This summer I was goaded – rather willingly, I’ll admit – into a reading competition with my friend Simone. The competition started like this: read 15 books between May 4th and August 31st (17 weeks) which equals 38 pages per day.
I read one book, Season of Darkness by Maureen Jennings, which was alright as summer reads go, but definitely not something I’ll read again. It probably actually lowered my motivation to read because it caused me so much frustration. Right about this time I realized my imminent failure because I was already books behind. Simone had finished three books to my one, plus she had already accomplished some of her other challenge of writing poems. I was doomed. So, with a bit of bending the rules, I changed my challenge to only five books of whatever genre, as well as my 15 blog posts. I was so confident in my new challenge (oh boy…) that I even said I’d push for 30! Why did I say that…?
Ironically, I posted 25 posts (of any type, including Flickr galleries) between June 20 and September 1 – this will be the 33rd through October 9. So that part of the challenge was a great success! But what about books?
One of the reasons I am writing this conclusion piece is because I realized it would be very hard to write my usual wordy and rambling review for each book, especially when blogging regularly about my summer co-op and later about my incoming postcards. I got lazy, but I did read. Here is my last four and a shorter version of my thoughts for each.
My second of five books was The Blind Spy by Alex Dryden which I picked up at my local library. Dryden is actually a pen-name for a real life retired spy, and his book doesn’t fail to bring the excitement and intrigue expected of the spy genre. Playing heavily off the Cold War and the types of stories most readers of Tom Clancy and John le Carré know by heart, Blind Spy is the third of the Finn series but stands up well on its own. I really liked this book because it kept me glued to the pages (even though I took a month to read it) with action and situations that I had never thought of before, even as an avid reader of spy thrillers.
Dryden brings the secret world of spies into the 21st Century not just with high technology like some recent books, but with new players on the international scene. Instead of Capitalist West vs. Communist East, The Blind Spy pitted free Ukraine against suspiciously imperial Russia, independent security agency Cougar against the stagnant (and corrupt) CIA. The characters are fascinating too, although I was skeptical at first. Cougar’s top asset is described as a gorgeous ex-KGB colonel, and her potential enemy is a blind man who has a sort of sixth sense and just happened to be in love with her as a child. Seriously? This is a signal of impending disaster. But it doesn’t happen. The characters are interesting, the plot slightly plausible yet scarily ominous, and the fantastic elements of sight without eyes sparked my imagination.
The Blind Spy is a great summer read, especially for people who like the genre and want something fresh. I definitely want to read the first two books in the series now! 4/5 stars.
My third book was An Iliad by Allesandro Baricco (translated by Ann Goldstein). I bought this book at my favourite bookstore, Coho Books in Campbell River, BC. I picked it up off the clearance shelf for $3.88 and it turned out to be one of my favourite reads of the summer!
To begin with, the cover is epic. An old and broken Greco-style helmet foretells the “bold re-imagining of our civilization’s greatest tale of war” and of course it lives up to that time-honoured description. Homer’s The Illiad is a classic work I have not had the pleasure of reading (although I think I’ve had my fill of Greek antiquity from my honours class this semester) so I entered the fray with little to no idea of what was ahead. My mental image of the Siege of Troy is a large wooden horse. I didn’t know the soldiers were on the battlefield for close to ten years, nor did I ever imagine the epic scope of the undertaking. The first chapter paints a pastoral picture of Greek countryside and lifestyle, but the remaining 16 chapters are nothing but blood and guts violence.
Baricco’s translation is unique. He cleanses the supernatural (but not the mentions of it, just the explanatory role it played in the original text) and tells the story from the first-hand experience of those involved, as if 21 narrators were telling their stories of human suffering and glory. Some chapters are written as if in the heat of battle, some from the reflective thoughts of those killed. Like Herodotus and Xenophon did 2,500 years prior, Baricco creates speeches and relationships that move the reader and place them in the middle of the action. I was just as confused as Priam in the planning and the battles, just as sad as Helen during the carnage, and just as mournful as the poet after Ilium had fallen.
I could not put this book down. It was with me on the bus, at work, in bed, everywhere. I don’t know what captivated me so much. I have never studied ancient Greek history, or even the classic Greek literary canon, so perhaps the new subject matter and its epic nature was what did it. Or maybe the literal feeling of being punched in the gut as the action transitioned from peaceful fields to horrifying descriptions of guts spilling into mud. Some of my more literary-inclined friends claim translations destroy the beauty and importance of the original, but this work fascinated me. Baricco’s endnote on the beauty and importance of war in Greek culture and literature was exactly what my history-leaning brain craved and relished. This concept was thoughtfully explained and neither glorified nor rejected, but shown for what it was to an ancient people. Five stars for this book for sure!
