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2014’s 5 Star Reads!

January 8, 2015 1 comment

Since 2011, I’ve been dedicating a separate post from my annual reading stats post to the 5 star reads of the year.  I not only thoroughly enjoy assembling the 5 star reads posts, but I also go back to them for reference periodically.  It’s just useful and fun simultaneously!  Plus it has the added bonus of giving an extra signal boost to the five star reads of the year.  You may view the 5 star reads for 2011, 2012, and 2013 by clicking on the years.

With no further ado, presenting Opinions of a Wolf’s 5 Star Reads for 2014!

A bone hand holds chopsticks.
A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts

By: Ying Chang Compestine
Publication Date: 2009
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Genre: Horror, Short Story Collection
Themes: Chinese history, food
Summary:
According to Chinese tradition, those who die hungry or wrongfully come back to haunt the living.  Compestine presents here eight different ghost stories, each correlated along with a course in a banquet and richly steeped in Chinese culture and history.
Current Thoughts:
A cute book that I think of fondly.  I really need to make at least one of the recipes in this book!  This short story collection is presented in just the way that I most enjoy.  Different stories surrounding one unifying theme.  Plus, I learned something.
Full Review

A Japanese warrior woman's face has the shadow of cat ears behind her. The book's title and author name are over this picture.
Fudoki

By: Kij Johnson
Publication Date: 2003
Publisher: Tor
Genre: Fantasy
Themes: the meaning of family, identity, duty
Summary:
An aging empress decides to fill her empty notebooks before she must get rid of them along with all of her belongings to retire to the convent, as is expected of her.  She ends up telling the story of Kagaya-hime, a tortoiseshell cat who loses her cat family in a fire and is turned into a woman by the kami, the god of the road.
Current Thoughts:
Warrior woman who was once a cat. Set in ancient Japan. What is not to love about that? My only regret is I waited so long to read this book.  It languished on my TBR pile for far too long.
Full Review

A woman's hair is barely visible on the left-hand side of a book cover. The book's title and author are in red against a black background.
Gone Girl

By: Gillian Flynn
Publication Date: 2012
Publisher: Broadway Books
Genre: Thriller, Contemporary
Themes: be careful who you marry, not everything is as it first appears
Summary:
On Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary, Nick comes home from working at the bar he co-owns with his sister to find his wife gone. The door is wide open, furniture is overturned, and the police say there is evidence that blood was cleaned up from the floor of the kitchen.  Eyes slowly start to turn toward Nick as the cause of her disappearance, while Nick slowly starts to wonder just how well he really knows his wife.
Current Thoughts:
It’s hard to give thoughts without revealing spoilers so let me just say that I still love the twist in this book, and I found the writing style to be perfect for a thriller.  It’s a book that really curled my toes, and I’m glad it exists and has become so popular, and I’m looking forward to reading more Gillian Flynn this year.
Full Review

Woman in short wedding dress and black boots holds a sword. A dog in a bow tie is nearby.
My Big Fat Demon Slayer Wedding

By: Angie Fox
Publication Date: 2013
Publisher: Indie, Self-Published
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Themes: weddings are hell but lifetime partnership is amazing
Summary:
Lizzie Brown, once preschool teacher turned demon slayer, is extremely excited to be marrying her true love, Dimitri Kallinikos, who just so happens to also be a magical shape-changing griffin.  And she’s also fine with letting her adoptive mother run the whole show, even though her mother wants to make the wedding into a week-long event.  She’s not so ok with having to tell her mother about being a demon slayer, though. Or about integrating her mother’s posh southern lady lifestyle with her recently discovered blood-related grandmother’s biker witch gang.  She’s pleasantly surprised that her mother found a goth-style mansion to rent for the wedding.  Maybe the magical and the non-magical can integrate fairly well, after all.  But then it becomes evident that someone in the wedding is trying to kill her.  Plus, they find demonic images around the property….
Current Thoughts:
I read this right after I got engaged, so I was in just the right frame of mind for an urban fantasy featuring a wedding.  But even if I hadn’t just gotten engaged before reading it, I still would have loved it.  This book knocks it out of the park with everything that makes urban fantasy delightful.  A normal event kicked up a notch by fantastical characters and happenings.  It also communicates the odd combination of the horror that is wedding planning and the pure joy that is finding your lifelong partner.  Plus it’s hilarious and romantic.
Full Review

