You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

My Photo
Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Friday, August 31, 2007

The Secret Life Of Bees

One of the ways of creating dramatic tension is to have a character or characters have a secret, one that the reader or audience knows but is kept hidden from others in the story. This creates a dissonance that must be settled before the story can be brought to a close. If two characters believe two different, incompatible things, then one must inevitably, if at length, acquire the knowledge that the audience or reader knows. It doesn't have to be a huge plot point, but it often helps support the main plot.

In Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life Of Bees, the secret is the central conflict of the story. Lily Owens is a fourteen-year-old girl who lives with her father in rural South Carolina in 1964, and her mother was killed in an accident when she was four. The circumstances of her mother's death, and her father's cruel treatment of her, are the main definitions of her life. She has no friends except for Rosaleen, the old colored woman her father hired to take care of her.

When Rosaleen is arrested and beaten after an altercation with white men, Lily gets her out of the hospital and they hit the road. Lily gets the idea of going to Tiburon, S.C., due to finding the town's name printed on the back of a black Madonna. There they find the source of the black Madonna, a pink house with three colored sisters, August, June, and May. Here Lily tells the lie that she will try to get out of for the rest of the book. She tells the ladies that her father has recently died and she is going to stay with her grandmother in Virginia and needs a place to stay. August lets her stay, over the objections of June.

Lily learns about beekeeping from August, who makes honey and wax. She learns about the black Madonna. The women have a figurehead that resembles a black Madonna, who they use in their worship services. She learns about the wall that May, a simple woman who is very sensitive, goes to when she has to cry about something. She makes a friend in a colored boy her age, Zach. But mostly she learns about love and forgiveness.

When Zach is involved in an incident in town and jailed, May ends up drowning herself in the river due to sorrow. Later, Lily finally tells August her true situation. Then August tells her (also told in due time) that she knew Lily's mother. She had been a maid for Lily's mother's family, and Lily's mother went to her when she left Lily's father. So Lily learns the truth that her mother left her with her father, then came back for her and ended up shot. Lily has to deal with forgiving her mother for leaving her, and herself for accidentally shooting her mother when she picked up the gun. Finally Lily's father comes for her, but with the power of the other women, and the black Madonna, she stands her ground, and her father leaves her in a huff. She ends up staying and learning the beekeeping business.

The book is infused with the themes of race and gender. The actions occur in the summer of 1964 during civil rights marches and sweeping changes. Lily is a girl without a mother, who finds a house full of mothers, and learns how to live with her own sense of mothering. The bees are symbol of motherhood and what happens without a mother. The queen bee is a symbol of all mothers, being mother to all bees in the hive. Lily's secret, and her waiting to tell it to August and the other women in the house, keeps the narrative going, but it gets to be tedious listening to Lily argue with herself about telling the truth. The message of motherhood and having power over oneself is a bit weak, almost cliched. The writing is good, but not gripping. I was never in doubt about the where the plot was going or how Lily would turn out. There was some mystery in the book, but barely enough to keep me interested. Overall it is an adequate story that might hold some interest for girls or young women. For me, it was a bit stale and dry. The themes of empowering oneself and coming to terms with one's past are uplifting, and bring the book up to a B-.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


I've got several sequels I need to read in the near future. For some reason, I'm not generally the kind of reader who will read a whole series in one swoop. I don't know if it's because I haven't found a series that good, or if it's just my ADD nature that I get bored reading the same thing over again and need a fresh book, a new genre, or a switch to nonfiction. That being said, here are some sequels that I intend to read soon:

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I really should read this and the final book soon, since my wife Gretchen can't stand not being able to talk about it with me. But I think I'll wait a while, as long as I read it before the movie comes out.

Dune Messiah, by Frank Herbert. I definitely want to read more of the Dune books. Eventually.

The New World, by Michael A. Stackpole. I've read the first two books of the trilogy and am ready to read this final book, which just came out. This will be one of the next books I read.

A Clash of Kings, by George R. R. Martin. This has been on my list for a while.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books, by Fritz Leiber. Some of the best fantasy ever written. Also on my list for a while.

Aubrey/Maturin series, by Patrick O'Brian. I'm listening to number 10 now. For some reason this series I've been pretty good about picking up the next book (audiobook). I think because the plot and narration are excellent, and it's fun and easy to listen to in the car.

There's this sense of anticipation or abeyance now, waiting to pick up the next installment. Part of me worries if I'll remember everything that happened in the previous book, especially in A Clash of Kings.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


The question I had when I started Frank Herbert's Dune was: will it be as good as the hype. Not that there's a lot of hype about the book, but it's one of the most popular science fiction novels ever, and I have to wonder if I will like it as much as everyone else. It was an interesting read, not quite what I expected but in a surprising way.

The book takes place in the far future, when humanity has spread to thousands of planets. The story starts with Paul Atreides, his fath Duke Leto Atreides, and his mother Jessica. The duke has been given the duty of taking of Arrakis, the desert planet that is the source of the spice which is a major source of wealth for the powers of the universe. Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is the ruthless leader who resents losing control of Arrakis and its wealth. Baron Harkonnen plans to take back the planet by forcing one of Duke Leto's men to betray him, and landing a huge force of fighters, including Imperial fighters in disguise, to overwhelm the Duke's forces.

