American Sniper: The Auto-Biography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History (Chris Kyle)

I am glad to have read this book right before this most recent election, which seems to have the entire country at each other’s throats. This autobiography serves as an explicit reminder of those Americans who are fighting overseas, what they are fighting for, and why it is important.

Kyle’s informal writing style moves this book along quickly, creating the illusion that you are conversing with an average American, not an experienced and seasoned academic writer. This enhances the overall feel of the novel, making it accessible to anyone who decides to read it. Kyle continually refers to himself as a regular kid from Texas, attempting to remain modest throughout the tales of his military successes overseas.

As it features a Navy Seal operating in Iraq, this autobiography frequently tests the boundaries of political correctness. Many who have reflected on the book before me have found this to be a real negative aspect of it, but I feel as though criticizing the book in this way speaks to a misunderstanding of the author’s experiences and viewpoints. It is very easy for the average book critic to comment on Kyle’s insensitivity towards the Iraqi people and radical Islamic extremists, but this attitude seems remarkably naive. While Kyle does his best to place his readers in the shoes of the American soldiers fighting in Iraq, how could you possibly relate to this experience without being there yourself?

The history nerd in me loved the play-by-play explanations that Kyle provided of different operations and battles throughout the war. I loved reading about the different stages of the Iraqi war and the ways that different military units operated, both together and independently. It is fascinating to read Kyle’s firsthand account of such things, as you do not get this often enough in the media or in much of the existing material on the War in Iraq.

Of course, Taya’s excerpts help reveal the incredible strain that military life can have on a family. Her frustrations at raising her kids alone and feeling as though Chris could never love her or their family as much as war are both depressing and thought-provoking. In a lot of ways, military families give up their sense of normalcy as one spouse continues to serve in the armed forces. Chris’ difficulty returning to an average lifestyle when on leave is indicative of the further complications that military families must face. Chris’ eventual decision to return home and take on his role as a father was a happy ending to this marital conflict, but it seems as though not all families are so lucky.

This book is a beacon of patriotism and inspires its readers to take a step back and appreciate those who are fighting for our country. Kyle mentions a few times that he is not fighting in Iraq for any reason except that he is loyal to his country and this is where his country has sent him to fight. This seems to be a direct comment to those who protest the soldiers fighting our wars, which unfortunately does happen around the country. Kyle also takes extreme acts of protests, such as burning a flag, as a direct insult and disrespect to himself and other American soldiers. I wish I could encourage all American protesters to think about this before acting in such a way, and remember who, and what, they are disrespecting when they do such things. Where we would be without our military?


Dracula (Bram Stoker)

5 Star

Finally, the reason I have been away from this page for a few weeks – Dracula! I finished this novel today and I am very excited to write about it. It made a definite impression on me and left me reflecting on the story and its legacy on the genre of vampire fiction that followed.

Stoker is an excellent writer, and I stopped numerous times to note phrases that I particularly enjoyed. While I frequently underline quotes while I read, it is rare for me to stop to appreciate so much of an author’s language. He is especially impressive in his use of similes and other comparisons, creating sentences and paragraphs that flow together and make a reader stop to appreciate the elegant simplicity of his writing.

Many of my underlined passages come in the journal entries of Mina and Jonathan Harker, whose romance inspires me today, over a century after Stoker originally conceived of it. At the start of Dracula, Jonathan is away from his fiancé on business at Castle Dracula, and Mina becomes sick with worry at his continued unexplained absence. After being reunited, we see them marry and care for each other throughout the hunt for Count Dracula. Together, they discover and face their own weaknesses and imperfections, and their love for one another never wavers. This love inspires all those around them and acts as the continuous beacon of hope throughout the novel.

During the novel, I frequently wondered how much of the story Stoker invented and how much of it was taken from or inspired by existing 19th century vampire folklore. After I finished reading, I looked it up and was surprised to learn that Stoker actually borrowed much of the vampire descriptions from earlier essays and writing. This does not diminish the novel for me, but was definitely surprising as I was under the assumption that Dracula was the first concrete start of Vampire fiction.

