Friday, September 30, 2016

Dragonfly In Amber - Diana Gabaldon (Outlander #2)

5364I have been reading this book for almost a year.  Goodreads tells me I marked it as currently-reading on October 24, 2015.  It's a book that I'd read a few chapters of, put it down (sometimes for months), go back and a read a few more chapters...repeat.  Part of the problem is that I read it on Kindle as part of the full set, so it really just felt like I was never making progress on it.  Part of the problem was that I just didn't find the book that interesting.

This is, of course, the sequel to Outlander, and it's a doorstop.  All of Gabaldon's books are, from what I can tell.  This one starts off a little strangely--while we left our time-traveling heroine, Claire, in the 1700s, we start with her and her daughter, Brianna, visiting Scotland in more modern times.  Brianna is a young woman, and seems to think they're just on vacation.  But Claire has other purposes, and pulls Roger, the son of the genealogy-studying vicar from the first, book into them.  She wants to know what happened to the men of Lallybroch during the '45.  And then, following a Chain of Events, she ends up coming clean to Brianna and Roger about why she's interested...and who Brianna's father really is.  This throws us into the 1745 timeline, which is basically all Claire telling her story, though personally I probably wouldn't have told my daughter quite so much about all the crazy sex her father and I had.  (I didn't really think about this while reading the book, but in retrospect, it's kind of weird.  Sex isn't something to be ashamed of but thinking of your parents doing it is a bit uncomfortable for most of us, I'd wager.)

The thing with this book's boring.  It's a lot of political scheming and a lot of walking/riding/taking boats places, and it doesn't really have the romance of the first one to propel it forward.  Claire and Jamie are still together, yes--but they're already in love, already married, already together, and there's never really doubts that they're going to be anything but, so there's not really the suspense to propel us along on that plot, such as it is.  It's mildly interesting to read about a couple who already got together and how they're facing the trials they run into, but "mildly interesting" is as far as I'm willing to go with that one.  Honestly, I spent most of the book hoping we'd get back to the modern time so we could read more about Brianna, who is clearly the new standout character here, and who I hope goes time-traveling herself in the future books.  Indeed, the "contemporary" part of the book at the end was ultimately far more interesting than the bulk of the story because things were actually happening.  The main body has a few interesting events scattered throughout, but they're separated by such long expanses of nothing that it made the book a real slog in general--hence why it took me almost a year to get through it.  I thought that maybe there'd be some interesting stuff about how Claire's presence and actions in the past affected the present, but there wasn't; her actions don't appear to have "changed" anything.  I want to say that's because we have a circular time paradox on our hands, but I'm just not convinced that Galbadon meant for it to be that way.

I am planning on continuing on with this series, mostly because I'm hoping for more Brianna, but the other books aren't really high on my priority list right now.

2.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Under the Black Flag - David Cordingly

Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the PiratesUnder the Black Flag came to my attention because the boyfriend and I decided we wanted to go the Renaissance Faire in Annapolis this year, specifically for Pirate Weekend. Clearly, I needed to bone up on my pirate knowledge for this big event, so I started Googling for pirate books. Under the Black Flag had pretty good ratings and the library had it, so off I went!

In this book, Cordingly deals with pirate history as well as how popular works including or focusing on pirates have affected the public's perception of them. It's divided into topical chapters, such as female pirates, hunting down pirates, etc. Within each chapter, Cordingly covers a variety of mini-topics that span several centuries, up until about the mid 1700s, which means the book jumps around in time a bit. That didn't bother me, but what did bother me was that the transitions between the mini-topics weren't very smooth. They jumped from one thing to another, leaving me sometimes going, "Wait, what?" Cordingly also focuses on the pirates of the Atlantic and Caribbean, though he briefly mentions a few instances of piracy in Asia. This was too bad, because those few instances he mentioned really made me want to know more about Asian piracy. (Does anyone know any good books on this topic?)

Pirate history can be kind of hard to cover, because pirates didn't exactly keep good journals of what their actions. Most records come from court trials and the logs of naval captains or privateers who faced or hunted down pirates. This is precisely why one of my thesis classmates ended up not writing about pirates--a dearth of primary sources for the specific topic he wanted to cover--and probably why Cordingly ends up needing to draw on a few examples to make the majority of his points. Blackbeard, Bartholomew Roberts, and Captain Kidd serve as the big "people" in this book, because they were so notorious and so more can be found about them. As for ships, the Whydah ends up being Cordingly's prime example because it's the only pirate ship that has been found and positively identified. Snippets of other things and people are included, but these are the big focal points.

Cordingly also talks about pirates in pop culture, and this is the place that I found the book to be most lacking...but it's not really Cordingly's fault. The thing is, Under the Black Flag was published in 1995. I'm a total millenial, which means that the pirate portrayals that have affected me most are not, in fact, Treasure Island (unless you're counting the awesome Disney adaptation Treasure Planet) or Errol Flynn movies (never seen one), but rather the more fantastical portrayals of pirates that have emerged in my lifetime, from Jack Sparrow--sorry, Captain Jack Sparrow--and his Pirates of the Caribbean, to Stardust's (both book and movie version) Captain Shakespeare, to the Disney-fied Captain Killian Hook of Once Upon a Time. I think it would be very interesting to see an updated version of this which factors in the recent resurgence of pirates in pop culture, rather than relying so heavily on old, 18th- and 19th-century portrayals of pirates that most people in our current time haven't heard of--Treasure Island excluded. Most of the poems and books published back then aren't really of interest to people now, but these current portrayals clearly are. It was just strange to read about how these things had supposedly affected modern folks' mental image of pirates, when there are so clearly more modern portrayals that have had a larger impact.

Overall, this was a good book, and I enjoyed it. But I think the transitions needed some work, being very choppy, and I'm not sure that I bought some of the arguments Cordingly made about pirate portrayals, and I definitely think he relied on a few instances too heavily, going back to them again and again until I felt he'd hammered the point straight into the ground.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, September 26, 2016

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions - Randall Munroe

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical QuestionsSo, What If? was my choice for a satire book for my 2016 reading challenge.  In it, Randall Munroe, the author of the webcomic xkcd answers email questions he's received that are absolutely ridiculous, but he answers them in a serious manner.  I think the best, easy example of this is the often-asked question, "What would happen if the sun turned off?"  In answer, Munroe lists a lot of "pros" to the sun going out, such a reduced risk of solar flares, improved satellite service, being able to drive across asphalt laid directly on ice instead of needing to build bridges, and safer parsnip consumption.  And then he follows it up with the downside to the scenario: we would all freeze and die.  Other types of crazy questions include...

