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?

Friday, September 16, 2011

End of Summer. Eventually.

And, the weather is finally marginally cooler.  Now we're only hovering in the mid-to-upper 90's.  Awesome.  

These write-ups will probably be kind of short, partially because there's not much to say about the first two and partially because Isaac's going to wake up soon.

The Sword Thief
by Peter Lerangis
160 pages
Scholastic, 2009
What's the first thing I read after finishing a summer's worth of YA novels?  More YA novels!  Actually, I was reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but in the time it took me to finish that I got through a couple of kids books.  Cause, you know, they're short.

This is the third book in the 39 Clues series.  It offered some neat character growth for a few of the many characters in the book and some interesting tidbit about a historical figure I'd never heard of before (these books are great for that, by the way), but the adventure itself was kind of lackluster.  I spent most of the book thinking I'd probably drop this series after this one, but the ending was pretty good and I'll admit I'm still intrigued, so I'll probably pick up the next one at some point.  Oh, and worth noting, this book was worlds better than book #2 was.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw
by Jeff Kinney
224 pages
Amulet Books, 2009
Now this is a series I may be done with.  The first book was hilarious, clever from cover to cover.  Highly recommended. The second suffered from sequel-itis.  The ideas weren't as fresh, many of the jokes weren't as clever, the overall story wasn't as strong. This book definitely suffered from three-quel-itis. Now, obviously, I'm not DOAWK's target audience, and the kids at my church tell me the second and third books are where the series starts to get funny.  Go figure. 

Here's my recommendation: next time you go to the library, pick up this book.  Read until you get to the end of the section about the kid writing his own children's book.  It won't take you too long, and it's incredibly funny.  Then put the book back down on your shelf and take the first Diary home with you. 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
by Betty Smith
505 pages
Harper Perennial (Modern Classics) 2001 (orig. copyright 1943)
Ah, grown-up fiction at last. (And, note, not a fantasy nor an adventure story, either!  Way to branch out, me!)  This book was so good, I kind of don't know what to say about it.  There's a reason a classic is a classic. While the book is about a girl growing into womanhood, it's such a well-written, warm, relateable book that I never felt turned off by the fact that it's basically the origin of ChickLit.  It's a story of a family struggling in a small neighborhood in Brooklyn (where a tree grows, both literally and metaphorically).  What happens?  The usual things that happen.  Birth, death, poverty, first jobs, first kisses, crazy neighbors, outings gone horribly wrong, new schools, holidays.  There's nothing out of the ordinary in the story.  It's just a great story. It's a downer at points, but it's not depressing.  It's about the survival and not the obstacles.  Francie's family sort of takes the underdog role for most of the book, and it's easy to pull for each of them.  I read this book because a good friend mentioned she'd read it something like six times, and I can see how the re-read value would be high.  A high schooler reading this book will get an entirely different story than a college grad, or a new parent, or a grandmother, et cetera.

Now, it took me a while to get through, but not because it was a "tough read."  It was actually a really easy read.  However, the episodic structure of the story meant that most chapters wrapped up nicely.  There weren't many cliffhangers, so I was never itching to get back because I just had to know what happened next.  And with the way my life's been running lately, let's just say things like recreational reading have easily been dropped to the wayside for days at a time.  Nevertheless, phenomenal book.  Pretty highly recommended. 

Friday, August 19, 2011

The End of the Summer of YA

Technically, I have one more graphic novel to read before Sunday, but I've read it before and it'll take me maybe half an hour, so I'm going to call this reading challenge over.  I win.

The One Left Behind
by Willo Davis Roberts
139 pages
Atheneum Books for Young Readers

This is a book about an 11-year-old girl who lost her twin sister to a sudden and fatal case of food poisoning about a year ago.  The first third of the book is about Mandy dealing with grief and loneliness over the death of her sister.  Then it suddenly becomes about a boy who she meets who is trying to escape some kidnappers with his two-year-old brother.  Mandy's family is out of town, so it's all up to her to help the boy find help.  (This story, by the way, feels completely separate from the earlier story about the girl whose twin died)  The first story is interesting, but depressing, and it never really goes anywhere.  The second story is a little dumb and repetitive.  (For two and a half pages, the two characters continue the argument, "You should go to the police."  "No!  The police will trust the grown-ups!  I can't go to them."  "Okay, but you should go to the police."  "But they won't trust me!  I can't!"  "Then you should go to the police.")  The novel ends as abruptly as it shifted mid-narrative, then suddenly ties it all together with "Oh, and she realized she would be okay without her sister." (paraphrase) It's all kind of bizarre.  The flap on the back says this would have been the author's one hundredth book for children, so I'm assuming she died while writing it.  (Or he.  I'm not sure whether "Willo" is a male or female name)  That may explain some of the haphazardness.  I don't know.  It was just a little hard for me to get into.

A Wrinkle In Time
by Madeline L'Engle
203 pages
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 1962

The first time I read this book (about 5 years ago) I didn't really like it very much.  I liked the ideas, but I didn't like the book.  Now that I've gone through it again, I can't imagine why I didn't like it the first time through.  This is a wonderful book, and I was a jerk for not liking it.

Actually, I think it was that I didn't like the way character relationships were handled the first time through.  A lot of stuff just sorta happens, and even the characters themselves admit they can't figure out why they feel or react the way they do at times.  It's just a feeling they get.  I think that bugged me quite a bit last time.  This time, I was fine with it.  Go figure.

Anyway, if you haven't read this book you really ought to.  It's kind of a sci fi/fantasy/geometry/spiritual adventure story.  It does a good job of taking fairly difficult concepts and illustrating them in ways younger readers will be able to comprehend.  And it's just really creative.  It may be a little too "out there" or even a bit too philosophical for some, but I think it's a great book and I'd recommend it to anybody in the preteen age group and up.

Way Down Deep 
by Ruth White
197 pages
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 2007

Oh my gosh!  It's the SAME PUBLISHING COMPANY that did the LAST book?  HOW DOES THAT EVEN HAPPEN????


For only a hundred ninety-seven pages, this book had a lot of characters.  And to be honest, I didn't actually keep all of them straight in my mind, because a lot of them show up at the beginning, disappear for most of the rest, and then show up again in the end.  But that's okay.  They really aren't necessary to the story anyway.  Each, however, has their own quirk, and each also has their own flaw.  That's important. 

This here's the story of Ruby June, a girl who suddenly turned up at the age of two on a doorstep in the town of Way Down somewhere in West Virginia in the 1940s...ish.  (Sorry, details a little hazy and mostly irrelevant and I already took this one back to the library)  Ruby grows up in the boarding house, and everybody loves her.  (That's the prologue)  One day, a man tries to rob the bank, but he's very bad at it.  Turns out he's not a bank robber at all, but a poor man whose wife died and so he can't take care of his five (or four? again, details fuzzy and irrelevant anyway) kids.  The good folks of Way Down let the man move his kids from Yonder Mountain, Virginia, and agree to help them out.  Ruby makes friends with the older boy, Peter, and kinda takes, y'know, a liking to him (though that's mostly irrelevant, too), and she makes friends with a couple of the other kids and the eccentric old grandfather as well.  They eventually realize that Ruby looks exactly like a two-year-old girl who disappeared from a family in Yonder Mountain at exactly the same time Ruby arrived in Way Down.  Or rather, what that two-year-old girl would probably look like if she were now twelve.  Which Ruby is.  Ruby's uncle from Yonder Mountain is called down, and it's decided that Ruby needs to go back to her family at once (That's act one).

