Last Minute Drive-By Reviews

I am feeling like I usually did right before winter break in school. Anxious to get things done, excited for what is coming and really unmotivated to do the before said work. It’ll get done but I’m not moving very fast on it. I’ve done my yearly round-up of reading on Goodreads already and I did pretty good on my goal to finish series this year. I started with a pretty hefty list and I have only 24 books I didn’t get to. Considering I deviated periodically and also added books onto the list for a series I wanted to continue, I did pretty well for myself! I’ve also knocked two more out since I last did reviews so onwards:

Silent in the Sanctuary (Lady Julia Grey #2): I liked this book better than the first in the series. You get a really good look at Julia’s kooky family in all their glory here and it is hilarious. I laughed out loud quite a few times which isn’t something you expect to do in a murder mystery. I also liked the ambiguity of right and wrong in this book which again, is not something I usually like. I prefer when my fiction is uncomplicated however here, one of the culprits gets away free as a bird and commits another murder we learn much later. Yet somehow we’re OK with that within the framework of the narrative; those people could technically have deserved to die because of information we have. I think the name Grey is a good moniker for more than one reason for Julia and her series. Also, Brisbane, the series’ reluctant hero, continues to be annoying and delightful at the same time.

Charmed (Fairy Tale Reform School #2): As my Goodreads review put it “Gilly hon, that was a bit rough at times but believable. Just glad you remembered your friends in the end!” This suffered a bit, as series do, from some growing pains. However, a more delightful cast of misfits you’d be hard pressed to fit in middle grade/YA lit right now in my opinion. Our (mostly) reformed students all earn their freedom from school in the end of the story but the epilogue assures us that is really only temporary as they’re so easily bored…

An Inquiry into Love and Death: the author Simone St. James is very good at evoking a ghostly atmosphere in her books. I liked this one a bit better than The Haunting of Maddy Clare. Jillian is the sort of heroine I enjoy; smart but human. She puts together the pieces just as fast as the reader and is as scared as the reader is when the ghosts are present as well as the very human villain. What I enjoyed and found ironic is the reasons behind the villain’s actions are villainous to some extent because he believes World War II is inevitable and the heroine thinks that is impossible. That the world would never go to war again. It is both charming and sad to know what is headed for Jillian. Oh, and she has a pretty fabulous hero (but only in fiction; in real life, he would be as big a jerk as he says he is).

Delicious!: This book was a delightful read, and I read it fast. It has so much good food! I was so hungry reading it! That said, it wasn’t perfect. It’s, quite rightly, separated into 3 “books” inside it and maybe was trying to juggle a lot of plot, a lot more that it could handle at times. It also had a borderline annoying heroine. You know, one those absolutely perfect, talented beautiful heroines who thinks she isn’t even though everyone is constantly telling her she is. They get worrisome after a while. But the story is good enough to work through that in my opinion.

Advertisements

Homegoing

Evil begets evil. It grows. It transmutes, so that sometimes you cannot see that the evil in the world began as the evil in your own home.

I relate to the world through books. In light of the recent election, I’ve tried to figure out what to read to help me understand what happened. As I bulk up my reading list with political treatises, calls to action and historical reviews, this book was already on my nightstand. It was the book for discussion at my library’s book group this month and it was perhaps more timely than expected when selected over the summer.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi tells two parallel stories of a family tree starting in Ghana; one sister is sold into slavery and taken to the American south, the other sister is married off to a white colonialist in their native home. Each chapter tells the story of the next generation until at the end when the two branches of the family tree meet again in “current day” to bring the story full circle.  The timing of the novel is a bit off (I stuck to thinking about each chapter as taking place in a vague time period and not worrying if characters were still alive that probably should not have been) but I think Gyasi wanted to make sure certain generations were in place for certain events such as Birmingham coal mining by prisoners and the unionization of the mines later in the South or in Ghana, the conflicts of colonialism over time as well as the overarching evil of slavery that threads through both storylines. The stories are all powerful (some stronger than others as often happens when your chapters are basically vignettes that could stand on their own). I would also note Gyasi is strongest in her African chapters; her American chapters could sometimes feel like they are out of Hollywood’s central casting. I did wonder a bit if that may have been slightly intentional; that she was using the stereotype as a sort of shorthand and that the reader could then fill in the character blanks as a sort of self-examination. But that could be years of readers’ response theory rearing its head.

For me, the American chapters definitely held up an ugly mirror. For one, several are set in Harlem, in the north. In fact, the family is part of the Great Migration of African American families to the north during the early 1900s. Now, in school, growing up in the northeast, I think we’re taught a quiet sort of pride in that. We were “better”; we weren’t “racist” because African Americans could make a life for themselves in the North. It is a way, I see now, we comfort ourselves. The north could be, often was, just as bad. I liked that Gyasi did not sugarcoat Harlem of the 1920s. The lead character in that chapter wanted to be a jazz singer and was told continually she was too dark to make it big, no matter her talent. Her husband, light skinned enough to pass as white, leaves her and starts a family with a white woman. It made me reflect on how I was taught about African American history growing up in a almost all white northern suburb. I definitely had guilt and shame but was comforted again with this idea that we were “better” than the south. Later history classes corrected me on that and Gyasi makes a powerful statement about it here by illustrating it but not overtly addressing it. In light of recent events, I think perhaps the comforting message of high school history class had stuck with me more than I thought. I also find, living in the south now, that I cling to my northeastern identity more and more. In a sense, willfully other-ing myself at times as a comfort. Gyasi doesn’t let you do that in this read; we are all culprits. We all allowed this to happen and we are all tainted by the history of slavery and what it led to, both in the Americas and in Africa.

Gyasi is also touching on other aspects;  I think she is saying some powerful things about masculinity, both white and black. A particularly heartbreaking chapter features a gay man deciding to follow the standard path open to him; marrying the woman his uncle arranges for him. She touches on social class and how that intersects with race and gender as well. From an artistic perspective, she’s also just telling a fascinating story of one family and its parallel branches and doing it with lyrical language. Her African chapters especially paint a vivid picture of the time periods she is capturing. The book very helpfully comes with a family tree in the front so the reader can keep track of where in the family they are as the book progresses.

While I have been adding lots of non-fiction to my reading list lately to help me understand our new world, this book reminds me why fiction is always my favorite. It can bring to light the world we inhabit in much truer ways sometimes that simply recounting the facts.

On the road again…

I have a lot of travel back scheduled into this year. And on top of that, busy work schedules, a fun sinus infection and other various commitments and you get this, my first post in a month being written in an airport during a 3 hour layover. I swear I’m still here!

And still chugging away on my reading goal for the year. I have surpassed my GoodReads Challenge total for the year (I’m currently on book 98 out of the 85 I wrote in for the challenge) so that one’s crossed off the list. My quest to finish half-started series though is still moving along as best I can. I got a little side-tracked for a bit (again). I’ll have gotten a good chunk done and off my list. I can’t decide if I want to keep up that challenge for the first part of the upcoming new year or if I want to go down one of the other paths of my to-read list that I’ve been brainstorming (the books on there the longest, pick a genre, a topic, an author etc.). All that aside, here’s what I’ve been reading (well, most of it; I spare you the many romance novels I sneak in everywhere) since we last spoke:

The Serpent on the Crown (Amelia Peabody #17): I have been savoring this series. Mainly because after many years, I am on homestretch. Once I get to #19, that’s all she wrote (literally). I was bummed to find out, #19 is one of the novels that takes the family back in time to fill in gaps Elizabeth Peters skipped earlier in the series so #18 will actually be the “last” story of the Peabodys in the 1920s. I’ll miss Amelia; one of my most favorite literary role models. But I still have two books up my sleeve for this series so I’m going to drag it out.

