Mary's Book Review Page

    My sister Mary is an avid reader and highly opinionated.  (That's a good thing Mary.)   In fact many of our family still consider reading a hobby, and a fun one at that.  I can thank my mother for that as one of the ideals she somehow instilled in me at a very early age.  (See A MOM STORY for more on the subject.)

    So, not long ago dear sis Mary mentioned a book she was reading and the subject of book reviews came up.  Since I am also "highly opinionated" we agreed that it might be interesting to do some dueling book reviews to see how our various viewpoints might color our opinions of the same book.  I invited Mary, our sister Michelle and Mom to participate.  Others are also welcome to play....E-mail me.

LEGAL DISCLAIMER:  ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK...

OPINIONS AHEAD! 

Mary:

Books...Literature...Art...Popular Entertainment? A well known saying tells us that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And so, I offer my opinions on the beauty of books. My only qualification for reviewing books is that I love to read. It is one of the consistencies of my life that has endured from childhood. Pat is definitely right--Mom instilled this wonder and love in us. 

 

            Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

 

Mary:

This is a western tale that has been around since 1985.  It has also been made into a TV mini-series.  Nevertheless, I have never taken an interest in it.  Both of my parents have read it and recommended it.  I think my mom even loaned me a tape of the miniseries that I never bothered to watch.  Recently, at work, a group of my co-workers and I were discussing books (my favorite thing to do--hence this page on the web site).  Someone brought up Lonesome Dove, said it was a great story, and finished by telling me a major event in the story because I would "probably never read it."  Well, that's all I needed to pick up the book.

 This book is a great story.  For anyone who is not a fan of westerns, I'll tell you--it is not a western.  Oh, well, I grant that it is told in the setting of an American western.  but this book is all about people.  I tend to think that the books I enjoy most are books about characters.  The craft of writing and character development fascinate me.  Mr. McMurtry has given readers a fine piece of craftsmanship.  He develops several characters very rapidly and very well.  I never had to pause to remember who someone was or their connection to the story. 

 I'm sure you have read a book at some point in your life that wasn't likable because it was difficult to keep the characters straight.  Not so in this book.  I knew these cattlemen, and it was easy for me to ride along with them.  The characters are so human with all our faults and failings.  I often thought of them when I was at work, and hoping to get back together with them soon.

 My one and only criticism (and a minor one at that) is that I was expecting a large, showy climatic ending.  But, big shown endings aren't reality for most of us.

 Granted my continued discussions with my co-workers as I read gave away some things.  Perhaps without those conversations, I would have found the book with a more robust ending.  It did not end in a way I would have predicted.  Yet, the characters stayed true to themselves.  If I was disappointed in some of the characters, I was never disappointed in the book. (MTC 2-27-06)

 

Angels and Demons by Dan Brown

Mary:

Angels and Demons is the first Robert Langdon novel by Dan Brown. As a murder mystery, the author offers something fresh by adding colorful facts about word origins and architecture. Both subjects are interesting to me and help save the novel from its dismal end. The novel builds its drama by exploring the rift between science and theology. The main character is a symbologist from Harvard who is consulted to help solve a murder. He is lured into this situation based on his interest in the Illuminati, a brotherhood who reveres science and is a sworn enemy of the Catholic Church.
Although I am Catholic, I'm sure I do not have an inkling of what happens in the upper echelons of the Church. However, there are a few things that seemed flawed to me. On page 537, the author speaks about the third prophecy of Fatima and states its secret is ".. so terrifying the church would never reveal it." This serves to certify that the Catholic church power structure manipulates the people. While that may be, this particular example is false. The third prophecy was revealed on 5-13-00 by Cardinal Sodano. The prophecy dealt with an attack on "a bishop in white." Pope John Paul II unambiguously states that this prophecy foretold of the attempt on his life on 5-13-81. The reason the prophecy was not revealed earlier was to prevent attempts on the life of the pope.

As for the Illuminati, I know very little. However, this was not the first time I was exposed to their name. Several years ago, a co-worker was reading a book about the Illuminati and pointed out the information regarding the dollar bill that Dan Brown included in his book. My co-worker was convinced (in a frightening way) that the Illuminati would destroy religion and take over the world.

So the drama unfolds in the context of these two factions. Robert Langdon must solve clues created by the architect Bernini in order to save the Vatican from an antimatter bomb.

