Category Archives: Book Review

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Book Review – Adam of the Road

Category : Book Review

Author: Elizabeth Janet Gray

Year: 1943

For anyone who has ever had an interest in medieval times and culture, especially in England, Adam of the Road is the perfect traveler’s guide as you explore the countryside in your mind and meet the people of the era through Elizabeth Janet Gray’s wonderful words.  It’s like stepping back in time and learning about everything you can touch and taste from a fellow adventurer who happens to have studied it all.  Because, not only does Gray write the tale so pleasantly, but she treats ever chapter as a learning experience for the reader.  I read this book to my children, which was my first time as well, and a more lovely tapestry has seldom been woven, a perfect mix between fiction and fact.

Adam is a minstrel’s son, which means the road is his home, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.  His father, Roger, travels the world with royalty providing them with music, stories, tricks, and entertainment, brightening up their lives when the halls are dark with winter.  He is rewarded quiet handsomely, recently with a horse called Bayard, and Adam is proud to be his son.  Adam has an animal all his own, a spaniel called Nick, who he loves with all his heart.  The foursome, two men and two beasts, travel and perform together, until a bet gone wrong changes things much for a worse.  A villain named Jankin, as sore a winner as he would have been a loser, takes Nick from Adam during the night in an inn on the road, running away like the thief he is.  So Adam and Roger set out to claim what it rightly theirs and to save a friend, beginning a journey both exciting and dangerous.

What a lovely story, and what an entertaining way to learn a thing or two.  I’ve always been fascinated by the Middle Ages; as a kid I had a Medieval Encyclopedia and would pore through it, reading every fact about every king and trying to imagine it all.  With Adam of the Road, you don’t have to imagine anything, Gray plunks you down in the middle of the life of a boy who you wish could be your friend and you travel with him, as he tries to set right what has gone so awfully wrong.  Adam is an exceptional character, one that I’ll remember forever, and I’m glad my kids got to meet him too.  Also, apart from the inherent beauty of the tale and its history, Gray writes in an awful lot of subtle humor, some of which only comes out if you read the book aloud, so gather up the family and tackle this wonderful tale together; you won’t be disappointed.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – The Lotus Caves

Category : Book Review

Author: John Christopher

Year: 1969

You may know John Christopher’s name in association with the Tripods Trilogy: The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead, The Pool of Fire.  It’s a sci-fi series that’s often read to or by kids in middle school who like the challenge of themes, allusions, critical thinking, and moving past the simpler books of grade level.  I was first introduced to it in a gifted classroom around 5th grade, and I will always remember the stories fondly, partly, I’m sure, because of the time period and my age, not solely because the novels are phenomenal.  I don’t, honestly, remember them extremely well, so I’ve borrowed the first from the library and am going to read them to my own children.  But I also grabbed The Lotus Caves, a book Christopher wrote directly after Tripods, and another I remember from school but couldn’t quite conjure its details.  After a revisit, I now remember the simple points the author was attempting to make, and the talent with which he was able to convey them to such a young audience in such a short time.

In the year 2068, humans are living on the Moon in a colony that provides resources down to Earth.  You sign on for a number of years, make a certain amount of money, and then you make the return journey, but your children are raised in a place that they will always remember as home.  All humans live in a dome called the Bubble, a place where nothing is wasted, most things are artificial, and there aren’t many variations or choices.  For Marty, especially when his best friend leaves to return to Earth, these restrictions chaff, and he longs to break a few rules, go out on his own, do something different, anything to break the monotony of life in the Bubble.  When he makes a new friend, Steve, they hatch an idea that will definitely get them into trouble but will sure be fun while it lasts.  They commandeer a land rover, taking it for a spin out on the surface, with the intention of coming right back once they’ve had their fun.  But the rover falls into a hole, which leads to a series of caves underground, and what they find living there goes beyond anything they could have imagined, and might not be willing to let them leave.

The Lotus Caves is definitely a book targeted at younger audiences, I’d say anywhere from 8-12 depending on reading level and comprehension, but it’s still an enjoyable read for adults as well, at least for those who remember Mid-Grade fiction fondly and don’t mind revisiting it sometimes.  The themes are really interesting: growing up, growing old, finding independence, loving something/someone more than yourself, parents, authority, even God.  There’s no lack of conversation embedded in this story, and I’m excited for my daughter to read it so that we can talk about what she thinks it means, since I know the points in novels often change as we ourselves change (look no further than The Giver for an example on that idea).  And as far as purely technical writing goes, Christopher exhibited talent with his followup to the series that will always define him, giving us a really solid piece of literature to share with the younger and remember as we get older.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – The Firefly Code

Category : Book Review

Author: Megan Frazer Blakemore

Year: 2016

My daughter read this novel and then recommended it to me, knowing that I love science fiction and also really enjoy dystopia.  This was one of her first real tastes of the genre, at least this large of an in-depth story about a world gone wrong and the questionable choices made to “fix” it.  I think she’s well on her way to being a sci-fi nerd too, and I’m very proud of that, but she definitely needs more experience with this style before completely judging the genre.  The Firefly Code is a good introduction to the concept, but isn’t ultimately very well written.  Standing alone, I can enjoy it for its amateur attempt at making a point, but compared to anything better it quickly falls flat and reveals that it was barely ever standing.

Mori lives in Old Harmonie, a community run by a giant corporation that takes care of its employees while the rest of the world staggers under the weight of disease, famine, and war.  On Firefly Lane, these problems seem worlds away, as they don’t reach past the fences of the utopia that has been built around the research that’s paving the way towards the future.  But when a new kid moves into the neighborhood, the delicate balance is threatened, once Mori and her friends realize that there is something decidedly different about this girl and the way her mind works.  In a bubble of new technology and genetic enhancements, you don’t have to worry about tomorrow, until it hits you with a force you were not prepared for.

I think you would call this level Middle Grade, which is a step down in age from Young Adult.  Maybe Hunger Games is Young Adult while Firefly Code is Middle Grade, I’m not sure, but that sounds about right, and it feels right as well, as this story never reads as adult or even teenager-y as some others.  Perhaps that’s why I didn’t love it; it was never made for me, and I need a little more from my dystopia than this novel had to offer.  Still, it’s the right level for a younger audience, and works as a solid introduction, but I wouldn’t recommend it quickly, nor would I say that it compares in the least to the classics of this genre, like The Giver or The White Mountains.  The writing was very juvenile, which is fine, but it was also amateur, which isn’t, Blakemore’s dialogue coming across as forced and plodding and without talent; maybe she’s a better conceptualizer than a presenter.  Regardless, her book worked, but barely, and it should only be used as a step in the right direction.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – The Passage

Category : Book Review

Author: Justin Cronin

Year: 2010

Dystopian sci-fi is so awesome that there are times when even a bad version of the tale we’ve come to love so much can dazzle us into thinking that it’s something good, can trick us into falling for a classic theme even if it’s written this time with no talent whatsoever.  Unfortunately, I think that’s the case with the first book of Justin Cronin’s Armageddon trilogy, The Passage, which takes all the elements readers want, delivers them to us on a silver platter, and fools us into not actually tasting what we hurriedly wolf down.  It’s only when you take your time to read that you begin to notice the imperfections and the lack of precise talent, reasons enough to not rate this novel highly, but perhaps not reason enough to stay away altogether.

After stumbling upon a strain of virus that changes its human host into something frighteningly different, the US government begins a secret program to perfect the disease, to force it to be beneficial instead of deadly.  Well, beneficial to the military at least, since the virus seems to create powerful beings who have left most of their humanity behind.  Tests begin on prisoners, but eventually a specific, clean specimen is needed, and that’s where Amy fits in.  This young girl has been highlighted as a candidate for the virus, and once she’s infected, the mission looks to be on its way to success.  But containment is a dream, disaster is a reality, and generations later mankind will still be living with the catastrophic choices of a few, as isolated societies struggle to survive an outbreak so violent that it almost wiped life from the face of the planet.