A woman's jawline and neck are viewed through a shattered glass.
Still Missing

By: Chevy Stevens
Publication Date: 2010
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Genre: Thriller, Contemporary
Themes:  be careful who you trust, hope and healing
Summary:
Annie O’Sullivan extremely forcefully declares in her first therapy session that she doesn’t want her therapist to talk back to her; she just wants her to listen.  And so, through multiple sessions, she slowly finds a safe space to recount her horrible abduction from an open house she was running as an up-and-rising realtor, her year spent as the prisoner of her abductor, and of her struggles both to deal with her PTSD now that she’s free again and to deal with the investigation into her abduction.
Current Thoughts:
This book features a realistic depiction of PTSD plus it scared the pants off of me.  Still does if I think about it too much.
Full Review

A sunset near tropical trees and a mountain range
A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown

By: Julia Scheeres
Publication Date: 2011
Publisher: Free Press
Genre: Nonfiction – History
Themes: understanding a tragedy, when spirituality goes awry
Summary:
On November 18, 1978, 918 people, mostly Americans, died on a commune named Jonestown and on a nearby airstrip in Guyana.  The world came to know this event as that time that crazy cult committed mass suicide by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid.  However, that belief is full of inaccuracies.  Scheeres traces the origins of Jonestown, starting with its leader, Jim Jones, and his Christian church in Indiana, tracing its development into the People’s Temple in California, and then into Jonestown in Guyana.  Multiple members’ life stories are traced as well, including information from their family members who, perplexed, watched their families give everything over to Jones.
Current Thoughts:
I am so glad I read this.  I feel so much more informed and knowledgeable about Jonestown.  It’s sad to me that the cultural myth of Jonestown is so different from what actually happened, particularly with regards to the mass suicide, when in many cases it was murder not suicide. This book presents an event that would be easy to brush off as “those people were just crazy” in a way that humanizes it and makes it more real.
Full Review

Book Review: A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts by Ying Chang Compestine (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

September 16, 2014 11 comments

A bone hand holds chopsticks.Summary:
According to Chinese tradition, those who die hungry or wrongfully come back to haunt the living.  Compestine presents here eight different ghost stories, each correlated along with a course in a banquet and richly steeped in Chinese culture and history.

Review:
I picked this up because I had previously read Compestine’s book Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party (review) and when I looked up what else she had written, I was deeply intrigued by the premise.  This is a strong short story collection, featuring diverse yet related short stories, each beautifully written.

The eight short stories are organized into appetizers, main courses, and desserts.  The titles are for the food being served that course, such as “Tea Eggs” or “Long-life Noodles.”  The food mentioned in the title also appears somewhere in the story as a key part of the plot.  It’s a gorgeous way to organize the short stories and makes them also feel like diverse parts of a whole.

The short stories are mostly set in 20th century China, but a couple feature 20th century characters investigating something from the more distant past or being haunted by more ancient ghosts.  One story is set in New York City and features a Chinese-American family.

The stories, universally, quickly establish the setting and characters.  They all subtly teach some aspect of Chinese culture or history.  For instance, one story looks at medicine under Communism in China, while another features preying mantis fights.  At the end of each story, a brief blurb gives further details about two to three aspects of Chinese culture or history featured in the story.  Most surprising, and incredibly welcome, at the end of each short story, Compestine gives a recipe for the featured food!  It reminded me of how cozy mysteries often feature patterns or recipes at the end of the book, only this time the recipes are found in a shorty story horror collection.  Brilliant!

What about the horror aspect of the short stories?  I found them simultaneously plausible and sufficiently scary.  I was a bit on the edge of my seat without being scared out of my wits, which is exactly what I was looking for.

