Category: "Books: Read"

Stormchaser - Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell

December 28th, 2007

Stormchaser by Paul Stewart & Chris RiddellFar, far away, jutting out into the emptiness beyond, lies the Edge. Both the land and the air are filled with strange peoples and terrifying creatures; action -- and danger -- await at every turn. On board the famous sky ship Stormchaser, Twig eagerly looks forward to the adventure and excitement that lie ahead in his new life as a sky pirate. The crew's quest: to collect stormphrax -- the precious substance created at the heart of a Storm the very moment it unleashes its most intense power. Only a sky ship as powerful as the Stormchaser, piloted by a man as brave and fearless as Cloud Wolf, could risk entering such a storm...

You probably do not need to read Beyond the Deepwoods first, but I would recommend it. The story doesn't skip a beat as it transitions from book 1 to book 2, but any references to the earlier story are well explained. Stormchaser featured the same beautiful drawings by Chris Riddell and was equally as easy to read. I enjoyed book 2 a little more because it seemed that it was written for a slightly older audience, but I still feel that The Edge Chronicles is written for readers younger than "Harry Potter" age.

I really enjoyed the look into the history and culture of Sanctaphrax and its population of academics. That was probably my favorite part of Stormchaser.

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Mister Pip - Lloyd Jones

November 30th, 2007

Mister Pip by Lloyd JonesIn a novel that is at once intense, beautiful, and fablelike, Lloyd Jones weaves a transcendent story that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the power of narrative to transform our lives. On a copper-rich tropical island shattered by war, where the teachers have fled with almost everyone else, only one white man choose to stay behind: the eccentric Mr. Watts, object of much curiosity and scorn, who sweeps out the ruined school-house and begins to read to the children each day from Charles Dickens's classic Great Expectations. So begins this rare, original story about the abiding strength that imagination, once ignited, can provide. While artillery echoes in the mountains, thirteen-year-old Matilda and her peers are riveted by the adventures of a young orphan named Pip in a city called London, a city whose contours soon become more real than their own blighted landscape. As Mr. Watts says, "A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe." Soon come the rest of the villagers, initially threatened, finally inspired to share tales of their own that bring alive the rich mythology of their past. But in a ravaged place where even children are forced to live by their wits and daily survival is the only objective, imagination can be a dangerous thing.

On an island caught in the middle of a conflict it cannot escape, Mr. Watts was a diamond in the rough. This strange white man was a mystery to everyone until their fates had been sealed. With tension rising between the opposing sides of the war many people were able to flee the island. When the last boat was gone, no one was left to teach the children. No one except for the unknown Mr. Watts.

Mr. Watts ran an unconventional school. He had no personal knowledge to pass on to the children, but understood that they needed to learn. One technique he employed was almost "show and tell" meets "career day." One of the villagers came to class and shared anything they could with the kids. This may have been the best places to fish, a recipe, or a piece of the island's history. (As a sidenote, these visits to the schoolhouse were my favorite aspect of the book.) The only other way we saw Mr. Watts engage the children was by reading them a chapter per day from Charles Dickens's Great Expectations.

The story was recounted by a girl who was, at the time, a 13 year old living on the island. She lived with, and tested the patience of, her mother. Her father had left the island years before in search of work. Through Mr. Watts she developed a profound relationship with Charles Dickens, and more specifically Pip, the young protagonist in Great Expectations. And through Charles Dickens she developed a special relationship with Mr. Watts. Thanks to her we saw not only life in school, but how the village was directly affected by the fighting. When homes were burned and people were killed we saw how dire the situation was for the people stranded on the island.

This 13-year-old girl was still a child and should have been able to be one. She, like the other children, did not have that option. Her father was gone and she was always fighting with her mother. She had to witness things that no one, let alone a 13 year old, should ever have to see. Great Expecations became a fairy tale to her; a world into which she could escape. And Pip was her guide. From daily peaks into his story, Pip became as real to her as anyone else on the island, maybe even more so. And just as easily as any villager could have, Pip became the cause of a great misunderstanding with a group of men with guns who do not like misunderstandings.

