Monday, January 31, 2011

Review: Dead and Gone by Charlaine Harris

When we talk about escape reading, the Sookie Stackhouse series definitely has that escapist factor!  Filled with all sorts of paranormal elements, mystery, and romance, they are a crazy, good time.  In May, book 11 in the series, Dead Reckoning comes out and I'd like to be up to speed by then, so I recently read Dead and Gone (book 9).  This is a difficult book to review without giving away a little something, so I'll do my best to not include spoilers!

Synopsis:  From Goodreads, "Except for Sookie Stackhouse, folks in Bon Temps, Louisiana, know little about vamps-and nothing about weres.

Until now. The weres and shifters have finally decided to reveal their existence to the ordinary world. At first all goes well. Then the mutilated body of a were-panther is found near the bar where Sookie works-and she feels compelled to discover who, human or otherwise, did it.

But there's a far greater danger threatening Bon Temps. A race of unhuman beings-older, more powerful, and more secretive than vampires or werewolves-is preparing for war. And Sookie finds herself an all-too human pawn in their battle."

Review:  In this latest installment in the Sookie Stackhouse series, Sookie has returned home once again to try to get back to her "normal" life.  We know there are weres, shifters, and vampires, but to this we add the faeries.  Sookie meets some of her long-lost family and learns more about her past and who her parents were.  As with everything else Sookie has been involved with, it sometimes is just too much and all she really wants is a real life where she can go to work, come home, and have a normal existence that doesn't involve fearing for her life.  That's just not possible for Sookie though.  What do you do with a talent like reading people's thoughts?  No, Sookie is too valuable to all sides of the paranormal and human community.

This particular book, thankfully, doesn't show Sookie whining about the dangers she finds herself.  I liked that Sookie faced everything in a no-nonsense, this-is-my-life now sort of way.  In fact, I wasn't annoyed that she had protectors hanging around, because I finally felt that even Sookie just got that this is how things were for her.   

We have a lot of characters in this novel, both from past installments in the series, and new characters that are adding to this paranormal world Sookie lives in.  She's not alone in finding out about all of the paranormals though, as the weres come out to the world and among the vampires, their loyalty and power lines have shifted.  Eric and Bill are still very present, and it doesn't seem as though romance will ever be a completely easy thing for Sookie.  I felt as Sookie did though, wondering if her connection to Eric is only based on a swapping of blood (Yea, the exchange of bodily fluids element confuses things here), unlike the relationship and feelings she had for Bill at one time.  Honestly, I still like Bill and think that he was good for her, but totally get the tie to hottie Eric and all his influence and power in the vamp community. 

This is just a fun series to read.  This may not be a series that I recommend to my high school students, although I know some of them have/are reading them, but I have enjoyed them.  These really are pretty different, so you never know what to expect, which is a nice change.

*FTC Disclosure:  This review is based on a library copy of the novel.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The W's of Reading: Are You a Distracted Reader?

Happy Sunday to you!  I'm feeling upbeat and happy right now because, thankfully, I'm getting through the grading I've been grumbling about for ages.  It's been a slow process, but I'm seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and should be finished with them later this coming week.  In the midst of all the grading, I seem to be reading a lot more than usual.  Reading has been my treat after a certain number of papers have been waded through!  In fact, I've been able to escape into a good read much easier than ever before, which led me to question just what it is about myself that makes me so easily distracted, normally?

For as long as I can remember, I've always been a "distracted" reader.  What do I mean by that?  It basically means that you could walk past me, talk to me, or have a conversation with someone else and I would catch all of it.  I've never been the type to escape to the degree that I can't be pulled out of a book, and that frustrates me. 

Each semester or year, I give my high school students a survey to find out what kind of readers they are and have found out the my "big time" readers are what I call "Escape" readers.  You would practically have to light them on fire to get their attention!  One of my best friends is like this as well and I'm completely jealous.  I don't know what it takes to be like that, but I have a feeling that it's just not in my DNA to become one. 

