Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Goose Chase, Patrice Kindl

Goose ChaseThe King killed my canary today. Now, I know full well that the customary way to begin such a tale as mine is: "Once upon a time, when wishes still came true, there lived a poor orphan Goose Girl," or some such fiddle-faddle. But what do I care for custom? 'Tis my own story I am telling and I will tell it as I please. 

"Her name is Alexandria Aurora Fortunato, and she is as lovely as the dawn. But that is only one of her problems. There’s also the matter of those three magical gifts of treasure bestowed on her by a mysterious old woman. And King Claudio the Cruel wants to marry her for her beauty and her wealth, and so does his rival, Prince Edmund of Dorloo. Those are two more problems. And, worst of all, she is locked in a tower, with a grille of iron bars and several hundred tons of stone between her and freedom. Some days Alexandria wishes she looked like a pickled onion. Clearly the only thing to do is escape — and, with the aid of her twelve darling goose companions, that’s precisely what Alexandria does. So begins the adventure of Patrice Kindl’s beguiling heroine. Her flight will take her to strange lands and lead her into perilous situations, all of which the plucky Alexandria views with a wry and witty spirit. Here is a sprightly tale of magic and romance, in which those geese play a most surprising role." 

Goose Chase is a very easy but entertaining fairy tale, first published in 2001. It is a spin-off of "The Goose Girl" and in it, we have a very young woman (she is fourteen) who does not wish to marry and must escape. King Claudio is, true to his name, cruel, and his first two wives died mysteriously. Prince Edmund, who is "somewhat less intelligent than a clod of dirt" would be better, but still awful. So you see, the only alternative is to flee. But how? Besides The Goose Girl, elements of Rapunzel are present too; at the beginning Alexandria is imprisoned in a tower, and her long golden hair grows and shrinks upon command, proving very useful on several occasions. (And harmful).

I love fairy tale retellings, and this was a good one. The writing mimics an older style, using the words 'tis, 'twas, trow, and more. It was a bit inconsistent at times, but I still enjoyed reading it. Most fairy tale retellings are written in a modern style; not so with this one. Alexandria narrates confidently in her own distinctive voice. 

Also in most fairy tales, there are talking animals. In Goose Chase, the geese don't talk, but they are incredibly intelligent, and they understand perfectly well what Alexandria says to them. They also have a will of their own, and although they want to help Alexandria, they'll do it in their own manner. The way that they help rescue her from the tower is pretty funny. It involves several mattresses. 

I really loved the story itself. All of the events were really entertaining to read about, particularly Alexandria's back-and-forth with the idiotic prince. He grows on you, and he is not as stupid as he might first seem. He's just kind of awkward and bumbling, but very lovable. The way he talks is really funny too, and he does actually offer some good suggestions. 

I raced through Goose Chase, mainly because of how short and easy it is, but also because it was a very absorbing read. I wanted to find out what would happen, and there was a mystery aspect too, which I kind of guessed at. Alexandria's name was too elaborate for a simple Goose Girl, and I thought that there must be something more to her. 

The only other book I've read of Patrice Kindl's is Keeping the Castle. I enjoyed it, but it wasn't great. Goose Chase certainly wasn't great either, but I enjoyed it more. Keeping the Castle had Austentatious pretensions which it failed to meet; Goose Chase is just a lovable, easy romp through a fairy-tale kingdom. I would definitely recommend it for younger readers, although the older style language might be a bit difficult for them. The book was entertaining and light, good for an hour or two.

214 pages. 

Rating: 3.5 stars. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Suite Scarlett, Maureen Johnson

Suite Scarlett (Scarlett, #1)On the morning of the tenth of June, Scarlett Martin woke up to the sound of loud impromptu rap penetrating her thin bedroom wall from the direction of the bathroom next door. 

"Scarlett Martin has grown up in a most unusual way. Her family owns the Hopewell, a small Art Deco hotel in the heart of New York City. When each of the Martins turns fifteen, they are expected to take over the care of a suite. For Scarlett's fifteenth birthday, she gets both a room called the Empire Suite and a permanent guest named Mrs. Amberson. Scarlett doesn't quite know what to make of this C-list starlet and world traveler. And when she meets Eric, an astonishingly gorgeous actor who has just moved to the city, her summer takes a second unexpected turn.  Before the summer is over, Scarlett will have to survive a whirlwind of thievery and romantic missteps. But in the city where anything can happen, she just might be able to pull it off." There's also the fact that the Martins are nearly broke and have had to let go of their major selling point - their chef. 

I have to say that I enjoyed 13 Little Blue Envelopes more than Suite Scarlett, but it was still a good, humorous book, with a lot of the randomness that characterizes most of Maureen Johnson's work (and personality). I guess my main problem with it was that towards the beginning there was just too much going on: Scarlett's bratty younger sister, the family's financial problems, her brother's problems, the letting go of the chef, and the new guest. Also, the fact that the chef was let go was unrealistic; she was the main attraction of the hotel, and then they "let her go"? I also didn't find the romance as interesting. Overall, Suite Scarlett wasn't as compelling, unique, or funny. Still, I liked the plot setup and the setting of the novel. The characters felt a bit flat, but I really liked Spencer, Scarlett's brother. The relationship between them was convincing, although the plot was absolutely absurd. 

Suite Scarlett just didn't resonate with me, I guess. It all felt kind of forced. The book was still somewhat entertaining, but I did consider putting it down several times. I ended up finishing it, mostly because I wanted to find out what was going on with the mysterious Mrs. Amberson. She does help the Martins a lot, but I still distrusted her immensely, and I didn't like how she treated Scarlett. 

Even if I didn't like the main character of 13 Little Blue Envelopes all that much, the book was still hilarious and quirky and romantic. I liked Scarlett a lot; but I just didn't find the book that funny. One of the only remotely funny scenes was the fake audition, and even that wasn't very good. There were some good elements, but nothing was convincing, and I have to say, that Suite Scarlett was just weak in terms of its writing and humor. It was trying to be funny, but it didn't succeed. And yet something kept me reading, something more than wanting to find out about Mrs. Amberson. I'm not sure what that was. Perhaps it's just the fact that the book was written by Maureen Johnson, and I wanted to finish it. 

