Friday, July 24, 2015

Historical Fiction: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

I picked up Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North after it was named the winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. I typically don't go for books that deal with war and POWs in intense detail, but I decided to put all of my nerves and squeamishness aside and dive right in.

The Situation: Dorrigo Evans grows up to be an Australian doctor in the time around World War II. Before becoming a soldier, and later a prisoner of war in Thailand, Dorrigo meets Ella, and it is assumed that they will someday be married. He loves Ella tremendously, but that love soon pales in comparison to how he feels about Amy. It is only after an initial encounter with Amy in a bookstore that he learns that she is actually the much younger wife of the uncle he had traveled to visit. But despite this, the two end up falling in love anyway despite that complications that can come from it, and the other two people they are each supposed to be in love with.

The Problem: While serving in WWII, Dorrigo ends up in a POW camp in Thailand under the Japanese. While he may be put into a leadership position and therefore spared some of the heavier work, his responsibilities as a leader and a doctor still take their toll. He does his best to take care of the sick and injured, while also placing them on light duty and keeping them from the most grueling work. But in the end, his attempts to save those under him prove useless under the harsh command of the Japanese. Plus, it is while he is captured that Amy will learn of his death, even though the report is false. And even after enduring the awful conditions of the POW camp, and witnessing the needless death of those around and under him, Dorrigo will return to a woman he no longer loves, mostly because his heart is still tied to his uncle's wife.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical novel set mostly in the early 1940s during WWII. There is a brief glimpse into Dorrigo's early life, and later chapters do explore the life he made for himself after the war is over. A lot of the novel is also told from the point of view of several of the soldiers that were under Dorrigo while in the POW camp, some of whom will survive to return home, while others will not. The reader even gets some perspective from some of the Japanese and Korean soldiers who were responsible for the harsh conditions the Australian soldiers endured while they were captured. Many of the Japanese and Koreans will be brought to justice later as war criminals, while others, much like the Australians, will go on to live normal lives and die normal deaths. Ultimately, this book is a love story, but it talks about war and survival more than anything else.

My Verdict:  This is not really the type of book I usually pick up. I am always somewhat wary of historical fiction because there is only a certain type I truly enjoy, and the ones that center on war do not fall within that category. With that being said, I enjoyed this book much more than I thought I would. And it is very much about war, and about the extremely awful situations that POWs during WWII had to endure. Some of the content is ridiculously graphic and hard to read, but I still enjoyed the book and would recommend it to others. And it didn't feel like the book was graphic just for the sake of being graphic...more like it was graphic for the sake of just being real and honest. I can see why it won the Man Booker Prize and recommend it even to those who may not gravitate towards stories about war and death.

Favorite Moment: When Dorrigo and Amy see each other years later, but the encounter doesn't go quite as many readers would imagine it would.

Favorite Character: Darky Gardiner is one of the soldiers under Dorrigo's command in the POW camp. He isn't the smartest of strongest, or even the most well-liked soldier in the bunch, but he seems to be the most compassionate and the one most able to keep his spirits up despite the horrible situation he is stuck in.

Recommended Reading: I would recommend A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, a novel about two doctors risking their lives to save a little girl, set during the conflict in Chechnya.   

Friday, July 17, 2015

Nonfiction: As You Wish by Cary Elwes

I'll admit it. I had never actually seen The Princess Bride all the way through until a couple of years ago. It had been on my parent's television in the house I grew up in many times, so I remember many scenes, specifically the epic battle of wits between the Man in Black and the Sicilian Vizzini. But for whatever reason, as a child, I never saw the movie all of the way though, but I knew it was beloved by many people my age. However, that didn't automatically mean that once I sat down to watch it that I was going to enjoy it just like everyone else. I had tried that with other so-called classics that I had missed out on when I was younger and the result was me not being able to finish them (Labyrinth, I am looking in your direction). Of course, The Princess Bride was different in that I loved it, and I understood why it was so quotable. And if I hadn't liked it, there is no way I would have read the actual book, or read As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes.