However much inspiration Stoker took from other authors, it he clearly left a significant legacy on the genre. Elements of his story are reminiscent of modern vampire stories and television shows, and even of other fantasy stories. The hypnosis of Mina to spy on Dracula immediately reminded me of J.K. Rowling’s “horcruxes,” and the infamous connection between Harry and Voldemort. Maybe it’s the Harry Potter nerd in me, but this definitely seemed like a potential inspiration for Rowling’s idea.

This is probably my favorite of all the classics that I have read this summer, and I would encourage everyone who loves a good suspense story to pick it up immediately!

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson)

This was, for lack of a better term, a really cool book. I expected it to be much longer, considering the amount of literature and other media that it has inspired over the years. My first exposure to the character(s?) came with The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, a movie loved by a childhood friend of mine.  Like many of its modern readers, I began the book with the preexisting knowledge that Jekyll and Hyde were one and the same.
This knowledge did not take away from the story at all, and it was still exciting to read the original tale of Jekyll & Hyde. In some ways, it made it even more interesting, as I tried to figure out what was going on as I read through the beginning of the book. At  Stevenson’s first description of Hyde, I was immediately thinking to myself, “That’s Hyde!” and then spent the next few chapters waiting to see if I might be right. Stevenson’s tale, being the original, also explains exactly how Jekyll becomes Jekyll and Hyde, a fascinating bit that is often left out of modern adaptations.

The book was the perfect mix of creepy and entertaining, keeping the reader anxious to learn more with each turning page. Stevenson evolves his tale into a commentary on the good and bad in all of us, and the dangers of allowing evil to dominate your personality. This was a very thought-provoking book that leaves readers considering their own identities and how they might act in Jekyll’s shoes – I would recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it, as we can all benefit from a bit of self reflection.

The Firm (John Grisham)

3 Star

After I finished this book, I was not really sure if I liked it. It was definitely entertaining, but Grisham’s writing style is a bit choppy for my tastes and I really disliked the ending. That being said, I am writing this review a few months after actually finishing the book, and the more time I have to consider it, the more I like the book.

At first I was somewhat turned off by the initial plot, in which a lower middle class lawyer takes a job with a strange but extravagant “old boys club” law firm. While I was intrigued by the concept of this firm, I did not really like Mitch McDeere’s character. I felt that he was somewhat underdeveloped in the beginning, just your basic, stereotypical, new lawyer character. However, as you learn more about McDeere’s relationship with his wife and the story continues, the character definitely becomes more developed and captivating.

I mostly enjoyed the more suspenseful parts of the novel, throughout which Grisham somehow transforms the dealings of a shady law firm into a page-turning thriller. I won’t give away the ending, but I have to admit that I was incredibly disappointed by it and had hoped that it would end in a variety of potential scenarios other than the way it did.

It probably comes through in this review that I am really not sure how to rate this book. In the end, Grisham kept me engaged throughout the story and it has remained in the back of my mind for all of these months, which are generally two marks of a good book. I will conclude this review by saying that although I am conflicted, I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys lawyer-centric or white collar crime novels, with the advice to give it a chance even if you might not be hooked in the beginning.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Mark Twain)

5 Star

This book pulled at all the chords in my heart. This was my first novel by Mark Twain, and although not quite what I was expecting, I really enjoyed reading it. Twain writes a captivating narrative of childhood, or life through Tom’s eyes. From start to finish, it is not difficult to put images to Twain’s writing, clearly seeing the young Tom playing pirates with his friends, or witnessing a crime, or developing the fickle but innocent crushes that only children could. 

Although I had never read the book before, I knew some of the story, such as the bit about painting a fence which has become no less than a cliché throughout America. Tom, although a troublemaker, seems to represent the majority of boys that I work with today, and those that I knew in my childhood, including my own brother. Energetic troublemakers, but undoubtedly good at heart.

