Thursday, September 24, 2015

Updated checklist

#1: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
#2: Fluke, or I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore
#3: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
#4: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
#5: Through Painted Deserts by Don Miller
#6 Fool's Gold by Doug Tjaden
#7: Illium by Dan Simmons
#8: Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
#9: Walking on Water by Madeline L'Engle
#10: The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien
#11: Boy by Roald Dahl
#12: The Cestus Deception by Steven Barnes
#13: Flatland by Edwin A. Abbot
#14: Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Jacob Ellis
#15: Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold
#16: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
#17: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
#18: Prophet by Frank Peretti
#19: American Gods by Neil Gaiman
#20: Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain by Verna Aardema
#21: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
#22: Elantris by Brandon Sanderson
#23: High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
#24: The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
#25: Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salmon Rushdie
#26: Life of Pi by Yann Martel
#27: Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Sallinger
#28: Powers by Brian Michael Bendis
#29: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
#30: Woyzeck by Georg Buchner
#31: A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
#32: Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and Davild Oliver Relin
#33: Lamb by Christopher Moore
#34: The Sacred Romance: Drawing Closer to the Heart of God by John Eldridge and Brent Curtis
#35: Dune by Frank Herbert
#36: A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
#37: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
#38: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
#39: Wistrix Donn by Peter DeVries
#40: A Midsummer Night's Dream by Neil Gaiman
#41: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
#42: I Love You, Beth Cooper by Larry Doyle
#43: Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
#44: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
#45: The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy
#46: The Crystal Shard by R. A. Salvatore
#47: Red by Ted Dekker
#48: The Ranger's Apprentice: The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan
#49: Boy's Life by Robert McCammon
#50: Persuasion by Jane Austen
#51: Eragon by Christopher Paolini
#52: You Don't Have to Be Blind to See by Jim Storail
#53: Cotillion by Georgette Heyer
#54: Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey
#55: The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers
#56: Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Brooks
#57: The Stand by Steven King
#58: Captain Hook: The Adventures of a Notorious Youth by JV Hart
#59: The Ear, The Eye, and The Arm by Nancy Farmer
#60: All Over But the Shoutin by Rick Bragg

Thirty-three down. See? Over halfway there!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Not Doing So Hot


I don't update again until May???

And the sad thing is, I haven't actually done that much reading since my last post.  I also haven't done quotes or page counts on my last few books.  I'll find them before my end-of-the-year list. 

I've read a lot of partial books.  I'm still working on the Piper book I've been going at for a while (but I lost it), and I've started reading Dune at long last, but other priorities (such as my new job) have gotten in the way.

Regardless, here's what I've read the last few months:

The Descendants 
by Kaui Hart Hemmings
Starring George Clooney (not really)

As I read The Descendants, two thoughts kept popping to my mind.  1) I would love to live in Hawaii for a year or two.  2) I don't want to see this movie.  Not because I didn't like the story.  (I did like the story, though I wasn't crazy about the pacing in points)  Because I love the way the story was written, as a book, and the strength of the novel wasn't in the dialogue or the story or even necessarily the emotional pull.  It was in what was going on in the character's mind.  The things that didn't have to be said.  The subtleties as he realized that everybody was pretty messed up.  And I'm sure all these things come across just fine in the film.  I'm sure it's a good movie (it was nominated for BP, after all).  But I was so thoroughly satisfied with it as a novel, I just don't care to see it done another way.

I like books as books. It's actually been a while since I heard about a film adaptation upcoming from a book I've enjoyed and been excited about it, The Hobbit excluded.  I just don't get as much from two hours with a set of characters as I get when I spend, say, a week with them.  When I see a film version of a book I've enjoyed, I almost always leave feeling disappointed, at least when it's a straight adaptation (which is why Moneyball worked so well for me). 

That said, if I see a movie based on a book I wasn't all that excited about, I often end up liking it. 

But I digress. The Descendants is about a man (it's been so long I've forgotten his name, but George Clooney plays him in the movie) whose wife is in a coma in the hospital after a boating accident.  He keeps telling himself she'll be okay and their family will go back to normal, but it turns out she won't recover, and Clooney has to deal with the fact that he'll now be a single parent to his two girls, ages 10 and 17 (or thereabouts).  As he goes about the business of telling his wife's family and friends the bad news, he begins to uncover some details that suggest that force him to examine his family life and realize that it wasn't as great as he had told himself it had been, and through the story he resolves to make a more concerted effort to enjoy his life and love his daughters than he has before. 

And then there's also this really intriguing subplot about selling some ancestral land.  It seems a bit insignificant at the beginning of the novel but gets pretty dang hot by the end.  About eighty pages into this book, I was about ready to write it off, but as the story unfolds it really does just keep getting better.

The Jungle Book
by Rudyard Kipling

The Jungle Book is NOT what Disney cartoons would leave you to believe!  While many of the characters from the book are in the Disney classic, the story itself is vastly different.  Which isn't unusual for Disney adaptations, or animated film adaptations in general.  I only mention it here to illustrate how I was met with surprises at just about every turn of this book. 

For one thing, this is not really "a" story, but a collection of short stories, only a few about Mowgli and friends, and several of which don't even take place in a jungle.  The first three stories focus on Mowgli, Baloo, Bagheera, and the like.  Shere Khan is a total wimp. Mowgli gets cast out of the jungle and goes to live in the man's village, but ultimately they chase him out, too.  Then there's a story in the middle about monkeys kidnapping Mowgli and Bagheera and Baloo coming to his rescue (one of the best stories in the book).

