Sunday, November 4, 2012

61. "Shadow of Night" by Deborah Harkness

Harkness, Deborah. Shadow of Night. New York: Vicking Press, 2012

581 pages.

Reviewed by J. d'Artagnan Love

Shadow of Night is the sequel to the much enjoyed A Discovery of Witches (click link to see my review). Shadow of Night picks up where A Discovery of Witches left of with Matthew and Diana traveling back in time in search of the elusive Ashmole 782. They traverse through sixteenth-century England where Diana works to find a mentor to help her develop her magical powers and she and Matthew meet many interesting people, including several important historical figures you are sure to recognize. The story has several twists and surprises and so many characters Harkness must provide a character list at the end of the book in true fantasy-fiction form.

This series is set to be a trilogy and I've heard rumors that there is already a movie series in the works. This is just a rumor, though--I'm not sure if it is actually true. One thing I do believe is that this series will make better films than they do books.

I do not mean this in a bad way. Harkness has a knack for description. The way she describes a scene is so clear and detailed, it is hard to not have a clear picture of what her vision is. It also doesn't leave much room for imagination. This is a personal preference and not necessarily a reflection of Harkness' writing. I like books that a leave a little wiggle room for the reader. I am more involved in a book that allows some breathing room for my imagination to play. I develop a closer relationship with a book when some details are left to my own devising. Harkness' writing doesn't allow for this. Every minute detail is nailed out providing great material for a potential screenplay.

Personal preference aside, the books was mostly enjoyable but not something of great literary prowess. I don't think it is meant to be anyway. The goal of this series truly seems to be aimed at entertainment rather than enlightenment. In comparison with the first book in the series, I like the story in Shadow of Night better but I like the writing in A Discovery of Witches more than in Shadow of Night. If you read this one, let me know what you think!

3 darts out of 5
Bookshelf Project Status: None (belongs to a friend)


Sunday, October 28, 2012

60. On the Bookshelf November 2012

Books I will read and review in November 2012

1. Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness

This is the sequel to A Discovery of Witches. Loved the first one so have to read this one.

2. Dark World by Zak Bagans and Kelly Crigger

I'm a fan of the TV show Ghost Adventures and this is a book written by one of the investigators. It should be interested to get some insight into how the show started.

3. Insomnia by Stephen King

A friend of mine recommended this book to me as I'm just starting to get into Stephen King's work. This will be the second novel I've read by King.

4. The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

I'm terrible at keeping up with popular books. It took me almost three years to read the Twilight series after it became popular. This series only took me a year. Hopefully it does not disappoint.

What have you been reading lately?


Sunday, July 22, 2012

59. "Girl in Translation" by Jean Kwok

Kwok, Jean. Girl in Translation. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.

307 pages.

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

“I was born with a talent. Not for dance or comedy, or anything so delightful. I’ve always had a knack for school. Everything that was taught there, I could learn: quickly and without too much effort” (Kwok, 1). These are the opening lines from Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation, a coming of age story about a Chinese immigrant.

Kimberly Chang moved to New York City with her mother after her father died and her mother survived a bout of tuberculosis. Indebted to her aunt, Kimberly and her mom must work for pennies in a clothing factory and live in a cockroach-infested apartment. Kwok’s description of this family’s experience with poverty is visceral and edgy. Life is very difficult for Kimberly and her mother and Kimberly looks to school as her ticket out of poverty. She excels in school and promises to take care of her mother by going to college and taking her along, escaping the Brooklyn slums.

Several complications lie in Kimberly’s way. Her aunt is jealous and spiteful and tries to block Kimberly’s success by making her and her mother work long hours at the factory for very little pay under the table. Kimberly is also distracted by Matt, a boy her age working in the factory with her. Kimberly must balance long hours at school doing homework in a language she is unfamiliar with, coping with social norms she is unaccustomed to and then after school illegally putting in long hours at the factory. Her strength and determination are admirable.

Kwok is highly creative in how she plays with language throughout the novel. She uses a particular trick (I won’t give it away) to throw us into the world of someone new to the English language. Readers sometimes feel just as lost as Kimberly does as she tries to navigate life in a new country. Beautifully written with a surprising twist at the end, Girl in Translation is one of the best books I’ve read this summer.

4 darts out of 5

Bookshelf Project Status: NONE (borrowed from a friend). 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

58. "A Discovery of Witches" by Deborah Harkness

Harkness, Deborah. A Discovery of Witches. New York: Viking, 2011.

592 pages

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

A Discovery of Witches is the first book in a trilogy about Diana Bishop, a witch who has spent most of her life denying her supernatural powers. Raised by her two aunts, Diana becomes a successful historian and professor specializing in the study of the history of alchemy. It is this very research that starts her on an adventure she is unwilling to experience.

