Around the World in Eighty Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne: A Review

I’ve had several of Jules Verne’s books on my shelf waiting to be read for quite some time, and I managed to fit two of them into the 2019 ATY Reading Challenge. First, Around the World in Eighty Days for #50, a book that includes a journey, and second, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea for #15, a book by an author from a Mediterranean country.

Around the World in Eighty Days begins as a wager. Phileas Fogg and his companions are discussing the advancements in transportation. Fogg proposes it is possible to circumnavigate the globe in eighty days. When his friends scoff, Fogg proposes a wager.

A true Englishman doesn’t joke when he is talking about so serious a thing as a wager,” replied Phileas Fogg solemnly. “I will bet twenty thousand pounds against anyone who wishes, that I will make the tour of the world in eighty days or less. Do you accept?”

The story that follows is a series of wild adventures as Phileas Fogg travels by ship, train, sled and even elephant across nineteenth century India, China and America. He is pursued as a suspected bank robber, kidnapped by native Americans and sidetracked by a damsel in distress.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is the story of Captain Nemo and his famous submarine, the Nautilus. Though really, this is the story of Professor Arronax, a scholar of natural history. A strange creature has been spotted in the oceans around the globe and has been the cause of multiple disasters.

Professor Arronax is among one of several experts in various maritime occupations invited to help hunt down this mysterious menace. In the process of this pursuit, Arronax, along with his body servant and a Canadian whaler, is abducted by the master of the ship he had just previously been hunting – Captain Nemo, of the Nautilaus

Forbidden to ever leave and thus reveal Nemo’s secret, Arronax and his companions are nevertheless treated as honored guests. They embark on an extensive underwater tour of the world. Arronax is at first delighted as he is privileged to see things those in his profession can only dream of seeing from the surface world. Soon, however, it becomes increasingly clear Nemo never intends to release them, and Arronax and the Canadian begin plotting their escape.

Considered to be one of the “fathers of science fiction,” Jules Verne is one of those authors you often encounter on “must read” lists. Both of these novels are among his Extraordinary Voyages series which were apparently very popular at the time of their original publication in the late 1800s. I read these two along with a third – The Mysterious Island – via audiobook. While I enjoyed the first book very much, the second was not as much fun. And the third I found just plain boring. Verne was clearly writing at a different time, and for a different audience. What may have passed for normal then, is a little harder to swallow today. Especially his portrayal of women characters – those that even exist in these stories.

Overall, I still recommend Jules Verne. Though his novels are not all created equal. Of the three I read, there was a huge variation in how much I enjoyed them. Still, it is clear he meticulously researched his subjects that he wrote about.

The Secret of the Old Clock, by Carolyn Keene: A Review

I have been wanting to revisit some of my favorites reads from my childhood, and book one of the classic Nancy Drew series, The Secret of the Old Clock, fit so nicely into the 2019 ATY Reading Challenge, prompt #23, a book inspired by the wedding rhyme #1: something old. It has been a really long time since I read any of the Nancy Drew books, and I’m fairly certain I never actually read all of them. I’m not sure if this was one I ever read.

In this series opener, we meet Nancy Drew, an 18 year old girl with an insatiable curiosity. The only child of a well-to-do, widowed attorney, Nancy is clearly among the privileged class. The story opens with her driving in her brand new convertible – a gift from her father. She is also generous to a fault, with a heart full of compassion for others. She willingly jumps into any situation to help out someone in need, whether that’s saving a child from drowning or finding a missing will, bringing financial freedom to countless downtrodden neighbors.

In this story, that is precisely what Nancy does. She stumbles onto this mystery after witnessing a child falling from a bridge. Nancy meets a family down on their luck trying to do the best they can to care for this child. She learns they had been expecting to inherit from a distant relative, but the will in question has mysteriously disappeared. Nancy’s interest is piqued and she sets about to solve this mystery.

Who doesn’t love Nancy Drew? Okay, I suppose not everyone. Still, these books remain popular among young people, dated though they may be. What’s not to love about a girl who can change a flat tire, fix the outboard motor on a boat and escape a locked closet? Nancy is still a good example of an empowered female character. She is strong-willed, curious and daring, and she has the support of her father through all her wild adventures.

The Nancy Drew stories were definitely written at a different time. They are dated, but still have something to offer. I enjoyed this story despite its age. It brought me back to my childhood, reminding me of where many of my own stories originated.

Space and Beyond, by R. A. Montgomery: A Review

Popsugar’s 2019 Reading Challenge list number 42 is to read a “choose your own adventure” book. I remember reading these as a kid and finding them great fun. I wasn’t too keen on revisiting this “adventure” as an adult, however. My son has a handful of these books on his bookshelf, and they are very short, so I decided I would just borrow one from him. I choose Space and Beyond, by R. M. Montgomery.

I probably should have chosen a more age-appropriate version of this classic children’s book style, but to be honest, I didn’t know such a thing existed until too late. Still, this book was very short, and I read it in a single sitting, even taking the time to visit all of the possible endings.

The main premise around Space and Beyond is that the reader (addressed as “you”) is supposed to choose a “home planet.” Your mother is from one, and your father from another. And so you choose. What follows after is a series of adventures and misadventures across the galaxy. Some adventures end in disaster, or even death. Others leave you stranded, or blissfully content to remain with whatever alien culture has accepted you in.

In none of the endings, however, does the reader end up on either of the planets from the original choice. I honestly don’t remember these books feeling quite so empty. Each story track is so short, there just isn’t a whole lot of substance to any of it.

The Reckoners Series, by Brandon Sanderson: A Review

I have been working my way through Brandon Sanderson’s books since I discovered him while reading The Wheel of Time books by Robert Jordan. A couple of years ago I learned that he writes more than just long, epic fantasy series. I found Steelheart, book one of The Reckoners series while browsing through the teen section at my library. I absolutely loved it. But it wasn’t until this year that I finally managed to finish the series.

