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.

Book 53: The Good, the Bad and the Undead

The second book in The Hollows series continues to follow the adventures of Rachel Morgan.  At this point, Rachel reminds me a quite a bit of Harry Dresden as she is continuously just barely getting herself out of scrapes, and very good at making enemies.  Also, as this novel shows, there is clearly something about her own history and family background that she doesn't know.  It was already established in the previous novel that her dad died mysteriously, and this one throws out a few more small clues about things he may have been involved with.
Given the title, it probably isn't a surprise that vampires play a large role.  Ivy's struggles to maintain her humanity and not give into her vampire side continue in this novel, and actually get worse as living with Rachel takes its toll.  Rachel also finally meets Piscary, famous old vampire, restaurant owner and relative of Ivy.  Nick and Rachel have been dating since the last novel, but Rachel is surprised to discover three months in that Nick has continued to summon the demon that attacked them in Dead Witch Walking.  He basically thinks he has it figured out, and never gives the demon any important information.  Rachel sees the world in a very black and white way, so she is less than happy about this arrangement, though she continues to happily date Nick.  I think it is only the reader (and all of Rachel's friends) that have any issues or doubts about the character.
The case of the week in this novel surrounds the deaths of various ley line witches.  The only link between them that the police (or what counts as police in this world) have found is that they all had the same professor, a woman that once kicked Rachel out of her class, telling her she was inept.  Rachel has spent the last two novels explaining that she is an earth witch, believing that ley lines make the lines too blurry, but her connection in FIB, Edden, enrolls her in the class to get closer to the professor.
For the most part, I had fun while reading this but Rachel's ability to jump to conclusions and not follow directions was irritating.  Her first suspect in the murders is Trent Kalamack, and she remains completely fixed on this notion despite lack of evidence.  While in a lot of these types of novels, the characters sometimes have hunches that go against the evidence, usually there is some type of real justification to them.  I have a hard time following Rachel in her hunches because I think she's obsessed and jumps easily jumps to the wrong conclusions.  In fact, it is sometimes surprising why her partners are all so supportive of her.  However, the series is immensly readable and I can't help but want to know what happens next.  At least Rachel does tend to at least start to redeem herself or pull back just when I find myself becoming incredibly annoyed with her actions.  I've also heard from Malin that is mainly in the first few books that Rachel has a tendency to be a bit stupid.  I'm starting to realize that I thought the character was older than she actually is - though she worked for the IS for seven years and has mentioned taking college classes, she is only 25 rather than the late twenties I had originally assumed, and four years can still make quite a difference in maturity and personality at that point.

