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Books, A Year in Review - 2010, Part II

Old Book Bindings, from Wikimedia Commons Here is the second part of my review of the books I read in the last year. Part I was an analysis of my reading habits, while this entry will give a brief review for each book.

I've always tried to point out my favorite books in these posts. Like last year, though, I had quite a few favorites this year. From kids fiction, it would be Treasure Island and The Higher Power of Lucky (with Night of the Twisters being borderline for making the favorites list). In adult fiction, it would be The Count of Monte Cristo and Flat Land. In non-fiction, it would be Guns, Germs, and Steel, Misquoting Jesus, The Tangled Bank, and Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution. So, out of 20 books read, 8 are my favorites (with a 9th almost making it).

You can jump directly to the review of any of the books by using the links below.

Treasure Island
by Robert Louis Stevenson

This is a great adventure book. I'm really not sure, though, what I could write about it that hasn't already been written (such as the Wikipedia entry). It's a classic for a reason. But, just for anybody who hasn't heard of the book, it focuses on a boy, Jim Hawkins, who gets caught up in a trip to go find a pirate's buried treasure. This is the story that gave us the stereotype of the pirate with a peg leg and a parrot on his shoulder, and the familiar 'X' marks the spot on treasure maps.

The story was originally published in Young Folks magazine, and it has the type of morality lessons you'd expect from children's fiction - contrasting the immoral pirates with the moral heroes. But the story also throws in a character with a bit of ambiguity - Long John Silver. You're never quite sure what to make of him, and you find yourself cheering for him right until the end of the story.

A big part of why I like stories like these are the historical details. Treasure Island is well known for its accuracy in its depiction of life at sea. And the life it depicts is something we just don't have anymore. Sure, there are still people who sail across the ocean, but now it's for pleasure, and often with LORAN or GPS.

As an aside, the edition of Treasure Island I read was different than the one I've linked to with the Amazon banner above. The edition I read was illustrated by Robert Ingpen. I picked it up in the bookstore for $12. When I started on this review, it was going for $50 used, and $200 new! Double checking those prices, at least now there are some reasonably priced used versions - $17 plus shipping. It really is a nice edition. The illustrations are wonderful, but probably not $200 wonderful.

The Higher Power of Lucky
by Susan Patron

The plot of this book doesn't sound terribly exciting, but it was a nice story to read. It follows a day in the life of a little girl named Lucky. She lives in a small town in the desert of California with only 43 residents. She's staying with Brigitte, her father's ex-wife, who he called to take care of Lucky after her mother died. Fearing that Brigitte is going to leave, Lucky decides to runaway. To avoid major spoilers, I'll leave the plot at that.

The book won the Newberry Award in 2007. I don't know what the competition was like, but I'd certainly say that The Higher Power of Lucky was a worthy winner. All the little details added up to a touching story.

There was a bit of controversy surrounding this book when it was released. The first chapter had a description of a dog getting bitten on the scrotum by a rattlesnake, and some people were upset by the use of the word 'scrotum'. After having actually read the book, I think the controversy was much ado about nothing - merely prudes being prudish. For the target age for which this book is intended, the way it was presented was perfectly appropriate.

When Zachary Beaver Came to Town
by Kimberly Willis Holt

My daughter read this book in school, and liked it so much that she insisted I read it before she had to return the book to the library. The story takes place in a small town in Texas during summer vacation. It focuses mainly on a boy named Toby, along with his friend Cal. One day, a sideshow act rolled into town, with Zachary Beaver billed as the world's fattest boy. Toby and Cal eventually got to know Zachary. Side plots included Toby's mom going to Nashville to follow her dream of becoming a country singer, and Cal's brother being off in Vietnam fighting the war. It was a nice coming of age story, and won the 1999 National Book Award.

Night of the Twisters
by Ivy Ruckman

This was another book my daughter had to read for school. By the time her class read it, the copies were so tattered that the teacher decided to throw them out at the end of the year. Since my daughter had liked the book so much, she found the best copy and saved it from the trash heap.

The book was a fictionalized account of a real event, the 1980 Grand Island Tornado Outbreak, when 7 tornadoes hit the Grand Island, Nebraska in one night. Ruckman's story was told from the point of view of twelve-year-old Danny Hatch. Danny, his baby brother, Ryan, and his best friend, Arthur, were trapped alone in Danny's house when a tornado hit. The tornado strike was actually over pretty early in the book, and most of the story focused on the immediate aftermath - getting out of the house, finding loved ones, and finding shelter. The story was riveting. Granted, it's a children's book, and only 160 pages long, but I finished it in one night. I couldn't put it down. It really makes you appreciate what tornado victims go through.

by Tony Abbott

This was another of the books recommended to me by my daughter. It won the 2006 Golden Kite Award for fiction. The main character, Tom, is a seventh grader at St. Catherine's. He's slightly overweight, and not very popular. When a new girl shows up to school who's been severely burned, Jessica Feeney, the children are afraid of her because of her appearance, and even spread rumors about how it might have happened. One day when Jessica misses school, Tom's asked to take her her homework because he lives nearby. From that initial meeting, Tom begins to get to know Jessica a bit better.

One nice aspect was that the characters and scenes were realistic. There were times when you really wanted Tom to act in a certain way or do a certain thing, but he acted like a middle school kid - not in a bad way, just not in an unrealistic Hallmark Channel type way.

Obviously, the major theme of the story is judging people on appearances. Along with other side stories, it deals with friendship and the general difficulties faced by adolescents.

Lyra's Oxford
by Philip Pullman

This book is a mini sequel to Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. The bulk of the book is the short story, Lyra and the Birds, which centers on Lyra Silvertongue, a couple years after the end of the third book of the trilogy. The story begins with Lyra and her daemon, Pan, noticing a flock of birds attacking a witch's daemon. Lyra and Pan rescue the daemon, find out what it was doing in Oxford, and agree to help it.

Aside from the short story, there were a few 'extras' - a postcard of our Oxford sent from Mary Malone, a map of Lyra's Oxford, a fold-out map of "Oxford by Train, River and Zeppelin", some advertisements for books and travellers' catalogues, two pages from a Baedeker published in Lyra's world, and a brochure for the cruise ship Zenobia. These extras are interesting, but it didn't take long to look them over.

If you really liked the His Dark Materials trilogy, then you'll probably like this book. Otherwise, it's so short, that it just doesn't stand on its own.

(If you've paid attention to this blog for a few years, you may remember my surprise at the bookstore the first time I looked at this book - it had some religious insert from Ray Comfort's Living Waters Ministries.)

The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup and a Spool of Thread
by Kate DiCamillo

I'd already seen the movie for this, and didn't really like the movie all that much, but figured I'd give the book a chance, since books usually are better than movies. I'm glad I did.

The book is broken up into four sections called books. Each is told from the point of view of a different character. 'Book the First' focuses on the hero, Despereaux. He's a mouse living in a castle. But he's not like the other mice - he doesn't scurry and run and hide; he's not afraid. Plus, he likes to read. After breaking mouse society rules, he's exiled to the castle dungeon.

'Book the Second' follows the rat, Roscuro, while 'Book the Third' follows a girl named Miggery Sow. The first three books all take place at slightly different times, but their story lines finally intersect for the conclusion in 'Book the Fourth'.

The tone of the book was very nice. It was written like a story teller was actually talking to you directly. There were even a few asides where the narrator directed the reader to do certain things.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. I didn't like it quite as much as those I listed as my favorites, but I still liked it quite a bit, and would definitely recommend it. I suppose it's also worth mentioning that it won the Newberry Medal in 2004.

The Demigod Files (A Percy Jackson and the Olympians Guide)
by Rick Riordan

This is a companion book to the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. Its primary content is three short stories about the main characters from the series. It also has a few illustrations of the main characters, a map of Camp Half-Blood, and a few other extras. To quote Publishers Weekly, "Bland illustrations depicting the contents of Annabeth's trunk, a map of Camp Half-Blood and a short "sneak peek" at The Last Olympian pad the contents (barely) to book length; the inclusion of a crossword puzzle and a word search makes the book difficult to share. Not a must-read-but try telling that to rabid fans."

To give an idea of how much I liked this book, I completely forgot about it when I first wrote Part I of this Year in Review. The book wasn't bad, it just wasn't terribly great. If you have kids that are big fans of the series, they'll probably like it. For adults, at least it's short enough to read in a day. (For full disclosure, I guess I should add that I wasn't a huge fan of the original series. I liked it well enough, but it's definitely not one of the stories that I'll go back and read a second time.)

The Count of Monte Cristo
by Alexandre Dumas

As I already wrote in Part I, I didn't actually read an unabridged translation of this book. I read the Lowell Blair translation. After reading how some of the 'abridged' translations of this book were actually censored versions, I can at least say that the translation I read included plot lines that were excluded from those other versions.

I enjoyed this book very much. It takes place in 19th century France, after Napolean had been exiled to Elba. The basic plot summary is that Edmond Dantes was wrongfully convicted of a crime he didn't commit, and imprisoned for 14 years in the Ch√Ęteau d'If. During his imprisonment, he secretly befriended an old priest and learned of a secret treasure from him. Once Dantes escaped the prison, he found the treasure, and returned to his home town to take his vengeance on those who had wronged him. At 1300 pages for the book (and even 500 pages for the abridged version), his revenge was intricate and drawn out.

