Kay, Rekindling

My book reviews blog.  I love hot coffee, rainy days, and the ocean.  Oh, and books.  Lots of them.

Titus Andronicus: Third Series - William Shakespeare

It seems Billy Shakes was relieving some blood rage with this one.

This play relates a violent and gory cycle of revenge between Titus, a Roman general, and Tamora, the Queen of the Goths. I’d say it’s like the Oresteia on crack, but the events of the Oresteia are nowhere near as fucked up as in this play. The atrocities reach shocking heights, including but not limited to, rape, mutilation, and cutting off tongues—and that's just the crap committed against one person in the span of, like, an hour. Dismemberment, cannibalism, and much more permeate the rest of the play.

I’ve read the play and watched the Anthony Hopkins film adaptation. Both left a bad taste in my mouth, and I couldn’t stomach the taste of beef for at least a few weeks.

I wish I could say something more about the language, the meaning behind the story, but honestly, I am at a loss with this one.

2 stars and not really recommended for the faint of heart. Though, I still think it's worth reading at least once since it is Shakespeare.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World - Haruki Murakami, Alfred Birnbaum

Some people, myself included, just don't completely get Murakami. His storytelling style is in turns psychedelic and wildly unrestrained, but also carefully directed. It works for some people, and it falls miserably short for others.

There is so much contention on what Murakami's "best" and "worst" novels are. One person will claim one novel completely turned him off Murakami, while others will point to that same novel as what drew them to Murakami in the first place.

What I can really draw from all the debate is that you need to be in a certain mood and mindset to enjoy certain books by Murakami. In my case with Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, the meandering and dreamily emotional storyline hit the bulls eye for what I didn't know I needed.


Plot Summary

This book is split between parallel storylines. The first is set in contemporary Tokyo and told from the perspective of a somewhat average yuppie. Except, this yuppie is a “Calcutec,” a human data processor/computer who uses his subconscious to encrypt data. He gets assigned to work for a mad scientist type, who not only specializes in “sound removal” but suspiciously reminds me of an insane Santa Claus. This assignment, however, sets off a string of events that gets him embroiled in a corporate information war, the savage “Inklings” who dwell in the sewers of Tokyo, and the impending end of the world.

The second storyline tells the tale of a traveler, who is in the process of becoming a citizen of a walled city called “The End of the World” (also mapped in the front page). In order to enter, the narrator must be severed from his Shadow. As he goes about his Dreamreading duties—which is reading the dreams of unicorn skills—it becomes apparent that his Shadow is his only remaining clue behind where he came from and what he is meant to do.


My Reaction

This is an incredibly complex novel, one that I plan on rereading later with a fresh mind. Similar to Kafka on the Shore, I haven't really quite figured out the entire novel. But here is what I know about Hard-Boiled…or at least, what I think I know. Hard-Boiled is:

-wistful
-contemplative
-filled with a unrequited yet unselfish longing for meaning in life
-deceptively unassuming in prose, but still emotionally potent
-a gentle story that touches upon the nature and purpose of our existence
-a love story, though I feel this point is highly debatable

Now, for potential readers who have little idea of the rabbit hole into which they are about to fall, let’s talk about what Hard-Boiled is not:

-a character-driven novel; rather, like in Kafka on the Shore the protagonists are tabula rasas, defined and shaped by external forces, even if they are fundamentally connected to these forces
-a sci-fi novel... actually, the shallow exploration of experimental neurology and computer science is quite hokey and falls short of being within the realm of applicable possibility, more "fringe" science than not
-straightforward—trust me on this one

I found that the ending to this novel was one of the best and strangely complete endings I’ve read. Surprisingly, for the type of story it was, the story came full circle by the final page with many loose ends tied up. The finale was a melancholy yet uplifting tone.

Though I love this book to death (it’s made my all-time favorites list, in fact), I hesitate to recommend it to everyone. As I mentioned before, you need to be in a certain mindset to enjoy a Murakami. But if you found the above description of the book interesting, it may be an extremely worthwhile read.

The Queen of Attolia - Megan Whalen Turner My reading accomplishment post-Hurricane Sandy was finishing this book, woohoo! Rating is more accurately 3.5 stars. Review to come.
The Diving Pool: Three Novellas - Yōko Ogawa, Stephen Snyder

Well, if I ever want acid indigestion, I know just the book to turn to.

I've been very lucky this past year with contemporary Japanese authors, and Yoko Ogawa has been one of the top on that list. This novella features three standalone stories, all united by recurring themes. In each story, the main characters assume the role of the incongruous outsider, distant and apathetic, but frothing underneath with violent undercurrents of obsession and desire.

Perhaps most significantly, these outsiders are all female, each seeking companionship but falling just short of getting it. Isolation is a running thread in the three stories, and it is through the lens of isolation that Yoko Ogawa warps each protagonist's view of her world. Beauty is perverted into revulsion. The human aesthetic is reduced to a scientific specimen. Repressed sexual desire, oftentimes misplaced or unrequited, is expressed through sadism and abuse.

The most compelling aspect of this novella was just how capable of casual cruelty we are in everyday life, particularly in the first two stories, and how powerful and maddening isolation can become.

I planned on finishing this book in one or two sittings because of its relatively short length. But after reading the unsettling, mind bending first story that was The Diving Pool, also the title of the book, I realized I could only take this book in bite-sized pieces (and if you’ve read The Diving Pool, you’ll know how ironic that statement is).


THE DIVING POOL

After reading this story, I just wanted to curl up in a fetal position and rock back and forth. I actually had to set this book down a few times after reading some particularly disturbing passages.

Out narrator is Aya, the daughter of a husband and wife who run an orphanage. Despite being her parent’s sole biological child, Aya is still treated like an orphan, exacerbating her feelings of displacement and isolation. Aya’s one comfort is secretly watching Jun, her foster brother, dive at the local pool and reveling in his sleek physique and elegant form. However, as Jun is technically Aya’s “brother” and her increasingly obsessive feelings can never be requited, Aya alleviates her emotional frustrations in sadistic and grotesque ways.

What struck me most about this story was how seamlessly the author wove cruelty into the narrative. It seemed almost like a natural human reaction simply because of its selfishness and the longing that drove it. This was a gem of a story, albeit a haunting and disturbing one.

Story rating: 5/5


THE PREGNANCY DIARIES

While The Diving Pool revolves around the psychological workings of a young girl, this story draws inspiration from physical, commonplace things like pregnancy, ultrasound imaging, and food. However, despite its reliance on the physical world, the story has a surreal quality about it, as if it were a dream laced with nightmares.

Similar to The Diving Pool, the protagonist is a cool, detached woman who lives with her pregnant sister and brother-in-law. Already the proverbial third wheel, the narrator further emphasizes her alienation in her journal entries that detail the progress of her sister’s pregnancy. But rather than the musings of a concerned sibling, the entries have a cold, stilted quality that tips off that reduces pregnancy into something repulsive and gluttonous.

One of the ways the narrator does this is through her descriptions of food. Food is never just food. It is in turns fragrant and tasty, slimy and revolting, poisonous and corruptive. The narrator’s pregnant sister goes so far as comparing noodles to tiny intestinal tracts.

Like Aya in the previous story, the narrator never expresses her emotions outright, but the darkness of her observations hint at a boiling resentment. Again, cruelty sinks into the narrative like a subtle poison. It’s a disorienting feeling, one that keeps you on the edge of your toes in expectation of the dire consequences such resentment can bring about.

Story rating: 4.5/5


DORMITORY

I’d have to say Dormitory was the least surreal of the three, and while the theme of isolation permeates the story, the main conflict resolves itself very differently.

Again, the main character is a woman. While waiting for her husband to call her to Sweden, she remains in Japan to pack and settle their affairs before she leaves the country. When she gets a request from her cousin to find housing, however, the woman recommends him to live in an old dormitory run by a paraplegic man, a place in which she had lived years earlier. The story quickly morphs into something resembling a mystery at the dormitory as the woman increasingly shuts out her distant husband and focuses more on her young cousin.

Unlike the previous two stories, there are barely any mentions of food or graphic cruelty. The outer layer of the story is a murder mystery in a strange, offbeat environment. But Yoko Ogawa flips the murder mystery genre on its head at the very last page, instead posing questions about the nature of self and its lonely drive toward madness.

Though the least shocking and toned down, I thought this was probably the most carefully crafted story of the three.

Story rating: 5/5


Overall, these stories were not comfortable reads. But they have a strange and disturbing pull, an elegant allure that does not let you look away. Despite my own fanfare, I hesitate to recommend this book to everyone just because of its subject matter and the bizarre circumstances in which certain topics are addressed.

However, if you’re in the mood for something that will disturb and shock you from your daily routine, definitely think about reading this book.

5 STARS AND HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, though with reservations.

Blood Red Road - Moira Young I feel like I'm being a bit harsh with my rating. 2.5 stars for now. Review to come, hopefully soon.
Improper Relations - Juliana Ross Actual rating: 2.5 stars, a cross between "It was okay" and "I like it." So I guess, "I kind of liked it."

I appreciate this ebook because it is a straightforward smut romp, and doesn't pretend to be anything else.

I despise it when clearly smutty books are wrapped up in flimsy, transparent plots and a host of painfully one-dimensional characters who justify their present libido with deep emotional scars from the past. It's cliche, hard to pull off in literature, and kind of an offensive blanket psychological assumption for people who actually did suffer emotional scarring. In most cases with books like these, we all know sex is the focus of the plot. So, let's be frank--your protagonist is a horn dog, okay? Just blame it on the hormones. No shame in that.

Juliana Ross isn't capable of writing in another genre or creating deep characters. On the contrary, she convinced me she can write for the erotica genre.

To actually review this book, I liked it for the most part. The writing was straight foward, and the protagonists were unapologetic, no-frills horn dogs. Which was kinda great and refreshing. The plotting was thin, but I didn't mind because I could enjoy the book without being overly concerned that the steamy scenes would be dampened by plot twists.

Good debut book, and I'd be interested to see what else the author will write.
The Iron Duke -  Meljean Brook My first ever steampunk novel! I'm torn between 3 and 4 stars. Review to come.
Dragonswan (Dark-Hunter, #1.5) - Sherrilyn Kenyon Pure romantic escapism with smexysex.

I had downloaded this for free a while ago, and randomly read it while traveling because of it was short. Which is what I recommend you do--download it for free, I mean. Because this was a typical instalust tale featuring a good-girl-but-inner-freak heroine and a highly fecund, hotter-than-your-mother's-electric-stove alpha male who is also...PART REPTILE.



I said fecund!!

My point being, this book is like 14872048 other paranormal smut on sale in bookstores. If you must spend your money, might as well spend it on something longer than 86 pages.

Overall, 2 stars. It was at least readable. Sorta.
Heart's Blood (Roc Fantasy) - Juliet Marillier This was a lovely book. Juliet Marillier, how do you do it? How do you write about such beautifully scarred individuals learning to find courage, play my heart strings like a harp, and create such a unique, sincere rendition without unnecessary melodrama and violence?

This is quite possibly one of the best renditions of Beauty and the Beast I've read or seen (though the Disney version holds a special place in my heart, yes, even with the talking silverware).

I think the core element of Beauty and the Beast is about love between two individuals, a love that overcomes emotional differences and physical appearance. It's about trust, sacrifice, and devotion. Heart's Blood has this in spades, and more. What I loved about this rendition is that Anluan Rebecca, the book has a decidedly gothic feel, in all its creepiness and black-veiled romance. All of the elements of the original fairy tale were also there, from the flowers, the curse, the enchanted mirrors--though with a decidedly Marillieresque twist.

The only issue I had that prevented the fifth star was that the antagonist was immediately apparent, and at times it frustrated me that no one else saw this coming from a mile away.

But still, the point of this novel wasn't to find the culprit (well, maybe just a little). This novel is worth reading for its beautiful romance and its lightening messages of finding hope through courage.

4 STARS AND HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Salmonella Men on Planet Porno: Stories - Yasutaka Tsutsui Whaaaaat...is...this...?!

*shelves under to-read*
Gregor and the Code of Claw - Suzanne  Collins Is this really the last book in the Underland Chronicles?? NOOOOOOO...

Reviews for (hopefully) each book to come after I've gathered my thoughts.
Gregor the Overlander - Suzanne  Collins

So, my workplace and a few other firms are a part of this program where we got to a local elementary school to read to kids. I was paired up with a fifth grader who loved to read as much as I did. She blew through Breadcrumbs, which was amazing, and we had just started on Gregor the Overlander (Underland Chronicles, #1) when school was dismissed for summer vacation.

Me being my usual ADHD self, I left this book unread for months and months while I pursued other books.

Now, after reading the entire Underland Chronicles in three days, I am so glad I gave this a shot.


Plot Summary

Gregor is an eleven year old who lives with his mom, grandma, and younger sisters in New York City. His dad disappeared without a word two years ago, and his mom has been struggling to keep the family together since. One day, Gregor and his sister Boots are sucked down a grate in their laundry room, and find themselves in the Underland, a subterranean world populated by white-haired, violet-eyed humans, and oversized cockroaches, spiders, bats and rats. Though all Gregor wants is to go home, he finds himself embroiled in a brewing war between the humans and rats, and perhaps a chance to find his father.


My Reactions

The Underland was interesting, to say the least. I wasn’t too convinced by this subterranean world until about two books in. Maybe it’s because I hatehatehatehatehate rodents and vermin, which is probably not the best attitude to take when living in New York City. Someone once told me about a sighting of a three-foot rat in Brooklyn, and my spidey senses were tingling whenever I entered a subway station for weeks after.

