Posts Tagged: 4 stars

The Color Purple
by Alice Walker

February 5, 2017 Book Reviews, Books 7

★ ★ ★ ★

The Color Purple by Alice Walker | 1982 | Open Road Media (this ed.) | E-book $14

Celie has grown up poor in rural Georgia, despised by the society around her and abused by her own family. She strives to protect her sister, Nettie, from a similar fate, and while Nettie escapes to a new life as a missionary in Africa, Celie is left behind without her best friend and confidante, married off to an older suitor, and sentenced to a life alone with a harsh and brutal husband.

In an attempt to transcend a life that often seems too much to bear, Celie begins writing letters directly to God. The letters, spanning twenty years, record a journey of self-discovery and empowerment guided by the light of a few strong women.

Whew… this novel was a bit of a rough ride.

I’ll be honest and admit that I didn’t much like it at first. The dialect and disturbing abuse of the narrator made it tough to get through. In the introduction to this edition, Walker says that the story is supposed to be about a woman figuring out what “God” means to her. But for the first half of the novel, I just couldn’t see it. It seemed more like a simple story about the particular cruelties of the world towards black women in the early 20th century.

I’m glad I kept reading, though. The story seemed to coalesce into something with deeper, complicated ideas about beauty and hope and family and bravery and all of those kinds of things — and I was eager to find out what would happen next, plot-wise, and was pleasantly (or sometimes unpleasantly) surprised several times.

The Color Purple is widely considered a modern classic for good reason. It’s not an easy read, it won’t necessarily give you warm fuzzy feelings or romantic thrills, but it’s still just as rewarding as it is demanding.


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Publication information: Walker, Alice. The color purple. New York: Open Road Media, 2011. EPUB file.
Source: Borrowed from public library.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


East of Eden
by John Steinbeck

January 29, 2017 Book Reviews, Books 6

★ ★ ★ ★

East of Eden by John Steinbeck | Originally published 1952, this ed. 2002 | Penguin| Paperback $16

Set in the rich farmland of California’s Salinas Valley, this sprawling and often brutal novel follows the intertwined destinies of two families — the Trasks and the Hamiltons — whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel. Here Steinbeck created some of his most memorable characters and explored his most enduring themes: the mystery of identity; the inexplicability of love; and the murderous consequences of love’s absence.

This book was a late addition to my Classics Club list. I’d tried to read Middlemarch and just could NOT get into it, so I asked for help picking a replacement and this is the title that was most commonly recommended. So — thanks, y’all, for convincing me to read this book!

I was a little intimidated by this chunkster, but needn’t have been. It’s true that it dragged a bit in spots and included some rather heavy-handed moralizing on the part of the narrator, but overall it read more like an old but clever relative telling an important family story — a kind of family story for the country as a whole, perhaps.

Plus, the prose was simply lovely. The content was not often lovely, no, mostly quite the opposite actually, but Steinbeck was unquestionably a master of prose. Take this example from Chapter 7 (no spoilers):

Time interval is a strange and contradictory matter in the mind. It would be reasonable to suppose that a routine time or an eventless time would seem interminable. It should be so, but it is not. It is the full eventless times that have no duration whatever. A time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy — that’s the time that seems long in memory. And this is right when you think about it. Eventlessness has no posts to drape duration on. From nothing to nothing is no time at all.

Have you read East of Eden, or any other Steinbeck novel? How did you like it?


Links:


Publication information: Steinbeck, John East of Eden. Penguin: New York, 2002. Print.
Source: Personal collection.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation
by Randall Fuller

January 22, 2017 Book Reviews, Books 6


★ ★ ★ ★

The Book That Changed America by Randall Fuller | January 2017 | Viking | Hardcover $27

Throughout its history America has been torn in two by debates over ideals and beliefs. Randall Fuller takes us back to one of those turning points, in 1860, with the story of the influence of Charles Darwin s just-published On the Origin of Species on five American intellectuals, including Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, the child welfare reformer Charles Loring Brace, and the abolitionist Franklin Sanborn.

I absolutely jumped at the chance to get a review copy of this title from Edelweiss. Science? Antebellum American history?? A book about a book??? Yes, please.

