Monday, November 29, 2010

It's Monday... What are you reading? (7)

"It's Monday... What are you reading?" is hosted by Sheila at BookJourney.

So here's what I'm reading, and what I've read - November catch up edition!
I'm Currently Reading:
The Waste Lands by Stephen King - This is the third book in his Dark Tower series, which I'm currently reading for December with two different groups on Goodreads, one public and one private. This time around, for re-read number 1934872759, I'm listening to the audio, read by Frank Muller. It took me a while to get used to his reading style (all of The Gunslinger -unrevised edition- and a good bit into The Drawing of the Three), but now I'm really enjoying it and highly recommend it!

For November, I've read:
Heidegger's Glasses by Thaisa Frank
Changeless by Gail Carriger
The Drawing of the Three (Dark Tower book 2) by Stephen King (Audio read by Frank Muller)
Blameless by Gail Carriger
The Crown Conspiracy by Michael J. Sullivan (Audio read by Nathan Lowell)
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (Audio read by Roses Prichard)
I Am America (And So Can You!) by Stephen Colbert (Audio read by Colbert & cast)
The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor - ARC (review to come!)
The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens - ARC (review to come!)
Darkfall by Dean Koontz
The Stand: Captain Trips (Graphic novel) by Stephen King and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
The Stand: American Nightmares (Graphic novel) by Stephen King and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa

Whew! That's a good amount of reading (and listening!) done in one month. My goal for the year is to hit 126 books read. Including The Waste Lands, I should make this, as December is going to be strictly fantasy with the following line up:

December Goals:
Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson
Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling (Yep - I'm reading these again! US editions this time.)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and theDeathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

Another full month ahead of me - 11 books, and a total of 6940 pages. But I have a feeling that I will love ALL of them. :) Wish me luck!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Review: Zan-Gah - A Prehistoric Adventure by A. R. Shickman ★★

Zan-Gah:  A Prehistoric Adventure (Zan-Gah, #1)This story is about a teen in pre-historic times, and his quest to find his twin brother who disappeared over a year ago. Zan-gah is brave and proud, and sure that if he starts his adventure, he will be rewarded in finding his goal. He encounters a lot of dangers and obstacles along the way, but never gives up hope.

I wish that I could say that I loved this book as I really enjoy adventure stories, but unfortunately, I had quite a few issues that I could not ignore. Overall, I thought it was OK, but I thought the concept could have been great and I had hoped for more.

First, I felt that the writing seemed to talk down to the reader. I know that this is a children's/young adult book, but readers still want to be immersed in the story and see the events through the characters' eyes. This was a book full of events that were told rather than shown, and after just telling the reader what happened, we were then told, with italics or exclamation points, what the events or actions meant, as if the reader would not understand. Perhaps these little asides were intended to draw in the reader, but to me they felt a bit condescending and repetitive. I think that this was done more to clarify what was happening than to condescend, but I didn't feel that the reiteration was necessary. We should be able to gather from context what a particular action or scene signifies, and examine that scene in relation to our own experiences. If every event is explained, we have no need to look for any other meaning or significance to ourselves, and it's then harder to connect or identify with the character without that bond.

I felt that the characters were interesting and diverse, but I didn't really feel as though I understood any of them. I did root for everything to come out OK in the end, but I couldn't really identify with the characters regarding their lives or choices or actions. I kept being surprised by the decisions that Zan made, because they were different than the ones that I would have made in his place. In a way this is a good thing, because I do generally enjoy unpredictable characters, but I admit that it did make me feel as though I didn't know Zan at all.

The second issue I had was the language used. It felt modern and out of place with the setting. The character names are all seemingly appropriate, and certain words in the presumed language of the pre-historic people, but then we have a teenage main character using modern English words like "proficient" that obviously didn't exist then. It just stuck out and unfortunately didn't work for me. Again, I realize that this was probably done in an effort to make the story more accessible to younger readers, but it was distracting and took me out of the story.

The third issue that I had was that there was just too much I found unbelievable. There were close calls, sure, but every time there was the least amount of trouble, the characters would find an incredibly convenient way out of it with little or no effort at all. Yes, Zan-Gah is described as resourceful, but he didn't really show this quality - and when he did, it was not his resourcefulness that benefitted him, it was luck or someone else coming to his aid.

