Fellowship of the Ring Book Tag

Today, for the very first time, I’m doing a book tag on my blog! Many thanks to BiblioNyan for tagging me. She’s very cool and kind and friendly and you should check her out.

I have to admit, I’m a poor Tolkien fan. I’ve only read The Hobbit and about two thirds of The Fellowship of the Ring, although I have seen all the movies in the trilogy & the first Hobbit movie. I’ll have to get on that sometime, but for now, here’s the tag!

Points to Note:

  1. Please pingback to Nandini’s original post.
  2. Feel free to use the banner from her post.
  3. Be as creative as you like while interpreting the prompts.
  4. Tag at least 3 people you think would enjoy doing the tag.
  5. Even though Gollum is not an official part of the Fellowship, Nandini wanted to have a round figure, so she added a prompt for this character too.

1. Gandalf – A book that taught you something

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Out of all the questions in the tag, this the the hardest to pick, because I learn something from just about every book I read. In the end, I decided to just go literal and recommend a book that taught me a lot of good information. Rubicon is a book that was assigned to me by my high school Latin teacher. It’s great because it’s a history book written in an engaging narrative style. Even if you already have a pretty good grasp of Roman history, I recommend this book just on the basis of being fun to read.

2. Frodo – A book that left a mark on you

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I read Night in my eighth grade English class. I’d learned about the Holocaust before, of course, but this was the first time I had encountered a survivor’s account. It was so visceral, dark, and disgusting. It made me realize exactly how dark human nature can be and what true evil looks like. The last line of the book has stuck with me ever since:

From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me. The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me.

3. Legolas – A book you finished in one sitting

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I very rarely finish a book in one sitting, even if it’s extremely short. Usually it’s only comics or poetry books that fit into that category, and so the last book I remember finishing in one sitting is Milk and Honey. Honestly, I didn’t really like it. While I appreciate the author’s vulnerability and expressiveness, the quality of the poetry is just poor. It’s fourth-rate Tumblr poetry. So many of the poems come across as lazily written. I’m not giving it a pass just because I sympathize with the author’s experiences or agree with some of her viewpoints.

4. Gimli – A book that features an unlikely friendship

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This sprawling masterpiece is full of strange connections and coincidences. There is, of course, Jean Valjean’s commitment to Fantine and later Cosette. His role as Cosette’s surrogate father is one of the essential relationships of the book. When you look at it more closely, though, there are all sorts of unlikely friendships. Valjean and Fauchelevent, Thenardier and Georges Pontmercy, Marius and Les Amis de l’ABC… that last one has a severely underrated backstory that’s totally glossed over in the musical. If you only know the musical, you’re missing out on so many details!

5. Merry – A book that pleasantly surprised you

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One time in middle school, I was taking way too long to choose a book at the bookstore. My mom got impatient and tried to help me pick. When she suggested The Mysterious Benedict Society, I wasn’t sure I would like it. Since we had to leave, though, I accepted her suggestion and gave it a shot. It turns out that this is one of the most clever and charming children’s books I’ve read in my life, and I later ended up buying the sequels, too!

6. Pippin – A book that made you laugh

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Nimona caught my eye at the bookstore one day, and since then, it’s become one of the most reread books on my shelf. It’s an irreverent fantasy story with lots of laughs, but it also offers a nuanced deconstruction of the line between good and evil. The main characters all have depth and make you sympathize with them at the most unexpected moments. I appreciate how this book manages to pull off light banter and ridiculous gags without feeling disjointed when it transitions to deeper and more emotional fare.

7. Boromir – A book/series that you think ended too soon

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There’s something bittersweet about Calvin and Hobbes. It’s basically how I learned how to read, and unlike most of the comics of my youth, it hasn’t grown stale with age. Instead, I find something new every time I revisit a strip. Bill Watterson has left us with plenty to chew on, but I still wish for more sometimes, or at least that the guy would come out of hiding for five minutes so I could shake his hand. These books evoke such intense nostalgia in me that it’s like some sort of drug.

8. Sam – A book with memorable side characters who stole the show

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When I think of books with a colorful ensemble cast, the Harry Potter series is the first one to come to mind. It’s hard to even name all of them, but aside from fan favorites like McGonagall, Snape, and Sirius, even the truly minor characters have their own fans. It’s partly because of the massive popularity of the series, but it’s also because Rowling gives her readers such a large sandbox to play in. Characters I think are underrated? Fleur Delacour and Regulus Black.

9. Aragorn – A good book with a bad/average cover

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My brother gave me The Dispossessed for Christmas this past year. Now, the cover isn’t exactly ugly, but it does look like a plain, cheap science fiction paperback–which, to be fair, it is. What’s contained between the covers, though, is insightful social and political commentary. Le Guin is a sensitive and thoughtful writer who knows how to capture the human condition. I slowly fell in love with this book.

10. Gollum – A book that had great potential but disappointed you in the end

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For this one, I’m going to have to go with Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor. I’d heard great things about the book, and the premise excited me. I wanted to see fantasy written for young people that came from a different perspective than the typical amalgamation of various European lore. The magic system here is distinctly Nigerian, to be sure, but the influence of Harry Potter overshadows the book’s plot and style. In the end, I found it surprisingly paint-by-numbers, especially from an author who’s such a critical darling right now.

Tags:

(To be honest, I’m not sure if everyone here is a doer of tags… so if you don’t want to participate, just take it as a compliment!)

  1. Lana Cole
  2. Lorraine
  3. thebookishbohemian

 

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Review: The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

Harriet and David are a happy couple who want lots of children, and so they have them. The first four are perfectly ordinary. The fifth child is something else. It’s a simple premise for a horror novel–almost an obvious one–and accordingly, it needs less than 150 pages for the idea to express itself fully.

This is not a gory, blood-pumping horror novel; it’s a tale of suspense. We spend nearly the entire book waiting for the other shoe to drop. Time and time again, the fifth child, Ben, does something that sets off alarm bells in the brain, and so we wait for him to snap. And wait. And wait.

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Doris Lessing takes the story from merely psychological to philosophical, taking a figurative page from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Like Frankenstein’s monster, Ben cannot help being what he is, and he does make efforts to be human in some sense. He is doomed to be misunderstood. Unlike Frankenstein’s monster, though, it’s not that people refuse to understand him. Harriet does her absolute darnedest to love Ben like she does her other children. Chillingly, he is completely incapable of being understood.

I find The Fifth Child to be an excellent example of horror from a feminine perspective in that it comments so incisively on motherhood. What Harriet faces is an extreme version of what many mothers face. Can I love all my children the same? Is it normal to resent my child? If my child turns out “wrong,” is it my fault? Am I doing motherhood wrong? Is it bad not to breastfeed, is it uncaring not to follow all the little bits of health advice that we mothers pass around among us? So many of Harriet’s problems are just one step beyond what an ordinary mother experiences.

The thing is, her experiences are not the experiences of an ordinary mother, and whenever she tries to point this out, others gaslight her. They pretend that Ben is just remarkably strong for his age, or a bit slow, or a bit “different.” On the flip side, they treat Harriet as though this difference is her fault. It all comes to a head in her conversation with a doctor toward the end of the book:

I don’t blame myself, though I don’t expect you to believe it. But it’s a bad joke. I feel like I’ve been blamed for Ben ever since he was born. I feel like a criminal. I’ve always been made to feel like a criminal.

I think that Harriet’s predicament is relatable not only for mothers, but for any woman who’s been treated as “hysterical” or “crazy” over legitimate grievances. That realism is what gives the novel its edge.

At first, I was a bit disappointed that we never do really solve the mystery of Ben. However, how Ben came to be what he is, is not the point. The point is the effect he has on his family and the people around him.

I recommend this to anyone looking for an unsettling read that isn’t too outright scary, especially if you appreciate a tint of feminist insight.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

You can buy it here!

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An Unexpected DNF: Vox by Christina Dalcher (Linguist’s Perspective)

I was excited about Vox for one reason — the main character is a neurolinguist. What’s more, she is an accurately written neurolinguist, since the author has a PhD in linguistics herself. I studied linguistics in college, so having accurate representation of my field out there is important to me. Then why didn’t I finish it?

Time constraints. At my library, new books are lent on a two-week basis, no renewals. I had to give it back. To be honest, though, I had the appropriate amount of time to read this book, but it didn’t excite me enough to finish it before the deadline. It’s a decent book, based on the 75 pages I did read of it. I would have finished it eventually if not for the due date. Still, I’d like to talk about why, as a linguist, I didn’t really get the book I was expecting.

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Vox is set in a dystopian future where women are allotted 100 words per day. For every word after that, a wrist cuff administers a shock that increases in intensity as the woman continues to speak. It’s all very The Handmaid’s Tale. In fact, it’s a bit too The Handmaid’s Tale. Every single blurb and review of the book latches on to this easy comparison. Dalcher seems determined to impress upon us that something like this, if not exactly this, could happen if we don’t stop Trump and the fundamentalist right. The main character has failed to heed the warnings of her activist classmate from grad school, and now she’s stuck in a world where women can’t speak.

I mean, that’s one way to motivate people to action, I suppose.

There’s a strange disconnect between two segments of the U.S. population, in my observation. There are people who have firsthand experience with fundamentalist right-wing Christianity, and there are people who have only looked upon it from the outside. I’ve attended churches across the spectrum and known Christians of many different political shades. I find that books like Vox and The Handmaid’s Tale cater to an audience that has never been involved in “that” part of the church and that often has little experience with religion at all. That’s not to say that these books are necessarily wrong in their portrayals, but they lack nuance and a real understanding of how the religious right thinks. Religious characters seem like caricatures.

