Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Book 67: If I Stay

Most of the YA I read tends to be fantasy/sci-fi or dystopian with the exception of Rainbow Rowell, and she's different because I'd already read her adult novel Attachments when I discovered that she had more novels available in the YA section.  This genre focus in YA is probably one of the reasons I've never gotten around to John Green.  Even though I have seen nothing but favorable reviews for If I Stay, it took the movie preview to convince me to actually read it.  And wow, this was so powerful.  The thing is I even knew how it ended, having read enough reviews of this novel, and the companion novel.  Despite this, I was crying by the end of this book, and I rarely cry.  I figured anything powerful enough to make me that emotional even with previous knowledge deserved a five star rating on Goodreads and CBR.

Mia, the novel's 17 year old narrator, faces a life altering decision in this novel, having to decide whether she wants to stay and live or let go and die.  The story begins with a snow day in Oregon, inspiring an impromptu family trip.  En route to friends, Mia, her little brother Teddy and her parents are involved in a car accident.  Her parents are dead on site, Teddy is taken to a nearby hospital where those exact friends work while Mia is flown to a major hospital in Portland.  Though in a coma, a part of Mia is able to walk around the hospital and observe everything, including her family and friends gathered in the waiting room.  As she faces her current situation, she reflects on her life, her parents, her boyfriend Adam and her love of music.  Shortly before the accident, she even auditioned for Julliard and her boyfriend's band is becoming rather successful.  Music has always been an important part of her life, and her parents are musical as well, though Mia was a bit of a rebel when she developed an interest in classical music and the cello while the rest of her family and loved ones are rockers.  Though she felt the common teenage anxiety about belonging, her family was loving and supportive.  Now Mia's condition is critical but she quickly realizes that whatever happens is her choice, and whether she wants to continue living without such a critical part of her life and whether Adam and the music are enough to keep her.

The premise sounds so simple and could easily become trite, but Forman does a great job of making these characters come alive, and really showing what Mia has lost while also demonstrating what she has to live for.  While Adam plays a big role in that, Forman doesn't simply make it a choice about family vs. boyfriend.  Mia's music and her potential are such important facets of her life which I really appreciated.  I just hope the movie is able to capture the novel, which absolutely earns the emotional reactions readers might have.

Book 66: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

This was one of those novels I stumbled upon while at the bookstore, and even though I had never heard of it before, the cover and the title caught my interest.  Having read Replay and Life After Life, I was definitely interested in the premise of a hero who relives his life.  Harry August, the narrator, relives his life over and over again, making changes and adjustments as he wishes.  However, he is part of a greater community of people with this same ability, people randomly scattered throughout the world and time.  As a result, these people are actually able to communicate with the past, usually by playing a complicated and long game of telephone, where someone asks someone who is older a question, who then asks an older person once he is reborn as a child.  The novel begins when a message comes to Harry August from the future, telling him that the world is ending faster than every before.

The community of kalachakra have set themselves some rules and it mostly involves not changing the world order.  The fact that the end of the world is speeding up means someone is introducing concepts, idea and technology much earlier than originally developed, and Harry may be the key to discovering the culprit behind this.

While the novel starts with a great mission to save the world, the story is actually told at a much more leisurely pace than I expected, exploring Harry's different lives and experiences, the rules that have guided his lives and those similarly afflicted, and certain actions he repeats in all his lives compared to the things that change throughout.  While I was initially surprised by the pace, it actually worked for the novel - after all, who hasn't pondered what they would change or do differently if they could start life over with the knowledge of all that they have done, and how history will turn out?  Harry, additionally, is rather unique because he can remember everything that has happened in all his lives.  Most of the others forget details as repetition and time blurs things together.  There is also a process that allows fellow kalachakra to erase all the memories and begin again, living a first life again after they have either sinned against their kind or become too disillusioned or unhappy to want to continue with their lives.

I'm definitely glad I took a chance on this one (although does it really count as a chance when it had a four star rating on Goodreads - still I hadn't seen it on CBR).  It was also nice to read a novel that really dealt with the opportunities and choices - while I liked Life After Life, the character had only vague premonitions not to do things that had previously endangered her, so I enjoyed reading a novel about a man who actively lives his life over and over again, leading to drastically different circumstances from one life to the next.  It also led to a variety of moral and ethical questions and quandaries regarding how much one should try to influence the future for the better, especially when being reborn simply means it would need to be done again and again if it even had the right effect.

Book 65: Etiquette and Espionage

This novel is the first in a YA series that takes place in the same world as the Parasol Protectorate by Gail Carriger.  I haven't actually read that series yet, so I'm not entirely sure why I chose to try out this spin off first, but it was a cute, fun novel.  It skews a bit younger than most of the YA I've read, which also means that while a few of the girls at boarding schools talk about how cute some guys are, there isn't actually a romance.  Instead, it's about friendships, and girls training to be assassins and spies in what advertises itself as a finishing school.  Also, I think a few things may have had more context if I had already read Carriger's adult series, but her use of Sophronia as the main character works very well for the uninitiated.  There may be things that the new reader and Sophronia don't get because of lack of background but since this whole world is new to Sophronia, the reader finds things out as she does.

Sophronia is the younger daughter in her family and a bit of a trouble maker.  Her older sister is interested in all the proper feminine things but Sophronia is too curious and constantly gets herself into trouble.  As a result, her mom decides to send her to boarding school but much to Sophronia's surprise, the school actually trains its students in espionage as well as traditional etiquette.  Even though Sophronia lives in this steam punk setting, she has been very sheltered and mostly only heard about many of the things she encounters at school, including werewolves and vampires.