I was drawn in by the concept, which is part The Stand, part World War Z, part I Am Legend, all post-apocalyptic, and pretty freakin’ cool.  You won’t be disappointed by the set up or by the crafting of the world the characters find themselves in; there are more than enough details.  Honestly, there are probably too many, which is one major problem I had with the book.  Cronin takes a hundred pages to tell the origin story, then a hundred pages to introduce us to the future, then a hundred pages to tell us why the characters do what they do, and then hundreds more relating their adventures.  But he spends too much time on information we don’t need and not enough on the actual meat of the plot, skimming over the action because he simply doesn’t know how to relate it, he’d rather type out dialogue because that, at least, he knows how to work.  It’s obvious to me that Cronin isn’t as good as his idea, that the concept deserves more talent to bring it to life, that the only way to to fully enjoy this novel is to read it as fast of possible and hope you don’t notice the ingredients that have turned.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – On Chesil Beach

Category : Book Review

Author: Ian McEwan

Year: 2007

I picked up On Chesil Beach because the film version was coming out, and because I have read Atonement multiple times, a modern classic by McEwan that transports and stuns.  I didn’t figure Chesil Beach to be as strong as Atonement, and it wasn’t; that particular success was one in a million.  But this English writer has unmistakable talent, and an eye for dropping audiences into a situation that we wish we could fix, to stop the inevitable disaster that is about to occur.  He has a knack for putting us on the spot and making us feel helpless, while his characters spin out of control in a way that’s all too human.  That’s the basis of this story as well; men and women doing the one thing that should come most naturally to them, but losing their grip on the reins.

Florence and Edward have just been married; a young English couple of the 1960s who abide by the rules and expectations of that society, and are thereby  both terrified by sex.  On their honeymoon, alone together at last, they reflect on the steps that brought them to this point, and on a love for each other that can’t be denied, but may not have been thought through terribly thoroughly.  Florence has an aversion to anything sexual, and has never been comfortable with Edward when he awkwardly attempts any such thing.  Edward has been abstaining from self pleasure in order to fully enjoy this important moment, a decision that is bound to have disastrous consequences.  Neither can communicate their fears and desires to each other, being too proper for such a conversation, and so their fledgling marriage may not last the night.

The first thing I noticed about the book was the margins, and that was also the first warning sign.  The margins around the paragraphs were enormous, like the words were poetry set in the exact middle instead of a real narrative of a real story.  The book was short anyway, the type was large; the margins being so huge only told the reader that there wasn’t enough written to fill the page, or to warrant being called a novel.  It’s much more a novella, and I wish I had read it as such, as a part of a collection, or that the author had chosen a path.  Either flesh it out because it can support that or pare it down because it can’t; McEwan did the story a disservice by leaving it in the middle.  So it read strangely, without a real flow or cadence, and that was a big problem.  The end came suddenly and the summary of the characters lives after felt like it was thrown in; I think the book would have been stronger had it been chopped in half.  The first section was solid, I hope that is what’s turned into a movie, because that I want to see; the rest I could do without.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – Room

Category : Book Review

Author: Emma Donoghue

Year: 2010

Donoghue’s novel was adapted into the film Room in 2015, considered by many to be the second best film of the year behind Spotlight, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture.  Room was nominated for four Oscars, Brie Larson winning for Best Actress, so the movie version was a smash success.  I just got around to reading the book, which is based on real events around the globe, specifically a kidnapping case in Austria, while the movie is based in Ohio, where similar real events also took place.  The story is extremely sad, but ultimately hopeful, and the film did the novel justice, especially by sticking to the source material rather well.  But here’s a rare case where the movie is better than the book, the time restraints of cinema working in the plot’s favor instead of destroying its natural rhythm.

In a place called Room, Jack lives with his Ma. They and Old Nick, a man who comes at night sometimes, are the only people in existence. Everything else is just TV; animals, fancy foods, other humans. And outside Room is outer space, a vast sky of nothingness that, of course, isn’t safe. The things in the room are the only things that matter; Lamp, Bath, Sink, Wardrobe. This is Jack’s existence, and the locked door that Nick comes through might as well be a gateway to another dimension. Little does Jack know that he & his mother are captives in artificial space, that she once lived a normal life outside, and that Nick is not their friend. As times grow more desperate, Jack will be sent on a daring mission by his mother in order to earn their freedom, a quest that will take him outside for the first time, an event that will change his life forever.

Sometimes you like what you experience first when it comes to the book vs the movie, and sometimes one is simply better than the other.  In my experience, the novel is usually the better bet, but in this case the film outshone its inspiration, but that might be because the story was desperate to be shorter, not longer.  The first half of the book is inside Room, and that’s where it’s magic.  The writing works wonderfully from the perspective of a little boy, I love the use of his language, and you feel how trapped this pair is, one happily and one despondently.  It’s when they leave Room that the writing begins to feel tedious and unnecessary, like the point was already made and we don’t need to hear more.  The film was like that too; near perfect until Ma & Jack started living outside, by then it was time to wrap things up.  So the limitations helped the movie be better than the book, which started declining about halfway through and needed to be cut off sooner.  Still, it’s a powerful story and a well-orchestrated concept, a book club discussion read if ever there was one, and something I’m glad I picked up.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – Atonement

Category : Book Review

Author: Ian McEwan

Year: 2001

I committed the cardinal sin when it comes to Atonement; I saw the movie before reading the book.  But, in my defense, it was an Oscar-nominated movie, and I did go back and read the book after the fact.  This is actually my second time reading the novel; it was that good the first time around.  It’s one of those rare stories that was captured brilliantly by the film, most likely because it’s not too laden with action, relies heavily on the words, and so filmmakers don’t have to stuff it all into 90 minutes in the editing room.  It somehow works as wordy introspection in book-form and as quick simplicity in movie-form; maybe that just shows how great McEwan did with the writing, it doesn’t matter how you absorb this plot, it’s simply excellent it whatever form.

The story is presented in three acts, with a postscript to tie up the details.  All are excellent, but it’s the first part that sets the stage and the tone, that really feeds us the meat.  The Tallis family live on a beautiful estate in England without a care in the world.  Or at least, they did, before Hitler and his talk of war, but even that is somewhere in the near future, not in the present, which is a hot summer in the country.  Father is at work in the city, Mother is resting with one of her migraines, Leon, the eldest brother, is on his way home, Cecilia, the sister, is back from school, and Briony, the baby, is writing a play for the occasion.  Three cousins are come to stay pending their parents’ divorce, so the house is quite crowded and chaotic.  Briony happens upon three moments between Cecelia and Robbie, a young man whose mother is a servant, that will change the course of all their lives: an exchange by the fountain, a passed note, and a meeting in the library.  Briony’s childish assumptions surrounding these events will lead her to accuse Robbie of a crime later in the evening, sending all of their futures into a downward spiral that there is absolutely no stopping.

So part one is the introduction, but it’s about half the book, and contains most of the action.  Part two is focused on Robbie, part three is Briony grown a bit, and the postscript settles all accounts.  It’s a phenomenally written book, if a bit long-winded and British, if that makes sense, a sweeping melodrama about love and guilt and regret that isn’t exactly easy to read.  But it is beautiful to experience, there is so much more worth that work written here, so much to enjoy despite the melancholy.  Briony is a great character, Robbie allows us to see Dunkirk from an interesting angle, the end will make you weep bitterly when the author reveals the final truths of what happened that night in the country, and what has been ruined by it since.  Read with confidence, especially if you like this period, because you will feel transported there, even though the novel was written in modern times.  And check out the film as well, which is a strong representation of a stellar book.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Fourth Annual Collection

Category : Book Review

Editor: Gardner Dozois

Year: 2017

For my 34th birthday last year, a friend gave me the new Annual Collection book, with stories gathered by Gardner Dozois, which happened to be in its 34th addition, cool coincidence.  Dozois brings together the best short sci-fi of the year into one large volume, this time with thirty-nine different tales.  Dozois is a fine author himself (When the Great Days Come) and knows his sci-fi front & back, even editing the Asimov Science Fiction magazine for twenty years.  I almost wish I had read more of his novellas instead of those he gleaned over the course of the year, because what he selected was rather inconsistent.

Thirty-nine different stories from almost as many authors, with names like Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds leading the group.  The tales range in plot, world, and time, but all come from a love of science fiction and a passion for writing with pure imagination.  The ocean levels have risen, leading to floating cities all over the world.  Humans live on distant planets, homesteading in space like their ancestors did so long ago on Earth.  Sentient squids under miles of ice create their own society, and dream of what the sky might look like.  These and many others will ignite your curiosity and take you far away.

I always enjoy reading sci-fi shorts, it’s a fascinating way to be introduced to an idea or a technology in a small amount of time, to get a taste of what another world might look like, before launching into a new adventure.  Sometimes these stories don’t really have a ton of character and plot behind them, so a small sample is all we need to really be entertained.  The problem is that some of these authors aren’t the best, won’t compare to Asimov or Heinlein or Clarke or Le Guin, and so might put avid sci-fi readers off with their lack of pure talent.  It seemed that every other tale was lackluster, that the entire volume was hit or miss, with no consistency in quality.  But I guess that’s something you sign up for when reading an anthology; not every chapter will be your favorite.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – American Gods

Category : Book Review

Author: Neil Gaiman

Year: 2001

Neil Gaiman has a particular obsession with mythology, especially Norse mythology, and that interest is right up my alley.  I’ve always been fascinated with the gods, Greek and Roman, but also Norse, from the naming of our planets and days of the week to their archetypal appearance in so many of the fantasy books I read growing up.  And also, I was brought up religious, but have now turned that knowledge into an understanding of Christian mythology as well, how the stories we hear as children shape our belief systems, even if they are completely fabricated and unbelievable.  Gaiman swings for the fences with American Gods, an epic novel on the struggle to reconcile ancient traditions with modern technology, with a fantasy flare that will capture the imaginations of that genre’s nerd contingent.

Shadow counts down the days until he is released from prison for a petty crime gone wrong, until he can return to his loving wife Laura and the simple existence he knew before his giant mistake.  But he is let out early for a terrible reason; Laura has died, and Shadow is free to go, though now nothing waits for him back home.  Consumed by grief and the inability to see a future ahead, he runs into the same man twice, seemingly coincidentally, although Shadow will soon learn that there are no such things as chance encounters.  The man gives his name as Mr. Wednesday, and he asks for Shadow to work for him, to be his driver and right hand man, to stand his vigil if he is ever struck down, whatever that might mean.  A war is coming, and Wednesday is in the process of rounding up some very special people to fight on his side, people who aren’t exactly human, who have been biding their time for centuries, who are tired of the changing landscape of America and are ready to die to protect their legends.

I know a good bit about various mythologies, but even I had to reference some articles every now and then to keep the characters straight, to understand who they were in secret, behind the names they gave readers.  Just don’t find out too much, you wouldn’t want to spoil anything, because there are some twists in Shadow’s road, and the surprises are worth your time.  The novel is as well, a story that pulls from mythology, makes excellent observations on modern culture, and puts a fascinating figure forward as the main character, someone we can rely on, root for, and see ourselves in, no matter what awful decisions he is forced to make.  The book is definitely written in an unusual style, it takes some getting used to, but if you are brave enough to invest you will be rewarded with something special.  Gaiman is a ceaseless fountain of literature, but you may have heard of or read some of his major works: Neverwhere, Coraline, Odd and the Frost Giants.  Make sure to add American Gods to your book list if you’ve enjoyed those or any others from Gaiman; it’s his most adventurous and ambitious, and quite worth your time.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

 

 


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Book Review – Matilda

Category : Book Review

Author: Roald Dahl

Year: 1988

Since receiving a Roald Dahl box set of books as a gift, my family & I have been enjoying reading these classic novels together, and I have enjoyed revisiting stories I read & loved so many years ago.  Dahl wrote with such whimsy, combined with a darkness that’s always present, but with happy endings that make for fantastic fantasies.  Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and Fantastic Mr. Fox are some we’ve read together, and all are great stories made into good movies.  Here’s another in Matilda, a book with a sad element, an adventure unlike any other, and ultimately a pleasant finish that captures the imaginations of adults & children alike.

Matilda Wormwood doesn’t exactly fit into her family.  Her father is a ratty used car salesman, her mother only enjoys bingo, and her brother is simply following in the footsteps of his unimaginative parents.  Matilda loves books, and at an early age realizes that they are a way to transport her out of her stifling existence into lands of mystery and entertainment.  She can read books much over her level, Charles Dickens is her favorite, and even before she enters school she’s showing signs of incredible genius.  She can even move objects with her mind, a power she discovers when confronted by her terrible principle The Trunchbull, who is the exact opposite of Matilda’s sweet teacher Ms. Honey, the only adult who understands her aptitude.

This might not be my absolute favorite Roald Dahl story, mostly because it doesn’t exactly have an action-packed element like some of his others, but I enjoyed it all the same, a pleasant tale of a special child whose life is darkened by adults but whose destiny is much brighter.  Matilda is a great character, and her antics at school are the stuff of legend, as is the great Trunchbull, a demon of an educator who rivals the best villains of modern literature.  Dahl writes with such simplicity, you don’t get blindsided by surprises or twists, you simply sail along with events until you reach what is usually a happy ending.  Read for a nice time, share it with you kids, keep the magic alive.

My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