-What would happen if all the rain in a rainstorm fell as one massive droplet?
-How many Lego bricks would it take to build a bridge capable of carrying traffic London to New York?
-How quickly would the oceans drain if a circular portal 10  meters in radius leading into space were created at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, and how would the world change as the water was being drained?

These are accompanied by the actual science--though sometimes stretched in crazy ways--which is really well explained for those of us who are not physicists, and also by the stick figure comics that Munroe has become internet-famous for.  His type of humor really agrees with me (when I understand it; the webcomic's page contains a warning that states "This comic occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors)," and I am a liberal-arts major) so I thought I would like the book quite a bit.  And I did...

...but.  Here's the thing.  Munroe also runs a What If? blog, and most of the content of the book comes from there.  There are a few new things in the book version, but just a few, and most of the "new things" are questions that came in that Munroe finds especially weird and worrying but doesn't answer in full as he does the other ones.  If you've read the What If? blog, then there's not a ton of new stuff here to enjoy.  The blog is also set up better for Munroe's style than the book is.  xkcd and consequently What If? are known for the alt-text that Munroe uses, which is the text that appears when you hover your mouse over an image, and serves as a sort of caption.  Pretty much all of the comics that Munroe inserts into the What If? answers online include an alt-text, but only a few of them are included as captions in the book.  He also uses footnotes in a funny way on the blog, but when you read the book, either in hard copy or on Kindle, they're not as accessible; on the blog, you click the footnote and the note actually just pops up where you are, without directing you to the end of the article.  In the book, you have to go to the end of the article to read the notes, which are typically funny and not actually citations, and are things you want to read as you along rather than at the end, and that makes for a lot of flipping back and forth.

Munroe's typical wit and style are evident here, and I wasn't disappointed by that at all.  Still, I think this book is best suited for people who aren't familiar with xkcd and What If? in their internet forms; if you're already a fan, I think you're better off just sticking to the website.

3 stars out of 5.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Obelisk Gate - N. K. Jemisin (The Broken Earth #2)

The Obelisk Gate (The Broken Earth, #2)After I finally got around to reading The Fifth Season a few weeks ago, I immediately ordered The Obelisk Gate to continue on.  This is a sin, because I ordered it from Amazon.  Forgive me.  I'd purchased The Fifth Season at Kramer's Books, a local bookstore (with a cafe called Afterwords, which is just so perfect) here Washington, DC, and I intended to do the same with The Obelisk Gate, but I didn't think it was likely I'd be near there by the time I wanted to read the next book, and besides, Kramer's usually only has one copy of each book out a time, so how could I know that this would be there when I got there?  It is new.  (And kudos to a publisher that releases in paperback right away.)

Well, the book came and about three days later I found myself at Kramer's.  I bought Seveneves instead.  I had The Obelisk Gate slated for one of the days in my weekend, to which someone asked, "You're going to read an entire book this weekend?"  Well...yes?  I mean, I typically read several.  On this particular weekend I didn't, because I ended up binge-watching Once Upon a Time and spending a significant amount of time lying on the couch groaning about how hard my life is in the wake of a run.  (I am not a good runner.)  But I did still read all of The Obelisk Gate.  And...

It suffers from second book syndrome.

It absolutely kills me to say this, but it's true.  The Fifth Season built up a complex world with several intertwined story lines on different timelines.  Unfortunately, at the end of that book, it was basically all transformed into backstory.  I felt that this didn't bode well for The Obelisk Gate, and I was right.  This book is a big bunch of nothing happening.  Nassun, Essun's daughter, takes the stage as a character, and her part is a bunch of walking and then mostly stuff that we've already seen from Essun in her various personas: trying to master orogeny.  Essun, meanwhile, just stays in one place and...doesn't do much.  She talks to Alabaster.  She talks to Tonkee.  She talks to other people.  There's talk of a moon but no one will really come out and say it.  There's talk of the Obelisk Gate and what she's supposed to do with it but not really any doing in itself.  A few things happen near the end, but honestly I didn't feel that they were big, plot-moving things on a grand scale, more things that were just thrown in to have some sort of climax for this book.  There is a bit more involvement of the stone eaters, which was interesting, and the writing remains decent, but that second-person tense is still killing me, the breakaways to first-person are distracting, and nothing really happened.  This is extremely frustrating to me because I like Jemisin so much, but this book just didn't work for me.  Second books in trilogies are hard, and this definitely fell prey to all of the problems that can plague them.  It was just "meh," overall, and because it's so hard to talk about a book that was just "meh," I'm going to leave it at that.

2 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Harry Potter, #3)Continuing my Harry Potter re-read, I've come to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which is apparently the most popular book in the series.  This has never really made sense to me.  I think it's because people absolutely love Remus Lupin (he is pretty cool) and adore Sirius Black (which, I mean, he's not bad, but really?).  But even re-reading this, with knowledge of the whole series in my head, I couldn't get past the feeling that, once we get to the beginning of the climactic events, the story feels very cobbled together and everything just goes on for way too long.

This is, of course, the story of Harry's third year at school and it's also the only book of the series where there is not some sort of direct confrontation with Lord Voldemort or his minions!  (Peter Pettigrew doesn't really DO anything in this book and so I am convinced he does not count.)  After a confrontation that involves him unwillingly using magic, Harry runs away from the Dursleys and, through a roundabout series of events, ends up spending the rest of his summer at the Leaky Cauldron where he eventually finds out that an escaped convict from Azkaban Prison is probably out to kill him.  This rather puts a damper on the start of the school year, but Harry promises to not go looking for Sirius Black, because why would he?  Well, of course he's eventually goaded into doing stupid things, and also gets caught up in some rather random events involving time-travel and a couple of different varieties of shapeshifters.