While most of the novel focuses on the school and lessons, Sophronia and her new friends are also aware of a plot and a potential attack on the school for the prototype.  The girls don't exactly know what it is, and in many ways it's more of a MacGuffin, simply something to add focus and an action, though I would have been happy just reading about Sophronia's day to day adventures at school.  I expect I'll pick up the rest of Carriger's novel when I'm in the mood for something light and entertaining with some untraditional women.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

2014 Book Bingo Reading Challenge Wrap Up

2014 Bingo Challenge-01
I finished my first challenge for the year!  Technically, I could keep going and see if I could complete another score card, but with all the things coming up in the next few months, I think it's better to just quit while I'm ahead instead of staring at a half completed card in a few months.

I am a bit behind on reviews, so I will add the links as I get around to them.
One Book from TBR Pile (Complete):
In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner
Two Books from TBR Pile (Complete):
The Soldier's Song by Alan Monaghan
No One is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel
Three Books from TBR Pile (Complete):
The Golden Hour by Margaret Wurtele
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
What Happened to Anna K. by Irina Reyn
Four Books from TBR Pile (Complete):
Cut to the Quick by Kate Ross
The Disappeared by Kim Echlin
The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
Five Books from TBR Pile (Complete):
South of Broad by Pat Conroy
Palisades Park by Alan Brennert
The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

Nonfiction (Complete):
Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillan
Classic (Complete):
The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
Reread (Complete):
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
Free Square (Complete):
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Contemporary (Complete):
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

One Book in a Series (Complete):
Splintered by A.G. Howard
Two Books in a Series (Complete):
The Eye in the Door by Pat Barker
The Ghost Road by Pat Barker
Three Books in a Series (Complete):
Waking the Witch by Kelley Armstrong
Spell Bound by Kelley Armstrong
Thirteen by Kelley Armstrong
Four Books in a Series (Complete):
A Conspiracy of Faith by Jussi Adler-Olsen
Dust by Hugh Howey
Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger
The Truth of All Things by Kieran Shields
Five Books in a Series (Complete):
Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison
The Good, the Bad and the Undead by Kim Harrison
Every Which Way But Dead by Kim Harrison
A Fistful of Charms by Kim Harrison
For a Few Demons More by Kim Harrison

Fantasy (Complete):
Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin
Free Square (Complete):
The House of Lost Souls by F.G. Cottam
Historical Fiction (Complete):
In Falling Snow by Mary-Rose MacColl
Mystery (Complete):
Snow White Must Die by Nele Neuhaus
Romance (Complete):
The King of the Castle by Victoria Holt

One New Release (Complete):
Cress by Marissa Meyer
Two New Release (Complete):
Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan
That Part Was True by Deborah McKinlay
Three New Releases (Complete):
Redeployment by Phil Klay
Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor
I Don't Know What You Know Me From by Judy Greer
Four New Releases (Complete):
Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire Holt
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
Skin Game by Jim Butcher
Five New Releases (Complete):
The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey
The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham
Murder of Crows by Anne Bishop
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

Book 64: Brain on Fire

I don't feel like I usually read that many memoirs but it seems I was on a bit of streak.  Given all the positive reviews, I had to pick this one up, of course.  In this book, Susannah Cahalan documents are temporary bout of insanity, how it developed, the medical community's reaction, and her eventual path back to herself.

Cahalan doesn't have a history of mental illness in her family, but at some point in her early/mid twenties, she starts acting odd and off.  She becomes paranoid, and very difficult, unable to focus on work, and just generally does not act like herself.  As far as she can tell, it all starts with an odd tingling in her hand and arm, but her first visit to a doctor only leads to a diagnosis of stress as a result of too much work and drinking.  However, her family encourages her to seek other options, especially when she experiences seizures, and soon things have progressed so far that she has to be hospitalized.  As Cahalan points out, she was fortunate enough to be in the neurological department as a result of the seizures rather than the mental health portion, because it meant the doctors kept looking for a cause rather than going with a schizophrenia diagnosis though she exhibited signs of it and was at the right age of its onset.

This is an incredibly informative book about the progression of a disease and how Susannah's brain and body betrayed her, turning on themselves.  While I was reading, I couldn't help but think that in ways she was incredibly privileged, being able to go home to her parents, take the time off from work when she was simply acting off rather than facing the full-fledged illness, and even the fact that she spent a month in a hospital surrounded by a team of professionals.  In fact she even acknowledges this in the last few chapters when she discusses the repercussions of this illness, and the ways she has been able to use her experience to help others.  In ways, it seems like if this disease was going to happen to anyway, Cahalan was the candidate that could most benefit others because with her background as a journalist, she was more able to provide a clear picture of her journey and raise awareness for others that could face this.  As she admits, she also got lucky because in the end, she was able to find out what was wrong with her and put a name to it, while there are surely others who have simply been dismissed as crazy and put away or ignored.  It's a very illuminating book, and absolutely fascinating.  I wouldn't even want to imagine how this situation would have worked for someone with a less supportive family, and Cahalan definitely struggled.  In fact, even after her recuperation, she sometimes wonders about the person she was vs. the person she is, and how much of herself was actually changed or lost as a result of this period in her life.

Book 63: The Prince

I was pleasantly surprised with just how accessible Machiavelli's The Prince was.  So often I feel like philosophers are a bit wordier than I like and with only a hundred or so pages, Machiavelli quickly gets to his point (I realize that part of this long-windedness often is because they are explaining a concept that is new to their contemporaries but has become a given or common sense now exactly because of them).  Not only that, but much of what he says is easily applied to modern day examples.  I actually ended up comparing a few of his situations to Game of Thrones in a class discussion because one can definitely see how Martin (and probably a good portion of Western society) has been influenced by Machiavelli's ideas of power and leadership.  Or perhaps, it's not even that they have been influenced by him but that Machiavelli recognizes human nature so well that even now his words hold true.  In essence, Machiavelli just made sense to me, and displayed a great deal of common sense.

