Friday, January 31, 2014

Body of Work by Pamela Slim

I found this in my wanderings on Amazon and immediately knew I had to read it. Why? Well, for one thing, I believe in the power of connectedness. I know that experiences are not isolated and that the superficial or face value of an experience alone does not dictate its worth or direction. I not only believe this, but I work at an institution that teaches others to believe this, too. We talk about the “thread that ties your story together” and other similar concepts all the time. So I was interested in getting a perspective on the topic from someone outside our organization.

And what a perspective this is. Slim advocates a very 21st century view of success, career path, and life meaning. As she points out, going through life having fixed on a main goal of garnering more and more money is not going to lead you to a happy or successful life. Challenging yourself to make money while you accomplish X, Y, and Z is a different story.

And that’s not the main “thread” of her book (pun clearly intended). The main function of this “self-help” book is to help you think about your experiences as one large body of work. Slim encourages you to take a look at your career, interests, and accomplishments, reflect on the past and the present, and think and plan about the future.

Although I was not in a place where I could give the exercises the undivided attention I feel they require if you’re going to take this seriously, I could tell that her little prompts to encourage the reader to do just that would be pretty effective. Since I’ve been feeling fairly stagnant in my job recently, I’m hoping that sitting down to do the exercises may help me refocus my energy and regain the enthusiasm with which I used to pursue my tasks.

I highly recommend this to anyone starting or continuing their path through adulthood.


Thursday, January 30, 2014

Crucible of Gold by Naomi Novik

Finished a bit late today, but I finally read the second-to-last book in the Temeraire series. It should be called "A Series of Unlucky Mishaps that Almost Get Temeraire and Laurence Killed." But I suppose any of the books could bear that title. Crucible of Gold works, too.

This was definitely a solid read. Something about the tone seemed different to me than the first six books, but I can't quite put my finger on it. Perhaps as Novik grows weary of writing this series, so too does Laurence grow older and weary of all of these damned exploits. I keep thinking, "When will they get to settle down already?!"

Obviously the best thing about this book is the rash of awkward romances. From teenagers to young dragons, spring is in the air! No spoilers, but I totally called it!


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Wow, this is the most inspirational book I've read in a long time. I easily read it through in one sitting, and was astounded at how moving and grounding it was at the same time. I cried several times and laughed aloud several times. I think nowhere could the positive aspects of human nature be displayed better than in this book about a young, adopted "genius" who loses her parents and must find a new life and a new family.
"I agreed to return because he seemed to be very excited about the aptitude tests and I thought that he might be depressed. It was possible that he was making some progress in his mental health condition by seeing me."
The pooled support of the individual characters and their constructive interpersonal interactions show what the idea of "community" is all about. Or at least, what it should aspire to be. And although it may put your reality of "community" to shame, there's no judgement there…just understanding and the silent offering of a way things could be better.

The book also explores the wonderful theme of categorization--that we all inherently categorize things to make sense of the world, but when the world doesn't make sense, we have to readjust our way of thinking. Sometimes this means adjusting our categories, sometimes this means changing our process of categorization, and sometimes this means realizing that categorization of the subject isn't productive or possible.
"All reality, I decide, is a blender where hopes and dreams are mixed with fear and despair. Only in cartoons and fairy tales and greeting cards do endings have glitter."
This is technically a "children's book," but--my god!--I think the messages it contains and the intricate way in which they are presented, as well as the character growth displayed so wonderfully by creative writing techniques and changes in perspective…I forgot where this sentence began, but I am just so in awe of what the author accomplished, and I hope this novel isn't pigeonholed as a book for the young. I hope every parent reads this book with or to their child, and I hope every grown-up considers reading it, too.

Sometimes all you need to feel inspired is the chance to look at the world through someone else's eyes. That sounds clichéd, but it's so true in this case.


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Flight of Dragons by Peter Dickinson

The dragon novels I've been reading--the good and the bad--have given me a tendency to reminisce about the good ol' days…er…childhood. So I was thinking about "Flight of Dragons" (the animated movie) the other day and decided to see if it was based on a book. Lo and behold…

I was super excited to get this in the mail today and started reading it almost immediately! It's one of those books that I can't believe I got through childhood without having read at least once. Honestly, I'm shocked I didn't already own this. It's a great bestiary about dragons--mostly pertaining to their physical attributes, but also to habits like hoarding gold and magical abilities like hypnosis.

I have several arguments I would like to have with Dickinson regarding some of his claims. I do not think it at all evident or plausible that the females are water- and earth-bound while the males are the only ones to enjoy flight. I also doubt very much that the gas-chambers in a dragon grow from vertebrae. It seems more likely to me that these sacs grew suspended from vertebrae--otherwise I would think the bone around the chamber would be more likely to break and they would be unlikely to have the necessary flexibility or elasticity to release dragon by-product.

I was most impressed with his description of the hydrogen cycle of a dragon. I think it quite plausible that this flammable material would be easily emitted through the mouth or nostrils and sparked by another chemical to create fire. I also quite enjoyed the map of reported dragon sightings (I wonder about their origin), and the evolutionary diagram included in the book. All of the illustrations are wonderful and worth their weight in gold (figuratively), but these were some of my favorites as they were also quite informative.

I highly encourage those curious about dragons, dragon lore, and monster lore to check this book out of the local library. I can't say you'll agree with everything Dickinson writes, but you'll certainly get the chance to learn a lot about dragons from at least one scholar's research on the subject. And I think an adult can appreciate this just as much as an adolescent, if not more. Also, if you're interested in hearing a distinct take on Beowulf, Dickinson makes a case for all three monsters being dragons, so that's a pretty interesting section of this book, too.


