“The spirit of her invincible heart guided her through the shadows.” This quote, about the matriarch of the family around which the excellent novel 100 Years of Solitude revolves, is from a scene in the novel where Ursula is about to die, at the age of 115 or so. She has lost her sight many years ago at this point in the novel; even without sight she is very much a vital part of the family for many years, memorizing the routines of the members of her family, and using the sun’s position to help her keep her bearings on what is going on in the family. It is almost miraculous how she is able to do all she does without sight. To sum up: The book is about a very large family and its cast of various colorful characters. The author wrote it in a style he originated, one called magical realism, which makes parts of it read like the author wrote down a dream he was having. Part fantasy–the book takes place in a made-up city the family founds, which later becomes much much larger–and part family chronicle, the theme of the joys of life resulting from the interaction between family members is often present in it. Covering the life span of Ursula, one of the founders of the town, and several generations of her progeny (in the edition I read, there is a family tree at the front of the book to help the reader sort out the characters), this novel is ultimately a testament to the importance of family in our lives.
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I finished Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens a while back, and I really enjoyed it. Be forewarned, though: if you can’t stomach reading about people living in dire poverty, skip this one. The basic premise of the story is Oliver Twist, a young orphan boy, gets sent to a work house outside of London. The work house was an invention by politicians of the day—the day being the 1800’s—to keep orphans off the streets. The problem with the work houses, however, was that they were severely underfunded, so the residents subsisted on the most meager amounts of daily rations imaginable (if you’ve seen the movie “Oliver Twist,” the musical version that won the Academy Award for best picture, think “gruel,” and the song with that title that the kids all sing when eating it in the work house). Added to that were overseers, people who managed the houses and also lived there, who were cruel to the children. This combination of a scarce food supply and overseers without a heart for children created conditions that made for a miserable existence for the residents.
Oliver does get out of the work house, however, and gets in with a group of thieving, miscreant kids and teens and their masters Bill Sykes and Fagin, who basically own the kids, providing them with food and shelter and taking almost all of the money and goods that they steal each day (what they don’t take for themselves they give to the kids). They basically own the kids because without them the kids would have nowhere to sleep and nothing to eat. Let it be known that Sykes is the most ruthless, most violent, and most heartless villain I have ever encountered in literature, and there probably is no book where a villain tops him in those three qualities. The words that come to mind when thinking of Sykes’ behavior and crimes are depraved and heinous. If you think it will bother you to read about Sykes, please skip this novel.
On the upshot, through reading the book the reader gets to see what living in 19th-century London and its surrounding area was like, and what the people were like who lived there during that time (what their dress was like, how they talked, their mannerisms, etc.). That is one of the great things about this novel and one of the great things about any novel that take place in the past: a novel that takes place is a snapshot of what it was like to live in that place at that time. I also really like the book because Dickens was a really masterful storyteller; he knew how to spin a yarn. He ended each chapter in a way that leaves the reader wanting to know what’s going to happen in the next one. Another thing I like about this novel and the other I’ve read by Dickens so far, Great Expectations, is that they both feature main characters (Oliver, and Pip in Great Expectations) who have tenacious perseverance and endurance in trying to improve their lives in the face of oppressive living conditions. (Dickens, it is well know, was a very outspoken social critic, and in Oliver Twist the point he wanted to make as a social critic was that the politicians of the day in London should have dealt with orphans in a good, life-affirming way, not by sending them to the deplorable work houses.) So, do Oliver and Pip improve their lives in the end? You will have to read the books to find out!
I don’t recommend wasting your time with this book. It reads like a travel guide to Florence and Venice, Italy, not like a novel. While I enjoyed Brown’s previous efforts, The Lost Symbol, and The DaVinci Code (especially the latter), this one is not in their league, although it features the same central character, Robert Langdon. One would hope Brown gets back to writing story and relegating the factual information about the places and artworks of his novels to a supporting role in the background. That’s really all that needs to be said about this disappointing book.
Rating (out of five stars): 0
****Note: Contains Spoilers****
Well, I’d been waiting for this book to come out for a long long time! (By the way, my wife told me I should not do that with books.) “She can write the book when she wants to write it!” she said, when I told her it had been over ten years since the release of Tartt’s last novel. She has a point. Still, I wish Donna Tartt would write more books! She has said that she only has five or six books in her, and so far her books have come out about once a decade. The Goldfinch is her third, and it was worth waiting for!
The story of a thirteen-year-old boy, Theo, a Manhattan resident who loses his mother in an explosion plotted by terrorists when the two of them are touring the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York City, is on one level a rumination on fate and free will. Theo and his mother are separated at the time of the attack, and when Theo awakes in the rubble-strewn aftermath of the attack he meets a man near death who, before dying, hands him one of the most valuable paintings in the world, urging him to take it out of the museum, which Theo does. What ensues is a spiraling account of the next 15 years or so of Theo’s life: how Child Protective Services locates his estranged father and has Theo move to Las Vegas to live with him and his girlfriend; how he meets Boris, one of the most interesting characters in literature–a Russian-cum-Australian ruffian–and the two become fast friends, smoking pot, sniffing glue, and drinking copious quantities of beer and vodka; how he moves back to Manhattan at 16 and falls in love with Pippa, the niece of the man who gave Theo the painting; and how Theo and Boris get involved with a ring of criminals who deal with paintings such as Theo’s on the black market.
Tartt is of the Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis school of literature; that is to say, her central characters are young, smart, well read (there is a plethora of literary references throughout The Goldfinch, delightfully) and socially savvy, and the ones in The Goldfinch and her first novel, The Secret History, also indulge in a lot of drinking–and, in The Goldfinch, drug use. Speaking of literary references, Theo’s feelings for Pippa echo Pip’s utterly determined love for Estella in Dickens’s Great Expectations and make for some of the book’s best material.
