Friday, July 30, 2010

Big Mouth and Ugly Girl - Joyce Carol Oates

I first heard of this book, someone (EDIT: Clover of Fluttering Butterflies)...posted a favorable review of it on their blog. I can't remember who it was; if it was you or you know who it was, please comment so I can put a link in this post. Anyway, my mom is also a big Joyce Carol Oates fan, and since my local library had the book, I thought I'd pick it up.

Big Mouth and Ugly Girl is about Matt, a popular class clown, and Ursula, a tall, awkward girl who is the antisocial star of the school's basketball team. They are barely acquaintances, but when Matt is suddenly accused of threatening to blow up the high school, Ursula steps up as the only witness willing to defend Matt and insist that he made no such threat. As the book goes on, Ursula and Matt band together, forming an unlikely pair.

I had never read anything by Joyce Carol Oates prior to this book, but I will definitely be heading back to the library to pick up some more of her books. Big Mouth and Ugly Girl is a character-driven book, which I generally enjoy, but it also has an entertaining plot that never gets stagnant or boring. Ursula and Matt are out-of-the-ordinary characters, but not strange in a way that makes them seem implausible, and I related in some way to them both. I would certainly recommend Big Mouth and Ugly Girl for fans of Joyce Carol Oates and/or young adult literature.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Leviathan - Scott Westerfeld

I waited so long to read this book. I'm a big Scott Westerfeld fan, but I didn't want to pay full price for the hardback and my library didn't have a copy until one day, lo and behold, there it was on the 14-day book shelf! Of course, I took it home and started reading immediately.

Leviathan is a young adult steampunk novel - that is, a book that blends historical fiction and sci-fi/fantasy, often recounting a different, more technologically advanced version of historical events. In Leviathan, World War I is just beginning, and Europe is preparing for war. The Austro-Hungarians and their German allies have Clankers in their arsenal, mechanical war machines equipped with giant guns. On the opposing side, British Darwinists fight using fabricated animals.

The book follows Alek, the Austro-Hungarian prince, and Deryn, a girl disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. When Alek and Deryn cross paths in the mountains of Sweden, they must learn - along with their fellow countrymen - to work with the enemy in order to survive.

While I have greatly enjoyed all Westerfeld's other novels, I wasn't sure what I would think of Leviathan. I'd never read anything from the steampunk genre before (in fact, I didn't actually know what steampunk was until I looked it up), and while the idea appealed to me as a fan of both historical fiction and sci-fi/fantasy, I wasn't sure if my hopes would be fulfilled. After reading this book, I certainly can't speak for steampunk as a whole, but I can and will definitely recommend Leviathan. The story and characters are captivating, Keith Thompson's illustrations are gorgeous, and the suspense was enough to keep me whizzing straight through the book. In fact, I may end up buying a hardback copy of Leviathan just for the endpaper illustrations, which will not be present in the paperback edition. I know that Leviathan is the first in a series, but I'm not certain when Leviathan's sequel is supposed to be released, or even if there is a date set at all. In any case, I will definitely be eagerly anticipating the rest of the series.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Animal Farm - George Orwell

First, I would like to encourage everyone reading this to visit my friend Ayushi's book blog, The Book Worm. I don't often (in fact, I'm not sure I ever do) link to other people's blogs on here, but I am Ayushi's only current follower, and I think that's a shame. I really enjoy reading her blog and I would love to see others enjoying it, too. But, on to Orwell--

I have been in a terrible reading rut for the past ten days or so - I have five books to read for AP English Literature, and one of them is Animal Farm. I've read Animal Farm before and I didn't like it at all. I felt like I should read it soon for class instead of reading something I might enjoy more, but I just didn't want to read it. This, unfortunately, resulted in me not reading much of anything for quite some time, which is quite unusual. This afternoon, I finally sat down and took about an hour to re-read Animal Farm...and I didn't like it this time either.

