Monday, December 31, 2012

Old Curiosity Shop, by Charles Dickens

The Old Curiosity Shop, 

Written by Charles Dickens, Narrated by George Hagan

Reason for Reading: I'm making a point of reading all of Dickens' major works. This month, Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Delia from Postcards from Asia hosted Dickens in December, a month dedicated to Charles Dickens. This will also count for the 7th completed book in my Classics Club list

When Little Nell's grandfather drives himself into gambling debt (in hopes of raising money for Nell's future), they must take to the streets to escape the malicious designs of more than one nasty character. Nell's grandfather increasingly becomes a doddering old fool, and Nell is left to her own devices in finding refuge from the cold, the hunger, and the devious people-of-the-streets. Unbeknownst to them, their good friend (and former servant) Kit is desperately looking for them - praying for their safety and not knowing why they have left. I think this is my least favorite Dickens book so far. Generally, I am able to get involved in the complex narrative and the variety of character in a Dickens novel, but kit was the only character I really cared much about. Nell and her grandfather were so melodramatically pathetic that, although I felt sorry for their situation, I couldn't get myself to really care about the outcome. Perhaps this was just timing - maybe I'd have liked the book better in another mood. But I can't say I'll ever try reading it again to find out. Not a bad book - but Dickens can do better.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

2012 Book 172: A Christmas Carol

Written by Charles Dickens, Narrated by Tim Curry

Reason for Reading: I read this for a Dickens in December readalong hosted by Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Postcards from Asia. Unfortunately, I'm a day behind on my post! This is also one of the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (sign-up for Team 1001 here).

Review (contains spoilers :p)
When grumpy and miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his long-deceased business partner, he gets the shock of his life. Apparently, a person's job on earth is to walk among his fellow men and help them. For those who were too selfish to help during life, they are doomed to an eternity of walking among men while desiring to help, but not being able to. Scrooge is about to be given a chance at redemption. He will be visited by three ghosts. The Ghost of Christmas Past will remind him that although he'd had a rather dreary childhood, he'd had plenty of chances to make people (rather than wealth) his passion. The Ghost of Christmas Present will show him how happy people can be when they are surrounded by the people they love at Christmas. And the Ghost of Christmas Future will reveal a dreary future which may come to pass if Scrooge continues on his miserly path. On Christmas morning, Scrooge will awaken a new man - someone who knows how important it is to love one's neighbors and to rejoice in their friendship. This is such a great story because it reminds us that wealth does not necessarily make us happy. It reminds us to look at the world through a different perspective. And, it's pretty darned funny. :) 

This well-known story was excellently narrated by Tim Curry...and I'm SO glad I decided to pay the extra couple of dollars for the Curry narration! His voice is soothing yet engaging at the same time. His voices for each character are spot on. And his delivery of the humor was so well-timed! 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Arcade Catastrophe, by Brandon Mull

2012 Book 171: The Arcade Catastrophe, by Brandon Mull

Reason for reading: This is a sequel to a book I loved - The Candy Shop War. Plus, I've read all of Mull's books, so I can't stop now, can I? This book counts for California in my Around the World Challenge. It's this week's review for Read and Review Hop, hosted by Anya from On Starships and Dragonwings.

Nate, Summer, Pigeon, and Trevor believe that things have calmed down since the wicked plans of Belinda White were foiled last year. But when they find out that Jonas White, Belinda's brother, is running a suspicious Arcade in the area the kids are plunged into a new adventure. Because magicians can MAKE magic, but can't actually USE it (and because they're only safe from magical attack if they're in a magical sanctuary - so they're not often mobile), they use magical candy to recruit kids to do all their dirty work. Nate and his friends must use magical powers provided by the Magician/Candyman Mr. Stott to infiltrate White's team. White sends them on a wild and magical treasure hunt for a dangerous artifact. How can the kids keep undercover without providing White unimaginable power? How can they keep such a huge secret from Lindy Stott? 

