Monday, November 25, 2013

Book Report Monday: Ape House by Sara Gruen

Title: Ape House

Author: Sara Gruen

Genre: Fiction

Why did I pick it up?: Pure animal love. Sara Gruen's books focus around animals who are shown as having defined personalities.

Synopsis: Sam, Bonzi, Lola, Mbongo, Jelani, and Makena are no ordinary apes. These bonobos, like others of their species, are capable of reason and carrying on deep relationships—but unlike most bonobos, they also know American Sign Language.
Isabel Duncan, a scientist at the Great Ape Language Lab, doesn’t understand people, but animals she gets—especially the bonobos. Isabel feels more comfortable in their world than she’s ever felt among humans . . . until she meets John Thigpen, a very married reporter who braves the ever-present animal rights protesters outside the lab to see what’s really going on inside.

When an explosion rocks the lab, severely injuring Isabel and “liberating” the apes, John’s human interest piece turns into the story of a lifetime, one he’ll risk his career and his marriage to follow. Then a reality TV show featuring the missing apes debuts under mysterious circumstances, and it immediately becomes the biggest—and unlikeliest—phenomenon in the history of modern media. Millions of fans are glued to their screens watching the apes order greasy take-out, have generous amounts of sex, and sign for Isabel to come get them.

(from Goodreads)

My Review: Gruen's formula which she used in Water for Elephants is apparent in Ape House. I enjoyed both books, but I know some people might not. They are too many coincidences, too much deus ex machina for some people's tastes. A lot of things, "just so happen" to work out. Since I assume most people have either read Water for Elephants, seen the movie, I'm going to drop some spoilers. That was your warning.

The protagonist, a veterinarian student who is a few exams away from being a licensed vet, while in the midst of crisis hops on a passing train which turns out to be a circus train. As it just so happens this circus is in desperate need of a vet, so they don't throw him overboard. Very quickly, I think it was the next day, they stumble upon an elephant and it just so happens this elephant has already been trained only she was trained in Polish. Oh, did I mention our protagonist just so happens to speak Polish?

That's a lot of coincidence, too much? I think it depends on what you are looking to get out of a novel. Judging by the novel's success I don't think most of the country minds. If you want a realistic story, this might bug you. I didn't mind, because it's fiction and if it's obviously fiction that's cool. I also find the crux of Gruen's skill lies in her research. I learned a lot about elephants and the depression in America and the strange, cruel lives of the circus people in Water for Elephants. In Ape House, I learned about bonobos and I loved that aspect of the book.

The bonobos are smart, eerily smart. Though they seem more like children than human adults in how they give in to their desires and make demands. One example of this is a bonobo who wants Starbucks and refuses to accept "no" from Isabel, who eventually gives in and sends her assistant to get the ape a macchiato. Each ape has its own personality and I would have liked to have them fleshed out a bit more, but perhaps that was just me being more interested in the apes as characters.

Isabel considers herself an advocate for animal rights. She's a vegetarian and considers the apes as her family. She loves and spoils them with things like expensive coffees. But there are also extremists who protest at the language lab where Isabel works, she muses that this is largely in part to their lack of understanding what happens at the language lab and that the word "lab" gives them this incorrect impression. On the other end of the animal rights spectrum are the companies who experiment on animals and the entertainment mogul who buys the bonobos to create a Reality TV show around them. Isabel has discussions and arguments with representatives from all of these groups and I enjoyed seeing the issues brought to the reader's attention. However, I would have liked to hear why the work at the language lab was important. What do we have to learn from bonobos? How does communicating with them help us? How does it help them? After reading Ape House, I'm still wondering, though I feel it is important to understand the world around us and the other animals that inhabit it beside us. It would have been nice to hear a deeper reason for teaching apes sign language.

My Recommendation: Animal people,Water for Elephants fans, and readers of bestsellers would most likely enjoy this.

For Next Week: The Stand by Stephen King

Monday, November 18, 2013

Book Report Monday: Magic or Madness Trilogy by Justine Larbalestier

Title: Magic or Madness, Magic Lessons, and Magic's Child

Author: Justine Larbalestier

Genre: Young Adult Fantasy

Synopsis: For fifteen years, Reason Cansino has lived a life on the run. Together with her mother, Sarafina, she has moved from one place to another in the Australian countryside, desperate not to be found by Reason's grandmother Esmeralda, a dangerous woman who believes in magic. But when Sarafina suffers a breakdown, Reason is forced to move in with her grandmother in Sydney. The moment Reason walks through Esmeralda's back door and finds herself on a New York City street, she's confronted by an unavoidable truth - magic is real.

This thrilling novel will bring readers through revelation upon revelation, leading to Reason's ultimate discovery of the price she must pay if she uses her magic.

(from Goodreads)

Why did I pick it up?: Sometimes books get lost. Maybe you miss their window of popularity or maybe they just weren't popular enough to find their way to you. Whatever the cause it's kind of sad, isn't it? I know I'm missing out on a lot of books I would enjoy and I might never find them. That's why I'm glad I found the last two books in the Magic or Madness trilogy when I was at the Philadelphia Library last autumn. They were so cheap-
I think a quarter each-that I figured I'd get the first book on Amazon and read the whole series.

