Posts Tagged With: Book reviews

“My Education” by Susan Choi: Review and Giveaway

FTC Disclaimer:  I received an advance copy of “My Education” by Susan Choi from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.  All opinions herein are my own.

“My Education” by Susan Choi is the story of a young woman’s poor sexual decisions and their impact on her life.  Regina Gottleib is a 21-year-old graduate student.  She’s young, naive, and inexperienced, and begins taking classes with Professor Nicholas Brodeur, whose reputation as a womanizer precedes him.  Brodeur mentors Regina until she begins an affair with his wife.  The story is broken into two main sections, one highlighting the affair itself, and then a flash forward to Regina’s life over a decade later.

When I first began reading, I found the language to be strange, because grad students don’t talk the way that Regina narrates her story.  She uses academic language to describe mundane crushes and events.  As the story progressed, the writing style grew on me, as it served to contrast the young Regina and the woman that she later becomes.  It shows that even though she was kind of an ass in school, she matured and was able to become a productive member of society.

The hedonism and decadence portrayed in “My Education” remind me a lot of “The Great Gatsby,” even though the books are set in different time periods.   Don’t let the sound of the plot put you off, even though much of the book is about a drunk college student behaving selfishly.  Susan Choi is the type of writer who can take a scene about a college student vomiting at a party and make it beautiful.  The plot itself is secondary to the expressiveness of the writing.  One doesn’t read “Lolita” because of the subject matter, but rather because of Nabokov’s masterful prose and his ability to create complex characters who challenge readers’ perceptions and expectations.  “My Education” is similar in that the narrator doesn’t view her actions as wrong.  She feels justified in breaking up Nicholas and Martha’s marriage, and believes that she is really in love with Martha.  At the same time, it’s painfully obvious that Martha is a volatile character who views Regina as a temporary amusement and will eventually become bored with her.

There’s only one thing about the book that I would change.  I wish that Regina’s character were a year or two older.  When she celebrates her 21st birthday, I became a bit distracted by her age, because generally one turns 21 in undergrad.  She would have had to have skipped a grade in school or graduated early from undergrad, but that wasn’t made clear in any way.  I realize it’s a very minor point to nitpick, but I’m prone to over analyzing details like that.

“My Education” is a vivid portrayal of lust, decadence, and regret.  I’d highly recommend it.

And now, the part you’ve all been waiting for… GIVEAWAY!  The publisher has agreed to sponsor a giveaway of the book.  The giveaway is open to U.S. addresses only and will be open until 11:59 pm on July 16.

You can ENTER HERE.

I’m going to try the whole Rafflecopter thing this time and see how I like it.  Rafflecopter doesn’t work on WordPress.com blogs, so I’m working around it by having it live on my blog’s Facebook page instead.  Let me know if you have any input on whether this is better/worse than me drawing from a hat.

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Categories: Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , | 16 Comments

“There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories” by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

petrushevskaya I’m in a particularly grumpy/bitter mood tonight, so this is a perfect time to review this book.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I’m too cynical to take most stories of happily ever after seriously, and love triangles make me want to puke.  This book is different.

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s most excellent collection of love stories, entitled “There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself,” take a dark but humorous view on love and society.  Her stories are set in Soviet Russia, and there’s no such thing as a happy ending.  Instead, we find crowded apartments and scheming gossips.  The characters themselves are the outcasts of society, those already struggling against alcoholism, addiction, and poverty.  They see love as a way of improving their lives, and so delude themselves in the name of a dream rather than exercising some basic common sense.

Petrushevskaya’s tone reminds me a bit of Chekhov.  Her stories give little glimpses into her characters’ lives–the man who goes on vacation and enters a relationship with an elderly woman, who loves him because he reminds her of the son that she’d lost, or the seamstress Milgrom who was abandoned by her husband and family, but whose services represent hope to a young woman on the brink of adulthood, who commissions her to make a slinky black dress so she can begin her dating life.  Then there’s Karapenko, a young theater student who has an affair with her mentor and gets pregnant.  The stories seem incomplete, and represent a moment or a chapter in each character’s life.  We don’t see the full story, and that’s part of the beauty of Petrushevskaya’s writing style.

