Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Book Reviews: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Author: Ruta Sepetys
TitleBetween Shades of Gray
Narrator:Emily Klein
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2011)
Summary/Review:

This novel set in the World War II-era depicts the oppression of Lithuanian partisans through the eyes of 15-year-old Lina.  A promising young artists, Lina and her mother and brother are rounded up by the NKVD with other women, children, the elderly, and disabled and transported to a labor camp in Siberia.  The narrative depicts the hardscrabble life as Lina and her community in the labor camp as they struggle to survive.  But there are also moments of joy and unexpected solace.  It’s a decent novel and an introduction to the Stalinist persecution of Lithuania.

Recommended booksStalemate by Icchokas Meras, The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years by Chingiz Aitmatov, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Rating: **1/2

Book Reviews: Artemis Fowl: The Time Paradox by Eoin Colfer

Author: Eoin Colfer
TitleArtemis Fowl: The Time Paradox
NarratorEnn Reitel
Publication Info: New York : Random House/Listening Library, p2008.

Books I’ve Previously Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

I gave up on reading the Artemis Fowl series a while back because I felt it was becoming formulaic with diminishing returns.  But I had a change of heart, and after a decade decided to pick up where I left off.  It felt good to be reacquainted with the characters like old friends.  And this book strikes me as more mature than the earlier novels.  In order to save his mother, a teenage Artemis has to go back in time with Holly to face his most devious opponent yet: his 10-year-old self.  The novel oozes with philosophical ideas and pondering of mortality.  The book also features a group of people whose goal is to cause extinction of animals, which is particularly grim.  Sure, the formula is still there (Mulch Diggums shows up for some fart jokes and the ultimate villain is the same old character) but it feels refreshed and new.  I’ll have to continue reading the newer installments of this series.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Reviews: Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz

Author: Tony Horwitz
TitleMidnight Rising
NarratorDan Oreskes
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio (2011)
Previously read by same author:

Summary/Review:

Tony Horwitz, one of my favorite authors, presents a compelling history of John Brown and his followers and the keystone event of their raid on Harpers Ferry.  Brown’s life and family are discussed from childhood, to his involvement in Utopian abolition movements, and their targeted assassinations of pro-slavery advocates in “Bleeding Kansas.”  It’s eerie that the rhetoric and tactics of Brown and his followers while targeting the noble cause of abolition still resemble those of today’s Tea Party/2nd Amendment activists.The raid on Harpers Ferry took considerable planning and secrecy, although curiously it is uncertain what result Brown expected.  Did he really expect it to spark a nation-wide uprising, or did he intend a blood sacrifice?  Similarly, his changes in tactics during the raid itself contradict the planning.  What’s interesting is that while the raid was widely condemned, even by ardent abolitionists, Brown’s real influence came in his words and letters while in jail and on trial.  Even people who despised Brown and all he stood for came to admire his bravery and determination.  Horwitz’s book is an interesting account on this key event in American history and the ripples it would have throughout the country.

Recommended booksCloudsplitter by Russell Banks
Rating: ***1/2

Book Reviews: So, anyway… by John Cleese

AuthorJohn Cleese
Title: So, anyway…
Publication Info: Crown Archetype (2014)
Summary/Review:

Pretty much as good as one would expect from an autobiography of a famous comedian and writer.  It’s funny, and offers some insights into the writing process.  For some reason I expected that Cleese was an angry person, so I was surprised that he looks back on his life with amusement more than anger.  I was also surprised at how much of his career he seemed to stumble into rather than working toward a goal.  At least that’s how he presents it.  After probably a bit too much detail about his childhood and education, things get interesting at he gets involved with the Footlights Revue who put on a performance so successful it ends up being performed in London’s West End as Cambridge Circus.  The show then goes on tour to New Zealand and then to Broadway.  While in New York, Cleese meets Connie Booth, and performs in a Broadway musical, something that seems to surprise him as much as it does the reader.  Back in England, Cleese takes on comic writing roles for radio and tv programs such as The Frost Report, increasingly taking on acting roles as well and then getting a program with his own group, At Last the 1948 Show.  During this period, he and Graham Chapman cement their relationship as a writing duo.  The book ends just short of the debut of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  I don’t know if this is it, or if Cleese intends a sequel, but like any good performance, it left me wanting more.

Favorite Passages:

Young children have so little life experience that they inevitably assume that what happens around and to them is the norm

Another way of looking at this: real anger can work in real life; it won’t work as comedy. Funny anger is ineffectual anger.

One of our professors described a lecture as “a mystical process by which the notes on the pad of the lecturer pass on to the pad of the student, without passing through the mind of either.” It would certainly have been so much more efficient and absorbing if our lecturers had provided full notes for us, and had then discussed them. There could have been real interaction, question and answer, even argument, instead of dictation. But this never happened, …

I met very few of the upper classes, but when I did, I realised how different their lives were. They genuinely liked chasing things and shooting them and hooking them out of the water and asphyxiating them. Death seemed the inevitable result of all their entertainments, despite their excellent manners.

