Monday, November 23, 2015

read | The Tsar of Love and Techno

The Tsar of Love and Techno is a short story collection written by Anthony Marra. The stories take place in Russia, ranging from 1937 to 2013, so you see the evolution of the country. Kind of. This is one of those works that serves as a reminder that people aren't all that different from one another, despite varying circumstances. So if you're looking for a Russian historical novel, this isn't it. I was excited to read something set in Russia since I haven't done so often, with the pseudo-exception of Leigh Bardugo's Grisha trilogy. But I never felt truly immersed in the setting, maybe because each story is during a different time period. I think it's important to approach this book while keeping in mind that it's a series of stories. The stories are pretty closely linked, involving overlapping characters and generations, so it was easy for me to forget that it wasn't a novel. I've read books with more disjointed perspectives, so calling this a short story collection almost feels like a matter of opinion.
I did enjoy my reading experience and I really liked how the author revealed different aspects of the characters through the different stories. The book is kind of set up with a mix tape theme, and the stories support that perfectly. They feed into each other and are complementary without being too similar. It's strange to say that this is the literary equivalent of a well-formed mix tape, but I think that's pretty much the best way to describe it. And you can't go wrong with this cover. It's gorgeous. I'm tempted to shelve it facing out so I can fully appreciate it a while longer.

3 out of 5 stars

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

read | The Dinner by Herman Koch

I recently read Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch, and while it wasn’t a favorite it did make me curious about his other novels. The Dinner, perhaps his most well-known book, was the next one I chose. It’s the story of – surprise – a dinner, with the culmination of events that are told partly through flashback and partly over the course of the meal.

It’s interesting to have read novels by the same author written years apart (this was first published in 2009). Of the two, I prefer The Dinner but I can see how Koch’s plot structuring improved by Summer House with Swimming Pool. Koch writes in Dutch so I’ve only read translations, but the growth is, conveniently, in areas that are unlikely to suffer by changing language.

I found the structure of this novel very interesting. The plot follows the pattern of the meal, where the main course coincides with the rising action and the novel is “polished off” with an aperitif at the end. Paul is continually annoyed by the restaurant staff, who interrupt the flow of conversation to continually over-explain the dabs of food that have been brought out. This annoyance carries over to the reader, as the story is cut off while the courses are described.

I was expecting more of a shock factor from this book, and while it definitely takes some unexpected turns, they’re still believable. I never had a moment that made me put the book down and say “Whoa.” And it works. The characters evolve so gradually that the next step is never a leap. As more of the plot is revealed, qualities I didn’t consciously process become suddenly relevant. I think the most unsettling thing about this book is how easy it is to accept. Its foot-in-the-door approach is disturbingly effective. The blurb on the front says that Gillian Flynn found The Dinner “unputdownable” and I have to agree. I read the book in two sittings, and I would have done so in one if I’d had the time.

4 out of 5 stars

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

cook | Mark Bittman's Kitchen Matrix

Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Matrix by, you guessed it, Mark Bittman is all about playing with your food. It gives you base recipes for a variety of dishes and then lists several variations on the theme. Most of the dishes only take up a two-page spread, which is nice if something is seafood (none for me, thanks) based. It’s great not to have to page through tons of irrelevant information to find what I need. That being said, this book is by no means sparse. It just makes very good use of its space, often including nine recipes on one page.

One thing that I, a novice cooker, really appreciate is that when a recipe is for, say, poached chicken, it doesn’t tell you to poach chicken – it lays out the steps. Thank goodness, because otherwise I’d need a cookbook to learn how to cook recipes from this book.

Approach with caution: This book’s minimalist layout (stunning, by the way – this one can double as a coffee table book for sure) and approachable tone makes it seem like it draws from the basics. While this may be true technique-wise, it is not so for the ingredients! I keep an admittedly slim stock of foods on hand, but most of these recipes use for items I haven’t even purchased in the last year. They have, however, made it to this week’s grocery list. There are a bunch of recipes I’m excited to try (I’m looking at you, savory shortbread! Oh cornstarch…).

