Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire #1)—George R.R. Martin



Summary:
The story of A Song of Ice and Fire takes place in a fictional world in which seasons last for years on end. Centuries before the events of the first novel, the Seven Kingdoms on the continent Westeros had been united under the Targaryen dynasty established by the first Targaryen King, Aegon I. As A Game of Thrones begins, it has been 15 years since the feudal lords led by Robert Baratheon killed the last Targaryen ruler, King Aerys II Targaryen, and made Robert king.
     The principal story chronicles a power struggle for the Iron Throne of Westeros after King Robert's death in A Game of Thrones. Robert’s son, Joffrey, claims the throne, along with Robert’s two younger brothers. Several regions of Westeros raise kings of their own, succeeding from the realm and reverting to the boundaries that existed before they were united.
     The second story takes place on the northern border of Westeros, where an 8,000-year-old wall of ice defends Westeros from the Others. The Wall's sentinels, the Sworn Brotherhood of the Night's Watch, protect the realm of Westeros (land of the seven kingdoms), whereas the "Free Folk" or "wildlings" are humans living north of the Wall. The Night's Watch story is told primarily through Jon Snow, who is introduced as the bastard son of Eddard Stark, and who joins the Watch, rising quickly through the ranks. In the third volume, A Storm of Swords, this story becomes entangled with the civil war.
     The third story is set on an eastern continent named Essos, and follows Daenerys Targaryen, isolated from the other characters and plotlines. On Essos, Daenerys rises from a pauper sold into marriage, to a powerful and intelligent ruler. Her rise is aided by the birth of three dragons from eggs given to her as wedding gifts: used initially as symbols, and later as weapons.

Summary from Wikipedia.com. Cover art from Goodreads.com.

My summary/review: A Song of Ice and Fire is an epic fantasy series, already an acclaimed classic compared to the likes of Tolkein. It has been made into an HBO television series titled Game of Thrones. Unlike other fantasy works, there is not a lot of emphasis on the supernatural, on unfamiliar landscapes, foreign languages, and terms…a reader could honestly be reading a medieval historic novel. The introduction of the fantasy elements is subtle and slow. This could frustrate lovers of the high-fantasy genre, but makes this series more palatable to those who find high fantasy outlandish, cumbersome, or weird.  Rather, A Song of Ice and Fire takes on more of a political bent in a complex tale of a fractured kingdom and political upheaval strongly flavored by the War of the Roses. I have never read a book with such an intricate, interlaced, cunningly smart plot; nor have I read more realistic, wholly developed, complex characters. I was instantly and wholly engrossed with this series. I am one of the obsessed! I have read the lengthy (and unfinished) series two times now and still know I could read it a dozen more and pick up on clues and foreshadowing that will culminate in the final book. There are forums, websites, wikis, and an entire Reddit page dedicated to the series. In fact, I recommend readers to make friends with the ASOIAF Wiki because you’ll need it to keep all the characters straight.

