The Kite Runner

9781101217238The Kite Runner

by Khaled Hosseini

It is the second half of the twentieth century and Afghanistan is on the brink of a turning point in its history.  The Kite Runner follows the friendship between Amir, the son of a wealthy man, and Hassan, the son of Amir’s father’s servant.  Their friendship is doomed from the start, and the event that tears them apart will shape both of their lives and haunt Amir for many years to come.  This is a story of friendship, betrayal, and sacrifice, and the enormous responsibility that comes with each of our choices.

The author establishes a certain kind of chemistry between the two boys early on.  Amir and Hassan are friends, but not in the traditional sense.  It is difficult for Amir to be a true friend to Hassan because of the huge difference between their classes.  Amir thinks of Hassan as his friend, yet when he reflects on this, he finds that in many respects, he treats Hassan differently than he would were he not a servant.  Amir also desperately seeks the praise of his father, who sees him as far from perfect and seems to have a greater affection for Hassan than for Amir.  It is this desire for his father’s approval that eventually forces the two boys apart.  I thought Hosseini was able to perfectly illustrate Amir’s dilemmas in a way that leaves the reader constantly apprehensive of what is to come next.

Hosseini also creates a clear contrast between two characters through Amir and Hassan.  Hassan is morally pure.  He never lies and remains loyal to Amir, whom he sees as his friend.  He never becomes angry and is always humble.  Amir’s character is tainted by his jealousy of Hassan, for whom his father has shown fondness.  Amir longs for his father to love him and be proud of him, and as he grows older, many of his decisions are based on these slowly intensifying feelings.

In this book, Hosseini explores the complexities of friendship, the price of betrayal, and the crushing weight of guilt.  Each of these themes is skillfully and beautifully played out in a way the reader cannot ignore and left me thinking about this book for days.  In my opinion, a great book should elicit specific emotions and leave the reader pondering over the themes presented.  The Kite Runner accomplishes both of these things and is overall a very well-written book.

The themes in this book are complex and mature, and some rough language is used, including profanities.  There is one incident of rape in chapter seven and multiple references to it throughout the book.  In addition, there is one reference to intimacy in chapter thirteen, but no details are included.  I highly recommend this book for older readers.  There is much to be learned from it, of both literary and moral value, and I don’t think anyone will regret reading it.

Ready Player One

Ready-Player-One-Paperback-Cover-1Ready Player One

by Ernest Cline

In 2045, reality is a place where no one wants to live anymore.  For eighteen-year-old Wade Watts, the only place he feels truly at home is in the virtual utopia known as the OASIS.  It has been five years since James Halliday, the creator of the OASIS, has died, leaving behind a short video message.  The video reveals that Halliday has hidden an Easter egg somewhere inside the OASIS and offers the first clue to finding it.  Whoever finds this egg first will inherit Halliday’s entire fortune.  After five long years of searching many people have given up.  Until one day in 2045, Wade cracks the first clue.  Suddenly, the game is on again.  And there are many who are willing to kill to win the ultimate prize.

At first, I found it hard to get into the story.  To me, the storyline seemed a bit shallow.  The goal of the characters was monetary – something that seems to be of less importance than other things in life.  In addition, about ninety percent of this book takes place inside the OASIS.  Reading about characters inside a virtual reality is not very exciting because what is happening to the characters inside of it is not really happening to them outside of it.  The dangers in the OASIS do not actually threaten Wade in real life.  If he dies in the OASIS, he is still alive outside of it.  In other words, the stakes are not that high.

It took me a while to get used to the setting of Ready Player One, but once I did, I was able to enjoy it much more.  Although I prefer to read stories that take place in reality – not a virtual reality –, I found the setting of this book to be quite interesting, as it is different from anything I have ever read before.  Reading this book can sometimes be like playing a video game.  There are also many references to different video games, movies, and the pop culture of the 1980s.  For the videogamers out there, this might be the perfect book for you.