Having said that, I still think I read quite a bit.  However, here are the stipulations that I have to have in place to really read.  See if these "Distracted" reader qualities fit you:
  • I generally read a stack (7-12) books all at once.  When I get bored/distracted with one, it's just because I'm thinking about another book I'm dying to nibble away at.
  • The only exception to this is with what we call "Deconstructionist" texts that have so many fragmented story lines and narrators (i.e. Salman Rushdie) that I have to have a pen out to follow the story.  (One of my graduate professors pointed this out to me, that having multiple story lines and narrators settled me into one book.)
  • Although I carry books with me, everywhere I go, I can't necessarily settle into the book unless things are somewhat calm around me.  Read in line outside a concert?  Strangely, I can't unless I'm feeling a little down and disconnected from people.  Otherwise, I'm people watching and don't want to slip into a book! 
  • Public places are difficult.  I might read, but am painfully aware of what's going on around me.  I've gotten used to the fact that I'm easily distracted, but it is annoying at times.
  • Often times, it takes a little time to get into a book and hit that escape point.  Maybe I've been working with teenagers for too long, since they are like this, but I find that I have to have a type of reading warm up.  Once I'm warmed up and into the story though, I resent it when I have to stop.
  • My environment has to be right.  If I'm honest with  myself, I will admit that I have to have it quiet to read.  I can read with the TV on, but it has to be turned down, and I can't read with music on.  Even reading with a person next to me, who could be doing the same thing, is too much of a distraction.  I'm always aware of what's going on around me.
  • Technology can be a HUGE distraction when I'm trying to read.  Generally, my iPhone is by my side all the time, except the volume is off 99% of the time because of my job.  When things get quiet and I'm ready to read, I find myself reaching for my phone to check email, twitter, and my RSS feeds.  
  • Strangely, I can escape pretty well if I take off and go for a walk with my book.  Maybe it's that kinesthetic element?  By moving, my brain allows me to slip off into what I'm reading?
  • Sometimes when I'm bone tired or stressed out (as I've been the past several weeks), escaping is the easiest thing in the world.  Essentially, if my brain is worn down, I can read forever and not get distracted.
In the end, I've learned that reading is a necessity for my life and that I'm always seeking the moment or book that completely pulls me away.  (Geesh, that sounds like an addiction!)  Here are my necessary elements for a good escape:  quiet, comfortable space (tub, bed, couch, walking), and a little time to get warmed up and into the story.  Can I blame all of this on being an only child?  Did the quiet I grow up with come around to bite me now that I'm older, or is this just a personality trait?

Please share with me!  I really want to know if you're what I call a "Distracted" reader or an "Escape" reader, and have you always been like that?  If you're like me, what do you do to really escape?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Essay Update

I thought I'd post a quick update to explain my continued inability to get anything written!  My essay count is now down to 72 out of the original 140+.  I still feel a bit buried, but it's MY OWN FAULT for assigning all of this writing and then feeling like I have to give all this feedback.  No need to feel sorry for me.  I just thought I'd share the real reason I have no brain cells to rub together to write a review.  :)

Thanks for your patience!  I've been reading blog posts this past week and have added to my TBR pile.  I hope to be back on writing and corresponding again, soon.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Sunday Blatherings

Here's what I'm doing this weekend:

Grading 140+ essays...

Maybe reading a few of these...

And doing a lot of this...

What are you doing this weekend?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Film Review: Dorian Gray (2009)

I've been on a bit of a Colin Firth kick lately, after viewing The King's Speech.  I was so very excited for Firth when he won the Golden Globe for Best Actor!  (You can view his gracious and funny acceptance speech at this link:  "Colin Firth Wins at Golden Globes 2011".  Even more fun, watch him in a post-award interview on E! speaking Italian.)  He was absolutely deserving of this award, and from the body of work he has acted in, how can you not love everything about Colin Firth?  I know I'm still in love with this versatile actor.

Having gushed just a smidge about Firth's acting abilities, I took some time this past weekend to watch Dorian Gray, based on Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.  I actually read the novel back when I first started "One Literature Nut," but didn't ever write a review.  Now I wish I had, as the film reminded me of the subtlety of Oscar Wilde's writing about such a startling downfall.

