Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Anne Fadiman

From Marrying Libraries: A few months ago, my husband and I decided to mix our books together. We had known each other for  ten years, lived together for six, been married for five. Our mismatched coffee mugs cohabited amicably; we wore each other's T-shirts, and in a pinch, socks; and our record collections had long ago miscegenated without incident, my Josquin Desprez motets cozying up to George's Worst of Jefferson Airplane, to the enrichment, we believed, of both. But our libraries had remained separate, mine mostly at the north end of our loft, his at the south. We agreed that it made no sense for my Billy Budd to languish forty feet from his Moby-Dick, yet neither of us had lifted a finger to bring them together. 

I was really looking forward to reading this book of essays about reading and books by Anne Fadiman, the author of At Large and At Small. I was slightly disappointed; this one wasn't nearly as good as the other. Some of the essays were interesting, but they weren't as witty and humorous. I still enjoyed it, the first essay was particularly good, and it was kind of interesting. The book design was nice, though slightly smaller than I expected it to be. If you liked At Large and At Small, you should definitely try this one. You can tell that it's the same person's writing style, and I did like it. But definitely read At Large and At Small first, or read this one, and be pleasantly surprised by At Large and At Small.

Read Ex Libris:
  • if you like Anne Fadiman
  • if you like essays
  • if you like books about books
157 pages.
Very Good! I would recommend this book!

What's On My Bookshelf: 8

*Note: These last few posts and the next few ones haven't and won't be in exact alphabetical order: this is just the order they are in on my shelf (which is incorrect, but I'm just putting them as they come.)

Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Curse Dark As Gold, Elizabeth Bunce

When my father died, I thought the world would come to an end. Standing in the churchyard in my borrowed mourning black, I was dimly aware of my sister Rosie beside me, the other mourners huddled round the grave. Great dark clouds gathered over the river, and I knew them for what they were: The End, poised to unleash some terrible wrath and sweep us all right out of the Valley. I let go my hold on Rosie's arm, for I was ready to be swept away. 

As you probably know, I love fairy tale retellings, and this book was on the summer reading list, so I was looking forward to reading this. A Curse Dark As Gold is a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin. Charlotte Miller owns a mill, but it is going into debt, and plus, her Uncle Wheeler is determined to make her sell it. But then a mysterious man who calls himself Jack Spinner, arrives, spinning straw into gold. But the Millers have had an age-old curse and many secrets, which now resurface. "And Charlotte's mill, her family, her friends, her love...What do those matter to a powerful stranger who can spin straw into gold?" Charlotte must discover what the mysterious curse is that caused the Millers to have bad luck through the generations. And do the Wheelers have something to do with it?

At first, I was slightly disappointed by A Curse Dark As Gold. But after the first few chapters it quickly picked up, and was an entertaining fairy tale retelling, though Charlotte's marriage to Randall was kind of sudden.  It was also quite suspenseful, and is definitely a good read for anyone who enjoys fantasy and fairy tales.

Read A Curse Dark As Gold
  • if you like fantasy
  • if you like fairy tale retellings (Rumpelstiltskin)
392 pages.
Very Good! I would recommend this book!

What's On My Bookshelf: 7

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Selection, Kiera Cass

When we got the letter in the post, my mother was ecstatic. She had already decided that all our problems were solved, gone forever. The big hitch in her brilliant plan was me. I didn't think I was a particularly disobedient daughter, but this was where I drew the line.  I didn't want to be royalty. And I didn't want to be a One. I didn't even want to try.

"For thirty-five girls, the Selection is the chance of a lifetime. The opportunity to escape the life laid out for them since birth. To be swept up in a world of glittering gowns and priceless jewels. To live in a palace and compete for the heart of gorgeous Prince Maxon. But for America Singer, being Selected is a nightmare. It means turning her back on her secret love with Aspen, who is a caste below her. Leaving her home to enter a fierce competition for a crown she doesn't want. Living in a palace that is constantly threatened by violent rebel attacks. Then America meets Prince Maxon. Gradually, she starts to question all the plans she's made for herself- and realizes that the life she's always dreamed of may not compare to a future she never imagined."

The Selection is really a pretty typical science fiction book. Some have compared it to The Hunger Games, but I don't think they're that alike. This one is definitely not as intense. I wouldn't say The Selection was a really gripping book like The Hunger Games, but I did find it entertaining. In the world that Kiera Cass has created, there are castes. The royal families are Ones, Twos and Threes are pretty well off, Fours sort of. America Singer (what a name) is a Five. Her family are artists. They aren't as bad off as Sixes (Aspen is a Six) or Sevens or Eights, but they don't have steady work all year round. So I can definitely see why America's mom really wants her to enter. The problem with this kind of book is that you know that America is going to stay in the palace, or else where would the plot be? After this book, there are four girls left, so there will be a second one. I wonder if Kiera Cass is going to try and stretch it out to three books.

