Friday, June 29, 2012

Classic Fantasy: The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Series: Oz #1
Publisher: Del Rey
Date: 1900 (1979)
Format: paperback
Source: BookMooch
Read: as part of the pre-college TBR cleanout/for A Victorian Celebration
Pages: 219
Reading time: two days

From GoodReads: Join the wonderful world of Oz. Here is the original book that started the wonderful series and inspired the famous movie, in which Dorothy Gale is whisked from Kansas to the magical land of Oz where--with a Scarecrow, a Tin Woodman, and a Cowardly Lion--she sets off to find the illusive Wizard.

My review: The original Oz series was My Thing when I was in fifth grade. The town had built a new intermediate school, which came complete with its own brand-new library. It happened to contain beautiful hardback reproductions of the original Oz books - except, for some reason, the first in the series. Thus it is eight years later and I am just now getting around to reading the actual Wonderful Wizard of Oz...

Coming back years later, the series seems to have lost little of its charm for me. The only thing I didn't much enjoy was already knowing, from watching the film, a lot of what happens. The story is pretty simplistic, but that's part of the appeal of children's fantasy. The tale is entertaining for all ages and at times humorous. It's a remarkably quick read for an older book - in my 5th-grade heyday I could read an Oz book in a day - but it's interesting and fun. It's easy to see why this has remained a classic!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Classic Sci-Fi: The End of the World ed. by Michael Kelahan

Subtitle: Classic Tales of Apocalyptic Science Fiction
Publisher: Fall River
Date: 2010
Format: hardback
Source: purchased
Read: as part of the pre-college TBR cleanout
Pages: 457
Reading time: three weeks

From GoodReads: A century-and-more ago, while some people pondered the pinnacle that civilization had attained, others worried how it would come crashing down. Many of the era s best writers gave shape to those fears in wildly speculative stories that envisioned unthinkable fates and spectacular dooms for our planet and its people.

The End of the World collects twenty-one classic stories and poems from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in which the Earth s end times erupt in fire, frost, flood, famine—and worse. Dramatic, tragic, exhilarating, and transcendent, the provocative stories in this volume offer thrilling accounts of global catastrophes, natural disasters, science run amok, and shocking cataclysms as only the most imaginative writers could conceive.

My review: Oh, classic sci-fi, how I have missed you! I just love the combination of creative spirit, scientific discovery, and (in most cases) Victorian culture that can be found in stories from what I consider the dawn of the genre. Many of the authors in this anthology are already well-known - Jack London, E.M. Forster, H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft (we seem to like abbreviated names here), Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Lord Byron - though not necessarily for science fiction. Others are well-known to early sci-fi enthusiasts, while others are just obscure. It's a very interesting mix, as are the stories selected for inclusion.

In the tales from the 19th century, a notable theme is that of a comet or similar celestial body hurtling into the earth, into the sun, or barely missing the earth. Kelahan explains that this is due to the abundance of comets sighted during the century; I was surprised by the similarity of disasters to that described in Ignatius Donnelly's nonfiction works from the 1880s. His ideas about the earth passing through a comet's tail in prehistoric times, causing the disasters recorded in mythology, the fall of Atlantis, and various other historical mysteries? Apparently the science of the comet's impact wasn't something formulated entirely by him.

A lot of the stories ran together for me. Several, however, did stand out. "Earth's Holocaust" (Nathaniel Hawthorne) was humorously satirical. "Into the Sun" (Robert Duncan Milne), "The Star" (H.G. Wells), "The Thames Valley Catastrophe" (Grant Allen), and "Finis" (Frank Lillie Pollock) were particularly dramatic and frightening. Milne's sequel to "Into the Sun," however, was a rather ridiculous tale, in terms of its improbability, of how the 'apocalypse' would result in a utopia. Another interesting theme to appear in the stories from after about 1900 was that of evolution, especially how, even if the human race were to be destroyed in a cataclysmic event, life would eventually be able to return to the planet.

There are four novels or novellas, presumably unabridged, included in the anthology. I only read one of them at this time, since I own a copy of one of the others and have already read the last two. The Crack of Doom (Robert Cromie), the longest of the novels, wasn't much fun to read. I thought the main character was rude and pusillanimous, and the plot felt disjointed and a bit confusing. The Scarlet Plague (Jack London) I didn't read, since I have another copy and will read it at some later date. The Machine Stops (E.M. Forster) and The Poison Belt (Arthur Conan Doyle) are two of my favorite books from a couple years ago. Forster's novel begins as a dystopia and ends with an apocalypse; I found it very well-written and plausible. The Poison Belt was ruined for me because I already knew how it ended. I still greatly enjoyed reading it - like the first Professor Challenger novel, The Lost World, it's exciting and engrossing - but, given the ironic conclusion, I thought everything was humorous rather than dramatic and frightening.

In terms of what the editor did, I thought he compiled a very good range of post-apocalyptic stories, given the number of authors represented (though there were no female authors - right off hand, I can't think of any specific early post-apocalyptic stories by women, but there were female authors who wrote sci-fi during the period). Each story was introduced with a brief bio of the author and a little bit of information on the work. My only problem was that the book needed a better proof-reader, there being multiple typography errors just in the introduction and then scattered throughout the book.

For other excellent anthologies of early science fiction, see The Phoenix Pick Anthology of Classic Science Fiction Stories (2008; ed. by Paul Cook) and The Treasury of Science Fiction Classics (1955; ed. by Harold W. Kuebler).

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Mini-Reviews: Mid-Series Novels

I generally find it difficult to review books that are in the middle of series, as many others haven't made it that far and I've forgotten a lot or am influenced too much from reading previous books years before. Hence writing only mini-reviews of mid-series novels...

