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2013’s 5 Star Reads!

January 4, 2014 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 enjoyed 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.

With no further ado, presenting Opinions of a Wolf’s 5 Star Reads for 2013!

Image of a bicycle with a bag of money on its back is under the title of the book in red.The $100 Startup: Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future
By: Chris Guillebeau
Publication Date: 2012
Publisher: Crown Business
Genre: Nonfiction Lifestyle
Themes: independence, success, small businesses
Summary:
Guillebeau investigated what makes microbusinesses (small businesses typically run by one person) successful by conducting a multiyear study interviewing more than 100 successful microbusiness entrepreneurs.  Here he presents his findings on what makes for a successful microbusiness and offers advice on how you can become a successful microbusiness entrepreneur too.
Current Thoughts:
I refer to things I learned in this book at least once a week.  Guillebeau offers practical advice for the aspiring small business owner on everything from choosing an idea that will work to setting the right price to marketing.  The things I’ve been able to try from the book so far have worked.  This book shows what happens when a nonfiction book bases its advice on solid research.

Black silhouette of birds and trees against a moon and a red background with a face just discernible in it.The Curse of the Wendigo (The Monstrumologist, #2)
By: Rick Yancey
Publication Date: 2011
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Genre: Horror, YA
Themes: love lost, the nature of good and evil
Summary:
Will Henry, 12 year old orphan and assistant to renowned Monstrumologist, Pellinore Warthrop, is shocked to find a refined woman on Warthrop’s doorstep.  She is the wife of Warthrop’s best friend who has now gone missing in rural Canada while looking for the elusive wendigo (aka werewolf).  Warthrop insists that there is no such thing as a wendigo, but he agrees to go looking for his missing friend anyway, even if he believes his mission was ridiculous and an affront to monstrumology’s reputation.
Current Thoughts:
What I remember when I think about this book is the beautiful language and the dual setting of the horror.  Setting the book both in rural Canada and urban New York is part of what made it feel so unique to me.  A horror that travels instead of being trapped in one setting isn’t seen as often.  The book is beautiful and grotesque at the same time. A rare find.

Image drawn in largely dark colors of a man's plasticene face with rectangular wings behind him.Man Plus
By: Frederik Pohl
Publication Date: 1976
Publisher: Orb Books
Genre: Scifi
Themes: transhumanism, artificial intelligence
Summary:
The first Earthling reworked into a Martian would be Roger Torraway.  Martian instead of Earthling since everything on him had to be reworked in order to survive on Mars.  His organic skin is stripped off and made plastic.  His eyes are replaced by large, buglike red ones.  He is given wings to gather solar power, not to fly.  All of which is organized and run by his friend, the computer on his back.  Who was this man? What was his life like? How did he survive the transformation to become more than human and help us successfully colonize Mars?
Current Thoughts:
This has a scifi plot that both explores an issue I’m interested in (transhumanism) and managed to surprise me at the end.  It’s a short book that makes you think and has compelling three-dimensional characters.  I’ll definitely be keeping this one and seeking out more of Pohl’s writing.

Red lettering on a yellow background stating "A Queer and Pleasant Danger" black lettering around the edge says the subtitle of the novel, "The true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology, and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today"A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology, and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She is Today
By: Kate Bornstein
Publication Date: 2012
Publisher: Beacon Press
Genre: Memoir, GLBTQ
Themes:  religious abuse, trans rights, gender, Borderline Personality Disorder
Summary:
Kate Bornstein is a playwright, gender theorist, and queer activist.  She chose to write a memoir as a way to reach out to her daughter, Jessica, who is still in the Church of Scientology, and thus, must not speak to her.  Her memoir talks about growing up Jewish in the 1950s, feeling like a girl inside a boy’s body.  It then talks about why and how she joined Scientology (still identifying as a man, Al), climbing Scientology’s ladder, marrying, fathering Jessica, and finally getting kicked out of Scientology and becoming disillusioned.  From there the memoir explains to Jessica how and why Al decided to become Kate and talks about the person behind the queer theory, trying to explain who the incredibly unique parent she has truly is.
Current Thoughts:
This memoir is engaging right from the title and stunning in the level of honesty Bornstein displays.  Bornstein eloquently presents the reality of being trans, entering a leaving an abusive religion, and the complexities of gender.  An incredibly readable memoir that stays with you.

Woman standing in front of electrical storm.Succubus Dreams (Georgina Kincaid, #3)
By: Richelle Mead
Publication Date: 2008
Publisher: Kensington
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Themes: the grayness of good versus evil
Summary:
Seattle’s succubus, Georgina Kincaid, has a lot on her hands between dating her human author boyfriend, Seth, (and not sleeping with him to protect his life energy), adjusting to her new managerial position at the bookstore, and her usual succubus requirement of stealing good men’s life energy by sleeping with them.  So the last thing she needs is another new assignment from hell, but that’s what she’s getting.  Seattle is getting a second succubus, a newbie she has to mentor.  When she starts having dreams about having a normal, human life and waking up with her energy drained, it all turns into almost too much for one succubus to handle.
Current Thoughts:
This series glows in my mind as a favorite that I will return to again and again.  This book is where I truly began to fall in love with it.  The third entry shows that urban fantasy can be more than monster of the week.  It does what genre does best.  Ponder real life questions in an enjoyable wrapping.

