Category Archives: Book Review

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Book Review – Annihilation

Category : Book Review

Author: Jeff VanderMeer

Year: 2014

I first heard of Annihilation as a film, to be released this coming February.  You can watch the trailer here; it has a very unique sci-fi feel, but also seems like a combination of many others, so I’m interested to see how it will turn out.  The fact that it is written/directed by the creator of Ex Machina, Alex Garland, is reason enough to get me in the theatre to see it, so I’ll report back on the movie as soon as watch, and hopefully I’ll have great things to say.  Meanwhile, the original novel was a big hit when it was published, but I hadn’t read it, so I figured that was something I should remedy before the film is released next year.  I was not disappointed in the quality of the book, as I can often be when reading something from a Bestsellers list; sometimes I don’t see eye to eye with the general populace.  But in this case, I thought Annihilation was an excellent read, an incredible story, and just another reason to anticipate the film version.

A biologist sets out, with a team of other women, into an uncharted zone called Area X, a place where teams of scientists and soldiers have been sent many times, with varying but always concerning results.  Once across an obscure border, life changes, and perceptions cannot always be trusted.  The members of the team all have different objectives, may have had different training, and are all hypnotized in order to acclimate themselves the this strange Area.  But nothing inside makes sense, no descriptions could possibly have prepared them for what they are about to witness, or how the very landscape will alter their reality.  There is an inverted tower that beckons them to come within, there is an abandoned lighthouse that calls them to explore, there is a marsh that holds creatures that are far too human, and there is a life force in the air they breathe whose presences will have unpredictable consequences.

I’ve read the book and I still couldn’t tell you what it’s really about, and you know, that’s OK.  It might not be for everyone, a story that makes absolutely no sense, and not even the characters know what the hell is going on, all they can share with you are their ridiculous theories.  But I can appreciate a little obscurity in my life, not every novel/film has to spell it out for me, I am allowed to think through the point and come to my own conclusions.  Now, we should look to the author, we should attempt to divine what they intended, but we can lead ourselves, it’s OK to still wonder when you come to the end instead of definitely knowing.  Annihilation is a book that won’t answer your questions, it will only ask more, but it can still be an enjoyable piece of literature.  I was thoroughly entertained by it, even as I stumbled along beside the characters, as I went on a journey with them that made no sense.  It was fascinating, open-ended, scary at times, odd at others, but always engaging, like a sci-fi plot should be.  I only hope that the movie captures the same sentiment, because I know how Hollywood likes to do it, and I don’t have a ton of faith that they won’t screw it up.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – Ready Player One

Category : Book Review

Author: Ernest Cline

Year: 2011

Steven Spielberg will make this book into a movie next year, and it’s easy to see why.  It’s not the dystopia, although that has proved to be a genre that audiences just eat up.  And it’s not the writing, more on that later.  It’s the 80s nostalgia, something that Hollywood understands we can’t get enough of right now, as GenXers turning 35 head to the theatre, and can’t stop themselves from watching their childhood favorites redone.  They aren’t always good, but that hardly matters; we want the Ghostbusters to return, we want to see Transformers again, we easily fell in love with Stranger Things, and we’d give our left hand to see 80s goodness brought to our screens like a cornucopia of delights for our senses.  That’s what Ready Player One does on the page, that’s what Spielberg with do in March, and it hardly matters that the source material is 40 years old and the novel that is supposed to make our dreams come true absolutely, shockingly sucks.

In the near future, the world will run out of energy, our population will explode beyond containment, governments will collapse, food will become scarce, but life will still grind on, even if happiness no longer seems an attainable goal.  The only bright spot of this grimy picture is James Halliday and his wondrous creation, OASIS.  It’s a virtual world in which anything is possible, where kids can go to school, where the crafty can make a real buck, where you can live out your wildest fantasy while your actual body stays in the common city slums.  Everyone uses OASIS, and when Halliday dies without an heir, he announces through video that one user will become the owner of the entire company, an overnight billionaire.  But first you have to win the game that he created, a test of sorts with multiple levels, terrible bosses, and puzzles galore.  It’s based on the 80s, Halliday’s favorite era, and you’ll have to know its pop culture history front and back if you’re to have a chance at winning the greatest prize in the universe, and the chance to completely change your life.

We are told the story through the eyes of Wade Watts, a young and penniless gunter, which is an OASIS user who is completely devoted to the 80s and to solving Halliday’s mystery.  Wade lives in Oklahoma City and then in Columbus, OH, but most of the action takes place in OASIS, so we see him through his avatar and we don’t really know the true identities of the people he meets.  First, let me say that the 80s element is fantastic.  References galore, trivia overloads, flashbacks around every corner; it’s pretty magical.  If you like 80s movies, you’re in for a treat, and there is also music, anime, D&D, video games, whatever you liked as a kid you’ll find on these pages.  And the technology that Cline invents is pretty amazing, this entire world where anything is possible, and it’s pretty believable that we could actually get to that point some day.

But, as much as it pains me to say, because I so enjoyed the nostalgia, this book is horrendously written.  It’s like a 12-year-old won a contest with a really good story and for some reason it was published where actual adults could read it and expose it for what it is; amateur.  Cline falls back on every cliche, his dialogue is ridiculous, and I’m not sure there’s an ounce of literary talent on display here.  It’s a major let down, because you want to love the story so much, but remind yourself that it’s not your fault; a writer is supposed to be able to write, and Cline can’t, he can only imagine.  Still, I can’t steer you completely away, there’s too much to enjoy here, and the movie should be fun as well, though I worry it’ll be equally childish.

My rating: ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – Les Miserables

Category : Book Review

Author: Victor Hugo

Year: 1862

Perhaps the longest and most difficult read I’ve ever subjected myself to was Moby Dick, a monstrosity of a book that was not worth the time it took to slog through.  The author had talent, obviously, the story had depth, as you can imagine, but filling in the gaps with chapter upon chapter of whaling technique is not my idea of crafting a classic novel.  Les Miserables is similar in that it is extremely long, took me forever to read, and is laden with descriptions that you do not need.  It does differ on one account though; it is amazing.  Les Mis is one of the best books I have ever read, despite its obtuse use of much of its length for pointless purposes.

Jean Valjean, the man, the criminal, the savior, is the lead character in this epic tale, a story that spans decades and illustrates the history of France as a backdrop upon which remarkable citizens’ shadows are cast.  Valjean spent many years in prison for petty thievery, plus time for multiple escape attempts.  When he is finally released, he quickly steals again, but this time a holy man offers to buy his life for God, delivering Valjean from his sinful nature.  This creates a colossal shift in our hero, and as the years pass he devotes himself to the light.  When a young woman under his charge dies, leaving a helpless daughter behind, Valjean abandons all other responsibilities to find the girl and provide her will all she needs, all the while dodging the law that will forever be on his tail, as the country around him burns with poverty and with revolution.

Sometimes ‘classic’ can mean ‘boring’, and in the case of Moby Dick I’d say that’s absolutely right.  But with Les Mis, taking out the unnecessary quarter of the book, action is around every corner, and life-altering choices are made in the blink of an eye.  Those may be my favorite parts; when Valjean takes an entire chapter to make the “right” decision, and then in one sentence does the complete opposite because he can’t help himself.  Hugo wrote these characters to be as human as you can possibly make them without breathing actual life into their two dimensional forms.  He made them lift off the page, delight readers, and inspire us to be better.  Some of the funniest lines I’ve read were written 150 years ago, and translated from French, which is simply amazing, and so unexpected from a book that is so wordy and so dense.  The descriptive parts, when he takes 20 pages to explain Paris sewer systems, those I could do without, but they almost made the rest even better by comparison.  Real wit, incredible philosophy, timeless characters; I have now seen the play, seen the movie, listened to the soundtrack a hundred times, and read the original, unabridged material, never tiring of one of the greatest stories ever told.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – It

Category : Book Review

Author: Stephen King

Year: 1986

As you may know, Stephen King is my favorite author, and although I know that isn’t an extremely original choice, I’ll defend my love for his books to the last breath.  He’s so much more than a horror writer, his stories have a depth that is quite literally genius.  You can read them for the surface scares, or you can look for the meanings hidden within the characters.  And then you can also, if you read enough, connect the tales to one another until you enter a wonderful, frightening universe that is as magical as it is well-written.  When the movie version of this book was approaching, I knew I had to read it, since it was one of the very few of his that I had never sat down for.  It’s over 1000 pages, perhaps that’s why I shied away, but it’s also not that great, which is a good reason for you to do the same.

Derry, Maine, a town with more deaths than average and a spooky way of immediately forgetting those who die.  Every 27 years, give or take, an evil rises from the underground water systems to kill children and eat their bodies, minds, souls, and fears.  This power, It, feeds for a year, and then disappears back underground, only to repeat the cycle.  Adults don’t notice It, they forget the carnage, but kids can feel the darkness, and they know their town isn’t safe.  A group of seven children, the Losers Club, are determined to destroy It, who takes the form of a clown but who can also change to be whatever you are afraid of.  In a parallel story, the seven, who are now grown, begin to understand that they didn’t finish the job the first time, that they’ll have to go back to Derry together to rid the world of this sickness once and for all.

So much to discuss, so few ways to make it clear without putting the book in your hands and talking to you some months later.  It’s both actually long and feels very long, it took me a while to get through.  One reason is that nothing happens.  With the two stories occurring at the same time, it’s 800 pages in before the kids start understanding what to do and the adults start getting ready to repeat what they tried 27 years ago.  There’s much too much character development, which sounds like a stupid critique, but we don’t need chapters of every person’s exploits, both when they were young and when they’re grown, over and over and over, especially when none of them are really that exciting.  King goes long-winded, which is not like him, and it doesn’t work, as is does so well in The Stand.

The book does draw heavily from metaphors and allusions, which is great, letting the reader figure out for themselves what It is, what Derry represents, what each child fears, how adulthood and childhood are compared and contrasted.  It’s a well-written book, I won’t tell you it’s not, but it’s just not one that is worth the extreme effort.  I have to mention one more thing, which is the under-aged group sex scene.  It’s at the end, and I can understand why; I think some people would have put the book down were it to happen at the beginning.  It’s inappropriate, I don’t know why it’s a part of the story, six 11-year-olds having sex with one girl in the sewers can’t possibly be the only way to make whatever point King was trying to make, and I’m glad they decided to settle for a kiss in the movie.  The film takes the horror elements and leaves behind the deeper themes, so pick up the book if you’re curious, just know it isn’t King’s best work.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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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: ☆ ☆ ☆