Lloyd Jones gave us a beautiful story full of hope, disappointment and a very unlikely school teacher. He wrote with a balance of poetic imagination and narrative story telling that made me love this book.

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Tender at the Bone - Ruth Reichl

November 6th, 2007

Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by Ruth ReichlAt an early age, Ruth Reichl discovered that "food could be a way of making sense of the world. . . . If you watched people as they ate, you could find out who they were." Her deliciously crafted memoir, Tender at the Bone, is the story of a life determined, enhanced, and defined in equal measure by a passion for food, unforgettable people, and the love of tales well told. Beginning with Reichl's mother, the notorious food-poisoner known as the Queen of Mold, Reichl introduces us to the fascinating characters who shaped her world and her tastes, from the gourmand Monsieur du Croix, who served Reichl her first soufflé, to those at her politically correct table in Berkeley who championed the organic food revolution in the 1970s. Spiced with Reichl's infectious humor and sprinkled with her favorite recipes, Tender at the Bone is a witty and compelling chronicle of a culinary sensualist's coming-of-age.

This is the true story of how an influential food critic came to know food. It chronicles the stories and people from her life that shaped her relationship with food and how food has shaped her relationship with people.

I was worried as the book began that it would be filled with nothing more than anecdotes about her mother's culinary disasters...as that is how the book begins. I thought that if the book continued on like that I would give up well before it was over. And I was worried over nothing.

Rather than reading about a young girl who learned to fear her mother's creativity in the kitchen (even though that happened), Tender at the Bone touches on how food became an integral part of each stage of Ruth Reichl's life. Through food she found friends, made friends, and kept friends. With food she learned to create and express herself to her own delight and to the delight of others. She learned the ins and outs of the restaurant business and experienced first hand how important food is to other cultures.

It is fascinating to read her tale, especially to see the luck she has had. While her life took her the wrong way down many one-way streets, she always managed to come across someone who could teach her or show her something invaluable. (I do not mean to discredit her achievements by mentioning her good fortune since not everyone would have been as astute as she was to learn from everything that happened.)

From the stories of her childhood it seemed unlikely that she would end up in the position she has today. She has lived an interesting life which has taken her to many different countries and many different cultures. This book takes you by the hand and leads you through all of it.

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Throne of Jade - Naomi Novik

October 31st, 2007

Throne of Jade by Naomi NovikWhen Britain intercepted a French ship and its precious cargo -- unhatched dragon's egg -- Capt. Will Laurence of HMS Reliant unexpectedly became master and commander of the noble dragon he named Temeraire. As new recruits in Britain's Aerial Corps, man and dragon soon proved their mettle in daring combat against Bonaparte's invading forces.

Now China has discovered that its rare gift, intended for Napolean, has fallen into British hands -- and an angry Chinese delegation vows to reclaim the remarkable beast. But Laurence refuses to cooperate. Facing the gallows for his defiance, the captain has no choice but to accompany Temeraire back to the Far East -- a long voyage fraught with peril, intrigue, and the untold terrors of the deep. Yet once the pair reaches the court of the Chinese emperor, even more shocking discoveries and darker dangers await.

I am through two books of the series and I am conflicted. I mentioned after His Majesty's Dragon that I love Naomi Novik's dragons. While that still holds true, I now wonder how much, if at all, I truly love the rest of the story.

Throne of Jade is over 400 pages long and I felt like very little happened for the first (roughly) 300 pages. Once it was time for the few important events to take place, they happened so abruptly I wondered if they were as important to the story as they seemed that they should be.

Ms. Novik brought dragons into our world in the first book and here she broadened our horizons with a look at dragons from the far ends of the Earth. I will continue to read the series, at least for now. But I am beginning to wonder if it is the idea that I love and not its execution. It may become difficult to get through what is now already a five-book series if I cannot get excited about what happens on dragonless pages.