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (Flavia de Luce #6): Flavia remains one of my favorites as well but she’s becoming increasingly a character who needs a big sister in her life. Ironically, she has 2 of them but Flavia is marked and this chapter finally explains why she is so separated from her family. This installment was also, what’s the right word? Painful to read at times. Flavia goes down a dark path for a while, one in which she desperately needed a big sister to stop her from and that was hard to read. She’s having some major growing pains and I hope the author can steer her through and still keep Flavia all the best parts of herself.

The Unusual Suspects (The Sisters Grimm #2): This is one of those series I had forgotten about and then was bummed I had because it’s lovely, fun, imaginative and also, somehow, realistic (unlike the Into the Wild series which has a similar fairy tale trope and which I abandoned after 50 pages because every character was annoying me and I can’t imagine how I liked the first book). We have a main character in that fun early stage of her teenage years here which can be annoying but she had only a mild case of Book 5 Harry Potter Syndrome. She’s also surrounded by such fabulous characters and a story that gets more intriguing by the second that I survived her. Also, there is a teenage Puck in these books; what is not to like?

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Harry Potter #8…sort of): I must have started at least 3 different blog posts about this book on its own and I just…can’t articulate my reactions to this book very well. I enjoyed it; I liked the idea behind it. I, as I always expected, adored Scorpius Malfoy, wanted to smack Albus because he’s just like his father and want to SEE this. I think just reading it does it an injustice. That said, I am one of those fans that finished the HP stories in my own head a long time ago and I had a hard time adjusting my mind to this ending Rowling has endorsed. I have my own stories for James, Albus and Lily, not to mention Rose Granger-Weasley and Scorpius Malfoy. And to be honest…I like my endings better. So while I liked this, I appreciated it, I would LOVE to get to see it realized on stage someday, I think I’ll just keep my own stories for the kids as my canon and go on my merry way.

Changeless (Parasol Protectorate #2): This broke my heart but I abandoned this. I adored the Finishing School series by the same author (see last blog post) but I remember struggling to like the first book in this series as well and the second book fared no better. I didn’t like the characters, the story was moving at the pace of molasses and…it wasn’t giving me what I wanted. What I wanted was the Finishing School characters to pop up, to give me some sort of connection to this storyline and why I should care and it just wasn’t happening. It’s on my try-again someday list though so maybe 3rd time will be the charm with this series.

The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Ex-Pats, and Ex-Countries: I ran out of room in my to-read drawer when I bought a new book so a book needed to come out. Considering this one has been in there since last November, it seemed like its time had come. I don’t think I would like this author if I ever met her; she is need of someone who would be more sympathetic that I would be. To be frank, a friend who’d smack her, tell her to get over herself and to start by showing her married lover the door, would probably be a good idea right about now. However, I liked the stories she told around the places she was living and the authors she chose to see her new home in a different light. I learned a lot about authors and composers I didn’t know before and, to be honest, about cities I had never heard of. I liked the use of literature and geography to explore her story but her story seemed overcomplicated by…her. A lot of angst going on it this book but if you plow through that, the idea is very cool.

Ghostly Echoes (Jackaby #3): I literally finished this an hour ago (writing on Sunday in an airport remember) and I need the next book NOW. This series is one of my current favorites. It has fabulous heroines, magic, mystery, a hint of romance and a delightful supernatural detective who gets better with each book. In this latest story, Jackaby and his intrepid crew of mortal and immortal gumshoes are getting closer to figuring out who the Big Bad is that’s been leading them on a merry chase for 3 books now. I loved seeing Jenny, the resident ghost of the crew, get some answers in this book as well as see her come into her own. The strength of Jenny has always been hinted at but it was awesome to get to see her kick some ass and take some names in this book. One of the best things about this series is the strength of its heroines (and its villainess) and it’s wonderful to see the series keep building on that strength.

Back on Track…sort of

I am slowly making my way back around to my book challenge for the year. I chose some low hanging fruit (i.e. books I knew I could read in a day) to get myself started up again. I also went through and rearranged my to-read list a bit (some series had escaped me!). I have more left than I thought but I’ll do the best I can!

