Friday, April 04, 2014

Books Read in 2014

For the past few years (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 has 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.  In 2013, I was significantly below my goal.  Oh well.

This year (2014) I plan to improve on my downturn in 2013.  If I hit 50, great, but at the very least, I hope to reach 40 books read in 2014.  I will also try to share all of my reviews here so you can get a feel for what I liked or didn't like.  That said, I generally only pick up a book to read it if I feel like it "speaks to me" in some way, so chances are, most of my reviews will be fairly positive.  Even then, I'm sure I'll come across some stinkers.  :)

If you have any suggestions for books to read or ways I can make my reading goal more exciting, please let me know.

And now, without further ado, here's the list of books I've read so far in 2014:
(I will be updating this post each time a new book is read/reviewed)
  1. The Martian
  2. The Forbidden Stone (The Copernicus Legacy Book 1)
  3. At First Light
  4. The Orphanage of Miracles
  5. The High Druid's Blade
  6. The Conjuring Glass (The Phoenix Girls Book 1)
And for additional reference, here's a link to my "to be read" list over at Goodreads. This list includes purchased books on my bookshelves (but not read) as well as tons of books that have been recommended to me over the years. As you can see, the list is huge...and never really shrinks since there are always new recommendations coming in. So tell me...what good books have you read lately that I should add to my list? Any that I "MUST" get to ~immediately? :-)

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Book Review - The Forbidden Stone (Copernicus Legacy Book 1)

Mixing science, adventure, history and fantasy, The Copernicus Legacy sounded like an enjoyable adventure story for kids and adults. The premise has some definite similarities to other middle grade series of recent years so I was worried it was just fall into the “more of the same” category. While there are elements of “sameness”, there are also enough differences to keep the story fresh and fun.

The older series I most thought of when starting this book was the 39 Clues series. In that series, a group of different family lines are pitted against each other in a global treasure hunt for some ultimate power. As with many/most series for middle graders, the central characters were kids. In 39 Clues, I had a hard time accepting the plausibility factor of a bunch of pre-teens globe hopping and competing against powerful, wealthy adults without facing immense problems. I felt like Copernicus Legacy handles this one complaint much better than the 39 Clues.

The initial story in “The Forbidden Stone” starts with a pair of brothers, Wade and Darrell, who intercept a message sent to their father, professor Wade Kaplan, by an old school professor just before he dies. The message is mysterious but what really starts the family off on the adventure is the revelation that the old professor had died. Professor Kaplan wants to go to the funeral in Germany. Because his wife is out of the country on assignment, he has to bring the kids along. In addition to Wade and Darrell, they bring their cousin Lily and her friend Becca who were planning to spend some time at the Kaplan home. Thus the initial problem of getting the children to Europe is solved by setting up a family outing.

Once they arrive in Germany, it becomes clear that there is a centuries old mystery to be solved. Professor Kaplan tries to encourage the kids to just leave it alone and go home. The kids are torn between partly wanting to dive into the adventure and partly wanting to go back home. As time goes on, they are discovered by a secret society, The Knights of the Teutonic Order, hunting for the ancient Copernicus Legacy. It turns out that Kaplan’s old university professor was a Guardian of the Legacy. The Teutonic Order have identified and killed the Guardians and believe that Professor Kaplan and his kids now hold the clues required to find the artifacts that Copernicus left behind. As a result, the Kaplan family is now in danger and it seems the Teutonic Order has influence in numerous law enforcement agencies such that the Kaplans don’t know who to trust or who to turn to.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Book Review - The Martian

I haven’t yet seen the recently acclaimed Academy Award winning movie Gravity, but the concept seems entertaining and suspenseful and I plan to see it sometime soon. Anyway, when I heard about the premise of the new book, The Martian, my first thought was to think it sounded vaguely familiar to Gravity but it seemed strangely more plausible to me (once you get past the whole “manned mission to Mars” thing).

For those unfamiliar with the story, we are in the future and have just engaged on the first Mars mission with the plan to have a group of astronauts spend a few months on the red planet conducting experiments and basically living on Mars. Unfortunately, just a few days into the mission, a huge Martian sandstorm rolls in and the decision is made to scrap the mission. The crew races for the escape launcher. As they hustle to escape, the storm breaks up the satellite dish and poles from the communications system. The pole slams into Mark Watney and sends him flying off into the dust. The captain searches for him, but time is short and based on remote life support monitors, it appears that Mark Watney is dead, so the rest of the crew escapes back to the long range transport ship and begin the return trip home. Shortly thereafter, Watney wakes inside his damaged spacesuit with alarms blaring and spends the next 500 pages trying to figure out a way to survive and hopefully return to Earth.

I haven’t read many “man versus nature” books since reading Jack London and other similar stories back in my High School days. The Martian takes the man versus nature idea and turns it on its head with a wild new set of criteria for survival. The entire concept sounded very compelling and I was thrilled to dive in. Even before cracking the cover, I was hoping to recommend the book to my 12 year old, space/astronomy loving son.

Sadly, upon reading the first sentences, I decided this book is NOT a book for kids. The book is mostly written as a first person series of journal entries by our stranded astronaut. His situation is understandably dire and as a result, many of his journal entries are smattered with cursing. The first entry begins by dropping the F-bomb…twice. The swearing continues through the book. And while it feels more “realistic” especially given the situation, neither myself or my family and friends swear and I am not a fan. The “realism” factor of the swearing in the journals felt slightly strained for me knowing that these journal entries are technically “mission logs” and while it seems logical that Watney might have cursed like that verbally, it seemed less likely that he would swear like that in “formal” professional reports, even if he expected to be dead by the time anybody read them. So...the swearing was the first knock against the book in my estimation.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Still alive - getting back on the blogging horse...maybe

Wow…where does the time go? It’s been almost 3 full months since my last blog post. Life has just been crazy hectic…and yet I don’t have a whole lot to report on. There were some insane project meltdowns to deal with at work. When not busy with work, I was kept busy with family, scouts and general recreation and begging out. My oldest turned 14, my youngest turned 12 (starting to feel my age). Took the scouts on our Winter Biathlon campout…it was a pretty mild winter and we had some early thaw come on in January so there wasn’t as much snow for this year’s Biathlon but we still had fun. For Valentines, my sweetheart and I had some fun hitting up the museum to check out the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit. So an eventful few months, but mostly my inactivity online was just a result of being too mentally exhausted to contribute (or even troll the blogs of friends and family…sorry for neglecting y’all. I’ll catch up on your life soon).

Not sure yet how frequently I’ll be back online. As before, I don’t want online life to take over other stuff…but I do want to get back in the habit of sharing reviews, writing and other thoughts. We’ll see how it goes.

In the meantime, here’s a video of our family hoping for warmer weather and fun at the beach. Enjoy. :)

Personalize funny videos and birthday eCards at JibJab!

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Movie Review - Frozen

As a lifelong Disney fan, I knew I'd see Frozen eventually. From the very initial teaser trailers I had no idea what to expect. They certainly weren't giving away much of the plot at all. But the animation looked good so I was encouraged. As more trailers came out, I became more encouraged and then once it was released and started getting good buzz, I was more excited to go see it.

Going back to fairy tale roots, Frozen is a very loose adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale The Snow Queen. While it shares some general similarities from a high level, the overall plot is significantly different from the Andersen tale. In Disney's version we have the story of two sisters, princesses of Arendelle. Unfortunately the older sister Elsa has a magical problem...she can freeze things at will.

As a child Elsa's powers are limited but as she gets older her powers grow in strength as well as in difficulty to control them. Elsa is a good girl with a good heart but since she can't control her powers, she's forced to hide them and live tucked away from everyone.

Her younger sister Anna doesn't understand and wants them both to go outside into the world. As time plays its course, Elsa's secret is revealed and we find that the power has grown significantly. Elsa gains some control but not before plunging the world into ice.

The animation is fabulous. They did top notch in balancing the beauty and harshness of the frozen countryside. The snow and ice effects were great and the characterizations were a ton of fun. Each of the character's are distinct and have great visual nuances and style.