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Shopgirl - Steve Martin

October 25th, 2007

Shopgirl by Steve MartinOne of our country's most acclaimed and beloved entertainers, Steve Martin is quickly becoming recognized as a "gorgeous writer capable of being at once melancholy and tart, achingly innocent and astonishingly ironic" (Elle). Beautifully written, this novella reveals a different side of Martin, one that is unexpectedly perceptive about relationships and life and profoundly wise when it comes to the inner workings of the human heart.

Mirabelle is the "shopgirl" of the title, a young woman, beautiful in a wallflowerish kind of way, who works behind the glove counter at Neiman Marcus "selling things that nobody buys anymore..."

Slightly lost, slightly off-kilter, very shy, Mirabelle charms because of all that she is not: not glamorous, not aggressive, not self-aggrandizing. Still, there is something about her that is irresistible.

Mirabelle captures the attention of Ray Porter, a wealthy businessman almost twice her age. As they tentatively embark on a relationship, they both struggle to decipher the language of love -- with consequences that are both comic and heart-breaking. Filled with the kind of witty, discerning observations that have brought Steve Martin critical success, Shopgirl is a work of disarming tenderness.

I think the last sentence of the synopsis provided by the publisher is the perfect place to look when discussing this book: "Filled with the kind of witty, discerning observations that have brought Steve Martin critical success, Shopgirl is a work of disarming tenderness."

I agree with the first part of the sentence, but disagree with the second. When I shared my thoughts on Steve Martin's Pure Drivel I said that he was my writing role model. It is the intelligence with which he writes that amazes me and sets the bar (very high) to a level at which I wish to write someday. That intelligence comes through to create those witty and discerning observations.

While I liked Shopgirl, the piece that I thought was missing was feeling. Sure there was emotion written into the characters, but it seemed superficial. I could not feel for the characters because I did not believe they had feelings either. I still would like to stroke the intellectual part of your brain like Steve Martin, but I will have to bring my own passion to my characters.

Shopgirl is short, it's a quick read. It is more beach reading than intellectual stimulation. It was good, but not great.

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Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don't - Jim Collins

October 2nd, 2007

Good to Great by Jim CollinsTHE CHALLENGE
Built to Last, the defining management study of the nineties, showed how great companies triumph over time and how long-term sustained performance can be engineered in the DNA of an enterprise from the very beginning.

But what about a company that is not born with great DNA? How can good companies, mediocre companies, even bad companies achieve enduring greatness?

THE STUDY
For years, this question preyed on the mind of Jim Collins. Are there companies that defy gravity and convert long-term mediocrity or worse into long-term superiority? And if so, what are the universal distinguishing characteristics that cause a company to go from good to great?

THE STANDARDS
Using tough benchmarks, Collins and his research team identified a set of elite companies that made the leap to great results and sustained those results for at least fifteen years. How great? After the leap, the good-to-great companies generated cumulative stock returns that beat the general stock market by an average of seven times in fifteen years, better than twice the results delivered by a composite index of the world's greatest companies, including Coca-Cola, Intel, General Electric, and Merck.

THE COMPARISONS
The research team contrasted the good-to-great companies with a carefully selected set of comparison companies that failed to make the leap from good to great. What was different? Why did one set of companies become truly great performers while the other set remained only good?

Over five years, the team analyzed the histories of all twenty-eight companies in the study. After sifting through mountains of data and thousands of pages of interviews, Collins and his crew discovered the key determinants of greatness -- why some companies make the leap and others don't.

THE FINDINGS
The findings of the Good to Great study will surprise many readers and shed light on virtually every area of management strategy and practice. The findings include:
- Level 5 Leaders: The research team was shocked to discover the type of leadership required to achieve greatness.
- The Hedgehog Concept (Simplicity within the Three Circles): To go from good to great requires transcending the curse of competence.
- The Culture of Discipline: When you combine a culture of discipline with an ethic of entrepreneurship, you get the magical alchemy of great results.
- Technology Accelerators: Good-to-great companies think differently about the role of technology.
- They Flywheel and the Doom Loop: Those who launch radical change programs and wrenching restructurings will almost certainly fail to make the leap.

