Thursday, May 21, 2015

Vacation time


It's been very quiet on my little corner of the web for the past few months.  I haven't done much reading at all, and I don't really know why.  I have books that interest me, I just get home and don't want to read anything.

Additionally, I am doing some travel over the next few weeks - I'm spending Memorial Day weekend in the Smoky Mountains (I'm leaving today!), and then in early June, I'm off to Eastern Europe for two weeks.  I hope I'll have a lot of time to read on those trips, but who knows?  Clearly, time isn't my issue, motivation is.

In any case, it seemed like a good time to take a little big of a blogging break.  I have never officially taken one before, so I am actually more nervous than I can say that I will lose the habit and find it very difficult to come back.  But it's hard to blog about books when you haven't read any books, and I am pretty adamant about not sharing personal details of my life on the interwebs, so there isn't a lot I can do about it at this time.

I think I mentioned this last year, when I went to Japan on vacation, but just in case anyone is interested, I do enjoy taking photos on my trips.  I am @aartichapati on Instagram if you would like to see photos of (hopefully) beautifully foggy and atmospheric Smoky Mountains or sunset shots of Budapest, Vienna, Prague and Berlin over the next several weeks.

I anticipate being back in July.  I will see you then :-)


Monday, May 4, 2015

Meet Balsa, your new hero

Moribito:  Guardian of the Spirit, by Nahoko Uehashi
Moribito:  Guardian of the Spirit, by Nahoko Uehashi, is the first book in a ten-book series of which I was completely unaware.  It's set in a fantasy version of medieval Japan and centers on this amazing woman, Balsa, who is the greatest martial artist ever and who works as a bodyguard.  Her new charge is Prince Chagum, who has been possessed by a spirit.  He is being pursued by people who want to kill him and by some sort of animal who wants to eat the spirit inside him.

I am not sure how I first heard about this book, but I assume it was on a blog somewhere.  I thought it was a graphic novel, but it's not, though there is gorgeous artwork on not just the cover but throughout the story.  I also don't think I realized it was just the first in a long series, of which only the first two books have been translated into English.  Hopefully the rest are translated soon!

There were a lot of things I really enjoyed about this story.  First, it's a fantasy adventure series that features a woman as the hero, which is awesome.  Balsa is an amazing fighter who possibly enjoys fighting a little bit too much.  She has a slight romantic interest, and that man is a healer who waits patiently for her to return to him, another great example of role reversal.  A third very powerful character is an old woman.  Again - how awesome is this cast of characters?  I love the way Uehashi took what is a fairly common plot - a strong, weary person promised to help a smaller, weaker, but important person to safety - and twisted all of it around to give women and men roles they normally wouldn't get in a fantasy novel.

I also LOVED the setting.  Loved, loved, loved.  Everything felt so real, from the heavy snow in the mountains to the simple recipes.  And the way the characters interacted with each other based on class and role was so different than anything I had come across before.  It was excellent.  Uehashi wrote a novel for children and young adults but within these pages lies a lot of commentary - how facts can be embellished or erased; the power of folklore and stories; and the importance of understanding the truth, and not just listening to what people tell you.

That said, the book was not without its flaws.  The story did not flow very smoothly.  There were multiple worlds existing in the same space, which is a complicated idea to describe, and I don't know if the translator did Uehashi justice.  The description of the spirit (actually an egg) that lived inside Chagum and the animal that wanted to eat the egg were also very odd.  There were several disparate parts that were all supposed to come cleanly together at the end, but instead, it felt like cutting and pasting and the result was a little haphazard.  Hopefully the second book is better translated and easier to follow.

BUT, seriously, this book is less than 250 pages with big font and I read it on a rainy afternoon and evening.  The negatives above are, in my opinion, outweighed by the characters and the unique setting.  Check it out!

Thursday, April 30, 2015

A swing and a miss

Shadow Scale, by Rachel Hartman
Shadow Scale is the follow-up to Rachel Hartman's Seraphina, set in a world where humans and dragons live uneasily together.  In Shadow Scale, our heroine Seraphina sets off to find other half-dragons like herself in an effort to help the Goreddi war effort.  But a powerful enemy also wants to reach the other half-dragons, and the only way to combat her is for Seraphina to let her own powers loose.

