Monday, December 31, 2012

Goodbye 2012!

Well, 2012 was a year for milestones, if not necessarily for this blog, then in my personal life. I graduated high school and community college, then started at the University of Oklahoma. My first semester went quite well, even though it's weird to be 1100 miles from home!

Blogging didn't slow down as much as I expected with the start of college, as I averaged one or two "fun" books a week in addition to what was required for class. Unfortunately, it's taking me a while to get back in the groove over Christmas break....

Book count for the year: 139, which is about 30 more than last year

Anyway, ladies and gentlemen, I present my favorite books of 2012, in no particular order:

Best historical fiction:
Bright and Distant Shores by Dominic Smith
The Printmaker's Daughter by Katherine Govier
The Forest Lover by Susan Vreeland
The Dolphin People by Torsten Krol
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Best sci-fi:
A Million Suns and Shades of Earth (review forthcoming) by Beth Revis
After the Snow by S.D. Crockett
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson
The Hollow Earth by Rudy Rucker

Best classic speculative fiction:
The Return of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Voyage to Kazohinia by Sandor Szathmari
The End of This Day's Business by Katharine Burdekin

Best contemporary(-ish):
Arcadia by Lauren Groff
Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage
The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean

Best world lit:
Tales from the Town of Widows by James Canon
Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry
Alfa Romeo 1300 and Other Miracles by Fabio Bartolomei

Best nonfiction:
Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman by Marjorie Shostak
African Perspectives on Colonialism by A. Adu Boahen
In the Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall

Best in other random categories:
Field of Honor by D.L. Birchfield
The Order of Odd-Fish by James Kennedy

And because there tend to be few books I hate, here's some that particularly inspired my irritation:
Everneath by Brodi Ashton
The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
The Nightmare Garden by Caitlin Kittredge
Vixen and Ingenue by Jillian Larkin
Summer and Bird by Katherine Catmull

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Classic Sci-Fi: The End of This Day's Business by Katharine Burdekin

Publisher: Feminist Press at CUNY
Date: 1990 (written 1935)
Format: paperback
Source: purchased used
Read: because I love old speculative fiction
Pages: 158
Reading time: four days

From GoodReads: Written in 1935 but never before published, this novel depicts a world ruled by women some 4,000 years into the future. Men live alone and rear boys in a cheerful atmosphere of sports, physical labor, and healthy sexuality, but without the consciousness of anxiety or knowledge of history claimed by women. The plot of the novel, described by Choice as “a forgotten masterpiece,” turns on the desire of one woman to teach her son about the past. Risking both their lives, she tells the story of the rise of fascism and the subsequent world transformation as life-loving women took over from death-loving men.

My review: The End of This Day's Business was absolutely fascinating. It got off to a slow start, though, being written mostly in dialogue (a form with which I often struggle reading) and not containing much action. Once the themes of the novel became clear, however, the book was extremely intriguing. Burdekin takes a unique feminist stance on past history, psychologically examining the construction of gender roles and then reversing such roles in her futuristic utopia. But is it really a utopia? Maybe for radical feminists, but the main characters, both male and female, call out its dystopian elements. This isn't a page-turning, exciting work, but the ideas presented in it make it a fascinating and worthwhile read. I'm certainly looking forward to Burdekin's other novels now.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

YA Historical Fiction: The FitzOsbornes at War by Michelle Cooper

Series: Montmaray Journals #3
Publisher: Knopf
Date: October 2012 (US)
Format: ARC
Source: Random Buzzers
Read: because I love the series
Pages: 550
Reading time: three days

From GoodReads: Sophie FitzOsborne and the royal family of Montmaray escaped their remote island home when the Nazis attacked. But as war breaks out in England and around the world, nowhere is safe. Sophie fills her journal with tales of a life during wartime. Blackouts and the Blitz. Dancing in nightclubs with soliders on leave. And endlessly waiting for news of her brother Toby, whose plane was shot down over enemy territory. But even as bombs rain down on London, hope springs up, and love blooms for this most endearing princess. And when the Allies begin to drive their way across Europe, the FitzOsbornes take heart—maybe, just maybe, there will be a way to liberate Montmaray as well.

My review: I didn't like The FitzOsbornes at War quite as much as I did the two previous books, but it was still an informative and enjoyable read. Sophie's voice came off much differently; after all, she is now an adult living through World War II in London, not a naive teenager who's lived as a princess on Montmaray her whole life. There's more of an undercurrent of mature topics (i.e., sexual maturation) as well as darker subject matter as Sophie deals with the death and destruction that strikes her family and the country in which she is staying. I made the mistake of looking at the FitzOsborne family tree in the back of the novel, with the result of learning prematurely and quite shockingly who doesn't make it through the war.

The FitzOsbornes at War was also different in that there seemed to be less of a central plot. Sophie's journal read much more like an actual journal than a novel - there's no real end towards which the story works the entire book, so it seems much more like a realistic account of a young woman just trying to make it through WWII one day at a time. Even without a central plot, though, Sophie's story was engaging, and the pages flew by without leaving the reader impatient. I also noticed less of the political undertone that I loved in the rest of the series, but then this book focused more on the details of home front living than on the politics underlying the war. The great historical information included by Cooper in the series simply changed (quite effectively) to another, related subject.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Recent Acquisitions

I'm finally back at home!! For the next month, I get to spend time with my family, visit friends, shop (mostly for books), and read. A lot. Because, if you've followed my posts like this one, you'll have realized that I must have a MASSIVE TBR pile, which perhaps relates back to item #3 on the above list...

I've been a bad blogger lately, so hopefully that, too, will improve this next month. Posting has been sporadic, even when I've finished several books that need to be reviewed. Life happens sometimes and makes me stressed and tired and not feeling like taking the effort to post.

For review:
Oleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (First Look)

Home Front Girl by Joan Wehlen Morrison (thanks, Reading Lark!)

From World Literature Today:
The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano

The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice
Pennsylvania Dutch American Folk Art by Henry J. Kauffman

Purchased at Ollie's:
The Line by Teri Hall
Swipe by Evan Angler
The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Ackroyd
Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Ben H. Winters

Purchased at a campus book sale:
To Each His Own by Leonardo Sciascia
Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey
Lakota Woman by Mary Crow Dog
Envisioning Cahokia by various authors
The Work of Reconstruction by Julie Saville
Wondrous Healing by James McClenon
From the Fallen Tree by Thomas Hallock

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Historical Fiction: Leaving Cold Sassy by Olive Ann Burns

Series: sequel to Cold Sassy Tree
Publisher: Ticknor and Fields
Date: 1992
Format: hardback
Source: purchased used
Read: because I loved Cold Sassy Tree
Pages: 160
Reading time: two days
*spoiler alert*

Leaving Cold Sassy, originally titled Time, Dirt, and Money, is Olive Ann Burns's unfinished sequel to her historical fiction bestseller Cold Sassy Tree. The book picks up Will Tweedy's story in 1917, ten years after the ending of the first novel. Will, rejected by the U.S. Army, continues to live in Georgia and is struggling with his job, falling in love, and adjusting to the changes in his hometown.

I absolutely loved Cold Sassy Tree when I read it years ago around the age of twelve. The small-town Southern atmosphere and coming-of-age tale were fantastically written and appealed to my own heritage and upbringing. I expected the same from Leaving Cold Sassy but found the sequel to be darker and much less fun to read. I couldn't connect to the romance between Will and Sanna at all, not least because, on Will's part, it fell into the trope of insta-love. I didn't like Sanna's personality and character, which didn't seem very well-suited for Will's. Plus, everything seemed to go downhill towards the end of the actual novel and then in Burns's notes about what was to come in the rest of the book. Will and Sanna have marriage issues, Will cheats on her multiple times, they lose their farm in the Depression, Sanna's not accepted by Will's family and community, etc. It's a pretty depressing and bland sequel for a book I recall as being fairly cheery and entertaining.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Fiction: The Elephant Keepers' Children by Peter Hoeg

Publisher: Other Press
Translator: Martin Aitken
Date: 2010 (trans. October 2012)
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: 500
Reading time: five days

From GoodReads: Told from the precocious perspective of fourteen-year-old Peter, The Elephant Keepers' Children is about three siblings and how they deal with life alongside their eccentric parents. Peter's father is a vicar, his mother is an artisan, and both are equally and profoundly devout. The family lives on the (fictional) island of Finø, where people of all religious faiths coexist peacefully. Yet, nothing is at it seems. When Peter's parents suddenly go missing, Peter and his siblings fear the worst--has their parents' relentless quest to boost church attendance finally put them in danger? Told with poignancy and humor, The Elephant Keepers' Children is a fascinating exploration of fundamentalism versus spiritual freedom, the vicissitudes of romantic and familial love, and the triumph of the human spirit.

