Book Review: "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe" by Fannie Flagg

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Years ago, I watched the movie Fried Green Tomatoes for the first time. More than a stereotypical chick flick, this movie was funny, energetic and wholesome while tackling heavy topics. It's always been one of my favorites, yet I somehow never knew it was adapted from a novel. I learned that a few weeks ago when my sister asked me if I wanted to borrow Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg from her before she dug into it. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity and here I am.

At its core, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is about a woman named Idgie and her family. Idgie's sister-in-law narrates some of the story while telling tales of her life to her friend in the nursing home. However, there is much more to it than the core tale. While jumping around from the past to the future and back again at odd points, this book encompasses a lot of folks, all Southern and all just a little countrified.

In contrast to Idgie's adventurous and daring spirit, there is Evelyn Couch­–a modern housewife struggling through menopause and a crippling lack of confidence. Her friend Ninny is a bit like Idgie and encourages Evelyn to be herself and find help for her health issues. While Ninny often narrates some of the story of her friends and family's history, the book also slips into third-person, so the reader can get a glimpse of events Ninny didn't see, from murders to elephant marches. Also intertwined with these stories are fictional clippings from local newspapers involving characters and settings. I wasn't expecting that, and they proved to be quite funny at times.

Idgie is the soul of the novel and her soul mate is a woman named Ruth. I was a little surprised at how casually Fannie Flagg handled the fact that Ruth and Idgie were obviously gay. People around them knew it and this is Depression-era Alabama. I'm not entirely sure if people in that time and place would have been as accepting of such a relationship as the characters in the novel are or if Flagg wanted to leave that kind of bigotry out of the novel. In any event, it doesn't seem out of place.

There are a number of black characters in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. Some are staff and all are friends of the central cast of characters. Bigotry and racial violence is handled extensively and I think tastefully. From the shame of being thought an Uncle Tom to the added difficulties of being black, homeless and hungry during the Depression, readers get what feels like an inside look into life before Civil Rights. It feels genuine and thoughtful at every step.

Homelessness, alcoholism, spousal abuse, disability and loss are all interwoven into this otherwise uplifting novel. Love, affection, unconditional friendship and humor all appear to counterbalance these difficult, but relevant issues. For me, humor is what came through the most. A few tall tales, a parking lot run-in and some good food jokes all made Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe a happy, inspiring novel that is well worth the attention it, and its silver screen counterpart, has garnered over the years.

Shelly Barclay

The 39 Clues: The Sword Thief by Peter Lerangis

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The Sword Thief by Peter Lerangis is book three in the children's book series, The 39 Clues. It is the first of The 39 Clues books to feature prolonged "alliances" between the protagonists–Amy and Dan Cahill–and their flawed family members. It is also the first book to hint at a future romance between Amy Cahill and her spoiled cousin, Ian Kabra. (They are very distant cousins.)

Peter Lerangis follows the tradition of the first two 39 Clues books by having Amy and Dan Cahill antagonized persistently by their competition in the race for the 39 Clues. All of the previous characters have cameos, but the readers learn more about Ian Kabra and Alistair Oh. Natalie Kabra is also featured prominently in the book, but Peter has nothing to add to her vapid character. Alistair and Ian, on the other hand, become more multi-faceted and intriguing (for 8 and 12-year olds).

The Sword Thief by Peter Lerangis takes the search for the 39 Clues to Japan and Korea. The ancestor behind the third clue is a gold-crazy warrior by the name of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Hideyoshi is a former ruler of Japan and samurai warrior. He is probably best known for his restriction of weapons in the country. He ordered the 1588 Sword Hunt, which stripped the peasants of their swords. He also ruled that only samurai could carry weapons. He is the first of the ancestors pointing the way in The 39 Clues series to be a dubious historical character. It is a welcome change after the revered historical characters leading the way in books one and two.

As with the previous two The 39 Clues books, The Sword Thief adheres to the series' way of teaching young minds history while occupying them with trivial sibling rivalry, cool music, game and hobby references and, above all, adventure. Peter Lerangis and his predecessors could be the same writers as far as their miniature readers are concerned. The flow of the series is flawless, though doubtless easily rendered consistent given the simple context of the novels. Nonetheless, there is obviously some research involved in writing a The 39 Clues books.

The Sword Thief
by Peter Lerangis is a likable novel overall. He targets his audience well (like his predecessors) and has obviously left people wanting more, in a good way. The series is up to its tenth installment at the time this article was written. Peter Lerangis has been back since his first installment. He authored The Viper's Nest, which is book seven in The 39 Clues series.

Shelly Barclay

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

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It took me longer than expected, but I have finally finished Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I'm having mixed feelings about the whole thing. I know there are Potterheads among us who hate at least the print version of the play, and I know that there are those who insist its faults lie in its being a play. The latter believe seeing it in person resolves those flaws. I fall somewhat in the middle.

I'm not going to speak to the story line at all in this review because the book is still fairly new. Also, I think you can say a lot about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child without giving away the plot, so I'll do that. Suffice to say that you'll see heroes and antagonists old and new.

I was off to a rough start with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I found the dialogue off-putting, to say the least. Old characters lacked the charm they possessed in the novels. New characters had stilted and even corny lines. I've had people tell me "That's because it's a play!" This isn't the first play I've read. The dialogue was not appealing to me. Worse, I didn't get caught up enough in the plot to make up for it.

Now, I told you I was somewhere in the middle in terms of my enjoyment of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I began to enjoy it more somewhere around the third act. Some of the dialogue got a little more compelling, the action was a bit more convincing, and the old characters weren't as stupendously out of character. I did enjoy reading the play from this point on, though it still had its shortcomings. I've yet to see how it translates to the stage, so I'll reserve judgment on the final product.

While, as I said, I found Harry Potter and the Cursed Child enjoyable to a certain degree, I wasn't moved by it. In the novels, I was at times in tears. I laughed out loud. I grew to love the characters. None of that was happening with this play, and I'm afraid it had nothing to do with the lack of prose that comes with the format. I've enough imagination to fill in the blanks. I just wasn't swept away enough to laugh, cry or anything close.

All of the above being said, I'm so ready for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. If this isn't the last of the bunch, I really hope Rowling is the only writer of canonical Potter texts in the future.

Review and Summary: "The Giver" by Lois Lowry

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What can I possibly say about Lois Lowry's The Giver that hasn't already been said about this award-winning novel? Probably not much. Many a more astute reviewer has rattled on about it in the past decades. Nonetheless, I've set out to tell you about most of the books I read, so I'm going to do that now in the knowledge that you should just stop reading this and go read The Giver. Seriously.

*Some spoilers

I was born in the 80s and had a developed love of literature by the 90s. Lois Lowry was one of the first writers to hit me square in the feels. She did it with Number the Stars–a kiddo-friendly look at the horrors of the Holocaust. Because I loved that book so much as a kid, I determined to read The Giver long ago, but have only just got around to it. I shouldn't have waited.

They say there are no original ideas left, but I think there are a few that come close enough or are executed so well that it hardly matters. The Giver is a bit of both. For some reason, I was nostalgic for A Wrinkle in Time and 1984 when I read it. Neither had parallel stories, but a similar feel definitely permeated all three (only for a brief section in the case of A Wrinkle in Time). That nostalgic feeling was there, but the story was also so individual that I devoured it.

In a world filled with Sameness, a young man named Jonas is chosen to be the only one among his people with memories of suffering and joy. He is to receive all of the memories of their history by a man he comes to know as The Giver. The Giver labors under the weight of these memories and, while sympathetic with Jonas, is eager to relieve his pain. However, as Jonas learns the truth about his life, he and The Giver must decide if it's time to release their burden.

The Giver is a short, simple read with complex, thought-provoking themes. Yes, it is categorized as children's literature. It's not. It is a book that people of most age groups can appreciate that happens to be at an easy reading comprehension level. This novel moved me at the age of 33. I've been thinking about it since I completed it last night and will surely remember it fondly for the rest of my life.

Shelly Barclay

Plot Synopsis: "Merrick" by Anne Rice

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Merrick is the seventh book in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. In this novel, Rice unites Merrick, a witch of the Mayfair family, with some of the vampires from the first six novels. Merrick is also a member of a fictional scholar’s organization called the Talamasca. She is the third member of the Talamasca to become involved with the vampires, but she is the first Mayfair to do so. This book is the inevitable unification of two of Anne’s most popular series.

Series spoilers ahead.

The former Superior General of the Talamasca, David Talbot, narrates Merrick. David became a vampire at the hand of Lestat some years before the telling of this tale. Up until this point, David lost all contact with his friends in the Talamasca. However, the vampire Louis asks him (before the novel begins) to reconnect with his old friend Merrick. Louis wants Merrick to raise the soul of the dead child-vampire Claudia.

Louis and Lestat made Claudia in the first novel of the Vampire Chronicles. She was a tiny child when she became a vampire. During her life as a vampire, Claudia was morbidly angry at her fate. She despised Louis and Lestat for making her when she was so young. She even attempted to murder Lestat in her rage. A gang of vampires that disapproved of her actions murdered her.

Louis feels guilty for Claudia’s fate and wishes to know if she was able to move on or if her soul is in purgatory. He feels responsible for her hateful nature, and he still loves her. Readers who are familiar with The Vampire Chronicles may be able to foresee the outcome of the potential encounter with Claudia long before it happens.

David meets with Merrick, and she agrees to perform the spell that is necessary to rouse Claudia. She asks David to give her a few days to prepare. David then returns to the apartment he shares with Louis and tells him the news. He later relates the story of Merrick’s life and her relationship with himself to Louis.

The story is told from David’s perspective and you learn a lot about the love he has for Merrick. The relationship between Merrick and David is adventurous and romantic yet a little disturbing. David was an old man before he became a vampire and he fell in love with Merrick when she was a teenager. Despite his age, Merrick loves him in return and the story of her times with him and in the Talamasca are as interesting as any other of Rice’s tales.

After David finishes telling Louis Merrick’s story, Louis promises him that he will not hurt Merrick. So it is decided that the plans for reaching Claudia will be carried out. Merrick contacts them and they proceed to her house for the ritual. The spell is gruesome, but successful.

The spirit of Claudia torments and even stabs Louis.  She tells Louis that he must kill himself to make her happy. Louis becomes sure that he must do this to appease Claudia. David and Merrick are distraught by Louis’ decision. Attempts to change his mind are unsuccessful. He plans to kill himself in a few days.

After three days, David has not heard from either Merrick or Louis. He is fretful. On the third night, he sits to write a letter in hopes that Louis will find it. As he is writing, Louis appears in the apartment. He tells David that he is in love with Merrick and he can think of nothing but her.

David pleads with Louis, asking him to ignore his feelings and not to go to Merrick. David tells Louis that Merrick is making him feel this way with a spell. This is the truth, but Louis will not listen. Louis insists on seeing Merrick. David decides to go with him.

Together they go to Merrick’s home. She and Louis refuse to allow David to stay. David is heartbroken and leaves, but not without threatening to kill Louis if anything should happen to Merrick. The following evening, he awakens to find Merrick a vampire and Louis seemingly dead in his coffin, which he set out in the sun in an attempt at suicide.

Louis is revived when the slumbering elder vampire Lestat awakens and restores him with his blood. Louis is reborn stronger than ever. Before it is explained that Louis is not dead you still get the sense that he can't be dead.

The foursome receives a letter after Louis’ revival. It is from the Talamasca. They are demanding that Merrick be returned to them and that the vampires leave the city. Lestat is furious and doesn’t want to leave. However, David and Merrick soon convince him not to go to war with the Talamasca. They all leave the city, but Merrick does not return to the order.

Once again, Anne Rice is able to add a depth and complexity to her characters and plot that is not easily conveyed in a short synopsis. I think anyone who has enjoyed either the Mayfair witch novels or the other Vampire Chronicles will enjoy Merrick.

Shelly Barclay

Book Review: Stephen King's "End of Watch"

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Decades into a prolific and successful career, Stephen King is still churning out trilogies. His latest follows the post-retirement years of Detective Bill Hodges. I just finished up End of Watch–the final novel of the trio. It appears the adventures of this intrepid ex-cop and his arch-nemesis "The Mercedes Killer" are wrapped up with a neat bow in this one. While not my favorite of the bunch (I'd be hard pressed to choose between Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers), End of Watch is a fantastic finish that brings in a lot of the mindeffery for which we know and love the King.

*Some spoilers

End of Watch finds Bill (real name Kermit) and his partner-in-crime-fighting Holly Gibney dealing with Bill's grim diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and the reappearance of Brady Hartsfield in their lives. Hartsfield, a serial killer who plowed down dozens of people in the first book of the trilogy, is a near-vegetable at the local hospital. How is it that Bill suspects the brain trauma patient in a recent rash of suicides?

Before End of Watch, King had largely refrained from the more fantastic aspects of his imagination with this trilogy. We've been given straight-up everyday evil against a flawed hero in two relatively normal, though outstandingly written, detective novels. King opened up the floodgates for the last hurrah, bringing back an old favorite of his–telekinesis.

Because of the supernatural twist hinted at in Finders Keepers and delivered in End of Watch, Hodges finds himself in the most challenging case of his busy retirement. Some might call it an easy way to bring back a crippled antagonist, but I found Hartsfield too intriguing, too disgusting to be done away with in a single book. It was fitting to have him back too see how he would fare against an again weakened Hodges in a second round.

I enjoyed the book on a few lazy days swinging in my hammock this summer. As usual, I was thoroughly entertained by Mr. King and bummed out when the book inevitably ended. I'll wrap this up by noting how much I loved King's treatment of the ever-anxious Holly Gibney. I have an anxiety disorder myself and enjoyed having a hero more on my level. I'm also very happy that King touched on themes of suicide and then included an encouraging note to those of us who struggle with those issues to seek help and be patient enough for the good times to come back. I was truly moved.

Shelly Barclay

"Speaks the Nightbird" by Robert McCammon: Plot Summary and Review

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Speaks the Nightbird by Robert McCammon is a historical fiction novel about the imprisonment of an accused witch. It is a suspenseful, mysterious and well-written novel that delves into the moral issues of deception, greed, law and death. Robert McCammon wrote this immense novel after taking a hiatus from writing. He obviously came back as good at his craft as he ever was.