It turns out, Ruby's parents are dead (because this is a children's book) and her grandmother is a terrible, lonely old taskmaster.  The only reason Ruby's uncle brought Ruby back was so that he wouldn't have to deal with the grandmother anymore.  Ruby is terribly lonely, and the only solace she gets is reading the little scrawlings of writing her mother left on the walls when she was a child.  Also, she tells grandma stories about everyone from back home.  Meanwhile, the entire town of Way Down is sad that Ruby is gone. (Act two)

In the book's third act, the mystery of Ruby's coming to Way Down is finally solved--or rather, confessed--in a rather dramatic fashion.  (Ultimately, this too isn't really all that relevant)  Ruby runs away, and grandma chases her down and declares passionately that she wants to move with Ruby to Way Down and learn to be a better person.  Meanwhile, all the many characters have learned to overcome their initial flaws and insecurities thanks to Ruby's inspiration. 

In all honesty, this was a pretty sweet little book.  It wasn't the greatest story in the world, but it's not really trying to be.  It's kind of a Pollyanna type, only Ruby doesn't have to go around trying as hard to be agreeable.  She's just naturally sweet and smart, and it rubs off.  It's easy to like this girl and to want her to win, even if you can tell where the story's headed at pretty much all times.  (The only twists seem to come out of nowhere and--say it with me--don't really matter in the long run anyway)  It's actually a book I could see getting adapted into a pretty good play due to its great characters and simple story.  It's a book that's not pretentious, not particularly surprising, but it just designed to make the reader feel good.  And I'm all for that.

The Door Within
by Wayne Thomas Batson
Tommy Nelson, Inc., 2005
316 pages

I incorrectly wrote the author's name as "Thomas Wayne Batson" in the last post.  Surely you can understand my error.

I think I'm going to write a post at some point regarding allegorical fiction and why it so often fails as a storytelling device.  This book is at its strongest when it's not trying to be symbolic.  When it is trying to be symbolic...well, it often comes across as silly.  Which is a shame, because the mythology Batson creates in this story is pretty interesting.  I know I would have loved this book when I was ten or twelve, and I also know that this book is targeted at ten or twelve-year-old Christian kids, so I guess it's doing its job.  It just seems it could have more effective if it could have been a bit subtler at times, particularly in the portions of the story that happen in the modern world.  For that reason, I probably liked the two pirate books by this author better (the same kid in my class put all three of these books) even though epic fantasy is more my cup of tea.

The characters are fairly well developed, at least the ones we're supposed to like.  I joked to my wife after reading the last two books that, unlike many Christian kids authors, Batson isn't afraid to kill long as they're not main characters, that is.  If you ever find yourself in a Thomas Wayne Batson Wayne Thomas Batson story, you'd better hope you get a lot of page-time or else you're a goner at the moment the story needs a dramatic twist.  That said, he does buck the trend here, and while the book starts slow and then ambles along fairly predictably for much of the narrative, the final quarter of the book has some legitimately satisfying twists and surprises. And while you have to buy into some "Wait, really?" moments to make it all work out in the end, well, just deal with it.  Writing epic fantasy is hard, okay??

Overall, I enjoyed the book, despite some eye-rolling moments and some awkward narrative.  I believe this was Batson's first published novel, and having read the two Isle stories I can say he has definitely improved. He certainly doesn't fall into the stale mold many place most Christian YA authors into, and that's a great relief.  He writes some great adventures, and while this isn't his strongest work it definitely has the seeds of great adventure throughout its pages.

And now, I am DONE reading YA books for a little while.  What's up next?  Well, here's my short list:
Mistborn: The Final Empire
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Les Miserables
Carter Beats the Devil
The Talisman
The Fires of Heaven

I may switch around the order a bit, but that ought to get me to the Christmas season.  

Monday, July 25, 2011

More "Summer of Young Adult Fiction"

Isle of Swords
Thomas Wayne Batson
344 pages
Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2007

I will admit that this book impressed me.  Much as I loved Christian children's fantasy books in my youth, I've found a good many of them lacking in literary merit as I've grown older.  Batson's book doesn't water down the story for the sake of the gospel, however.  There's no praying for miraculous victory over demonic bad guys at any point in the book.  The center of this story is a good man who has been forced into piracy for a living, a life he hopes his daughter may one day avoid (though it's the only thing she wants to do and she thinks he won't let her become a full-fledged crew member because he thinks she can't handle it), and a young man with amnesia and some wicked scars all over his body.  The Captain Declan Ross (aforementioned good man/pirate) has befriended some monks whose monastery--neutral ground, by the pirates' code--is about to be sacked by the sickest evil pirate on the seas.  The monks ask Ross to take one brother with them, the brother with a map to a great sacred treasure, and the rest of the book is a race between Ross's crew and the evil Bartholomew Thorne's ship to find the treasure on the Isle of Swords.

For the most part, this is a very good book.  The characters are likeable.  The story is always moving forward.  The monk (obviously the Christian voice throughout the novel) is respectful and believable, and while he's always ready to teach or to reach out using scripture, he's not your stereotypical goodie two-shoes Christian you find in many similar stories.  He's a human character with faults like all the others.  Rather than relying on literal Deus ex machina devices, Batson tells a story of people going through conflict on their own with spiritual principles guiding them without forcing their hands.  And here's the best part: it's an exciting story!  The bad guy is wickedly evil.  Some of his scenes are legitimately cringe-worthy.  The protagonist's spiritual journey goes from full-on doubter to curious seeker.  There's no forced, tied-up altar call anywhere in the book, and you can believe the subtle change and see the priest's influence on him throughout.  There's lots of fun and a ton of action.  I think Isle of Swords would stand up fairly well with most fans of YA adventure stories.  Which leads us to...

The Lightning Thief
Rick Riordan
Disney-Hyperion Books
377 pages

I saw the movie made from this book last summer and just now got around to reading it.  Completely different story.  I know all adaptations have some changes, but trust me, these were different stories.  I mean, okay, in each story, Percy is a son of Poseidon, he goes to a summer camp for kids with Greek deities for parents, and he, Grover, and Annabeth go on a quest to find Zeus' thunderbolt because somebody stole it from Olympus and the gods are going to start a war.

Similarities: over.  (Okay, there are a couple of scenes from the book that made it into the final cut of the film, but not really that many)

I enjoyed the film.  It made for a good summer popcorn flick.  But the book is so much better.  I know how cliche that is, but it's quite true.  The characters have more depth and are therefore more interesting.  The story is more intelligent.  The surprises are more surprising.  Riordan nails the character voice in the narrative (it's actually one of the book's strongest elements).  Really, "visual effects" were the only thing that the movie did better than the book.

This is a really fun adventure story that admittedly isn't perfect, but is a quick read with some really entertaining scenes.  Also a fun "who's who" introduction into Greek mythology for middle school readers.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules
Jeff Kinney
Amulet Books, New York, 2008

Here's a book that suffered bit from sequel-itis.  The humor just wasn't as fresh or funny as the first time around (though the storyline where Greg's mom joins in his weekly Dungeons and Dragons type game is golden).  Everything's still pretty amusing, and the illustrations are again a highlight, but it just didn't seem to have the comic brilliance of the first book.

Then again, I asked some kids about it, and they told me the series didn't really even get very funny until the second book.  So maybe I'm just old.

Number the Stars
Lois Lowry
Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1989
137 pages

This was one of my sister's favorite books back when it was relatively new, and it's good to see that it's still popular among kids over twenty years later.  (Yikes!)  All I really knew about this book growing up was that it was that girls seemed to love.  That's still true, by the way.  I posted on Facebook that I was reading it, and close to ten women chimed in with "I love/loved that book!"  For just one hundred thirty-seven pages, this book really packs a wallop.  There's great emotional depth.  The protagonist of the story is a young girl named Annemarie.  Annemarie lives in Denmark during the time of Nazi occupation.  She and her family become involved in an operation to smuggle Jews out of the country into Sweden.  Yeah, it's fairly heavy stuff.  But you can't help but marvel at the bravery and pride of the folks who secretly defied the Nazis.  An afterward explains how much of the book came straight from reality.  More than a touching story about a girl and her best friend, it's a book that celebrates the "regular people" who fought back during the second world war.  I don't want to sound like a publicity pamphlet or anything, but it was actually fairly inspiring.

