Thursday, April 24, 2008

Review: Peony in Love

Based on a true story*, Peony in Love, by Lisa See was an amazing book. Just wonderful. I've only read one other book by Lisa See before (Snow-Flower and the Secret Fan) and while I enjoyed that one, I think this one is just a bit better. (Maybe because there is less on the foot binding?)

Set in 17th century China, it tells the story of Peony, a sixteen-year-old girl betrothed from birth, who, emulating her favorite opera character, dies from being lovesick over a man she's just met.

Peony has been raised in the traditional ways (trained to obey her parents, honor her relatives, be seen and not heard, and to always, always bring honor to her family), but she's also been raised to read and think. At a young age, she fell in love with the opera The Peony Pavilion (about a young, sixteen-year-old maiden named Li-niang who takes control of her destiny in the only way she can: she starves herself) and reads it constantly, longing for a life (and love) like Li-niang's.

For Peony's sixteenth birthday, her father puts on a showing of The Peony Pavilion and it is there that Peony spies the man she instantly knows she will love. Secretly meeting him one night, she's both thrilled and terrified to realize that he feels the same way about her, although he too is engaged to marry a woman he's never met.

Despairing over the fact that she'll never be with "him," Peony stops eating and instead focuses on writing her critique of The Peony Pavilion as she wastes away. She tells herself that after she finishes writing her critique, she'll start eating again and become the good wife that she has been raised to be, but unfortunately, she doesn't get the chance. Dying, she realizes the mistakes she's made, but has no time to fix them.

(here there be spoilers, and I explain why I wanted to smack Peony!)

As it turns out, Peony's soon-to-be husband was "him." At the opera, Peony's father brings Ren (that's him) up on stage to introduce him as his future son-in-law. But Peony, in such silent despair over the fact that she'll never be with the man she loves, doesn't look out past the curtain. (And this is reason why I wanted to smack her. If she'd just looked all of this pain could have been avoided and she's have had the happy, full of love life that she wanted! Ugh, teenagers.)

It's after her death that Peony begins to realize just what's she's done by killing herself. Her mother and father, both stricken with grief, never dot her ancestor tablet, which means that Peony's soul can never be reunited and she is forced to roam the earth as a hungry ghost. Also, as she died an unmarried maiden, no one will pay her the proper ancestor respect, which means that she will continue to starve and waste away as a ghost. (It's really this part of the novel that fascinated me. I liked learning about the Chinese afterlife, the rituals for judging the dead, and the ways the ghosts were both free and bound by unbreakable rules. Apparently, in China, ghosts can't do corners, which is why bridges zig-zag. It keeps the ghost away.)

Ren also moves on, marrying a different girl after a few years have gone by. Heart-broken, Peony alternately tortures the girl in her dreams while also trying to force her to be the perfect wife for Ren. Ren's second wife eventually dies and Peony blames herself, leaving Ren's home and wandering for a while. It's during this time in her afterlife that Peony begins to grow up. Meetings with her long-dead grandmother clue her in to certain family secrets that Peony had never known, while other meetings with other lovesick maidens reinforce Peony's love in Ren and her deeper desire to be heard. It takes being reunited with her mother's ghost to really, truly, push Peony into the woman she wanted to be and to help her find the love that she'd always wanted to with Ren.

I won't spoil the ending for you because Peony's journey as a ghost and as a young woman in love is something I think you should read for yourself. It's a wonderful story, full of rich details about both 17th century China and the Chinese afterlife, about a girl who truly just wants to be heard, and a love that will transcend even death.

*This novel is based on the real-life story of three woman, wives, who wrote The Three Wives’ Commentary, the first book to be written by women. Lisa See used the names of these women, as well as all the details of their lives' (and their husband Ren) that she could in crafting this story. The Peony Pavilion is also an actual Chinese play that is still censored in China due to it's influence on young woman. A few years ago, the Chinese government temporarily delayed the production that was going to be held at Lincoln Center because they didn't want certain censored scenes to be produced.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A List

So I've been thinking about what books I want to read for Joy's Non-Fiction Five Challenge and I think I finally have it narrowed down.

In no particular order:

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon. Yes, this is the abridged version; I wish I had the time to read all six volumes, but unfortunately, I've yet to find a safe way to clone myself. Alas.

