Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Ringworld by Larry Niven

Ringworld is one of those books that is really cannon for the scifi genre. I've seen this book in the stores for pretty much my whole life. I've read references to it in countless reviews, and I'm really happy I finally got around to reading this fantastic book.

Ringworld is the first novel in a series of books written by Niven and focusing on the discovery and exploration of a giant piece of highly-advanced technology in a far-away star system. This piece of tech, the ringworld, is a massive ring 1 million miles wide and 600 million mile circumference (1 earth orbit). The ring is covered with land, lakes, oceans, mountains and has three million times the area of earth. This valuable piece of tech, is of great interest to both the characters in the book and the readers of the book as well.

Niven's story is a lot of hard-scifi mixed with a light often humorous narrative. The descriptions of the technology that composes the ringworld are incredibly detailed. All the science feels completely plausable and Niven's creative descriptions of the ringworld and everything that's on it are a joy to read. The characters that populate the novel are all very unique and colorful; In addition to humans there is a two-headed alien with highly advanced techonology and a cowardly disposition and a giant space-tiger-humanoid with aggression issues. There are many laugh-out-loud moments in this book, particularly when the aliens are learning to tolerate each other's quirks.

The only real complaint that I have with this novel is the way it ends. The novel is fun to read, and the exploration of the ringworld in incredibly exciting, but the final conclusion feels very rushed to me. The plot is moving forward at a good clip, then the story just sort of stops. I actually wondered if my book was missing pages. I definitely wanted to know what happens next. This is really a matter of taste; I believe that all books, even ones that are part of a larger story, should have a distinct beginning, middle, and end. While ringworld has an end, I found it to be quite a let-down compared to the rest of the book, which I loved.

If you haven't read this book, definitely ad it to your shortlist, it's a must for any SciFi fan.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

The Year of the Flood sucks you into a time at least 200 years into the future where our present has become history. Most of the animals we know are extinct or have been genetically combined to create something new. The political structure has shifted so now things are run by corporations and you either live under their manipulative protection in gated communities or outside them in slums full of gangs and violence. Consumerism and the results of too much scientific experimentation have enveloped humanity like a tidal wave.

A variety of religious cults have popped up for those wishing to live a different existence than what the corporate communities and gangs provide. The Gardeners is one such cult with strict ideas on how to live in order to return to the ways of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They want to return to a simpler way of living without genetically engineered food and mass-produced materialistic possessions. They live on the fringe of society using abandoned space to grow their own food and squat in to survive.

In particular, we follow the lives of Ren and Toby - two female Gardeners who grow up before a waterless flood of disease cascades over the world decimating the human race. By luck, they both survive and coincidentally come together to find a new start in a changed world. Both have sordid experiences in their histories before the flood occurs making them strong enough to survive the aftermath of the flood. Their stories are shared as the narrative jumps from the present to flashbacks, catching up eventually to our characters' present.

No detail is overlooks as Atwood shares this potential era in human history. You know these characters like old friends, could walk the streets of these communities with familiarity. This complete picture makes the story so engaging and almost terrifying to "watch" these people struggle in a world so unlike ours today yet not outside the realistic realm of possibilities for our future. In true Atwood style, the world we live in has been worn away by time but remnants of it appear as we're taken through this imagined future.

Through death, disease, heartbreak, and terror, humanity survives. Life as they know it changes dramatically with a future that isn't entirely clear, but there is hope left after the waterless flood washes over the world, punishing it for its indulgences.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Case of the Missing Books by Ian Sansom

I think I'm the wrong audience for this book. It was written by a Brit who lives in Ireland and takes place in London and a small, Northern Ireland town. It was reviewed as a comedic story, but I seem to have missed what makes it funny. Maybe it's a cultural thing, but to me, the main character, Israel Armstrong, isn't funny or entertaining at all - he's pathetic. He's not even "comically inept" as the London Times suggests (by way of a quote on the book's cover.) So, my final impression is one of confusion. I'm confused about why this book is funny. I'm confused about why the blundering librarian, Israel Armstrong, is our hero. And, I'm especially confused about how this book is considered a mystery when it's completely lacking any intrigue.

Here's the set up: Israel Armstrong comes to a small northern town in Ireland to serve as the local librarian. He arrives to find the public library has been shut down, converted to a mobile library. However, all the books are missing - the library can't actually function - so Israel's job goes from librarian to detective. Seeing the role of mobile librarian as a professional insult, Israel will only locate the missing books if in doing so, his contract will be cancelled and he can return to "civilization" in London. His tactic for solving this big mystery? Driving around town accusing people of theft while repeatedly getting injured and saying, "Agghh" a lot. He makes no friends in the town and is portrayed as a giant fish-out-of-water whenever possible. In the end, the books get recovered and Israel stumbles upon a totally unrelated in justice (or "mystery") that ingratiates him with the townsfolk.

The book's mystery never has a big "wow" payoff, it's actually rather silly if you ask me. To sort of spoil the ending so I can complain about it: The books were never actually missing, they'd just been relocated and the library was still technically intact. Anticlimactic!!

While the story itself left a lot to be desired there's nothing actually wrong with the writing here. Sansom puts together a complete and comprehensive story with just the right amounts of detail to paint a realistic picture of this small town and the people living in it. I just didn't get anything out of the town other than a little, local, Irish flavor.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Spoiler Alert - Plot points are given away in this book review.