In the film, a young and handsome Dorian Gray (played by Ben Barnes) played directly against the standards of his Victorian society by trading his beauty in a portrait for that of his own.  Goaded on by Lord Henry Wotton (played by Firth), Dorian is urged to live a life of pleasure, as Lord Henry convinces Dorian that the only way to avoid being pressured by one's vices is to give into them.  From this, Dorian begins to explore his senses, giving up what could have been his one true love for a hedonistic lifestyle, giving into every vice known to man.  As Dorian sank deeper and deeper into his lifestyle, he noticed that the portrait began to show signs of deep ugliness to the point of frightening him.  The portrait of Dorian began to look haggard, cruel, debased, and pock-marked with the deepest, most ghoulish signs of ugliness.  Not only had the portrait aged, but it had taken on the hideous characteristics buried within his soul.

Through the film, we are artistically drawn into much deeper questions about the importance of physical beauty, living with restraint, and the distortion of social values. More outright in its depiction of Dorian's pursuit of pleasure, often shocking in its breadth, we really get a sense for how far he was willing to go as he delved farther into his lifestyle. The acting was  superb, losing us in these characters and their experiences.  Although I love Firth for so many of the endearing characters he has played (Darcy in P&P and Bridget Jones Diary, in Nanny McPhee, etc.), I was completely lost in his role as scandalous villain Lord Henry Wotton; rarely did I feel that he was anything other than Lord Henry himself.  Ben Barnes also played what felt like a flawless Dorian, showing the cunning side of evil with a pretty face to hide behind.  In fact, I shuddered at his ability to show evil with such beauty.

Without giving anything away, I have to admit that the last thirty minutes of the film were by far the most gripping.  There is this Edgar Alan Poe meets Alfred Hitchcock moment where you have to rethink the entire film!  Honestly, the last moments were priceless and bear mentioning.

Dorian Gray is not a film I'll be sharing with any of my students, but will say that for anyone who likes period pieces or films based on literature (with a gritty edge), this is a great film.  The themes in this film bear considering and are presented in such a dark, freaky way that you can't help thinking about them once the film is over.  In fact, one of Dorian's lines near the end of the film has echoed in my head ever since, "Pleasure is different from happiness."

If you're curious, here is the link to the trailer for Dorian Gray.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Review: The Dark Divine by Bree Despain

I'm ashamed to say that I've had The Dark Divine by Bree Despain for almost a year!  It wasn't until I realized that book two was coming out, and the fact that some of my students chose to read this for literature circles in my Popular Fiction class (and loved it), that I decided I had to get to it.  Originally, the boys in my Pop. Fiction class were leery of the "girlie" cover, but soon were sucked into the story and told all of the guys in the class that it was a good read for anyone.  I really wanted to see what they were talking about and just jumped in!

Synopsis:  From Goodreads, "Grace Divine—daughter of the local pastor—always knew something terrible happened the night Daniel Kalbi disappeared and her brother Jude came home covered in his own blood.  Now that Daniel's returned, Grace must choose between her growing attraction to him and her loyalty to her brother.  As Grace gets closer to Daniel, she learns the truth about that mysterious night and how to save the ones she loves, but it might cost her the one thing she cherishes most: her soul."

Review:  The Dark Divine originally felt familiar, like something I had read before.  In a lot of ways, this did seem like a common paranormal teen read, but the complication in the story between Grace, Daniel, and Grace's brother Jude builds and builds and builds in such a way that you have to keep reading.  Why did Daniel disappear in the first place?  Why does Jude hate him so much?  How does he happen to appear to help Grace when she needs help?   Readers somehow get that Daniel is the bad boy that Grace should avoid, but we also see that there is a lot we don't know.  Daniel is definitely mysterious, but has this vulnerability to him that pushes the reader to find out why.  

There is a definite paranormal twist to the novel, and a big, bad monster on the loose that has you looking at many of the characters in the novel with a skeptical eye.  Thankfully, each plot point moves closer and closer to the conclusion, which is quite a page turner.  In fact, the climax of the story felt like an action movie that I could see inside my head with drama, romance, and a fight sequence that had me nervous.  Honestly, the story was well thought out, engaging, and actually felt new, regardless of the number of paranormal teen reads out right now.