Granuaile: Ireland's Pirate Queen by Anne Chambers. OK, now don't tell, but I started reading this book this morning. OK, tried to read this book, but I was so bored! I'm going to substitute this book instead: The Pirate Queen: In Search of Grace O'Malley and Other Legendary Women of the Sea by Barbara Sjoholm.

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson. I've had this book on my shelf for a year now, always meaning to pick it up.

Nothing But Red.

I'm not sure what the fifth book will be. I'm reading a couple now that would qualify (The Western Canon, The Well-Educated Mind, The Meaning of Sunglasses, and The Child That Books Built), but maybe I should keep this last spot "open," in case something else comes along.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Expanding my horizons

So, clearly I didn't get around to posting all of the reviews that I wanted needed to, not if I want to stay caught up anyway. Oh well, gives me something to look forward to tonight, right?

In the meantime, I've been thinking about my reading habits and what they say about me. If you look at the list of books I've read this year, you will see that most of them are of the science fiction/fantasy/historical fiction/young adult genre...and not a whole lot else. Normally, I'm OK with this, but every now and then I wonder what I'm missing out on. It's not that I don't like books in other genres (like literary fiction), it's just that I don't like them as much.

Again, like I said, I'm normally OK with this, but every now and then this preference of mine seems to rear up and I find myself struggling to read anything that's not one of my above preferences. For instance, my rl book club is reading Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. It's a best seller in Japan and it's gotten a ton of praise here, but I'm struggling to get in to it. (I suppose part of the problem could be that I know I need to have at least half of it read by tomorrow afternoon...) I keep wondering when the action is going to start, if the field they are walking through is really part of the local pack's territory and the weres are going to get pissed at them for trespassing. But then I remember that this isn't that type of book...

Still, I will preserve and read as much of it as I can, and I will continue to try and read outside of my preferred genres. Which, brings me to the latest reading challenge that has caught my eye: Joy's Non-Fiction Challenge. Running from May to September, the rules simply state to read five non-fiction books. Doing that, reading non-fiction, has been a yearly goal of mine, but it's usually one that I don't meet. Hopefully though, being "challenged" will keep me interested.

Not quite sure what I'm going to read (or even if I'm going to formally sign up-June through September is going to be incredibly busy for me), but I'm thinking that my books will be of the historical slant. I have a dozen or so on my TBR shelf at home, but these books have also caught my eye.

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (This one I have on hold at my library)
The Spartans
(I read Gates of Fire last year and loved it. The Spartans sound like an incredible society of people and I want to know more about them.)
Golden Legacy: How Golden Books Won Children's Hearts, Changed Publishing Forever, and Became An American Icon Along the Way (This seems like a good choice, seeing as how I'm planning on quiting my current job soon and moving into publishing.)
Nelson's Purse: The Mystery of Lord Nelson's Lost Treasures (Ever since reading the Temeraire series, I've been increasingly interested in Lord Nelson.)
Books on Fire: The Destruction of Libraries throughout History (Ohh, book burning fills me with rage. This should be interesting.)
The Dragon Seekers: How an Extraordinary Circle of Fossilists Discovered the Dinosaurs and Paved the Way for Darwin (This sounds interesting. As a kid, I spent hours trying to dig out an enormous rock in my parent's backyard, convinced it was a dinosaur bone. Plus, it features a woman scientist, which is always nice to read.)
The Zookeeper's Wife (Nazi resisters in Poland, who hid 300+ Jews in a zoo.)
Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe (I didn't know that the Queen of England (Elanor), the Queen of France (Marguerite), the wife of the Holy Roman Emperor (Sanchia), and the Countess of Anjou (Beatrice) were all related.)
Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens, Female Stowaways, and Sailors' Wives (Hmm, pirates! I've always liked pirates, plus they feature in Inda, which has reawakened my interest.)
Granuaile: Ireland's Pirate Queen C. 1530-1603 (Grace O'Malley has long been a person of interest for me, as I think she was the first female pirate.)
A Treasury of Foolishly Forgotten Americans: Pirates, Skinflints, Patriots, and Other Colorful Characters Stuck in the Footnotes of History

Of course, my first book is going to be Nothing But Red.

humorous pictures
see more crazy cat pics

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Review: In the Serpent's Coils

(For the YA challenge, the first in a series challenge, and Carl's challenge. I love it when books can be cross-used.)

