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Books, A Year in Review - 2012, Part II

Old Book Bindings, from Wikimedia Commons It's taken me a little longer than normal, but here is the second part of my review of the books I read in the last year (or more precisely, from October 2011 through October 2012). Part I was an analysis of my reading habits, while this entry will give a brief review for each book.

As has become my custom, I'll use this space to list my favorite books from the year. While there were several good ones, three stood out in particular. The first was The Night Circus, which created a truly magical setting in all senses of the word. The other two were Out Came the Sun: One Family's Triumph over a Rare Genetic Syndrome and Stealth Fighter: A Year in the Life of an F-117 Pilot. I'm probably a little biased in that I personally know the writers of both of those books, but they were very interesting.

While I was writing the reviews for this entry, a few of the reviews grew a little longer than I'd anticipated. They're more in depth than is appropriate for this collection and deserve their own blog entries, so I'm pulling them out and replacing them with shorter reviews. Expect to see those full reviews on their own in the coming week or two as I polish them a bit more.

Here's a list of all the books reviewed below. Click on any of the titles to jump to that review.

Children's & Young Adult Fiction

Adult Fiction




Guardians of Ga'hoole, Books 1-3
by Kathryn Lasky

I watched the Legend of the Guardians movie that was based on this series and liked it, so when I saw a volume with the first three books of this series combined, I decided to pick it up and read it. If you watched the movie, first, then be aware that there are a multitude of differences between the two versions. Both contain flying warrior owls with their weapons and armor, and have several of the same characters, but the movie is missing many important characters, and the plot lines are a bit different.

These first three books covered just about the same span as the movie. A young barn owl, Soren, falls from his nest and is kidnapped by a patrol of owls from St. Aegolius Academy for Orphaned Owls, or St. Aggie's, where he is made into a slave. He has further adventures and there are more characters, but I don't want to spoil the story for those that haven't read it, yet.

Overall, I liked the stories. They reminded me a bit of Watership Down, but with a lot more fantasy. I'll probably go on to read more in the series, which totals fifteen books (though if they're all on the same level as the first three, they won't take too long to read).


The Dragonkeeper Trilogy
by Carole Wilkinson

These books are set in the ancient Han Empire of China. The main character starts the story as a lonely slave girl, with no parents and without even a name. She works for Master Lan, taking care of the imperial dragons. After one of the dragons dies, she, the remaining dragon, and her pet rat escape and their adventure begins. And of course, the second and third books continue the adventure, but I can't summarize those without revealing too much of what happened in the first book.

My daughter highly recommended these books to me. At the time, they were her favorite books. I liked them as well, if not quite so enthusiastically as my daughter. I haven't read too many stories from the same setting, so that added a bit of interest.


Kaimira: The Sky Village: Book One
by Monk Ashland and Nigel Ashland

I've already written somewhat of a review of this book. I pointed out that although it was supposed to be the start of a series, it appears that the remaining books of the series are never going to be published.

The book is set in a future post apocalyptic world, after a three way war had been fought between humans, meks, and beasts. At the time the story takes place, there's a sort of relative peace due to each of the three factions having their own territories, but there's still quite a bit of fighting at the borders.

There are two main characters, initially with no real knowledge of each other. Mei Long lives in China. She was raised in a typical village, but when she was 12, her father returned her to the Sky Village where she had been born - a collection of hot air ballons and hanging buildings connected with a web of ropes. Rom Saint-Pierre lives in what is left of Las Vegas - deserted buildings constantly under the prowl of the beasts, before finding a shadowy underworld, literally underground in a network of tunnels.

The book was good. I especially liked the descriptions of the Sky Village and how the people there got along, even if the engineer in me was constantly screaming of the impossibility (or at least extreme unlikelihood) of such a system. And even if it wasn't the best story I'd ever read, it was still pretty good, and it was disappointing to find out that I'll probably never have the chance to read how the story ends.


The Hunger Games Series
by Suzanne Collins

Unless you've been living under a cave, you hardly need me to tell you about this story. It takes place in a dystopian future in the nation of Panem. While the residents of the Capitol live in luxury, those of the districts live in squalor, being severely oppressed by the government. As punishment for past rebellion against the Capitol, an event known as the Hunger Games takes place once a year. One boy and one girl from each district are offered up as tribute (a few volunteer, but most are chosen in a lottery), to fight to the death in the arena. This isn't exactly gladiatorial combat, however. The arena is huge, and the contest lasts for weeks. It's as much a test of wilderness survival as combat skill, not to mention behind the scenes politics in winning sponsors.

In the first book, we meet Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers for the Hunger Games after her younger sister was initially picked in the lottery. I can't really describe the other two books very much without giving away too much from the first. I'll just say that they continue the adventure.

The series was pretty good, if a little dark and sad. I feel that the third book lost the pace and seemed to drag a bit at times, but overall the story moved along nicely, and had a satisfying conclusion.


by Christopher Paolini

This is the fourth and final book of the Inheritance Cycle, perhaps better known for the name of the first book and the main character, Eragon. At the risk of spoilers for the first three books, this one continues on with the story. Eragon and his dragon, Saphira, must figure out a way to defeat Galbatorix now that their mentors, Oromis and Glaedr have been killed. The same cast is still there - Nasuada of the Varden, Eragon's brother, Roran, Arya the elf, the Urgals, dwarves, and everyone else.

Eragon made a big splash when it was first released, largely because the author, Christopher Paolini, was only 15 years old when he wrote the first draft, and was still only 19 when his parents self-published the book. Although the books have been fairly popular, they're not without their detractors. I've heard them compared to Star Wars with dragons instead of X-Wings, which really isn't a horrible comparison. However, as long as you know not to expect too much, they're entertaining enough. They also touch on a few thought provoking philosophical discussions, such as religion and the meaning of existence.

This final book wasn't perfect. Some of the battle scenes were a little long for my taste, it didn't have as many of the philosophical discussions that I'd enjoyed from the previous books, and a few of the plot resolutions felt a bit too much like deus ex machina. But overall, Inheritance was a pretty good book, and a fitting conclusion to the series. I'd certainly recommend it.

As a final note, I'll add that my daughter read the entire series this year, and she loved it. She read the whole thing in a couple weeks, which is no small feat for a middle school student, especially considering that this last book was 880 pages long. It's surpassed Dragonkeeper as one of her favorites.


The Outsiders
by S.E. Hinton

This book is one of the standards for school reading lists. In fact, it was after my daughter was assigned to read it over the summer that she recommended it to me. The story takes place in the mid '60s, and is told from the point of view of 'Ponyboy' Curtis, a 14 year old 'Greaser' and the youngest of the Curtis brothers. He's taken care of by his oldest brother, Darry, since their parents had been killed in a car crash. Much of the book focuses on the conflict between the Greasers and the 'Socs' (pronounced Soshes, as it's short for Socials). After a group of Socs jumped Ponyboy and his best friend, Johnny, things went horribly wrong, and the rest of the book was about the repercussions. Among the themes this book deals with are stereotypes, class distinctions, and family problems. It's written in a very compelling manner. There's a reason it's a standard in schools.


Anansi Boys
by Neil Gaiman

To quote part of the review from Publisher's Weekly, "Fat Charlie Nancy's normal life is turned upside down when his father dies and a brother he never knew he had shows up at his doorstep. When that brother, Spider, starts to wear out his welcome, Fat Charlie learns that his father was not a man but the trickster god, Anansi, and both he and Spider have inherited some of Dad's godliness. This leads Fat Charlie to explore his own godly heritage in order to be rid of Spider."

This wasn't my favorite of Neil Gaman's books. I much preferred Coraline and Stardust. Anansi Boys was intended to be humorous, but much of the intended humor just didn't do it for me. And the plot wasn't as engrossing as I would have liked. Still, calling a book my least favorite of Neil Gaman's books isn't particularly derogatory. It was decent, and worth reading if you read more than a handful of books a year. It definitely didn't turn me off to Gaiman, and I still intend to read more of his books in the future.


