Tuesday, March 24, 2015

China Dolls by Lisa See

I’ve been a big fan of Lisa See’s books since I read Shanghai Girls three years ago. Something about her characters and storytelling always grabs me early on in the story and keeps me turning pages until the end. So I was really excited to read her latest novel, China Dolls, which details the triumphs and struggles of Chinese-American women and their relationships with each other and their Chinese heritage.
Most of See’s books are set, at least partially, in China. This is the first that takes place entirely in America. The story follows three women – Ruby, Helen and Grace – who meet in San Francisco in the 1930s and chronicles the path their friendship takes over the following decades. Each of them harbors a different devastating secret about her past, and these secrets threaten to destroy the relationships they hold dear.
Something about this book I found particularly interesting was the focus on World War II-era Chinese nightclubs, particularly the real-life Forbidden Palace club, and the Chop Suey Circuit — the city-to-city touring circuit that Chinese-American singers, dancers, musicians and actors traveled during the ’30s and ’40s. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, many of these performers faced intense pressure to prove that they were of Chinese descent; those suspected of being Japanese or Japanese sympathizers were treated as hostile. Many Japanese people — including some masquerading as Chinese — were eventually rounded up and sent to internment camps for the duration of the war. It was fascinating, and sad, to read about how misplaced fears and prejudices deeply affected these individuals, many of whom were American citizens and felt betrayed by their own government. All in all, this is the kind of book that makes you want to learn more about its subject matter even after the story is over.
There is a fair amount of sexual content in the book, as some vaudevillian acts described feature female nudity. There is also a sex scene that is described in some detail. While for the most part the book contains mild violence, one scene in particular is decidedly more graphic and disturbing. There is some moderate language.
Grade: B
Content: 2.3.3 (what's this?)

Monday, December 2, 2013

Review: Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield

Sorry for the hiatus! We've had a lot going on in our family, and I'm just now getting back into the swing of reading and blogging. I have been SO excited to read this one since I learned of its existence - I hadn't known Diane Setterfield had begun working on a new book, let alone finished it - especially because I loved her previous novel, The Thirteenth Tale. This new book has me feeling the need to re-read that one sometime in the near future.

Bellman and Black is a book in several parts. Overall, it centers around the life of William Bellman, a clever boy and, later, an astute businessman, whose life seems to be perfect. However, an event from William's past ends up unraveling the life he's made for himself, and everything starts to go horribly wrong. I don't want to give a ton away, but let's say things get Hamlet-esque. William meets an individual by the name of Mr. Black, who proposes a business deal that leads to the creation of Bellman and Black, essentially a Victorian department store of death- and funeral-related goods, from clothing to coffins. Mr. Black's role in William's life, however, turns out to be more complicated than William had thought.

In some ways, Bellman and Black is a bit confusing in that I don't really know how to categorize it. Setterfield calls it a "ghost story" and I guess it sort of is. It's not really a redemption story. Honestly, I don't even know what it really is, except that it was an entertaining piece of fiction that I enjoyed over the course of the week or so it took me to finish it.

If I had a qualm with the book, it would be the unnecessary sexual content found towards the beginning of the book. I suppose it was put there to show us what a ladies' man William is, that he is truly successful in all aspects of his life, but I didn't think it needed to be in there at all. That kind of stuff really isn't my thing and I felt the book wouldn't have been affected for the worse if it had been left out.

Setterfield is an excellent writer. If anything, this book is fun for its descriptions of Bellman and Black. As macabre as the place sounds, I'd totally be interested in checking it out if it really existed.

Grade: B+
Content: 3/4.2.1 (what's this?)

*Disclaimer - I was sent a digital version of the book from the publisher for the express purpose of publishing a review. I don't think that that fact alone would compel me to write a more favorable review than I would otherwise, but in the interest of full disclosure, there you go.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Mini-Reviews: Halloween Challenge

After several weeks of incredibly enjoyable reading, the Halloween Challenge is complete (and even with a few weeks left til Halloween!). I had a lot of fun with this challenge, and think I'll turn it into a tradition.

1. The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

I can't think of a better example of the genre "psychological thriller" than this book. Wow. It was so much fun. The basic premise is "group of strangers assemble in haunted house and spookiness ensues," but this book is more than that; it's a glimpse into a mind breaking down, the slow onset of insanity. I loved Jackson's style, because as the reader you really get a feel for that descent into madness. Highly recommend this book. 

Grade: A
Content: 1.2.1 (what's this?)

2. Collected Ghost Stories, by M.R. James

This one was my favorite of the bunch. I love a good ghost story, and M.R. James is one of the best ghost story writers I've ever read. I was so impressed that stories written so long ago (the turn of the 20th century, actually) could still be so creepy, and sometimes, downright frightening. Some of my favorites: "Lost Hearts", "The Mezzotint", "The Haunted Doll's House", "The Ash Tree", and "A Neighbour's Landmark". This collection is perfect for Halloween reading.

Grade: A
Content: 1.2.1

3. The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre by H.P. Lovecraft

I enjoyed Lovecraft's stories, albeit not quite as much as James's. Apparently, Lovecraft has a huge following, in large part because of what's now called the "Cthulhu Mythos," an entire mythology developed by Lovecraft encompassing otherworldly monster gods who have found their way to earth and lay in wait to wreak havoc on humanity. So, rather than "ghost stories", I think a good deal of Lovecraft's work falls into the "monster stories" category, which is not my favorite in the horror genre. That being said, I really enjoyed a few stories in this collection, particularly "The Music of Erich Zann" and "The Call of Cthulhu".

