The Operator

the-operator-9781501145056_hrThe Operator

by Robert O’Neill

In his New York Times bestseller The Operator, Robert O’Neill begins by briefly describing his childhood in his hometown of Butte, Montana.  He quickly moves on to his impulsive decision to join the SEALs and the grueling months of intense training required to qualify.  During his sixteen and a half years as a SEAL, there were periods of time where each night he and his team would record multiple enemy kills.  O’Neill completed over four hundred missions as a SEAL Team Operator, including the rescues of “Lone Survivor” Marcus Luttrell and Captain Richard Phillips – who was captured by Somali pirates – and the assassination of Osama bin Laden, the world’s most-wanted terrorist.

O’Neill has a very informal writing style; it is as if he were talking to the reader directly rather than writing a book.  As a result, the whole book takes on a sincere tone.  O’Neill isn’t trying to brag about his achievements or make himself the center of the story.  Instead, he often praises SEALs’ ability to work together and emphasizes teamwork as a vital element to the success of their missions.  The only downside of O’Neill’s writing style is that he uses a good deal of profanity – as if he were talking.

The Operator is fast-paced and thoroughly engrossing.  I was always eager to turn the page and discover O’Neill’s next mission or the next curve ball the training instructors would throw at the trainees.  I also found this book to be very informative about the life of a SEAL, the unique relationship between SEALs, and especially the training one must undergo in order to become a SEAL in the first place.  This gave me a better appreciation of the amount of motivation and grit these operators must have.

O’Neill’s sense of humor lightens up the whole book.  He often takes a serious situation and offers an alternate way to look at it that leaves the reader smiling inwardly.  At times he can be a bit profane, but most of the time I appreciated his humor.

I would recommend this book for young adults and older readers, with some reservations regarding the frequent use of profanities.  The Operator is at once an exciting and amusing read, and at times will have you on the edge of your seat.  Not only is it highly entertaining, but it also offers first-hand knowledge about the lives of men in one of the most highly trained U.S. military units and the hard decisions they must make every day.

Neither Here nor There

27Neither Here nor There

by Bill Bryson

In 1972, Bill Bryson traveled across Europe with his notorious friend from A Walk in the Woods, Stephen Katz.  Twenty years later, he decided to retrace his steps, stopping by Paris, Rome, Vienna, and many other cities.  The result of this second trip is chronicled in Neither Here nor There.

What I enjoy most about Bryson’s books is his outrageously funny writing style.  He always manages to look at events from a perspective that makes them seem humorous.  Where most people would see nothing to smile at, Bryson rearranges the details to paint a picture that leaves the reader laughing helplessly.  He illustrates his points very colorfully and with great creativity – sometimes so colorfully that his descriptions are almost painful to read.

While Bryson did offer an interesting tour of each city, it seems that he had more to complain about than he had to appreciate.   At each stop, he bemoaned the difficulty of finding a hotel room and when he explored the city, he frequently expressed his disappointment with the sights.  While it may be true that it was exceedingly difficult to find a place to stay and that these Europeans cities were somewhat less than he had expected, it appeared as if Bryson was focusing solely on the negative aspects of his trip, with the occasional complement.  I would have liked to see a more balanced assessment of the places he visited.

In addition, Bryson spent some time detailing several adult toys being sold in various cities.  While it is fine for him to mention this fact, I thought he spent much longer than needed describing what these objects looked like and the kind of rhetoric that came with them.  He could have made his point in a fraction of the words and detail he used.

While Bryson does have a delightful writing style, he occasionally used some profanities and often made sexual references in a flippant manner, which I thought he could have mostly done without.  This detracted from what could have been a very enjoyable story.  Neither Here nor There is definitely not appropriate for young readers.  If you are interested in reading one of Bryson’s books, I would suggest you start with something other than Neither Here nor There, such as A Walk in the Woods or In a Sunburned Country, which make for very entertaining read.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

37486222The Tattooist of Auschwitz

by Heather Morris

In April 1942, Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, is transported to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau.  There he is made the Tätowierer, tattooing numbers on his fellow prisoners’ arms day after day.  For almost three years, he witnesses the barbaric acts of the Nazis, uses his privileged position to help other Jews, and vows to himself that he will survive.  Then one day, he meets a terrified young woman waiting in line to have her arm tattooed.  In that moment, he swears that when he makes it out of the camp, he will marry her.  It is this vow that keeps him going everyday as he witnesses the horrors and atrocities committed by the Nazis.

