BONUS BOOK: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

“My friend, I was born for soft days such as these.”

Genre: Fantasy, Adventure, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Four decades of peace have done little to ease the mistrust between humans and dragons in the kingdom of Goredd. Folding themselves into human shape, dragons attend the court as ambassadors and lend their rational, mathematical minds to universities as scholars and teachers. As the peace treaty’s anniversary draws near, however, tensions are high. Seraphina Dombegh has reason to fear both sides. An unusually gifted musician, she joins the court just as a member of the royal family is murdered in suspiciously draconian fashion. Seraphina is drawn into the investigation, partnering with the captain of the Queen’s Guard, the dangerously perceptive Prince Lucian Kiggs. While they begin to uncover hints of a sinister plot to destroy the peace, Seraphina struggles to protect her own secret, the secret behind her musical gift – one so terrible that its discovery could mean her very life.”

Review: There’s no denying that Rachel Hartman is a talented and lyrical writer. The first few chapters of Seraphina actually made me feel like I was reading something in the same vein as Ella Enchanted (which is huge praise coming from me, as Ella Enchanted is definitely in my top ten books of all time).

“The world inside myself is vaster and richer than this paltry plane, peopled with mere galaxies and gods.”

The descriptions of Goredd and the palace were excellent and I found the dragons of Seraphina to be unique and, by extension, fascinating. I particularly loved Orma, Seraphina’s draconian uncle with little sense of humor and no sense of irony. Concerning uniqueness, I don’t think I’ve ever read another book where music played such a pivotal and illustrious role.

“A feeling rose in me, and I just let it, because what harm could it do? It only had another thirty-two adagio bars of life in this world. Twenty-four. Sixteen. Eight more bars in which I love you. Three. Two. One.”

However, it took me a long time to wrap my head around Seraphina’s “mental garden of grotesques” (seriously… I had no clue what was going on). I also found that the plot moved at a really, really, REALLY slow place. It felt like Hartman made a trade off between world building and pacing. Interestingly, one of my favorite parts of Seraphina was actually the “Cast of Characters” glossary at the back of the book. As it turns out, Hartman can be a very humorous writer when she wants to be.

“Regent of Samsam – the regent of Samsam

Abdo – a dancer in a pygegyria troupe

A pygegyria troupe – and there’s the rest of them now”

I wish she had incorporated more humor into the actual story, as it might have negated some of the plot drudgery. I do think Seraphina’s story – particularly her journey to self-acceptance – is inspiring, but don’t feel an immediate need to read the second book in the duology.




BONUS BOOK: Wonder Woman by Nancy Holder

“They were starting to overlap their sentences again – like lapping waves of words rising and falling into each other.”

Genre: Adventure, Fantasy, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Before she was Wonder Woman, she was Diana, princess of the Amazons, trained to be an unconquerable warrior. Raised on a sheltered island paradise, when an American pilot crashes on their shores and tells of a massive conflict raging in the outside world, Diana leaves her home, convinced she can stop the threat. Fighting alongside man in a war to end all wars, Diana will discover her full powers… and her true destiny.”

Review: Like 99.9% of the rest of the world, I really loved the Wonder Woman movie. I went into it not understanding what all the fuss was about, and came out feeling empowered and wishing I had my own wrist bangles to “boosh” together. In my desperation to cling to the Wonder Woman high, I did something I’ve never done before: I requested the movie novelization from my local library. This turned out to be a mistake, for three main reasons.

  1. I almost always prefer reading a book before seeing its movie complement. I feel like seeing the movie first ends up spoiling the book, whereas reading the book first ends up adding to my movie-watching experience. However, when I have done things in the reverse order, I almost always still find the book worthwhile because even though major plot points have been spoiled, there are so many nuances within a book that simply don’t translate to screen. However, the issue with novelizations based on movies is that you don’t get those extra nuances. Every major quote, every major moment, is copied exactly from the screen.
  2. Novelization writers give you too much detail in some instances (what is Holder’s obsession with giving the exact specs of the guns used in Wonder Woman?) and not enough detail in others. Holder described an aircraft as being “as huge at the Loch Ness monster.” Given that the Loch Ness monster isn’t real, this description tells me nothing about the size of the aircraft.
  3. Perhaps this is not true of all novelizations, but there were SO. MANY. TYPOS. I’m not just talking bad grammar (ex. using the word “passed” when the author clearly meant “past”), but legitimate spelling mistakes as well. So many sentences just didn’t make sense without some self-initiated edits.

