Saturday, November 26, 2011


By Christopher Paolini

Four Things I Liked About Inheritance:
1. Lord of the Rings-esque war campaign
2. The ancient language/magic
3. Arya
4. Angela the herbalist

And The One Thing I Didn’t:
1. The end

This first part of the review is spoiler free, but for those of you who are planning to read or may conceivably, some time in the future, read Inheritance, I suggest you stop reading after the spoiler alert warning below.

Inheritance is - finally - the final installment of Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle series, which began with Eragon. The series has been rather slow to come to its conclusion. Originally, it was intended to be a trilogy, but in the process of writing the third book, Brisingr, Paolini realized he would not be able to fit everything into just one more installment. Now that the fourth book is out (after a lengthy delay; I had only vague recollections of the previous three books, something that occasionally detracted from my enjoyment of the fourth, and would have liked to re-read the others first but didn’t have time to read three books all in excess of 500 pages on top of my course load), it’s hard to comprehend how he ever thought he could - Inheritance clocks in at 848 pages. Fans of the series are hardly deterred by the book’s girth, however; they probably wish it could have been longer. And while I think that it was best to stop now and avoid drawing it out unnecessarily and risk tarnishing the quality and cohesion of the series as a whole, I do sympathize - Alagaesia is a richly architected and detailed, alluring fantasy setting, and it’s impressive to consider that it was initially imagined by a 15-year-old. Finishing a series that has captured your imagination for the better part of a decade is always bittersweet, and Inheritance was no exception to that rule for me, though it pales in comparison to my reactions to the final Harry Potter release.

For those not familiar, The Inheritance Cycle follows a young man, Eragon, as he stumbles into and then pursues his destiny as a Dragon Rider - one who witnesses the hatching of a dragon, forming a bond between dragon and human (or elf, as the case may be) that grants the rider extraordinary strength and talent, both physical and magical, whom were once responsible for governing the land - the first Alagaesia has seen in almost a century, since the takeover of power-mad former Dragon Rider, Galbatorix. Galbatorix has, over the course of the intervening century, amassed exorbitant personal power and rules as a withdrawn tyrant, enforcing his will with fear and dark, dangerous servants. Eragon and his dragon, Saphira, give the rebel s in Alagaesia the last hope they need to orchestrate an organized force to oppose him, allying all the races of Alagaesia into a single rebel force, known as the Varden: the humans, elves, Urgals, dwarves, dragons, and werecats. Inheritance chronicles the Varden’s final campaign against Galbatorix’s tyrannical reign, culminating in the inevitable face-off between Galbatorix and Eragon, Harry and Voldemort style.

Inheritance reminded me strongly at times of the Lord of the Rings movies. Different races - humans, elves, dwarves, Urgals (like LOTR’s Orks) - from across a fantasy world (Paolini’s Alagaesia, LOTR’s Middle Earth) united to launch an uprising against a single tyrannical power (Galbatorix and Sauron [sp?])… the series do have striking similarities. But I don’t think you can blame modern fantasy writers for being influenced by Tolkien! And Paolini’s Alagaesia is certainly a very distinct, creative, and carefully realized world in its own right. I think it was the focus on the military campaign in Inheritance and the visual of these various magical and non-magical races marching in droves to lay siege on enemy-controlled cities that just struck me as very Lord of the Rings, and that kind of déjà vu made me start noting other similarities. But if anything, I think that just speaks to how vivid Paolini’s narrative really was, that it would conjure up scenes in such clarity that I could associate them with silver screen counterparts.

The conclusion to The Inheritance Cycle was fittingly fraught with danger, excitement, victory and defeat, thrill, surprises and anticipated resolutions. It did not disappoint, except on one account, and that very much a personal sentiment.


I didn’t like the ending, starting with the way Eragon defeated Galbatorix and including his departure from Alagaesia. The whole make-him-understand-the-import-of-everything-he’s-done spell thing just felt way too heavy-handedly noble to me. I wanted there to be some new twist, or for Eragon to tap into some new facet of his power, or even for him not to be primarily responsible - for a while, I wondered whether Elva might not discern Galbatorix’s true name. Instead, in a flurry of chaos and confusion caused by Eragon’s contrived oh-so-noble magically-induced culpability, the inconceivable hulking MASS that is Galbatorix's dragon Shruikan is felled with a single stab administered by Arya without even rising to defend himself, and Galbatorix himself is overpowered. After all the time spent building up how incredibly all-powerful powerful Galbatorix is and how helpless Eragon fares against him even after all he and Saphira’s training, it just seemed much too easy. And then afterwards, when Alagaesia is now ostensibly free for the first time in a century, it’s suddenly much too unsafe for Eragon to settle anywhere within the confines of the land, and incontrovertibly necessary for him to disembark to lands unknown? Why, Paolini, why? I do have to concede, though, that part of my discontent with this particular plot point is my preoccupation with relationships in books. I’ve been rooting for Arya and Eragon since the very beginning, and I hated to see the series end with them being permanently separated just as Arya was finally coming around and softening enough to admit her feelings for Eragon. But it’s not just the romantic relationships - I likewise hated seeing Eragon abandon a happy future surrounded by the friends and family he’d found among the many races across Alagaesia throughout his journey. It was highly dissatisfying to have followed along as these relationships were carefully cultivated throughout the series only for Paolini to have Eragon withdraw, alone, to go settle abroad in the end without the company of any of the people who care about him.

But those are just my personal scruples, forming an easily overlooked blemish on what was otherwise a fitting finale to a wonderful series. And when it comes to disliking the ending, let’s not discount the fact that I was always predisposed to be disgruntled with it, simply for being what it was - the end.

Conversation Starter: If you’ve read any of The Inheritance Cycle, did you follow through to its conclusion? If so, what did you think of the ending?

Books Read This Year: 93
Top 100 Progress: 48/100

The Graveyard Book

By Neil Gaiman

Two Things I Liked About The Graveyard Book:
1. It takes a graveyard to raise a child.
2. The illustrations.

I know I read and review a lot of young adult literature, but this is the real deal - so young adult it’s almost children’s literature, in spite of a title like The Graveyard Book, which sounds much more sinister than you’d expect of your average children’s story. I don’t tend to venture much into the territory of books with ratings of 12+ or lower, as much as my sister may try to persuade me to do so to share her appreciation of series like Percy Jackson. But Neil Gaiman is such a respected figure in the fantasy community - writing for children and adults alike (he’s the author of both Stardust and Coraline) - The Graveyard Book was supposedly a successful crossover story, and I was looking for some lighter reading to do over Thanksgiving break, so I thought I’d give it a try.

One might think, judging this book by its cover - and its title - that a spooky story lies within its pages. One might be right. While his family is murdered by a sinister figure known only as “the man Jack,” a young baby son crawls out of the house before the man Jack reaches his room, then up the hill to a nearby cemetery. There, he is found by a ghost couple who shroud him from the sight of the man Jack, who comes looking for the baby, and then develop such concern and affection for the child that they convince the cemetery ghost community to allow them to adopt him. The Graveyard Book progresses in a series of vignettes characterizing the coming of age of so-dubbed Nobody Owens, human boy raised by ghosts, straddling the physical and spiritual worlds and eventually, allowing his past to catch up with him.

The premise of The Graveyard Book sounds really sinister. And it’s true that the man Jack, with his vendetta against Nobody Owens’s family, is creepy, as are several other scenarios in the book. But somehow, the book manages not to be scary. Obviously, my scare standards are going to be a little bit higher than a child’s - but not by too much, I’d wager! I scare pretty easy. Gaiman softens the spooky factor with a healthy dose of childlike whimsy. The main cause for my low rating is that I just never really got attached to Nobody Owens. Reading The Graveyard Book was kind of like listening to a scary story over a campfire - a little spooky, a little fun, but you’re too distracted by fire and friends and probably s’mores to get too wound up about the actual story. Part of it, too, may have been that it was a little too below my reading level. But that serves to say that perhaps it doesn’t straddle the adult and child audiences as well as it’s said to.

The chapter illustrations were gorgeous, though.

Books Read This Year: 92
Top 100 Progress: 48/101

Monday, November 21, 2011

Life of Pi (Top 100 #48)

By Yann Martel

Five Things I Liked About Life of Pi:
1. Sense of wonder toward universe, in spite of crushing aloneness
2. Richard Parker
3. Truth vs. faith; Truth vs. “the better story”
4. Resiliency of the human body/spirit
5. The writing!

