Friday, April 18, 2014

Review: The Shadow Throne

The Shadow Throne (The Ascendance Trilogy #3)
by Jennifer A. Nielsen
YA Fantasy
Amazon  /  Goodreads

Plot Summary:

One war.
Too many deadly battles.
Can a king save his kingdom, when his own survival seems unlikely?

War has come to Carthya. It knocks at every door and window in the land. And when Jaron learns that King Vargan of Avenia has kidnapped Imogen in a plot to bring Carthya to its knees, Jaron knows it is up to him to embark on a daring rescue mission. But everything that can go wrong does.

His friends are flung far and wide across Carthya and its neighbouring lands. In a last-ditch effort to stave off what looks to be a devastating loss for the kingdom, Jaron undertakes what may be his last journey to save everything and everyone he loves. But even with his lightning-quick wit, Jaron cannot forestall the terrible danger that descends on him and his country. Along the way, will he lose what matters most? And in the end, who will sit on Carthya's throne?

Review:

After two books of pretty daunting odds against our protagonist, this last book throws the worst at King Jaron.  It's absolutely heart-breaking what he has to go through to struggle to survive and save his kingdom.  Even though I am used to Jaron getting away with everything, I was on the edge of my seat reading this, because I couldn't imagine how Jaron could surmount the insurmountable.  But wow, does he throw everything he has at it.

While reading these books, I think there isn't a strong sense of character development with Jaron - he definitely grows a bit, but he remains very true to who he is since the start of the series.  But this book does peel away many of his layers, because we see and understand what really motivates him.  It's also so tear-jerking to read how much he cares for his friends and how much they care for him.  Everyone is so willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for each other that it emphasizes why Carthya must win over their neighboring lands - because they are such a force of good and Jaron is a truly good and compassionate ruler.  There were many times when things got so dark for Jaron that I wondered if it was really so bad to let King Vargan take over as long as it meant peace.  But everything about Carthya is so different from King Vargan's Avenia, and it is because of the rulers.

Vargan is such a dastardly villain - he functioned very well in the story, because I was just itching for him to be defeated.  The secondary characters - mostly Jaron's friends and found family were just as wonderful as in the last books.  They are a solid cast of characters and I was happy to see them develop individually as they each reached their potential.  What was, at the end of the first book, a potential love triangle was resolved very well in this book - I think everything that happened was understandable and the author pulled off what was a difficult situation.

There are lots of surprises in this book, as well as tear-jerking and poignant moments that really do justice to the appealing sincerity of all the characters.  Jaron's journey has been pretty rough, but I was deeply satisfied by this adventurous, exciting series.

(I received this book from the publisher or author for a fair and honest review. I was not compensated for this review.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Star Trek TNG Season 1 - Top 3 Favorite Episodes

It's time to talk about The Next Generation!  I started this series still a little biased for the TOS crew, so let me get a few things off my chest.  First, I wish Captain Picard would put Riker in his place!  Riker's tut-tutting every time Picard wants to beam down is a little overbearing!  I get the reasoning, but he is the Captain!  And there is quite a bit of focus on Riker, which I guess is because he's young and handsome?  He totally is, but it is interesting that the first officer doesn't quite feel like second fiddle to the Captain.  The character of Spock was somehow perfect at not pulling focus from the Captain (just the right amount of deferment and respect) but never fading into the background.  It's just a little adjustment for me with Riker.

And am I alone in thinking the romantic relationships in this are really frustrating?  What the heck is Riker doing that he's interested in Troi, pulls a sad face when she's engaged, and then is making out with some other girl every other episode.  Riker you need to stop.  The Picard/Dr. Crusher feels are a little more palatable, but I feel like it's silly that they can't be together just because he's the Captain.  Can't he do his job and have a wife?  I'm sure that will be fixed in time ... right??  And one more thing - Q is the worst!!! I just couldn't stand his smugness and his character and I wanted to throw things when I saw he had another episode!

Things that I did like though - the crew is varied and there are lots of potential there with all those personalities.  And they all have such unique aspects as well which gives the group such different dynamics.  Data is kind of my favorite character right now so I look forward to seeing more of him.  McCoy's cameo and the little nods to TOS made me very happy as well!

I didn't really enjoy this as much as TOS, so I decided to pick only three favorite episodes for this post.  That might change in later seasons, as I'm really hoping I will love this series as much as the original. With so many characters in this, there was a lot of time spent on the drama in their dynamics and character development, and less on the adventures I think.  So hopefully with the characters firmly established in season 1, the next seasons will be much more adventure-focused!

3. Datalore


I've already admitted my soft spot for Data, so an episode with 'evil' Data was bound to make it in my top 3 list!  Even though I was hoping they would do something different and NOT have Data's copy be evil, I was really impressed by the episode in general.  Especially in the resolution because Wesley, after being so marginalized by the crew, was right and he was able to help Data.  It was also great to learn more about Data's past - though I find it odd that he is the only one of his kind, it seems like the Federation would have looked more into how Data was created and try to replicate it.

2. Skin of Evil


In an attempt to rescue a downed ship pod, the crew come across a creature with no traditional life readings, yet it is intelligent and dangerous.  And also super gross.  I was mesmerized by the creature in this - how much was practical effects, and what did they use as all that black goo?  Interesting.  Also interesting that it's like a Hyde version of whatever alien race left it on that planet.  I liked how Picard handled the thing, and how he was firm and cautious unlike Lt. Yar who met with a very unexpected fate in this episode!  Even though the eulogy/farewell speech in the end was a little too long, I thought her words and the attitude towards death were pretty profound, so I think this was a great episode overall.