“He had no idea if the masks they wore would keep out the gas or they had been designed to protect the rank and file.”

Based on this experience, I will never read a movie novelization again. Sorry Wonder Woman, but you’re better suited to the big screen, comic books, and original novels.



BONUS BOOK: My Life with Bob by Pamela Paul

“Everyone else had a passion; where was mine? How much happier I would have been to know that reading itself was a passion.”

Genre: Memoir, Nonfiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Pamela Paul has kept a single book by her side for twenty-eight years – carried throughout high school and college, hauled from Paris to London to Thailand and from job to job, safely packed away and then carefully moved from apartment to house to its current perch on a shelf over her desk. It is reliable if frayed, anonymous looking yet deeply personal. This book has a name: Bob. Bob is Paul’s Book of Books, a journal that records every book she’s ever read, from Sweet Valley High to Anna Karenina, from Catch-22 to Swimming to Cambodia. It recounts a journey in reading that reflects her inner life – her fantasies and hopes, her mistakes and missteps, her dreams and her ideas, both half-baked and wholehearted. Her life, in turn, influences the books she chooses, whether for solace or escape, information or sheer entertainment. But My Life with Bob isn’t really about those books. It’s about the deep and powerful relationship between book and reader. It’s about the way books provide each of us the perspective, courage, companionship, and imperfect self-knowledge to forge our own path. It’s about why we read what we read and how those choices make us who we are. It’s about how we make our own stories.”

Review: As evidenced by this blog, I’m an avid reader. Given a certain kinship I feel with other avid readers, I expected to love My Life with Bob: a book about books written by the editor of the New York Time Times Book Review, Pamela Paul. However, I found that Paul’s self-characterization led me to become increasingly frustrated and annoyed with her, which ultimately led to a lower book rating than I initially expected. On a positive note, I’ve rarely read a book that so accurately captures what it’s like to be an obsessive book nerd. It’s clear that Paul and I are cut from the same cloth, at least when it comes to our feelings about books. She was able to eloquently describe the reader/book relationship in a strikingly accurate way.

“Books gnaw at me from around the edges of my life, demanding more time and attention. I am always left hungry.”

I too have tracked my reading habits throughout my life, largely in the form of favorite quotes scribbled down in random notebooks. It wasn’t until just over a year ago that I decided to formalize my literary tracking and start an actual journal for book quotes. Since then, I’ve recorded every book I’ve read with at least one quote. In a similar vein, this blog has also become a book of books, and I certainly agree with Paul that these books of books are our enduring way of recording our lives without actually including the oftentimes humiliating details.

“Bob has lasted a lot longer than any of my abandoned teenage journals – I write in it still – and here’s why: diaries contain all kinds of things I wanted to forget – unrequited crushes and falling-outs with friends and angsting over college admissions. Bob contains things I want to remember: what I was reading when all that happened.”

But I did find major issues with My Life with Bob, largely because I didn’t like Paul’s self-characterization. My annoyance began about halfway through the book and spawned into an established dislike by the time I finished. I constantly felt like Paul tried to pretend that she didn’t have a privileged adolescence and adulthood, when all evidence stood to the contrary. When she graduated from college, her dad gifted her a Eurail pass to explore Europe, which she lost. Calling her dad to “self-flagellate and grovel and beg for another,” he answered the phone and said “I thought you were calling to wish me a happy birthday. It was yesterday.” Her father also funded her trip to China, asking for only one thing in return: that she bring him back a spittoon. She didn’t. While visiting and working in Paris (which she did over a dozen times while growing up), she refused to speak English to American tourists, pretending to be a haughty Parisian instead. If I had to characterize Paul (at least adolescent Paul) in three words based on this novel, I would say privileged, narcissistic, and selfish. Perhaps I’m being too harsh, but the last straw came on page 164, when she wrote about judging people based on the books they read. Her personal “test case” is The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, and she “has a hard time liking someone who loves it.” She goes on to say the following:

“I certainly wouldn’t want to be judged by The Fountainhead, which shows up in Bob, but which I read in a state of complete ignorance as bonus material for a class on twentieth-century architecture.”

