Friday, May 31, 2013

Mary Coin, Marisa Silver

Mary CoinThere is something gripping to Walker about a town in decline. As he drives down the streets of his youth, he feels as if he were looking at faded and brittle photographs of a place lost to time. 

"In this New York Times bestselling novel, critically acclaimed author Marisa Silver takes Dorothea Lange’s "Migrant Mother" photograph as inspiration for a breathtaking reinvention—a story of two women, one famous and one forgotten, and of the remarkable legacy of their chance encounter. In 1936, a young mother resting by the side of a road in Central California is spontaneously photographed by a woman documenting the migrant laborers who have taken to America’s farms in search of work. Little personal information is exchanged, and neither woman has any way of knowing that they have produced what will become the most iconic image of the Great Depression. Three vibrant characters anchor the narrative of Mary Coin. Mary, the migrant mother herself, who emerges as a woman with deep reserves of courage and nerve, with private passions and carefully-guarded secrets. Vera Dare, the photographer wrestling with creative ambition who makes the choice to leave her children in order to pursue her work. And Walker Dodge, a present-day professor of cultural history, who discovers a family mystery embedded in the picture. In luminous, exquisitely rendered prose, Silver creates an extraordinary tale from a brief moment in history, and reminds us that although a great photograph can capture the essence of a moment, it only scratches the surface of a life." Mary Coin's actual name was Florence Owens Thompson and the photographer was actually named Dorothea Lange, but Silver re-imagines these characters and gives them new names and new identities in a brilliant work of fiction. 

Mary Coin is told partly in present tense, partly in past tense. Walker's section is told in the present tense, since it is set in the present day, but both Vera and Mary's narratives are told in the past tense. Present tense makes the narrative feel more immediate, and I thought the author could have told all of the sections in present tense. I'm not sure if I liked how the tense switched, but it was certainly an interesting choice. 

I love interwoven narratives, and Mary Coin is one of those books that definitely has that. Walker's narrative seemed to me to be a bit redundant, but I really enjoyed having three vastly different perspectives and three very compelling narrators. I think Vera, the photographer, was the one who was most interesting to me. She had polio as a child, and one of her legs is severely damaged. This infirmity changes her life drastically, and makes her the person she is. Her reflections interested me the most too, though some of her later sections were kind of depressing. 

Despite the changing tenses, I really, really loved the writing style. It was so thoughtful and thought-provoking. Perhaps a bit too much, but that doesn't change the fact that it was brilliant. This is the kind of historical fiction that tries, if not to re-imagine, then to breathe life into well-known history. That photo has become so iconic that we don't even really see it anymore. But that woman was a person, and in Mary Coin, her life is fully imagined with "devastating grace." You can read The New York Times's Book Review here

As I said, Walker's narration didn't seem to serve that much purpose for most of the book. He starts off Mary Coin and finishes it, but I was never really interested in him as a person or as a historian. However, his section was well-written.

I definitely would recommend Mary Coin; it was a compelling, beautifully written, and disturbing novel, and I loved it.

Read Mary Coin:
  • if you like historical fiction
  • if you like history
  • if you like Marisa Silver
322 pages (in the ARC I bought at Powell's).

Rating: *****

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, Jennifer Chiaverini

Mrs. Lincoln's DressmakerOn Election Day, Elizabeth Keckley hurried home from a mid-afternoon dress fitting to the redbrick boardinghouse on Twelfth Street where she rented two small rooms in the back. 

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker is a novelized version of the story of the friendship between Mary Lincoln (Mrs. Lincoln) and her seamstress, Elizabeth Keckley, a freedwoman who had a very good reputation in D.C. from outfitting the most elite in the city. "Keckley made history by sewing for First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln within the White House, a trusted witness to many private moments between the President and his wife, two of the most compelling figures in American history. In March 1861, Mrs. Lincoln chose Keckley from among a number of applicants to be her personal 'modiste,' responsible not only for creating the First Lady’s gowns, but also for dressing Mrs. Lincoln in the beautiful attire Keckley had fashioned. The relationship between the two women quickly evolved, as Keckley was drawn into the intimate life of the Lincoln family, supporting Mary Todd Lincoln in the loss of first her son, and then her husband to the assassination that stunned the nation and the world. Keckley saved scraps from the dozens of gowns she made for Mrs. Lincoln, eventually piecing together a tribute known as the Mary Todd Lincoln Quilt. She also saved memories, which she fashioned into a book, Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. Upon its publication, Keckley’s memoir created a scandal that compelled Mary Todd Lincoln to sever all ties with her, but in the decades since, Keckley’s story has languished in the archives."

The idea of this book is that Chiaverini brings this story to light, and that sounded great, but the reality of it is that apparently a lot from the book is taken directly from Keckley's memoir. That's not only not good fiction, it's inherently dishonest. I mean, it's definitely right that parts from Keckley's memoir would be in the novel, but not so much. Also, there was the usual "this is a work of fiction note" at the front which made me laugh, because even though Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker is a historical fiction, obviously the characters are historical people. 

Also, a lot of the book did feel like biography, since the book is told in the third person. Like, "her reputation grew as one delighted patron after another recommended her to their friends, and soon she had almost more work than she could handle." That's all right, but it would have fit a biography much better. The style actually reminded me of Eighty Days, which I loved, but it's not very fiction-like. It felt like a biography with a bit of dialogue added in. 

That said, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker was definitely an interesting novel, and I learned a lot about what the White House was like during the Civil War. The characters did feel a little flat, and the style left much to be desired, but the book was still entertaining enough. I may pick up Elizabeth Keckley's own memoirs. 

I also loved the descriptions of the fancy dresses that Elizabeth makes for her customers; it also really showed the attitudes of the wealthy towards black people and the war. Despite the war, they still want elaborate things to wear. But it was also just fun to read about them. 

