Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Book Thoughts: The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi
published 2006
374 pages

Synopsis from publisher:

The Ghost Brigades are the Special Forces of the Colonial Defense Forces, elite troops created from the DNA of the dead and turned into the perfect soldiers for the CDF's toughest operations. They're young, they're fast and strong, and they're totally without normal human qualms.

The universe is a dangerous place for humanity—and it's about to become far more dangerous. Three races that humans have clashed with before have allied to halt our expansion into space. Their linchpin: the turncoat military scientist Charles Boutin, who knows the CDF's biggest military secrets. To prevail, the CDF must find out why Boutin did what he did.

Jared Dirac is the only human who can provide answers—a superhuman hybrid, created from Boutin's DNA, Jared's brain should be able to access Boutin's electronic memories. But when the memory transplant appears to fail, Jared is given to the Ghost Brigades.

At first, Jared is a perfect soldier, but as Boutin's memories slowly surface, Jared begins to intuit the reasons for Boutin's betrayal. As Jared desperately hunts for his "father," he must also come to grips with his own choices. Time is running out: The alliance is preparing its offensive, and some of them plan worse things than humanity's mere military defeat.

My thoughts:

May 25 - I expected to enjoy this novel, and I have not been disappointed. Scalzi's humorous style works so well in these novels - the shows the horrors of war, but never leaves me feeling weighed down or overwhelmed. This novel is answering a lot of questions I had after reading the first - there is a lot of backstory as to why and how certain technologies and practices came to be, and I'm finding that the fleshing out of the world is working well for me. I haven't become quite as attached to Jared as I was to John Perry, but it's still early going, and I do find him and his situation to be fascinating. Once again, Scalzi's characters are tackling some sticky ethical questions, and it will be interesting to see how Jared's unique situation is eventually resolved. So far so good!

May 31 - Well, that was fun. This was the third novel I've read set in Scalzi's world, and while it was my least favorite, that is certainly not to say that I didn't enjoy it. What was lacking for me in this novel was the immediate connection I normally feel to his main character. Something about Jared Dirac always just felt like I was kept at a bit of a distance - perhaps because his story was written in third person, whereas the previous books I've read in the series were first person narratives. However, I loved spending more time with Jane Sagan, and the rest of the Special Forces soldiers, who have such a fascinating place in this series.

Old Man's War dealt with humanity - what makes a person human, and what comprises a person's identity. The Ghost Brigades is all about choice - what role does choice play in making a person really alive? Is a person really free if she doesn't know her choice has been taken away? Scalzi's musings on philosophy are well-integrated into the story, so they never feel forced or unnatural, and he leaves the reader free to form their own opinions on the questions he raises.

I have very much enjoyed this series. I'm a little bit sad I only have one book to go - I'd love to read more of this world in the future. Once again, I recommend this series to any readers who are unsure about science fiction - when it's written this well, it's awfully hard to resist!

Finished: 5/31/11
Source: my shelves
MPAA rating: R for violence and sexuality
My rating: 7/10

Up next: The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Book Thoughts: Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool
published 2010
368 pages

Synopsis from publisher:

Abilene Tucker feels abandoned. Her father has put her on a train, sending her off to live with an old friend for the summer while he works a railroad job. Armed only with a few possessions and her list of universals, Abilene jumps off the train in Manifest, Kansas, aiming to learn about the boy her father once was.

Having heard stories about Manifest, Abilene is disappointed to find that it’s just a dried-up, worn-out old town. But her disappointment quickly turns to excitement when she discovers a hidden cigar box full of mementos, including some old letters that mention a spy known as the Rattler. These mysterious letters send Abilene and her new friends, Lettie and Ruthanne, on an honest-to-goodness spy hunt, even though they are warned to “Leave Well Enough Alone.”

Abilene throws all caution aside when she heads down the mysterious Path to Perdition to pay a debt to the reclusive Miss Sadie, a diviner who only tells stories from the past. It seems that Manifest’s history is full of colorful and shadowy characters—and long-held secrets. The more Abilene hears, the more determined she is to learn just what role her father played in that history. And as Manifest’s secrets are laid bare one by one, Abilene begins to weave her own story into the fabric of the town.