Mull intended The Candy Shop War to be a standalone book, but because people kept asking for a sequel, he delivered. And you know what? I'm pretty sure it was better than the first book! Mull's writing has developed quite a bit since he wrote The Candy Shop War. This book has adventure, humor, and good characters. It was a delight to read. I had a hard time putting it down. Originally, I was skeptical because I'm a fan of keeping standalone books standalone, but I'm really happy Mull wrote this book and I'm eager for the following one. :D These books are aimed at a slightly younger crowd than the standard YA book...I'd say they're appropriate for 11-year-olds, but could be enjoyed by kids (and adults) of other ages too. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Haven, by Suzanne Woods Fisher

2012 Book 170: The Haven, by Suzanne Woods Fisher

Reason for Reading: I'm leading a discussion on The Haven for the ACFW bookclub. Discussion starts tomorrow, but it lasts until the end of the month, and anyone is welcome to read the book quickly and join in the discussion! This is the second book in the Stoney Ridge Seasons series.

When Sadie Lapp returns home after several months of living with her newly-married sister, she comes bearing a foundling baby. She wants the baby to remain a secret until she can discover who the  mother might be, but to her dismay rumors immediately start flying around town that she is the mother. On top of all that stress, Sadie is now questioning her own interest in Gideon Smucker, who has been in love with her for years. Does she like him? Or does she prefer Will Stoltz, the city-boy who's living on the farm as a wildlife intern who babysits a pair of endangered falcons that are nesting in the area? This is a sweet romance about the painful effects of gossip and  the power of forgiveness. I think this was a wonderful follow-up to the first book in the series, The Keeper. Although you could, theoretically, read The Haven as a stand-alone book, I'm really glad I read The Keeper first. Reading The Keeper helped me to understand some issues that would have gone right over my head if I hadn't read it first. On the other hand, although The Haven continues with themes introduced in The Keeper, The Haven is a very different book because the lead characters are so different. Sadie is a cautious, awkward, unobtrusive girl who (at the beginning of the book, anyway) allows people and circumstances to take advantage of her. She needs to blossom into a more assertive young lady. Although I've read reviews which criticized her personality, I rather liked her. She reminded me of myself when I was that age. Fisher did a wonderful job of portraying the tortured shyness of Sadie - and then Sadie's transformation into assertiveness was very touching. No, her character isn't perfect, she made mistakes - as everyone else in the book did - but she was a realistic character. And one that I loved. If you like Amish romance, you'll like this series. :) (These were my very FIRST Amish books, to be honest!)

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Fox Inheritance, by Mary E. Pearson

2012 Book 169: The Fox Inheritance

Written by Mary E. Pearson, Narrated by Matthew Brown

Reason for Reading: It's the second book in the Jenna Fox Chronicles.

After 260-years of purgatory, Locke Jenkins awakens with a body that seems familiar - yet somehow changed. His friend, Kara, who died in the car crash that killed Locke, also has a achingly similar body...but her mind isn't quite right. Locke and Kara soon learn that their minds had been downloaded and saved centuries ago by the father of Jenna Fox - another victim of the fatal crash. Although Jenna had been given a new life right away, the copies of Locke's and Kara's minds had collected digital dust until Dr. Gatsbro brought the teens back to life in this brave new world. But Dr. Gatsbro's motives are not altruistic. Locke and Kara make a desperate attempt to escape the doctor's nefariousness clutches...and are jettisoned into the foreign world of the future. But can Locke keep Kara from making a terrible mistake?

When I read The Adoration of Jenna Fox years ago I really liked it, but as I was reading The Fox Inheritance, I realized that I remembered almost nothing of the first book (perhaps it wasn't so great after all?). I had to rely on spoiler reviews of the first book, and on the hints-of-what-came-before in the second book to remember. This made the first part of the book rather confusing. I'd recommend familiarizing yourself with The Adoration of Jenna Fox before starting The Fox Inheritance. Although I enjoyed this book, I wasn't as impressed as I had been after reading the first in the trilogy. The Fox Inheritance had some world-building and good characters. It brought some interesting moral issues to the table: Is it ethical to bring someone back to life after they're dead - and risk changes? Is it ethical to use a sentient being that of human-creation for our own purposes, or do they deserve civil rights? These are intriguing questions, but they've been explored in many other books/movies. So, in the end, I liked this book. It was a fun read. I'll probably pick up the third book when it comes out. But I would have been perfectly happy if this trilogy had stayed as ONE standalone book. And I'm pretty sure I'll forget the plot of this book within a few weeks.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome

2012 Book 168: Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)

Written by Jerome K. Jerome, Narrated by Frederick Davidson

Reason for Reading: This was my "monthly random pick" which took me two months to get to. :) My next "monthly random pick" is The Passage, by Justin Cronin. This book is a classic, so it fits in my Classics Club list. :) 

In this classic novel of humor, three men (to say nothing of the dog) decide to cure their hypochondriac ailments by getting fresh air and exercise. They decide to travel down the Thames in a boat. The narrator jumps back and forth between humorous description of their preparations/trip and silly reminiscences of loosely connected incidents about the characters. This is the type of book where, at the end, you're not sure if there was any story in there at all, but you certainly enjoyed the trip regardless. It was a good-natured, happy sort of humor. This is a short book, and certainly worth reading if you like the classics. :)

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Goblin Secrets, By William Alexander

2012 Book 167: Goblin Secrets, by William Alexander

Reason for Reading: This book won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature in 2012

Rownie is one of a flock of orphans under the "care" of Graba, a chicken-legged house-moving witch. His life revolves around running errands for Graba while scrounging enough food to live. When a troupe of goblins come to town, Rownie risks imprisonment by the guard and (worse) the wrath of Graba to see the play. He has soon joined leagues with the goblins in hopes of discovering more about the disappearance of his brother Rowan. Graba is very pissed off. This was a really cute book with a mixture of fairy tale, steam-punk, and Oliver Twist. But the execution wasn't as great as I'd hoped. I took a long time getting into the book...I felt like I should be enjoying it, but just couldn't concentrate. After I got used to the world, language, and characters, though, I enjoyed it a lot more. In the end, it was a good book, but it had potential to deliver more.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Keeper, by Suzanne Fisher

2012 Book 166: The Keeper, by Suzanne Fisher

Reason for Reading: It's the first book in a series. I'll be leading a discussion on the second book, The Haven, from 20Dec - 31Dec for the ACFW Bookclub. Anyone is welcome to join, and apparently you don't have to read the first book to enjoy the second. :)

When Julia Lapp's fiance, Paul Fisher, postpones their wedding again, Julia blames Roman Troyer, a wandering bee-keeper who isn't too fond of emotional attachments. Blaming Roman is easier than blaming Paul, after all. Julia keeps herself busy trying to regain Paul's attention and taking her frustrations out on Roman while at the same time holding together the crumbling pieces of her family's farm. Her father is having heart problems, and the family needs to stand strong in order to get through these difficult times. This is a sweet and simple romance, with a lot of emotional twists. The entire Lapp family (as well as Roman) are very lovable, and you can't help but root for them. I'm eager to read the second book, The Haven, which tells the story of Julia's younger sister. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang

2012 Book 165: The Rape of Nanking

Written by Iris Chang, Narrated by Anna Fields

Reason for Reading: Reading Globally group on LibraryThing's China and surrounding countries theme read. 

In the early 1930's the Chinese city of Nanking was occupied by Japanese soldiers. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed by Japanese soldiers to save money for supplies. Women were brutally raped and mutilated. But the stories of these victims and the foreigners who risked their lives to help them are not often told. Iris Chang wanted the world to know about these atrocities. Her brutal history was very difficult for me to read because the atrocities were described in such detail that I felt sick. I had to take frequent breaks. But it was a very engaging narrative, so I always wanted to pick it back up again. Chang certainly knew how to write an interesting story! Several times while reading the book, though, I felt as though Chang was too emotionally involved to write a completely reliable narrative. I'm not denying the massacres at Nanking, mind, but I think Chang had a very anti-Japanese view which would have made her prefer the larger estimates for death numbers, made especially-brutal rapes sound more common than they may have been, and made the Japanese sound purely evil as a whole group without exception. Nevertheless, this book taught me a lot about the relationship between the Chinese and the Japanese. As long as the readers keep in mind Chang's emotions, they can learn a lot from this engaging history.

