Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Ambrea's Read Harder Challenge

I’m working on my Read Harder Challenge again, and this time I decided to:
  1.      Read a book out loud to someone else.
  2.      Read a book that is by an author from Southeast Asia
  3.     Read a book about politics, in your country or another (fiction or nonfiction)
For this challenge, I struggled a little more to find books I knew would fit my challenge but would keep my interest.  I’m getting close to the end of my challenge, so I’m starting to run low on ideas.  (Luckily, the forums at BookRiot and Goodreads had had plenty of recommendations for each category.)  I did, however, decide pretty quickly on which book to read aloud:  Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson.  At first, I read a few pages to my dog, but she didn’t seem particularly interested and, moreover, she appeared to have better things to do.  My boyfriend, on the other hand, proved to be a more receptive audience and he seemed to enjoy Lawson’s crazy (figuratively speaking—or literally?) memoir.

He and I both enjoyed reading Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, because it was just so funny.  After reading Furiously Happy, which is fueled by Lawson’s frenetic energy and her off-kilter sense of humor, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened was familiar ground—and it was equally hilarious as her second memoir.  I loved hearing about Lawson’s childhood with her father’s crazy pets and bread bag snowshoes, her struggle to become an author despite her general fear of people, and her struggle to acclimate to her various disorders.

It’s really quite funny, and it’s hard not to laugh at the seemingly random and entirely crazy things that have happened to the author.  But, be warned, some of the stories may be jarring or, more accurately, scarring.  I mean, the incident with Stanley the Magical, Talking Squirrel left me with alternating feelings of revulsion and horror that’s hard to beat.  But the embarrassing (and traumatizing) experience involving Jenny and a particular cow does its best to rival it.

Next, I read Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo, a Malaysian-American author.  Set during the British colonization of Malay, Ghost Bride is an intricate and beautiful novel brimming with Chinese folklore, regional myths, and Malaysian history.  The story revolves around Li Lan, a young woman from a poor aristocratic family, who finds herself confronted with an unusual proposal:  a spirit marriage to a young noble who recently perished.  But Li Lan has no interest in becoming a bride for a ghost.  In this haunting debut novel, Li Lan must fight for her freedom—and possibly her very soul—if she ever hopes to escape the clutches of the dead and marry the man she truly loves.

Li Lan was a lovely, dynamic narrator.  I found it interesting to see how she changed as a person from her experiences in the underworld and through her relationship with the mysterious Er Lang.  Li Lan did a wonderful job of explaining much of the customs and beliefs of Malay without overwhelming the reader by offering too much information or leaving the reader lost, unable to discern what is happening in the narrative.  It strikes a perfect balance, which I find I greatly appreciate.

Ghost Bride is a bit of an unusual story, yes, but it’s absolutely fascinating.  I was enchanted by Choo’s descriptions of the spirit world and the rules which govern them, by the intriguing (and, sometimes, terrifying) full-bodied characters she created, and by the history of the Pacific nation.  In short, it’s a wonderful book—and I fell in love with it.

Last, I read The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli.  I was not impressed, let me say so now.  At least part comes from the fact I purchased a translation that was—well, let’s say less than spectacular.  While I was reading, I noticed little mistakes.  Some were simple typos, but a few were glaring grammar mistakes.  It’s almost like the original Italian text was fed through a Google translator and published with the usual transcription mistakes.

Plus, I was so bored for most of Machiavelli’s work.  It literally took me weeks to finish reading my copy of The Prince, even though it was only 114 pages.  I just couldn’t keep interested in it.  I was bored after only a few pages, and I couldn’t stand reading it after I realized I couldn’t consider the text reliable.  I finished the book only because I needed to finish a book on politics and The Prince seemed to fit the bill.  Truthfully, I would never read it again, unless it was absolutely necessary.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks

Reviewed by Ambrea

Katie arrives in Southport, North Carolina, only a handful of belongings and a determination to avoid forming personal ties in this close-knit southern town.   She’s on the run from something—or someone—but she’s not about to talk to Alex, a widowed store owner with two young children to raise, and Alex isn’t about to ask.  As Katie settles into Southport, she finds herself drawn to Alex’s charming Southern accent and his stability, and she actually makes a friend in her bluntly honest neighbor, Jo.  She discovers she’s unexpectedly making a life for herself, and she couldn’t be happier, until a dark secret rises out of her past and threatens to destroy her future.