All of these were read as part of my pre-college TBR cleanout. There also seems to be an unintentional blue theme with the covers.

Wavesong (Obernewtyn #5) by Isobelle Carmody
2008; purchased new
It took me a bit to get back into the series, but it wasn't too difficult to reconnect with characters and events. Carmody's awesome worldbuilding and complex unfolding prophecy are still engaging and intriguing, and I will definitely be finding the 6th book to see what happens! My only issue was that there were some occasional plot holes and what I saw as minor inconsistencies, but overall, everything was well-developed and well-paced.

The Atlantis Complex (Artemis Fowl #7) by Eoin Colfer
2010; mooched
Not hard to jump into this series again! It was much funnier than I had remembered, but I didn't really enjoy the book that much. Some parts, especially at the beginning, felt rushed and confusing, and reading was more gotta-finish-it than actively engaged and interested. I'm not sure why; I might have just outgrown the books. I'll pick up the next (and supposedly final) book if I happen to come across it; otherwise, I'm not that concerned about completing the series.

Mastiff (Beka Cooper #3) by Tamora Pierce
2011; from Random Buzzers
At about 580 pages, this is a looooong but worthwhile read. Overall, I thought it was very well-developed and well-paced, especially for a book greatly exceeding the length of the author's other novels. There weren't any slow parts, as the plot kept moving and stayed interesting. Towards the end, though, I thought the story's cohesiveness lessened and things were a little rushed, but nothing truly frustrating to read.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

In My Mailbox #29

Another two-week edition. Let me go ahead and warn you that next week is moving week, and I'm not sure about how much time I'll have to read or what access to the Internet is going to be like for the next two weeks or so.

For review:
The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters (publisher)
Yay, a pre-apocalyptic novel!
The Bay of Foxes by Sheila Kohler (publisher)
Unsolicited. Not my cup of tea, but it turned out to be a good read. See my review here.
Holding on to Zoe by George Ella Lyon (publisher's Twitter)
Looks interesting, especially the psychology implied by the blurb.

Spirited by Nancy Holder (thanks, Pearls of Great Worth!)
I love the Once Upon a Time series! And this one is historical will be interesting to see how the author goes about a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling with the "Beast" as a Mohican Indian.
The Letter Q: Queer Writers' Notes to Their Younger Selves by various authors (thanks, I Read Banned Books!)
For a friend.
Crewel swag (thanks, Gennifer!)
The Hunt by Andrew Fukuda and The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa (thanks, Alice Marvels!)
Paranormal dystopias? I'm interested.
Slated by Teri Terry (thanks, Misty at The Book Rat!)
And another dystopia, because I love them so much.

Funny story. Due to the upcoming move, I'm on a parent-mandated book buying ban. Then my mom and I walked into an antique store where paperbacks were $2. End of book buying ban. After arguing with my mom and convincing her to let me buy a couple of books, she bought one, too. Ha. And when we went to other antique stores on vacation, I got two more books (and she got another, too). We're incorrigible.
Midnight Pearls by Debbie Viguie
After a year without reading any of the Once Upon a Time series, I acquired two in one week. Go figure.
The Return of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs
The Beasts of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs
I was really happy to find the Tarzan books! There's something like 24 in the series, and I've only read the first one. The couple of times I've run across others in stores, they've been between $5 and $10 for a paperback. Not happening. But for $2, I'm thrilled.
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
The critically-acclaimed prequel to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.
The Island of Eternal Love by Daina Chaviano
Magical realism! 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Similar Covers

Second Hand Heart by Catherine Ryan Hyde (Transworld, 2011) and I'm Not Her by Janet Gurtler (Sourcebooks Fire, 2011)

The Dark Lady by Marie Claremont (Pocket Star, 2012) and Mozart's Last Aria by Matt Rees (Harper Perennial, 2011)

Friday, June 22, 2012

Classic Fantasy: Green Mansions by W.H. Hudson

Publisher: Airmont Classics
Date: 1904 (1965)
Format: paperback
Source: purchased used
Read: as part of the pre-college TBR cleanout/for A Victorian Celebration
Pages: 191
Reading time: four days

From GoodReads: A failed revolutionary attempt drives the hero of Hudson's novel to seek refuge in the primeval forests of south-western Venezuela. There, in the `green mansion' of the title, Abel encounters the wood-nymph Rima, the last survivor of a mysterious aboriginal race. The love that flowers between them is soon overshadowed by cruelty and sorrow. One of the acknowledged masters of natural history writing, W.H. Hudson forms an important link between nineteenth-century Romanticism and the twentieth-century ecological movement. First published in 1904 and a best-seller after its reissue a dozen years later, Green Mansions offers its readers a poignant meditation on the loss of wilderness, the dream of a return to nature, and the bitter reality of the encounter between savage and civilized man.

My review: As a fantasy novel, Green Mansions was an interesting read. Plot-wise, I didn't feel that the story was entirely cohesive, but I never felt like it was dragging or boring. The plot wasn't fast-paced or exciting, but it kept moving and stayed fairly engaging.

Meaning-wise, I missed most of the message about ecology and whatnot. I knew Hudson's other works all deal with natural history, and so the brief passages describing the flora and fauna of the forest weren't out of place, considering the author's main interests. Honestly, I picked up more on a vague religious undertone than I did on "the encounter between savage and civilized man" or "the dream of a return to nature." Certainly Abel is enchanted by the idyllic relationship between Rima and her environment, but I was usually more concerned with discovering Rima's mysterious origins (never very satisfactorily explained) than realizing any back-to-nature vibe.

