Posts Tagged: 4 stars

Tess of the d’Urbervilles
by Thomas Hardy

November 30, 2014 Book Reviews, Books 0

Hardy_Tess
★ ★ ★ ★
Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy | 1912, Wessex edition (Barnes & Noble Classics edition 2005) | Barnes & Noble Books | Paperback $7.95

When Tess Durbeyfield is driven by family poverty to claim kinship with the wealthy D’Urbervilles and seek a portion of their family fortune, meeting her ‘cousin’ Alec proves to be her downfall. A very different man, Angel Clare, seems to offer her love and salvation, but Tess must choose whether to reveal her past or remain silent in the hope of a peaceful future.

Just in time for the Classic Club’s “Victorian Literature” theme for November!

Confession time: this book has been toted around in my bag and moved from end table to end table and desk drawer to desk drawer since… July or August? Shameful! But last month a patron at the library where I work stopped by the Reference Desk to ask about our Thomas Hardy offerings, and I mentioned that I had started on Tess — and she said she’d be back to ask what I thought of it, so I thought I’d better do my librarian duty and finish this book!

The season developed and matured. Another year’s installment of flowers, leaves, nightingales thrushes, finches, and such ephemeral creatures, took up their positions where only a year ago others had stood in their place when these were nothing more than germs and inorganic particles. Rays from the sunrise drew forth the buds and stretched them into long stalks, lifted up sap in noiseless streams, opened petals, and sucked out scents in invisible jets and breathings.

I’ve not read any other Thomas Hardy works before, so this book was an entirely new experience for me. More importantly, I was totally unfamiliar with the story. I know, I know — how does a confessed bookaholic (a librarian no less) make it to her late 20’s without knowing a single thing about this classic story?! In any case, once I chose to read it I decided to make a valiant effort to avoid spoilers. Miraculously, I managed to be surprised by the ending of this over-a-century-old book.

Even if I hadn’t known it from the start, I think I could easily tell that this was written in the Victorian time period — not just because of the technology level (horses’n’buggies, etc.) but because of the general style of the prose and dialogue. It reminded me in many ways of the tone or style of Gaskell’s North and South, though TBQH I enjoyed Tess much more than my previous try at Victorian lit.

I think I enjoyed Tess more than North and South primarily because it didn’t seem quite as preachy, even though it does clearly have some sort of moral lesson to impart to the reader. I also fell a little bit in love with Hardy’s poetic descriptions and… well, I don’t know if rumination is exactly the word I’m looking for, but that’s what comes to mind. I’ve even added some favorite quotes to this review, which I’ve never been tempted to bother with before. Clearly, I ought to try out some of Hardy’s poetry in the near future.

Modern life stretched out its steam feeler to this point three or four times a day, touched the native existences, and quickly withdrew its feeler again, as if what it touched had been uncongenial.

Yes, Tess was quite bleak — not just tragic, as expected, but outright depressing. It was comparatively feminist-humanist in a time when even Queen Victoria herself thought such ideas were folly, which is unavoidably part of the tragedy for my rather liberal modern self.

The poor girl is beset by 2 men who can’t seem to see her as an actual person. The first, seeing her as an object to be won or a plaything to be toyed with, ruins (well, “ruins”) her physically. The second sees her as some sort of idealized figure, a maiden on a pedestal to be worshiped for her natural purity (again, let me employ some sarcasm-quotes: “purity”) and to be made into a worthy wife. The worst of all this is that our titular character isn’t a weak shell of a woman, content to let the winds of fate make her life for her; alas, said winds of fate blow too hard for our fair protagonist to fight them. When she first rebuffs the first man and then disappoints the second, her life accelerates on a downward spiral from which she never recovers.

Tess had drifted into a frame of mind which accepted passively the consideration that if she should have to burn for what she had done, burn she must, and there was an end of it.

This story is about oppression, double standards, and the cruelty of pitting strict social rules against the realities of nature. Tess Durbeyfield is essentially a sacrifice to the small god of Victorian values and progress.

I must confess that I might not have made it through this book without the generous footnotes, endnotes, and comments. Some of the rural dialect was a bit confusing and I’m not particularly familiar with most of the artists, philosophers, and poets referred to throughout the book. All of the little “extras” in this edition were produced by David Galef.

I haven’t seen any film adaptations of the story yet, but I understand that the BBC/PBS made-for-television version is pretty good and faithful to the book.


