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Hello, my name is Valorie. I have a Master's Degree in History and a license to teach-- I have been both university professor and public school teacher. Currently, I am a middle school social studies teacher. I love horror movies and spooky things. Every day is Halloween. I am also a passionate book blogger.

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Book Review: 23:27 by H.L. Roberts

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Book Review: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Title: Lolita
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
Genre: Fiction - Classic
Finished: October 10, 2013

When reading Lolita, people get bogged down looking for morals or answering the general celestial question of how wrong will be balanced by punishment either karmic or religious.  Lolita isn't a love story and it isn't a moral story.  But it is a work of marvelous fiction that we can romanticize because of it's use of language, florid and grandiose.  Humbert is, in his own way, a sympathetic protagonist and even grows on you as a character driven by human desires and needs, not necessarily base or lewd, and so readers are charmed by him, as well.  This book deserves to be one of the best of all times.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Book Review: Immodest Acts- The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy by Judith C. Brown

Title: Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy 
Author: Judith C. Brown 
Genre: Nonfiction - History

While perusing the scattered archival documents of a Miscellanea Medicea file housed in the State Archive of Florence, Judith C. Brown came across a series of scattered documents relating to the interrogations of one Ms. Benedetta Carlini, Abbess of the Convent of Mother of God.  Benedetta Carlini was a self-diagnosed mystic, in direct communication with Christ, in fact the very bride of Christ, and the supposed recipient of one of Heaven's highest blessings: the stigmata.  However, due to her own hubris and often abusive and inflated self-importance, the holes in Benedetta's claims began to be exposed.  Beginning in 1619, a series of investigations were undertaken by ecclesiastical authorities to prove the validity of her claims.  Eventually, not only was it proven that Benedetta Carlini had faked her mystic powers, but that she had engaged in a lesbian affair with another nun under the guise of an angelic deity, Splenditello. Brown's novel is so very valuable as a historical source because lesbianism is rarely found in historical sources.  For an early modern (and before) historian, female gender and sexual histories are complicated when found in source material due to contemporary culture and religious beliefs.  Theologians, the writings of whom are by far the most prevalent of documents and sources to be found of the early modern period, had a hard time coming to terms with lesbianism.  Many of them merely believed that no such thing could exist.  Others insisted that the lack of a penis, the only essential part in copulation, made any instance of lesbian sex not sex at all.  There were a plethora of theories about what sex was, what made sex real, and what role both women and men played in the act.  In the preface to Benedetta's story, Brown manages to sum up some of the most important theologians of and before the events of the book, and these theologian's ideas about sex.  For scholars and students of sex and sexuality, Brown's very succinct synthesis of the historical religious views surrounding sex is very useful. Yet let me say that if you are looking for an earth shattering book on early modern lesbian, you will be disappointed.  The "lesbianism" of Benedetta isn't discussed until the very last section when he undergoes her final investigation.  

Really, the book is less about a lesbian nun navigating a very restrictive and strict religious world, and more about a failed mystic who used her power to falsify miracles and lie about the personal relationship she had with Christ and various angels to elevate herself in the monastic community in which she lived.  Beyond the very small spattering of lesbian conduct, Benedetta's life is far more illustrative of a single woman's psychological need for recognition, and to be extraordinary within a community of similarity and similar sacrifice.  After all, how does one show that they are superior to their religious equals?  Show that they are chosen by God or by Christ for miracles and recognition. What I loved the most about the book, though, was the process of investigation underwent by Benedetta.  I loved reading the questions asked, and how she responded.  I loved reading about the miracles she claimed, and then further in the book how the lies behind them unraveled as her fellow sisters began to come forth with the truth.  Again, this is more the story of a woman who rises in ranks within her very small and limited monastic world, has her lies and deceits exposed, and finally falls into obscurity.  As far as microhistory goes, this book is one worth reading.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Book Review: Pompeii by Robert Harris

