier and Flynn the rebel.  They were interesting characters, with great stories and motivations, and watching them learn to work together for a common cause that wasn't actually so common was interesting, but it just didn't work for me as a romance--which was the main thing I was looking for in this book.  Jubilee and Flynn are both so focused on their own ends that they only engage in thinking of relationships for brief periods of time.  Granted, those brief periods are great--some very steamy kissing happens during one of them.  But overall, they just came across as distant and awkward, and at the end of the book I remained unconvinced about them as a couple, especially when juxtaposed with how Tarver and Lilac were shown to be so strong together again in this one.
Jubilee was a strong character, and it was interesting to see a female character who's a total badass and a male who's a pacifist, when most fictions have those roles reversed.  But overall I thought the plot and the setting were just...lacking.  Again, this was in comparison to the first book.  In the first book, the Icarus and the planet the characters ended up on was strange and beautiful and terrible in all sorts of ways.  In comparison, Avon is just...meh.  It's a swamp, with will o' the wisps that occasionally show up and ultimately play a part but aren't really explored fully enough to be an enticing element of the setting.  The plot itself focuses on a shaky peace between the soldiers posted on Avon, who are subject to a killing madness called the Fury, and the natives of Avon, who want their planet to pass its inspections so they can have a voice but are constantly told it's "not ready" yet, and who have an ongoing revolt in response.  Ultimately, I felt like the ending was on shaky ground at best.  I didn't feel Jubilee and Flynn's actions would actually realistically result in a peace, no matter how uneasy, or that they would stop whatever fate was coming Avon's way from LaRoux industries.  Let's face it: Avon is a backwater that it's unlikely anyone would care about.  If we can't get people to care about crises a few thousand miles away on one planet, I find it unlikely that people light years away would care about a crisis on another.  Maybe that's just the cynic in me, but I found Tarver and Lilac's use of small-scale blackmail a much more feasible ending than Jubilee and Flynn's declaration.
I'm still looking forward to reading Their Fractured Light, mostly because one of the main characters is Sophia, who was introduced in This Shattered World and was really one of the highlights of it.  I want to see how her charm and harsh background intersect to bring the trilogy to its conclusion.  But for this one...meh.
2.5 to 3 stars out of 5.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Golem and the Jinni - Helene Wecker

The Golem and the Jinni (The Golem and the Jinni, #1)I'm not sure what brought this book onto my To Read list, but it was there, languishing, for a long time before I got around to reading it.  And honestly, I only got around to it when I did because it appeared on the front desk of the library while I was checking out some other books, and I added it to the pile.  The girl working the circulation desk was pretty excited; she'd chosen the book to put out, and had been eagerly awaiting someone to pick it up--and then I came along and took it.  A fairytale in the making, wouldn't you say?

I'm so glad I picked this up.  It's a beautiful historical fantasy, set in New York in the early twentieth century.  Streetcars and the Elevated are in place, but the streets are still ruled by horses and carriages and cars haven't yet been invented.  More precisely, the story takes place in two main neighborhoods: a Jewish neighborhood, which didn't have a real name (or if it did I can't remember) and Little Syria.  Into the Jewish neighborhood arrives a female golem, who will eventually be named Chava.  Created by an ex-rabbi in Poland to serve as a wife for a merchant, Chava found herself masterless shortly after being brought to life when the man meant to be her master/husband died of appendicitis during the journey to New York.  Chava is taken in by a well-meaning but sickly rabbi, who helps her pretend to be human, find a job, and adjust to the constant sounds of other people's thoughts in her head.  In Little Syria, a tinsmith receives a flask to repair, and unwittingly releases a jinni.  The jinni, bound to human form and unable to access most of his powers due to an iron cuff around his wrist, can produce heat but not do much else.  Like the rabbi for the golem, the tinsmith helps the jinni pretend to be human so as not to risk himself.  Meanwhile, Chava's creator follows her to New York in the search for the secret of eternal life.

