Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Cleopatra's Shadows by Emily Holleman

**Cleopatra's Shadows will be released Tuesday, October 6th!**

Cleopatra's Shadows by Emily Holleman. Little, Brown and Company; 2015. 352 Pages. Paperback/Softcover.

**I received an advance review copy of Cleopatra's Shadows courtesy of NetGalley and Little, Brown and Company.**

So you're walking along, browsing the aisles of the bookstore when you see Cleopatra's Shadows hanging out on the shelf looking enticing. You think, "Hm, Cleopatra? I'd like to know more about her, let's see what this is about." This is where you go astray, because this is not a book about Cleopatra - it is about her two sisters that are so often forgotten about and overlooked. This is something new and exciting, with a wonderfully exciting new concept and area to explore. So let's dive in!

This book was a very nice diversion from the constant focus on Cleopatra; instead, as stated above, it follows her two sisters, Arsinoe and Berenice. The book alternates perspectives between the two as each struggles to deal with their newfound situation after Cleopatra and their father suddenly set sail and depart from Alexandria for an unknown amount of time. Berenice struggles with acting as a strong female leader; her goal is to keep Rome out of Egypt - which is, of course, much harder than it sounds. She must learn how and what decisions to make, who to trust, and whether or not to listen to her many advisors. Now under Berenice's rule, Arsinoe must submit to Berenice's authority and act loyal to Alexandria, whether she truly feels loyalty to her sister or not. Arsinoe, however, is also extremely close with her sister Cleopatra and is devastated by her leaving, praying that she will soon return for her and not leave her.

One of the large aspects of this novel focuses on Arsinoe's struggles with feelings of inadequacy, realizing that she has always been just the regular, leftover sister that isn't as important. As the title states, she has always been a shadow of her elder sister, Cleopatra. Even Berenice has faced this dilemma, despite the fact that she is now the current ruler of Alexandria since the rest of her family has left. I think we are meant to like and relate to Arsinoe more out of the two, but I almost preferred Berenice; Arsinoe was rather unlikable and hard to sympathize with. Holleman could have made these two sisters shine and move out of Cleopatra's shadow, but unfortunately she failed to do this, making each of them rather lackluster and uninteresting.

The time period that Holleman chose to write about is incredibly engrossing, because it is a time where much less is known about what occurred in history, and it is also not quite as popular as most others - likely because most books and research tend to focus more on Cleopatra. I appreciated Holleman's portrayal of Cleopatra, Berenice, and Arsinoe - historical facts and insights tend to get slightly fuzzy when it comes to the nitty-gritty of these women and their personalities, so I admired how she decided to mold and depict each of them for her novel.

Holleman's narrative voice is very fluid and light. Despite its slow pace, her writing does draw you in and make you interested to find out the conclusion of each sister's struggle. Her writing is not exceptionally thrilling or action-packed, but is instead written with a much more calm, dramatic flair that leaves the reader with a deeper and more reflective feeling.

One of my biggest problems with this book, however, was the lack of plot. This is tricky for me to explain, because while there are defined issues that each sister must figure out and resolve within the story, there also isn't much substance. Their issues do not seem to have definite answers or resolutions, and I often felt that the story was just moving along with no clear direction. It felt as if Holleman was just writing random events that seemed to only take place in order to add more to the novel while she tried to figure out exactly what she wanted to happen. There was too much 'fill-in.'
 I also felt that there was a bit of a random, unnecessary turn of events near the end regarding Arsinoe that did not seem to fit with the rest of the story, but I don't want to go into that too much due to spoilers.

Overall, I am giving Cleopatra's Shadows three-and-a-half stars, because although it was an interesting book, but it was missing many elements that make it deserving of a higher rating. If you enjoy ancient history, historical fiction, or political intrigue and the inner workings of court, then I highly recommend this book to you!

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If you like this book, you might also like:

Helen of Troy by Margaret George
The Creation of Eve by Lynn Cullen
Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette by Sena Jeter Naslund

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

The Heart goes last will be released next Tuesday, September 29th!

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood.

I feel as though I should start off by that saying that this was the first Margaret Atwood book I have ever read. I always hear how remarkable The Handmaid's Tale is, along with many of Atwood's other books, but for some reason I just never got around to picking any of them up. I'm not sure what was preventing me from reading one, considering she's often touted as the queen of dystopian literature, but somehow there was something preventing me from diving into one of her novels. So when I got a random package from DoubleDay books with an ARC of Margaret Atwood's upcoming release, The Heart Goes Last, I took it as a sign to break my Margaret Atwood virginity. 

I knew pretty much nothing about The Heart Goes Last when I received it, so I immediately looked it up to find out more. From what I have gathered, this novel is either related to or continued from her serialized Positron series, published by Byliner. However, there is no indication that one must read the previous Positron serials; I had no prior knowledge of any of this before reading, and I enjoyed the it just fine without that information. 

The Heart Goes Last is set in a dystopian future, where a young-ish couple, Stan and Charmaine, are struggling to survive; they currently live in their car and attempt to live off of Charmaine's meager wages as a waitress. However, a new experiment has begun in their community that is attempting to make people's lives easier. Participants in this new experiment will be given a house, employment, and rather pleasant lifestyle - but only for a total of six months a year. The catch: every other month each resident must spend their time in prison, while an alternate couple - who just completed their month in prison - takes their house for the month. The goal is, of course, to create a perfect society (we know how that tends to go). 

I was drawn into this book from the very beginning. However, I will admit that I felt a bit confused about what was going on at first, but fortunately there was something extraordinarily captivating about Atwood's writing that made me keep reading. It turned out to be an incredibly engaging story - so much that I finished it in about two days (which is likely partly helped by the fact that it's a fairly short book as well). This is also important to note because I have gotten pretty worn out from dystopian novels, but this one was a refreshing take on the genre.

Charmaine seemed to me to be the more stereotypical 'woman in dystopia' character and is much more gullible than her husband. Despite this, I see her naiveté nature as her deep, desperate plea to have a normal and happy life. And truly, that's all she wants: to be happy. It doesn't seem to matter just how gullible Charmaine needs to be for this to happen - she is fully willing to shed any doubts or questioning she has in order to enjoy this new life. 

Stan, however, is a bit more skeptical. From the start, he has a sort of inkling that this isn't going to go as it should. His brother, the ever untrustworthy screw-up, even warns him to stay out of this place. But Stan, being the good husband that he is, wants his wife to be happy, so he placates her and agrees to start the experiment. 

Stan and Charmaine's marriage was really interesting to explore. They weren't exactly passionate about one another, but their bond was incredibly strong - even when it appeared to be the opposite. Physically, they seemed to have a strong sex life, engaging in sexual activities often; however, it was also lacking in passion. Stan often commented how he was bored, and after finding a lipstick-printed note from what he thought was the other couple, he began to constantly fantasize about being much more passionate with the other woman that he had never seen. Stan wanted a life that wasn't so dry and pastel-colored, he wanted vibrancy and flames, like the lipstick color on the note. In my opinion, this is what ultimately drives and motivates Stan. He realizes that he isn't happy and that he does want out of his boring, uneventful life. 

This book plays with a lot of themes, emotions, and situations that are ordinarily pretty crazy. For instance, people who are deemed 'troublesome' are quickly sent to be euthanized; this, of course, is a huge secret that no residents know about, other than the one who performs the euthanasia. Residents are also under surveillance 24/7, whether they realize it or not. I really enjoyed how Atwood wrote in a style that was serious and not serious at the same time. The character are almost unbelievable due to how eccentric they are, but it is that eccentricity and oddness that draws you in and attaches you to each distinct character. The book plays with a vast amount of far-fetched ideas and plot events, but it still makes for an incredibly enjoyable read. And as far-fetched as some of these ideas are, it's frighteningly possible to imagine it happening in our own societies, and I think that is what truly hits home about this novel. While the book is amusing on the outside, it has many elements that convey a darker tone about society that can be found written between the lines of every page.

Overall, I am giving The Heart Goes Last four stars due to its wonderfully engaging and intriguing storyline, which is perfectly matched with Atwood's delightfully quirky and blunt storytelling. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good dystopian book (along the lines of 1984, not The Hunger Games), or anyone who simply enjoys something refreshing and entertaining.

And don't forget! The Heart Goes Last will be released on September 29th!

If you like this, you might also like:
The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
On the Beach by Nevil Shute

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Monday, September 14, 2015

Elon Musk: Inventing the Future by Ashlee Vance

This book sparked a huge amount of talking points, so I did my best to narrow it down as much as I could, but be warned: this is still going to be a rather long review.

Elon Musk: Inventing the Future by Ashlee Vance. Ecco; 2015. 400 pages. eBook. 

Elon Musk: the man behind some of the greatest and most innovative companies of our time: Paypal, Tesla, SpaceX, SolarCity, and maybe even the Hyperloop one day. Subtitling his biography with 'Inventing the Future' is the best and most accurate description I could possible think of for Musk because, essentially, that's exactly what he's doing.

Prior to reading this book, I only knew bits and pieces about him from snippets I would read in magazines, newspaper, online article, et cetera. I wanted to know more, so when I saw this book and saw that it seemed to have good reviews citing its objectivity and accuracy, I felt that it would be a good starting-off point for learning more about this determined and bullheaded man.

I'd like to start off by saying that Vance is a brilliant biographer. I have read my fair share of biographies, but I'm not sure if I've ever read one that was as equally engaging and entertaining as it was informative. As fascinating as biographies can be, I always - almost without fail - find myself losing interest at some point, whether it is because the author has gone into some minute detail that I don't particularly care about, or because their writing just simply seems to get distracted and bogged down by facts and figures. Vance masterfully avoids falling into this trap of biography-writing, and instead keeps everything snappy, to-the-point, and full of striking details. Now, this could be helped by the fact that Musk is such a unique and controversial figure, but Vance still works some wonderful writing charm of his own to complement his subject.

Not only has Vance crafted a wonderfully detailed and interesting book, but he has shown immense thoroughness and a stubbornness of his own in order to make this book happen. As Vance relates, Musk is not exactly a fan of the media, and therefore does not want many things - especially books - written about him - and definitely not if he doesn't have much say in what is written in said book. Vance, however, continues on, impressing Musk enough with his eagerness and determination that he is given the approval to write this book on his own. With that, let us move on the man himself: Elon Musk.

Musk is not afraid to take risks. He is the king of coming up with what appear to be crazy, futuristic, impossible ideas that no one believes in - but the most exciting part is that he almost always does pull them off, no matter what it takes (and that is not an exaggeration). All it takes is a stubborn, ruthless, persevering, and exceedingly intelligent man.

Musk has a blunt, straightforward attitude that should be admired as much as it is feared. The thing that is most striking about Musk is that he knows what he wants and he goes for it; I find this extremely admirable. He doesn't stop at anything anyone says or at any dilemmas he runs into. Now, sure, he might be a bit harsh and completely alienate or frighten his employees, but that's because he has the bigger picture in his head. He knows what he wants done, and he knows what it takes. Musk is not one to sit around toying with vast amounts of scenarios on how to get things done; he wants answers, and he wants them fast. As one employee of Musk has stated:

"If [Elon] asks you a question, you learn very quickly
not to go give him a gut reaction. He wants answers that 
get down to the fundamental laws of physics."

Don't expect sympathy or friendly conversations if you work for Musk; instead, expect to work hard. But, you should also expect to make history and create things that no one ever believed could be created. Musk is also an avid learner whose goal is to not only make great inventions, but to constantly learn more about what he is doing. He was cited as almost constantly quizzing engineers working on rockets at SpaceX, not to test that they knew their stuff, but so that he could learn everything.

On a personal level, Musk is not the warmest person you'll meet. He seems to rank up with other geniuses like Steve Jobs who, although brilliant, aren't exactly friendly people. I won't go into his personal life too much, as I feel that is better left for each reader to discover, and I don't particular want to overshadow or take away from his accomplishments; however, I had a hard time liking him as a person. Now before you all get mad at me for foisting my opinion and focusing on his personality, I want to make it clear that I'm not saying it's important to like someone as a person in order to respect or admire them. I'm merely saying that despite my immense awe and admiration for Musk, he's not exactly someone that I think I would enjoy spending time with. Would I like to hear about his ideas? Sure. Otherwise, not so much. His attitude towards women bothered me at times, and some of his actions towards his peers and employees were also not entirely admirable, and those qualities force me to keep Musk at a human level and not place him up on some godlike pedestal.

Although Musk is often portrayed as somewhat coldhearted, he does have some great qualities, and also has many quirky personality traits that are quite interesting to discover. For instance, he has a tendency to narrow in on minute details that most big companies would not see a problem with. For instance, a favorite part of mine is when Vance copies an email that Musk sent to employees regarding acronyms that were being used around the SpaceX factory, which contained a subject line reading "Acronyms Seriously Suck." In it, Musk bluntly and forcefully states that any and all acronyms that are not obvious and already in place must stop being used immediately, as it becomes much too complicated to figure out what people are saying, and "no one can actually remember all these acronyms... This is particularly tough on new employees." While this seems like an incredibly small and unimportant issue, it actually makes quite a lot of sense; these acronyms that were meant to increase productivity were actually slowing it down, which Musk explains: "The key test for an acronym is to ask whether it helps or hurt communication." Productivity is one of the most important thing to Musk, and that is exactly how he thinks.

Overall, Elon Musk: Inventing the Future will be receiving four stars, as it was extremely informative and entertaining, and it was definitely a great read for me. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys biographies, technology, Elon Musk, or simply an education and engaging read.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

A mini-review from upcoming novelist Sacha Rines!

I received a submission recently from a lovely young up-and-coming YA novelist, Sacha Rines, who kindly asked if I would be interested in reviewing the first few chapters of a novel she's writing. I love reading new talent - and the story seemed intriguing - so I of course said yes! As a result, I have something a little new and different for you all - a mini preview review!

As far as I am aware, this story is currently untitled, so I will be sharing with you my initial response and summary of the first three chapters that I have had the opportunity to read.

We begin the story with Venia, who is off to a new school for students that all have special 'gifts.' From there, the students of this school arrive and are sorted into various houses based upon what sort of talent they possess (i.e. Propello for those who deal with elements, Curas for those who are more medically inclined, etc.). To be completely honest, I was reminded of the Harry Potter novels quite a few times, but nothing too strong to where it impeded my enjoyment - this was still very much an amusing and unique sample! We soon learn that what Venia is capable of is unique and rather special, and I am intrigued to find out more about exactly what it means.

The pacing is a bit fast, but fortunately that didn't detract from my enjoyment. From the very start, readers are thrust immediately into the story, and there are very few stops or moments of explanation or pondering. While this is good because it easily keeps the story flowing and moving from one event to the next, I think a little bit of fleshing out and more time on certain events could help add a bit more to this story.

I loved Venia's sarcasm and attitude because of how relatable it was. It felt as though I was reading about a real person with many different sides and complexities, not a one-dimensional, dry character who barely thinks for themself. Along with Venia, Rines also introduces us to a nice array of interesting characters. We have the astute, law-abinding Akako, the humourous and boisterous Alvie, the quirky, womanizing Ty, and a slew of others that each bring their own charm and personality to make this story truly come alive.

Rines has a lovely voice full of wit, dry humour, and also charm. She's great at setting a scene and dragging you in, whether you want to or not. I can see this story going far with Rines' strong voice, as I could sense a confidence in both her writing and her clear sense of where this story is going. I really had a great time reading this sample, and did find myself chuckling aloud a few times - always a promising sign, in my opinion.

Based off of what I have read, I would definitely be one to recommend it for those who enjoy humour, a little fantasy, or a nice boarding school-esuqe book. I hope to one day have the opportunity to finish this exciting new story!

If you'd like to contact Sacha, you can reach her at sacharines@googlemail.com.

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Friday, September 11, 2015

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Uprooted by Naomi Novik. Del Rey. 438 Pages. Ebook.  
(I'd just like to say that while this cover is lovely and all, I much prefer this one. How gorgeous is that!?)

After reading the synopsis for Uprooted, I was already hooked. Then I saw the many rave reviews, and I knew that I had to read it - and soon.

Now, I'll be honest: I don't think I really fell in love with this book right off the bat, and I certainly found areas that I wasn't overly fond of, such as some of the history. Despite this, I did still love this book quite a lot. To put it in a more simplistic manner: with most things that we love in life, there are aspects of that said thing - or people - that we don't particular like. But that doesn't mean we don't love them, right? You love your friend, sibling, or significant other, but that doesn't mean that you love it when they suddenly stop responding to your messages or leave the dishes in sink (seriously, the dishwasher is right there)! That's how I felt about Uprooted. I loved it, but not always.

Uprooted begins with a small village near the forest and a young woman named Agniezska. Near the village is the forest, which is corrupted with the Wood that threatens to take over the land and people it lies near. In order to prevent this from happening, the mysterious Dragon works hard to stop it. However, he requires one  new young woman to live with him in his tower every ten years in exchange for his help. No one knows what happens to these girls in the tower, only that they come back and eventually move away. The next choosing is coming up, and Agnieszka believes that she is safe, as she, and everyone else in her village, assumes that the dragon will a more beautiful, more graceful girl. As we can expect, Agniezska is wrong.

The first thing that I would like to say about this book is that despite my initial hesitancy that it would fall into worn-out tropes and storylines, it was an entirely fresh and unexpected delight! The pacing was a bit slow in the beginning, but it was drawn out in a way that somehow made it impossible to put down, because it always felt like something important or exciting was going to be happening soon. Though it started out with a rather narrow story with not much room to grow, Uprooted slowly grew into an all-out fantasy heaven with countless conflicts, magical elements, intricate worlds and systems, and well-developed characters.

Agniezska is a delightfully refreshing character. She's incredibly clumsy and doesn't do well with being told what to do; she's headstrong, but also somewhat meek when it comes to things she doesn't know well. The initial Agniezska that we meet in the very beginning seems very fleshed out and well-rounded - it feels as if we already know her and her personality. It doesn't seem as though there is much more we can learn about Agniezska's character, but Novik quickly shuts that down as the story continues and we begin to learn more and see many more sides to Agniezska.

Also: The Dragon is not a real dragon. I can't tell you how incredibly disappoint I was that this was the truth. I expected a dragon. He's just a man. Oh well. Despite that, I still loved his character. He never really strays to far from his cold, rather off-putting demeanor, and I really, really appreciated that. There are too many books where the intitally cold and rude character suddenly 180s and becomes a friendly, humourous person. The Dragon is deeply layered, and as the story progresses we are able to unfold his life, his story, and how he gotten to the place he is today. We learn of his motivations and fears, while also watching him change in very subtle but important ways. I won't say much more regarding the Dragon, as I don't want to give away any spoilers.

Personally, I consider the Wood a character in itself, as it drastically influenced the novel and really seemed to have a mind of its own. I loved the eerily creepy Wood, which is an entire forest that's alive with evil and corruption, ready to take anyone that comes its way and claim them as their own, corrupting them to where they are no long really human at all. And really, that's what this book is all about: fighting back against the Wood and preventing it from taking over the land and villages outside of it.

Novik's writing is simply stunning. She does not merely borrow words and turn them into a story. Rather, Novik molds, creates, and blends her words to create a beautiful, fluid story that draws you in and keeps you hooked. This is not to say that Novik does not incorporate humour and other elements of writing into her book, but instead combines them all in a wonderfully exciting and engaging manner. Novik also lets the content of her novel take her wherever it needs to be, and I enjoy that she didn't cover up anything regarding sexual content or violence.

Overall, I am giving Uprooted a four star out of five rating, as it is a carefully and perfectly crafted novel, full of engaging characters and imaginative ideas, but it didn't quite have that 'wow' factor that I was looking for. I would recommend Uprooted for fans of fantasy, young adult/adult fiction, exciting new magical ideas and systems, and for those who enjoy a little darkness with their reading.

If you enjoy Uprooted, you might also like:
A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J Maas
Hidden Huntress by Danielle Jensen
The Throne of Glass Series by Sarah J. Maas
Azurite by Megan Dent Nagle

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Dataclysm by Christian Rudder

**This version of Dataclysm will be released next Tuesday, September 8th!**

Dataclysm by Christian Rudder. Broadway Books; 2015. 304 pages. Paperback/Softcover.

**I received a copy of Dataclysm for review courtesy of Blogging for Books**

Dataclysm is a social snapshot of society drawing on data from Facebook, Twitter, and OkCupid, a popular dating site created by the author, Christian Rudder. This book explores how the things people "like" on Facebook can reveal very specific details about our lives - such as our sexual orientation, - how people describe themselves online versus how they actually act in person, as well as how to deduce the approximate amount of homosexuals live in each state, whether they are open about it or not.

The data Rudder draws from a majority of the time is relatively slim, considering most of it is from OkCupid, a dating site. He admits that much of his data will be skewed as a result of this, but it still lends a bigger question of how much we should really take stock in what he says representing everyone versus how much we should just take for purely entertainment's sake. Since OkCupid is a what it is - a dating site - it's obvious that there's going to be a skewed sample of people that are generally single, middle-class, and more likely to be male than female. It's important to realize that this information is largely applicable mainly to the United States, as there are different cultural and societal norms in other countries, and some countries don't have nearly as much access to the internet and social media sites.

I do think that Rudder's information lends itself to a bigger picture of how people interact with one another and act online versus how they act in real life. The actual real-world picture may be different from Rudder's limited sample, but it still creates the same overall idea, which is really what I think Rudder is trying to point out. It's very thought-provoking, and I think Rudder brings up some really interesting points through his research. For example, his deductions revealed about attitudes on race and sexuality seem to be rather representative of the United States as a whole, and I feel that this can lead to intriguing discussions on how people change their views or attitudes based upon what is socially acceptable.

Rudder's writing is wonderfully engaging. He has a strong sense of humour and wit that makes this novel both enjoyable and easy to read. In fact, I finished it extremely quickly because of this: I would sit down to read, only to look up a while later and realize that an hour had passed and I didn't even realize it. Whether the information presented was enlightening and groundbreaking or not, it's still a highly amusing and interesting book.

I did really, really love the graphs, though. I love looking at graphs and statistics, so I had a delightful time looking at all of them, even if they weren't very interesting or necessary to what he was saying. There were a few graphs that didn't really add to the discussion, but they still fit in well enough with what Rudder discussed.

The format of the book was interesting. There were large categories that housed chapters within each; I both liked and disliked this method. It was nice to have more brief, to-the-point chapters, but it also felt a bit disjointed and rushed as well. Personally, I feel like each chapter could have been a separate blog post on Rudder's blog, which I had never previously read, but I've heard that the book is basically just a really, really long blog post. So if you like Rudder's blog, you are most likely sure to enjoy this book.

I'll be honest, I was expecting more from this book. While Rudder provided a large amount of interesting statistics and insight, I was expecting to learn something much deeper and juicier than what I really learned, which is basically that people aren't what they appear to be on the internet. Overall, I feel as though Dataclysm deserves three-and-a-half stars; it was wonderfully entertaining, but I think it really lacked the overall cohesion or depth that I was really craving.

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