I did feel at times that the friendship between Elizabeth Keckley and Mary Lincoln didn't come to life; the relationship wasn't really well portrayed. Despite that, the bond was interesting to read about, especially since I'd never heard of Keckley before. 

The Civil War is definitely one of the periods I'm most interested in, so I was glad that I managed to get a review copy of this one from Dutton. It was definitely worth reading, although the advertising was somewhat false. It's a lush and absorbing historical novel. 

Read Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker:
  • if you like historical fiction
  • if you like books set in the Civil War era
350 pages.
Very Good! I would recommend this book!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, Susanna Clarke

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other StoriesFrom "The Ladies of Grace Adieu": When Mrs. Field died, her grieving widower looked around him and discovered that the world seemed quite as full of pretty, young women as it had been in his youth. It further occurred to him that he was just as rich as ever and that, though his house already contained one pretty, young woman (his niece and ward, Cassandra Parbringer), he did not believe that another one would go amiss. He did not think that he was at all changed from what he had been and Cassandra was entirely of his opinion, for (she thought to herself) I am sure, sir, that you were every bit as tedious at twenty-one as your are at forty-nine. 

What a great first paragraph, so distinctly British. "From the author of the award-winning, internationally bestselling Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, an enchanting collection of stories. Set in versions of England that bear an uncanny resemblance to the world of Strange and Norrell, these stories are brimming with all the ingredients of good fairy tales: petulant princesses, vengeful owls, ladies who pass their time in embroidering terrible fates, endless paths in deep, dark woods, and houses that never appear the same way twice. Their heroines and heroes include the Duke of Wellington, a conceited Regency clergyman, an eighteenth-century Jewish doctor, Mary, Queen of Scots, Jonathan Strange, and the Raven King himself. The Ladies of Grace Adieu is the perfect introduction to a world where charm is always tempered by eeriness, and picaresque comedy is always darkened by the disturbing shadow of Faerie." Doesn't that description just sound so delicious?                 

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which I loved, might be a bit too dense for some, and if that's the case, this collection of short stories is perfect. At first, I didn't get into it very well, but I eventually grew very fond once again of Clarke's amazing writing style, which draws from many 19th century British authors. The title story is very good, and it tells of how three ladies from the village of Grace Adieu befuddle the renowned magician Jonathan Strange, who is coming to visit his brother-in-law. I really liked this one because it had a feminist streak to it; Strange is contemptuous of female magicians (actually, he believes that they don't exist), and the ladies teach him otherwise. Jonathan Strange, of course, appears in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and on page 515 in Chapter 43 there is a footnote which deals of the incident expanded upon in "The Ladies of Grace Adieu." I really liked how Clarke tied the story back to the original book; that added a nice touch. 

"On Lickerish Hill" is very different in tone. It was written in a cross between country dialect and medieval spelling, making for strange writing, but the story itself was very good. It's a creative new twist off of Rumpelstiltskin, and I enjoyed it. "Mrs. Mabb" tells of a mysterious woman in the village, except no one seems to know quite who she is, where she lives, or when she came to the village. She has stolen Venetia's suitor, and Venetia is determined to find out who she is. I really enjoyed "Mrs. Mabb"; it was an excellent tale with an excellent writing style that was really entertaining. Both "On Lickerish Hill" and "Mrs. Mabb" tell of encounters between strange Faerie kind. 

"The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse" is set in the world that Neil Gaiman created in Stardust. The innkeeper in the town of Wall takes a dislike to Duke Wellington, and sends his horse across the Wall, to the land of Faerie. Of course, the Duke must follow to try and get his charger back. Though a very short story (7 pages), "The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse", like all of Clarke's work, is amusing and entertaining. I loved the ending of it too. 

I didn't love the next story in the collection, "Mr. Simonelli", or "The Fairy Widower", but it was a good story as well. Just not as great as the others in the collection. It's also very long, but I did really like some aspects of it. "Tom Brightwind" tells of the friendship between a Jewish doctor and a fairy prince. Like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, it is filled with long and amusing footnotes which sometimes take up the entire page! "Antickes and Frets" is a short, unremarkable story whose main characters is Mary, Queen of Scots.  "John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal-Burner" is the final tale in this volume, and I enjoyed it as well. 

The Ladies of Grace Adieu contains many amazing stories, all of which deal fascinatingly with clashes between humans and faeries. It's a fascinating, though not particularly insightful read, which I loved. 

Read The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories
  • if you like fantasy
  • if you like fairy tales
  • if you like short stories
  • if you enjoyed Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
235 pages. 

Rating: ****

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Ruby Redfort Take Your Last Breath, Lauren Child

Ruby Redfort Take Your Last BreathThe sun flickered on the ocean, cutting bright diamonds of light into the surface of the indigo water. A three-year-old girl was peering over the side of a sailboat, staring down into the deep. 

This is the sequel to Ruby Redfort, in which there is more mystery and a lot of deep-sea intrigue. "Everyone’s favorite girl detective is back for a second mind-blowing installment, packed with all the off-the-wall humor, action, and friendship of the first book. This time, though, it’s an adventure on the wide-open ocean, and Ruby is all at sea. . . . Can she crack the case of the Twinford pirates while evading the clutches of a vile sea monster as well as the evil Count von Viscount? Well, you wouldn't want to bet against her." 

I certainly don't love this series, but it is entertaining and amusing, if very unrealistic. At least, I think it's unrealistic. There's nothing wrong with that though. It's a very fun series, although I haven't read the original picture books in which Ruby Redfort is first mentioned. To tell you the truth, I didn't remember much about the first book, even though I didn't read it that long ago. But still, it wasn't really necessary. Most of the main points of the previous book were re-summarized, and I quickly remembered the basics (if not the details) of Look Into My Eyes. Spoilers for it are somewhat inevitable. 