Given that his name has become a word, I figured I would find him too cynical.  After all this is the man we think of when we think of the idea that it is better to be feared than loved.  However, while reading him and considering his background, much of what he says makes sense.  He spends a lot of time on the idea of power, but to me, power seemed more like a means to end rather than the end itself.  Machiavelli advised men on how they could protect their power and achieve it, but more so, he seemed concerned with the stability of the state.  He didn't want princes to have power for themselves but rather because it would ensure that they could make good decisions for the kingdoms or states, and prevent others from seeing them as vulnerable or weak.  Italy and its states had seen a reduction in their importance and power in the past decades as well as warfare.  As a result, one can see where Machiavelli might be more focused on maintaining a stable state as an important key to prosperity and the well being of the people rather than having a kind and progressive ruler who could easily be overthrown.

Machiavelli also lists a variety of characteristics, many of them good, that a leader should appear to be.  Since a leader had to be able to make tough decisions and possibly do things that would not be considered "good," Machiavelli notes that it is only necessary to appear to have these qualities because it also means that a ruler can act in different manners as the situation requires without going against his nature.  I think a lot of the things he said made a lot of sense.  While people have probably used Machiavelli to justify actions that he would not agree with or believe besides the point, his ideas on leadership are quite interesting, very accessible and definitely worth the read - especially if you want to start thinking about Game of Thrones while you're reading it.

Book 62: This Boy's Life

I first became aware of this memoir several years ago after seeing Titanic and Romeo and Juliet inspired me to search Leonardo DiCaprio's back catalog (I was thirteen when Titanic came out, I was in the target demographic).  Over seventeen years later, I still haven't seen the film, but I've finally read the book that I've had for a few years.  I actually read Son of a Gun only a few weeks before this one, and though these two memoirs' events are separated by almost half a century, it was easy to see parallels between the lives of the authors and their mothers.  Tobias Wolff and his mother move west in search of opportunities, and his mother ends up in a series of relationships with abusive men while his actual father is disconnected from his son's life.  That could just as well describe Justin St. Germain's life.  However, the end results are very different for the two women and their sons though one could easily see how if certain things had been just a bit different, Wolff's mother could have faced a similar tragedy as Germain's.

Though Wolff generally comes off as a sweet kid, it is also clear that he easily falls in with the wrong crowds and makes bad decisions, something that is repeated in Utah, Seattle (where his mother temporarily lives as a single mother) and the small rural town in Washington where Wolff and his mother settle after her marriage to Dwight.  Toby, or Jack as he calls himself, drinks, lies and cheats, and he and his stepfather quickly become bitter opponents.  Despite all of Toby's failings, it is hard not to root for him to not only get away from his stepfather but also turn his life around and stop screwing up.  Toby does make it rather clear early on that part of the reason his mother remarries may very well have been to introduce some discipline in his life.

Wolff also clearly feels abandoned.  His older brother stayed with their father after the divorce, and there is a big split in the family, probably one of the reasons he rejects his given name for Jack.  In fact, he doesn't speak to his older brother for almost six years until Toby finally reaches for help.  While this is not the first time he has reached out to someone about his situation, Wolff also makes clear that he had a gift for dramatization and exaggeration, writing very embellished versions of the truth to stir pity.

I enjoyed this one more than Son of a Gun, though I think they compliment each other well.  However, this focuses much more on the stepfather-stepson relationship while Son of a Gun was about the mother-son and mother-stepfather relationships.  This one also ends on a note of hope because as much as Toby keeps screwing up his chances, in the end, the reader knows that he has gone on to become a successful author.  As a result, I think Wolff is willing to also show his bad sides, and even let the reader occasionally see where Dwight has a point, though more often than not, Dwight is a petty, small minded man.  Though I haven't seen the film, I was naturally DiCaprio as Toby/Jack and DeNiro as Dwight.  I am a bit more curious to see the film now, especially since was before DeNiro started doing Meet the Parents kind of movies all the time.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Book 61: The Yiddish Policemen's Union

As much as I loved The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I have come to the conclusion that Chabon isn't really an author I enjoy that much otherwise.  I disliked The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (I tend to have little tolerance for bratty rich kids that are struggling with what to do with their lives), and while I enjoyed Wonderboys, I saw the movie first and can't say the novel really added that much more for me.  I am not going to say this is a case where the movie is better but it was a loyal enough adaptation where it almost isn't necessary to both read and see it.

The idea behind The Yiddish Policemen's Union is that Israel failed, and during World War II, the US had opened up the borders of Alaska to Jewish refugees.  As a result, the history around World War II is slightly different, with the Holocaust having a slightly lesser death toll.  However, the Jewish community was only granted the land for a period of time, and in about two months, their lease effectively ends.  Some people have been granted permission to stay on, others have found other countries to take them in but overall the future is a big question mark for the majority of the characters.  Meyer Landsmen, an alcoholic cop, living in a rundown motel, is one of these lost souls.  At the beginning of the novel, he is called to look at a fellow motel dwellers' body - the man, a junkie, has been killed.  Though he is told to ignore the case and list it as a cold case to ease the transition in the next month, he cannot let it go, and with only the clues that the victim was once religious and played chess, he pursues the case and discovers the man's identity.

