Book review: The Changeling by Victor LaValle

This book seems to fall into that magical realism category, right next to The Underground Railroad.

The Changeling by Victor LaValle is an odd and quirky blend of realism and fantasy.  The first part of the book was somewhat realistic, describing Apollo’s life from the mysterious disappearance of his father, Brian, to the struggles he faced being brought up by a single mother.  I was starting to think that the “changeling” was a metaphor.  Nope.  The latter part of the book was where everything became very strange with witches, trolls, and real changelings.

The problem that I have is that there are such serious issues brought up in the book in  realistic scenarios , but when you throw in trolls, it just doesn’t work for me.  It’s  as though those fantasy creatures detract attention from the very serious issues.  I don’t have a problem with monsters and magic in general and I quite enjoy fantasy books.  For me, the blending of the real world and the fantasy world just didn’t quite work.  As a reader, I felt cheated.

That being said, the book is well written and I was very interested in the story.  The author did a great job of portraying strong characters while still showing that they had flaws.  I enjoyed most of the story.  The eye rolling came in with the appearance of the witches and the changeling.

I lean towards liking this book because of the characters and would hesitantly recommend it to people who enjoy books like The Underground Railroad.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary review e-copy from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.  This book will be published June 13, 2017.

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Book review: The Barrowfields by Phillip Lewis

I find that books and food have a lot in common.  Some books are nourishment and comfort for your soul, reminding us about what is important in life.  Some books are fun to snack on and taste good, but provide little nourishment.  Other books are exotic adventures, asking our noses and tongues to try something we haven’t tasted before.

The Barrowfields was comfort food that someone tried to recreate from a childhood memory.  It never comes out quite the same as when your mom/dad/grandmother/grandfather made it even if you follow the recipe exactly, but that doesn’t mean that it is bad.  It just has a hint of something that is different … That is how I felt when reading this book.

The book itself followed 3 generations of men in a family in North Carolina told through the point-of-view of the youngest male.  On the surface, this book is about family, about growing up, about the South.  It’s also about going through life with mysteries that aren’t solved or that shouldn’t be solved.  It’s about finding oneself and where one fits in relation to others.  It’s about having the self-assurance or character to know who you are without others’ approval.  It’s about separating from your family in order to become the person that you need to willingly accept obligations.

As you may have guessed, I liked this book, but there were parts of the book that I found unnecessary.  There was a little too much thrown into the book.  The whole subplot with the Henry’s girlfriend was a bit much for me.  The book would have been just fine if that whole part had been edited out.  The sinister house portrayal was also a bit much.

When I finished the book, I was left with that quiet contentment after having comfort food.  I just wanted to sit and savour it for a while.

It’s a wonderful first book and I look forward to reading more from the author.

Disclaimer: I received an electronic unedited reader’s proof from Blogging for Books NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

 

 

Book review: The Apache Wars

i kept trying to read this book, but I would only make it through a few pages before putting it down again. The connections that the author was trying to make were just too far reaching for me and I found myself rolling my eyes as I was reading. I just didn’t enjoy this book and couldn’t finish it.

 

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books.

Book review: The Marriage Pact

The Marriage Pact by Michelle Richmond looks at what lengths couples will go through to ensure that their marriage stays intact.  In this book, newlyweds are introduced to a group that promises commitment to the idea of marriage.  The group does whatever it has to to preserve marriages.

Predictably, at first, the newlyweds like the idea and see the group as a force that helps make their marriage stronger.  For example, one of the rules is that couples have to give each other a gift every month.  The gifts don’t have to be expensive, but they should mean something.  Another rule is that couples have to plan a vacation together.  When Alice starts working long hours after their marriage, the group stepped in to make her focus on her marriage.  Alice wore a bracelet so the group could monitor her location.  The group’s involvement varies from benign to extreme intervention.  On the mild side, it involves counseling or coaching.  Other times, it involves sending members off to a “prison.”  Actions that are seen as infractions include things like gaining more than a certain number of pounds per year to flirting with someone other than your spouse to cheating on your spouse.

My favorite part of this book is the realistic look at marriages.  No one ever gets married thinking that they are going to get divorced.  Everyone wants their marriage to last.  Yet, there are always those insecurities that we all feel – did I somehow trick this person into marrying me?  Are they going to fall out of love with me?  Especially in a new marriage, there’s a lull after the initial honeymoon period.  You spend so much time planning and getting ready for the wedding and then have this great party and go on your honeymoon.  When you return to “normal” life after all the adrenaline highs, it may be a bit of a letdown.