So, the book begins with Ruby, Spectrum's youngest agent, at a training camp by the ocean. She's learning to scuba dive. Ruby isn't afraid of sharks and other sea least not yet. She's all in all enjoying the camp, except for a certain obnoxious officer. Anyway, it didn't seem realistic to me that a super top secret agency would be training its agents to...scuba dive. I mean, it certainly is a useful skill, but it's hardly spy-like. Most hard-boiled detective stories don't occur underwater. That was a bit confusing, but it set the stage for the rest of the book's mystery, which involves lost treasure (of course), pirates, and deep sea creatures. All a bit over-the-top, you might say, but certainly entertaining.

Both the characters of Hitch and Clancy, Ruby's two main friends in the know, are very amusing to read about. I particularly like Hitch. Clancy is a bit strange, and the way he and Ruby talk to one another seems very unrealistic for two thirteen year olds. I mean, not many people talk like that anymore. Ruby's smart, but why must she insist on talking ungrammatically? However, if you just let yourself forget that aspect, Take Your Last Breath is certainly an enjoyable read. 

Another great thing about this series is that in both books, there are these little recurring things, and the reader isn't sure whether they're related to the mystery or not. For example, in Take Your Last Breath, the asteroid, the radio station being disrupted, the strange man hanging around town, and most particularly, the loose clasp on Ruby's escape watch. I wasn't sure whether that was incidental or would play a big part in the story later. (Spoiler: It did). This kept me reading, and once you get into Take Your Last Breath, it's quite suspenseful and quite absorbing. The reader also gets to know Ruby's parents much better, and become more sympathetic to them. I would definitely recommend it. 

Read Ruby Redfort Take Your Last Breath:
  • if you liked the first book
  • if you like mystery
406 pages. 
Very Good! I would recommend this book!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Magic Study, Maria V. Snyder

Magic Study (Study #2)"We're here," Irys said. I looked around. The surrounding jungle bulged with life. Overgrown green bushes blocked our path, vines hung from the tree canopy, and the constant chatter and trill of jungle birds beat at my ears. 

"You know your life is bad when you miss your days as a poison taster... With her greatest enemy dead, and on her way to be reunited with the family she'd been stolen from long ago, Yelena should be pleased. But though she has gained her freedom, she can't help feeling isolated in Sitia. Her Ixian background has changed her in many ways—and her newfound friends and relatives don't think it's for the better... Despite the turmoil, she's eager to start her magic training—especially as she's been given one year to harness her power or be put to death. But her plans take a radical turn when she becomes involved with a plot to reclaim Ixia's throne for a lost prince—and gets entangled in powerful rivalries with her fellow magicians. If that wasn't bad enough, it appears her brother would love to see her dead. Luckily, Yelena has some old friends to help her with all her new enemies..." I read Poison Study fairly recently, and loved it, so I was eager to read the sequel, Magic Study, in which Yelena has new adventures, new experiences, and makes some new friends and some new enemies. 

I didn't love Magic Study as much as I loved Poison Study, but it was still really entertaining. I think it was easier to get into at first than Poison Study, and I read the book very quickly. There were some things that were jarring to me though. The way the Sitian characters talked felt weird, like they were people in the modern day. They used phrases like "yep" and "buddy-guarding". Buddy-guarding? Really? 

I did think that the two vastly different societies, Ixia and Sitia, were compared really well. They both have problems, but neither one is a great place. Ixia is kind of a Communist state - no one has much choice about their life, but at least they're provided for. Whereas there are beggars in Sitia. I really like it when a fantasy novel like this has some political commentary, but it doesn't feel forced or interfere with the action. 

And there's plenty of action. Much of Magic Study is Yelena getting captured by various enemies, escaping, getting beaten up, captured, escaping, etc. We also meet a lot of new characters in Sitia, but things get much, much better when Valek returns. He's definitely my favorite character; he's so fascinating. 

Really, I thought Magic Study would be much less good than Poison Study, but it was still a fantastic read. I couldn't put it down, and would have read it in one setting if I could. I really like how there is a romance, but Yelena can still be friends with other guys, like Ari and Janco, two soldiers she met in Ixia. 

Some of the plot-line with "Ferde", a mysterious person who's been kidnapping young girls, seemed a bit disconnected from Yelena's life, and it felt a bit like a forced problem just so her old memories of Reyad could be dredged up. It was still absorbing, but a bit unnecessary. Yelena definitely has enough on her plate without that. 

I find it somewhat interesting that Poison Study (at least the edition I read) was marketed as an adult book, whereas the edition of Magic Study that I read was marketed as a YA book. Make up your mind! The books aren't that difficult, so I definitely think they should be YA. 

I'm really looking forward to reading the final book in the series, Fire Study; I really love the world that Snyder has created and the characters as well. She's great at world-building and suspense. I may also try some of her other books, though I don't know whether they can be as amazing as this series. 

Read Magic Study:
  • if you like fantasy
  • if you liked Poison Study (read it first)
  • if you like Maria V. Snyder
440 pages. 
Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (jf I own it)!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, Karen Russell

St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by WolvesSt. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by WolvesFrom "Ava Wrestles an Alligator": My sister and I are staying in Grandpa Sawtooth's Old House until our father, Chief Bigtree, gets back from the Mainland. It's our first summer alone in the swamp.

You already know that something not so great is going to happen to Ava and her sister. Karen Russell is the author of Swamplandia! and a new collection of short stories, Vampires in the Lemon Grove. I'd read and loved Swamplandia!, but I wanted to try this first collection before getting Vampires in the Lemon Grove. At first, I was a bit disappointed by the stories, but as the collection progressed, they got much better. "Ava Wrestles an Alligator" contains the same characters as Swamplandia!, but I didn't like it as much. The story about a sleep-away camp for kids with sleep disorders was really good, and also really disturbing. That's the thing about Karen Russell's stories. They're so good, and so well-written and also so strange and scary. But the weird worlds that she create work so well. Here's the official summary: "In these ten glittering stories, debut author Karen Russell takes us to the ghostly and magical swamps of the Florida Everglades. Here wolf-like girls are reformed by nuns, a family makes their living wrestling alligators in a theme park, and little girls sail away on crab shells. "

I think either these stories sound interesting to you, or they don't. I can definitely see why some don't like Russell's writing, but I can also see why it mesmerizes so many, including me. I didn't love St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves quite as much as Swamplandia!, but it was still really good, and some of the stories were amazing.

There are so many great images that arise from the situations that Russell puts her characters in. For example, in one of her stories, a family is migrating westward. In their old home, they lived next to an asylum. The migration isn't going well, and the mother misses "the predictable madness". I just really liked that turn of phrase. I also forgot to mention that the father of the family is a minotaur.

One criticism that I did have (and that many other reviewers have too) is that most of the stories are really very similar in terms of mood and ambience. There isn't much variety; each story on its own is great, but in a collection, one likes to have a variety of different types of stories. These are all twisted realities, which is of course what Russell excels most at, but I would have liked to see something different. It's not that the stories weren't creative; on the contrary. Each one did have a unique plot, (side note: why don't we see "an" here? Or do we?) but they all gave off the same general aura, if you know what I mean.

While I was reading this, I was thinking (not for the first time) about how an author becomes a "classic" author. There were probably hundreds of failed writers in the 19th century, and only some are remembered. I was also thinking about those giant collections of all of an author's work, and of course, the "complete stories" collections. And my question is this: will Karen Russell ever have a volume of complete short stories. Or will she be forgotten like countless other writers? She's good, that's for sure, but is she good enough? Just something to think about. I find it very fascinating...

Anyway, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is an excellent book of short stories, although I did like Swamplandia! better.  I also like the hardcover edition's art (left) much better, but I read the paperback version, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Read St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves:
  • if you like short stories
  • if you like Karen Russell
  • if you like gritty magic realism
246 pages.
Very Good! I would recommend this book!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Darius & Twig, Walter Dean Myers

Darius & TwigHigh above the city, above the black tar rooftops, the dark brick chimneys spewing angry wisps of burnt fuel, there is a black speck making circles against the gray patchwork of Harlem sky. From the park below it looks like a small bird. No, it doesn't look like a small bird, but what else could it be? At the end of a bench, a young man holds up a running shoe. 

"New York Times bestselling author and current National Ambassador for Young People's Literature Walter Dean Myers was asked to write a novel about friendship by his fans. Here it is. Darius is a writer struggling to find his own way, with only his alter ego, Fury, a peregrine falcon, and Twig, his best friend, in his corner. Twig, a middle-distance runner, has the skills to make it but wants to dictate his own terms for success. He may be a winner on the track, but it doesn't stop him from getting picked on. For these friends, money is tight; there are bullies and absent adults and, most disturbing, the notion that their Harlem life doesn't have much to offer. They need to navigate their world: the thugs, the seamy side of sports, the uncertainty of their prospects. And they need to figure out how to grow up together, but apart. This raw teen novel is the latest from highly acclaimed award-winning author Walter Dean Myers."

I enjoyed Darius and Twig, which I received from Goodreads First Reads. It was definitely raw, as it was described, and lyrical and poetic and moody. It didn't resonate deeply with me, but there were some interesting passages and thoughts expressed. Walter Dean Myers has written many YA novels, but I've never read any of them. I have, however, read some of his poems in Here in Harlem

I really liked how the two main characters and their relationship, really the central part of the story, were portrayed. As I said, none of it deeply touched me, and it somehow didn't feel all that real, but I still liked Darius and Twig. It's a very short book, but marked as 8th grade and up, because there is some swearing and some hard things that happen in the book. 

I feel like Myers did a really great job also of describing the way the adults in the story pressure Darius and Twig to be a certain way. There's Twig's uncle, who wants him to give up his dreams and work at the store. But even the good adults in the story, like Darius's writing teacher, want him to change his writing to the way they like it. Which is good and bad at the same time. I also thought that the story that Darius was working on was very interesting, and a lot of the events that happened in Darius and Twig were very meaningful. It's set in the present day, yet there are still all these awful things that happen in Harlem. I don't know if it's entirely realistic, but it's certainly compelling. 

Overall, I didn't love Darius and Twig, but I did like it, and I would certainly recommend this "raw teen novel". It was really absorbing, actually, because the events just kept coming, and although they were on a small scale, like Austen's work, that made them all the more interesting. The reader gets caught up in these two boys' stories and their lives, and wants to know more, and whether everything is going to work out for them. Darius and Twig is definitely an intense read. 

I may read some of Myers's other books in the future, though I'm not really eager to find them. 

Read Darius and Twig:
  • if you like Walter Dean Myers
  • if you like teen stories
  • if you like books set in Harlem
201 pages. 
Very Good! I would recommend this book!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World, Matthew Goodman

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the WorldShe was a young woman in a plaid coat and cap, neither tall nor short, dark nor fair, not quite pretty enough to turn a head: the sort of woman, who could, if necessary, lose herself in a crowd.

Eighty Days tells of Nellie Bly, a plucky female journalist for The World who was sent on November 14, 1889, to try and beat Jules Verne's fictional record, and travel around the world in 75 days. But as it turns out, she's not just racing against Phileas Fogg and time; another newspaper sends their own female reporter, Elizabeth Bisland. Eighty Days is their fascinating story, one which enthralled the whole nation at the time, watching as the two journalists sped around the world in opposite directions. It also changed the competitors' lives - forever. It was profiled in my local newspaper and looked really fascinating, so I picked it up. 