Ellen Potter
Philomel Books, New York, 2009
199 pages

I didn't really like this book.  I can't exactly pinpoint why without rambling, but basically the story was jumbled and confused, the themes were dealt with awkwardly, and the humor wasn't all that funny to me.

The Sea of Monsters
Rick Riordan
Hyperion Books for Children/Miramax Books, New York
279 pages

More Percy Jackson adventures.  There was a little less intrigue this time around but just as much adventure.  Percy meets his cycloptic half brother and the two of them (along with Annabeth, because what's an adventure without a girl along?*) leave camp on an adventure to rescue Percy's buddy Grover who (for some reason) is about to be married to Polyphemus (of The Oddesey fame).  Okay, so that part didn't make a whole lot of sense to me, but the rest of the story was just solid fun.  You got monsters, donuts, monsters eating donuts, centaurs, chariot races, cyclopes, Confederate zombies, and a host of other adventures that somehow manage to form a cohesive episodic quest narrative.  The narrative voice is again a strong point, and while it's still clearly aimed at younger readers, there's enough innocent fun in each chapter to give just about any lover of adventure stories a good time.

Isle of Fire
Wayne Thomas Batson
338 pages
Thomas Nelson, 2008

This one wasn't quite as sharp as Isle of Swords was.  The story went in too many different directions and tied together somewhat sloppily at the end.  Everything seemed to happen very quickly.  For example, fairly early in the story, the King accepts the testimony of the second-in-commend of one of his lead naval commanders (#2 is working for the Big Bad, of course) without any investigation or examination, and pretty much all of Parliament goes with it, despite the fact that the commodore in question has a strong reputation of sound judgment.  This is needed to advance the story, but it just sorta seems to happen without any real reason.  There are a few such instances where things seem rushed just to get to the next point.  Also, there's a new main antagonist thrown into the mix, and while his storyline is good, it sort of stumbles back into the main narrative at the end and the New Big Bad (the Bigger Badder?) sort of bows out pretty unceremoniously.  Ultimately, this is just a book that tried to do too much in too little time.

Now, that's not to say it was a bad book, because it wasn't.  I enjoyed reading it.  I enjoyed each of the characters' continued arcs from the first book.  The development was still realistic, and the faith element, while more prevalent due to the nature of Story #2, was treated realistically and sensitively.  If you read and like the first book, I'd recommend reading this one to see how things wrap up.  (I assume this is the last, anyway)

*Answer: a Tolkien adventure 

Monday, July 4, 2011

Lightning Round

Okay, so here's the quickie recaps of my July reading.  (Most of these are from my Summer of YA)

--Dying to Meet You by Kate and Sarah M. Klise.  Grumpy author moves into haunted house.  Ghost of the house is a dead, unappreciated, better author who, along with the kid in the attic, eventually melts the grumpy guy's heart and together they write bestsellers and start a really bizarre family.  All told through a series of letters, memos, newspaper articles, etc.  

--The Maze of Bones by Rick Riordan.  The 39 Clues series = coolest educational anything since TV series Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?  Two orphaned kids in a race to become most important people in world history track down Ben Franklin-related clues while trying not to be killed by their relatives.

--Zamboni Rodeo: Chasing Hockey Dreams from Austin to Albuquerque by Jason Cohen.  The one non-YA book.  Very non-YA.  Writer follows the Austin Ice Bats around for a season in the early years of the old WPHL.  A must-read for any fan of the CHL, WPHL, or minor league hockey in general.  Bad language. 

--Diary of a Wimpy Kid  by Jeff Kinney.  One of the funniest things I've read in a while.  Don't see how a movie could have possibly done it justice. 

--The Adventures of Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey.  Villain is a mad scientist who wears a diaper (no apparent reason).  Protagonists distract him by launching a piece of fake poop behind him, leaving him so embarrassed he has to excuse himself for a few minutes.  Pretty much all you need to know right there.

--One False Note by Gordon Korman.  Next 39 Clues book.  A whole series written by different authors?  Cool idea.  (This book not as good as the first)

--Savvy by Ingrid Law.  Very sweet story about a family that (for lack of a better term) receives special abilities (i.e. superpowers) on their thirteenth birthdays.  Really, though, a sweet coming-of-age, finding-your-place type story.  Surprising.

--The Cave of the Dark Wind: A Never Land Book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson.  BORING!

--Addie McCormick and the Chicago Surprise by Leanne Lucas.  Still not sure what exactly the Chicago Surprise was.  But there sure was a lot of praying for people!  (Not to make fun of prayer.  Prayer is good, folks)

Just about finished with my first ever Christian pirate adventure YA novel.  It's actually pretty good.  Picking up my next round of YA books this week and about to dive into Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series. 

Monday, June 6, 2011

Jane Austen and Comic Books

I know I just made a fairly mammoth update yesterday, but I just finished this today and I didn't want to wait another month before writing about it.  By the way, if anybody is curious, I have read 28 of the 60 books on my original reading list

by Jane Austen
First published 1818, this edition copyright 1906
Everyman's Library, Alfred A. Knopf, New York
249 pages

It took me a long time to read this book.  This is likely due to the peculiar circumstance that I could rarely venture beyond one chapter at a time without beginning to feel drowsy.  That isn't to say the book is dull, because it's really not; it just consistently made me sleepy. 

Here we have one of Austen's lesser-known romance novels, a story featuring Anne Elliot, who is pretty old by your typical Austen heroine standards (she's all of twenty-seven).  At age nineteen, Anne fell in love with one Frederick Wentworth, but her father and a close friend persuaded her against the match, primarily because of Wentworth's low position in society, and Anne thought it best to submit to their thoughts than follow her own feelings.  Thus the gentleman left and joined the navy.  Fast-forward eight years, and both Anne and Frederick--now Captain Frederick Wentworth--are still single.  They haven't seen or spoken to each other in almost a decade, but life throws them back into each other's paths.  Obviously, things can't just pick up where they left off--there are always complications in Jane Austen romances, though Austen's more popular heroines never seem to have quite so much stacked against their chances for happiness as Anne has.  Her family members are always keeping her down, her father's poor financial choices have left the family somewhat lacking in social prestige (and thus somewhat less attractive to many potential suitors for the Elliot sisters), and Captain Wentworth appears to have not quite forgiven her for breaking his heart so completely eight years before.  As always, Austen weaves a tale that is equal parts social and economic plotting and emotional confusion in a style that is so straight-laced you might miss the wit if you're not ready for it.  It is a story of redemption and second chances.  But it's also a Jane Austen, so you're already pretty sure how it's going to end.  Let's face it, you don't read romance novels for the mystery :-)

I did like this book.  I did struggle somewhat with the sentence structure.  Austen's thoughts often take off in different directions rather abruptly, and there are so many commas and parentheses that I sometimes forgot what was being referenced or who was speaking by the time I reached the end of the paragraph.  Ultimately, it's a very different style of writing and of storytelling than I'm used to, so it took some time adjusting.  I don't read many novels where 95% of the action is sitting/walking and having conversation and/or pausing for reflection.  There's a lot of talking about things that happened between chapters, but very little of things actually happening while you're reading.  At one point, a character falls and hits her head, and it comes as a bit of a shock to the system because it's something happening rather than someone talking about something that happened.  Again, it's just a very different narrative style than I'm used to, and it's a good stretch for my mind to grapple with. 


Speaking of differing literary styles, I realized I haven't been offering any comments on the graphic novels and comic collections I've been reading this year.  This is because I don't count them in my end-of-the-year page count totals.  Still, some great stories, and so I figured I'd let you know what I've read so far this calendar year in the world of graphic novels and comic strip treasuries.  They've all been pretty good.

Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar
Batman: Hush by Jeff Loeb
Superman: Birthright by Mark Waid
Sgt. Piggy's Lonely Hearts Club Comic: A Pearls Before Swine Treasury by Stephan Pastis
Runaways #2: Teenage Wasteland by Brian K. Vaughn
Runaways #3: The Good Die Young by Brian K. Vaughn

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Month of May, and What Comes Next

I did actually do a decent amount of reading in May (once again, for me), I just haven't gotten around to blogging it.  Usually, I've been too tired to string together enough coherent thoughts when I'm at home, and I left my page count and publisher information at home so I didn't write while I was at work. 

Long overdue, here be some books I done read:

The Shadow Rises 
by Robert Jordan
TOR Fantasy, 1992
681 pages

Here we have the fourth book in Jordan's Wheel of Time series.  Of the four, this is the book I felt was the least "stand-alone."  By this I mean that, had I picked this book up and read it apart from the rest of the series, I'm not sure I would have cared enough to read any further.  However, it does not exist independently, and as a piece of the WoT story as a whole, it is a very strong addition.  (NOTE: I don't really know how to talk about WoT books anymore without discussing MASSIVE SPOILERS for those who haven't read the series, so if you don't want to know, just skip down to the next book)  The majority of this book seems to be spent waiting on something or other to happen.  Rand's arc through this book is primarily traveling and asking a lot of questions/learning a lot of Aiel history (I'll admit to getting a bit bored in the scene where he was in the Rhuidean flashback, but then again I was also ridiculously tired that day and was having focus issues).  He also spends a lot of time thinking about how strange women are. And it's true, it seems the young women in Rand's life were being more emotionally indecipherable than usual, even for this series.  I generally consider the male-female dynamics--and not just the romantic ones--to be one of the most enjoyable facets of the series.  Nevertheless, by the middle of the book I found myself thinking, "Geez, give poor Rand a break, girls!" 

I felt a little like Jordan considered Elayne and Nynaeve's storyline a bit of an afterthought. It seemed a lot more was happening there than we really got.  Instead, all I got was a bunch of Nynaeve being annoyed at the men.  I don't know specifically what in this storyline was unsatisfactory, but it just felt like there was a misfire somewhere in the execution.  It may have been that I was just never that interested in the Seanchen woman (See?  Don't even remember her name) and she was the major player early on in that story.  That said: if this series ever gets (unfortunately) turned into a movie franchise, I want Thom Merrilin to get a spin-off solo film.  And I loved seeing his and Elayne's dynamic grow.  That, and the re-emergence of Bayle Domon, were probably my favorite parts of this arc. 

I liked the growth and change to Elayne's character.  I'm generally annoyed with Egwene at this point.  Which is odd, because she was one of my favorite characters in the first two books.  Now that she doesn't love Rand, it seems like she's just stubborn and trying to prove to everybody how grown up she is.  For some reason, she's just annoying me. 

Since we're talking about women, the capitulation of the White Tower is an awesome story development.  Of all the things that happened in this book, that probably has me the most excited moving forward from a story perspective.  (Also, why do these books only give us little tiny bits of Min?  More Adventures of Min, dangit! Though that's really what amazes me most of this series: on the whole, there's really not a weak character.  Certain characters seem to fluctuate in and out of the realm of "interesting" from book to book, but they're all really solid and there's not really any one character who makes me want to skip the chapter as soon as I realize it is going to be told from his/her perspective.  (This isn't something I can say about other epic fantasy storytellers I've read recently) 

I loved Perrin/Faile's arc in this book.  It was probably my favorite individual story arc so far in the series.  It was also very welcome because, while Rand was walking for days and the ladies were sailing and then sitting around waiting for information, Perrin was rallying his homeland to rise up and repel a full-scale Trolloc invasion while sorting through a painfully enjoyable relationship and, reluctantly, becoming a hero.  From a beginning-middle-end aspect, clearly the most satisfying arc of the book.  Heck, it ends with him riding off (to the inn) on his horse with his new bride to the cheers of his army.  Perrin is easily my favorite of the three ta'varen (as I suspect one particular recommender suspected would be the case) and is vying with Loial, Thom, Faile, Lan, Min, and Moiraine for favorite overall character.  (It rarely stays the same from one book to the next)  And Faile is the perfect foil for him.  The "Price of a Departure" chapter is probably the biggest "Awwwww" chapter so far in the series.  Nice for a brief bit of feel-good in the midst of all this killing and soul-eating. 

One last thing, and then I've really got to move on: As much as I felt like we, as readers, were just waiting for Rand to meet with all the Aiel, once he does finally make it there, HOLY CRAP.  My second-favorite Final Boss Battle of the series thus far.  Also, I loved how, when Lanfear steps out to make her big "OMG it's the Big Bad!" reveal, Rand's response is basically, "About time you revealed yourself.  Where's the other one?"  And Lanfear's reaction is roughly akin to, " already knew?  So, you're not surprised at all???"  So often, you want the hero in a fantasy or adventure story to realize that yes, the mysterious stranger is not just a recluse, he's actually the Dark Lord of All Things Evil, yet they're still surprised by it every time it happens.  Not this time.  Rand's got this whole "Everybody's Out to Get You" thing figured out.  And a very cool twist, Asmodeon forced into training Rand in the One Power.

The pieces continue to move into place in what is an impressive Magnum Opus for Mr. Jordan.  I could fairly easily get lost in this series for about eight months if I allowed myself to. 

War Horse 
by Michael Morpugo
Scholastic Press, 1982
165 pages

War Horse, War Horse! War Horse, War Horse! He rides across the nations way back in World War One. Dodging shells and barbed-wire fence is not much fun! An armored tank is coming, so run run run run run! He's saddle up with no recourse, so get that kaiser!  Go War Horse!


This is a children's book from 1982 that is now a Broadway play famous for its amazing puppetry.  When I heard of the show, however, I thought the story sounded good, so I checked out the book.  If you like horses, sad things happening, or sad things happening to horses, then this is the book for you!  It's told from the horse's perspective.  A farm-raised horse forms a special bond of love with his owner's son, but the farmer gets low on cash and so he sells the horse to the army. You even get a nice scene with the boy running up to the serviceman about to take the horse away, shouting "You can't take him!  You can't take him!" and "I'll come find you!"  It's pretty sad.  From that point on, the horse is taken care of by a kind, animal-friendly officer--who is shot and killed in battle.  He then escapes the battlefield with his closest friend (whose rider was also killed) and is eventually taken care of by an old German man who lives alone with his sickly young granddaughter.  She loves the horses, so naturally the army eventually forces them to leave her.  This kind of thing happens for about a hundred and fifty pages.  It's kind of like a Lassie story where Lassie gets kidnapped and nearly dies several times as everyone who treats her kindly along the way suffers some tragic end before she finally makes her way home to an overjoyed adult Timmy, who dies of pneumonia a week later.

Okay, it's not quite that bad.  Still, it's a downer.  And that isn't to say it's bad.  I think the book is trying to be an introduction to the horrors of war for young (I'm saying 4th-6th grade?) minds.  A lot of sad things happen, but it never takes you to Where the Red Fern Grows-levels of depression.  Still, it doesn't sugar-coat the harshness of war.  A lot of characters that you come to like don't make it through the book. 

