Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Banned Books Week

This announcement is a little late, owing to the fact that I didn't realize until I saw it on someone else's blog this morning that this week is Banned Books Week.  I've interrupted my current read, A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin, to read a book on the list of frequently challenged books.

I encourage everyone who reads my blogs to celebrate your freedom to read whatever you choose.  Read a banned book!  This week, next week, any week.  And if you're really subversive like me, you'll read a book just because you hear it's banned.

Here is a video showcasing the top ten banned books of 2009.  A couple of them — My Sister's Keeper, the Twilight Saga — I've blogged about here, and a few of the ones I haven't are now on my reading list.



Are you reading a banned book this week? If so, what are you reading?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Dracula by Bram Stoker

iconiconNote: The image here links to a cheap paperback edition on Barnes & Noble's website.  If you would prefer an ebook, you can download one for free from Project Gutenberg.

At the end of Dracula in Love the author has a short note about the common interpretation of Dracula as a cautionary tale about female independence and promiscuity.  In this view, the vampire hunters are seen as extinguishing female sexuality and keeping Victorian women in their place.  The author decided to deliberately turn this interpretation on its head, creating a heroine that was instead independent and in charge of her own sexuality.

And, oh yeah, the vampire isn't bad, after all.

Reading this afterword made me want to read the classic novel again, so I did.  (Luckily I had gotten it free when I downloaded Barnes & Noble's eReader — it comes with the software.)  It was interesting to read the two back to back so that I could compare how the story differed between each one.  In Karen Essen's novel, not only is the vampire not bad, but the heroes of the book — Van Helsing, Lord Godalming — become the villains, and their valiant attempts to save Lucy and Mina become sick manipulations meant to limit women to domesticity.

Dracula, of course, is very different.  The vampire is bad, the men save the day, and although Mina is a strong woman in her own right, her every skill exists to serve the heroes of the story.

As the father of the modern vampire genre, Dracula is interesting to read, but it is also pretty tedious at times.  For instance, Van Helsing has a rather boring soliloquy about why it's not such a stretch to believe that vampires exist.

One comment I do have to make is how much I like the eReader for checking footnotes.  It was fast and easy to touch the corner of the page to place a bookmark, touch the link for the footnote, and then use the bookmark to find my place again.  The footnotes in Barnes & Noble's edition of the novel (the one I've linked to here) were helpful without going overboard and footnoting too much.  (I hate wasting perfectly good reading time on checking footnotes with obvious or uninteresting information.)

Despite how tedious the story is at times, I enjoyed rereading Dracula.  It served as a nice contrast to Dracula in Love, which I had just finished, and I like seeing the inspiration for many of my favorite vampire novels.  You can see in its pages the roots of Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles, Stephanie Meyer's Twilight Saga, and Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse novels.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Dracula in Love by Karen Essen

iconiconI was lucky enough to get Dracula in Love from the library almost right away, even though it was a new book. I had noticed it at Barnes & Noble one night when we were there, and I was intrigued by the idea of the story told entirely from Mina's point of view.

One of the things I really liked about Karen Essen's book was that she wrote it in a style that was fairly in keeping with a book of that era, complete with the "Dear Reader" type thing. It was subtle, but it was enough to make the book feel very authentic.

As Essen says in the author's note at the end of the book, she wrote her novel with the intention of turning the original story on its head. Dracula is often interpreted as a statement against female sexuality, and Essen exposes the era's fears in some of the ways she changes the story. For instance, when Mina visits the mental hospital, many of the patients are actually women who have deviated from the accepted norm in some way: By refusing housework, exhibiting sexual appetite, etc.

Although Dracula in Love is close enough to the original story to be recognizable, Essen changes quite a bit. Her Dracula is handsome and devoted, her Mina is strong and decisive. She even gives an explanation for why Stoker got the story wrong — as a character in her novel, he is looking for local stories as good material for the theater. (Dracula was originally a play as well as a novel.)

I did read Dracula a few years ago, but reading this novel made me realize how little of the story I actually remember. As soon as I was done with Dracula in Love, therefore, I reread Bram Stoker's version. I'll blog about that one next, but in the meantime, do check out Dracula in Love — it's well worth reading!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah

iconiconFirefly Lane is the third Kristin Hannah book that I've read, and although I didn't like it quite as much as True Colors, it was a close second. I really enjoy her books — she writes dynamic female characters, with compelling stories.

This novel follows the lives of two friends, from childhood into adulthood. Their lives diverge when one of them chooses her career over family and relationships, and the other chooses family. Their friendship is fiercely devoted yet extremely rocky, as each seems to have a difficult time understanding the other's decisions.

