Monday, May 24, 2010

Life-changing books

Currently, around the world, thousands of people are reading Neil Gaiman's American Gods (including me). It's part of the One Twitter, One Book project (1b1t2010, #1b1t on Twitter). As part of the online discussions, someone asked what book or books changed your life. This is a compilation of responses. I thought they were pretty interesting, and can certainly see why most are on there (the largest exception being I Capture the Castle, which our book club read and which no one really liked, and some really hated it. I was lukewarm. Not life-changing for me!) Several of my most powerful, life-changing books are there - most prominently To Kill a Mockingbird. Anyway, I'm sharing it, because it's an interesting list, and has some books that are probably Worth Reading. Enjoy!
Age of Innocence Edith Wharton
Alan Mendelsohn, The Boy from Mars Daniel Pinkwater
Alchemist Paulo Coelho
All Quiet on the Western Front Erich Maria Remarque
American Gods Neil Gaiman
Anthropologist on Mars Oliver Sacks
Antigone Jean Anouilh
Atlas Shrugged Ayn Rand
Beyond Civilization Daniel Quinn
Black Jewels Trilogy Anne Bishop
Blue Highways William Least Heat Moon
Brave New World Aldous Huxley
Cannery Row John Steinbeck
Catch-22 Joseph Heller
Catcher in the Rye J.D. Salinger
Clockwork Orange Anthony Burgess
Complete Sherlock Holmes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Dark Tower series Steven King
Darksword Trilogy Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman
Dispossessed Ursula K. LeGuin
Dragonsong Anne McCaffery
East of Eden John Steinbeck
Elric of Melnibone Michael Moorcock
Etty Hillesum: Interrupted Life the Diaries, 1941-1943 Etty Hillesum
Even Cowgirls Get The Blues Tom Robbins
Far Pavilions M. M. Kaye
Four Agreements Don Miguel Ruiz
Friday Robert A. Heinlein
Giver Lois Lowry
Good Omens Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Handmaid's Tale Margaret Atwood
Happy Death Albert Camus
Harry Potter Series J. K. Rowling
High Rise J. G. Ballard
Hobbit J. R. R. Tolkein
I Capture the Castle Dodie Smith
Illusions Richard Bach
Infinite Jest D. F. Wallace
Intelligent Man's Guide to Science Isaac Asimov
Ishmael Daniel Quinn
L'Invitee Simone de Beauvoir
Liar's Poker Michael Lewis
Life of Pi Yann Martel
Lord of the Flies William Golding
Lord of the Rings J. R. R. Tolkein
Matilda Roald Dahl
Mists of Avalon Marion Zimmer Bradley
Moon of Three Rings Andre Norton
Narnia Chronicles C. S. Lewis
Neverending Story Michael Ende
On The Road Jack Kerouac
One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish Dr. Seuss
Pillars of the Earth Ken Follett
Poet Michael Connelly
Power of Myth Joseph Campbell
Prayer for Owen Meany John Irving
Road Cormac McCarthy
Road Less Traveled M Scott Peck
Room of One's Own Virginia Woolf
Sam, Bangs and Moonshine Evaline Ness
Shannara Series Terry Brooks
Sorrow Beyond Dreams Peter Handke
Story of B Daniel Quinn
Stranger in a Strange Land Robert A. Heinlein
Till We Have Faces C. S. Lewis
Timbuktu Paul Auster
Time Enough for Love Robert A. Heinlein
To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee
Unbearable Lightness of Being Milan Kundera
Way of the Peaceful Warrior Dan Millman
Weirdstone of Brisingamen Alan Garner
Wit Margaret Edson
Wrinkle in Time Madeleine L'Engle

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Golden City

The Golden City (Fourth Realm, #3) The Golden City by John Twelve Hawks

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is the 3rd book in the 'Fourth Realm Trilogy'. The trilogy is about 'the vast machine' of personal electronic data, collected by everything we do these days, and the problems of privacy and security that can arise if 'the wrong people' get control of this information. But it's told in a bit of a science-fictiony/fantasy mode, in that there are certain people (Travelers) who, throughout history, have been the ones to move humanity forward and speak up for peace and justice (think Da Vinci or Gandhi). These travelers have the ability to leave this 'realm' and travel to other realms (alternate reality). In addition to the travelers, there are normal humans who have sworn to protect the travelers - these are the Harlequins. (Think ninja assassins crossed with James Bond)

The premise of the trilogy is that there is a secret group (*sigh*, isn't there always??) called The Brethren, trying to use the Vast Machine to create the perfect society, where everyone is controlled. Their goal is very 1984/Brave New World/Fahrenheit 451-ish. They manage to get a 'bad' traveler to help them. He travels to one of the other realms and brings back designs for ever-increasingly complex and powerful computers, which they use to increase their ability to track everyone. Meanwhile, there is a 'good' traveler (brother to the 'bad' one), several Harlequins and a motley crew of 'off-the-grid' types are attempting to stop Brethren and their nefarious plans.

