June 30, 2013

The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan

The Great Hunt is the second book in Jordan's Wheel of Time series.  If you haven't read the first book, The Eye of the World, you need to go start there.  This is a series that is meant to be read in order or you will be hopelessly lost.

The Eye of the World has been destroyed and Rand and company are staying in Shienar, awaiting their next moves.  Few know that Rand can channel, a man using the power is destined to go mad.  But when the Horn of Valere is stolen, he joins with a few others to go in search of it.  But while he's doing that, more trouble is brewing in the land, with an army landing on the coast and taking over and civil war breaking out in other areas.  Rand just wants to go home, but fate is not going to allow him to sink into oblivion.

Rand is not quite as approachable in this book, and it shows the progression of what he was to what he will be.  But he's still kind and worried about his friends, and that is what drives his motivation to do things in this book.  Perrin is very quiet in this book, and both he and Mat don't really have a large role.  I actually missed them a bit since they were more featured in the first book.  But the girls at least had a little more time devoted to them in this book, and their training with the Aes Sedai was interesting and I look forward to more.  But the bad guys are definitely bad guys, there isn't much grey to be found in this book.

This was a fast paced book even with its length.  It kept you hanging on wanting to know what would happen next.  But the detail can be a little cumbersome at times.  There were a few areas I started skimming because I didn't care about what sword position Rand was using or some of the war positions and diplomacies.  But I didn't skim very often.  Jordan creates a pretty elaborate world with a detailed magic system and cultures that seem believable. 

Another good book in the series and if you've made it past these two books, chances are you'll stick it through the whole massive series.  It's an adventure!

The Great Hunt
Copyright 1990
705 pages

June 29, 2013

The Giving Quilt by Jennifer Chiaverini

I almost didn't pick this book up. After several of the past books in the series (this is the 20th book in the series) not having much to do about quilting, I wasn't really that interested in reading another that I thought would follow the same pattern. But it was sitting there on the library shelf and I thought, "why not try again." And I have mixed feelings about the experience.

As a departure from the last book, we are taken back in time to the original Elm Creek Quilters and their business of running a quilt camp. They are gathered for their annual retreat to make quilts for Project Linus and each of the visitors to the camp will be there free, but donate their quilts at the end. Most of the campers have their own struggles however, and this week at camp is used to make them relax and reflect on their lives while doing good for someone else.

This book is all about the campers. We don't get to experience much of the original characters we have grown to love in the beginning of the series. I'm not saying that the new campers are bad characters, I enjoyed some of them (and some I did not), but it seems a shame to give the original characters such a side role in this book. I liked Pauline, and her situation seemed realistic in that groups, even Quilter's groups, can get catty sometimes. But some of the others were a bit too outrageous to be believable and every camper had a "bad person" out to get them. I suppose there were a few campers there without problems, but we didn't really get to interact with them at all.

There was a lot of quilting in this one. And for that I was happy. A big problem with some of the later books in the series is that quilting technique is barely mentioned let alone quilts even being mentioned, so to have processes and fabric and classes being taught in this book was a big step back in the right direction. But then Chiaverini would get distracted with the campers side stories and those went on a little too long. I didn't much care to hear about all the detail of a cheerleader's career path or the minute detail of a middle school extra-curricular activity. And some readers may be put off by some of the views Chiaverini puts forth in this book (book burning, unions, etc.).

This wasn't one of her worst books by far, but it wasn't up to the old standard that the Elm Creek Quilters used to have. I can't say I won't ever read another book by her, but I won't seek them out either.

The Giving Quilt
Copyright 2012
357 pages

June 28, 2013

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

I first picked up this book when I was in middle school, got about a hundred pages in and had to stop because I just didn't understand it at all.  A few years later I picked it up again and fell completely in love with the series (even wrote a book report in high school on the use of religion in the series).  That being said, this isn't a series for those that like short stories, it's massive, and this is only the first book, which has almost 800 pages itself.

Rand Al'Thor was just a common sheepherder looking forward to a holiday in town when his world is racked by monsters out of legend attacking the village.  He and two of his friends (Perrin and Mat) seem to be at the center of it and they leave town with a few strangers (Thom the Gleeman performer, Moiraine  the Aes Sedai magician figure and her protector warder Lan) and a couple of stowaway townsfolk (Nynaeve the village healer and Egwene her apprentice) that had come in by happenstance at the same time as the festival.  But danger lurks around every path and it would seem that the Dark One wants Rand and his friends badly. So much that he'll send every dark figure at his disposal to hunt them down wherever they go.

