Thursday, August 13, 2020

Review: OFF THE WALLS by Getty Publications


Rating: 3.5/5 stars

This fun art book wouldn't have happened if not for COVID-19. Getty Publications wanted to see how art would be "a tonic for people through these uncertain times," so they put out a challenge: recreate your favorite art piece using materials from around your house. 

There are seven different sections of art:
—Home, Sweet Home, which features portraits of people in and around their house.
—Life Holds Still, which features paintings of scenes and objects without people.
—Strike a Pose, which features people in different poses.
—Creature Comfort, which features pictures of animals or recreations using animals.
—Culinary Arts, which features pictures of food or recreations of art using food.
—High Drama, which is an eclectic section with some abstract art, some famous art, and dramatic reinterpretations of them all.
—Child’s Play, which features art recreations using children or children's toys.

I loved seeing a wide variety of art in this book. We see recreations of some of the most famous paintings, but we also see recreations of many lesser-known paintings, some I had never even heard of before. Some recreations were more faithful than others. Some were very detailed and serious, while others were simplistic and humorous. Some even incorporated the spirit of quarantine in there, communicating how all of us have felt these past few months. It was interesting to see how people around the world interpreted different artworks and what focal points they chose to make stand out. 

My personal favorite piece of art in this book was a recreation of Van Gogh's The Starry Night using spaghetti. So creative. I also really enjoyed the COVID reinterpretation of Michaelangelo Buonarroti's The Creation of Adam

One issue I had with this book was that the original artwork was not always presented first. On some pages, the original artwork would be printed after the recreation, and I found this confusing at times because I kept expecting the original to be first and then I was taken aback when it wasn't. Just something to be mindful of when you read the book. 

This exciting art book, created while everyone has been in quarantine, can remind us all that even when we’re faced with uncertain times and stress in our lives, we are still able to create happy moments at home and find joy and peace in art. I recommend Off the Walls for anyone who even remotely appreciates art and creativity, or for anyone who simply needs to enjoy a happy and relaxing afternoon. 

Review: THE SILVER ARROW by Lev Grossman

 

Rating: 1.5/5 stars

I was looking forward to reading this book because I tend to love middle-grade adventure stories. They usually feel so carefree and magical to me. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel the same about The Silver Arrow, and I ended up being very disappointed.

This book sort of feels like a mix of The Polar Express and The Chronicles of Narnia, but not done well. It honestly felt very contrived and forced, which really hindered my enjoyment of it.

The story starts out with rich Uncle Herbert gifting his niece Kate with a train—a real, metal, life-size train. Although her parents were initially upset about this gift, Kate and her brother Tom set out alone together on an adventure on this train, which is called the Silver Arrow.

I thought the beginning was very slow and weird. Just the fact that the uncle got her a real train for her birthday that he put in her backyard (like, what?) and the parents were angry but were still like, “Okay have fun playing in it,” rubbed me the wrong way for some reason. The story just felt very forced to me at that point, like Lev Grossman had a cool idea about two young kids getting lost on a magical train adventure but didn’t know how to actually introduce the train into the story so he invented a rich uncle to just hand-deliver it to them. That was not believable at all, and my absolute least favorite thing about any fictional story is when the story is not believable within the boundaries of its own world, and I felt like this book suffered from that at the very beginning.

So Kate and Tom go on this adventure and meet all kinds of talking animals, who tell them all about themselves. The Silver Arrow feels like an ecological novel for kids. Lev Grossman tells us about different animals from around the world and explains details like the animal kingdom hierarchy and what happens if it gets out of balance, what animals eat, what their habitats are, what they like to do, why they migrate, and why humans need to help preserve them from going extinct. 

This sounds like a cool concept, but honestly, the whole book felt very contrived to me, like Grossman’s hidden agenda was to indoctrinate children with the desire to make a good ecological impact on our planet. Now don’t get me wrong, I think it’s important to teach children (and adults) the importance of caring for animals and nature and protecting our planet, but I don’t like how that information was presented here. I felt like this whole concept took away from the actual plot of the book because every scene had to be paused so one animal could talk about their natural habitat or their predators or how human impact was harming them. It was very obvious, as an adult reader, what Grossman was trying to do here, and it put me off a lot. 