Conclusion: An interesting example of Victorian fantasy, a nice read but ultimately vague in its intentions.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Fiction: The Bay of Foxes by Sheila Kohler

Publisher: Penguin
Date: June 26, 2012
Format: paperback
Source: publisher - unsolicited
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the publisher in return for an honest review.)
Pages: 207
Reading time: two days

From GoodReads: In 1978, Dawit, a young, beautiful, and educated Ethiopian refugee, roams the streets of Paris. By chance, he spots the famous French author M., who at sixty is at the height of her fame. Seduced by Dawit's grace and his moving story, M. invites him to live with her. He makes himself indispensable, or so he thinks. When M. brings him to her Sardinian villa, beside the Bay of Foxes, Dawit finds love and temptation—and perfects the art of deception.

My review: Even though The Bay of Foxes isn't the sort of book I would normally pick up, I enjoyed reading it. The plot was well-paced and interesting. I found the author's style to be a bit different: wonderfully descriptive of the current scenes and surroundings but leaving out most details occurring between glimpses at the story. At times this lent a slightly rushed or underdeveloped feel to the book, yet I wasn't that bothered by it because I had the impression that the plot mattered less than the deeper meanings hidden within the novel.

As an examination of post-colonial relationships between African immigrants and Europeans, particularly those in the upper-class and literary circles, The Bay of Foxes is fascinating. Basically a sum-up of the entire book is how Dawit is exploited by rich people who see him merely as a superficially interesting African, and, in turn, how he responds to this treatment. As an examination of literary craft - including a mixture of the author's own life experiences, the lives of some of the popular mid-20th century European writers, and elements of metafiction - the novel is also fascinating. All around, The Bay of Foxes is a good, solid read. I'll now be looking out for more of the author's books.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Book Sale Alert! is having a 50% off sale on 15,000 of their children's/YA books! Considering their stock is brand-new and normally at least 50% off the regular price, there's some great steals to be found...of the books I looked at, I would have picked up 9 books for around $22, plus S+H. Normally each of these books would be $7-20. Unfortunately, with the move coming up in two weeks, I am banned from buying new books, so I won't be able to take advantage of the sale.

About this time last year, the website had a $1.55 (CAD) on several thousand of its kid's books. Between my mom and I, we ended up with about 20 books for $50 (not all kid's books), all new and in great condition. Shipping was around $10; I think the website has it worked out so that shipping costs to Canada and to the U.S. are pretty equal.

I was not in any way compensated for this post.

Monday, June 18, 2012

YA Historical Fiction: Flappers Series by Jillian Larkin

Title: Vixen
Publisher: Delacorte
Date: 2010
Format: paperback
Source: Random Buzzers
Read: as part of the pre-college TBR cleanout
Pages: 420
Reading time: two days

From GoodReads: Every girl wants what she can’t have. Seventeen-year-old Gloria Carmody wants the flapper lifestyle—and the bobbed hair, cigarettes, and music-filled nights that go with it. Now that she’s engaged to Sebastian Grey, scion of one of Chicago’s most powerful families, Gloria’s party days are over before they’ve even begun . . . or are they?
Clara Knowles, Gloria’s goody-two-shoes cousin, has arrived to make sure the high-society wedding comes off without a hitch—but Clara isn’t as lily-white as she appears. Seems she has some dirty little secrets of her own that she’ll do anything to keep hidden. . . . 

Lorraine Dyer, Gloria’s social-climbing best friend, is tired of living in Gloria’s shadow. When Lorraine’s envy spills over into desperate spite, no one is safe. And someone’s going to be very sorry. . . . 

My review: Vixen in one word: mediocre. Character-wise, everyone felt one-dimensional and superficial. I had little empathy for or connection to any of them. Gloria was confused and unsure of what she wanted; Clara's true identity and past felt underdeveloped; Lorraine was unintelligent and needlessly jealous of her best friend. It seemed like people weren't making smart choices or thinking things through, which at times made the plot incohesive and fragmented. The author had some great ideas for the story, but her writing just didn't back them up. The romance(s) also bugged me; attraction and love were always stated, but they never felt truly developed. Additionally, the characters often seemed very naive, even whilst their actions made me forget that they're not any older than teenagers. And with 420 pages, the plot was slow and plodding. The only thing that really encouraged me to read the sequel was the dramatic ending.

Title: Ingenue
Publisher: Random House
Date: 2011
Format: hardback
Source: Random Buzzers
Read: as part of the pre-college TBR cleanout
Pages: 350
Reading time: two days

From GoodReads: In the city that never sleeps, Lorraine Dyer is wide awake. Ever since she exposed Clara Knowles for the tramp she was—and lost her closest confidante in the process—Lorraine has spent every second scheming to make her selfish, lovesick ex–best friend pay for what she did. No one crosses Lorraine. Not even Gloria. 

True love conquers everything—or so Gloria Carmody crazily believed. She and Jerome Johnson can barely scrape together cash for their rent, let alone have a moment to whisper sweet nothings in the dark. And if they thought escaping Chicago meant they’d get away with murder . . . they were dead wrong.

Clara was sure that once handsome, charming Marcus Eastman discovered her shameful secret, he’d drop her like a bad habit. Instead, he swept her off her feet and whisked her away to New York. Being with Marcus is a breath of fresh air—and a chance for Clara to leave her wild flapper ways firmly in the past. Except the dazzling parties and bright lights won’t stop whispering her name. . . . 