My review: I loved, loved, loved Hoeg's writing style. Quirky, ironic, hilarious - all the things that can combine to make an immensely enjoyable read. The plot was slow and meandering, but the writing made the pages fly by fast, still feeling fun. The characters were great, too, each one unique and interesting. It was difficult to predict what crazy plan or twist they would come up with next!

Though this was a fun read, I felt like the deeper ideas didn't come through. There's a lot about religion, especially mysticism, intertwined in this otherwise very mystery-like novel, but it seemed like the author only touched on the surface of the subject. The ideas on religious universality and skepticism at which he hinted were fascinating, yet Hoeg never completely delved into them. It was a rather unsatisfactory aspect of an otherwise extremely enjoyable and engrossing read.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Mini-Reviews: College Reading Part 4

Generally these mini-reviews have been of nonfiction, but this final edition for the semester is a mix.

Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
1973; read for an Honors College reading group
I think we members of this reading group would unanimously sum up the book as WTF?!!! But, we made it. Well, three of us did, anyway. Issues: loooooooong and confusing. Themes: paranoia, drugs, WWII, phallic imagery, the occult. Read if you like weird books; it's interesting even if you don't understand all (or really any) of the incredibly vague references. Definitely a book to re-read, but only after many years of recovery.

Life in the Ancient Near East by Daniel Snell
1997; read for Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations
This was much easier and less formal/technical to read than the ancient Egypt book for this class, but I still took little concrete knowledge away from it. The information was very general and didn't connect much to nice physical facts, like influential rulers or wars. Snell is currently writing another book on the ancient Near East; I learned and retained much more from the first three chapters of it than from this work.

The Odyssey by Homer (trans. E.V. Rieu)
read for Classical Mythology
I liked this more than The Iliad, mostly because I found it both more interesting and easier to read. I was still losing attention for dialogue and details at times, but it was less of a constant thing than it was before. I much prefer prose translations to verse, which might have been a factor. Also, adventure stories are more interesting to me than war stories, and The Odyssey delves more into tales from outside the immediate plot.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Fiction: Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Translator: Rosalind Harvey
Date: 2010 (trans. 2011)
Format: paperback
Source: World Literature Today Book Club
Read: for the WLT Book Club
Pages: 70
Reading time: an hour and a half

From GoodReads: Tochtli lives in a palace. He loves hats, samurai, guillotines, and dictionaries, and what he wants more than anything right now is a new pet for his private zoo: a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia. But Tochtli is a child whose father is a drug baron on the verge of taking over a powerful cartel, and Tochtli is growing up in a luxury hideout that he shares with hit men, prostitutes, dealers, servants, and the odd corrupt politician or two. Long-listed for The Guardian First Book Award, Down the Rabbit Hole, a masterful and darkly comic first novel, is the chronicle of a delirious journey to grant a child’s wish.

My review: I loved Tochtli's voice. His exact age is unclear, but his precocious, quirky means of expression makes this novella a success. His observations are darkly humorous without his meaning it, because he is an attentive child who doesn't quite yet understand the workings of life within a drug cartel. I wish this novella was longer not because it felt incomplete, but because I wanted to continue reading Villalobos's brilliant writing. It's difficult to make a work simultaneously comic and devastating, but in this case the author manages to do so quite successfully.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Sci-Fi: The Breeders by Matthew J. Beier

Publisher: Epicality Books
Date: January 2012
Format: paperback
Source: author
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 415
Reading time: about a week

From GoodReads: The storm has come. Homosexuals, once an ostracized social minority, have taken over the world. They understood the dangers of an overpopulated planet, usurped government power, and created a culture of perfectly engineered families. But Grace Jarvis and Dex Wheelock are heterosexuals--part of the government's highly controlled backup plan for reproduction--and they have a problem: Grace is pregnant. Dex is the father. It is a crime that has only one consequence: banishment to the Antarctic Sanctuary, an isolated biological reserve where reproductive criminals are allowed to exist in peace, without disrupting the rest of civilization. Yet there are rumors that genocide has already begun and that the homosexuals are finally setting natural breeders on a path to extinction. This leaves Grace and Dex with only two choices: to succumb to the tyrannical regime, or run. They choose to run. 

My review: The Breeders takes an interesting idea for a dystopian novel and runs with it. It's important to note the author's intention with this premise: it's an exaggerated reversal of the prejudice faced by homosexuals, not a paranoid indictment of what evil things homosexuals would do if they gained absolute power. The atmosphere of hatred and drastic government measures is terrifying, making parts of The Breeders gripping, edge-of-your-seat reads.

Maybe it was just because I had to take so long to finish the book, but at other points I began to get tired of the story. I felt like the characters kept rehashing the same emotions and thoughts without much variation or change. Overall, the characterizations seemed flat because, despite the characters' verbal acknowledgements of how much they had changed, it was difficult to trace much actual evolution in their thoughts. The book was great when exploring its futuristic society and the travails faced by the minority heterosexuals, but the main characters grew tiresome to read about.

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).

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween!

While everyone else is out trick-or-treating tonight, I will be dressed like a hippie and playing in a trombone choir concert. My university is awesome and has a great trombone professor (Irv Wagner) who's organized a 30-member choir in which, since it's non-auditioned, I am quite fortunately able to participate. The music tonight seems to be an odd mix of classical trombone repertoire (all related to death and the Afterlife, because that's traditional for the instrument) and Broadway pieces. Here's some of them, though not played by our group:

Three Equali by Beethoven (Southeast Trombone Symposium)

Scherzo Funebre by Derek Bourgeois (OSU Choir)

Suite for Four Trombones by Flor Peeters (Quarteto de Trombones Gilberto Gagliardi)

Send in the Clowns by Stephen Sondheim, arr. Irv Wagner (Alessi Seminar Choir)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

YA Sci-Fi: The Bridge by Jane Higgins

Publisher: Tundra Books
Date: August 2011 (Australia); October 9, 2012 (US/CA)
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: 340
Reading time: two days

From GoodReads: The City is divided. The bridges gated. In Southside, the hostiles live in squalor and desperation, waiting for a chance to overrun the residents of Cityside. Nik is still in high school but destined for a great career with the Internal Security and Intelligence Services, the brains behind the war. But when ISIS comes recruiting, everyone is shocked when he isn’t chosen. There must be an explanation, but no one will talk about it. Then the school is bombed and the hostiles take the bridges. Buildings are burning, kids are dead, and the hostiles have kidnapped Sol. Now ISIS is hunting for Nik. But Nik is on the run, with Sol’s sister Fyffe and ISIS hot on their trail. They cross the bridge in search of Sol, and Nik finds answers to questions he’d never dared to ask.

My review: Mixed feelings. Most of The Bridge seemed to be not very different from all the other recent dystopian-genre novels. The action was exciting and it maintained interest, but there weren't really any innovative ideas or situations kicked around. I felt like the various aspects of the plot - the politics in Southside, the attempted rescue of Sol, Nik's mysterious heritage - weren't entirely cohesive and well-developed. I was reminded most of all of a slightly disjointed, dystopian version of one of Tamora Pierce's Beka Cooper books.

The ending, though, was not like all the other let's-write-a-bestselling-dystopian-trilogy conclusions. Not a cliffhanger, but really depressing and open. There's clearly room for developing this into a series, but in a way, I think the ending of The Bridge would better establish its uniqueness and pessimistic realism if the author doesn't try to continue the story.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Fiction: Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

Publisher: Picador
Translator: Anne Born
Date: 2003 (trans. 2005)
Format: paperback
Source: World Literature Today Book Club
Read: for the WLT Book Club
Pages: 238
Reading time: four days

From GoodReads: Trond's friend Jon often appeared at his doorstep with an adventure in mind for the two of them. But this morning was different. What began as a joy ride on "borrowed" horses ends with Jon falling into a strange trance of grief. Trond soon learns what befell Jon earlier that day--an incident that marks the beginning of a series of vital losses for both boys. Set in the easternmost region of Norway, Out Stealing Horses begins with an ending. Sixty-seven-year-old Trond has settled into a rustic cabin in an isolated area to live the rest of his life with a quiet deliberation. A meeting with his only neighbor, however, forces him to reflect on that fateful summer.

