Book Reviews

2019 Book Reviews (goal: 50 books)

Coming up in March: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas; Sense vs. Soul by local Texas author Mark K. Campbell; A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz; and ???

#10 Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

(paperback, No Fear Shakespeare Edition, ISBN-13: 978-1-5866-6845-0)

Confession time: I’ve never like Romeo and Juliet. As a teacher, a reader, and an audience member, I much prefer Hamlet and Macbeth. As a result of my own bias against pathos and irrationality, I have always found the impulsiveness and immediate passion of the two teenagers repulsive. Yeah, that’s a strong word, but truly, this tragedy fails to invoke the necessary sympathy in me that would, in turn, provoke the intended catharsis at their deaths.

In fact, I feel anger when I read this play. There was absolutely no reason for the two to die. If any of the adults in the room, and this is a long list, had just behaved like adults and guided the two lovers properly, then their deaths would have been avoided and in time, the feud would have been dissolved, especially if R & J had produced a co-Capulet/Montague heir.

Intelligent readers, I hear what you are saying: “Yes, but the fact that the adults didn’t steer the young lovers into better decisions and they ended up committing suicide IS the tragedy and why we should feel sorry for them.” To which I reply, “I’m sad that the kids resorted to suicide because they didn’t have enough life experience to think their way out of a paper bag. But, they did allow themselves to be carried away by their passions born out of a couple of conversations, and one of those out a window. They might very well have done something rash on their own. All that proves to me is that teenaged hormones run amok are dangerous things indeed.”

Shame on the Capulet and Montague parents for behaving like spoiled children themselves, holding onto grudges and becoming bullies when they don’t easily get their way. Shame on Tybalt and Mercutio for being hot-heads and slaves to the family feud. Shame on Friar Lawrence for not counseling the young couple better and for his strange, dangerous, elaborate plot with the elixir. Ironically, the nurse praises him as an educated man, but he behaves more like Tom Sawyer, thinking up “romantic” solutions to real life-or-death dilemmas.

If I could travel back in time, I would be sure to stop in and see this play as it was presented to the Elizabethan audience. I’d give anything to hear the discussion at the pub after the show and get their take on the tragedy. I do feel like a traitor to my profession to dislike this so much, but not enough to repent and embrace it.

#9 Mavericks: Expeditionary Force, Book 6 by Craig Alanson, performed by RC Bray

(Audible.com, © 2018 Podium Publishing)

Language Alert: This book contains soldiers who cuss. The swear words are ordinary and not overdone. It make total sense that soldiers under fire from alien enemies would curse. I know I would under the same circumstance.

I love the Expeditionary Force series. The overall series arc in brief is this: Some ancient aliens created wormhole technology for moving across the vast distance in space. When one of these wormholes shifts positions and opens near Earth, aliens come calling and soon recruit the humans to fight for their side in a war. The human force finds itself very far from Earth, training on a harsh planet and soon taking the fight to the opposite side’s world. It doesn’t take long, though, for the humans to understand they are literally cannon fodder and that they’ve chosen the wrong side in the battle. One of the humans, Sgt. Joe Bishop, U.S. Army, discovers an alien A.I. stranded on the planet who helps Joe and other noble soldiers escape torture and death at the hands of their employers after they refuse to shoot civilians.

The A.I, nicknamed Skippy, and Joe begin a series of adventures, taking humans into the far reaches of space where they face almost every hazard imaginable. To say any more will give the series away. Suffice it to say that the relationship between Joe and Skippy is fascinating and what keeps lots of people coming back to this series.

Some people on Audible have complained that this particular book is too short of Joe/Skippy and focuses too much on a side group of soldiers, Lt. Colonel Emily Perkins and her team, the Mavericks. I, for one, appreciate hearing how other humans are coping with the machinations of various space-faring species, and how the plucky band of Mavericks use their very clever “monkey” brains to outwit plots for genocide and survive when things go wrong. The user names of the reviewers who didn’t like the additional characters skew heavily male, so it kind of makes sense to me that they don’t want to hear about a female commander and a team that is at least 50% women. Also, some people just want the same old thing every time. That desire for sameness explains the success of laugh-track added sitcoms that run for many seasons with characters who spout their well-worn catch phrases right on cue. I much prefer the further character development and world building that is done through these side stories. Plus, Skippy and Joe picture frame the whole story—it starts and ends with them.

