Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Secret Books of Venus

The Series: The Secret Books of Venus
Titles: Faces Under Water
Saint Fire
A Bed of Earth
Venus Preserved
Author: Tanith Lee
Themes: love, loyalty, apocalypse, murder, revenge, feuds, family, music, wealth, religion
Rating: ***1/2

Faces Under Water Plot (***): In this new series, Tanith Lee weaves intricate plots around the elements of water, fire, earth, and air. the first in this new series, Faces Under Water immerses readers in the timeless beauty of Venice and the secret terror that lies beneath.

In the hedonistic atmosphere of an eighteenth-century Venice Carnival, gaiety turns deadly when Furian Furiano happens upon a mask of Apollo floating in the murky waters of the canals. The mask hides a sinister art, and Furian finds himself trapped in a bizarre tangle of love, obsession, and evil, stumbling upon a macabre society of murderers. The beautiful but elusive Eurydiche holds the key to theses murders and leads him further into a labyrinth of black magic and ancient alchemy. For all readers who fell in love with Lee's Paradys series and for all those enchanted and terrified by the fantastical, Faces Under Water will be sure to thrill.

Saint Fire Plot (***): Starting with the premise of four novels based on the phases of alchemy and the four elements, Tanith Lee has created an evocative alternate Italy in her new series, The Secret Books of Venus. The first volume, Faces Under Water, was set against a backdrop drenched with atmosphere and water in a parallel Venice.

In Saint Fire, the gripping second volume in the series, Volpa is a strangely beautiful servant girl who glows with an inhuman inner fire. When her master, an abusive woodseller, is mysteriously incinerated, Volpa begins to discover her power of fire. Her gift is noticed by the church leaders, who see her as a mighty weapon in their holy wars. Not sure if her powers are heavenly or demonic, the priests are nonetheless determined to have Volpa on their side. This gripping fantasy of a mysteriously gifted Joan of Arc figure is stunning from beginning to end.

A Bed of Earth Plot(****):
A Bed of Earth is a haunting journey to a parallel version of sixteenth-century Venice, where a fierce territorial rivalry between two noble families unearths a supernatural force from beneath the placid surface of the canals and rotting understructure of the city.

The struggle between the two families for space on the Isle of the Dead, the overcrowded burial ground for generations of Venetian nobility, culminates in the abduction and horrific murder of a fourteen-year-old-girl. As the years pass on, parties complicit in her fate begin to suffer the consequences in a series of shocking deaths that could emanate from none other than a supernatural force. A humble apprentice gravedigger is left to sort out the mysteries and subdue the ancient terror that threatens to destroy the entire republic.

Venus Preserved Plot(**):
The thrilling conclusion to Tanith Lee's compelling Secret Books of Venus quartet, Venus Preserved is set centuries into the future in the undersea city of Venus, the site of a macabre experiment to bring two lost souls back to life. Salvaged from beneath the sea and rebuilt under a dome, Venus itself has been resurrected with a vast network of advanced computers that regulate weather, noise, and the most previous undersea commodity of all-air.

When the experiment goes awry, claiming several lives, the questions abound: was it merely an accident? Computer failure? Or has an airborne virus been unleashed? Or is there an even more sinister danger afoot, a force from beyond that threatens the survival of Venus itself? To answer these questions, a traveler from the surface is forced to confront mysteries in his own past and to reveal the connection that ties him to the unavenged spirits wreaking havoc n the doomed city.

My Thoughts (on the whole series): What I had enjoyed so much about Lee's Paradys series was it's rather epic and self-referencing nature. It was essential a collection of short stories that took an alternative Paris from pre-modern to futuristic vignettes. Poets or liars or cheats or heroes from earlier stories would be seen again in stories later in the same tome, or later in the series, as a street name, a legend, a small reference. But each book, or short story collection, was easily read on its own. Each could be read out of order. The Secret Books of Venus are still self-referencing and each tome is independent and so can be read out of order or even individually. But I was rather let down by the fact that they were actual novels, not more collections of short stories, because I felt I didn't get a wide enough swath of Venetian history and life as I did for Paradys. Because really, each of these "Secret" series are stories of the city-not of whichever protagonist is currently on the page. Paradys was a mosaic, Venus is more of a linear narrative.

Of course Lee's writing is lush, vivid, raw, and beautiful. Her references to an alternative Christianity both beautify the ecstasy of belief and ritual, while emphasizing the fallibility of mankind (i.e. religion as institution). I found that the scenes and stories revolving around religion to be the most beautiful things written in the series (especially Saint Fire). She also tackles more supernatural/magical elements in a way that is typical of her writing style-that is, in a way so that the reader doesn't realize it's magic or unrealistic, only that it makes a strange sort of sense within the context.

While I did find the conclusion of Venus Preserved to be a bit over-the-top, I thoroughly enjoyed most of this series and have aspects of each book that I truly loved. Faces Under Water was intriguing because of the deadly mask, and Eurydiche's face which was a mask. Saint Fire was bizarre and enjoyable because of the intense fervor shared by Volpa and her knight. A Bed of Earth was tragic and magical, with a plot that transcended time, space, and any sort of logic while maintaining an atmosphere of unlimited possibilities and hope.

Recommendation: If you're curious about Tanith Lee's fiction and are a fan of the slightly sinister and epic tales in general, I would recommend both The Secret Books of Venus as well as The Secret Books of Paradys. My favorite Venetian book was A Bed of Earth, and I see no reason why you couldn't start there if you were so inclined.

Similar Reads: The Secret Books of Paradys by Tanith Lee (Book of the Damned, Book of the Beast, Book of the Dead, Book of the Mad), The Birthgrave by Tanith Lee

Lee, Tanith. Faces Under Water. Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 1998.

Lee, Tanith. Saint Fire. Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 1999.

Lee, Tanith. A Bed of Earth. Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 2002.

Lee, Tanith. Venus Preserved. Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 2003.

Weekly Geeks 2011-15

Finally I am back to doing Weekly Geeks, a weekly meme and discussion starter! This week's theme is: Catch Up on Reviews!

"This week I thought I'd go with one of Dewey's original weekly geek themes.

1) In your blog, list any books you've read but haven't reviewed yet. If you're all caught up on reviews, maybe you could try this with whatever book(s) you [hope to] finish this week.
2) Ask your readers to ask you questions about any of the books they want. In your comments, not in their blogs. Most likely, people who will ask you questions will be people who have read one of the books or know something about it because they want to read it.
3) Later, take whichever questions you like from your comments and use them in a post about each book. I'll probably turn mine into a sort of interview-review. Link to each blogger next to that blogger's question(s).
This is a very timely topic indeed! I have completed quite a few books, and have yet to review them! Although yesterday I completed three reviews...I still have a few more to do!

1. Books I have recently read, and need to review:
  • Once I complete Wolf Wing by Tanith Lee, I need to do a series review of her Claidi series.
  • Once I complete Venus Preserved by Tanith Lee I need to do a series review of the Venus series.
  • I have also recently read two books on running/nutrition, which are listed in my 2011 reading list but I'm not sure if I should attempt to review them or not. Any suggestions?
2. Please ask any questions about any of the books I listed in 1 or any book I've read at all (or maybe a book I should read). I would love to discuss with you!

The Knife of Never Letting Go

Title: The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking, Book One)
Author: Patrick Ness
Themes: family, friendship, loyalty, murder, privacy, trust, escape, hope
Rating: ***1/2

Plot: Prentisstown isn't like other towns.

Everyone can hear everyone else's thoughts in an overwhelming, ever-ending stream of Noise. Just a month away from the birthday that will make him a man, Todd and his dog, Manchee-whose thoughts Todd can hear, too, whether he wants to or not-stumble upon an area of complete silence. They find that in a town where privacy is impossible, something terrible has been hidden-a secret so awful that Todd and Manchee must run for their lives. But how do you escape when your pursuers can hear your every thought?

My Thoughts: I may be the last person to this particular party, but I was fairly impressed with The Knife of Never Letting Go. My thoughts are still a little scattered, but I intend to keep this review short since this book has received so many reviews already!

I think I should share that at one point (let's just say the chapter entitled "The Wicked Are Punished") I literally burst into tears and threw the book down with the intention of never picking it back up (except to return it to the library) because I utterly despised the main character. A week passed and I caved, not because I was curious about the story or Todd, but because I have a strange compulsion to finish every book I start-no matter how much I don't want to. The first page I cried again remembering what had happened when I threw the book down. I have only cried with two other books-Where the Red Fern Grows and Gone With the Wind (when the only decent person in the book dies).

The story is excellent, the first person badly-spelled narrative is effective and enjoyable, and the environment Ness created is captivating and intriguing with equal parts horror and despair.

But that damned dog, Manchee, he was the only character I liked.

There are some truly scary things going on in The Knife of Never Letting Go. Overall I liked the book-I liked the world and the exploration of ways to deal with the Noise. But I hated the story. I found that the Todd storyline was becoming rather outrageous, yes I understand he's a symbol to his little town...but obviously he wasn't necessary in the large scheme of things and I failed to see how he remained so vitally important in the eyes of Prentisstown leadership. I also failed to see any sort of sense in the storyline of Prentisstown even as the book concluded (on a great cliffhanger, just so you know)...I just felt like I couldn't make sense of it and that events and people existed not because they had a story to tell but because something needed to propel Todd along.

Recommendation: I would recommend this book to any sci-fi or young adult fans, however I won't be re-reading this or reading the sequels. I just can't find it in my heart to like Todd after that particular chapter, and I don't really care what happens to him-although I love the world-building Ness has done, I simply can't connect to his protagonist any more.

Random Quote: "The hoofbeats get louder, echoing down the canyon.

But if there suddenly ain't no bridge-

I saw some more.

And some more.

And some more.

And I'm just not making no progress at all." (p. 121)

Ness, Patrick. The Knife of Never Letting Go. Barryville, VA: Candlewick Press, 2008.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Sea Change

Title: Sea Change
Author: Aimee Friedman
Themes: friendship, mermaids, forgiveness, betrayal, love, class, wealth
Rating: **

Plot: When Miranda Merchant, sixteen and levelheaded, escapes her lonely, hot summer in New York City, little does she know what awaits her. She steps off the ferry onto an island rife with legend, lore, and a past her logical mind can't make sense of. She isn't expecting to feel a connection to this unusual place, so filled with languorous charm and strange history.

And when she meets Leo, a mysterious local boy, she finds herself questioning everything she thought she knew about boys, friendship, reality...and love.

Is Leo hiding something? Or is he something she never could have imagined?

My Thoughts: I admit to being slightly disappointed by Sea Change. I have been looking for an enjoyable mermaid/selkie young adult book since reading Melissa Marr's short story "Love Struck" which can be found in this book. Sea Change takes place on Selkie Island and is perhaps about merpeople, so I gave it a shot! I just found it to be a bit lacking in both the romance development as well as the mythic/folkloric aspects of the storyline.

First, my qualms with the back cover/bookflap summary. Selkie Island isn't what I would call "rife with legend, lore, and a past her logical mind can't make sense of." In fact the only real legend, lore, and mysterious past in this book emanate from a book of legends our protagonist finds and mostly ignores, and an older man on the ferry who warns her of a kraken. I think that Friedman could have really expanded on this particular theme, since later suspicions that Leo isn't wholly human seems to be more extreme paranoia and silliness than based on any sort of prevailing lore within the context of the story.

The protagonist herself, Miranda, is fairly cliched as well, which I personally find unbearable. She is a "science" that disallows her to be anything but super-ambitious, super-ingenious, anti-social, awkward, and sloppily dressed apparently. She just can't get "English or history" or anything not related to science...she has "science withdrawals" as well. She also suffers from low-self-esteem, until she suddenly discovers she is beautiful because boys find her just seemed like such a silly and unrealistic transformation from wallflower to "oh gosh I'm sexy!" I'm sure such people exist, but it just seems like such a collection of stereotypes in this case. I found Miranda to be completely flat and unlikeable because of it.

My final comments deal with the romance aspect of the novel, which admittedly is about 90% of the story. Through the novel the reader discovers Miranda's ex-boyfriend and the reason for her disavowal of "love" and "happy endings," during which time we are introduced to two boys on Selkie Island. One, T.J., is a "summer" inhabitant of the island-who is rich, gentlemanly, and boring. The other is Leo, a local on the island who lives in Fisherman's Village and splits his time between his father's fishing business and his internship at the island marine center. Naturally, he is also a bit of a "bad boy." I didn't find his "bad boy"-ness to be particularly obnoxious or forced (as in some YA romances that I've read), and actually found his character quite endearing even if I'm not quite sure of his intentions or motivations even after I've completed the book. However, I did find all of Miranda's potential relationships to be rather flat; she was there a week and a half...and it just seemed to rushed and hollow. I couldn't really understand the romance since it seemed far too quick and with far to much "baggage/drama" to be really believable.

I won't repeat myself by discussing the mother/daughter relationship and the books ending. They were sort of...surprising because they didn't make sense, and terribly flat as well.

Recommendation: This wasn't an unenjoyable book, and any fans of supernatural (or not?) romances and YA fiction might enjoy this more than me. Otherwise I probably wouldn't recommend this particular novel. I just couldn't connect at all to the flat protagonist and felt rather grossed out at the break-neck speed of the potential romances that occurred in Sea Change.

Random Quote: "Mom stepped up to me and put her hands on my arms, but I jerked away. 'You're going to catch a cold,' she said. 'You should take a hot shower. We'll talk about this another time. Doctor's orders,' she added with a small smile.
'I don't want to talk about it,' I snapped. It was my last lie of the night. And with that, I brushed pasted Mom and started for the stairs, leaving small puddles in my wake." (p. 161)

Friedman, Aimee. Sea Change. New York: Point, 2009.


Title: Carrots'N'Cake: Healthy Living One Carrot and Cupcake at a Time
Author: Tina Haupert
Themes: healthy living, diet, weight loss, exercise, personal experiences, nutrition, physical fitness, lifestyle
Rating: ***

Plot: From one of the most popular blogs comes an innovative, even fun way to diet. Carrots'N'Cake is all about eating your carrots...and savoring your cupcake, too. Tina Haupert shows how to drop the pounds and keep them off by adopting eating habits that are healthy, balanced, and above all, livable. She serves up easy-to-follow fitness routines, food tips, and her most popular feature: cookie Friday.

My Thoughts: I don't know if I would have picked this book up if not for Early Reviewers over at LibraryThing. I just usually don't "do" lifestyle books...but I am pretty happy that I got a chance to read and review this little tome. Haupert uses personal anecdotes as the binding theme to this fitness and nutrition manifesto. Her experiences as an adult woman who was suddenly inactive (for the first time since age three), working a desk job, and eating without a care to nutrition or weight lead naturally into her dedication to completely altering and improving her eating and exercising habits. I enjoyed her personal experiences and felt they tied together all of the tips Haupert offers-and appreciated the range of stories that included eating junk food at an office job to obsessing over a pug to the point of order to have one. However, I just felt that I personally found it hard to connect to Haupert since my "health or fitness background" is the opposite...I've never been active and have always had to watch what I eat and am only now trying to improve both my exercise and eating habits.

Haupert's overlaying theme is moderation and a focus on healthy foods and prioritizing fitness. She argues that your visits to the gym should be what you center other activities around, not what is haphazardly fit into your schedule. She argues that your health should come first, not that it is easy, but that exercise and nutritious eating is essential and improves the quality of our lives. Haupert gives tips for "realistic dieting" that includes a discussion on moderation in how you eat, yes eat healthy food-but its good to have controlled splurges (like her cookie Friday) to keep up your motivation for eating healthy! I really like this concept and agree with it. With eating it is impossible (for me at least) to go all or nothing, I can't completely cut out chocolate and french fries! But it's doable to cut down on it, which still makes an improvement in your health.

Littered throughout the thematic chapters are recipes, from potato salad to oatmeal to carrot cake, Haupert offers recipes for healthy foods that are all fairly easy to look up. In this regard I am not fully prepared to review Carrots'N'Cake as I have only tried two of the recipes so far-Banana Oatmeal Chip Cookies, and Baked Banana Oatmeal (I love oatmeal and banana, obviously). But both of these were healthy, tasty, and easy to whip up so I am looking forward to trying a few more of the recipes included in the book.

With all of that said, I was also expecting a bit more from this book. It is largely stories of Haupert's life...with rather vague and sometimes obvious tips for better health (not that they aren't appreciated and motivational). When I cracked open this book I had expected a little more exercise and meal-planning based content. In this end, this is largely a series of vignettes from Haupert's life with a few recipes, tips, and exercise plans thrown in-in other words, a bit of fluff. That didn't stop my enjoyment of it, but I wouldn't go to this book looking for specific guidelines in changing your eating or exercising habits-it's more motivational than anything else.

Recommendation: I enjoyed reading Haupert's stories, trying her recipes, and motivating myself to make improvements in my exercise and eating habits. I would recommend this to anyone struggling with weight issues as a realistic and healthy way to "diet"-though I don't really consider Carrots'N'Cake a diet is more of a fitness manifesto and memior.

Similar Reads: Runner's World Runner's Diet by Madelyn H. Fernstrom and Ted Spiker

Haupert, Tina. Carrots'N'Cake: Healthy Living One Carrot and Cupcake at a Time. New York: Sterling Epicure, 2011.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Tiger in the Kitchen

Title: A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family
Author: Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
Themes: food, cooking, family, heritage, culture
Rating: *** 1/2

Plot: Born in the year of the Tiger (a rebellious sign), Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan left Singapore at age 18 to attend Northwestern University. More than a decade later, as a 30-something living in New York City, she was suddenly gripped with a sense of loss at the knowledge that she was, indeed, "Ang Moh" (a Chinese term that implies "Westernized"). Tan did not know how to make the food of her people, and as any Singaporean will tell you, they don't eat to live-they live to eat. In the tiny Southeast Asian country that straddles the equator, food is both a national obsession and their way of bonding. As a way to pass the time while in the kitchen, they tell stories.

Now, Cheryl Tan invites readers to join her on a quest to recreate the dishes of her native Singapore as a way to connect food and family with her sense of home. As Tan begins cooking with her family, she learns not just about food, bit about her family history and her heritage. She finds that home is rooted in the kitchen and the foods of her Singaporean girlhood. A Tiger in the Kitchen is a charming story about being a Chinese-American and a food exile, and finding a place for one's heritage in a modern life.

My Thoughts: I was extremely excited to read this book for a few reasons, namely (1) it was a free Early Reviewer copy (I just love those uncorrected proofs), (2) it featured Singaporean food which I have never read about, and (3) I felt connected to the author because I also put off learning to cook until adulthood because I felt like I needed to be doing something less "housewifey" (which is just silly I know).

But I was also hesitant to dive right in because I feared (what I see as) an overemphasis on Singaporean/Non-Western culture versus the "vacuum" of American culture. I hate reading stories where becoming "Westernized" means losing culture, that only non-American/Western peoples have culture and that we (I am Western/American) are somehow lacking our own culture-happy just to suck it out of everyone else. I just feel like this approach cheapens everyone's sense of culture, and is a negative world-view in general. I am happy to report that Cheryl Lu-lien Tan handles her discussion of culture with nuance and grace-and I enjoyed every page of A Tiger in the Kitchen.

With that said, I feel I need to justify loving this book (I am a graduate student, I need to justify every claim after all). First of all, the writing is lovely. When Tan writes it feels both personal and professional-you feel like she is talking directly to you, but in a well planned and polished manner. The book flowed surprisingly well, with transitions and events leading into each other in entertaining ways. One would assume a book about learning to cook your family's food would be fairly tedious, but Tan brings together multiple food experiences from New York, Hawaii, China, and Singapore into a cohesive narrative that describes her reconnection to her family and country of origin. Yes it is a food memoir. But really the food is merely a tool to reconnect to family and address a difficult time in Tan's life, with every dish she loving describes and every cooking lesson she shares Tan is sharing her family's love and dedication-as well as its scandals and skeletons. If anything, it seems all the more intimate for its connection to food.

Keep in mind that this book will make you hungry. I have only read two other "food memoirs" but neither of them made me want to cook or eat as much as a single chapter of Tan's did. She describes dishes with such loving detail, I can just smell the pandan leaves and ginger and duck...and I appreciate the recipes at the back of the book just for this reason.

Recommendation: I highly recommend A Tiger in the Kitchen to anyone interested in Asia, food, or memoirs because of Tan's impressive writing, her thoughtful and amusing reflections on food and family, and the bittersweet connection she makes between family long gone through cooking.

Similar Reads: Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton, Fannie's Last Supper by Chris Kimball

Tan, Cheryl Lu-Lien. A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family. New York: Hyperion, 2011.