Spinach and mushrooms and mozzarella, oh my!
My mix-ins

This book arrived just as I was ready for dinner, so I decided to try out a recipe right off the bat. Pretty much the only thing I was fully equipped for was the “tiny pancake” recipe – an egg, some flour, and whatever mix-ins you desire. Blend it all together and fry in lots of olive oil – no complaints from my taste buds! I used mushrooms, spinach, and mozzarella this time out, but I have a hunch that if I made these cinnamon-sugar style they’d taste a lot like churros. Mmmmm!

A fantastic pile of pancake fritter-type things
4 out of 5 stars

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I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

read | The Gap of Time

The Gap of TimeThe Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is a present day retelling of The Winter’s Tale, one of Shakespeare’s lesser-discussed works, but it doesn’t feel modern. The writing is beautiful and I look forward to reading more of Winterson’s work, and based on this story I’m sure her other novels won’t disappoint. I had fun reading this book until the end, when all the loose ends got tangled up in each other. I feel like it wrapped up too quickly. Just about the time I was settling into a few scenes of character development, the book jumped to the finale.

The beginning of the book gives a plot summary of The Winter’s Tale, I guess so you can see how Winterson adapts the elements of the story. At first I found this strange but it’s actually necessary because the story is pretty ridiculous without knowing where it comes from, even considering that several events have been toned down. I still think The Gap of Time adheres too strictly to the original to feel modern. It puts the story in a current setting but doesn’t effectively update the plot. That being said, it’s supposed to be melodramatic. It’s not like these were mundane occurrences in Shakespeare’s time. The Gap of Time includes some very meta references – one character’s resume includes starring in a Jeanette Winterson play, and Shakespeare is mentioned a couple of times, which threw me out of the story. The book is about the size of a play at a brief 273 5x8 pages, and it feels more like a pet project than a magnum opus. It seems like Winterson slightly twisted the original subject matter as a fun experiment, and I don’t love how it came together. However implausible, this story is an enjoyable read if you keep its context in mind.

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I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

read | Armada

This novel shows that Ernest Cline has found his writing formula and he's sticking to it. I wasn't going to compare Armada to Ready Player One since it's not a sequel, but here I go anyway. Much like his first novel, Armada is chock full of eighties pop culture references. And while this is new and fun and relevant in RP1, here it just feels like the only thing Cline knows how to do. The plot of RP1 revolved around retro trivia. In Armada, the references serve to build a strangely obsessive link between Zack Lightman (props on the solid sci-fi hero name) and his long-deceased father. Zack’s knowledge base is more accessible than the protagonist’s in RP1, though the Trek/Wars/Trek/Wars mentions feel repetitive fairly quickly. The Last Starfighter is included in these references, a smart move because omitting the film would, in light of the other references, seem to deny its similarities to Armada's plot.

Speaking of which... Armada is about a boy who gets really good at a video game. Turns out it's not just for entertainment! It's exactly the same interface as the hidden armies of drones that a secret branch of international military has stashed all over the world! And thus the action begins as Zack is recruited to fend off the invading alien species. This book throws you into intense action pretty quickly, but it still feels slow. I'm trying to think about the plot events, and there aren't a ton. Action? A smattering. Character development? A good amount, though once the characters are established you rarely see them again. I wish this book had been longer, not necessarily because it was so good but because it could have been. More missions, more of those characters we only got a glimpse at! When the story wraps up, I'm not sure what to expect in the future because I don't think Zack's story is done, but there's not a direct sequel setup. All that being said, if you love RP1's style and cast, this is definitely in the same vein. It draws from many elements of classic sci-fi and it checks the boxes I expected it to. I have some problems with its big picture, but page to page it kept me engaged.

3 stars out of 5
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I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

read | The Martian

The Martian (Movie Tie-In)The Martian by Andy Weir is one of those stories you don’t come across very often. While we have been getting countless dystopian novels about futuristic alternative worlds, this novel is completely believable despite the fact that we’ve never sent anyone to Mars. Mark Watney is a member of a six-person crew that has been sent to explore Mars, though unexpected events cut their trip (and their crew) short. I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that though the crew has, as far as they know, lost a member, Watney does survive. This book is the story of his fight to get back home.

The book is filled with scientific terminology and calculations and procedures, but it doesn’t feel overwhelming. The writing is very aware that the average person knows nothing about space physics and technology, and the author could very well have made all the science up but I’m in no position to refute it. The colloquial way the information is presented leaves the story informative yet understandable.