The love triangle. That's the really typical part. America is caught between these two men, each very different. Prince Maxon is not as stiff and formal as she believed him to be; throughout her time at the castle, she really gets to know him better, and he's a fairly normal guy (despite the fact that he's a prince.) And Aspen? Well, he's always had a life of hardship, and being the oldest of seven kids, is used to giving up food for his siblings. And he's prideful. He wants to provide for America, but he can't, really.

Overall The Selection was an enjoyable and light read that should take you just a few hours. I look forward to reading the sequel. You can read Becky's review of it here.

Read The Selection:
  • if you like (light) science fiction
  • if you are looking for a quick and easy (but enjoyable) read
  • if you like books with love triangles
327 pages.
Very Good! I would recommend this book!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Guest Review: Paper Moon, Joe David Brown

This review is by my friend McKenzie.
To this day, I don’t know whether Long Boy was my father or not.  That sounds right peculiar, I know.  But it was on account of my mama being—well, fast and all.  Miss Katie Lou Bishop, who was Mama’s very best friend, told me that Mama always used to laugh and say that any one of three men could be my daddy, but if I was real fortunate I’d never find out which.

Paper Moon is one of those books that is so old (copyright 1971) and obscure that you don’t know why you picked it off of the shelf in the first place—but once you’re finished with it you realize that it ought to have become a classic by now and you start wondering why more people haven’t read it or even heard of it.  As demonstrated by the above excerpt, the style is wry and humorous, but actually quite intelligent. Joe David Brown writes from the point of view of a little girl named Addie Pray, who travels the country with her caretaker/big brother/possible father “Long Boy”—he’s a con artist.  And a pretty successful one at that.  Addie helps him “do business” in all of the towns that they visit and, using her wit and sharp thinking, is able to get him out of a few sticky situations with the law.

Addie is all that you could hope for in a character.  At the beginning of the book she is eleven, by the end she’s going on thirteen, so her age is pretty relatable.  She never went to school, so her dialogue’s a bit “backwoods” at times, but she’s got much more experience in the ways of the world than most girls her age.  She’s seen it all, the good and the bad, and isn’t afraid to put her opinion on all of it boldly out there.  She’s also good for a laugh, because, as hard-edged as her sense of humor is, it’s a wonderful one.

This was a wonderful book, and I was thoroughly enjoying it—until about three quarters of the way through.  There, it bottomed out and hit a slow, rough patch, as, unfortunately, a lot of books do.  Brown keeps writing on and on about Addie and Long Boy’s adventures in the wide world of trickery and deception—it’s great fun to read about at first, but after almost a year (in book time) of this you start to think, Okay, I get it…let’s move on now.  You have to wade through the dry part there.  But once you do, it gets EXCELLENT! Again because of an awesome plot twist and keeps you reading until the last page.

Read Paper Moon:
-          If you’re yearning for a kick-*** female character
-          If you enjoy quirky historical fiction
-          If you need a humorous book that’s not, um, dumb

240 pages (with tiny font), 4.75 stars (lost .25 stars for the “dry” patch).

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

A Tale of Two Cities is one of the most famous novels by Charles Dickens. It is a historical novel, set during the bloody period of the French Revolution. The ageing Doctor Manette is released from the Bastille after eighteen years and reunited with his daughter Lucie in England. Two very different men, Charles Darnay, a French aristocrat in exile and Sydney Carton a disreputable but brilliant lawyer, fall in love with Lucie. "From the tranquil roads of London, they are drawn against their will to the vengeful, bloodstained streets of Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror, and they soon fall under the lethal shadow of La Guillotine."

Dickens really portrays the madness and uncertainty of the period well. The French people were (understandably) angry at the nobility and went wild with chopping off everyone's head. A Tale of Two Cities both illustrates the period, and also tells a personal tale of Lucie Manette, Charles Darnay, and Sydney Carrton. I really enjoyed A Tale of Two Cities; it was probably my favorite Dickens novel so far, even more than Great Expectations. The writing wasn't too overwritten for Dickens, and it was about the French Revolution, a period I'm interested in. I really cared about the characters, even though I knew the ultimate ending already (I had seen part of the film.) I'm planning to see the whole film with Ronald Colman soon. If you're a fan of Charles Dickens and haven't read this one yet, it's a must-read.

Read A Tale of Two Cities:
  • if you like Charles Dickens
  • if you are interested in the French Revolution
  • if you like historical fiction
390 pages, 5 stars.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Dragons of Darkness, Antonia Michaelis

The day when Arne disappeared was made of gold. It was one of those late October days when the colors flare brightly once more before finally fading away, one of those days when you seem to catch a last breath of summer, although the streets are full of sweaters and corduroy pants.