But then, the next story is about a white seal trying to find a beach where his people won't be clubbed to death. (Pretty brutal scene, by the way)  And the next story is Rikki Tikki Tavi, about the mongoose that kills to cobras to protect a human family.  After that, you have a really neat story about a boy named Toomai and a secret gathering of elephants.  And finally, you've got a quirky little exchange between the military animals of the British army stationed in India, comparing their lives.  And each story ends with a song or poem. 

The surprising thing for me was that, in my mind, the Mowgli stories were actually the least interesting parts of The Jungle Book. I kind of wish Disney had made the White Seal movie instead (Rankin Bass did one, I believe). 

I just learned recently there's a Second Jungle Book, so I'm working through that right now.

American Gods, 10th Anniversary Edition
by Neil Gaiman

I always love Neil Gaiman's imagination, and his ideas, and his plots, and yet I almost always feel let down by the end of the book.  So it is with American Gods.  It's important to note that I was reading the expanded 10th Anniversary Edition, and I don't know what of the things I didn't like may have been omitted originally.  The whole thing felt too long, and it felt like there were too many things that really didn't add much to the story.  The idea was fantastic: all the gods of the peoples who traveled to this country are alive, though weakened through lack of worshipers, and the new gods of America--gods of television, Internet, workaholism--are hunting them down to exterminate them.  And our hero, a man called Shadow, has been hired by Odin (who goes by the name of Mr. Wednesday) to try to recruit all of the old gods for one final war against the new gods.  A very cool idea, and it clips along pretty well up until Shadow stays in Lakeside.  At that point, the story gets kind of monotonous for a while.  They go off, try to recruit another old god, come back, Shadow hangs around Lakeside, they go try to recruit another old god.  After a while, the book becomes more a who's who of mythology and less of a coherent plot.  Once the story picks up again, though, it really kicks it into a high gear, and it's hard to put the book down for the last hundred pages or so...until you get to the climax, which is extremely anti-climactic.  The major conflict resolves so suddenly you have to wonder what the point of the first 500 pages was. 

And while that is, I think, part of the point of the story, it left me with a bit of a negative vibe. 

In addition, there were interludes between chapters that had nothing to do with the story.  They served as stories of how other gods came to America, or what they did there.  If you're geeking out about the myths in this book, then you probably loved these interludes.  Once I realized they were about characters we weren't even ever going to see, I started wanting to skip them. 

And finally, parts of the book are just nasty.  And descriptive.  (Warning: I'm going to tell you almost exactly what I'm talking about here, so you may want to skip to the next paragraph)  For example, when Shadow is let out of prison at the beginning, he discovers that his wife is dead.  At her funeral, he learns that she'd been cheating on him with his best friend.  It wasn't enough to have her just cheating on him, though.  No, it turns out the reason she and his best friend were dead was because she was giving him a blow job while he was driving on the highway.  Seriously.  Now, it may just be that I don't understand the mythological undertones of that particular incident, but it felt incredibly unnecessary to me.  Also, in one of the interludes, we see a prostitute who is actually an erotic goddess devour the man who is making love with her through her labia majora.  I remember thinking that it was the dumbest thing I had ever read.  And unlike most of the interlude characters, we actually do see this woman again.  Only for her to be immediately killed. 

Now, when this book is good, it's great.  It's often hilarious.  It's wildly creative.  I love the way it ties in old-world style religious faith with modern cultural phenomena.  But it often feels like it's lost its way in all the pseudo-philosophical exploration of American identity and love for obscure foreign religion.  I honestly didn't dislike this book.  I just feel like it didn't deliver all the bang it promised in the setup. 

The Invincible Iron Man: Extremis
by Warren Ellis

I've heard that the film Iron Man 3 could be based on this storyline, so I went ahead and checked it out.  I hated it.  I was pretty darn bored.  I did recognize a lot of the elements of the origin story from the first Iron Man film which came from this book.  And all of that was okay.  But the Extremis storyline itself just didn't make a whole lot of sense.  The dialogue wasn't snappy, the action was painfully slow, the villain was bland, the art was gross-out (to the extent that a mainstream comic would be, of course), and there was very little action for six issues of comic book.  And maybe the whole Extremis project is explained better somewhere else within the Iron Man canon, but it wasn't really clear exactly what the stuff did.  Nor how Tony Stark knew how it would work so well. 

That said, the end result (Tony Stark can basically communicate with all of his tech telepathically, or something) was kind of cool, if confusing.  The whole book is bloody, though, and none of the characters are very interesting. And you get a LONG debate on science, and ethics, and military funding for medical benefits, and hippies.  And man, is THAT ever what you pick up a comic book for, or what???

Okay, like I said, currently working on a few different books at once, but also got a couple of writing projects and a new part-time job.  Something tells me I won't be working through twenty YA novels this summer. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"Capsule Reviews"

Sorry, book blog. 

I've actually been doing pretty well the past two months.  I've been averaging a book per week, and that includes another mammoth edition of the Wheel of Time (can't believe I'm not even HALFWAY through this series!  I marvel at its sheer length).  If I tried to stop and do a full review of everything I've read, I would probably never catch up.  So I'll give quickie Capsule Reviews instead and try to do better in keeping up in the future.

Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis (324 pages)

"This shame had nothing to do with He or She.  It's the being mortal--being, how shall I say it? ...insufficient.  Don't you think a dream would feel shy if it were seen walking about in the waking world?"