The second book of The Hunger Games trilogy reunites us with Katniss and Peeta - the winners of the previous year’s Hunger Games. They’re walking the tricky line of being the first co-winners of the Hunger Games, a contest that has never had more than one winner. Their unique situation inspires rebellion among the districts against a violently controlling Capitol and especially places Katniss in a very precarious position. She must cow-tow to the Capitol - feigning love for Peeta and going through the preparations to marry him while indulging in her rebellious spirit - sneaking off outside the walls of her district to hunt with the boy she truly loves.

Then, the announcement is made - it’s a Quarter Quell - a special year in the Hunger Games where new stipulations are introduced just for this Games. The new rule is that only past winners can go back to the Games; one girl and one boy from each district. Katniss is the only girl winner from District 12. In she goes along with her “partner” Peeta. The Games begin again.

Catching Fire focuses on themes more mature than what we saw in The Hunger Games. Yes, self-preservation within the arena and gruesome violence are both still covered, but Katniss is heading toward adulthood and that alters what she sees and feels. Love, for one thing is explored as Katniss hides her love for Gale while fighting off sexual urges she begins to feel when she kisses Peeta. Political tyranny and what the common man must suffer in order to rebel is also a central theme to the novel. Violence is observed beyond the arena in Districts’ squares as deadly punishments are doled out by the agents of the Capitol. The Capitol-ordered brutality seen in the districts is almost more gruesome than what occurs during the Hunger Games - it’s slower and meant to cause pain while the violence in the Hunger Games is from an immediate necessity of survival.

At the same time these complex themes are being explored we’re still reminded that Katniss is just hanging onto the edge of adulthood; mostly she’s still just a child. Her comprehension of what’s going on is limited and her ideas of rebellion are poorly thought out and immature. What will running away to a shack in the woods solve?

Equally exciting as The Hunger Games but with a very different, heavier, feel, Catching Fire takes us further into the world of Panem. We go beyond the scarcity of District 12 and the over-indulgent glamour of the Capitol to see the world everyone lives in - and it’s a bleak place. Again, it was so easy to become attached to the characters and their story that putting the book down was difficult. We might have read straight through if we didn’t have Olivia bringing us back to reality.

We highly recommend the book but stress that you must read these in order. The second would lose power without the background gained from the first. Pick up the whole trilogy. Once you start, you don’t want to stop. We’re already reading the final book in the series, Mockingjay.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Real Wizard of Oz by Rebecca Loncraine

I was an avid reader as a child - picked up just about anything I could get my hands on and easily got addicted to books in a series. Beyond the usual Babysitter's Club and Sweet Valley High books there was the Oz series. Bet you didn't know that L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz was just the first book in a lengthy series spanning decades? The series was even continued after Baum's death. I didn't read them all, but I loved the ones I read (and still have them,) so when I came across this biography of Baum I was excited to learn more about the author's life and how Oz came alive for him to share its tales with us.

The Real Wizard of Oz takes us through Baum's entire life, most of which was spent doing other things than writing about the magical land of Oz. Baum was an actor, a playwright, a store owner, traveling salesman, and journalist. He lived all over the country throughout the late 1800's and early 20th Century. He saw the U.S. grow up right in his backyard. Eventually ending up in California, Baum bought property in Hollywood when it was just a bunch of empty land.

What I liked most about Baum - he lived in the moment. At a time when the world was struggling through wars and economic depressions Baum lived to meet his family's sometimes extravagant needs. What I liked least about the book - the author's writing style. We get way too much boring information right from the start of the book. I really didn't need to know about the births and young deaths of everyone in Baum's extended family.

The narrative also gets extremely choppy. Details that seem to go together either because they're similar in nature or contradict each other are strung together in a way where you feel the author is just listing facts one on top of the other, cramming things into paragraph form just to get every little detail into the biography.

One particular aspect of Loncraine's writing style gnawed away at me throughout the book and ultimately killed it for me. She assumes so much about the people she's writing about, which would be fine normally since all her characters are dead, but she tells you about each assumption (most of which add absolutely nothing to the narrative.) I don't need to know that Loncraine assumed Baum's wife thought the sounds of him writing on the wallpaper were like rats scurrying around the house. The interesting thing is that Baum took notes on the wallpaper by his bed at night when ideas came to him in his sleep. This unique aspect of Baum's life is diluted by the addition of Loncraine's assumptive detail.

In Loncraine's defense though, her narrative style isn't all bad. There are some very well-written, colorful bits of detail. If the whole story was written using that same style, the book would have been amazing. As is, these bits are more like hidden gems that appear without any warning as you read. Loncraine also shares a lot of details about Baum's life that I didn't know so I felt like I learned a lot about who he really was. I didn't know that Baum wrote under multiple pseudonyms in order to compartmentalize the different genres he wrote for, only using his real name for his "fairy tales," or that the Oz series was considered one of the first modern day fairy tales.

All in all, this book was disappointing in style but worth the time as far as the content. The goal of the book is achieved - to share the life story of L. Frank Baum, however I would have preferred it to have been authored by someone else.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson

The Diamond Age is a fascinating Sci-Fi novel that takes place in a future where nanotechnology has become so commonplace that everyone, even the very poor, has access to it. The story centers on a young girl named Nell and the path that her life takes after she accidentally receives an amazing piece of technology (the primer). What starts as a story about a little girl who is stuck in the slums turns into a sweeping mini-epic that spans decades and changes the landscape of the entire world!

As with other Stephenson novels, the plot is so layered and nuanced that I can't competently describe it in too much detail without giving exciting plot-points away. I can, however, discuss some of the central themes of the novel that I found fascinating. One of the main themes examines the way that culture has developed in the world of The Diamond Age. The world has split into many different phyles, (or tribes) these phyles define the culture of the people within them. For example, the neo-Victorians style themselves after English Victorians while The Han are deeply connected to Confusion teachings. There are also many smaller phyles such as the mysterious hive-mind drummers who live underwater or the technology-driven CryptNet. Stephenson spends a lot of time showing how the characters of this world deal with their own identity and reconcile it with the cultural identity of their tribe. Another theme deals with the availability of technology. As we are introduced to the world we see that hunger has been all but eliminated because all people have access to public matter compilers that can create food, furniture, clothing, etc. However the feed of atoms to the matter compilers is controlled by the state, and there is a philosophical discussion over whether or not the flow of matter should be controlled at all.

This book is an amazing ride from start to finish. The story starts very small and over the course of the novel expands to deal with events that change the course of the world. I can definitely see Stephenson's style transitioning from the his early style (Snow Crash / Zodiac) to his later style (Cryptonomicon, The Baroque Cycle, Anathem) He uses some very cool narrative techniques in this story. A large part of the book deals with Nell's adventures in The Primer. These adventures are connected to her real life in that they help form her as a person, yet the experiences also stand alone as a self-contained story that is quite entertaining and informative. One of these stories teaches Nell binary and the origins of computers in a way that is so easy to understand that you come away from it with a whole new perspective on what computers are and what they can do. This book is a great read, it doesn't have a lot of the heavy technical sidetracks that turns some people off of Stephenson's other books, and his view of how the existence of nanotech would change the world is exciting to experience! Often in SciFi there is a tendency to use nanotech as a type of future-magic, but Stephenson shows its usage in some very practical ways (food creation) that have huge ramifications to society as a whole. Of course he shows some of the other more miraculous ways that it can be used; to create a fantasy-island for a little girl's birthday party. The Diamond Age is a gem of a novel and as with all Stephenson's books it will have you thinking about it long after you've finished reading it.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Kraken by China MiƩville

Let me preface this post by saying that I am a HUGE fan of China Mieville, I've loved his writing ever since I read Perdido Street Station back in 2001. He has a knack for writing characters who are multi-dimensional (sometimes literally), colorful, memorable and often very flawed. His characters always seem real and tangible, even when they inhabit a world that is completely foreign, scary, and bizarre. This is the style of writing that I expected going into Kraken, but it's not at all what I got.

The protagonist of Kraken, Billy Harrow, is a simple curator at The Darwin Centre. After a giant squid inexplicably disappears from his museum, Billy dives headlong into a London where magic is common, cults are everywhere, and his knowledge of giant squids (in particular the missing squid) makes him a wanted man. He partners up with a renegade squid-cult warrior and sets off on a quest to discover who stole the giant squid and how it's theft ties-in to an impending apocalypse. Billy has run-ins with a colorful bunch of characters who are significantly more memorable than he is.

What didn't appeal to me about this book was the overall tone. I've grown to appreciate Mieville's strong political views appearing in his work as well as his dead serious approach to what is often completely fantastical content. In Kraken, it's almost like he's trying to write a comedic novel. There are some humorous moments to be sure, but overall, I think I just missed a lot of the humor. Maybe you have to be British to get it. Maybe you have to be more familiar with the city of London to appreciate his treatment of the city, but I definitely missed the humor and most of the London references. The pacing of the book is painfully slow for the first three quarters. It picks up considerably toward the end, and at moments I thought that Mieville could pull the story out of the fire. It just never happened.

The book wasn't all bad, there are moments of brilliance that really push it from a cheeky comedy toward the genre that Mieville claims he writes: Weird Fiction. There were a lot of cool characters and concepts in the book; a character who only exists in statues, a character made of ink, a teleporting Star Trek fan, and a group of thugs whose heads are nothing more than clenched fists. These are all very funky and cool creatures to read about, but they are only tertiary characters. By contrast the main character is so bland and boring that I had to push myself through this book.

China Mieville is an amazingly talented author. His Bas-Lag books (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, Iron Council) are an amazing example of contemporary fantasy (or 'weird fiction' as Mieville calls it). I highly recommend Mieville as an author, but I just can't recommend this book.

The Passage by Justin Cronin

The Passage by Justin Cronin (Audiobook read by: Scott Brick)

The Passage is the story of a virus released in the US that turns 10% of those infected into blood-craving, sunlight-avoiding vampires. The story focuses on the people who caused the outbreak, those who survived it, and the one person who can save humanity from it. The novel starts out a handful of years into the future and follows a young orphan named Amy Bellafonte and an FBI agent named Brad Wolgast. The book traces the roots of the virus from the jungles of Bolivia to its eventual release from a top secret army facility in Colorado where it is being developed and studied. You become quite attached to all the characters you meet leading up to the release of the virus, then suddenly the narrative jumps 90 years into the future, and we are treated to an entirely new story. Cronin drops us into a world that bears little resemblance to the world we know today. We're introduced to an (almost) entirely new cast of characters who are just beginning their voyage to reclaim the world from the virals who have replaced them as the dominant species on the planet.

I simply can't say enough good things about this book. Cronin uses some very distinct narrative techniques that make the book an unique experience. It's not often that a book can be clearly split into 2 stories and still hold itself together. The stories are connected only vaguely, but they work together to give you a deeper understanding of the world of "The Passage." The emotion that Cronin pours into the pages of this book brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion and, as with any great book, I felt a real hole in my days when I no longer spent them with the characters of this book.

As with any audiobook I review I have to discuss the narrator, Scott Brick. He is amazing, just spot on with all the character voices. His pacing and tone match the story perfectly. He imbues the story with emotion and passion without it seeming forced. Audiobooks can often detract from the story if the narrator isn't right for the book, this was not at all the case with this book, and if you have a long road trip (as I did) I highly recommend this audiobook.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Reading Aloud - The Joy of Family Time

Sometimes I just like to hear my own voice, so I used to wait until nobody else was home and sit down with whatever book I was reading and read it aloud to myself. It never lasts long - I always forget to grab a glass of water so my throat gets dry and I give up, or I end up feeling silly reading aloud to myself.

Now that Olivia is a part of my life, I can fill the void of hearing my own voice by reading to her. The only issue there is her books are very short and it's hard to turn the pages of her board books because they're so thick. The reading is choppy and we spend more time looking at the pictures than talking.

The solution to my egotistical dilemma came about with the arrival of The Hunger Games Trilogy. Trey and I listened to the first book together and got very into the story, so ran into a roadblock when deciding who would get to read the second book first. Whoever read the second book first would have to keep all the plot points to themselves until the other person had time to read the book. Neither of us liked that proposition so we're reading the book aloud to each other. Each night - when we have the time - we take Olivia up to our room and Trey plays with her while I read to us then Trey reads to us while I put Olivia to bed. I get to hear my own voice while sharing an exciting story with my family - what could be better!

The bonus perk is the family time. I know that while we're reading the book aloud nobody will get up. The only other sound is Olivia's laughter at whatever toy Trey is shaking at her. This time together is absolutely perfect and I love that it's a book bringing us together and that Olivia is learning how special moments can be created through reading.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Rediscovering Childhood Favorites

This isn't going to be a book review. The book I'm reading right now has started off incredibly boring, so it's going slowly. Instead, I wanted to share the joy I've been getting from reading to my daughter. Yes, Olivia is only five months old so the books I read her don't really sink in, but reading to her gives me the opportunity to revisit favorite books from my childhood. Of course there are the staples - books all children get read to them - Good Night Moon, The Hungry Caterpillar, Where the Wild Things Are, and the assorted Dr. Seuss titles. Olivia has all of those. I'm talking about books like Madeline, Ferdinand, and The Five Chinese Brothers.

My childhood recollections of these books didn't include the stories. Before rereading, I could have only told you that Madeline gets her appendix removed; I remembered nothing else. Yet these books, along with so many others, were a major part of my early childhood. Olivia has all of these books at her fingertips and is quickly approaching the time in her life when books will begin to appeal to her. It makes me wonder which books will stick in her memory, what she'll end up reading to her children someday.

I've begun a list of books to buy Olivia. They only include titles that looked familiar to me. I'm trying to keep the list down to books that will be relevant for her within the next year or two, but it's hard. I found myself adding the Ramona Quimby books to the list and she won't be ready for those until third or fourth grade. I even have the Little House on the Prairie series sitting in a cabinet for her and bought Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland on sale last month.

I don't even know if Olivia will read actual books as she grows up. Everything might be electronic by then (it's a sad thought) but I find myself getting so very excited by just the thought of sharing books with my daughter. I want her to love to read, no matter the medium and I hope that my joy toward the books on her shelves is contagious. I hope we, as a family, always have time to read together.

Thanks for indulging my little rant :)

Thursday, September 2, 2010

No Angel by Penny Vincenzi

No Angel is a soap opera masquerading as a novel and as a soap opera, it's fantastic. Each dramatic scene could be played out on noontime television with the "da da dum" suspenseful music in the background. It's totally absorbing and addicting.

The first book in the Spoils of Time Trilogy, No Angel follows the Lytton family through multiple generations. The story covers the lives of each family member, the good and bad bits, the perfect moments, and the indiscretions. At the center of this complex family is Lyttons, a family-owned publishing house. While not all members of the family are employed by Lyttons, publishing plays a central role in all their lives. It's the force that pulls our heroine, Celia Lytton, out from behind her socialite status, putting her behind an office desk instead. It brings people together in love and serves as a microcosm for how WWI affected life.

The characters are fully developed and you really get to know them through their experiences, thoughts, and feelings. The writing does more than just tell a story, it chronicles the lives of an entire family - parents, children, in-laws, siblings, spouses, and lovers. The picture feels complete. All the drama could have happened to anyone, anywhere, and at any time, but it's especially interesting to get an inside look at an early 20th century publishing house while feeling the everyday effects WWI had on people's lives.

No Angel is an engaging and exciting book - more than just a beach read, but perfect for someone looking for a novel to escape into.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Invisible Wall by Harry Bernstein

The Invisible Wall is an elaborately detailed memoir of a ninety-something-year-old man's recollections of a WWI era childhood in a small English town just outside of Manchester. It focuses in on one particular street where the poorer sect lived. On one side lived the Christians and on the other, the Jews. Their situations were almost identical yet a void existed between the two sides that was nearly impossible to cross. Both sides feared each other; neither liked things that were different from themselves. But, one love affair (at least temporarily) changed everything. Bernstein's vivid descriptions brings a street you come to know almost as well as your own comes together as one.

Bernstein's narrative begins long before the void-filling love affair actually takes place and relives all the significant events from his childhood memories from how his mother earned money to care for her family to the way his alcoholic father stormed out of the house each night. Bernstein introduces you to all his neighbors - on both sides of the street - and retells events significant in their lives too.

The memoir is so engaging and the story is so accessible that before you know it, you're living young Harry's life right beside him - saddened when he's denied admission to a better school because of his shoes (and his religion,) tearful when he witnesses the death of a war veteran, and heartened when he first becomes an uncle.