The story is centered around an aging magistrate named Isaac Woodward and his young assistant, Matthew Corbett, who are called to Fount Royal to oversee the trial of an accused witch–Rachel Howarth. At the start of Speaks the Nightbird, Matthew and Isaac are on their way to Fount Royal when they stop to stay the night in a shady tavern. They are robbed and attacked by the tavern’s despicable owners who force them to walk the rest of the way to Fount Royal. The weather is atrocious and Woodward gets sick immediately after their arrival.

In Fount Royal, Corbett and Woodward realize that most of the people of the town wish to get the trial over with and execute the witch. Isaac refuses to rush because of his health and his want of a fair trial. Slowly, they begin to learn all of the accusations aimed at Rachel. She has been accused of fornicating with the devil, manipulating residents, murder and various other acts of witchcraft. Matthew doubts her guilt from the start and begins to doubt it even more after spending a night with her in prison.

As Speaks the Nightbird progresses, the magistrate becomes gravely ill and is put under a lot of pressure to finish the trial. It eventually becomes clear that he is dying, but the founder of Fount Royal brings in a doctor to prolong his life to the point of cruelty, so that he may finish the trial. While the magistrate is sick in bed, Matthew does some investigating of his own and soon discovers the true culprit behind these crimes, but by then it is too late.

The magistrate is forced to find Rachel guilty. Matthew decides to break Rachel out after realizing he loves her. He decides to take her to Florida, but on the way he is attacked by a bear and cared for by natives. During his convalescence, Matthew finds a way to prove that Rachel is innocent. The rest of Speaks the Nightbird tidies up nicely thereafter. The magistrate dies, Rachel is exonerated and the guilty are brought to some form of justice.

Speaks the Nightbird does get off to a rather slow start, but the plot picks up momentum in the second part (it was originally published in two parts). You could say that some of the loose ends were left hanging for a little too long. There is a lot of suspense in the novel, but at times it was tedious to keep turning pages only to find that virtually none of your questions are answered until the last part of the novel. However, Speaks the Nightbird is a page-turner and an enjoyable novel.

Shelly Barclay

Character Analysis of Elizabeth Bennet in "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen

Elizabeth Bennet, also known as Lizzy and Eliza, is the main character of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. She is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, the younger sister of Jane Bennet and the older sister of Mary, Catherine and Lydia Bennet. The story revolves around her as she seeks to find answers to life's difficult questions regarding love, morality, manners, upbringing, social status and more.

*Mild spoilers ahead.

Elizabeth lives with her parents and all of her sisters in the family home, Longbourn. Her father is a country gentlemen of no great wealth who enjoys reading and teasing his wife and three youngest daughters. Her mother is a silly woman who is an unabashed social climber. Elizabeth appears to love them both, but favors her father, who favors her in return. Mrs. Bennet seems to resent Lizzy for being less inclined to find a rich husband then she is to lead a happy life.

Elizabeth is a headstrong, intelligent, sarcastic and enjoyable young woman. She is described as enjoying long walks, dancing, laughing at things that are ridiculous, which typically turns out to be her younger sisters, mother, Mr. Darcy and her cousin Mr. Collins. She forms rather strong opinions of people and can be a little harsh in her judgments. However, she seems to see the error of her ways on many occasions in the novel and freely admits to it.

Elizabeth's closest confidantes are her sister Jane and her best friend Charlotte. She does not confide in her younger sisters at all. Though she cares for their well being she is often frustrated and embarrassed by their and her mother's behavior. She is fiercely loyal and protective of Jane. She seems to love Charlotte, but is rather cruel to her over her choice of husband (Mr. Collins). The pair remains friends, despite Lizzy's lapse in understanding.

Pride and Prejudice focuses on the developing relationship between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Mr. Darcy and Lizzy are very much alike. Both are proud to a fault and both can be judgmental. In fact, they mark each other erroneously when they first meet because of this "pride" and "prejudice." However, as the novel wears on, both become more forgiving of each other and take the time to get to know one another.

Three Novels of the Victorian Era

Bram Stoker
The Victorian era was a somewhat gritty and often macabre time for literature. It was also a time when some of the greatest writers produced some of the greatest novels of all time. Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Robert Louis Stevenson, Lewis Caroll and many more classic authors were writers of the Victorian era. Here are three examples of the best novels of the era.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, originally published in 1890, revised and republished in 1891

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a supernatural story about the consequences of ego and moral indecency. Near the start of the novel, Dorian Gray, a wealthy and handsome young aristocrat, is given a portrait of himself that was painted by a young artist named Basil Hallward. Soon after, Dorian is stricken with fear at the fact that his good looks will fade with age. He proclaims out loud that he would trade his soul if he could remain as he is in the picture and have the picture take on his less appealing qualities.

