Category: "Books: Read"

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - C.S. Lewis

August 7th, 2008

The Chronicles of NarniaNARNIA....a land frozen in eternal winter...a country waiting to be set free.

Four adventurers step through a wardrobe door and into the land of Narnia -- a land enslaved by the power of the White Witch. But when almost all hope is lost, the return of the Great Lion, Aslan, signals a great change...and a great sacrifice.

The classic tale of four curious children who wander through a dusty wardrobe into a magical land called Narnia. One of them discovers the portal on her own, but the others do not believe her. When she gets one of her brothers to venture through with her, they become separated and alone he is subject to the influence of the White Witch. It is up to the other three to save him and all of Narnia from the Witch's evil plans.

This is the quintessential childhood epic adventure. Whether or not you have read these books or seen any of the film adaptations, you always seem to know the story. In its recounting, it seems to grow ever-larger, though when I read the book now, it is so brief. I think that speaks volumes about how magical C.S. Lewis's Narnia truly is. I look forward to the rest of the series, with which I am unfamiliar.

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Across the Nightingale Floor - Lian Hearn

July 7th, 2008

Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian HearnIn his black-walled fortress at Inuyama, the warlord Iida Sadamu surveys his famous nightingale floor. Constructed with exquisite skill, it sings at the tread of each human foot. No assassin can cross it unheard.

The youth Takeo has been brought up in a remote mountain village among the Hidden, a reclusive and spritual people who have taught him only the ways of peace. But unbeknownst to him, his father was a celebrated assassin and a member of the Tribe, an ancient network of families with extraordinary, preternatural skills. When Takeo's village is pillaged, he is rescued and adopted by the mysterious Lord Otori Shigeru. Under the tutelage of Shigeru, he learns that he too possesses the skills of the Tribe. And, with this knowledge, he embarks on a journey that will lead him across the famed nightingale floor -- and to his own unimaginable destiny...

A teenage boy named Takeo is chased out of his peaceful village as it is attacked by a local warlord. He escapes pursuit with the help of a strange man, who then takes him in and adopts him as his son. As they get to know each other the man tells Takeo more and more and soon he realizes that their meeting was not random, nor was the attack on his village. Takeo, unbeknownst to him, is from a long line of assassins. They are a race of people with extraordinary abilities, and his father was the best of them all. And now Takeo's fate has come to meet him as he is asked to do that for which he was born to do.

I picked this book up off the shelf having never heard of it, but I read the synopsis on the back and became very interested. I love feudal Japan and the idea of a young man born with specially-heightened senses to facilitate his fate as the world's next great assassin sounded great. And the book was good, I just believe it missed it's mark.

It had everything I described above, but what I didn't like was the disparity between the assassin race and everyone else. I was hoping that the advantages wouldn't be so extraordinary. I afford sci-fi/fantasy authors a lot of creative license, but at some point it goes too far. And I felt like that happened, to an extent, in Across the Nightingale Floor.

But, at least for now, I am not so turned off that I am unwilling to give this series another shot. I do plan to read Grass for His Pillow, which is the second book in the Tales of the Otori series, but I'm not sure when I will get to it.

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The Magician's Nephew - C.S. Lewis

June 24th, 2008

The Chronicles of NarniaNARNIA...where Talking Beasts walk...where a witch waits...where a new world is about to be born.

On a daring quest to save a life, two friends are hurled into another world, where an evil sorceress seeks to enslave them. But then the lion Aslan's song weaves itself into the fabric of a new land, a land that will be known as Narnia. And in Narnia, all things are possible...

Two children, a boy (Diggory) and a girl (Polly), go on what starts out as a very innocent adventure through a crawl space that connects their houses with another. A simple miscalculation on their part results, at first, in a meeting with Diggory's Uncle Andrew, and ultimately in the reanimation of an evil sorceress and the creation of a magical world called Narnia.

Uncle Andrew has devoted many years of his life to understanding some magic that was unintentionally handed down to him by his godmother. To test his progress, he sends his nephew on a magical journey; a journey we are fortunate to witness in its infancy.

You can tell that The Magician's Nephew definitely sets the stage for the other six books. A lot was introduced, but not a lot really happens in book 1 of The Chronicles of Narnia. The books are certainly written for children, but I still enjoyed the first and I plan to read the entire series.

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Interpreter of Maladies - Jhumpa Lahiri

May 28th, 2008

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa LahiriWinner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, this stunning debut collection unerringly charts the emotional journeys of characters seeking love beyond the barriers of nations and generations. "A writer of uncommon sensitivity and restraint...Ms. Lahiri expertly captures the out-of-context lives of immigrants, expatriates, and first-generation Americans" (Wall Street Journal). In stories that travel from India to America and back again, Lahiri speaks with universal eloquence to everyone who has ever felt like a foreigner. Honored as "Debut of the Year" by The New Yorker and winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award, Interpreter of Maladies introduces a young writer of astonishing maturity and insight who "breathes unpredictable life into the page" (New York Times).

I read this book on my sister's recommendation; it is not a book that would have ever been on my radar otherwise. Hopefully now my recommendation will put it on your radar, assuming it's not already there. This was a very good book.

This book is a series of short stories and each is worth reading. The stories feature Indian-Americans in diverse circumstances. It is safe to say that the main commonality, other than ancestry, was that each story was beautifully written, though a little heartbreaking. If you can deal with "a little heartbreaking," you are in for a treat.

I loved the characters, both main and supporting. Some seemed like stereotypes, others unique in their ability to understand things the rest of us will never comprehend. All of them were given great depth, in only a few pages.

I have had a few mediocre experiences with short stories by other authors, but the stories in Interpreter of Maladies have given me great hope that there are more out there that won't let me down.

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The Downhill Lie: A Hacker's Return to a Ruinous Sport - Carl Hiaasen

May 15th, 2008

The Downhill Lie by Carl HiaasenEver wonder how to retrieve a sunken golf car from a snake-infested lake? Or which club in your bag is best suited for combat against a horde of rats? If these and other sporting questions are gnawing at you, The Downhill Lie, Carl Hiaasen's hilarious confessional about returning to the fairways after a thirty-two-year absence, is definitely the book for you.

Originally drawn to the game by his father, Carl wisely quit golfing in 1973, when "Richard Nixon was hunkered down like a meth-crazed badger in the White House, Hank Aaron was one dinger shy of Babe Ruth's all-time home run record, and The Who had just released Quadrophenia." But some ambitions refuse to die, and as the years -- and memories of shanked 7-irons -- faded, it dawned on Carl that there might be one thing in life he could do better in middle age than he could as a youth. So gradually he ventured back to the dreaded driving range, this time as the father of a five-year-old son -- and also as a grandfather.

"What possesses a man to return in midlife to a game at which he'd never excelled in his prime, and which in fact had dealt him mostly failure, angst and exasperation? Here's why I did it: I'm one sick bastard."

And thus we have Carl's foray into a world of baffling titanium technology, high-priced golf gurus, bizarre infomercial gimmicks and the mind-bending phenomenon of Tiger Woods; a maddening universe of hooks and slices where Carl ultimately -- and foolishly -- agrees to compete in a country-club tournament against players who can actually hit the ball. "That's the secret of the sport's infernal seduction," he writes. "It surrenders just enough shots to let you talk yourself out of quitting."

Hiaasen's chronicle of his shaky return to this bedeviling pastime and the ensuing demolition of his self-esteem -- culminating with the savage 45-hole tournament -- will have you rolling with laughter. Yet the bittersweet memories of playing with his own father and the glow he feels when watching his own young son belt the ball down the fairway will also touch your heart. Forget Tiger, Phil and Ernie. If you want to understand the true lure of golf, turn to Carl Hiaasen, who has written an extraordinary book for the ordinary hacker.

Carl Hiaasen was introduced to the game of golf by his father, who, to Carl's nearly life-long disappointment, was a very good golfer. On a whim that could be argued to be both mature and immature, he gave up the game in his early twenties because he wasn't able to improve. The Downhill Lie is the window through which we see his return to the game.

Hiaasen goes to many extremes to improve his game. He reads every piece of literature on the game and buys some hilarious info-mercial products that make lofty promises. He joins a golf course, buys new clubs (and more new clubs), takes lessons, re-engineers his swing, and ultimately enters a tournament.

For many reasons, which include his disposable income; his available free time; and that this became an assignment from his publisher, Hiaasen is able to go to greater lengths than most golfers who want to get better. But that doesn't mean those golfers, a category into which I fit, haven't thought about trying any or all of the things he did in the book. That contributes to the hilarious, but humbling nature of the book. We can laugh at his exploits as he does, and maybe we can learn some of the lessons he does as well.

This book is more than a diary of Carl Hiaasen's golf rounds. The Downhill Lie is a poignant commentary on why so many of us endure the constant frustrations associated with the game of golf. The author uses the comedy of his situation to show exactly why, when this game keeps knocking us down, we get right back up and make another tee time.

I recommend this book if you struggle with golf, or know someone who does (which I think is just about everyone, right?). This book will probably not help you be a better golfer, but at least you'll see you're not alone. If you aren't into the game yourself, and you've wondered why we torture ourselves the way we do, The Downhill Lie offers great insight. It was both funny and right-on-target portraying the mind of a golfer...or most golfers anyway. I really liked this book.

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American Gods - Neil Gaiman

April 29th, 2008

American GodsShadow is a man with a past. But now he wants nothing more than to live a quiet life with his wife and stay out of trouble. Until he learns that she's been killed in a terrible accident.

Flying home for the funeral, as a violent storm rocks the plane, a strange man in the seat next to him intoduces himself. The man calls himself Mr. Wednesday, and he knows more about Shadow than is possible.

He warns Shadow that a far bigger storm is coming. And from that moment on, nothing will ever be the same...

A man who goes by the name Shadow gets released from prison and before he even makes it home his entire world is turned upside down. He is engaged in conversation by another man who knows an uncomfortable amount about him and tells Shadow he needs his help. After their conversation the story seemingly followed Alice down the proverbial rabbit hole.

The book follows Shadow to hell and back, almost literally. He encounters many Gods from probably every region of the world and from every era. The research was definitely thorough, though almost too much so. There may have been a few too many references to Gods that have been long-forgotten. But that is often a complaint of sci-fi/fantasy books, in how they can be too detailed and descriptive.

I cannot rave enough about how much I love this plot. The Gods of old, which were brought to the US by whomever, however devout, are facing a great paradigm shift. The old Gods are being edged out in the US by new Gods who represent more commercialized, Capitalistic and technological ideals. Shadow chose sides with the old Gods, but he has no idea if he made the right choice. But he knows all he can do now is see the coming storm through to the end.

This book took forever to read, was very bizarre in many parts, and the ending was almost anti-climactic. And I still really enjoyed it. Call me crazy I guess.

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Shutter Island - Dennis Lehane

April 18th, 2008

Shutter Island by Dennis LehaneSummer, 1954.

U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels has come to Shutter Island, home of Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Along with his partner, Chuck Aule, he sets out to find an escaped patient, a murderess named Rachel Solando, as a hurricane bears down upon them.

But nothing at Ashecliffe Hospital is what it seems.

And neither is Teddy Daniels.

Is he there to find a missing patient? Or has he been sent to look into rumors of Ashecliffe's radical approach to psychiatry? An approach that may include drug experimentation, hideous surgical trials, and lethal countermoves in the shadow war against Soviet brainwashing...

Or is there another, more personal reason why he has come there?

As the investigation deepens, the questions only mount:

How has a barefoot woman escaped the island from a locked room?
Who is leaving clues in the form of cryptic codes?
Why is there no record of a patient committed there just one year before?
What really goes on in Ward C?
Why is an empty lighthouse surrounded by an electrified fence and armed guards?

The closer Teddy and Chuck get to the truth, the more elusive it becomes, and the more they begin to believe that they may never leave Shutter Island.

Because someone is trying to drive them insane...

Shutter Island's only inhabitants are the patients in a mental institution and the instution's employees, and Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels was sent to the island to investigate the highly unlikely disappearance of a patient. While on the island Teddy cannot tell if the puzzles he encounters are clues to solving the case or if they are all an elaborate setup to keep him from ever leaving.

For a long time I read nothing but mystery/suspense novels because it was only within their pages that...well it was only these books that could challenge me. Some authors in the genre are so good that the books become almost interactive. As the main character tries to sift through the case, I am a puppet on a string. There is nothing better than a good thriller that makes you sit up in bed and talk to yourself while you read. This was that type of book.

Dennis Lehane's Mystic River was a pretty good book, but I would not really compare the two. Shutter Island was much more intense and in my humble opinion, a much better book.

The book is short and a lightning fast read and my recommendation to you is to read it in as few sittings as possible. Lehane weaves a web of intricate and minute details and fewer sittings will hopefully allow you to enjoy seeing how each detail is important. If you have to, or even prefer to, read the book more slowly, the overall thrill of the book should not be lost on you at all. I really liked this book and I hope someone out there has some suggestions of books like it for me to read.

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Rocket Boys - Homer Hickam

February 26th, 2008

Rockey Boys by Homer HickamWith the grace of a natural storyteller, NASA engineer Homer Hickam paints a warm, vivid portrait of the harsh West Virginia mining town of his youth, evoking a time of innocence and promise, when anything was possible, even in a company town that swallowed its men alive. A story of romance and loss, of growing up and getting out, Homer Hickam's lush, lyrical memoir is a chronicle of triumph--at once exquisitely written and marvelously entertaining.

A number-one New York Times bestseller in mass market, brought to the screen in the acclaimed film October Sky, Homer Hickam's memoir, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, comes to trade paperback with an all-new photo insert.

One of the most beloved bestsellers in recent years, ROCKET BOYS is a uniquely American memoir. A powerful, luminous story of coming of age at the end of the 1950s, it is the story of a mother's love and a father's fears, of growing up and getting out. With the grace of a natural storyteller, Homer Hickam looks back after a distinguished NASA career to tell his own true story of growing up in a dying coal town and of how, against the odds, he made his dreams of launching rockets into outer space come true.

A story of romance and loss and a keen portrait of life at an extraordinary point in American history, ROCKET BOYS is a chronicle of triumph.

Children in West Virginia mining towns became coal miners. They did not become rocket scientists. But it did not matter how well-known this was, for Homer "Sonny" Hickam, Jr. there was only one way out. He was the right age and had the right amount of ambition when the United States and Russia became entangled in the Space Race and as far as he was concerned, his fate was sealed.

Hickam's writing carried the comfort of conversation with an old friend. It was remarkable how easily I became nostalgic for neither a time nor a place that I had ever known. The story drips with the passion of a man who if he had to do it all over again, probably wouldn't change a thing. He understood and appreciated the importance of everything that happened to him and helped him on his way.

One thing that I found particularly fascinating was how closely this book resembled the old proverb that It takes a whole village to raise a child. And I mean no disrespect to Mr. Hickam when I point out how amazing his circumstance was in that he could not have done it alone. The stars seemingly aligned perfectly so that one boy from West Virginia could capture the hearts of so many people that he would be able to get such invaluable assistance. There was probably no way anyone else could have done what he did. And that is to his credit. (The way his path was guided by fate, or something like it, reminded me of how Ruth Reichl became a food critic in Tender at the Bone.)

I loved this book for Hickam's ability to transport me from my favorite reading chair to a West Virginia high school in the late 50s. I found myself hanging on every word wondering what would happen next. There is something special about an intelligently written story about a successful man who takes no credit for himself, but rather gives it to each person who helped him make his dreams come true. Rocket Boys may now find itself among the short list of my favorite books.

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Water for Elephants - Sara Gruen

February 1st, 2008

Water for Elephants by Sara GruenThough he may not speak of them, the memories still dwell inside Jacob Jankowski's ninety-something-year-old mind. Memories of himself as a young man, tossed by fate onto a rickey train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Memories of a world filled with freaks and clowns, with wonder and pain and anger and passion; a world with its own narrow irrational rules, its own way of life, and its own way of death. The world of the circus: to Jacob it was both salvation and a living hell.