So, a good book, and a valuable one.  But it's not a surprise it didn't become a beloved classic like Charlotte's Web or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The Rise and Fall of the Bible
by Timothy Beal
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011
225 pages

Timothy Beal is a Christian who doesn't believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God.  And in this book, he lays out why.  Doesn't sound like the sort of thing I'd be up for, and yet I loved most of this book.  Here's the weird thing: I agreed with a lot of Beal's thinking and reasoning, but I don't come to his conclusions.  He spends most of the book on what the Bible is not and he presents these points very clearly and, I think, accurately.  He talks about many people loving (or hating) what he describes as the "cultural icon" of the Bible and not the actual words of the Bible, and I think that's a really strong point.  Folks go into the Word having already decided what it says, and they dismiss anything that challenges those ideas.  He also writes a fantastic chapter on how Bible-printing became Big Business, and how many of the Bibles that are in print today actually seem to discourage readers from searching the scriptures.  Really good, thought-provoking stuff.  Beal's encouragement is not to look at the Bible as a book of answers, but rather a catalog of questions.  And ultimately, that is where we disagree.  Because I believe the Bible both gives a lot of answers and leaves us with a lot of questions.  All of the questions--both the answered and the unanswered ones--are designed to direct us to God.  I don't consider the fact that the New Testament was not canonized as scripture during the time of the early church substantial reason to set it aside as "not necessarily scripture."  I don't believe the Bible was thrown together completely separate from the will of God.  I think there's a lot of value in much of what Beal asserts, but he comes to consider the Bible to be a discussion piece and not an authority, where I think there is, in fact, a lot of authority that is guiding the discussion.  

We may be splitting hairs here.  On the whole, I really liked the book.  As I said, I found myself agreeing with much of it.  Just not it's conclusion.  Not quite.  And admittedly, I didn't think the conclusion was nearly as clear as the chapters that lead up to it, so I may not be properly understanding exactly which position Beal does propose.  Still, a recommended read for most (though, admittedly, not all) of my believing friends, and a great book to sit around and discuss over a cup of coffee.  :-)


Now, I've made a bit of a deal with my 4th-6th grade AWANA students.  I challenged them each to read through the entire New Testament this summer (it's not actually that long).  My challenge is that I've allowed them each to recommend any two to three of their favorite books, and I'd read them all by the end of the summer. If we all meet our goals, we'll have a party in September.  To track my progress, I've offered to set up a blog where I'll write about each book when I finish it. It won't be the same kind of blog as this one is, because I'll be more summarizing story elements so they can tell I've actually read the book.  I'll link to that once it's set up.  I will still be here occasionally this summer, since I have a few grown-up books I'll be reading on the side, but my summer reading will be just about entirely YA literature.  Which will be good for me as a writer, but I will be ready for some more meaty material when I finish the summer reading project. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Surf, Swords, and Shootin'

Man!  I read a lot! For me, anyway.  What happens when I'm left alone without Internet for a weekend?  Books happen.

The Way of Kings
Brandon Sanderson
TOR Hardcover (Tom Daugherty Associates, LLC), New York
1,007 pages

The last Sanderson book I read left me frustrated and annoyed initially, bored about 1/3 of the way through, and riveted for the last 1/2 of the book.  Oddly enough, this book followed almost exactly the same path, though it was 600 pages longer so it took me longer to get to the payoff.  It still felt like the book went out of its way to belabor some points that I think were already pretty clear, at least from the emotional angle. The novel could probably have stood a little less brooding from the hero, a little less indecision from the heroine, and fewer interludes involving characters who supposedly will make their way into the series at some point, but for now just served to break up the central narrative of the story(s).  Also, as in Elantris, I got sick of everyone--especially the impartial narrator--telling me how clever the young heroine was.  If she's actually witty and clever, I'll figure it out.  I'm a guy who enjoys bad puns, but I'll generally use them with the realization that no, they're not actually that clever.
Character A: "...if I may be so forward."
Heroine: "Actually, you're walking backwards."
Novel: No one could get used to the fact that she was astoundingly clever!
(Exaggeration mine) 

As in the other book, however, once they stopped trying to prove how witty Shallan was, or how honorable Kaladin was, or how loyal Delinar was, everything worked together very well.  I will admit that, at about page 500, I'd decided I would finish the book and probably not bother with the rest of the (yet unwritten) series.  After all, there's a lot of good fantasy out there, and while this was a good book I thought I'd be fine without the rest. 

Here's the problem with that, though: ultimately, Sanderson's stories and mythologies are really stinking fantastic.  So they take a little time to pick up steam.  Doesn't matter. When things were rolling, they were really rolling.  The last hundred-and-fifty or so pages were "Do Not Put Me Down" exciting. This is one of the few books that I've read that drew multiple audible reactions from me toward the end.  The major reveals in the final arc of the story are masterful. And I don't really think there's any way I'm going to be able to skip book two of The Stormlight Archive.  Hopefully, now that we've established the kingdom and the government and the characters and some of the magical rules, we can jump into the story a bit quicker next time.  Because ultimately, this was a really good book.

Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board
by Bethany Hamilton with Sheryl Berk and Rick Bundschuh
Pocket Books and MTV Books
213 page

I was pretty juiced by the time I finished Book of Kings because it had been a pretty long process, and my family was out of town so I had nothing better to do, so I picked up and read this book as soon as I finished that one.  There's a movie out about this book now, and the only reason I read it was because my wife had it from the library and said I ought to read it.  So now I've read two autobiographical books about people losing their arms in the last three months. 

This book was written by a thirteen-year-old girl in Hawaii who had her arm bitten completely off by a shark while surfing and has since worked her way back into competitive surfing.  She and her family are committed Christians, so while she dislikes the spotlight she's excited about using her story to inspire others to find faith in God.  So that's cool.  The book itself isn't all that interesting, because the girl isn't really a writer.  But it is pretty short.  I finished it in about three hours.  And I'm sure for its target audience (fellow pre-teens and early teenagers) it probably hits the spot profoundly. 

True Grit
by Charles Portis
The Overlook Press, New York
2004 (originally published 1968)
235 pages

This was the last of this year's Best Picture Nominee books.  It was quite different from the other two westerns I've ever read as it did not take place on a trail.  It was kind of a tamer, western-er version of Winter's Bone.  A fourteen-year-old girl (Mattie) sets off for vengeance after her father is shot and killed by a drunken horse thief.  She gets help from a couple of federal marshals who don't want Mattie to come along on their manhunt, but she shows her moxy and comes along anyway, so eventually they let her.  The first half of the book has an awful lot of setting up the trip and the last half is the adventure itself.  There are moments of action-packed tension and moments of sitting around wrangling for dollars and cents.  It's a strange book.  Enjoyable, though.  After plowing through Sanderson's rich histories, mythologies, backgrounds, and character developments, it's a bit of a switch to take Charles Portis' "Here it is" approach to storytelling.  Nice to remember that you can tell a story without spending more than a couple of pages on biography per character.  A good study in the distinctness of different authors' styles.  Also: the narrative voice (an older Mattie looking back on this episode of her life) is quirky, engaging, and enjoyable.  It does sound like an old lady sitting on her rocker on the porch telling you the way it used to be.  Only the story happens to be about hunting down a murder in the Indian territory.  And there are snakes involved.  And it's all quite matter-of-fact to this dear old Christian woman.  She's funny without trying to crack jokes, and that's often the best kind of funny.

The afterward for this book was kind of weird, as it was basically a graduate-level book review written by a True Grit fangirl.  The bulk of it is a recap of the book you've just read with a few comparisons to Huck Finn and The Wizard of Oz thrown in for academic purposes.  That said, apparently this book had been out of print for a while, and the recent movie revived interest and so it's making a comeback.  That's good, I think, because Portis provides a different view of the West than, say, Louis L'Amour leaves us with. 

I also read a Pearls Before Swine collection that I bought with a Borders' 20% off coupon for my birthday.  I ought to start keeping track of comic collections and graphic novels I read, even if I don't count them as part of my annual "List of Books."  

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

One at a time, I guess

So I've read half of another book, but not in order, and I'm about to lend it to someone else, so I don't know when I'll finish it.  Also, my reading schedule has been very wonky lately.  Hopefully I'll catch up in the summer. 

Anyway, I recently finished another Stephen King book that I picked up more or less on a whim, so I'll go ahead and talk about it now.

The Dead Zone
by Stephen King
426 pages
Penguin Books USA Inc., NY

Here was a book that I just felt really let down by.  I never thought it was bad, but I always felt like it was misfiring somewhere.  It would captivate me for a few chapters at a time and then just sort of amble into fairly uninteresting character development or political back story for long stretches. It was still fun to read because I enjoy King's style, but I just wasn't able to get into this world as easily as I've been able to access the Tower, Tom Gordon, The Stand, or even Cell.

Well, it took me a little while, but I did finally figure out why that is, and I don't think either the book nor I were really at fault.

The premise of the story is pretty good.  A guy has an auto accident and experiences some massive head trauma, spends four years in a coma, suddenly wakes.  When he wakes, he can tell things about people through touching them.  Secret things.  Sometimes good, sometimes really dark and scary.  Sometimes it's seeing into the future.  Specific details are often a bit hazy, and it doesn't happen all the time, but it does happen, he can't control when it's going to happen, and it almost always leads him to take action whenever he can.  So not the most original concept in the world, but in the hands of a guy who made a book about people turned into psychic zombies by cell phones work, it could go to some really cool places. 

Only it didn't seem to.  It was more a series of episodes with interludes where the protagonist (Johnny Smith) would try to run away from everything to live a "normal" life while his mother's dying words (about accepting God's gift) haunted him.  Eventually, Johnny brushes up against a U.S. House of Representatives hopeful and discovers that the man is actually very evil and will soon become President and will start a nuclear war.  (And I guess that's sort of a spoiler, but it's set up very early in the book.  This ominous evil man who doesn't really play into Johnny's story for 3/4 of the book but clearly has political ambitions pops up from time to time, and if you've read King you know they're going to end up as enemies)  To be honest, I was pretty let down by this development.  Really? I thought. You have a guy who can see the future, and you're using him to expose...get this...a crooked politician???  Riveting.  Don't let the Bad Man run for office, Johnny!

However, as I reflected back on the book about a day after I finished it, I thought about what a different world 2011 is from the 1979 of Stephen King.  The Cold War is harsh reality.  Nixon just happened.  Carter just happened.  The feel-good Regan era has not happened.  Not only were Americans unhappy, they're scared.  They wondered if everybody was keeping secrets from them.  They wondered if anybody, especially those in power, could really ever be trusted.  And so, bang.  King creates a protagonist who discerns secrets with a touch and unleashes him on the heart of America's fears: crooked politics and nuclear war.  Actually pretty chilling stuff in context. 

So, no, I'm probably not going to read The Dead Zone again.  It's not one of King's long-standing classics.  I am not, however, sorry I read it, and I imagine if I'd been around to read it in the late 1970s it would have either been terrifying or cathartic. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Between a Rock and a Hardcover

Between a Rock and a Hard Place
by Aron Ralston
Atria Books,  New York, 2004
352 pages

Have you heard of the movie 127 Hours?  It was nominated for best picture last year, and it's a true story based on an incident where a young man from Colorado got his arm trapped behind a boulder while climbing down a remote canyon somewhere in Utah.  He spent six days stuck like that before he finally cut off his trapped arm and hiked to rescue workers and lived to tell the tale.  Sounded like an amazing story that I really didn't want to see, so I decided to read it instead. 

Aron Ralston (the protagonist and author) is a good writer.  He tells his own story in this book in a style that was apparently inspired by Quentin Tarentino movies.  (Read the acknowledgments, people!)  The first chapter is about his fateful hike and ends with him getting his hand caught.  The next is back story.  The third recounts his first full day in the canyon, and the fourth is another story from his past.  And so it goes.  Ultimately, this format is what made it difficult for me to finish the book quickly.  While I found many of the stories from past hikes to be interesting, the chapters were pretty heavy in hiking-related details.  And since I didn't feel like flipping back to the glossary every couple of sentences, I was a little lost as to the significance of using this piece of equipment or that specific climbing technique on a specific adventure.  Plus, I was more interested in the story of the man in the canyon, and at times it felt these interruptions were only slowing that down.  While I liked these chapters (for the most part) they did slow the momentum of the book, and one held almost no interest for me whatsoever. 

A little over halfway through the book, the format changes somewhat.  While still alternating subject matter, Ralston changes from going back and forth from past to present and instead focuses these even-numbered chapters on the rescue effort that is going on while he is trying to survive without food, water, or sleep.  Once I hit this point in the book, I was almost unable to put it down (until I fell asleep, which was more a comment on my lack of sleep these past few weeks than it was on the book itself).

Overall, I'd recommend this book to anybody who's interested in the autobiography of a guy who survived six days in a canyon before cutting off his arm.  It's quite grim and grisly at times, and the language can get harsh, but I think that's pretty understandable given his circumstance, wouldn't you?  Ralston's writing is engaging and his reflections on his life and his family are stirring.  You also find yourself cheering for Ralston's early attempts to extricate himself from the rock, even though you know they're obviously not going to work because you most likely think of this already as "The story where that one guy cuts his arm off."  When he finally figures out the secret of his escape, I found myself ready to cheer out loud. Though it's good that I didn't, because my wife and month-old son were sleeping nearby.  That to say, it's a book that will affect you.  Or occasionally bore you.  Or both, as in my case.  Of course, if you're really into reading about scaling mountains, then this is probably your new favorite book.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Wizard and Winter

Got a fun idea: While I was watching the Academy Awards, I realized I'd much rather read many of the stories nominated for Best Picture than I would care to actually watch the movies.  So with that, I went online the next day and reserved as many books that had become BP-noms as were available.  (There were only four in this year's crop)  Started reading The Accidental Millionaires (the book The Social Network was based on) and ended up dropping it after 73 pages.  This wasn't because it was a bad book (it was a bit crude, though obviously I've been able to overlook that in the past); rather it was because I had just recently seen that movie and was kind of bored with the story since I already knew where it was going.  So that's two books I've given up on this year. 

Anyway, two books finished recently.  One is not a best picture nominee, the other is.

Wizard and Glass (The Dark Tower IV)
by Stephen King
1998 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel (nominated)
698 pages
Published by a lot of different distributors, and I can't find the exact edition I read on Amazon

This was a re-read.  I first read The Dark Tower right when I was starting to get back into reading and around when Robbie was born.  This has always been one of my favorite books in the series because it has sort of a self-contained novel smack in the middle of the overarching narrative of the series.  The majority of this book is a flashback providing some welcome back story to King's gunslinger, Roland Deschain.  And it's a thrilling, frightening, passionate Western about young love and small-town politics and conspiracies and reality-altering mysteries.  And Hey Jude.  Trust me, it works so much better than it sounds like it ought to. 

The opening of the novel is a continuation of the ten-year cliffhanger from King's previous Dark Tower novel (The Waste Lands, which is also superb).  It's pretty intense.  Following the opening episode, the characters find themselves in Topeka, Kansas, during the events of King's non-DT novel The Stand.  Then Roland takes on the role of storyteller and delivers the origin of his quest for the Tower and his ill-fated romance of the daughter of a horseman in a small outer-barony town.  It's really compelling stuff.  Also occasionally grisly and disturbing.  If King sees an opportunity for a disturbing scene, he'll always take it.  Likewise, the passionate love-making sequences are largely unedited, so proceed with caution.  Overall, though, the story itself is a great adventure epic that augments the rest of the Tower saga.  And after Roland's tale is told, the book takes one of the strangest crossovers in the entire series.  ("There's no place like home..."

All said, this was a good choice to re-read, even if I had forgotten exactly how creepy Rhea of the Coos could be.  A solid tale well-told if you have the stomach for it. 

Winter's Bone
by Daniel Woodrell
224 pages
Back Bay Books, 2007

Running out of time, so I'll try to make this quick. 

This was one of this year's Best Picture nominated films.  It's very good and very disturbing as it depicts the lives of a family of drug-makers in the Ozarks.  Our protagonist, Ree, is truly a heroine worth rooting for.  If she doesn't work, the whole book is a waste.  But she does.  In an environment that seems to be breeding perpetual self-destruction, she holds on to hope that things can one day be a little bit better for her family.  Not in a Pollyanna, pie-in-the-sky sort of way, but realistically. 

In the story, seventeen-year-old Ree's father has disappeared (again) and is wanted in court (again).  He's signed their house away as evidence that he'll show, and if the man doesn't come to court the city will be able to seize the family's property.  Ree sets out to find her dad, and you learn that the entire surrounding area is inhabited by a family that protects itself and its secrets.  At every turn, Ree is commanded to give up her search, and pretty soon she can tell that whatever has happened to her father, it was bad news.  As she uncovers bits of information, she challenges a lot more than tradition, determined to either save her family or die in the process.  And there are times when you're pretty sure she'll do both. 

I enjoyed this book.  It was very dark and dismal, but not without hope.  Again, it's all in the heroine: she makes the whole thing work.  Woodrell writes of a world far removed from my own reality in such a way that I feel I can understand and relate to it, and that right there is the mark of an incredible narrative.

Oh, and since it's been stuck in your head since the post title:

Monday, March 7, 2011 then that happened

Reading has taken a hit lately since the new baby was born.  Also, my writing has picked up a LOT over the past week, which has eaten further into my recreational reading. 

Looking for balance, people.  Trying to find the balance.

Nevertheless, I've been reading more than it seems like I have.  I've got two books that are almost finished, one of which was pretty lengthy, and while I've been working on them I've finished three shorter books, none of which were amazing and two of which took a surprisingly long time to get through (mostly because they were boring and I was sleepy, so I could literally fall asleep while reading).

Here they are, then: The books that I done did finish in February 2011.

How To Run a Theater
A Witty, Practical, and Fun Guide to Arts Management
by Jim Volz
Backstage Books, New York, 2004
181 pages (because I'm not counting the index, seeing as how I didn't actually read it)

This was a good beginner's book in being a theater administrator.  A lot of it had to do with managing your schedule, reducing stress, running an efficient meeting, representing your company well, treating your employees with respect, developing a healthy infrastructure for your theater was a little depressing, actually, given current circumstances.  Still, it's amazing to me how much "be a good person" seems to have the same checklist as "be a good manager." 

Still, a good how-to book that was both concise and thorough.  Not nearly as witty or fun as the subtitle would want you to believe, however.

The War of Art
Winning the Inner Creative Battle
by Steven Pressfield
(Forward by Robert McKee)
Rugged Land Publishing, New York, 2002
165 pages

Way back when I was keeping track of a recommended reading list, this book was on it.  And after reading it, I can see why the person who recommended it liked it.  This is a book you're probably either going to love or hate.  I tend to gravitate closer to the "hate" side, though I think Pressfield's point is valid and important.  I liked the basic idea of what the book has to say, but I'm not too crazy about the way the author said it.  I think you could probably have published the most important ideas in a pamphlet and it would have been equally impactful on my life.  And it did have a definite impact, don't get me wrong.  Basically, Pressfield says that there is this Resistance that tries to keep artists from creating.  It comes in many different forms: excuses, conflicts, writer's block, fatigue, need for (and lack of) validation, et cetera.  To truly be an artist, one has to overcome Resistance if one hopes to succeed and fulfill their fullest potential.  (This is part one of the book)  In order to overcome Resistance, the artist must learn to "Be a Pro."  That basically means discipline.  Treat your art with the same discipline you give your job.  Get to it every day, whether you feel like it or not.  Do your best work.  Force yourself to stay in the habit of creating.  Deny Resistance the opportunity to slow you down.  (This is part two)  When you commit yourself to your art, you will become better.  Your imagination will sharpen.  Your senses will hone.  You will become a better artist.  (This is part three)  And I thought, "Yes, this is right.  I will start writing every night again, because if I don't I will always find a reason to put it off, and I'll never be a writer."  And that's more or less what I've done. 

Two points the book loses me on: First, I always dislike a book that I feel is belaboring it's points.  (This was part of my case against The Sacred Romance last month) I get what you're saying, let's move on.  (To Pressfield's credit, this is a surprisingly quick read because a third of the pages are only half-full of words)
  Second, and this is why you'll either love or hate this book, Pressfield goes into a lot of divine mysteries of the artist sort of things that I don't usually like.  Part Three of the book is all about accessing a Higher Realm that sends emissaries (angels or muses) to whisper into artists' ears while they write, paint, sculpt, or whatever.  A higher consciousness comes to us in our dreams because we are artists, and this other realm that exists just outside the physical realm really just wants to watch us make good art all the time.  He justifies this approach by using a single line of poetry as evidence and then proceeds as if this necessarily makes it so.  I tend to agree more with the writer of the forward of this book (odd when the guy who writes the forward disagreed with a book before you've even had a chance to read it) that such inspirations are more often born from within the artist though I don't discount the possibility of divine inspiration.  But then, I've always bean leery of the "artists are holier than everybody else" school of thought.  It's part of why I didn't want to consider myself an artist for a number of years.  So again, you'll either love this idea, or you'll be more than willing to pass on it.

The Pig Did It
by Joseph Caldwell
Delphinium Books, New York, 2008
195 pages

Hey, a book without a subtitle!

This was actually one of Kim's library books.  She put it down after about page 10.  I decided to give it more of a shot and wasn't ready to drop it until I was two-thirds of the way through, and by then I figured I'd just finish it up.  It's not a bad book, and it had several scenes that were fantastic.  It just never seemed to gain any significant momentum.  The language was pretty witty, but even that grew a bit tiresome after awhile.  It looked to be a romantic comedy with a whodunit type twist, but the book never really seemed to care much about either storyline.  And I'm sure that's the style this particular novelist was going for.  And, I know this novelist is good, because he's won the Rome Prize for Literature by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  So he's got far more pedigree than I have, this one just didn't suit my fancy. 

Again, I have to point out that parts of the book were really very enjoyable, and I even caught myself laughing out loud on more than one occasion.  But the bizarre, wandering, disconnected nature of the narrative often left me flipping to the back to figure out how many pages away from 195 I was. 

Thursday, February 3, 2011


So, I gave up on a book.

There have been several books over the past couple of years that I've said, "I'll give it to page 100, and then I'll decide whether I want to finish it or not."  And up to now, I've always finished them, even the ones I haven't particularly liked. 

This time, however, I closed a book for the last time on page 106.  And it really wasn't a bad book.  I was just ready to move on, so I did. 

So what was the book in question, the first book to fail the one-hundred page test?  Surprisingly, it was The Sacred Romance: Drawing Closer to the Heart of God by Brent Curtis and John Eldridge.  I know a lot of people who loved this book.  And it's a book that I found myself agreeing with on a conceptual level most of the time.  Which is probably why it started boring me: Curtis and Eldridge weren't exactly telling me things I hadn't already thought of.  I remember having a similar feeling when I read Wild at Heart in college, though I didn't have a book of borrowed books waiting when I read that one so I plowed through it anyway.  And besides, my fiance had asked me to read it so we could talk about it.  This time, though, it felt like we weren't covering any new territory, and it was taking a long time to not cover new territory, and the pages of rhetorical questions were also grating on my nerves just a bit, so I dropped it.  No hard feelings, John and Brent.

Oh, and please stop referencing Paradise Lost as a primary source.  I like Paradise Lost, but I'm not ready to say, "See?  This is so totally what actually happened!" 

That said, I did take one very good point out of reading Sacred Romance. And then I found the same point put much more succinctly in the next book that I picked up (and devoured in three days). 

A Million Miles in a Thousand Days
What I Learned While Editing My Life
by Donald Miller
Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2009
254 pages
(Amazon tells me this edition was 288, but I just read it last night and I know it was nowhere near that many, so 254 is a pretty good estimate. If I'm way off, I'll just edit this when I get home)

A little over a year ago, I read Miller's Through Painted Deserts.  It wasn't bad, but it wasn't a book that really stuck with me. 

This book sticks with me. 

It's also the perfect thing to read right after Hornby's A Long Way Down.  Hornby wrote a story about four fairly pathetic people whose lives are going nowhere.  Eventually, they become less miserable.  Miller writes about himself and the point when he realized that his life was going nowhere in spite of his recent notable successes as an author, speaker, and Christian celebrity.  See, Miller wrote this other book, Blue Like Jazz, that lots and lots of twenty- and thirty-somethings absolutely loved.  One day years later, he received a phone call from a movie producer (who happens to be one of my favorite songwriters, oddly enough) who wanted to make his book into a movie.  Blue Like Jazz was sort of an autobiographical series of thoughts and essays on religion in general and Christianity in specific, so the producer and Miller had to work to put together a story that would make an interesting movie out of intellectual and spiritual ramblings.  In the process, Miller decided that his real life--get up, write something, piddle around for awhile, go back to bed--made for a boring story.  And as he started learning more about what it takes to craft a great story, he started applying those principals to his life.  The process of examination and application transformed him into a new man. And out of that came this fantastic book.

Obviously, this book really hit home to me as a writer, a believer, and a man seeking new adventures in the year to come.  It's hard for me to pinpoint exactly what in this book spoke most directly to me without writing a 10-page paper on it.  At points, it was a refresher on writing technique.  At points, it offered insight into my own spiritual life.  At points, it almost read like a personal life pep-talk.  But really, it was just one guy being real and saying, "Look, we can all change the stories of our lives.  But to do it, we really have to do it."  In a way, Miller's story felt like the most healthy mid-life crisis a man could possibly have. 

Unlike in Painted Deserts, Miller really tackles some tough stuff with this book.  You can really tell the growth, not of the writer, but of the story's protagonist.  Which is, of course, the point.  The book doesn't have a strong vibe of "Hey, I did it, and you can, too!"  Though really, that's what it's saying.  Now that I think of it, this really is the best type of autobiographical story.  It's self aware without being obnoxiously so; the author never speaks as though he has the great hope or the answers to all of his readers' great struggles.  He tells his story simply and honestly, and the story itself holds a mirror to my own life and my own perceptions, and I am left with the question, "What am I to do with what I've just read?"

I'm not going to get all cheesy here.  I'm not going to say "This book changed my life!"  But it has certainly changed my week.  And that's significant enough.  If nothing else, it's re-opened my mind to the possibility that I have got choices.  I've kind of come to see myself as "locked in" to the life I'm living.  But I'm not.  Not really.  Not if I want badly enough to change it.  Miller may have a great point in his thesis that the same elements that create meaningful stories and be applied to any human life. 

Oh, and that one point that I mentioned I took away from both Curtis/Eldridge and Miller?  Sacred Romance said it thus: that so often we consider God to be the Author of our story rather than realizing we are all characters with Him in His story.  Miller put it this way: you are a tree in a forest, and the story about the forest is always better than the story about a tree. 

Either way, it's all about perspective.  And perspective, or lack thereof, is why Hornby's characters will end up at the top of the building every six months, why Eldridge's audience needs their hearts reawakened to the Sacred Romance, and why Don Miller was able to write himself into a better story than he had been living. 

Well, it seems everything in my life is currently conspiring to get me thinking about life, death, adventure, family, and storytelling these days.  I suppose there are far worse things to ruminate upon. 

Monday, January 31, 2011

Life and Death

Read two books over the last week with very different takes on both death and life.  An unusual pairing, these two.  I think I was going for contrast, and I certainly got it.  Back when I was a kid in high school making mix tapes every month or so, I'd usually try to follow up two slow, pretty, contemplative songs with something that started shockingly loud.  For some reason, the fact that the contrast was violently abrupt made the whole thing work, to my ear. 

It would seem my reading sensitivities don't necessarily function the same way.

by Marilynne Robinson
247 pages
Picador publshing, 1st paperback edition (2006)
Originally published 2004
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fictions (2005)
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award (2005)

Is that a circle of national book critics?  Or is the award itself a circle? 

I first read this book something like four years ago.  I remember it was early in Kim's first pregnancy, because I was reading it while waiting with her for the doctor once and I read her the part about baptizing the kittens.  (That's a fantastic passage, by the way)  Interesting to read it again as a father with a young child (and another on the way, of course) since it's written from the perspective of a father with a young child.  Granted, Reverend Ames is much older than I am, and he's dying, so it's not like we have similar circumstances at all.  Still, there were several portions of the book that spoke much more loudly this time through. 

Gilead is a journal (or just a really long letter) written by the protagonist, 76-year-old Reverend John Ames, to his six-year-old son.  Ames and the boy's mother met late in his life, and she's quite a bit younger than he is, thus the young child with the old father.  Ames knows he's not much longer for the world, so he writes this love letter to the boy he knows he'll never get to see grow up. 

It's really just a beautiful book.  I can't find another word that fits any better.  It's well written, it's entertaining, it's thoughtful, it's uplifting, it's honest, and it has definite personality.  I'm fairly surprised that it won a Pulitzer because it's also a very Christian book.  Long passages relate to past sermons Ames has preached, scriptures he's meditated on, or theological discussions he's had over the course of his life.  The believer and the cynic are both represented fairly, and the book honestly deals with the reality that some questions have no easy answers.  Ames is a man who struggles with a lot of the things that many of us struggle with.  His faith and his family are foremost on every page. 

Now, because the book is structured like the somewhat-rambling memoirs of a kindly elderly gentlemen, I can see how it might lose some readers.  Flashbacks are mingled with current events with life lessons and anecdotes about the young boy and his cat.  If you can handle that, however, this is a book I'd recommend to just about anybody. 

A Long Way Down
by Nick Hornby
352 pages
Riverhead Hardcover, 2005

I don't think Nick Hornby and I are going to get along.  This is the second of his books that I've read  (High Fidelity being the other) and I just haven't really gotten into either of them.  Long Way Down is a very dark comedy that centers around four miserable folks who meet on New Years Eve at the top of a building where each intended to commit suicide.  They all get sort of weirded out, though, and decide not to do it just yet.  They continue to meet and compare notes on their wretched lives throughout the next three months as they become some sort of twisted support group where nobody really likes one another all that much. 

As in High Fidelity, my biggest issue with this book was the characters themselves.  These people were just pathetic, which I know was the point.  They were self-centered and immature and, for most of the book, incapable of really changing.  So while it made for some interesting episodes over the course of these 352 pages, it rarely felt like the story was going anywhere. 

The language is strong, of course, as the characters themselves admit, and there's a lot of crudity to go around, so a lot of the folks I know wouldn't be able to stomach this book based on those factors alone.  The writing style is very sharp, however, and each of the characters has a strong voice (the book is constantly switching perspective from the four).  I'm not saying the book is bad, because it's not.  It really just isn't my cup of tea.  If you're looking for much of a rewarding story, you're likely to be disappointed.  Which, again, is one of the book's points: there's no such thing as a nice and tidy ending.  Must be one of Nick Hornby's "things." 

That, and pathetic people as protagonists. 

Ooh, alliteration!

Anyway, apparently Johnny Depp loved loved loved this novel, so there's that.