Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Christmas lights at Meredith

November 29, 2016 Leave a comment
Categories: Book Reviews

Facebook Meme: 10 Books

About a month ago, a Facebook meme was spreading:

In your status line, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes and don’t think too hard – they don’t have to be ‘right’ or ‘great’ works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag 10 friends, including me, so I’ll see your list.

Below are the books that I listed quickly, with a comment or two on each one.
1. Dune by Frank Herbert

I have re-read the book and listened to audio readings dozens and dozens of times.  I find that it is extremely deep and I discover something new each time I read it.

2. Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin

Incredibly detailed world building.  Gradations of morality for each character.  Have no idea whether a character will live or die.

3. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg .  My review here.

I intensely remember some of the scenes in this book.  I re-read the book recently just because of this meme.

4. The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien

Incredible world building.  Moving, lyrical passages.  Depth of story.  In my opinion, better than LOTR.

5. Deryni novels by Katherine Kurtz

I was fascinated by the alternate world created by the author.  Also, probably some wish-fulfillment to have some of the Deryni powers.

6. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris.  My review here.

The descriptions of Teddy Roosevelt’s early life and his drive were inspiring.

7. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

One of the first books I can recall ever weeping over.  Intense, wracking tears.

8. Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir.  My review here.

The book that first interested me in the Tudor dynasty.  Also remember reading it in the hospital while awaiting results for my mother-in-law.

9. The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner

Wonder at the ingenuity of the kids.  Great ending.

10. Beneath the Wheel by Hermann Hesse

Powerful book.  The main character burns himself out through intellectual studies.

and one more since I thought of it just as I was posting — Decision at Doona by Anne McCaffrey

One of the first science-fiction books I read — given to me by a very important junior high school teacher.

Categories: Book Reviews

Review: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

January 1, 2014 1 comment

Mixed UpThe start of the new year is often a time for reflection or nostalgia.  From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is a throwback to some of the books I read in elementary school. I remember being mesmerized by the idea that two elementary school aged kids could run off to New York City and hide out in a museum for over a week.

I decided to reread the book based on two events recently that brought the book to my attention. First, I completed a Facebook meme that asked readers to list 10 books that were in some way memorable, influential, or just meaningful to the reader even if they might not be fine literature. From the Mixed-Up Files was one of the books that immediately came to mind to me. The second event was a Wikipedia reference in a movie article that mentioned that two adaptations were made of the book; I wasn’t aware that it had ever been made into a movie.

The plot itself is wrapped in a frame story written by Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. In it, two children, Claudia and her brother Jamie, run away to New York City and hide in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Claudia’s initial intention is to escape the “injustice” she perceives at home, but she eventually realizes that her real goal is to experience something new and come home changed. She brings her young brother along because he is extremely “rich” — having about $25 saved up. During their stay in the museum, in which they must deal with security, find a place to sleep, ensure that they can eat, do laundry, and discover additional means of funding, they determine to uncover a mystery of who sculpted a newly acquired sculpture.

For me, one of the most memorable scenes, which has stayed with me for (gasp!) 30 years, is the use of the museum restaurant’s fountain in order to bathe. In it, they discover that patrons have thrown wishing coins, which help to fund their stay a bit longer.

The adventures are simple and the book is quite short, but it is easy to see why it was awarded a Newberry. The banter between the siblings — grammar corrections by a self-satisfied older sister and squabbles over how money is to be spent — is clever and not stilted. The two children are portrayed as uniquely different individuals with different personalities and goals.

Does the book hold up to 2014 vs 1967? In large part, I think yes. The children are not dumbed down nor are they portrayed as adult surrogates. The advent of cell-phones, internet searches, and heightened security concerns are probably the areas of most difference from current day. But the only jarring item is the value of money — having lunch for 75 cents, for example, and surviving in NYC for over a week with little more than $25.


4 out of 5 stars (finished January 1, 2014)


Currently reading:  Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

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Review: The Ballad of Beta-2 by Samuel R. Delaney

January 3, 2012 2 comments

I have started to develop a fondness for some of the science fiction novels/novellas of the 1960’s and 1970’s. I find that many of the ideas are clever and the writing is very tight.  I had read two of Delany’s novellas, Empire Star (highly recommended) and Babel-17 which you can find together in an omnibus edition. I ran across The Ballad of Beta-2 at a local used bookstore recently.

The conceit of this story is an anthropological study of a ballad composed by the people of a multi-generational colony ship. A student is assigned the task to decipher the history and meaning of the song. The words of the song are intelligible, but have either highly stylized meanings or the original terms have evolved over time, making the real message obscure.

The protagonist travels to the site of the surviving ships in a small research vessel which has the technology to create temporal bubbles. Once there, he attempts to locate records, both written and sound recording, to explain what happened to the ships and their inhabitants.

I found the novella very original in its themes of language shifts, idioms, and imagery, which rendered the original song mysterious to other civilizations.  Like Empire Star, it’s a story that almost has to be read again immediately after finishing to fully enjoy the book.

4 out of 5 stars (finished January 2, 2012)

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Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

October 16, 2011 Leave a comment

I just finished The Magicians, a fantasy-type novel by Lev Grossman.  Prior to reading the book, I really didn’t know much about it except a comment made that there was some discussion whether to market it as genre or general fiction. It was ultimately sold as general fiction and in many ways I think that was a wise decision.

The novel opens as Quentin Coldwater, an uber-intelligent, but listless, high-schooler in New York, is whisked off to a strange place to take an entrance test for an exclusive college. Upon his abrupt arrival, he immediately wonders if he has entered the world of Fillory, a land in a much beloved series of children’s books he devoured as a child. These books describe adventures of the Chatwin children who are transported into Fillory much like the children in the Narnia books.

Accepted as a student, he pursues courses in magic a la Harry Potter, but much more monotonous and scientific than Hogwarts. As one student states,

The work is different, too. It’s not what you think. You don’t just wave a wand and yell some made-up Latin. There’s reasons why most people can’t do it.

The problem is, however, it’s not Harry Potter. I love the fact that the book is a bit less silly and more gritty than the Harry Potter books, but the spark that’s missing is a sense of joy and purpose.

The beginning pulls you in: the mystery of the school and discovering how magic works.  But then, nothing.  There’s no great evil to overcome, there’s no purpose to magic in the greater world.

The Magicians seems to me to be a post modernist view of fantasy. There is no overarching morality or rules to follow. Instead, each person is just expected to follow his or her own code. Things just are — there is no meaning.

But, the fact of the matter is that the book is joyless.

  • The characters are joyless, looking for meaning in sex and drugs. They have few bonds of loyalty or comradeship between each other.
  • Magic is joyless: merely a memorization of endless charts and exceptions.
  • Any accomplishments are joyless, even the Harry Potter-esque geme of welters. Virtually all of the active magicians that are shown in the book are empty, purposeless shells.
  • And, when Quentin and his “friends” finally have the opportunity to visit Fillory, it too is a joyless occasion.
In some ways, the book is an homage to Harry Potter and Narnia. But, in many others, it attempts to extract and laugh at the innocence and the magic from those books.
I think I’ll read the sequel, The Magician King, but only after cleansing my palate first.

3  out of 5 stars (finished October 16, 2011)


Currently reading:  The Myriad by R.M. Meluch and Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy by John Julius Norwich.

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Review: Dragon’s Kin by Anne McCaffrey

September 24, 2011 Leave a comment

Dragon’s Kin is one of the more recent (relatively speaking) Dragonriders of Pern novels.  This book was coauthored by Anne McCaffrey’s son, Todd McCaffrey.

The focus on this book is the watch wher, the somewhat failed “cousin” to the magnificent dragons of Pern.  Set much earlier than the 6th Pass of the core “Dragonriders of Pern” novels, during an interval between passes of thread.

Kindan is the young son of a miner / watch wher handler.  Watch whers, who are able to see clearly in near dark, are being used in mines to detect “bad air” and to help locate miners who become trapped in cave-ins, almost a reptilian St. Bernard. If the mining camp can prove itself, a new Holding may be in the offing, but accidents and set-backs continue to plague it.

When Kindan’s father is killed in a mining accident along with his bonded wher, Kindan is assigned to the Masterharper. Ultimately, he must choose between his heart’s desire (to become a harper himself) and the needs of the community.

In my opinion, watch whers receive a bit of reconning treatment.  They are portrayed less like the ugly, twisted creatures of the earlier books — granted, however, their extreme loyalty to their Holders is admirable (recall the loyalty of the Ruatha Hold wher to Lessa) — and more like sturdy, likeable companions to their bondmates.  In this reconning, the authors demonstrate that whers can fly with their stunted wings, go between, and communicate telepathically.  The latter talent is greater than that of the fire lizards, but much less structured, intelligent, and self aware than the dragons themselves.

The companionship and the raising of a new wher is touching, however.  While I’m not sure that there is a whole story here, I found the book compelling and an interesting companion to the more dragon-centric novels.

4 1/2  out of 5 stars (finished August 31, 2011)


Currently reading:  The Myriad by R.M. Meluch

Review: The Skies of Pern by Anne McCaffrey

August 23, 2011 1 comment

The Skies of Pern is the last Dragonriders of Pern novel chronologically, a direct sequel to All the Weyrs of Pern and The Dolphins of Pern.  As such, Anne McCaffrey had to tie up some loose ends and provide a satisfactory yet open ended conclusion to the 2500+ year history:

  • What will the dragons and dragonriders do once thread no longer falls on Pern?
  • How will the technological advances offered by AIVAS be integrated into Pern society without losing the uniqueness of the colony?
  • How will the author treat F’lar and Lessa’s lives through the end of the current Pass?

All told, the book is satisfying, although I’d argue that the plot thread of the Abominators was rather weak and fizzled toward the end. Very anti-climatic.

I found that the fate of F’lessan and Golanth was one of the most moving of the series (along with the end of Moreta’s ride and the passing of Robinton and his fire lizard).  I thought it was dealt with very well and was somewhat overdue (the roles of the dragonriders are dangerous!).

I’m now curious to read the books that Anne McCaffrey and her son Todd McCaffrey wrote about the earlier Passes and Intervals. I think they’ll be interesting because I’ve now seen the dawn of the dragons in the early years of Pern’s colonization and the latter years when thread is eradicated; how effective can the writing be if the results have little to no impact on the future?

4  out of 5 stars (finished August 23, 2011)


Currently reading:  The Clones of Mawcett by Thomas DePrima