Saturday, January 26, 2019

Book Review - The Owls Have Come to Take Us Away

Reading the summary and the praise for The Owls Have Come to Take Us Away, I was excited to check it out with the hopes of finding another great option to hand to reluctant younger readers. It was compared to Louis Sachar who I absolutely enjoy and have recommended to many kids. The premise also sounded like something that would have a great appeal. The story of a young boy obsessed with aliens who is then abducted. The imagery of the creepy owls mimicking (or perhaps being/becoming) the referenced aliens made me feel like this had potential.

I dove into the story, working through the introductory pages and chapters, eagerly awaiting the moments of sci-fi tension or creepy foreboding from the owls. I was a little puzzled at the direction the story took. It meandered around with some exploration of the familial and social world of our protagonist Simon. While this was fine, I found these relations taking on the heart of the story in a way I didn't expect.

The story is told in Simon's voice both through his own narrative and through him sharing with us a fantasy story he's writing. He lives on an Air Force base, the latest in many. Simon's parents are biracial which he makes a point of letting us know (a few times). He has a bad relationship with his father in that he feels like a bit of a disappointment to his father or at least that he's not what his father hoped. His father is a little verbally abusive even in the times he tries to show compassion. It felt a little like a stereotype from an old TV sitcom. Simon has asthma and is on meds for that as well as other meds later in the book. His mother tries to be supportive but she feels a bit flat and disconnected. Simon is distanced from others but has one core friend he can turn to even if there are issues in that friendship.

Throughout the first few chapters, we learn that Simon read a book about aliens and is a bit obsessed with them. He's studied up and is very knowledgeable about all sorts of trivia around alien sightings, abductions and the like. So much so that it's a point of contention with his parents.

**** minor plot spoilers in next 2 paragraphs *****

Based on the title and the synopsis, I kept expecting "the owls" or the aliens to make an appearance early on and/or repeatedly. Instead, I kept getting to know more and more about Simon and his family and his life. The whole plot felt rather mundane as we read along with the ways he tries to deal with his personal issues.

Finally, Simon and his family are going camping and I thought "Yes, here come the owls." There was a minor moment of excitement and then we're back home. Convinced that he was abducted while camping, Simon tries to work through this with his parents. His parents take him to therapists and get him on medications and the whole incident makes relations with both his parents even worse. Simon seeks out someone who will believe him and finally makes a connection with some other "believers."

****** End main spoilers **********

At this point, I realize that this slim book is running out of pages and I'm concerned as to how they're going to resolve things. I still felt like there hadn't been any real good climax and I had essentially decided to change my expectations from this being an alien abduction kid's horror novel to being a psychological book about emotional issues and parent-child relations.

As the pages of the book quickly ran out, I suspected the way the author was going to end it. I have to admit I was a little surprised as to the way the book concluded. In some ways I was glad for the surprise because my "predicted" ending would have been a little heartless and depressive (even if realistic and thus able to act as a harsh fable).

Instead the ending felt very forced. The quick turn of events and sudden nuances were a bit 'deus ex machina' and the overall conclusion was rather unsatisfying. We are rushed through the wrap up and given a multi-paragraph discourse on the moral of the story. It's obvious that this moral is intended to be coupled with all of the unresolved emotional baggage from the other story threads. Throughout the book Simon also shares with us some chapters from the fantasy book he's writing. These chapters give more insights into some of the intentional messages and conversations this book is obviously trying to induce. Unfortunately I felt like this "messaging" was a bit too heavy handed and became the crux of the story rather than a message to be learned from a good story. Add to that the fact that no realistic resolutions are given and I wonder at the author's motivation in framing the story in this way.

Overall the premise sounded intriguing. The writing is adequate and can easily be digested by a reader in the 8-10 year old age group. The pacing of the story is fine, once you realize what kind of a story you're reading. An overly excited young kid looking for a high adrenaline thriller would quickly lose interest. The messages of the story could be nice talking points between adults and kids, either in a classroom or a therapeutic setting, but I doubt kids will care about them otherwise. Young readers may be more forgiving of the hasty wrap up and messy conclusion, but only if they make it that far in the book.

2.5 out of 5 stars

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Saturday, December 29, 2018

Books Reviewed in 2018

Each year I try to read and review a bunch of books. Some years I do better than others. Some years life gets too crazy and I either don't read as much as I'd like, or I don't write reviews on as much, or a combination of both.

Below are the books reviewed during this year.

Here are links to the past few years (2017, 20162015, 2014, 20132012, 2011, 2010, 2009)

  1. Cloud Atlas
  2. Artemis
  3. Anthem
  4. The Gospel at 30,000 Feet
  5. The Slow Regard of Silent Things
  6. The Pearl
  7. The Secret Adversary
  8. Deathworld
  9. The Boatman
  10. The Island of the Mad

Friday, December 28, 2018

Book Review - The Island of the Mad

I've only read the first couple of books in this series so I've missed some elements of the character development between Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. My wife has read them all and she's kept me abreast of which can be read out of order without spoiling things later on. I've always had a fascination with Italy and especially with Venice, so I was excited to check out this Mary/Sherlock novel with the canals of Venice as the backdrop. Naturally then, I was a little let down that it took about half of the book to finally arrive in Italy. I wasn't upset or overly disappointed with the story but I was hoping for a bit more Italian intrigue in The Island of the Mad.