I feel like I should clarify that I don't dispute Animal Farm's literary greatness or worth, and I don't think it's a terrible book. I think it is a masterful piece of satire that everyone should read at some point in their life. "Some animals are more equal than others" is a perfect example of some modern viewpoints, and the transformation of Animal Farm from a community of willing, hardworking equals to a dictatorship is done in exemplary style. Despite all this, I just don't like reading it. I read enough of this material in the actual news, and parts of the book are just too painful because they remind me of actual stories about actual people in the actual, real-life world. I don't particularly mind nonfiction being exclusively painful, but I want to enjoy at least some small part of fiction, and I can't find any enjoyment in Animal Farm. I'm not quite sure why I have this problem with Animal Farm and not with 1985, Anna Karenina, The Book Thief, and other books which I count among my all-time favorites. Perhaps because in the latter books, the storytelling captures me, the characters charm and captivate me, there are some moments of hope, or even all of the above. Whatever the reason, I just can't bring myself to enjoy Animal Farm.

In any case, Animal Farm is quite evidently just not my cup of tea. I am very sure that I'll enjoy analyzing it and writing about it in AP English Literature this coming school year, but I'm also very sure that I will probably never enjoy reading it.

Have you read Animal Farm? If so, what did you think about it?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Confessions of a Shopaholic - Sophie Kinsella

Confessions of a Shopaholic is one of those rare books that I did not read before seeing the movie adaptation, which I watched a little over a year ago. The book and movie are about Becky Bloomwood, a financial journalist bored with her job whose shopping impulses far surpass her income, and what happens when she discovers a financial story that she actually cares about. When I saw the movie, I cringed constantly at Becky's silliness, immaturity, and inability to control herself; therefore, I didn't have an urge to pick up the book immediately afterwards. However, I recently remembered the book (I can't remember why) and decided to get it through PaperBack Swap - my library doesn't have it, and I figured I could always repost it after reading.

Like in the movie, Becky spends most of the book making highly irrational decisions and throwing reason out the window at every possible opportunity. At one point, she buys a book on cutting personal spending and is determined to follow it exactly. Of course, she fails at this, and therefore decides that her only other option is to make more money. Naturally, she goes and buys a lottery ticket and plans on winning the lottery to get her out of debt - she looks forward to winning all day, and when another number is called, she is actually really surprised. This kind of behavior made me cringe, roll my eyes, and mentally hit Becky over the head multiple times in an attempt to restore her to her senses. During the movie in particular, I remember being scrunched up in my seat and, at one point, covering my eyes so I wouldn't have to watch her be idiotic again. Eventually, though, she does change: she begins feeling guilty about purchases, and eventually manages to turn her situation around. While I don't think this scenario is realistic, it was fun to read.

While I did enjoy the book, I definitely would have liked it better if I could have sympathized with Becky more. I won't be reading it again. However, I do recommend Confessions of a Shopaholic as a light read - but only if you think you'll be able to stand the main character's reckless spending and endless frivolity.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Mayor of Casterbridge - Thomas Hardy

I decided to read The Mayor of Casterbridge after Allie (of A Literary Odyssey) reviewed it favorably. It's the first of Hardy's books that I've read, though I intend to read Tess of the d'Urbervilles at some point, and I'm very glad I picked it up.

The Mayor of Casterbridge is, according to the back of my copy, the only one of Hardy's works to have a tragic hero as the main character. The book begins with a drunken Michael Henchard selling his wife and baby daughter to a sailor at a fair in the town of Casterbridge. Though he tries to find his wife after the drink has worn off, Henchard is unable to do so and decides that they were probably lost at sea. Henchard's fortune rises, and eventually he becomes the successful and fairly well-loved mayor of Casterbridge. Then, his wife and child--now a teenager--show up. The sailor has died, and they have nowhere to go, so Mayor Henchard gradually takes them in. However, many twists and turns occur, ultimately leading to the discovery of what Henchard did so many years ago, and to his downfall.

I wouldn't normally expect a book published in the 1800s to be really suspenseful; however, The Mayor of Casterbridge definitely got and kept my attention. The many unexpected plot developments made it as exciting for me as some books that are actually in the suspense genre. Aside from that, I loved how Henchard develops from the "bad guy" drunkard in the beginning to someone much more pitiable in the end. Hardy also definitely managed to portray human relationships faithfully; none of the characters' relationships were predictable or simple or trite.

To close, I will quote from Allie's review of The Mayor of Casterbridge:  "Many of his other titles I have heard mixed things about. It seems like Hardy might be one of those writers you either love, or you hate. I could be wrong, but based on what I have seen, that seems to be the case. And after finishing this lovely novel, I may be in the "love" camp." Me too.

Monday, July 12, 2010

I Was Told There'd Be Cake - Sloane Crosley

I first read I Was Told There'd Be Cake in January, and I have no idea why I didn't review it then. I must have been busy or lazy or both, because I absolutely love this book, which contains fifteen essays by Sloane Crosley on the subject of various things in her personal life.

The first essay in I Was Told There'd Be Cake, which also happens to be one of my favorites, is "The Pony Problem," wherein Crosley describes her fear of what would happen should she suddenly die and her parents clean out her apartment, finding her stash of toy ponies. Sloane describes her relationship with real and toy ponies by writing, "It's like those movies with animated insects. Sure, the baby cockroach seems cute with CGI eyelashes, but how would you feel about fifty of her real-life counterparts living in your oven?" Another of the essays, "The Ursula Cookie," describes Crosley's experience with the boss from hell (whose name is Ursula), and in "You On a Stick," Sloane is called upon by a long, long, long-lost high school friend, Francine, to be the maid of honor in her wedding.

While I do have a few favorites in I Was Told There'd Be Cake, I loved--not liked, loved--every essay in the book. They're funny, they're witty, and they're somehow utterly relatable despite the fact that I have never owned a single toy pony or volunteered at a butterfly exhibit. I would highly recommend this book to almost anyone; in fact, I can't think of a single person I know who wouldn't enjoy it. I suppose that could be because I know all the same kind of people, but I'm willing to risk it and recommend I Was Told There'd Be Cake anyway.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Sepulchre - Kate Mosse

Sepulchre, the sequel to Labyrinth (which I read and reviewed), follows two different characters in two different time periods, as did Labyrinth. Léonie Vernier is seventeen years old and living in Paris in October 1891 when she accompanies her beloved brother, Anatole, to visit their widowed aunt in the small mountain town of Rennes-les-Bains. During her stay, Léonie finds out that the Domaine de la Cade, her aunt's estate, has been the subject of local superstitions for years; Léonie studies these superstitions, leading her to a pack of eerie tarot cards. In her explorations of the Domaine de la Cade, Léonie makes another discovery--a Visigoth sepulchre. The sepulchre and the tarot cards involve Léonie in the deepest secrets of the estate, eventually leading to a dramatic conflict and a difficult choice for Léonie. Meredith Martin, on the other hand, arrives in Rennes-les-Bains in 2007, checking into an old hotel, the Domaine de la Cade. After a coincidental encounter leads her to a tarot reading, Meredith becomes more entrenched in the mysteries and old superstitions of the area, becoming involved in her own conflict and finally discovering what ties her and Léonie together.

The fact that I'm writing this review directly after finishing Sepulchre at about 1:30 in the morning should give you a little bit of a clue as to how I felt about this book. While Sepulchre is rather hefty (565 pages), I flew through it, beginning just before bed yesterday and finishing about twenty minutes ago. As in Labyrinth, the sections alternate between the two characters. Since the conflict was resolved at the end of Labyrinth, I really had no clue what this book was going to be about, and how it was going to tie in with the first. While the two foremost characters are entirely new, several reappear. This added to the suspense of the story for me--every time someone I recognized entered the plot, it made me even more eager to find out what would happen next.