Firefly Lane reminds me a lot of a wonderful novel I read a long time ago, Summer Sisters by Judy Blume (one of her adult novels). I highly recommend this novel — I loved it so much I could hardly put it down until I'd finished!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Angel Falls by Kristin Hannah

iconiconAfter reading True Colors by Kristin Hannah, I was really excited to read another of her books. I was especially excited when I saw this one — about a woman who is in a horseback riding accident.

I was anticipating another novel like True Colors, where horses figured into the story pretty strongly. I was somewhat disappointed on that end. It was more about her husband than her, and other than the accident at the beginning and the occasional mention throughout the book, the horses didn't actually figure into the story very much.

Even so, it was a compelling novel, and another by this author that I had a hard time putting down. I finished it in just under two days! It's a story of discovery, in a sense, about the mistakes people make when they are young, and how they change (or don't change!) as they get older.

Kristin Hannah is one of my new favorite authors, and although I didn't like this as much as the others of hers that I've read lately, I do think her novels are worth checking out!

Friday, September 17, 2010

True Colors by Kristin Hannah

iconiconAs I mentioned before, I'm not catching up in any particular order, so I actually read this book a LONG time ago. But it has stuck in my head enough that it really is worth going back and blogging about.

True Colors is about three sisters — the ways their lives diverge, their complex relationships with each other and their bitter father, and how betrayal — both real and perceived — can rip their fragile ties to shreds.

The events of the novel mostly center around the youngest sister, the only one who stays at home and helps to run the family ranch. As a horse person, of course I loved this part of the novel in particular. Although the horses didn't figure as a major part of the novel, it was an underlying theme, big enough to satisfy my horse-craziness!

This was the first book by Kristin Hannah that I ever read, and so far it is the one I liked the best. All of her novels seem to be this kind of thing: women's fiction, about women and their relationships, with men and one another. She is a new favorite author for me, and I highly recommend her books — especially True Colors!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

iconiconThis is one of those books that I read a couple of weeks ago, and am only now getting around to blogging about, now that I'm playing catch-up. I'm getting close to the end of the list, though — only about half a dozen to go, and I'll be caught up.

My mom recommended The Help to me a while back, but I was on the library waiting list for months before I finally got it. When I first started the book, I wasn't sure about it — it seemed interesting, but not as compelling as she'd made it sound — but the further into it I got, the harder it was to put it down. In fact, I read about half the book — the second half — in one night, only going to bed once I'd finished it, around 4am.

The novel is about a small town's black servants, and the affluent white women who employ them. In the novel, a young white woman named Skeeter decides to write a book about the black women's experiences in her town. The novel takes place in the South in the 1960s, so it was a particularly sensitive topic, and an especially daring project to undertake.

I don't always believe that just because a book is widely read, necessarily means it's a good one, but for The Help that definitely is the case!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

So Much for That by Lionel Shriver

iconiconThis is one of my "catch-up" books — one I read quite some time ago, before my lapse in blogging that occurred earlier this year. (Egads — was it really the end of March when I stopped blogging regularly?)

So Much for That, by Lionel Shriver, is about a man who has scrimped and saved his entire life, even sold the business he started from scratch, in order to come up with a huge nest egg for his retirement. His plan is to move to some exotic but third-world country where slightly less than a million bucks will easily last him the rest of his life. His wife has been dragging her heels, though, and no one thinks he'll ever really go.

However, right when he has finally made the decision to go, no matter what, his wife is diagnosed with a rare and devastating type of cancer. Health insurance only covers so much of the treatment, and the out-of-pocket expenses rocket through their nest egg in a shockingly short amount of time.

Meanwhile, his best friend is going through a health care nightmare of his own. Not only is his daughter sick, but he has... Well, I'll let you find out about that on your own.

It is, as one reviewer put it, somewhat opportunistic, as the book came out right when the health bill debate was going on. But although the book has some good points, it is also a good, compelling story about how far people will go — and how much they will pay — to save their loved ones.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Rest of Her Life by Laura Moriarty

iconiconNote: The image links to the bargain book listing at Barnes & Noble, where you can get the hardcover for only $2.99.  This price won't last long, however, so be sure to get it while you can!

I've seen The Rest of Her Life at Barnes & Noble on the bargain table for months now, and I finally remembered to put it on my library list. (Thank heavens for the library — as fast as I read, have you any idea how much money I would spend if I bought all of these books?!)

