The AHS faculty talk about books.

"Savannah" by John Jakes

Reviewed by: Eric Tomas

“That dirty old wreck? I don’t care who he is. I wouldn’t care if it was Sherman himself.”
“Well, you should, because it is.”

John Jakes has been one of my favorite novelists, ever since I opened the first few pages of North and South, his epic tale of two families on opposite ends of the American Civil War. Happily for me, most of his work is easily found in book sales, so I was able to complete my Jakes collection for a pretty low price.

My latest John Jakes read is Savannah, or A Gift for Mr. Lincoln. Set in the closing months of the Civil War, the story covers the taking of the city of Savannah by General William Tecumseh Sherman, who then offers the city to President Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas gift.

The story focuses mainly on Hattie Lester, a young Southern girl who inadvertently makes the acquaintance of General Sherman. Hattie, along with her mother Sara, is forced off her plantation due to the approach of Sherman and his army, and moves in with Sara’s friend Miss Vastly Rohrschamp. At Rohrschamp’s house, a group of Union soldiers attempts to loot the house, but they were stopped when an officer intervenes. This does nothing to assuage Hattie anger, however, so when she runs into a group of Union officers, Hattie, incensed at the depredations of the Union army, kicks a Union officer in the shin. The officer turns out to be Sherman himself, who is more amused than enraged at Hattie’s actions. It begins a complex friendship between the two.

Aside from the main story, as in many of Jakes’ novels, there are subplots to keep the reader adequately occupied. One underlying subplot is the awkward relationship between Alpheus Winks, an Indiana cavalryman and Zip, a young Negro slave whom Winks saves from drowning. As a result of the rescue, Zip considers himself beholden to Winks, much to Winks’ irritation. But, as the novel progresses, Winks finds himself reevaluating his view of the black man in general as he gets to know Zip better.

Another strength of Jakes’ books is his ability to create believable, fleshed-out characters, as well as well-described settings. He is rich in describing details about each character he introduces, even those who are destined to be seen only in a few pages, and it is easy to visualize Savannah and the Lester plantation.

What I also like about the novel, as well as Jakes’ books in general, is that it gives a fairly comprehensive look at American history, with vignettes not normally found in history lessons. While I was aware of the basic conflicts in the Civil War before I read his books, I was not aware of the complex issues that existed during that time.

For one thing, it’s clear that while the freeing of the slaves was one of the main reasons the war was fought, many Union soldiers fought mainly to preserve the Union, and more than a few were as bigoted as their Confederate enemies. Jakes emphasizes this through the characters’ words and actions.

Jakes’ afterword makes for interesting reading as well, as he explains the background for his story. He notes what events and characters are fictional, and what events actually happened. For the historical characters such as Sherman, he bases the character’s words and actions on his research; he notes, for example, that scholars generally believe that Sherman didn’t think that African-Americans would serve well as front-line Army troops. The afterword gives the reader an insight into how Jakes developed his story.

Unlike many of his books, Savannah isn’t as graphic with the violence and sex, which, while never gratuitously depicted, aren’t really appropriate for a younger audience. In the afterword, it is mentioned that Jakes meant the book to focus on Christmas, so I’m guessing that the toning down of the violence and sex is in line with this intent. However, the lack doesn’t take away anything from the book. Savannah is an entertaining, and even educational read, and I heartily recommend this book to anyone wanting to learn more about a tumultuous period of American history.

Percy Jackson & The Olympians Series by Rick Riordan

Reviewed by: Enzo Flojo

No wizards. No vampires. No dragons.

Just gods.

Fantasy book series, whether they’re called chronicles, cycles or sagas, are a dime a dozen these days, what with the popularity of JK Rowling’s boy wizard renewing the young adult demographic’s interest in this genre. I have to admit that after reading “Deathly Hallows,” I wanted to get my hands on another set of engrossing tales. It was either re-reading C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books (my all-time fave!) or taking a risk on a new slew of titles. There were a lot of possibilities lining the shelves at the time, ranging from the wildly popular Twilight series to cult-favorites like the Abhorsen trilogy or the Inheritance Cycle, but, as the gods would have it, Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief just jumped out at me.

The premise is simple, yet, quite amazingly, never as fleshed-out by many other writers as Riordan eventually does here. The title character starts off conventionally enough – he’s not a good fit in any of his schools, his parents are separated, and he doesn’t have any friends. Just like most other young protagonists, he discovers that there is something special about him (he is a demi-god), and this opens up the layers of conflict in the story. If it sounds familiar, maybe too familiar, beside Rowling’s narrative, that’s because it is. Though it’s definitely no Potter rip-off, Riordan lays the foundation of his tale using tried-and-tested standards.

