Monday, March 31, 2014

Night Runner by Max Turner

This tween supernatural thriller is about a boy who suddenly finds out he's a vampire. Zack has been living in a mental institution ever since his father died. He sleeps during the day and is awake during the night because he's allergic to the sun. He can only eat a special smoothie his nurse makes for him because he's allergic to most foods. He spends his days--er, nights--watching TV and exercising, and sometimes he gets to see his friend Charlie, his one connection to the outside world.

Then one day a crazy old man on a motorcycle literally crashes into the mental hospital, grabs Zack and tells him to run. And so, more or less, Zack starts running. As he is pursued by cops who aren't cops, he finds an uncle he never knew he had, learns the truth about who his father was, and (of course) learns the truth about himself--that he was infected with vampirism eight years ago.

Now Zack has to enlist the aid of Charlie and a few other characters he meets along the way to escape the people who are chasing him and figure out how to manage his life as a vampire.

This is a pretty cute, intense little book. I say cute because it really is written for tweens. Despite this being a thriller, there's nothing graphic written in the book. I found it to be a solid storyline, if a bit lacking in detail at some points. I might recommend it to a twelve-year-old, but not for an adult. It's just too childish.


Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Professor by Charlotte Brontë

Another classic from a Brontë sister… The Professor is supposed to be semi-autobiographical, and draw from Charlotte's experiences as a student or teacher (I forget which) at a boarding school abroad. It sounded familiar as I read, and I wondered why at first, then found out that she later rewrote the story from a female perspective, adding several plot changes, in Villette, which I have also read.

I actually liked this a bit more than Villette. Although the voice of the narrator was a bit overdramatic and there were several dialogue choices that sounded a bit immature, it was refreshing to hear Charlotte Brontë write from a male perspective. And in some ways, some of the long, drawn-out nature of Villette was avoided in this first, shorter tale.

In The Professor a young man finds himself out of options for money, so he turns to trade. He works for a bit for his tyrannical older brother, but soon is out the door again, looking for something else to do. He takes a frenemy's advice to go to the Continent to find a job, and is soon hired as an English professeur in Belgium. He has to learn how to navigate the youth-driven, political world of boarding school… Not an easy feat.

As I said before, I recognize this book's flaws. It's certainly not polished or mature-sounding. But it was quite interesting and I appreciated the pace of plot development a bit more than in some of Charlotte's other books. Worth reading if you want to know more.


Saturday, March 29, 2014

Incarnadine by Mary Szybist

Yes, I finally broke down and read it…after over a year of feeling like I should. It's like William Stafford, though. You get sick of hearing about certain academic authors over and over and over again. Not that Szybist hasn't earned all the attention. She and her husband are "the beautiful people" of Lewis & Clark College.

This collection of Szybist's poetry expanded on her quasi-mythological academic beauty--I was surprised by how genuine the sentiments expressed in her pieces were. I also enjoyed (with sadness) her opening up to the reader and revealing some of those feelings and desires that most people keep hidden. "Update on Mary" is at the same time run-of-the-mill and intense. And throughout her poetry, she used wonderful imagery--very bright and whole pictures, but a bit ethereal, too.

My favorite poems were "Entrances and Exits," "Annunciation in Play" and, creepily enough, "Do Not Desire Me, Imagine Me." In most cases, I could imagine Szybist reading each line with her slow, calm, soothing, whispery voice. That voice is like double churned ice cream…It gives me shivers to think of it. The perfect poetry voice. I don't know if the poems would be as compelling without me knowing how they should sound.

At any rate, I wasn't bowled over by the collection as a whole, but I suppose I was won over in the end. Incarnadine is at least half of what it's cracked up to be.


Friday, March 28, 2014

A Long Fatal Love Chase by Louisa May Alcott

This is another one of those books where I was reading and reading and reading…And it was so nice and warm and I made the mistake of lying down and…Zzzzzzzzz. Seriously, though, do not judge this book by its ability to put me to sleep.

I know what you're thinking--ANOTHER ROMANCE NOVEL? But wait, who's that author? Louisa May Alcott?! What is going on?

Well, apparently she wrote this really sensational obsessive love story in 1866, even before Little Women and that whole series. Publishers thought it was too…Explicit? Lurid? Bold? Shocking? So it wasn't published until the 90s. The 1990s.

Basically, sweet innocent  Rosamond is whisked away--quite literally--by the semi-dashing, semi-devious Philip Tempest. He kidnaps her and luckily (?) is talked into marrying her, but after a year of marriage, Rosamond learns some secrets about her husband that are just too dark to bear. She runs away to escape his sins and deceit, and the chase is on!

It's REALLY good. I can't believe this is the same author who wrote about poor Jo and her annoying sisters…Actually, on second thought, maybe I can. There is that same sense of up-front honesty from and about the characters--specifically the females--which is really necessary in this story for it not to become too unrealistic in tone.

The big difference I feel between the two works is that this is written in a bit more flowery style. Alcott is almost mocking beautiful, traditional love stories with her lengthy, soft descriptions of the main characters and their (initial) sweet, roundabout dialogue. There is nothing roundabout about kidnapping someone, though! And certainly nothing roundabout about what follows!

I encourage you to try this one out if you feel like reading an older, "sensational," dark romance. It will at least satisfy your literary itch if not awe you with its intrigue.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Once Upon a Baby Brother by Sarah Sullivan

This cute picture book is about a creative young girl who loves telling stories. She crafts tales of all sorts and is the center of attention…until a new baby brother comes into her life.

Wham! No longer is she the star. She still creates great stories, but now she can only share them at school.

She becomes obsessed with impressing the class (which you will notice appears to be made up of kids from two racial backgrounds). She writes a ton of stories featuring her brother as a monster.

Zing! Until her brother is whisked away by her mom to visit grandma. Then her inspiration is gone and her storytelling skills dry up.

She despairs until finally her muse returns, and she learns that having a little brother isn't that bad after all.

Meh. The story seemed to lack depth. I wasn't a fan.


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Tempted by a Warrior by Amanda Scott

I really liked that last Amanda Scott book I read, so I thought maybe I might have found a new romance novelist. But alas, this one did not live up to my expectations.

This one is about a pregnant young Scottish woman held captive by her circumstances. She's married to a cruel, abusive laird who mysteriously goes missing. And her father-in-law suspects that she's responsible for his son's murder.

So he makes his nephew--who is next in line to inherit--come out to investigate. (Naturally, he suspects him of being a murderer, too. Why not?)

The ornery old man dies and the new laird and lady slowly (but obviously) fall in love.

There was just way too much going on in this one. Too complicated. Too unlikely.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Rick Steves' Pocket Barcelona by Rick Steves with Gene Openshaw and Cameron Hewitt

I became a fan of the Rick Steves empire when I used a pocket language book to help me learn some basic Italian and German a few years ago. The book I used at the time was really helpful and easy to use while traveling. I'm thinking about doing some traveling again and spotted this cute guide to Barthelona (yeah, that's right, I just added a lisp in writing).

This did not disappoint! I don't know how the Rick Steves team does it, but they're really good at putting together user-friendly travel guides. I have actually been to Barcelona, so I was able to verify some of the information and really appreciate how he put together his "walks." I also was delighted to find that he had great suggestions of places I hadn't been, and their descriptions and directions seemed pretty self-explanatory.

Furthermore, you know you feel vindicated when a travel "expert" gives attractions a similar ranking as you. I will certainly never go back up in that Columbus statue, and it doesn't seem that Steves would either. So there!

On the other hand, I would wait days to see the Sagrada Familia again! I am so in awe of what one man and his legacy have been able to accomplish.

I have a friend who will be visiting Spain soon. I should give her this book; maybe it will entice her to take a detour to Catalunya while there so she, too, can experience the magic!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Blame it on the Big Blue Panda! by Claire Freedman

This modern children's picture book is about a naughty panda who always misbehaves…and blames his actions on the Big Blue Panda. His mother is not an idiot and knows he's really just a brat. So she sends him a letter from "Big Blue Panda" saying how disappointed he is and how he wants to meet this kid who's ruining his good name.

Bam. Kid freaks out and starts behaving.

So mama panda sends him another letter, this time saying that Big Blue Panda has decided he doesn't have to meet this kid after all; he'll be going off adventuring for five years.

The end.

This storyline was way too simple for me to appreciate it as an adult. Even a child has to see everything coming. And my other problem with the book is that the illustrations are too busy. Your eyes may go to the characters, but they also flutter around to look at all the other, less important elements of the story. No wonder diagnoses of ADD are on the rise.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

How I Learned Geography by Uri Shulevitz

This is a Caldecott Honor book by acclaimed children's author Uri Shulevitz. This particular picture book is autobiographical in nature. It's about a young boy (ostensibly Uri), who is forced to leave his home country due to war, and now lives as a refugee on a dirt floor in miserable circumstances.

One day his father comes home from the market without food--he didn't have enough to buy a loaf of bread, but he was able to buy a world map. Young Uri is furious at first.

But as days go by, he spends a lot of time staring at the map and daydreaming about visiting this place or that. He brings the map to life in his imagination and pictures himself off in deserts or jungles. In the end, of course, he realizes he's not so mad at his dad after all. It's hard to be hungry and miserable when you're daydreaming.

This is a wonderful book for children because it probably is a good first taste of this thing called "perspective." First, with the title…Some people learn geography in school, after having eaten a well-balanced breakfast. Others learn it as they flee or are displaced from country to country.

