Review: Sleeping Giants

tl;dr: fresh and new science-fiction tale that’ll have you on the edge of your seat

The Story:

Dr. Rose Franklin stumbles on a giant hand in her youth, an amazing discovery that she’s delighted to study later on, in her career as a physicist. The story that embarks from there covers a lot of ground.

The story is framed by an unnamed narrator, whose identity is a mystery, and that mystery is brought up again and again by the people that he interviews. There are so many characters, I don’t know if I can name them all. There are a few key figures here, though, and they all have their own individual arcs within the larger story.

(Minor spoilers ahead.)

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Review: Cinder

tl;dr: imaginative futuristic retelling that makes Cinderella better


The story:

Fairy-tale retellings and remixes are fairly [heh, pun intended] popular these days. My 5 year old is devouring Chris Colfer’s Land of Stories, which involves a myriad of fairy-tales and nursery rhymes in a delightful romp, all interconnected by immense world-building and an imaginative story. Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles may be the YA version of this, incorporating other extremely popular themes for YA lit. It’s got a love story (although it’s not really the focus), an awkward teenage girl, and futuristic/sci-fi elements. I wouldn’t really call this a dystopia, although it borrows pretty heavily from a lot of other dystopian trends. There’s abject poverty, close living arrangements among the poor, a vaulted upper-class, copious technology, androids, and a plague that’s systematically killing off citizens.

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Review: The Royal We

I found this book really hard to get through. There was a lot of story to lead up to what is really the main plot, all of which takes place in the last 50 odd pages of the book. I just wasn’t particularly invested in the story of Bex and Nick, and was way more curious about just about every other relationship. I didn’t see the plot twist coming, but that may have been more that I just didn’t care. I’m probably the wrong audience for this book because royals don’t interest me in the least. There just wasn’t a lot of meat in the story to keep me going. Now, I would 100% read a story about Lady Emma and Prince Richard, that story sounded really good.

And there’s really no resolution to the end. We don’t know if all the shenanigans paid off, or if they start a whole new problem. Is that because there is sequel in the works? Who knows. I probably won’t read it if there is.

This is one of those books that I feel bad for not liking because it was well written and the characters are decently fleshed out but I just didn’t find the story compelling. That’s the reason my rating is as high as it is, I’m sure lots of people would really enjoy this book, but it just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Review: Bet Me

I really wanted to like this book. It was on so many lists of great romance novels, and was even mentioned on a podcast that I enjoy, but it just didn’t live up to the hype.

Aside from the really bizarre character names, the whole thing reads like a rough first draft. Turns out, this was Crusie’s first novel after she read 100 romance novels for her dissertation. The bones of the story are good and have a lot of potential, but the descriptions are bad and the characters flat. I had a really hard time picturing almost everything. I can’t for the life of me conjure an image of those bridesmaids dresses. The side plot with David and Cynthie was exasperating and way too mustache-twirly. When I start rewriting scenes in my head as I’m
going, that’s not promising to me.

Despite my inability to imagine anything going on, the book was a fast read and the plot moved along at a pretty good pace. There were some points that I was thinking “oh, just get on with it”, but those were few. It just needed to be heavily massaged by a good editor. Considering that she has gone on to write many more books, I hope that her craft has improved, but I don’t know if I’ll be checking out more of her books.

Review: The Martian

the-martian-coverThere are so many things about this book that make it unlikely that I would have read and enjoyed it, it seems strange that I would have happened upon a recommendation that intrigued me so much that I opted to actually read it. First, it’s about space. Space is not only a topic that I don’t seek out, but I actively avoid it. I frequently lament that we should forget about space and focus on the planet that we have. Second, it’s about being stuck in space, which is something that brings up feelings of anxiety in me. And third, it’s heavy in the science, which normally would make me fall asleep while reading. Despite all of these things that I normally don’t like and try to avoid, this was a really fantastic book.

Part of the appeal of this book is the humorous way that the protagonist shapes the beginning of the narrative. I think the lack of context in the beginning (it starts off with a series of log entries by Mark Watney, the astronaut stranded on Mars, and later fills in third person omniscient narrative) is actually a selling point to non-technical readers. The book doesn’t waste time filling in the blanks and gets straight to the problem of the book. We don’t even really get what went wrong with the mission that left Watney stranded until about midway through the book. It keeps the pace brisk, yet with enough hand-holding to keep the interest of a lay reader.