The writing wasn't particularly good either, and as I said, the hilarious ridiculousness that characterizes Johnson's other work that I've read wasn't present enough. The plot idea itself was interesting, but it was never really followed through. I did like the romance eventually though; still, Scarlett is fifteen. A bit young, you might say. 

Overall, I found Suite Scarlett sadly wanting as a novel even though I kept reading; I would recommend 13 Little Blue Envelopes and Maureen Johnson's story in Let it Snow much more than this one; they're both funny, romantic, and sweet. 

353 pages. 

Rating: **

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Rae Carson

The Girl of Fire and Thorns (Fire and Thorns, #1)Prayer candles flicker in my bedroom. The Scriptura Sancta lies discarded, pages crumpled, no my bed. Bruises mark my knees from kneeling on the tiles, and the Godstone in my navel throbs.

"Once a century, one person is chosen for greatness. Elisa is the chosen one.  But she is also the younger of two princesses, the one who has never done anything remarkable. She can't see how she ever will. Now, on her sixteenth birthday, she has become the secret wife of a handsome and worldly king—a king whose country is in turmoil. A king who needs the chosen one, not a failure of a princess. And he's not the only one who seeks her. Savage enemies seething with dark magic are hunting her. A daring, determined revolutionary thinks she could be his people's savior. And he looks at her in a way that no man has ever looked at her before. Soon it is not just her life, but her very heart that is at stake. Elisa could be everything to those who need her most. If the prophecy is fulfilled. If she finds the power deep within herself. If she doesn’t die young. Most of the chosen do."

The Girl of Fire and Thorns was an excellent YA fantasy. The world-building was superb; Carson has created a feuding fantasy realm that's more than just names on a page. The religion, although it probably could have been explained more, was very interesting too. Most fantasy novels don't speak of a specific religion with a God, but The Girl of Fire and Thorns did. I was kind of expecting the religion to be a subtle push for Christianity or something (and that would have been super annoying), but it wasn't. It was just a fantasy realm with religion instead of magic. Like Graceling, there isn't really much magic in the world (only one specific type relating to the Godstone); it's just an imaginary land. I also loved the plot; it was unique, but also kind of universal. Even if Elisa lives in a made up world, she is still struggling with issues that other teenage girls do: her appearance and self-confidence. It was very relatable. 

The Girl of Fire and Thorns was also really absorbing. It wasn't necessarily suspenseful in that I couldn't put the book down, but I did want to know what would happen, and as I read, I became immersed in the fascinating story. There's certainly a mystery element to this novel, and I wanted to find out what exactly was going on. 

One of the greatest things about the book is Elisa's character development. She is overweight, and in the beginning half of the book she hates herself because she's so fat. She refers to herself as a sausage on several occasions. But if she's a sausage, she's a very smart one. Gradually, she gains confidence in her abilities, realizes that her perfect older sister doesn't despise her after all, and recognizes her own power as the chosen one. It was lovely to read as Elisa became an empowered young woman. I was also really glad that the heroine wasn't some perfect, gorgeous, super-skinny, athletic, paragon of impossibility. I'm quickly realizing that that's the problem with fantasies like Throne of Glass (although I still can't help but love it because it's so enjoyable to read). 

Considering the fact that Elisa is kind of overweight, it's not surprising that there's a lot of food in the book. I loved reading about the banquets and the snacks that Elisa has. She frequently sneaks off to the kitchen to get some sort of pastry with honey; it had my mouth watering.

I'm not religious, but I must say that some of the descriptions of faith were moving. On page 85, Father Nicandro has a bright red rose with large thorns, and he uses it to illustrate the beauty and the pain of faith. It was a great analogy.

I really loved the romance aspect and the fact that it wasn't too prominent. Yes, there was a very slight love triangle, but it was barely that, and it wasn't a big part of the story. Also, there was a very unexpected and heartbreaking part to it. The Girl of Fire and Thorns wasn't too annoyingly young adult. I really enjoyed all of the other characters, and again, the plot was really good, in the second half especially. There were so many twists, and just when I thought I knew what would come, something startling occurred.

The Girl of Fire and Thorns had so many amazing elements; as Paulo Bacigalup says, "palace intrigues, desert rebellions, kidnappings, forbidden romance, bloody betrayals, along with not a little time at the banquet table." I loved it, would highly recommend it, and am looking forward to reading the sequel, The Crown of Embers. The third book, The Bitter Kingdom, is coming out in late August. 

423 pages. 

Rating: ***** 

Cover Love

I don't know if this is actually a "thing" or not (like with a fancy little picture), but I am in love with this cover:
The Girl With Glass Feet

I keep looking at it, touching it, and regretting that I'll have to return it in three weeks. Even if the book isn't good, the cover is amazing. Here's the plot summary: "Strange things are happening on the remote and snowbound archipelago of St. Hauda’s Land. Magical winged creatures flit around the icy bogland, albino animals hide themselves in the snow-glazed woods, and Ida Maclaird is slowly turning into glass. Ida is an outsider in these parts who has only visited the islands once before. Yet during that one fateful visit the glass transformation began to take hold, and now she has returned in search of a cure." It sounds pretty interesting. 

I'm not judging the book by its cover. I'm just saying that it's freaking gorgeous. I'm so glad the library gave me the hardcover edition; the paperback is much less beautiful (although still nice):
The Girl with Glass Feet

I'm looking forward to the book, although somehow I doubt that it will live up to my expectations.

Other books obtained at the library: Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson
Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope
Goose Chase by Patrice Kindl
Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson

Books bought:
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
Princess Academy by Shannon Hale (a reread)
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt (a reread)

Friday, July 26, 2013

Rules of Civility, Amor Towles

Rules of CivilityIt was the last night of 1937. With no better plans or prospects, my roommate Eve had dragged me back to The Hotspot, a wishfully named nightclub in Greenwich Village that was four feet underground.

