Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Top Ten Inspiring Quotes from Books

Happy Top Ten Tuesday!

1. "All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."

2."Like and equal are not the same thing at all!" -Meg Murry

3. "It was no passive homogenous creature, identity, but rather diversity, a thrashing, grinding, and all out dirty dancing together."-Dimple Lala

4. "He raised his wings and spread them wide before folding them again. 'There,' he said, 'I have just brushed ten million other worlds, and they knew nothing of it.'" -Serafina Pekkala's daemon

5."People who hate to make choices, to settle on one thing or another, are attracted to travel." -Elisabeth Eaves

6. "Whoever we were--and it was not really important what religion we belonged to, whether we wished to wear the veil or not, whether we wished to observe religious norms or not--we had become the figment of someone else's dreams."
-Azar Nafisi

7 "Imaginative knowledge is pragmatic: it helps shape our attitude to the world and our place in it and influences our capacity to make decisions."
-Azar Nafisi

8. "She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older--the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning." -Jane Austen

9. "No one holds his heart in his hand and restrains or releases it by closing or opening his hand at will."
-Catherine the Great

10. "The mind is its own place, and in it self/Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n." -Satan

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Snowflower and the Secret Fan

17. Snowflower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

I’d been interested in reading Snowflower and the Secret Fan for quite some time, and heard Lisa See speak about one of her newer books at the most recent National Book Festival. So, finally, I picked up the audiobook to listen to during my commute (curiously, all the audiobooks I’ve successfully finished have been set in another country, primarily the UK and China, though I just finished one set in Spain).

Lily and Snowflower are two young girls growing up in Jiangyong Province in the late 19th century. Like her mother and sister before her, Lily knows that she will have her feet bound at the age of six, join a group of sworn sisters at nine, become betrothed in her teens, marry at 17, and move definitively into her in-laws' home when she is ready to give birth to her first child, leaving her natal family and local friendships behind. But the matchmaker comes with a special offer for Lily: to become a laotong, one of two sworn friends for life, who will communicate through nushu, the secret written language of women. The laotong relationship between Lily and Snowflower changes the course of both girls' lives.


From what I can tell, most of the traditions and depictions of women's lives portrayed in this book are historically accurate. Jiangyong Province apparently had a very unique and thriving feminine sub-culture, even proscribed as it was within Confucian tradition. The horrific foot-binding practice is well-known, and illustrated with gut-wrenching precision in See's unflinching prose. However, the discussion of nushu, while I'd heard of it before, seems to be limited to scholarly texts--I'm unaware of any other work of fiction that addresses it, much less the intricacies of laotong and sworn sister relationships. The latter practices are also discussed in some obscure academic texts, but not widely known or studied, as far as I'm aware. Thus, the detail with which See explains these practices is a treat, and the culture comes to life in her hands. See takes an essentially defunct society and re-creates a realistic "structure of feeling," and that is no small feat.


While the atmosphere and relationships are believable, the novel suffers from a severe plot problem, and a series of misleading signals. From the prologue, we know that the story is told in retrospect, from the view of Lily as a very old woman. Therefore, she can be expected to know the fate of all of the other characters (her extreme age and the era would suggest, if not demand, that all the other characters predecease her). Cue the misleading signals. For example, early on in the book, Lily describes what a group of her female relatives will look like when they are old. Lo and behold, each of those relatives dies a young and tragic death. Huh? The way it was described is just extremely misleading. And then there's the climax, which is built up to from literally the first line of the book.

This climax is constantly obliquely referred to throughout the novel, and there's even an earlier incident, which also doesn't quite ring true, that is said to be a poor shadow of what is coming in the climax. Well...first of all, it takes a REALLY long time to get to the climax, like more than three quarters of the book is over by the time it's reached, and there's not nearly enough time to recover afterward. Second of all, the climax, after all of this build up for the ENTIRE novel...is hugely anticlimactic. The hints make it unsurprising, but it still doesn't quite seem to fit with the characters that are so beautifully built over the course of the novel. It's tragicomic, but also just nonsensical, when what really happened is revealed. The plot point does revolve intimately around the nushu and laotong concepts at least, so in that way, it is appropriate, it just...well, didn't ring true to me, like I said. Perhaps I had trouble identifying with the shift in character, but anyway, I do think the way it was structured was flawed.

Final Thoughts:

There's a lot of emotional depth to this novel, which thoughtfully portrays a sub-culture built around women who are systemically victimized. See really "gets" this aspect of the characters, and her portrayal of their relationships with each other and with men, including abusive and best-case scenario relationships, are insightful. I wish she had just focused on delving into their lives and not even tried to impose extra narrative drama.

Highly recommended to fans of historical fiction and Chinese women's history in particular.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Reading Overview

In which I catalog my unbridled reading with my slightly more disciplined writing.