One of the most interesting things about the story is that the two women are so, so different. Nellie Bly is a determined, scrappy, and ambitious reporter from Pennsylvania's coal country who sought out some of the most lurid news stories, many times going undercover to reveal injustice. Elizabeth Bisland was genteel and elegant, and had been born into an aristocratic Southern family. She preferred literature to newspapers, and was very beautiful. Both women were talented writers with successful careers in a field very difficult for women to enter. These women come to life in this story, in which a single delay can make all the difference. The reader travels all around the world with them. 

I was afraid that Eighty Days would be a bit dense and hard to get through, but it really wasn't; it was so fascinating. I liked that the author gave so much background; he tells us where each woman grew up, about their family, and how they started their career. For example, he talks about how Nellie Bly arrived in New York, had some difficulties, and finally got her first real reporting job pretending to be insane so she could uncover the cruelty of an asylum.  I learned so many interesting facts about this period. Not just about journalism, but everything about the late nineteenth century. Eighty Days is like historical fiction, except it actually happened! I was enthralled by this amazing story and I also learned a lot, the ideal combination. I'm certainly glad that I chose to read this one as my biography requirement for school, though I would have read it regardless. 

At different points in the book, I found myself rooting for each of the two contestants. There were some things I really admired about Nellie Bly: the fact that she's so determined, that she wrote about things that women usually didn't write about, that she exposed injustice. Also she only packed one suitcase for her trip around the world, which immediately endeared her to me. But Elizabeth Bisland is also very appealing in some ways. She loves to read novels and poetry, is very refined, beautiful, and a lovely lady. Nellie Bly is also annoyingly patriotic and hypocritical; she will never hear a word said against her beloved country America.Who I wanted to win kept shifting back and forth. Both of these characters are so compelling, and Goodman makes them come to life. He also makes the places that they visit feel so real and offers many fascinating insights. Though I kind of suspected who was going to win, Eighty Days was still a suspenseful read. 

Eighty Days surprised me with its brilliancy. It was entertaining, thought-provoking and thoroughly absorbing. I would highly, highly, highly recommend this book, which contains so many great elements. 

Read Eighty Days:
  • if you like biography
  • if you like travelogues 
  • if you like adventure
  • if you like historical fiction
  • if you like stories of women
  • if you like Around the World in 80 Days
367 pages. 
Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (jf I own it)!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Hero on a Bicycle, Shirley Hughes

Hero on a BicycleWhen Paolo reached the deserted stretch of road where it was too steep to pedal, he dismounted and began to wheel his bicycle instead. He knew it was far too late for him to be out.

This Saturday I was feeling rather under the weather, and then something arrived in the mail that was just what I needed: two MG books from Candlewick Press, one of which was Hero on a Bicycle. "Italy, 1944: Florence is occupied by Nazi forces. The Italian resistance movement has not given up hope, though — and neither have thirteen-year- old Paolo and his sister, Costanza. As their mother is pressured into harboring escaping POWs, Paolo and Costanza each find a part to play in opposing the German forces. Both are desperate to fight the occupation, but what can two siblings — with only a bicycle to help them — do against a whole army? Middle-grade fans of history and adventure will be riveted by the action and the vividly evoked tension of World War II."

But Hero on a Bicycle was kind of disappointing. Maybe middle grade books just don't appeal to me anymore because they seem so simplistic. Despite the fact that Hero on a Bicycle is about World War II resistance fighters, it was kind of boring. Somewhat boring is a great phrase to describe this one. You could also put a positive spin on it and call it mildly diverting. I also felt that it was really, really flat; I couldn't become interested in Florence, or the resistance movement, or the main characters. Many elements felt forced, like why the resistance movement wanted to talk to Paolo's mother. It didn't make all that much sense. I also really did not like the character of the sympathetic German officer; he was also completely one-dimensional. 

MG fiction may be very easy, but middle grade readers aren't stupid. They like the things that everyone likes in books: great characters, plot, setting, development, etc. Hero on a Bicycle just didn't have that. I was looking forward to reading an easy book, but not this easy. Even though a lot happens in Hero on a Bicycle, as I was reading, I felt that nothing happened. If that makes sense. 

There are some amazing children's books about World War II (such as Code Name Verity, an all-time favorite), there are some good ones, and then there are ones, that fail to capture World War II. I'm certainly no expert on the period, but I have read a lot of fiction about it, and there weren't enough details in Hero on a Bicycle. Again, details sell the story. And there weren't many in this novel.

The New York Times called it a " historical novel for older children". Um, hello? I love the New York Times, but that is just too much. It's listed as 10-14, but it seemed to me to be more like 8-11 or something like that. Most literary-minded fourteen year olds are not going to be interested. I certainly wasn't. 

I did appreciate the fact that the author had the reader enter many of the characters' heads, rather than just one. We got to see what each of them was thinking, and how each of them was coping with wartime difficulties. That was nice, but it didn't make up for the let-down. However, I am looking forward to the other book I received from Candlewick, the sequel to Ruby Redfort. This one, though, is one that I would definitely skip. Younger readers may enjoy it, but I don't think it's for older readers. Just to be clear: MG fiction (like Savvy) is great, and I am certainly not opposed to people older than the "target age" reading it. Just not this particular work. 

I will say that like The Candymakers, the later sections got much better, and although he was also cardboard-like, I did like the character of the Canadian officer. 

Read Hero on a Bicycle:
  • if you like historical fiction
  • if you like Shirley Hughes's picture books
213 pages. 
Okay book, but it left me wanting more!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The River of No Return, Bee Ridgeway

The River of No ReturnJulia sat beside her grandfather's bed, holding his hand. The fifth Earl of Darchester was dying.