Monday, January 27, 2014

Dragon's Blood by Jane Yolen

Ugh, my new books from Amazon haven't arrived yet! So I was forced to read what I had lying around, which was Dragon's Blood, Book #1 in the Pit Dragon Trilogy (which later became a quartet). This was not what I would have chosen to read, as far as dragon sci-fi goes. It's very light on the sci and heavy on the fi.

Basic plot? Jakkin steals a dragon to raise so he can stop being a servant and become a dragon master.

I expect my dragon books to be hot. Red hot. It's dragons, for heaven's sake--there should be excitement, fear, death, and elation (maybe not in that order)! But if I had to take the temperature of this book, it would be a lukewarm 70 degrees Fahrenheit. And don't try and tell me 70's not bad. It's bad.

Jakkin and his peers are pretty two-dimensional, as far as characters go. The dragon breeding and raising practices are unsurprising. The tacky "love story," which is little more than a childhood crush, has no depth. The style is Jane Yolen, but not in a good way. I'm disappointed.


Sunday, January 26, 2014

Search Inside Yourself by Chade-Meng Tan

This Google self-improvement book is basically "Mindfulness for Dummies." The techniques are described in such a way that you'd have to be seriously, stubbornly resisting them to not engage in mindfulness practices properly. There are also instructions for more complex exercises…Sort of. But it's mostly the easy stuff. The book keeps everything dumbed down in hopes that you'll have no reason not to try and therefore benefit from the techniques.

And if you've ever doubted mindfulness, over half the book is basically a giant literature review to show you just how much evidence there is that this stuff works. And by works, I mean, will bring you a better sense of self-awareness, better interpersonal relations, better productivity and more happiness. I give these guys mad props for doing their homework. Yes, we all know it works.

But where the book loses me is in its simplicity. The very lack of challenge demotivates me. I'm not really open to "searching inside myself" right now. And this didn't motivate me to do so. Google-fail!


Saturday, January 25, 2014

After Dark by Gena Showalter and Kait Ballenger

This book is proof that people will read anything nowadays. I think I got this as a free gift when I purchased some other paranormal romances. Free gifts are NOT WORTH IT.

This is two stories in one pretty normal-sized paperback, and while they aren't the worst paranormal romance stories in the world, they're definitely not good. The premise of story number one was okay. I actually was interested in knowing more about the different immortals and their functions. Story number two was about vampire hunters. Been there, done that. Blah.

Writing was okay. Characters were flat. Sex was surprisingly boring. And there wasn't really any interesting substance to the plots other than the sexual attraction of the characters. It was like trudging through a street filled with molasses, getting to the end and having the molasses disappear, and having no support, cheer squad, or hot shower at the end. I felt like my effort to enjoy this book was futile.

This time, I swear, this really is the last two-bit paranormal romance I'm reading. Never again!


Friday, January 24, 2014

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

I love the Brontës. I have loved the Brontës for years. I will continue to love the Brontës until the day I die. I first read Jane Eyre as a young teenager, and then in the summer before high school, I struck out on my own to explore Wuthering Heights (which became Wuthering Hams…long story). That being the most captivating and intriguing novel I had ever read, I knew I wanted to experience more. I chose the "other sister's" Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and I loved that, too! More than Jane Eyre in some respects, although definitely less than Wuthering Heights--nothing can top that jumble of misfortunes, character flaws and stubborn passions! And then I went to college and I bought Villette, which became my back-seat back-up novel that spent most of its time forgotten in my car. I read a bit here and there, a few of those bits in large chunks, but it never really captivated me the way the other three books did. So I finished it slowly over several years, reading Wuthering Heights, too, at least a few times in that span, and visited the Brontë house, which is now a great museum, after studying abroad.

Naturally, in my effort to read as much Brontë material as possible without making much effort, I also at some point purchased Agnes Grey, and it unfortunately sat forgotten on my shelf, wedged between Wuthering Hams (don't ask) and a young adult fantasy novel…Until now.

This is exactly what you think of when the words "Victorian female literature" come to mind. Agnes is a young woman who decides to become a governess to help support her family. Over the few years she actually pursues this "dream" job, she has to deal with spoiled children, chauvinistic men, disdainful upper middle class and upper class women, irritated servants, and her own conscience and lack of confidence.

The characters are rather simple and flat, but they are so identifiably Anne's characters that I had to love them anyway (or love to hate them, rather). And I had to keep in mind that the characters were not what was important in this story. Clearly, the factions they represent and their treatment of Agnes is much more important. The emphasis is not on the individual, but on groups of people like the individual.

The last chapter is by far my favorite, but I'm an old softie. It's really too soft to have a deep, meaningful conclusion, but some of the dialogue melted my heart. If you liked Jane Eyre, you will probably like this, but you have to bear in mind that there isn't as much action. It's a fictional memoir, so you should be prepared to seek the meaning behind the events and actions that Agnes takes rather than relying on overt action to maintain your attention.


Thursday, January 23, 2014

219 New Ways to a Man's Heart by Phoebe Dane

I intended to read Agnes Grey tonight, but one thing ran late and then this person called with GREAT news, so I spent time excitedly squealing with them on the phone, and I realized there was no way I could give poor Anne Brontë the attention she deserved. So I searched my bookshelves for something short that I hadn't yet read and finally came up with this thin, small cookbook that my mother's mother had, which I took with me when we were cleaning out her house after she died. The woman kept every piece of kitchen and homemaking advice she ever laid her eyes on. She even clipped the little advice columns for housewives out of the local paper. And they ran some of the same advice two, three, or even four times!