My thoughts:

May 17 - This is the 2011 Newbery Award winner, and since I want to read all the Newbery winners, I picked this one up when I saw it at the library. I have a feeling it will be a quick read, since it is geared toward mid-grade readers. So far, I am finding it to be a charming read, full of interesting characters and predicaments that would draw in a younger reader. I like Abilene, but find myself more interested in the chapters about Jinx - he just seems to be a more interesting, complex character. I have a suspicion about how this will all turn out, but I'm more than happy to go along for the ride and see where the story leads.

May 20 - What a lovely story. I grew to like Abilene more and more throughout the book - her curiosity and sense of adventure, as well as her willingness to try to make the best out of a bad situation. I thought the alternating sections telling the stories of Abilene and Jinx to be equally entertaining, and a good way to move the narrative forward. Both Jinx's story, set during the start of WWI, and Abiliene's story, set during the Great Depression, gave interesting insight into the lives of children during each period. There is a rather major plot point that involves making moonshine, so I can imagine some parents might not be comfortable with that particular story arc, but I found it to be appropriate to the characters and situation.

I enjoyed Vanderpool's writing style, and think young readers would have no trouble getting drawn into the story. I'm not sure they would quite comprehend all the emotional layers, but the simple themes of finding a place to belong and learning to forgive yourself would be clear.

"I thought I knew a thing or two about people. Even had my list of universals. But I wondered. Maybe the world wasn't made of universals that could be summed up in neat little packages. Maybe there were just people. People who were tired and hurt a lonely and kind in their own way and their own time." (page 144)

I enjoyed this one very much, and would recommend it for mid-grade readers. I think the story and historical setting make it a good choice, and the characters would keep them interested and engaged in the story. Very good!

Finished: 5/18/11
Source: South Side library
MPAA rating: PG for story arc involving making and distribution of moonshine
My rating: 8/10

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Book Thoughts: Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
published 2010

Synopsis from publisher:

The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer brings to life the most intriguing woman in the history of the world: Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt.

Her palace shimmered with onyx, garnets, and gold, but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator.

Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons. Shakespeare and Shaw put words in her mouth. Michelangelo, Tiepolo, and Elizabeth Taylor put a face to her name. Along the way, Cleopatra's supple personality and the drama of her circumstances have been lost. In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff here boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order. Rich in detail, epic in scope, Schiff 's is a luminous, deeply original reconstruction of a dazzling life.

My thoughts:

One of my favorite memories of college was taking a class with my sister - Humanities II, basically a survey of ancient history, philosophy, and writing. We had one of those professors that you either love or hate, and we both loved him. He was quirky, and completely passionate about his material, and a wonderful storyteller. He made the ancient world come alive, and I would go on to take another class from him - The History of Ancient Rome. He ignited in me an interest in the period that hasn't yet been quenched. So when my sister gave me this book as a birthday gift, I was pretty darn excited.

April 19: It's hard to tell exactly where in the book you are when reading on Kindle, because there are no pages to look at and judge - it tells me I'm 12% of the way through, for whatever that's worth. But already I feel like I'm learning so much! For example:

~ Cleopatra's family was not Egyptian at all, but Macedonian, and claimed ancestry to Alexander the Great.

~ The Egypt of her time was one of the few inclusive societies - women had virtually equal rights as men, including the right to divorce. And Cleopatra's family had it's share of strong women - she came by her assertiveness and bravery naturally.

~ Even in a remarkable family, Cleopatra stood out. She was the only one of her ancestors to actually learn the language of the people she ruled, so when she was dealing with them she could speak directly to them, instead of through an interpreter.

~ History is written by the winners. Cleopatra's story comes to us from the Roman historians, who hated her because she was a woman, and a powerful foe. So their descriptions of her as a wanton seductress have to be taken with a whole shaker full of salt.

In addition to being a fascinating story, Schiff's writing style is great. She has the knack for making history come alive - I am already making plans to read her previous work.

May 10 - Had to take a break for Dune, but now I'm back and still enjoying this biography very much. I am roughly 40% through the book, Cleopatra is still less than 30 years old, and the list of her accomplishments is remarkable. Just reading all the things she does in a day is tiring. I have a very romanticized view of what kings and queen should do - sit around, eat grapes, get fanned by their minions. I'm not sure Cleopatra ever had time to sit and do anything - she could never rest in the precarious world she lived in.