When you think C. S. Lewis and fiction, you think Narnia, and then probably Screwtape, and then maybe the space trilogy.  You rarely hear anybody talk about Till We Have Faces, and after reading it I have to wonder why.  Admittedly, the story itself is nothing special, particularly the middle portion of the book, which feels a little forced.  However, the prose in this book is absolutely gorgeous.  My respect for Lewis as a prose writer shot through the roof as I pored over the words on these pages.  Because it's Lewis, you know you're going to get some appetizing theological issues to think about, but what makes it so interesting in this case is that the story is tied to Greek myth (particularly, the lesser-known myth of Cupid and Psyche) told from the perspective of one of the supporting characters.  For a while, I was even wondering if this story had been written before Lewis became a Christian.  (As it turns out, his original idea for the story did come in his atheistic days)  Lewis does what no modern Christian writer I've seen does: writes the nonbelieving character sympathetically.  And that's, to me, what makes the first and final thirds of this book so powerful.  While I can see why it's not considered a Lewis classic, I'm still a bit surprised that I've never heard any of the folks in my circle talking about it, because it is a very interesting addition to the Lewis canon and, again, a beautifully, beautifully written book.

Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God's Will by Kevin DeYoung (128 pages)

The conventional approach to the will of God -- where God's will is like a corn maze with only one way out and lots of dead ends, or like a bull's-eye with the center of God's will in the middle and second best everywhere else, or like a Magic 8-Ball that we are supposed to shake around until some generic answer floats to the top--is not helpful. It is not good for our decision making.  It is not good for our sanctification.  And sometimes it is frankly dishonoring to Christ.

That quote pretty much sums up the book better than I could.  Kevin DeYoung has a short, easy-to-read, challenging examination of the popular notion that God's will is something that one must carefully divine before making any decision.  I finished this book in a day.  It's great for discussion, so read it with a friend.  It tells you pretty flatly that you're probably overreacting about something that is currently going on in your life.  It tells you straight away that a lot of people find this particular message unsatisfying.  Yet it's supported with some very sound logical and theological thought.  I'd recommend it to pretty much anybody freaking out about any life choices, whether they be in the past, the present, or the future. 

Trust: New Avengers Volume 7 by Brian Michael Bendis (graphic novel)
Oh, um...and I read this comic book.  It was okay.  Not much happened other than setup for the Secret Invasion storyline.  Oh, and Spider-Man rescues a baby. 

The Help by Kathryn Stockett (529)

"She just don't see em.  The lines.  Not between her and me, not between her and Hilly."
Aibileen takes a long sip of her tea.  Finally, I look at her. "What you so quiet for?  I know you got a opinion bout all this."
"You gone accuse me a philosophizing."
"Go ahead," I say.  "I ain't afraid a no philosopy."
"It ain't true."
"Say what?"
"You talking about something that don't exist."

The first of this year's Best Picture Nominated Books.  I know some folks who have discounted this book (and the movie based upon it) because it's another story about black women in the Deep South.  Or because it was on Oprah's Book List.  Well, those folks are missing out.  I loved this book.  I loved (and, when appropriate, hated) the characters.  The book is written from the perspective of three different women, two black housemaids and one white newspaper columnist.  Each section is written in that character's voice, too, and while it's a bit tricky to get your mind comfortable with Aibileen's dialect at the beginning, I think it ultimately lends a lot of power to her story.  The "villain" of the story goes on my list of most despised literary characters.  And yet she remains perfectly believable.  One of the most appropriate comments I read on this book was that it was like a To Kill a Mockingbird for this day in age, and I can see that.  It really brings to life the difficulty of that time period without making everyone a hate-spitting demonic Klansman.  The heroic characters have faults, and (most of) the bigoted employers have redeeming values.  There's a lot of wrestling for power and lots of struggling to overcome societal norms.  It's a surprisingly down-to-earth and relateable take on this particular conflict.  I found myself really invested emotionally in the highs and the lows of the tale. 

I will say, however, that the book featured two particular scenes which seemed to be there for shock value alone.  The graphic nature of the incidents in question really added nothing to the story, and that was a disappointment.  Even if the scenes themselves did serve a purpose, the length to which they were taken just to be disturbing seemed, to me, to be in pretty poor taste.  It's not like you don't have enough shock value in a story where folks are being beaten and jailed, etc, due to racism.  Really, though, that was my only complaint.  Overall, a book that I'm surprised I enjoyed as much as I did. 

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (533 pages w/ pictures, 249 w/o)

"As I look out at all of you gathered here, I want to say that I don't see a room full of Parisians in top hats and diamonds and silk dresses.  I don't see bankers and housewives and store clerks.  No.  I address you all tonight as you truly are: wizards, mermaids, travelers, adventurers, and magicians.  You are the true dreamers."

There were a lot of pictures in this book. 

It's hard for me not to compare this book to the movie because I did see the movie first.  Actually, I saw the movie before I knew it had been based on a book at all.  Large portions of the novel are taken up by full-page sketches, which is kind of a neat way to tell this particular story.  While the movie portrays young Hugo and his friend Isabelle as surprisingly noble and mature for their ages, the book lets them be a bit more more...well, like kids.  They bicker a lot, and they're both stubborn with one another through half the book, and whenever they argue Isabelle pretty much beats him up, which is pretty funny.  At its heard, however, the story is the same, and it's positively charming.  The drawings are likewise pleasant and, as I said before, a neat storytelling device rather than simple illustrations.  Due to lots of drawings and small pages, it's a quick read, a fun YA mystery, and a heartwarming tale. 

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (326)

"Here is the point of everything I have been trying to tell you, Oskar.
It's always necessary.
I love you"

Here's an example of a great book that I just didn't care for all that much.  It's good, it's innovative, it's gripping and emotional, but I just couldn't get into it until I was already halfway through.  The story follows a boy who is looking for clues to a message he is convinced his father left for him before his father died in 9/11.  Interspersed with the chapters from the boy's perspectives are a series of letters written from his grandmother (to him) and his grandfather (to his son, the boy's father).  Oskar's grandfather walked out on his wife before his child was born, so he never knew him.  He also had a strange ailment where he gradually lost his power of speech.  Anyway, all three voices are very different in tone, style, and substance.  Several pages were also torn from the grandfather's note bad (which he used to communicate since he couldn't talk, essentially giving the reader half of a long-ago conversation) or Oskar's scrapbook.  It was fascinating to see the way the author used the book itself as visual art (rather than relying solely on the words).  However, it became somewhat of a distraction to me as I was reading.   It was difficult for me to read the grandfather's chapters, as he almost exclusively used commas for punctuation.  Very few periods.  Again, an artistic choice, but one that started hurting my brain. 