One of the best recommendations I think I can give for the novel would actually have to be from my own students.  Some of the boys were reluctant to read what they perceived might be a "girlie" book, based on the cover; however, they quickly came back saying how much they liked it.  The action in the story wasn't erased by any over-sentimentality and romance on the part of the female protagonist, and so they liked it.  I can see why.  The Dark Divine is mysterious, emotional, and has me wanting to read the next book in the series so I can hurry and catch up with these characters!  For me, this was one of the better young adult novels I've read this past year. 

*FTC Disclosure:  This review was based on a personal copy of the novel.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sunday Blatherings: 1/2 Way Through 2010-2011 School Year!

Friday wrapped up Term Two at the high school where I teach.  I also finished my contract work with my online job and finals week in the online class I'm teaching came to an end.  That was a lot of extraneous stuff that kept me running like a hamster in a wheel for far too long.  Needless to say, I haven't left my house these past two days as a reaction to the past two weeks.  It's been REALLY nice!  My library account is maxed out and I was given a bunch of books for Christmas, so I have plenty to read without leaving the house.  In reality, I just need to find time to write reviews.

On a super bright note, all of this work was really in preparation for a trip to London and Paris (and a few other stops in between).  I just purchased my tickets on Wednesday, so I'm pretty excited, as you might guess.  Sure I have to wait until June, but if an upcoming vacation isn't something to put your head down and work for, then I don't know what is.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Review: Half a Life by V.S. Naipaul

Life has a crazy way of keeping us from the things we need to accomplish.  Sadly, I needed as much brain power as possible to scratch out the meanings behind the Nobel Prize winning author, V.S. Naipaul's Half a Life that I read over Christmas break.  This was not a relaxing read by any stretch of the imagination, but one that has kept my mind in conflict ever since.

Synopsis: Willie Somerset Chandran, born to an upper caste father and lower caste mother, felt the gap in his parent's station in life.  Not only had his father married his low-born wife out of a sense of pious self-sacrifice, even though he didn't love her at all, but he also abandoned his access to wealth by becoming a spiritual "vagabond" of sorts.  To this marriage, Willie and a younger sister were born.  Willie eventually made his way to London to get an education, in the hopes of escaping the social and family conflict he witnessed at home in India.  To a changing British world, this was not quite the case.  Willie was too dark and too Indian for his English speaking cohorts in school and around town, so he befriended those who were also cast offs of other regions of the old Empire.  Throughout this time, Willie worked on a collection of short stories that he used to express his feelings and thoughts, only to be taken advantage of by a British press that could market his stories as they wished, while taking most of the profits and prestige.  

After  multiple experiences with women of different nationalities and backgrounds, Willie learned that to steal away or date those women of his friends, was by far the easiest.  That was, until he met an African-born woman who saw herself reflected in the colonial writings of Willie Somerset Chandran.  From that point, Willie returned to Africa with her to experience the after effects of colonization, and the beginnings of social unrest with the taking back of a land that was not their own for so long.

Review:  It's nearly impossible to really write a review of Naipaul's Half a Life without including a gut reaction.  The multi-layered threading of ideas presented in the novel are mind-numbing, to say the least.  Every possible view and corner of race, social class, empire, colonization, education, and sexual politics are explored through the main character's life.  Just as you get the sense that you are nailing down a "point" being made, the narrative snakes its way in a different direction.   

Although I feel like I have read many books centered on these themes of identity, colonization, etc., I have to admit to feeling side-swiped by Naipaul's narrative style and message.  Maybe I wanted a more neatly, discoverable message.  Maybe it was the startling jump in 18 years in the narration that finally put the nail in the coffin for me.  Or, maybe it was the oddly callous approach to sex (not graphically described in any way) that left me concerned by the main character's mechanical way of life.  I wasn't so much shocked or appalled by Willie's life as I was concerned by his oddly disconnected, yet heightened existence.  On one hand he was disconnected from every social group or culture he lived among, and yet on the other, he blended in and had insights into the hypocrisies of every group in which he mingled.  It could be that this seeming "observation" mode taken by the main character is just the point?  Willie really was as the title says, always living "half a life" because he was always an observer in every culture, position, circle, or relationship that he was engaged.

