Saturday, February 22, 2014

Review: S.

S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

This is one of the toughest books to review that I’ve ever read. Start with a book entitled Ship of Theseus by V. M. Straka. This book looks like a library book from 1946, which is what it purports to be. This book is about an amnesiac named S. who seems to be fighting a shadowy and ominous organization. From the introduction, we learn that no one really knows who V. M. Straka is; several people who have a potential claim to the identity are introduced here. The book has been translated by “FXC,” who comments (and perhaps more) in the footnotes. THEN, there are notes written in the margins of the book by two people: Eric owns the book. He’s a (disgraced) graduate student obsessed with Straka. He’s made some notes as he’s read it. Then there’s Jen, who works in the library and found the book. She begins to write notes to Eric in the book, and he writes back. Eventually, they also leave artifacts (newspaper clippings, notes, postcards) in the book as well.

So at some point, I realized that I had no clue what was going on. This means that I’ll have to start it over again and take notes. I am prepared to do this.

This book is more of a puzzle than a “normal” book. In other words, I don’t think it’s possible to read it through (like I did) and “get” it. I’ve seen some websites where people are trying to figure out puzzles in the book that I didn’t know were even there, and there are plenty that I do know about that aren’t solved easily for the reader as they might be in a different kind of book. I’ve made a note to go back through it this summer when I have some time and see what more I can get out of it. In terms of a reading experience, I really enjoyed the story of Jen and Eric. I didn’t like Ship of Theseus much—it wasn’t the kind of book I’d read without the extras. I can’t judge this experience in the same way I usually judge a book, because it’s really more than that. If you like solving mysteries or puzzles yourself, don’t miss this book. If you want the author to solve it for you, skip it. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Review: Atonement

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Briony is just the age to be confused about a lot of things. As a precocious preteen, she wants to be noticed by the adults, maybe even treated as an equal. She especially idolizes her older sister, who is just now realizing she may have deeper feelings for Robbie, the housekeeper’s son. Briony’s spot as both the budding young woman and the cute little one are usurped by her cousins, an older girl and younger twins. When the twins run away, everyone goes out to search, and Briony makes a huge moral blunder. The rest of the book deals with the ramifications of this choice, stretching into World War II and the adulthood of everyone present.

This book is on a number of “great novels” lists, but I wasn’t impressed. There are three main “episodes” in the book: the opening, set when Briony is very young; Robbie in WWII France, and Briony as a student nurse during the war. Of these, only the last held my attention; the first moved way too slow, and the second seemed pointless in terms of the plot of the novel. The characters weren’t at all sympathetic either. Briony was too spoiled and selfish for me to want to spend page time with her, and Robbie was (understandably) messed up and bitter. 3/5*

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Review: The Moon Sisters

The Moon Sisters by Therese Walsh

Jazz Moon is 22 years old, has just found her first real job, and wants to be a writer. Olivia Moon is 18 years old, has synesthesia, and sometimes fools around with boys more than she should. When their mother dies in questionable circumstances (accident or suicide?), the family deals with the gaping hole in the best ways they know how: their dad gets drunk, Jazz gets a job at a funeral home (the same one that served their mother), and Olivia stares at the sun until she is blinded. When Olivia sets out with her mother’s ashes to visit a spot that is significant in their mother’s life, Jazz is forced into her familiar (and unwilling) role as her sister’s guardian. What happens on this unplanned trip changes them both.

The story is told in alternating voices—Jazz’s and Olivia’s, with their mother’s letters to her estranged father thrown in as well. One of the most remarkable aspects of the book is how Olivia and Jazz are so different from one another, even openly hostile to one another much of the time, yet both are completely sympathetic characters. The synesthesia provides opportunities for Walsh to use images and metaphors that just make this book sparkle. I don’t say this much, but really, everything about this book was perfect: lots of symbolism, if you like that kind of thing, lots of character building, and an ending that both surprised me and hit just the right tone. Loved, loved, loved this book! 5/5* 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Review: Princess Bride

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

I can’t imagine anyone who hasn’t seen the movie; it’s one of our family’s iconic texts. So rather than a normal book review, here I’ll concentrate on book/movie contrasts. First, I started this book once, many years ago, and was supremely bored by it. I put it on a shelf, but didn’t get rid of it. Recently, I decided to cull my bookshelves and rather than just dumping it, I decided to give it one more shot.
I think what bored me the first time was the prologue. The movie’s frame (sick little boy being read to by grandpa) is introduced  by a lengthy and sort of whiny prologue in which the narrator (author?) relates how he’s contemplating adultery  in L.A. but instead returns home to his indifferent wife and spoiled son. He remembers the best book in the world which his father read to him, and determines to fetch it for his son. It turns out to be really boring in parts, so he revises it to just have the good parts so his son will enjoy it more.  (I know, you’re bored just by my relating this much. Imagine 20 pages of it).

Once I got to the story part, it mirrors the movie very closely, down to the dialogue. It does have little bits that aren’t in the movie, though, and of course, it was great fun to find them and imagine them as acted by our old friends. (In terms of casting, the movie nailed it, except for Prince Humperdinck.) When you love a movie this much, it’s a joy to add on to the lore. And don’t feel guilty for skipping the prologue. 5/5*

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Review: Book of the Dun Cow

The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin

This is Walter Wangerin’s first novel; I’ve just now gotten around to reading it, though I’ve read both his fiction and nonfiction in the past. In some time before humans, or world without humans, Chanticleer rules his farmyard and its animals; all is well until they rescue some refugee animals from another coop, including the beautiful Pertelote. Evil has come into the world through another rooster’s failing, and it is up to Chanticleer and his allies to save the world from dark evil. They have help from the mysterious Dun Cow, who comes and goes as she pleases.

Wangerin is a Christian writer, and there are definitely Christian allegorical overtones here, although it’s not nearly so straightforward an allegory as, for example, the Narnia books. One of Wangerin’s strengths is the ability to write about suffering in a way that is profound and wrenching, but not manipulative, and that strength is visible even here in this early work. This book is the first of a trilogy. 4/5*

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Review: Engaging Ideas

Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom by John C. Bean (2nd ed.)

I'm embarrassed that this review is so short, but it's often a problem I have when I love a book too much. I have a tendency to gush, which isn't fun to read. If you have any interest in teaching critical thinking or writing skills-- no matter what discipline you teach in--read this book!

This book is probably the most helpful book on teaching that I’ve ever read. Bean gives strategies for getting students—in classes across the curriculum—to write more (and better) and to do more critical thinking. He deals with all aspects of writing assignments, including how to respond to writing in ways that won’t take so much of the professor’s time as to make the grading oppressive. The main focus here, though, is on getting and keeping students engaged in their learning. This book is full of ideas to take into the classroom, and it’s both practical and theory-based. 5/5*

Monday, February 10, 2014

Review: The Charming Quirks of Others

The Charming Quirks of Others by Alexander McCall Smith (Isabel Dalhousie)

Isabel’s latest puzzle concerns a boarding school searching for a new headmaster. An anonymous note has suggested that one of the three shortlist candidates, if hired, would bring great embarrassment to the school. Isabel’s investigation is complicated by the fact that one of the candidates is Cat’s new boyfriend, and with Isabel and Jamie (Cat’s ex-boyfriend) now engaged, Isabel still has some qualms about her relationship with her niece. Meanwhile, Jamie is acting a little out of character, causing Isabel to wonder if he’s seeing someone else.  Smith is one of my very favorite authors, and I save his books for when I need a real reading treat. Of his three series that I read (also Mma Ramotswe and 44 Scotland St.), this is my least favorite, but this entry in the series was strong. Smith’s strengths are his gentle sense of humor and his reminders that we share the common condition of humanity, so charity and seeing others in the best light possible may eventually come back around to our benefit. 5/5*

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Review: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Jacob and his family don’t quite believe his grandfather’s increasingly panicked warnings about danger and strange beings pursuing him, until his grandfather’s murder. Determined to find out what actually happened, Jacob believes the answer lies on a small island off Wales where his grandfather spent time as a child.

I totally wanted to like this book, mostly because I was intrigued by the photographs of (as the title puts it) “peculiar children.” According to the end material, these photographs are real artifacts, collected by the author and some of his acquaintances. It seemed to me, though, like the children weren’t the center of the story; rather, the narrator (Jacob) and  his pursuit of his grandfather’s killer(s) played that role. I think that’s where the book let me down. It’s also a YA book, and I generally find that YA titles, while they might have interesting plots, don’t have the sophisticated language or deep characterization that I enjoy reading. This book was a quick and easy read, but I probably won’t do the sequel. 3/5*

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Book Review: Three Souls

Author: Janie Chang

Title: Three Souls
Description: Leiyin is dead, but she and her three souls cannot move on to the afterlife. During her life on earth, she has made enough mistakes that she must atone for them before she can move along toward reincarnation. The three souls show her her life, then all of them must determine how to move on.  
Review source: Library Thing Early Reviewers
Plot: Leiyin falls for a revolutionary poet, Yen Hanchin, although he is older than she is and mostly involved with his communist friends. Her desire for him and for a college education lead her to make a choice that sends her life down a path that she never expected.
Characters: The characters are very well drawn. By portraying Leiyin from beyond the grave, the author shows both her thoughts at the time of her impulsive actions and her reflections later on from a more mature perspective. Secondary characters are also well-realized.
Writing style: The information at the back of the book indicates that the characters are based on Chang’s grandparents and great-grandparents. Chang is a wonderful storyteller, and the family connection gives Chang the desire to truly understand her characters, even those who initially appear less sympathetic.
Audience: Above all, this is a historical novel and gives the reader a glimpse of what it might have been like to be a young girl from a very wealthy family on the eve of WWII and China’s embrace of communism. 
Wrap-up: The only negative--and it's not insignificant--is the souls. I never got why there had to be three souls (not four, not two) and exactly what their purpose was. The story would have been just as good without them. Just the kind of historical novel I love. I was riveted by this story. 4.5/5*