Friday, April 17, 2015

Doomsday Book

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (1992)

In a not-so-distant future, historians are able to delve into their research like never before by actually traveling to the periods they're studying. Kivrin is preparing to visit 1320 so she can learn about how people lived in the Middle Ages, while avoiding the plague that came a bit later. The techs and faculty send her off nervously, despite all their careful preparations, and almost immediately find themselves in the midst of an epidemic. When Kivrin arrives in the Middle Ages she takes ill herself and wakes up in a village not knowing how to find her way back to the rendezvous spot.

Doomsday Book is both science fiction and historical fiction and both parts of the story were engrossing and enjoyable. I knew I'd like Kivrin's story set in the time period she has studied for so long, yet remains unfamiliar. All the ways in which she prepared so she could blend in were fascinating, and the relationships she developed with the people she met there were interesting and sometimes touching. She stayed with a family and grew close to the two daughters, the twelve-year-old already betrothed to a much older man. The youngest daughter was completely unsuspecting and therefore a fount of information. Kivrin had to be more guarded around the adults, some of whom didn't quite believe her story: that she had been attacked in the forest and couldn't remember anything about her former life. As trouble settled on the village, the inhabitants came to depend on Kivin's help, just as she began to lose hope of ever returning home.

The other part of the story, set at the college, was also quite good. The main character here was Dunworthy, the instructor who helped Kivrin prepare but nevertheless wasn't completely sold on the idea of this trip. He was determined to get Kivrin back, even as he dealt with the chaos and quarantine from the illness sweeping through the area. It was actually surprisingly humorous in parts. There was a whole cast of amusing characters thrown together during what was a disorganized and desperate time, including a group of American bell-ringers who had arrived to perform and became stuck once the area was under quarantine, and an overbearing mother who came to look out for her son whose academic stress, to her, was of just as much importance as the rampaging illness. Of course, it was a serious epidemic so this wasn't all fun and games as people got very ill and some died. All the while Dunworthy and his colleagues struggled to overcome bureaucracy and technology to save Kivrin.

Time travel tends to be very confusing to me, but here it was kept simple with some very basic rules. The cast of characters was large, but not unwieldy, and their many personalities added a great deal to the story. I liked both Kivrin and Dunworthy and continued to root for their success, while at times resigning myself to failure. (I really didn't know how it would go until the very end.) Everything about this book worked really well for me.

This was one of my choices for the TBR Pile Challenge, and I think is the last of the more lengthy books on my list. It was around 450 pages, and while it wasn't a quick read it was just a great story that I found completely engrossing. If you like historical novels or science fiction, or just want a good book that you can really lose yourself in, you may want to try Doomsday Book.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Anna and the French Kiss

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins (2010), narrated by Kim Mai Guest

Anna Oliphant is being forced to leave Atlanta her senior year and attend boarding school in Paris. She doesn't know a word of French and is upset to leave her best friend and her semi-boyfriend. But then she meets her neighbor Meredith and, soon after, the adorable and British-accented Etienne St. Clair. With her new group of friends, Paris suddenly doesn't feel so lonely. 

Ugh, Paris! I sometimes wish I had rich-people problems. But I do understand that it's difficult to uproot your life during these sensitive, dramatic years. Like many teenage girls, Anna doesn't have a whole lot of self-confidence. Forget making friends, she can't even order a meal at the cafeteria. So afraid to try her French or ask questions, she spends her first several weeks eating only the self-serve options of bread and fruit. But eventually, with the help of her new best friend St. Clair, she is even comfortable going to the movies.

St. Clair...adorable, unavailable St. Clair. You realize this is a romance, right? So their getting together is inevitable, but how do they get there? Even though his relationship with his long-term girlfriend is a bit rocky, he hates change. And Anna just assumes that no boy worth liking would actually like her back (how I remember those days!) So it's a long, slow, delicious crawl to the finish line with these two.

Of course there's lots of other stuff going on to distract them (somewhat) from each other, like St. Clair's mom's illness, and Anna's trouble with her semi-boyfriend back home. Anna is actually pretty interesting; she's passionate about movies and wants to be a film critic. She's exasperated by her father, who writes terrible sentimental novels that are made into worse movies (think Nicholas Sparks). Her best friend Bridget plays the drums and is not taken seriously because she's a girl. But then she has the opportunity to join the semi-boyfriend's band and there is where everything begins to get complicated between Anna and Bridget. Of course it's extra tough to deal with friendship issues when there's an entire ocean between you.