1. Conspiracy


Ok, this was far and away the best episode of the season for me!  It was creepy and sinister with some pretty shocking moments and super creepy visuals!  A small group of Starfleet Captains are afraid something is infiltrating the higher ranks of Starfleet, and while they have mostly circumstantial evidence, it is when the Enterprise comes across the debris of the USS Horatio does Captain Picard start to do something about it.  The parasites are really unnerving, especially because they can take over the host and the host looks and acts so naturally.  When they no longer care about keeping the secret is when things really start getting crazy in this episode.  An old man is throwing people around, they are eating meal worms for dinner (yuck) and the scene when one of the officers lets the parasite crawl into his mouth was so gross!  But this episode has such a great story, and it's even kind of scary so I think it fully deserves my first place pick!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Review: The Runaway King

The Runaway King (The Ascendance Trilogy #2)
by Jennifer A. Nielsen
YA Fantasy
Amazon  /  Goodreads

Plot Summary:

A kingdom teetering on the brink of destruction. A king gone missing. Who will survive? Find out in the highly anticipated sequel to Jennifer A. Nielsen's blockbuster THE FALSE PRINCE!

Just weeks after Jaron has taken the throne, an assassination attempt forces him into a deadly situation. Rumors of a coming war are winding their way between the castle walls, and Jaron feels the pressure quietly mounting within Carthya. Soon, it becomes clear that deserting the kingdom may be his only hope of saving it. But the further Jaron is forced to run from his identity, the more he wonders if it is possible to go too far. Will he ever be able to return home again? Or will he have to sacrifice his own life in order to save his kingdom?

The stunning second installment of The Ascendance Trilogy takes readers on a roller-coaster ride of treason and murder, thrills and peril, as they journey with the Runaway King!

Spoilers if you haven't read the first book!

Review:

I don't think I will ever get tired of characters who, no matter how terrible the odds against them are, will always have a trick up their sleeve, or plans that no one saw coming.  Jaron walks the fine line between doing reckless things on the spur of the moment and doing reckless things that are well thought out and planned from the beginning.  He's always unexpected in that way, and reading about his adventures is just so entertaining!

There are great secondary characters in this story who contribute to truly touching friendships.  Jaron surrounds himself with people who care about him, even as they are exasperated by his actions, and seeing that kind of loyalty in their group made me tear up more than once actually.  The romance aspect with Imogen is really touching as well because their relationship is born of actions and not words and it is particularly emotional I think that they feel a certain way for each other but never say it.

I think it was nice to see Jaron on his own and relying on his wits again in this - as there was a danger now that he is king that he would be so mired and hindered by the politics and his need to prove himself to his country.  The reader sees still more of his cleverness and resourcefulness as he comes up against some very daunting odds.  It's incredibly satisfying really to read every moment when he comes through on his claims despite how outrageous they may seem.  I just love characters who deliver on their promises, and Jaron always does.

This is such a fun book and a fantastic series so far, if you haven't had a chance to pick it up yet, I highly recommend you do and save it for when you need a diverting story where everything is possible as long as you have the will and the spirit to accomplish it.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Refined Reader (5) The Very First Book


The Refined Reader aims to take a look at the journey to where we are as readers today.  It's part history, part commentary - providing a brief, conversational summary of various aspects of our bookish past and comparing it to how it has affected us in modern times.  I love history, but I am no historian, and while I plan to do my research, if there are any errors, please let me know!  This is as much a learning venture for me as I hope it is for my blog visitors!

The Epic of Gilgamesh is often thought of as the first book ever written.  Although it is not in book form but written on tablets.  And we will probably never know for sure whether or not this is the very first book ever written, but it is the oldest work of fiction that we know now.

It was written four thousand years ago, in the style of an epic poem and chronicles the life of Gilgamesh, a great ruler of Babylonian times.  It seems that there was a real person named Gilgamesh who was a king in Mesopotamia, but the Gilgamesh of the story has god-like powers and consorts with other gods in accord with the polytheistic beliefs of the time. In case you don't know the plot - this is the synopsis from Goodreads:

A great king, strong as the stars in Heaven. Enkidu, a wild and mighty hero, is created by the gods to challenge the arrogant King Gilgamesh. But instead of killing each other, the two become friends. Travelling together to the Cedar Forest, they fight and slay the evil monster Humbaba. But when Enkidu is killed, his death haunts and breaks the mighty Gilgamesh. Terrified of mortality, he resolves to find the secret of eternal life...


That sounds like a good read, right?  It was written in cuneiform on 12 tablets and was first discovered by archaeologists in 1853 with the first modern translation published in 1870.  There was considerable damage to the tablets when they were found so there are many translations that take liberties with the story.  But what I find the most interesting is that this story contains some parallels to the Bible.  It was written almost 1000 years before the Old Testament Bible and features striking similarities in their versions of the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah's flood and Samson and Delilah.  Obviously, that can mean different things to different people - for some it might validate the events of the Bible as true history, and for others (myself included) it seems to indicate that the Bible is a collection of stories and can not always be taken literally.  But that's a whole other discussion.

I think for most people it is hard to imagine what these ancient dates really mean.  It's hard to picture just how wondrous it is (at least I think it is amazing) that we have such an ancient story preserved.  So I made this little (hopefully accurate) timeline to visualize just how ancient this text is:


(As a complete aside - I came across this in my internet research and was just delighted by this ancient picture of a bookworm!  From Pompeii, AD 79)

Is anybody interested in reading The Epic of Gilgamesh and seeing what life was like in c 2000 B.C.?  Do you like to read books from our historical past and imagine what it was like for the author to actually live in that time?

(The translation by Andrew George is commonly thought of as the best.)

