keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
The Lions of Al-Rassan
by Guy Gavriel Kay
527 pages (paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy/Historical

My second reread of the year, for Yuletide this time--I was assigned to write a full-length in the fandom, and I ended up tossing out an eleventh-hour drabble as well. It is, I think, one of those books that improves every time you read it. I think I kind of understand the blue wine and Ammar's poem for Badir; at least, I understand it more than I did at the beginning of the year. Also, I am so requesting Ramiro/Ines for Yuletide next year; their introductory scene remains one of my favorites, right up there with the climax combat. I've also new appreciation for irony and character foils, Kay's themes of love and faith--maybe I'll post the critical analysis essay I wrote on it later, after sticky plagiarism paranoia passes.

Finally: poetry makes me happy. I want to buy A Song for Arbonne now, which IIRC involves music, also happy-making.

I'm behind on book reviews, so this is the last of 2008 and coincidentally the 70th book.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
As of January 1st, 2008.
- denotes unfinished.

1. Singer in the Snow by Louise Marley
2. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
3. Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine 30th Anniversary Anthology by Sheila Williams (ed.)
4. Extras by Scott Westerfeld
5. The Ruby Dice by Catherine Asaro
6. The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani
7. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
8. Wolf Who Rules by Wen Spencer
9. The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay (reread)
- Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell
10. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo
11. Grimspace by Ann Aguirre (ARC)
- Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter by Adeline Yen Mah
12. The Shamer's Daughter by Lene Kaaberbol
13. Princess on the Brink by Meg Cabot
14. The Mark of the Vampire Queen by Joey W. Hill
15. The Will of the Empress by Tamora Pierce (reread)
- The Undecided Voter's Guide to the Next President by Mark Halperin
16. Ragamuffin by Tobias Buckell
17. Fruits Basket vol. 18 by Natsuki Takaya
18. Beyond This Dark House by Guy Gavriel Kay
19. The Spymaster's Lady by Joanna Bourne
- Notes from a Minor Key: A Memoir of Music, Love, and Healing by Dawn Bailiff
20. Private Arrangements by Sherry Thomas (ARC)
- The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by André Comte-Sponville
21. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
- The Crimson Petal and the White by Michael Faber
22. Cerulean Sins by Laurell K. Hamilton
23. Incubus Dreams by Laurell K. Hamilton
24. Cool Colleges for the Hyper-intelligent, Self-directed, Late Blooming, and Just Plain Different by Donald Asher
- Choosing the Right College: The Whole Truth about America's Top Schools
25. Fruits Basket vol. 19 by Natsuki Takaya
26. Micah by Laurell K. Hamilton
- Fiske Guide to Colleges 2007 by Edward B. Fiske
27. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
28. A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
29. Princess Mia by Meg Cabot
30. Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories by John Klima (ed.)
- The Insider's Guide to the Colleges 2003 by The Yale Daily News (eds.)
31. Binge: Campus Life in an Age of Disconnection and Excess by Barrett Seaman
32. Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett
- Mister B. Gone by Clive Barker
33. What Life Was Like in the Land of the Dragon: Imperial China, A.D. 960-1368 by Time-Life Books (Denise Dersin, ed.)
34. Blood Noir by Laurell K. Hamilton
35. Thud! by Terry Pratchett
36. The Heart of the Dragon by Alasdair Clayre
37. Night Watch by Terry Pratchett
38. Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster by Jon Krakaeur
39. House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones
- The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Ninth Annual Collection by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (eds.)
40. Sex as a Second Language by Alisa Kwitney
41. Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think about Colleges by Loren Pope
42. Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight against Imperialism by Cornel West
43. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
44. Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay (reread)
45. The Elements of Style: Fourth Edition by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (reread)
46. The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College by Jacques Steinberg
47. A Is for Admission: The Insider's Guide to Getting into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges by Michele A. Hernández
48. All Girls: Single-sex Education and Why It Matters by Karen Stabiner
49. Apocrypha by Catherynne M. Valente
50. Fruits Basket vol. 20 by Natsuki Takaya
51. Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer
52. The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
53. The Early Admissions Game: Joining the Elite by Christopher Avery, Andrew Fairbanks, and Richard Zeckhauser
54. My Name Is Sei Shōnagon by Jan Blensdorf
55. College Unranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy by Lloyd Thacker (ed.)
56. Wyvernhail by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes
57. The Mango Season by Amulya Malladi
58. Admissions Confidential: An Insider's Account of the Elite College Selection Process by Rachel Toor
59. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi
60. The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente
61. The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America by Jonathan Kozol
62. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
63. Ever by Gail Carson Levine
64. Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress
65. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
66. The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers
67. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
68. Swallowing Darkness by Laurell K. Hamilton
69. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
70. The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay (reread)
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
The Glass Castle
by Jeannette Walls
288 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Nonfiction/Memoir

