Friday, December 21, 2018

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Book Club Book #3

While it's deeper within the fantasy genre than what I'd normally gravitate toward, Spinning Silver is an entertaining (yet wordy) read. Truthfully, it could have kept its impact, and been just as good, minus about 150 pages.

The book focuses on three women experiencing very different lives in what I assume is feudal Russia. The area is lorded over by a Czar, cities are walled for protection, and everyone still gets around by horse and carriage. Interspersed within the mundane is the Staryk Road, which magically appears, bringing a frozen and icy race to the area who seem to trade in violence and aggression.

Into this world fate interlocks the lives of these women as they struggle to preserve their families and the people they care about. Miryem is the daughter of an ineffective moneylender who develops a talent for turning silver to gold. Wanda is the oldest of a poor family, helmed by an abusive father. Irina, the cunning daughter of a Duke, works to find her place being given a larger dose of brains than looks. Everyone eventually comes together to battle the encroaching winter, that's lasting too long, along with a surprising demon of fire hidden in plain site.

Fantastical elements aside, this book is a story about strong, brave, and resourceful women who take what life hands them and fights to become the heroines of their own stories. Visions of Rumpelstiltskin and Little Red Riding Hood are conjured as the story weaves its complicated tale.

At time slow and verbose, the book overall is very entertaining and exciting. It's definitely an appropriate winter book to read sitting beside the fire.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Born A Crime by Trevor Noah

Book Club Book #2

There's a scene in the book where a teenage Noah and his buddies end up in front of kids and teachers in a Jewish school for a performance. One of the kids performing is named Hitler. You'll have to read the book to see how awkward things get, but it all happened because Noah had never learned that the "original" Hitler was a bad man. He had no idea, at that time, what had occurred during the war. Additionally, the magnitude of WWII was felt on a totally different level being raised in a country where being the lesser ethnic group was standard for so long.

It's just a snippet from the book, but one that clearly illustrates the difference in Noah's childhood. It also was a point that hit me personally, I know as much about life in apartheid South Africa as he knew about WWII.

Having always known people from South Africa, it struck me as odd that I had no concept of life in the country. Then, I couldn't help wondering about the specific stories of the South Africans I knew. They're all Jewish, they're all white. Did they identify with the white community because life was based on skin color, or did our history as a people create a kinship with those suffering? It's a completely separate issue, one that I might need to find a book on to learn more.

As far as Born A Crime goes, it was an intense and enlightening read. Noah takes his extremely personal reflections and pulls back the curtain on this unique society. My own experiences make his life look very hard, very sad, yet within the community he builds through own stories, he always seems to have an edge to support him doing more with this life than adhering to the status quo. Even if it took a while for him to get there, his perspective felt unique compared to the other people he associates with as he grows up.

This is in part thanks to his mother. She's definitely a gift in his life. He never paints her as such, but takes an almost casual observer approach to her resourcefulness and unwillingness to conform. Although not the focus of his stories, Noah gives his mom a lot of "page" time and she's quite an impressive lady. I hope he thanks her for all she taught him, even if the lessons were rough.

The book focuses solely on his childhood in South Africa. Stories aren't totally chronological, but they do come together to tell the story of how Noah's life began. He basically lived in two different worlds because of his parentage, but Noah never takes a "poor me" tone to his stories; he never asks you to appreciate all that he's overcome. He seems to look at his life as just what happened and prides himself on how he figured things out to keep going forward. And, I guess that is what you'd have to do living in a world entrenched in seeing how everyone else is different rather than trying to come together because we're all simply people. 

As an outside, Noah's life is so very interesting. The sheer will to dig out of a situation forced on you by people who simply decided they were better than you is fascinating, and sad. The book took me through so many different emotions, but I feel like I know more now about my world's history than I did before, and understanding the past is the only way to prevent if from happening in the future. Read this book!

Monday, October 29, 2018

The Globe: The Science of Discworld II by Terry Pratchett

Thinking this book was going to further expand on our planet's evolutionary history -- from the title -- I dived into the second volume in this comical/scientific series. 

That's totally not what it's about.

On the fun, fictional side of things, the Discworld wizards have come to Earth to prevent an invasion of elves from essentially taking over the minds of humanity as we develop as a species. We're talking centuries ago, at the birth of man's ability to think creatively. 

Scientifically and historically, this book studies humanity's dependence on narrative thought. Our innate desire to tell stories, to fixate on the stories of others, and how our ability to depict characters and events through stories has impacted our connection to the unknown.

The "globe" referenced in the title is in dedication to someone who Pratchett very clearly values as the pinnacle of creative thought...William Shakespeare. Transferring the unseen into real characters is deftly done in A Midsummer Night's Dream as fairies are given names and personalities. This tactic, the book speculates, demystifies the mystical to a point that they're no longer revered or feared; they no longer have the same power. It becomes the greatest weapon the magicians have against the elves. Their "real" power is essentially dumbed down to a flitting fairy of no consequence through Shakespeare's play, turning them into an ineffective foe regardless of what abilities they actually possess.

This fictional clash in creativity aside, the real concepts discussed in this book are fascinating. Are we really the Great Ape we've named ourselves or just the ones who've mastered storytelling? What impact on belief does putting a face to a name really have when talking about mystical, spiritual, or magical beings? How does humanity's obsession with stories alter our reality? Do we really seek truth or just the next piece of gossip?

I feel like I could talk about the topics in this book forever. They fully peak my interest as a creator of content and as a lover of stories. I would almost suggest skipping volume one, this book is that interesting, but then you'd miss the whole comical setup of Discworld's connection to ours. In true Pratchett style, it's pretty funny. 

This second volume continues to recommend the series as a perfect companion set for all aficionados of the Discworld universe. Happy reading! 

Read this first:
The Science of Discworld (Volume 1)

Thursday, September 20, 2018

How to Walk Away by Katherine Center

Book Club Book #1

It has been so long since I've picked up a typical beach read, a standard piece of chick-lit any other time of year, that I'd forgotten how much they bug me. The predictable, formulaic, cheesy storyline of so many books in this genre make my literary brain hurt for at least three quarters of the novel. At that point, I've given in, and, knowing a "Hollywood ending" is on its way, just try to enjoy the ride. 

How to Walk Away starts off immediately rubbing me the wrong way when the central character, a woman, is told to, "act like a man," in order to have better job interviews while she's on the hunt. She's just gotten her master's degree! She doesn't need to act like anyone but herself! It's all moot though since immediately after this disturbing introduction, Margaret and her boyfriend get in a plane crash and SPOILER ALERT she ends up in the hospital recovering from severe burns and a possible permanent paralysis from the knee down. This provides the right setting to introduce the brooding physical therapist, who also happens to be Scottish and incredibly cute, to use his tough-love facade to whip Meg back into shape. Her attraction to him seems one-sided, their love is forbidden, they've so many obstacles to overcome, blah, blah, blah. 

I'm not going to lie though and say I didn't begin to care a little about the characters, because I did. I didn't necessarily appreciate everything they did or how haphazard some of the prose got simply to move the story along, but I was entertained. Sometimes the silly turns the story took were more entertaining than the story itself. 

This soap opera of a book definitely was equal parts annoying and entertaining for me. Now I just have to figure out how to talk about it at book club without seeming too tough on the genre. It's hard to do for someone whose favorite books were all published in the previous two centuries.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

So, I joined a book club

This wasn't something I had ever actually planned on doing. The very idea of being rushed to finish a book within a month, with two kids running my life, has never seemed like a possibility. I maybe read a little every other night before bed, a little being less than ten pages before I nod off onto my book. I maybe sneak in 20 additional minutes twice a week when my daughter has reading homework and I can sit with her without being interrupted. It's not an easy thing. It has actually been a little torturous for an avid reader like myself.

Which brings me to my second point for not joining a book club - I don't like being told what to read. I have eclectic tastes in books, as I hope this long-standing blog can prove. The idea of having my book selection, for what little time I have to read, dictated by someone else is such a terrible idea. How would I have time to read all the books on my "to read" shelf? How would I ever tackle the ebooks on my Kindle? I'd essentially always be reading to the deadline of book club. It would be like being back in college, in a lit class, only without the satisfaction of getting a really good grade.

So, I'm the worst book club candidate ever. That's quite obvious, and I didn't even mention yet that I'm a bit of a lit snob, who loves classic literature almost as much as modern-day stuff. Yet, here I am, almost done with my first book club selection, about three-and-a-half weeks away from my first meeting. How did I get here?

This book club only meets every other month.

What a revelation! Give me two months to read one book, and the pressure is off. I can easily read a book in two months, probably even add in another book of my own so I'm whittling down my own to-reads while being exposed to new stuff. I actually jumped at the opportunity to join this book club because of the instant flexibility I felt in its set up. Why don't more book clubs do this?

I love talking about books, and often do with most of my friends and a lot of my family. I love talking about what I read so much, I have this blog devoted to me reviewing everything I read. Of course it makes sense I'd want to get together with a group of readers and talk about what we all just finished reading over wine. And yet, it wasn't until I found this low-pressure environment that I ever considered being a part of a book club. I'd always fantasized about having a book club where everyone just read whatever they wanted, then regularly got together and recommended books to each other, but nobody ever seemed interested in that. So instead, I'm really looking forward to my first book club meeting of the first book club I've ever officially joined.

The point of this post is to remind all the different readers out there that you don't have to read in a vacuum. There are people out there who read like you, who accept their limitations when it comes to time, but still do what they can to come together and share a passion for the written word. Seek them out. Always be looking. And while you're at it, cross your fingers that my brazen personality does okay in this book club because I've got some harsh things to say about this first reading selection (review coming soon.)

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

This is probably the most mediocre book I've read in a long time. The word, "meh" comes to mind when thinking of how to describe my impression of it. 

The premise is enticing enough though -- young starlet, in the early 1960's, gets knocked up by famous actor on set of famous movie before being sent to small coastal city in Italy for discretionary purposes. It's a great start, but all that comes after is varying stages of melancholy for the long list of characters, interconnected through a narrative that bounces all over time.

There are way too many characters and too many literary styles mashed into what really should have been a straightforward story. You don't get to know anyone closely, and the narrative is often interrupted with screenplay synopses, play scripts, and excerpts from unfinished novels that do more to disturb the flow of the story than drive it forward.

The back-and-forth movement through time (from past, to present, to places in the middle, and back again) works for the story when the time shifts go by chapter, but by the end, time is just a jumbled mess as the author wraps up the lives of every character, even minor ones I'd already forgotten. It's at this stage paragraphs got so long and runny, I had trouble finishing the book.

The summary of this book may tantalize you. You may think I'm being too harsh in my judgement and consider reading this book anyway...don't. Trust me when I tell you you're better off finding something else to read.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Science of Discworld by Terry Pratchett

The title of this book is a bit misleading. It's not really about the science behind Pratchett's famous, flat world, carried on the back of a giant turtle. Rather, it's how the science that made our universe, so different from that in this fictional realm, baffles the smartest men on Discworld, the magicians. It's about two places at complete odds with each other, one vastly more advanced must come to terms with the chaos of the other (we're the "other.")

Why is our universe so baffling to the learned men of Unseen University? Well, in our universe, planets are round, Discworld is flat. Our universe is governed by rules (aka science), Discworld runs on magic. Change in our universe is propelled by scientific processes like evolution, but on Discworld, narrativium drives the story. To make things even more confusing for our Discworld natives, they encounter our universe at its very start, observing the first blob that forms the basis for our reality. Things move slowly, even with slight interference from Unseen University's best and brightest, leading to the generally accepted opinion that our world isn't a success and should just be done away with immediately.

Chapters swap between the observations of the Discworld professors and Earth-bound science lessons related to the creation of our universe and the development of our planet. Essentially, The Science of Discworld, is a science book with a science fiction wrapper. Discworld chapters infuse the science with humor and philosophical questions to ponder, like what would happen if an Unseen Univ. professor stuck his finger into our universe as it was forming, while the scientific chapters educate you.

Both silly and informative, this is a very unique approach to quite a few basic science lessons. While I had hoped the book would be more about the origins and development of Discworld itself, I didn't mind that I learned a little something about my own planet. Denser than a typical Discworld book, more like a lighter science textbook, it was still a good read that gave me a few things to think about.

A few other books in the Discworld series to check out include:

Friday, June 8, 2018

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

"Your ability to navigate and tolerate change and its painful uncomfortableness directly correlates to your happiness and general well-being."
--Amy Poehler

This perceptive nugget is just a sample of what you'll find in Yes Please among the humorous anecdotes and insights into Poehler's life. It's also somewhat of a theme of the book, how Poehler approaches each new stage of her life, giving her writing a thankful and honest tone that makes it easy to identify with her even without sharing the same life experiences.

Poehler does a great job in this memoir, which is really more like a collection of personal stories, of showing the reader what makes her unique, what makes her a celebrity, and what makes her just like everyone else. You get a complete picture without learning every intimate detail of how she got to where she is today. What came through strongly for me, was how humbled and appreciative she is of the people in her life who have inspired and supported her. Poehler doesn't pretend she's a one-woman-show, she acknowledges that any road to success is paved with the helping hands of others.

The stories in Yes Please are a great mix of the crazy things actors do, the embarrassing moments that simply stick in your narrative, the emotional impact to your life that comes with being a parent, and what it's like being a kid from Watertown, Mass. growing up happily. It was a great read and I enjoyed Poehler's keen attention to telling her stories to entertain while passing along the knowledge she's acquired through her own experiences.

This is a quick read and lots of fun.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

I will admit right off that I've never read The Tempest. This reinterpretation of the play though appealed to me because of my love for Margaret Atwood, as well as my belief that she'd do something fascinating to read having Shakespeare as her source material. 

I was right.

Shakespeare commonly employs the idea of a play within a play in his stories. He does it in Hamlet with the players reenacting Hamlet's dad's death, and he does it again in The Tempest as Prospero pulls the strings of the narrative on a small island to control the stranded characters. It really is an interesting tactic to be the playwright, writing a character who acts much like a play director with the impressive power of controlling reality. It's this central method of driving the action through control that Atwood takes hold of in Hag-Seed.

The biggest difference between Hag-Seed and it's source material is nobody is plotting to kill anyone in Atwood's version. Instead, the story starts with an assassination of a career. There's also no magic in the retelling, which factors pretty strongly in Shakespeare's play. Atwood replaces the magic with human intelligence and technology/special effects. The play within a play concept is all over the place as you spend most of the book with characters getting ready to put on The Tempest only to end up watching them perform a separate show for a special audience while the original play airs to the public on video. Sound a little confusing? Well, it's Shakespeare after all, so you're right where you should be.

Set inside a state prison, the players are all inmates participating in a theater program being offered as a kind of creative outreach. The main character, Felix, is a "ruined" theater director hiding out as the teacher while he bides his time for revenge on those who destroyed his career. The play within the play enables Felix to exact his revenge, and it's a doozy. 

So, the plot is Shakespeare, but the story is all Atwood. She infuses the story with a reality that Shakespeare lacks. Where he uses magic and dumb luck to drive his narrative, Atwood has her cast of characters work to set everything into place. I also feel as if there is more good in Atwood's version than in the original. Along the way of plotting his revenge, Felix ends up being quite a good person. He teaches for multiple years at the prison, always Shakespeare, inspiring inmates to think creatively, interpret literature, and brave the stage. He forces them to work together and try things outside of their comfort zones. He puts light and purpose into an otherwise dark place. Yes, Felix ultimately uses his players to exact his revenge, but he never forces it, these people are loyal because of what Felix has already taught them.

I really love the angle Atwood took to The Tempest in Hag-Seed, how she modernized the story, making a set of varied and imperfect characters come together to do a little good while having a little fun at others' expense. Atwood is such a creative writer and gives so much attention to flushing out all her characters. This is a great read and a fun way to bring a little Shakespeare into your book bag.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Why I keep reading YA fiction

I was born into a family of readers, and it has really paid off over the years. Book recommendations are always forthcoming, leading me to authors I love much sooner in life as well as those I'd never have discovered myself. It's how I ended up loving Louisa May Alcott when I was still pretty young (thanks Aunt K), how I found authors like Nelson DeMille and Robin Cook (thanks Dad), and even how I ended up tearing through VC Andrews novels throughout high school and into college (thanks Mom.)

I continue to love having people in my life who are big readers, people with whom I pass book suggestions back and forth each time we get together. The question, "So, what you are reading?" comes up more often than most others and it's wonderful.

My daughter, who's eight, is just getting to that stage where books are grabbing her attention. More than anything I want to help expose her to great reads. So far, I'm struggling due to her love of graphic novels, which didn't exist when I was a kid and isn't something I read very often. She doesn't fully trust my suggestions when I hand her a book that's solely text. Pippi Longstocking was tossed aside with disdain when I offered it up, but she really liked it when read by her second grade teacher. I know the love for books is there, so I'm working on getting caught up on YA content.

My desire to be somewhat of a book resource for my kids has made me realize I need to know about YA titles published this century. Not just Hunger Games and Harry Potter, but other books that will appeal to a younger reader. As a result, I try to read YA books I wouldn't typically pick up. This is what drew me to the first descendants novel.
I've seen the moves on Disney, but wanted to know if the books stacked up as a possible referral to my daughter.

I have no idea if my kids will be into these, we don't watch a lot of Disney princess movies, but after finishing the first book, I'm looking forward to the second. The writing is definitely geared toward a younger audience, but the story is developed enough to entertain an adult reader. Unlike the movies, the first book is only about the children of villains as they try to live up to parental expectations and fight off feelings of inadequacy. They also learn about friendship even though it goes against their villainous nature. Isle of the Lost is a strong combination of adventure and age-appropriate life lessons good for young readers.

I honestly can't recommend you add this book to your To Read list unless you're a parent who, like me, wants to have an arsenal of books at the ready for when your children come complaining, "I don't know what to read next...."

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Probable Future by Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman is an amazing writer with a special talent of adding a little magic to the everyday. It's what makes you identify with her stories and care about her characters, even when things take a slightly fantastic turn.

In The Probable Future, we're introduced to the Sparrow Family, a line of women who receive a unique gift upon their 13th birthday. This gift, a special ability, seems to suit the recipient well, yet often leads to trouble when integrated into the outside world.

This is especially true for Stella, the youngest Sparrow, who's able to see how some people will die. Her desire to save people, coupled with this gift gets her into trouble, puts her dad in jail, and sets in motion the entire book.

Forced to leave her home in Boston, Stella is taken back to her mom's home town and a grandmother she's never met. The matriarch, Elinor, knows when you're lying. Jenny, Stella's mom, experiences other people's dreams alongside them. All three women end up at Cake House, in Unity, Mass., a town built upon the horrible death of a Sparrow ancestor, who couldn't feel pain.

It's a broken town, symbolized by the ancient, dying tree in the center square. Full of people who don't have what they need most, the rejoining of the Sparrow women helps transform the town. Inhabitants learn that destiny isn't something set in stone, that you have to take control of your own future to change it, and that sometimes, a very clear prediction is wrong.

If I could have read this whole book through in a single sitting, I would have. I loved everything about it: the New England backdrop, the depth of history, the complexity of emotions. Each character learns something so valuable by the end of the story - you feel proud to have seen into a little bit of their lives. In true Hoffman fashion, those who feel lost find their way, even if the path curved in some unexpected directions.

Read this. Read lots of Hoffman.

Other Alice Hoffman books reviewed on this site:

Friday, March 9, 2018

A Wrinkle in Time - The Graphic Novel Adapted and Illustrated by Hope Larson

Let me just preface this review by saying A Wrinkle in Time was the quintessential book of my childhood. My mom would take me to the library on a regular basis in elementary school and I would only check out one of two, or both, books, and this was one of them. I have no idea how many times I've read it, but it opened the door into sci-fi and fantasy books for me and taught me that smart stories could be the most entertaining.

It was very appealing to me to see this story adapted into a graphic novel because I felt that it would bring the story to a whole other world of readers, namely my almost eight-year-old daughter, who prefers graphic novels to traditional novels at this stage. Of course, I had to read it first. I hope that one day she picks it up herself and falls as much in love with Meg and this story as I did (and then maybe wants to read the other three books related to the family.)

I found the art to be perfectly complimentary to the story. Pitting a simple, two-color design, against a story riddled with complex emotions, advanced physics, and the idea of time travel brought an added level of accessibility into the story that would have probably been beneficial to my childhood self the very first time I read the book. There is a lot of abstract thinking required to get through L'Engle books, so illustrations definitely help. I really enjoyed seeing the characters and experiencing their emotions through the pictures as well as through the text.

For anyone unfamiliar with the story, I'm just going to tell you to read the book. It doesn't matter how old you are, this is an exciting and powerful story, rooted in family and devotion and the power of the personal connection. It honors people who are a little different, feel a little out of place in a unique and significant way, and it makes science and math accessible.

The only thing would drive me to suggest the full novel over the graphic version is how the ending plays out. Possibly due to the format of a graphic novel, the ending of the story felt less powerful reading it in this version. That could easily just be a result of my familiarity with the story overall, but, in my opinion, everything builds up a little higher in the novel. That isn't to say you get any less story in this version though, and the quickness of a graphic novel read is always nice, so really the choice of where to go to get into this story is up to you, but don't miss out and do more than just watch the movie.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

scrappy little nobody by Anna Kendrick

Disclaimer: Don't hate on my lack of title capitalization. The author didn't capitalize the book title, so neither am I.

Most likely, I'm drawn to Anna Kendrick because we're both snarky, smaller girls that don't necessarily follow convention. I always found that being a small, "cute" girl inevitably led people to assume I was a timid, quiet girl too, someone who would easily meld into the background. Not true! To create a more memorable presence for myself, and eventually to get the attention of boys, I got loud. I also developed the habit of saying whatever was most unexpected, so it was often something crude, definitely never anything cute. Seeing a kindred spirit in Kendrick, I had to check her essays out.

Now, that's an important point to make about this book. It's not a memoir, it's a collection of personal essays, which is not for everyone. While they flow in chronological order, they're only a select assortment of stories. Kendrick isn't giving you the whole picture, just bits and pieces from her childhood, her early career, the big move to LA, and her rise to celebrity. And, like the flow of time in her stories, Kendrick's writing matures as the book goes on and Kendrick becomes more insightful and more poignant. (You should really also be a Kendrick fan if you're going to take the time to get "know her.")

A great storyteller, the moments from her life Kendrick shares focus on the unconventional or not often talked about aspects of a common situation like first relationships or living on your own. She gives you insight into her life by avoiding the mundane and the stories we all have. She shares what makes her unique, and in doing so reveals her amazing desire to succeed at having an acting career - celebrity or not.

While a little self-deprecating at times, Kendrick is a wonderfully driven individual who uses humor and her natural lackadaisical approach to certain pieces of her life (like award shows) to entertain through her writing. While I disagree with the Elle quote on the book cover that her wit is "fearsome," I would say it's fearless.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Armada by Ernest Cline

Let me preface this by saying that I love authors who go retro in any way, especially since going retro these days means diving into 80's and early 90's culture, also known as my childhood. Ready Player One moved both forward and backward at the same time with it's combination of a dystopian future and a preference for the "old school," and Armada attempts to do the same by combing a love for traditional arcade video games with the possibility of a real space invasion.

The difference, though, between these two books is that Ready Player One takes you on journey that's a slow build. Armada happens fast, quickly jumping from an introduction to our main character, Zack Lightman, to an array of fast-moving action and dire situations. This means very few other characters beside Zack can build any momentum on their own. Everyone else in the book is tied to Zack - what they do for him or with him. What they say to Zack and what he sees of their actions crafts the entire story. With everything coming at you so fast from a singular perspective, some of the zing is definitely taken out of the story.

And it's such a fun story (but not a new one.) The idea that video games are really just simulators preparing the people of Earth to fight against insurmountable odds - how can it not be fun? Throw in an homage to old rock n' roll and traditional video arcades and you're putting people into nostalgia heaven. Watch out for the ending though. It's a little Spielberg-esque (everything wraps up a bit too neatly.)

All that being said, I think the best thing about this book is how the characters respond to making the wrong decisions. Guilt, denial, remorse - these emotions within the book feel very real and bring down the fantastical aspects of the plot, which I believe does the book good.

It's not going to be the best book you've ever read, and it won't meet your expectations if you think it's going be like Ready Player One, but it's an enjoyable adventure story that also has space travel in it, and a few unexpected surprises.

Also by Ernest Cline