Genre, Themes, History: This is of course a nonfiction book about the behind-the-scenes adventures that went on while making The Princess Bride, a movie that was adapted from the book of the same name by William Goldman. The book's author, Cary Elwes, portrayed the male lead in the film, Westley/the Man in Black. Starting with getting the call from his agent that director Rob Reiner wanted to meet with him, Elwes tells the story of the making of the now classic movie, with periodic inserts from others who either acted in the film or were involved in its production in some way. The reader gets insight from Reiner himself, his partner Andy Scheinman, Robert Wright (Buttercup), Mandy Patinkin (Inigo Montoya), Billy Crystal (Miracle Max), etc. The only ones we don't get to hear from are the ones who, sadly, have passed away, such as André the Giant and Peter Falk. And it seems as if Elwes has left nothing out as he talks about what it was like to work everyone; the excruciating training he and Patinkin had to do for their epic sword fight; how smitten he was with Wright; how great Reiner was to work with; and even how he suffered two injuries during filming. It is a book Elwes took on writing after attending the 25th anniversary for the movie. And I am sure that fans that are far more loyal than I am are grateful for it.

My Verdict: I am sure I would have gotten even more out of this book had I been a loyal fan since the movie came out in the 1980s. But even though I am late to the party, I still thoroughly enjoyed this book and the stories it told, even the ones I had already heard. Reading from Elwes' point of view about wrestling the Rodents of Unusual Size and drinking with André the Giant is better than reading facts and trivia off of IMDb, which is is also fun. Elwes continues the story well after the movie was done filming, talking also about how Fox didn't know how to market it, how it was moderately received, and then how it had ultimately exploded into the popular phenomenon it is today. I would recommend this book even to those out there who, much like myself, aren't necessarily die hard fans of the movie. It is simply an enjoyable read and a fun behind the scenes look at a wonderful movie, written by the Man in Black himself.

Favorite Moment: Any time Elwes tells a story that has André at the center, I was thrilled. He was apparently the very definition of a gentle giant and the sweetest person alive.

Favorite Character: I get that it's weird to pick a favorite character from a nonfiction book, but I am doing it anyway. From the book, my favorite was absolutely André the Giant. From the movie, my favorite character is most certainly Inigo Montoya. 

Recommended Reading: One of my favorite memoirs of all time is Born Standing Up by Steve Martin. It is a different kind of book from As You Wish, mostly because it focuses on the career of one man as opposed to the behind-the-scenes action from one film. And it is written in the fun and easy-going manner that only Martin could pull off.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Classic Fiction: The Princess Bride by William Goldman

The full title of William Goldman's classic is The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure. What many people don't know about The Princess Bride, especially those who have only seen the movie and not read the book, is that the story we now know containing Buttercup, Westley, Inigo, Fezzik, and all of the rest is originally an abridged retelling of another story by S. Morgenstern...or at least that is how the story goes. Goldman simply cut out the boring parts and gave his readers what he figured they wanted: love, adventure, sword fights, hand-to-hand combat, giant rodents, a Fire Swamp, white horses, and even a Zoo of Death.

The Situation: The story that Goldman is wishing to retell focuses on the love between Buttercup, the most beautiful woman in the world, and a farm boy, Westley. The two have fallen in love with each other, and Westley decides to seek his fortune in America so that he may come back and be able to have Buttercup's hand in marriage. But just after Westley sets sail, his ship is captured by the Dread Pirate Roberts, and he doesn't take prisoners. This news reaches Buttercup, and after believing that Westley has died, resigns herself to living without love. But since she is the most beautiful woman in the world, she has caught the attention of Count Rugen, who brings her to the attention of Prince Humperdinck. After hearing that The Prince isn't after love, only marriage, Buttercup agrees to be his future queen.

The Problem: The Prince actually isn't all that interested in marriage. It is something he has to do as the heir to the throne. Just as his father got married and produced a male heir, so he must do so as well. Even before he and Buttercup can be married, she is kidnapped by three men, who clearly intend to kill her. The leader is a humpbacked Sicilian, and following his orders are a sword fighting Spaniard and a giant. And if that wasn't bad enough, there also seems to be a mysterious Man in Black following all of them, whose intentions are unclear. Buttercup has already decided that she will live the rest of her life without love. If she survives her present ordeal, she'll be married to someone she doesn't care for and who doesn't care for her. But if her trio of kidnappers succeed, she won't even live to see her wedding day. And then of course, there is still the mysterious Man in Black.

Genre, Themes, History: The Princess Bride is a fantasy/adventure novel that satirizes the genre. It has plenty of adventure with sword fighting, giants, kidnapping, pirates, sand pits, large rodents, torture devices, and even a battle of wits over poisoned cups of wine. And while there are moments that are incredibly serious, and people do die, it all happens with an undercurrent of hilarity and ridiculousness. Even the trio of kidnappers, with their incredibly sinister plot, will cause the reader to laugh out loud as they interact with each other and attempt to outrun the Man in Black. Scenes involving incredible and painful torture seem to be written with the author winking at the reader, making the scenes almost comical despite the seriousness of what is happening. There is a reason the book was made into such an enjoyable and well-loved film that is now one of the most quoted movies ever. It is a family-friendly story that even adults can enjoy. And as it is supposed to be an abridged version of an S. Moregnstern story - who doesn't exist as author by the way, and neither does his book - there are a few interruptions by Goldman himself throughout the text presented in red letters. And of course, these interruptions are the author once again winking at his audience and acknowledging what is really going on.