The book follows a formulaic narrative that could maybe get a little tiresome if it wasn’t for the humorous asides and everyman perspective we get from Watney. Something goes wrong, Watney panics. He comes up with a risky yet plausible plan. It mostly works, although a few things fail. He complains about 70s pop culture. Something else breaks, and we begin again. This general idea repeats about 4-5 times throughout the book, but somehow it isn’t as noticeable until you begin to describe the plot to someone else.

I have mixed feelings about the ending, but not because it wasn’t what I hoped for. Perhaps because it was incredibly predictable with no last minute twists, it didn’t have as much of an impact. It’s not a book that really sticks in your mind or that delivers a big punch. This isn’t a bad thing, per se, but it doesn’t have a WOW factor.

One thing that this book does incredibly well is have a diverse group of characters who have believable motivations and personalities. There was an overwhelming amount of white guys, but that is unfortunately pretty reflective of space exploration in general. Watney’s main contact at NASA is someone of Indian heritage named Venkat Kapoor, there are several Asians both on NASA’s team and in China (duh), where some of the story takes place. Apparently the character of Mindy Park is Korean, which I couldn’t tell from reading, but that’s also pretty cool. There’s also a German crewmember on the Ares 3 mission.

I’m planning to see the movie and maybe get some more context and visual help on some of the more sciencey things, and see how it compares to the picture in my head of the story. For a book like this, I felt like maybe what I was imagining was pretty far off the mark since I don’t have any love for space, and therefore, very little context over what elements of the story of purely fiction or what is science.

This book fulfills no requirements for the challenge.

Review: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

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This book seems to be the quintessential preteen book for girls. I am 32 and have never read it, but it was still out there in the ether and I knew mostly what is what about: periods and wanting to not be flat-chested. But this book just didn’t live up to the expectations I had. I wonder if there were not and continue to not be any books that deal frankly with puberty.

This book isn’t really about those things though, and it suffers from lack of real direction. By far, the more interesting plot line is what is happening between her parents, and the battles over religion. In some ways, we are shown glimpses of adult problems through the viewpoint of an 11 year old girl who honestly could not care less about it. That angle I find interesting. A story within a story, if you will. But the actual forefront of the story about Margaret navigating 6th grade in a new school and the onset of puberty was severely lacking.

Aside from the staggering amount of typos, this has not aged very well. I was also a little disappointed to discover that the book had been updated and edited in order to reflect changes in feminine hygiene products (we no longer use something called menstrual garter belts, they have adhesives now). There are a lot of things in this book that don’t make sense in the context of the modern age, and I feel like those other things should have been left in to give a more complete picture of what growing up in the 1970s was like. My biggest problem was the character of Mr. Benedict, the 6th grade teacher. Blume explains that he is new and this is his first year teaching, but this guy is completely inappropriate. In what way is it okay to give a student the 3rd degree on how they feel about religious holidays? Don’t give a writing prompt of “I hate” if you don’t want students to strongly dislike things. Of course, in 2015, most public school teachers probably stay far away from discussing religion with students.

Another huge issue is the complete dropping of plot threads. There are no resolutions in this book. The book ends during summer vacation, when we don’t know how Margaret did on her year-long project (what teacher assigns a non-graded year-long paper?), how things resolve between her and both sets of grandparents, how her mother feels, even how she feels at all about religion other than a big shrug, and if anything will ever come of her and Moose. Instead, we get Margaret starting her period. Hurray, she’s not the last one of her “friends”.

Also, in reference to those “friends”. They call themselves the “PTS’s” or some such nonsense, and they are horrible to each other. Are they supposed to be the “popular” girls, or just a clique? It’s really hard to tell since, although there are more girls than boys in her 6th grade class, the only other girl that is ever mentioned is Laura Danker, who apparently has boobs and is tall, and all the boys can’t stop teasing her. Margaret even thinks her 25 year old teacher is attracted to Laura, which is bananas. These kids are 11 and 12!

I want the story about Margaret’s mom, Barbara. She seems to be the most interesting person.

2 stars.

This book fulfilled no requirements for the challenge.

Review: Beloved

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This review was kind of a hard one to write, because my feelings on the book are a little mixed. There’s part of me that can recognize the genius in this book and see why it has become part of the American literature elite, why it appears on so many syllabi, and how it has received all the accolades that it has. But the other part of me just didn’t enjoy it at all. And not for the obvious reason – that the subject matter is about as enjoyable as a funeral – but because it just wasn’t a novel that really got to me the way I like a serious novel to get to me. It was so confusing and vague that I had a hard time knowing exactly what was happening, and that seriously impacted how I experienced it.

