T’Aragam by Jack W. Regan

T'aragamTitle:  T’Aragam

Author:  Jack W. Regan

Paperback:  286 pages

ISBN:  9781442114593

Book Challenges:  ARC Challenge

From the website:

Young Max Ransome watched his father die, killed by marauding phantors as they swept through T’Aragam at the bidding of the evil wizard Zadok. Barely escaping with his own life, Max is thrust into a whirlwind journey as he races against time to save T’Aragam, the world he loves, from a dark dominion. Can Max overcome the horror of his father’s death and save T’Aragam from the grasping talons of its enemies?

Woven with a charming mix of zany humor and genuine danger, T’Aragam immerses the reader in a world of original characters and tightly-woven plot. Young Max leads the cast and is ably supported by, among others, a faithful medgekin friend named Gramkin, two monster brothers named Doom and Gloom, and an equuraptor named Dresden.

Coupled with quirky supporting characters, such as mercenary Captain Baggywrinkle, Lord Stench, and a perpetually hungry sea serpent named Bob, this cast of characters steps from the pages and pulls the reader into the story.

I am thoroughly entranced by this book.  It’s fantasy with wizards, phantors and equuraptors (part horse, part dragon, and few are alive who’ve seen them in person).  It’s also got a good comedic side to it with monster brother Doom and Gloom who are afraid of everything, including birds and boys, and Doom is particularly put off by the lack of tea time and unsanitary conditions of the dungeon.  There’s adventure, the battle of good and evil, and 13-year-old Max must decide between doing what is right, even if it leads to a horrible and long death, or to do what’s comfortable.  All of it works to make a very addictive read in this first book of The Max Ransome Chronicles.

Okay, some side notes from me… I’ve gotten a bit caught up in World of Warcraft lately.  After making fun of everyone I know who plays it, I thought I’d see what the deal was and found out I’m as big a dork as them.  What’s more, Maggie is even worse about it than me!  So reading T’Aragam has been like being “in game,” even though I was AFK.  I could picture it all and could relate to Max as if it were me in it… because I’ve done or seen similar things, or felt similarly while playing WoW.  And I can’t wait for more of this series. 

Another point is that you have to go to Podiobooks and listen to the Regan perform the audiobook (while there, feel free to make a donation… Regan gets 75% of it ;-) ).  It was listening to the first chapter of the audiobook that sold me on this book; Regan is one of the best performers I’ve heard.  I suppose it could be argued that the author would do the best reading, since they know exactly how it should sound, but I have two words to argue that:  Ray Bradbury.

While this book is technically a YA and geared for boys, I’d have to say that anyone who enjoys Tolkein and C.S. Lewis would enjoy T’Aragam.  I was impressed with Regan’s storycrafting, the fluidity of his writing without it becoming blah or going over the reader’s head.  I never wanted to put it down, and when I had to for life’s demands, my mind kepty drifting back to how Max was going to get out of whatever situation I’d left him.

For it’s ability to spirit me away to the land of fantasy and take me on an adventure, I give T’Aragam by Jack W. Regan 5 out of 5 stars, and am dying to know how much longer I have to wait for book two??

Dune by Frank Herbert

Title:  Dune

Author:  Frank Herbert

Date Published:  January 1977

Publisher:  Berkley Medallion Books

Miscellaneous:  1966 winner of the Hugo Award and was the inagural winner of the Nebula Award in 1965.

His mother was beside him, holding his hands, her face a gray blob peering at him.  “Paul, what’s wrong?”

….”What have you done to me?”  he demanded.

In a burst of clarity, she sensed some of the roots in the question, said:  “I gave birth to you.”

…”Did you know what you were doing when you tranined me?”  he asked.

There’s no more childhood in his voice, she thought.  And she said:  “I hoped the thing any parent hopes – that you’d be … superior, different.”

…”You didn’t want a son!”  he said.  “You wanted a Kwisatz Haderach!  You wanted a male Bene Gesserit!  … Did you ever consult my father in this?”

She spoke gently out of the freshness of her grief:  “Whatever you are, Paul, the heredity is as much your father as me.”

“But not the training,” he said.  “Not the things that awakened… the sleeper…. You wanted the Reverend Mother to hear about my dreams:  You listen in her place now.  I’ve just had a waking dream.  Do you know why?”

“You must calm yourself,” she said.  “If there’s -”

“The spice,” he said.  “It’s in everything here – the air, the soi, the food, the geriatric spice.  It’s like the Truthsayer drug.  It’s a poison!”