My Verdict: Seeing as how Goldman wrote the screenplay for the movie, it wasn't surprising that the book and the movie are incredibly similar. So for many people who saw the movie first, there won't be many differences to point out between the two. Many of the little one-liners that we have come to love from the movie are also in the book. Really, the biggest difference between the two is that there is no sick grandson being read to by his grandfather. So it is easy to say that I enjoyed the book just as much as I have enjoyed watching the movie and think other people will feel the same way.

Favorite Moment: The epic final showdown between Inigo Montoya and Count Rugen.

Favorite Character: With the movie, Inigo is my favorite character, and that does not change with the book. I don't know if it is his intense commitment to avenging his father's death, or the scene with the Count in the castle, but I have always liked him the best. 

Recommended Reading: There could be a few options here. For the whole family-friendly adventure story with elements of fantasy, I recommend L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz. For the story within a story angle, I recommend Michael Ende's The Neverending Story. Also, I think readers would enjoy S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Horror Fiction: Within These Walls by Ania Ahlborn

It's been a good long while since I have been able to cover a book that falls into the category of horror fiction, and Ania Ahlborn's Within These Walls seemed like the perfect candidate. The synopsis promised a haunted house, ghosts, and a mysterious cult leader. And with everything that went on in the book, I wouldn't have been surprised if there was also an Indian burial ground and creepy possessed children.

The Situation: Lucas Graham hasn't published a successful book in years. So when Jeffrey Halcomb, a man who was accused of killing a woman and her baby, while also convincing nine others to kill themselves, reaches out to him and offers him the story subject he has been waiting for, he naturally jumps at the opportunity. After having been arrested in 1983, Halcomb has kept completely silent about what happened in the house in Pier Pointe, Washington. He is willing to give Lucas, and only Lucas, an interview, but in order to receive something every media outlet and true crime writer has wanted, Lucas must stay in the very house where Halcomb committed his crimes. His wife, Caroline, is against uprooting the family from New York and moving halfway across the country, even if it is for the writing opportunity of a life time. Of course, she has no idea he already said yes.

The Problem: Before Lucas even introduces the idea of living in a former murder house in order to get the story of what really happened there, his relationship with his wife was already strained. And the one with his preteen daughter, Virginia, isn't much better. While Lucas and Virginia pack up to head to Washington, Caroline gets ready for a trip to Italy, with the man that Lucas knows she is cheating on him with. And while he is glad to have his daughter along with him and possibly a chance to fix whatever is broken between them, Lucas worries about his daughter finding out the real reason they are going to Seattle, and what really happened in the house they are now staying in. As time moves on, and Lucas' dream opportunity slowly turns into a nightmare, he still manages to hold on to the quickly fading hope that he'll get the story that will save his career. Meanwhile, Virginia is able to find out all about the house and Jeffrey Halcomb on her own, leading to her own side project. But with strange things beginning to happen in and around the house, it is clear that whatever motives they each may have for this trip are secondary to someone else's.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a horror novel set partly in modern day, and partly in the early 1980s. For the most part, the story follows Lucas and Virginia as they coexist in the house in Pier Pointe. But the entire story of what happened back in 1983 is also revealed slowly throughout the book, leading up to the day of the gruesome murder/suicides. A big part of both stories is the charming and enigmatic cult leader Jeffrey Halcomb, a man who managed to gather a following out of lost, addicted, or abandoned runaways and convince them that he is little less than a god. At first glance the group looks like a band of traveling hippies who never stay in one place too long and refuse to get real jobs, while operating out of the belief that the individual is nothing and that personal sacrifices are made for the good of the group. Halcomb makes the young recruits feel special; assures them they are not alone; and offers them safety and love, something they are all too eager to except. But his darker more sinister objective soon surfaces, and the more committed members of the group remain undeterred and still believe in their leader. It is an eerie look at what one person can convince someone else to do by saying the right words and being attractive enough. And it is the kind of terrible parenting that Lucas and Caroline offer up to their daughter Virginia that cause otherwise grounded people to follow someone like Halcomb.  

My Verdict: I am all about horror stories that are sufficiently terrifying without being crazy bloody. And this book fits that perfectly. Having people live in a haunted house where an awful murder and mysterious suicides took place is creepy enough. Simultaneously tell the story of a charming cult leader who seems to be able to get pretty much anyone to do what he wants, and you've got more than just a ghost story. Jeffrey Halcomb is the ultimate villain, pulling strings that people don't even realize are being pulled, including his most devoted followers. It's the kind of story that makes you wonder if Halcomb is really the charming and manipulative, or are the people he picks that broken and desperate? Maybe it is a little bit of column A, and a little bit of column B. Either way, it is an unnerving tale and one that makes you ask yourself how far you would be willing to go to please someone with an attractive personality, offering you everything you've always wanted. 

Favorite Moment: I'm not sure I can pick a favorite moment. Everything in this book is incredibly dark and there isn't one part that stood out that I can say I really loved.

Favorite Character: Again, I don't think I can pick anyone. Everyone in this book is either crazy, annoyingly desperate, or just stupid...or some combination of all three. Halcomb convinces people to do ridiculous things so easily. And just when it starts to look like someone has a will of their own, it is either too late, or the easily fold under the slightest pressure.

Recommended Reading: Marisha Pessl's Night Film follows another writer as he is trying to uncover the true story behind a famous director of cult classic horror movies after the mysterious death of the director's daughter. There are no ghosts, but there is a (seemingly) haunted house and many "followers" of the famed director and his movies.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Young Adult Fiction: Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

Any regular readers out there had to know this was coming. Today I am covering Saint Anything, the newest release from Sarah Dessen. I was late to the Dessen game when I covered both What Happened to Goodbye and The Moon and More about two years ago. Since then, I have been slowly collecting Dessen's other books and reading them apart from this blog. Needless to say, I was excited to get my hands on her latest release and talk about it here.

The Situation: Sydney Stanford feels invisible. At first she was used to simply being in her brother Peyton's incredibly charming and attractive shadow. But as he began to get in trouble, Peyton still continued to be the family's focus, but also the source of their stress and concern. His most recent accident has led to serious jail time, and left a young boy permanently disabled. Even with her brother locked away, Sydney still remains invisible as most of her mother's efforts go towards staying in contact with Peyton and knowing how he is doing, while her father seems to just be trying to stay away, as if in an effort to not face what is happening with is son. Unfortunately, this also means not having much face-to-face time with his daughter.

The Problem: When money gets tight due to the legal fees, Sydney decides on her own to give up her costly private school education at Perkins Day and transfers to Jackson High School instead. This isn't really a problem as Sydney actually makes new friends, two of which are Layla and her older brother, Mac. Layla is actually instrumental in keeping Ames, a very creepy friend of Peyton's, at bay, as he clearly has designs on Sydney. And Mac is a just a great guy who seems to actually see Sydney, something she isn't used to. Unfortunately, her parents still remain preoccupied with her brother, and don't understand her protestations about being alone with Ames. Also, Sydney feels like she is the only one who feels guilty about poor David Ibarra, the young boy Peyton left disabled and wheelchair bound, and that guilt is eating her alive. It seems things are bad enough because of what her brother has done, but Sydney still has plenty of trials ahead, and is hoping her new friends can help see her through. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel told from the point of view of a young girl with an older brother who has been in and out of trouble. His most recent crime has been drinking and driving, and ended with him striking a young boy and leaving him in a wheelchair. While the most the reader can get from Peyton is the occasional phone call, it is clear that Sydney is riddled with guilt, even though that accident had nothing to do with her. Everyone in the family is dealing with this in their own way. Sydney's mom seems intent on ignoring the fact that her son was at fault, something that infuriates her daughter, while her dad seems to want to ignore everything. So Sydney continues to feel invisible until she meets the Chatham family. Dessen has admitted that Sydney's feelings of invisibility are somewhat reminiscent of how she felt as a teen. And in the dedication, Dessen says this book is for the "invisible girls," as well as her readers. Much like in her other books, Dessen has touched on something that is important to many teens and that many will be able to relate to.

My Verdict: I was right to be excited about this book. We have all felt the disappointment of reading a sub-par book by a favorite author, especially after waiting so expectantly for it to come out. That did not happen here. And while I won't say that Saint Anything is Dessen's best work - I know Dessen fans all have their own favorite - it most certainly will not disappoint. Teenage first person narrators can often be annoying, and while Sydney has her faults, she at least didn't grate on my nerves. In fact, I was really rooting for her, cheering her on, and felt proud of her in the moments when she decided to speak up, fight, reach out, or even just break down and sob. She wasn't clueless, and she didn't sit around waiting for someone else to solve her problems. And she certainly didn't believe that all of her problems would disappear if she landed a boyfriend. While the issue with her older brother and how her family is handling it is the primary focus of the story, there is so much more going on and so many other characters to also cheer on. And like many of Dessen's other novels, there are small moments of wonder that make the characters, and the reader, just want to pause in the moment, despite the chaos that is circling around them.

Favorite Moment: When Layla expertly gets Sydney's mother to agree to let her spend the night with just the mention of paint fumes and new carpet. If I explain it more I'll ruin it so trust me, it is glorious.

Favorite Character: There are quite a few to choose from. There is Mrs. Chatham, who has multiple sclerosis and almost always has at least one of her children watching over her. Despite barely knowing Sydney, she takes a genuine interest in her life and listens to her, something she needs. There is also Layla, a pretty straightforward girl with a weird thing about French fries, but who more or less saves Sydney from herself, and others. And there is also Irv, the gigantic black guy who hangs out in Sydney and Layla's group of friends who can't get drunk due to his size and isn't stingy with the occasional piggyback ride.

Recommended Reading: There are many parallels between this story and Jasmine Warga's My Heart and Other Black Holes. Both have female narrators with a family member who has committed a terrible crime and is locked away for it. Now they both feel like they are suffering for their loved one's mistakes. If you are looking for more from Dessen, I recommend Just Listen, one of her earlier novels. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Young Adult Fiction: Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

Under a Painted Sky is author Stacey Lee's debut novel about two young girls attempting to hide in plain sight on the Oregon Trail. It is a crazy adventure with two unlikely companions at the lead, in a world that has left them little else except each other.

The Situation: It is 1849 and Samantha, a Chinese-American violin player, wants nothing more but to return to New York City and open a conservatory for music. But her father has decided that they will head west to California instead. When she returns home after a day of teaching music lessons, she finds out that tragedy has struck and her father won't be going anywhere. And after fending off a would-be attacker, she finds an unlikely ally in Annamae, a slave who has decided to take her chances and runaway in search of her older brother. Both girls know they will be hunted by authorities on the lookout for a Chinese-American girl and a runaway slave, but staying in Missouri just isn't an option. And neither is heading out on the Oregon Trail alone as two teenage girls who won't be able to defend themselves should someone decide to take advantage.

The Problem: Samantha and Annamae have had enough happen to them already that has pushed them to leave Missouri. But out of desperation and a desire to not be caught, they decide they have no other choice but to pretend to be boys. After adopting the names Sammy and Andy, the pair happen upon a trio of cowboys who are also headed west and don't mind having the pair come along. They also don't seem to mind that Sammy is Asian and Andy is black. Cay, West, and Peety give the young "boys" a sense of comfort and security they would never have had on their own. They even teach them necessary skills that will come in handy along the open trail. But even with their new friends, Sammy and Andy must keep their real identities a secret. And it becomes clear that the Oregon Trail is full of various adventures that make pretending to be a boy the very least of they girls' worries.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set in 19th century America when many people were headed west to California, seeking their fortune in gold. For Sammy, it is the opposite direction she was hoping to go as she wanted to go back to New York. For Andy, it is the direction she would have gone anyway as she searches for the brother from whom she was separated in slavery. The two girls end up on the Oregon Trail (like in the iconic game) and join up with a group of cowboys from Texas. Many of the stops they make are stops many children of the 80's will remember from the game. And because Cay, West, and Peety are cowboys, there are lessons in shooting, roping, and horse-riding for their young companions. The group also encounters many other groups and families of varying ethnicities as they travel along the Oregon Trail. At one point they come across a group of rough Scotsmen who don't seem to care too much for anyone. And their little group is fairly diverse as Sammy is Chinese-American (something that often makes her stand out as there aren't many Asians in the Mid-West at this time), Andy is black, Peety is Mexican, and Cay and West are white. This makes for interesting discussions within the group, and also some tension outside of it when they come across certain people. The story more or less reads like a western adventure, but with an unlikely pair at the lead.