Oddly enough, I fell in love with Safe Haven.  I’ve always been reluctant to read Nicholas Sparks’ work.  I was never interested in reading The Notebook and I wasn’t thrilled with The Choice, but I loved watching A Walk to Remember and I even liked watching Safe Haven when it came on TV.  Regardless of my affinity for his movies, I was still a little hesitant to begin listening to an audiobook copy of Safe Haven, because I really didn’t know what to expect—or if I would even like it.

Well, I did.  And I was pleasantly surprised by how thoroughly I enjoyed it.

I’ve read Nicholas Sparks in the past, but I could never fully enjoy his writing.  Something about The Choice just wasn’t appealing to me.  I’m not sure if it was his writing style, or the story, or the format—or if it just wasn’t right for me at the time—but, either way, I wasn’t very impressed.  I pretty much brushed Nicholas Sparks aside and discounted him as a writer.

However, I found myself enjoying Safe Haven more than I expected.  It’s a sweet little romance with endearing characters set in a small, Southern town on the coast, and it’s threaded with very subtle hints of magic.  I might have liked it because it reminded me of Sarah Addison Allen and Linda Francis Lee, but I think I might have also liked it best because it’s set in North Carolina.  I’ve been to tiny towns like Southport, I’ve been to beaches like Katie describes, so the story appealed to me on a deeply personal level.

Most importantly, I liked the narrator:  Rebecca Lowman.  Lowman, who also narrated The Girl Who Chased the Moon, does a fantastic job of bringing Sparks’ work to life.  She’s careful to distinguish characters with individual accents, using the soft drawl and twang of a Southern coastal town, while affecting different inflections in others.  I often felt myself drawn into the narrative as Lowman recounted Katie’s story and her desperate flight from her past.

Granted, I didn’t like Kevin for obvious reasons.  He wasn’t crafted very well, and he had a strange religious/superiority complex that made him unusual and slightly absurd, but I suppose that stems from being purposefully made crazy in a novel.  He’s not a great character and he’s just a horrible human being.  I really didn’t like him, and he kind of ruined the story for me, despite Lowman’s excellent narration.

Safe Haven was a great audiobook, overall.  It struck a perfect balance of romance, suspense, and drama without leaning in one direction or the other, and it had a little bit of magic thrown into the mix that made it stand out.  It’s sure to warm your heart, like it did mine.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Rat Queens: Sass and Sorcery by Kurtis Wiebe and Roc Upchurch

Reviewed by Ambrea

 In The Rat Queens:  Sass and Sorcery, readers have the opportunity to meet a most unusual group of battle maidens-for-hire:  Hannah the rockabilly Elven mage, Violet the hipster Dwarven fighter, Dee the atheist Human cleric and Betty the happy, hippy Smidgen thief.  After a most ignominious encounter with the city guards, the Rat Queens are forced to complete a series of tasks to prevent their imprisonment—or, worse, banishment from the kingdom.  But when their quest to slay the cave creatures on the outskirts of town goes horribly, horribly awry, the Rat Queens must fight their toughest battle if the hope to protect their city from the dark magic slowly seeping into their lives.

On the back of the first volume, a quick synopsis reads:  “This modern spin on an old school genre is a violent, monster killing epic that is like Buffy meets Tank Girl in a Lord of the Rings world on crack!”  It’s a description that begs the question, “Is that really a thing?”