There is a theme of unity and working together and loyalty that appealed to me, however. Zan-Gah helps to facilitate between his clan and those of his neighbors. Although it was effected very easily, with little more effort than gathering the people and making a short speech, still, he enacted a change for the better, and I did like that. I also liked the fact that he did not give up hope of his brother, and went to try to save him, against all odds, and knowing that he may never return. I was proud of Zan-Gah for his bravery.

I think that this book is one that younger readers may enjoy.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Author Interview: Stephanie Dray, author of "Lily of the Nile"

Stephanie Dray is the author of the soon-to-be-released Historical Fantasy novel Lily of the Nile, a novel about Princess Selene of Egypt. From the moment I saw the beautiful cover of this book, and read the excerpt on Goodreads, I've wanted to read Selene's story, so I am thrilled to have the opportunity to find out more about the book from Stephanie herself in preparation for its release in January 2011.  Read on! 

Q: Both you and author Michelle Moran have written books about Cleopatra's daughter, Selene. What inspired you to write about her?

A: I've always been interested in Cleopatra VII. When I found out that she had a daughter--one who survived to become Queen of Mauretania--I had to know more. Imagine the life of a child whose parents both commit suicide, a child who is taken prisoner and dragged through Rome in chains, only to charm her way into power. That was an irresistible story for me. What made it more interesting is that Selene lived through a period of great social and religious transition. I wanted to know how her life fit into that context and I was moved by every new thing I discovered about her.

Q: Lily of the Nile is a historical fantasy - Did you know from the start that this was the type of book you wanted to write? If not, how did it change from what you had intended?

A: Originally, the story I planned was more historical fantasy than historical fiction. I wanted to write an alternate history where things turned out differently. But the more I researched Selene's life, the more her actual circumstances touched me. For example, though she was only ten years old when her parents died, she never forgot them, or any of the family that she lost. The relics found from her reign in Mauretania show frequent references to her mother and to lost loved ones. This is a little girl who grew up to be the last Ptolemaic queen, and her desperation to hold onto her heritage resonated with me and seemed like its own little bit of magic.

Q: What was the most difficult aspect of researching for a book like Lily of the Nile?

A: I can't read or write Latin or Greek and that was a huge limitation for me in my research. Having to rely upon English translations frustrated me. Also, there's a great deal that we know about the Augustan Age, but references to Selene are brief and tantalizing. For example, both of her brothers simply disappear from the historical record. Some historians suggested that they went on to live obscure lives with their sister but modern historians theorize that they must have died young or they'd be mentioned. There's a danger in making assumptions when we have so few surviving historical accounts, and those that we do have were often written hundreds of years after the fact. I try to approach historical mysteries without any hubris and am willing to admit that there are things we just don't know and might never know.

Q: I am very much a character reader; for me to enjoy a story, it has to have realistic characters that I can identify with and care about. What is the one "make or break" aspect a book must have for you to love it?

A: I'm with you. It's all about character. I can't get into a book, no matter how well written or clever, no matter how fast the plot moves, if I don't have a reason to care. Selene speaks to me as a character, and as a historical figure, and that's what makes the book for me.

Q: Can you talk about one aspect of writing and/or publishing that surprised you, either positively or negatively, and what you would do differently if you had the chance?

A: If I had the chance to go back and write Selene's story as one giant novel instead of three smaller books, I think I would have done that. I didn't understand the women's fiction market very well when I started writing, and I thought, nobody will buy a book that big!

Q: Have you ever been surprised by the reactions of readers? For example, readers loving a character that you disliked or vice versa?

A: Every now and then a reader will surprise me by wishing that Selene was a sweeter, more innocent girl, who never feels rage. A lot of fiction out there revolves around heroines who never lose their temper, who always do the right thing, who never struggle. I'm not very interested in those kinds of heroines and I rarely write them. What's more, I don't know any real women who are like that. Selene had a very difficult life and she has plenty to be angry about. She loves some of the people she's supposed to hate and she hates some of the people she's supposed to love. She tries, she fails, she changes, she becomes. I love her for that.

Q: I know that there is a sequel in the works - are there more books in the series planned?

A: The next book in the series will follow Selene on her journey to Mauretania as its young queen. It's in this book that she becomes the emperor’s most unlikely apprentice, and the one woman who can destroy his empire…

Q: Do you have any "quirks" regarding your writing habits? Like writing longhand and then typing it up, or using only a "lucky" font, or needing absolute quiet or loud music or background noise?

A: I like to have my kitties sleeping beside me when I write ;)

Q: Who or what is your favorite mythological figure or creature?

A: I have to go with nymphs because they are a primal expression of the mystery that women represented to the ancients. They lived outside of civilization and social norms. They were wild and alluring and even dangerous. They were the original bad girls of the ancient world and I love them for it.

Q: I'm sure you get the same types of questions all the time, so what is the one question you wish someone would ask you, and the answer you'd give?

A: I'd like someone to ask me if I really hate the ancient Romans. Selene's perspective in the book is very slanted. She hates the Romans and thinks everything they do is bad whereas everything about her mother's Egypt is good. This is a biased point of view and one that I intentionally adopted for her. Unfortunately, people think it's my point of view. I have enormous respect for the ancient Romans and I'm well aware of the influence they've had over our own culture. In fact, don't tell Selene, but I even have quite a soft spot for Augustus!

Thank you so much, Stephanie! I am extremely excited to read this one, and I can't wait to get my hands on it! :)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Friday Flashback Review (11): Tim by Colleen McCullough ★★★★★

Tim Friday Flashback is hosted by Jen at The Introverted Reader.

Wow... There is so much that I want to say about this book, and I don't know if I will really be able to do it all justice. I think I'm just going to go for my tried and true method and just ask you to tag along with my ramblings... Hopefully it will make sense at the end. :)

On the surface, "Tim" is a story of an unlikely relationship between a child-like 25 year old mentally retarded man, the title character, and a 43 year old straight-laced and emotionally distant spinster, Mary Horton. Naturally, their relationship is mutually beneficial, with each of them teaching the other how to live.

But the surface story, while absolutely moving and beautiful, is just the bottom layer of the cake. McCullough supplements that base with layer upon layer of detail and depth and insight and truth. While the finished product by another author may have been a tasty and even nice looking cake, in McCullough's expert hands it's something too amazing to actually mar by eating it. You want to keep this cake. You want to cherish it and remember every beautiful detail of it.

We're introduced to Tim, and from the beginning he's impossible not to love and want to protect. Tim's child-like innocence is what really broke my heart. He is tricked and fooled by his "friends", and is upset afterward, but not because he was tricked. His is not a knee-jerk reaction to being laughed at that causes him distress, it is the fact that he knows that he is not able to understand WHY he is being laughed at that distresses him. He seeks acceptance and understanding and love just like we all do.

All of us, that is, except Mary Horton. From the age of 14, she struggled and worked hard on her own to make a life for herself. Unfortunately, due to having a very hard childhood, her idea of "life" is one devoid of any personal relationships. She's never had a boyfriend, never wanted one, doesn't have any personal friends, and her only pleasures are solitary ones, her successes are material ones.

After a chance meeting with Tim, who fascinates her simply because of his sheer attractiveness, they each begin to fill a hole in the other person's life that neither knew they had. This isn't recognized until much later, but it warmed my heart to see them teaching each other what life is really about.

McCullough's descriptions of emotion and perception of the world is amazing. I'm not sure I've ever read anything like it. Her way with words is brilliant. It's like she's imparting secrets that you already knew, but just couldn't understand because the words are just words without MEANING. Even sitting here writing this, I'm at a loss to describe just what it is that touched me so deeply, but I'm close to tears just thinking about the way that she makes simple concepts turn into life-altering truths.

But more than that, she made me think of things in a way that I would never have thought of before. For instance, at one point when Tim is sleeping, Mary ponders what his dreams are like: Did he venture forth as limited in his nocturnal wanderings as he was during his waking life, or did the miracle happen which freed him from all his chains?

I had to stop and think about this. On the one hand, dreaming that you are not fettered by a mental handicap would lend the dreams a wonderful freedom, but on the other, I would imagine that waking up to realize that that freedom was only an illusion would be torture day after day. So, I hope that is not the case.

Another thing that I really enjoyed about McCullough's writing was its vividness. Her characters are just ALIVE and jump off the page. Their local slang and way of speaking had me laughing even while I had tears in my eyes, because while the phrases they use are hilarious, what they are actually saying is true in any language.

The characters are memorable, and none of them, not one, pulls any punches. I love that they say what they mean, and mean what they say. Brutally honest, perhaps, but if what needs to be said is important enough, sometimes it takes a brutal delivery to make it sink in.

I also loved the little snippets of Australian life and culture we get to see. I love reading about other cultures and people, and the only thing that I wish was extended was the small section dealing with the Australian bush. I wanted to see the people and find out how Mary would interact with them.