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Publication information: Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the d’Urbervilles. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2005. Print.
Source: Galveston Bookshop
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


Child of a Hidden Sea
by A.M. Dellamonica

July 12, 2014 Book Reviews, Books 0

Dellamonica_ChildofaHiddenSea
★ ★ ★ ★

Child of a Hidden Sea by A.M. Dellamonica | June 2014 | Tor Books | Hardcover $25.99

One minute, twenty-four-year-old Sophie Hansa is in a San Francisco alley trying to save the life of the aunt she has never known. The next, she finds herself flung into the warm and salty waters of an unfamiliar world. The world is Stormwrack, a series of island nations with a variety of cultures and economies — and a language different from any Sophie has heard.

Sophie doesn’t know it yet, but she has just stepped into the middle of a political firestorm, and a conspiracy that could destroy a world she has just discovered… her world, where everyone seems to know who she is, and where she is forbidden to stay.

This review is based on an e-ARC provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

When I wrote about A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (from my Classics Club list), I said that I thought of it as “old style” fantasy — but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what, exactly, I actually meant by that. After reading Child of a Hidden Sea by A.M. Dellamonica (and an Anne McCaffrey book that I’ll review tomorrow), I think I might finally be able to put my thoughts into words.

But first, let’s get the obvious out of the way: yes, Wizard and Child share a remarkably similar setting (primarily ocean with lots of scattered islands) and magic system (name-based). I’m pretty sure that was intentional on the part of Dellamonica. She’s actually open to questions on Goodreads until the end of July, so I took the opportunity to ask specifically about this — I’ll update this post if she answers!

Edited to add —
The answer is: No, actually, Dellamonica hasn’t had a chance to read any Earthsea books yet! Well, I bet she might like them. Plus, she shared some pretty interesting-looking recs (hit that link to see them). Maybe it is true what they say about great minds… ?

So: old vs. new style fantasy. What does that mean?

There are two parts to this, IMHO. The first part is prose style. Does the author use lots of flowery, nearly poetic language, and does he/she actually include some poetry or fantasy-flavored songs? Or is the prose more casual, with perhaps less focus on the package than on the content? And what about POV — is this a tale that’s being woven by a storyteller, or are we riding along with the characters as the plot unfolds?

The second thing that can influence whether a fantasy feels “old” or “new” has to do with intention and tone. Is the reader meant to glean some kind of life lesson or philosophical point from the book, or is the focus all on the characters/action/world-building? Does the book have an air of serious literature, something to be thoughtfully savored? Or is this the sort of book that one might pack for entertainment on the long plane trip to ComicCon?

The quintessential “old” fantasy is, I think, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein. Contrast that with, say, the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson as an example of “new” fantasy. Compare C.S. Lewis’s Narnia (old) to Tamora Pierce’s Tortall or to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld (both new). These are all so-called high fantasy stories, but they’re quite distinct reading experiences.

That’s not to say that there can’t be some nuance or gray area here. The Redwall series by Brian Jacques was published fairly recently, time-wise, and it does have some elements of the new style (lots of action and entertainment value), but overall I think it fits in with the old style stuff (plenty of poetry/singing/riddles, often morality-heavy, very little in the way of casual modern language). Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time books are similarly difficult to pin down — but in the end, I think the multiple intimate POVs and the insanely detailed settings tip it to the side of the new style.

Child of a Hidden Sea fits very clearly into the new style. Comparisons to A Wizard of Earthsea can only ever be superficial because the reading experiences are so different. Where Wizard needs to be read attentively, maybe in small doses in order to absorb each lovingly crafted piece of the story, Child was, for me, a quick and happy binge-read. The focus in Dellamonica’s book is on Sophie Hansa’s accidental adventure and her relationships with other characters and the really interesting new world around her, as opposed to Wizard‘s rather more poetic focus on Ged’s coming of age and acceptance of his magically projected inner darkness.

As for an actual review of Child of a Hidden Sea: I quite liked it, and will probably purchase it for our library. The characters could perhaps use a little more sculpting and polishing, but I think the fantastic world-building and nearly continuous action (not a slow spot in this book!) more or less make up for that. As always, I’m a sucker for an interesting to world to explore. The fact that the inhabitants of this new world actually seem aware of the “real” world (even if it is some sort of state secret) adds to the mystery of how/why Stormwrack exists.

I’m interested in the intended sequel(s) because I want to know more about the politics and ecology of Stormwrack; what happens to Sophie and her brother and their new-found family/friends is also of interest but not my main concern! I could definitely relate to the main character’s obsession with the wildlife and social structure of her unexpected home world. I halfway wish that the entire book had been devoted just to her explorations and evidence/specimen gathering. Ah, well.


