Saturday, July 28, 2012

Book 54: Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

Casino Royale was an interesting book and not really what I expected.  I'd never read a James Bond book before this one and my only impressions of the character came from the films.  In those, Bond is a suave, confident ladies man with expert knowledge of firearms and fighting in general.  In the book, the character is much more nuanced.

What's most interesting to me is that the two versions of Bond, movie and book, are not incompatible.  What makes the Bond in the novel different is the inner dialogue.  You still get the impression that he is projecting a confident, smooth exterior, but internally, he knows what could fail in his current plans or his life in general, he makes minute observations and acts on them.  He has hopes and fears and insecurities just like everyone else, he's just good at hiding it.  Much of the film Bond is still there, however.  He drinks something close to his trademark vodka martini, he drives a fast car, he shoots at double agents and he gambles large sums of the government's money.

In fact, this last part makes up the primary plot.  There is a Soviet agent who has recently embezzled and squandered a large amount of Soviet money.  In order to make up the difference he's going to try to win the missing money back in high stakes gambling.  Bond is ordered to find him and make him lose even more thereby sealing his fate.  I won't tell you how things end up, but it gets more interesting than that.

The plot was a bit simplistic and the writing was a little rough but being Fleming's first novel it's understandable.  It was a good suspense / spy novel with a very insightful look at a well-known character.  Bond in the book is not perfect, he makes plenty of mistakes and it makes him much more human.  He's a person in the novel instead of a stereotype.  I really liked this one and am definitely on board to read the next novel in the series.  7 out of 10.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Book 53: Le Vicomte de Bragelonne by Alexandre Dumas

For this year I've changed the way I'm making these posts.  Instead of having one at the beginning of the week and then editing in a review after finishing the book, I'm going to simply make one post each Saturday when I should have completed that week's reading.  Onward!

This book has a rather complicated history.  When first written it was serialized over a period of about 3 years.  When put into book form it comprised 269 chapters.  For obvious reasons it has since been split up into multiple volumes.  Even this, however, has been complicated.  It is possible to find The Vicomte de Bragelonne split into 3, 4 or even 5 books.  The version that I'm reading is split into 4 books with individual titles:  Part 1 is Le Vicomte de Bragelonne, Part 2 is Dix Ans plus Tard (Ten Years After), Part 3 is Louise de la Valliere and part 4 is L'Homme au Masque de Fer (The Man in the Iron Mask).  The narrative for Le Vicomte de Bragelonne covers events around the year 1660 about ten years after the events in Vingt Ans Apres (Twenty Years After) and around 30 years after The Three Musketeers.

The main characters from the original novel are still here.  D'Artagnan is still a lieutenant in the royal musketeers while his friends have retired to private life.  Athos is a nobleman, the Comte de la Fere, and lives on his own estate with his son Raoul de Bragelonne (the title's Vicomte).  Aramis has become a priest and been promoted to Abbé or Abbot d'Herblay.  Porthos married a wealthy woman who later died and left him her fortune.  The story, while named for Raoul, does not principally involve him, though it does show a turning point that may be the launching point for his later career.

I found the plot engaging throughout as was the case for the first two books of this series.  It follows D'Artagnan on his adventures fighting enemies and helping allies in both England and France.  He joins up with Athos for the first half of the book with Aramis and Porthos showing up in the second.  One thing that I find very interesting about the series is that, while friends, the former Musketeers are often at odds with each other.  In the previous book, two of the Musketeers were on one side of a civil war with the other two on the opposing side.  In this book, D'Artagnan is on a mission for his King, while two of his friends are quietly propping up one his the King's ministers, his chief rival.  It makes for a lot of complicated plot twisting as they would never harm one another, but would gladly sabotage each others plans.

I'm still reading these in French in order to take the rust off my language skills, but the story should translate very well.  These are books of high adventure and gentlemanly deeds and should appeal to anyone who likes intrigue, swordplay, daring plots and backstabbing ministers.  Overall, I'd give this book about a 7 out of 10.  It was entertaining and interesting but lacking in any real substance.  Still it's a lot of good fun and I'm looking forward to the next episode.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

One Year Round-Up

  52 books in 52 weeks has been one heck of a project.  Overall, I loved it!  I went through 5 science-fiction, 7 English Literature, 7 Fantasy / Horror, 5 American Literature, 5 Contemporary Fiction, 5 Children's Literature, 4 World Literature, 4 Mysteries, 4 Non-Fiction books, 4 Classics and 3 Graphic Novels.  I was able to finish the Harry Potter series, the Game of Thrones series and the rest of Jane Austen's novels.  I was introduced to Agatha Christie and William Faulkner and re-introduced to Charles Dickens, to whom I took more of a liking this time around.  I think my favorite book in this project was To Kill a Mockingbird, it was simply beautiful.  My least favorite? ... not sure, maybe the Game of Thrones series.  

I plan to continue my project, which is why I called this post, Year One.  I might change things up slightly in the future, maybe add more genres or space things out differently but I'll keep updating my thoughts on each book as I finish it.  Thanks for staying with me for an entire year and we'll see where the next one takes us.  It's been a fun ride.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Book 52: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

I would assume that most people have heard of this story from one place or another, mostly from the 1937 film version.  It's been remade with everyone from Michael Jackson to the Muppets.  There are now book told from various points of view, most recently from the Wicked Witches vantage point in the book series Wicked.  I, myself, was only familiar with these retellings and had never experienced the original work, but I found myself wanting to explore these books (yes, it's a series) mostly as potential bedtime story material for my kids.  My oldest is getting to the age where he may have the attention span for longer books and this story seemed like something he might like.