Then with the map vs. food…You could spend all your time thinking about the things you don't have, or you could make the best of a bad situation.

Not that I think people should trivialize issues of starvation. But hopefully this inspires kids to think of how others live or have been forced to live…How they might one day be forced to live…


I wish the end rhymed.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy

I was a fan of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles and was, therefore, excited to explore this, one of his earlier works. Hardy does not disappoint. In some ways, this actually reminded me more of Madame Bovary, but the style was definitely Hardy. The very active, fleshed out characters. The realistic dialogue. His penchant for young women to be passionate and a bit frivolous and for men to be prideful and arrogant. The action!

OH, THE ACTION! (I truly did not see it coming!)

And where Tess is all doom and gloom, A Pair of Blue Eyes is almost comically overpositive. (Ah, yes, Hardy has inspired in me the desire to create almost real words! He has a tendency to do that to one.)

Elfride is an impressionable young woman, the daughter of a country vicar in Hardy's favorite fictional region--Essex. When a likewise impressionable young architect named Stephen Smith comes to stay with her and her father, she develops a fondness for him.
"I am content to build happiness on any accidental basis that may lie near at hand; you are for making a world to suit your happiness."

Elfie is the very picture of a perfect young lady…in many ways. But in others, I suspect she is also what Hardy wishes young women were. She's actually intelligent. In fact, this is one reason I like her character despite her flaws. She is much less silly than Emma Bovary and brighter by far than Tess (who is probably a more fair comparison as she is another of Hardy's creations). She does have some growing and maturing to do, but you can actually see her maturing through the novel.
"Am I such a--mere characterless toy--as to have no attraction in me, apart from--freshness? Haven't I brains? You said--I was clever and ingenious in my thoughts, and--isn't that anything? Have I not some beauty?…You have praised my voice, and my manner, and my accomplishments. Yet all of these together are so much rubbish because I--accidentally saw a man before you!"
Unfortunately, I feel I can't really go much further into the plot without revealing things that will surprise and delight you. There is much that becomes predictable as you read, but some things that remain unexpected. You would not believe how many actions take place. It's not all dialogue and description!

Honestly, I wish I had had the chance to study this book in school. Studying Tess was useful, but so serious and simplistic. There's a simultaneous importance of theme yet lightness of style in A Pair of Blue Eyes which makes it a truly intriguing work to study, in my humble opinion. I highly recommend this to anyone who likes 19th century British novels, romances, well-crafted classic literature, or anything in-between. I have been inspired to pursue more familiarity with Hardy's works.


Friday, March 21, 2014

Recipes from the Raleigh Tavern Bakery by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

One of my good friends was chatting with me as I read him this hilarious recipe book from Colonial Williamsburg. It was sold in their gift shoppes a few years ago; the book includes baked goods recipes…and that's pretty much it.

From crêpes to plum tarts, this short "cookbook" includes all the baked goods you need to master to have a colonial spread at the dinner or dessert table (apparently).

One of the old recipes I found the most interesting was apple pie. The recipe from 1796 actually has you boil apple peel into a syrup that you put in the pie with apple quarters and seasoning. This reminds me of commercial pie making in that it involves an added gloopy sugary substance, and I find it intriguing that pie making at home nowadays generally does not include mixing up a syrup separate from the apple and sugar baking together.

I was also interested in how often suet popped up in recipes. And what is "a blade of mace?"

I appreciate the inclusion of both old and modern versions of the recipes. It really lends depth to the contemplation of ingredient equivalents and whatnot.


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Amongst Women by John McGahern

This book is about an Irish family ruled by a stiff and sometimes mean patriarch, Michael Moran. Really, the family is held together and almost directed by the women-- Moran's daughters and his wife. But they pretend, and Moran himself probably pretends, that he is the one with all the power who is pulling the strings.

McGahern starts the book at the end of Moran's life and brings the story around full-circle and then some. I appreciate his usage of time and his crafty way of slipping through it so quickly, advancing the plot in leaps and bounds even while using dialogue, for the most part.

I think there's something admirable in that large amount of dialogue. It's a very prosy book, but with so much dialogue going on between characters…it's interesting.

I know I should have some deeper feelings about this book and the meanings and themes, but it just really didn't speak to me. Maybe I'm missing something.


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown

This book looked important, so I plucked it off the library shelf. It's a picture book for children, written back in the 40s, published with illustrations (probably) in the 70s.

The premise is that for all the things you can say about an object--out of all the descriptions you can use--one is more important than the rest.

From a spoon to a daisy, snow to wind, Wise poetically tells you what makes things what they are and what the most important attribute of the object is. I don't always agree with her. The important thing about grass, in my opinion, is NOT that it is green. (Maybe I just feel that way because I come from a place where grass is often gold.) But I get what she's doing.