I have unusual issues with the book. I did not sympathize with Jeannette--in fact, my sympathy steadily decreased as the story progressed--due to, I believe, certain personal circumstances and beliefs that are very much not mainstream. My reaction is atypical and despite it, I would recommend this book to most people.

Jeannette Walls, one of four children of Rex and Rose Mary Walls, grew up in a household rich in love and neglect, poor in finances and responsibility. If that description sounds contradictory, it is; yet it is also an accurate description of Jeannette's unusual childhood. I could go on about this heart-warming, inspirational tale of horrific poverty and incredible courage--but while I can see how those accolades could be true, they were emphatically false for this reader.

Walls did offer me a new perspective into poverty, specifically homelessness and parental neglect. I've experienced poverty but with hard-working parents who always managed to provide; in that respect, Walls educated me and I'm glad for that education. However. Oh, the however. As most people know by now, I am atheist--openly and outspokenly atheist. This colors my reading of one scene in particular, on pages 256-7, when Jeannette is confronted by a favorite Barnard professor. Jeannette offers a controversial reasoning for homelessness, one justified by her own experience; yet when Professor Fuches demands, "What do you know about the lives of the underprivileged? What do you know about the hardships and obstacles that the underclass faces?", Jeannette falls back and simply replies, "You have a point." She has a point, but she doesn't have the guts to argue it. She is afraid of the social stigma of her impoverished background and homeless parents. Certainly I acknowledge this stigma, but I also condemn her for selfishness and cowardice. I feel very strongly that if you support a cause--as Jeannette demonstrated by going halfway and saying, "Sometimes, I think, it's neither"--then you should advocate it when given the opportunity. If someone makes a racist remark, I believe it is almost a moral obligation for you to speak out if you consider yourself anti-racist. I would apply this philosophy to all areas of life, with the common-sense exception for emotionally traumatizing experiences. And although I can't directly empathize with Jeannette's hardships, I can empathize with the social stigma that she faces. As a female Asian atheist--or even as an ally to those three causes--I have encountered similar situations and I have acted differently. Yes, it's immensely difficult to speak up against cultural assumptions, norms, and expectations. But Jeannette never acknowledges that she has work to do in that respect, that it is weak to give in the way she does. Walls overcomes her fear by writing this memoir, of course, but I do not critique Walls--I critique Jeannette, the character that Walls presents. If I as a high school student can endure equal or greater social stigma (and if you don't think being an outspoken atheist carries a stigma, go read the part of this article that discusses Presidential polling), then it's not unreasonable to expect college-junior Jeannette to do the same, and to judge her when she fails.

Furthermore, in an irrational gut reaction, I felt that Jeannette was, well, spineless. Extraordinarily resilent, but never resistant. For the same reason that most people will connect with Walls' story, I experienced a complete disconnect. I honestly cannot understand why Jeannette never lost faith in her father until the very end. My own faith would have been long since shattered. Hell, even with a loving and relatively normal childhood, I don't have that kind of faith in my parents. I don't think I will ever, nor that I should have that kind of faith in anyone but myself. Perhaps that's an atheistic viewpoint, now that I consider it. I believe that faith must be earned, and if the trust of faith is broken, then you should stop having faith.

And now that I've finished tearing apart Wall's memoir--which is a well-written, poignant tale of "unconditional love" in a seriously messed-up family--I would still recommend it to anyone (i.e. almost everyone) who disagrees with my opinion as stated above. If you understand such unconditional faith, if you aren't absurdly passionate about advocacy, then you won't have my issues with the tale and you'll probably love it.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
Swallowing Darkness
by Laurell K. Hamilton
365 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/Romance/Fantasy

I'll keep this short. Does Hamilton know how to plot without the mortal-danger trope? There are seriously too many instances of Merry's loved ones on the brink of death but miraculously saved, and no one important (to the reader) dies. Too many miracles, not enough consequences, especially concerning Frost and the other guards. (Although Merry/Doyle/Frost is still a cute threesome.) And is this possibly the end of the series? It ends at a good place and echoes the very first book; but Merry is still pregnant.