Once I was about halfway through the book and I started to see where it was going, I started to really get into it.  But I wasn't really invested from the beginning, so the payoff, while satisfactory, didn't have as much punch as it otherwise would have. 

Again, I recognize that this was just a matter of personal preference.  It's a great book, and it never uses the shock of 9/11 to try to coerce more grief out of the reader than we already feel from the fact that our protagonist is a child who is trying to deal with a lost parent.  I'd actually recommend it to anybody looking for an interesting read.  I just didn't get too into it myself, that's all. 

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis (304)

At no point were the lab rats informed of the details of the experiment.  They were praised for their walks, and criticized for swinging at pitches out of the strike zone.  But they weren't ever told that the front office had reduced offense to a science, or thought they had.  They had no idea that their management had reduced them to their essential baseball ingredients and these did not include guts or heart or determination or anything else that ordinary fans, or their mothers, would love them for.  The players were simply aware that some higher power guided their actions.

This book is about half math (obscure statistics and equations) and half baseball.  If you know me very well, you know that this is the perfect recipe for a book I'm going to enjoy.  I actually wondered how they were going to make a good film out of this, since so much of it was statistics and theory and not necessarily throughline, but the filmmakers made a solid adaptation that was still highly entertaining.  Now, as with all sports nonfiction, the language in this can get pretty bad, so if you're offended by F-bombs then stay away.  Otherwise, if you like intellectually stimulating baseball reading, this is probably the book you're looking for. 

Fun fact: Baseball People hated this book when it came out.  Small wonder why. 

Oh, and a post-script: a big part of manager Billy Beane's theory for putting together and efficient baseball team relies on taking pitches and getting walks while not using risky plays such as stolen bases or sacrifice bunts (there are statistics in the book to back this theory up).  He also considers defense to be a low priority on his position players.  Yet the team that did win the 2002 World Series was the Anaheim Angels, a team whose hallmarks were: base-stealing, positional defense, and well-placed bunting.  Interestingly, Beane's A's have yet to win a Series.  Now, that's not to discredit anything in the book, because I think Beane's plan is intriguing and yes, for a number of years a lot of those Oakland teams won a lot of games, but the book doesn't really point out that, if the bottom line is success, there may be some credibility to traditional baseball thought after all.

The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan (703)

The thoughts that had had him staring up into the blackness still ran through his head.  Men would die today.  A great many men, even if everything went perfectly.  Nothing he did now would change it; today would run out according to the Pattern.  But over and over he mulled the decisions he had made since he first entered the Waste.  Could he have done something different, something that would have avoided this day, this place?  Next time, perhaps.  The tasseled length of spear lay atop his sword belt and scabbarded blade besidehis blankets.  There would be a next time, and one beyond that, and beyond again.

Oh man, if I were to write a review of this book I'd probably be writing for another hour. 

It's another Wheel of Time book.  You can check my comments on the previous four and they'd mostly apply to this one.  I liked it more than the last one I read, though I found the climax to be less exciting.  Still, this is an incredibly solid saga, and I'm still all in.  I actually started this book right after I finished Till We Have Faces and came back to it on and off over the past two months, not because it wasn't gripping, but because the other books were due back at the library.  Plus, I wanted to read the Best Picture noms before I saw them when possible.  But Fires is another great chapter to a great story.  There wasn't a single character arc or story arc I didn't like this time around, and that's impressive given the number of arcs you get in one of these beasts.  It clocks in at 702 pages, but trust me, it feels like a lot more than that.  These books are marathons, and I love them.  Even if I do have to take a break between them.  (I won't wait a whole year this time, though)

Holly, feel free to call, and we can discuss in depth :-)

The Titan's Curse by Rick Riordan (312)

"Five shall go west to the goddess in chains,
One shall be lost in the land without rain,
The bane of Olympus shows the trail,
Campers and Hunters combined prevail,
The Titan's curse must one withstand,
And one shall perish by a parent's hand."

This is the third entry in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, and these books are just fun.  They're not masterpieces, but they are very good.  If you like YA fantasy adventure, and especially if you like monsters, you need to check these books out.  The setting is Greek mythology, and Riordan pulls from every corner of the mythos he can get his hands on.  The characterizations of the gods are usually fun and clever.  The protagonist's voice is usually amusing in that 14-year-old-boy sort of way, and the battles are always well-written.  I'm afraid this series will always be compared with Harry Potter due to the similarities in the posters for the first Percy Jackson movie and the HP franchise, and that's unfair.  HP is obviously the superior series.  But PJ isn't trying to be HP, nor should it.  It's more a series of epic quests for preteens, and it's still pretty dang entertaining throughout. 

Then again, I just really like monsters.  So maybe that's why I dig them. 


Hoorah, all caught up.  About to come to the end of the short-list I had to begin the year.  Maybe I'll go back and hit up my old Reading List after that.  As long as I don't wait until I have more than five books at a time to review.  Cuz this post took forever. Glad the baby took a long nap. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

It's true, wherever there's bad art, it feels like Chriiiiistmaaaaaas!

***Editor's note: I actually wrote this blog a while back and forgot to post it.  Oops!***

Seeing as how I already posted my annual reading list on my other blog, I ought to at least offer short write-ups of the Month of Christmas Reading.

Remembering Christmas 
by Dan Walsh

This is about as "standard Christian fiction" as you can get.  (Interestingly, I didn't know anything about this book when I reserved it.  I just caught the title and said, "Hey, I'm reading books about Christmas this month, why not?")  You have the kind, older parents who run the little Christian bookstore beneath the church.  You have their only other employee, the single mom with three jobs and a faith that can move mountains.  There's our protagonist, the prodigal son who is highly successful in the business world and dreads the annual call home for Christmas time.  And when Step-dad has a sudden aneurism at the beginning of the book, Skeptical Son has to run the little Christian bookstore over the holiday season!  All these church people are so weird and nice.  He doesn't know how to process it!  And his Step-dad actually gave books away and fed homeless people?  What kind of person does that??  But wait...Skeptical Son appears to be falling for Single Mom!  Oh, noes!  She has a kid.  He can't fall for her!  For her part, Single Mom likes him, too, but she doesn't want to pursue her feelings because she just isn't sure about his faith life.  And, of course, there's deep resentment causing rifts in the family due to some history. 

There aren't a lot of surprises in this story (well, scratch that, right about page 200 there's a real lulu.  It's sort of the book's Nuke The Fridge moment, but I have to credit the book that it caught me by surprise!) and most of it is kind of boring.  The dialog is often awkward, as every conversation is sort of forced into making the author's point, but again, this is Christian fiction and, sadly, most modern Christian fiction kind of fits that mold.  All in all, this book isn't very good, but it isn't terrible, and I'm sure its target audience really loves it.

The Nine Lives of Christmas
by Sheila Roberts

So, this was a romantic comedy for single cat ladies.  Well, part of the purpose of Christmas Reading Month was to broaden my horizons, genre-wise.  And, of my original CRM selections, this was the most enjoyable.  That doesn't mean it's a good book, of course.  Oh, heavens no.  The romance is shallow and doesn't really make any sense.  The mousy girl at the pet store wishes she could hook up with the hunky firefighter, who must be her dream guy because he took in a stray cat.  He likes her because she's hot.  But he doesn't want to date her, because she's not the messing around type, she's the settling down type, and he doesn't want to end up with that kind of woman.  Freedom and all.  Oh, and deeply-rooted scars from family history.  (Christmas is the season for deeply-rooted family issues)  He keeps having odd fantasies about her.  And by "odd," I mean many of them involve her wearing a Santa hat. I don't know why that's a turn on.  However, some of the scenes between the two of them are thoroughly enjoyable.  They do make a cute couple, even if their reasons for getting together are vague at best and shallow at worst.

Weaving its way throughout the romance is the plot about the stray cat the man takes in, a tom cat on its 9th life who is rescued by the firefighter from a murderous dog.  The cat, who has spent most of its lives taking care of itself, now owes the man somewhat of a life debt and devotes all of its energies to getting him to dump his girlfriend and hook up with the pet store lady.  And again, there are parts of this storyline that are pretty clever or entertaining.  And, to this book's credit, the big buildup at the end (oh, spoilers, they end up together) isn't the two lover climbing into bed together.  Rather, it's a year later, the following Christmas, with the two of them curled up on the couch looking at wedding decorations.  Again, the characters are shallow, especially the guy, and the plot is a bit contrived, but there are some nice moments in this book, so it's not like the book was a complete waste of time.  Quite unlike...

The Lawman's Christmas
by Linda Lael Miller

My experience with Westerns is limited, but I'd been led to believe they were pretty much all the same.  Episodic, adventures, hombres, Indians, storms, stampedes, poor weather conditions, someone gets malaria; it's actually a lot like The Oregon Trail.  Basically, a lot of stuff happens.  This book taught me that there are actually two kinds of Westerns: the kind where interesting stuff happens, and the kind where the rugged Western man ends up marrying the poor widow who is about to be kicked out of her house by greedy merchants or something.  That could be pretty riveting if the characters and prose were any good.  But they're not. The whole book is really slow-moving (one hundred pages in, the most interesting thing that had happened was when the new marshal got a dog) and the narrative is repetitive and dull.  It's hard to believe the whole thing takes place in about a week because A) that's a LOT of character/mood changing to happen in a week, and B) it feels like you've been reading FOREVER by the time you get to the ending.  And speaking of the end....

Okay, keep in mind the entire book has moved slowly, no action, no sensuality, and very little spirit in most of our characters.  There was a blizzard, but somehow it was boring.  Then these two timid, careful, nearly-strangers get together on their honeymoon...look, I'm not going to get into details, but it was gross.  Gross.  I mean, I've read sex scenes and have become mostly calloused to them, but nothing I've read has made me as uncomfortable as this scene.  And it didn't fit the characters.  Not at all.  I'm actually getting a little queasy right now just thinking about it.  Look, I know there are worse sex scenes out there, but this just comes out of nowhere and blindsides you with ick.  Again, however, this is clearly not a book for which I am the intended audience.  However, if your audience is waiting for this kind of payoff, then that's just wrong.

Now, all of these books were written by "Best-Selling Authors," so clearly they're much better at what they do than I am.  I'm not trying to take potshots at anybody or anything.  And I admit, I was looking for cheesy (borderline bad) fiction for this Christmas season because I missed the TV specials this time around.  But after these three, I needed a major change in my literary diet.  So I returned the last few books I "blindly" checked out and picked up a couple I figured I had a good chance to really enjoy.

The Angel, the Shepherd, and Walter the Miracle Christmas Dog
by Dave Barry
128 pages
Putnam Adult, 2007

I am a fan of newspaper humorist Dave Barry (though I was thoroughly disappointed by the one children's novel of his that I've read), and I'd read a few of his Christmas columns in years past, so I thought this book would be a positive step toward giving myself a merrier PowerCard Christmas.  I was right, as Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog is a charming holiday story about a family whose dog dies on Christmas Eve.  It's told from the viewpoint of a 12-year-old (I think) boy dealing with 12-year-old-boy problems like girls, siblings, and the annual church Christmas pageant.  Surprisingly, this narrative lacks the sarcasm and comic cynicism that I've come to associate with Barry's work.  In a way, the tone reminds me of the narrative voice in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, only from a boy's perspective instead of a girl's.  So if you're not offended by somewhat crude preteen boy humor (or large piles of bat guano) then this is a book I wholeheartedly recommend for some light, heartwarming holiday fluff. 

The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits
by Les Standiford
256 pages
Crown Publishers, 2008

I read this book as a recommendation from my uncle's book store's web site.  I never got around to reading The Christmas Carol this year, so I figured this would be the next best thing.  It's kind of an introduction to Dickens in a lot of ways, sort of a light biography that focuses primarily on his career leading up to and including Carol, then glossing over everything afterward.  I enjoyed it, and it made me want to read more Dickens.  The purpose of the book was to show how Carol resurrected the dying career of one of England's greatest novelists while showing what an impact Dickens' book had on popularizing the holiday of Christmas itself in Western culture.  While I felt like the book did a great job on the first half of that premise and a decent job of setting up the second, I don't know if it necessarily showed as strong of a correlation between the book's success and the rise of Christmas.  Still, it was an informative and entertaining read, and a nice way to close out 2011. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

If you can't go home, you can always go to Florida and paint!

by Mailynne Robinson
325 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2008

I was kind of disappointed with Home, the follow-up novel to Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer-winning Gilead.  Gilead happens to be my favorite book, so I suppose just about anything after that is going to be downhill somewhat, but I felt like this book was missing a lot of the charm that the first one held, and a lot of that was because of the shift in protagonists. 

Now, before I continue I have to say that this book was very well-received by critics, so it's most likely a case of it not being to my specific taste.  I can tell that the prose is, again, beautiful, and the characters endearing in their own tragic ways, but the overall effect was overwhelmingly melancholy to me for the most part, and I generally put the book down feeling worse than when I'd started reading.  Which is fine sometimes, but I kept hoping for a more hopeful bent like Gilead often offered, only to find the hope in Home was usually shot to pieces pretty quickly. 

Home follows the day-to-day existence of Glory Bouhgton, a minor character from Gilead, and her brother Jack, a fairly major character from the earlier book.  It takes place concurrently with Robinson's earlier novel and occasionally crosses over, covering or referring to scenes from the other book. Glory and Jack are caring for their aged father, the Reverent Robert Boughton, who is in his last days, in their childhood home of Gilead, Iowa.  The house is empty and depressing, and Glory's life has led to a pretty significant amount of disappointment and disappointment.  Jack, the family's black sheep, arrives at home, and it is the first anyone in the family has seen or heard from him in twenty years.  And while the first part of the book is somewhat slow-moving, I actually really liked about the first sixty to seventy percent of the book.  There are some great scenes and a lot of genuinely touching moments.  (I'll say that it helped a lot to have Gilead in the back of my mind throughout; without that foundation, I would likely not have made it through the early stages of this book)  After a while, though, it seemed (to me) like things sort of screeched to a halt, and I felt the story was just going around in fairly dismal circles until it came to the end.  By the time things wound up, I was pretty much ready for everyone to move on, and I felt the book ended with a resounding, "Eh." 

Again, it's probably because I loved the first book so much, and while I wasn't looking for a copy of Gilead I found the more consistently somber tone of Home a bit of a downer.  The book is at its strongest in the relationship between Glory and Jack and (when they occur) the scenes between Jack and the Ames family.  I also thought it really handled Jack's crisis of faith (and Glory's, to a lesser extent) extremely well. Essentially, Jack seems to be an agnostic who really wishes he could believe in God, and it leads to some great dialogue and even better ideological food for thought.  (The porch discussion with the Ames' about predestination, a small moment in Gilead, is a magnificent scene here)  Don't get me wrong, there were a lot of wonderful moments throughout this book.  In the end, however, it just left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth.

Duma Key
by Stephen King
611 pages
Scribner, New York, 2008

Stephen King is the master of making you either forget or not care that the premise of the entire novel makes absolutely no sense.  Such is the case with Duma Key.  (And The Talisman.  And The Dead Zone.  And many elements of the Dark Tower series. And others, I'm sure!)  I liked Duma Key a lot.  And I acknowledge that, when you sit down and explain the whole story, front to back, it sounds kind of stupid.  But that's why you read the novel and not a silly synopsis. 

Duma Key is a thriller, summer blockbuster style. In a way, it's a variation on the age-old haunted house theme.  It's got some very Stephen King-y moments (like the anger management dolls, sudden horrific apparitions, everyday objects that are for some reason suddenly terrifying), so if you just don't like his other books, you won't like this one.  In a lot of ways, though, it feels different from the other King books I've read.  For one thing, it's written in first person, and you'd be surprised how much of a difference that makes.  For another, it doesn't start out trying to creep you out with supernatural hoodoo.  (Unexpected: hoodoo is a-ok with the spell checker)  Yeah, pretty crazy and supernatural things are happening to the guy, and there's some foraying into the Ominous, but while you know eventually everything will go wrong, it really does look like things are going pretty well for this guy...


Seriously, though, when this story turns on its head, it really turns quickly and completely.  And it's a change from a lot of other King I've read, where things start out creepy and dark and evil and then they pretty much stay that way. 

My friend who recommended this one said it's one of King's better novels, and from what I've read I'd definitely agree.  It's also the first book I've read that got me sorta creeped out.  I actually hesitated before flipping on a light switch in a pitch-black room after reading a few chapters one night, and that doesn't usually happen to me. 


 Now, of these two, Home is obviously the better book.  But Duma Key left me the most satisfied of the two.  Then again, I've always suspected I have bad taste. 

I'm currently reading a John Piper book, and after that it's the Month of Christmas Books!  I didn't get too many suggestions, so I just did a quick catalog search for "Christmas" in the Houston Public Library.  I've got a western, a romantic comedy, a murder mystery, a heartwarming tale, and something with no description whatsoever on the way.  I'm excited.  Let's have some Christmas, folks!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Always Playing Catch-Up

But, what ya gonna do?  Aside from, you know, "stay on top of things," that is.  Because that is clearly not an option. 

I was pretty excited about Scary Book Month for October.  I even started with Stephen King and Peter Straub.  Got just over 350 pages into it and then...I lost it.  Which is awesome, because it's a borrowed copy.  I set it aside to take with my to my church leaders' conference (which is all kinds of funny in and of itself) and then I just couldn't find it again.  After four days of not reading The Talisman, I realized I didn't really miss it much and wasn't too concerned about what was going to happen next.  This, despite the fact that the last line in the book that I had read was, "And then all hell broke loose."  So maybe I'll finish that one one day.  Probably not anytime too soon, though.  I mean, it wasn't bad, but I just never really got into it.  I didn't particularly care for the boy or his mom, I found the fantasy world-jumping to be a little tedious, and while I was a little bit interested in the story about the boy's father, it wasn't enough to keep me plodding through the random episodes involving evil trees or donkey-faced mutants or abusive bar owners.  The book just never really felt like it was going anywhere, and when there are over 700 pages to read I like to be fairly certain nearly halfway in that I'm going to enjoy the rest of the journey. 

Since I lost Talisman, I bought a book at the airport book store to keep me company on the flight to Chicago.  At the conference, I picked up a few book titles I wanted to check out, and eventually Scary Book Month was dead before October 10th.  I guess this doesn't bode too well for Christmas Book Month, but I do love a good theme so I'll give it a go anyway. 

As for the books I actually have finished lately:

Pirate Latitudes
by Michael Crichton
384 pages
Harper Collins, 2009

Did you know that Michael Crichton (author of Jurassic Park, Congo, Timeline, and lots of other things that turned into action movies) wrote a pirate adventure novel right before he died?  And that they found the completed manuscript in his desk drawer when they were going through his things? 

Sound a tad sketchy?  Yeah, but no big deal.  Bottom line, we got a pirate novel from Michael Crichton.  It's exciting, the characters are good, and the thing moves along at a good steady clip.  You have all of your pirate story cliches, including a sea monster battle, but nothing ever feels too forced.  It's more coherent than certain largely-successful Hollywood pirate stories, that's for sure.  I will say I wasn't too crazy about the last portion of the story. It kind of goes from being an adventure story on the high seas to a gruesome revenge plot, and parts of this last storyline seem really forced or just unnecessary.  Okay, fine, I'll just say it: (SPOILERS)

When the guy  hits his pregnant wife and then forces his best friend to have sex with her while he watches, and the other guy, sorry.  Totally unnecessary, doesn't advance the characters at all, we've already had plenty of evidence that he's an evil jerk--for no apparent reason, by the way--this did NOT need to be included.  Also, since I'm spoiling, the entire town's sudden shift to this suddenly power-mad secretary from earlier in the book is kind of ridiculous.  So yeah, the book could have ended with them coming home, or at least the ending could have been thought out quite a bit better.


On the whole, this book served its purpose.  It was entertaining, it was about pirates, it was a quick read, and it passed some time.  So, good on 'ya one last time, Michael Crichton. 

Is Belief in God Good, Bad, or Irrelevant?: A Professor and a Punk Rocker Discuss Science, Religion, Naturalism, and Christianity
by Preston James and Greg Claflin
165 pages
InterVarsity Press, 2006

This is one of those "a Christian and an atheist have a debate" books, though "debate" is not really the right word because it never feels like either is trying to "win."  Rather, both the Christian James and the Naturalist Claflin (lead singer of Bad Religion) use their email exchange to clarify their own positions while getting a clearer picture of the other's stance.  While the tone is very respectful throughout, both men stick to their guns throughout the discussion.  The exchange is very natural and realistic because it appears to be presented without an ulterior motive despite the fact that the book is published by a Christian publisher.  (That said, the final email in the book is from James, and was one of his stronger entries.  We never see how Claflin replied.  Then again, since the book wasn't really designed to come to a neat and tidy conclusion, it did have to end somewhere, and one can surmise this was the point where the discussion began to become a bit repetitive)  Both Claflin and James approved the the book (though there's no direct comment from Claflin about the book itself within its covers) and both sides end the discussion in pretty much the same place they began it. 

The back-and-forth is quite engaging.  I read the book in about a day.  And I appreciated that it didn't become the typical Christian apologetics book where the atheist comes up with the same stock arguments that are easily shot down by the wise believer.  In fact, James gets flat out beaten on certain points at times, and this book makes no pretense about it.  James also comments that his dialogue with Claflin forced him to think more critically about his faith than many of his doctorate-level classes.  And therein, I think, is the value in a book like this.  Claflin presents some legitimate heavyweight arguments against not just Christianity, but faith in general.  Again, he's not seeking a fight with James or anybody else, but he's very certain of his beliefs and he articulates those beliefs well.  Similarly, James knows his stuff and never gives the cliche Christian responses that so often leave non-believers frustrated with these discussions.  Both sides end up conceding on points, and it's honestly a lot of fun to "listen in" on the discussion.  Ultimately, however, if you're looking for a payoff, you're not going to get one here.  You'll get a lot of book recommendations, but the discussion just suddenly stops, and then the book is over.  You get a footnote that the two continue to keep in tough and are at a friendly standstill, but as for this book itself, it just feels like it cuts off in the middle of a question.  Which isn't a diss on the book, just a warning to anybody who goes in expecting any sort of conclusion :-)

Ordering Your Private World
by Gordon MacDonald
181 pages
Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985

I don't have a whole lot to say about this book.  It was recommended at the ministry conference I was attending for folks who feel like they have trouble balancing everything in their lives.  Well, that's-a me!  This book was pretty good, but most of what it has to say isn't really a new concept to me.  It did give some good tips on prayer journaling, time management, and that sort of thing, and it does a great job of identifying the symptoms of what an unhealthy life looks like (hint; mine.  Actually, a lot of folks I know and love, too).  It wasn't really earth-shattering, though.  I'd like to find an old copy for sale sometime because there are lots of great quotes to underline and keep at the front of my mind.  Also, I did take away a few things I want to start practicing in my own life.  So it's a good book.  Just not one that leaves you with a lot to say.

Oh, although this was really frustrating: he talked about keeping a Sabbath, and actually keeping it as an actual holy day.  He mentions he and his wife protecting one day a week to use as a day of spiritual retreat, and then he goes on about all the many things they do, together and alone, during their Lord's day.  And I'm thinking, "That's awesome, but what do you do when you have young children who are in constant need of your attention and supervision?"  And toward the end of that chapter, he writes (paraphrase, but an accurate paraphrase), "Obviously, when our children were younger and required more of our direct attention, this sort of routine would not have been possible." 

Fan-freaking-tastic.  So, Kim and I can start having positive, refreshing periods of rest and about twelve years.  Yeah, I actually got really frustrated when I read that, because there seemed to be no suggestion for what to do if you do have little ones hanging off you most of the time. 

That's my only gripe with this book, though. The book itself was a lot more than the 181 pages I listed, but the last 1/3 of it was study guide, and since it was an ILL request and due back at the library I just sorta skipped the study guide.  Don't have enough time in your life to read a book about ordering your life AND handle the study questions?  Might be part of the problem. 


Anyway, I'm just about done with Home, the sorta-sequel to my favorite book, Gilead, and then I've got another King book from the library (hopefully a bit more focused than Talisman was), and then I plan to do a month of Christmas-related books. 


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Moving week capsules

Two quick reviews of books that probably deserve longer reviews.

The Rangers Apprentice Book 1: The Ruins of Gorlan
by John Flanagan
Puffin Books, 2005
249 pages

This is a newish YA fantasy series my wife has been telling me to check out for a couple of years, so I finally picked it up while I was waiting for my other book to come in at the library.  (I think she's read the first few books of the series three times in the last two years.  So far, we own the first six)  It's a good start to a promising series.  It felt to me like it took a little bit of time to get into it, but then again I know how tough it is trying to get a story started when you're dealing with fantasy, history, mythology, etc.  It's pretty much your standard mentor/protege story with some very cool action sequences.  "The Ruins of Gorlan" was an unfortunate title choice, however, as the ruins aren't even mentioned until the book is practically over, and then they're just the place where the climactic battle happens. 

Then again, I know that titles can be tough, too.  As I've noted before, you don't really need a snappy title if it's a part of a series.  Nobody really refers to this as The Ruins of Gorlan; it's generally just going to be "the first Ranger's Apprentice book."

Mistborn: The Final Empire
by Brandon Sanderson
Tom Doherty Associates, New York, 2006
537 pages

All of my fantasy-reading acquaintances have been raving about Brandon Sanderson and, I've got to admit, up to this point I've been a little disappointed.  I mean, I always enjoy his stories, but I've never really been awed by them.  They're good, but I didn't see why the man was so unanimously anointed the Next Big Thing. 

Now, I've finally read the first in his Mistborn trilogy. Finally, I'm starting to get the picture.

The Final Empire avoids every criticism I've had for the other two books I've read by this author, Elantris and The Way of Kings. It's interesting from the start, and the narrative is clearly focused throughout.  Because there are fewer storylines, they're much tighter, and it's easy to see how they fit into the thrust of the action very early on. The narrative doesn't bother reminding us of individual character traits at every opportunity (earlier books went out of their way to tell us how witty and clever certain characters were or how pious and confident others were rather than letting the characters' words and actions do it for us).  The characters were believable, three-dimensional, and sympathetic.  Really, I don't have anything bad to say about this book except for the very minor critique that it occasionally feels like you're reading a tutorial on Allomancy. (Which is basically what the protagonist is doing in those moments, but it can get just a little tedious. 

Fortunately, Allomancy is really cool.  I want to see this story turned into an Xbox game.   It would be sort of like MegaMan meets Prince of Persia meets a SquareSoft game.  All of the characters are just about perfect.  The plot twists are surprising and effective, the threat is significant, and (with the exception of a couple moments near the end) Sanderson doesn't rely on any deus ex machina-style conventions to bring the story to an electrifying conclusion.  The modern-sounding dialogue may throw some picky fantasy purists, but I liked it for the most part.

I can't wait to revisit this world with the other books in this series. It's a book I'd recommend to anybody interested in fantasy/adventure stories.


Well, October is nearly upon us, and in honor of Halloween I'm going to designate October as Scary Books Month.  I've opened up The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub, and if I get through that before the month is out (let's hope I can manage that!), I'll flip through the classic Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.  Other suggestions for good monster stories?