Book Review: Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang

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Published: 2013

I came by this book when I was looking for a biography to read about an important historical figure. I was keen to stay away from any American or European people because I feel like I was taught a decent amount about those two continents in my education. I wanted to find someone fascinating from a part of the world I knew very little about. So I narrowed it down to East-Asia. Well at least we made progress right?

What intrigued me about his book right away is that it was based in the Victorian Era, a period I feel I had grasped well in school, and it was about an important woman of power. Pardon my naivety, but I didn’t know that women could easily gain influence and power in China during this period. As I began to read the book, I realised just how amazing thing woman was. It was indeed very rare for a women to not only make political and economical decisions in a country, not to mention also rule for such a long period of time (nearly 50 years)!

Empress Dowager Cixi started off as a concubine to Emperor Xianfeng, as the author explains, “a Chinese emperor was entitled to one empress and as many concubines as he pleased” (3). Her role as concubine came with no real power, she was merely meant to please her emperor. So how did this incredible woman manage to become Empress and bring China from a medieval empire into the modern age? Well you are going to have to read the book to find out!

As someone who has studied History in school, I must say that there are many authors out there that can make an exciting period sound awfully tedious and can drown you with facts and figures as an attempt to impress you with their knowledge. Little attempts are made to make historical fiction engaging as well as educational. I think this book does an amazing job with this. Jung Chang manages to tell a story in such an engaging way, I couldn’t put down the book the same way I couldn’t put down the heart-racing The Maze series by David Dashner. Without a second thought, I could pick up the book even now and start re-reading it!

I marvelled at every page at how incredible this woman was and what a tumultuous time she ruled in (through many attacks from the Japanese, Russians and the West to multiple assassination attempts on herself). She was a very shrewd individual who was able to push aside her own feelings and opinions in order to find ways to ways to make China a strong empire. This means introducing then controversial and Western tactics such as building up a military and railway system to better transport it’s people and produce.

If you are interested in Chinese history, but may be a little bit overwhelmed as to where to start I would recommend this book. As someone with nearly zero prior knowledge about China I was able to follow everything without any issues, probably because Jung Chang does such a great job explaining everything! A definite must-read!

Have you read up about an amazing person in history? Let me know the title and author so I can add it to my list!

Book Review: The Maze Runner by James Dashner

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Published: 2010

I am ashamed to admit that I have initially watched the movie version of The Maze Runner, and only decided to read the book after really enjoying the movie. I don’t remember the last time I have done this actually; saw the movie first and then read the book. But, surprisingly, I still managed to really enjoy the book. So much so that I read it a in whirlwind, and couldn’t put it down.

One of the reasons why I was able to enjoy the book despite having watched the film, is that there were a lot of differences in the plot. From the very first chapter, you get the sense that this journey will be slightly different to the movie. I will just give you one example as I don’t want to give too much away. In the film, the characters remember their name “a few days after arriving” but in the book they know their name right away. It may appear as a slight difference, but when you add up all the small difference you do get a different story. The ending is the same, but the journey was much different. That is most likely why I still managed to enjoy it.

I must admit that the characters were a little bit ruined for me. Many of the characters were actually quite different to how the movie perceived them. Particularly Thomas, Alby, Gally and even Newt. The main Creator’s lady was supposed to have dark hair but in the movie she is blonde. Even the Grievers were described a bit different in the book too. Such small differences I know don’t really impact the plot, but they still bug me a little bit. Since I saw the movie first unfortunately, it was really difficult for me to override the character description in the book, as I found myself depending on the movie characters when imagining the book’s plot.

Otherwise, I am really struggling to find any fault with this book. I think the plot is well written, the characters are relatable and the mission that they are on slightly terrifying yet very intriguing.

Verdict: Definite must read for any post-apocalyptic or even dystopian enthusiasts. If you like the Hunger Games, I definitely recommend this book. I would even venture and say that this book is better than the Hunger Games!

Book Review: Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut

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Published: 1969

I must say that I have been putting this review off every single day. That’s not because I didn’t like the book. That is not the reason in the slightest. The reason why I am struggling to write out my feelings about it is because I really enjoyed it and there is just so much to discuss. And, quite frankly I find it really hard to fully put into words what this book meant for me and how it affected me.

The book is meant to be like a semi-biography of the Kurt Vonnegut’s own life and experiences in the Second World War, with a strong emphasis on the events that occurred in Dresden in the Second World War. He gives the main character the name Billy Pilgrim, and we follow him through his experiences as a prisoner of war, optometrist, as well as time traveller. Not your typical anti-war book I must admit.

It was nothing like I expected it to be. The anti-war message is quite obvious, it’s a very short book as well so I didn’t expect it to go into many details which is exactly what we got. We just got pieces of his life and memory as the narrator would jump from the present, to the past and then into the future. In one instance we with Billy in his prison cell in Dresden, and the next we are billions of light-years away on a completely different planet with aliens. I know that you are thinking, is he on drugs? The answer is no, and once you read the book you will understand it’s significance.

This book is filled with powerful themes, rich motifs and allusions. He refers to William Blake and Fyodor Dostoevsky along with many other references that I probably didn’t get. The themes he touched upon are quite controversial as well; the destructiveness of war, the illusion of free will, the comparison of soldiers to children and the emptiness of wealth just to name a few. There is also the phrase that he uses after mentioning any sort of death, “so it goes”. He explains why he does it early on in the novel so I don’t want to spoil it, but it puts a very interesting understanding of death.

Verdict: Wonderful anti-war book that is sure to surprise you with the writing style that should be read carefully. It’s one of those books that you can repeatedly read and still manage to find hidden gems.

Book Review: The Memory Book by Rowan Coleman

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Published: 2014

I must start off by apologizing for the 5 stars I have been handing out, seemingly to every book that I have read in the past month. But I am equally as surprised!

I’ve seen this book on Amazon for quite a while now, but what made me buy it were the positive reviews that it has received and the plot summary that I had read. I was a little spooked when I noticed that Lisa Jewel has called it “wonderfully uplifting” because I really disliked her books. I really did not want to read anything resembling her novels, as I found them overly dramatic and insincere.

This book was the complete opposite. I read it in less that 24 hours because I just couldn’t put it down. Finely balanced, making the plot and the lives that the characters lived very believable. It was so well written that I completely bawled my eyes out at the second to last chapter. Actually, now that I recall I cried at several parts.

I felt like I really got to know the main character, Claire, well, and understood the way the disease affected her life. All of the female characters are strong, powerful, free women that are inspiring as they maintain hope and strength despite the challenges and the circumstances that arrive in their lives. I found this quote early on in the novel, which demonstrates the kind of tough female heroines we have in this drama:

“She wasn’t bitter about it. About the abrupt halt that Caitlin’s arrival brought to her life. If anything, I think she was relieved. Now she only had to worry about taking care of her; she didn’t have to worry about fulfilling promises, or failing. There were no more great expectations. And sometimes I think it was only then, when she didn’t have to burden herself with the responsibility of trying to be successful, that she started to do things right.” (109)

Maybe for this review I will give you some context. It’s about a young woman in her 40s who is living early onset of the Alzheimers disease. Rowan Coleman explores the way it affects her immediate family, which includes her husband, two children and her own mother. We also learn early on that this disease has taken away Claire’s father already, and her poor mother has to see it take over her daughter as well. Coleman really focuses on how the family dynamics are affected, but also digs into the past a little to help us understand some underlaying family issues which the disease perhaps heightens, forcing the characters to deal with it head on. We are continually transported to different events in there lives that helped shaped them or affected them deeply. It’s done it a manner that is not overwhelming, but rather complements the plot.

Now, I am not entirely convinced of pleased with certain aspects of the plot, and I am not too sure that I agree with some of the choices that the character’s make, for example Claire failing and dropping out of university. At the same time I understand what the author is trying to get at. Not everyone has a clear cut life, and it’s about exploring the way people choose to handle certain situations. Which ultimately determine the type of person you want to be.