"Some of the key concepts discerned in the study," comments Jim Collins, "fly in the face of our modern business culture and will, quite frankly, upset some people."

Perhaps, but who can afford to ignore these findings?

This was a very interesting book for me to read. I have to imagine that I am in a pretty narrow target market for this book, though the concepts may be broadly applied. I work for a small business and can see many opportunities to put this book's findings to work.

The book tells the various stories of companies that made a transition from a market participant to market leader and saw sustained success for at least 15 years. The author was able to identify a few common factors between these companies, and he and his research team present them as a model for us to follow.

I had but one small issue, which is probably not information that contributes to the rest of the research. They detail radical decisions made by upper management, sometimes completely changing the face of an established business. I figure there must be a largely disproportionate number of business that fail when they made the same or a similar move. I would have liked to see some detail behind how those successful companies came to make that decision. The decision itself was largely overlooked.

Like many "business" books, I feel that much of what was written here was largely common sense. They weren't necessarily ideas that I have had or would have come up with on my own, but as I read them they seemed mundane in analysis. It made the reading slow going, but there was a silver lining -- for instant gratification, each chapter ends with a few pages of main concepts extracted from the text.

There was some very insightful research in Good to Great. The common elements identified were relevant and practical. It would not be an easy model to follow, but if it were it would defeat its own purpose to isolate those corporate characteristics that set successful companies apart. If you have ever wondered what steps you should follow to take your company from Good to Great, this is a book you should read (even if it is just the chapter summaries).

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On Chesil Beach - Ian McEwan

September 10th, 2007

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwanIt is July 1962. Florence is a talented musician who dreams of a career on the concert stage and of the perfect life she will create with Edward, an earnest young history student at the University College in London, who unexpectedly wooed and won her heart. Newly married that morning, both virgins, Edward and Florence arrive at a hotel on the Dorset coast. At dinner in their rooms they struggle to suppress their worries about the wedding night to come. Edward, eager for rapture, frets over Florence's response to his advances and nurses a private fear of failure, while Florence's anxieties run deeper: she is overcome by sheer disgust at the idea of physical contact, but dreads disappointing her husband when they finally lie down together in the honeymoon suite.

Ian McEwan has caught with understanding and compassion the innocence of Edward and Florence at a time when marriage was presumed to be the outward sign of maturity and independence. On Chesil Beach is another masterwork from McEwan -- a story of lives transformed by a gesture not made or a word not spoken.

For my first bite at the McEwan apple, I was quite impressed. On Chesil Beach was beautifully written and I loved what he wrote...for the most part. I feel the book is best talked about in two parts: 1) the wedding day 2) the rest of the book.

In that first part, the wedding day, we have a man and woman who are as awkward with each other as they are in love. They fumble through conversation before fumbling at each other's clothing. They have never had difficulty communicating, but there is one glaring oversight in their conversational past: he could not wait to get into bed with her and she did not want to ever get into bed with him. The chapters that chronicle that day were rife with sexual tension and apprehension, and they were often pretty descriptive.

(I can accept that Americans are typically considered prude by the rest of the world, and if you have ever been uncomfortable by adult situations and bizarrely literary sexual euphemism in text you may have to skip over a few paragraphs.)

To characterize the second part of the book, that which did not occur on the couple's wedding day, I would consider it beautiful in its simplicity and innocence. The care with which McEwan handled their relationship as it budded through the soil was perfectly gentle. I really enjoyed how much of the story revolved around both Edward and Florence's families. Their separate family dynamics showed how they found solice in each other's company; they were each other's escape into a new-found reality.

On Chesil Beach was wonderfully tragic, if tragedy can be wonderful; (a little) funny; and all-around superbly written. Ian McEwan has been a celebrated author for many years and if On Chesil Beach is representative of his earlier work it is not difficult to see why he has received such praise.