Wecker is a brilliant storyteller.  In the back of the book, Neil Gaiman's American Gods is recommended for people who liked The Golem and the Jinni, and I can see why.  Wecker has a very matter-of-fact manner of storytelling, and her two main characters are a pair of fantastical creatures that normally aren't seen in fantasy separately, let alone together.  She also juggles a myriad of small strings and details, any of which could easily been lost, forgotten, or tangled, but instead come together into a beautiful masterpiece where every little thing has significance.  The characters, even the ones who aren't human, seem to live and breathe, and I could definitely empathize with their struggles.  That's really something, considering that I've never had to pretend to be human.  (Or have I?  Mwhahahahaha!)  But the Golem and the Jinni, as their stories meet and entwine and they face more and more struggles and emotional moments, and actually become more human, even though they don't. 

My only complaint about this one is that I wish the Golem and the Jinni had come together sooner; it takes a while for them to run into each other and for their stories to meet and link up, which means that the book has a somewhat slow beginning despite a lot happening to the two individually.  The main plot only really kicks into gear once they've met, and I would have loved to see more of their interactions and further development of their relationship.

This was a beautiful fantasy all around, and I can't wait to read the sequel...

...which doesn't come out until 2018?!  How am I supposed to wait that long?!

4 stars out of 5!

Friday, October 30, 2015

Seabiscuit - Laura Hillenbrand

Seabiscuit: An American LegendSeabiscuit had been on my to-read list for a while, and relatively toward the top of it because my university's library system had a copy.  I requested it, along with a bunch of other books, and took it home.  Where it sat.  And sat.  And sat.  At one point, it even ended up in the laundry basket, because I had to move it and that's just where it ended up.  And then, of course, it got buried by clothes.  It came overdue; I renewed it, but still didn't touch the book to actually read it.  And then I came to a realization: I didn't really want to read it at all.  This meant, of course, that even though it was numerically high on my to-read list (the books the library has are always numerically high; I sort through them pretty often) it was actually very low on the want-to-read list.  Hm.  A book at the bottom of your to-read list... Popsugar, is that you?  Why yes, it is!  When I realized this, I immediately fished the book out and began to read it.

Most of the delay is my own fault.  After checking Seabiscuit out, I realized I'd been mixing up horse movies the entire time.  See, I have a few movie weaknesses: sport movies (Friday Night Lights, Miracle) figure skating movies (Ice Castles, The Cutting Edge, Ice Princess) and horse movies.  And I'd been mixing two up!  In my head, Seabiscuit had gotten all muddled up with Hidalgo, and after checking the book out I realized that Hidalgo was the movie I'd actually wanted to read.  However, Hidalgo isn't a book, and so I was left with Seabiscuit.  I started it anyway, because now the book would count for a category of the Popsugar challenge that I hadn't locked down yet.  And... I was pleasantly surprised!

Laura Hillenbrand is an excellent writer.  That's probably why her two books, Seabiscuit and Unbroken, were both made into movies.  She has a way of writing that really makes historical scenes come alive.  In Seabiscuit, she follows the horse himself, as well as owner Charles Howard, jockeys Red Pollard and George Woolf, trainer Tom Smith, and some of Seabiscuit's rivals.  She follows the threads through all their lives as they come together and move apart, building up the tension of Seabiscuit's wins, losses, injuries, and comebacks.  I like horse movies, but I don't actually care one whit about horse racing, and Hillenbrand still managed to keep me riveted even though I knew how the story ended.  It's a really good author who can do that, and Hillenbrand definitely managed it.  The edition I read was even illustrated, which Hillenbrand apparently really pushed for, so that you could follow the whole saga in pictures.  While this made it a rather unwieldy book, one that was definitely suited for the coffee table rather than the bus, I think it was a nice touch overall.

Was this one of my favorite books of nonfiction?  No.  It wasn't.  Nonfiction books that fall onto my favorites list make me think, give me revelations, or bring out something that I never knew before.  This didn't do any of those, but that's just the nature of this book.  It's not really Hillenbrand's fault, and I think that, if I were really into horse racing or had known even less about the sport, it would have resonated much more with me.  I just happened to fall into the part of the spectrum where it didn't have that sort of impact.  Still, a very enjoyable book, and I read it over the course of a few lazy evenings.  I'd recommend it to someone who's interested in what's probably one of the greatest stories of horse racing, but doesn't feel like slogging through pages and pages of backstory and information in order to do it.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Compulsion - Martina Boone (Heirs of Watson Island #1)

Compulsion (The Heirs of Watson Island, #1)If you're a fan of young adult fiction, I heartily recommend signing up for PulseIt, a website that weekly posts free books and extended excerpts of books that you can read online.  The site is run by Simon & Schuster, which means all of the books posted are published by that house, but they still cover a wide variety of genres within the young adult sub-set.  They've recently lengthened the postings from one week to two, doubling the amount of time you have to read a title, but still post weekly so that, at any time, you have two books and two (or sometimes more!) extended excerpts to look at.  I found Poison Princess and the rest of the Arcana Chronicles, which I've really enjoyed, through this site, along with some frustrating titles, but I still think it's worth looking at.