My summary/review of A Game of Thrones: Eddard “Ned” Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North is a man who puts honor above all, taking his role as a father, a lord, and a leader more serious than most. Yet his moral ideals create more conflict than peace when he is asked by King Robert to come to King’s Landing as the new Hand of the King, replacing the late Hand—Ned’s brother-in-law and foster father Jon Arryn. Lady Catelyn Stark’s widowed sister tips her off that her husband’s death was not natural. She suspects he was murdered by the Lannisters—a wealthy, power hungry family at the center of realm’s troubles. Though Ned has no desire for the power and prestige that come from being the King’s Hand, his honor forces him to do his duty.
     Along with Lady Catelyn, Ned plans to leave his oldest son Robb and his youngest son Rickon behind at Winterfell. He will take his two daughters, Sansa and Arya, and middle son Bran to court. Lord Stark also leaves behind his bastard son, Jon Snow—the one blight on his impeccable honor. Though raised with his trueborn children and seen as a true brother by them, Lady Catelyn insists there is no place for him at Winterfell with Ned leaving. As a result, Jon joins the Night’s Watch.
     Just before Ned’s departure, Bran climbs one of the ruined towers of the castle and happens upon Queen Cersei engaging in incestuous relations with her twin brother, Ser Jaime Lannister. Jaime pushes Bran out of the window. Bran miraculously survives the fall, but is unconscious. If he lives, he’ll never walk again. The circumstances of Bran’s “fall” are unknown to everyone else. It is with a heavy heart that Ned and his two daughters leave Bran and the others behind and travel to the king’s palace. Once in King’s Landing, Ned Stark will unravel the mysteries surrounding Jon Arryn’s death and his son’s “accident,” but not before learning that honor and justice have no place when everyone around you is playing the game of thrones.
     The story is told through various Point-of-View characters, developing a complex, interlaced plot, and making each character both a protagonist and antagonist, depending on who the current POV character is. Favorites include Jon Snow at the Wall; Tyrion Lannister, the cunning and bookish youngest Lannister, who happens to be a dwarf; spunky tomboy Arya Stark; and Daenerys Targaryen, a teenage girl living in exile who happens to be of the last true heirs to the Iron Throne.
     Sorry that summary was so long, but the book is 704 pages long and that setup will help with other reviews I do. I like fantasy, but I don’t necessarily love it, especially high fantasy. I like mysteries, but they aren’t my usual genre. Political stories? No thank you. Definitely not my cup of tea. I do love me some historical fiction. Somehow, though, I am OBSESSED with these books. I was first intrigued by the memes and jokes and Buzzfeed lists surrounding this series. I was hooked by the second chapter when Bran was pushed form the window. Summer 2013 was pretty much spent in sleep-deprived zombie mode as a devoured the five lengthy books that are currently published. If you embark on this journey, be warned—the series will likely have 7 books and it takes Mr. Martin about 6 years to write each one. Luckily, there is enough meat, unsolved mysteries, and fan theories to warrant multiple readings of the five published books.
     As you’ll see in the warning below, these books are not for the sensitive reader. They portray the medieval lifestyle in all its gory glory, which includes brutal battles, murders, rapes, castrations, torture, and the like. Despite being set in a world where women had few rights, Martin crafts memorable and stunning female characters that demonstrate surprising power and influence.

My rating: 4.75 Stars The plot can be confusing—the wiki became a crutch for me at times—and truthfully, I’d be okay if the language and the graphic scenes were toned down a notch. But this series will forever be a favorite for me. It’s such a rich experience as a reader. As a writer, it was a master class in character development, all kinds of character development arcs, and plotting.

For the sensitive reader: This book (and series) is not for you. A Game of Thrones is probably the tamest of all the series (I noted in my re-read) so maybe a sensitive reader could push through, but the series as a whole contains every swear word under the sun, sexually explicit scenes with sexually explicit language, sexual violence, graphic physical violence, racism, sexism, oppression, and whatever else may offend readers. There’s a reason the television show is on HBO. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Foxcatcher: The True Story of My Brother's Murder, John du Pont's Madness, and the Quest for Olympic Gold - Mark Schultz, David Thomas

Summary: The riveting true story of Olympic wrestling gold medal-winning brothers Mark Schultz and Dave Schultz and their fatal relationship with the eccentric John du Pont, heir to the du Pont dynasty 

On January 26, 1996, Dave Schultz, Olympic gold medal winner and wrestling golden boy, was shot three times by du Pont family heir John E. du Pont at the famed Foxcatcher Farms estate in Pennsylvania. Following the murder there was a tense standoff when du Pont barricaded himself in his home for two days before he was finally captured.

Foxcatcher is gold medal winner Mark Schultz’s memoir, revealing what made him and his brother champion and what brought them to Foxcatcher Farms. It’s a vivid portrait of the complex relationship he and his brother had with du Pont, a man whose catastrophic break from reality led to tragedy. No one knows the inside story of what went on behind the scenes at Foxcatcher Farms—and inside John du Pont’s head—better than Mark Schultz.

The incredible true story of these championship-winning brothers and the wealthiest convicted murderer of all time will be making headlines this fall, and Mark’s memoir will reveal the true inside story.

