Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Historical Fiction-ish: The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel by Magdalena Zyzak

Publisher: Henry Holt
Date: January 14, 2014
Format: ARC
Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewers
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 270
Reading time: five or six days

From GoodReads: Set in the quaint (though admittedly backward) fictional nation of Scalvusia in 1939, The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel follows the exploits of a young swineherd with romantic delusions of grandeur. Desperate to attract the voluptuous Roosha, the Gypsy concubine of the local boot-and-shoe magnate, Barnabas and his short-legged steed Wilhelm get embroiled in a series of scandals and misadventures, as every attempt at wooing ends in catastrophe. After the mysterious death of an important figure in the community, a witch-hunt ensues, and a stranger falls from the sky. Barnabas begins to see the terrible tide of history turning in his beloved hometown. The wonderfully eccentric supporting cast includes a priest driven mad by a fig tree, a gang of louts who taunt our reluctant hero at every turn, and a dim-witted vagabond with a goat for a wife. 

My review: I'm not entirely sure what the whole point of this novel was, but it was fun. There's a lot of cool stuff to compare it to - The Mouse That Roared series by Leonard Wibberley, Don Quixote, long humorous picaresque novels of the 18th century, classic parodies in general, and hints of absurdism. The book wasn't laugh-out-loud funny for me, but it was quite amusing the entire way through.

I guess what got me, though, is just the lack of any apparent reason behind everything. It's a fun read, yes, but what points is the author trying to make about history, particularly with regards to small 20th century European nations and villages? It felt like some kind of message is there but never comes through entirely. This message is what would have turned a delightful read into something deeper that makes the story stick with the reader past the conclusion of the book.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Blog Tour Review: Taking What I Like by Linda Bamber

Publisher: Black Sparrow Press
Date: July 2013
Format: paperback
Source: TLC Book Tours
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 210
Reading time: about a week (or a story per day)

From the back of the book: Othello is the only minority member of the Department, so Desdemona, currently serving as Department Chair, is running an affirmative action search. A likely candidate reminds her of Othello in the old days, before he smothered her with a pillow; against her will, she develops a crush on the new guy. Iago gets into the act, stirring up mischief as before. Will it all end in tears once again? Read "Casting Call," one of eight stories in Linda Bamber's new collection, to find out. You'll find yourself caught between laughter and suspense as you encounter these and other familiar characters from Antony and Cleopatra to Henry IV, from Jane Eyre to real-life American artist Thomas Eakins.

My review: The eight stories in this collection are mostly centered on Shakespeare's plays (Othello, the Henriad, As You Like It, Hamlet, and Antony and Cleopatra), along with one story each on Jane Eyre and Thomas Eakins' paintings. I found the first story - the one with the Othello affirmative action department search - the most creative (and humorous) in terms of retelling and drawing on these classic tales, but really, each story is unique in how it pulls in these well-known works and mixes them with current settings and language. There's a great deal of metafiction-y reflections and critical examinations, which for me is what made this book stand out. If you're a Shakespeare, Eakins, or Jane Eyre fan, it's like reading literary and artistic criticism in a fun fictional form. I'd love to see what Bamber would do with other classic works! I found that I tended to enjoy the stories drawing from works with which I am already familiar more than the others, but all were understandable despite any personal lack of background.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Sci-Fi: On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee

Publisher: Riverhead
Date: January 7, 2014
Format: ARC
Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewers
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 350
Reading time: about a week, maybe

From GoodReads: In a future, long-declining America, society is strictly stratified by class. Long-abandoned urban neighborhoods have been repurposed as highwalled, self-contained labor colonies. And the members of the labor class—descendants of those brought over en masse many years earlier from environmentally ruined provincial China—find purpose and identity in their work to provide pristine produce and fish to the small, elite, satellite charter villages that ring the labor settlement. In this world lives Fan, a female fish-tank diver, who leaves her home in the B-Mor settlement (once known as Baltimore), when the man she loves mysteriously disappears. Fan’s journey to find him takes her out of the safety of B-Mor, through the anarchic Open Counties, where crime is rampant with scant governmental oversight, and to a faraway charter village, in a quest that will soon become legend to those she left behind.