Book 52: Serena

I haven't seen Winter's Bone yet, but while reading this, I kept wondering how audiences were going to react to Jennifer Lawrence, America's sweetheart, as a ruthless bitch.  Set in a logging camp in 1929 North Carolina, Serena is a hard woman with no time for sentimentality, and there are definitely things about her to admire.  She holds her own among the men,and is often the smartest person in the room.  She knows more about logging than most if not all of the men, and she and her husband are equals in their marriage, both passionate and ambitious.  However, Serena won't let anything stop her, and as a result, the further the novel progresses the more people fall victim as they oppose or stand in the way of Serena and George Pemberton's ambitions.
I think one thing that especially emphasizes their villainy, especially today when we face so many environmental issues, is their complete disregard for nature, happily cutting down all the trees, and going on various hunting trips.  At one point, they kill twelve deer and just leave them in a clearing (you'd think someone in the logging camp would have eaten them), and one of George's dreams is to kill the last mountain lion in the area that may or may not exist.  Even though I wanted them to fail, I couldn't help but view Serena as an unstoppable force, and if only she'd been working for a cause I supported, her ability to read people and figure out exactly what she wants and how to get it, would have been a great asset.  Instead, she has made herself the top dog in a dog eat dog world, and woe to anyone that even threatens to get in her way.
The novel kicks off with Pemberton's return to North Carolina, new bride in tow, after a trip to Boston to settle his father's estate after his death.  Their welcome party includes a heavily pregnant teenager, Rachel, and her father, a drunk who wants to make Pemberton pay for his treatment of Rachel.  From the start, Serena shows herself at home in this rough and tumble world which feels more like the Wild West than the late 1920's.  Rather than being upset about her husband's past or shrieking at the thought of murder, she commands her husband to take a stand, and tells the unfortunate girl not to expect anything from them, ever.  Especially in the beginning, Serena is a conflicting character.  While she is cold and lacking in empathy, it was refreshing to see a woman in this world take control.  It wasn't until her actions went from unsympathetic to truly evil that I really started disliking her.
Though the novel is called Serena, the reader never completely gets to know Serena.  She is only portrayed through the eyes of others, and sometimes she is a woman with hidden depths in vulnerability, other times an unbreakable spirit, an unfathomable mystery or a caricature of evil.  There are chapters and parts that are from the perspective of various loggers, Pemberton himself, and several from Rachel.  In fact while Serena may be the force driving everything happening in the novel, in ways it felt like Rachel was the main character since she is the one that the reader spends the most time with.  While I found parts of the novel incredibly distasteful because of the actions of the Pembertons, it left a deep impression on me.  The loggers bear witness to what goes on around them, and through their eyes we see the destruction of nature, and how their presence has affected the valley in so many ways.  They see the ways that the balance of nature has been tampered with but being in the midst of the Great Depression have no choice but to be grateful for any type of job, even if they hate the results of what they are doing, and watch their friends and coworkers die around them, sometimes because of logging accidents and sometimes because of the Pembertons.
I really enjoyed this dark, poetic novel, though it may not be for everyone (some people complained of animal abuse and some of the hunting scenes were a bit hard to stomach because of the sheer waste).  In fact, the author was said he was inspired by theater and the idea of an Elizabethan play.  The story basically occurs in five acts, and the loggers are his version of a Greek chorus.  I never even would have heard of this novel if it hadn't been for the film, so I'm looking forward to see how it turns out (I can definitely see Jennifer Lawrence working well with this role, it will just be a surprise after her other work; I'm more skeptical about Bradley Cooper's casting), and want to check out more of Rash's work.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Book 51: The Thing Around Your Neck

I loved Adichie's first two novels, and intend to read Americanah very soon.  Given that I really enjoy the author, I bought her short story collection as soon as it was released in paperback.  And then avoided reading it because I don't really like short story collections that much.  When I do, it tends to be one's about characters I already know experiencing side adventures, such as Sidejobs, a collection of Harry Dresden stories, or the two collections from the Women of the Otherworld series.  I started pretty strong with this one, and actually read about half the stories in one weekend, and then decided to take a break.  I finally picked it back up and finished it three weeks later.
For the most part, I liked all the stories, and I thought she wrapped them up really well - while I still would have preferred novels and longer narratives, I wasn't left wanting more.  She clearly sets up her characters and their lives in the short time she has in the pages devoted to them.  Having read her previous work, I also didn't feel completely clueless about Nigeria's history, culture and differing ethnic backgrounds, which helped me avoid too much confusion with some of the specifics.  The stories take place in both Nigeria and America, focusing not only on life in Nigeria, but exploring the immigrant's experience as well.  She provides a snap shot of a variety of Nigerian women through this lense.
I think the last two stories of the collection were actually my favorite.  "Tomorrow is Too Far" deals with a woman's return to Africa for her grandmother's funeral after an eighteen year absence, ever since her older brother died one summer.  The last story, "The Headstrong Historian," is very reminiscent Things Fall Apart and Adichie's own novel, Purple Hibiscus, as it takes place in the late 19th century, and talks about the influence of white missionaries and the rift it causes between old traditions and the new generation.  I also enjoyed "A Private Experience" about a Christian woman and a Muslim woman hiding together during a riot.  I think my least favorite was "Jumping Monkey Hill" about a writer's retreat, and "The Shivering."  "The Shivering" focuses on a young college student that spends a lot of time talking about her ex-boyfriend.  I think I disliked it because her irritating habit of bringing him up in random conversations may have hit a bit too close to home and, unfortunately, felt like an accurate portrayal of a younger version of me.
If you love short stories or are a bit of a completionist, I would recommend this because Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an amazing author.  However, if you prefer novels, I would definitely start with Half of a Yellow Sun, a novel about Biafra and the Nigerian Civil War, or her debut, Purple Hibiscus, which explores the rifts between old and new and religion in modern Nigeria - I think it is due to this that many early blurbs compared her to Chinua Achebe.  Hopefully, I'll let you know more about Americanah soon, but most of the reviews have been positive.