She stiffened.

His voice lowered and he repeated:  “A poison – so subtle, so insidious … so irreversible.  It won’t even kill you unless you stop taking it.  We can’t leave Arrakis unless we take part of Arrakis with us.”

The terrifying presence of his voice brooked no dispute.

“You and the spice,” Paul said.  “The spice changes anyone who gets this much of it, but thanks to you, I could bring the change to consciousness.  I don’t get to leave it in the unconscious where its distrubance can be blanked out.  I can see it.”

… She heard madness in his voice, didn’t know what to do…. We’re trapped here, she agreed.

-Dune by Frank Herbert, pages 195-196

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I could seriously cry. I just wrote the full review, clicked “publish” and WordPress ATE IT! AHHHHHHH!!!!!!!

short version.

Dune is really cool. read it.

I give it 5 out of 5.

Boo! WordPress!

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OKay, trying this again. *deep cleansing breath*

Dune by Frank Herbert is the science fiction/fantasy book of all time, with the exception of Tolkien’s work. It enfolds ecology, feudal lords, space travel, mysticism, and combat and creates an amazing world that is both an advancement of humanity, while at the same time the regression of it. I found the place water plays in the everyday life of the Fremen of the desert planet of Arrakis completely fascinating, it is the beginning and the ending of their existance, as well as the very essence and the centerpiece of their dream: Arrakis as an Eden.

Paul Muad’Dib has been trained in the Bene Gesserit ways by his mother, who disobeyed the command to give birth to a daughter, which has given him a hyper-awareness of the world and those around him. When his family is sent to Arrakis as his father, Duke Leto’s new fiefdom, the sudden supersaturation of melange, a cinnomon-y spice that extends life and allows the user to become more spiritually aware, and the shock of the attack from a rival Great House (“noble” family) forces a change in Paul. He is suddenly able to see all time, past present and future, and all their possibilities, and is troubled by the visions of jihad being mounted across the galaxy in his name and under his banner. He is determined to prevent this, while avenging his father’s death and leading the Fremen (native… sort of.. people of Arrakis) to autonomy and control of their planet and the spice found only on Arrakis.

I found Herbert’s imagination amazing. In Dune, Herbert created a future that was virtually unimaginable at the time. He gave the world its own rules and specific history. And he gave them a religion that has a sense of being the eventual mingling of the major religions. The Orange Catholic Bible is a sacred text, many of the names and terms have a Muslim feel, and the Litany Against Fear is positively Zen-like:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the series, Dune Messiah :-)

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Brisingr by Christopher Paolini

Title:  Brisingr

Author:  Christopher Paolini

Hardback:  764 pages

Publish Date:  2008

Publisher:  Alfred A. Knopf  (div. of Random House)

ISBN:  9780375826726

MiscellaneousBrisingr is the third book in the Inheritance Cycle.

By the light from the coals in the oven, Eragon studied Sloan’s hands; the butcher lay a yard or two away, where Eragon had placed him.  Dozens of thin white scars crisscrossed his long, bony fingers, with their oversized knuckles and long fingernails that, while they had been meticulous in Carvahall, were now ragged, torn, and blackened with accumulated filth.  The scars testified to the relatively few mistakes Sloan had made during the decades he had spent wielding knives.  His skin was wrinkled and weathered and bulged with wormlike veins, yet the muscles underneath were hard and lean.

Eragon sat on his haunches and crossed his arms over his knees.  “I can’t just let him go,” he murmured.  If he did, Sloan might track down Roran and Katrinan, a prospect that Eragon considered unacceptable.  Besides, even though he was not going to kill Sloan, he believed the butcher should be punished for his crimes.

… What, however, would constitiute proper punishment?  I refused to become an executioner, thought Eragon, only to make myself an arbiter.  What do I know about law?

-Brisingr by Christopher Paolini, page 75

As we return to Alagaesia in this, the third book in the Inheritance Cycle, we begin the journey of growing up as most of the old leaders, Brom, Ajihad, Hrothgar, and Durza all died in the second book and Eragon, Roran, Nasuada, Orik and Murtagh have all stepped into the positions of leadership their deaths left open.  This concept, that of the younger generation stepping up and carrying the banner, is the continuing theme throughout Brisingr by Christopher Paolini.

