Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Month in Review for September, and Upcoming Critiques

Because it was so cold and rainy this September, I started up my loom knitting again and completed a new hat in three nights. It should be noted I'm terrible with my hands (i.e. I have man hands and often get weird pains when I use them too much) so real knitting is not an experience I want to have... yet.

This month has brought many unexpected comments and new experiences for Victorian Soul Critiques. Not only did I participate in my first readathon in hopes of thinning my piles of unread books, I've also done extensive (and somewhat frenzied) blog hopping to check out what other bloggers are up to. I also debuted my newest feature-ish thing, Out of Orbit Critiques, which was pretty popular based on the amount of pageviews. You may also notice my new pages design (Fantasy-Historical-Science Fiction), which gives you the option to sort my critiques by genres (Note: Urban Fantasy will show up in the Fantasy feed). It now kind of dominates the page, but I didn't want the genres with the general tabs, so I was forced to make the font huge. I doubt anyone will have trouble navigating the pages due to eyesight problems now.

 Total Posts: 19
  Total Critiques: 10
    Classics: 1
    Fantasy: 2
    Historical: 7
    Out of Orbit: 1
    Paranormal Romance: 1
    Sci-Fi: 1
    Urban Fantasy: 1

Most Popular Posts of September:
Note: Lisa See retweeted a tweet containing the link to this critique. It made my day, in a non-Clint Eastwood sort of way.
From Giphy

Pageviews for the Month: 690+
Comments: 21!!!

Blog Schedule and Features: Critiques on Tuesdays, Thursdays, sometimes Fridays, and Saturdays. On Sundays, I rotate between the Sunday Fun Five, and Confessions of an Insomniac Book Devourer (or Not Quite a Confession).

Currently Reading:

The Broken Eye (Lightbringer #3) by Brent Weeks (39%)
Still at 39% because I had a couple review copies to read after the Travel the World in Books Readathon. I'll get back to it soon. (Epic Fantasy!!!)

Of Bone and Thunder: A Novel by Chris Evans (76%)
The f-bomb meter on this book is off the charts (as in, I'm 61% through and have already highlighted 100). I usually don't mind profanity, but I didn't expect to be reading a Tom-Clancy style book when I picked it up on Netgalley. I was promised Lord of the Rings slash Apocalypse Now, but so far it reminds me more of a documentary of a different planet's war. (Epic Fantasy?)

Death Masks (Dresden Files #5) by Jim Butcher (22%)
Because after all that Night Huntress (as in, I read the first two) I'm feeling nostalgic for my favorite urban fantasy chauvinist. (Urban Fantasy)

Unborn (Unborn #1) by Amber Lynn Natusch (Just Started)
So, this one was on Netgalley (even though it has been published) and I said, "Why not?" and clicked request and somehow ended up with it, despite not being notified in an email that I even was chosen to read it. So far it's urban fantasy with Greek mythology, but it reminds me slightly of the Black Dagger Brotherhood because of the brothers' personalities. (Urban Fantasy)

At Grave's End (Night Huntress #3) by Jeaniene Frost (61%)
Because I don't give up on series that I bought in bulk, even if the second one wasn't to my taste (that darn scene). I'm a series devourer, not a series quitter. (Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance)

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick (Page 58/296)
Because sometimes in life, I think we all need reminders that our own lives could be a lot worse. I can't imagine living in North Korea, but this book might give me some insight. (Nonfiction)

Planning on Reading in October:

Poe by J. Lincoln Fenn
Because it sounds scary and I don't mind a good scary story in October.

Interview With a Vampire by Anne Rice
I am lucky enough to have one of the first editions (mine is known as the gold book club edition) and I've been meaning to read it since I bought it from a thrift store.

A Treasury of Modern Mysteries (I sadly only have Volume 2) by Various Famous Vintage Authors
This book was published in the sixties (I assume, based on the psychedelic cover) so all of the mysteries are now historical, but it appears to have some great stories/novels by Ian Fleming, Truman Capote, and Ira Levin, among others. I'm sad now, because I noticed Volume 1 had a story by one of my favorite authors, Daphne du Maurier, but hopefully I'll be able to find it elsewhere.

Upcoming Critiques:

Here's a look at what I've been polishing for the month of October.

I've decided on a theme for October: Monster Mash. I'll be critiquing books with monsters in them: whether they are just plain villainous antagonists, witches, vampires, zombies, or books with ghosts in them.

