Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Spanish Lit Month: The Island of Eternal Love by Daina Chaviano

Publisher: Riverhead
Translator: Andrea G. Labinger
Date: 2006 (English trans. 2008)
Format: hardback
Source: purchased used
Read: for Spanish Lit Month
Pages: 315
Reading time: three days

Country: Cuba. Chaviano is noted as being among the three top female authors of Spanish-language speculative fiction. Though she has written many novels and collections of short stories, The Island of Eternal Love is currently the only book of hers to be published in English. Chaviano moved from Cuba to the U.S. in 1991.

From GoodReads: Cecilia is alone in a city that haunts her. Life in Miami evokes memories of Cuba: a scent in the breeze like the sea at the Malecon; the beat of a clave recalls island evenings when couples danced to forgotten rhythms. Far from her family, her history, and her home, Cecilia seeks refuge in a bar in Little Havana, where a mysterious old woman's fascinating tale keeps her returning night after night. It is a story of three families from opposite corners of the world - from Africa, Spain, and China - that spans more than a century. Within it, a Chinese widow seeks protection for her daughter in her family's idols; an African slave brings the rhythms of her birth to an enchanted island; and a curse dances before the female descendants of a charmed Spanish matriarch, forming the mythic origins of one family's indestructible bond. The connection strengthens with each generation into a legendary, unbreakable love. Under the story's heady sway, Cecilia begins to discover the source of the elusive shadows that plague her and, along with it, a link to the past she cannot shake. 

My review: The Island of Eternal Love is a great combination of historical fiction and the fantastic. I loved learning more about Cuba's history - and the different immigrant nationalities and cultures that have shaped it - as Cecilia hears stories from Havana's past. I occasionally got names and generations confused, but each family's tales were engaging and alternately happy and heartbreaking. I loved how history and myth interweave through the characters' personal stories, finally connecting with Cecilia in the near-present day.

I had problems connecting with Cecilia herself, though. Her part of the story is interesting for expressing some of the personal issues faced by Cuban immigrants, but emotionally, I thought her character fell a bit flat. I didn't feel as intrigued by her story as I did by those of the Cubans from the past. I wish the author had gone more in-depth into what Cecilia had experienced before leaving Cuba, but Cecilia usually seemed to be trying to repress most of her memories. It's one of the few things I disliked about this otherwise fascinating and informative read.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

In My Mailbox #32 and a Giveaway

Another two-week edition.

For review:
Gone to the Forest by Katie Kitamura (publisher)
Duplicate copy = giveaway time!

Sonoma Rose by Jennifer Chiaverini

From LibraryThing:
One of the members was trying to offload books from this historical series, so I thought I'd give it a try.
The Chevalier (Morland Dynasty #7) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles
The Flood-Tide (Morland Dynasty #9) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles
The Tangled Thread (Morland Dynasty #10) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess
For a LibraryThing group read.

I ended up with an extra ARC of Gone to the Forest by Katie Kitamura, so that means a giveaway! I was going to wait until I post my review around August 7, but I'm leaving for college on the 13th and need to have it mailed out before then...

Synopsis from GoodReads: Set on a struggling farm in a fiercely beautiful colonial country teetering on the brink of civil war, this second novel by one of literature’s rising young stars weaves a brilliant tale of family drama and political turmoil. Since his mother’s death ten years earlier, Tom and his father have fashioned a strained peace on their family farm. Everything is frozen under the old man’s vicious, relentless control—even, Tom soon discovers, his own future. When a young woman named Carine enters their lives, the complex triangle of intrigue and affections escalates the tension between the two men to the breaking point. After a catastrophic volcanic eruption ignites the nation’s smoldering discontent into open revolution, Tom, his father, and Carine find themselves questioning their loyalties to one another and their determination to salvage their way of life.     With the author’s trademark spare, spellbinding prose, Gone to the Forest delivers a powerful tale of unfathomable loss and ultimate redemption.

Details: Open to US addresses only (sorry, but my shipping budget is extremely limited). Ends 8/5/12.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Friday, July 27, 2012

My Favorite Author Wrote WHAT?

Have you ever had this happen to you? You pigeon-hole authors into genres - you know we all do this - and then, at some point, you're surfing through a list of their works or a list of books in other genres and realize that they wrote something pretty unexpected. Here are some examples:

My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl (1979)
Thank you to Cracked.com for pointing out this one. Personally, I think this would be a hilarious read, but it's definitely an adult book and not appropriate for the children reading the likes of Dahl's more famous books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, etc.

The Coming of the Fairies by Arthur Conan Doyle (1921)
We all know that Doyle wrote the Sherlock Holmes books. A lot of us may also remember that he wrote the Professor Challenger series as well as historical novels. Heck, some of us may even know that he was really into spiritualism and some of his works - like Professor Challenger #3, The Land of Mist - deal with his beliefs. But writing a nonfiction endorsement of the Cottingley fairy photographs, later proved to be a hoax, seems to be stretching it a bit too much.

The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster (1909)
From the author of the classics A Passage to India, A Room with a View, and Howards End comes a dystopian novella. It's really good, too. Another unexpected novel from Forster is Maurice, which, being about a homosexual man, wasn't published until 1971.

Safekeeping by Karen Hesse (Sep. 2012)
Karen Hesse, author of fantastic historical novels in verse, is about to have her dystopian sci-fi novel published. Usually I think my dictum "every famous author wrote a speculative fiction book" applies just to Victorian novelists, but here we have it recurring in the modern world.

It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (1935)
(Cough cough, my favorite book.) Lewis is well-known for his satirical novels like Main Street and Babbitt that attack middle-class American social life, but this particular book is a terrifying vision of what could have happened to the country during the Great Depression. It is, by far, the most realistic and hard-hitting of the dystopias I've read.

Bend Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov (1947)
From the author of Lolita and Pale Fire comes a dystopian novel.

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by John Steinbeck (1976)
The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men...and an Arthurian retelling.

Love Among the Ruins by Evelyn Waugh (1953)
Like Brideshead Revisited and Waugh's other novels, this book is satirical. Unlike his other novels, this is a dystopia.

I apologize that this is so dystopia-heavy, but it's the genre I've researched the most. It's really amazing how many Victorian authors wrote at least one speculative fiction story or novel - Jack London, Anthony Trollope, Upton Sinclair, H. Rider Haggard (I know he wrote fantasy - duh - but he also had a couple more sf-oriented works), W.E.B. Du Bois, Edward Bulwer-Lytton (of "It was a dark and stormy night..." fame). And then there's other authors like Cyrano de Bergerac...but I'll stop there.

Do you have any examples?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Classic Sci-Fi: The Clock of the Centuries by Albert Robida

Publisher: Black Coat Press
Translator: Brian Stableford
Date: 1902 (2008)
Format: paperback
Source: gift
Read: as part of the pre-college TBR cleanout
Pages: 230
Reading time: four days

From GoodReads: The Clock of the Centuries, originally published in 1902, is notable as the first full-length literary account of time in reverse. In it, time starts running backwards, the dead come back to life, and society is thrown into chaos.

My review: The most exciting part of The Clock of the Centuries is the prologue, where the earth is undergoing apocalyptic cataclysms and society is on the brink of extinction. With the entire world rearranged, the few survivors eventually realize that time is now running backwards - history is literally repeating itself, this time in reverse.

Maybe because Robida is a science fiction author, I took The Clock of the Centuries too seriously. The concept of the book, though intriguing, came off more as confusing and uninteresting. There were too many plot holes with how this concept would work - the biological clock is running backwards, but there's inconsistencies in society acting in reverse. Some people are returning before their times, so obviously not everything can happen again (only in reverse) the way it did before. I'll concede to Robida that technology regresses because of people's mindsets from previous eras because, well, society being better for returning to the past is kind of his point. Yet it was never clear to me whether or not people actually had choice in repeating their pasts; the author seemed to pick-and-choose some of the events that returned. Perhaps the novel's original humor would have added more spark to the story, but whatever satire there is didn't translate over very well from the French.

A note on the edition: I noticed a lot of typos and punctuation errors in my copy. This edition also includes Robida's 1890 short story "Yesterday Now," a satirical tale in which Louis XIV and his entourage appear in Paris in 1889. I caught more glimpses of humor in this story, though I think a greater familiarity with 17th-century French history would have allowed me to understand more of it. Stableford's occasional footnotes were helpful in understanding some of the subtleties of language that are more difficult to translate.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sci-Fi/Fantasy: Shadow Show ed. by Sam Weller and Mort Castle

Subtitle: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury
Publisher: William Morrow
Date: July 10, 2012
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: 445
Reading time: three weeks

From GoodReads: You might see rockets to Mars. Or bizarre circuses where otherworldly acts whirl in the center ring. Perhaps you travel to a dystopian future, where books are set ablaze . . . or to an out-of-the-way sideshow, where animated illustrations crawl across human skin. Or maybe, suddenly, you're returned to a simpler time in small-town America, where summer perfumes the air and life is almost perfect . . . "almost."

Ray Bradbury--peerless storyteller, poet of the impossible, and one of America's most beloved authors--is a literary giant whose remarkable career has spanned seven decades. Now twenty-six of today's most diverse and celebrated authors offer new short works in honor of the master; stories of heart, intelligence, and dark wonder from a remarkable range of creative artists.

