Cyropaedia

Have you guys checked out Coursera yet? If not, you definitely should. It’s a website solely devoted to providing quality online college courses from real professors from real colleges for free (you can pay for certificates if you want/need them). I’m on my second class now–a class about historical fiction called “Plagues, Witches, and War.” Sounds super interesting, right?

Because it’s a class on fiction, there’s a pretty substantial reading list, and the class is “Go At Your Own Pace.” Now, the professor told us we don’t have to read everything on the syllabus but…come on, you guys know me well enough to know I’m sure as hell gonna try. Or at least the ones I can get for free on Kindle and Google Books.

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First on the list is Cyropaedia, an ancient book written by a student of Socrates. Composed around 370 BC, it is supposedly the first historical fiction novel–a political romance.

The eight books follow Cyrus the Great of Persia from his early beginnings as a rambunctious teenager until he is old and dying. During his lifetime he builds a magnificent empire in what today is the Middle East. He did this not just by conquering nations, but by also gaining the love and trust of his people and soldiers, and thus made many allies.


Image credit:  http://syria.ewas.us/

I never quite understood the “romance” part of the book, though I’m sure it’s buried in there somewhere. However, this book is very much a war epic. I kept wondering if this was required reading at West Point or during any Officer’s Training, because if not, it should be. The military strategy discussed is probably ancient and outdated for use with our technology now, but the motivational speeches made by Cyrus and his generals are some of the most epic I’ve ever read. I did run out of steam towards the middle because of the battle descriptions, as I tend to do with this sort of thing, but otherwise, the characters are absolutely captivating.

Xenophon is not an author we hear about much (ok, at all) in the literary world today, at least for those of us average folk. Plato, Socrates, Cicero, Homer, sure. Xenophon is never mentioned. But this book was excellent, for what it was. Perhaps not to my usual tastes, but it was captivating from beginning to end.

 

Buy it here!

Half a King

High fantasy. Seems like it’s everywhere now, since Game of Thrones became popular.

I dunno, maybe it was everywhere before that, but it’s one of those things where you don’t notice it until you do, and then it’s everywhere.

Either way–I’m glad, because I love it. I mean, I don’t foresee anyone writing as hardcore and complicated a world as George RR Martin’s, but there is a lot of great stuff out there.

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Today’s selection was Half a King by Joe Abercrombie, and it did not disappoint. Yarvi, a second son, is set to take his minister’s test, when his father and brother are killed. Suddenly he is thrust into kingdom and all it’s responsibilities. He is quickly betrothed to his brother’s promised wife, and coronated. However, his uncle sees the opportunity to take the throne. I don’t want to give you any more, because, spoilers, but the book is essentially Yarvi’s fight for a kingdom he wasn’t supposed to have.

If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say this is based in Viking/Norse history. The names have sort of a Scandinavian feel to them, and the lifestyle is based around the sea and oarsman powered boats. Besides that, the world is fairly simple in it’s structure, at least in this first book. The characters are well written, and everything flows well.

I especially liked the banter between the oarsmen (and women). As you’d expect, they were an ornery, dirty lot, but good-natured and hearty. Once they got out of captivity, I loved how they banded together into a family group. Oh, and the author sneaks in a Homer-esque joke in there, so watch out for that. Definitely got a smirk out of me!

Something else important about this story–the hero of this book is disabled. While everyone else gives him a world of crap for it–like thinking him the lesser prince, for instance–he never lets it slow him down. If anything, it makes him smarter and stronger.

I just added the second book to my TBR, which is about as great a compliment as I can give any series. If it’s good enough for me to pick up the next one, you know you’ve got a winner in my heart! Now, let’s see how soon the library will take to get it to me.

Movie Adaptation: Dark Places

I haven’t done a movie adaptation in awhile, but I got to see a free pre-screening of Dark Places Tuesday night, so I felt I owed a review.

First things first, before I even get into the meat of it, I want to give a warning to those who need it, because there wasn’t one on-screen:  IF STROBE LIGHTS BOTHER YOU, DO NOT SEE THIS MOVIE. Or at least proceed with caution. There is a huge scene about a quarter of the way through, when she goes to The Kill Club with EXTREME strobing, so just be aware of it. Also, a lot of the flashbacks aren’t strobe, but they are a really funky black, white, sepiaish coloring. Almost negative filmy type effect, but whatever it was, it really hurt my eyes. I don’t have seizures but we were pretty close to the screen and I definitely left with a headache.

Ok, on with the review:

From what I understand, Dark Places was actually a French production, made before Gone Girl. But, even with the superb casting, they weren’t completely sure how it would go over in the US, so they held off on the release. Then, when Gone Girl became a smash hit, of COURSE they had to bring it out. I’ve seen nary a trailer for it though, which is sad because while I don’t think it would make near as big of a smash, I think a lot of people would go see this if they knew about it.

It’s a much different film than Gone Girl is, however. Instead of being so high impact drama, it’s more slow and steady. You get the present day plot mixed with the flash backs. Sort of a look this way while I show you something else, make you think one thing and actually the reality is something else entirely. Gillian Flynn is fantastic at this. Her sociopaths never look like sociopaths until the very end.

As I said before, the casting here, at least for the main characters, is superb. Charlize Theron was excellent…but, is she ever bad in anything? How can she be so goddamn gorgeous in greasy short hair and the same dirty shirt all movie long? Oh. Right. She’s Charlize freaking Theron. I did alter my vision of what adult Libby’s life looked like in my previous book review. I think the movie nailed what Flynn was going for–and not at all what I had imagined. It fits much more with who she would have been.

Christina Hendricks as Patty Day? I mean…yes. My friend, as we were walking out, made a comment similar to what I said about Theron. “I didn’t know they could make Christina Hendricks look so good dirty!”

But, in the end, it’s not about the beauty, it’s about the acting, and these two both got their characters down perfectly. We’ve seen them in extremely sophisticated roles, but here they are both in very raw, emotional ones, and the performances were really powerful.

At first, I wasn’t sure Nicholas Hoult was the right choice for Lyle. He’s very young next to Theron, and I balked a bit because in the book, she’s only 30. But, they expanded the time gap a bit in the movie, so it made more sense. Also, for once in, well, EVER, the writers did not make this movie about romance at all. There were plenty of openings for them to do that, and yet they refrained, and I was grateful they didn’t change that part of the story, especially in one where there was so much PTSD, pain, and recovery happening.

This movie is going to be released tomorrow, August 7. I’m unsure how broad of a release it will get, but if it’s showing near you, go see it, especially if you like brain twisters and thrillers. This one isn’t so much on the racing plot thriller type, but more of a plot twist type. Definitely worth a showing.

 

Disclaimer:  My friend got free tickets to see this screening at Angelika Theater Dallas from her work and was kind enough to share one with me.

A Room with a View

After a view distractions from my scheduled TBR, I am back on track. There’s nothing wrong with going off pace, especially for books people are talking about or movies I’m going to see. But, I always feel better when I go back to my list.

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EM Forster was up next with A Room with a View. This is a dramatic Edwardian romance with a love triangle–and a feminist heroine–something I wasn’t expecting for this style of book!

Lucy and her older cousin Charlotte visit Italy and meet George and his father. George becomes enamored with Lucy, but she finds him too immature. When they move onto Rome, she meets another man, Cecil, who is more sophisticated, and they get engaged.

However, the romance with George continues, and eventually she cannot ignore that she loves him more than Cecil. Cecil does not treasure her independence and sees her as more of a trophy to be won.

I have mixed feelings about this one. I wasn’t in love with it–I was easily distracted from the writing, and I didn’t get sucked in as much as I do some books from this period. However, I really like the plot and I did write down several quotes from the book. It’s a good concept, I’m just not not quite sure. May have to give it another go at some point.

 

Fulfills Boxall’s #93

Dark Places

Tonight, I have tickets with friends for a screening of Dark Places. Gillian Flynn’s second movie isn’t getting near as much fanfare as Gone Girl did, but anything with Charlize Theron has got to be good, right?

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I read Dark Places a long time ago, but I could not remember anything about it, so I made sure to pick it back up before tonight’s show. Libby Day is 30, broke, and unemployed. Up until now, she’s lived off the charity of crime obsessed philanthropists who years ago threw money at the little girl left broken-hearted and lost. Her family was murdered by her Satanist brother when she was young, and she was forced to testify against him as the only witness. Now, those charitable hearts have moved on in favor of other crimes and she has to find money quick.

Welcome Kill Club–a creepy organization of people who geek out over conspiracy theories. One favorite conspiracy circles around the Day family and the night Libby’s family was killed, and they are willing to pay her to track down information for her.

Dark Places is a very weird book. I wanted to say that I find Libby a very awkward, uncomfortable character, unbelievable in that she should be much more traumatized by what happened instead of just skimming money and using it for nice cars and clothes until it runs out. But, we all react in our own ways. The more I think about Libby and her, for lack of a better word, laziness to do anything with her life, I realize that just about everyone her world is that way–except maybe Patty. The town was full of excuses and poverty and drugs, the kind of small town where no one ever gets out.

My romantic reader brain wants her to be heroic–full of fight and power. And she does too–she even mentions it at one point to herself, when she thinks about how all she did was hide in the closet and that’s why she didn’t see the attacker. But, that’s not who Libby is. It was much easier for her to hide after the murders, to turn away from Ben and Diane and Runner, dye her hair blonde, and use all the donations she could.

The book itself is bit of a quiet start, but there is a crescendo of action at the end. In typical Flynn fashion, she keeps you guessing and fascinated right up until the end, when all at once you will connect every single dot she left for you with one big EUREKA moment.

I’m really looking forward to seeing the screening tonight!

 

To buy, click here!

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

For months I’ve been seeing this beautiful blue starry cover across Tumblr, and a gazillion Booklrs raving about (what I thought) was a pair of philosophers falling in love. I rarely read Goodreads reviews before adding a book to my TBR–I tend to just jump in to the story, preferring to discover along the way. My library never had it available, but they finally released the audiobook to me, and I am so glad they did. I think it was almost better in that format probably!

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I quickly learned that this wasn’t about the two ancient philosophers at all, but two teenage Mexican boys living in the desert city of El Paso. I generally can only read audiobooks while doing something–chores or walking–so falling in love with this story motivated me to walk more often! Except guys, it damned near broke my heart! Do you know how hard it is to keep pace while crying? I’m sure I got some weird looks on the trail.

Ari and Dante’s friendship is completely beautiful. For those of you who haven’t heard of this book before–it isn’t just a coming of age story, it’s also a coming out story. It’s powerful, sad, happy, scary. About every emotion you can have, you will have it while reading this book. A must read this year, absolutely.

And if you like audiobooks, definitely listen to this one. The narration is extremely well done!

 

We Never Asked for Wings

Vanessa Diffenbaugh, author of The Language of Flowers has a new book coming out in August. We Never Asked for Wings tells the story of two Mexican families living in California, trying to make ends meet and help their teenaged children live successful lives.

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Letty’s mom raised her kids, but now she’s gone back to Mexico. On her own for the first time, Letty feels helpless and frustrated–what does she know about these two strange humans living in her house? But, she has to do this, so she does. Her son, Alex, is one heck of a smart kid–brilliant, really–so she does everything she can to get him into a better school. His girlfriend, though, is in trouble and he is bound and determined to save her.

We Never Asked for Wings is a gorgeous story–just the kind of thing I love–about finding yourself, strength and love and discovering your passion…with a bit of romance thrown in for good measure. And it’s from a different cultural perspective, so that is always interesting for me. Terrifying, too. You’ll want some tissues for comfort towards the end. Or maybe a punching bag…however you handle anxiety.

Diffenbaugh’s second book needs to go on your TBR for sure! It comes out August 18, so mark it on your calendars!

NetGalley provided this ARC for an unbiased review.

The Guilty One

PHEW! Guys, we are safe. The mediocre book thing didn’t turn into a streak. Everything is OK!

*wipes forehead in relief*

It always seems that the best way to break a slump is something uncomplicated. The Guilty One was just the right kind of book for this. Goodreads puts it in the Mystery genre, but I don’t really think it was that mysterious. Mostly it’s just the story of a woman recovering in grief, and moving on from a life where she no longer fits.

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Two families have been through hell and back–the Vacantis, who lost their daughter, and the Isherwoods, whose son is the reason Calla is dead. The trial is over. The boy is in jail.

Ron Isherwood is so ashamed. His wife wants to ramp up another appeal, but his son just wants to wait out his sentence. Ron just wants to bury his head. Or jump off a bridge. He just wants all the attention to go away.

Maris Vacanti just has to get away. She is supposed to visit her sister but never quite makes it that far. Instead, she ends up in Oakland, but it’s just temporary. It’s just a few days, to clear her head. What are her next steps?

The Guilty One is a story about finding yourself after you’ve lost everything. It’s ok to hide and let yourself be broken, but it’s also ok to build yourself back up again. And when you come to, you’re going to be a completely different person.

The way this is listed as a mystery, the title, and the backstory, makes me wonder if this isn’t the story the author set out to write. I wonder if maybe it was supposed to be more about the murder, more about Calla and Kyle, and then the author fell in love with Maris and her struggle instead. I don’t know. I fell in love with Maris too, so I am completely ok with how the story went. However, reading some of the reviews that are out there, I think that those looking for the mystery plotline are going to be disappointed. That’s really my only criticism, I’d change the genre and description. Otherwise, great book!

NetGalley provided this ARC for an unbiased review. Will be released August 11.

 

Trust No One

The key ingredient in any thriller is the psychopath. The dark, twisted pathways of his brain drive the plot and keep us up at night.

Normally the thrills in a thriller are deliberate. That instinct that forces the monster to plan his next move and torture his victims is what makes the book so exciting to us (because let’s face it, we are pretty twisted gluttons ourselves, aren’t we?). My favorite part is trying to figure out what the heck is going on inside his head, trying to guess his next move.

But what happens when the killer doesn’t remember killing?

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Paul Cleave plots out one of the most thrilling thrillers I’ve ever read with just that situation, in Trust No One.

Successful crime novelist Jerry Grey’s career is cut short by early-onset Alzheimer’s. He keeps escaping from the nursing home and losing time. When his daughter picks him up, she acts very strange about her mother, something just isn’t right. In fact, no one is acting right towards Jerry. Apparently a woman was found dead at the same time Jerry was gone and he is suspected of the murder. Why? He’s just an sick old man! Because, Jerry, you shot your wife. She’s dead. That’s why you are in a nursing home. You were out of your mind, and you have no memory of it.

Thus is the basis of one of the craziest thrillers I have ever read. It is an emotional roller coaster! Three women, besides Jerry’s wife, are dead. Who killed them? Jerry insists that he did not. He would remember, right? But all the evidence points to him. And he is a crime writer with very elaborate plans and getaways laid out in his books. He cannot account for hours of time, and he has been disappearing. His pseudonym has become almost a split personality, a devil on his shoulder that he can’t get away from.

Cleave has written one hell of a creative novel. It doesn’t come out until August 4, so mark your calendars. This one isn’t necessarily a scary or bloody thriller. It’s more about the utter mindfuck that is going on. Where do you put your sympathy? Who do you trust?

 

NetGalley provided this ARC for an unbiased review. Released Aug. 4.

July/August Update

Hey all, just wanted to send a quick thought/heads up as June is very quickly winding down.

If you’ve been paying attention at all, you’ve probably heard me mentioning moving south. That is happening in August, and we are PUMPED. However, that is going to make for two very BUSY months ahead.

So, while I love doing these fun and creative challenges, I am going to step away for a bit and give myself a break. We are going to be doing some travelling, and a whole lot of packing in July. Then we have a vacation AND the big move in August, so there is just way too much going on to try and do a structured blog every day.

Don’t worry! I will still be reading, and posting my reviews as I go. It won’t be complete radio silence. I may even post some travel updates–some non-booky things about places we’ve discovered along the way.

I’ll ramp everything back up once we get settled and our lives are back to normal. And who knows…I’ll probably miss you guys and won’t be able to help it.

Thanks for being understanding!