Now, one other complaint I see in the reviews on Audible.com does need addressing. A big plot development was teased at the end of Book 5, and that element was NOWHERE to be found in this book. My guess is that Alanson may need a little bit more time to figure out how the humans are going to survive, because everything he’s written so far about that particular species means game over for the humans on earth. He literally needs to buy time, hence the side story. It’s kind of funny to me that the book ends with a discussion between Joe and Skippy about the necessity and value of buying time in the face of certain future doom, and that’s exactly what Alanson has done with this book. Maybe he overestimated his audience’s ability to read between the lines.

#8 The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

(paperback, ISBN: 978-0-316-17566-1)

A Candlewasters Book Club read

I’ll have to admit it: this novel’s synopsis did not immediately appeal to me. It sounded too similar to A Light Between Oceans, another novel about a childless couple with fertility issues living in a harsh remote environment. I didn’t care for that book at all. Both books share similarities that made me do that nose crinkly thing you do when something seems icky—(potential spoilers alert) a husband who gives into his wife’s insistence born from her grief and feelings of inadequacy, a child being perhaps kept away from her true family, and an unforgiving setting that mirrors the feelings of the female protagonists in some ways.

Luckily for me, Ivey’s The Snow Child is a delight in which characters find redemption and build relationships. Yes, there’s sorrow but glady, there is also healing. Everyone’s heart is touched by Faina, a young girl who seems to embody the beauty of an Alaskan winter. She charms both the humans and the wild animals. Mabel and Jack, the childless couple, rekindle their hearts after tragic loss while young Garrett, a neighbor boy, learns the meaning of honesty and responsibility. The story manages to cut across class and generational lines, and because of that, I think people of all ages would like it..

Ivey’s love of Alaska, her homeland, shines through. Both the starkness of the winter and the lushness of the brief but abundant summers are drawn with such tender realism that readers will feel transported. I wouldn’t even be surprised if people started looking at potential cruises or overland trips into the state based on the details, seen with such love through Ivey’s writing.

The temptation is great to tell you more of the story, but I must not because part of the cleverness of the book is that Ivey leaves a big question for the readers to ponder and decide for themselves. In that, this novel reminds me of Henry James’ “A Turn of the Screw” (although the question is a different one).

Thus, the book is compelling on so many levels. It has detailed descriptions that bring Alaska’s rugged beauty to life before our eyes. Its sympathetic characters grow and heal and draw our hearts into compassion for their struggles. And, it includes a mystery to engage our minds and give us something to talk over. That’s a win-win-win right there.

#7 According to Yes by Dawn French

(paperback, ISBN: 978-1-405-92155-8)

EXPLICIT ALERT: While this book contains way less swearing than Ms. French’s first book, it does include scenes of a sexual nature. These are not gratuitous but have definite plot importance and derive from character complexities. I absolutely cannot recommend the book for adults, either young or older, who are struggling with sexual sin, adultery, or unresolved identity issues. I am posting the review on a separate password protected page. If you would like to read the review–which is itself without graphic language but does include spoilers–just let me know via the contact page and I’ll send you the link and password.

#6 The Jeeves and Wooster series by P. G. Wodehouse

(Kindle, ISBN: 978-80-268-9712-5)

Bertie Wooster, independently wealthy and possessing a sound digestion, moves through an idyllic world much of the time, except when he is beset by his dominating Aunt Agatha or finds himself in the thick of an unexpected (on his part) engagement. Fortunately, Reginald Jeeves, the almost-too-good-to-be-true valet, comes to the rescue. This collection contains one of the longer novellas as well as many short stories, including how Bertie and Jeeves became a team.

Inhabited by colorful characters like Honoria Glossop, Bingo Little, and Lord Bickersham, the tales weave their intricate dilemmas into puzzles of motivation and potential disaster. Thankfully, Jeeves is smarter than most of these blighted coves, and with his superior intellect and knowledge of human psychology, he sets things to right while never missing the proper timing of bringing the tea or mixing a whisky and soda.

The stories are loaded with colorful dialog, much of it in both British and American slang of the 1920 and the Broadway scene of New York. I think someone who consumes a regular diet of British comedy will find an easier time to understand the rhythm of speech and colloquialisms. Some people find Bertie and his dense pals not worth the trouble. I, on the other hand, find the sarcasm and verbal wit delightful, but I can understand why others won’t find this their cup of tea.