May 14 - Well, apparently I was much further than 40% done with the text - I just finished, and it still says I am only 73% done. Whew, this book must have a LOT of notes! (I will admit that I am not going to read through all of them.) I am a bit disappointed that I can't see the illustrations - apparently my technology is already antiquated. =)

It is a shame that the histories of Cleopatra's remarkable life are written by men so clearly focused on making her seem the enemy. In this biography, Schiff does an excellent job of sifting through the exaggerations, false claims, and nuggets of truth, to paint a picture of a complex and multifaceted woman. She was not always likable - often she behaved with cruelty, or arrogance, or selfishness. But she was indeed a woman like no other, who ruled independently for over 20 years in a time when women were hidden at best, and imprisoned at worst.

Shiff's narrative is entertaining and well-researched - I enjoyed her attempts to impart humanity into this woman who was often likened to a goddess. One of my favorite lines -

"She sounds no seductive notes, which indeed appear to have been added later, when all kinds of chroniclers had Cleopatra throwing herself vigorously at all kinds of feet. Certainly she flings herself around more in literature than she did in life."

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I think it might feel like a bit of a challenge to readers who don't already enjoy biographies in general - it has a more scholarly feel than some might desire, with quite a bit of historical detail included throughout the narrative. If you are interested in the story of a powerful, fascinating woman who lived life on her own terms, you can't go wrong.

Finished: 5/14/11
Source: Kindle - gift from my sister
MPAA Rating: PG-13 - lots of adult situations hinted at, but solely through a historical lens, so much like watching a History Channel documentary
My rating: 8/10

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Dance, Dance, Dance

My husband and I have played music for the babies since before they were born, and since they've been here we have made a point to incorporate music into their lives on an almost daily basis. They both love to dance - in fact, when they are in a particularly bad mood, throwing on some music and dancing around the living room is an almost sure way to get them smiling again. So I'm going to start sharing some of our dancing music, and hope it brings a smile to your face, too.

This is currently the babies' favorite song. I'm not sure what it was that inspired me to sing it to them for the first time, but it never fails to bring a smile - even when they have to get their faces washed off after supper!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Book Thoughts - Dune by Frank Herbert

Dune by Frank Herbert
published 1965
533 pages

Synopsis from publisher:

Set on the desert planet Arakis, Dune is the story of the boy Paul Atreides, who would become the mysterious man known as Muad'Dib. He would avenge the traitorous plot against his noble family — and would bring to fruition humankind's most ancient and unattainable dream. A blend of adventure and mysticism, environmentalism and politics, Dune won the first Nebula Award, shared the Hugo Award, and formed the basis of what is undoubtedly the grandest epic in science fiction.

My thoughts:

April 23: Wow, this book is complicated. I know I read it once in junior high - around the same time I read Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Frankenstein, The Island of Dr. Moreau....I think it was "read all the books on the parent's shelves" month during summer vacation - but there is no way I could have possibly understood everything that is going on. I remember thinking it was pretty boring, but doubtless that was because so much of the intrigue of the story was going right over my head.

I'm just under 100 pages into the novel, and I still feel like Herbert is just laying the groundwork. It is fully science fiction, but also feels a bit like a political thriller, with all the competing factions and various power players at work. I can't say that I am fully immersed in the story yet, but it is definitely interesting enough that I want to keep reading.

April 28: Okay, by now I have definitely been captured by the story. I've just finished the first section, and Paul and Jessica have to find a way to survive in the desert. Paul has become....different, and is dealing with all the emotion (or lack of emotion) that entails. People have died. The action has definitely picked up, and I'm getting a better grasp of the different factions. I feel like I now have someone to root FOR, and someone to root AGAINST, and that was really the turning point for my engagement in the novel. I'm starting to understand why it is considered such a classic of science fiction.

May 1: I'm about halfway through the second section, and more than halfway through the novel (page 288). Paul and Jessica have been discovered by the Fremen, which is the point I have been waiting for. Jessica has proven herself to be incredibly valuable and dangerous, which was a fun scene to read. I'm not sure I quite understand what it was that caused the change in Paul, but Herbert shows the reader the turmoil going on inside his head quite well. It still is not an easy novel for me to read - the writing is not of the type that will just sweep me into the story, and I have to concentrate to keep all the people and places straight - but I'm not finding it tedious at all. I'm not sure where the story is going - I don't remember any of this from reading it as a kid - so I feel nervous and excited to see what happens next.

May 3: Just finished part 2, and things are getting good. There has been some very interesting character development, and Paul and Jessica have become even richer and more nuanced. I was especially taken with the two back-t0-back chapters depicting Paul and Feyd-Rautha participating in competitions that led to each killing another man. These two characters seem to be set up for some type of showdown, and their widely disparate attitudes toward taking life told much about their character. I'm also incredibly interested in the mysterious Princess Irulan who is quoted at the beginning of each chapter, but has not yet appeared in the narrative - do we ever get to meet her??

May 6: Well, that was an abrupt ending. I mean, really abrupt. I turned the page, and was honestly surprised not to find more sentences. A few of my burning questions were answered - we did, in fact, get to meet Irulan, and I have a feeling she plays a much bigger role in subsequent novels in the series. The showdown with Feyd-Rautha was....a little bit meh. I think I was expecting just a bit more from the ending of the novel, so felt a little bit disappointed with its abruptness. It is, however, a great story, and I think I'm curious enough about what happens next to read its sequel sooner rather than later....

Overall, a great read. A little slow at the beginning, but the characters were rich and the story exciting. The world Herbert has created is amazing - it feels complete, like it should exist out there somewhere. I can certainly see why this is considered a science fiction classic. I'm very glad I decided to read it again - it was a very rewarding experience.

Finished: 5/6/11
Source: my shelves
MPAA rating: PG -13 for adult themes and violence
My rating: 8/10

Monday, May 2, 2011

My Month in Movies

I almost can't believe it, but I'm watching movies again! My poor Netflix queue has been languishing, but I think I'm getting back in the swing again. I did watch a whole bunch of seasons of Buffy during my maternity leave, but kinda lost interest around the time her incredibly boring, Ken-doll like boyfriend (from Iowa!) turned out to be a super secret vampire hunter in league with her professor. (Not making that one up, folks.)

So, here we go - here's what I watching this month:

Shutter Island - 2010 - Well, that took a turn I didn't expect. 2/3 of the way through I was thinking, "Wow, this might be the longest movie ever." And then the end happened. I continue to be impressed with Leo DiCaprio - he is pretty great in every movie I've seen him in for a while. This was a good one.

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel - 2009 - What can I say? The babies love the Chipettes.

When In Rome - 2010 - Cute, cute. Josh Duhamel from All My Children and Kristen Bell from Veronica Mars falling in love in NYC? Yep, works for me. And I'm not sure how Kristen Bell got to be in a movie with this many comic heavyweights, but it was pretty darn funny. And the ending credits are a riot...

Alice in Wonderland - 2010 - The girl cast as Alice did not work for me, so this whole movie was a bit of a bust. Pretty, though.

Toy Story 3
- 2010 - Sigh. When all the toys clasp hands and form a circle as they are moving down toward the fire....what it is about cartoons that can elicit such emotion? Love this movie.

I am also watching:

Camelot - I've loved this myth ever since reading The Mists of Avalon as a teenager, and am a sucker for anything related to it. Luckily, this series is a very good re-imagining of the legend, and I have enjoyed the changes they have made to the story. Also, Morgan has always been one of my favorite characters, and she is AMAZING in this series. Can't wait to see where they go next.

The Pillars of the Earth
- wasn't this a (somewhat mediocre) made-for-tv-movie a while back? This series is very good so far - I think it is actually doing the book justice, which is rare. Ian McShane is SO GOOD as the evil Waleran - really, the whole cast is excellent, and I'm enjoying this a lot.

Game of Thrones
- I haven't read the books yet! (I know, I know...) I wasn't going to get sucked in, but then I watched the first two episodes, and now I can't stop. There are not a lot of nice people in this story, huh??

Next up in my Netflix queue:

The King's Speech