(BTW, the antagonists are six-foot tall rats. With their long, ridged tails and sharp teeth.)

Kind of like this:



Some parts of the book, like the quest and resolution of the prophecy were quite predictable. But like in The Hunger Games has a way of brushing up against the brittleness of the real world without being melodramatic.

What remains with me the most was not the questing or the Underland, but Gregor. After his father disappeared, Gregor continually makes sacrifices in the face of hard financial times. Here is an eleven year old who voluntarily gives up summer camp to take care of his baby sister Boots because his mom works nonstop to feed the family. My heart aches for the little guy, who is forced to grow up much too quickly so that the rest of his siblings can enjoy their youths. Not sure how well a fifth grader or even adult could relate--I suppose it depends on the person--but as the oldest in my family, I certainly could.

Gregory continues to carry the heavy weight of responsibility with him to the Underland as he takes care of Boots, and that bit of realness threading through the story kept me interested and sympathetic until the end.

Overall, I really enjoyed this first book, and the following books are equally (if not more) fun to read. If you thought The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, #1) was a feat in YA lit, Gregor the Overlander is definitely up there in the kid lit world. Both are highly readable for both the younger folk and the adulty folk.

3.5 STARS AND HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, especially for younger readers.

Ferragost (Lumatere Chronicles, #2.5) - Melina Marchetta,  Kirsty Eagar Thank you, Melina Marchetta], for reminding me how much I want to read [b:Quintana of Charyn and how much of an agonizing wait it is until September.

Because here I was, just barely getting over my heartache after finishing the mindgasm that was Froi of the Exiles, and then BOOM, this shows up.

This was a beautifully written story, and I loved reading every word of it. I was skeptical at first because this was about Lady Celie, someone I barely remembered from the books. Why not a side story about my second favorite couple, Lucian and Phaedra (Froi and Quintana being the first)?

Now, I have been thoroughly put into my place, and Melina Marchetta has reduced me to praying to her muses that that Celie and Banyon are featured more in Quintana.

Overall, 4.5 STARS. Relative to the amazingness of the other two books, I hesitate to give this story a full five stars. But I still recommend everyone to give this story a shot, especially if you are (1) a fan of the Lumatere trilogy or (2) someone who has never read anything by Melina Marchetta and wants to give her stories a quick read. (I can almost guarantee you won't be disappointed)



Also, side note, Ferragosto...August 15? How is this related to the gloomy land of the Castellan? Perhaps a reference to the publication month?

Molasses - Kirsty Eagar This story was published alongside Ferragost, and in terms of style and content, a better companion work would have been hard to come by.

The author's style reminds me a lot of Melina Marchetta's. Like the aforementioned author, Kirsty Eagar deals with tough adolescent issues, and creates very sympathetic characters.

A quick synopsis. Amelia is going through a tough time. Her flaky mother is near criminal in her disregard for her own children, her step-father cares more about pigeons than his step-children (though that may be a good thing since he eats pigeons), and her brother barely won the battle against the Guillain-Barré Syndrome. Her friends, Megan and Trevor, and her brother Chris seem to be the only constants in Amelia's life. That is, until Megan starts crushing on Chris and forever changes the circle of friendship the four of them have formed.

The novella delves into Amelia coming to terms with these changes going on in her life, and she fortunately emerges, if not happy, at least victorious in the end.

So why only three stars? I liked the story, and would encourage other people to read it. However, the problems Amelia faced were amplified just a little too much, and there was a substantial lack of focus. A short novella adequately can't (and shouldn't) deal with issues of family, romance, graduation, formal/prom, finances, illness, and miracles all at once. Plus, the emotional abandonment of Amelia's and Chris's mother was shocking and a little unbelievable. I'm kind of surprised social services hadn't already dragged her ass away.

The saving grace of this story, what pulled it back from absurdity, was the fantastic writing.

Overall, THREE STARS. The story is short and reads fast, and it was a great palate cleanser. All in all, it made me curious about the rest of Kirsty Eagar's works so I guess the novella served its purpose. Recommended for fans of YA lit in the style of Melina Marchetta.
The Penelopiad - Margaret Atwood Initially, I was intrigued by the premise of this book. A modern-day retelling of Homer's The Odyssey, the book is narrated by Penelope, the loyal and steadfast wife who waited for Odysseus's return for twenty years. Atwood shifts the focus to the marginalized female "others," particularly the 12 maids who were hung at Odysseus's return.