Sources:
Wikipedia
Exploring Ancient World Cultures
Chronology of Ancient Literary Works

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Suspense Sundays (92) Star Over Hong Kong

Suspense was a radio series from 1942 to 1962.  I have a fondness for "Old Time Radio" as we call it now, and Suspense is my favorite show.  It sets up weird, dark, scary, or intriguing stories with a plot twist in the end, and all in half an hour.  For Suspense Sundays I'll give a short review of an episode.


"Star Over Hong Kong"
Air date: February 22, 1959
Starring Marie Wilson
>>Episodes here<<

Randolph Smythe, press attache, is assigned the task of easing visiting American actress Celestine Mayhew into the culture of Hong Kong.  Celestine is the absolute embodiment of empty-headed female - but she's so pretty! - so that even though Randolph seems a bit annoyed by Celestine and her very pushy press agent, he is more than happy to escort Celestine around Hong Kong.  Randolph soon becomes concerned when Celestine goes off with a nice Asian man who may be a criminal and Randolph is afraid she has actually been kidnapped.  The police aren't jumping to as many conclusions as Randolph so it's up to Randolph to find Celestine.

The beginning of this episode already states that this is more of a humorous story, and there's not much danger, so the potential for this episode to have played up a darker edge and then reveal things to not be bad at all was lost, because I was mostly just shaking my head at how silly the characters in this story were.  This wasn't a very memorable episode sadly, but I did really enjoy a commercial in the middle that basically equated road rage with childishness and pleaded for drivers to act their age while on the road.  How interesting to think of road rage in the 50s!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Incredible Things I Learned From Cosmos

My copy w/ post-its (Thanks Tory for the post-its!)
I reviewed Cosmos by Carl Sagan on Wednesday, but there were so many fascinating facts in the book that I wanted to share them in another post - especially since I went through the trouble of post-it noting all the really mind-blowing parts of the book for me.  It's not enough that I'm learning, but I also have to info-dump on everyone around me. :)  So here's a selection of quotes from the book with my brief commentary in italics:

  • "The rabbit was not domesticated until early medieval times (it was bred by French monks in the belief that newborn bunnies were fish and therefore exempt from the prohibitions against eating meat on certain days in the Church calendar.)"   p17
Haha, WHAT?  It shouldn't surprise me though how we set up these rules for ourselves and then try to find every way to circumvent them.  But really, fish??

  • "Have you heard gold is made in supernova explosions? " p35
Nope!  Although gold is just any other metal I suppose, it's just that we place such importance on it that I find this extra cool!

  • "Harold Morowitz has calculated what it would cost to put together the correct molecular constituents that make up a human being by buying the molecules from chemical supply houses. The answer turns out to be about ten million dollars” p106
Perhaps not incredible, but interesting that a price can be placed on a human being.  But I think this price reflects the chemical supply market from the 80s, so I assume we are worth much more now!

  • "[Hera] married Zeus, the chief of the Olympian gods. They honeymooned on Samos, the old stories tell us. The Greek religion explained that diffuse band of light in the night sky as the milk of Hera, squirted from her breast across the heavens, a legend that is the origin of the phrase Westerners still use – the Milky Way."  p139-140
Wow, all the Greek mythology I've read and I never heard of this!  There are few other instances in "Cosmos" where Carl Sagan links the words we use today to obscure Greek/Roman translations and I find all of that fascinating.

  • "Space and time are interwoven. We cannot look out into space without looking back into time." p165
This is probably my favorite fact from this list - I did know that the light from the stars takes many light years to reach us, but the succinctness of this quote and the beauty in the idea of looking back into time really appeals to me!

  • "The electrical impulses in modern computers do, however travel nearly at the speed of light." p168
I find this so fascinating because nothing travels faster than the speed of light, and it's interesting that we can make something that can come close.  (Now just to harness that somehow to make time travel possible - or maybe make it possible to send some thing into the past!)  

  • [Atoms are mostly empty space so why do things feel solid?]  "The answer is the electron cloud. The outside of an atom in my elbow has a negative electrical charge. So does every atom in the table. But negative charges repel each other. My elbow does not slither through the table because atoms have electrons around their nuclei and because electrical forces are strong. Everyday life depends on the structure of the atom. Turn off the electrical charges and everything crumbles to an invisible fine dust."  p180
This is just something I've never really thought about - I know atoms are mostly space but not quite why things feel solid if that is so - and of course Carl Sagan clears it up.  It's still very hard to conceptualize though.

  • "Fire is not made of chemical elements at all. It is a radiating plasma in which the high temperature has stripped some of the electrons from their nuclei."  p183
After detailing the molecular components of what was believed in the past to be the most basic materials (earth, air, water, fire), I was surprised to learn that fire has no chemical elements! (Like hydrogen or oxygen or something)

  • "[Whales] are the largest animals ever to evolve on the planet Earth, larger by far than the dinosaurs." p224
Okay, I feel like this might be something people already know - but I was shocked!  I've seen the skeletons of dinosaurs and whales are bigger than that?  Incredible!

I hope this post had some surprising information for my blog readers!  My last quote to share comes from a part of the book where Carl Sagan talks about books and I thought this quote was especially heart-warming for the book lover:

  • "Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time, proof that humans can work magic."  p232

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Why I Love Shakespeare, Or A Plea for the Classics


This is another "New Post" alert for something I wrote on The Duchesses - it's just a little fangirling over Shakespeare specifically, but I think my comments also apply to Classic Literature in general as I feel an appreciation of the Classics is so important and can be so rewarding.  And in case you are wondering, the use of Star Trek gifs are totally appropriate, because I mention The Next Generation series in the post! :)

Please check it out here if you are interested!  -- Why I Love Shakespeare


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Review: Cosmos

Cosmos
by Carl Sagan
Science Non-Fiction
Amazon  /  Goodreads

Plot Summary:

Sagan explores 15 billion years of cosmic evolution and the development of science and civilization. Cosmos traces the origins of knowledge and the scientific method, mixing science and philosophy, and speculates to the future of science. The book also discusses the underlying premises of science by providing biographical anecdotes about many prominent scientists throughout history, placing their contributions into the broader context of the development of modern science.