Low hanging fruit for me meant I could plow through some historical romance novels that were series-based. They are my potato chips of the book world. They are so bad for me and yet delicious and I love them and I can read a ton of them really quickly. So reading through 5 of them in the last two weeks makes me feel like I am getting somewhere!

9627755

I like the redesigns of all the covers for the last book; they are dreamy [from Goodreads]

But, I also finished a series! Go me! Anna and the French Kiss I read awhile back but it was the start of a trilogy (of course) so this week I finished up the other two books. Anna remains my favorite but these other two, Lola and the Boy Next Door and Isla and the Happily Ever After were delightful except well…I am feeling my age. Let me explain. These are essentially chick lit novels for the teenage set. So, they are drama filled. To the max. Where drama doesn’t actually really need to exist. The characters are charming and clever but they’re also 18. And we’re idiots when we’re 18. We make the smallest problems into the biggest nightmares. Rather than talking out a concern with the person we love, we panic, break up with our boyfriend and run off to Paris while melodramatically weeping everywhere and driving our quirky best friend nuts. So in that, the series is quite believable but reading two of the books in quick succession also meant I felt old. However, one of the bonuses of the series, well of the first and last books anyway, is the city of Paris is as much a character as the rest and visiting the City of Lights is, after all, always a good idea.

Next up, more steampunk hijinks from an awesome finishing school on a dirigible and then back to Oz to see if Amy can finally kill Dorothy.

Long overdue book reviews…

So, slowly my moving nightmare at least seems to be stabilizing (I did get stuck in the bathroom this weekend when the doorknob decided not to turn but that’s a little thing at this point) so it’s time to get back to some semblance of a schedule. And I am WAY behind on some book reviews so here they come, drive-by style:

Parrot and Olivier in America: This was a quirky fat paperback book I found wandering Powell’s last September and I am only now getting around to it. I liked this book; both for what it was commenting on and the ludicrous characters. Peter Carey built an incredible ensemble to surround his two named heroes and I was happy with the ultimate ending as well; Parrot deserved a happy ending and I loved the wacky way he gets it. Olivier, on the other hand, needed a swift kick in the pants and even once he got it and was STILL ridiculous. I figure the France of the 1830s deserves him back.

White Teeth: This was one of the books I received through the Reddit Book Exchange earlier this year. It wasn’t bad; it had some laugh out loud moments but it ultimately suffered from the Contemporary Novel disease for me. At least it was a contemporary novel set in London so I could enjoy that aspect of it.

Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women: A friend recommended this to me as something to help process what was, at the time, still the primary season. Glass ceilings have since shattered but this is the book that looked at the giant crack Hilary put in it the first try and does an excellent job of discussing all the aspects of that 2008 primary.

From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals: I really enjoyed this when I read it but now I can’t remember a thing about it…another reason to write these reviews sooner.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: So many people have recommended this to me over the years and it was as good as they said it would be. Fascinating read; I didn’t know anything about the Lacks Family or Henrietta’s story before reading. Well presented and never over anyone’s head. It also is a book that makes you think about your own tissues out there floating in the world and what science might make of them (with or without your consent).

Curtsies & Conspiracies (Finishing School #2): In an effort to get back to what my actual reading challenge was for the year, I did pick up a few books in series I need to get back to. This series is getting more delightful by the book; this time Sophronia is on the hunt for the reason why her floating spy school is headed towards London with (gasp) boys aboard from an evil genius school and why the vampire teacher is acting so odd. Well, more odd than usual. Some days just call for a steampunk alternate timeline supernatural spy thriller complete with ball and tea party and this fits the bill nicely.

The Wicked Will Rise (Dorothy Must Die #2): So, apparently this is no longer a trilogy but longer? Sigh…That said, it still suffering from some “second book in a trilogy” issues but a solid installment nonetheless. Amy continues to be fun to watch develop as a lead (anti) heroine. I’m also not entirely sure where the series is headed which is fun and makes for a good and thrilling read each time.

