Monday, September 1, 2014

Audiobook Review: Simon and Schuster's Shakespeare Full Cast Dramatizations

First of all, I cannot thank Lauren at Simon and Schuster enough for sending me copies of these five plays to review.  I am a HUGE fan of all things Shakespeare, but I haven't spent much time with him since Dr. Johnny Wink's Shakespeare course in college.  I don't think these really need plot summaries, as they're pretty much cannon, right?  So we'll just jump right in!

I mean, it's Shakespeare.  Do I really need to talk about how amazing the writing is?  I'll just say that every single time I watch, listen, or read one of his works I catch something new that reminds me of just how witty, smart, and delightful these are to read.  They're just so smart and so funny.  Even the tragedies have amazing comic moments.

Entertainment Value
Again, there's a reason these works have inspired countless spin offs and alternate takes.  They're classic stories that have informed every aspect of culture and it's because they're just so amazing.  Listening to each of these has made me want to find and consume all of my favorite iterations of Shakespeare - Romeo + Juliet, David Tennant's Hamlet, even Shakespeare in Love.

Y'all.  If you've only read these or seen the modern movies, you are seriously missing out on something amazing.  Shakespeare is meant to be performed and if you listen to these recordings you'll see (hear) why.  These are incredibly done.  I started them a little bit worried about my ability to follow them in audiobook format.  I was afraid that without seeing the characters or reading the play, I'd get lost as far as who was speaking.  When I've read Shakespeare, I've always done is very slowly to try to get everything I can out of it.  Visually it's easier to understand.  But I just wasn't convinced I'd be able to follow on audio.  Thankfully, my fears were completely unfounded.  Even the play I'm least familiar with (A Midsummer Night's Dream) was perfectly easy to follow.  These all have a full cast, music, and sound effects and are just beautifully done.

I can't say enough great things about these.  They're a treasure to own and something that I know I'll go back to again and again.  At two to four hours, they're perfect for a road trip.  I couldn't be happier with them!

Thank you again to Lauren and Simon and Schuster for providing me with a copy of each to review!

Friday, August 29, 2014

Comics Friday: Rocket Girl by Brandon Montclare

From Goodreads:
A teenage cop from a high-tech future is sent back in time to 1986 New York City. Dayoung Johansson is investigating the Quintum Mechanics megacorporation for crimes against time. As she pieces together the clues, she discovers the "future" she calls home - an alternate reality version of 2014 - shouldn't exist at all!
So many choices made by the author that I really appreciated in this one!  I loved the female protagonist, I loved both the 1986 setting and the potential future 2014 setting.  You can tell from the beginning that it's supposed to be fun, and I think it lives up to that expectation.  There are some serious problems faced by the characters, but it has more of a lighthearted take on dystopia than many others.

Entertainment Value
Again, I feel like this is meant to just be a lot of fun - and it definitely follows through on that.  There were a few scenes where I got a bit lost in the jumping back and forth between 1986 (the future) and 2014 (the past).  I feel like I'm uncommonly confused by any kind of time travel, so it may not be the fault of the comic as much as my own difficulty following the trope.

And, as above, I have to go back once again to the fact that this is just fun to look at.  Lots of bright colors, fun 80's styles, and futuristic cityscapes make for a blast as far as the illustrations (do you call them illustrations in a comic?) are concerned.

I recommend giving this one a try, particularly for those new to comics.  It's a fun take on the superhero story without going into mutations or powers - just a teenage girl from the future with a jet pack who can kick butt.  I'll definitely be following the comics as new issues are released!

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy to review!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Scanning the Backlist (2)

This my own personal backlist consisting of authors I've reviewed on the blog.  I took the time to go back through every author I've reviewed and checked out his or her backlist - and for some, even found new books I hadn't realized were released.  Each week I'll be featuring a Scanning the Backlist post with a few more authors whose backlist titles have made it onto my TBR.

