Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Memory of After - Lenore Appelhans (also known as Level 2)

Goodreads: In this gripping exploration of a futuristic afterlife, a teen discovers that death is just the beginning.

Since her untimely death the day before her eighteenth birthday, Felicia Ward has been trapped in Level 2, a stark white afterlife located between our world and the next. Along with her fellow drones, Felicia passes the endless hours reliving memories of her time on Earth and mourning what she’s lost—family, friends, and Neil, the boy she loved.

Then a girl in a neighboring chamber is found dead, and nobody but Felicia recalls that she existed in the first place. When Julian—a dangerously charming guy Felicia knew in life—comes to offer Felicia a way out, Felicia learns the truth: If she joins the rebellion to overthrow the Morati, the angel guardians of Level 2, she can be with Neil again.

Suspended between Heaven and Earth, Felicia finds herself at the center of an age-old struggle between good and evil. As memories from her life come back to haunt her, and as the Morati hunt her down, Felicia will discover it’s not just her own redemption at stake… but the salvation of all mankind.


First of all I want to give thanks to PulseIt, which I recently joined.  I had wanted to get this up a little sooner to give people a chance to head over and read the book, but I've got a concert and audition this week so I'm a bit swamped.  PulseIt is part of Simon & Schuster, who put up an entire book for a week on the site!  Isn't that exciting?!  It also puts excerpts of books out as well, so definitely head over there and join!

I am so torn on this.  On the one hand the concept of the story is fantastic...on the other hand, the execution wasn't.  The best way to describe the concept is to say it's a little bit Matrix, a little Amber Spyglass, with a touch of ElsewhereI loved the tension that Appelhans builds by having Felicia access her memories - so we're experiencing the story in real time, with very little knowledge of Felicia's past.  The story is driven by having a protagonist with complex relationships with those in her past.  She's no Mary Sue - for most of the memories, particularly the earlier memories revealed, you are shown the girl who betrays her best friend, juxtaposed with the sweetness of her romance with Neil budding.  There are a lot of questions answered as the memories reveal new information...usually leading to even more questions.  Unfortunately, when the mysteries are "revealed" the explanations were meager and rushed.  Maybe she's going to address this in the next book, but I left the book feeling dissatisfied with the explanations I was given.

 Again, the idea behind this is just brilliant!  Unfortunately so much is just brushed over.  While Felicia's the mysteries and relationships in her past drive the story, the sci-fi aspect was much less interesting.  The real time was convoluted and I quickly lost interest.  I think the concept behind what was happening - rebel angels, afterlife, etc. is what drew me to the story in the first place.  It's a novel concept - it has clear inspirations from other stories (it even references Matrix in the book which made me laugh as I was starting to wonder if that's all this was going to be.  The author understood and addressed that with the one comment which I appreciated), but the concept is all it's own.  Unfortunately not enough time and depth was given to this storyline.  It is completely eclipsed by Felicia's past.  This could have been forgivable, but time needs to be taken especially during the ending.  The rebel angel explanations were confusing and while explained more than once, none of the explanations were very clear.  It forced the main character to do things for very little reason, and I would have like a little more depth to flesh out the situation.  It would have made the battle more epic (although admittedly it did have some pretty badass moments).  And then there was the ending.  I understand that there is a sequel, but this feels like an ending that could have been the end of the book, no series continuation.  It was rushed, and a  bit trite.  Again, if there had been more time taken with this, I would have had no problem with the way it ended.  It just wrapped up way too quickly, and way too neatly.   I can't really give a full critique for the ending as I don't want to ruin the ending for those of you who don't want to know, but I'm posting spoilers on a different blog with the rest of my critique so check it out if you don't care about knowing the ending!