The book is a strange mixture of slavery narrative, a story about motherhood and risking everything to protect your children, and a ghost story about mistakes coming back to hurt you. The part about the slavery is less a history lesson and more of a backdrop, which is a common criticism of the book but not one that bothered me. What bothered me was that I couldn’t follow the through-line at all. I ended up having to read a summary in order to figure out exactly what happened, because it wasn’t clear at all. There were some parts that were repeated over and over so there was no mistaking what had happened, but I felt like those were ancillary to the story. The actual story of what happened to these people was vague and fuzzy. This was, perhaps, by design, because the book is just as much about memory as it is about anything else, and how trauma shapes those memories. It was, however, a fatal flaw for me, because without understanding the true horror of what happened, the act that Sethe takes to protect her children (namely, murder of one and attempted murder of the rest of her children when the slave owner finds her) seemed too rash and almost inexplicable. Almost as though the event was just tossed in for sport or sensationalism, when the entire book actually hangs on this one incident.

The infanticide is based on the true story of Margaret Garner, a slave who escaped and killed her two-year-old daughter rather than let her experience the horror of slavery. Toni Morrison based her entire story on this, and of a vision or idea she had of a ghost coming out of the water – the ghost of the child that had been killed, all grown up and back for … revenge? Reunion? It’s hard to say. This is not the part that turned me off. It’s admittedly the minutiae – what happened to Halle? Was Sethe raped? Why does it mean that they “took her milk”? Was Beloved real? Did she become pregnant? How exactly did the escape from Sweet Home go? Did I even read this book, or did I just imagine that I did? The mysticism and vagueness of some of the plot doesn’t bother me as much, but I have to say that I was so confused that I didn’t really grasp what I was reading.

I don’t like to waste time re-reading books, because there are so many books to read and one’s life is only so long. But I feel like in order to understand the basic plot of this book, several readings are in order. And if you have to really dig into a summary or re-readings in order to understand the general thread of what happened, I feel like that is a major failure.

I find it difficult to really pinpoint or make clear what I disliked about this book so much, because as I describe it, it seems powerful and amazing. But that just did not carry over in the actual reading of it. Important Novels (with an uppercase I) should have a power to sweep you away and give you something to turn over in your mind, but all the thoughts I had over this book were less of thinking about issues that it could have raised and more about what exactly did I just read?

3 stars

This book fulfills the based on a true story requirement for the challenge.

Review: To Kill A Mockingbird

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I vividly remember sitting at the kitchen table in 9th or 10th grade, reading this book. I was eating cereal or something. But despite that, I remembered very little of what happened in the book. The details that I thought I did remember were completely off. For example, I swear that I thought it was a mockingbird that was putting the gifts inside the tree because those birds collected shiny things. (A quick internet search tells me that might be magpies.) I had also remembered something going down near a jail or a street, which could be two different events that I smooshed together as one in my memory.

Despite how much I was apparently not paying attention the first time I read this book, I felt like it was really beautifully written and had a lot of interesting characterization. The viewpoint of Scout is well-articulated as coming from the memory of a child. The book also brings up a lot of topics, which made book club very interesting. Besides the obvious topic of racism in America, this also brought up classism, gender stereotyping, and empathy towards people that are different from you. I think what makes this book so great is that it is a fully contained story, but you can pick off little bits of it to chew on, or use it as a springboard for a discussion on a variety of themes. No wonder it keeps being used as required reading in schools. There is a lot here!

There are two downsides to this book, and it may be coming from my viewpoint in 2015. First, I felt like while it did sort of touch on how you can be “a girl” and prefer overalls to dresses, some of the points about women (particularly the “place” of women in the private sphere) seemed to be in agreement with the division. Also, while the book takes a very liberal view of black people in America compared to the time, they are still treated as “other”. It’s not even really specific or pointed out, but it’s simply a given that white and black people don’t mix socially and that is never condemned. Maybe that is how Harper Lee thought, maybe she agreed with “separate but equal”. It’s hard to say.

Often most people point to Boo Radley as the most prominent figure in this book, but really it fairly ancillary to the plot. The curiousity of the children towards him is a running theme throughout the beginning mostly, but he is introduced mainly to be their savior toward the end when Mr. Ewell comes after the siblings. I would like to read more about him, actually. He sounds like a pretty interesting guy.

I’m torn on whether or not I will read Go Set A Watchman. There’s some controversy as to whether Harper Lee actually wanted the book to be published or if she was manipulated in her feebler state of mind. I definitely think it is okay to change your mind after many years, but it does seem a little sketchy. Either way, her first (and for 50+ years, only!) novel still holds up as a fantastic piece of literature.

5 stars.

This book fulfills the Pulitzer Prize-winning book requirement for the challenge.