Overall, I immensely enjoyed each of these short stories, from the touch of horror to the settings to the amount I learned about Chinese culture and history to the wonderful recipes.  Highly recommended to anyone with even a moderate interest in China, Chinese culture, or Chinese food.  Even if horror isn’t usually your genre, give these ghosts a chance.  You’ll be glad you did.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Better World Books

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Banner for the RIP IX challenge.

Book Review: Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French

January 17, 2013 2 comments

Black adn white photo of a young woman above the skyline of Peking.Summary:
In 1937 the entire world is on the brink of war.  In Peking, China, the Japanese invaders are encroaching.  In the midst of this chaos the adopted daughter of British consulman is brutally murdered, her body found in the shadow of the Fox Tower, universally viewed with suspicion by the Pekingers as haunted by spirits.  Due to the special circumstances, the murder investigation requires the presence of both a Chinese and a British investigator.  They must race to find Pamela’s murderer before the Japanese engulf the city.

Review:
This true crime novel takes a bit to get things set up, but once they are, oh my how it sucks you in.

My fellow librarians will appreciate the backstory of how this true tale was discovered by French.  In the Afterword he states that he was digging around in some archives and stumbled upon a box of evidence that Pamela’s father sent off to the government, which was never really looked at and just put away in storage and then into archives.  It was through libraries that he even discovered this fascinating, intersectional true crime.  I think that’s encouraging to any librarian who has ever spent hours making a finding aid for archives.

So just what makes this true crime more fascinating than others?  Pamela was the adopted daughter of Werner, and her adoptive mother died at a young age.  She had been away at boarding school in Tientsin and was home for the holidays.  Because she was born in China but was also adopted by British consulman, there is an interesting assimilation into Chinese culture going on in her life that we don’t often see in Western novels.  Peking itself featured the legations and white districts for multiple different white Western countries.  This means that because Pamela was technically a British citizen murdered on Chinese ground both the Chinese and the British police force had to be involved and work together in the investigation.  Officer Han and DCI Dennis certainly make for a unique investigation team.  In addition, Pamela’s body was discovered in the shadow of the Fox Tower, and this led to speculation about fox spirits, which in Chinese tradition show up as wily women.  Of course quickly the seedy underbelly of Peking is implicated, featuring a multicultural bunch of addicts, dope dealers, brothels, and more, and naturally some of the classy elite start to be implicated into that underworld as well.  Add in the fact that the Japanese invasion was encroaching and toss in the first rumblings of Communism, and it makes for a story that is impossible to not find fascinating.

French unfurls the story well.  He quotes only when it is fairly certain what was said, but summarizes scenes well.  A clear picture of both Pamela and Peking are rendered fairly early in the novel.  I also appreciate that he spent time at the end talking about what happened to all of the key players and discussing how all-encompassing the Japanese invasion were.  I think what he handled best though was presenting people as individuals and not representative of their race or nation or even class.  In a true crime as multicultural as this one, that is important.  It’s also nice that in a story that could have easily turned into victim blaming, which happens so often when the victim is a young woman, he eloquently avoids any hint of that:

Pamela wasn’t perfect; she was making the same mistakes many girls do when experimenting with their independence, their newfound power on men. Her tragedy was to encounter the wrong men, at just the wrong moment. (location 2834)

I did, however, feel that the beginning was a bit lacking.  It took a bit to truly get into the story.  A faster pace or a more clear this is where we are going set-up would have been nice.  At first it felt like the rather dull story of some poor little imperialist rich girl.  But that’s not the story at all.  The story is that of an adopted girl in a country where she just so happens to be the color of worldwide colonizers, but it is instead the story of a diverse group of people horrified by the brutal murder of a young woman by a diverse group of sick, twisted people.  It would be nice if that was more clear from the beginning.

Overall, this is a well-told, historic true crime novel that manages to avoid victim blaming and also embrace multiculturalism.  It will be of particular interest to anyone with a fascination for Chinese or WWII history.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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