While many people love this book, I think it has more problems than the others in the series.  Part of it is that Rowling essentially wrote herself into a corner--if your characters can time-travel to solve problems, what's keeping them from doing that to solve things for the rest of the series?  She does try to set limits on it, but clearly recognized that this was something that was not sustainable long-term, as she tried to correct it in the fifth book by destroying the devices used to ravel through time.  Except, apparently, one that pops up in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child but let's not get into that because it's kind of widely acknowledged to be a train wreck in comparison to the main series.  My other two problems with this book is that it falls victim to a long info-dump of exposition right in the middle of some climactic events while the group is at the Shrieking Shack, with everyone going on and on about what's really going on when it kind of seems like they should be, I don't know, doing something about it.  And then there's the thing about the climax itself just going on way too long.  It basically starts with the group going off to the Shrieking Shack and lasts basically until the very end, which is a decent portion of the book.  Keeping suspense going that long, especially with a big info-dumping monologue in the middle of it, is hard, and I don't think Rowling really managed it well.

Honestly, to me, this book has always felt like the one that was most "off in the weeds" and didn't seem like Rowling had a really good idea of where she wanted to go with the series plot as a whole in it.  Things like the Weasley twins not noticing that the Marauder's Map showed there was a guy named Peter Pettigrew hanging out in their brother's bed for several years come across as big plot holes that just weren't thought out, and the whole thing felt more cobbled together than the other volumes in the series.  Professor Lupin is obviously a big draw here, but Sirius Black doesn't honestly have a big enough role to appeal to me and clearly is not qualified as a guardian for Harry so I don't know why people always tout him as such.  (Honestly, Hagrid is a far better father figure for Harry than Sirius ever is.  Sirius' appeal to Harry is entirely built up in Harry's own head rather than being based on anything concrete.)

This is probably my least-favorite book in the series, after Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, though we'll have to see if that changes after my OotP re-read.

3 stars out of 5.

Monday, September 19, 2016

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth - Colonel Chris Hadfield

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on EarthFor me, this book was much like its author: completely off my radar until this year, 2016, when it was suddenly everywhere. This is strange because the book is copyrighted to 2013, and Hadfield himself completed his last space mission (the one he became well-known for) in 2013 as well.  So why did this all suddenly come across my desk this year?  I have no idea.  And actually, I had no idea that the two (book and person) were connected until I Googled Hadfield and realized yes, I did know who this person was, though (again) I only became aware of him recently.  He's the guy who made all those space videos!  I would have figured this out if I'd just read the book, because he talks about making them, but it was nice knowing who was doing the talking as I went all the way through; it made it resonate more.

So, I picked this up because a few people had it posted on lists of self improvement books, and that's a category I needed to fill for my reading challenge and one that sounded utterly awful because self improvement books as a rule are.  While I don't think Hadfield intended this to be a self improvement book, I can definitely see why it's ended up being considered as one, in addition to being a cool autobiography and book about being an astronaut in general.  The reason that it's floated into the SI sphere seems to be this: Hadfield has a lot of advice to offer without actually seeming like he's offering it, and definitely without shoving it down your throat.  He's a very personable guy, someone I felt I could get along with even though we pretty much have nothing in common but speaking English.  He uses his own experiences in his career, both on his path to become an astronaut and while he was "deployed" as one, to exhibit little mindsets and behaviors that really anyone can use for trying to improve life.  He turns a lot of pithy little sayings on their heads; instead of "Don't sweat the small stuff," Hadfield thinks that you really should, at least in some situations, because those neglected little details can really come back around bite you later.  Planning ahead isn't worrying over nothing, it's planning so that you know what you'll do if different things (such as problems caused by those little details you neglected) arise later.  Striving to make zero impact gives you the opportunity to make a positive impact while also reducing the possibility that you'll make an ass of yourself trying to show off and make a positive one.

All of these little lessons are generally applicable to the population at large.  I didn't see anything in here that was astronaut-specific.  And that's the point, isn't it?  I mean, it's not much of a guide to life on earth if you're only giving out info that astronauts can use.  And all of these things are gently folded in among amusing, poignant, and sometimes heartbreaking stories about the joys, trials, and disasters that come with what is, really, an extremely dangerous occupation.  Most of us don't have to worry about seven of our friends being blown up when their car loses a piece of insulation, as happened with Hadfield's friends and coworkers when the Columbia exploded in 2003, but we can still take the lessons he's learned from various points in his life and career and apply them to our own.  It's also a rather quirky look at what being an astronaut is like, because most of us quite frankly have no idea, and I like that Hadfield was able to make it so much more real for the average person like me, who has absolutely zero chance of ever setting foot in space.

Overall, this was a fast, light read with some good stories and spot-on observations about life, and lessons that we can all learn from.  I would have liked to know a bit about the other space missions Hadfield went on, in addition to the one to the ISS--he only briefly mentions them--but the ISS one was the longest by far so I can see why the focus was there.

4 stars out of 5.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Sophie's Choice - William Styron

Sophie's ChoiceUgh, what a tedious book.  I read this because a) it's supposedly a classic and b) it's on the ALA's banned books list, which means it qualifies for one of my reading challenge categories.  Again, I can see why it was banned: because it involves tons of talk of sex, and the people who like to ban books are terrified of sex.  Also it was apparently banned in Poland because it highlights how anti-Semitic that country was?

Anyway.  The main story here is about struggling writer Stingo, who ends up living in a boarding house where the titular Sophie and her lover, Nathan, also live.  While Stingo tries to write a great Southern novel, he gets tangled up in Sophie and Nathan's disastrous love affair and learns about Sophie's past in Poland during World War II, including her time in Auschwitz.

Stingo is pretty clearly Styron; not a literal version of Styron, but he wants to write about all the same things Styron writes about and Styron uses him to shove his own philosophy about slavery and concentration camps and whatever down our throats.  This is especially easy for him because Stingo is the narrator.  I basically hated Stingo.  He was so boring and pretentious and all he ever thought about was getting laid.  I didn't care about him at all and the best parts of the book were when he was "narrating" Sophie's story, because those parts actually read as normal third-person narration for the most part rather than Stingo's pretentious rambling.