I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

My Review:This book was not what I expected. When I read the blurb, I expected it to be a lot of info about John du Pont. How he was crazy. How the trial went. The nitty gritty, ya know. Because, let’s face it, who doesn’t love juicy details about real-life crazy people?

This book was not that.

This is not to say that Foxcatcher didn’t have its fair share of describing the craziness of John du Pont. There was plenty of evidence for that for sure. However, the way it was built up (and the way it looked, frankly) was like it was going to be this really heart-wrenching story that had adapted easily to the movie and would leave us all in tears. It was not that, however.

Not to say that this wasn’t a sad book or that didn’t have plenty of room for sorrow. It did. It was just misleading.

I would say that the most accurate description of this book would be that it is a wrestling memoir of Mark Schultz. Now, to be fair, Schultz is a legit wrestler. He is an Olympic gold medalist, two-time World Champion, three-time NCAA champion, and seven-time national champion. He has also coached at many prestigious places and done a lot for the wrestling world. It’s just that a wrestling memoir is not what this book claimed to be. But it was. The first 1/3 of it, actually, deals almost exclusively with that. There is actually a section—I kid you not—which reads like the famous shrimp reciting by Bubba Gump in “Forrest Gump,” only it involved wrestling moves instead of ways to cook shrimp. So, ya know, that was not really my kind of thing. Also, I think that this book was more of a cathartic release of anger and animosity than anything. Schultz obviously thinks du Pont is completely crazy, and spends a lot of time describing different behaviors that obviously show evidence of this. However, a lot of the book is just his memoir and the hard things in his life. He’s encountered a lot of adversity (both real and perceived) and so I’m just hoping that by writing this book he was able to be a little bit at peace, because it is obvious that it was torturing him in so many ways.

Also, this book was not well written. It’s written pretty much like you would expect a wrestler to write.  A wrestler with an education, but still. A wrestler. So don’t be expecting anything spectacular if you choose to read this book.

I wouldn’t suggest reading this book if you’re looking for an extensive and journalistic look at the du Pont trial and John du Pont. A lot of this is glazed over in the book, and I think it’s because Schultz just couldn’t face it. If you love wrestling and know who Mark Schultz is (because, like I said, he’s legit) then you should definitely read this memoir.

My Rating: 2.5 stars.

For the sensitive reader: There wasn’t a lot of sex or explicit violence, but there is a murder and quite a bit of discussion of drug use.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Up in Smoke: A Complete Guide to Cooking with Smoke - Matt Pelton

Summary: If the mention of St. Louis-Style ribs, beef brisket, or smoked bacon gets your mouth watering, then Up in Smoke is for you! Perfect for any barbeque enthusiast, this book breaks down the low and slow cooking method, guiding you through the flavor profile. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

My Review: When I started this book, I was a complete and total novice to cooking with a smoker. (And I still am). I’ve always wanted a smoker, and I have brother-in-laws who love smoking and I have personally enjoyed the fruits of their labors many times. My husband and I decided that for Christmas we would get a smoker, and so we did. After lots of research, we decided on the Pit Barrel Smoker. Now, the reason why we chose this particular smoker is because everyone assured us that it was easy, low maintenance, and made delicious food. What could go wrong, right? Cue Up in Smoke and I would basically be a smoking master.

People, I am. We are. I mean, we have had some seriously delicious smoked food because of this cookbook. I love my Pit Barrel because it is easy and straightforward, and I love this cookbook because it made things even better.

Now, everything hasn’t turned out perfectly, but that is completely user error. There was one Rib Incident of 2015 that resulted in some pretty dry ribs that left even our kids questioning if we were, in fact, having ribs, but it was not the fault of the cookbook. Oh no. The rub we used on the ribs was delicious. Also, the barbecue sauce. Yum.

Our greatest success was probably the pulled pork. My husband and I still dream of that pulled pork. The rub was fabulous. The Basic Barbecue Sauce was fabulous. The instructions were fabulous. Even though we had watched the YouTube videos for our Pit Barrel, it was nice to have Up in Smoke as a little manual for or culinary escapades and to fill in the gaps that a 10 minute YouTube video can’t. And believe me, this knowledge worked. The pork rub was possibly the best I’ve ever had, and that is saying a lot because I do love me some pulled pork and have had quite a bit of it. My husband still brings up the barbecue sauce and gets those little hearts in his eyes all emoji style.