I feel like there was quite a lot about this novel that was interesting.  The Jewish community in Alaska felt very much like East European Jewish communities that have been described in countless other books, and there is a large very orthodox community in the center of the city.  Despite this, I just didn't really enjoy the novel that much.  It was a bit of a noir style mystery, but I couldn't say I was that interested in the mystery.  I'm not sure if it was too slowly plotted or if it involved too many tangents, but this novel was not a joy to pick up, and felt a bit like a chore.  I remember reading the The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and barely being able to put it down.  I was barely able to make myself pick this one up.

Overall, this premise had a lot of potential, and even the ways that Chabon imagined his Alaska seemed very realistic.  However, something about it just didn't click with me, and as a result I wouldn't recommend it.  I think it was mostly a pacing issue for me, but I'm not even entirely sure if that was entirely it.  This was actually my second attempt at this novel, and the first time I started it I didn't even get past the first chapter, so it might have been that noir type language.  While I don't have much experience with noir mysteries, I also remember finding Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep tedious and boring.  Based on that, maybe it was more of a genre issue.

Book 60: For a Few Demons More

I was a bit hesitant about the beginning of this novel as it seemed to be retreading the familiar theme of Ivy and Rachel too much in the beginning, but Harrison completely ends up switching things up and really changing the game by the end of this novel.  In the last novel, Rachel recovered an ancient relic, thought to be mythical, that could truly disrupt the balance of power in the supernatural world, as it would allow werewolves to create other werewolves rather than only being hereditary.

Werewolves are dying as the novel kicks off, leading Rachel to believe that someone is searching for this relic.  She is also hired as security for Trent Kalamack's wedding, and Piscary and Al are making her life more difficult, even if Piscary is supposed to be in prison for the next five hundred years.  Rachel's relationship with Ivy continues to be complicated, and her relationship with Kisten doesn't exactly make that any easier.

The novel had more scenes with Ceri, a character I immensely enjoy so that was a definite positive.  Also, Rachel continues to see the world in a very black and white way, which is one of the character traits that annoys me about her just a bit, but by the end, she appears to be more willing to understand the shades of gray.  One thing about this series I occasionally have to remind myself of is that Rachel is only 25, and while many other urban fantasy series seem to have about a year between novels, this is a much faster paced series, with only months passing - as a result, Rachel is still young and immature.  This one is definitely the best one so far, and seems to be a real turning point in the series due to the changes and upheavals in Rachel's life by the end of the novel.

Book 59: A Fistful of Charms

As it turns out, this is my least favorite novel in the series, and I was honestly surprised by this given how promising the beginning was.  After all, when it starts, Rachel finds out that her ex, Nick, and her partner's son Jax are in trouble and she decides to help them out of the tight spot they've gotten themselves into.  I wasn't a huge Nick fan and didn't understand what Rachel saw in him, but at this point, Rachel has realized that Nick actually wasn't that great.  Given their past she feels like she owes him.  Still, I was excited to see Nick get some comeuppance.

Unfortunately, the novel ends up spending a bit too much time for my tastes on the Ivy-Rachel relationship.  I like Ivy, I mostly like Rachel, I like the idea of them as roommates but I am getting a bit tired of the dynamic of their relationship since it involves a lot of weird undercurrents, and Ivy wanting to make Rachel her scion.  Rachel says she has no interest in being bit, and yet keeps getting into dangerous situations (when Rachel analyzes her feelings and actions, I'm not sure if I thought she was being stupid and acting rashly, or victim blaming herself).  Rachel finally admits to herself that she is an adrenaline junkie and that many of her bad decisions, including her choice of boyfriends are directly related to this part of her personality.

One other thing that bugs me a bit about this series, but this book in particular, is the way that Jenks, Ivy and Rachel interact sometimes in general.  Jenks is mad at Rachel due to something from the previous book, but his son's predicament brings them back together.  For the most part, it is clear that the three of them care for each other, but then other times it is absolutely amazing how they talk to each other and how much abuse they heap on each other.  Jenks can be especially guilty of this.

The actual main plot isn't bad, though it was a bit oddly paced.  After an action packed rescue mission, there is quite a bit of space before the next big event, which is why the relationships end up being such glaring parts of the narrative.  However, I've already read the next novel in the series, and though it begins with some of these same weaknesses, it ends up being the strongest in the series thus far.  Basically, this is a decent novel though definitely a weak link in the series, and from what I've seen so far, I'd still recommend pushing on with the series even if this one is not as enjoyable as the previous ones.

Book 58: Beautiful Ruins

By this point it feels like everyone has read this novel, and yet with all the reviews I read, I never quite got the impression that this novel was slightly humorous and even farcical on occasion.  Instead, I just kept seeing words like "dying actress" and thought it was a very serious novel.  Both of those descriptions don't quite describe what is going on as Walter mixes despair, tragedy, love and comedy into this story spanning almost seventy years.

The story begins in 1960s Italy, on a remote island, when a young, beautiful actress comes to stay at Pasquel's family inn.  The area is so remote that Pasquel has only one regular customer, an American that comes every summer to work on his novel but spends more time drinking.  As a result, Dee's arrival makes quite the splash.  This narrative is the heart of the novel, involving old glamorous Hollywood since Dee is in Italy as a cast member of Cleopatra, a film more famous for its stars' explosive love life and being dramatically over budget than its quality.  The novel basically refers to this being a turning point in Hollywood marketing as the scandal of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor was exploited to make money rather than swept under the rug.

This part comes out only slowly, and is intermixed with various other characters and their stories.  There is Claire, an production assistant who has become disillusioned with Hollywood and her boyfriend, and Sean, a would be author whose parents have spoiled him rotten.  Sean and Pasquale arrive at Claire's office at the same time, Pasquale to try to find out what happened to Dee, and Sean to pitch a movie about the Donner party.  It is the scenes that focus on the present day workings of Hollywood that are particularly farcical and comical.  A few other chapters are told from the perspective of an aging musician, and World War II veteran who remains haunted by his time in Italy.

