Sunday, December 29, 2013

Book Review Roundup: 'Inferno,' 'The Land of Stories: The Enchantress Returns,' 'Room' & 'Double Down'

Over the past week, I've been posting Review Roundups of movies and TV shows that I watched this year but for some reason never got around to reviewing at the time, and I wanted to make sure I did before I post my Year-End blog posts pretty soon. Today, I've got one final Review Roundup, this time for books.

Inferno by Dan Brown
Dan Brown, as we all know by now, is a very controversial author, mainly because of The Da Vinci Code. And even if you take that away and just focus on his writing, there are still mixed opinions on him because some think he infuses too many facts into the text. And normally that would be something I'd find a little off-putting as well, but for me, I am a big Dan Brown fan. I've read all his books, even the non-Robert Langdon ones. And the inclusion of historical facts and other related info adds so much more to the story for me.

Both Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code were fantastic, and then everybody was pretty let down by the next book in the series, The Lost Symbol. I was worried that he had lost his touch. Fortunately, that was just one misstep, and he's back on form in a huge way with Inferno, which continues to tell of the stories and adventures of the Harvard professor.

"The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis." -- Dante's Inferno

I think that Inferno might just be my favorite Robert Langdon novel. The biggest aspect that attracted me to this book is the pacing--there's so much going on and it's such high energy that you really do want to flip to the next page as fast as possible to see what happens next (the term page-turner is an apt description).

I'm trying to think back to everyone's thoughts on the previous books, and if I'm remembering correctly, many readers were not huge fans of the female "sidekicks" (for lack of a better term), saying they lack personality and other similar critiques. And I can see where they are coming from. But with his latest novel, Brown has managed to write a major female character that is nothing like the others. In Inferno, Sienna Brooks actually has a lot of depth to her, with some great backstory to go along with it.

Going back to the page-turner description for a moment, as I neared closer and closer to the end of the novel, there were some major bombshells about 100 pages before the end, and you would think that's it, there's not going to be a whole lot more to the story. But that's not the case because that isn't even the climax of the plot. And then when we do get to the end, the story closes out on a slow and somber and pondering note.

I wholeheartedly recommend Inferno. If anybody was turned off by The Lost Symbol or were on the fence about The Da Vinci Code, forget all that and read Dan Brown's latest thriller.

The Land of Stories: The Enchantress Returns by Chris Colfer
Last year Glee star Chris Colfer released his debut novel, which happened to be the first in a fantasy series. Aside from my review then, I also blogged that I won an advanced copy signed by the author himself.

Even though I provided a positive review of the first book, I did also note that I could tell that Colfer was a first-time author, saying that "sometimes you read [certain] parts and the cliches or typical dialogue come through." Now that I've read the sequel, The Land of Stories: The Enchantress Returns, the question is, has he improved? I think he has. Just based on the fact that this is almost like a fairy tale type story, those cliches and things are still there to an extent. But as a writer, he is improving and I'm really looking forward to his future books to continue to see that growth over time.

"I've learned a life spent creating enemies isn't worth leading. Having allies is the best advantage in the world. Jealousy is just a reminder of the frustrations you have with yourself. Who has time to only concentrate on that?" -- Goldilocks, from The Land of Stories: The Enchantress Returns

In the first novel, the protagonists, Alex and Conner (the latter of which has a great personality with lots of wit and sarcasm--one of the highlights of the new story), had to search for items in the magical realm to create the Wishing Spell that would transport them back home. In The Enchantress Returns, the title says it all again. Not only are we revisited by some of our favorite characters from the first, like Froggy, Goldilocks and Red Riding Hood, there are plenty of newbies to be introduced to, though some we already know from existing fairy tales. The gang travels all over the land again, and we're exposed to a wider scope of the Land of Stories.

I noticed some similarities to other novels in The Enchantress Returns. The way that Alex and Conner make their way back to the Land of Stories is very reminiscent of the re-introduction to Narnia in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (hint: water). And then the whole concept of the Wand of Wonderment had me thinking back to the Elder Wand in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Also, I feel like this sequel is sort of like a 2.0 of The Wishing Spell, the first book, because the adventure is similar in that they have to find various items spread out all over. Maybe to some, these are all detractors, but when you take the novel as a whole and even focusing in on the highlights, it makes for a very fun and enjoyable read.

Room by Emma Donoghue
I mentioned quite a while ago that I was really wanting to read Room by Emma Donoghue. I originally had planned on getting to it last year, but that never ended up happening, so let's try again in 2013, and this time I did read it.