Woman in white and wearing a cross standing in front of a foggy sky.Succubus Revealed (Georgina Kincaid, #6)
By: Richelle Mead
Publication Date: 2011
Publisher: Kensington
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Themes: soul mates, forgiveness, personal growth
Summary:
Seattle’s succubus, Georgina Kincaid, is incredibly happy to be back together with her previously ex boyfriend, Seth Mortensen.  But getting back together with him came at the price of hurting his once-fiancee and having to leave her previously loved position managing the bookstore.  It’s all worth it to be with Seth, though.  But then a transfer notice comes in, sending her to her dream job in Las Vegas.  It’d be a dream come true, except Seth can’t come with her because his sister-in-law has cancer.  Georgina starts to wonder just why so many elements seem to keep coming together to try to drive her and Seth apart.
Current Thoughts:
This an amazing series finale that reveals so many aspects of the overarching plot that I wanted to go back and re-read the whole series immediately just to look for more of the overarching plot that I was oblivious to the first time around.  It’s a wrap-up that is satisfying without making everything too perfect for the characters.  It has a lot to say about love and redemption. And it made me cry.

Redheaded woman in a sexy leather top standing in front of fog.Succubus Shadows (Georgina Kincaid, #5)
By: Richelle Mead
Publication Date: 2010
Publisher: Kensington
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Themes: facing your past
Summary:
Seattle’s succubus, Georgina Kincaid, cannot believe she has been roped into helping plan her ex-boyfriend’s wedding.  It’s enough to make anyone depressed.  But she can’t afford to be depressed, because every time she starts to feel down, a mysterious force tries to lure her away to what must be a dangerous place.  Georgina is fed up with all of these mysterious attacks on Seattle.  It just doesn’t make sense.  What is making them target Seattle? And seem to be maybe targeting her?
Current Thoughts:
The penultimate book in this series isn’t afraid to go dark places with tough questions.  It also addresses the issue in urban fantasy that a lot of people joke about: gee that’s sure a lot happening in this one town!  Mead addresses this in a tongue-in-cheek manner that also ties into the overall plot.  I was amazed at how well this series incorporates both all the things that make urban fantasy fun (demons! sex! supernatural battles!) and an overarching plot that tugs at the heart strings and makes some of the bizarre things that happen make sense.

Simple cover image containing a broad off-white background on the top third of the cover and a red background on the bottom two thirds. The book's title and author are printed on the background.The Time Machine
By: H. G. Wells
Publication Date: 1895
Publisher: New American Library
Genre: Scifi, Classic
Themes: dystopia, time travel, evolution, class divides
Summary:
Nobody is quite sure whether to believe their eccentric scientist friend when he claims to have invented the ability to travel through time.  But when he shows up late to a dinner party with a tale of traveling to the year 802,700 and meeting the human race, now divided into the child-like Eloi and the pale ape-like ground-dwelling Morlocks, they find themselves wanting to believe him.
Current Thoughts:
I’m so glad I added this scifi classic to my list of books I’ve read.  I of course had heard of the general idea of the Morlocks and the Eloi, but reading about them for myself, I was easily able to see how this became a classic.  It kept me on the edge of my seat, concerned for the scientist’s safety, even while exploring issues of inequitable class divides and pondering the future direction of the evolution of the human race.

A green and white book cover with an image of a woman and her reflection.Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers
By: Karyl McBride
Publication Date: 2008
Publisher: Free Press
Genre: Nonfiction Psych, Nonfiction Relationships
Themes: overcoming adversity, mother/daughter relationships, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, abuse
Summary:
A guidebook for adult women raised by a mother with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).  Dr. McBride is a therapist with many years of experience treating daughters of NPD mothers and also with treating people with NPD.  Additionally, she herself is the daughter of a woman with NPD.  The book is divided into three sections to help the daughters of mothers with NPD to heal and take charge of their lives.  The first section “Recognizing the Problem,” explains what maternal NPD looks like.  The second section, “How Narcissistic Mothering Affects Your Entire Life,” explains the impact NPD mothers have on their daughters, both as children and as adults.  The third section, “Ending the Legacy” is all about healing from the NPD mothering and breaking the cycle of Narcissism.  Dr. McBride offers clinical examples from her practice as well as detailed, clearly explained exercises to aid with healing.
Current Thoughts:
This is one of the best books I’ve read for adult survivors of abusive childhoods.  It works because it focuses narrowly on one type of relationship and one type of dysfunctional, abusive childhood to be overcome.  McBride explains what happened to the adult survivor when they were a child, how that affects them now, and how to overcome it.  She does this while neither excusing nor demonizing the mother’s behavior.  A great book for anyone with an interest in how mothers with NPD affect their daughters.

Series Review: The Monstrumologist Series by Rick Yancey

October 19, 2013 1 comment

Introduction:
I post series reviews after completing reading an entire series of books.  It gives me a chance to reflect on and analyze the series as a whole.  These series reviews are designed to also be useful for people who: A) have read the series too and would like to read other thoughts on it or discuss it with others OR B) have not read the series yet but would like a full idea of what the series is like, including possible spoilers, prior to reading it themselves or buying it for another.  Please be aware that series reviews necessarily contain some spoilers.

Bird on a cross against the moon.Summary:
A nursing home contacts a researcher.  An elderly man has passed away.  He identified himself to them as Will Henry, but they can’t find any record of him or living relatives.  He left behind four folios, telling what he claimed to be his life story.  The first folio begins when his parents die in a fire, and he is left in the care of his father’s employer, Dr. Warthrop.  In the 1800s.  Over 100 years ago.  And Dr. Warthrop is a Monstrumologist.  He specializes in the study of aberrant biology, or monsters.  And Will is now his apprentice.  The first thing Dr. Warthrop tells Will is that Will Henry contracted a parasite from his father.  Normally deadly, he is mysteriously a safe host.  The parasite will make him abnormally long-living, and any contact that is too close will make him pass it along to another.

