Thursday, March 11, 2010


Night is the Holocaust memoir of Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel.  To say that it is only a memoir, however, would be doing an extreme injustice to the work.  The narrative ultimately draws on themes that we all struggle with in our lives at some point: the meaning of faith, death, family, and the importance of memory.

The New York Times describes the 107-page book as "A slim volume of terrifying power."  I can't think of a better way to describe Night, so I'm going to leave it at that.  Read the book and never forget.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Graveyard Book

Sadly, this is the last of the books I got for Christmas and/or birthday this year. I put off reading it as long as I could so I would savor it when the time came!  Alas, I could wait no longer....The Graveyard Book (2008) is Neil Gaiman's first full-length children's book since Coraline (2002). It has received wide acclaim and garnered the 2009 Hugo and Newbery Awards, as well as a Locus Award for best young adult novel.

Apparently, the story is modeled after and contains many similarities to The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling (even the name The Graveyard Book is an homage).  I must confess that I have never read The Jungle Book, so I am unable to comment on any comparison between the two works.  I should probably add it to my reading list!

The novel is laid out as a series of what are essentially short stories that chronicle the life of Nobody Owens.  Bod (for short) comes to live in a graveyard as a baby after his family is murdered in the opening pages of the novel by a mysterious man in black.  He is raised by the ghosts of the graveyard and soon thinks of the graveyard as nothing other than home.  Gaiman's prose does a terrific job of making the dark, haunted setting of a graveyard feel like a familiar, comfortable place to the reader (though trouble and magic are never far away).

Over the course of the book, Bod grows from boy into young adulthood, and we see him begin to consider his mysterious past and ponder what the future might hold for him.  In due time, it becomes clear that the man who murdered his family is still about and looking to finish the job he started so many years ago.  An ill-advised venture into the world outside the graveyard forces Bod to confront this past head on.

I was talking with a friend about the need to add a half-step in my hamster scoring system.  This book is a perfect example--I would give The Graveyard Book [4.5 hamsters] if my current system allowed it.  It was a fabulously written, entertaining book that fulfills its intended purpose (a young adult novel) exceedingly well.  I leave off the last half point only because I think it could have made a spectacular "adult" novel with more depth of plot.  I would really enjoy reading more about Bod--where does he settle?  What becomes of him?  On the other hand, perhaps that would just spoil the magic of the bittersweet ending?

The Graveyard Book is a great story with wonderful writing.  A must read for fans of children's literature or Gaiman's other works!

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Ghost Brigades

I quickly ordered John Scalzi's second book, The Ghost Brigades (2006), from PBS after reading Old Man's War (OMW) and really enjoying it.  While not a direct sequel to OMW, The Ghost Brigades is set in the same universe and shares some characters.  Unfortunately, Scalzi's sophomore effort didn't hook me the same way his first book did.

Set in the same universe as OMW, we follow the story of a member of the Colonial Defense Force (CDF) special forces (known colloquially as the Ghost Brigades).  Special forces soldiers differ from conventional forces in that they are not conscripted from Earth's senior citizens.  Instead, they are "born" from the genetic material of those who intended to join the CDF but, due to circumstances, were unable to fulfill their term (usually do to death prior to their 75th birthday).  Special forces soldiers, therefore, enter life in a super-enhanced adult body with no emotional experience or instinctual base to rely upon.  Instead, these parts of their personality must be built during a short, intense period of training with other just born soldiers.

At the opening of the novel, the CDF is facing a traitor in its midst--the scientist Charles Boutin has united three alien races against his own species.  While humans are able to hold their own against any one of the species individually, the combined might of three together makes extinction of humans a very real possibility.  Enter our main character, Jared Dirac, who has been instilled with the consciousness of Boutin in an effort by the CDF to understand what Boutin may be plotting and his motives for his betrayal.

This plan doesn't work as well as the CDF brass had hoped when Boutin's memories fail to be immediately accessible to Dirac.  He is sent back to a normal special forces unit under Jane Sagan's watchful eye (why waste a good soldier?).  When some aspects of Boutin's memories and personality begin to emerge during a combat mission, the loyalty of Dirac is put to question.

As a biologist by trade, I feel obligated to complain about some of the pseudo-genetics used to explain the principles behind the transfer of Boutin's consciousness from a computer to a human mind.  It would have been more convincing to just leave it up to the reader to imagine how this might come about.

Don't get me wrong--The Ghost Brigades is an entertaining book with a solid plot (one of my complaints of the first book) that is well executed.  Its more conventional nature seemed to lack a certain freshness that made OMW stand above a lot of other science fiction novels.  On the other hand, if Scalzi had chosen simply to retread the adventures of John Perry in a sequel, I would no doubt be vigorously complaining.  At any rate, I look forward to seeing what Scalzi does when he applies his considerable talent to a different theme/world!