My review: Okay, so I enjoyed Ingenue a smidge more than the first book, mostly because the plot was faster-paced and more exciting. Other than that, though, I found the book mediocre for all the same reasons as I thought that about Vixen. Clara had more personality, but I thought Lorraine was a very poorly-written villainess: easily distracted, still needlessly caught up in the whole jealousy/hatred thing, and not really terribly intelligent despite how her character is supposed to be smart. The plot was, again, choppy and at times inconsistent. I was utterly baffled by some of the characters' decisions that seemed to not take into account the immediacy of acting to stop problems or how they would affect relationships. But of course, the book ends with another lead into a sequel that makes readers want to continue with the series.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Classic Lit: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Publisher: Bantam Classics
Date: 1886 (1981)
Format: paperback
Source: purchased used
Read: as part of the pre-college TBR cleanout/for A Victorian Celebration
Pages: 100
Reading time: one day

From GoodReads: A good man takes a potion that turns him into a freak of pure evil. A reasonable scientist is transformed - through the agency of science itself - into the living embodiment of unreason. Like the vampire and the werewolf, the sundered personae of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde have worked their way into our collective unconscious, expressing both our ambivalence with science and our deepest questions about what is knowable in human nature.

My review: The set-up of this novella was a bit weird to me; it seems like similar short fictions are usually written as either present-tense narratives or as past-tense letters, not as both. The first half of the book provided a great build-up of suspense and mystery as the lawyer Utterson begins realizing that something is not quite right with his old friend, Jekyll. The second half - consisting of an explanatory letter from Jekyll - was a little bit of a let-down in terms of dramatics. It was still certainly interesting, though, delving into questions of morality, identity, and psychology. Overall, the novella was a nice, quick, engaging read, with a good pace and a fascinating premise.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Historical Fiction: The Dolphin People by Torsten Krol

Publisher: Harper Perennial
Date: 2006
Format: paperback
Source: purchased
Read: as part of the pre-college TBR cleanout
Pages: 356
Reading time: two days

From GoodReads: Shortly after the end of WWII, sixteen-year-old Erich Linden and his family have fled Germany and joined Erich's uncle, Klaus, in Venezuela, where they will begin a new life. But, en route to Klaus's outpost further inland, they encounter a storm and their plane crashes in the middle of the jungle. Stranded deep within Amazonia with no hope of rescue, they are discovered by the Yayomi, a violent and superstitious Stone Age tribe. The Yayomi believe the strange looking foreigners are freshwater dolphins in human form-and the Lindens believe that as long as they can keep up the bizarre ruse they'll be safe. But the jungle is a dark, mysterious place, and no place for a family of sham dolphin-people who are ultimately left with only two choices: to escape or to die trying.

My review: At first, I thought The Dolphin People was going to be just another decent read. The premise was intriguing enough, and I was surprised by the characters' Nazi leanings and wondering how that would figure into the story. I didn't particularly like the characters; Zeppi, the younger brother, was babyish and immature, while Erich irritatingly fluctuated being naive and pusillanimous with thinking he was so grown-up and mature. When the family first crash-landed in the jungle, the time sequence was compressed and then confusing, lending a rushed feeling to the unfolding of the plot as the characters adapted.

But, given the rest of the book, these are small inconveniences found only at the beginning. The rest of the novel - both writing and story - is pretty amazing. I found it hard to put down, because I simply had to keep reading in order to find out what happened next. The plot wasn't necessarily fast-paced as much as it was just utterly intriguing and engrossing. I expected the novel to have almost a magical, enchanted feel to it (blame the odd plot synopsis and the cover), yet the readers' first encounters with the Linden family and the Yayomi are fairly gritty and realistic. Increasingly, though, as madness, love, and desperation set in, the almost bizarre sequence of events did allow for that pleasant aura of distance which I so love. The events of the book are entirely within the realm of possibility, yet their sequential occurrences seem so improbable as to give an almost magical realist feel to the story - without any actual magic, of course.

Add this to my list of favorites for this year. There seem to be a lot of them this summer.

Reminds me of: The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean (2007), Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch (2011), and Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2001)
All coming-of-age survivalist stories.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Classic Fantasy: She by H. Rider Haggard

Series: She #1
Publisher: Penguin
Date: 1886 (2007)
Format: paperback
Source: purchased
Read: as part of the pre-college TBR cleanout/for the Victorian Celebration
Pages: 384
Reading time: four days

From the back cover: Leo Vincey's father has left him a mysterious casket in his will, which can only be opened on his twenty-fifth birthday. When the day arrives, Leo unlocks it to discover ancient scrolls, a fragment of pottery marked with strange inscriptions - and a letter. Its contents reveal a mystery that Leo must travel all the way to Africa to solve, taking him on an adventure beyond his wildest imaginings. Sailing across stormy seas to Zanzibar, Leo endures shipwreck, fever and cannibal attacks, before coming face to face with Ayesha, She-who-must-be-obeyed: the beautiful, tyrannical ruler of a lost civilization. She has been waiting hundreds of years for the true descendant of her dead lover to arrive. And arrive he does - with terrifying consequences...

My review: She started off as a strong adventure story. I breezed through the first half of the book, never losing interest in the plot. The mysterious situation passed down from Vincey to his son was intriguing, and I couldn't wait to get to the "lost world" aspect of the novel.

But, once the characters reached the lost world, my interest died. I slogged through the last half of the book, having to almost force myself to try to read a certain number of pages a day. I just didn't find the story that interesting any more. For an adventure tale, there was a lot of dialogue and superfluous musings; the plot was slowed because people would occasionally take four long paragraphs to say what could easily have been explained in a few quick sentences. It felt like some things were overly dramatic while others were left relatively unexplained. The book just didn't hold my interest.