Dorian’s wishes are soon granted and as he goes off to lead an immoral life, his picture begins to take on sinister and evil qualities. Dorian hides it in his attic, where he will not have to see it. Times goes by and Dorian’s picture ages and becomes more and more ugly and terrible. Eventually, Dorian feels guilt at his wicked ways and comes to loathe the picture. He goes into his attic one night with a knife, intending to destroy the picture. His servants find him dead on the floor, with a knife through his heart. The picture had transformed back into that of the beautiful young man and Dorian himself was as he truly was, hideous.

Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)

Dracula is one of the most popular horror novels of all time. It is also Bram Stoker’s only truly significant novel. The novel is the story of a group of people’s experience with the dreaded Count Dracula and his seductive minions. Jonathan Harker is the first character to run into Count Dracula, when he arrives at his castle and is taken prisoner. Harker eventually escapes and returns home relatively unscathed and soon marries his sweetheart, Mina.

The couple is soon living in a nightmare when they join forces with the men who are trying to kill Dracula. They are attempting to track him down when he finds Mina and bites her. She begins gradually turning into a vampire. Harker and a man named Quincy Morris are eventually able to kill Count Dracula and his minions. The death of the Count stops Mina’s transformation and she and Jonathan are able to live a happy life together–a happier ending than most remakes of the tale.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (1847)

Wuthering Heights is the only novel ever published by Emily Bronte, who died at the age of thirty. It is a dark and dreary novel about love, passion and manipulation that is set in a dark and dreary manor on a dark and dreary English moor. The main body of the story revolves around the lives and love of Catherine Earnshaw and an orphan that her father has adopted, named Heathcliff.

Heathcliff and Catherine fall in love at a very young age, but Heathcliff’s life is rife with disappointment. He is treated cruelly by Catherine’s brother, Hindley and later suffers the indignity of seeing Catherine marry another man. He goes through the rest of his life plotting revenge on Hindley and Catherine’s husband Edgar and is largely successful. However, Heathcliff becomes a cruel man himself, especially after Catherine dies in childbirth. At the end of his life, Heathcliff is filled with grief and often talks to the ghost of Catherine.

There are many, many more novels from the Victorian era that are worth reading. There is simply not enough room here to list them all. If you are looking for further reading from this era, anything published between 1837 and 1901 is considered Victorian. And you will be sure to find some literary gems among books of this time period.

Shelly Barclay

Best Novels With Travel As A Theme

The 1885 frontispiece
for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Travel is a common theme in classic and modern novels; there are countless books in which the characters take a journey. These novels are popular for many reasons, but most of all because they are exciting. Many people daydream about going on adventures or trips to far off places, but can’t in their everyday lives. Travel novels make this fantasy possible for readers, even if it is only in their minds. Here are some the most fantastic and adventurous novels with a travel theme ever written.

*Spoilers . . . maybe

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

Around the World in Eighty Days is the story Phileas Fogg–a man who bets his peers at a gentleman’s club that he can make it (you guessed it) around the world in eighty days. This was in the time before making it around the world in two or three days was feasible, so try your best to imagine how exciting this would have been for a reader who couldn't hop on a passenger jet on a whim.

Phileas Fogg collects his new servant, Passepartout, and sets off on a whirlwind adventure around the globe. Along the way, he encounters the law, elephants, damsels in distress and even bloodthirsty American Indians. After retrieving his damsel and bringing her with him, picking up the messes that his servant makes, avoiding a lawman and fighting a tribe of American Indians, Fogg makes it back to London just in time to win his bet with a few more snafus to make the ending a Jules Verne classic.

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

The Time Machine is an interesting tale that is not your conventional travel novel. It is the story of a man, referred to only as the “time traveler,” who is telling a story to a group of men. The story is that of his inventing a time machine and traveling back and forth in time. The novel is narrated by one of the men who listened as the time traveler told his unbelievable tale.

The time traveler used his machine and found himself in the year 802,701 AD. He finds that man has evolved into two subspecies, the Eloi, who are a childlike and peaceful race, and the Morlocks, who are pale, apelike creatures who live underground and hunt the Eloi for food. He tells the men about his time there and how he managed to escape the Morlocks and travel 30 million years into the future before returning home. After he finishes his tale, he leaves again in his time machine and never returns.

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

Sure, The Lord of the Rings takes place in a completely fictional place, but who cares? It's the ultimate hiking novel. A bunch of guys (well, a wizard, some humans, a few hobbits, an elf and a dwarf) band together to hike across a continent to climb the most treacherous volcano in the land. Yeah, there's more to it than that, but there is no doubt that there is a lot of travel going on in this classic fantasy novel.