Jacob was there because his luck had run out -- orphaned and penniless, he had no direction until he landed on this locomotive "ship of fools." It was the early part of the Great Depression, and everyone in this third-rate circus was lucky to have any job at all. Marlena, the star of the equestrian act, was there because she fell in love with the wrong man, a handsome circus boss with a wide mean streak. And Rosie the elephant was there because she was the great gray hope, the new act that was going to be the salvation of the circus; the only problem was, Rosie didn't have an act -- in fact, she couldn't even follow instructions. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and ultimately, it was there only hope for survival.

Surprising, poignant, and funny, Water for Elephants is that rare novel with a story so engrossing, one is reluctant to put it down; with characters so engaging, they continued to live long after the last page has been turned; with a world built of wonder, a world so real, one starts to breathe its air.

Water for Elephants further romanticizes the age-old dream to runaway and join the circus. Unfortunately for Jacob (our star) it was not his dream to join the circus, but rather coincidence mixed with his last hope. The story is told from two viewpoints: Jacob is now ninety-something years old and we see what has become of our young protagonist, and we see many flashback sequences to the events that took place as he traveled with the circus.

As readers we are exposed to the sharp contrast between his youth and aged eras. With the circus, Jacob's life was so full of adventure and non-stop activity. Now he is resident in an assisted-living facility and he fears he is losing his energy and becoming more and more like the peers with whom he shares lodging. As he relives the excitement of his days with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth he not only longs for a different time, but resets his grip on his past. He is one old man who is not ready to give up on life.

Sara Gruen gave us a beautiful story about a man who refuses to let go of the events that changed his life. As you read about Jacob your heart will break and then, if possible, it will break again. It is much more than one young man's tale of woe, however. The story is one of love, hope, never giving up and some unlikely good friends. You will laugh, worry, delight and cheer with Jacob whether he is twenty something or ninety something. I really appreciate that the author went the extra mile in her research of life in the circus.

I didn't think I would like Water for Elephants, but I heard from too many people that it was good. When that happens, I had no choice but to give it a try. I really liked this book. And I'm glad I read it.

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Reliquary - Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

January 3rd, 2008

Reliquary by Douglas Preston and Lincoln ChildHidden deep beneath Manhattan lies a warren of tunnels, sewers, and galleries, mostly forgotten by those who walk the streets above. There lies the ultimate secret of the Museum Beast. When two grotesquely deformed skeletons are found deep in the mud off the Manhattan shoreline, museum curator Margo Green is called in to aid the investigation. Margo must once again team up with police Lieutenant D'Agosta and FBI agent Pendergast, as well as the brilliant Dr. Frock, to try and solve the puzzle. The trail soon leads deep underground, where they will face the awakening of a slumbering nightmare.

A year and a half after the museum beast came to New York, two bodies are found on a routine police dive for a package of heroin thrown off a bridge. No one suspects the museum beast is involved since it was killed and transported away, but Margo Green and Dr. Frock are once again asked to help if they can identify these strangely misshapen bodies.

While it is their work to find out the identity of the bodies, it is up to the police to find out where they came from and how they made it to where they were discovered. This portion of the story was the most interesting to me as it described (how accurately I cannot say) the vast network of tunnels beneath Manhattan and the communities of homeless people who live there.

While I really enjoyed this book, it is not one I can recommend broadly. I consider Reliquary to be a guilty-pleasure sci-fi thriller. It had wonderful suspense that would probably leave most readers on the edge of their seats, but there were enough murders and far-fetched scientific "discoveries" to limit the number of readers who would enjoy this book. And at times there was almost too much going on. I was content with the complexity of the story, but they lost me with one particular subplot which continued (seemingly) only to keep one of the recurring characters involved.

I don't think I am the only one who is skeptical of sequels. I think that can be evidenced by Reliquary being labeled as "sequel to the New York Times best seller Relic" and it not being a bestseller on its own. I thought Reliquary was just as good if not better than Relic. Don't be afraid to pick up this sequel.

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