Category Archives: Book Review

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Book Review – Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

Category : Book Review

Author: Robert C. O’Brien

Year: 1971

The Rats of NIMH is a beloved book from my childhood, one that I have made sure to pass down to my children.  Its simple story and wonderful characters are just perfect for kids, and I enjoyed reading it aloud, so I can attest that it also isn’t too childish for adults. How many books can boast the same; that they hold up over the decades, can be enjoyed by all ages, and leave such a lasting impression in the hearts of their audience?  NIMH is a very special classic, and I know I have a weakness for books about animals (Watership Down, Where the Red Fern Grows), but I can’t imagine anyone taking the short time to enjoy this world and walking away without a smile on their face.

Mrs. Frisby needs to move her family into their summer home, because Mr. Fitzgibbon’s plow is coming, and their cinder block house in the garden won’t survive such a thrashing.  The Frisbys are mice, and they live in the farmer’s field during the winter, moving into a lovely hole by the brook when the weather warms.  But this time, they can’t move now that the time has come, because their frailest member, Timothy, is sick again, and can’t go out of doors in the chill or he might die.  Mrs. Frisby, unsure of what to do and missing her late husband ever so much, seeks advice from a wise, old owl, who tells her to go to the rats in the rose bush. These rats know things that other animals do not, are advanced in a way that defies nature, and their story is one that Mrs. Frisby needs to hear, both because it might save her son and because it concerns the death of his father.

This book is so simple, so lively, so clean, and I could read it a hundred times.  You instantly fall in love with Mrs. Frisby and her tenacity, desperately wishing that all her adventures come complete with happy endings.  And she meets so many interesting animals on her way toward the truth about the rats: Jeremy the crow, the ancient owl, Justin the captain of the guard, Nicodemus the leader, Mr. Ages the healer.  Half of the book is set in real time, half is an explanation of how things came to be, and it’s this combination that makes this story so wonderfully interesting.  Kids will follow along breathless, adults will appreciate the deeper themes, and The Rats of NIMH will stay with you long after you put it down.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – The Zookeeper’s Wife

Category : Book Review

Author: Diane Ackerman

Year: 2007

In this case, I saw the movie before I read the book, when it’s usually the other way around.  I heard WWII and the Warsaw Ghetto and my interest was piqued; I’ve always been fascinated by the time period, and its stories move me.  Now, I’m not alone in that, Hollywood knows that we’re desperately drawn to the Holocaust, that they can give us any taste and we will eat it up.  This isn’t merely morbid, I believe that we are legitimately and rightly haunted by what the Nazis did, that we may never fully move past it, though it may not have directly affected our lives.  This book tells a tale that everyone should know, one of hope amid madness, something to cling to when so much from this time period is simply ugly.

Jan & Antonina Zabinski ran the Warsaw Zoo in the 1930s, as war approached their city and their animals.  Hitler was stretching his arms, reaching for whatever he could pull to his vile bosom, and Poland was next.  The Nazis bombed the city to rubble, took control, forced every Jew into one neighborhood, and began ruling with an iron fist.  The Zabinskis survived as they could, protecting their animals as much as was possible, shipping the rest away to other zoos, mostly in Germany.  But with their occupation gone came a void that was to be filled with a much more important task.  They began to host “guests” from the Ghetto, Jews who would live quietly with them for a time before being sneaked away in the countryside.  They saved hundreds of lives by opening their doors, though their own lives were in jeopardy the entire time, right under the nose of the German army.

It’s a hell of a true story, one that gives you some hope in humanity.  Not Jewish themselves, the Zabinskis weren’t content to sit the war out, they wanted to help, they needed to save as many as they could, and so they hid people in the very cages of their zoo, when one wrong word over the course of years would have meant the deaths of dozens in the household.  This kind of bravery can’t be overstated, and they deserve every honor they have received as they go down on the right side of history.  The book is written in a very strange manner, especially at the beginning, weaving together many different points of views: actual history, Antonina’s diary, musing on what actually occurred, and pure fiction.  But as the book progresses, we delve into the history of the city even more, the Zabinskis becoming our guides in a way, even more than they are main characters.  It’s fascinating stuff, some hard to accept, like the pure numbers of the Ghetto Jews and the unspeakable evil that was brought down upon them.  For those interested in this time period, I highly recommend this novel; it weaves non-fiction with fiction very well, especially after a start that is bumpy at best, but quickly smooths out into high-quality storytelling.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – Stranger in a Strange Land

Category : Book Review

Author: Robert A. Heinlein

Year: 1961

Stranger in a Strange Land is one of the strangest books I have ever read, and I don’t even wince at the banality of using that word to describe this novel because it fits so impeccably well.  It’s also one of the most popular science fiction stories ever read, as well as an incredibly controversial one.  I actually nearly gave it up about half way though, deciding that it was as stupid as it was boring, as poorly written as it was thoughtless and pointless.  But I stuck with the characters a little longer, and I’m glad I did.  SIASL might take its time to develop into something important, to show us that it has something to say, but patience will be paid in full, if you can open your mind to something both bizarrely abstract and somehow decidedly brilliant.

Valentine Michael Smith, the first human born on Mars.  Raised by Martians as well, he’s entirely of that planet, except in the most basic biological sense, and he’s just come to Earth on an order from the Martians themselves.  His role as envoy is unspecific, as is his place in modern, human society, a global construct that has survived a third World War and is run by a world government and large religious organizations.  Due to be awarded the planet of Mars and all its wealth because of his birthright and a unique set of legal circumstances, Smith’s very life is in danger, although he would say himself that he does not fear to discorporate.  He befriends a nurse name Jill, she smuggles him out of captivity, and with the help of the immensely wealthy Jubal Harshaw, the pair find love and happiness together, as they explore the boundaries of culture, religion, sex, the afterlife, and human understanding.

It’s wild the amount of ground covered by this book, from what happens after we die to why we need to wear to clothes.  It’s a sexually freeing tale, which is why it was so controversial in the 60s, painting communal and carnal freedom as a wonderful way of life.  It’s not just about sex though, the book delves into some very deep chasms of thought; political, moral, societal, theological, you name it.  That can be overwhelming, especially at first, and especially combined with the large amount of dialogue, most of which seems absolutely ridiculous and flippant.  But the point is coming, or perhaps the points, if you can just hold out until the end.  Heinlein develops a unique language of sorts (do you grok it, water brother?), that has found its way into the English language and will remain in my mind forever, akin to King’s Dark Tower parlance.  There’s no arguing this book’s impact, staying power, or conversation-fueling ability, and it will remain one of the most powerful sci-fi novels ever written; whether you can bring yourself to actually like it is a horse of a different color.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – Ishmael

Category : Book Review

Author: Daniel Quinn

Year: 1992

Ishmael is my favorite book.  I also think of it as the most important book ever written, something that every single one of us needs to read and attempt to understand.  That might sound lofty or over-dramatic, and I understand that it won’t affect everyone in the same way that it impacts me, but I stand by this story; it has more meaningful insight than any religious book in existence.  When I read it post-high school, it really did change my life, or perhaps more accurately, it opened my eyes to truths I hadn’t even considered before.  And after all these years, I have always been able to go back to it as a foundation for my belief set, something refreshing when the world becomes too heavy.  Again, perhaps this sounds grandiose, but I challenge you to read this book and find out for yourself.

Our narrator begins by throwing a newspaper in the trash, destroying it because it had the audacity to run an advertisement seeking an individual with an earnest desire to “save the world”.  This was so insulted because, simply, that’s exactly what he had always wanted to do, but could never find a way or means or inspiration to do before.  Making the short trip downtown in order to debunk this guaranteed fraud of a teacher seeking a gullible pupil, our narrator is instead shocked to find a live, giant, male gorilla behind glass waiting to instruct him on the intricacies of evolution and the destiny of mankind.  What follows is a discourse that will change lives and a development of a philosophy that will ring shockingly true.

Yes this book moved me (and still does), yes it’s about a man talking to an ape about the flaws of modern civilization, but what is it about exactly, and why should you read it?  That’s hard to explain without just saying “you’ll see”, but I’ll try my best.  The novel is written in the Socratic style, a teacher & a pupil discussing a topic in logical progression so that each piece makes sense in order in tandem.  And the topic of discussion is nothing less than the reason for life, man’s purpose on the planet, and how quickly we will destroy ourselves if we continue to live as if we are more important than every other species on the planet.  Heavy stuff, but you will find yourself nodding along, saying far too often, “well huh, that’s right, why haven’t I ever thought of it that way before?”  Please read if you are up to the challenge of reframing some popular concepts, of examining the constant cultural hum that rings in our ears as possible myth instead of definite truth.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – Wildwood

Category : Book Review

Author: Colin Meloy

Year: 2011

Colin Meloy is the lead singer of The Decemberists, an indie rock band from Portland, Oregon who won me over with Hazards of Love, a rock opera filled with maidens, fawns, forests, rakes, and drama.  That’s the band’s style, epic concept albums that are part great hall feast and part rock&roll, so if that’s something that sounds cool and you haven’t come across them before, you’re welcome.  Anyway, Meloy also writes children’s fantasy in his spare time, pumping out a hefty trilogy of Wildwood books because, you know, some people are annoyingly talented like that.  His books are as weird and wonderful as his music, filled with challenging vocabulary, grand themes, and colorful characters.  What more could you ask for, in story or in song.

One gray day in Portland, Prue is out for a bike ride to the park with her much-younger baby brother Mac, when a murder of crows swoops down, picks the tot up, and flies away with him into the Impassable Wilderness, a dense forest just outside the city.  Prue, completely shocked, goes after him, picking up a straggler along the way; her classmate Curtis, not exactly a friend, but a kid who is ready to help someone out, no matter the danger.  When the pair penetrate the wood, they soon discover that there’s another world hidden inside, kept safe from the Outsiders by a powerful spell.  How Prue & Curtis got in is a mystery, and what the complicated ex-Governess of South Wood Alexandra wants with Mac is a dark secret that will spark a war within the Wilderness.

I had to pause to pronounce words, I had to look things up, I had to read with care, and this is while telling the story aloud to my kids, not something that happens often when reading children’s literature, but also something that was refreshingly challenging.  Meloy has a talent for words and stories, there’s no doubt about that, and he shows it here like he shows it with his band.  Prue’s tale is really an awesome one, something that you can’t stop reading, as she is a character that you can’t help but root for.  What a great imaginary world, this secondary existence just outside our own, this whole other universe of magic and battle that we’re lucky we don’t slip into.  I’m ready to read the next two books if they are anywhere near as good as this one, and I have no doubt that they will be.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure

Category : Book Review

Author: Kathleen N. Daly

Year: 1977

This is really a book/movie review, as this short novel is an adaptation of the screenplay for the film of the same name.  The movie was done the same year, here’s a link to its IMDb page, and you can treat this review as basically a summary of both the book & the film.  I haven’t seen the movie in years, though I just read the book to my kids, and I actually have an interesting link to these projects.  My wife’s grandfather, Albert Rezek, was the cameraman in charge of the animation.  He shot the cells, and we actually have some of the original drawings that were created for the film.  So there’s my connection to this story, and my reason for watching/reading something that is basically unknown otherwise, but should really be revisited as the trippy, retro classic it is.

Raggedy Ann and her brother Raggedy Andy live in Marcella’s room, and they couldn’t be happier.  All the toys take Marcella’s happiness as their #1 priority, moving around when she is gone but otherwise remaining perfectly still, giving themselves up entirely as playthings for the enjoyment of a child.  But when Marcella receives a fancy birthday present from an aunt, the dolls’ lives will be thrust off track.  The gift is a fancy doll from France named Babette, and when the captain of a ship in a snow globe sees her, he falls instantly in love.  He captures Babette, escapes the playroom, and is off into the wide world.  It’s up to Ann & Andy to get them back, return the room to normal, and start making Marcella happy again, which is all they really care about.

I remember the Raggedies from my childhood, though I never watched this movie as a kid.  It wasn’t until my wife showed it to me later that I was introduced to this exact story, but I recall the dolls fondly, and now my kids will as well.  The story is a wild one, though it starts out so plainly.  It’s not until the dolls reach the outside world that things really get crazy, but crazy they get, and fast.  Blue camels, insane monarchs, giant gloops of fudge & sweets, giggling knights, a sea monster with a hundred arms; you can tell this was made in the 70s.  It’s silly, trippy, unusual, but lots of fun.  The movie is a musical with a whole slew of songs, the book is more of a bare bones quick read, so enjoy both or either at your leisure; they aren’t masterworks by any stretch, but both are pure entertainment.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆

 


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Book Review – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Category : Book Review

Author: Douglas Adams

Year: 1979

Originally a radio comedy series by the same name, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘s origins explain a lot; for starters, why it isn’t very good.  Douglas Adams’ book is highly regarded in its genre, a comedic benchmark and a novel that has spawned many offshoots in many forms of media.  It’s the first of a six-part “trilogy”, and acts as an introduction to a collection of characters who will go on to many other adventures.  But, and I feel slightly alone holding this opinion, it’s not a strong enough book to warrant reading any more.  It reads as an adaptation of something better, even a failed grasp to snatch ideas away from others, and is never funny in the way it was originally intended.  Suffice it to say, I was completely disappointed in this novel, a humorous take on sci-fi philosophy that I had high hopes for based on its fame, but which ultimately left me utterly unsatisfied.

Arthur Dent is a quiet Brit who lives by himself, never harming a fly, never experiencing anything unexpected; until the day his home is slated to be bulldozed, his only friend reveals that he’s an alien, and a group of intergalactic marauders destroy the Earth as part of a space-paving project.  Not the greatest day, but at least Dent survived, with the help of Ford, his odd mate who is actually from another planet and who aids in the development of the galaxy’s greatest guide.  Together, Dent & Ford hop a ride aboard a spaceship, ready to head out on more adventures.  But by a strange trick of probability, there are beamed aboard the Heart of Gold, a ship that can contort chance.  They meet Zaphod, the President of the Galaxy, his partner Trillian, and a grumpy robot named Marvin, a trio who will now join the team as more wacky journeys commence.

As a huge fan of Kurt Vonnegut, I found Adams’ novel to be a cheap copy of Vonnegut’s work, especially The Sirens of Titan, which was published 10 years prior.  Adams injects absurdism instead of socialism, but his novel is too familiar, and his style is something I’ve read better elsewhere.  Hitchhiker’s is all over the place, literally, and never comes together to make any single point, relying solely on the hope that readers will be amused enough to keep reading.  Well, I wasn’t really, but the book was short enough to make it through.  I didn’t find it smart, interesting, or important, rather a farce that has no place being called science fiction.  I understand that it was supposed to be silly, but I see nothing in its favor beyond that, and I can’t understand why it receives so much acclaim.  Do yourself a favor and check out Vonnegut instead; his novels are unusual as well, but have very clear & fascinating messages that are actually worth your time.

My rating: ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – Narnia Series Part 1

Category : Book Review

Author: C.S. Lewis

Year: 1950, 51, & 52

There are two sides to the argument over how to read Lewis’ iconic collection of books: in release or chronological order.  He wrote the seven books, one per year, from 1950 to 1956, starting with Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe and ending with The Last Battle.  But in the middle are several stories displaced in time, a prequel, a side quest, until the Narnian chronology becomes mixed up.  So, do you read his books in the order in which he wrote them or do you read them in the order in which they take place in this magical world?  I think the answer is quite simple; it doesn’t matter.  As I read these marvelous books to my children, I will read them in the order Lewis created them, but if I ever read them aloud again I’d probably go for chronological order.  These are great stories no matter in what manner they are enjoyed, books that demand a reread right after you finish, classics that will be a part of your shelves forever.

I consider the first three that Lewis wrote to be Part 1 of the entire set: Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, and Dawn Treader.  These three all include the Pevensie children, their growth in our world and their adventures in Narnia.  In LW&W, the four siblings (Peter, Susan, Edmond, Lucy) reach a fantastic land through a forgotten wardrobe, allying themselves with the great Lion Aslan against the evil White Witch.  In Prince Caspian, the children return to Narnia, where many years have passed, to aid a young prince in his fight against his tyrannical uncle Miraz.  And in Dawn Treader, Edmund & Lucy, along with their cousin, accompany Caspian on a voyage over the sea to discover uncharted islands and find a lost crew of lords.  This trio of books denotes two eras of Narnia and the exciting events of the lives of the amazing Pevensies.

I can recall reading these stories when I was young, over & over again until I knew them by heart.  They are quick & easy, fun to blast through, and always entertaining to both children & adults.  But they are also laden with meaning, both Christian and pagan, based on ancient lore, and full of the myths are world is based upon.  Read from a Christian perspective, since Lewis was that, obvious parallels emerge, but the stories can be enjoyed by those who are non-religious as well.  It’s a beautiful world that he created, with colorful characters and adventures that will never grow old.  These three books are the strongest, I believe, setting the stage for the rest but never being outdone by those to come.  Read these classics to yourself or to your children, and then go back years later to revisit old friends; this series is special in that way, allowing us to travel to Narnia whenever we want and as often as we can.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – Ender Series Part 1

Category : Book Review

Author: Orson Scott Card

Year: 1985 & 1986

Card recognizes that Speaker for the Dead is a sequel, but wants his audiences to know that it didn’t begin that way, nor does it need to be read that way.  Ender’s Game is the first novel of Card’s famous sci-fi series, but Speaker is the real meat of the impressive quartet.  These first two books introduce us to the world of Ender, his boy- and manhood, and many more novels have been written to flesh out this universe.  But Speaker is one of the best books that I have ever read, a true stand-out space odyssey epic that I’d read any mediocre book in order to experience.

In Ender’s Game we meet young Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, an oddity in that he’s a Third child, a genius at the age of six.  Earth in Ender’s time is still reeling from a war with the Buggers, preparing for another battle, and recruiting children to guard the world against impending invasion.  Speaker for the Dead finds Ender dealing with a second alien species, the Piggies, attempting to bring these creatures into the fold of modern existence without erasing their unique attributes.  Ender, as a figure, represents both terrible evil & ultimate good, traveling the universe is search of a legacy that he can be proud of.

Card wrote Ender only as a way to introduce readers to Speaker, to prepare them for the complicated themes of a deep, philosophical sci-fi adventure.  Therefor, the first book in this series isn’t incredibly strong in its own, but rather acts as a bridge to something much better.  The “sequel” is where Card’s talent is on display, where he creates an entire world and dares us to imagine how we would run it.  Speaker is an excellent early sci-fi read, channeling Le Guin, Asimov, & Clarke with every chapter.  It’s worth reading the first in order to get to the second, and even thinking of them as one story won’t hurt.  And ignore the movie version; it’s no good.  Stick to this quartet of books; the second pair I’m hoping will be as strong as the first, and perhaps eventually I’ll read the rest of the long series of stories.  Just make sure, if you’re a genre fan, you check out Speaker for the Dead; you won’t leave disappointed.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – The Shining

Category : Book Review

Author: Stephen King

Year: 1977

Knowing what we now know about Stephen King, having had the fortune to grow up as a reader of fiction with his books available, and having become accustomed to his presence in the world of pop culture, it’s rather shocking to look back on his early work & realize that it’s some of his very best stuff.  You’d think, as an avid King reader and as someone who claims him as their favorite author, that I would expect genius in every novel.  But even I can turn era-centric as it were, imagining that, apart from the most classic or classics, what authors churn out now must be better than what they churned out back in the day.  In other words, how can The Shining be better than The Gunslinger?  And yet it is, which shouldn’t be a surprise, but at least it’s also a pleasant one.

Jack Torrance is seeking a new beginning.  After an abusive incident reminded him how fragile his family life was, after a drunken night put him on the road to sobriety, and after a violent outburst lost him a promising job, Jack knows he only has one shot left to get it right before his tapestry unravels.  So he takes work halfway across the country, at a hotel called the Overlook in Colorado, as the winter caretaker during the offseason.  Jack will have time to work while he’s snowed in, can finally finish his play, and just might center his mind in a productive way for the first time in a decade.  Along with him come his wife Wendy & his son Danny, the latter of which has an odd ability to find lost things, pick up on emotional cues, and understand themes way beyond his age level.  But when Danny meets Dick, the Overlook’s chef, and is warned to stay away from certain rooms and to mentally call for help is anything goes wrong, the stage seems set for a season that’s far from quiet, and a family vacation that is anything but idyllic.

It’s not just an earlier work, but the third novel King ever wrote, coming after Carrie and Salem’s Lot.  He sees the novel as a turning point in his career, a story that forced his hand, a crossroads at which he had to choose to keep writing scary stories or start writing scary stories with a whole basement full of ghosts, both metaphorical & literal.  The Shining provides this magical formula, something that King has since become a master of reproducing.  His horror stories appeal to the masses because they’re gruesome, but they also appeal to a group of us because they are incredibly & unconventionally deep.  They mean much more than they say, can haunt not just your dreams but your waking thoughts as well.  The Shining is the perhaps the best example of this and the very first time King turned his talent into genius.  The story is rich, the characters are complex, the action is swift, and yet the plot is so very simple.  Thinking about it too hard will drive you mad, which I’m sure is the point, and yet you can’t stop yourself, you need to know why this book is seemingly speaking directly to you.  Surprisingly, this novel has very little actual horror in it; that’s because it only needs a dash, the psychological terror in the foundation is more than enough.  For those who love King and for those who don’t mind a challenging, emotional read, this book is definitely a must.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