Thursday, November 29, 2012

Mini-Reviews: College Reading Part 3

More brief reviews of the (mostly) nonfiction works I've read for class.
See also: Mini-Reviews: College Reading Part 1
Mini-Reviews: College Reading Part 2

The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt ed. by Ian Shaw
2000; read for Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations
Chock-full of information. Probably THE book to go to for in-depth ancient Egyptian history, at least in terms of non-textbooks and scholarly monographs. However, there was so much dry, specific information that I found it difficult to absorb anything concrete. I think it would work much better as a reference resource to return to for narrower topics.
In the Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall
1971; read for General Anthropology
It took me a while to get into this book, mostly because the first few chapters were more on the background and very beginnings of Goodall's research. Once she started to personally describe the chimps, however, my interest and enjoyment greatly increased. The stories of the apes read almost like a novel - I'm even looking forward to the "sequel" covering the years after 1971.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
2002; read for fun (yes, it's cheating on the title of this post)
Middlesex wasn't quite what I had expected. For one thing, it was as much historical fiction as it was the story of hermaphrodite Cal. For another, Eugenides's writing didn't wow me. I expected it to be remarkable, given the accolades of this and his other books, and while it was good, it didn't stand out from that of other "literary" novelists. The novel definitely stayed interesting, but it wasn't a stand-out read for me.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Classic Lit: Agnes Grey by Charlotte Bronte

Publisher: Arcturus Publishing
Date: 1847 (2010)
Format: paperback
Source: purchased
Read: for my own enjoyment
Pages: 189
Reading time: four days

From the back cover: Based on Anne Bronte's own experience as a struggling governess, Agnes's story paints a realistic picture of an intelligent, sensitive young woman who endures months of isolation and frustration in a household that is not her home. But despite the unkindness, and sometimes even malice, to which she is subjected, Agnes' abiding principles of tolerance and compassion help her to triumph against the odds.

My review: I think Agnes Grey would serve as a good introduction to the Bronte sisters's novels for someone who is a bit timid in tackling one of their lengthier books. It has their characteristic, 19th-century style where there's a bit of a unifying plot, but mostly the storyline just meanders through the central character's life. At under 200 pages, though, it's certainly the shortest of the sisters's major works.

I happen to like the basically plotless 19th-century novels, and so, in that regard, I enjoyed Agnes Grey as much as any other Bronte novel. I found Agnes to be an annoying character, however. Unlike Charlotte's heroines (Villette is one of my favorite books), I couldn't identify much with her. She seemed too self-righteous and whiny. She was also irritatingly avoidant of taking any action, and not because, like Lucy Snowe, she was being all rational about the situation. No, she was just weak-willed and preferred to quote moral sentiments at other people. Considering Agnes Grey is drawn from Anne's own experiences, I'm guessing I wouldn't have wanted Anne as a governess, either.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

YA Sci-Fi/Fantasy: The Geomancer's Compass by Melissa Hardy

Publisher: Tundra Books
Date: November 13, 2012
Format: hardback
Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewers
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 254
Reading time: two days

From GoodReads: Set in the year 2021, this YA novel explores the tension between a young woman's future building infrastructure for Augmented Reality and the commitment she makes to her dying grandmother to honour ancient Chinese magic. The Geomancer's Compass imagines a world in the near future while exploring the Chinese immigrant experience and the expanding, elastic and shifting nature of reality.

My review: The idea behind The Geomancer's Compass was right up my alley, an interesting blend of sci-fi/fantasy with historical and cultural details. I greatly enjoyed how the author mixed together traditional Chinese (and even a little bit of First Nations) customs and beliefs, stories of the Chinese immigrant experience in Victorian Saskatchewan, and futuristic technology.

In other ways, however, this novel fell a bit flat. At times, the pacing of the storyline felt a little slow and tedious. I found the main character's original utter disdain for her cultural heritage - including rude comments made during discussions with her elders - irritating and overdone. The speculative fiction elements surrounding the geomancer's compass didn't seem to come entirely together, making the ending feel rushed and underdeveloped. Overall, this was an enjoyable read, but there were parts that I found slightly irritating.

Note: This book is written at a level that would also appeal to MG readers, and its content and language are appropriate for that audience as well.

Friday, November 23, 2012

YA Sci-Fi: Dark Life by Kat Falls

Series: Dark Life #1
Publisher: Scholastic
Date: May 2010
Format: hardback
Source: GoodReads First Look
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 297
Reading time: one day

From GoodReads: Ty has lived under the ocean for his entire life. Following global warming and the rise of the seas, his family joined an underwater community in hopes of living in the new frontier of the ocean floor. But When Ty meets Gemma, a girl from "topside", who is searching the seas for her brother, she quickly makes his life very complicated. Together Ty and Gemma face dangerous sea creatures and venture into the frontier town's rough underworld as they search for her missing brother. But the deeper they dig, the more attention they attract, and soon Ty and Gemma find themselves being hunted by a gang of outlaws who roam the underwater territories causing havoc, and who seem to have eerie abilities. But Ty has a secret of his own, living underwater for his entire life has meant he has also developed a "special" power. Can he keep it a secret from Gemma and his family or is it time for him to finally tell everyone the truth?