Each planet’s appearance in the OASIS has some basis in either a video game or a part of Halliday’s childhood.  I like how Cline used this to create variety in this virtual reality that could otherwise become monotonous.  Instead of a common theme for all the planets, each of them had a unique look.  I also think that the clues and riddles that lead to the egg were cleverly thought out, but the reader wouldn’t be able to solve them.  In order to crack them, the reader must have mastery of video games and 1980s pop culture as well as extensive knowledge of Halliday’s childhood, which is fictional.

I would recommend this book for older readers.  It contains lots of profanities and other strong language that would not be appropriate for young readers.  Because most of the characters are only slightly older than teenagers, much of the language they use is what many teenagers are accustomed to now.  There are also some sexual references related to physical pleasure in chapter 19.  Ready Player One does not contain any particular literary benefit or important moral lessons, and I would not categorize it as a must-read.  However, it is entertaining and suitable for passing time.

One Second After

One_Second_After_coverOne Second After

by William R. Forstchen

After an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) sends America back to the Dark Ages, John Matherson struggles to save his family and his small North Carolina town.  Without electricity, food and medicine spoil, clean water is in shortage, and the order of society begins to break down.  Throughout all this, John must take a leadership role in his town and work to increase their chances of survival against all odds.

In addition to being an engrossing story, One Second After addresses a chilling reality that all Americans should be aware of.  Forstchen mentions in the Acknowledgements that this book is meant to be a warning of a threat, EMP, a weapon which our enemies may already have acquired.  In light of the recent nuclear threat from North Korea, you may find this especially enlightening and thought-stimulating.  I think Forstchen does a remarkable job of raising awareness in his book.  He outlines clearly the consequences of EMP, its immediate effects as well as what it could mean for the future of America.  The two most important aspects of this issue are protecting against EMP and putting in place systems that ensure survival in the event that the defense fails.  By describing what the horrifying aftermath of EMP looks like, Forstchen has effectively illustrated the urgency of addressing both of these concerns.

There are other issues that Forstchen raises as well.  When food is in short supply, is it wrong to cut the rations of those who will die anyway in order to save those that could survive?  Is it moral to give extra rations to those involved in more energy-draining tasks and hide this fact from the citizens?   Is it brutal strategy or hardcore communism to take people’s livestock in order to provide for the community as a whole?  These are just a few of the difficult questions that the author puts forth in his book.  While it may seem as if he favors one view over the other, he represents each side fairly through the characters, presenting valid arguments for both cases.

One thing I do not like about this book is that too many characters have the same speech patterns.  In real life, different people would have different ways of speaking and use characteristic phrases unique to them.  Many of the characters, however, speak in similar ways and even use curse words in the same manner and to the same degree.  This seems strange to me.

I would recommend this book for older readers.  It contains a good deal of profanities and strong language of varying degrees.  John also develops a relationship with a female nurse and occasionally notices some of her physical characteristics, although they never go further than speaking with each other.  In addition, the author describes several deaths in detail, how the victims die as well as the body’s appearance afterwards.   One Second After is an excellent book, especially because of the awareness it raises of a potential threat that could strike at any moment.

We Were the Lucky Ones

51s5miLY1bL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_We Were the Lucky Ones

by Georgia Hunter

We Were the Lucky Ones is the story of a Jewish family during World War II, based on the author’s own family history.  When the war begins, they are separated from each other one by one, and are unable to receive news from the others.  One family member tries to flee Europe.  Some are forced to work long hours in the ghetto, always with the fear that they will be the next to be murdered in the streets.  Yet others are made to labor for years in camps with barely enough food to keep them alive.  Throughout all this, it is hope and a fierce determination to reunite with each other that keeps them alive.

All the main characters in this book are real people from Hunter’s family.  For Hunter, the making of this story began when her high school English teacher assigned the class a project that required the students to learn more about their families’ pasts.  Hunter chose to interview her grandmother, opening up a whole new dimension of her family’s history that she never knew existed.  Hunter’s grandfather, called Addy Kurc before he changed his name, is one of the main characters in the book.