In the Serpent's Coils, by Tiffany Trent, is the first book in her Hallowmere series.

At age fifteen, Corrine wakes up to find herself an orphan in the care of her uncle. Told that her mother took ill and died, she finds herself kept virtual prisoner by her uncle and his servants, her every move watched and forbidden from looking at her mother's trunk*. The only freedom she has is in her dreams, where she sees faries who warn her, and in the garden, where she finds that there is something inhabiting the hawthorn bush. After agreeing to a deal with the inhabitants of the hawthorn bush, Corrine's uncle discovers what she has been up to and sends her away to Falston Manor, a reform school.

Once there, Corrine finds that her life was actually better at Uncle William's. The girls are cruel, the teachers worse, and every night Corrine is locked inside her room in the attic, where she spends her nights dreaming of horrible things that have, or might have, or might one day, happen. Also, two girls have disappeared from Falston, and Corrine is haunted at night with visions of what happened to them.

Slowly though, Corrine adapts to life at Falston. She begins to make friends with Christina and Ilona, two other girls there; Miss Brown, the headmistress, isn't so horrible; and Corrine discovers, hidden in the library, letters from a monk, Angus, to a nun, Beatrice, detailing their forbidden love.** She finds several more of these letters and learns that Angus has sided himself with the fey, while Beatrice is still hiding herself within the abbey.

Still, it isn't until Corrine discovers that the teachers (and the priest) at Falston are witches, in the service of the Captain, that she takes action. Learning that the Captain is the one stealing the girls for use in blood sacrifices, Corrine agrees to help the fey stop the witches.

However, what Corrine doesn't know is that with her decision, she's just made everything worse.

(here there be spoilers...and for book two, too)

As I said, this is the first book in the Hallowmere series, a new take on the fey. I liked Trent's world; how she split the fey into two distinct groups, the Unhallowed who seek to destroy humans, and the Hallowed who are there as protectors. Then, there are the witches, who...well, it seems like the witches are against the fey, except for the witch-fey and I don't know who's side she was on. (Or is on?) Corrine gets thrust into the middle of it all and learns that her family has been involved in this battle for decades.

I don't want to give too much away, but there are several different plot threads running through this novel. The mysterious Captain-in the service of the Witch-who follows Corrine around (I think he's going to turn out to be her presumed-dead father); the Witch, who isn't a witch (i.e., like Corrine's teachers); Rory, who seems to see the same things Corrine does; Corrine's missing locket (no one knows when that disappeared, but Corrine knows she had it before she fell ill); the witches and their secrets; and the Unhallowed, who seem to have a disturbing interest in Corrine. Most of these threads are carried over into book two (which I loved, I only liked this one), leaving us with the same questions that Corrine has.

Who is she? Who was her mother? Why is everyone keeping things from her? What happened to her father? Why do the Unhallowed fey have such an interest in her? What does the little silver mark in her eye mean?

*Inside her mother's trunk were several things that, as a child, Corrine didn't understand. But, one of the things inside there was a picture of a beautiful young woman, wearing the same iron cross as Corrine's mother had, a wicked smile, and feline-shaped eyes.

**I think that the mysterious Mary-Rose child is the same one whose picture Corrine found in her mother's trunk. The monk's letters about Mary-Rose hint at her mysterious background and how they've bound her from ever knowing what she is. Corrine's mother wore the iron cross to protect herself from her abilities. It would make sense to put that same cross on someone (without telling them what it can do) if you wanted to shield them. I also think that Mary-Rose is Angus*** and Beatrice's child...although those hints are really in the second book.

***Except, it's not going to be Angus's child, is it? (We get hints of that in book two, but I'll be it comes out in book three.) I really like the Unhallowed fey; they're tricksy.

Review: Magic Burns

(Read for personal reasons and Carl's challenge)

Magic Burns
, by Ilona Andrews, is a fantastic book. I wanted to start off with that, before I start detailing the ways in which I loved this novel. It's the second book in the Kate Daniels series (actually, I don't know if this is the "Kate Daniels series" or what Ilona is calling it, but whatever) and it picks up pretty much where the first one, Magic Bites, left off.

Kate, the liaison between the Mercenary Guild and the Order, is still trying to keep her head down while earning a living as a merc. She's really not successful, not with Curran's ex-girlfriend coming to see her-asking for a favor Kate really doesn't want to give-or when Derek (the werewolf) shows up to hire Kate on behalf of the Pack to retrieve their stolen maps. Taking both jobs, Kate ends up running into a third case when she finds Red, a street kid that had helped her previously, and Julie, young girl with a mysterious power of her own. In an attempt to help Julie find her missing mother, Kate gets sucked into more than she knows... Atlanta is caught in a power flare and it seems that someone is trying to awaken an old god, with Kate caught in the middle of it all.

(here there be spoilers)

OK, so first, I love this novel. We get more of Kate's backstory, including a lightly edited version of how her mother died while fighting her natural father, as well as a bit of insight into Kate's life with the father who raised her. As it turns out, 'Voron,' (meaning Raven) as he was called, was Roland's warlord. He trained Kate at a very early age to be what she was, a weapon. I can't wait to find out more. (Also, do you remember Kate's tattoo, from Magic Bites? It was of a raven, holding a sword, under which was written Gift of the Raven (but in Russian).

As Kate put it, "I'm my father's gift." Then, when asked about the sword the raven was carrying, Kate said, "I never said it was a nice gift.")

We also learn a bit more about the Pack in this novel. We're introduced to the werehyenas, as well as beastkin (remember Corwin? The cat-were? Well, beastkin are a cat-were's (any animal-were, actually) very rare children and they're usually killed on sight.). And, we get quite a bit more of the delicious Kate/Curran interaction. It seems that Curran is really quite serious about Kate and of course she's 1) terrified, 2) pissed, and 3) interested...and all at the same time. Poor girl, really.

As for the story part of Magic Burns, well, again, amazing. We've got a couple different plots running throughout the whole novel; interestingly enough, most of them tie in together. During a job with Jim, an unknown person shoots their target with some rather distinctive arrows. While searching for that person, Kate ends up running into Red, a street kid who had helped her before, and his younger girlfriend, Julie. Owing Red a favor, Kate ends up watching Julie when they're attacked by Bran...the mysterious archer from before. It seems that Bran is the one who stole the Pack's maps and while Kate is able to take them from Bran, he uses his abilities to get them back. And back. (Kate is forced to take a chair to his head.) Along the way, we learn that Bran is in the service of Morrigan, a Celtic goddess. Meanwhile, Julie is searching for her missing mother, a witch (who's coven worshiped Morrigan), while creatures that were thought to be only myths are searching for Julie. (Seems the afore mentioned coven might have screwed things up with their rituals, ending up with them worshiping a different aspect of the Crow than they thought.) Oh, and don't forget that Atlanta is currently in the midst of a power flare; one so powerful that gods and goddess (thought only myths) can manifest. Yeah, you know Kate's thinking that the timing could have been better.

I like the way that Ilona tied together those three plots (Julie, Bran, power flare), making what could have been a jumbled mess in to something that made a great deal of sense. I also liked the way she sprinkled in the bits about Kate's parents and her past, dropping them in to the story. It was a good way to give us more in places that were appropriate (like relating to Julie about not having a mother) while still leaving us wanting a whole lot more.

Friday, April 11, 2008

So, as you can clearly see, I haven't had a chance to write up any of my thoughts on Magic Burns (loved!), Inda (loved!), The Outlaw Demon Wails (surprisingly, didn't love, but liked a lot), and a few other books. It's like my life conspires against me.

Let's see...

  • I need to write up Inda, In the Serpent's Coils, By Venom's Sweet Sting, Tiger in the Well, Dragonhaven, and Among the Impostors for the YA challenge. (Haha! No I don't, because I've read more than twelve books! Yay, my first challenge is done! But, I will continue to post one review each month of a YA book.)
  • I need to write up In the Serpent's Coils, and Magic Burns for Carl's challenge.
  • I need to write up The Outlaw Demon Wails, Embrace the Night, By Venom's Sweet Sting, and a whole list of others just so I remember them (and to remind myself what I liked about them).
This is going to be a busy weekend!

I've been having a hard time finding a book for the fairytale requirement for Carl's challenge, but after perusing other people's list, I think I've settled on The Princess Bride as my choice. I actually bought it a few years ago with the intention of reading it, but never got around to doing so. Hopefully I'll like the book for itself and I'll be able to read it without seeing the movie version running in my head at the same time.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Dear author

Dear Sherwood Smith,

Hi! Is it too much if I start my letter off by saying how much I love you?