Just when I was getting a little sick of the continuous engineering in this book, it opened up a couple more perspectives. While it would have created a sense of isolation similar to Watney’s as he’s trapped on Mars, I’m glad we weren’t subjected to that. Weir does a good job of creating a large cast of likable characters even though most of them have only a few pages to convey their personalities. The sense of humor in this book is undeniably sarcastic, so if that’s not your thing—never mind. It’s everyone’s thing.

The Martian is a fantastic read – it was one of those books I missed while I had to do other things – and while I don’t have much else in its specific genre to compare, I think it’s safe to say it holds its own.

4 stars out of 5
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

read | A Walk in the Woods

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson recently re-entered my awareness when I saw the movie trailer this summer. I’d been meaning to read some of his work for a while, and this seemed like the perfect time to start. I’d also just watched the movie Wild, which piqued my interest in the world of hiking. This book tells of Bryson’s attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail. The book breaks up stories of hiking (and hikers) with information about the science and history of the trail. While this is certainly relevant, due to the book’s length of 274 pages I feel like these passages are included to fill out the page count. Fortunately, these sections usually wrapped up as I was preparing to skim. Another drawback to these digressions is that you don’t feel fully immersed in the trail for any duration that would emphasize just how long the trail really is. The hikers walk for miles and miles and miles, but when you leave the story every thirty pages or so, it throws you out.

The edition I read has a movie tie-in cover that isn’t the most offensive I’ve seen. It’s not embarrassingly prominent glamour shots where the faces have been airbrushed to anonymity. The people on the cover do kind of ruin it. Cover them up with a Post-It or something and you’re left with a suitably majestic view of the Appalachian Trail, though I suppose this doesn’t do much to promote the film.

When A Walk in the Woods is actually about the walk in the woods, I didn’t want to put it down. There are some slow bits that break it up, but overall I found this book a highly enjoyable account of a world most people never enter.

3.5 stars out of 5
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Friday, August 7, 2015

read | Summer House with Swimming Pool

Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch is intentionally and successfully unsettling. Right off the bat you learn that general physician Marc Schlosser has made a decision that throws his license into jeopardy. The novel then backtracks to the events that lead to his questionable actions.

The characters are unlikable, made even more so by their lack of redeeming qualities. This leads to an interesting cast, though if the character flaws were intended to make the people seem more realistic they fell short of their goal. While it's true that everyone has their faults, it seems that these characters give you no reasons to root for them. This took some getting used to, but I eventually enjoyed that when a character solves a problem it creates trouble for someone else.

This book is slow, but the writing is compelling enough to support the areas that are largely character driven. The beach vacation home as a setting (not to mention the cover design) makes this book seem like a fun summer read. The subject matter does not, so be prepared.

3 out of 5 stars

I received this book from Blogging for Booksfor this review.

Monday, July 20, 2015

read | Headstrong

Headstrong by Rachel Swaby is a collection of mini-bios of prominent female scientists. It covers fields from medicine to invention, so there’s a topic for everyone. The biographies are concise at about three pages each, and Swaby does a good job of describing scientific processes with the right balance of technical jargon and layman’s terms. It’s easy to understand the improvements the scientists were making and you still learn enough of the appropriate terminology to sound like you really know what you’re talking about if you want to explain what you’ve read to someone else. Most of the biographies weave in a considerable amount of information about the women’s personalities and life experiences to help you create a sense of who they were, an impressive feat in so few words. The biographies are very consistent in tone, which helps create a continuous feel if you decide to read the book in a couple of sittings. That being said, this is definitely a book you can pick up occasionally and leaf through a story or two.
This is definitely a book I would recommend to anyone interested in the STEM fields. I don’t think it would do much to dispel an existing dislike for science or math, but it would definitely be inspiring to someone who has an interest in science or learning in general. This book is straightforward enough for upper elementary schoolers, so it’s a good opportunity to introduce a fascination before too many worksheets make science seem boring. There are a few sections where a background in chemistry might be helpful, but then I enjoyed learning about Sally Ride and my rocket science expertise is non-existent. This feels like the kind of book a precocious protagonist would find invaluable, and it’s definitely a very readable gateway to nonfiction.
3 stars out of 5
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.
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Monday, June 1, 2015

read | The Barefoot Queen

When I first heard of The Barefoot Queen by Ildefonso Falcones, its premise drew me in immediately. The story of a freed slave and a gypsy befriending each other seemed different from anything I'd read before, as did the fact that it was set in the middle of the eighteenth century in Spain.This book features cultures and locales that I have had minimal exposure to, and I was excited to explore a historical novel to which I brought virtually no prior knowledge.