The characters themselves were an interesting assortment. It irritated me a little bit that Holly, Leo's guardian and the narrator, dominates the novel so much. He has an aura of superiority, and anyone not like him - middle-aged, white, presumably Anglican, fairly upper-crust, male - is portrayed as naive or inept or otherwise rather irritating. Meanwhile, I found it fun to compare Ayesha and her belief in "reincarnated love" to more contemporary themes. Ayesha is like the evil stepmother/witch in recent fairytale retellings; her altered sense of morality allows her actions to be simultaneously evil yet somewhat understandable. The doomed 'love' between her and Leo is similar to the popular theme of star-crossed lovers who reappear throughout the generations - think how may Romeo and Juliet-inspired novels have popped up recently.

Reminds me of: The Moon Pool by A. Merritt (1919), which I actually enjoyed much more than She.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Historical Mystery: The Orphanmaster by Jean Zimmerman

Publisher: Viking
Date: June 19, 2012
Format: ARC
Source: publisher
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the publisher in return for an honest review.)
Pages: 416
Reading time: two days

From GoodReads: It’s 1663 in the tiny, hardscrabble Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, now present-day southern Manhattan. Orphan children are going missing, and among those looking into the mysterious state of affairs are a quick-witted twenty-two-year-old trader, Blandine von Couvering, herself an orphan, and a dashing British spy named Edward Drummond.

Suspects abound, including the governor’s wealthy nephew, a green-eyed aristocrat with decadent tastes; an Algonquin trapper who may be possessed by a demon that turns people into cannibals; and the colony’s own corrupt and conflicted orphanmaster. Both the search for the killer and Edward and Blandine’s newfound romance are endangered, however, when Blandine is accused of being a witch and Edward is sentenced to hang for espionage. Meanwhile, war looms as the English king plans to wrest control of the colony.

My review: I dragged my heels about getting around to reading this book. I requested a review copy from the publisher, hooked by the historical setting of New Amsterdam, before remembering that, oh yeah, I don't like historical thrillers. Since I had requested a copy, of course I should still read it around its release date, and wouldn't you know, I really enjoyed it!

Despite the touting of this novel as a thriller, the pacing of the plot was relatively slow. There were some very exciting, heart-pounding portions, but overall the story went on at a more leisurely pace, engulfing the reader in the setting and the main characters' lives. Zimmerman fails to fall into the hole of a lot of other historical thriller writers by allowing the mystery and any romance to overshadow the history. She seamlessly interweaves political, cultural, and social details of life in 1660s New Amsterdam and surrounding areas with mystery and romance, not allowing any one element of the story to overbalance the others. The inspiration for the murders - a Native American legend similar to that of the wendigo, but combined with European madness and decadent decay - is an added bonus. The only things that bothered me about the novel were occasional details in characterization and plot that seemed a little disjointed, but these were generally insignificant, few and far between. I breezed through the book; even though the culprit becomes clear relatively soon, the conclusion is not, and so readers eagerly whisk through the story in order to see its development and final events.

In My Mailbox #28

Jane Austen's Cults and Cultures by Claudia L. Johnson (thanks, Austenprose!)
The Last Romanov by Dora Levy Mossanen (thanks, Goldberg McDuffie!)
The Lost Prince by Selden Edwards (thanks, Dutton!)

My church just had a fundraising book sale. The selection wasn't all that great, but I found several interesting books to purchase...
The Marriage Bureau for Rich People by Farahad Zama
The beautiful cover attracted me as much as anything else! Also, it looks like a humorous Anglo-Indian novel, and I've enjoyed other books by Indian novelists that I've read.
Penhallow by Georgette Heyer
I've never read anything by Heyer before, but I've heard her books are good, and these two were brand-new (still shrinkwrapped, even) for only $1 each.
Detection Unlimited by Georgette Heyer
White Jenna (Great Alta Saga #2) by Jane Yolen
I've read several of Yolen's other novels and enjoyed them, so I thought I'd try these two, too.
The Magic Three of Solatia by Jane Yolen
Wish Riders by Patrick Jennings
The back cover referenced fairytale retellings...
Dream Angus (Canongate Myths) by Alexander McCall Smith
I didn't realize when I picked this up that it was part of the Canongate series!! I've been after selected books from the series, which interests me because of its literary, international retellings of folklore and mythology.
Coventry by Helen Humphreys
Interesting-looking WWII historical novel that I've seen around the blogosphere.
The Long Silence of Mario Salviati by Etienne van Heerden
This just looked like an interesting read, and I don't have very many books by African authors.

And then I went back to what was left of the sale before church this morning and picked up a couple books that had previously escaped my notice or that came in later...
Star Ka'at World (Star Ka'at #2) by Andre Norton
Cheesy-looking 1970s children's sci-fi.
Lavender-Green Magic by Andre Norton
I haven't yet read anything by Norton and, as a sci-fi fan, thought it was about time to at least pick up some of her books.
Leaving Cold Sassy by Olive Ann Burns
I was soooo happy to find this! Of all the books I purchased, this was the only one that I got because it'd been on my wishlist for years, not just because it looked interesting or I'd read a lot of other books by the author. Cold Sassy Tree was one of my favorite reads from either 6th or 7th grade (is it normal for a middle schooler to read that book?), and I was very excited when I learned there was a sequel!
A Hole in Texas by Herman Wouk
21st-century satire by an author I've heard about.