The book starts out with a brief catch up of things mainly to set the stage and the state of Mary's mind. She's had a lot going on lately and so she's caught a little off guard (and perhaps also a little relieved) by a request from her old friend to help track down a missing person...her friend's aunt who disappeared from an asylum. Mary begins digging into the life of Aunt Vivian and the rest of her family. Slowly but surely she finds threads and hints of clues. In spite of very thorough and methodical searching it felt like any chance of success kept getting pulled away. Finally, about halfway through the book, Mary infers that dear Aunt Vivian may have run away to Venice and she heads off in pursuit.

As the series promises, this is a book about Mary Russell AND Sherlock Holmes. Apparently, Sherlock's interactions are sometimes more backgrounded and such is the case in this book. He helps with a little legwork here and there and gives Mary bits of advice and helps her work through ideas but for the most part, the case of the missing aunt is a case that Mary works through on her own. In fact, Sherlock has alternate motives for going to Italy. His brother has asked him to look into the "fascist" influence in the city. While Holmes helps Mary with a few inquiries he also makes his own inquiries and investigation into Mussolini's Blackshirt militia that's appearing in the city and keeping his eye out for the elusive British Lord planning to make a deal with Il Duce.

Without spoiling too much, the book ends with both Mary and Sherlock solving their case and melding the ends of the two cases together into a sort of slapstick finale.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Book Review - The Boatman

I didn't read much (any?) horror as a child. I remember having a copy of "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" and generally enjoying those stories but I didn't read much else in the genre until I got older. As an adult, I really enjoyed books like Gaiman's Coraline and The Graveyard Book and feel like I would have liked them as a child. Naturally then, I was interested in checking out The Boatman.

The main protagonist is a young girl named Izzy. As in many tragic stories, her parents are dead and she has been placed under the guardianship of her aunt Ms Slaughter. We quickly find Izzy struggling against the harsh rules and regulations of her aunt and school and life. We also quickly learn that Izzy has a penchant to observe and interact with the supernatural world around her.

The writing in the story was entertaining and well structured. The descriptions were vibrant and the dialog was fun. I felt that the plot and story arc felt a little unsteady at points but overall it was alright.

While I enjoyed the book, it didn't come across as exactly the book I was expecting. For some reason, the book synopsis led me to think that the supernatural elements managed to cross over into the "real" world. Specifically, the last part of the synopsis says that she "invented" the Boatman, "a terrible monster that lures kids into a strange sleeping sickness." I expected the Boatman to be a supernatural villain who came into our world (through Izzy's actions) and began preying on children in the town. Minor spoiler alert...this doesn't happen.

The last half or third of the novel in particular really disconnected a little bit for me. The trajectory of horror novel shifted and became more of a psychological analysis (not even a psychological thriller per se). The message was insightful and interesting, if perhaps a bit heavy handed.

I felt like this was a fun story that kids would enjoy. It's just creepy enough to draw them in without being over-the-top scary in a way that would disturb them. The message/morale of the story is nice and could open up some reassuring discussions between parents and children. I loved the inclusion of artwork in parts of the book. I feel like more young/middle reader stories should include art like this. With the wonderful descriptive language of the author, the imagery was not a necessity but it added some fun diversions while turning pages. On the whole, I found this to be an enjoyable read that I'd gladly hand over to younger readers and one that I'd be willing to read aloud. It left me wanting a little more in some cases and feeling a little off balance when transitioning from the first half to the second half. Overall it was an enjoyable experience.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Book Review - Deathworld

I haven't read a ton of science fiction. My genre reading often leaned towards fantasy more than sci-fi. The author, Harry Harrison, was apparently quite a prolific writer and seemed to be generally well liked so when Deathworld came on my radar and I decided to give it a try.

I enjoyed the way the book introduced the reader to the fiction of the universe being presented. Our main protagonist is a man named Jason who lives his life as a professional gambler. He is introduced to us during a conversation with the other primary character, Kerk, a large and ultra-strong man from the planet Pyrrus. During their initial conversation we learn that Kerk is ambassador to Pyrrus and they make money mining and trading. We see a moment of amazing quick draw as both men pull their guns in suspicion of one another. And we learn that Jason is a gambler who, according to Kerk, can seem to win whenever he wants to.

We later learn that Jason trades the risk of losing big to the risk of angering the high money players and casinos by using psychic abilities to manipulate the odds in his favor. As a result, Jason is often making hasty get aways from one big win after another. Kerk hires Jason to gamble money for Pyrrus and within a couple of chapters Jason's victory has angered the wrong people and we have a high speed getaway that could be something out of a mid-20th century gangster movie but instead is souped up with sci-fi vehicles and weapons and a getaway plan involving manipulation of class and cultural biases.