I honestly just felt really bored with this story. It was very slow-moving for how short it was and it had me rolling my eyes at some of the scenes in it. It read very young for its intended audience of kids ages 8 to 12, and it felt pretty silly to me at times. This seemed like a kind of story someone tells their young kids before bed but not one that was ever supposed to be published. That sounds kind of harsh but there are so many similar stories out there that are much more interesting and well-written, ones that communicate the same messages in a more natural and engaging way. I honestly don’t think if Lev Grossman was already a best-selling author that this book would have been published at all. 

Besides the aforementioned issues I had, I also thought that the writing was unimpressive and unenjoyable to read. Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy has been on my to-read list, but after reading this book, I honestly don’t know if I even want to read that series because the writing style in this book really got on my nerves and I suspect that what I didn’t like here will be present in his other works as well. 

I listened to the audiobook for The Silver Arrow and I thought the narrator, Simon Vance, was alright. Good but not great. The way his voice sounds when he narrates almost reminded me of a knock-off Jim Dale narration because of his British accent and the inflections he used to tell the story, and some of the character voices sounded similar to me. The story takes place in the modern-day but his voice made me feel like it was a story of the past. I particularly didn’t like how he narrated the adults at the beginning when the train gets introduced because they sounded whiny and strange to me. Eventually, I did feel like the narration got better as the story progressed, and I would listen to more books narrated by Simon Vance in the future, but he’s not my favorite narrator. 

The Silver Arrow has adventure, talking animals, magical trains, and lots of presumably factual ecological information. I would recommend this book for kids ages 5 to 8 who want an easygoing adventure on a magical train ride that will teach them real facts about all kinds of animals from around the world, as well as teach them how to be more eco-conscious. 

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Review: UNRAVEL THE DUSK by Elizabeth Lim

Rating: 2/5 stars

I enjoyed Spin the Dawn a lot so I was looking forward to reading Unravel the Dusk.

Unfortunately, this book just wasn’t as good as the first. I’m so so sad about this because the first book was really good.

What I loved about Spin the Dawn was the Mulan similarity, that Maia had to pretend to be her brother to enter the imperial tailor competition, and that she then had to sew dresses from the laughter of the sun, the tears of the moon, and the blood of stars. I loved that unique yet impossible task, and those two plot points were what drew me into the first book. Unravel the Dusk loses both of those aspects and turns into a completely different story.

*Spoilers here for Spin the Dawn but not for Unravel the Dusk*
At the end of Spin the Dawn, Maia has been cursed by Bandur, a demon, while trying to save Edan, her one true love. The entirety of Unravel the Dusk takes the outcome of that event and runs with it. The whole plot here is about how Maia’s going to break the curse and how she and Edan can truly be together in the end. The three dresses of the sun, the moon, and the stars are still present in this book, but the way in which they’re incorporated felt unrealistic to me and I just couldn’t get on board. Basically, what started as a unique concept has turned into every other young adult fantasy series and becomes all about the romance. This was super disappointing to me because I really did think Spin the Dawn was a standout entry in the YA genre.

Ultimately, I think that Unravel the Dusk is too homogenous to the other romance-heavy YA books out there, and it doesn’t offer anything new to the table like Spin the Dawn did. I would say that you should know what you’re getting yourself into before you start this series because the reasons I initially liked it are not present in this installment. I didn’t dislike this book—mostly I was just disappointed, but my constant feelings of “meh” while I was reading are why it’s getting only two stars. I’m glad this was only a duology because if there were any more books, I likely wouldn’t be reading them.

Review: WHITE FRAGILITY by Robin DiAngelo


Rating: 3/5 stars

I have heard many people say that White Fragility should be required reading for white people, and I agree. I think everyone can learn something here, regardless of who you are or where you come from. But like I said earlier in an update, the kinds of people who most need to read this book are the kinds of people who are least likely to do so, and that’s so sad.

Robin DiAngelo is a white woman who is a sociologist. I love that throughout the book, she shares many stories with us of how she herself has been racist in her life, even though her job is to actively work against racism and help to create equality. She was racist and acknowledged it and apologized to the person she harmed and asked them to help point out when she was making these mistakes because sometimes innocent intentions can be offensive and we should become aware of when those moments occur so we can change our actions in the future. She really communicates here that every single person is racist, whether intentionally or unintentionally, whether you know that you’re being racist or not. It’s a fact of life: everyone is racist. It’s a lifelong work to change. You don’t just suddenly become not racist one day and then you’re done, you don’t need to work anymore. No, it’s a constant progression, a constant education, and I really love how she highlighted this concept in this book.