While much of Twain’s story expands into the realm of unrealistic, at least by today’s standards, it remains charming and pleasant to read. I loved the part of the story where the boys run away from home to play “pirates” on an island, and I was rooting for Tom as he attempted to find his way out of the dark cave. I am definitely glad that I read this one during the summer, as it almost would’ve seemed wrong to read it during a season unfit for being outdoors.

I enjoyed reading about Tom’s adventures, and I am excited for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, currently sitting on a shelf waiting for me to finish the book I am reading now. I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a nice story that will leave you feeling nostalgic and dreaming of the simplicity of childhood.

Murder on the Orient Express (Agatha Christie)

4 StarAs someone who enjoys murder mysteries and suspenseful stories, this book was right up my alley. Although I have always gravitated towards murder mysteries, I have not read much Agatha Christie, although that will probably change after reading this book.

Christie has a great “whodunnit” style that remains lighthearted while still keeping you on your toes. This is the type of book that I read in a weekend, making it great for the summer or any other time that you might be on vacation. While I admittedly read it while lounging on the couch, I could see this being a great book to read while traveling. The book becomes more and more of a page-turner as it continues and you learn more about each character and become engaged in the mystery. I was trying to guess the murderer’s identity from the very beginning, and I have to say, I never even came close.

While Christie keeps her story feeling authentic and unique, there is a refreshing simplicity to her writing and plot. It is so common in this genre’s modern stories to become convoluted into the most bizarre and complex storylines, often supplemented by shock-value violence or action. Christie crafts a simple whodunnit plot – Someone is murdered on a train carrying a detective, a murderer, and a collection of suspects. Genius! Christie’s style brings us all back to a simpler time and reminds us that the value is not in the complexity of the story, but in the way that it is told.

I would recommend this page-turner to anyone looking for a fun book to read when you have a few days off or are traveling on a long trip.

Play Dead, Stay Dead, Pretty Dead: Elise Sandberg Series (Anne Frasier)

4 Star Warning: Clicking through to Continue Reading will reveal spoilers.

The Elise Sandberg series got me through a horrific cold last weekend, and for that I am grateful. All three books were entertaining, with plot twists that kept throwing me for a loop. These were exactly the type of suspenseful crime stories that I needed to keep me sane while confined to bed for most of the weekend. While I hope none of my blog-visitors get sick, I would definitely recommend this series for those of you battling the beginning winter cold season. Along that thread, Frasier’s novels are exciting enough to bring spice to any boring day or event, whether you’re taking a long trip, snowed in, or otherwise unhappily stuck in one place.

The second book in the series, Stay Dead, definitely took the cake for me. This was my favorite, as it kept me on my toes and trying to piece together Elise’s experiences between the first two novels. After reading page 1 of Stay Dead, I actually closed out of the book on my Kindle and checked to make sure that I hadn’t accidentally skipped a book. I liked Frasier’s technique of not explaining what she was doing, and letting the reader figure out how much time had passed and what happened in that space. Frasier expertly leads you through what you need to know to become engaged in the mystery, without giving away too much too soon about what happened to Elise.

Crime novels, as much as I love them, often feature underdeveloped or shallow characters. In this series, Frasier deeply develops Elise and David’s characters, although she leaves much of the minor characters’ stories to the readers’ imagination. Sometimes this style of storytelling bothers me, but it did not so much in this case. Elise in particular has a very unique story, taking in elements of witchcraft and superstition that is uncommon to most literature that I read. At first I was a little turned off by Elise’s belief in these other-worldly ideals, probably because I am not at all open to such things, but her quirkiness grew on me as the story progressed.

Frasier also does a great job of incorporating Savannah, GA into her series, making it seem as if the city has a personality and a mind of its own. I liked the way the city’s history and ambience wormed its way deep into each of the storylines, and it actually made me want to go visit Georgia to see what all the fuss is about. As a comparison, I have read many books set in Seattle recently, and none of them were able to inspire the same interest in the city as Frasier has done in Savannah. I consider this a testament to her writing skill and ability to inspire an emotional response in her readers.  Frasier develops Savannah as more than just the setting, creating a unique atmosphere and feeling that persists throughout all three novels.

Warning: Spoilers past this point.

Continue reading