Saturday, October 25, 2014

Book Review: Insurgent

Insurgent, the second book in the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth, was as intriguing and engrossing as the first book. It continued the action nicely and didn't merely feel like filler, which sometimes happens when an author tries to pull out a story into three separate installments. So far, I'm deeply impressed with Roth's ability to build a believable world and people it with interesting characters in dire dilemmas.

The first book established that Beatrice Prior is a Divergent individual, meaning she doesn't easily fall into the categories of factions in her futuristic society. Being Divergent is dangerous, however, and it seems like everyone (especially the Erudite faction, under the control of Jeanine) wants to find them and either use their uniqueness to glean information or kill them.

The second book picks up after a failed simulation where the Erudite attempted to use the Dauntless in order to wipe out the Abnegation faction. Tris and Tobias are fleeing the city toward the Amity headquarters in hopes of finding safety there. They regroup, but are quickly forced to flee and return to the city, where they take up with the Factionless, who are eager to rise up against the Erudite and create a society free of the divisions into various factions.

Tris is dealing with internal guilt over killing a good friend during the simulation, simmering beneath the surface, but fails to inform Tobias of this. Tobias is holding his own secrets as he meets with the Factionless and decides to help them in their goals. When Tris sides with Tobias' cruel father in an attempt to return and access some secret information which Jeanine is holding, she risks losing everything - her relationship with Tobias, her only remaining family member (a brother who betrayed her to Jeanine), and her very life.

These books really cause the reader to think about the various parts of our personalities. There are so many ways in which human nature wars against itself and causes great destruction in its wake. Tris' world is bound to crumble. It is just a matter of time and the determination of how it will fall. At the end of book two, the reader is hooked for the third installment with the revelation of the secret information and news of what lies outside the walls and how they arrived at the point they are now in to begin with. I, for one, am eager to listen to the third installment, as soon as it becomes available from either of the two closest libraries to me.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Book Review: Eight Twenty Eight

I had noticed the story of this young couple online a few months ago. Ian and Larissa Murphy tell the story of their love in their book, Eight Twenty Eight: When Love Didn't Give Up. Based on Romans 8:28, which says, "We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose," it is an inspiring story of love despite tragedy and a commitment which does not waver.

The back cover author blurb describes their story: "Ian and Larissa Murphy are husband and wife. They love one another. They laugh together. They seek to serve God together all while dealing with the implications of life in a world marked by suffering, yet compelled by love." I love that description - compelled by love. It is certainly a mighty force in the tale of their love story.

Ian and Larissa had only been dating for about ten months, when Ian was in a car accident which resulted in brain damage. At first, everyone thought he would die. His injuries were serious; the prognosis was grim. He was failing four out of every five brain activity tests. As his girlfriend, Larissa writes of this unsettling time, where her desire to be involved with his care and her ache for things to return to the way they once were battle within her. Ultimately, they end up getting married and are committed to a life of love, in spite of the obstacles they face due to his brain damage.

I was expecting the story to be told in a more linear fashion, but they decided to jump back and forth from the married relationship to the dating relationship. At times, this was a little bit jarring. I guess I also expected pictures. It would have really complimented the story well to be able to see both of them as kids among their family members and then together both in the dating stage and in their new married existence.

Still, it was an encouraging, inspiring story. How could you come away from a tale such as theirs without feeling a renewed sense of purpose to cling to your own commitments and vows, no matter what life might throw at you? I loved the closing appeal, written by Ian's father, encouraging the reader to respond not with praise for Larissa's endurance, but with awe for the example it is of our Lord's unwavering love.

He writes: "God is limitless in His capacity to remain devoted to me, though I don't deserve His care.... Larissa's devotion directs my attention to the Savior. It is a glimpse of Christ.... When we see Larissa and Ian together, we should not be amazed by her devotion and love. Instead, we should be pointed to Christ, amazed by His love for us and the miracle it is that we can reflect even a portion of that."

If you can spare ten minutes, this video about their story is well worth viewing:

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Book Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

This must not be my month for book club picks. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz, is an American Book Award winner, but I just couldn't get behind it. I'm not a big fan of this book. At first, I thought it was merely a problem of the dialogue coming off too choppy. I know the author is trying to convey the mind and thought-processes of teenage boys, but the interactions between these two boys felt like watching a ping pong match. Brief comment by one. Brief comment by the other. Back to the first. Back to the other. Sadly, neither one ever seemed to really score any points in my book.

Aristotle introduces himself to the reader at the outset with three telling, choppy, sentences: "I was fifteen. I was bored. I was miserable." He heads off to kill the day by spending some time at the pool, where he ends up meeting Dante, the boy whose friendship eventually changes his life. Both Aristotle and Dante (who laugh at the irony of their both sharing such unusual names) are equally uncomfortable in social situations and lack a real friend base. The rest of the novel waxes on and on with lengthy discussions of anger and boredom and the inability to assess where they stand with one another.