Gail Godwin
Godwin's Flora was an NPR discovery I made during my brief period of unemployment last summer. I devoured the beautiful language and stunning setting.  I particularly enjoyed her young narrator, so, in exploring her backlist, I was drawn to Unfinished Desires, which also features a friendship between young girls.
It is the fall of 1951 at Mount St. Gabriel’s, an all-girls school tucked away in the mountains of North Carolina. Tildy Stratton, the undisputed queen bee of her class, befriends Chloe Starnes, a new student recently orphaned by the untimely and mysterious death of her mother. Their friendship fills a void for both girls but also sets in motion a chain of events that will profoundly affect the course of many lives, including the girls’ young teacher and the school’s matriarch, Mother Suzanne Ravenel. 

Fifty years on, the headmistress relives one pivotal night, trying to reconcile past and present, reaching back even further to her own senior year at the school, where the roots of a tragedy are buried.
Samantha Hayes
I know I've said this a million times, but evil nannies are my jam.  So I was thrilled to stumble across Until You're Mine on NetGalley last year.  I loved it and can't wait to read the next book in the series, Before You Die.  Luckily for me, Hayes also quite the backlist built up.  I'm not a huge fan of the covers, but each title description reads like the literary equivalent of an episode of SVU, which is like crack for me.
January 1992. A baby girl is left alone for a moment. Long enough for a mother to dash into a shop. Long enough for a child to be taken. 

Thirteen years later, solicitor Robert Knight's stepdaughter wins a place at a prestigious London school for the gifted. The only puzzle is his wife Erin’s reaction. Why is she so reluctant to let Ruby go? Doesn't she want what's best for her? As Erin grows more evasive, Robert can’t help but feel she has something to hide, and when he stumbles on mysterious letters, he discovers she has been lying to him. Somewhere in his wife’s past lies a secret; a shocking secret that threatens to destroy everything...
Elizabeth Haynes
I've read and thoroughly enjoyed two of Haynes' novels: Into the Darkest Corner and Dark Tide.  And although this aren't technically backlist titles, since they were published after Into the Darkest Corner, it's one that I somehow missed the release of and can't wait to read.
Two women share one fate.

A suspected murder at an English Farm. A reported suicide at a local quarry.

Can DCI Louisa Smith and her team gather the evidence and discover a link between them, a link which sealed their fate one cold night, Under a Silent Moon?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Book Review: What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund

What do we see when we read? Did Tolstoy really describe Anna Karenina? Did Melville ever really tell us what, exactly, Ishmael looked like? 
The collection of fragmented images on a page - a graceful ear there, a stray curl, a hat positioned just so - and other clues and signifiers helps us to create an image of a character. But in fact our sense that we know a character intimately has little to do with our ability to concretely picture our beloved - or reviled - literary figures. 
In this remarkable work of nonfiction, Knopf's Associate Art Director Peter Mendelsund combines his profession, as an award-winning designer; his first career, as a classically trained pianist; and his first love, literature - he thinks of himself first, and foremost, as a reader - into what is sure to be one of the most provocative and unusual investigations into how we understand the act of reading.
It's hard to even start writing a review for this, mainly because I'm still struggling to pin down how I would classify the book as a whole.  It's about language, writing, psychology, perception, and literature.  It's got a little bit of everything.  As far as the skill in writing, I say superbly done.  It's both easy to read (large font, short paragraphs, lots of illustrations) and incredibly difficult (it addresses some of the most complex issues of perception, the brain, and literary device).  It's obvious that the author knows his business, backwards and forwards, and he translates that to the page in a way that the dedicated reader won't find overwhelming.

Entertainment Value
As I mentioned above, this is both an easy and hard read.  The illustrations are perfect and make the book compelling and fun to read (and see).  At the same time, there's a fair amount of both literary and psychological (perception-focused) speak, although nothing that should be too difficult for readers who don't mind stretching their minds a bit.  

A few bullet points from the book that I particularly enjoyed:
  • The more you try to focus on an exact image of a person in a book, the harder it is to find it.  The more you focus on the image of a person you know, the easier it is.
  • It's easier to "hear" a line of dialogue than it is to "see" a character
  • As we read, we make constant adjustments to what we "see" as more information is provided.  When we remember reading, we don't remember making these small adjustments, we remember it as if we were watching a movie all along
  • Reading as co-creation: the provision of an image by the author or a movie can be seen as stealing from the reader's imagination
I reviewed this in digital format, so I'm interested to get my hands on a finished copy and see if it's printed in grayscale, as the digital ARC, or if color is added for the finished product.  And I'll most definitely be getting my hands on a print copy.  As much as I enjoyed the experience in digital format, I think it's one that A) belongs in a prominent spot on my bookcase and B) could be even better in print format.  I highly recommend giving it a try.