Forever Odd (Odd Thomas #2) by Dean Koontz
Odd Thomas sets out to find his missing (and possibly kidnapped) friend, with help from the nonverbal ghosts. This review will have spoilers for the first book, so I can't tell you more.
Genres: Paranormal, Ghosts, Mystery

Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
A classic tale of witchcraft, family, and murder told by one of my favorite authors. The movie is nothing like the book, so do not judge this book by it.
Genres: Magical Realism, Magic, Paranormal

Warm Bodies (Warm Bodies #1) by Isaac Marion
Zombie/human love story. And also, the kind of YA I don't mind reading (i.e. brains are involved, nom nom). I read this after watching the movie, and the movie actually does a good job with representing the book.
Genres: Young Adult, Horror, Zombies

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
'To you, perceptive reader, I bequeath my history…
'Late one night, exploring her father’s library, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters addressed ominously to ‘My dear and unfortunate successor’. Her discovery plunges her into a world she never dreamed of – a labyrinth where the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s mysterious fate connect to an evil hidden in the depths of history.' (Synopsis via Goodreads)
This was one of the first vampire reads I devoured, and it continues to be one of my favorites. Although it does wax poetic a tad too long for some readers, it is the author's debut book, and a strong one at that.
Genres: Mystery, Historical, Vampires

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sunday Fun Five: The 5 Fatal Mistakes of an Author (Literary Pet Peeves)

The Sunday Fun Five #11

Sunday Fun 5:
Feel free to participate by commenting below or writing a blog post: I wrote up some guidelines for blog participation here.

A Countdown of

The 5 Fatal Mistakes of an Author (Literary Pet Peeves)

5. Preachy or Pretentious
One of the main buzz kills of reading any book is to know almost immediately what message the author is trying to convey, whether it be "Repent all you sinners" or "Did you see what I did there- *wink* *wink* *wink*". I like my books to have a somewhat mysterious message that lingers with me, not a bad aftertaste of having an obvious meaning rubbed in my face repeatedly.

From Writer's Outworld
4. Too Many or Too Few Plot Twists
Ever read a novel where it seems every time you flip a page, it's plot twist time? Then you come to a point where you say to yourself, "This isn't realistic... I usually don't like realism in my books, but good God man- it's too much!" Or you read a book where there needs to be a plot twist (and/or a plot) because every time you pick it up you take impromptu naps. There is a perfect medium to the plot twisting, and the best way to judge is if you think the story could feasibly happen (or has happened).

Well, not exactly... From Wifflegif
3. Stereotypical Characters
Dumb blondes, fiery redheads, cheating exes, evil villains (who do evil just because they want to), drunken Irishmen, the goody-two-shoes, and perfect characters never cease to irk me. It boggles the mind that some authors choose these stereotypes instead of putting work into original characterization into the main players of their books, but it happens. And when it does, I always take it into consideration when I rate the book.

2. Repetitive Phrases/Words
This is one of the most annoying things in books, because once you see it, you can't help yourself from beginning a tally, even as a reader. Although some phrases end up as timeless: "You know nothing Jon Snow", "It is known", and "My precious", they end up that way because they're used for impact, or used in association with one character. If I were to write a book, and put "a bit" every five pages, people would be highly annoyed. However, I write a blog and am able to sneak it in (may I say... quite a bit), because I am the character of this blog. It would never work in a book, and I've had good books end up with lower ratings because of repetitive words and phrases.

From Mashable
1. Spelling and Grammar Mistakes
This one we're all guilty of at some point. I was rereading A Feast for Crows the other day, and I spotted one in my mass market edition. But once I start noticing them in the dozens, it can completely ruin any book for me. It doesn't matter if you're an English major and have edited your own work for decades: if you're an author, you need a good editor.

Notable Exclusions:
It seems every book blogger I know has a distaste for love triangles, but oddly enough, when they're done well I don't mind them.
I also am curiously immune to symbolism in books (as in, I don't notice it mostly), but don't mind it as long as the author doesn't try to beat me over the head with it (and I didn't have a teacher who tried to beat me over the head with it).

Do you have certain things that irk you time and time again when it comes to books? Are there times you've stopped reading a book because of those things that annoy you? Do you detest love triangles?

Saturday, September 27, 2014

"A Feast For Crows (ASoIaF #4)" by George R.R. Martin

This is the fourth book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. For those of you who haven't read A Game of Thrones, (or haven't watched the tv series), there are unmarked major spoilers for the first three books of the series in this review.

You'd think with the amount of murdering George R.R. Martin does, there would be no one left to even want the Iron Throne. I mean, even if you're a peasant, you're liable to be slaughtered if you live near any of the campaigns of false kings. If I lived in Westoros during this time, I'd be hiding under a rock... kind of like Bran is.

Although this book only covers half the characters that it usually does, I didn't feel like it was lacking. Then again, by the time I'd finished it, A Dance with Dragons was a week or so away from being actually published, so I suppose some of the outcry over this book could be amounted to people disappointed with the waiting game.

The Plot:
The King of the Iron Islands, Balon Greyjoy, is dead, leaving his heirs to vie for the throne in a kingsmoot. The Dornish plot to make Myrcella Baratheon the queen of both Dorne and Westoros. Cersei attempts to deal with the aftermath of her father's murder and keep the rest of her family from being killed. Samwell Tarly tries his best to help Lord Commander Jon Snow maintain political neutrality, even when Jon's heart betrays his oath. Arya joins the ranks of the House of Black and White, and the favor of the Many-Faced God.
"For at a feast of crows, many are the guests- but only a few are survivors." (blurb from the back of book)

This book makes you glad you don't live in the medieval times. Although this is technically fantasy, it also is inspired more than a little by our own history, leading to the prevalent women-bashing. This is one book where I honestly begin to relate with some of the more prevalent antagonists, mostly because the ones I loathed the most were eliminated.