Wise's book starts children thinking about what the important things are. And she sets it up so that, at the end, when she says that the important thing about you is that you are you, you are more likely to buy into that logic. She's fostering a sense of self in young children.

Not a groundbreaking book, by any means. I don't even think it's that "important." But it was cute.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

To Stir the Heart: Four African Stories by Bessie Head and Ngugi wa Thiong'o

This is an interesting compilation of two short stories from Bessie Head and two short stories from Ngugi wa Thiong'o. They are two sub-Saharan African writers--one female, one male--who produced great works mostly from the 60s on.

I find this combination of stories interesting because the authors were from two different countries and had different political beliefs and very different experiences with the world. But the stories in this book have to do with gender roles in love and relationships, so they carry similar themes across their differences.

Both expose certain "truths," or social norms through the relationships of their characters. It's interesting because there are similarities across countries, tribes, and time. Hell, there are even similarities across continents. The stalwart male is an ideal that is upheld in many cultures around the world, and it shines through in several of these stories. Too, the passive role of women, which is something I think most of us have come to expect from most cultural commentaries.

There really weren't too many surprises here, but the stories were well-crafted, interesting to read, and evocative of the internal struggle between old ways (traditionalism, tribalism) and new (colonialism, westernization) in Africa. Two thumbs up.


Monday, March 17, 2014

A Worldly Country by John Ashbery

This is the kind of poetry I don't understand. The kind that spouts words and phrases and creates pictures, one by one. They flash by too quickly, so you never really grasp what the author is trying to say. You know that they must be connected somehow, but you can never really figure out how.

This drives me crazy!

There were a few poems I responded to. "Ukase" was my favorite, oddly enough. Or maybe not so oddly. Look it up in a dictionary--it all makes sense.

From the beginning, when "the word rabbits came hippity-hopping along," I knew that I had found something that was going to make sense to me. I read it through once, then twice, and I started to understand.

"The weary river" asking "the same song" leads into molding "the analytical to the time-sensitive" and "we were no worse for it." This is clearly talking about the repetition of work. A life full of work, which is as it should be because "we were no worse for it."

Then he says that it's time to pack up, to get ready to leave. For "we are incurably, undeniably aging." But he doesn't want to come to that end yet. He isn't ready and he isn't ready for his partner to be ready. It's "not when, but if." And the poem ends with recognition that this will be gradual and they will recognize it "from the way we look at each other."

If you got all that, you might like this book of poetry. If you're thinking, "I hate it when she reviews poems," you probably won't.


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Wool by Hugh Howey

Imagine this: In a quasi-post-apocalyptic world, you live with fellow descendants of survivors of the apocalypse in an underground silo. A silo that is stratified into three sections roughly corresponding to socioeconomic status. A silo where everything--from the color of your coveralls to your ability to breed--is carefully controlled by the people in charge. A silo where nothing ever changes, except for every once in a while when an "uprising" occurs. A silo that's so afraid of self-destruction that no one quests for truth. Until one day…

The sheriff's wife uncovers knowledge she was never meant to have and commits the most heinous crime in the silo--she expresses a desire to go outside. Three years after her ejection, known as a "cleaning," and her attempted journey away from the silo, her husband commits the same act, sure that there's something better out there--be it life or death.

This initiates a chain of events that will forever change the silo and have far-reaching consequences!

This book was awesome! And yet freakishly, horrifically not-terribly-unlikely. You probably won't feel that way in the beginning, but near the end it becomes clearer that the possibility of this happening isn't completely far-fetched. I'm definitely not a conspiracy theorist and I don't think anything like this WOULD happen, but Howey's excellent story crafting definitely makes it feel like there's a remote possibility that it might. (A very remote possibility.)

This book was super easy to breeze through because I was so engrossed in wanting to know what would happen next. And I don't usually go for end-of-the-world sci-fi stuff. I was pretty surprised I wasn't even tempted to take a break and I finished it easily in an afternoon. So if you're looking for a solidly written, engaging, action-packed read, this is it!


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Alice Hartley's Happiness by Philippa Gregory


I have a renewed respect for Philippa Gregory. To be completely honest, I kind of lost it five or six years ago when she became ridiculously famous. (She was famous before, but then she basically blew up into this crazily drooled-over international sensation sometime around 2007-8.)

But this book, which she wrote in the early 90s, is badass! This is like an ode to women everywhere. Don't be fooled by the cover, which makes it look like some soppy romance. This is definitely not a soppy romance. Whoever picked this cover design was not doing their job.

Alice feels trapped in a boring, dead marriage with her husband, a university professor. He's having an affair with a young tart from one of his classes and basically snaps, finally asking her for a divorce. And that snaps Alice, who doesn't care much anymore for him or the marriage.