So it is no surprise, therefore, that this ad-filled "staple for the American housewife" (originally printed in 1929?) was one of the many things she left behind. I thought the title was amusing, so I took it to peruse when I had the time.
"This is a book for women who are already good enough cooks to make ordinary things, but who want to become better; who want to produce the sort of food that makes men hurry home from the office, and that children remember longingly years afterward."

This is a book that will tell you how to be a good wife by making bread and curing your husband's (metaphorical?) impotency with yeast!

There are 219 recipes in this second edition of Dane's original booklet (which contained 161 recipes). It sold for 10 cents and was so popular that they later came out with a third edition with 333 recipes. (The bigger the book, the more ad space!) And these are pretty much all the recipes you will every need to survive on a typical, American diet. There's even a recipe for Cheetos in here! Just kidding. There's a recipe for cheese sticks, but they're more like stick-shaped cheese biscuits, from what I can tell. I was most excited to see the recipe for île flottante!

I have a few questions that arose in reading this, though: What is a timbale? Who the hell broils bananas wrapped in bacon? And oh dear god, WHY THIS?:

Yes, you will indeed be able to watch your child increase in weight if you add corn syrup to everything they eat and drink... Shovel that Karo into their mouths as often as possible! Don't worry about what the effects will be 80 years later! Make your children plump and sweet like the children of royalty!

I shouldn't be so mean. It was a different time back then. So I'll judge this volume as a cookbook only. Some of the instructions were a bit vague or confusing. (For instance, does measuring this the same as that and that refer to the thats combined or just one of the thats?) But the breadth was impressive for a promotional item.


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Amber House by Kelly Moore, Tucker Reed, and Larkin Reed

This book kept reminding me of Beloved and I cringe when I think that I'm comparing a Scholastic paranormal teen book to a highly-acclaimed novel by Toni Morrison. But truthfully, this is like the innocent little white girl version of Beloved. I was originally hooked into reading it because it's a book co-authored by a mother and her two daughters, and for a long time when I was growing up, my mom kept saying that we should write a book together. I thought at the time, "Hell no, that's a recipe for disaster." So when I found out that there was this book (series) written by not two, but three closely related women…I had to see this for myself.

It's actually not bad. I'm not a huge fan of their writing style--the dialogue is a bit too snippy for me to consider it real, and the independent sentence fragments seem too forced--but the plot develops into an interesting one and it sucked me in. As much as I dislike time travel, this book made me realize that what I really hate is time-traveling visions where you aren't actually influencing anything…So naturally, through this discovery of a new thing to hate, I developed a huge sense of curiosity about what the hell all these annoying visions could possibly lead to. How were they helping further the plot?

Well, read the damn thing and you'll find out. Or don't, and you'll probably never care. After all, this is tween fiction. Its tagline: A house full of secrets. [insert creepy, suspenseful stare]

I have to say, Sarah's foil was pretty obvious and a lot of the characters were flat and static, but for what this is--for a tween time-traveling paranormal mystery written by three women--this is pretty damn impressive. It also touches on historical and modern oppression through topics like disabilities, gender roles, race, and abuse. I'm not saying every scene sends a positive message--I'm pretty sure that in real life, there's no such thing as the perfect, magical strapless bra that keeps your chest (and by the way, how did this stick-thin pubescent girl get a chest?) securely in place. Money also clearly grows on trees in this fictional land called Maryland. (And when the hell did Maryland become part of the South?) However, it will get kids to think about important issues, however consciously or unconsciously.

So I guess I am pro-Amber House. Definitely not full of awe, but neither is it awful.

And by the way, this is a genius way to get your teenagers into good colleges--have them co-author a book which you already had written before they were born.


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

Being sick has very few benefits, especially since usually when I'm sick I have a terrible headache. But today, I was just plain sick without the headache, which of course made me miserable and brought me nothing good...EXCEPT the opportunity to tackle something longer than 350 pages!

And so I took up The Lies of Locke Lamora, excitedly if a bit trepidatiously, to tackle 719 pages of awesomeness. May I never attempt to do that again (at least not when sick). This really is not a book meant to be read all at once. Which is not to say that you couldn't do it, but it's such a wonderful, long, pleasantly drawn-out story. Lynch utilizes regular flashbacks and a wonderfully intricate plot and deliciously cocky, adventurous, badass characters that truly made it a shame to devour this all in one day. Also I had to cough every few minutes, which kept breaking my reading trance, so I feel like it took me longer than it should have to read 700 pages.

I really respect Lynch for not compromising on the intricacy or length of the novel. Some might think he's being self-indulgent (yes, I did think that at first), but this is a book written for the avid reader--so you can read through at a brisk pace and not finish the story too fast. You really get to enjoy every minute of daring, dodging and devious escapades, the well-written banter and carefully crafted plot development without worrying that you're going to come to the end too soon.

And the plot is great! This is the Ocean's Eleven of fantasy novels. I'm reminded of a few similar works that I read as a teenager, which I unfortunately can't remember the names of right now, but this is like the grown-up version of those other books. It's the big, "black sheep" cousin to those other books. The basic plot revolves around Locke Lamora and his comrades, who are raised to be great thieves and con artists. While executing some particularly fine con artistry, they get swept up in someone else's massive revenge plot and have to put their skills to use not only to save themselves, but their city as well. That's me distilling over 700 pages down to two sentences.