What follows over the course of the folios is the tale of the monsters Will Henry faced alongside and because of Dr. Warthrop.  The anthropophagi–headless creatures with mouths in their stomachs.  The wendigo–similar to a werewolf.  The Typheus Magnificum–the Holy Grail of Monstrumology that may or may not exist.  And finally the Titanoboa Cerrejonensis–a giant snake.  There are these monsters, yes.  But there are also the questionable choices and personalities of the various Monstrumologists, and the slowly unwinding monster inside a boy who has seen too much and been loved too little.

The question left for the researcher is how can Will Henry continue along an increasingly dark path when all signs indicate he eventually happily married his childhood sweetheart?  And are these ramblings true or just the fairy tale of an elderly man?

Monsters and madness encircle Will Henry, Dr. Warthrop, the researcher, and the reader as the folios slowly reveal all.

Black silhouette of birds and trees against a moon and a red background with a face just discernible in it.Review:
There is a lot going for this series that makes it unique and highly recommendable, particularly among its competitors in YA.

It’s horror based in the realms of science and the grotesque.  Wanton blood and guts, serial killers, etc… won’t be found but it also doesn’t shy away from bits of the criminal underworld or real bodily danger.  Will Henry loses a finger at one point. The monsters are real and frequently either eat people or turn people themselves into monsters.  It combines to elicit horror in the reader in the tradition of Frankenstein.  It’s perfect for readers who shy away from slashers or crime novels but still want a dash of terror.

In lieu of a romance, the relationship at the center of the series is between Will and his guardian, Dr. Warthrop.  Yes, the series repeats the common YA trope of an orphan, thereby getting rid of the parents, but just because there are no parents doesn’t mean that there’s no guardian/young person conflict.  In fact, I think that having the conflict be between Will and a, to him, incomprehensible older guardian allows for a more free exploration of the difficulties that can arise in this relationship.  The fact that Dr. Warthrop is not his father means that Yancey is freer to quickly move into the mixed emotions and misunderstandings that can so easily happen in this type of relationship.  Dr. Warthrop has many flaws as a guardian, but he does truly love and care for Will.  Will at first feels lost and no connection with Dr. Warthrop, then he grows to love him in spite of his flaws, then he slowly starts to loathe him.  Whether or not this loathing is warranted is left up to the reader to decide, and I do think that Yancey succeeds at making it a gray area that each reader will reach a different conclusion on.  This relationship gets just as much, if not more, time as the monsters, and it’s one of the things that makes the series worth reading.

Tree and birds silhouetted against a moon and a green background.Yancey isn’t afraid to not just use, but embrace poetic language and literary allusions.  I was truly stunned at the beauty of the language when reading the first book, and that beauty continues throughout the series.  It’s like reading an old, Gothic novel, setting the perfect tone for the world building.  A YA reader who perhaps hadn’t previously experienced narration like this might after reading it be inclined to seek out similar writing, thus finding some classics.  And even if they don’t, it’s a wonderful change of pace for YA.

Setting the story of Will and Dr. Warthrop in the context of the mystery of the modern elderly man, his folios, and the researcher looking into them lends an extra layer to the story that increases its complexity.  The researcher is just as curious as the reader to find out more.  He also provides some necessary historical facts and questions the veracity of some of Will Henry’s statements.  Throughout the series, the researcher is wondering if this actually happened or if it’s all just the imaginings of an elderly man.  The ultimate reveal still leaves this a bit of a mystery, letting the reader decide for themselves what they would prefer to be the answer.

The strength of the monsters varies throughout the series.  Some are perfectly crafted, such as the anthropophagi.  Others can be a bit less frightening or too predictable to be as engaging.  This definitely lends to an uneven pace of suspense in the series and could be disappointing to a reader who is more invested in monsters than in the character development.

Cover of The Final Descent. An orange sky with a moon is covered by a black silhouette of birds on tree branches and a bridge.The ending.  The ending must be discussed.  *spoiler warning* Will Henry in the last book has turned into a dark, lawless, desperate character.  He has been changed by what he has seen.  His childhood sweetheart, Lily Bates, finds him frightening and lacking in morals.  He blames Dr. Warthrop for all of his issues.  While Dr. Warthrop definitely is at fault for not treating Will Henry like an adult and keeping him in the loop for his schemes, Dr. Warthrop also never taught Will to be so cold, desperate, or that it’s ok to wantonly kill.  Will ultimately goes on an opiate and sex binge in a prostitution house.  Dr. Warthrop finds him and pulls him out, in an attempt to save him.  It is then that Willl finds out that the parasites he is infected with will spread with sexual intercourse and kill his partner in a truly grotesque manner, eating them from the inside out.  Will gives up on Dr. Warthrop and all relationships and proceeds to travel the world aimlessly.  The researcher ultimately discovers that Will later runs into Lily with her new husband.  It is then that he reveals that Lily’s husband’s name was Will Henry, and he stole it as a pseudonym for these stories.  So he never married Lily.  Was never happy.  He is now nameless.  It’s an incredibly dark ending that leaves the researcher, and the reader, reeling.  It was honestly a bit too hopeless for me.  It felt as if Yancey was saying Will got sucked down into the monsters in his soul and could find no escape.  I prefer to have a bit more hope in the world than that, particularly after spending four books with a character and growing to care for them.  *end spoilers*

While I can still appreciate what Yancey was doing and what he was going for–a truly dark book–I feel that any potential readers or gift givers should be aware that it starts dark, gets darker, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

There is also a bit of a dearth of female characters in the series.  In the two middle books, we get brief exposures to Dr. Warthrop’s old sweetheart and Lily Bates.  That’s pretty much it.  I’m ok with that, since much of the time is devoted to Will Henry and Dr. Warthrop.  I also understand that the time period in which it is set definitely would not have had a female monstrumologist.  I think Yancey tries to make up for this by having Lily be determined to be the first female monstrumologist, but I also think he steps back from this plotline in the final book, which disappointed me a bit.  Essentially, be aware that if you’re looking for a strong female presence in the plot of your series, look elsewhere.