Diana unlocks a spellbound book that tells the secrets of the origin of the three main species covered in the tale: witches, daemons, and vampires. This discovery does not go unnoticed by the other witches, daemons and vampires of the world and Diana is thrown into the start of a battle to own the book. Along the way she meets Matthew Clairmont, a chillingly handsome vampire. Despite the taboo of associating with vampires, Diana forms a bond with Matthew and he helps her unleash her inner witch.

This is a fun, fun, fun read. Harkness writes in a way similar to Dan Brown in The DaVinci Code and Elizabeth Kostova in The Historian. The plot is thick with several interwoven layers, time periods and rich characterizations. What I like most about Harkness’ writing is her use of description. She has a perfect balance of detail and you can feel, taste and hear pretty much everything just as she describes it. I can’t wait for the next book!

3.5 darts out of 5
Bookshelf project status: None (borrowed from a friend) 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

57. "The Absolutist" by John Boyne

Boyne, John. The Absolutist. New York: Doubleday, 2012.

320 pages

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

John Boyne is an Irish writer most known for his novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has sold over 5 million copies and was recently made into a major motion picture. His work has been published in over forty different languages and The Absolutist is his most recent novel.

Set during the first World War, The Absolutist follows seventeen-year-old Tristan Sadler as he lies about his age, enlists in a British regiment, and is sent to the trenches. During basic training at Aldershot, Tristan meets Will, a curious and moral soldier who swiftly entrances Tristan with his depth and physical beauty. Their relationship is not a simple story. It is fraught with confusion, anger, pain, passion, and questioning.

In the trenches they must wrestle with big questions. What is a human life worth? Tristan often thinks about the humanity of the enemy soldiers pondering, “I crawl forward on my belly, holding my rifle before, my left eye firmly closed as I look down the viewfinder for anyone advancing in my direction. I picture myself locking eyes with a boy of my own age, both of us terrified, in the instant before we shoot each other dead” (Boyne). For Tristan, the Germans he is fighting and killing are people, young men just like him.

Will is the son of a vicar and has high moral standards, standards that are too high for the rest of his regiment. He follows in the footsteps of the conscientious objectors that came before him which causes the greatest divide between Will and Tristan. Is an idea or principle worth dying for? What is courage and how does one display it? These are all questions this novel explores in heartbreaking and sobering ways. Boyne does not beat around the bush when it comes to the harsh realities of love and war in 20th century England. By the end of the novel I was in tears.

The Absolutist is captivating. The nonlinear plot kept me riveted and wanting more. The characters possess depth and flaws and are extraordinarily human. Reminiscent of All Quiet on the Western Front, The Absolutist will take you into a world where simple pleasures are “the result of inhuman deprivations” and unconditional love is the greatest form of courage (Boyne).

 4.5 darts out of 5

Bookshelf Project Status: KEEP

Friday, June 29, 2012

56. On the Bookshelf (July 2012)

On the bookshelf this month is:

1. The Absolutist by John Boyne

2. A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

3. The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney

4. Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

5. Dark World by Zak Bagans and Kelly Crigger

Sunday, June 3, 2012

55. "Lies Beneath" by Anne Greenwood Brown

Brown, Anne Greenwood. Lies Beneath. New York: Delcaorte, 2012

320 pages

Reviewed by J. d'Artagnan Love

At first glance, Calder and his sisters appear to be just your above average, attractive teens. Like any person blessed with such beauty, they mesmerize people by simply looking at them. Totally normal, right? Think again. Calder and his sisters are not like most people. They're mermaids with a less than attractive agenda: revenge.

Calder and his sisters, Mariss, Talulah, and Pavati, are set on a mission to seek revenge for the death of their mother. In order to fulfill their goal they must kill Hancock, the father of two girls. The mission is simple at first: find Hancock and drag him to the water where the mermaid siblings can suck the very life out of him. This mission is complicated when Calder who desires to be set free from his controlling sisters, finds himself becoming more and more attached to one of Hancock's daughters, Lily.

This is a really fun read. During the stress of my busy work week, Lies Beneath transported me to another place where my childhood fantasies came true. The writing was clear and accessible--just what I like about young adult fiction. The plot had a twist at the end I wasn't expecting which tickled me to no end. I don't usually read books more than once, but this is one I could easily read again on a hot summer's day when I need a book to just sit back and enjoy absorbing. If you are looking for a quick, entertaining read this summer, dive into Lies Beneath!!

 3.5 darts out of 5
 Bookshelf project status: KEEP

Sunday, April 29, 2012

54. "Red Nails, Black Skates" by Erica Rand

Rand, Erica. Red Nails, Black Skates: Gender Cash and Pleasure on and off the Ice. Duke University Press, 2012

264 pages

In her study on figure skating, gender, class, race and risk, Erica Rand writes, “Do you know what can happen when you put knives on your feet and hurl yourself around backward into the air to land on the mere tip of just one of those blades? It’s called perilous, baby, and it’s a risk I choose every day” This is an apt way of exemplifying how Rand breaks stereotypes that envelope figure-skating in gender-based constructs. 

