Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Twilight Series, by Stephenie Meyer

The Twilight Series by Stephenie Meyer, read by Ilyana Kadushin, has become known for obsessive teenage girl fans, which I think has left it with a bit of a stigma especially among male readers who like the fantasy genre. Here's the thing though: I read this series and I don't even wear pink. Truth of the matter is, there's enough death dismemberment, mythical creatures, evil schemes, lust (whether for blood or body) and enough hot vampire women that no guy needs to feel ashamed for reading or listening to the series. I actually quite enjoyed it. As far as audiobooks go, Ilyana Kadushin does, I think, a really good job. Holding her up to the Jim Dale/Harry Potter standard as a 10, I'd give these audiobooks an 8 or maybe even a 9.

I've heard some criticism of the books, due to sexual content and its appropriateness for teenage readers. Nevermind that Stephenie Meyer has said that teenage readers were not her target audience in the first place. In any case, these books are definitely for an older audience than the Harry Potter series, despite being available through Audible Kids. Personally, I thought the sexuality of the books was not anything that I had to feel guilty for reading, being a married man. However, if I had read it think as an early teen boy it may have given me too much information. It is hard to say where in between things become appropriate. There is no premarital sex in the books, and the intimacy between married couples, with the exception of one line that I thought was too much information, was handled by leading up to the scene and then cutting out giving the couple their privacy, and then picking up the next morning. I thought it was tasteful and appropriate.

So here's a book-by-book review:

Book 1 - Twilight:
Book 1 covers the discovery and initial falling in love phase, and then brings in danger into the end of the books that becomes the central threat to Bella's existence for the following two books. The criticizm I've heard the most is that Edward is too stoic and perfect, no sense of humor, etc. I disagree - I think that because the book is written from the first person perspective from Bella's side, he seems perfect because to her he is. I like Edward. The relationship isn't too sappy for me to feel comfortable reading about it, and the blood lust-self denial I think makes the story that much more loaded - more than just the typical teenage sexual tension for kids who try to remain chaste despite feelings of attraction for those they date. The end of the book has some nice action, but it left me wanting more - so much of the action happens while Bella is unconscious or somewhere else and because of the first person narration you don't get to "see" it happen. Looks like the Twilight movie may overcome that weekness and I'm looking forward to it. As far as adult content goes, no worries - they kiss and feel passionate about it, and that's about all.

Book 2 - New Moon
New Moon by Stephenie Meyer starts and ends well. I don't really like the middle. It's kind of the Empire Strikes Back or Order of the Phoenix of the series, I guess, meaning that it's an unhappy time in the main character's life, so the story isn't as pleasant. As the author puts it, it's the darkest time in Bella's life, just like a new moon gives the darkest nights of the month. There are some redeeming features though. Jacob is introduced as a friend in Bella's life, and I like Jacob. He's not the perfect man to Bella, so his character through her eyes, and thus in the book, seems more flawed, and he's entertaining. There's a little action/tension interspersed through the book - people showing up dead and giant wolves roaming the woods, but not enough to keep it moving fast. For the most part, Bella mopes. The book ends with some pretty tense stuff, but not really any action. Yeah, it's my least favorite of the series, mostly because nobody really gets torn apart and burned, eaten, bludgeoned, or seriously injured. Still, hot vampire chick driving a Porshe is kind of fun if you want. Mostly this book bridges the gap between Twilight and book 3, Eclipse) Again, no real worries as far as adult content is concerned.

Book 3: Eclipse
Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer is the Return of the Jedi of the series. You've still got the same person causing problems that was causing problems in the 2nd book, and you have that figured out long before the characters do so it kind of drives you nuts while you wait for everyone to get a clue. The adventure tension comes between rival groups of mythical creatures and a main character who wants them to get along so she can go on toying with the emotions of men in each group. OK so Bella is a selfish moping teenager still, but that's not quite so central as it is in the last book. The romance storyline in this one is interesting again, as both Jacob and Edward have to compete for Bella, and she has to choose between them, which she puts off and puts off till someone has to get hurt bad. Did I just say I liked the romance story line? Maybe I should start wearing pink. Really though, like I said, there's enough other stuff including dismemberment, mini wars between mythical creatures, etc. to make the romance pill not so hard to swallow. And I think that's why I like the book so much - it builds to a really cool action scene in the end of the book. Again, the first person aspect means you hear about a lot of it after the fact, but a smaller and more intense fight happens in front of Bella while she's conscious this time, so it's pretty cool. As far as adult content goes, though, Bella decides she wants to get it on with Edward, who himself says he wants to wait till marriage for moral reasons, so not quite so safe for your teen kids.