After finishing it, Paul threw the book into the trash, where “it would never hurt anyone again.” I read The Fountainhead as a senior in high school and really enjoyed it. It was the first time I became attached to a physical copy of a book; sadly, I dutifully returned it to the high school library once finished. I think all of this means that if Paul and I met in real life, I might not like her and she might not like me. But that’s okay. Something tells me we would respect each other as readers anyways.



BONUS BOOK: Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh

“All I strive for every day is to convince my shadow I’m someone worth following.”

Genre: Adventure, Fantasy, Romance, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “The only daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has always known she’d been raised for one purpose and one purpose only: to marry. Never mind her cunning, which rivals that of her twin brother, Kenshin, or her skills as an accomplished alchemist. Since Mariko was not born a boy, her fate was sealed the moment she drew her first breath. So, at just seventeen years old, Mariko is sent to the imperial palace to meet her betrothed, a man she did not choose, for the very first time. But the journey is cut short when Mariko’s convoy is viciously attacked by the Black Clan, a dangerous group of bandits who’ve been hired to kill Mariko before she reaches the palace. The lone survivor, Mariko narrowly escapes to the woods, where she plots her revenge. Dressed as a peasant boy, she sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and hunt down those responsible for the target on her back. Once she’s within their ranks, though, Mariko finds for the first time she’s appreciated for her intellect and abilities. She even finds herself falling in love – a love that will force her to question everything she’s ever known about her family, her purpose, and her deepest desires.”

Review: I was really excited for Flame in the Mist after loving Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn and The Rose and the Dagger. Flame in the Mist, which is set in feudal Japan and has a Mulan-esque premise, was instantly enticing. But while I couldn’t stop myself from tearing through Ahdieh’s first two books, I found Flame in the Mist to be a much slower read. The plot moved at a sluggish pace for the first half of the novel. It felt like the characters spent most of their time traveling around and setting up the Black Clan camp. It wasn’t until Mariko accompanied Black Clan leader, Ranmaru, and his star warrior, Okami, to the tea house and nearly ran into her brother that the plot began to pick up. I also felt like it was very difficult to get a sense of who Mariko was. I knew what Ahdieh wanted me to think – that Mariko was an underappreciated but talented and intelligent young woman – but found it very difficult to actually reach those conclusions simply by reading Mariko’s thoughts, actions, and feelings. At least once per chapter, Mariko thought about her mission to track down the people who had attempted to kill her, and how she needed to “strike when they least expect it.” If I had a dollar for every time this line came up, I could buy my own copy of Flame in the Mist. On a more positive note, I did like the undercurrent of female empowerment that ran throughout the novel.

“There is such strength in being a woman. But it is a strength you must choose for yourself. No one can choose it for you. We can bend the wind to our ear if we would only try.”

I was also very interested in the magical element of Flame in the Mist, but wished that Ahdieh would provide more explanation, especially of Okami’s powers. However, based on the novel ending, it seems like this will be addressed in the second novel. The feudal Japan setting was great, but I didn’t feel trasported in the same way that I did in Ahdieh’s first series. That being said, the novel pace picked up towards the end and concluded with a good cliffhanger, so I plan on reading the second book.




Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

“Another case of men devoting their lives to studying more and more about less and less.”

Genre: Science Fiction, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Charlie Gordon is about to embark on an unprecedented journey. Born with an unusually low IQ, he has been chosen as the perfect subject for an experimental surgery that researchers hope will increase his intelligence – a procedure that has already been highly successful when tested on a lab mouse named Algernon. As the treatment takes effect, Charlie’s intelligence expands until it surpasses that of the doctors who engineered his metamorphosis. The experiment appears to be a scientific breakthrough of paramount importance until Algernon suddenly deteriorates. Will the same happen to Charlie?”

