Thursday, October 20, 2016

#49 [2016/CBR8] "Carry On" by Rainbow Rowell

If someone had told me to read some Harry Potter fan fiction, I would have politely declined. It goes to show how much I like Rainbow Rowell that as soon as I learned of Carry On (2015), I put it on my to-read list. I will give anything by Rainbow Rowell a chance.

I've never heard of Rowell specifically stating that Carry On is based on Harry Potter, but the similarities are undeniable. Simon Snow is an orphan who grew up in various group homes and foster homes throughout England. It also turns out that he is the most powerful wizard of his time. He discovers this at the age of eleven or twelve when he is invited to go to the exclusive wizarding school. At school he becomes best friends with Penelope, and they have many dangerous adventures together. Simon's nemesis is Basilton or Baz (Draco). Unfortunately for both of them, they were chosen to be roommates and must suffer the other's company their entire tenure at school.

The book begins as Simon travels to school for his last year. The wizarding world is not in a good place. Holes--places that are void of any magic--are appearing throughout England and slowly growing. The mage (the headmaster as well as the leader of the wizarding world) is fighting with the older wizarding families and war is about to break out. Finally, there is an insidious "bad guy" who people call the humdrum that constantly attacks Simon.

At first I had a hard time with this book. I'd only recently read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, another Harry Potter book that didn't quite feel like the originals. Now I was reading another book that felt like Harry Potter, but there were enough significant differences in the worlds, that you can't merge the worlds. I kept catching myself giving Simon Harry's backstory. I also really prefer original characters and stories, especially when written by a different author.

If you read Fangirl, then it shouldn't be a surprise that there is a serious love/hate relationship going on between Simon and Baz. And once Baz got back into the picture and Baz, Simon, and Penelope started working together, the book picked up dramatically.

By the time I'd finished, I'd bought into Rowell's new creation of Harry Potter and his world. In some ways, I almost prefer it. I really liked Rowell's description of Simon's magical powers, and how they affected him and others around him. In addition, J.K. Rowling likes to kill all my favorite characters and then tie everything up into a nice little bow. Rowell definitely went in a different direction. In the end, I don't really understand Rowell's decision to tread upon such familiar ground, but once I got into it, her book was easy to read and made me think.

"(Just when you think you're having a scene without Simon, he drops in to remind you that everyone else is a supporting character in his catastrophe.)" (197)

#48 [2016/CBR8] "Soulless" by Gail Carriger

Werewolves and vampires generally don't do much for me, so I don't pick up paranormal romances on a whim. However, my book club chose Soulless (2014) by Gail Carriger, and they said it was fun. It also happens to be a steampunk comedy of manners, so I found that there was a lot more to it than Twilight and the Charlaine Harris books I've read.

I had a good time reading this book. The tone is fun, the writing is fun, and I loved all the names of the characters. There were a number of lines that had me smiling or laughing, and Alexia's preoccupation with clothing was entertaining.

The book takes place in 19th-century London in an alternate history. In this world, supernatural characters have been, for the most part, accepted and incorporated into society in England. Werewolves, vampires, and ghosts interact with regular people and work in the government.

Alexia Tarabotti, our heroine, is the only "soulless" woman in Britain, The general public is not even aware of the existence of the soulless. Alexi lives with her mother, stepfather, and two stepsisters. Because Alexi is half Italian, and does not conform to the current standards of beauty in England, she's been "put on the shelf" by her mother. Being seen as an old maid, as well as not caring what others think of her, allow Alexi a remarkable amount of freedom in a time and place that is otherwise be pretty confining for young, unmarried women.

The book begins with Alexia hiding out in a library at a ball. She left the merriment in search of food, and has rather rudely asked the servants for tea when she is interrupted by a vampire. The greatest advantage of being soulless is that as soon as she touches a supernatural creature, that creature loses his powers. After accidentally killing the vampire, she fakes a faint to avoid answering any questions from intruding party goers. And that's when Lord Conall Maccon, the Earl of Woolsey, alpha werewolf of the London wolf pack, and a high-ranking official of the BUR shows up to take control of the situation. The two obviously have a history and their banter is entertaining.

Many odd things are happening in the supernatural realm of London. A half-starved (and badly dressed) vampire attacked a woman at a ball. Lone vampires and werewolves are disappearing. And Alexia is being stalked by a scary wax-like man. As Alexia has become something of a target, Maccon takes it upon himself to protect her. It's obvious that two such strong-willed and argumentative people were meant for each other, and the more time they spend together, the more obvious it is.

Alexia Tarabotti was a fun protagonist. In many ways she reminded me of Amelia Peabody from Elizabeth Banks' books. Alexia is smart, independent, and strong-willed. She is also not afraid of exploring her sexuality..."but in the interest of scientific curiosity, she shifted her lower body away from him a handbreadth and peeked downward." (297)

I definitely enjoyed reading this book. The fun writing and the romance kept it going and easy to read. There may have not been much to the mystery or some of the other characters, but original and entertaining was more than enough for me. I will most likely get into the rest of the series, although I'm a little nervous that they will not live up to this first book.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

#47 [2016/CBR8] "Truly Madly Guilty" by Liane Moriarty

I think this is my fourth book by Liane Moriarty. I started with Big Little Lies, which I loved. It was one of my favorite books of the year. I was really looking forward to reading Truly Madly Guilty (2016), and I was very excited when I was finally able to get my hands on a copy. There were many things that I really liked about this book: I continue to be impressed with Moriarty's characters and lives. However, her concept was frustrating and is beginning to feel repetitive.

The story centers around three couples. Two of the women have been "best friends" since childhood, although their relationship is much more complex than the simple label would suggest. The small power plays and slights that often occur in their interactions stem primarily from dynamics formed in childhood. Clementine is a cellist. She is married to Sam, and they have two young girls. From the outside, they appear to have a perfect life. Erika had a much more difficult childhood and used Clementine's family as something of an escape. She is married to Oliver, a man with a troubled enough past of his own to truly understand Erika.

All we know at the beginning of the book is that an important "incident" occurred at a barbecue. It was something dramatic because it seemed to affect all of the characters that were there, and they're having a hard time forgetting about it. The book begins about six weeks or so after the barbecue and switches between events leading up to the barbecue and present time as we get to know what is going on with the characters.

Over halfway through the book, we finally get to the barbecue and find out what happens. When Erika and Oliver invite Clementine and her family over for an afternoon, they end up at the extravagant home next door owned by Vid and Tiffany--for a barbecue.

The biggest problem I had with this book is that I felt like Moriarty was not playing fair in telling this story, and I got frustrated. In order to not give us too good of an idea of what had occurred at the barbecue, Moriarty had to tweak things pretty hard. How many conversations can the characters have about the "incident" without just saying what happened? Also, ***possible spoiler*** as soon as the reader finally finds out what happens, the characters start calling it an "accident" instead of an "incident" which makes much more sense. Also, she started so many chapters with a teasing line: a character screamed, etc. that made you think you might have finally gotten to the "incident," but, no, there was just more backstory. ***end possible spoiler***

I cared about the characters, and I was interested in their lives, so when I thought I might have guessed what was coming, I was concerned and I was irritated by her playing around with me. Moriarty has used this technique in all of the books I've read by her, and it has never bothered me to this degree. I'm not sure if I'm just getting tired of it, or if the way she told the story, her plot was too reliant on this device. I sometimes wished Moriarty had told the story with a straight timeline and I wonder how that would have worked. Her characters are definitely well-defined and complex. Would it work, for the most part, without the built in tension?

Despite my frustration with some of the storytelling, this was an undeniably interesting read. The characters, their motivations, and their reactions are all deftly and believably written. I will be reading more of Moriarty's books, but I wish she would play straight with her readers.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

#46 [2016/CBR8] "First Star I See Tonight" by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

I just can't quite let Susan Elizabeth Phillips go. I've been at least a little disappointed in most of her recent books, and I think I've outgrown her. But every time she puts out a new book, there I am on the waitlist. First Star I See Tonight (2016) just came out in August, and I read it as soon as I could put my hands on it.

I enjoyed parts of this one, and I generally liked the characters. However, I think the magic of Phillips is lost for me. I don't quite trust her anymore to provide heroes and situations I don't object to, so I read her books just waiting for something ridiculous or offensive to happen. Also, although I realize romance novels are not where you go for realism, I had a hard time believing in the story line or some of the characters.

Piper Dove used the last of her money to buy her father's private investigation firm after her father's death. Piper's mother died when she was young and she was raised by her father. Her father required absolute toughness from her (no crying) but also shielded her from the world. He would not let her follow in his footsteps as a private investigator because he didn't want her to get hurt. Her first (and only) job is to tail the famous and beloved former quarterback of the Dallas Stars, Cooper Graham. Graham is remarkably observant and/or Piper is not very good at her job because he spots her very quickly and confronts her. She tries to play herself off as a crazy fan, but Cooper quickly figures out the truth. Cooper eventually hires Piper to work at his new nightclub, finding corruption within his staff.

After a (weird) little side plot where Piper works as a driver for the incredibly rich and spoiled royal family of some kind of oil-rich middle eastern country, it becomes clear that someone is going after Cooper Graham. His nightclub is targeted and he is personally attacked. Piper is determined to get to the bottom of it all and protect Cooper. Needless to say, with all the time the two are spending together, they can't keep their hands off each other and feelings start to develop. The main hang up for their relationship is that the two each have to individually realize how they feel about the other. Then, (and the way more annoying part) Piper doesn't believe that Cooper would fall in love with someone like her (a nobody) so she pushes him away. The last scene that finally gets them together is so far fetched and unnecessary, it made me wish the book had ended earlier.