I have to say, I was kind of sad that I didn't get to hear about purely evil antagonists in this book. There is something special about being able to not relate with a villain- an absolute tyrant makes even those morally gray characters look purer than septas. It was also nice to imagine the cruel deaths Mr. Martin was planning for them.

Religion plays a huge role in this book, and with these particular religions comes the misogynism and "slut-shaming". Having never experienced the phenomena personally, I was aghast to see it play so prevalently in the plot. It's difficult to read about, even though it happens to characters I didn't particularly love. Technically speaking, it is realistic and was eventually bound to happen with the setup Mr. Martin planned in the previous books, but it made me more than a little bit sad and I came to empathize with characters I hadn't before.

A Feast for Crows did not disappoint me. Then again, I wasn't told A Dance with Dragons would be coming out the next year (2006) by the author and then waited another four years for it to be actually published. Yeah, I'm sure the anticipation would've most likely killed any buzz I'd receive after reading this book. But, having not waited forever, I was thoroughly engaged in the story and plot, even if I felt a few scenes were a bit difficult to bear (that tends to happen with this series). If you've read the other A Song of Ice and Fire books, I encourage you to read this one, if only for your own sanity.

Rating: 4.5 of 5 Stars for an exceptional continuation of the series.

Content: Ages 18+ for the usual Martin medley.

Page Count: 967 pages in my massive mass market edition

Thursday, September 25, 2014

"The Spirit Guide" by Elizabeth Davies

I received this e-book for free from the author, but in no way did it affect my literary taste buds. This critique is my honest opinion.

When I'm looking for a book to read, one of the main things I like is something different- the storyline has to be intriguing, but also more than a tad original. As it turns out, many of the mainstream romance novels don't deliver- they are often part of a formula, with plot twists I can guess at the beginning and an ending that is exactly as I predicted, if not cornier. So when I was offered the chance to read this book- a book that is both historical and paranormal romance, I was hoping it wouldn't be like the many other similar genre books I've read.

It wasn't. I made many predictions during the course of reading this book- about who a character was, what plot twist was coming up next, how it would end - and most of them were completely wrong. In this scenario, I was happy to be wrong, and glad I'd agreed to review this book.

The Plot:
Seren is the daughter of a lord, who happens to see, and sometimes interact with, spirits of the dead. The trouble with this gift is that she often mistakes ghosts for actual people, as well as when she touches them, she relives the last moments of their death, leading to rumors of her being a witch. But when she becomes the lady-in-waiting of Lady Matilda de Braose, she finds she has a similar reaction to Lady Matilda's advisor Vaughan fitz Maddock, even though he's very much alive. Will Seren, with the help of a friend, be able to uncover the source of Vaughan's power?

As you can imagine, having a gift like Seren's would be an absolute disaster in the medieval age- especially since she happens to be highborn and in the public eye. All believed witches were given tests of their witchcraft that were impossible to survive, and usually concluded with burning at the stake. Seren tries her best to hide her abilities, but gets into many sticky situations.

The love story in this book is one of forbidden love, and so naturally things aren't as clean cut as they are in other romances I've read. Although Seren doesn't know what kind of situation she's stepped into at the beginning of her relationship with George, she is inexplicably drawn to him, but it never felt like an instalove scenario.

The Spirit Guide is anything but predictable. I had entire plotlines mapped out in my head of how the story would progress, yet they remained largely unfulfilled by the end of the book. If you're searching for a book that blends strong historical and paranormal elements into a tale of forbidden love, this may be the book for you.

Rating: 4 of 5 Stars for a book with plenty of unexpected twists.

Content: Ages 18+ for sex scenes, violence, domestic abuse, and adultery.

Page Count: 278 pages (estimated) for ebook edition.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

"One Foot in the Grave (Night Huntress #2)" by Jeaniene Frost

This review is for the second book in the series, and may have unmarked spoilers for those who haven't yet read Halfway to the Grave.

So, this book is a bit of a letdown for me. I assumed the high ratings from the people of Goodreads (and the whopping 52% who gave it five stars) would make this a pretty darn memorable second book- I hadn't assumed it would leave me remembering only the bad, and little of the good. 

Four years pass from when we last saw our feisty heroine resignedly accept her fate. In those four years, it's been business as usual, apparently. I'm not sure I particularly liked that there were so many unaddressed years, even though the author uses them to prove a point and add to the plot.

The Plot:
Cat runs into Ian, the vamp that made Bones a vampire, and decides to spare him. As it turns out, that Ian wants her for his collection, and will do all sorts of dirty tricks to get her, in addition to a shadowy second vampire wanting her dead. And when Bones returns, he intends to have her- forever...

