My Favorite Characters in Fiction

Catcher in the Rye
Original Red Cover
Choosing a favorite literary character is tough because there are so many great characters from which to choose. For those among us who love to read, a great character is like a great friend. At first, you are not quite sure what to make of them, but they start to grow on you as you get to know them. The characters I consider my favorites are ones that I found to be mysterious, respectable or realistic in their vulnerability. Those listed here are just a few of my favorites.

Atticus Finch

Atticus Finch is one of the many unlikely heroes in Harper Lee’s "To Kill a Mockingbird." He is a lawyer whose wife is dead. With the help of a servant, he is raising his two children, Jem and Scout.

Atticus is a reserved gentleman who is getting on in years. His children obviously respect him, but they view him as something of a coward and a pacifist. They often wish he would show more bravery and be more macho.

During the course of the novel, Atticus decides to defend a black man who has been wrongfully accused of raping a white girl. A good portion of the people of Maycomb (the small town in Alabama where the Finches live) turn on Atticus and his children, but Atticus refuses to back down. As the book progresses Atticus proves to his children that there are many forms of bravery, and that he is indeed a very brave man.

Holden Caulfield

Holden Caulfield is the central character and narrator of J.D. Salinger’s "Catcher in the Rye." The novel is about the 3-4 days after Holden has been expelled from his prep school. He decides not to go home to his parents and instead spends a few confusing days staying in hotels and with random acquaintances.

While you may not agree with what Holden says or thinks, almost anyone can relate to the problems he is facing as a teenager. In the end of the novel Holden alludes to a stay in a mental facility. You are left to ponder whether he is truly insane or merely a misunderstood teenager.

Severus Snape
(Warning: if you have not read the Harry Potter series and plan to in the future do not read the rest of this article)

Severus Snape is easily the most enigmatic character in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Snape is Harry Potter’s potions professor and a former follower of the evil wizard Lord Voldemort. He displays a great hatred for Harry that is explained by a rivalry between Severus and Harry’s deceased father James.

Whenever something suspicious happens in the series Harry and his friends are quick to suspect Professor Snape. However, their genius headmaster Dumbledore assures the students that he has an unwavering trust in him. Readers will find themselves torn between suspecting and trusting Snape. You are forced to wonder whether he is working for Voldemort or for Dumbledore again and again. Not until the very end of the series do you see Snape for who he really is, a man who has given his life to avenge the death of the one woman he ever loved . . . Harry’s mother Lily.

I'm sure I could add quite a few more to this list, such as Gandalf the Grey, Roland Deschain, etc., but who wants to read a blog post that long about my favorite characters in fiction?

Shelly Barclay

Books That Changed the World

First Edition On the Origin of Species
First Edition "On the Origin of Species"
Courtesy of John Cummings
Not surprisingly, the written word has the power to change the world. It is able to span generations, continents, oceans and social classes. It can convey messages, meanings, ideas, truths, fictions, lies and technology. Some books simply contain information that changed the world. For example, an encyclopedia can tell you all about the atom bomb, but the book itself did not do the changing, the bomb did. Other books have the power to change things with the thoughts and ideas they contain.

The Bible

Whether we are talking about the New Testament, the Old Testament, the book of Tom, the gospel of Dick or the scripture of Harry, this stuff has changed the world. The Bible has shaped the way millions, possibly even billions, of people view the world. It has been the basis for social movements, wars, art, empires and much more. Its influence cannot be said to be a wholly positive one. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that many people live their lives according to this book, whether they do it rightly or wrongly.

The Koran

Another holy book that has shaped the lives of millions, possibly billions, of people is the Koran. Just about the same can be said for the Koran as for the Bible. There have been wars fought, laws changed or made, people killed, empires built and destroyed all with this book and the beliefs it outlines as the foundation for it. The effects of both the Koran and the Bible have lasted more than a thousand years.

"On the Origin of Species" by Charles Darwin

"On the Origin of Species" is the first thorough piece of literature to take a look at the theory of evolution. While Darwin was not the first person to theorize that species adapt and evolve over time, he was the first to make such a thorough body of work supporting it. In this way, "On the Origin of Species" changed the world. It brought evolutionary theory to the forefront of both religious and scientific minds. Some people look at it as the anti-bible. Others look at it as a book that was ahead of its time. Either way, there is no logically denying that Charles Darwin helped shaped science as we know it today.