"On the last night of 1937, twenty-five-year-old Katey Kontent is in a second-rate Greenwich Village jazz bar with her boardinghouse roommate stretching three dollars as far as it will go when Tinker Grey, a handsome banker with royal blue eyes and a tempered smile, happens to sit at the neighboring table. This chance encounter and its startling consequences propel Katey on a yearlong journey from a Wall Street secretarial pool toward the upper echelons of New York society and the executive suites of Condé Nast--rarefied environs where she will have little to rely upon other than a bracing wit and her own brand of cool nerve.  Wooed in turn by a shy, principled multi-millionaire and an irrepressible Upper East Side ne'er-do-well, befriended by a single-minded widow who is a ahead of her time,and challenged by an imperious mentor, Katey experiences firsthand the poise secured by wealth and station and the failed aspirations that reside just below the surface. Even as she waits for circumstances to bring Tinker back into her life, she begins to realize how our most promising choices inevitably lay the groundwork for our regrets."

I didn't always love the writing of Rules of Civility, but the story, the setting and the characters were all really good. I really loved both of the main female characters. Tinker Grey was portrayed really well too. I fell in love with him just as much as Katey and Eve did. He is also, however, the cause of a rivalry between them; they both really like him. 

I've read many books about the lavish parties and upper class of the 20's, but not of 30's. The Depression was on, after all, but there were still many very wealthy people who had not suffered much at all. Katey unexpectedly falls in with them. 

Rules of Civility was never predictable. There was a huge twist towards the beginning of the novel that I didn't see coming at all. It was quite shocking and sudden. They were having a nice evening, and then...I won't spoil it, but it sets off the events of the rest of the book.

Overall, the stakes weren't very high in Rules of Civility (except for the unspoiled event), but the book was still an absorbing work of historical fiction, set during a very interesting time period and dealing with very interesting people. 

Towards the middle of the book, there was a dry patch. I found Rules of Civility much more interesting when Tinker Grey was around, and he does drop out of Katey's life for the most part in certain sections. He's kind of preoccupied with Eve. 

Sometimes there were too many metaphors, but the writing off Rules of Civility was really lush and compelling. I think Towles accurately and convincingly portrayed the time period and the characters' thoughts. Katey narrates in a kind of matter-of-fact, wordly way; she's not a tough girl, but she does seem to know a lot about how to survive in New York, not an easy place to live for a young woman by herself.

I find it interesting how very few books talk about glittering New York parties in the present day; it's all set in the 20's or a bit later. Part of the function of a certain type of historical fiction is to make one feel rather nostalgic for the looseness and gaiety of the time. Although novels like The Other Typist and Rules of Civility also portray the many tensions, and the extreme downsides of New York at that time: the corruption, the tragedy, etc.

I didn't love Rules of Civility (the ending particularly wasn't quite satisfying), but I really liked it. I enjoyed the characters, the plot, and the setting. It was interesting how removed the wealthy seemed from the Depression. I would recommend Rules of Civility; it's a very good historical fiction novel. 

324 pages. 

Rating: ****

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Off to Santa Fe!

I'm off to the Santa Fe Opera Festival and then New York, a trip I'm really looking forward to. This, will however, mean a few less blog posts these next three weeks. Best wishes!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

City of Women, David R. Gillham

City of WomenThe blind man taps his cane rhythmically. Three taps, three taps, three taps to gain the attention of passing Berliners. 

"It is 1943—the height of the Second World War. With the men away at the front, Berlin has become a city of women. On the surface, Sigrid Schröder is the model German soldier’s wife: She goes to work every day, does as much with her rations as she can, and dutifully cares for her meddling mother-in-law, all the while ignoring the horrific immoralities of the regime. But behind this façade is an entirely different Sigrid, a woman of passion who dreams of her former Jewish lover, now lost in the chaos of the war. But Sigrid is not the only one with secrets—she soon finds herself caught between what is right and what is wrong, and what falls somewhere in the shadows between the two . . ."

The first few pages of City of Women were slow and confusing, but after that, the book quickly got interesting; I love World War II fiction, and this one was very good. The fact that it was written in the present tense was unusual; historical fiction usually isn't, considering that it's historical. Of course, the use of present tense has the effect of making the book and the story feel much more immediate, as if it's actually unfolding right in front of your eyes, as if the events could perhaps be changed. If everything is told in the past, one kind of knows that it's already finished, and one is powerless to change anything. Of course, it's really the same in present tense; it's just an illusion. 

This book is all about appearances and what lies beneath them. Sigrid seems so dutiful, doing what she's supposed to do, but like the girl who she helps at the beginning of the book, she has secrets that she's hasn't shared with anyone. It's also about hidden desires, of which Sigrid has many. Her friend Renate openly cavorts about with men, but Sigrid hides her past and the fact that she's lonely. I must say that I didn't like the secret romance at all; the man seemed like a jerk and he didn't seem to respect or even love Sigrid very much at all. 

City of Women was way more steamy than I expected it to be; sex is basically what the entire first half focuses on. It doesn't have a huge amount of historical detail, but just enough that the book doesn't feel flat. City of Women focuses as you might expect on the women left in Berlin and how they're coping with the war and with loneliness, each in their different ways. 

The descriptions of the rationing and the wounded were really compelling. "The phrase books vanished from the shops, along with such items as soap, tooth powder, sewing needles, eggs, and wool socks. And though many boys did return home, they did so missing limbs." (pg. 54). There's not much food at all. Sigrid, living with her mother-in-law, subsists mostly on soup. 

City of Women is a great blend of history and fiction. There are perhaps too many novels set during World War II, and City of Women attempts to offer a fresh perspective. I don't know if it entirely succeeded, but I enjoyed reading about the war from a German perspective, albeit a German who is not fond of Hitler and his regime. Although The Book Thief also does that, and is a better book. 

I really enjoyed the whole plot with Fraulein Kohl or Ericha. Just like Sigrid, she has a lot of secrets, and she causes a lot of trouble for Sigrid too. At one point, she steals some winter clothes that Sigrid and her mother-in-law were donating to for soldiers at the front. I was annoyed at her for that; Ericha seemed kind of clueless that she was jeopardizing so many people's lives besides her own. Sigrid eventually becomes involved in the Underground movement, and that for me was where the book really picked up. That was the best part of the book. I didn't care to read about Sigrid's affair. 