This book is based on a true story, relayed to the author by Lale Sokolov and his son, Gary Sokolov.  Given the importance of his job as tattooist, Lale receives extra rations and is spared from hard labor and beatings in Auschwitz.  For a while, he even sleeps in his own private room.  Such was the life of a “privileged prisoner” in a Jewish concentration camp.

While this book is an interesting story and beneficial for its historical significance, the writing style detracted from my enjoyment of the book.  Given the subject matter of the book, I was expecting somber and more complex writing.  As it was, after the first few pages, I was craving for a few more compound sentences.  The writing style made it seem as if I was reading a children’s book and even made the story seem unrealistic at times.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz was originally written as a screenplay, which may partly explain the writing style.  However, even the dialogue seemed a bit juvenile; while most of the characters were adults, their speech was like that of elementary school children.  In addition, Morris offered a simplistic view of Auschwitz that seemed to downplay the significant suffering and hardships of the prisoners and the terrible acts of the Nazis.  The image of Auschwitz she presented was a camp in which the prisoners were only a bit tired and hungry and the guards were merely cruel men who took pleasure in verbally assaulting the prisoners – hardly a justifiable portrayal.

As a Jew struggling to survive in a concentration camp, it is understandable that Lale would put his own needs first without regard to those of the other prisoners.  However, in his attempts to avoid hard labor, he risked bringing severe punishment on another prisoner already taxed emotionally by her own ordeals.  He also sent several notes to the girl he loved and asked her to respond in kind, unable to control his desire to communicate with her.  If she were to be caught with paper and pencil, the penalty for her would be death.  Instances such as these made Lale a less likeable character for me than he could have been.

Despite its simple vocabulary and sentence structure, this book would not be appropriate for younger readers.  In addition to a smattering of profanities throughout, there were also several intimate scenes that, although not explicit, were very suggestive.  While this book is an account of a remarkable true story, it was a missed opportunity for what could have been a truly riveting and meaningful book.  There are many other books on the Holocaust of both historical significance and literary value that would be a better investment of time.

I Am David

i-am-davidI Am David

by Anne Holm

For as long as he can remember, the concentration camp in Eastern Europe has been twelve-year-old David’s only life.  He knows nothing about the outside world, but when he is given the chance to escape, he seizes it and runs.  With the enemy around every corner, he struggles to survive in this dangerous new environment.  His only possessions are a bottle of water, a compass, some bread, and a pocket knife, which he must use to reach the safety of Denmark.  Will it be enough?

David is quite intelligent and resourceful for a twelve-year-old.  When I read the book for the first time at age nine, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Looking back on it now, it seems a bit unrealistic that David could have survived on his own for so long in such an unfamiliar world and without being caught.  In all fairness, though, perhaps he was hardened during his time in the camp.  A child living without parents in such a brutal environment would need to quickly become capable and independent.

While the story may be slightly unrealistic, this small flaw is offset by the fact that David offers the reader an example of a self-dependent child who must make his own decisions and bear the consequences on his own shoulders.  Despite his maturity for his age, David is still somewhat innocent and naïve in some ways.  The innocence contributes to his desire to always do the right thing, while the naivety occasionally leaves him wondering what the right thing actually is.  David’s dilemma provides an opportunity for discussion about his moral character and its application to morality in general.

As is the case with any book, especially historical fiction, the more background knowledge the reader has, the more he or she will enjoy I Am David.  However, this book is written in such a way that not much background information is needed.  When I read it, I didn’t know much about World War II besides the little I had learned in school.  As a child, David doesn’t understand everything he sees, and his interpretation of events is sometimes confused. With more background knowledge, I may have understood more about what was happening to David instead of just viewing it from his perspective.  It may be helpful for the parents to provide this background knowledge for their children in order to help them better grasp the meaning of events.

David’s age makes him a character with whom children can easily identify.  When I was younger, my daydreaming often involved imagining myself in the same situation as the characters in the book I was currently reading and mentally acting out the scenes.  Holm created a unique story about a boy, young and alone, seeking refuge in a completely foreign country that seems nearly impossible to reach given what he has.  Through I Am David, the reader sees the aftermath of World War II with the eyes of a child, experiencing the confusion, distrust, and mistakes of a young boy in an unforgiving world.

