Tag Archives: Book Review

To the Greatest Heights

I love outdoor adventures, but where I’m at in life, I have to live vicariously through the biographies of others. So I downloaded an advance copy of Vanessa O’Brien’s biography.

img_1908To the Greatest Heights is truly a representative name for O’Brien’s journey, as she lays out climbing the world’s tallest mountains, as well as hitting both poles. O’Brien’s adventures began as something to fill her time after being laid off. A friend suggested climbing Mount Everest and she thought, “why not?”

In the process of training for Everest, O’Brien found she had a taste for the mountains. Though she didn’t set out to make any records or even climb the Seven Summits, nor bag the Adventurer’s Grand Slam, things just started falling into place.

O’Brien writes a very raw and honest memoir of climbing, weaving in the details of her life and childhood trauma, as well. Her story is one that highlights resilience and the search to build a family, that family is sometimes, maybe even often, more than blood. Be warned that this kind of writing usually includes a lot of swearing, and O’Brien’s memoir is no exclusion.

I’m sure I can’t be the only person who reads this book and suddenly wants to climb a few mountains or make a trek to the South Pole. It’s not even that O’Brien makes it sound like a picnic— she’s very honest about the challenges and brutality of these feats. It’s simply the draw of being out in nature, pushing your personal limits and simply answering some primal call that’s felt deep in the soul.

Her Last Flight

I’ve read another book by Beatriz Williams, she’s fun for light intrigue. However, Her Last Flight, though full of potential, wasn’t quite my cup of tea.

DSC00584Janey Everett is a photojournalist on a mission: to fund out what happened in the final days of famous pilot Sam Mallory. The key to the mystery is Mallory’s partner, Irene Foster. So Everett’s first mission is to find Foster, who disappeared in a round-the-globe race.

But discovering the story is more than just professional interest for Janey, and soon she has to determine how far she’s willing to go to get the truth. And whether she’s ready to face what she hears.

The story was very good, despite having an inkling about one or two plot points within the first 100 pages. However, the characters posed some challenges. The classic loveless marriage as an excuse to have an affair didn’t sit well with me.

Additionally, the baggage Janey carried around, though it makes sense, didn’t seem to fit the story well. Raised without her father and taken advantage of by her step-father as a young woman, Janey has commitment issues and, frankly, becomes a sex addict. However, it didn’t seem to add to the story, and made is less enjoyable for me to read.

This was disappointing, because the story was otherwise quite enjoyable, full of intrigue and adventure.

Song of the Sparrow

I remember buying this book when I was a teenager and thinking it was so cool, a different take on King Arthur from a female point of view. Now, reading it again as an adult, I still think it’s cool.

Lisa Ann Sandell’s Song of the Sparrow is told from the perspective of Elaine of Ascolat, the Lady of Shalott.img_2047 Forced to leave the island as a young girl, Elaine grew up among only men, soldiers at that. So when a beautiful lady arrives in their camp, Gwynivere, Arthur’s bride-to-be, Elaine is excited to finally have a bosom friend. Gwynivere, however, does not share Elaine’s enthusiasm. It’s not until everything depends on them working together that the girls finally open up and see they can learn a lot from each other.

This line of Arthurian lore follows more along the lines of the film King Arthur, highlighting him as a battle commander taking lead when the Roman leader died and working to unite Briton and defeat the Saxons. It’s way, way different than all the other King Arthur books I’ve read lately, so it was a nice change of pace (just the ticket to make me interested again in diving back down the rabbit hole…).

My one difficulty with this book, which I don’t recall having as a teen, is that it’s written in verse. But I still get tripped up when verses don’t rhyme (except when I write it, because then I know the beat I’m going for). So I found myself a few times struggling because it doesn’t read the same as a novel, but it feels halting to try to break where the author does.

Otherwise, I’d say it’s a classic teen telling of the story, with Lancelot and Gwynivere, Elaine loving Lancelot from afar, then finding out maybe a hero is different than a lover, plus the pivotal coming into their own moment for Gwynivere and Elaine, overcoming the odds to reach a happy ending for everyone (or almost everyone).

All in all, it’s a fun read, and quick, once you just get going and don’t worry about how you’re “supposed” to read it.

The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking)

img_1907

I’ve been reading some advance copies of books digitally lately, and let me just say, I was not made for digital reading. It’s hard. That said, I was interested in reading Katie Mack’s The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking). I think this was not a great book to read digitally.

Mack provides readers with a quick introduction to cosmology before looking at some of the ways the universe could end, including being crunched like a soda can, reaching unbearable temperatures, and being ripped apart. While the end of the universe is by no means imminent, I can understand why it’s interesting to explore the possibilities.

Part of what was challenging about this book was that I was reading it in conjunction with another book. How do people do that? That makes it difficult to keep up with the science I’m reading, when I’m just reading it sporadically. But overall, it was an interesting read full of hypotheticals that make me curious to know more.

Since I’ve been trying to revamp my blog I have a question to pose to you, my readers. Would you like me to institute a simple rating system of “buy, borrow, or skip” in terms of my recommendations? Comment and let me know!