Just Finished Library Audiobook:

The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (22)

Just Started Library Audiobook:

The Creation of Eve by Lynn Cullen

Skimming Halfheartedly:

Allegiant by Veronica Roth

Just Finished:

The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (23)

Lightwall by Liliana Ursu (24)

Still Delightedly Skipping Around In:

Dispatch from the Future by Leigh Stein

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Cemetery of Forgotten Books

I read The Shadow of the Wind almost six years ago, and in the past couple of weeks devoured the other two books in the series: The Angel's Game and The Prisoner of Heaven.

The Angel's Game is a prequel, but came out after The Shadow of the Wind. The Prisoner of Heaven covers events between the books as well as after the events of The Shadow of the Wind.

In my original 2009 review, I wrote, "This beautifully written literary thriller pulls you in and invites you into the exciting literary underworld of Barcelona," but advised "Read The Shadow of the Wind for fun, not for substance." I wonder if I would write those words today.

The Angel's Game and The Prisoner of Heaven are equally vivid page-turners. Yet both books contain a depth of thought that I wonder if I missed in the first book. The atmosphere is so distracting that it appeared to me, at first, to be the most significant element of all three novels.

Zafon's Barcelona is seedy, treacherous, and disorienting. At times, it's as if the streets, alleyways, and abandoned homes of the city collude against the characters. Yet, it is also the home of the comfy and pivotal Sempere & Sons bookshop, not to mention the drool-worthy necropolis that is the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Zafon's creepy world-building reminds me strongly of the Gothic novels of Daphne du Maurier, though she's strangely not name-dropped as one of his influences (Jane Eyre, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Victor Hugo's works all garner mentions). However, while I always realized that the significance of du Maurier's work lay in the psychology of her characters, perhaps I failed to recognize this in Zafon. Unlike du Maurier, his novels seemed more like purposeful and straightforward mysteries to me. The primary mystery in The Shadow of the Wind is actually resolved, and so I saw the lack of tying up loose ends as a failing and not a statement about what was truly important in the book.

The Angel's Game is a different book altogether, and I'll be honest when I say the unresolved ending drives me crazy. I read this article recently about why adults shouldn't read YA books, and while I completely disagree, I found Ruth Graham's suggestion that one of the distinguishing features between a YA book and an "adult" book is that YA books have satisfying endings, and "adult" books do not, illuminating. While the smugness of this bothers me, I feel compelled to examine this tendency in myself, and while it's true that I can appreciate an ambiguous ending, I often find a lack of resolution frustrating. The Angel's Game follows the template of a thriller, with an elaborate setting and complex cast of characters, and then turns it on its head...in a way that could feel like a cop-out or could be a brilliant commentary on unreliable narration and mental illness, I'M STILL NOT SURE.

This is kind of SPOILER-y (or maybe not?), but on the one hand, I feel like it's way too easy to say HEY! GOTCHA! My character's insane, and nothing that you think just happened actually happened HA HA, THE END. On the other hand, I think I owe Zafon more credit than that. He is obviously well-read, and the conversations between his characters on the nature of literature and reality suggest that he is purposefully blending the two--either making a statement that it doesn't matter which is which, or perhaps that any of us can choose to believe what we want, or maybe that believing in fiction more than reality is a dangerous, dangerous thing to do. And I think that's what these proponents of "adult" fiction like Graham are getting at, that it's up to the reader to wrestle with the meaning of the book, and decide for themselves. And Zafon's The Angel's Game, and the other two books, to a lesser extent, allow us a vehicle to do that.

The Prisoner of Heaven, as I've said of the other books, is big on atmosphere, especially the Mont Juic prison where two of the main characters are held during the Spanish Civil War. Here, we once again have The Shadow of the Wind's Daniel Sempere as first person narrator, though a large chunk of the book is narrated by his friend Fermin. The Prisoner of Heaven is none other than David Martin, who is the narrator of The Angel's Game. A young Fermin meets the acclaimed but now possibly deranged author while imprisoned at Mont Juic. Where The Shadow of the Wind paid homage to Victor Hugo, The Prisoner of Heaven owes a significant debt to Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. The occasionally tongue-in-cheek homages are not just playful updates, but add depth to the originals. For example: When an escaped prisoner finds refuge in a priest's home and eyes the priest's silverware, the priest informs him, "I have also read Les Miserables, so don't even think about it." Later, the priest places the packet of silverware in the prisoner's suitcase.

I've enjoyed thinking along with the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, even if I'm still frustrated with the ambiguity, I can recognize it as perhaps a quirk of mine rather than fault in the author. Though if the last line of The Prisoner of Heaven--"It was only the beginning"--DOESN'T token another book, I will be furious.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Top Ten Characters I'd Like to Check In With

Happy Top Ten Tuesday!

Love this topic, there are a lot of characters that I continue to wonder about!

1. Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling

What is Luna up to? She's probably leading an exciting life chasing Crumple-Horned Snorkacks, writing for the Quibbler, and starting a line of outrageous fantastical beast-themed hats.

2. Neville Longbottom from the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling

We do find out in the epilogue that Neville becomes the Herbology professor, and later Rowling revealed that he married Hannah Abbott. But...there must be some awesomeness that Neville is getting involved in, and I want to know about it.

3. Matilda from Matilda by Roald Dahl

What happens after Matilda moves in with Miss Honey? Super-geniuses don't just fade into thin air.

4. Wade and Art3mis from Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

What happens after Wade wins the game? What happens to him and Art3mis? What happens to their world?

5. Lyra and Will from the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman

I just really, really want there to be a way that Lyra and Will can somehow meet again.

6. Lee Fiora from Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

Who is the adult that we see glimpses of in the way the story is told? Does she really become a better person?

7. Emily from the Emily books by L.M. Montgomery

Life doesn't end with marriage! What do Emily and Teddy do next?

8. Jane from Jane of Lantern Hill by L.M. Montgomery

Most of Montgomery's heroines have so much written about them, and there's only one book for Jane. I bet there was much more for her to see and do...

9. Dan from Jo's Boys by Louisa May Alcott

Even though the curtain closes forever on the March family, I think there's more that could happen to Dan. I wish he could get together with Bess too, though I know Alcott would never have let that happen.

10. Samwise Gamgee from the Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Sam is the only one of the gang whose story is really unresolved, and he's got plenty of kids, especially eldest daughter Elanor, to carry on the adventures.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Book Review: The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord

18. The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord

The Galaxy Game is a grittier, faster-paced, and even more fun sequel to 2013’s The Best of All Possible Worlds. The novel opens with Grace Delarua’s nephew Rafi in an institution for rogue psionically-gifted adolescents. Rafi still suppresses his abilities and struggles with his father’s abusive legacy. His friends Ntenman and Serendipity are each drawn to him for their own reasons, and soon the three will set forth from the school to forge their own destinies.

Lest the previous sentence confuse you, this is not exactly a sci-fi Harry Potter. The concerns of this book are galactic, and the stakes are high, but there’s no one Dark Lord to be defeated, nor do these three form the closeness of the fantastical trio. Instead, each of their destinies is separate, but their choices will intertwine throughout their lives, and each will contribute to a new galactic order.

In this book, we finally get off planet, and learn more about other societies, particularly the Ntshune. Grace and her husband Dllenahkh are characters and have a side story of their own, but the focus is on Rafi. Tensions between planets and within societies heat up, and conflict takes up the heart of the action, rather than the aftermath of the conflict, as in the last book. Though the aftermath of that conflict is still of paramount importance here, with these societies in the midst of important changes. We learn that Terra is still in play here, and rather than a post-Earth society, Cygnus Beta may actually co-exist with our own timeline. It’s not really clear, but the opening is there, as it’s explained that the humans on Cygnus Beta were spirited away and re-settled not of their own volition, but by some founding alien civilization.

The most intriguing part to me was, again, Lord’s presentation of what a society might look like if all or some of its members possessed overt abilities of emotional and social influence. The Ntshune are the race from which most of these abilities come (the Sadiri also possess them, but more in a mind-meld or even hive-mind kind of way), and their society reflects this. The Galaxy Game of the title at first appears familiar to anyone who’s been to summer camp. The members of each team must work together so that each member of their team climbs over a wall before the members of the other team. However, the more subtle component of the game is that each team is bound through a ‘nexus,’ or a person of extreme charismatic abilities. In this way, the team works together more effectively than if they were not so bound. Nexi (I’m making up this plural), of course, are found not only in the game, but in various parts of society, including corporations and transportation systems. Furthermore, there are two types of credit in Ntshune society: financial credit and social credit. Guess which is more important.

I love the way Lord is able to literalize and pin down certain social components of our society that are unnoticed by many, either because they don’t know to look for it, or because they don’t have to. One feels that if our society were organized the way Ntshune’s is, it would almost be more honest, though perhaps not more liberating.

Like its predecessor, this is not a perfect book. It’s rough in places, and I think it’s often more confusing than it has to be. However, I enjoy the characters and especially the concepts, and will continue to seek out Lord’s books.

Highly recommended to science fiction fans, especially fans of Star Trek.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Top Ten Books I Recently Added to My TBR List

Happy Top Ten Tuesday!

So...the most anticipated ten books on my TBR list (which has been growing for years) or just the last ten I added? I'm doing a mix, but trying to include only books I added in the past, let's say, six months.

1. The Martian by Andy Weir

2. Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran

3. The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

4. The Tale of the Heike (author or authors unknown)

5. The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley

6. The Just City by Jo Walton

7. Holy Cow by David Duchovny

8. The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip Zaleski

9. Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

10. The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine