Thursday, August 30, 2012

Did Not Finish: The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee

The Emperor of All Maladies, published in 2010, is a Pullitzer Prize-winning "biography" of cancer, tracing the disease's occurrence in the past and the history of its research and treatment. My Honors College offered up free copies of the book over the summer, so I took the opportunity to read it. I intended to read through the book on the 17-hour road trip to college, but from this post, you can tell that didn't happen.

I'm not someone who reads much nonfiction on science, but I still figured I would be interested in a book tracing the history of cancer, particularly if it won a prestigious literary award. Unfortunately, neither the writing nor the content captivated me. I found the content to be unorganized, often skipping in and out of chronological order as well as between narratives. It made it difficult to keep track of who was who and who achieved what breakthrough. The writing didn't seem that special to me, either; rather, it seemed a bit too self-consciously dramatic, like the author was trying to spice up the content but not succeeding. The history of science portions of the book I found fascinating - the further back in time, the better - but by about page 150, I realized I wasn't really getting anywhere or even wanting to continue reading. Maybe another time, Siddhartha Mukherjee.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Partial to the Past Historical Fiction Giveaway Hop

Welcome to the Partial to the Past Historical Fiction giveaway hop, hosted by Bippity Boppity Book! I'm a lifelong fan of historical fiction, starting when my mom read me the American Girl series in preschool. Therefore, for my stop in the hop, I'm giving away one winner's choice of one of my favorite historical reads!

any of the Dear America or Dear Canada series under $15 (most should be)
One-Way to Ansonia by Judie Angell
Moloka'i by Alan Brennert
The Ransom of Mercy Carter by Caroline B. Cooney
A Brief History of Montmaray, The FitzOsbornes in Exile, or a preorder of The FitzOsbornes at War by Michelle Cooper
Victory by Susan Cooper
Copper Sun by Sharon Draper
Witness by Karen Hesse
any paperback in the Bloody Jack series by L.A. Meyer
any Scott O'Dell book under $15 (my suggestions are My Name is Not Angelica or Sarah Bishop)
A Drowned Maiden's Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz
Tangled Threads by Pegi Deitz Shea

I, Iago by Nicole Galland
The Printmaker's Daughter by Katherine Govier
Ghost on Black Mountain by Ann Hite
Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson
The Dolphin People by Torsten Krol
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Bright and Distant Shores by Dominic Smith
The Forest Lover by Susan Vreeland
*I reserve the right to change the prize options according to variations in price and availability.

To enter: Just fill out the Rafflecopter form below! This giveaway is open internationally to where the Book Depository ships and ends at midnight (EST) on August 30. a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Fantasy: The Princess Bride by William Goldman

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Date: 1972
Format: paperback
Source: blog giveaway
Read: for fun
Pages: 400
Reading time: four days

From GoodReads: As Florin and Guilder teeter on the verge of war, the reluctant Princess Buttercup is devastated by the loss of her true love, kidnapped by a mercenary and his henchmen, rescued by a pirate, forced to marry Prince Humperdinck, and rescued once again by the very crew who absconded with her in the first place. In the course of this dazzling adventure, she’ll meet Vizzini — the criminal philosopher who’ll do anything for a bag of gold; Fezzik — the gentle giant; Inigo — the Spaniard whose steel thirsts for revenge; and Count Rugen — the evil mastermind behind it all. Foiling all their plans and jumping into their stories is Westley, Princess Buttercup’s one true love and a very good friend of a very dangerous pirate.

My review: I really, really wanted to love The Princess Bride. I've heard nothing but good things about it - the storytelling, the adventure, the humor, the characters, everything - but in the end, my expectations were underwhelmed. There were some funny bits (I especially liked the metafictional asides and the historical comments in parentheses), but overall, I just didn't catch on to Goldman's tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. I did enjoy the characters, however, as all their personalities and quirks were interesting and entertaining. The story was engaging enough, but I didn't catch the point of the short sequel Buttercup's Baby that seemed to be both truncated and extraneous. An enjoyable read, but I just didn't find it as special as most others have.