Overall, this is a unique series that deserves to be in any YA collection.  It address young adult/guardian relationships in the rich wrapping of Gothic style horror narrated with a beautiful poetic language.  Its historical setting and focus on the boy and his guardian doesn’t lend itself to a strong female presence in the series, although the female characters that do exist are good ones.  Its darkness increases throughout the series, so don’t come into this expecting a happy ending.  I’m pleased I took the time to read the entire series, and could see reading it again.  Recommended to both YA fans looking for something different and Gothic horror fans who don’t normally do YA.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift, Audible, and Amazon

Books in Series:
The Monstrumologist, review, 5 stars
The Curse of the Wendigo, review, 5 stars
The Isle of Blood, review, 4 stars
The Final Descent, review, 4 stars

Book Review: The Final Descent by Rick Yancey (Series, #4)

October 17, 2013 1 comment

Cover of The Final Descent. An orange sky with a moon is covered by a black silhouette of birds on tree branches and a bridge. Summary:
The man investigating the folios found with an elderly man who claimed to be over a hundred years old and named Will Henry has reached the final folio containing what this elderly man claimed to have been his life story.  The final folio is discombobulated and poetic, and so the investigator arranges it for us to read following the style of Dante’s Inferno.  And what a story it tells.

Will Henry is now a bitter, cold teenager still serving Dr. Warthrop.  When a man shows up at the door claiming to have a previously thought extinct monstrous snake’s egg for sale, Will Henry takes the acquisition into his own hands.  When they bring the egg to New York City for the annual meeting of Monstrumologists, Dr. Warthrop begins to question Will Henry’s loyalty, and Will Henry increasingly ignores all advice, going off on his own bloody ideas.  What direction will Will Henry’s and Dr. Warthrop’s lives ultimately take?

Review:
There were hints throughout the Monstrumologist series that it was going to continually descend to a dark place.  But I must admit I was slightly fooled by the idea put forth multiple times that Will Henry at least for part of his life is happily married.  I thought there would be a glimmer of hope in the ending.  Boy was I wrong.  This is an incredibly dark book, and a series ending that surprised me.  While still a strong read, it didn’t hold all the all-encompassing power and grotesque beauty I found in the first two entries in the series.

Yancey takes the poetic language found in the first three books and kicks it up a notch with the inclusion of the Dante-styled method for dividing the book into sections.  Beyond that, the language itself becomes increasingly poetic.  One line that is repeated a few times throughout the book is:

Time is a line. But we are circles. (page 4)

I found both the structure and the language interesting and gorgeous, and I really appreciate their inclusion in YA literature.  I can imagine that many of the younger readers of the book might never have read Dante and seeing this structure in this book might spur them on to check it out.  One thing that I’ve enjoyed throughout the series is that Yancey doesn’t shy away from challenging YA readers, and I’m glad to see that continued here.

The monster in this story is delightfully terrifying.  An egg that hatches a snake that eats its prey from the inside out? There’s nothing not terrifying about that.  Plus the monster is revealed early on, a nice change of pace from The Isle of Blood where we’re left to wonder about it for a long time.  There is also a secondary, surprise monster later on that I found to be a disgustingly nice touch.

The plot is quite complex, and yet also makes sense when various aspects of it are revealed.  It also manages to still be fresh, even though The Curse of the Wendigo was also set half in New York City.  The plot revolves much more around Will Henry and his choices and his personality than around the monster itself, which is appropriate.  Dr. Warthrop’s choices are also touched upon, but how everything has affected Will Henry is truly the focus of the plot.  It’s an interesting psychiatric study, and I was left truly wondering how things could possibly have worked out differently for either Will Henry or Dr. Warthrop.  There are no easy answers, and that gray area is a great setting for horror.

The book spends a lot of time wondering both what makes a monster and if madness can be avoided or escaped.  The first is a question addressed earlier in the series, and I think Yancey deals with it eloquently.  The second takes quite a dark turn in this book, and I was left feeling empty, hopeless, and saddened.

Madness is a wholly human malady borne in a brain too evolved—or not quite evolved enough—to bear the awful burden of its own existence. (page 170)

It’s certainly valid to view madness as an inescapable pariah for some.  I suppose I just have more hope for the world than that.  That’s what left me disappointed with the ending.  I wanted more hope.  Other readers might be less bothered by the tragic end.

Overall, this is a strong final entry in the acclaimed Monstrumologist series.  The poetic language is beefed up with a Dante style structure, and the plot is complex, following the ultimate impact on Will Henry of growing up as Dr. Warthrop’s apprentice in Monstrumology.  Some readers may be disappointed or overly saddened by the ending lacking a glimmer of hope but others will enjoy its incredibly dark turn.  Readers of the previous three books should not miss this one.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

Buy It

Previous Books in Series:
The Monstrumologist, review
The Curse of the Wendigo, review
The Isle of Blood, review

Book Review: The Isle of Blood by Rick Yancey (Audiobook narrated by Steven Boyer) (Series, #3)

April 29, 2013 2 comments

Tree and birds silhouetted against a moon and a green background.Summary:
Will Henry states that this is a story that Dr. Warthrop did not want told…and proceeds to tell it anyway.  When a British man shows up with a package being delivered under duress, Dr. Warthrop is ecstatic to realize it is the nest of the Magnificum–the holy grail of monstrumology.  Dr. Warthrop decides to leave Will Henry in New York while he pursues this beast.  But when his monstrumologist companion returns claiming that Warthrop is dead, Will Henry and two fellow monstrumologists travel to Europe to track him–or his body–down.

Review:
Not as engaging or thought-provoking as the first two books in the series, I can only hope that this third entry is suffering from the common penultimate book malady where the book which must set everything up for the finale of the series can sometimes drag.