We Were the Lucky Ones is written in present tense.  As I have mentioned before, this is not my favorite style of writing, and I usually find it a bit clumsy.  However, I found Hunter’s writing to be graceful despite this.  She switches back and forth between the perspectives of different family members, illustrating the differences and similarities between their lives during the war.  They live in different environments, some harsher than others, but they all share the same concern for each other, constantly worried that they may never see each other again, or that the lack of communication from one family member might mean his or her death.  Occasionally, Hunter inserts short paragraphs between chapters, giving a brief summary of the major events that took place during that time period.  I like this approach as it provides historical context and helps the reader form a more holistic view of the story.

While Hunter does not describe in detail the many atrocities committed by the Nazis against the Jews or the brutalities of war itself, she does paint a vivid picture of what it meant to be a Jew in German-occupied territory.  For many, it was the never-ending fear that they or a loved one would be the victims of the next pogrom.  For some, it was the peril of hiding as a gentile in plain sight.  And there was always the burden of bringing home food for the family’s survival, and the dread that one day it would not be enough.  These are the aspects of Jewish life during the war that Hunter chose to focus on.

I highly recommend this book for mature young readers and older readers.  There are a handful of strong four-letter words in the book that parents should be aware of, but otherwise there are no inappropriate scenes.  We Were the Lucky Ones is a poignant story of a family simply trying to survive during the German genocide of Jews, and I think everyone will enjoy reading it.

Red Sky at Noon

51b5nLqEmiLRed Sky at Noon

by Simon Sebag Montefiore

When Benya Golden is sent to the Gulags for a crime he never committed, he joins a penal battalion composed of Cossacks and convicts.  In July 1942, after enrolling in the Russian cavalry, he and his fellow convicts are sent on a mission behind enemy lines and told that the only way to redeem themselves and win their freedom is by either dying or being wounded in battle.  As they strive to accomplish the mission and fight for their very survival, Benya quickly comes to realize that the only things he can fully trust in are his horse, Silver Socks, and the reality of the advancing Nazi troops as they push brutally through Russia.

The story focuses mainly on Benya, but also includes accounts from other people’s perspectives, such as Stalin or his daughter, Svetlana.  By including real historical figures as part of the cast in his book, as well as events that actually did occur, the author combines real history with fictional characters, creating a seamless story that reads as if it really occurred.  Montefiore alternates between writing in past tense and writing in present tense, for what reason I am not certain.  I enjoyed his use of similes, which I believe serve to better illustrate the characters’ emotions and their perceptions.

What I liked most about Red Sky at Noon was how Montefiore made caricatures out of the Russian government and certain people the reader would already naturally dislike, exaggerating their most irritating mannerisms in a comical way and often portraying their actions as simply a way to achieve a selfish personal goal.  This may not be appealing to some people, but I think it highlights well the flaws in these characters as well as the tyrannical rule of the Russian government during World War II.

I felt that the character development in this book was a bit weak.  The only character that the author developed was Benya, and even then, only a little.  It seemed that I knew as much about Benya at the end of the story as I did at the beginning.  Montefiore did include flashbacks of Benya’s time in the Gulags, and while they did give me more information about Benya’s recent past, that information somehow did not translate into a greater understanding of Benya as a person.

I enjoyed this book and would recommend it for older readers.  There is some strong language and a brief love affair between Benya and an Italian nurse, which contains some intimate scenes towards the end of the book, although without gruesome details. However, there is one brief scene in which physical sensations are described.   In addition to making an entertaining read, Red Sky at Noon offers a chance to learn more about World War II from a Russian perspective.

Tomorrow

91Xk3gjJRFLTomorrow

by Damian Dibben

Tomorrow is the story of a 217-year-old dog in search of his lost master.  For 127 years he has waited in Venice, hoping every day for his master’s return.  But he has waited in vain… until one day Tomorrow senses his presence and embarks on a journey to find him.  As he strives to reunite with his master, danger lurks in the shadows, and he must reach his master before an old enemy, one who threatens to destroy everything Tomorrow holds dear.