Thank you to NetGalley and Knopf for providing me with a copy to review!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Audiobook Review: Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge

From Goodreads:
Since birth, Nyx has been betrothed to the evil ruler of her kingdom-all because of a foolish bargain struck by her father. And since birth, she has been in training to kill him.

With no choice but to fulfill her duty, Nyx resents her family for never trying to save her and hates herself for wanting to escape her fate. Still, on her seventeenth birthday, Nyx abandons everything she's ever known to marry the all-powerful, immortal Ignifex. Her plan? Seduce him, destroy his enchanted castle, and break the nine-hundred-year-old curse he put on her people.

But Ignifex is not at all what Nyx expected. The strangely charming lord beguiles her, and his castle-a shifting maze of magical rooms-enthralls her.

As Nyx searches for a way to free her homeland by uncovering Ignifex's secrets, she finds herself unwillingly drawn to him. Even if she could bring herself to love her sworn enemy, how can she refuse her duty to kill him? With time running out, Nyx must decide what is more important: the future of her kingdom, or the man she was never supposed to love.
If this sounds like a familiar story, that's because it is - it's a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, with both fantastical elements and an ancient Rome-influenced setting.

Well done.  I was concerned that any story based on Beauty and the Beast would be heavily influenced by Disney's version, and I didn't find that to be the case at all.  I feel like Hodge took the classic fairy tale and created her own unique version with new characters.  I really enjoyed the Roman influence on the story as well.  There's nothing particularly spectacular in terms of the language or choice of words, but the originality was a highlight for me.  I think Hodge succeeded in making something new and unique in the world of YA fantasy.

Entertainment Value
It took me a while to get into this one.  While I thought the characters were refreshing and original, I didn't really start to care about them until about halfway into the book.  I wasn't grabbed from the first page, but I am glad I stuck it out.  It definitely fits into the category of diversionary reading, but it was a fun diversion.

Perfect.  I really enjoyed listening to this one and think the narrator did a fantastic job.

It's a fun read and I recommend it, particularly on audio, as something you can listen to while you exercise or clean, but that isn't terribly taxing on the mind.  It's easy to follow and fun - brain candy.  The elements of ancient Rome add a lot to the story and could provide a fun jumping off point for some study of mythology.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Scanning the Backlist (1)

I've really enjoyed seeing more and more bloggers embracing the exploration of backlist titles - so much so that I was inspired to examine my own personal backlist consisting of authors I've reviewed on the blog.  I went back through every author I've reviewed and checked out his or her backlist - and for some, even found new books I hadn't realized were released.  I'm thinking I'll make this a regular feature, since it's going to take me a while to profile all the great books I've found - and as I keep reading, I'll find even more.

Sarah Addison Allen
I absolutely loved The Peach Keeper and The Girl Who Chased the Moon - looking up her backlist titles led me to a great discovery: Garden Spells, Allen's first book.  

For nearly a decade, 34-year-old Claire Waverley, at peace with her family inheritance, has lived in the house alone, embracing the spirit of the grandmother who raised her, ruing her mother's unfortunate destiny and seemingly unconcerned about the fate of her rebellious sister, Sydney, who freed herself long ago from their small town's constraints. Using her grandmother's mystical culinary traditions, Claire has built a successful catering business -- and a carefully controlled, utterly predictable life -- upon the family's peculiar gift for making life-altering delicacies: lilac jelly to engender humility, for instance, or rose geranium wine to call up fond memories. 
Garden Spells reveals what happens when Sydney returns to Bascom with her young daughter, turning Claire's routine existence upside down. With Sydney's homecoming, the magic that the quiet caterer has measured into recipes to shape the thoughts and moods of others begins to influence Claire's own emotions in terrifying and delightful ways. 
One last thing to note: since my reading of The Peach Keeper, Allen has released another novel, Lost Lake, which is on my TBR list.