City of Women is certainly a work of historical fiction for adults, but it's worth reading and I enjoyed it. Thanks to Berkley Trade for sending me a review copy of the paperback edition. 

426 pages. 

Rating: ****

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Howard's End, E.M. Forster

One may as well begin with Helen's letters to her sister.
Howards End

"A chance acquaintance beings together the prosperous bourgeois Wilcox family and the clever, cultured and idealistic Schlegel sisters. As clear-eyed Margaret develops a friendship with Mrs. Wilcox, the impetuous Helen brings into their midst a young bank clerk named Leonard Bast, who lives at the edge of poverty and ruin. When Mrs. Wilcox dies, her family discovers that she wants to leave her country home, Howard's End, to Margaret. Thus as Forster sets in motion a chain of events that will entangle three different families, he brilliantly portrays their aspirations to personal and social harmony."

I didn't like Howard's End as much as I was expecting to, which was kind of disappointing. There were a few good sections of it, but other parts were very dull and full of names. It's one of those novels, at least for me, that are very important scholarly, but aren't the most entertaining. 

I enjoyed A Room With a View much more, although I can't exactly say why. I think the writing was better there, and I liked the story more too. In both, however, women are fascinated by a family they meet in foreign places (the Emersons and the Wilcoxes).

There were a lot of confusing parts in Howard's End too. I didn't understand what the big fuss was about in some parts as well. One part I did really like was the way that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and its effect on people was described; it was around five pages of character study and description of the emotion caused by the piece. There were other mentions of music too that I enjoyed. Clearly Forster enjoyed music as much as I do.

Howard's End did improve as it went on, but I didn't end up finishing it. It was just too dull, and though the plot sounded interesting, the book got bogged down. 

I didn't read the whole introduction, but in the beginning of it, David Lodge mentions that A Passage to India is widely considered to be Forster's finest novel. I might try reading that one. 

302 pages. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Belle Epoque, Elizabeth Ross

Belle Epoque"Perfect, just perfect," says the stout man. He scrutinizes me, his suit pinching across his rotund torso, and I assume that this is Monsieur Durandeau, but he doesn't introduce himself. 

"When Maude Pichon runs away from provincial Brittany to Paris, her romantic dreams vanish as quickly as her savings. Desperate for work, she answers an unusual ad. The Durandeau Agency provides its clients with a unique service—the beauty foil. Hire a plain friend and become instantly more attractive.  Monsieur Durandeau has made a fortune from wealthy socialites, and when the Countess Dubern needs a companion for her headstrong daughter, Isabelle, Maude is deemed the perfect foil. But Isabelle has no idea her new "friend" is the hired help, and Maude's very existence among the aristocracy hinges on her keeping the truth a secret. Yet the more she learns about Isabelle, the more her loyalty is tested. And the longer her deception continues, the more she has to lose."

Belle Epoque was an entertaining historical novel in between middle grade and YA (it's listed as ages 12 and up, but really someone younger than 12 could read it). The  "repoussoirs" (the repellers), as they're called, exist only to make their patrons appear more attractive. They're barely viewed as humans by the nobility who use them; they're merely accessories, just like a hat or an umbrella. Maude at first really doesn't want to become one, as it's very degrading work, and she has her dignity. The first time she comes to the Agency she leaves, but eventually she's forced to come back because she needs the money, and she hasn't been able to find any other way to make enough. Plus, being a repoussoir is a pretty cushy job, if you can put up with the humiliation of it. 

The writing in Belle Epoque certainly wasn't great, but I think Elizabeth Ross described the upper crust of Parisian society very well, with its competition, biting remarks, and obsession with appearance. I'm certainly no expert at all on the 1890's, but it seemed historically accurate and well-researched. 

The idea of the beauty foil is an interesting one; I'm not sure if it actually happened in the late nineteenth century. I wouldn't put it past such a glittering, beauty-focused society. It's an interesting period, I think, and definitely one that I would like to know more about. In the author's note, Elizabeth Ross talks about a short story by Zola which inspired her. 

As for the characters, Maude wasn't that interesting to me, but I liked the character of Marie-Josee. Isabelle was also very interesting; she's a debutante, but she doesn't particularly want to be one. She doesn't want to become a trophy wife to a duke just because her mother wants her to marry well. Isabelle has a secret room in which she reads, photographs, and makes scientific observations. Maude and Isabelle actually become friends, and I was dreading the moment when Isabelle inevitably discovered that her mother was paying Maude to befriend her. Isabelle was probably my favorite character, opinionated and intelligent. 

You might be wondering where the subtitle of "a novel of beauty and betrayal" comes from. Well, the beauty part is easily answered. But the betrayal? Belle Epoque Paris is swirling with intrigue and secrets; Maude is leading a double life with the Duberns, and she also has her own life in the artist's quarter. That felt a bit forced, but the sub-plot was still enjoyable. 

Yet Belle Epoque kind of feels like the author's fantasy; of being in Paris at the rise of so many artists, during the Belle Epoque, the "Beautiful era". The novel is written in present tense, so it kind of feels like a daydream of another life, with the descriptions of the beauty of the city and the art. Of course, Maude must suffer lots of hardships too; she runs away from her village to avoid marrying the butcher, and is starving in Paris for a while before the book begins. Speaking of her running away, I kind of wish the author had included more background about her mother and her country life at the beginning. Not an information dump necessarily, but just a few more facts. It would have probably helped me understand Maude more. 

I'll admit, though, that Belle Epoque kind of made me want to visit Paris at that time for a little bit. Though the society is cruel and capricious, there's also such beauty present in the houses that Maude visits, and that only she is able to fully appreciate because she's never seen it before. She describes the Rochefort's house: "The floor is polished, shining like a new chestnut, and couples are dancing in perfect time; the dresses are like twirling butterflies of silk, each one anchored to a dark suit and white tie. Pale mint walls are crowned with ornate moldings; bronze sconces fashioned like intertwining rose branches hold pink candles. Gilt-frame mirrors as tall as the room are interspersed between vast windows, and sugar pink settees are positioned along the wall. The light is golden and fizzing. I'm speechless - it feels as if I'm walking through the pages of a fairy tale." (pgs. 122-123). I loved that description, those words. And perhaps Maude is right, perhaps she is walking through the pages of a fairy tale. Belle Epoque certainly reads like one, set in the past, full of beautiful and ugly things.  