Verdict: An incredibly beautifully written novel that had me in tears, but despite the heartbreak you leave 

I would love to hear your thoughts/comments! 

Book Review: Eragon by Christopher Paolini

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Published: 2002

Before I start digesting the book, I just want to bring to attention that Christopher Paolini graduated from high school when he was 15 years old, he started a book tour for Eragon when he was 17 and by the time he was 19 he was a New York Time’s bestselling author and by 2011 he was named the youngest author of a bestselling book series by the Guinness Book of World Records. I mean he’s a busy guy. And a genius.

I was a little skeptical when I first started reading the book, knowing that the author was just so young when he wrote the book. But I was really blown away. It’s a well written book, with a moving plot and relatable characters. My sort of recipe for a wonderful read.

The plot in particular was well spaced out, not rushed like some books neither was it excruciatingly slow. It’s true it took me a little while to get into, about 75 pages. That it why it took me so long to read. Once I got hooked I read about 150 pages a day, and finished it in no time. I thought the pace of the novel was absolutely perfect. It had moments of lots of action, but then followed by slower bits so you were able to follow everything very well.

There was a nice array of characters as well, and I particularly liked how the dragon was female while the main hero was a guy. I find that many books can fall into women stereotype roles, like two lovers with the manly man and the feeble young beautiful girl. Here, the most powerful creature is female, Saphira. There is also, what I take will be, the love match for Eragon, Arya the elf, who is a princess but it very well trained in battle and is savvy in magic maybe more than Eragon. Of course there is also Angela, the fortune teller that has quite mysterious abilities and plays a significant role in the book.

I found Eragon really likeable. He’s very reasonable, but still has faults and makes mistakes like you would expect a teenage boy to make. He has moments of weakness along with moments of glory. For example, he makes a poor decision to reveal himself and Saphira to the Urgals in the chapter names “A Costly Mistake” along with his magical abilities that he didn’t know he had, giving away information to the enemy. He’s not perfect and he’s got a lot to learn yet to become a powerful and responsible Rider.

The book also had some good quotes as well. For example, early on in the novel when Brom, Saphira and Eragon witness the massacre of Yazuac, Brom has a wonderful build-up paragraph and a new tone is set in the novel:

“Those who love the pain and suffering of others. They wear many faces and go by many disguises, but there is only one name for them: evil.” (131)

Sadly, I have been put off watching the film as I have heard it was not done as well as it could have been. Maybe I will watch it now that I have read the book since I am waiting until April to read the second book.

Verdict: A great science fiction, young adult, fantasy book for people of all ages! Paolini does a fabulous job of bringing this world to life, and the likeable characters are exciting to follow.

Have you watched the movie or read the series?

Book Review: The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

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Published: 2013

This book took me completely by surprise.

I loved this book. I loved it so much that I gave up watching the most recent episode of Suits to finish it.

I enjoyed it so much that after I finished reading it, I kept thinking to myself “I want to keep reading it”. Even after I finished reading it.

Don’t ask me what happened because I was extremely skeptical at the beginning. I feared it was another Lisa Jewel The House We Grew Up In fiasco (I have now realized that I use that book to fully describe when a book is awful by my standard. Dully noted).

But this was so much better. The characters were so intriguing, the plot was riveting and I wanted to read more and find out what happened. As you may have noticed by now, characters are extremely important to me. They can completely ruin a book with a wonderful plot or they can save a book for me. This book wasn’t short of interesting, relatable characters.

It’s full of suspense, completely addictive and intriguing. To be fair, it’s a heavily female character driven book, and so I wonder what a male perspective would have to say about it.

Although it does feel like a soap-opera style drama, it’s written really well. It’s a real page turner that you want to keep reading. There are multiple plots happening at once, but each is easy to follow and they frequently overlap which is super cool because it makes you aware of how small the world really is. It’s similar in layout to J.K Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy, but I must confess I found Moriarty’s book more intriguing, and plot driven, without sacrificing detail into the character’s psychological state.

I can’t say that this book has any spectacular quotes, and it’s far from the literary genius of Oscar Wilde. But it’s a great page turner, and wonderfully entertaining. A definite must read!