The book covers a broad range of topics, comprising Sagan's reflections on anthropological, cosmological, biological, historical, and astronomical matters from antiquity to contemporary times. Sagan reiterates his position on extraterrestrial life—that the magnitude of the universe permits the existence of thousands of alien civilizations, but no credible evidence exists to demonstrate that such life has ever visited earth

Review:

If you are interested in reading about life - nearly every aspect of it - then you should probably pick up this book.  Although it is not lengthy page-wise, the information and the concepts introduced are so dense and thought-provoking that it feels like this book contains more than it's deceptive page count reveals.  Carl Sagan weaves in so much history, science, astronomy, and philosophy, while keeping a very readable writing style, and making the concepts as clear and lucid as possible.  I do think having some basic science knowledge is helpful though, because there aren't many illustrations to help visualize some of the more esoteric concepts.

I love science, but I think I was most excited by all the instances in this book where Carl Sagan talks about historical precedent and the evolution of our thinking in various matters.  Religion is touched on in a very respectful way, and I feel like the point which is made on trying to understand God through our physical surroundings instead of stories written so many years in the past is particularly valid given the scope and awe of the universe.  There were also many moments when I was reading that I just had to stop and digest after coming across a particularly eye-opening bit of information.  I just loved learning so much through this book.  Towards the end, the book starts to delve more into theoretical ideas and personal thoughts which, while interesting, was not as compelling a read for me, but of course this is such a small issue compared to the overall achievement in the breadth and scope of this book.

Even though this is a non-fiction book heavily steeped in science, this was a truly exciting read and full of information and ideas that everyone can find benefit from.  And I've never had must interest in astronomy, but this book has given me such an interesting perspective that I feel like visiting the nearest observatory!

-- For Friday's post, I will feature a collection of fascinating facts from this book!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Review: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
by Claire North
Science Fiction/ Time Travel
Amazon  /  Goodreads

Plot Summary:

The extraordinary journey of one unforgettable character - a story of friendship and betrayal, loyalty and redemption, love and loneliness and the inevitable march of time.

Harry August is on his deathbed. Again.

No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, when death comes, Harry always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life he has already lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes.

Until now.

As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. 'I nearly missed you, Doctor August,' she says. 'I need to send a message.'

This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow.

Review:

This was an exceptional book.  The premise is complex and intriguing - I loved how the author didn't go through Harry August's lives completely in sequential order, but moved back and forth to better detail Harry's character development.  There are things that Harry learned in his past lives that have repercussions into his later ones, and seeing how that all fit together was so thrilling.  It gradually opens the reader's mind up to all the possibilities of having this kind of regenerative existence, and it keeps the pace of the plot moving quickly.  Just as it was tedious for Harry to relive his childhood over and over (with the mind of an adult) it would have been tedious to go through each of Harry's lives as he lived them.  Instead we get Harry's reminisces over his past lives as we need it.  Crafting this story alone was a great feat of storytelling.

I'm a little unsure over how I feel about the character Harry August.  I usually love to really root for the main protagonist of any book, but I sometimes felt Harry was an anti-hero, although he did have many difficult decisions to make which had some terrible consequences.  But the way in which Harry perseveres with his goal was admirable, and I was definitely rooting for him to fulfill it, especially when it came to the nail-bitingly suspenseful last few chapters.  And the plot alone is well worth any small issues I had with what Harry did.  Harry is a complex character though, and I understand that he should be more than just good or bad.  His understanding and his motivations are beyond the views of the "linears" (as they term people who don't re-live their lives) but there is still a lot of humanity in him.

While the prologue foreshadows the events in the end, we only really get to know the danger the world is in in the last half of the book.  The first half mostly details Harry's experiences and how the Cronos Club works.  The Cronos Club by the way is such an ingenious idea (it's their way of passing messages on to the past and the future) and overall I was really impressed with how well the author worked out the logistics of this world.  It's all so fascinating, but the book really picks up when Harry needs to stop one of his kind from doing something terrible.  The suspense really kicks in, and I think this book is mostly memorable for how well it portrayed this contest between two equals.

The Fifteen Lives of Harry August is a real roller coaster of a read.  It has thought-provoking drama with intelligent, clever storytelling.  It also has a high level of realism, with some darkly humorous quips. This is a book I would highly recommend if you are looking for something imaginative, distinctive and different.

(I received this book from the publisher or author for a fair and honest review. I was not compensated for this review.)

BTW, after I finished this book, I went to find out more on the author and found out Claire North is the pseudonym of a highly regarded published British author.  But no clue about who that author is!  I hope it is revealed soon, I would like to read more of his/her books! (If I haven't already...)

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Refined Reader (4) The Dual Meaning of Romance


The Refined Reader aims to take a look at the journey to where we are as readers today.  It's part history, part commentary - providing a brief, conversational summary of various aspects of our bookish past and comparing it to how it has affected us in modern times.  I love history, but I am no historian, and while I plan to do my research, if there are any errors, please let me know!  This is as much a learning venture for me as I hope it is for my blog visitors!