For those whose recollections of The Odyssey are cobwebby, a bit of background: After serving in the Trojan War, Odysseus sets sail for home but is sidetracked by side adventures for ten years. Meanwhile, suitors try to win the hand of the "widowed" Penelope. When she refuses, the 100+ suitors hunker down in Odysseus's home, eat all his food, and drink his wine. Eventually, Odysseus returns disguised as a beggar and slaughters the suitors and the 12 maids who consorted with them. Telemachus then hangs the maids on the bow of a ship.

The book started out interestingly enough. Penelope is in Hades, and finally decides to break her silence. She recounts her infancy and childhood (noting her father's attempted murder), her interactions with Helen, and her married life with Odysseus. Reading through her accounts, Penelope is if not likeable, very human. She gets angry, excessively weepy, and is perpetually envious of her cousin Helen.

Up until then, the narrative was fairly constant and was an interesting take on the original poem. But when Penelope focuses on the 12 maids, the story got a bit weird.

The hanging of the maids is the central focus of Penelope's guilt and what prompts her to tell her tale. According to Penelope, she had instructed the maids to spy on the suitors by sleeping with them (instead of the maids choosing to do so of their own free will), inadvertently causing their deaths at Odysseus's hand. The maids play a large role in this book. They serve as the book's chorus, and entire chapters are dedicated to "anthropological" studies and a videotaped murder trial of Odysseus. Some interpretations (Penelope being a goddess and the maids as members of her cult) are bizarre. Others chapters (the trial of Odysseus that judges the morality of ancient practices by modern standards) are plain silly.

Overall, the book at best presents a patchwork of speculations and superficial interpretations of the myth of Penelope. I suppose if the purpose of the book was to be a fictionalized survey of different versions of Penelope's myth, it succeeded. But as a story or critical essay, it left me confused and unsatisfied. Also, the feminist slant of this book was too in-your-face for my liking.

2 STARS AND RECOMMENDED FOR THE ODYSSEY STALWARTS.
Daughter of the Empire - 'Raymond E. Feist',  'Janny Wurts' It's been a while since I've read a story with such complex political intrigue, and I enjoyed every word of it!

Plot Summary

Set in a Japanese-style setting and culture, Mara of the Acoma is but a few minutes away from being initiated into the service of the goddess Lashima. She is, however, rudely jerked from her chosen path when news of her father's and brother's death reaches her household. In Mara's world, power is determined by the Game of the Council, the neverending power struggle masked by a facade of courtesy--kind of like, let me respectfully bow and serve you chilled fruit while I run you through with this sword.



No need to be rude while pillaging.

Mara must use all her wiles and courage to defeat the powerful Minwanabi house, whose members ordered the death of her family, and to rebuild her house to become one of the most powerful in the empire.


Reactions

This book has everything to satisfy any reader looking for political plotting thicker than molasses and intense behind-the-curtains wheeling and dealing. Plus, add in a few assassinations and underhanded trickery, and you've got a nice manual for your inner budding Machiavelli.

Though this book is an extension of Raymond E. Feist's Riftwar Series, I never felt lost or felt like I lacked vital information about the world. Kelewan is a refreshing change of scenery from 90% of fantasy's Western-style worlds. And despite my meme above, I imagined settings like this:

.

Governed by strict honor and warrior codes, Kelewans are fierce in their observance of duty and conduct to the point of choosing death over dishonor.

Much of this book revolves around Mara's development from an experienced young girl to a powerful political figure and leader. And believe you me, her path is not one filled with flowers and rainbows. She endures violence, abuse, frustrations, and then some, but still has the wits to emerge victorious. Mara particularly shines in her flexibility with bending Kelewan's codes of conduct to gain advantage over her enemies.

The characters were also superbly developed. Mara's complexity and vitality goes without saying. Her inner strength and intelligence reminded me a lot of Phedre from Kushiel's Dart and Catelyn from Game of Thrones. But I also need to give a shout out to the violent, cunning, bullying Bunto. He's ignorant and seemingly beyond redemption, but he became one of the most human "villains" I've ever read about just because his ignorance is so common yet real.

What I found offsetting was that the numerous codes seemed spontaneously introduced to manipulate the plot. The concept of conducting oneself courtiously and honorably is pretty much imprinted on the mind by page 50, but even at page 400, we still get schooled on how to pleasantly receive enemy house guests or how deep to bow to offer just the right amount of offense. The constant reminder of these rules became invasive to an otherwise naturally developing story.

Overall, 4.5 STARS and HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. If you're a fan of political intrigue and strong female characters, this is your book.

Now, onto Servant of the Empire!

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