Not all the books this week; since my family's moving in July, I'm pretty much packing them as they come rather than keeping them out for pictures.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Historical Fiction/Mystery-Type Novel: Juliet by Anne Fortier

Publisher: Ballantine
Date: August 2010
Format: paperback
Source: publisher
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the publisher in return for an honest review.)
Pages: 450
Reading time: three days

From GoodReads: When Julie Jacobs inherits a key to a safety-deposit box in Siena, Italy, she is told that it will lead her to an old family treasure. Soon she is launched on a winding and perilous journey into the history of her ancestor Giulietta, whose legendary love for a young man named Romeo rocked the foundations of medieval Siena. As Julie crosses paths with the descendants of the families immortalized in Shakespeare’s unforgettable blood feud, she begins to realize that the notorious curse—“A plague on both your houses!”—is still at work, and that she is the next target. It seems that the only one who can save Julie from her fate is Romeo—but where is he?

My review: As I was reading Juliet, I came to the realization that, really, it just wasn't my cup of tea for a variety of reasons. Therefore, though I thought it was well-written, I have several issues with the novel, as I shall now elucidate below.

What was the genre?! I'm okay with some blending of genres, but this combination got on my nerves. What began as a contemporary retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story (and yes, I would recommend being familiar with Shakespeare's version beforehand, because it gets referenced a lot without much explanation of characters, etc.) ended up reading more like your standard chick lit/romance fare. I started off liking the main character, but I increasingly found her weak and not quite thinking smart in her relationship with the lead male character. For someone at first very reserved and shy, she came out of her shell too fast and not all that intelligently, in my opinion. Then, later on, there was a thriller-esque feel as mysteries and twists popped up, complete with the stereotypical Italian 'mob' characters and plots. Oh, and in true thriller fashion, of course any new discoveries of historical import are subsequently destroyed or otherwise lost by the conclusion of the book.

The historical aspect of the novel, for most of the book alternating chapters with the contemporary setting, was most interesting to me. Fortier reworks Shakespeare's sources and 14th-century Sienese history into a fascinating twist on the classic story, complete with details of artists, saints, and the plague. But, for all the great historical bits, sometimes it seemed like the author exaggerated the most stereotypical details of lifeways and, especially, gender relations. In most cases these exaggerations came off as almost comical, though it appeared that they were intended to be entirely serious.

Overall, I thought the plotlines came together very well and with little confusion. The story seemed really long, but it flowed well and maintained interest. If a blend of chick lit, mystery, and literary references is right up your alley, then I highly recommend this book. If not, well, it is at least a decent read.

One last detail that bugged me: Julie, presumably a graduate from a literary or theater studies program and a teacher at Shakespeare camps, was surprised to learn that the Bard based Romeo and Juliet on older sources. Um, I've only just finished high school and am not an avid Shakespeare fan, and I even knew that...

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Classic Sci-Fi: News from Nowhere by William Morris

Publisher: Broadview
Date: 1890 (2003)
Format: paperback
Source: GoodReads Swap
Read: as part of the pre-college TBR cleanout/for A Victorian Celebration
Pages: 200 (excluding introduction and appendixes in Broadview edition, which I did not read)
Reading time: three days

From GoodReads: News from Nowhere (1890) is the best-known prose work of William Morris and the only significant English utopia to be written since Thomas More's. The novel describes the encounter between a visitor from the nineteenth century, William Guest, and a decentralized and humane socialist future. Set over a century after a revolutionary upheaval in 1952, these "Chapters from a Utopian Romance" recount his journey across London and up the Thames to Kelmscott Manor, Morris's own country house in Oxfordshire. Drawing on the work of John Ruskin and Karl Marx, Morris's book is not only an evocative statement of his egalitarian convictions but also a distinctive contribution to the utopian tradition. Morris's rejection of state socialism and his ambition to transform the relationship between humankind and the natural world give News from Nowhere a particular resonance for modern readers. 

My review: Like many of its contemporary utopian novels, News from Nowhere is interesting for its ideas but not so much for its plot. Being very dialogue-driven and intended to describe Morris's utopian theories, there's not much of a narrative story. Still, I found that it didn't drag and become boring if I read in only 25-50 page bouts.

Whereas normally I don't note plot holes in utopias, there were some that just bothered me in News from Nowhere. Mostly, they had to do with the time in the future in which the novel was set, which is unspecified but seems to be within our current century. The Socialist revolution occurred as recently as the early 1950s, yet the general population's historical memories of the events and the directly preceding era reminded me of the knowledge gap often found in post-apocalyptic novels. Morris attempted to explain this lack of historical interest/knowledge in a couple of different ways, none of which I found satisfactory. It also seemed like the dramatic changes to society and the environment occurred too quickly to be realistic; London, for example, had already turned from its urban agglomeration into a largely wooded area inhabited by small communities.

Personally, I found Morris's ideas more interesting that those of many other utopianists, as Morris adds several unique facets to the common theories of the Socialists and others. Much of his general satirical reflections upon Victorian society reminded me of the writings of Samuel Butler, but the aesthetic ideals were all William Morris. In reading News from Nowhere, it helped to have a very basic understanding of the Arts and Crafts movement, in which Morris was active, because of how often its artistic ideas popped up. The novel's utopia is Luddite, preferring a return to much of the country lifestyle and handicraft artwork of the medieval period. Morris makes countless references to the Middle Ages, as he sees much of its architecture, artwork, and clothing as much preferable to the "vulgar" consumer culture and the artifices of upper-class society and its products. In a couple brief references to the popularity of folklore in the future, there were also hints of Morris's more prolific writing as a fantasist. These more personal and artistic details in the novel added a deeper aesthetic and historical fascination to reading the book, one not often found in similar works.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Historical Fiction: Your Own, Sylvia by Stephanie Hemphill

Publisher: Knopf
Date: 2007
Format: paperback
Source: Random Buzzers
Read: as part of the pre-college TBR cleanout
Pages: 250
Reading time: two days

From GoodReads: Your Own, Sylvia draws on Plath’s writing and extensive nonfiction sources, chronicling Hemphill’s interpretation of Plath’s life from infancy to her death by suicide at age 30. The poems are arranged chronologically and each conveys an experience in Plath’s life told via the voice and perspective of family members, friends, doctors, fellow writers, etc.—as interpreted by Hemphill. Each poem is accompanied by an addendum that further explains the factual circumstances of that poem’s subject. The book also includes an Author’s Note, some photos, a section describing the source material for each poem, and suggestions for further reading.

My review: It took me a little while to get used to the style of Your Own, Sylvia, especially how every section of verse is accompanied by a less lyrical prose addendum explaining some of the biographical background. Unlike most other verse novels I've read, I did not find this one particularly engaging, lyrical, or emotionally engrossing. The best part, to me, covered Sylvia's college years as she began to slip into depression and experience her first suicide attempt. Past this, however, the insights into her psyche and emotions seemed more topical. I think it would also have been nice if certain parts of the novel had been accompanied by some of Plath's own poems reflecting upon the events being described, because the situation in which Hemphill is writing is one of the rare times where the poet's own works, primary source material from her family and peers, and the author's interpretations of these can be combined into a continuous chronological narrative. This biographical novel was interesting for its details on Sylvia Plath's life, but it lacked the emotional depth that I expected and that would have turned it into a thoroughly engrossing read.

Cover Look-Alikes and Other Bookish Things

The Carrier of the Mark by Leigh Fallon (HarperTeen, 2011) and Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi (German edition - Goldmann, Jul. 2012)

 Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (English edition - NYRB, 2009) and New from Nowhere by William Morris (Broadview edition, 2002)

Also, check out this cool video from Libba Bray about her upcoming novel, The Diviners (Sep. 2012). I've enjoyed Libba's other books, and even if the plot synopsis doesn't sound that interesting to me, this video changed my mind!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Fiction: The Investigation by Philippe Claudel

Publisher: Nan A. Talese/Knopf Doubleday
Translator: John Cullen
Date: 2010; July 10, 2012 (English)
Format: ARC
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: 220
Reading time: three hours

From GoodReads: The Investigator is a man quite like any other. He is balding, of medium build, dresses conservatively—in short, he is unremarkable in every way. He has been assigned to conduct an Investigation of a series of suicides (twenty-two in the past eighteen months) that have taken place at the Enterprise, a huge, sprawling complex located in an unnamed Town. The Investigator's train is delayed, and when he finally arrives, there's no one to pick him up at the station. It is alternating rain and snow, it's getting late, and there are no taxis to be seen. Off sets the Investigator, alone, into the night, unsure quite how to proceed.

So begins the Investigator's series of increasingly frustrating attempts to fulfill his task. In the course of hours of wandering looking for the entrance to The Enterprise, he bumps into a stranger hurrying past and spills open his luggage, soaking his clothes. When he finally reaches the Enterprise, he is told he does not posses the proper authorization documents to enter after regular hours. Asking for directions to a hotel, he is informed "We're not the Tourist Office," and must set off to find one himself. Time and time again, regulations hamstring him, street layouts befuddle him, and all the while he senses someone watching him, recording his every movement.

My review: The Investigation in three words - surreal, absurd, enchanting. It's a difficult book to review because, while I very much enjoyed reading it, I really don't feel like the writing and plot combination is all that great. Though I grasped some of the satirical points being made about modern society, I did not think they were very clear in the story. Their obscured, sporadic state seemed to indicate that they were not actually the main message of the book, leaving this ulterior meaning to be nonexistent in the wake of contrasting interpretations of the purpose of the novel.

I read The Investigation in one sitting. For much of the book, I was absorbed in the story more as something interesting to do than because the plot was exciting and engaging in a can't-put-the-book-down way. Not that the plot was boring; it was just a bit slow and...odd. What was at the beginning a nightmarish landscape and set of scenarios, however, turned into a bizarre sequence of events that left a more benign, enchanted feel to the book. Towards the end, I did become completely absorbed in the novel because I was intrigued by how the story would conclude. The ending was unexpected and a bit shocking, nothing at all what I had expected. Even for the nature of the book, I thought it was unusual and fascinating, which is what turned what would have been a four-star (good read) novel into a four-and-a-half star (great read, but not perfect) book for me.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

In My Mailbox #27

Another two-weeks addition; I haven't actually gotten that much in the mail lately...
I've just finished The Planets by Sergio Chejfec, but my review will not be posted on the blog until Spanish Lit Month in July. I'm in the midst of Wavesong by Isobelle Carmody (likely to get a mini-review with other mid-series books) and L'√Čtranger by Albert Camus (in the original French, but with an English translation next to me).

For review:
The Pleasures of Men by Kate Williams (publisher)
I think the title is kind of awkward, though on another version of the book, the cover features a pale Victorian woman holding a bloody knife. That alleviates any bad historical-romance vibe of the title...
The Investigation by Philippe Claudel (Early Reviewers)
OMG, I was so excited to get this through the monthly LibraryThing program!! The author is being compared to Kafka, Huxley, and Beckett, and there's a distinct dystopian feel to the plot scenario. Plus, it's a translated work, fitting into my wish to read more non-English speculative fiction.

Purchased from a local book sale:
The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt
I keep seeing this steampunk series and want to read it, if for nothing else, because the covers look so cool.
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
Never read anything by these authors before (gasp!), but I'm looking forward to it, especially since this novel has to do with the apocalypse. :)

From my parents:
Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice by Mark J. Plotkin
My mom picked this up at a library book sale four or five years ago. Her having never read it, I convinced her to let me have it off the shelves since it's often used as an ethnobotany text and I'm majoring in anthropology.