If I asked you what your favorite romance novel was, what would your answer be?  Something by Diana Gabaldon, Julia Quinn or Georgette Heyer maybe?  But if I meant instead the older meaning of a romance novel - a more plausible answer might be Le Morte d'Arthur or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Back in Medieval or even Greek times a romance novel did not center on people falling in love but on an idealized lifestyle of heroism, chivalry and adventure.  Love often did have an important part to play but it was not the focus of the story, it was more the motivation.  I'm not exactly sure why the genre of a romance novel changed from something quite specific in tone and scope to the much broader type it is today.  It makes sense though that the genre today (with it's many sub-genres) branched out from the older form of romance which was more fantastical because it included elements of magic and was otherwise much less realistic.  There was a sense of wonder and idealized history in the world of an "Old Romance."

While modern romances can also be pretty unrealistic - mostly because the actions and the circumstances of the characters' story can be too idealized - the stories are still based on the thoughts and emotions of people and not on daring undertakings and chivalrous pursuits so modern romances are a little more relatable to the average person.  But modern romances can be a part of so many genres from fantasy to historical that it can still maintain a flavor of the old romance.

I do love a good romance (or love story) in the books I read, but when I find it the main focus of the book I sometimes find it a bit insipid.  I like something more to the book.  But old romance really appeals to me because I feel like it is a great escapist read - where people do heroic things for love or for justice and they face and conquer many dangers.  I just find it more exciting!

What are your favorite romance reads?  (Both modern and old romance if you like any of the chivalric classics)

Sources:
Wikipedia / Wikipedia
Washington State University
Understanding Genre and Medieval Romance

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Suspense Sundays (91) Donovan's Brain

Suspense was a radio series from 1942 to 1962.  I have a fondness for "Old Time Radio" as we call it now, and Suspense is my favorite show.  It sets up weird, dark, scary, or intriguing stories with a plot twist in the end, and all in half an hour.  For Suspense Sundays I'll give a short review of an episode.


"Donovan's Brain"
Air date: February 7, 1948
Starring John McIntire
>>Episodes here<<

Eminent scientist, Dr. Cory, is working on keeping brain tissue alive and functioning outside of the body when a timely accident occurs and a ruthless Wall Street type entrepreneur is in need of some life-saving surgery.  Dr. Cory couldn't save the body though, but he did take out the brain and attempts to keep it functioning.  He does, and the brain starts developing the ability to communicate and then telepathically control the people around him.  Things definitely get worse after that.

This was a rare hour long adaptation of what I suppose was a very popular book at the time. I don't know about now - I think it is kind of dated.  Science gets a bad rap in this for sure. It is inherently creepy to have an out-of-body brain fully functioning and able to take over another person's body.  But it does seem a bit silly now, not to say impossible.  At least, I thought it would be easy to stop the brain when the brain became too demanding - like cut off power to the house, maybe?  And not try to sneak up on the brain in the laboratory.  Silly people.  This is a good listen though for the creepiness, and it is nice that they story is better developed because they have an hour to work with.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Review: Casino Royale

Casino Royale
James Bond novel #1
by Ian Fleming
Spy Thriller
Amazon  /  Goodreads

Plot Summary:

In the first of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, 007 declares war on Le Chiffre, French communist and paymaster of the Soviet murder organization SMERSH.

The battle begins with a fifty-million-franc game of baccarat, gains momentum during Bond's fiery love affair with a sensuous lady spy, and reaches a chilling climax with fiendish torture at the hands of a master sadist. For incredible suspense, unexpected thrills, and extraordinary danger, nothing can beat James Bond in his inaugural adventure.

Review:

I did enjoy this book overall, but unfortunately I had a whole lot of issues with the story, the writing and the characters.  I find it so weird how James Bond is not really likable.  Maybe admirable, but he's so cold-blooded and analytical that he has so little warmth and whenever he expresses any affection it seems very grudging and tempered by  irrational criticisms of another's character.  I'm mostly referring to his attitude towards women.  There's very little humor to make up for his lack of chivalry so I find it unbelievable when women fall for him.  But his personality is very distinct and he gets the job done, so I suppose there is an allure there.

The story itself is pretty flimsy and it's hard to really imbue drama in a card game.  The writing is very straightforward which doesn't help to lend any flair to such an uninteresting mission.  Of course there are a few twists to liven things up after the card game, however those twists are pretty predictable.  There wasn't as much evidence in here of Bond's cleverness and resourcefulness either to help make this story more exciting so that the only draw to the plot I think is the suspense of not knowing the Bond girl's secret.  Although I did have an idea of what it must be.

While my review of this book isn't glowing, I think there is a charm to reading the original books and comparing them to the film incarnations.  I'm sure this isn't the best Bond novel, but it is intriguing to see how Ian Fleming started off this iconic character and see how the world of James Bond can grow.

** This audiobook was narrated by Dan Stevens from Downton Abbey if anyone was curious!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Timey Whimsy - New Post!


Check out today's installment of my time travel feature Timey Whimsy at The Duchesses!

Today's post is titled Three Real Life Instances of Time Travel.  You have experienced time travel and may not have known it!  I'm really proud of this post because the content of it is so exciting to me - I hope you will feel the same!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Interview with Danielle Jensen, Author of Stolen Songbird


Website
@ dljensen_
At the end of February I read and reviewed a wonderful fantasy novel by Danielle Jensen.  Seriously, this is my favorite read of 2014 so far!  The book is finally available and to celebrate Danielle was kind enough to answer some interview questions for my blog!

~ Q & A ~

1. The Trolls in your story are very different from how we normally see them in popular culture. What inspired the changes you made to them and were you concerned with trying to make sense of their usual mythology in the world of your book?

If you actually look at Scandinavian and Norse mythology, there are quite a large number of variations on the myth of the troll. While they are sometimes represented as massive and stupid, that is not always the case. They are often human-sized with a human appearance. What they are very nearly always represented as possessing is a nefarious purpose, which is one of the reasons why I ended up using them as my monsters under the mountain.

