Category Archives: Book Review

Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson

In order to test overdrive ebooks on my Android smartphone, I wanted to download a book I knew would be available.  I quickly decided on Treasure Island, a book I last read when I was in the 4th grade.  I was able to download the book directly on my phone using the overdrive app.  There was a bit of work up front (making sure CCRLS was the indexed library, registering with Adobe, saving my library barcode) but subsequent downloaded titles have been an absolute breeze.

Set in the 18th Century, Treasure Island is a fantastic adventure story about the recovery of pirate treasure on an uncharted island in the Caribbean.  The story begins at a modest inn in a small southwestern England village.  Young Jim Hawkins’ discovery of the map leading to the infamous pirate captain Flint’s treasure sets the wheel of destiny in motion.  The local squire, the local magistrate, and Jim agree to charter a sailing ship to find the treasure.  The two officials will serve as overseers of the excursion and Jim will serve as the ship Hispaniola’s cabin boy. Only the officers of the crew know the ship is secretly destined for the hidden pirate booty. Among the crew, Jim meets the ship’s cook, Long John Silver, a one-legged veteran of England’s naval wars of a previous decade.  Silver is taken with Jim’s ability to quickly learn all of the necessary skills of sailing at sea and the two become friends.

Unfortunately for Jim and the officers, the Hispaniola’s secret destination was uncovered by Flint’s old pirate crew and they have signed-on as the ship’s crew.  There is a mutiny as the Hispaniola arrives to the island.  Swashbuckling, treachery, and valor all ensue.

There aren’t many stereotypical characters in the story.  Often in fiction characters have predictable roles: the hero, the fool, the coward, the effete snob, the evil-for-the-sake-of-evil villain.  Most of Treasure Island’s characters are much more nuanced.  This is especially the case with Long John Silver, who according to many literary historians is the first morally ambiguous character in juvenile literature.

There are many superb elements of the story.  Like many of today’s young protagonists, Jim is intelligent, brave and resourceful.  However, at times the reader might question the logic in some of Jim’s actions.  The narrator does not expressly tell the audience whether or not Jim’s decision was wise, nor will any of the characters.  The reader will have to let the action carry out and decide for him or herself.  Stevenson’s Treasure Island has been adapted to film 40 times between 1912 and 2012.  The story stands the test of time amidst a changing society and emerging technology – just as enjoyable on my phone as on paper.

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Age of Bronze: Book One “A Thousand Ships” Eric Shanower

A Thousand ShipsEric Shanower’s Age of Bronze is a retelling of the epic Trojan War in the comic book format.  While there have been many modern retellings of the Trojan War, Age of Bronze is by far the most comprehensive, thorough, and ambitious.  Shanower does not just utilize Homer as his source, but incorporates episodes of the war as told by the Greek playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; the Roman writers Virgil and Ovid; and even William Shakespeare, among others.  If you follow the who’s, what’s and where’s of the Trojan War as set out by these writers (especially the Greek playwrights), you’ll notice they are often in conflict with one and other.  Shanower, with great deftness, reconciles these accounts and their timelines and makes them flow with ease.

A Thousand Ships is a collection of the first nine single-issue comics, presented as one volume.  In this volume the young shepherd Paris is revealed to be a lost Trojan prince, Achilles unusual upbringing is depicted, and the rivalry between the Mycenae king Agamemnon and the Trojan king Priam is explained.  This rivalry comes to a head when the beautiful Helen, wife of Meneleus, king of Sparta and brother of Agamemnon, runs off with the handsome and charming Paris.  This event gives Agamemnon the impetus to go to war with Troy, thus Helen is described as “the face that launched a thousand ships.”

If Age of bronze were a movie, it would probably be R-rated.  There are some definitely some adult themes and situations, so parents be forewarned.  Shanower explains, “Well, I like to say, the Trojan War began with sex and it ended in violence, so if you have any squeamishness about either of those things, this is probably not the series for you.”  Further, “I’m trying to show human nature, why people did all these horrible things, what they were motivated to do, and, in the horrible situations they’re put in, how they deal with the decisions they’ve made. And how just fate carries them along, and how they react to that.”  (Achilles at the Gates! , 2004) If you are either not troubled by such depictions or can look past them, this is an excellent series; well written and expertly drawn.  Highly recommended.