I find it's hard to write how much I enjoyed and was frustrated by the book.  I feel as much as I vented about the book I am still not expressing just how annoyed I was with the ending (I literally fell asleep thinking about all the things I was going to write about how mad I was about this book).  At the same time I've spent very little time saying all the things I did like about the book - there were some I promise!  I think it's why I'm so annoyed - this book had the potential to be one of the best I've read all year, and in the end it was just ok.  It wasn't even a BAD book, I just expected it to be amazing.
To sum it up, this book IS a fun read.  It's absolutely heart-racing, but unfortunately the ending falls short.  If you want to read some suspenseful fluff (is that even a thing?) check it out at Pulseit - it's going to be online through the 28th!



Amber Spyglass Review                      Elsewhere Review       

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Mao's Last Dancer - Li Cunxin

From Goodreads:  

From a desperately poor village in northeast China, at age eleven, Li Cunxin was chosen by Madame Mao's cultural delegates to be taken from his rural home and brought to Beijing, where he would study ballet. In 1979, the young dancer arrived in Texas as part of a cultural exchange, only to fall in love with America-and with an American woman. Two years later, through a series of events worthy of the most exciting cloak-and-dagger fiction, he defected to the United States, where he quickly became known as one of the greatest ballet dancers in the world. This is his story, told in his own inimitable voice.


I had originally seen the movie based on this book when it came out a couple years ago (watch it - it will be well worth your while.  Not only is the story great - which we'll get to here - but the script and acting were very good and the dancing was phenomenal) and have been waiting anxiously to get my hands on the book, which I was FINALLY able to do a couple months ago.  Let me preface this by saying I don't read nonfiction normally.  I avoid it at all costs - I will read the occasional memoir or biography, but I can count the number of both genres combined on one hand.

Cunxin's insight into communist China as well as into the art of dance makes for an absolutely compelling read.  You start with a little background about his family before he was born and the opening bit of the book is devoted to his childhood before he was introduced into dance at the age of eleven.  The poverty he describes is beyond imagination.  Most first-world citizens will not be able to even come close to picturing the poverty that much of China (and much of the world even today) lived in.  Cunxin grows up in a small village.  He shared a tiny house with seven brothers, his parents, and grandmother.  There is no heat, and China reaches frigid temperatures much of the year.  School is devoted to teaching Mao's ideals (this is set a few years before Mao dies), meat is a luxury.  Even reading his descriptions and seeing some of the photos, it is literally beyond the realms of my imagination to dream up a situation as poor as his family was for generations.  At age 11 he is chosen to attend the Beijing Dance Academy, where he endured grueling 16-hour days.  Imagine everything you've heard about how challenging the dancers' lives are in New York or England or Australia.  Now imagine being 11 years-old, being physically stretched beyond your body's capabilities so that some student's are forever disabled.  These students are sent home in disgrace. Imagine being in an environment when one day your teacher is a renowned professor, then the next moment he is branded a traitor against Chairman Mao and forced into physical labor or prison.

Cunxin is finally able to escape this environment when he invited to work with the Houston Ballet Company.  When he comes to America he discovers that everything he has been taught in China about the outside world is a lie.  The rest of the book is devoted to his escape from China, dealing with the aftermath of a huge culture change as well as consequences for himself and for his family.  For almost a decade Cunxin didn't even know if his family had been murdered because of his defection.

I thought this story was amazing - to read how hard a person can push themselves to succeed and to see how far a human can come - it's really just mind boggling.  This isn't a work of fiction.  These things actually happened to real people, many of whom are still alive.  This story is only set a little over 30 years ago.  The writing is so descriptive, and the way everything is described is so foreign to everything I have experienced in life.  It is an absolute delight to read how Cunxin describes the world.  Even if you are not into nonfiction (like me) I highly recommend you read this book just so you can understand even a little of what goes on in some countries.   I would also recommend you watch the movie, which is a beautiful work of art.  It doesn't even matter which order you do either - they are both amazing stories.