This book includes everything from feuding to murder to political persecution. Caridad, a slave, is freed by her dying master as they sail from Cuba to Spain, and she is left completely alone as she arrives in a new land. She soon falls in with young gypsy Milagros and is soon swept up in the tense relations between gypsy families. Everything is shaken up when the king orders a roundup of all gypsies, and those who are not captured and imprisoned scatter across Spain. This book is the story of the struggles several characters endure while they try to find their way back to each other.

I have to admit, the size of this book had me putting it off for a long time. At 641 pages, it's a great investment if you're trying to fill your bookshelf. When I did finally get around to it, the book kept calling me back. Though it took a long time, I was reading it consistently all the way through. The book is divided into six parts, though I don’t think that was necessary. I don’t know if this was the publisher’s way of making the book seem less daunting, but for the most part the extra blank pages just threw me out of the otherwise seamless story for a few seconds. While the book is definitely near the cap of readable length for a standalone novel, there were sections of this book that I felt could have had much more detail. It’s a testament to how much I enjoyed the writing and the story that I wanted to read more since the book is already so long.

The Barefoot Queen is a great historical novel with a refreshing setting and compelling characters. My one warning is that it does involve several scenes of rape, both graphic and implied, and they are throughout the book. If you can handle the heavy subject matter (and the heavy weight of the 600 pages), definitely give this one a try.
4 out of 5 stars
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Hour 9 | Dewey's 24-Hour Readathon

Snacking is, of course, an integral part of every readathon. And when you can come up with snacks that tie into what you're reading, it's so much better (unless we're talking about Hagrid's rock cakes). One of my favourite literary snacks comes from Agnes and the Hitman, and it's - brace yourself - sour cream and pecan pancakes. Actually the best thing ever. Fortunately my mom read this book and mastered the recipe before I got to the mouthwatering descriptions, so when the cravings hit she was ready to go. I don't think I ever do find the same recipe twice, but here's one posted by a fellow Agnes reader:

Hour 3 | Dewey's 24-Hour Readathon

4 Seasons 4 Books
Starting at the top left and going clockwise:
Winter - Leafless tree from Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Spring - Sun rays (at least from this angle) from The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon
Summer - A rose from The Barefoot Queen by Ildefanso Falcones
Fall - House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewsi. Because... you know, leaves.

Hour 2 | Dewey's 24-Hour Readathon

This quotation isn't from as big a classic as Catch-22, Joseph Heller's best known work. Catch As Catch Can is a collection of short stories, but I think it could still find a home in the classic section of a bookstore. I remember when I first came across this line I immediately sent a photo of the page to my brother to share in my excitement in finding my personality summed up in one line. This is probably the part where I should show that this is true by breaking into sarcasm, but I've gone there with text before and I usually come across as a lunatic or an idiot. So I won't do that. Sorry*.

*there it is!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

read | Empire of Sin

Empire of Sin is a snapshot of history that often gets overlooked. While the 1920s are certainly not forgotten, it's rare to hear about them in a setting outside of New York City. This book provides an interesting view of part of US history from a refreshing new perspective.

I don't read as much nonfiction as I probably should, and I find that when I do I have trouble establishing a strong narrative. Nonfiction often reads like bullet points from a presentation, which is understandable given that the author doesn't have the freedom to elaborate beyond what history confirms. This book, while held together by the glue that is the city of New Orleans, feels disjointed. It was much easier for me to approach this book as a collection of short stories about the city than as a continuous novel. As far as the history is concerned, this is a fascinating look at unique stories. For anyone interested in the 1920s, old-school gangsters, or jazz this book is an interesting representation from a new perspective.
3 out of 5 stars

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.