My review: It's been a while since I read a book by Ray Bradbury, which, as this anthology reminded me, is really unfortunate. The stories included here truly capture the essence of Bradbury's unique storytelling - the sense of wonder, the correlation between everyday life and the extraordinary, the transportation of the reader to other worlds. It is, ironically, also a very timely anthology, as its publication date falls only a little over a month after Bradbury's death.

As with most (or all?) anthologies, some stories stick out to you and some don't. A lot of the beginning selections did not stick with me, and I often felt like the endings didn't offer much closure. The more I read, though, the more the stories became memorable. I loved "Young Pilgrims" by Joe Meno, which for me felt as much a Nathaniel Hawthorne-inspired tale as it did Ray Bradbury. It had a similar theme taken from New England, Puritanical history. "Conjure" by Alice Hoffman was perhaps my favorite - I loved the unexpected, kick-butt heroine ending. "Earth (A Gift Shop)" by Charles Yu was probably the funniest, while "Who Knocks?" by Dave Eggers wins for both one of the shortest stories and one of the most terrifying. "Two Houses" by Kelly Link also had a fantastic ghost story embedded in it. "Reservation 2020" by Bayo Ojikutu had the most interesting futuristic scenario, and Harlan Ellison's notes about Ray Bradbury provided an excellent and moving conclusion to the collection.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Spanish Lit Month: Tales from the Town of Widows by James Canon

Publisher: Harper Perennial
Date: 2007
Format: paperback
Source: purchased
Read: as part of the pre-college TBR cleanout/for Spanish Lit Month
Pages: 337
Reading time: three days

Country: Columbia. Technically, Tales from the Town of Widows doesn't quite fit into Spanish Lit Month, as it was originally published in English. However, the author grew up and attended university in Columbia before moving to New York in the 1990s.

From GoodReads: Set against the backdrop of the ongoing Colombian war, this brilliant novel tells the story of Mariquita, a mountain village that’s forever altered the day a band of communist guerrillas forcibly recruits all but three of its men. Left to fend for themselves with an ethically challenged priest, a transvestite and a withdrawn gay man, the virtual widows slowly emerge from their supporting roles as wives and daughters to become unwitting founders of a remarkable new society: an all-female utopia that, ironically, is founded on the very socialist values the guerrillas claim to be fighting for but have betrayed. And when some of the men come home after their 16-year absence and try to reclaim their power, things get really interesting . . . . 

My review: Tales from the Town of Widows wasn't quite what I had expected, at least in terms of style and plot. In just about every other way, though, it exceeded my expectations. The story and writing are very engaging, alternating at times between humor (both dark and more lighthearted) and some pretty tough glimpses at the effects of civil war in Columbia. The novel may look from the cover and whatnot to be a fairly light read, but the underlying content - satire on the Church, war, and politics; the destruction and death brought by fighting - is dark. It's at once an entertaining read, an eye-opener on the socio-political situation in  village Columbia, and, towards the end, a fascinating feminist utopia. An all-around great book.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Historical Fiction: The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian

Publisher: Doubleday
Date: July 17, 2012
Format: ARC
Source: publisher
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 300
Reading time: four days

From GoodReads: When Elizabeth Endicott arrives in Syria, she has a diploma from Mount Holyoke College, a crash course in nursing, and only the most basic grasp of the Armenian language. The First World War is spreading across Europe, and she has volunteered on behalf of the Boston-based Friends of Armenia to deliver food and medical aid to refugees of the Armenian genocide. There, Elizabeth becomes friendly with Armen, a young Armenian engineer who has already lost his wife and infant daughter. When Armen leaves Aleppo to join the British Army in Egypt, he begins to write Elizabeth letters, and comes to realize that he has fallen in love with the wealthy, young American woman who is so different from the wife he lost. Flash forward to the present, where we meet Laura Petrosian, a novelist living in suburban New York. Although her grandparents’ ornate Pelham home was affectionately nicknamed the “Ottoman Annex,” Laura has never really given her Armenian heritage much thought. But when an old friend calls, claiming to have seen a newspaper photo of Laura’s grandmother promoting an exhibit at a Boston museum, Laura embarks on a journey back through her family’s history that reveals love, loss—and a wrenching secret that has been buried for generations.

My review: By nature of the subject about which it is written, The Sandcastle Girls can be a difficult read. The Armenian Genocide during the First World War - nicknamed here as The Slaughter You Know Next to Nothing About - is much less known to the average person than genocides such as the Holocaust and that which occurred in Rwanda, but it equals them in gruesomeness and atrocities perpetrated on our fellow human beings. Personally, my introduction to the event came with The Road from Home (David Kherdian) in middle school, but at that time I don't think I realized the true significance and scale of the genocide.