Red Scarf Girl Review                     I Was A Dancer Review

Life on the Refrigerator Door - Alice Kuipers

Claire and her mother are running out of time, but they don't know it. Not yet. Claire is wrapped up with the difficulties of her bourgeoning adulthood--boys, school, friends, identity; Claire's mother, a single mom, is rushed off her feet both at work and at home. They rarely find themselves in the same room at the same time, and it often seems that the only thing they can count on are notes to each other on the refrigerator door. When home is threatened by a crisis, their relationship experiences a momentous change. Forced to reevaluate the delicate balance between their personal lives and their bond as mother and daughter, Claire and her mother find new love and devotion for one another deeper than anything they had ever imagined.


This story was told entirely told through small notes the mother and daughter left each other on the fridge.  I thought it was an interesting medium, and overall a touching story (but I am biased when it comes to the subject material.  I don't want to give too many spoilers, but it deals with cancer, something I've had a lot of experience with in the past few years.)  While it was a nice enough story, I found their relationship baffling.  The mother is a single-mother and a doctor, so it seems feasible that she's busy, but I can't imagine a mom not seeing her kid for multiple days in a row.  It seems like almost their entire conversations are done through these notes, not actually face to face or on the phone.  I don't come from a family like that, so maybe it isn't that strange, but it made me very frustrated!  What kind of mother doesn't know where her fifteen year-old kid is?  At times the story felt a bit contrived.  It felt like the story was trying to teach us a lesson, rather than letting us pick up on the subtleties and come to our own understanding.  Like even doctors get cancer, or are afraid/too busy to get their check ups.  Everyone should get check ups.  I thought that the story did a good job of showing the mother as a human, not a superhero, but unfortunately because the whole story was told through fridge notes, this came out as she leaned on her daughter.  Again I have experience in this matter, and I have learned a lot about the various strengths and flaws of my family through the experience, but the mom seems to stop being a mom in a lot of ways.  When a parent has cancer, yes you grow up quickly, but you don't take over all responsibilities.

Overall, it is a sweet story and a very quick read, but the book just tried too hard.

Firefly Lane Review                         Love That Dog Review

Monday, April 15, 2013

Tiger Lily - Jodi Lynn Anderson


Before Peter Pan belonged to Wendy, he belonged to the girl with the crow feather in her hair. . . .

Fifteen-year-old Tiger Lily doesn't believe in love stories or happy endings. Then she meets the alluring teenage Peter Pan in the forbidden woods of Neverland and immediately falls under his spell.

Peter is unlike anyone she's ever known. Impetuous and brave, he both scares and enthralls her. As the leader of the Lost Boys, the most fearsome of Neverland's inhabitants, Peter is an unthinkable match for Tiger Lily. Soon, she is risking everything—her family, her future—to be with him. When she is faced with marriage to a terrible man in her own tribe, she must choose between the life she's always known and running away to an uncertain future with Peter.

With enemies threatening to tear them apart, the lovers seem doomed. But it's the arrival of Wendy Darling, an English girl who's everything Tiger Lily is not, that leads Tiger Lily to discover that the most dangerous enemies can live inside even the most loyal and loving heart.

From the New York Times bestselling author of Peaches comes a magical and bewitching story of the romance between a fearless heroine and the boy who wouldn't grow up.


I am surprised this story is marketed for teens.  I know that retellings of children's stories and fairy tales are typically the young adult/teen genre, and there was no adult material that would have made it adult literature (that being said there is plenty of risque material in teen fiction these days), but the general feel and mood of the novel just doesn't belong in the teen section. The novel is primarily comprised of introspection and observation - there isn't much action.  I've found, generally speaking of course, that if a teen novel is introspective, it is mostly just very angsty, and this novel wasn't like that at all!  I do wish I had read Peter Pan more recently - it's definitely been over a decade since I read the book and probably close to a decade since I last watched the Disney version, so I have only some very vague recollections of the original storyline.

