Stoker’s Manuscript

Stoker’s Manuscript

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It’s funny how you can read a book and instantly forget about it. That’s what happened with this book by Royce Prouty. I got this book as a reader before it came out, and even specially requested it from BookPeople’s publisher reps because it sounded great. Then, as often happens with books I can’t wait to read and acquired right away, life and other books got in the way and it took me two years to get around to reading it. When I finally did read it, I was disappointed.

“When rare-manuscript expert Joseph Barkeley is hired to authenticate and purchase the original draft and notes for Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” little does he know that the reclusive buyer is a member of the oldest family in Transylvania,…”Indiebound

I so wanted to enjoy this book, but I really thought it was mediocre at best. It was not well-executed though the plot of the novel had the potential to be great in the right hands. The main character is a loquacious narrator and gives mundane details about his personality at the strangest times. The book seems tame for its majority, but at certain parts gets gory beyond all necessity, which makes it feel disjointed. The reader is just expected to accept that vampires are real without much build-up–the narrator himself seems to experience a weak denial that was entirely unconvincing to the reader. There was obvious effort in the writing of this book, but it wasn’t seamless enough to allow the reader to suspend disbelief and forget the existence of its author.

The author did some things well. He created a fantastic mood with the setting, using weather and the superstitions of locals to construct a convincingly creepy locale for his story. There was precisely one character that I found to be believable and sympathetic. And despite its mediocrity, I did read the novel from cover to cover, so his plot kept me at least engaged enough to finish.

It’s very rare for me to say I do not recommend something, but I do not recommend this book to anyone other than people who insist on reading every single vampire text known to man. Pass on this one and spend your time reading something better.

The “Throne of Glass” Series

The “Throne of Glass” Series

Ladies and gents, readers of all ages, you have got to read the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas. If you’re a fan of fantasy, assassins, young adult books, or general female badassery, these books are for you.

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Throne of Glass begins the series and opens with Celaena Sardothien being pulled out of the mine where she’s been enslaved for a year as punishment for her crimes as her kingdom’s most notorious assassin. The King offers her a choice–compete for the title of King’s Champion against a score of nefarious opponents, or return to a life of slavery and die in the mines. Throughout the competition, oddly dark events occur around the castle that lead Celaena on a twisted trail of intrigue, danger, and potential rebellion.

This book is packed to the brim with action, wit, humor, emotion, and suspense. It’s one of the most magical, creative, and engaging novels I’ve read in a long time, and the series just gets better.

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Crown of Midnight is a punch in the gut. I remember a friend of mine reading it first, and she looked at me and said, “Courtney, just wait.” A few days later, I reached the part she was talking about and screamed out loud. Being a kind book reviewer, I’m not going to tell you what this novel is about, as that would spoil the end of the first. Be satisfied knowing that it has some new characters that are just as loveable (or hateable) as those in the first novel. Celaena is her usual self, which is to say: awesome.

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The end of Crown of Midnight left me breathless and I couldn’t wait to read Heir of Fire. Celaena’s journey takes a turn that I could not have possibly foreseen. I am so impressed with Maas’s ability to take her readers completely by surprise over and over and over again. Heir of Fire brings Celaena away from everyone and everything she knows, to a part of her world that the reader has never seen before. It’s beautiful and terrifying, and I think this may have been my favorite of the trilogy. I cannot wait to see what Celaena does next, in Queen of Shadows!

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The Assassin’s Blade is a prequel collection of novellas that tell the story of how Celaena became the fierce and gifted assassin she is, and how she was betrayed and enslaved in the mine where Throne of Glass began. This book absolutely broke my heart. For such a young girl, Celaena endures and feels so much. She is a master of her art, and yet at heart she is just a teenager who, in addition to the unique problems associated with her profession, experiences the growing pains of becoming an adult human being.

In all, this is an incredible, beautiful series that I absolutely love. I tore through these before I left for Peru, and I will be purchasing Queen of Shadows as soon as it is released on September 1.

Hola from Arequipa!

Hola from Arequipa!

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Flying over the Gulf of Mexico

 

The Andes buried in clouds
The Andes buried in clouds

I’ve officially been in Arequipa for three whole days, and it has been something. I can say with a lot of confidence that I am going to love living here.

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The street where I live, with the view of one of the volcanoes in the background.