Review: This book gave me many flashbacks to watching the movie Awakenings, based on the real-life experiences of neurologist Oliver Sacks when he discovered a drug that temporally brought encephalitis patients out of catatonia, only to have the results be short-lived. As a whole, I found Flowers for Algernon very difficult to read (which I think was Keyes’ point, given that he was repeatedly rejected from potential publishers because he refused to change the novel ending). As Charlie’s IQ begins to skyrocket, so too do the number of flashbacks he has to his troubled childhood and adolescence. This is one of those books that reminds you how truly awful people can be to those with disabilities. While Charlie does find a few allies in his “new” life, he more frequently is hurt and abused by the people he thought were friends. It was particularly saddening to read about how his mother treated him and how the birth of his sister, a “normal” child with no intellectual deficit, greatly altered Charlie’s quality of life at home. I felt like the novel took a turn for the weird and trippy towards the end, with Charlie becoming increasingly neurotic.

“There will be great heat and unbearable light – the hell within hell – but I don’t look at the light, only at the flower, unmultiplying, undividing itself back from the many toward one.”

The best part of this book was the relationship between Algernon and Charlie. In my opinion, more time should have been spent exploring and expanding that relationship. I also found this book to be very predictable, which is why I ultimately went with a three star rating. As I whole, I certainly understand why Flowers for Algernon is a classic, but it wasn’t a particularly enjoyable read and I can’t see myself rereading it anytime soon.

Reason for Ban/Challenge: From 1990 – 1999, Flowers for Algernon was the 43rd most frequently banned/challenged book in the United States. From 2000 – 2010, however, it no longer made the top 100 list. This is likely due to more recently published books edging out older books and changes in school reading curriculum, but may also reflect a changing attitude towards Flowers for Algernon and recognition of its status as a classic. Most ban/challenge requests revolve around some “sexually explicit” scenes in the novel, as Charlie frequently grapples to understand his newfound sexual urges. There have also been complaints about perceived profanity and adult themes.



BONUS BOOK: Caraval by Stephanie Garber

“It took seven years to get the letter right.”

Genre: Adventure, Fantasy, Romance, Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: Scarlett Dragna has never left the tiny island where she and her sister, Tella, live with their powerful, and cruel, father. Now Scarlett’s father has arranged a marriage for her, and Scarlett thinks her dreams of seeing Caraval – the faraway, once-a-year performance where the audience participates in the show – are over. But this year, Scarlett’s long-dreamt-of invitation finally arrives. With the help of a mysterious sailor, Tella whisks Scarlett away to the show. Only, as soon as they arrive, Tella is kidnapped by Caraval’s mastermind organizer, Legend. It turns out that this season’s Caraval revolves around Tella, and whoever finds her first is the winner. Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. Nevertheless, she becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic. And whether Caraval is real or not, Scarlett must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over or a dangerous domino effect of consequences will be set of, and her beloved sister will disappear forever.”

Review: Apparently the “thing to do” these days is write about fantastical carnivals/magical competitions (see: The Night Circus, The Crown’s Game). And as much as this seems like something I would like, I’ve once again been disappointed. Caraval is my least favorite rendition so far. Like similar novels, Caraval did succeed in creating a really fun, fantastical world. I looked forward to Scarlett’s adventures out into the Caraval village each day, as she navigated through enchanted areas and visited magical bazaars. However, it quickly became apparent that although Garber was good at writing descriptors, she was unsuccessful at developing her characters. The prose was also chock full of odd metaphors.

“Somehow the battered space still managed to smell like Tella. Sharp molasses and wild dreams.”

I used to love this kind of writing growing up because it seemed creative and illustrious. But the more I encounter these metaphor-ridden books (see also The Star-Touched Queen, which is the most egregious example I’ve read to date), the less I enjoy the writing. What do wild dreams smell like? Scarlett was also constantly thinking, “I shouldn’t be doing _____, I should be trying to rescue Tella.” Literally every other thought she had revolved around how she wasn’t trying hard enough to find her sister. It became increasingly tedious throughout the novel. Lastly, I found the plot, particularly at the end, to be confusing and disjointed. It was hard to fully grasp the motives of the different characters, and many of them were added in last minute, which contributed to my growing confusion. I have no interest in reading the second novel in this series, which is set for release in 2018.



BONUS BOOK: The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary by Andrew Westoll

“Sue Ellen sees me coming and presses her puckered lips up against the caging. I sit with her for awhile, coo a variety of meaningless, meaningful things into her Yoda ears.”