Links:


Publication information: Dellamonica, A.M. Child of a Hidden Sea. New York: Tor, 2014. EPUB file.
Source: Provided by publisher via NetGalley.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


A Wizard of Earthsea
by Ursula K. Le Guin

July 2, 2014 Book Reviews, Books 0

LeGuin_Earthsea

★ ★ ★ ★

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin | 1968 (Bantam edition 1980) | Bantam Books (an imprint of Random House) | This edition out of print

Ged, the greatest sorcerer in all Earthsea, was called Sparrowhawk in his reckless youth. Hungry for power and knowledge, Sparrowhawk tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. This is the tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an ancient dragon, and crossed death’s threshold to restore the balance.

I’m afraid I don’t have much to say about this story, which is too bad because I think that it really does deserve all the praise it has garnered over the years. This brief review is due to a lack of extreme feeling and ineloquence on my part rather than to a lack of merit on the part of the book.

This is a tight little character/lesson-focused fantasy in what I think of as the “old style” — this is a little difficult for me to define in my current state of mind, but I’m reading a recently published fantasy book with a very similar setting right now, so I hope to write a little more about what I think of as “old” and “new” SFF when I get around to reviewing this more recent title.

I was reminded of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, both series that I loved as a kid (and still do). This book, like those, seems to written primarily for older children with the intention of delivering difficult life lessons disguised — successfully, actually — as fantastic adventures. It isn’t that children are too stupid to know how to figure out the moral of a story. No, it’s just that if the plot is paced well and the characters are sympathetic and the prose is nearly perfectly sculpted, it doesn’t feel so much likethe kind of “morality bludgeoning” that can ruin an otherwise lovely tale.

I do wish I’d read this book as a young teen. It’s exactly the sort of thing that I’d have devoured over and over again. After all, the whole point of the story is self-discovery and defeating one’s own demons (um, spoiler alert?), which are exactly the sorts of books that I couldn’t get enough of at that age. Alas! I’m putting off reading the rest of the Earthsea books indefinitely. I do think I want to try some more Le Guin books in the future, though. Can you believe I hadn’t tried any before now? How could I call myself a true SFF fan?!?!


Links:


Publication information: Le Guin, Ursula K. A Wizard of Earthsea. New York: Bantam, 1980. Print.
Source: Galveston Bookshop
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


The Monkey’s Voyage
by Alan de Queiroz

January 29, 2014 Book Reviews, Books 0

deQueiroz_MonkeysVoyage

★ ★ ★ ★

The Monkey’s Voyage: How Improbable Journeys Shaped the History of Life by Alan de Queiroz | January 2014 | Basic Books | Hardcover $27.99

Throughout the world, closely related species are found on landmasses separated by wide stretches of ocean. What explains these far-flung distributions? Why are species found where they are across the Earth?

Since the discovery of plate tectonics, scientists have long conjectured that plants and animals were scattered over the globe by riding pieces of ancient supercontinents as they broke up. In the past decade, however, that theory has foundered, as the genomic revolution has made reams of new genetic data available. And the data has revealed an extraordinary, stranger-than-fiction story that has sparked a scientific revolution.

I found The Monkey’s Voyage surprisingly amusing; the narrative “feel” of it makes it appropriate for casual reading as well as academic. It reads as though one is having a nice discussion with someone who is clearly well-versed in his subject but who can’t hide his amicable humor — or, in some instances, his sharp snark. I don’t know the author personally, obviously, but this book makes a nice contrast to those cases (all-too-common in science writing) where the author seems to be impatiently talking down to or obliviously over the head of the reader, or where the story could be quite interesting if only the voice that was telling it wasn’t so dry and robotic.

Alan de Queiroz’s first full book serves as a kind of primer on biogeography, the study of the distribution of species across our planet (or the “analysis of the spatial distributions of organisms” if you want to get fancy). Well, perhaps it isn’t so much a primer — though the author does patiently explain some of the basic concepts of the field — as a sort of history of the development of biogeography as a science, like a narrative tour of sorts.

My impression is that The Monkey’s Voyage is written for a semi-scientific audience, by which I mean one should definitely already be familiar with the basics of ecology and evolutionary biology but needn’t be a professional in the field. Certain unavoidable terms (vicariance, dispersal, taxon, cladistics, etc.) are briefly and nicely explained, but a quick familiarity is definitely expected of the reader. Maps and charts and things aid understanding, if you can decipher them.