My review: I really wanted to love this book. Literary speculative fiction, preferably with dystopian elements, is one of my favorite things to read, and Lee's writing style is unique. Not only is his writing quite nice, but the narrator is a pretty interesting collective family or community voice rather than a single first- or third-person narrator. I also enjoyed finding the parallels between Lee's future societies and current trends in our own. took a while to get into the plot, and I think I only became engrossed because I was stuck on airplanes for several hours with just reading to do. Though the storyline did remain interesting, the book seemed really slow. I never caught on to what point(s) the author was trying to convey - the story seemed like it was trying to give some kind of message, but I struggled unsuccessfully for the full novel with figuring out what that message was. And while I liked the sudden twist at the conclusion, I didn't like how one of the main issues driving the entire plot was left open. I was hoping this would be a super read, but it failed to live up entirely to my expectations.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Short Stories: Watering Heaven by Peter Tieryas Liu

Publisher: Signal 8 Press
Date: October 2012
Format: paperback
Source: GoodReads First Look
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 204

From GoodReads: What would you do if you found out your girlfriend laid an egg every time she had sex? Who would you be if you were invited to a party in Beijing but had to make up a brand-new identity for six weeks? Peter Tieryas Liu's Watering Heaven is a travelogue of and requiem for the American dream in all its bizarre manifestations and a surreal, fantastic journey through the streets, alleys, and airports of China. Whether it's a monk who uses acupuncture needles to help him fly or a city filled with rats about to be exterminated so that the mayor can win his reelection bid, be prepared to laugh, swoon, and shudder at the answers Peter Tieryas Liu offers in this provocative debut collection.

My review: So, again, I'm not a huge short story fan and often don't do well reviewing collections. I picked up Watering Heaven because the first story promised speculative fiction elements, though these proved far more pronounced in that story than in any others. Still, there were several that approached Pynchon-esque surrealism. I did not always catch the messages in each story, but I did catch the underlying theme throughout the collection of an existential dissatisfaction with modern life, the daily grind of going along with corporate business and the status quo. It will be interesting to pick this back up a few years down the road and see what I think of it when I'm a bit further into adulthood.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

YA Fantasy: Battle Magic by Tamora Pierce

Series: The Circle Reforged #3 (Emelan)
Publisher: Scholastic
Date: September 24, 2013
Format: ARC
Source: ARCycling
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 440
Reading time: four days

From GoodReads: On their way to the first Circle temple in Gyongxe, mages Briar, Rosethorn, and Evvy pay a visit to the emperor's summer palace. Although treated like royalty when they first arrive, the mages soon discover that the emperor plans to invade Gyongxe, posing a fatal threat to the home temple of the Living Circle religion. Accompanied by one of the emperor's prize captives, the three mages rush to Gyongxe to warn its citizens of the impending attack. With the imperials hot on their trail, Briar, Rosethorn, and Evvy must quickly help the country prepare for battle. But even with the help of new allies, will their combined forces be enough to fight the imperial army and win the war?

My review: Middle school and early high school were my big years for Tamora Pierce, so with this book I'm not sure if her writing didn't match up with her other books or if I've simply grown out of liking her series. Certainly I didn't find my usual OMG-I-love-this-series-so-so-much enthusiasm for Battle Magic, but then I always preferred the Tortall books to the Emelan ones, anyway.

Battle Magic started out slooooow. It was a bit of a slog, and I was questioning how I managed to quickly get through Pierce's thicker tomes in previous days. The plot was just slow in doing much, and I didn't find the filler material all that interesting. There was less of Pierce's usual fantastic world-building, and characters didn't grow much from what I remember in previous books. About halfway through, though, things picked up significantly as the storyline moved into adventures and battle scenes. Then I was back to my usual compulsive, can't-put-this-down reading. It just took awhile to get to this point, and by the end I still wasn't very impressed with Battle Magic as compared with Pierce's other books. It was a fun fantasy read, not much more.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Recent Acquisitions: Post-Holiday Hauls

For review:
Because, what with the backlog of several months' worth of ARCs from this past semester, I clearly need more. Bring on the review-fest.
The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons by Goli Taraghi (First Look)
On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee (Early Reviewers)
I Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe (publisher)
Taking What I Like by Linda Bamber (TLC Book Tours)

Indians of Burke County and Western North Carolina by Larry Richard Clark
A Very Mutinous People: The Struggle for North Carolina, 1660-1713 by Noeleen McIlvenna
All the Best Rubbish by Ivor Noel Hume
Archaeological Study Bible
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

I might have gone a bit overboard with purchasing books.

Purchased at Fifth Street Books in Mebane:
*If anyone lives close enough to make a drive there, everything's $0.99 and there's a weekend each month where everything is $0.25! I only had 30 minutes when I went, otherwise I would've bought much more...
Old Creole Days by George Washington Cable
The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal
King Harald's Saga by Snorri Sturluson
Laxdaela Saga
The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
The Ordeal of Richard Feverel by George Meredith
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville
Roderick Random by Tobias Smollett
The New Woman and Other Emancipated Woman Plays
Jennie Gerhardt by Theodore Dreiser
Poor Miss Finch by Wilkie Collins
Gap Creek by Robert Morgan (local interest historical fiction)
Paradise by Toni Morrison

Purchased used from my favorite antique mall:
Notebook of a Colonial Clergyman by Henry Melchior Muhlenberg
Envisioning America: English Plans for the Colonization of North America, 1580-1640
The Cultural Life of the American Colonies by Louis B. Wright
Six Early American Plays: 1798-1890
The Black Bard of North Carolina: George Moses Horton and His Poetry ed. by Joan R. Sherman
Translations of French Sentimental Prose Fiction in Late Eighteenth-Century England by Josephine Grieder
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
Angel in the Forest: A Fairy Tale of Two Utopias by Marguerite Young

And, last but not least, purchased used at various other places:
Cades Cove: The Life and Death of a Southern Appalachian Community, 1818-1937 by Durwood Dunn
Mountain People, Mountain Crafts by Elinor Lander Horwitz
The Power of Six (Lorien Legacies #2) by Pittacus Lore
Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Bluebeard: The Life and Crimes of Gilles de Rais by Leonard Wolf
Really, what are the chances that TWO Bluebeard-related books would be on the same bargain shelf at a dinky small-town book exchange?!
Waverley by Sir Walter Scott
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
The Neandertals: Of Skeletons, Scientists, and Scandal by Erik Trinkaus and Pat Shipman
Zel by Donna Jo Napoli

How were your holidays?

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Goodbye 2013!

This wasn't as stellar a year for me as the last one in terms of reading and blogging, but it was still quite good.

Reading goals:
101 books read total (decent)
17 out of 50 for 2013 TBR Pile Reading Challenge (fail)
13 out of 12 for 2013 Translation challenge (success!)

Best classics:
The Lais of Marie de France
Wigalois by Wirnt von Grafenberg

Best historical fiction:
The Spirit Keeper by K.B. Laugheed
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell

Best sci-fi:
Utopia by Ahmed Khaled Towfik
The Carpet Makers by Andreas Eschbach
In a Perfect World by Laura Kasischke
The Demi-Monde World: Winter by Rod Rees

Best YA sci-fi:
The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau
The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Mind Games by Kiersten White

Best in other/nameless genres:
Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
Every Boy Should Have a Man by Preston L. Allen
The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway
The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano

Best nonfiction:
Chiefdoms, Collapse and Coalescence in the Early American South by Robin Beck
From Chicaza to Chickasaw by Robbie Ethridge
Facing East from Indian Country by Daniel K. Richter
America's Communal Utopias ed. by Donald E. Pitzer

Other media fixes for the year:
live performance of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
1990s and 2000s film/TV adaptations of Jane Eyre
music of Mumford & Sons and Mother Falcon