  • A struggling youth out to prove himself and an attractive female lead – check. (Ged and Tenar from the Earthsea cycle? Jason and Medea?)
  • A foil to the lead – check. (Ron Weasley? Flewdur Flamm? Han Solo?)
  • A wise mentor – check. (Take your pick: Gandalf, Dumbledore or Obi-wan)
  • A sympathetic cohort – check. (Gryffindor? The Galactic Rebellion?)
  • Magical gateways – check. (Platform 9¾? A mysterious wardrobe?)
  • Magical transportation – check. (Knight Bus? Magic carpets? Pumpkin coaches?)
  • Multi-headed giant monsters – check. (Hydra? Cerberus? Fluffy?)
  • A prophecy – check.
  • Freakishly pale bloodsucker who sparkles in sunlight – ummm… thank the gods no.

These are elements that define fantasy, but these exact same elements also define fantasy’s classics and ‘best works.’ Having said that (all that!!!), Percy Jackson seeks to enthrall the reader and lure him/her to embrace the idea that Greek Mythology, American pop culture, and teenage angst can all mesh into a terrific string of quests and adventures. It succeeds, too.

As Percy wrestles with the reality that he is the son of an Olympian, he also has to contend with class bullies, pesky teachers, a giant minotaur, a mysterious villain, and, of course, saving the world (or Manhattan, at least). Did I mention that all these things happen in just the first book?

There are five in all (Lightning Thief, Sea of Monsters, Titan’s Curse, Battle of the Labyrinth, and Last Olympian), with each one critically well-received, and contributing to the series enjoying 100 weeks on the New York Times Best-Sellers List.

And the last testament to its popularity (it has yet to reach fever-pitch in the Philippines, but I am confident it soon will) – a film adaptation will come out in February 2010. We can expect Hollywood to botch this one, naturally.

Bottom-line: If you’re a fan of any or all of the following: Harry Potter, Greek Mythology, adventure, mystery, fantasy, snappy dialogue, blue birthday cakes, pens that turn into swords, black pegasi, or hairy goat-men, then you will get hooked on Percy Jackson and the Olympians. Otherwise, you’re just pretending not to like it, and Zeus will strike you down with his lightning bolt. Or Poseidon will drown you in the waves. Or Hades will suck you into Erebus. You get the picture, right? Now go get the books.

"Prey" by Michael Crichton

Reviewed by: Eric Tomas

In the Nevada desert, an experiment has gone horribly wrong. A cloud of nanoparticles -- micro-robots -- has escaped from the laboratory. This cloud is self-sustaining and self-reproducing. It is intelligent and learns from experience. For all practical purposes, it is alive.

It has been programmed as a predator. It is evolving swiftly, becoming more deadly with each passing hour.

Every attempt to destroy it has failed.

And we are the prey.”

And thus begins the late Michael Crichton’s 2002 novel Prey. Once more, Crichton weaves a cautionary tale of what might go wrong with a new form of technology. In Jurassic Park, it was genetic engineering. In Prey, it’s nanotechnology.

The premise of the novel is interesting, as it focuses on the possible dangers of biotechnology and nanotechnology going awry. Like Jurassic Park, Crichton shares enough technical information to make his yarn seem plausible. The fact that the nanoparticles can gain sentience, and become dangerous to mankind is fascinating, to say the least.

However, this time around, the story isn’t as smooth as its predecessor was. While the concept seems plausible, Crichton seems to spend way too much time trying to explain the various concepts he’s introduced in the book, as opposed to telling a cohesive story.

As a result, his characters appear two-dimensional and lacking in depth; it’s difficult to empathize with any of them. It’s as if Crichton, in the writing of the book, gave them a cursory fitting, enough for them to function in the story, and then went back to describing the tech in detail.

The story itself appears to be derived from a number of stories wherein the plot revolves around human possession by an unknown entity. Ray Bradbury’s short story, “Fever Dream”, for one, where a young boy finds himself under siege by his fever, shows how such a story should be done.

While I’m a fan of Crichton’s other novels, unfortunately, Prey falls a bit short of matching the quality of his earlier work.

"The Road" by Cormac McCarthy

Reviewed by: Chan Ylagan

We all have a very good idea of how the world is going to end: amid torrents of sulfur and brimstone, tidal waves of flame, an armageddon of carnage. Apocalypse might come in the form of an incurable pandemic, a cataclysmic meteor hitting the Earth, or some destructive variant of Mother Nature’s wrath that will cauterize the terrain and wipe out most of humankind. This will usher in the collapse of governments and societies as we know it, and the unfortunate few who will be left behind will be forced to take up arms and relapse into a primitive and pernicious brutality in order to survive. Even these, however, will come to pass as the inevitable destruction of everything and anything becomes more and more imminent.

