Re-Read Challenge 2015

December 17, 2014 Challenges 2

Re-Read Challenge

I have been following So Obsessed With and Belle of the Literati for some time now and I love the challenge they’ve created for 2015. The point of this challenge is to “relive the magic of your favourite books. Return to your favourite stories, characters and worlds. Remember what it was like the first time around, and see just how fun it can be to re-read.”

I have enjoyed rereading favourite books my entire life, but that has fallen off the rails a bit since I started university four years ago. This year, I will be transitioning into the “real world” and while that’s going to be hectic, I hope that also means there will be time for revisiting childhood favourites as well as special books I enjoyed studying at school. I’m aiming for 12 books – one per month – but really, I’m fine with any number as long as I am ultimately doing more rereading. Here are a few of the books I hope to be revisiting this year:

  1. Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels
  2. Ida B by Katherine Hannigan
  3. The Wicked Years series by Gregory Maguire
  4. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
  5. The Books of Bayern series by Shannon Hale
  6. The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner
  7. Pat of Silver Bush series by L.M. Montgomery
  8. Protector of the Small series by Tamora Pierce
  9. Gallagher Girls series by Ally Carter
  10. Headhunter by Timothy Findley
  11. Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
  12. Zink by Cherie Bennett

A lot of this list is comprised of series, and I’m not sure I’ll get to all of them, but I would like to! If you’re interested in signing up – which I hope you are! – go check out the sign-up page on Hannah’s blog. Happy re-reading!

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{Review} Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

November 5, 2014 Review 2 ★★★★★

{Review} Station Eleven by Emily St. John MandelStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Published by HarperCollins on September 9, 2014
Genres: Adult, Contemporary, Science Fiction
Pages: 352
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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An audacious, darkly glittering novel about art, fame and ambition set in the eerie days of civilization's collapse, from the author of three highly acclaimed previous novels.

One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time-from the actor's early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theatre troupe known as the Travelling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains-this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor's first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes tender, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame and the beauty of the world as we know it.

I recently picked this up for an assignment on Canadian literature. I’d read numerous positive reviews – from JamieHannahKaren, and Blair – so I was really looking forward to this book. While literary science fiction is not a favorite genre of mine, the dazzling reviews were enough to sway me. Station Eleven is about a lethal flu epidemic that plagues our world and the ensuing aftermath. The narrative focuses on several characters each related, in some way, to a famous Hollywood actor who dies onstage during a production of “King Lear” in the opening pages. In an interview with the New York Times, Mandel said, “I wanted to write a love letter to the modern world, and a way to write about all these things we take for granted was to write about their absence.” I was pleasantly surprised by this insightful look into our world, our culture, and our humanity.

Part of what made this book so rich for me was how well Mandel developed a response to what exactly happens when 99% of the world’s population dies from an influenza epidemic. It’s about resilience, of the body, of the mind, and of the heart. I loved the multiple narratives in this book because it demonstrates so well how many different reactions are possible. A recurrent theme is that survival is not enough, and while Mandel writes characters who embody this concept, there are others who aren’t as mentally resilient.

These characters, though – they’re insanely realistic. I LOVE THEM. I ached for them. Their stories felt so tragic but so beautifully expressed. However, I don’t think there’s any way to explain these characters or their plots without ruining it all. Part of the enchantment of this book is the suspense: you don’t know how everything links together, and it seems to take forever to figure it out, but you do eventually.

The narrative has a wonderful sense of self-consciousness. You always have a sense of where you are currently in the timeline of the novel (which is long). I love this passage, which really exemplifies what I’m trying to describe:

“standing on a stool on his wondrously functional pre-Libya legs, the bullet that would sever his spinal cord still twenty-five years away but already approaching: a woman giving birth to a child who will someday pull the trigger on a gun, a designer sketching the weapon or its precursor, a dictator making a decision that will spark in the fullness of time into the conflagration that Frank will go overseas to cover for Reuters, the pieces of a pattern drifting closer together.”

We jump around from the moment the epidemic was unfolding and 20+ years after it happened, as well as a few memories from way before the epidemic. It really conveys a sense of shock when you go from completely normal – like our current world – to complete devastation and craziness. Super, super scary. I love when Mandel described the world 20+ years out, though, because it was so interesting to compare people who’s attitudes and experiences are so similar to mine, to a generation who grows up without any of the “modern conveniences” we are accustomed to (i.e. electricity, plumbing, gasoline, Internet).

