Monday, February 25, 2013

Ellie's final tally

So I don't know if anyone is still checking this blog now that the year's over, but I finally got my act together and posted a few reviews that have been languishing, as well as doing the final tally of the books I read last year. They're up on my book blog if you care to check them out.

New reviews of Lost in a Good Book, Destined, and A Jane Austen Education are up here.

The final tally is here.

Thanks for a fun year in reading and (occasionally) blogging!

Monday, December 31, 2012

49 & 50

The forty-ninth book I read this year was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It was this book that I cuddled up with on Christmas Eve, reading to my heart's content while the snow fell outside. And what a glorious day that was. I think books 6 and 7 are my favorites of the series, and boy, does JKR end with a bang. 

I don't think there is another series that leaves me feeling quite like this one does, when I finish it. There's an internet e-card that circulates Pinterest in various forms that always says something like, Here I am... mourning the deaths of fictional characters while life goes on around me. Or... Just finished another book series and now I don't know what to do with my life. &c.

That's kind of how it is for me with HP. I love the series; I hate that it has to end. I want to read ALL ABOUT THE 19 YEARS that happens after the end of the main story and the start of the epilogue in Deathly Hallows. I feel like I'm saying goodbye to my friends when I shut that book. Deathly Hallows definitely gets 5 stars. If I had more time, I'd was poetic about all the best parts. Alas, I must proceed to book 50.

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The fiftieth book I read in 2012 as The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. As I mentioned in my review on Goodreads, somehow I confused this book with a different title and mistakenly thought I'd already read it. I'm glad I discovered the error, though, and got the chance to read this one for real. I give it 4 stars.

Let me start by saying that this is one of the saddest books I've ever read. I'm going with 'sad' even though I've heard other readers vehemently protest that designation and say it should be called melancholy. Melancholy is fine, too. But back to the point. Seriously, Ms. Roy, I don't think it could get much more depressing.

If you aren't a fan of books that don't end in sunshine and roses, or even have the slightest glimpse of a ray or a petal, this is not the book for you. Me-- I really appreciate well-written books of any type. If it makes me feel as deeply as this one did, I'm not really concerned about the fact that the story is terribly tragic. I'm just grateful for the experience.

Roy's writing style is haunting and beautiful. The narrative skips around in time-- in the interview at the end, she mentions that the book starts at the end and ends in the middle. This is very accurate. She includes enough foreshadowing that you know a little about a lot of things that are going to happen, you just don't know exactly when and how. For impatient readers, this could be problematic. I happened to like how she set it up. I admit, at times I had to stop and figure out where in time the next section of the book was before I could continue. It wasn't terribly off-putting for me, but I think for some it might be.

Because I don't even know how to give a brief summary of the plot without spoiling it, I'll borrow one.

"Equal parts powerful family saga, forbidden love story, and piercing political drama, it is the story of an affluent Indian family forever changed by one fateful day in 1969. The seven-year-old twins Estha and Rahel see their world shaken irrevocably by the arrival of their beautiful young cousin, Sophie. It is an event that will lead to an illicit liaison and tragedies accidental and intentional, exposing "big things [that] lurk unsaid" in a country drifting dangerously toward unrest." -- back cover

Some of my favorite parts of Roy's writing:

"...the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don't deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don't surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover's skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don't. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won't. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn't. And yet you want to know again." 
 "What Esthappen and Rahel witnessed that morning, though they didn't know it then, was a clinical demonstration in controlled conditions (this was not war after all, or genocide) of human nature's pursuit of ascendancy. Structure. Order. Complete monopoly. It was human history, masquerading as God's Purpose, revealing herself to an underage audience.

There was nothing accidental about what happened that morning. Nothing incidental. It was no stray mugging or personal settling of scores. This was an era imprinting itself on those who lived in it. 

History in live performance.

If they hurt Velutha more than they intended to, it was only because any kinship, any connection between themselves and him, any implication that if nothing else, at least biologically he was a fellow creature-- had been severed long ago. They were not arresting a man, they were exorcising fear. They had no instrument to calibrate how much punishment he could take. No means of gauging how much or how permanently they had damaged him.