At times, Anna's behavior was painful and embarrassing, but I can't fault it because it is exactly the same sort of painful embarrassing behavior I remember from my own youth. Poor communication is usually a pet peeve for me in romance, but here it was the sort that actually exists. Like not believing what somebody says when they're drunk. That makes sense, right?

This was a great audio choice because it was light and fun and fairly simple, all-around easy to listen to. The narrator was good, but I see that the next two in the series each have different narrators, which is odd. But I'll let you know how they are, because I'll definitely be continuing with this series.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Through the Woods

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll (2014)

In this collection of five graphic short stories, Emily Carroll lures the reader into dark places where things are just not right and anything is possible. In one story, three children are left alone when their father goes hunting, with explicit instructions of what to do if he doesn't return; in another, a young woman is married to an older man and moves into his house, which is full of secrets; in a third, a man sits in a pub watching his brother socialize, knowing that he has already murdered his brother so this can't be him. Each premise brings with it a bit of unease that only increases as the story progresses.

As is typical in horror, the endings aren't crystal clear and they're definitely not neatly tied up with a happy resolution. I didn't always exactly get the ending of these stories, but man, they were creepy. And sometimes it's the not-quite-getting-it that makes it even a little bit creepier because it remains mysterious.

I'm pretty sure I saw a review of this somewhere, but I will fully admit that the primary reason I read it is because of the cover art, which is representative of the vibrant, dramatic illustrations throughout.  My favorites were the stunning pictures of the house in "A Lady's Hands Are Cold" (which, isn't that a great title?) I am always impressed by how much can be conveyed by just one picture, and this collection includes many examples of just that.

The graphic novel is a great medium for scary tales and I'd love to find more. I tried Joe Hill's Locke and Key and it was all right, but I didn't love it even though I really enjoy his other work. Do you have any suggestions for scary graphic novels?

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Sum of All Kisses

The Sum of All Kisses (Smythe-Smith Quartet #3) by Julia Quinn (2013)

Before we even get started, we need to get this out of the way: The Sum of All Kisses is a terrible title. It may be the worst title of any book I've read. It's not even the type you can enjoy making fun of; it's just saccharine and cutesy and awful. Let's just accept it and move on.

In this third installment of the Smythe-Smith Quartet, we begin by learning about the duel that drove Daniel out of the country and left Hugh Prentice partially disabled. Hugh has patched things up with Daniel and will, in fact, be attending his wedding in a couple of weeks. But first is the wedding of Honoria and Marcus (who got together in Just Like Heaven.) Lady Sarah Pleinsworth is also attending these weddings and, unfortunately, she and Hugh keep getting stuck together even though they cannot stand each other.

Sarah hates Hugh because of what he did to her cousin Daniel. That whole escapade kept her at home during what should have been her first season out, a season in which no less than fourteen eligible bachelors found wives. She could have been one of them. Now, her chances of making a good marriage have decreased.

Hugh also feels terrible about what happened with Daniel, but there is much more to that story than Sarah knows. The worst of it is because of Hugh's awful father, who is an incredibly vindictive and abusive man. Now, Hugh is trying to keep his father away from Daniel while trying to deal with his changed life situation, now that his injuries have left him unable to do things he enjoys such as hunting and dancing.

As much as I liked Sarah, Hugh was the really interesting character for me in this novel. The duel with Daniel was ridiculous and came from Hugh having too much to drink and losing at cards. He's a mathematical whiz, and not used to losing. But the duel almost killed him, which would mean no heir, and his father was livid. Hugh tried to remind him that his older brother could still marry and father some kids, but they both knew that he was not the marrying kind, if you catch my drift. Hugh's feelings for his father, brother, and Daniel are all explored during this novel, as, of course, are his feelings for Lady Sarah Pleinsworth. But there's more to the situation with his father than she knows, and as their feelings for each other turn surprisingly romantic, it is clear they may have hurdles to overcome that are far more difficult than their initial dislike of one another.