Even though the book isn't action packed like I would have expected from a story with Peter Pan and pirates involved, this isn't a dull story.  Anderson's writing is very beautiful and her insights into how humans interact emotionally and mentally are exquisite.  The whole novel is told through Tinkerbell's POV, which at first I found very odd since the reader is mostly attuned to Tiger Lily's thoughts.  Once I got used to it however, it was very effective.  Tinkerbell can't speak, but it is explained in the beginning of the book that because they don't have verbal communication, fairies are extremely attuned to thoughts and emotions.  This gives Tinkerbell a way to go in depth with Tiger Lily's thoughts, but at the same time she is often blocked out from them depending on how in control Tiger Lily is of her feelings.  It gives the reader an interesting combination of third person omniscient and first person - all filtered through the biased, if reliable, point of view of Tinkerbell.

I found Anderson's depictions of what it is like to fall in love for the first time, as well as how the relationship progresses, and how teenagers deal with each other throughout the whole ordeal very realistic.  Or at least significantly more realistic than much of what I'm reading in this genre at the moment.  Don't get me wrong, I'm as addicted to fantasy love fluff in the teen section as much as the next person, but it just doesn't have any substance to it.  This book is all about substance.  It deals with every possible type of relationship - family, society, love, friendship.  You name it, it's in the book.

Overall I loved the book.  It just wasn't what I was expecting, which is hardly the books fault (although perhaps somewhat the marketing people's fault).  I honestly believe this book is marketed to the wrong crowd, and I would have picked it up much sooner had I realized this.  I thought the depth of characters, especially with a darkness not found (to my memory) in Peter Pan, was fantastically well done.  The slow pacing of the book might not be for everyone, but again I think that is also fixed as people become aware that this book is not geared towards the people it is marketed for.  The main reason I am not giving it an A+ is because I still have mixed feelings on using Tinkerbell as the narrator.  While it gives the reader a larger yet more personal scope than using only third or first POV, it can be jarring at times, as well as the marketing issue (I know I am harping on this, but I think it is important that people come to this book without the preconceived notions I came to it with), but Anderson's characters more than make up for it.


Peter Pan Book Review                         Cinder Book Review

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Seamstress - Frances de Pontes Peebles


As seamstresses, the young sisters EmÍlia and Luzia dos Santos know how to cut, mend, and conceal—useful skills in the lawless backcountry of Brazil, where ruthless land barons feud with bands of outlaw cangaceiros, trapping innocent residents in the crossfire. EmÍlia, a naive romantic, dreams of falling in love with a gentleman and escaping to a big city. Quick-tempered Luzia also longs for escape, finding it in her craft and secret prayers to the saints she believes once saved her life. But when Luzia is abducted by cangaceiros led by the infamous Hawk and EmÍlia stumbles into a marriage with the son of a wealthy and politically powerful doctor, the sisters' quiet lives diverge in ways they never would have imagined.


 Set during the political upheaval of Brasil in the 1920s and 30s, this 600 page historical novel is absolutely riveting.  This is not a time or place in history I know much about, but despite my ignorance on the subject, the author never overwhelmed me with material, nor did my attention ever wane.  I thought it was absolutely brilliant that the sisters were separated so that we saw both the upperclass and the cangaceiros of Brasil.  They are set as foils to each other throughout the whole novel, really fleshing out their bond that transcends distance and class, as well as women's living situation between the classes.  The author's descriptions of the climate - especially the desert is extremely vivid.  Sometimes the plot can get away when authors take the time to spend a lot of detail on landscapes, but in this book it really brought enhanced all the other mechanics of the book.  It is an extremely well written novel, one that I recommend highly.  

The Seamstress is actually a real woman, and I believe (I might be wrong, I couldn't find it online) Emilia may have been a real woman too, although not linked to The Seamstress in real life.  The book deals with a lot of political issues of the time - the end of the cangaceiros, the creation of the rail road, women's voting rights, and lgbt issues.  This book is one of the best researched historical novels I've ever read, and it really shows with its very realistic feel. 