I wasn’t too concerned about forcing my trolls to fit certain expectations, because I wanted them to be unique.

(Charlene: I definitely need to read more Scandinavian and Norse mythology!)

2. I am a *tiny* bit obsessed with the wonderful romance in Stolen Songbird, and I was wondering if there were any specific inspirations for how Cecile and Tristan's relationship develops? Who are your favorite romantic couples?

They were a little bit inspired by Will and Tessa in The Infernal Devices, but as you know, Stolen Songbird doesn’t have a love triangle, so there is no Jem ready to leap out in the sequel.

I really like Cole and Isabel, and I’m looking forward to reading Sinner when it comes out.

(Charlene: Oh yes, I keep forgetting that I need to check out The Infernal Devices - I've heard so many glowing comments on the romance!)

3. Cecile is a promising opera singer. Are you a fan of opera or musicals? Do you sing?

I adore the opera, and I also enjoy musicals. I have a terrible singing voice. Terrible.

4. If you could trade places with any character in your story who would it be and why?

That’s a tough question given that no one in Trollus has it easy. I’d probably choose Ana├»s, because she’s powerful, smart, badass, and has excellent taste in dresses.

5. I adore the book cover, and I was curious how much input you had on the design and if you had any ideas for the cover that did not make it to the final design?

My editor ran the idea they had for the cover by me, which was basically Cecile in a green dress holding the rose Tristan gives her. I was supportive of going that direction, so they put together a written description with inspiration images for the artist, and I was asked to approve it before they sent it off. Steve Stone then worked his magic and produced eight variations of the cover (all quite similar), and they asked me which one I liked best. I asked for a few small changes, and they were more than willing to make them. I got a lot more input than most authors do, which was awesome. I love my cover. I can’t wait to see what they come up with for the sequel.

6. I really love the secondary characters in Stolen Songbird! I'm sure you can't reveal too much, but can we expect some great new supporting characters in the sequel?

There are a few characters who only got a bit of stage time in Stolen Songbird who have much more important roles in the sequel. There are a few new characters. And of course, there are the characters everyone already knows and loves (or hates!).

7. Do you have a ritual before you start writing to get you into the right mindset?

I circle the Internet a few times. Check all my social media. Procrastinate a bit. Then I start writing.

8. Last question - which Hogwarts house do you belong to?

Ravenclaw.

(Charlene: Me too!! :D)

Thank you so much Danielle for your wonderful answers and the publisher Strange Chemistry for the opportunity to be a part of the book tour!  And everyone please go pick up a copy of Stolen Songbird if you haven't read it yet - there's romance, adventure, great characters and fantastic world-building!

Amazon
Goodreads
My review

Danielle Jensen's Website

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Review: The Ring and the Crown

The Ring and the Crown
by Melissa De La Cruz
YA Fantasy
Amazon  /  Goodreads

Plot Summary:

Princess Marie-Victoria, heir to the Lily Throne, and Aelwyn Myrddn, bastard daughter of the Mage of England, grew up together. But who will rule, and who will serve?

Quiet and gentle, Marie has never lived up to the ambitions of her mother, Queen Eleanor the Second, Supreme Ruler of the Franco-British Empire. With the help of her Head Merlin, Emrys, Eleanor has maintained her stranglehold on the world's only source of magic. She rules the most powerful empire the world has ever seen.

But even with the aid of Emrys' magic, Eleanor's extended lifespan is nearing its end. The princess must marry and produce an heir or the Empire will be vulnerable to its greatest enemy, Prussia. The two kingdoms must unite to end the war, and the only solution is a match between Marie and Prince Leopold VII, heir to the Prussian throne. But Marie has always loved Gill, her childhood friend and soldier of the Queen's Guard.

Together, Marie and Aelwyn, a powerful magician in her own right, come up with a plan. Aelwyn will take on Marie's face, allowing the princess to escape with Gill and live the quiet life she's always wanted. And Aelwyn will get what she's always dreamed of--the chance to rule. But the court intrigue and hunger for power in Lenoran England run deeper than anyone could imagine. In the end, there is only rule that matters in Eleanor's court: trust no one.

Review:

I honestly don't know what to think about this book.  On the one hand, I enjoyed the power play politics of the court, the soap opera-ish drama of all the different characters and the dilemmas they were faced with.  Each character had such a rich back story as well and I felt like a whole book could have been written on each one of them.  But the resolution of the novel was just awful for me.  I'm so unhappy with everything about it.

The plot of this book is much more than what it seems on the surface because of all the different important characters.  Each chapter is from a different character's POV, and they were all very well written and fleshed out.  Even though Marie and Aelwyn seem the main characters from the plot synopsis, I think the focus was on other characters more often than not which made the book feel very episodic.  The way the story moved between all of these characters didn't always gel with me, but the story as a whole had a lot of dimension because of how well written the characters were.  With the world-building, the magic element did not get enough action I think.  It played an important part, but I would have liked to know more about it and why, when science has given us so much convenience, magic has such a strong hold on this world.  Even though the book is set in our time, because magic has had such a strong influence there is a sense that the culture is stuck in the past, and has not had a chance to move forward.  The world-building is very interesting, but there's not much depth given to it.

I'm not giving away any spoilers, but the ending really had some strange developments for me.  Decisions were made way too quickly in my opinion and some characters' actions (or changes of heart) made no sense to me at all.  There are some major revelations in this book that could have been really effective emotionally, but because the book moved around among the characters so much there was little suspenseful build up, and I felt almost indifferent to everything.  And disappointed in a lot of the characters' fates.

I feel like this story takes a rather realistic, character-driven approach to YA fantasy that may appeal to some readers.  It does have a contemporary feel despite the magic and the anachronistic culture, so perhaps this book is more for readers who enjoy a more non-traditional YA fantasy.

(I received this book from the publisher or author for a fair and honest review.  I was not compensated for this review.)

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Refined Reader (3) Commonplace Books


The Refined Reader aims to take a look at the journey to where we are as readers today.  It's part history, part commentary - providing a brief, conversational summary of various aspects of our bookish past and comparing it to how it has affected us in modern times.  I love history, but I am no historian, and while I plan to do my research, if there are any errors, please let me know!  This is as much a learning venture for me as I hope it is for my blog visitors!

So today happens to be my blogoversary!  I've been officially blogging for two years!  And it's still the best!  So for today's Refined Reader I wanted to talk about what blogs, and computers and the internet in general have replaced for us - the need for a commonplace book.

17th Century Commonplace book w/ a Shakespeare sonnet
Commonplace books historically were used to keep track of odd bits of knowledge and things that a person wanted to remember.  From quotes, poems, recipes and ideas - it was used by many famous authors, scientists, philosophers and regular people to remember every little thing.  This was not a diary or a journal, it was not always even an important item - sometimes it could just be a book of scrap paper for notes that you might need in the course of your daily life.  

Commonplace books are now seen as a valuable insight into what people in the past were interested in and what they found important.  But keeping a commonplace book (and a well-organized one) was also an important tool for scholars and students, and it was sometimes taught how to keep one at universities.  In 1706, John Locke wrote a book on the topic called A New Method of Making Common-place Books.  (I skimmed some of the book to get more perspective on how important commonplace books were back then, but Old English is rather difficult to read so I didn't get much out of it!)

Even though I have my blog, pinterest, and my computer for word documents, I was taken by the idea of keeping a commonplace book that would provide a snapshot of my personality and interests.  I've kept one since 2008, but I did change to a new notebook rather recently (it has words from Jane Eyre embossed on the cover!) so I had to copy all my quotes and poems to the new book.  I also like to have celebrities/authors autograph the book whenever I get the chance.  Just to make it more special to me.  Here are some pictures of my commonplace book:


This is my favorite autograph inscription by Joel McHale (from Community!).  I got his autograph before Community though, because I was a fan of his from The Soup.  The inscription made me laugh so much!  I didn't tell him it wasn't a diary though. :D

A few more pages from my book - one with Doctor Who quotes and the other with "The Mouse's Tale" from Alice in Wonderland.  I had to try to write it like a tail!  It's nice to decorate the pages with little drawings I think - again to make it more personal!  I also like to keep mementos in my book - like a sprig of heather from my trip to England, and a piece of confetti from a concert I went to a few years ago.

Do you keep something like a commonplace book - a physical way to note down favorite poems, lyrics, quotes, or anything special to you?  Or do you mostly keep track of these things electronically?

Sources:

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Suspense Sundays (90) An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

Suspense was a radio series from 1942 to 1962.  I have a fondness for "Old Time Radio" as we call it now, and Suspense is my favorite show.  It sets up weird, dark, scary, or intriguing stories with a plot twist in the end, and all in half an hour.  For Suspense Sundays I'll give a short review of an episode.


"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"
Air date: July 9, 1959
Starring Vincent Price
>>Episodes here<<

Based on the short story by Ambrose Bierce, the story begins with a Confederate sympathizer about to be hanged from a bridge by 'them Yankees'.  As he is dropped the rope of the noose snaps and the episode is mostly about his thoughts as he makes his escape.  Things turn nightmarish as things aren't as they seem, and the brilliant twist in the end is a huge dose of sobering reality.

This is a classic short story and really stellar storytelling, which I think doesn't quite come across in this episode.  I think it would have helped to have heard more of a distinction between the man's memories and what he was experiencing.  Perhaps this story is just better suited to a visual adaptation so the twist in the end will have more impact.  (The Twilight Zone did a fantastic version of this story.)  Vincent Price did a great job narrating it though.  If you have never experienced this story, I highly suggest looking it up for a quick read, or watching the episode of The Twilight Zone.  But Suspense did adapt this story two more times, so maybe the other episodes will capture this intimate, tragic story better.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Review: Attachments

Attachments
by Rainbow Rowell
Contemporary Romance
Amazon  /  Goodreads

Plot Summary:

"Hi, I'm the guy who reads your e-mail, and also, I love you . . . "

Beth Fremont and Jennifer Scribner-Snyder know that somebody is monitoring their work e-mail. (Everybody in the newsroom knows. It's company policy.) But they can't quite bring themselves to take it seriously. They go on sending each other endless and endlessly hilarious e-mails, discussing every aspect of their personal lives.

Meanwhile, Lincoln O'Neill can't believe this is his job now- reading other people's e-mail. When he applied to be "internet security officer," he pictured himself building firewalls and crushing hackers- not writing up a report every time a sports reporter forwards a dirty joke.

When Lincoln comes across Beth's and Jennifer's messages, he knows he should turn them in. But he can't help being entertained-and captivated-by their stories.

By the time Lincoln realizes he's falling for Beth, it's way too late to introduce himself.

What would he say . . . ?

Review:

I would say that this story is pure adorable, but I don't want to sell short the depth of it.  While the cuteness of the romance and the characters are undeniable, it is also very poignant and thought-provoking.  And I think that's mostly because all of the characters are so intensely genuine.  Their lives have drama but they don't devolve into dramatics - the writing knows when to dwell on a moment and when to allude to it in passing to make it even more effective.  I feel like it's cliche to say that the characters are so real they feel like my friends, but it's so true!