Additionally appealing is that this story is real. It's not some fictionalized tale about overcoming prejudices and uniting under the commonality of humanity. This is the childhood of one boy who saw both hate and love emanate from one tiny street, a microcosm of an entire "era" in our history.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Trey and I downloaded this as an audio book for a recent road trip. Although I'm always partial to reading the book rather than listening to it, the narrator for this particular audio book was excellent and I'd actually recommend it. She drifts between character's voices and the narration smoothly with several distinct voices that add a nice bit of color to the narration.

The first book in a trilogy, The Hunger Games opens us up to a to a future dystopia where North America ceases to be broken into states and countries. There's just one, Panem, consisting of a capitol and 12 districts. Seventy years ago in Panem's history, the districts rebelled against the capitol and are now punished yearly through the Hunger Games, a competition that pits children between 12-18 years of age - a boy and a girl from each district - against each other to the death. Reminiscent of the movie, Running Man, the children are given weapons, trained, coached, and helped along the way by sponsors as they struggle to survive in the Hunger Games arena.

The story is told through the eyes of Katniss Everdeen the female "tribute" sent from District 12 to compete in lieu if her younger sister who was initially chosen in the lottery. Katniss comes from a poor family, but is a skilled hunter. Peeta is the boy chosen from District 12. A baker's son, Peeta enters the games with fewer physical survival skills than Katniss. Both children play the game intelligently - giving them a fighting chance at survival.

Living in poverty, winning the games is the only hope these children have to improve and protect their lives. This dire predicament transforms all types of children into killers, some Tributes have trained their whole lives to survive the games, while others are practically helpless. Everyone has their own set of skills and their own array of advantages and disadvantages. You have no idea who's going to win.

Forced to watch the games live, the people of Panem place bets on who will win and attempt to scrape together money to sponsor a child, sending in a much-needed gift for a participant of their choice. This gives a distinct advantage to the popular players since these gifts could mean the difference between life and death for that child.

The Hunger Games is a young-adult novel with definite appeal to for an older crowd. The story is engaging, full of graphic description, social commentary on the cruelty of a corrupt political regime, and intelligent, driven characters that you begin to root for to win. While there are elements of science fiction to the novel, it's completely accessible for anyone and a very exciting read. Trey and I are looking forward to the next two books in the trilogy.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Darwin Conspiracy by John Darnton

Using real characters and basic events from history, John Darnton presents a fictionalized account of Darwin's family and how the theory of evolution really came to be. There's just enough made up adventure and intrigue to make this story completely engaging.

Hugh and Beth are present-day detectives trying to solve a mystery begun by Lizzie, Darwin's own daughter. Something has happened on the Beagle to riddle Darwin with so much guilt he's never fully healthy after returning home. Lizzie is quite a successful detective but so much time has passed that our present-day characters have to basically start from scratch. Through their discoveries, journal entries from Lizzie, an assortment of old letters, and an actual recount of the Beagle's excursion itself the mysteries unfold to tell a story that questions the choices Charles Darwin made aboard the ship. The variations in narrative style keep you in the moment no matter whether you're in the past or present. You feel like you're alongside all the characters piecing together the mystery yourself.

In addition to the focus on Darwin, the story also has Hugh solving a personal mystery of his own. Hugh's older brother, who has been put on his own pedestal, died tragically a while back - but was it actually an accident?

The juxtaposition of a historical figure with an average character, both having weaknesses in character revealed makes the entire story more personal. Hugh's brother could be anyone's family member and makes the novel something more than just a fictionalized history lesson.

The story is fast-paced and very entertaining with fully-formed characters to follow through history. You never feel like you're reading a piece of fiction. The plot is so cohesive in all its details that you do feel like you're reading an unknown piece of history and not just a novel. Worth a read for anyone who likes to be taken on an adventure.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Dead as a Doornail by Charlaine Harris

I started this book with the intent to have an easy read before giving birth. I was usually uncomfortable at night and Dead as a Doornail didn't require a lot of concentration. Olivia came early though, so this book has been filling the small gaps of free time in my sleep-deprived, new-mommy life. Again, it has been a big perk that the story requires minimal brain power to get through. I'm starting to appreciate this series more and more for the mindless fodder it is. If I go into each book without any quality expectations I can enjoy them for the fun, fast reads they are.

Large errors still bother me though, like this one on pages 53-54 where a detective goes to Sookie's house to poke around while Sookie is at work, then heads to Merlotte's to talk to Sookie in person where Sookie gives the detective directions to her house for an interview they set up to take place the next day. The detective tells Sookie she was at her house, she doesn't need directions. DETAILS. Errors like this make the series feel mass produced and I'd like to think the author takes pride in her work no matter what. Mistakes and oversights like this say otherwise.

Dead as a Doornail keeps Sookie very busy once again. There's a serial killer out hunting shape shifters and people think it's Jason. Sookie to the investigative rescue. Meanwhile, someone is trying to kill Sookie and burns 1/2 her house down in a failed attempt to end her life. All the supernatural males in the book want to sleep with Sookie, which is a lot to deal with for a girl just trying to stay alive. Vampires are mad at her for butting into their business and werewolves are using her telepathy for their own purposes which just forces her into yet more uncomfortable and dangerous situations. She gets shot, beaten up, nearly killed twice, and cracks a rib just going about her everyday life.

The stories seem to get more disjointed and convoluted as the series goes on, almost as if Harris is attempting to include all the characters previously introduced as important in each book while adding new ones. It's getting crowded and not adding any substance to the plot line for sure.