Compulsion was a book that middle in quality.  It had great potential out of the gate, but I think it fizzled later on and never really lived up to it.  I expected it to be a sort of teen southern Gothic, maybe something like Servants of the Storm, which I thought was wonderfully written but fell agonizingly flat at the end.  I thought that Barrie, moving to Watson Island, South Carolina from her mother's home in San Francisco, would face some sort of lurking menace in her new abode, something that would utterly change her life, but she really didn't.

So, as I said, Barrie moves to Watson Island.  This comes in the wake of her mother's death.  Her mother, Lula, was seriously disfigured in a fire while pregnant with Barrie, and remained a shut-in for the rest of her life, often applying the same rules to Barrie, who's rather sheltered as a result.  Barrie's caretaker, Mark, was diagnosed with cancer and was going into hospice care, so Barrie couldn't stay with him anymore.  Instead, she moves to Watson's Landing on Watson Island to live with the aunt she never knew she had.  At the beginning of the book, she's not look forward to it, which is fair because I imagine few people savor moving for their final year of high school.  On top of that, the move doesn't exactly go well.  Her aunt doesn't pick her up from the airport, and when Barrie takes a cab to the family plantation, she finds that Aunt Pru might be a little bit crazy.  And on top of that, the house is apparently trying to kill Barrie, and her special ability--that to find lost things, which she's always had--starts going haywire.  On the bright side, there's a really cute guy she's attracted to and who's attracted to her, and now Barrie has a family that she never even knew existed.

Not too far into the book, Barrie meets her cousin, Cassie.  There's a lot family intrigue going on between the families of Barrie, Cassie, and Eight, who is Barrie's love interest.  Basically, it all boils down to their ancestors being a group of pirates, and while Barrie and Eight's families got gifts (the Watsons can find what is lost, the Beauchamps or Beauregards or whatever the heck they're called know what people want) Cassie's got a curse.  Cassie wants Barrie's help to break the curse by finding a family treasure that was buried during the Civil War, though how that's supposed to help I'm not quite sure.  The gifts and curses supposedly stem from the Fire Carrier, a Cherokee witch who trapped evil spirits on Watson Island, which is also interesting because the Cherokees didn't have territory along the Carolina coast.  Meddling with Native American customs, including "magic," is a tricky business, and while I can't really say if Boone did her research on it or not because I don't know enough on the subject to call her out on any errors, I hope she tread carefully regarding that aspect of the story.  But, historical accuracy aside, let me talk about Fire Carrier for a moment.  At the beginning of the book, he's made out to be very menacing.  As the book goes on, he gets more benevolent.  That's fine; character development and all, though he's not really a main actor.  At least, he's not a main actor until the very end, when he neatly wraps up the book's main conflict on his own in a very deus-ex-machina moment.

My main complaint with the book was Barrie.  I liked her as a character in general.  I thought her gift was unusual enough to be interesting and that her adaptation to the new situation was realistic.  What I didn't like about Barrie was that she's completely incapable of doing anything for herself.  Whenever she gets into any sort of situation, whether it's finding a secret room, going into town, or escaping the boat of her wicked drug-dealing uncle, she can't get out of it on her own.  She always has to be rescued, usually by Eight but once by Fire Carrier.  It's hard to view her as a capable person when she can get into trouble, but she can't get out of it, not even the most mediocre sort.  And she does this even after Eight points out that she's doing it.

The southern Gothic air I expected in this book was also lacking.  It was there at the beginning--spooky plantation, weird powers, family secrets and intrigue, etc.  But then the menacing shadows became cute little sidekicks, the family intrigue turned out to be not-so-intriguing, and the weird powers didn't end up packing that much punch.  The spooky plantation underwent a makeover to become just another charming southern locale.  It seemed like Boone lost a lot of her atmosphere and momentum in having Barrie try to improve her surroundings, and the entire book suffered for it.  The writing was beautiful, and I can only imagine what Boone could have done with a properly creepy atmosphere, but she gave up that opportunity way too early on for it to add to the book as a whole.