Dragons of Darkness is by Antonia Michaelis, author of Tiger Moon and The Storyteller. Dragons of Darkness is more in the vein of Tiger Moon; it's not as dark and grim as The Storyteller. It's a sort of modern fairy tale or fable, starring two boys. Christopher is a German boy whose older brother Arne vanished into Nepal. Somehow he ends up in Nepal with Jumar, the mysteriously invisible prince. And there are many problems facing Nepal. You see, deadly dragons have come out of the mountains and are attacking the villages. These dragons drain color from the land and turn anyone under their shadow into bronze. And also, the Communists are threatening the king's reign. Jumar and Christopher must somehow save the country.

What interested me was that the dragons here are evil, whereas most Asian dragons are considered helpful and good, sometimes supplying the people with precious water. But maybe that's only Chinese dragons. These dragons were more like European dragons (though even more powerful.)

Dragons of Darkness (also published by Abrams) is an easy but engaging fantasy. I wanted to share a particular quote that struck me while I was reading. Jumar and Christopher have both discovered disgusting leeches on their legs. "Leeches don't distinguish between visible and invisible prey. They are both deaf and blind. All they can detect is body heat, and they don't care whether they suck noble blood or the blood of a commoner. Leeches are natural Communists."

Read Dragons of Darkness:
  • if you like Antonia Michaelis
  • if you like fantasy in the style of a modern fairy tale
  • if you like books set in Nepal
545 pages.

Very Good! I would recommend this book!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. 

I wasn't quite sure whether I would enjoy Gone With the Wind. It's a large, forbidding book. But I loved it. Most of you are probably familiar with the basic story: the main character is Scarlett O'Hara, a spoiled southern belle in the time of the Civil War, and her desire to get everything she wants, through any means possible. A huge book, there are many characters in Gone With the Wind. Scarlett manipulates many men, but the ones she really cares about (Ashley, and later, Rhett), she can't. When she gets something she wants, she doesn't want it anymore. Scarlett is always frustrated, and is always making plans for the future. In some ways, this wasn't what interested me most about the book. I loved the setting. I just read A Soldier's Secret (admittedly, in a whole different class of literature), but anyway, that was from the Union perspective of things. In Gone With the Wind, none of the Southern ladies think that there's going to be a war. And when war does break out, they think that they're going to "lick" the Yankees in one battle. But the "Yankees" thought the same thing: that the Confederacy would be beaten immediately. Instead, we have a long, drawn-out, brutal, four year conflict.

The Southern culture described in the book was interesting too. Among rich Georgia plantation-owners, there is a code of conduct, a certain way of behaving. The ladies can't say what they really think, a widow must wear black mourning clothes for years and never have any fun (Scarlett is in this predicament when she's only seventeen), etc. etc. Rhett Butler challenges all these things. He openly admits that he'd work for the North if he got paid more, he doesn't believe that the South will win, and he mocks the patriotic "brave" men of Georgia who fight. But at other times, he can be really cruel to Ashley.  It was interesting to see how different life was among wealthy people back then.

As for the characters, Scarlett is spoiled and used to getting her way, and she's from a slave-owning family, and yet...sometimes you sympathize with her. She genuinely cares about Ashley, she does have feelings, even though she's not very intelligent (though good at flirting with men.) Most of the deeper ideas expressed by some of the other characters go right over her head, and I was really frustrated by that. But my favorite character was probably Rhett. He's not afraid to challenge the system and say what he thinks, and he always seems to pop in the most convenient situations (for him, at least.) Rhett, when he meets Scarlett, makes her begin to challenge the way of life a bit. When he meets her, she's in mourning for a husband she was married to for two months and who she didn't care about. Only seventeen, she is desperate to be able to go to parties again, and he helps her do that. But he's complicated too. Underneath that mask, he's not as smooth.  I think the white characters in the book were very well portrayed. Melanie, the wife of Ashley, is also a very sweet and kind woman, though she always misconstrues what Scarlett is thinking. Melanie always believes the best of people (which perhaps is not always wise), but that makes her a lovable character.

However, you have to remember that the book was written in the 1920s and 30s,  and set in the 1860s. There are plenty of stereotypes about blacks, and some derogatory words for blacks (darkies, the n-word). I find it very hard to believe that some of the slaves turned servants never wanted freedom, independence, or money. You just have to be aware that Mitchell is obviously very biased, and not believe everything she tells you.

Gone With the Wind is a timeless classic and I would definitely recommend it to everyone. You can read Becky's excellent review of it here. Gone With the Wind does take some commitment as it is almost 1000 pages long, but it's a rewarding read.