I was pleasantly surprised by the maturity level in a story with a dog as the main character.  My mother chose this book for me, and at first, reading a story through the eyes of a dog did not seem especially appealing.  However, it turned out to be a poignant story that highlighted the deep bond between a dog and his master and clearly illustrated the loyalty of Tomorrow, who waited an incredible 127 years for his master and risked his life for the man he loved so much.

This book was also beautifully written.  Dibben employed many literary techniques in his writing, including an abundance of metaphors and similes.  It was his writing that made the story come alive, with his vivid descriptions bursting with color and his choice of adjectives, always well-suited to the scene at hand.  Tomorrow was so well-written that I was able to see everything clearly in my mind’s eye.

The story alternates between the present and the past, giving the reader snippets of Tomorrow’s time with his master before he went missing, describing their many adventures together.  The chapters about the past are written in past tense, while those about the present are written in present tense.  The chapters spent on the past take the reader through several historical settings and events and reveal more about the interesting relationship between Tomorrow’s master and his enemy as well as how troubled his master was towards the end before he disappeared.  These accounts help the reader understand more of the present story.

The ominous threat of an enemy creates a menacing atmosphere at times that makes the book a page-turner.  I had trouble putting it down and read it every spare moment I had.  Vilder, the enemy, is so consumed by his desire to find Tomorrow’s master that he employs every means possible to achieve his goal.  Tomorrow, meanwhile, becomes ever more anxious for his master, afraid that something horrible has happened to him, and his urgency to find him increases with every passing day.

Sporco, another dog Tomorrow became friends with in the streets of Venice, is young and carefree, with a desire to see “the realms” as described to him by Tomorrow.  He accompanies Tomorrow in his search for his master, although for Tomorrow, he is a rather unwanted addition.  He is both irritating and likeable at once.  At times he is simply an impediment to Tomorrow’s goal; at others he is so loyal to Tomorrow that one cannot help but feel endeared to him.  I think he adds a welcome lightness to the story and also serves to reveal another part of Tomorrow’s character.

Tomorrow is a beautiful story and offers literary benefit.  It does not contain strong language.  As always, older readers could appreciate it more because of the complexity of the emotions experienced and the dynamics between the characters.  There are also some descriptions of war that could be seen as disturbing to younger readers.  I would highly recommend this book for young advanced readers as well as older, more mature readers, with some reservations for the younger readers.

The Alice Network

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The Alice Network

by Kate Quinn

In 1947, young Charlie St. Clair, pregnant and unmarried, travels to Europe with her mother to have her “Little Problem” taken care of.  As it happens, Charlie has also come up with a plan to escape her mother and search for her cousin Rose, who disappeared during World War II.  When her chance comes, Charlie slips away and heads to London, where she hopes to find answers.

In 1915, Eve Gardiner is recruited as a spy.  She is sent to France, where she is trained by Lili, the head of a vast network of spies.  More than thirty years later, Eve spends her days in a decrepit London house, drunk and haunted by the betrayal that tore apart the Alice Network.  But when Charlie barges into her house one night with questions she cannot ignore, she is thrown into a mission to find the truth.

The story alternates every chapter between Charlie in 1947, written in first person, and Eve in 1915, written in third person.  I thought this was an excellent way to write the story.  At first the reader is left to wonder why Eve is the miserable drunk she is now, but as the author gives flashes of insight into her past life, things slowly become clearer.

This technique also plays an important role in character development.  As I already mentioned, with every chapter spent on Eve’s past, her character becomes more defined and understandable.  Each event as described by the author shapes Eve and makes her into what she is in 1947.  Charlie is less well-developed than Eve.  I think since Charlie is one of the main characters, the author could have spent a little more time fleshing her out and giving her more character and meaning.  As it is, she seems to be more of an expedient the author used to rouse Eve out of her drunken state and prompt her to seek the answers to the questions that still plague her.

I like the fact that this book is based on true historical events.  The Alice Network was a real French spy ring headed by Louise de Bettignies, a real historical figure with the code name of Alice Dubois, known as Lili to Eve.  In addition, the author also writes about a real massacre that took place in the French village called Oradour-sur-Glane.  This makes The Alice Network more interesting to read, knowing that some of the events that took place in the book took place in real life as well.