Link to the quoted interview: http://www.archaeology.org/online/interviews/shanower.html

Book Review: Everything is Illuminated


Also published in the News Register on Oct. 20th:

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

Everything Is Illuminated” (the movie) by Jonathan Safran Foer is the comic, tragic and loosely autobiographical story of a young Jewish-American man who travels to Ukraine to find the woman he believes helped save his grandfather from the Nazis.

In this literary creation, the author uses his own name for the protagonist. The character is naively resolute in his search to find this enigmatic woman and create a written account of his travels. Foer’s story also follows the Ukrainian family that assists Jonathan in uncovering his history, lost in the murky memories of people determined to forget their grotesque war-torn past.

While the plotline provides the structure of the novel, Foer’s story runs much deeper. Just like in the Brod River that provides a thematic backdrop to the story, curious flotsam is continually rising to the surface of this eccentric tale.

Jonathan’s Ukrainian guide, Alex, who claims to be “fluid” in English, tells pieces of the story in mangled English that is both brilliantly humorous and poetic. Alex insists that Jonathan need not write events as they “occurred in the actual,” but that the story must still be made “faithful.” This book accomplishes exactly that.

Foer completed a manuscript of “Everything Is Illuminated” as a philosophy student at Princeton, where Joyce Carol Oates served as his mentor. His unconventional style of writing is daring and enchanting, and his story is intricately beautiful and sad. But although this debut novel has experienced wild success and rave reviews, it also has its critics.

Rather than succumb to the hype, though, leave your expectations behind and experience the book for yourself. I promise that even if you don’t love it, even if everything isn’t illuminated, the story will force you to stop, think and feel deeply about what a wonderful and terrible world we live in.

What more can you ask?

Book Review: Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand

Also posted in today’s News Register:

Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand by Gioconda Belli
The story of Adam and Eve covers just 40 verses within the book of Genesis. In “Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand,” author Gioconda Belli transforms that traditional tale into a mesmerizing novel exploring the emotional depths of the first couple, reinventing it into a personal account of love, hope, discovery and eventually disaster.
The plot contains no surprises. We follow Adam and Eve through their respective creations, their exile from Eden, survival in the wilderness, and the birth of Cain and Abel and their lesser-known female twins, Luluwa and Aklia. The aspects of Belli’s novel that truly captivate the reader, however, occur when she fills in the blanks.
Belli explores the feelings of Adam and Eve, switching perspectives between the two, so that the reader understands their thoughts. We experience the amazement of Adam upon the creation of Eve, the deep and unconditional love that forms between them, as well as the devastation they felt after their expulsion from Eden.
It explores the eternal conflict between the couple, as each deals with the regret and pain of consequences, as well as their acceptance of the reality of their destiny. Belli describes these emotions beautifully and honestly, answering the question of what it would be like to be the first to experience the full scope of human emotion and perception.
The most innovative part of the book is how the author turns a well-known Bible story into a personal narrative. As she writes in the introduction, her novel is a work of fiction, and with that freedom, she is able to utilize creative license to create complicated characters.
In Belli’s novel, the serpent is not an evil entity, but a counterpart to Elokim, the Creator, reflecting the duality of man and woman. Eve is not portrayed as a betrayer who facilitated humans’ fall from grace, but as strong woman with a free will and a burning passion to discover more about her world and her future, a sentiment as relevant today as it was then. Belli forgoes pretentiousness, simply asserting that her novel is just one more interpretation of the classic story.
Belli, a renowned Nicaraguan poet and novelist, has written a truly captivating novel that transforms the legendary figures of Adam and Eve into real people, with fears and hopes. The reader can imagine what questions Adam and Eve asked themselves, and understand on a personal level how it might have felt to witness humanity’s beginnings.