There’s always a suspension of belief when reading fiction, but some parts of the plot went beyond a reasonable suspension of belief (for me).  I don’t want to spoil the book so I’ll leave it up to you to read the book for yourself.

This book was an easy, quick read and would be great for a summer day at the beach.  There were some twists that made it interesting.  The book will be published on July 25, 2017.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary electronic preview of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Book review: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

I wasn’t expecting to like The Sympathizer because I was expecting it to be good.  Ha.  That doesn’t sound right, but I’ll explain.  The cover brags about being a Pulitzer Prize winner, which means that the book has got to be good … and when I have high expectations for a book, I tend to be disappointed.  This did not happen with this book.

The basic plot of the story is that the narrator is a biracial Communist spy.  He infiltrated the South Vietnamese military to send intelligence back to the Viet Cong.  He followed a S. Vietnamese general to the United States to monitor the new immigrants.

The writing style is descriptive and yet not overly flowery.  The author paints vivid pictures of life in Saigon and California.  Even if the book had no message, it would have been an enjoyable read.

Though the writing style is enjoyable, the best part of this book is its brutally honest look at relationships, racism, classism, politics, and society.  Many books explore racism between different races, but this one also looks at racism amongst ones own race.  The author doesn’t let anyone slide.  He points out our subtle biases, how we manifest these biases, and how affect others.

The narrator of the book is biracial, having an Asian mother and a French father.  This is enough to ostracize him amongst Vietnamese people.  At one point, he mentions that he has no hope of marrying anyone from a decent Vietnamese family because no decent family would agree to let their daughter marry a biracial person.  If both of your parents are Vietnamese, you must also come from the right family.

To be honest, the book felt a bit long towards the end, but I would definitely recommend this book.

book review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is a powerful book in that, though it is fictional, depicts horrific situations that many real slaves had to endure.  Whitehead’s story follows a slave named Cora from her life on a plantation, her mother’s abandonment, her decision to escape, and the people she encounters during her journey.

Whitehead portrayed many aspects of African American history through Cora’s journey.  In one instance, she saw white people depicting blacks, using their racist stereotypical beliefs as motivation.  In reality, this happened quite often in film, with white people dictating how blacks should look and behave on screen.  In another instance, she saw white people gathered to watch the hanging of a runaway slave as an afternoon amusement.  Historical documents show that this, too, happened.  In another instance, Cora learned about a hospital for blacks that were actually conducting experiments on them for syphilis (read “Bad Blood” about the Tuskegee experiments).  There were descriptions of how the KKK burned houses.  From what I know or have learned about slavery, the things that happened to Cora or that she saw actually did happen to slaves and blacks in the United States.

Not only were the depictions accurate, the characters were realistic.  What I mean by that is that none of them were perfect – they all had their flaws and they seemed like real people with their own personalities.  The author did a great job of revealing enough of their traits to tell the reader who they were.

I was enjoying this book (actually, enjoying is probably the wrong word because there were many gruesome things described, but I liked the writing style and the book was engaging) until I got to the bit where Cora ran away on a real underground railroad.  I had to do a double take when the author described a real railroad.  Huh?  I had always heard that the underground railroad was a metaphor for the network of people that housed runaway slaves.  I know that this book is fiction, but this part of it really annoyed me.  Mostly, I didn’t understand the reason for changing the metaphor into a real railroad.  Everything else in the book seemed historically accurate – sometimes the years may have been off, but the events themselves were accurate.

I would still recommend this book, but I hope that people will understand that it is fictional and won’t think that there was a real underground railroad that runaway slaves used.

Book review: Evicted by Matthew Desmond

Evicted is a non-fiction, ethnographic look at housing in Wisconsin for  low income families.  The author followed several families as they navigated different housing situations.

The main argument of the book is that we need more affordable housing.  Desmond makes the argument that housing should be a right to which all Americans are entitled.  The general rule of thumb is that less than 30% of total net income should be spent on housing.  However, many people, not just low-income families, spend more than 30% of their income on housing (according to Bloomberg) because the cost of housing has outpaced income.  Amongst lower income families, the percentage spent on housing is generally much higher.

The book was well-written and presented what I thought was a fair accounting of both sides of the housing problem.  On the one hand, people faced eviction due to circumstances outside of their control such as losing a job, unexpected expenses such as a death in the family, illness, etc.  On the other hand, there are times when they were evicted due to their poor judgment and behavior (drug use, arguments/fights, not discussing or trying to work out a payment plan with the landlord, etc.).  Compounding their problem was their inaccessibility to decent housing, including: searching for housing on foot (no access to the Internet or a car to search for housing or not knowing how use the Internet to search for housing), landlords who are prejudiced about renting to minorities, landlords who refuse to rent to families with children, and limited income.