Bits of snark make for an amusing, if not entirely neutral, read (though the author never claims neutral ground). My favorite example of this can be found on pages 89-90, in an examination of Gary Nelson and Norm Platnick’s particularly enthusiastic insistence on a certain point of view: “It’s a grand vision for humanity, placing us within the great story of the fragmentation of the world’s biotas through continental drift. It’s an epitome of the Croizatian vision that ‘Earth and life evolve together.’ It’s . . . [page turn] . . . also completely looney.”

I’d recommend this for those who are curious about biogeography (obviously) as well as those who might like a somewhat idiosyncratic glimpse of some of the less-than-gentlemanly “feuds” that can erupt between scientists when their major hypotheses are at odds.


Links:


Publication information: de Queiroz, Alan. The Monkey’s Voyage: How Improbable Journeys Shaped the History of Life. New York: Basic Books, 2013. Print.
Source: I received a free copy of this book from Basic Books via a Goodreads
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


Boxers and Saints
by Gene Luen Yang

January 18, 2014 Book Reviews, Books 0

Yang_Boxers Yang_Saints
★ ★ ★ ★

Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang | September 2013 | First Second (an imprint of Macmillan) | Boxed set $34.99

In two volumes, Boxers and Saints tells two parallel stories. The first is of Little Bao, a Chinese peasant boy whose village is abused and plundered by Westerners claiming the role of missionaries. Little Bao, inspired by visions of the Chinese gods, joins a violent uprising against the Western interlopers. Against all odds, their grass-roots rebellion is successful.

But in the second volume, Yang lays out the opposite side of the conflict. A girl whose village has no place for her is taken in by Christian missionaries and finds, for the first time, a home with them. As the Boxer Rebellion gains momentum, Vibiana must decide whether to abandon her Christian friends or to commit herself fully to Christianity.

I recommend that you read Boxers and Saints together. Though the stories are fictional, and do include some fantasy elements, I still think I learned more about China during this time period than I ever did in history class at school — probably because I kept feeling compelled to look things up as I read!

Despite the really difficult subject matter, I think the author did a great job of keeping the story perfectly “age appropriate” … that is, not for little kids but not at grad dissertation level either. The atrocities of war and what it can do to otherwise normal, relatable people — particularly in a “civil” war — are not glossed over, but are presented clearly in lovingly illustrated but unflinchingly realistic fashion (despite the bits of fantasy and the usual narrative license you get from historical fiction, I guess). Maybe I’m getting a little overenthusiastic with my adjectives, but I’m not sure how else to describe what I mean.

Definitely recommended for folks interested in war histories and/or the history of China, those who want to try graphic novels but who aren’t tempted by the popular superhero stories, and readers who are willing to face the philosophical difficulties of human nature.


Links:


Publication information: Yang, Gene Luen. Boxers. New York: First Second Books, 2013. Print.; Yang, Gene Luen. Saints. New York: First Second Books, 2013. Print.
Source: Public library
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


The Girl of Fire and Thorns
by Rae Carson

January 6, 2014 Book Reviews, Books 0

Carson_GOFAT Carson_CrownofEmbers Carson_BitterKingdom
★ ★ ★ ★

The Girl of Fire and Thorns, The Crown of Embers, and The Bitter Kingdom by Rae Carson | Greenwillow (an imprint of HarperCollins) | 2011 – 2013 | Hardcover $17.99

Once a century, one person is chosen for greatness. Elisa is the chosen one. But she is also the younger of two princesses, the one who has never done anything remarkable. She can’t see how she ever will.

Now, on her sixteenth birthday, she has become the secret wife of a handsome and worldly king — a king whose country is in turmoil. A king who needs the chosen one, not a failure of a princess. And he’s not the only one who seeks her. Savage enemies seething with dark magic are hunting her. A daring, determined revolutionary thinks she could be his people’s savior. And he looks at her in a way that no man has ever looked at her before. Soon it is not just her life, but her very heart that is at stake.

Elisa could be everything to those who need her most. If the prophecy is fulfilled. If she finds the power deep within herself. If she doesn’t die young.

Most of the chosen do.

I really liked the first book in this series, The Girl of Fire and Thorns. There’s quite a lot of action from start to finish, which I think makes up for the slower character development… or in some cases complete lack of development, but if you’re looking for a quick-paced YA high-ish fantasy, this is it. My main beef was with the religious/magic system, which seems to be based on some combo of Catholicism and some kind of pink-toy-aisle idea of sparkly things = power… shiny gemstones implanted in your belly button make you special? Really? But I know I’m being a grumpy cynic here, and a little eye-rolling over this doesn’t really affect my enjoyment of the book all THAT much, so whatevs.