Have you read anything by Moriarty? Apparently, she’s got other books too that have gotten good reviews!

Book Review: Fahrenheit 451by Ray Bradbury

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Published: 1953

I am so embarrassed to confess that it has taken me 24 years to pick this book up and read it; why did I ever choose to stall?! After starting to read the lengthy The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, written in a heavy Victorian diction I needed a short and quick plotted read. This dystopian novel gave me so much more!

I can sit here and write out all the books that it bears resemblance to, 1984, We, A Brave New World, but I would much rather focus on it’s unique science fiction features. Based in the future, Montag is a fireman proud to be serving his country. He’s not a fireman who rescues people, but rather he is set out to set fire to books. You see, in the future books are viewed as evil and are outlawed. The also believe that “fire [is] best for everything” (151) that didn’t sit well with the carefully organized and controlled society.

“A book is a loaded gun in the house next door” (77)

People spend all their time watching TV, and being surrounded by fictional characters who are used to provide human comfort. “The word intellectual, of course, became the swear word is deserved to be”(76). Instead, everyone is alike, and no one is superior to one another. What more does such an astutely constructed society need?

Montag meets Clarissa, a weird girl who makes him question his actions as a fireman and after this meeting “his routine has been disturbed” (44). He’s never the same. It sets him off to reconsider the way he has been living his life, but more importantly, it makes his think about the society he’s been a part of.

The reader follows Montag through his difficult journey of denial, paranoia and confusion. As he grows aware of the constructs of the society he’s been a part of, he’s convinced that he can sneak books in his house, try to change the minds of his fellow friends and neighbours and try to stand against  the practices. Along the way he meets some likeminded people, those that have grown aware of the severity of their constructed society.

Ray Bradbury believe that his “characters must plunge ahead of [him] to live the story”(223) and it’s quite unbelievable that he did not write Fahrenheit 451 but “it wrote [him]” (220). You truly get that sense when reading this book, that you are just following Montag along on this awakening journey.

Verdict: If not my favourite dystopian novel, then top 2 for sure! A must read!

Review: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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Published: 1970

Maya Angelou was challenged by her friend, author James Baldwin, and her editor, Robert Loomis, to write a autobiography that was simultaneously a piece of literature. Born was I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Written in the years following the civil rights movement in America, this coming of age story focuses on Marguerite Ann Johnson, Maya Angelou’s name at birth, a young African American girl.

I absolutely adored this book for several reasons. It presented the themes of racism and trauma through a child’s eye. I had a genuine trust of the narrator. The characters were unforgettable and really authentic.  The plot is unbelievable, especially considering this is an autobiography. She really accomplished her goal set out for her.

The story starts off in the little town of Stamps, Arkansas. There Marguerite and her brother Bailey are staying with their paternal grandmother nicknamed Momma. Although the African American is fairly wealthy, as they own a general store in the “Black” part of town, they are not exempt from racism. From Momma being humiliated by little white kids revealing their pubes to her, to Marguerite being repetitively insulted by a white employer who continuously calls her Mary. They encounter racism at every corner of their lives. Later they have to hide Uncle Willie in their shop away from the Klux Klux Klan, and when Marguerite has a severe toothache the dentist refuses to see her purely because of her race.

“It seemed terribly unfair to have a toothache and a headache and have to bear at the same time the heavy burden of Blackness.” (187)

Marguerite’s story takes us from Arkansas, to St.Louis, to California and even on a brief stint to Mexico. Although racism is the prevailing theme, trauma, family, sexuality and homelessness are other significant themes of the novel. That’s not to say that everything she lives through is atrocious. She does manage to drive a car which inspires her to persevere  to become San Francisco’s first ever Black female streetcar driver, and she’s also encouraged to regain her voice after a traumatic event through books and communication. However, there are more negative than good things that happen to her.

Verdict: I am so glad to have read this book and would recommend anyone who has not yet had the opportunity to read this, to go find a copy of it immediately. This is probably my favourite novel about racism in America before the civil right movement. Really raw, authentic and brilliantly written.