Monday, December 30, 2013

Reflections: Daughter of Smoke and Bone

My opinion of Daughter of Smoke and Bone looks a lot like a valley.  Looking at it from left to right, my opinion of the book was pretty high but begins to dip as I get closer to the other side.  It hits the bottom and starts to rise again until finally it reaches a peak that looks a lot like the other side of the valley.  Daughter of Smoke and Bone is wonderfully creative and mysterious but temporarily gets bogged down by its own clunky romance and stuttering storytelling.  By the end, however, the book is as fun and engaging as it was at the beginning and it's worth reading.

Laini Taylor has created a very unique and interesting fantasy world.  It's especially interesting when she dives into her fantasy head first and leaves behind the secret world within our real world fantasy that has been over-utilized.  It's there and it serves a purpose, but it doesn't over-stay its welcome.  Daughter of Smoke and Bone really shines when it presents story details and fantastical elements that are consistently surprising and unique.  Reading Daughter of Smoke and Bone reminded me in a strange way of reading Mistborn for the first time.  Both presented fantasy worlds that had semblances of other fantasy stories but really charted out their own space.  Furthermore, Daughter of Smoke and Bone has enough interesting characters to give the reader a reason to care about the fantasy world they're a part of.  Karou, the main character, is a strong female protagonist who I want to spend more time with in the follow-up titles.

The single biggest problem with Daughter of Smoke and Bone is its middle.  There is a romantic story thread that feels so contrived and rushed that it nearly stamped out my liking for the book.  Thankfully, by the end of the book the romance becomes a critical story element rather than a forced necessity because of the genre the book belongs to.  I still look back at that dithering middle section of the book and wish the author would have taken a different approach, but I'm willing to mostly overlook the book's flaws because I did enjoy it a great deal.

And will I continue reading the series?  I think I will.  I was left engaged and intrigued enough to want to know what becomes of the characters and the world they inhabit.  I'm not so compelled I'll read the sequels in quick succession, but I'll certainly get around to it.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Divergent
Bedtime Stories with Adam & Sarah: Debating Divergent
Books to Movies: The Host

Monday, December 23, 2013

Best Books of 2013: Non-fiction

I've already selected the best fiction books I read in 2013, but I also wanted to select several non-fiction titles that stood out this year.  Non-fiction doesn't get nearly as much love as it should, but hopefully there will be some readers out there willingly to spend some time with the below books.

The Prince of Frogtown by Rick Bragg

When I wrote my review for The Prince of Frogtown I didn't have a single bad thing to say about the book, and I still don't.  The Prince of Frogtown is non-fiction, a combination of biography and autobiography, but it is every bit as artistic and profound as the best fictional narrative.  Rick Bragg is truly one of the finest authors I have ever read and The Prince of Frogtown is a masterpiece that no reader should miss.  (It would be a good idea, of course, to read the two books that came before it). 

The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant

Works of non-fiction, especially something that sounds as ambitious as The Lessons of History, can require a great deal of time and attention that many are not willing to invest.  Lessons of History, however, is very, very short, and in its brevity it provides something different from other momentous works of fiction which have great value but lack any readers. Will and Ariel Durant write in an approachable way and make poignant observations about human history that are worth reading and pondering regardless of whether or not you agree with them.

Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Birth of a New Nation by David A. Price

The best part about Love and Hate in Jamestown is that I found it completely by accident.  Having a sincere fascination with American history, learning about the Jamestown period was a great idea and reading Love and Hate in Jamestown was a great way to do it.  David A. Price wrote a truly interesting and perfectly readable account of what took place and who was involved.  After reading Price's book, it wasn't hard to see how the Jamestown events and the personalities involved shaped the eventual political and societal future of the American continent.

Other Topics of Interest:
Best Books of 2013: Fiction
Best Books of 2012
Best Books of 2011

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Best Books of 2013: Fiction

"I love when the end of the year comes around, and I'm able to pick the best books I've read that year.  As I've mentioned before, my selections are not books that were published during that year but rather books I had the pleasure of reading during it.  In years past, I have chosen one fiction and one non-fiction book to highlight; however, this year I was greatly impressed by several books in both broad categories and decided to list several in each instead of just one.  Below are my picks for best fiction books I read in 2013.