People travel for all sorts of reasons. My motivation for coming here was to really challenge myself and step outside my comfortable box, learning to live and thrive in a culture vastly different from my own. In the United States, we are spoiled rotten. In my two days here I am realizing how much we have and take for granted that other places do not. That’s not to say it’s better–just possibly more convenient.

What am I talking about? For starters, being able to drink tap water. Though I’m not a fan of the things that are in the water in our taps (like chlorine and fluoride), at least we can drink it without getting the runs for days. I have not experienced this yet, thankfully, as I’ve been really careful, but unfortunately it happens to everyone who isn’t used to the water here, and it’s only a matter of time before it’s my turn. TMI? Sorry. It’s something that the teachers here joke and laugh about openly, as it’s pretty much unavoidable and there is very little privacy in the residences.

Also, we can’t flush our toilet paper. It has to be thrown in the trash after use. Which sounds gross, and is if you let yourself think about it, but in reality it’s really not a big deal. It’s just the way things are.

So now that that’s out of the way, here’s a breakdown of the last few days: I arrived Friday night after a delayed flight out of Lima had me landing in Arequipa about 45 minutes late. I was warned this would happen, as South Americans tend to keep their own schedules. It was rough to remain patient, having been up and moving since 4:30 am. I am not a nice person when I’m exhausted. Fortunately, I managed to keep it together because I knew it was something that was likely to happen, and I knew I would soon be home and sleeping. I was picked up from the airport by the same person who interviewed me, Christian, who is very nice and vibrant. It is almost impossible to be in a bad mood when you’re around Christian. He drove me to the residences through the city, which I sadly couldn’t see much of because it was dark.

I met my roommates (Doris, Laura, and Veronica, all of them very nice and a lot of fun) and chatted for a bit, but I was dead on my feet and needed to sleep. Laura warned me that there are roosters that like to begin their chorus very early in the morning and let me have some earplugs so I wouldn’t be disturbed. I am very glad she did because the roosters start crowing at about 4 am, which is much earlier than I expected.

Saturday was mostly spent adjusting to the altitude. Arequipa is situated at an altitude higher than almost anything in the United States, with the exception of mountain peaks, so I have never been this high up before, and it took its toll on me for the first day. That first night I woke up every two hours because I’d had to drink so much water to stay hydrated. I’d get up to pee, drink a bunch of water, then sleep for a couple of hours and wake up when I had to pee again. It didn’t make for very good sleep, but it was better than being on a plane or sitting around in an airport, waiting.

Fortunately, Saturday did not demand very much from me. Veronica took me to a market called Mercado San Camilo, where all sorts of vendors have stalls and sell their wares. Fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, cheeses, eggs, dairy, snacks both hot and cold, and souvenirs are all sold here. It is loud and busy and very difficult to get a Peruvian merchant to pay attention to your slow, clumsy Spanish when there are many brisk Peruvians waiting to buy their goods. Veronica helped me with the words for various vegetables and I managed to buy broccoli (brócoli), spinach (espinaca), and onion (cebolla). I also bought a kilo of eggs and some mantequilla (butter, and my favorite word in Spanish, so far as I know). We then did some less exciting shopping at another market that greatly resembles Wal-Mart, with electronics and clothes brushing up against the pantry and household items for sale. At this store, Plaza Vea, a man tried to push his grocery cart into line ahead of me, but I sure didn’t let him! I have noticed that people will try to cut in front of me, probably because I so obviously don’t belong and do not know how things work here. Many people try to take advantage of that. By the end of my time here I think I will be very good at asserting myself.

That said, I simply love it here. All of what I described possibly sounds like it’s a place that’s no fun whatsoever, but I am having the best time. It’s really hard to be in a place where you cannot just walk up to strangers and ask directions, or strike up a conversation with someone in a bar. But Arequipa has a vibrancy to it that makes it absolutely charming and beautiful. The streets are dry and dusty, cobbled in many places with shiny black stone. Dogs wander on their own, dodging cars with proficiency and crossing the streets during gaps in traffic. I swear they look both ways, just like we’re taught to do. The houses are often colorful, but even when not, they each possess unique angles and architecture, so that it never gets old to look at them. Above it all sit the three volcanoes, Misti, Chachani, and Picchu Picchu. I will never get used to seeing mountains in the distance, and they fill me with awe every time I catch a glimpse between the rows of colorful houses or over the rooftops of the city.

Saturday night I went with several people to a concert to see a Colombian band whose name I cannot for the life of me recall. I had the best time, dancing and shouting and sipping on a cold beer in the chilly mountain night. Earlier Saturday I had felt homesick and sad, wondering why I had decided to leave all the good things I had in Texas for a place that is so different from my life in the States. But standing out there in front of the stage with new friends, bathed in colored lights, my whole body vibrating with the pulse of the music, I was completely swept away by how fortunate I am to be here. When the concert ended I was completely drained and went to sleep shortly after.

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Amazing concert
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Sunday I explored a bit of the historic streets that are located near where I live. I sat on a bench in Plaza de Armas and read my book, but an artist pestered me to allow him to draw me for more soles than I wanted to pay, so I decided to remain mobile for a while. I was curious about the cathedral at the northeast end of the square and took photos of the outside, but there appeared to be services happening inside, and a guard posted at the door that I couldn’t ask questions of, so I continued to explore.

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I loved the view of the cathedral through the branches of this flowering tree
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A different cathedral off the main square

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but on a shopping street off the square, I found a Starbucks, and I went in both for the wifi and for a little creature comfort. It was nice to sit and write in my journal and chat with a friend from home out of the sun for a bit.

I returned home to find a bustle of activity in the kitchen as my roommates prepared for a barbecue to be held for teachers and friends on the rooftop patio. We sat for hours at ate course after course of delicious food grilled by the talented Miguel. I got to meet a lot of kind people and kissed a lot of new faces for the first time. One of the residents here is a French woman, and she made us crepes there were magnifique! It was a wonderful end to an amazing first weekend here in Arequipa and cemented my feelings of belonging.

The sun going down on the volcano
The sun going down on the volcano
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Goodnight, Arequipa

There’s a fantastic feeling of togetherness here. Here it is not everyone for his or herself. We all help each other and support each other. It is an environment of camaraderie and friendship, surrounded by beauty both natural and man-made. My decision to move here is without a doubt the best one I’ve ever made.

Echo

Echo

Note: I know that many of you are waiting for a travel update, and I am working on one, but I have a lot of books to write about! So I’m playing catch-up. My first post from Peru will come soon, I promise.

Echo

Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan is a charming middle-grade reader that follows the stories of three different children at different points in time. Each of the children come from a different background with entirely different experiences, but they all have one thing in common: an enchanted harmonica.

The beginning pages of the book describe how the harmonica became enchanted, with a sweet, fairytale-like story about three orphaned sisters and the boy they recruit to help them. The subsequent three parts of the novel are all part of the sisters’ journey. The three tales all end abruptly, at seemingly bad moments for the children they are about. This was very distressing for me the first time it happened, as the resolution seemed so far away. I grew accustomed to it, though, and the author did not leave me hanging.

It is historical fiction with an element of magical realism, as one of the tales takes place before World War II during Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, and the two others describe two orphan boys and one daughter of a migrant worker family in the United States during WWII. It generates interest in the time period and all the various challenges and dangers posed by Hitler and the Second World War. I have always found this era of history incredibly fascinating, and it would be a good recommendation for children who take an interest in it.

This is also a story that encourages children to find resources within themselves to solve seemingly insurmountable problems. The children in each of these stories face a unique set of challenges and must find a way to solve them on their own, as the adults in their lives are usually unreliable or in danger themselves. The children’s shared love of and talent for music offers a way to find comfort and give hope for their families in challenging times of danger or hardship.

I loved this book. I think your middle-grade reader should read it because it has many beautiful elements that come together to make a lovely little novel. If you’re into books for kids, I recommend you read this too!

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Travel Post #2: Time To Move On

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Today it really struck me how close Peru is looming. Not in space, but in time. I know that the next nine days will pass very quickly. I don’t know if and when I will return to Austin, so I feel a particularly strong prickling of tears in my eyes over the course of any given day, knowing that the places and people I’m saying goodbye to may be more than just one year and several thousand miles away. The thing about life, though, is that you have to live your own. I’m lucky to be surrounded by people that understand that. There are many people that will miss me, and I’ll miss them. I’m sure there are some that don’t want me to go, but this is me living my path and being true to myself, and that’s something we’re all allowed and entitled to do. I hope that, as a teacher, I can inspire and encourage my future students in their dreams and endeavors in the same way that my beloved people have encouraged me.

Today at work, some co-workers did an “interpretive dance” in my final company meeting. This was absolutely a silly, fun thing that they did for my benefit, acting on an inside joke that pre-dates both of them at this company, but which everyone enjoys. We were all laughing and enjoying their dance, complete with rainbow ribbons and music. But I was also moved by the display. They planned it for me! And I realized once again the people I leave behind are each a priceless treasure.

Our beautiful rainbow-ribbon dancers :)
Our beautiful rainbow-ribbon dancers :)

 

The song they chose for the dance was “Time To Move On” by Tom Petty. One of the dancing pair, Cheryl, shared the lyrics with me after the meeting was over, and I think they are fitting. She also gave me a little French press to bring with me, so I can enjoy my coffee. It’s already wrapped tightly in bubble wrap and paper, and will be making the journey with me.

Throughout this process I have been consumed by the desire to just go. Get out of here. Start my new life. But I am grateful for the last several weeks, during which I’ve had the opportunity to prepare for my physical needs, and to truly take time and appreciate all of the things I have right here at home. From the family  who cries with mingled joy and sadness as I pursue my dreams, to the co-workers who decorate my cube for my birthday and give me a proper rainbow-y send-off, to all in Texas and beyond who have been with me through my ups and downs, the people in my life make my life what it is, and I am truly grateful for all of you.

The Soul of an Octopus

The Soul of an Octopus

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I read a non-fiction book! I’m always a bit proud of myself for this, as I usually only bother to read things that are not true. But I read an article about The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery, and octopuses are endlessly fascinating, so I decided to read it. It is an illuminating read!

First, this book decides the plural form of octopus once and for all. Right there on page one: “I knew little about octopuses–not even that the scientifically correct plural is not octopi, as I had always believed (it turns out you can’t put a Latin ending – i – on a word derived from Greek, such as octopus).” So stop saying octopi! The correct it octopuses. I know, I know. It sounds weird. But it’s correct.

I really enjoyed reading about Montgomery’s adventures and interactions with her octopus friends. She mostly details her visits and experiences to one particular aquarium and their octopuses, but she recounts a few ocean dives as well, complete with wild octopus interactions. All of her time spent with Kali, Octavia, Athena, Karma, and others both fascinated me and made me jealous of the relationships she built with these seemingly primitive (but oh boy, not actually primitive!) animals.

This book taught me so much. I knew a few things about octopuses, from reading articles or watching videos (thanks, Internet). I knew they change color like lightning and they can escape from jars (and foretell the future?). This book took me so far beyond that. I learned that, for relatively large animals they have very short lifespans. They aren’t just smart–they’re incredibly smart. Their brains are kind of…everywhere. They feel affection and jealousy and have prejudices, just like humans. At several parts of the book I felt as though the author described one of her human friends, only to realize she was describing an octopus. They can also squirt water, and will absolutely soak you if you annoy them, or if they take a dislike to you. And they bite!

This book helped me see another side of aquariums. The idea of taking wild animals out of the wild and putting them in enclosures distresses me. But I realized that aquariums can show the masses the faces of the animals who live beneath the waves. It reveals that the ocean is not just a flat, silver surface with theoretical life teeming below. It brings people face-to-face with what they may never see elsewhere. There were several points in the book where the author overhears people talking about how gross the octopus looks. With one or two facts, she helps transform the octopus before them from something “icky” into an interesting and sympathetic creature. The keepers, too, love their animals like friends or children. They rush them to the vet if something is wrong. They fret over surgeries. They worry if they’re bored or depressed, and they try to help them if they are. And they mourn the passing of the animals with all the grief of losing a human friend. I still think SeaWorld is the devil, but aquariums whose goal is not profit, but education, conservation, and rehabilitation are actually valuable facilities that can help the next generation understand why ocean conservation is so vitally important. (But NO WHALES.)

Honey enjoyed this book, too.
Honey enjoyed this book, too.

Montgomery’s opportunity to explore octopus behavior and animal consciousness is immensely fun to read about. Sy Montgomery does not use tremendously difficult-to-grasp scientific language. It is a good book for everyday people who love animals and take interest in all things octopus, and who might have difficulty wading through more technical language. In her series of anecdotes, Montgomery reveals an animal that is fiercely intelligent, intrepid, and full of surprises. I think you will like this delightful little book.

A Court of Thorns and Roses

A Court of Thorns and Roses

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Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses is a pleasantly steamy novel loosely based on the Beauty & the Beast fairy tale we all known and love. I picked up this book without even reading the synopsis in the jacket because I love other books by this author so much I will read anything by her, sight unseen. What I love about Sarah J. is that her books are so reliable. Reliably difficult-to-put-down page-turners. I happened to have just started this book on a sick day, and, accompanied by tea and blankets, I read it for most of the day.

Soothing x10
Soothing x10

“When nineteen-year-old huntress Feyre kills a wolf in the woods, a beast-like creature arrives to demand retribution for it. Dragged to a treacherous magical land she only knows about from legends, Feyre discovers that her captor is not an animal, but Tamlin–one of the lethal, immortal faeries who once ruled their world.

As she dwells on his estate, her feelings for Tamlin transform from icy hostility into a fiery passion that burns through every lie and warning she’s been told about the beautiful, dangerous world of the Fae. But an ancient, wicked shadow over the faerie lands is growing, and Feyre must find a way to stop it . . . or doom Tamlin–and his world–forever.” –via Indiebound

Feyre and Tamlin are…fun. Let’s just get it out there right now: there is sex in this book. Not tweenie scenes with mostly implied contact followed by a nice change of subject. It’s detailed, leave-nothing-to-the-imagination, sexy sex. I enjoyed this. Most authors who write for teens know two things by now: teenagers have sex, and adults (who also have sex) read YA. This book was perfect for women (and men!) who don’t shy away from their enjoyment of sexuality in whatever way and however often they wish. If you are someone who prefers a somewhat tamer, less sexual way of life/library, I’d avoid this book. Or maybe try it, and see if it can change your mind! It’s up to you.

However, I’ve read some reviews that say this is little more than erotica. They are wrong. This is a novel with Story. Engaging, terrifying Story. It has some truly grotesque villains, and many moments that drive the reader to the edge of their seat. The reason the reader cares so much about the story has something to do with the heroine. Feyre is a girl the reader likes. Feyre is a girl who is relatable. I’m sure there is something of the reader’s self to find in her. Perhaps it’s her fierce dedication to her family. Perhaps it’s her feelings of isolation and of being taken for granted. Perhaps it’s her hopeless attraction to a faerie being that oozes sensuality. Whatever it is, there’s a little something of you, me, and everyone else in Feyre. Once her story really picks up and gets going (which is almost immediately; my girl Sarah J. doesn’t make you wait), the reader cares because, in some capacity, she is the reader.

The men in this book. THE MEN. The faerie men. The sleek, smooth-as-butter, perfect-features, fantasy men of this woman’s heretofore unknown fantasies. I loved them. It’s a buffet of supernatural men. I couldn’t decide if I liked Tamlin (the broody love-interest), Lucien (the comic yet tragic sidekick), or Rhysand (the absolutely delicious baddie) most. The best part is that you don’t have to, because each of them gets plenty of attention within the pages of the novel.

Perhaps the only thing that gave me pause is that there is a certain plot device that is just a little too specific, and therefore, a little too convenient to truly allow this reader to suspend her disbelief. It jolted me out of the world of this-is-actually-happening, and into the world of this-is-a-novel-with-an-author. It only lasts for a moment, and then the story re-engages, but for that moment it was a little sad.

Finally, Sarah J. builds a faerie world that at once respects folklore and gives it a new spin. There are few authors who successfully pull this off, and it makes me like and respect this author more for doing it. She includes lesser-known fae species. She includes an under-the-hill part of the faerie realm (very important!). She includes a vast variety of temperaments and personalities, from forces of good and compassion, to annoying and mischievous, to straight-up lethal and terrifying. Most importantly, she does it while remaining true to her own voice as an author, and without sounding or feeling contrived.

This is a very strong start to a new series, and a bit of a genre-bender. I think it’s safe to say that fans of her other novels will enjoy this one. For those who love fantasy, romance, or YA, this is a great pick for you, too!