My Verdict: Maybe my reading history is limited, but I don't think I have ever read a book quite like this. The idea of a western adventure isn't terribly original. Neither is the idea of having girls dress up as boys to avoid suspicion and stay safe. But putting the two together seems original. And then to have the main protagonist be a Chinese-American girl who knows four languages and plays the violin is something else entirely. Giver her a runaway slave for a companion and this is one heck of a premise to try and follow-through on. However, I think Lee was incredibly successful in taking on this ambitious storyline. And while it is a fun adventure with potential danger in every group of people the travelers come upon, and even sometimes when they are on the trail by themselves, there are also serious moments full of heartbreak in the present, reflection on the past, as well as uncertainty about the future. This is a great book for YA readers looking for something just a little but different. 

Favorite Moment: When Andy reaches down and catches a snake with her bare hands, then quickly breaks its neck. Not bad for a girl.

Favorite Character: This is actually kind of difficult as there are several great characters in this book, but I guess it would either come down to Andy or Peety. Andy is the kind of person you would want to have on an adventure like this. She is tough, but gracious and patient, and often the voice of reason. Peety knows how to handle horses better than any of them, and of the three boys he seems to be the least antagonizing to the girls.

Recommended Reading: This was a different kind of YA novel from what I usually cover on this blog. Even so, I think I will recommend Ruta Sepetys' Out of the Easy. It isn't at all a western adventure, but it is set in 1950s New Orleans and follows a young girl who has her own adventure full of secrets and lurking dangers.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Contemporary Fiction: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Now that I have read Never Let Me Go, I was excited to pick up Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant. The recent publication has appeared on many lists to recommend it and is proving the be a new favorite for some. I knew going in that it would be different from Never Let Me Go, but I still trusted Ishiguro's masterful storytelling and beautiful detail.

The Situation: Beatrice and Axl, now an elderly couple, have decided it is finally time to journey to the village where their son is now living, after a very long separation from him. They realize they are old and that the journey will be dangerous and difficult, yet they have made up their minds and set out on their journey. What they don't realize is how important the memories of all of their years together will become to them, which is problematic seeing as how they both struggle to recall most of their life together. They also aren't prepared to be joined on the journey by Winstan, a Saxon warrior; Edwin, his orphan charge; and Sir Gawain himself, a knight from King Arthur's Round Table. The five of them will continue on this increasingly mythical journey, all with their own goals and plans.

The Problem: While Beatrice and Axl simply hope to reach their son, it seems Winstan and Sir Gawain also share a goal, to slay the great and dangerous she-dragon Querig. This shared goal should bring the two men together, but it only proves to ultimately push the two apart. As a knight who was given the task under King Arthur, Sir Gawain is reluctant to allow a Saxon warrior take the honor away from him. Meanwhile, Winstan set out on this journey with one goal in mind, and he won't let anyone, even a knight under the great King Arthur, stand in his way. And while the journey was no doubt going to be difficult for Beatrice and Axl, having the three others join them has only added to the journey's treachery. And when they discover that they also may have a stake in Querig's death, they realize they may not have the option of remaining passive participants.

Genre, Themes, History: This is more or less a fantasy novel with many elements taken from stories like Beowulf, as well as other texts that tell of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and even Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. In other words, there is quite a bit going on here. There is even a dragon that needs slaying, and the requisite journey that needs to be made in order to even reach it. On top of all of that, Ishiguro plays a lot with the ideas of memory and forgiveness. Beatrice and Axl want desperately to remember their shared past, while also fearing what will happen to their unity should their memories actually come back. Having the pleasant memories return is all well and good, but what happens when the bad memories of how someone hurt you returns? The ultimate end game for the story may be the death of the she-dragon, but having her slayed means much more than being safe from her attacks. And in many ways, her death would only be the beginning of the real journey.

My Verdict: To put it simply, this book was actually quite disappointing. It probably isn't at all fair to compare it to Never Let Me Go, but I am anyway, and The Buried Giant just does not measure up. For one, there are just too many unanswered questions when it comes to the end. Second, while at its core the book may be a journey to slay a dragon, there is mostly just a lot of talking and thinking that goes on. There are some page-turning spots, and both Winstan and Sir Gawain, along with Edwin, do provide the occasional fight scene. But even so, there really isn't much action to balance out the pondering and the talking. And the ending just isn't a big enough payoff for the slow moving story you have to endure to get there.

Favorite Moment: When Beatrice and Axl discover what is behind their fading memories.

Favorite Character: Beatrice and Axl both are delightful and surprisingly formidable old people, but it is the way Axl takes care of his wife along this increasingly difficult journey that endears him to me.

Recommended Reading: It will come as no surprise that I am recommending Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. It is a very different story that reaches more into the future than the past, and for me it is a much stronger novel.