Books two and three both fit into the 2019 Popsugar Reading Challenge. I read Firefight for prompt #4, a book I think should be turned into a movie, and Calamity for prompt #18, a book about someone with a superpower.

For David Charleston, the story began ten years ago when Calamity appeared in the sky. At the same time, ordinary people began manifesting extraordinary powers. David witnessed one of these gifted individuals – now called Epics – murder his father. And for ten years, David has been observing, collecting data and plotting revenge.

Then, the Reckoners arrive in his home town, and David contrives a way to contact them with the intention of joining their ranks. The Reckoners are a shadowy group of ordinary humans who study Epics and search out their weakness – every Epic has one – with the intention of assassinating them.

Book one, Steelheart, is all about David’s quest for revenge on the Epic who killed his father – Steelheart, a man who can transform anything inorganic into steel. Oh, and he’s invulnerable.

In book two, Firefight, David and the Reckoners continue their battle against the Epics, taking the fight to the city formerly known as Manhattan. But now David’s quest has shifted from vengeance to something else. As he has pursued his quest, David has learned a great deal about Epics he didn’t know before. And maybe – just maybe – there’s a cure.

The series concludes with book three, Calamity. The more David has learned about the Epics, the more convinced he has become that they can be redeemed. While everything and everyone seems to turn against him, he insists on going up against the most powerful Epic of all.

Whether he is writing epic fantasy sagas or superpowered adventures, Sanderson is a fantastic storyteller. In this series, he writes from David’s perspective, so the reader witnesses everything through his eyes. We learn what David learns, as he learns it, so the action is immediate and close.

I loved these books! There is a short novella, Mitosis, that goes between books one and two, but you can enjoy the series without reading it. I know this, because I did it. I didn’t learn of the novella’s existence until I was already well into book two. Book two does make reference to events that transpire in this in-between time, so I will definitely read it when I can.

The Martian, by Andy Weir: A Review

Prompt #41 on the 2019 ATY Reading Challenge is to read a book from the 2018 Goodreads Choice Awards. I don’t usually seem to be on the same page as most folks voting on these awards, as the ones I choose never seem to win. However, the voting process for the 2018 Goodreads Choice Awards involved voting on the “best of all time” books. In this category was The Martian, by Andy Wier. I’ve wanted to read this book since I saw the movie some years back.

In this book, Weir tells the story of Mark Watney, an astronaut on a mission to Mars. Only six days into the mission, severe weather forces the team to abandon the planet. In the process, Watney is left behind, presumed dead. It turns out, he did not die. And thus begins his harrowing tale of survival.

The story is told primarily through mission logs that Watney continues to keep, perhaps mostly from force of habit and training. As a character, Mark Watney is fantastic. His sense of humor carries him through his ordeal.

Weir includes a lot of plausible sounding science. I don’t know how much of it is accurate, but it feels accurate, giving weight to the story and the mortal peril Watney is in at all times. The potentially dry sciencey bits are well tempered with real suspense and of course, the humor.

This is one of those rare occurrences where the book and the movie are equally entertaining. If you’ve seen and enjoyed the movie, you will probably enjoy the book as well. And same goes the other way around. Quite simply, this is a great book.

Warcross, by Marie Lu: A Review

I had been looking forward to reading Warcross, by Marie Lu for some time. So when I came across the 2019 Popsugar Reading Challenge prompt #39, a book revolving around a puzzle or game, I was excited to finally make reading it a priority. From the Goodreads blurb:

For the millions who log in every day, Warcross isn’t just a game – it’s a way of life. The obsession started ten years ago and its fan base now spans the globe, some eager to escape from reality and others hoping to make a profit. … Hacker Emika Chen works as a bounty hunter, tracking down players who bet on the game illegally. … Needing to make some quick cash, Emika takes a risk and hacks into the opening game of the Warcross Championships – only to accidentally glitch herself into the action.

Warcross tells the story of Emika Chen, a down-on-her-luck hacker and bounty hunter living in Manhattan. Her rent is due and her last bounty got scooped by another hunter, so Emika finds herself taking desperate and risky action to avoid being thrown out on the streets. Expecting to get arrested for her trespass, Emika is stunned to receive a call from the game’s creator instead – with a job offer.

Emika ends up transported to Tokyo where she is inserted into the Championships as a player. She’s there to uncover a security problem, but finds something much more sinister instead.

The game descriptions are phenomenal and the action is fast-paced and fun. While I enjoyed this book, and will read the sequel eventually, it was a bit predictable. It wasn’t quite as exciting as I’d hoped.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel: A Review

The 2019 ATY Reading Challenge prompt #48 is to read a finalist or winner from the National Book Awards from any year. I chose to read Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award.

I was intrigued by the premise of this post-apocalyptic novel. It follows a troupe of nomadic players twenty years after a massive flu pandemic decimates the population of the planet. For the past two years, this group of actors and musicians have traveled a circuit around the Great Lakes. This year, however, brings some disturbing changes.

The book opens in “present day” during a production of King Lear. The lead, a famous Hollywood actor, dies suddenly onstage. In the audience is a former paparazzi who is now an EMT. Recognizing the actor’s symptoms, he jumps on stage and attempts to save his life.

The story line goes back and forth in time from Year One to Year Twenty, and sometimes flashes back to before the event. Mandel weaves together a beautiful tapestry of seemingly unrelated lives, highlighting the moments where these lives intersect. It is a wonderfully drawn picture of humanity, and how we interact with one another in the face of both ordinary and devastating events.

I chose the audio version of this book, narrated by Kirsten Potter. It is very well done. I highly recommend this book.