Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Review: Forgotten Fashion: An Illustrated Faux History of Outrageous Trends and Their Untimely Demise by Kate Hahn

I love humor and while I may not look like my clothes are from the runway and I don’t have a subscription to any of the current fashion magazines, I do have a healthy interest in fashion. If for nothing else, I find that some trends can serve as a way to gauge the social climate by observing clues in the fashion trends. Haven’t you heard the theory that skirt hemlines creep up as consumer confidence increases?

Fun and beautifully illustrated, Forgotten Fashion: An Illustrated Faux History of Outrageous Trends and Their Untimely Demise captures the tone and style of the time periods it describes (from 1903-2005), which helps reinforce the satire but also reflects the author’s understanding and interest in popular culture in modern history.

The story of the ice-beaded dress of the 1920s comes to mind as it is describes both the frivolity and disposable nature of both the dress and the trends followed by the rich and young during the roaring twenties before the depression. The way consumerism and a high value of large-ticket items like cars and washer machines in the late 1950s is illustrated by the story of an artist, his muse, and his dresses inspired by these same applieces, most notably, an Amana fridge. Such parallels run rampant through the book, heightening both its satire on the ever-changing climate of popular culture.

This was an easy book to pick up and flip through. It was created as a series of independent articles and could be read from the beginning or you could skip around. For those searching for a fun book on popular culture that you can pick up and read at your leisure, Forgotten Fashion is a good choice.

Not only were the tales imaginative in their frivolity, they also were plausible, even in the face of (or perhaps because of) absurdity. One would only have to look at the runway to see impractical and absurd fashion statements and you can actually visualize some of the trends in this book. Hell, I think I saw someone wearing the “ponchette” on the train this morning!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Booking through Thursday: Well, that was different!

A Thursday meme:
What was the most unusual (for you) book you ever read? Either because the book itself was completely from out in left field somewhere, or was a genre you never read, or was the only book available on a long flight… whatever? What (not counting school textbooks, though literature read for classes counts) was furthest outside your usual comfort zone/familiar territory?
And, did you like it? Did it stretch your boundaries? Did you shut it with a shudder the instant you were done? Did it make you think? Have nightmares? Kick off a new obsession?

I tend to have broad interests in general but I suppose the book most outside my norm was The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century by Carlo Ginzburg. It was a book that my husband recommended to me (he's a medievalist) because of my interest in social culture and history as well as the Inquisition and the subject of witchcraft during the medieval period. I was hesitant because it was one of his schoolbooks and it was my experience that I had trouble staying awake in previous attempts. However, I was intrigued and interested in some new research for a book I was writing (I'm still in the midst of a second re-write) so I picked it up.

I found that the subject was intriguing! The book was not nearly as dry as some of the other books clunking around the house and I probably put more sticky notes in its pages than my husband did when he read it for class. It's definitely one of my favorite academic history books...of course it's the first one I've made an effort of reading outside of school, I am pretty sure it won't be the last.

I thought that the question would have been easier to answer if I had read the type of paperback romance novel that had a long-haired, tanned man with an open shirt embracing some woman in a corset with a "heaving bosom." That is definitely outside my comfort level.

A few summers ago, I figured I was lacking experience in reading romantic fiction of the paperback kind so I marched myself over to the library. My plan: to find one with a cover that I just described...perhaps with a pirate! Pirates are cool and could somehow negate the uneasiness I felt about reading a book with a lurid cover. (Not that I am at all prude...I think I just would be a little embarrassed to read a, excuse me for saying this, trashy romance novel.)

Of course, when I got there, I couldn't get the nerve to approach the little wire rack with the hot pink fluorescent sign marked "Romance." It was full of books with all sorts of covers...each one something that I felt kinda shamed looking at. I passed the rack each time looking for the elusive trashy pirate romance but each time completely chickening out. I swear it felt like being a teenager trying to buy condoms at the grocery store.

It's silly, because millions of people love these novels. And it's not like I haven't read other mass-market books...I've definitely read a ton of trashy fantasy books. I am awed at those who read them...I am not as courageous! Perhaps though in the future, I will break through the barrier and find a suitable romance novel and work my way up. I just have to accept that I am not ready or prepared for the elusive pirate-romance.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Review: Hal Spacejock by Simon Haynes

I have watched Simon Haynes’ Hal Spacejock series grow for years now as a popular series in Australia. The first book, Hal Spacejock is now undergoing a third printing, according to the website it is available as an import to the US. Now you can experience the first book for free as a downloadable ebook here: http://www.spacejock.com.au/Hal1Download.html

Armed with a sense of humor and imagination, Haynes’ Hal Spacejock has just the right humor to entertain in a colorful sci-fi setting. Those who enjoy sci-fi humor will enjoy this as the irreverent tone and settings are akin to Hitchhiker’s Guide, Red Dwarf, Futurama, Discworld, Planetfall, and Sierra’s SpaceQuest.

Hal Spacejock, a not-too-bright or ambitious pilot of a run-down space freighter is desperate for a job. When faced with a very real threat on his life from loan sharks he embarks on a sketchy pick up and delivery job with only a robot companion, Clunk, to assist him when it all goes from bad to worse.

The story is fun and fast-paced, a great book for a quick read or for a younger reader who can appreciate humor, slight cursing, and poop jokes. While it lacks depth, it makes no qualms that it is there for your amusement and tries to please.

The dialogue was its strong point and the witty repartée between Spacejock and the various characters he encounters smoothes over any of the bumps in pacing. Some of my favorite moments are with the ship computer, Navicom, especially when it finds itself copied onto another ship.

It’s an entertaining read, and I recommend it for anyone who loves deadpan narration and a few hours of frivolous fun in a science fiction world. You may want to download it while still available and check it out for yourself!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Autumn Reading

A Thursday meme:
Autumn is starting (here in the US, anyway), and kids are heading back to school–does the changing season change your reading habits? Less time? More? Are you just in the mood for different kinds of books than you were over the summer?

I don't have kids so school doesn't really affect my reading habits. However, there is something in the crunch of the leaves, the coming chill in the wind, and the explosion of pumpkin-sightings that really gets me in the mood to sit with a good book and sip hot chocolate in a park. Autumn's my favorite time of year and strangely shedding the summer stuff does change my reading habits. I tend to read more history and classic literature and less epic adventure and light and fluffy items. A little Voltaire on a crisp autumn morning on a park bench decked out in an oversize scarf and hand warmers is probably an ideal scene for me. How about you?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I have a particular weakness for irreverent humor, satire, and surreality, so when I was recommended to read American Gods by Neil Gaiman I was agreeable. I had loved Sandman and his joint-venture with Terry Pratchett in Good Omens. However, I was surprised and found myself eagerly devouring this novel because it was unique, not many books are able incorporate mythology, satire, and humor so successfully.

As always, Gaiman brings together an adventure that matches wit and fantasy with mythological themes and contemporary storytelling. In the heartlands of America, its settlers and immigrants brought with them the beliefs and myths of their homelands. Those gods and other mystical creatures from folklore and mythology are now living amongst us, getting by and dealing with the day-to-day issues all mortals face...mortgages, money, death, and taxes.

It is this world to which an ex-con, Shadow, is slowly introduced as he takes employment with a mysterious man named, Mr. Wednesday. Here he meets a drunk leprechaun, talking animals from old folk stories, and a cacophony of deities as he helps his employer gather up the old gods in a defensive bid against the rise of the new gods of modern America such as the internet, credit cards, and media, Shadow finds himself a pawn in a very dangerous game.

This book was a particularly good fit for me because I have often wondered what the gods would be doing after their worshippers have moved on. Are there laundromats on Mt. Olympus? What about child support and parking tickets? Some situations were exactly what I would have pictured if you were immortal and accustomed to performing particular tasks. For instance, if you were to deal with and judge the dead, like the Ibis and Jackal, what other profession would you turn to but running a funeral home?

On the whole the novel progressed smoothly through the plot. Only a few chapters interrupted the flow. These occasional interruptions were origin tales describing an Old World god’s introduction to America. On their own, they were intelligent and gripping, I would have loved to learn more about Odin, or the woman who brought the Little Folk with her from Ireland. As part of a whole, they simply broke my immersion in Shadow’s story and served no clear narrative purpose. You would be reading along minding your own business and then a new chapter would be come up and it would feel as if was a completely different story tucked in the middle. Perhaps if they were presented in a different way it wouldn’t have felt so out of place.

Gaiman's tale was easily read and pulled you along an engaging adventure. To see these once-great beings acting just like regular people down on their luck gave the book just the right amount of irony and humor without it being preachy, corny, or even religious. I was pleased that American Gods features increasingly odd and surreal moments that made me eagerly turn each page to see what happens next. Ultimately, what won me over was that the characters were created in such a vivid way and with such unique personalities that despite the possibility of being conned, robbed, killed, or blessed, I would love the chance to meet any of them on the street one day. I would just watch my wallet and perhaps how much everyone’s been drinking!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sunday Salon - September 14, 2008

The Sunday Salon.com It's been a rather interesting week. I'm still slogging through Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. I have two hundred pages to go and it's finally getting interesting. Hopefully I can get them done soon so I can start thinking about the book and writing up a review.

This week, I've written up two reviews so far. A review for Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants was posted last Tuesday and the other, for American Gods will be posted later this week. Let me just say that having an editor for a husband is both a blessing and a curse. He's been really helpful in giving me some direction on improving my writing skills. (I'm sure I've mentioned I'm working on regaining skills left unused for a few years.) Of course, though, he gives me more homework as a result. It's worth it though, I'm already seeing an improvement. Hopefully I can get back to into my old form, and perhaps even surpass it!

I'm also gearing up for this year's NaNoWriMo. 'Tis the season to start the prep work for research and writing exercises so I can join others across the world in the goal to write a 50,000 novel in November. If you haven't heard about it, I suggest you check it out! I think I'm going to hit the library and check out Thud! by Terry Pratchett, it's been recommended that it has the write type of narrative tone I'm looking for this project.

Back to the grindstone, hopefully I'll be getting a review of a few other books ready in the pipeline this week before guests come to the house to visit. After that, I'll probably not have much time to do anything.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Booking through Thursday: Villainy

A Thursday meme:
Terrorists aren’t just movie villains any more. Do real-world catastrophes such as 9/11 (and the bombs in Madrid, and the ones in London, and the war in Darfur, and … really, all the human-driven, mass loss-of-life events) affect what you choose to read? Personally, I used to enjoy reading Tom Clancy, but haven’t been able to stomach his fight-terrorist kinds of books since.

And, does the reality of that kind of heartless, vicious attack–which happen on smaller scales ALL the time–change the way you feel about villains in the books you read? Are they scarier? Or more two-dimensional and cookie-cutter in the face of the things you see on the news?

In some ways, yes, current events, especially horrible ones, does affect what I decide to read. I read for pleasure, mostly so I tend to read in order to cheer myself up, make myself think, for education, or just relax. When a real-world event happens I am usually glued to the newspaper to know more about what is going on with the world. I tend to decide to read something as far away from the subject as possible. I remember 9/11 quite vividly as I was living in Washington D.C. at the time and the subsequent panic for anything potentially terrorist-related even months after will always leave an impression. I believe I turned to humorous and fantasy books just to escape it all.

As for how it changes how I feel about villains...well I've never bought the old black and white villain trope...it has always been the villain in the shade of grey. I have always drifted towards a villain who could justify his actions with the thought that he is doing what is right or what is needed. In this way, terrorists and the villains of my entertainment are similar. However, I'll probably hold off on reading about terrorists and other current events-related novels...I can read all I want in the morning paper.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

I was excited to read Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, it had all the elements I was looking for, the circus setting, the depression era time period, and I'm not ashamed to say it: the handsome cover. I certainly was not expecting to find such a gem in this light summer reading expedition.

"Oh yes. It's an honor indeed. I'm willing to bet no one else in your neighborhood -- heck, probably the whole city -- can say they've had an elephant in their backyard. Our men here will remove her -- naturally, we'll fix up your garden and compensate you for your produce, too. Would you like us to arrange for a photograph of you and Rosie? Something to show your family and friends?"

Gruen's gritty narrative, told as a series of flashbacks, provides a fictionalized glimpse at circus life in 1930s. Penniless and having just walked out on his exams, Jacob Jankowski finds himself hopping onto a train, like so many other drifters, hoping that it will lead him somewhere better than where he left. Instead he is thrust into a world very different than the Ivy-league shelter as he is employed as the resident veterinarian for the menagerie of a circus. The Benzini Brothers Most Amazing Show, like many other circuses of that time period, was not just home to performers and exotic animals, but to numerous taboos, like prostitution, bootlegging, and shady business practices.

The characters were engaging and well-created and Gruen's descriptions of their actions and emotions as told through the eyes of Jacob carefully navigated you through a gauntlet of emotions, from frustration and anger, to bitter embarrassment. I still feel a bit of a blush when thinking about the aftermath of Jacob's horrifyingly uncomfortable encounter with booze, women, and a clown's revenge.

The unique setting of circus life during the Great Depression provides the perfect touch of history, realism, and surrealism to this tale of a young man's search to find himself in an increasingly mad world. It was a gritty, desperate time in America's history and the shady backdrop of a migratory circus fits well. The descriptions are clear and vibrant and instead of leaving you with the feeling you just sat through a history lesson, you are transported. It was this originality and promise of escape that drew me to reading this book and I was not disappointed.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Sunday Salon - September 7, 2008

The Sunday Salon.com Well, it's my first Sunday Salon and I figured I should write this one up early since today is going to be busy. It's been a rough week and I've been trying all sorts of new things to shape my blog into what I had in mind.

I've written several reviews to be published in the future, but my hiatus from writing has really had an impact. I guess two years of game forum moderation really can wreak havoc on your skills. (You write what you read!...never before had I thought of that until now.) Either way, I've been brushing up and while a lot of my writing currently is still clumsy, I do know I'm improving. Hopefully I can get those reviews out soon and in better quality than my previous attempts.

One nice thing is that I've been able to read books at my old pace again! I just finished a long series of books focused on Charlie Chaplin and since I was not able to get an early reviewer book from LibraryThing this month, I am now working on my backlog of books. These are books I bought or was given over my two years of non-reading.

Currently, I'm reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. I'm through the first 200 pages so far and while the beginning was a bit slow, I'm enjoying it. I definitely love the usage of footnotes! Strange thing though, I was reading some various stories written by Prosper Mérimée this week and his syntax and writing style seemed really similar. So similar, in fact that at one point I was merging his short story, The Double Mistake, with Jonathan Strange, spawning a moment of disorientation.

As for my big day, Spore comes out today! It's a organism/evolution simulation game that starts from the simplest of creatures and can evolve/mutate into societies with religion, science, war, love, and space travel! It's been well-hyped and long-awaited. Of course this means I need to get the house ready for several days of marathon playing...this means clean laundry, dishes, meal lists, etc.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Peer Pressure

A Thursday meme suggested by JM:
I was looking through books yesterday at the shops and saw all the Twilight books, which I know basically nothing about. What I do know is that I’m beginning to feel like I’m the *only* person who knows nothing about them.
Despite being almost broke and trying to save money, I almost bought the expensive book (Australian book prices are often completely nutty) just because I felt the need to be ‘up’ on what everyone else was reading.
Have you ever felt pressured to read something because ‘everyone else’ was reading it? Have you ever given in and read the book(s) in question or do you resist? If you are a reviewer, etc, do you feel it’s your duty to keep up on current trends?

Actually, I have. It was with the Harry Potter series. Several years ago I was getting tired of listening to "Harry Potter" this, and "Harry Potter" that and even claims of it being better than The Lord of the Rings! I had seen the books read by all sorts of people on the train and finally I decided to break down and read the first one. I wasn't very impressed, having grown up with Roald Dahl I didn't think it compared. However, friends and co-workers kept on pushing me to read the others...and I did. I found I liked some. If I didn't succumb to the pressures of reading something insanely popular, I wouldn't have found enjoyment in the latter half of the series. Of course, that may not happen in every case.

I'm just starting out as a reviewer (and I'm certainly not a professional reviewer) but I'm pretty sure it will be helpful to keep up on current trends. And I do find that exploring something just slightly outside my comfort area can be exciting. However, I think that it shouldn't force you to read something, just because the guy next to you is doing so.