The plan works, the Duke is killed, and the Baron takes over the desert planet. But Paul and Jessica escape and join the Fremen, the people who live in the open desert. Jessica is a Bene Gesserit, an order of mysterious women who others call witches. She was ordered to give birth to a girl as part of the Bene Gesserit program to breed a powerful human, but instead she gave birth to Paul to please her Duke. Paul has training as a fighter and has training in the Bene Gesserit ways.

The Fremen have adapted to the desert, learning how to conserve water, how to cross vast stretches of sand, how to deal with the enormous worms that are the source of the spice, and how to grow plants for food and textiles. They have long range plan to turn Dune into a planet that will support an abundance of life. The Fremen give sanctuary to Paul and Jessica, and she becomes their new Reverend Mother. Rumors go around that Paul is the man in a prophecy that tells of a long awaited savior. The Bene Gesserit have planted legends and prophecies on many planets to help any sisters who might be helped by them someday.

Jessica gives birth to Leto's daughter, Alia, after being with the Fremen for many months. The girl has a prescience due to the Water of Life that Jessica swallowed during the pregnancy. Paul rises to be a leader among the Fremen, though not without contention. Finally, Paul leads the Fremen to victory against the Harkonnens when the emperor himself lands on the planet. The story ends when Alia kills the Baron and Paul kills the Baron's heir, Feyd-Rautha.

The story is rich and deep. There is always the sense that we are just reading a small part of a very big story. The setting is memorable. Dune is a complex planet, with more under the surface than it reveals. There are also a lot of devious plans going on between the Atreides, the Harkonnens, the Fremen, the emperor, and the Spacing Guild. There are many unique elements to the culture, like the Mentats, intelligent people trained as human computers. There's the Spacing Guild, which has a monopoly on space travel.

The characters are memorable. Jessica and Paul are both strong, well-drawn characters. They have conflicts before, during, and after the Harkonnen's attack. Duke Leto is a strong, honorable leader, trying to do the best of a tough situation. Even the secondary characters are well-drawn, like Liet-Kynes, the emperor's planetologist, who is part Fremen.

Overall, I'd say Dune deserves its reputation as a great work of science fiction. A fantastic, unique setting, strong characters, a good plot, and interesting religious themes make it an A.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Road

Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" is a tale of an apocalyptic future where a man and his son are traveling south in search of food and some kind of subsistence. The sun does not shine, and the world is filled with alternating rain and fires. Ashes are everywhere, and there are hardly any living things. The few people they come across try to take their food. Trees and other plants are dead.

The central conflict is the man and boy's struggle to find food. They also have to protect themselves against those who would steal their food, or even kill and eat them. They find horrific things along the way. A band of men, with guns and slaves, travels down the road, and two hide. One of the strange men stumbles on them, and the man is forced to use one of his last two bullets to shoot the stranger, allowing the two to run away. When they return to find their shopping cart looted, they also find the dead man's bones, picked clean.

The man shows resourcefulness at finding food that others had not found. All the grocery stores are looted, every kitchen is empty, and there are no crops or even rats to eat. They find a treasure trove of food in an old hidden bunker. Late in the story the man swims to a boat on the shore and finds cans of food.

They also find horrors. In one house they find people trapped in a basement, one with his leg cut off, and run away as the people who trapped them there return. Two groups of people try to stop them, but they get away when the man points his gun at them. They find one old man who is just walking down the road, and give him some food.

The man struggles to take care of his son. His wife had given up, seeing the futility of life in the now barren world. He lives for the boy. He knows that the boy doesn't stand much of a chance of survival without him. He warns his son of the bad people, the ones who will just take his food or kill him. He tells him to find the good people. They talk about whether there are good people left in the world. It is almost a religious discussion. The boy asks if they are good people and the man says yes. In a sense they are looking for salvation, looking to find any other people surviving in the world without killing. The man talks some about what he has lost, and knows that the boy will never have anything like it.

Also they argue. The boy wants to give the old man some food, and his father doesn't. In the end the boy wins. The man thinks only of the survival of himself and his son. The boy always sees how they can help others. He talks about another boy he saw in a city, and whether he was alone or had a family. The man regrets that the boy has to see things that he shouldn't have to see, but insists that he do as he is told, like keep the gun with him when the man leaves. The boy represents the more innocent, the more generous, side of life.

The road means that they are always on the move. They cannot stay in one place for long, for there is no food, and others might come and threaten them. They have no ties to the past, in a world that is broken and charred.

I read a comment about the language of the book, that it doesn't match the vocabulary of the average man in places, and seems too poetic or literary. I didn't see much of it. The few times the language was noteworthy, I saw it as the father's thoughts, reasonable for a somewhat educated man, or the narrator's comments. Either way, I thought it added to the story.

The book is described as science fiction, but there are no elements of science fiction other than the setting, a world that has been affected by some catastrophe that left it unable to support life. In its tone and plot, it is closer to a horror story, something that Stephen King would write. But its theme is love and hope, as the man and boy seek to find a place to survive, to stop traveling on the road. The relationship between the two is pivotal and moving. They know that they only have each other left in the world. Though disturbing in places, it contains a glimpse of a positive future at the end. A-.