There are two problems in this entry that make it fail to be as engaging or thrilling as the first two books.  First, Will Henry is left behind in New York for a significant portion of the novel.  We are thus left with a whiny teenager bemoaning Warthrop’s choice to be responsible for once and keep him out of danger.  We also are left with very little action for far too large a portion of the book.  The second issue is perhaps a bit of a spoiler but suffice to say that the monster is disappointing and its disappointment is easily predicted.  If we had a lot of action with a disappointing monster, that’s still engaging.  If we had less excitement with a surprising, phenomenal monster, that’s still thrilling.  The combination of the two, though, prevents this thriller from being as thrilling and engaging as it should be.

Of course there are other elements that still worked, which is why I kept reading it.  Yancey’s writing is, as ever, beautiful to read (or listen to) and contains much depth.

“So many times we express our fear as anger…, and now I think I wasn’t angry at all, but afraid. Terribly, terribly afraid.”

The settings are unique, and the characters are strong and leap off of the pages.  Will Henry becomes more fully fleshed-out in this entry as we start to see his descent into a love affair with monstrumology.  We also get to see Warthrop at what he himself perceives of as his lowest point.  It’s a dark bit of characterization but it works very well for the story Yancey is telling.

Overall, I was a bit disappointed, purely because the first two entries in the series were so phenomenal.  The third book is still a very good book.  Fans might be a bit disappointed, depending on how attached they are to the unique thriller aspect of the series, but the characters and writing still make this well worth the time.  Fans will remain in eager anticipation of the final entry in the series.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

Buy It

Previous Books in Series
The Monstrumologist, review
The Curse of the Wendigo, review

2011’s 5 Star Reads!

December 31, 2011 15 comments

My one regret last year when summing up my year in reading was that the 5 star reads didn’t get enough attention. So! They are getting their own post this time.  Please note that if the 5 star went to a book in a graphic novel series, I am just listing the whole series.  If it’s a non-graphic series, then the individual book is listed with a note about what series it is in.  With no further ado, presenting Opinions of a Wolf’s 5 Star Reads for 2011!

Black woman wrapped in a white piece of cloth.The Book of Night Women
By: Marlon James
Publication Date: 2009
Publisher: Riverhead
Genre: Historical Fiction
Themes: slavery, Jamaica, resistance, evil of capitalism
Summary:
This is the story of Lilith. A mulatto with green eyes born on a plantation in Jamaica to a mama who was raped at 14 by the overseer as punishment to her brother.  Raised by a whore and a crazy man, all Lilith has ever wanted was to improve her status on the plantation. And maybe to understand why her green eyes seem to freak out slave and master alike.  Assigned to be a house slave, Lilith finds herself in direct contact with the most powerful slave on the plantation–Homer, who is in charge of the household.  Homer brings her into a secret meeting of the night women in a cave on the grounds and attempts to bring Lilith into a rebellion plot, insisting upon the darkness innate in Lilith’s soul.  But Lilith isn’t really sure what exactly will get her what she truly wants–to feel safe and be with the man she cares for.
Current Thoughts:
If someone asked me for a book that truly makes the reader feel the desperation of being trapped in an evil system with no escape, this is the book I would hand them.

Wolf howling at moon.The Call of the Wild
By: Jack London
Publication Date: 1903
Publisher: CreateSpace
Genre: Historical Fiction, Animal Perspective
Themes: animal rights, human/animal relationships, the nature of nature, Alaska, Canada, evil of capitalism
Summary:
Buck is a spoiled southern dog enjoying a posh life when one of the family’s servants steals him and sells him away to be a sled dog for the Alaska gold rush.  Buck soon goes from an easy life to one of trials and tribulations as the result of humans fawning over a golden metal, but it might not be all bad for him in the wild Alaskan north.
Current Thoughts:
I listened to this on audiobook.  I generally do this while cooking or cleaning my apartment. I distinctly remember being in the middle of washing my dishes, stopping, and going to lay down on my bed and cry.  No one could read this book and doubt that animals have their own inner lives and emotions.  It so powerfully depicts both that and the possible bond between animals and people.  Everything I have always felt between myself and the animals I love is so perfectly depicted here.

Black and white photo of a group of womenThe Group
By: Mary McCarthy
Publication Date: 1954
Publisher: Harvest Books
Genre: Historical Fiction
Themes: women’s rights, GLBTQ, women’s colleges, relationships, NYC
Summary:
A collection of women graduate from Vassar in the 1930s.  Their friendship is known collectively as “The Group,” and their distinctive Vassar education has given them a distinctly liberal view on the world.  How this changes with time as they repeatedly encounter societal expectations and relationship problems are told through a series of vignettes that focus in on moments in their lives over the seven years after graduation.
Current Thoughts:
This book addresses women’s issues in the 1930s and 1940s that are, honestly, too frequently too often issues today as well, through a series of vignettes that pop into the various women’s lives at different points in time.  This unique way of telling their stories is what makes this book such a powerful read.

Germany and Italy (manga versions)Hetalia: Axis Powers
By: Hidekaz Himaruya
Publication Date: 2008
Publisher: TokyoPop
Genre: Graphic Novel–Historical Fiction
Themes: international relations, world history
Summary:
The nations involved in WWII and the events leading up to it are personified as over-the-top manga characters and through manga-style scenarios the historic events leading up to WWII are explored.  The future of the nations after WWII is also explored.  For example: Russia’s dilemmas with his sisters the Ukraine and Belarus, Canada’s persistent ability to somehow be invisible to most of the rest of the G8 nations (and also to be mistaken for America), and Japan-kun and America-kun visiting each other’s homes and attempting to reach a cultural understanding.
Current Thoughts:
I actually squee when I see the manga version of America online.  I heart him so much. I heart the whole series so much. This series is the reason I got distraught when TokyoPop went out of business.  Read it.  Even if you aren’t a history person. It is hilarious!

Scales.Hunger (Riders of the Apocalypse, #1)
By: Jackie Morse Kessler
Publication Date: 2010
Publisher: Harcourt Graphia
Genre: YA–Fantasy
Themes: anorexia, bulimia, mental illness, winning inner battles, suicide
Summary:
Lisabeth Lewis thought it was just a nightmare.  Death coming to her when she tried to commit suicide with her mom’s antidepressants and offering to make her Famine–one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse–instead of letting her die.  It’s just all way too ironic, her as Famine.  After all, she’s fat.  She has to watch what she eats very carefully.  The Thin voice tells her all the time exactly how many calories each bit of food is and how much exercise it’ll take to burn it off.  Yes.  Lisabeth Lewis is fat.  So why would Death assign Famine to her anyway?
Current Thoughts:
I still love how Kessler depicts the inner battles that go on in mental illness via the fantastical appearance of Death and the Riders of the Apocalypse.  It makes it more relatable and understandable for teens struggling with those issues.

Woman in a kerchief in a fieldI Am Hutterite
By: Mary-Ann Kirkby
Publication Date: 2007
Publisher: Polka Dot Press
Genre: Nonfiction–Memoir
Themes: role of religion in family life, understanding your past, communal living, Canada
Summary:
Mary Ann Kirkby recounts her unique childhood in her memoir.  She was born into a Hutterite family.  The Hutterites are a religious sect similar to the Amish only they believe that living communally is a mandate for Christians.  Mary Ann recounts her childhood both in the religious sect (her particular group was located in western Canada), as well as the journey and culture shock she went through when her parents left the Hutterites when she was nine years old.
Current Thoughts:
This is the most unique memoir I read all year, and I read a lot of them.  Not only is the Hutterite lifestyle and community fascinating, but Kirkby also pulled off the rare feat of speaking about her childhood and difficult times in her life without ever once coming across as bitter.

Super creepy clownIt
By: Stephen King
Publication Date: 1986
Publisher: Signet
Genre: Horror
Themes: growing up, growing old, phases of life, Maine
Summary:
In the late 1950s in the small town of Derry, Maine, children are being mysteriously murdered.  Seven misfit and outcast kids band together to face It, and they think they’ve beaten it, but 27 years later, the murders return.  Vaguely remembering a promise they all made, the now adults return to their hometown of Derry to face It again.
Current Thoughts:
If someone asked me why I love pulp, what makes a horror writer like King so popular, I’d talk about this book.  King eloquently addresses something everyone goes through–being a kid, growing up, growing old–without the reader even really realizing it until the book is done and wraps it up in spine-chilling horror.  You relate and learn and your true fears are acquiesced all while being entertained.

Smoke coming out of a smoke stackThe Jungle
By: Upton Sinclair
Publication Date: 1906
Publisher: Simon & Brown
Genre: American Classic
Themes: socialism, worker’s rights, animal rights, evil of capitalism, Chicago, social justice, vegetarianism, debt slavery
Summary:
In the early 1900s Jurgis and his soon-to-be family by marriage decide to immigrate to the US from Lithuania.  Having heard from an old friend that Chicago’s Packingtown is where a working man can easily make his way in the world, this is where they head.  Soon the family find themselves deep in the horror that is the regulated in name only meat packing plants.  Dominated by a society that circulates entirely around greed and wealth for the few at the expense of the many, the family and individuals within it slowly fall apart.  But is there a light at the end of the tunnel?
Current Thoughts:
It still baffles me that when this book came out all anyone could talk about was food safety.  I believe Sinclair did a great job demonstrating the plight of the blue collar worker, as well as the horrors of animal slaughter.  This is a classic that deserves that label.

Bird on a cross against the moon.The Monstrumologist (The Monstrumologist, #1)
By: Rick Yancey
Publication Date: 2009
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Genre: Horror
Themes: New England, the nature of evil, relationships
Summary:
A New England town’s oldest resident dies leaving no known surviving family.  His journals end up at the university where a professor loans them to a writer friend.  In the first three folios, we learn of young Will Henry whose father and mother died in a terrible house fire leaving him to the care of his father’s employer–Warthrop.  Warthrop is a monstrumologist.  He studies monsters, and people arrive in the middle of the night for his help.  One night a grave robber arrives with the body of a young girl wrapped in the horrifying embrace of an anthropophagus–a creature with no head and a mouth full of shark-like teeth in the middle of his chest.  Will Henry, as the assistant apprentice monstrumologist, soon finds himself sucked into the secret horror found in his hometown.
Current Thoughts:
I still can’t get the damn image of the anthropophagus out of my head.  Also the characters of Will and Warthrop will forever live on in my head.  New England horror done exquisitely.

Red sword.Rage (Riders of the Apocalypse, #2)
By: Jackie Morse Kessler
Publication Date: 2011
Publisher: Harcourt Graphia
Genre: YA–Fantasy
Themes: mental illness, self-injury, bullying
Summary:
Melissa Miller is your typical 16 year old–mom, dad, annoying sister, a jerk of an ex-boyfriend–with one small difference.  She deals with her emotions by cutting herself.  She keeps a razor in a locked box in her closet and pulls it out when she gets overwhelmed.  One night she accidentally cuts too deep, and Death shows up with an option.  Either die now or become one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse–War.  Missy chooses the latter option, and as she gets to know the other Horsemen and her job as War, she starts to realize she needs to face the rage inside her.
Current Thoughts:
I periodically find myself thinking back on the climactic scene of this book, which in a fantastical manner depicts a self-injurer facing the anger inside herself.  If someone needs to understanding self-injury and doesn’t want to read the academic work on the topic, this is the book I would hand them.