This book wasn't all bad. I read it quickly and never got bored. I also often liked Cooper and Piper. It was refreshing to have a heroine that was so independent and generally good at what she does. However, Piper didn't really seem believable. As far as I could tell she didn't have much experience and most of her knowledge came from "taking a couple of classes" about the subject. I don't see how not working out and taking a couple of classes can make you an expert in self defense. The fact that Piper is really strong and tough allows Cooper to be the typical alpha male and not come off as too much of a bully. Sometimes this went a little far, with the idea that Cooper can do anything he wants because Piper would beat him up if she doesn't like it: not believable and not completely logical. The side plot with the royal family was weird. Also, there's a plot point about Piper's racist neighbor not being racist that was also weird. Finally, you can't shoot a gun in the middle of Chicago (a ritzy neighborhood at that) without someone noticing.

loved the first books I read by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. They were funny, sexy, and emotional. They were also some of the first romance novels I'd ever read and before any of my serious relationships. I'm afraid to go back to those same books now because I can't view them from the same point of view. I'm afraid I will be bitter with disappointment. That being said, I will continue to read Phillips' books as she writes them.

Monday, October 17, 2016

#45 [2016/CBR8] "Courage: Daring Poems for Gutsy Girls"

Since I had read The Gutsy Girl by Caroline Paul, Amazon recommended Courage: Daring Poems for Gutsy Girls (2014) ed. by Karen Finneyfrock, Rachel McKibbens, and Mindy Nettifee. I don't know how advanced Amazon's software is for these kinds of recommendations, but it worked. I was intrigued and ordered the book from my library.

This book is very different from The Gutsy Girl, which is a story of Paul's adventures and encouragement for younger girls to get out there and do things. Courage, on the other hand, is a book of poetry, and both the content and reading comprehension levels are for older teenagers. I would say Paul's book is more for older grade school and middle school ages while the poetry is more for high school students. Short author bios are at the end of the book, and most authors contributed more than one poem to the book.

The poetry was split into sections regarding family, love, and other subjects, although I found the poems to be so diverse that many of them did not fit easily into one category. Many of them had to do with self worth and our cultural obsession with beauty. Like most poetry that I read, some poems were very moving and relatable, while others were not. I'm sure it depends a lot on your own experiences and what resonates with you.

I did try to imagine what I would have thought of this book if I had read it as a high school student instead of a 37-year-old woman. And I'm not sure. It has taken me a long time to be patient enough to read books of poetry. But if I could have gotten past that, I think many of the poems I find moving now, I would have understood and appreciated then.

I had to use interlibrary loan to get this book, as there were only one or two copies in the entire state. And when I received it, it looked brand new. I'm glad that this book of poetry is out there for young women to have something to use to understand their experiences. However, it's usefulness is limited by its limited readership. I can't imagine the tweens of today putting down Twilight (or whatever the new Twilight is these days) and picking up this book of poetry, but there have to be some young women out there who would appreciate it. And it stretches my imagination even further to think of teenage boys reading a book of poetry by and about women, but why not?

As always when I read a book of poetry, I write down all my favorite poems in case I ever find the book again or want to look up any of the authors. Below were my favorite poems from Courage.

The Last Spell of the Sea Witch by Karen Finneyfrock (31)
Private Parts by Sarah Kay (32)
That Thing I Said That During Gym Shaney Jean Maney(52)
December by Erica Miriam Fabri (71)
Swarm by Jeanann Verlee (73)
Remembering the Night We Met by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz (80)
1943 by Jessica Helen Lopez (86)
13 by Patricia Smith (p. 94, sect. 8, 9, 10)
The Waiting Room of the GYN by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz (100)
Aubade With a Broken Neck by Traci Brimhall (104)
Pretty by Shaney Jean Maney(128)
Bloom by Tara Hardy (141)
The Nutritionist by Andrea Gibson (154)

#44 [2016/CBR8] "Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?" by Frans de Waal

My unerring interest in animal behavior sometimes has me wondering whether I should have become a wildlife biologist. If I were only braver and smarter, maybe I could have been a new Jane Goodall, spending my life in the woods and learning about a completely different species. But my interests are never persistent or steady enough to commit to anything like that. So I have to satisfy this interest with some occasional reading. I recently read Animal Wise by Virginia Morell, which I found both eye-opening and fascinating. When I saw that a similar book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2016) by Frans de Waal, had just come out, I immediately looked it up at my library.