The best thing about this book is…everything! Honestly, I can't think of anything I can criticize. Even the flashbacks, which I at first thought were a bit self-indulgent, were actually really relevant. And I thought I had the end pegged, but I totally got two parts of it wrong! (Well, three if you count to whom the Spider decided to pass on the duty of all that secret police work, but I think that's a minor detail.) The worst thing is that in reading the book all in a day, I didn't get to soak in as many of the intricate details and double-meanings as I would have liked. But this is going to become a permanent addition to my bookshelf, so I'll be reading it again. If you haven't read it yet, you should. You'll love it.


Monday, January 20, 2014

Tongues of Serpents by Naomi Novik

I finally finished my last Temeraire book! Only to discover that apparently my set of six is just the beginning and middle--there should be a few more sequels floating around out there. I have to say, I was disappointed that Temeraire and Laurence didn't go back to England to improve dragon rights and living conditions, but I guess Novik feels like the work they did in Book 5 was adequate…? (I think they left the job half-finished.) So it was off to Australia for our dashing, "traitorous" duo!

The best thing about Book 6 is, without a doubt, Kulingile. I don't think anyone could help but empathize with Laurence and Demane and be outraged by the aviators' reaction to his hatching. I won't give away more than that, but I will say that I think the whole situation sends great messages out to the world--most obviously, "Don't judge a book by its cover."

Similarly, the dinner in the Larrakia port was wonderful for its positive depiction of multiculturalism. Bringing together all those captains from different nations, hearing different perspectives as well as shared experiences…It was a great, global-community-building experience that I don't think Laurence and Temeraire had really gotten to have before now. In fact, as Laurence pointed out when they found their valley, they're always working to destroy things, so finally they might get the chance to help build something instead.

There are some characters that are so odious that you just never want to have to deal with them again, but even with the return of one such fellow in this book, I would rank this as my favorite Temeraire novel to date. The events, the surprises, the carefully crafted dialogues and letters, and the growth of the characters I do like way outweighed that one annoying person.

I can't wait to order the next book and see what happens next.


Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co. Book 1) by Jonathan Stroud

This is definitely going to become one of the hottest young adult series in the next few years. Remember when Stroud wrote the Bartimaeus trilogy (which later became a series when he generously wrote us the prequel)? Well, if you--like me--mourned the end of such a great, snark-filled series, guess what?

Ta da! Here's a new (as of 2013) Stroudian, true-to-form, snark-filled series that will continue to have you on the edge of your seat. Those kids on the cover? Yeah, they're just your average tween ghost hunters from a all-child psychic detective agency. And those pointy things they're holding? NOT WANDS, PEOPLE! Rapiers! That's right, the hot new Halloween costume this year is going to be tween ghost hunters who wear rapiers and utility belts filled with iron shavings and explosive devices.

And I don't blame anyone who hops on board this bandwagon.

Although the plot was somewhat predictable--I actually guessed who the bad guy was the first time anyone could possibly guess who the bad guy is (he's losing points for that)--the book is really enjoyable, and Stroud is clearly laying the groundwork for what will become an exciting, action-packed series. I'm hoping predictability today will pave the way for unpredictability tomorrow! Stroud never says exactly how young the protagonists are, so I'm hoping they're young enough that they've got several years of ghost-hunting left in them. I'm ready for Book 2! (I'll have to buy the British version though, because reading about Londoners eating "cookies" is just weird.)

If you liked Bartimaeus or if you are a fan of Artemis Fowl, you'll like this book. You should go out and buy it. Now.


Saturday, January 18, 2014

A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham

If you ever want to read something really different and intense, give this book a try. It's not the least conventional novel in the world, but it certainly takes some getting used to. The writing focuses much more on the plot--a set of conspiracies--than on any individual character. It reminded me a lot of watching a movie that slowly reveals more and more about a conspiracy until the conclusion wraps it all up in a neat little package. Yes, you do get to know the characters a bit as the plot advances, but that's really not the point. Who they are is meaningless. The events are what is important. If you like that sort of thing, you'll like this book, and--I imagine--the rest of the series.

Plot development was clearly Abraham's main focus. Characters generally appeal slightly more to me than plot development like this, but I do love a good, complex government conspiracy in my fantasy novels. And this book was nothing if not rife with conspiracy. Everything unfolded in a really graceful yet suspenseful way. Even the expected parts contained a lot of suspense and were executed well.

I also really enjoyed how Abraham toyed with the notion of sterility and virility--not in your typical, emotional, hot-blooded way, but in a more emphatic, detached sense. Everything that happens, every action taken, somehow relates back to fertility and growth or lack thereof, but nothing is really described sexually. In this sex-centric world, sex itself is not important. Abraham glosses over all of that and focuses more on the fact that that virility or fertility is there. Or if we're talking about events of loss, that they're not there.

It's unfortunate that the summary on the back cover (Kirkus Reviews) is so comprehensive. It basically boils down the first half of the book to a paragraph. You could actually probably just read that paragraph and start reading the book around page 160 or so. But you shouldn't do that…You'll miss the whole point of what's left unsaid. Also if I had to read through all of that to get to the "good stuff," you should have to, too!

All in all, this was an interesting one--tough to get through at first, but well worth it. Once I got used to the author's style and once I got past the first half (when the action picked up), I was hooked and I devoured the rest. I recommend this if you're looking for a rigorous fantasy novel that will challenge you to read differently than how you're probably used to reading.

