Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad

Let me begin this review by saying a couple of things.

One, I never read nonfiction on my own time growing up, and only when I was nearly done with college did I realize that maybe I would like it. After all, I have always loved learning about multiple subjects, be it history or science or music, etc. Being in love with a man who prefers nonfiction really opened my eyes to what is out there. The nonfiction and fiction vie for room on our overflowing bookshelves. My mental state and hunger for knowledge have been infinitely rewarded.

Two, I am so ashamed to even admit that I know next to nothing about Russia and it's history. I knew the story of the downfall of the Tsar and of the tales surrounding the Princess Anastasia, but that was it. Honestly, I still love the children's movie, despite how far from the truth it really is. But really, my knowledge didn't stretch much further, other than knowing who Marx and Lenin and Stalin were. It was appalling. But, this book changed all that.


Symphony for the City of the Dead was first published in autumn of 2015, but I hadn't even heard of it. I am so thankful that I was listening to the satellite radio channel Symphony Hall on a Monday morning a few weeks ago. The radio DJ (who, incidentally, used to be on my local classical station back in Illinois!), was talking about Shostakovich and mentioned this book. I filed the title away in my mind and then forgot about it while at work (the library, no less, silly me). The next day, I was at work again and suddenly remembered it, but struggled to recall the title. I furiously googled and found it, so I searched our library system and requested a copy from another library, since we didn't have it. It came the next day and I put all my other reading on hold to read this. I was not disappointed. It took a couple weeks to read only because life unfortunately does not allow for as much reading time as I would want, but I was also able to absorb each section thoroughly. So, thank you Martin Goldsmith of Symphony Hall, for mentioning this book. I am much the better for it.


Dmitri Shostakovich was born in the city of St Petersburg on the eve of the reign of the Tsars of Russia. He lives and survives through the rise of Lenin and Stalin and all the horrors that come with their dictatorships. He began playing the piano at the age of nine, By the time he was thirteen, the city of St Petersburg had been renamed Petrograd, and young Dmitri was admitted to the musical conservatory. His first symphony was composed as his graduation piece; it premiered in 1926. (It was in 1924, after the death of Vladimir Lenin, that the city was renamed Leningrad. This was to be the city's name until 1991, when the Soviet Union finally collapsed.) Throughout the years in which Shostakovich composed his next few symphonies, he was watched closely by the government, especially after his 4th Symphony. Joseph Stalin came to power and his purge of literally everything hurt the Russian people heavily. I mean, the guy even purged his own army, which was pretty idiotic...people were afraid to even tell him the truth, because they could be killed for it! (I could go on about the horrors of Stalin's purge, but that's not the point and this is long already, sorry!)

 Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, an opera that Shostakovich composed, was the beginning of his being officially watched by the government, and the composer fell deeply out of favor with the people. Stalin despised the opera, which of course meant that the people did, too. He struggled to stay low profile and essentially stay alive during this time, this purge, the Great Terror. He wasn't the only artist who was under surveillance, but he was one of the lucky ones who came through it with his life. He composed film music for a time, and also his 4th Symphony, which he eventually withdrew, for reasons which we are not fully certain. (The 4th Symphony finally had a premiere in 1961.) But his 5th Symphony was Shostakovich's response to being denounced, and it was incredibly successful. It's a beautiful symphony, and a favorite of many who listen to Shostakovich's music now.

In the interest of moving forward and not making this too long, we're going to jump into WWII. This is where the book got seriously interesting because I learned so much about Stalin and his cruelty and also how he trusted Hitler even when his intelligence was telling him that Hitler was going to attack. I was so shocked; Stalin set up the potential for his own defeat SO WELL. It was nuts. Anyway, the German army, the largest land force assembled in history, invaded Russia on the longest day of the year, June 22nd, 1941. By September, they were at the gates of Leningrad; September 8th marked the beginning of a nearly three year long siege. The Germans destroyed the supply of food that the government had put up for the winter, because of course it was all in one large and easy to find building. The Russian winter is harsh to begin with, but the lack of food, heat, electricity, and even decent habitable buildings took their toll. My heart broke for what these people went through. So many died of starvation, and some of the population even pretty much went crazy from hunger and turned to cannibalism. All through this time, Shostakovich remained in the city, because he initially tried to volunteer for the army, but they didn't take him. It could have been because of his celebrity, but it could also have been because of his eyesight, we don't fully know. But throughout the siege, he worked on composing his 7th Symphony, which became known as the Leningrad Symphony.  He composed three movements while living in the city, and the fourth came together after his harrowing evacuation with other artists to the city of Kuibyshev (present-day Samara).

Honestly, this is where the entirety of the story came together for me. Everything in the book was leading up to this, obviously. But like each separate movement of a symphony, each section of Dmitri Shostakovich's life and the trials of the Russian people played their parts. The explosive finish came when the symphony was at last performed in the city for which it was written. The music had been performed around the world to thunderous applause, but the most moving and perfect moment was when it came home. In 1942 the Radio Orchestra was given the score to rehearse; there were only fourteen members left alive. The conductor found others who could play instruments, and members of the military bands were brought in, and through their hunger and pain they learned the piece. On August 9th, the date Hitler had claimed he would be celebrating inside the city, the Leningrad Symphony was performed. Philharmonia Hall was lit brightly with electricity for the occasion, and the Red Army even made sure to draw German fire away from the bright target; his diversionary attack wasn't even learned of by the people till twenty years later. Many of the people in the city went without their meager rations to purchase a ticket to the performance. And during the performance, everyone was uplifted. Even the Germans, hearing it over the radio, were stunned. The siege was not over (it lasted for another year and a half, amazingly), but for many people, the worst had passed.