First let me say the notorious sex act(s) this book randomly contains didn't result in my disapproval. It was a scene that, had it been cut out, this book could've been a three star or greater review. The scene I'm describing is mildly spoilerish so feel free to skip on to the next paragraph if you detest spoilers. Highlight to view: Bones bites Cat's neck and drains her of her blood. Cat thinks he's trying to kill her or turn her into a vampire by the time the scene ends- and even though she has a silver knife at his heart to kill him, she doesn't. The thing is, I hate cave men. Men who think 'I'll do this to prove a point' and the authors who allow them to populate and dominate the romance market. Cat was turned on initially by him biting her, but once her vision turned to gray she feared for her life (and thought 'Besides, there are far worse ways to die.'). That is a giant no-no and huge buzzkill for a reader like me who reads to escape, not to read about mind effery in order to prove a point. And also, he used this disturbing tactic to drag her to his cave/place- where he watches her sleep like (dare I say it?) the notorious Edward Cullen.

Of course, the rest of the book had nothing I objected to (other than some scenes where my eyes were rather loose in their sockets), but that scene tainted the entire book for me, which is funny because no other negative reviews I've glanced at have even mentioned it. The plot reminded me of a crepe- delicious but too thin, and it ping-ponged back and forth when in reality, when it was resolved (entirely), there was a simpler way it could've been done.

Something positive? I was right about my prediction of the stilettos coming in handy. And it was a fast-paced read. I'm also reading the next book- I can't give up hope that the series won't redeem itself, after such a promising start.

One Foot in the Grave proves that my opinions are often unpopular and just plain unorthodox, because where many people loved it, I found I didn't. That's okay, because I am nothing if not honest and one of a kind. I can't recommend this one, but about 97% of people who rated it on Goodreads would beg to differ.

Rating: 2 of 5 Stars because of one irritable scene dragging me out of the fantasy.

Content: Ages 18+ for all kinds of sex, and some violence as an afterthought.

Page Count: 357 pages

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Confessions: On Banning Books

Confessions of an Insomniac Book Devourer #10

I have a bit of a personal bone to pick with parents who choose to moderate (and/or stymie) their young adult's reading habits- mostly because I had a male parent (referred to forthwith as the Banner) who was also big on banning books.

When I look back at the books the Banner disapproved of and approved of, it gets confusing. My favorite genre of Fantasy was a regular topic of banning, but so were any books that had made national headlines.

Here are some of Banner-approved books:
The Bible
The Lord of the Rings trilogy
The Chronicles of Narnia

Here are the books the Banner disapproved of:
*Greek Mythology
The Harry Potter series
Anything with witchcraft/magic/non-Christian deities (godless worlds were much preferred)

You'll notice there are some discrepancies- both Narnia and Middle Earth had elements of magic. If you're not a believer in miracles, a lot of the Bible ends up sounding like magic too. This banning never made sense to me, so I never felt bad about reading banned books, and as long as I wasn't caught, it didn't matter to me. *When I was told I had to read Greek Mythology for school, my mother made sure I hid the book and any projects relating to it- the Banner didn't care that his rules interfered with my education, and would've probably pitched a fit (and/or pulled me out of private Catholic school) had he seen me reading it.

That said, I understand some reasons people feel they must ban books: it's difficult to tell which age group should read which book, but often my rule of thumb is the reader should be within two years of the protagonist's age (Ender's Game and adult books N/A). It's also hard for religious parents to find acceptable non-religious reads for their kids and teens in a world where sex sells. Many very innocent-looking YA books I read as a teen ended up having sex in them (without any warnings as to the content). Which is why I always chose fantasy- it was relatively clean of that, if not a tad bit gorey.

But to those parents who ban with very little reason (too violent, too much magic, too real of content, too much fun), I urge you to look at the world we live in. The writers of these banned books are often making a statement about the modern world through a YA book- The Hunger Games details our obsession with reality tv and war, Harry Potter is about perseverance despite people being against us (bullying, teachers being mean), and Speak addresses the statistic that one in six American women have been victims of a rape or attempted rape. It may not be easy to accept that young teens will be adults in the eyes of the law within five years, but they will, and by reading books with difficult subjects at an appropriate age, their transition might be easier.

And also- there's no reason to ban adult books, as long as they're read by adults. I mean really... I'm trying to think of a reason, but I'm not computing. If we as adults are able to vote, shouldn't we be smart enough to choose our own books? **We have freedom of speech- freedom to read should be claused in there somewhere.

**Note: Legalese is not my strong point.

Some of the banned books *gasp* I've read and reviewed on this blog:
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling (MG-YA)
Beloved by Toni Morrison (Adult)
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (Adult-ish)
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (Adult)

Also, an interesting study on diversity in banned books- I actually didn't know how many diverse books were a target of banning, brought to my attention by the lovely people of Book Riot:

Have you read any banned books? Do you have a favorite banned book? Are there books you think have crossed the line in terms of content?