Sophie is someone that everyone falls in love with right away because she's hawt.  No other reason.  This is sad, because I think there were other reasons to love Sophie--but none of the characters actually like her because of them.  Her personal story is deep and moving, and is the story of a non-Jewish inmate of Auschwitz.  She apparently knows how to love unconditionally, given her feelings for Nathan despite his abysmal treatment of her, though some of this is probably her clinging to something that seems stable (even if it's not) after the previous turmoil of her life.  The thing I didn't like about Sophie is that she is an unreliable narrator.  She's told everyone different versions of her story with different details revealed.  Stingo purports to have the true version, but how can we really know?  All of these lies and contradictory revelations that Sophie puts out kind of made me doubt her larger story as a whole, which really isn't something that I think was supposed to happen.

Other problematic things about this include how Nathan's mental illness is portrayed.  He's very clearly unstable from the beginning of the book, but I don't know...something about how Styron tied his (unknown to everyone else until late in the book) diagnosis into his behaviors and used it to just excuse away his behavior seems...not good.  I mean, people with mental illnesses are not dangerous as a rule, and Nathan very clearly was from the very start.

Overall, though, the book just dragged.  I like the parts with Sophie's story, but I knew the ending of that before I started, and so it didn't come as a big, heart-wrenching, shocking moment for me.  Stingo I absolutely hated.  (Did I mention he sexually assaults someone?  They're making out and once he realizes she doesn't want to have sex, he decides to just whip it out and try to get a handjob out of her, even though it's been made pretty clear from her reactions that she's not into it.)  The non-Sophie parts dragged, and I didn't want to read about Styron's philosophy at all.  This was tedious all over, and I'm glad to have it over with.

2 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Fifth Season - N. K. Jemisin (The Broken Earth #1)

The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth, #1)"For all those who have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question."

Wow. How amazing of a book dedication of that? While it's relevant to the book, it's also particularly poignant in light of the fact that Jemisin just won a Hugo Award for The Fifth Season, against hordes of haters who tried to rig the system and are led by a guy who referred to her as an uncivilized "half-savage." And Jemisin writes so many characters who would easily fall into this category of having to fight for respect in our world, though in their own worlds they often end up having to fight for respect for entirely different reasons.

Let's use that as our jumping-off point, shall we? Jemisin writes a wide array of non-white characters (there are only a handful of white characters in this book, and most of them aren't even white in the traditional sense; they are LITERALLY WHITE) who also tend to be all along the spectrum of sexuality and who often have what we would probably consider non-traditional relationships. All of these people would definitely face heavy discrimination in our world. But that's the thing: in their own world, they don't. These things are just accepted, as they should be. Do these characters face discrimination? Yes. But here, it's for a completely different reason...

It's because our main characters are orogenes, otherwise called by the insulting term of rogga. What does this mean? It means that they can manipulate energy and consequently the earth itself, stealing life from other people, animals, and plants in the process. Orogenes are human, but they're not considered as such by the people of the Stillness, the land they inhabit. They're viewed as extremely dangerous and there's an entire order of people called Guardians who are devoted to keeping them in line and killing them if they step out of line. We know from the beginning of the book that our mains are orogenes, and we watch them struggle with this, and how wrong their treatment is, all through it.

This is a hard book to talk about without spoilers, but I'm going to try. The book starts with a man ripping open the Stillness, a land that's not actually still at all, and starting what the narrator refers to as "the last time" of the end of the world. It sets of a cataclysmic event that annihilates the largest, most powerful city on the planet and sends everyone from the equatorial zone scampering for safety further north and south. But that won't help them much, because it's heavily implied this is going to be a disaster that will take thousands of years to go away. In the midst of all this is Essun, whose chapters are written in the second person singular tense (which I'm not particularly fond of) and who is mourning the death of her child, who her husband killed after finding out the kid was an orogene. Essun herself is an orogene, but this was only known by her two children and one other friend in her village. She accidentally betrays her powers and is forced to leave the village, but that's okay, she was going to anyway, because her husband has also made off with her other (also an orogene) child, and she is determined to get her daughter back.

We have two other story threads going on as well. The first is that of the young girl Damaya, who has been discovered as an orogene by her village and parents and is being shipped off to the Fulcrum, a school where orogenes are turned into weapons for the use of the empire. The second is that of Syenite, a four-ringed (which is basically a level-four, of ten) orogene who is being sent on a mission with the only ten-ringed orogene currently in existence. Oh, and she's also supposed to get pregnant from this guy along the way, because the Fulcrum wants a steady supply of strong orogenes to feed its needs.

Syenite's story was definitely the most intriguing and, I think, the strongest. Damaya's pretty much felt like a typical supernatural school story to me, most of the time, with her dealing with hazing and learning her abilities and getting into trouble. Essun's was mostly a lot of walking, though a few interesting things came out of it along the way. But the real big reveals, and the real big events, all happen within Syenite's story, which meant that when I hit an Essun or Dayama chapter, I found myself flipping ahead to see how long it would be until we got back to Syenite. There was a weird time-jump in her story at one point, though, which felt very choppy to me and did disrupt my "flow." But I think we really see this world through this story line, more than the others, and I was sad to see it end, because it's pretty obviously not going to continue in the next two books in the series.

Also, I think the book as a whole read better during the body than it did in retrospect, after the end. During the main reading, it's not outright said but is definitely apparent that Damay and Syenite's stories take place before the cataclysm that starts the book, mainly because, well, the world isn't ending. But when they all get tied together at the end, it makes them feel much more like plain old backstory than compelling plotlines on their own, and I liked them as separate plotlines; I think it would have felt much neater if they had been, and had just been tied into the Essun one.

Do I think this is Jemisin's strongest work? I much preferred The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which was her first book (and was also nominated for a Hugo but lost out to a book called Blackout/All Clear, which I haven't read so I can't tell if the loss was "deserved"), but she continues to build intriguing worlds with vibrant characters who come out of very different molds than what we typically see in fantasy, and I think that's very important. I think I would put this one below The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms, both of which I liked very much, but above the Kingdom of the Gods and the Dreamblood books, which I didn't like as much. Still, there are two books left to go in this series, and Jemisin is really masterful with worldbuilding, so I'm intrigued to see where these will go. It definitely seems like they're going to be more direct sequels than the other connected books she's written so far, so it'll be interesting to see how she handles an outright series more than "companion" books for the first time.