Hmm, right. Too much. OK.

How about if I tell you how much I love your novels; is that better?

Great. OK.

I love your novels, I really, really do. The world building you've done is incredible, your characters feel real to me, and your plots never fall apart on me. I can't wait to get my hands on more of your books so I can read them and fall even more in love with your writing.

I just have one teensy request: could you stop making me cry?

It's just, in Inda, I've cried three times already and I have a feeling that when I start The Fox I'll be bumping the crying count even higher. I just got over a horrible cold-infection thing and I am really enjoying my non-stuffy nose and my non-watery eyes right now.

OK, well, that was all. Really. Just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your novels and how eagerly I'm waiting for your latest books to come out in paperback. (I'd get the e-book version, except I hate e-books.)


Dear Lisa See,

Hi! How are you? You might not remember me, but I read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan about a year ago and just fell in love with it. Well, excluding the parts about foot binding. I just can't understand that, can't understand how that was attractive and how long that practice went on for. The very idea makes me want to shudder.

Oh, right, sorry. I'm actually writing about Peony in Love, your latest novel. I started it yesterday and I have to be honest when I say that this novel is even better than Snow Flower. Peony feels more real to me and I'm just loving the story.

Except for this one thing. See, I know where you're going to go with Peony and the mystery guy and her husband and if I could only reach through your novel and just SMACK Peony a couple of times, I'd feel so much better.

It's not a criticism or a complaint (OK, it is a complaint, but only in the best way) about your writing: I love your writing. It's just, if I could reach out and SMACK Peony, her life would be so much easier. I just know it! I'd save her from her stupidity and she could go off and be happy. (This is of course assuming that I'm right about what's going to happen next.)

Granted, that would mean a much shorter novel; would you mind?

OK, well, thanks for reading my letter. Again, I'm a huge fan and I am really love this novel and I can't wait for my bus ride home to read more. (I still want to SMACK Peony.)


P.S. Oh! You've written a mystery series too? Awesome, I'll have to check that out too.

Monday, April 07, 2008

I just don't have enough hours in the day

Right, so my glorious plan to write up and post a (few) reviews of Magic Burns clearly never came about. I had absolutely no free time last week between my editing classes starting back up and the arrival of my five-year-old niece.

Honestly, I didn't have time for much of anything with her around, including sleep.

So, instead of having posts, we're going to have bullet points of things I that I want to talk about but, but will just mention instead. (Because they deserve a mention at the very least.)

-Amazon coming out with its own print on demand (POD) service that they're going to require other publishing houses to use. Despite the fact that Amazon says that by using (their) one service consumers will really get books faster, what it actually means is that Amazon is going to have a stranglehold on the POD market and other publishing house will either have to suck it up and pay what Amazon charges, or they won't be able to sell their POD books through Amazon.

-The state of Indiana is passing a law that will require will require any businesses that sell “sexually explicit material” to register with the state government.
1) Seriously? We're going there?
2) Who is going to define "sexually explicit material"?

-This looks good. Comics, The Red Scare, what's not to love? (note: I linked to Powell's, which, is a first for me. Not linking to Amazon is going to require a lot of work.)

-Nothing But Red, the anthology featuring Joss Whedon's essay about the brutal death of Du'a Khalil Aswad, is available.

In April 2007, a group of men pulled seventeen-year-old Du’a Khalil Aswad into a mob. They proceeded to stone and beat her to death, a supposed "honor" killing for allegedly falling in love with a man of a different faith. Several camera phones recorded the entire incident from the front row, and videos later surfaced online. One month later, popular filmmaker Joss Whedon expressed his despair and outrage at the misogyny in all cultures on a fan-run blog. "Because it’s no longer enough to be a decent person," he wrote. "It’s no longer enough to shake our heads and make concerned grimaces at the news. True enlightened activism is the only thing that can save humanity from itself. I’ve always had a bent towards apocalyptic fiction, and I’m beginning to understand why. I look and I see the earth in flames. Her face was nothing but red." The arts anthology Nothing But Red was conceived as a way to raise both awareness of the issues he spoke of, as well as money for the charity Equality Now.

Buy a copy.