I have also made many of the sides that are included in this little cookbook of smoking love. They were deelish, too. And the directions were very straightforward and made everything seem easy. Indeed, after reading through this book I felt like I could tackle a lot of things that A) I had always wanted to and B) never thought of but for sure would want to try now.

Although the information in this book is great and knowledgeable and thorough, I wouldn’t say the pictures are fabulous. They are certainly accurate portrayals, but they are not the glossy and perfectly photoshopped pictures of many of the mommy blogger cooking blogs you will see. Like I said, they are certainly adequate, however.

I think the thing that impressed me most about this book was Pelton's dedication to his craft. I mean, the man knows what he’s talking about and it’s obvious from his recipes that he can back up his yapping with the actual delicious goods. In the author description in the back it talks about how he took his Dutch oven in his suitcase while on his LDS mission for two years in Boston. HE TOOK IT IN HIS SUITCASE. I mean, come on, people. Have you ever been that dedicated to anything? I think not.

And I’m serious. Try the pork rub and the basic barbecue sauce. You’ll thank me.

My Rating: 4 stars.

For the sensitive reader: You may cry at how delicious these recipes are.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Uprooted - Naomi Novik


Please welcome our guest reviewer, Karima Al-Absy!

Summary: Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.

Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.

The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows—everyone knows—that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia, all the things Agnieszka isn’t, and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.

But Agnieszka fears the wrong things. For when the Dragon comes, it is not Kasia he will choose. (Summary and image from goodreads.com)

My Review: I really liked this book, as in recommending it to everyone I meet levels of liked it. Uprooted is one of those novels that make you remember why you fell in love with a certain genre in the first place. It’s also one of those novels that stayed with me long after I finished it, altering the way I thought of certain things. 

Novik’s language style is lovely and sophisticated and even though she hits many common fantasy tropes—powerful wizard mentor, a cursed kingdom, a young protagonist discovering hidden powers— she puts enough of a spin on them that you can’t quite guess where the story is headed next. Many fantasy novels draw their inspiration from medieval Britain or France, but Uprooted shies away from that, expressing more of a Slavic influence than anything else (for one thing, the main character is named Agnieszka; for another, a powerful witch called Old Jagaplays a role in the novel, a nod to the Baba Yaga folklore of Eastern Europe.)

I love reading novels about women, written by women, and Uprooted is no exception. Agnieszka’s character is very well-written and it’s a delight to read the novel through her perspective. She believably transforms from a frightened peasant girl trapped in a tower to a powerful witch in her own right, with her voice remaining constant throughout. Her best friend, Kasia, also pleasantly surprised me, starting off as a Mary Sue, but exhibiting real depth later on. 
If anything, I wish the book was longer. I’d love to learn more about Agnieszka’s training with the Dragon or her visit to the capital city. As it stands though, this book is pretty darn near perfect

Rating: Four and a half stars

For the Sensitive Reader: Mild sexual content that younger readers may not find suitable

Thursday, August 13, 2015

A Fine and Pleasant Misery - Patrick F. McManus

ExcerptMODERN TECHNOLOGY has taken most of the misery out of the outdoors. Camping is now aluminum-covered, propane-heated, foam-padded, air-conditioned, bug-proofed, flip-topped, disposable, and transistorized. Hardship on a modern camping trip is blowing a fuse on your electric underwear, or having the battery peter out on your Porta-Shaver. A major catastrophe is spending your last coin on a recorded Nature Talk and then discovering the camp Comfort & Sanitation Center (featuring forest green tile floors and hot showers) has pay toilets. There are many people around nowadays who seem to appreciate the fact that a family can go on an outing without being out. But I am not one of them. Personally, I miss the old-fashioned misery of old-fashioned camping. Young people just now starting out in camping probably have no idea that it wasn't but a couple of decades ago that people went camping expecting to be miserable. Half the fun of camping in those days was looking forward to getting back home. When you did get back home you prolonged the enjoyment of your trip by telling all your friends how miserable you had been. The more you talked about the miseries of life in the woods, the more you wanted to get back out there and start suffering again.  (Excerpt from book, image from goodreads.com)

Review: Few books that I've ever read to impress others have delighted me as much as this.  As a child, I was dragged on more camping trips than I would have volunteered for.  I'm not a camper, my dad is ... and guess who chose family vacations?  In a desperate attempt to get me to tolerate our trips, my mom thrust this book into my hands during one car ride. 