Saturday, September 20, 2014

"Walking the Tree" by Kaaron Warren

This is one of the strangest books I've ever read, for many reasons. It blends fantasy and sci-fi with a touch of paranormal, and the society it portrays is somewhat dystopian. It suffers from mediocre ratings on Goodreads, but I generally liked it and found it unique- something I can't say for half the books I've read.

Imagine an island anchored around a giant tree. Now, make that tree enormous- so big you can't even see the top. That's the basic topography of Walking the Tree, and the Tree itself plays a critical part in the story and culture of the people who live in villages around it.

The Plot: (from the back of the book)
'Botanica is the island, but all of Botanica is taken up by the Tree.

'Lillah has come of age. She is now ready to leave her community and walk around the Tree for five years, learning all that Botanica has to teach her. Before setting off, Lillah is begged by the dying mother of a young boy to take him with her. But if anyone suspects he carries the disease himself, he and Lillah will be killed.'

Although the story is told in a style reminiscent of young adult novels (i.e. plainer prose), after the first few chapters it becomes clear this book is intended for adults. Lillah is somewhat shallow for a girl of nineteen because she wants to walk the Tree mainly to have sex, instead of finding a partner or a place in one of the villages, or even teaching the children, which is one of the main points of walking the Tree. This is an unusual book in that premarital sex is okay and even encouraged (outside of your village to stave off inbreeding), and it's the young women who leave the village- the men for the most part have to stay put. Another aspect that makes it different is if the women do settle and have a partner in another village, after they've raised their children it's okay for them to go back to their original village without their partners.

The publisher (Angry Robot) marks this as fantasy, but the origin story (which is revealed at the end of the novel) clearly shows this book has roots in science fiction. But this novel is a bit of a genre blend, like The Wolf Gift, that makes it nearly impossible to say it's one thing or another- it's many genres, adding to its originality. Another thing I should mention is this book has a tendency towards horror- some people may not enjoy this story due to its content. As an avid ASoIaF fan, nothing phases me as far as the capabilities of human nature, but other people may prefer to not read of things like murder and human sacrifice, even if they add to the story.

Walking the Tree is a compelling read that at times tests the boundaries of weird. It has been some time since I've read it, but the main story has stayed with me. The worldbuilding is excellent, but the story falls flat at times trying to construct it. If you're looking for something genre-blending that will remain in your memory due to its singularity, this book may be for you.

Rating: 3 of 5 Stars for a solid piece of unique science fiction.

Content: Ages 18+ for sexual content and violence (murder, mayhem, and sacrifice).

Page Count: 523 pages in my mass market paperback edition

Thursday, September 18, 2014

"Remarkable Creatures" by Tracy Chevalier

I'll read pretty much anything written by Tracy Chevalier, and own physical copies of six out of her seven books, mostly because all of her stories are historical (a fascination of mine) and have interesting plots. Some of her books incorporate famous figures or art, but all of them bring you a bit further towards understanding the past.

Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot both led incredible lives for unmarried women in the early 19th century. Anning made significant discoveries that were not recognized as much until after her death: in 2010 the Royal Society listed her as one of ten women who had most influenced the history of science. Ever tried to the tongue twister 'She sells sea shells by the seashore'? That was also inspired by Mary Anning. Tracy Chevalier certainly knows how to pick interesting historic characters to base her novels on.

The Plot:
Elizabeth Philpot and her unwed sisters are forced to move from London to the small coastal town of Lyme Regis after their brother gets married. There they acclimate to a different way of life, as well as taking up hobbies to occupy their time. Elizabeth decides to collect fossils, and soon strikes up a friendship with young Mary Anning, who also has an interest in fossils, only in her case, it's to sell them. But with Elizabeth's education and Mary Anning's eye for curies, will their friendship stand the test of time?

Although this isn't my usual action packed read, it does sustain the reader's interest. There are a lot of little historical details I never knew about- ladies having to wear gloves at all times outdoors, the use of bathing machines to preserve a sense of modesty, and that women were pioneers in paleontology.

One thing that irked me was the author chose to include improper English in Mary Anning's point of view, to show she was relatively homespun and uneducated. It was easily made clear to me through simple conversations and I found the inclusion of it added nothing to my experience, other than to make me want to edit every other chapter.

Remarkable Creatures is a book about the importance of friendship with an intriguing look at the early days of paleontology. While it does have its stylistic drawbacks, it manages to breathe life into long dead characters who don't often have their stories told. I recommend this to people who want to learn more about Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot in an entertaining fashion.

Rating: 3 of 5 Stars for a good historical about the fate of unwed women in the 19th century.

Content: Ages 16+ for sexual content.

Page Count: 310 pages in my paperback edition.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"Embers" by Sándor Márai

Alternate Title: A Conversation that Lasts 139 Pages

Expectations? I thought this would be a rather tame old classic- it was published back in 1942 in Hungary. I was a bit kerfuffled when things took a strange turn at 60% (page 131), but I'm getting ahead of myself. My expectations, thank goodness, weren't the reality of this book.