"Two hundred years after he was about to die on a Napoleonic battlefield, Nick Falcott, soldier and aristocrat, wakes up in a hospital bed in modern London. The Guild, an entity that controls time travel, showers him with life's advantages. But Nick yearns for home and for one brown-eyed girl, lost now down the centuries. Then the Guild asks him to break its own rule. It needs Nick to go back to 1815 to fight the Guild’s enemies and to find something called the Talisman. In 1815, Julia Percy mourns the death of her beloved grandfather, an earl who could play with time. On his deathbed he whispers in her ear: “Pretend!” Pretend what? When Nick returns home as if from the dead, older than he should be and battle scarred, Julia begins to suspect that her very life depends upon the secrets Grandfather never told her. Soon enough Julia and Nick are caught up in an adventure that stretches up and down the river of time. As their knowledge of the Guild and their feelings for each other grow, the fate of the future itself is hanging in the balance."

The River of No Return sounded like a really fascinating story, and I was happy to receive a review copy from Dutton Books. And it was really fascinating. It's one of those books that's made better by the fact that the font is really nice. Anyway, the plot of The River of No Return is very intriguing; I am fascinated by time travel, and this is a lengthy book which deals in depth with a certain interpretation of it. The way that the Guild was described was really interesting too; at times, I thought they were benevolent, at others, that they were evil and twisted. Bee Ridgeway makes the reader's opinion of everything shift back and forth, and then back again, right until the very end of the story. 

I really enjoyed the characters, but I have to say that I found Julia's story more interesting. I got kind of annoyed when the narrative shifted back to Nick. But when they met up back in 1815, the story was just as interesting. Sometimes I wasn't always fond of their relationship, but it was nice to read about them together, rather than jumping back and forth. The River of No Return is a delicious mix of so many different genres: fantasy, historical fiction, romance, mystery, thriller, and it succeeds very well in all of those genres. 

Sometimes I wished that the way time was stopped was described a bit more thoroughly. Does Julia just think about doing it and it happens? Or is there some special thing that she has to do in order to stop time? Despite being somewhat vague, I enjoyed reading about this power. I also liked visiting Jane Austen's England from a fresh perspective. 

I loved how the reader never knows who to trust, the Guild or the Ofan. As I mentioned earlier, we alternate between liking one or the other, just as Nick is unsure about his loyalties also. There are lots of other twists in the book as well that surprise both the reader and the main characters. The River of No Return is a read that will push you along with it, just like the metaphorical (or perhaps not so metaphorical) river in the book. Speaking of metaphors, the amount of them kind of annoyed me; still, a great book. 

Read The River of No Return:
  • if you like fantasy
  • if you like historical fiction
  • if you like romance
  • if you like mysteries
  • if you like thrillers
452 pages.
Very Good! I would recommend this book!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Rereading Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat

Never Cry WolfIt is a long way in time and space from the bathroom of my Grandmother Mowat's house in Oakville, Ontario, to the bottom of a wolf den in the Barren Lands of central Keewatin, and I have no intention of retracing the entire road which lies between. Nevertheless, there must be a beginning to any tale; and the story of my sojourn amongst the wolves begins properly in Granny's bathroom.

"More than a half-century ago the naturalist Farley Mowat to investigate why wolves were killing arctic caribou. Mowat's account of the summer he lived in the frozen tundra alone -- studying the wolf population and developing a deep affection for the wolves (who were of no threat to caribou or man) -- is today celebrated as a classic of nature writing, at once a tale of remarkable adventures and indelible record of myths and magic of wolves."

I'd of course read this book before, but not for a long time, so I wanted to revisit it. It's an amazing work of writing in many ways. At the time, it was ground-breaking, but it is still entertaining for those who already know that wolves are not the vicious, savage creatures that they were once thought to be. They're quite the contrary, and this book reveals that. Mowat's observations of the wolves and their behavior is fascinating, entertaining, and extremely important. I do think that some of what Mowat tells of might be fictitious, but the message is true, and probably he wrote down what basically happened to him. What did annoy me was that on the front cover, the book is described as "the amazing true story of life among Arctic Wolves", which automatically makes the reader doubt the book's authenticity. That really could have been left out. But unlike Mutant Message Down Under, Never Cry Wolf is, I think, a work of nonfiction. Though I'd be curious to know other opinions, or if there's anything in the book that is clearly fiction. 

In his introduction, Mowat mentions that he initially intended the book to be a satire of sorts - a satire of bureaucracy and government, but then the book turned into much more. It turned into a defense of wolves. But some of that satirical humor still definitely shines throughout the book. Mowat is given detailed instructions about his mission, all of which are utterly senseless and turn out to have no practical bearing whatsoever. He also writes with humor about his first encounters with the wolves, and having his ego taken down a notch. 

In other words, Never Cry Wolf is a fascinating book in many respects. The science element of it isn't difficult to understand, and great for a layman. There's also humor, and wonderful description. The sad thing is that even today, more than half a century after this work was published and more research has supported it, is that many people still view wolves as bloodthirsty killers, who maliciously kill caribou. Guess what? The only animal as far as I know that kills things for fun quite frequently is humans. We're the bloodthirsty killers, not the wolves. I think part of it is that in most fairy tales, the wolf is the villain: "The Three Little Pigs", "Red Riding Hood", "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" and many, many more. So right from when we're children, we learn that wolves are evil, which is absolutely untrue. It's awful. I'm going to stop my rant now. 

At any rate, Never Cry Wolf is a must-read; it's funny, entertaining, and groundbreaking. I would highly recommend it. 

Read Never Cry Wolf:
  • if you like science writing
  • if you like wolves
246 pages. 
Very Good! I would recommend this book!

Monday, May 20, 2013

ARCs That I Want Really Badly

The title is kind of self-explanatory.

Crown of Midnight (Throne of Glass, #2)This is the sequel to Throne of Glass, and hopefully (maybe) I'll be able to get an ARC. Sadly, the cover does not match that of the first book.

Allegiant (Divergent, #3)No ARCs of Allegiant, unfortunately. But I'm very excited.

Across a Star-Swept Sea (For Darkness Shows the Stars, #2)Based upon The Scarlet Pimpernel, this one is coming out in October, I believe.