To be completely honest, I doubt this book could be a stand alone novel.  There is so much that occurred in the two previous books that has led to the events in this book, and most of those events are not referenced, it is assumed that the reader already knows.  Even though I’d read the first two, and had read them less than a year ago, there were still a couple times where even I failed to remember what previous happening was alluded to.

What’s more, Brisingr seems to be a bloated and under-edited cry of “look at me!  I’m so smart!  I has talents!” from Paolini.  Yes, Eragon (the first book of the series) was an impressive show of skill, partly because if the story and writing, but also because of the fact the author was 15 when he wrote it.  And Eldest was a continuation of that book.  Both were exciting and fascinating, with dragons and elves and the battle of good versus evil.  Both contained sword fights and duels of magicians, and the fight to protect one of the most basic rights people have, to have and be safe in one’s own home.  Disappointingly, though, Brisingr drags on and on, with pages spent on day trips of hunting or flying around, and with Eragon’s whining.  I got so sick of his whining by the end of the book!

It is not entirely bad, though.  There are several things that I loved about this book.  SPOILER ALERT… warn you ahead of time.  I appreciated Eragon’s difficult choice not to kill Sloan, who’s decision to betray the village of Carvahall to the Galbatorix led to the death of many and the ultimate destruction of the village.  He chooses not to be an executioner, yet he also realizes justice demands Sloan’s punishment.  Eragon shows a depth of character and the ability to think on many levels with the punishment he imposes.  He does not abandon Sloan to the desert, being an executioner by proxy, but takes up the responsibility for the man’s life throughout the book.  Another facet of Brisingr I truly loved is Eragon’s true parentage.  I cannot think of a better or more noble resolution to the struggle Eragon goes through after Murtagh revealed to him that they were brothers.  In fact, this little nugget makes me hate the movie version even more, because it was never touched (That movie will have negative stars before the end of this series!).  Also, I have enjoyed watching Roran come into his own as a leader within the Varden, no longer viewed solely as the cousin of the Dragon Rider.

Seriously, Brisingr by Christopher Paolini leaves a lot to be desired, but it’s one of those things that I’m glad I did now that I’m done.  I wanted to finish it because I loved the first two books, and I will buy and read the final book when it comes out.  I give it 3 out of 5 stars.  Maybe they should make a condensed version?  Does Reader’s Digest do fantasy books?

Other reviews of interest for Brisingr:

ImpishIdea Brisingr Review

Ngewo’s Dirty Little Mind Brisingr Review

Material Witness Brisingr Review

In the following video, two teenage guys try to make sense of two popular YA books. Twilight versus Brisingr…. who will win?

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Title:  The Book Thief

Author:  Markus Zusak

Paperback:  354 pages

Publisher:  Transworld Publishers (div of Random House)

Publish Date:  2005

ISBN:  9780552773898

Miscellaneous: Don’t forget to check out this review’s companion post. It includes info on The Book Thief‘s future as a movie, and several quotes from the book I wasn’t able to work into this review.

On June 23, 1942, there was a group of French Jews in a German prison, on Polish soil.  The first person I took was close to the door, his mind racing, then reduced to pacing, then slowing down, slowing down…

Please believe me when I tell you that I picked up each soul that day as if it were newly born.  I even kissed a few weary, poisoned cheeks.  I listened to their last, gasping cries.  Their French words.  I watched their love-visions and freed them from their fear.

I took them all away, and if ever there was a time I needed distraction, this was it.  In complete desolation, I looked at the world above.  I watched the sky as it turned from silver to grey to the colour of rain.  Even the clouds tried to look the other way.

Sometimes, I imagined how everything appeared above those clouds, knowing without question that the sun was blond, and the endless atmosphere was a giant blue eye.

They were French, they were Jews, and they were you.

-The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, page 358

I finished The Book Thief  by Markus Zasuk on Tuesday, but have not been able to stop thinking about it since.  Normally, I sit down and write the review as soon as I finish a book, then pick up the next book and move on.  However, when I read the last words of The Book Thief :

A LAST NOTE FROM YOUR NARRATOR:  I am haunted by humans.

I found myself not wanting to let the book go.  I told myself I wanted to wait to review it so it could sink in and ruminate.  I had already posted it on BookMooch figuring, like most books, I wouldn’t want to reread it, and it was mooched up right away, but now I don’t want to give it up.  I have put off starting Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince because I don’t want to put anything else in there ever again.  All of this is utterly baffling to me because I have never had an attachment or a reaction to any book like this.