The Night Circus
by Erin Morgenstern

A friend loaned me this book, and I'm glad she did. It was one of my favorite books that I read last year. Set mainly in Victorian England, the book focuses on two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained to hone their powers since they were children. Their caretakers bound them to a mysterious competition while they were still very young, but that didn't begin to actually play out until they were young adults. An 'arena' was created for the sole purpose of hosting their competition - Le Cirque des RĂªves, or The Circus of Dreams. This traveling circus appears suddenly in towns without any warning or announcement. One day there's an empty field, and the next day the black and white striped canvas tents of the circus are there, fully set up and ready for customers. However, the circus doesn't open until night fall, and closes again by the next morning. The circus will stay in town for a few nights or longer, before leaving just as suddenly for its next destination. Despite not knowing the full rules of their competition, and without even knowing the identity of their competitor, Celia and Marco strive to outdo each other by creating magical attractions to the circus, but never revealing to the public that it's actual magic. The settings created in the story are truly 'magical', in every sense of that word. It's one of those stories that leaves you wishing its world was real, because you would so much like to visit it. I heartily recommend this book.


by Bram Stoker

A full review of this book can be found here.

Of course, this book is a classic. Although there were vampire legends going back to prehistoric times, and vampire stories and novels that pre-dated this one, Bram Stoker's Dracula is the book that gave rise to the modern vampire genre and cemented many of the features now associated with vampires, though later film and stage adaptations have modified the image a bit.

The villain of the story, Count Dracula, the vampire from Transylvania, has decided to relocate to England to take advantage of new and unsuspecting victims. It's up to the heroes of the story to stop him before he can become fully entrenched in his new locale.

The book wasn't horrible, but I certainly didn't think it was great or worthy of its reputation, either. I suppose it's worth reading because of the influence it's had, but don't expect a masterpiece.


God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
by Christopher Hitchens

This was the first book I read for the year, so I have to admit that my memory's a bit fuzzy on details. But I'll still give it my best shot.

This was the first book I've read by Christopher Hitchens. And now that I've read it, I can understand why his death was such a blow to the skeptical community. The breadth of knowledge and variety of sources he draws from in his writing is truly amazing. And his wit was certainly evident.

This book lived up to its subtitle. It wasn't meant as a treatise on why religion is false, although it certainly provided reasons. This book moved on from that conclusion, and looked at all the harm that religion causes. It even had a section on Mother Teresa (read this article for examples of Hitchens' criticisms against the woman).

The book wasn't without its faults. At times, it seemed that Hitchens was prone to hyperbole. For example, on page 99, in reference to the Ten Commandments, he wrote, "It would be harder to find an easier proof that religion is man-made," and just a few pages later on page 116 he wrote, "But the case of the Virgin Birth is the easiest possible proof that humans were involved in the manufacture of a legend."

Overall though, the book was very good. If someone asks you, 'so what if religion isn't true, what harm can come from somebody believing it, anyway,' just direct them to this book.


The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb
by R. Crumb

A full review of this book can be found here.

This book was very interesting. It was the complete Book of Genesis illustrated as a graphic novel by the noted artist, R. Crumb. And when I say the whole thing, I mean everything, even the begat sections. If you've read the Book of Genesis in the Bible, of course you'll already be familiar with the text. But it is interesting to see the illustrations by Crumb. It adds a new dimension to the stories, though obviously influenced by Crumb's interpretation of the book. If you have the time, this is an interesting way to read the Book of Genesis.


The Case for Christ: A Journalist's Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus
by Lee Strobel

I can't really review this book in depth, because I only read a bit of the beginning. I received this book at the same time and from the same friend that loaned me More Than a Carpenter. I intended to do a similar review, and was taking notes as I read it to help me down the road when it came time to writing the review, but I got bogged down in the effort and ended up not finishing the book.

From the little I had read, I wasn't terribly impressed. First, from skimming through it, I noticed something that has been noted in several other reviews I've read of the book - it was very one sided. He only presented the views of apologists and Christians, and none by skeptics or atheists. This was especially irksome because Strobel had touted his journalist credentials and said he was going to do his investigation with a journalistic approach. And granted, I know there can be problems with false balance, but at least make the attempt.

Here's an example from Strobel's interview with Craig Blomberg (I only made it partway through that interview before abandoning the book). Blomberg offered several unconvincing arguments I'd heard before. But when he dismissed the Q hypothesis as "nothing more than a hypothesis", and Strobel simply accepted that statement without asking Blomberg any questions on it, or even noting in the book that there were quite a few respected Biblical scholars who would disagree strongly with Blomberg, I knew that Strobel wasn't going to give a balanced presentation.

For a more detailed review of The Case for Christ, check out The Rest of the Story, a review by Jeffery J. Lowder. For my part, I think I'll try to give this book another shot in the future, but without taking such detailed notes so that I don't get bogged down again. From what I have read of the book, due to its bias, I can't recommend it to someone sincerely interested in this topic unless they also have quite a bit of other knowledge on the subject or are planning to read other sources offering alternative viewpoints.