The Ocean at the End of the LaneNeil Gaiman's latest looks very good. Coming out in June.

TransAtlanticI loved Let the Great World Spin, so I'm also looking forward to this.

Hopefully I'll be able to get ARCs of some of these great books.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Room With a View, E.M. Forster

A Room with a View'The Signora had no business to do it,' said Miss Bartlett, 'no business at all. She promised us south rooms with a view, close together, instead of which here are north rooms, here are north rooms, looking into a courtyard, and a long way apart. Oh, Lucy!'

"First published in 1908, A Room with a View portrays the love of a British woman for an expatriate living in Italy. Caught up in a world of social snobbery, Forster's heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, finds herself constrained by the claustrophobic influence of her British guardians, who encourage her to take up with a well-connected boor. In the end, however, Lucy takes control of her own fate and finds love with a man whose free spirit reminds her of 'a room with a view.'" It's also described as the most optimistic and romantic of Forster's novels. 

I enjoyed A Room With a View, and although it's not as good as most Austen, it was an excellent novel. It was very chatty; there was lots and lots of dialogue in the book. The characters talk and talk about everything that happens. It was a bit off-putting, but I enjoyed the writing and the story. The characters didn't exactly come to life for me, but they certainly were interesting. I enjoyed the character of old Mr. Emerson, especially when he berates some of the other people on the carriage ride. I'm not exactly sure when A Room With a View is set, but suffice to say, the two Mr. Emerson's are both very progressive for their time.

Unlike in Northanger Abbey, the difference between Mr. Emerson and the "well-connected boor" is not so obvious at first. When the reader first meets Cecil, the boor, he doesn't seem that bad, though not quite right for Lucy either. This makes the book and the romance much more subtle. Cecil is certainly a very interesting character, not bad exactly, but inclined to loath everyone. Emerson describes him very well on pages 190-191. Some of the middle sections dragged a bit and were a little confusing, but I ended up really loving A Room With a View. It's a very subtle but brilliant book.

Overall, the writing in A Room With a View was very compelling; I look forward to reading Howard's End too. There's a great list here of what to read when you've finished Jane Austen, and A Room With a View is most justly on it. It's an excellent and thought-provoking book, one that I would highly recommend. There are lots of interesting character sketches, and the plot is quite good, though E.M. Forster is a bit sexist.

Read A Room With a View:
  • if you like E.M. Forster
  • if you like Jane Austen
  • if you like British literature
242 pages.
Very Good! I would recommend this book!

Does anyone know when A Room With a View is supposed to be set? 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Unnatural Creatures: Stories Selected by Neil Gaiman

Unnatural Creatures: Stories Selected by Neil GaimanThe first time Reginald Archer saw the thing, it was, in its simplicity, absolute. It owned not the slightest complication or involvement. It lacked the tiniest, the remotest, the most insignificant trace of embellishment.

"A griffin, a werewolf, a sunbird . . .These are just some of the fantastical creatures you'll encounter within these pages. From the cockatoucan, whose laugh rearranges an entire kingdom, to the roving shapeless Beast that lurks in a forest, herein is a collection of rare and magnificent species. Each one will thrill, delight, and quite possibly unnerve you. Selected by master storyteller Neil Gaiman, the sixteen stories in this menagerie will introduce you to a host of strange, wondrous beings that have never existed anyplace but in the richness of the imagination.With stories from Neil Gaiman, Diana Wynne Jones, E. Nesbit, and many more." I do think the way the book is described is a bit misleading. I was under the impression that the stories would be all new ones written for this collection. But the majority of them have been published before. One, "The Griffin and the Minor Canon", I'd even read before! But the stories are still really good. I was pleasantly surprised to find a paperback edition even though the book had just come out. I think the hardcover and the paperback were released simultaneously, which is unusual. 

As with any short story collection, there are some great stories, some good ones, and some that just didn't work for me. The first one was very fun. Its title is very difficult to say (you'll see why if you read the book). There's a story about bees rebelling against wasps, a girl in an African village who can talk to snakes, an epicurean society looking for new subjects and more. The one about the epicurean society, "Sunbird", is written by Neil Gaiman. The other authors in the collection are Peter S. Beagle, Anthony Boucher, Avram Davidson, Samuel R. Delaney, Maria Headley, Nalo Hopkinson, Diana Wynne Jones, Megan Kurashige, E. Nesbit, Larry Niven, Nnedi Okorafor, Saki, Frank R. Stockton, and E. Lily Yu. Diana Wynne Jones's story has Chrestomanci in it. He appears in many of her books. 

None of the beginning stories thrilled me, but I did really enjoy "Gabriel-Ernest" by Saki. It was an excellently chilling story.  "The Cockatoucan" was also excellent, very British and very entertaining. In the later sections of the book there were a lot of other good stories, making Unnatural Creatures very enjoyable and definitely worth reading. Other ones that I liked were "Prismata" and "Come Lady Death".

Read Unnatural Creatures:
  • if you like Neil Gaiman or any of the other authors
  • if you like short stories
  • if you like fantasy
  • if you like stories of strange creatures 
455 pages.
Very Good! I would recommend this book!

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Eternal Ones, Kirsten Miller

The Eternal OnesHaven was back. She glanced across the familiar little room. Silver clouds hovered over the skylight high above a rumpled bed. A candle sat on the edge of the vanity, waiting for the sun's weak rays to finally fade.

"Haven Moore has always lived in the town of Snope City, Tennessee. But for as long as she can remember, Haven has experienced visions of a past life as a girl named Constance, whose love for a boy called Ethan ended in fiery tragedy. One day, the sight of notorious playboy Iain Morrow on television brings Haven to her knees. Haven flees to New York City to find Iain and there, she is swept up in an epic love affair that feels both deeply fated and terribly dangerous. Is Iain her beloved Ethan? Or is he her murderer from a past life? Haven asks the members of the powerful and mysterious Ouroboros Society to help her unlock the mysteries of reincarnation and discover the secrets hidden in her past lives, and loves, before all is lost and the cycle begins again. But what is the Ouroboros Society? And how can Haven know whom to trust?" 