But in snapping, she reclaims her inner power. She finds her own young university student to have an affair with, and she does things…crazy, crazy things. Freeing things! She takes her life in her hands and transforms it. And she transforms the lives of so many others while she's at it. Of course--naturally--rigid society fights back--they don't understand and they fear all of this…freedom.
"It was only later that night, after everyone, including Aunty Sarah had taken their clothes off and danced about the flowery garden in the white unjudging moonlight, and then collapsed in a heap of communal affection and exhausted sexuality, did Michael remember to ask Alice which herb when smoked in enormous quantities makes people take their clothes off and giggle about their husbands."
Seriously, this is an ode to repressed females everywhere. And even though I don't approve of a quarter of the things Alice does, they're either admirable or funny as hell. The ending is predictable, but it gives you hope that you, too, can take charge of your life and be free one day.


Friday, March 14, 2014

SYLO by D.J. McHale

So I was in the grocery store the other day, perusing the book section with amusement, as you do, and this book caught my eye. I think it may be the first time I've seen a teen book so clearly targeted towards boys.

I refer you to the review quote at the top of the cover that reads, "Absolutely un-put-down-able, more exciting than an X-Box and a rollercoaster combined." When was the last time you saw a one-sentence review that includes a made-up word that could easily have been replaced by a real word, mentions video games, and references the high you get from hurtling down a steep track with no control over your vehicle? That's what I thought.

SYLO is about the invasion of a quaint island in Maine, a place that is the very picture of quiet, prosperous American life until a bunch of mysterious military troops literally invade. These troops are with a division of the Navy called SYLO, and they say that they are there to protect the island…but are they going too far? Are their goals really so straightforward? Why is there a mainlander peddling a curious red drug? What are the shadowy flying things that emit sound and light? Is anyone safe anymore?

These are all questions that Tucker and his friends ask as their insular world is turned upside down. From facing a typical fall school season with football and dances and homework, they're now trying to solve the mysteries, stay alive, and find help. But can they get off the island alive?

Read this to find out. I have to say, I was expecting a lot, and I'm still pretty sure half of my theories unanswered by this first book in the series are correct, but there were two twists at the end that I did not expect, one of which blew my mind. You won't believe what the shadowy flying objects are!

I didn't want to like this book; I thought, "Dear god, not a rollercoaster AND an X-Box!" But I get it. Now I'm hooked and I'm dying to know what happens next. Bravo, Mr. MacHale, bravo.


Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Darkest Road by Guy Gavriel Kay

I now understand why everyone praises this series so much. I mean, I thought I understood it when I read Book 2 of the Fionavar Tapestry, but in Book 3 I really felt the magic and power of the tale.

Behind that book, I am weeping as the plots come to a close and the characters face their final battles.

As in the previous books, Kay ties the internal struggles and individual goals of the characters into the goal of the collective--to defeat the Unraveller and have Light triumph over Dark. And the beauty in how the individuals approach their choices is moving. Jennifer continues to connect more and more with her Guinevere side and stands by her choice to let her son be a "random" element. Dave embraces Davor and commits himself fully to the grandest fight in which he will probably ever take part. Kim makes again and again the difficult choices necessary to achieve their goals, sacrificing a bit of herself along the way but gaining much wisdom. And Paul--well, let's just say that I totally predicted what Paul's next steps were going to be, but I can't believe it took him so long to get there!
"No blade I have ever known to be worth anything at all has had only a single edge."
This series really was magical and will inspire any reader. Protect free will! With the good comes the bad, so grin and bear it! Choose Light over Dark! Love in your own way! The messages sound out, loud and clear.

Also, characters die. Kay isn't afraid to kill off main characters in service of the greater good, which is as it should be. I couldn't be more happy with the end of a series.


P.S. Flying red unicorn vs. dragon of darkness…EPIC!!!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York by Frank X Walker

I've been mildly interested (mildly because most history doesn't interest me much) in York since college, so I was excited to find this volume of poems written by an Affrilacian poet, Frank X Walker. Walker posits that York, in actions if not in words, was the true first Affrilacian Poet. I think this is a very broad artistic claim that only an academic would make, but I was willing to put up with it because the nature of the book intrigued me.

Under his premise, Walker has taken the vast accounts and histories of the Lewis & Clark (& Sacagawea & York) expedition and written poetry about the experiences from the point of view of York.

My main problem with the poems is that the themes are too obvious. The similes and metaphors aren't very sophisticated. On the one hand, this makes them more accessible to a broader audience. On the other hand, you don't have to put a lot of thought into the meanings of each poem, so reading them feels almost too…leisurely.