Strangely, I'm glad that I tackled Half a Life.  In comparison to Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas, which I was familiar from a paper I wrote in graduate school, this later novel has a deeper sense of tension than I remember in his earlier piece.  In Half a Life, the narration is linear in one sense, but splintered and fractured in a very deconstructionist sort of way that forces the reader to feel the instability of the main character.  The concept of "still waters run deep" is a great way of describing the novel, in that the surface language and story feel smooth and uninterrupted, while the deep underpinnings of it are stirred and tumultuous beyond recognition.

 *FTC Disclosure:  This review was written from a library copy of the novel.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Film Review: The King's Speech (2010)

I finally found the time and opportunity to go and see The King's Speech (2010) with Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush.  In short?  Amazing. 

Besides being billed with acclaimed actors, The King's Speech had amazing cinematography and a great story line.  The story of Bertie, his wife Elizabeth, their two daughters, and his speech therapist was engaging and gave this historical figure a real human draw.  The number of close ups to draw you into the personal thoughts and feelings of each character really gave this film that added depth that could have been lost if scenes were relegated to dialogue.  I felt that the close ups deserved mentioning because they really did seem to propel the story forward, as Bertie (Colin Firth) had such a difficult time expressing what he was thinking.  The combination of distraction and frustration that crossed his face in these closeups, mixed with the words you felt he was dying to spit out, demonstrated just how overwhelming a speech impediment must have been for this royal. 

The obvious connection of the film was drawn between Bertie and his speech therapist Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush.  The lines between the two were well thought out and often amusing.  If unassuming were an art, Rush's character had that one down.  By the conclusion of the film, the friendship does not seem trite or overplayed, but was hard won and professional.  In short, there was real respect there that made the story believable. 

Although many historians and Anglophiles know the story of King George VI and his difficulty speaking, most of us probably only viewed him as a sort of interim monarch until his daughter, Queen Elizabeth, took the throne.  This film does an amazing job of portraying the human side to this monarch and I expect that Colin Firth will gain some much deserved praise and accolades for this role.

By the way, I'm not quite sure how Colin Firth could not think he's still a sex symbol to millions of women (see "Colin Firth says I'm no Sex Symbol").  Although he'll always be connected to his role as Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, Firth is one of those actors that continues to amaze audiences with the range of roles he has chosen and his dashing good looks.  At 50, Colin Firth is a sex symbol to admire for way more than just his good looks.  Sorry Colin.  You're still a sex symbol in my book!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Sunday Blatherings: First Big Library Pick Up of 2011

After putting everything on hold over the Christmas Break, I finally returned and got all of my "holds" on Friday night.  I couldn't believe it, when I saw that my holds took up the entire top shelf.  It was all mine! Let the picture do the talking.

This is just about our limit on holds, so for me, this was a first.  Now, if I could just find the TIME to read. 

Having mentioned the time factor, I have to admit that touching back down to earth after a two week break was pretty tough.  Besides teaching full time, I had a huge contract I had to fulfill for my online job, which pushed me into 12-13 hour days all week.  By Saturday, I pulled myself into work one last time to give a practice AP test for my students, then crawled home and slept the remainder of the day.  Talk about a nightmare after so much down time over the holidays!  Thankfully, the contract was met, grades for end of term are just about finished, and after 60+ hours put in last week for work, this next week will be much easier.

The Christmas decorations will have to wait to come down until next week!  I have too many good books (oh yeah, and work) to get through first.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Review: The Fixer Upper by Mary Kay Andrews

One good thing about being home is my access to audio books.  Before Christmas, I left off near the end of The Fixer Upper by Mary Kay Andrews.  Thankfully, it has gotten me through the first of this week back at work.