Unlike the custom of rampaging religious mobs or conquering armies running riot, that morning in the Heart of Darkness the posse of Touchable Policemen acted with economy, not frenzy. Efficiency, not anarchy. Responsibility, not hysteria. They didn't tear out his hair or burn him alive. They didn't hack off his genitals and stuff them in his mouth. They didn't rape him. Or behead him.

After all they were not battling an epidemic. They were merely inoculating a community against an outbreak."




Thursday, December 27, 2012

48: Graceling

Slowly but surely, I will catch up on my reviews. Unfortunately, I don't think I will complete 52 books by next Tuesday. I'm reading the 50th now. But I'm not crushed-- I fulfilled the spirit of my goal and read a LOT this year.

Book 48 was Graceling by Kristen Cashore. I give it 4.5 stars.

In the world of Graceling, some individuals are born with two different colored eyes. This is the mark of a Graceling, one who has a gift or special ability, also known as a Grace. Graces can be anything from mind reading, to being exceptionally good at climbing trees, to being an excellent swimmer, to being a super human fighter. Gracelings usually aren't born with two different colored eyes-- this happens sometime after birth and reveals the Graceling, but sometimes it takes even longer for the Grace to make itself known. Parents and others must be watchful to discover the nature of the Grace. In some areas, Gracelings are feared or shunned; in others, revered.

Katsa, our main character, is believed to have the Grace of killing. In other words, don't mess with her. She is the niece of a king and has been essentially taken as his property, to do his dirty work throughout his and other kingdoms. If the king wants someone punished, he sends Katsa. She comes to a deeper understanding of what her Grace actually is part way through the book, and I'm glad the author chose to clarify/modify it. I wasn't altogether satisfied with the idea of her Grace simply being a superhuman ability to kill.

The main story of the book involves Katsa and her newfound friend and fellow Graceling Po, as they work together to save Po's niece from the clutches of a very bad man. There is much action, intrigue, and yes, some love.

It took me a bit, but I really liked the world Cashore created. I dove into the story and couldn't wait to find out how it would resolve. The one thing I am slightly disappointed about, after finishing, is that it appears the second book in the Graceling Ream series has nothing to do with Katsa and Po. I really grew to like those two and I was eager to read a sequel that continued their adventures together. Oh well.

The strongest criticism I have read in regards to this book deals with what some perceive as Katsa's anti-man/anti-marriage attitude. I can understand where these readers are coming from, but I don't agree whole-heartedly. In this book, Katsa has spent most of her life at the mercy and whims of her uncle, the king. She is, for all practical purposes, his property, and believes she must do as he bids. This means using her Grace to punish people with whom the king disagrees, whether they are in the wrong or not.

Part way through the book, with the help of Po, Katsa comes to realize that, in part because of her powerful Grace, she doesn't have to submit herself to the king. I don't think it is a spoiler to say that she decides to leave the king's service. She finally, for the first time in her life, feels like she is in control of herself. She begins to learn who she really is and make her own choices. This freedom strengthens her resolve, which she apparently has held since she was young, to never marry. Even after falling in love, Katsa refuses to agree to marriage. She ends up in what could probably be called an open relationship, and I think these plot choices are what angered some readers.

I disagree with the criticism for a few reasons. First, while the book doesn't exactly spell it out, it seems that the society Cashore created is meant to be similar to a medieval society, at least as far as the standing of women goes. They are more property than anything else. Because of the way Katsa has lived under the thumb of her uncle, she has never wanted to deliberately give herself as property to another man, even as a wife. This attitude is prevalent throughout the book and forms a pretty big part of Katsa's personaity, but I wouldn't characterize it as anti-marriage. I would say it is anti-subjugation of women. If Katsa didn't have to worry about being used and controlled, she wouldn't have the aversion to marriage that she has. It's not that she hates men, after all, she does fall in love. It's that she wants to be in control of herself and her Grace. Who can blame her for that? I don't think Cashore was trying to make a statement about modern day marriage at all, as some readers have inferred.

I'd definitely recommend this if you enjoy YA fantasy fiction. I plan to read the next two books.







Thursday, December 6, 2012

47: Divergent

Divergent
Veronica Roth
4.5 stars

This is a YA book that I've heard a lot of hype about, but hadn't gotten around to reading. A friend in the ward so highly praised it that I finally went and placed a hold on it at the library. My number came up a lot sooner than expected and I picked it up and read it in about 2 days. It's not a short book, but it is a quick read.

Divergent belongs in the category of dystopian fiction-- the world, or perhaps only the U.S., or perhaps only Chicago, IL, has presumably been through some sort of catastrophe or breaking of society as we now know it. I say this because the setting is a future Chicago and references are made to Chicago landmarks, but there's isn't mention of anywhere else or whether the same social structure exists elsewhere.

This is one of the only issues I had with the book, but it's a fairly prominent issue and one that keep the book from being, for me, fantastic. I think books in this category need to have a solid foundation. For one, I want to know more of the why and how and when and, in this case, the what, that caused the societal breakdown and eventual rebuilding. Here, there is literally nothing. Perhaps these details are addressed in the other books, but if that is so I would have liked Roth to at least hint of that. As is, it's way too conspicuously absent for my taste.

To continue with the set-up, in this future Chicago, society is divided into factions: Abnegation, Erudite, Candor, Amity, and Dauntless. After the breaking of whatever sort occurred, people divided up into these factions based on which human flaw they believed led to the downfall. E.g., members of Abnegation believe that selfishness was at the root of the downfall of society, and thus the faction now holds selflessness above all. Erudite believes that ignorance was the problem, so they value knowledge. Candor-- honesty. Amity-- peace. Dauntless-- bravery.

Each faction is responsible for certain jobs in the city, but this isn't explained super well. Most important to this discussion are Abnegation and Dauntless, which take care of volunteer work/cleaning and rebuilding, and security/protection, respectively. Truth be told, it seems that Dauntless are more or less the goths you remember from high school, mixed with some UFC and Evil Knievel. (No, really.)

Our main character is Beatrice Prior, a 16 year old girl born and raised Abnegation. The coming-of-age ceremony in this Chicago takes place at 16, when youth take an aptitude test designed to tell them which faction they truly belong in, and then make their choice of which faction they want to join. The test doesn't dictate your choice; it is merely supposed to reveal your true self. Beatrice's aptitude test yields surprising and mysterious results and for several reasons she ends up choosing to leave Abnegation and join Dauntless.

Most of the book deals with the fierce initiation process Beatrice-- now going by Tris-- goes through in the Dauntless compound. Along the way she learns more about herself, her test results, and the true inner workings of society. Things are definitely not what they seem, and it becomes clear that Tris may be one of the few who can make a difference.

I give this book 4.5 stars. I was uncertain through most of it whether I'd really love it or not, but the ending was well done and it came together for me. Although there are some glaring problems for me, I am not letting those affect my rating much because a) it was really fun to read, and b) as I said, the holes may be addressed/explained later. I'll give it a fair shake.

Some of the story was kind of predictable, but I was also taken by surprise more than once. There are some questions I have about Tris' family-- her mom especially-- that I'd really like to be answered in the following books.

The love story involving Tris is not overwhelming-- definitely not the focus of the book-- which I really appreciated, but it also wasn't as well developed as I'd have liked. I get kind of annoyed when two characters are suddenly smitten with each other and the author hasn't really given a lot of foundation. (At least in Twilight you know exactly why Edward is obsessed with Bella-- after all, she's like his own personal brand of heroin.)

This is Roth's first novel and I'm excited to read the second installment, Insurgent, as well as the third that is supposed to come out next fall.

Monday, December 3, 2012

46: Mudbound

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan
4 stars

My feelings about this book fluctuated quite a bit as I read. I started out loving it. I was convinced it was going to be a five star book. Then I kind of hit a snag and wasn't digging it as much... but in the end, I ended up loving it again.

Sometimes, when I don't like the choices that the author makes with the plot, I let it cloud my judgment of the work at large. I think that's what happened here. I was a bit disappointed with the way some of the characters went-- I wanted them to make better choices, really-- but I have to admit that the book is quite well written, very engaging, and moving. People do bad things all the time. The author wasn't advocating these bad things, she was merely depicting them. That is to say, if you are of the "I won't read books that have 'bad' things in them" persuasion, this book is not for you.

Mudbound is set in the deep South, post WWII. The chapters rotate through first person narrations from several characters, a format choice that I really, really appreciated. I loved getting the different sides of the story from the different characters and getting to hear the unique voices.

Laura is into spinsterhood at the ripe old age of 31 when she finally meets and marries Henry McAllan in Memphis, Tennessee. She is drawn into a life she never imagined when Henry spontaneously buys a farm in rural Mississippi and takes her and their two daughters down to live in a ramshackle old house without indoor plumbing. What's worse, Henry's cantankerous and downright mean father, Pappy, comes to live with them. He is a source of constant irritation for Laura-- and pretty much everyone else he comes in contact with.

Henry's new farm comes preloaded with tenants-- sharecroppers-- some of whom are white and some of whom are black. One of the African American families is the Jacksons. An unlikely friendship between their oldest son and Henry's younger brother, both of whom return from fighting in WWII around the same time, will leave these two families forever changed.

This book deals heavily with racism. There is a lot that ain't pretty, but that's the way it was (and still is, in parts). It also deals heavily with war and the challenges faced by young veterans returning to "normal" life. These are two themes I really enjoy reading about-- they are difficult, and heavy, and they weigh on the mind, but they are real. Some of the characters in this book reminded me strongly of people in my own life. It is a book that made me think.

Content advisory: some language, some sex, nothing graphic or gratuitous IMO.

Friday, November 30, 2012

43, 44, & 45

So, I am trying to get caught up on my reading as well as my reviewing-- obviously. With just 4.5 weeks to go in 2012, I need to go pretty quickly if I'm to accomplish my goal.

Books 43 and 44 were Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and the Half Blood Prince. As I've said before, I've really gotten into this re-reading of the HP books. I like to call OOTP the book of Harry's angst, and HBP is a punch in the gut. Both excellent. I may change my mind at some point, but I'm pretty sure HBP is my favorite of the series. I love seeing all the scenes in the Penseive of Tom Riddle's past. I love that Harry and Ginny finally find each other. I never get used to Dumbledore's fate. Well done, JKR. 4.5 and 5 stars.

Book 45 is Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris, quite a departure from most of the books I've been reading lately. This book was recommended to me by a woman in my RS book club, after I mentioned that I'd read and loved The Kite Runner. We were discussing how that book had helped us to learn more of a region of the world that is pretty foreign to most Americans, and she said she'd recently read several books by Ferraris and had really enjoyed the setting of Saudi Arabia.

Zoe Ferraris moved to Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War with her then-husband, a Saudi-Palestinian Bedouin. She lived in a very conservative Muslim community with his family, experiencing a side of the world that is totally unfamiliar to my American mind. The same area she lived in is the setting for Finding Nouf, which is a murder mystery/detective novel. The main character is a very devout Muslim man, and most of the book is told from his perspective-- which I found very enlightening. I obviously don't share his beliefs, but it was very interesting to me to get a glimpse into his thoughts and views, particularly on the very strict rules and laws regarding the conduct of women in that society and male-female interaction.

This book was rewarding for me as I am constantly on the lookout for ways to expand my understanding of the world and viewpoints that differ from mine. I want to know how and why other people believe things and live in ways that I can't fathom. I don't expect to be persuaded, I just want to understand. A lot of the things I learned from the book about how women are required to live over there made me sad, but I'm grateful to have a better understanding nonetheless.

I give the book 3.5 stars. While fairly well-written with some interesting plot twists, it is Ferraris' first novel and it shows. She has written two other novels in the same setting, both in the same genre as this one, and I would like to read at least one of them.

I'd sure love to read some more reviews, contributors. What have you been reading?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Ellie's books 18, 28 and 31: Three Mary Russell books


I'm skipping around a bit here with the chronology of my reviews, because I wanted to get all of my gushing out in one spot. These three books are all part of the same series. (Also, side note, aren't those covers just gorgeous? I love both styles so much.)

Have I mentioned Mary Russell here before? If I haven't, I apologize, as if you know me in real life and I've spoken to you at all in the past two years there's a 90% chance I've recommended the Mary Russell books to you in terms so strong that you probably backed away slowly, smiling and nodding and looking for something to defend yourself with in case my not-so-latent maniacal tendencies started manifesting themselves in a more sinister way than book recommendations.

Ahem. Mary Russell is one of my current favorite literary characters. Laurie R. King has created an absolutely fantastic series about this British-American Jewish feminist Oxford scholar in the 1910's and 1920's who, at the age of 15, meets up with a retired Sherlock Holmes and becomes his protegee and partner. The books are meticulously researched and just sparkle with wit and intelligence. King's Holmes is his own character but still true to the original vision of Conan Doyle (although this Holmes is rather testy about any references to Conan Doyle; he dislikes the way the latter man sullied his name by association, especially once Conan Doyle turned more to mysticism and fairy stories).

But Mary Russell, from whose viewpoint the stories are told, more than holds her own with Sherlock Holmes without becoming unrealistically superior to him. He still is able to teach and mentor her without making her appear weak. She is a worthy partner for him in every way, and challenges his mind and opinions more than he has been used to.

I've read three of these books this year. The Game is book 7. Later on in the year my book club read book 1, The Beekeeper's Apprentice, and I also read book 8, Locked Rooms.

18. The Game, by Laurie R. King
****

In The Game, Holmes and Russell make their way to India at the request of Mycroft Holmes in order to investigate the disappearance of an intelligence officer by the name of Kimball O'Hara, better known as the titular character of Rudyard Kipling's novel Kim. (One of the delightful things about the Holmes/Russell universe is that many purportedly fictional characters, such as Holmes himself, are actually real and pop up at interesting times.) I loved the atmosphere of this book, which felt simultaneously menacing and full of color and spices. There were a few unexpected but satisfying twists, along with a few threads of a mystery to be picked up in the next book. All in all a solid book and great fun to read, but not quite equal to the top books in the canon (books 5 and 6, O Jerusalem and Justice Hall, were two sides of the same coin and absolute masterpieces. They were two of the top three best books I read in 2011). Four stars.

28. The Beekeeper's Apprentice, by Laurie R. King
*****

It was delightful to re-read The Beekeeper's Apprentice a few weeks later with the benefit of hindsight (or is it foresight when you know what's coming in the next few books? Anyway, I enjoyed it, whatever it was) and seeing how later events in the series were foreshadowed as well as seeing the clues to the answer to the mystery as they popped up in the book. It re-confirmed my conviction that Laurie R. King is a master of storytelling, whose writing style is like weaving a huge epic tapestry: everything is connected, somehow, and all the disparate threads come together to make an astonishing whole. (Yes, I have a serious author crush going on here.) Five stars.

31. Locked Rooms, by Laurie R. King
*****

I went into Locked Rooms not expecting too much, as I'd heard that it was four shorter stories rather than one complete novel. I was delighted to find that I was mistaken. The book is divided into four parts, yes, but that's because two of the parts are actually told using third-person narration with Holmes himself serving as the viewpoint character for the first time in the series, with the other two parts in the accustomed first-person narration of Mary Russell. This may sound like it shouldn't work, but oh, believe me, it does, and is done for very good and sufficient reasons. Far from being disappointed in this book, the ultimate result took my breath away. It stands solidly with books 5 and 6 at the top of the series. This book sees Russell and Holmes arriving in San Francisco to tie up the affairs of Mary's parents' estate, and a mystery from her childhood rises up to confront them. I can't think of anything else to say that won't give away spoilers or just devolve into garbled author-crush gushing. But seriously. Wow. Five stars and mad applause for Laurie R. King. (And yes, this book is a serious contender for the final six-star best book of the year award.)

Seriously, if you haven't started reading this series, do yourself a favor and pick up The Beekeeper's Apprentice. You should read all of them in order so you can properly appreciate the sequence and build of events and facts, and all of them, even the weakest (looking at you, book 3), are solidly on the Books You'll Be Glad You Read list.