Title: Pompeii 
Author: Robert Harris 
Genre: Fiction - Historical

I'm still working toward my goal of reading as many books taking place in Ancient Rome as humanly possible in my lifetime. That was what influenced me to pick up Robert Harris's Pompeii. Well that and I have read another novel of his, Imperium, and really loved it. In Pompeii, we enter the Imperial Age, August 79 AD. This is a post-Augustus Roman world, ya'll, so the Roman Empire is expanding with ever increasing passion, and the troubled times of the economic crisis and subsequent invasions is a problem still far in the future by a century and then some. Rome is a powerful, proud, and glimmering empire ruled by the Flavian emperor Titus. Rather than take us through a historical drama about the eruption of Pompeii, Harris prefers to use the eruption as context for another sort of story. His tale centers around a young aquarius named Marcus Attilius who has been sent to care for the Aqua Augusta, one of the many aqueducts that flowed through the Roman world. The Aqua Augusta carried water from Terminio-Tuoro toward the Bay of Naples, supplying water to cities like Pompeii, Misenum, and Nola. The aquarius soon begins to notice strange things taking place. First, the former aquarius is missing. Then there is the strange smell of sulfur in the water. Then the aqueduct begins to stop supplying water. Finally the aquarius takes his team toward Vesuvius to find where the break has occurred and fix it. Of course he manages to anger some very important men in Pompeii, most notably a rich former slave who has made a ton of money in retail following the earthquake of 62 AD, which we now know was a foreshock of the impending eruption. What caused the stopping of the water was a massive underground shift of earth, which is just another thing to foreshadow the impending disaster. The aquarius doesn't realize what is going on until it is too late. Then we are taken through the dramatic moments of eruption, confusion, panic, death, and finally end. The cast of Pompeii also includes some notables. Pliny the Elder makes an appearance, and it is only fitting that he does since he and his nephew Pliny the Younger are the pair that supplied us with the most information about the eruption of Vesuvius, through the Elder unfortunately lost his life due to his insatiable curiosity for the natural world. 

Harris isn't, at least to my knowledge, a historian. He does seem to have a great interest in Rome since he has written at least three books that I know of about the subject. Part of the reason I chose to read Pompeii is because I felt Imperium was not only well written, but paid great attention to historical accuracy without coming across as pompous or loaded with historical detail to compensate for an author's lack of historical training. Harris pays very great attention to historical accuracy, juggling his facts with his prose so that his story isn't inundated with too much detail such that it reads like a textbook. The story is interesting, while at the same time you find yourself unintentionally learning things about Ancient Rome: things about their political system, their various classes, social mobility, architecture, resources, knowledge, etc. It presents itself as a intense and informative story, a snapshot if you will, of what happened just before one of the worst natural disasters of Roman history. It connects us more with the past as not something only isolated to facts, details, and carbonized relics, but we get to see the people and life involved.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Book Review: Breathers- A Zombie's Lament by S.G. Browne

Title: Breathers- A Zombie's Lament 
Author: S.G. Browne 
Genre: Horror - Black Comedy

Just because you die doesn't mean life is over. Imagine an alternate universe where zombie's are a part of every day life, and find themselves outsiders in a world that loathes them more than fears them. These misunderstoods rise from the grave and must learn to exist alongside the living. These are not the fearsome flesh eating zombies that stalk the living, but rather they are the stalked. Forget the taste of human flesh. Main character Andy is in just that predicament. He finds a group of kindred spirits at an Undead Anonymous meeting. It is within this group that he learns to come to terms with his new unlife, and he learns to embrace what he is rather than skulk through dark streets aware of his rotting form. Humor takes a dark turn when Andy and his friend discover the joys of human flesh, and the regenerative power that comes from eating real human flesh. Those who were once the scared, the rotting, the "other," now discover the source of their power. There is some gruesome but amusing scenes, my favorite being the invasion of a frat house that doesn't end well for either human or zombie. Now I am sure there are people out there who would try to liken this struggle to others, who will make some sort of in depth social commentary on the concept, but not me. I choose instead to appreciate this for what it is: a story that takes the terrifying, mindless monster that is a zombie, and gives it a mind. A more human zombie is still not human, but yet we are faced with the perplexing paradox of living, breathing, very real feelings within. On one hand, this makes the story sweeter. On the other hand, it makes the situations that much more bizarre. This is a must read for those who are into the zombie genre. The list of zombie books is becoming an endless repeat of the same formula, over and over again. It is hard to say that there is anything truly fresh and new, but this is not the genre's fault. A sweet, human look at zombies may not be what fans want, at least those fans who love the mindless, drooling horror of running or, to Romero's credit and opinion, shuffling zombies. And the "human side" of zombies is being explored through other media like movies. But this book was years ahead of all that. It's not a complex story, it's not a revolutionary genre story, it's not a serious read that inspires deeper thought on the meanings of equality. It's just a light, fun, sometimes sweet, sometimes disturbing read.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Book Review: Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross

Title: Pope Joan 
Author: Donna Woolfolk Cross 
Genre: Fiction- Historical 
Rating: 3 Stars

Pope Joan (John) is a figure of religious and historical controversy, most notably since Jan Hus used her supposed tenure as pope to delegitimize the succession of popes to his time. In context, this was the beginning of the Protestant Reformations, and Hus was himself one of the early reformers, dying almost 100 years before Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses.  Before Hus, Pope Joan lived in legend and in a scattering of chronicles of the 13th century, which, by virtue of the separation of four hundred years, makes these poor sources for facts of the 9th century. And any careful historian knows to take with a grain of salt the stories told in myth and legend because unless we can accurately pinpoint their origin, it is arbitrary and often false to assume without careful examination (after all, conclusion needs to come from somewhere) of a multitude of trustworthy sources.

There is a lot to the argument that Pope Joan has been removed from the historical record by her predecessors who felt her short-lived time on the throne of St. Peter, in typical misogynist fashion, was a smear on the history of the church. God knows (no pun intended) that there have been plenty of such things attempted in the past, though historians are fortunate to have sources other than official church records to flesh out the past. Unfortunately, with Pope Joan, all we have are later accounts, four hundred years or later.  Can we trust the words of people who did not witness the event? Can we trust a footnote added to a papal record that has been dated to almost eight hundred years later?

Can we assume that later church historians moved the death of Leo IV forward by two years to leave no gaps between him and his successor (Benedict III)  Again, a no, then a pause with a maybe, and then another no.  Because we do have letters written, scant and few, that speak of the direct succession of Benedict III after Leo IV, and I doubt these simple letters were written in an attempt to further a conspiracy since they would have had no reason to (it was a simple petition matter).

Because we fact based as we like to insist we are, we do know that everything originates somewhere.  Often times, this is in legend or in an oral history, which is part of the transmission of history and legend. So simply put: did Pope Joan really live?  The answer is, no one knows and with the material in place, no one can legitimately say she did. Yet, no one can legitimately say that she did not.
But let us get on to the meat of the book.

Pope Joan is a book of historical fiction situated in real life historical events.  Many of the characters did, in fact exist, and many of the events that take place did, in fact, happen.  I always love reading historical fiction that is well grounded in historical fact because it makes the story come alive in a way that I can, at least for that moment, pretend that the events are real.  It is impossible for Cross to know anything about Joan's life, sadly, so much of it is made up.  Yet Cross clearly did her research because she is able to capture the time, in spirit and in culture, very nicely.  One of the problems with historical writers is that they want to prove they are scholars and overwhelm the reader with historical fact.  Cross, thankfully, knows where to stop. If anything, the book wonderfully captures contemporary ideas about women, the female body, and women's place not only in the world, but also in heaven.  Feminist historians and people interested in women's history should read this book to understand the woman in the Medieval world.

The story follows the life of Joan, first as a young and intelligent girl whose education is stunted by a father who sees no value in teaching a girl.  Culture, custom, and even religious belief rejected the education of the female.  It was a tough uphill battle for little Joan who overcomes the patriarchal world that she lived in to first become a monk, using the name of her dead brother, then a friend and friend and physician to the Pope, and then finally becoming Pope herself.  There is, of course, also a love story, which is as far as I know an invention entirely of Cross.  Though there is some precedent for the romance since even in the legends of Joan, she supposedly was discovered to be a woman when she gave birth.

However, one thing I wish, and this is just a personal preference, is that there was not so much untranslated Latin.  Your average reader isn't going to know what is being said, and even if they were to Google translate the phrase, it isn't likely to be accurate enough to help understanding. This is not always important for the plot, of course, but sometimes it would help reader comprehension, especially because sometimes Joan comments on the spoken Latin to emphasize the lack of education epidemic amongst the priesthood, and a reader who does not know Latin will not know the error made.  It would just make the novel more accessible to the average reader.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and was happy to read that Joan, at least in this version, came to a more noble end than the Joan that has persisted in Medieval and Renaissance myth (some say she was stoned to death, others that she was tied to the back of a horse and drug to her dead).  If anything, Pope Joan as a novel will stand next to the other works of fiction and myth that have existed though the ages as yet another great telling of a legend that some people love and other people hate.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Graphic Novel Review: Interview with the Vampire: Claudia's Story by Anne Rice and Ashley Marie Witter

Title: Interview with the Vampire: Claudia's Story 
Author(s): Anne Rice (Author) & Ashley Marie Witter (Illustrator) 
Genre: Fiction/Horror & Fiction/Supernatural 
Finished: February 21, 2013

This comic book / graphic novel has gotten a fair bit of criticism because many feel it did not offer a fresh perspective on Claudia or the events of Interview with the Vampire, but was rather too close a story to the original written in Interview with the Vampire. I think that this is criticism too harsh. The novel Interview with the Vampire, told from the perspective of Louis, features Claudia as one of the main characters. This graphic novel does indeed follow the same timeline as Louis’s tale with little deviation to “new” event, but we do see a very distinctive Claudia perspective, with gives “new” insight into the events we know per Louis. The illustrations done by Ashley Marie Witter were absolutely, no question, beautiful. Every character exuded delicate beauty--the expressions and movements were all immaculately wrought. I found the usage of color to be quite effective, as well. The novel was done in an off-white and black tone, aside from the occasional use of colors like red to emphasize blood. I felt that this occasional use of bold color added emotion, passion, and indeed violence to the appropriate scenes. It also expressed how very important blood is to the immortal... the only true vibrant color in the dark world. It is true that the essential story is nothing new, but there were moments when the perspective of Claudia gave something new to an event. Because instead of seeing things from the eyes of Louis, we get to see Claudia as she was, as she thought, and come to understand a bit more about what motivated her. And, sadly, just how much she loved Louis. But yes, sometimes it was hard to keep track of the chronology. Maybe this was because I read this graphic novel at around 2am and my brain was not at full function. There were a few times when I had to reread a page or go back because I wasn’t sure where I was on a timeline. It was like in the span of one panel, we had gone forward in time and were now in an entirely different world location. But I blame this on my inexperience with comics and graphic novels in general. Claudia’s Story is a beautifully rendered tale of one of the briefest but important vampires in the Chronicles. I feel absolutely that it is a necessity in the collection of any Anne Rice and Vampire Chronicle fan. You must at least read this graphic novel once. Instead of judging the “originality” of the story, soak up the beautiful art, the emotion expressed in wonderful pen strokes. Enjoy the story you know and love now presented to you in a new format, made into a work of visual art as much as it is a work of written art.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Book Review: Mockingjay (The Hunger Games, #3) by Suzanne Collins

Title: Mockingjay
Series: The Hunger Games
Book Number: 3
Author: Suzanne Collins 
Genre: Fiction - Dystopia 
Finished: February 11, 2013

Can it suffice to say only that this final book was everything that I had hoped for and more?  I wasted no time loading this one on my Kindle after I had finished the second book of the trilogy. Of course I could guess the rough chronology of the book: lots of rebel fighting, lots of drama, and of course a victory, no matter how sweet or bittersweet. I knew there would be war, and I knew that independence would be gained. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the journey. And that also doesn’t mean I wasn’t caught off guard a number of times by a few well placed and indeed shocking plot twists. Instead, it meant that I was sincerely and deeply hoping for the sort-of-happy-ending that the characters deserved and that I needed in order to feel fulfilled. In short, I wanted Katniss alive and with Peeta. So the war is on. District 13 is working to inspire rebel forces across Panem, and are quite successful. The leaders of the rebellion use Katniss as a sort of mascot, but she is not the sort of girl to give clean televised appearances, so there is a lot of battle and explosion going on.

Thank goodness, right?

I mean it wouldn’t be a Hunger Game novel without a lot of blood, guts, and blown up things. The part that I liked the best (in my predictable nature) was the inevitable tension that arose after Peeta was rescued and he had been brainwashed... reprogrammed... designed to hate and indeed kill Katniss. Naturally, I gave in to a rare sense of optimism that love would prevail, yadda, yadda, yadda. 

It was this plot arch in particular that I enjoyed reading the most. I wish there was more to it, that it was longer, more involved. The course of the rebellion was interesting and great, yes, but I like things that are a little less action and adventure, and a little more drama. I also did not expect a few of the deaths that took place. I mean, this isn't George R.R. Martin, after all, right, who kills everyone you love. I thought that there would at least be a bright light at the end of the tunnel for the suffering. But not so. I guess that is just part of the realism, of creating a world that is real, intense, and that you can live inside of. Even go so far as to grieve with. The emotional connection would be nothing without something to grieve over, right? At least, that is how I comfort myself.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Book Review: Catching Fire (Hunger Games, #2) by Suzanne Collins

Title: Catching Fire
Series: Hunger Games
Book Number: 2
Author: Suzanne Collins 
Genre: Fiction - Dystopia 
Finished: February 5, 2013

I decided to read this book in order to prepare myself for the movie; I would rather spoil a movie by reading the book than spoil a book by seeing the movie first. I didn't go into reading this book with any preconceived notions about how the plot may manifest itself, so I relied on the first few pages to gain a sense of how the book may progress. Essentially, now a victor of the Hunger Games, Katniss is the target for the ire of the Capitol, specifically President Snow. Before even Katniss realizes what she means to the rest of the various districts, the President is painfully aware that she stands as an icon of rebellion and indeed revolution, which he certainly cannot stand. So naturally, of course, he seeks to eliminate her as a threat. The book is really two distinct stories. The first part of the story of of Katniss trying to survive back in District 12 after the games, trying to become normal again, and ultimately trying to quell any possible threat of district rebellion in order to placate President Snow and protect her family/friends. The part effectively ends when she discovers that there is no way to stop the anger of the districts, who are using her act of defiance as a sort of rallying cry to justify their own defiance. As a result, there is no pleasing President Snow, and she fears no hope of saving the people she cares about. Which brings us to part 2, the Quarter Quell, an anniversary event. At every 25 year period, the games are given a special feature, a new twist. This quarter's twist is, and predictably so, that those in the arena must be past winners of the Games. This assures, as the only female from District 12, that Katniss will be in the arena. I admit, I saw this coming. Even as I was reading part 1, I kept telling myself, "This president is going to find a way to make it so Katniss has to reenter the games." I wasn't certain how he would do so, but I was confident that he would find a way, as this would be an easy and entertaining way to get rid of her while at the same time showing the burgeoning revolutionaries throughout the various districts the cost of defiance. Katniss goes into the arena this time determined to give her life to protect Peeta; there is no way to save them both, and the President wants her death badly enough to make sure she regrets not dying. If anything, she can save Peeta, who she sees as an innocent in her machinations. Little does she know that behind the scenes, Haymitch has been working out his own dealings, convincing the other Tributes to, no matter the cost, keep Peeta alive, too. Once again, the pair are at the center of a conspiracy that they do not have much of a say in, or much knowledge of for that matter. I found the nature of the games arena this time to be wonderfully creative. 