The book goes on to wrap up Shostakovich's life. I was so dazed by the end, though, because the way that M.T. Anderson writes is just so amazing. There were so many sentences and even whole paragraphs that I wanted to commit to memory. I cried over what the Russian people suffered, at the hands of their own leader and at the hands of their enemy. And through it all, Shostakovich was so selfless. He never thought of himself; always would he give to his family and others first. I've always enjoyed his music, but this book brought him to life for me. And the power of music? Well, that much is obvious. It can bring people together and lift up the downtrodden in ways that can be hard to understand. Music touches the soul. I feel like Shostakovich was one of those composers who really understood that, too. He knew what suffering was; almost his entire life was full of it. And yet he kept going.

If I keep going, this will turn into a post of epic proportions and will likely end up not being coherent. So I shall leave you with this recording of the Leningrad Symphony, and insist (not even just recommend) that you pick up this book, because Symphony for the City of the Dead is so much more about truly living.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Villains

Happy Tuesday and happy October! And because it's Tuesday, it's time for the weekly meme from The Broke and the Bookish. I didn't participate last week because the theme was October reads, and I had already shared my reading list with you lovely people haha. So. This week's theme is.... VILLAINS. Pick your top ten villains in books, movies, tv shows, whatever. I'm gonna go with books, because well...this is a book blog. Though I could easily give you a list of favorite villains in other media. I mean, I watch enough tv...

Anyway. My top villains in books. Which is basically going to come down to my favorite books.


1. Voldemort
     Because obviously. I mean, he's an incredibly well crafted character.

2. Saruman
     I could have picked Sauron, but honestly Saruman has more to him and he becomes such pure evil while under Sauron's influence. It's creepy. Plus the movies don't show you what he does to the Shire and what the hobbits come home to.

3. Jadis/The White Witch/etc.
     I've read the Chronicles of Narnia so many times, which is kind of obvious haha. The White Witch always fascinated me as a child, but it was more because of her control over the weather (winter has long been my favorite season) than anything else. She's also pretty pure evil when we first meet her as Jadis in The Magician's Nephew. Like...there's nothing good there. Most other villains start off semi good, but not her. She's pretty well depraved already and only wants to benefit herself.

4. Cluny the Scourge
     I think I'm really dating myself here because it seems that I haven't read many books recently with great villains. But anyway, I couldn't forget to include the infamous rat from the Redwall series. This guy freaked me out hardcore, but his death was pretty cool...getting killed by a bell is good.

5. Grand Admiral Thrawn
     Because all the Star Wars books that came before are still canon, damn it. And Thrawn is amazing. And honestly people just aren't going to read these books anymore and it makes me so sad. Especially because they also brought forth my favorite Star Wars character of all time...but that's beside the point I suppose. (Actually I could highlight multiple villains from the Star Wars books.)

6. Prince Humperdinck
     Because The Princess Bride is an amazing movie and an even better book. Humperdinck is bumbling and really a total idiot (the six-fingered man is the real villain, one could argue), but we all love to hate him.

7. Captain Hook
     I'm talking about the original Peter Pan novel here. Nuff said.

8. The Dead
     One of my favorite fantasy trilogies of all time is the Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix. The dead/undead creatures that he created and the mythos surrounding necromancy in his world building is just fantastic.

9. L
     Death Note is one of the best manga I ever read, and while L might not qualify as a villain for some people, he definitely does for at least part of the time. But then again, so does Light. The crazy thing about the series is that anyone can be a villain.

10. Count Olaf
     Last but not least, I can't forget Lemony Snicket's terribly infuriating villain. I mean, he was trying to kill children, for heaven's sake.


So that was a lot harder than I anticipated it to be! None of these are recent reads, and it made me realize it's time to get back into some classic good versus evil. But it also helped me remember a couple books/series that I adored and should probably re-read soon.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Reading plans for the rest of the year

If there were a way to read multiple books at once, I would be doing it. As there is clearly not, I have to pace myself, which we all know has never been my strong suit. Anyway, I've decided on a reading list through the end of 2016, that also includes some room to read books I grab on a whim at the library or that may show up in reading challenges. So, here we go.



To finish:
  • Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy (This one is obvious...I've been reading it since February.)
  • Eve of a Hundred Midnights, by Bill Lascher (WWII China/America nonfiction)
  • Symphony for the City of the Dead, by M.T. Anderson (WWII Russian nonfiction)
To read:
  • The Life Changing Magic of Tidying-Up, by Marie Kondo (Finally got my hands on it!)
  • Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly (new WWII novel...clearly I'm on a WWII kick)

  • The Mystery of Edwin Drood, by Charles Dickens
  • The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe (I have tried and failed to start this for years.)
  • The Long Earth, by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter (a scifi series I've wanted to read)
  • The Book of Chameleons, by Jose Eduardo Agualusa (for a Goodreads group read) 

  • The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas
  • The rest of this month is open

December (my Christmas re-reads month)
  • A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
  • The Legend of Holly Claus, by Brittany Ryan
  • Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen
  • Redwall, by Brian Jacques (this will probably stretch into 2017 as I re-read the whole series)
  • The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien


I am telling myself to stick to this list, even though there are books I have from the library right now that are not on it. Doesn't matter, I will read and review those as well. I look forward to December with all my re-reads though. I might even begin Redwall or LotR in November. The cold months are the best time to read those. What are you planning to read for the rest of the year??

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: All About Audio

Happy Tuesday! I missed a couple of these again, and today's topic is a little tough for me. Audiobooks are just not for me most of the time. I really do try, but I'm too easily distracted by literally everything, among other reasons I have mentioned before. However, this week's topic is a freebie, which means I don't have to list just books, but I can pick anything audio related. So, I'm going to list five audio related things that have to do with books and stories in general. I'm only doing five because I just don't have enough experience in this area.

1. The Redwall series, by Brian Jacques
     This is one of my favorite books series of all time anyway, and the audiobooks that were made were full cast dramas, narrated by Jacques himself. The world of Redwall Abbey, Mossflower, and all its creatures came to life in a big way through these, and I was sad that there weren't more of them done; only a handful of the books were ever performed.

2. The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis
     In all likelihood I have read the Narnia series more than any other books in my life. The radio dramas that were produced by the BBC only made the stories come even more to life for me. I listen to them every single winter; so perfect on a chilly and snowy evening with a steaming mug of hot chocolate.

3. EOS 10, a sci-fi radio play
     This is a podcast I stumbled across on the Podcast app on my phone; EOS 10 is a space station. I would listen to it while cleaning, and it's a really fascinating and funny story. The voice actors are so great too. Worth checking out if you like audio dramas and sci-fi. I've only listened to the first season, so I need to play catch up here soon.

4. Welcome to Night Vale
     An audio drama that runs the gamut from fantasy to sci-fi to musical theatre to just plain weird, I fell in love with Welcome to Night Vale pretty quickly. I am way behind on episodes (also on the Podcast app) because it's tough to remember to listen, but I liken it to The Twilight Zone in some ways. I've also discovered new music through listening, so that's a bonus.

5. Zombies, Run!
     This is maybe a weird one to include, but it's a fitness app that actually does follow a story, and it kinda like virtual reality. It's actually super motivating because each episode/session leaves you hanging so that you want to go out running (or walking; you don't HAVE to run!) to hear more of the story. Plus you collect items and meet new people and your map expands as you learn more about the area your character explores. So totally cool, and a unique concept that I'm pretty thankful is a thing. Check it out!

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

End of summer catch up reviews

Hi, my name is Elisabeth and I read too fast for my own good and then don't stop to think. I'm behind on book reviews, so in order to not have too many new posts suddenly, I'm going to write short reviews in this post, Twitter-style. For those of you who have followed my blog for a few years, I've done this before. Clearly, I have a problem.

Anyway, I have eight books to talk about, not counting the three cookbooks I've read cover-to-cover. I haven't tried any recipes from those yet, so I don't feel I can give an accurate review. (All links lead to Amazon. Not affiliate links.)


Anya's Ghost, by Vera Brosgol
     This fell off the shelf at work while I was putting other graphic novels away, so I thought I'd give it a go. Perfect for Halloween, even though I read it in early summer, it's a creepy tale of a girl who learns all too quickly that ghosts may appear friendly but generally have their own agenda. It was a really quick read and I enjoyed all the Russian references too.

The Coincidence of Coconut Cake, by Amy E. Reichert
     I don't normally go for modern romances, but when it's set in Milwaukee and revolves around food, it's hard not to take that chance. A super quick and absolutely adorable read about a chef and the restaurant critic who causes her to lose her restaurant (sounds bad, but trust me!); anyone who likes Milwaukee and food and the romance that can result from serious misconceptions would love this story! It's not the best written book, but the descriptions of Milwaukee and the food we love so much here in Wisconsin totally make it worth it. And like I said, it's adorable.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by J.K. Rowling
     Hah, so I'm not actually linking to the Amazon page for this book because it's not even worth it. No, it wasn't because it's in script form; that didn't bother me in the least. It's not worth it because, quite simply, it's crap. It's utterly deplorable, and J.K. Rowling must be stopped. She's writing her own fanfiction, and quite frankly I feel like she's turning into George Lucas...which is never a good thing. Leave your own work alone, the original is JUST FINE. *hides in a corner with original unedited Star Wars* Wait, what was I talking about? Oh right. Don't bother with Cursed Child. Just. Don't.

Pretty Happy: Healthy Ways to Love Your Body, by Kate Hudson
     This was a totally fun book to read, and while there were some weird Buddhist things I had to wade through, the gist of it was that there's no one way to love the skin you're in. And it's the only one you're getting, so you'd do well to take care of it and not hate it because it's easier to love and care for others if you love and care for yourself. She's got all kinds of great tips on exercising and eating and being mindful. Really nice.

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, by Paul Krueger
     Another one that I found by accident (released in June) and really loved, this is a crazy romp through Chicago where alcohol is magical and bartenders are on the front lines to protect humanity from disgusting creatures called tremens. Taking the classic cocktails to a new level, Bailey Chen learns that each basic liquor has it's own magical effect, and that she's a natural at bartending. The fictional lore about each drink (think old fashioned, gin and tonic, margarita, long island iced tea) is super cool too. Be careful though, you might get thirsty!

Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies, by Lindsay Ribar
     This is a brand new YA novel (I know, it's weird!) that had an intriguing premise...there's a boy named Aspen who has the magical ability to reach inside people and steal...whatever he wants. Pain, memories, loves, likes, etc. His grandmother and aunt can do the same. One summer he is called to the ancestral home in the small town of Three Peaks where he has to be a part of the ritual. This ritual keeps the cliff above the town from falling on everyone. Little does Aspen know what lies ahead of him as he keeps stealing from his friends and expecting no consequences. It was a fascinating tale with a couple idiotic characters, but maybe I only thought they were idiotic because I'm not a teenager anymore. Still worth reading, and the system of magic was one I hadn't seen before, so that was cool.

The Leaving, by Tara Altebrando
     Also a brand new YA novel, The Leaving is about a group of teens who have been returned to their town after having been kidnapped eleven years previously. None of the five who came back can remember anything, not even about the sixth child who didn't return. The story is told from the perspective of a few of the returned kids, and also the younger sister of the boy who didn't come back. There's some fancy typography in this novel that definitely kept me engrossed. But the ending left a lot to be desired...there were a couple plotlines that were promising and led nowhere, and I was hoping for a more supernatural ending, but that's not really what happened. But well written, for the story that we are given.

Happy People Read and Drink Coffee, by Agnes Martin-Lugand
     I just read this today; it took a couple hours. Honestly, by the title and the fact that it was translated from French...I was mildly disappointed. Also, character development was rather odd. It's about a woman named Diane who loses her husband and young daughter in a car accident and then a year later jets off to Ireland to try to recover. There's some romance, but it didn't build up accurately in my opinion. The descriptions are what I really loved, especially of Paris and then Ireland's rocky coast. Kind of a cute story, and there's a sequel out now (soon?) which I'll probably read as well.


There you have it, I am now caught up. I have approximately 43782 books from the library to read yet, and I'm still slogging my way through Anna Karenina. I had no idea that would take me so long!!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Classics I Read in School

I am so bad at keeping up with these lists...which is sad because they're so fun! Going to strive to do better, and I have a few book reviews backed up too, so hopefully that means a lot of activity here for this little blog soon. Anyway, this week's topic for Top Ten Tuesday over at The Broke and the Bookish is "back to school" and it's a freebie, meaning you can pick how you want to approach your personal list. I have chosen to select the top ten classic works of literature that I read over my schooling years, possibly including college, but not likely. Granted, it's a bit different than if I had been in school; half of these I don't recall if I read them for school or for fun. But being homeschooled makes the lines a bit blurred, and I can't say I'm upset about that! So, here is my list, in no particular order.

1. Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen
     Obviously I had to include P&P, because this set off a lifelong obsession with all things Regency.

2. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte
     I distinctly do remember reading this one for fun when I was seventeen, though I think I did write a short paper on it for my mom because it made such an impact on me.

3. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, by Victor Hugo
     This was my first foray into French literature and it totally blew me away.

4. All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque
     I read this one three times, once in high school, twice in college (one of those for fun). Not as old as the other books on this list, but every inch a classic and a book I tell everyone they should read.

5. Silas Marner, by George Eliot
     Haha, this one I fought with my mom sounded so boring when she wanted me to read it (I think I was in 8th grade?). And the print in our copy made it hard to read, but I struggled through it and found at the end that it really wasn't that bad. I'm thinking of rereading it in the next few years.

6. The Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan
     This is my very first review on my blog! I've read it a few times throughout my life. Always excellent.

7. Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott
     Initially I read this for school, in junior high I think, and got an abridged copy from the library that took me only two hours to read and I was left thinking a lot was missing. Mom suggested I find an unabridged copy, which I did, and that ended up taking me three weeks to read haha. But a seriously amazing story, I love it so much. One of the books that fueled my love of medieval England.

8. The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri
     This I definitely read in college, because I took a class on it. I had read short excerpts in the past, but always only from Inferno, and I was beyond ecstatic that my favorite professor was going to teach on the entire work. It was one of the best classes I ever took (all of his classes were the best, tbh), and I now own three different translations and like to tell everyone they should read the entire thing. [Yeah, you reading this, go read Dante!]

9. The Epic of Gilgamesh, author unknown
     I believe I read this in junior high or my first year of high school, not sure. (The years blur because there's not really such a thing as grade separations when you're homeschooled haha.) It was on my classical literature list and I didn't fight about this one at all, because I adore old, old, old literature. The translation I read was really awesome too, easy for me to read. Wish I could remember which one it was.

10. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, by Lewis Carroll
     I would be remiss if I didn't include this on my list!! The first hundred times I read it were totally for fun, but the culmination of my college career was my senior seminar on Alice, so I spent a lot of time reading and rereading while I worked on that. It's definitely one of my favorite books of all time, despite that it's technically a children's book.


There you have it, my top ten classics read in school!! As I was writing this list, I actually had to pare down and pick and choose, because there were a lot more than ten...classics were always something I loved very much.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Battle Royale

Sometimes, you read a novel that just sticks with you.
Sometimes that novel is one you've wanted to read for ages, but only recently got your hands on a copy because time and forgetfulness are real.
Sometimes said novel is everything you hoped for and more.
Sometimes you can't stop thinking about the characters, even a month later.

...a book changes your life.

Most recently for me, that book was the very violent but absolutely incredible Japanese novel from 1999 called Battle Royale. I kid you not, this was an almost 600 page book with small print that I read in less than 24 hours because I just could not put it down. People call it the original Hunger Games, and also liken it to Lord of the Flies, and I see it. But it's better than the latter, and also hugely better than the former, which I am 99.9% certain is a total ripoff. (There's just too many similarities, guys. Suzanne Collins, at least for the first book, really had to have ripped off Battle Royale. Anyway, I digress.) All that aside, this book was just sooooooooo good. If you don't handle rather graphic descriptions of violence and gore well, I would suggest you stay away, but if you don't have a problem with it, read it. Really. There's so much socio-political stuff, and getting inside the heads of the teenage characters when they are faced with certain death (at the hands of their classmates, no less), is fascinating. Human nature is well explored in this novel, which I find interesting from a Christian standpoint because Japan is so different from most of the Western world in how they view humanity. And yet, the depravity of the human soul is shown so well, as is the fragility. It's so sad and yet so beautiful in its own way, amongst all the killings. I know that sounds so weird, but it's true.


I don't have anything else I feel I can say at this point about Battle Royale. You will just have to read it for yourself to see just how beautiful it really is. Beyond five stars.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Moor's Account

Historical fiction is a really great genre to read, but it seems to be dominated by tales set in Europe, specifically England. At least in my experience. And I will admit, I used to mainly read books set in England because I've always been an Anglophile. However, with my quest to continue to read outside my comfort zone and knowledge set, I've discovered some fairly interesting tidbits of history. For instance, reading The Moor's Account, by Laila Lalami, gave me insight into a much lesser-known Spanish expedition to the New World (aka North America) in the early 1500s, the Narvaez Expedition. Not only is the book about an expedition we don't usually learn about in school, but (as per the title) it's told through the eyes of a black man from North Africa, a Moor, who is a slave. He is the first recorded black man to set foot on the continent. The author lists her sources at the back of the book and I'm really curious to do more research at some point.


Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori, renamed Estebanico when he was brought to Spain, tells his story as a member of the Narvaez Expedition to find gold and colonize La Florida, and gives a unique perspective as he talks about present-day events and being a slave to a man of the expedition, Dorantes, but also in how he tells the story of his birth and upbringing as the son of a well-to-do notary in Azemmur, a city in Morocco. He explains, throughout the ill-fated journey, how he came to be a slave, even after he was a slaver for some time himself. As the expedition journeys through Florida and encounter many Indians, things become increasingly difficult, and most of the members of the group die. Estebanico does not get involved in the politics of the Spaniards, instead befriending the Indians when possible, and helping out wherever needed. The group loses their way and ends up in the Land of Corn, which is essentially the modern-day plains, likely Texas. Things become bad enough that even his master says he will grant his freedom if they ever make it out alive. Eventually, after much, much wandering, and many long years, the small group left is rescued and taken to Mexico. There, Estebanico continually reminds Dorantes of his promise, and Dorantes continually puts it off. At this point they have married Indian women and Estebanico is the only one who actually intends to keep his vows after being rescued. At last, Dorantes has refused to let him go free for too long, so Estebanico takes advantage of the fact that he's been asked to lead another expedition, and he and his wife go, leaving no traces behind them.


Okay so that review is a bit muddled, but to be fair I read the book almost a month ago and took too long to write my review! Also, the story itself is muddled, being a tale of harrowing adventure and certain death, as well as being interspersed with vignettes from the past. And because it was written like a journal, there were no quotation marks, which honestly drove me mad. All other punctuation was great, and I realize this was a stylistic choice on the part of the author, but gah, it was annoying. Anyway, it was a great story, though I have to admit I felt that the author also took a lot of liberty in portraying white Christians as always evil, and the black Muslim as super pious and never taking any part in gruesome or promiscuous acts. But, that is her choice too, and it didn't detract enough from the story to make me quit reading.

So, I did love the book, though it was tough to follow at points. The landscape descriptions were fantastic, and it was really easy to feel the different environments they traveled through. I would encourage anyone interested in historical fiction to pick it up, especially if you have a particular interest in Spanish expeditions. And I would welcome any recommendations for historical fiction that isn't English!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

5 Centimeters Per Second

Ahhh Japan, how I do love thee. Your food, your culture, your music...and your anime and manga. Nothing quite compares, and when people dismiss anime and manga, they're really missing out. It's not "just cartoons and comic books" and definitely not "just for kids". This isn't American Saturday morning stuff, guys, though there's shows of that type. It's an entire art form in and of itself, with multiple genres. There is literally something for everyone. And it really irks me when someone won't even attempt to understand that.

But I digress.

5 Centimeters Per Second is one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking manga I've ever read. I watched the anime first, and happened upon the manga by chance a week later. The title refers to the speed at which cherry blossoms fall from the tree. It's a story that everyone will likely be able to relate to in some way, because it is an all-too-familiar look at friendship and love, and how time and distance can change those things.


Akari Shinohara and Takaki Tohno become friends in elementary school, bonding over everything from lack of physical prowess to their love of books and science. Their friendship is incredibly strong and a clear love grows as they do. Soon, Akari moves away from Tokyo, because of her parents' jobs. When they are thirteen, Takaki finds out he will be moving very far south, and plans a train journey to go see Akari one last time before he moves. Even though it is March, a huge snowstorm delays the trains and he is hours late, and yet Akari is still waiting for him. They kiss that night under a snow covered cherry tree, and it is the last time they see each other. The letters last for some years, but it becomes hard to relate when they are unable to visit each other.

In high school, a young woman named Kanae has a terrible crush on Takaki, which he unknowingly makes worse because he's so kind. And yet in the back of his mind he is always thinking of Akari. This carries into his adult life where we see him barely relating to anyone, basically living as a shell. His girlfriend of three years cares for him very much, but he can't even see that. The ending of the book (and film) is so sad because at this point we see that Akari has moved on with her life and is soon to be married, and there is a point at which they cross each other's paths...but then a train goes through and when Takaki turns around she is gone. But at this point Risa, his girlfriend, has let him go, and he has begun to realize what he has missed in life.


Maybe that review doesn't make much sense, but really it's a great story. Before cell phones and social media kept everyone attached at the hip (for better or worse), it took work to keep up a long distance friendship, especially one that blossomed into love so young. Do you ever find yourself wondering where so-and-so is now, and what might have happened if your friendship had stayed the same? Even in the social media saturated world, we still lose connections for whatever reason. But the important thing is to keep on living and not let those things cause us to forget to really live.

Does My Head Look Big in This?

Every once in a while I read a book that I have mixed feelings about. Like, super mixed feelings. The most recent one was a YA book called Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah. And it's not that I didn't enjoy it. Actually it was a fairly quick read that did cause me to reflect on some things. But the cliches, oh my word. There weren't any love triangles, thank goodness, but the whole preppy high school mean girl thing was on full display, as well as the hot-guy-falls-for-average-girl-who-hates-her-image. But if you can look beyond that, and the frustratingly cliche views on Christianity, there is a good story here. And also, maybe I just have a hard time fully liking the whole first-person viewpoint.


Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim is a sixteen year old Australian girl who deals with the regular pressures of high school, but with the added bonus of being Muslim. It had never been an issue before, but now she's decided that she's reached a point in her faith journey where she is ready to wear the hijab, a head covering, full time. It doesn't help that her parents actually discourage it at first. It also doesn't help that it's less than a year after 9/11 and fear of Islam is running very high. And of course she's only been at her school, a prestigious prep school in Melbourne, for one term. So really, it's probably the worst time to be making the choice, but Amal does it anyway.

Her friends don't turn her away, and one of her teachers is even super accepting of it, making sure she has a private place to pray, as well. Throughout the school year, Amal goes through many situations where it's her first time being out in public with a head covering on, and she has to endure a lot of ridicule, but there are also those strangers who are kind enough to realize she's different from radical Islam. And as Amal grows in her confidence, she helps a few others grow along the way. She befriends her cranky old Greek Orthodox neighbor and gets her to smile for the first time in ages, and she helps her best friend's mother see that marrying her daughter off at sixteen is the absolute wrong choice. By the time the school year draws to a close, Amal has a better understanding of herself and how she relates to the world as a Muslim and as an Australian who has Palestinian blood.


Alright, so I feel like I have to make a disclaimer here that I'm not accepting Islam in the least. I read this book with an open mind, though, and it helped me more to understand that there are differing interpretations within every religion. It's good to know these things, and it's also good to remember that they are people too. And on the surface, this book was a teenage journey of identity, and there's always something worth gleaning there.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

City at World's End

The City At Worlds End by [Hamilton, Edmond]

As many of you are aware, audiobooks are not particularly my forte. I have a hard time focusing if I can't also follow along with the words, plus many narrators are terrible and should never have been chosen. If you can't articulate your words, don't narrate something, thankyouverymuch. Anyway, I've found that the free service LibriVox offers some fantastic recordings, though all of older books because they have to be public domain. I don't mind this because I have a thing for science fiction from the 1950's, and there's plenty to choose from there.

Recently, I chose to listen to The City at World's End by Edmond Hamilton, which was first published in 1951. It was actually a really great story, and I totally believe George Lucas's initial inspiration for Chewbacca came from a character in this book. It's glaringly obvious, in my humble opinion.


In the years following WWII, there is a fear of more atomic warfare, with whispers of superatomic power. On a sunny June morning in Middletown, Indiana, a superatomic bomb detonates over the city, but it doesn't cause the destruction that had been imagined. Instead, the scientists of the city soon realize they've been thrown into the future -- far, far into the future. The earth is much colder, the sun is much redder, and the constellations make no sense. What follows is a desperate attempt to survive, where thousands of people are frightened for their lives. The people find an empty domed city, and move the population there, and the main character, Kenneston, is able to repair a huge communications device and start sending out a signal, in hopes that there are other humans on earth.

When months later a sleek black spaceship drops out of the sky, not even the scientists whom Kenneston works with are ready to see people and creatures from beyond the solar system. But soon there is talk of evacuation, and the people from the past are desperate to stay on Earth. Kenneston takes matters into his own hands again and soon there's a hope for staying.


Honestly, I can't give much more of a summary than that, because it's tough for me to remember character names when I can't see them haha. But really, this book was so cool and I enjoyed listening to it. The science isn't very accurate, obviously, but it doesn't have to be, and anyway it gets a serious pass because it was written before we knew much about space.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Secret Sky

Last week I decided I was going to read through my library's collection of YA lit, from the beginning. It's a rather daunting task, especially as I'm sure there's going to be more than a few that I hate. Also it will take me a long time, given that I won't only be reading YA. Anyway, I jumped in with both feet and grabbed the first two books on the shelf. The first one alphabetically being The Secret Sky: A Novel of Forbidden Love in Afghanistan, by Atia Abawi. It's one that I likely would have picked up even without my challenge. And I was not disappointed, though this book is not for the faint of heart. It tore me apart while I read it.


The Secret Sky is told from three viewpoints, Fatima, the girl, Samiullah, the boy, and Rashid, his cousin. It takes place in modern day Afghanistan, mostly in a tiny village. Fatima is a Hazara, a Shia, and Sami is a Pashtun, a Sunni. They've known each other their whole lives but of course as they grew, tradition dictated that they would never be allowed to see each other again. Sami was gone off to the madrassa with his cousin Rashid when the book opens, and he returns shortly. Turns out he was disgusted with the teachings there, and hopes for a better world. He and Fatima are so happy to see each other again, but with tradition and culture and religion bearing down on them, they can only meet secretly, which is also completely forbidden. But love grows despite everything, and they end up in a fight for their lives. Rashid is brainwashed by the teachings of the madrassa and he causes much grief for his cousin and Fatima, but not without essentially losing himself in the process.


Honestly, I don't usually like YA romance because it's all cliche and often way too promiscuous. This novel, however, broke my heart so soundly and I cried. It's not cliche, it's a triumph. It shows the dangers of Islam and how hard it is to live a normal life in the Middle East, particularly as a woman. The things that Fatima goes through...that her own family does to her, it's horrifying. There's death in this book, horrible, unnecessary death. There's so.much.hate. But you should read it. It will stick with you. And it should.

The Last Telegram

Wartime literature is an interesting thing. Especially what's been written to take place during WWII. It seems there's been so much written that we should be exhausted of topics and stories by now. But of course, there's always something else to be written, right? I hadn't read any novels set during WWI or WWII in quite some time, so when The Last Telegram came back to my library one of the times I was working, I thought I needed to read it. After all, it was set in Britain. I always go for books set in Britain. Though this is the first one I've read this year. (Branching out a bit more again haha.)


The book opens with an elderly Lily Verner burying her husband, and preparing herself to leave her childhood home she's lived in for her entire life. She has a conversation with her granddaughter that sparks off a chain of memories that sends her (and us) immediately back to a sultry July day in 1938. And that's when the story really begins. Eighteen year old Lily is feeling wild and free, but also cooped up and wants to get away from the life she's always known. She wants desperately to go to London. Of course, one things leads to another and she ends up apprenticing at her father's silk mill, that she never wanted to work at. Then the war begins and there's no way for her to leave. Around this time the Kindertransport is going on, and Lily's older brother John wants to help the kids. He and Lily go and pick out three teenage boys to come help them in the mill. Being German, this too ends up causing problems, especially when Lily and Stefan (the oldest) fall in love. When the war starts, Lily's father makes the decision that the mill will begin making parachute silk to stay in business throughout the war, and that causes many rumors to fly that there is sabotage...and it spirals even further from there.


The Last Telegram is an artfully woven tale of love and loss, country loyalties, and the view of war in a young woman's eyes. It is also, in many ways, a showcase of the silk industry. The author, Liz Trenow, grew up in a silk milling family in Britain, which is why she knows so much about the industry. I found all the facts about silk absolutely fascinating, though others might not appreciate it as much. But honestly, this book was beautiful and very, very sad. It takes a lot for me to cry, and there were a few moments I was definitely ugly crying while reading this. And yet I couldn't put it down. I managed to not even realize how much time was passing one night and read for 3 1/2 hours into the middle of the night (until I finished the book) because I was so entranced.

It's not the best written book I've ever read, and there could probably have been more editing and also filling out because there are a few rather large jumps of time; it's not a long novel but it covers the time period of the entire war. But it's heartfelt, informative, and has a twist near the end that I honestly did not see coming. Definitely recommended. Also would be a good choice for a book club, especially as some editions have questions in the back already.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Beatrice and Benedick

One of my favorite Shakespeare plays is Much Ado About Nothing, particularly because my mom loves the movie from 1993 starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson (as well as many other well known actors!), and we've watched it often. So when I was exploring NoveList through my library's website (check your local library and see if they have access to this; it's amazing) and I saw Beatrice and Benedick as one of the recommendations under the criteria I had selected, I looked it up in our catalog immediately. We didn't have it, but one of the others in the system did so I requested it and waited excitedly.

It came in after the weekend and despite the fact that I'm also reading Anna Karenina on my Kindle, I started reading this. And I was in love right from the beginning. First, I was reading this in early April when it was still snowing regularly here in Wisconsin and the book takes place mostly on the island of Sicily in the Mediterranean. I was drinking in the descriptions of the white beaches and blue sea, and all the fresh fruit they ate. Marina Fiorato is actually Venetian but she did Sicily justice.


If you know anything about the plot of Shakespeare's original play, you will adore this novel. It begins a year before his play opens, when the first meeting of Beatrice and Benedick happens. So much of this first meeting parallels the second one, as they are both so full of themselves and full of wit that they won't admit they are attracted to one another. Each of the other main players are here too, Hero the young maiden, Claudio her would-be husband, Don Pedro the Spanish prince, etc, etc. But there is something sinister going on beneath the fun, and only Beatrice seems to notice initially, guided by a young poet named Michelangelo Florio Crollalanza, who has Moorish blood in him. Many terrible things happen in the year between the title couple's first and second meetings. There's much enmity between the Spanish and the Sicilians, especially on the part of the Moors, who are of a dark skin tone and not wanted, which culminates in the fiery death of one character.. Plus the Spanish are on the brink of their invasion of England across the Channel (which we know from history was an utter disaster). Benedick, to impress Beatrice and possibly win her heart, joins the Knights of St James under Don Pedro and ends up on the fateful journey to England.