My Review: After being told her whole life that magic isn't real but that her grandmother- who is insane and evil-believes it is, Reason is forced to see the truth. Her mother lied. Magic is real. And Reason can use magic, but it is dangerous. Reason has no idea who to trust. She's spent her life running from her grandmother, but now there are others who may be even worse. 

Since using too much magic will shorten your lifespan and magic can be stolen, this world is a cutthroat one. And while Reason needs her friends to teach her, she also can't trust them, can she? Throughout the series Reason struggles with that very question. It makes every decision she has to make even more challenging.

One interesting aspect is how everyone sees and feels magic differently. It could be viewed as geometric shapes, as connections of energy between people, or (as it is for Reason) a combination of mathematical patterns and smells. 

Nerd Moment: Oh, the math! Can I just point out that I adored the math Reason uses throughout the series. Her favorite is the Fibonacci sequenceBefore she understands her power, she uses the numbers to calm herself when she's in danger of losing her temper and using too much magic. This was a rare instance when my mathematician-reader identity is perfectly pleased. 

Reason is Australian and the series contain a lot of vocabulary unfamiliar to American teens. It is explained and even joked about when Reason finds herself in New York City and meets Jay-Tee who finds the Australian way of saying things ridiculous and amusing.

I really enjoyed the series. It was a quick, easy read, and overall a fun journey. I could have done without a few predictable plot points that are overused in YA fiction, but to be fair these books came out just before the YA boom so I think that Larbalestier was a part of setting rather than copying trends which are now frustratingly overdone. 

My Recommendation: Fans of The Faeriewalker Series by Jenna Black would probably enjoy these.

For Next Week: Ape House by Sara Gruen

Friday, November 15, 2013

Letting Go: It's a Process

I don't know why I need books the way I do. Obviously reading them is wonderful. Every book is a unique experience in a different world, an escape from reality, a journey into the unknown, and like George R.R. Martin* says, "A reader lives a thousand lives." I understand what I love about them, but I don't know why I need books around.  

Libraries make me feel like dancing too, Belle.

Once upon a time, I was a having horrible day. I was at work and needed to get out before I emotionally imploded. Lucky for me, there was a Barnes & Noble next door. I grabbed a Soy Chai Tea Latte and walked around the fiction and young adult sections. I ended up buying a gorgeous copy of Persuasion, my favorite Jane Austen. I don't know why the sight of books calms me, but it does and it didn't let me down on Monica's horrible day. There's so much to discover and experience in the world, too much to get caught up in the trivial annoyances and hiccups of daily life. Books are a tangible representation of all the world has to offer. Okay, I guess I just realized why I like having them around...

The flip-side to basking in their presence is getting nervous at the thought of parting with my books. When my friend mentioned her school's annual book drive, my first thought was going and increasing my collection. When she said they were accepting donations, I felt an irrational pulse of terror. 

Not my books!**

Fortunately for the school, I am a rational individual and (though it was with much trepidation) I decided to donate some. My shelves are overflowing and I can't stop buying more. Yes I have a Nook and I take advantage of the Boston Library's fabulous eBook loaning program, but I continue to buy new and used books. I just love them.

When I went through my 300+ books, I did my best to consider the ones I should keep. Those being the ones I thought I might read again or would be likely to loan to other readers. I came up with four that I was willing to part with...

I have problems. First world problems. Nerd girl problems. Ravenclaw problems. I could go on, but won't.

I gave myself a stern talking to about how important it is for affordable used books to be available, how great it is to support a wonderful local school, and how I probably wasn't going to read most of these books again. What was I doing really? Just hoarding the knowledge for myself, which isn't cool. Knowledge is power and I want to share that power. Plus hoarding is unhealthy and kind of weird. I mean it would be weirder if they were cats or VHS tapes of my favorite late night infomercials. Minimal level of weirdness aside, I went through my shelves again. 

The donate pile grew and grew until it contained about twenty books!

I felt great after I filled the huge tote bag with thousands of pages of goodness. Soon other people will enjoy these books. Three cheers for being charitable. Plus, now I've got some space on my shelves...

*But writers only live one, so maybe write a bit faster, okay Georgie?
**Those actually aren't my books. They belong to the Boston Public Library. They were also mostly in French, which Belle would have appreciated.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Book Report Monday: The Dovekeepers

Title: The Dovekeepers

Author: Alice Hoffman

Genre: Fiction

Synopsis: Blends mythology, magic, archaeology and women. Traces four women, their path to the Masada massacre. In 70 CE, nine hundred Jews held out for months against armies of Romans on a mountain in the Judean desert, Masada. According to the ancient historian Josephus, two women and five children survived.