The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True
by Richard Dawkins

A full review of this book can be found here.

I really wanted to like this book, and parts of it I did, but in other parts I was disappointed. When Richard Dawkins is at his best, he really shines. He just has a knack for coming up with really good, easy to understand explanations for difficult subjects. But it seems to me that he has an axe to grind with religion. Personally, I'm not a huge fan of religion myself, but when Dawkins strayed into attacking religion in this book, it seemed to be going outside the scope of what the book should have been about, and distracting from the book's main message. I wasn't a huge fan of the illustrations in the book, either. Still, the good parts were so good that if you're interested at all in the world around you but don't remember all the lessons from your school science classes (or are too young to have yet had all those lessons), this is probably a good book to read.


Stealth Fighter: A Year in the Life of an F-117 Pilot
by Lt. Col. William B. O'Connor USAF (ret.)

This book was actually written by my next door neighbor, so I may not be the most unbiased reviewer. But I have to say that I liked this book very much. It follows one year in the life of O'Connor (it feels a bit odd referring to my neighbor so formally). He was a USAF fighter pilot who had flown quite a few planes over his career, but had never been in a combat situation. As he wrote, it's not that pilots want for there to be wars, but they don't like being left behind when their comrades go off to put their lives on the line.

At a point in his career when he wasn't exactly expecting it, O'Connor was assigned to fly the F-117 Stealth Fighter. Though fighter is somewhat of a misnomer as the aircraft was used almost exclusively to drop bombs at ground based targets, and especially laser guided precision bombs. It was while he was still with his F-117 squadron that the Kosovo War broke out, and O'Connor finally flew in combat, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross.

There were several aspects of the book that made it interesting to read. Probably the most obvious are the insights into the F-117, including the aircraft itself, along with the tactics used in flying it (as O'Connor pointed out, stealth is just as much about tactics as technology). I found it amazing the precision achieved in coordinating attacks - sometimes having to be at an exact location within a window of mere seconds. There was also the description of the Kosovo War, and the frustrations from the warfighter when the targets and operations were based more on politics than tactical concerns. And then there was the look into military culture, and fighter pilot culture in particular.

If you're interested in military history or aviation, this is a very worthwhile book to read.


Out Came the Sun: One Family's Triumph over a Rare Genetic Syndrome
by Judith Scott

This is another book where I may be a little biased. This one was written by one of my high school English teachers. When Scott and her husband decided to have their first child, their joy at being new parents was quickly tempered when their daughter was diagnosed with an extremely rare genetic disorder, Partial Trisomy 13. The geneticist told them that their daughter would likely never even walk or talk. Despite being devastated by the news, they did about all they could do, and soldiered on in raising their daughter. Luckily, Emily's achievements exceded the geneticists initial expectations. By the end of the book, she was even going to school on her own.

The book was just as much about Scott as it was about her daughter. It described the strains put on her and her family, and was very honest in the telling, sometimes brutally so. She discussed her eating disorder as well as difficulties in her marriage. As a parent myself, I tried to empathize with Scott. There were some small ways in which I could, but to be honest, their challenges were so much greater than anything my family has had to face, that it's difficult to relate to what they must have gone through.

Scott's story was no Hallmark movie. There was no miraculous ending where Emily's condition magically disappeared. She will continue to face hard challenges throughout her life. However, it's gratifying to see how the family has coped. Scott and her husband even went on to have more children. For a frank look at what it's like to raise a child with developmental problems, I recommend this book.


City: A Story of Roman Planning and Construction
by David Macaulay

This is the second book I've read by David Macaulay. The first was Castle, which I reviewed last year. This book was nearly as good. It used Macaulay's trademark style of elaborate ink drawings with short descriptions on each page. This time, he turned his attention to a Roman city - how the Romans decided when and where to build, then how they would plan and layout the city, then the actual construcion of the city, and finally what it was like to live there once the city was built. With so little text, the book won't take you long to complete, but you'll definitely enjoy the time you spend on it, and you'll probably learn a thing or two in the process.


There are a lot of books here included in this list that I pretty much enjoyed myself. I find myself agreeing on a lot of your reviews and it makes me want to read more of your reviews regarding other novels.

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