Anyway, I initially assumed this would be mainstream fiction, but a little ways into the book I realized it read more like literary fiction. It was very much character-driven, rather than plot-driven. The plot was important, because that's what put the characters in the positions they were in, but at the same time it was the mother's and daughter's characters, and the friction between them and various other characters in the book, that drove the story.

It's been a while since I've read good literary fiction, so it was somewhat of an adjustment after being in mainstream fiction-mode for so long. But I do have to say I really enjoyed the book, particularly the analysis of the relationship between mother and daughter.

Monday, September 13, 2010

When Night Falls by Margaret Daley

iconiconWhen Night Falls is another free novella available as an ebook on BN.com. I believe it is a piece of a full-length novel, shortened and given away as a free download to market the author's books.

Of course, I probably should have known it wouldn't be great because of the publisher. I read enough romance back in the day to know that books published by Harlequin are usually pretty unimpressive. 8/9/2011: I take that back — in the 10 months or so since I wrote this review, I've actually read a lot of great books published by Harlequin, especially by Harlequin Teen!  But hey, it was free, so I decided to try it out — and I'm glad I did, because it gave me something to read when I was away from home and it turned out I didn't like the book I'd brought with me, The Courtier's Secret.

I did like this one better than the other short story I read, "Lead Me Home." The characters and story were compelling enough to make me want to keep reading and find out what happened, although I could have done without the repeated references to "the Lord." Also, although I liked the characters, I didn't agree with how they were characterized. Workaholics, sure. But was the guy a loner, and did he keep his emotions tightly in check? Not really.

In any case, it was a quick, fun, and FREE read — perhaps worth checking out, if you want to see whether you enjoy the experience of reading an ebook on your computer or handheld device. You will have to download B&N's Nook app onto your computer, iPhone, iPod, or other smartphone, but they are free software downloads.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Lead Me Home by L.K. Campbell

This short story is a free ebook from Barnes & Noble, so feel free to click on the link and download it for free. You will need their ebook reader software to read it, but the Nook app can be downloaded on your computer, Apple device (iPod, iPhone, iPad), and I think some other smartphones as well. Edit 8/9/2011: I no longer see a listing for this on Barnes & Noble's site, so the image link you see goes to the Smashwords listing.

That being said, I actually wasn't all that impressed with this story. Many of the reviews on BN.com complained about it being too short, but I didn't think that was the root of the problem. It is possible for a talented writer to develop characters and stories you can care about, even in a short number of pages.

To me, the problem with this story was that it was too cliched. It was romance, so maybe that was the problem — it's been a long time since I've read romance. But judging from the number of bad reviews, I rather suspect it was just poor writing. Maybe the author is better at writing full-length novels, who knows — but with a free short story like this marketing their books, there is no way anyone is going to pay for a book to find out!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Courtier's Secret by Donna Russo Morin

iconiconDo you ever try to read a book and just find that you can't get into it? That's the way I felt with The Courtier's Secret, by Donna Russo Morin. I read about 50 pages into it, and just didn't feel like anything happened to make me care about the characters. After 50 pages, I think the reader ought to feel compelled to finish the book, don't you? But I wasn't, so I didn't.

Being a quitter, deciding not to finish a book, never sits well with me. I always feel guilty, like I've done something immoral. But at the same time, there are so many books out there that I want to read, and at this point in my life, I just can no longer justify spending time on a book that I'm not enjoying.

Luckily, this doesn't happen to me very often. I'm usually fairly easy to please, and I enjoy most books I pick up. I think it is probably this particular author's writing style that just doesn't jive with me, since I read an ebook sample of her second book, The Secret of the Glassicon, and I didn't even finish the sample — I couldn't get into that book, either.

Perhaps I'll come back to this book eventually and try again. I have done that before. But for right now, I have too many books that I think I will find more interesting, so I'll return The Courtier's Secret to the library and read something else.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Outside of a Horse by Ginny Rorby

iconiconThis is another of the YA novels I have read recently: The Outside of a Horse, by Ginny Rorby. A couple of years ago, I read Rorby's Hurt Go Happy, and after I blogged about it, she emailed me to thank me for my review. She also added me to her mailing list, so I received her email blast announcing The Outside of a Horse.

I'd loved Hurt Go Happy, and being a horse owner, I was excited to see that her next novel was about one of my greatest passions. However, I was totally unprepared by how much this novel would affect me.

The novel is about a 13-year-old girl named Hannah who gets into horse rescue. She starts working at a neighborhood stable just before her father comes back from Iraq with an amputated leg, and before long is helping the boarders rescue neglected and abused horses. It is her connection to the horses that help her — and ultimately her dad, too — get through the changes in their lives. And, in turn, it is her and her dad's experiences that help to save the life of a little filly Hannah falls in love with.