~8/10~ (I almost want to give it a 9, but the slow-going of the first half is holding me back.)

Friday, January 17, 2014

One Night with the Shifter by Theresa Meyers

I swear I've read something like this before… Is this like a thing now, werewolf clans and territories and usurpers and whatnot? I think so… I actually really got into this book--it was easy to do so because the writing was pretty damn good--but I just have this nagging feeling that I've read very similar things online before. Insert judgmental werewolf face...

I guess my main criticism is that the plot moves too fast. You know when you daydream a fantasy world and a story to go with it? And you want the plot to keep advancing and advancing, so you move it forward in your head until you reach the end of what could ever be a remotely good story way too soon because you rushed through it all so fast? And you realize your daydream only lasted you a few hours--or if you drew it out, maybe a few days? That's what this book reminded me of. A daydream that's really enjoyable and brings you a lot of pleasure, but it's too fast and easy, so you always want more. A literary drug.

It was a good drug, though. I would actually read books by this author again. She did a good job of setting the scene and describing people more fully and intimately than most of the other romance novels I've read recently. I mean, this was no Outlander--a pocketbook romance can't compete with a truly epic love story--but I didn't feel ashamed to have read it, even with the ridiculous notions of werewolves and vampires and hybrids and reivers as they were portrayed in this book. Honestly, who materializes out of thin air these days?!


Thursday, January 16, 2014

Winnie-the-Pooh's Picnic Cookbook by Dawn Martin with inspiration by Milne and Shepard!

Continuing the tradition of short-book Thursdays, I chose another small Pooh book. This cute little cookbook contains a surprising number of easy picnic recipes.

A lot of the recipes are really healthy, which is great because if you're making this stuff with your kids, you're not only encouraging outdoor activity, but healthy eating habits as well. The book lays out a few different picnic "meals," which is really cute, but definitely not necessary.

The recipes I thought sounded the most odd were the blueberry heart scones with smoked turkey and the peanut butter, apple, and bacon sandwiches. For some reason I was really feeling the cucumber sour cream dip.

Anyway, this is basically a cute little book with some good picnicking advice and some cute little recipes!


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Privilege, Power, and Difference by Allan G. Johnson

Johnson holds back no punches in this very direct outline of the problems modern American society faces with privilege.

While I respect his conclusions--okay, fine, most of his conclusions--I feel like the big problem with this book is that it actually provoked me to feel defensive. I felt really open to receiving what knowledge he had to offer me until he took things to such a monumental level. I understand that he's trying to reinforce the importance of working to break down these social barriers and constructs we've created, but he takes it to a place that is too "big picture" for me to retain hope for change.

On the other hand, I appreciated his thoroughness and the much more serious academic tone of the book compared to the one I had read previously, 35 Dumb Things Well-Intended People Say. I wish I could take the best of both books and mash them up into one comprehensive super-book about improving issues of difference.


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Sentinels: Lynx Destiny by Doranna Durgin

I had steak for dinner. That's what I'm blaming this book choice on--too much delicious, juicy, red meat. Normally I would be horrified to admit to reading such a cheesy fantasy romance. But I'm not going to lie, this one was a bit special. Basic plot: boy meets girl...

Okay, fine, basic plot: shape-shifter lynx-man meets protector-earth-woman and they try to keep each other from being killed by the mysterious, expensively clad enemy, while celebrating nature in all its manifestations. Grrrrrrrr.

I feel very conflicted about this book because the writing was actually good, but the dialogue was incredibly cheesy. The plot was well-constructed, but the "complicated" characters read a bit flat. The fight scenes put me off, but the sex scenes...*ahem*...were enthusiastic and somehow wildly, crazily believable. There was a lot in this book that I found contradictory, so although my first instinct in looking at the cover and reading the description was to hate it, I kind of like it in its own way. Maybe I just have come to respect it for what it is.

Basically, if you like shapeshifting and complicated, somewhat odd, fantastical, age-old-rival situations set in the real world, you might like this book. Or you might laugh at this book. Who knows. I did a little of both.


From now on, I'll give brownie points to anyone else who writes about using pads to bandage up wounds. Feminine products should be written about much more often in romantic literature. :P

Monday, January 13, 2014

Victory of Eagles by Naomi Novik

The fifth installment of the Temeraire series is probably my second-favorite to date. Second only in that there are just SO MANY BATTLE SCENES. I got a little weary of them, although Novik did a great job of making each one distinct.

One of the things that distinguishes this novel from the others in the series--sad though it is that Temeraire and Laurence are separated--is that you finally get to see things from Temeraire's perspective. Technically Novik uses the third person throughout, but there's a definite communication shift from Temeraire's scenes to Laurence's scenes in the beginning. There's nothing as amusing as dragon logic.

And Temeraire is finally empowered to effect change! Granted, they're in the middle of a war, so mostly they're all busy fighting for their lives, but I like that he takes on some new responsibility in this book; he's maturing! At least, maturing in comparison to some dragons:
"And," [Iskierka] added, "when we have finished and beat Napoleon, I have decided that you may give me an egg."
"Oh!" Temeraire said, swelling with indignation, "how very kind! I am to be honored, I suppose."
"Well, I am much richer than you are," she said, "and also I can breathe fire, so you ought to be." 
"I would not give you an egg," Temeraire said, "if you were the very last dragon in the world, but me; I should rather have none at all." 
I don't know who sounds more immature there, Temeraire or Iskierka. There's also a whole host of new dragon characters you get to appreciate, including one very ornery female who is soooo smart...and doesn't she know it! (I actually thought it was pretty clever of her to come up with the Pythagorean theorem in a day.)

In any case, this book definitely met my standards for a fun, engaging read. I was glad to see progress towards widespread dragon appreciation achieved in some small ways, and I suspect the future freedoms of dragons will become even more secure in Book 6, so I'm looking forward to finishing the series soon!


Sunday, January 12, 2014

La symphonie pastorale par André Gide

Okay, so I decided to put my rusty French skills to the test today. Well, not so much to the test as to some use. I decided I'd rather start with something that looked easy. Luckily it was, for the most part. Gide's sentence structure is easy to follow and the vocabulary is pretty standard.

As to the story... Oh boy. If I had grown up French, I'm sure I would have known what this was about before reading it. As an ignorant American, however, I had the very dubious pleasure of discovering that this is a story about a middle-aged pastor who falls in love with a blind girl he makes his ward. HELLA AWK. Seriously, when I got to the entries for May 19th, I WTFOL (WTF'd out loud). I definitely do not approve.

I also thought most of the characters were pretty annoying from the beginning; they seemed to me more the simple, blissfully ignorant sort that are often in 19th century literature than the complex, deeply reflective characters that emerged more in the 20th century (the book was written in 1919). But I have to take into account the fact that the story is written from the perspective of the pastor, as though he was writing in a journal, so he may be simply filtering his interactions with others through his simple perspective.

This is worth reading if you are studying French; it's good practice and the dialogue breaks up the prose well. Definitely not a light, fun read though. The ending is...well, I was actually happier with that than with the beginning and middle, but it's not a happy ending. And the themes are so transparent...You may as well just read the cliff notes, if they exist.


Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Wood Beyond the World by William Morris

I accidentally woke up really late today, so I ended up having to do another short read, but this gave me the opportunity to finish a book I started reading months ago and had never finished. I had only gotten about a third of the way through The Wood Beyond the World, which is supposedly the first fantasy novel. It really is a very interesting piece of literature. Written in the mid-19th century, the tale of intrepid Walter traveling through these fantastical lands on a personal quest (encountering magic, monsters, exotic lands and peoples, and a beautiful maiden) was apparently the first of its kind. My edition has a great introduction by Lin Carter that gives the piece some context.

I originally had some trouble, after the first five-ish chapters, in self-motivating to continue reading the tale because Morris does drone a tad. But he's not nearly as bad as Tolkein in that way. It takes some constant brain-work to read this story because Morris wrote it in an antiquated style to enhance the fantasy premise; I think that bard-like style--as well as the hero, Walter, not always living up to my expectations for a hero--caused me to feel enough antipathy that I put the reading of this one on pause.

But in returning to it, I was welcomed home by the wonderful medieval-style language, the many challenges of the quest, the characters' sense of chivalry, and the powerful fey. I still think Walter was a bit of a twit for a hero, but I enjoyed his successes and was well-pleased by the ending.

I HIGHLY recommend this to anyone who loves fantasy....Not necessarily because you'll definitely love this book, but because I think it's an important part of the history of our modern fantasy novels. Just as it's important to read Tolkein and McCaffery and Jordan and all those other names we're familiar with, it's important to read some Morris to see how fantasy has evolved. And it is really good.


P.S. If you are interested in writing a paper exploring gender roles in early fantasy, this would be a great book to use as a source!

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Grace Livingston Hill Story by Robert Munce

I was lucky enough to have been born to two avid readers. Whether I was at my father's house or mother's house, I found out early on that I had a good chance of having a new book thrust upon me by one of them, or of ending up in a place where books are sold and walking away with one...or two...or several. So it's no surprise that I have strong memories of certain books from my childhood.

One book-related memory I have is an incident that helped me learn a lot about myself happened when I was about 12 or 13. I was at my dad's house and I somehow came into possession of a thick, pink, paperback romance novel called Dawn of the Morning. I started reading it sometime late in the afternoon. I remember "zoning out," curling up in a comfy spot in the living room and ignoring my little sister who wanted me to be less boring, ignoring the preparation of dinner, and ignoring several calls to that dinner until they finally dragged me away from my book to go eat. After dinner, naturally, I went right back to reading.

Only my sister will actually be able to imagine this scene--I can't really do it justice in a blog post--but as I read into the evening, my dad fell asleep on the saggy couch he often slept on, my sister went to bed in our bunk-bed, and I just kept sitting in one of the only clear, clean spots in the room--a wooden dining room chair perpendicular to the couches. I sat with my back hunched over, I sat with my legs crossed, I sat with my back straight up, I contorted in ways you should probably not contort in a stiff wooden chair, but as the hours passed, no matter how uncomfortable I was in that chair, I kept on reading the awesome, beautiful story.

Essentially, in the 1820s a young woman named Dawn finds herself engaged to a con artist, but he runs off and his younger brother, in order to help repair the damage to the family's honor, marries her in his stead. Dawn thinks she is an imposition on him, so on their wedding night she runs away. She runs away to face the challenges of being a single, working woman in America during the early 19th century.

The thing about the novel was...It was just too damned exciting to put down. Dawn had these great adventures and misadventures, and I wanted so badly to know how it all turned out. I had to know she would find the strength to pull through homelessness, destitution, near-starvation, and several arguments with members of the male species. And as she did just that, she became this strong, independent woman--unexpected (in my opinion) for a romance novel. Her growth was fascinating to me. So I didn't put the book down once. It was early in the morning--about 2:00 or 3:00 a.m.--when I finally finished reading. I have never forgotten that experience--that love of letting the excitement and anticipation carry you through from one chapter to the next...And that desire to follow a story through to its conclusion, no matter how long it takes.