I spent the whole trip reading.  And snorting.  And rereading.  I was in stitches.  McManus has such an affable form of story-telling that it's hard to put it down.  Coupled with a dry wit that's guaranteed to leave you gasping for air, and you've got an instant classic.  When we got home, I devoured McManus' other books, and enjoyed them just as well.  They were delightful.

After a fishing trip this summer, I passed a copy onto my son.  It didn't smell like Wasatch pine, mountains, or fishing trips ... it smelled like Barnes and Noble.  But he was fascinated.  He's broken, though, as he didn't particularly find this book funny.  Rather, he thought it was an interesting commentary on camping.  I had to read it again.  Perhaps the mountain air had made everything funnier than it really was.  I started it again at my kids' swimming lessons and snorted so loudly I'm surprised my kids didn't hear.  C1 is just broken, this is still one of the funniest books I've ever read.

Whether you're a camper, married to a camper, or have ever set up a tent in a back yard, you'll find something to appreciate in McManus' books.  Definitely worth a summer binge read.

Rating: Five stars

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Ice Cap and the Rift - Marshall Chamberlain

Summary: A COMBOQUAKE RAKES THE MID-ATLANTIC RIDGE. A FIFTEEN MILE RIFT RIPS ACROSS AN ICELANDIC ICE CAP. A DISSECTED CAVE HOLDS MYSTERIOUS ANCIENT TECHNOLOGY. John Henry Morgan, ex-Marine, Director of the United Nation's Institute for the Study of Unusual Phenomena, returns from the devastating attack on ISUP's Mountain project in Belize only to be cast into the aftermath of the Comboquake and the dangers of the rift. Morgan and key ISUP staff mount an expedition to the rift and discover a cavern occupied one hundred and eighty thousand years ago, containing a perfectly preserved high-tech habitat and a traveling machine operated by unknown scientific principles. The benign scientific expedition to study the cave and its contents encounters deceit and violence as nations and terrorist groups ferret out the existence and significance of the discoveries, and mount sophisticated operations to acquire technological treasures for their own purposes. ISUP finds itself at the convergence of clandestine assault from several fronts. Violence escalates. Lives become expendable - a scenario that has plagued the human race through the chronicles of time. Frantic action: Prague, London, New York, Washington, D.C., Libya, France, Spain, China, Iceland. Across oceans and air lanes, factions grapple for power. Survival for the ISUP scientists and preservation of new technologies for the benefit of humanity lie in choices of whom to trust.  (Summary and Pic from goodreads.com)

I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

My Review:This is book two in Chamberlain’s Ancestor Series, and as you may or may not remember (because I know ya’ll are hanging on to my every word), I didn’t love the first one.  I felt like it was confusing and super long and it just wasn’t great. I’m happy to report that this book was much better. First off, I feel like the writing was better. Even though Chamberlain was no novice when he wrote The Mountain Place of Knowledge, I could tell that he had improved with this book. It was much clearer what was going on, which was one of the big issues with the first book. Secondly, the story flowed more consistently, although it still wasn’t completely seamless. For instance, the book starts out with an earthquake (and not just any earthquake, a…wait for it…combo quake), and I’m still not sure what that earthquake had to do with anything. I mean, I could tell that the earthquake led to the scientists discovering…what they discover…but it seemed a little far-fetched why the one would cause the other. It was also unclear why the same scientists from the first book would be involved with the activities in this one because at first, they appear to be unrelated.