Four bold, resourceful, and sensuous women come to Masada by a different path. Yael’s mother died in childbirth, and her father never forgave her for that death. Revka, a village baker’s wife, watched the horrifically brutal murder of her daughter by Roman soldiers; she brings to Masada her twin grandsons, rendered mute by their own witness. Aziza is a warrior’s daughter, raised as a boy, a fearless rider and expert marksman, who finds passion with another soldier. Shirah is wise in the ways of ancient magic and medicine, a woman with uncanny insight and power. The four lives intersect in the desperate days of the siege, as the Romans draw near. All are dovekeepers, and all are also keeping secrets — about who they are, where they come from, who fathered them, and whom they love.

(from Goodreads)

Why did I pick it  up?: If Alice Hoffman writes a book, it's on my To Be Read list. She's my go to comfort read.

Favorite Lines: “He wanted pain, I saw that in him, and what a man wants he will often manage to find.”

My Review: I have so many things to say. I have no idea why I took so long to read this. The prose alone was enough for me to love this story, but of course Hoffman delivers more. Yael and the other Dovekeepers are strong.

As a Ravenclaw it's in my nature to crave knowledge and I loved learning about Masada and the religions practiced in 70 CE. I found the Essene, a religious group believing that the apocalypse is coming, fascinating as every generation seems to have at least one group of end of days zealots.

Each of the four women has her own story but they are joined together not because they are kindred spirits but because they are women struggling without husbands. They are shunned by the society of most because of their independence and whatever led them to be alone. In the Dovecote they are free. Free to be who they are without the rules of society or judgement of their neighbors.

Ghosts haunt them. Magic is prevalent not only in the form of Shirah's practice but in Hoffman's signature style of storytelling. The desert is unforgiving and one thing I love about Alice Hoffman's writing is how often she highlights the extreme. Kisses so passionate they cause lips to blister and that sort of thing. Days so hot, parked cars have melted tires. The desert climate and living conditions during the siege of Masada offered up plenty of opportunity for the Hoffman prose I enjoy.

Masada, Israel

Recommendation: If you liked The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, you will probably like this too.

For Next Week: Magic or Madness trilogy by Justine Larbalestier

Monday, November 4, 2013

Book Report Monday: Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls

Title: Half Broke Horses

Author: Jeannette Walls

Genre: A True-Life Novel

Synopsis: Lily Casey Smith, this novel's feisty Texas protagonist, is a frontier teacher, a rancher, a rodeo rider, a poker player, and bootlegger. In Half Broke Horses, she survives droughts, tornados, floods, poverty, and whatever else fate can throw against her. Based on author Jeannette Walls's grandmother, Lily is a plausible character because she has a voice that synchronizes with her history. This novel lives up to the still gathering acclaim for Walls's novel The Glass Castle. 

(from Goodreads)

Why did I pick it up?: Years ago, I read The Glass Castle for a book club and I'd been meaning to pick up Half Broke Horses since I heard it came out. Yes, I've been meaning to read this for four years. I'm glad I got around to it.

Favorite Lines: "I hadn't been paying much attention to things like the sunrise, but that old sun had been coming up anyway. It didn't really care how I felt, it was going to rise and set regardless of whether I noticed it, and if I was going to enjoy it, that was up to me."

My Review: Similar to The Paris Wife, in that the story is a fictionalization of true events. Though in my opinion it's much better done in Half Broke Horses. Perhaps novelizing your own Grandmother's life is easier, plus I wasn't rooting for someone else the whole time. If you've read The Glass Castle, I think most people have, then you will most likely enjoy this story. There are little nuggets of references that foreshadow events that take place in Jeannette's memoir.

A Half Broke Horse, is a horse that has been caught and partially trained and then released back into the wild and its own natural devices. Lily who helped her father train horses before leaving home, is familiar with these horses who when caught again no enough to submit to a rider but also know they might escape again. Throughout the story she encounters people who are likewise only "half broke" and will never quite fit into society as a result. Anyone who has read The Glass Castle would see how Jeannette's parents are just like half broke horses.

I found the details about life in the South Western United States in the early 1900's to be fascinating. The lack of paved streets, indoor plumbing, electricity and everything I've never lived without seemed trying and it was insane to realize it really wasn't that long ago that the story is taking place. Lily lived in a rural part of Texas and late in a rural part of Arizona. People out in the more densely populated East, had electricity and running water much sooner. And just like I loved learning that when America was discovered the rest of the world was highly suspicious of the tomato, which they'd never seen before. They called it the witch's apple and said it was poisonous. Crazy, right? Well maybe it's just amusing to me. Similar to the mistrust of new foods, when Indoor plumbing was spreading across the country a lot of people were skeptical and grossed out. In Half Broke Horses people ask, "Isn't that unsanitary?" and "Who would do that in the house?"

There's no rush to finish the book, no great mystery waiting to be revealed., and yet the story held my interest. However, if you're the sort of reader who needs a strong reason to turn the page this probably isn't for you.

Recommendation: Fans of memoirs and anyone interested in settlements in America should check this out.

For Next Week: The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman