Thursday, September 22, 2016

Book Review - The Gathering (Shadow House book 1)

The Gathering is the first book in a new series called Shadow House. This is a horror/thriller series aimed at middle graders. I'm not a huge reader of horror but this felt like a nice stepping stone between the youthful Goosebumps series and more mature horror like the works of King, Hill, Koontz or others. The story would likely be too creepy for younger readers but I'm sure some die-hard horror readers would call it tame. To me, it felt like a good balance for younger readers and I wouldn't recommend it to anybody under age ~12. Unlike "mature" horror books, this book isn't filled with profanity, sex, gore or other overly graphic shock thrills. Frankly, I was relieved that the author didn't try to push the teenage envelope into those areas and rather presents a very spooky horror book that's suitable for a younger audience.

The book starts out with an interesting setup. We are introduced one at a time to 5 very different children/tweens. Each character is in a unique situation that gives them distinct motivations in their life. Mysteriously, each of them receives an invitation of some sort to visit a home/estate/school/etc. with promises that are suited to their unique characteristics. For example, the orphan girl Poppy is drawn in by the prospect of a distant relative wanting to bring her into the family. Music virtuoso Marcus thinks he is going to a special music school. Each character finds out about the "Shadow House" in different ways and they each make their way there.

Once they arrive, the house seems abandoned and the kids start looking around. Before long, evidence of some supernatural force is discovered and the kids not only find that they cannot leave the house but there are beings in the house that want to hunt them down, presumably to kill them. As a parent, I found it a little bit of a stretch that these 5 young kids traveled across the country to a mysterious place they barely knew anything about...but I think that's the wary parent in me. Aside from their impulsive journey to the house, I felt like the kids' actions, language and behaviors felt very believable and realistic for the situation.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Book Review - The Return of Tarzan

I read the first Tarzan novel 6 or 7 years ago and generally enjoyed it. It was a fun and interesting adventure novel with some dated "sexism" and "racism" but with some intriguing insights and contemplation about morality and the nature of what it means to be human. It was filled with wild adventures through the African jungles with exciting surprises and events.

(Minor plot Spoilers in the form of basic synopsis for the next 4 paragraphs)

This second novel, The Return of Tarzan, started out similar but also wildly different than its predecessor. We find that Jane is engaged but not yet married to William Clayton and that she seems to be continually postponing the marriage for 'some' reason. Dismayed at the loss of Jane, Tarzan travels to Europe. On the boat, he stumbles on a dangerous situation and helps both a Count and a Countess but earns the anger of a shady villain. Once in France, Tarzan entrenches himself into the life of a high class citizen. In spite of this new life being opened to him, he bored with wandering the streets, dining at clubs and visiting the theatre. He seeks opportunities to "stretch his legs" in the city and wanders again into troublesome situations where he finds himself torn between the vicious yet simple laws of the jungle and the rigid laws of man and justice.

Eventually, Tarzan's actions and connections earn him the job as an agent to the ministry of war. Essentially he has become a courier and a spy. He travels across the deserts of northern Africa, finding and helping people in various forms of trouble. He still has a very basic sense of right-and-wrong and tries to impose his will with the same impulsive tactics that worked back in the jungle. His strength and speed help him out of many situations but he continues finds himself conflicted between the laws of men and his own moral code. He also encounters villains who, although they are men, fight with sneaky underhanded means that make Tarzan despise them.

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
  12. The Return of Tarzan

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.