Magna Carta

Magna Carta is not technically a book. It is a charter that was introduced in 1215 in England. This charter outlined several liberties that had been unheard of in England until that time. With the introduction of Magna Carta, the power of the monarchy was limited (very slightly) by a group of subjects for the very first time. It became the inspiration for constitutional law in in other countries as the years passed. In a way, Magna Carta opened up the door for governments for the people and by the people in the English-speaking world.

That a single book can change the world is an amazing and terrifying fact, as evidenced by the works listed above. These four books represent three important types of books that are capable of having a widespread effect on the world. Religious books have the capacity to change the hearts and minds of thousands, millions and billions of people. Scientific books (depending on what they contain) can teach us things that take us forward as a species. Finally, social and political books or works can give us a new grasp on what our rights should be and how we expect our societies to be run.

Shelly Barclay

Books I Have Read More Than Once

Harper Lee
Harper Lee
Some books are just so good that you have to read them again. Sometimes, you have to read them repeatedly. It does not matter how intellectual or significant the book is; there is just something about it that keeps drawing you back into the story. For me, this has been true for a great many books. However, there are a rare few that I have found myself reading closer to five times than one.

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

The Harry Potter series is not particularly mature reading. It is best described as youth fiction and easy to read youth fiction at that. This is certainly not typically the type of book I indulge in, let alone indulge in over and over. There is just something about these books that kept me coming back. I felt sorry for Harry; I loved the idea of witches and wizards living secretly amongst muggles; I was intrigued by the duality and complex nature of so many of the characters and, well, I was smitten with a group of books. I have read every single one of them about five times. I find myself reading them again every time a new Harry Potter movie comes out. Do not tell anybody, though. I am a little too old for Harry Potter.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee

"To Kill a Mockingbird" is, in my opinion, the best American novel ever written. Many would argue that assertion, but my love of this novel is unwavering. This book tells the story of a town, torn apart by bigotry and false accusations. It brings to light the bravery of people who have the nerve to stand up for people who cannot stand up for themselves in a racist southern town. Furthermore, it shows us that this bravery can be found in the least likely of places. "To Kill a Mockingbird" is nothing short of brilliant. I have no idea how many times I have read it.

"The Lord of the Rings" by J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien may not be the most flamboyant of authors. In fact, his work is rather in-depth and dry. However, it is his precision and attention to detail that make his works so wonderful. "The Lord of the Rings" contains so much accurate (in as much as it can be) information about a fictional world that it can make a writer's head spin. Every time I read it, I wonder how on Middle Earth he could have been so accurate and detailed at the same time. Every writer knows it is hard to avoid mistakes when you go for such a broad scope as creating another world, full of different races and even languages. Mistakes were exceedingly rare in this (these) book (books).

Other books that I have read more than once include several Charles Dickens titles, "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen, "The Stand" and "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon" by Stephen King and many more. I never find these books less enjoyable the more I read them. I hope that you have found some great books that make you feel the same way.

Book Review: The Maze of Bones by Rick Riordan

Rick Riordan
Rick Riordan
Courtesy of Larry D. Moore
The 39 Clues series targets children ages 8-12. As of now, only 10 of the books are out, by seven different authors. It is to be presumed that there will be 39 or more books in all. According to Scholastic Books, The 39 Clues "has been licensed in 22 languages to date" and the movie rights to the books have been purchased by DreamWorks Studios. The series has gained immense popularity among young readers. There are cards to collect and online games associated with the books as well. This clue madness all started with "The Maze of Bones" by Rick Riordan.

The 39 Clues begins with the introduction and demise of Grace Cahill, a matriarch with a will that is about to change the lives of all those in it. As she dies, her thoughts are with two of her descendants, Amy and Dan Cahill. Amy is fourteen-years-old and Dan is eleven-years-old. Grace is about to give them (and several others) a choice between two million dollars and the scavenger hunt of a lifetime. You get the sense that she knows what they will choose.