I had to stop reading this book for a while because I got so upset by it.  I was upset at the cycles of eviction for the people in this book.  I was angry at the landlords who wouldn’t fix their properties so that basic needs such as running water or plumbing were met.  I was angry at some of the poor decisions that were made (struggling to provide food and pay rent, yet having money for pot, cigarettes, and sometimes drugs).  I was angry at the number of companies that cut back on expenses by hiring people part-time so that they don’t have to cover benefits.  Most of all, the children’s situation upset me.  Not only didn’t they have time to make friends, they fell farther and farther behind in their education as they were moved around.

At the end of the book, the author presented some possible solutions to the housing problem.  The solution that was presented in the best light was using universal housing vouchers.  He described how universal housing vouchers had been used in other countries successfully.

Don’t skip the epilogue and the section called “about this project.”

Disclaimer: Thanks, Santa, for giving me this book for Christmas.  🙂

Book Review: A Case of Conscience by James Blish

A Case of Conscience is a science fiction book about four humans who go to the planet, Lithia, to evaluate it.  The Lithians have a utopian society.  In fact, their society is so great that it leads one of the humans, Father Ruiz-Sanchez, to believe that it was created by “the Adversary” (the Devil).  Upon the humans returning to Earth, one of the Lithians gives them his own child to raise.

Spoilers ahead (because I can’t discuss what I hated about this book without discussing what happened)…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lithian Earthling, Egtverchi, becomes a popular public figure with his own television show.  Unfortunately, he causes a lot of problems by inciting public disobedience and  violence.

I would have liked this book better if it were more science fiction and less religious theology.  Actually, sound religious theology would have been okay.  My biggest problem with this book is that actions of the characters didn’t match their personalities.  One of the characters, Cleaver, is a physicist.  He is smart, very scientific.  However, he thought it would be great to use Lithia as a bomb producing world.  He also goes on to destroy the Lithians main mode of communication upon his return to Lithia.  Father Ruiz-Sanchez is a Jesuit priest and a scientist/man of medicine who believes in creationism.  Ruiz-Sanchez argued that Lithia was too perfect and that Lithians were the evolved ideal form that humans aspired to be and therefore they must be the Devil’s creation seemed ridiculous to me (God=creationism, Devil=evolution).  Again, I have a lot of trouble believing that someone who is a scientist would believe in creationism dogma.

There were other parts of this book that made no sense to me.  For example, there was a description of how Egtverchi attended a party thrown in his honor.  At the party, guests were given train rides, but the descriptions of the train rides were bizarre.  For the most part, guests were extremely disturbed by the train rides … but yeah, let’s have parties where we upset our guests … and partygoers who must have heard about the train rides previously who are still willing to go on them, even though they know that the train rides are going to be awful.

The character of Egtverchi represented the lost and displaced.  This is evidenced not only in his background (being a Lithian raised on Earth), but also in the people to whom he appealed on his television show.  At first, his character revealed the ugliness in society (he tore through rooms and exposed some of the shadiness of public figures), but then he became the ugliness by telling his viewers to reject being a part of society in a violent manner.  Interestingly, he became ugly after he became accepted (he had a loyal following).

I did not care for the writing style of this book because it read like a religious theology book.  I cannot recommend this book to anyone.

Disclaimer: I received a preview e-copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.  This book was published January 24, 2017.

book review: The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

I procrastinated about reviewing this book because I wasn’t quite sure that I liked it.  The book started out strongly – there were 2 points-of-view.  The present was told by a bard and the past was told by the main character, Tea.  It’s obvious that something serious happened because the beginning of the book reveals that Tea has been banished to an island by herself.  I enjoyed the writing style, but I wish there had been more substance to the book and less of the airy descriptions.

There were also some holes in the story that didn’t make sense to me.  First, I didn’t understand how Tea was able to accidentally resurrect her brother, Fox, from death.  Supposedly, she has magical powers, but later in the book, in the descriptions of asha training, ashas (witches) have to draw ruins, sometimes using their own blood to create spells.  How does one accidentally draw ruins when one doesn’t know how to do it?  It occurs later on in the story, too, but with some sort of stone that amplified Tea’s powers.  I also didn’t understand the point of the heartglass.  Everyone has a heartglass (from what I can gather, some sort of stone) that changes colors according to their moods.  If you love and trust someone completely, you can exchange heartglasses with them, but it makes you vulnerable if they no longer love you at some point.  It’s also supposed to make  ashas weaker not to have their heartglass.  If you lose your heartglass and you don’t care about the person that you gave it to, you can have another one made for you at great expense.  It seems ridiculous to me.  You’re not born with these heartglasses attached to you so why bother going through the expense in the first place if it makes you vulnerable?  The book said that only really wealth people could afford to have another heartglass made.  How did the average person obtain a heartglass in the first place?  Maybe I missed something in the story that explained this?  It seemed like there were too many magical things going on in the story that the author couldn’t even keep track of them all.