Prisoner of the Daleks

As I’m trying to pack things up, it seemed time to knock out reading a few shorter stories in order to beef up my collection of blogs ready for posting. So I went back to my latest Doctor Who book to read the second story, Prisoner of the Daleks by Trevor Baxendale.

While flying solo, the Doctor ends up on an abandoned planet in the wrong time and finds himself suddenly in the middle of a war with the Daleks. Joining up with a team of Dalek bounty hunters, the Doctor must work with his new friends in order to try to stop the Daleks from gaining access to a small tear in time and space. If the Daleks succeed, they’ll finally be able to accomplish the extermination of the human race.

This was a fun, fast-paced little read featuring David Tennant’s incarnation of the Doctor, who has always been my favorite. It’s a little bit of a different story, in that many characters aren’t able to be saved, and Baxendale’s Doctor works to save himself and the others by dooming the Daleks. In some ways it felt contrary to the Doctor.

All in all, it was a fun read, and as always makes me want to get back into the show. But that’s a rabbit hole for another time.

The Guest List

I became aware of Lucy Foley earlier this year when her book The Hunting Party was selected as a Barnes & Noble book of the month. It was a popular choice, so when I saw an advance copy of her new book, The Guest List, I snagged it.

An isolated Irish island seems like the perfect place for a wedding—and the perfect place for a murder. While everyone should be celebrating, after the vows are said and cake it cut, someone turns up dead. Suddenly everyone is a suspect, and several people have hidden but compelling motives. But who really did it?

The story is told from a variety of perspectives, giving a good look at each character’s motives and thought processes. You start the book knowing it’s an Agatha Christie-esque mystery, where you know what’s happened, but not the who or the why. You’re left to piece things together through the narratives of the night before the wedding and the day of the event.

I was a little skeptical at first, because I know this is exactly the same style as Foley’s other book (which I didn’t read, but it’s just the principle). But I found the book actually quite engaging, even if I did hate every person in the book. What I will say, though, is that the way everything neatly traced back to the dead character was a little unimaginative. Each character had motive, and even though only one did the deed, everyone got revenge. The “got what was coming to them” feel left me a little dissatisfied.

So while it was a fast-paced read that kept me engaged and kept me linking all the stories together, it didn’t quite achieve the mind blowing climax I think Foley was going for.

The books isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, as it’s a little on the vulgar side in terms of language as well as content, which I found off-putting as well. I just don’t enjoy reading about characters who see women as sexual conquests instead of people. The book also touches on sensitive, triggering subjects, including suicide, abortion, and sexual exploitation via blackmail.

All the Light We Cannot See

I’m starting to realize that, though I’ve always enjoyed historical fiction set around World War II, I’m finding it a little tiresome. It seems to be the same sort of story over and over. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr wasn’t quite the same story.

It follows a boy and a girl as they grow up through the pre-war years. Werner, a German boy, is looking for a way out of the mining village he’s grown up in. His escape comes through a government school, training him to be a soldier. But Werner finds himself obeying, or staying silent, in the face of things he doesn’t necessarily agree with.

Marie-Laurie is a young French girl who flees Paris with her father and takes up residence in Saint-Malo. What she doesn’t realize is that, when they flee, her father is charged with an important mission.

As the war progresses, Werner and Marie-Laurie’s stories start to converge during the siege of Saint-Malo. But when things erupt, families and lives are destroyed.

This book was well written, moving quickly and making it very easy to follow each storyline. However, I just didn’t find the story as compelling as I thought it would be (though, when something is so acclaimed, it’s to be expected). The stories didn’t converge until the end, and when they did, it was in a very cliche way. I knew how it would end from the very start (and not just because of the flash forward that starts the story and continues throughout).

In short, it’s a good, quick historical fiction read, but it’s not what I’d call a profound read.

Johannes Cabal, The Necromancer

Sometimes you’ve just gotta read a light, irreverent book. Jonathan Howard’s book is just that, the perfect quick read to distract you from whatever you’re looking to hide from.

Johannes Cabal, I’m sure you’ll be shocked to know, is a necromancer. He sold his soul to the devil for the powers, but now he’s decided he wants it back. Storming hell, Johannes challenge’s the devil to a wager: Johannes will collect 100 souls within one year in exchange for his own. Armed with only his wits and a run down circus, Johannes has his work cut out for him.

With the help of his brother, a charismatic vampire, and some circus folk Johannes whips up, the clock is ticking. While the wager seems straightforward, Johannes s forced to face the reality of who he is and who he is willing to be.

Howard writes in a very easy-to-read way, full of British humor and snark. And it poses a question of how far one would be willing to go for what they want—what lines they will or won’t cross. Johannes seems a pretty cut a dried character, but you can’t help holding on to a little hope, right up until the very end.

While it certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s a fun and quick read, especially when you’re feeling a little sassy. It’s a fun way to run off with the circus, just a for a little while.