As the book goes on, you find that Amy and Dan are the least equipped, as far as money and chaperonage, of the Cahill family members that take up Grace's challenge. However, they are arguably the most resourceful. The book follows them as they race for the first of The 39 Clues, which will lead them to "The Maze of Bones." Along the way, they discover little clues about their very powerful family, their deceased parents and the scavenger hunt. There are a lot of subplots and mysteries in "The Maze of Bones," but they are simple enough to make The 39 Clues a perfect edition to the genre.

The plot and subplots of "The 39 Clues: Book One: The Maze of Bones" would make it suitable for an adult novel, if it were written differently. It is that interesting. However, it is simply not intricate enough for the average adult reader, which makes it perfect for kids. It has a great story, it is not too cutesy and the plot is easy to follow. There are plenty of sinister characters with evil intentions, but the follow-through is not bad enough to warrant concern for young readers. The two main characters, Dan and Amy Cahill are likable and their punk rock au pair is just cool enough for the kids and just responsible enough for adults.

The best part about "The Maze of Bones" and all of The 39 Clues books is that they follow real historical characters and true history in modern settings around the world. This is a great way for young readers to get interested in figures like Benjamin Franklin and Mozart. It is also a great way to get them curious about what historical figures are going to come next.

Shelly Barclay

Book Review: "One False Note" by Gordon Korman

Mozart is the focus of "One False Note"
by Gordon Korman.
"One False Note" by Gordon Korman is the second installation in The 39 Clues book series. The 39 Clues follow Dan and Amy Cahill on their adventure to find 39 clues left by their ancestors that lead to power and riches beyond their imagining - or so they've been told. The problem is they are not just trying to find clues. They are competing with their backstabbing extended family to reach the clues. Obviously, being the series' protagonists, Dan and Amy Cahill are the favorites. As of the second novel - "One False Note" - they are the only surviving Cahills who appear to have any redeeming qualities.

In "One False Note" by Gordon Korman, the Cahills discover that the next ancestor to leave them a clue was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Actually, his sister seems to have helped as well. This is one of the great aspects of "One False Note." In their search for the second of the 39 clues, Amy and Dan Cahill stumble across an oft forgotten, but important historical figure. Maria Anna Mozart was Wolfgang's older sister and reportedly a magnificent musician in her own right. Unfortunately, she would never be able to reach the success of her brother because of her gender. Gordon Korman is kind enough to remind readers about her.

The 39 Clues novels are written for children ages 8-12. Gordon Korman obviously knows how to appeal to this age group, while slipping in some great history and geography lessons, which seems to be the purpose of these novels. There is enough danger, excitement, intrigue and petty childishness in "One False Note" to keep any 8-12 year old interested. On top of that, even some adults could learn a thing or two about Mozart and his talented sister.

"One False Note" by Gordon Korman is, overall, a fast-paced, simple book. The plot is exceedingly easy to follow and the characters are predictable to the point of redundancy. Advanced readers in the age group may find it a bit too easy. It is sure to be interesting to them, but they will read it quickly and be on to the next one. If you are in the habit of reading your children's book selection before they do, you will be happy to know that "One False Note" goes by quickly and is not too horribly juvenile like other books in the genre. It is much easier on a parent's sense of learning than Captain Underpants, that is for certain.

Shelly Barclay

Book Review: "Bite Me: A Love Story" by Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore courtesy of Cody Harris
"Bite Me: A Love Story" by Christopher Moore is the story of a teenage gothic/emo/punk girl who calls herself Abby Normal. Abby Normal has become the minion of two young vampires who she calls the Countess and Floods. She has also become the girlfriend of a 'nerd' that she calls 'Foo Dog.' All of this occurs before she begins relaying her strange story. Her story is that of her clique of vampires, nerds and a rat lover fighting off a group of elder vampires and a horde of vampire cats led by a huge vampire, cat, human hybrid with the help of a group of stoner stock boys and two undercover cops. Just what one would expect of a Christopher Moore novel.

Anyone who has read Christopher Moore can tell you that he is very humorous, but that is never the full extent of his bag of tricks. Nonetheless, his brand of sarcastic, silly humor is what his readers have come to expect from him. Unfortunately, this novel is not as funny as many of his others. Do not get me wrong, the pansy Jared and his rat-loving weirdness is rather funny, as are his spats with a gay homicide detective. However, it seems like Moore tried too hard with the angry emo/peppy teenager dialogue on this one. It just got redundant after a while.