I also didn’t understand some of the societal descriptions in the book.  People feared Bone Witches because they practiced “dark” arts.  Dark, in this case, means that they bring things back from the dead.  If they fear them, why would they call them Bone Witch, which is considered a derogatory term, instead of dark asha?  Throughout the book, there’s a hint that dark ashas are somehow bad, but they’re the ones protecting everyone from the daevas (monsters), at great personal risk.  The author said in the book that people fear and hate people they need.  That may be true of some people in a group, but I can’t see a whole society behaving like that.  Even if it were true, why would someone who was so useful and powerful need to dress up and entertain rich people at parties?!?

As if it weren’t enough that Tea has to face people who hate her and awful monsters, she also has to face an enemy known as the Faceless.  The Faceless appear to have strong powers, but we have no idea why they’re trying to harm everyone.  There’s no explanation about why some people have power and some don’t.  There’s no explanation about why some people are born with more power and others aren’t.

This leads me to my biggest problem with this book – it started a bunch of interesting characters and possible story lines, but then it never went anywhere.  I kept waiting for explanations or something and there was just nothing.  Fantasy books still have to make sense within the scope of that fantasy world.  I felt like this didn’t.  The ending of the book was supposed to be a cliffhanger to make the reader excited about the sequel.  I just felt disappointed that I read an entire book that was basically just a confusing prologue.

I don’t think I could recommend this book to others.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary e-book from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

book review: The Pho Cookbook by Andrea Nguyen

I’m not sure if I’ve ever said this before, but please don’t ever buy the e-version of a cookbook.  They are never formatted correctly, no matter which app you use and the page references are all messed up.  Unfortunately, The Pho Cookbook was not the e-exception.

Parts of the text were suddenly a light gray color, which made it very difficult to read against the white background while other parts of the text were black.  I really shouldn’t have to change the background color in the app just so that I can read the text all the way through.  The page references (the author refers to other recipes in her book) are all off because the page numbers never match up on the electronic version.  Sometimes pictures are cut off in the middle of a page and sometimes you get text saying that a recipe is continued in the middle of the page because it was in the hard copy version of the book.  I would absolutely love it if editors/publishers could edit the books so that they were formatted correctly … even if they say something like we recommend using such and such app for correct formatting.

I found the book itself to be okay.  I liked the basic beef and chicken recipes and the “quick” versions were a neat idea, but they fell flat in taste.  Plus, the “quick” versions only serve 2.  Pho takes a lot of time and a lot of ingredients.  Even if you’re only making the “quick” version that takes about 40 minutes to cook, it’s going to take longer to prep the condiments, toast the spices, etc.  Do you really want to go through the expense and time of doing something like that for only 2 servings?  Personally, when I make pho, I make it in a huge pot so that I can get at least 2 meals out of it for the family.  Here’s my recommendation: don’t bother with the quick version.  Make a huge batch of the real pho (yeah, you’ll have to set aside a weekend day to do it), eat some yummy pho, freeze the remaining broth and then just reheat that when you want some more pho.  Your pho broth will taste so much richer and be so much more yummy than the fake stuff made with store bought broth.

The other problem I had with this book is the pressure cooker recipes.  I hate it when recipes call for special equipment that aren’t found in most homes.  The other issue is that unless you have a large pressure cooker, you’re not going to be able to make enough broth for a family of 4 to have 1 meal.  Again, if you’re going through the expense and time to make the pho, just make a huge batch.

I did find the section on other things to do with pho interesting.  There were many items that I had never heard of, like the chicken pho noodle salad.  I wanted to try the homemade hoisin sauce, but it required ingredients that I don’t usually have on hand (miso paste, Japanese rice vinegar, tahini, rice flour), so I haven’t tried it yet.

All in all, this was an okay book, but nowhere as good as the Banh Mi Handbook.

Disclaimer: I received a free e-copy of this book in exchange for my honest review from NetGalley.  This book will be released February 7, 2017.