Margaret Atwood has given enough interviews about her work that we can understand how she formulated Gilead, but there is much less to go on with Dalcher. While she names her inspiration as the Cult of Domesticity, this doesn’t tell us about her own religious background and how it informs her writing. I don’t think readers are entitled to know her beliefs or her upbringing unless she chooses to share it, but I do think it’s a relevant point to consider on my end when analyzing a book that criticizes religion and politics.

With regard to linguistics, Vox is factual, or at least it is up to the point I read. And that’s great, but in terms of science fiction, it’s a bit of a snooze. Arrival might not have accurate linguistics, but at least it’s creative with linguistic concepts. Dalcher writes about Wernicke’s aphasia in layman’s terms, paragraphs I skimmed with a yawn. It’s a decent introduction to the topic, but from what I gather, she doesn’t take this aspect of the storyline anywhere particularly speculative.

The more interesting linguistic question she raises is about speech development in children. The main character’s daughter Sonia seems to receive an appropriate amount of linguistic input, but she isn’t allowed to put it into practice by speaking herself. The women of this society begin to invent sign languages, but the authorities cotton on quickly and shut them down. Any linguist can tell you that with such stunted language use in childhood, a girl like Sonia would end up with permanent linguistic disabilities. I hope that Dalcher explores this idea with imagination, since she’s creating a generation of test subjects for the most unethical of linguistic studies: what happens when you raise a child without speech? Only a small handful of abused, neglected, or “wild” children have been observed by researchers to this end.

The thing is, I could be wrong, but I don’t see room in the narrative she sets up to properly explore the ramifications of the 100-word policy. Its consequences would be on a generational scale, and her plot seems to be fairly real-time.

I want to highlight again that I only read the first 75 pages of this book. Many of my qualms could easily be wiped away in the rest of the story. I just wanted to give some of my thoughts as a linguist, even though I wasn’t able to read the entire thing. Maybe when the initial library rush has died down I’ll pick it up again and do a follow-up.

One thing’s for sure: Vox has ignited in me an appetite for more linguistic science fiction. Send the recommendations my way if you have them!

You can buy Vox here.

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Review: Ogre Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

This review is based on an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

I love Ella Enchanted. I love Gail Carson Levine’s entire bibliography. If you haven’t seen it, I’ve written an essay on the impact Ella Enchanted has made on my life. So when I got the chance to read Ogre Enchanted before it officially comes out, I was psyched. This book can stand alone, but it’s also a prequel featuring characters from the generation before Ella.

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There’s a suggestion of a Beauty and the Beast narrative, but Ogre Enchanted is content to leave it as a vague inspiration rather than the basis of the tale. In fact, the Beauty and the Beast story canonically exists as a fairy tale in this universe. This stands in contrast to Ella Enchanted and Fairest, which are retellings, albeit ones that take great liberties with the source material.

Our protagonist, Evie, turns down a marriage proposal from her friend Wormy in the presence of the familiar fairy Lucinda, who turns her into an ogre in retaliation. If Evie can’t secure and accept another proposal within the time limit, she’ll remain one forever.

The main appeal for me as a fan of Levine is the expanded world-building. This story sheds light on the workings of ogre culture and magic, gives important background information on the history of Kyrria, and explains how Ella’s parents got together. The main plot-line is solid enough, but it seems a bit formulaic, and I would have preferred a different ending.

Spoilers under the cut.

Continue reading “Review: Ogre Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine”

Review: The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty

What burdens we lay on the dying … seeking to prove some little thing that we can keep to comfort us when they can no longer feel–something as incapable of being kept as of being proved: the lastingness of memory, vigilance against harm, self-reliance, good hope, trust in one another.

What do you expect from a book about grieving? It’s probably not what you get from The Optimist’s Daughter, which strikes a light and philosophical tone as it follows Laurel through the death of her father. Beleaguered by well-meaning mourners and her too-young stepmother, Fay, Laurel tries to make sense of her father’s life and actions, especially his taking a second wife after the passing of her mother, Becky.

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Laurel, although she is the central character, often fades into the background as she observes other characters. While others make her father’s death about themselves, fluttering around and making a spectacle, Laurel is determined to remember her father as he was. She wants nothing more than to arrange the aftermath of her father’s passing the way he would have wanted it, but Fay’s self-centered plans get in the way.

Funerals. The chaos of trying to plan an event in the midst of deep sadness. Reminiscing. The odd moments of joy and laughter that follow. The empty silence when it’s over. Sorting through your loved one’s belongings. Welty takes us through the entire process. It’s just realistic enough to not feel so sad. Thankfully, I haven’t been through the loss of a parent, but I related intensely to the sheer strangeness that permeates the loss of a loved one. Funeral receptions feel surreal to me, and the distribution of a family member’s belongings can be a difficult process.

There are also the questions. Who was Judge McKelva? Was he who Laurel thinks he was? Why did he remarry? Do those left behind deserve to impose on the privacy he held in life?

This book is easy to read until it isn’t. The very ending brought tears to my eyes, although I hadn’t felt particularly sad up until that point.

Usually when I read a book, I have some meter going in the back of my mind measuring how much I like it, where the strengths are, where the flaws are. That didn’t happen with this book. I just read it. It’s a short read, so if you get the chance to get through it in one or two sittings, you should absolutely do it. With a colorful cast of characters and simple poignancy, there’s nothing not to love about The Optimist’s Daughter.

I recommend this as a thoughtful, relaxed read to enjoy when you have the time and the focus to absorb it fully.

Rating: 5/5 stars.

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Review: The Scarlet Pimpernel by Emma Orczy

In the wake of the French Revolution, one man stands against the Terror and the bloodthirsty guillotine. He is known as… the Scarlet Pimpernel!! In this pulpy adventure-romance, Emma Orczy originates the trope of a hero with a secret identity.

The main character is not the Scarlet Pimpernel, but rather Lady Marguerite Blakeney, a clever Frenchwoman married to a handsome, wealthy, and stupid Englishman. When an old acquaintance blackmails her into joining his efforts against the Scarlet Pimpernel, she struggles between her personal good and the greater good.

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This book reads the way you might expect from the description. It’s chock full of action and adventure, the Scarlet Pimpernel maneuvering himself out of high-stakes situations at the last moment. Or, rather, he very often prepares his escape before he’s even trapped. Like in Sherlock Holmes, there are builds to elaborate reveals.

Unlike in Sherlock Holmes, though, these reveals can be fairly predictable. I was taken in by one or two of the Pimpernel’s tricks, but I was able to foresee the better part of the last third of the book. I enjoy figuring out a twist here and there, but in this case, some of the puzzles are just too easy.

Also, as you might expect from a novel with anti-Revolution tendencies, there is a hefty dose of classism with sides of sexism and racism. It’s such a light and frolicsome read that I couldn’t take the author’s biases too seriously, but if these things are likely to ruin your reading experience, steer clear.

Nonetheless, The Scarlet Pimpernel is a fun and swashbuckling sort of read. Like a modern-day action film, it’s meant more for a thrilling ride than anything else. I recommend it to anyone looking for a short book that goes down easy, especially if you’re trying to get into classics, but are intimidated by more complex works.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

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Review: The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

She was struck by the selfish thought that this was not fair to her. That she’d been in the middle of a different story, one that had nothing to do with this. …Stupid men and their stupid violence, tearing apart everything good that was ever built.

In the 1980s, Yale Tishman is weighed down by a tricky art acquisition for work, relationship problems, and the AIDS crisis striking down his community. In 2015, Fiona chases a shadow of a hope to Paris, where she searches for her estranged daughter. The connection between the two? Fiona’s brother, Nico, was a pillar of Chicago’s gay community and a good friend of Yale’s before dying of AIDS.

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The Great Believers is a twisty book. While its narrative is firmly entrenched within the perspectives of its two main characters, its cast is a large ensemble, sweeping across decades and tied together by all kinds of messy, strained, and complicated relationships.

And frankly, as I got further and further into the book, I got the distinct impression that it’s something someone my mom’s age would read for their book club. There’s the nostalgia for the youthful eighties in one thread, a relatable middle-aged woman of the present day in the other, and they’re tied together by the regrets and hardships in between. It’s a book that I, as a young person, struggled to read in the same way I struggled to read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (although that book is hard to read for multiple reasons).

The intricacy of the characters’ relationships combines with the reader’s initial unfamiliarity with said characters in such a way that the book ends up with a slow start. At the beginning, I had trouble mustering the curiosity to follow all of the petty intrigues that were happening. Fiona’s thread suffers from this more than Yale’s. However, as new facets of the characters reveal themselves, and as connections arise between past and present, the plot gradually becomes more engrossing.

By the end of the book, every new detail makes the tale more heart-wrenching. It makes me realize that it’s easy to forgive a slow start in a book if the ending is good. The ending here is an agonizing denouement, scratch upon scratch and bruise upon bruise. A blurb on the back of the book calls it “a healer and a heartbreaker,” but the healing is in catharsis and survival, the healing of a scar rather than a cure.

This book is meaty, emotional, and an excellent tribute to the gay community of 1980s Chicago. It’s also not really my type of book, although I did enjoy it overall. If you are looking for a book club book, though, The Great Believers is a solid fresh pick and a tearjerker without being wholly depressing.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

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