At the same time, Petrushevskaya’s end goal isn’t to be depressing.  Her stories poke fun at Soviet society, but her characters are still sympathetic and resonated with me very well.  They see a lack of hope or possibility in their own lives, and so seek to improve them through romance, no matter how imperfect it might be, and you can’t really fault them for it.

I would highly recommend this collection to anyone interested in Russian literature or culture, or anyone who just likes the idea of a collection of love stories gone wrong.

Categories: Dead Russians, Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

“Six Moon Dance” by Sherri S. Tepper

Book cover imageLast year, I discovered Sherri S. Tepper’s novel “Singer From the Sea.”  It was one of the most bizarre books that I’ve ever read, and I described it in my review as a amalgamation of Dune, Fern Gully, and A Handmaid’s Tale.  When I saw more Sherri Tepper books at the used book store, I couldn’t help myself.  I knew that at the very least, I’d be in for something different.  “Six Moon Dance” is exactly what I expected–strange, beautifully written, imaginative, and yet vaguely disappointing.

The basic setup of the universe of “Six Moon Dance” reminded me a bit of Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy.  Space travel and colonization raised a host of questions about the meaning of intelligent life, and war and conflict became commonplace.  However, a wise man named Haraldson came up with a series of edicts in order to create an atmosphere of interstellar peace and cooperation.  One such rule is that one can’t set up a colony on a planet that has already has indigenous intelligent life.  In order to enforce Haraldson’s edicts, an intelligent robot called the Questioner was created to travel to different worlds and to destroy those civilizations that refused to comply.

The main story arc of “Six Moon Dance:” is set on the planet of Newholme.  Newholme has one seriously fucked up social structure, which is due to a gender imbalance.  Because women are scarce, they are given special treatment within Newholme’s society. After high-class women have produced children, which is seen as their social duty, they are allowed the service of hunk, a courtesan who’s had a vasectomy.  Meanwhile, men are required to wear veils in public and have limited rights.  Think of Western stereotypes about the Middle East, and reverse them.

Mouche, our protagonist, is in training to be such a courtesan.  He was born in a poor family that didn’t produce any girls, and so his family sold him to a brothel to make ends meet.  However, Mouche’s world is about to change, as a visit from the Questioner reveals dark secrets about Newholme’s past.  Meanwhile, an unprecedented increase in volcanic activity threatens to make the Questioner’s visit a moot point and to destroy all civilization on the planet.

To be quite frank, Newholme’s social structure made me a bit queasy.  I realize that’s the effect that Tepper was going for–to make readers uncomfortable to point out flaws in our own perception of gender roles–but I think that Tepper’s commentary on gender overshadowed an otherwise fantastic story.  The exposition of Newholme’s history and secrets was absolutely brilliant (I’d say more, but that would be going into extreme spoiler territory), but the blatant treatment of gender roles was distracting.  A more subtle approach would have gotten the point across without coming off as preachy.  I was also unsatisfied with the way that the story ended.

While “Six Moon Dance” doesn’t fulfill its full potential, it is still an enjoyable read.  Tepper is able to craft a story filled with intrigue and imagination, and the creatures that she creates are captivating and complex.  Just be warned that the eco-feminist message is pronounced, blunt, and at times overwhelming.

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I read this book as part of The 2013 Science Fiction Experience.

Categories: Fiction, Sci Fi | Tags: , , , , , | 9 Comments

“Anya’s Ghost” by Vera Brosgol

I read Carl’s review of this book about a month ago and thought that I’d like to read it.  I found a copy at Barnes & Noble last night, and didn’t leave until I had finished reading it.