I now have a hankering for a nice book about friendly, likable Japanese people. If you have any suggestions, let me know! :)

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Crossed, by Ally Condie

2012 Book 164: Crossed

Written by Ally Condie, Narrated by Kate Simses and Jack Riccobono

Reason for Reading: Second book the the Matched trilogy


Cassia has been at a work camp for months now, but she hasn't had the chance to find her lost love, Ky. So, when an opportunity arises for her to be sent "accidentally" to the Outer Provinces she snatches it up. Upon landing in the Outer Provinces, Cassia and her new friend Indie run away from Society, following Ky's path. Meanwhile, Ky has also run away from Society with a couple of new friends. Will they find each other before Society or The Enemy find them? I thought Matched was a cute book - nothing amazing, but not disappointing. Crossed was pretty much the same. This story is more about world building than action or teenanged angst. That makes it unique in the YA dystopia genre right now. I look forward to reading the third, but it's not going to be in my hands tomorrow, by any means. :)

Monday, December 3, 2012

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

2012 Book 163: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

Reason for Reading: I was originally going to give it to my dad for Christmas, but it wasn't as amazing as I thought it would be

Jacob has grown up believing that his grandfather's tales of adventure and magical children were a fantasy. However, when Jacob's life is suddenly turned upside down, he must go on a quest to a tiny island off Wales to see the orphanage his grandfather grew up in. There, he discovers that there was some element of truth in his grandfather's stories...and he finds out that his life is in danger. This book was a fantastic idea. Riggs used some unique vintage photographs that he'd borrowed from a few collectors and built a story around the weird images. The photos were fascinating...I really loved looking at them. And I was excited to see what sort of story was built around them. However, the story was a bit contrived. I suppose that it would have to be, given that it's built around some randomly rescued photos...So Riggs deserves some credit for a good eye and a creative idea. His writing was a bit I said, it was a bit contrived, and it leaned too heavily on formulaic fantasy. Shades of X-men, Groundhog Day, etc. abound. Nothing wrong with using old formulas, of course - no concept is every fully new - but overall the writing just didn't hold its own. I might or might not pick up the next book in the series...we'll see. :) I'll probably read it eventually because I imagine Riggs' writing might improve on the second book, and it will seem less contrived if it's based on plot development instead of photographs. :)

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Hamlet Act II

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1990)
Directed by Tom Stoppard
Clearly some time has passed since the first act. Enough time that Ophelia has been able to rebuff Hamlet's attentions, for Hamlet to "go insane," and for his royal parents to send off for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to come from abroad. Maybe a few weeks? A couple months? Hamlet still hasn't done anything to avenge his father's death, and he's starting to feel worthless. He's not quite sure whether his father's ghost is a demon sent to tempt Hamlet into a wrongful act, but he feels like he ought to believe the ghost's story. And he ought to have acted on it. When the troupe of actors arrives, Hamlet thinks this is his chance to throw a wrench in Claudius' gears - to make him betray his guilty conscience in an unguarded moment. Hamlet admonishes himself for his weakness - he ought to act on his vengeful instincts, but he lacks the courage. 

Some questions that I'm thinking about while reading this: 

First, I wanted to see for myself whether I thought Ophelia was a virgin or not. (Remember in my notes on the introduction by Harold Jenkins I said that Jenkins believed Ophelia died a virgin.) During Hamlet's discussion with Polonius, Hamlet first compares Polonius to a fishmonger. According to Jenkins, the daughters of fishmongers are seen as having more than ordinary propensity to breed. Hamlet then says: "Let her not walk i'th' sun. Conception is a blessing, / but as your daughter may conceive - friend, look to't." Now, outwardly, Hamlet referred "conception" to the breeding of maggots under the sun (from an earlier line), but how can there be any question that Hamlet meant also to suggest that Ophelia might conceive a child? But does Hamlet mean "Don't let her out, or something bad might happen to her." Or does he mean "Don't let her out, because everyone will soon be able to see she's pregnant." I guess that's open to interpretation. Later in the scene, Hamlet compares Polonius to the Hebrew judge Jephthah, who sacrificed his virgin daughter. That might be a hint that she's still a virgin, and that Polonius is endangering her.