The main characters of the book are the same you'd remember from any of the other material: Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion, the Witches (good and bad) and the Wizard of Oz.  There are a variety of minor characters, however, that were completely new to me.  Dorothy's journey to Oz is quite a bit more complicated in the book and she, therefore, visits a variety of new places, meets many interesting characters and has a number of odd adventures.

After reading the book, I now think of the book and movie as two completely different things.  The film is more stylish, it emphasizes and expands some aspects of the story (especially the conflict between Dorothy and the Wicked Witch) while omitting other sections.  It's a great story and, in it's way, faithful to the spirit of Baum's work, but it feels different, like a porcelain doll version of Raggedy-Ann.  The book is much more innocent.  It's a child's-eye view of the world.  Some of the situations and their solutions are nonsensical but they have an internal child's logic that makes it fun.

I definitely plan to read this book to my kids.  It's fun, it's interesting and it's well written.  I also plan to continue the series to see where it leads.  The movie wraps up pretty neatly at the end but the book leaves some room for sequels.  I'd recommend this book to anyone that enjoys children's literature or really anyone that likes light-hearted fantasy/adventure books.  9 out of 10.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Book 51: Pulp by Charles Bukowski

Another enjoyable book by Charles Bukowski.  It checks in at 208 pages and was another quick read.  It was also Bukowski's last novel and was published in 1994, shortly before his death.

The novel is dedicated to bad writing, which stole my heart.  It is a sort of pulp novel but really plays with the conventions of the pulp novel, satirizing and almost ridiculing it.  It starts out as a detective crime novel but branches out to other pulp themes such as alien invasions, mafia loan sharks and death, hunting someone who has so far escaped her.

The characters are good, the protagonist, Nicky Belane, is a detective, a Henry Chinasky stand-in and a thinly-veiled reference to Mickey Spillane.  He is hired by several people, including Lady Death, to solve cases.  He's not a very good P.I. but he blunders and punches his way to solutions to most of them.

While not as good as most of his earlier books, this novel was enjoyable and a very funny commentary on the pulp genre.  I would definitely recommend this book to anyone that liked his other novels and anyone that likes books by authors like Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Robbins or Ken Kesey.

8 out of 10.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Book 50: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

My poor book cover is in bad shape, but I like the design so I decided to scan it and post it anyway.  This was a short, little book, 284 pages, which belies it's content which is amazingly deep.

The characters are very deep and very human.  Atticus is a model gentleman and father.  He struggles with himself and believes he should do more for his children than he's able, but isn't that how all fathers should be?  His children are intelligent and curious and he pulls no punches in explaining reality to them.  He believes that they are capable of understanding it and, for the most part, they are.  Exploring complex ideas from the point-of-view of a child is a big part of what makes this book so good.

The real plot to the book starts in the second half, though there are signals from near the beginning that it is coming.  It centers on the trial of a black workhand accused of the attempted rape of a white woman.  The book addresses a multitude of themes simultaneously from this point forward.  While the subplot of Boo Radley shows the attitudes of the children toward someone different: from fear to curiosity to understanding, the main plot addresses other, higher themes.  Atticus, being the consummate gentleman, finds his beliefs leading him from fair play to equal rights while the town battles itself between racism and social discrimination.  The black defendant is clearly innocent, but the accuser, though poor, white trash, is still white.  How the town deals with these attitudes is explored well and realistically while the children view the events from an innocent point of view, calling into question social norms and why they exist.

This is now one of my favorite books of all times.  It addresses many important themes and does it in a way that doesn't feel exceptionally heavy.  It gets the message across without feeling preachy.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone, no matter their reading preferences.

10 out of 10.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Book 49: Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory

While the title of this book is in French, it is actually written in English.  In fact, it is one of the oldest known pieces of literature in English.  Written around 1500, Malory compiles here many of the French and English Arthurian romances.  It has since become, probably, the foremost reference for Arthurian legend and has become source material for newer works.  I know a bit of Arthurian legend from The Sword in the Stone, the movie Excalibur and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (more accurate than you'd think), but I'm interested to see some of the stories that I don't know.

It's in two volumes and I could break it up into two parts, but I'm going to read both.  Volume 1 is 468 pages and Volume 2 is 533 pages, giving 1001 pages or 143 pages per day.  Ouch.


This was a very interesting read to me.  I've always been interested in Arthurian legends, but have gotten most of my knowledge of Arthur and his knights from much more modern sources:  The Sword in the Stone, Excalibur and Monty Python.  This book was written around 1500 and is one of the oldest known pieces of literature in English, though the title is in French.  This book and other books like it served to really begin the idea of chivalry, a concept that didn't really exist outside of literature.

Possibly due to it's age, the book reminded me most of Gargantua and Pantagruel.  It was a collection of short adventures loosely structured into a narrative.  There were some events that were covered from more than one point of view and a couple of conflicting stories.  Overall, however, it serves as a very comprehensive collection of almost all of the stories of Arthur and his knights.  From the marriage of King Arthur to Gwenyvere to the tales of Arthur's greatest knights: Launcelot, Tristram and Gareth, to the Search for the Holy Grail to the death of Arthur himself, it's all here.

The book was huge, in fact it was two books.  I probably should have broken them up into two entries here, but I really wanted to do it all in one go.  I'm rather glad that I did as the stories kept me interested and carried me along through the end.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in exploring King Arthur, chivalry or knights and adventures as well as history in general and England in particular.  It could probably do with some modern editing, but I'd be afraid that they'd cut out something interesting in order to make it move faster.

8 out of 10.