Thisby Thestoop and the Black Mountain

It’s fair to say that I read a good number of books children’s books. Having kids of my own, I like to pilfer their shelves from time to time. In our house, we like to stock “the classics” as a sort of quality guarantee. Since children’s books became a genre there have been writers who have tried to cash in on the children’s market as a way to make a quick buck with little effort. Reading “the classics” means that you get the best books from every era without having to wade through the formulaic twaddle, most of which has mercifully been forgotten over the years.
It’s a different story with modern children’s books. Picking up a new children’s book means taking a chance on wasting your time, and the modern children’s book publishing machine loves tried and true formulas. After the success of Harry Potter we got books about schools for magical/mythological/specially talented kids who are sorted into groups based on their personalities. After The Hunger Games took off, we’ve have had m…

Review Grab Bag # 9

I'm really almost finished reviewing all the books I read last year. Then I can start in on my books so far this year. The fun never stops. It just never stops.


The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander

The only book in the Chronicles of Prydain that I managed to read as a kid was the last book in the series, The High King. To its credit, it was a very well-written book, and stood on its own without any prior knowledge of the series. I don’t know why I never got around to the other books. Probably wasting my time with those, in retrospect, worthless Goosebumps books. Anyway, the second book in Lloyd Alexander’s series,The Black Cauldron, is not as tightly constructed or well-crafted as the last. However, it is a darn good fantasy book for kids. I especially liked the atmosphere of the book. There is a strong distinction between good and evil, but it may take some time to learn which characters are truly good and which are evil. There is also redemption for bad characters and good examples of self-sacrifice.

5/5 stars

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque

All Quiet on the Western Front hits hard and never lets up. This novel of World War I deserves all the considerable praise that has been lavished upon it over the years. I read this book in tandem with The Iliad, and the similarities were intriguing. Both books graphically depict the brutality of war with stomach turning realism. The main difference in ancient wars and modern wars, however, is the possibility of ἀρετή (excellence, honor) in battle. Since a soldier’s life was literally in his own hands and the length of his life depended on his ability to wield his shield and spear, an uncommonly skilled warrior could become a hero whose fame would be sung for thousands of years. The list of names in The Iliad are an example of this. However, in World War I, there is no possibility of being a hero. The men in the trenches are anonymous cannon fodder, and the artillery takes out everyone, the skilled and the unskilled, alike with no distinction. There is no John McClane in WWI. The desperate grasping after personal identity and meaning in the face of such carnage is what makes All Quiet on the Western Front such a moving novel. Also the depiction of the inability of soldiers to reconnect with their civilian families and their old civilian life rings true in the wake of U.S. soldiers returning from life in Iraq and Afghanistan and finding their old lives empty and strange.

5/5 stars

Vathek by William Beckford
This obscure old book is a cute pastiche of the Arabian Nights tales. However, for what it is, it runs on for far, far too long. It's like watching an SNL sketch in which the joke starts out funny, but the sketch just keeps going on…and on…and on…until by the end you forget why you really found it funny to begin with.

3/5 stars

Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien

Rover, a dog who has been turned into a toy by an angry wizard, travels to the moon, inhabits the dreams of children, and becomes a mer-dog under the sea all in an attempt to recover his true form and return to his original owner. I believe the word "charming" was invented for just such a book as this. Tolkien channels E. Nesbit in this book, which might have been why I liked it so much. It’s certainly not on par with the books in his legendarium, but still a fun children's story.

4/5 stars

At the Mountains of Madness and Other Tales of Terror by H. P. Lovecraft

In the heart of Antarctica lies a mystery. An expedition crew finds strange prehistoric plants that seem to defy dissection. After finally cutting one open and being baffled by their findings, the expedition crew loses contact with base, leading two other scientists to come looking for their friends. They find that their colleagues have been slaughtered along with the dogs and the only clue points to the seemingly insurmountable mountains nearby. Mountains that contain a secret that will totally change our perception of life on earth. Mountains in which a dark terror is lurking, perhaps living still, that threatens the existence of humanity…

The first story in this book, a novella really, was gripping. The other stories were great as well. Brown Jenkins from “Dreams in the Witch House” literally gave me nightmares. Oh Lovecraft, you creepy, creepy man.

4/5 stars

Walking Across Egypt by Clyde Edgerton

I love stories about small southern towns. The Mitford books by Jan Karon are simply excellent. I don’t even mind if the characters in the book are scoundrels like in many Flannery O’Connor stories or in Wendell Berry stories. Walking Across Egypt seemed to be in this same vein, and so I gave it a shot.

Here’s the deal. Flannery O’Connor genuinely loves her characters, even the blackguardly ones. She loves and cherishes the hypocrites, the swindlers, the bigots, and the dysfunctional people of whom she writes. Berry does the same thing. Jan Karon clearly adores the people in Mitford. Clyde Edgerton…well…he seems to spend most of his time sneering at his characters, holding them in derision. He clearly feels superior to these Southern rubes in his story and even the main character, Maddie, who presents the most admirable character in the story is viewed as naïve and silly. In a Flannery O’Connor story, being naïve can make a character more endearing, Julian’s mother in “Everything That Rises Must Converge” for instance. However, in Edgerton’s hands, Maddie’s naïveté is simply seen as laughable.

I can forgive a weak plot; I can forgive poorly written characters to some extent; I can forgive some silly dialogue; In short, I can forgive a lot of shortcomings in a writer. What I cannot forgive is a writer who dislikes or fails to love his characters, which is what I saw in this book.

1/5 stars

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows

This book was eminently satisfying. There were a couple of missteps, but overall it was very, very good. There were also a couple of crowning moments of awesomeness when appropriate people get slapped. Hard. This made me smile.

4/5 stars

Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan

Does this really count as a book? I guess so. I saw the movie with Christopher Walken as a child, but never read the book. Well, here it is. It was decent, and it helped me reach my 100 book goal last year.

3/5 stars


Erica said…

Sweet dreams. Watch out for that dreaded nuzzling. =D