Quite frankly, there is so much going on in this novel, I can't put it much better than that without giving away important plot points. A few direct Shakespeare related things, though, need to be pointed out. First, Beatrice is from near Verona, and it is implied that the tale of Romeo and Juliet is happening at the same time, and is intertwined in some ways, which had me squealing with delight as I realized it. Second, the final few chapters of the book are so wonderful because it's basically the play being told, with many lines word for word, in prose form, and it's one I know so well that it was a beautiful closing. Third, the character of Michelangelo Florio Crollalanza is fascinating. I had initially thought he was supposed to be a created character that "was" Shakespeare within his story. Turns out I wasn't completely wrong. Something I never knew is that there are a few scholars who believe that William Shakespeare was actually from Sicily, named Michelangelo Crollalanza and that after certain events he fled to England and changed his name. Crolla-lanza literally means shake-speare. This theory isn't given a whole lot of credence, but it's certainly fascinating, especially in light of how he did set some plays in Italy.

So I loved the book and am looking forward to reading Fiorato's other novels, though they are not Shakespeare retellings. I encourage you to read this book. It makes you think, and is a fantastic tribute to the Bard.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Catch up reviews from 2015

It appears I did not finish my reviews for Reading England 2015, nor write the reviews for the few other books I have read in the last year! Life has been...interesting, to say the least. But it's finally getting to a point where I have (mostly) figured out how to juggle all the things I want/need to be doing. Plus I am actually reading more often again, making the time for it in ways I regret I did not for awhile. It helps that I'm working at a public library again. It's definitely not the same as Bloomington, but it's better than nothing!


Without further ado.

I have a few things to catch you up on, because I really do refuse to leave out any books.

EDIT: So apparently I hit publish on this post without finishing it. Or maybe Blogger did it for me. I dunno. Whatevs I guess. I'm finishing it now!


As I mentioned above, I didn't read as much as I would have liked last year; in fact, I've already read more books this year than I did over the course of last year. That's sad. I did write a full review of Far From the Madding Crowd which you can find here. For the rest of my Reading England challenge, I read Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens and Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell. I also took breaks (mostly during my reading of Dickens because Nickleby is ridiculously long) to read a Japanese novel called The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima, and an Italian novel called Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. Both those authors I had read books by previously.

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens 
     Honestly, this book was super difficult to get into and took me nearly six months to read because I was bored to tears for most of the first half. There's a reason I haven't completed many Dickens novels, as much as I do like his stories. But by the second half, things made more sense and there weren't as many new characters introduced every other page. And I'm glad I read it, because it had a very, very satisfying ending. And Dickens does understand sinful human nature rather well, which is something I greatly appreciate in an author, and also something I think tends to catapult a book to classic status. Understanding the human condition is a pretty big deal. So yeah, I'd recommend it, and I suppose it's a fairly decent starter Dickens, though I'd probably tell you to read A Christmas Carol or Oliver Twist first.

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
     Gaskell is an author I've intended to read for ages, but of course had never gotten around to it. There's a miniseries of Cranford starring Judi Dench, and I have resolutely refused to watch that until I had read the book. Now that I read the book last December, I can watch the show, but haven't made the time for it yet. Anyway, I don't know why I waited so long to read Cranford because it was fairly short (especially after Dickens) and so funny. I mean there were serious moments in it too, but basically the story revolves around the town of Cranford that is mostly ladies and they spend all their time together and when anything happens or there happen to be more men around, things get amusing really fast. It was a cute story, and I intend to read some of Gaskell's other works that are also set in the same area. Note, it's a tad hard to read at first, because the narrator is a character in the story but the tense doesn't always stay the same. Or the grammar is just off.

The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima
     This was probably my favorite novel I read last year, with the possible exception of Far From the Madding Crowd. Set in a tiny fishing village in Japan in the 1950s (I believe), this novel tells the story of Shinji and Hatsue and their young love. Shinji is a fisherman-in-training and Hatsue is the daughter of the richest family in the village. She is also training to be a pearl diver. I already knew Mishima had lyrical writing, even translated into English, from reading Spring Snow, but this book had me so perfectly transported across the world and back in time. I learned much about fishing, pearl diving, mountain shrines, and how love is viewed in rural Japan. It was beautiful and I probably read it in two hours. I'll read it again, I'm positive of that.

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
     Going into this novel I fully expected it to be a trip, because If On a Winter's Night a Traveler  definitely was. But this was more than a trip. It was poetry and a novel and a dream all at the same time. It was what my dreams of wanderlust are made of. It was beautiful. The premise is that Marco Polo is telling Kublai Khan of his travels, and each section takes you deeper and deeper until realize...well, I'm not going to tell you. You'll just have to read it yourself. Also, I fully believe Calvino was inspired in part by Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem Kubla Khan. Incidentally, I adore that poem. So yeah, fantastic reading. Calvino is another one of those whose words have been translated so well into English. Just makes me long to read the original Italian, though.


And there you have it, the books I read in 2015. There will be more reviews this year, and most of them shall have their own posts!