“Unaware white racism is inevitable.”

The point of this book is to be able to recognize our racist actions and work to change them. The concept of white fragility comes in here because so often when white people are pointed out as being racist, they take it as an attack on their entire character, and they say they can’t possibly be racist because of X, Y, or Z reason. Even if you grew up in a poor neighborhood, were raised to treat everybody as equals, or have black friends or a black partner, you can still be racist at times. It doesn’t have to be intentional or even known for it to happen. The moral of this book is that white people need to become comfortable with discomfort, and when someone points out that you’ve been racist in a certain situation, recognize that as an opportunity to change and apologize instead of getting defensive and lashing out.

“Stopping our racist patterns must be more important than working to convince others that we don’t have them. We do have them. And people of color already know we have them. Our efforts to prove otherwise are not convincing.”

You will make mistakes. But the important thing is to learn from your mistakes to become a better white ally in the future. If you can’t first be aware of when racism exists, then how can you work to eliminate it? 

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Review: DEAR IJEAWELE, OR A FEMINIST MANIFESTO IN FIFTEEN SUGGESTIONS by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


Rating: 4.5/5 stars

I love what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has to say about feminism, both in Dear Ijeawele and in We Should All Be Feminists

In this short manifesto, she writes a letter to her friend about how to raise her daughter as a feminist. I think this is an extremely important and relevant book, not just for mothers of daughters, but also for mothers of sons and for all women and men around the world. Chimamanda challenges social norms and stereotypical gender roles. She asks some profound questions. She gives some great suggestions about what we should teach our children and why teaching them these ideas and behaviors is important, and also about how we should live and treat others in the world. 

I did not quite agree with everything that she said, but for the most part, this is a book worth reading and adhering to. I know I will absolutely be returning to this again and again once I have kids, and until then, I have a lot to think about. 

Monday, July 27, 2020

Review: BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley


Rating: 2/5 stars

I’ve tended to really enjoy classical dystopian novels, such as 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale, so I thought Brave New World would be a new favorite. Futuristic science and technology in a “utopian” society that many claim is prophetic of our day? That sounds right up my alley.

Unfortunately, most of this book didn’t make any sense to me.

I did enjoy reading about the scientific and technological advances of this world, but a lot of what was discussed went right over my head. The entire first chapter is about how people are made. Humans are no longer viviparous (producing offspring inside the body of the parent), so eggs are fertilized in a bath and placed into a decanter and onto a conveyor belt where they undergo treatments to help them grow. The eggs then undergo Bokanovsky’s Process, allowing them to multiply up to 16,000 times, thus creating a bunch of identical embryos. There is no such thing as a mother or a father anymore in this society. This was all very fascinating to read about and had me intrigued to keep learning more about this world and why things are this way.

I quickly learned that there is no main character in this book. Each chapter is about something going on in someone’s life; sometimes we see the same people we did in previous chapters and sometimes not. The POV is third-person omniscient, even within the same paragraph, and it was kind of jarring. It pulled me out of the story, but maybe that was the point though, to view this society from the outside and simply observe. I’m not sure.

Some parts at the beginning were uncomfortable to read because this society is very sexual and they encourage young children to play sexual games with each other. Their motto is “everyone belongs to everyone else,” so of course literally everyone is sleeping with everyone else all the time. The less civilized regions are the ones who practice consent and monogamy, and they are deeply looked down upon for that. This super bothered me, especially the bits about the kids (I’m talking 7-8 years old) engaging in “erotic play.” There is a bit of commentary on this later on from one character who is described as being more intellectual than others and the way these sexually-bred people act is “infantile,” and they are encouraged to act that way. I was never sure what was going on here or why this group of people was bred and raised to act that way. 

Despite my discomfort and the weird start to this book, eventually I started to get more into it but I still had no idea what was going on. I didn’t feel like there was a central plot or anything, and some of the scenes I was reading purely made no sense. I would reread them and I swear I could not tell you what the words on the page were telling me, nor why those passages were included in the book because I didn’t feel like they added anything to the story.