The Sandcastle Girls takes a nuanced approach to the slaughter. As in real life, there are 'good guys' and 'villains' on every side - you have Turks committing crimes against humanity, Turks who don't agree with their nation's treatment of the Armenians, Germans who are only concerned about diplomacy, Germans who are speaking out against the genocide, Americans who are very kind-hearted and open-minded, Americans who are more pusillanimous, etc. No character is perfect; everyone has skeletons in their closets or has done things not above moral questioning.

Though the novel takes for its characters only a small cross-section of the people involved in the genocide, it covers a remarkable survey of related WWI-era events: the Armenian crossing of the desert, their 'camps' afterward in Aleppo and Der-al-Zor, fighting in the Dardanelles, the sinking of the Lusitania, and even a brief bit of the brief life of the separate Armenian republic. The story focuses primarily on a few key characters, but the larger picture is always present in the background. In this way, the author combines the emotional intensity that comes from the reader's intimacy with a few individuals and the historical knowledge that comes with a broader look at events. The result is an eye-opening and engaging look at a horrific part of modern history.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Classic Lit: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Publisher: Barnes & Noble
Date: 1908 (2001)
Format: hardback
Source: Christmas gift
Read: as part of the pre-college TBR cleanout/for A Victorian Celebration
Pages: 350
Reading time: two days

From GoodReads: Meek little Mole, willful Ratty, Badger the perennial bachelor, and petulant Toad. In the almost one hundred years since their first appearance in 1908, they've become emblematic archetypes of eccentricity, folly, and friendship. And their misadventures - in gypsy caravans, stolen sports cars, and their Wild Wood - continue to capture readers' imaginations and warm their hearts long after they grow up. Begun as a series of letters from Kenneth Grahame to his son, The Wind in the Willows is a timeless tale of animal cunning and human camaraderie. 

My review: This is the third time I've attempted to read The Wind in the Willows, thinking that being an older teen, not a child, I'd be more patient with a "classic." Just a couple chapters in, I realized why I'd never finished this novel - it's boring. Being ten years older makes me only more determined to finish the book once I start it, not more patient.

I actually find it odd that The Wind in the Willows is boring. It's an enchanting and charming classic, with all its little animals running around and talking like Victorian British men. The plot's not that slow, there's regular events that should be exciting, and it's a rather quick read. Yet, at least for the first half of the book, even the exciting events don't seem exciting. The author's style is just kinda blah blah blah blah, not really making much differentiation between important events and insignificant details and descriptions. The longer I read, though, the more interested I became in the stories. The book and I passed into a stage of more comfortable stand-off, and eventually - in the last two or three chapters - I was actually engaged in the novel. Toad was one of the most irritating and annoying characters ever encountered, but at least there was some excitement and real adventure!

Spanish Lit Month: The Celestina by Fernando de Rojas

Publisher: Univ. of California Press
Translator: Lesley Byrd Simpson
Date: 1499 (1955)
Format: paperback
Source: BookMooch
Read: for Spanish Lit Month
Pages: 162
Reading time: three days

Country: Spain. La Celestina, or Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea, is the only known surviving work of Fernando de Rojas. He wrote the novel as a student and, despite the book's international success in Europe during the 16th century, never returned to writing, instead choosing to practice law.

From GoodReads: The Celestina is the first European novel, a fifteenth-century Spanish masterpiece remarkable for its originality, depth, handling of dialogue, and drawing of character. The plot is simple: a young nobleman enlists the services of Celestina, an old bawd, to help him seduce a girl; the seduction ends in tragedy. It is not, however, the love story that is important. It is Celestina who dominates the scene. She is a frank and lusty old pagan of the Renaissance, brimming over with classical lore and a salty wisdom gained in the course of a vigorous and sinful life, which she still loves with a wonderful heartiness. Her greatest regret, indeed, is that in her remote youth she neglected some few opportunities to enjoy herself. In her old age her pleasure is in purveying pleasures to others. She is one of the great creations of all literature and has a secure place beside her two compatriots, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

My review: I was a bit nervous about reading a novel written entirely in dialogue (dialogue-driven books and I have had some issues in the past), but The Celestina actually reads more like a play than like your average novel. Indeed, as I was reading I found it fun to imagine the story as how it could take place on a stage. Thematically and even stylistically, there were parts that reminded me of Shakespeare and other playwrights of the era.

Being written in a form more common to drama, The Celestina proved to be a fairly quick read. I didn't become very engaged in the story, however, until closer to the end. It's all just a lot of talking, after all. Some of the humor hasn't aged well - I'm sure there were details that were supposed to be funny that I utterly missed - but there's still some laughable moments amidst the general seriousness of the book. Overall, it's a rather fun novel, suitable for both pleasure and scholarly reading.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

In My Mailbox #31

For review:
Gone to the Forest by Katie Kitamura (Free Press Blog Tours)

The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu (thanks, Sandra at Beauty Balm!)

From Random Buzzers:
Diva (Flappers #3) by Jillian Larkin
Railsea by China Mieville

George Washington's Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior

My mom and I went down Main Street in the new town. She said we shouldn't buy any more books until we've unpacked the ones we already have. Well, my library's already unpacked, organized, and shelved, so there. We found a surprisingly large used bookstore hidden in the back of one of the buildings, and of course I had to pick up some of their cheap paperbacks...
The Little Lame Prince by Dinah Maria Mulock Craik
Bend Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov
The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier
A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! by Harry Harrison
Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan

YA Fiction: Holding on to Zoe by George Ella Lyon

Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Date: July 17, 2012
Format: ARC (not cover pictured)
Source: publisher's Twitter
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 160
Reading time: 90 minutes

From GoodReads: After sixteen-year-old Jules has her baby, Zoe, it doesn’t matter anymore that her mother thinks she’s a drama queen, or that her father left them years ago, or even that Zoe’s father is gone, too. She and her baby make a family now; she doesn’t need anyone else in the world except Zoe. Though it's tough being a new mom, balancing Zoe’s needs with working at the Toyota factory and thinking about how to finish school, Jules is sure she’ll figure it out. Still, she wonders, why can’t anyone be happy for her and Zoe? And why does her mom refuse to believe that Zoe's real?

My review: Holding on to Zoe is a very different look at teen pregnancy and other issues. Jules' story is both engaging and, at times, emotional and completely heartbreaking. The only problem with the novel is development. There's very little backstory given, so Jules' state of mind and situation seem rather sudden and hard to connect with a character who, beforehand, came off as mild and intelligent. I found the ending a bit unsatisfactory, focusing surprisingly little on the aftermath and not delving very deep into the underlying causes of Jules' situation. The book is a nice, quick read, touching on several important teen issues, but the reader is left wanting just a little bit more.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Mini-Reviews: Breadcrumbs and Sweetly

I'm in a bit of a blogging slump and don't feel like expending the effort it would take to write full reviews. I read both of these fairytale adaptations to help clean out my TBR list before going off to college. They're both very enjoyable, fairly quick reads; I don't have anything negative to say about them, but at the same time they weren't such absolutely fantastic reads as to deserve great raves.

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu
2011; won from Eli to the Nth
This is such a sweet book! I was totally able to connect to Hazel, the main character, and a lot of what she's going through, even though I'm now several years older than her. The author's writing is excellent, making this a fun read for people of all ages. It seemed like this would be a retelling of Hansel and Gretel, but really, it's a mash-up of various tales and other inspirations from classic fantasy. The plot's a bit slow, but it's always well-developed and interesting.

Sweetly (Fairytale Retellings #2) by Jackson Pearce
2011; won from Forever YA
This is so, so perfectly suited to summer reading! It was quite different from what I expected - darker, not as funny (there were some funny lines; I just thought there would be more), a retelling of Hansel and Gretel (expected) with several twists and some other inspirations (not expected) - but all of these came together to create a mysterious, gripping read. I also loved the Southern gothic feel that came from setting the story in a small South Carolina town with all its attendant secrets.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Once Upon a Read-a-Thon: Update and Challenge

I've now finished four books during the read-a-thon. As out of the seven books I chose, I hoped to finish four, I'm going to call it quits. I could push myself to read another book this afternoon and evening, but I have other things to do, like unpacking and decorating my new room with adorable paper cutouts (scherenschnitte) of fairy tales and classic literature...all that remains for my part in the read-a-thon today is to participate in a challenge and then post reviews of the last two books I read. Actually, I might be a bad blogger and wait with the reviews until later this afternoon or tomorrow...

Cover challenge from IB Book Blogging:
Question 1) What is your favorite cover that has been revealed this summer and why?
Yeah, yeah, I know the cover changes to the Across the Universe series and the reveal for the third book, Shades of Earth, have been all over the blogosphere lately. But this is my favorite recent series, so I'm really excited to see the last cover! I hate the changes made to the first two books (I thought the other covers suited the books more and looked less...I don't know...space-opera-y and cheap). I do like this cover, though, especially how the green plant life ties into both the title and what's upcoming in the trilogy.