Also, only 1.5 sex scenes! That must be some sort of record for Hamilton. But the plot is exceptionally implausible in this book, so it evens out.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins
374 pages
Genre: Fiction/YA/SF

What authors seek, more than anything else, is word of mouth advertising. And for Suzanne Collins, the word of mouth campaign has succeeded spectacularly. Long before I read The Hunger Games, I had repeatedly read high-praise reviews of the novel on my flist. I am fond of dystopias--one of my favorite books is Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale—but also suspicious of the young adult genre, particularly young adult science fiction as spearheaded by Scott Westerfeld, whose books I enjoy but do not really appreciate in-depth. So I approached The Hunger Games with a certain amount of trepidation. Katniss sounded like just your typical stubborn, free-spirited protagonist (supposedly a "strong female"), and the plot synopsis was interesting but not astoundingly original.

In the broken remains of North America, the glorious Capitol rules over 12 colonies, called Districts--there was once a 13th colony, but it rebelled and was utterly destroyed for such defiance. In continuing punishment, each year the Capitol stages the Hunger Games--one boy and one girl ("tributes") from each district, to fight to the death in a controlled arena, captured every second by cameras, as the ultimate reality television. Katniss Everdeen from the 12th and poorest district, a resourceful and hardened girl fighting every day to keep her family fed, finds herself one of the 74th Tributes when she volunteers in place of her younger sister Primrose. The rest, of course, is Collins's book.

By the end of the first page, I was smiling at Katniss's dear, frail little sister Prim. By the seventh page, I had fallen in love with Gale. And I couldn't stop reading; the characters' plight, set against the stark dystopic backdrop, had knotted clear fishing wire around my heart and would not stop reeling me in. I made internal excuses, of course--just one more page, one more chapter, oh, maybe two--but I did not, and still do not, possess the willpower to stop reading a truly good book.

And this is a good book. Certainly the best young adult science fiction tale I've read this year, perhaps ever, given the relative scarcity of that subgenre. Westerfeld, for all his popularity and fans, has never managed to evoke such a reaction from this reader. I connected with Katniss from the start, but Collins showed me Peeta's virtues and ultimately managed to balance the love triangle. As a writer myself, I understand the difficulty of such a balance. At first I thought that I could predict the plot easily enough, but Collins surprised me at several points, particularly the end. The love triangle is patently obvious early on, of course. Though I fall into the "young adult" age category, I usually prefer reading more complex adult literature; however, I am naïve enough to empathize fully with Katniss's confusion. I know exactly what it feels like to not be sure whether you like, rather than just like, someone--much less two people at once! I don't envy Katniss's dilemma but I understand it perfectly.

The cliffhanger ending left me wordless. I could only close the book, close my eyes, and exhale, "Oh, my." Katniss's indecision right up until the last page is absolute series setup. It's a gorgeous cliffhanger, enough closure to end a novel but not enough to end readers' emotional attachment. The plot may be superficially concluded, but the characters—the most important emotional threads—are still at the introduction.

Ironically, the cover (an elegant black affair in itself) proclaims Collins as an NYT bestselling author, but I have never heard of her. In this case, word of mouth has far prevailed. I've already enthusiastically endorsed the book to several friends, and consider this review high praise as well.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
The Nine Tailors
by Dorothy Sayers
397 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Mystery/Historical

In The Nine Tailors, Lord Peter Wimsey visits a small village called Fenchurch St. Paul. A mystery is afoot, of course. The bells, to whom the title refers, play a major role that I didn't "get" until the second last page of the book, and even then I didn't truly appreciate their significance to the theme. Apparently this is part of a linked series, in which case--oops. But Sayers did not click for me on several levels, so I don't think it would have made a difference.

I want to say the style is hard-boiled noir--it is so very British--but the murder is not as important as in typical noir pieces. In fact, the mystery itself is secondary to the process of solving said mystery. This is a very different book from the typical historical mysteries, dense with assumptions of knowledge like how a church bell-tower is structured. And the plot is simply not compelling to me, although I admire Sayer's command of plotting and can see why others appreciate her so much. She is dissimilar to, yet much the same as, Agatha Christie; Christie also plots complexly but manages to make them more accessible--both ouvres have a distinctly British feel that I enjoy on a meta level but cannot make up for lack of plot or character engagement.

Major ROT13 spoilers: Fb gur oryyf xvyyrq Qrnpba--vf gung npghnyyl cbffvoyr? V jnfa'g njner gung ivoengvbaf/unezbal pbhyq or sngny. Vg svgf cresrpgyl jvgu gur erfg bs gur cybg ohg V unir gebhoyr oryvrivat va gur cynhfvovyvgl bs npghnyyl qlvat sebz oryy-evatvat. Jrveq.

In conclusion, an excellent and deep piece of literature, though not one that I particularly care to read again. The ending is cool in a fun-fact kind of way but, unless you're a true mystery fan, not worth plodding through 400 pages of labyrinthe story to find out. YMMV, as I know many on my flist will disagree vehemently in comments (I look forward to the discussion!).
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
The Scarlet Letter
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
341 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/Literary/Historical

A mandatory read, and given its exalted position in the Western literary canon, I don't regret having read this; but that doesn't mean I have to like it. Hawthorne's style is way too ostentatious. I appreciate the literary depth but the actual story could have been much better told in a different (concise) style. Even if one refuses to sacrifice imagery, certain word choices are just ridiculous.

What, you don't know already know the plot of The Scarlet Letter? Hester Prynne, a young Puritan wife sent to the New World whose husband is presumed lost at sea, commits adultery and gives birth to a daughter she names Pearl. The main action takes place when Hester's husband (going under the name Roger Chillingworth) arrives in the colony on the same day she is enduring her decreed punishment--to stand upon the village scaffold for three hours at noon, and to wear a scarlet letter A upon her breast for the rest of her life. The town's favorite young minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, is also involved...

Is this good literature? Sure. Is this a good novel? I would argue no. For one, the plot is suspiciously coincidental and sometimes frustratingly implausible. How does Hester just happen to be walking in the town at midnight when Dimmesdale decides to go stand on the scaffold? Having decided to give in to temptation and leave the colony, why does Dimmesdale still not have the courage to tell Chillingworth to bugger off? As a reader, the plot left me unsatisfied.

Of course, on a literary level there is much to contemplate. I am in turns appreciative of and disturbed at Hawthorne's underlying message, whatever it may be. He obviously championed truth and justice, as idealized/idolized/symbolized in Pearl; but did he truly condemn Hester and Dimmesdale's relationship, to the point that they would never meet in Heaven? The couple is buried apart in the end, their ashes unmixed, but in a Puritan cemetery--and Hawthorne shows little support for the Puritan definition of morality. And if both Hester and Dimmesdale go to Heaven, where each will be eternally happy, then shouldn't they have to be together, in order to fulfill said requirement of eternal happiness? A part of me wishes that Hawthorne were secretly a progressive who wanted to show that adultery in certain circumstances isn't always EVIL and SINFUL; but the conventional lit mind points out all of Pearl's "punishments" aimed at Hester and Dimmesdale.

In the end, I remain ambivalent save for one point: Hawthorne needed to study the perils of purple prose. Enough said.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
Beggars in Spain
by Nancy Kress
438 pages (paperback)
Genre: Fiction/SF

Leisha Camden is the first ever Sleepless, a genetically engineered human who requires no sleep and is thus twice as productive. Drew Arlen is a Liver, part of the sedentary voting populace--not a donkey actually running government, god forbid--who invents his own identity as the Dreamer. Miri Sharifi is ironically like Leisha, the first Superbright, born on Sanctuary orbital as granddaughter to Leisha's longtime enemy Jennifer Sharifi. Beggars in Spain is divided into four sections, and it is really four linked stories arranged in chronological order with reoccuring characters. The divisions are most apparent after one finishes reading, a testament to the writing's flow.

This novel is truly a work of literature, from the multiple character foils (Leisha and her twin Sleeper sister Alice, Leisha and fellow but opposite Sleepless Jennifer Sharifi, Leisha and Jennifer's Superbright granddaughter Miri, Miri and Jennifer, Richard and his son Ricky, Joan and Alice...) to the themes--nothing new for SF but placed in a new context--revolving around things like governmental philosophy. I especially enjoyed the metatext regarding socialism as symbolized by Sanctuary, the orbital home of the Sleepless led by Jennifer, who is herself a fascinating character study.

I read the first hundred pages of the book about six months ago, but put it down and promptly ignored its existence, as is my wont. I picked it back up on a whim and was engrossed despite having forgotten both background and context. The science behind the fiction is well-thought-out and plausible (to a scientifically-illiterate lit geek who can at least spot hand-wavy BS). I loved the string-thoughts of the Superbrights and spent ten minutes poring over Miri's first explanation complete with chart. Even though I am sometimes doubtful of Kress's connections in that first example, I understand and appreciate the concept's originality.

Beggars in Spain is the best piece of hard SF I've read yet, though I'm not as well-read in SF as in fantasy; complete with Kress's remarkably sympathetic characters, I think her novel is deserving of both the Hugo and the Nebula won. And I can't wait to read the sequel, Beggars and Choosers, even though I've heard that it isn't as brilliant as its predecessor.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
by Gail Carson Levine
244 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/YA/Fantasy

From the cover blurb, I had great hope for Levine's newest release. Despite their younger core audience, I loved Ella Enchanted and The Two Princesses of Bamarre. And the premise of Ever excited me so much: Kezi is a talented weaver and dancer raised in Hyte, a country following a monogamous religion worshipping Admat. Olus is the youngest Akkan god yearning for mortal companionship. They fall in love and must overcome the ultimate sacrifice--death--to be together. Plus I had heard hints of faith being a major theme, with Kezi becoming agnostic at the end. I'm not so sure about that last part, alas. Ever is frustratingly simplistic in both construction and content.

To be fair, Levine doesn't hide the book's intent or style. On the first page, Kezi's style is set forth--simple, plain, concise. This can work, and maybe it works for other readers, for me it became irritating because I wanted more depth and less choppy skimming over the surface. I enjoyed the religious themes, as expected, but not as much as I expected. I enjoyed the fairytale/divine myth format, but I was unsatisfied by the resolution; Kezi didn't give up or lose anything permanent and she lacks a sense of true agency throughout the book. It's a quick and competent read--however, I expected much more from Levine, especially with this amazing premise. Essentially, I wish this had been an older YA or adult novel instead of younger YA skewing to middle-grade. That's not Levine's fault but she definitely could have done better even within genre and age restraints.

ETA: And as [ profile] meganbmoore mentions, it's narrated in first-person present tense, if that's an issue. I tend to slip into the narrative easily and don't notice the POV unless it's really jarring, so I forgot to note it.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
The Kite Runner
by Khaled Hosseini
371 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Literary

"Amir and Hassan, the sultans of Kabul," reads the knife-carved inscription on the pomegranate tree atop a hill in an old cemetery. The Kite Runner is a fictional memoir narrated by Amir, a boy born into privilege but desperate for paternal affection; it is a novel about Hassan, the simultaneously brave and weak "kite runner" of the title; it is a story chronicling Afghanistan's effect on one fragile family unit fraught with secrets and tragedy. It is at first a bildungsroman, a beautiful portrayal of Amir's growth through the years from his friendship with Hassan, the son of a devoted servant and a Hazara (a racial minority), to his marriage to a girl with similar past regrets in her life and to acceptance of Hassan's legacy. It is a tremendous novel--a work of literature--with all the perfectly-pitched prose, symbolic imagery, elegant motifs, mirroring and framing that "literary" implies.

Of course, I still prefer Hosseini's second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, for perhaps selfish gender reasons. And it's interesting to read my thoughts on that book at the time, a bit over a year and a month ago; I still remember its emotional impact, but I also appreciated Hosseini's prose in Kite Runner where I apparently didn't in Suns. I'm richer for reading both and I'll keep this on my bookshelf for its skill with language; I will also be interested in any of Hosseini's future works, although I hope he'll consider a setting other than war-torn Afghanistan. There are some plot holes in the debut novel--What are the chances of Hassan's mother randomly returning? Why did Rahim Khan keep the secret for so long, and then trick Amir even as he revealed the secret, so manipulatively?--that he mostly hid through prose and characterization. Moreover, I did not sympathize with Sohrab as much as I wanted to, as much as I expected to based on my emotional connection to the other characters. The Kite Runner reads very much like memoir, so stark and poignant in places that I wonder how much of it was inspired by reality--I am reminded of Tim O'Brien's The Things We Carried, which is also memoir-like but incorporates a meta aspect.

Overall not a disappointment in the least, and it bore great fruits for book club discussion.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden
by Cathrynne M. Valente
483 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy

This book took me SO LONG to finish. I had heard continual buzz throughout the F/SF community and therefore had high expectations; when my friend finally lent it to me, I tried to read it but found the plot confusing and Valente's style distracting. She is quite fond of similes.

Because of its reputation, however, I felt that In the Night Garden deserved at least a complete reading. The beginning was too detached between stories, but as I persevered, I could appreciate the reoccuring characters and unexpected connections. Even the prose became less annoying, although I still prefer a different style of lyricality--Valente's is a tad too poetic without enough narrative grounding (I didn't much like her poetry either, at least in Apocrypha).

So what happens in the novel? ...I have no freaking idea. I loved the religious, sexual, and racial diversity. I loved the cover design. I loved the meta-structure, how stories are irregularly interleaved rather than perfectly nested (my favorite was Al-a-Nur); yay for convolution! But it's not a book easily summarized, only described. Having finished it, finally, I can understand why there has been so much excitement over the work. I'm not exactly the right audience and certainly not Valente's biggest fan, but I will definitely be picking up In the Cities of Coin and Spice (and not only because of the cliffhanger ending). The frame story captured my interest through sheer persistence; I sympathize more with Dinarzad than the boy. Essentially, an elfish girl lives in the Sultan's garden and tells stories to one of the Sultan's many sons--yet this simple description cannot possibly capture the essence of the tale as a whole. The narrative has an ethereal fairy-tale quality, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't for me. Nonetheless, The Orphan's Tales is the best fairy tale novel I have read, in this regard trumping even Ellen Kushner's Thomas the Rhymer (though overall I liked Kushner's better than Valente's).

Final verdict: so confusing but equally so fascinating. Do give Valente at least half the book to prove herself--the scales tipped at around 1/3 for me.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
by Marjane Satrapi
153 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/Graphic Novel/Memoir

My dear friend Alicia, whose LJ username I can't remember, shoved this book at me one day and told me to read it. A quick read, she assured me, easy to skim like manga. Being a veritable expert at skimming manga, I agreed to give it a try. Persepolis, a memoir in comics of a young Satrapi living in revolutionary Iran, does indeed read very fast. The style is emphatically not manga/anime, but I'd argue that's a good thing; Satrapi illustrates more than her life in starkly delinated black-and-white. It's a good book, not the best, but very good. I'll read the sequel if I get a chance.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
Admissions Confidential: An Insider's Account of the Elite College Selection Process
by Rachel Toor
256 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Nonfiction/Education/College

At this point, I find the narrative nonfiction college guides much, much more interesting than the comprehensive guidebook types. Admissions Confidential is a strong work of narrative nonfiction, although it was unnecessary to begin every single chapter with a personal non-college-related anecdote. I, unlike Toor, am not a runner, will never be a runner, and do not comprehend the runner mindset.

Being relatively well-read and knowledgeable in the book's particular topic, I didn't actually learn substantial information from this; but what I did find new, though outdated, was valuable. However, I prefer Steinberg's writing style in The Gatekeepers--Toor's writing is weirdly stilted at times.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
The Mango Season
by Amulya Malladi
229 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/Literary/Romance

Like My Name Is Sei Shōnagon, Malladi's novel tells a story that I identify with personally. Priya Rao left India at age 20 to study in the U.S., and now she's returning after seven years--to announce her engagement to Nick Collins, an American man. India, her homeland, is overwhelmingly foreign, even the mangoes that she loved so much as a child. And as Priya's parents plot an arranged marriage to a "nice Indian boy" (preferably rich and Telugu Brahmin), Priya's fear of her family's reaction leads inevitably to disaster.

Malladi isn't afraid to deal with conflict--with interracial romance, racism, culture clash, duty, and tradition. Priya is shocked by her family's blatant racism and expectation that despite her rebellious attitude, she will ultimately conform. And she loves them, all of them--her inability to truly stand up to her mother drove me nuts, in fact--but she also loves Nick. The plot revolves fundamentally around Priya's reconciliation of her roles as lover and family, West and East.