Yes.  Yes, it is.

Rat Queens is a genre bending epic that hearkens to its roots in traditional fantasy, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  It pokes fun at the Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons, World of Warcraft, and the fantasy genre as a whole.  Rat Queens:  Sass and Sorcery combines fantastic characters, humor, and irreverent, bloody adventures, creating a strange but oddly fascinating story.

Oh, it’s possibly one of the weirdest graphic novels I’ve read, but it’s also one of the more interesting volumes I’ve had the chance to pick up.  An amalgamation of traditional fantasy epics, role-playing games and quest-based video games, it’s possibly one of the quirkiest, oddball adventure stories I’ve had the pleasure to read.  Throw in a few modern amenities, like enchanted stones that serve as cell phones and designer cocktails courtesy of Betty (who is very liberal when it comes to her vices), it’s sometimes just plain weird.

And, oddly enough, I really liked the characters.  Betty is strange and flighty, but she’s a mighty fun character who simply goes with the flow; whereas Dee is quieter, more introspective, more prone to common sense and good decisions among her friends.  Hannah is the wild child, a bawdy battle-maiden with a sharp wit and a foul mouth and a wicked grasp of magic.  And then there’s Violet.

I’ll be honest, I thought Hannah and Betty were great fun, and Dee is the best friend I’d love to have in my life, but, for some reason, I just adored Violet.  All these ladies are setting off on their own, trying to forge their own paths and defy the expectations set out for them; however, Violet struck a chord with me that instantly made her my favorite character. 

She’s tough, she’s strong, she’s battle savvy, and she’s desperate to prove a point to her parents.  Like Hannah, Betty, and Dee who are set on starting new lives, she wants to separate herself from her parents’ world, differentiate herself from the dwarven culture she feels has consumed her.  She doesn’t want to model armor, she wants to wear it and use it—and she wants to fight.  She wants to be a warrior, regardless of the expectations of her family and culture.

And that’s what I like about her:  she’s true to herself.  She wants what she wants, and she won’t apologize for going out to seize her own life.

Overall, I enjoyed Rat Queens.  It’s fun, it’s weird, it’s a raucous delight, but it has charming characters and an interesting plot—and I loved the art.   Roc Upchurch does an excellent job of bringing Kurtis Wiebe’s characters and story to life.  He gives it a gritty, edgy vibe that meshes well with the attitudes of the Rat Queens, and I liked it.

I liked it a lot.

But, fair warning to other readers, Rat Queens is not a tame series.  Violent, crude, graphic, and rather explicit, it’s not for younger readers.  I wouldn’t recommend it to readers offended by or vehemently against discussion of drugs, crude language, explicit content, general misconduct, or graphic depiction of violence or murder.  Seriously, the Rat Queens hold nothing back and they’re not afraid to cause a little (read:  a lot) of mischief.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Nevermore: Gone Girl, Winnie the Pooh, Washington's Spies, Joan Rivers, Place Names & The Secret to Hummingbird Cake

Reported by Ambrea

Nevermore settled in with a familiar book and revisited one of their favorite authors with Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  On the day of Amy and Nick Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary, Amy mysteriously disappears—and Nick is at the very top of a list of suspects.  Suddenly, Nick finds himself under intense scrutiny by the police, the local media, and his own family and, when a series of lies and inappropriate behavior surface, he’s left shouldering the blame.  An intense and twisted examination of one man’s deteriorating marriage, Gone Girl was described as a “fascinating book.”  Although our reader had already watched Gone Girl, starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, he was pleasantly surprised by the way the story grabbed and held him.  Despite knowing how the story would end, he enjoyed reading Gone Girl and highly recommended it to other readers who hadn’t yet had the opportunity to read it.