One of my favorite things about Seraphina was the way Hartman built complex political and religious systems for Goredd.  The world-building was amazing.  That continues here in Shadow Scale, to an even greater extent, as Seraphina travels beyond the Goreddi borders and learns more about other cultures and belief systems.  Religion was important in the first book but takes an even more central role in this one.  Add to that the politics and the languages and the dress codes and all the rest and you have a world that comes completely to life.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, the characters didn't quite keep up with the setting.  A few of my favorite characters from the first book, mainly Princess Glisselda, were hardly present at all in this one.  Instead, we follow Seraphina on her journey from one place to another, never staying long enough to understand the location, and never spending a meaningful amount of time with the newer characters to get to know them.  It felt like we were just crossing items off a list without any real character depth or growth.  The only character who did get depth (and, in my opinion, way too much airtime) was Seraphina's nemesis.  She shows up early and then never leaves, and I grew tired of her pretty early on.

After getting about halfway through this book, I started skimming pretty significantly.  I just couldn't concentrate enough on the story.  I really enjoyed the setting and some of the religious stuff was really fascinating (though in general, I don't like books in which religion plays a big role), but the plot and characters just didn't pull me in.

However, there are people who feel very differently!  Ana wrote a glowing review of Shadow Scale, and you should check that one out as a counterweight to this one.

Note:  I received a free audiobook CD of Shadow Scale to review from the publisher.  However, I read the hardcover version of the book, not the audiobook, and my review is based on the hardcover version (which I checked out from the library).

Monday, April 27, 2015

Gray London, Red London, White London, Black London

Victoria E. Schwab
I have been in a serious reading slump since February and couldn't really find any book to keep my attention.  Last week, I got a notice from the library that it was finally my turn to read V.E. Schwab's A Darker Shade of Magic.  I was in the midst of reading Shadow Scale, the second book in Rachel Hartman's Seraphina series, but the book wasn't really holding my attention, so I switched to Schwab's.  And, poof!  The slump was over!  I was immediately pulled into the universe Schwab created.

It's not that Schwab's universe is particularly ground-breaking or original, or that the story is one that hasn't been told before in different guises.  But, like the best storytellers, Schwab takes an old and used skeleton and gives it new life.  Here, she gives us four worlds, all of which center on grand cities named London.  There's Gray London, with no magic; Red London, rich with the balance between people and magic; White London, where people and magic are at odds; and Black London, which no one talks about any more.

Kell is one of only two people across the entire universe who can travel between the worlds.  He works for the royal court of Red London, sharing messages back and forth with Gray and White London.  He also has a little side business through which he illegally transports goods between the worlds.  One night, though, he is given something truly dangerous and forbidden to transport, and it sets all the worlds on edge.  And the only person who seems able to help him is Lila, an orphan in Gray London who wants nothing more than to escape her life.

In reading over the plot summary, I can't quite pinpoint why I loved this book so much.  As Care stated so well in her review of The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey, sometimes you just love a book, and who cares if no one else does?  I was completely entranced by the idea of four Londons with varying amounts of magic.  I am very intrigued by the way the Londons interact with each other and how those interactions may grow in the future.  I want to understand the political structures of each place.  I loved Kell and his 25-sided coat, I am looking forward to gaining a better understanding of his background and the pact that he made to his prince, and I think Lila will grow up to be pretty badass herself.

I also appreciated that, even though this is the first book in a trilogy, the book actually had an ending.  Not a cliffhanger, but a satisfying ending.  So while I am so looking forward to the next book in the series, I am happy with where this one left things.

But really, I think this was just the right book at the right time.  So often, fantasy novels are the ones that bring me up and out of my reading ruts, and that is exactly what happened for me here.  I became so immersed in the world, so attached to the characters, and so addicted to the action that I read the book in just two nights.  That hasn't happened in I don't even know how long.  And I just LOVE that feeling.  So thanks for that, Victoria Schwab!

