The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne

The House at Pooh Corner.jpgA. A. Milne will forever be known for his series of children’s stories about Winnie-the-Pooh. It only takes reading them once to understand why.

Milne has a magical way of telling a story that feels like it is from a child’s point of view. Pooh’s logic, Piglet’s cowardice, Tigger’s surety in the face of knowing absolutely nothing. Children recognize those things because that is their life.

The animals of the Hundred Acre Wood are like all the aspects of being a child separated out for the readers to see.

In this book we get to see the introduction of Tigger, Pooh and Piglet build Eeyore a house and Owl’s gets blown down.

It’s also, obviously intended to be the end of the Pooh stories and so it ends on a bit of a bitter note with Christopher Robin starting to grow up. He doesn’t have as much time as he used to for playing with his animal friends and they are learning to get along without him.

This is at least as good as the first book and maybe even better. Milne maintains many jokes for the adults that are reading the books to their children and many things that the children will find wonderful and funny as well.

This is one of my favorite novels and I reread it regularly.

House of Israel: A New Dawn by Robert Marcum

A New Dawn.jpgI usually find Robert Marcum’s writing to be tolerable at best but his stories compelling enough to get me through.

This third volume I kind of got lost. The second volume of this series ended on a cliff hanger with one of the main characters seemingly dead and others in dangerous places as the Israelis and the Muslims fought over Jerusalem.

If the book had picked up from there, or if the series had ended there it would have been a better story. As it was all the terrible things — including character deaths — turn into good things and people are alive after all. Coincidences pile on coincidences until it becomes impossible to suspend disbelief. Then all the characters get together and spend all their time talking about what is going on in the rest of the country.

This has been a problem with all of Marcum’s books that I have read. He is prone to telling rather than showing. He doesn’t know how to make his conversations dynamic enough to be interesting. He suffers from too much historical knowledge that he seems compelled to get on the page and resorts to maid and butler dialogue in order to do it.

I had some hopes for this series when it started. I liked the characters. I liked the story and the setting in which it was being told. Those characters are almost missing in this final book. The setting is gone and the story is almost nonexistent as it takes a sidestep to allow history to take place around it.

History is not a bad place for a story. History is not even a bad story to tell. But when the story has to go away in order for the history to show up then perhaps it’s time to reexamine your decision making paradigm.

The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian.jpgI found this book every bit as exciting and fun as I had been lead to believe it would be.

This is the kind of thing that would be really easy to over hype. Everybody talked about it. Everybody thought it was great. Everybody loved it. Ridley Scott loved it enough to make a movie and Matt Damon loved it enough to be the star. Google loved it. NASA loved it.

Even those hard science fiction nerds who get upset about bad science in their fiction loved it.

I finally decided to read it before seeing the movie.

It holds up pretty well to the hype. There is one caveat. If you like Mark Watney, you will love this book. If you think his humor is juvenile or you find him a little bit unrealistic then the book is going to fall apart.

I liked Mark Watney as a narrator for a book — he’s outgoing, funny and has charisma coming out of his pores. I would probably hate him in real life. As the main character of a book about a man stranded on Mars after an accident where his team thought he was dead he was perfect.

Watney has his moments of doubt. He gets scared and worried and wonders what to do. Then he sits down and does math and figures it out. I appreciated the math. Watney showed us how he planned to survive and then Weir made it worthwhile later then disaster struck and we all knew immediately how bad it was because of how many potatoes were destroyed, or how much air was gone, or how much of some other resource was compromised.

Weir does a credible job of making Watney a solid character who is entertaining enough to spend a whole novel with. The other characters, only have as much personality as Watney refers to in his journals. We know that the commander loves seventies music and that one of the crew is german and another is of some kind of South American descent. Other than that there’s little to know.

That’s okay because they are really only set dressing, they are the rescue robots that come back to get Watney when they find out he is still alive.

The real star of this novel, though, is the science. Andy Weir is obviously a big NASA and space exploration nerd and he thought out the technology to a believable level and then showed realistic consequences of using that technology beyond it’s design standards.

Watney practices chemistry, electrical engineering and botany all on a planet that is seemingly designed to kill him. There is almost no air. There is no water. The soil is almost sterile. The temperatures are deathly cold.

There is one conceit — that of a windstorm on Mars being dangerous — that Weir leans on in order to tell his story. The rest of it is pure science down to the orbital mechanics of the ships and the ways in which Watney finds to increase his food supply.

To me the times when Watney would encounter a problem and start sitting down to science his way through it were my favorite parts.

This book will make you cheer. It will make you grit your teeth in frustration. It will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

The Life of Pi.jpgLife of Pi is the story of a young boy named Pi who gets stranded in a lifeboat with a bengal tiger for several months at sea. The story is beautiful and full of wonderful imagery and fascinating depictions of wildlife and the sea and strange biology. At any given time the tiger is front and center in Pi’s mind. Having grown up in a zoo he knows how dangerous such an animal truly is.

Unfortunately the beauty is ruined with the ending.

This view is probably unique to myself.

There are going to be spoilers from here.

Pi goes through an amazing journey where he learns to befriend the tiger and live with him, if not actually love him. The tiger tolerates his presence because he knows that he needs Pi to catch fish for him. This ideal hunter on land is almost useless at sea.

They float through the ocean, experiencing dehydration, starvation and boredom. They encounter another life raft with a man who tries to kill Pi. They find a floating island covered with carnivorous trees that eat people at night. They see an entire world, existing and living beneath them by day and by night and Pi learns of the utter insignificance he plays in the world as an individual.

All this is beautifully told and woven into a sense of wonder that rivals some of the best fantasy and science fiction. Yann Martel was apparently not satisfied with that. He couldn’t just let the story be wonderful he had to make a reason for it all.

He had to drop in an explanation at the end to say that it was all imaginary, he had to walk the reader through an explanation of the reasons Pi made up all these things and the metaphors that he constructed to describe the experience he had of living in a lifeboat with a murderer.

The fact that Pi made up all his adventures in order to cover up his own feelings of guilt for the things that he did to stay alive while on the lifeboat is not what ruined the book. It was that, after presenting that possibility as an explanation, Yann Martel felt a need to explicitly tell the reader what was true. Up to that very moment when Pi admitted all the horrible things that he was being asked about the story was intriguing. Pi blatantly arguing that he was telling the truth, no matter how preposterous, the ship insurance company arguing a more logical explanation.

In that moment I loved the book. There is a possible explanation for all the strangeness but there’s also the possibility of the floating island — the unexplained and wonderful out in the ocean. Then it was all shattered. All possibilities taken away.

It didn’t ruin the book. I got several hours of entertainment from it and the writing is very strong. I loved all the ways in which the ocean was described and Yann Martel achieved the unmistakeable feat of telling an exciting and fascinating story about a boy on a lifeboat for probably ninety percent of the book.

Life of Pi is beautiful in story and prose. It is also emotionally powerful and has a central character that is so enchanting that he carries the story through almost completely by himself for the bulk of the book. If the ending were less explicit it might be a perfect book.

The Domino Pattern by Timothy Zahn

The Domino Pattern.jpgThis is the book where the series takes a turn and flips everything over.

Timothy Zahn has always been good at building mystery as a sub-genre into his novels. There’s always a question of who, what or how going on in the background. With the Frank Compton novels that’s even more important as each book is basically a future thriller-murder-mystery.

With this one Zahn decided to play off his trains-in-space theme and do a science fiction retelling of Agatha Christie’s Murder of the Orient Express in which, famously, anybody could have done it — and maybe did.

Zahn doesn’t play it quite so cleverly but he builds a good case where Compton is genuinely puzzled for most of the book — quite a feat since he is usually nearly Sherlockian in his observational skills.

This is the penultimate novel of the series and as such is sitting in a strange place. On the one hand it does finally reveal some information that completely changes the game of the series — in typical Zahn fashion. On the other hand, many of the villains, characters and themes of the previous novels are missing, making this feel like just another adventure for Compton and Bayta.

It ends with a good setup for the final novel and I found I enjoyed it the most of all the ones in the series so far. Compton and Bayta have developed quite a relationship by this point in the books and it’s fun to see them working together. They know each other so well that they can communicate with just looks sometimes and Zahn has spent the time in the previous books setting that up so that it doesn’t feel cheap here.

You could probably read this book alone — without reading the rest of the book in the series — but it’s hard to say.

The Little Prince by Antoine Saint-Exupery

The Little Prince.jpgThis is one of those children’s books that I don’t think is really written for children.

It’s about dying, as far as I can tell and it seems like it is intended to play on emotions of sadness and loss.

I say that it is intended to because I felt no emotional attachment whatever. This is probably me. Everybody I’ve ever talked to who read this book thought it was terribly sad and had nothing but good things to say.

I thought it was okay.

The idea of the Little Prince is one of interest to me because I watched the old show on Nickelodeon when I was little. The book is not like that. The book is about an adult who crashes his plane and the little boy who shows up and tells him outrageous stories and teaches him to recognize all the good things he has in his life before he dies and ‘goes back to his little planet.’

I found the writing to be a little stilted and the writing to be a little dry at times.

It’s a short book, though, and widely considered a classic of children’s literature. It’s worth reading once.

Tongues of Serpents by Naomi Novik

Tongue of Serpents.jpgAt this point I think I’m just reading these books out of tenacity. I really liked the first few books in this series. The premise, that of dragons during the Napoleonic Wars, is fascinating and it is still amazing how much Novik has developed how that plays out in the different societies of the world.

I have enjoyed seeing how each country and continent has learned to live with dragons in a different way.

The problem is that, at this point, it begins to feel like Novik is taking us on a tour of the world so she can show us all these strange dragons and the ways that all these different societies have found to deal with giant lizards in their midst.

In this book Lawrence and Temeraire find themselves exiled to Australia. No sooner do they get there than some natives steal two dragon eggs that they have been put in charge of and they must set off at once to cross the uncharted continent in order to get the eggs back. The rest of the book is a slow chase across Australia with some suspense and a bit of action here and there.

Novik is never boring. Her prose and her command of characters is so sharp that it continually feels like I am reading an actual account of people crossing Australia on an expedition of dragons. The world feels so real and her ability to write in the language of the day and the voice of the time period is almost uncanny.

The problem comes from the fact that this is yet another book in the series that doesn’t really have a clear villain or enemy. The series itself has no clear enemy and so the books start to feel like there is little progression to them. Temeraire and Laurence have things happen to them and they are interesting but the whole things feels like it is beginning to stretch out and it becomes hard to maintain interest.

I did like this book, though. I enjoy the the characters of Novik’s world. I like the story she is telling. It feels like it is spinning wheels at times but it’s great fun while it’s doing it.