AND SO, as a young adult, finding out that Grace Livingston Hill was an extremely prolific Christian romance novelist from the 1900s, was shocking. It'd be like reading The Butterfly Tattoo by Philip Pullman, loving that book for a decade, then one day finding out he wrote a shit ton of other books (like the His Dark Materials and Sally Lockhart series'), as well as finding out that he has spent most of his life as an educator. It's not that the things themselves are shocking. It's that you're shocked you never found out about them or realized them before! How could I have loved that book so much and not have really known who GLH was before now?

And this brings me to the book I read today, a biography of Grace Livingston Hill, authored by her youngest grandson, Robert Munce. This biography recounts GLH's entire family history insofar as it directly affected her life. It was pretty revealing in some ways, and glosses over drama in others. Well, not so much glosses as states the facts about a particularly rough point in her life, decides that the issue was resolved with faith in God, and moves on just as she (theoretically) would have moved on. The picture it paints is of a determined, hard-working, enterprising, and staid yet creative woman, for whom God and family were most important in the world. Once I had finished the book, I had no doubt why and how she had spent about 50 years writing over 100 books, most of them either light, seemingly-secular, romance novels or explicitly Christian, romance novels.

I loved learning more about the author who inspired me as a girl to devour the books I enjoyed, and to enjoy the books I devoured. Yes, this biography, like her books, was pretty wholesome, but that's what she would have wanted. And even wholesome stories can contain their fair share of excitement and intrigue. *cough* COUGAR *cough* If you know and love Grace Livingston Hill's books, this is definitely a biography worth reading.


Thursday, January 9, 2014

Pooh's Little Instruction Book by Joan Powers (with a lot of help from Milne and Shepard)

Size doesn't matter.

At least not on Thursdays.

My schedule before I get home is a bit long on Thursdays, so you can expect to see shorter books in general on these days. Today the book I chose to read was some advice from a not-so-humble, silly ol' bear. I chose it in honor of one of my best friends (who I know is always there even when we don't actively communicate) who recently sent me this awesome gift:

Naturally, I'm checking for spiders.

Anyway, I wanted to see if I could glean any good life advice from Pooh Bear.

My favorite two tidbits:
When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.
Nobody can be un-cheered with a balloon.
Words to live by. Honestly, the sayings in this book--with all of their implied metaphors--are great if you want to think deeply about how children's literature can help instill ideas, emotions, and societal norms in children. Some of them will also make you smile.


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

35 Dumb Things Well-Intended People Say by Maura Cullen

Okay, as far as diversity training goes, this was an okay refresher and included a few tidbits new to me, which provoked real thought. Really the most effective, thought-provoking section is "Chapter 2: The 10 Core Concepts" having to do with communication regarding diversity issues.

If you are taking your engagement with this book seriously--reflecting generally as well as individually about these topics--you will be able to understand your own relationship with these core concepts (including advantaged and disadvantaged populations, privilege, consistency and fairness, etc.) much better. I even took my resistance to one of Cullen's assumptions about privilege, thought out my argument for why I disagreed with her, then found a flaw in my own argument and realized she was right. (Grrrr, I hate it when I prove myself wrong!) So I would say that the great thing about this book is that--if you are engaging in earnest thought about how it relates to your experiences or lack thereof--it provides you with a myriad of opportunities to reflect on and draw your own conclusions about diversity issues. A great self-facilitation exercise of sorts!

Of course, the format of the book is completely self-indulgent (I've honestly never seen an author lay out extra acknowledgements, notes, introductions, and other tidbits in such a self-indulgent, cockamamie way!) and I take serious issue with the fact that there were several grammar and punctuation errors (and at least one factual inconsistency). Apparently I have to let Terry off the hook (see my review of lol :/) if people with PhDs are publishing books with this many errors. HONESTLY!


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Goddess with a Blade by Lauren Dane

So I haven't been driving due to the weather, and had to resort to reading things that were lying around the house that I honestly had no intention of ever reading. That's my disclaimer for this one...

Okay, one look at this cover and you know what you're getting: smut. Pure smut. I was prepared for that, but I had hopes that it would at least be good smut. Nope. I think very little of any writer who resorts to talking about "sex chemicals" during a sex scene.

Past that, I thought, maybe--just maybe--there would be some clever plot twist at the end. It really wouldn't have been that hard to accomplish. And honestly, a twist was what I expected. What I got was the bitter disappointment of a vampire serial killer being exactly what and who it seemed.

And who in their right mind thinks they can tackle vampire serial killers, mob-like vampire-human rivalries, a goddess-vessel relationship, the ignorant-human-bff-with-the-shitty-girlfriend support scenario, an old school club-owning gangster vamp, and a crazy wisdom-doling taxidermist cab driver... in less than 300 pages! Ridiculous.

And sex chemicals?! Really?! I've read worse, but only just.


Monday, January 6, 2014

Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

Well, it will come as no surprise to anyone that--finally--Book 4 of the Temeraire series takes on the task of delving into the world of the "feral" dragons of central Africa; let this be a lesson that blatant hints are just that: blatant hints. (And if you didn't catch what I just did, I pity you.)

If I had to summarize the distinguishing characteristic of this book in one word, that word would be "INTENSE." Here's my best oh-damn-shit's-getting-real face:

Because yes, shit gets real in this book. Shit gets so real--it's all over the place. I still can't quite put my finger on what made Book 3's traveling tedious compared to that of Books 2 and 4, but there's definitely a difference. Maybe I'll figure it out by the end of the series.