I was drawn to the trilogy by its first book (The Traveler), in which one of the main protagonists is a female Harlequin named Maya. (Did I mention Harelquins carry swords?? :-) And I was also drawn by the fact that the author's real name is not John Twelve Hawks, and that no one has seen him and that he lives completely off-the-grid. The first book was very exciting, as we see the reality of the omnipresent Vast Machine and learn of those fighting against it. Lots of good action!

However, the last 2 books of the trilogy are less gripping, though this 3rd one is a bit better than the 2nd. In the 2nd & 3rd books we spend a lot of time mucking about in the other realms (one of which is Hell), and there's really not a lot done to move the plot forward. I got the impression that the author had this "cool" idea about other realms and people who go there, and wanted to work this into the books. Because, personally, I think the series would have been much more effective without the mystical mumbo-jumbo. The issues of electronic privacy, surveillance, security, etc are very real, and don't need to be 'spiced' up with this un-real stuff. And, I'm getting very tired of all of these hidden societies trying to run the world (Illuminati, etc). This is trite, and, truth be told, takes away from the real threat of electronic privacy issues. I think it's way scarier to think that we are giving away our privacy in the name of 'security', not because some secret society is trying to take over the world, but because we're not willing to get out of our comfortable, consumerist world and open our eyes, so we let well-meaning governments whittle away at our privacy. THAT is scary - because it's REAL. Bringing in the whole secret society thing just makes the real issue seem fictional.

Now, this is not to say I didn't enjoy the books. But I really think they could have been better. And, I have to say that unless you really like all the mystical other realm stuff, and the secret-society-plotting-to-take-over-the-world stuff, just read the first book. You don't get anything else new from the subsequent books. But, for sure, Maya kicks a$$! :-)

Arctic Chill

Arctic Chill Arctic Chill by Arnaldur Indriðason

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I got this book from my friend who lives in Iceland. (It is written by an Icelandic author.) Since I like mysteries, and I've been to Iceland twice, he thought I'd like it - and he was right! Even though is is a later book in a series, I was still able to enjoy it. In fact, I want to go back and read the earlier books now, too!

The book follows inspector Erlendur as he tries to unravel the murder of a 10-year old Thai boy. Not everyone in Iceland wants immigrants there, especially not "brown" ones. So through his investigation we get to see a lot of different reactions by suspects/witnesses. It is an interesting glimpse into Icelandic society.

Erlendur is pretty much a loner (aren't all detectives in such novels? ;-), and can be pretty gruff, but he is intelligent and clearly wants to solve this crime. His interactions with his co-workers and his estranged family give us a bit of insight into why he is the way he is. It is some of this background that I hope to get more of when I read the earlier books in the series.

I definitely enjoyed the mystery, and enjoyed "seeing" Iceland again, and "visiting" parts of Reykjavik I've seen before. My only complaint was the ending - like so many books, it seems, the author reaches the end and rushes through in 3-4 pages, and doesn't slow down to fully examine or experience the denouement. It was very "wham, bam, thank you ma'am"! But, this is a small nit to pick. Any fan of detective fiction will enjoy this, and will get the added flavor of Iceland, to boot! :-)

The White Tiger

The White Tiger The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I wasn't sure what to expect from this book. But I was nicely surprised! It was a very entertaining read! It is an eye-opening look at the "new" India, through the eyes of a boy/young man, Balram, from the lower class. He ends up in the 'big city' working as a driver for one of the 'new rich' families. Through his experiences we are exposed to the reality of modern-day India: unimaginable wealth and consumerism is literally side-by-side with utter poverty and filth. Needless to say, those without money are daily/hourly reminded of their poverty and there place in society. Centuries of teachings on castes and religion attempt to 'keep everyone in their place'. But with the advent of modern communication and travel, the poor see the inequity and injustice in the current society, but are mostly powerless to do anything to change their circumstances.

Balram is a likable character - intelligent, curious and has the ability to see things as they are. He knows that he is no different than the rich man he works for, but he hasn't the means to change things - or so it seems. His observations about society and what it means to be successful are very enlightening.

The books is written as a series of letters to the soon to visit premier of China. Balram is attempting to prepare the premier for what the real India is like. This epistolary style is very effective, as the reader of the book is the one who is really getting the message.

Balram doesn't sugar coat anything - we see the rampant corruption of government, that is so systemic there is no other way to run the country. We see crass consumerism flaunted in the face of utter poverty. We see the cruelty of the local 'landlords' who beat and kill and steal from their tenant farmers. We see how the servants do little things to get back at their masters.

What we really see is a country that is at once modern and high tech, but at the same time it is feudal and backwards. This dichotomy is very clearly shown to us. Yet, Balram never seems to question why things are the way they are - he's too busy just trying to figure out a way to get ahead. He learns the game, and takes drastic steps to get out of the virtual cage in which society has placed him. He doesn't seem to rant against inequities or injustice or complain that India needs to be reformed. He just figures out how to succeed, based on the current 'law of the jungle'. And despite his less than ethical actions, I still liked him, and found myself rooting for him - most of the time. I think this duality of his character is very symbolic of India as a whole - there is much to be admired, and much to condemn, yet they exist side by side.

I know that I shall never think of India in the same way after reading this, and I have to think that was the author's goal. I definitely recommend this book - it will open your eyes to the real India, and maybe also make you think about your own ethics and beliefs.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Booked to Die

Booked to Die (Cliff Janeway Novels (Paperback)) Booked to Die by John Dunning

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
When I started this, I wasn't sure if I'd read it before. It was vaguely familiar, but I thought that may have been due to having heard about it. The whole first half of the book, I was convinced I hadn't read it - the characters and situations just didn't seem familiar. But then we reached the part where the old man dies and leaves hundreds of books, the value and ownership of which is in dispute. Aha! BOOKS I remembered! But not the people! Hmmm, what does that say about me? ;-) Anyway, it was still a fun read, as I couldn't quite remember how it all came out.

This is apparently the first book in a series, about an ex-cop who is into rare books and solves crimes. (In this one, we see how he becomes and EX-cop.) It was pretty much your typical mystery - mildly interesting characters, multiple suspects, etc. The protagonist, Cliff Janeway, is kind of interesting - a cop with a bad temper who also loves books. But I sometimes found his motives and actions a little unrealistic. But, with all the talk about books, book shops, book appraisals, etc, we get a good look into the world of book selling. (However, since this was written in 1984 - pre-internet - things have changed since then, especially with the advent of eBay and other online sellers.) So I still enjoyed it - even the 2nd time around! I will probably try the next one in the series, to see if it continues to hold my interest. It's always nice to have a light read available!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Marquisarde

The Maquisarde The Maquisarde by Louise Marley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book was a nice surprise. I was just scanning the sci-fi shelves at may favorite local bookstore, auntie's, when I saw this one, with a sticker denoting it was an autographed copy. When I looked closer, I could see that there was a woman on the cover (and not the stereotypical fantasy heroine, straight out of Wagner). Then I read the synopsis and had to pick it up!

The book is set in the not-too-distant future, where the world has basically been divided into the haves and the have-nots, due to a combination of economic crisis, wars and disease. The haves are loosely organized into an association of nations, and they have drawn a line in the sand, as it were, separating themselves from the poor countries. Those who live in the protected area live much like most of the current first-world nations. Those outside the line, live like the worst of the current third world. There is one small catch, however, for those living in the protected area - the government censors news and controls a global police/army force that maintains border safety (aka kills those who try to enter the protected area, or those who are deemed 'enemies' of the state).

Our heroine, Ebriel, is a conert flutist living in Paris with her husband and daughter - safe, secure and not really concerned about what goes on "out there". However, events occur which cause her to closely examine her government, her beliefs and her very self. She ends up connecting with the resistance - the Maqui, or the Chain - and her world is turned upside down.

I really enjoyed the portrayal of this character, and how she changed throughout the book. She is very believable, and doesn't come across as larger than life. I could see her as a real person. And it's nice to have a mature protagonist, and not th typical teen or twenty-something. :-)

While there were a couple of things I could predict, there were many plot points that I didn't expect, including the ending, which is extremely realistic, and not a sappy, story-book ending (small spoiler: but don't worry - it doesn't have a SAD ending - it just doesn't take the easy, predictable way out.)

In general, this didn't feely "science fiction-y" - the characters seemed real, the world seemed real, the story was believable. I think that even those who don't think they like science fiction would like this book.

The author has written other award-winning books, and I will definitely be on the lookout to pick them up!