Finally, the title.  The title and the book's description both describe the abilities of the families as "compulsions."  Except a compulsion means that you have to do something.  Barrie likes finding things that are lost, because she gets a headache if she doesn't, but she certainly doesn't have to.  It doesn't eat away at her sanity if she doesn't.  She just gets a headache.  Compulsive disorders are a serious mental condition, and I can't help but feel that Boone trivialized that in how she worded and structured her novel.

I'm mildly interested in the sequel to this, Persuasion, but I'm not sure I'll be picking it up.  Barrie didn't really grow much as a character, other than deciding that she liked Watson Island.  Which is good, considering that she's stuck there in more ways than one.  It would have been interesting to see her struggle more, and with things just working out for her so easily, I'm not sure how compelling of a read the sequel will be.

2.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini

The Kite RunnerI feel like I'm one of a rare group of readers who didn't jump on The Kite Runner back when it came out.  I remember people reading it when I was in high school, but it didn't really intrigue me.  I did read A Thousand Splendid Suns, which focuses on a mainly female cast in Afghanistan, a premise I found much more interesting because of how women's situation in Afghanistan has changed so much over such a relatively short period.  However, the Popsugar Reading Challenge has a category for "A banned book," and I thought this would fit nicely.  We don't actually have banned books in the US, so I think this is a silly category to include at all, but some institutions (especially schools, and especially religious private schools) often take issue with books and ban them from the curriculum and libraries.  The Kite Runner often falls into the "banned" category in institutions for a few reasons, including swearing, but let's be honest: it's the parents who don't want their kids reading about Muslim and homosexual characters who push for the ban.  I'm a huge proponent of letting kids read what they want, because widening your worldviews is good and reading a book can't hurt you, but some people apparently feel differently and that leads to books like The Kite Runner being banned.

So, the plot.  The book is narrated in first-person by Amir, the son of a wealthy businessman who spends his days with a servant his age, Hassan.  Hassan is the son of a man who Amir's father considers to be family, and so Hassan is also considered family.  He was born with a harelip, and for his birthday one year, Amir's father pays to have it fixed.  Amir's father includes Hassan in everything, which leads Amir to be jealous of Hassan, who he considers more than a servant but not quite a friend or brother.  Amir craves his father's love and approval, which often seem to be lacking, for himself, and sometimes wants to exclude Hassan so he can have his father's attention.  It's a complicated relationship, with a lot of complicated feelings behind it.  The reasons for these come out later in the book (which I did not see coming; clearly I am out of the loop) and make a lot of sense, and I think Hosseini did a really good job building up to it and tying it all together, making it logical and not just a "Hah!  Gotcha!" moment.

Every winter in Amir's neighborhood, there is a kite fighting competition.  The kids try to battle each other's kites out of the sky, and other kids chase down the falling kites, which are viewed as trophies--especially the last kite to fall.  One winter, Amir and Hassan win the competition and are the last kite flying; while Amir celebrates, Hassan takes off to "run" and retrieve the second-place kite, which they knocked out.  When he doesn't return quickly, Amir goes looking for him.  He finds him cornered by a bunch of bullies who have harassed Amir and Hassan for years.  Amir wants to help Hassan, but he also doesn't; he doesn't want to get in the middle, and he has always been a self-admitted coward.  Torn, he ends up standing by as Hassan is raped by the bullies.  Ashamed of his actions, he avoids Hassan from then on, and eventually drives Hassan and his father Ali away.  Some time after, Amir and his father flee war-torn Afghanistan for San Francisco, where they start up a new life, one that Amir welcomes because it's free of the taint of shame that followed him in Afghanistan.  However, decades later the shame comes back when a friend from Afghanistan requests that Amir return to see him before he dies, and tells Amir that there is a way to make things right.

The book is both Amir's fall from grace and his path to redemption, and all of the threads tie together in a way that makes a wonderfully-woven whole.  It's a depressing book, at times, the very picture of "bad things happen to good people," but it also includes villains getting what's coming from them.  There's no "happily ever after" here, and Amir admits he doesn't know if there will be one at all, but the book ends on an overall hopeful note, with the suggestion that, even though Amir cannot fix the past, he might be able to atone for some of his sins and help pave the way toward a brighter future.  I didn't find this a riveting book, one I couldn't put down, but it has lovely language and development, and I can certainly see why it's so popular.  I think that some of the people who insist this book be banned could actually benefit greatly from reading and understanding it, but that's probably too much to hope for.