The story introduces Anya, a Russian immigrant navigating American high school life.  Anya tries hard to fit in with her peers and get the attention of her crush.  One day, Anya falls into an old well which happens to be haunted by a young ghost named Emily.  When Anya is rescued, Emily tags along and helps her to be more successful in school.  However, Emily isn’t entirely as she might seem.  *dun dun dun dun*

As a disclaimer, I don’t generally read graphic novels, so I don’t have much to compare it to other than the handful of webcomics that I occasionally follow.  That being said, I really enjoyed reading “Anya’s Ghost.”  The artwork was fantastic, and I liked the way that Brosgol portrayed the Russian mother.  It was very accurate.  I also liked the way that she uses Anya’s cigarette as a motif to reflect the way that her attitude changes over time.  Overall, I would recommend this book, especially for someone looking for a good introduction to the world of graphic novels.

Categories: Graphic Novels | Tags: , , , , , , | 5 Comments

“The Courtesan’s Secret” by Claudia Dain

Generally, I avoid romance novels like the plague.  I avoid romance novels even more than I would avoid the plague, as the plague doesn’t generally pop up in my day to day life.  However, every now and again I realize that I’m in a situation where I have to choose between a romance novel or no book at all.  I read this during one of those times and was pleasantly surprised.

Claudia Dain’s work is better than most romance novels because she doesn’t take herself too seriously and has a sense of humor.  Her writing pokes fun at the typical regency novel.  I started laughing when the heroine Louisa solicited help from a prostitute named Sophia in order to retrieve a missing “pearl necklace,” as well as to get her crush to notice her.  Of course, Sophia has a different suitor in mind for her, and making sure Louisa is ruined is all a part of her master plan.

I was impressed that this novel wasn’t terrible.  It’s not exactly high literature, but it’s good for something mindless to read while sitting by the pool.  The characters are better than typical romance stock, and didn’t make me want to strangle them.  That is saying a lot for a romance novel.

I’ve often wondered whether it was possible to find a romance novel that is well-written, and where the female character actually has a brain and isn’t a complete dolt, and where the author doesn’t use sad sexual euphemisms that make me want to chuck the book across the room.  I’ve given up on that, but “The Courtesan’s Secret” may be about as close as one can realistically get.

Categories: Fiction, Romance | Tags: , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

“Rhapsody” by Elizabeth Haydon

I had been meaning to buy this book for a while, and finally did this weekend.  The back cover looked interesting, and I have a weakness for books where music and art play a key role.

I really enjoyed the book once I got past the prologue, which in the case of this book is called an Overture.  The Overture contained one of the most ridiculous sex scenes that I’ve ever read.  Hint:  If both parties are crying the entire time, they’re doing it wrong.

The book tells the story of Rhapsody, a former prostitute turned powerful Singer who is being hunted down by a deranged and perverted former client.  While escaping his henchmen, Rhapsody is rescued by two giants, one of whom she renames in the process.  As names have tremendous power, and Singers have the power of Naming, Rhapsody’s renaming the giant to “Achmed the Snake” freed him from his previous enslavement to the demon F’dor.  The giants kidnap Rhapsody, leading her on an epic journey spanning both time and space, and the Three become a family and a formidable fighting force.

Haydon has a sense of humor that is present throughout the novel.  There were several parts in the story that made me laugh.  Although at times Haydon does follow various fantasy conventions, at others she comes up with some intriguing ideas.

While glancing at some other online reviews, it seems as if many readers thought that Rhapsody was too much of a Mary Sue.  I really didn’t think so, considering that for half the journey she reminded me of a toddler saying, “Are we there yet?”  That, and random episodes of emotionalism made her seem balanced enough as a character.  I preferred Achmed’s standoffish ninja-like character and the warm-hearted giant Gunthor to Rhapsody herself.  Even so, I think that she does make a strong female lead.

This novel is the first in a trilogy.  I plan on continuing to read the next two books, which I purchased last night.  I’m beginning to think that I have a serious book addiction problem.

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

“A History of Modern Russia” by Robert Service

Since I’ve focused primarily on fiction thus far, I thought it might be nice to review one of my favorite nonfiction books.  Service does a fantastic job providing a recap of 20th century Russian/Soviet history that is both highly readable and well-researched.