This is a very eventful book, so I will prevent myself from giving away spoilers by ending my brief review with very little actual insight into the plot. Only know that Book 4 has totally regained the point that I took away from Novik for Book 3. Yeah, it's that good.


Sunday, January 5, 2014

Fables from Old French: Aesop's Beasts and Bumpkins translated by Norman R. Shapiro

Okay, so I know what you're thinking: ???????

Well, one of my goals is to incorporate some French into the mix. I wasn't quite ready to commit to a French novel today, but I did happen to pick this up at a used book store the last time I was in Ann Arbor because I love folk and fairy tales and the like and medieval French literature is often full of fun surprises.

I especially loved the preface by Shapiro, explaining his approach to translation, and the introduction by his peer, going over many of the histories and versions of the different fables. Frankly, if I had skipped either, I would have been disappointed in the quality of the stories, because Shapiro does take liberties with the translations. But then again, the tales that were familiar to me are only familiar to me in some revised or translated form or another (I'm definitely not well-versed in medieval French), so this is one of those it's-all-relative situations. I think the changes to "The Fox and the Crow" were most challenging for me to accept because of the de la Fontaine version that's basically the "Für Elise" of French fables.

But I digress. As far as translations go, this was a good--if simple and short--compendium. I appreciated the inclusion of the "original" text to the left of the American English versions. I simply object to some of the translator's word choices. For instance, he translates vilein as "peasant" in one fable and "lummox" in another. But these were enjoyable tales and would be great to read aloud to children. And I did enjoy some of the artistic license.


Saturday, January 4, 2014

Black Powder War by Naomi Novik

Just finished Book 3 of the Temeraire series! This one was a tad more tedious than the first two, what with the seemingly endless traveling involved in getting back to England from China over land rather than by sea. But it was still a solid read.

There were many times--unexpected moments spaced judiciously throughout the book--when I actually laughed out loud, which I almost never do when reading. I will never forget page 40 as long as I live! It took me a few reads to get what was going on (must be the blonde in me), but once I did, I didn't stop giggling for a good thirty seconds. Oh, dragon humor.

I think, really, that's the beauty of this third novel--all the unexpectedly moving, funny, sad, enraging, or just surprising moments that Novik added in to break up the monotony of the somewhat dry traveling scenes and the over-involved battle scenes. Overall, though, the book was still tedious, so I am giving this a lower rating than the first two books.


Friday, January 3, 2014

lol :/ and other modern devised plays by Terry Fletcher

Fans of modern playwriting techniques will enjoy this short volume of three devised plays co-created by Fletcher and his peers. I am lucky enough to know several of the creators, so I cannot claim that my review is unbiased, but I also have (what I believe is) a healthy lack of goodwill towards plays that are not pleasantly entertaining, so I think these two things cancel out when we're talking about contemporary dramatic literature. (No offense meant to the genre, but it's really not about entertainment anymore.)

Of the three plays included in the volume, lol :/ and Truth in Advertising have more popular appeal. Whether you agree with their social commentary or not, they make bold statements using enjoyable dialogue, and it was fun reading them. I have a harder time appreciating Wild World, which I believe went a step too far in trying to cover too many themes and techniques. But like I said, I like my plays light and entertaining.

This would be a great book to read in a course on modern theatre techniques, but it needs some serious copyediting. (Tsk, tsk, Terry! You're a college graduate for goodness' sake! I'm not asking for perfection, but a bit of an effort to clean it up would have been nice.) A second edition, copyedited and with a concluding note, would be much more readable. Since the large number of errors bothers me so much, I refuse to rate this book.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik

Surprise, surprise...The next book I tackled was the second installment in the Temeraire series. The first one left me feeling like So Much More was about to happen, so I continued on with Throne of Jade.

Novik continues the thread of the story beautifully. And again I was impressed with her character development. The big change that Laurence goes through as he and Temeraire undergo their travails in the East is obvious, but seems to occur fairly naturally.

Obviously if you like the first book, you're going to like the second one, but I think this even surpassed the first in the quality of the themes. I appreciated the many "cultural differences" concerning dragon relations in the West and East. There's also some hinting about the feral dragons in the middle of Africa that I hope we learn more about in the future.

This continues to be a fun, adventurous series!


Wednesday, January 1, 2014

His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik

I'm not a very trusting person when it comes to reading suggestions (maybe because my own suggestions vary wildly in quality), so when Kelly suggested His Majesty's Dragon to me when I was visiting her, I was reluctant to try it at first. Also, I tend to judge books by their covers and I'm not a huge fan of this design:

But I read the first-ish chapter while on vacation and was HOOKED. The book, along with its series-mates, ended up on my Christmas list, and I finally read it all today!

I am satisfied with Novik's world, magical premises (of which there really aren't many) and plot development, but I was MOST impressed with her character creation and growth. The back cover says Time reviewed this book as:
Enthralling reading--like Jane Austen playing Dungeons & Dragons with Eragon's Christopher Paolini.
Couldn't have said it better myself. Actually, I would add in that it reminds me a bit of Tamora Pierce's Tortall books, but with a bit more maturity and grounding in the real world. Basically, if you like the idea of having a special bond with a dragon and if you can stand reading yet ANOTHER historical fiction/fantasy novel about the Napoleonic Wars, this is a GREAT book for you. A solid, fun read.