If you are looking for a book to satisfy your young voracious reader or to read aloud before bed, this could be it.  With its simple vocabulary and young, easy-to-identify-with character, I Am David also provides historical perspective and is excellent for discussion between children and parents.

New: For the Very Young

for the very youngHello, everyone!  Within the next few days, I will be publishing my first book review in a new section called “For the Very Young”.  As you may have noticed, most of the books I have reviewed so far may not be the best selections for very young readers.   For this reason, I have decided to devote a whole section of my website to reviews of books that I have handpicked for the very young, many of which will be books that I read as a child.

Although many advanced young readers can read books written for older readers and understand the vocabulary and basic storyline, the same is not necessarily true for their understanding of each book’s significance.  When I was nine, I made it a mission to read all fifty books on my older sister’s shelf for assigned school reading.  One of these was Amos Fortune, Free Man, the story of a young African prince who was captured by slave traders, brought to America, and sold in Massachusetts. At the time, the story seemed to be moving very slowly, and I put it down before I had even gotten halfway through.  I had understood every word I read, but only as words.  Two years later, I opened the very same book again, and the difference was astounding.  I understood every word, just as before – but this time, I was also able to grasp the complexity of Amos’s emotions as a slave.

The focus of this new section will be on selecting books that are not just “readable”, but also have themes that young readers can understand and appreciate.  If I pick out a book with a more mature theme, I will note that it may require some guidance from the parents and would be great for discussion.  Be sure to keep an eye out for the first post!

Adventures of a Young Naturalist

51Svywt-ZhL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Adventures of a Young Naturalist

by David Attenborough

In 1954, David Attenborough was offered an opportunity to begin a new show for BBC called Zoo Quest.  He jumped on it.  He traveled the world, finding and capturing rare animals for the London Zoo and filming the whole expedition.  Adventures of a Young Naturalist recounts three of these voyages, taking the reader first to Guyana in search of the giant anteater, then to Indonesia for the legendary Komodo dragon, and finally to Paraguay to find the giant armadillo.

As an animal lover, I was already bound to like this book.  Perhaps what makes the book even more interesting was the fact that Attenborough assigns each animal a distinct personality.  The animals are not just animals to him; they are each different from the others and unique in their own way.  From the insatiable, bad-tempered bear cub to the confused, indignant sloth, Attenborough creates a wide variety of characters that keeps the reader entertained.

Through Adventures of a Young Naturalist, the reader can appreciate the amount of effort that went into seeking and then capturing the animals.  Each country is a completely different adventure, filled with numerous surprises and pitfalls, and even when Attenborough thought he couldn’t have been more prepared, there was always something he hadn’t anticipated, a disaster that even his abundance of supplies couldn’t resolve.  Through the author’s account, I developed a better appreciation for nature.  I had always loved nature, especially animals, but this book opened my eyes to a whole new world of exotic animals and their equally exotic temperaments.  Attenborough includes quite a few photos, which although old, still held detail that fascinated me.

Not only does Attenborough offer the reader a thorough account of his adventures, he also takes time to describe the people he meets and his relationship with them.  In the process, the reader learns about their culture and their values.  Although these cultures may have changed a good deal since the writing of this book, the descriptions add color and variety to the story, as well as plenty of humor.

I would recommend this book to readers of all ages, with some reservations.  There is one brief scene in which two animals mate, and while this would usually be regarded as simply natural animal behavior, the author describes it in a rather suggestive way.  In addition, there are a few instances in which mild profanity is used.  Attenborough’s writing style is simple and easy to read, and if you are looking for a light, humorous book to lift your spirits, Adventures of a Young Naturalist is the perfect choice for you.

Still Alice

2153405Still Alice

by Lisa Genova

At age fifty, Alice Howland holds an enviable position as a cognitive psychology professor at Harvard, as well as an impressive reputation in linguistics.  She has led an incredibly successful life along with her husband and is the mother of three grown children.  But as her memory begins to deteriorate and she becomes increasingly disoriented, a devastating diagnosis sends her life spiraling downwards as she gradually loses touch with her family and the rest of the world.

Still Alice was a deeply moving story that I couldn’t put down.  I had watched the movie several years before and enjoyed it, but as is usually the case, I found the book to be better.  The author methodically laid out the progression of Alice’s condition, from her life as an intellectually brilliant woman with a prestigious position at Harvard, to the moment she is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, to her increasing struggles with daily activities as the rapidly progressing disease destroys her mind.  Alice was so realistic that I could feel her frustration and desperation and wondered how I myself would react if I were in her position.  It is interesting to note that Genova used Alice as the narrator despite the fact that her memory grows increasingly unreliable.  This approach makes it easier for the reader to identify with her and better understand the terrifying reality of her situation.

In sections comprised only of conversation between two characters, Genova often chose to simply write alternating lines of dialogue without indicating the speaker.  This is a common enough technique that reduces the repetitive use of “he said” and “she said”.  Authors indicate the speaker every so often, at the same time offering additional information, such as the character’s tone of voice, body language, or facial expression.  However, Genova rarely inserted any of these details, causing me to feel as if I was unable to see the characters’ faces when they spoke.  I rather liked this effect, and it left me with more freedom in imagining what the characters looked like at the moment based on their spoken words.

I would recommend this book for both older and younger readers, although the younger readers may benefit from discussing with the parents some of the themes of the story as well as the book’s importance.  There were a few instances where profanity was used and a very brief sexual reference was made in passing, found in the chapter detailing the events of December 2003.  Overall, however, the book was clean.  Still Alice is a beautiful story that raises awareness of early-onset Alzheimer’s patients and the obstacles they face, and serves as a reminder that ultimately, we are far more than simply our memories.

The Great Alone

51eH5ngcYiLThe Great Alone

by Kristin Hannah

When Ernt Allbright, Leni’s father, comes home from the Vietnam War as a former POW, he is barely recognizable as the man he once was.  In 1974, he makes an impulsive decision to move his family to Alaska, where they will harvest their own crops and hunt their own meat.  Thirteen-year-old Leni hopes for a fresh start, and at first, it appears that her father has finally found his cure in the rugged beauty of Alaska.  But as winter approaches, he gradually deteriorates and becomes increasingly unstable.  Soon, Leni realizes that the dangers within their own cabin are far greater than those of the wilderness outside.  Even the local help available just minutes away may be too far to save them.

Although I enjoyed The Great Alone, I found the author’s writing style to be a bit simplistic – simple vocabulary and simple sentence structure.  As with The Nightingale, also by Kristin Hannah, it almost seems as if she wrote this book for younger readers, making it an easy read.  This may be due in part to the fact that she did not include the small details that an older person would notice when interacting with others, such as subtle body language or slight changes of tone and facial expression.  In addition, much of the dialogue seemed to be structured in a more juvenile way, and the points being made were made obviously.  This style was well-suited for the first part of the story, when Leni was only thirteen and saw things through a child’s eyes.  However, as Leni grew older, her perceptions didn’t quite mature to the level that would be expected, and I would have enjoyed the book more if they had.

Some of the themes Hannah explores are love, hate, and the incredible resilience of the characters.  There is the crazed, untempered love between Ernt and Cora; the caring, supporting love between Cora and Leni; and the desperate love between Leni and Matthew, a boy from Alaska, that is frighteningly reminiscent of that between Ernt and Cora.  Leni grows to hate her father, but much of this hatred is fueled by her love for her mother, who is brutally abused by Ernt.  Throughout all this, Leni and Cora must learn to hold each other up and bounce back from each attack on their fraying resolve.

Despite my preference for a more complex writing style, the content is mature, and I would recommend this book for older readers.  There is a great deal of profanity and strong language, as well as some violence.  Several intimate scenes take place, most without much detail, but there is one more explicit scene in chapter nineteen.  For those of you simply looking for a satisfying story to finish in one night, this could certainly be it.  However, while I did appreciate The Great Alone as a quick and easy read, I would have preferred to read a book that left me thinking about it for days.

All the Light We Cannot See

Book-Cover-Image-All-the-Light-We-Cannot-SeeAll the Light We Cannot See

by Anthony Doerr

Marie-Laure LeBlanc lives in Paris with her father, who works for the Museum of Natural History as the lock master.  At age six, she becomes completely blind, and her father trains her to navigate her own way through the city.  When the Nazis occupy Paris, twelve-year-old Marie-Laure and her father flee to Saint-Malo, where they live with Marie-Laure’s great-uncle.  With them they carry what may be the museum’s most coveted jewel.

At the same time that Mari-Laure learns how to cope with her new disability, Werner Pfennig grows up with his younger sister in an orphanage in Germany.  When his talent in fixing and building radios becomes noticed, he earns a place in an academy for Hitler Youth, where he hones the skills required for his first mission.  As he tracks down the resistance, he becomes gradually more aware of the cost of his service to the Germans.  His journey takes him to Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s intersect.

Doerr’s choice of characters allowed him to present the war to the reader in a unique way.  Werner’s perceptions of the war are shaped by his sight, and the reader sees the war through his eyes.  As often happens with a person missing one sense, the other four senses grow sharper in an attempt to compensate for what was lost.  Through Marie-Laure the reader can appreciate the sounds, smells, and even tastes and physical feel of war.  Using these two characters, Doerr was able to craft a multi-faceted view of World War II.

In addition to the sensational approach, Doerr paints colorful images using metaphors and similes.  I find that these literary techniques often contribute to creating a more vivid picture of the story, and I always enjoy their use.  The author also chose to write in present tense.  While I am still not a big fan of it, I have recently become more receptive to this style.  However, this would be something to consider for anyone who prefers otherwise.

Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s stories illuminate the stark contrast between the lives of those on opposing sides of a war.  Marie-Laure is a girl who grows up in Paris only to be harshly uprooted and whisked away to a different city because of the Nazi occupation.  Werner is raised to believe that the most important thing as a citizen of Germany is absolute, unwavering loyalty to his country.  He becomes a private in service to the aggressor that drove Marie-Laure from her home.  Yet despite their vastly different upbringings, they both share at least one thing in common.  Doerr drives home the point that the young, no matter whom they pledge their allegiance to, are changed quickly and brutally by war, forced to mature far beyond their years.

I would recommend this book to older readers.  It describes the brutalities of war and death in a way that could be disturbing to less mature readers.  There are a few cases where profanity is used and one incident of rape towards the end of the book.  All the Light We Cannot See offers thoughtful insight into two completely different perspectives of the Second World War, and it would make a good addition to your reading list.

The Day of the Jackal

91mcS0c9YsLThe Day of the Jackal

by Frederick Forsyth

Colonel Marc Rodin is the new operations chief of the OAS, an organization with a current primary goal of eliminating the president of France, Charles de Gaulle.  Rodin can no longer trust the OAS, which has become heavily infiltrated with spies.  Instead, he turns to the Jackal, a cold and calculating assassin possessing unparalleled skill in his art.  By a queer twist of fate, the authorities discover the plot.  Knowing almost nothing, they assign this case to their best detective, Claude Lebel, in the hopes of stopping the Jackal before he completes his mission.

Part of this book was written from the perspective of those positioned against the president, and the other part was written from the point of view of those working to stop the Jackal.  I liked this approach, as it allows the reader to understand both sides.  Because I already knew how the Jackal was preparing for his work, I could also appreciate Lebel’s intellect and the difficulties of detective work.

I think Forsyth created the perfect kind of assassin – mysterious, cold, and without equal.  Usually the assassins in stories are mentioned only from the “good guys’” point of view.  In this book, however, Forsyth spends time on the Jackal, describing his preparations in detail.  I have not read any books written with this technique, and although the reader does not know the full extent of the Jackal’s plans until later, I think this detailing effectively adds another layer to the story.

This is not your typical action-packed thriller.  The story is perhaps slowed down by the inclusion of so many details, such as the different positions of various people working for governments around the world, although the details also lend much credibility to the story.  This level of attention to details is partly attributable to Forsyth’s clean and crisp writing style.  The author has a way of writing that makes every action performed by the characters seem calculated and deliberate.  While I like this style to some extent, I think Forsyth could have reserved its use for certain characters, such as the Jackal, for whom precision is of the utmost importance.  This would have given more variety to the story and also caused certain characters to stand out and be more memorable.

I would recommend this book for older readers.  Throughout the whole book, there are about two profanities used.  Otherwise, the language is pretty clean.  In chapter eight, there is a torture scene that could be disturbing for younger readers.  In addition, there are a number of intimate scenes of varying inappropriateness and several detailed – but not gorey – killings.  The Day of the Jackal is not the exciting thriller for leisure reading because of the amount of information given.  However, as the author notes, he seeks for his books to be “interesting, accurate, and feasible”, and I believe he has accomplished all three.  I can see how many people would enjoy reading a realistic story crafted by an author who has had actual experience in the field as a foreign and war correspondent, as long as they are not overwhelmed by the abundance of details.