Friday, June 1, 2012


How often do I go fangirl squee over a book?! Very, very rarely...but look at what comes out in September!!!

Gaze upon its awesomeness!

Here's the synopsis according to Atria Books:
1898. New York socialite Emma Harlow agrees to marry well-to-do Montgomery Gilmore, but only if he first accepts her audacious challenge: to reproduce the Martian invasion featured in H.G. Wells’ popular novel The War of the Worlds. Meanwhile in London, Wells himself is unexpectedly made privy to certain objects, apparently of extraterrestrial origin, that were discovered decades earlier on an ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic. On that same expedition was an American crew member named Edgar Allan Poe, whose inexplicable experiences in the frozen wasteland would ultimately inspire him to create one of his most enduring works of literature.

When eerie, alien-looking cylinders begin appearing on the outskirts of London, Wells is certain it is all part of some elaborate hoax. But soon, to his great horror, he realizes that a true invasion of the earth has indeed begun. As brave bands of citizens converge on a crumbling London to defend it against utter ruin, Emma and her suitor must confront the enigma that is their love, a bright spark of hope even against the darkening light of apocalypse.
How amazing does this look?! Of course, it helps that I'm probably the world's biggest teenage fan of classic sci-fi and the canon of H.G. Wells...still, Palma's first novel was absolutely spectacular, and I hope the second one will live up to, if not surpass, its most excellent par. 
*I really don't known why it's doing this highlighting thing, but I couldn't figure out a way to get rid of it, only make it blend more with the background.
See my review of The Map of Time here. It was, quite possibly, my favorite read last year.

Fantasy: The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter

Publisher: Penguin
Date: 1979
Format: paperback
Source: purchased used from the Village Book Shoppe
Read: as part of the pre-college TBR cleanout
Pages: 125
Reading time: three days (only a couple stories a day so I didn't get them mixed up as much)

From the back of the book: From the lairs of the fantastical and fabular and from the domains of the unconscious's mysteries...Lie the brides in the Bloody Chamber - Hunts unwillingly the Queen of the Vampires - Slips Red Riding Hood into the arms of the Wolf - Pimps our Puss-in-Boots for his lustful master...In tales that glitter and haunt - strange nuggets from a writer whose wayward pen spills forth stylish, erotic, nightmarish jewels of prose - the old fairy stories live and breathe again, subtly altered, subtly changed.

My review: Overall, I did enjoy reading the stories in this collection, but they were not as good as I had expected. Many I found a bit confusing as to their purposes and meanings; in several cases, I had to go back to the original fairytale to see how everything fit together for the conclusion. I wished most of the stories were longer, because the first 2/3 of each story was often filled by great descriptions setting up the scene, only to be followed by a rather rushed ending that only added to my slight confusion. I also found the reasons and meanings behind the (generally non-explicit) sexual content, featuring prominently into many stories, to be too ambiguous. While there were a couple of true gems among the collection, most of the stories were only interesting intrinsically for one who is intrigued by any retellings of classic tales.

It's also possible that a lot of my confusion was due to my not being quite as familiar with the traditional tales as I thought, as well as my not having read much on others' analytical interpretations of the motifs.

Run-down of the stories:
"The Bloody Chamber" - After reading Francesca Lia Block's version of the Bluebeard tale in The Rose and the Beast, I was expecting this version to be fantastic. It started out strong - even reminded me a lot of the atmosphere of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier - but the ending was way too rushed. Insta-love like never before: the (just married) girl suddenly started referring to a guy she met hours before as her 'lover.'

"The Courtship of Mr Lyon" - This was a pretty straight-forward version of "Beauty and the Beast." If you watched the Disney movie, it was pretty much the same thing, but set in a modern period and without a mob of angry villagers led by a jealous guy.

"The Tiger's Bride" - If the previous story was a straight-forward version of "Beauty and the Beast," this story was definitely not. It was my second favorite of the collection, mostly because of the twist on the classic tale that occurs at the end. But other than that, the characters' motivations and actions generally confused me.

"Puss-in-Boots" - My favorite of the stories. The rest of the book had an air of distance; this tale was gritty and real. Puss-in-Boots was, by far, the most hilarious character in the collection. He had witty, exaggerated banter that made me laugh out loud a number of times.

"The Erl-King" - A combination of the Erl-King legend and another, more well-known tale. I liked the rather feminist ending of the girl standing up for herself - but wait, did the last line just imply incest?!

"The Snow Child" - Weird, weird, weird. At about a page total, this was the shortest of the stories. Um, necrophilia? Gross. I totally missed whatever the point of the tale was.

"The Lady of the House of Love" - I also felt like I missed whatever the subtle meaning of this story was intended to be, and I'm not sure if it was meant to be just a generic vampire tale or based off of a specific fairytale motif. It was interesting to see how the story would turn out, though.

"The Werewolf" - This seemed like a pretty basic version of a northern wolves' tale, but the last line was intriguing in that I thought it implied a deeper motive of the 'little innocent girl' in trying to dispose of the wolf. I could just be reading too far into the words, though.

"The Company of Wolves" - The ending seemed unclear to me, but it was an interesting version of "Little Red Riding Hood," very different from the traditional tale in that it read more into its possible underlying sexual meaning.

"Wolf-Alice" - One of the subtle, common themes in a couple of the stories did seem to be something about the redemptive power of love, which is about all that I took away from this tale. The feral-child aspect of it was interesting, though - is there an actual fairytale based on that?