My review: I have mixed opinions on Out Stealing Horses. On the one hand, I enjoyed the author's writing style and thought the translation was excellent. It felt very cinematic; the entire time, I felt like I was watching an essentially plotless, but thought-provoking, rather philosophically-inclined film. The story was interesting, a bildungsroman with its roots in rural World War Two and post-World War Norway. It reminded me a great deal of A Separate Peace by John Knowles. On the other hand, it also reminded me of A Separate Peace in that there were times when it felt like I was missing a part of the meaning behind all that was going on and being described. The story meandered around, but in general, it never felt like it reached any decisive point. Some details from beyond the time described were inferred, but I wish more information had been given about specific aspects of the novel that I thought were going to be explored but never were. While I enjoyed reading Out Stealing Horses, I was left with a vague sense of incompletion.

On a side note, I really wish this had been assigned for my English class. I was reading this while I was supposed to be writing a paper on Bobbie Ann Mason's "Shiloh," specifically about narrative techniques and related matters, and it would have been far easier to write that paper on Out Stealing Horses than on "Shiloh" because such details just jumped out in the novel.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

In My Mailbox #38

For free:
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (Honors College reading group)

Magister Ludi (The Glass Bead Game) by Hermann Hesse

From the university library sale:
Mortal Engines (Hungry City Chronicles #1) by Philip Reeve
The Carbon Diaries #1: 2015 by Saci Lloyd
In the Shadow of the Ark by Anne Provoost
The Heartsong of Charging Elk by James Welch
A Drowned Maiden's Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz
The Epic of Qayaq by Lela Kiana Oman
Folk Songs of Europe by Maud Karpeles
Spiritual Folk-Songs of Early America by George Pullen Jackson
The Medieval Popular Ballad by Johannes C.H.R. Steenstrup
The Troubadours by Robert Briffault
Stones, Bones, and Ancient Cities by Lawrence H. Robbins
Argonauts of the Western Pacific by Bronislaw Malinowski
Time Among the Maya by Ronald Wright
The First Woman in America: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child by Carolyn L. Kircher
The Rise of the Novel by Ian Watt
The Idea of History in the Ancient Near East by Robert C. Dentan
The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours
The New Golden Bough by James George Frazier
Mountain Jack Tales by Gail Haley
Lucinda; or, The Mountain Mourner by P.D. Manvill

From the public library sale:
Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Michael Strogoff by Jules Verne
Rave New World by Lynne Hansen
The Hollow Earth by Rudy Rucker
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
Pamela by Samuel Richardson
An Anthology of Elizabethan Prose Fiction
Bear Chief's War Shirt by James Willard Schultz
Indeh: An Apache Odyssey by Eve Ball
Sarah Morgan: The Civil War Diary of a Southern Woman
The Mountain People by Colin M. Turnbull
Early Greece: The Bronze and Archaic Ages by M.I. Finley
The Devil in Massachusetts by Marion L. Starkey
The State of Jones by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer
The Prehistory of China by Judith M. Treistman
Atlantis: The Antediluvian World by Ignatius Donnelly
The Lore of the Unicorn by Odell Shephard

Back at home:
Jane by Robin Maxwell (thanks, Reading Lark!)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Sci-Fi: Adrift on the Sea of Rains by Ian Sales

Series: Apollo Quartet #1
Publisher: Whippleshield Books
Date: April 2012
Format: paperback
Source: author
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 52
Reading time: 90 minutes

From GoodReads: When a nuclear war breaks out and the nations of the Earth are destroyed, it maroons a group of astronauts on the Moon. Using the "torsion field generator", they hope to find an alternate Earth that did not suffer nuclear armageddon. But once they do, how will they return home? They have one Lunar Module,. which can carry only four astronauts into lunar orbit...

My review: Interesting alternate-history premise, great writing and development. I'm reminded to some degree of Ray Bradbury. Though short, the length fits the story; this novella feels like neither a too-long short story or a too-short novel. The rather muted style was refreshing, as this could just as easily have become another flashy space adventure. Instead, Sales focuses on the characters and the history of the space program, especially how they relate to the Cold War and his alternate version of it. There's a heck of a lot pressed into relatively few pages, and I'll be interested in seeing (and reading) what comes next.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Classic Sci-Fi: Voyage to Kazohinia by Sandor Szathmari

Publisher: New Europe Books
Translator: Inez Kemenes
Date: 1941 (July 2012)
Format: paperback
Source: WLT giveaway shelf
Read: because I love classic dystopian novels
Pages: 350
Reading time: four days

From GoodReads: Voyage to Kazohinia is a tour de force of twentieth-century literature--and it is here published in English for the first time outside of Hungary. Sándor Szathmári's comical novel chronicles the travels of a modern Gulliver on the eve of World War II. A shipwrecked English ship's surgeon finds himself on an unknown island whose inhabitants, the Hins, live a technologically advanced existence without emotions, desires, arts, money, or politics. Soon unhappy amid this bleak perfection, Gulliver asks to be admitted to the closed settlement of the Behins, beings with souls and atavistic human traits. He has seen nothing yet. A massively entertaining mix of satire and science fiction, Voyage to Kazohinia has seen half a dozen editions in Hungary in the seventy years since its original publication and remains the country's most popular cult classic.

My review: I'm still marveling that this novel was off my radar until I happened across a free copy of the book. Classic dystopian literature is one of "my things," and the ones I find most interesting are those from non-English-speaking countries. Still, I was a little wary about reading this, since lately I've been in a slump with older, especially translated, novels. I also highly did not enjoy Gulliver's Travels this past summer (sadface after the genius of Swift's "A Modest Proposal"), and Voyage to Kazohinia is written as Gulliver's 20th-century travels. Well...I can't believe Kazohinia wasn't published in English before, because it really does rival other classics like 1984 and Anthem in terms of its dystopian awesomeness.

Voyage to Kazohinia is divided into two parts. In the first, Gulliver arrives among the Hins. Their world could be considered utopian, but they lack a lot of the things that make us humans happy (and also angsty and unstable). Pointed jab at communism here? Maybe. It's an ideal world in many ways (so what communism just wants to be), but, like Gulliver, most of us wouldn't actually want to live there. Gulliver's navigation of this strange people is hilarious all the way through, so, except for some parts that include way too much explanatory dialogue, it's highly enjoyable.

Gulliver eventually decides to move in with the Behins, otherwise known as the "insane" Hins. Here the story ceases to be hilarious and is really rather sad. Gulliver fails to see what is obvious to the reader, that the beliefs and idiosyncrasies of the Behins mirror those of our own society. Meanwhile, the Behins appear so illogical that I generally felt like (metaphorically) banging my head against the wall. But, there were still some really funny parts, like when feeding women food becomes symbolic of prostitution. Don't ask, just go read the book.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Fiction: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Publisher: Riverhead
Date: 2007
Format: paperback
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: 335
Reading time: five days

From the back cover: Oscar is a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd, a New Jersey romantic who dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkein and, most of all, of finding love. But Oscar may never get what he wants. Blame the fuku - a curse that has haunted Oscar's family for generations, following them on their epic journey from the Dominican Republic to the United States and back again.

My review: My thoughts for the first 50 pages: this guy is just like Sherman Alexie*, only writing about Dominican Diaspora life rather than American Indian reservation life. Hilarious, satirical, occasionally self-deprecating, a bit crude; has a way with words that hooks the reader and makes them appreciate the book not just for the content, but also for the writing. After about 50 pages, this excellence in writing continued, but I began to be able to differentiate between Diaz's and Alexie's styles.

I absolutely loved the author's sidenotes, generally rather tongue-in-cheek, giving historical details about Dominican life, especially during the reign of Trujillo. Dictators are so easy to satirize for some reason. For the first part of the book, I felt like I could identify very well with Oscar (minus the overweight Dominican male aspect, as I'm none of those). Sci-fi/fantasy geek, lacks great social skills, can't get a date - the archetype of nerds everywhere, and not what I had been expecting from a Dominican-American protagonist.

But...after a while, like the first 2/3 or so of the novel, things got old and my enthusiasm lagged. The footnotes stopped (why?! those were some of my favorite parts!) and, as he grew older, Oscar wasn't quite so likeable anymore. The conclusion, especially how it related to the fuku and other fantastic elements, didn't seem to be completely coherent. Given how excellent the rest of the book was, I ended up being somewhat disappointed by the build-up of the last chapters, though at least the final pages were sweet and gave a good sense of closure.

Maturity factor: profanity, non-explicit sex, crudity

*If you think this is completely untrue, blame on the fact that, regrettably, the only book by Alexie that I've read is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and that was a couple years ago.

Friday, October 12, 2012

In My Mailbox #37

How many weeks have I been in college now? I'm not sure, but at least, for the most part, everything's going very well. I've even had (some) spare time to read and blog! I'm also going stir-crazy from not being able to go to a good of the things I'm highly anticipating about Christmas break.