The book itself, plot-wise and such, is easy to sum up.  It is the story of Liesel Meminger, the book thief, who comes to live the Hubermann’s at age nine as their foster daughter.  On the way to Molching, where the Hubermann’s live, Liesel’s younger brother dies and is buried in a cemetery at the next stop.  It is in this place she “steals” her first book, The Gravedigger’s Handbook, after it falls out of the pocket of the apprentice gravedigger.  As the novel progresses, Liesel makes friends with other children on Himmel (a word that means “heaven”) Street, the Hubermann’s take in and hide a Jew, and Liesel discovers the awe-inspiring private library of the mayor’s wife, from which she liberates a book now and then.  All this is told by the book’s narrator, Death.

Summarizing the book is simple.  Explaining and conveying how it effected me, the reader, is anything but.  First of all, Zusak writes with a poetic beauty that captures the way children take in the world around them.  He often crosses the communication of the five senses:

At times, in that basement, she woke up tasting the sound of the accordion in her hears.  She could feel the sweet burn of champagne on her tongue. -p. 365

One line I remember but was unable to find said something like “The smell of the sound of my footsteps,”   and there are so many more lines like these in the book.

Another concept Zusak descriptively conveys is the power of words.</p>

Once, words had rendered Liesel useless, but now, when she sat on the floor, with the mayor’s wife at her husband’s desk, she felt an innate sense of power.  It happened every time she deciphered a new word or pieced together a sentence. -p. 154

She couldn’t tell exactly where the words came from.  What mattered was that they reached her.  They arrived and kneeled next to the bed. -p. 246

After a miscarriaged pause, the mayor’s wife edged forward and picked up the book.  She was battered and beaten up, and not from smiling this time.  Liesel could see it on her face.  Blood leaked from her nose and licked at her lips.  Her eyes had blackened.  Cuts had opened up and a series of wounds were rising to the surface of her skin.  All from words.  From Liesel’s words. -p. 273

Yes, the Fuhrer decided that he would rule the world with words. “I will never fire a gun,” he said.  “I will not have to…”  His first plan of attack was to plant the words in as many areas of his homeland as possible…  He watched them grow, until eventually, great forests of words had risen throughout Germany.  It was a nation of Farmed thoughts. -p. 451

Frighteningly, it was exactly through the power of words and a healthy dose of charisma that Hitler was able to accomplish all the evil that was done in his name.  He himself didn’t do the physical work, that would have required him to be in several places at once making that impossible, but through the words of his speeches and policies others took up his cause.  Even more frightening is that his words are still used and followed to this day by some.

Also, through the use of Death, the ultimate impartial onlooker, as narrator Zusak is able to make epiphanic observations about human beings:

In years to come, he would be a giver of bread, not a stealer – proof again of the contradictory human being.  So much good, so much evil.  Just add water. -p. 171

I’ve seen so many young men over the years who think they’re running at other young men.  They are not.  They’re running at me. -p. 182

Death also points out that, beginning with houses of cards and sandcastles, humans “watch everything that was so carefully planned collapse and… smile at the beauty of destruction.”  And he states a couple of times that the human child is much cannier than the adult.

By far, however, the most important observation Death makes, the concept that sets the tenor of the entire book is this:

AN OBSERVATION
A pair of train guards.
A pair of gravediggers.
When it came down to it, one
of them called the shots. The
other did what he was told.The
question is, what if the

other is a lot more than one?
-p. 30

What happens when there are a lot more people who simply do as there told, without question?  What happens to a society when a madman can rule through eloquent speeches, expressing ideals of hatred, and inspiring others to carry out morally reprehensible acts of violence and wickedness?

The Book Thief by Markus Zasuk is haunting and breath-taking, poetically beautiful and filled with truth.  Death often expresses sardonic, almost bitter, statements of irony, all the while telling the reader he is impartial.  He points out both the evil and the good of humans, expresses both disappointment and admiration of the species among whom he walks and collects.  It is a Homeric work that is full of joy and sorrow, anger and forgiveness, love and loss.  It is the story of a handful of people in Nazi Germany during 1939-1945; adults, children, Catholic, Nazi, and Jew, the “free” (was anyone truly free then?) and the hidden, the epitome of the “master race” and the persecuted and annihilated.

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If you’ll take a look to the right, you’ll notice I’ve added a new widget in the sidebar labelled “Mt. TBR Hall of Fame.”  This is my Top 10 favorite books of all-time.  This, honestly, is an imprecise feat, as I know I’ll think of a book that I liked better but forgot, or I’ll read a book that will replace a book on here, and that is okay because I can always edit it.  When I added the widget, I was in the middle of reading The Book Thief, but it had already impressed me enough to be listed in 6th place… and I hadn’t even finished it yet.  And after finishing it and digesting it and writing this review, it has moved up to first place.

Obviously, as The Book Thief by Markus Zasuk is now my all-time favorite book, I give it 5 out of 5 stars.  It should be included in school curriculum alongside The Diary of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel’s NightThe Book Thief has both historicity and literary eloquence, and will undoubtedly become a classic.

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Again, don’t forget to check out this review’s companion post.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

Title: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Author: C. S. Lewis

Paperback: 767 pages

Publisher: Harper Collins

Publish Date: 1998

ISBN: 0066238501

Miscellaneous: This copy is included in a complete collection of The Chronicles of Narnia.

“You have a traitor there, Aslan,” said the Witch. Of course everyone present knew that she meant Edmund. But Edmund had got past thinking about himself after all he’d been through and after the talk he’d had that morning. He just went on looking at Aslan. It didn’t seem to matter what the Witch said.

“Well,” said Aslan. “His offence was not against you.”

“Have you forgotten the Deep Magic?” asked the Witch.

“Let us say I have forgotten it,” answered Aslan gravely. “Tell us of this Deep Magic.”

“Tell you?” said the Witch, her voice growing suddenly shriller. “Tell you what is written on the very Table of Stone which stands beside us? Tell you what is written in letters deep as a spear is long on the fire-stones on the Secret Hill? Tell you what is engraved on the sceptre of the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea? You at least know the Magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning. You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill… And so,” continued the Witch, “that human creature is mine. His life is forfeit to me. His blood is my property.”

“Come and take it then,” said the Bull with the man’s head, in a great bellowing voice.

“Fool,” said the Witch with a savage smile that was almost a snarl, “do you really think your master can rob me of my rights by mere force? He knows the Deep Magic better than that. He knows that unless I have blood as the Law says, all Narnia will be overturned and perish in fire and water.”

“It is very true,” said Aslan. “I do not deny it…. Fall back, all of you… and I will talk to the Witch alone….”

At last they heard Aslan’s voice. “You can all come back,” he said. “I have settled the matter. She has renounced the claim on your brother’s blood…”

The Witch was just turning away with a look of fierce joy on her face when she stopped and said, “But how do I know this promise will be kept?”

“Haa-a-arrh!” roared Aslan, half rising from his throne; and his great mouth opened wider and wider and the roar grew louder and louder, and the Witch, after staring for a moment with her lips wide apart, picked up her skirts and fairly ran for her life.

-The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, pages 175-176

 

At the very heart of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe lies the message of redemption of the guilty by the substitution of an innocent and willing sacrifice. In all honesty, it is impossible for me to read this book without seeing the parallels to Christianity. As much as I tried to stay away from it in The Magician’s Nephew, I find I am unable to see this book in any other light.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is by far my favorite Narnia book. This has been my fourth time reading it, as well as watching the BBC production and the Disney version of it (also, multiple times each). It was read to me by my mother when I was still in elementary, I’ve read it to my children, and I’ve read it for my own pleasure, and each time the Salvation story: The redemption of the lost and those who have chosen to follow evil, even as they know in their hearts that it IS evil they follow, by Jesus’ offering Himself as payment for the sin of all mankind.

The story itself is a beautiful and emotionally touching story of forgiveness and redemption and the power of love to overcome evil. As Susan and Lucy watch Aslan lay down his life to satisfy the Witch’s claim for Edmund’s blood, their hearts break as they witness his utter humiliation; his main is shorn off and he is trussed up in ropes and muzzled. Even as the battle rages on not far from them, they are compelled to sit with the lifeless body of the mighty lion, the Creator and Protector of Narnia, the true King.

It is the Deeper Magic that goes back before the Witch’s knowledge, “when a willing victim who had committed no trachery was killed in a traitor’s stead,” that breaks the claim of the Law and “Death itself would start working backwards.” The one concept the Witch could never comprehend is that a person without blame would take the place of the guilty, without machinations, but purely out of LOVE.

Obviously, I love this book… I wouldn’t have read it so many times if I didn’t ;-) . As it was the first of the Narnias written, it can stand alone, and is often the only Narnia book people have read. I could read this book once a month… possibly even once a week… and always get something new out of it. For all these reasons, and more, I give The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis 5 out of 5 stars. Even if you’re not a Christian, this book is beyond worth reading. You will be a better person for it :-D .

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Two Brothers: One North, One South by David H. Jones

 

 

Title:  Two Brothers:  One North, One South

Author:  David H. Jones

Hardback:  320 pages

Publisher:  Staghorn Press

Publish Date:  2008

ISBN:  9780979689857

 

 

Clifton frowned in resentment at the tone of the question.  “William and I were always very close, enjoying the very best of brotherly love and harmonious relationship.  However, as discord between the states increased, what had been simple differences in political perspective grew into something substantially more ominous.  I couldn’t change that!”

Two Brothers:  One North, One South by David H. Jones, page 41

 

In Two Brothers, David H. Jones does an exceptional job at recreating the peri-bellum era.  The dress, mannerisms, and patterns of speech make history come alive in the imagination as the reader is drawn into the unfolding tale of two brothers, Major Clifton Prentiss, a Union Officer, and William Prentiss of the Maryland 2nd Battalion, a Confederate soldier.

The history of the family and how it came to be that, out of four brothers, William took the Secessionist stand is told to Walt Whitman by the three surviving brothers.  Clifton Prentiss, hospitalized from an injury sustained in battle, is joined by his brothers Dr. John Prentiss, Jr.  and Meliville Prentiss.  Whitman, being the last person with their youngest brother, having comforted him in his last days, shares with them what he learned from the rebel soldier as he lay dying.

Two Brothersis a fascinating look into the life and emotions that surrounded the events that led up to, and were felt in, The War Between the States.  Even though I had a well-informed knowledge of the Civil War, in reading this book I experienced more of the emotions, acrimony and tension that was felt during such an uncertain time.  The Prentiss family being in Baltimorians during this time, they were in an epicenter of the Northern push for union and emancipation versus the Southern desire for the state’s rights to self-govern as guaranteed by the U. S. Constitution and the economic reliance on slavery. 

Walt Whitman, one of America’s greatest poets, was a firm supporter of the Union, and took a job in an Army Paymaster’s office to support the Union cause.  Visiting his injured brother in a field hospital, he was confronted with the suffering and pain sustained by the wounded and began giving comfort to the worst of the injured with regular visits to the Armory Square Hospital.

While Two Brothers is a thoroughly researched and exceptionally written book through which Jones brings to life this true story of a compassionate poet and a family torn by the War Between Brothers, it’s not my usual read.  I did enjoy it and learned from it, but it’s not something I would pick up on my own.  However, if you are into historical novels Two Brothersis a must read.  Also, I would recommend this book be included in a curriculum course that covers the Civil War Era.  It’s easy enough to read for high school students to learn from as well as college students.

My own preferences aside, I would give Two Brothers:  One North, One South by David H. Jones 5 out of 5 stars.

The Conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar

Title:  The Conquest of Gaul
Author: Julius Caesar
Translated: S. A. Handford
Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publish Date: 1982
ISBN: 9780140444339

As the situation was critical and no reserves were available, Caesar snatched a shield from a soldier in the rear (he had not his own shield with him), made his way into the front line, addressed each centurion by name, and shouted encouragement to the rest of the troops, ordering them to push forward and open out their ranks, so that they could use their swords more easily. His coming gave them fresh heart and hope: each man wanted to do his best under the eyes of his commander-in-chief, however desperate the peril, and the enemy’s assault was slowed…

-Book II, “The Conquest of the Belgic Tribes, “section 2,
“Piecemeal conquest of the Belgic tribes (57 B.C.),
paragraph 25, lines 6 and 7.

First off, let me preface this review by saying this is not a book I would have ever picked for myself to read. It was a randomly assigned book from Penguin Classics to review. Second, it was not the book originally assigned. The first book had been Fortress Besieged, which I was really excited to get but was unfortunately out of print. And third, I must inform you of the following caveat: I was woefully unable to finish the book. It just was NOT my cuppa.

All that being said, on with the review:

Julius Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul is basically the battle reports from a general, Caesar, to his boss, the Roman Senate and the people of Rome, detailing the events, names and places of his campaigns in Germany, Gaul and Britiannia. It is not war reportage full of excitement and suspense and suspense, but a simple list of details. For what it is, a historical accounting of the Roman push into northern Europe, it is an excellent, informative book to study. And as you study The Conquest of Gaul, make sure to keep your notepad, pen, highlighters and post-it flags handy so that you can get the most out of it. It would also help to be previously acquainted with the histories of the area and peoples in it before picking this book up as it is dense with names and events that would have been common knowledge for the people of the day, but have lost a lot of meaning in the millenniums that have passed.

For me, the book was intolerably boring, but that’s just a taste thing, however I did learn a great deal. For one thing, Caesar was a brilliant strategist and tactician. He was able to see ways to defeat the enemy that completely amazes me. His confidence in his abilities and that of his men, made him feared and respected by those who attempted to oppose his Rome. Some of the battles were won when the warring tribe was informed Caesar was on his way. They would send envoys of unconditional surrender and a plea of mercy to him before he’d even reached their land. He is, without a doubt, one of the top military minds in history.

Not only was Caesar a brilliant soldier and commander, but he was also a man of dedication and honor. He valued his word and made certain it was upheld. He followed a code of ethics that showed the people of Gaul what a civilized people can be.  Romanization was inevitable under Caesar. Tribes converted from barbarianism and fictionalized feuding to peaceful alliances. It is debated what Caesar’s political motivations were, whether he craved dictatorship or he was truly desirous of Rome’s best interests. I personally believe Caesar was less of the manipulative power-hungry megalomaniac I was taught in school, and more the noble patrician who wanted equality for citizens as opposed to the oligarchic political system of the time. He was the Man of the People who became their beloved Emporer, their first Caesar (as a title and office) of many.

I give Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul 4 out of 5 stars. It’s informative and a classic, though very dry and it’s strictly text book-style writing bored me to distraction.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Title:  A Thouensand Splendid Suns
Author: Khaled Hosseini
Publisher: Riverhead Books (the Penguin Group)
Publish Date: 2007
ISBN: 9781594489501

…it was not regret any longer but a sensation of abundant people that washed over her. She thought of her entry into this world, the harami child of a lowly villager, an unintended thing, a pitiable regrettable accident. A weed. And yet she was leaving the world as a woman who had loved and been loved back. She was leaving it as a friend, a companion, a guardian. A mother. A person of consequence at last… This was a legitimate end to a life of illegitimate beginnings.

The second novel by Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns is both complimentary and contrasting to The Kite Runner. The first novel, masculine and brutal, while the second feminine with the underlining current of endurance and sacrifice. Both books are about Kabul, Afghanistan, where Hosseini is from, and both books are tales of survival. While The Kite Runner is a book about a family who left Afghanistan after the soviet invasion and takeover, A Thousand Splendid Suns is about a family who stayed in Kabul throughout nearly all the almost thirty years of the city’s turbulence and war. Both have messages of love and sacrifice.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is an emotional story of two women, Mariam and Laila, who are married to a violent and malicious man. Their husband, Rasheed, reminded me of a concept I had read in Harlan Coben’s Hold Tight: Evil people are always evil, and when they are given the approval to be cruel they will do so with great relish. Rasheed had been a wicked, controlling violent man before the Taliban, but with the absolute freedom of men to do whatever they want to their female family members, Rasheed’s true abusive nature becomes his unabashed identity. He can do whatever, whenever, he wants to the women, and no police will save them because it’s a family matter, no court would believe them because he’s a man and they are women, a class of people who are “only slightly less contemptable than a communist.”

…you’ll learn nothing of value in those schools. There is only one… skill a woman like you and me needs in life, and they don’t teach it in school… Only one skill. And it’s this: tahamul. Endure.

This book is a beautiful story of a deep love and companionship of two women, of their ability to endure beyond their imaginations, of survival, and of the ultimate sacrifice love can make: The laying down of one’s life for another. It is the story of redemption and reunion, Mariam’s illegitimate and loveless life being redeem by the love Laila, Aziza, and Zalmai give her and the reunion of the star-crossed lovers.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is a visceral account of life in a war zone, the horror, the sounds and the bodies. It is beautiful at times with poetic passages and loving moments between characters, while revealing the life of oppression women were forced to endure during the Taliban rule in Afghanistan. It is haunting, depressing, joyful, and hopeful.

… like a rock in a riverbed, enduring without complaint, her grace not sullied but shaped by the turbulence that washes over her.

For me, whenever the events were stamped with the date, winter of 1993, Summer of 1994, Fall of 1999, etc, I thought of what was going on in my life at the same time, birth of my daughters in clean hospitals, having water that poured from my tap, using an indoor flushing toilet and bathroom with a shower. Not to mention I could walk my kids to the park and not worry about them getting killed by sniper fire and taking it for granted my daughter wouldn’t be raped by soldiers passing by. Never once fearing we’d take a trip out of town and returned to find our house now the possession of the government.

Because this book is graphic and shows the reality of war and domestic violence, this book is not for people who are sensitive to such things. There are several passages that will rip your heart out, and several that makes your stomach sink with dread and worry for Mariam and Laila. I am sure there are people who find the story too depressing to finish.

I didn’t think it was possible that I could like this better than The Kite Runner, but I do. The focus on the women, their struggles, their endurance, their support of one another, and their ability to dream and hope for escape and freedom despite all they go through is humbling and encouraging. I feel a sense of kinship to them, a sense of shared suffering and not giving up, fighting back in the face of hopeless odds. It has a softer and steadier voice than The Kite Runner, as if told by a female narrator instead of a man. It is an incredible journey of forgiveness and redemption.

The White Mary by Kira Salak

 

The White Mary by Kira Salak

The White Mary by Kira Salak

Title: The White Mary: A Novel
Author: Kira Salak
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, LLC
Publish Date: 2008
ISBN: 9780805088472

The White Mary is journalist and author Kira Salak‘s first fictional novel. Salak opens the book with a letter to the reader explaining her own background and similarities to her main character, Marika Vecera, and with a little background of Papau New Guinea. As authors are so often advised to write what they know, Salak draws on her own experiences reporting in dangerous places and her extensive research of PNG for her book Four Corners: A Journey into the Heart of Papau New Guinea. With her wealth of experience to draw on, Salak recreates an amazingly real world within the pages of The White Mary.

Marika Vecera is a broken soul. Experiencing pain and loss from the age of 6, when she lost her father in their native Czechoslavakia when he was executed as a spy against the communists. Her mother never recovered from the loss and eventually suffered a mental break, leaving her with schizophrenia. Marika has no one left in the world to care about her, and after reading a book by journalist superstar Rob Lewis, decides to follow in Lewis’s footsteps and becomes the rare female war reporter. Then when she least expects it, she finds love and the potential for happiness with Seb whose working on his psychology doctorate. When Marika hears the report of the suicide of her idol, Lewis, she decides to write his biography. While researching and interviewing Lewis’s sister, Marika comes across a letter that claims Lewis is still alive in Papau New Guinea. When she can’t get this idea out of her head, she decides to fly to PNG and find him.

This book is about one woman’s journey of learning to love and forgive herself, and to accept that life isn’t done to you, but that you have the choice to live in happiness or misery.

Real courage isn’t about visiting the world’s hells and returning alive to tell about it -it’s always been easy for her to risk her life, and even easier to get herself killed. What takes real courage is choosing to live, choosing to save herself at all costs. Which means looking into her darkness and pain, and figuring out how she got there, and how she can get out… She won’t do it just for herself, but for the world. For all the ugliness in it. And for all the grace.

The White Mary by Kira Salak, page 347

For my part, I could really relate to Marika. I understood her motivations, and could really feel for her. The walls she built to protect herself from pain, her distrust of anything good and happy, her self-destructive behaviors in order to not think or feel for five minutes, are all very real to me. The journey through Papau New Guinea was on the surface a search for her hero, but really it was a journey within herself and ultimately presented her with the choice of shutting down and becoming bitter and withdrawn or choosing a life of happiness and love and a part of society.

I would have to say, though, if you are religiously sensitive to polytheism, animism and atheism, this book might not be for you. Given the subject matter, you must realize it’s got a bit of an agnostic at best spiritual thread. It opens with a Gnostic quote, argues a angry, cruel and unjust god who plays favorites throughout the book, and ends with Marika acknowledging “God/the Universe/Whoever/Whatever” moves in the world. It weaves in a little Hinduism and Buddhism along the way, as well. And, for good measure, throws in a pervie pastor. It’s not specifically anti-christian, but it could offending the religiously sensitive.

Also, this book contains graphic imagery of rape, genocide, and torture. One particular scene towards the end is stomach turning and difficult to read. It has several graphic sexual passages, including outside the normal types.

One side note: I think The White Mary would make a brilliant movie. I think it would translate to the big screen very well. It’s full of exotic scenery, suspense and action, with a spirituality very popular today. The book had a Sean Connery’s Medicine Man feel to it with the surly antisocial doctor gone somewhat native and the outsider woman who finds him.

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