Frans de Waal covers a lot of the same ground that Morell hits in Animal Wise, so I didn't find it quite as miraculous as I might have if the information were new. The biggest difference between the two books, however, was the focus. Morell's book was more layperson friendly, with each chapter devoted to a specific animal and the amazing things they're learning about that animal. It was full of detailed descriptions of various scientific studies that show how we're increasing our knowledge about lives that are so different from our own that it's hard to comprehend.

On the other hand, de Waal spends a lot of time discussing the various ideologies surrounding the science of animal behavior. "This overview is obviously incomplete, but my main objective is to convey enthusiasm for evolutionary cognition and to illustrate how it has grown into a respectable science based on rigorous observations and experiments." (324) Often, it felt like the book was written to argue with his fellow scientists about what to call his discipline. Since I was just looking for interesting stories about animal intelligence, I found this very frustrating and almost gave up after the first chapter. [Although it continued through the rest of the book, once de Waal laid down the framework, it wasn't quite as pervasive.] However, even when he got to talking about animals, I wish he had gone into more detail about the studies, how they were executed, and how the animals performed.

One of the most memorable lessons from both books was that animal cognition is less of a hierarchy with humans at the top, than something like a bush. Animals have specialized strengths that vary so drastically, that even when comprehensible, it is impossible to say which is objectively better. Another memorable lesson is that throughout history, mankind's homosapien-centric views color their findings in ridiculous ways. In fact, the need to shout human supremacy before anything else gets in the way of a lot of research. Scientists declared that chimpanzees were bad at facial recognition, which they tested by showing them headshots of humans. They said they didn't use pictures of chimps in their study because chimps look too much alike. Needless to say, when pictures of chimps were used, the chimpanzees, as a complex, social animal, easily showed they were adept at facial recognition. The chimps could also tell which chimps were related to each other from pictures--even chimps they had never known. And now we know that even the octopus can recognize different human faces.

I agreed with de Waal's opinion that in order to study animals, you need to first spend thousands of hours studying them in their natural habitat. You can't run into a lab with an animal you know very little about and come up with useful and meaningful studies. The animals need to be humanely treated and not stressed out, too, both for ethical reasons, and for achieving accurate results regarding their behavior. I would prefer to keep animals out of labs all together, but I appreciate that de Waal cared about the lives of his subjects.

Although I preferred Morell's book to this one, and I could have done without a lot of the detail on the scientific bickering about terminology, he was still discussing one of my favorite subjects. I hope they keep publishing these kinds of books because I am looking forward to what the next discoveries may be.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

#43 [2016/CBR8] "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, & Jack Thorne

I have read all seven of the Harry Potter books and seen all of the movies (although I think I slept through most of the last movie). So of course I was going to read the new Harry Potter book...eventually. I just didn't think I would get to it so quickly. My book club decided that we had to read it immediately. So I found myself picking up Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2016) by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne.

I've fallen a little out of the loop when it comes to Harry Potter. The only reason I even knew that there was an eighth book coming out was that I stumbled on an article in the paper discussing what bookstores were doing for the release. I'd heard somewhere that it takes place years after the original story, but until I picked it up, I didn't even know it was a play. It was kind of nice getting into it with so few expectations about where the story was going.

The play takes place nineteen years after the end of the last book. Harry and Ginny are married with three kids, and Ron and Hermione have a daughter, Rose. The play begins with Harry dropping off his middle son, Albus Potter, at Platform 9 and 3/4. As the son of the "boy who lived" and ended up saving the world from Voldemort, Albus has a lot to live up to. At school, he almost immediately, and very surprisingly, befriends Scorpius Malfoy, the son of Draco. Scorpius and Albus go off on a half-cocked adventure in a virtuous attempt to right some wrongs. The book visits some memorable moments from the previous books and explores the rather difficult relationship between Harry and his son.

This book kept my interest, and it was sometimes a nice, nastalgic stroll through the original books. Some of the characterizations and descriptions seemed a little lacking, which may be a consequence of the format. Rose was literally Hermione as a child; Ron was nothing more than weird comic relief, and Ginny was a protective mother. This book also relies very heavily on the previous books for its meaning and weight. It's hard to even imagine how uninteresting and confusing this book would be if you read it before any of the others.

The most jarring difference between the last book and the others is the format, and it affected my reading of it. Instead of imagining a magical world where the story took place, I imagined a theater production. I thought of it happening all on stage, how it would be blocked, and what they would do with the special effects. It was kind of fun to imagine. [The play is currently on stage in London, and I wish I could see what they've done with it. One of my book club friends was recently in London and had tried to get tickets. She said the play was almost like two separate plays, shown hours and sometimes days apart with each play three hours long.]

This book did not have that magical feeling the first Harry Potter books had, although I generally found it enjoyable and interesting. It does not feel like a very necessary addition to the story, but it was a nice, nostalgic trip back to the Harry Potter world and some of the characters I've read so much about.