For review:
Summer and Bird by Katherine Catmull (LibraryThing Early Reviewers)
See my review here.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (GoodReads First Look)
Review forthcoming within the next week.
Adrift on the Sea of Rains by Ian Sales (author)

For free, because college is awesome like that:
Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon's Novel Gravity's Rainbow by Zak Smith (Honors Program)
This monster goes along with the Gravity's Rainbow reading group; we joke (but it's true) that we have the most expensive group. Other people went for the Thrift Editions; we went for the $40 picture book.
Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson (World Literature Today Book Club)

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway
$2 on the bookstore bargain shelf, with a nice hot pink velvet cover.
A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature by Wilfred L. Guerin et al.
For Intro to Critical Reading and Writing.

Back at home:
Snow Whyte and the Queen of Mayhem by Melissa Lemon (won from her blog; thanks, Melissa!)
The Book of the Night by Pearl North (thanks, Tina's Book Reviews!)
This is the third Libyrinth book; I picked up the first at some point, too, but haven't yet had time to read it.
A Plague Year by Edward Bloor (Random Buzzers)
Because Bloor's first novel, Tangerine, is amazing.

What did you get in your mailbox?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Nonfiction: The Irresistible Fairy Tale by Jack Zipes

Subtitle: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre
Publisher: Princeton Univ. Press
Date: April 2012
Format: hardback
Source: WLT giveaway shelf
Read: because I'm fascinated by folklore
Pages: 189 (including appendixes)

From GoodReads: If there is one genre that has captured the imagination of people in all walks of life throughout the world, it is the fairy tale. Yet we still have great difficulty understanding how it originated, evolved, and spread--or why so many people cannot resist its appeal, no matter how it changes or what form it takes. In this book, renowned fairy-tale expert Jack Zipes presents a provocative new theory about why fairy tales were created and retold--and why they became such an indelible and infinitely adaptable part of cultures around the world.

My review: With only seven chapters and 155 pages of content (excluding the two appendixes), The Irresistible Fairy Tale isn't what I would consider a comprehensive history of the genre. It primarily focuses on an explanation of fairy tales' evolution and meaning, then a few more specific subjects such as "Bluebeard," witches, several 19th-century European folklorists, and contemporary art. I was a bit disappointed by this specialization, but the information included was very interesting.

I'm not that familiar with fairy tale and literary criticism, so I didn't quite grasp a lot of the theory discussed by Zipes. Memetics was one such popular topic. However, the chapters on fairy tales' historical development, including a brief evolution of the 'witch' figure in premodern Europe and a discussion of female 19th-century fairy tale collectors, were fascinating. While I don't think the subtitle "The Cultural and Social History of a Genre" is entirely accurate for this book, the work does provide a miscellany of good information on various developments in the genre over a wide time span.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Mini-Reviews: College Reading Part 1

These are all nonfiction books that, while not standard textbooks, were required for my classes this semester.

Ibn Battuta in Black Africa ed. by Said Hamdun and Noel King
2005; read for Survey of African Civilizations
Ibn Battuta was a North African Arab scholar who made extensive travels throughout Muslim lands during the 14th century. His full account has been published, though this edition focuses on only two portions of his journey. The book was fairly interesting and clear to read, but I felt like I lacked the knowledge of the underlying geographical and historical backgrounds to make this a truly informative read. The footnotes didn't provide much help to my understanding, either.

Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman by Marjorie Shostak
1981; read for General Anthropology
Nisa, part autobiographical narrative and part ethnography, has long been a classic text for introductory anthropology courses. Once you read it, it's not hard to see why - it's a very readable and engaging look at another culture. Through Nisa's story, Shostak traces a fairly typical life for a woman of the Khoisan people in southern Africa. The book is fascinating for culture enthusiasts, and it also provides a gentle, clear introduction to the field for people less familiar with it.

The Two Princes of Calabar by Randy J. Sparks
2004; also read for Survey of African Civilizations
The Two Princes in question provide an interesting case from the Atlantic slave trade; they were African slave traders themselves but were captured and taken to the Americas and then to Britain during the late 1760s and early '70s. The book provides both an account of their journey and how it fits into the trans-Atlantic trade and British abolitionist efforts at that time. It's a fascinating case study, and at around 150 pages of easily-understood writing it's also a pretty quick and informative read.