I think that the underlying issue is that Chamberlain has a very detailed story going on in his head and he knows where he wants it to go. He has characters he’s built up and wants to use, and he does keep things exciting with lots of thrilling adventures going on, but in the end, I don’t think he is able to translate all of that perfectly into a story because I was still left a little confused. It’s like when things are getting exciting and events are really happening, the story just sort of glosses over it or leaves out details that just leave the reader confused. Like I said, this is much better than the first book, but it still left me confused. I have wondered before if the confusion and missing details come from poor editing. Maybe the editor just starts cutting and cutting (and I could see how this could happen for length, because these books are quite long) and isn’t careful about where they’re cutting and then the reader, who is less familiar with this somewhat complicated story, is left in the dark along with the dangling participles.

As in the first book, there are lots of characters, and some of them only appear for a little while, so it’s hard to keep track of all of them. They’re not very developed, and that makes it hard to remember who is who or who works for who or whatever. There is a somewhat developing love story (I think?), but it is handled awkwardly and I’m not actually sure if that was what the “tinglings” he described meant. Maybe that was annoyance?  Anger? Rage? I’m not sure.  I think that Chamberlain is just excited about writing a fun, fast-paced story, which this is, but because of that he doesn’t spend much time character-building and that makes it difficult to understand what is going on from several different angles.

Overall, I feel like this was a much better read than the first, and I think the story has potential and definitely has some exciting things going on, but Chamberlain could use more finesse as a writer, and I think part of this could be accomplished with a really talented editor as well who could guide Chamberlain and also make decisions about what to keep and what to cut in the book to make it easier to read overall.

And there better be a next in the series. Because this one definitely leaves us hanging.

My Rating: 3 stars.

For the sensitive reader: There is some language and violence. It is on par with others in this genre.

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Exchange of Princesses - Chantal Thomas

Summary: Philippe d’Orléans, the regent of France, has a gangrenous heart–the result of a life of debauchery, alcohol, power, and flattery. One morning in 1721, he has a brilliant idea to further appease his thirst for power: he decides to marry eleven-year-old Louis the XV to the daughter of Philippe V of Spain, who is only four. This, Orléans hopes, will tie his kingdom to Spain’s. But it could also have a more duplicitous effect: were Louis XV to die without begetting an heir–the likeliness of which is greatly increased by having a child—Orléans himself would finally be king. In exchange, Orléans tosses his own daughter into the bargain, the 12-year-old Mlle de Montpensier, who will marry the Prince of Asturias, the inheritor of the Spanish throne.

The Spanish court enthusiastically agrees and arrangements are quickly made. The two nations trade their princesses in a grand ceremony in 1722, making bonds that should end the historical conflict between them. Of course, nothing turns out as expected. In a novel that reads like a fairy tale, Chantal Thomas chronicles a time in French history when children were not children, but pawns in an adult’s game. (Summary and Pic from goodreads.com)

I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

My Review:The thing that always surprises me about works of historical fiction that have almost anything to do with monarchies is how horrible things actually were.  I mean, we know life was different, and of course there was no indoor plumbing or heating or electricity (and if you’ve ever visited Europe and the old castles there, you can see right away how cold and dreary that would have been in the winter nights) but what I’m always shocked about are familial relations. Mawage. You know, that which bwings us togeder today?

I found this story of these particular little princesses uniquely sad. I mean, the Spanish princess was only four years old. Four! And the poor French princess was essentially abandoned and driven mad in the end, and she was so young as well. Expectations were so high for both of them, and--as with all good stories of monarchies and basically anyone who thinks they have a God-given right to rule over everybody--these sad little princesses were disposable. Both were pawns, both were simply just a means to an end for greedy people who wanted power and wealth. Reading this book showed me that although of course the royal family had a lot of control of the power and of who married whom, it was also the interests of their “trusted advisers” (and yes I know how to properly use quotations. These people are indeed “trusted advisers” versus trusted advisers). And the “trusted advisers,” really, of course, had their own ideas and agendas and cared not about those they hurt or what pawns they used. Cue sad little princesses. No one cared about them. They were interesting when they were needed. When they weren’t? Discarded. So sad.