The Lord of the Rings
centers on Frodo, a hobbit who has inherited a ring of power that possesses some serious dark powers. Gandalf, a wizard who likes to hang out and smoke with the hobbits, tells Frodo the ring is bad, and that he must bring it to the elves. Frodo takes his gardener Sam and the two leave home on foot. They bump into Merry and Pippin, two more hobbits, and they are all on their way. Soon, they are set upon by evil ring wraiths. They meet a man who knows of their plight and helps them deliver the ring to the elves. The elves are having none of that, so a fellowship is formed. It consists of the Gimli, Gandalf, Boromir, Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Legolas and Aragorn. They all go on a hike together. Only two make it to the volcano.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the tale of the eponymous boy and a runaway slave named Jim. The two find each other after Huck runs away from his abusive father and Jim runs away from a woman who mentions selling him to an abusive owner. At the time, it was illegal to help a fugitive slave, but Huck likes Jim and isn't much for rules, so the two set off on an adventure together that leads them to con men, elaborate schemes and ultimately a reunion with Huck's best friend Tom Sawyer. This is a must-read for kids.

There are so many travel books out there. I know these are really tailored toward my tastes, but if you're into "woman finds herself on trip across Europe" kind of books, there are plenty of those at the library. No matter what your tastes, pick up a book and go on an adventure whenever you want.

Book Review: "11/22/63" by Stephen King

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The cover of 11/22/63 is enough to draw in a huge readership. You have the name of the literal and figurative king of horror. History buffs will recognize the eponymous date that U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin, presumably Lee Harvey Oswald. I don't know about you, but I was easily sucked in.

On first glance, I was curious if this was another of Stephen King's forays into non-fiction. There is no denying that the man is fixated on an earlier, simpler America. Perhaps it was time for him to write facts about the times that inspired him. Was 11//22/6 something else like Richard Preston's The Hot Zone–a non-fiction book told like a novel? Was Stephen King combining fact and fiction? It turned out to be the latter.

King has obviously waded through a mountain of research to complete 11/22/63 and, as far as this history buff can tell, he never grievously deviates from the facts as we know them. In fact, he digs right into the gritty little details. One cannot help noticing that King seems to enjoy these details–the gritty story of the bad guy. He always has.

I will try to give away practically nothing about this book because I want you to read it. So, I will have to be cryptic. Yes, this book delves deeply into the assassination of President Kennedy, but more the events leading up to it. The central characters in the book are not historical figures. They are the usual fictitious small town, likeable, flawed characters you find in King's novels. They are in quite an unusual situation. The past and the present intertwine with love, loss and a struggle against the supernatural. There is also a brilliant nod to It in 11/22/63. If you are a fan, you cannot miss it.

When I first started reading, I thought that I was going to spend the whole time wanting to skip ahead to the moment King provoked us with. He certainly did not need this topic to sell books, so my only explanation is that he knew we would be itching to find out what happens in Dealey Plaza in Stephen King's imagination. However, to my surprise, I did not skip forward once. I wanted more to know how he got there than what happened once he did. I knew King was not going to do something crazy like change history . . . or was he? You will have to find out.

Update: The book was made into a very good miniseries. Check that out too, if you can.

Book Review: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

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Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins is the final book in the Hunger Games trilogy. In it, Suzanne Collins pushes the boundaries of young adult fiction. Like other YA novels before it, such as The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier or Lord of the Flies by William Golding, it explores themes of violence among child and young adult characters. Some parents might be opposed to these themes in their kids' literature. I'm not.
Spoilers ahead.

Mockingjay reintroduces us to the protagonist of the series–Katniss Everdeen. Rebels have rescued her and taken her to their underground bunker. They did not rescue her friend Peeta. This makes Katniss resentful of the rebels with whom she is now working. Katniss has been mistrusting and angry throughout the series, but she is now distrustful of the rebels too.

Rebel leaders want Everdeen to be the symbol of their rebellion–a propaganda tool that inspires fighters. Their methods are similar to those used by the enemy, which sheds light on the story's true moral conundrum. When both sides are killing for what they want, how can you tell which side is the right side? If you cannot gain freedom from murderous leaders without violence, how do you stop the violence once you have won? This is not a new concept in literature.

The plot of Mockingjay is not surprising. The first two books set it up, but that doesn't make it less entertaining. They way the characters come to the realization that they may be trading one dictator for another, and the way they deal with it, keeps the plot moving. The morals are deeper, and the protagonists more colorful than those in most current YA fiction. I think Collins put herself near the top of the genre with this series. Let's hope she has more books to offer.

Shelly Barclay

Biography of Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling

J.K. Rowling reading to children
at the White House
Photo by Daniel Ogren

J.K. Rowling is the unprecedentedly successful author of the seven books in the Harry Potter series. Since the publication of her first novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the popularity of her books has steadily increased. All of the books in the Harry Potter series were made into insanely popular films. There will even be a film made of a short side novel and a Rowling has written a play to go along with the franchise.

J.K. Rowling was born Joanne Rowling on July 31, 1965. She later added Katherine to her name so that she could have another initial for her pen name. She was born on the outskirts of Bristol, England and is the eldest of two daughters. Her parents moved Joanne and her younger sister Di to Winterbourne when Rowling was four. There, she met a young boy and a young girl whose last name she came to like. Their last name was Potter. The Rowling family moved one more time, when Joanne was nine, to Tutshill. The family was living here when her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.  Joanne was fifteen at the time.