This is one of those novels that I initially wanted to read very much only to push it off due to all the hype, afraid that perhaps I would miss something or have my expectations set too high.  Since I had read some less than raving reviews by the time I got around to it, I think I was in the proper mood set for this, and was pleasantly impressed by the mix of all these intertwining lives and the final product. Walters does not try to make everyone smarter and better by the end of the novel, and he definitely still gently mocks the Hollywood industry, but the characters that are the true heart of the novel add enough humanity for this to be a touching piece of fiction without becoming too sentimental.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Top Ten Books That Will Be in My Beach Bag

I always love looking at the Broke and the Bookish's weekly Top Ten Tuesday but I am horrible at making lists.  However this one is perfect for me at this point in time because the topic is "top ten books that will be in my beach bag this summer" - since my beach vacation is about a week and half away, I've already been planning this!  My actual time off from work starts tomorrow, though.
1. Skin Game by Jim Butcher - okay, that's a lie.  I'm reading this as soon as I get to my parents' on Thursday
2. The Chocolate Kiss by Laura Florand - I've been waiting for the perfect opportunity to read this.
3. Murder of Crows by Anne Bishop - because Written in Red was amazing!
4. Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King - new Stephen King?  Of course I have that on preorder!
5. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - I love everything else I've read by her but have been letting this one sit in my TBR stack for too long
6. Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang or Cleopatra by Stacey Schiff - figured I needed to add least some more serious reading, and both of these are about powerful, misunderstood women
7. Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan - it seems like everyone has read this, and it's time to jump on the band wagon
8. Maya's Notebook by Isabel Allende - Allende is another favorite though I'm so used to her novels having a historical setting; it will be interesting to see where this one goes
9. The Outlaw Demon Wails by Kim Harrison - my current fun escapist series
10. The World of Yesterday by Jared Diamond - love his nonfiction books.
11. Where She Went by Gayle Forman (since my #1 doesn't really count) - I just read If I Stay, and was thoroughly impressed.  Usually my forays into YA tend to involve supernatural or dystopian settings.
As this list probably makes obvious, I'm one of those people that interprets beach read as lighter fare.
The Silkworm would be on that list except it isn't released until after I leave for my trip!

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Summer Reading Challenge Month 1 Check In

Today is the first check in for the Summer Reading Challenge, and so far, I have ten of the twelve categories done.  I haven't written all my reviews yet, but have linked to the ones that are already posted.  One of the remaining categories is "read a book another blogger has read for the challenge" and based on the responses so far, I'm leaning towards Where'd You Go Bernadette because I've really been wanting to read that or Wild.  Both of those would involve books I don't actually have yet, but have been meaning to read.  Maybe someone else will post and mention that they've read Orphan Train before the end of the day (fingers crossed).  I also noticed that I actually read a book one of the other bloggers read last month (Beautiful Ruins) but I can't count it since I didn't know they were reading it.

5 points: Freebie! Read any book that is at least 200 pages long. - This is Where I Leave You by Jonathon Tropper (352 pages, 3 stars)
10 points: Read a book that was written before you were born. - The King of the Castle by Victoria Holt (288 pages, 3 stars)
10 points: Finish reading a book you couldn't finish the first time around. - The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon (411 pages, 2 stars)
10 points: Read a book from the children's section of the library or bookstore. - The Twistrose Key by Tone Almhjell (336 pages, 4 stars)
15 points: Read a book that is on The New York Times' Best Sellers List when you begin reading it. - Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan (8 on paperback nonfiction when I started) (288 pages, 4 stars)
15 points: Read a historical fiction book that does not take place in Europe. - Palisades Park by Alan Brennert (New Jersey) (448 pages, 4 stars)
20 points: Read a book with "son(s)," "daughter(s)" or "child(ren)" in the title. - Son of a Gun by Justin St. Germain (272 pages, 3 stars)
20 points: Read a book that was/will be adapted to film in 2014. - Serena by Ron Rash (371 pages, 4 stars)
25 points: Read a biography, autobiography or memoir. - I Don't Know What You Know Me From by Judy Greer (256 pages, 4 stars)
30 points: Read a pair of books with antonyms in the titles. Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok (307 pages, 4 stars) and This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff (304 pages, 3 stars)
Point total: 160/200

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Book 57: Dorothy Must Die

I feel like in some ways I missed out or just didn't care for some of the defining childhood movies that seem to capture people's imaginations.  Alice in Wonderland scared me, and while I assume I must have seen The Wizard of Oz as a kid, it didn't leave much of an impression on me.  Four years ago, a friend of mine had a bunch of us over to watch it the night before we were all planning on seeing Wicked in Richmond, and I was surprised by just how corny it seemed.  Even for a kid's movie, it didn't seem scary or dark at all.  Despite this, I have been drawn to re-imaginings of these worlds - maybe hoping that someone else's fascination with the topics would help me appreciate them more.  While my recent venture into a Alice in Wonderland spin off was a bit of a mixed bag (great world building, lack luster heroine, horrible love interest), Dorothy Must Die was mostly a success.  Yes, there is the automatic romance that seems to come with YA, but it wasn't a triangle, and never completely took center stage.  For the most part, this story remains centered on the protagonist, and while she occasionally makes mistakes and asks dumb questions, she mostly tries her best and attempts to do the right thing.