Emma Donoghue
Donoghue's Room was one of the very first books I received from a publisher to review.  And it more than exceeded my hopes - it's still one of my favorite books.  I was excited to discover that, in addition to Astray, her short story collection that I already own, she has a book of fairy tale retellings titled Kissing the Witch.

Told with luminous voices that shimmer with sensuality and truth, these age-old characters shed their antiquated cloaks to travel a seductive new landscape, radiantly transformed. Cinderella forsakes the handsome prince and runs off with the fairy godmother; Beauty discovers the Beast behind the mask is not so very different from the face she sees in the mirror; Snow White is awakened from slumber by the bittersweet fruit of an unnamed desire.
Nora Gallagher
The Sacred Meal is one of the first five books I ever reviewed on this blog, and was the very first book I ever received from a publisher.  I was pleased to see that Gallagher has a memoir, Things Seen and Unseen, that explores a year in church liturgy and describes her journey to faith.

Whether writing about her brother's battle against cancer, talking to homeless men about the World Series, or questioning the afterlife ("One world at a time"), Gallagher draws us into a world of journeys and mysteries, yet grounded in a gritty reality. She braids together the symbols of the Christian calendar, the events of a year in one church, and her own spiritual journey, each strand combed out with harrowing intimacy. Thought provoking and profoundly perceptive, Things Seen and Unseen is a remarkable demonstration that "the road to the sacred is paved with the ordinary."

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Book Review: Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag

From Goodreads:
Features an analysis of our numbed response to images of horror. This title alters our thinking about the uses and meanings of images, and about the nature of war, the limits of sympathy, and the obligations of conscience.
I can't remember exactly where I heard about this book, but I knew I needed to read it.  My particular interest centered on a conversation I'd had with a friend several years ago that has really stuck with me.  We were discussing the ownership of printed materials that could be seen as offensive/socially subversive.  Her family owned a first edition copy of Mein Kampf in German.  My family owns a photograph of a lynching that took place in the small Southern town where my father grew up.

Neither artifact is something you want to display or look at or give a place of prominence in your home.  But they're both historical artifacts nonetheless.  Both of us felt torn on whether or not it's something we would want to inherit or what we would do with it if the choice were up to us.  (At this point, I'd lean towards donation to a Civil Rights museum, as it's really not something I think I could handle owning.)

When I realized that one of Sontag's essays in this book actually addresses the exact kind of photograph I have - a photograph of a lynching that was taken and sold as a postcard to the white citizens - I knew it was a book I'd have to read.

This short collection of essays certainly packs a punch.  I was familiar with Sontag as a prominent feminist author, but I hadn't read any of her social criticism.  I'm so glad I picked up a copy of this, because it's beautifully done and examines exactly the ideas surrounding the issues of viewing the pain of others, particularly in photographic form.

Some of the essays take on the historical ways we've viewed pain in paintings and, in more recent years, in photographic form.  She discusses the first wars in which photography of carnage was made available to the public.

She also looks at the issues from a psychological and ethical standpoint, detailing how the elements of sensationalism and the need to document atrocities often are so interconnected that they can't be separated.  It's incredibly well done, but also largely readable.  It's short and to the point, so you won't feel as if you're taking on some endless academic tome, although I do have to point out that this is very academic in nature.

Entertainment Value
It's as difficult to read this as it is to read any historical account of atrocities and not something you really want to speak about in terms of being entertained.  At the same time, that very conundrum is exactly what is being tackled in the book.  We want to say we are not entertained by images (or stories) of the suffering of others, yet we don't stop ourselves from looking (or reading).  If there weren't some element of interest, we wouldn't bother.

Because I was particularly interested in the topic, I gobbled this up.  But I think that it's going to have a limited audience due to the academic nature of the writing.  It's not necessarily an easy read or something that you would pick up on a whim.  If the subject interests you and you don't mind putting some effort into the mental work of reading a more academically-minded text, however, this is very well done.

It's definitely for those who want something intensely academic and requires the brain to work.  But it's also something that I think will stay with you and keep you thinking, just like my conversation with my friend has stayed in my mind for years.