I do think Walker did an excellent job evoking the tone of the period and what the voice of a slave with York's background may have been like through the inclusion of an accent and straightforward, bold words. The words really set the tone time-wise, place-wise, and activity-wise…these are explorers!

And one theme throughout several of the poems that I find interesting is the propensity for identifying with the "other other," as "York" talks about his interactions with Native Americans from various tribes. His bond to Sacagawea, too seems interesting, especially as it almost seems to bridge the gender gap (in the poetry).

Interesting, but perhaps not the most compelling read.


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Tale of Two Castles by Gail Carson Levine

This is one of GCL's newer young adult books. Following in the footsteps of her other popular ones like Ella Enchanted and The Two Princesses of Bamarre, A Tale of Two Castles recounts the adventures of Elodie, a 12-year-old girl who travels from her rural island to the big city with hopes of becoming an apprentice to an acting troupe.

Of course, she's coming into this whole new world, naive and unprepared. The actors reject her--not for lack of talent, but because she can't pay them to teach her--so she finds apprenticeship in an unlikely place, as an assistant to a dragon! "IT" (because dragons are the only ones who know their gender--there's a lesson in there that most kids probably aren't picking up on), Masteress Meenore, is a bit of a logician, using inductive and deductive reasoning to come to sound conclusions. She endeavors to teach Elodie to think more like her and loans her out to the local ogre to keep him from danger. Cute, childish adventures ensue.

My biggest complaint with this book is that the characters are caricatures of themselves. The cryptic, Type A dragon is super cryptic and obsessive compulsive. The greedy king is super greedy. Inquisitive Elodie can't help but question everything. The ditzy princess is super ditzy…

But if you have to read a GCL book, this is definitely one of the good ones. The start may be a bit slow, but once Elodie finds her niche, fun mysteries ensue and they're just uncomplicated enough that you can try to use your own inductive and deductive reasoning skills to solve them first!


Monday, March 10, 2014

The Nine Lives of Chloe King, Book One: The Fallen by Liz Braswell

A few years ago ABC Family produced a series that lasted for--oh--about one season. That series happened to be about a certain mystically feline teen who killed people by kissing them…in San Francisco. Ring a bell?

Well, one day when I had nothing better to do (as a figure of speech), I binge-watched The Nine Lives of Chloe King and knew that I wanted to read the book. Sure, the television show wasn't that good, but it was mildly entertaining and I had wondered if the interesting magical premises were even better in literary form. They had to be, right?

Turns out they're not. I don't know how this book was optioned.

Everything you think about annoying teenagers once you've passed into adulthood is in this book. Everything you hate about the bitchy girls who whine all the time is in this book.

Teens drinking, partying, getting high, making out with people too old for them, stealing, ditching school, lying to everyone, CHECK! Teens bickering about how one isn't paying enough attention to the other, check! Teens killing boys with their deadly kisses--okay, that part is pretty cool.

But other than that, Chloe is vapid and really unrealistic. Honestly, what 16-year-old girl decides to not wear underwear? That's ridiculous! And who decided it was okay to perpetuate the myth of tampon sizes having anything to do with sex? RIDICULOUS! This whole book was ridiculous. I am officially cured of my curiosity relating to cat-people in teen dramas.


Sunday, March 9, 2014

Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski

Have you ever wondered what it was like to grow up in backwoods Florida in the early 20th century? Me neither. But, you can find out anyway by reading Lenski's famous, Newberry winner from 1946, Strawberry Girl.

The book follows the Boyer family as they settle in to a new house and tackle farm life next to a hostile family. The story reads almost more like a series of vignettes of young Birdie Boyer's daily life and misadventures.

As someone who grew up nearly a century later, I cringed at a lot of the practices back then, or even at the children's lack of common sense. (Who in their right mind sticks their arm in a rattlesnake's cage to save a rabbit?!) And it was interesting to be reminded that there was that important era in our country's history when the cattlemen fought the farmers over fences. Usually I only think about that in the context of old 40s westerns, but it happened all over the U.S.

Of course, every heroine needs a nemesis, and Birdie finds hers in Shoestring Soyer, who perpetuates the stereotype of uncultured, uneducated, spirited, backwoods male youth while capturing untamable animals, being loud and annoying, and generally contributing to chaos.

It's an interesting children's book--mostly because it has apparently been well-read for over 60 years! I'm not sure this is one I would pass on to my kids, but... To each their own…


Saturday, March 8, 2014

Border Moonlight by Amanda Scott

I had never read Amanda Scott before and I've had a bad run of cheesy romance novels, so I was a bit hesitant to read this, but I actually discovered a really great romance novelist.

Scott is one of those Scottish romance authors--I kind of despise romance authors who specialize in something like that, exoticizing a culture though repetitive use of it in a romantic context to awe your reader. HOWEVER, this was a really well-written, well-crafted book.