I was puzzled that one of the Illuminati perpetrators was referred to as Muslim. This seems very discordant because a Muslim is a follower of the Islamic religion. While that may have put him at odds with the Catholic church, it also puts him at odds with the Illuminati doctrine.

The story moves along quickly and I have to admit that I was very caught up in solving the mystery and testing my wits. Toward the end, the novel twisted so many times that it simply lost plausibility. On page 401, the protagonist discounts St. Agnes of Agony and the Piazza Verona as a possibility to catch up with the villain. However, by the very next page, that is precisely the spot Langdon decides to search for clues and berates himself for not having thought of it sooner.

Despite the ending which is too fantastic, Brown does an admirable job of keeping characters true to themselves and their actions. When I would begin to debate a fact or action, he explained it in a consistent manner later in the book. The book is entertaining in many ways, but the ending left me somewhat disappointed. Superficially, the book seems well researched and much is presented as factual, but separating out the fact and fiction might be tougher than you think. Maybe not art, but certainly entertaining. (MTC 2-4-04)

 

Skipping Christmas by John Grisham

      Mary:

              I must confess, I'm somewhat of a Scrooge.  Christmas just isn't my favorite holiday.  It seems that I'm working far too hard to enjoy anything.  So, the title of this book is right up my alley.  The Krank Family's only child has graduated college and is off to Peru with the Peace Corp.  Luther Krank carefully plots to avoid Christmas--the bills, the crowds, the decorating, the office parties, etc.

He is able to sell his plan to his wife because it won't be the same without their daughter.  So far, I'm with Luther all the way.  Incidentally, how cool is the name Luther Krank?  I can't find a resource to back me up, but I believe Luther is a derivative of Lucifer.  And I think the name Krank speaks for itself.  Who better to skip Christmas?

     The Kranks plan a cruise and work on tans, apologizing to friends and neighbors along the way for avoiding all things Christmas.  The tale is woven carefully and moves along quickly.  Grisham's characterizations are memorable, and the dialogue flows well.

     But who can successfully escape Christmas?  Not even the Kranks.  A surprise call from their daughter means last minute arrangements for all the trappings.  This tale is light and amusing.

     In my own experience, even though I go through the motions, before Christmas is over, I am usually awed at some point by the thoughtfulness and generosity of the folks in my life.  And so it is with the Kranks.  This tale made me smile despite myself. (MTC 2-21-04)

Pat:

    I didn’t know Mary considered herself a Scrooge, I thought it was just me.  In our day and age with the monster that Christmas has become who hasn’t fantasized about “Skipping Christmas”.   John Grisham breaks his judicial mold to bring us this completely un-American story of poor old anal Luther, who makes up his mind to try it.  Of course it will be a tall order considering his station in life and the neighborhood he lives in.  In his favor are some factors that make it a “now or never” attempt. 

    Luther’s master plan is not to minimize Christmas but to skip it altogether, a take no prisoners, not one single gift Christmas.  His daughter has flown the nest and his wife is depressed enough to be sold the idea, especially as Luther has devised the Christmas Cruise Plan to lure her away at just the critical time. But CHRISTMAS is not to be denied.  As Luther threads his way through all the usual holiday routine that so pervades our lives he bumps time and again into party invitations that must be excused, gifts that must not be bought and most insidious of all… the neighborhood decorating standard that must be broken.  Grisham’s portrayal and build up is a perfect reminder of the totalitarian, negative, suffocating nature of our American Christmas.  In this I have to disagree with Mary, I do not think the tale is "light and amusing".  I found it to be instead, dark and moody. 

    The cruise is the light at the end of Luther’s tunnel. If we can just get packed and get out of here it will all be all right, he keeps telling himself. He comes close to cracking when the Boy Scouts hit him up for their annual Christmas fundraiser, but God bless him, he holds out.  You begin to think he might make it work if he can just make the boat.

    In the perfect rendition of the Grisham thriller, just at the critical juncture, everything seems to happen at once as Luther’s plan starts to unravel.  It is not the bank job where the alarm bell goes off or the spy story where the detective catches on but Grisham does the same marvelous job of building the tension to an unbearable level.  And just when he has you hating Christmas and rooting for Luther to make the cruise the good side of the American Christmas shows itself to save the day.  The denouement made me too smile in spite of myself.  Great job by Mr. Grisham, thumbs up and I can’t wait to see Tim Allen bring it to life.  (PJL 4-1-04) 

 

Unhallowed Ground  by Gillian White

Sharon:

Georgina Jefferson, Georgie, is a 40ish widow and is a social worker in London. At the time that we meet her, she has suffered through the death of a child in her care. She is threatened, insulted, and heckled by journalists, unknown telephone callers, and thinks, at times, that everyone she sees, everyone in the stores or on the street, knows who she is and watch her as she moves through her day.