Book 4 - Breaking Dawn
Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer gets the prize from me as the best of the series. My wife and her sister like it the least. I think this is probably entirely because of gender differences and preferences in genre - I like fantasy and scifi, while Liz likes historical fiction and contemporary relationship stories. Once Bella and Edward are married, you're past the dating/falling-in-love storyline that is necessary to keep romance stories going. Also In this book, it's hard to keep any grasp on the contemporary romance genre - it was hard in the first books as Bella is attracted to vampires and werewolves, but they all lead normal looking lives around normal people. Well, this book is spent almost entirely around the supernatural crowd, and breaks away from the Bella-only perspective, showing from Jacob's eyes what it's like to be a werewolf. It introduces lots of other vampires with different superpowers. It's more like X-men who have sex off camera - a lot. There's definitely content in this one I wouldn't want my kids reading till they're mature and have a handle on their sexuality. I thought it was handled tastefully and appropriately - didn't feel any need to repent after reading it - but my wife thought the newlywed sex focus got a little old. Again, probably gender differences :)...ANYWAY there are some big twists in this book that I though were awesome - ripped it away from the contemporary romance genre entirely and threw it completely into the Fantasy/Scifi world, which is really why I like it more. My only complaint is the ending. Imagine if, after taking over the Ministry of Magic and surrounding Hogwarts, Voldemort had called a truce with Harry because he might not win after all...I wish people would have fought it out - sure a few good guys would have died, but it would have been awesome, especially with Bella's newly discovered superpowers...

Anyway, there you go. I like the series, quite a lot, and enjoy the Audiobooks, but use parental discretion before having your kids read or listen to it.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau

This book was a refreshing little read. Fortunately, I read it before I saw the movie. Otherwise I might not have wanted to read the book. The movie added giant mutated bugs and moles, made the action and technology completely unconvincing, and the characters flat and exaggerated in their eccentricities. The book is much, much better.

The reading level is simple, similar to the Chronicles of Narnia, but despite that it has some intriguing themes to it. These people live underground, totally isolated and ignorant of the history of the world or of science, only knowing what they've discovered themselves. There are 'believers' who believe they will be saved by the all-wise 'builders' who built Ember, and other such situations that would make for some pretty interesting discussions in a book club situation. I wonder how much allegory the author was going for because you can find plenty in the book.

Otherwise the idea of the book is intriguing to me - an apocalyptic event for which the only hope of the survival of the human race was to make this city underground designed to last for 200 years, but the instructions how to leave the city were lost...

I liked it. The characters were fun, the storyline interesting, and it left me quite interested in the sequels. It's a pleasant, quick read that is worth the time you put into it. The audioibook is by Listening Library, the same company that did the Harry Potter audiobooks and the Inheritance Cycle audiobooks. The reader does well, though her voices are a little cartoon-ish compared to Jim Dale, and she does read with a little condescension, as might be appropriate when reading to an elementary school audience, but when compared to Jim Dale, not many can hold a candle.

Brisingr, by Christopher Paolini

This is the latest in the Inheritance Cycle, after Eragon and Eldest. Originally the series was intended to be a trilogy, but Paolini announced about a year ago that he was making two books out of the last one. I figured that meant it was because he had gotten kind of long-winded in his writing, and that this third book would only be half a story. In the end, I was half right. He wasn't long-winded. There was enough action to keep things moving and make it interesting. In fact, I would have been more satisfied if he had put a little more into things the way they are. I thought the Raz'aac encounter was a little anticlimactic, and I expected more to happen with Arya when the two of them were together sneaking around the empire. Eragon meets an eccentric wizard who, I thought, would have figured much more into the story, and then that scene was gone and he never really came up again. I think there were storylines left undeveloped that could have made it lots cooler. Instead the book seemed like he was just tying up loose ends from the previous books in preparation for book four. And it kind of ends in the middle of the story. It looks like Paolini added some action and intensity to what would have just been one of the battles along the way to the final action, in order to give himself a place to stop for this book. SO I'm still hanging on waiting for the last book which hopefully will wrap things up in a satisfying way.

BUT for those Star Wars fans out there, Luke and Leah rescued Han and defeated Jabba the Hut, and Luke returned to Yoda for his final instruction. The rebels have gathered and are poised to discuss their plans to attack the death star.

So yeah, he's still sticking pretty closely to the archetype of the epic storyline, never quite breaking away from that.

All that disappointing stuff aside, it is still quite entertaining, with a fantasy world that I enjoy escaping to and characters who I enjoy, and I'm going to buy the audiobook soon and add it to my collection. I'm holding out for book 4 which, I think, should be awesome, so long as Paolini doesn't take any more shortcuts.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Eldest, by Christopher Paolini

I like this one. I think, in this one, Christopher Paolini's writing style made it to adulthood. It doesn't have stiff or contrived dialog, not as much as the first one. Yeah, there's still a lot of Star Wars paralells, and some derivative characters, but I like where he's taking things, especially as Eragon matures in his use of magic. I'm excited to see where it goes in the future. There are elements of mystery in here, as he uncovers and learns secrets from the past, and it left me wanting more. Also there's a parallel plot involving his cousin, Roran, that I thought was gripping. Of course, he leaves one plot hanging and switches back to the other, but I had a hard time putting it down.