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Empire of the Summer Moon - S. C. Gwynne

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American HistoryEmpire of the Summer Moon is another title that came to me through the Deliberate Reader book club.  I was pretty pleased when I picked it up, because as I noted recently I haven't read a lot of nonfiction this year, and this was a nice change.  According to the subtitle, it's about "Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian tribe in American History," which is some interesting capitalization, but that's besides the point.  Let me just put this out there from the beginning: other than a couple of chapters at the end, this book is not really about Quanah Parker.  Parker's relevance is basically that he managed to wrangle the title of "Principle Chief of the Comanches" out of the US Government when the majority of the Comanches had been, finally, confined to a reservation, and he became a leader later in his life and caused a lot of trouble for the government earlier in it.  But beyond that, this book is largely not about Parker, but is more about the Comanches in general, without specifics for any part of it.

It must have been hard to write a book about the Comanches, because really people didn't, and don't, know that much about them.  They weren't a literate tribe and kept themselves fairly isolated, far more so than most of the First Nations we hear about.  The exact degree of isolation depended on the band (there were five within the Comanches) but overall it means that there isn't a lot of documentation from the Comanche side of things.  This means that what Gwynne is forced to rely on is documentation from the American (and Spanish, and Mexican, and Texan) side of things.  The result is that most of the information comes from records of Comanche raids on settlements and the various attempts to hunt down groups of Comanches, either preemptively or for revenge.  The notable exception to this is the few times that people who were taken captive by the Comanches and were either released or adopted into the tribe documented their experiences to some degree, which was a fascinating change.  As for documents from the Comanches themselves?  There are a few letters "written" by Quanah Parker at the end, but that's pretty much it.  Maybe something that a chief said here or there that was recorded by a white guy, but there's not much in that category.

I think this was a fairly good general history; it's hard to be more specific and detailed without that (non-existent) documentation from the Comanche side.  But even the generalities of Comanche life were fascinating.  What did bother me was some of the language that Gwynne uses.  He constantly refers to the Comanches and other First Nations peoples as savages, uncivilized, and lacking in culture.  Well that might all be true...but only if you're looking at it from a standard "white conqueror" viewpoint.  It's such a weird thing because this isn't an old book; it was published in 2010, a year when one would think that the author of a book such as this would know better.  The writing itself is very engaging, and it kept me reading until the end, but I had this constant little squirming sensation in the back of my mind because, uhm, that's not how you talk about people?  Or have I been mis-informed all this time?  Anyway, while the narrative part is good, there is a lot of underlying racism here, and sometimes it's not lying that far under; it's very clearly an instance of "history is written by the victors," in which case victors is, of course, white guys.  Not cool at all.  I think if that had been handled in a proper way, this book would merit a better rating than I'm ultimately going to give it, which has to be...

2.5 stars out of 5.  There was some interesting information here and it really got me interested in a period and area of history in which I hadn't formerly had much interest, but the way it was handled was not the best and it gets a serious knock for that.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Read This, Then That Vol. 2

Burial RitesRead This...
Start with Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, which is the fictionalized story of the last woman to be publicly executed in Iceland.  We know from the beginning that Agnes is sentenced to death, the penalty for murder.  She's being kept on a small farm, and a young priest comes to listen to her story and essentially take her last confession.  As Agnes' execution looms ever closer, her story comes out, and it's implied that not everything might be as it seems.  This uses non-linear storytelling, jumping from the "waiting for execution" stage back to the times Agnes speaks of, when she worked as a servant on a really strange homestead and became engaged in a series of events that eventually led to a double-murder.  Agnes has apparently been painted as a ruthless killer historically, and Kent strives to humanize her and bring some semblance of doubt into whether she actually committed the murder or not.  Kent doesn't make Agnes a sympathetic character, necessarily, but does make it easier to see things through her eyes even when at times when it's hard to actually feel bad for her.  Ultimately, however, Agnes is a young woman in circumstances that, while they initially seem ideal, eventually spiral beyond her control to devastating consequences.  If you liked Burial Rites, continue on...

The Dressmaker's War...Then That
If you liked Burial Rites, you'll like The Dressmaker's War.  Set more than a century after Burial Rites and taking place in WWII Britain and mainland Europe (mainly Germany) rather than rural Iceland, The Dressmaker's War nonetheless has many of the same "feel" qualities.  It has that same sense of a young woman hoping to find love and advance herself who gets swept up in something that was not what she thought and paying the price for it.  In this book, we also know (or can pretty easily infer) that Ada, the heroine, is about to be executed, but it's unclear exactly for what.  That comes out over the course of the book.  Unlike Burial Rites, The Dressmaker's War uses sequential storytelling, with the exception of the prologue; the rest of the book is kind of set up as the story of what happened to Ada that she wrote down prior to her execution.  There's no sympathetic ear for Ada, unlike there was for Agnes--the reader has to serve that purpose.  But the feel is much the same, and if you liked one, you'll like the other.  I think reading Burial Rites is good because then you get them chronologically--the earlier story first, then the later, and it gives a sort of sense of continuity, of how over more than a century, in some areas, things had not changed that much.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Stephen Chbosky

The Perks of Being a WallflowerSo, I had this book picked out to fulfill a "banned book" category for my reading challenge, but ended up swapping it for "a book that takes place in your home state," which is obviously Pennsylvania for me, after another title for that category didn't work out.  But man oh man, after reading this, I can see why it was banned from so many schools and libraries.  It is basically the sum of absolutely everything overprotective parents are afraid of their kids reading: sex, drugs, drinking, homosexuality, swearing...the whole deal.  For the things like drugs and drinking, I don't think the book glorifies them; in the case of smoking and LSD, Chbosky actually puts out there multiple times how bad they can be.  But for the other things, they aren't "glorified," but they're also not pushed into a corner and ignored as if they never existed.  They just are, which is fine because these things do happen in teenager's lives.  Should it have been banned?  No.  But I can see why the bands of people who focus on banning books zeroed in on this one.