There are so many characters in this book that I think it was what overwhelmed me the first time I tried to read it.  You really have to stop, think about what's going on, and sort them out in your head in order to really enjoy the book.  It's kind of like playing a game with complicated rules that you almost give up out of frustration with at first, but then once you learn the rules, are obsessed with playing.  I actually like Rand, he seems to be the main character in this first book although Perrin and Mat are mentioned quite a bit as well.  They all have unique personalities and while Perrin probably my favorite, he is a little more reserved than the others.  Rand is mainly confused during the whole book, but in a way that is believable while Mat is the goofball of the book.  The women, their characters are interesting but they seem to share a lot of traits.  And they apparently have allergies, they sniff a lot.  But if you can overlook some of the character flaws you do grow to care about the characters and what happens to them.  My only other complaint would be that Moiraine is a little too powerful to be believable.

This is a long book and heavily detailed.  It may be too detailed for some and I actually don't like a lot of detail myself, but in this book I don't care as much because to me it is interesting detail.  I like how Jordan takes the time to say how the clothes and buildings of the different cultures vary and the customs of the people.  It makes it seem very real.  And even with the book being so long the pace is mostly good.  It gets a bit bogged down in the middle, but not as much as you'd expect for a book as detailed as it is.  There was one part in the writing that I noticed was duplicated though and a bit confusing.  While traveling, Mat and Rand encounter two men that say the same thing to them and give them scarves.  I don't know if it was a flashback gone bad or something else, but it didn't flow well in the story.  But otherwise, everything seems to be fairly consistent.  And the magic and fantasy elements in this book are great.  I like the way that Jordan has built his world and incorporated fantasy into it and while not wholly unique, it has a lot of different spins to it than other fantasy writers.

There's really so much more I could say about this book but I think it would be hard to understand without actually reading it.  Just the sheer volume of characters alone is hard to describe and because they consistently pop up through the series it's not as if they are disposable.  If you're looking for a series to read and last awhile, this surely is the one to read.  Especially if you're into fantasy.

The Eye of the World
Copyright 1990
800 pages

June 26, 2013

Bootstrapper by Mardi Jo Link

I expected something entirely different than what I got from this book.  The title "Bootstrapper: From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm" and the description provided online and on the back cover led me to believe this would be a book about farming, gardening, raising animals with maybe just a little bit of memoir throw in.  But it wasn't, it was a memoir with a little bit of gardening thrown in.

Mardi Jo's marriage has just ended (her choice) and she is now faced with the looming debt of a mortgage on her small acreage.  In addition she has to keep other bills paid and food on the table for her three sons which is no small feat on a freelance writer's salary.  And her first year in this separation is plagued by mishaps that make it difficult to keep a positive outlook on things.  But she wants to keep her sons by her side and keep their home, so she does everything she can to try to save it.

Mardi Jo makes some questionable decisions in this book.  And while I admire her perseverance there were times I just wanted to shake her when she was doing some things.  She has a lot of financial woes but still manages to get vodka and other drinks through the course of the year, and while I understand the need to have a few guilty pleasures it makes me wonder why she didn't get a job waitressing to be able to afford little extras (she had held a waitressing job previously during her marriage).  Her sons were all intelligent and helpful and they seemed to get her through a lot.  And she freely admits that despite trying to do things right, she may have been a bit of an emotional burden for them.  But I think it's clear that she loves them and that was a redeeming feature of this book.  Her ex is mentioned but isn't in the book very often; although I did think it was weird she disclosed his pot habit in this book when it was part of their custody agreement that she keep quiet about it.

Because I expected this to be about farming and not more focused on Mardi Jo's divorce it made it a very hard read.  Had the description not made it lean that way, I probably wouldn't have chosen to read this book if it were just described as a memoir about a woman going through a divorce and struggling to make ends meet and who happens to own a few acres in Northern Michigan.  Because that is what this book was.  Sure there were little side stories about getting chickens and planting vegetables, but they maybe took up less than a chapter of this book when combined.  And the writing was a bit disjointed, at one point she's writing about her horse and I have no idea what's going on until several pages later when she finally adds some detail.  I think she was trying to write how she felt in the moment and her confusion, but it just added more confusion to the reader who couldn't experience those things firsthand and sort them out.  She does have a humorous style of writing, but it just doesn't flow well in this book.

Having recently been in Traverse City I can appreciate the scenery descriptions in this book but that and a few small stories about hobby farming were all I really enjoyed.  If you are looking at this book for the "farm" part of it you may feel the same as me, but if you like a memoir about a scrappy woman who does the best she can to raise her sons, you might enjoy it for that aspect.

**This review is part of the Amazon Vine Program**

Copyright 2013
208 pages

June 23, 2013

The Longest Road by Philip Caputo

**This review is part of the Amazon Vine Program**

There's something so American about hauling an Airstream across the United States. And that's what Caputo does in this book with his wife and their two dogs. A travel memoir of sorts, he wants to find out what makes America tick.

Starting at Key West and going all the way to Deadhorse, Alaska, Caputo wants to journey across America to find out what the glue that holds it altogether is. He also wants to capture water in a water-bottle from all the different oceans surrounding America as a lesser goal. In his travels his goal was to take a concise route, but still allow some room for freedom to visit interesting things. And he also wanted to take Lewis & Clark's trail West as he likes the history that surrounds them. Through all this he'll have to put up with the Airstream, a temperamental truck, his wife, and their two dogs who travel with them.

Caputo is very fond of himself, but he acknowledges that in the way he jokes about himself as well. His wife he is also very fond of, but lets you know that he only agrees with her to placate her sometimes, and to me the way he did it came off a bit condescending. He does meet a lot of interesting people on the road, but the way he interviews them is a bit disjointed, like he wanted to say what they were saying but had trouble fully expressing their personality or even focused on their physical features more than what they had to say. I really didn't care what these people looked like so much as what they had to say about America, and I didn't feel I really got that from this book. And the amount of time he devoted to talking about his one dog almost outdid some of the people he meets on the trip.

In terms of travel it was an interesting book. He mentions some places I had never heard of before and added to my mental list of things to see and do. But he skips around so much and the pace is so fast that it wasn't all-absorbing. Being that the author is a Pulitzer winner I guess I was expecting a bit more, even though this is the first book I've read of his (and maybe the other books were more in his preferred genre). Between the history lessons, the snippets of popular facts, the drama of the road, and the brief interviews he does, it was almost as if this book didn't know what genre it wanted to be. And I certainly didn't feel he found the glue of what held America together. It's almost as if that goal fell by the wayside. He is a funny writer though and while there wasn't a smooth pace to this book it was still easy enough to read.

I'd say this is more for the travel and personal memoir genre than it is as a social commentary on America and how it is surviving in the current times. While there is a little bit of that in here it isn't cohesive enough to be the book's main theme.

The Longest Road
Copyright 2013
305 pages

Sihpromatum by Savannah Grace

I was a bit skeptical about reading this book because of the title originally as it seemed gimmicky. But I'm glad I went ahead and decided to read it as it turned out to be quite interesting and enjoyable. And since it is the first of a few books about the trip, there's a lot of adventure to be had in the series.

At the age of 14, Savannah is told by her mother that they are going to get rid of everything (including beloved pets) and go backpacking around the world for a year. As to be expected, Savannah is less than enthused at the thought of leaving her friends and pets behind but she doesn't have a choice and soon finds herself starting the travels in China with her older brother and sister and her mother (one brother does not join them due to his work). As they trek through China, experiencing sleeper trains and more, she slowly starts to shed the distaste she has for the trip and starts enjoying herself. They also, in this book, explore Mongolia as well.

Savannah has a large family and a seemingly close one. I do have to say that I'm not sure if her descriptions of them are entirely fair or accurate at times. Her mother gets an ok description but her brother comes off as a jerk many times. Now maybe he is kind of a jerk or maybe Savannah was trying to portray him through her (at the time) fourteen year old eyes. To be fair though, she did say a lot of good about him as well and he was the one who seemed to shoulder a lot of the responsibility of the trip. Her sister, who is older than Savannah, seems to act a lot younger in the book. And again, this could be accurate but it is hard to say. She certainly was a go getter despite how mature she acted though and very athletic. As for the local people she met, they were wonderfully described. I never tired of hearing how helpful and kind Savannah found them and the different things she learned from them. And her descriptions on their way of life were very informative and eye-opening. And Savannah herself is shown to grow through the book, in attitude and maturity.

For a "new" writer, Savannah has a great way with words and the book is well written. I would have liked to see more detail on the sights themselves, but there was still enough there to keep me interested and I always wondered where they were headed next. I am jealous of everything she got to see and if I didn't have pets to take care of, would have been tempted to go off backpacking on my own. But maybe someday. Her tale is a compelling one and to be uprooted at her age and get used to things you weren't familiar with would be tough. But she definitely overcomes her initial aversion to everything and seems to have the time of her life and her experiences are sure to stir the travel bug in anyone. Some pictures would have been really nice in the book, but there is a link to her website where you can see a ton of them, and it was nice to put faces to names and see some of the different areas she visited.