PS - The cover art for this book is SPOT ON.  I love when that happens!  I definitely think this one will be a contender for best cover art of the year.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Review-itas: Technology is amazing edition

Steven Johnson
Steven Johnson's How We Got to Now:  Six Innovations that Made the Modern World is exactly the sort of macro-focused science idea book that I love.  Johnson looks at world history not from the human perspective but from the innovation perspective and how innovation and technology have propelled the world forward through history.  He focuses on six big ideas:  cold, sound, light, time, glass, and clean.

I loved everything about this book, from the history lessons we learn about things like shipping ice halfway across the world to the lovely anecdotes about brilliant (and sometimes forgotten) people who have changed our world to the unexpected impacts that innovations have had on our world today.  For example, after Gutenberg invented the printing press and books were made widely available, people realized that they were far-sighted or near-sighted and corrective lenses were born.  Another innovation in glass, the mirror, allowed people to see themselves for the first time, and so artists started painting self-portraits (the original selfie) and authors started writing fiction, often about internal struggles and journeys, as a result of so much self-examination.

My favorite of the big ideas was the one on glass, but all of them are fascinating.  Such a fun and inspiring book that makes you think much more about the world around you and the everyday marvels and miracles we experience without even thinking about them.

Michio Kaku
I really enjoyed Michio Kaku's Physics of the Impossible when I read it last year, so I was excited to get my hands on his new book, The Future of the Mind:  The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind.  It seems impossible, but actually, this new book felt way more out there and abstract to me than Physics of the Impossible.  I am not sure why wormholes and invisibility suits feel more tangible to me than formless minds and specific-memory-erasing medication, but it's true!  There was a lot in this book that was way over my head, and a lot that stretched the limits of belief.  If nothing else, The Future of the Mind makes you understand and value just how complex and amazing the brain is, and just how much is subconscious and therefore very difficult to program into a computer.  It's absolutely fascinating.

This book also tackles many more of the ethical dilemmas and minefields that are inherent to mind manipulation.  For example, if you could erase a painful memory to decrease your pain, would you?  Many people say no, but no one considers it unethical to give a person morphine against physical pain.  We treat physical and mental pain differently, and perhaps that is unfair to people who suffer greatly from painful memories.  Similar ethical issues arise as robot technology becomes more complex.  Should robots have feelings?  Should they be able to feel pain?  At what point does the line between human and robot begin to blur?

For lack of a better word, this book is just really COOL.  There are so many scenarios and hypotheses raised here that have never even occurred to me.  For example, what if space travel were possible not with our bodies but only with our minds?  What if humans and robots merged into one type of being at some point in the future?  What if we find ways to combat and then eradicate brain disease?  Or to pump up the features of the brain to become super-humans?  Are these things even possible?  And if so, what is the time line for them?  So much to think about!  Even though some of the information presented was difficult for me to follow (especially in audiobook), I found this book to be so inspiring.  So much work is being done to understand how our minds work, and we will know so much more over the next several years and decades.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Jamaica me crazy

Marlon James
Well, it has been a really long time since my last post!  I did not expect to take such an abrupt departure from blogosphere, but sometimes life (and gloriously warm, sunny spring days) does not leave time for reading and blogging.  Or for sending out books to my blogiversary winners, which I promise I have not forgotten!

One of the reasons I have not been blogging, besides the sunny weather and some upheaval at work, is this book.  Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings.  This was my pick for the new book club I joined, and I only realized after the fact that it is like, 700 pages long, has about 15 different narrators, and is written is some seriously difficult to decipher dialect.

I admit that I only finished this book because I spent so much time convincing the book club to read it.  I would rate A Brief History of Seven Killings as, hands down, far and away, the most difficult book I have ever read.

The book is set mostly in Jamaica, though later on, the action moves to the US.  It focuses on the gang violence and culture that permeated every aspect of Jamaican life, and it makes clear just how difficult it is to escape that life, or to profit from it.  There is also a plot to kill Bob Marley (the singer) and the repercussions of that for both the people involved and the people who witnessed the act.

I think I probably understood about 25% of this book.  I struggled mightily with the dialect and trying to keep all the narrators straight.  One of the narrators in the book is actually a ghost, and I didn't even realize it until very late in the game.  There's also a CIA agent, and I am still unclear on what his purpose in the story was.  There were really only two narrators whose story arcs I completely understood.  I really liked their stories and what James did with them, which is part of my frustration with this book.  It was so dense and difficult for me to read, but the parts I did understand and follow were so well-written.  So if I had been able to understand the rest of the book, I have a feeling it would have completely blown me away.  But instead, I struggled for almost two months to get through it.