One of the biggest problems with history books about the Soviet era is that almost all of them are heavily biased, either demonizing or glorifying the Soviet Union.  Service does neither, but instead takes a cynical view about everything.  He is able to provide a rather objective look at the strengths and weaknesses of various figures, while realizing that we’re all adults and don’t need to know that the evil commies are coming to get us.

As the book is only around 500 pages, there are of course a lot of things that are glossed over.  At the same time, Service did a good job at highlighting major events.  The book covers late imperial Russia through around 1994, but there isn’t much coverage of anything after the fall of the Soviet Union.  I would personally liked to see more of that, and how one ties the Russia of today to it’s historical roots.  However, that wasn’t the point of the book.  I’d recommend this to anyone who is interested in learning more about Russian history.

Categories: Dead Russians, History, Nonfiction | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Game of Thrones” by George R. R. Martin

Before I get to the point, I’d like to apologize for not posting much this week.  My little sister is visiting me, so we’ve been going out and doing stuff during pretty much every spare moment that I have.

Also, I’d like to have a moment of silence for Borders.  May you rest in peace, even though I’m still mad at you for driving a lot of independent bookstores out of business before your demise, thereby drastically reducing the number of actual physical bookstores.  Also, I’ll miss having you to fill the role of “convenient bookstore along my commute.”  So it goes.

Now… back to “Game of Thrones.”  I’ll start out very generally, then add a spoiler alert before I give too much away.  Martin is one of the better writers of epic fantasy.  That’s not to say he’s a perfect writer, but at the same time, I didn’t need to go find my red pen, so it’s all good.  My biggest qualm with his writing style is that he switches between point of view characters rather often, leaving each one at a cliffhanger.  Rather than generating suspense, it made it very easy for me to put the book down and forget about it for a while, because it’s not as if I was going to find out what happened to Character X in the next fifty pages anyway.

The novel opens with the Stark family receiving a visit from the King and Queen, who ask Ned Stark to come to the southern part of the kingdom to deal with various plots.  Oh, other pet peeve in the book.  Deliberately misspelling the world “southern” as “southron” makes it seem like you’re trying too hard.

Even so, I greatly enjoyed the book.  It doesn’t end, so when I finished it yesterday, I had to immediately go out and buy the second book.  I’m invested in the characters, and am definitely going to finish the series.  George Martin, write faster!  I really enjoyed that magic wasn’t featured too much in the first book, allowing Martin time to develop his characters before introducing a lot of traditional fantasy elements.  I like it for the same reason why I enjoyed Dune’s lack of conspicuous description of technology–conspicuous description of magic rather than timely introduction thereof can and does kill many fantasy novels.

The one thing about the show that I liked better is that the kids are a little older than in the book.  I think that it makes more sense to have them older, especially when we get into Dany’s story.  I pretended that they were older while I was reading, because I don’t want to read sex scenes involving 13-year-olds unless the person writing them is Nabokov.

 

************SPOILERS START HERE*************

Don’t get too attached to any main characters.  I made that mistake.  Today, I not only mourn for Borders, but also the great Khal Drogo.  His presence shall be greatly missed.

Was anyone else a bit weirded out by the dragons nursing at Dany’s tits?  I certainly was.

I feel really bad for Sansa, even though I didn’t like her at all in the first half of the book.  Yeah, she’s a total airhead, but nobody deserves Joffrey.

I despise Catelyn Stark.  I get that she’s supposed to be a strong female character, but I refuse to forgive her for treating Jon the way she did.  A child is not responsible for the sins of the father, and holding grudges against Jon was just cruel.

*************END SPOILERS****************

 

Why is “Game of Thrones” suddenly so popular?  I’m sure that the HBO series has a lot to do with it, but timing is also important.  While my generation was growing up, we had Harry Potter, which was widely read and talked about.  Now that Potter’s over, “Game of Thrones” has filled that niche in a much more adult manner.

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction | Tags: , , , , , | 7 Comments

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