For those of you who are not familiar with Christopher Moore's earlier novels, "Bite Me" is the third in a trilogy. However, it is fine as a stand-alone novel. Many of the old characters are back and there are some new ones. For me, it was the characters that made the novel bearable, save Abby. I found her to be lacking in many departments. Luckily, characters like the Chinese grandmother, the sword dude and Jared made up for it.

Overall, I am sorry to say that "Bite Me" fell flat for me. That is saying a lot considering how much I have enjoyed many of Christopher Moore's novels. In fact, "Lamb" is one of my favorite books. That is not an easy feat for any author considering that most of my favorite books have names like Dickens, Austen, Dostoevsky, King and Steinbeck on them. Therefore, with that in mind, I will continue to read Moore's novels. I just won't be suggesting "Bite Me" to anyone soon and I will not be picking it up again.

Shelly Barclay

Best Young Adult Books for Boys

William Golding, Author of
"Lord of the Flies"
It can be difficult to choose novels for young adult men because, like all teenagers, they are coming into an age where they are learning about some of the more unsavory realities of the world. Therefore, it is hard to know what level of sexual content and deviant behavior in a novel is appropriate for them. For example, when they are first coming into their young adulthood, you can be pretty sure that they have heard adult language and can read it without any problem. However, knowing when it is okay to hand them a book that talks about masturbation or social nonconformity is difficult. Here, we have a few suggestions for more mature young adult men and for less mature young adult men. They are often considered among the best and/or most popular of the genre. Nonetheless, it is important to familiarize yourself with some of these books before handing them to your young man.

"The Lightning Thief" by Rick Riordan

"The Lightning Thief" by Rick Riordan was published in 2005 and has been quickly embraced by young adult men. It has since been made into a major motion picture titled "Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief." There is no doubt that young adults and children love it. The novel is not particularly challenging or offensive in anyway. You can feel comfortable handing this to a preteen. Furthermore, they may learn a little bit about Greek mythology when they read the book.

"The Lightning Thief" is about a twelve-year-old boy named Percy Jackson who suffers from ADHD and dyslexia. However, he is about to learn that his problems are actually symptoms of his parentage. It turns out that he is a demi-god, the son of Poseidon. He is taken to a camp for demi-gods, where he learns how to fight like one. After a few months, Percy is sent on a mission to find Zeus' lightning bolt, which has been stolen. He has to find it and return it to Zeus before a war breaks out between the gods.

"The Chocolate War" by Robert Cormier

"The Chocolate War" by Robert Cormier was published in 1974. It is not universally embraced as young adult fiction because of the novel's gritty content. However, a mature young man would be able to grasp the novel's themes of rebellion against conformity without getting lost in the adult content and bad language. This novel is on par with "Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger, so be sure your young man is ready for it.

"The Chocolate War" is about a young high school freshman named Jerry Renault who refuses to sell chocolates for his school. Seems slightly rebellious, but innocent enough, right? Well, it is more complicated like that. The school Jerry Renault attends thrives on conformity and blind obedience. Jerry's little rebellion starts as a task assigned to him by the school's gang, "The Vigils." They tell him not to sell the chocolates for ten days and then to join the rest of the school in selling them. The leader of the gang, Archie, is conspiring with the teacher in charge of selling the chocolates and has promised to see that they all are sold.

Inspired by a poster in his locker that reads, "Do I dare to disturb the universe," Jerry decides to challenge the conformist mentality in his school and takes on both the teacher and the gang by refusing to sell the chocolates even after his ten days are up. He sticks to his plan, despite his reluctant inclusion into a sort of popularity contest with Archie and the disapproval of his teacher. In the end, he is violently beaten by Archie while the teacher watches apathetically.