Cormac McCarthy’s tenth novel, The Road, undertakes the difficult and ultimately bleak task of contemplating the end of, well, the world. In this novel, McCarthy presents to us a dying Father and his Son, and their heartbreaking struggles in the irrevocably damaged landscape of a post-apocalyptic, unnamed country that has succumbed to an abominable nuclear winter. Armed with a pistol that has only two bullets and chased by degenerate marauders, other survivors who have turned to thievery and cannibalism, the Father and Son plod together desperately to the coast on the far side of the country, on the blind and perhaps foolish hope that they will be able to glimpse something—anything—other than gray snow, melted stumps of buildings, mummified corpses on the road, and ashes of what was once civilization.

The Road, like McCarthy’s other works such as Blind Meridian or No Country for Old Men, is a challenging read. Rivaling the hand of even the foremost master of apocalyptic writing, Samuel Beckett, McCarthy’s minimalist style, influenced greatly by Hemingway, shines brightly and consistently throughout the novel, but which in turn makes it deceptively simple. He paints the calamitous state of things in stark, unflinching language that is terrifyingly beautiful and endurable only because of its integrity, as when he describes the overcast days and nights as “sightless and impenetrable. A blackness to hurt your ears with listening…. No sound but the wind in the bare and blackened trees.”

Underneath his lucid, lilting prose, his spartan paragraphs, and his short, seemingly innocuous episodes lies perhaps the greatest truth of the book: that life, especially a dying life, is hardly neat or simple. On the contrary, the closer one stands to the face of death, the more morally complex one’s thoughts and decisions become. Indeed, as the Father comes to realize that his bloody coughing fits will soon take him, he begins to seriously reconsider if his moral obligation to protect his son extends to killing him instead of letting him be eaten by the cannibals around them. In the end, a father’s got to do what a father’s got to do.

Perhaps it is on this unabashedly moral point that The Road succeeds immensely. It is not merely some Camusian commentary on the bleakness and futility of human existence. Evil exists, and in this context, evil is triumphant. In this make-believe but thoroughly believable world, visions of a society and its people reduced to rubble and moral bankruptcy are absurd. What is even more absurd, however, is how two people’s love for each other can see them through even the most nightmarish things the world throws at them, and how it can sustain them enough to believe that their years-long journey will end in anything but despair and defeat. As one reads the book, one begins to wonder where the long and difficult journey in the novel will end. At the end of the road, one realizes that it only leads to one place: hope.

"The Graveyard Book" by Neil Gaiman

Reviewed by: Honey de Peralta

review originally published in Coffeespoons

I've loved Neil Gaiman ever since I read the original version of Stardust (the graphic novel illustrated by Charles Vess). I then followed him through Neverwhere, American Gods, Anansi Boys, his collection of short stories Smoke and Mirrors, and even his collaboration with Terry Pratchett in Good Omens. Of his young adult and children's works, I've read Coraline, The Wolves in the Walls, and The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish. Unfortunately, though, I haven't gone through his Sandman graphic novels yet.

Anyway, I was pushed to get The Graveyard Book because, aside from it being a Gaiman novel, it also won the Newbery Award, a feat which I found curious.

Let me explain: majority of the Gaiman books I had read were dark fantasy meant for more mature readers. I simply found it curious and laudable that Gaiman could so easily transition to writing for younger audiences. To be honest about it, I thought that Coraline and his other storybooks were just a "hobby" for him. I see the Newbery proves me wrong.

In usual Gaiman style, The Graveyard Book starts out with something dark--the murder of a family, with the exception of a little toddler, who somehow finds his way to the local graveyard. Though the murderer follows him there, the residents of the graveyard--a plethora of ghosts and one vampire--decide to grant the boy protection and give him the freedom of the graveyard. Hence, the live boy, adopted by ghostly parents and named Nobody "Bod" Owens, becomes a resident of the graveyard.

Bod grows up nurtured by the different ghosts in his home. His guardian Silas, the vampire, manages his education by finding him tutors among the dead in the graveyard and basically feeding Bod's curiosity about the world. Bod's world, although seemingly grim, is actually warm, homey, and caring. It is when Bod insists on going into the world of the living that things get positively threatening.

Gaiman was right--he mentions in an interview with Stephen Colbert that it is the humans in this book who are scary. The "monsters" are the decent ones. I would say this is an excellent summary of his world view.

Within a graveyard and the cusp of the world of the living and the dead, Gaiman has created a story of charm, wonder, and coming of age. Beyond the sinister aspects, this is what resonates, though I do love a good sinister tale. Most importantly, however, the story gives hope without fudging the reality of the world--that bad things happen, change is constant, and people will have to leave at some point. And this is a great thing to tell some point.