For me, this book ticked every box: while the pacing is slower, it’s elegant and unique, and the characters and plot are expressed beautifully. Mandel is a wonderful storyteller. Her writing demonstrates that she put a lot of thought into the story, and it is completely controlled. That is the mark of an extremely talented writer; she knows everything but isn’t overhanded by revealing it all at once. If you enjoy books with interesting characters and emotional narratives, this one’s for you.

Collected Quotations

“‘It’s like the corporate world’s full of ghosts. And actually, let me revise that, my parents are in academia so I’ve had front-row seats for that horror show, I know academia’s no different, so maybe a fairer way of putting this would be to say that adulthood’s full of ghosts. . . . I’m talking about these people who’ve ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed. Do you know what I mean? They’ve done what’s expected of them. They want to do something different but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they’re trapped. Dan’s like that. . . . You probably encounter people like him all the time. High-functioning sleepwalkers, essentially.'”

“Hell is the absence of the people you long for.”

“Something I’ve been thinking about, which will sound harsh and I’m sorry: you said you’d always be my friend but you’re not, actually, are you? I’ve only realized that recently. You don’t have any interest in my life. This is going to seem bitter but I don’t mean it that way, V., I’m just stating a fact here: you’ll only ever call me if I call you first. Have you noticed that? If I call and leave a message you’ll call me back, but you will never call me first. And I think that’s kind of a horrible thing, V., when you’re supposed to be someone’s friend. I always come to you. You always say you’re my friend but you’ll never come to me and I think I have to stop listening to your words, V., and take stock instead in your actions. My friend C. thinks my expectations of friendship are too high but I don’t think he’s right.”

“Survival is insufficient.”

5 Stars

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{Review} Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers

September 12, 2014 Review 1 ★★★★★

{Review} Dark Triumph by Robin LaFeversDark Triumph by Robin LaFevers
Series: His Fair Assassin #2
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on April 2, 2013
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult
Pages: 385
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
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When Sybella arrived at the doorstep of St Mortain half mad with grief and despair the convent were only too happy to offer her refuge - but at a price. The sisters of this convent serve Death, and with Sybella naturally skilled in both the arts of death and seduction, she could become one of their most dangerous weapons.

But her assassin's skills are little comfort when the convent returns her to the life that nearly drove her mad. Her father's rage and brutality are terrifying, and her brother's love is equally monstrous. But when Sybella discovers an unexpected ally she discovers that a daughter of Death may find something other than vengeance to live for...
My Thoughts

If you read my review of Grave Mercy then you know I LOVED the first installment in this series. I requested Dark Triumph from the library at the same time as Grave Mercy, and I didn’t bother reading the synopsis – I just assumed I would want to read book two right away. I did… until I realized Dark Triumph is NOT about Ismae, but her “sister”, Sybella. I was completely disappointed and actually held off starting Dark Triumph for a few days. I loved Ismae and wanted more of her and Duval!

However. I seriously underestimated Robin LaFevers’ skill as a writer. I loved the kick-ass heroine, slow-burn romance, court intrigue, intense and mysterious politics, weapons and fighting, and superb supporting cast in book one, and these same components were delivered once again in Dark Triumph. Also, I just love how LaFevers told Sybella’s story. It was not overshadowing or overtaking Ismae; instead, it is really just a continuation in a way that makes sense and feels natural.

Also, I think I MAY love Sybella even more than Ismae. She is fierce but so vulnerable. She is kind but pretends she’s not. She is witty and funny – see: “You are not my nursemaid. Remember, I am rescuing you.” She has a good heart, despite being affiliated with the God of Death.

At the beginning, I couldn’t believe that Beast was the love interest in this book. How I had imagined him from Grave Mercy just seem irreconcilable with a romantic hero. But man, LaFevers did a fantastic job with him. I loved that he is so humble, quiet, and respectful – despite his accomplishments, his confidence, and his size, he isn’t a pain in the butt! (Which was kind of how I envisioned him at first.) His loyalty – and the loyalty he inspires in others – was something that really stuck with me throughout the novel. Sybella says, “In the distance a wolf howls. Let it come, I think. Beast will most likely simply howl back, and the creature will either turn tail and run or fall into line behind him, like the rest of us have.” That basically sums up Beast’s character – he is definitely the strong, silent type, and he inspires hordes of people to follow his cause in spite of – or because of? – those characteristics.