Book 50: This is Where I Leave You

I noticed one complaint about this novel on Goodreads was the fact that it seemed like reading a novel that was meant to be a movie.  Unfortunately I can't speak to that; given that it has already been optioned as a movie, I couldn't help but see Jason Bateman as the narrator, Judd, and could of course picture how various scenes would play out in the film.  However, I don't know if I would have had those same views if I had read this before I knew it was being made into a movie.
After their father dies, the four siblings of the Foxman family come together for the funeral and to sit shiva for seven days.  The family does not see each other often, and Judd does not feel hopeful about the idea of them spending seven days together straight since his brother Paul is still mad at him from an incident in high school, and the family just has a tendency to combust when in close quarters.  Philip is the pampered baby brother screw up, and Wendy is the oldest sister, married to a man that barely gets off the phone since he's always working on important financial deals.  Judd's in the process of getting a divorce after finding his wife in flagrante with his boss, a shock talk show host.
The novel is entertaining, though it mostly goes how one would expect.  The family clashes, ridiculous things occur, Judd tries to deal with his failed marriage and current unemployment, and there are flirtations with former classmates and flames.  There are the usual discoveries about each other, family and the past.  Basically, it really is the perfect set up for a movie.  It was a quick read, and I definitely want to check out more of Tropper's work.  I could have done with a little less obsessing about sex from Judd but the guy's been cuckolded so it's somewhat understandable.
I'm curious to see the movie and how it all comes together.  I saw that Adam Driver is cast as Philip Foxman, and since I've never seen Girls or any of his work I can't really say if this is a good fit, but based simply on pictures, I hope he loses the goatee.  With the facial hair he strikes me as kind of sleazy, and while Philip messes up all the time, he is also portrayed as someone that is a girl magnet that everyone wants to help redeem himself - there's a fine line between screw up and sleazy scumbag, basically.  I saw that Malin Akerman was at one point cast in the film, and while this is no longer the case, I could absolutely see her as Judd's perfect, gorgeous wife - I'd say seeing her in Trophy Wife has really helped cement that, even though that character is just sweet and goofy - mostly, I think she just has the physical comedy aspect that this role could require down as well as the right personality so that the viewer could understand her appeal to Judd.  Judd just feels like the quintessential Bateman character, overwhelmed, straightman, crazy family.  So while I don't think this is going to be an award winning film, it could definitely be entertaining, or could just as easily run the risk of becoming a cliche.  Given the caliber of the cast, I'm hoping for the former.

Book 49: The Twistrose Key

Though aimed at a younger audience, the novel reminded me a bit of His Dark Materials trilogy.  I think that honestly just may be the animal side kick here that reminded me of the daemon familiars in Pullman's story.  Other than that, it's probably more reminiscent of Narnia, with a human girl chosen to cross the borders between two worlds and save a magical, wintery land - in this case one where favorite, beloved pets go after they die.
It took me a bit to get into this, and I wonder if maybe it was due to the way the language was translated.  However, once Lin has used the twistrose key and is in Sylver, it picks up and flows along nicely.  Lin and her parents recently moved to a new town due to a job opportunity for her mom, and Lin is lonely, having left her best friend behind.  Shortly after they arrive, her pet vole (mouse like creature) Rufus dies, which makes the situation even worse.  Missing the old games she would play with Rufus and her friend, she is playing one of them with herself, when she receives a mysterious key on her doorstep.  When she goes down into the basement and uses it, she ends up in Sylver, and discovers that Rufus is already there, though he is 5 feet tall now.  As he explains to her, he is one of the Petlings, and beloved pets of children end up in this realm after they die.  There are four tribes of petlings, which encompass cats, dogs, rodents and birds, and then there are also a few wildlings in town and the area.  These include a bear and a fox, and other animals that were pets under less usual conditions.
Lin is a Twistrose, and Sylver has a tradition of Twistrose children coming to the land in times of great need to save the realm.  In this case, the last boy of a special family has gone missing, and he is the only one that can do the spell required to keep the magic in Sylver, and prevent its ultimate demise.  However, Lin soon learns that things are much more complicated as there are different factions in the town who seem to have different ideas of how this can best be accomplished.  Additionally, there seems to be a whole other, bigger plot going on that could hinder Lin and prevent her and Rufus from accomplishing her mission.  Lin is very adventurous, but since she and Rufus don't know who to trust, they also quickly find themselves in trouble and getting into various tight spots.
I thought the story was very sweet and enjoyable, but I also feel like it is definitely open for a sequel.  The villain's backstory is only touched upon towards the end of the novel, and I would have loved to hear more about his development and life since what is revealed is sad and tragic.  This was definitely aimed at a slightly younger audience than I usually read but it still managed to have some rather tragic and poignant moments throughout.

Book 48: I Don't Know What You Know Me From

"Say goodbye to these!"  My guess is that most Pajibans are most familiar with Judy Greer due to her portrayal of Kitty on Arrested Development, though she has been in so many things as "the sassy best friend" that she is also one of those people that many recognize even if they don't know her name.  I would just like to say that I totally knew her name even before the book.  I consulted IMDB a few times while reading this, and I was actually surprised when I realized that I hadn't seen more of her roles since I really thought I'd seen her in so many things.  Of the titles she's appeared in, I've seen The Descendants, HIMYM, Elizabethtown, The Village, 13 Going on 30, The Wedding Planner, What Women Want and Three Kings.  Quite a few those caused, "she was in that" reactions too, though I think that had less to do with her perfomance and more with that the fact that I've mostly forgotten (or blocked) what happened in movies like The Village and Elizabethtown.
She breaks her book up into three parts, "Early Life," "Hollywood Life" and "Real Life."  As a result the essays aren't completely chronological since many things are happening in her personal life while she is developing her career, but it worked well for the structure of the book.  She discusses hoping for larger roles and more success, but is also very happy with the fact that she has been working constantly since graduating from acting school.  One very much gets the idea from her that this is a line of work she stumbled into but loves and enjoys.  She landed her first role before a few weeks before graduation because an agent discovered her on the street - she gives all the credit to her fabulous blue raincoat.  She had actually been too lazy to look for an agent before graduation so this was a serendipitous opportunity for her.
I had so much fun reading this.  Greer balanced telling stories about herself with name dropping and tidbits about life in Hollywood perfectly and also had a rather self deprecating view of herself.  In "Press Junket," she reveals how she keeps interviews entertaining for herself and the crew, and I have to make sure to watch some of her interviews now to look for this - she basically has a word of the day that she tries to work into interviews.  In one essay, she mentions that she didn't realize until rather recently that celebrities were sometimes paid to walk down the street with certain brands so that when magazines show shots of stars with Arby's, it's actually advertising, not a caught-in-the-act moment.  Given that, I was actually amused by how many brand names Greer dropped herself throughout the essays.  I haven't quite decided if it was a bit of a joke on the reader or not, but then again, I have quite a bit of brand loyalty myself so I'm sure if I wrote a biography, I might also mention certain stores a few times (however, if she is getting paid, then good for her).  Greer seems to be at that level of success where she can still get away with going on trips to Target (yes, she shares many people's love of Target, a store I have never really been that into) undisturbed though people do recognize her, even if they don't know what they know her from.  She mentions a love of junk food, but since she also mentions running marathons in passing, she probably works it off rather easily.  Of course, she also talks about having to eat healthier now so once again grounds herself in normalcy and doesn't try to convince anyone that she can eat anything she wants and look the way she does.
I thought it was a lot of fun, and it helps that Greer presents herself as someone that is still starstruck.  She is a star but still has the option of normalcy and anonymity when she needs it.  As a result, in this book, she comes off as very real and relatable, a hard worker that would be a great friend in real life and not just the movies.  I also know now what mistakes not to make if I ever meet her thanks to one of her essays.  I would love to know how she would rate me on her "fan profiler," ie when she tries to guess where people know her from.  I wonder if asking her to profile me would be a mistake?

