Monday, August 22, 2016

Books Read in 2016

For the past few years (2015, 2014, 20132012, 2011, 2010, 2009) I've had a goal to read and review a bunch of books over the course of each year.

My goal had been to average a book per week and end up with 50 books read and reviewed at the end of the year. I usually don't include smaller books (early middle grade, picture books, etc) unless I feel really strongly about them. For the past couple of years I've dropped well below my 50 and only ended up reviewing 9 books last year (though I did read more than that). I'm determined to pick up the pace for 2016. I don't know if I'll get back to the ~50 range, but we'll see what I can do. Wish me luck.

  1. The Ocean At the End of the Lane
  2. You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost): A Memoir
  3. A Scanner Darkly
  4. The Game of Lives (Mortality Doctrine Book #3)
  5. The Girl on the Train
  6. The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day One)
  7. At the Mountains of Madness
  8. Station Eleven
  9. The Wind in the Willows
  10. The Secret Keepers
  11. All the Light We Cannot See

Friday, August 19, 2016

Book Review - All the Light We Cannot See

The synopsis of this book really doesn't do justice to what's contained inside the pages. True, All the Light We Cannot See is a novel following the lives of two young people in Europe in the years leading up to and during World War II, but it is much more than that and it's presented in a different way than might be expected from a "war novel." The writing and structure is laid out in a way that starts the reader off a little unbalanced and uncertain but then draws the reader in to a different way of seeing.

As mentioned, the story focuses on two main characters. Young Marie is a girl who grew up in Paris living with her father, the locksmith for the Museum of Natural History. She goes blind at age six and her father works with immense care and precision to help her adapt to her new life and to see and understand the world in a new way. When the war arrives, Marie and her father are driven from Paris to the far away town of Saint-Malo where they live with a reclusive uncle and wait for better days. A nation away, young Werner is an orphaned teenager in a small German town who finds a broken down radio and learns to repair it. Through the airwaves he and his sister find and listen to an intriguing radio program filled with scientific essays and beautiful music. His aptitude for radio catches the attention of the military and he is inducted into Hitler's Youth where he is trained as a soldier but then gets assigned as a radio operator on a special team. The lives of these two children seem impossibly unrelated and yet their intertwined narratives work as commentary on the nature of humanity and life as they each push through circumstances beyond either of their control.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Book Review - The Secret Keepers

Seven years ago I started reading the "Mysterious Benedict Society" aloud with my kids. We had a ton of fun with the puzzles and adventures laid out in those books. So naturally when I found a new "middle grader" book from the same author I jumped at the chance to read it.

The Secret Keepers centers on the adventures of a young 11-year-old boy named Reuben. He lives in Lower Downs, one of the poorer areas of the city of New Umbra. His father died when he was a baby and his mother has to work 2 jobs to keep them afloat in their tiny little apartment. While his mother works, Reuben spends his days exploring the city and keeping a watch on the various inhabitants of the neighborhoods. As he wanders the city we learn a little bit about the "politics" of the city. A mysterious man (or creature?) known only as "The Smoke" keeps the city under his thumb. Over the years he has accumulated significant influence such that he essentially controls the government, police force, shopkeepers, etc. He has bands of spies/enforcers that Reuben (and others) refer to as "The Directions." These men go out in groups of four, each assigned to always keep watch in a certain direction (forward, behind, left, right) so that as they patrol the streets they always look everywhere. Reuben prides himself on being able to observe the Directions from positions where he can't be seen from them. This is one of his many games. His other is exploring and adventuring places he's never been before.

One morning he finds an alley with two buildings close together and a ledge higher up. He decides to see if he can lean between the two buildings and work himself up to the ledge. After a nerve wracking climb and nearly exhausting his strength, Reuben rests on the ledge and enjoys the view. It is here that he discovers a small box engraved with a name and containing an intriguing watch. He admires the beauty and workmanship of the watch and wonders if perhaps he could sell it to try and help raise his family a little bit out of their poverty. However, as he starts investigating the watch to try and find potential buyers, he learns that the Smoke has been searching for a watch precisely matching this one for many years. Wondering why the Smoke would be interested in the watch, Reuben tinkers with the watch and discovers an unexpected secret...the watch provides the holder with a temporary but amazing power. Somehow the Smoke learns that a boy has found the watch and sends his Directions out to search everywhere to try and find Reuben.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Book Review - The Wind in the Willows

My only previous exposure to The Wind in the Willows comes from Disney's animated film The Adventures of Ichabod & Mr. Toad and the Disneyland attraction Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Reading this fun little novel was a similar and yet very different experience altogether.