Anyway. I loved this book. I'm immensely glad that I read it, and can safely say that I will soon be reading much, much more of McCullough's writing.

View all my reviews

Sunday, November 7, 2010

In My Mailbox (8)

In My Mailbox is hosted by Kristi @ The Story Siren.

Not very much going on this week at all... I only picked up two books this week:

Two Moon Princess
Two Moon Princess by Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban (sent to me by Chris), and

Blameless (The Parasol Protectorate, #3)
Bought Blameless by Gail Carriger (Parasol Protectorate #3).

This past week I was yet again a slacker! I read:
Heidegger's Glasses by Thaisa Frank (Click for my review)
Changeless (Parasol Protectorate #2) by Gail Carriger

I'm currently reading:
Blameless by Gail Carriger
The Drawing of the Three by Stephen King

That's all folks... Adieu until next week... or so. :)

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Review: Heidegger's Glasses by Thaisa Frank ★★★★

Heidegger's GlassesI really enjoy reading stories about the Holocaust and about the people who have lived through it. I suppose that in a way, it helps me to gain perspective in my own life, and reminds me that there is goodness to be found in everything. The suffering of the Jewish people during WWII was immense, yet they continue to hope and live. That means something to me.

Heidegger's Glasses takes a different path, a surreal and philosophical and almost mystical one, and is a very different, but no less moving or beautiful story, because of it. We are told in the beginning that the leaders of the Reich were believers in the occult, and felt that winning the war hinged on answering letters to the dead. To do that, the Compound was formed underground, and multi-lingual Jews were placed there as Scribes to answer the dead's letters. When a letter comes in from a well-known person close to the Reich to a close friend who is currently in Auschwitz, the order comes down to answer the letter, even though the recipient is still alive -- the Final Solution must be kept secret, so the letter must not come from Auschwitz.

This throws a huge wrench in the lives of the Scribes, and the people assigned to run the Compound. Elie Schacten is close to the Reich, and has the ability to move freely throughout Germany as few do, and uses this freedom to help people as she can. Gerhardt Lodenstein the Oberst, is a good-hearted man who finds safety for the Compound in flying under the radar. Stumpf, the former-Oberst of the Compound is a believer in the occult and takes the letter writing to the dead very seriously, but is a it of a fool, and so tends to bungle everything he touches. The letter is written, delivered... and goes very badly wrong.

I think that what I enjoyed most about this book is that we get to see the war and the Reich from people inside it that hate it. They don't believe and they live in fear and uncertainty that they will be found out. The Compound is a mostly-safe haven for the Scribes under Lodenstein, and a temporary refuge for Jews in hiding, but after Heidegger's letter fiasco, you can cut the tension with a knife. They aren't sure if the Reich will come crashing down on their heads, or if they've forgotten, or if they don't care... there are a million ifs, but life must go on and there's very little that can be done either way. I felt like I was there, and was worried for this group of people who had lost nearly everything already.

I really enjoyed the writing in this book. It felt simple, almost surreal without quotation marks for the dialogue. The prose was straightforward, but contained some beautiful quotes that I wish I'd have marked. The sections were very short, for the most part, and separated by the letters that the Scribes were answering. These letters told the story of the "outside world" almost as well as any full book would have done, so that by the end, we can see the danger that the Scribes have managed to avoid, mostly, but they still have reason to fear. There were some funny sections in the book as well, which surprised me, since I didn't expect it at all in a novel about Nazi Germany. This helped the surreal feeling as well, but also provided the story with a kind of false-lightness above the seriousness and fear.

The ending was a little abrupt for me. The time shift and the unresolved whereabouts of one of the characters was a bit sudden and and disappointing. I'd hoped for this character to find what they were searching for and to find happiness, so the shift to an entirely new character jarred a little bit. But otherwise, I really enjoyed the story, and would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a WWII story scene through a different lens.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book for review from the publisher.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Friday Flashback Review (10): Little Brother by Cory Doctorow ★★★★

Friday Flashback is hosted by Jen @ The Introverted Reader

I originally read this book in March of 2010. 