Border Moonlight (yes, the title is stupid) is about a woman who has jilted men at the alter three times, refusing to marry the men her father picks for her. One day, when out riding, she hears a child in the river screaming and rushes to save the child from drowning. A man sees her heroic act and helps her get out of the river. Surprise! It's suitor number two, who vowed to pay her back for her humiliation of him.

You would think--this being a romance novel--that the focus of the plot would be on that goal of payback. However, Scott actually focuses much of the plot on the political intrigue of the borderlands and the disappearance of a person of importance. She twines both that and the slowly-developing romance together quite well--well enough that I actually kept nodding and smiling rather than cringing.

This is not the best romance novel I have ever read. But it was damn good, so I'm excited I've found another solid romance author to read!


Friday, March 7, 2014

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang trans. Chi-Young Kim

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a hen? To lay eggs day after day, knowing you would never get to hatch a chick? Sun-Mi Hwang depicts the end of the life of a hen in this story about freedom, love, and destiny.

Sprout is a caged hen until the time when she stops laying eggs. Past her prime, she is thrown out like a piece of garbage by the farmer and his wife. But something miraculous happens--against all odds, and with a little help from an outcast duck, she survives. Without a place in the barnyard, she has to figure out what to do out in the real world and learn how to survive independently. Freedom for her is both a blessing and a curse.

Along the path to her (predictable) death, she accomplishes her dreams, raises an orphaned duckling, and stands up to a vicious weasel. She learns about both the joys and sorrows of love. And she learns more about who she is as a result.

This was a surprisingly deep work. On the one hand, it was very simple--it laid out Sprout's life in very certain, plain terms. On the other hand, the book imparts to you some very meaningful wisdom--freedom brings responsibility, love is both joy and pain, and destiny--well, destiny is sometimes the most powerful force of all.


Thursday, March 6, 2014

Gitagovinda by Jayadeva trans. Barbara Stoler Miller

Jayadeva's Gitagovinda is a lengthy, twelve part poem/song about love between Krishna and Radha. A whole lot of love…

Honestly, I had to Wikipedia the work to have even a modicum of understanding regarding its greater meaning and significance. That right there tells you that this was not a good translated publication. Although this book did include a significant introduction, it assumed much prior knowledge of Indian culture and Sanskrit poetry. I was disappointed in Miller's work as a scholar in not making her work more accessible to an uneducated audience.

The poem itself was provocative. Radha loves Krishna, but is tormented by his cheating on her and then returning to her. The poem seems to switch points of view, which I found fascinating. You don't get that sense of perspective from 12th century European poetry! Of course, the vibrant descriptions of nature mixed with the very detailed, body-centered descriptions of the lovers evoked a light eroticism that conveyed the emotions of the characters very well.

I wish I was more well-versed in the mythology of the main characters. I feel this is one reading for which you definitely need solid context to appreciate it properly.


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange

Way back in the 1970s, Ntozake Shange wrote poetry that evoked both the powerlessness and the power of women of color. She wrote about women being beaten down and used by men, the system, each other…But she also wrote about strong characters who stood their ground, who overcame obstacles, and who spoke up when someone needed to speak. Shange compiled some of her works into a performance--a choreopoem--and it morphed into a dramatic work that has been produced hundreds of times since it was first performed in 1975. It's certainly still very applicable today.

I read a version of the choreopoem published in 2010, so it had an excellent introduction by Shange about the conception, history, meaning, and criticisms of the piece. I think that introduction, more than anything, made this such a moving work of art.

These are poems that are meant to be performed in an ensemble. An ensemble of women of color. So for me to read them solo…I just didn't get the full impact, I know I didn't. But I could imagine how powerful the performance would be if I was seeing it live.

And she may say that it's written "for colored girls…for women of color," but I don't think she would dispute the fact that the poem/poems are meaningful to all women, and hopefully to men, too. This is their truth. If you aren't moved by reading this book or watching the performance, you aren't acknowledging that your truth is not the only truth.


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Women Troubadours by Meg Bogin

This was an interesting short compilation of several poems from 12th century female troubadours. The original texts with translations are preceded by lengthy sections providing you with background information on the history and culture of the period, relevant social and political issues, and literary context.

Of course, this was an interesting portrayal of l'amour courtois. The majority of my literary knowledge of courtoisie comes from Marie de France, who was herself a woman (although she was from northern France, while the poetesses featured in this book were from Provence and wrote in langue d'oc). But Marie de France was probably more formally an author than these women, who wrote in a fairly informal style…

At any rate, my point is not to compare and contrast medieval poetic literature. That would just be silly.