Not only did I love Sybella and Beast, but the supporting characters were amazing, too. Dark Triumph stands out to me as a book that excels in characterization. There is a prison guard who is just fantastic. He always kept me guessing. There are some “Robin Hood”-esque men who had struggles of their own that made me question how we perceive and discuss race, even in modern society. There is Ismae and Duval, returning in little glimpses, which was just the perfect treat for fans of the series. There is Annith, who is always in the background – from book one, too – and my heart aches for her and her struggles. (Can’t wait for book three!) There is Julian, Sybella’s brother, who was equally disturbing and fascinating… and really demonstrated the horribleness of the villain of this book. It is clear that LaFevers has put care and thought into every character in this book, and it certainly paid off.

One of my favourite aspects of Dark Triumph is the focus on faith. Sybella has so many questions and doubts regarding the God of Death – also her father – Mortain. Like Ismae, she doesn’t know how to perceive the abbey and who to believe anymore. She see things outside the abbey that make her question her unquestioning faith in the abbess. On top of that, she often compares herself to Beast, seeing him as goodness, and herself as darkness: “[Beast] feels as bright and golden as a lion who roars in the face of his enemies and stalks them in broad daylight. Whereas I – I am a dark panther, slinking unseen among the shadows, silent and deadly. But we are both great cats, are we not? And do not even bright things cast a shadow?” I really love when characters question their faith in religion, an institution, a person, whatever. It’s something that I think everyone goes through at some point in their lives, and often one must choose to take a certain path. I think that reveals a lot about a person, or a character. With Sybella, I loved her moment of reckoning, and it felt so realistic (despite the fantastical elements).

On that note, Sybella, as I mentioned above, compares herself to Beast unfavourably. At first it seems like she is the beauty and he is the beast (obviously… his name is Beast because he’s so ugly!). And it seems to be following that traditional fairy tale story. But in so many ways I think Sybella actually sees herself as the beast and Beast as the beauty, because he is good, and she is bad – or at least, she carries out the God of Death’s wishes, which isn’t exactly positive. I love this kind of contradictions in books, and I love how LaFevers sets up these concepts and oppositions. Deciding how to perceive both Sybella and Beast, as individuals and as a couple, was an enormous part of the fun for me with this book.

This series is amazing, and I think Dark Triumph topped the first book by far. I wish I had purchased these because I ALREADY want to reread them! I am so excited for book three, Mortal Heart, out in November… I simply can’t wait. I have a feeling Sybella may remain my favourite, but Annith’s story is one that really intrigues me. If you like fantasy of any form, strong-willed heroines, books about a loss of one’s self-identity, or slow-burn romances… Dark Triumph‘s for you. Without a doubt, it will be a favourite I return to again and again.

Collected Quotes

“Some days, like today, my aim and timing is so true that it takes my breath away and I feel certain Mortain’s hand guides my own.”

“Do I love killing? Of a certainty, I love the way my body and weapons move as one; I revel in the knowledge of where to strike for maximum impact. And of a certainty, I am good at it.”

“The dinner is as satisfying as any feast I have ever eaten. Not only is the goose cooked perfectly, crisp skin and juicy succulent meat, but there is a thick, hearty stew of mutton, leeks, and cabbage, dark brown bread and new cheese, thin red wine and pear cider, as well as baked apples with cream.”

“Mayhap my short time away […] has reminded me that there are things worth living for. […] There is the thrill of a fast horse, and the sun and wind in your face. The rare – and all the more precious for it – moments of laughter to be had. The excitement of seeing Mortain’s marque and knowing the hunt is about to begin. The look in someone’s eye when he truly sees you – not just your face and hair, but the very essence of your soul.”

5 Stars

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{Review} The Woefield Poultry Collective by Susan Juby

September 8, 2014 Review 0 ★★★★

{Review} The Woefield Poultry Collective by Susan JubyThe Woefield Poultry Collective by Susan Juby
Published by HarperCollins on March 8, 2011
Genres: Adult, Contemporary
Pages: 336
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased
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Woefield Farm is a sprawling thirty acres of scrub land, complete with dilapidated buildings and one half-sheared, lonely sheep named Bertie. It's "run" - in the loosest possible sense of the word - by Prudence Burns, an energetic, well-intentioned 20-something New Yorker full of back-to-the-land ideals, but without an iota of related skills or experience. Prudence, who inherited the farm from her uncle, soon discovers that the bank is about to foreclose on the property, which means that she has to turn things around, fast. But fear not! She'll be assisted by Earl, a spry 70-something, banjo-playing foreman, with a distrust of newfangled ideas and a substantial family secret; Seth, the alcoholic, celebrity-blogging guy-next-door, who hasn't left the house since a scandal with his high-school drama teacher; and Sara Spratt, a highly organized eleven-year-old looking for a home for her prize-winning chickens, including one particularly randy fellow soon to be christened Alec Baldwin.
Some Brief Thoughts

Oh, man. THIS BOOK. I don’t even know how to begin to explain it. First things first, the best thing about this book is the characters. Their special brand of hilarity reminds me a little bit of The Big Bang Theory – like, hilarious, but they’re not trying to be funny. They aren’t “nerds” like the show, instead they are a crazy cast of misfits… there is Earl, an old guy with his eye on retirement, who is a farmhand with basically no farming skills. There’s Seth, who is an irritating, sloppy blogger who is incredibly self-centered and conceited – but as he is forced to work on the farm, his character development is truly amazing. I was rooting for him in the end, which is NOT something I thought I’d be saying when I first opened the book! There’s Sara, who is also annoying, but in a much more endearing way; she only wants the best for her prize-winning chickens and is determined to get it from the folks at Woefield. And finally, Prudence… so sweet, hard-working, and determined, she’s a city girl and a “retired” writer who wants to make it on a farm. She reminded me so much of myself – her ideals, not necessarily her personality – and it was hilarious to see her try to make it all work.

Which is, essentially, the whole kit and caboodle of this book. Prudence wants to make the farm into a utopian land that is sustainable and profitable, but all she has for help are Earl, Seth, and Sara… which leave something to be desired. Each of these characters is prone to hair-brained ideas, and the best part is seeing how they turn out. You just never know, and I can honestly say EVERY “solution” had me busting my gut and shaking my head in wonderment.

Part of that is the animals – Woefield is pretty pathetic, especially at first, and all they have for animals are Bertie the sheep and Sara’s chickens. But holy cow, do they ever get up to some crazy shenanigans with these animals. You would think it would be pretty easy to take care of one sheep, but Earl and Seth show that is not the case….

There’s also a hunky guy, which in my opinion never hurts. BUT my favourite thing about this hunky guy is that, while I was rooting for him and Prudence to get together, HIS role, from his perspective, was about saving the animals at Woefield. (He’s a vet… even better.) He’s concerned about Bertie the sheep, not Prudence – and I love that he’s not playing her white knight.

Other things I loved: the farm life (I love farms), the fact that it’s in Canada, the grumpy characters yet the way they’re totally endearing, and the constant laughing out loud. I can’t even begin to describe the humour. I’ve tried to include some of the funniest quotes I could pull below, but I don’t know if just a few lines will accurately convey the situation. It is one of the funniest books I can ever remember reading, and if you are in need of something light, fun, and wholly entertaining, this should definitely be next on your list!

A few notes: This book was published in the US under the title Home to Woefield. Also, both Earl and Seth like to swear a lot, so this book is definitely at least a PG-13.

Collected Quotations

“My heart kind of hurt when I looked at her. Not because I was in love, but because I could tell from looking at her that she didn’t hate herself. Not only didn’t she seem to hate herself, she barely seemed to think about herself. How fucking glorious must that be?”

“It’s been a pretty tough day,” he said. “No sense making it worse with a salad.”

“The old man kept going about how he could never keep her home, how she loved to roam. He said she should have been a sheep in the foothills of Scotland. Now if that wasn’t a load of shit I don’t know what is. I’ll tell you why that sheep roamed. The fences around here was held up with goddamn binder twine and half-assed prayers. That’s why.”

“I think Prudence is one of the busiest people who ever lived. Probably only God and Jesus and the devil are more busy than Prudence.”

4 Stars

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{Review} Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

August 27, 2014 Review 0 ★★★

{Review} Outlander by Diana GabaldonOutlander by Diana Gabaldon
Series: Outlander #1
Published by Bantam Dell on June 2, 1992
Genres: Adult, Historical Fiction, Romance
Pages: 850
Format: Paperback
Source: Gift
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Claire Randall is leading a double life. She has a husband in one century, and a lover in another...

In 1945, Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, is back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon - when she innocently touches a boulder in one of the ancient stone circles that dot the British Isles. Suddenly she is a Sassenach - an "outlander" - in a Scotland torn by war and raiding border clans in the year of our Lord... 1743.

Hurled back in time by forces she cannot understand, Claire's destiny in soon inextricably intertwined with Clan MacKenzie and the forbidden Castle Leoch. She is catapulted without warning into the intrigues of lairds and spies that may threaten her life... and shatter her heart. For here, James Fraser, a gallant young Scots warrior, shows her a passion so fierce and a love so absolute that Claire becomes a woman torn between fidelity and desire... and between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives.

My Expectations

Outlander is a book I have known about for so long I can’t even remember when I first heard of it. I have had Outlander in the back of my mind for years as a book I thought I would like. I love Scotland and especially the highlands, and since that is the main setting of this book I was immediately endeared to it. When my aunt offered to lend me her copies of the series, I was so excited to dive into these massive books – especially with the TV series starting soon!

My Thoughts

Well. Frankly, I was disappointed. Unfortunately, there was so much in this book that didn’t work for me (spoilers ahead!):

1. The Rape
The book starts with an “almost” rape scene, and it just keeps going from there. Gabaldon frequently uses rape to indicate the “bad guys”, which I find problematic. It’s also completely excessive: reading about rape constantly and with such explicit detail left me with an icky feeling throughout my entire reading experience. I understand and enjoy historical accuracy but Gabaldon’s use of rape just felt superfluous. (This article from Bibliodaze talks about the issue intelligently with Game of Thrones and Outlander as examples.) In particular, there was one rape incident at the end of the book that I felt was extremely overdone; leaving the book with that fresh in my mind was not a pleasant experience.

2. The Beating
Again, I appreciate that Gabaldon was trying to be historically accurate (at least I assume that’s what she was doing…), but her use of beating hurt my stomach. There is one violent scene that I felt was sexist and repulsive. One of my favourite characters was the offender in this scenario, and I never really got over it. To make matters worse, several characters continue to bring up corporal punishment as a discussion point throughout the rest of the book – even laughing about it at times – and each time, it just brought my memory back to that one horrible scene.

3. The Adultery
In general I don’t like books that involve cheating because it’s not something I’m morally comfortable with. In Outlander, I was able to get past it to a certain extent because the little we see of Claire and Frank’s relationship at the beginning of the book did not feel convincing to me. That being said, I never felt like Claire made a conscious choice and I was frustrated with the way she handled her two relationships.

4. The Romance
This is mostly my fault, but I had NO idea that the Outlander series is a romance series, until I got to all the sex. I’m not a prude (and I have read romance novels before!), but I just felt that it was WAY over-the-top. I really enjoyed Claire and Jamie’s romance, but I didn’t like how explicit Gabaldon was with her frequent sex scenes. I also find it frustrating (after doing a little research) that apparently Gabaldon refuses to call this series a romance.

5. The Writing
For me, I felt 50/50 on this – while I loved Gabaldon’s writing in parts, and felt that her knack for description and humour was completely on point, at other times it felt very blah. I would read passages, then think that a whole five pages had been useless in terms of plot advancement, characterization, etc. While I don’t think this is a reason to not read the book – especially since Gabaldon has some real gems in Outlander – her writing style didn’t make the reading experience particularly pleasurable for me. I think if I had loved her writing more, some of my other issues with the book would have been more easily overlooked.

While I certainly have some complaints, I also really did love some things about Outlander. Here’s what I did like:

1. The Setting
As I said before, I love the Scottish highlands. I visited about a year ago, in June 2013, and it was the best trip I have ever been on. There’s something that I find so appealing – the climate, the landscape, the culture… in general, it’s almost a guarantee that if something involves the Scottish highlands, I will love it.

2. The Characters
Claire I found a bit annoying, stupid, and frustrating at times, but I loved her all the same and her difficult journey through time is fascinating. She really weathers it admirably considering how difficult such an experience would be. But Jamie is the real charmer of this book, and he’s what really drew me in. There’s not much to dislike about him, and I can’t imagine a better hero of such an epic story.

3. The Premise
Time travel is something that has always fascinated me, and some of my favourite books (My Name Is Memory by Ann Brashares, Pilgrim by Timothy Findley, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson) involve time travel in one way or another. It’s interesting to consider the moral, ethical, and of course, practical implications of time travel, and I love to see how different authors explore this difficult topic. No exception here – Gabaldon’s theory of time travel was completely absorbing!

All in all, this was not an immediate favourite; the bad outweighed the good for me. I’m not sure if I’ll be picking up book two. For one thing, the synopsis of Dragonfly in Amber sounds so different from Outlander that it has me intrigued (but also wary in other ways). I think I will return to the Outlander series, but after a long break. As for the TV show, I’m definitely going to give it a try – I can see Outlander working so well in a visual form and perhaps some of my issues with the book will be alleviated in cinematic form.

Collected Quotes

“For where all love is, the speaking is unnecessary. It is all. It is undying. And it is enough.”

Join the Convo!

Have you read Outlander? Is it on your TBR list? What did you think about the beating, the rape, and the adultery? Did you love the premise but ended up being disappointed by the content, like me? How did the second book compare to the first, if you have read both? Please leave your thoughts below… I really want to discuss this one as I’m still conflicted!

3 Stars

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