BONUS BOOK: Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead

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“I’d chucked my book at our teacher and called her a fascist bastard. I hadn’t known what those words meant, but I’d known how to hit a moving target. Lissa and I had been inseparable ever since.”

Genre: Fantasy, Adventure, Romance, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Lissa Dragomir is a Moroi princess: a mortal vampire with a rare gift for harnessing the earth’s  magic. She must be protected at all times from Strigoi; the fiercest vampires – the ones who never die. The powerful blend of human and vampire blood that flows through Rose Hathaway, Lissa’s best friend, makes her a Dhampir. Rose is dedicated to a dangerous life of protecting Lissa from the Strigoi, who are hell-bent on making Lissa one of them. After two years of freedom, Rose and Lissa are caught and dragged back to St. Vladimir’s Academy, a school for vampire royalty and their guardians-t0-be, hidden in the deep forests of Montana. But inside the iron gates, life is even more fraught with danger… and the Strigoi are always close by. Rose and Lissa must navigate their dangerous world, confront the temptations of forbidden love, and never once let their guard down, lest the evil undead make Lissa one of them forever.”

Review: I was inspired to give the Vampire Academy series a try after watching the (fairly terrible) movie on Netflix. Part of me wishes I had read the book first, because the movie obviously included a major plot twist. I always prefer reading books before seeing movies, largely because I think books do a more subtle job at handling plot twists; now I’ll never know if I would have picked up on the twist myself! Regardless, I thought Vampire Academy was a fun, easy read. The nuances of the Moroi/Dhampir/Strigoi world are surprisingly original, given how repetitive books in this genre tend to be. Rose succeeds as the spunky primary protagonist, although she comes across as a tad self-obsessed at times. Lissa is bit of a drag and could use some additional character development. Overall, I wouldn’t recommend Vampire Academy to anyone looking for a stellar piece of fiction, but it does offer a nice escape.

Rating:

Two_Star

 

 

 

BONUS BOOK: Blue Hope – Exploring and Caring for Earth’s Magnificent Ocean by Sylvia A. Earle

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“The idea of terraforming Mars to make our sister planet more Earthlike is gaining traction at the same time that our collective actions are marsiforming Earth, making the blue planet more like the red one.”

Genre: Nonfiction, Photography

Book Jacket Synopsis: “In 2009, Sylvia A. Earle, international advocate for the ocean, set out on a new mission: ‘To create a campaign to ignite public support for a global network of marine protected areas, Hope Spots large enough to save and restore the ocean – the blue heart of the planet.’ This lavishly illustrated volume describes the renowned oceanographer’s wish-in-progress, the development of a massive effort called Mission Blue to take care of our living ocean. In this beautiful ode to the sea, Earle recounts the milestones of a life spent pioneering and protecting the ocean. Organized roughly by decades, we follow her from her first dive in the 1950s to the recent naming of more than 50 Hope Spot – pristine areas of the ocean, as well as distressed locales that, with care, can recover. Interspersed with quotations from ocean advocates and literary figures, Blue Hope educates and inspires us about the importance of our precious ocean, while chronicling its deteriorating state; Earle invites the reader to participate in accomplishing her life’s wish: We can all play a role in keeping Earth’s blue heart alive. Informative facts and newly commissioned maps bolster the book’s ultimate message of hope. Filled with gorgeous photographs, Blue Hope captures the author’s compelling story, intertwined with the beauty of the ocean, the splendor of its wildlife, the issues it faces, and the resilience of its resources.”

Review: It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of Sylvia Earle. I had the privilege of listening to her speak once when she gave a talk at the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory. When I asked her for her best advice for aspiring marine biologists, she said, “Don’t forget the plankton!” This statement, which made everyone chuckle at the time, emphasizes Earle’s love for all parts of the ocean, be they small or mighty. Blue Hope is a wonderful visual expedition to the remote, blue corners of the world. While the text itself is somewhat limited (some might call Blue Hope a “coffee table book”), the things Earle does write are poignant and inspiring.

“No water, no life; no green, no blue.”

The chapters of Blue Hope roughly correspond to a timeline of Earle’s life, and cover many of the challenges she faced in the early stages of her career. She makes particular note of the sexism she faced, as well as some of the bold individuals who fought alongside her when faced with gender inequality.

“Half the fish are female. Half the dolphins and whales. I think women will do ok.”

-James Miller, in response to creating an all-female team of aquanauts

Many of the pictures, largely collected from National Geographic photographers, were familiar to me, but I also found myself enthralled with images I had never seen before. I would have liked for Earle to include more of her own musings, but Blue Hope remains a stunning ode to the ocean regardless.

