Friday, March 28, 2014

[Review] Hope's Rebellion by Jade Varden

Rating: 3 Stars
Genre: YA dystopia
Synopsis: In a world that favors light hair and discriminates dark as a means a social status, three girls growing up in three different circumstances form a friendship.

First and foremost, I am a bit torn between softening down a review for the sake of a struggling writer or just plowing through like I would for any book, popular and well-known or not. However, for the sake of the writer and the readers, I will do my best to be as honest as possible.

Let me say that this is my first time reviewing a self-published book (and one that was requested) I can say with some certainty that this book has not been professionally edited. If it has, Jade Varden you're not getting your money's worth because there are some very obvious grammar/spelling issues. There are also some transition issues. It's hard to tell how much time has passed between each scene until ages are talked about, and the scene switch itself seems to change abruptly and without notice. There definitely needs to be some indication of time passage at the beginning of each skip.

Overall, I think it that the prose itself flows pretty well, much better than some of the other YA of the same vein that I have read. I really have no complaints in that department. Also, I like that there is a focus on female friendships, which you really don't see very often for some reason. It's too bad that it feels like they're friends because of circumstance and not because they have any genuine interest in one another. They hang out, but I feel like none of them actually really knows one another until the end.

The genre is dystopia, though one wouldn't know it with soldiers walking around with breastplates and helmets. Usually dystopias are placed in the future (it took some time for me to ascertain that this story was indeed taking place in the future and not some alternate universe) and explore how the pressing issues of modern day social problems will play out if they are to continue (a.k.a global warming, materialism, genetic manipulation, government thought control etc). Somehow I don't see hair color discrimination factoring into the future since it obviously doesn't factor into the present. Personally if I was going to write about shade discrimination I would've gone for the elephant in the room, skin color, but I guess that's not some faraway future, that's reality. I mean, I guess hair color is supposed to an allegory for color discrimination, but still... something about it rubs me the wrong way.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

[Review] Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder

Rating: 2 Stars
Genre: YA-Fantasy
Synopsis: A teenage girl about to be executed gets a second chance at life as a poison taster.

I really thought I would love this book and get hooked onto this series. During the first few chapters, I thought I would spend the rest of the week with dark circles under my eyes trying to read everything, but unfortunately that didn't turn out to be the case.

All in all, there isn't really anything too bad about the series. The heroine is pretty awesome. The whole poison taster acrobat angle is definitely a new one for me. She has a tragic past without whining about it. She is attracted to men without throwing herself on them and wailing bitterly whenever they aren't paying attention to her. Every male in the series is not slobbering at her feet. When she's in trouble, her immediate thought is not for someone to rescue her. She does not feel entitled to anything except basic human rights, and even those, she'll bargain for.

So why did the book feel so long? Why did her character still seem flat? Is it because she actually has little to no flaws? Is it because every part of her is a good and hardworking person? Maybe it's that her extremely traumatic past doesn't actually manifest itself into her personality in the least? Okay, given, she does seem like a person who had been oppressed to such an extent that her first and foremost thought will always be in on survival, but where's her resentment and bitterness?

Isn't it normal for a sixteen year old girl whose life had been completely destroyed and then redestroyed to be a little temperamental? Everything she says and does bears no ill-will and no bad intentions. At some points, she makes Valek, the cold-hearted assassin seem emotional and petty. He literally has to push her to the point of breaking to get a reaction, and even then, she bounces back pretty quickly as if being betrayed by the only person she was beginning to trust was only worth a few day's worth of brooding.

So let's get to Valek the love interest that you don't really expect to be the love interest, which is actually pretty awesome twist. We don't even get a description of him the first time we meet him. He's deadly, smart, agile, mysterious, and can't be trusted, A+ love interest right?

But first. How old... is Valek exactly? Let's do some math. Yikes.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

[Review] Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin

"The darkness and silence of the church pressed on him, cold as judgment, and the voices crying from the window might have been crying from another world. John moved forward, hearing his feet crack against the sagging wood, to where the golden cross on the red field of the altar cloth glowed like smothered fire, and switched on one weak light."
Rating: 5 Stars
Genre: Literary fiction, Modern fiction, African-American literature
Timeline: Early to mid 1900's
Synopsis: An honest portrayal of a black family living in New York. Every single member of the Grimes family struggles with their faith as they face the inhumanity of living in a violently racist world.

This book is like a work of art. You have to experience it a few times to even begin to truly appreciate the complex humanity that Baldwin has poured into his prose. Like many modernist works, there is a fragmentary cohesiveness in the way the story is told. At once broken yet fluid, I found myself startlingly aware of my own heartbeat as I was reading.

I think there is something to the rhythm of his words, which isn't surprising since Baldwin was a great enthusiast of jazz. There is a flow that carries you along even if you find yourself wavering over the subject matter. The story is foremost about John's internal struggle over his place and identity in a world that forces him to choose between being a sinner or a saint. Because he struggles with his own sexuality (Baldwin was also gay), and because he bears resentment against his abusive step-father who is revered at church, John becomes alienated from the Christ-centered community that he is brought up in. For himself, he sees no hope of redemption or salvation.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

[Review] An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments written by Ali Almossawi, illustrated by Alejandro Giraldo

Read it for free here:

Rating: 4-stars
Genre: Nonfiction-Philosophy, Nonfiction-Reference
Synopsis: An illustrated book of rhetorical arguments.
Do you know what's awesome about this book? It has pictures. How many philosophy books have cute adorable pictures? Hardly any. Did I mention that it's free? This book is a good brush up of terminology for those who have studied logic or logical fallacies.

There isn't really much to say or review about this book. It's short, the book is not really for children. If you have never studied the art of argument before, the terminology and dissection of definitions might be hard to follow. Philosophy books tend to have their own style of explaining things that is extremely concise, but not particularly friendly to the average reader. You can certainly get the book for your child, but they would probably struggle with the actual text of the book, even if the pictures are perfectly understandable. Click Read more for an example.

Friday, March 14, 2014

[Review] The Zahir by Paulo Coelho (trans. Margaret Jull Costa)

"No one should ever ask themselves that: Why am I unhappy? The question carries within it the virus that will destroy everything. If we ask that question, it means we want to find out what makes us happy. If what makes us happy is different from what we have now, then we must either change once and for all or stay as we are, feeling even more unhappy."
Rating: 2 Stars
Genre: Literary Fiction
Setting: Somewhere between Milan and Paris
Timeline: Close enough to present day
Synopsis: A successful author's life disappears. He looks for her, and along the way makes some discoveries about love and life.

The synopsis of the book is rather misleading. It appears on the surface to be a love story, but it's actually one of those inspirational stories about spirituality that doesn't make as much sense as the characters want you to believe. Yes, there is a lot of moaning and groaning from the narrator about how much he loves his wife and how much he obsesses over her for every second of his waking life (even though he is a serial adulterer), but the wife seemed more like a plot device for the narrator's self-discovery than an actual autonomous character. For one, she is missing throughout almost all of the book, only appearing in random flashbacks when it is most convenient for the narrator to make some supposedly poignant observation about humanity's many flaws.

I mean, look at the cover of this book. Beautiful right? Check out that subtitle, "a novel of obsession". HMMM, let's think about that one for a second. Who is the narrator obsessed with? His wife? Well he certainly seems to think so. He calls his wife the Zahir.

Now what in the world is a Zahir? Well, some may be familiar with the Islamic concept of zahir, but the zahir that Coelho's protagonist is obsessing over has little to nothing to do with the Quran, but with a short story with the same title by Jorge Luis Borges. How do I know this? Three reasons, the first being that he quotes Borges in the beginning of the novel; the second reason is because Coelho releases another book called Aleph, another Borges story, that is the conceptual polar opposite of the zahir. And finally, the third reason is because of the whole obsession theme (if you read the original short story you will know what I mean).

Monday, March 10, 2014

[Review] The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

"The only solution was to try to unmake the world, to make it black and silent and uninhabited again, to return to the moment before the Big Bang, in the beginning when there was the Word, and to live in that vacuous uncreated space alone with the Word."
Rating: 5 Stars
Genre: YA, Contemporary Romance
Setting: 2000's
Synopsis: Prodigious cancer teens fall in love.

I didn't want to like this book. Don't ask me why, but since the beginning I had already braced myself against for an endless stream of maudlin and sentimental drivel simply because people quoted all the sappy parts nonstop. It's that one book that people assault you with and you don't really get why. So I expected to hate it. But I didn't. Dear God I loved it. Okay, it wasn't perfect and some moments had me raising my eyebrow going what the hell John Green (why do boys expect girls to like boy movies? What the hell is that supposed to mean John Green?), but it was great because rarely do I ever laugh out loud while reading (and I even wept a little *cough* just a little).
"Mom reached up to this shelf above my bed and grabbed Bluie, the blue stuffed bear I had since I was, like one--back when it was socially acceptable to name one's friends after their hue."
It's funny okay!?. The book is riddled with all these clever phrases and turn of words. However, sometimes it got a little too clever for it's own good. The characters are intelligent, but there is a difference between intelligence and being extremely well-read. Though I expect there are many intelligent seventeen year olds, I find it rare for them to be well-read. What sort of teenager spouts out things like hamartia (this word is so uncommon that google is telling me that I've spelt Harmonia wrong, whatever that is), or quotes WCW, or appreciates the metaphorical significance of existentially fraught free throws? Okay, maybe I'm just bitter because my own high school education was shit poor (public schools...), so once I accepted that I'm only lamenting my own loss, I moved on.

Every reference in this book is pretty much lit 101 and beginner's lit theory 101. So if you're into Literature with the capital L, prepare to have your ego stroked because you'll have studied every reference alluded to. The conversations swing rapidly between colloquial to eloquent, i.e "awesomesauce" to stuff like "the Whitmanesque revelation that the definition of humanness is the opportunity to marvel at the majesty of creation". To illustrate how the characters talked, I have this handy Dilbert comic featuring Zeno's Paradox.

It might turn some people off, but I think the majority of people can suspend their belief that such amazing teenagers could possibly exist and still be likable and cool and enjoy the story.

The characters were genuine and extremely lovable. Two words: Augustus Waters. Does such a person exist in this world, even in adult form? I found him a little too perfect to be entirely relatable, but I get that his role is to give teenage girls wet dreams and to make them incredibly angry that the only guys at their high school appear like rotting stalks of celery in comparison to the glorious Augustus Waters, professional Golden Boy with the fatal harmatia. Males wanting to read this beware, you may feel threatened.

So this is by no means the best book about cancer and dying (in fact if you're reading it because you or someone you know has cancer, it is better to find a book written by someone who actually went through a similar experience), because it's mainly a book about two teens contemplating love, life, and dying, but I still found it tragically beautiful and touching. As a really random end note, I also really enjoyed the significant meta-ness of Hazel searching for an ending to her favorite book.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

[Review] Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim

"When I sprinted from the house, I saw the moon, orange, almost electric, stalled between feathery clouds like a helium balloon, ready to burst into a million splinters. Without glasses, the world melted from focus. The house and trees seemed under water. I leaned against a tree and felt its knobby trunk pressing into my skin like a column of bones."
Rating: 5 Stars
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, LGBTQ
Setting: U.S - Midwest
Timeline: 1980's
Official Summary: At the age of eight Brian Lackey is found bleeding under the crawl space of his house, having endured something so traumatic that he cannot remember an entire five–hour period of time. During the following years he slowly recalls details from that night, but these fragments are not enough to explain what happened to him, and he begins to believe that he may have been the victim of an alien encounter. Neil McCormick is fully aware of the events from that summer of 1981. Wise beyond his years, curious about his developing sexuality, Neil found what he perceived to be love and guidance from his baseball coach. Now, ten years later, he is a teenage hustler, a terrorist of sorts, unaware of the dangerous path his life is taking. His recklessness is governed by idealized memories of his coach, memories that unexpectedly change when Brian comes to Neil for help and, ultimately, the truth.

Two words. Soul crushing, just absolutely soul crushing. Life is tragic, it is beautiful and redemptive, yet it was hard to go through the book with any sort of optimism. Once the milk has been spilled, the stain just won't come out. Things are built up, and they fall to pieces. The characters try their best to pull the pieces back together, but in the end, one just has to keep pushing along, surviving and trying to find some joy in the fact that at least they are loved and not completely alone.

The prose is beautiful, sparse and to the point yet poetic. The characters themselves are relatable. The story features various points of views all from the different characters as they grow up in Little River or Hutchinson Kansas, but mainly focuses on the lives of Brian Lackey and Neil McCormick, both of who had suffered terrible trauma during childhood and how they deal with and then eventually come to terms with what had happened to them.

Monday, March 3, 2014

[Article] Why the mainstream media fails writers of color

The Trouble with Talking—or Not Talking—About Race
Theme Essay by Aimee Phan


In 2003, before my first book came out, friends in the literary community warned me about how dire review coverage had become.

But no one I worked with at St. Martin’s Press on We Should Never Meet, a collection of short stories that involve “Operation Babylift” in Vietnam and its aftermath, ever mentioned that my ethnicity might play a role. Even now, it’s hard to imagine anyone in the publishing industry trying to explain the political murkiness and cold marketing statistics of landing book reviews to an elated debut author like me.

Few people read literary fiction, and those who do typically turn to critics to discover which books deserve their time. But if those critics are to be believed, few writers of color make the cut. According to rough counts for 2011 to 2012 compiled by writer and teacher Roxane Gay and a graduate assistant, 90 percent of the books reviewed by the New York Times during that time period were by white writers, leaving a 10 percent sliver for writers of color.

These depressing estimates, first published in the Rumpus in 2012, confirm what many writers of color like me have always feared: that the words over which we’ve labored and sacrificed ourselves for years—the books we’ve written, revised, edited, and finally published in order to contribute to the literary landscape that’s inspired us—don’t matter to the influential gatekeepers of the reading population.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

[Review] Empress Orchid by Anchee Min

"The years inside the Forbidden City had formed a shell over her and the shell had hardened. Historians would describe her as cruel and heartless. Her iron will was said to have carried her through one crisis after another."

Rating: 4 Stars
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: China
Timeline: Qing Dynasty (Mid to Late 1800's) 
Summary: A compelling story about the humble beginnings of Orchid, (also known as Empress Dowager CiXi) who eventually becomes the last empress of China.

For the most part I thoroughly enjoyed reading Empress Orchid. I've been meaning to read more of works after reading her memoir Red Azalea several years ago. The first part of the novel mainly focuses upon the traditions and dangers of imperial court life and the budding romance between Orchid and the Emperor. One can't help but root for our heroine as she stumbles into her own actualized Peking Opera from her impoverished beginnings in the countryside. The story itself starts off with her being unable to pay workers to carry her father's coffin to his burial ground, already framing the story in a sort of tragedy. A rags to riches story, Orchid comes from having nothing to all to everything she could need, and then more than she can handle.