Cinder & Ella: I don’t usually review all the romances and silly freebie ebooks I pick up on my Kindle but this one deserved at least a line since it is yet another Cinderella re-telling. This one is decent but the DRAMA…oy. This book was one act short of a teenage pregnancy and I feel like a few more chapters and she would have been there but the title characters are fun, actually have some depth to them and the stepsisters get played out well here (I always have a soft spot of the stepsisters) here so if you are a Cinderella re-telling junkie (like myself), this one is worth a few dollars on your Kindle.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry: This was lovely; if nothing else, now I REALLY want to go on a walking tour of England. Like, tomorrow. But, beyond that, Harold is such a wonderful character. Someone you want to reach in and hug periodically and assure him that it is OK, that he is not a failure. That he did his best and life spit his efforts back in his face. And that happens sometimes. But as long as you remember the journey, and the good times along it, the ending is really just another place to start again.

 

 

Pete’s Dragon

I was going to love Pete’s Dragon. No matter what critics said or didn’t say, I was going to love it. That said, I didn’t think I would love it as much as I did. For starters, there is no singing which is my favorite part of the original film. Some of my all-time favorite Disney music comes out of the original Pete’s Dragon. And secondly, Elliot was…different. I remember the first trailer and just sort of sitting there until I could spit out, “wait…Elliot has FUR?!” I adored the animated pink and green dragon of the original (my first car that I paid for, which was blue, was named for him. Yeah, I don’t know either. I just loved the character that much). So, while I knew I would still love it because of reasons, I didn’t expect to be quite as enchanted as I was.

Luckily, I was primed for the big difference because of a review I read last Friday before I went to see it. They talked about how it was a quiet film, one that harkened back to some of the classic childhood films like E.T. There are action scenes but the real story is the family, the relationships, the growing pains the main characters feel; not the explosions or chase scenes. It reminded me of my favorite live action Disney films when I was younger: the original Escape to Witch Mountain, The Apple Dumpling Gang, even The Parent Trap. It wasn’t loud, overcomplicated, or silly to the point of ridiculousness. They were usually about a kid, or a group of kids, just trying to find a place to belong and the friends they make along the way.

This new version of Pete’s Dragon is gorgeous; visually stunning. Its time period is slightly non-descript but probably the late 1970s? At one point, I remember thinking “a John Denver song would fit well here.” It’s harkening back to what seemed like a much simpler time, a safer time, though villains still lurk. The villain of misunderstanding, of fear, of ambition. Those people who must destroy what they do not understand. The worst kind of villain to me; the kind I wish I could just reach into the screen and shake for all I’m worth. Pete’s Dragon has a good one of those here. In the original, the villain is a cartoon in live action; here the villain is someone who is simply afraid and has the power to act on his fear and turn it to his advantage in the town.

For a villain, there must be a hero and Pete lives up to the title. They do maybe hammer it home a bit much (lots of the characters call Pete brave throughout the film) but Pete lives up to the word. His story is heartbreaking on many levels (why he meets Elliot is pretty devastating); but his character is one of curiosity and acceptance so he learns to adapt, to adjust and to thrive. Some will argue I’m sure that the character adjusts too quickly; to which I would remind them it’s an hour and a half movie. He is brave but I don’t think he’s ever thought of himself in those terms. He was simply living. Those he meets in his journey are much like him; curious about the world around them, trying to adjust and accept as the world around them changes. The forest ranger Grace who finds Pete, Grace’s father who swears he saw a dragon in the forest years before, Grace’s fiance and his daughter. Perhaps they are reluctant at first but as the movie builds, they see that a dragon can be a friend, not a foe.

Which brings us to Eliot. The animation is fantastic; at no point does Eliot looks like a cartoon out of place in the film. He blends with his scenery, interacts seamlessly with Pete and the other actors. The fur does make him a bit more cuddly, a bit more approachable and less like a dinosaur out of Jurassic Park so that did the job. But the character remains much the same as the original film; he’s still a bit of goof, clumsy at times, fierce when his friend is in danger and lost when he doesn’t understand something. His relationship with Pete is the heart of the film and honestly, that is what makes it sing.