Aristotle is comfortable with his mother, but distant from his father, who suffers from some sort of post-traumatic stress after being in war and is very tight-lipped around his son. He is also filled with anger over the silence surrounding the loss of his older brother, who was imprisoned at the tender age of fifteen (for something which Aristotle, himself, will encounter toward the end of the book). There's a whole lot of communication breakdown in this novel and yet the message is meant to convey a sense of coming up with the answer to the real meaning of life and love and the freedom a person should have to choose their own path in pursuit of love.

I didn't love the writing. I didn't fall in love with the characters. I didn't care for the story line progression and couldn't really agree with the overall message the book is trying to push. Do these two characters really have to embrace each other in order to "become men?" That's what the reader is encouraged to believe. The only thing I really appreciated in the book was a glimpse at some teens who feel affectionate and loving toward their parents. Otherwise, I wish I had passed on this month's selection.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Book Review: Small Blessings

The description of this book drew me in: "A remarkable new woman at the college bookshop helps a professor - and the son he never knew he had - realize life's small blessings." I did enjoy the book, but there were a few things that didn't sit well with me. For one, the English professor is painted as such a long-suffering saint for staying with a wife who suffers from mental neurosis and lauded for only straying once, in a meager three-week affair. Yet, as soon as she is gone, he embarks on a new relationship, declared to be "love," only days after her demise. Somehow, I couldn't agree to seeing him as a saint. But, if I let go of that, and simply dissolved into the story, the writing did lure me in.

Tom Putnam feels that life has passed him by. He is stuck in a meaningless existence, whiling away the time teaching Shakespeare while sharing the care of his mentally-challenged wife with his live-in  mother-in-law. His own guilt from having a brief affair with a visiting poet eats away at him because it caused his wife to slip further into her neurosis. Then, one day, he receives a letter in the mail, supposedly from the poet, supposedly suggesting that he is the father of a ten year old boy who will be arriving at his doorstep soon for a visit. Once the child arrives, it is clear (because of his race and younger age) that he is not, in fact, the professor's son, but Putnam does the right thing (as his reputation suggests) and embraces the child as his own.

Before Putnam is able to announce the child's immanent arrival, his wife dies in a tragic car accident (possible suicide) and Putnam is drawn into the spell of Rose Callahan, who is a new employee at the college bookstore (his own wife declared her to be worthy of interest, by stepping out of character and inviting her for dinner). How will he deal with the release brought by his wife's death? Will Rose and Tom get together eventually? Who is the child, really, and how did he end up on Tom's doorstep? How will Tom's colleague Russell deal with the loss of his visions of a possible relationship with Rose for himself?

It was an interesting enough story. I did find myself embracing the characters, despite being unwilling to see Putnam as the all-round-good-guy or being quite able to understand the magical lure of Rose, who was an average character, at best. It was intriguing to me to consider how a spouse suffers when a person is mentally unbalanced (especially since I know something of this from watching my husband have to deal with the fall-out of my own clinical depression when I was at my worst). The sense of helplessness that Tom Putnam expressed on behalf of his wife was spot-on. Still, I would hope that my husband wouldn't consider my own death, in the midst of my struggles, to be a welcome release.

I could also relate to Rose's desire to keep moving from one place to another because of her upbringing. I, myself, suffer from a wander-lust driven by my childhood moves of every three years. The thought of staying permanently in this house in Indiana, where I feel devoid of lasting friendships, is excruciatingly painful. I understand Rose's fears entirely.

I agree with the comments on the inside cover, which proclaim this to be "A heartwarming story with a charmingly imperfect cast of characters to cheer for, Small Blessings, has a wonderfully optimistic heart that reminds us that sometimes, when it feels as if life has veered irrevocably off track, the track shifts in ways we never could have imagined." For a debut novel, I think Martha Woodroof pulled off an interesting story, with interesting characters, and a compelling plot. It made me wonder if she could see all the pieces before she started writing or if the bits fell into place as the story progressed from her pen. However she managed it, I think it was a moderate success.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Book Review: The Elite

I couldn't wait to get my hands on the second book in The Selection trilogy by Kiera Cass. Thus, instead of waiting in the long hold list at my library, I went to a town further away and placed my name on their shorter hold list. I didn't enjoy this second book as much as I had the first, but I'm still ending it with an eagerness to seek out the third and finally, discover America's ultimate destiny.