Woman kissing man while surrounded by fire.Touched by an Alien (Katherine “Kitty” Katt, #1)
By: Gini Koch
Publication Date: 2010
Publisher: Daw Books
Genre: Paranormal Romance
Themes: aliens, FBI, intrigue, Arizona, action, sex
Summary:
Katherine “Kitty” Katt manages to get released early from a dull day of jury duty only to find herself confronted with an angry man who sprouts wings and starts flinging knives from their tips toward everyone in the vicinity.  Kitty attacks and stops him and quickly finds herself sucked into a world she was unaware existed.  A world of alien refugees defending Earth and themselves from a bunch of fugly alien parasites.  She soon discovers her ordinary parents are more involved in this secret world than she would ever have dreamed.  On top of that, she’s increasingly finding herself falling for one of the alien hunks who announced his intentions to marry her almost immediately upon meeting her.
Current Thoughts:
Aliens in suits? Check. Some lines and scenes pop into my head at odd times and make me laugh? Check. Favorite paranormal romance series to date? Triple-check.

Silhouette of a person standing in a white hall.The Unit
By: Ninni Holmqvist
Publication Date: 2006
Publisher: Other Press
Genre: Scifi–Dystopian
Themes: old age, socialism, Sweden, medical research
Summary:
In the Sweden of the near future women who reach the age of 50 and men who reach the age of 60 without having successfully acquired a partner or had children are deemed “dispensable” and sent to live in “a unit.”  These units appear at first glance to be like a high-class retirement home, and indeed they have all the amenities.  The residents, however, are required both to participate in medical experiments and to donate various organs and body parts up until their “final donation” of their heart anywhere from a year or a few years after their arrival in the unit.  Dorrit arrives at the unit depressed, but accepting of her fate as the result of her independent nature, but when she falls in love, she starts to question everything.
Current Thoughts:
This is a book that I literally cannot stop thinking about.  It left me with no clear answers, but tons of questions.  I also think of Dorrit and her friends every time I have a steam after working out, just like them.

Red cover with white and cold lettering.The Vampire Lestat (The Vampire Chronicles, #2)
By: Anne Rice
Publication Date: 1985
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Genre: Fantasy–Vampires
Themes: resiliency, searching for love, European history, Egypt, rock stars, New Orleans
Summary:
Lestat, the maker of Louis and Claudia, takes center stage here to tell his own origin story, as well as explain why he has chosen to come out as a vampire rock star in the 1980s.  Starting with his beginnings as a rural member of the ruling class prior to the French Revolution, we discover the origins of the Vampire Theater, as well as the origins of vampires themselves.
Current Thoughts:
I just really love Lestat. You can vamp me and carry me around forever with you, dude.

Person in red surrounded by zombies.The Walking Dead
By: Robert Kirkman
Publication Date: 2010
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre: Graphic Novel–Horror
Themes: creation of a new society, living in fear, unjust wars, truthiness, self-protection, zombies, Georgia, survival
Summary:
When cop Rick wakes up from a coma brought on by a gun shot wound, he discovers a post-apocalyptic mess and zombies everywhere.  He sets off for Atlanta in search of his wife, Lori, and son, Carl, and soon teams up with a rag-tag group of survivors camped just outside of Atlanta.
Current Thoughts:
I’m still working my way through this series, but it just progressively gets better and better.  Although the beginning is cliche, it does not take Kirkman long to become unique, surprising, and thought-provoking.

Angry cow.Whitewash: The Disturbing Truth About Cow’s Milk and Your Health
By: Joseph Keon
Publication Date: 2010
Publisher: New Society Publishers
Genre: Nonfiction–Science and Health
Themes: health, Standard American Diet, animal rights, veganism, cancer, heart disease
Summary:
Joseph Keon seeks to combat the cultural myth of dairy being a necessary part of a healthy diet perpetuated by the milk moustache ads with his book citing multiple scientific studies that have been swept under the rug by those being paid by the dairy lobbyists.  Although Keon cares about animal welfare as well (and there is a chapter on the suffering of dairy cows), the book predominantly focuses on debunking multiple myths surrounding human consumption of dairy:  the overly-hyped “need” for calcium, that dairy is good for children, and the idea that dairy prevents disease.  Keon additionally alarmingly shows the various chemical, virus, and bacteria contaminants commonly found in dairy.  Citing multiple scientific studies, he unequivocally demonstrates that contrary to what the dairy industry and government want you to think, dairy is actually bad for your health.
Current Thoughts:
Oh god, how am I still eating dairy after reading all of these facts?  I am going to get cancer…..gah! Damn you, cheese. Damn you.

Portraits of three Chinese women on gold and blue background.Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China
By: Jung Chang
Publication Date: 1991
Publisher: Touchstone
Genre: Nonfiction–Memoir
Themes: Chinese history, women’s rights, China, communism, revolutions, concubines, foot-binding
Summary:
In this memoir, Jung Chang recounts the lives of herself, her mother, and her grandmother growing up in pre-communist, revolutionary, and communist China.  Mixing extensive historical facts with intensely personal remembrances, Jung Chang presents a vivid portrait of real life in China.
Current Thoughts:
This is the book that jump-started my interest in China and learning Chinese history.  It is a stunning memoir that covers three generations during the time period that made modern China.