Book 47: Palisades Park

I've enjoyed every single novel I've read by Brennert, and while I always buy them as soon as I see them, they tend to end up lost in my unread stacks of books for months at a time.  I think this may be because as much as I know I can depend on a solid, reliable and informative novel, he is also comfort food.  The narrative and the people will face challenges, and generally, overcome them, even if they face loss and years of struggle.  He's great at providing description and bringing a setting to life, making the reader want to travel to Hawai'i or, in this case, an old amusement park in New Jersey.  In essence, he's a writer you save for when you want a good read that spans years, but when you don't necessarily expect something groundbreaking.  Once again, he succeeds in delivering a good novel that just seems to completely encapsule the time and place he is describing, though I also think that this one is even more about the place than the characters.  Compared to Rachel and Jin of Moloka'i and Honolulu respectively, the Stopkas don't leave much of an impression.  They are merely a way to chronicle the park, and its various colorful people, rides and concessions.
However, while the Stopka family may be placeholders more than anything else, they still have a generally engaging, if predictable and fortunate story.  Unlike Brennert's previous novels, there doesn't appear to be much struggle for Eddie, Adele and their two children Toni and Jack (Jack's war experience being one exception).  Eddie finds and keeps a job during the Great Depression, and he and Adele have a quick but simple romance.  Together they rise from clerks at concession booths to owners.  Basically, even when bad things happen, they tend to overcome them rather quickly and easily.  Toni ends up being the main character, a young girl that grew up around the Palisades Park, spent her summers in the pool with various historical figures of the Park as her friends and adult figures in her life.  Surrounded by a carnie life of sorts, she dreams of being a high diver.
Though the story itself is a simple story about middle class Americans living and working at an amusement park, it is all the surrounding detail that makes the story.  Many of the performances, acts and people mentioned in the novel actually were a part of the park.  Brennert, having grown up in Jersey and visited the park as a child, even gives a shot out to the man that owned the corner store where he bought his comic books.  It is in all these minor characters that the novel comes to life and distinguishes itself.  After reading this, I wanted to go to Palisades Park and have some french fries from a concession stand, and later have a hot dog from one of the local neighborhood diners.  I would definitely recommend this book for someone that just wants a novel that transports them to another time and place, where things turns out well if people work for them, and a story that provides a glimpse of a place that once was.

Book 46: The Light in the Ruins

I've been a bit disappointed with Bohjalian's most recent novels.  They were still good but just not quite what I had come to expect of him.  While I don't think this ranks up with my favorite novels of his, such as Skeletons at the Feast, it is a definite improvement over the last two, and I was excited to keep reading and see what happened.  It probably helped that it was historical fiction wrapped in a murder mystery.
It appears that Italy is becoming a rather popular setting for Holocaust related books and novels at the moment.  At least, I feel like I've seen more of them in the past few years than I had previously (A Thread of Grace is still my favorite, and I'm not sure if I would include that as part of the more recent trend of books I've been seeing or not).  Unlike the last two I read (It Happened in Italy and The Golden Hour), I actually really liked this one.  I think that it helps quite a bit that Bohjalian didn't use a first person narrator, and used his novel to explore various perspectives.  While there is a young woman who is a bit naive in her interactions with the Germans, and has a German suitor, she is only one of many characters rather than the protagonist.  Additionally, she still seems a bit more aware of what is going on around her.
After a brutal killing in 1950s Florence, Serafina, the only woman in the crime squad, is assigned to the case with her partner, and when a second murder targets the same family, Serafina quickly focuses in on the past and the war as the motive behind the deaths.  The novel flashes back and forth between the investigation, and World War II era Tuscany and the family home of the Rosatis.  Their oldest son is at war in Sicily, the middle child is working in Florence helping to preserve Italy's cultural heritage by working with the Germans, and hoping to prevent them from plundering too much, and the baby of the family, Cristina, lives at home at Villa Chimera with her parents and sister-in-law Francesca.  Cristina eventually begins a flirtation with a German soldier that works with her brother Vittore in Florence.  Serafina and Cristina are around the same age, but Serafina was part of the resistance, and lost her family to the regime, though they had initially benefitted from it.  However, Serafina has holes in her memories surrounding the war, especially the event that caused her injury, and the interactions with the Rosatis and her visit to the ruins of the Villa Chimera cause flashes of recognition.
The novel examines the past and how it still haunts Italy years later.  While some such as Serafina could proudly say that had always fought against the Germans, for others the past is much darker and murkier.  They either supported Mussolini, or collaborated with the Germans.  The Rosatis, for example, by trying to appease the Germans, end up looking like collaborators to the surrounding villagers.  By the end of the war, there wasn't really a way to walk a middle path, and everyone faced losses.
I think one thing that helped this novel is that it focused on a relatively small story and scale.  Bohjalian didn't try to force some discovery about the Jews into his novel, and the characters remained focused on their own survival and that of their country.  It seems like so often authors feel they need to address the Holocaust when writing novels set in the war, and it becomes almost unrealistic because not every family sheltered Jews or paid attention to what was going on, purposely keeping a blind eye.  Also, while there is the mystery of the killer, Bohjalian as usual is much more focused on the characters and the story.  As a result, readers can make guesses, but it's not one of those stories that sets up the clues so that the reader can figure it out as they read.  The murders and deaths are almost beside the point, and used as a starting point to explore the past.  The novel was an improvement on both Bohjalian's previous novels and other novels about World War II Italy, and as a result of that I call it a success.  While it wasn't the best of either of those previously listed categories, it was worth the read, and I am looking forward to Bohjalian's next novel rather than feeling subdued cautiuos optimism.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Book 45: South of Broad

I read Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides a year or two ago, since it was a rather famous title (although I think that is due to the influence of the book and the movie combined), and I mostly liked it.  Some things I felt were probably just a matter of the time differences since it was written in the '80s.  However as bizarre and over the top as some of Conroy's story lines seemed, I felt like it all worked within its context, and the story stayed with me.  Then again, I think any novel that involves a circus tiger killing a seal is going to leave a mark.
I liked The Prince of Tides enough to want to read more by Conroy but also wasn't in a hurry to follow up on that since parts of it did seem so, well, crazy.  South of Broad is a more recent novel of Conroy's and as a result, it may not have been the smartest pick.  The book is incredibly readable, and there are definitely parts where the language just sweeps the reader along.  However, it also showcases the flaws much more, packing just a few too random many instances and occurrences into these characters' lives.  My main problem, however, was with the character description of the main character Leopold Bloom King vs. his actions, and the dialogue which just seemed fake.  I think I would have been much more willing to accept melodrama if the dialogue had rang true at all.
The novel is broken up into five parts.  The first takes place in the summer of 1969 when Leo meets all the people that will forever change his life and be his friends.  There are various new students at the school, and as the principal's son, he is tasked to take them under his wing but also keep them at a distance since his strict mom recognizes that some of these kids have issues.  In fact, Leo even states towards the beginning if he had known the future, he never would have followed his mom's orders and met the orphans, the twins, and the expelled rich kids (this made me expect some epic betrayal or The Secret History type of craziness, but that wasn't the case).  The second part flashes forward to the novel's present day, 20 years later, when Sheba, one of the twins and academy award winning actress comes back to town to ask for a favor, which takes the gang to San Francisco during part III. The fourth part flashes back to their senior year and shows how their friendships developed, only to return to "present" day Charleston and the final fall out and drama.
The novel is narrated by Leo King, and his circle of friends consists of the orphans, Starla and Neil; the twins, the glamorous Sheba and her gay brother Trevor; the expelled rich kids, Molly and Chad, as well as Betty, another orphan, Chad's sister and Ike, the black football coach's son, because it's time for the school to integrate, and Leo is super accepting of everyone, rich, poor, gay, straight, black, white.  Basically every social issue one can imagine affects the lives of these students, and they are all always on the right side of history.  It's nice to have such progressive characters but seems unrealistic how easily everyone just seemed to fit in with each other.  The orphans, who have run away several times in the pas, and have been through a series of orphanages, suddenly easily find their place in the new school, and everyone here, despite whatever background they may have, has practically no problem overcoming prejudices about race, class and sexual orientation.  I think I could have overlooked all that but the dialogue was too stilted.  One on the hand, the novel claims that this group of people have been best friends for twenty years, and yet their conversations feel like exposition.  Shouldn't they already know these things about each other?  Shouldn't Neil and his wife have already discussed how they feel about the idea of roots, the past and family in the twenty years they've been together rather than here?  Every thing is over the top.  At one point, 18 year old Leo refers to Neil as "son."  Seriously?  You are the same age.  Who talks like that?  This wasn't a case of precocious teens but was just a matter of unrealistic dialogue that felt stilted and staged more than anything else.

Leo is in love with all the female characters at one point or another or simultaneously, and even though he describes himself as ugly and a bit of an outsider due to his time in the mental hospital and his drug conviction, he is also on the football team and basically sets himself up as a leader and important voice of reason within the school.  It just didn't pass the common sense test for me.

Overall, the novel was crazy, the characters were irritating and irrational, and yet I could imagine worse novels to read.  Despite all its flaws, there is still something slightly gripping about the narrative, even if it is just a matter of wanting to see how this train wreck is going to proceed, and what other completely off the wall plot line is going to be added to the story.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Book 44: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