When she has almost gone mad with the situation, she hears that her brother, the artist much older that she, has killed himself and she has inherited his cottage. It seems like an welcome option for her to visit this cottage and get away from all of the harassment. On her first visit the cottage was sparsely furnished and the damp permeated everything. The neighbors were unfriendly. She went back to London determined to sell the cottage.

At 11:30 a brick came careening through Georgie’s window. With a new determination Georgie had a change of heart about the cottage. She, instead, decided to let her London apartment for a year and return to the country. She had learned that one of the neighbors had cleaned out the house and taken all of her brother’s pictures. When she was able to return to the cottage she confronted him and, with pretty threats, was able to induce him to return all that he had taken.

With the return of the better furnishings, the house now took on a more comfortable feeling. Georgie spent several days in quiet comfort before there was another attack, such as it was. There was, in the middle of the night, a small fire lit in the wood shed. Inside there was a muddle of old clothes, some old household trash, and at the bottom a doll with its eyes wide open and its mouth still smiling.

Georgie from this time on vacillates between going back to London and staying in the cottage. There are more attacks and more swishing around. It gets tiresome. Soon the reader realizes that there has to be someone else living in this tiny village that could or would be terrorizing Georgie. This becomes true when, during a terrible 3 day blizzard locks down the neighborhood, Georgie is confronted by the retarded daughter of one of the neighbors. This daughter had been kindly treated by Georgie’s brother, and she desperately hated Georgie of coming and living in the cottage that she had thought that she could moon about and maybe Stephen would someday come back.

This writer does write some beautiful lines that I wish I had thought of. The first is that Georgie “walked through the site of ancient apple trees heavily hung with crab apples, bleeding with wasps”. When she was being attacked by everyone “they called her a woolly liberal with flowers of ignorance in her hair”. Towards the end of the book, “when the dawn of childhood was over and she reached the daytime of life”.

Very light reading.  (SAL 6-4-04)

 

Hornet Flight by Ken Follett

Mary:

Ken Follett is one of my favorite authors.  I received this book as a gift for Christmas, and I put off reading it because I only have the treat of reading something new from him once a year.

 Hornet Flight was no disappointment to me.  Follett is a master at building his characters and the plot in seemingly harmless everyday vignettes.  Suddenly, BOOM, you're in the middle of a tense situation.

 I think I like his writing because he is straightforward with the protagonist and antagonist.  there are no surprise red-herring endings.  He builds his suspense honestly through his characters and their agendas.  Also, many plots are set in historical contexts, and I usually end up learning along the way.

 So, now that I've reviewed the author, let me move on to the story.  Hornet Flight is set in WWII Denmark.  Harald Olufsen is a senior at a boarding school hoping to go on to college and study physics.  He finds himself at odds with the invading Germans.  The Danes were cooperative with the Germans and did not suffer at their hands as did neighboring European countries.  Still, Harald's brother and friend are killed as spies.  Harald finds himself trying to complete their mission so their deaths were not in vain.

 At times, I felt the plot was too simple, but then I would feel my chest tighten with tension as I raced along with the characters.  At times I felt coincidences were too convenient.  However, true stories of courageous acts during WWII abound that would seem to have been too fantastic if written as fiction.

 As usual, Follett ties up all loose ends so the reader is not left wondering.  Although I've never known Follett to do any sequels, the door seemed to open for one on this story.  What do you say, Mr. Follett?  Will you surprise me with a nice Christmas gift this year? (MTC 3-11-04)

 

Pat:

Ken Follett is an accomplished and talented journeyman writer but he is not necessarily my favorite.  I find his characters just a little too “vanilla” for my taste.  I am, however, a big fan of WWII spy stories and I enjoyed Hornet Flight immensely.  While there were elements of the Follett pattern in this book he brought an unusual twist to it, setting the story in wartime Denmark and casting the central character as a high school student accidentally sucked into a life and death struggle.  Harald Olufsen is the student whose family resides on a small Danish island on which the nasty ole Dutchmen have built a top secret radar facility.  This new-fangled hi-tech electronic gizmo is right up Harald’s alley as he is an avid engineering student.  He literally stumbles across the secret by accident one night and while he doesn’t know exactly what it is, his suspicions are aroused by its location and the level of security the Huns have placed around it.