For other humorous pseudo-medieval adventure tales, I'd recommend Swords for Hire by Will Allen (2003). I'm also going to guess that both of these books would go great with Monty Python.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Fiction: Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess

Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Date: 1980
Format: hardback
Source: purchased used
Read: for a LibraryThing group read
Pages: 605
Reading time: I lost track, given that there were a lot of days where I didn't read anything, but around three weeks total

Eighty-one-year-old British author Kenneth Toomey is living in Malta when he is contacted by the island's archbishop to help in the canonization process of Pope Gregory XVII, also known as Carlo Campanati, Toomey's deceased brother-in-law. For his part of the effort, Toomey embarks upon writing his own memoirs, spanning the 20th century from the First World War to the mid-1900s. Covering a multitude of themes, events, and locales, Earthly Powers can be seen as a subtly parodic summation of the past century's social, literary, and moral history.

Note: There is a lot of LGBT content and religious commentary, so if these things offend you, I would not recommend reading this novel.

Earthly Powers is a very immersive book. As a 600+ page epic, it's got to be either compulsively readable or a quick DNF decision. Fortunately, Burgess's sly wit and wondrous mastery of vocabulary make this an entertaining and interesting read. It's still dense, packed with historical, social, literary, and linguistic references, but it is often read with a smile on your face.

Admittedly, I did drop the book for several days in the middle. Though I was engrossed for the first two hundred pages, the length and density made me lose interest for a while. Upon picking it up again after a little time off, however, the last two hundred pages regained the hold that the first two hundred had held on me. My two favorite sections were probably Toomey's experiences in Nazi Germany and his trip to a pseudo-Christian commune/cult in the California desert (I'm still trying to figure out whether or not there were intentional overtones of Southern plantation life there).

Earthly Powers is a novel to be savored and slowly digested. The dense writing and multitude of often rather obscure references can make it a difficult, but ultimately worthwhile, read. There's no way to catch all the details in one reading; this will certainly be a book that I return to in a few years, eager to uncover more of its quirks and quips.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

I'm Off to College!

My parents and I - little brother got left at home because of school - have embarked on the 1100-mile road trip that is driving from North Carolina to Oklahoma. We're currently halfway across Tennessee (we have to drive ALL THE WAY across it diagonally) and looking at about 12 hours in the car today. Bleh. But, after today, I will be exploring a new campus and starting Orientation before classes begin next week!

In the mean time, blogging will probably suffer. As with the beginning of any school year, reading starts to take a backburner to homework. I expect my reading and posting time will drop off, though of course I plan to continue maintaining this blog throughout the school year, just at a slower pace.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

In My Mailbox #34

For review:
Me, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World by Sabina Berman (LibraryThing Early Reviewers)
Already finished - great read - with my review posted here.

Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman by Marjorie Shostak
For General Anthropology this semester.
Life in the Ancient Near East by Daniel C. Snell
For Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations, taught by the author.
The Poor Christ of Bomba by Mongo Beti
For Survey of African Civilizations.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

YA Fiction: Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World by Sabina Berman

Publisher: Henry Holt
Date: August 7, 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: 242
Reading time: two days

From GoodReads: Karen Nieto passed her earliest years as a feral child, left alone to wander the vast beach property near her family's failing tuna cannery. But when her aunt Isabelle comes to Mexico to take over the family business, she discovers a real girl amidst the squalor. So begins a miraculous journey for autistic savant Karen, who finds freedom not only in the love and patient instruction of her aunt but eventually at the bottom of the ocean swimming among the creatures of the sea. Despite how far she's come, Karen remains defined by the things she can't do—until her gifts with animals are finally put to good use at the family's fishery. Her plan is brilliant: Consolation Tuna will be the first humane tuna fishery on the planet. Greenpeace approves, fame and fortune follow, and Karen is swept on a global journey that explores how we live, what we eat, and how our lives can defy even our own wildest expectations.

My review: Novels about people with "different abilities," as Karen Nieto puts it in this book, always have the potential to be powerful and moving, a combination of inspirational, engaging, and unique storytelling that makes for a memorable book. Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World is no different. Karen's story, spanning from her childhood into her forties, is arresting and intriguing. The author does a fantastic job of letting readers into the mind of an autistic savant; one is able to understand and even relate with how Karen and her peculiar brain work.