The format of the story was very clever as well.  We get to know Beth and her friend Jennifer just as Lincoln does through their emails, and we get to feel the same sense of suspense and furtive interest in their lives.  With those moments when the reader realizes Beth notices Lincoln around the office, I feel like I felt the same glee as Lincoln must have as he read it.  These characters just live in your head!  And the secondary characters are just as fully formed - and they are so important in developing the main characters further for the reader.  It was so easy to understand each characters actions and decisions.

The ending did let me down just a little bit though.  Generally it was just what I wanted and almost perfect, but I think that because for the most part we are reading all the thoughts in these characters heads, when it came to Lincoln and Beth resolving their stories face to face, I felt the lack of having that same access to their thoughts.  It was resolved too quickly too in some ways which detracted a bit from the wonderful credibleness of this story, but then again it was a very difficult situation to resolve.

This story is a beautiful combination of spare, effective writing and down-to-earth, rich characterization, with the added treat of an intensely sweet romance.  I think it must be hard sometimes to find an ending for a novel, and while I don't want to over-hype it, I was very taken by the last lines of this book and how it captured their relationship so well in a moment of humor.  This book is just pure loveliness.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

My (other) New Feature!

I was in a photoshopping mood so I made this alternate banner for the feature!
"Time isn't a straight line. It's all... bumpy-wumpy. There's loads of boring stuff. Like Sundays and Tuesdays and Thursday afternoons."

- Doctor Who "The Impossible Astronaut"

Over on The Duchesses, I am debuting my new sporadic Thursday feature - Timey Whimsy!  I would love it if you would go over there and check it out!  It's a feature that centers on time travel related conversations - from fangirling over the time travel trope in my favorite films, books and television to discussions on theoretical time travel (which I find so fascinating.)  With some fun and silliness to be had by all I hope!

Today's post is titled "Time Travel: Blessing or Curse?"

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Taking A Look At Book Ratings


When I first started blogging I didn't add star ratings to my reviews, mostly because I found it difficult to narrow down my thoughts to numbers.  It's all pretty subjective anyway.  But since most websites that look at reviews force you to give star ratings and I did find that I liked getting an immediate visual on other blogs for how the blogger felt about the book, I thought I should just add it to my reviews.  But it's still hard sometimes to decide on a rating!  For me, the overall deciding factor (especially when there are small issues I had with the book)  is how much did I enjoy it?  And such a subjective measure does bother me a little because I do like to think my ratings are fair and generally accurate and true across the board.  But they can't be if my number one measure is personal enjoyment/preference.  Oh well.  It is the same for every blogger.  Sometimes I like to kick around the idea of a rating that analyzes specific factors and takes away personal preferences - a way to logically argue a viewpoint of things like characters, plot and pace and takes off points for a character doing something stupid and unbelievable for instance.  But that's ridiculous really, and way too difficult!

I wanted to break down my feelings on what each rating I give means to me in this post - as a way for me to fully understand why I give what I give to keep me consistent, and also to see what others think when it comes to how to rate books.
Five star books for me, almost always excel in the storytelling.  The writing, characters and plot doesn't have to be perfect, but my enjoyment of the book was perfect.  Sometimes everything about the book was perfect to me - and I like to highlight that in my actual review - but there are times when I was disappointed here or there but I felt like the book held my interest and captivated me enough to give it all the stars.  If I couldn't put the book down even if there are flaws I think it deserves a rating that reflects that I was totally involved with the story.  Also I would recommend this book to others and if it's a series I am definitely planning to continue on with it.

Probably this is the rating I give most of the books I read.  I did enjoy it and I connected with the story and/or characters, but there were little issues that meant I felt it wasn't the perfect read for me.  Oftentimes I give this to a story that has a great plot and characters but the writing or execution of it somehow was disappointing.  Or even if a book has a big disappointment for me, but also something rather brilliant about it, I will rate it more for that brilliant part.  Basically there are flaws, but I still thought the book was an excellent read.  If this is a series though, I may not put continuing with the series on my priority list, but there is a big chance I will continue with it eventually.

I always feel bad giving this rating because these books almost were great for me.  They had a lot going for it, but in the end I couldn't get into it as much as I wanted to.  These books could even be generally thought of as excellent, but my own personal enjoyment was middling to bored and I can't say I would recommend the book.  I might even forget the book the minute I finish writing the review.  So probably the best thing I can say is that it's not bad, it's just not worth the time I put into it.  

This is a book I could not connect to.  My enjoyment level was near the basement, and I forced myself to continue either with the hope that it would get better or because I felt like I had to finish it for some reason.  But really I didn't care for it, and I was disappointed by it most of the time.  There may be some merit - in the writing, characters or plot but it wasn't enough for me to feel warm happy thoughts about the story.  

I've never actually given out this rating on my blog.  There are definitely books that deserve it but they also belong to another category that gives me less stress and allows me to enjoy reading.  And I don't review these on my blog.  What are these?  The DNF.  To hit this category I have to dislike the writing, the characters, the plot, maybe even shudder at the title of the book.  To my mind, the worst book I ever had to finish (the one that made me hate life as I turned pages) was Moby Dick.  I know it has merit.  I just couldn't find it.  And it didn't help that it's so bloody long.


In the end, I still don't really like to give star ratings to my reviews.  Mostly because I feel bad about docking stars from a book.  I want to love you Book!!  But it is necessary when readers are faced with so many books in the market, and on average star ratings on websites (like Amazon and Goodreads) are pretty accurate when gauging the quality of the book.  When first you factor in what genres you like to read of course.  It helps readers make a difficult choice - What book should I read next?

If you are a reviewer reading this, how do you feel about giving ratings?  How much do you rely on them when scoping out your next read?