Monday, July 26, 2010

Musing Mondays: July 26

MizB at Should Be Reading asks,
Do you review books? If so, for who?

As many of you know, I do review books! I'm a huge fan of the Goodreads First Reads opportunities. I've won a handful of books from that, and I review each one. I've also been lucky enough to review ARCs and recently published books thanks to publishers and contacts within the publishing industry.

My reviews are never biased in favor of the books I get for free versus the books I seek out at the library or the bookstore.

What about you? Do you review books?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Review: A Wretched Man (RW Holmen)

Image found at Goodreads

Title: A Wretched Man
Author: RW Holmen
Publisher: Bascom Hill, 2010
Notes: I received this book from the publisher to review. Despite this, my review is not biased in favor of the book. Any opinion offered here is completely my own.

A brief summary: "Jesus authored no writings. Nor did any of those who followed him in the Galilee or during his fateful pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It fell to an outside to become the movement's reporter, memorialist, essayist, interpreter, and promoter—despite the opposition of James, the brother of Jesus. Paul the apostle. Paul the one untimely born. This is the story of Paul, a wretched man." (back cover blurb)

My thoughts: I approach books like these very carefully. I did a bit of background about Holmen before I started reading the book, and began in earnest after I satisfied my curiosity.

This book is a number of things. It is well-researched; Holmen clearly has a solid background in early Christianity and religious history. It is also well-written. When reading about Paul—or Paulos, as he is referred to in the novel—I felt that I had a more personalized understanding of who Paul was. Often accused as being anti-Semitic or a problematic Jewish Christian, Holmen addresses these issues. But more importantly, he presents Paul as
human. Paul is as subject to human desires, human complexities, and human experiences as the rest of us. The best kind of book, in my opinion, is one that prompts you to think more, to pursue more knowledge. This book definitely incited that curiosity in me.

Some readers may worry that this book revolves around Paul's purported conflicted sexual orientation, but even devoutly religious individuals will find Holmen's handling of the matter to be deft. Some may even find Paul's reluctance to engage in supposedly unclean acts to be a testament to his faith. I would say that if this matter is the issue holding you back from reading this book, it shouldn't be. You may be pleasantly surprised.

While it might help to have some understanding of this time period or the religious and political issues at hand during and immediately after Jesus' death, it's not necessary. I found this book to actually be quite a good accompaniment to my studies of Jesus as a social revolutionary, upsetting the status quo. I felt like I gleaned a new understanding of the early Judeo-Christian world, which is pretty astounding after having taken four years of academic religion classes.

Moreover, I'm curious to speak to the author. What's next after this? How did his background inform his writing of
A Wretched Man? I'd be curious to see how Holmen would approach Saint Augustine, but alas, I doubt he is that interested in Augustine, as Holmen is Lutheran.

Rating: 5 stars

Friday, July 23, 2010

Review: Crashers (Dana Haynes)

Image found at Goodreads

Title: Crashers
Author: Dana Haynes
Publisher: Minotaur, 2010
Notes: I received this book as an ARC from the Goodreads First Reads program.

A brief summary: "Whenever a plane goes down in the U.S., a 'Go Team' made up of experts is assembled by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to investigate. Those people—each of them a leading expert in a specific area—are known informally as 'Crashers.' When a passenger plane, a Vermeer One Eleven, slams into the ground outside Portland, Oregon, 'The Crashers' quickly assemble to investigate the cause." (from Goodreads)

My thoughts: If you like TV shows like NCIS:LA or fast-paced action movies, you'll be hard-pressed not to like this book. The plot is interesting—what happens during a major plane crash, and how does the NTSB investigate the cause of a crash?—and the shifting perspectives between the bad guys, the good guys, and the questionable guys keeps the book moving forward. Add in the layer of a possible second attack, and you have a great plot.

My one critique about this book actually causes me to give it 3.5 stars is the characterization. Haynes tries to deliver a cast of characters who are diverse and capable, while also providing suitable background. However, when it's actually written out, I felt as though the characters were overdone and the writing clunky. Had the characters been better established by focusing on one, primary character—sticking to writing the 'good guys' section just from Tommy's perspective, perhaps—the writing would have been tighter. Instead, the narration is somewhat omnipresent and omniscient, but poorly done. Like I said, if you like NCIS:LA, you'll probably like this book, because some of the characters are similar. (NB: I like NCIS:LA, but didn't love this book.)

All of that being said, I think the plot is worth reading, and it sounds like Haynes did a healthy amount of background research while writing this book. Just try not to get as distracted by the characters as I did!

Rating: 3.5 stars

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Book Blogger Hop: July 22

Book Blogger Hop

Hey everyone! I took a much needed mini-hiatus, but I'm back now!

Time for the Book Blogger Hop! The prompt that Jen at Crazy-for-Books has presented is, "Tell us about the book you're currently reading."

I just started reading Maeve Binchy's Heart and Soul. I'm enjoying it so far!

What are you reading? Anything good?

Review: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Aimee Bender)

Image found at Goodreads

Author: Aimee Bender
Publisher: Doubleday, 2010
Notes: I won this book from a fellow book blogger's giveaway, and received the book directly from the publisher.

A brief summary: "On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming Rose Edelstein, a girl at the periphery of schoolyard games and her distracted parents’ attention, bites into her mother’s homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers she has a magical gift: she can taste her mother’s emotions in the cake. She discovers this gift to her horror, for her mother—her cheerful, good-with-crafts, can-do mother—tastes of despair and desperation. Suddenly, and for the rest of her life, food becomes a peril and a threat to Rose." (from Goodreads)

My thoughts: I had high expectations for this book, because the premise sounded unusual and fascinating. I was pretty disappointed with the book overall, though, for several reasons.

First, I have some difficulty with non-standard punctuation and prose, and Bender's lack of quotation marks in dialogue made this book frustrating to read at times. I'm not a big fan of stylistic creativity in that way, though I can see that it lent a certain disconnectedness to this book.

Second, I felt as though many of the plot lines were left uninvestigated. Rose's father remains a mystery for the majority of the novel, though that is somewhat resolved by the end. The circumstances of Rose's brother Joseph remain alarming, unfinished, and unusually vague. Bender's world is magical reality; things are both like we know them and not, but there's not much clarification as to why or how.

This book was not charming or humorous, as some reviewers have said. I found a surprising lack of humanness in this book, which is also contrary to what many have said. Instead, I found it largely underdeveloped and flat.

Rating: 1 star

Want to see another opinion? Check out Lynne's review! She gave The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake 4 stars!

Sunday, July 11, 2010


I hope everyone is enjoying the weekend!

I'm currently reading Ellis Peters' A Morbid Taste of Bones. I just finished Dana Haynes' Crashers for the 2010 Thriller & Suspense Reading Challenge, and that review—along with some other great ones!—will be up this coming week.

What are you reading this weekend? Send me the links of some of your favorite reviews!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Book Blogger Hop: July 8

Time for the Book Blogger Hop! The prompt that Jen at Crazy-for-Books has presented is, "Tell us about some of your favorite authors and why they are your favorites!"

My favorite authors are John Steinbeck, J.K. Rowling, and Steve Kluger. Steinbeck is a fantastic American author with epic novels that really get to the core of humanity. His books are some of the few 'classics' that I still pick up and read, again and again. J.K. Rowling crafted the series that was, essentially, my childhood. (And speaking of which, I really need to reread Harry Potter!) Steve Kluger writes delightfully funny novels, both adult and young adult, about love.

How about you? What are your favorite authors?

Thanks for stopping hopping on by!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Review: The Happiness Project (Gretchen Rubin)

Image found at Goodreads

Publisher: Harper, 2010
Notes: I took this book out of the library.

A brief summary: "Gretchen Rubin had an epiphany one rainy afternoon in the unlikeliest of places: a city bus. 'The days are long, but the years are short,' she realized. 'Time is passing, and I'm not focusing enough on the things that really matter.' In that moment, she decided to dedicate a year to her happiness project." (from Goodreads)

My thoughts: Prior to reading this book, I had read Gretchen Rubin's blog (also titled The Happiness Project) and read many of her peers' work online. I was fascinated by the idea of happiness studies, mostly because the idea of studying happiness seemed so random and scattered.

This book is a personal journey—a memoir—where Gretchen Rubin both enhances her blog's content and adds new material. Her family is mentioned by name and given character and personality. You get a sense of Gretchen's personality as the book develops as well. I can kind of relate to her; I'm a list-maker, a task-doer, someone who likes structure and order.

At the same time, I always felt that Gretchen's blog was too hokey. I felt like it was preachy, and at times it seemed to miss the whole point of happiness. Spontaneity and fun and laughter seemed planned, stinted, or stiff.