Question 2) Do you rely on the cover to help you choose whether you want to read a book or not?
Usually book covers affect me more with not wanting to read a book. Covers that look self-published or like pulp novels (you know, the historical romances with girls' dresses falling down, or cheesy sci-fi/fantasy scenes, or melodramatic fonts) totally turn me away. And I don't usually want to read a book based on a cool cover alone, but a cool cover combined with an interesting plot idea is enough to make me at least a little bit obsessed with obtaining a copy.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Fantasy: A Once Crowded Sky by Tom King

Publisher: Touchstone
Date: July 10, 2012
Format: hardcover ARE (Yeah, never seen one of those before, but it's quite nice!)
Source: publisher
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the publisher in return for an honest review.)
Pages: 325
Reading time: two days

From GoodReads: The superheroes of Arcadia City fight a wonderful war, and play a wonderful game, forever saving yet another day. However, after sacrificing both their powers and Ultimate, the greatest hero of them all, to defeat the latest apocalypse, these comic book characters are transformed from the marvelous into the mundane. After too many battles won and too many friends lost, The Soldier of Freedom was fine letting all that glory go. But when a new threat blasts through his city, Soldier, as ever, accepts his duty and reenlists in this next war. Without his once amazing abilities, he's forced to seek the help of the one man who walked away, the sole hero who refused to make the sacrifice-- PenUltimate, the sidekick of Ultimate, who through his own rejection of the game has become the most powerful man in the world, the only one left who might still, once again, save the day.

My review: A literary novel based on comic books is generally going to be either really bad or really good, so I didn't get my expectations up too high about this book. To my delight, A Once Crowded Sky leaned directly towards the "really good." For the most part, it was masterfully developed, incorporating versions of the archetypal superhero into a fantastic modern prose story. I loved the author's entertaining writing, the occasional humor, and the connections to myth, history, and literature. I breezed through a lot of the book, not wanting to put down such a well-written, epic fantasy story.

The plot kind of slowed down for me, though, towards the middle, and it almost completely lost momentum at the end. For me, at least, the apex of the story was over by about page 260. I lost whatever points the author was trying to convey after that and was ready for the novel to just end. The book was quickly headed towards one of my favorite reads this year until I hit this hurdle. However, it's still a very worthwhile and, for the majority of the novel, great read, whether you're into comic books or not.

By the way, I don't think I've ever read a comic book in my life, so I am in no way biased towards this novel by any geeky (and I mean that in the best sense of the word) comic book fandom.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Spanish Lit Month: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Publisher: Vintage
Translator: Edith Grossman
Date: 1985
Format: paperback
Source: purchased
Read: for Spanish Lit Month/as part of the pre-college TBR cleanout
Pages: 350
Reading time: three days

Country: Columbia. Marquez grew up in Columbia, though he has since lived in other countries including Mexico and Spain. The recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982, he is most famous for his novels and other fiction, including One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Autumn of the Patriarch, No One Writes to the Colonel, and Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Many of his works have been published in English.

From GoodReads: In their youth, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza fall passionately in love. When Fermina eventually chooses to marry a wealthy, well-born doctor, Florentino is devastated, but he is a romantic. As he rises in his business career he whiles away the years in 622 affairs--yet he reserves his heart for Fermina. Her husband dies at last, and Florentino purposefully attends the funeral. Fifty years, nine months, and four days after he first declared his love for Fermina, he will do so again.

My review: A couple years ago, I read Marquez's novel One Hundred Years of Solitude and thought it was one of the most amazing things I'd ever read. I absolutely loved the author's writing as well as the elements of magical realism combined with a historical setting. Given my high expectations based on this book, therefore, I found Love in the Time of Cholera a wee bit disappointing.

I didn't think Marquez's writing and the story were as engaging. They just didn't immediately draw me into the novel. Perhaps it's because I had problems connecting to the characters; Florentino Ariza's rather creepy in his devotion to Fermina Daza, Fermina becomes a little cold-hearted and marries without love, and a significant portion of the book takes place as the two progress into older adulthood. There were few fantastic elements to the story, which I found personally disappointing, though the lack didn't actually subtract anything from the novel.

I really enjoyed the historical setting, however. The plot spans several decades on each side of the turn of the  20th century, so in the background of the novel readers see some of the impacts of industrial progress on both urban and rural landscapes in Latin America. The story develops at a comfortable slowness, always interesting but never either completely engrossing or, on the other extreme, boring. It's a nice read to sit back and relax with during the summertime, becoming absorbed in the historic love affair, but it's not going to become one of my favorite books of all time as did One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Once Upon a Read-a-Thon Begins!

It's time again for the annual Once Upon a Read-a-Thon!! This year it's hosted by the friendly triumvirate of Candace's Book Blog, Pure Imagination, and Reading Angel. Though the reading theme is not required to be fairytales and related stuff, I like to use the read-a-thon as an excuse to catch up on all the retellings I collect...and then somehow never get around to reading. Also included this year are some review copies and other reading I need to get caught up on.