Into Thin Air

You’d think that reading about tragedy would curb enthusiasm or interest in risky adventures. But I think Jon Krakauer sums it up perfectly in his introduction to Into Thin Air: “There were many, many fine reasons not to go, but attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument.” And it’s not just applicable to Everest.

Into Thin Air is Krakauer’s personal recounting of the 1996 spring season in Everest, a brutal and deadly season. Krakauer signed on to the Everest expedition to write a magazine article about the commercialization of climbing Everest and found himself part of a team of marginally qualified climbers and experienced guides. The other teams camping out hoping for a summit assault had much the same composition. So when a storm started brewing in the afternoon of several teams’ attempts, the mountain claimed the many lives, some with a lot of climbing and Everest experience.

Reading Krakauer’s account is harrowing, when you reach May 10. Krakauer lays bare the actions he and others took without attempting to justify them (though he does remind readers that at 29,000 feet, even supplemental oxygen is only enough to keep one functional, not necessarily rational). One is left wondering what it must be like to live with the choices made, along with the survivors guilt.

I’m sure many people read this book and think, “what kind of person signs up for that? Knowing the risks?” The answer is, the other kind of people who read the book and think, “I could do that.” I don’t think Krakauer’s book is meant to discourage people from climbing—too many people would see it as a challenge. Nor do I think it’s meant to serve as a guide for what to do or what not to do, though certainly there are lessons one could pull for the pages. If anything, aside from being an attempt to process the trauma he’d survived, I think it’s probably meant to serve as a reminder of the risks, to pose the question, “are you willing to die for this?” Or, more heavy, “are you willing to let others die for this?”

I can’t deny that even though it’s an intense read about worst-case scenarios, a part of me doesn’t feel even more of a draw to the danger. It’s not even really a the competition with nature. It’s more like what George Mallory is quoted saying, it’s simply because it’s there. It is there, and so I must try. (Not that I’m planning on climbing Everest anytime soon. I’ll try some smaller mountains, first.)

Series review: His Dark Materials

I remember my first encounter with this series. I’d just finished my summer reading journal for the library and I pulled The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman as my free book. I read it a little while later, when we headed off on our houseboat trip in Canada. So… 2004?

Years later, when the movie came out, my mom asked me about it. She wanted to know if they really killed God in the end of the series. I couldn’t really remember, but there was controversy in the Christian community about whether the series was OK to read or not. Now, with HBO making a tv series out of it, I decided to come back and give it another read.

The series starts with The Golden Compass and follows Lyra, a young girl living in an alternate London. Her life has always been full of adventure and capers with her friend, Roger, and her daemon, Pan. But then the adults around her start getting interested in this elusive “dust,” and children are going missing. Lyra finds herself joining with unlikely allies as she dodges from one danger to another, trying to rescue Roger, save the children, and figure out what’s got everyone so upset.

In the Subtle Knife, Lyra has accomplished what she set out to do, but now she’s alone in another world. Until she runs into Will, a boy her own age who escaped his own London, and wants nothing more than to uncover the mystery of his father’s disappearance. Together, they have to navigate new worlds, overcome new obstacles, and find ways to reunite with their friends who can help them.

The Amber Spyglass wraps up the story with everyone coming together for one great battle in an attempt to bring freedom to all the worlds. But first, they have to visit the world of the dead, and try to escape with their lives. Will and Lyra have some final allies to meet, and one final challenge, which proves to be the hardest of all.

I can’t lie, after reading the series again, I’d be find if The Golden Compass was simply a stand-alone novel (though, it would need a better ending. You can’t end a stand-alone with a gaping hole at the end). The series dabbles with some interesting ideas, but even as an adult, I found myself struggling to piece it all together and grasp the overarching theme. Dust is such a driving force in the first book, but then sort of takes a backseat until the very end, when it has a role to play in the story wrap up. Maybe I’d just need to read the series again, slower, in order to get all the allegory. But, then, the kids reading the series are sure to miss all that, too.

As far as the question of killing God in the end, while the series does suggest that it’s the Christian and/or Catholic religion they are after, it is still a work of fiction. In Pullman’s series, his version of god is an angel who took over and raised himself above the rest, and has since been intervening in the material world, setting rules for morality and passing judgment. As he weakened, he set his right hand in charge. In the end (forgive the spoiler), no one actually kills the Authority, as they call him. He just floats away, as all Pullman’s angels do when they die. The right hand, who is never referred to as god, is cast into a void. So, while parents will have to make choices as their convictions lead, I really don’t see it as problematic. I never thought of it as commentary on my Christian faith as a kid, and I don’t think of it that way now. I’m inclined more to suggest that it’s an opportunity to discuss the idea of fiction versus truth, and how fiction is different than lies. This is a fantasy series, no one is supposed to believe it’s speaking truth or reality.

Anyway, as far as the series goes, it’s a fun read, though as I said, it gets a little muddy on what the important themes are. The characters have depth, though, and it forces you to consider, what does repentance (for lack of a better word) mean, and does a life time of bad choices make it impossible for someone to change or make a good choice?

All in all, not a series I feel the need to have on my shelf, but not one I feel the need to blacklist, either.