Grade: B+
Content: 1.2.1

The Shadow at the Bottom of the World, by Thomas Ligotti

I felt similar to Ligotti as I had to Lovecraft: quite good, but not as fun to read as James. He has some good stuff, though: a lot of it very much in line with Lovecraft's recurrent motif of the vastness of the universe and smallness of humanity in comparison. Some of my favorite stories were "Dr. Locrian's Asylum" and "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World." 

Grade: B 
Content: 1.2.1 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Halloween Challenge

Whew! After a long, exciting summer, I'm finally back into my routine here! Since it's now September, I've decided to create a little Halloween Challenge for myself. Halloween is my second favorite holiday, right up there with but slightly edged out by Christmas. I have always loved the decorations, traditions, and ambiance of Halloween. So, to get in the mood for the holiday, I will be reading a few books written by several masters of the horror genre.

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson
I don't know who else out there remembers the short story "The Lottery" from high school, but I didn't realize that demented little tale was written by Jackson. This novel has become a movie several times, the most recent being an adaptation I remember seeing but don't remember much else about. This book has been described as one that expertly elicits psychological terror, so I'm excited to give it a go.

Collected Ghost Stories, by M.R. James
I didn't know much about James until I was doing some background reading on Jackson, who apparently was influenced in large part by him. I've read the first short story in this collection and found it both accessible and delightfully creepy. I'm thinking this is the one I'll tackle first.

The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre by H.P. Lovecraft
Described by Stephen King as "the twentieth century's greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale." I am so looking forward to this one. This collection was compiled in 1963, and the fact that it still sells today intrigues me.

The Shadow at the Bottom of the World, by Thomas Ligotti
Yet another short story collection. Ligotti himself has stated, "The short story allows a purer and more intense expression of horror... than do novels." Looks promising, and Ligotti has been compared to Lovecraft. We'll have to see what I think of the two of them in comparison with each other.

I'm really looking forward to this! What are your Halloween literary traditions? Any favorite spooky books?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Review: The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

Oh, Dan Brown. I used to like you. I read The Da Vinci Code and thought, wow, that was a really cool, inventive, unique book. I was excited to read more. And I did... and quickly discovered that your success can basically be attributed to the fact that you write the same exact book over and over, with the same plot and the same characters and the same dumb twists. Bah.

So it is with The Lost Symbol. Which you look at and think, ooh, it's set in Washington D.C., this will probably be really different. But it's not. Here's a basic plot/formula overview for this book and all of Dan Brown's others: Robert Langdon is a nerdy, dashing symbologist from Harvard who finds himself enmeshed in a vast conspiracy involving a powerful "secret" society and an object that will change the course of history. He has a spunky, intelligent woman who is sort of romantically interested in him as his sidekick. And for some reason, Langdon is the only person on the face of the earth who can solve the puzzles that lay between him and the novel's villain, a dastardly individual set on world destruction for some reason.

And, ok. I can go along with this formula. Sure. I liked Angels and Demons quite a bit, which I read after The Da Vinci Code. But this book... not only does it read JUST like the other books but I found the plot ridiculous, the villain overblown (and also ridiculous), and the "twist" at the end of the book stupid and extremely predictable. I actually had it figured out 1/3 of the way through, which is not conducive to a big "I DIDN'T SEE THAT ONE COMING" moment at the end. Because I did see it coming, and it was dumb. The only reason I kept reading this book was to finally know what the big secret reveal at the end of the book would be, and it was so not worth it.

Did I mention this book is dumb? Here's your exit gif, because it sums up how I felt most of the time I was reading it.
Grade: F
Content:  2.4.3 (what's this?)

Sequel Review: Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo

I have been SO excited for this sequel to come out since reading Shadow and Bone earlier this year, Bardugo being one of my guilty-pleasure YA authors. And I definitely was not disappointed. It was good. Possibly better than the first.

The story picks up where the first novel ended, with Alina and Mal on the run from the Darkling, and Ravka in more or less a state of upheaval. At first, I was really concerned that this book would be a Harry Potter-esque hideout in the woods for the first several chapters (because don't get me wrong, I love Harry Potter, but I thought the hiding in the woods scenes were super boring at times). Luckily, the action picks up very near the beginning of the book. Another potential issue is with the introduction of brand new characters halfway through the series, which sometimes can feel abrupt and which doesn't give the reader as much time to get to know (and like) them. However, again, I wasn't disappointed - the new characters in Siege and Storm are just awesome. Especially a mysterious pirate named Sturmhond whose motives are unclear.

I am being purposely vague, here. I just don't want to give away too much plot detail and spoil anything. I love that Bardugo is an author whose twists I hardly ever see coming, and whose characterization is just wonderful. I love reading the banter between characters, and I find Alina, a potentially annoyingly brooding Bella knockoff, actually quite likeable and clever. I also love that the endings to the books are never what I think they'll be. All of this is made all the more impressive by the fact that Bardugo's full-time job is, apparently, a makeup artist. Who knew.

I am super excited for the conclusion of the trilogy, which will be out sometime next year. These books are great. Very highly recommended. (P.S. - Aren't the covers so cool? And clever, if you've read the books.)

Grade: A
Content: 2.4.1 (what's this?)

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Listen While Reading: Secret Garden

I came upon this CD at my mother-in-law's house... and wow. Simply beautiful. Really lovely piano and violin music to listen to while reading pretty much anything. I think it evokes romance, though... very Jane Austen-y to me. :)

Anything off of this album is stellar, but this is one of my favorite songs.

(I realize you have to head to YouTube to listen to the song. Sorry about that!)

Good for: romance, classics, anything really