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Love is A Mix-Tape - Rob Sheffield

August 30th, 2007

Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time by Rob SheffieldWhat is love? Great minds have been grappling with this question throughout the ages, and in the modern era, they have come up with many different answers. According to Western philosopher Pat Benetar, love is a battlefield. Her paisan Frank Sinatra would add the corollary that love is a tender trap. Love hurts. Love stinks. Love bites, love bleeds, love is the drug. The troubadours of our times agree: They want to know what love is, and they want you to show them. But the answer is simple: Love is a mix tape.

In the 1990s, when "alternative" was suddenly mainstream, bands like Pearl Jam and Pavement, Nirvana and R.E.M. -- bands that a year before would have been too weird for MTV -- were MTV. It was the decade of Kurt Cobain and Shania Twain and Taylor Dayne, a time that ended all too soon. The boundaries of American culture were exploding, and music was leading the way.

It was also when a shy music geek named Rob Sheffield met a hell-raising Appalachian punk-rock girl named Renee, who was way too cool for him but fell in love with him anyway. He was tall. She was short. He was shy. She was a social butterfly. She was the only one who laughed at his jokes when they were so bad, and they were always bad. They had nothing in common except that they both loved music. Music brought them together and kept them together. And it was music that would help Rob through a sudden, unfathomable loss.

In Love Is a Mix Tape, Rob, now a writer for Rolling Stone, uses the songs on fifteen mix tapes to tell the story of his brief time with Renee. From Elvis to Missy Elliott, the Rolling Stones to Yo La Tengo, the songs on these tapes make up the soundtrack to their lives.

Rob Sheffield isn't a musician, he's a writer, and Love Is a Mix Tape isn't a love song -- but it might as well be. This is Rob's tribute to music, to the decade that shaped him, but most of all to one unforgettable woman.

The story is of the power of music and one tragic loss. The author lost his wife unexpectedly and pieced together a book about their relationship in its before, during and after stages. Each chapter is headed by the tracklisting of a mixtape -- a customized amalgamation of songs, however random -- they had made. I was somewhat under the impression that the chapters would be more about the mixtapes they made together and less mile markers in the chronological tour of their relationship. The songs set the tone (somewhat) for the chapter to come, but there isn't necessarily any cohesion between the song choices themselves and the following few pages.

I understand how difficult it would be to pull that off, but I guess I had pretty high hopes.

Some parts of the book were beautiful in their tribute, but other parts just seemed like simple narrative. There were times when the anecdotes made Sheffield sound like he lived to a ripe old age and here he was remembering his early love. While I am sure we can get into how philosophically much more time passed in his life than ours after she died, he is still a young man. The book may have been cut down by a few pages, in fact all I really needed was some of the set up and the last chapter. In the last chapter it seemed like Sheffield finally let himself feel Renee's absence. Sharing in that, I finally began to feel for him.

For the most part, the book was enjoyable. I would argue that the inclusion of music into the story was a little over done (with countless references, name drops and lyrics spread throughout the book), but apparently that was how Rob and Renee lived. Those were the conversations they had.

The feeling I had the most while I read was that his story was a private one. I felt that he needed to write the book for his closure, to preserve her memory and to give himself perspective. While I am honored that he shared Renee with us all, I couldn't help but feel that I was intruding on something that was special to the two of them.

As previously mentioned, the final chapter could live and breathe on its own. The emotion that finally pulsed through those last few pages just about made up for its conspicuous absence earlier in the book. I never read achnowledgements, especailly when they are more than a paragraph but I read these. The last chapter spilled over into them and I couldn't help myself. I wanted to see the final goodbye and thank you written to Renee. After thanking everyone who helped write the book, I wanted to have my heart ripped out by a simple homage to Renee who will now live on forever in text. But while she was mentioned in the acknowledgements, she was never thanked. But then again, maybe that part was just too personal.

Its story, while sometimes buried under excessive music references, was sweet. The book was short; at 219 pages it is short enough to try it even if you aren't sure about it. All in all, Love is A Mix-Tape was a decent book.

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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - J.K. Rowling

June 19th, 2007

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. RowlingEver since Harry Potter had come home for the summer, the Dursleys had been so mean and hideous that all Harry wanted was to get back to the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. But just as he's packing his bags, Harry receives a warning from a strange, impish creature who says that if Harry returns to Hogwarts, disaster will strike.

And strike it does. For in Harry's second year at Hogwarts, fresh torments and horrors arise, including an outrageously stuck-up new professor and a spirit who hants the girls' bathroom. But then the real trouble begins -- someone is turning Hogwarts students to stone. Could it be Draco Malfoy, a more poisonous rival than ever? Could it possibly be Hagrid, whose mysterious past is finally told? Or could it be the one everyone at Hogwarts most suspects...Harry Potter himself!

With a book written about magic, especially one so centered on a world full of magic, the author could easily abuse his or her creativity. One thing for which I applaud Ms. Rowling is how well she maintains her focus in this series. While it is easy for us to get lost in her world, she never seems to miss a beat.

I love one of the minor themes addressed in these books: magic is everywhere, but as long as you believe it does not exist, you will never see it.

The Chamber of Secrets is the second book and thus Harry's second adventure. The main characters, who will comprise the nucleus of the plot going forward, are back. There are also enough new names and faces to keep the story fresh.

I like Book 2 more than Book 1. I surely give credit where it is due, so I appreciate Book 1 introducing Harry Potter, but I feel that Book 2 is more exciting. In Book 2 Ms. Rowling was able to delve more deeply into the magical world rather than spend time building up to it like she did in Book 1.

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His Majesty's Dragon - Naomi Novik

June 1st, 2007

His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi NovikAerial combat brings a thrilling new dimension to the Napoleanic Wars as valiant warriors rise to Britain's defense by taking to the skies...not aboard aircraft but atop the might backs of fighting dragons.

When HMS Reliant captures a French frigate and seizes its precious cargo, an unhatched dragon egg, fate sweeps Capt. Will Laurence from his seafaring life into an uncertain future -- and an unexpected kinship with a most extraordinary creature. Thrust into the rarefied world of the Aerial Corps as master of the dragon Temeraire, he will face a crash course in the daring tactics of airborne battle. For as France's own dragon-borne forces rally to breach British soil in Bonaparte's boldest gambit, Laurence and Temeraire must soar into their own baptism of fire.

I loved Naomi Novik's dragons. It is always interesting to see a different author's take on the fabled creatures. She wrote hers with grace. Novik's dragons are strong, intelligent (well some are anyway) and incredibly charming. However, I feel like she spent so much time creating these dragons who interact in this war-time environment that....well, she didn't have enough time left over for other development. We get to know both Captain Laurence and his dragon, Temeraire, well. Beyond them, there is little-to-no character depth. The fight scenes are slightly hard to follow in the minute military details, but they are still exhilirating. It is such a fresh perspective to imagine dragons used as legitimate means of war. I also felt that those same fight scenes were over as quickly as they began. I am not sure I would actually want them to be any longer, but the feeling I had was that they were very abrupt encounters.

I thought that the rigidity with which Laurence adhered to codes of honor was beginning to get old, but seemingly at the right moment it was brought up less often. He was hard to enjoy for how quick he was to defend his honor and that of others, but he does relax some.

I feel like Ms. Novik wanted to write Temeraire as a female dragon, but for her self-imposed limitation that female dragons want female riders, and a male protagonist had been chosen. Too often I felt like I read exchanges between Temeraire and Laurence as male-to-female interaction only to be reminded of Temeraire's gender a moment later. It might have been how frequently Laurence called him "My dear."

It may just be the dragon lover within me that enjoyed this new take, but the book was still entertaining. It is the inaugural installment in a series that I will continue to read. I am hoping for additional character development and maybe some closure in my battle scenes, but I won't hold my breath.

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