Regarding the drinking to get drunk and the drug use in the book: reading about characters who use drugs and drink huge amounts of alcohol is one thing, but if you are a young person who is considering getting drunk or using drugs, DON’T DO IT! The Bible says we should not drink to excess. If you are reading this and you do not have a relationship with Jesus Christ, please feel free to contact me, or contact a pastor. I would be happy to talk with you about establishing a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. Once you are saved you will experience God’s joy and everlasting life, and you will not go to hell.
All in all The Goldfinch is a classic; I think Tartt is one of the best storytellers living today, and one of the authors of today who people will still be reading hundreds of years from now.
Rating (out of five stars): 5
This book is AWESOME!! One of the best I’ve ever read, for sure. If you like science fiction, this book is a must-read. Without giving too much of the book away, it is the story of a future earth where an alien species, whose members look like silver furry centipedes–but bigger than centipedes, they would fill the palm of your hand if you held them–invades earth. Once they get to earth they kill almost all of the humans on the planet. Each alien is then inserted into the body of a human, hence the title of the book: after insertion, each alien then has a “host” body.
Earth is not the only planet they take over, either; they have taken over several other planets. Life carries on for the aliens in their host bodies in much the same way as humans conduct their lives today. However, a small group of humans has survived. They stay alive by raiding the houses of the aliens for food and supplies. although they grow some of their own food of their own in their hidden network of underground caves in the desert.
There is a doctor among the humans, and all of the humans are hopeful that he can figure out how to remove the aliens from the bodies of humans and bring the humans back afterward; that way they can reclaim the human race on earth and vanquish the aliens. Concerning the writing, Meyer has such a gift of creating characters that you want to get to know and spend time with. Also, her settings have plenty of description and are written in such a way that they give you the feeling that you’re right there with the characters.
Rating (out of five stars): 5
Okay, so this is an interesting story. I found this book, Doll Bones, by Holly Black, in the park the other day. I was playing with my daughter in the playground there, and some middle-school girls left it on the picnic table there. So, I grabbed it and noticed that it had been checked out from the public library in town. Planning on returning it to the public library on my next visit there, which would be in a few days, I put the book down on our desk in the living room, not planning on giving it another thought.
But then, when I was bored, I started reading it, and it was good! What’s more, as I read more of it, I found that it was very good, and I got really into reading it! The story of three young people who are new to middle school, one boy and two girls, and how they are–sometimes awkwardly–adjusting to growing more mature in their adolescence, yet not wanting to leave behind the sea-going role-playing adventure game they made up, is a charmer. Tinged with a spooky supernatural element involving a ghost, one of the book’s centers is a plot wherein young people get to go on an adventure without adults.
I won’t give away the details of the plot, but I will further say that this book is really fun to read, even if you’re one of those adults, like me, with part of you that is still a kid and you still relish a good children’s or young-adult novel. It was well thought out, it has a fascinating fictional backstory about the history of the doll on the cover, and at about 250 pages it is a fast read (you can easily read it in a couple or three hours).
I came to find out, by looking in the front of the book, that Holly black also wrote the Spiderwick-Chronicles books and is one of the co-creators of that series. I remember liking the Spiderwick-Chronicles movie, so I may put those books on my to-read list.
Another interesting and very thing about this book: by reading it I discovered that books like these–children’s and young-adult books–are perfect reading material for when there is a lot of noise and/or activity in my reading environment. For instance, I can read books like this when I am watching my baby daughter, when the tv is on, and when my wife’s teenagers are gabbing with each other and their mom nearby. I can’t do this with adult novels; they require a silent reading environment because I have to devote my full attention to them to get the most out of them. Reading this book also reminded me how good children’s and young-adult novels can be, and that they are worth reading. Basically, they are lite versions of your favorite adult novels: they don’t have the character depth, the vocabulary, or the complex worlds of adult novels, but they have the same structure, everything is just scaled down to make them easy enough for children and young adults to read.
Until next time, happy reading!
Rating (out of five stars): 4
Note: This review does not contain spoilers.
Well, this has been the summer of Stephanie Meyer for me! Last month I reviewed Twilight, the first book in Meyer’s excellent Twilight Saga. Right after I finished reading that one, I rushed out to get the next book in the saga, New Moon; I was hooked, and hoped that New Moon was as good as or better than the first. Guess what: it is as good as Twilight! Meyer is an incredibly talented writer, with an extraordinary gift of creating characters that readers care about and want to get to know, and painting settings with her words in such a way that they become like characters in themselves. I said it before in my last review, and I’ll say it again: I have a new appreciation for the Pacific Northwest because of these books!
So are there any flaws in these three books? Admittedly, yes, but they are few and don’t detract much from what is a tour de force of literary achievement. The flaws are these: There is a section in Eclipse where I wished the plot would move along (the characters were too static during this time, not doing anything to advance the plot); and Breaking Dawn gets cartoonish at times (I can’t explain more without giving away too much of the book!). Oh, and there is one clunker of a chapter ending (another thing Meyer does extraordinarily well is end chapters), and a smattering of clunky sentences (i.e. errors–these should have been fixed before publication). That said, both are still excellent reads, and I have no complaints about New Moon; I enjoyed it as thoroughly as I enjoyed Twilight!
So Bring on The Host! (I’ll be reviewing that one next month.)
‘Til next time, happy reading!
Ratings (out of five stars): New Moon – 5
Eclipse – 4 1/2
Breaking Dawn – 4 1/2