J.K. Rowling attended a few grade schools and then went on to attend Wyedean Comprehensive. After her high school graduation she enrolled in the University of Exeter, where she studied French. During Rowling’s time in college she was able to spend a year in France as part of her studies.

J.K. Rowling’s mother died shortly after Christmas in 1990. In 1991, when she was 26, J.K Rowling moved to Portugal and began teaching English. There she met and married Jorges Arentes. The couple had a daughter, whom they named Jessica. The couple separated three years after their wedding and Rowling took her daughter with her to Edinburgh, where they could be close to Di. Rowling had been working on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone for a few years by then and it was at this point that she set to finishing the novel in earnest.

After J.K. Rowling finished the first Harry Potter novel, it sold to Bloomsbury for only $4,000. Eventually Scholastic Press purchased the American rights to the novel. With the money from the sale, Rowling was able to quit her job and become a full-time writer.

J.K Rowling is now a millionaire and one of the most famous authors of our time. She married Neil Murray on December 26, 2006 and they are still happily married. She had two more children with her husband. Their names are David and MacKenzie.

Book Review and Summary: "Taltos" by Anne Rice

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Anne Rice’s novel, Taltos is centered on a family of witches and a near extinct race of human-like beings, called the Taltos. Taltos is the final installment of the Mayfair witch trilogy. This novel successfully wraps up the two previous novels while introducing new characters and a fresh plot. Taltos can be read as a stand-alone novel, but readers who have read The Witching Hour and Lasher will have a better understanding of it.

The Taltos are a race of giants that reach their full size within a few hours of birth. They are nearly extinct, but two witches that mate and have the right genetics may produce a Taltos. This is unheard of until Rowan gives birth to Lasher at the end of The Witching Hour. Lasher is actually the ghost of a Taltos that has been haunting the Mayfair’s for centuries and has managed to possess Rowan’s baby.

In the following novel, titled Lasher, Rowan is forced by her possessed offspring to produce yet another one of these beings. Birthing the Taltos takes a toll on Rowan’s health and she becomes very sick by the end of the novel. In the end, Rowan's husband Michael kills Lasher and Rowan herself kills her other offspring.

In the beginning of Taltos, Rowan is unwilling to speak. She spends her days at the Mayfair mansion, staring off into space. Rowan eventually snaps out of it when she discovers that her friend Aaron has been murdered. Rowan also comes to the realization that her thirteen-year-old cousin, Mona is pregnant with Michael’s child. This causes the Mayfairs considerable concern as Michael was the man who fathered Lasher and Mona is capable of bearing a Taltos.

Rowan decides to take Michael on a trip to avenge Aaron’s death, not knowing what is to become of Mona and the baby. The Mayfairs discover that members of Aaron’s scholarly order, the Talamasca, may have been responsible for his death. Rowan is determined to find these men  and bring them to justice. At the outset of their search, they discover another Taltos by the name of Ashlar.

Until this point it is believed that the Taltos had been completely wiped out. It turns out that Ashlar has walked the Earth since before mankind and he knows first-hand the history of the Taltos. He joins Rowan and Michael on their quest. He is convinced that there are only a few members of the Talamasca involved.

The trio soon becomes friends and they are able to restore order in the Talamasca and avenge Aaron’s death. After the adventure is over, Ashlar decides to tell his new friends the long, sad story of his life.

Ashlar tells the story of how his native land was destroyed by a natural disaster and how his people were forced to move to colder climes, specifically Europe. Ashlar becomes the leader and hero of his people. They begin building stone circles and eventually Stonehenge itself. Some time later the Taltos begin warring with the humans.

 The Taltos are unable to defend themselves and are forced into hiding. Ashlar remains their leader, and the race is eventually able to disguise themselves among humans. Ashlar later finds religion and aids in the slaughter of those Taltos who would not convert to Christianity. He is tormented by his mistake and cursed by his people. Over time the entire race appears to be wiped out and Ashlar spends centuries searching for others like him. He was painfully lonely, but successful at passing for human.

While Ashlar is in New York telling this story to Rowan and Michael, Mona gives birth to a female Taltos, named Morrigan, in New Orleans. Rowan and Michael return home a few days later and discover what has happened. They decide to keep Morrigan a secret from Ashlar until she is older. Five days later, Ashlar begins missing his new friends and decides to stop in for a visit. He sees Morrigan. The two run away together immediately. Rowan and Michael appear to understand, but Mona is devastated.

Taltos is far more in depth and intricate than can possibly be conveyed here. Anne Rice did a magnificent job of constructing the plot and characters of Taltos. Once again Anne leaves her readers wishing that her book was just a little longer.