I would most definitely recommend this one. I really, really liked it. Thanks to Delacorte Books for sending me a review copy. 

323 pages.

Rating: ****

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Guest Review: All That is Red, Anna Caltabiano

All That is Red*This review is by my friend The Girl in the Orange.* There is one spoiler in this review, which is in extremely small font and crossed out.

I closed my eyes and from where I stood on the cliff, I saw a brilliant view of the Red fields far below me. They seemed to welcome me and I eagerly leapt forward into their embrace. 

"If you could choose a world without loneliness, without shame, grief, misery, or feeling of any kind, would you, if it also meant that you lost the simple pleasure of a picnic on a sunny day or the joy of falling in love? Would the allure of a comfortable numbness prove too tempting to resist? Could you choose between feeling pain and not feeling anything, ever again? A girl is caught in a world where this choice is fiercely contested. In the cross-fire between the Red and White empires, the feeling and the unfeeling, each bent on the other's destruction, the girl must choose between emotion and oblivion, joining the ranks with the Reds as they fight to resist the Whites, but all the while struggling with her own desperate ambivalence. All That Is Red is a story of survival and a journey through the human condition, revealing how the intimate euphoria of pain can sometimes be all we have to remind us that we are alive. Anna Caltabiano is fifteen years old. She was born in British colonial Hong Kong to a Japanese mother and an Italian-American father, before moving to Palo Alto, California; the mecca of futurism. Her writing explores and exposes an adolescent dystopia in which accepted traditions, religions, cultures and communities have been eroded, resulting in a lost generation consumed by social apathy and self-loathing which has found solace through electronic connections."

I wanted to like this book. I really did. As an aspiring teen author myself, Caltabiano's story was inspirational and motivational to me, and I snapped up a copy of the book as soon as I could find one--I did end up reading it all the way through, but mainly because I felt obligated. I found the writing overly simplistic at times, while trying too hard to sound sophisticated at others (which is, granted, easy to fall prey to). I think you can definitely tell that it wasn't written by an adult--which is, of course, not necessarily a bad thing, but the inexperience seeps through the cracks in the voice of the novel. I would have loved to see an adult editor/mentor work harder on this with Caltabiano; in my opinion, the book would have been improved drastically by maturing the tone a bit.

The book was also extremely vague; sure, vagueness can be a useful and thought-provoking tool in prose, but in this book the main character doesn't have a name, nor does her male accomplice/friend/possible love interest, at least until the last few pages. The dimension, or world or realm or wherever the story takes place, isn't described except in context. You have to piece everything together, based only on the protagonist's short jaunt through it at the beginning of the novel. Even more confusing, the main character keeps flashing back to the "real" world throughout the novel, mentioning things like cutting herself at school and in the bathtub, which is woefully inconsistent with the realm in which her narration is taking place; of course, the realm is later revealed to be her own psyche, which she travels through on a metaphorical journey while unconscious from blood loss and while this big reveal was essentially the climax of the book, I felt that it could have been written better had we known (or inferred) this from the beginning. Maybe it was just me and my idiocy. But I was very lost almost the entire time I was reading All That is Red.

164 pages. 

Rating: **

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the LaneI wore a black suit and a white shirt, a black tie and black shoes, all polished and shiny: clothes that normally would make me feel uncomfortable, as if I were in a stolen uniform, or pretending to be an adult. Today they gave me comfort of a kind. I was wearing the right clothes for a hard day.

"Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn't thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she'd claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy. Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what. A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly's wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark." 

God, The Ocean at the End of the Lane was beautiful. It is a fairy tale of the best kind, as Erin Morgenstern says, "soaked in myth and memory and salt water." Neil Gaiman is a master, and this one was in some respects better than Stardust which I loved too. I loved Stardust for its fairy tale elements and the battle of Good and Evil and the writing. All of these things were present and better in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It's well worth $26 even though it's a slim book. 

All of the events that the nameless narrator recalls are told through the eyes of a younger child; he sees everything simply and clearly at the age of seven. So many strange things are happening, but they don't seem at all odd to him. Gradually the memories come flooding back as the middle-aged man sits by the duck pond which Lettie called the ocean. 

I certainly wasn't expecting The Ocean at the End of the Lane to be so brilliant, but it was. It was also, of course, really disturbing, particularly the very first nightmare that the main character has, choking on coins. It was quite scary, and I actually had to put the book down for a second before I continued on. Ursula Monkton was also the scariest and most evil creation ever; I loathed her, although I didn't really understand what she was doing as the housekeeper. 

The two Hempstocks were very fascinating. The older one can even see electrons, not a power witches in traditional fairy tales normally have. But I suppose traditionally, witches can see things normal people can't, and make predictions; in this case, Gaiman just takes it a bit farther. The character of Lettie was really interesting too; she's eleven, and yet she's clearly so much older than that. She knows so much about everything. 

Gaiman's writing is, as usual, utterly gorgeous. There's lush description, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, despite being short, is a very rich novel. I read it in maybe two sittings all in one day. 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is marketed for adults, but it could just as easily be young adult; however, adults are probably in more of a position to enjoy it, so I'm not really the best person to appreciate this novel. However, I still really, really loved it. Probably later I'll love it more.

My only criticism of the book was this: that parts of it didn't actually make much sense. Why was the thing that called itself Ursula Monkton in the world in the first place? It was explained a little bit, but not enough for my tastes. There could have been more background information. It was still marvelous though.

Some favorite quotes: "'That's the trouble with living things. Don't last very long. Kittens one day, old cats the next. And then just memories. And the memories fade and blend and smudge together...'" (pg. 45).