Amy Gumm lives in a trailer park with her mom in Kansas.  After her father left them and her mom was in an accident, her mom became a drug addict, and a rather neglectful parent.  As a result, Amy finds herself alone in their trailer except for her mom's pet rat Star in the midst of tornado that rips up the trailer and takes Amy straight to Oz.  Once there, there is nothing for Amy to do but follow the Yellow Brick Road but she quickly realizes that this is nothing like the beloved movie.  The landscape seems darker, deserted and the one person she does see barely wants to interact with her.  It turns out that Dorothy came back because Kansas just wasn't that exciting anymore after being a hero in Oz.  She has become obsessed with magic, and taken over the government.

While I haven't read the Oz novels, Dorothy Must Die draws from both the film and the novels since Ozma is mentioned several times as the rightful ruler (I'd never even heard of Ozma until I saw a review of the James Franco Oz film critiquing the fact that while these novels were rather feminist novels, the movies were suddenly making the guy the main focus).  Amy becomes drawn into a plot with the Wicked, a coalition of witches dedicated to fighting Dorothy, though Amy wisely doesn't trust anyone.  She realizes there is much that she does not know, both about Oz's past and what Dorothy is doing.  Still, she can't exactly argue with the fact that Dorothy is evil, even if she has the feeling that there is much more going than she realizes.

I was quickly drawn into the story, and had a lot of fun reading it, though I have two complaints.  One is not actually about the novel but the book jacket.  The back has a list of tasks except that these things aren't even mentioned as necessary until the last two or three pages of the novel.  As a result, I kept waiting for someone to bring up those things rather than focusing purely on Dorothy's assassination.  It's just a minor complaint, and it's not even really a spoiler but it is a distraction.  My other issue was with the portrayal of Dorothy.  I thought the idea of Dorothy coming back as evil was fascinating, especially since her evil is disguised behind this guise of fake sweetness.  However, the one thing that did bug me about Dorothy's portrayal is the fact that she is portrayed as a bit of vamp.  I just would have enjoyed the portrayal of evil Dorothy more if it hadn't been so focused on her being a spoiled brat who dressed in way too revealing clothes.  Basically, why does slutty/trashy have to be evil?  Because in this case, there is definitely negative judgment involved in Dorothy's choice of style.  It's not that revealing or sexy clothes bother me but the fact that they are described in negative ways, making Dorothy appear vain and petty rather than a powerful and evil woman who managed to take over a whole kingdom.

I'm definitely looking forward to seeing how this series progresses.   However, I wonder if I might need to read the original kids books because I'm not sure how many of the witches and other characters were created by Paige, and how many are adaptations of characters already familiar to those that know Oz.  Considering that I've been thinking I might need to read them since I saw all the discussions of the feminism in the original series and the character of Ozma, it really might be time to do that regardless.

Book 56: Girl in Translation

Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate to New York at some not quite determined time prior to 1997, before China would regain control of Hong Kong.  Even though her mother's older sister has already lived in the US for several years and helped them with all the paperwork, they do not face an easy road.  In fact, Aunt Paula takes advantage of their family relationship, putting her younger sister to work in her sweat shop, barely paying her because she has to pay off her debt.  She finds them an apartment in a condemned building with no heat, and broken windows.  Despite the presence of family, the two Changs are basically on their own, Kim's father having died years before.

Though she had always been a top student at home, Kim struggles with English, and has a hard time in school.  It doesn't help that her teacher seems to be burnt out on the whole process and has no interest in putting in any extra work with his students.  However, Kim makes one friend at the school, which helps her develop her English.  When she isn't at school, she is at the factory with her mom because without Kim's help, there is no way she could keep up with her quota.  The Changs are not the only family that have to work together at the sweat shop to make ends meet, and Kim becomes friendly with one of the boys, Matt.

Fortunately, Kim's skills in math translate even in English, and she quickly uses this to get better opportunities and attend a better school.  The novel documents her struggle to fit in at a school with privileged children and keep up with the course load while also basically working a full time job.  While I think the novel did a good job of describing the difficult life Kim and her mother faced, and the conditions they lived and worked in, in some ways, it seemed like Kim overcame all her obstacles more easily than seemed reasonable.  Despite the fact that she barely has time to sleep between all her obligations, at no point does Kim crash or seem to have any struggles staying awake.  She worked hard, so it's not as if she didn't earn it, and yet, it seemed impossible for her to actually balance everything.  Still, once everything in her life seems on track, she has a few more problems thrown her way.

While it's not a perfect novel, I quite enjoyed it, and thought the comparisons between Kim's situation and the lives of her classmates were well drawn.  I think maybe I'm just being a bit nit picky with my complaints as well because the novel does really attempt to show their struggles, and points out instances when Kim gets lucky opportunities.  Overall, I'd definitely recommend it, and I wished I'd actually picked it up earlier.  I think one reason I kept holding off is because I felt like I would easily be able to predict the entire storyline and ending.  While in some ways this was the case, Kwok drew such a detailed picture of poverty and the sweat shops that this more than made up for any reoccurring themes from other immigrant stories. 

Book 55: Son of a Gun

Winner of the Barnes and Noble First Time Authors award, this book is also responsible for MsWas taking a small break from running the CBR long enough to write a review.  With those two marks in its favor, it was only a matter of time until I read this, and since it also helps me fulfill a requirement for one of my many reading challenges, this seemed like the perfect time.
Unfortunately, while I thought book was strongly written, it didn't move me nearly as much.  Justin St. Germain wrote this book over a decade after his mother's murder.  While he was in college in Tucson, AZ, his stepfather Ray shot and killed his mother in their trailer near Tombstone before disappearing.  A few months later, Ray's body was found, having committed suicide.  The book chronicles Germain's attempts at coming to terms with his mother's death, and her life.  Debbie had a history of failed relationships, though not all of them were abusive.  In fact, most people thought of Ray, her fifth husband, as a good guy, and were surprised by his actions.  Since Ray and Debbie are both dead, there are no answers as to what specifically happened that day in 2001.  Instead, one gets the idea that this is an opportunity for Germain to learn more about his mother's life and the woman he remembers.