This entirety of Brave New World is very strange; it didn’t go at all how I expected it to go. Part of me wishes I had read it in a class-setting to get some clarity on what was going on, but part of me is also glad it was never required reading because I probably would have liked it less when I was younger. After I finished the book, I watched a summary and analysis video that discussed the themes and the governmental control of the society herein. It made a lot more sense and I kind of wish I had watched that before I read the book so I could follow along and understand the story better, but oh well. I still would really enjoy a book-club-type discussion about Brave New World because I think there’s a lot to unpack here that is going completely unnoticed by me. I’ve seen a lot of people say that Huxley’s novel was prophetic of our day today and that we are currently living in a “brave new world,” and I just want to talk more about the parallels and why that’s true.

Ultimately, I won’t be rereading Brave New World like I will be with 1984, my all-time favorite dystopian, but I am still glad I read it and experienced the weirdness that it is. I am quite looking forward to the new tv show though, as I think that format will be able to communicate the story in a more accessible way for me to understand.

Review: STAMPED by Jason Reynolds & Ibram X. Kendi


Rating: 4/5 stars

This is a really engaging and accessible history of racism in America that should be required reading for all teens.

Jason Reynolds did an excellent job of adapting Ibram X. Kendi’s near-600 page book, Stamped from the Beginning, into less than 300 pages in Stamped while still packing a full punch.

Because I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, and I especially don’t read any historical nonfiction, I was pretty intimidated to read Stamped from the Beginning, so when I discovered this book was a shorter version of that book, written in a way meant to be engaging to young adults, I was much more excited to pick it up. I felt like I understood the history being taught here—which is a miracle within itself because history was always my weakest and least favorite subject in school—but I also felt like I had a greater understanding of why racism still exists in America today and what led up to that.

Reynolds states at the beginning, “This is not a history book.” Though he does teach you history throughout Stamped, he does it in such a way that it doesn’t feel like a history book. It’s the history not taught in schools, and it’s also taught in a way that’s unlike how history is commonly taught in schools. The whole book is entertaining, humorous, and fun to read while still communicating the harrowing truth of how Blacks were treated over the past 500 years and why racism is still present today. It’s terrible and disgusting that racism is still so prevalent and damaging in our society, and I hope that this book will help people be able to recognize that and work toward change.

Reynolds explains the differences between the three avenues of thinking about race. A segregationist: someone who believes that Black people and white people should live separately; this is racist thinking. An assimilationist: someone who believes Black people should conform to how white people live to be accepted in their society; this is also racist thinking. And an anti-racist: someone who believes that all races are equal and actively works to change racism instead of trying to change Black people. I appreciate how he explained these different types of people because I think a lot of the time we encounter assimilationists and they can easily be mistaken for anti-racists, but it’s important to recognize that trying to get someone to change before you’ll accept them is not the same thing as simply accepting them for who they are.

I highly encourage everyone to read Stamped, or Stamped from the Beginning if that’s more your style, to learn about our country’s history with racism. This book, specifically, is an entertaining and educational young adult primer about Black history, and it’s so important for everyone to know this truth. I also recommend the audiobook because it’s read by author Jason Reynolds and he is so engaging to listen to! Parts of the book even sounded like he was performing slam poetry, which I thought was really neat.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Review: BLACK KLANSMAN by Ron Stallworth


Rating: 2.5/5 stars

I’ve always been curious about this book whenever I’ve seen it, but I never knew what it was about. I finally read the description to find that it was about how a black police officer infiltrated the KKK, a white supremacist hate group. Even though I don’t read much nonfiction, that premise sounded super interesting to me, so I decided to give it a go!

The story starts right away with Stallworth finding a KKK ad in the classifieds, responding to it, and getting a call from the leader.

After that, we got a lot of backstory of Stallworth’s rise in the ranks of the police bureau, and unfortunately, that was not very interesting to me. I came for the story about the KKK but I didn’t realize this was also partially Stallworth’s memoir on top of that. That disappointment is my own fault because his whole story was still interesting, just not quite what I was expecting to read about.

Ultimately, this book was about Stallworth’s investigation into the KKK in the 1970s and how it all panned out. He had to have his white friend Chuck, from the narcotics division, pretend to be him during the Klan’s in-person meetings, but Ron himself still did all the work behind the scenes and took all the phone calls. 