The story itself is also engaging, near-perfectly developed. There's few slow moments, but at the same time, nothing is rushed. The plot occasionally took different directions from what I had expected, given the book's blurb, but it always felt true to life. Karen's voice is not without humor, either, though it is an appropriate laugh-with-me rather than at-me as I navigate this odd world drollness. The only issue I had at all was that the passage of time is often confusing, the reader not being sure of Karen's current age or how much time has passed between events. I suppose this is just another aspect of Karen's unique voice, though.

Maturity Factor: Profanity and sexual references. The writing, at least to me, seemed to fit in with YA, even MG if not for the above maturity factor.

Me, Who Dove into the Heart of the World was first published in Spanish in 2010. It has been translated into many other languages, including a Simon and Schuster UK edition under the title The Woman Who Dived into the Heart of the World, released in February 2012.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Fiction: Gone to the Forest by Katie Kitamura

Publisher: Free Press
Date: August 7, 2012
Format: paperback
Source: publisher
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 194
Reading time: two days

From GoodReads: Set on a struggling farm in a colonial country teetering on the brink of civil war, Gone to the Forest is a tale of family drama and political turmoil in which fiery storytelling melds with daring, original prose. Since his mother’s death, Tom and his father have fashioned a strained domestic peace, where everything is frozen under the old man’s vicious control. But when a young woman named Carine arrives at the farm, the tension between the two men escalates to the breaking point. 

My review: It took me a little while to get used to Kitamura's writing style, which is sparse and distant as well as rife with sentence fragments. The distance also made it difficult to connect emotionally with the characters; the story always seemed aloof from me as the reader. I figured out from the first couple of chapters that the majority of the book would be rather slow, not terribly interesting but picking up rather suddenly towards the end. I was right. The plot certainly becomes more engrossing as the novel heads toward its conclusion and the exploration of postcolonial issues becomes more clear. The country in which the book is set is unspecified, intentionally designed more as an anonymous hodgepodge of various locales and events. With this, by its ending the novel has become an intriguing examination of how one colonial family is falling apart as the landscape and community around it disintegrates into civil war.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Mini-Reviews: Jumping on the Dystopian Bandwagon

I absolutely love dystopias and other forms of science fiction, so of course I'm thrilled with the recent craze over the genre! However, I'm trying to keep my blog's reviews from being repetitive with those on other YA blogs, and so I'm just going to bundle together mini-reviews of all the most popular YA sci-fi novels I've recently read.

All of these were received through either giveaways or Random Buzzers.

I Am Number Four (Lorien Legacies #1) by Pittacus Lore
2010; read in one day
It seemed like nothing much happened until the end. The read was a breeze - just part of an afternoon and evening - and it maintained interest, but it just wasn't as absolutely-jawdropping-amazing as I had expected based on others' opinions. A good, but not memorable, read.
Reminds me of: Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer

The Maze Runner (Maze Runner #1) by James Dashner
2009; read in two days
For a little while, I thought this was going to be just a mediocre read, mostly because of choppy writing, especially concerning the interplay between dialogue and plot. The more I read, though, the more the writing and story improved. This turned out to be quite a thrilling read, and I absolutely loved the world-building and mystery. I can't wait to read the next books!
Reminds me of: Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

Divergent (Divergent #1) by Veronica Roth
2011; read in two days
I can't really take this as a serious dystopia over more of an adventure novel. I thought the dystopian premise was unrealistic, but it did lend itself to a good story. I found the plot slow, but well-developed and well-written. I really liked the main character, too. Divergent wasn't totally awesome, as I had expected, but it was a good, pretty quick read. I'm not sure I'm willing to invest my time in the rest of the series, though.