While he discusses meeting with two different men that his mother had dated in her past, one of whom had been abusive, none of these really give him clearer understanding of the past.  Debbie comes off as as a strong, capable woman who also picked the wrong men.  After her failed first marriage left her with two sons, she chose to try her luck out west, feeling drawn to Arizona ever since an earlier trip there.  At various points, Germain describes his mother as a successful business woman, while also referring to their life style as white trash.  I thought it was fascinating how both could be true.  She had several successful business ventures, but one gets the idea she would move on out of boredom or due to the next relationship, and by the time she was married to Ray, she occasionally mentions financial issues to her sons.

I think this book is probably a very honest look into the grief process and how humans reconcile the past, but it was not really the type of thing I'm usually drawn to.  Since the author was already in his late teens when his mother died, he already knew his mother.  I'm sure a lot of the things he mentions in the book were things he discovered during his research, but it didn't seem like that with few exceptions.  I think I would have preferred if he'd really talked about the things he learned as he went back and the way people saw his mother, but it felt more like a regular biography of her life intermixed with the history of Tombstone and Wyatt Earp.  Basically, I feel bad because I feel like not liking this more is a judgment of Debbie or Justin St. Germain, but I just didn't find myself that involved with this book.

A to Z Survey

I saw this fun bookish survey over at Roof Beam Reader the other day, and he originally got it from The Perpetual Page Turner.

Author you’ve read the most books from:

Stephen King.  I've been reading him for around twenty years now, and he may not be my favorite author ever, but the man is prolific.

Best Sequel Ever:

Academ's Fury by Jim Butcher is my favorite book in The Codex Alera and one of the best second books in a series.  I also enjoyed Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende which was loosely related to her novel The House of Spirits.

Currently Reading:

I actually just finished a book and can't decide what to read next.  The smart choice would be to do my homework ...

Drink of Choice While Reading:

Water, usually.  Sometimes tea or hot chocolate if it's cold.

E-reader or Physical Book?

Physical book, no question.  I have a Kindle, and only use it on long vacations.

Fictional Character You Probably Would Have Actually Dated In High School:

Jon Snow.  I have no idea.  Maybe someone like Lucas from Women of the Otherworld.

Glad You Gave This Book A Chance:

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.  I wanted to read it, then I was turned off by the hype, and then I finally read and loved it a year later.

Hidden Gem Book:

A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell.  I'm not sure if this is really a hidden gem because she isn't exactly an unknown author, but I think this is the novel of hers that gets the least mentions.

Important Moment in your Reading Life:

This one is hard because I don't feel like there is one defining moment.  I've always been a reader.  However, when Pajiba started the Cannonball Read, it was definitely influential in connecting me with other readers.

Just Finished:

Kinds of Books You Won’t Read:

Christian fiction, except for that time I bought what I thought was chick lit only to discover it wasn't.  Really, anything too religious.  Generally, avoid self-help type things, or anything along the lines of "Habits of Successful People."

Longest Book You’ve Read:

War and Peace.

Major book hangover because of:

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Number of Bookcases You Own:

5, 2 of which are short.  The stacks of books I have on the floor would probably fill one or two more (I only put books on the shelf once they are read; TBR books remain in a stack on the floor.)

One Book You Have Read Multiple Times:

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Preferred Place To Read:

At home, or coffee shop.  Unfortunately, only one Starbucks in the area still has the nice cushy chairs.  The others have a small area with table and chairs because they have the drive thru.

Quote that inspires you/gives you all the feels from a book you’ve read:

There are two from The Book Thief that just get me.

"I am haunted by humans."

"I have hated words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right."

Reading Regret:

I feel like I should read more classics, but I don't think it's quite a regret.

Series You Started And Need To Finish(all books are out in series):

Harry Hole novels.  The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series.

Three of your All-Time Favorite Books:

East of Eden by John Steinbeck, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Unapologetic Fangirl For:

Dennis Lehane, George R.R. Martin, Jim Butcher, Isabel Allende, Laini Taylor

Very Excited For This Release More Than All The Others:

Landline by Rainbow Rowell

Worst Bookish Habit:

Buying hardcovers and not getting around to them until they've been released as paperbacks; binging on new authors instead of pacing them out; falling way behind on reviews.

X Marks The Spot: Start at the top left of your shelf and pick the 27th book:

I can't do this right now, because my bookshelves and books have been packed up and are currently in storage.  :(

Your latest book purchase:

The last books I bought for myself included Snow, Boy, Bird and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.  My most recent actual purchase were some kids books for a friend's niece and nephew, including If I Had a Raptor.  I also preordered three upcoming releases a few months back, and the first of those shipped this week - Skin Game, the newest Harry Dresden, but since I'm moving I don't physically have it, it's at my parents' address.  So whichever one of those you want to count.

ZZZ-snatcher book (last book that kept you up WAY late):

Dreams of Gods and Monsters by Laini Taylor.  The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black would have if I hadn't started it early in the day.  However, I did keep pushing off starting my paper because of that novel.

If anyone else decides to do this, please leave me a comment so I can check out your answers!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

8 Years

Since I went the traditional high school/college route, the end of May always marks the date of my college graduation, my commissioning into the Army, my active duty date, or the day I actually started my Army career, and the beginning of my blog (since I neglected to check, I've missed the actual blog-iversary by a week).  I've been on the summer PCS cycle for my last few change of duty stations, so it's also usually a time when I'm starting to get ready to leave and say goodbye to places and friends. It's even more so this year.  My last few report dates have been early August, which means that once leave is accounted for, I generally find myself leaving around the beginning of July.  This year, my report date is a bit earlier, so everything has been pushed up about a month.  Even though I have known I would be moving in the summer since last fall, in many ways this seems like one of my quickest moves.  I think this is mostly due to the fact that things don't really seem real to me until I have my orders so even though I've known since early April that I would be arriving at my next location in July, I've had my orders for only two weeks.
I originally started my blog as a way to keep up with friends and family as embarked on my Army career.  At that point, I was still very uncertain and hesitant about the whole Army thing, and thought of it as a temporary situation.  Once I arrived at my first duty station, I realized the need to more closely monitor what I said, especially given the fact that Soldiers I was responsible for could have stumbled upon some of my comments.  I totally was thinking that even before I realized that my blog wasn't quite as anonymous as I thought, and I was called into the battalion commander's office ... Oops.  As a result, the blog slowly shifted from a very narrow personal blog about my first few months in the Army to a place where I would occasionally discuss travel and books.  I was already on the way to becoming a book blogger when Pajiba started up the Cannonball Read program, thus giving me a community to participate in.  I am not sure if I would still be blogging if it hadn't been for CBR (not even my parents read my book reviews - my dad gets bored), and in recent years, I've also tried to get more involved with other book sites.  However, I'm still a somewhat inconsistent blogger, even after eight years.  Maybe one of these days I'll actually get around to having some type of blogging schedule or weekly scheduled programming.
Rereading some of my older posts, it is so surprising how clueless I was on occasion about the military and life in general.  I mean, I really thought it would be easy get a PhD and get an actual well paying position as an English professor if I got out of the Army ...  In the last eight years, I've been to three duty stations, various Army schools, two deployments to Iraq and am about to go to my next assignment, and deploy to Afghanistan.  I'm a third of the way done with an online masters program, have a Siamese cat, have traveled to various countries (mostly in Europe, but also Thailand!), and have made various friends, even meeting a few people I'd only known through Pajiba or, more specifically, Cannonball Read (hey Dene and Malin!).  I definitely am not where I would have pictured myself eight years ago, but I've also done many things I never would have imagined, and think so far things are working in my favor.  Hopefully, everything works out for me even as the Army downsizes its forces!

Fortunately, my household goods have all been picked up, so the biggest part of the move is done!  Now I just have a few small, but important things to take care of, but can enjoy my last few days in town before heading out.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Book 54: Every Which Way But Dead

While the previous two novels have been rather similar to most series, focusing on one major case each, the third novel in the series is less concerned with a case of the week, and instead takes a look at the fall out from the last novel.
At the end of the last novel, Rachel knew had taken down Piscary, the vampire lord of the crimeworld, made a deal with a demon to serve as his familiar in exchange for his testimony, and accidentally made Nick her familiar, leading to a rift in their relationship.  Ivy had been forced to give in to her bloodlust with Piscary, and Rachel had found out there was a connection between her father and Trent Kalamack's father.  Every Which Way But Dead kicks off three months later after Piscary has been sentenced to 500 years in jail.  It is time for the demon, "Big Al," to collect his debt, and Rachel manages to find a way to both follow the terms of the contract but escape being dragged to the underworld.  Al shows up throughout the rest of the novel as Rachel must find a way to permanently escape him or find an arrangement that will work for both of them.  It helps that he left his last familiar behind, an elf that was bound to him for a millenium, and Ceri is more than happy to help Rachel.  Ivy is continuing to drink blood though she refuses to step in and serve as Piscary's scion.  Even though Kisten, to whom Rachel has a bit of an attraction, tries to step in, there is an obvious power void in Cincinnati and a mysterious Saladan is starting to take over some turf.  Not only is he going after the vampire's powerholds, he is also intefering with Trent's business.  Meanwhile, Nick decides he needs some time away, still not dealing with Rachel's pull of power through him very well and skips town.
While I am enjoying the series, I go back and forth on Rachel.  She is impulsive, can clearly look out for herself but is somewhat lacking in judgment.  She appears to sometimes veer too strictly to the idea of "illegal means it's bad" (kind of reminds me of psych class and Kohlberg's stages of moral development; I see Rachel as still being that adolescent mind set) as can be seen with how she reacts to Trent and his genetic research (yes, alternate universe and history so genetic/bio research led to some bad things but how else are you going to treat diseases?).  She also seems to have issues dressing herself - though this has been jokingly mentioned in the previous novels, in this one, her date actually picks out her clothes for her because her idea of nice wouldn't work for the local at all (she even admits later that she would have looked like an escort).  I also am not a huge fan of her taste in men.  I mean, I prefer her re-bound guy to Nick, but I still don't get why she was even into Nick, especially since she keeps referring to him as a nice guy.  To everyone else reading the series, Nick is obviously shady so while he may be a nice person to her, he still isn't a safe bet.  I was so happy when he skipped town.
Overall, it was a fun novel, and this is one of the few times I will say that the lack of a central plot worked for a series.  I know some of the Stackhouse novels got to the point where they just felt like cameos from characters mixed with Sookie doing random things, but I think in this case, it does a good job of tying up questions from previous novels, and setting the stage for things to come.  In fact, it even explains why the werewolves were so protective of the fish Rachel stole in the previous novel.  Basically, a well done transition with just enough action to be interesting while also developing characters and their changing roles in the greater picture.