Black Klansman definitely has an interesting premise and it was an educational read, but it was also a book I was never really looking forward to picking back up whenever I put it down, which is why it gets a lower rating from me. I wanted to like it more than I did, but unfortunately, I found that it struggled to keep my attention at times and was slower-paced than I wanted it to be. I’m looking forward to watching the movie now though, and hopefully, I will have a better time connecting with Stallworth’s story in that format. 

Review: MAGIC UNMASKED by Megan Crewe


Rating: 4/5 stars

I’ve been loving Megan Crewe’s Conspiracy of Magic series so far, so I decided to pick up its prequel novella, Magic Unmasked.

Taking place almost four decades before Ruthless Magic begins, this novella follows mage Jonathan as he discovers a non-magical girl named Amy actually possesses some innate magical ability she didn’t know about. As they become fast friends, he teaches her about the mage society and shows her how to use her magic.

Meanwhile, Mt. St. Helens is becoming unstable and is about to erupt, but only Jonathan and the other mages are aware of how dire the situation has become. Because the non-magical people don’t know that magical people exist, the mages can’t make any drastic moves without alerting the whole world of their presence. Jonathan is determined to help, however, in any way he can. He and Amy must figure out a way to protect the people near the volcano when it blows while also protecting the mage society that has been hidden from the world for thousands of years.

I love Megan Crewe’s writing style, and I love that her stories never go where you expect them to go. I had a theory about the ending of this novella—I thought I knew the obvious path of resolution—but I was wrong. It’s so refreshing to read a YA book that doesn’t follow the same plot and tropes as all the others.

Magic Unmasked is a fun, free (on her website) standalone story to familiarize yourself with Megan’s writing style or with the Conspiracy of Magic series if you plan to read that. I read it between books 2 and 3 and had no issues with timelines or keeping track of events. I will say that Jonathan here reminds me of Finn from the series because they have very similar personalities, but I didn’t mind too much. I’d still recommend checking out this story for a good time and a unique twist on urban fantasy mages.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Review: THE KILLING MOON by N. K. Jemisin


Rating: 3/5 stars

I loved the Broken Earth trilogy so much that I knew I had to read everything N. K. Jemisin has ever written. The Dreamblood duology sounded especially cool because it’s about demons that come to people in their dreams. I love stories about dreams so I was very keen to read this series.

The Killing Moon had me interested right from the start. The first chapter is about a Gatherer going into someone’s dream to gather the dreamblood. In the next couple of chapters, we get introduced to many characters, each with a unique name I’ve never heard before, and I started to feel a little overwhelmed for a while that I couldn’t keep everyone straight or remember who everyone was. But after fifty pages or so I got the hang of it.

Thankfully, this book has a glossary with a character list mixed in, which helped out tremendously, but which I, unfortunately, did not discover until a hundred pages or so into the book. This made it hard for me to immerse myself in the story in the beginning when I was getting characters mixed up and when I was unfamiliar with the new terminology and magic system. Usually, when I start a new book with an epic fantasy setting, I like to spend a good hour just looking through the appendices to familiarize myself with the world and characters, but I wasn’t able to do that here because for some reason I didn’t realize the glossary existed, which is my own fault. One thing The Killing Moon doesn’t have though is a map. In my opinion, this book severely needs one because there are many regions mentioned and it’s hard to picture them all in relation to each other.

There were quite a bit of political machinations that I didn’t understand at times, and (even with the glossary) I couldn’t keep all the characters straight. Most of this book I had the general gist of the story without knowing all the details, which pulled me out of the book and made me feel really distant from what was going on.

It took me almost a full month to read this book, which I hated because it made me feel so detached from the story, but this wasn’t the book’s fault. I’ve been stuck in a depression for the past month and reading has not been my priority and it hasn’t been a particularly enjoyable pastime of late, either. This being the only physical book I’ve picked up during that time, it kind of got neglected, unfortunately. I do think an epic fantasy was not the best thing to read during this time, but it’s too late for that. I will definitely need to reread The Killing Moon when I’m in a better headspace to be able to experience optimal enjoyment of the story; I am fairly certain I will like it better and rate it higher upon reread because the writing and the plot are well-constructed; N. K. Jemisin is a master. This was just a bad time for me to read this book, sadly.