The book itself was written very matter-of-factly. There were no yummy descriptions of beautiful cloth, sumptuous living, and scandalous court life. I missed that, actually. If I’m going to delve into historical fiction, I want to feel like I’m there—the sights, the sounds, the smells, and the ambience. I really want to feel enveloped in that. I did not feel that with this book. Now, to be fair, this book is a translation from the original French. Maybe some of that was, er, lost in translation, but I don’t know. The writing wasn’t clunky, but it certainly wasn’t fluid and beautiful. I think one of the most prolific and popular writers of historical fiction of this ilk, Philippa Gregory, really sets a standard of making you feel like you’re there--even if she does sometimes walk the line of what is actually true and what is her conjecture.  (I think this could be the case with this book as well.) But it did lack that rich historical detail. It did take awhile to get into the book, although by the end I was certainly moving right along and wanting to know what happened to these poor little girls.

My Rating: 3 stars.

For the sensitive reader: There is language and sexual content in this book. I think it is on par with other books like this, but it is certainly not squeaky clean. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Porcelain Thief - Huan Hsu

Summary: A journalist travels throughout mainland China and Taiwan in search of his family’s hidden treasure and comes to understand his ancestry as he never has before.

In 1938, when the Japanese arrived in Huan Hsu’s great-great-grandfather Liu’s Yangtze River hometown of Xingang, Liu was forced to bury his valuables, including a vast collection of prized antique porcelain, and undertake a decades-long trek that would splinter the family over thousands of miles. Many years and upheavals later, Hsu, raised in Salt Lake City and armed only with curiosity, moves to China to work in his uncle’s semiconductor chip business. Once there, a conversation with his grandmother, his last living link to dynastic China, ignites a desire to learn more about not only his lost ancestral heirlooms but also porcelain itself. Mastering the language enough to venture into the countryside, Hsu sets out to separate the layers of fact and fiction that have obscured both China and his heritage and finally complete his family’s long march back home.

Melding memoir, travelogue, and social and political history, The Porcelain Thief offers an intimate and unforgettable way to understand the complicated events that have defined China over the past two hundred years and provides a revealing, lively perspective on contemporary Chinese society from the point of view of a Chinese American coming to terms with his hyphenated identity.
 (Summary and image from goodreads.com.  I was provided a copy in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: I don't know what this book is.  It puzzled me as I read it, it puzzled me as I finished, and as I sit down to write this review, I'm frankly puzzled.  Part Chinese history, part cathartic exercise, part memoir, it has made it more difficult for me to not only understand which threads I should tug, but how overall I should digest this book.

Let me say this.  Huan Hsu is an excellent writer.  He knows how to engage an audience, how to bring a scene to life, how to paint realistic characters.  He warns readers periodically that trying to understand Chinese history, or even his family's history, is like trying to drink from a firehose.  Oh, my was it.  There were so many side characters--family, extended family, friends, acquaintances, random strangers, officials (both minor and major)--my head was swimming trying to keep track of who belonged to whom, where their stories intersected with Hsu's, and how they were necessary to the storyline.  Frankly, there were many times I didn't feel up to the task, and it was disheartening.  It made me feel better, however, to read Hsu's same feelings of overwhelming ancestry when dealing with all these people. 

Huan Hsu is Chinese-American.  Paraphrased from him, that means he's too Chinese to be American, and too American to be Chinese.  I can't imagine how difficult that would be on any child.  He was raised hearing about recent Chinese history, learning the ins and outs of a world he didn't identify with while trying to find an identity in a world he was unsure of.  Unfortunately, I felt that there was a lot of bitterness that leaked through because of it.  It was difficult to read someone's writing who is so clearly angry at his heritage.  Hsu doesn't like China.  He doesn't like the people, the culture that's developed, he doesn't like really anything about it but the food.  That was really, really hard for me to identify with.

I also had a difficult time with the sheer amount of Chinese history thrown so haphazardly and furiously at the reader.  Don't get me wrong.  I want to study Chinese history.  I want to understand the ins and outs, but it very much felt like I'm sure I would sound if I were to give a Chinese casual reader a brief rundown of American history.  I was utterly baffled and perplexed as names, dates, events, and battles that I had either never heard of or had only been given a cursory once-over in my AP World History classes were referenced.  I understood why it would be -- this is Hsu's history, as surely as American history is mine.  But it made me feel like I didn't belong to the book - like somehow, I wasn't allowed into the club because I haven't heard of this history my whole life.  That was frustrating, and I worry it soured my opinion of the book.  No one wants to feel locked out of a book they're reading - and I felt sometimes as though I could nearly hear "Tick, tock, the book is locked, and you're too DUMB TO PLAY!!"