This is the first audiobook I've ever read/listened to, and I think in this case the narrator worked well for the story, since she didn't distract me.  In Tana's world, vampires are real.  When she was only six, a vampire decided he was tired of living in the shadows, and infected many people, leading to a worldwide epidemic.  In Black's world, you don't have to drink vampire blood to switch over, but you are infected once they bite you, and if you drink human blood while infected, you will die and wake up a vampire.  Given the uncontrollable hunger that accompanies the infection, most give in.  By the time Tana was seven, vampires were common knowledge.  Now, Tana is sixteen, and vampires and humans have found a way to live together in the US, at least to an extent.  The vampires have all been segregated and locked up in Coldtowns, seven of which exist in America.  Springfield, Massachusetts is the first and oldest as the location of the first outbreak and also relatively close to Tana's hometown.  Vampires are seen as both scary, dangerous creatures as a result of the last ten years but also glamorous, a way to a better life.  This is a view that the vampires encourage with live streams to Coldtown and its parties as well as various reality shows - the online videos make money and entice humans to come to Coldtowns, thus providing the vampires a steady blood supply.  This has all been a common part of Tana's life for ten years when she wakes up in the bathtub one morning, and realizes that she is a survivor of a vampire massacre at a high school party.
However, she soon realizes that she is not alone when she finds her ex, Aidan, and a vampire, both tied or chained up in a downstairs bedroom.  Aidan is infected, and Gavriel, the other vampire, is in some type of trouble with the vampires that caused the massacre, and who are still in the house.  Tana saves them both, and in the course of the rescue, one of the vampires manages to scrape her leg.  Since Aidan is definitely affected and she can't tell if she has enough venom in her system to be or not, Tana decides to drive Coldtown for the safety of everyone else, and to try to defeat the virus, avoiding the temptation to turn for the next 88 days.
Even though Aidan and Tana clearly have a history and their break up hurt her, I really liked the fact that the novel didn't make him a love interest.  Based on the descriptions of him as human and an infected person controlled by hunger, it is obvious that he is selfish, though charming.  In fact, he often comes off as a bit of a tool, and Tana appears to have little interest in rekindling anything during their time on the run.  However, she is clearly drawn to the odd, mysterious and unbalanced Gavriel.  I really liked Gavriel, and enjoyed the fact that Black gave him more background.
The narrative clearly showed the risks of Coldtown, and Tana's own background explains both her aversion and her draw to the idea of being a vampire.  She was a very resourceful heroine, and I loved the fact that she didn't get distracted by romantic interests, though she had an interest in Gavriel.  Her main priority is always her sister, and making sure that Pearl is safe, and if that means Tana has to break off contact with her, she will.  Black did a great job of portraying the Coldtown, and the type of people that might live there, a mix of humans trapped by the quarantine and people drawn to the idea of immorality, hoping to please a vampire enough to be "worthy" of infection.
I also just loved how intricate and detailed the plot was, though I guessed quite a few things before Tana and became suspicious at various times.  However, Tana is still very smart, and after Splintered, I was just so happy to have a protagonist who took the lead, and even saved the boys around her rather than being completely reliant on everyone around her.  The novel is primarily told from Tana's perspectives but alternate chapters provide different view points, such as Pearl and Gavriel, and flashes into Tana's own past.  The novel ended in the perfect place.  It works great as a stand-alone which is what is listed as on her Goodreads author page, but Black could easily revisit Coldtown if she wanted to.  Personally, I'd be curious to see what's going on in San Francisco where the feeds have gone silent.  I definitely liked it enough to want a physical copy for my bookshelf.

Book 43: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

While I had seen lots of reviews of this last year, it was Scootsa1000's comparison to Major Pettigrew's Last Stand that finally convinced me to read this.  While I enjoyed it, I can't say it captivated me in the same way that novel did but it was a pleasant read that made me want to go on long walks and stop for tea.
The novel kicks off when Harold receives a letter from a former friend and co-worker that he has lost touch with, telling him that she in a hospice with terminal cancer.  Harold is recently retired, and he and his wife Maureen seem to be with each other more out of of habit than any affection.  The novel also explains that neither of them has ever been that social so they have only each other, but instead live as two strangers whose lives happen to pass each other.  Harold comes up with a short response to Queenie's letter but feels it is inadequate. He finds himself unable to drop it off in the drop box at the corner, choosing to keep walking, hoping something better will come to him.  After a short stop and conversation at a gas station, he has his epiphany: he is going to walk the six hundred plus miles, and give Queenie something to look forward to.  Maybe his faith will even save her.
And thus, he continues as he is, never consulting maps, just walking in his inappropriate footwear and clothing with no gear, after having spent the last six months of his retirement inactive.  Maureen at first can't believe that he has gone, but his absence gives them both time to reflect on their past, their relationship with their son, and to learn about themselves.  Maureen, after having held a grudge against Harold for years, starts remembering their early days, and comes out of her shell as she accepts the neighbor's attempts at friendship.
Harold, too, thinks about his mistakes, the things he should have changed, and how he has wronged Maureen and their son.  Harold comes off as a decent, quiet man as he plods along steadily, and Maureen also is very sympathetic.  They have lost the ability to communicate and over the years have drifted as a result, though neither one is portrayed as a villain.  Overall, it's a sweet book.  There was one segment I didn't enjoy as much as it interrupted Harold's solitary journey but absolutely seemed realistic.  Overall, it's a sweet novel with likable characters who have regrets about their past and may have a shot at a second chance or redemption.