Even as my attention was captured by the solid story telling, the plot devices were a tad cliché.  Harald just has to be an engineering student with a steam-powered motorbike.  His Army brother’s friend is hooked up with a British spy, a lady spy at that... and she just happens to be looking for the exact radar facility Harald has found.  Then there is the requisite pretty girl to fall for and the inevitable snotty cop / Gestapo / bad guy.  The pretty girl not only has an airplane and can fly it but she can fix it as well.  Pretty cool, huh?  Well, in the hands of an accomplished writer like Ken Follett it still works.  While the story never overreaches it does come awfully close.  In spite of the simplistic plot devices the author never lets the gaping hole appear, keeping the tension on and you believing in Harold’s tenacity to win the day (and the girl).  All in all it was a rousing good read for Follett fans. (PJL 3-22-04)

 

Pompeii by Robert Harris

Mary:

Although I'm not certain that I could write 274 pages, as novels go that is short.  Initially, I had trouble getting into the story which I attribute to lack of characterization.  I wonder if Harris did this on purpose because the book is about Pompeii and Vesuvius rather than the people.

However, the plot develops and does become intriguing.  Harris foreshadows some events well.  Some of the plot could have been meatier.  Harris had threaded nuances of Marcus Attilius' past in multiple places in the novel, but never really pulls it together.  Also, we learn that Exomnius, the previous aqueduct engineer is morally corrupt as well as Ampliatus, the book's main antagonist.  Again, there was ample opportunity to flesh this story out, and I wonder if the brevity was purposeful.

Despite the brevity, I did like the book and found myself daydreaming at work--trying to think what the characters would be doing next.  Harris does an admirable job of bringing the eruption to life and describing the monumental force that it was.

While the story was still building, I began to wonder about the ending.  This is Pompeii, right?  History taught me how that ended.  Then, I get tense as I read because I don't want to see all of the characters die, and I won't believe it if they live.  So, Harris winds up this tale in good fashion.  Some of it is lacking credibility while enough of it has plausibility.  It was enjoyable enough for me to want to pick up another one of his novels. (MTC 3-27-04)

Prey by Michael Crichton

Mary:

Michael Crichton has written some wonderful stories and blends fact and fiction to create very tense, very believable stories.  He thoroughly researches a subject and then weaves a dramatic tale.  Therein lies my dilemma with Crichton's work.  Often there are long technical passages which are either difficult to understand or are boring.  I feel writers cover content for a reason.  So, if I skim over it, I risk being lost later on. But if I force myself to read it carefully, I usually put the book down and have trouble getting into the story. 

 Prey was a bit of an exception in the technicalities.  Don't get me wrong--there are plenty of technical bits that boggle my mind.  However, Crichton develops the plot dilemma and characters early in the book.  The beginning seemed fast-paced and drew me in easily.  The technical aspects were there, but seemed less in-depth. 

 The story revolves around a computer programmer and his wife who are involved in nano-technology.  Micro robots are being manufactured and go awry.  The micro robots are self-sustaining and self-reproducing.  Because of the "predator-prey" computer programming in the nano-bots, they evolve.  The main character, Jack Forman, is called to help contain and eliminate the swarm because he wrote the computer program.  He must battle not only the swarm of nano-bots but also the misguided company who wants to control the swarm but not eliminate it.  This book presents a contemporary scenario of ethical concerns in the development of new technology.  Companies develop new technologies that promise profit without weighing risks to humanity and the environment.

 Although Crichton did not overwhelm the reader with as much technical info, he did have passages that were difficult.  Then, he employed the unartful technique of having the narrator of the story explain things for the reader.  Following a technical passage, Jack Forman would say, "What Dan is saying is. . . "  While it was necessary to break it down, over the course of the novel, this technique was irritating.

 Like a good sci-fi thriller, the ending was left open because we don't know what the future holds.  Overall, I thought this novel was thought provoking and entertaining even if some of the plot devices weren't. (MTC 5-15-04)

 

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