This book
isn't like that at all. But what I did find is that this book seems to speak more to the issue of mindfulness. Perhaps one of my 'splendid truths' is that mindfulness begets happiness. When a person is more mindful, he is more cognizant of his behavior and his actions.

I also think that this book sounds like a personal quest to feel right and to feel in control of one's own emotions and behaviors. I think the word 'happiness' makes cynics everywhere feel automatic scorn for the concept or the reasoning behind this book, but the undertaking is well-developed and actually quite interesting.

I find Gretchen to be an interesting and engaging narrator, though she certainly takes her happiness seriously. Even her lighthearted fun is quite serious in nature.

Rating: 5 stars

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Review: The Purity Myth (Jessica Valenti)

Image found at Goodreads

Publisher: Seal Press, 2010
Notes: I took this book out of the library.

A brief summary: "The United States is obsessed with virginity — from the media to schools to government agencies. In The Purity Myth Jessica Valenti argues that the country’s intense focus on chastity is damaging to young women. Through in-depth cultural and social analysis, Valenti reveals that powerful messaging on both extremes — ranging from abstinence curriculum to “Girls Gone Wild” infomercials — place a young woman’s worth entirely on her sexuality. Morals are therefore linked purely to sexual behavior, rather than values like honesty, kindness, and altruism. Valenti sheds light on the value — and hypocrisy — around the notion that girls remain virgin until they’re married by putting into context the historical question of purity, modern abstinence-only education, pornography, and public punishments for those who dare to have sex." (from Goodreads)

My thoughts: I read this book in a day, because I couldn't put it down. I'm not someone who usually stands up and declares herself a feminist, but the issues that Valenti covers in her book really got me thinking. Here is one such example:
"The desirable virgin is sexy but not sexual. She's young, white, and skinny. She's a cheerleader, a baby sitter; she's accessible and eager to please (remember those ethics of passivity!). She's never a woman of color. She's never a low-income girl or a fat girl. She's never disabled. 'Virgin' is a designation for those who meet a certain standard of what women, especially younger women, are supposed to look like. As for how these young women are supposed to act? A blank slate is best." (p. 30)
Valenti has a strong voice, citing statistics and facts with ease—but without getting overly technical. She reminds us that this obsession with virginity is connected to submission and youth, with a renewed interest in keeping women under thumb. But virginity in our contemporary society has become a commodity, with the commercialization of abstinence balls and virginity vouchers. How can we make virginity into a commodity, though, when there's no actual definition for it? Valenti's discussion of the definition of virginity—or lack thereof—is especially interesting.

One theme that I noticed in this book was this interesting dichotomy between clean and dirty, good and bad. While this is a common thread throughout history, it makes me wonder if this focus on ordering the world (to give it meaning) emerges out of the post-materialist world.

I agree with Valenti that it's extremely worrying that teenagers receiving abstinence-only sexual education are unprepared for their sexual relations and lack any sexual health knowledge. As Valenti remarks, teenagers with abstinence-only sex ed are still having sex. But they're also not using condoms, believing them to be ineffective, or any other forms of birth control. This problem of misinformation is rampant and worrying.

Valenti argues that despite the virginity movement's obsession with "hookup culture," it's not as widespread as one might be led to believe. Young women are still dating, getting married, and having children. She says, "It's just another figment of the virginity movement's very active (and sexually obsessed) imagination. It's telling Americans what they want to hear—salacious stories about young girls having lots and lots of sex—under the rhetoric of helping women." (p. 60)

The virginity movement has its own arsenal of weapons against sex and filth, including purity balls. I had only heard of them nominally in the past, but reading about them really creeped me out. In purity balls, young girls (as young as eight years old) go on "dates" with their fathers, pledging their virginities to their fathers for safe-keeping (bringing to mind images of either incest or property ownership), and commit themselves to remaining pure for their husbands. Reading about purity balls made me feel like I was reading a modern-day Flowers in the Attic or some other V.C. Andrews novel.

I was also saddened by Valenti's chapter on rape and sexual assault. It was terrible to read how women have been dehumanized, particularly through the media's coverage of sexual violence. I have to admit that I often find myself thinking, "well, that was a poor decision to be doing x, y, and z." But being in the wrong place at the wrong time is no reason for women to be abused! This goes back to another issue that Valenti focuses on, which is that much of sexual assault prevention is placed on women, not men.

I do have a couple of qualms with the book. One is that I perceived some disdain from Valenti regarding religious beliefs and purity. I think that while purity balls and chastity commitments are creepy, religions all have elements of purity to them. She focuses considerably on Christianity and chastity, with sex never being for pleasure. But I'd like to see her recognize sex in other religious traditions, like Judaism and Islam, where men and women are recommended to have sex for pleasure. They could have a strong role in Valenti's recommendations for the future, especially in education and counterculture.

Moreover, sometimes I think her sarcasm and frustration can be a bit distracting, sometimes making generalizations.

I won't go much farther, since I don't want to give the entire book away. This is a fantastic read, and extremely thought-provoking, regardless of where you stand on the issues. The resources and discussion questions at the end of the book are useful for reflecting and finding more information about women, sexuality, virginity, and health. Having read this book, I'm looking forward to getting back to Mary Douglas' Purity and Danger after having read this book.

Rating: 4 stars

Monday, July 5, 2010

Review: The Wings of the Sphinx (Andrea Camilleri)

Image from Amazon

Author: Andrea Camilleri
Publisher: Penguin, 2009
Notes: I checked this book out of the library.

A brief summary: "Things are not going well for Inspector Salvo Montalbano. His relationship with Livia is once again on the rocks and-acutely aware of his age-he is beginning to grow weary of the endless violence he encounters. Then a young woman is found dead, her face half shot off and only a tattoo of a sphinx moth giving any hint of her identity. The tattoo links her to three similarly marked girls-all victims of the underworld sex trade-who have been rescued from the Mafia night-club circuit by a prominent Catholic charity. The problem is, Montalbano's inquiries elicit an outcry from the Church and the three other girls are all missing." —Goodreads summary

My thoughts: This is the first book I've ever read by Camilleri; I saw it in the new mystery section at the library and thought I would give it a shot. My first impression is that it's a bit difficult to jump into the middle of this series without knowing the characters prior; I occasionally had some difficulties trying to remember who was who. (This was especially the case when Camilleri would refer to someone by their last name for six or so pages before someone refers to the person in passing by their first name. Quite difficult to discern who the person in question was! But that may be a translation issue more than anything else.)

I had high hopes for this book, but was a bit disappointed. The first 70 pages—roughly a third of the book—were extremely slow. The murder occurs, but there's no progress toward finding the killer. Instead, Inspected Montalbano (the protagonist) is featured prominently—or more accurately, his relationship problems with a woman named Livia, with whom he has had an on-again off-again relationship for years.

This book is heavily male-oriented. By that, I don't mean that only men would enjoy this book. But the primary characters—eccentric and almost cracky—are all men. Tommaseo works with Montalbano, and he's obsessed with victims' sex lives (or sex in general). Meanwhile, Catarella—kind of the police lackey—speaks with a hokey accent. (For example, he says "poissonally in poisson" a lot, or "personally in person.")

Montalbano is kind of an interesting protagonist. In this book he seems rather gloomy, but passing references to other events and other cases implies that he's not usually so glum. The weather and access to fresh fish seem to affect his moods greatly, and he takes pleasure in a good mid-day meal, regardless of the cases he works. I found Camilleri's inclusion of Montalbano's internal monologues to be quite funny as well. He also plays a crazy cop with unusual "interrogation" techniques in the examination of one suspect, and yells out multiplication tables to get the suspect to stop crying—an extremely funny scene.

I felt that the plot twisted and turned but ended up sort of where you would expect, despite some surprising instances that interrupt one's first thoughts. I would like to read the first in this series to get a better sense of Camilleri's writing and characters before passing further judgment; I found this book a bit difficult to follow at times.

Rating: 2 stars

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Happy 4th of July!

Happy Independence Day to all of my American readers! Have a wonderful day, and I hope you enjoy wonderful weather, some good books, and the company of people you love.

I'll be back later today with a new book review. Sorry for the delay; this weekend has been quite busy!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Book Blogger Hop: July 1

I'm participating in my first (real) Book Blogger Hop today! The question that Jen at Crazy-for-Books has asked is, "What is your name and why did you start blogging?"

My name is Jess, and I'm 21 years old. I'm a recent graduate and I'm attending graduate school this fall. I began blogging a couple of weeks ago because a group of friends from the College Students group on Goodreads and I decided to form a group book blog, which inspired me to start blogging on my own! I think that book blogging will be a good way for me to meet new friends, remember the books I've read, and think more critically about my reads.