Sookie is also becoming a less appealing narrator as the series continues. She's just not smart enough to be our narrator anymore. The events she's witnessing are too intricate for her to process in a way that gives the reader all the information they want. For example, the reader learns more about the intricacies of the Shreveport wolf pack in this book and gets a glimpse of the cutthroat politics the govern the group. Sookie's observations focus more on her aversion to two wolves fighting each other than the subtleties that lead to the election of a new pack leader.

I only have one more book in the series to read before I have to decide if I want to buy more of them. I think Sookie Stackhouse is going to take a back seat for now. I'd rather be reading Dr. Seuss to Olivia.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks

I'm a fan of Zombie Mythology. I'll pretty much watch anything zombie-related that comes on late-night cable. But I'm picky when it comes to Zombie stories. I HATE cheesy zombie stories. Some of my favorites include; the original Night of the Living Dead, The Walking Dead(comic series) and 28 Days Later. Max Brook's book is now on my list of some of the best Zombie Mythology out there. This book doesn't just add to the mythology, it actually creates a full history of the mythology, tracing it back to the beginning of humans, and even establishes the cause of Zombies...

Before reading this book you have to take a logical leap. This book is not about our world, this book is about a world, just like ours, except Zombies exist and have existed as long as mankind has. If you can willingly take that leap, which not everyone can, this book is a joy to read for any fan of the walking dead.

The book is split into two parts. The survival guide, and a chronological listing of every traceable historical zombie attack. I really like the way Brooks approaches the concept of Zombies. He attributes zombieism to a virus called Solanum which is spread through body-fluid contact. Once it enters the body, it travels to the brain where it begins to multiply, eventually killing it's host and turning the brain into an entirely new Solanum-controlled organ which hijacks the human body and uses it as a tool to spread itself to other humans by giving the body an uncontrollable urge to bite other humans.

After setting up what causes zombies, Brooks launches into a categorical breakdown of all the methods of eliminating them, going into great detail as to what weapons are best and which are worst, how to defend yourself and your home against a zombie attack, how to move from place to place, how to eliminate zombies from your environment, and how to plan for survival in a world where Zombies outnumber humans as the dominant life form on earth.

What really worked for me about this book was how seriously the author treated his content. It's very easy to look at a book about Zombies and laugh it off as cheesy horror fiction, but Brooks keeps a straight face the entire time. Even to the point of supplying multiple lists of equipment to keep on hand, descriptions of which weapons would be best used to eliminate zombies in different enviroments, and how to survive when on on the run from Zombies from the hordes of undead ghouls.

The second part of the book is a little less practical, a little less of a guide and a little more like a history lesson. Brooks takes the reader on a journey from the very first zombie outbreaks near the dawn of man all the way up through the modern attempts by nations to weaponize zombies and use them against other countries. These accounts of zombies throughout history are really fun to read and play out like a history book devoted to Zombies.

This book is a must-read for anyone who is into Zombies. For those who aren't into zombie mythology, this book will be a complete drag.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Lace Reader by Bruonia Barry

The initial draw of this book, for me, was that it takes place in locations I'm personally familiar with - San Diego, CA and Boston/Salem, MA. It's always nice to already have a sense of location when reading a novel; it allows you to focus on the characters. And, focusing on the characters of The Lace Reader is key because it gets confusing since they're all pretty complex.

Lace reading is an old family ability performed in Eva Whitney's tearoom right up until her mysterious death. The future is seen and interpreted through the patterns in individual pieces of lace. All the women in the family have the skill, but only Eva actively reads. The rest of the women struggle with their own demons, internally and externally, too violently to focus on reading the lace for others.

About halfway into the story of the troubled Whitney family dealing with the sudden death of their matriarch, you get the feeling that this novel is going to end with some psychological twist. This inkling greatly diminishes the shock value I'm sure the author meant to have at the book's climax. You don't know what's coming, but you see something unexpected on the horizon. I also cared more about the characters mid-story than at the novel's conclusion. I liked the unsolved pieces to their personalities and would have rather been left guessing than had everything wrapped up for me by the author.

The narrative voice also shifts periodically between Towner Whitney - the most troubled female of the family - and the detective working Eva's case. The purpose of this narrative switch eludes me. All the key information for the plot is really revealed through Towner's own voice. All you get access to through Rafferty, the detective, is old police files that involve members of the Whitney family. Even those don't give you a full explanation as to why the family is so troubled.

Simply put, I liked the book. The plot was interesting enough although I do feel like so much was packed in to the story that prime events and details lost their luster. I also feel like use of the big psychological twist in a story has been overdone by now and done better elsewhere. Go watch Fight Club or read My Sweet Audrina by VC Andrews if you want your characters truly dirty and royally messed up.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Next by Michael Crichton

It took a while for me to figure out exactly what Next was all about due to the large amount of characters introduced early on, but once I got all the people (and talking animals) straight, I was off and running. Using dynamic characters from every side and every situation relevant to the study of genetics, Next explores all the angles of genetic research, testing, patenting, theft, and espionage.

A fast-paced narrative takes you through a relatively brief period of time where there is never a dull moment. One man is suing for the right to "own" a gene within his own body that a corporation has patented. A mother and son are running from a bounty hunter who's after them for "stealing" genetic material that's a part of their bodies. Dave, a chimp whose genes were mixed with a scientist's is trying to survive elementary school. A bio-tech company is testing what they call the maturity gene to prove it has positive effects on human behavior. This list just scratches the surface of activity - I told you there was a lot happening in this book.