My review:

Little BrotherI have to admit that the first couple pages or so had me rolling my eyes and wondering if I would be able to actually finish this book. There's so much technoslang that it seemed to me to be trying too hard, even though it is a book about hackers and technokids... Like, "Spending Fridays at school was teh suck anyway, and I was glad of an excuse to make my escape." Teh suck? Really. Ugh. (Although, to be fair, at least he spelled out "suck" and didn't write "teh sux" or something. I probably would have just had to close the book right then and there. *shudder*) Another example is using "vibe" rather than "vibration" when talking about receiving a text message, or "h4wt" for "hot", which doesn't make sense to me anyway, because it's longer and more cumbersome to type "h4wt" than it is to type "hot". But then later, the full and unabbreviated word "tarpaulin" is used rather than just "tarp", which felt out of place considering the shortening/slang usage of other stuff. I don't understand the stupidifying slang netspeak anyway, but then I'm older than 25, so I'm probably a lost cause.

Add to that that there is a lot of hacker exposition and explanation that I didn't really think was necessary, and you have the only two reasons that I couldn't give this 5 stars. I appreciate the author/narrator explaining the technical aspects of the story for those of us who aren't technologically super-savvy like the characters in the book, but it seemed like there was a lot that could have been contextualized (like gait-cams) rather than explained for pages.

But these are small nit-picks. Other than these two things, the book was brilliant, relevant and prophetic. I want to buy copies and hand them out at schools. I want my library to pick up 10 more copies and I want them to just magically appear in people's check-out stacks. I want people to read this book. I want people to learn from it and take away the knowledge that our freedom is more likely to be taken from us by Americans than by anyone else, and to fight against it when it happens.

This book is set in the not-very-distant-at-all future, after a "terrorist" attack in San Francisco, which essentially results in SF being turned into a vicious data-mining police state... Now with even more "With us or against us" mentality per square mile! *Used car salesman smile* It's frightening, because it's already happening right now. Innocent people are being held without trial, without representation, without anything, in the name of "security". This terrifies me more than anything, because there's no limit, no boundary. When there's a nameless, faceless, general "threat", "security" must by necessity become ever more pervasive and intrusive in our lives to find it. And the only people who suffer are us.

Benjamin Franklin said "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." The characters in this book understand this concept and they go about fighting for their freedom and their rights as American citizens even when the people they are fighting are the very people who are supposed to defend their rights as American citizens. Color me proud. Considering that this book is told from the point of view of a 17 year old, I can only hope that REAL 17 year olds think about this stuff, like prejudice and fear-mongering and overzealous uniformed officials, among others...

Anyway, I loved Marcus's character. Most of the time, probably because of the technoslang and the gaming, he felt younger to me than 17. More like 15. But in a way, that only made him more impressive to me. I loved that he was smart, and willing to stand up for himself and do the right thing, and learn from the world around him and from his own mistakes. When I have kids, I hope that they are something like Marcus... only minus the skipping school to play games stuff. Marcus carried the book well, and was believable as both a smart, mostly responsible teen, and a freedom fighter. I liked his honesty, and how he was unsure of himself but didn't let that stop him.

I expected certain things to happen as the story progressed, and I was right about many of them. The escalation of the security/police-state, the defenders of the security measures, the dissidents, etc. (They were done in a more high-tech way than we have now, but they aren't far off. RFIDs are already gaining popularity and there are 2 cameras that I can see from my house without leaving my porch.) But I was wrong about some predictions and suspicions that I had as well, which always makes me happy, because I really hate knowing where a story's twists will be.

This book should be a must read for everyone, right along with Nineteen Eighty-Four. Go read it. Look past the slang, and the technical explanations, and read this for the snapshot of our future if we aren't wary and vigilant with this so called "War on Terror". See you on Treasure Island... ;)

View all my reviews

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Waiting on Wednesday (1) - Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

Waiting on Wednesday was started by Jill over at Breaking the Spine.

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King
Summary (from Goodreads):
A new collection of four never-before-published stories from Stephen King.
The story opens with the confession of Wilfred James to the murder of his wife, Arlette, following their move to Hemingford, Nebraska onto land willed to Arlette by her father.
Big Driver
Mystery writer, Tess, has been supplementing her writing income for years by doing speaking engagements with no problems. But following a last-minute invitation to a book club 60 miles away, she takes a shortcut home with dire consequences.
Fair Extension
Harry Streeter, who is suffering from cancer, decides to make a deal with the devil but, as always, there is a price to pay.
A Good Marriage
Darcy Anderson learns more about her husband of over twenty years than she would have liked to know when she stumbles literally upon a box under a worktable in their garage.

I love Stephen King's short stories and novellas. His stories are so complete and fulfilling, and even when they stories run just a few pages, I feel like I have experienced the story along with the characters that we meet within the pages. 

Six days and counting... :D