959 pages.
Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (jf I own it)!

What's On My Bookshelf: 6

Monday, July 23, 2012

Swamplandia!, Karen Russell

Our mother performed in starlight. Whose innovation this was I never discovered. Probably it was Chief Bigtree's idea, and it was a good one- to blank the follow spot and let a sharp moon cut across the sky, unchaperoned; to kill the microphone; to leave the stage lights' tin eyelids scrolled and give the tourists in the stands a chance to enjoy the darkness of our island; to encourage the whole stadium to gulp air along with Swamplandia!'s star performer, the world famous alligator wrestler Hilola Bigtree. Four times a week, our mother climbed the ladder above the gator pit in a green two-piece bathing suit and stood on the edge of the diving-board, breathing. If it was windy, her long hair flew around her face, but the rest of her stayed motionless. Nights in the swamp were dark and star-lepered- our island was thirty-odd miles off the grid of mainland lights- and although your naked eye could easily find the ball of Venus and the sapphire hairs of the Pleiades, our mother's body was just lines, a smudge against the palm trees.

Swamplandia! is a gator-wrestling theme park in Florida, run by the Bigtrees. Thirteen year old Ava has lived at Swamplandia! for her whole life. But when her mother (the main part of the show) dies of cancer, the Bigtree family is "plunged into chaos"; her father withdraws, her sister has a spooky boyfriend (who may or may not be a ghost) called the Dredgeman, and her brother Kiwi goes to work at a rival park, The World of Darkness. "As Ava sets out on a mission through the magical swamps to save them all, we are drawn into a lush and bravely imagined debut that takes us to the simmering edge of reality."

I loved this book. It's one of those books where the plot doesn't seem that interesting, but the author's writing style just pulls you in anyway. The New York Times Book Review's review of it sums it up excellently: "...“Swamplandia!,” a novel about alligator wrestlers, a balding brown bear named Judy Garland, a Bird Man specializing in buzzard removal, a pair of dueling Florida theme parks, rampaging melaleuca trees, a Ouija board and the dead but still flirtatious Louis Thanksgiving. Sound appealing? No, it does not. Unless Ms. Russell had you at “alligator wrestlers” — not likely — you may well recoil at every noxiously fanciful item on that list." And yet, it's still a wonderful book; the way that Russell weaves her words so carefully. Looming throughout the book is the absence of Ava's mother, the one who really held the family together.

This is Karen Russell's first novel, though she has a written a book of short stories. I would definitely recommend this book to everyone, even if the story-line doesn't sound appealing to you. You'll quickly get drawn in. In some ways Swamplandia! reminded me of Salvage the Bones, though it was better. Swamplandia! is a book on our summer reading lists, by the way (in case that's an extra incentive to read it.)

Read Swamplandia!:
  • if you like fanciful books
  • if you are interested in Florida
  • if you are interested in gator wrestling (not likely though)
397 pages. 

Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (jf I own it)!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Storyteller, Antonia Michaelis

The day that Anna found the doll was the first really cold day of winter. A blue day.

When Anna finds that doll on the floor of the student lounge, everything changes. She finds out that the doll belongs to the little sister of the school drug dealer, Abel. "Anna and Abel couldn't be more different. They are both seventeen and in their last year of school, but while Anna lives in a nice old town house and comes from a well-to-do family, Abel, the school drug dealer, lives in a big, prison-like tower block at the edge of town. Anna is afraid of him until she realizes that he is caring for his six-year-old sister on his own. Fascinated, Anna follows the two and listens as Abel tells little Micha the story of a tiny queen assailed by dark forces. It’s a beautiful fairy tale that Anna comes to see has a basis in reality. Abel is in real danger of losing Micha to their abusive father and to his own inability to make ends meet. Anna gradually falls in love with Abel, but when his “enemies” begin to turn up dead, she fears she has fallen for a murderer. Has she?"

So there's the plot summarized. I read Antonia Michaelis's Tiger Moon a while ago and really enjoyed it. This book also has a similar fairy-tale like feel too it, but it's much darker. It was really moving, and quite interesting. I think it's set in Germany. At first, I was kind of bored by it and thought that it was too dark, but I got pulled into the story. The story that Abel tells Micha is that someone (her father), is trying to steal her diamond heart. He adds more episodes to the story when new developments occur, and weaves in a lot of people in their everyday life. The Storyteller also shows that not everyone is what they seem on the outside; Abel is the school drug dealer, but he deeply cares for his sister. This was another book published by Abram's. 

Read The Storyteller:
  • if you like fantasy
  • if you like dark fiction
  • if you like Antonia Michaelis
402 pages.

      Very Good! I would 
      recommend this book!