This year's fare:
finish Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez my review
A Once Crowded Sky by Tom King my review
Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu
Sweetly by Jackson Pearce
A Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan
Abandon by Meg Cabot
The Lioness and Her Knight by Gerald Morris

Of course I'm going to get through all 7 of these in three days, amidst unpacking and exploring the new hometown....anyway, this will be the update page; periodically throughout the days I'll record what page I'm on and which books I've finished, linking up to reviews.

Happy reading, fellow read-a-thoners!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Classic Lit: Penguin Island by Anatole France

Publisher: Signet Classics
Translator: Belle Notkin Burke
Date: 1908 (1968)
Format: paperback
Source: Christmas gift
Read: as part of the pre-college TBR cleanout/for A Victorian Celebration
Pages: 253
Reading time: three days

From GoodReads: A near-sighted man, cast upon an island somewhere off the Breton coast, proceeds to baptize the population. Unfortunately, this population consists entirely of penguins. However, when through Divine Grace all are granted the dubious privilege of becoming human, their history begins - and one of the most devastating satiric allegories ever conceived is set in motion. Written with the singular combination of elegant style and uncompromising irony of which Anatole France was a master, Penguin Island is a scalpel-like dissection of human stupidity, hypocrisy, sham and fraud. Sex, war, religion, business and politics, all are delineated by a pen dipped in acid. Though events in this extraordinary work correspond to the course of French history, the reader will have no difficulty in relating the author's concerns - whether they be reforming politicians who turn conservative at the first taste of power, or generals who climb to glory upon the corpses of soldiers - with contemporary realities. For, as David Caute writes in his keenly observed introduction, "the target of Anatole France's sharp and destructive wit is in reality the whole of Western Civilization."

My review: It took me a while to get into Penguin Island. I expected to find the novel bitingly satirical and was, for the most part, disappointed for the first half of the book. The episodes seemed fragmented and incohesive, which wasn't aided by my relative lack of knowledge in ancient and medieval French history. Though this could be due to the translation, I didn't think the author's writing style was all that great; it wasn't bad, but there was nothing special to recommend it. Still, the first half of the novel wasn't much of a drag, as I was able to read quickly and the plot kept moving.

The second half of Penguin Island was definitely an improvement. Anatole France reached the Renaissance-inspired part of the book, and so I kind of caught up with what exactly he was satirizing. Surprisingly, he spent relatively little time on the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era, instead preferring to focus on more modern events. Some Church-and-royalists-versus-the-republic conspiracy and the Dreyfus Affair occupied the longest segments of the novel. Each section of story increased in development and in humor, which in turn increased how much I enjoyed reading the book. I was particularly fascinated by the ending, which takes on a somewhat sci-fi aura as the author explores what the future holds for "Penguinia."

I don't usually like being distracted by footnotes in classic novels, but in this case, some explanatory notes would have been fantastic. Though Penguin Island can in many ways be read simply as a light, rather odd novel if one does not possess knowledge of the underlying history, I think better understanding the events which underpin Anatole France's allegory would have helped me enjoy the novel much more than I already did. This is a book that I'll need to return to in later years, perhaps armed with a good book outlining the history of the French nation.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

What a mess...

The weird angle is because I was standing on the desk to take the picture.

See that stack of collapsed boxes in the background? That's what all the books came here in.

My room, a couple days ago. After moving in on Tuesday, I unpacked and sorted all my books (a little over 1600 now) on Wednesday and have spent most of the time since then trying to shelve everything. I have two more bookshelves (!!!) than previously, but I lost the 6-foot-long closet shelf and the top of the dollhouse I'd been using to hold books in the last house. Anyway, here's the almost-final results in bad photography:

Ran out of shelf room. Now in search of small bookshelves to fit into tiny spaces. 

I was looking forward to unpacking and organizing everything, but it turned out to be a tedious and therefore frustrating and tiring task. Needless to say, I'm now rather behind on my reading...

Sidenote: Ironically, Andy Griffith died on the day we moved to his hometown.

In My Mailbox #30

A two-week, pre- and post-moving edition.

For review:
Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury (Early Reviewers)
I find it ironic that this is scheduled for publication the month after Bradbury's death. Anyway, I'm a Ray Bradbury fan.

Jana Bibi's Excellent Fortunes by Betsy Woodman (thanks, Good Choice Reading!)
For some reason, I really enjoy and am interested in books set in India.
Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome (thanks, Karen at Books and Chocolate!)
Humorous classic.
Laugh with the Moon by Shana Burg (thanks, PJ at Roots in Myth!)
I'm also interested in novels set in Africa.
This Is Not a Test by Courtney Summers (thanks, Trisha at Behind the Moon!)
Yay, post-apocalyptic zombie novel!
Leonardo's Swans by Karen Essex (thanks, Olga at Bibliophile's Corner!)
I also enjoy historical fiction involving art.

Of course, right before we move, I buy even more books. Well, three years ago, we gave my dad a gift card to the local indie bookstore. He was obviously not going to use it in the couple days before we moved, so I convinced him to let me have it...
Aesop's Fables by Aesop
It's about time I read this!
Mother Goose collected by Arthur Rackham
I'm not terribly interested in rhymes, but I really want to read Two and Twenty Dark Tales: Dark Retellings of Mother Goose Rhymes when it comes out later this year, and this is an unabridged edition by a well-known Victorian illustrator. 
My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales
My mom gave me a very odd look when I showed her the title...
Hades (Halo #2) by Alexandra Adornetto
Free ARC from the bookstore; I have the first book but haven't had a chance yet to read it.

From Honors College:
The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
My Honors College sends me free books for unrequired summer reading. Is your college that cool?!

Moving gift:
The Apothecary by Maile Meloy
Thanks, Rachel! The cool cheap books you can find at Ollie's...we were both looking at it because of the pretty cover, but the combination of historical fiction (Cold War?!) and fantasy is also a plus. :)

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Spanish Lit Month: The Planets by Sergio Chejfec

Publisher: Open Letter
Translator: Heather Cleary
Date: June 12, 2012
Format: paperback
Source: GoodReads First Look
Read: for Spanish Lit Month/for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the publisher in return for an honest review.)
Pages: 225
Reading time: three days

Country: Argentina. Chejfec was born in Buenos Aires but in more recent years has lived in Venezuela and his current home, New York City. Though author of over fifteen works, only two of Chejfec's books (The Planets and My Two Worlds) have been published in English, both by Open Letter Press.

From GoodReads: When he reads about a mysterious explosion in the distant countryside, the narrator’s thoughts turn to his disappeared childhood friend, M, who was abducted from his home years ago, during a spasm of political violence in Buenos Aires in the early 1970s. He convinces himself that M must have died in this explosion, and he begins to tell the story of their friendship through a series interconnected vignettes, hoping in this way to reanimate his friend and relive the time they spent together wandering the streets of Buenos Aires.

My review: The Planets is a difficult book to review. It took me a while to get into the writing, but once I did, I enjoyed the author's style. Plot-wise, though, the novel meandered all over the place. Normally I don't particularly mind this, but it seemed like periods of lucid anecdotes and other stories alternated with vague, rather confusing episodes of abstraction and philosophizing. I enjoyed the stories and anecdotes, not so much the rest of the content. I almost perpetually felt like there was some deeper meaning to everything that I was missing.

For the sake of the concrete storytelling, though, let's go with a four-star (enjoyed it) rating. Both the anecdotes of M's and the narrator's lives, as well as the stories told by M and his father, were interesting at, at times, even engrossing when combined with Chejfec's excellent writing style. Parts of the book had an almost magical realist quality that I love in novels, though in this case it exists in the absence of any tangible magic or supernatural elements. This will be a book that I re-read in later years, hopefully to catch some of the more abstract intricacies that I missed on the first read-through.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Sci-Fi Mystery: The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

Publisher: Quirk
Date: July 10, 2012
Format: paperback
Source: publisher
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book in return for an honest review.)
Pages: 316
Reading time: three days

From the back cover: What's the point in solving murders if we're all going to die soon, anyway? Detective Hank Palace has faced this question ever since asteroid 2011GV1 hovered into view. There's no chance left. No hope. Just six precious months until impact.

The Last Policeman presents a fascinating portrait of a pre-apocalyptic United States. The economy spirals downward while crops rot in the fields. Churches and synagogues are packed. People all over the world are walking off the job - but not Hank Palace. He's investigating a death by hanging in a city that sees a dozen suicides every week - except this one feels suspicious, and Palace is the only cop who cares. What's the point in solving murders if we're all going to die soon, anyway?

My review: In terms of a speculative fiction tale, The Last Policeman was a refreshing read. Equal parts examination of the worth of life, mystery, considerations upon the downfall of civilization, and dark humor, the novel is both interesting and entertaining. I liked the characters with their different personalities and quirks, though I found most of the other investigators and officials to be rather irritating buffoons. I thought the plot dragged a little toward the middle of the book, but overall it was well-developed and well-paced. The premise of this first book is fascinating and different from most other recent sci-fi releases, being more serious and thoughtful rather than dramatic and action- or romance-driven. I can't wait to see what the rest of the trilogy has in store for readers! Though the conclusion to The Last Policeman would allow the novel to be a stand-alone, enough intriguing questions were left to be developed into a sequel...