"I liked myths. They weren't adult stories and they weren't children's stories. They were better than that. They just were." (pg. 53). This reminded me of Erin Morgenstern's blurb of the book: "I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane in one sitting. It is soaked in myth and memory and salt water and it is so, so lovely. It feels as if it was always there, somewhere in the story-stuff of the universe." It just is, according to her, just like the myths that the narrator is referring to.

Like Erin Morgenstern, I read the book in basically one sitting and was thoroughly immersed in the world. That doesn't happen that often. There are more quotes that I could include, but I would recommend that you just read this excellent dark fantasy novel if it sounds interesting. 

You can read other reviews here and here.

178 pages.

Rating: *****

Friday, July 19, 2013

Rereading Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed.

Here's what I said in my original review: "I can understand the fascination with burning, but why books? I read Fahrenheit 451 for class, and I enjoyed it, though it's somewhat disturbing. In a futuristic world, firemen don't put out fires, they set fires, and burn books. Guy Montag is a fireman, who has always been satisfied with his job, until he meets Clarisse, a seventeen year old who changes how he thinks about everything...

Ray Bradbury has a very distinctive writing style, which I noticed in Dandelion Wine, which I read a while ago. I would say Fahrenheit 451 is a much better book; the writing is better and the subject matter more interesting. The society depicted in the book is really scary. Mildred, Montag's wife, is always watching her three-wall television (she wants a four wall). It's interactive too, so she can take part in the shows. She's almost always watching it or listening to her Seashell (earphones).

Clarisse and Faber are both really interesting characters. I think I would probably get along with Clarisse. Now, books being really important to me, I found this book super disturbing, and not altogether unrealistic. Though written in the 50's, it bears a certain resemblance to the increasing consumerism of today. Bradbury builds suspense and dread with his foreshadowing (for example, the Hound not liking Montag).

I've been planning to read The Martian Chronicles for a while now, and Fahrenheit 451 motivated me to do so. I would highly recommend this excellent Ray Bradbury novel."

The educational world certainly loves this book a lot. I read it in middle school, and now in my first year of high school, what's on the summer reading list? You guessed it. I think F-451 is kind of overrated. It is certainly a good book, but this is my third time reading it (I read it for fun once too), and I'm kind of sick of it. I will say that every time I read it, I like it a bit better. The writing, although sometimes overly dramatic, is really good, and the story has a lot of bearing on modern times. The thing is, it's almost like Bradbury wrote the novel to be over-analyzed in a high school class; everything means something other than what it is. 

I would say that Bradbury sometimes uses metaphors too much. Every page is filled with metaphors and similes, personification and hyperboles. The images themselves are all very interesting, but sometimes it's just sensory overload. Sometimes being sparse with your metaphors isn't such a bad thing. 

I read Fahrenheit 451 in a different fashion than I have the previous two times. For school, I had to annotate the novel, and while that style is kind of tedious, I did definitely notice things that I hadn't before. For example, the over-abundance of metaphors. I also noticed just how many times Bradbury equates books with birds. I'd been aware of it before, but actually underlining the passages reinforces it. It still feels sacrilegious to write on books though, especially my brand new copy of Fahrenheit 451 

Reading slow and being constantly aware of everything is not the most enjoyable way to read, but it can be illuminating. It certainly was in this case, and I enjoyed the novel more the third time. It has its points, although I really do think that it's overused. 

I definitely prefer the older cover to the new 60th anniversary one. A box of matches inside of a book is just not as compelling as a man made of print lit on fire. I'm pretty sure that was the original cover too. 

F-451 is most definitely a very good novel, which I would recommend. It's certainly worth reading at least once, if by some miracle you escaped reading it for school.
158 pages. 

Rating: ****

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Tisha, Robert Specht

Tisha: The Story of a Young Teacher in the Alaska WildernessEven though it was barely eight o'clock and the sun had just come up, practically the whole town of Eagle had turned out to see the pack train off. 

"Alaska was as remote as the moon, as roistering and lawless as the Gold Rush. And a pretty young schoolteacher from Colorado like Anne Hobbs was even rarer than nuggets." This is the story of her journey into the Alaska wilderness to become a teacher in the small gold-mining town of Chicken. In 1927, she courageously braved both the elements and the disapproval of many after she tries to treat the Native Americans as equals. It's a good old fashioned yarn, full of catastrophes and hiss-worthy villains. (Paraphrased from a blurb by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt). Tisha is also based upon a true story that was told to Robert Specht. The name "Tisha" comes from a small child's mispronounciation of "teacher" early on in the book.

A friend of mine really liked this one, but I thought it was out of print, so I was very pleasantly surprised when I saw it at a bookstore. It's a book that's really, really entertaining, somewhat disturbing, and interesting.  The writing is spare, but not too spare, and there's just enough description of the Alaskan landscape.

I really loved the main character. She's spunky and determined to survive and do right. Even in a strange and sometimes frightening new land, she never gives up hope. That's something I really admired about her, and it made all the other characters admire her too. I loved the rest of the characters as well; none of them are perfect, and some of them are downright evil, but they're all striving to do what they believe is right, even if it what they believe is right is bigoted and racist.

Tisha is not a very suspenseful novel, and although it's certainly not overwritten, it's a book that takes a while to get through. Nevertheless, it's really, really compelling and interesting. I loved that Tisha was an entertaining story but it also talked about a lot of real issues faced in the country at that time and still (sadly) to some extent today. Just because they're Native Americans, many of the whites in Alaska want to prevent them from having the same rights afforded to whites. Anne can clearly see how blind they are, and she's horrified by it. However, she doesn't realize how deeply rooted the prejudices of the people are. It's going to take a lot to change their minds, but who better to do so than her?

Tisha is one of those books that are really infuriating because of the racism and blindness of many of the characters. The children in the town are being brainwashed to believe that Indians are less intelligent, and the adults are determined that no Indians be allowed to attend Tisha's school. It's ridiculous. It does make for an engrossing story though. I found myself rooting for Tisha and yes, hissing at the villains. Or more like wanting to slap some sense into them.