In reading, I was constantly struck by the parallels that I drew between traditional Indian and Chinese cultures. Although China has much less emphasis on religion and is, in the modern day, more free regarding arranged marriages, there is definitely pressure to marry a nice Chinese boy and stay home to raise children. The extended family is very important in both cultures--at one point, Priya asks her mother to treat her with respect and receives this answer: "You are too young to gain my respect and you have done nothing so far to gain it....Children respect their parents [and] that is all there is to it" (89). And the scary part is that my parents have told me essentially the same thing. Another moment that echoed strongly:

"Most first-generation Indians in the United States only had friends who were Indians. I had never thought I would be any different. I had started out with only Indian friends but my circle grew as I grew. Now I was in a place where I didn't think in terms of Indian friends and American friends, just friends. I had somewhere down the line stopped looking at skin color. (213)

Ironically, for me it was almost the opposite experience. I grew up in a sheltered and overwhelmingly white environment, so I had no choice but to befriend white kids. And when I moved to a place that did have a critical mass of Asians, I still distinguish mentally between "Chinese friends" and "school friends" (some of the latter are fully assimilated Asian-American, which makes a difference). While Priya and I are different, she is of any novel I have ever read the character most similar to me. I empathize easily with protagonists no matter their heritage, but I was engrossed in Priya's internal conflict with almost painful understanding.

And the end of The Mango Season, which I accidentally spoiled myself for, also lobs a last surprise revelation at the reader that forces a reconsideration of everything preceding. I do so love twist endings. Mulladi has a knack for realism, too--this novel sounds and feels like a memoir, the characters' voices are so real.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes
174 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy/YA

Atwater-Rhodes's career has pretty much fizzled out, which is regrettable. The Keisha'ra series is strong despite its immature prose and poorly retained character development across books. The first two, Hawksong and Snakecharm, tell Danica and Zane's compelling romance. Falcondance focuses on Nicias, son of two previous minor characters; from then on, Wolfcry and now Wyvernhail centered around the Wyvern's Court. Atwater-Rhodes does a good job of developing minor characters into interesting protagonists, but in the process she loses depth from previous protagonists. Zane and Danica are aged, it's true, but I was sad to see them so useless in this final volume.

Also (spoilers ensuing), I didn't agree with Hai's final choice at the end. Ahnmik is portrayed almost too well; I urged Hai to take Nicias and live out the rest of their lives with the falcons, because I wasn't convinced of her bond to the serpiente.

A good series and breezy YA; I want to read some falcon fanfiction, but this was a good place to end the canon.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
My Name Is Sei Shōnagon
by Jan Blensdorf
152 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/Literary

This book makes me so happy. Deliriously happy.

Look, ma--people of color! Mixed colors, even! "Sei," the unnamed protagonist, was born to a Japanese mother and American father. She lives in the United States at first, but when her father dies, she and her mother move back to Japan to live in the household of her dominating uncle. Her inability to assimilate into either culture is something with which I identify very, very much. I don't think the narrator/protagonist is ever named except for her pseudonym--Sei Shōnagon, tenth-century author of The Pillow Book--she is lying in a coma in the hospital, and the novel consists of her reminisces; it is slowly evocative of real life, like the best of literary fiction. Mainly set in Japan, the story stays true to that culture (at least as I understand it). Japan is still a patriarchal society, though constantly and gradually progressing. Blensdorf doesn't shied away from racism and abuse both physical and emotional.

Regarding technique, it's written in gorgeous prose, comparable to GGK but in a totally different style. Also nominally second-person narration that works, oh so well, with a wonderful twist of perspective at the end. The length fits the tale, for I don't think the structure could be maintained over a longer novel.

Everyone should read this. Really. It's not something that I would necessarily reread, but rather something that I can't imagine not having the pleasure to experience.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
The Early Admissions Game: Joining the Elite
by Christopher Avery, Andrew Fairbanks, and Richard Zeckhauser
377 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Nonfiction/Education/College

Statistics galore--a little overwhelming, but good to have hard numbers. I really like the gold star/independent clearinghouse idea for indicating preference. In fact, I don't know why it hasn't already been implemented. Hmm, not much else to say--outdated but still relevant? Certainly a "seminal text" in the college admissions genre.

College Unranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy
by Lloyd Thacker (ed.)
205 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Nonfiction/Education/College

A compilation of philosophical essays lamenting the commercialization and consumerization of college; however, they mostly repeat the same point. Quite disappointing because the only new knowledge I gained was other books to follow up on. I think it would be more insightful and revealing to a college newbie, though.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
The Things They Carried
by Tim O'Brien
246 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Fiction/Literary

After skimming the Amazon PW reviews, I decided to read this book last out of the three assigned for the summer; and I guess I'm glad I did, because it was a pleasure and my favorite of the three. O'Brien tackles a serious topic--war, specifically the Vietnam war--with innovative technique and realism. As a fictional memoir, it succeeds admirably; I flipped back to the title page more than once, rereading the "work of fiction" subtitle with disbelief. I admit that I wasn't drawn deeply into the characters, because I had nothing to connect to. But I could spend ages analyzing the style and structure manages to carry ("hump") such a weighty load all the way from America to Vietnam and back again. The first chapter, from which the novel's title is drawn, wowed me enough to grab my interest. I continued reading to see what else the author could pull off, and I wasn't disappointed. And I don't think I understand his meaning completely, which is the best way to finish a first reading.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
Breaking Dawn
by Stephenie Meyer
756 pages (hardcover)
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy/YA

What you've heard thus far about Breaking Dawn? All true. I won't bother to repeat the criticisms. Meyer's prose is clunky but bearably so; in this book particularly, she invents way too many minor characters; and she doesn't understand the fundamentals of plot theory. The ending is a huge deus ex machina, a perfectly happy ending with no price paid--but if you've been keeping up with the news, you know all that already. As did I. So why do I continue to read Meyer?

Well, I'm a masochist, and a completist. I thought Twilight wasn't half-bad, especially for a first novel; but the series becomes steadily worse and builds to a climactic let-down in Breaking Dawn. I'm also disturbed by the conservative undertones--abstinence until marriage, Bella's vehemence against abortion, the whole destiny vs. free will debate regarding werewolf imprints, and most of all, the central idea that motherhood will change your entire life, meaning, and personality. That happens for many people, I'm sure, (hopefully including [ profile] kate_nepveu!) but Meyer presents it as a fact of life. (Of course, these are my personal political views intruding as reader bias.)

Just a few days ago, I was reading David Wolverton's daily email column on writing, and his topic was religion in genre fiction (no link or quote, alas--but you should subscribe! Say "Kick me" in the email), particularly fantasy. He talked about Christian roots and good vs. evil, all of which is true for epic fantasy (which I generally dislike for these same qualities, but that's a different issue). His point was that commercially successful fantasy writers avoid sex and obscenity in their fantasy, because otherwise the conservative religious readers will get offended. Magic-fearing evangelists notwithstanding, Twilight is a very conservative work. And it has been hugely successful. Exceptions come to mind--George R.R. Martin and Jacqueline Carey, plus many others who are popular with experienced/jaded fantasy readership--but I do think that Dave's rule is true, albeit "selling out." I would never have thought of it because I skipped from Diana Wynne Jones and Tamora Pierce straight to Guy Gavriel Kay, et. al., but my reading tastes are unusual for my age group. Things to ponder.
keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)
by Catherynne M. Valente
121 pages (trade paperback)
Genre: Poetry/Fantasy/Horror

I had such high hopes for Valente's work because of the consistently high praise from my flist. But as I'm currently stuck in the first hundred pages of In the Night Garden and as this review of Apocrypha will attest, I am sadly disappointed. Maybe it's my own fault for setting the bar so high, but Valente rarely manages to evoke that vital sense of wonder in this reader.

Apocrypha is a book of many poems, all fantastical or horrific. I had no idea that some were so dark; I do like dark fantasy, but Valente's version of gore is maddeningly repetitive. Every other piece uses cunt/breasts/womb, glass, or various gemstones. The macabre language ceased to shock me after the first two times, and by the time I read the last poem, "Z," I was yearning for the collection to finally be finished. To give Valente credit, her imagery is unique and lyrical; but all too often, her poetry echoes beautifully in my head with no real meaning or insight. I did like two poems in the collection, and since it is a slim volume, it will remain on my bookshelf. "Song for Three Voices and a Lyre" is an elegant feminist retelling of Greek myth, and the imagery of "Had He Never Come" actually ended with a surprising epiphany.

I will continue to struggle through Valente's much-acclaimed Orphan's Tales, but from the strength of Apocrypha I can only come to a poor conclusion--disappointing, in a word.


keilexandra: Adorable panda with various Chinese overlays. (Default)

January 2011



RSS Atom

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios