Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Cat's Cradle

Title: Cat’s Cradle
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
List: #66 on Radcliffe’s Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading? Maybe.

Cat’s Cradle is a very pessimistic book. It does not have a clean, happy ending that solves all problems. Rather, the story builds and builds towards a very destructive conclusion. Even the pseudo-religion that permeates the book is not one of hope in the face of chaos. Instead, it offers mainly cynicism and even its founder states that all its principles are lies.

And yet, Cat’s Cradle was not a bad book to read. It flowed quickly through the very short (about two pages each) chapters and told a compelling story of the fictional co-creator of the atom bomb and his disregard for the effect of his inventions on anyone else. It also offered a good criticism of the arms race and the desire to get more and more destructive weapons without considering the consequences.

But for all that, I still found Cat’s Cradle pretty weird. And I don’t really think it is a must read. But it was okay. So maybe it is worth reading.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Wyrd Sisters

Title: Wyrd Sisters
Author: Terry Pratchett
List: #135 on BBC Top 200
Worth reading? Yes.

I think I have become a Terry Pratchett convert. I did not enjoy the first book of the Discworld series, The Colour of Magic, because I thought it had no plot. I enjoyed the next one I read, Mort, much more. And now, I can heartily recommend Wyrd Sisters. The book is goofy, light, and amusing. It is a great quick read that also doesn’t make you feel like you’re losing brain cells. In fact, Pratchett’s twisted logic makes you think just enough that your brain is slightly stimulated while still enjoying the light, airy read. And of course the humor makes the read quite worthwhile as well.

As for the plot, goodness, I barely know where to start. But again, and I think this is why I enjoyed this one and Mort more than The Colour of Magic, there is actually a plot. So the plot. Well, we’ve got a murdered king who turns into a ghost. The new king, and murderer, is going crazy with guilt (and helped along the way by the murdered king’s whisperings). The murdered king’s son is rescued by witches and given to a family of actors. The witches plot to restore order to the kingdom. And intertwined with all of this is the Fool. And hilarity ensues. Enjoy!

Also, because I talked about this in my Mort post, Wyrd Sisters is part of a third Discworld story arc, the “Witches” story arc. Again, it works very well as a standalone novel, but I’m curious to see how other novels in this story arc might build off the events in Wyrd Sisters.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Title: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Author: Zora Neale Hurston
List: #23 on Radcliffe’s Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading? Yes.

The most remarkable thing about this novel is the intense imagery that Zora Neale Hurston evokes with her use of language. Seemingly without effort, she paints a scene in a way you would not have thought possible but in a way that describes the emotions, like love, or the events, like a hurricane, perfectly. She also draws the reader into the scene by blending the dialect spoken by the characters with the standard English of the narrator. Although I originally found the dialogue difficult to read because I am used to reading very quickly, once I became accustomed to the rhythm of the dialogue I almost felt like I was sitting on the porch listening in on the conservation.

And that conversation told the story of how a woman found herself and learned to follow her heart. It is quite the feminist story. At first, the woman follows the advice of her grandmother, then her husband, then her second husband without taking the action her own heart demands. But in the end, she learns to do what is important to her and what is necessary for her own soul to thrive.

I am not sure I would have found this book on my own, so I am very glad it was included on one of the lists and I recommend reading it if you want something a bit different.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

In Cold Blood

Title: In Cold Blood
Author: Truman Capote
List: #53 on Radcliffe’s Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading: Not really.

In Cold Blood is a bit of an interesting choice for inclusion on Radcliffe Publishing Course’s list of Top 100 20th Century Novels because it is definitely not a novel. Instead, it is a “true crime” non-fiction celebrated as the first of the true crime genre. Perhaps Radcliffe included the book on its list because of criticism that Truman Capote altered facts and dialogue and added scenes to suit his story. I have no information on how widespread or accurate that criticism is, I only know that Capote cited extensively to written and oral materials. So extensively, in fact, that he included pages and pages of excerpts from those materials. And while it was nice to see primary sources, it definitely broke up the story, especially when the excerpts went into irrelevant details. This was particularly jarring when the excerpts dealt with people only peripherally related to the story.

Perhaps I did not appreciate In Cold Blood as much as some readers who read it when it was first published did because I have become used to a higher standard of non-fiction writing. I have read many excellent non-fiction books that also make extensive use of primary sources. The difference is that those books make sure everything is related to the main story and do not include pages upon pages of excerpts. Instead, they use only the most pertinent sections or use the information in those sources to tell the story and form dialogue.

The story described in In Cold Blood is an interesting one. And Capote did an excellent job gathering background information on the murderers in an attempt to explain why they might have committed the atrocious act of killing four innocent people in rural Kansas. But I think Capote could have done a better job putting his information together in the book. I also think interested parties could get the same information from shorter articles on the internet without sacrificing any potential depth added by Capote. And so, unfortunately, I do not think this book is worth reading.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Bleak House

Title: Bleak House
Author: Charles Dickens
List: #79 on BBC Top 100
Worth reading? Yes.

After enjoying Oliver Twist so much, I was really looking forward to reading Bleak House. Unfortunately, I was almost ready to give up after reading the first two chapters. In these chapters, Charles Dickens employs an unidentified third-person narrator who tells the story in flowery, wordy language. He goes into too much detail and does not do much to convince the reader that the story is worth an investment of time. Instead, he sets up the boring setting of the English Court of Chancery where cases never end and the smallest legal maneuver takes years and costs excessive amounts of money. Now, this setting of the scene is necessary for the rest of the book, but does not do much to foretell the exciting story that develops over the next 65 chapters. (And keep in mind that this criticism of the boring legal setting is coming from an attorney!)

Fortunately, the third chapter starts with a breath of fresh air with a new, first-person narrative. The woman who takes over the story, Esther, is modest, charming, intelligent, and witty. She describes the events in a manner that makes you want to keep reading until you unravel the mystery that surrounds her. Esther’s narrative is interrupted at times by the formerly boring third-person narrator, but, having dispensed with most of the dull details in the first chapter, even those chapters are interesting as they reveal more about the characters and the tangled web woven around them.

As I hinted above, the Chancery Court is an important setting for this novel. Although not much action takes place “in Chancery,” Chancery looms over the lives of the characters. First, a bit of explanation. England’s Court of Chancery was a civil court of equity in England that was formed in the middle of the 14th century and existed until the mid-19th century. It handled cases involving matters such as trusts, land law, the administration of the estates of lunatics, and the guardianship of infants. Because this is a Dickens novel, he was of course trying to deliver a critique of some part of English society. Here, it was a critique of the excessively slow pace, large backlogs, and high costs of Chancery, symbolized by the all-consuming case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, which has spent years in Chancery and has possibly consumed the entire amount of the disputed estate in costs.

The characters in the novel are all somehow connected to or parties in Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, and while some characters have the wisdom to ignore the progression (or lack thereof) of the case, others become consumed with trying to bring the case to an end in their favor. We also meet other minor characters who have similarly devoted, and lost, their lives to the hopelessness of Chancery.

But while Chancery is certainly an important backdrop to the case, and certainly affects the lives of all the characters either directly or indirectly, the more compelling story is that of Esther. The mystery surrounding her birth and origins propels the story forward and creates the excitement necessary to keep reading. My only criticism of Esther is a complete lack of self-confidence (apparently praised as “modesty” in Dickensian times) that does not allow her to accept people’s love for and praise of her as reflections of her own merits. Fortunately, people keep telling her how wonderful she is rather than neglecting to show their appreciation.

And so we come to the crucial question: Was Bleak House worth reading? Happily, my opinion entirely reversed itself in Chapter Three and I can wholeheartedly say that it is. It is a well-rounded, exciting novel that is perhaps slightly more mature than Oliver Twist and that is worthy of the praise of being called Dickens’s greatest novel.

Thursday, May 31, 2012


Title: Mort
Author: Terry Pratchett
List: #65 on BBC Top 100
Worth reading? Yes.

After I read The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett’s first book in the Discworld series, I wasn’t sure that I would try any of the other thirteen Discworld books on the list. But then I wasn’t sure what to read next, and everything at my local library’s eBook site had a long wait, and Mort became available. So I read it. And, I enjoyed it.

I think the big difference between Mort and The Colour of Magic is that Mort actually has a plot. It tells the story of Mort, a young man who becomes Death’s apprentice. Mort, of course, manages to cause trouble and the story is concerned with fixing Mort’s mess. The existence of a plot makes Terry Pratchett’s apparently characteristically humorous tone work just like it did in Good Omens. And that confirms the hypothesis I made in my The Colour of Magic post that the humorous tone only works with a plot, because without one, the tone just becomes annoying.

Another important thing to note is that Mort appears to be a standalone novel. Technically, it is the fourth book in the Discworld series, but other than the fact that it takes place on Discworld, nothing revealed in The Colour of Magic has any bearing on the events in Mort. (I should also mention that I skipped over books two and three because they didn’t make it on the BBC list.) Now, the reason Mort seems to be a standalone novel could have to do with the fact that, at least according to Wikipedia, the novels can be grouped together into grand story arcs dealing with a set number of characters and events. For example, The Colour of Magic apparently falls in the “Rincewind” story arc and Mort falls into the “Death” story arc. (Rincewind does have a brief cameo in Mort and Death apparently makes at least a brief appearance in almost every Discworld novel.) So, maybe, I will enjoy other books in the “Death” story arc more (assuming they are on the BBC list) because I learned the background of the characters in Mort.

And here I have written way more about a Terry Pratchett novel than I expected I would write back in February after I finished The Colour of Magic. And I have to admit that I am sort of looking forward to reading more Terry Pratchett novels, at least if they fall into the “Death” story arc. I hope I will not be disappointed, but for now, I can say that yes, Mort is worth reading.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

This Side of Paradise

Title: This Side of Paradise
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
List: #91 on Radcliffe’s Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading? Yes

This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s debut novel, tells the tale of a young man trying to find his place in the world. The young man, Amory Blaine, has quite a high opinion of himself and is convinced that he will do well in the future. This confidence is both shattered and built back up throughout the novel, and some of his failures are due to his unwillingness to work for what he believes he deserves simply because of who he is and what he looks like. During the course of the novel, he becomes increasingly disillusioned with his former plans and tries to discover and understand himself.

The author uses a variety of writing styles and I found that this mix makes for an engagingly written novel. From simple prose, we progress through some of Amory’s poems and letters, view a narrative drama, experience free verse, and end up back in a fictional narrative. Although this blend has the potential to be disorienting, Fitzgerald manages to unite the styles in a cohesive whole that made for an amusing rather than confusing read. And so I think This Side of Paradise is worth reading, particularly if, like me, the only other Fitzgerald book you've read is The Great Gatsby because you were required to read it in high school.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Hunt for Red October

Title: The Hunt for Red October
Author: Tom Clancy
List: #81 on Modern Library Readers’ Best 20th Century Novels
Worth reading? Yes.

What do you expect from a thriller? Excitement? Suspense? Intrigue? If so, The Hunt for Red October certainly delivers. And as such, it is a nice change from the more strictly literary works on my list. As I’ve come to expect from thrillers, the quality of the writing isn’t always fantastic, but I don’t think that is what matters for this type of novel. What matters is that you start it and cannot put it down. But the thriller aspect, and its, perhaps, correlated reduced writing quality also explains why it is on the readers’ choice list.

I certainly had no problems with the level of excitement and pace of the novel while I was reading it, but when I watched the movie shortly after finishing the book, I realized there are some slightly slower parts—action-wise—that probably wouldn’t transfer very well to the big screen. And that perhaps explains why there were substantial discrepancies between the book and the movie. But it is definitely a good read and what I would consider an excellent “airplane book.” In other words, read it when you don’t want intense mental stimulation but have a lot of hours to get through!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Alchemist

Title: The Alchemist
Author: Paulo Coelho
List: #94 on BBC Top 100
Worth reading? Yes.

The Alchemist is a novel that feels very much like a self-help book. It tells the story of a young shepherd who is trying to live out his “personal legend,” or destiny. The premise is that everyone has a destiny to fulfill, but that most people give up at some point along the way because they get distracted by material things or are held back by love. Through an old king that appears to the shepherd, the author encourages us to chase our dreams to find happiness and implies that we cannot be truly happy until we have attempted to follow our dreams and live out our destinies. The novel also implies that love is only true love if our lovers let us do whatever it takes to follow our hearts.

For the most part I am not a fan of novels masquerading as self-help books, particularly in such a spiritual way, but there is something different about The Alchemist. It is a very soothing book written in a calming prose that carries the story rapidly towards its conclusion, but in an unhurried sort of way. What I mean by that is that this novel did not put me to sleep or rush me the way a thriller would, but just gently, but firmly, urged me to reach the end. And I thought the author was quite adept at painting the scenery and transporting me to the shepherd’s world without quite making me forget my own surroundings.

I will not pretend that this novel is at the top of my must read list, nor is it close to being one of my favorites, but I really think it is worth the read. I think it would be particularly appreciated as an escape from a hectic period of life or after some more angst-driven novels.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Animal Farm

Title: Animal Farm
Author: George Orwell
List: #17 on Radcliffe’s Top 100 20th Century Novels, #20 on Modern Library Readers’ Top 100 20th Century Novels, #31 on Modern Library Board’s Top 100 20th Century Novels, #46 on BBC Top 100
Worth reading? I guess so, maybe.

When this book is in the top fifty on all four of my lists, and the top twenty of two of them, how can I say it is not worth reading? Maybe the impact of the novel has been lost over time as it has become such a staple of popular culture. I am sure that when it was first published it caused quite the sensation, but now I think I would be hard-pressed to find anyone who is unfamiliar with the story.

And so I am not quite sure what there is left for me to say. Yes, Animal Farm is quite the political allegory. Yes, it should probably be required reading for high school students learning about communist Russia and political revolutions in general. And yes, it has become a classic. But is it really relevant in the twenty-first century? Or for the future? I am not at all sure it is.

I suppose for now, even though the story will not come as a surprise, it may be worth reading just because the book and its theme are so pervasive in modern discourse.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Death Comes for the Archbishop

Title: Death Comes for the Archbishop
Author: Willa Cather
List: #61 on Modern Library Board’s Top 100 20th Century Novels, #89 on Radcliffe’s Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading? Yes.

Death Comes for the Archbishop has a rather dramatic title, evoking thoughts of murder mysteries or thrillers or perhaps a historical account of an archbishop’s untimely demise. But Willa Cather’s novel is no such thing. Rather, it is a moving account of a missionary priest’s full life in the brand new American southwest. And it is quite different from the two other Willa Cather novels I have read (My Ántonia and O Pioneers!).

The novel introduces us to newly minted Catholic Bishop Jean Marie Latour, who is granted the diocese of New Mexico shortly after it becomes an American territory. We see New Mexico in its virtually untamed state through the eyes of Bishop Latour and his friend and fellow missionary Father Joseph Vaillant. The two priests struggle to unite the diocese and tend to the needs of their people with nothing but a horse or mule to help them cross the vast distances. The author lovingly describes the rugged landscape and the Mexican people and culture. She also introduces us to Navajos and other Native Americans who are vital to the physical and mental survival of the priests.

Although the plot is concerned with establishing the diocese and ministering to the Catholic flock, the language and mood epitomizes the majestic grandeur of the Southwest. The characters seem to serve as vehicles through which the author can communicate her love for the culture and landscape of New Mexico. In that sense, the book is more of a Western, but one with a completely different viewpoint. And because of that unique perspective on a beautiful region, I think the book is worth reading.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

To the Lighthouse

Title: To the Lighthouse
Author: Virginia Woolf
List: #15 on Modern Library Board’s Top 100 20th Century Novels, #34 on Radcliffe’s Top 100 20th Century Novels , #48 on Modern Library Readers’ Top 100 20th Century Novels.
Worth reading? Not really.

Apparently I am missing something. Not only did the Modern Library Board and the Radcliffe Publishing Course place this novel in the top 50, but Modern Library Readers did as well. And here I sit, having just finished the book, thinking about how reading To the Lighthouse was a complete waste of time. I just do not see what the point of the whole thing was. And if it had been any longer, and I did not have this crazy goal of reading all the books on the lists, I would not have finished it

Maybe the novel is supposed to be good because of the way the narrator intimately focuses on various characters, revealing their thoughts in a very “stream of consciousness” way. The stream of consciousness is so pronounced that a character’s thoughts slip brokenly from the present to the past and back to the present creating a story within a story that is extremely hard for a reader to follow, at least in the format in which I read the book. And maybe some people like a book written almost entirely in thoughts and observations with hardly any dialogue. And maybe it does not bother other people that half the book seems to take place in the thoughts of one character in one day while, after a brief odd interlude that is supposed to indicate a lapse of time, the rest of the novel is split between the thoughts of a few more characters on another day. And maybe to those people it is fine that nothing actually happens in the book. And maybe those people focus on and admire the language rather than thinking, like me, that the author seemed so wrapped up in the language that she forgot to write the story.

But clearly, this was not the book for me. And I am very glad it is finished.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Forsyte Saga

Title: The Forsyte Saga
Author: John Galsworthy
List: #123 on BBC Top 200
Worth reading? Maybe.

I am going to admit right up front that I read this book in stages with several interruptions in between because other books became available through my local eLibrary. My review may be somewhat tainted by this disjointed reading. When I finally fished this novel, my initial reaction was a shrug, a “meh,” an “I suppose that was alright.” In other words, I had no inclination to rave about it and was glad to be able to put it aside and cross it off my list. I wonder if part of the problem, other than disjointed reading, was that it was just so incredibly long and never seemed to end.

Let me clarify. There are long books. And then there are long books. In the “long books” category I place Outlander and Les Misérables and Gone with the Wind. Now, I know plenty of people who, at least with regard to the latter two, would put those in the “long books” category. But to me, despite their length (over a thousand pages in the case of Gone with the Wind), these books were driving towards a conclusion. I wanted to keep reading them because I knew there would be something new that would tie into the beginning and make the whole experience worthwhile. And to put this in perspective, and perhaps reveal a bit of my own character, I first read Gone with the Wind when I was ten and even then did not think it was a tiresome slog.

But The Forsyte Saga? It was just long. Now, I realize it is a saga and thus that it will cover multiple generations and that it will be long almost by definition. But this was just too much. The Thorn Birds was a saga too, but it managed to keep my attention. In fact, I think The Forsyte Saga would have been much improved if it omitted the last generation entirely. But this, too, may not be entirely fair because the despair of two members of the last, third, generation covered rests in the opening conflict, introduced towards the beginning of the tome, between members of the second generation. And the story of the third generation completes the struggle and turmoil that I suppose is the main story arc of the book.

But it was just too much. It went on too long. It may have worked if each segment of the saga was a bit shorter, but as it was, by the end, I had no sympathy (at least for the male character of the second generation) and just wanted to scream, “Get over it!” and “Stop whining!” I suppose I might just be tired of the long, flowery prose of the early twentieth century and earlier (even though I adore Jane Austen), which would explain why the modern prose of Outlander was such a welcome respite and why even the straightforwardness of Oliver Twist seemed like a relief. Perhaps it is time to turn towards some of the more modern novels on my list so that I will not feel so hopeless and, I will admit, bored, with novels like The Forsyte Saga.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


Title: Outlander
Author: Diana Gabaldon
List: #160 on BBC Top 200
Worth reading? Yes!

Outlander, known as Cross Stitch in the United Kingdom, is a book that is hard to classify. In part, its foundation lies in science fiction (or possibly fantasy) because within the first few chapters the main character travels two hundred years back in time. But besides that moment of time travel and the discussion about that event that pops up occasionally, the novel is in large part a work of historical fiction set in 18th century Scotland just before the Jacobite Rising of 1745 (where supporters in the British Isles, including many Scottish clans apparently, were trying to place Bonnie Prince Charlie, aka “The Young Pretender,” on the English throne). The remaining parts of the novel, where the author focuses on the relationship between the two main characters, are perhaps best classified as romance.

Apparently the author wrote this novel as “practice” for writing fiction, which explains why there are so many themes, and never intended anyone to actually see it. But people did see it and now it is part of an eight book series, the last (I think) of which is set to be released in early 2013. There is also a sort of spin-off series (the author says they are actually part of the main series and calls it a “sub-series”), which focuses on a different character and includes one of the main characters in Outlander.

And, based on the first book, I can definitely see why the series has been so successful. It does not matter what type of book Outlander is, what matters is that once you pick it up, it is very difficult to put back down. It is a captivating novel with a fast-paced plot that is written in a very modern manner. And understandably so because the main character and narrator, Claire, comes from 1945 and keeps up her blunt manner of speaking and acting even among the Scottish clans of 1743. Claire is very likeable and part of her charm is that she maintains her independent personality while also trying to fit into 18th century Scottish life.

I think that I can’t go into too much of the plot because I don’t want to give anything away—it was just too much fun to see the story unfold. But I can say the novel includes swordfights and gun battles, bad guys and good guys and okay guys, capture and escape and rescue, injuries and illness and recovery, trust and distrust, daring, bravery, loyalty, sacrifice, adventure, and, of course, lost love and found love.

I think this book is definitely worth the read (and I am planning to read the rest of the series as soon as I have time and they become available at the library). It is fast-paced and attention-grabbing (and holding) and very easy to read. I think the author said it best on her website: "What I used to say to people who saw me sitting outside a store with a pile of books and asked (reasonably enough), 'What sort of book is this?', was, 'I tell you what. Pick it up, open it anywhere, and read three pages. If you can put it down again, I’ll pay you a dollar.' I’ve never lost any money on that bet."

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Skeleton Key

Title: Skeleton Key
Author: Anthony Horowitz
List: #150 on BBC Top 200
Worth reading? Yes, but more for kids.

Skeleton Key is the third Alex Rider book out of nine published to date. I found that this one started off a bit slow (especially because the cliffhanger at the end of the second book was not resolved) but got more exciting towards the end. I definitely think kids will continue to enjoy reading the series. However, I am starting to find Alex Rider's reluctance to become involved in new missions kind of annoying. In all three books, there are scenes where Alex says he will never help MI6 again, but every time he gets involved with another mission or manages to get himself into trouble by performing spy-like acts. While this seemed to work for the first two books, I now think it has gotten old and hope that this isn't a theme repeated for all nine books.

One thing I enjoyed in this book is that an overt reference was made to Alex Rider being like a young James Bond. And with the adventures Alex has, the gadgets he is equipped with, and his reputation becoming known in the criminal underworld, it is very apparent that Anthony Horowitz is writing James Bond for kids. As for my further adventures with Alex Rider, I think they will be put on hold for now. Because the books are available on my local eLibrary, I might order a few when I need a light read, but for now, I'm switching back to books for grown-ups!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Point Blanc

Title: Point Blanc
Author: Anthony Horowitz
List: #105 on BBC Top 200
Worth reading? Yes, but more for kids.

Point Blanc reprises the adventures of fourteen-year-old Alex Rider and takes place only weeks after the previous adventures chronicled in Stormbreaker. Like Stormbreaker, this installment is a great adventure story, with perhaps a bit more daring for our reluctant, but brave, hero. It is sure to keep kids wanting more Alex Rider, and even ends with quite the cliffhanger! I have already started the third book in the series to see what happens next...

Wednesday, February 29, 2012


Title: Stormbreaker
Author: Anthony Horowitz
List: #107 on BBC Top 200
Worth reading? Yes, but more for kids.

I got a Kindle in December. I love that it takes up much less room in my purse on the subway trek to and from work every day and that it works wonderfully for taking multiple books with me when I travel. I don’t like that our local public library has very limited Kindle offerings and that there are ridiculously long hold queues on the books they do have. When a title finally becomes available, I only have three days to download it and can then choose a one, two, or three week lending period. The problem with this is that when I’m happily in the middle of a free Kindle book and one of my holds becomes available, I have to abandon the book I’m reading and start the library book. This complicates my blogging!

Anyway, Stormbreaker became available over the weekend, and I finished it today during lunch. It is pretty short, only 148 pages, and written for a pre-teen or young teen audience. It reminded me a bit of The Hardy Boys or Tom Swift, but is probably more similar to James Bond for kids. The fourteen-year-old hero, Alex Rider, is recruited by MI6 and sent on a mission equipped with kid-appropriate spy gear. And adventures ensue.

In November, I dismissed Artemis Fowl because I didn’t think it was that creative despite the inclusion of fairies, so I feel a little weird praising this book. But somehow I find that Stormbreaker is a better book. It is still geared for children, but doesn’t seem quite as childish as Artemis Fowl, perhaps because it didn’t resort to the gimmicks of crude jokes and fake swearing. Instead, Stormbreaker is more of a straightforward, classic spy tale, though of course on a shorter and less complicated scale. And I think the book is perfect for its audience. I just hope the next two books in the series are as enjoyable because they are also on the list and already downloaded to my Kindle!

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Colour of Magic

Title: The Colour of Magic
Author: Terry Pratchett
List: #93 on BBC Top 100
Worth reading? Maybe.

I’m not quite sure what to say about this book. I am sure that, no matter what I say, the legions of Terry Pratchett fans will not agree with me. It’s not that The Colour of Magic is a bad book. I just think it’s kind of a non-book. I started it. I read it. I finished it. And now I would be perfectly happy never thinking about it again. So I’ll think about it for the next ten minutes and then stop.

Like Good Omens, which Terry Pratchett co-wrote with Neil Gaiman, this book has a wonderfully humorous tone. Terry Pratchett appears not to take himself or his book too seriously. And, in certain circumstances, I think that works. For example, in Good Omens, I loved the tone. I think the difference is that Good Omens had a plot. The Colour of Magic does not.

Instead, the focus of the novel is on the characters. And mostly because they are just outrageous. The main characters are Rincewind, a failed magician, Twoflower, a tourist, and The Luggage, a giant sentient wooden box that sprouts legs and follows his owner Twoflower around no matter where he goes. Sounds promising, right? But alas, it’s really not. They are just kooky characters who meet other kooky characters in their travels and don’t develop or grow in any way. And to all of this there is no point and no plot and no real conclusion. To be fair, there is a vague back plot of the gods playing a dice game where the characters are the pieces in this game, but that doesn’t really lend a cohesiveness to the story. And, again, that is a concept that I think has more potential in theory than in practice.

Maybe the point is that Terry Pratchett is making fun of the fantasy genre? In that case, I’m not quite sure why he wrote a total of 39 books (and counting?) in the Discworld series. Which reminds me, the story takes place on Discworld, a giant disc carried by four giant elephants on the back of a giant turtle traveling through space. And I think the 39 books are tied together because they all take place on Discworld.

In any case, I don’t understand the hype. Maybe this is one fantasy series that I’m just not geeky enough for. Or maybe I’m too geeky and this book isn’t enough of a fantasy? Who knows. But count me among the unconverted. On the bright side, the book was only 285 pages, so I breezed through it! As for reading the other thirteen Discworld books on the BBC list? I don’t know... maybe if they’re the only books off the list available on my local library’s eBook site…

Friday, February 3, 2012

Oliver Twist

Title: Oliver Twist
Author: Charles Dickens
List: #182 on BBC Top 200
Worth reading? Yes!

I have to admit I was getting a little bored with the books on my list. I was yearning for a book with a fast-paced plot and a thrilling adventure. I was not completely sure what to expect from Oliver Twist, but because I generally like Charles Dickens and the story has been dramatized so often, I thought it would be worth opening. And was it ever.

Dickens is widely known as a brilliant storyteller, but I have found that some of his novels tend to have their slow patches where he gets lost in detail and description. Not so with Oliver Twist. Oliver tumbles from one adventure into another and Dickens makes sure the reader shares all of Oliver’s joy, terror, and sadness along the way. At times I found myself laughing, while other times I almost did not want to read on because I could not bear the misfortune that Oliver faced. But unlike other novels (ahem, The Jungle), Oliver Twist is one with a happy ending and one that embraces the concept of good triumphing over evil.

Of course, because this is Dickens, there are lessons to be learned from the novel as well. Or, perhaps more accurately, there were lessons aimed at readers in the 1830s. Dickens expertly employs sarcasm to publicly expose numerous problems of the day, such as the ridiculously inadequate and damaging law providing for the poor, the danger and prevalence of child labor, the widespread problem of homeless orphans in London, and the recruitment of children as criminals. To modern readers, the shocking part is that the things Dickens makes fun of were actually happening.

Oliver Twist is definitely worth the read. It is an absolutely marvelous story expertly rendered by a fantastic author. And it even teaches readers a little bit about London in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Jungle

Title: The Jungle
Author: Upton Sinclair
List: #45 on Radcliffe’s Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading? Yes.

I think The Jungle is one of those books that everyone who was educated in the United States either heard about or read in high school. I remember it being thoroughly discussed in my American History class as the start of “muckraking” journalism and as the book that led to reforms in the food industry. What I didn’t realize was that, instead of being a journalistic non-fiction account of the Chicago Stockyards, the book is a work of fiction that describes the struggles of a family of Lithuanian immigrants.

The novel starts out on a high happy note describing the whirlwind of commotion that is the wedding of the main character, Jurgis, to his wife, Ona. However, even in that scene of happy tumult, there are signs of stress as Ona worries about the expense of the wedding feast, and the other female family members worry about the guests who came and ate but did not contribute any money to the new couple during the money dance.

After this scene, the author jumps back in time to describe how Jurgis and Ona, with Jurgis’s father and nine of Ona’s family members immigrated to America with hearts full of hope and minds dreaming of comfort and riches. Unfortunately, they soon find that all is not rosy in America because high wages are joined with high prices, and they fall prey to the wiles of con men. Their lack of English and overall illiteracy, as well as a series of bad decisions, contributes to a growing debt that they cannot possibly pay off.

Added to these troubles is their naivety when it comes to the world of the Chicago Stockyards. For example, Jurgis is strong and gets a job almost immediately, and he thinks that this strength will continue and allow him to keep his position. However, he has not reckoned with the practice of “speeding up,” whereby the owners and supervisors insert new, fresh workers into the line to speed up the whole process until everyone works faster and faster and faster. As can be imagined, this practice leads to less careful work, which leads to accidents. Even Jurgis is not infallible and ends up twisting an ankle, which does not heal properly, and which causes him to miss several months of work. And, of course, after that he is much weakened and cannot get his old job back. Not to mention that without his wages, the family sinks even further into debt.

Because they are spread in various jobs throughout the stockyards, Jurgis and his family also learn the other secrets of meatpacking, like the practice of using rotten meat in sausage and canning, distracting inspectors so tubercular beef and pork can be used, using the waste on the floor in meat products, and a variety of other disgusting and unhealthy practices. Everything is geared towards making the most profit for the owners. And if someone in any position of power can get a little extra money, for example when he has an opening and the opportunity to hire someone, he takes it.

And so the family suffers along, and even sending the children to sell newspapers and Jurgis’s sick and elderly father to work does not help their situation. It also doesn’t help that no one gets sufficient nutrition because everything they buy, including milk, get doctored so that the products do not have close to the nutritional content that they should have. And because of all these odds stacked against them, family members start to die of causes that, if there was adequate nutrition or money to pay for doctors, would have been preventable.

The novel is a stunning exposé of conditions in the Chicago Stockyards and the food industry in general. It also reveals the plight of new immigrants to America in the early 20th century and the difficulties they faced in escaping the wiles of con men and companies designed to take advantage of naïve and illiterate immigrants. And as you can probably gather from this description, the wedding scene in the first chapter was the only high note of the novel and everything was gloom and doom from that point forward… until the end, when Jurgis finally discovers a reason to hope. But despite the somber theme, the novel is definitely a must read, if only to understand why we have and need government regulation of the things we depend upon to nourish ourselves.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Memoirs of a Geisha

Title: Memoirs of a Geisha
Author: Arthur Golden
List: #62 on BBC Top 100
Worth Reading? Yes!!

I read this book several years ago, really enjoyed it, and would heartily recommend it. However, it has been too long since I read it for me to write a coherent post, so I asked Scott to write a guest post:

I first read Memoirs of a Geisha in 2005 prior to the release of the movie adaptation. When I decided to re-read it, Natalie asked me to write a guest blog and I happily agreed. If you are not familiar with the plot, this book is about a young girl from a small fishing village in Japan who is sent away to Kyoto to become a geisha. I love this book for many reasons but I would recommend reading it for two.

The story begins in the years leading up to World War Two, in the geisha district of Kyoto. In an age where a society is straddling two identities, one firmly set in tradition and one marching onward into the future, the author is able to effortlessly transport the reader back in time. I have no desire to visit the sprawling cities of Japan today, but when I read Golden’s description of the tea houses and ceremonies, the geisha’s kimonos and superstitions, it is sometimes hard for me to remember that the setting he is describing no longer exists. These descriptions make me long to be able to visit the unspoiled, exotic locations of the book, even though that would require time travel.

At the same time, this book has a foreboding shadow hanging over much of the story. The narrator, Chiyo, is very honest about the time period. As the years pass, peace erodes for the Japanese as the Empire invades China and attacks Pearl Harbor, and as the war in the Pacific proceeds. And although many of these events aren’t told by the characters, in my mind at least the peacefulness presented is somewhat tainted by the knowledge that these events are occurring in history. It is like waiting in the calm before a storm: you want to relax and let your guard down, but you know that something dangerous is lurking around the corner.

The second reason I would recommend reading this book is because of the prose used by the characters. Describing a scene in the geisha district, the main character says, “Among the men in Western style business suits and kimono, several geisha stood out in brilliant coloring just like autumn leaves on the murky water of the river.” This book is full of these little tidbits, each of them conveying the scene perfectly from the perspective of this young uneducated girl who is experiencing life fully.

Some might describe this as a romance novel, or a love story, but I would describe it as a story of growth, exploration, and learning. And I would highly recommend it to anyone.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Ender's Game

Title: Ender’s Game
Author: Orson Scott Card
List: #59 on Modern Library Readers’ Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading? Yes.

Ender’s Game is a science fiction novel in many ways strongly reminiscent of Starship Troopers, which I read shortly before starting this blog. It takes place in a future where humans have narrowly escaped destruction by an insect-like alien race and have formed an international military unit to defend Earth from future attacks. This military unit apparently fears that another war with the “buggers” is imminent and is searching for a commander to lead the human forces to victory.

The interesting part is that the military is searching for this commander among children. These children, who are as young as five or six, are enrolled in a space station military training facility, called the Battle School, where they are trained as fighters. After Battle School, the children go on to Command School to learn how to lead forces, mainly spaceships, into battle.

The main character, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, is a prodigy sent to Battle School just before his sixth birthday. There the “game” begins where he fights other children as part of one of the school’s armies in the school’s zero gravity war games league. Most of the novel consists of Ender’s personal struggles but military successes at Battle School. In that respect, the novel is very male-oriented, violent, and militaristic.

However, the psychology behind the concept of training young children is quite intriguing, as are descriptions of how Ender adapts to zero gravity. The novel explains how Ender recognizes that in zero gravity he can decide for himself what is up and what is down and how that completely reorients his perspective on action that takes place in zero gravity. This reorienting of perspective is something that the other children have difficulty grasping and that Ender must try to teach his peers. Although the author describes this perspective change very well, I couldn’t help but think the concept would be much better explained visually. And then I found out that there are plans for a movie, set for release in March 2013. I hope that the filmmakers deal with the concept as well as the author intended.

As far as sci-fi novels go, most of Ender’s Game really isn’t that stellar or different. What sets it apart is its focus on children and an interesting twist at the end that I only predicted a couple pages before it was revealed. This twist is what makes the novel worth reading and the militarism worth slogging through.  As for the rest of the series, I haven't started any of them yet and the novel works quite well by itself.  However, I have heard from several sources that the second book clears up some questions from the first one so I may read that at some point in the future.