The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson: A Review

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo first drew my attention through all the media hype surrounding both the books and the movie. I grew curious enough that finally, upon finding a copy among a selection of used books, I gave in and picked it up. It’s described on the back cover as “a sexy, addictive thriller,” and “a blazing literary sensation.” It sounded fun, and exciting. So I added it to my 2017 Reading Challenge.

Given this high praise, I was a little surprised by how slow this book opened. I was a good third of the way through it before it finally snagged my attention. This could be the slowest book I’ve ever stuck with. It opens with a huge chunk of financial intrigue that I had a hard time wading through. Honestly, I wondered what all the hype was about this book. But I pressed on.

The story opens with the main character, Mikhael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist, who has just been convicted of libel and has been sentenced to pay reparations as well as serve some prison time. There is a detailed account of how Blomkvist got to this point before moving on to the story’s main events.

The narrative jumps between Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, a researcher for a security company. Salander is far from an ordinary character. She’s not especially likeable or even relatable. But she is interesting and compelling.

It isn’t until about half way through the story that these two major characters meet for the first time. Salander is aware of Blomkvist, but not vice versa. And neither has ever met the other. The story seems to sort of circle them around each other, drawing them nearer with each pass, until finally, their paths intersect.

This is the point at which the story truly gains momentum. From here to the end, things are happening at last and the story is propelled forward at a much quicker pace. It finally becomes that thrilling ride promised on the back cover.

Overall, the book is well written. The characters are interesting, if slightly over-played. I enjoyed this book, and I am curious to see where the characters will go from here. I’ll likely be reading the next book in the series at some point.

I Am Number Four, by Pittacus Lore: A Review

Book #7 on my 2017 Reading Challenge, a book with a number in the title, I Am Number Four, by Pittacus Lore was a fun read if not quite as satisfying as I had hoped. This book is also part of my core “rainbow list” and I’d been looking forward to reading it for some time.

The premise of the story is catchy and intriguing:

Nine of us came. We live among you. Three are dead. I am number Four. I am next.

This book tells the story of a boy, calling himself John Smith. He’s one of nine others who came to Earth from another world and have been hiding here for the past several years. They are being hunted by another race of aliens, the ones who destroyed their home planet.

I Am Number Four opens as John (then called Daniel) and his adult “protector” are compelled to pull up and move again, something that has happened already many times since they arrived on Earth. They end up moving to the small town of Paradise, Ohio.

John makes friends here – and enemies – and doesn’t want to move again. But things begin to happen that makes this almost a certainty.

Overall, I liked this book. The action scenes are great. The suspense and the crisp writing style move the story along at a fantastic pace. My one big complaint is John’s poor decision making. He behaves badly and makes stupid decisions for selfish reasons. And while I understand why he feels the way he does, his responses felt excessive.

Rebel Queen, by Michelle Moran: A Review

If I wasn’t already sold on the idea of audio books, experiencing this book through the superb narration of Sneha Mathan would have certainly sealed it for me.

Rebel Queen, by Michelle Moran, is a historical novel set in mid-nineteenth century India, during the time of British occupation. The story is told through the voice of Sita, a young woman who becomes a member of Rani Lakshmi’s Durga Dal (elite women fighters trained to specifically guard the queen). Written in the style of a memoir, this story is deeply personal.

Because of this memoir style, Moran allows the story to take a meandering course through Sita’s life beginning with her early years growing up in a small village. At times, the narrative wanders as Sita reminisces, but these side trips only serve to deepen and enrich the story.

Moran has painted an incredible picture of life in a Hindu village where women were required to remain veiled and were not allowed outside their home. Her family has no money for a dowry, and so Sita is put into a position where she must either become a temple prostitute, or train to become a part of the Durga Dal.

Sita is ultimately chosen to join the Durga Dal and moves into the royal city of Jhansi. Here she begins a whole new life so far removed from her village upbringing. A life filled with intrigue at every level.

This book is well written, the story and the suspense building so naturally I didn’t even mind that the title character – the rebel queen – doesn’t even make an appearance until well into the book. Even then, Rani Lakshmi remains a background character to Sita’s story, though an important one.

I have little experience or knowledge of the history and culture of India, so I can’t speak to the historical accuracy of Moran’s writing. Nevertheless, she has painted a picture of a world that feels very real and believable. This book makes me wish I did know more about Indian culture.

Rebel Queen is a deeply moving story, one I highly recommend. And while I’m sure the print version of this book is equally enjoyable, I must say, you’ll miss out on something special if you don’t try the audio narrated by Sneha Mathan. Her performance is truly stunning.

Red Rising, by Pierce Brown: A Review

I am so glad I found this book and decided to add it to my 2017 Reading Challenge, #22 a book with a color in the title. Red Rising, by Pierce Brown, is the best book I’ve read in a long time. I read it as if ravenous, though in truth it was the book that devoured me. I don’t remember the last time I was so completely consumed by a book.

