Leviathan #1: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Read: 8 April, 2016

On the eve of the first World War, Deryn disguises herself as a boy to join the crew of a Darwinist airship, while Alek (fictional son of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand) is forced into hiding by his parents’ death.

This is the story of World War I, of huge forces smashing against each other as millions upon millions of lives are lost. But this time, the conflict is re-imagined as being between the Darwinist forces – who manipulate the “life threads” of animals to create fantastical war machines – and the Clankers – who build beast-like machines on legs.

The book gets classified as Steampunk, and it certainly is, but adding the organic construction aspects to it made it into something new. Is Fleshpunk a thing? Evopunk?

The plot is a fairly straightforward adventure story, though it does hint to the deeper politics in the background. The balance is pretty perfect to give the impression of the setting, but without bogging down the story.

The book is also classified as Young Adult, which I don’t think is quite accurate. It’s not a book for little kids, certainly, but I think it would be perfect for someone around 11-14. The characters, who are meant to be around 15 years old, act and think more like 11-12 year olds.

That said, the world building and the plot had more than enough to keep me entertained. And I really appreciated that Westerfeld doesn’t hold back on terminology – military equipment and ranks are properly named, for example. I could see 11-12 year old me absolutely devouring this book.

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The Chronicles of Narnia #2: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

Read: 28 June, 2013

In this more popular chapter in the story of Narnia, four children find their way through a magic wardrobe into the land of Narnia, which has been cursed by the white witch so that it is always winter and never Christmas.

Because the novel is such a close allegory of Christianity, it’s a bit hard to review the book and not the religion – and when there are flaws in the novel, it’s hard to determine if these are problems with the author’s writing or problems with his theology. For example, good characters are just good, bad characters are just bad, and there really doesn’t seem to be any reason or complexity in their alignment. It’s the Problem of Evil set in a fantasy universe. And Lewis, unfortunately, doesn’t even try to address it – Jadis is evil for no reason other than that she was born to the wrong race (in her case, being a descendent of Lilith and of giants).

I also found the allegory rather too heavy-handed. This leaves a lot of the world-building and plot undeveloped because most of the world’s details must be a reference to theology, and Lewis didn’t seem interested in moving beyond that. So stuff happens, people do things, and it just doesn’t make sense except as an allegory.

All that being said, the writing style is quite fantastic and I loved the narrative voice. It’s conversational and has a great rhythm for reading aloud – perfect for a children’s book.

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The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

Read: 18 May, 2013

Oskar Matzerath (or Bronski, or perhaps Koljaiczek) decided at the age of three that he would stop growing. And so he did. Though years passed, little Oskar remained a three year old – a three year old who did not speak but merely beat his drum and sing-shattered glass.

I enjoyed The Tin Drum, but I found it hard going. It took me a really long time to get through and I think that a lot of it went over my head, but it was quite interesting and very very funny.

The book is weird, very weird, and there’s quite a few gross scenes that I wish I could unread. It was quite fun to peak over my book every so often and tell my family about the eels, or about the finger in the jar, or the coconut-carpet rape…. Yeah, it’s pretty weird.

It was also a very dense book, and required quite a high level of engagement to catch the references and connections. That’s (mostly) why it took me so long to get through it.

It’s one of those books that I’m glad to have read, but I’m also glad to be done with it.

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Read: 22 December, 2012

Jacob Portman is wealthy, has no friends, and has the most interesting grandfather. Grandpa Portman had escaped from the Nazis in Poland, made it to an orphanage on a tiny Welsh island, joined the war efforts in World War II, performed in a circus, and travelled the world. Growing up, Jacob loved to hear his grandfather’s stories, particularly about the peculiar children in the orphanage. That is, until he decided that none of it was real.

Miss Peregrine is a delightful story about grief after the death of a loved one, and the conflicting emotions of trying to find out who, exactly, the person you so loved for so many years really was (and of the risk of finding out things that you may wish you had never known). It’s also about magic, friendship, responsibility, and the downsides of immortality.

The book was apparently inspired by looking at old photographs collected by the author and acquaintances. The special gimmick of the novel is that these photographs are integrated throughout the text. It adds something to the story, I think – helping to create an atmosphere. That isn’t to say that the text requires the images. The quality of the writing is very good, and could easily stand alone without the use of a gimmick.

Without giving too much away, I will say that the ending very much feels like it ought to be the middle. I think it’s great that we were given so much time to get to know Jacob before the action started, but it does mean that the book ends with something of a cliff hanger. The good news is that there’s apparently going to be a sequel released sometime in 2013, so we shouldn’t have to wait too long to find out what happens!

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The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Read: 5 August, 2010

The Book Thief has many of the common elements of a World War II narrative. There are children trying to grow up, to learn, to form friendships against the backdrop of hate and cruelty. There’s a Jew hiding in the basement. There’s the inevitable violent end of the Nazi regime, followed by confusion and guilt. But this story is told from the perspective of Death as he encounters, again and again, a little girl by the name of Liesel Meminger.

I’ve noticed that books written for young adults seem to be, on average, so much better than books written for adults. They tend to be more imaginative, better written, and far more thought-provoking. The Book Thief is no exception.

Like most books written about World War II, there was no lack of horror. There were times when I had to read through tears. There were also times when I laughed out loud. I found the characters to be very compelling and I truly cared about what happened to them. The writing style was fantastic and the gimmick of having Death be the narrator, which could so easily have become absurd silliness, was actually well pulled off.

I highly recommend this book for the young adult crowd, and I think that us old fogeys would do well to read it too.

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Atonement by Ian McEwan

Read: 2 October, 2008

Amazing. Just, amazing. It hurt to read Atonement because I didn’t want anything to change or for the characters to be hurt. But at the same time, I had to read on and find out how it would end. I had a couple late nights because I just couldn’t put the book down.

The major strength is the characterisation. Even background characters were given enough detail and depth that they feel like living people. By the end of the first chapter, I felt that I knew these people, that they were my neighbours or possibly even friends.

The other major strength was in the realism of the plot. Everything that happens is set up so that the reader knows that there is no possible way that a consequence can be avoided. Yet at the same time, I found myself hoping so much that something wouldn’t happen that I would almost convince myself that it couldn’t, making it not only surprising but also heartbreaking when the inevitable caught up to the characters.

If pressed to find a flaw, I would say that the exposition of the second, third, and fourth parts could have used some work. McEwan seems to want to plunge his readers into a story without a map or compass, making the first couple pages of each part a confusing and difficult read as I tried to figure out who the characters are, where they are, what’s going on, etc. This is acceptable at the very start of a novel, but going through it four times was three times too many. It isn’t terribly difficult to answer the whos, whats, and wheres in an interesting way and it would certainly help to ease the transition into each portion. As it stood, the start of Part Two had me put the book down until I had the courage to go through all the work of figuring out where the story was. By Part Three, I was more accustomed to McEwan’s trick, so I stuck it through. By Part Four, it was still unpleasant, but I was so close to the end and I just had to find out what happened to everyone.

It’s a fairly quick read, but not a superficial one. Be prepared to devote all your attention to Atonement until the final page is reached. I highly recommend it to anyone, regardless of their interests (though if you love psychology, writing, or history, especially World War II, that would be a bonus).

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