Monday, December 31, 2012

Goodbye 2012!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 30, 2012

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

YA Historical Fiction: The FitzOsbornes at War by Michelle Cooper

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Recent Acquisitions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Historical Fiction: Leaving Cold Sassy by Olive Ann Burns

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

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

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

Monday, December 17, 2012

Fiction: The Elephant Keepers' Children by Peter Hoeg

Publisher: Other Press
Translator: Martin Aitken
Date: 2010 (trans. October 2012)
Format: hardback
Source: GoodReads First Look
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 500
Reading time: five days

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Mini-Reviews: College Reading Part 4

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Fiction: Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos

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

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

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

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Sci-Fi: The Breeders by Matthew J. Beier

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

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

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

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