I read Darwin’s account of his adventures as a young naturalist (Voyage of the Beagle) just a few months ago. Even though I didn’t give it a full 5 stars, it’s one of those books that has stuck with me — you know the kind I mean, like when random bits of news or conversations will suddenly remind you of a scene from the book or an impression it gave you.

In my review of that book, I mentioned that Darwin seemed to accept his colonialist culture’s prejudice against indigenous peoples as a matter of course. An acquaintance of mine pointed out that Darwin was actually an abolitionist, and some of his statements that might sound paternalizing to contemporary readers were in fact pretty radical for his own time.

In an 1862 letter to Asa Gray, a scientist at Harvard who was the first to read On the Origin of Species in the U.S., Darwin wrote (in reference to the Civil War):

But slavery seems to me to grow a more hopeless curse. […] This war of yours, however it may end, is a fearful evil to the whole world; & its evil effect will, I must think, be felt for years.

The Book That Changed America is an examination of the ways in which Darwin’s idea of biological evolution by means of natural selection influenced the scientists, authors, and social reformers who read it — and therefore influenced the trajectory of our country. Non-Americans (and many Americans, too) are often baffled by our country’s long-standing issues with the acceptance of the scientific theory of evolution. I think this book helps to explain why evolution has been so contentious for us — because the idea is all wrapped up in our national troubles with the repercussions of slavery and institutionalized racism as well as the popular (yet flawed) idea of our history as a Protestant Christian nation.

The book is written in a narrative style that makes the profiled individuals feel more like interesting characters than plain old names out of history books, which I mostly enjoyed. Some bits kinda dragged for me, and there were a few little tangents from the main story that I found frustrating. And I would have liked to see viewpoints from folks outside of the particular little intellectual circle that the author focused on — politicians involved in the events leading up to the war, African-Americans, Southerners, and maybe just “everyday people” sorts, you know?

Regardless, I did enjoy the read and would recommend this book to people who are interested in the history of the theory of evolution as well as anyone who’d like to learn a little more about science-based abolitionist perspectives prior to the American Civil War.



Publication information: Fuller, Randall. . New York: Viking, 2017. EPUB.
Source: ARC provided by publisher via Edelweiss.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus
by L. Frank Baum

December 23, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 4

★ ★ ★ ★

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum | 1902 | Bowen Merrill | Paperback $10

A magical Christmas story by the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus answers the enigmatic Christmas questions: Why does Santa travel via Reindeer? How does he fit through the chimney, and how does he deliver all those toys in one wintry night?

First published in 1902, the tale begins as a wood nymph discovers a baby abandoned in a forest. Raised among mythical forest creatures, the child learns to outwit evil as he grows towards adulthood and must discover how to re-enter the human world, which leaves him determined to share gifts and spread love to his fellow man.

If that summary sounds vaguely familiar, you may remember the rather weird Rankin-Bass stop motion animation TV movie by the same name — you know, Rankin-Bass, the same folks who did the more popular stop motion Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town Christmas specials you see on repeat around this time of year?

This is a simple story, if somewhat more… hm, pagan than typical Christmas stories, featuring plenty in the way of wood nymphs and fairies and such (not sure “pagan” is quite the word I’m looking for, but it’s close enough). I suppose it could be read as something of a religious allegory à la Narnia — the kind man who devotes his life to making the world a better place for children is blessed with supernatural assistance and a happy, everlasting life — but I’m honestly not sure whether younger readers would pick up on that.

Have you read this book or seen the animated movie version? What did you think of it?

If you’re a fan of L. Frank Baum, don’t forget that I’m hosting a read-along of his Oz series starting in January!


Links:


Publication information: Baum, L. Frank. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. Indianapolis, IN: Bowen Merrill, 1902. Print.
Source: Used bookshop.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

Read My Own Damn Books Challenge Image

This book also counts for my #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks challenge.


The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood
by Howard Pyle

December 22, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 6

★ ★ ★ ★

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle | 1883, this ed. 1985 | Signet Classics | Paperback $3.99

The beloved adventures of Robin Hood come vividly to life in this wonderfully illustrated version by Howard Pyle. Deep in Sherwood Forest, the legendary Robin Hood – the brave, good-humored outlaw the whole world loves – proves himself the best in England with his bow.

This is probably Pyle’s most well-known work outside of his legacy that is the Brandywine School of illustration. Actually, this book includes nearly 50 examples of Pyle’s illustration style, either as full-page woodcut (or woodcut style) scenes or ornaments and frames. When I was first learning to draw I just loved copying the art out of this book.

Sure, the book was written in the 19th century and with an exaggerated approximation of 12th century language (lots of “whither hath that knave gone” and “take thou what thou wilt have” and that sort of thing), but it’s actually not a difficult read. The stories are engaging and mostly, well… merry!

This edition also includes an informative Afterward by Michael Patrick Hearn, which was well worth the extra pages for its explanations of the repeated anti-Catholic sentiments (Pyle was a Quaker) and distinct erasure of Robin’s romances in the older versions of his stories (Pyle thought his assumed audience, little boys, wouldn’t be interested).

This book is certainly a keeper, and one I’ll probably end up re-reading again in the future at least a couple more times.


Links:


Publication information: Pyle, Howard. The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. New York: Signet Classics, 1985. Print.
Source: Owned.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

Read My Own Damn Books Challenge Image

This book also counts for my #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks challenge.


The Wives of Henry VIII
by Antonia Fraser

November 27, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 0

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★ ★ ★ ★

The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser | October 1992 | Knopf | Paperback $20

The six wives of Henry VIII – Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anna of Cleves, Katherine Howard and Catherine Parr – have become defined in a popular sense not so much by their lives as by the way these lives ended. But, as Antonia Fraser conclusively proves, they were rich and feisty characters.

They may have been victims of Henry’s obsession with a male heir, but they were not willing victims. On the contrary, they displayed considerable strength and intelligence at a time when their sex supposedly possessed little of either. Inevitably there was great rivalry between them, and there was jealousy too – the desperate jealousy of Queens who found themselves abandoned, but also the sexual jealousy of the King who discovered himself betrayed.

I picked up a cheap used copy of this book on an admittedly mead-fueled whim at the Ren Fest a couple of weeks ago — but I’m so glad that I did. I vaguely recognized the author’s name, but didn’t remember until I got home and was looking for some space on my bookshelves for this paperback that she’d written one of my all-time favorite biographies, Marie Antoinette: The Journey.

The Wives of Henry VIII exhaustively and more-or-less narratively covers the topic of — you guessed it — the six consorts of the early Renaissance reign of King Henry VIII of England: Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anna of Cleves, Katherine Howard, and Catherine Parr. Only 2 of these actually outlived their royal husband.

I liked that Fraser attempted to logically interpret the historical evidence and tell everyone’s stories fairly, perhaps with more compassion than a misanthrope/cynic like myself could muster. The lives of these women have been reduced to mere rhyme in the present day (“Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived”), but as usual with dramatic figures of the distant past, the nuances of their personalities and complications of their rises/falls from power are rather more complicated.

Henry, too, is afforded a fairly compassionate view of his actions — at least, up until the point when even the most ready-to-forgive modern reader has to admit that he started acting like kind of a spoiled, narcissistic jackass.

It was especially striking to me how very little control women (well, anyone who wasn’t King Henry, but women especially) had over their own lives at this period. Something as simple as a long-forgotten “engagement” arranged by her father could be used as an excuse to annul a marriage if a lady’s husband grew tired of her. Sad, too, was the thought of a father desperately trying for sons while ignoring his completely capable — and legitimate, whatever his claims to the contrary — daughters. And to have all of this drama wrapped up in the culture wars of Protestants vs. Catholics… it makes the head spin, really.

Have you read this book? How about any of the many other books on the subject of the Tudor wives and daughters? I’m always open to recommendations!


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Publication information: Fraser, Antonia. The wives of Henry VIII. New York: Knopf, 1992. Print.
Source: Used bookshop.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


Voyage of the Beagle
by Charles Darwin

October 9, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 6

darwin_voyageofthebeagle

★ ★ ★ ★

Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin | Originally published 1839 | Penguin Classics | Paperback $16

When HMS Beagle sailed out of Devonport on 27 December 1831, Charles Darwin was twenty-two and setting off on the voyage of a lifetime. His journal, here reprinted in a shortened form, shows a naturalist making patient observations concerning geology, natural history, people, places and events. Volcanoes in the Galapagos, the Gossamer spider of Patagonia and the Australasian coral reefs – all are to be found in these extraordinary writings. The insights made here were to set in motion the intellectual currents that led to the theory of evolution, and the most controversial book of the Victorian age: The Origin of Species.

In a word: FASCINATING.

I’m so, so glad that I put this title on my Classics Club list — and I’m so, so glad that I just happened to find a dusty copy languishing at a local used bookshop for only $3!

A couple of minor but relevant pieces of information: I have a BS in Biology and am the child of a scientist and am employed at a science-focused academic library. I also do not usually get on well with Victorian literature.

In this case, my enthusiasm for the subject matter (and the youthful author’s own clear enthusiasm) won out over my difficulties with the Victorian-ness of the writing.

Darwin suffered from terrible seasickness for much of the voyage, so he spent as much time travelling by land as he could possibly justify. I feel bad for the guy, but his extended explorations through various countries is what allowed him to produce this book and its controversial heir.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows with this book, of course. Young Charlie subscribed to some of the rather paternalistic/racist views of typical imperialist Englishmen of the time, and his opinions on the foreign cultures he encounters do awkwardly (for the modern reader) reflect that. Besides that, he does tend to get a little too excited about some topics that no one else besides a fellow topic-specific geek would care about. Even I couldn’t be bothered with pages of descriptions of flatworms or geological strata. You have to be OK with skimming past this kind of stuff if you want to make it through the whole book.

That said, there are some real jewels to be found. For instance, there was the time when good ol’ Charlie managed to lasso himself while some gauchos tried to teach him how to fend for himself. And how about his attempts to ride the Galápagos tortoises like an an overgrown, overenthusiastic boy?

I like to imagine that if blogs had existed in the early 1800’s, Darwin would have been typing IN ALL CAPS BECAUSE THIS IS SO COOL, YOU GUYS and taking selfies with any animal/person who’d stand still long enough.

Overall, I definitely recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in the history of biological/ecological sciences or 19th century English history. And hey — definitely check out the links below. A lot of Darwin’s journals, letters, etc. are freely available online and, again, there are some real gems floating around out there.

Have you read this book, or other books by/about Darwin? Did you find any particular part of his journey especially fascinating?


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Publication information: Darwin, Charles. Voyage of the Beagle. New York: Penguin, 1989. Print.
Source: Used bookshop.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


Blood Red Snow White
by Marcus Sedgwick

October 8, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 0

sedgwick_brsw

★ ★ ★ ★

Blood Red Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick | October 2016 | Roaring Book Press | Hardcover $17.99

Russia wakes from a long sleep and marches to St Petersburg to claim her birthright. Her awakening will mark the end for the Romanovs, and the dawn of a new era that changed the world. Arthur Ransome, a journalist and writer, was part of it all. He left his family in England and fell in love with Russia and a Russian woman. This is his story.

First, let’s make something super clear: this is NOT any kind of fairy tale retelling, nor is it another popular YA fantasy/paranormal adventure/romance à la Cinder or Shadow and Bone. It’s actually a reprinting of a slightly fairy tale-themed historical fiction from nearly a decade ago. The redesigned cover is a little misleading, right? Well, never mind about that.

Now, let’s talk content: even though the marketing might be a little bit misleading, the actual story is totally worth reading. It’s based on the life of a real children’s book author, Arthur Ransome, with a focus on his fascination with Russian culture and his somewhat unwitting involvement in the Russian revolutions of the early 20th century. I’m in no way a Russian history “enthusiast” or whatever, but I did find this story incredibly fascinating after having learned a bit more about the country’s past in The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore, which I had the pleasure of reading earlier this year.

I actually jumped at the chance to read an ARC of the reprint because I read Midwinterblood by Sedgwick a year or two ago and ABSOLUTELY LOVED it. (But I didn’t review it here for some reason though?) Blood Red Snow White isn’t quite at the level of Midwinterblood, but it’s still pretty good and definitely worth reading if you’re into Russian culture/history, WWI-era Europe, or the classic children’s stories of Arthur Ransome.

Note: This book was provided at no cost to the reviewer by the publisher via Edelweiss.


Links:


Publication information: Sedgwick, Marcus. Blood Red Snow White. New York: Roaring Book Press, 2016. EPUB file.
Source: ARC provided by publisher via Edelweiss.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


Anne of Green Gables
by L. M. Montgomery

July 9, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 8

Montgomery_AOGG

★ ★ ★ ★ 

Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery | 1908, this ed. 2014 | Aladdin, an imprint of Simon & Schuster | Paperback $7.99

When Anne Shirley arrives at Green Gables, she surprises everyone: first of all, she’s a girl, even though Marilla Cuthbert and her brother Matthew specifically asked for an orphan boy to help around the farm. And second of all, she’s not just any girl: she has bright red hair, a wild imagination, and can talk a mile a minute. Anne has a temper as fiery as her hair and a knack for finding trouble, and she also has a big heart and a positive attitude that affects everyone she meets.

FIRST, I just have to fangirl for a minute over this gorgeous cover. *pets*

This was a re-read for me, although it’s been years since I read it last. To be honest, my memory of the book was a bit off! I remembered Anne as being an annoying, sickly-sweet character, and for some reason I imagined Marilla as a kind of villain?

Reading it again now as an adult, I found Marilla to be a much more sympathetic character. I did still find Anne a tiny bit annoying in some ways (all those giant wall-o-text ramblings, for instance), but she’s less of a Pollyanna than I remembered — not so much the eternal optimist, more like a little drama queen prone to rhapsodies of imagination and emotion.

I also enjoyed this book for its quality as a kind of snapshot in time. It is set in the Canadian Martimes in the early 20th century, and there are many interesting little historical details, like food and drink, rural public schooling, early feminism, and fashion of course — who can forget Anne’s obsession with puffed sleeves?

I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll read the rest of the series. I don’t think I ever read them before? But I am glad that I put this on my Classics Club list and tackled it this year for the Women’s Classic Literature Event.


Links:


Publication information: Montgomery, L. M. Anne of Green Gables. New York: Aladdin, 2014. Print.
Source: Purchased from Barnes & Noble.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


The Season
by Jonah Lisa and Stephen Dyer

June 10, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 1

Dyer_TheSeason

★ ★ ★ ★

The Season by Jonah Lisa Dyer and Stephen Dyer | July 2016 | Viking Children’s| Hardcover $17.99

She can score a goal, do sixty box jumps in a row, bench press a hundred and fifty pounds… but can she learn to curtsey?

Megan McKnight is a soccer star with Olympic dreams, but she’s not a girly girl. So when her Southern belle mother secretly enters in the 2016 Dallas debutante season, she’s furious — and has no idea what she’s in for. When Megan’s attitude gets her on probation with the mother hen of the debs, she’s got a month to prove she can ballroom dance, display impeccable manners, and curtsey like a proper Texas lady or she’ll get the boot and disgrace her family.

I received a copy from the publisher via Edelweiss for review.

This is a fun, modern take on Jane Austen’s timeless classic Pride and Prejudice. Highly recommended for fans of the popular YouTube series The Lizzie Bennett Diaries or Clueless, or just for anyone who likes contemporary YA fiction about spunky gals getting into trouble in improbable ways. And it would probably make a good beach/poolside choice, if you’re looking for a bit of cute summer reading.

This, for me, was a something of a palate cleanser between some brain-demanding nonfiction and a heavy duty fiction classic, so I worry that my view might be biased. I wanted something fun and quick and familiar, and this book delivered. But then, how impossible is it for a book review to not be biased in some way? So I’ll simply tell you that I enjoyed this book and let you decide for yourself whether or not you trust my opinion.

The Season is not a book that’s aiming to teach the reader big life lessons, nor is it one-of-a-kind as either a P&P re-telling or a contemporary YA romance (unless the reader is actually entirely ignorant of the story upon which it’s based, in which case I don’t think this book should serve as a replacement for the original). If you take Austen super seriously and couldn’t bare to see her beautiful prose defiled, give this one a miss. But if you think “Pride and Prejudice, but with disgustingly rich Texas cattle/oil barons and 21st century college kid mores” sounds like a good time to you, well, put this title on your to-read list!


Links:


Publication information: Dyer, Jonah Lisa and Stephen Dyer. The Season. New York: Viking Children’s, 2016. EPUB file.
Source: ARC provided by Publisher via Edelweiss.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.