America Singer is one of "The Elite," the six candidates left in "The Selection" for a new princess for the kingdom of Illea (a future caste-structured United States).  The prince, Maxon, has sent home twenty-nine others and still declares his primary interest in America. She, however, is still struggling with her heart. Part of me felt really irked that she would lead two men on, declaring an interest in both Maxon and her hometown boyfriend, Aspen. Frankly, I don't quite understand the appeal of Aspen. As a character he's not very compelling. But, I guess I do believe that a girl in such a situation might want to keep all of her avenues open, in case Maxon decides to select someone else. Still, in my heart, I want her to center on one and stop being so fickle.

When one of the other girls is discovered cavorting with a guard, she and the guard are made an example to the kingdom and beaten in a public arena. America is horrified. You'd think it would be a big neon sign for her to end her own pursuit of her first-love and guard, Aspen. You'd think anyway.

Obviously, I'm deep enough into the book that these characters feel real to me and that is the mark of a good read. I've been sucked into the fairy tale scenario. I feel invested in this selection process. The desire to know who is chosen is strong and I want to know whether it is Maxon's own choice, or the dictates of his father. I'm sure I will seek out the third book as soon as I can. Hopefully, the hold lists aren't too long for that one.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Book Review: Firewall

The book, Firewall, by Diann Mills, is a Christian thriller/mystery. As far as thrillers go, it was filled with suspense and a fast-moving plot. The reader is swept into the action within the first few pages and the action doesn't really let up until the end, when everything is resolved nicely and good triumphs over evil, and God is affirmed as being the true source of comfort and sustenance. The inclusion of God into the story still felt somewhat like ... well, a purposeful inclusion of God into the story. In other words, I guess I just didn't feel that the religious bits were naturally woven into the story, but rather felt forced or tagged on. Still, the plot was excellent and the writing was seamless. I did enjoy it.

Taryn Young is heading for her honeymoon. When she steps away from her husband to use the restroom in the airport, she never expects that a bomb will explode. Nor is she ready for the discovery that both she and her husband are now suspects in the bombing. Her husband clearly is not the person she thought he was. Has her whole whirlwind romance been a lie? Will she be able to convince the FBI that she was not involved in the plans to bomb the airport? Will she be able to help her company salvage a computer program she disabled prior to leaving for the honeymoon? Who is responsible for the many deaths surrounding these events? What do they want and hope to accomplish?

You can see that there are plenty of gripping, plot-driving questions. The pacing is perfect. The final reveal of the central bad-guy took me by surprise. While it does require the willful suspension of disbelief (I found it difficult to believe the timid, gullible computer programming nerd would be gutsy and grounded enough to put herself in harm's way in order to assist in the investigation or that she would be willing to consider romance with the FBI agent on the heels of her discovery of the betrayal and deception of her marriage ), it was easy to get swept up in the story. If you are looking for a Christian-based thriller, you will not regret taking the time to read this book. It holds the reader spellbound for the duration. As far as plotting goes, it receives an A+.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Book Review: During the Reign of the Queen of Persia

The title makes this book sound like it will be some sort of historical fiction. It isn't. It is simply a tale about four girls (cousins) living together in a small Ohio farmhouse and dealing with what it means to be a woman, with life, and with the tragedy of death. The title refers to the matriarch - the grandmother - who is a fiery, determined old woman ruling over her four daughters and their offspring.

This was a book club pick and the first time I have ever read a book for group and then thought to myself, "I really didn't like the book enough to even want to gather around and discuss it." It just wasn't my thing. A winner of several awards for first fiction, lots of people on Amazon are raving about the lyrical writing and comparing it to the writing of Marilynne Robinson (author of the wonderful book, Gilead - a much better read).

If I had to quantify why I didn't really care for the novel, it seems to boil down to nothing drawing me in at any point. It was definitely slow going in the beginning. The characters were neither likeable nor interesting. There was little to call a plot, since it is really a stream-of-consciousness telling of the events leading up to and after the death of their beloved Aunt Grace, from cancer. (Spoiler alert: skip this sentence.) It ends abruptly with one of the granddaughters attempting suicide and losing the baby she was carrying. The ruminations on the difficulties of being a woman grated on me at times. I almost gave up on it several times and would have definitely set it aside if it hadn't been a book club pick. But part of me kept hoping it would pick up after a bit and I would come to feel differently about the book.

Alas, I think I'll be skipping this month's club meeting and wishing I had spent the time reading another book on my huge stack. I've been inundated recently with held books from the library which have come available to me but must be read within the three week loan period because someone else will be waiting for them on the hold list. At the moment, I have nine books due sometime between now and the 31st, which cannot be renewed because they are from a lengthy hold list. Something will have to give or something be neglected. Sadly, they all sound interesting and worthy of my time. Do you ever encounter this kind of problem?