Tisha reminded me of True Grit in some respects, even though the premise is entirely different. In both novels, we have a spunky, determined, young girl venturing out into a wild, male-dominated frontier and challenging the authority. No one believes they can succeed. Mattie just wants to revenge her father's murder; Anne wants to make things right for the local population. Both are excellent books, and both are among my all-time favorites.

I definitely wasn't expecting Tisha to be as good as it was. It was amazing in so many respects: plot, description, characters, insightfulness, and of course entertainment. Tisha also had a really sweet and conflicted romance. It's a book that should be more widely read; it's superbly written and very thought-provoking. I would highly, highly recommend Tisha.

342 pages.

Rating: *****

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest DisasterStraddling the world, one foot in China and the other in Nepal, I cleared the ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind, and stared absently down at the vastness of Tibet.

Into Thin Air is Jon Krakuer's account of the Mt. Everest disaster that took place in May 1996. He begins when he reaches the top of the summit, and then goes back to the very beginnings of the journey. "He takes great pains to provide a balanced picture of the people and events he witnessed and gives due credit to the tireless and dedicated Sherpas. He also avoids blasting easy targets such as Sandy Pittman, the wealthy socialite who brought an espresso maker along on the expedition. Krakauer's highly personal inquiry into the catastrophe provides a great deal of insight into what went wrong. But for Krakauer himself, further interviews and investigations only lead him to the conclusion that his perceived failures were directly responsible for a fellow climber's death. Clearly, Krakauer remains haunted by the disaster, and although he relates a number of incidents in which he acted selflessly and even heroically, he seems unable to view those instances objectively. In the end, despite his evenhanded and even generous assessment of others' actions, he reserves a full measure of vitriol for himself."

I'd read and enjoyed Above All Things, so I wanted to read another story about Mt. Everest and its perils, this time one that purported to be nonfiction (although I'm sure some facts were stretched). The writing wasn't very good, and the story, while interesting, just was told poorly. It still wasn't quite as gripping as I thought it would be. The story moves at a pretty slow pace. It kind of couldn't keep me interested for very long. There was a lot of dry history, and Krakeuer just couldn't make it compelling, even though he is a novelist. 

With so many review copies flooding in, I didn't finish Into Thin Air. I'll probably return to it some other time. I've kind of been not finishing a lot of books lately. 

374 pages. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

The Bell JarIt was a queer, sultry, summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.

"The Bell Jar chronicles the crack-up of Esther Greenwood: brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under--maybe for the last time. Sylvia Plath masterfully draws the reader into Esther's breakdown with such intensity that Esther's insanity becomes completely real and even rational, as probable and accessible an experience as going to the movies. Such deep penetration into the dark and harrowing corners of the psyche is an extraordinary accomplishment and has made The Bell Jar a haunting American classic."

Stupid Blogger deleted my review of The Bell Jar from a couple of weeks ago, so I now I have to type up my thoughts without having this excellent book fresh in my mind. Ah, Blogger, how I hate you. I'm considering switching to Wordpress entirely, but that's another story. 

Anyway, I was reading The Bell Jar while on a trip to Costa Rica, and it was really, really good. The writing was very strange, but there was some beautiful language, and Esther's narrative was so cool and detached from all of it, from her slow descent into madness. 

Oh, look, I wrote my original review down in a notebook. That's handy. Here it is: The Bell Jar was a good but really depressing book, as I knew it would be. I didn't love the writing with all of its fanciful descriptions, but I do think Plath's portrayal of the descent into madness is very compelling. It did seem a bit sudden though; at the beginning of the book Esther is fine, although there is some foreshadowing. Then all of a sudden she can't do anything, focus on anything, write anything. 

Her main problem is that she sees all these different paths she could take, and the indecision drives her mad. The description of the fig tree was really chilling, of all the different branches one could take, and being stuck unable to take any of them. 

And yet, I still didn't really understand her unraveling. After all, one doesn't have to commit to one career choice; If Esther didn't like one thing, she could try something else. She doesn't seem to have thought of that. But I think it's more than that, more than what career to take; she just doesn't know what to do with her life in general. 

Esther annoyed me sometimes, but she was also so sad. At the beginning of the book she's rational, and in the middle she's contemplating suicide. And the end...I wasn't sure what to make of the end. I was expecting a different ending based on what actually happened to Sylvia Plath. I liked its ambivalence though. 

The Bell Jar was intense and really good, although very depressing. Here's a quote that was really interesting, towards the beginning, which shows the reader that Esther definitely has mental problems. "I saw avocado pear after avocado pear being stuffed with crabmeat and mayonnaise and photographed under bright lights. I saw the delicate, pink-mottled claw meat poking seductively through its blanket of mayonnaise and the bland yellow pear cup with its rim of alligator green cradling the whole mess." (pg. 48). It's certainly a very disturbing description. Here's another funny quote: "I'd adored him from a distance for five years before he even looked at me, and then there was a beautiful time when I still adored him and he started looking at me, and then just as he was looking at me more and more I discovered quite by accident what an awful hypocrite he was, and now he wanted me to marry him and I hated his guts." (pg. 52). That was an amusing one. Anyway, I really liked The Bell Jar, and would recommend it. 

213 pages. 

Rating: ****

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Rereading An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

An Abundance of KatherinesAn Abundance of KatherinesThe morning after noted child prodigy Colin Singleton graduated from high school and got dumped for the nineteenth time by a girl named Katherine, he took a bath. 

From my original review: "I enjoyed Paper Towns and The Fault in Our Stars a lot, but I didn't like An Abundance of Katherines nearly as much. The book is about this boy named Colin Singleton, who has dated 19 girls named Katherine, all of which have dumped him. So he goes on a road trip with his Judge-Judy obsessed friend Hassan, and meets a girl who is miraculously not named Katherine. He's also working on a highly complicated formula that will predict the future of any relationship. I thought An Abundance of Katherines had an interesting premise, to say the least, but it never really panned out. I just wasn't engaged by it. The characters were OK, and there were some funny parts, but it wasn't like I was eager to see what happened next. I did like the design of the hardcover edition though. 