We can learn a lot from these women of the 12th century, though; their works include some great advice:
"…the lover humbly ought to ask / for everything his heart desires, / and the lady should comply with his request / within the bounds of common sense ; / and the lover ought to do her bidding / as toward a friend and lady equally / and she should honor him the way / she would a friend, but never as a lord." ~ Maria de Ventadorn
"…if he really wants my love, / he'll have to show high spirits and behave, / be frank and humble, not pick fights with any man, / be courteous with everyone ; / for I don't want a man who's proud or bitter, / who'll debase my worth or ruin me..." ~ Anonymous
"But above all, messenger, make him comprehend / that too much pride has undone many men." ~ Countess of Dia

 But I think my favorite part was when I started reading the poem by Azalais de Porcairages:
"Now we are come to the cold time / when the ice and the snow and the mud / and the birds' beaks are mute / … / My heart is so disordered / that I'm rude to everyone…"
Sing it, sister! I know she's about to go on about love and men again, but how perfect is that for how so many of us feel right now?!

This was an intriguing snapshot of Medieval "French"literature/performance art. I shall now have to go read some male troubadours' works so I can better compare the two groups.


Monday, March 3, 2014

Deluxe Official Bartender's Guide by Mr. Boston Distiller Corporation

I'm not going to lie, I read this one because it was the shortest book I could find lying around. But it ended up taking a surprisingly long time to read. One hundred sixty-eight pages and over 1,000 recipes takes a while to get through.

I soon made a game of it, though: I looked for recipes without grenadine or powdered sugar. The increase in diabetes over the last couple of generations suddenly makes sense.

My favorites (or potential favorites, since I haven't made any of these yet) are the following:
Boom Boom Punch (I'm half certain this is culturally insensitive, but anything with a fifth of sweet vermouth automatically sounds great!)
Champagne Sherbet Punch (Again, fairly obvious.)
Gimlet (I have never had one, but that sounds deliiiiicious! Why is it an old lady's drink?)
Glögg (This looks like it would take all day to make, but it seems like the way more sophisticated version of grog, if that actually is real.)
Moon Quake Shake (Name says it all.)
Salty Dog (Mmmmmm.)
Tulip Cocktail (Sweet and fruity!)
Zombie (Looks like it would be way too much trouble to make myself, but super fun to watch being made!)

This is a pretty useless book, though. The recipes are all ordered alphabetically. There's an index in the back so you can look them up by category, but it's pretty impractical. Also, the book is from a time when absinthe was illegal and people used powdered sugar instead of simple syrup. Awkward to use and out of date. I don't recommend this book.


Sunday, March 2, 2014

In the Eye of Heaven by David Keck

I've been really disappointed by supposedly good fantasy novels lately. Maybe I was just buying too much into the hype, but I expected this book (and the next one, which I also happened to acquire) to be exciting and engaging. In the Eye of Heaven is definitely something. Engaging is not it.

The protagonist, Durand, doesn't get the land inheritance he was expecting, so he travels around, meeting mysterious hermits, being set upon by spirits, and taking odd chevalier jobs where he can get them.

It was like a cross between Jacqueline Carey's Sunderer duology and Dennis L. McKiernan's Faery Series, both in plot and in tone. And I like those two series, for very different reasons. But the problem with this novel is that Keck wrote it the way typical teen boys talk about things. He left out emotion. He left out introspection. There's very little opportunity to connect with Durand or any of the other characters because there's not that emotional connection that you really need to get invested in the plot of a book.

This is written very well and the plot is compelling. To Keck's credit, you do get a ton of dialogue and action, right off the bat. But ultimately, without that emotional connection…It was tough to slog through this one.


Saturday, March 1, 2014

Mage Heart by Jane Routley

I honestly don't know how I managed to get so engrossed in this fantasy novel. Dion is so annoyingly naive and brainwashed. And she really easily soaks up what others tell her. The basic plot of this book is that Dion, the only female mage in the land, is hired by the local Duke to protect his courtesan, who is under threat from her former lover (a great, foreign mage).

Dion is a conservatively-raised, sheltered young woman and so the subplot is that this assignment allows her the freedom for the first time in her life to question her deep-seated religious and social beliefs, as well as explore sexuality. Apparently she was taught some cockamamie notion that has to do with virginity being powerful (ridiculous because in this world you don't get a magical boost from being a virgin), and she thinks the ideas of attraction and sex are disgusting.

I would say hijinks ensue, but it's not really that sort of book. There's definitely nothing light in this novel. It's more serious in tone, exploring repressed sexuality and the destructive power of blind faith/religious fanaticism.

This was definitely an interesting read. I did get sucked in somehow. However, I really found most of the characters annoying. Maybe I just wanted to see what the conclusion would be. It was mildly interesting, but fairly predictable. I don't know…On the whole, I'm just very confused about how I feel about this one.