The Crown of Embers is pretty strong second installment… and I’m always a little wary of YA trilogies, because it is so so so easy for the second book to be nothing more than exposition/set-up for the 3rd book, but thankfully that was not the case for this one! It had enough action and character growth to stand up for itself, I think.

The Bitter Kingdom is a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy, with plenty of little twists and turns to keep the reader guessing but ultimately gratifying. Still plenty of space for a continuation of the series, too, should the author decide to try it (or space for the reader to let her imagination run free, should she feel so inclined).

Let’s get real for a minute: the series as a whole is just a little hokey, honestly. I mean, the entire thing revolves around a princess with a magical gemstone in her belly button for heaven’s sake. But it’s all super fun anyway if the reader can just get over it. Reminded me of Tamora Pierce’s Alanna stories.

That said — and I’m not the only one who’s noticed this, based on Goodreads reviews — Carson could have used a way more thorough editor for this series! I try to be forgiving because, hey, mistakes happen, and the story is strong enough to draw me in anyway, but all the little mistakes really started to add up!

Actually, I found myself wishing that the books were done as a full-fledged series rather than “just” a trilogy. Glowing belly jewels aside, I think the story and the world it’s built in could easily have been expanded (and in some ways refined) into multiple huge volumes… but maybe that’s just me.


Links:


Publication information: Carson, Rae. The Girl of Fire and Thorns. New York: Greenwillow Books, 2011. Print. ; Carson, Rae. The Crown of Embers. New York: Greenwillow Books, 2012. Print. ; Carson, Rae. The Bitter Kingdom. New York: Greenwillow Books, 2013. Print.
Source: Public library
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


Rose Under Fire
by Elizabeth Wein

September 8, 2013 Book Reviews, Books 0

Wein_RoseUnderFire
★ ★ ★ ★

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein | Disney Hyperion | September 2013 | Hardcover $17.99

While flying an Allied fighter plane from Paris to England, American ATA pilot and amateur poet, Rose Justice, is captured by the Nazis and sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious women’s concentration camp. Trapped in horrific circumstances, Rose finds hope in the impossible through the loyalty, bravery and friendship of her fellow prisoners. But will that be enough to endure the fate that’s in store for her?

The author of best-selling WWII thriller Code Name Verity has produced another work of the same impressive quality. Fans of Verity will find Rose Under Fire very much to their liking.

Rose Under Fire is the dairy style first-person narrative of Rose, a young American woman who is working for the war effort in England during the 2nd World War.

She flies military planes as a transport pilot; though women at the time were not allowed to be actual fighter pilots or bomb droppers, moving planes and occasionally people from one Allied airfield to another was considered a relatively safe job for them. Of course, this occupation still involved some definite dangers, like malfunctioning equipment and rough weather conditions — not to mention the bombs that rained down on Britain in a near-constant storm of explosive destruction.

The book is split into two parts. The first is a diary of a young woman who is far from home in a war-torn land, who experiences fear and thrills and romance and grief and every other kind of thing you might expect a person in her situation to experience. Rose is brave and perhaps a little overenthusiastic, but she’s certainly a relatable character. She’s an aspiring poet and her poems add a special something to this book-as-journal interpretation of her story. Everything seems normal, or at least as normal as an expat wartime pilot girl can expect… until Rose crash lands behind enemy lines.

The second part of the book is told primarily in retrospect, as Rose remembers and comes to grips with her experiences at the Ravensbrück concentration camp prior to escape and rehabilitation in Paris. This is some real punch-in-the-gut stuff, made all the more startling by being based on actual historical events. Our protagonist meets girls and women who have been experimented on and horribly abused by Nazi guards. Rose herself is soon subject to the kinds of cruelties that are so astonishing that the real concentration camp survivors upon whose own experiences this part of the story is based were accused of exaggeration or outright lies even by their rescuers. Rose struggles to heal, both physically and psychologically, as she relives her POW experience and tries to reclaim her own life.

Though powerful in its treatment of WWII Nazi atrocities, this book isn’t exactly a tear-jerker. Recommended as a companion read for The Diary of a Young Girl (The Diary of Anne Frank) or for folks interested in realistic early-mid 20th century historical fiction.


Links:

This is a partial draft version of a full review that was submitted for publication to the Galveston Daily News in October 2013. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer.

Publication information: Wein, Elizabeth. Rose Under Fire. New York: Hyperion, 2013. Print.
Source: Public library
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.