'All of John Green's books seem to feature trips of some kind, which is definitely a good starting point, but this one just never got off the ground. I would definitely recommend Paper Towns and The Fault in Our Stars, but not this one. And I am looking forward to reading Looking For Alaska."

I've read Looking For Alaska twice since then, and loved it the second time around. I started to reread An Abundance of Katherines with some trepidation, considering that I didn't like it much at all the first time around. It is still in my opinion the weakest of John Green's novels, but I definitely enjoyed it more than I did the first time, just like with Looking For Alaska. It can be annoying, but it also has a certain charm to it, one that I failed to see the first time I read it.

The premise itself is similar to the premises of John Green's other books, but there are unique aspects to it. For example, the footnotes, and the mathematical equation that Colin works on. I also liked reading about the different Katherine's.

An Abundance of Katherines is definitely one of John Green's weirder novels. There are a lot of pretty strange aspects about it; all the "fug"'s in the book, for one. Colin's friend Hassan is also kind of strange; I don't like him as a character that much. He's not at all compelling.

All of John Green's books except for his later two novels (TFiOS and Will Grayson, Will Grayson) are set in the South, and I think he writes about the South very convincingly, having lived there for much of his life. The characters and the landscape are an interesting mix of contradictions; I really find the South very interesting, both today and historically.

There are definitely many funny aspects of An Abundance of Katherines, such as the fact that Colin is trying to come up with a mathematical formula for the curve of a relationship. I didn't understand all of the math, but there is an appendix by Daniel Biss which explains it, and I definitely got it more than I did the first time around. Most of it I could actually understand by reading the appendix. Although of course John Green understands that it's ridiculous to think that you can graph the course of a romantic relationship. That's why it's funny.

I also do like the character of Lindsay, who is most definitely not a Katherine but intrigues Colin's everywhere. Just like in Will Grayson, Will Grayson, there are two characters with the same name in this novel.

I purchased the box set of John Green's books, with a hardcover edition of the new cover designed by a nerdfighter on right. I'm very glad that I got the box set; Looking For Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars are signed, and the case has a lot of amazing stuff on it. Definitely worth it. It can be bought here.

Anyway, An Abundance of Katherines is certainly not a phenomenal novel, and it shouldn't be one's first foray into John Green's work, but I did like it more this time. The writing and the story are both really good, and I'm certainly glad I reread the book.
215 pages.

Rating: ****

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Rereading Looking For Alaska by John Green

Looking for Alaska
This week before I left my family and Florida and the rest of my minor life to go to boarding school in Alabama, my mother insisted on throwing me a going-away party.

From my original review: "Finally, Looking For Alaska showed up at the scho
ol library, and was immediately snapped up by me. It's the story of Miles Halter shows up at a boarding school in Alabama to seek what Rabelais called 'the Great Perhaps'. You see, he's fascinated with last words; he memorizes them. At the Culver Creek, he meets Alaska Young, a crazy and attractive girl, as well as some other very strange people. They do some pretty odd things. 

That's John Green for you. I liked this one a bit better than An Abundance of Katherines, but I still think Paper Towns and The Fault in Our Stars were both much better books; more thoughtful, though obviously this one attempts to be. Looking for Alaska is kind of funny, though, and certainly I did want to know what would happen. Also the 'x number of days before' was very dramatic. It's a very John Greenish book, if you know what I mean. There's a lot of smoking and d

Alaska is seriously disturbed. All of them are, actually. I really wanted to like this book, but I couldn't get into the first half of  the book, "the before" Somehow, it wasn't really engaging or gripping or any of those things that make you love a book. But then the big thing happened. And then the book was amazing. It feels like all of the other stuff is just a build-up to what happens after. It's pretty easy to guess, but without spoiling anything, Miles is kind of grappling with his grief and also his overwhelming feeling of guilt. And there are some really nice thoughts and there is some really great writing here. The first half was a bit boring, but the second made up for it a lot. Stick with this one. And yes, the last three pages are amazing." 

For whatever reason, I liked Looking For Alaska a lot more the second time around. I was pulled into the story and I just kept reading. Although John Green's plot-lines tend to be generic (nerdy/quirky/outsider boy named Miles/Colin/Quentin is fascinated by an unattainable girl named Alaska/Katherine/Lindsay/Margo), I really like that plot-line, and each of John Green's first three books explores different facets of it. And TFiOS  is different.

While all the smoking and drinking that occurs in the book does make me a little uneasy, I think it's interesting to read about teenagers who both do all sorts of "forbidden" things and also talk about literature, last words, and the Great Perhaps. The characters are all contradictions; they're smart people, but they do really stupid things sometimes just for the heck of it. 

The two main criticisms of Looking For Alaska and John Green's books in general is that the writing is pretentious and the characters are unrealistic for their age in terms of how they speak and what they do. I would agree with both of those statements for the most part, but they're not necessarily bad things. I don't find John Green's writing all that pretentious, but I do think that the way the characters talk is not how most teenager (even intellectual ones) talk. That doesn't really take away from my enjoying his books; it's just something that I notice. I would also definitely agree that the characters in this novel (especially Alaska) are over the top, but Miles just sees her that way. Most of his books, but Paper Towns especially, deal in some way or other with how we see people as opposed to who they actually are. In Paper Towns, all the characters see a different version of Margo; Miles also has his own vision of who Alaska is. She's a loud, brash, funny, smart, and attractive person. 

I find it funny that this one was banned from the curriculum at several schools. There is a very physical scene, but it contrasts sharply with the following scene which is not physical at all but much more rewarding; Miles feels a much deeper connection there.

I didn't find the first section to be boring as I did when I first read the book. I enjoyed reacquainting myself with the characters and reading about their antics. Of course, things do get much more exciting (and heartbreaking) in the "after" sections, which I'm not going to reveal anything about. It is really compelling though. 

Looking For Alaska is still not my favorite of John Green's novels, but it has definitely approved in my estimation of it. It's an excellent, excellent book which I would highly recommend. My love for it increased as I read. I think it's definitely one of John Green's more meaningful novels, and it is one of my favorite books.
221 pages. 

Rating: *****