With so many characters and plot lines, the story can become a bit confusing, but it's worth it. (I watched the Jim Caviezel movie shortly after reading the book. The movie has some resemblance to the actual story, but not much. There's no way to compress most books into the shortened movie format, but it's especially true for books as long as this one.)

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions
by Edwin Abbott

Come for the math. Stay for the social commentary. (Or vice versa.)

This is the third time I've read this book, and it probably won't be the last. The story is told by a square (literally - a four sided figure), living in a two dimensional world. The first part of the book is an explanation of his world. Many aspects of this description are a biting satire of Victorian society, which was the part I enjoyed most this time reading the book. In the latter part of the book, the square first has a dream of a 1 dimensional world (Line Land), and then a 0 dimensional world (Point Land). Then, the square is visited by a sphere from a three dimensional world, who takes the square into that universe. Through these analogies, the reader is introduced into the concept of multi-dimensionality, and can begin to imagine (if not truly comprehend) ways that our universe could curve in a 4th dimension. This may sound like an advanced concept of modern physics, but keep in mind that the story was first published in 1884.

Considering how old this story is, you can find it on many websites for free (such as Project Gutenberg). I happen to like the edition I have, which includes a relatively modern sequel, Sphereland, written in 1965. Sphereland is much more about the math, with little of the social commentary.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4
by Sue Townsend

I picked this book up at a garage sale without ever having heard of it. To tell the truth, the quirky title intrigued me. I've come to find out that it was based on a BBC radio program, and was actually quite popular. It even spawned a series of sequels, the most recent of which was published last year.

As the title suggests, the book is written in a diary format, that of teenager Adrian Mole. It follows approximately a year of his life, with his parents going through a breakup, his first girlfriend, trying to get his poetry published, and several other aspects of his personal life. He also related current events, such as the Falkland War and the wedding of Charles and Dianna (the book was written in the early 80s).

The book was intended to be humorous. It was, but not laugh-out-loud funny. The humor came from the stories being told from a teenager's perspective - the over-inflated importance of some aspects of life, and the complete misinterpretation of other aspects.

Overall, the book wasn't bad, but I wouldn't recommend people to rush out and buy it.

As an aside, I read a bit of information about the sequels, and I don't plan to read them. It sounds like much of the charm would be lost. In this book, with everything being told through the eyes of a teenager, you could imagine him growing out of his views and maturing into an adult. But from what I've read of the later stories, he doesn't grow out of it. His naivety is no longer a cute aspect of his being a teenager, but just because he's kind of a loser.

Animal Farm
by George Orwell

This is George Orwell's classical allegory of the early Soviet Union, particularly the Stalin era. The basic premise is that the animals on a farm revolt, take over the farm, and rename it 'Animal Farm'. Led by two pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, the animals are initially all treated equally, and live by the ideals of communism. However, as time wears on, the living conditions on the farm deteriorate, and inequality begins to creep in. The latter part of the book gives us the now famous line, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

The symbolism overlapped somewhat. For example, Old Major, the pig who inspired the revolution, was a symbol for Marx and Lenin (his skull was even put on display after his death). However, some other aspects of Lenin were symbolized in Snowball.

The book is sometimes misinterpreted as an attack on communism and socialism in general. In fact, Orwell himself was a supporter of democratic socialism. His problem, particularly after his experiences with the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs during the Spanish Civil War, was with the way the Soviet Union was implementing socialism. Orwell saw the USSR's totalitarian government and abuses of power as a corruption of socialist ideals.

Overall, this was a very interesting book to read. And it's not particularly long, to boot. It may not have been my favorite book that I read this year, but I'd definitely recommend it to anyone that hasn't read it, yet.

The Android's Dream
by John Scalzi

This is another book that I got for cheap ($1 on clearance), and I'm glad I did (got it, that is, not that it was cheap, although I am glad about that, too). The book can best be described as a sci-fi action comedy. The story took place on Earth some time in the future - humans were a space faring species, and aliens had been living on Earth for several generations, but society wasn't much different than it is, now, and the technology wasn't super advanced. The story was nothing too deep - after a diplomatic incident following already strained relations, a species from another planet is threatening war against Earth, unless the hero and heroine can find a special ceremonial object before the deadline. But the telling of the story made the book worth reading. I actually did laugh out loud a few times reading the book, and in some places, it even reminded me of the better parts of Douglas Adams.

Unfortunately, the book wasn't without a few minor flaws. As I wrote, it was an action comedy. A few of the action scenes were quite graphic in their descriptions of the violence, which is a bit jarring in a non-serious book. The opening chapter wasn't particularly good, either. It was one long fart joke. In fact, the opening chapter resulted in one false start for me reading the book. I got through the first two pages, thought to myself that it all seemed pretty stupid, and set the book aside. It wasn't until a while later that I picked the book back up again, got through the first chapter, and then made it into the good parts of the book. The lead character was also a bit of a Gary Stu. He was a war hero with incredible combat skills, who also happened to be a computer genius. But, given that the book wasn't particularly serious, the hero's over the top character wasn't too bad.

If you happen to find this book, go ahead and give it a try. And give it at least until the second chapter before you decide if you want to keep reading it or not.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

I enjoyed this book, but I think it was more in spite of the zombie additions, not because of them. I read Pride and Prejudice in high school, and thoroughly enjoyed it. For anyone not familiar, Pride and Prejudice is set in 19th century England. To quote Wikipedia, "The story follows the main character Elizabeth Bennet as she deals with issues of manners, upbringing, morality, education and marriage in the landed gentry society of early 19th-century England." The main focus is on the relationship between Elizabeth and the aristocrat, Fitzwilliam Darcy. Darcy is not very personable, giving the impression of pride. Elizabeth is also misled about Darcy's character through an unscrupulous character. However, as the story progresses and the Bennet family goes through their trials and tribulations, Miss Bennet comes to see Darcy in a new light.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies takes that story (it's in the public domain), and adds zombies. The author also made a few other changes to fit that theme, such as having the Bennet girls having been trained in martial arts in China, and having a dojo on their estate to practice those 'deadly arts'.

When reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, some of the zombie scenes did add some humor, but usually when I got to a scene with zombie mayhem, I found myself wishing that the book would just hurry up and get back to the main story. Some of the scenes were a bit grisly, as well. After hearing the name of the book, my daughter wanted to read it. But now that I've read it myself, I don't think it's appropriate for an 11 year old.

I'll give this book a tepid recommendation. If you already read a lot, then go ahead and add this book to the stack on your night stand. But if you don't read very much, then save your reading time for something a little more deserving.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
by Jared Diamond

I already wrote a full review of this book previously.

To quote the introduction and conclusion of that review, "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies is a Pulitzer Prize winning book by Jared Diamond. To quote from the book itself, it is 'A short history about everyone for the last 13,000 years.' Diamond has attempted to explain why world history has taken the course it has. But he's more interested in large scale trends and causes, as opposed to battle by battle or even war by war tracking of history. Or, to put it another way, he was taking a more scientific approach to history, as opposed to just stamp collecting... Overall, I thought the book was very interesting, and that Diamond did a good job of presenting his case. I'd definitely recommend it."

Myths and Legends from Ancient Greece and Around the World
Various Authors

This is another book that I picked up at a garage sale (the same house where we happened to find a certain Bender Bus). The book is exactly what it says it is - a collection of myths and legends from around the world, focusing mainly on Greek mythology. The myths are written as short stories, which makes it more enjoyable to read than some of the reference books I've seen on mythology. Different authors wrote different myths, so there's a variety of styles, some better than others.

If you happen to come across this book, it's worth reading, but it's not worth going out of your way to find.

Catholicism for Dummies, Pocket Edition
by John Trigilio and Kenneth Brighenti

Catholicism for Dummies, Pocket Edition, Cover
Catholicism for Dummies, Pocket Edition
by John Trigilio and Kenneth Brighenti
I picked this book up in the dollar rack at Target. It's a shortened version of the full Catholicism for Dummies. It wasn't bad. For me, having been an altar boy, plus being the type of kid who paid attention during CCD, I didn't really learn much from the book. It was the type of stuff that all Catholics should know. However, talking to some of my friends now who are Catholics, I realize that not everybody paid attention during Sunday school like I did. This book is a good short summary of Catholic dogma for those people, or anyone who just wants to understand Catholicism a little better.

I did notice a bit of bias in some areas. This wasn't simply an objective description of one of the world's religions. It was written by priests, who sometimes let their beliefs override their objectivity, but never too badly.

If you want to understand Catholicism better, and you can manage to find this book, it's a pretty good summary that you can read in an afternoon.

Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why
by Bart Ehrman

As the title suggests, this book discusses the history of the Bible. Actually, the title's a bit misleading in that it really only discusses the New Testament, not the Old. It is actually an introduction to the field of textual criticism of the Bible for lay readers. Textual criticism is the field whereby scholars try to determine how a text or manuscript has been changed. There are actually many methods open to scholars, such as studying the structure of passages, or comparing surviving copies of a text (I was struck by how similar it is to cladistics in biology).