However, to me, this story could have been even more realistic.  Being a spy in a foreign country is dangerous, and the author did make that point in her book, but I thought the danger could have been more present and perhaps represented by more encounters with the enemy in which the enemy is very close to discovering Eve and she must play the innocent citizen.  Of course, this may not have fit the storyline very well, but it would have put me more on the edge of my seat if there had been more moments of tension.  Without the tension, the book was lacking in that it did not draw me deep into the story and therefore made me feel as if I was just an observer from afar.  I still enjoyed The Alice Network, but it was not the page-turner it could have been.

Quinn’s writing style is simple and easy to read, and she does not use complex vocabulary.  However, there are several very intimate scenes throughout the book as well as the use of rough language.  There is also one scene that involves torture.  I would recommend this book for more mature readers.  It takes place in a true historical setting and includes real historical events and figures, so I believe it would be a beneficial read.

Only Killers and Thieves

y648Only Killers and Thieves

by Paul Howarth

In 1885, brothers Tommy and Billy McBride come home one afternoon after swimming in a remote waterhole to find a devastating tragedy.  Enraged and thirsting for revenge, they turn to sly and cunning John Sullivan, their father’s former employer and the wealthiest landowner in the region.  Sullivan forms a team lead by Inspector Edmund Noone, a ruthless and dangerous man.  The hunters’ goal: vengeance against the indigenous Australian to protect the rights of white settlers.  As they pursue their target, their gruesome experiences will have a great impact on Tommy, one that will last the rest of his life.

This book started out a bit slow for me, but this may have been because I was expecting the tragedy to happen right away.  This was a different kind of story than I was used to – rougher, dirtier, and less cultured.  Some of the characters seemed to have no moral values whatsoever, creating a rather corrupt atmosphere in the book.  This kind of style may not appeal to some people, but I enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it.

One thing that impressed me about this book was the way in which the author was able to capture Tommy’s suffering so well without using words to describe it directly.  Instead, Howarth manifested Tommy’s emotional pain through his thoughts, his body language, and his actions.  This spoke to me much more than it would have if Howarth had chosen to spell out Tommy’s feelings with words.  In addition, this technique most likely produces a more accurate and colorful depiction of a character’s mental state than anything else.

Another thing that I felt the author did very well was highlighting Tommy’s internal struggle between right and wrong.  Throughout the book, Tommy is forced to make decisions that could have a major impact on himself and others.  In most cases there is a clear line between the right decision and the wrong decision, but for Tommy it is extremely difficult because of the enormous pressure from the company he is with and the possible consequences if he makes the “wrong” choice.  What makes it even worse is that his brother Billy has already been led astray and cannot understand why Tommy is not more accepting and willing to follow the others’ lead.

As I mentioned before, I would highly recommend this book.  However, it does contain some rough language in the form of four-letter words beginning with “f”.  In addition, there was a strongly implied rape as well as some rather vivid descriptions of violence.  In the end, I would suggest this book for mature readers because of the heavy theme and potentially disturbing images.

Origin

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Origin

by Dan Brown

Edmond Kirsch, Robert Langdon’s former student at Harvard University, is scheduled to make a presentation at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, featuring a discovery that he claims “will change the face of science forever.”  Langdon, as well as several hundred other guests invited to the event, watch as Kirsch begins his presentation that purports to answer the two earliest questions ever asked about human existence.  Then all is shattered as disaster strikes and the evening is plunged into chaos.  Faced with the threat of losing Kirsch’s discovery forever, Langdon flees to Barcelona, along with Ambra Vidal, the museum director who helped plan event.  As they work to find the password that will unlock Kirsch’s secret, they are plagued by an ever-present enemy that seems determined to keep the discovery in the dark.