Next, Nevermore looked at The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh:  A Walk Through the Forest that Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood by Kathryn Aalto, which delves deep into the forest—Ashdown Forest—that inspired and helped shape A.A. Milne’s beloved stories.   Serving as a both a guide to the Hundred Acre Wood (and the creatures which inspired it) and a biography of the author, The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh was thoroughly researched and, according to our reader, incredibly fascinating.  He liked the detail Aalto provided, especially regarding the photographs of locations within the Ashdown Forest which inspired the world of Winnie-the-Pooh.  He “[spent] a delightful, nostalgic afternoon with this book,” saying he enjoyed it immensely.  He loved the opportunity to reminisce about his experiences with Milne’s stories, both as a reader and an adult reading to his children.

Nevermore also looked at another fascinating book on George Washington and early American espionage.  Like George Washington’s Secret Six by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger, Washington’s Spies:  The Story of America’s First Spy Ring by Alexander Rose was an intriguing examination of the Culper Ring—George Washington’s secret spy ring which helped bring victory to the United States during the Revolutionary War—and its impact on espionage.  “Rose’s thrilling narrative tells the unknown story of the Revolution—the murderous intelligence war, gunrunning and kidnapping, defectors and executioners—that has never appeared in the history books.”  A fascinating book on Nathan Hale, the Culper Ring, and the indomitable leader, Washington’s Spies was a big hit for our reader.  He called it a “good little book” that struck all the right notes.  Although short and simple, it doesn’t lack for impact and it served as an enjoyable way to pass time.

Switching gears from the American Revolution to modern American stardom, Nevermore checked out I Hate Everyone…Starting with Me by Joan Rivers.  In book, Rivers takes on—and hates on—everything from ugly children, dating rituals, First Ladies, politics, Steven Hawking, feminists and doctors and hypocrites, even herself.  She shows no mercy, poking fun at everyone and everything, much to the amusement of her audience.  Uproariously funny and viciously irreverent, I Hate Everyone…Starting with Me received rave reviews from our reader for its candor, biting wit, and humor.  Our reader said she had so much fun reading this book.  It’s so true to Joan River’s personality, to her voice, that it feels very similar to one of her stand-up comedy roles.  However, she noted she often read River’s book by individual chapters.  It could sometimes get a little tiring when taken in large chunks, so it was best enjoyed in small doses.

Next, our readers looked at A Place Called Peculiar:  Stories About Unusual American Place-Names by Frank K. Gallant.  In his book, Gallant examines some of the most unusual city names and dives deep into the urban legends, myths, and sometimes humorous origin stories of these strange towns.  His list includes:  Smut Eye, Alabama; Tie Siding, Wyoming; Breakfast Hill, New Hampshire; Dinner Station, Nevada; Bug Tussle, Alabama; and Useless Bay, Washington.  Full of interesting names and peculiar places, A Place Called Peculiar proved to be an intriguing and delightful book for our readers, passing through several hands before coming to Nevermore.  According to one reader, it was a wonderful book to pass through and read the little anecdotes provided by the author.  She said she flipped through the pages and couldn’t help but enjoy the short synopses of each town, as well as the colorful history provided by the author.

Last, Nevermore looked at The Secret to Hummingbird Cake by Celeste Fletcher McHale.  A uniquely Southern novel, The Secret to Hummingbird Cake tells the story of Carrigan—Carrie to her friends—and Ella Rae and Laine.  Together, this inseparable trio has grown up in the same Southern town and relied on each other through the very worst moments, including Carrigan’s deteriorating marriage.  But when their friendship is threatened by more than petty squabbles and rough roads, Laine, Carrigan, and Ella Rae are going to have to come to terms with losing something more precious than they realized.  Our reader said she really enjoyed McHale’s first novel.  Sweet, like the hummingbird cake for which it’s named, but hinted with threads of tragedy, The Secret to Hummingbird Cake was a wonderful novel about friendships, cake, love and quirky friendships and loss.  It was an excellent novel with wonderful story development, and it hit just the right notes to make it both incredibly fun (and funny) and terribly tragic.