I remember reading about the doctrine of American “Exceptionalism” and thinking that what I liked so much about Canadians was that they consider themselves unexceptional. This modest, unthreatening attitude seems to produce a nation that is stable, safe, decent and well respected. It’s just a shame that for seven months of the year it’s so cold that only Canadians would put up with it.

I think there have only been about four occasions in my professional life when I have shown any real initiative: suggesting to Graham Chapman that we should contact the other four Pythons-to-be; arranging to write a sitcom with Connie; proposing to Robin Skynner that we should write a TV series about basic principles in psychology; and initiating and shaping A Fish Called Wanda. The rest of the time I have just accepted the next interesting offer, or continued in a pattern already created.

Cleese’s Two Rules of Writing Comedy. First Rule: Get your panic in early. Fear gives you energy, so make sure you have plenty of time to use that energy. (The same rule applies to exams.) Second Rule: Your thoughts follow your mood. Anxiety produces anxious thoughts; sadness begets sad thoughts; anger, angry thoughts; so aim to be in a relaxed, playful mood when you try to be funny.

Recommended booksThe First 20 Years of Monty Python by Kim “Howard” Johnson, The Life of Python : And Now for Something Completely Different by George Perry, and Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years by Michael Palin
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Bottom of the 33rd by Dan Barry

AuthorDan Barry
TitleBottom of the 33rd
Narrator: Dan Barry
Publication Info: [New York] : Harper Audio, 2011.
Summary/Review:

I’ve long been aware that Pawtucket’s McCoy Stadium hosted the longest professional baseball game in history, a 33-inning affair between the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings in 1981.  I knew that the game featured two future Hall of Famers, Wade Boggs and Cal Ripken.  Barry’s book fills me on a lot that I didn’t know.  For example, the game was played well into Easter morning and the weather was so miserably cold that the players burned broken bats in barrels to keep warm.  The game was allowed to play so long due to a misprint in the International League rule book that left out the paragraph about curfews.  Thus a rather stubborn umpire continued the game until receiving word from the league president at 4:09 am.  I also didn’t know that when the game was completed in June of that year, it received international attention boosted by the fact that Major League baseball players were on strike at that time.

Barry tells a compelling story of the game, building tension in the relentless procession of pitches, hits, and outs. He draws on recordings of the Red Wings’ radio broadcast and interviews with players, managers, coaches, media, players’ wives, umpires, spectators, and even the bat boy who were present for the game.  If the book were about only the game it would fall apart quickly, but Barry weaves in the lives and careers of many of the participants before and after that game.  It makes for a lively bit of sportswriting at it’s best.

Recommended books: The Iowa Baseball Confederacy by W. P. Kinsella, Wild and Outside: How a Renegade Minor League Revived the Spirit of Baseball in America’s Heartland by Stefan Fatsis, and Stolen Season: A Journey Through America and Baseball’s Minor Leagues by David Lamb.
Rating: ****

Book Review: Looking for Alaska by John Green

AuthorJohn Green
TitleLooking for Alaska
NarratorJeff Woodman
Publication Info: [Grand Haven, Mich.] : Brilliance Audio, 2006.
Previously Read By Same Author:  The Fault in Our Stars and An Abundance of Katherines.
Summary/Review:

This novel is told by a boy named Miles who transfers into a boarding school where he befriends his roommate “The Colonel” and falls in love with an intelligent, attractive, but impulsive young woman named Alaska.  Like other works in the boarding school genre, the story involves a lot of drinking, smoking, sex, and pranks.  But Miles also attends classes and his religious studies class in particular play’s an important role in helping Miles deal with some of the issues he’s facing in his life.

I don’t want to give anything away, but the novel turns on a tragic moment.  On the downside, I found the book draws a little too much on the “women in refrigerators” trope and moral lessons that are a bit too pat.  Overall though, I found it an accurate and entertaining depiction of teenage life.

Recommended booksThe Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, and Fade by Robert Cormier
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: When Did You See Her Last? by Lemony Snicket

AuthorLemony Snicket
TitleWhen Did You See Her Last?
Narrator: Liam Aiken
Publication Info: [New York] : Hachette Audio, [2013]
Other Books Read By Same Author:

Summary/Review:

The second installment of All the Wrong Questions picks up in Stain’d-by-the-Sea with Lemony Snicket investigating a missing person’s case, putatively with the help of his chaperon S. Theodora Markson.  It continues to be a whimsical mix of mystery novel and humor.  One thing that stands out is that other than Snicket as narrator, the major characters in this novel are all women, which is a refreshing change.  I’m looking forward to the next installment.

Rating: ***1/2

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