Matched (Matched #1) by Ally Condie
2010; read in three days
I'm not entirely sold on the dystopian premise, though I find it more believable than that of Divergent. I liked the main character, Cassia, and thought her internal confusion was very understandable. The plot, however, seemed slow. I wasn't much interested until about the last 75 pages, where the whole premise and world-building totally picked up and surpassed my expectations. Very 1984-esque: I wish there was more backstory to the world to make it more realistic, but at the end there's some quite psychologically thrilling parts.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

In My Mailbox #33

I'm going to be long-winded today. I swear, I am not normally this profligate a book buyer and acquirer. All but one of the books purchased this week are for my freshman college classes this semester (!!!), while I have a huge haul of books from my grandparents. They recently downsized, and my mom and I finally had the opportunity to go through the books they were getting rid of. While I'm not a fan of all the Christian historical romance, Billy Graham, uber-conservative politics, and old textbooks they had, there were also a ton of books that looked interesting...

By the way, the classes in which I'm enrolled point me towards three different majors: anthropology, history, and English (Literary and Cultural Studies track). Anthropology and history fit my future career goal in museum studies, but I don't want to drop literature! Hopefully, I'll be able to just triple-major. *fingers crossed*

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
Guess which book isn't for class? I love post-apocalyptic novels! This one's been on my wishlist for quite some time...
Greek Drama ed. by Moses Hadas
For Classical Mythology.
Classical Mythology by Mark P.O. Morford, Robert J. Lenardon, and Michael Sham
Um, also for Classical Mythology.
The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt by Ian Shaw
For Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations.
African Perspectives on Colonialism by A. Adu Boahen
For Survey of African Civilization (as are the next two books).
Ibn Battuta in Black Africa by Said Hamdun and Noel King
The Two Princes of Calabar by Randy J. Sparks
In the Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall
For General Anthropology.
The Sambia by Gilbert H. Herdt
A New Guinea ethnography for General Anthropology.
The Classic Fairy Tales ed. by Maria Tatar
For Intro to Critical Reading and Writing - this book is making me very intrigued about what's in store from the class!

From the grandparents:
And God Came In by Lyle W. Dorsett
Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck
Dreamers (Legacies of the Ancient River #1) by Angela Elwell Hunt
The Visitation by Frank Peretti
The Two of Us by Claude Perri
Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt
The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier
The Cross and the Eagle by Julius Berstl
Here Is Your War by Ernie Pyle
David the King by Gladys Schmitt
Beyond Desire by Pierre La Mure
Love is Eternal by Irving Stone
I'm Eve by Chris Costner Sizemore and Elen Sain Pittillo
Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift
Singing Waters by Ann Bridge
1876 (Narratives of Empire) by Gore Vidal
And Set Aglow a Sacred Flame by Margaret Tufts Neal
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
So Well Remembered by James Hilton
Pavilion of Women by Pearl S. Buck
A Place to Come To by Robert Penn Warren
Mrs. Mike by Benedict and Nancy Freedman
Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk
The Walls of Jericho by Paul I. Wellman
The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCollough
Crowned Heads by Thomas Tryon
...and about half a dozen or so travel books, covering everything from ancient Greek ruins to the castles of Scotland (not pictured)

And thanks to We Be Reading and Out of Print Clothing, I got this awesome Brave New World t-shirt:

AND I got my laptop for college! Whew. Considering I barely stepped out of the house all week, I now have a lot more stuff...According to LibraryThing, I've just passed 1700 books that I own - I need more shelves!

Friday, August 3, 2012

YA Sci-Fi: The Big Empty Series by J.B. Stephens

Title: The Big Empty
Series: The Big Empty #1
Publisher: Razorbill
Date: October 2004
Format: paperback
Source: purchased
Read: as part of the pre-college TBR cleanout
Pages: 204
Reading time: two hours

From GoodReads: One year ago, a devastating plague called Strain 7 killed three quarters of the human race. Around the world, power systems failed and supply chains screeched to a halt. The surviving population of the United States has been relocated to the coasts; the heartland is now a wasteland called the Big Empty. But seven teens trying to put their lives back together will learn that the abandoned zone holds danger, secrets, and above all, hope.

My review: The first book in the series, The Big Empty is mostly intended just to introduce the characters and their world. The chapters alternate between viewpoints, and so the overall plot is a little slow in developing before, towards the end, everyone meets up and the voices solidify into fewer groups. The novel's structure - many voices but limited book length - also means that the dialogue is occasionally a little stilted and melodramatic, with details made a bit rushed and underdeveloped as the overall progression of the plot  is, at times, slow.