Shelly Barclay

Marriage in "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen

Title page of the
first illustrated edition
of "Pride and Prejudice"
Marriage runs rampant in Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice". It seems to be on every page of the book. There are marriage arrangements, marriage hopes, bad marriages, good marriages and engagements. Literally every character is involved in something that pertains to marriage. Mr. Bennet suffers through his marriage with amusement. Mrs. Bennet obsesses over getting her daughters married. The youngest Bennet daughters obsess about getting themselves married as much as their mother does and so on.

*Spoilers ahead

The eldest Bennet daughter, Jane, falls in love with Mr. Bingley in "Pride and Prejudice". He loves her back, but his friends and family believe an engagement to be a bad idea. Mrs. Bennet wants to see her eldest daughter married to the rich Mr. Bingley. Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet just want to see Jane happy. In the end, all turns out well for Jane and she marries Mr. Bingley. This is a good example of how much marriages of the time were influenced by opinion. It is also a good example of Ms. Austen's love for happy endings.

Elizabeth doesn't dwell on the idea of marriage much in the novel. However, she finds herself falling in love with a man that she believes she has good reason to despise. In classic Jane Austen style, Elizabeth marries this man, who happens to be rich, and lives happily ever after. This is the main plot line of the story and it played out so well that the novel has been popular for nearly 200 years.

Elizabeth was proposed to before she married Mr. Darcy by her cousin Mr. Collins. Elizabeth refused to marry her cousin. He went on to marry Elizabeth's best friend, which she strongly opposed. However, in the end, it was a happy match and Elizabeth grew to accept it.

Speaking of engagements and cousins, Elizabeth's husband was engaged to his cousin before he met Elizabeth. Of course, love prevailed (Thank you, Jane Austen.) and the engagement was broken. Nonetheless, this engagement gave readers a good example of how marriages among the aristocracy were handled at the time. Furthermore, it gave us a little intrigue and kept us guessing. . . kind of.

Elizabeth's youngest sister Lydia also gets married in "Pride and Prejudice". Her marriage is a shameful one. She ran off with a disgraced military officer and was only saved from disgrace herself when Mr. Darcy came to her rescue and forced the officer–Mr. Wickham–to marry her. This little twist leaves the reader loving Mr. Darcy, hating Mr. Wickham and shaking their head and Lydia. It also gives us a glimpse of how societal whims played a huge role in marriages of the time.

There are many other marriage issues that are alluded to in "Pride and Prejudice". There is an attempted engagement with Georgiana by Mr. Wickham for money.  Miss Bingley's wish to marry Mr. Darcy is alluded to. The ill-advised coupling of the elder Bennets is mentioned, as is the happy coupling of Elizabeth's aunt and uncle. There is even a small mention that Mary Bennet felt Mr. Collins may be a good match for her. Marriage is not just a theme in "Pride and Prejudice". It is the theme.

"The Cabinet of Curiosities" by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

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"The Cabinet of Curiosities" is the third novel in Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Pendergast series. The series follows an eccentric F.B.I. agent through a string of strange and mysterious cases that are often solved with his cool use of intellect and surprising physical ability. This goes for "The Cabinet of Curiosities" as well. In this novel, Aloysius Pendergast is on the trail of a serial killer that is more than one hundred and fifty years old.

"The Cabinet of Curiosities" begins with the discovery of 130-year-old charnel pit beneath the former location of a cabinet of curiosities in Manhattan. The pit contains the remains of thirty-six murder victims. Agent Pendergast arrives to investigate on his own and is met with serious opposition, as the site is slated for construction by a major corporation. He discovers what he can in his usual cool and precise manner and the reader soon realizes that he knows something that he is not letting on to those who are helping him.

The novel soon delves into the history of cabinets of curiosities in New York. These were popular and often macabre displays of  grotesque, odd and well, curious objects and people. The former owner of one of these cabinets is soon considered a suspect in the case of the more than a century old charnel pit. Pendergast and his companions are soon hot on the trail of the killer, who is surprisingly still alive. They find he is capable, smart and still murderous.

As the investigation continues, the reader is drawn into the history of a brilliant madman who has been killing for more than a hundred years in an effort to produce a perfect and deadly poison. He knew that he could not produce such a thing in one lifetime and was forced to develop a means to prolong his life. So, Agent Pendergast finds himself not only investigating the murders from so long ago, but tracking the killer as he strikes again.

"The Cabinet of Curiosities" is a well-developed, suspenseful and intriguing novel. Agent Pendergast is his usual mysterious and intelligent self and Preston and Child take his mysteriousness to a whole new level in this one. Throughout the novel, you find yourself wondering what the heck he is up to. You can’t help but turn the page over and over, trying to discover what he has up his sleeve this time. The criminal in this novel is also very mysterious and his identity is very surprising. However, his charisma and brilliance don’t come close to matching that of Pendergast.

Shelly Barclay