Other great books for young adult males:

"The Outsiders" by S.E. Hitton

"Hatchet" by Gary Paulsen

"Lord of the Flies" by William Golding

Anger in "Catching Fire" by Suzanne Collins

Actors' panel discussing the film "Catching Fire."
Courtesy of William Tung.
"Catching Fire" by Suzanne Collins is the sequel to her novel "The Hunger Games." All of the same characters are present with a few more thrown in. The plot is rife with hardships, betrayals, secret plots and the effects of evil dictatorship. Naturally, there is a lot of anger bubbling beneath the surface and bursting through the seams of this novel.

The main character and narrator of "Catching Fire" and "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins is a teenage girl named Katniss Everdeen. Katniss has been dealt many hardships in her young life and faces many more in "Catching Fire." Her situation often leaves her angry and distrustful. In Catching Fire, Suzanne shows Katniss getting over anger she used to feel toward her mother. She also shows Katniss in many situations where her anger is misdirected or slow in coming.

Many of us, if we were put in Katniss Everdeen's shoes, would live out our lives perpetually angry. Her father has died as of result of the government's neglect. She is forced to break the law to feed her family. Then, she is thrown in an arena to fight other teenagers to the death. All of this is the fault of the government. Katniss is obviously resentful, but her anger towards the government itself is slow burning. She is outwardly angry with the frivolous people in the Capitol. She is angry with the game makers, but unlike her friend Gale, she does not show outright anger with the Capitol itself, but you see it brewing.

Suzanne Collins brings Katniss' romances to another level in "Catching Fire." Katniss is coming close to having to choose between the two young men who love her. Suzanne often describes Katniss as angry with Peeta Mellark, rarely with Gale. Peeta is a kind person, but every imagined slight provokes Katniss' anger, be it just a thought or a cruel action. Katniss' treatment of Peeta and her mentor, Haymitch are prime examples of her misguided anger.

Another source of anger in "Catching Fire" by Suzanne Collins worth noting is President Snow. President Snow is depicted as a shallow, devious, ruthless and angry person. He is deeply angry with Katniss for ruining his last Hunger Games and possibly, inadvertently, inciting a rebellion. Katniss did not mean to do it, but Snow's anger is irrational. He seems determined to make her life hell. He displays his anger at other characters in Catching Fire as well. He is the hand behind every execution, punishment and torture that is doled out. He is the driving force behind all of the anger in the novel.

Shelly Barclay

Book Review: "Deviant Behavior" by Mike Sager

"Deviant Behavior" by Mike Sager is a jumbled combination of drugs, crime, history, metaphysics and archaeology. It’s set in both the seedy underbelly and the upscale areas of Washington, D.C., among other real and possibly imagined settings. It is a conglomerate of stories, all centered, firstly, on “the strip” (a morally degenerate area, rampant with prostitutes, pimps and johns). Further into the novel, the reader is introduced to a crystal skull, which is the real center of the novel and the tie that binds all of the story’s characters together.

"Deviant Behavior" gets off to a run of the mill start. The reader is first introduced to some middle-class, middle-aged and discontented men. These men are on a mission to get the prostitutes, pimps and johns off of “the strip.” The story then takes a few seemingly random and sometimes frustrating jumps. These jumps may occasionally make the reader want to skip ahead because they appear pointless and are sometimes, well . . . boring. However, Mike Sager does a good enough job writing "Deviant Behavior" that the reader just may plug on for fear of missing some of the good stuff, which crops up often enough.

Mike Sager incorporates many strange individuals into "Deviant Behavior," perhaps too many. He develops some very interesting and/or colorful characters. However, he could have given a little more background for some or done away with the background of a few. Regardless, characters like Jonathan Seede, a Washington Herald reporter who is also researching a book on drug culture while cultivating a crack habit to get his child-obsessed wife to pay attention to him, a drug dealer who goes by the name “Pope of Pot” and speaks like a crazed, hippy/druggy/religious leader, do lend a humorous and surprisingly insightful element to the novel.

If the reader can be patient with the mildly annoying jumps in the story line, "Deviant Behavior" actually pans out to be a good novel. Mike Sager takes the reader briefly into a world of mystery, spirituality and history. He also takes the reader into the lives of a hooker, a dealer, a pimp, a user, a very rich man, a good cop, a gay man and more. Not many more slightly cliché, yet exciting characters, places and objects could fit into this novel. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing will depend on the reader.

Shelly Barclay