Now, for the book itself... It's written like a series of letters from the main character and narrator, Charlie, to some anonymous reader.  Charlie basically uses the letters as a way to "diary" his first year in high school.  He's a quiet, withdrawn kid; one of his teachers points out that Charlie isn't really participating in life, but is more just observing it.  In an attempt to change this, Charlie makes a real effort to start participating, and ends up becoming friends with two seniors, stepsiblings Sam and Patrick.  He has a huge crush on Sam, which she tells him not to do, and he tries very hard to do so, but it still ends up shaping a lot of the book for him.  The main "body" of the book is really just the day-to-day-ness of Charlie coming to terms with coming of age, in a way, and eventually learning to let go of things that have happened in the past and of his friends as they leave for college and their futures, though they remain friends.  It's also a real medley of literary and pop-culture references, from To Kill a Mockingbird to The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  I'm not a huge fan of the letter format, nor am I a big fan of first-person perspectives, but the book was okay, I guess.  I think if I were still a teenager or going through some difficult time in college it might have resonated more.  But I also apparently had a very sheltered adolescence, because even though Charlie never gets in trouble he was in way more "trouble" than I was ever even aware of, all things considered.  But at the same time, I don't think I was sitting back and observing instead of participating, and that kind of does present a skewed view in this book: that in order to "participate," you have to do the things that Charlie ends up doing, and that's not actually the case.  He and his friends spent most of the book behaving in ways that were, frankly, stupid, which makes the cult status of this book a little worrying to me.

And then, just briefly, let's talk about the end.  I'll be honest: I hit the end of the book going, "What just happened?" and had to look it up on Wikipedia because it was left so vague.  It both does and doesn't make sense to me.  First, in the way that it does: Charlie was obviously suppressing things, to a very high degree, and to such a high degree that, even once it all came to light, he still doesn't want to write it down or have to think about it too much.  But at the same time, it didn't make sense because Chbosky had Charlie just come out and talk about so many other things that most people would approach with a greater degree of delicacy, or dance around more, and then suddenly this was the thing that was left in the dark.  You know, the thing that had been affecting Charlie for apparently the whole book?  It just seems strange, and even going back and re-reading the "reveal" sections after I had looked up what exactly had happened, it was still very vague.  I had more a sense of "yeah, I guess I can see that," than of "oh wow, how did I miss that?"

Basically, I think this book has its place, but I definitely wasn't it--and I think the body of the book has a lot more to offer than the ending, left foggy as it is, does.

2.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Eyes of Silver, Eyes of Gold - Ellen O'Connell

Eyes of Silver, Eyes of Gold (Eyes of Silver, Eyes of Gold, #1)So, I've been reading yet another book club catch-up, Empire of the Summer Moon, which is about Quanah Parker and the Comanche tribe in the Great Plains area during frontier times.  In addition to talking about Quanah Parker and the Comanches, it talks about the ways the American settlers were trying to claim land and fight Native Americans, including the Comanches, and therefore it talks about the Texas Rangers, and it all put me really in the mood for a western romance.  I don't really know why, as there's pretty much nothing romantic about EotSM.  Anyway, I paged through the few western romances I had on my Kindle, pretty much immediately determined that they were all terrible (that's what I get for free, I guess), paged through the library's Overdrive collection and determined that all of those were terrible (and many bore the names of modern country songs, such as "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy") and turned to a Goodreads list of popular western historical romances.  Eyes of Silver, Eyes of Gold was the #1 book on that list, so bit the bullet and bought it.  It wasn't exactly what I was looking for (different setting, slightly different time period, etc.) but I figured I was willing to sacrifice specifics in exchange for quality with the general feel of what I was in the mood for.

This book ended up being a very puzzling one for me.  Not necessarily in a bad way.  It just...was.  The story follows Cord (the eyes of gold) and Anne (the eyes of silver).  Cord is half Cheyenne, the product of his father's second marriage, and has always been looked down upon for his "savage" ways, because he has a temper.  Even his family thinks he's half-wild and pretty much always on the verge of killing someone.  Anne is the daughter of a shopkeeper in their town who has run away from her father, who locked her in a room and attempted to starve her into marrying a gross old guy following a separate broken engagement from when she lived with her aunt in Chicago.  Cord finds Anne sleeping in his barn and, after her learns what's going on, offers to help her get to a town where she can take a train to Chicago to escape her father.  But before they can decide on a course of action, her father shows up with a posse.  Anne is beaten and sexually assaulted (though not raped) and Cord is beaten to the verge of death--oh, and the two end up married in a farce of a ceremony.  Anne's father leaves her in Cord's yard with instructions to beg her way back into her family's household.  But she doesn't; instead, she starts taking care of Cord, nursing him back to health, and the two ultimately agree to stay married, since Anne's reputation is already in tatters anyway, and she's determined to not go back to her father.  But Cord doesn't put much stock in the marriage, thinking that Anne is going to up and leave him any day.

I found Cord's family to be the most baffling part of this book, especially in comparison to the rest of the people of Mason.  His family believes the very worst things about him, when you would think that they'd be more willing to support him, or at least to look at the other side of the issue.  There are some serious issues with communication between the family members here, it's true, but I can't imagine that Cord communicated much better with the people of the town, and once Anne and Cord started showing up there together (proving that he didn't have her tied up in his root cellar) the townsfolk were all much more welcoming and accepting of Anne and Cord's marriage than his own family was.  It was a real mind-bender to me.  Obviously I expected this couple to face a lot of judgment and prejudice, and they just didn't really come from the sources I would expect.  I thought it would come from everyone, or from everyone except Cord's family.  (Anne's family is, it's quickly established, basically completely under the thumb of her terrible father, so I didn't expect a lot of help from that quarter, and there wasn't very much until pretty late in the book.)  The acceptance of the other people that Anne and Cord knew was also a little confusing, because I kind of find it hard to believe that it would have gone like that.  This wasn't some town on the edge of civilization, after all; it was a small town, but still one that was connected and one where reputation obviously mattered, if Anne was so easily "ruined," and yet most of the people accepted the relationship in pretty short order.  Not immediately, but very quickly.