  Book Review                                    Book Review

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name - Vendela Vida


Far, far north, sitting above the Arctic Circle, Lapland is a world made of ice; a place both foreign and perilous that unexpectedly lures New Yorker Clarissa Iverton from what had finally become a comfortable life. At 14, her mother disappeared. Now 28, and just days after the death of her father, Clarissa discovers that he wasn't her father after all, and the only clues to her true heritage are a world away. Abandoning her fiancé, she flies to Helsinki, seeking to uncover the secrets her mother kept for so long. While piecing together the fragments of her mother's mysterious past, Clarissa is led to the Sami, Lapland's native "reindeer people," who dwell in a stark and frozen landscape, under the northern lights. It is there that she must summon the courage to confront an unbearable truth, and the violent act that ties her to this ancient people.


This was one of the most beautifully written books I've ever read.  The prose was descriptive, but concise (it often reminded me of Hemingway).  Some readers may have a hard time with this book because while Clarissa has tragic circumstances, she is not always the most likeable character.  Her decisions may rub the reader the wrong way.  That being said, I found the complicated emotional ties to her family as well as the mystery in her connection to the Sami people very compelling.  I have seen Vida's writing described as "Spartan", and I think this is true in every sense of the word (all in good ways).  Vida uses every word to its fullest impact, the chapters are very short, and while there is a lot of angst involved, the plot is always moving forward and keeping the reader's interest with it.  I also appreciated that despite the angst, Vida never overdoes it - I can't stand to read pages and pages of whiny dialogue (a la Interview With The Vampire).  When you finish this book, you will need to take a moment to digest it, most likely followed by an urge to reach out to your family.


Readers interested in northern natives, good literature, and interesting prose.


Book Review                              Book Review

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Interview With The Vampire - Anne Rice


Here are the confessions of a vampire. Hypnotic, shocking, and chillingly erotic, this is a novel of mesmerizing beauty and astonishing force–a story of danger and flight, of love and loss, of suspense and resolution, and of the extraordinary power of the senses. It is a novel only Anne Rice could write.

(Not really many plot synopses on this out there - but if you somehow DON'T know what it's about, wikipedia has a very detailed synopsis - lots of spoilers though)


I just found this...disturbing.  And boring.  I had a flight where all I had with me was this and The Virgin Suicides - needless to say it was a very, very long flight.  I can count the number of books I haven't finished on one hand - this is one of them.  The other is The Silmarillion (which I WILL finish someday! I refuse to let it beat me!).  So take this review with a grain of salt - perhaps things spiced up after I gave up on the book.  The story is very slow paced.  I usually appreciate detailed descriptions, but man, listening to Louis narrate is like listening to an angsty teenage boy...for 400. Whole. Pages.  I had a hard time reading some of the more graphic violent scenes - something that surprised me as I wholeheartedly approve of scary vampires, but I suppose I don't like vampires enough to stomach it.  Most disturbing to me was the really weird relationship between Claudia, Lestat, and especially Louis.  I get that she became a woman trapped in a child's body but...it was a little too...sketch for me.  Between the long winded prose, an unlikeable character, an icky child-woman/man relationship, and a general disinterest in vampires (I know, I know I was reading a book that is almost 400 pages about vampires), there was nothing to interest me, and I'd already been through the torture of The Virgin Suicides.  Needless to say, clearly this book wasn't for me.  This is not to say it isn't for everyone - I did appreciate that Rice didn't flinch from a more gothic view of vampires, and the history is interesting.  And if you like vampires, you should really read the book that inspired the more modern view of vampires.


I mean, if you totally dig vampires, this series is a classic.  Again, this is another book to read to see what all the hype was about.  Read it if you've seen the movie and want to know about the book...but if you are interested in seeing what Anne Rice is like, I really don't think this novel displays her strongest writing style.