This is the story of Darrow, a member of the lowest caste of citizens tasked with the grunt work of terraforming Mars. Society is divided by colors with Red being the lowest, Gold the highest. After the death of his wife, Darrow is approached by group of rebels. He is set on the path of bringing down the corrupt system from the inside.

The book is written in first person perspective, so the reader only knows what Darrow knows, and experiences everything just as Darrow experiences it. Because of this, the reader is thrust alongside Darrow into this new and terrifying world.

It opens a little slow, but this is understandable, even necessary, as the setting is such a foreign one. Here is a world filled with strange technologies. Brown does a masterful job at grounding the reader into Darrow’s world.

I love the character of Darrow. He’s beautifully human. He’s emotional, flawed, and he makes mistakes. Huge ones. And because of the first person point of view, the reader is crushed by these mistakes even as Darrow is, and learns from them as well. This is what makes Darrow such a great character, and the first person perspective work so well for this book.

But Darrow isn’t the only great character. Brown has set up an entire supporting cast of wonderful characters. People with the entire range of human emotions. People who love and hate, who are ambitious and cunning, who are loyal and then betray.

This book has been compared to a number of other well known books. Hunger Games and Game of Thrones, for example. There are certainly similar elements. However, this book rises beyond all these comparisons. It stands alone as a great book all on its own merits.

Red Rising is book one of a series, and I’ve already eagerly moved on to book two, Golden Son. Brown has set up a great story with a fantastic premise and outstanding characters. I’m truly hoping the rest of the series holds up to the promise made in the first book.

Prince Caspian, by C. S. Lewis: A Review

Part of my “rainbow” list for the Year of the Series, Prince Caspian is also #1 on my 2017 Reading Challenge list, a book from my childhood. I remember starting to read the first book in the Chronicles of Narnia series as a child, but I’m certain I never read the rest of the books. So this was a new experience for me.

Prince Caspian is the second book in the Chronicles of Narnia series, at least by publication date. More recent editions of the series put this book as number four. There is apparently much debate over what order they should be read, whether by publication date or chronologically. Personally, I made the decision to read the books in their original order.

This is the story of Prince Caspian during a time that follows the time of the reign of the four Pevensie siblings in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In the realm of Narnia, many years have passed, and the world is much changed. Humans from another land have taken over Narnia and talking animals have become things of legend. Caspian is the rightful heir, but the kingdom has been usurped by his uncle. The story follows his attempt to reclaim the throne with the help of some “old world” Narnians.

Peter, Susan, Edward and Lucy end up getting recalled to Narnia, but without any of their old trappings of rulership. The Pevensies must first rediscover Narnia. Then, with the guidance of Aslan, they go to assist Prince Caspian.

Like the first book, this is the story of the struggles of faith and the triumph of what is right. Even though this series was written many years ago, it is still a fun read. It has remained popular with children for decades, and I’m glad I now get to share this piece of my childhood with my own children.

I started reading these books last year with my boys. Though it isn’t one of their favorites, they will usually go along with it when I pull it off the shelf. I get it. Compared to their usual choices (we’re still in the picture book stage), the Narnia books have a lot of words, and very few pictures. The edition I have does have some black and white simple drawings on some pages.

To be honest, from a child’s perspective (mine are 4, 6 and 7 currently), Lewis’s books aren’t quite as fun as a full color picture book. Still, I keep reading it with them. My oldest seems to enjoy it, and will even sometimes choose the book himself, so I have hope that we will be able to continue to read books together even when they have a lot of words, and not a lot of pictures.

I will continue to read through the rest of this series as my children allow. I hope as they grow they will come to choose these and others like it for us to read together again and again. I am always looking for more such books to challenge myself and my children. What are your favorite read aloud children’s books?

The Tempest, by Shakespeare: a Review

This play joined my 2017 Reading Challenge on a whim. I’d been wanting to read some more Shakespeare again, but I didn’t know where I should start. I found an audio version of The Tempest as part of a collection with six other plays by other notable playwrights.

I listened to The Tempest and had a hard time following the story. I couldn’t tell who was who. I couldn’t keep track of the entrances and exits. Even with the voices of different actors, I simply could not follow the story at all.

I thought maybe this was due to the fact I was listening to a play without the benefits of seeing the action. A play, after all, is meant to be seen. I wanted to like it. Or at the very least, to appreciate it. So I found a print version, and I read it. However, I still had difficulties following along.

I’ve enjoyed other works of Shakespeare. But somehow this one escapes me. I just couldn’t get into it.

The audio book I chose to listen to is Seven Classic Plays, narrated by a full cast and published by Blackstone Audio. Several of the other plays I did enjoy, leaving me to conclude it wasn’t simply a lack of visuals that kept me from enjoying The Tempest.

The other plays include:

  • Medea, by Euripides
  • The Imaginary Invalid, by Moliere
  • The Lady of the Camilias, by Alexandre Dumas
  • An Enemy of the People, by Henrik Ibsen
  • Arms and the Man, George Bernard Shaw
  • Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekov

I loved Arms and the Man, it was by far my favorite of the seven. The Imaginary Invalid was hilarious. The Lady of the Camilias was beautifully tragic. An Enemy of the People and Medea were at least interesting, but not especially memorable for me personally. And Uncle Vanya was, like Shakespeare’s play, difficult to follow.

The cast that performed these plays for this audio book did a fantastic job. But I do think there is something lost in simply listening to a play rather than witnessing it. A play is a visual thing. It is intended to be seen, and preferably live in a theatre. In this way, the audience becomes part of the play itself, not simply an outside observer.

In the end, I’m still looking for a Shakespeare play to read, and hopefully enjoy. What is your favorite piece by Shakespeare? Is there another playwright you particularly like?

Protector of the Small quartet, by Tamora Pierce: A Review

I recently veered wildly off track from my 2017 Reading Challenge and took up an entire series of books from the teen fiction section at my local library. I picked up the Protector of the Small quartet by Tamora Pierce and read the entire series. Though not on my list, it still fits within the “Year of the Series” theme, so I’m not entirely off base.

I’ve read some of Tamora Pierce’s books before and enjoyed them very much. Going in, I thought this was the series I’d read before, and that it was the first of Pierce’s Tortall quartets. I was wrong on both counts, but I don’t regret picking this one up.

If you haven’t read anything by Tamora Pierce, you may want to start with the Song of the Lioness quartet. While it isn’t necessary, this series can be enjoyed without it, there is some history in the first set of books that might prove useful.

I try to avoid spoilery commentary when I write reviews, so I apologize if this one reveals too much. Let this be fair warning, I suppose, if you don’t want to read the spoilery bits, you might want to skip to the end of the review.

This series follows the adventures of Keladry, the third daughter of a noble family of Mindelan, a province of the Tortall kingdom. It opens with book one, Keladry, or Kel as she prefers to be called, is trying to become the first girl to enter training to become a knight.

Kel’s story follows the Tortallan history in the Song of the Lioness quartet where girls have traditionally not been permitted to become knights. This previous series follows the rise of Alanna the Lioness as she becomes the realm’s first lady knight after disguising herself as a boy. A subsequent law now allows girls to try, and Kel is the first to take advantage of it.

At the beginning of the first book, First Test, a ten year old Kel learns that in order to enter training, she will be required to go through a probationary period of one year. Believing it unfair to require this of her when none of the boys are required to do this, Kel nearly withdraws before she ever begins.

Instead, Kel endures and goes on to even make a few friends in her first year of page training. There is no shortage of enemies either, and she is faced with hazing, bullying and open hostility by many of the other pages. She passes her probationary year despite the many people who would have preferred to see her drop out, and Kel is allowed to return for the next year of page training.

Book two, Page, chronicles the next three years of Kel’s page training. Here the series bogs down, as it is three years of identical activities. Training, Midwinter festival, more hazing, more bullying, more training. And it goes on. Until the final part of the book when Kel is forced to choose between her commitment to becoming a knight and her obligations as a noble, a decision forced on her by those who want nothing more than to see her fail. Again, overcoming overwhelming odds, Kel makes her choice and is prepared to live with the consequences.

In book three, Squire, Kel moves on in her training, eventually being chosen to serve as squire to a knight who commands an elite group of the king’s own guard. Over the course of the next four years she trains with her knight master, learning combat skills, jousting and how to command, among other things. Still, she has to work just as hard, if not harder to prove herself to a new set of doubters.

Events during this book take the kingdom of Tortall through a summer-long parade around the realm to announce the betrothal of the young prince complete with feasting, celebrations and jousting tournaments. Before the end of the summer, however, this tour is interrupted by rumblings of war from their northern neighbor, and Kel is reassigned along with her companions to help hold the border.

During her final test for knighthood, Kel is presented with a mysterious task that leads right into the events of book four, Lady Knight. As war rages along the northern border, Kel is placed in command of a refugee camp. Feeling frustrated that she has been placed in a “safe” assignment because she’s a girl, Kel nonetheless takes her responsibilities seriously.

Once more, Kel is put into a position where she is forced to choose between her duty to her commanding officer and by extension, the realm, and her responsibility to protect the people under her command. She is finally thrust into the role she’s been training for throughout the entire series, the Protector of the Small.

Overall, the Protector of the Small series is fantastic. It’s the coming of age story of a girl pursing a non-traditional life in a society that doesn’t necessarily appreciate such behavior. Keladry of Mindelan is a strong character who knows what she believes in and isn’t afraid to stand up for it. The series opens with her attempting to save a bag of kittens from being drowned by bullies, demonstrating her willingness to go above and beyond to protect those who are weaker.

The series continues along this same path with Kel demonstrating again and again this need to protect others. She takes on a shy maid, a flock of sparrows, an abused gelding, even an ungrateful griffin baby, all on her journey to her ultimate task.

Though Pierce writes for a younger audience, these books can be enjoyed by adults as well. She writes the story of Kel, never “talking down” to her audience, and never apologizing for what goes on in her stories. Pierce doesn’t shy away from the tough subjects, and it gives her stories a deeper realism, even within the fantasy realm she’s created.