Recently I've been reading a lot of books about friendship (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, rereading Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier for this blog), but I think this one takes the cake as far as friendship problems. The friends are both elderly males who grew up together- one comes from a wealthy, titled background (he owns a castle), the other one has struggled with poverty and guilt over his parents paying his room and board at military school. Recipe for disaster? Not necessarily, in my opinion, but what I thought about them at the start of the book changed completely once past the infamous page 131.

The Plot:
Two men, the General and his best friend forever Konrad, had a falling out 41 years ago, and haven't heard, seen, or written to each other since. But the General has heard Konrad is finally on his way to see him- and prepares a dinner almost identical to the one they had after they had their argument, and plots his revenge, as well as how to get the answers he needs. Will their friendship be able to survive the night?

What I liked about this book is it keeps you guessing. I had theorized some of what had broken their contact, but not all of it, and that is what is essential to the mystery part of this book. There would be absolutely no enjoyment in reading this book if you read the spoilers, something I'm happy to report I didn't do.

My personal bone of contention with this lovely classic is... little to no closure. I mean, when it finally ended, I was pissed off- I realize the author did give us some closure, but not enough for me, and not in the way I wanted it. It was as if the author (now deceased, rest in peace) was either winking at me or flipping me off by the last page of the book. I can respect that, but I kind of wanted what I wanted (which is incredibly hard to speak about without spoiling it), and I didn't get it. He left this poor book devourer hungry, and I can't even demand answers at a book signing or in stalkerish emails.

Embers is truly a masterful classic. It takes you into the inner sanctum of bromance and leaves you wanting more, even if the main characters do wax poetic for a little longer than I'd like. If you're desiring a classic that proves it's anything but bland, Embers is my recommendation for you.

Note: My original rating was 3ish Stars, but I'm left thinking about this book three days later, hence the...

Rating: 4 of 5 Stars for a classic that broke my brain for a few days...

Content: Ages 16+ for themes of... I can't really tell you. Mild violence and unsatisfying revenge, in addition to racial slurs and minor sexism (i.e. there's a part that says "A feeling known only to men. A feeling called friendship." which makes no sense).

Page Count: 213 pages in my paperback edition

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Travel the World in Books Readathon Wrap-Up

The Travel the World in Books Readathon is finally coming to a close (in about 45 minutes). I've had a lot of fun and done things I've never done before: made a book map, had Facebook and Twitter chats with fellow bloggers/readers, and participated in my very first readathon.

My Goals:
1. Read 5 (or more) books from either my Selected Physical Pile Qualifiers (see above), or my the-invisible-pile shelf that pertain to the challenge.
2. Do two critiques from the books that I read, before the challenge ends.

My Results:
I'll be honest: I cheated a bit. One physical book I ended up reading was not pictured in my Selected Physical Pile Qualifiers- because I keep classics (both read and unread) separate from my main pile, and hadn't thought to check my classics shelf when compiling my Physical Pile Qualifiers (doh!).
I also wrote a grand total of 4 critiques on the books I read for the readathon. Yay, me!

This is the errant book:

I finished it late, late, late last night: it's set in Hungary in a castle in the forest, in the 1940s. It was translated into English recently (as in "about ten years ago") to much acclaim.

I also completed two challenges:

The Books I Read:
4 Physical Books, 1 Ebook
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (Critiqued)
A novel about nüshu script and its part in the friendship of two girls growing up in 19th century China.
Setting: China
Rated: 3.5 Stars
Page Count: 258

The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama (Critiqued)
A novel about a young Chinese man who goes to his grandfather's beach house in Japan just as the Second Sino-Japanese War is starting.
Setting: Japan
Rated: 4.5 Stars
Page Count: 211

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung (Critiqued)
(Ebook) A memoir about a young Cambodian girl who flees Phnom Penh at the start of the Cambodian Genocide.
Setting: Cambodia
Rated: 4 Stars
Page Count: 238

Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong (Critiqued)
A novel about a young Vietnamese exchange worker in Russia who reminisces about her childhood and growing up at the beginning of Communist rule in Vietnam.
Setting: Russia, but it's mostly about Vietnam
Rated: 4 Stars
Page Count: 258

Embers by Sandor Marai (Broke My Brain)
A classic novel about old friends meeting after 41 years.
Full Disclosure: It kind of broke my brain.
Setting: Hungary
Rated: 3ish Stars (i.e. my head is a bit burnt out after this one- the rating is subject to change).
Page Count: 213

I also started (11 pages) The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley, but realized I'd need to take more time than I'd allotted to read it.

Total Pages of Applicable Books Read during the Readathon:

Thanks for hosting this readathon Mom's Small VictoriesI'm Lost in Books, and Savvy Working Gal! I had a great time reading, participating, and meeting new bloggers!

                  Until next time,

Sunday Fun Five: The 5 Books That Make You Want to Go Places

The Sunday Fun Five #10

Sunday Fun 5:
Feel free to participate by commenting below or writing a blog post: I wrote up some guidelines for blog participation here.

A Countdown of

The 5 Books That Make You Want to Go Places

as well as...