Ehrman started off the book with a bit of description of his own religious journey. In high school, he became a born again Christian, fully convinced of the Bible's inerrancy. In an effort to better understand what he believed to be God's word, he went on to study the Bible in college and further in graduate school. As I'm sure will come as no surprise to anybody but Biblical literalists, Ehrman's studies convinced him that the Bible had been changed over time.

In addition to describing the methods used by textual critics to determine what changes have been made to the New Testament, Ehrman discussed the motivations that might have driven those changes. Many, obviously, were unintentional, simple copying errors. Others were misguided attempts to fix what scribes mistakenly thought were copying errors. The most interesting, though, in my opinion, were those that were ideologically driven. Remember that the early Christian church wasn't monolithic. There were many different sects, with very different beliefs about Christianity, such as gnosticism, adoptionism, and docetism, to name just a few. These sects, in a sense, were all competing. Early Christians most probably altered scriptures to emphasize points in favor of their brand of belief, or to contradict other brands of belief. Keep in mind that in the first couple centuries of Christianity, the scriptures weren't yet considered canonical, especially the letters, so making changes wasn't as big of a deal as it would be today. Also keep in mind that history is written by the victors, so we're left mostly with the scriptures that go along with what is now considered mainline Christianity.

One disappointing fact I learned is that my favorite story from the Bible is, in fact, a later addition. The famous story from John 8:3-11, where Jesus saves a woman accused of adultery by telling the crowd to "let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!", wasn't included in the earliest versions of John's Gospel. Oh well, it's still not a bad story.

My biggest complaint is that Ehrman didn't use enough specific examples. However, for an introductory book to such a broad field, that's only to be expected.

This book was very interesting, and very informative. I'd recommend it to any Christian, or anybody who's interested in the history of the New Testament.

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible
by A.J. Jacobs

I already wrote a full review of this book previously.

To quote the introduction and conclusion of that review, "As the name suggests, for a year, he attempted to live his life by following the Bible literally, from observing the Sabbath, to not wearing mixed fiber clothes, to stoning an adulterer (he threw a pebble), to all the other myriad rules. The first 3/4 of the year were dedicated to just the Old Testament, since Jacobs is (nominally) Jewish (he described himself as 'Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant. Which is to say: not very.'), and the latter part of the year to adding in the New Testament rules... Overall, it's an interesting look at just what it takes to follow the Bible literally, along with some thoughtful discussion on religion in general."

The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution
by Carl Zimmer

I already wrote a full review of this book previously.

The book is described as a textbook on evolution for non-biology majors. To quote my conclusion from my previous review, "All in all, The Tangled Bank was very good. It was a nice broad introduction to many of the theories and mechanisms of evolution, but without getting too technical for those of us that don't plan to go into careers in biology. Unfortunately, being a textbook, it's a bit pricey. You may try going to your library to check it out, find it used, or maybe be lucky enough to be able to borrow it from a friend. However you manage to get your hands on a copy, I definitely recommend this book."

Quoting another section of that review, "If you'd like to get more of a taste of the book, I've found two excerpts available for download online. Chapter 1, Evolution: An Introduction is availabe from Carl Zimmer's own site. Chapter 10, Radiations and Extinctions is available from the National Center for Science Education. You can also read Zimmer's announcement of the book on his blog, to hear his intentions in his own words."

Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution
by Peter Wellnhofer

I already wrote a full review of this book previously.

To quote from that review, "The book was divided into several sections. The first was a short description of the locale where the fossils were found, the Solnhofen region of Bavaria, in Germany... Next came a brief description of the geology of the Solnhofen region, and what this tells us about the ancient environment of the area... After that came a discussion of the history of fossil discovery in the Solnhofen... Next came the heart of the book - 83 pages discussing the known archaeopteryx specimens in detail. If you think 83 pages of discussion sounds like a lot - it was, and it was a bit dry... The remaining four chapters were all related - discussing early bird evolution, and the role of archaeopteryx in understanding that story...

"Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution was a very interesting book. It's very informative and detailed, and I learned quite a bit from it. I wouldn't recommend it for everybody, though. The target audience is quite a bit higher than the general layperson. Although some sections would probably be interesting to many people, if you only have a passing interest in archaeopteryx, maybe Wikipedia is a better choice. But if you happen to have a really strong interest in avian evolution, and don't mind reading technical jargon, then this is the book for you."

Update 2010-11-18 Moved the index to near the top of this entry.

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