Genre: Nonfiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Fourteen years ago, a special family of chimpanzees was rescued from a research lab and sent to a rural sanctuary in Quebec where the animals could be cared for and loved. For the indomitable Gloria Grow, looking after thirteen great apes is like presiding over a maximum security prison, a Zen retreat, an old folks’ home, and a Montreal deli during the lunchtime rush. But she is first and foremost creating a refuge for her troubled charges, a place where they can recover and begin to trust humans again. Hoping to win some of this trust, journalist Andrew Westoll spent months at Fauna Sanctuary as a volunteer caregiver. Here he vividly recounts his adventures in the chimphouse and the heart-wrenching histories of its residents. He arrives with dreams of striking up an immediate friendship with the legendary Tom, a father figure to the rest of the chimps and Gloria’s greatest teacher. Instead, Tom haunts Westoll’s dreams. Gradually, though, the rest of the “troop” warm to Westoll. He befriends Binky, the resident practical joker; Sue Ellen, whose favorite fashion accessory is a beaded necklace; and Chance, who picks the hot peppers off her pizza. Through Westoll’s eyes, we witness the chimps’ remarkable recovery firsthand. Simple things like establishing friendships, nurturing alliances, grooming one another, and playing games of tickle-chase are all poignant testament to the capacity of these animals to heal and to learn how to be chimps again.”

Review: The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary is the best nonfiction I’ve read in awhile. Westoll somehow managed to perfectly balance his chapters, with appropriate time dedicated to the chimps themselves, their human caretakers, and the history and consequences of chimpanzee research. I had never really considered the ethical implications of biomedical research on chimpanzees before (in the sense that it’s never been on my radar), but it’s impossible not to after reading this book.

“Ask the experimenters why they experiment on animals, and the answer is: ‘Because the animals are like us.’ Ask the experimenters why it is morally OK to experiment on animals, and the answer is: ‘Because the animals are not like us.’ Animal experimentation rests on a logical contradiction.” – Charles R. Magel

While the scientist in me occasionally wished Westoll would include more concrete details about how chimpanzee biomedical research has rarely actually contributed to significant medical advancements, I recognize that the point of this book was more to tell the stories of Fauna Sanctuary’s inhabitants and less to provide a detailed background on the history of chimpanzee biomedical research. That being said, Westoll did an excellent job of giving the back stories of each chimp, coupled with the back stories of the human’s who forever altered their lives. I was fascinated by the role that James Mahoney – a chimpanzee veterinarian for the now-defunct Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP) – played in the saga. The way Westoll tells it, Mahoney gradually became disillusioned with how the chimps were treated and cared for at LEMSIP. Although he succeeded in making admirable changes to the program, it was not enough to overcome the guilt he felt. Eventually, Mahoney would become one of the chimps’ biggest assets when LEMSIP closed, as he worked to send them to sanctuaries like Fauna instead of to other research facilities.

“They have served and I think they damn well deserve a break.” – James Mahoney

In my opinion, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary is so impactful because it does not shy away from the ugly truth of what happened to these animals. Even in sanctuary, their lives are a slim facsimile of what they should have been. There are silver moments, like the unique relationship between Tom (a chimp) and Pat (one of the original sanctuary employees). But there are also devastating moments, like when Rachel self-mutilates her hands.

“To Gloria, the cheerful term ‘enrichment’ glosses over a very simple truth she wants everyone to understand – that the quality of life for the average animal in captivity is exceedingly dismal and that enrichment objects only serve to lessen, by a small margin, the profound impoverishment of the animal’s life.”

I fully concluded that The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary was a five star book after, ironically, becoming very angry with Westoll. Spoilers ahead! Towards the end of the book, Westoll received a call from Gloria saying that one of the chimps had died. All evidence leading up to this point suggested that it was Binky. However, it turned out that  Binky had managed to recover from his prolonged sickness. Instead, it was Tom, the heart of Fauna Sanctuary, who had suddenly passed away. I was momentarily furious with Westoll. It felt like emotional trickery on his end, spending hundreds of pages making me care about these chimpanzees, only to emotionally manipulate me at the very end. But I realized the only reason I was so frustrated with Westoll was because he had succeeded in making me care about what happened to these animals. That feat, in itself, is worth five stars.

“After months of wanting to connect with him, of wanting to lay my hands  on him, I have finally, it seems, come to an understanding with Tommie. I wasn’t here to touch him or even to tell his life story. I was here to meet the old guy and learn to live with his loss.