The plot of this one sounds annoyingly YA-romancy, and the cover is hideous, but Kirsten Miller is the author of the Kiki Strike series, which I love, so I gave this one a try. And I wasn't disappointed.The Eternal Ones wasn't quite as good as the first two books in the Kiki Strike series, but it was better than The Darkness Dwellers, and was really suspenseful. Although it's different, once I started, I couldn't put it down. 

The characters are all interestingly portrayed. The cruelty of Haven's grandmother is shown so well, and I was really furious at the way she was treated in Snope City. Haven's mother loves her, but she's never been quite the same after Haven's dad died, and she can't stand up for Haven. It's a really bad situation. I also wanted to learn more about the enigmatic Ethan/Iain and what had really happened. It did take a while for Haven to actually get to New York, and I think the beginning sections could have been tighter, but the book was still good. All of Part 1 is set in Tennessee, 147 pages or so.
I loved Part 1, but Part 2 kind of annoyed me. Haven started acting really stupidly, just blindly trusting Iain, which was really not a good idea, considering the fact that he was a notorious playboy and she had been warned by someone to avoid people who seem to know too much about her. I realize that they were in love in a past life, but I feel like Haven still should have proceeded with more caution. And plus, Iain bosses her around too much, and she just takes it. She really did a lot of stupid things in New York, and she kept going back and forth about whether she was in love with Iain or whether he was a psycho. It seemed obvious to me that he was a real jerk, even if he was just trying to protect Haven. 

What I did like about The Eternal Ones is that certain elements of it are based upon the author's own life. She lived in a small North Carolinian town, and when she was seventeen, she went to New York City and lives there still. I have no idea what her parents were like, but the dedication to The Eternal Ones reads thus: "FOR MY PARENTS- if not my first, then certainly the best." It's very enigmatic. 

I didn't love the two main characters, but I did love the writing and the plot, which made up for Haven being somewhat annoying. This is certainly a fascinating novel, and well worth a try, although it's not as good as Kiki Strike or How to Lead a Life of Crime. I did like the subject matter. 

Read The Eternal Ones:
  • if you like Kirsten Miller
  • if you like books about reincarnation
  • if you like books set in Tennessee or New York
411 pages.
Very Good! I would recommend this book!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie

Midnight's Children
Midnight's ChildrenI was born in the city of Bombay...once upon a time. No, that won't do, there's no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar's Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947. And the time? The time matters, too. Well then: at night. No, it's important to be more...On the stroke of midnight as a matter of fact. Clock-Hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came. Oh, spell it out, spell it out: at the precise instant of India's arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world. 

"Saleem Sinai is born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the very moment of India’s independence. Greeted by fireworks displays, cheering crowds, and Prime Minister Nehru himself, Saleem grows up to learn the ominous consequences of this coincidence. His every act is mirrored and magnified in events that sway the course of national affairs; his health and well-being are inextricably bound to those of his nation; his life is inseparable, at times indistinguishable, from the history of his country. Perhaps most remarkable are the telepathic powers linking him with India’s 1,000 other “midnight’s children,” all born in that initial hour and endowed with magical gifts. This novel is at once a fascinating family saga and an astonishing evocation of a vast land and its people–a brilliant incarnation of the universal human comedy."

Midnight's Children was Salman Rushdie's first novel, which I somehow haven't read yet. I really enjoyed it. Like many of Rushdie's novels, it was a bit hard to get into, but I loved the writing and the plot. The book is woven so skillfully. Salman Rushdie does like to beat around the bush and never get to the point, which is infuriating but effective. Saleem talks to the reader directly, breaking off and having emotional crises. He's also constantly interrupted by his wife, and he stops and starts. In short, the reader is annoyed but also absorbed. 

The story itself is amazing, describing India so well. At least, I think it does, and it's certainly an excellent novel. There are tragedies and comedies that unfold, funerals and weddings, all in a mix between fantasy and reality. It's hard to define Midnight's Children in a specific genre; it could be called magic realism, I suppose, but it could also be called historical fiction. It's kind of a mix of the two. 

Midnight's Children is a long but brilliant novel, definitely one of my favorites of the Rushdie novels I've read (although admittedly I haven't read that many). The descriptions of the magic powers endowed to the children of midnight were amazing, once the narrator finally got around to them after over 200 pages. In that respect Midnight's Children kind of reminded me of One Hundred Years of Solitude; it is many, many pages before Saleem finally gets to his birth, just as it is many many pages before Marquez tells of the ice. So infuriating! 

One of the really infuriating things about Midnight's Children was all the foreshadowing. Saleem drops hints about these huge events that are going to happen, leaving the reader exasperated, guessing and waiting. And by important events, I mean events that will change the characters' lives and the whole country. There are also a lot of great metaphors that Salman Rushdie uses; for example that of snakes and ladders. For every ladder, there will always be a snake around the corner, and vice versa, but as Saleem observes, "The game lacked one crucial dimension, that of ambiguity - because, as events are about to show, it is possible to slither down a ladder and climb to triumph on the venom of a snake..." (pg. 161). Speaking of snakes, it always annoys me how people demonize snakes. There are many, many snakes which aren't poisonous at all, and if they do bite people, it's just because they're looking out for their own interests, just like everyone else. But that has nothing to do with Midnight's Children (at least, I don't think it does).

There were parts of Midnight's Children that I didn't love, but there were also parts that were really slyly funny, and a joy to read. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Read Midnight's Children:
  • if you like Salman Rushdie
  • if you like magic realism
  • if you like historical fiction
  • if you like books set in India
533 pages, 4 stars.