Tinkers by Paul Harding

Wandering around on Amazon one day, I came across Tinkers by Paul Harding.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2010, which is why it was being featured.  Knowing nothing about it, I added it to My Wishlist and finally bought it this year.  Perhaps most surprising of all was my liking it so much when it had so many elements that I normally dislike.  First off, it's modern literature, which I generally very much dislike.  Secondly, it has a very short-story type feel.  The book, which is most certainly not a collection of short stories, feels like closely connected vignettes—normally a storytelling method I have very little affinity for.  Yet, I was deeply impacted by Tinkers.  As I mentioned in my review, Tinkers stuck with me, and it will be a book I remember for a long, long time. 

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Reading Dracula was a revelation.  There are cultural characters you become so accustomed to you take them entirely for granted.  A literary character like Dracula has been iterated upon so many times it's hard to know what the source material looks and feels like unless you've experienced it for yourself.  Experiencing Dracula, the original and frankly untainted version, taught me a lot about how not to adapt characters.  It also taught me a lot about how so many can, while I'm sure being eager to show respect for the source material, truly miss the elements that make the original so good.  Dracula is a fantastic book and deserves a better representation in other mediums.

Mooncalf by Linda L. Zern

Mooncalf is not a book you put down and flippantly forget.  Mooncalf will be clattering around in my head for many years to come.  Its symbols, its messages, and most especially its conclusion is deeply affecting.  The tragedy the book presents isn't so oppressive one can't enjoy the love shared by the two main characters—Leah and Olympia—but its inevitability in the book forces one to hope that similar inevitabilities don't have to occur in reality.  As a work of fiction as well as historical fiction, Mooncalf is excellent and moving.  As a teaching tool it's truly unforgettable."

Other Topics of Interest:
Best Books of 2011
Best Books of 2012
Best Books You Haven't Read: Freddy's Book

Monday, December 2, 2013

Reflections: Mooncalf

Good writing is hard to find.  I've read dozens of books this year, most of them have been mediocre.  But there have been some really good ones, even some great ones.  Mooncalf is a great book, and I hope it finds as large an audience as possible.

One of the most admirable things about Mooncalf is that it's difficult to find a single wasted word in the entire book.  Granted the book is short; yet, it is very rare to find a book which treats with such delicacy the choosing of each word--each adjective, verb, and noun.  Themes, motifs, and symbols are everywhere throughout Mooncalf, and most impressive of all none of it is discarded.  Motifs and themes exist in big and small circles in Mooncalf, circling back in on themselves as well as intertwining themselves with the plot and the characters that inhabit it.  And those motifs and themes, those messages and those symbols, don't go away once you've finished the book.  They stick with you.  It's hard to forget Mooncalf.

Linda L. Zern does an outstanding job of creating a place and time.  Florida is uniquely equipped for stories.  Swamplandia! was also able to evoke a similar feeling of being in a particular place at a particular time.  (Too bad Swamplandia! wasn't very good).  But creating a geographic location and a specific point in history doesn't make for a great story.  Readers need characters to love or hate.  Mooncalf has both types of characters.  The two protagonists, young girls named Leah and Olympia, are vivid and real.  You'll hope for them and hurt for them.  They are what sticks with you when you complete Mooncalf and wonder what could have been different for them both.

Mooncalf is not perfect.  My biggest grumble about the book are the illustrations.  Although rendered well enough, with some being quite evocative, they felt superfluous and at times distracted from the story.  The writing is more than sufficient to create a place and time, as mentioned earlier, and the addition of the illustrations wasn't really needed.  Additionally, there is one particular perspective shift in the story (a shift to first person) that was extremely jarring from a reader's perspective and took me out of the story.  Make no mistake, there is far, far more to love about Mooncalf than to not.

Mooncalf is a tragedy and, therefore, won't be for everyone.  I even wonder if the story, especially its ending, could have been different and still been as poignant.  Yet, after thinking it over several times, I wouldn't change a thing.  There are several moments in the book that hit me as a reader like a punch to the chest and subsequently ripped my heart out.  In the final analysis, it's a sad, sad book, but not hopeless.  I think there is enough love between Leah and Olympia to show the audience that things could be different if we want them to be.

I can't help but compare Mooncalf to To Kill a Mockingbird.  The setting, its message, its mood, and its characters all lend themselves to that comparison, and it's a fine comparison to make.  Harper Lee told a great story and so has Linda L. Zern.  Mooncalf should be read.  It's one of the best books I've read this year and most certainly one of the most memorable I've ever read.  I wouldn't miss the chance to enjoy it, learn from it, and have your heart broken by it.

Other Topics of Interest:
Her Name is Scout
Reflections: The Prince of Frogtown
Reflections: Swamplandia!