The Disney movie and ride are both quite adventurous and action packed. The book does have action sequences and rising plot points but much of the novel is a quaint relaxing view into the lives and relationships of people...er, I mean, animals. The Disney films focus primarily on Mr. Toad and his exploits while the novel begins with young Mole meeting Rat and learning about life on the river. Much of the book revolves around their growing friendship and the experiences they have together.

We learn about the different motivations and lifestyles of the various creatures living on the river and in the nearby wood. An unspoken class system is explored as well as the nature of maturity and taking responsibility for one’s station in life. Mole and Rat are young carefree creatures and yet they are down to earth and acknowledge the relationship and responsibility of being part of a community. Toad is at the high end of the class structure but at the lower end of the responsibility scale. He is rather egocentric and impulsive, thinking only of his next thrill or what accolades he can obtain to brag about in his next conversation. Badger is initially presented as sort of a stand-offish curmudgeon but as you get to know him you find him as the stalwart established member of society who uses his station and responsibility to help the less fortunate even while berating them for their own behaviors that brought their world crashing down around their shoulders.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Book Review - Station Eleven

If you've been paying attention to books, movies or other entertainment, you've likely noticed an increasing trend of post-apocalyptic themed stories. The novel Station Eleven follows this trend but does so in a way that I found fresh and interesting. Many of the recent post-apocalyptic novels I've seen are heavily plot driven with action-adventure stories involving survival against some ongoing threat or groups struggling against some dystopic or overbearing government or organization. Station Eleven does have plot elements of struggle and survival after the fall of civilization, but this story is much more than an explosive adrenaline filled adventure with characters scrambling chaotically and fighting each other for survival or supremacy. Rather, Station Eleven focuses heavily on character development and following the lives of a few key characters over many decades. The novel navigates back and forth in time giving us snippets of the lives of these characters before, during and after the fall of mankind. There are most certainly action sequences like those you might expect in a post-pandemic setting such as this, but there are many more sequences that spend time exploring the lives of these characters and showcasing the things that make us human. By comparing these very human scenes before and after civilization as we know it, the author presents us with some interesting ideas about what is truly important and how we deal with changes to the things that matter most.

The high level synopsis of the book is that there is an outbreak of a new strain of the flu virus with a fast incubation period and a very high mortality rate. The flu is identified but due to how fast it spreads and how fast it kills, there is just no time to adequately or effectively treat the disease. Within a few weeks, it's evident that the world will never be the same and shortly thereafter, the various advances of modern society fall into decay and gradually disappear without adequate people to create, operate and maintain them. Electricity fades away leaving mankind in darkness and reverting communication methods by a century or more. Gasoline and oil supplies decay and run out, leaving people to travel by foot or using animal power. Luxuries and modern extravagances are set aside in lieu of the need to work just for survival.

The book opens in a theatre and we see an actor named Arthur Leander die on stage. Interestingly, he doesn't die from the flu. Instead, he collapses from an unrelated heart attack. Jeevan is an EMT in the audience who leaps to the stage to try unsuccessfully to save Arthur as a child actress named Kirsten watches. As the paramedics arrive, Jeevan leaves the theatre and walks through the city, thinking about priorities and life and trying to decide what he should do. At the same time, news of the flu begins to spread even though the full extent of the problem isn't yet known. Jeevan figures out that things are worse than expected and he goes to his brother's home to try and weather the storm. We are then taken to a time fifteen years later and learn that Kirsten survived the epidemic and is now part of a traveling troupe of actors and musicians performing music and Shakespearean plays to try and bring some joy to the world they wander.