While I found Sepulchre more enjoyable for having read Labyrinth, I have to think that one could read either one alone and still find them understandable and satisfactory--that is, there are not facts laid out in Labyrinth that are necessary to the reading of Sepulchre. This and the relatively unrelated central conflicts of the two books makes me wonder how Mosse will tie everything together, or even if she will, in the last book of the trilogy. While I've looked on Mosse's website, the only information I can find on the last book is that it will be called Citadel and will be published in the UK in Fall 2010. In fact, the last time Ms. Mosse updated her blog was March 7, 2009. I suppose that until an American release date is published, I will simply have to wait...and a long wait it will be. In the meanwhile, I urge any of you in the UK to read both Labyrinth and Sepulchre before Citadel comes out, and then find a copy of it--just don't tell me the ending!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Ice Cold - Tess Gerritsen

Maura is a Bostonian medical examiner who, in Wyoming for a medical conference, impulsively decides to join a friend from college and a few others on a ski trip. Halfway between their destination and the last gas station, the group's SUV gets stranded in feet of snow. Eventually deciding to go for help, the group travels up a private road to the village of Kingdom Come, where a small group of identical houses stand apparently abandoned--there is frozen food on the tables, windows are open, doors are unlocked, and vehicles remain in their garages. It appears as though the residents of Kingdom Come simply vanished in the middle of their day, but as Maura and her friends begin finding footprints, they suspect there is someone watching them.

This is a pretty typical thriller novel as far as plot goes (except for one point, that is, which I will not mention here because I am adamantly against spoilers). However, I will say that Gerritsen's writing embodies, to me, an example of what thrillers should be like. Ice Cold is quick-paced, captivating, and thrilling. I read this in a few hours today, during which I did absolutely nothing else (well, I suppose I ate some peanuts, but I went to the kitchen in back with my nose in the book). I didn't expect this book to be a piece of great literature, and it wasn't--but it did serve its purpose in my mind, that purpose being to entertain and engage me for a few hours of suspense and pure enjoyment.

Thanks to Tess Gerritsen and Ballantine Books for supplying me with a paperback ARC via Goodreads. It was requested, but not required, that I write a review, favorable or otherwise. Ice Cold will be available on July 27, 2010.

The Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger

I first read The Catcher in the Rye in March of 2009, and I did not enjoy it at all. I thought Holden Caulfield was a boring and annoying narrator, and I failed to empathize with him as the teenage audience is generally wont to do. I had wanted and expected to love Catcher, so it was a huge disappointment for me. Despite this, I picked the book back up this spring--I'm taking AP English Literature next year (yay last year of high school!), and The Catcher in the Rye, Ethan Frome and Other Stories, The Lord of the Flies, Wuthering Heights, and Animal Farm are the five required summer reading books. I wasn't really looking forward to re-reading J.D. Salinger, so I decided to read it first and get it over with.

Just in case you haven't read what is probably the most famous young adult novel ever (even though it was originally published for adults), I should probably take this opportunity to explain that The Catcher in the Rye follows and is narrated by Holden Caulfield, a teenager who relates various experiences he had one year at Pencey, the private boys' school he attended until being expelled for failing every class but English, and what he did after being expelled. The book's title comes from Robert Burns' Comin' Through the Rye, a misheard line of which led Holden to picture himself as a guardian who catches children running through a field of rye just before they fall off of a cliff.

In the book, Holden wears and carries around a red hunting cap, and often wonders what happens to the Central Park ducks when winter comes and the water freezes over. Apparently, this is some great example of symbolism, but I didn't "get" that symbolism either time that I read the book. To me, it is not necessary--while the book may carry symbolism or hidden meaning, I didn't find that I enjoyed the book less for not getting that symbolism. Rather, the main problem I had with the book the first time I read it was that Holden was just so whiny. He is immature and over-emotional, and while he pretends to be an adult through much of the book (when he is in New York City alone), nobody really falls for it. This time, however, I somehow didn't find his whining as troubling, though it certainly did not go unnoticed. Salinger is very good at portraying things in a way that made me think, "Yeah, wow, that's really how it is in real life," whatever "it" is. One example would be some of the things that Phoebe, Holden's younger sister, says and does: her actions and words are completely in accordance with how children act, at least in my experience. The only thing that really bugged me this time around was one of Holden's verbal tics, "It really is." It seemed like every time Holden described something, he followed it with "It really is." I found myself thinking, "Yes, Holden, I KNOW it really is, or you wouldn't have said it, now please get on with the narration!"