#5 A Tiny Bit of Marvellous by Dawn French  

(paperback ISBN: 978-09141-04634-1)

Language Alert: I cannot wholeheartedly recommend the book to people who are sensitive to profanity. The teenaged daughter is vulgar, coarse, idiotic, and quite profane in her language. Yes, this is mostly for comic effect, but swearing plus coarse words and imagery are prominent in her speech.

Dawn French, national British treasure and accomplished comic actor, has created a book that captures her voice and comedic essence in A Tiny Bit of Marvellous. (and yes, she spells marvelous with two “L”s; I don’t know why—maybe a British thing?) The novel, her first, relates the story of a family, each member facing his or her own inner and outer conflicts. The Battles—Mom=Mo, Dad=Denys, Daughter=Dora, and Son=Peter/Oscar—seem like pretty typical dysfunctional characters. The story is told in diary style with dialogue thrown in, and the conflicts wrap up almost too neatly by the conclusion.

As someone who is a massive fan of Ms. French and who has viewed most of her work, I can easily identify her voice in each of the novel’s characters. I know, for instance, exactly how Dora sounds when she expresses her lack of confidence and despair for a truly “fit” guy to call her own. It was like Ms. French were reading the novel in my head.

This is a story, a novel, not a piece of literature. In fact, I would rate its literary merit in the middle of the spectrum. Sure, the characters are well defined, albeit a bit too stereotypical. Plus, the inner conflicts of the characters are feelingly expressed and, at least to my mind, reflect the kinds of vulnerabilities and disappointments we all face in ourselves at one time or another.

In fact, the main weakness I see in the book is with the antagonist. His actions are displayed but his motivations remain totally hidden. I realize that in real life we frequently do not understand why people do what they do. However, it’s really dissatisfying for a reader to not understand the antagonist at all. That lack of connection undermines some of the conflict and tension of the novel. Because the antagonist isn’t real, his threat doesn’t seem as real. Imagine Othello without knowing Iago’s inner thoughts and jealousies. Desdemona’s death and Othello’s fall from grace would still be tragic, but the tragedy feels greater because we know more about the author of the destruction.

Ms. French has published two other novels, which I’m probably going to read. My hope is that with her brilliant flair for comedy and her obvious genius in so many other areas, she will only get better with each book.

#4 The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge by Charlie Lovett

 (paperback, ISBN: 9780143109853)

Mr. Lovett draws direct inspiration from Charles Dickens’ beloved A Christmas Carol in this equally lovely novella. Set on the summer solstice 20 years after Scrooge’s redemption, the story once again involves the spirits of Christmas, this time to assist in a larger scheme of recovery and charity. I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone, so I won’t give away the particulars. I’ll just tempt you with the knowledge that the reclamations occurring in this follow-up are just as satisfying as Scrooge’s was all those years ago.

Mr. Lovett has a proficient ear for Dickens’ style and language, and this book, for all its modernity, captures the essence of the original tale. The scope of the story includes both the micro and macro of human interactions, and so achieves heart-warming family reunification plus some bloody good ideas about how to decrease suffering caused by poverty and lack of work opportunities. Accompanying the tale are illustrations by Doug Smith that resemble line drawings or woodcuts one might have found in England in the 1840s.

Thematically the story rings true; practically it offers real hope and advice. And, more than anything, it reminds us to keep “the true wealth of love, of family, of Christmas joy . . . all the year round.”

#3 The Miracle Worker, a play in three acts by William Gibson

(paperback, ISBN: 0-553-54778-6)

Drawing on correspondence and journals in the autobiography by Annie Sullivan, William Gibson created a play celebrating the “miraculous” moment when Helen Keller, blind and deaf from about a year old, made the connection between sign language and real objects. The play is filled with tension, suspense, action, love, and hope. It’s no wonder that it won awards: a teleplay award (precedent of Emmy), a tony, and an Oscar nomination for screenplay. Anne Bancroft won an Oscar for her portrayal of Annie Sullivan while Patty Duke won best supporting actress for Helen.

From the harrowing opening scenes with the discovery of Helen having gone blind after an intense fever to the fight scenes at the dinner table where Annie imposes normal social behaviors on Helen, the drama and action are riveting. Again, I wish I had never seen the movie decades ago and were just now reading the play for the first time. Because I know the ending, the despair loses some of its poignancy. However, the writing and language and action are so strong that I am still swept under the spell of Annie Sullivan’s strength of character and determination–some might say stubbornness. She works a true miracle that allows Helen to grow into her powerful destiny as a speaker and writer who brings hope to countless people throughout the centuries who struggle with seemingly debilitating differences.

#2 Praying the Scriptures for Your Adult Children by Jodie Berndt

(paperback, ISBN: 978-0-310-34807-8)

Reviewed updated 27 January 2019: After considering some more the lapses into what seem to me as Post Hoc, I have reached another conclusion. I believe that Berndt was simply trying too hard to be relatable and also reaching too far to fill a book. Because she had to include X number of anecdotes and X number of words, she simply overtold the story. I choose believe this is closer to reality than superstition masquerading as sound doctrine.

I received this book as my Blind Date at our book club’s December 2018 party. Every year we each bring a book, wrapped or in a gift bag, and someone at the party chooses it anonymously to read and then report on for the January meeting. This is a book I had heard about and wanted to read, so I was very excited to get started on it.

I appreciate several things about the book. First of all, each chapter is filled with non-judgmental encouragement for parents to continue to pray for their adult offspring. In fact, Berndt encourages prayer over offering advice or doing helicopter parenting. The book is organized into areas of need that might be part of one’s adult child’s life. The ones that resonated with my life are praying for good friends, future spouse, young marriage, a place to live and protection from harm. The book offers anecdotes apparently from real people designed to reveal the emotions parents feel in each situation.  One thing I really liked were the sprinklings of principles for prayer derived from the scriptures that give a sense of direction and the bigger picture in the midst of specific anecdotes.  Valuably, each chapter ends with sample prayers drawn directly from scripture verses that the reader can apply verbatim to their own children’s situations.

A few things about the book didn’t work for me, however. First of all, once again I felt the odd man out, as I do so often when I read these kinds of book written by women. There’s an emotional level to them that just isn’t me in any way, so I get tired of the angst and hand-wringing. I would like to be able to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, but the stories just wear me out. I ended up skimming through the anecdotes, looking for the principles and the scriptures instead. And speaking of scriptures, Berndt cherry picks verses (out of context) and in versions that prove the point she is making. That kind of stuff really bugs me. It doesn’t negate the power of scripture to teach, encourage, and correct, but I find it annoying and have to go look at the context for myself before I can decide on the aptness.

One other thing that really irked me is that in a couple of the stories, ones she tells about herself, she implies pretty heavily a post hoc ergo propter hoc relationship about the quality and correctness of her prayers and the results. Not to spoil the book, but in one instance, it seemed that her daughter didn’t get the dream job until she, the mom,  quit praying “wrong” and repented with confession. In other words, the mom’s prayer delayed God’s work?! What!?

I plan to keep the book and make use of the scriptural prayers that seem fitting and contextually correct. The book has value, I just wouldn’t recommend swallowing it whole.

#1 The Illustrated Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling and Jim Kay

(hardcover, ISBN: 9780545790352)

I never expected what a novel experience reading this illustrated version would be. I wanted the book as part of a completionist goal for the Harry Potter series. Going into it, I did think that the illustrations would be fun. But, I was amazed at how the different layout on large pages, each with a textured background look, would affect my reading. The new format created an entirely different reading experience.

First of all, the four-column layout made me able to read faster yet slowed me down at the same time. The narrower column enabled seeing almost an entire row of text at one time. But, because my eyes had to travel up to the top of the same page to read the second column, my reading time on each page increased as well. The textured background–parchment, vellum, whatever it was supposed to be–also caused me to linger a little longer. Whether or not a large illustration was included, each page was  delight for the eyes.

The portraits of various characters (Dumbledore, Harry, Hagrid, Hermione, the troll, etc.) were colorful, vivid, and true to the text rather than the movie. The delightful Diagon Alley pages included shops purely from Kay’s imagination with a small hint to some of the more important ones found in the text (Madame Malkin’s, for example).

I wish I were a kid again and could read the illustrated version of the first three books as my entry into the world of Harry Potter. Readers always say that books are better than the movies, and in this case, there is no doubt for the illustrated version is far superior to any movie.

Your Guide To Powerful Writing for Teens and Adults