I found myself in awe of Donoghue's writing abilities. Here's a bit of the synopsis to give you a sense of what this novel is about: "To five-year-old Jack, Room is the world. It's where he was born, it's where he and his Ma eat and sleep and play and learn. At night, Ma shuts him safety in the wardrobe, where Jack is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits. Room is home to Jack, but to Ma it's the prison where she has been held for seven years."

As you can probably tell, it's a story about a young woman who was kidnapped. Without even reading it, you could probably get what the gist of the plot is and maybe how everything will play out. But when it comes to Room, you'd be wrong. What makes this book stand out from others with a similar premise is the fact that this one is written in first-person from the point of view of the little boy, Jack. He only knows this room, believing that to be the entire world. As someone who's been secluded from the outside world and from socializing with others and all the other essentials to a normal development, it makes for a fascinating read. And it shows in the writing style.

Just read some of these quotes as examples:

"I get on Rocker to take a pin from Kit on Shelf, minus one means now there'll be zero left of the five. There used to be six but one disappeared." (Page 5)

"We have thousands of things to do every morning, like give Plant a cup of water in Sink for no spilling, then put her back on her saucer on Dresser. Plant used to live on Table but God's face burned a leaf of her off. She has nine left, they're the wide of my hand with furriness all over, like Ma says dogs are." (Page 8)

Room would have been completely different had Donoghue written it in either third-person or in first-person from the point of view of Jack's mother. But having Jack tell the story is what gives Room its flavor, its depth, its style. There's an innocence that comes through, which makes it even more tragic at times.

To me, Room has two different stories being told. About halfway through, certain events give the story a sharp left turn, and suddenly the rest of the book has very different angles to it. I wasn't expecting that, and at first I thought I wouldn't like the second half, but I found myself just as fascinated as when I read the beginning. I don't want to give too many spoilers away, because if you haven't read Room yet, you absolutely must and experience the brilliant writing structure that Donoghue has presented for us.

Double Down: Game Change 2012 by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann
I gave a glowing review to Game Change, which gave an inside look at the 2008 presidential election. I couldn't wait to get my hands on the sequel because if it's anything like the first, then I'm going to love it. And I found it just as fascinating and engrossing a read as Game Change, which I consider one of the best non-fiction books I've ever read and the best political book out there. Double Down follows down that same path.

I'm still amazed at the unprecedented access the authors got for both of these books. Double Down, like Game Change, is packed full of behind the scenes scoop that we probably wouldn't have found out otherwise.

That's always the best part, so I wanted to mention a few of the things that I found of interest. President Obama never really seemed to like Bill Clinton. And let's face it, they are two very different types of people. Clinton is very outgoing, loves to mingle with crowds and knows how to work his way through the political process. Obama, on the other hand, is the opposite, in a way. He's very professorial and despises the spectacle factor of politics.

Mike Huckabee ran for president in 2008, and he was actually thinking about running again in 2012, but the biggest thing that stopped him from stepping in was money. He basically went broke after he ran. I never would have guessed that.

Romney and his team had no preparation at all for his trip abroad. Remember how there was fumble after fumble (including his controversial comments on if he thought London was ready for the Olympics) along the way? I was just astonished at how no one really thought to actually make sure this trip would go smoothly. It's unbelievable.

There's of course talk about the Romney campaign's search for a running mate. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was put under consideration, but there was a whole lot of drama surrounding this, including that Christie wasn't very forthcoming during the vetting process.

And there's an interesting quote from the book that stood out to me: "Now, surveying the sum and substance of what the [VP search] team was finding, [Ted] Newton told his colleagues, If Christie had been in the nomination fight against us, we would have destroyed him--he wouldn't be able to run for governor again. When you look below the surface, Newton said, it's not pretty."

When I was reading about the various detractors against Christie, they certainly seemed like dings against him, but many politicians have those same sorts of things that people criticize them for. So to read that quote above, I get the sense that there's more here than what's written in the book. So it'll be interesting to see if any of it comes out when he runs in 2016.

There's so much more behind the scenes scoop that I could keep going on and on. If you're wanting to read the book, which you should, I'll tease a little bit of some more things you can expect to come across: Romney and Jon Huntsman's families go way back, the deal with Clint Eastwood and the chair at the GOP convention is explained in detail (unbelievable), as is the debate prep for Obama and how it compared to his terrible performance at the first debate.

I hope that Halperin and Heilemann continue to work together and write a Game Change book for 2016--that should be a very interesting race, with not only (most likely) Hillary Clinton and Christie, but other names that might throw their hat into the ring, including Rand Paul and Vice President Joe Biden.

I Recommend: Inferno, The Land of Stories: The Enchantress Returns, Room & Double Down

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