Followers of my Pony Tales Blog already know that I rescued my horse as a yearling from backyard breeders. Maybe that's why I was so moved by this book — I even wrote to the author. Horse crazy girls are going to love this novel, but judging from my own experience, so will women who are still horse crazy little girls at heart!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Devil's Paintbox by Victoria McKernan

iconiconThe Devil's Paintbox is another of those books I spotted in the young adult section at Barnes & Noble, along with Nobody's Princess, Nobody's Prize, and Sphinx's Princess. This book wasn't quite what I expected, though — it was much darker than I generally expect young adult fiction to be. But it was also extremely well researched and compelling, and I loved it!

The book is about a 15-year-old boy and his little sister, orphans on a failed homestead in Kansas, who join a wagon train to work in a logging camp in the Pacific Northwest. The title refers to smallpox, which plays a pretty major role in the events of the book.

In a lot of ways, this book reminds me of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, as it is the story of a boy who goes on a journey and confronts issues such as racism, indentured servitude, and violence. Above all, it is a coming-of-age story, about a boy who is thrown out into the world to learn for himself what is right and wrong.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Sphinx's Princess by Esther Friesner

iconiconAlthough I love Greek mythology, I actually ended up liking this book better than the other two I read by Esther Friesner, Nobody's Princess and Nobody's Prize, about Helen of Troy. Sphinx's Princess is about Nefertiti as a young girl, about her childhood and her move to the palace, and her early friendship with Amenophis (Akhenaten), whom she later married.

I don't know much about Nefertiti, so I had no expectations going into the book, and I think that is partly why I liked it more than the others. I also am fascinated with Ancient Egyptian culture. After I finished the book, I looked up Nefertiti and her husband, and discovered all kinds of things that weren't in the book because they have to do with her later life, such as how the two of them were known for introducing monotheism.

When I was looking for more information on the book, I also discovered that, just like with Nobody's Princess, Friesner has written a sequel: Sphinx's Queen, which will be available later this month. I'm looking forward to reading it!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Nobody's Prize by Esther Friesner

iconiconAfter reading Nobody's Princess, I went right on to Nobody's Prize, so the two seemed to me like a single novel. In some ways I think they should have, because (in my opinion) all the more interesting stuff happens in the second book. The first one seems like the purpose is primarily to set up Nobody's Prize.

This book gets more into the early legends of Helen of Troy. For instance, she spends a good portion of the book as King Theseus's prisoner. I didn't even know about those legends — like most people, I'm sure, most of what I knew about Helen of Troy had to do with her role in the Trojan War.

In my review of Nobody's Princess, I compared these books to Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small, which is a series of four books: First Test, Page, Squire, and Lady Knight. Friesner's portrayal of Helen is very much like Pierce's heroine's: precocious and spirited. I can definitely see how a lot of preteen and teen girls would love these books.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Nobody's Princess by Esther Friesner

iconiconI have a lot of books to review — even though I wasn't blogging much for a little while, it wasn't for lack of reading. I am not going in any particular order, so I'll actually be jumping around a little.

Anyways, I have to admit it — I do check the young adult section at Barnes & Noble periodically. Some of the best books I've read have been young adult, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. Heck, the Harry Potter and Twilight Saga have both become hugely popular, and NOT only with the audience they were intended for. I know plenty of adults who have been obsessed with both series.

I have seen this book, Nobody's Princess, and the sequel, Nobody's Prize, many times. It always interests me when an author rewrites a myth (Robin McKinley's Beauty comes to mind), so I decided to check them out.

The books are about Helen of Troy, but I was surprised to discover that neither dealt with the stuff about her that everyone knows — as the catalyst for the Trojan War. Nobody's Princess was about her early childhood and adventures. I didn't know that Helen was Spartan, did you?

I didn't like this book as much as the next one, but I did enjoy the part of the book where she was learning to ride. The woman who taught her, a woman hunter and warrior, was a great character. The feel of the book reminded me of Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small, a series of four books about a girl who trains to be a knight.

I thought the next book was better — the purpose of this book seemed to be more or less to set up Nobody's Prize — so stay tuned for my next review!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Touch of Dead by Charlaine Harris

iconiconIf you noticed while you were reading the 10 Sookie Stackhouse books that there were some holes and things that weren't explained, or if you want to read everything in order as you read the novels, be sure to check out A Touch of Dead by Charlaine Harris. It has five of the Sookie short stories:

"Fairy Dust" is about Claude, Claudine, and Claudette. If you wondered about the references in the later books to Claude and Claudine's triplet, Claudette, who was killed, this short story explains it! It also introduces Claude for the first time, if his sudden appearance in the books seemed a little weird to you.