These constructs don’t fit into simple or stable categories. As Rand writes, “Nor do apparently simple categories always have simple criteria. What exactly, for instance, is that crazy combination of balletic aristocrat and child-beauty-pageant trampiness that characterizes many figure skating costumes for girls and women?” Rand’s exploration of skating outfits transcends just fashion talk and hits on tough topics like transgender identity and socially reinforced norms within the field of skating.

In Red Nails, Black Skates, Rand explores the intricate and interwoven roles of class, race, and gender among other hot topics such as sexuality, pleasure and risk. She goes beyond the figure skating world to also explore issues of gender and class in women’s hockey and the growing sport of roller derby.  At one point she spends time practicing with the women’s hockey team, noting her discomfort at the masculine uniforms that other hockey players thrived in.

Written in clear and accessible prose, Rand clearly outlines her purpose of the field research she participates in. The stories are exciting and enjoyable to read in themselves and Rand’s accompanying critical analysis sheds light on a corner of gender and sport ripe for further exploration.  

Rand explores her own transformation through skating writing, “It transformed my athletic life, my work life, my social life, and, less directly, my erotic life. It increasingly determined my longrange plans as well as my daily and weekly schedules, which I came to arrange around available ice time and other physical activities…” This personal disclosure helps readers connect with Rand beyond social criticism at a level that is both vulnerable and human. This well-rounded text is a fantastic read for anyone interested in gender and sports.

4 darts out of 5
Bookshelf Project Status: KEEP

Sunday, March 18, 2012

53. The Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer

Meyer, Stephenie. Twilight. New York: Little Brown and Company, 2005.
- - -. New Moon. New York: Little Brown and Company, 2006.
- - -. Eclipse. New York: Little Brown and Company, 2009.
- - -. Breaking Dawn. New York: Little Brown and Company, 2010.

2,560 pages total.

I read Twilight several years ago when it first was published and my little sister and her friends couldn't stop gushing to me about how good it was. At the time that I read it, I didn't enjoy it enough to read the rest of the series. I distinctly remember telling my mother that "If I were thirteen years old, I would have loved it."

Fast forward approximately 5 years later and Twilight is now a huge pop culture fad. Swarms of people await the release of the films and it took me almost a month to get the last of the books from library because their 5 (!) copies were constantly checked out to someone else.

I had to know what all the fuss was about. I had to try and understand why a set of books that where less than wonderfully written could grab and hold such a large audience. I have some sneaking suspicions about what pulled in so many readers.

In Twilight, readers meet the main characters--Bella Swan, Edward Cullen and his family of vampires. The Cullens satisfy nearly every psychological desire in Western culture--money, beauty, intelligence, and immortality. This is why we are instantly pulled in. The majority of us are taught to want those things, so though we may value other things more, these novels feed into our guilty pleasures like an intravenous drip.

To top it off, Bella is a flat character. There is little about her that sets her apart from other characters or makes her special. She is special to Edward because he can't read her thoughts like he can everyone. She's a blank slate. In doing this, Stephenie Meyer has made it so that readers become Bella. We fill in her blank slate with our own thoughts, personalities and desires. We become her and can have all those things we secretly desire in the Cullens' world. This sets the stage for the rest of the series, making it easy to sustain a readership.

Meyer's ability to tap into our guilty pleasures and make the reader the protagonist is what I believe simultaneously draws readers in and makes the writing less than wonderful. It's a brilliant move, but in doing it, the series lacks the literary hutzpah needed for many people to take it seriously.

One particular aspect of the prose that drove me nutty in reading the series was the use of fragments to imply a dramatic pause. There were so many of these dramatic pauses (especially in Breaking Dawn) that I was frequently tempted to toss the book across the room in frustration. It is jarring to read fragment after fragment with no relief of fully structured sentences in sight.

There were some things that I liked about the series. I thought her portrayal of vampires was creative and she did a good job of constructing the Twilight fantasy world regarding details about how the Quiletes came to exist and the science behind vampire procreation. 

Long story short, Meyer has a secret formula in this series to score her a large number of readers, but her writing is just terrible. I liked the story but I hated the writing.

3 darts out of 5
Bookshelf Project Status: None (books were from the library)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

52. "Dracula" by Bram Stoker

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.