Life of Pi topped the bestseller lists several years ago now. For a long time, I ignored it. I’d heard what the premise was, and it sounded both not my thing and altogether lacking in plot. Last year, though, at one of the sprawling book sale wonderlands I plundered, I wound up buying a copy anyway. At $1, it seemed like a low-risk investment. If I didn’t like it (or never even read it!), well, one dollar wouldn’t exactly empty my pockets. It took me a while to get around to actually reading it, but turns out, that was $1 very well spent.

The premise itself is absurd: a teenage boy, shipwrecked at sea en route from India to Canada, is stranded in the middle of the Pacific sharing his lifeboat with a 450-lb Bengal tiger. Suspend your disbelief long enough to pick up the book and give the first few pages a chance, and I’ll wager you’ll soon get on board (pun intended) with Pi Patel and his unbelievable tale. Pi’s family, who owned a zoo back in India and were transporting several animals - including the great Bengal tiger, Richard Parker - with them on their emigration to Canada, perished in the shipwreck. A zebra, orangutan, and hyena that initially found salvation from the greedy clutches of the sea in the lifeboat with Pi and Richard Parker also perished, at the hands (or rather jaws) of Richard Parker. Much the rest of the novel is devoted to Pi’s survival at sea, the practicalities of his efforts to tame Richard Parker and keep himself and the tiger fed, quenched, and relatively protected from the elements, as well as the more intangible yet equally or even more pressing experiences of unremitting loneliness and loss, and the incredible, improbable wonder that swells in a human heart communing without distraction with the vast and unmitigated power of nature in motion.

The resolution of Life of Pi is beautifully orchestrated, casting into doubt first the veracity of Pi’s narrative and then prodding you to question to what extent it matters. How much do the stories we tell about our experiences reflect truth and to what extent are they woven with fabrication? How much do we script these stories to include the divinity or wonder that cushions us from the harsh realities of the world?  How salient are divinity and wonder in our everyday lives? Is it necessary to suffer in order to remember to recognize and appreciate simple glimpses of universality - in the endless expanse of a starry sky, in the cyclical calm and turmoil of the open sea, in the respectful gaze of a potential predator - that are present in even the most hopeless of moments? These are the kind of questions Life of Pi raises, questions that stop you short and make you attempt to bring ideas too big for one moment into focus in your mind. Working to wrangle those ideas into the forefront of your mind, bit by bit until each piece is clear enough to begin incorporating into the unmanageable whole, is a privileged and ennobling experience.

Conversation Starter: Have you ever experienced a moment in nature, or just life in general, when you were overcome with an absolute, almost tangible awareness of the inherent divine dignity present in the world around you?

Books Read This Year: 91
Top 100 Progress: 48/100

The Da Vinci Code (Top 100 #47)

By Dan Brown

Four Things I Liked About The Da Vinci Code:
1. Page-turner
2. National Treasure-type intellectual adventure
3. Codes! Spies! Intrigue!
4. History gone wild

I know I’m like really late reading this book; the craze was six or seven years ago. But I was young at the time, too young to read The Da Vinci Code. For a couple years now I’ve been meaning to remedy my lack of Da Vinci Code knowledge, to find out what all the hype is about, and whether the book really lives up to it. The verdict? Yeah, I think it does. The Da Vinci Code’s reputation was for being a fast-paced, enthralling read, for proposing a semi-scandalous alternative church history that made it a blasphemous book in certain circles, though ultimately a harmless hypothetical, FICTIONAL adventure. And that’s exactly what it was.

There’s only so much you can say about the storyline without exposing information that so thrillingly unfolds as you read, so although many of you may already have read this book and are thus immune to spoilers, I will keep my description barebones. The Da Vinci Code is an academic’s adventure through and through. Implicated in the death of Louvre head curator Jacques Sauniere, Harvard scholar and world-renowned symbologist Robert Langdon teams up with cryptologist agent Sophie Arveu to exonerate himself by tracking down the curator’s real killer. Their investigation finds them quickly embroiled in the complicated real-life plot of a fantasy quest -  for the Holy Grail. The Da Vinci Code has everything a good thriller should: a high-stakes scavenger hunt, danger, intrigue, betrayal, romantic tension, scandal… it’s no wonder it was such a runaway bestseller.

You don’t have to believe that The Da Vinci Code’s theories might be true - or even think they could be - for it to be a thought-provoking read on some level. Whatever your reaction to the radical theories proposed in the story, it is interesting to contemplate what would happen if the rediscovery of forgotten, unknown, lost ancient documents were uncovered that caused an upheaval of our current understanding of world history. How would such a fundamental shift in our knowledge of the past change our world in the present? It’s an intriguing thought. Given the right knowledge, that upheaval could be tremendous, to the point of being unsettling to think about. Our history informs who we are today, as individuals and as societies. If that were to change… it would call into question the most fundamental constructs of our identities as human beings, would it not? Another theme that arises in The Da Vinci Code that I think captures people’s fascination is the idea of age-old mystery persisting into our modern era; the romantic notions of scandalous secret societies and dangerous, adventuresome quests that seem confined to the pages of historical fiction - but translated into a modern setting.

The Da Vinci Code isn’t one of the best books I’ve ever read, but it captures the imagination and kept me on the edge of my seat, and I’m a firm believer that those things count for a lot more than certain readers give them credit for.

Conversation Starter: Did you read The Da Vinci Code when it was popular? If so, did it live up to the hype for you? If not, how come?

Books Read This Year: 91
Top 100 Progress: 47/100

Sunday, November 13, 2011


By Lauren Myracle

Two Things I Liked About Shine:
1. I don’t know I just didn’t…
2. …want to give it only one star.

This book caused a lot of hullaballoo. A few weeks ago, the National Book Award Committee made the 2011 nominee announcements. First Shine was a nominee. Then it wasn’t. Then it was. Then it wasn’t. The explanation? The NBA people messed up. They nominated the wrong book (meaning to nominate a book called Chime instead, which isn’t even that similar), then asked Lauren Myracle to step down and relinquish her nomination - as if it were her fault. Come on, NBA. Get your act together. You’re making the whole industry look bad. And that is not something it needs right now. Anyway, one good thing came out of all the negative coverage - this book is now on everyone’s radar. Well, everyone in the YA community, that is.

The thing is - and I hate to say this, after all the NBA nonsense - I can’t say the NBA made a mistake in not nominating Shine for the National Book Award. They made mistakes and then some in how they handled the situation, sure, but in their essential judgment of the book’s merit? I can’t argue.

With her one-time best friend Patrick comatose as a result of a brutally violent hate crime and not trusting the sleuthing or determination of local law enforcement in her tiny backwoods southern town, Cat takes it upon herself to track down his assailant(s) and bring them to justice.

This book is supposed to be really relevant and controversial for taking on the issue of LGBTQ (did I forget any letters?) discrimination and bullying, but I felt like it really just ended up enforcing the stereotype of bigoted small town minds - especially southern ones - being the intolerant antagonists in the situation. And the proliferation of meth addicts and high school dropouts in the book did nothing to help. I can’t help but feel like it would have been so much more progressive or innovative to have had this story set in a scenario that was more universally real life and less a caricature of itself.

Books Read This Year: 86
Top 100 Progress: 46/100*

*New Goal: Make it to 50 by January 1, 2012!

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Scarlet Letter

By Nathaniel Hawthorne

Three Things I Liked About The Scarlet Letter:
1. Characterization
2. Imagery
3. Literary analysis & discussion

Like most people, the first time I read The Scarlet Letter was in high school. Unlike most people, I didn’t hate it. I didn’t like it, but I didn’t hate it. Recently, I re-read it for my American Literature class. I still wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, but I did find more to like. Or perhaps a better word is respect. I can't go as far as to say that reading The Scarlet Letter is an enjoyable experience, but I do enjoy dissecting and discussing its imagery and characterization.

I think just about everyone knows the basic plot-line of The Scarlet Letter, whether they’ve read it or not: Hester Prynne and her daughter Pearl, born out of wedlock, is ostracized by her strict Massachusetts Puritan community and branded with the scarlet ‘A.’ Meanwhile, Hester’s long-absent husband is inopportunely returned just in time to witness her public shame and embark on a vendetta to revenge himself on her concealed partner in adultery.

This isn’t one of those classics that’s secretly a really good read. It’s low on action and rife with long, over-complicated sentences and antiquated formal language. At the end of the day, I would still only recommend it for people who have a critical literary interest in reading it, not the casual reader looking to deepen their acquaintance with the classics.

Conversation Starter: When did you first read The Scarlet Letter? What did you think? Hate? Tolerate?

Books Read This Year: 83
Top 100 Progress: 46/100