4 stars out of 5.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Unraveling of Mercy Louis - Keija Parssinen

The Unraveling of Mercy Louis: A NovelIn my quest to finish the Popsugar Reading Challenge, I needed to fulfill the category "A book set in high school."  Or something along those lines.  I'd planned to read Perks of Being a Wallflower to finish the category, but for some reason none of the libraries in my university's circle would give it to me.  One of them had it on hold because, apparently, it's used in a class.  At another, the book had been lost and they never replaced it.  As for the rest...well, who knows?  At any rate, I couldn't get it from the university library, didn't feel like going to get a public library card, and didn't want to buy it, so I started looking for alternatives.  In the meantime, I found The Unraveling of Mercy Louis on the popular reading shelf at the library and picked it up because I'd read a good review of it...somewhere.  I thought it was over at The Armchair Librarian, but if that was it, now I can't find it.  So maybe it was somewhere else.  Anyway, as I flipped through my Kindle a day later, I found that I already had the book, because apparently I'd purchased it at some point.  I must have really wanted to read it!  I returned the library copy so someone else could get it and started reading the Kindle one.

The story is told in a first-person narrative by the titular character, Mercy, and in third-person from the perspective of one of Mercy's classmates, Illa.  The setting is Port Sabine, Texas--a small town that is still recovering from an explosion at the local oil refinery three years earlier.  The year is 1999, and between the explosion a few years before, a dead baby found in a dumpster, and her prophetic visions, Mercy's grandmother thinks that the Rapture is coming.  Mercy, raised by her grandmother, follows closely in her beliefs, and wants to live out the remainder of the days before the end of the world enjoying her final summer vacation, playing at least part of the basketball season of her senior year--the world's supposed to end partway through it--and staying out of trouble so she can go to Heaven.  Over the summer, though, things start to fall apart.  Mercy and her best friend Annie have a disagreement, and Annie refuses to speak to Mercy.  Mercy speaks in tongues and delivers orders to find the baby's killer at church.  And then, as she tries to find her basketball groove again in the wake of a terrible game during States in the schoolyear, she runs into Travis and gets herself a boyfriend, something her grandmother has strictly forbidden.

Illa, meanwhile, is an anorexic who wants to shrink herself down to nothing, and to be friends with Mercy above anything else.  Illa spends most of her time in the summer taking care of her mother, who was seriously injured in the refinery fire and is now confined to a wheelchair.  Illa resents her mother for not trying hard enough and tries to escape through photography and managing the Lady Rays, the varsity basketball team that Mercy and Annie play on.  Through her outsider's eyes, Illa sees things and asks questions that Mercy isn't able to, being so wrapped up in her own life.  And so Illa is the one who manages to piece some things together and help when Mercy begins to unravel in earnest.

The book goes through the summer and into the school year, when Mercy, Annie, and other girls in the school are suddenly struck by a mysterious illness that leaves them trembling and making strange sounds.  No one knows how or why it's happening.  Meanwhile, the quest to find who killed the baby continues.  It's a mess, a big mysterious mess, and no one is entirely sure of anything.

I loved the language of this book.  It was beautifully written, and I think it managed to really encapsulate the feeling of being young and having everything suddenly fall apart, and not understanding why.  Illa is a young woman struggling with her bisexuality, which I thought was also a lovely touch; she's bisexual and figuring it out, not knowing if she wants to kiss Lennox or Mercy, but Parssinen doesn't make that the entire focus of her character like so many authors might be tempted to do.  Instead, it's just something that adds dimension and focus to her character, something that makes her more real, just like her anorexia.  Mercy and Illa are both extraordinarily flawed, but you still can't help but like them and want things to work out for them in some way.

On that note... Do things work out?  It's hard to say for Mercy, easier to do so for Illa.  This book has an extraordinarily ambiguous ending.  There's hope in it, on some fronts, but a complete lack of resolution on others.  I appreciate that Parssinen apparently trusts us to figure out what's important, but at the same time, I still want to know more about the not-so important stuff.  I guess it's supposed to be a lesson, that in life we don't always get all the answers--but I already knew that.  I didn't need to read a book to learn it, and I think that if the author trusts us to know what's important, she should also trust us to know that life is unfair without her having to tell us.  It was a beautiful book, but it lacked a bit of cohesion at the end, leaving too many loose threads to even having a pleasantly ambiguous ending.

3 stars out of 5.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Aeronaut's Windlass - Jim Butcher (Cinder Spires #1)

The Aeronaut's Windlass (The Cinder Spires, #1)Some people are rabid Jim Butcher fans.  I'm not.  I read Storm Front, the first book in his best-selling Dresden Files series, and while it was good, it wasn't really my thing and I didn't read further.  But when I saw The Aeronaut's Windlass, the first book in his new Cinder Spires series, I was intrigued.  Windlass is a steampunk-inspired fantasy, which is the best sort of steampunk in my view.  I like the fantastical elements that crystals (a la "Atlantis: The Lost Empire") and talking cats and the warriorborn and weird and deadly creatures can add to the mix.

Let me tell you this: I can see Butcher's genius here.  In Windlass, he sets up a mystical world in which humanity lives in a series of far-flung towers called the Spires, each one a state in and of itself.  Captain Grimm is a privateer for Spire Albion, which has long been locked in a trade war with Spire Aurora.  As the book begins, we see a young noblewoman named Gwen march off to join the Spirearch's Guard, and then the trade war with Aurora suddenly turns into a hot war, as Albion is attacked.  Joining Captain Grimm on the page are Gwen, her cousin Benedict, another member of the Guard named Bridget who is technically an aristocrat but doesn't seem to know it, and the cat Rowl.  Turning up a little later are a pair of etherialists, people who can see and manipulate the fantastic energies that power airship, provide light, and generate electricity: Ferus, the master, and his apprentice Folly.  This bunch of misfits teams up to hunt down an invading Auroran force, a story which is both compelling in and of itself and which sets up a future path of conflicts hinted at by Folly's prophetic dreams.

The narrative moves between the main characters, though given that the book's description focuses only on Grimm, I'm moved to believe that he's the character who will be the main in the entire series.  All of the chapters are third-person, and of them I liked Gwen and Bridget best, though I might just be biased towards female main characters.  I liked Rowl's chapters the least; while I found the set-up and idea of intelligent cats interesting, I didn't really like Rowl as a point-of-view character.  He annoyed me more than any other character.

The thing I liked least about this book was the Enemy.  It's set up pretty early on that the group, and Spire Albion in general, is going up against some Big Bad.  The Big Bad is a concept that I really don't like in any book.  I want villains who are multi-faceted and have clear motives other than just "being evil," but that was all Butcher provided in this book.  It's clearly a setup for future books, but he gave me no reason to believe that the villain is a character who will gain any real amount of depth as the series go on.  I hope I'm mistaken, because having a Big Bad as a main antagonist (even if there are other antagonists with their own motives sprinkled throughout, as there are here) tends to remove reality from the story.  All of the biggest and baddest people in history had real, human motives for what they did; Hitler might have hated Jews, gays, gypsies, and a lot of other people, but he also had a genuine desire to improve the lives of the people he viewed as "his."  As we all know, that didn't exactly go well for anyone involved, but still: it is what it is.  Granted, it seems that Butcher's Big Bad might not be exactly human, and therefore it could be argued that he/she/it isn't subject to human motives and emotions, but still.  I hope there's some dimension there than "it's big and bad and wants to destroy humanity" in the future.

There are a few inconsistencies here, too.  The most obvious one that came to mind was when Folly, a character who for the duration of the book had only been able to communicate with people by speaking to a jar of crystals instead, suddenly began talking directly to Grimm with no explanation at all.  Is this going to be something that's explored further?  Folly's mad, and Butcher said so blatantly at several points that her madness should only get worse.  So where does this sudden ability to speak like a normal person come from?  Little things like this don't necessarily ruin the story, but they are a bit jarring when they go directly against what has already been established without any apparent reason for the about-face.

I really like Butcher's new world and look forward to reading about it more, though I imagine it'll be a while until the next book comes out.  Despite its flaws, it seems to be a very unique setting and premise in the current world of fantasy, and I hope he can maximize its potential.

3.5 stars out of 5.