I really had to applaud Collins for the uniqueness of the setting. It was more than just a landscape of traps and scattered threats for tributes to chase each other around. I loved the idea of the arena as a clock, and each new hour bringing a new round of chaos to one of the 12 triangular branches. Naturally, not knowing myself of the backroom dealings of Haymitch, I kept waiting for the moment when the alliances formed in the arena would come crashing down on Katniss and Peeta. It is always a wonderful turn of events to find that I have been wrong in my predictions; it forces me not to over think the plot too much and thereby ruin it for myself. I was also very pleased that the few characters I felt taken with had survived, though with varied levels of... safety and success. I am also a massive sucker for a good cliffhanger, though mostly when I have in my possession the next book, which I do. I have already started the third and final book because I have to know what happens with the rebellion, which at the end of the games, is going full scale. And I also have to know what happens between Katniss and Peeta since, ultimately, I am rooting for them. I love a clever dystopia.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Book Review: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Title: The Hobbit 
Author: J.R.R. Tolkien 
Genre: Fiction- Fantasy 
Finished: January 13, 2013

I dug this one out of the shelves in celebration of the movie, which I have to date seen a grand total of 3 times, none of which I regret in the slightest. Okay, I didn't take the book off of the shelf and dust it off. I uploaded it to my Kindle Fire, but the same concept is at work here: I pulled out a book from my past to enjoy in the present. I haven't read the Hobbit since I was in secondary school, I'm certain English class in middle school. Even then it was an assigned reading, so I read it with the most begrudging of pleasure, and I did not get as much out of it as I could have had it not come with the attached stigma of being a book assigned for school. But alas, the Hobbit is the sort of book that everyone need read at least once in their life. I wanted to give it another shot, and with more appreciation for fine literature and fantasy. I was first touched by the fast pacing of the book. Tolkien certainly paid scant attention to detail and drawn out events. The timing for things like anticipation or suspense, even drama, is lacking. That doesn't necessarily make it a bad book, and neither does the book come across as too hurried or without character development and involvement. Indeed, it is a bit surprising how much Tolkien is able to pack in a few short words. By fast pacing, I mean that there is little to describe their wanderings. Instead, our esteemed author chooses to gloss over the aimless wandering across terrain of Middle Earth, and let us as readers enjoy one action packed sequence to the next. It is at times like that that I realize the book was meant for children, and so needed to be relatively free of too much boring description, and also required enough entertaining action to keep the attention span of a child engaged. But I loved the fast pace of the book; it seemed like a long short story. And of course, as a fantasy novel lover, I can't forget the honor that must be paid to Tolkien as a master of his own world, language, and mythology. Bilbo was adorable, his character complex and curious, equal parts brave and frightened, as anyone would be taken from the comfort of their home and thrust on a deadly adventure. I loved all of the dwarves. They were just, each and every one, adorable and brave. Of course not all dwarves were fully fleshed out, as I imagine that would have taken a lot more work and detail than the tiny novel could handle, so only a few dwarves are "real"characters in the novel. The rest of them are just background names. Though I do wonder how future movies will alter some of the story a bit, particularly with Smaug and with the final battle between man/dwarves/elves and the goblins/wargs. I can't see some of those details (trying not to spoil here) being preserved in movies, but maybe that's just me thinking that people want heroic and happy endings.