However.  I took a History of Ceramics class in college (oh, dear), and I felt like I learned more from this book about Chinese ceramic and porcelain development than I did in that semester of college.  The ceramic history was fascinating!  The details he was able to uncover, the legends surrounding the creation of the porcelain, they were beautiful! They made me want to hunt down a museum with book in hand so I could pour over the history while seeing the actual pieces.  I wish there had been more of that thread.

Rating: Three stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Lots and lots of swear words.  Hsu likes them.  He's also colloquialized  his Chinese conversations to include as many as he could. 

Monday, August 3, 2015

Black Dove, White Raven - Elizabeth Wein

Summary: Emilia and Teo's lives changed in a fiery, terrifying instant when a bird strike brought down the plane their stunt pilot mothers were flying. Teo's mother died immediately, but Em's survived, determined to raise Teo according to his late mother's wishes-in a place where he won't be discriminated against because of the color of his skin. But in 1930s America, a white woman raising a black adoptive son alongside a white daughter is too often seen as a threat.

Seeking a home where her children won't be held back by ethnicity or gender, Rhoda brings Em and Teo to Ethiopia, and all three fall in love with the beautiful, peaceful country. But that peace is shattered by the threat of war with Italy, and teenage Em and Teo are drawn into the conflict. Will their devotion to their country, its culture and people, and each other be their downfall or their salvation?

In the tradition of her award-winning and bestselling Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein brings us another thrilling and deeply affecting novel that explores the bonds of friendship, the resilience of young pilots, and the strength of the human spirit. (pic and summary from goodreads.com)

My Review: This book review makes me sad to write. First of all, it’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Elizabeth Wein. I mean, Code Name Verity is listed as one of my favorite books and I gave the companion book, Rose Under Fire, five stars, which I rarely do. I loved both those books. One of my friends and I have kind of an ongoing discussion about how awesome Verity is.

Now to this book. First off, I know that Wein is a pilot herself and so women pilots are near and dear to her heart. I get that. And I’m not sick of that repertoire, either. What I did find disappointing about this book, though, was that it was similarly written to Verity in that a lot of it is letter style. This is fine. I don’t always love this style, but sometimes it works. However, Wein complicated this a lot by having several different types of documents going on—letters, diaries, flight logs, and, inexplicably to me, an ongoing fantasy story written by the two kids who are pilots. I didn’t get the story. Granted, I didn’t spend a lot of time on it because although it was supposed to be allegorical and all it was just kind of far-fetched and weird and boring. The kids referenced it throughout (and when I say “kid” I’m being matronly about it because the “kids” are like 16 and 17 when the book ends) but I never cared to actually read it carefully enough to see some kind of premonition or something about what was going to happen, and, unfortunately, it was just boring.

So the style was kind of confusing. It often switched off between who was writing and what the writing was for. Sometimes the chapters were short because of this, sometimes they were long. There was really no consistency or rhyme and reason to why it was written the way it was. I’m interested to see if Wein can actually write a straightforward novel because at this point she hasn’t done it yet. I loved her first two; I just don’t think she pulled it off with this one.

Wein is, in my opinion, a talented writer. I don’t think this was her best writing. Part of that is possibly because this was written as if by kids (and “kids”), but it’s not like the writing was different enough versus the two writers to even be able to tell, let alone their ages. It was just mediocre writing.

The story itself was interesting enough. It was kind of tragic and like Wein’s other novels, everything isn’t always hunky dory and everyone doesn’t live happily ever after. I like this about her writing. However, the writing style and confusion of it all made it a somewhat difficult read for me.

My Rating: 2.5 stars

For the sensitive reader: This is a clean book, but there is some discussion of real-life war situations which are by nature somewhat disturbing. 

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