“In the end, our society will be defined not only by what we create, but by what we refuse to destroy.”

-John Sawhill

Rating:

Four_Star

 

 

 

 

BONUS BOOK: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

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“She had wondered, she now realized, if she’d make it out or end up staying forever, trapped by obligation and inertia; yet it was the very act of leaving that cast doubt on the desirability of escape.”

Genre: Romance, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “From the ‘wickedly entertaining’ Curtis Sittenfeld, New York Times bestselling author of Prep and American Wife, comes a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice. Equal parts homage to Jane Austen and bold literary experiment, Eligible is a brilliant, playful, and delicious saga for the twenty-first century. This version of the Bennet family – and Mr. Darcy – is one that you have and haven’t met before: Liz is a magazine writer in her late thirties who, like her yoga instructor older sister, Jane, lives in New York City. When their father has a health scare, they return to their childhood in Cincinnati to help – and discover that the sprawling Tudor they grew up in is crumbling and the family is in disarray. Youngest sisters Kitty and Lydia are too busy with their CrossFit workouts and Paleo diets to get jobs. Mary, the middle sister, is earning her third online master’s degree and barely leaves her room, except for those mysterious Tuesday-night outings she won’t discuss. And Mrs. Bennet has one thing on her mind: how to marry off her daughters, especially as Jane’s fortieth birthday fast approaches. Enter Chip Bingley, a handsome new-in-town doctor who recently appeared on the juggernaut reality TV dating show Eligible. At a Fourth of July barbecue, Chip takes an immediate interest in Jane, but Chip’s friend neurosurgeon Fitzwilliam Darcy revels himself to Liz to be much less charming… And yet, first impressions can be deceiving.”

Review: I love a good Jane Austen retelling as much as the next person (consider my favorable review of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Ben H. Winters as evidence), but Eligible ended up being too silly for my liking. I was first inspired to give Sittenfeld’s novel a try when I saw it fly off shelves at the bookstore I worked in throughout Christmas 2015. While there are things that I really liked about Eligible, including the overall formatting (Sittenfeld has mastered the art of the short chapter) and creativity when it came to putting a more modern spin on Austen’s classic, I couldn’t get on board with the sheer ridiculousness of the Bennet family. All of the characters are mere caricatures of their former selves and the droll drama of their lives ended up being too much for me. I also didn’t feel like Eligible handled certain topics, including race and transgender identity, in a very respectful way. The book also lost any charm it had accumulated with the stunt that was pulled in the final chapters. I don’t want to spoil it, but suffice to say that it made the novel feel very cheap and, once again, silly. All in all, Eligible was a painless but unremarkable read; I would recommend that readers looking for an Austen fix either stick to the classic or give Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith a try.

Rating:

Two_Star

BONUS BOOK: The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi

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“Another woman scurried away behind a lattice of elephant bone, staring out to a scene forever marred by the patterns of a gilded cage.”

Genre: Fantasy, Adventure, Romance, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Maya is cursed. With a horoscope that promises a marriage of death and destruction, she has earned only the scorn and fear of her father’s kingdom. While Maya is content to follow more scholarly pursuits, her whole world is torn apart when her father, the Raja, arranges a wedding of political convenience to quell outside rebellions. Soon Maya becomes the queen of Akaran and wife of Amar. Neither roles are what she expected: As Akaran’s queen, she finds her voice and power. As Amar’s wife, she finds something else entirely: Compassion. Protection. Desire… But Akaran has its own secrets – thousands of locked doors, gardens of glass, and a tree that bears memories instead of fruit. Soon, Maya suspects her life is in danger. Yet who, besides her husband, can she trust? With the fate of the human and Otherworldly realms handing in the balance, Maya must unravel an ancient mystery that spans reincarnated lives to save those she loves the most… including herself.”

Review: I just realized as I started to write this review that I had COMPLETELY forgotten the heroine’s name. Maya. Maya Maya Maya. This slip up is 100% indicative of how I feel about The Star-Touched Queen. Chokshi is a talented writer (perhaps a bit green but she does seem to have promise), but the very first issue I had with this book was the prose. TEN MILLION METAPHORS DOES NOT A GREAT BOOK MAKE. The writing is so incredibly flowery that it actually makes it difficult to understand what is happening sometimes. I truly do appreciate metaphors and illustrious writing ,but like all great things, both are best in moderation. My favorite line from the entire book actually came from the acknowledgements section, not from the story itself:

“Thank you for the phenomenon of our childhood.”

The writing style ended up being off-putting and distracting but, as it turns out, there wasn’t all that much to actually be distracted from. Chokshi simply doesn’t do a good job of helping the reader understand her world. Her descriptions were simultaneously flowery and vague, so that I never really got a sense of what was going on in the story. Maya is a very one dimensional character, and her complete gullibility even in the face of evidence suggesting she should NOT listen to Nrriti? (Neriti? WHAT IS HER NAME?) is infuriating. See, this is my point; I just spent the past five minutes trying to remember the name of the evil character and I cannot, for the life of me, figure out what it is. I don’t even feel bad for putting my spoiler-ish guesses above because anyone with a brain can figure out the “plot-twist” in A Star-Touched Queen. This book was simultaneously too much and not enough, and I can’t think of anyone I would recommend it took. Only one star for The Star-Touched Queen.

Rating:

One_Star

BONUS BOOK: Breakthrough – The Making of America’s First Woman President by Nancy L. Cohen

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“When the pendulum has swung so far in the direction against us, if we play it right, it doesn’t stop where it was before.”

Genre: Historical, Nonfiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “From Hollywood to Silicon Valley to the halls of Congress, an intense conversation about women’s leadership, equal pay, and family-work balance is underway. On the cusp of a historic breakthrough – the potential election of the nation’s first woman president – Nancy L. Cohen takes us inside the world of America’s women political leaders. Drawing on hundreds of hours of interviews with women governors and senators from both political parties, academic experts and political operatives, and a diverse array of voters, Breakthrough paints an intimate portrait of the savvy women who have built an alternative to the old boy’s club and are rewriting the playbook for how women can rise and thrive in power. Cohen introduces us to the inspiring women behind the women who have brought us to this threshold, as well as to a dynamic group of young leaders who are redefining how we think and talk about women’s leadership, feminism, and men’s essential role int he quest for gender equality. In this accessible and often surprising story, Cohen takes on our cultural assumptions about women candidates to show that the old barriers that once blocked a woman’s ascent to the presidency have fallen, even more than we realize. Mining the less known corners of our history, Cohen reveals how the mistakes made by women in the fight to win voting rights stalled progress toward women’s equal participation in political power for decades. Surveying the most up-to-date research, Cohen shows that its conclusions are unequivocal: Electing women into political leadership will be a breakthrough for all of us, women, men, and families alike.”

Review: I was really looking forward to reading Breakthrough, especially because I found this book the week before I flew to D.C. for the Women’s March on Washington. In some ways, Breakthrough exceeded my expectations. The chapters that gave a history of American women in politics were particularly fascinating and provided me with a much clearer picture of gender-based challenges faced in both the Democratic and Republican parties. As a whole, Breakthrough provided irrefutable evidence that the American political system was not set up with women in mind, and that women have spent decades trying to overcome well-established, gender-based hurdles in the political process.

“A woman in politics is like a monkey in a toy shop. She can do no good, and may do harm.”

-U.S. Senator, New Hampshire, 1814

I also really enjoyed the chapter devoted to Hillary Clinton, which focused on groundbreaking political (and arguably humanitarian) work she has done throughout her life. Her pivotal role in working to break the highest, hardest glass ceiling was also highlighted through Breakthrough.

“If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.”

-Hillary Rodham Clinton, Beijing, 1995

Where Nancy Cohen started to lose me, however, was in her arguments that double standards and gender biases no longer stand between American women and the presidency.

“For all intents and purposes, the double standard is dead. Gender bias is no longer the reason America hasn’t yet elevated a woman to the Oval Office.”

At first, I wanted to believe Nancy Cohen, and I even attempted to argue some of the points she made with friends. But what I found during these arguments, and throughout reading Breakthrough, was that Cohen’s statements are simply too optimistic given the actual events witnessed in this past presidential election. She backs up her sweeping claims with plenty of political poll results and statistics, but there appears to be a discord between the conclusions she draws and the actuality of America today. I wonder if, like many American citizens, Cohen was so certain that Hillary Clinton would win the election that it clouded her writing of Breakthrough. Overall, I appreciated Breakthrough for the brush-up on American history, but ultimately think Cohen was reaching too far.

 

Rating:

Three_Star

A Stolen Life: A Memoir by Jaycee Lee Dugard

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“We either go together or not at all. So for now it’s not at all.”

Genre: Memoir, Nonfiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “In the summer of 1991 I was a normal kid. I did normal things. I had friends and a mother who loved me. I was just like you. Until the day my life was stolen. For eighteen years I was a prisoner. I was an object for someone to use and abuse. For eighteen years I was not allowed to speak my own name. I became a mother and was forced to be a sister. For eighteen years I survived an impossible situation. On August 26, 2009, I took my name back. My name is Jaycee Lee Dugard. I don’t think of myself as a victim. I survived. A Stolen Life is my story – in my own words, in my own way, exactly as I remember it.”

Review: Just because a book is hard to read does not mean that it shouldn’t be read. That is what I kept telling myself throughout A Stolen Life. Growing up, I was familiar with the basics of Jaycee’s story, in the same way that I was familiar with the stories of Elizabeth Smart and Elisabeth Fritzl. But reading about the horrors she suffered at the hands of Phillip and Nancy Garrido, in her own words, is a very different experience than reading news articles or listening to television recaps. In spite of these horrors, the real undercurrent of A Stolen Life is Jaycee’s resilience and hope.

“I am not sure how I did endure all that I did. I ask myself less and less every day.”

Her deep affection for her children, coupled with a lifelong love of animals, provides the reader with some hints of how she was able to endure in unthinkable conditions. I can’t help but wonder, after finishing this book, how many other missing children are living in similar situations. Jaycee’s stepfather witnessed her abduction, and she was still missing for 18 years. It’s truly terrifying.

Reason for Ban/Challenge: In 2014, A Stolen Life was removed from seventh-grade classroom libraries in the Northview Michigan public school system after parents of a student who had chosen the book for elective reading learned of its content. Acknowledging that the book could be beneficial to students who had experienced abuse, the superintendent agreed to keep the book in eighth-grade classroom libraries, but instated a case-by-case approval system for any student interested in the book. As I’ve stated in the past, I don’t believe in censoring what children can read, especially in public schools. That being said, Jaycee’s story is understandably horrifying and could have a lasting impact on young readers (I know it has had one on me); if young individuals do want to read A Stolen Life, I hope that parents and teachers are willing to engage in honest discussions about its content

Rating: As I mentioned in my review of HD66: Search for a Cure or a Killer?, I recently encountered two books that (for different reasons) I did not want to rate. HD66 was the first book and A Stolen Life is the second. The literary merit of A Stolen Life is, in my opinion, inseparable from Jaycee’s horrific experiences, and I am unwilling to even consider “rating” either.

BONUS BOOK: Tales from the Shadowhunter Academy by Cassandra Clare, Sarah Rees Brennan, Maureen Johnson, and Robin Wasserman

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“Simon felt the same way as when he and Clary had set a fire in his kitchen by trying to toast grapes and create raisins when they were six: amazed and appalled that things had gone wrong so fast.”

Genre: Fantasy, Adventure, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Simon Lewis has been a human and a vampire, and now he is becoming a Shadowhunter. But the events of City of Heavenly Fire left him stripped of his memories, and Simon isn’t sure who he is anymore. He knows he was friends with Clary, and that he convinced the total goddess Isabelle Lightwood to go out with him… but he doesn’t know how. And when Clary and Isabelle look at him, expecting him to be a man he doesn’t remember… Simon can’t take it. So when the Shadowhunters Academy reopens, Simon throws himself into this new world of demon-hunting, determined to find himself again. His new self. Whomever this new Simon might be. But the Academy is a Shadowhunter institution, which means that is has some problems. Like the fact that non-Shadowhunter students have to live in the basement. And that differences – like being a former vampire – are greatly looked down upon. At least Simon is trained in weaponry – even if it’s only from hours of playing D&D. Join Simon on his journey to become a Shadowhunter, and learn about the Academy’s illustrious history along the way, through guest lecturers such as Jace Herondale, Tessa Gray, and Magnus Bane. These ten moving and hilarious short stories give a satisfying epilogue to the Mortal Instruments series and provide tantalizing glimpses of what’s store in the Dark Artifices.

Review: Mehhhhhh. Given that Simon was never my favorite character in the Mortal Instruments saga, I wasn’t sure how I would feel about Tales from Shadowhunter Academy. On the upside, it turns out that my favorite chapters were actually the ones that involved Simon and his friends (frenemies?) at the Shadowhunter Academy. Their adventurous, while largely inconsequential, were relatively enjoyable to read about. I also found myself marginally warming to Simon as an overall character, largely because he seemed like the only Academy student with a moral compass. On the downside, I really didn’t enjoy most of the stories that delved into Shadowhunter history; they felt contrived, lengthy, and unnecessary in the long run. I did appreciate the brief cameos made by Clary, Isabelle, Magnus, Alec, and Jace (all Mortal Instruments characters that rank higher than Simon on my list of favorites), but this book ended up being very fluffy and didn’t enhance my overall perception of the Shadowhunters world. It might do the trick for someone in need of a tide-over while waiting for the second book in the Dark Artifices series, but I found that it wasn’t really worth the reading time.

Rating:

Two_Star