And while this book had romantic elements, I don't really feel that it was an out-and-out romance.  It was another strange blend; there were some romance moments, but a lot of it was Anne and Cord pretty much just living together, and Anne sassing anyone who gave her a hard time.  I liked it, but I'm not sure I'd actually qualify it as a straight-up romance.  That said, the romantic elements do get more pronounced in the second half of the book, and I think after that point it started hitting the "feel" I was looking for more.  Watching Cord and Anne (re)build relationships with their own families and with their respective in-laws was also nice, if, as mentioned before, a little confusing in how the dynamics worked in the first place.  The writing is also of good quality, though there were a few inconsistencies--such as are Frank and Ephraim Cord's half brothers, or his uncles?  Both relationships were mentioned, which left me a little befuddled.  But despite the befuddling elements of this book, I did like it quite a bit, and I'd definitely be interested in reading something else by this author.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, September 5, 2016

I Am Malala - Malala Yousafzai

I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the TalibanSo, let me show my uneducated American-ness for a second here.  I confess that, prior to Malala Yousafzai being shot, I had no idea who she was.  Even after she was shot I had no idea who she was, and I honestly had no idea why it was such a big deal.  Because, in my ignorance, I was under the impression that the Taliban was off shooting schoolgirls all the time.  This, apparently, was not the case.  Malala is a bit of a special instance, due to her advocacy for girls' education--though the Taliban insists that she was shot because she was going against Islam, not because of her stances on education.  Either way, her experiences were the reason I turned to this as my pick for a political memoir for my reading challenge this year.  I didn't really want to read about a run-of-the-mill politician, so Malala's memoir seemed like a good alternative.

Now, this didn't end up being as political as I had anticipated, as Malala basically recounts her entire life story up until the time she was shot, and a period of time afterwards when she was recovering.  It was written before she won the Nobel Peace Prize and before she became such a huge force in advocacy for education around the world.  Still, you can see the seeds of that in this, and definitely see her political origins in Swat, Pakistan, the valley where she grew up.  Her father was definitely a big influence on her, and she emphasizes again and again that no matter how much she admired her father and no matter how much he worked with her on her advocacy, it was still her decision to make her speeches and put herself out there.  She's definitely a strong young woman, and someone to be admired for her firm stance even in the face of being assaulted by the Taliban.

My issue with this was pretty much exactly the opposite of the issue I had with the last memoir I read, Climbing the Mango Trees.  In CtMT, I found that the writing was good, sometimes even beautiful, but the content just didn't interest me.  In I Am Malala, the content is amazing and inspiring, but the writing...well, it reads like a teenage girl wrote it.  Malala has a co-writer listed (Christina Lamb; the listing is unusual, but I like it) but I would definitely say that she was heavily involved in this book because of the way it reads.  It really does sound like a high school essay at many points.  Now, I completely understand that yes, Malala was still in school when she wrote it, but the downside of this authenticity of voice means that the writing oftentimes isn't very engaging.  The life she describes and her growth to an active advocate for education is fascinating, but the writing lends a certain distance to this that, at times, almost makes it read more like a Wikipedia article than a memoir.

Malala is an amazing young woman with an important cause, and I really admire her for that.  I'm glad that I read this, because it gave me a deeper understanding of where she came from and exactly why she's advocating for education--even before the Taliban became involved, she wanted everyone to be able to go to school.  The writing wasn't the most riveting I've ever seen, but I'm still very happy with this as a selection for my reading challenge.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Reading Challenge Updates


-A book set in your home state.  I was originally going to read American Rust for this, and got it out of the library to do so, but within a half hour of reading knew that it wasn't going to work.  The writing style, combined with the immediately heavy content (there's a sexual assault and murder within the first chapter) meant it was definitely not what I was in the mood for.  I switched that title out for Perks of Being a Wallflower, which I had originally slated for the banned book category, as it takes place in Pittsburgh.  It was fine, I guess.

-A political memoir.  I read I Am Malala for this.  Malala is an amazing young woman who advocates for universal education (with an emphasis on education for girls, because girls are often the group that suffers the most in this field) and in her book she relates her childhood, along with how she became an active advocate and a target for the Taliban.  The content here was impressive and inspiring, but the book definitely reads like it was written by a teenager girl.

-A book translated to English.  I didn't end up using either of my original intended titles for this, because I ended up reading The Little Paris Bookshop by chance and realized that it fit this category.  I think it was a beautiful little book, with charming settings and quirky characters, but it wasn't a page-turner by any means.

-A book that was banned at some point.  When I switched Perks of Being a Wallflower to the home state category, it meant I needed to find a new book for this category.  I finally settled on Sophie's Choice, which is also on the American Library Association's list of commonly challenged or banned books, because I already had it on my Kindle.  It was exceedingly tedious.  Do not recommend.

-A self-improvement book.  An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth jumped out at me from a list of self-improvement books because one of my friends from college read it recently and rated it quite highly, so I went for that.  Why I don't think it was written with the intention of being a self-improvement book, I can definitely see why it ended up there; it has a lot of little lessons that all of us can apply to our lives, but it's not preachy and doesn't try to shove anything down your throat.  A great read all around.

Still to Come

-A science-fiction novel.  Once again, I'm looking for a new title for this category.  I have a few books in my possession that would fit this, so we'll see which one I'll get to first...  It's likely to be The Three Body Problem or The Windup Girl.

-A book based on a fairy tale.  I adore fairy tales, so this category had a whole bunch of possibilities for me!  I settled on Gregory Maguire's Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, which is quite clearly an adaptation of Cinderella from the stepsister's point of view.  I read Wicked in high school and found it good but weird, so I'm interested in seeing how this one plays out.

-A National Book Award winner.  I don't really know much about book awards, as I tend to ignore them in favor of reading whatever interests me at the time.  So I had to pull up the list of National Book Award winners to have something to go off for this one.  Most of them didn't really intrigue me (who decides what makes a book award-worthy, anyway?) but I eventually picked The Shipping News off the list as looking at least mildly interesting.

-A book you haven't read since high school.  This is hard.  I tend to re-read books that I like on a fairly regular basis; hardly a year goes by when I don't re-read most of Tamora Pierce's works in a one-week binge.  That said, I know that the last time I read Peter Dickinson's The Ropemaker was in high school, because I then lent it to someone who never returned it.  So I'll read that for this category.

-A book recommended by someone you just met.  I asked the NaNoWriMo Facebook group what they thought I should read this year; one reply was already on the list (Grave Beginnings) but the other was not; therefore, I shall be reading The Machinery by Gerrard Cowan for this category.

-A book written by a celebrity.  Okay, so I saw Elixir by Hilary Duff ages ago, probably when it first came out, but I didn't read it because I was skeptical.  I mean, celebrities writing?  Who does that?  And I'm always convinced it's really a ghostwriter doing the real work.  But now it seems like it's a good time to try this one out.  I was going to read Tina Fey's Bossypants for this, but I'm already reading a comedian's book for another category, so I didn't want to double-dip.

-A book at least 100 years older than you.  I'm actually going to get around to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for this one, because I want to read one of the steampunk novels that started it all as research for my own writing.

-A book from Oprah's Book Club.  After much perusal of the complete list (found here) I've settled on Malika Oufkir's memoir Stolen Lives, because the categories this year are sorely lacking in nonfiction and this seems like one of the better titles on the list in general--at least among those that I haven't read yet.

-A book recommended by a family member.

-A graphic novel.  I love Neil Gaiman but am not a huge fan of graphic novels, so I've avoided his Sandman series up until this point, despite buying my boyfriend the entire series for various occasions.  Now seems like a pretty good time to give them a go and start in Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes.

-A book with a protagonist who has your occupation.

-A book of poetry.

-A classic from the 20th century.  I'm going to do Lolita for this one, because I feel like I need to squish a Russian novel in here somewhere.  What really makes a classic, anyway?  I don't know, but this list that I found says Lolita is one.

-An autobiography.  I picked up Papillon by Henri Charriere at a used bookstore in New Jersey (Broad Street Books in Branchville, if anyone out there is in the area; it was absolutely lovely and I look forward to going back the next time we're in the area) but put it down in favor of another title.  Now I wish I'd bought it!  Charriere wrote this book about his wrongful conviction for a crime and his subsequent escapes from prison.  Most autobiographies bore me on principal, but this one actually sounds interesting.

-A book about a culture you're unfamiliar with.  I'm leaning towards Shutting Out the Sun for this one, which is a non-fiction book about Japan's "lost generation."

-A satirical book.  I've partially changed my mind on this one; instead of Thing Explainer, I want to read What If? which uses science to answer absurd hypothetical questions and makes fun of how things work in general in the process.

-A book recommended by your local librarian or bookseller.

-A book you should have read in school.  This I'm going to fill with The Odyssey, which every other English class in my high school read, but my class as a whole did not because our teacher was too busy having raptures about the hero's journey in the Star Wars series to actually assign it to us.

-A book chosen for you by your spouse, partner, sibling, child, or BFF.

-A book published before you were born.  Let's face it: most of history is before I was born.  This means that I have a very wide scope of titles from which to choose.  I'm going to go with the classics and choosing Wuthering Heights for this one.

-A book you previously abandoned.  I'm planning on using Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell for this one.  I've had this book for years, and started it at one point, but I just couldn't get into it.  I'm hoping that time will have improved it some for me, just like how I liked Vellum much more when I returned to it years after first purchasing and attempting to read it.

-A book that intimidates you.  For this I've finally settled on The Count of Monte Cristo.  I was planning on reading it for catch-up for a digital book club, but I'm including it here because its sheer length is intimidating.  I don't mind books--love them, really--but I am a tiny bit concerned that adding in a book of such heft so late in the year is going to throw off my timeline for completing the challenge.

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Chosen - Chaim Potok

The ChosenThe Chosen is another book I'm reading as catch-up for the Deliberate Reader book club.  This was the selection for March.  It's an older book, originally published in 1967, though it's gone through several rounds of re-issues; the cover pictured here is from an edition from the 1990s.  The story takes place in the later part of World War II and in the years immediately after it, and follows two Jewish boys living in New York City.  Reuven is our narrator; the son of a professor who writes lots of articles on Judaism and who becomes a prominent Zionist, he wants to become a rabbi when he grows up, despite his father's wishes for him to become a mathematics professor.  The other main character is Danny, who Reuven first encounters during an ill-fated baseball game.  Danny is the son of a Hasidic rabbi and is supposed to become a rabbi himself when he grows up, following in his father's footsteps, though what he really wants to do is study and practice psychology.  Despite the rocky start at the baseball game, Danny and Reuven become friends, and the story follows them through the trials of their friendship as they try to balance the expectations placed upon them with their own hopes and dreams.

This was a really interesting book to me not because of the story itself, but because of what it fundamentally is.  Ultimately, this is a book with Jewish characters set during WWII which doesn't deal with the Holocaust.  The Holocaust is mentioned in passing, once troops reach the camps overseas and news comes back, and some of the older characters are absolutely destroyed by it, but ultimately it plays a very minor part in the story.  I might just be narrowly-read in this area, but in my experience it's fairly rare to find books with Jewish main characters set in this time period that doesn't deal with the Holocaust in a very intimate way.  I actually liked this; while the Holocaust was a horrible, horrible event, it's also very widely-written, and I liked that this book offered a view onto Jewish life as it continued on in the US, despite the ongoing war.  It was just something that I don't see very often, and was therefore a very refreshing read.

The relationship between Danny and Reuven is really the center of this book; the relationships with the fathers are, in my opinion, secondary.  It's Danny and Reuven who shape each other more than their fathers ultimately do, as they encourage each other in different ways, support each other, and help cement what are essentially the opposite fates of what their fathers had intended for them.  In some ways, Danny would have been better suited with Reuven's father, and Reuven better suited with Danny's--though Danny's father raised him in this weird sort of silence, the reasons for which were ultimately explained but didn't really hold water for me, and Reuven blatantly said that would have been terrible for him.  So maybe that pairing wouldn't have worked out after all.  But watching the deviation from their intended paths to their desired ones, even when they were separated, was an interesting process.  It's a character-driven novel, definitely, which means that if you're going to look for a strong plot, there isn't one.  It's very much about Danny and Reuven's development as people rather than being about them actually setting out to achieve a specific goal.  But I think that's the type of narrative that was best suited here, and I ended up really enjoying this one.  It put out a lot of information about Judaism in general and Hasidism more specifically that I wasn't aware of, and so it also functioned as a sort of educational experience.  As I mentioned before, the whole "raised in silence" thing, while it seems like it might be real (I can't weigh in on that) didn't hold up for me, but that's really my only big complaint about this book.

4 stars out of 5.