After reading An Iliad I was ready to return to something historical from my chosen era: the Second World War. I had felt burned out from school and constantly being bombarded with history through two years in classes and the summer in between at Juno Beach Centre in France so I had put down my texts and my historical fiction (especially after Season of Darkness). All of the sudden my interest was piqued again.
Heading into my fourth year of studies in history, with a focus on Second World War, and after a day-trip to Jersey during the summer of 2011, my interest in the Channel Islands as the only Nazi-occupied British territory was quite high. I had picked up Roy McLoughlin’s Living with the Enemy: An Outline of the German Occupation of the Channel Islands with First Hand Accounts by People who Remember the Years 1940-1945 at the Jersey Museum but had never read it while in Europe or in the following year because of school. I was glad I finally did.
The book is not the easiest read, it is a work of history after all but it is fascinating and unique. The Channel Islands, British protectorates off the coast of Normandy, represented the only British territory occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War. This book covers the period before the war as Islanders hoped for a peaceful resolution to Germany’s expansion, and later as the British pulled all military forces out under the guise that it might show neutrality to the German forces now encamped in nearby France. Of course this was simply a tool to avoid extra life and the Islands were left to their own fate.
The most captivating parts of this book are the descriptions of how each island fared during the occupation. One smaller island was evacuated and eventually used solely for farming while another featured an old-world matron who dominated even the local German force. The bigger islands were most strictly under the command of the German forces, but even then the local civic government continued to hold some sway. The descriptions of the attempted British spying missions also intrigued me. Most of these failed rather miserably, or at least caused much risk since the Island communities were so closely knit. Perhaps Britain should have just left the Islands alone. After all, they did leave them alone in the first place…
The Channel Islands were officially the last place liberated in the Second World War, having Allied troops take the surrender of the German forces on May 9, 1945, one day after the official Nazi surrender. The reason for this was, like the original exodus of British troops, an attempt to avoid fighting and civilian death on the small area of the Islands.
I loved my trip to Jersey, and I was so fascinated with this book, that I decided after finishing it to pursue my Honours History degree with a focus on the Channel Islands during the occupation. With that bias revealed, I’d give this book 4.5/5 purely from interest (although inexperienced history readers may judge it as a 3.5/5).
My final book for the summer was sort of technically almost J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I say sort of because I read another book first which wasn’t counted originally in Goodreads’ challenge progress and because I haven’t quite finished it yet (and I’ve already read it). I’m seven pages from the end, but I got sidetracked by going to camp and I was so tired there that I don’t remember reading those final pages, so I’ll consider it as “in progress.” Plus I already read it in Grade 3 (5/5 stars, obviously) so I’ll count my challenge as being only for new reads.
Thus, my true final-of-five books was Redshirts by John Scalzi. This was a brilliantly funny book. I originally found out about it by stumbling across a recommendation for another book (The Sheriff of Yrnameer, which I also bought and will likely read next month) on one of my favourite book blogs Books, j’adore. The tag which drew me in was “Picked up Scalzi’s Redshirts and laughed until you wept with joy? Here’s the next book in your queue.” I figured I should do some research before hitting up the book described as “a space opera with the sort of witty, slightly scummy hero you usually only get in hard-boiled detective pulp.” Yes, Firefly was mentioned too.
But back to Redshirts. Everyone whose anyone in the Genre world (*coughgeekscough* and proud of it!) knows the myth and legend about red-shirted crew members on Star Trek‘s original series. They are WAY more likely to die. (Read here for the math and funny graphics. Even Google almost killed one off) So what does Scalzi do to this legend? Well…he pretty much just tells you exactly what you know already. Under the guise of a Star Trek knockoff daytime cable show.
The idea actually works pretty well. For the first half of the book I was wondering if the author really knew he was writing a Trek knockoff, but when the main character (Andrew Dahl, a redshirt ensign on the Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union since the year 2456) starts noticing that things aren’t quite right the story changes to a Dr. Who/Hyperdrive plot line. I was actually very impressed with the idea Scalzi had, and without giving too much away it was this: What if the characters on the Intrepid were controlled by the execs of that cheap daytime sci-fi show in the 21st Century? All sorts of nerdy pandemonium ensues.
The book was great, the humour was great, the suspense was…predictable and yet predictably unpredictable (the nature of science fiction), and the references to TOS were also great. I would have liked a bit more actual character development (they are probably the most static leads I have ever read about), and the humour was admittedly geared towards fanboys and girls who are already familiar with the subject matter. You’d think I’d give it a 5 or close to it because I’m a nerd and I liked it so much, but with the lack of character development and the overly specialized humour, I just don’t think it deserves more than a 3.5/5. If you know anything about Star Trek or like nerd humour, you have to read this book.
One additional interesting thing I found:
Well, that about sums up the books I read this summer. Generally a successful summer reading campaign, so go out and read these books. Well, if you want to of course.
PS: Simone, I finished!!!