Man with a monkey on his back.Y: The Last Man
By: Brian K. Vaughan
Publication Date: 2003
Publisher: Vertigo
Genre: Graphic Novel–Scifi–Post-apocalyptic
Themes: gender, gender norms, organization of society, Boston, United States, Israel, coming of age
Summary:
The world is changed overnight when all the men and boys in the world mysteriously drop dead.  Factions quickly develop among the women between those who want the world to remain all female and those who would like to restore the former gender balance.  One man is mysteriously left alive though–Yorick.  A 20-something, underachieving magician with a girlfriend in Australia.  He desperately wants to find her, but the US government and the man-hating Amazons have other ideas.
Current Thoughts:

Another series that I am currently in the middle of.  It is also steadily improving from the first volume.  It is colorfully illustrated, consistently funny, and thought-provoking.




Book Review: The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey (series, #1)

October 24, 2011 8 comments

Crow against moon.Summary:
A New England town’s oldest resident dies leaving no known surviving family.  His journals end up at the university where a professor loans them to a writer friend.  In the first three folios, we learn of young Will Henry whose father and mother died in a terrible house fire leaving him to the care of his father’s employer–Warthrop.  Warthrop is a monstrumologist.  He studies monsters, and people arrive in the middle of the night for his help.  One night a grave robber arrives with the body of a young girl wrapped in the horrifying embrace of an anthropophagus–a creature with no head and a mouth full of shark-like teeth in the middle of his chest.  Will Henry, as the assistant apprentice monstrumologist, soon finds himself sucked into the secret horror found in his hometown.

Review:
This book was creating a lot of buzz last year, and I acquired it through the Book Blogger Holiday Swap.  Clearly it took me almost a year to read it, and I’m glad I saved it up for Halloween.  The chills and thrills were just right for this spooky month.  I must admit, I was skeptical at first that it would live up to the hype–particularly the cover blurb praising it as Mary Shelley meets Stephen King.  I am pleased to say, however, that it more than lived up to this apt comparison.

This is a combination of classic New England style horror (complete with a small town, small town values, a creepy insane asylum, cemeteries, etc…) with 19th century style lyricism present in the language.

How oft do they rescue or ruin us, through whimsy or design or a combination of both, the adults to whom we entrust our care! (page 251)

Seeing language like this in a new book being marketed as YA (a point I disagree with, but anyway) gave me chills.  It was a pleasure to read for the language alone.  Yancey, in particular, is quite talented at alliteration.  The story itself, though, kept me guessing and was genuinely scary.

The anthropophagi are truly distressing.  They are essentially land sharks who live underground and can pop up, like Mushu says in Mulan, LIKE DAISIES.  You’re trotting along and all of a sudden, BAM, there’s a monster popping out of the graveyard dirt for you.  Only unlike zombies there’s nothing humanoid about them, and they’re fast.  The truly perfect monstrosity.  It doesn’t hurt that Yancey connects them to myths and legends of the past, even quoting Shakespeare!

The characters are all well-rounded and memorable.  From the way everyone calls Will Henry by only his full name to the terrified and perplexed constable to the eccentric Warthrop to the truly delightfully darkly witty Englishman who is brought in to help with the problem (“His teeth were astonishingly bright and straight for an Englishman’s.  (page 266)”), everyone is lifelike.  In fact I think they will probably live on in my mind forever; that is how clearly and forcefully they are drawn.

More than a delicious fright, beautiful language, and lifelike characters though, the narrator, being an older man looking back on his youth, brings to light several serious real-life questions that there aren’t any easy answers to, but it is lovely to read about within literature.  You’ll be reading along, enjoying the terror and horror and wit of the main story, then stumble upon a passage like this:

Perhaps that is our doom, our human curse, to never really know one another. We erect edifices in our minds about the flimsy framework of word and deed, mere totems of the true person, who, like the gods to whom the temples were built, remains hidden. We understand our own construct; we know our own theory; we loved our own fabrication. Still…does the artifice of our affection make our love any less real? (page 362)

And you stop, and you close the book, and you think about it, and maybe you cry a little bit, then you get back into it to see how Will Henry does against the monsters, but that thought, that beauty, that fact that someone else on the planet has wondered the same thing as you (only put it quite a bit better) sticks with you afterward.  And that is what takes good writing and characterization into the land of exquisite storytelling.

Frankly, I think everyone should read this book.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift

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Friday Fun! (Holiday Swap)

December 24, 2010 4 comments

Hello my lovely readers!  This year I get to have Christmas Eve off since Christmas falls on a Saturday.  Yay!  I am writing this blog post sitting on my couch with a snoring kitty on my lap listening to decidedly not holiday themed music.  Hehe.  My dad is coming to visit me this weekend for the holiday.  He should be arriving in a few hours.  I already cleaned all the things! so now I get to just relax, blog, and read.

I was really excited to discover my book blogger holiday swap present on my front porch this morning!  What excellent timing!  I was also thrilled to see it came all the way from California.  It was like receiving a box of warm sunshine.  Val of Truth Be Told really went all out.  I was surprised to see so many presents to unwrap when I opened the box. 🙂

So many presents!

Because I have almost zero patience or capability to delay gratification, I decided to open them right away. 🙂

I’m really touched and surprised to see how well Val understands what I like from just my blog and info I put in on the form.

Such wonderful presents!

The Scars bookmark really touched me, as it’s a book on self-injuring, and you all know how much I advocate for mental illnesses.  The necklace is truly lovely and really has a California feel to it.  I was just saying to some of my friends that I really need acquire more necklaces, so that was good timing.  The card from a local museum near Val is truly lovely too!  It’s definitely going to make it to my fridge.  The actual squeeing came when I unwrapped the books, of course though.  The Monstrumologist has been on my wishlist *forever*.  I’ve never even heard of Vegan on the Cheap (hard to find a veg cookbook I haven’t heard of), and it looks so amazing!  All the recipes sound amazing and most of them cost $1 to $2 per serving.  Such thoughtful presents!

Thanks a bunch, Val! You made my first holiday swap experience really awesome. 🙂

Happy holiday weekend everyone!