Still, the book is an interesting take on the aftermath of a common sci-fi element, the fast-killing, nearly invincible virus. The U.S. has descended into a somewhat chaotic dystopia, and the Midwest is supposed to be devoid of human life after having been evacuated (which makes me wonder how agriculture is faring). And as the seven characters make their way into the "Big Empty" for various reasons, readers know that, once the story gets started, the series should prove to be interesting and exciting.

Title: Paradise City
Series: The Big Empty #2
Publisher: Razorbill
Date: October 2004
Format: paperback
Source: purchased
Read: as part of the pre-college TBR cleanout
Pages: 268
Reading time: three hours

From GoodReads: The secret community of Novo Mundum promised everything seven teens craved when the world they knew crumbled around them. But soon they realize that Novo Mundum is far from perfect. In fact, someone inside has the power to create an even scarier crisis than Strain 7. This second installment takes readers deeper into the post-apocalyptic America from The Big Empty, following the characters as they uncover a shocking truth about the identity of the traitor.

My review: I enjoyed The Big Empty, but Paradise City just incited my ire. It started out well enough: the character point-of-views quickly narrowed down to two main settings, and both plotlines were interesting. One group is off scouting for important supplies, while the other remains in the community, trying to infiltrate a possible saboteur. The only things that got tiring were the constant switching back-and-forth of viewpoints (just make longer chapters if you want to alternate POVs!) and a bit of unnecessary girlfriend/boyfriend drama mess.

The majority of the book continued in this way, which was fine. But then, towards the end, it just got ridiculous. The internal issues in Novo Mundum turned out to be totally unbelievable and unrealistic to me, at least in the context of how the community and its members had been set up in the first book and then throughout much of the second. The melodramatic feel to much of the dialogue, including the overuse of italics stressing words and phrases, made it hard for me to take the book seriously as the conspiracy unfolded. The final straw was perhaps the ending. One line of the story was wrapped up about 3/4 of the way through the book, with another one starting but then being left to hang in its middle on the final page! This was a most unsatisfying second installment of a series that had shown some nice potential in its first novel.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Historical Fiction: The Pleasures of Men by Kate Williams

Publisher: Voice
Date: January 2012 (UK); August 7, 2012 (US)
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: 350
Reading time: two days

From GoodReads: July 1840: The young Queen Victoria has just entered her third year on the throne when a major recession brings London's desperate and destitute into its sweltering streets. While the city crackles with tension, orphaned Catherine Sorgeiul stays locked away in her uncle's home, a peculiar place where death masks adorn the walls and certain rooms are strictly forbidden. Nineteen years old and haunted by a dark past, Catherine becomes obsessed with a series of terrible murders of young girls sweeping the city. Details of the crimes are especially gruesome--the victims' hair has been newly plaited and thrust into their mouths, and their limbs are grotesquely folded behind them, like wounded birds--and the serial killer is soon nicknamed the Man of Crows. Catherine begins writing stories about the victims--women on their own and vulnerable in the big city--and gradually the story of the murderer as well. But she soon realizes that she has involved herself in a web of betrayal, deceit, and terror that threatens her and all those around her.

My review: The Pleasures of Men takes an interesting premise and goes wildly imaginative with it. Catherine Sorgeiul is a fascinating character; plagued for most of her life with intense morbid dreams and a series of misfortunes, she views herself as one marked by evil. The stories she writes as she investigates and ponders the serial murders are, technically, fiction even within the narrative, but by writing them she brings to life for readers the experiences of the deceased in working-class London.

In execution, however, the overall story is rather vague and meandering. There's great mystery - who is the murderer? what horrible things for which Catherine blames herself happened to her family? - but it develops only in fits, so that much of the development is agonizing in pace. The historical details keep this an interesting read, but the pace is, at times, frustrating. Some of the concluding revelations seemed odd and not very fitting to me; there were also parts of the story that didn't receive much closure. With a great gothic feel - complete with all the usual elements of death by various means, insanity, incest, and a dying family line - The Pleasures of Men could have turned out to be an excellent, dark historical narrative, but its execution and conclusions often left something to be desired.