Reading Catch-Up

So, about a few weeks ago, I brought home books from a secondhand sale and realized my to-read drawer of my nightstand was full…so, I hit the pause button on my reading goal for the year to start to make room for bringing home books again. Because let’s face it, not buying books is most likely not going to happen. But so far, it’s only been 3 Kindle books and luckily, not worried about space with the Kindle yet. So, some quick and easy reviews of books that had been on the top of the to-read pile for awhile.

The Ghost Bride was lent to me by a friend a few months back and I figured it was time to read and return to owner. This book was quite a bit different than my usual fare. It tells the story of a young Malaysian woman who is asked to be the ghost bride for a recently deceased son of a local wealthy family. As you can imagine, she’s not all that interested (in fact, she’s got feelings for the dead man’s cousin who may or may not have murdered him). Also, to make matters even weirder, the dead man starts haunting her and the only way to fight back is to enter the spirit world herself and figure out what is happening and how to escape the ghost and his family. The culture explored with this story was fascinating and I enjoyed learning about the spirit world and all the rituals performed by the living to help their family members in death. Li Lan, the heroine and purposed ghost bride also developed into a character you really root for; she is a bit wishy-washy in the beginning and I was wondered that would ruin the story for me but she definitely finds her backbone in the end.

Sarah Vowell is delightful; if you don’t know who she is, go Google for a moment and then come back. She also has a knack of taking obscure moments in American history and writing fascinating books about them. The Wordy Shipmates looks at the second wave of Puritans who emigrated to New England and founded Boston. First off, I had no idea there was such a distinction as Plymouth and Boston Puritans so right off the bat, I’m learning something but it’s Vowell’s tone that will keep you reading. Her dry wit never ceases to crack me up. Also, I can’t read anything by Vowell and not hear her reading it in my head – built-in audiobook!

When I travel these days, instead of picking up useless souvenir knickknacks that I would just get rid of a year later, I try to buy books and then write in the front cover where I picked it up from. That way, I’m buying something to remember my trip but also something I will keep and use over time. My trips to Disney are not an exception to the rule (well, I also buy pins but that’s another addiction next to reading and should be forgiven). On my latest visit out to Disneyland, I picked up A Whole New World (Twisted Tales #1). Twisted Tales are a new series out of Disney’s publishing arm that take a pivotal moment in their movies and ask “what if this happened instead?” As you all know, I adore a good re-telling of a fairy tale so I was all in for this one. This installment tells the tale of what could have happened if Aladdin hadn’t got the lamp but if, as planned, Jafar had. It was cool to watch scenes from the movie I knew so well get played out in very different ways or the few brief scenes between Aladdin and the Genie. They both feel they should be friends but never get the chance in this story. Instead, it is Jasmine and Aladdin and an army of street rats that take center stage. Excellent pacing for the story kept it moving and, though it had a pretty large cast of characters, all of them worked together well. Can’t wait to see how this series shapes up! (in fact, it looks like the next book is already out and the 3rd is going to be on Beauty & The Beast?! Just take my money already.)

Lastly, I finished up Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s exploration of books and reading, Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books just last night. I picked this up at the delightful Paper Hound in Vancouver, BC last fall. I adore a book about books and/or reading. It’s like finding a kindred spirit who’s thought to put on the page what you think every time you open a book. Schwartz looks particularly at how her childhood shaped her reading and how she is still dealing with effects of her childhood reading and reading environment into her adult years. I have not read Schwartz’s fiction but her writing here is divine. It flows along so nicely from one story to the next but always keeping you along for the ride. It’s not a big book but it has a lot of substance for the book lover to parse out.

I’m still working on my to-read pile as I head into the summer season. Hopefully I can get back into my reading of series year goal soon!