My second question was whether Hamlet is feigning madness or was really mad. I can see why many people believe he was only feigning madness - his "mad" ranting during this act was calculated to mock Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. There was a method to his madness. :) But, as far as I'm concerned, the phrase "fake it till you make it" applies in Hamlet's case. He certainly had enough to go mad over...


Polonius and Reynaldo
The Royal Shakespeare Production 2009
Directed by Gregory Doran
Act II, Scene i: The act starts with Polonius instructing his man Reynaldo to spy on Laertes. A very untrusting father, is Polonius. As soon as that important business is through, Ophelia dashes in to tell her father about a shocking encounter with Hamlet. The prince has apparently entered her chamber uninvited, grabbed Ophelia by the arm and creepily stared at her. Then he turned and left the room - eyes cast over his shoulder to gaze fixedly upon the distraught maiden. Polonius gets excited...not only has he discovered the reason for Hamlet's madness (which the King and Queen want to know), but he now has the opportunity to say "Look! I did everything I could to discourage this mis-match, but the Prince is still in love with my daughter...perhaps they ought to marry?" *gleeful aspirations shine in eyes*

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern 
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1990)
Directed by Tom Stoppard
Act II, Scene ii: Hamlet's friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have arrived in from abroad, and Claudius and Gertrude are asking them to check on Hamlet - to discover the reasons for his madness and perhaps soothe the melancholy prince. When they leave in search of Hamlet, Polonius comes with their messengers, newly arrived from Norway. The messengers tell Claudius that Fortinbras' uncle has admonished the prince for threatening war with Denmark, but upon Fortinbras' apology, his uncle has furnished the prince with more money for his army and told him to attack Poland instead. They now ask Claudius' permission for Fortinbras' army to cross through Denmark on the way to Poland.

Hmmm. Does someone smell a ploy? They're just going to allow Fortinbras' army to cross through Denmark? Oh well, it's their kingdom. 

After the messengers have been thanked and sent away, Polonius tells the royal couple that Hamlet has gone mad with love for Ophelia. They decide to test this theory later by setting Ophelia loose on Hamlet. (Poor Ophelia.) Then Hamlet walks in. Polonius has a rather nonsensical conversation with Hamlet, partly because Polonius isn't very clever and partly because Hamlet is playing with Polonius' mind. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern walk in. The nonsensical conversation continues with them (and for the same reasons). *Why do Claudius and Gertrude keep sicing idiots on Hamlet? What do they hope to achieve?* Finally, a troupe of actors arrives, and Hamlet decides to use them as bait for Claudius' guilty conscience.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Hamlet, Act I

In the first act of Shakespeare's Hamlet, the scene is set. We meet the mournful young prince Hamlet who feels wronged by his mother's hasty marriage to her deceased husband's brother...and by their incessant partying in a time of sorrow. We meet Ophelia, admired by Hamlet, her brother Laertes and father Polonius. Finally, we are handed a juicy bit of gossip (adultery and murder!), which give Hamlet his excuse to vent his rage against the tyrant King Claudius. (For a more detailed summary, look below.)

This is my first time reading Hamlet since I was in high school, and I'm looking at it through very different eyes this time around. For instance, I've always been under the impression that Polonius was ridiculous. But this time, he appeared long-winded, but his advice seemed sound enough. Is he really ridiculous, or just verbose? I was gratified upon reading Harold Jenkins' endnotes, where he suggests that Polonius was not meant to be ridiculous but paternal. Emphasizing Polonius' fatherly relationship develops Laertes' role as an avenger against Hamlet later in the play. 

