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.