"Dracula Night" is about a party at Fangtasia for Dracula, which ends about as you might think, with Sookie involved.

"One Word Answer" is the short story that explains about Hadley, Sookie's cousin. In the story, Sookie finds out that Hadley was a vampire and was murdered, and she has to decide what to do about Hadley's murderer. If you have read "Definitely Dead" and were confused by the references to Hadley, that's because the events in this story occurred between the fifth and sixth novels.

"Lucky" is about Sookie's insurance agent, who uses magic to protect his clients' property. Turns out that wasn't the best idea...

"Gift Wrap" is about Sookie getting laid. No, not in detail, but that's the general idea. This girl gets more action than any other heroine I've ever read about!

The stories aren't very long, but like the Sookie Stackhouse novels, they are a lot of fun. Plus, they fill in some holes. I didn't read them in the proper order, but I recommend it if you can. Harris's introduction at the beginning of the book tells you where each story belongs in the time line.

Edit 3-30-2011: I noticed today that the ebook edition of this book is $18.99.  I hope that's an error, and not the publisher getting greedy, because $18.99 is a ridiculous price to pay for a short collection of short stories!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Dead in the Family by Charlaine Harris

iconiconThe entire time I was reading the Sookie Stackhouse novels, I was rushing along to get to this one, book 10: Dead in the Family. Since the book is pretty new, though, there was a long wait at the library, so I bought the ebook (even if it did cost twice as much as any of the others

By this book, Sookie and Eric's relationship is pretty sure, but the new political order in the vampires of Louisiana is causing problems for both of them. Then, to make matters worse, Eric's maker shows up. (In True Blood, he has a different maker, who dies in season 2.) This poses a threat to Sookie and Eric, too.

I think book 9, Dead and Gone, was kind of a turning point in the series. It was definitely darker than the previous eight, and you see signs of that in this book too. Although one of the threats is dealt with in the end of the book, you can tell Harris is working up to something big, perhaps in book 11 — which is due out next May.

I can't wait!

Edit 3/30/2011: It appears there is now a paperback edition, which means that the ebook is no longer the cheapest edition, since it's still $12.99.  Hopefully it will come down in price soon now that there is a paperback available.

Edit 8/9/2011: The ebook edition is $7.99!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Dead and Gone by Charlaine Harris

iconiconAfter being more or less strung along for the previous eight books, it is nice to see Eric and Sookie's relationship finally taking shape in Dead and Gone. That was one of my favorite things about this book.

Book 9 of the Sookie Stackhouse books is also interesting because it is the first book where the fairies, another group of others that was introduced a few books earlier, play a major role. In fact, this book is more about Sookie's connection to the fairies than almost anything else.

This book is also kind of a turning point in the series. All along, Charlaine Harris is kept Sookie's narrative voice funny and irreverent, which I loved because it is so unusual in the vampire genre. Think Twilight, Interview with the Vampire, etc. — angst is kind of the norm for these books.

But this book changes in a way. Sookie doesn't completely lose her narrative voice, but the feel of this book is a lot darker than the earlier novels. Even though Sookie's irreverence is one of the things I love about these books, I think the shift in this novel is appropriate, when you consider how involved Sookie was getting in the supe world!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

From Dead to Worse by Charlaine Harris

iconiconAlthough I hadn't liked Definitely Dead and All Together Dead — books 6 and 7 of the Sookie Stackhouse novels — as much, I did really like From Dead to Worse. I think part of it was that I was always rooting for Sookie and Eric to get together, and in this book they start heading in that direction. Sookie calls off her relationship with the weretiger that was in books 6 and 7, for one thing. Also, Sookie and Eric have exchanged blood so many times that they now have a pretty close bond, and that plays a major part in the events of the eighth novel.

From Dead to Worse deals a lot with the politics of the different groups of "supes" Sookie is involved with. There are major upheavals going on with both the local weres and the vamps — both groups are trying to resist political takeovers. Also in this book, you find out about Sookie's connection to the fairies, yet another group of supes.

As with all of the Sookie Stackhouse novels, one of the things that I really love about this book is the unique narrative voice Charlaine Harris creates. In a genre that is usually dramatic, serious, and more often than not, angsty, Sookie's irreverence really stands out!