A phrase that jumped out at me on this reading was when the ghost told Hamlet (I.v): "Taint not thy mind nor let thy soul contrive against thy mother aught." Interesting. Because I recall Hamlet being very lusty in his anger against the Queen later in the play. Do I remember wrongly? Or is Hamlet disobeying the ghost? I will have to read on and see. Also, what did the ghost mean by "taint not thy mind"? Was the it admonishing Hamlet to keep his mind clear? Because Hamlet either feigns madness or actually goes mad later in the play. Again, did Hamlet disobey the ghost? 

The final thing that struck me in Act I was the questionable nature of the ghost. If Horatio (a clear-headed scholar) hadn't believed in the ghost, I would suspect that Hamlet had hallucinated it in a fit of psychotic rage. Hamlet does incoherently rant during the scenes with the ghost. In his endnotes, Harold Jenkins suggests another alternative - perhaps Shakespeare meant the ghost to be a devil - an evil apparition sent to drive young Hamlet to vengeful madness. After all, the ghost has gone below stage, which represents Hell in classical theater. In a later scene (II.ii), Hamlet even questions the nature of the ghost: "The spirit that I have seen May be a devil." However, based on all the swearing which closes Act I, Hamlet does seem to believe the ghost's story, even if the ghost's nature is questionable.

Perhaps I'll be able to answer these questions as I read on...


Claudius and Gertrude
Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film

Act I, Scene ii: Only months after King Hamlet's death, his brother Claudius has married the Queen, and wrested the throne Denmark. Claudius scolds Hamlet mourning the  dead King and then leaves to continue reveling in his new-found power. Left behind, Hamlet bemoans the disgraceful marriage...How could his mother have married so quickly? And to such a man?! Horatio then rushes in to tell Hamlet about the king's ghost. Hamlet decides that he MUST see this for himself.

Ophelia, Laertes, and Polonius
The Royal Shakespeare Production 2009
Directed by Gregory Doran
Act I, Scene iii: Ophelia believes that Hamlet loves her, but her brother Laertes and her father Polonius both caution her against the young prince. Laertes believes that Hamlet, as heir to the throne, will not choose Ophelia for future Queen. Polonius agrees. "Hamlet is young!" he says. "Don't set your heart on him." Despite her assertions that Hamlet is courting her in a gentlemanly manner, Ophelia agrees to be cautious. After a long-winded speech from Polonius, Laertes departs for France.

Plate XLIV from Volume II
Boydell's Shakespeare Prints
Image taken from Emory's Shakespeare Illustrated
Act I, Scene iv and v: It's night, and Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus are looking for the ghost. When the apparition appears, it beckons Hamlet to follow. Hamlet desperately tries to follow, while his friends hold him back. Finally, he orders them to let him be.

Once alone, the ghost demands that Hamlet avenge his death. But it admonishes: "Taint not thy mind nor let thy soul contrive against thy mother aught." Hamlet swears to avenge his father's death, and then forces Horatio and Marcellus swear an oath of silence.

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, by Mohammed Hanif

2012 Book 162: Our Lady of Alice Bhatti 

Written by Mohammed Hanif, Narrated by Nimra Bucha 

Reason for Reading: Shortlisted for the Wellcome Trust Book Prize 

After spending over a year in a women's prison on some jacked up manslaughter charges, Alice Bhatti secures a job as a junior nurse in a Catholic hospital in the predominantly Muslim city of Karachi. There, she fights to salvage some amount of pride as she fends off roaming hands and gun-toting suitors. In the midst of this chaos, she manages to save a few lives. But is she performing miracles? Hanif's narrative has some truly beautiful moments, but I was left wondering: What's the point? There wasn't really a was just a series of events. The scenery and characters supported the novel, but they lacked plot. This book was shortlisted for the Wellcome Trust book prize, and I understand why - it displays the woes of practicing medicine in a religiously-charged, seedy environment. I certainly have a better appreciation, now, for medical practitioners in neighborhoods like this. I was moved by the characters, but not enthralled by the story.