All in all, I loved The Catcher in the Rye this time around, and I'm very glad I had an excuse to re-read it.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex is about Calliope Stephanides, a Greek-American girl who, beginning in puberty, discovers that she is not like other girls, and in fact is not a girl at all. Due to several generations of incest, recessive genes have come together in Callie--that is, Cal--causing 5-alpha-reductase deficiency. This means that while he looks and acts entirely like a girl until puberty, Cal is actually a boy.

The first two "books" of Middlesex follow Cal's Greek family as his grandparents, brother and sister as well as third cousins, marry and move to the U.S. in the 1920s. These grandparents, "Lefty" and Desdemona, have a son, Milton, and their cousin Sourmelina has a daughter, Tessie. The narrative follows the family as Milton and Tessie grow up and, eventually, marry and conceive a child. In the second half of the book, this child, Calliope, grows up, eventually realizing that she is somehow different from others. After visiting a doctor in New York City, Callie decides to run away and become Cal. While I won't give away the entire rest of the plot (I hope I haven't given away too much already, but I'm sorry if I have), the book ends with Cal being at peace with who he is.

This book was not what I expected at all. I knew roughly what it was about, but I had no idea that half the book would follow the family of the main character rather than the main character himself. That said, I was not disappointed in the least. I felt that knowing Cal's family background somehow illuminated the complicated relationships within the family, which I thought made the story much richer. Written in the form of an autobiography, the narration in Middlesex is nonetheless captivating, and every one of the characters is complex and well fleshed out. Due to its setting, the book contains some social commentary, describing the attitude toward blacks, Greeks, and basically anyone "different" in 1960s and 1970s Detroit, where the Stephanides family lives, as well as the animosity between Greeks and Turks. As well as being entertaining, Middlesex made me want to research hermaphrodism and gender in general, and I will be recommending it to all my book-loving friends.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Labyrinth - Kate Mosse

Sorry for being gone so long! No, I was not dead, I was not in Antarctica, and I was not attempting to read David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (though I do intend to at some point) or Tolstoy's War and Peace (which I also intend to read; Anna Karenina is one of my favorites). Rather, I was doing schoolwork--to make a long and painful story short, I had to do two semester classes, chemistry and A.P. World History, in a few short weeks. Understandably, I didn't have much free time, but I'm back now, a proper high school senior! How strange.

Had I had the time, I'm quite sure I would've read Labyrinth by Kate Mosse straight through. While it's not a quick read by any means, it is very captivating and suspenseful. Labyrinth follows the story of Alice, a volunteer on an modern archaeological dig, and Alais (the "i" has an umlaut over it, but I can't figure out how to do that on Blogger), a young woman in medieval France. On the dig, Alice discovers a cave with two skeletons, writing on the walls, and the pattern of a labyrinth on the floor. From there, Alice is thrown into what becomes a search for the Holy Grail. Back in 1209, Alais' father asks her, as the Crusaders approach to wipe out the French Cathar "heretics," to help protect an ancient book, one of three that will reveal the secret of the Grail.

The book alternates between Alais and Alice, the chapters becoming shorter and shorter near the climax. This added greatly to the suspense of the book for me. I love when the plot of a book leads me up a giant hill, culminating in one point where I see everything--the "aha!" moment, if you will--and Labyrinth certainly does that. The characters were very well fleshed out as well, though there was one character (Oriane, Alais' sister and one of the baddies) that seemed one-dimensional. Another thing I enjoyed about the book was the depth to which the book was entrenched in history. Labyrinth is often compared with Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, but I don't think that comparison is valid beyond the surface, at least not as I read both books. When reading The Da Vinci Code, I consciously noticed Brown's use of historical fact; my mind would be diverted from the plot momentarily, noticing that he was referring to something that actually happened. In Labyrinth, this was not the case at all. I was immersed in the story the entire time I was reading it, and the fact that the historical background existed did not distract me from the story as it did in The Da Vinci Code.

I greatly enjoyed Labyrinth, and after finishing it, I ordered Sepulchre, the second in the trilogy. I can't wait until it arrives--as Philippa Gregory said, "the past comes to life." History and suspense lover that I am, I couldn't help but love it.