I think this has to be subtitled ‘the book blog and Christmas gift cards addition’. Let’s forget that last month I said there wouldn’t be as many books this time…
Barbara Kingsolver: Flight Behaviour – I’m not enamoured by the character names, but we’ll see how it goes. This will be my first book by Kingsolver, and has been reviewed by too many people for me to ignore any longer. I know the response has been mixed, but it’s partly that that made me interested – I want to see for myself how Kingsolver handles the different subjects she has included.
Debbie Dee: The Underground Witch – I read The Last Witch last year and although it wasn’t spectacular, it showed a lot of promise for the next book, so I said ‘yes please’ to this next book.
Emma Henderson: Grace Williams Says It Loud – It has been my aim, ever since the 2011 Orange Prize was shortlisted, to read said shortlist. I’m finally getting round to it.
John Green: The Fault In Our Stars – Recommended by too many book bloggers to leave it any longer.
Julie Kagawa: The Iron Knight – Ditto the above.
Laini Taylor: Daughter Of Smoke And Bone – I had absolutely no interest in this book for the longest time. Then Jenny wrote a review of it.
Meike Ziervogel: Magda – I wasn’t actually aware that Meike (of Peirene Press) had written a book until Jackie reviewed it. Having read Peirene’s books the last few years and having met Meike, when I saw this on a display in Waterstones there was no question, I was getting a copy.
Nancy Bilyeau: The Crown – Bilyeau had something special going on with The Chalice and I want to read the first part of Joanna’s story.
Paula Lichtarowicz: The First Book Of Calamity Leek – Caused by Judith’s review.
Richard C Morais: Buddhaland Brookyn – This is fiction about starting a Buddhist monastery in New York. I have a thing for Buddhism, and also Buddhist monasteries (the culture is fascinating… and they make awesome vegan meals with random mixes of ingredients and not planning time…).
Taylor Stevens: The Doll – I reviewed The Informationist last year, so accepting the pitch for this just made sense. I’ve missed the second book, The Innocent, but considering the sort of series it is I’m hoping I’ll be able to work out what’s happened.
Yep, a lot to get through.
When everything happens at once.
First Published: 16th August 2012
Date Reviewed: 21st May 2013
In the 1930s Dez married Asa as life became difficult. When her father dies he leaves the family’s beloved playhouse to Asa, with the intent that its care be passed on to any children of the union. But the town, Cascade, is under threat by the state who need to create a reservoir for the health of residents of Boston, and Dez is unhappy with Asa as it is. She dreams of a career in art that will never happen in Cascade, and as Jacob continues to be a scant part of her life, she wonders about the possibilities for more.
Cascade is a complex novel; on the surface it is straight-forward, the story of an unsatisfied woman and the imminent demise of Cascade, but as it continues it becomes obvious that there is a lot more to it. Indeed it takes a long time to truly pick up the pace, appearing for a good while to be a somewhat laid-back story about an event that is surely horrific for those involved; the persistent reader will be well rewarded for continuing with it.
Because as much as the word ‘cascade’ refers to the town – its name and the literal cascades of water situated nearby – this book is also about the cascade of feelings, isolation, and hopelessness that happens when everything that borders on white lies and secrecy, explode at once. In Dez you have a character who is difficult to like in her entirety. There is an overwhelming sense of her being used by others, and of being unable to stretch her wings, yet there is also some true selfishness there at times. Most of what Dez chooses to do, the mistakes she makes, even the good choices, have understandable reasoning behind them, but a few do not.
This does not mean that Dez is not a good character, however. She is indecisive throughout the book, but as a character she is wonderful. O’Hara rarely takes the easy route – just as it seems you can predict what will happen, the events work in Dez’s favour (or not) but as much as O’Hara wants to help Dez, she doesn’t let her off every time. O’Hara’s narrative for Dez means that you get that real sense of worry as O’Hara makes her character go through the misfortunes of life, and Dez’s wishes are very modern, meaning that the reader can confidently root for her without worrying about feeling disconnected by the time period. In Dez, O’Hara has created reality. You could create a book group discussion out of Dez’s life, question whether O’Hara even liked the character.
This leads us to the book itself. Moving on from the slow start and quickening pace later on, Cascade is one of those magical works that pulls you in so much you don’t even realise you are reading. There is no fairytale, no wonderment, and yet the book itself is a wonder. The secondary characters are written just as truly as Dez. You get the harsh reality of Asa’s pain contrasted with what seems at times a violent nature, but throughout your time with him its obvious O’Hara is telling you to look deeper, to really see Asa, and not assign stereotypes or even the fact of his fictional nature on how you view him. O’Hara wants to make her people exist, and whilst this may be true of all authors, it is particularly obvious in Cascade.
Being that the book takes place during a time when personal freedom was becoming important, but that it is entrenched in tradition and a small town, there are a few moral questions up for debate. As discussed above, O’Hara doesn’t make it easy for her characters, and therefore no matter which side of the debate, or just the view, you might fall on, she makes it easy to feel comfortable with what is being discussed, opening conversation and successfully managing to not leave anyone out despite the fact that sooner or later her characters must of course make decisions.
Truly this is a book that is as much, if not more, about a person rather than a town. If you approach the book hoping that it will be full of protests and violence you will be disappointed. O’Hara’s aim with the town is to look at the process rather than the overall affect. Affect is reserved for the characters.
There is a lot about art in this book – Dez’s passion, the art world, descriptions of Dez’s paintings and the creation of them. Due to O’Hara’s fictionalisation and overall decisions regarding which story elements get page time, the art shouldn’t be a problem for anyone who isn’t as passionate as Dez. What may cause a problem, however, is the extent to which Anna Karenina is detailed. If you haven’t read the classic and don’t want it spoiled, you can easily skip Dez’s visit to the cinema without missing anything important to O’Hara’s book itself. Anna Karenina is used as a reference later on, but simply by knowing that Dez was interested in the film should be enough for you to understand these later references.
Cascade is a myriad of ideas and details, focused on one woman, but encompassing much more, just in smaller doses. It will delight anyone looking for a heroine who may not be strong but is successful, and will leave you thinking on its topics long after you’ve finished.
I received this book for review from Historical Virtual Fiction Author Tours.
In my rush to get this written yesterday I forgot to add that I have one paperback copy to giveaway. It is unfortunately restricted to the US (the book isn’t out yet elsewhere) but if you are from the States and would like to read this book, please let me know in the comments and I will choose a winner this time next week.
This photograph was taken by sleepyneko.
Yes, you read it correctly, there was no accidental copy-and-paste when I wrote this post, today I’m blogging about blogging about blogging. It’s rather like Historiography, which I was introduced to last year – learning about how people write history about the past – and I thought I’d take a moment to ask some questions and summarise some of what I’ve been thinking about.
I have a certain fascination for blogs that discuss blogging. There is a great amount of posts I’m not interested in, but I love those that deal with the process of writing – finding ideas, combating burnout, and tailoring your posts so that they read well. I don’t know why I’m fascinated, as most of the time I read I think ‘great advice’, and promptly forget it all or realise it doesn’t fit book blogging. But I am, and I continue to waste hours (in phases) doing it.
I know that as I’ve continued to write at The Worm Hole, I’ve inevitably brought some of my other interests to the table when I plan posts. History is covered here, I’ve spoken of my web design, films make an appearance, and I’ve noticed that every now and then I lean towards talking about book topics in the context of blogging overall. I like the mix of book-centric topics, and writing about blogging in the context of books. Incidentally, knowing a little about SEO I’m aware that this post will likely be spurned by Google because of the many mentions of ‘blogging’, but it can’t be helped, and Google doesn’t know everything. Yet.
I had a myriad of paths I could explore in this post, but the most pressing was the above summary, and asking you some questions.
Do you mind posts that revolve around blogging itself?
One thing that has stayed in my mind since The Estella Society posted a piece by a non-blogger reader, is how accessible is my site to a non-blogging reader? I know that recently I have been somewhat swayed by my above-mentioned interests, though I do have many ideas for posts that are solely about books and reading. I also know that the first cardinal rule is to write what you want to write.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that blogging about blogging with books in mind seems appropriate to me, but does it to everyone else?
And is there a limit to how much is interesting?
I think this is one of the most rambling posts I’ve ever written, which is why I seldom go into great detail or write all those essay-like pieces I have in mind. Leaving it here, feel free to answer any of the above questions (please do!), neatly summed up as:
Do you enjoy reading blog posts about book blogging?
When a woman dared to tread.
First Published: 2003
Date Reviewed: 22nd November 2012
Please note that whilst the title of the book may suggest another woman had ruled in China before Ci Xi, Laidler himself makes no mention – thus it should be noted that there had been another Empress to rule China, Wu Ze Tian (also called Wu Zhao), between the years 690-705. Please also note that due to the different methods of transliterating Chinese into English, I have included the two most, in my opinion, used. (Any discrepancies are my own as I used my own knowledge to transliterate the method not used in the book.)
Laidler presents a biography of the Empress Ci Xi (Xu Xi/Tzu Hsi) from teenager to death, looking at how she managed to defy tradition to become the ruler of China and the ways in which she kept that power in the face of opposition.
The Last Empress is a difficult book to define. At once very detailed politically, it misses out a lot of information that would have been of use, yet what it does include is incredibly interesting and Laidler’s style makes for an easy read.
Ci Xi is surely a fascinating character to learn about (though it should be noted that for reasons unknown Laider has called her by her clan name – don’t let that fool you into thinking she was the only Yehonala at court). The way she came to power, her confidence and intelligence, the punishments she meted out to her enemies, and her lack of emotion for many of those in her care – Laidler makes sure that he provides a balance and includes discussions of why she became such a despot. Whilst admitting that her lust for power was unquenchable, Laidler questions her background and how being a woman, and at that a woman forced to become an emperor’s concubine instead of marrying the man she loved, would have given rise to a vengeful spirit, a woman with no love for the dynasty she had been brought to serve.
And this is key to what makes Laidler both accessible and hard to dispute – he may have his own views, but seldom are these included subjectively. Laidler’s work is incredibly unbiased, he damns and glorifies both sides, always presenting the various arguments and possibilities, and succeeds so well in his goal that the reader will have a tough time working out where his loyalties lie beyond his loyalty to introduce Ci Xi to his reader. Indeed all evidence points to him being completely objective. Such a method of writing is a relief when you consider that many books err more on one side than another, creating discomfort when the reader does not agree with the author’s views.
Unfortunately, however, Laidler’s writing is marred by a lack of referencing. Sometimes this is literal – he doesn’t reference any source at all, leading it to seem as though he wrote all the facts when he of course did not – and otherwise there is just a simple lack of footnotes. Both issues are a major drawback as they bar further study into the sources and limit the knowledge the reader can gain into what Laidler has researched, what is common knowledge, and what he took from elsewhere – is what you’re reading true or made up, and how much is speculation? (From the way it’s written all speculation appears to be what is obvious speculation – the rumours recounted by Laidler.) It also means that on many occasions where quotations are included, there is no way of finding out the original source of the work, beyond the name of the speaker. The only upside of this marring is that the work is largely chronological and there is no major aim to convince the reader of a certain idea, meaning, at least, that one will not be able to cite Laidler as the source for reasons of debate. It does mean that Laidler’s work has little value for the student, which given the overall lack of importance given to Chinese history in western academic institutions is disheartening.
Poor editing and some bad writing join the source work. Sentences sometimes make no sense or are unfinished. Despite, or maybe due to, the easy style, phrases such as “had been begun” seem to have slipped through the net, and there are far too many errors. In fact it is as though no proofreader were employed at all. The extent to which grammatical and spelling errors flourish means that any actively engaged reader, wanting to make notes and copy sections, will likely have to edit the text themselves, and the writing on occasion reads as though written by a person with scant knowledge of the English language.
Laidler writes a great deal about the naval warfare between the Europeans who wished to trade according to their own customs, and the Chinese who wanted to keep their traditions. In the main this means that the reader not only develops knowledge of the Empress herself, but of the context surrounding her reign and the reasons she was the last empress. However sometimes Laidler does go off on a tangent in ways that don’t apply to his main subject, resulting in pages that suggest the author was perhaps more interested in military history than the woman who took charge. This is not a huge issue, but it does mean that there are gaps left in Ci Xi’s life where it would have been sensible to either concentrate more on the ruler or, if such is the case, simply let the reader know that there is little known about the empress at that particular point in time.
Because for all his fair treatment of Ci Xi, and the approach that suggests a writer unbiased about gender, Laidler also leaves out aspects of Ci Xi’s power that would have added much to his work. Whilst explaining that Ci Xi’s rise in power over her husband was due to her sexual prowess, and including an explanation for how a woman confined to a world devoid of intact men might improve certain muscles – emphasis here on ‘might’, for there is no evidence that she did – Laidler neglects to discuss the issue any further. And considering it is apparent that Ci Xi retained her place as favourite for reasons other than abilities in the bedroom, there is a seeming lack of information in general. It is not detrimental, but it does suggest that Ci Xi’s rise was predictable, which given her time was not the case. And although there was a prophecy that a woman of Ci Xi’s clan would conclude the dynasty, speculation is of course no good basis for argument. What does seem to be reality is that no one really knows how Ci Xi came to power; that really ought to have been highlighted.
Hearing one lady holding forth on the evils of foot-binding, she pointedly asked if the European practice of binding women’s waists in whalebone corsets was not similarly barbaric.
Laidler does succeed in demonstrating how familial and social tensions created problems for China when it was faced with the invasive forces of the Europeans. Setting the backdrop of the stereotypical dynastic court that believed itself invincible, the author shows how tradition which was otherwise sustainable fell flat when confronted by the opposing beliefs of other countries. He gives a lot of time to Kuang Hsu (Guang Xu), the impotent boy Ci Xi chose (for the very fact he could not sire children) as heir to her dead son, and the ways in which, upon reaching majority, the now emperor tried to balance what he knew to be the iron will of his aunt with his own views of cultural and political reform. This not only means that Kuang Hsu is given a prominent place in the biography, but also that Laidler can adeptly reveal how Ci Xi changed her opinions on tradition and foreign powers – which is particularly interesting when placed alongside the way she manipulated tradition for her own ends.
And what is endlessly interesting is how this most powerful ruler of the wrong gender, of little status, and hated by so many, was able to take over a dynasty, a people, and keep that power for so long that her actions gave her reformist enemies exactly what they wanted.
Laidler’s book may not be in anyway polished but it provides a basis for further reading. Yet a basis it is, due to the speculation and content choices.
This photograph was taken by Clarence.
Something I’ve been concentrating on recently is blog post word count. There are a few reasons for this; I’m glad to say that none of them pertain to the advice of ‘experts’, who have search engines in mind. No, my reasons are that I appear to have evolved away from my hatred of editing university essays and now see the value in being concise, and that I want to improve my writing. Yet it was when researching the advice of experts, to see if they matched my thoughts, that I got the idea for this post. (If you want to know what their advice is, it varies wildly.)
What is the optimal word count for blog posts? It really depends on what you’re writing. In my case I know that my reviews can be long and it is sometimes difficult to shorten them without losing a point I wish to make, or having the resulting post be incomprehensible. I know that I am by nature a conversational rambler, but when it comes to reviews that is not as noticeable by default.
When writing discussion posts I keep it shorter; a big part of the reason being so that I don’t exhaust the points of discussion – I want you all to be able to join in. And I’d venture that this is the same of most book bloggers – that our reviews invite longer articles and otherwise we’re more concise. Short posts tend to receive more comments; I’ve written about this previously so won’t elaborate here except to say that this is across the board rather than for types of posts.
As a reader I find longer posts more ‘acceptable’ if they are broken up by images. It took me a while to implement it here but there is definitely a huge benefit to it.
I would like to comment further on the advice some experts give, because inevitably some of it can be good. Experts cite the fact that readers like all lengths of posts, dependent on topic and writer, that long posts are fine as long as they are detailed and don’t ramble. These same experts are the ones who advise writing for readers rather than search engines. I’d a rather a handful of interactive readers than two-second visits, anyway. Accordingly, Google values content. It might like short posts in general, but a thesis is always going to be more valuable than a quick bullet-pointed list.
For now I’m tending to focus on 600 words. It forces me to stop repeating myself and get my point across. I don’t think it’s an idea to keep lowering the count, but setting a rough limit definitely improves my writing and hopefully makes my posts better. Whether I’ll continue to use it after this practise I don’t know, but the exercise is definitely helping me become a better blogger.
What do you think about word counts? Do you write with them in mind?