This was certainly a fast-paced, entertaining book, as are all of Dan Brown’s books.  It also has the highly enjoyable suspense element that the author is so good at creating.  There was not much character development, though in Langdon’s case, this makes sense.  Dan Brown has written several other books with Langdon as the protagonist, so it is most likely expected that the reader will already know him very well.  I believe the author focused his energy on the story instead, creating an exciting storyline and plot twists that make the reader’s head spin.  Even though the basic storyline is very similar to those of many other Brown books, it is difficult to grow tired of it because of Brown’s skill in manipulating the plot.

However, to me, this book seemed like a thinly veiled attack on religion, especially Christianity.  Christians were seemingly portrayed as inflexible and unwilling to accept the truth even when it is presented to them in undeniable terms.  This made it a little difficult for me to read, although I tried to see it only as a completely fictional story and nothing more.  In addition, Brown seemed to be pushing a certain social and political ideology in his book that I did not agree with, making it even less enjoyable.  I watched a recent interview with Dan Brown in which he expressed his views on religion, and these views were clearly portrayed in this book, although through the main character, it is clear he does not completely rule out the possibility of a higher being.  Many authors use their books as a means of sending a message to their audience, and I understand that Brown may have felt an urgency to express his opinions.  However, the way in which he chose to address the issue made it feel as if I were constantly being preached to.  In addition, I think that certain things are better communicated elsewhere than books, and this is certainly one of them.

Overall, Origin follows the same format as most of Brown’s other books, and there is no inappropriateness of any kind.  Brown’s writing is not difficult to read and the vocabulary is not complex, but because of the way he presents his opinion, it may be more suitable for older readers.  If you like Brown’s books, you will most likely enjoy this one as well.  However, if you are religious, you may find yourself constantly disagreeing with the author’s views that are expressed through the characters and find it difficult to read.

Dragon Teeth

y450-293Dragon Teeth

by Michael Crichton

It is 1876 and arrogant, entitled William Johnson is attending Yale as a freshman.  On a dare from his chief student rival at the University, he joins a summer expedition led by the notoriously eccentric paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh.  Marsh becomes convinced that William is a spy for his sworn enemy, Edward Drinker Cope, and abandons him in Cheyenne, Wyoming.  Desperate to finish the challenge, William joins the expedition led by Cope, and soon they make a discovery of profound proportions, one that brings with it great danger as well.  William’s courage and strength are tested at every turn as he strives to keep Cope’s precious treasure safe.

One thing I found interesting about this book and that prompted me to do some research after reading it was that some of the characters were real historical figures.  Paleontologists Marsh and Cope were bitter rivals in the nineteenth century, each striving to outdo the other and to receive recognition for the most important discoveries.  This led to what was known as the Bone Wars, a period in which these two men employed every means possible to undermine the other, deceiving, sabotaging, and spying on each other without scruple.  The result was their eventual social and financial ruin.  There were other characters in the book that had existed in real life, but Marsh and Cope were the most important and central to the story.

The author develops his main character very well.  In the beginning, William is an intelligent but spoiled young man, who expects things to happen the way he likes and becomes angry when they do not.  As time passes and he spends more time in the West, his sense of entitlement begins to fade as he grows tough under the conditions of physical and mental strain in which he was placed.

One of the things I really like about Dragon Teeth is that it has a bit of an old-fashioned tone, as if it was written a long time ago.  This gives it a certain eloquence and poise that is often not found in contemporary books.  I also like how the author included snippets from William’s fictional journal that make it seem like the story really happened.   For a while, he actually had me wondering if this book was based on a true story.  As I mentioned earlier, the setting is based on true events, but William himself is a fictional character.

What made this book most interesting to me was the author’s technique of mixing reality and make-believe.  Enough of this story is based on true events to make it seem plausible, while at the same time it is fictional enough so that the author can place his signature on it and incorporate his own twists.

There is no inappropriate use of language or questionable scenes.  I would recommend this book for all ages, though as with most books, the older one is, the more one can enjoy it.  It is not particularly fast-paced or suspenseful, but the author eloquently described William’s adventures, which were exciting enough, and skillfully added a touch of humor where appropriate.  All in all, this would make a good addition to your reading list.