My review: I loved the uniqueness behind the world of Dark Life - in a post-apocalyptic world, people have moved under the sea and begun creating a society that in many ways mimics the old American West. It was a really refreshing, new look at typical themes, and, overall, the author made the scenario seem realistic. The plot was engaging and fast-paced, making this a quick and enjoyable read.

I felt like the main characters generally fell flat, though. I found Gemma's supposedly macho personality difficult to entirely believe. I was also irritated by how it felt like the reader was not always on the same page (pun intended) with the secrets hidden and discoveries made by the characters. There was little development up to these denouements, and so it often seemed like they came out of the blue.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Recent Acquisitions

Sorry for the sparse posts - I haven't had much time to read for fun the last week, what with tests and papers coming up before Thanksgiving break. Post-Thanksgiving shouldn't be much better, as the break is quickly followed by "dead week" and exams. After that, however....

Needless to say, I can't wait for Thanksgiving break! Hopefully I won't have homework I have to take with me when I fly home to visit my family. Also, I have a lot of books waiting for me back at the house.

For review:
The Elephant Keepers' Children by Peter Hoeg (GoodReads First Look)
Shades of Earth (Across the Universe #3) by Beth Revis (First Look)
I'm so excited!!! I love the Across the Universe series, and this is the first time I've managed to score an ARC...
The Geomancer's Compass by Melissa Hardy (LibraryThing Early Reviewers)
The Breeders by Matthew J. Beier (author)

From Random Buzzers:
The FitzOsbornes at War (Montmaray Journals #3) by Michelle Cooper
I'm also thrilled about this one! Cooper's Montmaray Journals is currently my favorite historical fiction series.

Free from World Literature Today:
Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos
The WLT Book Club selection for this month.
The Eyes of Venice by Alessandro Barbero
Another Europa Edition, because I loved the translation of Alfa Romeo 1300 and Other Miracles.
Almost Never by Daniel Sada
Island: How Islands Transform the World by J. Edward Chamberlin
Phaedra by Marina Tsvetaeva
The Obscene Madame D by Hilda Hilst
City of Bohane by Kevin Barry

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Mini-Reviews: College Reading Part 2

More brief reviews of the nonfiction works I've read for class.
See also: Mini-Reviews: College Reading Part 1.

The Sambia: Ritual, Sexuality, and Change in Papua New Guinea by Gilbert Herdt
2006; read for General Anthropology
Overall, this was an excellent description of male initiation rituals in a traditional highland New Guinean society. Occasionally, it was written more informally than what I'm used to, and I know the content (a lot of fellatio) would offend some people. Just remember cultural relativism. The last couple of chapters seemed repetitive, but in general, this was a good ethnographic read.

African Perspectives on Colonialism by A. Adu Boahen
1989; read for Survey of African Civilizations
Best book read so far for this class? For a short book, it's completely packed with great information, some of which has been heard before in general history classes, most of which has not. The information is presented in a very nuanced fashion, including both sides of any arguments. The author's writing is fairly easy to read and absorb, and I'm hoping this text is widely used in courses on African history.

The Classic Fairy Tales ed. by Maria Tatar
1998; read for Intro to Critical Reading and Writing
This anthology of fairy tales and criticism started off strong with "Little Red Riding Hood" tales from around the world and including innovative modern variations. After that, though, the selections were largely dominated by Perrault, the Grimms, and Joseph Jacobs; most of the other stories were also taken from European collectors and included very few modern adaptations. The criticism was mostly hit-or-miss for me.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Fiction: Alfa Romeo 1300 and Other Miracles by Fabio Bartolomei

Publisher: Europa Editions
Translator: Anthony Shugaar
Date: 2011 (trans. October 30, 2012)
Format: paperback
Source: WLT giveaway shelf
Read: for my own enjoyment
Pages: 322
Reading time: four days

From GoodReads: Diego is a forty-something car salesman with a talent for telling half-truths. Fausto sells watches over the phone. Claudio manages (barely) his family-owned neighborhood supermarket. The characteristic common to each of these three men is their abject mediocrity. Yet, mediocrity being the mother of outrageous invention, they embark on a project that would be too ambitious in scope for any single one of them, let alone all three together. They decide to flee the city and to open a rustic holiday farmhouse in the Italian countryside outside Naples. Things would have been challenging enough for these three unlikely entrepreneurs, but when a local mobster arrives and demands they pay him protection money things go from bad to worse. Now their ordinary (if wrongheaded) attempt to run a small business in an area that organized crime syndicates consider their own becomes a quixotic act of defiance.

My review: The best way to describe Alfa Romeo 1300 and Other Miracles is as a men's mid-life crises novel on drugs. The characters don't start out very likeable. They're three down-on-their-luck, self-centered, often prejudiced guys with poor social and love lives and very few redeeming qualities. When these city-slickers decide to start anew and renovate a large country home into an agritourist bed and breakfast, what could possibly go wrong?

Of course, hilarity ensues. At times I was laughing out loud. This is one of the funniest books I've read in a while, just from the characters' blunders and the almost ridiculous situation that progresses between them and members of the local mob. Somehow the author actually makes this scenario seem realistic, though for most of the book the reader lives under the knowledge that the situation can't possibly last in the men's favor and will only end badly. Still, it's fascinating to watch how the characters change and develop under the influence of their mutual country enterprise. They're not always capable of saving themselves from their own mistakes, however, and so the cast of characters grows as others join the initial trio in maintaining their schemes. In addition, there's a good deal of social messages included in the story, making this not only a very enjoyable read, but also one that sticks with readers after they have closed the covers.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Recent Acquisitions

For review:
The Bridge by Jane Higgins (Early Reviewers)
See my review here.
Dark Life (Dark Life #1) by Kat Falls (First Look)
Mailed to my house, so I won't get to it until Thanksgiving break (only 2.5 more weeks!!!).

For free, thanks to World Literature Today:
Exile (Africa Trilogy #1) by Jakob Ejersbo
Land and Blood by Mouloud Feraoun
Alfa Romeo 1300 and Other Miracles by Fabio Bartolomei
I've heard good things about the Europa Editions, and what better way to try them out than to get them for free?
The Island of Last Truth by Flavia Company

Purchased, because my college town and campus are killing me with good book sales:
Native Roots: How the Indians Enriched America by Jack Weatherford
The Anatomy of Revolution by Crane Brinton
Autobiography of Brook Farm by Henry W. Sams
Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart
The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk's Account of the Seven Rites of the Ogala Sioux by Joseph Epes Brown
The Upper Amazon by Donald W. Lathrap
Sex and Repression in Savage Society by Bronislaw Malinowski
The Outline of History, Vol. II by H.G. Wells
The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 by Alfred W. Crosby
New Lives for Old by Margaret Mead
Lost Tribes & Sunken Continents by Robert Wauchope

What exciting books did everyone else get recently?

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Fiction: Good Offices by Evelio Rosero

Publisher: MacLehose Press
Translator: Anne McLean and Anna Milsom
Date: 2011
Format: paperback
Source: WLT giveaway shelf
Read: because it sounded interesting
Pages: 140
Reading time: two days

From the back cover: When Father Almida is summoned to an audience with the parish's principal benefactor, a stand-in is found in Father Matamoros, a drunkard with an angel's voice whose sung mass is mesmerizing to all. But Matamoros hides a darker side, and when the church's residents throw a feast for him he encourages them to lose all their inhibitions and give free reign to their most Bacchanalian desires.

My review: Good Offices is billed as being "comic" and "Bacchanalian" with "offbeat humor," so I was rather  surprised by how it actually turned out. The novella actually seemed quite serious to me, and there was little that I found comic. Father Matamoros, rather than being "Bacchanalian," seemed very passive, the unlively and accidental leader of what transpires throughout the story. The most interesting part was just trying to figure out what various events and characters symbolized in the satire. The ideas presented in the novella were intriguing, but overall the book fell flat of my expectations.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

YA Sci-Fi: The Hollow Earth by Rudy Rucker

Publisher: William Morrow
Date: 1990
Format: hardback
Source: library sale
Read: because I love books dealing with hollow earths
Pages: 308
Reading time: four days

From GoodReads: In 1836, Mason Algiers Reynolds leaves his family's Virginia farm with his father's slave, a dog, and a mule. Branded a murderer, he finds sanctuary with his hero, Edgar Allan Poe, and together they embark on an extraordinary expedition to the South Pole, and the entrance to the Hollow Earth. It is there, at the center of the world, where strange physics, strange people, and stranger creatures abound, that their bizarre adventures truly begin.

My review: Having read Rucker's Postsingular about a month ago, I can say that this book really surprised me. It's difficult to see that the same author wrote both books. The Hollow Earth is so much more cohesive, and some of the science behind the ideas presented is actually explained in the accompanying "Editor's Note." The writing style is completely different.

I really enjoyed The Hollow Earth, and not just because I love anything dealing with the theory of Symmes' Hole. The premise of the novel - Edgar Allan Poe and friends travel through the South Pole into the hollow earth, an idea explored in several of Poe's works, but with some twists - is fascinating. Some of the characterizations are almost purposefully poor, to the point where they're hilarious. Poe is one of the flattest characters; he seems to have been made as wacky and unbalanced as possible. The number of people who die gruesome deaths, soon thereafter treated rather nonchalantly, also adds an odd surrealism to a book that otherwise successfully mimics the style of classic sci-fi adventure stories. It's a strange book, but much in keeping with the ideas and novels from which it draws its inspiration.

Note on the cover: Isn't it hilariously awful with its rabbit-pig-bug thing?! I'm not sure that such a scene even exists in the book, but it wins for one of the corniest-looking sci-fi covers ever.

For other rather odd treatments of matters connected to Symmes' Hole and Edgar Allan Poe, see The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean (2007) and Pym by Mat Johnson (2011).