Of course, I know people who got bored. It's not a fantasy book for everyone, but I liked it, and so did my wife, who's not a fantasy guru. She got bored by Lord of the Rings, which I think is awesome.

The audiobook is good. The narrator is the same as the first book, and he also seems to have settled down a little in his style. Out of 10 (Harry Potter being a 10 of course) I'd give this audiobook about a 7.5.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Eragon by Christopher Paolini

The first book of the Inheritance Cycle, Eragon gets a lot of bad reviews. Critics say that it's too derivative of other stories. And a lot of it is true. It's very similar to Star Wars Episode IV - A New Hope. Just put different names to the characters and make it fantasy instead of science fiction. And a lot of ideas are also found in the dragons in Anne McCaffery's Pern series, Tolkien, etc,.

As far as the Star Wars similarities, yeah, they're hard to miss. A lot of it is due to the epic storyline that he's used. The other borrowed ideas are also understandable, since I haven't seen many original ideas in a lot of these dragon/medieval fantasy epic type stories since Lord of the Rings defined the genre. But if you're not looking for a groundbreaking fantasy book, but rather an entertaining read, this book isn't bad. Personally I like the epic storyline books with a young character who gains or discovers magical powers and rises from obscurity as an orphan to save the world. I think it's fun.

No, I don't mind the derivative nature. My only complaint is that the youth of the author shows in the dialog between characters, especially in the beginning of the story. Some of it seems a little contrived or forced. However, by the time you get to the end, you feel like you know the characters and you want more, which is good since there are sequels. And it is nice to read a book without sex, swearing, or other material that I don't enjoy having to take in in order to get through. This book is very safe.

As far as the audiobook goes, the narrator has a British accent, which is pleasant especially for this genre, but he's not as dynamic as Jim Dale. He tends to speak as if every moment was exciting, whether the plot justifies it or not. Don't bother with the movie though. It changed too many important details from the story, skips ahead very fast, and leaves you feeling irritated at the changes and unsatisfied about what was missed.

So on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being a waste of time to read, five being average, and 10 being the best book ever, I'd give this a six or seven.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Evidence, by Clair M. Poulson

I got this book with store credit, because it looked like a stand-alone story and was an audiobook. Not a lot of thought went into it actually. Turns out I made a very good choice.
It's a mystery book, beginning with an abduction of an 18-year old boy on his way home from a date. It's set in small-town utah, and involves quite a few suspicious characters and plot threads, and no, I did not have it figured out, which isn't usual for me, but it surprised my wife too, which takes a lot in a mystery book.

It's LDS fiction, but it's not an LDS book. Anyone can read it and not feel preached to, and it paints a good snapshot of life in rural utah. It moves quickly and has satisfactory attention to detail. A great light read/listen. As far as how it rates compared to other mystery books, I'd say above average.

Friday, June 6, 2008

His Dark Materials Review

OK, so after all the hype and several copies of the email linking to Snopes’s account of the Golden Compass, ( I’ve finished the books and here’s what I have to say:

To sum up, the book requires a huge level of detachment from Judeo-Christian morals in order to read the book on the side of the protagonists, more than I was comfortable with, and the moral of the story is contrary to Judeo-Christian teachings, and is presented by setting up a deity and church that you can’t possibly agree with and then tearing them down, so it’s hard to argue with the conclusions of the book, given the assumptions. It’s not something I will be introducing my children to, or even allowing them to read or watch, until they have a more mature understanding of the world around them. It is a very entertaining read that deals with difficult issues, and if you want to read it or watch the movie, just know ahead of time what you’re getting into.

Plot details follow, but if you’re going to read the book, I’d keep going.

Any time you read a book of fiction there is a certain degree of detachment from reality you have to accept in order to enjoy the book. If the book is a fiction published by your religion, at the very least you’re accepting the fictional story. Most likely you’re accepting more than that – extreme fundamental Christianity would say that magic is occult and therefore things like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are evil. I think that’s nuts. So I’m used to detaching myself from stories to a certain extent. The question is, how far are you willing to go? I don’t even insist that the good characters in my books obey all of the 10 commandments for me to enjoy the book. Frodo didn’t keep the Sabbath day holy, for example. But generally I do prefer to keep a couple of major rules pertaining to murder, sex, and respect for diety as I believe it. I’m not saying that I’ve never read a book and enjoyed it that had a couple of characters that had an extramarital coupling, but I wouldn’t enjoy a book that promoted that sort of thing as a main message of the book, for example. Situations like that are where I draw the line. So before reading the Golden Compass and sequels, what you have to ask yourself is this:

How do you feel about a fictional book that uses a somewhat catholic account , albeit warped and twisted, of original sin and the war in heaven, and then says that original sin was good, and that the world has the wrong view of the sides in the war in heaven – that the supposed God or Authority is actually just the oldest of billions of angels who are actually mortal extra-dimensional beings, that he lied to the others and told them that he’s all powerful and the creator, that he’s actually oppressive and evil, and that the angels that lost the war in heaven were the good guys, and the point of the book is that the side that lost in the ancient war in heaven regroups to try and win the war in heaven, and you’re supposed to cheer for that side? How do you feel about a book where the characters that are good are the ones who admit to their physical attraction and embrace it, and happen to be witches, shamans, and apostate nuns with no mention to marriage or fidelity, while the bad characters are those that represent the church and hide and suppress their natural feelings, which church is a collection of all the hypocritical things that ever existed in any religion all rolled into one – repenting in advance so you can commit sin – even murder – without guilt, condemning natural attraction and endorsing mutilation of children, suppressing knowledge and scientific research by any means necessary including inquisitions, torture, murder, etc., controlling governments, corrupt in every way? How do you feel about a book where the moral of the story is that “there wasn’t any God and that physics was more interesting anyway. The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all.”

From my experience, the atheistic view of religion is usually simplified till it resembles a religion that reasonable people can’t believe in. In the case of this book, the authority resembles the god I believe in in name only, and the religions that are refuted resemble mine even less, so the idea of throwing these things down, well who could be against that? But the assumptions that had to be made to accept the story to this point were a lot for me to comfortably swallow. Too much actually.

If you can get past all that, then great, go ahead and read the books. They’re engaging, hard to put down, and they have cool ideas – I’ve always thought it would be cool if there were parallel universes, parallel worlds that started the same and divulged from one another as probability went the other way. That’s the premise for these books, and it is interesting and entertaining. The action sequences are well written, the characters are round and interesting, although it’s hard to like or hate some of them because they seem to vacillate between good and evil so much. It is an entertaining read. I thought the ending was somewhat anti-climactic, but not entirely unsatisfying.

As for all the stuff out there about the books, most of it is fairly accurate. Some of it is exaggerated:

  1. I saw one saying that the books are about female circumcision. This is a gross exaggeration. There’s one line in one of the books where, when deciding which side to fight for, a witch mentions that this corrupt church in one of the words suppresses every natural joy, and in one offshoot, cuts children so they can’t feel.” It’s one in a list of arguments why they should join the side that fights against the authority. So to say the book is about female circumcision is like saying that the Hobbit is about the tree species in Mirkwood – sure it’s mentioned, but is not a significant factor in the story.
  2. I’ve also seen it said that the children kill God. That’s also not true – the authority is old, tired, and decrepid, and has been usurped by one of his angels anyway (who just happened to be the Ether mentioned in the old testament), and then his chariot gets attacked by giant bat kind of things and crashes, and when the kids go to save him he fizzles away and blows away on the wind.
  3. The other thing I’ve heard is that these books are the antithesis of the Chronicles of Narnia by the author’s intent. For this, I don’t know that it was his intent, so much as parallels that have been drawn. There’s an interesting internet article that is mostly an accurate picture of the books, albeit from the conservative Catholic perspective if you’re interested:

  1. The last thing that I heard was that the whole book leads up to the characters recommitting original sin and thus saving the universe. I didn’t see it that way. If you feel that a couple falling in love, kissing, and embracing and the scene cutting out means that they had sex, then that’s your privilege. But it never said that they did or did not go any further than an embrace and a kiss. Me, I thought that the romance and kiss and embrace were nicely done and not at all sexual.

As for the stuff about Pullman being a dangerous author and if atheists prayed, they’d pray to him, etc etc., well how do you think all the Jewish and atheist parents felt about CS Lewis hiding Christianity in the Chronicles of Narnia – all these people have their own agendas and need to be taken with a grain of salt.

So there’s the scoop. I wouldn’t say I wish I didn’t read the book – it hasn’t shaken my faith or anything like that. It was recommended to me by a couple of devout Mormons who didn’t think it was a bad book. Personally, I think it’s borderline blasphemous, and I don’t think I would have read it if I had known more about it, and at this point, I don’t think I’ll support the movie either. As to whether I would recommend it to others, well, like I said, just make sure you know what you’re getting in to.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Mike's Book Reviews

I have a lot of audiobooks that I listen to over and over again, and other books that I like that I haven't found on audiobook, but wish I could. A coworker said I should make a list of the best ones so I thought I'd do that here. I may not publish very often, but I'll eventually try to get my whole collection of audiobooks up here and then expand into other books I have.