Review:  From Goodreads, "After her boss in a high-powered Washington public relations firm is caught in a political scandal, fledgling lobbyist Dempsey Jo Killebrew is left almost broke, unemployed, and homeless. Out of options, she reluctantly accepts her father's offer to help refurbish Birdsong, the old family place he recently inher­ited in Guthrie, Georgia.

But, oh, is Dempsey in for a surprise when she arrives in Guthrie. "Bird Droppings" would more aptly describe the moldering Pepto Bismol-pink dump with duct-taped windows and a driveway full of junk. There's also a murderously grumpy old lady, one of Dempsey's distant relations, who has claimed squatter's rights and isn't moving out. Ever.

All Dempsey can do is roll up her sleeves and get to work. And before long, what started as a job of necessity somehow becomes a labor of love and, ultimately, a journey that takes her to a place she never expected—back home again."

Synopsis:  I've read several other books by Andrews and been entertained by creative story lines developed with southern charm.  Honestly though, I didn't find this newest book about Dempsey and her move to flip a house while she hid away from her life to be believable on way too  many levels.  I had a hard time believing that someone unfamiliar with home repair could manage to turn around an old mansion?  Besides that, my guess is that the old lady that was the "squatter" in the story was supposed to win her way into your heart.  Sadly, I thought she was way too grouchy, too deceitful (hiding good from the home in her room), and too over the top.  It was easy to see where that story was headed, but I just couldn't like her, and never did.  Why the heck didn't she just kick the old lady out?!?  The romance felt cliche, and her efforts to recover her good name from the scandal, all just seemed overplayed.

Although I've liked some of Andrew's other novels, The Fixer Upper just wasn't one of those reads.  The story is fairly simple, the characters over the top in some cases, and the situations unbelievable.  Other reviewers have liked the light escapist fun, which I enjoy from time to time as well, but this one didn't fit that for me.

*FTC Disclosure:  Review was based off of a library copy of the novel.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

End of a Vacation and a Year

What's it all about?  This ending of a year, closing up of books and looking ahead to a new year, can be a little traumatic.  The phrase "quiet lives of desperation" keeps coming to mind, and yet, it might be because I ended my year reading V. S. Naipaul's Half a Life, which is filled with angst and desperation.  (I also followed it up this morning by reading about ten articles and biographies that have my head spinning a bit.)  Could my reading be seeping into my psyche and making me look at the world with a suspicious, critical eye, and therefore including my own life in that criticism?  Why yes, I think so.  I'm thinking I should have read something a bit more cheery to end my year so I could face 2011 with a bit of positive juju.

Hawaii has been pretty, interspersed with downpours that are actually more common to winter than the sunny paradise that all, locals and tourists alike, actually hope for.  We've had great moments of sunshine and beaches, and other moments trapped inside listening to the hammering of rain on the roof, hoping the power didn't go off.  Thankfully, we had stacks of good books for either occasion.  President Obama actually stays at a beach about 30 minutes from us, and according to all accounts, he is probably enjoying his read about President Reagan.  Not the light read I would want right now, but a very presidential pick.

Thanks to a new ban that has been passed here in Hawaii, last night was the last time that fireworks to the scale we've been accustomed to will be available, and from here on out be quite illegal.  We thought our neighborhood would go out with a bang, and although still a bigger affair than some hometown 4th of July celebrations I've seen, the rain and the new law seemed to put a damper on everything.  In short.  It was a mild celebration compared to last year.  No 16 men, piggybacked, twirling fire, or walking around with chains of firecrackers looped around their necks.  It was good, just much more subdued than normal.

Tonight I hop a plane back to the mainland.  Unlike my turbulence-filled flight coming over, I have high hopes that this flight will be nice and smooth, allowing me plenty of time for uninterrupted reading.  For the flight, I only plan on reading things that will put me into a happy frame of reference for the time being.  I'm not sure I want my mind to be whirling about with social upheavals and injustice at 30,000 feet.  Does this make me a shallow, uneducated reader?  Nah.  Like writing, you have to know your audience and purpose, so in my reading, I know my audience (me) and my purpose (light-hearted happiness to end my trip).

Whatever you're doing on this New Year's Day, I hope it's glorious and great!  Happy New Year!