There is a lot of showing, not telling, in A Brief History, which in a way I appreciate.  I like that James expects his audience to be intelligent and familiar with what's going on.  Unfortunately, though, I have zero working knowledge of Jamaican politics or current events, and just as little knowledge about the drug wars in 1970s-1980s America.  So it was very difficult for me to understand the context of this book, which was maybe my ultimate downfall.  Or maybe it was that there were SO many characters and I couldn't keep them straight.  In addition to all this, there is SO MUCH VIOLENCE.  I am not sure what seven killings James refers to in his title because there are way more killings than that in the book.  Jamaica seems to be a pretty brutal place, once you get away from the resorts.  The juxtaposition of the expat community and the local community was pretty jarring.

Whatever the cause, I was utterly and completely lost through most of this book.  But I made it all the way to the end and, truly, the end was very good.  James pulls together all of his storylines (the ones I understood, anyway) and it is amazing.  In some ways, I think it was worth the struggle to the end just for that feeling, but in most ways, I would rather have been reading something a little happier.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Review-itas: People coming together in difficult times

A Game for Swallows, by Zeina Abirached
Zeina Abirached's graphic novel A Game for Swallows:  To Die, to Leave, to Return is one of the most beautifully illustrated books I've seen.  The drawings are in black and white, but the style and personality that come through is so strong and evocative.  You can tell on the cover itself - the hairstyles, the faces, all of the characters are so distinct.

The book takes place one evening in Beirut.  Zeina's parents went to visit her grandmother and telephoned to say that they are on their way home, but it's been hours and they have not yet returned.  So all of the other residents of the apartment block come to spend time with Zeina and her brother.  Zeina tells their stories in asides and flashbacks.  By the end, readers have seen several personal stories about life in Lebanon during the civil war.

I enjoyed this book, but I found it a little difficult to follow the story line.  I was often confused by whether we were in a flashback or the present day, and I didn't always know who the narrator was, since different characters would tell either their stories or other people's stories.  And I didn't fully understand all of the context.  For example, Abirached describes how her family went from using the entirety of their apartment to slowly using only one room, but I didn't quite know why their lives had become so constricted.  And I didn't understand why snipers would be on every street trying to shoot all these civilians instead of fighting other soldiers.  I have been lucky in never living in a war zone, so I didn't always understand the whys or hows behind what Abirached was saying.

But the main takeaway, that war made everything difficult and changed people's lives so completely, was easy to understand.

March:  Book OneThe first two volumes of March, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell, relate John Lewis' childhood and college years working for the civil rights movement.  John Lewis is one of the "Big Six" civil rights leaders in American history; he spoke in Washington with Martin Luther King, Jr. and is now a US senator.

It is timely that these graphic novels about the struggle to end Jim Crow and obtain equal rights and voting privileges for African-Americans came out recently, as it becomes more and more clear that Blacks are still fighting for so many rights.

I really enjoy this series and hope that it continues.  I liked the second volume more than the first one, but I think that's because it focused a lot on the freedom riders and the lunch counter protests vs the first volume, which had more to do with setting up John Lewis as a character.

Hopefully, by writing his memoirs in a graphic novel format, John Lewis will reach a new set of American readers who don't always read memoirs or history books.  I'm of the opinion that, for important topics such as this one, it's vital to tell the history in as many ways as possible, to reach as many people as possible.  I've read a bit about the civil rights movement in recent years, but I really appreciate getting multiple perspectives and visions to bring the period to life for me.  These books show just how terrifying it was to be a civil rights leader - they must all have lived in near-constant fear for their lives, and still they went out every day to make a better world.

March:  Book 2
For some reason, a memoir written in graphic novel format feels so much more personal and intimate to me than one written in only prose.  I'm not sure why, but I feel like I know John Lewis much better now for having seen his actions brought to life in vivid artwork.

Highly recommend this read to anyone who wants to better understand the American civil rights movement.

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