True to form, the action never dulls, the characters never cease to intrigue, and the relevance to issues of today never fall by the wayside in the story. Crichton paints the study/testing of genetics as a scary, unregulated mismash of shady research, large profits, and confusing ownership. He's asking big questions like, "If my tissue leaves my body, is it still mine?" and grappling with all the potential answers since the "right" one hasn't been found yet.

Fictionalized scientific novels are a tricky genre to read. You can't help but be influenced by them even though nothing occurring within them is really real. At the very least, while being highly entertained, Next will empower you to seek out a little more truth about a very relevant topic and get you thinking.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

I recently posted about my irritation at having to read three more books to get to the conclusion of The Wheel of Time series. I started reading The Gathering Storm fully expecting another long podding book where the main characters do nothing but plan and ponder, with a few bits of moderate excitement placed throughout. I re-read that old post before I started this one, and I am quite happy to eat each one of those words. The book is fantastic, exciting, eventful, dramatic and intense!

Sanderson's pacing in this book is great, it reminds me of some of my favorite early books in the series like "The Shadow Rising" and "Lord of Chaos." In The Gathering Storm, Sanderson lays the groundwork for the main story lines early, sprinkles in a few exciting side-character stories(Matt and Perrin) to keep the main stories from dragging while he sets them up. He then builds to a fantastic confluence of events that made me a little sad that the series is actually going to be over soon.

The book has two lead story lines. The first follows The Dragon Reborn, Rand al'Thor, and it's refreshing to get so many chapters devoted to him. Tasked with uniting the fractured nations, making peace with the invading Senchan, and destroying the Forsaken; Rand has decided that the only way he can handle what he must do is to cage himself off from his emotions and feel nothing. He's turned into a completely different person as he hardens himself for the final showdown with The Dark One. But before he can get there, he has to come to terms with who he is, and who he needs to be.

The second lead storyline focuses on Egwene and is probably the most exciting story involving The White Tower in the entire series. Egwene is trapped as a novice in the White Tower and is undermining the Amyrlin's authority in an attempt to reunite the tower and make preparations for the impending battle with the Dark One. Egwene's storyline ends with a fantastically exciting event that changes the entire direction of the final two books, and I can't wait for the next book to see what happens.

Robert Jordan's death after writing the 11th book in the series was devastating to many of his fans. Most fans, myself included, were very worried that whoever was picked to finish the series would never be able to capture the feel and tone of Jordan's series. I'm quite happy to say that Sanderson exceeded all my expectations as a writer for The Wheel of Time, and his voice has not only help carry on Jordan's vision, but enriched it.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Wendy Mogel: The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children

I wouldn't normally include a review here for a child-rearing book, especially one coming from a Jewish perspective. I know it's not going to have a mass appeal, but this book blew me away. Jewish values aside, it's an amazingly insightful book that breaks down parenting and relating to your children in ways that prepare them for the great big world without forcing them to grow up too fast or struggle to live beyond their potential.

The biggest take-away I got from this book wasn't how to raise better Jewish children it was simply to just relax. Parents on average spend so much time worrying about so many things that they neglect spending time with their children simply as parents. Stop worrying about whether your kid is the highest achiever in the class, stop being concerned about threatening your kids autonomy when they get defiant, stop worrying about being liked all the time by your children. RELAX. Let your kid fail - let it be okay to be perfect only some of the time. Be brave enough to set boundaries - to teach your kid how to respect you and the world around them, how to do for themselves. Remember to spend real moments with your children when they still want to be children.

Factoring in Judaism to these simple life practices worked surprisingly well and I learned a few new things about my religion's laid back attitude. While I know I won't become the type of parent who finds more religion in my daily life after kids that I had before them, it's extremely reassuring to know that core values I have developed independently of being Jewish actually fit in nicely with my religion.

This book holds a lot more within it than just the need to slow things down and is worth a read for anyone with kids of their own who may be struggling with ways to connect a practical life to a spiritual one. I'd certainly recommend it to any Jewish parents with kids under the age of 16.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Wild Ducks Flying Backward by Tom Robbins

This collection of short works is brown down into sections that are pretty unique; not that I would expect anything ordinary from Tom Robbins. You get an assortment of travel articles, tributes, stories/poems/song lyrics, musings & critiques, and responses to basic questions. I definitely have an opinion on each section - I either loved it or was totally bored by it - and have to sat that on the whole, this collection wasn't up to the standard of entertainment I've come to appreciate with Robbins' work.

Those pieces included from the last 15 years or so more closely math the prose style I find most entertaining and if you were only going to read one section the travel articles would get my vote.

Possibly these pieces are just too grounded in reality - real reality - when what I've always admired about Robbins' work is his extraordinary; things like cognizant, inanimate objects. But, if you're a Robbins fan who has made it through his whole library of books, this one can't be passed up. If you're a fan of his style, but can honestly admit you don't like everything he's written (like my utter dislike for Another Roadside Attraction) skip this and reread Skinny Legs and All. It'll be time better spent.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman

By far one of the most powerfully moving books I've ready in a while, The Ice Queen combines a captivating narrative style with a unique and emotional story that pulls the ready in and holds them rapt throughout the novel.

Our narrator has no name but she's a woman, sister, and lover. She believes her wishes can kill and she has closed her heart to all emotion. She is the ice queen...until she's struck by lightning. The strike deprives her of simple things she never knew she'd miss. This deprivation begins melting her heart of ice and she travels slowly back to place where it's okay to feel - both the good and the bad - where her wishes don't hurt anyone anymore.

The most interesting aspect of Hoffman's writing style in this books is the level of uncertainty it imbues. Say you don't believe in magic - you read this story and you just can't believe a person's wishes can have any real affect. There's enough reality laced within the magic of the story where it's entirely plausible to blame circumstantial evidence on our narrator's delusions. Yet, there's a lot a lot of magic just sitting throughout the story for those with a more mystical mind to grab. Hoffman never tells you which it really is; the choice is up to you. Truth is, fantastical things are out there and they don't have to have an explanation. You have to decide what you believe in, and it's nice to see this truth mirrored in the story.

Through death, love, loneliness, pain, pleasure, and the varied side effects of surviving a lightning strike, Hoffman weaves the tale of one woman's journey to learn how much basic things in life will be missed when you give them up and how great it feels once you allow them to return.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson

This book is more than just a memoir of one person's life, it's an homage to a decade (the 1950's) and a place (Des Moines, IA) where life was simpler for the average kid and fun had to be searched out rather than watched on TV. Bryson focuses on the 1950's, his early childhood, by placing historical context around his personal anecdotes. Although too young at the time to really experience the significant historical moments of the 50's, Bryson reflects, as an adult, on events like the Cuban Missile Crisis as he tells us what Little Bill was up to at the same moment in time.

Throughout a slightly off-kilter childhood (as interpreted by the author,) Bryson assumes the alter ego of The Thunderbolt Kid. Inspired by an hold shirt discovered in his basement, The Thunderbolt Kid is capable of vaporizing his enemies with just a stare. The imaginative nature childhood Bill needed to create such a superhero is also prevalent in adult Bill's storytelling. Yes, his personal anecdotes are embellished - it's obvious that thinks like a boy's face getting smashed completely in by a basketball didn't actually happen - but in such a creative and descriptive way that the anecdotes don't lose their sense of reality.

Like all Bryson narratives, Life and Times is an extremely entertaining book that not only tells a story, but teaches the reader a dew things as well. Bryon's insight into his own childhood, Middle-America, and the history of a Communist-crazed decade all combine to paint a detailed pictures of a long-gone way of life. The simpler times of the 1950's have given way to so much flurried action and over-stimulation; it was refreshing to visit a time period unlike any I've personally known. It also felt good to laugh out loud at a book, which I did plenty. How can you not laugh about the jars young Bill would "toity" into in the kitchen because the bathroom was too far away?

Monday, January 4, 2010

Cosmos by Carl Sagan

I've been aware of Carl Sagan for most of my adult life, but until I read 'Cosmos' I"ve never actually read anything that he's written. This was a huge oversight on my part. 'Cosmos' is one of those books that will change your entire perspective on humanity. I rank this book up there with Bill Bryson's 'A Short History of Nearly Everything' and Stephen Hawking's 'A Brief History of Time' which are two of my favorite non-fiction books of all time.

'Cosmos' is a book about the universe, the history of human understanding of the universe, and speculation about humanity's place in the universe. These are very deep concepts, but Sagan approaches them in a way that is both accessible and inspiring. He talks about these concepts with a sense of awe and reverence that inspires wonder in the reader.

It's easy to feel overwhelmed when reading about the vastness of the universe; after all we're quite isolated over here in our arm of the Milky Way. We're floating through space on a ball of dust and we have no idea if anyone else is out there, but Sagan makes this intense isolation feel like it's just temporary; after all, we're only now taking our first steps into the universe. In 'Cosmos' Sagan demystifies the universe and our place in it for the average reader.

Carl Sagan has a deep respect for the human species and he has an amazing ability to make you feel impossibly important and incredibly insignificant at the same time. 'Cosmos' whet my appetite for more Sagan. This is a great book; definitely a must read for anyone interested in astronomy, but also a great book for anyone who likes to ponder things that are a little bigger than reality TV and celebrity gossip.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Dracula Dossier by James Reese

The Dracula Dossier presents a possible reality where author Bram Stoker could have derived his inspiration for Dracula. It's a fictionalized reality full of historically accurate people, relationships, and events. A Gothic mystery complete with ancient Egyptian deities, animal sacrifices, possession, and murder.

The story is told through letters, newspaper clippings, and Bram Stoker's journal. All three elements nicely combine to present a complete record of events for the reader. Stoker takes great pains to use his journal as a place to record events as they were witnessed rather than incorporate a lot of personal observations and speculations. Because of this, the reader can feel like their getting an account of something that actually happened (which it could have) rather than a story.

The initial motive of the book is to open a window into the life of Bram Stoker. We learn of him through his own words and actions. We meet his family and his closest of friends. We get to see what his day job in the theater was like. Reese, however, inserts a secondary story by setting this window up against the murderous escapades of Jack the Ripper. What if Bram Stoker was somehow involved in that great mystery? What if he played a role in Jack the Ripper's own tale? So little is known about what actually happened during these murders, that the time period is ideal for speculation. Jack the Ripper could have tormented people beyond those he murdered - and Bram Stoker could have easily come into contact with such an insane murder.

I found this story engaging and fully-developed. All the characters felt as real in this scenario as they would in their own autobiographies (and they almost all existed.) Using real events and real people to generate a fictionalized story about what might have happened during a famous time in London's history brings this period to life in an extremely tangible way while treating the reader to "inside" information about a well-known author. The Dracula Dossier is a suspenseful novel much like an adventure of Sherlock Holmes' only Reese never disproves the fantastic with science, leaving the reader to decide on their own what might have really happened.