This was a fun read! I think I still liked the first two books in the series better, but it still had the humor that I so enjoy in Quinn's writing and the storyline was pretty good. I can't say what made it weaker than the others to me, but somehow it just didn't grab me quite as much. But after that existential young adult novel I had just finished, I think it was exactly what I needed.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Nothing

Nothing by Janne Teller (2010)

One day, Pierre Anthon realizes that life has no meaning and he leaves his classroom to go sit in a plum tree. His classmates, upset by his new philosophy, decide they must do something that show him that life does in fact have meaning. What they do begins innocently enough, but soon escalates into competitive sacrifice and violence.

It escalates kind of ridiculously, in fact. But I'm not sure this is a story that should be taken literally. It's less realistic fiction, and more existential fairy tale. You know how fairy tales are full of casual violence and don't always make a lot of sense? It was kind of like that. Surreal. It kept reminding me of Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone.

My main question while reading, was why do they care so much what Pierre Anthon thought? I found him kind of annoying. It was rather hard to believe that every kid would buy into this need to prove that life has meaning by doing such crazy stuff, and not one of them would be like "Hey, maybe we're going a little too far here." But again, see fairy tales/not-making-sense above.

I read this for my Not-So-Young Adult Book Group because they wanted some YA in translation. This is the second in translation book (the first was 172 Hours on the Moon). Nothing was definitely better but I am sort of conflicted about it. The writing was definitely superior to our last work in translation, but I didn't find the story especially compelling. It won a Printz Award and John Green apparently loved it, so there's that. It was a very quick read - I read almost the entire thing in one sitting - so I may just need time to process it. I like it a little more as I think about it, though I don't think it's a book I'll rush out to recommend.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Top Ten Characters I'd Like to Check in With


Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted by The Broke and the Bookish

1. Leonard Peacock from Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock.

2. Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

3. Hazel from The Fault in Our Stars. I mean, we know it's not going to end well for her, but I kind of feel like we all lost interest and abandoned her after the events of the story. But her story isn't over

4. Libby from Dark Places. Actually, I worry about all of Gillian Flynn's characters.

5. Sage from Almost Perfect

6. Auggie from Wonder. I can't imagine things would have gotten easier in high school, and I really hope he maintained his sense of humor and positive outlook.

7. Austin (and everyone) from Grasshopper Jungle

8. Tana from The Coldest Girl in Coldtown. I don't actually even remember how it ended, but I think it was sort of open and I'd really like to revisit this story.

9. Eleanor and Park from Eleanor and Park.

10. Petronella from The Miniaturist. She was so young and had to deal with a lot. I don't recall everything about how it ended (do I ever?) but she came into her own during the course of the story and I'd really like to see how things went for her later.

Most of these tend to be younger people, I guess because these books took place during their formative years and things could go so many ways after those times. What about you? Are there any characters you find yourself wondering about later?

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Attachments

The Attachments by Rainbow Rowell (2011)

It is 1999 and Lincoln is hired at a newspaper to monitor everyone's email. It's a pretty boring job, even with the upcoming millennium bug to deal with (remember that letdown?). But when his software flags a conversation between two women named Jennifer and Beth, not only does he refrain from sending them a warning about person email use, but he starts reading their conversation in earnest. Even worse, he totally starts falling for Beth.

Lincoln is totally charming in a way that I wish existed in actual men, but I'm pretty sure doesn't. (Thank you, Rainbow Rowell, for setting up unrealistic expectations.) He's still getting over his one major relationship and is living with his mother. He plays Dungeons & Dragons on the weekends and that is pretty much it for his social life. But he's such a kind and honest sort of guy, a guy with very simple needs and a good heart. Sigh.

Beth and Jennifer are super entertaining and I really enjoyed reading their email conversations. When the book begins, Jennifer and her husband are in disagreement about having a baby, and Beth is having relationship troubles with her musician boyfriend. I really enjoyed getting to know them both through their conversations, which were sometimes serious, sometimes silly, and frequently funny. The real fun begins, of course, when Beth catches a glimpse of Lincoln in the break room and begins crushing on him and referring to him as My Cute Guy. Of course Lincoln wants to approach her, but how can he do this after spying on her without it being incredibly awkward?

From the beginning we know it is inevitable that they will get together, and when they finally did I actually found it a little bit too quick and perfect and neat. But that hardly matters, because the getting there was just so much fun. I devoured this book in a couple of days and now I want more! But I've unfortunately exhausted Rainbow Rowell's catalog and now I'm just going to have to wait for Carry On, which will be published in the fall.