512 pages

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

Seeing as I love vampire stories, I figured I needed to get my hands on a copy of one of the original vampire stories—Bram Stoker's, Dracula. I didn’t know if (actually, I didn’t think) I would like the book but I was surprised. I realized I have some preconceived notions about what books considered “classics” are like. These notions are largely based on stereotypes about classic literature being boring, written in indecipherable prose and so on. Dracula is not a novel that fits such stereotypes.

Set in England, Dracula is written in epistolary form. Readers learn about the dreadful Count Dracula through diary entries, telegrams, letters, and newspaper articles. In doing this Stoker allows readers to understand this evil-doer through many lenses and points of view. Readers receive a well-rounded understanding of Count Dracula’s skills and motivations.

I didn’t expect to be frightened by this book, probably because of the previously mentioned preconceived notions, but I was. I was genuinely, hide-under-the-covers, creeped out by certain parts of the plot and descriptions of the characters. Some parts were downright chilling without having to be graphically violent or overtly sexual (as some vampire fiction tends to resort).

Another element that caught me off guard was the element of humor. Stoker does a beautiful job of weaving silliness into the grotesque and frightening storyline. I found myself laughing out loud at moments of awkwardness between Mina and all the men who seem to swoon after her, and at the overzealous Quincy who is quick to shoot first and question later.

I will mostly likely read this book again—I enjoyed it that much! It takes a fabulous book for me to want to read it a second time. I have a total of four books (of the hundreds I’ve read) that I like to re-read and will be adding this one to that list!

5 darts out of 5
Bookshelf Project Status: KEEP!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

51. "How to Write a Lot" by Paul J. Silvia

Silvia, Paul J. How to Write a Lot: Practice Guide to Productive Academic Writing. Washington D.C.: APA, 2007.

132 pages

Reviewed by J. d'Artagnan Love

In the introduction to How to Write a Lot, Paul J. Silvia states, “Writing productively is about actions that you aren’t doing but could easily do: making a schedule,, setting clear goals, keeping track of your work, rewarding yourself, and building good habits” (3-4). Silvia’s book takes a behavioral approach to writing. He does not emphasize writing from the stance of a creative art, but rather a set of behavioral habits.

Silvia convincingly emphasizes setting up and sticking to a writing schedule as a standard practice. The research he provides is persuasive. In a study done on three different groups of writers (writers who only wrote what they needed at the last minute, writers who only wrote when they were feeling inspired, and writers who were forced to stick to a writing schedule), the writers who stuck to a schedule wrote 16 times more pages than the last minute writers, and 3.5 times more pages than only-when-inspired writers (Silvia, 24).

One assumption that Silvia makes is that all professors and researchers struggle with writing and hate it. He writes that research is fun but writing is not (Silvia, 3). He even goes so far as to compare writing to “repairing a sewer or running a mortuary” (Silvia, 11). I disagree and I think some may take offense at this. I understand he may be attempting humor, but doesn't pull it off very well. He writes the book with an angle towards psychology professors in particular. What he fails to recognize is that there are actually quite a lot of professors and researchers (*cough* me *cough*) who enjoy the writing process. So, he offers good advice, but makes bad generalizations about the people doing the writing.

As stated, Silvia emphasizes sticking to a schedule as the most important part of writing. he also offers other glib pieces of advice such as the end of making excuses, forming a supportive writing group, and how to manage the differences between writing an article versus writing a book.

The first thing I did after reading How to Write a Lot, was make writing schedule and also set up a writing goal tracker in an Excel document. So far, these things have been incredibly useful. In all, if you are in some sort of career field that requires writing or if you just want to learn how to be more prolific in the writing you do, the information in this book, although not necessarily brand new information, will be very helpful and motivational.

4 darts out of 5
Bookshelf Project Status: NONE (from the library)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

50. "Becoming Enlightened" by His Holiness the Dalai Lama

His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Becoming Englightened. New York: Atria Books, 2009. Translated by Jeffrey Hopkins, Ph.D.

254 pages

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

Becoming Enlightened is a very clear description of the various stages of Tibetan Buddhism. I love, love, love the way His Holiness writes. He is clear and logical and doesn’t confuse readers with abstract metaphors or poetics. Many times books about Buddhism become so abstract that they are nearly useless in application. That is not the case with this book. The tone of Becoming Enlightened is kind and unassuming.

The book is broken down into three sections based on the three levels of Tibetan Buddhist Practice. Chapters include titles such as “The Buddhist Framework,” “Identifying the Refuge,” and “Engendering Great Compassion.” Generally it recommends that you master one level before moving onto the next, but His Holiness also explains how each stage is interconnected with one another.

The descriptions of each level of practice make sense and it is clear how one can put the information to use immediately. This is a great text for Buddhists of the Tibetan persuasion (like myself) and is also a good introductory text to anyone wanting to know more about Buddhism in general. I highly, highly recommend Becoming Enlightened!

5 darts out of 5
Bookshelf Project Status: None (from the library)