Liz Lemon

Photo From Wikipedia
5. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier: Milton Hall, Cambridgeshire, England
I did some furious googling a while back when I did my critique on Rebecca and found out Manderley, the house much of the book is set at, was originally inspired by Milton Hall, which Daphne du Maurier visited as a child. I want to go to there... because I am fascinated by big old homes, especially ones my favorite authors were inspired by.

Photo From Wikipedia
4. The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman: (The Ancient Fortress of) Masada, Israel
This is a book I really should critique, but haven't for fear I won't do it justice. I want to go to there... because it is an interesting place in history, in addition to it being located on a plateau. I can hardly imagine trying to attack it- you'd need soldiers without fear of heights, and lots of them.

Photo From Wikipedia
3. Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors: The Taj Mahal of India
Unlike some people, I've never wanted to visit the Taj Mahal... until I read Beneath a Marble SkyI want to go to there... because now that I know some the history and effort behind making this an incredible monument, why wouldn't I?

Photo From Wikipedia
2. The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama and Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden: Japan
I first read about Japan when I picked up Memoirs of a Geisha when I was a teen, and the love affair continued with The Samurai's GardenI want to go to there... because the culture is enthralling, as well as the diversity of the architecture.

Photo From Wikipedia
1. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon: Barcelona, Spain
The Shadow of the Wind is one of my favorite books about books, and it's set in 1950's Barcelona. I want to go to there... because I'm going to find out if the Cemetery of Forgotten Books is really a myth, in addition to gawking at the beautiful buildings.

Have you ever read a book that made you want to travel places you normally wouldn't want to visit? Have you ever picked out books specifically based on their exotic setting?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

"Paradise of the Blind" by Duong Thu Huong

A Travel the World In Books Readathon Pick

It's interesting to look back at my pile of books and try to remember why I picked them up- this one was most likely added to my hoard due to the caption on the front: "Banned in its own country, the first novel from Vietnam ever to be published in the United States." I like banned books, and for it to be the first Vietnamese novel published in the U.S. was appealing too.

Another thing to note about this novel is why it was written- the Vietnamese government originally encouraged naysayers of the government to express their feelings through writing books and screenplays. Then this novel was published and subsequently banned for its politicism. The author, Duong Thu Huong, was left to the task of publishing her works outside of Vietnam (while in Vietnam and she felt that she was having her mail sifted through), until she moved to Paris in 2006.

The Plot:
Hang reflects on her life and childhood in Vietnam under Communist rule as she travels to Moscow to visit her uncle. Que, her mother, lived for two years with Hang's father, Ton, until Hang's uncle Chinh, a Communist fighter, orders her to stop seeing him. Ton flees due to his family owning land- something that was detested in early Communist Vietnam. Que vanishes from the village, returning when her brother is long gone- only to face retribution from the villagers for Chenh's part in policing the village. Selling the house, Que moves to the city of Hanoi, but will she leave her troubles behind?

This book is rife with symbolism, something I wouldn't have noticed (again) without the help of a previous reader, marking out passages in pencil and telling me what was what. What's great about this particular book, was even when I ignored the side notes, I still felt I was getting the gist of the story and could sense what she was trying to subtly evoke- something that was entirely missing from my experience with Beloved.

Although Hang and I differ greatly, I really ended up loving her character, despite most of her personality being mild (i.e. doesn't step out of line- something I like in heroines). She played the dutiful daughter, but through her reflections the story is brought to life and the past is unraveled. She grew up with just her mother for a parent and breadwinner, but doesn't play the poor me card.

Pensive, often melancholy, and completely absorbing, Paradise of the Blind paints a bold portrait of everyday life in Vietnam during the beginning of the rule by the Communist Party. Weaving folk tales and food descriptions throughout, the author immerses us in her native country's customs, mitigated by Communist norms. If you want to visit vintage Vietnam with political commentary, Paradise of the Blind may be the place and book for you.

Famous Last Words:

"I sat down, cupping my chin in my hands, and dreamed of different worlds, of the cool shade of a university auditorium, of a distant port where a plane could land and take off. . . ."

     ~Page 258 of Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong

Rating: 4 of 5 Stars for a brooding picture of Communist Vietnam.

Content: Ages 16+ for interest reasons- the only objectionable content is mild cursing.

Page Count: 258 pages in my scribbled upon paperback version.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

September 11, 2001

If you're an American and were old enough to witness 9/11 and its aftermath, you probably remember where you were when the events of that infamous day happened.

I was nine years old, watching the Today show before my brothers and I went to school, and suddenly, behind the smiling tv hosts, you see an airplane crash into a building. My brother said a word I hadn't heard before: "terrorists". My mom took us to school despite the drama, and during the day we heard the intercom buzz on and off as our principal and secretary kept us updated.

I can't tell you how I felt exactly- hearing that strange word repeated throughout the day. What is a terrorist? Why do they do what they do? What drives them?

In the subsequent years, I watched as soldiers marched into Iraq. "We're at war," the president said. As a child, I didn't understand any of this. It was stressful and confusing as older relatives discussed the ins and outs of war and terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. Is a plane a weapon of mass destruction?

What is a terrorist?

Someone who advocates terrorism or use of violence and threats to coerce someone or some nation(s), especially for political purposes.

A terrorist is not:

A Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist, a Hindu, or a Jew. Religion doesn't make people by definition terrorists, despite a lot of people thinking that way.

Jihad? Have you ever heard of the Crusades? Every religion at some point does something they regret, despite claims that we're doing it for our God.

The point of this post is, growing up in this war weary world, I've learned a simple thing to do to cope with the constant fear, stress, and anxiety that comes with watching the news every day, and today especially, when our bitter memories come to the forefront.

We can't all do our part to combat terrorism- we can't have change minds that have already been made up, and we can't completely squelch the tide of hate.

But we can try to be the opposite of terrorists.

The closest possible antonym of terrorist would be:

Someone who advocates love and use of volunteerism (or helping others) to encourage the spread of understanding, acceptance, and peace. Someone who treats their neighbor (or anyone) just as they would treat themselves, despite their neighbor being a human being with human traits, not believing the same things, being an entirely different sexual orientation, and/or being from an entirely different part of the world.

In our own small ways, we can repair the damage terrorists have done, and continue to do. There will always be terrorists, people who hate, and people who bring negativity into our worlds. What we can do is use our own limited powers to be the opposite of them.

No one will ever forget 9/11. Not everyone will be able to forgive the men who took it upon themselves to terrorize the U.S. and other parts of the world. But on this September 11th, let's honor the victims of the infamous day by spreading love, being patient, and accepting people as they are.

Some quotes for thought:

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."
      ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

"If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do."

"Keep love in your heart. A life without it is like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead."
      ~Oscar Wilde


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

O.o.O.C.: "First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers" by Loung Ung

Out of Orbit Critique #1

This will be my first Out of Orbit Critique: basically about once a month I'll take a book I that doesn't fall under Victorian Soul (Book) Critiques genres (like nonfiction biographies or contemporary fiction) and review it. This was inspired by my favorite radio station back in Billings, MT: The Planet 106.7, which would occasionally do a feature called Out of Orbit, playing a song that you wouldn't normally hear on the radio anymore. Although this is a book critique blog and not a radio station, I give them credit for inspiring me to shake it up.

Cover From Goodreads
Alternate Title (I Made Up): The Actual Hunger Games

The first thing to note is that this is a memoir of a girl growing up (from when she was 5-9 years old) under extreme conditions. The author wrote it in present tense after realizing that when she wrote it in past tense it lost much of its impact, and also from the point-of-view of a child (i.e. herself) because it was how she experienced it.

I'd never heard of the Cambodian Genocide before reading this book- in school we were taught bits and pieces of post 1970 history, but not a lot. I had heard of Pol Pot, but I didn't realize the extent of the Cambodian genocide, which has an estimated quarter of the population of Cambodia dying from 1974-1979, and left behind about 20,000 mass graves.

The Plot:
Loung Ung and her family lead a relatively privileged life in Phnom Penh, until April 17th, 1975, when the Khmer Rouge evacuate the city because of fears the U.S. would bomb it. Traveling to her uncle's village with what they were able to grab from their apartment, Loung hopes they will soon be able to return to Phnom Penh and life as they knew it, but will they?

The reason I redubbed this as The Actual Hunger Games is Loung spends more time hungry in this book than Katniss ever did- and her family grows very sick from the hunger (i.e. they can't work, function, or shoot arrows like a boss). This book has a lot of heavy topics, and once I reached the family photos section (about 45% through) I began crying in earnest. Although I felt some of the book would have benefitted from an adult's perspective, to hear a child talk about hunger, anger, and being taught to kill Vietnamese soldiers is so much more chilling.

In the course of my research for this critique, I came across an article that attempts to poke holes in Loung Ung's story. They think that because she wrote a book about it, she has to be an expert on everything Cambodian (what foods were available in Phnom Penh and other trivial things)- when in fact she has spent more of her life in the U.S.. In the grand scheme of things, I don't care about detail in memoirs- I read this book to hear her story, not the history and precise details of Cambodia during the 1970s. They also felt Loung was racist towards the Khmer people due to her hatred for the Khmer Rouge (the bad guys who carried out the genocide). I didn't feel that way, and so I'm unwilling to even link to the article- just note that some people didn't like the book as well as I do.

First They Killed My Father is a compelling memoir told from a child's point of view. While some details of Loung Ung's past may have been muddled by time, the main story rings true- and that's all that matters to me. I recommend this to anyone willing to cry during the course of reading a heartbreaking memoir about survival.

Rating: 4 of 5 Stars for a sadly true story.

Content: Ages 14+ because despite the content it needs to be read (instances of sexual assault, child soldier training, violence, brutality, discrimination, and starvation).

Page Count: 238 pages in the Kindle edition
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