An interesting travel memoir. I'm eager to see what the next one will bring. This book deserves a very solid 4.5 star rating as it was well written and will appeal to all sorts of travelers or armchair travelers.

**This book was received as a Free Advanced Reviewer's Copy**

Copyright 2012
362 pages

June 20, 2013

A Fort of Nine Towers by Qais Akbar Omar

When people hear "Afghanistan" a lot of things come to their minds. Some think of terrorism and Al-Qaeda. Others think of their loved ones overseas there. But a few might think of the lives of the everyday people there and what they have suffered through. For those people, this book opens that up to what the average family endured in the last twenty years in Afghanistan.

Qais Akbar Omar was seven when his country devolved into chaos. His family, fairly affluent, were almost immediately targeted by corrupt officials and members of the different factions that vied for power. Even more harrowing were the rockets that rained down on the city, destroying everything in their wake. Forced to move from their home, they found refuge in a friend's home and also traveling around as they searched for a way to leave the country. But bad luck followed them everywhere they went and Qais had to endure some very hard times and horrors beyond imagining.

Qais tells everything like it happened. Whether describing a family member or a stranger, it seems like he tells exactly the truth as he knows it about them and doesn't elaborate. Even in his well-respected father and grandfather he is able to still admire them despite their flaws and he doesn't write them as perfect beings, just good ones. He's a little rough on his one sister, but it sounded as if she had a lot of laughs at his expense. And he does a lot of soul searching himself and strives to be a better person, despite setbacks. As for the evil people he describes in this book, they truly are evil, and it is horrific he had to experience what he did.

This is a hard book to read. And it's even harder because it's true. Many will compare it to "The Kite Runner" but that book is fiction. This stuff really happened and it makes it that much worse. But it is also interesting. While I know there has been war over there once America entered the mix, I didn't know about all the fighting between the factions before that time. And all the atrocities committed against the regular people was also an eye-opener. It's amazing that Qais is as good a person as he is since violence often begets violence. But he overcomes it, and that is admirable. Add in his writing skills and this is a book to be reckoned with, as he draws you in and keeps you hooked through the whole book.

A very well done book and a scary, yet hopeful look into Afghanistan and its people.

A Fort of Nine Towers
Copyright 2013
388 pages

June 09, 2013

Every Living Thing by James Herriot

If you're an animal lover you have probably heard of James Herriot.  But on the off chance you haven't, he's a veterinarian that practiced in England in the mid nineteen-hundreds.  And he was an animal lover himself, in addition to being a writer.

Every Living Thing is part of a series that chronicles Herriot's experiences as a vet.  But it is not the type of series that you have to read in order.  This book is a collection of short stories from Herriot's practice and can range from stories about horses, to cows, to dogs and cats, and even some of his house hunting stories too.  And it's also a book about the owner of these animals, because ultimately, they are the ones that Herriot interacts with the most.

There are a wide range of characters in Herriot's books.  He works with a lot of strange creatures, and I'm not talking about just the animals!  The people are just as varied and seemingly dependent on their animals well-being for their own well-being, so much so that at times it doesn't seem authentic, but they're still nice stories.  There always seems to be a story where a human is downtrodden because their animal is not acting quite right, but there are just as many that are quirky on their own with their animal being ok.  And the animals are amusing as well; while the cows and sheep don't have too much of a personality, all of the dogs and cats he worked with seemed to.  I did enjoy the story of his two feral cats quite a bit.  He showed a lot of patience with them. 

These are all short stories but they had some kind of tie-in for all of them.  A lot of times this was just an arching story of Herriot wanting a better house, but it still eased the transition and made the book almost seamless.  Some of them were more interesting than others (I didn't particularly care for the story about the Tailor), but overall it was a very nice, pleasant read.  That is, pleasant if one ignores all the descriptions of Herriot reaching his hands insides all sorts of places on animals all the time.  I'm not saying that it ruined the story, for me it didn't, but to those who are a little more squeamish it might put them off the book.  Because Herriot doesn't hold any description back.  But even in doing so his love of animals is evident and he's out there no matter what trying to help them, and I think that's what makes this book charming.

Definitely a cozy read and one that most people can appreciate the warmth and approachability that Herriot gives veterinary work.

Every Living Thing
Copyright 1992
374 pages

The Stand by Stephen King

The Stand is a very very long book.  I'd watched bits and pieces of the tv series before, and knew what it was about a little bit, but there was a whole lot more to the book than even the series got into (which is how it usually is).  I should note that I read the 1980 copyright of this book, as there seems to be several different ones circulating out there with changed information in them.

Because of a mistake, a deadly virus is loosed on the world and it quickly decimates the population.  The survivors are all driven by their dreams; some of a dark man west of the Rockies, others to an old woman, somewhere in Nebraska.  Based on their morals and interests they head to these two different people, meeting up with other survivors along the way.  And once they establish their own societies, it is quickly realized that both can't exist in the world.

There are a lot of standout characters in this book and there are a lot of characters that are extraneous.  I really liked Stu's character as he seemed to be a decent guy with only a few flaws and he genuinely seemed to want to help people.  I don't understand his logic at times (or a lot of the characters for that matter), but he drives the plot along quite nicely.  Frannie, on the other hand, seems to only be in the story for the use of her pregnancy in the plot.  She could have been so much more but I felt like King only used her for convenience and she wasn't really a strong character on her own.  As for the bad guy, Flagg, I just didn't find him that menacing.  He seemed more bark than bite and while he did do plenty of awful things, they were all background and his henchman seemed more vile than him.  (Yes, I suppose it could be a lesson on how true evil uses others to do its work for it, but I'm not really wanting to go that philosophical with this book).  There were also a lot of loose ends with a lot of the characters too, like the boy Joe/Leo and a few others and I would have liked to have known what happened to them.

This is a long winded book.  King likes to use a lot of words and it works for him most of the time.  I think in this particular one there might be too much to it though.  I find my interesting flagging at times (no pun intended) and had to read it in several sittings.  Especially towards the end, I really had to push myself to finish the book.  The beginning was fantastic though, just the right amount of detail and the subject was compelling as they were trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world.  It was when he started throwing in the supernatural that my interest waned as it could have been a strong story even without it.  It was still interesting, just not as intriguing as it could have been.  And the ending was a bit of a let down.  I don't want to give away too much, but it just seemed too easy after everything else that had happened.  King is known for doing the supernatural thing though, so I shouldn't be surprised that this book followed that formula.

I liked the book but I didn't think it was an epic story.  It started off strong and kind of ended with a whimper in my opinion.  3.5 stars from my perspective.

The Stand
Copyright 1980
817 pages

June 07, 2013

On the Noodle Road by Jen Lin-Liu

**This review is part of the Amazon Vine Program**

I love noodles. I could eat them every day whether it be macaroni and cheese, alfredo, filled pastas, lo-mein, well, you get the picture. There's something very comforting about them and it isn't a surprise that they are found in most cuisines around the world. But just how did they spread among all those cuisines is the question Lin-Liu attempts to answer in this book.

Lin-Liu, while living in China and working at her cooking school, decides to follow the Silk Road from China to Italy in search of where noodles originated and how they have persevered through the cultures. She'll go through all of China, Iran, Turkey, and many other countries before finally finishing in Italy. And she'll seek out noodles in each of these places although in some, they are harder to find. Additionally, this is a memoir of sorts that expresses Lin-Liu's troubles with her new marriage and search for herself in the relationship.

Lin-Liu and her husband aren't the only people featured in this book though. She encounters so many people in her travels that they are all included here as well. And she offers a commentary on their lives as they are bound by their customs and rules of the countries. She expresses her vehemence quite often at some of the traditions that bind women to their homes and their kitchens, even as she enjoys the tasty food that comes out of them. Her relationship with her husband is less interesting though, and while I can appreciate that she tried to make this a memoir in addition to food writing, I just don't think it was the right mix to make it interesting. I cared more about the food and who made it than I did about her personal life, right or wrong as that may be.

There was a lot of food in this book (recipes too). And the majority of the book was luckily about food, because as said before, I wasn't as interested in the memoir part of this book. I do think that China was probably my favorite region that Lin-Liu described. All of the noodle dishes sounded wonderful and I think I'll definitely make good use of that recipe section (all the recipes are at the end of the chapter for each respective country). Iran, the people she spoke with were interesting, but the food didn't hold as much appeal for me. The same goes for Turkey. And Italy wasn't described near as much as I thought it would be, considering they are known for their noodles. And while the writing was a little choppy, with less than smooth transitions between the countries, it was still approachable writing and easy to read. Lin-Liu writes like she probably talks, and it is easy to get absorbed, although long-winded at times.

I enjoyed the book but I don't see myself going back to it again and again (unless it's to use the recipes). It offered a unique perspective on noodle dishes and nice descriptions of foods for any foodie, but was a bit too meandering to be a repetitive read.

On The Noodle Road
Copyright 2013
384 pages